Friday, 19 February 2010

Reaction: THE MIGHTY 200

So, Carey Mulligan was the cover star of Little White Lies’ An Education issue, which was out at the same time as DWM 413. Among all the raving for a star on the make, there was the obligatory potted summary of her career to date, including the statement that she, “paid her dues doing costume drama (Bleak House, Pride and Prejudice) and Saturday night kitsch (Doctor Who)”. Now, obviously, as a fan, I’m massively defensive of the show, but – perhaps because it’s coming from a publication I respect – this tiny phrase particularly needled me.

Is Doctor Who really just “Saturday night kitsch”? Sentimental, vulgar bad taste, created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste… Much as I might like to think otherwise, it doesn’t take much soul-searching to admit that, yes, that’s as good a description as any. (And there’s no point getting your knickers in a twist about that; it’s like when it’s called a kids’ show – well, yes, it is.)

I would contend, strongly, that Doctor Who can rise above that rather damning description, but it’s never going to be Six Feet Under or Generation Kill (etc, etc). Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s not to say it isn’t possible to enjoy the programme to a deeper, more analytical or emotionally involved level. I think it’s also true that – perhaps especially with a certain amount of distance – things that were tawdry at the time can be re-evaluated in retrospect; exploitation films like Shunya Ito’s Female Prisoner Scorpion trilogy is an example of dazzlingly inventive, beautiful, devastating films, but which were/are ‘just’ cheap pinky violence. Similarly, I find a lot more intrinsic appeal and value in the older series of Doctor Who than the current.

All this made me think about the Mighty 200 poll in the concurrent issue of DWM (413), ranking all the stories from An Unearthly Child (#61) to Planet of the Dead (#99). (I realise this is quite belated – but whatever.)

To the Not-We this would be an absurd qualification of a collection of equally kitsch stories. As Gary Gillatt points out in the issue, the first and two-hundredth places are occupied by stories which aired consecutively – which begs the question, would the writers of LWLies even differentiate? In all honesty, I think they would, but maybe I’m being idealistic. For an opinionated film magazine it’s probably obligatory to look down on mainstream Saturday night pop culture entertainment – and probably rightly so. Whereas, as I say, a little perspective goes a long way; Androzani (#1) or Weng-Chaing (#4) would be a lot easier for an outsider (albeit one of broadly the right mindset to start with, ie, not an idiot) to appreciate, precisely because those stories aren’t tuned into the dispiriting idiom of modern TV. (Which can’t even be escaped entirely in the best of the new series, like The Girl in the Fireplace (#11) or Human Nature (#6).)

Anyway, more specifically – Androzani at number one surprises me, but in a pleasing way. Not just because it’s not a Tom or new series story, but because it’s so uncompromising: it’s brutal, direct, with no faffing about with continuity, and features a less than obvious Doctor. In some ways it shows people appreciate tension and violence – there are always calls for more ‘darkness,’ although from other quarters there’s a backlash that Doctor Who should always be optimistic… Personally, I quite like that such a genuinely bleak story wins out. (Not that it’s bleak in the usual meaninglessly nihilistic way of Eric Saward; I suppose that’s the difference - it’s narratively-earned as part of the doomy Doctor’s-going-to-croak atmosphere.)

Actually, Blink (#2) is quite surprising too… I just don’t think it’s as good as any of Steven Moffat’s other stories. Maybe because contemporary settings are, almost by definition, boring. And though Carey Mulligan’s portrayal is likeable, Sally Sparrow gets more and more irritating – if you think about it, if anyone you actually knew said things like “Sad is happy for deep people,” you’d want to punch them in the face.

Where this survey does dispirit me though, is in its reiteration of various ingrained – but dubious - opinions (the Sixth Doctor’s highest story, Revelation, charts at number #46, when Vengeance on Varos (#124), Mark of the Rani (#148), and even the messy Two Doctors (#125) are of comparative good quality).

The Twin Dilemma being last is also predictable and tedious. It is bad, but there are so many stories a billion times more boring or lazy. I recently watched Full Circle (#101) for only the second time, and was forced to revise my initial opinion downwards. While it isn’t fundamentally dreadful, it’s a story where no element is well-realised; the acting is dire, the general look over-lit and flimsy, and the plot isn’t much better. It may not be screamingly bad enough to have attained a ‘bottom ten’ reputation like The Dominators (#191) or The Space Pirates (#195), et al, but this is still very bad Doctor Who, and it makes a mockery of this survey that it came in at 101, above, variously, perfectly decent or underrated stories like The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (#119), The Lazarus Experiment (#150), Boom Town (#141), The Sontaran Experiment (#103), or brilliant ones like The War Machines (#108) and The Myth Makers (#126).

Nevertheless, I was ready to be righteously indignant about the results of this survey, and, on balance, it’s unexpectedly heartening. Obviously, besides perhaps the top and bottom ten, it’s all meaningless. It doesn’t ‘mean’ anything that I can now state “The Time Meddler (#75) is thirteen places better than Castrovalva (#88)”; that’s just gibberish. But, it’s interesting, if more as a historical record of current prejudices than anything.

Still, I expected to be upset, and in fact there’s very little here that depresses me. The poor performance of nearly all the McCoys is disappointing (The Happiness Patrol at #170, Ghost Light at #76), as is the relatively poor performance of Hartnell and Troughton – but considering the wild difference between TV as a format back then, that was always going to be a given.

Getting more specific again, Earthshock at #19 aggrieves me, because it’s awful. Obviously all the stories’ little write-ups are a matter of opinion, but the one for Earthshock read as barefaced lies to me. Possibly written by someone who’s never seen it. Although I’m not in a postion to dig my copy out, so maybe I’m exaggerating. On general principles though, I don’t think there’s a more overrated story. Everything about it is shaky, from the stilted acting to the lightweight Cybermen. Beryl Reid is the only redeeming feature, even if she isn’t molesting nuns. (More’s the pity.)

Equally, there are some other dubious claims, like the statement that Tennant’s performance in Human Nature/The Family of Blood “marks him out as the most accomplished actor to have played the Doctor in 46 years”. Really? He can ham it up with the best of them. For my money, it’s Troughton.

On the other hand, having never experienced any hyping of new stories prior to the new series (and TVM (#135)), it’s gratifying to see new series stories which received the obligatory blanket build-up literally put in their places. It may not ‘mean’ anything, but it’s still satisfying to be able to announce that The Runaway Bride (#115) and Voyage of the Damned (#114) are officially worse than Frontier in Space (#113)…

Admittedly, the inclusion of Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (#10!), The Stolen Earth/Journey's End (#13!) and Turn Left (#12!) in the top fifteen does rile me a bit, not in a specifically Davies-bashing way, but simply because I don’t think they’re good stories, and the fact that so many people count spectacle and guest appearances over plot or atmosphere, is very grating.

That’s all quite predictable (perhaps less so with the not-quite-so irrevocably crystallised new series stories), but I did expect the rankings to be a riot of fandom’s bad taste (say, The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (#27) at number one?), so I shouldn’t complain. There’s a few odd ones I’d dispute, but the top 50 is mostly great. There is a noticeable bias in the favour of the new series (some of the new series stories in the top end just aren’t as good as the surrounding classic stories, but I suppose have the edge of fitting into a modern televisual idiom) – but it’s mostly heartening.

Obviously every single fan could contest every single placing – The Seeds of Doom at #16 surprises me, for example; I love it, but it has a feel very much of its own, a surprising attribute of such a high ranking story, and doesn’t seem to have that legendary rep most of the top 20 share... But that’s missing the point.

Although, speaking of ‘the point’… I don’t really have one. I’m a fan; I just can’t help having pesky opinions about everything. Also, I have a cold, so I feel justified in not bothering to attempt a proper conclusion to all this.

As I say, only the top and bottom of the survey really means anything, so take a look for yourself:

#1 The Caves of Androzani
#2 Blink
#3 Genesis of the Daleks
#4 The Talons of Weng-Chiang
#5 The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
#6 Human Nature/The Family of Blood
#7 Pyramids of Mars
#8 City of Death
#9 The Robots of Death
#10 Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways

#191 The Dominators
#192 Fear Her
#193 Paradise Towers
#194 The Underwater Menace
#195 The Space Pirates
#196 Time-Flight
#197 Underworld
#198 Time and the Rani
#199 Timelash
#200 The Twin Dilemma

(You can see the full list here, on Combom.)


  1. I love the I alone?

  2. Hmm, unfortunately I think you may be. I have no problem with The Gunfighters, and I think it's a good example of a story with a very fixed reputation within fandom which is mainly unjustified. I haven't seen it in ages, and though I remember it being quite stilted, there's lots of fun, like with Steven and Dodo's Back to the Future-style Wild West outfits, and Hartnell is on extremely funny form.

    Thanks for commenting!