Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Blog Gold: Dr No

So it seems I haven't posted here for over three months.  Hello!  Hope you enjoyed the summer.  Thanks to a new role at work and the small matter of buying a flat (more on that story later) I seem to have forgotten to write anything.  Or not had any time to do so.  So, until I get round to it, here's a blog I wrote two years ago but never published - partly because I wasn't confident enough at the time in what I was saying, partly because I just couldn't be arsed arguing the point with those who disagreed (and there were many).  But reading it again it it's worth publishing from a historical viewpoint, and certainly as a (somewhat downbeat) way of linking into Doctor Who's 50th anniversary in a few weeks' time.  I wrote this in October 2011, shortly after transmission of The Wedding of River Song.  And given the intervening period, the first line is especially prophetic!  Enjoy...

First off, a bit of time travel.

I became interested in Doctor Who after the 1996 TV Movie, which really caught the imagination of the twelve-year-old me, if not the US audience it was aimed at.  With the help of the Radio Times supplement I became interested in the rest of the series, and picked up some cheap VHS releases from our local Co-op.  The first full story I bought was The Dominators so it's nothing short of a miracle I came back for more (not really - The Dominators is amazing, everyone who says it isn't it mistaken!).

The next four years were spent buying the videos, reading the magazine, getting my poor Uncle to tape episodes from UK Gold on Sunday mornings and nagging parents to take me to the Llangollen exhibition.  By 2000 however my interest had started to wane - partly due to running out of material to watch, partly due to it being a bit of a depressing time to be a fan (a run of repeats was curtailed due to low ratings), partly due to being completely uninterested in the audio stories which had just been launched and were being heavily hyped, but probably mainly because I was getting older and perhaps "growing out of it".  My interest was reignited a few years later by the superb DVD range, which was just getting going in 2003 and contained much on the making of the show, as well as clips from the likes of Blue Peter and Breakfast Time.  I'd always been as interested in the making of the show as the show itself, and luckily enough shortly after this came the announcement that the show was to return to TV.

Like millions of others I've watched every week since that relaunch in March 2005 (you can see Kate and I reviewing the return of the show on YSTV here from 7.30 in - don't be too alarmed that I appear to be attached to a cable - it's my mic lead, I don't run off mains power).  There have been good episodes and bad episodes in the years since but as a whole it's been a pretty brilliant series.  Along with the X Factors and Strictlys of the world it has helped to bring the family audience back to Saturday nights and paved the way for the likes of Robin Hood, Merlin and Primeval to do a similar thing.

But I've a confession to make.  The most recent run just hasn't worked for me.  I've tried to like it, I really have, and having had it signposted from the start that the storyline would run through the entire series I've waited until the end before writing this.  It's been remarked upon numerous times in the press that the storylines have become "too complicated".  I don't think it's necessarily that they're too complicated, more that you begin to tire after a while of the trick of witholding the facts just to string you out through the series.  That's not sophisticated storytelling, that's just the dramatic equivalent of saying "I know something you don't know".  It didn't work for Lost and it certainly doesn't work for Doctor Who.  Dramatic tension is now almost entirely centered around revealing the solution to topsy-turvy plotlines.  It's also become a bit obsessed with itself.  Too many stories are about how much of a legend the Doctor is, about Amy and Rory doing something or other we don't care about, and River Sodding Song turning up every five minutes to phone in another pantomime-esque performance.  Everything else seems incidental. 

Splitting the series into two - assuming it wasn't to account for delays in the production of the programme, as has been reported - was also a bad move.  The first half of the series accelerated towards an artificial climax halfway through, towards the big revelation - River is Amy and Rory's daughter!  Um, OK.  Now Melody has been kidnapped and we've got to find her.  Except, we haven't, because she's there, fully grown and fine.  Then after the break, the storyline seemed to be completely forgotten for a few episodes with Amy and Rory not seeming at all concerned at the disappearance of their daughter.  It's rumoured that A Good Man Goes To War was originally intended to go much nearer the end of the run (which makes sense given the lack of references to it's events in much of the second half of the series), and that the decision to split the series into two led to it being pulled forward to create a cliffhanger climax.  All in all, a bit of a mess.  The best episodes this series - The Doctor's Wife, The Girl Who Waited and Closing Time - were all the most continuity-lite stories, and were all the better for it.

But it's not just the episodes themselves.  There seems to be a slightly grouchy element to the series and it's defenders at the moment.  Those complaining about the storylines are more or less told that it's they who have the problem and they should keep up.  The days of Russell T Davies jovially dismissing problems seem long gone.  This is matched by some of the writers and "super-fans" on Twitter who seem to have forgotten the concept of an "opinion".  The aggressive reaction to the Private Eye story (which incidentally appears to have been mostly true) shows that they're completely unwilling to tolerate any criticism of the show - a big turnaround from the early days of the relaunch when the success of the show was never assumed to be guaranteed.

This is shown by the constant harping about the ratings by the programme's cheerleaders.  The second half of the current series has been beaten by ITV1 a number of times on overnight ratings, first of all by the launch of Red Or Black.  When it emerged that the game show had beaten the good Doctor, the vitriol poured on the show and it's viewers on Twitter and the forums was quite unprecedented.  And for what?  That show had a hell of a lot of publicity - yours truly was heavily involved in the countdown clock that kept popping up on ITV1 in the days prior to launch - so is it any surprise that quite a few people wanted to see what it was all about?  Was there any benefit to all the energy poured on rubbishing it when it is very unlikely to run for the 48 years Doctor Who has and certainly not endeared itself in the same way?

More worrying was the show being beaten a couple of times by All Star Family Fortunes in the overnights.  For all that Doctor Who eventually regained the lead thanks to a hefty amount of people watching their recordings later in the week, that shouldn't be happening, and anyone who says they aren't bothered by it should be.  The BBC brought the show back to get a big family audience all watching TV on a Saturday night, and talking about it in the playground or around the watercooler on Monday morning.  If the storylines have got to the point where you don't mind catching up at a late date rather than watching the instant it is available and are watching Vernon Kay instead, then we're in trouble.  The idea that the figures for the programme should include iPlayer viewings and BBC Three repeats, as some are suggesting, is ridiculous - how on earth can you ascertain how many of those people are not watching for a second time?  Probably trying to work out what on earth is going on...

Obviously all of this is my view - there are plenty of people who seem to love the series as it is, and good luck to them.  I just don't feel I'm watching the same show as them.  As things stand we're at a turning point for the show, as the mid-noughties Who empire is this autumn crumbling.  I'd be very surprised if Torchwood returns after the disappointing American seriesThe Sarah Jane Adventures is ending for altogether sadder reasonsConfidential has been axed.  The signs are that the next series of Doctor Who will be spread over a much longer period than the current one.  It's unclear what effect the BBC's cost-cutting will have on the programme (if any).  It seems that the show as a whole will have a smaller prescence on television as it approaches the big 5-0.

(TARDIS sound effect)

So, two years later, how does that sound?  Not far off the mark to be honest.  Series 7 was indeed broadcast over a much longer period, despite vain attempts by the publicity team to convince people that they were two separate series.  This means that since the start of 2011, we've essentially missed out on a whole series of the programme.  This in itself is not necessarily a problem - belts are being tightened all over the BBC and I wouldn't blame them if they wanted to make a very expensive show last a bit longer.  But the complete wall of silence over the reasons - cost or otherwise - doesn't give much encouragement.  

And the show itself?  The first broadcast section of series 7 was a massive improvement, and was actually marketed as five distinct "blockbuster" episodes, all largely self-contained, which was hugely refreshing after the continuity-heavy series 6.  The second part of the run - broadcast six months and one day after the conclusion of the first section - was less sure-footed, featuring a worrying number of "duff" episodes that were so unmemorable I'd struggle, six months on, to tell you anything about them.  One bright part was the introduction of Jenna Coleman as Clara who gave a refreshingly sparky performance, but had some rather patchy character development (and let's not even mention the entirely pointless episode where the children she babysits for are taken on an adventure).

What's rammed the point home for me is re-watching the Russell T Davies years again.  I travel to Leeds for work every week and I'm passing the time on the train by watching episodes from 2005 onwards, in order.  And it's so, so refreshing.  You actually come away from an episode saying "so that's what it was all about" rather than feeling you should have paid more attention at an undefined point in the past to understand it more.  You also have one or maybe two dodgy episodes a series, the rest generally rather good - a statistic that has pretty much reversed in recent years.  Matt Smith is superb but has been given some terrible scripts.  I'm optimistic though - the show has been through peaks and troughs in the past and the prospect of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor is very exciting.  I'm looking forward to the next two landmark episodes: the 50th anniversary and the regeneration from 11 to 12 at Christmas.  I just hope the quality and indeed the scheduling of the series becomes a bit less erratic and I'll be able to write something more positive in 2015!