When they asked me, just before Christmas, whether I’d like to do one, I was very flattered but thought it probably wasn’t for me – my knowledge of Doctor Who is patchy, and my feelings about the current TV show distinctly mixed. But when I realised that they wanted me to write about the 4th Doctor, played by Tom Baker, I decided that this was something I could do after all.
I came late to Doctor Who, so Tom Baker is the first actor I saw in the role – and, consequently, the ‘real’ Doctor as far as I’m concerned. I think the couple of years when I watched the show regularly must have roughly coincided with Douglas Adams’s spell as script editor; I remember the scripts being full of irreverent humour, helped by Tom Baker’s brilliant, barking mad performance.
By way of research I watched the DVDs of a couple of stories, City of Deathand The Sun Makers, and was surprised at how well they’ve aged – and at how detailed my memories of them were, right down to lines of dialogue. There wasn’t a lot of SF available to me in the late seventies, so I must have watched each half-hour episode of Doctor Who with intense concentration, probably studying the props and costumes to see if there was anything I could replicate in my own Super-8mm movies.
And I expect I found plenty that I could: one of the pleasures of these old episodes is how cheap they are, and how little it matters. The guards in The Sun Makers carry space guns which are clearly made from old bits of plank with a length of pipe glued to the top, while the clunky futuristic computers have big knobs and dials which were presumably jig-sawed out of plywood. But TV drama in those days was much closer to theatre than to film, and the fact that the sets wobble and the interior lighting doesn’t begin to match the exteriors no more spoils the story than would the fact that Elsinore is obviously a painted backdrop when you see Hamlet at the National Theatre: the set-dressers give you the cues, and your imagination does the rest.
Tom Baker as the Doctor, Louise Jameson as Leela
I’ve tried to keep my Doctor Whostory, The Roots of Evil, something that the programme makers of the late 70s could have done without too much trouble. My approach to writing was pure nostalgia: I just tried to imagine myself back in 1978, lying on the carpet in front of the telly in my parents’ living room, and visualised the Doctor Who story I’d like to watch. My favourites were always the ones set in far flung futures rather than the present day, so I had my imaginary set-builders get busy with planks, pipes and plywood, and sent a mental memo to the BBC special effects department to construct a Convincing Miniature of a gigantic living space-station called the Heligan Structure, grown from a single, genetically modified tree…
Of course the Doctor can’t resist visiting such a strange place, but as he explores he starts to realise that it’s a Doctor trap, devised by people who have a 900-year-old grudge against him. Leela features as his companion (she’s the first companion I remember – I believe the story where she met the Doctor was the first one I ever watched) and there’s also a brief walk-on (or roll-on) part for K9, though the story is only 10,000 words long, so for simplicity’s sake I had to leave him in the TARDIS.
The Roots of Evil e-book will be released on 23rd April, and is available from Amazon (UK and US) and I-tunes (UK or AU). The paperback anthology will be released on 23rd November.
A few years ago, when the second Pirates of the Caribbean film came out, I realised that Hollywood producers have now discovered how to make an action movie without any actual story at all, just a series of spectacular set-pieces designed by the stunt men and the special effects team and linked together by something that looks vaguely like a narrative. Dr Who seems to have taken this approach a step further by cutting out the spectacular set-pieces as well so that all that remains are jokes (often quite good ones, admittedly), sentimental death scenes (at least one per episode as a rule), and odd little sound bites, which I suppose are designed to become catch-phrases or memes or something – the effect is of a huge room at the BBC full of underpaid writers desperately trying to come up with their own version of, ‘Hasta la vista, Baby’ or ‘Do you feel lucky, Punk?”.
Saturday’s episode – A Good Man Goes To War – began with Rory, one of the Doctor’s duo of companions, striding into a Cyberman spaceship in the middle of a huge Cyberman space fleet and insisting, since they apparently monitor all communications in the region, that they tell him where his missing missus is. The Cybermen – who were legendary bad-asses in the old Dr Who but seem a bit pants in the new version – are reluctant to tell him, and draw a variety of big space guns. The rest of the fleet then explodes behind Rory in an expensive (but not quite expensive enough) effects shot, and he says, “Shall I Repeat The Question?” – the first of the episode’s sound-bites.
Just shoot him!
So how did he get there? Well, apparently we don’t need to know. Fair enough. But how does he blow up an entire space fleet? How does he get away again afterwards? Why don’t the Cybermen just blast him to bits, winning themselves the undying gratitude of viewers everywhere?
Who knows. That’s just the pre-title sequence and the whole thing has been forgotten by the time the credits have finished, although presumably the Cyber-numpties did furnish him with the information he needed because the Doctor is now busily assembling an army of Trusted Old Friends We’ve Never Even Heard Of Before to spring Mrs Rory from some kind of secret space base full of fascist clerics. Among the Doctor’s allies, though not revealed until the attack is under way, is a small squadron of Spitfires from one of last year’s episodes, who swoop by to knock out a communications array.
So where had they come from? How did they get from Earth in 1940 to a distant corner of space in the year 9 Zillion? Had the doctor carried them there in his TARDIS? How do you get a Spitfire into the TARDIS? What happened to them after the battle? Did they survive? Will he take them home again? All these questions could be easily covered by a line or two of dialogue, but the scriptwriters completely ignored them*. And I could go on – there were dozens of similar moments in this series.
Of course it isn’t always necessary to explain everything in a story: often we don’t need to know how the murderer got in or how the hero travelled from A to B. Of course it’s allowable to include the odd scene or pre-credit hook that doesn’t strictly make sense, so long as it’s funny or cool. And of course it’s possible to pick holes in any plot if you can be bothered, though it’s a fairly pointless pastime. My problem with Dr Who is that more often than not it seems to be made of plot-holes. I don’t think this is because the writers or producers are incompetent: I think it’s because they have an utter contempt for the audience. Who watches this stuff after all? Children and fanboys. So them soundbites and Spitfires, they won’t notice that it doesn’t make sense.
And the sad thing is that all this money, all this stuff, all these fine actors and pretty costumes could have been used to make a good programme instead. Buried in all this nonsense there are some lovely bits of dialogue and some great ideas. Who wouldn’t want to watch the story about the sword-wielding Victorian lizard lady detective and her cross-dressing cockney girlfriend? But Dr Who doesn’t really do stories any more, so she’s just marginalia, her character compressed into a few lines which you have to strain to catch behind the thundering incidental music.
Speak up a bit, love…
When Terry Pratchett wrote about Dr Who last year he suggested that it should move to Sunday nights since the Doctor was increasingly being portrayed as a sort of replacement Jesus in a bow tie. Actually, having seen the play Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks recently, I think the show belongs on Saturday afternoons after all. In episode after episode we get the same thing: a Baddy appears and does something Bad, or captures one of the Doctor’s companions. The Baddy explains that this time the Doctor is going to meet his doom; he may have won all those other times but this time will be different; this time he’s going down. The companion then gets a speech that goes, “Ooh, just you wait, he’s a good man, and he’s coming to get you and you can’t hide and he’ll sort you out all right!” Then the Doctor arrives. There is a brief and dissapointing confrontation, during which it looks at one point as if our hero will be defeated. But then he wins.
Dr Who isn’t drama at all. It’s the 21st century version of wrestling.
*EDIT: Oops – I’m told that actually there was some reference to the Spitfires, so perhaps I just failed to catch it. (I made it through five seasons of The Wire without turning the subtitles on, but I often find it nearly impossible to hear what people are saying in Dr Who.) I’m quite sure the opening scene was never explained, though, and there were plenty of other examples.
If campy British sci-fi with good jokes is your thing, you could do worse than check out Toby Frost’s Space Captain Smith books: the first one is reviewed here on The Solitary Bee: the second is even better.