We can see the decline of television best if we look at Doctor Who.
Doctor Who was once a literate and intellectual adventure show, made by people who thought books were important. It ran for twenty-six years, and was cancelled.
I’ll quote myself, if I may:
It’s practically its own genre. It’s halfway between B-movie, avant garde theatre, rep Shakespeare and absurdist comedy. On one level, it’s an exciting adventure show that mixes horror with high comedy, sending impressionable youngsters hurtling behind the sofa while older viewers laugh at the Doctor’s wit.
On another, it is (to the horror of moralists like Mary Whitehouse) liberal humanist propaganda (with a side order of strangulation by obscene vegetable matter), in which the hero wins the day by being curious, asking questions, and challenging bureaucracy and authority.
On another, it is an intellectual comedy that deals in social satire, hard science and high end physics, evolutionary theory, Buddhist parables, and cultural relativism.
While having taxmen made of seaweed, dangerous monsters that decompose into narcotics, executioners made of liquorice allsorts, and alien criminal masterminds with six copies of the Mona Lisa in their cellar (with “This is a fake” written in felt pen).
And a madman in a box who lands in someone else’s story and warps the narrative around him.
The TARDIS doesn’t just travel in time and space; it travels in story. One story might show the Doctor land in a Shakespearean drama; the next, Hammer Horror or a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Fu Manchu; after that, a hard SF story rewritten by Tom Stoppard, or The Prisoner of Zenda with androids. The show is, as Jon Pertwee’s Doctor observed, serious about what it does, not about the way it does it. As script editor Douglas Adams said, the programme is “complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow”’.
In 2005, another series called Doctor Who was made. Under showrunners Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat, it became the BBC’s flagship programme. It had some of the plot devices of the earlier series: an alien called the Doctor who travels around time and space in the TARDIS; and monsters called Daleks and Cybermen.
It’s not the same programme. It’s a cult show, made by people who watch television. Its cultural background is pop culture, media and ’90s science fiction series.
The modern series plays it safe; it does what a cult TV programme is expected to do. It’s full of arcs and ongoing storylines. The regular cast and their relations are more important than the places they visit. It’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. The Doctor used to be a medium for telling stories; now the stories are about the Doctor. The most important secret in the universe is the Doctor’s name. Questions about the Doctor’s companions loom large: Who is River Song (other than a psychopath Moffat thinks is “cool”?) Who is Amy’s baby? Who is Clara? Who cares? This isn’t telling a story; it’s setting up mysteries and solving them in the most anti-climactic way possible. What does this have to do with life?
Villains are defeated by the power of True Love; I was fascinated to see that people judged “Angels in Manhattan’s” success on the fact that it made them cry. Moffat is determined to make the audience weep, even if he has to have Murray Gold assault the audience with massed close harmony singing. The new series makes them feel; but does it make them think?
The Doctor himself is no longer an Enlightenment hero who travels because he is curious about the universe, asks questions, finds out how the world works, and uses reason and empiricism to solve problems (attributes which the audience can emulate). He is now the last of the Time Lords, the lonely god; knows everything without asking questions; and can rewrite causality on a whim, changing timelines until the universe suits him. He is God – and is to be worshipped.
It doesn’t do what Doctor Who used to do. It’s not imaginative or exploratory; it’s not interested in ideas or issues; it doesn’t challenge the viewer to ask questions and look at things from a different perspective. And yet this is a programme (to quote Lawrence Miles) that is supposed to be “about discovery, about finding the alien and making sense of it”; “an ever-growing experiment in High Strangeness and relative moral values”, that “should give us a kind of television we’ve never seen before, use the medium in unique ways, show us things that have never previously existed and take us to places where wholly different rules apply”. “Its view of the universe is exploratory, experimental, and egalitarian: in brief, outward-looking.”
Moffat thinks that Doctor Who should be fifty-minute Hollywood blockbusters – which means it can only do small scale stories or a frenetic series of images. Fifty minutes is not enough time to create a world. Moffat’s good at writing snappy one liners, but not at using dialogue to build a world, or show how a character interacts with the world, their understanding and perspective. Guest characters are animated window dressing, seen at its most cynical in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, in which Nefertiti appears for no other reason than that she looks cool – and without an explanation of who she was, why she was important, or any mention of the religious reforms of Akhenaten.
And what a goal to aim for!
The William Hartnell era (1963–66) was originally intended to be educational, with two teachers having adventures in history and science. The Jon Pertwee era introduced audiences to environmentalism and liberalism, to Buddhism and Jung. The Sylvester McCoy era wanted to overthrow Thatcher.
In the 1960s, there was a Shakespearean historical chronicle written in iambic pentameter (The Crusade) and a black comedy set in the Trojan Wars (The Myth Makers). Stories dealt with cultural relativism (The Aztecs), the ’68 student riots (The Krotons), dystopian societies (The Macra Terror, The Happiness Patrol), xenophobia (The Ambassadors of Death), the end of empire and decolonisation (The Mutants), Apartheid and colonial exploitation (The Savages), free will vs determinism (The Space Museum, Inferno), and environmentalism and pollution (The Green Death).
Moffat wants the audience to laugh and be excited and scared.
The show is masturbatory: in love with itself, focused on its own mythology, and lacks a worldview outside the series. Traditionally, Doctor Who was about how much bigger and madder the world was than its mundane surface. It opened up history and politics and science and books and ideas. It engaged with the world.
Whereas Moffat’s Doctor Who, for all its cleverness, is about … Doctor Who. (It’s cult; cult is about itself.) And there’s a genuine risk that the series won’t inspire viewers to become liberal, literate, humanist, scientific, curious in the way that fans of the old series were.
Doctor Who was more sophisticated half a century ago than it is today.
And yet Doctor Who can – and should – do more. Doctor Who, like television itself, can embrace an expansive view of the world rather than a reductive one. It can make people curious and want to find out ‘stuff’, and help people to see from different perspectives, rather than the narcissism and wilful stupidity of most of what is provided (the idea that you and your emotions are more interesting than the outside world shows a marked lack of perspective) or the bland sterility of the consumer culture.
At its best, television can not merely entertain the public, but show them things they do not know. It can educate, inform and stimulate, and challenge and teach the audience. It can show the world in all its complexity. It can present ideas in an engaging manner and show the audience the big picture. It can emphasise diversity and encourage its audience not to think in set ways but to widen their mental horizons, see the problems and joys of life, and consider their responsibility for them. It can be a forum through which the ideas circulating in different parts of society can be articulated, and so open up public debate. At its best, it is questioning and imaginative.
Isn’t it time it was again?