Sunday, July 06, 2008

Cheats Cheats Never Beat

Except, apparently, in our new brand of Doctor Who. Where they do repeatedly. And especially in the season finales. The latest of which, Journey's End, was a triumph of cheap story telling over whatever budget and/or extra minutes had been thrown its way.

At least as ludicrous and OTT as last week's, despite my wise decision to accompany the closing chapter with just as much beer, it couldn't even succeed as comedy. It demonstrates a rare gift, I suppose: allowing events to spiral so insanely out of control while driving things inexorably towards whatever conclusion is desired. Then again, it's not that difficult if you know that no matter how mad and massive the scenario you can always pull a cheat out of - let's say your hat at the end. This though was worse than usual. This was a slap-in-the-face insult to any of us who still retained a grain of faith in the idea that, no, he couldn't possibly do the same to us *again*.

Just before it starts, I'm turning to my wife and laying money on the Doctor somehow negating the regeneration by using the spare hand. To which I add the notion that the hand will then grow into a fully-formed spare Doctor. Five minutes later, on top of that cheat (and with it the delivery of a multiple Doctor story - the Two-And-A-Half Doctors? - the one thing this already overcrowded farce was really missing), we're going for the damp-squib hat-trick, with Sarah Jane Smith miraculously rescued by Jackie and Mickey appearing out of nowhere and Torchwood's very own Butch & Sundance being saved by an even more miraculous temporal force field for no very good reason.

Then, against the odds, it's all downhill from there.

If, by any chance, you had any burning questions from last week's episode - e.g. What part will the Shadow Proclamation have to play in the conclusion? Why was Rose quite so anxious about the Doctor's potential regeneration? For what sinister purpose are the Daleks herding all the humans out of their homes? - your answers, although supplied, would likely be disappointing: e.g. "none whatsoever", "because she really was that shallow that she only fancied the David Tennant version" and "to test their Mighty Weapon on about twelve of them".

But never mind, what do these questions matter when the big fanwank list from the previous week is further engorged by the inclusion of Mickey - oh! - Jackie - oh! - and even climaxing with - ooooooh! - K9! Surely fans could never contain their excitement in the face of that lot!

Heck, I'll even admit to a little buzz of my own when Davros remembers Sarah Jane. Well, who wouldn't? But back off, Davros, I had a crush on her before you came along.

That aside though, what was it all for? This gathering of the Children Of Time? Well, after another thankfully shorter webcam conference, apparently it was all so they could be detained in the one place while the Doctor and Davros had a chat. At which point, I'm glad to say, Rusty doesn't even attempt to rival the momentous exchange between everyone's favourite crippled Kaled scientist and Tom Baker's Doctor in Genesis Of The Daleks. Although, at the same time, I kind of wish he had tried: it might have invested the scene and, maybe the story, with some weight as a counterbalance to the nonsense.

Nonsense rules, though, in this universe. And I guess if the situation is as nonsensical as possible, the theory is we shouldn't care that it's resolved with a cheat. It's the pattern. We had it back in The Parting Of The Ways, with all that Rose as Goddess of the Vortex stuff. We had it in Doomsday, with the big 'Invasion OFF' switch. We had it in Last Of The Time Lords - oh, how we had it in that one - with Doctor Dobby becomes Jesus and the Big Undo. And, did you notice, how they become steadily worse? We should have been more prepared for this one.

And it's funny, but when I think back to the first season and The Parting Of The Ways, I recall being generally positive about the future, thinking that, despite the DEMs and cheap get-outs, if this is the starting point and they only learn to iron out the various wrinkles and problems, we'll really be onto something here. But Rusty appears to be a writer who takes criticism on board, then throws it right back over the side. In our faces.

Because not only have the excesses and the weak endings grown worse, with Journey's End, it's almost as though he's taking one of the key things for which he's been criticised and sticking it out at us like a big fat tongue. He's taking the piss.

Cheap get-out endings? Ha! I can do you a half-dozen of those! Martha's so unbelievably dumb Osterhagen Key! Sarah Jane's Warp Star necklace! The (Alternative Tenth) Doctor's attempt to tune the Reality Bomb (and what the merry wotsit was that about?) to the Daleks' DNA! Nope, we're going to cleverly throw those over in favour of demented Dalek Caan's senseless betrayal and some frantic tapping on a large keyboard to blow up all the Daleks and their ships (and perhaps I missed it, but what happened to all the other humans who were taken on board the Dalek Crucible?) and return the planets home, followed by having the TARDIS tow the Earth back into position (what's the Moon been doing in the meantime?) in the style of an ad that's running currently that shows the UK being towed to the Bahamas.

And we can go one better than that. We can then top it all off with a coda that cheapens both the prophesy of the death of the most faithful companion and, worst of all, one that cheapens Rose's heart-wrenching (original) departure in Doomsday (that story's principle saving grace!). As Rose herself puts it, "You mean, I travelled all that way, looking for you and for what?" Okay, I'm paraphrasing, but that's what it feels like. It's okay for her - she gets over it incredibly quickly once the faux Doctor has whispered in her ear. But for the rest of us, well, I for one feel thoroughly cheated.

There's more, when it comes down to it, that's wrong with Journey's End. Frankly, I didn't imagine it would be worth as many words as I've wasted here.

But, as well as those hopeful, optimistic thoughts I was left with at the end of Series One, I was also inadvertently reminded of a time last year when I was asked by a friend to give a little talk to some primary school kids on 'Writing For Doctor Who.' It was only a really small occasion and I'm really not the best qualified for that sort of thing, but I enjoyed the experience and it was great to see the enthusiasm kids had for the show. My friend, the teacher, even had me judge a little story writing competition and it was fun reading through the best entries and picking out the winner.

Of course, there was very little structure in any of those stories and things happened largely because the very young authors wanted them to. That's the way I used to write at that age, and of course I'd come up with Daleks versus Cybermen stories and cram as many of my favourite Doctor Who companions and monsters into each adventure. And if you're stuck for an ending, well, the Doctor can wave his sonic screwdriver or turn back time (actually I don't think I ever did that one! ;) ) or events can take a helpful turn, people can even show up from nowhere with big guns or something and bail your heroes out. What the heck, it's fun.

And ideally, you learn from all that. And if you ever have the fortune to become a professional writer, particularly in a competitive field like, say, television, you might expect to grow out of it. And before anyone points out that Doctor Who is a kids' show, let me 'counter-point' out that no, it was always a family show. Now, more than ever, yes, it is juvenile, wearing its childishness on its sleeves. But even if we accept that it is and perhaps should be an outright kids' show, I have to ask, when did it become a good thing to start writing down to children?

While my teacher friend is teaching the kids about storyboarding, plotting out their tales and thinking in advance about beginnings, middles and ends, Doctor Who it seems is now teaching them, no, make it all up as you go along and when it comes to your resolutions, your problem-solving, any cheap get-out will do. Really, if you're going to carry on down this route, I'd be tempted to say, just get the kids to write it.

People mocked when Terrance Dicks released Warmonger for BBC Books because it was so jam-packed with monsters and characters trawled from Who's vast continuity ocean. Another real fanwankfest, by most accounts. I've not read it, but can it be any worse than any of Rusty's more excessive TV offerings? I doubt it. And yet because it has flashy CGI flying saucers (and, okay, it also had Bernard Cribbins who was great), I've no doubt people will tell you Journey's End is fantastic and if you can't see that, perhaps you're really not a Doctor Who fan.

Well, perhaps I don't qualify any more. But I am a fan of good drama, good adventure stories, inventive, colourful, imaginative writing that inspires. Fortunately, it seems as far as the kids are concerned, Doctor Who still checks all those boxes - the kids needn't concern themselves with the dramatic letdowns and for them a pointlessly resurrected character is just the pleasure of seeing that character again. But I am slightly concerned that maybe they'll grow up with the idea that this is good storytelling. Kids, it's not. It's rubbish.

Daleks, Davros, K9, Sarah Jane et al (and especially Sarah Jane ;) ) are exciting creations, but they can be that much more exciting in stories that aren't a) complete nonsense and b) riddled with dramatic cheats and cheap get-outs.

Luckily, there's a writer poised to take over who won't write down to you. Steven Moffatt's stories may have scared you, but don't hold that against him: he's also shown he'll give you the respect you deserve. And, I'm optimistic, give us the Doctor Who we want.


Stuart Douglas said...

Well put Simon - more than I could bothered saying.

And I am finding it increasingly annoying the suggestion that mindless enthusiasm is the only proper response to Who, even if it is palpably rubbish and those being most positive can't point to what makes it so good.

I only wish Moffat was taking over now...

SAF said...

Yeah, I surprised myself there too. Looking back, I just found the cheapness/piss-take of it all made me angry, and it's better off out than in. I am now safely vented and looking forward to Moffat's 'era', while hoping Rusty can calm down in the meantime. ;)

laxmi aruzil said...

Breathe, honey, breathe.

Stuart Douglas said...

Now there's someone who knows you well Simon - you have been sounding a bit tense recently, between modern art, Star Trek and the sonic screwdriver!

If only you and I weren't the only ones with any sense :)

SAF said...

Lol. How strange.

It's tough keeping your cool when beating your head against brick walls :)*

(*but rest assured, laxmi, I take deep breaths between each hearty blow)