Friday, 5 April 2013

Doctor, Why?

'He into his bikes, is he?' The question was asked by Peter Sweet,  someone my father knew through mutual love of massive, noisy motorcycles. Even though I was not yet ten years old, we lived on a farm and I was male so I suppose it had seemed reasonable to assume that I was probably into Status Quo, Aston Villa and motorbikes.

'Oh no - he's a Doctor Who man,' my father explained as they headed out the door, intent on keeping a date with a lake of beer and lively conversation about gear boxes.

Without even knowing quite why, even then I resented the label, even though it was certainly fitting. I'd been terrified by Doctor Who up until the age of five at which point, having just watched Jon Pertwee menaced by a man pretending to be an animated stone gargoyle without quacking my pants, I informed my mother that I would be okay to watch the programme from that point on; and I was, never missing an episode until Colin Baker took to the screen and I moved away from home and into a house with no television set, which was possibly ironic in so much as I had relocated in order to study film and video production at Maidstone College of Art. Inevitably I drifted away from the programme because I was eighteen and, without wishing to cast doubt on the quality of either the Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy years, I had other, more interesting things to do.

Roughly a decade went by without my giving so much as a passing thought to this phenomenon which had once been so integral to my childhood, but then the same is true of Enid Blyton's Adventures of the Wishing Chair, so it's really not such a big deal. Then some time in the early 1990s my friend Andrew gave me a VHS tape of an old Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story for my birthday, and like Clark Kent recalling his secret origin, it all came flooding back in one massive bolus of memory sherbert. I bought some more of these tapes and was surprised at how well the stories had endured for what was essentially a children's programme without much in the way of a budget. Those later years during which the show had tried so hard not to fall off the bottom of the screen had completely passed me by, and I was intrigued by the idea that the clown from Vision On had somehow ended up in the lead role; so I bought tapes of episodes from the Sylvester McCoy era and found I even liked those. This in turn led to my reading the novels published by Virgin Books which continued the story on from the show's cancellation in 1989, with efforts made towards being decent science-fiction novels in their own right - which some of them certainly were.

In summary, Doctor Who was never my reason for living, but I had an investment I suppose you would say. I wouldn't go so far as to claim it for my native mythology as does Lawrence Miles, but it meant something and, more importantly, it led me to other, more interesting places. I can trace, for one example, at least half of the music I now listen to back to the soundtrack of jarring electronic farts scored by Malcolm Clarke for 1972's The Sea Devils.

Then in 2005, Doctor Who was once more recognised as being a viable entertainment franchise and returned to our television screens with Christopher Ecclescake in the lead role. I tried with this revived version but ultimately found myself forced to admit that it really wasn't for me. It's difficult to place the blame on any one thing that has remained consistently poor since its return - aside from Murray Lead's unrelenting incidental music which has remained efficiently and intrusively crass from the beginning - so I tend to attribute its failure to a combination of general shoddy workmanship and the stench of corporately regulated spontaneity and leave it at that.

Of course, I strive to keep such views to myself most of the time. Regardless of whether love or loathing are involved, centring each day around one's feelings for a television programme can never be healthy. I've seen what happens on internet forums gripped by the hysteria of such product overinvestment, and it isn't nice; and nor is there anything to be gained from arguing with someone for whom a fictional character is their life. They won't listen, and the more intellectually inert of their brethren will only counter your argument with viewing statistics, because if Fifty Shades of Gray, The X-Factor, Sex and the City, Justin Bieber and Adolf Hitler's rise to power have taught us anything at all, it is that the cultural or historical value of a phenomenon is apparently proportional to the quota of bums on seats. E.V. Rieu's 1946 translation of Homer's Odyssey sold three-million copies; Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code has sold eighty-million copies worldwide and is by this logic the artistically superior title.

Where Doctor Who in its heyday was spawned of a BBC populated with cranky eccentrics who tended not to play well with others but were good at imaginative programming, now it is imagineered by committee according to the guidelines of focus groups, and if it isn't, then it feels like it is to me, having more in common with Friends or Sex and the City than with its predecessor. Someone somewhere decided that the eccentric charm of the original could be rebranded and marketed with a 45% increased efficiency per unit of metric quirk to the benefit of shareholders and audience alike, floating the selfsame adventuresome zanyplex on the open market thus allowing it to compete with the likes of Spielberg, Buffy the Vampire Portfolio, and other wilfully culty TV shows about teenagers in warehouses full of stuff that fell off the back of a UFO. Even some of Doctor Who's fans now refer to it as a franchise.

Characters routinely undergo modular emotional journeys - the usual generic tripe about how daddy was never there and so on, standard soap-opera fare - scored without exception to a deafening barrage of boo hoo music just in case we didn't realise that a crying girl with big eyes is supposed to make us have a sad and because no-one trusts the script to deliver anything beyond tiresomely snappy wordplay and plot explanations; and it's no wonder when said scripts amount to a collage of time-tested set pieces already proven to have got the job done on other shows - the Doctor pleading you don't have to do this to the pissed-off alleged Silurian just like a million Nicholas Cages before him all talking the terrorist out of detonating the bomb, and nine times out of ten building up to the worst ever threat to the continued existence of everything ever yet again. It's all piss, wind, and bluster - just meaningless scale presented over and over because the steering committee understand sales targets and viewer ratings better than they understand the basic mechanics of telling a story, or why anyone would even want to tell a story without first consulting the Financial Times. This is why Doctor Who now so closely resembles proven-sellers - Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Harry Potter as the the camera zooms in for a close up, the music swells, Matt Smith looking directly into the camera to deliver one of those lines you only ever hear in the bronchial voiceover of a cinematic trailer: this ends here; the time for something or other is over; there's one thing you don't ever put in a trap; bring it on, numbnuts and so on and so forth. It's a magical funtime ride of wonderment and adventure because Tim Burton didn't win all those awards just for combing his hair. That's commercial, as Borgia Ginz observes in Derek Jarman's Jubilee.

I object to this because I dislike being condescended to by anything more stupid than myself, anything which assumes that like a south-sea island tribesman I will be impressed by bright flashing lights and loud music and so fail to notice the absence of content, or that the dribbling stream of trite jokes and twee observations aren't actually that funny. The sheer insincerity is breathtaking.

I've worked hard over the years to elevate myself above the level of gurgling idiocy to which I was born, and unfortunately this has meant that as I grow older and hopefully a little more discerning, some things just don't cut it any more. I get bored easily, particularly when confronted with the sort of mechanically-reclaimed science-fiction that has recently become so popular, and was actually already somewhat limited in its scope thirty years ago when Star Wars put an untimely end to those pleasantly cerebral science-fiction films of the early 1970s by reintroducing us to the Flash Gordon method of storytelling. I dislike being sold the same idea over and over, particularly when the idea really wasn't that amazing in the first place. Doubtless this may sound elitist, but I prefer to think of it as having standards, the ability to tell the difference between McDonalds and actual food. If that makes anyone feel threatened or somehow inadequate, that's really a shame.

I dislike contemporary Doctor Who because it smothers any story it might be trying to tell with the narrative equivalent of sex aids - something novel to spice up that which lacks the proverbial wood - and because it just isn't anywhere near so clever as it wants us to believe it is. It has been suggested to me that this is simply the way television is made these days, as though I might like to try getting used to it or else piss off back to my penny farthing and wax cylinders. That this is simply the way television is made these days is not strictly accurate, but rather seems to be one of those stock phrases people tend to repeat because they've heard someone else say it and it saves them having to think about whether or not it's true. There's really quite a bit of television employing narrative language entirely unlike that of Doctor Who, mostly television scripted by people who can actually write, who don't require smoke and mirrors to compensate for any lack in the production; and to condense all of the above into a single sentence, I dislike contemporary Doctor Who because it's Nickelback trying to fool us into thinking they're The Sex Pistols.

A few might agree with the above, or at least with some of the above, and there are many, many who would disagree in the strongest possible terms. Being able to cope with the notion that others might hold views different to my own, I don't have a problem with that. If people wish to spend their time watching Doctor Who then fine. Not everything has to be The Deer Hunter, and as for myself it'll be a cold day in hell before I get tired of Godzilla movies, absurd though they may well be. However, I do object to those individuals who seem unable to cope with anyone holding opinions so wildly divergent to their own, and who for some reason seem to take any insult to their beloved yet entirely fictitious Doctor Who Magic Telly Man as an assault upon them, their children, their children's children, and everything that is right and true. If you hate it so much, they bleat because they've seen the question posed before and it seemed to work for the previous guy, then why do you watch it?

Truthfully, I don't. I gave up after struggling through the first ten minutes of Hitler, Go Home or whatever it was called. Matt Smith had just made an amusing remark about wearing either a fez or a bow-tie. The woman who played Dirty Den's second wife in Eastenders had quipped hello, darling to hilarious effect whilst Rory died and Amy McBoggle pulled that feisty popeyed face she does every few minutes, and I knew I just couldn't stand it any longer. I knew it was never going to improve, and that both Steven Moffat and I were wasting each other's time. Later I trawled the internet seeking commentary upon the episode and found I know Hitler was a bit of a bad lad and all, but surely even he deserved better than that..

Unfortunately Doctor Who, whether you watch it or not, has become difficult to avoid, and it's impossible to entirely disassociate oneself from something you enjoyed for at least a few decades of your life, particularly when you still have some sneaking regard for the previous version. It's also difficult to prevent strong opinions such as those expressed above boiling to the surface when any view you might share is pounced on by ravening hordes driven by the sort of religious bloodlust that Tomás de Torquemada would have regarded as slightly creepy. You are the ones, they scream, who can't let go, the jealous losers who take it all too seriously, who can't stand that it's back and that it's more brilliant than ever before, and so on and so forth to paraphrase a Doctor Who author whose books I will never buy. More than anything it comes across as terrible insecurity: tread softly because you tread on my dreams...

Well, that's how it sounds with the slightly more rabid defenders of the faith, but who knows what they're thinking? I suppose you might argue that in writing this I too am failing to let go, but I really feel the accusation would be rendered somewhat flaccid by the word count of material I've written which has nothing to do with Magic Doctor Who Man Telly Adventure Time. Often it is suggested that my fellow naysayers and I might like to shut the fuck up lest we somehow spoil other's enjoyment, because if history has taught us anything it is that those who made unkind comments about the Bay City Rollers, Kenny, Curiosity Killed the Cat, the Jo-Boxers, Bros, Oasis, Take That, Westlife, Busted, and One Direction must ever live with the shame of knowing how their hurtful remarks have destroyed people's lives and engulfed orphanages in the terrible killing flames of death; which is why wanting something to not be rubbish is frowned upon, I suppose.

Essentially I like people, and try to see the best in everyone. I like to see people making something of themselves and doing whatever it is they do well, generally speaking, developing themselves and learning to appreciate what a great world we live in. Therefore it pisses me off when I see people wilfully wasting their time on that which doesn't matter, or coming out with moronic drivel because they've never made the effort, or even been inspired to make the effort, to expand themselves - like the person who in intellectual terms lives in the same town their entire life, never once expressing an interest in the world beyond the horizon of their television set, who justifies such myopia with reasoning amounting to well I think you'll find Solihull has a lot to offer on the face of it. I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want more, and the sheer lack of curiosity about experiencing that which one might not have previously experienced is terrifying - failing to engage with any form of culture not bearing a specific logo, for example. There is no-one on Earth who eats at McDonalds to the complete exclusion of all other gastronomic options, and yet there do seem to be people who bifurcate the world into Doctor Who and all that other stuff.

Where Doctor Who was once a show that at least aspired to inspire, to open up a wider world to young viewers without giving any attendant adults too much of a headache, now it is concerned principally with the perpetuation of its own mythology. It has become a marketing exercise garnished with tried and tested signifiers of authenticity - generic emotive or humorous sequences as the televisual equivalent of McDonalds deciding to sell fruit or using twee folk music as part of their advertising campaign - and its only purpose seems to be the occupation of as much cultural bandwidth as it can appropriate before everyone wises up and starts spending their money elsewhere. What this boils down to, at least for me, is an issue of fundamental curiosity regarding what's out there, all the books I will never have time to read, films I may never see, or places I may never visit. I try to broaden my horizons as I proceed through life, to experience as much as I can, not least through reading; and I read a great deal of science-fiction because that's what I enjoy, but I try not restrict myself to any one genre. It depresses me that there are people out there who will never pick up a book without it bearing some relation to Doctor Who, who may bang on about science-fiction literature on some stupid forum without actually quite knowing even who Isaac Asimov or Clifford Simak were; or worse, who might not even read at all, just sit there drooling over the same crappy DVD they've seen a million times whilst assuming that a broadened horizon means watching fucking Stargate instead. I don't want to live in a world full of morons. I don't want to live in a culture where you have to drive fifty miles to find a Denny's or a Jim's because no-one understands why you would want anything other than a Big Mac. The great energy harvester of western society feeds us quite enough fake homogenised culture as it is without our encouraging it further.

Of course, in the end it's up to the individual, and I have many valued friends who I actually hope don't read this because I know it will piss them off, and it needn't because it really isn't about them (apart from Steve*). I don't tend to make friends based on mutual appreciation of the same bands because I'm not sixteen years old, and I can make a distinction between the individual and whatever they have printed on their T-shirt; and I can even, under the ordinary circumstances of friendship, respect their holding views differing wildly from my own. By extension, I'm not interested in discourse with any individual unable to extend the same courtesies to others, and so I don't see why anyone should be expected to shut up about something they dislike, particularly if they are able to offer some illuminating reason as to why they dislike it.

Doctor Who has often been sold as an ongoing story with almost limitless possibilities, mainly because that's a neat little phrase and no-one really stops to think about it too hard; but its possibilities are only limitless within the confines of every single variant requiring the involvement of a man in a box having adventures whilst his chums stands around asking questions. You might just as well say Garfield is an ongoing story with almost limitless possibilities, then accordingly revise Crime and Punishment in order to illustrate this, having Raskolnikov debate the morality of his actions with a wisecracking pizza-scoffing cat. If it really is about the story rather than the franchise, then why would anyone settle for an inferior model simply because it carries a familiar logo?

So there you go. It took a lot of squeezing but I think that's most of the pimple in so much as there's nothing much I could add without further repeating myself. That's my view pretty much in full and set to a semblance of order so that I shouldn't need to do it again. Hopefully the reader will have gained something from the above, one way or the other, and may at least appreciate why I hold such views: it's not so much about my opinion of, for example, Moffat as an alleged writer, whether new Doctor Who episodes will ever attain the giddy creative heights of The Twin Dilemma or Timelash, or any of the specific and deeply uninteresting details. It's mostly about possibilities, people bothering to look outside their front door, accepting that views divergent from their own may be equally or even more valid, and maybe even learning to recognise when they're being diddled; and to invert the stock challenge so beloved of a certain type of contemporary Doctor Who fan, if you hate all of that so much, then why did you read this?
*: Relax, dude. I'm joking.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy your writing style, & the ideas are very interesting. I loved Doctor Who as a kid (The Jon Pertwee / Tom Baker years) then drifted away into being a punk rock teenager. My girlfriend likes the new Doctor Who, so I have ended up seeing it there. I like David Tenant & the new guy (whatsisname?) & obviously the "production values" are on a far greater scale than when we were kids. However, I do find the stories far too complicated - I'm gobsmacked at the idea that a 12 year old kid could follow the stories, as its all about quantum physics, & all about people from the future going into the past in order that they can go into the future to open a 73rd dimensional gate that will modify the present so that the future becomes the past, & the past never happened & all that guff that drives me absolutely potty in modern sci-fi.