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January 06, 2010

Whoops Apocalypse

Reading (okay, watching) Russell T Davies' Doctor Who

The key to understanding Russell T Davies’ vision of Doctor Who can be found as early as eight minutes into the show's triumphant 2005 return. And it’s not the skittish beats of Murray Gold’s UK garage pastiche, or the rapid-edit Rose and Mickey montage, both of which would turn out to be something of a Trojan horse designed to help deliver this sci-fi curiosity to the Hollyoaks generation. It’s not even the appearance of the new, version 9.0 Doctor, now looking more like a car clamper than an Edwardian adventurer. No, the really telling moment is Jackie’s throwaway quip about Rose’s run-in with the Nestene having aged her: “Skin like an old bible,” she tells her friend on the phone. “Walk in here now, you’d think I was her daughter.”

BTS Jackie Tyler This comment does not, on any level, make sense. A bad day at work – even one culminating in rampaging shop dummies, a dead caretaker, a giant explosion and the disembodied voice of Graham Norton – is not widely known for impacting on the texture of your skin. The colour of it maybe and, at a push, it might even turn the odd hair white. But “skin like an old bible”? It’s nonsense, whichever way you slice it. And the point is, to Russell T Davies, that doesn’t matter. So what if it doesn’t actually make sense? It’s a funny line that illuminates something of Jackie’s character – and good lines, strong characters and set-piece ‘moments’ are what Russell T Davies’ Who is all about. Unlike, say, Philip Pullman, who subscribes to the theory that everything else must serve the needs of the story, Davies decrees that the story must serve these other elements – and even, if necessary, sacrifice itself for them.

Jackie’s gag is a trivial but telling example of a trope we would see repeated countless times throughout the RTD era, right up until its dying days, when a confrontation between the Master and the Doctor on which rests the entire future of the universe (and possibly its past, too) is inexplicably put on hold in favour of some arse-squeezing nonsense with June Whitfield and the bloke from Hi-de-Hi.

At times, it was difficult not to suspect Davies took a perverse sort of pride from this casual relationship between cause and effect. He’s often spoken of being an “instinctive” writer, and the mental image of him flying along in his Cardiff flat, pages of script falling fully-formed from his head in the dead of night, is a persuasive one (even if, according to The Writers’ Tale, it’s only half the story). Christopher "Hamilton" Bidmead kicked up a heck of a hornet’s nest when he described RTD as “a first draft writer”, but there is an extent to which Davies himself seems reluctant to overwrite, to overthink, his scripts, lest they lose some of the urgency and personality that sees his work regularly lionized for its boldness, its audacity, its chutzpah and (a particular favourite of broadsheet journalists) its brio.

On other occasions, Davies has as good as admitted he thinks the mechanics of plotting and internal logic are only of concern to the hardcore internet fanbase – let’s not forget this is the showrunner who went one better than William Shatner by dismissing some of his most dedicated audience as “ming mongs”. And he’s got a point – there are times when staring into the Untempered Schishm of the Gallifrey Base (nee Outpost Gallifrey) forums threatens to send you as mad as the Master. (A random example from this week’s dispatches – people getting irate about Martha’s treatment of Tom Milligan; that’s right, - taking sides in the break-up of a fictional relationship about which we know precisely zero. The man could have been shagging a Toclafane for all we know.)

But it’s arrogant folly for Davies to assume the rest of his audience – the other nine-and-a-half million or so – don’t care about this stuff as well. Any viewer buying into a fictional concept, even one this bonkers, has a right to expect it to make sense. (And who worries more about the logic of things than children? Try wriggling out of a satisfying answer with them and they’ll ask you “Why? Why? Why?” from now until the year 5.5/apple/26.) No-one appreciates those patented RTD “moments” – a dash of gothic verse here, a lyrical paean to the possibilities of humanity there – more than me. But it’s not pedantry, pettifoggery or even the mark of a sphincter-squeezing forum fanatic to expect those things to come packaged in a watertight (or at least seaworthy) story – especially from someone who, we are often reminded, is a genius.

BTS pensioners One argument the man himself has trotted out ad infinitum is that too much exposition acts as a drag on the action; how many times have we heard him talk of a line of explanation that was cut because it simply got in the way? (Take June and the Hi-de-Hi man again: don’t be at all surprised to read a forthcoming RTD interview in which he says something along the lines of: “In the original edit there was a line where the Doctor said he couldn’t confront the Master while there were innocent bystanders around, so that’s why he got on the bus and went home with Wilf and co - to get them out of harm's way. But then I thought, you know what? It just slows the story down. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any sense. It’s Christmas Day! And Julie agreed with me. She thinks I’m brilliant.”)

With Davies, it almost became part of the game for the viewer to have to fill in the blanks and, after five years of being asked to join all the dots myself, I was starting to feel like I should be earning a writers’ fee just by watching the thing. (Though, to be honest, his “never complain, never explain” credo was looking pretty specious anyway by the time The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End rolled around, as the dialogue here consisted of little but convoluted, technobabble exposition, and there were still holes in the plot – which, from my recollection, revolved around Davros bringing about “the end of reality itself”, while he and the Daleks hid round a corner - big enough to lose 27 planets in.)

This Big, Bold, Audacious writing – which is either testament to a man restlessly pushing at the boundaries of the televised adventure format, or a euphemism for someone seeing what they can get away with, depending on your point of view – also manifests itself in the scale of the stories. From the death of reality to the end of time, it’s fair to say that, for Russell T Davies, size matters. This was evident right from the get-go when he decided to set his very first future story in the year five billion. Not the year 5,000, 500,000 or even the year five million, but the year five billion. Ironically, this was predicated by a rare nod to real, actual science (the projected lifespan of the sun) but there was still a whiff of his swaggering braggadocio about it – a sense that, in the words of the Doctor, he could take us “further than we’ve ever gone before”.

BTS Trinity Wells After that, everything was bigger, faster, more. If Davies is satirising motorway madness, he’ll have people spend their entire lives shunting between junctions, even if it stretches credibility to breaking point. And why waste everyone’s time with a boring old moonbase when you can land an entire London hospital on the lunar surface instead? His is a universe where middle-aged women accessorise with collapsed stars and the assassination of the US President on live TV is barely a blip in the rolling news cycle for AMNN anchorwoman Trinity Wells (who really needs to have a word with her boss about the Christmas rotas).

And whereas in old-skool Who the threat might have been to a village or a colony or a base under the siege, on Davies’ watch, it’s the entire human population that succumbs to the influence of Adipose or Atmos, Sycorax or Simm. (Any cursory sops to Dr Science went out of the window pretty sharpish, too: If Davies wants to drag the entire Earth across space, with only a few swinging lampshades to show for it, or materialise Gallifrey directly above Chiswick, then who’s gonna stop him?)

In one sense, this shouty, showy, bells and whistles approach seems like a fundamental misreading of what Doctor Who actually is – because wasn’t it always the cleverer, speccier, talkier alternative to the flashy pyrotechnics of Buck Rogers, The A Team and even Star Wars? Isn’t that why we loved it in the first place? Robert Holmes famously said the Doctor was more like Sherlock Holmes than Dan Dare, whereas Davies, a voracious consumer of comic books and summer blockbusters, a man who refuses to watch films with subtitles, clearly has as much love for the Mekon as he does for The Musgrave Ritual.

But only a fool would have tried to sell the stagey, studio-bound Who of old to the iGeneration, and a more generous assessment says Davies actually allowed the show finally to live up to its true potential, by giving it the muscle to bust some blocks in its own right while maintaining enough quirky wit, keen intelligence and genuine, heartfelt passion to put cynical marketing exercises like Transformers and Spider-Man 3 to shame. A show that, in the words of Timothy Dalton no less, runs the gamut from “Coronation Street to 2001” (2000AD would have been a more appropriate reference, but we take his point) – a dichotomy perfectly summed up on New Year’s Day 2010 with an aerial dogfight lifted straight from George Lucas – but with Bernard Cribbins manning the gun in his gardening duds. (Though I’d still argue Davies went too far with some of his Christmas specials which, in their eagerness to take the place of the pre-multi channel era “big film”, were in danger of losing the show’s essence amid a bombardment of sound, fury and CGI money shots.)

Of course, this fabled mix of the domestic and the fantastic has always been Doctor Who’s trump card and, if you’re looking for evenness of tone, you’ve come to the wrong show. It’s mutability has always been one of its greatest strengths, while at the same time resulting in dramatic lurches in quality (for good or ill) not found in more consistent – but infinitely duller – episodic TV. But in the Davies era the good, the bad and the downright bonkers sat cheek by jowl like never before. Never mind the old chestnut about the show's “infinitely flexible format” serving up space opera one week and historical costume drama the next – in noughties Who, we were asked to readjust our emotional sets on a minute-by-minute basis.

For this reason, Davies’ big, grandstanding emotional scenes could occasionally feel a little forced, arriving from nowhere, like the jarring chord change in clunky prog rock epic, with only the watering of David Tennant’s eye or the swell of Murray Gold’s strings to tells us this was one of those moment when we were Meant To Be Feeling Something. The death of Lady Cassandra is a case in point – after two episodes in which she’d bounced between broad comic parody and mass murderer, all that eulogizing and final, dramatic swan dive just felt like crocodile tears. And where exactly did that whole “Time Lord Victorious” business suddenly spring from in the final reel of The Waters of Mars? (And where did it go again, for that matter?)

Bleakhouse On other occasions, things simply got too silly to sustain any sense of verisimilitude: I loved Turn Left – undoubtedly one of Davies’ finest 45 mins – but struggled to buy into a grim “new holocaust” parable extrapolated from the Titanic falling onto Buckingham Palace – Queen, corgis, curlers and all. Then there’s Boomtown, a “bottle episode” morality play about the politics of death - framed by a story about a farting alien trying to escape a nuclear explosion on an intergalactic surf board.

It will be illuminating to contrast Davies’ love of the big, bombastic pictures he thought Doctor Who needed to compete with those shiny ITV studio floors with the approach of his successor who, judging by his track record so far, favours a less-is-more approach. To Steven Moffat, the biggest thrills are often the smallest. Davros wants to detonate reality? Ho hum. Clockwork man hiding under the bed? Anyone mind if I sleep with the light on? (Interestingly, in all his 31 episodes, RTD never actually wrote, or even tried to write, a properly scary one. Tense (Midnight), and occasionally horrific (Last of the Time Lords), but not proper horror scary (Tooth and Claw's werewolf was probably the closest we got), which is strange for a man in love with a show most famous for… well, for inspiring blogs with names like Behind The Sofa, for one.

(Disciples of The Moff Messiah might say Davies writes comedies that aren’t always that funny, while Moffatt writes horrors that just happen to be hilarious, but that’s a bit uncharitable. And we shouldn’t forget Davies’ role as midwife to all those Moffat, Cornell, Jones and Shearman crowd pleasers. His imprimatur is all over even those scripts he didn’t do a root and branch rewrite of; it’s his vision they were writing to, his bravery that allowed them to take risks.)

Whatever you think of Davies’ approach to the nuts and bolts of scriptwriting, few would dispute that, in his wider role as showrunner, he was exactly the right man for the job of restoring Doctor Who to its rightful place at the heart of the nation’s cultural radar. Back in the late 80s, fans fell like hungry wolves on a throwaway line in The Independent praising Ghost Light – today, you could fill several volumes of glowing press cuttings and five-star reviews, to say nothing of those baseline viewing figures and dizzying AI scores.

To an extent, the production team were pushing at an open door; there was a genuine appetite for Doctor Who to succeed, to the extent that everyone – the production team, the media, the fans – has colluded in selling the idea of it being “the biggest show on TV” (it isn’t – though it seems churlish to point it out, it isn’t even the biggest drama on TV). But Davies’ real triumph has been keeping that door open for five years – through constant reinvention, expert salesmanship and boundless energy (not to mention his kingmaking role in the elevation of David Tennant to freshly minted national treasure), he has worked his Welsh arse off to ensure the public love affair with New Who never waned and that, the odd mealy-mouthed Daily Mail columnist aside, the backlash never came. Today, his name is justly synonymous with the show’s success: Gallifrey Base users, DWM Mighty 200 voters and even Hugo juries may prefer Moffat but, to the public, and the mainstream media, Russell T Davies is Doctor Who.

If that were to be the legacy, then, it would be more than enough. But the legacy is so much bigger than that. Russell T Davies put a big, beating heart into the hollow chamber that we didn’t even realise was at the centre of the old Doctor Who until he pointed it out to us. His initial series tagline of “adventures in the human race” turned out to be much more than a don’t-scare-the-horses way of selling the show to sci-fi sceptics. It was the touchstone of his vision: a joyous counterpoint to the solipsism and nihilism and irony and apathy of the decade of cynicism. It dazzled us with the infinite potential of mankind, and brought imagination, intelligence and adventure to Saturday night entertainment TV. It was made with love, and radiated it to millions in return.

BTS RTD And if Russell T Davies was sometimes guilty of ignoring the whole in favour of the moment… well, what moments. From the beautiful chips and friendships coda of The End of the World to the holographic Doctor telling Rose to have a fantastic life; from that devastating farewell on Bad Wolf Bay – “I’m burning up a sun, just to say goodbye” – to the whip-smart, deliciously timey-wimey first meeting with Martha Jones; from the Doctor and Donna’s hilarious mime in Partners in Crime to our hero’s heartbreaking final sacrifice, curled up like a helpless child in the bottom of that glass booth, this was television built to last. Though whether it will last five billion years, like the respective oeuvres of Soft Cell and Britney Spears, remains to be seen.

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