Sunday, 10 January 2010
Series one #10: "THIS WILL BE OUR PARA-DISE"
Review: BAD WOLF/THE PARTING OF THE WAYS
Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Joe Ahearne, 2005
‘TV shows gone evil’ could have been an archetypically mad Doctor Who concept, but is fumbled by being so reverential that no satire is displayed. If anything is ripe for parody, it’s reality TV, but no – there’s no opinion about it either way here (by contrast, see Charlie Brooker’s vitriolic ‘zombie Big Brother,’ Dead Set); everything’s made too literal by using real shows, so you can’t avoid the massive cynicism of trading off these shows’ status and then being too scared to rub them the wrong way.
There are attempts at meaningful commentary (“Half the world’s too fat, half the world’s too thin, and you lot just watch telly”), but even the Doctor is distracted from this train of thought, like no-one can bear to bite the hand that feeds. If anything, I would’ve preferred seeing the Doctor in a contemporary Big Brother gone evil. Also, if they were going to do this, if only they’d filmed in the real house; this shitty knock-off belies the trouble gone into getting cross-channel permissions, while The Weakest Link questions are entirely meaningless and thus tedious.
In fact, there is a quite uncanny feel to start with, but the idea of BB et al existing in most respects unchanged 200,000 years in the future is suspension of disbelief busting even on Doctor Who’s ridiculous terms.
I wrote a massive rant when this was first screened – probably textbook ‘anti-RTD,’ in retrospect – about how vapid, contrived, ‘lazy and shallow and embarrassing’ it is, ‘spoon-feeding lumpen proles’. To an extent, I still agree with those comments, it’s just that distance has allowed me to appreciate elements beyond this.
It’s interesting seeing Bad Wolf as a direct sequel to The Long Game, showing again more direct links between the stories here than in later Davies seasons. The costumes are even more mundane though – they aren’t even archetypally iconic silhouettes, just jeans and boring short-sleeved shirts. (With hindsight through, it is nice to have a non-contemporary finale.)
In fact, it all looks a bit cheap – the Playmobil androids and the Daleks’ Quasar set is particularly heinous. I do kind of love the Emperor despite myself, given its clear fanboy button-pushing, though this is mainly down to Nick Briggs, to be fair (“THIS – IS – PER-FECTION!”). The ring-modulated religious terminology works well, too, certainly better than when it’s rehashed in The Next Doctor with the Cybermen – Daleks are more epic and mythic to start with.
The Bad Wolf ‘arc’ (such as it is) is still a letdown, and I feel it should’ve been made clearer that the ‘Bad Wolves’ seeded throughout the series derive from the Corporation here; it always felt to me like the Bad Wolf Corporation was just another incidence of these two words recurring, but Rose’s message to herself wouldn’t have any meaning if it didn’t originate here.
It doesn’t feel particularly special for a finale; it’s a bit too mundane: guns and sci-fi corridors and extras with boring clothes. This mundanity extends to the towtruck opening the TARDIS console (I assumed that was ‘clearly’ going to follow a brute-force-won’t-work route, where Rose’d realise she’d have to commune with the TARDIS to get it to respond to her. Besides which, the angle they’re pulling it at clearly wouldn’t open it). In fact, it’s possibly one of the most straightforward stories of the season, with everything contrived to build toward the moment of regeneration, which doesn’t feel that momentous anyway.
On the flipside, it’s pleasingly unflashy by comparison to later overblown finales, and I do like the highlighting of the Doctor as flawed hero, with his responsibility here for “a hundred years of hell”. Nevertheless, though I’ve become more able to accept the stories that I still particularly don’t like, I would have much preferred to see Kyoto in 1336 than this.
I just wish Davies wouldn’t try to outdo Hollywood – something he can’t possibly do, and which is especially heinous when it’s clearly the Michael Bays, Roland Emmerichs, and, yes, Steven Spielbergs that he’s trying to outdo – big, unsubtle filmmakers, all blood and thunder and saccharine emotion thrown in. Dear god. Trying to take on multimillion-dollar budgets makes it a very foregone conclusion who’s going to come off worse. Those films are soulless enough, but predicated around massive budgets and being able to blow things up on a large scale; Doctor Who can’t do this to any comparable degree, so, to my mind, should alter its game plan accordingly. Yes, the series has done relatively large-scale, globetrotting action well in the past (say, in The Seeds of Doom, etc), but Doctor Who’s forte has always, I’d argue, been smaller and more unusual.
It’s very interesting, now, with a little distance, appreciating Christopher Eccleston’s season as much a full, legitimate era as any other (eg, the Third Doctor’s, with its ‘UNIT family’), with as many recognisable and distinctive tropes (not least the Mancunian bovver boy Doctor and council estate-blonde companion).
One of the main things I found watching it this time, comfortingly, is that the series is as hokey as ever, really. I mean, to all the outsiders and critics and long-suffering girlfriends. If you don’t care about it, it’s still just stupid monsters and aliens and stuff – even when it’s attempting a serious drama like Father’s Day. That makes me love it.
Having said that, it’s a lot less gaudy and crass than it could have been. Overall, the entire collection of stories may not be entirely to my taste, but I appreciate them as a collection. Everything did get notably fluffier, generally speaking, with the departure of Eccleston, which I now see as fully tragic for the show. In retrospect, this is much more uncompromising and less trite than the later seasons can be (even appearing visually darker).
Also, for all its faults, at least the new series feels (unidealistically) human; people eat bad food, send texts, and get drunk. This can get translated into a relentlessly lower-middle-class mentality, which seems reductively out of place in a series which is capable of such infinite variety, but, say, the preceding TVM, by comparison, doesn’t feel human at all. Grace Holloway is supremely idealised by comparison to most companions: she is a cardiologist, living in a gorgeous house in San Francisco, who goes to the opera. This is pretty much all we know about her. Not that these things aren’t ‘real’; they just feel very contrived to fit the makers’ idea of the character as An Intelligent Nineties Woman. Similarly, the Fifth and Sixth Doctor’s eras under John Nathan-Turner adopted a prissy abhorrence of real life, and barely acknowledged anything as messily human as cravings or fancying someone or even feeling homesick.
I’m not a huge fan of Rose, mainly cos of the horribly hysterical fanfic thing that’s built up around her, and series two’s whinginess. But, on the basis of this series alone, she is the best new series companion. Her reactions are idiosyncratic enough to feel authentically human in a way the bland Martha, likeable though she is, doesn’t. (I can’t help but think this is because the Doctor/Rose pseudo-romance is much more ‘paternal’ and based on mutual respect than with Tennant.)
As for Eccleston’s Doctor, much as I’ve warmed to him this time round, I’m still surprised the general public did; he’s just not easy or particularly accessible (in the ways Tennant is). It’s great that still worked (though puzzling, given how much the general public are written down to elsewhere in the series), but, considering how much he has been erased by Tennant in the public consciousness, I can’t help but feel the show’s initial popularity was more in spite of than because of him.
I used to think of the Ninth Doctor as ineffectual and not even as intelligent as his predecessors. But, he’s canny, subtly driving events from the background. In fact, he reminds me of nothing so much as a combination of the First Doctor’s snappish moral authority and the Seventh’s goofy enthusiasm and energy, shielding a darker persona.
Coming back to this series – which has almost become a forgotten prefix to Tennant’s era – makes me realise that I very quickly stopped actually judging Tennant’s performance, because I take him for granted so much; he simply is the Doctor (for better or worse). While this might be seen as a good thing, my comparative ambivalence about Eccleston makes me consider his at least the more interesting casting (if not simply ‘the better choice’). Also, four years late, it’s only just sinking in what a coup casting a character actor as respected as Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor is.
Overall, series one is more coherent than those that followed (the recurring Albion Hospital and Satellite 5/Gamestation, etc) – arguably a advantage born out of its relative limitations. In series one the show wasn’t yet an all-conquering ratings behemoth and couldn’t indulge its every whim quite so readily, and consequentially it feels tighter.
Its other strength is in not going too far in any one direction. Yes, it has a certain juvenile streak – but it also includes quite serious dramatic approaches. Similarly, there is stunt casting – but also plenty of unknowns in juicy roles. The way the new series’ seasons are set up to shift from a light to a dark tone is also a canny way of ensuring its longevity, rather than settling on one tone.
There are too many slight stories for this to be a classic season, but as a statement of intent for a to all intents and purposes long-dead series, it’s as effective as could be realistically hoped for. (Although, it is interesting how now I can barely imagine how the series could have been brought back different – whereas obviously there are countless possibilities. As, hopefully, we will see under Moffat…)