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The Apologist?

January 11th, 2008 (12:43 am)

A conversation in the pub earlier this evening reminded me that I hadn't yet written an essay I'd been promising myself I'd foist on this journal, exploring why so many people I know and like have strong reservations, at least, over the Russell T Davies version of Doctor Who, whereas I'm much more enthusiastic about it in general, whatever its faults. This isn't going to appear now, but I thought I'd put down a marker.

I think that I place an emphasis on what worked in a story rather than what doesn't work; see high audience figures and audience identification figures as suggesting that Doctor Who is succeeding and want to celebrate that fact; and have a fan attitude shaped by my 1970s childhood and the series' massive popularity in the early-to-middle Tom Baker period, though that has been a theme of too many articles already.


Posted by: viala_qilarre (viala_qilarre)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 09:42 am (UTC)

I find it difficult to understand why people have any dislike of RTD's Doctor Who - I remember far too clearly how disatissfied and disappointed I became with the classic series at the time, and on the whole, RTD has given me everything I'd have dreamed of then, without destroying the core magic of the concept. It's so easy for people to look at the classic series through some kind of temporal beer goggles. One thing I've been thinking recently is that the classic series is, for us now, safe. It's pickled in aspic, it's *finished*. It's complete. Next week's episode isn't going to let us down on a visceral level. We can take a comfortable overview and cherry-pick the best stories on DVD, we can see it all in context.

New series DW on the other hand is taking us on a dangerous journey. It's edgy. Next week's episode could be awful. Something could happen that destroys our enjoyment. Or it could lift us to new heights.

That's one thought, anyway. But reading the DWM's In Their Own Words special is a good antidote to any fuzzy feelings about the classic series.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 04:27 pm (UTC)

It's possible to generalise about several common interest groups who don't seem to like RTD-Who very much. These may include those who argue that the 'core magic' has actually been compromised - a Doctor who wants to be one of the gang, who is not enough of an outsider, in a series too attached to the domestic and to being fashionable.

Another group are those who are disappointed that the programme isn't sufficiently science-fictional, who argue that effervescence can't cover for inaccuracies in the programme's depiction of the universe as known to modern science. In many cases they can't find the programme entertaining, or just find it irresponsible.

There's another, more specialized group, who really liked the McCoy era and enjoyed the book series, perhaps for their detailed world-building, their (apparent) attention to minutiae, or their (self-conscious) references to literature and film.

Then there are just those who want it to be 1976, or 1973, or 1982 again.

There are flaws with all these categories, of course, and there are of course overlaps; but I think they are useful up to a point.

Posted by: bunn (bunn)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 10:55 am (UTC)

I like the new series much better than the old. The old was good in parts, but my goodness, some of it stank. The new version is more consistently enjoyable to me. I don't expect it to be high art.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC)

I certainly never find with the 2005+ version of Doctor Who that a large part of the production team aren't bothering, which becomes a big problem with a lot of the old series from about 1978 onwards, though there is a rallying in the early 1980s before it falls back again.

Posted by: bunn (bunn)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 06:08 pm (UTC)

Posted by: wrong but wromantic (sally_maria)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 11:05 am (UTC)
Doctor and Ace

As someone who does generally love the new series, I very much appreciate hearing your views on the show. I don't think it's flawless, there are things I disagree with but my fundamental feeling towards it is definitely positive.

I don't need a diet of uncritical squee, but too many cases of "the new series is awful, let me tell you how" gets to be a bit much for me. It's good to read a critically engaged but still generally positive take.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 05:06 pm (UTC)

Your position is broadly similar to mine, I think. In my case I suspect it draws on my defensiveness about the series stretching back into the late 1980s, but also on the fact that I enjoy Doctor Who enjoying the kind of public appreciation it now has.

Posted by: wrong but wromantic (sally_maria)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 05:26 pm (UTC)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)

Posted by: Elaine of Astolat (ladyofastolat)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 01:06 pm (UTC)

I do wonder sometimes what role the rose-tinted spectables of nostalgia plays in the debate. I felt this at work with Star Wars. I never saw Star Wars when I was young, and saw the trilogy for the first time in 1998, then saw episode one in 1999. While I did feel that the new film was less successful than the old, a lot of fans were, in my opinion, criticising the new film for things that were also present in the old. It's very hard to be objective when you've loved something since you were 6. (And, really, why should one be objective? Fictional preferences are subjective. It's fair enough to say "I don't like it." I only get annoyed when people scream across the internet that something's "bad", full stop, and that anyone who likes it is an idiot without taste.)

Not that I can comment much on the Doctor Who side of it. Like with Star Wars, I didn't watch it when I was young. I have seen a few episodes of the old show as an adult, and have to admit that I wasn't that impressed. (Sorry!) I find the new series quite irritating in many ways, but so far it's engaged my emotions rather more than the (admittedly few) episodes I've seen of the old one.

Posted by: gervase_fen (gervase_fen)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 01:57 pm (UTC)

Here's an interesting quote that's tangentially relevant from director/producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth/The Orphanage) - "You're never as open to wonder and horror as when you're a child. When you're a child, you can really be enthralled and reach an absolutely ecstatic stage of joy with any wonder in the world. And by the same token, you can reach an incredibly deep paroxysm, like a panic of horror, deeper than any adult."

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 05:34 pm (UTC)

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 02:20 pm (UTC)

I think it's difficult to compare the new series to the whole 'old series' since there is just so much of the old series and it changed so much over time. It makes much more sense to compare the Russell T Davis era to, for example, the Jon Nathan-turner era. Even then, you might have to look at different script editors - Saward versus Cartmel perhaps.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)

I agree with everything here; as indicated above I'm not planning a new/old series comparison, because I really I regard them as iterations of the same thing. With Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson having announced their departures from the series it'll be interesting to see how the new partnership at the top, with Piers Wenger and someone yet unidentified joining RTD, makes the 2010 series.

Posted by: Adilo Creamon (the_marquis)
Posted at: January 11th, 2008 10:54 pm (UTC)

The issues I have with new Who are i) the way so much of the shows have focused on Earth, or something close to it, as if the writers (who have mostly written some very good stuff eg Girl in the Fireplace & Blink) are scared that either SF elements & locations will lose them chunks of audience or that filming practicalities will mean returning to the same gravel pit several times a year and so lose them audience again. ii)Aside from issues with Rose (sometimes she seemed to have grown as a person and other times to have slipped back into damsel mode) I've found the way that additional characters eg Mickey have sometimes been written out and then back in even during one show (GitF) as if the writers forgot about him while he went for a coffee. I wonder sometimes too if all the team are singing from the same sheet, if it's a kids show and the Xmas specials are panto what were the hints with Capt Jack about - did they all just woosh over the kids heads? I smell inconsistency.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 01:25 am (UTC)

The Earthbound setting is a calculation designed to reflect the perceived taste of the contemporary television audience, and I think it's worked. I liked the domestic setting brought in with the Tyler family, and think that the series has missed something since they went; the Jones family were too contrived and we never got to know them in the way we did Jackie and Mickey and eventually Pete. There has been a definite shift towards more alien settings, though, and I've read that three or four alien worlds will be visited in the new series.

The series could do with better editing and pacing; the Rose arc in series two seemed unnaturally prolonged, though I didn't notice Mickey absent from the narrative of Girl in the Fireplace, he really needed one more episode as a companion before he was written out in Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel.

As for the panto references in my review of Voyage of the Damned, I'd argue that panto is a family genre rather than a children's one, which is why I prefer to think of Who as more broadly folkloric anyway. In modern television terms, this involves building a coalition of demographics and keeping as many elements happy as possible. It's something the series seems to be doing very well. Give me Blink over Voyage of the Damned most days, but it's the latter which was the second most-watched television programme during 2007.

Posted by: viala_qilarre (viala_qilarre)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 06:46 pm (UTC)

You got mentioned by name in the review of your book in DWM! Fame!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 07:06 pm (UTC)

I saw it too, and wasn't going to mention it; I'm glad Andrew Pixley seemed to like my chapter, as his work on establishing Doctor Who's documentary record and putting it into the public domain via DWM has been invaluable.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 07:27 pm (UTC)

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
"On the surface it seems deep, but underneath it's superficial."

I’d like to see that essay, despite my feelings about the new series.

I half-agree with your point (in the comments) about not feeling that the production team aren’t bothering, but only with regard to what happens after the script is written (except, unforgivably, David Tennant, although he may be trying too hard). I feel that most of the writers, from Davies downwards, are just writing their fanboy fantasies (either portentous 'epics' with old monsters or shoddy, cliched ‘it’s sci-fi, no need for internal logic’ fluff), rather than really engaging with what could be done with the series.

I’m not actually that bothered by the Earthbound nature of the series per se, it just seems symptomatic of a trend towards making the stories (a) like everything else on TV and (b) like Davies’ vague memories of the seventies (is he really a fan? He seems to get a lot of the details wrong). I hate most contemporary TV and I’ve got all the original series stories anyway, so why do I need ‘re-imaginings’? If they could produce something different to everything else on TV which isn’t just a carbon-copy of the I Love the 70s misinterpretation of the original series (no one need for plot, thematic subtlety or realistic guest characters when you've got monsters and Doctor/companion romance?), I’d be interested again (this is why I liked Love & Monsters and Fear Her, even though no one else does). Especially if the Doctor went back to being my role model instead of one of the kids who used to bully me at school.

To be honest, I don’t care much about viewing figures and kids playing Daleks. Maybe this is the voice of the nineties against the voice of the seventies, or maybe it’s just that if popularity were the only mark of artistic quality, then almost nothing I like would count as valuable.

That said, I don’t see myself as deliberately going out of my way to find things to dislike about new Who (or anything else, for that matter), and I get slightly annoyed when people think anyone who doesn’t like it gets some kind of kick out of hating it (I know that wasn’t what you were saying). I liked the Eccleston season and most of Tennant’s first season, at least on first viewing, but I do think the series has grown complacent since then. At times there does seem to be an orthodoxy in fandom that if you don’t like the new series, you must be some kind of reactionary fanboy who wants Doctor Who to be exactly like it was when you grew up. At the same time, the past is being whitewashed, even in DWM: there were no strong female companions before Rose (just look at the way Sarah was retconned in School Reunion), the original series was badly written and badly made, and no one watched it because it was too sci fi (What, 12 million people watched The Deadly Assassin? A fluke result of good scheduling, not like modern Doctor Who, which regularly gets 8 million viewers as a result of, er, good scheduling and more publicity than JNT could dream of…). And anything without Unresolved Sexual Tension is DULL. Allegedly.

Russell T Davies bears a lot of responsibility for this. He’s entitled to run his show the way he wants; what he is not entitled to do is systematically rubbish any criticism, however legitimate, often in the most personal ways. As I said on doctorwho after Voyage of the Damned, in the UK, we have to pay to watch Doctor Who via the TV-licence, and we are perfectly entitled to express an opinion on it, as we are about everything else on TV. If Davies wants to present himself in DWM as arrogant and self-satisfied, he shouldn't be surprised when people don’t like him and read that into his work.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 08:43 pm (UTC)
Re: "On the surface it seems deep, but underneath it's superficial."

I'd disagree with the 'fanboy fantasies' tag. Inevitably many of the writers bring their fan backgrounds with them, but by no means all of them are fans, and little of what's appeared on screen looks to me like fan fiction as such. If anything, the dominant trait is a faith in the high concept, and bending everything, including logic, to the service of making that concept as stupendous as possible, which can be extremely problematic when it all goes wrong, as happened when budgetary control failed for Evolution of the Daleks, or so we are told.

I don't think Davies is getting the details wrong, either. He's taking what he wants from the past and moulding it to the design of the present series. I think he's doing very well in a conservative television culture. (We've been told, and I have no reason to doubt, that ideas that we might think of as more radical than those we have seen on screen, such as giving the Doctor an early twentieth-century companion, have been frustrated by the caution of Jane Tranter.) I disagree with his taste on many issues - I find Big Brother and celebrity culture degrading to the public realm, while Davies seems to think it reinvigorates it. To Davies lying about who has won a competition on a children's programme is acceptable because it defends the programme's integrity, whereas I think it is a destructive lie. (He's right about the way the episode was used to end Richard Marson's career unjustly, though.)

While Rose certainly drew on an erroneous folk memory that the companion was always a wilting screamer, I think that reintroducing Sarah in School Reunion was a reminder that this wasn't the case; the flourishing of the Doctor-Rose relationship during season one reminded me of the frustrations Sarah occasionally showed during seasons 13 and 14 at the Doctor's failure to recognise her affection for him. Sarah was Rose's stepping off point. The people who think that the high ratings of the Hinchcliffe period were flukes are stupid; Doctor Who in 1976 was very good at judging what would be popular, and it remained fairly good at doing so in the late 1970s even with a less effective producer than Philip Hinchcliffe. John Nathan-Turner scored well in his first few years but then misjudged the tone of the series and its relationship with the zeitgeist and was let down by the failure of his bosses to provide the funding to adapt Doctor Who to the production standards the viewers expected.

I don't find Davies's columns as arrogant and self-satisfied; it's more that they are representative of someone from a freelance media culture where everything has to be talked up or you won't have a job, and where youthful energy is all. I don't like it much, but I wouldn't blame Davies alone for it.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 09:49 pm (UTC)
Re: "On the surface it seems deep, but underneath it's superficial."

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
Re: "On the surface it seems deep, but underneath it's superficial."

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)
Re: "On the surface it seems deep, but underneath it's superficial."

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 13th, 2008 01:07 am (UTC)
Re: "On the surface it seems deep, but underneath it's superficial."

Posted by: louisedennis (louisedennis)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)

I don't dislike the new series but I don't view most of it with the enthusiasm with which I viewed the old series. That said it has consistently, once per season (and not always a Moffat story) served up a story that I would unhesitantingly put in my top ten Dr Who stories so it must be doing something right.

But since Dr Who last appeared on our screens we've had Babylon 5 and Buffy, not to mention a plethora of American crime and other dramas showing how you can pack story, coherent plotting and character development into 50 minutes. If I resent anything I resent the fact that the new series is not Firefly (which I do realise is comparing apples to oranges). I don't dislike it, but I am not massively enthusiastic about it either and I do believe the much trumpeted characterisation that is supposed to be its strong point is frequently fumbled, and that irritates.

You are right it is never amateurish which the old series frequently was, and frequently not in a charming fashion, I was just too young to notice at the time. Nor do I think it has betrayed any ideals of the old series, since I don't believe, after the first Dalek episode was shown, the old series ever consistently held to a particular set of ideals it muddled along telling stories in time and space and was generally at its most successful when it had an aesthetic vision (e.g., Innes Lloyd's science realism/thrillers, Philip Hinchcliffe's "gothic horror" or even Andrew Cartmel's "dark doctor") Davies' "adventures in the human race" is merely the latest example of this.

I recognise it succeeds well at what it sets out to do. But I am not a typical television viewer (so it would seem at any rate) and I reserve the right to point out what I perceive to be the things that mostly make it just good telly rather than really amazing telly. And dammit I wanted it to be really amazing telly for me too.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 12th, 2008 11:18 pm (UTC)
Kirkcudbright Samoyed

My enthusiasm for the current series is continuous from the old. I think it's learned a lot from the series which you mention, actually. I think the possibility is there that if Doctor Who hadn't been such a huge success in 2005 that we might have ended up with smaller runs for a narrower demographic, and the resulting series might have managed to be 'really amazing telly' more often...

...but then we did have all those really very, very good episodes like Blink, and, earlier, Dalek. I don't watch very much television and I've never greatly taken to the current wave of US crime series, but that's me just being isolated on my cultural island and probably my loss. My enthusiasm for Who is, perhaps, sufficiently academicized to lead me to be fascinated by what people who think that the model of "really amazing telly" is Big Brother (which I don't) are making of the series. I agree that the characterization could be sharper, too; but it appears that the broadbrush approach is working for the moment.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: January 14th, 2008 01:15 am (UTC)

A further point, perhaps less controversial: contemporary Doctor Who seems to be stylistically uncertain. I think it wants to be magic realist, but it seems wedded to the trappings of science fiction, or at least the popular perception of those trappings. Many stories would be much better if the SF trappings (mainly the technobabble) were dropped completely. The problem isn’t bad science, but unnecessary bad science. There is an urge to bring in pretend science, whether technobabble or the sonic screwdriver, where other narrative strategies would be perfectly legitimate (cf. C. E. Webber's comments in 1963 about achieving credibility in the best possible way for each story, not necessarily with scientific explanations). Likewise, the writers seem to believe that because SF (or The Mill) can do anything, every story has to be ‘epic’. It can’t be half a dozen people under threat, it has to be the whole world.

The under-rated Fear Her strikes me as a very good example of a story that doesn’t really want to play by the rules of conventional science fiction, yet feels bound to do so, hence some truly absurd dialogue about ‘ionic energy’ as well as an unnecessarily ‘epic’ finale (which is also painfully cheesy). If it had stayed focussed on small-scale horror, fantasy and emotional resonance without the technobabble and ‘sf epic’ finale, it would have been much better.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: January 14th, 2008 02:13 pm (UTC)

I'd agree with you, but I think it's happy being stylistically uncertain; it's picking up whatever style it needs at the time. I, too, think the pretend science is unnecessary; but it does emphasise how far the current writing style emphasises the folkloreness of the Doctor's world(s); nature bends to suit the story.