Saturday, 26 December 2009

Ten Stories #9: "We all know what happens to nonentities! They get promoted"

Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Brian Grant, 2005

I’m not overly familiar with series one, as, though it got me back into Doctor Who, I wasn’t massively involved with it (and certainly not its run-up). But now, I’ve gotten to grips with the new series’ approach; the mix of serious stories with ‘zany’ ones, its emotional button-pushing and crowd-pleasing, and tend to cherry-pick the bits I like. But in 2005, it all felt hugely inconsistent, and a personal affront every time it was too crass or lazy. (It’s funny that now – already – it’s like going back to a forgotten, apocryphal era; like the Cushing movies, or at least an obscure prologue to Tennant’s incumbency.)

As for the Doctor, I’m deeply ambivalent about his 2005 vintage: I can’t help but feel, if you wanted an uneccentric, cocky, aggressive, war-scarred character, why make him the Doctor at all? (“Ooh, he’s tough, isn’t he?”) But at the same time, the unexpectedness of these characteristics makes him one of the most interesting incarnations, because no-one would have predicted his Mancunian swagger.

In fact, a lot of my beef with the Ninth Doctor is with his costume. I mean, I get it – black leather is shorthand for an unpretentious ‘edginess’ that’s accessible to the masses in a way a wing-collared shirt wouldn’t be. But I tend to view things in a visual sense, so maybe this bugs me more than most people, so, as the Doctor’s costume has always been such a strong visual signifier of his characteristics, this seems… unfortunately mundane. However, again, as an exception to the rule it’s interesting – so I’m ambivalent here too. (Mainly I just don’t like the hideous t-shirt/jumper thing. At least a shirt or actual jumper would’ve been more timeless.)

I do like that the Ninth Doctor is ugly though (striking, yes; handsome, no); they didn’t cast a stud Doctor, which would be one of the worst things that could happen to the character (and which is fortunately equally true of Tennant (unconventionally pretty), and Smith (‘Edward Tardishands’)). I should be grateful a leather jacket was as great a concession they made to accessibility.

Eccleston’s Doctor is also childish to the point of vindictive, but I like that he’s not perfect – what does annoy me though are the moments of forced ‘zaniness’; his ‘idiot savant’ routine, which doesn’t seem to come naturally at all (and even if this is deliberate, I still don’t like the effect it gives). Playing it straight, he’s great, so he’s not too bad here (though his anger and survivor guilt obviously comes out most in Dalek). This mostly harder portrayal of the Doctor makes the Eighth, by contrast, feel overly idealised and a bit wishy-washy. In fact, I know that Lawrence Miles considers, compared to the Ninth Doctor – introduced blowing up a department store – the nice, romantic, handsome Eighth Doctor feels like a total gyp.

Overall, it’s funny how old-school this feels (a bovver boy Doctor notwithstanding) – which is quite reassuring; with a bit of distance, it’s easy to really see that, where the TVM does feels like a different beast, this is unavoidably the same series, just given a lick of fresh paint. I even kept expecting cliffhangers (“‘That thing,’ as you put it, is in charge of the human race” – cue music!). (Visually, it doesn’t even look that much better than a lot of vintage Doctor Who; CG, film quality, and editing distinguishes it, but as it’s costumes and sets that are the more obvious, this doesn’t create such a leap as it might seem it should.) Having said that, looking back in a few more years’ time, this will equally appear very much of its time (well, I suppose most things tend to be); it’s accessible and easy to grasp, but with a veneer of voguish ‘darkness’ (just look at The Dark Knight or Watchmen).

A decision of the current production team which is very ‘now’ (being so desperate not to turn people off with anything not quite obvious enough), which I get, but don’t really like, is the contemporary-clothes-in-the-far-future approach. Yes, it avoids pyjamas and silver jumpsuits, but (say) Blade Runner-like ethnic diversity would be far more interesting and memorable (there are some weird haircuts here, but it’s mainly Next T-shirts).

More understandable (and humanising) is Davies’ trademark focus on real peoples’ lives (or lower-middle-class fixation, depending on how charitable you want to be), even in such a far-flung future. However, I can’t help feel the Editor’s rant about humanity rings worryingly true: "Strutting about all over the surface of the earth, like they’re so individual – when of course they’re not; they’re just cattle."

This is probably the most positive I’ve ever felt about the Ninth Doctor – but suddenly, it works. A harder, black-clad, no-frills Doctor (literally); I get it now. After the event, this suddenly seems quite an attractive concept. And at least these characteristics are addressed thematically/fictively (he’s like this due to the Time War), and the hard-wearing, no-nonsense clothing reflects his personality, so doesn’t appear an arbitrary choice (unlike, say, the Sixth Doctor’s costume).

The Long Game isn’t a exceptional story, by any means, but it is pretty representative of the new series’ take on the show, and, even given its cons, I’d so much rather take this over the reverential (but just… wrong) TVM. Immediately, even a ‘lesser’ story like this makes so much more sense than the TVM. This is recognisably Doctor Who – not especially in relation to a given era, but like a distillation of the public’s expectations; it’s big, brash, bold, set on a space station, has humour, action, emotion, monsters and possession, and an old-school villain. I may not like every element of Russell T Davies’ approach, but at least it has some notable imagination and idiosyncrasy.

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