Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Doctor Who - Final Thoughts

Several people asked if I was going to attempt some sort of summation at the end of the season of Who and this was always my intention ... however looking back over the episodes, it's hard to really put my finger on what really went right or wrong. The season as a whole was very enjoyable. Every episode had something going for it and none were as bad, or forgettable (which is an even greater sin than 'bad') as some of the ones from last year. Whenever I have to try and list the 13 episodes from 2005 I usually miss a couple - like The Long Game or Boom Town, simply because they lacked that memorable factor. And I think a similar thing happens this year. This is the problem of having such a strong arc, or story thread, running through some of the stories, that you tend to forget the individual stories and concentrate instead on the arc. As another example of this, if you ever watched Babylon 5, then it's hard to recall individual stories. Characters and themes, yes, but what were the *plots* about... and I think Who is suffering from this. Consider the two-part Cyberman story in the middle of the season (Age of Steel/Rise of the Cybermen), and the two-part conclusion (Army of Ghosts/Doomsday). There's not much to tell them apart really. Both have Cybermen in, and battles, and a group of kids fighting the monsters, and Pete and Jackie ... the overall plots merge into one. Another aspect of the new series of Who was crystallised for me while I was speaking to my good friend and fellow researcher and writer about Doctor Who, Andrew Pixley. Andrew perceptively put his finger on the difference between 'Classic' and 'New' Who. Classic Who was all about the plots. It was a narrative driven series where the plot was the point. New Who is all about the emotion. It is the emotional development of the characters which drives the show, and not what happens. Because of this, whereas in the old series it was perfectly acceptable, for example, to spend 10 minutes in the company of Tobias Vaughn and his associate Packer, and to understand them as characters and people because this was important to the plot. However as the New series is all about the Doctor and Rose and their relationship, then you cannot spend much time at all away from them. I wonder if anyone has added up how much time on screen, in each episode, does not feature either the Doctor or Rose. I suspect it would not be very much at all. This of course has the effect of making every other character just a cipher, a part of the scenery through which the Doctor and Rose moves. The death of the CyberController in The Tomb of the Cybermen was exciting and moving as we had spent some time with the creature, and it's battles for life were interesting and gave us perhaps a better insight into Cyber-culture. However Lumic's death was emotionless as we didn't really care much for Lumic or the CyberController he became. We hadn't spent enough time with him to see him as anything other than a Davros-like raving loony, but without the emotional drive which Michael Wisher invested Davros with in his debut, or the character development that he enjoyed in the scripts for Genesis of the Daleks. The other thing which changes with the shift from narrative to emotion, is that emotion can only really be done once. As soon as you know the outcome - which is for the most part, the whole raison d'etre for the episode - then it has less and less impact each time you see it. And in fact, there is little point in re-watching as you know what happens and where it ends up. Someone commented to me that with Classic Who they can watch it over and over again and love it every time. However with New Who they have no urge to watch it past about two times. I think this is part of the problem. Why do people go back and read favourite novels or stories over and over. It's because the narrative drive is there, and even if you know the plot, you can still enjoy the journey. But with an emotionally driven story ... well who wants to knowingly put themselves through an emotional wringer time and time again? Even if, as I say, the emotional impact lessens each time. Another aspect as to perhaps why the series is being mumbled about in some quarters as not being as good as last year is in the attitude of the production team. Last year they had to try really hard. Everyone did, from BBC Worldwide, to the editors, designers, writers and actors, everyone had to give their all to make the series a success. And they succeeded. So for 2006, there's a sense of not trying. The BBC didn't trail it as much. There weren't as many interviews in the lead up, the hoardings around the country weren't there, and there was a general sense of saving a bit of money. But more importantly is the overall feel of the episodes. Consider this: This is the pre-season trailer for the 2005 series of Who. It's dangerous and exciting. It's edited like nothing we've seen, and it really draws you in and makes you want to watch this series. Now think about the 2006 series. Does that 2005 trailer, the way it's presented, written, edited ... does that bear much resemblance to the episodes in 2006? I don't think it does. It's certainly closer in theme to the 2005 series - consider the episode Rose and the editing of that: fast and furious and in keeping with this 'style' of storytelling. But the 2006 episodes just seem so safe. They are bog standard television drama. Yes, there are some great effects, but nothing inspired. Nothing to make your jaw drop open and go 'Wow!' in disbelief. Here's the first public trailer for the 2006 series. For me the 2005 trailer works. The 2006 one seems very forced. Like they were trying too hard. The problem with upping your game is that you need to keep it up. Although the scripts were excellent for the 2006 series (for the most part - several could have done with a little more work to iron out logic glitches and so on) the production itself seemed to be on autopilot. With Rose now gone (although I suspect she will be back at some point) and a new companion coming on board, I really hope that Russell T Davies has got the emotional narrative out of his system now. To have the Doctor and Martha embark on a similar emotional journey would be a big mistake. So hopefully we can instead concentrate on a narrative journey, and enjoy alien planets galore, intelligent, articulate alien monsters, and races of creatures which are not wholly CGI created. RTD is a brilliant writer, great at character and dialogue. So let's see that genius mixed with some cracking plots, twists and turns, characters you can relate to, can remember, and can feel for when they die (remember poor Vince from Horror of Fang Rock, Scarman from Pyramids of Mars, Waterfield and Maxtible from The Evil of the Daleks, Noah from The Ark in Space or even minor characters like Binro the Heretic from The Ribos Operation or Sezom from The Horns of Nimon). As a bit of fun, here's my prediction for next year: Episode 1 - the Doctor meets Martha Episode 2 - a story set in the future where the Face of Boe turns up again and utters something meaningful before vanishing Episode 3 - an original historical story by Mark Gatiss Episode 4/5 - a two parter featuring an old monster Episode 6 - a story focussing on Martha Episode 7 - a story with a guest star, probably written by Stephen Moffatt. And a CGI monster. And a reference to bananas. Episode 8/9 - another two parter, probably with someone returning from earlier in the season Episode 10 - an experimental story Episode 11 - something about a small victory, nothing universe-shattering Episode 12/13 - the monster from episodes 4/5 returns, and in episode 13 another old monster re-appears, probably the Daleks or Cybermen. Martha is written out if her contract expires, or someone close to her and the Doctor suffers a shattering loss. What do you think? Maybe I have one or two of the details wrong but the overall thrust seems to be in line with what we have seen so far. Whatever, I'm looking forward to The Christmas Invasion and to next year's offering with anticipation.


DaveMullen said...

Very interesting points. I think you nailed it with most of them - I haven't rewatched any of season 1 or 2 yet for exactly the reasons you cite.
It doesn't really stand for rewatching as the old series does. which is ironic in this multimedia age.

I think Season 3 will be a tough one for everyone - Freema is going to have an Everest size mountain to climb in the shadow of Ms Piper, she can't command the headlines or popularity she did IMO and that will have a knock on effect to the show. Therefore the stories and style of them are going to have to be that much more engaging for the viewer and the critics. We shall really find out whether this Production team are worth their salt and has the imagination and skill to adapt to changes like this.

Another problem I feel is the very large scale public Alien Invasions, they have to stop!
It's just too much to have Earth invaded En Masse every other story, you can do it better going back to the old 'Base Under Siege' style of story. It's more compelling and more believable frankly. Already there are stories of Tank battles and the like for The Runaway Bride and so it looks like more of the same... I think having access to all this Technology and resources is getting in the way of the storytelling now and writers need very clear limitations and guidelines laid down in order to tighten their plotting - There should be no easy get outs for anyone and a far greater willingness to open up the format and get away from the cliches and over familiarity that are starting to drag the series down.

Sean H said...

As someone with the greatest respect for your knowledge of Doctor Who, I surprisingly find myself in almost complete disagreement with your comments on the recently screened Season Two.

Firstly, I think there was quite a difference between the two seasons of the RTD era, and one quite different in nature to that which you describe.

You say that none of the stories were as bad, or as forgettable, as some of those from 2005. But to me, while the season undoubtedly had some higher highs, the lows were much lower than anything from the Eccleston era.

In particular, New Earth (incoherent at the plot level, overcrammed with undeveloped ideas and criminal in robbing us of any real idea what the dynamic between the Tenth Doctor and Rose was going to be like), Rise Of The Cybermen/The Age Of Steel (lumbering plot, needless re-use of tropes from Year One, the worst villain so far), The Idiot's Lantern (illogical, with an unnecessary, clumsy and somewhat offensive treatment of the dull family plot thread) and Fear Her (boring) were worse than anything from 2005.

Also, David Tennant seemed often simultaneously too "safe" AND too erratic in his acting choices. Excellent, brilliant even, in his moments of quiet anger, he always seemed to lose authority for me whenever he raised his voice or got wacky. I grew to like him a lot but he never surpassed Eccleston, for me personally at least. The astonishing passion and range CE showed in Dalek last year seem beyond him. Indeed, I cannot imagine that episode being anywhere near so effective with Tennant as the Doctor.

On the other hand, the sequence comprising Tooth & Claw, School Reunion and the brilliant The Girl In The Fireplace is the best run RTD-era Who has so far had, closely followed by the weeks of the sublimely old-school The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit two-parter and the marvellously inventive and very under-rated Love & Monsters. And I thought this year's two-part finale, far from being indistinguishable from the earlier Cyberman two-parter, was superb, surpassing last year's with a really emotional and surprising climax.

On the other point, while agreeing that some of the new plots could be better deveveloped, I have to say that the emotional thrust of the stories is why most people are watching Doctor Who in 2006. Indeed, that's why most people watch any kind of drama. To expect the team to retreat from this is surely folly as it would be to strip the show of one its most popular qualities.

The old show was great for its own reasons but the writing simply does not compare with the new version overall. While agreeing that nobody could really care what happened to Lumic (a bad performance and some terrible dialogue made sure of that), there are many, many more cases in New Who where we deeply care about the supporting characters: what about Gwyneth, Clive, Nancy, Lynda (with a Y), the Game Station's male and female controllers, Harriet Jones, Madame du Pompadour, Ida Scott, Mr Jefferson, Elton, Ursula, Mr Skinner and Yvonne Hartman - not to mention Pete, Jackie and Mickey?

That's quite a long list of people who I cared about far more than anyone in your list of examples from "Classic" Who, all of which I'm familiar with.

There are many things to question in the show - it's far from perfect - but emotion ain't one of them. Several of the plots you reference from the odd series are quite simple and frankly too drawn out. At the end of the day, the plot is usually just a way of telling a story - but the people in New Who are usually more vivid than anything this show has seen before.

David said...

Interesting how folks can have opposing views :) Thanks for the thoughts Dave and Sean. The point about public huge invasions is well made... how long could something like the Torchwood organisation stay secret if these things happen every other month.

And I never said that the emotional thrust hadn't played its part in the series success. I think the trick the production team have to pull off next year is to retain the emotional pull, while *not* going the whole Rose route again, and while also strengthening the narrative core of the stories. I feel that if the narrative were to be strengthened, then you can get to know the incidental characters better, and so gain a slightly different emotional resonance in the series as a result. But it's undoubtedly a hard trick for them to pull off. I hope they manage it though.

Where we disagree is when you say: "he old show was great for its own reasons but the writing simply does not compare with the new version overall." I'm sorry but the writing in the Old series could beat the new hands down. Most of the characters you mentioned in the new series I could really care less about - they obviously touched you more than they touched me. And I hated Pete and Jackie. Mickey I started off hating but came to quite like him in the end.


Hugh J. said...

I have had the same view of the new series as yourself and Andrew Pixley. To be honest if it wasn't for the fact that the show is called Doctor Who it is the type of show I wouldn't watch.

I think the problem that will dog this new series long-term is the lack of internal story logic and internal continuity between stories. I’ll be interested to see how attitudes to the series developed long term - personally I'm of the belief that like most of the current wave of cult shows that put emotional content at the fore its shelf life with casual viewers will be very short indeed long-term.

Emotional impact may be fine short term for casual viewers, but for a show to have a long-term future in the publics imagination there needs to be internal story logic and internal continuity that can be enjoyed with repeated viewing. One of the major strengths of classic Doctor Who was its constantly changing locations resulted in the story logic being central and new characters were central to the plot rather than acting as an emotional feed to the Doctor his companion and their extended families.

Unfortunately the decision to give such prominence to Rose and her extended family has resulted in major skewing of plots to give Jackie, Mickey, etc, disproportionate importance to story involvement/resolution, reduced the main focus of many stories to one locale and the “sub-EastEnders” soap element has resulted in the loss of any real sense of the passage of real time -even in classic series UNIT stories the locations changed and re-watching you get the sense of the passage of time between stories.

Although the original series was full of contradictions (the dating of UNIT, etc) this was mainly from implications of what was said rather than what was specifically said within a particular story. Even then it tended to be after a new production team had taken over and after many years of fan review.

With the new series nobody seems to care that a major statement is made one episode and is completely contradicted a few episodes later - one week we are told Harriet Jones serves 3 terms as PM, then a few stories later she is brought down by six words shortly after coming to power (for me the shattered time line due to the Time War is just an excuse for sloppy scripting by the production time and shows little respect for the audience loyalty). It is ironic that the fans who torn apart the internal logic of story’s from the original series after many viewings now seem totally oblivious to logic holes you could drive a bus through on first viewing.

I understand that try as you may to tidy everything up into a nice neat continuity with no contradictions inconsistencies and incongruities will inevitably creep in. Personally I find so many plot holes on first viewing of the new series I can’t be bothered to re-watch most episodes.

In a recent interview Stephen Moffatt made a comment about only Sci-Fi geeks would worry why the interior of the Tardis disappeared in “Fathers Day”; well when friends who are casual viewers ask me similar questions I think you are have a show that is in danger of losing these casual viewers when the novelty has gone.

I am hoping that the current trend of the current production team of disregard towards internal story logic and their own continuity is only that - hopefully the loss of the Tyler clan will allow more time for logical story telling.

Daveym said...

Hugh J - You make good points, I share them to an extent. There does have to be some basic continuity especially if the producers are espousing the 'rewards' of season long Arcs.
I was alarmed with The Christmas Invasion and the Governments apparent utter lack of knowledge as to the Doctors whereabouts and how to get in touch with him... err hadn't they surrounded him and Rose on the Estate in Aliens of London?! They surely know full well where to find him!
The lapses in Logic are in nearly every story though, problem is no one is allowed to dicuss them from what I can see as that earns you a stiff dressing down among fan sites and publications...

Emotional Drama has become the bane of modern TV though - I detest programs like 'Where the Heart is' and the soaps. It's all after an emotional response that pulls at the viewers heart strings, it's transitory drama without any real substance.
Actual Plot on TV Drama these days is low level and near negligible though, the days of a series that kept you actually gripped to see what happens next in the story are long gone, instead Drama is about relationships and response.

A lot rides on the focus of this season - will it focus on Martha and her life as it did on Rose or will we see a more story driven show? I think the assumption is that Martha will be contemporary which is a shame really as we could do well to see a character from the past who must see the Doctor and our modern world through a very different perspective - Basically like Victoria did back in the 60s.
With a modern character there is going to be added comparisons to Rose and I really do worry about the chances Freema will be getting trying to get out of Billie Pipers shadow - the same shadow that will haunt the production team if they don't get a fantastic presentation on screen...

Paul Greaves said...

I've found everyone's comments here extremely interesting. I was having this conversation with a friend yesterday and we both agreed with David's point about everything revolving around the Doctor and Rose, thereby reducing every other character into a cypher. Someone earlier quoted all the characters they felt had been worth caring about. With the exception of Nancy, none of the others matter a jot. Their backgrounds are sketchy at best and their motivations almost non-existent.

As for the quality of the writing... Old Who wins hands down. It never relied on pop-culture references or over-emphasised emotional involvement. That isn't to say that emotional content doesn't have a part to play of course. Sarah and the Doctor's fareweel in The Hand of Fear and the Doctor's sacrifice for Peri in The Caves of Androzani for example. In fact, one of my favourite scenes in Doctor Who is in CoA, where Morgus and the President are discussing how people being moved to labour camps can be made morally feasible. How many of them would be working for Morgus again without payment. That scene was full of political intrigue, menace, cracking dialogue and didn't involve the Doctor or Peri at all. These characters actually HAD characters, personal lives, ambitions, motivation, unlike in the new series where they are either cannon fodder or very basic plot devices.

Who cares about the bland Torchwood staff, the occupants of Torchwood House in Tooth and Claw, the people in the hospital of New Earth, the Prime Minister's aide in World War 3, the UNIT Major in Christmas Invasion, the journalists in The Long Game, the schoolchildren in School Reunion, anybody in Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel.. the list goes on.

There is no depth in the new series at all. Who is no longer a show about plot, character and atmosphere, its solely about excessive emotion and action/adventure. Ironically, the classic series, with its budget of twenty pence and a bag of fruit gums, had far more ambition and daring than the new series seems to be able to muster in its little finger. We had alien planets aplenty with cultures and lives, space stations, historical Earth, contemporary Earth, empires, colonies, politics, religion, black magic, violence, humour, love, friendship, action, adventure and tears.

The modern show has the love, tears, action and adventure but its all so small scale. We're almost always on contemporary Earth on the bloody Powell Estate. The Doctor even returns Rose to Earth so she can get Jackie to do her washing! I mean, honestly...

I love Doctor Who with a passion and have done for the last 31 years but I just feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment with the new show. The heart is there but the soul is missing.

Of course, the next challenge the series will have to face is when RTD gets bored and wants to move on. Who takes over? And what will the fans think if its someone who has no knowledge of the show's history?

SeanH said...

It's interesting that everyone's opting for the writing of the old series over the new. I'm currently reading a book on TV screenwriting, published before the RTD era, which explicitly singles out Doctor Who for its "idiot plotting" and "sloppy writing"...

As someone who watched the old series in the Pertwee era and who has been inspired to watch vast swathes of classic Who precisely because of the impact of the New Series Year One, I think there's far more memorable dialogue and memorable dialogue in the new. The Girl In The Fireplace - with its dazzling plot covering two very different eras and its really personal take on how the Doctor lives (we see the brief candle of human life from a Time Lord perspective with greater clarity and emotional impact than ever before) - stands to me as the best Who script ever.

If there's a flaw in Moffat's writing, it's his squeamishness regarding the Doctor himself - there are no deaths in either of his stories and, if there had have been, they wouldn't have been anything to do with the Doctor - whereas in RTD's scripts (see: Army Of Ghosts/Doomsday, to take just one example) the Doctor is a much darker figure, bringing death and destruction in his wake.

Just because these episodes are brief doesn't mean the character work is sketched in. In fact, these scripts make the old stuff look like the lumbering museum pieces they so often are.

Dave Mullen said...

Further After-thoughts on the series: Is it just me or was Season 1 & 2 overhyped?
Hype is a double edged sword - an absolute necessity in todays media for success but also a poison pill if you fail to deliver on the promise.
I would not say the programme failed to deliver at all but think of it like this - in the run up to series 1 we had immense press coverage of the series content/Guest Stars & Monsters, mostly of the menagarie in End of the World. All shown and discussed at lentgh in the press and yet come the day barely seen on screen for the most part!
I can't have been the only one waiting to see what kind of foe The Moxx & his cohorts were going to be for the Doctor... the hype misled us.
The Hype would mislead me several times actually - The Cybermens return was trumpeted well in advance and while Rise of the Cybermen wasn't at all bad neither was it absolutely brilliant, it failed to ignite to it's full potential with a very familiar plot and several massive plot lapses and cliches summed up in the Inexplicable means of the crew arriving there... this was repeated in the strangely dissapointing Satan Pit.
I hesitate to say this but I felt as though to an extent we saw a lot of style over honest to gosh substance in the series, the design and effects were superb, magnificent. But a lot of the stories were wishy washy... It's a strange thing to sum up.

But overhype is quite possibly the series biggest threat I believe, promising stuff that they can never quite deliver in reality... because they quite simply can't match what they've led the public to expect!

DarthSkeptical said...

Just a quick thought on your comments about the series 1 preview teaser.

For a long time, that teaser was all I had of "new Who". So I would periodically fire it up when the mood struck. And it struck often. I think I've probably seen that damn thing more than anyone on the planet. And I have to say that while it is a great introduction to the concept of Doctor Who, it's certainly not representative of the content of Series 1.

I found the direction of series 1 quite conventional compared with the direction of that trailer. Indeed, I think the feel of series 2 better matches the visual promise of that first video, with James Strong and Euros Lyn, in particular, getting closest to its visual tone. "Tooth and Claw" and the "Satan" duology, in particular, feel like they belong to the series that the trailer visually advertised. And though I'm generally unhappy with Harper's direction this year, I do think the overall Cyber story comes closer to giving us a storyline that matches the Eccleston narration.

Speaking of that narration, let's see how it holds up. The Doctor warns us of various things we'll encounter with him. Which season gave us better satisfaction on the specific points?

Ghosts from the past. C"mon, not even a question. "Army of Ghosts" gives us way more of a threat than "The Unquiet Dead". Gatiss is an overhyped writer, probably because of his long association with Doctor Who during the long winter of the 1990s. But his stories have both fallen flat in the final act. I felt VERY cheated by "Unquiet"'s resolution, given the promises of the trailer. Fortunately, the predictions of the trailer did eventually come true. The weird thing about "Unquiet" is that those were never ghosts in what I would consider the traditional concept. It was understood from their first appearance that they were phantasms, perhaps, but not the "dearly departed". At least in "Army of Ghosts", people believed they were the dead coming back for a reunion tour. That they were actually Cybermen was just damned cool. They were thus ghosts from the characters' pasts and ghosts from Doctor Who past.

Aliens from the future. Okay, this one I'll allow. Yes, we did literally get time-displaced aliens (well, time-displaced alien technology, maybe), in the form of nanogenes, And that was a hell of a story. Fair enough. That said, I don't think Season 2 did badly on this score, either, given that Episode 1 took us to New New Earth.

The day the earth died in a ball of flame. This was almost a total sham. "The End of the World' was a silly episode, where the threat of the world ending was denuded of its dramatic potential because, well, that was what was supposed to happen. The Doctor and Rose were merely observers. The threat wasn't the world exploding, it was about damage to a spacecraft. That could have happened anywhere, anytime. In "Doomsday", not just one, but two, Earths were directly threatened by something that shouldn't have been happening—something the Doctor needed to fix.

It won't be quiet, it won't be safe, and it won't be calm. This is a draw. The wording's vague enough that it applies to just about any episode of Doctor Who—and for that matter any half-decent adventure series.

But I tell you what it will be: the trip of the lifetime. Again, vague wording. So call it a draw and I won't complain too loudly. Still I think if we look at this narration as an appeal to Rose as much as it is an appeal to the audience, then her journey has been more changed by the events of season 2 than season 1. Well, in fairness, I think she begins to really begin her character journey solidly at "Father's Day", but, that aside, from the final story of Series 1 to the final story of Series 2, we do see her take quite a trip. I think that as we get distance from the "Rose" era, we'll generally find that the adjectives we choose to use to describe her will come mostly from what we see of her in Series 2.

Another way of looking at this is that it's the trip of a lifetime for the Doctor. From this point of view, series 1 probably wins on points, because it is literally the complete chronicle of one of the Doctor's lives. Still, series 2 does have "The Girl in the Fireplace", "School Reunion" and the separation from Rose—all of which represent the closing of a lifestyle for this Doctor.

Yet a third interpretation is just the simple subjective, metaphorical one. As a viewer, which was the better trip? For me, Series 2 is the clear winner. A conventional wisdom seems to be growing in fandom that Series 1 was of a more or less consistent quality, while the highs and lows of Series 2 were higher and lower than their counterparts in Series 1. I think that's half right. I agree that the series had greater inconsistency of quality, but i think that there's nothing as bad in Series 2 as, for example, "The Long Game", and that "The Unquiet Dead" and "The Idiot's Lantern" are pretty much the same story.

I know when I finished watching series 1, I did not feel that I had witnessed "the trip of a lifetime". At the end of series 2, I do.

Of course, the way RTD has shaped both seasons, they do compliment each other. I wouldn't feel this way about Series 2 without having seen Series 1. The major "lifetime" of the two series is always going to be Rose's, and RTD has given us enough waypoints throughout her journey to make that earliest bit of video at last come true.

Let's just hope the show's got an afterlife.