Sunday, November 22, 2015

Long Live Doctor Who!

You know how that goes.

The King is dead. Long live the King.
Doctor Who is, of course, not dead. Nor is it a king. It used to be king among my favourite TV series. But the show has died a little for me. Even at this point I can’t say with 100% certainty that I will be giving up on it, because divorce is never easy when you’ve been married to something for so bloody long. But unless there’s something pretty phenomenal between the next two episodes and the Christmas special (inclusive) I foresee a trial separation at least.
Many folks have told me – so it must be true – that the series isn’t made for me any more. Why? Because I’m too old? Most of the folks telling me this are of a similar age i.e. grown-up kid to adult. And I’m more the former. So colour me confused. If a show called Doctor Who isn’t being made for people who’ve loved Doctor Who all their life then what’s it doing wearing that title?

Even at its previous lowest ebb (for me, that’d be the first season of McCoy – for you, likely, some other period) as much as I cringed at every episode, I never considered taking a break from it.

Heck, I remember one time back in the Graham Williams era being told by my parents, no, I couldn’t go watch The Horns Of Nimon, I had to stay at the dinner table to enjoy tea with my visiting grandparents. The grandmother in this scenario was the spitting image of Davros, but like worse, because the Doctor would never tell you to give Davros a kiss when he was leaving. Ugh. Anyway, I would much rather have rushed to the living room to see what was going on with the guy in the bull’s head in the gold lamé six-inch platforms. In short, I was upset at missing the first ever Doctor Who episode I ever missed. (There was no VHS, no catch-up TV, BBC iPlayer in those days, younglings. If you missed it, it was gone.) Even though I was old enough to recognise that the show had suffered a ‘bit of a dip in quality’.

Now, in its current incarnation, if not for the old-habits-die-hard ingrained attachment, I would gladly be shot of it from my viewing schedule. And it’s about more than just my THAWs (Ten Hates About Who).

I think Hans Christian Andersen or Danny Kaye summed it up best.

There once was an Ugly Duckling, one of those guys said.

Feathers all stubby and brown, the poor little bugger was shunned, ridiculed and generally told to get out of town. Quack quack. Then after a bit of an absence it returned and everyone said how it was, quack-quack, the best thing in town and when it examined its own reflection it thought, hell yeah, I am amazing, BRILLIANT, FANTASTIC! Basically convinced of its own perfection. Beautiful plumage.

Now there’s a fable applicable to Doctor Who.

Mocked by many, not very much wanted by the BBC, it went away for a bit and returned as a glorious, upside-down swan. Probably a thing of beauty and elegance underneath, but to be honest it’s a struggle to see with all the frenetic paddling going on above the surface.

Hardly an episode goes by without quantities of frantic hand-waving and leg-thrashing like an attention-starved child shouting, “Look at me! Look at me!” Perhaps a side-effect of its tendency to overdose on artificial sweeteners. Or is it born of some old, deep-seated insecurities, a leftover from those old days when it was something of a joke to many? Oh no, people might not watch if we don’t do something big and flash that has nothing to do with tonight’s story or at the very least keep talking really fast and inject lots of wit every line absolutely has to be witty because otherwise people will lose interest and anyway if we move things along fast enough nobody will notice that it’s full of holes. Whatever the cause, it’s tiring.

Where old Who used to pad out its 100-minutes-or-more tales with running up and down corridors, now they pad out their 45-minute time-slots with big dumb grandstanding and verbal diarrhoea. Everyone talks like Duracell bunnies on speed and on the rare occasions they don’t (eg. The Woman Who Lived) the episode is declared by many to be dull.

But old-new comparisons aren’t the crux of the problem.

The ‘problem’, if I can call it that, is that there are too many other shows – contemporaries or close contemporaries anyway – that I much prefer. That’s why I use the word ‘problem’ loosely. This is not a glass half empty situation. Far from it. This is a glass brimming over with great stuff.  At this point I’m just finding room for Doctor Who out of habit but it’s not a favourite tipple. It has slipped steadily further down my Top 10 list, to the extent that it’s probably now somewhere outside my Top 30. Haven’t calculated an exact chart position, sorry, but suffice to say it’s just not a priority.

There are many greater shows out there that I love much much more.

There, I said it.

Doctor Who is still the show with the greatest potential, I believe. And that’s another problem. Because it means it’s falling so far short of everything it could be. Actually, all too often it’s less a show, more of a tell. It’s constantly telling us stuff. E.g. “They’re one of the most feared races in the galaxy.” Which would be bad enough, but then it proceeds to show us evidence to the contrary. See also “This is brilliant!”, “Fantastic!”, “Genius!” Assuring us something is clever when it’s not. It’s like the worst stage-magician ever. Stuffing cards up his sleeves in plain sight and proclaiming it magic.

It seems to me that at some point writers are sitting back from their scripts and saying to themselves, “That’ll do, pig.” Or “Good enough.” And hitting save and send. Basically, it’s either that or smart, intelligent people are failing to spot glaring errors and weaknesses and declaring the works fit for production. This leaves many stories with a half-finished feel or material of some merit embedded in the flimsiest of plots. (eg, again, The Woman Who Lived.) Where ‘good enough’ or ‘that’ll do’ has to be the final assessment. Or worse, I imagine, “Oh wow, that’s BRILLIANT!” (pig).

Maybe I watch the wrong kind of telly, but there’s no other show I can think of that leaves me with the impression of any similar attitudes going on behind the scenes. And if the failings don’t bother you, if you’re one of the many who still believe it’s all great, all power to you and hats off to you. I’d just add that the show can be all the things you find great about it and So. Much. Better.

For the most part, (apart from the THAWs!) I’m advocating that stuff be added, not taken away. It’s not going to change, because those in the driving seat are happy with the status quo. Playing the same three chords.

Recently, I was asked to write a Doctor Who short story. My first Who-related work in a Time Lord’s age. And although I never once paused to consider passing up the opportunity, when it came to writing the tale I experienced something very unusual. A large hole where my enthusiasm used to be. It was (temporarily) horrible.

Naturally, I overcame it. Hell, I’ve written Merlin novelisations. I have a strong track record in overcoming lack of enthusiasm. But it troubled me that it was there at all. For Doctor Who! Unheard of. As it turned out, it was huge fun to write, had a blast in the space of a few thousand words. Yay!

It was that little speed-bump, or sleeping police box, that made me think I needed to do something to restore my enthusiasm, to remind myself of all the things I loved about Who. Which brings me – finally, hurrah – to the point and why this post bears the title it does.

Tomorrow is November 23rd. Doctor Who’s 52nd birthday.

And I can’t think of a better time to begin a classic Who rewatchathon. Starting with an Unearthly Child onwards.

This decision alone confirms me as still a fan.

It’s sad, I know, but it’s also great.

Some of it will by necessity be a listenathon, because the BBC in its infinite wisdom burned a lot of episodes instead of all those Jim’ll Fix Its in their archives. Hindsight, wonderful thing. But I hope to re-experience every story in whatever medium available.

I’ll probably do something like post mini-reviews on Facebook, because it’s fun to share this sort of journey. No need to wish me bon voyage.

Some of it will be patchy. There will be potholes and plotholes along the road. There will be Blue Peter here’s one I made earlier fx. There will be overacting. There will be underacting. There will sometimes be no acting at all. There will be bulls in six-inch gold lamé platform heels.

My mission: to find something to love in all of it.

Long live the Ugly Duckling!

SAF 2015


Nick said...

I am sure you'll enjoy the re-watch. I am certainly enjoying mine. As I think I explained on FB, I started off with the Jon Pertwee merely to catch up on the episodes that had not been shown on the Horror Channel, so I am yet to go back to the very start (though I have seen "Unearthly Child" twice recently and am quite glad not to have to watch that again when I get round to the First Doc).

My "main" problem with the current season is that I no longer look forward to each new episode. In fact, I rarely watch them when first broadcast. To me, this season has seemed, well, "routine" for want of a better word. I often find my mind wandering after 10 or 20 minutes.

I don't like being a "Moffat-knocker" but I feel it is time for a new Head Writer/Editor and a new bunch of writers too. Moffat has had a good run, has masterminded or written some great episodes and moments, but the series seems stagnant now. It needs a new approach, perhaps even a new format or more varied formats. The idea of having two-parters throughout most of this season was well-intentioned, but it wasn't a great success. Why not have a four-parter of shorter episodes every now and then, or even one feature-length when a story justifies it? I suppose this would drive BBC schedulers mad!

I don't know how you intend to do your re-watch, but I found that watching an entire adventure in one go made me rather aware of the padding (especially with 6-parters). Of course, no one adventure was intended to be watched in this way so I am now trying to have a break between each episode despite the strong temptation to go straight onto the next part when the current part reaches its cliff-hanger!

Nicky Kay

Unknown said...

What madness is this? I still love it, I still look forward to each episode. Things are so much better now than under RTD, in my opinion, and I'd keep the Moff until he carks it if it was up to me. Bring on the last two of this series, can't wait!

SAF said...

Well, what can I say. One man's sanity is another's madness. Just does nothing for me any more and there's so much better stuff out there that inspires, excites and engages me way way more than Doctor Who.