Adventures in Time and Space

I’m a grumpy bastard.

This isn’t news for anyone who knows me. Ask me an opinion on anything, and I’ll almost certainly leap straight for the flaw. Show me a beautiful piece of artwork, and I’ll have something to say about the quality of the frame, or the fact that it’s not hanging level. Yes, I’m a grumpy bastard, and I also love Doctor Who, which means that the last eight years have been quite trying for me, and for anyone who innocently broaches the subject.

In case you can’t guess, I’ve not really meshed with the post-McGann era of the show. I’ll confess that some of this is rose-tinted nostalgia at work. Peter Davidson was my first Doctor, and I was hooked early on. Over the years, I painstakingly assembled a complete run of the old Target novelisations, and loads of VHS tapes (later replaced by DVDs), Doctor Who audio dramas and fantastic spin-offs. I still remember going to see Jon Pertwee in the Ultimate Adventure and I know waaaaay too much about which episodes are still missing from the archives. Nonetheless, I’ve never described myself as a Whovian, because I’ve never felt the need. (And because I don’t like labels, an opinion I can’t help but think the Doctor would share).

Set against that, the relaunched Doctor Who would need to have been perfect to stand a chance and, let’s face facts, it’s not been perfect. I soldiered on through the Ecclestone series, but drifted away for the majority of Tennant’s and Smith’s runs. I can’t lie – it made me angry to see a program I loved made into something that wasn’t… right. I could go into detail about all the things that bugged me, but that’s not really the point of this blog, and even the internet has finite storage space.

(I will reserve special mention for John Simm chewing the scenery like a starving vegan. Even at his campest, the Master should always be a soave, charming villain, not a cross between Gollum and the Energiser Bunny).

To cut a long story short, I’m coping better now. I don’t get nearly so annoyed when people describe themselves as ‘being in from nearly the beginning’ because they’ve been watching since David Tennant was the Doctor; I smile politely when people aver that the wobbly sets and inconsistent acting of the initial run was deliberate, and not the result of low budgets and no time for retakes. (The entire last season of the original run reportedly had the same amount of money to spend as just one episode of that year’s Red Dwarf series).

I may never be able to accept that the Doctor Who on the telly at the moment is not the Doctor Who I so fondly remember, but I can appreciate that it meets the same need for the current generation as it did for me. It’s a genuine escape to other worlds and times – which, in a TV schedule swamped by reality shows, soap operas and the like, is no small victory. So, after all that, I’ve come back. I’ve been watching the show again. I saw the fiftieth anniversary episode, which was made of pure awesome whenever John Hurt was onscreen, and I’ve been watching the Capaldi run (although I’m a little behind at the moment). And… well, I’m vaguely optimistic.

War Doctor

What’s that? I can’t hear you over the sound of me being awesome.

That sounded positive. Well, we can’t have that, so I’d better point out the things I still don’t like. Season Eight (or Season Thirty Four, for those who aren’t the BBC) still feels like American TV done on a UK budget. The show has never looked slicker, but visually it’s still swinging for the fences, and often misses. It’s at its best when it focuses on physical effects (in fact, the makeup work is uniformly excellent, and on a par with anything I’ve seen recently), but the CGI is… not so good. There’s also a clear disconnect between the writing and directorial teams (most clearly seen this season in Listen, when the whole plot hinges around the Doctor being an unreliable narrator, but is undermined by heavy-handed cinematography). The writing, while better that anything I’ve seen recently – though remember, I’ve not been around much – is still inconsistent, and the storytelling is often disappointing, with rushed, functional resolutions. If they reversed the amount of time and money spent on the writing and the CGI, I think we’d have a better show.

That sounds like I hate it, doesn’t it? Well, that’s what I do. They’ve hung a picture wonky, and I feel duty bound to point it out. More to the point, none of this is any worse than the bits and pieces I’ve seen in recent years. But, despite that, I really am (vaguely) optimistic about the program’s future, because, for the first time, I think the TARDIS crew actually works. I can’t understate how important this is. I can close my eyes to avoid shonky effects, pretend that the stories are actually cleverer than they are, but I’m not going to unless I like the characters. Make me care about them, and I’ll ignore the worst you can throw at me. Unless you’re Season Four of Farscape, in which case, there’s no helping you.

Peter Capaldi appears to be playing the mashup of himself and Tom Baker that seems to have been the brief for every incumbent since the reboot (John Hurt aside – did I already mention how awesome John Hurt is?), but it works. It you were to ask me what I think makes for a good Doctor, and I’m going to pretend you did, then I think I can do no better than borrow from Sarah Jane Smith in Stephen Marley’s excellent Managra: he’s a mad uncle. Now, I’ve never really had a mad uncle (although these days I have the opportunity to be one, perhaps, if I could find the energy, or if my niece didn’t burst into tears every time she sees me) but it’s a strong image, nonetheless, and has stayed with me.

The Doctor turns up out of nowhere in the middle of your humdrum and routine life, and opens up a window onto worlds that are far more interesting than school or the nine to five routine. For the time the he’s around, life’s just more exciting. You know that living with him day after day would be a chore, and he’d probably forget to do things like cook dinner, pay the bills and do the shopping, but blowed if he isn’t fun.

It’s one of the places that I think Doctor Who has stumbled since the necromancers at BBC Wales brought it groaning out of the mass grave beneath Television Centre. We’re not supposed to think of the Doctor as someone we can relate to or, heaven forfend, someone we could date. He’s alien and mysterious by his nature – we can admire him, be dazzled by him, and want to spend time with him, but there should always that slight unease of knowing that, deep down, he’s not someone we can really know.

Capaldi’s got that. Even while we’re enjoying his company, we’re aware that he’s only ever a stone’s throw from being just a bit too eccentric for comfort. Granted, this has emerged as petulance a little too often, but I find that if you ignore Robot of Sherwood (which, handily, takes the edge off most of my earlier criticisms as well) this returns to a comfortable level. I like that Capaldi’s Doctor has a grumpy edge to him. I like that he’s sometimes offensive for the sake of it. In fact, if the BBC don’t reunite Ecclestone, Hurt and Capaldi as the three grumpiest Doctors grudgingly saving the world, then they’re missing a trick. It won’t be cheap, but they can forgo the CGI extravaganzas, and just have the trio insulting each other over breakfast like it’s Reservoir Dogs. Who wouldn’t watch that?

So, I like the current Doctor. That by itself doesn’t clinch the deal, especially these days, when the companion gets almost as much (or more) screen time. (As I’ve already alluded, I enjoyed Ecclestone in the role, but Rose…?) Happily, Jenna Coleman genuinely makes Clara come alive as a character – a real character, that is to say: a person. (All the references to her crafted story arc just distract me.) She’s assertive, clever, but flawed as well. In a program too often filled with cardboard cutouts or celebrities playing themselves, it’s really refreshing. There’s a lesson here: if you’ve hired a good actress, just let her act – it works out much better than giving her super powers or mysterious origin stories. Or maybe Jenna Coleman just reminds me a bit of Liz Sladen? It could be that.

Thing is, this is also the first time I’ve seen the Doctor/Companion relationship work in recent years. It doesn’t matter who’s travelling in the TARDIS, they’re there as a proxy for the viewer – they need to ask the questions the viewer needs answers to, and they need to be relatable enough that you can imagine yourself in their shoes. The best Doctor/Companion teams have always done this. Hell, the original TARDIS crew was engineered to attract a broad demographic to the show.

I’m not saying that this was always the intention. Doctor Who’s always been a product of its times, and sexism’s had plenty to answer for over the years. The man knows best, and the woman needs rescuing; it’s the staple that’s launched a hundred sci-fi and fantasy series. However, the best Doctor/Companion teams manage to transcend the limitations. Yes, there are plenty of examples of young women screaming at monsters, or falling over and twisting their ankles, but the general trend has been towards the positive (I’m ignoring Mel, as I wish the production team had).

Coleman nails it. Clara’s down to earth enough to be that proxy for the audience, but she doesn’t take any nonsense from the Doctor. In other hands, I think it’d be played for laughs, but here it does feel like Clara knows her mad uncle isn’t always right, and that she shouldn’t back down. I like it; it feels like a genuine partnership, and light years healthier than ‘I travel with you ‘cos I think you’re cute.’

So, yes: I’m cautiously optimistic for the future. The core cast’s better than it’s been for years, and the Doctor’s character is grounded in what always made the show what it was. That’s a great foundation to build on. I don’t think that Doctor Who will ever get back to being the series I love – I’m not even sure that’s a good idea, even if that were possible. However, it’s just possible that its feet are on the right path, and it’s a cheering thing to see. Now, get on with fixing the rest of it, eh?

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