May 25th, 2013
A quick note before I begin here — I had no home internet access for a month, and so wasn’t able to watch or write about the rest of the recent series. Sorry to those who were hoping for more reviews. That’s also why I haven’t looked at comments recently.
Paradise Towers is a watershed moment in Doctor Who’s history, as it marks the real introduction of Andrew Cartmel as script editor for the programme.
The previous story, Time And The Rani, had been Sylvester McCoy’s introduction to the role, and had been written by Pip and Jane Baker, a writing team who had contributed terrible stories to both of Colin Baker’s series, but who were known as fast, reliable workers — their stories might be awful, but at least they didn’t require their hands holding, allowing the script editor to get on with working on more difficult writers’ work.
Time And The Rani had been an utter, unmitigated disaster, with no redeeming qualities. As a way of introducing a new Doctor it was a dismal failure, having every problem that Colin Baker’s stories had had, but without any of the good qualities, and it effectively killed the programme for the general public. The folk-memory in Britain is that Colin Baker was quite good, but that Sylvester McCoy was silly and a bit crap, and that’s pretty much entirely down to Time And The Rani.
But it’s Paradise Towers that really introduces the show’s style for the rest of its history. This may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but this is the cleanest break with the show’s past ever. Doctor Who has always been a writer-driven series, and from Paradise Towers on, Cartmel only worked with new writers, who had never worked with any of his predecessors. While each script editor up to this point had inherited writers and scripts from the previous regime, giving a sense of continuity, Cartmel started with a clean slate.
While the programme would only remain on TV for another two years, of the seven writers Cartmel brought in over those years, two, plus Cartmel himself, would go on to be early mainstays of the New Adventures, a series of novels about which we will be hearing much more in future essays. Those novels were considered by many fans as the ‘official’ continuation of the TV show, and they were where many of the most influential writers of the post-2005 series first wrote for Doctor Who.
So this is where the past of Doctor Who ends and its future begins. So what’s it like?
Well, it’s a mess, frankly, but an interesting mess.
Much of what was good about the Colin Baker years (everything that wasn’t down to Baker’s performance, in fact) came from the tension between Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner’s very different ideas of the show, and while Cartmel and Nathan-Turner had a much better working relationship (Cartmel is one of the few people to have worked on the show who doesn’t have a bad word to say in public about the man who gave him his big break), they still had very different ideas of what the show should be.
Nathan-Turner, fundamentally, was a light entertainment producer who had got stuck producing a drama. He had no real affinity for story or characterisation, and what he wanted to give the audience was lots of celebrities they recognised from other TV programmes, a bit of glamour, a few jokes, and maybe a song and dance if one could be worked in. Reading his memoirs, he spends an inordinate time talking about his love of ‘panto’, and he seemed to be determined to push the programme in that direction.
Cartmel, on the other hand, was a very young, earnest man, highly influenced by 2000 AD. He had a fundamentally adolescent approach to the programme — everything had to be more serious, which meant ‘darker’ and more political. This is actually the same approach taken by Saward, except that where for Saward ‘darker’ meant more violent, for Cartmel it meant the Doctor going around saying “Ooh, I am so incredibly dark and mysterious, and I am holding a mysterious secret, something to do with the origins of the Time Lords, which I could not possibly reveal, for I am a dark, mysterious mystery.” Cartmel famously stated in his interview for the job that he wanted Doctor Who to bring down the Thatcher government, and it’s that same combination of ridiculous over-ambition and adolescent posturing that characterises his work on the show.
Sylvester McCoy, the new Doctor and third major force in these last years, was positioned between the two. He’s got much more of a serious acting background than people realise, having appeared with the National Theatre in several roles, but is an inveterate entertainer who is best known outside Doctor Who for putting ferrets down his trousers (a pastime which McCoy claims to have invented) and appearing on children’s TV show TISWAS.
Thus we get the combination that actually ended up on screen for much of McCoy’s tenure in the role — a dark, mysterious traveller who keeps hinting at a mysterious past, but who speaks in malapropisms and plays the spoons. And stories like this one, a blackly comic look at the subject of urban planning, inspired by a J. G. Ballard novel — and featuring Richard Briers and Bonnie Langford.
Paradise Towers is far and away the best thing about the first McCoy/Cartmell year, a year which was wildly experimental but, for the most part, not very good (Philip Sandifer, on his TARDIS Eruditorum blog, makes a good argument for a redemptive reading for the twenty-fourth series, but it’s not one that stands up to actually watching the programme). In this case, everything more-or-less works, thanks to an enthusiasm by everyone involved for the idea that they were doing something genuinely new and different. In this context, even Briers’ performance, one of the two or three most widely-mocked in the programme’s history, makes sense in a story where everything is hyper-exaggerated.
It would take a while yet before all these elements would come together into something that was actually worth watching — and while fan consensus has it that the McCoy era is better than much of what came before it, in truth the highs are no higher than the best of the Baker period, while the lows are worse than anything before — but for the first time in years, the tension between the different ideas of the production staff was a creative, rather than a destructive, tension, and the programme started looking like something that had a future. It’s just a shame that this started the month after it commited suicide with Time And The Rani.