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.