Monday, 7 July 2008

Apparently I Can't Stop Scratching

It would seem that the 3000 words I wrote on Doctor Who yesterday aren't enough. I made very sure that I wrote that article before I returned to Lawrence Mile's Doctor Who blog, because I wanted to be sure that my opinion wasn't influenced by his.

Once I got there, however, I found a 25 step-guide on how to make the show better for Season 5 (or, as we purists call it, Season 30). Since I got bored at work today and wrote a long post on the SFX Forum about how much weight I thought should be given to the recommendations, I thought I might as well reproduce it here, with a little extra explanation, and with one or two of the more direct references to the forum-goers altered.

First: the list itself.

1. A companion who isn't from the early twenty-first century.
2. A companion who's played by a proper actress.
3. We don't necessarily need a single companion
4. No more affairs for the Doctor.
5. A less sexy, less athletic Doctor.
6. No spurious super-powers.
7. The Doctor shouldn't know everything.
8. The Doctor shouldn't be perfect.
9. The Doctor's presence should never, ever be the solution
10. No technobabble.
11. Absolutely no "magic wand" technology.
12. Please, in the name of God, less stories set on modern-day Earth.
13. No more alien invasions.
14. Stop wasting money on "big"
15. Less CGI monsters.
16. Stop making straight-to-video horror movies with all the horror taken out. …
17. We need writers who can write, not just directors who can direct.
18. [Miles] should obviously be hired as a writer

19. Make sure you hire the right "cult" comic-book author.
20. We need one - just one - proper historical story.
21. Historical stories that are actually about the era in question.
22. Monsters that fit the story.
23. Enough of the Daleks.
24. Say no to story arcs.
25. Less Confidential, more Totally.

Point 1 addresses one of those things that I'd like to see, and the show could certainly do something interesting with, but it's not really make-or-break stuff, it would just make for a nice change. Certainly the argument often put forward by RTD that we "have" to have someone from contemporary Earth otherwise we won't identify is, in fact, bullshit. There are millions of reasons why, just one is that if I can identify with a black female medical doctor from London in 2007 I can't see any reason why I can't identify with a white male mathematician from, say, another universe (as long as he wasn't Adric, obviously). Considering the sheer amount of effort (to varying degrees of success but certainly for the best of reasons) gone into making the show as diverse as is possible (aside from the fact that the closest we've got to disabled characters have been an insane scam artist and the creator of the Daleks) it seems odd that RTD is convinced we couldn't take someone seriously unless they come from the exact time period between Pokemon's star waning and the Spice Girls reforming.

But, like I said, it's not really going to be much of an issue either way.

2 strikes me as a little unfair, since I think Tate did very well as Donna. There is a point to be made, however, that the next companion shouldn't be somebody already very well known. Yes, Rose worked (or to be more accurate the fact that Rose was a hideous sniveling self-absorbed pathetic excuse for a person is in no way Billie Piper's fault), but the more you stuff the show with celebrities the harder it becomes to relate to it. Or it does for me, anyway. I've said before that I was really impressed by Catherine Tate this season, but the fact that she did well never stopped me from seeing her every Saturday and thinking "Look, it's Catherine Tate!" This was also an issue with Eccleston's brief run on the show, too, although since the man is an accomplished actor, as oppose to a serial camera-mugger, it didn't work out quite as badly (seriously, though, ask yourself when the last time was when you saw Eccleston in something and didn't have to spend at least a little while getting over the fact that it's just Chris Eccleston again. Heroes? Who? The Second Coming? 28 Days Later? If I had to pick, I guess it would probably be The Others).

3 is an extension of 1. Again, nice to see it, not too bothered about it, other than the fact that it's unlikely in the extreme that the Doctor will ever have a long-term male companion unless there's a woman in there too (in fact, it's worth noting that in the show's whole run, only Adric appeared in an entire story without a female companion either being with, leaving, or joining the TARDIS crew, and that was in The Keeper of Traken which introduced Nyssa who joined in the next story anyway). Obviously a male companion would be a nice change (yeah, there was Adam, but he was a douche, and Mickey was scarcely better; especially since both of them kept making eyes at Rose). Miles' point that this could lead to angle romantic without roping in the Doctor again is a good one, frankly I'd rather give all this hormonal raging a rest altogether, but at least this way I don't have to be constantly creeped out by an alien the crappy side of 1000 (whatever he tells people these days) staring at the arse of women not yet in their mid-twenties.

As for 4 through 7, I think Miles is entirely right about the problems the show has with its current portrayal of the Doctor, although some things need addressing more urgently than others. This love affair angle, as I've said, certainly needs to be dropped as soon as possible. We're back to this nonsense about "identifying". Well, maybe nonsense is too harsh a word, but the fact remains that we're talking about the adventures of a near-immortal alien, here. You don't want him completely aloof and inexplicable, obviously, but each time you drag him into what concerns us as a species, you run the risk of lessening him. This constant need to have him moping around is one of them. The guy destroyed his entire species to save the universe; he's committed genocide at least twice, he's dedicated his life (all those centuries of it) to fighting evil. He's the archetypal champion, albeit an arrogant and mercurial one, and to try and suggest that he still needs a good woman (a human woman, to boot, and a teenager) or he'll just be all mopey is a bit much. So, whilst I don't really care if he's sexy or not, if they do keep casting studs I wish they wouldn't try to work it into the stories all the damn time. As for 6 and 7, I agree completely that it somewhat takes the fun out of it when the Doctor automatically knows what's going on within moments of it happening. A friend told me once about how hard it was running Cthulhu with his current role-playing group since they had one guy there who had been playing it for years. Every time a monster would burst through from the beyond, this guy (often independently of his character, who like most PC's in Cthulhu hadn't seen a tenth of what his player had) would immediately recognise it, and form the counter-strategy. Often the gribbly wouldn't even have to show up. "Freak earthquake, you say? This sounds like the work of those demn Cthonians! Quickly! To the water-cannons!". Watching Who can often feel like that, especially since (as we'll get to later) the Doctor's greatest problems are increasingly caused not by having no idea what to do, but knowing what to do (or assuming he can work it out) and then getting to where he can do it. [1]

8 and 9, I think, are particularly vital. Miles makes the excellent point that when you write for the Doctor you can't just assume he's infallible and everything he does is thus objectively good and will get him worshiped by Ood or by Romans or by a bunch of colonists who turn out to be a week old. When you're trying to set up your hero as being only a little short of full-blown godhood (as the current iteration of the show seems to be), it means you have to be very careful about how you write him, as oppose to just having him spout any old guff and hoping that the fact it's the Doctor by itself (and, to be fair, hoping Tennant can carry it, which he often does) will make it work [2]. I also agree with Miles' take on Gridlock being nothing more than a race for the Doctor to get to the Face of Boe so he can immediately solve everything. He may be the Oncoming Storm, but we should see him struggle to succeed, not struggle to arrive. Tragically he doesn't go far enough and completely decry that particular episode as the absolute nadir of both Who and television in general that it was, but we can't have everything.

I'm on board with 10 and 11, too. We've already seen RTD paint himself into a corner with the sonic screwdriver, necessitating the sudden appearance of deadlock seals all over the place (including on robot helpers and tampered cars; why would the Sontarans go to the trouble of fitting deadlocks to all the ATMOS-enhanced vehicles, given humanity doesn't have sonic technology, and given that, as we found, car windows ain't all that hard to break). The new series has often flown closer to pure fantasy than I've been comfortable with. YMMV, of course, but since a lot of the time the more fantastical elements annoy not because they're fantastical per se but because they're papering over glaring implausibility makes it a reasonable gripe, I think.

On the other hand, I've never agreed with Miles on 24, and I still don't; the problems Who has had regarding story arcs have been in how they've been done, not that they were attempted. This years has worked pretty well, or at least it would have done if the "Someone will die" line we kept getting fed hadn't turned out to be bollocks again [3], and if somebody had bothered to point out that if you're going to write something like Turn Left you have to plan for it in advance and make sure you know what's coming (i.e. don't suddenly pretend the Titanic wasn't going to wipe out all life on Earth when it crashed [4] and don't forget that the stars won't go out until after the Earth gets dragged to the Medusa Cascade in order to power the reality bomb).

Much of the rest of the list that doesn't read as a fairly bitter request for a job, I really don't care about one way or another. 12 already seems to be going better these days (there have been several jaunts this year off-Earth), and I don't really care if they do any pure historicals or not (I do agree that they could probably afford to present the past a bit less like they're pitching it at celebrity gossip columnists, though). I'm also not too worried about letting Gaiman get his hands on the show for an episode, mainly because I rate his writing far, far higher than Miles does, although TV isn't Gaiman's best format.

And as for 18, well, I've never read anything by Miles so I can't comment on his level of delusion (though convention wisdom has it that it's pretty extreme). Of course, he could be the worst writer of science-fiction in the entire history of humanity and it wouldn't affect whether or not the other 24 points carry any weight.
[1] One or two people, incidentally, have argued that some of the above is an attempt to return to the Hartnell era (mainly, as far as I can see, because Miles has a tendency to use it as an example) which is pretty obviously a false dichotomy. It's the "Oh, you don't want Time Lord DNA to travel via lightning bolt; that means you must want Adric back" argument that surfaces every time you suggest the show might want to at least try to make some kind of narrative sense, even if we known that narrative is implausible (see my point about techno-babble later on).

[2] While we're on the subject of The Doctor's Daughter, how does "I never would" sit alongside tricking someone into being sucked into a black-hole? Or turning them into a scarecrow? Or knocking them off a spaceship? Or sucking all the Daleks into the void (presumably killing them) only to be shocked when your clone kills them all over again two years later? The Tenth Doctor seems to have a tremendously flexible code when it comes to deciding who lives, who dies, and who spends eternity trapped in mirrors. Which I wouldn't necessarily mind, if anyone ever called him on it. But he's the Doctor, he must always be right; even when he's being irritating, like he was to Harriet Jones in the Christmas Invasion. I thought it was a real shame the Daleks did for her last Saturday before she had time to tell him she told him so.

[3] I even thought when Caan mentioned "everlasting death" that this was a stupid thing to say. Isn't all death everlasting, I thought? Well not if it's just some nonsense crap about trying to equate it with amnesia, it ain't. Thus the line manages to be apparently tautological at the time, and complete bullshit misdirection later on.

[4] I said at the time that suddenly announcing the entire human race was in jeopardy, as oppose just the thousands of people on the ship, was a poorly-judged attempt to ramp up the tension for no real gain: I have labeled this RTD-MRI Syndrome after one of its most outrageous occurrences.

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