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.

What’s wrong with children’s television?

Children’s television has always come in for a lot of stick. If you believe its diverse critics, it teaches children bad habits, atrophies the imagination, propagates stereotypes, encourages passive behaviour, and can even harm their teeth and lead to alcohol abuse and sexual promiscuity.

Many of these claims are evergreen but two criticisms in particular have become dominant in recent discussions about the subject:

  1. The malign effects of advertising.
  2. The dominance of American-made shows.

These both reflect a concern that television is turning our children into young capitalists, by encouraging unthinking consumerism and spreading cultural imperialism (specifically American capitalist culture).

Some critics even aspire to invert this relationship, positing that children’s television could be used to undermine the status quo. Author Philip Pullman, who has described the state of children’s television as ‘social poison’, has made this explicit: ‘Taking children’s needs seriously is not different from taking every human need seriously. It is absolutely central to a true and humane vision of the whole of life. If we need to challenge the prevailing neo-liberal, market-based religion in order to do it, then we should do so proudly.’

I believe that this line of thinking is in fact destructive and leads us towards making worthy but poor quality children’s programmes. It’s revealing that discussion of the content of children’s television is conspicuous by its absence. Shows are judged merely in terms of whether they transmit the right or the wrong ideas; how entertaining, original, imaginative or well-constructed they are appears to be an irrelevance.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the widespread praise heaped upon Lazytown, often talked about as the antidote to poor quality children’s TV. This show shares many characteristics with ‘bad’ children’s television – pantomime-level characters and formulaic storylines, garish colours, over-the-top action, cheesy music and a highly successful range of merchandising. But all this is ok because it is in the name of health education. (Lazytown encourages children to get fit and eat lots of fruit).

I’ll expand upon the points above soon. See you next time when I’ll argue that advertising on children’s television can be a good thing.