Saturday, 3 April 2010


As any dyed-in-the-woolly scarf Doctor Who fan will tell you, the faithful mark the long running sci-fi show’s different eras are measured, not by which actor is in the eponymous role, but by who is sat in the producer’s chair and who is script editing. And so, on the eve of the 11th Doctor’s debut, it seems only fitting to have a look back at the Russell T Davies helmed first era of the regenerated Doctor Who and indulge in some tentative speculation on what the Steven Moffat incarnation is going to bring.

It’s difficult to remember now, in these days when our favourite Time Lord’s latest outing regular gives the top rated reality shows and soaps a run for their money in the ratings and the shops are brimming with Whovian ephemera, that it was a huge risk bringing this show back. And not least for show runner Davies who stood to see all his hard earned industry kudos go up in flames if the show flopped. However as we all now know, the show quickly achieved a level of success that nobody ever dreamed it could.

And we are not just talking about the ratings here either. Although the sight of children playing daleks in the street again is a wonderful and heart-warming sight for fans of the original incarnation of the show, the real triumph of Doctor Who is that it has had a massive impact on television itself. According to those arch-enemies of the viewing public, demo-bloody-graphics experts claimed that a show that could appeal right across the board wasn’t possible in the brave new world of niche market television they had helped to spawn. The gospel delivered by these chumps with their graphs was that family TV watching was over, and in their book any telefantasy show was to be labelled ‘cult’ and immediately relegated to a scheduling ghetto.

However the amazing reception to the revamped Doctor Who and its continuing success over the next half decade has proved that this gospel according to St Demograph to be the work of a false prophet - the old adage that “there are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics” springs to mind. Thanks to the Davies version of Doctor Who the stations are once again producing a plethora of entertaining adventures for all the family. And not only that, but since the continuing tales of a bloke zipping about all time and space have proved so popular, it looks like the attitude that sci-fi is purely for the geek market is finally dissolving.

For example, witness the development arc of Who spin off Torchwood. After the successful return of its parent show, Auntie Beeb green lit Torchwood which incidentally was a format devised by Big Russell some time before the High Council of the Broadcasting House sanctioned the resurrection of the Doctor. It was a bold but wary move; brave because the new Who was still in its infancy and could yet prove to be a passing fad, and yet the BBC cardinals were somewhat cautious, limiting the budget and production time and airing the series on one of their more niche channels, BBC 3.

But despite a certain unevenness in the first series, Torchwood garnered healthy ratings, and quickly secured repeats on the more prestigious BBC2. And when Captain Jack and co. returned for series 2, the show had better funds in the coffers and a longer production time. And there was a marked improvement in the quality of the show and this time it aired directly to BBC2. Again the series performed well with the viewers, and so last year when the third batch of Torchwood arrived this time it was as a five part mini series but going out on BBC 1 at prime time, heavily promoted and shown over the course of a week as event television.

And lo, it not only did it clean up in the ratings game but Torchwood: Children of Earth actually turned out to be the best televisual science fiction we’d seen in a long time. In fact, considering the weight and depth of the story, Children of Earth was simply the best TV drama is quite a while too. It wove a story full of aliens in an intelligent manner, was jam-packed with social and political commentary, and managed to grip the nation - Nigel Kneale would have been proud.

Undoubtedly the remarkable blossoming of Torchwood is partly due to the production team actually listening to the criticisms of the first two series, but its trajectory from a small digital channel to the big gun of BBC 1 is also a reflection of the developments ushered in by Doctor Who itself. No matter how well written the script was Children of Earth would have not have received the slot, budget or backing without the shift in cultural perception that you can enjoy a drama featuring monsters and spaceships and have an Aspergers level knowledge of a pretend universe and have to live perpetually in fancy dress. Indeed without Doctor Who returning from the wilds of space-time to exorcise the demographics demons, it’s doubtful that even a script as good as Children of Earth would have ever even gotten the green light.

So then regardless of what you think of the new Who, lovers of genre fiction and good television should be raising a glass to old RTD for all the changes to the medium he has wrought. However what of the changes to the show itself? Because there is obviously a large ‘but’ lurking here like a Cyberman in a shadowy corridor.

Now I’m not indulging in the lazy critical ploy of bait and switch here, building him up only to systematically dismantle him until all his achievements spectacularly collapse. No, there will be no such Jenga sarcasm here – for a start I’ve already remarked on his weaknesses in my review of The Waters of Mars, and I’m not holding the fact that The End of Time didn’t join up with his Martian excursion to form a tight trilogy as I’d hoped it would against him either.

Nor am I not one of those somewhat bitter old school fans who for years fantasised about how good the show could be if they brought it back thanks to the wonders of CGI and advances in the quality of television productions, only to hypocritically dismiss the new stories as being too flashy and full of special effects. Because I do think that overall the new Who is rather good. Yes, there have been some missteps here and there but largely RTD and co. have done a great job in returning the show to our screens and hit a pleasing balance on new and old. However although it is very good television – and cue the Cyberman and screaming Dudley Simpson synths – there is room for improvement.

As stated as the beginning of this piece, the different geological strata of the show in the pop cultural bedrock are delineated by the production team rather than the title role’s incumbent. For example, Tom Baker’s reign covers three eras and each time a new producer takes the stage the show shifts in tone and style. If you become a fan of the original series, you will soon find that different combinations of producer and script editor, and particular writers and directors are more to your taste than others.

So to nail my colours to the mast, personally I favour the dark and gothic Phillip Hinchcliffe era (the first few Tom Baker series) and the 70s action psychedelia of Barry Letts (Jon Pertwee) to the frothier fun in space of Graham Williams/Douglas Adams team (late Tom Baker) or the hard sci-fi approach implemented by Christopher Bidmead under the John Nathan Turner flag (last series Baker and early Davison).

Now for me, the RTD era most closely resembles the Williams/Adams period – there is the same focus on space fantasy and the humour is more pronounced. But also there’s more than a touch of JNT about RTD too – Big Russell played the press and generated plenty of interest in the Who in much the same way JNT used to and he shares with his predecessor a tendency to stunt casting – casting well known name actors and assorted other familiar faces from the goggle box in roles.

Obviously neither of these fit my favourite mode of Who but I do enjoy stories from all eras of the show, indeed there are many stories that I hold in high regard that aren’t from the Hinchcliffe/Letts stables. So I don’t take issue with the tonal and stylist directions RTD has taken the show in just because they do not mesh with the preferred rubrics in my head. At the end of the day, as important as the producer’s influence is, individual stories live or die on their own strengths.

And the RTD era has had a good strike rate in this regard; generally it has produced episodes that land in the ‘good’ folder. Admittedly some episodes like The Long Game or The Unicorn and the Wasp are standard lightweight run-arounds, perhaps a little too rompy for their own good, but the quality is still there and the stories are fun and entertaining even though they may not be breaking any new imaginative ground. Even Love and Monsters which is a strong contender for the least favoured episode of new Who, still has enough positive points to be a total write-off.

But even the kooky tale of the monster from Klom has its fans. And this is perhaps the most interesting aspect of RTD Who and particular the episodes penned by Big Russell himself. While we can all agree on some negative points like the fact that this era has seen too much of the sonic screwdriver as a magic wand, there is a wild divergence in opinion over what works and what does not. The conker headed aliens in The End of Time are a case in point - some loved them for their portrayal as jobbing technicians rather than extraterrestrial villains, others enjoyed the colour and comic relief they brought, and some just didn’t like them, seeing them as irrelevant at best and cheesy annoyances at worst.

And this sort of polarisation is true for the wider aspects of the show. For every viewer that finds the moments of broader humour too much, there’s another who loves the show for it. And similarly people are equally divided over whether the higher emotional content of new Who is a hit or a fumble. Now there are no right or wrong answers here, it is a matter of personal taste pure and simple but the key point is that Davies nearly always manages to include enough of the aspects you like as well as elements that irritate. So regardless of whatever pros and cons make up the personal scorecard for any particular viewer, he does manage to please most of the people most of the time as the ratings bear out.

However this attempt to cover all the bases for everybody is also why many episodes, although hitting the ‘good’ mark fall short of being brilliant. And perhaps this commitment to the broadest possible appeal is also the real root of many of the weaknesses in the show. The overuse of humour, the too insistent tugging at the hearts strings, Murray Gold and his orchestra going crazy ape bonkers every five minutes and the papering over of plot holes with big special effects dues ex machine all stem from the urge to make the show as accessible and appealing to the widest possible audience.

But this populist approach is the right route to go down – in its previous incarnation Doctor Who began to flounder when began to wrap itself up in its own continuity and shifted from being a TV show all the family could watch to being purely for the benefit of the fans. In the Colin Baker years, we had Attack of the Cybermen which was a sequel to the Patrick Troughton adventure Tomb of the Cybermen and an even earlier Hartnell story The Tenth Planet. And obviously such continuity obsessed hi-jinks meant little to the average viewer who couldn’t remember the details of episodes aired over EIGHTEEN years ago and were lost forever at the time (Tomb has since been found). And the crowning irony was that even the die hard fans didn’t like this particular outing much either!

And the scars of Attack of the Cybermen run deep, and as life-long fan of the show RTD is all too well aware. Hence we have had a preponderance of stories that are full of easy to relate to humans, plenty of laughs and an avoidance of technobabble and info at all costs. However this has come at the expense of the scripts – it is my guess that the infamous under exploration and resolutions of his plots stems directly from this fear of alienating the causal viewer and tipping show back into the dreaded cult category. Ironically, it would appear that the shadows of those freshly exorcised fiendish demographics are still haunting the corners of the production office.

However as Children of Earth has proved, the public has a far greater tolerance and appetite for harder science fiction that expected these days. People are not going to turn off in droves if they develop the more fantastic elements of the show or explore the mythology a little deeper. And looking back over the past five years, it seems clear to me that Doctor Who can still scale new heights provided they stop playing it quite so safe.

Now, new producer Steven Moffat has been widely heralded as being the man who could accomplish this. His episodes in the Davies era have been some of the best, brimming with intelligence and imagination as well as being some of the most spooky stories. And consequently everyone is hoping Moffat will usher in an edgier Who, replacing RTD’s Williams style froth with some Hinchcliffian darkness.

It is true that new producers often rebooted and reimagined the format during the show’s classic run, and with a new Doctor, a new Tardis and a new logo it would appear we are in for a big change. However looking at the handovers in the past, I don’t think we are going to get anything quite so radically different just yet – there is always a transition period where the old bleeds into the new.

For example, in 1970 when Barry Letts took the reins and was substantially altering the format – the then new Doctor John Pertwee was to be exiled on earth – the first story Spearhead From Space wisely didn’t shock the viewers by plunging into all the tropes he would later establish. Indeed it wasn’t really until his second season that he really began to ring the changes and the show mutated to reflect the popular ITC action serials of the day.

And I can see Moffat doing the same, with the first couple of stories acting as a bridge between the two modes. However despite penning some of the most frightening stories in modern Who, I think it is a mistake to expect dark and creepy to be the order of the day for every single outing. To begin with his new Doctor, Matt Smith is following on the heels of one of the most popular Doctors ever and the new boy need a level playing field to win the audience’s affections. Hence to start shifting the stylistics of the show too much now is not a smart move, the viewers boat will be rocking enough acclimatising to the new face in the Tardis.

Now blatantly, although I’d lap up a darker Who like a big fat Ogron Eater, what I’m really hoping for from Mr Moffat isn’t a tougher, grittier show. Actually I’d be more than happy with more of the same but with tighter plotting and more imaginative scripting. And I believe that in this emerging new climate where fantasy and scifi are becoming part of the mainstream again, that taking a few more risks will see audience figures will increase rather than decline…

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