September 11th, 2011
Mark Gatis has, in the past, been the most infuriating of writers for new Doctor Who. While most of the ‘name’ writers on the series have done precisely what one would expect of them, with Neil Gaiman writing a Neil Gaiman story and Richard Curtis writing a Richard Curtis one, there’s always been the sense that Gatiss could do far better.
His first story for the new series, The Unquiet Dead, was, apart from a few dud lines, one of the better ones from the 2005 series, (though as Lawrence Miles pointed out, it had an entirely unintentional anti-immigration subtext that leaves a nasty aftertaste), but after that, every episode with any involvement from Gatiss either as writer or actor has been nearly universally regarded as the weakest of the year.
It’s very odd, because on paper, Gatiss is the perfect writer for the show. He’s clearly an imaginative, witty writer, as both his work for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and his novels have shown. He’s also a longtime fan of the show (his first professional filmed work was a direct-to-video series called P.R.O.B.E. which is required viewing for anyone who ever wondered what it would be like if The X-Files were made in Britain for a fiver, and had a middle-aged pipe-smoking woman who used to be The Doctor’s companion instead of Mulder and Scully), and seems hugely enthusiastic to be working on it. Yet a Gatiss episode is now always the one everyone knows to avoid.
This time though, he has done the best work of the series so far.
Where Gatiss’ last few stories have been romps in the typical new-Who style, this is a horror story, and owes probably more to Sapphire And Steel than to anything from recent Doctor Who. For all that publicity materials talk about children hiding behind the sofa, new-Who has rarely been scary (though it was more so in Moffat’s first series than at any other point since the show’s return). This, however, has one clear purpose in mind, and that’s to scare the living shit out of any small people watching it.
In fact, to call this a story is to give it far too much credit. There’s no plot here, no conflict to be resolved. It’s just a series of images and sounds (a nursery-rhyme like song about dying and so forth) designed to put the willies up anyone watching. It’s not coherent, but it’s effective, and that’s because Gatiss is here in territory he’s utterly comfortable with.
Even though he’s known for comedy, Gatiss’ first love is horror, and the gothic style specifically, and here for the first time he’s really allowed to pull out all the stops and go for creepy imagery over and above anything else.
But in fact, he does something rather clever here, and combines two very different styles of Who stories. The most obvious one is that of the little child who’s scared of something in the cupboard or under the bed. This has become a cliche of new-Who, especially stories by Moffat, with the trope appearing in one form or another in The Girl In The Fireplace, Fear Her, The Eleventh Hour and more, because it’s very easy to write (I wrote a story along those lines myself, in fact…). In fact, this has been so overdone by Moffat particularly that when I was watching this, my wife (not a Who fan) overheard the pre-credits section and said “Oh, it’s a Moffat episode then?”
But Gatiss makes this a little more complex than normal by making the scared child actually be the monster. Now this was done, to an extent, in Fear Her, but there the child had been possessed by an alien being and could be freed of it. Here the child just is the alien being, and here Gatiss is going back to something that was an element of the very earliest Doctor Who but has been very rarely seen in recent years.
The clue is in the word ‘cuckoo’, mentioned a few times in the script. The very early episodes of Doctor Who, back in 1963, were heavily influenced by some of the more progressive science fiction of the time, and in particular John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village Of The Damned), about spooky blonde-haired autistic-seeming alien children with psychic powers taking the place of human children.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, the baby-boom generation indeed seemed to their parents to be an alien race, with their loud rocking and rolling music and their long hair and their self-obsession, and there’s a whole sub-genre of stories in this vein (and having seen what the Baby Boomers did to the world once they grew old enough to vote, who’s to say their parents were wrong?). Other than The Midwich Cuckoos, probably the most famous example is Jerome Bixby’s short story It’s A Good Life, about a child whose powers to alter reality terrorise the entire community around him. (Many more examples of this subgenre can be found in the Asimov-edited anthology Tomorrow’s Children.)
The influence these stories had on Doctor Who is most readily apparent in the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, which, as the title suggests, is far more about the freakish, strange, child at the school than about her grandfather, the Doctor. But they helped set the tone for the whole style of the show in the black and white years, and remain among the biggest influences on how the show evolved.
And these stories have more resonance today than they have for many years. We’re currently seeing a similar demographic bulge to that of the late fifties and early sixties working its way up, and with similar consequences. Where in the 50s and 60s there were Teddy Boys (young men wearing old fashioned suits! How scary!), juvenile delinquents and Mods (young men wearing suits in a modern cut! Call the police!) we now have ‘feral youth’, ‘chavs’ and ‘hoodies’ (young people wearing jumpers with a hood to keep their head warm! It’s the end of civilisation!), who are being demonised by much the same types of people who previously argued that the pulsating negro rhythms of Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard would destroy the western world.
Unfortunately, Gatiss pulls back and delivers a happy ending, in a story which really would work far better without one, with child and father reconciled. Whether this is, as one might hope, because he’s seen the problems with the subtext of The Unquiet Dead and decided to ensure he does nothing that might be seen as enflaming right-wing Mail-reader prejudices, or, as I rather uncharitably suspect, because the current batch of Who writers all seem to be obsessed with fathers and sons reconciling (the only relationships which appear to matter, in large part, in new-Wholand, are father-son ones and those between romantic partners), it means that the punch is pulled.
That’s not the only fault – in a story which actually begins with the Doctor answering a small child’s prayer, how could it be? – but most of the faults of this story are minor ones, and they’re examples of writerly clever-cleverness that should have been pulled out by a competent script editor, like “we’re dead – again” (which just reinforces the problems I mentioned last time), or the continuity references (I only picked up on “Snow White And The Seven Keys To Doomsday”, but Millennium mentions several more).
It’s far from perfect, but in a series which has so far been mostly about big story arcs at the expense of actual story, and where the big high-concept pieces (‘the one with the pirates’, ‘the one with Hitler in for five minutes until they forget about that to concentrate on Mary Sue’) have been such gigantic let-downs, ‘the one where they’re trapped in a doll’s house by a creepy kid and those creepy dolls attack them’ will probably be remembered more fondly in twenty years than many of the other episodes.