Doctor Who

Saturday, May 21, 2005 by

Back in 1963, the BBC ordered the removal of a sound effect representing a blow to the head from the first ever Doctor Who story. This wasn’t considered to be of any importance or relevance at the time, and didn’t even become common knowledge until the anecdote started to crop up in interviews with the production team a good two decades later.

In 2005, however, the enforced removal of a similar noise has not only been used as a key element for pre-transmission hype, but also – almost unbelievably – became headline news. Perhaps more than anything else, this illustrates just how far removed the new Doctor Who is from its past. The central character, his mode of transport and a handful of villains may be the same, but other than that this is a very different programme made for very different times.

That, in itself, is not a bad thing, and in some regard, a refusal to be weighed down by the lingering legacy of the original series and the expectations of its fans can only be beneficial. If viewers are able to discern a substantial difference between the two incarnations, then this is surely a strong suggestion that the production team have been successful in the somewhat onerous task of updating a well-known and well-loved concept to suit a modern audience. It is of course sad some fans of the original may not enjoy it enough to come along for the ride, but at the same time it isn’t as though they haven’t got 26 series worth of episodes – many of them now available on DVD accompanied by fascinating commentaries, copious amounts of production footage and guest appearances on What the Papers Say by Hamilton Dyce and Aggedor – to fall back on.

There is an extent, however, to which the new series of can be said to have divorced itself too far from its past. The stylistic, dramatic, horrific and comedic devices had been previously proven to work (and indeed not to work at all) within the confines of the show have been largely discarded in favour of more blatant and direct attempts to emulate the similar devices employed by American series like The X Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. There is nothing wrong with this idea in theory – as stated above, there is no real reason for the series to remain chained to its past – but the balance between a programme with such a long history and a new and radically different approach is one that thus far Doctor Who in 2005 has struggled to achieve.

Tellingly, the one moment so far when the new approach really worked to its full potential was with “The Unquiet Dead” the only occasion upon which the new really has mined the old for stylistic inspiration (historical setting infiltrated by alien entities, period figure helping out and ending up having to take the lead when Doctor and companion come a bit unstuck, amusing “solution” to a genuine real-life historical puzzle, and companion forced to adopt racy clothing for the purposes of “practicality” as if it was some long lost fourth Doctor/Leela escapade).

Most of the time, though, the results have been mixed, at its best throwing otherwise great episodes slightly off-course with uneasy pacing, and at its worst simply submerging tremendous ideas and occasionally great acting behind a barrage of overblown special effects set-pieces, unnecessary cultural references (“I think I saw it on Newsround Extra …”) and awkward plot progression. Witness “The Long Game”, neglecting to back up brilliant visual realisation with an equally strong storyline, “Dalek” confusing suspense with scenes that just went on for a very long time, and “Father’s Day”, allowing an intriguing idea for a story to become lost behind mawkish sub-My Guy photostory emotional diversions. And we haven’t even got to the incidental music yet.

The ninth episode, and the first of a two-part story, “The Empty Child”, was written by Steven Moffatt. More of an “outsider” to the series than the majority of his fan-made-good fellow writers (although still a self-confessed enthusiast), his robust use of plot structure and ability to combine drama and comedy without making a complete hash of it are well known to many viewers from a string of successful series, and as such his episodes were hardly likely to suffer from any shortcomings on the scripting front. Indeed, this edition certainly succeeds in creating an atmospheric evocation of a period of recent history, and genuine menace in the form of an irrational and apparently motivation-free “evil” that would not have seemed out of place in an episode of Sapphire and Steel. What’s more, it contains some actual literal jokes (the wonderful “standup comedy” interlude, for example) rather than the offhanded references to Heat magazine and the like that have littered the series thus far. There is sufficient intrigue and suspense to guarantee most viewers will want to find out what happens next, even if the cliffhanger was a little on the uninspired and predictable side, and at least from a scriptwriting point of view the story is one of the best offerings of the series by far.

If the BBC do plan to release novelisations of the televised episodes and fans of the old series have to struggle to create bookshelf room between all those extraneous copies of Turlough and The Earthlink Dilemma and Brainteasers and Mindbenders, then this will almost certainly be the one to make room for first.

However, the script is – pun very much intended – not quite the whole story. While the finished version of “The Empty Child” is for the most part effectively realised, it is nonetheless compromised by the same problems that have dogged much of the rest of the series so far, with the result that it fails to fully capitalise on the potential of the source material. Strangely, where the other below-par episodes of the run have suffered as a result of having too much visual flair and not enough storyline to carry them, this falls short of the mark for precisely the opposite reason; it is a tremendous script that occasionally becomes weighed down by the visual element.

The most obviously jarring aspect of this is the blockbusting prominence afforded to the visual effects, which on the whole look fine (although there is a case for arguing that the new computer-generated TARDIS in flight sequences somehow look less, well, real than the hand-manipulated three dimensional models of the old series) but often seem awkwardly crow-barred into proceedings and at times are an unwelcome disruption to the general flow of the story. Impressive effects technology is of course there to be exploited, but if it is to remain impressive while technology inevitably marches on, perhaps it ought to be exploited in a somewhat subtler and more sparing fashion. Viewers with long memories might like to think back to the ancient RKO Flash Gordon serials repeated by BBC2 in the mid-1980s, and how the generally pointless overuse of the “light bridge” effect – which presumably caused audiences’ jaws to drop back when they were originally made – seemed ridiculous and comical from a modern perspective. While never quite being as pointlessly diversive as “Aliens of London”, “The Empty Child” really did start to drag its heels whenever it began playing around at unnecessary length with tractor beam tunnels and invisible spacecraft tethered to Big Ben – and this contrasted badly with the far more effective sequences that relied on nothing more than a bit of judicious lighting and restrained acting to create an impact.

Also on hand to drag down proceedings is the new series’ insistence on drawing out scenes and sequences for as long as is possible. Rose’s perilous journey across the skies of London while clinging to a rope hanging from a hot air balloon might have carried more impact if it had been shorter, faster-moving and more infused with a real sense of danger, but in this prolonged form it effectively lost any notion of suspense after a short while.

The main problem, however, is still Christopher Eccleston’s portrayal of the Doctor. The idea of making the character completely unlike his previous incarnations might have seemed a novel one at initial production meetings, but it really isn’t working at all in practice and someone ought to have noticed this a bit sooner. An unsympathetic Doctor who refuses to ever explain himself or what he is doing and has none of the irreverence, mischievous curiosity or righteousness that have always been associated with the character isn’t a challenging or forward-thinking concept; it’s literally just unsympathetic. It’s hard to imagine younger viewers regarding him as a hero figure in the same way that they did Patrick Troughton or Tom Baker, and it is in fact Rose that emerges as the strongest and most likeable character, due in no small part to Billie Piper’s superlative performance. The eventual explanation of this “Bad Wolf” business is going to have to be pretty spectacular if it is to provide an effective payoff for Eccleston’s take on the character.

What really grates about this approach to the series, though, is the fact that very little in the way of plot exposition is ever put across to the viewer. Few intriguing questions are raised, few intriguing explanations are given, and those that do appear are generally reserved for the final 10 minutes of the episode. The upshot of this is that the audience, rather unreasonably, is expected to do all the work and at times is left playing catch-up as events progress in their own time. As much as lower-rung comedians may have scoffed at the idea of the companion asking “Doctor … what’s happening?” perhaps it was a more vital component of the series than anyone ever realised.

“The Empty Child” essentially managed to avoid this, largely through having the Doctor and Rose arrive already with an unanswered question of their own that neatly dovetailed into everyone else’s, and despite the stop-start plot lurching created by the direction it was certainly a well above average offering – up there with “The Unquiet Dead” as the best of the series thus far. This is something of a disconcerting ratio, though – the excellent episodes really ought to be outnumbering the run-of-the-mill, the muddled and the miserable by a long chalk, and for all its flaws the old series at least used to maintain such a consistent standard that the dull, the bad and the boring (oh, and “Underworld”) gained individual rather than collective notoriety. Much of this is probably attributable to the inherent difficulties in adapting to the new approach, but while these could easily be ironed out with time and experience (realistically, they should be pretty much overcome by the start of the second series), will there be the inclination to do so while these problems go so widely unremarked upon by people falling over themselves to proclaim the new series both the single-handed saviour of television drama and Saturday night viewing and the most important piece of television science fiction since The Galactic Garden?

Of course, those moaning, curmudgeonly fans of original Doctor Who could have told us about a certain story that lurched awkwardly from one impressive set-piece to another with only the flimsiest and most underdeveloped of plots in the background somewhere, and which created something of a stir at the time of transmission – based more on shock value than actual entertainment value – but looks faintly embarrassing and ridiculous in the cold light of day. But nobody wants to hear from them, do they?


Comments are closed.