September 26th, 2011
When I started doing these posts a few weeks ago, I titled the series ‘Season 6B’ as sort of a joke for Doctor Who fans. I say sort of a joke, because it’s a geek joke, which is to say something that isn’t actually funny but references something else.
In this case, I was referencing the idea in fan circles that there was an unseen-but-’canonical’ ‘season 6B’ of Doctor Who, which came between series six (Patrick Troughton’s last) and seven (Jon Pertwee’s first), in which the Troughton Doctor had various adventures, including his parts of the multi-Doctor stories The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors.
So it was sort of a joke, in a way, because the current series of Doctor Who has been split into two halves, and it’s the sixth series of the revived show, and so I’m reviewing season 6B for real. Do you see?
Once again, we have a story element paralleling one from a series six Troughton story – in fact, like last episode, it parallels The Mind Robber. Last time we had white robots in a plain white room. This time we have a minotaur that dies when someone no longer has faith. If before the end of the series we see close-ups of Karen Gillan’s arse in a spangly catsuit, then I shall have been vindicated.
But even without that, possibly coincidental, element, this feels Troughtonesque for much of the episode. In fact it’s the kind of story that’s designed to make fans of the old series almost ecstatic, featuring as it does plenty of running down corridors.
The corridors in this case are those of a hotel, and this story ,with its scary things inside each hotel room, impossible photos, and people in a confined space going mad, owes more than a little to Kubrick’s film of The Shining, and the direction plays up to this, finally calling in a debt which has been owed since 1966 (when Kubrick phoned Who director Douglas Camfield and found out how he’d got the shots of weightlessness in The Daleks’ Master-Plan, using the same techniques in 2001).
But it feels very Troughton for the simple reason that the show’s budget has been slashed recently, so the show’s makers are finally having to learn what most makers of good TV knew decades ago – how to make a tiny number of sets and a very limited effects budget stretch.
And one of the best ways to do that in a show like Doctor Who is to use claustrophobia, and do variations on haunted house themes – choose one central location, have a monster you barely see, dump all your characters in a room together and have them picked off one by one, getting steadily more scared. It’s a tried-and-tested formula in Doctor Who that always works, whether for the first Doctor in The Tenth Planet, the Fourth in Horror Of Fang Rock or the very last episode of the original series to be filmed, Ghost Light (we’ll ignore Warriors Of The Deep for now).
But that formula was almost worked to death in Patrick Troughton’s time as the Doctor, the show’s low-point as far as popularity (and thus budget) goes for the first twenty or so years of its run. Give Troughton a military base with some tense, trigger-happy soldiers, an alien and/or robotic menace with a single fatal weakness, and maybe a shifty foreigner, and you’ve got a six-part story, easy. So it’s to the Troughton formula that the series inevitably returns whenever it’s had its budget cut. (The Horror Of Fang Rock, which I mentioned earlier, was the first episode made after the show had had its budget slashed in the mid-70s).
There’s another way in which this story feels like a Troughton – or Colin Baker – story.
Those two periods of the show, more than any other, had the twin obsessions with broadcasting itself, and the broadcast TV medium, and with surveillance. Here we have much of the story taking place using distancing layers – the closed circuit TV, the Doctor appearing to the minotaur in mirrors, the possessed man’s ranting being broadcast using the muzak system. This doesn’t seem to have any thematic connection to the main story, but just to be something of an obsession with the programme makers.
But most people who’ve talked about this programme’s relationship to the old series (and I realise I am harping on at this, at the expense of dealing with the story on its own terms, but this series and this story seem to demand being put into that context) have mentioned The Curse Of Fenric, which like this story has as its climax the Doctor obliterating his companion’s faith in him in order to save her.
And the big twist in this story – that rather than having faith and they will be safe, the characters have to absolutely not have faith, not believe they will be saved, and give in to the fact that they’re doomed – is absolutely the kind of thing Doctor Who should be doing. Whatever one’s view of whether faith per se is a good thing (like most questions worth asking, not something that can be answered in one forty-five minute children’s TV program about monsters), Doctor Who in the past was, at its best, in part about subverting the messages sent out by more conformist SF programmes, and that’s something the show has done all too little in recent years.
(Now if only we could get them to get rid of the idea that all non-human species can be defined by one personality trait, and that for the ugly ones it’s always a trait such as cowardice).
But the comparison to The Curse Of Fenric is not one that does this story any favours. Fenric had significantly longer to work up its various themes into something approaching coherence. Here we have a perfectly enjoyable, scary monster story, with a satisfying climax – the Doctor saves everyone, but only by destroying his companion’s faith in him – but then we get some terrible writing in order to spell out the themes of the story, and of the series as a whole, for the hard-of-thinking.
So the minotaur has to die saying “If I was an ambiguous statement which is set up in such a way that it could clearly refer to either me or you, Doctor, even if that means it has to be horribly, clunkily phrased, I would welcome death”. And then, because they haven’t insulted the audience enough, he follows with “I wasn’t referring to me”.
Similarly, the Doctor’s decision to leave Amy and Rory at the end is justified by him not wanting to see them die. Which would be fair enough, except that Rory died in Amy’s Choice. And Cold Blood. And The Big Bang, Day Of The Moon, Curse Of The Black Spot and The Doctor’s Wife. Amy, on the other hand, has only died three times.
And this is where we come to the fundamental problem with the series as it is at present, because it’s trying to do a big, overarching story where things change forever, but nothing in it can have consequences.
This is something some of the commenters mentioned last week, and I didn’t pick up on it then, because I wanted to say it now. Yes, it’s obvious that Moffat is heading the Doctor for some big event where he sees how hubristic he is and has to change forever. And then?…
Well, then, there’s another series. The Doctor will still be out there, still fighting Daleks, Quarks and Cybermen as before, and for a while he might say “oh, it was terrible what happened, that thing”, but that will last at most a year or so. Eventually the status quo will be restored. And then someone will try it again. Ever since 1984, every Doctor, bar none, has had someone decide to first make him ‘dark’ so he can then be made ‘lighter’. It’s a cycle that keeps happening, and it’s a tedious one.
One of the big strengths of Doctor Who is also one of its weaknesses – nothing can have long-term consequences for the Doctor, any more than anything can have truly long-term consequences for Batman or Superman. And much like with superhero comics, the people involved have not yet learned that the best way to deal with this is to not write stories which demand long-term consequences. Get rid of the overarching story arc, and the last few episodes of this year’s series are a set of enjoyable enough SF/horror stories. Put the story arc in though, and you have a bunch of people acting in an absolutely incomprehensible manner – Amy and Rory, in particular, ought still to be gibbering wrecks after the events of Let’s Kill Hitler.
If we can treat the series as a de facto anthology series, that’s one thing; every series of this type has characters who forget within a week events that would traumatise anyone else forever. But to keep trying to put all the stories into a larger context makes them all, ultimately, less meaningful.