Doctor Who-ha!

Now they’re gone, is it okay to say it? It is? Spank Rassilon, because the blood collecting in the socket of my eye of harmony was compromising my ability to think straight; Davis and Tennant were not good for Doctor Who and I’m glad they’re dead.

Davis has been celebrated by some, we’ll call them bastards, as the saviour of the programme but I suggest that public hunger for the show’s return and the lasting popularity of the brand was a foundation upon which only the most inept lead writer could flounder. To Russell’s credit, he gave it his all.

Young and undemanding children may have enjoyed the “RTD” era of maddening hyperactivity, ear bleeding orchestral support and pop cultural masturbation but for fans in double digits it was a progressively dehumanising spectacle – like watching your friend slowly wither and die within a bad relationship. Episodes were instantly dated via the inclusion of Britney Spears songs and references to Big Brother, camp triumphed over wit and The Doctor himself failed to grow, becoming a slightly silly know it all whose lapses into more challenging emotional states didn’t ring true because he spent most of his time engaged in camp buffoonery.

Those of us that were broken in toward the end of the original run will remember the promise of the so called “Cartmel Masterplan” – the creation of a mysterious and complexed backstory for the Doctor, sanctioned by then producer Andrew Cartmel, which would gradually be woven into Sylvester McCoy’s serials to deepen the Doctor’s character and widen the ambition of the stories. The axe scuppered Cartmel’s dreams but the final two seasons of the original series – 25 and 26 for Who-ha-lets, gave a taste and showed the potential. When the series returned it was clear that the mental age of the target audience had been slashed by ten years.

Where the F are you going? Look behind you, you lanky shuntsack!

Season 31 began with the hope that new head writer Steven Moffat would restore depth and breadth to the show, which was in danger of having nothing to say and even contriving to do that fairly badly. If you’ve stuck with Who these past 5 years, you’ll know that Moffat is responsible for the best of the new run. The Empty Child and Blink were the highlights of Eccleston’s and Tennant’s respective tenures. It must have been awful for him, deputising to Davis, when their sensibilities and understanding of the show were so diametrically opposed. To be in the Doctor Who writer’s room during this period would be to know the plight of German generals in the Fuhrer bunker during the final days of the war.

Of course Doctor Who has had so many eras that there is no universally agreed template for the tone and character of the series – it’s a blank canvas for each new creative team but there’s also enough of it for new writers to study and discern what has and hasn’t worked. Fans, as ever, take whatever they’re given with good grace; what choice have they got?  However, the point had been reached where the head as the well as the heart needed to be engaged. What hope then, that The Eleventh Hour, as it surely is as we approach a tipping point in viewer loyalty, could mint a fresh approach for the series? Some as it happens.

Matt Smith’s debut was emboldened by the elements that make Moffat an excellent Doctor Who writer. His ability to synch with the sensibilities of the audience, both young and old, is his great strength. Amelia Pond, the Doctor’s new companion, whom we meet as a child, has an everyday problem with a fantastic explanation – a crack in her bedroom wall that happens to be a gash in the universe – yes, a gash, separating the girl’s bedroom from an alien parasite. It was an enjoyable conceit; you can imagine young children going to bed afterwards, looking at a crack in the plaster and pressing their ear to the wall just in case.

The reworking of the everyday into the uncanny is what good Doctor Who is all about. The other treat for our tadpoles is the realisation that The Doctor, following his first meeting with the young Amelia, has been recast by adults as her imaginary friend. For younger viewers he is probably just that, so it’s wish fulfilment with its balls out.

The Eleventh Hour hit because the relationship between the new Doctor with his proto-hominid appearance, and Amy, blissfully free of stone age characteristics, worked perfectly and gave the story some weight. The reinvention of Doctor Who, or rather its liberation from high concept hokum to something more rooted in character is Moffat’s mission statement for the season and he made quick work of it, tying a taper around your balls with the words “fairytale” on it and pulling at regular intervals.

The Doctor is the magical figure that appears at the bottom of young Amelia’s garden, she has a name suited for a fairy story according to the Gallifreyian ganglinoid, and poor Amy, because of her forced childhood relocation from Scotland to England, has always felt like an outsider and is therefore ideologically primed for escape with an off kilter loon-a-tune from a superior culture. She also has the requisite imagination required for the position, having spent most of her life inventing adventures for herself and the man that four psychiatrists have convinced her to be a fantasy. I know what you’re thinking – what else might she fantasise about? God, I wish I knew.

Crucially for the adult audience, there was wit and sex in abundance. Fems will wonder, not without some foundation, if Karen Gillan would have been cast were she not the single most attractive human being to have ever walked the face of the Earth and the answer is probably not. Her feistiness and dollops of wide-eyed kook sparked off Smith’s eccentric undergraduate quite nicely, but someone with so much power to engorge tissue should really be on after the watershed. Millions of young teens had their first sexual experience on Saturday night and those that think that the licence fee is excessive should consider that £140 wouldn’t buy you anyone of comparable quality on the street who’d stay a whole hour. The BBC remains extraordinary value. Indeed, the feminist cause will not be advanced by Gillan’s turn as a family friendly sex object – a kiss-a-gram that turns up at parties and puckers up for lecherous villagers. Nevertheless as a means of locking in older men, prisoners and deviants across the country it’s a foolproof strategy and everyone at BBC Wales should be congratulated…and investigated.

Are you making eyes at me Karen? Yes, of course you are.

Smith’s casting is also a little cynical in that regard – he’s 27, lest the horror of seeing anyone in middle age cause millions of viewers to violently throw up over themselves, and probably attractive to ladies that have a genetic memory of being smashed over the skull with a club and taken to a cave for sandpaper-rough intercourse. Those that aren’t drawn to his appearance, or are repelled by it as my friend Hayley is (“he’s ugly as fuck”), may yet be won over by the new Doctor’s easy manner. He could charm the arse off a Delthusian Spore Beast, whatever that is.

Moffat shows that he’s got an eye for a visual gag or two. I enjoyed poor Jeff’s laptop being snatched before he had a chance to close his pornography and the moment the Doctor’s text message to Amy, which read “duck”, was received, seconds before the ladder from the fire engine the Doctor has commandeered came crashing through a nearby window. Corny perhaps but I sniggered like a pervert.

Doctor Vision – a moment when the we get a snapshot tour of the village green as Smith tries to retrieve a grab from his memory, was also a nice innovation and symptomatic of the greater imagination on display throughout the episode. This is in stark contrast to its overcooked and underwritten predecessors. Davis’ approach to the same scene might have had the Doctor and Amy doing the locomotion throughout the village – Kylie blaring across the green from the village hall tannoy and the explanation for what was imagined to be a funny and crowd pleasing moment, delivered via a hokum bolt-on: “The alien is sensitive to certain sound frequencies which, by some extraordinary coincidence, the song has in spades. We’ve just created musical catnip!” Indeed, musical catnip would be the antithesis of Murray Gold’s score, which through restrained at points, was still an irritant – the equivalent of someone inserting a trumpet into you while you try to concentrate on your partner’s conversation.

This opening adventure wasn’t a myth-making extravaganza, it was an introduction, and a character based one at that. The tone was energetic, playful and often magical, and these are qualities which are unlikely to do the show any long-term harm. Eventually we will crave meat of course but for now it was enough to ogle the starter. Smith’s Doctor was occasionally afflicted with Tennantus – the odd mannerism bleeding into his performance but this is a moment when, if you’re a Whovian, it’s time to put on that hat that makes you so unattractive to the popular and socially dynamic part of the population and justify this less as imitation and more as a post-regenerative cognitive overlap which will be ironed out as the new man emerges, or something.

There’s evidence that the blackened stuff in the Doctor’s soul might emerge as the season progresses, with the introduction of the now de rigueur arc for the year – suitably abstract talk of “silence falling” and opening panasomethingorother. It’s also there in the new title sequence, which although, in the only real disappointment of the episode, doesn’t feature Smith’s face as was rumoured (Dear BBC, we don’t give a fuck who Matt Smith is, let’s us see the Doctor’s face and credit the actors at the end!), does have a new malevolent vortex which in contrast to the previous tunnel of wonders, seems to be an angry maelstrom, lashing out at the TARDIS with bolts of lightning and eventually developing into a passage of fire which closely resembled the approach to Satan’s colon. Ron Grainer’s theme has also had a sinister makeover, suggesting that the days of whimsy and Ghostbusters being sung in the console room are firmly behind us.

Those with long memories will know that the Doctor’s future is a dark one – he is now, assuming that anyone at Who HQ still pays attention to these things, just half a lifetime shy of the Valeyard, the evil amalgamation of Smith and his successor that once threatened to uncurl Colin Baker’s hair. Is a bit of inner-conflict about to show up in time travel town? I fucking hope so, I’ve booked the next 12 Saturday nights off and I’d rather take my chances with that trumpet that endure Harry Hill on the other side.

Doctor Who was reviewed using set of eyes no.2. The living room chair was “Horace”. The wine was Marks and Spencer’s Fleurie – Domaine Grille-Midi 2007.

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Published in: on April 4, 2010 at 20:58  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Va-t’en, Tennant.

    Allons-y, Monsieur Smith.

    Childhood friend mythology, mentally-scarred child justified to everyone, decent bloody camera-direction (some of those moving shots! The director knows what they’re doing! Amazing!), lovely Britcom cameos, and an actor with a Scottish accent who’s ALLOWED TO BLOODY USE IT!

    Oh yes, my friend. This pushes my buttons. Or turns my taps. Depending on how Who-rish one wants to get about it.

    • Turns your taps! *pulls collar* No argument there. I think the narrative would probably have, er, pulled my plug, even if Ms Gillan hadn’t been present but her presence put the reception beyond doubt.

      I agree it was well directed – lots of nice touches. The opening dissolve (don’t think they’ve done that on the vortex before), the track to the part open door, Doctor Vision – all very effective and yes, it wouldn’t do to cast Gillan and then force her to do a home counties accent, though with a Scottish Executive producer that was unlikely to be an issue (she offered, according to the Radio Times). I thought that aspect of her character – from Scotland, forced to live in England from an early age, abandoned by everyone, including the Aunt, was a nice touch. Alienation works well in The Who. It actually gave some psychological weight to her relationship to the Doctor and her reason to go with him. One episode from Moffat and we’ve already got more substance than an entire Davis season. I hope it lasts (and that a chunk of the audience doesn’t fuck it up by deserting the programme because they don’t fancy the Doctor anymore and it’s no longer camp enough).

  2. This article is epic I’m going to put this in my bookmarks before I lose the address, I don’t think I’ll ever make it back here otherwise 🙂


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