Sunday, December 25, 2005

Chavs in Space - the New Doctor Who and the Death of the Clubland Hero

A tall figure, dressed in a travelling cape and deerstalker hat, strides quickly through the fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London. Mr Sherlock Holmes, the internationally-renowned private detective, has just heard word, via a source in Limehouse, that Professor Moriarity, the Napoleon of Crime, is even at this moment in the final stages of a scheme that will be his criminal masterpiece, and only Holmes and Dr Watson, late of the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers and the Berkshires of the Indian Army, retired, can put a stop to it. Quickly, Holmes bounds up the steps to the rooms he rents with Doctor Watson at 221B Baker Street, and burst in the door.

"Get your hat and coat Watson," he cries, "the game's afoot! We don't have a moment to lose!"

"I'm afraid it's quite out of the question," replies Doctor Watson.

"Eh?" says Sherlock Holmes, in that mental state to which he so seldom sank, complete bafflement.

"It's my dear old mum Holmes," continues the Doctor. "You see, she's never got on with the neighbours on the left 'and side of the 'ouse, the Braitwaites. She's always got on well with the Threepwoods on the right hand side, having them round for tea and a bit of a sing-song at Christmas, but this year things have come to a head. You know my cousin Gertrude, that works in 'Ull in the labour exchange? Well, she's marrying this young man that's she's been seeing, 'Erbert, nice chap, met him at the funeral of dear old Uncle Fred ..."

"I'm sure Watsonian Family Politics is a fascinating field of study Doctor," replies the Great Detective through clenched teeth, "but Moriarty is cooking up his most nefarious plot yet - he must be stopped!"

"That's exactly what my dear old mum said about Doris, Mrs Braitwaite," replies the Doctor, unperturbed. "If she's told me once she's told me a thousand times, 'John,' she'd say, 'I 'ate to speak ill of another 'uman being, but that Doris Braitwaite is a complete cow.' Well, I couldn't believe it. She was very upset, mum was, and now it's all got much worse. I say Holmes, where are you going?"

The great detective storms back down the stairs and back into the pea-souper. When you're all that stands between civilisation and the infernal triumph of the Greatest Criminal Intellect the World Has Ever Seen, you really don't give a toss about Doctor Watson's dear old mum.

A penny which has yet to drop for the makers of the New Doctor Who, who insisted on dragging Rose's harridan of a mother into their Christmas special, the jewel in the BBC's Christmas Day crown for this year. The Doctor may claim to a be a Time Lord from the distant planet Gallifrey, but in reality he really is another Clubland Hero - one of the gentleman adventures of England between the World Wars, in the Indian summer of the Empire. The Clubland Heroes stem from Sherlock Holmes, and reached their flower in the adventures of the likes of Richard Hannay, Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond and that dude with the monocle that Dorothy L Sayers wrote about.

HC McNeilie, who wrote the Bulldog Drummond stories under the pseudynom "Sapper," was a fascist in many ways, but he certainly knew how to tell a story. McNeilie wrote once that a good adventure story should be a like a good golf shot - it should begin with a bang, soar for the middle part of the tale and then drop like a stone to a climax. Anything else is a distraction. Consider a situation where Hugh Drummond has got word that Carl Peterson has just kidnapped Gwladys, only daughter of Professor Montague Forsyth, and is holding her captive until the Professor hands over the formula for his top-secret nerve gas to Peterson. Does Hugh go charging in to rescue this flower of English maidenhood from the clutches of her (invariably hook-nosed) captors, or does he sit on his hands in the car while Algy or Jasper of whomever of the boys is inside in the house reassuring his dear old mum that he won't get hurt saving the world and that his under-garments' state of cleanliness is immaculate?

I bloody wonder.

The whole idea of going on an adventure is that you leave mum behind. It's not a bug, it's a feature. The writers of the new Doctor Who's insistence at dragging Mrs Tyler along is only taking valuable story-time away from the Bug Eyed Monsters, and people tune in to see the Bug Eyed Monsters, not somebody's whiny old mum. If they were looking for whining, they've have tuned to Eastenders, wouldn't they?

Mark Lawson and his Newsnight Review Panel nominated the New Doctor Who as one of the television triumphs of the year, causing An Spailpín Fánach to raise a quizzical eyebrow. That the new Doctor Who has been a commercial success is demonstrated by the fact it had its own Prime Time Christmas show, previously the territory of Delboy and Rodney, and Eric and Ernie before them. However, popular does not mean good, as the X Factor underlines with soul-destroying regularly. The new Doctor Who is a success in the sense that it's by no means as bad as the sad way the so-called "Classic Series" finished up, but that doesn't mean that hammers aren't being dropped.

Christopher Eccleston's casting as the Doctor, for one, was a mistake. If you want a guy to play some wrist-slitter out of a Thomas Hardy novel or something cheery about Scousers on the Dole, send for Chris. Otherwise, you need to start thinking Grant - Richard E would be a glorious choice, while a left-field but potentially marvellous casting would be Hugh Grant. Not the stumbling Hugh Grant of Four Weddings, of course, but the bit of a boyo Hugh Grant of Bridget Jones' Diary. Eccleston's casting was part of a political subtext in the new Doctor Who, that was to be a defiant clenched fist against Received Pronunciation and Class Bias and that sort of thing. Which is all fascinating, interesting and worthy of debate but it's no damned use to Gwladys in Peterson's basement, or the innocent and peace-loving planet of Xantantin, about to be terraformed the Daleks, is it?

Because the Muse Calliope is nothing if not capricious in her favours, the new Doctor Who team may have discovered a pearl greater than all their tribe in David Tennant, who made such a bravura debut tonight. The man has huge potential to be a Doctor for the ages, but before he can the creative team in Doctor Who have to decide to whom they're pitching, and tighten up the slack a little.

As is, the Doctor Who writers are inclined to pitch to two distinct and separate groups - children, and the sort of pale and sallow young men that argue about the canonicity of various elements of Doctor Who on the Wikipedia entry. Miserably, this results in jarring changes of tone, as different bones are thrown to the different constituencies. The writers need to realise that you can only serve one master, and cut that cute stuff about the flatulent aliens. Children just aren't grateful and, as Russell T Davis himself said, Buffy has changed everything when it comes to fantasy TV writing. In fact, Davis and his team may have made their biggest mistake in not consulting longtime Doctor Who fan and friend of An Spailpín Fánach Brian, who remarked to An Spailpín that the correct televisual model for a 21st century Doctor Who would be The X Files, thus furthering its ties with another progenitor from BBC past, Professor Quatermass. But maybe Russell T. Davis was too busy trying to sneak in that bit in the final episode of the first series where the Doctor kisses Captain Jack on the lips to bother about consistency of tone. We all have our little agendas, don't we, Russell? Besides, Brian wouldn't be about to come on board as a consultant without a big spond upfront. Lucre comes before Art with that man.

An Spailpín Fánach will continue to watch the new Doctor Who, although the uneven tone, Mrs Tyler and Mickey and the rest of those missed opportunities will be as vinegar and wormwood to him. And in case any of those Wiki-writers arguing canonicity are feeling a little hurt that I had a cut at them, I'm a guy that spent a hour on Christmas Day writing 1300 words on Doctor Who. I'd say An Spailpín could be a bit sallow in the gills himself.