Doctor Who

Saturday, May 7, 2005 by

“I was hoping for a philosophical debate. Is that all I’m going to get?”

Who’d follow episode six? Radio Times-covered and eagerly anticipated, it has quickly gained plaudits as the best story in the series so far. In comparison, “The Long Game” slipped quietly onto Saturday night without the merest flicker of promotion. Fair enough; BBC Publicity seem to know what they’re doing. Certainly, there’ll be future episodes that they’ll want to draw attention to; nobody wants trailer saturation (The House of Tiny Tearaways with Dr Tanya Byron, anyone?) and not every edition can be a spectacular event. But this is the first to be banking on the loyalty of an audience gained from the previous weeks. So …

An odd thing I’ve noticed about this new series is that episodes which seem constrained by the 45-minute format appear a lot more relaxed on second viewing. I first thought this about “The End of the World” and it also seems true for “The Long Game” – appropriately enough, given the shared motifs running through both stories. Is this the weight of expectation that I, in the heat-death of my fandom, am bringing to BBC1 on Saturdays – a weight that no television programme could bear – or a more fundamental limitation? I’m not sure. “Dalek” didn’t seem hemmed in on a first viewing. But then it was a very different beast; a lot of story but not a lot of plot. “The Long Game” is the other way round.

This was old-school Doctor Who: an enslaved populace and a nasty monster hidden away, responsible. The Doctor arrives, plants the seed of independent thought and the monster is destroyed by turning the heat up. This goes back as far as 1967 and stories like “The Macra Terror” and “The Ice Warriors”, with numerous others ticking the same boxes all the way up to the original series’ end in 1989. Does that matter? No. If we’re going to start slating Doctor Who stories for being similar to other Doctor Who stories, we all may as well pack up and go home. “The Long Game”‘s problem is that it seemed familiar ground in a series that, so far, has avoided the familiar or, at least, given it a fresh and fast spin. “The End of the World” may have an undemanding plot but the emotional weight of Rose’s journey to the far future was the fulcrum on which it, so fascinatingly, turned; “Aliens of London” was standard “invasion Earth” stuff in many ways, but filtered through the series’ new spunky perspective (Slitheen as surname for a squabbling monster family, Jackie’s maternal interference) and as a two-parter had room, if you’ll pardon the expression given that story’s running gag, to breathe; “Dalek” was an emotional and intriguing character deconstruction of those familiar British cultural icons, Doctor Who and the Daleks. In comparison, the threat posed by the emanations from Satellite 5 seemed slight; we forgave the similarly unaffecting Nestene menace because it was the first episode. The Autons were there solely to define the series’ lead character for Rose and a viewing public who hadn’t seen him properly for 15 years. The Gelth might also have felt like easy pickings but for the root they were given in Mark Gatiss’s rich Victorian Cardiff, and that episode also benefited from the warmly drawn portrayal of Charles Dickens, which nestled at its emotional heart. Last Saturday’s star turn, by comparison, was essential quite different. The Editor was a generic baddy, the kind of part you need someone like Simon Pegg for, to give it any chance of life. It is not to diminish Simon Callow’s monumental performance when I say that, to an extent, Dickens could have been played by anyone and the episode wouldn’t have suffered greatly, such was the life of the character and the world he lived in. However, the Editor and all the inhabitants of Satellite 5 were not drawn with the same vividness and, without that, their plight seemed less vital; a fact seemingly acknowledged by Russell T Davies himself in the same night’s Doctor Who Confidential.

The shared motif with the second episode is that of a young human transported to a time and place breathtakingly far from their own. As such, “The Long Game” was another deconstruction of the Doctor Who companion. The series is reinventing this role, in the guise of Rose, as someone who (invigoratingly from an old-school perspective) has narrative parity with the Doctor. In Adam we get another view, that of someone patently unsuited to the role (speaking of which, Bruno Langley sure ain’t no Billie Piper). We have had, as Doctor Who Confidential pointed out, an amoral companion before, but Turlough, after his initial shenanigans with the Black Guardian, settled down into expected behaviour patterns – he may have been more surly or circumspect than a Jamie or a Sarah Jane, but he was asking the same questions and fulfilling the same function.

This leads us on to the function of the Doctor, which, as Ian Jones highlighted in his perceptive critique of last week’s episode, has undergone something of a reappraisal. More than one cry has gone up in fan quarters asking for the Doctor to heroically resolve the story, rather than Rose or a supporting character. I have some sympathy with this, but only as far as it goes. This ninth Doctor is a more passive man, in that he doesn’t run round plate spinning at the last moment as we have been used to with previous incarnations. But, then, he inhabits a world of greater complexity than his previous selves. Rose is the apotheosis of this new approach of making the Doctor Who world three-dimensional, but it is there also in Jackie, Dickens, Gwyneth, Harriet Jones and the Doctor himself. Real, complex, contrary human-beings (or as near as you’re going to get at 7pm on a Saturday) of the kind the old series rarely produced – in such a world the Doctor can afford to guide in a more subtle way, to inspire to action, to empower. He does not need to stride, like Tom Baker’s benevolent god, through a world of cardboard, proving, by an eccentric floridness, his otherworldly status. And don’t forget that it was Duggan who threw the most important punch in history.

This is, of course, star casting again. Were it not for Christopher Eccleston’s assured turn-on-a-sixpence portrayal, by turns manically jovial then coldly melancholy, this less-proactive Doctor may well leave a hole in the middle of the story. But he is there and his performance places the Doctor squarely and rightly in the centre of our screens.

So … is it telling that in this review I have drawn so heavily on other episodes of the series? Ian Jones raised concern over the absence of an obvious “hook” for this story. Someone on a website somewhere else described it as a modern-day “Sontaran Experiment”; a tale sandwiched between two weightier, high-profile adventures, destined ultimately to be forgotten. Maybe so, but that would be a disservice to yet another set of sassy central performances, to Brian Grant’s beguiling framing and to a perfectly adequate story of the kind that has always been the series’ meat and drink. If this had been episode one it would be viewed very differently. This modern-day Doctor Who has raised the bar, so that, thrillingly, this is the standard of the stories we are now able to forget.


Comments are closed.