Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Doctor . . . Why?

I tried to like it. I really did. I recorded the Dr Who Cmas special on Wednesday and stretched out on the sofa yesterday to watch it, the Other Half sprawled out beside me. The Other Half lasted five minutes before pulling out his phone to text and FB. I forgave him. English isn't his first language and he didn't grow up with any of the Doctors, so he doesn't have the emotional attachment that brings me - and millions of other Brits - back to the series long after we've become adults.

Nevertheless, he's watched other episodes, particularly enjoying the brief Eccleston oeuvre, understands what's going on and often enjoys the story. But this time, confronted with Matt Smith in ultra-frenetic mode, a pointless foray into nudity and various villains whizzing onto and off our screens, he was confused and bored; it was easier to return to the reality of cyberspace on the screen in his hand than to make sense of the space adventure on the screen on the other side of the room.

I should have done the same. But I am child of the sixties, a sci-fi fan and a writer. I wanted to know what was going to happen, how the transition from Smith to Capaldi would be handled. And so I persisted, becoming increasingly irritated by the utter waste of talent - the actors, the sets - that was unfolding before my eyes. What I wanted was a thoughtful, illuminating transition from one doctor to another, a careful building up of plot and emotion that would lead to a climax of tears (well, why not?) and wonder. What I got was a script and direction that relied on one principle and one principle only. Throw whatever you've got into the pot. Who cares if it's a mess? Who cares if it has no form or substance? Who cares if it tastes of nothing? If we've got it, we have to use it.

And so daleks and cybermen and stone angels all the other villains passed across our screens, with all the threat and drama of strangers on a 73 bus. We had a double helping of Christmas - a family home out of Little Britain and an alpine village with cardboard characters who spoke in cliches. We had nudity to appeal to naughty nine-year-olds. We had the Church of the Papal Mainframe (please!) which, it appears, runs the universe. An rapidly aging Matt Smith waved his magic wand (sorry, sonic screwdriver, but let's be honest, the screwdriver owes more to H Potter than to Gallifrey) every few minutes and another enemy bit the dust. (One wooden cyberman threatening the universe? Please, scriptwriter Steven Moffatt, credit us with a bit more intelligence than the average four-year old.) None of this mish-mash gave depth or coherence to the plot. None of it slowed down enough to allow us to get involved in the story.

As for the regeneration? Well, there was a bit of guff about how many doctors there were and how somehow Smith/Capaldi was going to start a whole new cycle of regeneration (at least I think that was what was said - like most of the script, details of plot rushed past at lightspeed) and then very old Smith become young Smith and then a tie was dropped and there was Capaldi. And when the words came out of his mouth "how do you fly this thing [the TARDIS]?" I began to feel sorry for the man who now finds himself in this mess.

It is, however, all inevitable. The revival of Dr Who with Christopher Eccleston was inspired and for the first few episodes all went well. The series even survived the transition to David Tennant, but it went seriously downhill with Tennant Mark II (sorry, Smith). The problem - as I see it - is that the series became a franchise and brought in writer after writer, each of whom added clunky plotlines and took the Doctor on increasingly portentous episodes, leading to the end of / resetting of the Universe, the death(s) and revival(s) of major characters, tears in the space-time continuum, alternate Universes and so on. Each new episode had to build on previous episodes; once you have destroyed the universe there really isn't anywhere else you can go.

Which meant that Moffat was faced with an impossible task - taking the Doctor higher when there was nowhere higher to go. All he could do was take everything that had gone before and throw it at the Doctor, but because it happened so quickly and we had seen it all before, we didn't care any more.

William Hartnell as the first Doctor
I wish Capaldi could save the Doctor - he has that aged William Hartnell (the 1st Doctor) face that promises intelligence and empathy where Smith could only act the clown. If Capaldi heads off into space and has quiet, introspective adventures on planets that bear no resemblance to Bristol and Cardiff and where the aliens are not human beings in special effects (how about aliens as patterns of light, as slow-moving rocks, as forms of radiation etc?), then we might see a Doctor Who that was as original and exciting as it was in November 1963.

Peter Capaldi in still optimistic mode
Almost certainly, however, the new Doctor will be burdened by scriptwriters who can see no further than variations on human history and by a BBC establishment that dares not lose the lucrative franchise it has created. Capaldi is doomed to revisit Torchwood and Queen Victoria and daleks and the appalling Church of the Papal Mainframe (how little imagination that concept reveals - even the Mother Superious sounds like a refugee from Hogwarts) and go round and round the same old plotlines for year after year until he finally escapes back into real drama. Feel sorry for him - he's a man sent to do a boy's job. In the meantime, all we can say is, Doctor . . . Why?

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