Tuesday, 20 June 2006

Coupling Doctor Who

I'm about half way through the latest episode of Doctor Who, "Love & Monsters" (DVR, got to love it), and with most of the second season behind us, I think I can now say that anyone who is still waiting for the series to get up and a running at the standards of its heyday in the late '70s is going to be sorely disappointed.

It isn't easy to be too hard on Russell T. Davies, the producer of the series. After all, he not only convinced the BBC to revive Doctor Who, and to cough up the first decent budget in the history of the show, but he even got the corporation to stop looking on it as, in the words of a friend of mine, "the bastard red-headed child" by bringing in huge ratings and a raft of awards. This is no small achievement. On the other hand, the same can be said of many other producers of many other successful programmes that I can't deny rack in the punters and dominate water cooler conversations, but which I still find as enjoyable as jamming a fork in my thigh for an hour.

That isn't to say I don't enjoy the current series. Since Justice League Unlimited wrapped up it is the only programme that is required viewing at Chez Szondy. I think it is funny, generally well-written, and thoroughly entertaining. However, after watching the first half of "Love & Monsters", I must reluctantly conclude that Davies is less Phillip Hinchcliffe than John Nathan-Turner.

Okay, that was about as geeky a reference as you're going to get today. For those of you who are not obsessive Whovians, Phillip Hinchcliffe was the producer of Doctor Who during what many regard as its finest years when Tom Baker took over the title role in 1974 and Hinchcliffe moved the series in a more mature, gothic direction. Under him, the colour palettes for the sets became more muted, the lighting darker, the scripts placed a greater emphasis on horror (or at least as much as you could manage in the early evening) and concentrated more on the fact that the Doctor is an alien from an incredibly powerful culture. This very soon paid off with such classic stories as "The Ark in Space," "Genesis of the Daleks," "Terror of the Zygons," "Pyramids of Mars," and "Robots of Death."

John Nathan-Turner, on the other hand, was an odd case. He came on the show as a floor assistant in the late '60s and eventually rose to being producer in 1980. In fact, he often joked that his CV looked rather thin, as the only job he ever had was working on Doctor Who. Nathan-Turner clearly loved the programme and its fans and did all that he could to make it a success, but in the end he became a classic example of how loving something is no substitute for understanding it, and under Nathan-Turner's tenure it became clear as disappointments like "The Twins Dilemma" and "Timelash" appeared that he didn't have any real grasp of what Doctor Who was about. During the '80s, the programme moved sharply away from the Hammeresque approach of Hinchcliffe. The productions were brightly coloured and over-lit and the storylines less mature, more self-referential, and increasingly bizarre until the show's cancellation in 1989 was a mercy killing rather than an execution.

Now, Davies is no Nathan-Turner in that he is a brilliant writer, he does understand proper production values and Doctor Who (perhaps) never looked better. The music is no longer one-man-and-his-synth, the sets don't make you wonder if Arthur Dent is going to come wandering in, and some episodes, such as "Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit," have rightly been compared to feature films in their look and feel. As for the characters, there has never been such an emphasis on fleshing them out.

And that last is the telling point. If you search youtube.com for "Doctor Who," you'll find a remarkable number of amateur music videos made from recut clips from the last two seasons-- and a soppier load of romantic dreck you will not find outside of Tigerbeat magazine. My wife pointed out that this is not surprising, as most of them were probably produced by 14-year old girls. This is very interesting, because if you were going to identify the one demographic group that the old series never appealed to, it would be soppy 14-year old girls.

The new direction for Doctor Who works and is a hit, but this is because what Davies is going for is not the old audience, but the one that now dominates television. Where the old series targeted boys interested in spaceships and monsters with a leggy girl thrown in for the dads, Davies is targeting adolescent girls interested in romance with sentimental plots thrown in for their mothers. Indeed, this is evident in my own home, where my wife is hooked on the current season, but rolls her eyes heavenward when I pop a Tom Baker disk into the machine. If I asked her why the difference, she explained that this is because a) I'm in trouble if David Tennant ever moves in next door, and b) because she finds all of the old series' Doctors to be harsh to the point of cruelty.

I had to admit to the latter as I made a note to watch out for the former, but it also cleared up what had been puzzling me for some time: What was lacking in the new series. In succession I'd thought it was the hour format, the romantic storyline, the tendency to centre the action on council flats rather than Army headquarters, the over-emphasis on character development to the point where the alien menaces would become subplots, and making the show practically revolve around the companion rather than the Doctor, but what the Missus said made it clear what (part of) the problem was: Where Nathan-Turner didn't understand the show, Davies does not understand the Doctor. At first, I thought that where the difference was with Davies' Doctors, as opposed to the previous ones, had to do with Davies' discomfort with working with plots that don't revolve around sex and therefore his Doctor had to naturally to gravitate toward a love story. But then it became clear that where the problem lay was not that Davies believes that the Doctor should fall in love with his companions, but rather that he could-- and that is the big difference between this series and the old.

If you go back and watch the old series from Hartnell to McCoy (or at least, from the point where the Doctor's backstory became more established), it wasn't that the sex angle hadn't occurred to anyone (the show was created in the '60s, for heaven's sake), nor that it would have been seen as inappropriate for a children's series (possibly) or get in the way of the adventure plots (certainly), but rather because the Doctor was an inherently avuncular character. By this I do not mean that he was the sort of man who treated nubile young women as if they were his nieces, but rather because if you look at the Doctor (especially Tom Baker's) talking to any human being whether it was man, woman, boy, girl, young or old, he treated everyone as if they were his nieces or nephews-- and very dull witted ones at that.

Pull out an old Jon Pertwee episode and you'll see what I mean. He doesn't just talk down to Jo Grant, he treats a middle-aged Brigadier General as if he's fourteen years old and can't do his sums yet. That is because back then the producers, writers and actors understood what Davies has difficulty grasping. The Doctor is an alien with an IQ far above any Earthlings. He is an alien from a people who used time travel as casually as we do electricity and were playing with black holes while the human race was picking fleas off each other. He is also many centuries old and has been travelling the universe for a heck of a long time. It isn't that the Doctor never had any sort of a romantic life (he's a grandfather, after all), but that in the old series for him to start fooling about with Sarah Jane would be tantamount to committing pedophilia with a particularly slow child. Indeed, the only companion that had a chance of sparking romance was the Time Lady Romana-- and that wasn't going to happen because they were always competing with one another. Besides, the fact that she thought the Doctor was probably mad didn't help.

To put it more succinctly, the Doctor is not on our level. Indeed, this was part of the humour of the old series, as we saw the Doctor deflating puffed egos of self-important officials and villains who couldn't possibly impress a Time Lord, and it was part of the drama during the rare moments when the Doctor came up against an equal and dropped his buffoonish facade, as in "Pyramids of Mars" when he confronted Sutekh in his prison and we realised that this was deadly serious, because the Doctor wasn't even thinking of cracking a joke.

This isn't a particularly original or even very new concept. Indeed, this sort of character is already well-established in the form of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, for whom women were a bit of grit in his microscope (Or as Robert Stephens put it in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, "I don't dislike women, I merely don't trust them') to be admired like Irene Adler rather than wooed and who seemed almost relieved whenever he had a chance to cross swords with Moriarty instead of some lesser villain. This was the nature of Holmes' character and it suited the genre that he inhabited.

And that is another thing where the current series differs, and perhaps that is why the Doctor differs. The old Doctor Who stories were adventures, where the new ones are romances with a veneer of adventure. This is not only obvious in that not even an appearance by the Devil himself can keep the Doctor and Rose from mooning at each other, but in the style of writing. Adventure stories are different from romances and require a different approach. Romances are about characters and bare emotions and generally wallowing in sentiment. These all lend themselves to monologues, extended close-ups, and allowing the gravity of The Moment to sink in. Adventures, on the other hand, rely on pace. The story must move forward and by the third act things have to book along. Character needs to be revealed in a single line of dialogue, not a three minute speech. Doomed actors giving long goodbyes are not done. Romance must drive the adventure, not vice versa. Look at "Genesis of the Daleks," for example. If this were made today, the Doctor would have been talking a great deal-- and most of it worrying about whether or not Rose was safe. But in the 1975 version, the Doctor has hardly any lines for three-quarters of the screen time as he sneaks about watching events unfold and he shows little concern for his companions unless they are under immediate threat of death or torture. Does this make Tom Baker's Doctor more heartless than David Tennant's? Possibly, but it certainly serves an adventure plot better.

Basically, what Davies needs to do if he wants to bring Doctor Who back fully is more Conan Doyle and less Couplings. If not, then we'd better just accept that the Doctor is not the Time Lord he was.

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