Doctor Who And Batman Week Day 1: NuNuWho

So I’m a couple of weeks behind in my blogging now, thanks to some rather bad health problems due to stress, and I’m aware I’ve got quite a bit of stuff to write about. So I hereby declare the next seven days to be Doctor Who And Batman week, with the plan being to do posts on NuNuWho, Batman 700, the seven ‘free’ Doctor Who CDs that the Daily Torygraph gave away, Return Of Bruce Wayne 4, Marco Polo and the issue of Batman & Robin that comes out tomorrow, in that order.

I think I’m actually going to be able to find a surprising amount in common between these things, to the point that I’m seeing this more as one very long piece than seven shorter ones. Let’s see if that works.

The most recent series of Doctor Who has been weirdly polarising. It’s appropriate, in fact, that it ran over the election and coalition formation, because much like the coalition it’s led to people finding themselves violently disagreeing with those they previously agreed with, and praising the opinions of those they despised. Andrew Rilstone, for example, who detested pretty much everything from the last two or three years of RTDWho, has been absolutely gushing in his praise. Lawrence Miles, on the other hand, who held similar, though much more strongly-expressed, opinions, has judged the new series as being probably the worst thing in human history (on the basis of half-watching one episode and a personal dislike of Steven Moffat, the head writer).

I actually find myself agreeing with both of them, for reasons that are, to me at least, rather interesting.

Because the interesting thing about this series is how all the criticisms that most people were making of the RTD era turn out to be bunkum – the plots here don’t make any more sense than they did during RTD’s time, there’s an overemphasis on Daleks, the companion is the most specialest person in the whole history of ever, ludicrously-high-stakes finale – in fact the whole thing could almost have been written as a parody of the worst excesses of Davies’ era. But none of *these* things mattered, because Moffat, unlike Davies, understands story structure – the plot to the weeping angel two-parter made no sense at all on any level *when looked at as a whole*, but every individual idea followed neatly and yet surprisingly from the idea before.

(That wasn’t the case with every episode – some were incredibly predictable – but it was the case more often than not).

The main thing Moffat did was to take the series away from soap-operatics and frame the same kind of stories instead as fairy tales (signalled by someone every five seconds saying “Oh, it’s just like a fairy-tale”. I never said Moffat was subtle), and within that fairy tale world, the rules could change, but never unfairly.

At least until the last episode, where the time-travel paradox was the kind of idea that Christopher Bidmead dismisses as first-draft writing. It was not only a cop-out, but it was one which was a) avoidable (one shot of the Doctor dropping the sonic screwdriver as he’s dragged towards the Pandorica and you’ve got your get-out), b) less dramatic than an obvious alternative (Rory has to try to figure out how to work it, nearly deranged with grief, because he knows the Doctor’s Amy’s only hope), and most importantly gives it the Superman: The Movie problem – we now know that any time the Doctor’s in an impossible situation, future-Doctor can just come and rescue him. It destroys tension in any future episode where we remember this.

And it was very enjoyable for what it was. A friend of mine said ‘Rilstone being positive about newestWho makes it sound worse than when he disliked it – it sounds like it’s finally become a puddle of “lovely, mad, beautiful, loveliness and special niceness”‘, but I think that’s misreading Rilstone’s reviews, and it’s *certainly* misreading the show, which has been far less sentimentalised than Davies’ excrescence. The new-new series is harder and more obviously cynical (I thought the RTD show was cynical as hell, but hidden under mountains of schmaltz, which have mostly been scraped away in the new show).

There is still a greasy residue smeared all over everything, of course – romantic love is still the highest ideal to which anyone can possibly aspire, and it’s perfectly acceptable to punch someone if they suggest that in a choice between saving your girlfriend from certain death, and saving the entire universe from being retroactively wiped from existence, the latter might be more important. But this is par for the course in modern TV, and something we just need to tolerate.

More worrying for me is the characterisation of the Doctor, where we see how this series is the half-way house between the RTD series and something interesting (in a glass-half-full or half-empty way, the RTD series was a glass full of urine, while the new series is the same glass, with the urine emptied out, given a good rinsing, and with a decent wine poured in – a definite improvement, but you’d still be cautious about drinking it, and there might be an aftertaste). The Doctor in the RTD series, at least once Tennant took the part, wasn’t a character at all, just a set of tics pulled together by Tennant in an increasingly-desperate attempt to paper over the cracks in the scripts. The scripts this year have a character in them who one assumes is what they were *trying* to do in the Tennant years – certainly some of the speech patterns (the more annoying ones) are the same – but is an actual character.

Unfortunately, rather than ‘eccentric’, this character is ‘whacky’ – where the Doctor should be three parts Sherlock Holmes to one part each Einstein and Groucho Marx, the Eleventh Doctor is Ralph Malph or Mork. This is better than no character at all, but significantly worse than the ‘real’ Doctor.

But my real problem with the new series has been its innate conservatism. This is something that was already there in the RTD years, but for all his faults (and by God did he have faults), Davies would at least try to make the show *different* – Love & Monsters is a fairly horrible piece of television, but it wasn’t something that Doctor Who had ever done before.

Moffat has taken what Davies did, streamlined it, made it even more formulaic, and added a basic level of competence that is far above what was there in Davies’ time. He’s making a solidly entertaining program. But he’s doing *nothing new*.

In the discussion I always point to, in the mid-1990s, Moffat said of Who “I’d rather see them do something limited than something crap.”

Which is as absolutely, utterly, totally wrong as one can get – even if he wasn’t, in the process, dismissing the work of Bob Holmes, a far better writer than Moffat has any hope of ever being.

Several of Moffat’s criticisms of the old show in that article actually ring true. Despite what some of the more vociferous fans may say, Doctor Who was never ‘the best programme on television’. It was often very good indeed (and equally often a pile of old tat), but during the 26 years Doctor Who was on, British TV also produced I, Claudius, Boys From The Blackstuff, Not Only… But Also, Life On Earth, The Ascent Of Man, The Beiderbecke Affair, Q, The Prisoner, Face To Face and many more. Objectively, as television, Doctor Who rarely if ever rose to those heights.

But while it was not the ‘best’ programme on TV, it was and remains my favourite. And one of the main reasons for that is that when it was at its best – when it felt most ‘like Doctor Who’ – it was a show that *tried different things*. Stories like, say, An Unearthly Child, The Aztecs, The Mind Robber, The War Games, Vengeance On Varos, Logopolis or Delta And The Bannermen might not all have been great, but they were all *DIFFERENT*. A show can’t go from the high of Caves Of Androzani to the low of The Twin Dilemma *in a single week* without doing something interesting. That variability which kept Doctor Who from attaining the perfection of Fawlty Towers also made it worth watching even at its worst.

Moffat’s series has none of that. The best episodes (the first two, the first episode of the weeping angel two-parter and the two-part finale – in other words all bar one of Moffat’s episodes) have had me on the edge of my seat, desperate to see the next week’s episode, and wanting to watch them again. But when I’ve come to *actually* watch them again, there’s nothing there – it’s amazingly well-made, but it’s well-made *product*, with few real ideas. Expecting this show to be innovative, different or thought-provoking is a bit like expecting those things of your new iPad. That’s not what it’s *for* any more.

And that makes me sad, but if what you’re after from your TV is pretty people saying witty things in exciting situations, then you’re really not going to find a better example than the current series of Doctor Who. And that’s really not meant as a backhanded compliment – the new show does what it does extraordinarily well. Compared to the Davies series, this is a staggeringly huge improvement. But it isn’t the series I loved. That’s OK – the Pertwee UNIT series bore practically no relationship to The Romans or The Time Meddler, either. But it could be so much more than it is…

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24 Responses to Doctor Who And Batman Week Day 1: NuNuWho

  1. Bill Reed says:

    Cynical? Nah. I mean, I understand the argument. I think I see where you’re coming from, how you view it as such. But yet, if it was truly cynical, I would hate it, and I don’t. I love this bloody show, more than any other television show out there right now. It hits all my entertainment buttons. Under Moffat, the plots have gotten twistier and the dialogue has gotten cleverer, which is good. No ideas? The Angel two-parter was stuffed with more ideas than in all of the specials; clever escapes, new evil Angel powers, “a forest in a bottle in a spaceship in a maze,” paramilitary clergymen, etc. It’s not mindblowing originality, but it’s a clever family sci-fi adventure show, and it manages to throw in more ideas, no to mention entertain, enlighten, emote, and juggle 50 years of history and mythos more easily than any American superhero comic. Thank God for that.

    No, the finale made no sense. I’m still processing it. But I think I love it. Moffat’s an idea man. The whole season’s about ideas.

    Mork from Ork? Christ, no. The Eleventh Doctor took me by surprise. I loved Tennant, and was suspicious of this weird-looking fellow with the hair, but he just *becomes* the Doctor onscreen. He’s the most alien since the first Baker, the “oldest” since Hartnell, the Troughtoniest since Troughton. His gait, his mannerisms, his pointed downplaying of the “big” dialogue. I can see all the Doctors in him. Well, most. He’s certainly got more character than any of the “classic” Doctors (Hartnell is the only one with an arc, from what I’ve seen, aside from maybe McCoy, whose arc got chopped off at the knees).

    • Wesley says:

      I agree that Matt Smith rarely comes off as unDoctorish to me–when he does, it’s usually because of a line that sounds like it was written for David Tennant (this happened a couple of times during the Silurian story). Most of the time I can actually believe he’s playing the same character as Baker and Davison.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Oh, the writing definitely works against him – I’m thinking of things like “Don’t diss the sonic”, which one somehow can’t imagine William Hartnell saying – but the performance seems to me a little too self-consciously ‘quirky’.

    • Don Alsafi says:

      He’s the most alien since the first Baker, the “oldest” since Hartnell, the Troughtoniest since Troughton. His gait, his mannerisms, his pointed downplaying of the “big” dialogue.

      Spot-on summation! I absolutely agree.

      I generally can’t stand Tom Baker’s Doctor, but I admire what he was trying to do in making the character’s reactions seem more alien and less relatable. Unfortunately, while “being casual about important stuff and getting upset about the small stuff” is great in theory, in practice it made him seem like an ass. (When I was watching a Baker once, a friend asked why he was always yelling at his friends over trivial shit.)

      Matt Smith’s performance, on the other hand, actually seems to sell the alien-ness of the character in a way that Baker’s never quite did for me, without the (overt) tics of Tennant. In fact, his character seems SO bizarre, and SO scrambled, that I spent the first couple of episodes wondering if something had gone seriously wrong with the regeneration.

      Hmmm, just like Ben & Polly in Troughton’s first few….

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        I think Tom Baker was just playing himself, really – I think he’s just *like that*.

        • Don Alsafi says:

          I *thought* I’d read an anecdote where he’d explained that was his approach, but it’s fuzzy enough in my head that I could be completely wrong.

          Although a lot of his performance was, yes, clearly Baker being Baker. I remember seeing some interview on a DVD extra, with him using way-too-much swagger and charm on the female reporter interviewing him, and noting there was virtually no difference between his persona there and that which he played.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Of course, Colin Baker was also intended to have an ‘arc’, which would reveal why he was so grumpy in the first year, but that was when he was planning on having the role for eight years. His character has definitely softened in the audios though.

      No ideas was possibly a bad way of putting it – though a lot of the ideas in the Angel two-parter were quite old ones. Most of the episodes don’t seem to be *about* anything, though – and the ones that are (The Lodger, Vincent & The Doctor) seem to be among the weaker ones.

      • Bill Reed says:

        I found “Vincent” to be one of the best, most affecting pieces of television from the past 12 months or so.

        I found most of the episodes to be “about” things. Vampires in Venice, okay, not so much, that’s a bit of filler. Even Hungry Earth/Cold Blood was about something, though, and that’s the worst bit of Who since, I dunno, Evolution of the Daleks.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Well, MoffatWho is the *only* television from the past 12 months or so I’ve seen, so I can’t judge there. But I thought it was trying too hard to manipulate my emotions. I absolutely detest everything Richard Curtis has done in the last twenty years though, so I wasn’t the target audience for that one.

      • Don Alsafi says:

        The Colin Baker thing still astounds me, by the way. I mean, the created a character who was almost completely unlikeable (as opposed to Hartnell’s gruff-but-endearing, for instance), and were somehow surprised that audiences didn’t want to tune in?

        Granted, by the end of his run I’d started to warm to him; I imagine his audio adventures are more enjoyable. (They’d have to be…?)

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          The 6th Doctor audio adventures range from mildly interesting to staggeringly good. Jubilee, Doctor Who And The Pirates, Davros and The Holy Terror are among the very best Doctor Who stories ever in any medium.
          Listen to any of those with Dr Evelyn Smythe as his companion (the first two of those listed feature her) for a *completely* different take on the character…

  2. Wesley says:

    Back in the late 1990s, when the Eighth Doctor novels were coming out, I noticed the writers seemed to have developed definite ideas about what a Doctor Who story was, and what Doctor Who stories did. Many of the novels seemed to be modeled on the same few templates. The new series seems to have similar ideas: a Doctor Who story is set in Earth’s past or present and involves a monster that wants to take over the world/destroy humanity, which may be using some common (and preferably trendy) object or phenomenon as a disguised weapon. The Doctor wears a frock coat, acts “eccentric,” quotes Lewis Carroll once or twice, gets captured, escapes, and defeats the monster with technobabble. (If the story is set on another planet, there will be at least two factions in some kind of conflict, both of which will capture the Doctor at some point, and which hinder his efforts to defeat the monster.)

    (The other new phenomenon that cropped up during that era is the Doctor as celebrity–an extra special person with an aura of cool, who revives bystanders’ sense of wonder and joy with his very presence, who strangers somehow just know they can trust. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this developed during the years that fans who’d grown up watching the Doctor on TV took over writing the stories.)

    What’s struck me as I’ve watched the DVDs of the old series (which I didn’t watch often during the novel era) is how rarely the original series hewed to the stereotype. With a few exceptions (“Planet of the Daleks” and “The Visitation” come to mind), most stories, experimental or not, have something about them that doesn’t match fan theories of what Doctor Who is supposed to be.

    I’ve particularly come to appreciate the Graham Williams version of the program. Flawed as it is (the visual design is mostly lousy, most of the scripts could have used another draft, and Tom Baker spent as much time goofing off on camera as acting) Williams was obviously really trying to take the series away from Earth, into new places.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Heh… I’m not sure if you’re having a go at me, the novels or both there ;) I certainly agree that the show should never be formulaic, and that description of the Doctor is not one I want to see any more than the current ones. I hope you didn’t think that by saying what I’d like to see that I was trying to set my own formula, because I agree with every word of this. It’s a shame the Williams/Adams team didn’t have another year or two, because Shada shows them coming together very well, even though I like the Bidmead stuff…

      • Wesley says:

        At the novels, although there were still plenty of good ones–basically, I’m agreeing with you.

        (I apologize if it read like I was saying something else–in my defense, I was getting sleepy as I typed, so I probably wasn’t at my best.)

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          No need for apologies. Just some of the comments about the novels wanting a very particular characterisation of the Doctor sounded almost like the kind of thing I’d been saying, and I hoped *I’d* not been misinterpreted.

          • Wesley says:

            I should have been more careful with my word choice–I went back and reread my comment, and when I wrote “eccentric” I meant roughly the same thing you meant when you said “whacky.”

  3. RAB says:

    In a way it’s really Paul Cornell dismissing Holmes rather than Moffat, isn’t it? Cornell calls Holmes “a very good hack” while Moffat denies it because Holmes failed to omit something from a story even though it would pose difficulties to the visual effects department. This might also be phrased as “Robert Holmes failed to compromise the story he wanted to tell for the sake of making life easier, and instead asked the designers to rise to the challenge he was setting them.” A hack would simply have gone with the flow and not asked for anything hard.

    I assume Moffat meant Holmes was not a good hack but a poor hack, i.e., he lacked the professional knowledge to see he was asking for too much and restrain himself. Even so, speaking for myself, I’d rather be told I was bad at being a hack than good at it. Cornell seems to have intended “a very good hack” as a compliment — as if “hack” were a synonym for “honest craftsman” — but of course it’s nothing of the sort.

    I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said here, but still: in the most tolerable moments of the Davies era, I thought of it as “that show created by Russell Davies called Doctor Who because it was inspired by the actual show of the same name.” When I sit down to an episode of the Moffat series, whether it’s one I like or not, for the first time since 1987 I think to myself “I’m watching a new episode of Doctor Who.”

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I agree with everything here, and if Moffat had seen that the things he was attacking Holmes for were actually praiseworthy, the show would be very different.

  4. Seb says:

    You’re not really agreeing with Miles, though, are you? Because Miles’ opinion is “I hate Moffat deeply on a personal level, and so without watching his episodes I shall conclude that they are utter crap”. You don’t have the personal connection with Moffat, and you’ve actually watched the episodes. You may have found plenty to dislike, but you’re coming at it from a completely different perspective.

    I know you like the guy, but he’s entirely out on his own on his stance on this one.

    Also: was there really “an overemphasis on Daleks” this year? The NotReallySilurians got more screentime than they did.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      To an extent.

      What Miles was saying prior to this series, as I read it and shorn of emotiveness, is “Steven Moffat is this kind of person. I don’t like that kind of person. That kind of person has flaws x, y and z. Unfortunately people with flaws x, y and z tend to write q kind of story. I don’t like q kind of story. Moffat writes q kind of story.”

      Now, I don’t know Moffat at all, so I’m not qualified to have an opinion on him as a person. But none of the interviews I’ve seen with him are *inconsistent* with the picture Miles painted of him, and he does indeed write q kind of story, and people with traits x, y and z do indeed write in q kind of way.

      Given that, Miles in his posts *before this year* had formed a self-consistent Theory Of Moffat – whether ‘true’ or not, it didn’t contradict any of the available evidence. That doesn’t, of course, mean one should agree with it – one could *very* easily argue that Lawrence Miles is entirely the kind of person one would be justified in being rude to, for example – but taken on its own terms and shorn of the actual abuse, he had a reasonable critical theory there.

      The thing is, that theory led him to not watch any episodes of this series (reasonably enough, because he doesn’t like what he knows of Moffat’s writing, much as I didn’t watch series 4 or the specials of RTDWho), and then when he saw one episode out-of-context it confirmed his worst suspicions. I think had he seen the full series it would have possibly been a different matter, because I decided after watching it that Moffat only has *SOME* of the writing flaws I’d attributed to him, but I can understand his reaction.

      (Not wanting to be a Miles apologist though. Simply put, I think he’s a hugely talented writer/editor, a very perceptive critic when he wants to be, and his blog alternates between profound, hilarious, and the rantings of an utter arsehole. But I don’t know anything of his history with any of the various people he talks about, and so just ignore those parts except where they appear to me to illuminate someone’s actual work. I’m not really interested in who’s a goodie and who’s a baddie).

  5. Zom says:

    Non fan here. Interested observer.

    I never liked the RTD stuff much, mainly because I thought the plotting was awful, the dialogue was hamfisted, and the whole thing lacked any tension because, you know, the end of the universe every week. I appreciate that RTD was trying to sculpt something with the energy to transcend such… er… banal concerns, and for some people it obviously worked, but I struggle to understand why.

    I didn’t much like Tennant in the role, or even Eccleston for that matter – they spent inordinate amounts of time chewing the scenery and shouting at the sky, and let’s face it even the best actors are going to struggle with a script that demands that stuff.

    Moffat era I like. Moffat era makes a whole lot more sense. Moffat era has outrageous dialogue that I can believe. Moffat era has actors who I like, and a chap playing the Doctor who’s as good in the role as any I can remember. Moffat era actually makes me want to tune in. It suffers from some of the old problems, but it manages to be good enough that I don’t particularly care.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely. Moffat’s doing the same things RTD was doing but *competently*. I think there are better things Moffat could be doing with that competence than ‘the same things RTD was doing’, but the competence definitely counts for a lot.

    • pillock says:

      Haven’t seen the Moffat stuff yet, but Zom reminds me of what in retrospect I really disliked about the Davies Who — the goddamn music, man! Absolutely intolerable…

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