John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Doctor Who – BBC 1

by on Apr.16, 2007, under Television

Please, someone, take charge.

Despite a decent opener, and a surprisingly unhateful performance from Mr Who’s new assistant, Martha, it’s more clear than ever before that a reasonably entertaining family sci-fi could be something really special. If only someone other than Russell T Davis were in charge. I’ve no objection to his working in the background, and I’m pleased that he’s made a nice idea viable once more, but he is a very bad science fiction writer, and someone needs to be involved who can say so.

For two partially enjoyable series, he’s screwed up the arc appallingly twice. Series 1 teased us with “Bad Wolf” references scattered through the universe, suggesting that something magnificent was coming. It wasn’t, and the final result of a grumpy TARDIS (American readers, sorry) seemed like it had been cobbled together at the last minute, rather than some clever meta-theme reaching its zenith. Series 2 was even more dismal, despite having a really wonderful final moment. As much as everyone enjoyed watching the Daleks and Cybermen hitting each other with their handbags, it was a really dreadful load of crap, only fondly remembered thanks to the remarkably emotional and effective scenes seeing Rose and the Doctor separated irreparably.

Series 3 is shot from the opening moment, unless he’s doing something cleverer than he’s ever demonstrated the capability for. Dropping hints that he’d feature The Master soon, and then throwing around references to “Vote Saxon” and people discussing that a new leader is on the way, isn’t exactly subtle. If it’s intended as a big reveal, then perhaps it shouldn’t be available as an episode summary on any listings site. If he’s a better plan in mind, deliberately playing off people’s expectations, then I’ll be delighted to be wrong, and remarkably surprised.

Meanwhile, episode 1 did a surprisingly decent job of introducing Martha, without it turning into Eastenders again. And thank God she doesn’t have a moronic boyfriend to drag every other episode into the lowest depths of chav TV. Transporting a hospital to the moon was a satisfyingly idiotic idea, and RTD inevitably couldn’t write an ending and it all became nonsensical farce, but for a while there it was onto something.

Episode 2’s trip to see Shakespeare was about as loathsome as the programme could imaginably get. Even RTD couldn’t come up with a script so abysmal, instead having to turn to a writer for, er, Brookside. Gareth Roberts has clearly never seen anything of Shakespeare beyond Shakespeare In Love, as he proved by embarrassingly misunderstanding anything that made Shakespeare of interest, instead believing the power of the plays to be in his flowerly language. Endless references to the Bard’s being “the greatest genius of all time” were tiresome drivel, and worst of all, spouted by the character with an understanding of science, and perhaps therefore a decent grasp of slightly more productive geniuses out there. And no, this isn’t some Shakespeare snobbery – I’m barely more literate on the subject that Roberts’ primary school grasp, but that’s one of the primary reasons why I wouldn’t write a television programme about him. And then comparing the works of Shakespeare to that of talentless hack JK Rowling was the last straw, leaving me screaming enraged at my monitor. (Goddammit, even if you’re one of these cheese-faced buffoons who think Harry Potter is “lots of fun”, you surely wouldn’t be so repulsive as to compare her sub-literate prose with that of Shakespeare?) Seeing that the Doctor was to meet the Bard, I sighed predicting that we’d have to sit through the ordeal of the Doctor saying Shakespearean quotes to Shakespeare, who would reply, “That’s good – I could use that.” I never, even in this pessimistic funk, thought that they’d do it FIVE BLOODY TIMES. Burn everyone involved.

Episode 3 was back to RTD’s usual fare: having a good idea, but then not knowing what to do with it. So he wanted to satirise the traffic jam nature of modernity, and create a literal traffic jam with no destination, and all involved oblivious to their reality. But then he decided to fill it with wacky characters, and spend over half the episode watching people aimlessly chat inside hovering car sets worse than something Red Dwarf would have hammered together. It took a Doctor Who stalwart – a mysterious giant monster hidden at the bottom – and then completely removed any notion of terror by hiding it for far too long, and then revealing them with no ceremony. The man has no idea how to write monsters, and it would be nice if he stopped trying. This is the guy who had a Dalek explode over pondering the emotion of love. Gah. Nice to hear what the Face of Bo had to say, but sadly it only seems to point further in the direction of a Saxon anticlimax.

The future looks mixed. Next is a two-parter written by one of the script editors, which bearing in mind the results of her work so far, doesn’t bode well. Then it’s someone who wrote for The Bill. Then, dear God, a producer and writer from Torchwood. Then, after those weeks of worry, Paul Cornell (who wrote the wonderfully moving series 1 episode, Father’s Day) is back with a two-parter. And then, immediately it’s Stephen Moffat’s episode, Blink. So far he’s written the three best episodes – The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances from series 1, and best of all, series 2’s The Girl In The Fireplace. Then it finishes with three in a row from RTD. Sigh. Please, get him off the scripts, someone. Get Moffat in charge! Is anyone producing this programme? Anyone?

15 Comments for this entry

  • Richard

    You mean, you were… wait for it… not amus-

    Oh, I can’t even do it ironically. With RTD, it’s been the same since the start – he’s a good guy to have in the middle, and the ideas he’s rebooted Who with are mostly decent. He just desperately needs a script partner to say “Uh, Russell…” when he gets to the last ten pages or so of every screenplay, and entirely take over before writing in a bad deus ex machina ending. Hell, there was an actual audible pop of air rushing out of the mouths of every kid in the country – right before the nationwide scream of “WHY ARE YOU NOT JUST UNPLUGGING IT, YOU SILLY, SILLY MAN?”

    On the plus side, it’s still a fun show to watch, even if not great sci-fi – unlike Torchwood, which was both agony and cack. And the Shakespeare episode is much more watchable if the sight of Christina Cole playing another witch is making you think of bloody Hex – a show with character and plotting seemingly put together via Chinese Whispers and bits of sticky tape. Brr. To be avoided like the plague, that one.

  • Richard

    Also, I’m not convinced that Saxon is going to be the Master. That just seems too obvious, and for all their problems, the previous endings have come a bit more out of left-field than that. I’d imagine the old tash-twirler to be more of a behind the scenes player – Derek Jacobi seems a more likely candidate than John Simm. But it could go any way, really. It’s not as if the NuWho series arcs have ever offered much other than namechecks until the final couple of episodes.

  • MHW

    Agh. Urgh. Chh.

    I really want to spill the beans on something, but I know John’s not fond of spoilers.

  • John

    Without giving anything away, I’m interested to hear your opinions on the current state of Who, MHW.

  • Trevor

    Thanks for giving me a good laugh. RTD has single handeldy turned DW from a barely remembered joke into one of the most popular and successful series on television but it’s nice to know you’d let him work in the background.

    Audience Appreciation Index figure for “Gridlock” was 85% BTW. That’s officially considered excellent within the TV industry. Not bad for someone who can’t write, eh?

  • Will

    I thought the Shakespeare episode was quite good to be honest. I liked the Dark Lady bit at the end, plus it had the bloke from Shameless in it…

    But you know me: shallow etc.

  • John

    Trevor! You mean to say that lots of people like badly written rubbish?! I’d best take my argument down, eh?

    Do stop being so deeply stupid. “Barely remembered joke”. Er, no. As awful as it was, it’s the most famous live action sci-fi the BBC has ever produced.

    And sorry to spoil your little tantrum, but I never stated that RTD cannot write. I stated, accurately, that he cannot write science fiction, and that he cannot write monsters.

    Do tell us all why you’re so ferociously defensive of criticism againt Mr Davies.

    Will – you have by far the worst taste of any human I’ve ever enountered, so I’m not sure it counts.

  • Dawn

    Doctor Who has never been a joke to my knowledge, it wouldn’t have lasted 40 years otherwise. Yes, I consider the new version has been ‘dumbed down’ a bit too much for my taste, but then, they are allegedly attempting to attract the younger viewers this time (although I enjoyed it in its original form as a 4 year old). I have enjoyed most of the new episodes so far (in all 3 series) and yes, I have had a few gripes but they can’t please everyone. My most serious annoyance in this series was, in fact, the JK Rowling reference, but at least it’s current and I just thought it a bit silly. For what it’s worth, I love Harry Potter, just not in Doctor Who. I also didn’t like Martha being told her clothes didn’t matter in 16th century London when Rose was told to change when visiting Cardiff in (what was it? the 19th?). Also that a lot of lines seem to be re used almost verbatim, ie: Martha’s invitaion to travel and the ‘I don’t know who he is, I just went off with him’ bit. It would be nice if they could be a bit more original. I totally agree that they washed out the Bad Wolf storyline, what an absolute damp squib that was. The Torchwood one was amusing as we all knew the series was coming and I, for one, was not disappointed. Saxon has already made his prescence known there as he has in Who and Sarah Jane Adventures if memory serves. Lest’s see if they can do this one without screwing it up. However, even if they do, there’s (just) enough good there to keep me watching and my kids love it.

  • The_B

    I know it’s supposed to be a ‘family’ drama, but I agree – RTD tries too hard to include the kids, and almost ends up patronising them (and in turn, the rest of the auidence), I feel.

  • MHW

    There’s a huge amount of variation in the quality of RTD’s scripts — he’s responsible for all three of my most hated stories of new Who, yet has produced some of my favourites as well. His plots tend to be slap dash, the humour for kids can be heavy handed and his grasp of how to make the ridiculous seem convincing is shaky, which is a handicap for something as silly as popular SF — contrast it with Moffat’s ability to pass off clockwork robots looking to nick a French bird’s brain to wire into a ship, and you’ll see what I mean. Yet he can be tremendous fun — he’s good at dialogue and character; when he’s not aiming jokes directly at the kiddies, he can sparkle; on a good day, he doesn’t allow you to pause for breath sufficiently long to grizzle at the things that don’t make sense.

    Overall, I find more to enjoy in Who redux than I don’t (with the caveat that I’ve yet to warm to Tennant as much as I did to Eccleston). So, I’d have to concede that RTD’s instincts as a showrunner have mostly been for the good. It’s not perfect; I wouldn’t say it’s high aspirational telly; and I wouldn’t rank it alongside my current favourite, House. But I’m not among the old grumpies who want to make it how it was in the Good Old Days — if you tried that now, it’d look either like a bad pastiche or just bloody awkward and slow.

    One thing I’ll add is that I think Trevor does have a slight point. If you were over a certain age, then yes, you’d remember Who well. But under that age, you would, at best, be in a minority who followed/knew of a cult interest; at worst, it’d barely be on your radar.

  • Dawn

    I won’t admit exactly how far over that ‘certain’ age’ I am, just suffice to say that I have been a fan since 1966. I sadly agree it can’t go back to how it was, but I would like a bit less slapstick and a bit (no a LOT) more scary. And less of the ‘old grumpies’ thanks.

    (with the caveat that I’ve yet to warm to Tennant as much as I did to Eccleston).

    I thought I would also have trouble with this. I loved Eccleston’s Doctor, although he did lay on the ‘tragic hero’ bit a tad too heavily. However, Tennant WAS the Doctor from his first episode onwards. There have been a couple that I thought were on the weak side, but it seems to go from strength to strength.

    “the humour for kids can be heavy handed”

    Tell me about it! My 2 boys (then aged 5 and 3) loved the burbing wheelie bin, however, my 5 year old considered the farting slitheen ridiculous and to this day (he’s now 7) he HATES those 2 episodes. Guess it just goes to show that even kids that age can be discerning.

  • John

    Dawn, your mistake ws leaving too many clues. First enjoyed it when you were 4. Started watching in 1966. That makes you… 174 years old. Rumbled.

  • Dawn

    John, I made no mistakes, I just stated that I would admit to nothing :-P. Yes the clues are there for anyone who’s really bothered to figure out how old I am, but your numeracy skills appear to be a little dysfunctional…

  • Rachel

    It’s not exactly the best series yet. Agree with you about the scripts. I still reckon they shouldn’t have replaced Christopher Ecclestone. Northerners always know what to do. ^_^

  • Dawn

    Can’t get much further north in the UK than Scotland. Tennant rocks!