Saturday, 26 December 2009

Ten Stories #8: "This can’t be how it ends!"

Written by Matthew Jacobs, directed by Geoffrey Sax, 1996

It can’t be overstated how inexplicable the TVM is, especially when you consider it functioning as the pilot for a reboot of a then-defunct series. After a story from an era very obviously getting to grips with the idea of utilising, rethinking, and expanding the mythology of the series, the garbled introductory voiceover makes it painfully clear that this is made by people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing. “It was on the planet Skaro that my old enemy, the Master, was finally put on trial.” Two seconds in and it’s already displaying a fatal disregard for anyone not on intimate terms with the original series. It’s inexplicable – did anyone involved with this have the faintest clue how to market a pilot?! Cos this isn’t how. Skaro, the Master? What?

More fundamentally baffling is the introduction of a past Doctor with no pop-cultural status, not from the PoV of an audience identification figure, but in the TARDIS console room – which it wouldn’t even be immediately obvious to a new audience is within the police box-in-space. It’s all too easy to say this, post-Rose, but restarting a series by going back to absolute basics (the Doctor – otherworldly hero; the TARDIS – erratic time machine) is surely a no-brainer. That is really all that the audience needs to be provided with (just look at An Unearthly Child – less is more, people!).

Who really thought muddying the water with thirteen lives – or even starting out with a regeneration! – was a good idea. (In fact, kicking off with a regeneration is the most damning demonstration of the counter-productively fan-pleasing approach adopted by Philip Segal; including something fan ‘wisdom’ demands should be included, even though it doesn’t work narratively, and which has no emotion behind it for the general audience.) Funny how, after four-and-a-bit series, the BBC Wales crew haven’t found any discussion of how regeneration works necessary, yet here ‘12 lives’ is bandied around willy-nilly, as if it means anything at all.

Everyone seems to be in awe of the fact that Russell T Davies managed to reboot DW for a wide audience (probably because the TVM fumbled it so badly) – and yeah, it is a feat in terms of ratings and the fact that family programming has been non-existent for so long… But in terms of creating a good introductory piece of Doctor Who (which I would argue Rose isn’t), surely it’s a no-brainer: a fully-formed, eccentric Doctor arrives in the life of an ordinary, likeable person, fights some memorable monsters, and gets to be heroic and win, in the context of an exciting – but funny and not po-faced – adventure. Obviously that’s what Davies was going for with Rose – I don’t think he succeeded (it’s vacuous and anodyne), but the TVM… clearly no-one had a vision for this worked out.

The TVM’s so concerned with what ‘should’ be included that consequentially, nothing’s bold enough here – as often stated, they tried to play with all the old continuity, but then messed it up; better that they’d had the courage to make big changes. The new series may be flawed, but its canniness in gradually reintroducing the fundamentals of the series from the ground up, and dispensing with those which aren’t relevant, really makes the TVM seem more inept than ever. The 2005 series managed to reformat the structure of the series (increased emotional content and emphasis on the ‘real world’) without actually disagreeing with or rebooting established continuity (allowing for fan-pleasing references which don’t alienate the general audience). The TVM, on the other hand, manages to alienate the general audience whilst trying to give lip-service to the past.

Contrasting the stylistic approach of the TVM and the new series says a lot about their fundamental differences; here, the Doctor is a Byronic dandy, while Davies gave us a bovver boy and a skinny-suited geek; the TVM has Puccini, the new series has Britney, Soft Cell, and the Scissor Sisters. Ordinarily I’d find the higher-brow approach more laudable, and though the new series’ pop-cultural excesses can grate, there has also been genuine intelligence and emotion beyond that – which the TVM, with its apparent greater aspirations, doesn’t ever achieve.

The new series is often too involved with its canny, audience-luring set-pieces and celebrity casting, but this is a bizarre example of things going much too far the other way. There’s nothing memorable about the script, or events, or characters (beyond the Doctor, arguably, who, though well-played, doesn’t feel new or original). Being a one-off has, I think, given the TVM as status within fandom that’s at odds with its ‘importance’ or quality, so it’s very easy to take for granted – even to take for granted that it’s a bit shit. But, watched objectively, it’s even worse than that: there is literally no imagination on display, nothing you haven’t seen before; no creativity or imagination. That is, all the things that make me prize Doctor Who.

By contrast, watching Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys recently, I was struck for the first time by its broad similarities with the TVM, which highlight the latter’s absolute wretchedness: an addled time traveller is hospitalised in nineties America, before getting away with the smart, cynical female doctor who treated him, and who eventually comes round to his way of thinking... Twelve Monkeys is everything an uninspired, half-baked made-for-TV movie isn’t (complex, effective, and visually idiosyncratic), and forms a damning counterpoint.

It’d be missing the point to think that its being made (well, set) in America, with American actors, is the problem– it’s that it’s made with an American mentality applied to a British franchise, which jars horribly (ie, po-faced, self-important, lazy, illogical – which is a slur, but generally true outside of HBO. Christ, I’d pay good money for a HBO Doctor Who…). The US setting doesn’t work, not because of the setting itself, but because though an English element is injected, it’s so patently fake and affected (tea, waistcoats, HG Wells), that it doesn’t ring true at all and is ultimately meaningless. (Whereas British productions like The Gunfighters or Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks are better able to integrate the show’s oft-cited ‘Englishness’ into an American milieu.) At least if an effort had been made to realise the San Francisco setting as something more than a generic American city there would have been some individuality.

What we got is a generic rainy thriller, in a generic American setting, with no individuality or any memorable ideas (the ‘yeti in the Underground’ factor). It’s pretty much the sort of rain-slicked, low-rent thriller Channel 5 used to show late at night; all that’s missing is the soft porn and Jean Claude Van Damme. Or Eric Roberts. (…Oh.) As such, I realised this time round that I’d never watch this if it weren’t (tangentially) Doctor Who.

All this is especially frustrating considering the set design; were the production overall as good and assured as it looks – if it had the plot and ideas to match – it’d be great. (The mirroring of scenes also is at least stylistically interesting – James Whale’s Frankenstein with the regeneration; the reborn Doctor and Master; the Doctor looking for clothes and Chang Lee investigating his belongings.) Regardless of your opinion of the concept of the TVM’s TARDIS interior, it looks fantastic. It’s so lovingly shot that I want to be in it, and smell the beeswax polish.

The quality of the production design also makes me feel we might really have missed out because of the lack of monsters – which is rather a baffling omission, making this story feel fundamentally different to existing Doctor Who. I guess ‘monsters’ were a bit passé in 1996, but a major appeal of Doctor Who is slavering BEMs lumbering out of the shadows. There’s fun, humour, excitement, tension, and scares there, and this story is therefore a good deal less fun, humorous, exiting, tense and scary than it could otherwise have been. Not that I don’t think there should be monsterless stories – but a more tangibly dangerous threat might have been the jolt this story needed. (What would a TVM monster have been like though? They could at least have had a good one-off one, à la Battlefield, rather than an army of CG Daleks landing on the Golden Gate Bridge – probably something bestial, shifty, and mainly unseen. Something a bit ‘edgy,’ more X-Files than B-movie; maybe like that Eighth Doctor DWM strip with Grace, focusing on a monster based on the weird translucent snake, rather than the Master (arguably a better concept…).)

Despite this oversight, at least Grace counts for quite a lot, and I like her – a genuinely grown-up, intelligent woman. She is quite similar to the sardonic Liz Shaw – no bad thing – though, like her, she almost doesn’t feel like a bona fide companion at all – whether because of these atypical characteristics, or a lack of roundels and blobby monsters, I’m not sure). And McGann’s obviously beautiful and brilliant, and clearly deserves better, as he is mainly called upon to shout a lot (which, luckily, he is very good at). Having said that though - I almost can’t believe how transparent the concept of the Eighth Doctor is (did we really fall for this back in 1996?): ‘he’s Victorian like you’d expect… but sexy!!’. The Victorian/Byronic elements of his costume are clearly meant to indicate individuality, but by people to whom this doesn’t come naturally.

Yeah, there are some lovely scenes in this story – the, "Don’t be sad, Grace. You’ll do great things" scene between Grace and the Doctor in her house is charming – but, on balance, the more I think about the TVM (and let’s face it, it’s had a lot of scrutiny), the worse it is. I started off trying to be fairly charitable, but by the end, it’s unforgivable. It’s just bollocks, isn’t it? I like what it gave to the Doctor Who world (in terms of the books and audio ranges), but considering that amounts to the Eighth Doctor and the Gothic TARDIS interior, that doesn’t seem much pay off for seven years’ wait and 89 minutes of my life.

The bottom line: scratch McCoy (much as I love him) and the regeneration (at least on screen), along with the backstory, amnesia, and temporal orbit, then add a monster, idiosyncrasy, wittier humour… and, then, yeah, it’d work. It is an intriguing digression (no other DW looks or feels like this)… unfortunately, that’s not entirely a good thing.

Frankly, I don’t have the patience to discuss it any more, but here as some other thoughts:

• The Doctor being mown down by a gang with automatic weapons would be unthinkable at any other point! Can you imagine the outcry if Tennant ended up knifed by a bunch of 14-year-old hoodies?

• What shitting colour is McGann’s coat? In publicity shots it appears brown, but fandom seems to think it’s bottle green? WE NEED TO KNOW.

• Put in context with the other Masters, it is quite horrible that Eric Roberts’ version strangles Bruce’s wife one-handed… But what’s the deal with his killing semen?

• A lot of the differences from the original run (the theme, romance, half-human) seem a lot tamer in light of what would be considered liberties with the new series, if it weren’t so successful (increased emotion, romance, different format); I get the feeling fandom would have suffered a collective seizure if the new series had screened in 1996.

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