Tag Archives: Russell T Davies

Doctor Who 2011 season…and now the second half

A few months back I found myself ruminating about the first half of the 2011 season of Doctor Who and about how showrunner and lead writer Steven Moffat was risking alienating his audience by introducing complicated and nonlinear story arcs. The second half of the season has now aired, and I find that I’m somehow not as bothered about the convoluted nature of this year’s ongoing narrative as I was in July, though I don’t think this is because Moffat’s neatly tied up all his loose ends and explained all his murky plot elisions satisfactorily (I would have to re-watch both his seasons back-to-back to work that one out) – it’s probably more to do with becoming conditioned to this dot-to-dot style of storytelling, and the fact that I’ve gradually become more and more distracted by another change I’ve noticed to the traditional Who formula.

It’s like this, and while I know what follows is an over-simplification, I don’t think it’s a serious one. Way way back in the day, when there were only three TV channels and the Doctor was characterised as an eccentric outsider rather than an angry-God-slash-sex-object, Who tended to use and re-use only a very small number of stock scenarios, along the lines of: 1) aliens want to conquer the Earth/galaxy/universe, 2) mad scientist/emperor wants to conquer the Earth/galaxy/etc, 3) evil entity from before the dawn of time wants to destroy the Earth etc etc, or 4) over-curious scientists/greedy industrialists unleash primal unstoppable force that will inevitably destroy and so on and so on. These set-ups and slight variations on them would play out over and over again, but it really didn’t matter because, and much as I distrust sweeping generalisations I’m going for a biggie here, nobody watches Doctor Who for the plots. Now and then you’d get one that would make you sit up and take notice (the beyond-fabulous City Of Death, which deserves to be studied at degree level), but the appeal of Who was always to do with its wit, its charm, its occasional light satires on modern society and its ingenuity at devising reasonably-priced and family-friendly chills and thrills. The decline of the programme in the 80s had a lot to do with its makers losing sight of the importance of these qualities.

One of the many pleasing aspects of Russell T Davies’s hyper-successful reactivation of the franchise in 2005 was the clear sense that he fully understood the underlying reasons for the show’s long-running popularity. He made it a priority that the show should be funny and accessible as well as scary and escapist and was happy to rely on plotlines that used variations on the stock scenarios listed in the previous paragraph. We got a number of villains who were essentially extreme capitalists who just wanted to own everything, a re-introduction of the Daleks as arch-xenophobes who wanted to wipe everyone else out and a few episodes functioning as allegories on society that might be positive (the wonderful and uplifting Gridlock) or deeply troubling (Midnight, which may be one of the most disturbing dramas ever broadcast by the BBC at teatime). The Earth was being invaded on a fortnightly basis, lunatics were threatening to blow up the universe, petty bureaucracy and sleazy Murdoch-style oligarchs were being lampooned, and all was right in the world.

With this in mind, it’s worth now considering the latest tranche of episodes, and the 2011 season as a whole, and the contrast in scale between the threats presented here and those we’ve seen before starts to become really striking. If you disregard the five installments written by Moffat that deal with the series arc to do with the Doctor’s death and his relationship with his lover-or-assassin River Song you’re left with a clutch of small, personal, almost intimate, episodes that take place in closed environments and are mainly concerned with the relationships between the lead characters. Villains and plots to invade or conquer are almost entirely absent – there’s the capricious and greedy House from The Doctor’s Wife, and some particularly ineffective and mainly sidelined Cybermen in Closing Time but that’s about it. Drama and conflict are instead generated through ostensibly benign systems malfunctioning (The Curse Of The Black Spot, The Rebel Flesh, The Girl Who Waited) or misunderstood alien entities causing suffering unwittingly (Night Terrors, The God Complex). I’m not sure if the small-scale nature of these stories is to do with budgetary considerations, but they all undeniably look inward, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any comment on the real world within them.

Does it matter? Isn’t the main issue whether the stories are any good? Well, that’s a reasonable point, but I’d hate for this show to stop engaging with the outside world entirely and vanish up its own fundament. As it happens, some of these episodes are pretty good. I mentioned the lyrical and imaginative The Doctor’s Wife before, but for my money it’s beaten by The Girl Who Waited, a simple but heartbreaking scenario involving tangled time-streams that gives Karen Gillan the chance to show what a great actor she can be – her performance and the brilliant make-up job make the older, bitter version of Amy forced to spend thirty years alone in a hostile environment utterly convincing. The light relief Closing Time is also entirely successful on its own terms, and gives Matt Smith a chance to display his formidable comedy skills, and The God Complex, although coming across in parts like a weird throwback to certain “difficult” Sylvester McCoy-era Who stories, is tight and claustrophobic and boasts some very sharp dialogue. Only Night Terrors really disappoints from this half of the season – its tower block setting is nicely rendered, but the characterisation and scripting isn’t great, and spooky doll houses seem a bit clichéd and played out. All of these “small” stories do however have the whiff of filler about them, as though they’re marking time between more significant events.

Which leaves us where we came in, with Moffat and his grand design. He gives himself two episodes this time, and they’re both so uproariously confident and entertaining that I’m giving him a free pass on the fact that certain plot points that seemed very important earlier on appear to have been fudged or glossed over. Let’s Kill Hitler, kicking off the run, is almost insanely bold, with the TARDIS crew crashlanding in the Führer’s office and then insouciantly bundling him into a cupboard when the more pressing matter of the mysterious River Song’s psychopathic tendencies raises its head. Plus you get crop circles, lethal lipstick and a shape-shifting robot occupied by tiny people. The series closer The Wedding Of River Song is no less outrageous, starting as it does with scenes of modern London with steam trains coming out of high rise office buildings, pterodactyls in Hyde Park and Churchill annointed as the Holy Roman Emperor. The skilful and intricate flashback structure, frequent switches of location and endless cavalcade of witty one-liners help deflect one’s attention from the fact that the villainous and arch Madame Kovarian’s scheme to kill the Doctor is convoluted beyond all sanity – why go to the trouble to kidnap a child and spend years programming her as an assassin when you’ve had multiple opportunities to just shoot your target dead with a gun? The series ends on an interesting note: the Universe now thinks the Doctor is dead, which with luck will mean that all the tedious guff about him being an oncoming storm that can defeat foes purely through the force of his reputation can now be dropped.

So, Doctor Who, 2011-style. Different, unpredictable, undoubtedly alienating for the casual viewer and with at least one curious lapse in consistent script-editing (given that Amy and Rory had their baby abducted halfway through the run they seem remarkably unconcerned in subsequent episodes). It’s nice to vary the formula but I’m hoping next year’s series will be a bit more digestible, and a bit more outward-looking.

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Torchwood: I preferred it when it was rubbish

Torchwood is in several ways one of the most unusual television drama series to have been recommissioned for multiple seasons. It was launched in 2006 as a spin-off of Russell T Davies’ astronomically successful reboot of Doctor Who, and was pitched as appealing to a more adult demographic, with the set-up involving a shadowy team of vaguely X-Files-y scientists and investigators operating from a secret base in Cardiff, with a brief to look into anything alien, or paranormal, or extra-sensory-perception-ish. The first unusual thing about the series is that the BBC didn’t bother sticking its toe in with a pilot but went straight for a 13 week run of 45 minute episodes – they obviously felt confident that anyone over the age of 12 who watched Who would also want to watch this. They didn’t however give it much of a budget. They put it out on their widely derided youth channel BBC Three and most of the money seemed to have been spent on inexplicable helicopter shots of John Barrowman’s character Captain Jack Harkness striking moody/heroic poses atop local landmarks.

The second unusual thing is that, presumably due to the speed with which it was thrown together, the scripts for the series didn’t seem to have gone through any kind of editing or revision process of the type that is needed to catch obvious clashes of tone and transparently risible plot devices. Because once the series started airing, and particularly once past Davies’ reasonably acceptable opening installment, it became obvious very quickly: Torchwood was terrible. The best description I’ve come across is that it was like a 14 year old boy’s idea of what “adult” science fiction should be like: histrionic, seemingly hormone-driven regular characters who divide their time between shouting at each other, getting off with each other and pointing guns at each other, while ludicrous (and very cheaply computer generated) aliens pop up periodically and characterlessly and generally completely non-interestingly in order to be shouted at, or shot at, or got off with. The second episode actually features an alien obsessed with shagging people to death. You get earthy Welsh humour running up against overwrought psychodrama and then colliding with purportedly uber-cool techno-fetishism and that’s really gotta smart.

However, and this third unusual thing may be the most interesting of them, despite its manifest awfulness Torchwood was also hardly ever boring, and often compulsively watchable. Part of this is the attraction of watching a bad accident unfold, but every so often you’d get a hint of something really quite promising: some of the quieter episodes would explore ideas of memory, or loss, or change and sometimes one of the extra-terrestrial artefacts that would regularly appear would catch one’s imagination – the pendant that allows one to read other’s thoughts or the machine that gives one access to the powerful memories associated with significant locations. The ratings were certainly very good, and the series came back a year or so later, this time promoted to BBC Two.

The second series was again 13 episodes, and a certain amount of reining in of extremes had been achieved, but again the feeling was of a show put together by a team under too much pressure and with too little time. Symptomatic of the problems of the programme was the plot strand in which the unlikeable Owen died, but was for obscure and unsatisfactorily presented reasons still able to walk around fully functional and conscious. He seemed to earned this privilege basically because he was able to best a smoky entity representing death in a fist fight. Elsewhere, the tone was still swinging wildly between grotesque black comedy (the wedding/alien pregnancy themed Something Borrowed), event-free “atmospherics” (Out Of The Rain) and glaring campery (anything with Captain Jack squaring off with his sparring partner/alter-ego James Marsters’ Captain John Hart). Again it wasn’t very good – again a lot of people watched it.

Given this run of form it was therefore rather surprising, and yet another unusual thing, that the third season of Torchwood, which aired over five consecutive days in July 2009, turned out to be more or less the best television science-fiction made in Britain since Quatermass. This was one story with the umbrella name Children Of Earth and it masterfully laid out a terrifying scenario in which a powerful and implacable alien ambassador arrives on Earth to present a dreadful claim on the world’s children. Everything that had previously been laughable or unconvincing about Torchwood had been comprehensively expunged and suddenly we had intelligent, probing, sometimes very funny and sometimes genuinely chilling scripts rendered expertly on screen by the actors and the production team. Before, the aliens on Torchwood had been a joke – now they were nightmarish, and the fact that they were never fully visible on screen made it even worse. Peter Capaldi gave what is probably one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen on TV as a conflicted civil servant, and regular characters were seen to make heartbreaking sacrifices and be presented with impossible choices. This was extraordinary television.

And then…well, it’s two years later, and there’s now a fourth season of Torchwood running on BBC One. Rather unusually, it’s now a co-production between the BBC and US company Starz, which means that the action is largely taking place in the states, and most of the cast are American. As in the previous season, it’s one long story running over several episodes (ten this time, under the banner title Miracle Day), and also as before, it hangs on a simply explained concept: one day, human beings stop dying. This intriguing idea has the mark of Russell T Davies about it, and for sure he’s involved, overseeing and writing some episodes, but you know what? Three episodes in, and I’ve stopped being interested. These days Torchwood is slick and expensive and can afford big-name stars like Bill Pullman and classy location shooting but it’s also, for the first time ever, really boring. The plot is moving at snail’s pace, blatant padding abounds, all of the new characters are either bland or obnoxious and it may just be me, but isn’t it a little patronising to give characters lines explaining to the British audience what a gas station or a drugstore or an ATM is? There must be some interesting avenues to explore with a central idea as audacious as this one, but they sure don’t seem to bothered about getting there any time soon. This may be where me and Torchwood part company – shame, but as rides go it’s sure been damnably unusual.

Doctor Who 2011: mid-series debrief

Well, it’s all gone a bit complicated really. But I think it’s going to be OK.

Looks like this is the year when Doctor Who the series makes its break with the extraordinarily successful formula established in 2005 by then-showrunner Russell T Davies. Back then the big Welsh guy with the glasses and the infectious enthusiasm took the venerable but moribund fantasy series and worked a TV miracle: pretty much overnight it went from being the butt of a thousand jokes about wobbly sets and staircase-thwarted Daleks to being the BBC’s flagship entertainment product, gathering stellar ratings and much critical acclaim and becoming a merchandiser’s dream, with DVDs, spin-off series, action figures and original novels rife. Davies was a massive Who fan, but more importantly he was a highly competent TV pro, and he knew how to re-tool the show for maximum impact and to make it appeal to an impressive range of demographics – there were bright wizzy colours and effects for the toddlers, scary monsters for the primary kids, cool sci-fi stuff and racy dialogue for the teenagers and genuine wit for the undergraduates and grown-ups. He even managed to work in elements of soap opera to provide some real emotional heft for the first time in the show’s history. By the time David Tennant was nearing the end of his tenure in the title role Doctor Who was even beating Eastenders and Corrie and was for a short time Britain’s most popular television programme, something which would have been beyond even the most hopeless fan’s imagination only five years before.

Davies made a point of not alienating the casual viewer, and it was noticeable in his first couple of series that continuity points to the previous twenty-six years of Who stories were kept to a minimum and that anything in an episode that related to prior events was set in context for anyone new to the series. Most stories wrapped up in a single episode, and those plotlines that did spread over two or more were sure to be reprised with a “previously on…” montage. There were running motifs through all the seasons, but these tended to be extras for the fans, and in general didn’t add up to much anyway (remember the gratuitous device of having characters namedrop Torchwood in series two?) The most important continuity was to do with the emotional states of the main characters, and as this kind of thing lies well within what one normally gets with a long running series it didn’t require too much of an effort from the viewer.

The big man bowed out in 2009 after giving Tennant a suitably operatic (and some might say, overwrought) send-off, and experienced writer Steven Moffat took over as head writer. Moffat had surely earned his place. He’d written some of the best received stories of the revived series, including the sublime Blink, which managed to be simultaneously the most ingeniously plotted and the most downright terrifying episode ever made. At the same time, the relatively unknown Matt Smith took over from Tennant – would the show still pack the same punch as before?

Moffat and Smith’s first season went out last year and seems in hindsight to be a bit of a transitional phase, with the similarities to what had gone before arguably more striking than the differences. Smith is undoubtedly a very canny piece of casting: for the first time since Tom Baker we have an actor in the title role who seems effortlessly alien, although it’s a bit disappointing that the trappings of the character appear to be gradually reverting to the hackneyed “eccentric professor” interpretation of the time traveller. There was a slightly stronger link between the individual stories than before, and certain developments definitely tended more to the cerebral than the emotional, but on the whole these were still stand-alone episodes, and one can easily imagine Tennant playing the lead in most of them.

This time around however it looks like Moffat has decided to cut loose. He’s always been fascinated with structural puzzles and the possibilities afforded by a format where characters can use time to play with cause and effect, and the 2011 series throws down challenges for the viewer right from the off. The opening two-parter (The Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon) is stuffed with provocative unresolved events and mysterious plot strands that raise the bar considerably (The Doctor is shot dead five minutes in? Amy’s pregnant, but only sometimes? River Song knows something momentous but isn’t telling?) and even the main narrative involving an alien occupation nobody’s aware of requires unusual concentration to join the dots. There are deliberate gaps and jumps in the timeline and the whole experience of watching it represents a leap of faith that the writer knows what he’s doing and is going to be able to tie his loose ends up adequately. This is no longer a programme you can easily dip in and out of.

The ongoing plot threads continue to make their presence felt through the next three stories, although not so heavily. The Curse Of The Black Spot is on the whole a completely generic and pretty derivative pirate romp featuring Lily Cole as an extraterrestrial siren picking off buccaneers, but it does at least provide some light relief. The Doctor’s Wife, written by Neil Gaiman no less, provides a whole new mind-warping concept to assimilate as we finally get an angle on the TARDIS’s view of the Doctor. This is a bold, imaginative and very well-written tale, but like the season’s opener it does ask you to lean in a bit to get the full benefit. Then there’s another two-parter, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, an overlong runaround set in a monastery that’s also a refinery, that seems to have been included primarily to introduce another ongoing theme, namely the existence of doppelgangers and the possibility that people may not be who you think they are.

Another change this year is the splitting of the year’s thirteen installments into two chunks, with the second lot coming in the Autumn. This is probably a good idea, as it relieves some of the pressure on the production team, and reduces the chance of a sag in quality halfway through the run. It also means that for the first time we get a mid-season finale, the self-consciously epic A Good Man Goes To War, in which Moffat again shows his reluctance to bother with establishing scenarios and traditional build-ups and his delight in throwing a succession of ostensibly unrelated scenes at the audience. We do however eventually get a few answers here after an unfeasibly large stack of questions and some good old Star Wars influenced cosmic spectacle, as well as a wrenching and unexpected reversal, and this half of the season ends in a strangely downbeat manner. It’s been a bit of a weird ride, to be honest.

Doctor Who survived through the 60s and 70s, if not the 80s, through the willingness of successive production teams to ruthlessly throw out aspects of the show they didn’t like and steer the programme in different directions. So there’s some good precedents for Moffat making his changes – I just hope he can deliver on his flashy mysteries and take his audience with him.

Elisabeth Sladen

Last night I heard that Elisabeth Sladen had died and it felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I have never been so upset about a public figure dying – not John Peel, who’s probably had influence on me than anyone outside my immediate family and friends, not Kurt Vonnegut, who changed the way I thought about the world when I was 15. Certainly not Princess Diana, although I now feel the way I guess all those people who spent a week mourning and buying handfuls of Elton John singles must have felt.

In case you didn’t know, Lis Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor’s companion, in Doctor Who, between 1973 and 1976, first with Jon Pertwee and then with Tom Baker. She’s therefore the first new regular character I can remember being introduced into the programme, which I’d been watching all my life (my second earliest memory is alerting my mother that “Doctor Who’s talking to a Sea Devil!” which would have been when I was three years old). Sarah Jane Smith was brilliant. She was strong-willed, brave, independent and cheeky, but also recognisably human and occasionally vulnerable, and was the first fully-rounded, believable assistant the Doctor ever had. Some of this came from the writing (Sladen had the good fortune to join the show at about the same time as the legendary Robert Holmes became script editor), but the reason Sarah topped polls for best ever Who companion time and again is all down to Lis Sladen and her ability to sell even the most far-fetched and outlandish situations. You have to be more than a bit forgiving of a lot of what’s now known as “classic” Doctor Who (stories from both the 60s and the 80s are often toe-curlingly bad, for various reasons), but I can unreservedly recommend pretty much anything that features Sladen and Tom Baker’s Doctor – this is the Golden Age.

Sladen left Doctor Who in 1976, and had a bit of success in other stage and television roles, but she had an indelible connection with Sarah Jane Smith and she was canny enough to know how and under what conditions to exploit it. She appeared in a number of Who spin-offs and anniversary specials during the 80s and 90s, eventually recording some audio Doctor Who adventures for the company Big Finish. It was, however, the extraordinarily successful revival of Who in 2005 under writer Russell T Davies that provided her with an incredible Second Coming. Davies wanted to revive the character for a story illustrating the Doctor’s effect on the companions he leaves behind, and knew that Sarah Jane would be the perfect fit. Sladen was initially reluctant, suspecting that her part would be a glorified cameo, but eventually accepted, and the resulting story – School Reunion – provoked an unanimously positive response from the famously pernicketty Doctor Who fanbase. Sladen was back, looking unfeasibly good for her age, and working as well with David Tennant as she had with Pertwee and Baker. Full disclosure: I cried.

Reaction was so positive that Davies took the amazing step of creating a spin-off series centred around the character and her investigations into extra-terrestrial activity on Earth. The Sarah Jane Adventures, aimed at children but perfectly accessible to adults, debuted in 2007, has run for four series and has achieved great popular and critical success. Sarah Jane has also returned to the parent show twice – once in the finale to the fourth season, when I again got something in my eye on seeing Lis Sladen’s name appear in the opening credits, and once in David Tennant’s last episode. Half of a fifth series of The Sarah Jane Adventures has been shot – it remains to be seen whether this will be aired.

By a meaningless coincidence I had just finished watching the final episode of the Doctor Who story Planet Of The Spiders last night, at the end of which Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker after collapsing on the floor in front of Sarah Jane and the Doctor’s longtime friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s a highly affecting scene to me, made even more so this time by the fact that Nicholas Courtney, who played the Brigadier, recently passed away. I got through it though by thinking “well, at least Lis Sladen’s still going strong”, turned the DVD player off, and had what was supposed to be a quick look at the BBC News website. I just couldn’t believe it, and I still can’t. Some deaths you can rationalise, but Sarah Jane always seemed so real and so human, and Sladen always looked so good and seemed so full of life and compassion and intelligence that this just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. RIP.