Saturday, 26 December 2009

Ten Stories #10: "Everlasting unity and uniformity"

Written by Tom MacRae, directed by Graeme Harper, 2006

This is the only new series story I missed when it was on TV and never managed to see, up to now. And it’s awful from before the credits (“From beyond the grave!” / the gurning death), and riddled with typical portentous new series hyperbole (“The TARDIS is dead!” / “The silent realm, the lost dimension”).

After finding myself unexpectedly enjoying the not especially highly thought of Long Game, this two-parter feels like a renege of the previous season’s promise. This is possibly an unfair story to judge by, but everything’s so colourless, even down to the Doctor (who really doesn’t make much impression; he’s just some gangly hyperactive schoolboy). Tennant doesn’t come across well at all here – it’s not so much that he’s too young, as too ‘contemporary’. With his prettiness and Cons, he seems all too readymade for the ‘MySpace generation’. Ugh.

Unfortunately, an extreme example though it its, I think this is fairly representative of the majority of the post-2005 era. It feels very shallow and flimsy – very ‘21st century’ Doctor Who. I can imagine this appeals to emo 14-year-old girls, who think it’s the height of emotional sophistication (with its rehashing of Father’s Day’s Rose-Pete interaction, but with diminishing returns), and the people who do those hideous cartoon/manga pictures of Adric and Turlough making out on DeviantArt. (I bet there’s plenty of Mickey/Jake slashfic out there too.)

This is one of those stories where lots of picky little elements add up to seriously damage the whole (somewhat like Battlefield, though there are considerably less interesting concepts or themes under the surface here). It feels very teenage – like a bad nineties CBBC programme; bright, with no real threat, and shallow emoting (Rose’s petulance, etc). The permatanned CBBC twink as a guerrilla – so is this actually a comedy?! Certainly not exactly a Genesis for the Cybermen, or a triumphant return for Graeme Harper. (Not to mention how hard I find it to believe that they predicated Mickey’s double around the Mickey/Ricky ‘gag’. Noel Clarke’s ‘hard’ acting is pretty funny though.) Oh, and Lumic looks like he’s touching cloth. All the time.

Given how lauded the new series is as ‘Doctor Who with less wobbly effects,’ the Cybermen actually look pretty disappointing, with their flares and child-bearing hips and one-man-band racket/stomping, while all the computer jargon stuff – ‘free upgrade,’ ‘not compatible,’ ‘you will be deleted,’ ‘human 0.2’ – relegates the Cybermen to the level of junk mail internet freebies, and about as threatening. (The thinking that they have to have a Dalek-equivalent war cry is absurd too.) And the extras’ electrocution acting is a big mistake – did we learn nothing from Destiny of the Daleks?

Even worse is the computer-generated conversion process and factory, which is laughably, inexplicably bad. It’d be awful if it were made for a DVD menu or something. And ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’… Yes, I get the idea of the juxtaposition, but it’s totally meaningless; there’s no thematic irony. I mean, if the character listened to something, say, romantic or emotional, it’d work (maybe something rat pack; they were all total thugs – at least that’d suit Lilt. I mean, Crane).

This feels like it has a lot less to do with Doctor Who than The Long Game (despite coming off as an Invasion remake); it’s hollow, brash, and shallow. It really encapsulates all the worst elements of a Doctor Who trying to be modern and ‘relevant’ (ooh, mobile phones help them win – how zeitgeist!). Doctor Who’s nearly always at its best when it simply does its own thing (in the new series, even if I don’t necessarily like all the more eccentric stories like Gridlock, Love and Monsters, even Partners in Crime or Turn Left, they are at least much more laudable for being so individual, compared to contrived and mass-produced stories like this or the various specials). Even the parallel world is immensely boring and uninventive – contemporary England, with some zeppelins – and this is yet another new series story with ‘possessed contemporary humans’ zombie-walking around.

In the context of a direct contrast with his nine predecessors, Tennant seems a bit too weedy and inconsequential. Like Eccleston, he’s best when he has the chance to play straight, but he doesn’t have enough gravitas, here at least. Much as I do like him when he has stronger material to play (Human Nature, Midnight, Silence in the Library), I do tend to find the Doctors who are arguably most effective on-screen (in the sense of most obviously living up to what is expected of them) less interesting than those who are flawed, or in some way less predictable (ie, Hartnell is unusual as he is essentially an elderly hero; Colin’s perceived flaws – verbosity and violence – keep him unpredictable; and Eccleston’s Doctor is fascinating as an unexpectedly original interpretation).

By comparison, Tennant seems unfortunately predictable. Yes, he’s among the less typically youthful Doctors, and is one of the most attractive, but these things are so predictable in the context of modern TV that they don’t feel like departures. Beyond that, he’s gobby and energetic, but to an extent those characteristics have always been part of his character, and don’t seem new.

Ten Stories conclusion
So, what have I leant from my travails through these ten stories? To be honest… I’m not really sure. I do find it fascinating trying to reconcile the show’s various disparate eras… but, in fact, they’re possibly too disparate to ever truly be able to relate to each other to any meaningful extent (a Not-We would probably find it bizarre that The Dalek Invasion of Earth, say, and Blink are from the same series, in the way we don’t). Their relationship is that they were made as part of a continuing series; beyond that, I suppose, it’s the wild differences of approach that make them interesting (as well as the fact that one series can encompass so many styles and approaches).

In that sense, watching these stories has given me a renewed appreciation for Doctor Who’s ambition (albeit unintentional, or unplanned), but perhaps in future it’s actually more interesting to try not to contextualise the eras in relation to one another. Their relationship just ‘is’ that they were all made under the banner of ‘Doctor Who,’ but in a way is far less important than the enjoyment a specific story can offer. Perhaps it’s more rewarding to decontextualise; to try to divorce a given story from its position in the canon, and just enjoy it purely on its own terms.

Ignoring preconceptions and the same tired associations (ratings and popular opinion), and what came before, and what we know followed; now, there’s a challenge.

If nothing else though, I think this marathon has shown me why I like DW so much – nothing revolutionary, but for its stupidly mad ideas, imagination, diversity of approach, atmosphere, feel, and, of course, characters and actors. These aren’t remarkable reason, but it’s good to be reminded. DW really is very silly but, though it means a lot to me and I take it quite seriously, my appreciation derives in a big part from that. A lot of people seem to downplay the programme’s silliness, but I really love that even when it’s playing things straight and taking an individual story seriously, its fundamental concepts are still really stupid. I enjoy that tension. It kind of means it can get away with being serious without being po-faced. This is probably a lazy comparison, but Star Trek, from the little exposure I’ve had to it, deals with concepts which, though still ridiculous from a real-life PoV (spaceships and humanoid aliens), are so firmly ensconced in our culture that they don’t seem absurd, and so there is no antidote to the general seriousness of its approach, rendering it worthy and dull. DW is mad. I love DW.

Perhaps most notably, I can be very cynical about new DW, because I’m always slightly suspicious of what’s going to happen, in case it’s messed up, so truly taking the opportunity to appreciate the diversity of the series’ past makes me very, very excited about the forthcoming Moffat/Smith era. Without being trite, that diversity makes me want Doctor Who to carry on doing new, varied things, to try new approaches and go to new places (music swells…). The potential of a change to the series is desperately exciting, coming to a point where everything’s up in the air and alterable, on the cusp of adding a whole new era to those represented here.

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