April 21st, 2013
Yes, I’m a week late with writing this one, but that’s because it’s quite difficult to find much to say about it.
It’s Trad, Dad!
Sometimes, Mark Gatiss is just what you need.
This may seem a surprising statement, given that of Mark Gattis’ previous scripts one (The Idiots’ Lantern) is agreed by general consensus to be the second-worst of the 2006 series (and when the worst is Fear Her, that’s pretty bad), one (Victory Of The Daleks) is agreed to be the worst of the 2010 series, and the one that most people actually like is the one where he gave so little thought to the subtext that it came out as a vicious attack on asylum seekers, more or less by accident.
But to see why Gatiss’ episode comes as a relief, we have to go back to the fandom wars of the 1990s (in which I was a non-combatant, spending my teenage years without access to the internet or to a bookshop that sold Doctor Who books, but I have heard the tales of those who still bear the scars).
There were two major divisions that were made (neither of which were actually particularly useful in practice) in Doctor Who fandom at that time, something like the political compass — you were either ‘rad’ or ‘trad’, and either ‘frock’ or ‘gun’.
These divisions are mostly history now. The frock/gun division — essentially a division between those who want fun, inventive stories with a sense of humour and a little bit of camp to them, and those who wanted grimungritty action adventures with the sex and the swearing and the things blowing up — was pretty much conclusively won by the ‘frock’ camp, and a good thing too.
But there was also a supposed split between ‘trad’ and ‘rad’ writers. ‘Rad’ writers were those, like Lawrence Miles or Paul Magrs or Jim Mortimore or a handful of others, who wanted to keep Doctor Who moving forward and trying new things. The ‘trad’ authors, on the other hand, were those who wanted to write stuff that was exactly like old TV episodes, without any new ideas — rather missing the point that those old episodes, at the time, weren’t ‘trad’ at all, but were mostly radical departures from what had gone before.
As anyone who has read my stuff before will realise, I am unapologetically on the rad/frock side of this particular debate, but the post-2005 series has rendered that debate mostly null and void, by doing something that is neither like the old series, nor much like the stuff the ‘rad’ writers were doing (though Russel Davies is clearly a fan of Paul Magrs, and Steven Moffat equally obviously desperately wants to write like Lawrence Miles when he grows up). Certainly, while all the 90s writers it has employed have been ‘frocks’, there have been both rad (Paul Cornell) and trad (Gatiss) authors used.
In fact, Gatiss might be the single most ‘trad’ writer there is. To quote from this piece by Lawrence Miles, talking about one of Gatiss’ novels:
When an acquaintance lent me a copy of The Last of the Gadarene eight years ago, he made me tell him what it was about before I’d actually read it. He did this by asking me questions about the plot, and encouraging me to give the most predictable answers I could think of. ‘It’s a Third Doctor story, so where do you think it’s set?’ ‘Erm… England in the 1970s?’ ‘And who do you think the villains are?’ ‘Well, I suppose… aliens who want to invade Earth.’ ‘Yes, but how?’ ‘By infiltrating an institution of some sort?’ ‘And?’ ‘Um, disguising themselves as something normal and then smothering people.’ And so on, right up to the “twist” where it turns out that one of the characters is the Master in disguise.
At the time, one of the review magazines gave The Last of the Gadarene full marks for being a “perfect Pertwee”, yet the irony here is that Barry Letts would never have commissioned a story this banal in the actual, bona fide 1970s.
And that’s largely true of this story. It’s a rehash of a lot of previous stories — it’s a ‘base under siege’ story like the whole of Patrick Troughton’s second year, featuring the return of the Ice Warriors, who were the monsters in two of those stories. It references Alien (a favourite film of Gatiss and one built around the same basic plot idea) and The Thing From Another World (the template from which all the base under siege stories were created) and even calls back to Warriors Of The Deep (one of the two or three worst Doctor Who stories of all time, but one that fit the formula very, very well).
But the thing about this kind of formula — its one saving grace — is that it’s impossible to completely muck it up. Writing a base under siege Doctor Who story is like playing a twelve-bar blues — hit all the right chords in the right order, and you’re going to sound more or less OK.
Here, Gatiss completely does away with any advancement of the overall series arc (apart from a mention that ‘history is in flux’), or with any of the character development stuff, and just tells a straight story, competently. Everything is obvious (the Ice Warriors are from Mars, a red planet, so obviously one is on a Russian ship, because the Russians were ‘reds’, and it’s during the Cold War because he’s an Ice Warrior, DO YOU SEE?) but the obvious can work sometimes.
What we end up with, here, is a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book version of a Troughton six-parter. If you don’t have three hours to spare to watch (or actually to listen, since most of the video from those years has been destroyed) Troughton battling Ice Warriors, Yeti or Cybermen, this will do as a substitute. It’s no surprise that it sees the return of the Ice Warriors, the most generic of all Doctor Who villains (they actually are green men from Mars).
Cold War has no ambitions beyond trying to make forty-five minutes of TV that feel like a children’s TV programme from 1968. It gives Matt Smith some good moments, it has David Warner in it, which is always a good thing, and it finally gives Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character enough dialogue that I noticed her London accent was fake and she’s really from the North.
When everyone else is trying to do too many things and failing to get any of them right, sometimes the best thing you can do is stick to a winning formula.