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…