21st Century Who

I can’t say I’m sad to hear that Russell T Davies, the producer behind the 21st Century revamp of Doctor Who, will be leaving the show at the end of 2009. I’ve found his version of the programme pretty unwatchable. I don’t have a problem with the huge liberties he took with its format. As a huge childhood fan of the original show, I’ll be the first to admit that it needed a big kick up the arse following its sad decline during the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years.

And to be fair to Davies, his radical revamp was actually in keeping with the history of the show, in that Doctor Who has always reflected contemporary BBC production values at any given time. The changes Davies made in bringing it up to date are in line with wider changes in television drama over the last decade or so, and just seemed shocking because of the lengthy gap since the show was last broadcast. If Doctor Who had never stopped, we probably would have seen the same changes happen in a more gradual fashion.

So what has changed in television drama during this time? Well apart from the obvious advancements in digital production techniques, and the availability of affordable computer graphics, television producers (and society as a whole) have become much more interested in the personal lives and emotions of their characters, and less in their deeds and actions. This is epitomised in the way the new series treated the Daleks; on the one hand taking advantage of modern special effects to make them more convincing killing machines and on the other exploring what would happen if a Dalek had a soul, in the travesty that was the ‘sad’ Dalek of series 1. As for the Doctor himself, this usually inscrutable alien was given a big dose of 21st Century human-style emotional baggage, resulting from the death of his entire race, the Time Lords. And of course we discovered for the first time that he’s a sexual creature, a development which generated publicity-friendly storylines such as his snog with Rose Tyler.

The episode that finally killed it for me though was School Reunion in Series 2, which brought back popular 70s assistant Sarah Jane Smith. This looked like an attempt to comment on and make sense of the asexual relationships between the Doctor and his predominantly female assistants in the original series, a concept that must seem curious and anachronistic today to some, now that sex is assumed to be central to everyone’s lives. So Davies and co rewrote Doctor Who history, retrospectively injecting sexual tension between Sarah Jane and the Doctor which simply wasn’t present in the original show, leading to the embarrassing and undignified spectacle of a middle aged Sarah Jane and a twenty-something Rose Tyler bickering over the Doctor like a pair of lovesick school children. It’s ironic that, although the Doctor’s relationship with his female assistants was often criticised for being sexist, in bringing the character into the more ‘enlightened’ 21st century the show’s producers seem to have missed the very characteristics (gumption and independence) that made Sarah Jane an attractive and forward-looking character in the first place.

The idea that sex is the key motivator in our lives is of course a popular undercurrant in modern British television. Even shows like This Life or Attachments, which on the surface are about professionals from different industries, turn out to be mainly interested in the bedroom hopping antics of their characters. It seems that whether you’re a lawyer, a website designer or a Time Lord all you’re really after is a shag.

This is an extremely dispiriting and self-centred outlook. It’s also a bad foundation for drama. It’s notable that the best telly dramas and comedies (most of which are American) proceed along different lines, whether it be CSI, The Wire, My Name is Earl or even Friends for chrissakes. These feature people who struggle to achieve things that are bigger than their own lives, and any sexual attraction between them is a side product of who they are and what they do. And it’s no coincidence that the more central sex is to a show, the more shallow and depressing it is (think Sex and the City, Nip and Tuck, Desperate Housewives, etc, etc).

Speaking of American television, at the time of Doctor Who’s relaunch much was made of the influence of Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There’s no doubt the new Doctor Who emulated some aspects of Whedon’s show, but the differences between them are revealing. Buffy took an established format – light-hearted action adventure – and turned it inside out, using it as a framework for complex and lengthy storylines that repaid attention over many episodes. Doctor Who in contrast looks very dumbed down, with its simplistic storylines and plot twists which are signposted in the most unsubtle way (just in case the audience doesn’t get it). Buffy was packed with obscure and intelligent cultural references, Doctor Who with self-consciously hip references which would be familiar to everybody. Whedon has a healthy disrespect for therapy culture and other modern trends; Davies appears to have taken it all on board uncritically. At the end of the day, the key difference between them is that Whedon has interesting stuff to say and assumes his audience are intelligent enough to understand it; Davies is a dull and conventional thinker who treats his audience as stupid. Either that or he’s just not a very good writer.

Still the BBC have a hit on their hands, as they don’t hesitate in reminding us. You can’t argue with the viewing figures, although it should be pointed out that an average of 6-10 million viewers isn’t that popular (and is only twice as many viewers as the show had in late 80s nadir). It’s striking that most of the adults I know who watch it do so with a certain amount of resignation, muttering phrases like ‘it’s crap but…’ and ‘well that’s as good as it gets these days’.

I recently revisited some of the Tom Baker stories that spooked me as a kid and found that they stood up surprisingly well. And it struck me, back then Doctor Who was a children’s show which appealed to the whole family. Now it’s a family show which is fit only for children.

1 thought on “21st Century Who

  1. I too very much regretted witnessing the unfortunate ‘revisionist’ Sarah-Jane episode to which you refer. The sexual elements are indeed quite inappropriate to the character and to the series, and as you say it has involved the wholesale jettisoning – some might say destruction – of many things that made the series appealing in the first place.

    As to the current creative control at the BBC, I would further take them to task over two other matters. Firstly, the sleek, visual look of the new series which strikes me as little more than a misguided attempt to make Doctor Who resemble a Hollywood sci-fi or action adventure movie. Again, the original appeal of the 1960s and 1970s shows – which are object lessons in how imagination and ingenuity can prevail in the face of a non-existent special effects budget – have been jettisoned in favour of images which, for all their apparent realism, leave nothing for the eye or mind of the viewer to do.

    Secondly, and this is a far more pervasive phenomenon not just in this series but in television generally, the scripts have clearly been written by very knowing, overly-sophisticated writers, who have at their fingertips the entire history of Dr Who, and are aiming their ideas squarely at the equally well-informed fanbase. In favour of original ideas, we’re getting the TV equivalent of a dig in the ribs. We’re almost ending up with a species of meta-Dr Who script, a phenomenon we’ve already seen in the world of comic books some 20 years ago (when Alan Moore and Frank Miller started to produce their intellectual revisionist versions of superhero characters). It’s also discernible in Hollywood movie scripts of the last 15 years, where the writers appear to have studied every possible post-Freudian analytical monograph about the hidden meanings of classic Hollywood cinema from Hitchcock onwards. The difference is they are now deliberately planting their own hidden subtexts and references right in the script; any viewing pleasure for the audience now resides simply in spotting them and crossing them off the checklist, like a passive spectator at the arena.

    I would argue that this mode of writing, like the over-elaborate CGI imagery, is highly deleterious to the imagination of the viewer. The original Dr Who, for all its clunkiness, occasionally managed to tap into some very basic human fears and psychological dilemmas, and often presented them without the need for meta-textual comment. Which is why every nostalgic viewer of the show retells their own version of ‘hiding behind the sofa’ whenever the scary monster appeared. Sadly, given the way this show has developed into something where imagination is throttled by the need to over-explain everything, we’re unlikely to recapture that level of innocence ever again.

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