This seems to surprise some people, but I’ve never really been a fan of Dr Who. As a child I didn’t much like being scared, so whenever Jon Pertwee’s big stare-y face loomed up on the telly like a frightening owl I got the message that it was time to switch off.* I think I finally started watching about half way through the Tom Baker era, and then stopped when he retired. Even at the age of eleven or twelve I could tell that a lot of the stories were pretty poor, and there was a mismatch between the imagination of the scriptwriters and the budget of the special effects department that was often quite disconcerting, but actually I think it was this ropiness which was what I liked best about the programme; unlike Star Wars and Close Encounters, Dr Who didn’t look a million miles beyond the sort of thing I could hope to achieve on my dad’s clockwork cine camera.**
When the modern incarnation of the show began a few years ago I was intrigued, and watched most of the Christopher Ecclestone episodes. Some of them were very good indeed, but dismayingly the Doctor’s DNA seemed to have become entwined with that of a rubbish soap opera. Producer Russell T Davies announced that he had done away with the Doctor’s home planet and fellow time lords because he didn’t like those epidsodes of long-running series where the hero ‘goes home’, but about every second week the Tardis was forced to materialise in London so that the Doctor’s companion Rose could catch up with her unconvincing family and tedious love-life. When people pointed this out, Mr Davies said huffily that what he had done was add some human emotion to the show, and that sci-fi fans just didn’t appreciate that sort of thing. Well, I’m a sci-fi fan and I don’t mind emotion at all; what I object to is phoney, mawkish, by-the-numbers, sub-Hollywood, character-arc schmalz, which RTD slathered all over the new Dr Who like someone greasing up a celebrity for a cross-channel swim.
Consequently, I haven’t watched the show in years. Sam has sometimes shown an interest, but although it’s on at 6-ish on a Saturday evening it’s wierdly inconsistent, bumbling along through happy, harmless, fun-for-all-the-family adventures week after week and then suddenly unleashing an image so genuinely nightmarish that you wouldn’t want any child to see it. Remember that one with the gas masks? If I’d been exposed to that when I was little I’d still be having bad dreams.
However, Sam’s reached the ripe old age of eight now, and he and his friends have been subjected to a ruthless full-spectrum BBC propaganda campaign*** about the arrival of the new Doctor, so we relented and let him watch last night’s episode.
More of an advert than an adventure, it was basically an excuse for Matt Smith to sort out his schtick and find a new assistant before setting off on the promising-looking capers which featured in a teaser trailer at the end. It was set in an English village so unlikely that I assumed at first it was meant to be a parallel world, but no mention was ever made of it so maybe that’s what TV people think rural England is really like. As for the story, it was The Usual One, in which an escaped space-convict hides out on Earth, his pursuers announce that they are going to destroy the planet to make way for a hyperspace bypass, no, sorry, that they’re going to destroy the planet for no reason whatsoever, and the Doctor has twenty minutes to save the day by running around being loveably eccentric. Every thirty seconds or so he said “Trust me, I’m a Doctor,” or, “The Doctor will see you now,” which I suppose will make useful soundbites in the ongoing marketing campaign. Matt Smith himself is so young that I can only assume the Doctor is meant to be ageing backwards, like TH White’s Merlin, and that his next incarnation will be a toddler. But he’s a fine actor; edgy, intense and a bit mad looking, very attractive without being classically handsome, and clearly an excellent choice for the part. Sam seemed to enjoy the story (he wasn’t bothered by the monster, and he liked the bit at the start that was borrowed from Winnie The Pooh) while Sarah and I enjoyed the jokes, which were frequent, snappy and well-timed.
But hang on, what’s all this? When I was a lad the Doctor was a dry, asexual, Sherlock Holmes type of figure and his relationship with his companions was purely platonic. But modern TV producers do love their Unresolved Sexual Tension, and so the Doctor has been forced to become a romantic lead, whisking pretty women off with him aboard the Tardis like some leering jack-the-lad inviting young girls for a ride in his van. In last night’s episode, new companion Amy gets to watch appreciatively as he strips just off-camera, and finally scampers off into time and space with him on the night before her wedding, leaving her white bridal gown hanging in her bedroom like a big old Symbolic Thing out of Angela Carter. The fact that, for time-travell-y reasons, their relationship begins when she’s still a child struck a weirdly dodgy (and indeed Dodgson-y) note, which surely can’t have been deliberate – can it?
Ominously, one of Amy’s friends in the village was played by the wonderful Annette Crosbie. You don’t hire a twinkly acting power-house like her just to do four or five lines, so we can assume that the Tardis will be appearing on her lawn week after week in order that Amy can revisit her home and decide between her two boring suitors there. Russell T Davies is gone, but the Doctor still can’t escape the deadly gravitational pull of his soap-opera plotting. On the other hand, to judge by the trailer at the episode’s end, there are going to be Cybermen, and Daleks, and Spitfires in low-earth orbit, and Romans, and Bill Nighy, and at least a few episodes set on alien worlds instead of in Cardiff, so I suppose it will be worth enduring a bit of off-the-peg character-arc garbage.
Despite everything, I find I’m rather looking forward to the new Who.
*The great Nigel Kneale, whose Quatermass serials more or less invented sci-fi telly in Britain, refused to write for Dr Who, saying he didn’t want to work on a show whose chief purpose was to terrify young children. Mind you, he might just have been annoyed that Dr Who kept nicking his ideas and turning them into panto.
**In Blake’s 7, the other great rubbish sci-fi show of the seventies, there was once an episode where the heroes had to attack the Federation’s Galactic Communications HQ (or something). When they got there it was a perfectly ordinary cement works, with a piece of paper tied to the chain link gates outside on which someone had stencilled, using a stencil exactly like the one in my school pencil-case, the words ‘Galactic Communications HQ’. Try doing that with your fancy CGI, James Cameron…
***Supporters of the BBC like to brag that one of the things which makes it unique among broadcasters is that it doesn’t run adverts. In reality, of course, it’s absolutely plastered with adverts, but they are all adverts for the BBC.