Long Live the Doctor

"No time for gurning."

Doctor Who is a funny old show. Its principle joy, for casual viewer or long-term fan alike, often seems to be in its inconsistency – of tone, of setting, of character. The TARDIS, that space- and time-hopping king of all McGuffins, enables the show’s protagonists, whomever they may be, to travel not just from place to place but genre to genre; from one week to the next this modal fluidity allows the writers to fluctuate from high tragedy to low farce; and the Doctor, of course can, literally and figuratively, be whomever he wants. This, of course, is what makes the show so long-lived – and it is also the key to its appeal. Doctor Who is a deliverer of modern myth, as confused and confusing as that role demands.

The problem, of course, is that it is also a television series, and these are judged on certain criteria which simply cannot apply to a show so constituted. This is a point Abigail concedes in her recent overview of the latest season, recently concluded and the first for which Steven Moffat has been showrunner, taking over from its saviour, Russell T Davies: “I kept on with Davies’s Doctor Who despite the fact that it wasn’t, and had no interest in being, any good because even very close to its end there were moments of enormous fun in it.” She then proceeds, however, nevertheless to hold Moffat’s version of the show to set standards. In his response to Abigail at Torque Control, Niall chooses to take the show on its own terms (something he found harder to do for Davies): its focus on time travel, on the Doctor himself, gives Niall the show he wants to watch. Abigail would perhaps be happier with a version of Davies’s incarnation of the show which maybe – just maybe – allowed itself some room to breathe.

Fans of Doctor Who provide themselves with hours of entertainment by attempting to impose continuity on their show. The fact, however, is that there is none to be had – and that, though it’s possible to pretend Ten and Eleven, or Two and Seven, are the same man, they are for all intents and purposes different characters filling in a vaguely similar role: that of intergalactic magic man. So broad is that particular job description, however, that even the Doctor can be in one incarnation a martial arts-loving dandy with a penchant for working with the military, or in another a northern freelancer who dresses like Jeremy Clarkson and is struggling for atonement and interstellar peace. The question – the difference – that lies between Niall and Abigail is not ‘is Doctor Who any good?’ but ‘is this Doctor?’

Russell T Davies found his true metier with the Tenth. In his Ninth incarnation, the Doctor was too fond of poor puns, manic angst and fetishising young women from council estates. The Tenth Doctor, however – irreverent, promiscuous, self-centred – played precisely to Davies’s strengths. Like unearned melodrama, over-played angst, and strained romance? Ten is your man. Prefer professorial hi-jinx, tangential detail and a sort of tweedy nobility? Eleven will be a closer fit. Moffat’s first season puts its Doctor front and centre, and he defines the terms of the game: his first 13 episodes are darker than those which have gone before, but they are also in a strange way more innocent and transparent. Niall’s right to link to Selenak’s piece on the series in the comments to his post, because that exploration of the fairy tale elements of the season are spot on: the Eleventh Doctor feels more old-fashioned, and morally more fixed, than the Tenth. The show, too, feels consequently more disciplined.

Undoubtedly the season had clunkers – barring serving tea, the Daleks of ‘Victory of the Daleks’ were dull things indeed, and nor could I understand the widespread praise for Richard Curtis’s syrupy, tensionless ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (Cathode Ray can speak for me here). But never did it reach the nadir of an ‘Aliens of London’ or ‘Daleks in New York’, and, like Matt Smith’s performance, the show begins by referencing and echoing David Tennant’s era by slowly becoming its own beast. This alone was fascinating to watch, and by the season finale – in which there is no big villain and nobody dies in a swirl of overwrung orchestra – Doctor Who has very much repositioned itself. Whether or not you like it – whether or not you forgive Moffat his own brand of illogic, his own blind spots or particular sacrifices to the altar of action which are made by all Doctor Who writers – will depend very much on what you think of his regeneration. Because this show is no longer Doctor Who. It’s a new show, entitled Doctor Who.

I rather liked it. And not just because Eleven wears tweed, too.

“Heaven Make Me Free Of It”: Doran and Tennant’s Hamlet

"Should I gurn yet, Gregory?"

I had a ticket to see David Tennant’s Hamlet at Stratford. Work commitments and the vagaries of the British rail network meant I had to leave my seat vacant, though – so hurrah for the BBC, who on Boxing Day aired a 3 hour film version of Gregory Doran’s production.

‘Film version’ over-emphasises the concessions to the medium made in transition: there are no real camera tricks here (a few shots of the action seen in CCTV footage notwithstanding), and the frames hold langurously to the actors and their lines. What mininal reaction shots there are are beautifully chosen – early on, for instance, Tennant’s face is shown several times as Claudius speaks of his grief. Occassionally, too, characters speak direct to camera, though tastefully always during soliloquys and always fleetingly – “Aye, there’s the rub,” Tennant admits to us in a moment of affecting eye-contact candour.

The main joy of the transition is in the location – the house in which it is set, all black marble and dark woods, is shot gloriously, and is in perfect tandem with the indeterminately modern dress and the direction of key scenes (particularly, for instance, the ‘nunnery’ scene or that in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question Hamlet about Polonius’s corpse). In blue and black hues, the film encourages paranoia and foreboding – those CCTV cameras feature heavily – and the unshowy framing nevertheless exhibits variety enough to entertain.

Largely, though, this is a cleverly filmed play, static and concentrated on language and the actor’s physicality. This is all the better, because the film’s purpose is clearly to record, in the way of Trevor Nunn and Ian McKellen’s King Lear, the gathering of a rare cast in a landmark production. The character of Hamlet is often put into relief by those who surround him, and Tennant’s is well served by the supporting players: Penny Downie’s powerful Gertrude and Mariah Gale’s fragile Ophelia, Peter de Jersey’s doleful Horatio and John Woodvine’s sonorous Player King, but especially Oliver Ford Davies’s subtle and memorable Polonius. Even Osric (played with obsequious glee by Ryan Gage) is done rather well.

Patrick Stewart, though, as almost all the reviews at the time pointed out, is a quite singular Claudius: sympathetic but also monstrous, regretful but relentless. His ‘my offence is rank’ speach is quite simply a masterclass: full of emotion but far from declamatory, all control and restraint whilst also deeply affecting. His wolfish half-smiles at Ophelia’s funeral are beautiful; in his conversation with the newly rebellious Laertes, he is commanding but also, one feels, not a little foolhardy: there is in this King something of the Prince, just far better repressed. Stewart’s Claudius, too, longs for the bare bodkin.

The comparison between Claudius and Hamlet is less kind to Tennant. His Prince is at times furiously convincing – in the Closet scene he is rivetting, as in his ‘I am alone’ soliloquy and his confrontation over a recorder with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or the exchange with Horatio in which he admits regretting “that to Laertes I forgot myself”. But where Claudius is a study in control, perhaps fittingly – but not always successfully – this production’s Hamlet spins wildly. Sometimes, it works – in that gloriously changeable scene with his erstwhile university friends, and also in some of the scenes with Polonius (though this be madness…). In others, however, it simply feels over-played or shapeless – “O, that this too solid flesh would melt” is too much too soon, and in the exchange with Claudius about Polonius’s death the madness is played more than the emnity; the stuff with the players, particularly just prior to and during their performance, is far too broad and open, whilst the “Dost come here to whine?” rant against Laertes’s grief starts well but veers into raving. Close-ups often help Tennant’s pacing – “to be or not to be” is rendered memorable primarily by its intimacy, so too his stately “how all occassions do inform against me” – but how far this is direction propping up delivery is harder to tell outside of the theatre.

Still, what Tennant achieves is a Hamlet simultaneously coherent – he is to some extent pretending madness – but also, crucially, quixotic – how far he knows himself, controls himself, becomes increasingly uncertain, though by the play’s close all has resolved into fatalism. This is no small achievement. Indeed, it’s a considerable one, and with along with the production’s other virtues makes it well worth watching, and a key contribution to the play’s storied history. This version emphasises Hamlet’s refusal to remain within a limited system – by contrast, Laertes (a comparatively weak Edward Bennett) buys into Claudius’s power structure, whilst the King’s own will to power allows him to withstand the lash upon his conscience. But, despite the bankruptcy of this acceptance, Doran is ambivalent about the wisdom of rejection, since there is no real alternative to that against which Hamlet rails. Claudius at least achieves peace where old Hamlet did not, and the effect of the Prince’s choice upon the other characters, and indeed all of Denmark, is catastrophic. This Hamlet is maddened but also, in all ways, a little maddening – and that is no bad thing.

Mostly Who

"Should I gurn yet, Rusty?"
"Should I gurn yet, Rusty?"

Anna was hard at writing work this weekend, so we managed only a good old shop. Left to my own devices, my weekend accomplishments, bar some reading and a catching up with the papers, can be boiled down to:

1) Supported Pete Riley on Saturday night. Pete has a very pleasant voice, some rather fine songs, and is to boot a thoroughly good egg. Enjoyed  playing and listening, so good times. You can listen to Pete yourself at his MySpace.

2) Watched the latest Doctor Who special, ‘The Waters of Mars’. Thoroughly marred by the usual sentimental over-selling of key plot points, this one was a bit of a mess. It started out promisingly, with the fate of Bowie Base One, the first human settlement on Mars, sealed before they had the first inkling that anything was wrong. Lindsey Duncan was good – and wasn’t it nice to see Shane from Neighbours get work again? But the whole thing quickly fell foul of the usual Whovian sins, wildly pulling the mood and the viewer hither and thither: the viewer is smacked around the head with how Special and Amazing the Doctor’s latest female assistant is; Murray Gold’s score swells beyond bursting point every time the slighest bit of emotion may (or may not) be being felt on screen; cloying, strung-out Moments Of Import are signposted with such heavy-handed insistence that the viewer is left without any agency at all.

Perhaps all this is a function of Who being (whisper it now) a kid’s show. (Though this comes dangerously close to what Helena Bonham Carter said in an interview this weekend about Enid Blyton’s fiction: ““When you write for very young children what they want is something familiar and safe and stereotyped.” And this seems to me to underestimate the audience.) Yet take the Doctor’s behaviour in the final 15 minutes of the episode: walking away from the doomed base, he suddenly realises that, as last of the Time Lords, he controls, rather than follows, the laws of time. Naturally, this instantaneously results in huge megalomania and a God complex. Even more naturally, this lasts all of a few minutes, at which point, again in receipt of a bargain bin epiphany, he is on his knees muttering about dying. Most melodramas would consider this too much.

This isn’t signposting or playing to the audience – it’s just lazy storytelling. Even Tennant, usually tolerably good at the manic mood swings, couldn’t properly paper over the cracks. One can only hope that Steven Moffat has some better ideas for Matt Smith.