Guest Post From @miketaylor

My friend Mike, who blogs at The Reinvigorated Programmer and Sauropod Vertebra Picture Of The Week, asked me if he could do a guest post. All opinions expressed below, especially those regarding the relative qualities of the new and old series of Doctor Who, are the responsibility of Mike…

A tale of two titles: eleven vs. fifty

These are good days for Doctor Who books.

In November last year, Andrew Rilstone raised £2,411 via Kickstarter (pretty amazingly, to me) to write his book The Viewer’s Complete Tale. He seems to be well on the way to completing it. (I’m signed up to get a copy as soon as it’s out, even though I already have the original Viewer’s Tale and the second volume, Fish Custard.)

The big news in November, of course, was the 50th Anniversary special. On the same day that it was broadcast, our blog-host Andrew Hickey released his book Fifty Stories for Fifty Years.

And then at the start of January — as soon as possible after Matt Smith’s final episode, the Christmas special, in fact — I released my own book, The Eleventh Doctor: a critical ramble through Matt Smith’s tenure in Doctor Who.

I’ve asked for this guest post for two reasons. The first is to publicly thank Andrew for his help in getting this book done. Two of his blog-posts were extremely helpful with the sordid details (Some Tips For Self-Publishers and How To Get Your Books On Sale), and I’d heartily recommend them to anyone who’s self-publishing for the first time. Beyond writing those posts, Andrew was very helpful in answering my specific questions, and I owe him far more gratitude than I squeezed into the acknowledgements (which were written before I really got into the production phase).

The second reason is because my book is the opposite of Andrew’s — or perhaps I should say, its complement.

Fifty Stories book was one of my favourite Christmas presents. I’d read a fair bit of it in the original blog-posts over at Mindless Ones; but it’s much more compelling as a coherent narrative, each story’s analysis leading into the next, and with a strong sense of each era emerging. It was an education to me, especially regarding the interregnum between Survival and Rose.

But Andrew’s distaste for the new series is very evident in the final stretch. He declines even to review any episode of the revived series 2 or 6 (preferring Big Finish audios), and this feels like a finely calculated snub — one that looks casual, but is definitely meant. Even the final entry in Fifty Stories for Fifty Years, nominally about The Snowmen, is really a shrug of the shoulders and a half-formed wish that Doctor Who will evolve into something quite different.

Whereas I love the new series. I’m on record as saying that “New Who is better in every single way than the original: acting, ideas, music (oh my, the music!) and, yes, even stories”.

Not that it’s my goal here to argue for the 2005 series and against the original. When I wrote what I quoted above, it was in reaction to a very dismissive review rather than a considered position. As always, comparisons are invidious, and building up one version of Doctor Who by running down another is not fruitful. But what I want is for the new series to get a fair crack of whip — which I’m not convinced Andrew has given it.

Here’s the biggest reason why I love New Who: because so much stands and falls on the Doctor himself. The most admired stories are usually those that explore an aspect of the Doctor’s character or nature (Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature, Vincent and the Doctor). The way it looks to me, anyone can save the world — as comparatively dull a character as James Bond does it every year or so. But the Doctor is more interesting than that, and I like to see that interesting character explored: he’s similar enough to us that we can relate to him, but different enough to cast a different light on what it is to be a sentient, moral being. And, after all, we know what Doctor Who without the Doctor looks like: it’s Torchwood. No-one wants that.

And the post-2005 Doctors — especially Smith and Eccleston — are just superb: they give rich, detailed performances with levels of nuance that simply don’t come across in the older series (nor, to be fair, in the later David Tennant episodes).

To be fair to the pre-1989 Doctors, I suspect much of the difference is in how the show has been made in the two eras. The classic show was essentially filmed theatre, and the delivery and gestures reflect that: they’re designed to be heard and seen from the back of the hall — or perhaps on a blurry twelve-inch black-and-white TV. The intimacy that the new show allows gives the actors opportunity to dial back the theatrics, to convey complexities and subtleties that simply don’t fit into the older style.

So when Doctor Tom asks “Do I have the right?” — a sequence that reads well on paper, deserving of its iconic status — the actual delivery is rather scenery-chewing and unpersuasive. Whereas when Doctor Matt says “I’m the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart”, which is rather less well written (by the dreadful Chris Chibnall), Smith is able to invest it with about a dozen layers of meaning and create one of the most powerful moment in the series’ history.

(Andrew’s right about The End of Time, though.)

Anyway, for those who’ve read Andrew’s book (as everyone should) and who want to balance it with a more positive perspective on the new show — and particularly the Matt Smith era — I do recommend my own book [Kindle at amazon.com, Kindle at amazon.co.uk, Paperback at Lulu]. It walks through every Matt Smith episode, commenting and discussing, reviewing and digessing, and hopefully drawing out some of themes that tie it all together and make the best moments of Doctor Who the best moments on TV. I hope it starts some interesting discussions — as Doctor Who so often does!

Fifty Stories for Fifty Years gave me a new appreciation for Classic Who. I hope The Eleventh Doctor can give people a new appreciation for New Who.

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16 Responses to Guest Post From @miketaylor

  1. Andrew Hickey says:

    I’ve not yet read Mike’s book — it’s on my ever-growing “to read” pile, as he very kindly sent me a PDF copy a couple of weeks back, but I’ve had no reading time since before Christmas — so I can’t comment on whether it is the opposite of mine or not.

    What I will say, though, is that it definitely wasn’t a particular snub that I didn’t include anything from the TV series in 2006 or 2011 — any more than it was for 1965, when I wrote about the Dalek film rather than The Time Meddler, which may be my favourite Hartnell story, 1974 when I wrote about an early Target novelisation rather than Invasion Of The Dinosaurs, Planet of the Spiders, or the first episode of Robot, 1979, when I wrote about the comics rather than City Of Death, possibly the best Doctor Who story ever, or 1980, when I wrote about a story that wasn’t even finished.

    It’s true that I don’t like the new series, but one of the things I was trying to do in the book was give an idea of the story of Doctor Who across all media, and part of that story is that things like audios, books, and so on, also continued even after the “wilderness years” were over, and often produced great work. In fact I compromised *in favour* of the TV series — I really should have covered Coming Of The Terraphiles rather than The Eleventh Hour for 2010, as Moorcock’s book is by far the more interesting work, and I haven’t covered any post-05 books.

    2006 actually has what is possibly my favourite post-2005 Doctor Who TV episode, in Love And Monsters, which I think was the last time anyone involved in the series really bothered to try anything different, but I thought that the more interesting 2006 piece was “how the audios, which were the ‘mainstream’ Doctor Who option before 2005, adapted to their marginal status and commented on it”, rather than “Russel T Davies doesn’t like Ian Levine”. For 2011 I wanted to promote what I think is genuinely one of the best things connected with Doctor Who in any medium, although it’s also true that that was a lacklustre year for the TV show even by post-05 standards, and I wouldn’t have been able to find anything good, or even interesting, to say about anything broadcast in that year.

    But while, yes, I don’t like the show that Davies and Moffat have created, I was no more snubbing Tennant and Smith than I’d previously snubbed Hartnell, Pertwee, and Tom Baker…

    • Mike Taylor says:

      OK, evidently I misread you there! Still, I think the broader point stands, which is that your book is superb as an overview of the first 42 years, can’t (and probably doesn’t try to) hide its apathy about the new series. That’s why I called my book the complement of yours.

      One of the most interesting things about New Who is how Lawrence Miles’s opinions degenerated, having been very positive about the earliest 2005 episodes, to the point where for several years now he’s had literally nothing good to say about more recent episodes. He’s obviously a very extreme case, but there’s a similar (though less marked tendency) in Andrew Rilstone’s writing, and I wonder if it’s true of you as well? The oldest reference to Doctor Who that I can find on your blog is this linkblogging entry from August 2008, which is already well into New Series 4 — it’s a shame we can’t watch your perspective shift in real time.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Basically, I loved the 2005 series, but I thought it had some serious problems, which I hoped would be ironed out over the subsequent series. The 2006 series showed me that what I thought were the serious problems to be ironed out were what Russel Davies thought the whole point of the show, and The Girl In The Fireplace I found *profoundly* immoral and unpleasant — the Doctor should be someone who would despise Mme du Pompadour for being one of the people in charge of a society built on slavery (as a friend of mine put it, she was part Eva Braun, part Imelda Marcos), not someone who should fall in love with her.
        I didn’t watch the 2007 series at all — I gave up on the program because it was clearly never going to be something I’d like — until about six months afterward, when a friend kept telling me “no, honestly, it’s much better than last year”. I watched it all in one day and concluded that, aside from Blink and Human Nature, it was if anything worse.
        I’ve still never watched any of the 2008 or 2009 stories except for the ones I watched for the book, and if the scripts for Capaldi aren’t an immense improvement over most of those for Smith I’ll be stopping watching again…

  2. Hollistic Tendancies says:

    Considering most of his opinions on the post-2005 series, I think Andrew would have snubbed the recent years of the TV show far more by writing about it than he did by choosing something else. :)

    Anyway, I don’t think writing about Big Finish is snubbing the TV show or anything else. It’s the Doctor Who closest to my own heart, but even if you don’t agree on its merits, remember that McCoy, McGann, and both Bakers responded, when asked after the 50th anniversary special what it was like to be the Doctor again, with “I already still am the Doctor!” because of Big Finish.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      I must find a way to get into the Big Finish audios. The problem is that my lifestyle just doesn’t have stretches of time to listen to such things — I never listen to podcasts, either. That’s the downside of working at home and not having a commute time, I guess.

      • Hollistic Tendancies says:

        I don’t have much of a commute either — I work part-time, and usually from home — but I still seem to manage to devour them. :) They’re good for brainless chores like doing the dishes, makes the time go faster. I listen to stuff before I go to bed too, rather than read, but that’s because I’ve got bad eyes.

        What I think makes the most difference, though, is that we don’t have a TV. We’ll sit and listen to Big Finishes when other people would be relaxing in front of the telly.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          Yes, cooking would probably be the best time for me — that’s when I listen to Radio 4. We have a radio in the kitchen but nothing that can play CDs or MP3s. Probably time to fix that.

  3. James Brough says:

    Interesting post. I’d have to disagree with the idea that the new series is superior across the board with regard to acting, music and stories. To take these in reverse order, I feel the new series is hampered by the necessity to complete the majority of stories in 45 minutes, leading to a lot of stories where the plot is turned off by something which appears out of the blue – see Time of the Doctor for the most recent example, but also Journey’s End, Rose and others. I simply think 45 minutes is a very short time to introduce characters, a world and a situation and then to tie it all up with a solution that has been seeded throughout the episode. There are examples where it has worked – Blink for one – but these are in a minority.

    Music – when Doctor Who started off, it had a brief to sound like nothing else on television, and it succeeded in doing this. As the first twenty-six year run continued, the show moved away from this, a process continued by the new series. In short, I find Murray Gold’s music far less atmospheric than much of that from the earlier series.

    Acting – no, can’t agree here. Particularly with the implication that actors in the older series only knew how to act for the theatre. Peter Purves has talked at some length about the technical precision of Hartnell’s work and the adjustments he made specifically for TV. As for subtlety versus theatrics, I find much more subtlety in a scene like the 2nd Doctor talking to Victoria about his family or the 4th’s discussion of “walking in eternity” with Sarah. Compare this with many of David Tennant’s performances as a human whirlwind of shouting, running and arm-waving. Tennant is an actor capable of subtlety, but who rarely seemed to get – or to take – the chance to turn down the volume and size of his performance. Smith could also be rather inconsistent – his performance for much of his time with Clara seemed to be an autopilot with little variation up to his final three episodes, where he took the chance to show more of his range.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      Interesting thoughts, James. Your thoughts of 45-minute episodes are very much in agreement with mine: one of the recurring laments throughout my book is that we don’t have more two-part stories; another is that often when we do have two-part stories, they don’t really make use of that time to settle into their worlds, but just cram it twice as much Stuff. Still and all, when it comes right down to it, the best and most coherent stories of the new series (The Empty Child, Blink, Human Nature, The Girl Who Waited) don’t really have many equals across any TV, let alone Old Who. Perhaps, just as New Who suffers from the need to squeeze its stories into 45 minutes, Old Who suffered from the need to drag its out over four or even six episodes.

      On music: what I had in mind here was mostly some of the truly terrible electronic music from the Third Doctor epsiodes. I watched Spearhead From Space recently, and almost had to mute it. At his worst, Murray Gold can be merely bombastic; at his best (as for example in the otherwise flawed Rings Of Akhaten) it touches true beauty. I certainly wouldn’t say all New Who music is better than all Old Who music; but I’ll stand by my claim that its high are higher, and its lows are less low.

      Finally, on acting … we may never agree :-) I’ve not see a lot of Hartnell, but what I have seen looks like the work of a talented hack. Tennant’s tendency to go shouty is another recurring criticism in my book, and I’ll certainly not defend that here. But moments like Eccleston’s response to finding that a Dalek has survived, or Smith’s “oh dear” on hearing Clara name Trenzalore, are just electrifying.

      Again — my point wasn’t really to try to argue for New over Old. But since we seem to be getting sucked into that whirlpool, I may as well draw the lines :-)

      • James Brough says:

        Rings of Akhaten was something I quite liked – it was a rather nice piece of world building and I thought would have been far better over 2 episodes. There was a coherent world view with signs that thought had been put into it – the use of emotion as currency – and also the importance of sound actually justified the ubiquity of he sonicscrewdriver. The big failing for me was that the music – which was a crucial part of the programme – did not stand out from the rest of Gold’s oeuvre and in fact sounded like pastiche Andrew Lloyd Webber. And this is one of my problems with Gold.

        Doctor Who – which once, as I said, sounded like nothing else on Earth – now sounds like most other programmes. The original series had far more variety and while some of what was produced was not successful, I far prefer the likes of Tristram Cary’s electronic soundscapes for The Daleks or the eerie minimalism of Geoffrey Burgon’s music for Seeds of Doom to Gold’s one-size-fits-all John Williams stylings. Interestingly, Gold himself has suggested that he’s not totally comfortable with the style of music he’s producing – there’s an interview with him in Doctor Who Magazine saying that he’d originally waned to do something more electronic and minimalist, but that he’d been told very firmly that what was needed was big orchestral .

        In terms of scripting, we do seem to have the same feelings. While I agree that some Old Who stories can feel dragged out, I still prefer this over the everything-in-45-minutes approach. Something like The War Games lasts ten episodes without feeling padded and reaches a genuinely monumental climax – something which wouldn’t have been the case without such length of build up.

        As for the acting – no, we really aren’t going to agree there. You look at William Hartnell and see a talented hack – not that I’m entirely certain what that means. I see a man who’s felt typecast for decades as authority figures, bulies and thugs being given the chance to do something different and grabbing that chance with both hands. I’d put his performance in Unearthly Child up against any episode from any other Doctor. Uniquely, we have an alternative version of this performance in the unscreened pilot episode, showing his ability to put different spins on the same lines and to create different versions of the same character. There’s also an interview with him on the dvd of The Tenth Planet – the first time I ever heard him speak out of character. Vocally he’s totally different from the Doctor. Comparng the nterview, the unscreened pilot and the finished episode give a very strong picture of his talent and the craft that he put into his performances.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          We at least agree that Akhaten came close to being something special without actually getting there. Its music is strongest when it departs furthest from the now-conventional orchestral style — especially when the monk sings — in fact, I probably chose it as an example of when the music works well precisely because its the least like what we usually expect.

          I wonder whether both Old and New who are victims of broader trends in TV pacing. Almost anything from the 60s and 70s now seems almost unbearably slow, and nearly everything being made now is too fast to hit its beats properly.

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            Personally, I don’t find things from the 60s and 70s too slow at all — and that’s coming from someone who has at least some of the symptoms of ADD and thinks that three minutes is a bit long for a song…

            • Mike Taylor says:

              Really? You don’t want to yell “Get on with it” during The Brain of Morbius?

              • Andrew Hickey says:

                No! That one’s a perfect case in point, in fact — what’s the first thing any modern day producer or script editor would cut? The stuff where the Doctor sulks and plays with his yo-yo. The best bit of the story.

            • Mike Taylor says:

              On slowness of old TV and film (not just Doctor Who), I just remembered two other examples that had struck me recently.

              One is Star Trek (the original series, of course). I’ve been slowly watching my way through these episodes with my family, and we’re all startled at how long things take. Shatner’s famously bizarre delivery, with the inexplicable mid-sentence pauses is only a symptom of this larger issue: many, maybe most, scenes have long periods where literally nothing happens. You just couldn’t get away with it now.

              The other is the first James Bond film, Dr. No, which I reviewed a while back along with the other Connery-era films. As I wrote at the time, “Worst of all, though, is the astonishingly slow pacing. Endless scenes consist of nothing more than Bond wandering around his hotel room, checking out how the lights work and pocketing the complimentary toiletries. It’s always amazing to me when I watch old film and TV, to see how slowly it moves — classic era Doctor Who is guilty of this, for example, with the endless scenes of running along Paris streets in the highly regarded (and terribly misnamed) City of Death. We must all have had much lower boredom threshholds back in the day.”

              … so it turns out that comment is about Doctor Who after all. I love City of Death as much as the next Whovian, but there’s really no denying that it burns an awful lot of screen-time on nothing.

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