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.

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.