Thursday, 31 December 2009

Ten Stories #5: "Ah, conformity… There is no other freedom"

Written by Terrance Dudley, directed by John Black, 1982

My comments regarding Full Circle notwithstanding, I hate the constant criticism of the eighties, because I genuinely think there is a fairly even mix of good and awful stories throughout Doctor Who’s entire run. However, Davison’s era is for me what ‘eighties Doctor Who’ conjures up, in a negative sense. In fact, if I ever say anything derogatory about the eighties, I mean Davison, with the possible addition of seasons twenty-three and –four – though at least twenty-four was a new direction.

I’ve realised that I’d struggle for any way of accurately describing Davison’s era. It continues the trend set by Full Circle, in that it isn’t funny or witty, clever, whimsical, violent, or dark. It’s not even mindless popcorn entertainment. It’s just a bit nondescript, possibly po-faced, but with no real direction. It baffles me who the production team thought they were making this for. There’s a strange prissiness or prudery at work in this period too, no doubt deriving from John Nathan-Turner’s horror of ‘hanky-panky in the TARDIS’; ie, all the things Russell T Davies introduced. There’s no acknowledgement or suggestion of anything too real, like alcohol or sexuality and people fancying each other. The sixties may have been morally upright, but you could imagine Ian and Barbara at least thinking about having a sex life, whereas Nyssa, say, probably didn’t even have a vagina.

Obviously I'm generalising, but, for me, the Davison era is the period when Doctor Who really lost its way – in that, it seems like no-one had the faintest clue what they were trying to create. There is no vision behind this. The Fifth Doctor’s eighties have no quirkiness or surreality, or even any of the unexpected little twists that characterise Revelation, say, Greatest Show, or Ghost Light. It’s safe, tame, and bland.

As for the Fifth Doctor himself, I realised when I got back into Doctor Who that, much as I genuinely love each and every Doctor, it’s Peter I probably love… the least. Just because there’s the least there. Yes, he does amazingly with pretty thin material, but I just find very little to notice, let alone love. I find the idea of a youthful, sporty, blond Doctor far more interesting in theory than practise (to me, he works far better in The Tides of Time comics cycle than he ever did on TV). Although here we get onto discussing his ineffectualness, the writers not knowing what to do with him, and that’s all old ground.

Actually, he is kind of great here, but the problem is I’m not sure that’s typical: he’s a bit shiftier and more manic than usual in his first performance, as if he manages more sparkle while unsure of himself. His performance in this story brings out a lot of the best attributes of the Doctor (curiosity, sarcasm, distractibility, and pained concern), but unfortunately this pretty much amounts to saying ‘he’s downhill from his first performance on’. (Interestingly, he does seem more modern than his predecessors, in describing the Urbankans as "frogs with funny hairdos" and talking about safety pins as earrings.)

The radical change of direction for the series, introducing such a vague, dithering Doctor was obviously always going to be a gamble. So the inexplicable decision to saddle him with not one but two alien companions boggles the mind. Surely ‘everyday everyman’ audience identification figures make sense, as demonstrated, in fact, by the impossible-to-relate-to main characters here, doing inexplicable technological things in ridiculous costumes. At least Tegan demonstrates some confusion and human emotion – I don’t especially like her, but if only there’d been space for her to be developed, one-on-one.

Alien companions just don’t work, unless it’s an easily graspable concept (ie, Leela – who I know isn’t an alien, but, you know: ‘savage primitive’ is easy to get from the chamois swimwear) – whereas, Adric is… a maths expert. In pyjamas. Nyssa is… some other sort of expert. In velvet. They end up (by necessity) talking about earth as if they’re from it (or have a reason to give a shit) – so, let’s mark this down as a failed experiment and move on. Oh, wait, no – Turlough’s on his way.

Perhaps this demonstrates what differentiates the eighties (at least, the Fifth Doctor era) from the preceding eras (more specifically than just ‘style over substance’): there is no focus on characterisation. The historical personages here (Mayans, etc) are basically extras. Compare to The Aztecs (or any historical), where Autloc, Cameca, etc, are recognisable, believably human characters. There is nothing human here.

And nothing dramatic happens either! (There’s a swordfight… which the regulars are no more involved with than to watch, while the villains spend their time watching the regulars.) The WHOLE SHITTING THING amounts to endless exposition; constant babble about silicon chips which is as dull and meaningless as it sounds. It remains likeable enough – it’s not hateful – but as I’ve chosen to watch it, this begs the question, who thought any casual viewer would care about this, and not find it utterly tedious and inexplicable?

There are lots of fudged moments where things could almost get interesting, but don’t: Adric’s apparent betrayal of the Doctor is robbed of any drama (possibly wishful thinking anyway, where Matthew Waterhouse is concerned) by the Doctor telling him he’s an idiot, and Adric… accepting it. Similarly, the ‘daring’ spacewalk is filmed so turgidly that it is in no way exciting, epic, or triumphant, as it should be. It is literally as interesting as a walk in the park. At least Monarch is funny and naturalistic (in fact, he’s a pretty amazing villain, in that he is actually quite charming, but deranged – that actually comes across).

Yes, this story could be characterised as demonstrating style over substance (ie, shallow storytelling), but, embarrassingly, the direction is actually far more pedestrian than in the sixties, or season seven, which had a sense of style to them! Obviously things can’t always automatically get better as they progress, but surely there must have been some red faces when they realised they were making a series that looked considerably worse than it did 12 years ago? I guess that’s the problem; no-one was aware or pragmatic enough to realise.

That this story isn’t going to rile anyone makes it worse; it’s entirely ambitionless. There’s no sense of fun, or alternatively, darkness and violence. Four to Doomsday encapsulates the Davison era’s sense of naive straightforwardness, but also how it got the basics wrong. It lost not so much realism (a dubious concept within Doctor Who), but conviction.

Also, why the chuffing hell doesn’t anyone have a bee in their bonnet about the Fifth Doctor casually chucking poison over Monarch? Sheer favouritism!

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