Do You Love Your Country, Doctor?
The Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special left viewers with a glimpse of one of the old boy’s possible futures, every bit as fitting as Holmes settling down in Bexhill-on-Sea to keep bees.
The one-off episode managed a significant feat in being a massively over-sold media event that didn’t leave fans with a feeling of having had their souls lightly crushed. (As with the ongoing Star Wars franchise, the ending on TV of ‘Battlestar Galactica’, ‘Lost’, the ending of the UK ‘Life on Mars’, the ending of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, all of the US ‘Life on Mars’ … I mean, I could go on).
As promised, it was quite a good, longer episode which rattled along, and it had real dramatic gravitas. (Even touching on some “issues,” more on which in a sec). I do a mental double-take when Doctor Who is in one of the self-congratulatory trailers for ‘BBC drama.’ It was always, basically, a kid’s TV show. Also, given that Stephen Poliakoff is no Alan Bleasedale, it could be argued that the corporation should raise its game. However, not for the first time an episode of new Doctor Who fitted the (occasionally somewhat overwrought) billing.
An ‘extra’ – shown after Mark Gatiss’s excellent drama about William Hartnell screened in the week before – raised a similar question about Doctor Who’s legit status. After ‘An Adventure in Space and Time’ BBC Two screened a clip of Hartnell doing his make-up for a run of ‘Puss in Boots’ in Taunton in 1967, after Patrick Troughton had taken over from him. Interviewed for the BBC’s local news ‘Points West’, Hartnell was his usual chippy self.
Interviewer: Is pantomime something you’d like to continue doing in the future?
Hartnell: Ooh, no, no, no, no, no.
Interviewer: Oh, why not?
Hartnell: Well, I’m a legitimate actor. Pantomime is for the sort of person who is used to variety and going on the front of the stage, but I’m a legitimate actor. I do legitimate things.
As Christian Cawley has pointed out:
Now, the legitimacy or otherwise of pantomime […] is an interesting topic, one that has often reverberated with Doctor Who fans, particularly in the 1980s. It’s interesting to see the show’s first star take this attitude; in some ways, however, his apparent snobbery to one of the oldest forms of theatre is a little disappointing – particularly as he only made four more appearances on TV (one of which was The Three Doctors).
[This post is good too.]
This Means Waugh
Doctor Who is in a possibly unique position in world television culture, in that it’s based on Science Fiction tropes and has been going for half a century, so has covered a huge amount of conceptual ground and has a vast audience. (Show-runner Stephen Moffat estimates it globally at 77 million). According to Christian Cawley again: “Perhaps most impressive, however [about ‘The Day of the Doctor’ in cinemas] is the $4.77 million taken at the US box office, resulting in Doctor Who being the no. 2 movie in the USA on Monday night, second only to the new Hunger Games.” “Forget Harry Potter directors and former BBC One controllers trying to launch Doctor Who in Hollywood – Steven Moffat and Nick Hurran managed to conquer US cinemas from an office in Wales.”
Moffat has previously quashed rumours of a rebooted Doctor Who movie franchise running in parallel with the TV show. “I don’t think any show-runner or future show-runner of Doctor Who would tolerate the idea that David Yates was talking about, of rebooting it and having a second continuity. That’s just nonsense. Absolutely insane and a straightforward insult to the audience. We’d never, ever do that. The question would be how could we do it without delaying or harming the TV show? […] I think it could be incredibly exciting to see that Tardis fly on the big screen. It would just be how do we arrange it? And how do we make sure we have … no offence, but you suddenly take American money and they expect to tell you what to do and all that. I wouldn’t be happy with that. But it will happen someday, I’m reasonably confident.” (There isn’t now a Doctor Who fan alive who doesn’t want to see Derek Jacobi’s War Master in a face off with John Hurt’s War Doctor, possibly in a Bondesque pre-title sequence. I’m just saying.)
Digital camera technology has allowed the show to stand up to projection in cinemas, to embrace a more fluid, cinematic style of shooting, and in the case of the 50th Special, 3D too. [With mixed results, at least commercially and in terms of ratings]. However, Doctor Who does something that conventional film production can’t do, which is to provide audiences with a regular fix. While film industries across the world produced movie serials in the first five decades of cinema, the emergence of television seemed to make the pantomime style of acting which Hartnell refers to in the 1967 interview redundant in film:
Hartnell: It’s a different technique which lends itself only to what I call the variety type of actor. The actor who is used to playing on his own in the front of the stage. I’m legitimate, I’m a legitimate character actor.
The programme has always awkwardly covered both bases. TV, unable to compete with cinema in production values in the Seventies and Eighties, rushed for the high ground of legitimate theatre and literary adaptations – of Robert Graves, Forster and ”Brideshead’ – as well as bold and challenging, original TV drama (Dennis Potter, Bleasedale). Doctor Who was looked down on. It was in a Saturday night slot between Grandstand and The Generation Game, where it was on with Tom and Jerry cartoons to keep the kids occupied as mum made tea and put the shopping away. Two beloved performers who expressed an interest in playing the Doctor – Ken Campbell and Alexei Sayle – did so largely for a steady gig and popular acceptance as “household names.” Meanwhile, Ron Moody turned it down in favour of a run of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ on Broadway. Valentine Dyall, Michael Hordern, and Hugh Grant also turned down the role, though in Grant’s case he’s said he regrets this.
Now that cinema is feeling the economic pinch and has been retreading safe ground with franchises and grossout comedies – and since production values have started to converge – TV looks interesting again, for both artists and audiences. This is including because it has the ability to do what Hartnell was being sniffy about: to give the punters the catchphrases, bits of business, the actor “playing on his own in the front of the stage” week on week. (Or for stretches of many hours, if you’re watching an entire season of ‘Arrested Development’ on Netflix.)
This is much more like Variety than legitimate theatre, which is an elevating artistic experience you make an appointment with rather than comfort in the familiar. (It was fun to hear the respected thespian John Hurt declare “oh, for Heaven’s sake” when it was his turn to do his Fast Show catchphrase). Doctor Who is somewhere in between the music hall and the Globe: in fact it’s in Bartholomew Fair, in Egyptian Hall, in ‘Haddock’s Androids’ or The Lyceum.
The Doctor is a stage magician, a curator of a cabinet of curiousities, an showman-inventor like Hooke, Houdini or Tesla. He has his roots as a character in the rational recreation that underlies carnival freak shows (“see real sea monsters! shrunken human chimeras entombed in glass sarcophagi!”) and penny arcades, but also the Royal Society and working men’s clubs.
However, at the same time as having a foot in Variety in being top of the bill on Saturday nights, this epic and grainy TV drama has made stars of show-runners and lead-writers like Moffat, David Chase and Aaron Sorkin. Authorship is now bankable in filmed drama again, something that has eluded David Mahmet for decades. Steven Bocho could never have anticipated something like this would happen when, in the early Eighties, Hill Street Blues took the serialised television drama-style MTM had developed and produced something more complex and emotionally rich than the movie it was partly based on (‘Fort Apache, The Bronx’). There hasn’t been a show-runner since with the visual mastery of David Lynch in creating, with Mark Frost ‘Twin Peaks’ and – for me, more importantly ‘On The Air‘ – or Moffat could be talked about almost as an ‘auteur’. There’s definitely authorship in his work on Doctor Who, to the extent that you can start to talk meaningfully about texts and themes.
This brings me to the most interesting thing about ‘The Day of the Doctor’. Whatever anyone involved with the show says about it being intended purely as a piece of entertaining family drama, the show has always had a visible political and social critique, that’s usually reflected the opinions of its lead writers. This critique was and is Left wing, but is also not uncritical of the Left by any means. (For example, the scavengers in The Creature From the Pit, stunned by K9 and new technology, seem very Old Labour in what is an undisguised Cold War analogy.)
Doctor Who returned to the BBC as the Iraq Invasion and War on Terror were in full swing. The ‘Time War’ is an invisible conflict that spreads out through the entire Universe. In ‘The Day of the Doctor’ John Hurt’s incarnation struggles with a decision that will destroy his race and the Daleks in “the name of peace and sanity.” Over four hundred years, his next two incarnations (“the man who regrets and the man who forgets”) have failed to come to terms with the magnitude of this choice. In a long dark night of the soul they’ve counted the children killed by that single decision to go to War. Yeah. I wonder what that’s about. (Note, Moffat also wrote a story where Starship UK is based on torture and Amy’s memory – and that of the entire population – is wiped by an apologetic civil servant on TV).
The BBC appears more like a state broadcaster with every passing day, putting out blatant hate propaganda directed at immigrants and the poor, and conspicuously not-reporting waves of protests in defence of the NHS and by students for something like a future. What Moffat has said to a generation of British families – to the whole world – through the BBC, that time can be rewritten, is nothing short of brilliant. Doctor Who is the BBC, and the 50th Anniversary reclaimed part of its soul from Mark Thompson and Jimmy Savile. (Let’s just hope nothing else comes out about JNT’s tenure… #ohwait). For this, I can almost overlook the glaring sexism latent in most of his writing, at least until they reboot Leela.
Moffat’s stories have always had some frankly mental images and wild inconsistencies in them, which a peculiar type of middle aged, male fan – often acolytes of the Dark Lord of Doctor Who fandom Lawrence Miles – likes to use as a whipping post for their general existential grievances. For me, a horse jumping out of a painting is like something out of ‘The Phantom of Liberty’. I like the stream of consciousness stuff. The Smilers! They make absolutely no sense. But kids really love them. It’s Bollywood, carnival logic: go with the emotion, the scary image that sticks in your imagination like a splinter.
So maybe it wasn’t deliberate on Moffat’s part that the Doctor has just…