Monday, July 02, 2007

Doctor Who and the Ear of Tin

Beirt Thiara AmaThere’s a marvellous line in the 1967 Batman movie – the old Burt Ward Batman, the Pow! Biff! Wallop! one, as opposed to the more sturm und drang of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s movies – where Batman goes into a restaurant. The maitre d’ asks Batman if he’d like his usual table.

“No,” says Batman. “I don’t want to attract attention.”

If you get that, you get science fiction and fantasy movies. If you don’t, you don’t, and you might as well surf on brother, and come back once I have it off my chest. Anyone who’s still here probably enjoys the touch of sci-fi as much as your correspondent, and is almost certainly as bitterly disappointed as An Spailpín Fánach with Saturday’s final episode of the third series of the revived Doctor Who.

The set-up had been marvellous, and John Simm munched scenery all around him last week as Harry Saxon, the new Prime Minister of Great Britain who is actually the Master, the Doctor’s fellow Time Lord and greatest foe. Simm had been so marvellous in Life on Mars that his casting was hailed all around as being sweet as a nut. Add in the synchronicity that Harry Saxon’s new term as PM coincided with Gordon Brown’s, the boringly real PM, and fans everywhere thought they were in for a treat – accroding to Gallifrey One, eight million viewers tuned in, a 39% audience share.

How silly they must feel now. It’s not much fun to be promised Frank Sinatra and be delivered Frank Spencer instead, and people are annoyed. And rightly so. Russell T Davies may have had sufficient industry clout to revive the beloved British hero in the first place and deserves kudos for that, but it’s fairly clear that when it comes to fantasy writing the kid has a tin ear and a profoundly limited understanding and appreciation of the genre. He just can’t do it.

The point of the Batman story above is that, for the citizens of Gotham City, seeing a six foot tall guy in a mask and cape chowing down on his meatloaf and mashed potatoes in a restaurant is no big deal. He’s part of the scenery. If you live in Gotham City you don’t double-take when you see Batman, any more than you double take if you see a junkie shooting up heroin by the river Liffey. It’s part of the scenery darling. And that little vignette showed all that. It didn’t tell, it showed.

Russell T always tells, and never shows. It’s awful. The first scene in last Saturday’s Last of the Time Lords tells what’s happened since The Master took over by having the misfortunate Martha Jones ask – ask! - some sham, and then he tells her. He tells her – I mean, why not have RTD come on himself, just like he’s reading the news? The mind boggles, and the tears flow.

Worse again, Davies’ plotting – what some terrible comment poster refers to on the Guardian’s Arts blog as “Davies ex machina” – lovely – is worse than feeble. He has no feel for the genre, a complete tin ear and no respect at all for the conventions under which all fantastic fiction must run. Because you’re asking for a suspension of disbelief in the first place by having time lords, or vampire slayers, or Vulcans, you have to stick rigidly to the rules of the universe you created. So, although the Doctor travels through time and space, he can’t use that as plot resolution. That would be cheating.

How does Davies’ resolve the Master’s one year dictatorship of Planet Earth? He gets the Doctor to turn back time by one year precisely. Angels and ministers of grace defend us.

Compare, contrast, and dear God, please learn, from Buffy, season two, episode 22, Becoming, Part 2. Angel’s soul has been restored by Willow’s use of the Orb of Thesulah. But, as senior writer Marni Noxon has pointed out, to simply magic up plot resolutions is cheating. Therefore, Joss Whedon uses the soul restoration as a further means to twist the knife – Angel’s soul is restored only after he has started the process of ending the world, a process that can only be stopped with his blood. So the heartbroken Buffy once more choses duty over desire, looks her first love in the eye, and runs him through with a sword. Now that’s writing.

Davies has a step of the road to go yet before he’s there. And he has to recalibrate his ear too – you need a certain language in fantastic writing, and Davies’ is just too damned twee to get it. Orb of Thesulah is good stuff. It sounds lovely. Davies’ predilection for ladies of a certain age who look like they own Aga cookers, a la Harriet Jones, MP, Florence Finnegan and Professor Docherty, is grand if he’s writing the Golden Girls, but this is Doctor Who, baby. It’s a completely different ballgame.

Bitterly, bitterly disappointing, especially after such a strong season. Doctor Who has gone from strength to strength since its return, as, if I may dare, Davies’ influence gets diluted by people who have a better understanding of how this stuff works. David Tennant is a considerable improvement on Christopher Eccleston (part of whose casting was his Northern accent, to show the Doctor isn’t actually a toff, thus ignoring the fact that the most popular Doctor had the plummiest voice of all), and some of the scripts have been marvellous. Blink was a triumph, Human Nature also (even if Family of Blood didn’t quite deliver on its promises) and your correspondent is prepared to fly in the face of popular opinion and say that he loved Daleks in Manhattan, and thought the pig-slaves were just marvellous (don’t you see? That’s what Daleks do! They enslave the locals! Oh, never mind). We have another Christmas episode to look forward to now, and then even more blissful news that Russell T may himself be moving on, and leaving the series to someone who understands the genre a little better. I wonder - does anyone know if the great Jane Espenson has ever wished to live and work in Blighty?

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