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.