Doctor Who

Saturday, April 7, 2007 by

“Where are we?” exclaims Martha, near the opening of episode two as she steps from the Tardis into the midden of a Tudor street. “I mean … when are we?”

Evidently not 16th century London, as per the producer’s wishes with costly sets of wattle-and-daub, numerous bubo-flecked extras (shit-shovellers, doxies, courtiers and damsels all a-simper). No – we were in a BBC focus group circa 2005, and a very obtuse one, if this worryingly ropey fare is anything to go by (even right down to the bubo-flecked extras, but let that pass).

It has become a commonplace, going on a social obligation, to expound as much uncritical admiration for the 21st century Doctor Who as it was mandatory to diss his so-last-millennium predecessors. Watching some of the 2006 series, that situation seemed reasonable. Only a fool would deny that the resurrection of the Doctor in 2005 was anything but a fair-sized triumph, but the small qualifications attached to that honour have now grown like Topsy, rather like the disproportionate cultural space allotted to a programme believing its own hype, losing the plot and taking its besotted audience with it.

The premise of this episode – a return to 1599 to save the world from a triumvirate of warty-conked witches from outer space, the Carrionites, and to explain the disappearance from history of a lost Shakespeare masterpiece, Love’s Labour’s Won. The Globe Theatre, see, with its mystically-influenced tetradecagonal design, is to serve as sort of malevolent orgone accumulator of Carrionitic evil summoned by the power of words. Enter Will Shakespeare, stage right. The episode is well-paced, slickly continuing the programme’s newfound penchant for self-contained one-off adventures. So far, so engaging.

But time travel rendered as any kind of prose or screenplay invites even more than all other texts and by its very nature the danger of anachronism, as the word itself implies. There are relative levels of same, of course. Here; yes, Bedlam hospital appeared to be an edifice of very late Jacobean design and therefore unlikely to have been around in 1599. Would Shakespeare have had a Warwickshire accent? This is hair-splitting, like that of those people who yell at the TV when locomotives and rolling stock and buses from the “wrong” period or “wrong” region or (I’m not making this up) “wrong” depot crop up in costume dramas like Miss Marple. Doesn’t matter. Let it go.

But the subplot of the Swan of Avon getting the hots for Martha and addressing one of his most famous sonnets to her was so berkish and improbable that it made me hide behind the sofa for the first time since I saw “Planet of the Spiders” (or was it England vs Andorra?). And there’s another problem with the new Doctor; its principal anachronism is of the most annoying kind, ie that of needless affectation to court approval. It doesn’t just holler its contemporariness, its uses 70,000 watt Marshall stacks to do so. Worse, that horrible non-word “inclusiveness” has become one of the series’ mottos and threatens to become as big a downer as the original’s rubbish sets and wooden performances.

This is the reason for first Rose’s and now Martha’s self-consciously estuarial speech patterns, with the obligatory payload of defensive, shopgirly chaff. If sci-fi always discloses more about the time in which its stories were written than the timeframes of their setting, future generations will look on the 21st century Doctor less as a TV classic than a slightly embarrassing timeslip into imagined hipness.

Witness the subsidiary characters. Whereas a convincing emotional three-dimensionality eventually informed Billie Piper’s Rose, this was too often built on the motivations and linguistic devices of soap. As for Martha, her successor, it’s hard to imagine a more obvious example of character-design by committee in Blairite Britain; conveniently mixed ethnicity, successful, feisty, has smarts and street sass in equal measure, yet also a “feminine side”™. How many constituencies can one programme suck up to? And, incidentally, why, if she’s so bright – and a doctor to boot – has she never at least heard of Bedlam?

I may be mistaken but I think that at one point, Martha actually uttered that soap staple, “I don’t believe I’m hearing this”. Or possibly it was, “This is so not happening”. Or whatever (or “whatever”). It’s true that most usages in Shakespeare’s time weren’t exactly as refined or waspish of those of Beatrice and Benedick, but this is taking things a bit far. It is the equivalent of Jamie repeatedly telling the Doctor that the Cybermen, “Are just like on a real uptight trip, man”, or Leela chanting, “Women reclaim the night” every two minutes or Ace having an obsessive crush on so-lush Rick Astley.

Unless writer Gareth Roberts was dazzling us with doublethink and double-bluff, this episode, ostensibly about the transfiguring power of linguistic genius, seemed mostly about contemporary lexical poverty. Detail errors in 1599 costumes and props are tolerable – but when you base a script around words saving humanity and then have to fill the mouths of late Elizabethans with the demotic of dumbed-down telly, you’re in trouble.

The irony was strained to a point where one wondered if the fabric of the space-time continuum would hold. As the Doctor and Martha march into his actorly sodality, Will talks about “not signing autographs” and “don’t ask me where I get my ideas from”. Allusions to Harry bloody Potter really are the thin end of the postmodernism-for-kids wedge. But that’s OK, as long as “everyone” has something to “identify” with, as long as everyone “gets it”, thus aping the wildlife unit’s idiotic habit of reducing the behaviour of colonies of termites or meerkats or nematodes to the dimensions of a Neighbours plot strand.

The problem is that, as per most things on TV these days, producers will never accept the old saw that a little goes a long way, from sly anachronistic irony to inclusiveness to laboured laffs. A sundry, “Let’s not go there” or temporally-skewed nod to The Weakest Link is fine; chucking it in an audience’s face isn’t. David Tennant’s M.O. suggests he understands this perfectly, and his enjoyable penchant for askance raised-eyebrowing and instinctive timing renders a poor joke superfluous – such as the playwright saying, “I might use that,” when the Doctor quotes a line from a yet-unwritten Shakespearean opus (using this mundane riff three times was plain shoddy). Just as humdrum was the use of other heavy-handed insertions, “The play’s the thing” etc.

Roberts’ occult references were promising, as in the idea of annihilating a self by uttering his/her/its name – fair’s fair, the use of magic “taboo words” to which JG Frazer refers in The Golden Bough tied in loosely with the concept of the power of language to create and destroy, but something seemed missing, unfinished, rushed. There were the usual vague Lovecraftian notions of inconceivably Ancient Ones. There were three witches – Shakespeare, Lear, that hubble-bubbling ho Atropos and her homiez, geddit? But this conceit seemed either to flatter people who’d done Eng Lit O-level or merely as a prompt for GCSE students who were nicking off revision for the evening.

Thus does the BBC fulfil its educational remit, one imagines. There was, nonetheless, one quite neat line which subverts the popular belief that “rage, rage against the dying of the light” is Shakespeare’s (sorry, Dylan, but that’s how it’s going to be. I always get it wrong, too).

To play and lose this kind of dangerous game with words and text smacks of unfortunate sorcery itself and looks like carelessness – but then to invoke the history-altering power of language and dramatic genius as a plot device looks like carelessness. See how easy it is to just wolf down some other writer’s leavings for effect?

Of course the special effects are electrifying. Of course it’s made by people who don’t think that what they’re making is pathologically inferior, which so diminished the original Doctor Who. Of course it’s all fun for the kids. So why come on to adults with what imagines itself to be clever wordplay? And no, The Simpsons and its brand of split-level referentiality is the wrong – and very disingenuous – answer. If you’re going to woo the grown-ups with kiddie shows, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong in doing so, just do it better, and cobblers to political correctness. Those other cartoonish crossover icons Wallace and Gromit don’t work their magic by being inclusive, or at least not self-consciously so, after all. Dangermouse and Penfold would know what I mean, as would Eric Thompson.

Unless things pick up pronto, the superb Tennant will deserve not so much a BAFTA as an OBE for coming out of this looking so good (is it too late for him to run against Gordon Brown?). Originally pitching at an uneasy amalgam of eccentrics Baker and Troughton – especially the moonstruck, vaguely Edwardian mannerisms of the latter, with a fine handle on blurring the line between wondering effusiveness and incalculably aged wisdom – he has become not just unarguably the best Doctor ever, but, given scripts of waning force, one of the finest performers on British television. Nonetheless, inane audience targeting, that bane of TV, may yet let him down.

Ah, what do I know? The spin-offs will gather pace. What price a 13-week talent show (where you vote! Text us now …) to find the new Doctor? The Hairy Bikers On Skaro (we wish); Soapstar Time Lord? Bet against none of them. The Whovian bacillus that has so smartly body-snatched London’s meejah thirtysomethings will be a willing parasite as they graduate to positions of power, its lifeblood every last penny of millions of innocent licence-payers. Calamity looms … unless a Time Lord – or, more prosaically, some production values that don’t pander to the witlessness of bored post-adolescents can save the day.


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