There have been several attempts to bring Doctor Who to the stage, some more successful than others, but all very typical of the time in which they were made. Curse Of The Daleks was a gripping base-under-siege story by Terry Nation and David Whittaker, with Daleks but no Doctor, from the 1960s. In the 1970s, on the other hand, we had Seven Keys To Doomsday, by Terrance Dicks,where the Doctor has to collect MacGuffins before the Daleks do. And in the 1980s there was The Ultimate Adventure, a ludicrous pantomime by a past-it Dicks, a lot of fun but making no sense whatsoever.
And in 2010 we have Doctor Who Live, an arena show full of explosions and spectacle, with almost no dialogue, little plot, and tons of special effects, but with a flying Dalek and a Dalek-vs-Cybermen fight, and lasers…
That sounds a little cruel, and it really shouldn’t. Doctor Who Live isn’t aimed at me, and nor should it be. It’s a circus by any other name, with people in costumes, music, silly jokes, and a light show and fireworks, and it’s aimed at very small children, who were there in droves. My own favourite Doctor Who stories are things like Genesis Of The Daleks, The Aztecs, The Keeper Of Traken or The Massacre – small-scale, character-driven, dialogue-heavy stories about ideas. Doctor Who Live was never going to be any of those things.
What it is – and all it is – is pure spectacle. There’s an attempt to give it a plot (a sequel to the 1973 Robert Holmes story Carnival Of Monsters), but really it’s just an excuse for as many monsters (all from the post-2005 series, obviously, and with a heavy weighting towards Stephen Moffat’s stories) to come through the audience and scare the children, for pyrotechnics, for loud rock music (Murray Gold’s music for the new series, rearranged very effectively by Ben Foster for a 16-piece band and choir, improved immensely from Gold’s original overblown arrangements).
That’s not to say there’s nothing to recommend it to adults- Nigel Planer gives as wonderful a performance as you would expect as the showman Vorgenson, and Nicholas Briggs does a rather magnificent Churchill, and Planer’s live interaction with Matt Smith on film has a real Doctor Who feel to it (reading a recent DWM interview with Smith where he mentioned that Peter Sellers is the actor he most admires unlocked something about Smith’s performance for me, and this is the first time I’ve seen any of his work since reading that, and I’m a lot more impressed now) – but it’s really best suited for adults who have brought their children along with them.
It’s very hard for me to judge the show, because what I want from art or entertainment is very different from what it was offering. In the comments to a recent post, various of us have been talking about how much of modern entertainment is geared towards the facile and childish, and how the highbrow is being devalued in favour of the trivial. This show would not have been something I’d have chosen to do by myself (a gang of friends were going) and it’s about as trivial and childish as you can get, with absolutely no intellectual content whatsoever.
But at the same time, while there’s probably something wrong with someone in their thirties or forties who lives off Flumps and Curly-Wurlies, there is nothing wrong with having those things *on occasion*, and this show is the equivalent of eating a Sherbet fountain – not something you would want to do every day, and something you might feel a bit embarrassed about doing at all, but as a little bit of a nostalgic treat it’s fine on occasion.
The show is much better put-together, with much higher production values, than it needed to be to satisfy its target audience of children. There were a number of points where I was genuinely highly impressed by the craft and thought that had been put into the performance. But there’s a bit in one of the About Time guidebooks where Wood and Miles talk about how Doctor Who toys would have been missing the point, because the best bits in Doctor Who weren’t spaceship races or light-sabre battles but elderly character actors being frightfully clever at each other, so you couldn’t recreate them with toys, you had to recreate them by reading the books. This show, on the other hand, is almost designed for action-figure recreation, while the script probably barely fit onto five sides of A4.
I am not so totally grown-up that I can fail to appreciate the show – so many of my formative years were spent thinking about Daleks and Cybermen that seeing Real Live Ones!!!, even if they look different from the ones I liked as a kid, is enough to put a grin on my face – but I’m adult enough that, while this is an extraordinarily well put-together, charming, spectacular show, I wouldn’t recommend it to any adult who doesn’t have a deep-seated, irrational love of Doctor Who.
This seems like a deeply ambivalent review, and it is. I thoroughly enjoyed myself while I was there – and I really did – but where I can fit most other things I enjoy into an aesthetic or intellectual framework, this had about as much for the rational part of my mind (by far the biggest part) to latch on to as a fireworks display would. And seen *as* a fireworks display – as a bunch of pretty images, flashing lights and loud bangs – it’s as good as any I’ve seen. But whereas the TV show at its best could appeal to children while still having some genuinely intelligent writing worth repeat viewing as an adult (and while I’m not one of those who thinks Doctor Who is the best TV programme ever made, I would certainly say that at its best, in stories like City Of Death or An Unearthly Child or Vengeance On Varos it was in the top rank of TV of its time), tonight’s show was a spectacular for the kiddies.
That I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it to the readers of this blog (who, I flatter myself, like something with a little more intellectual roughage most of the time, rather than just sweets) merely says that we’re not its intended audience. That I still managed to have an enjoyable evening (and that despite having a migraine, meaning I was doped up to the eyeballs on painkillers) shows how well it does what it does. Nicholas Briggs in particular is to be commended – as well as his Churchill, he also provides all the Dalek, Cyberman and Judoon voices (at least some of them apparently live) and this show demonstrates what a fine voice actor he actually is. And Nigel Planer, who for most of the show is the only live-action performer on stage with any lines, carries off what is almost a one-man show at times superbly. I didn’t come out thinking I’d wasted my time and my money, which I was seriously worried I would do ahead of time.
But the people who enjoyed it most were the thousands of tiny children in their cardboard cyberman masks.
A few weeks back, the Daily Torygraph had a week of giveaways of Doctor Who CDs. I didn’t get them because I refuse to buy that wretched snotrag of a paper, but they have recently announced an offer to get rid of their back stock, and are selling all seven CDs for ‘P&P only’ – although thirteen quid seems a lot for P&P.
However, less than two quid per CD is a great deal, and so I picked these up.
Mission To The Unknown (by Terry Nation, narrated by Peter Purves ) is a Dalek story from the first Doctor’s era. I won’t go into great detail about it here, as I plan to review the story in full when I get to it in a few months, but this was a single-episode story which was the only Doctor Who story not to feature the Doctor – though it set up a later story, The Daleks’ Master Plan.
As the story was burned, the only way to experience it is to listen to off-air audio-tape recordings made at the time, with linking narration by Peter Purves, who does a decent job. The story itself, intended by Nation as a backdoor pilot for a Dalek spin-off series, is genial hokum about Agent Marc Cory of the Special Space Service fighting deadly Varga plants. Taken for what it is – 45-year-old children’s adventure TV – it’s fun, though hardly at the same level as the first couple of Dalek stories. But before listening, forget everything you know about astronomy, as neither Nation nor David Whittaker (the script editor) knew the difference between a galaxy, a solar system and a constellation, so at one point you get several galaxies teaming up to try to take over the Earth.
Genesis Of The Daleks (by Terry Nation, starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, Michael Wisher, Peter Miles et al)
This was the first Doctor Who story to get any kind of repeatable home release. In the days before videos, this, an album containing a one-hour abridgement of the two-and-a-half-hour TV story’s soundtrack, with linking narration by Tom Baker, was the first time people could buy a Doctor Who story that had been on TV.
It’s obviously less necessary now that you can buy the whole thing on a double-DVD set with documentaries, commentaries, outtakes and so on, but it still has a nostalgic appeal to many Who fans, which is why it’s still available on CD.
Listening to the abridgement, a few things become clear.
Firstly, the TV show depended hugely on David Maloney’s visual sense. Without his Bergman rip-offs and the sense of oppression his visuals give, the story is much more the Typical Terry Nation script than it appears when watching it. And the abridgement does the plot few favours. It cuts out all the nonsense ‘perils’ that Nation stuck in more or less at random – the landmines, the giant clams and so on – but without those distractions, you can see that the plot makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
But everything changes whenever Michael Wisher and Tom Baker get to do their thing (either together or separately). There’s a rumour that Baker and Wisher substantially rewrote their dialogue together in rehearsals, recasting some of it into iambic pentameter to make it more Shakespearean . Certainly, at crucial moments, this is *NOT* Terry Nation dialogue – this is a script that has been worked on by diverse hands, including Terrance Dicks and, most crucially, Robert Holmes.
Even in this cut-down form, then, the set pieces (“to hold in my hand…” , “Have I the right?”) still have an immense power, and this is still a fantastic story. In what should have been a fairly conventional Dalek story, someone (presumably Holmes) managed to sneak in a morality play straight out of Dostoevsky, but written for eight year-olds. And even without the Bergmanisms and gas masks, that’s pretty special.
Exploration Earth (by Bernard Venables, starring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and John Westbrook)
This is a trifle, a little over twenty minutes long, that doesn’t really deserve its own CD. Originally broadcast for schools’ radio, it’s an educational programme trying to tell the story of the Earth’s creation, using the Doctor Who characters to provide a dramatic framework. Sarah Jane is completely out of chaacter as Generic Companion (“Doctor, I’m scared”) though Lis Sladen still does wonders with some awful dialogue. A historical curio, not really made for repeat listening.
Slipback (by Eric Saward, starring Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant)
Or the Blitch-Blikers Buide to the Balaxy. During the show’s ‘gap year’ in 1985, BBC Radio4 commissioned a serial in six fifteen-minute parts for their children’s strand, Pirate Radio 4, starring the then-current Doctor/companion team and written by the show’s then-script editor Eric Saward.
While in his scripts for TV Saward seems obsessed with trying to be like Robert Holmes but with more violence, when writing for the radio he seems instinctively to have turned to another former Who writer/script-editor, Douglas Adams, and as a result you could play any of the scenes in this that don’t feature the Doctor to anyone and they’d think it was a bit they’d forgotten from the second Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy radio series.
Saward’s attempts at humour aren’t great – he’s someone who’s clearly more at home writing action-movie wisecracking than actual wit – but the cast is fantastic, featuring voices that anyone who has ever listened to Radio 4 will recognise instantly, like Valentine Dyall and Nick Revell. And while the plot makes no sense, the fifteen-minute-episode format means it keeps moving quickly.
Incidentally, the computer voice in this, which is supposed to sound like an ‘airheaded bimbo’, sounds suspiciously like an impersonation of Sandra Dickinson, who played Trillian in the TV (but not the radio) version of Hitch-Hiker’s. Dickinson was then married to Peter Davison, and had apparently not been hugely popular among the production staff of Doctor Who. I wonder if this was a slight dig at her…
Pest Control (by Peter Anghelides, read by David Tennant)
This is a two-disc audiobook (as opposed to radio play), and is *much* better than I expected. I loathe Tennant’s Doctor, but here, reading in his own accent, he gives a masterful performance. I still find his Doctor irritating (and from the voice and characterisation of Donna Noble I was very correct to not watch the fourth RTD series, or I would have smashed whatever I was watching it on), but he does more and better acting in the two-and-a-half hours of this audiobook than in the entirety of his TV career as the Doctor, providing a range of distinctively-voiced, subtly-characterised characters.
The story itself is a fairly standard Doctor Who plot – in fact as a plot it’s far more the kind of thing one would expect from Saward than Saward’s own story is – about a war between the Earth and a bunch of aliens, but then the Earth soldiers are being turned into giant insects, and then a killer robot turns up… you know the kind of thing.
It’s a routine, formula story, but it’s an *extremely well executed* routine, formula story, and as such would fit far better with the Moffat series than the Davies series to which it is a coda. And I’ll give it a lot more leeway for being formulaic than the TV series, because as an audiobook the production costs of this consist of little more than the cost of a microphone and a cup of tea, while the TV series cost several million quid. The expectations are correspondingly lower.
This was actually the big surprise for me, and easily the most enjoyable of these as a pure listening experience, and that’s coming from someone who loathes Tennant as the Doctor.
And I will love Anghelides forever, because unlike the people at Big Finish, he uses the word DISORIENT! NOT DISORIENTATE! DISORIENT! THE PROPER ACTUAL WORD! NOT THE ILLITERATE NEOLOGISM. I know disorientate is now in dictionaries, and I hate linguistic prescriptivism as much as anyone, but that’s always been one of my bugbears. Mr Anghelides repeatedly using the proper word made me very happy.
The Runaway Train by Oli Smith, read by Matt Smith
I only listened to this today, and I remember nearly nothing about it, except that Matt Smith can’t do American or Scottish accents, and Smith’s voice is a lot less tolerable than Tennant’s when doing a dramatic reading. There’s some stuff about the future-Doctor setting things up in the past to happen to him in the present, but other than that I couldn’t tell you anything about it. It all just turned into “bleh bleh bleh bleh” between the headphones and my eardrums.
Overall, this is a very mixed bag, but for thirteen quid it’s worth it for Genesis and Pest Control alone. Then you’ve got a couple of fun-but-silly children’s programmes (Slipback and Mission) and a couple of duds, but everything is at least worth a listen. Possibly even The Runaway Train…
So to a large extent I could repeat last week’s post about the show as my review of this week’s.
After two weeks, it now looks like MoffWho will be, more or less, a series of remakes of the Welsh Series as if they’d been written by a competent writer. Not, necessarily, a *good* writer, but a competent one, which is, to be frank, more than we had for most of the Welsh Series so far. In this case, what we had was What If… The Long Game Had Been Better Than It Was And Had Those Creepy Puppets In Coin-Operated Booths From Old Fairgrounds In It?
Along with that, of course, we *also* had the second trip for the Doctor with his new companion being to a future spaceship with people from Earth who’ve escaped its destruction and a woman who, thanks to rejuvenating treatments, had lived a long, long time. (And next week we’re getting the Celebrity Historical By Mark Gattis. It seems we’re following the template of Davies’ first series exactly).
And it’s all seeming a little… calculated. We’ve got Moffatisms (cute little girl scared of common childhood fear) coupled with Davies’ series structure, mixed in with some of the more annoying Welsh Series aspects (we did *NOT* need another monologue about how special the Doctor is, especially in a story where the companion solved the problem).
And I’m still not convinced, *AT ALL*, by Moffat’s characterisation. He writes the Doctor as if he’s been given a description of what the character’s like, but without having ever seen an episode. Which is still an improvement over the previous series, which last I saw had no consistent idea of what the Doctor’s character was meant to be (unless, ‘unpleasant, annoying and prone to Kenneth Williams impersonations’ counts as characterisation). And in much the same way, Smith’s performance seems off. It’s definitely the same *kind* of character as the Doctor, but it’s not the Doctor I know. I’ve heard him compared to Michael Palin and Jim Carrey, and both of those seem apt at different points (he makes me think of Emo Philips myself, the way he gangles and folds himself up), and while I can see *some* people casting either of those as the Doctor, I wouldn’t cast either (though Palin might be interesting, thinking about it…)
And the worst thing of all is the fact that the dialogue is so reliant on cliche. Almost all the ‘witty’ lines were ones I could see coming from three lines earlier (“OK, the Doctor’s doing something ‘wacky’. That means the companion will say *this* confused line, which will allow the Doctor to make *this* reply. Oh I was right. Again.”) and some of the other stuff was frankly painful. I don’t care if “Help us, Doctor, you’re our only hope!” was meant as a post-modern ironic pop-culture reference or whatever, it’s still a terrible line.
The plot only had the normal number of plot holes, the Doctor was shown as an actually decent person trying to do good, the dialogue was only not-very-good, rather than terrible, again the turning point was someone actually using their brain, and most importantly, *the story was based around an actual moral dilemma, and both the Doctor and his companion acted properly*. That dilemma was somewhat cheapened by the everybody-lives ending, but even that ending was set up from the very beginning, as a proper actual consequence of things that happened in the show – and brought about by an independent action of the companion, rather than just being Davies ex machina.
It’s still far from what I’d hope for in a series of Doctor Who, and it’s still problematic (and WHAT THE FUCK was Moffat thinking with the menacing black man in a hood? That’s NOT the kind of imagery you should be playing around with) but it’s better than anything from the five previous years, by some considerable margin, and I’m always willing to forgive the occasional lapses of a sinner that repents. I’m definitely going to watch at least the next few episodes, and I’ll see how it goes from there. I don’t love this – I’m not even sure yet if I like it – but on balance I don’t *dislike* it, and that’s a start.
A little under a week ago I sent in my entry for Big Finish’s short story competition – I’d written what I like to think is an excellent short story, where a brave, bright, but very little girl is scared by voices in her bedroom, which the only parental character mentioned in the story doesn’t believe exist, but the voices are made to go away through the intervention of the Doctor.
I thought it was possibly the best piece of fiction I’ve ever written, but ‘a bit Steven Moffat’, and it actually had a chance of winning.
All I could think, through the first ten minutes of The Eleventh Hour, the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, as written by Steven Moffat, was ‘bugger’.
There are two things I want to make clear in this review before I go any further – two things which, unfortunately, due to the nature of online Doctor Who fandom, I need to say even though they really, really shouldn’t need saying.
The first is that even though I overall quite enjoyed the programme, I thought there was a lot to criticise within it as well, and in reviewing it I’m going to talk about those things. If you worry about someone ‘ruining your squee’, then please go away.
The second, and opposite, fact is that I have disliked the vast majority of what I have seen of the revived show as produced and written primarily by Russel T. Davies, and don’t really consider it to bear any relation to the programme I *do* like – but that I consider this a statement of personal aesthetic judgement about the programme, rather than a moral judgement about the programme’s creators or fans. In particular, I do not think Mr Davies is Satan, or that he wrecked the programme by allowing evil homosexualists into it, or that he is ‘destroying my childhood’ or ‘hating the fans’ or ‘stealing my programme and giving it to the mundanes’ or any of that nonsense. I just think he happens to be a writer/producer who is sincerely trying to make the best programme he can, but whose idea of a good programme is wildly at variance with mine. I also don’t think being overweight, gay or Welsh are, in themselves, reasons to attack someone. So if you wish to comment about how good it is that the fat taffy queer with his gay agenda has gone and given the programme back to the real fans, please go away.
Right, after that, with a bit of luck we might have got rid of the lunatics, and everyone reading this will be someone who regards Doctor Who as a TV programme, one to be judged by more or less the same standards by which one judges any other TV programme. So with that in mind, does Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who measure up?
Possibly the easiest way to look at this is to look at the things I didn’t like about Davies’ era, and see how Moffat’s version of the show compares to that. So the main things I didn’t like about Davies’ show were:
1) The morality of the show. It didn’t have any, and at times it seemed breathtakingly *immoral*, both in big ways (lionising Madame du Pompadour, one of the most disgusting individuals ever to have lived) and small (the bullying ‘let’s laugh at the nerdy nerdy nerds’ attitude of a good number of episodes). Both these, actually, are things that were more noticeable in Moffat scripts than others – but are still ultimately Davies’ responsibility as the person who set the tone for the show as a whole. My platonic ideal of Doctor Who would always side with the underdog, be that a slave being tortured to death in order to provide sugar for pampered French aristocrats, or a socially-awkward young man being mocked for enjoying science fiction DVDs.
2) The characterisation of the Doctor. The Doctor shouldn’t be a geek-chic indie kid generic hero who occasionally does something ‘wacky’, and nor should he be a lonely god who is the specialest person in the whole of special, but should be an intelligent, thoughtful, but fundamentally strange character.
3) The plotting. Things happening for a reason is nice, internal logic is also good. Davies ex machina less so.
4) Lack of imagination – everyone throughout history, whatever planet, in the year 200 billion or the fifteenth century, is exactly like people in early 21st century Britain. Big Brother and Britney Spears will be known until the end of the universe.
Looking at The Eleventh Hour in those terms, point one doesn’t apply – there is nothing horribly immoral in the story. It would be interesting if the Prisoner hadn’t been so obviously A Baddie – if there’d been a choice to be made between giving a possibly-innocent fugitive over or seeing Earth destroyed – but there was nothing actively immoral in there.
Point two I’m less sure on. Matt Smith is clearly a competent actor, but he didn’t seem especially Doctorish to me, and as Lawrence Miles pointed out, some of the lines would be easier to imagine coming from the mouth of Clint Eastwood than from Tom Baker. That said, he did save the world by actually thinking, and by noticing things, and that’s better than saving the world using handwavium. I’ll give him time.
Point three – there was a plot. It made sense, and the only problems with it are of the ‘but that’s not actually how computer viruses *work*’ type rather than the ‘but none of that makes any sense at all, even a little bit, why did he even *do* that?’ type. The one question I have is why the coma patients were all saying “Doctor” – there was no good reason at all for this.
Point four – well, this one was set in present-day Britain, so hard to say on this.
So overall, it’s too soon to say if the programme will be better than Davies’ effort, but there’s enough evidence that it will to be cautiously optimistic.
There are quite a few downsides, though. In particular, the show seems ruthlessly designed for the ‘geek demographic’, from the steampunk TARDIS interior to the guest appearance by Patrick Moore to the bow tie. It seemed so blatantly targeted to a demographic that I don’t consider myself part of that I felt put off.
Also, the story was very much Moffat-by-numbers. As I said, before, I wrote something that I thought very ‘Moffatty’ this week, and it turned out to be very close to the first ten minutes of this story (in fact I think it was rather better – those of my friends I asked to critique it can feel free to disagree in the comments). But structurally, this was very, *very* close to The Girl In The Fireplace, and the characters of Amy and Rory are more or less identical to the characters of Sally and Lawrence from Blink.
Not only that, but a *LOT* of the script was predictable. Little kid asks “How do I know you’ll come back?” to which the reply is “trust me, I’m the Doctor’. I was actually muttering many of the lines to myself before they were said. To a large extent the script was comprised entirely of cliches. Certainly, if you’d asked me to write the story I thought Moffat would write to introduce a new Doctor, I would have written something close enough to this that you could believe they were different drafts of the same script.
So it was still far closer to being cult-TV-by-numbers than to being proper good TV. The ‘classic’ series (or ‘real Doctor Who’ as I think of it) was in some way trying to do the same kind of thing as (at different times) I, Claudius or The Beiderbecke Affair or Boys From The Blackstuff or The Clangers or The Telegoons. It was often not up to the standards of those programmes, but it was trying to compete with those things. This series is trying to compete with Primeval and Robin Hood and Ashes To Ashes – it’s trying to do one very defined kind of thing. As far as that goes, it does it very well, and is probably the best show of its type. But I’d far rather an ambitious failure than a middling success, and my first impression of MoffWho is that it’s the latter.
This is just a fact. Young Doctors don’t work. Davison was OK, but far better in the audios, when he’d got some gravitas. Tennant has been awful. The Doctor should be, *at a minimum* in his mid-forties, and ideally in his sixties.
I’ve not seen this Matt Smith in anything, but it’s a shame the job didn’t go to Paterson Joseph, as rumoured. If it had been him, I’d have been cautiously optimistic about the new series once the awful combination of Davies and Tennant had gone. Now I’ll probably give one or two episodes a chance just out of curiousity, but very much doubt I’ll watch more than that.
BFAW in a little while.