Wanderers in the fourth dimension

I recently said that I much prefer the old series of Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) to the new series.

The William Hartnell era (1963-66): This is where it all began.  There’s a sense of magic and mystery that the show later lost.  Who is this mysterious old man traveling through time and space in a police box?  Hartnell is one of the three best Doctors, ruthless, charming, mischievous, imperious, sentimental. The show is wildly experimental and ambitious.  Science fiction stories set on planets of giant insects, museums where the TARDIS crew see their future, and mammoth thirteen episode Dalek stories rub shoulders with historical adventures: The Crusade, done as Shakespearean history play; The Myth Makers, a proto-Blackadder comedy of manners set in the Trojan War; The Aztecs and The Massacre, debates about cultural relativism.  In many ways, this period of the show has never been bettered. However, it’s an acquired taste if you’re not used to black and white 405-line television.

 

The Patrick Troughton era (1967-69): This is the period that gets raved about the most – possibly because so much of it is missing.  Most of the stories were junked by the BBC in the early ’70s.  Troughton’s impish charm and excitable schoolboy demeanour influenced Matt Smith.  A lot of the stories are formulaic, variations on base-under-siege. The most interesting stories are Power of the Daleks (lost), The Macra Terror (lost), Evil of the Daleks (lost), The Enemy of the World and The Mind Robber.

 

The Jon Pertwee era (1970-74): Dr. Who has been exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, and works with a paramilitary organization called UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) to defend the world from alien invasions and the schemes of the Master, an evil renegade Time Lord.  Pertwee’s dashing, action man Doctor with a twinkle in his eye is delightful, both more commanding and more human than other Doctors.  The camaraderie of the Pertwee team – the Brigadier, Sgt Benton, Captain Yates, and, of course, dear sweet Jo Grant – and the topicality of the stories made it one of the show’s most popular periods.

Inferno is one of the three most terrifying hours of television ever made;

Carnival of Monsters, which takes place on a steamship crossing the Indian Ocean in the 1920s with a plesiosaur outside the porthole, and on a planet of mad bureaucrats, is a brilliant satire on the class system and television (“Our purpose is to amuse, simply amuse…nothing serious, nothing political”).  The Green Death is the famous One With The Maggots In Wales, and tackles big business and pollution. Other classics: Dr. Who and the Silurians, The Ambassadors of Death,

and The Daemons:

 

The Tom Baker era (1974-81): Tom Baker is the most famous Doctor.  Teeth, curls, scarf, and a robot dog. The first three seasons, produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes, are considered by some to be the best years of the show. These are the Gothic years: horror, literary pastiche, and intellectual SF. The Ark in Space has the last members of the human race threatened by giant ichneumon wasps.

Genesis of the Daleks is the best Dalek story after the 1960s, and the best surviving Dalek story full stop.

The Seeds of Doom is an Avengersesque episode, in which the Doctor faces giant cabbages from outer space and an insane millionaire.

In The Face of Evil, the Doctor lands on a jungle planet with his face carved into a mountainside; the story involves Jungian psychology, anthropology, and the politics of religion.

The Robots of Death and Horror of Fang Rock are homages to Agatha Christie set on an Art Deco mining ship and a lighthouse.  The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a gloriously dark proto-steampunk romp through Victorian adventure stories; the Doctor becomes Sherlock Holmes and encounters a villain who is part Fu Manchu, part Phantom of the Opera, and keeps a giant rat (of Sumatra?) in the sewers.

The next three years – one of which was edited by Douglas Adams – are lighter and more character driven witty and imaginative conceptual SF. The best story is Adams’s City of Death, set in Paris, about an alien warlord with six copies of the Mona Lisa in his cellar.

 

The Peter Davison era (1981-84): Things start to go downhill. Davison, the youngest Doctor, is saddled with the worst companions and an obsession with the past. Davison would do much better as Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion.  The Caves of Androzani – a heavily charmless, violent story about gunrunners and bat guano – has been voted the best story ever, but it REALLY isn’t.  Far and away the best story is Kinda, influenced by Tom Stoppard, Jung and Buddhism.

Colin Baker (1984-86): Things go really downhill. Colin Baker has shown himself in the excellent Big Finish audio plays to be a wise and compassionate Doctor.  But his time on 6th Doctor.jpgtelevision was saddled with awful scripts (convoluted plots that bring back elements from the past) and a producer and script editor who hated each other. It didn’t help that Baker’s Doctor had the most garish costume and tried to strangle his companion.
The best stories are all from Big Finish, and include Dr. Who and the Pirates, Jubilee, …ish, and Year of the Pig.
 

 

Sylvester McCoy (1987-89): The show recovers. Fresher than it has been in years, with only a quarter of the stories referring to the past, and a determination to engage with modern Britain and, if possible, bring down Thatcher. Written under the influence of Gormenghast and approaching magical realism. Ghost Light, set in a Victorian mansion where very strange things are going on, is easily the best story in more than a decade.

Other brilliant stories include The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,

The Curse of Fenric, The Happiness Patrol, Survival and Paradise Towers.

And that’s fully half the McCoy era.

And then it ended.

The Age of the Sex Olympics III: Twenty-first Century Blues

Modern film and television have little interest in engagement with the outside world. They are distinguished by their nihilism and love of violence; their recycling of ideas; and their tunnel vision.

We live in an age of cultural recycling. Cinema is largely made up of sequels, prequels and remakes. Modern media thinks that self-referentiality – in-jokes and references to television and film, pop culture and celebrities – are witty and original. This is why dreck like The Lego Movie – in which pop culture references substitute for genuine humour and imagination – are popular.

This is a sign of cultural stagnation.

The most popular genres are science fiction, fantasy and superhero films, which are largely vehicles for flashy special effects. It is worth considering here what science fiction actually is.

Science fiction has three main purposes: to hold a mirror to society; to imagine what the future could be, based on current trends; and to instil a particular attitude. Its worldview is material, rational and empiricist, aiming to understand and master external reality through knowledge, and celebrating the mindset that makes this possible. The hero is frequently a scientist, who is intelligent, curious and observant, and has a strong sense of justice and compassion; for instance, Professor Quatermass or Doctor Who.

 

Modern science fiction is “cult”. Cult is ultimately about itself: a closed system. It may borrow some of the trappings of science fiction (spaceships, aliens, etc.) but it is not interested in the same things. It is disengaged from the real world; instead, it is written for fans, and emphasises continuity, series mythology, character arcs and origin stories. Story arcs are more important than stories, and set pieces more important than plot. It is written for fans who like arguing about details, want to identify with characters and write pornographic fan-fiction. We’ve all met them – the bore who corners you at a party and whose idea of conversation is to reel off statistics about spaceships in Battlestar Galactica.  Unsurprisingly, cult leads to tunnel vision.

Earlier science fiction and telefantasy programmes wanted to make people think and broaden their horizons, as well as entertain them. The works of Nigel Kneale dealt with the anxieties of the nuclear age and the welfare state. The Doomwatch team monitored scientific research for possible threats to humanity, and dealt with such issues as environmentalism, pollution, urban depression, genetic engineering and the complicity of big business. Doctor Who began as a semi-educational series, teaching children about science and history, and became about humanist intellect, investigative and exploratory, asking questions and making sense of the world. Nowadays, it’s more interested in its own mythology.

The same was true of other genres. Anthology series such as The Wednesday / Play of the Week / Month examined social issues. Spy series like Danger Man were a crash course in international relations, set in foreign countries against a background of contemporary politics.

 

The Goon Show, Monty Python or The Goodies satirised the absurdity of contemporary life, bureaucracy, the class system and current fads and trends.

Most fiction assumed that the world was a fascinating place, and had protagonists who were well balanced, sophisticated, clever and enjoyed life. John Steed and Mrs Peel crossed swords and then were off for diabolical masterminds and champagne.

Tintin, James Bond and the Saint travelled around the world from Peru to the Poles, from the Orient to the North Pole, from the depths of the sea to outer space.

Tintin Red Rackham

Moore Saint

Mysterious Cities of Gold journeyed the length of South America, and ended each episode with a short documentary on history or geography.

Such tales opened up the world; they made audiences curious and whetted their appetites for travel, even if only from their armchair.

An adventurous, optimistic attitude is a healthy one – but it’s not one that is encouraged by the media.

Our entertainment lacks expansiveness, cosmopolitanism, curiosity, a sense of fun and interest in the world. We seem as a society to be in love with misery; the more of it, the better.

Characters don’t have personalities; they have angst and trauma, revealed in elaborate back stories, and brood and mope. The most popular television series feature sociopaths in a moraDexterl wasteland: Breaking Bad, Dexter, Game of Thrones.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are also sociopaths. In the movies, Man of Steel (which particularly disappointed me, as I was expecting a panegyric to Stalin), Batman and the Daniel Craig 007 are sociopaths. Everything is “dark” (when it’s not blue lit).

The movie that most triumphantly set its face against the cult of gloom was The Lone Ranger. The film is unabashedly brilliant: exhilarating, exuberant, subversive and rightfully angry, dealing as it does with genocide and land exploitation committed in the name of capitalism. It champions the individual over big business, idealism and noble causes over greed and self-interest, and proclaims that freedom – fun, humour and cleverness – are better than angst. Hardly surprising that it was a dismal flop in the States.

Angst and trauma, death and darkness, despair and gloom – that’s what life’s all about it. “Sadness,” as Steven Moffat remarked in one of his more idiotic moments, “is happiness for deep people.” Really, what’s so great about sadness?

Such stories (as a wise man once remarked) tell us that we’re dull and damned, as well as being damned dull.

Why, when there’s a world out there, focus on such things? (Something whispers: So that people won’t focus on the world.) If someone thinks the world is an awful place, full of miserable people who do ghastly things to each other from the moment they pop out of the uterus and strangle their mother with their umbilical cord, will they really want to engage with the world? Or are they more likely to lock themselves away and brood?

Life’s too big and complex to be boiled down to gloom, doom and atom bomb dropping planes’ sonic boom. Life’s this great rich glorious thing out there, full of colour and excitement and adventure.

Good art — movies and television shows, theatre, books, music, painting or sculpture — opens up the world. It inspires; it engages with the world; it reflects life in its complexity; and it broadens the audience’s minds. As such, it has an important role to play in shaping people’s attitude to the world. Television and film that makes people think about the world makes for a healthier democracy.

Works that show life as bleak and miserable distort the world – and are therefore dangerous. If people are forced to accept a myth rather than truth – as Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC, observed in both Nazi Germany and McCarthyist America – intellectual freedom was stifled and tyranny followed.

NPG x16892; Sir Hugh Carleton Greene by Godfrey Argent

Television, Greene believed, should be:

“a mirror behind what is going on in contemporary society. I don’t care whether what is reflected in the mirror is bigotry, injustice and intolerance or accomplishment and inspiring achievement. I only want the mirror to be honest, without any curves and held with as steady a hand as may be.

“If those who look out, with the eyes we have given them, see only the familiar, the comfortable, the reassuring, then surely we have failed, for the world is not like that. If we ensure that only the ugly, the bestial, the violent and the tawdry appear before them, then just as surely we have failed, for the world is not like that either.”

The Age of the Sex Olympics II: Technology

Many of my views on television and film production are influenced by Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood’s series, About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who (Mad Norwegian Press), and by Miles’s blog < http://beasthouse-lm2.blogspot.com.au/>.

 

There is now a single aesthetic for film and television. The American model – a Hollywood film on a smaller budget – is the norm. This limits the potential of the medium. In Britain, well into the 1980s, television was seen as a sort of theatre for the masses that had cameras pointing at it, with an emphasis on scripts and acting.This is as true of William Hartnell era Doctor Who (1963-66) as it is of The Forsyte Saga (1967), I Claudius (1976) – arguably the best television drama ever made – or Blackadder (1983-89).

If you think of television as a movie on a smaller screen, rather than its own medium, this reduces the number of stories you can tell.

Paradoxically, the better the technology, the less one can do with it, and the more possibilities are ruled out.

A quick technological explanation: Up to the ’70s, film was reserved for location shoots, and video for studio work. Video looks smoother and high res, but film looks grainer (fewer frames per second). However, film is the dominant stock for cinema, so feels more expensive to viewers. From 1975, lighter video cameras meant location footage could be shot on video – and locations could be made to look like studios. This breaks down the film/location – video/studio divide. Nowadays, filmification is in: shoot on (cheap) video and apply digital filters to make it look like it was shot on film. Film is increasingly giving way to digital video, because of shifts towards high definition TV, and video is thought of as bad.

If television is to have a certain look, it becomes more expensive to produce (thanks to post-production costs and editing), so the number of shows you can make diminishes. Television becomes a product, a commodity to be sold and consumed. It has to sell. And what sells? What makes money? Lowest common denominator programmes: reality television and game shows. Programmes that can be exported overseas, with emotional storylines, and nothing too difficult. British television now largely consists of costume drama, crime shows and soaps.

Secondly, there is an inverse relationship between the quality of the picture and the quality of the content. Modern television is as much or more about the spectacle than it is about the content. Modern television is realistic and representational; everything seen (unless explicitly coded as a dream or flashback) happens as the viewer sees it. Because the image is presented direct, the viewer has to work less, and is less imaginatively challenged. Miles & Wood (About Time: The Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who, 1980–1984, Seasons 18 to 21, Mad Norwegian Press, 2007, p. 129) argue: “The number of possible interpretations made by anyone born after 1990 is drastically smaller than for those raised in the 1960s. ‘Realism’ is the level of unthinking interpretation, and anything made to avoid disturbing this process.” The audience are spoon-fed, and become as passive as the consumers in The Year of the Sex Olympics.

Audiences in days gone by had a very different relationship with television (one which involved the danger of severe burns to the genitalia and, in those days, imprisonment). Watching television was active. Viewers switched on a small black and white box in the corner, waited for it to warm up, and had to participate to make sense of the image and consciously decide to believe in it.

This gave television more licence to be strange and thought provoking. Large audiences enjoyed Doctor Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner, the Jonathan Miller Alice in Wonderland, Out of the Unknown and The Wednesday Play, which were stylised, often surreal. Bizarre imagery, symbolism, and abstract use of sound and light were standard techniques, were used to convey a subjective (emotional or intellectual) view of the world.

 

The turning point is the mid-’70s, when special effects become something the audience is supposed to believe in (real at the level of the story) rather than an aesthetic representation of an event. Once television is expected to be realistic, its ability to produce non-realistic programs declines, to the point where it is almost unthinkable today. Consider The Prisoner. The 1960s series was a surreal allegory about freedom and autonomy versus conformity; the remake ignores the philosophy and focuses on Six’s relationships. The original culminated in “Free for All”, an explosion of Pop Art like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, whereas the 2009 remake explains everything as (yawn) virtual reality.

Prisoner_sm

The emphasis on realism and special effects creates a preference for the familiar and a craving for visceral excitement. Most television today consists of familiar characters in familiar situations. Audiences want to empathise with characters they know well, in the sort of programme they’ve seen before, rather than have their ideas challenged or learn something new. Such programmes only reinforce what people know; they do not inspire curiosity or wonder, only familiarity, which breeds not contempt but complacency. Television has become a comfort for consumers, bland and anodyne.

Special effects lead to a shorter attention span, increasing inability to focus on longer scenes, and an addiction to stimulation.  This is also true of computer games; there’s a distinct correlation between the imagination needed to play an adventure game, which rewards exploration, curiosity and lateral thinking, and the higher quality graphics and the monolithic domination of action games today.

Dickens adaptations end up looking like the Bourne films, complete with Shaky Camera ™, in a desperate attempt to convince audiences that 1850s London is dynamic and modern – a hip, with it, really happening place, even though the women are wearing bombazine, crinolines and hoop skirts, and the men sprout Dundreary whiskers and mutton chops.

Handheld cameras are cheap, but a whooshing camera, jittery screens, blurred backgrounds, desaturated colour and rapid cutting – considered more “artistic” than a clearer picture, and useful for concealing budgetary shortcomings – make it difficult to concentrate and are unaesthetic. Shots that are not composed are irritating to the eye. Shallow focus by its very nature removes the context and background from the shot. Two people in the same shot, sitting next to each other, one blurry and the other in focus; or a person in clear focus against a blurred background look wrong. All these techniques contribute to a loss of visual creativity. Whereas look at a good episode of The Avengers or Poirot, both of which are entertainment – and are witty, stylish programmes made by people who know how to use a camera. “Too Many Christmas Trees,” to pick an Avengers episode at random, has surreal dream sequences; a visually rich mansion; an Op Art table; and a fight in a hall of mirrors.

The dumbing down of television is a vicious circle. The more people watch bad television, the dumber they become; the dumber they are, the more they want bad television, which makes them dumb.

The Age of the Sex Olympics?

yearofthesexolympics

We live in the nadir of film and television. Modern television is unimaginative and dumbed down. Most programs are cut to a template, focusing on relationships rather than ideas or social issues.  The most popular programmes are reality TV – prophesied brilliantly in Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968), which depicts our descendants as a race of gormless, gaping idiots fixated on the goggle-box.

Year_Sex_Olympics_Sampleaudience

Until the 1990s, television – particularly television made by the BBC – was meant to challenge and provoke. It was not only mass entertainment; at its best, it had a mandate, in the words of the BBC remit, to educate and entertain. It was seen as a potentially civilising and constructive force and a forum for discussing issues.

Television was meant to bring the world into audiences’ living rooms. Those audiences were thought of as curious and intelligent. Even if they were not university educated, they would, given the chance, want to find out. The more knowledgeable people were, the better equipped they would be to participate in democracy. A wide popular audience watched adaptations of classics (including Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wilde, Greek tragedy, Restoration comedy and Russian drama), experimental programmes, and such great documentary series as Civilisation (1969), The Ascent of Man (1973), and Life on Earth (1979) or The Living Planet (1984) – as well as comedies and thrillers.

 

Television was meant to make people think about the world. Hugh Greene, Director-General of the BBC in the 1960s, described the Corporation as “a licenced gadfly”, whose role was to question authority, challenge deeply held views of life and determine their worth, articulate ideas and open up public debate, and push the audience towards “liberality in politics, compassion, open-mindedness, tolerance in matters ethical and sexual”.

What has changed?

The Deconstruction of Time

This was written at the time of the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary jubilee.

A clever man once observed that any long running series becomes about itself.  Doctor Who is a case in point.

What, though, is Doctor Who?  There are more than 250 televised stories, three hundred odd spin-off novels, and about as many audioplays.  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, written in iambic pentameter; 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.  It’s hardly surprising that Douglas Adams script-edited it.  As the man said, the programme is ‘complex enough for the kids to enjoy, and simple enough for the adults to follow’.

Steven Moffat’s version is very different.  Whereas old school Who told stories around ideas, Moffat is interested in the narrative structure itself: in HOW stories are told rather than their content.  With this goes a recurring theme of memory and identity.  ‘A man is the sum of his memory; a Time Lord even more so.’  People are made out of stories.  A memory is a story we tell about our lives.  Even though we may remember things incorrectly (from an objective, external standpoint), or revisit and, in the process, revise our memories, those memories are who we are. And so we have River Song living her life in reverse parallel to the Doctor’s; Amy at her wedding remembering the Doctor; and Rory remembering a timeline that never happened.

All of Moffat’s shows—Press Gang, Joking Apart, Coupling, Jekyll, etc.—show a delight in non-linear storytelling.  Remember those episodes of Coupling which showed the same five minutes from different characters’ perspectives (à la Rashomon), or in split screen?  Conceptually, these are fascinating; ingenious, often brilliant.  As exercises in technical virtuosity, they’re as dazzling as a Bach fugue.  And they can also have its cold intellectualism.  At its best, in Who, this produces the cleverness of “Blink” or “A Christmas Carol”.  At its worst, “The Wedding of River Song” or “The Name of the Doctor”, in which abstract characters do abstract things for abstract motivations.

Moffat uses the science fiction to explore non-linear storytelling and narrative theory.  Moffat is Post-modern.  The danger inherent in Post-modern literature is that ingenuity becomes an end in itself, and the story gets lost in an endless maze of self-referentiality, like something out of Borges.  Rather than the Doctor being a medium for telling stories, the stories become about the Doctor.  The Doctor can rewrite causality on a whim, changing timelines until the universe suits him.  The most important secret in the universe is the Doctor’s name.  Questions about the Doctor’s companions loom large: Who is River Song? Who is Amy’s baby? Who is Clara?  These are more important than the places they visit or the adventures they have.  It’s like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.  Post-modern fiction is about itself.

Traditionally, Doctor Who was about how much bigger and madder the world was than its mundane surface.  It opened up history and science and books and ideas.  The Doctor was a humanist hero, who was curious about the world, asked questions, investigated, and used his reason and empiricism to solve problems.  The Hartnell era was originally intended to be educational, with two teachers having adventures in history and science.  The Pertwee era introduced audiences to environmentalism and liberalism, to Buddhism and Jung.  The McCoy era was strongly anti-Thatcher, with script editor Andrew Cartmel wanting to use the programme to overthrow the government.  The Davies era, for all its in-your-face emoting, was about connections between people, and why ordinary people mattered.  Doctor Who engaged with the world.  Whereas Moffat’s Doctor Who, for all its genuine wit and brilliance, is about…Doctor Who.  And there’s a genuine risk that the series as it stands now won’t inspire viewers to become liberal, literate, humanist, scientific, curious in the way that fans of the old series were.

*

‘You can’t rewrite history!  Not one line!’ admonished the First Doctor.  The Third Doctor explained that the Blinovitch Limitation Effect prohibited a time traveller from going back into the past and having a second go at changing an event that they had already experienced.

Steven Moffat’s Doctor rewrites history as he pleases.  Indeed, Moffat constructs towering edifices in the style of temporal baroque (Time Lord Rococo?).  He paints the Doctor and his friends into impossible situations—and then shows that they’re not impossible at all.  The Doctor dies.  The Universe blows up.  Rory’s past has been changed.  Amy lived a future that never happened.  River Song lives her encounters with the Doctor in reverse to his timeline.  Clara meets the Doctor in various lives, and throws herself into every point in his timeline.  But they remember what happened.  Even though the universe changes, his protagonists still remember the timelines that never happened, and live with the consequences.  It’s about memory.  Our understanding of the world, our idea of ourselves, our identity isn’t based on exterior events, but on subjective experience.

 “The fundamental bound on changing history has little to do with the stability of the universe and everything to do with the stability of the self.  One cannot alter the components of one’s self—the stories and memories that create the unity of ‘I’.”  (Philip Sandifer, “This Point of Singularity (The Three Doctors)”, 26 August 2011, <http://www.philipsandifer.com/2011/08/this-point-of-singularity-three-doctors.html>)

“The Day of the Doctor,” the fiftieth anniversary special, is a representative Moffat.  It’s a fast-paced exercise in non-linear storytelling, told across different time zones (past, present, and future/sideways), with some excellent jokes (Tennant’s mission speech to the rabbit; “It was the horse.  I’m gonna be king”; Smith ribbing Tennant on his snogging; the screwdriver), almost no plot—or, rather, a parody of a traditional Doctor Who plot and its resolution (the Doctors walk away from the Zygon business), and the Doctor rewriting the universe.  Normal practice from Moffat, you might think.  What makes this so very different is that the Doctor rewrites his personal history—and the history of the series itself.  He annuls the Time War.

This is the shadow that has loomed over the series since its relaunch in 2005.  In-universe, it is the conflict between the Daleks and the Time Lords, which ended with the Doctor destroying (or attempting to destroy) both species, and regenerating into the Eccleston Doctor, the last of the Time Lords, the lonely god.

It is, of course, a metaphor for the cancellation of Doctor Who in 1989.  When “Rose”, the first episode of Russell T. Davies’s relaunched series, hit the screen in 2005, Doctor Who was not popular.  In the eyes of the British public at large, it was a bad children’s program, which ended ignominiously in the 1980s with the likes of Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, which flopped versus Coronation Street, and was now only watched by anoraks who wanted their childhoods back.  In a word: “sad”.  The fans kept Doctor Who alive in the form of spinoffs (many of which were brilliant) and commentaries on the unfolding text.  But it was a minority interest, to the point where most of the fans in Britain knew each other, and met monthly at the Fitzroy Tavern.

The situation in 2013 is very different.  Doctor Who is the BBC’s flagship programme, watched by millions of viewers around the world.  “The Day of the Doctor”, broadcast in 94 countries, and screened in 3D, was awarded the Guinness World Record for the largest ever simulcast of a TV drama.  (The Dendy cinema where I saw it was completely packed—full of people of all ages, races, and walks of life.  And this was one of half a dozen sessions at that cinema, itself one of six in town showing the episode.)  This is no longer a series that is “sad” or unpopular; this is a series that is confidently and triumphantly popular.

And at a time when Doctor Who is more popular than it has ever been[1], the dark years of its cancellation are no longer relevant.  And so, rather than looking to the past (as Davies’s Doctor Who had done) and characterising the Doctor as a survivor of the Time War, Moffat suggests a new future for the Doctor: he will restore Gallifrey, and, at some long future date, turn back into Tom Baker and become curator of the National Gallery. [2]

But this doesn’t undo Davies era Doctor Who.  The Doctor only remembers that he didn’t destroy Gallifrey when he experiences the adventure as Matt Smith.  Even though the universe changes, even though the Doctors change the past, the Ninth and Tenth Doctors remember the original timeline, in which the War Doctor caused the fall of Gallifrey.  It isn’t until the Eleventh Doctor experiences this adventure that he remembers the truth.

In terms of the series narrative, the Time War was a fixed point: “a moment in the space-time continuum at which events were set in stone and could never, ever be changed, no matter what”[3].  If, as Philip Sandifer suggests throughout his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, the Doctor represents narrative freedom, able to roam all of time and space, and tell stories wherever he goes, untrammelled by canon or continuity, then fixed points are anathema to him.  Indeed, the threat in Remembrance of the Daleks[4] (produced in the silver anniversary year and a comment on the series’ past) is, Sandifer argues, an attempt to limit the Doctor’s freedom by rewriting him: rendering him subject to absolute fixity.  In fact, the Doctor recognises that absolutes are an illusion; “you can fix one point or signifier absolutely, but doing so unglues everything else”.

Throughout Moffat’s era, the Doctor has encountered fixed points and sidestepped them (notably his death at Lake Silencio).  The Time War was a fixed point: an absolute that determined the Doctor’s future.  And it has changed.  The ultimate fixed point is Trenzalore: the place of the Doctor’s death and burial.  Between them, these two fixed points, past and future, act as impediments to the Doctor’s freedom.  They are the representations of teleology and determinism, the death instinct as philosophy, with the Doctor’s life conditioned by what came before, and leading to a final, fatal, fixed point.  And Trenzalore, Moffat indicates, will be changed.  Both the past and the future can be rewritten, because of free will.[5]  Because the Doctor rejects absolutes.  Tom Baker’s cameo shows that Trenzalore cannot be the Doctor’s death.  As Whatculture! argues, having Tom Baker (a Doctor from the past, but in this case, a future incarnation) means that the Doctor’s death is perpetually deferred.  There can never be a final incarnation played by Tom Baker. The Doctor’s death is perpetually deferred.  Teleology is impossible.  And Doctor Who is immortal.

Moreover, by undoing the effects of the Time War, Moffat has restored the status quo and paves the way for an older Doctor.  The cancellation is seen as having derailed the series’ natural development.  Witness his half-jesting complaint that “we could have had the adventures of John Hurt.  In the 90s.”—if only the program hadn’t been cancelled in 1989.  The John Hurt Doctor[6] (who is coded as an old series Doctor, his last line before regenerating Hartnell’s) calls out the ‘young’ Doctors as developmentally arrested.  “‘Timey-wimey’?  Do you have to talk like children?  What makes you ashamed of being a grown up?”  The answer is the Time War.  These incarnations are a “mid life crisis”, their Tiggerishness (“Are you capable of speaking without flapping your hands about?”) and SNOGGING! GIRLS! (or Zygons disguised as girls) the result of Time War trauma.  Trapped by the past, they are unable to grow up or act their age, but seek refuge in childishness.  For all their boyish charm, these incarnations are stagnant.  The problem, of course, is that “being without becoming is an ontological impossibility”.  Now that the whole Time War has been resolved, and the Doctor is free from the past, he can move onwards and mature.  And so, come Christmas, the Doctor will be played by an actor the age of Hartnell when he created the role in 1963.

The other threat to the series’ development comes in the form of its past—its continuity and canonicity.  These were the elements that brought the series to its knees and nearly destroyed it in the 1980s, during the Davison and C. Baker Doctorates.  The programme attempted to recreate its past, bringing back old monsters and regulars for their own sake.  Ian Levine was appointed as continuity consultant.  The programme was ‘cult’, made for the fans, rather than for the general public.  Expert fans arbitrated on the show: certain stories (mainly from the repetitious Troughton era) were “classics”; the Tom Baker era (particularly when script-edited by Douglas Adams) was bad because it was self-indulgent, clever, and, perhaps most damningly, funny; and the worst story of all time was a comic gem called The Gunfighters.  The show lost its sense of humour, its fun, its drive to experiment and progress.  It stagnated.  And the series collapsed.

(Until the Sylvester McCoy era, when the series was made by people who understood the spirit, rather than the letter, of the program, and who wanted to make it relevant and funny and clever again.  And succeeded brilliantly.  Unfortunately, by that time, nobody was watching.  And the show was cancelled for 16 years, bar a frankly horrible American TV movie aimed at a cult audience.  Such was the damage wrought by continuity.)

The problem is simple.  Canon and continuity are the antithesis of the programme’s ethos of playful freeness. [7]  A canon is a grand narrative: “a global or totalising cultural narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience” (Stephens & McCallum).  With the exception of the 1980s nadir, Doctor Who has resisted grand narratives, which are invariably presented as imposed by the powerful / villainous / misguided, who lack both the big picture and a sense of humour.

A canon is a top-down reading, imposed on the series from above by showrunners (George Roddenberry, George Lucas et al), telling fans what counts in the universe.  As Paul Cornell argues, it’s about power and authority.  It’s about trying to make people think in a certain way, and reject ideas or stories because they don’t fit into a certain worldview.  Which the Doctor isn’t interested in.  The Doctor wants to explore the universe and have fun.  The Doctor is open to a plurality of adventures and interpretations.

Continuity is the ultimate fixed and absolute authority, which is the antithesis of the programme’s playful freeness.  This is famously a series in which Atlantis has been destroyed three separate times, mankind’s history influenced by a dozen or so different aliens, and the Doctor may create a new timeline every time he steps out of the TARDIS doors.  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Doctor Who doesn’t worry about contradictions, so much as what makes a good story.

And so, as well as rewriting the immediate past of the Davies era, Moffat blows up the continuity of the original series.  It’s done almost as an aside, in such a way that only a knowledgeable fan would spot it.  There’s a photograph on the Black Archive wall of Sara Kingdom and Mike Yates, two companions who could never have met.  This is a moment of metatextual brilliance.  It is an encounter that, according to series continuity, is impossible.  Sara travelled with the First Doctor, and was aged to death by the Time Destructor on the planet Kembel; Yates was attached to UNIT during the Third Doctor’s exile to Earth.  And yet…  Both opposed a character played by Nicholas Courtney: Sara shot her brother Bret Vyon, while Yates betrayed the Brigadier.  (And were blinkered in doing so; hence the eyepatch, which is also a reference to an infamous convention circuit anecdote.)  Both met with unfortunate ends: killed, left UNIT under a cloud (and later redeemed).  And both were connected by Jon Pertwee: married, co-star.  This is, of course, expressly designed to infuriate. [8]

Because, Moffat recognises, canon and continuity stand in the way of imagination.  And that is what Doctor Who is ultimately about: the power of storytelling.  The Doctor is as much a wanderer in narrative as he is in time and space; an escapee from the Land of Fiction, Sandifer suggests, “the writer and creator of all stories” who has “gone on the run to live the stories instead of simply writing them”, “every single story there ever was and ever could be, escaped out into the universe, and running loose bringing them into being”.  In the early days, the Doctor lands in another story, another genre, and disrupts it, warping the narrative around him.[9]  In the cancellation years, the spinoff series embraced Post-Modernism with glee, playing with unreliable narrators and deconstruction.[10]

However, although its storytelling may be Post-modern, its morality is, as Mike Morris suggests, Modernist, founded on the principles of the Enlightenment and liberalism.  The Doctor is a scientist who solves problems by using his intellect.  Certain things are objectively right or wrong, regardless of cultural relativism.  And the moral core of the Doctor, however much his face may change, is steadfast.  “Never cruel, never cowardly.  Never give up, never give in.”  Words that echo Terrance Dicks’s famous description:

He is impulsive, idealistic, ready to risk his life for a worthy cause.  He hates tyranny and oppression and anything that is anti-life.  He never gives in and he never gives up, however overwhelming the odds against him.

The Doctor believes in good and fights evil.  Though often caught up in violent situations, he is a man of peace.  He is never cruel or cowardly.

In fact, to put it simply, the Doctor is a hero.

*

An Adventure in Space and Time is a docudrama about where and when it all began: London, 1963.  It’s a really rather lovely tribute to William Hartnell, the original (and possibly best) Doctor, the old magician with a warm heart under the crusty exterior (played extremely well by David Bradley).  There are cameos by William Russell and Carole Ann Ford (the only two remaining members of the original cast), Anneke Wills and Jean Marsh (who played Sara Kingdom: see above).

The highlight of the anniversary celebrations, however, is The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot (available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03lv3mj), written and directed by Peter Davison, and co-starring Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, with an appearance by Paul McGann.  The chemistry between the actors is superb.  There are so many good bits: the difference between Peter Howell’s music in the ’80s (low key, more mellow and meditative) and the bombast of Murray Gold (fortunately without massed choirs); Baker’s ‘I’ve locked all the doors!’, McCoy’s oh-so-casual mentions of The Hobbit, John Culshaw’s Tom Baker impersonation (and the nod to The Five Doctors’ use of footage from Shada), the companions floating around Moffat’s head in a parody of the regeneration sequence from The Caves of Androzani and Adric exploding…

The best joke is the three ex-Doctors hiding under the shrouds, which is not only funny and touching, but a brilliant parody of one of Moffat’s favourite devices.  Just as Clara inserted herself into the Doctor’s past in “The Name of the Doctor”, and Matt Smith appeared to Bradley’s Hartnell, so classic Doctor Who has inserted itself into the new series.

And why not?  After all, this is a series that can go anywhere and anywhen, and that has all of time, space and the human imagination to play with.

There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song.  Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice and somewhere else the tea is getting cold.  Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.

END

THE AUTHOR

Is a young man with a pleasant open face, a shock of brown hair, and an air of casual bohemian elegance.  He used to make a strange, wheezing, groaning sound, but has changed his diet.

[1] The new series, that is.  How many members of the audience of the modern series watch the pre-1989 series is debatable.

[2] The idea of a vanishing planet hidden in a work of art may be influenced by Lawrence Miles’s “The Book of the World”.  The scene in the desert, and the conversation between the War Doctor and a living Time Lord weapon in the form of a woman, recall Miles’s Interference.

[3] “Fixed point in time”, TARDIS Wikia, <http://tardis.wikia.com/wiki/Fixed_point_in_time>

[4] The opening sequence of “Day of the Doctor” refers to both An Unearthly Child, the series’s first story, and Remembrance.  The policeman’s shadow on the junkyard wall, Coal Hill School (where the First Doctor’s companion Ian Chesterton is Head of the Board of Governors, and the headmaster is Coburn, as in writer of the first story Anthony Coburn).

[5] See: “How to run Doctor Who the Steven Moffat way”, The Door in Time, 5 May 2012, < http://thedoorintime.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/how-to-run-doctor-who-steven-moffat-way.html>.

[6] Casting John Hurt opens up a canonical can of Drashigs.

John Hurt is the Doctor.  John Hurt played Caligula.
John Simm has played Caligula.
Therefore:
John Simm (=the Master) & John Hurt (=the Doctor) => Caligula
Or: Caligula = both the Master and the Doctor
Or: the Master = the Doctor
Derek Jacobi has played both Claudius* and the Master.
* He also played Claudius in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.  However, the Claudius in the Hamlet starring David Tennant (=the Doctor), and in the BBC version in which Jacobi played Hamlet and Lalla Ward (Mrs. Tom Baker and his companion Romana) played Ophelia, was Patrick Stewart (=Picard).
Therefore: Picard = Patrick Stewart = Claudius = Derek Jacobi = the Master = the Doctor.
Or: Picard = the Master = the Doctor.
Or: Picard = the Doctor.
Therefore: Star Trek = Doctor Who.

And that was the sound of ten thousand fanboys exploding.  Logic merely enables one to be wrong with authority.

[7] One of the best discussions of canon in Doctor Who is on Teatime Brutality: “Canon and Sheep Shit: Why We Fight”, <http://teatimebrutality.blogspot.com.au/2009/07/canon-and-sheep-shit-why-we-fight.html>.

[8] Flagged by the reference to UNIT dating, when Kate Lethbridge-Stewart requests a file on Cromer: “Seventies or eighties depending on the data protocol!”  UNIT dating has been the subject of heated debate since the fanzines of the ’80s.  Moffat opens up two new arenas: the numbering of the Doctors, and could Hartnell have known about UNIT?  Really, Moffat is a troll.

[9] Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, About Time 4: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who, 1975–1979: Seasons 12 to 17, Mad Norwegian Press (Illinois, 2007), p. 145.

[10] Arguably, the show had been doing this since the Hartnell era.  See Donald Cotton’s novelisations of The Romans, The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters.  In many ways, these are the ancestors of the works of Lawrence Miles, Paul Magrs, Jonathan Morris, Robert Shearman and Jacqueline Rayner.

Out of the Unknown

ootulogo

It’s extraordinary what shows have been released on DVD.  We’ve had Quatermass, Pathfinders in Space, A for Andromeda, Survivors, Adam Adamant Lives!, and, last year, a couple of stories from an obscure British series about Mexican-accented doppelgangers and abominable snowmen on the tube (next stop: up your pipe, in Tooting Bec).

Coming in October: Out of the Unknown, the classic science fiction anthology series, broadcast on the BBC between 1966 and 1971.  Scripts based on the works of the great names of science fiction – John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, and Clifford D. Simak – by (among others) J.B. Priestley, Nigel  Kneale, and Moris Farhi, and such Doctor Who alumni as Terry Nation, John Wiles and Brian Hayles.  A 7-DVD set will be released, with the surviving episodes.  Since this is a BBC series from the ’60s, those surviving episodes are less than half of the series: only 20 out of 49.  Which is a pity, judging from the quality of the ones I watched.  I saw pirate copies on Youtube; even with poor quality prints (video codes at the top of the screen), they were compelling viewing.  Restored and VidFIREd, they should be extraordinary.

 

“13 to Centaurus” is based on a story by J.G. Ballard, and features Donald Houston, John Abineri, Robert James and Noel Johnston. 13toc This is an intelligent character-driven SF story, with an intriguing situation: a generation spaceship (à la “The Ark”); a massive twist one third through; an intriguing dilemma; and a powerful twist ending.  This is psychologically interesting, and works as drama.

 

 

 

E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” is more theme-driven, and focuses on the situation and idea: a machine dominated society, focused on internal spiritual development and with a horror of actual experience: people live at second hand, communicating over screens, without contact.  Since God is obsolete, the machine is worshipped.  Forster was a liberal humanist, and (rightly!) preferred science to faith, but (judging by this story) seems to have believed that God made in the image of man is more conducive to human dignity than the worship of the inhuman.  Over-reliance on the machine leads to loss of autonomy, and, with it, loss of humanity.  Over-reliance on technology means that people lose the ability to adapt to the environment.  (Indeed, being muscular is a defect and punishable by euthanasia.)  Having changed the situation to suit their needs, people remain in stasis, recycling ideas and not experiencing or progressing.

machinestops

Like a lot of 1960s b/w television, it’s always visually interesting.  (See, for instance, “The House That Jack Built” or “Too Many Christmas Trees” in The Avengers, or The Strange World of Gurney Slade.)  Its aesthetics are 1920s German Expressionism meets 1960s Op Art: triangles; the extraordinary shot of Kuno climbing a ladder up his mother’s gigantic face; or the Freudian scene in which he escapes into the outside, and is attacked by the white worms of the mending machine.

 

“Lambda 1” is hard to follow.  The poor quality print I watched made it difficult to work out what was happening.  Hell is murky, and so too is Lime Grove.

lambdaThere are reams of bafflegab, both physical and psychological: the Tau is the interaction between the psyche and the material world (or something).  Result: boredom.  However, watching a clean print may change my opinion.

 

 

 

“Level Seven” was only returned to the BBC in 2006.  And it’s superb.  level7Adapted by J.B. Priestley, directed by Rudolph Cartier (director and producer of 1984 and the Quatermass serials), and with a very young David Collings. It’s unremittingly grim, and is the ultimate expression of ’60s themes:

  • Dehumanisation and the loss of identity: Collings’s character is given “treatment” which destroys him as an individual; couples are only allowed 1 hour in a married room; sensory pleasures (flowers and chocolate) are forbidden; wars are fought by proxy (pressing a button – which feels like an exercise); and the machine must be obeyed.
  • Anti-authoritarianism, a purposeless war, and the extinction of humanity in a nuclear holocaust:  The establishment is waging a war that wipes out humanity.  The woman commandant uses her belief in rules to give her life meaning and justification; she wants to go to the plant room and smell the flowers, but can’t, because orders must be obeyed – and commits suicide when all the flowers and plants on the surface of the earth have been wiped out.

 

Bring on October, and the other sixteen.

Now, fingers crossed for Marco Polo and The Power of the Daleks.