Tuesday, December 22, 2009

David Tennant's Farewell to Doctor Who

David Tennant as Doctor WhoThe highlight of Christmas 2009 for this blog will be David Tennant’s final appearance as Doctor Who on the BBC. Your faithful correspondent realises that he is an unearthly child in this respect, but what can you do? Love is love, and An Spailpín has been obsessed with Doctor Who since the late 1970s.

Even when it betrays me, I still come back to the flickering blue light and the woop-woop-woop sound of the TARDIS dematerialising. And I didn’t even see the TV shows at first – it was the Target Books in the Ballina children’s library that hooked me.

The BBC are quite proud of the fact that they have longest running Sci-Fi TV show in the world (Stargate is second, since you ask) but there is a world of difference between the Doctor Who of its original run from the ‘sixties to the ‘eighties and it’s current, post-Cool-Britannia incarnation. Every generation leaves its stamp on its art, both high and low forms, and sci-fi is no different.

Doctor Who was originally commissioned in the ‘sixties under the Reithian mandate to educate the masses. History without tears, as our time travellers meet Aztecs and Romans, Robespierre and Richard the Lionheart. There was a specific injunction in the original spec against BEMs – Bug Eyed Monsters.

In what is perhaps the only instance of a positive result from scope creep in the history of Western civilisation, the BEM injunction was merrily ignored from the start and series has been serving up monsters ever since.

In its seventies heyday Doctor Who was a meld of the two distinct strains of traditional British heroes. The Doctor’s genesis as a hero is owed firstly to Britain’s tradition of engineers and boffins. The men who built the railways and steamships that allowed a small foggy island to conquer the world, men like Stevenson and Brunel. Men who were good with sums and used their heads more than their fists.

And then there are the gentleman adventurers from whom Doctor Who derives that other part of his character. The clubland heroes of the Richard Hannay /Biggles/Bulldog Drummond type, chaps of the right sort who derringly did for queen and country, and expected no more thanks than a good yarn with the boys back at the club.

Jon Pertwee as Doctor WhoJon Pertwee, the third Doctor, was the epitome of this – Pertwee served on the HMS Hood during the war, and that officer strain can be seen in his portrayal of the Doctor, making small distinction between the control room of the Tardis and the bridge of the HMS Torrin, in which Noel Coward so famously served.

There is no trace of these clubland heroes now, just as the clubs themselves have fallen to the march of time. Just as Doctor Jeckyll could never quite return to what exactly it was that made him Mister Hyde, so the BBC lost its way in Doctor Who, as the series suffered an arresting decline in quality in the ‘eighties before finally going gently into the good night in 1989, unloved and unmourned.

The BBC must have been rolling the dice a little when the series returned in 2005, but its success must be beyond their wildest dreams. Doctor Who is now as popular in Great Britain as marmite. It is popular because it has kept up with the times, and delivered a Doctor for twenty-first century Britain.

Where the clubland heroes of the Edwardians were fired by cast iron belief in the divine right of British rule, contemporary heroes reflect Britain’s profound lack of identity at the moment. The legacy of Empire has been fully discarded in contemporary British society, and Doctor Who reflects that. Hence the thick layer of melancholy that underlies all the Doctor currently does, and his identity as a man whose people have been destroyed. A pret-a-porter depiction of post-imperial Britain.

Even the upper crust twang of all previous Doctors – the patrician tone of Jon Pertwee, the stentorian voice of Tom Baker, the precise elocution and diction of Peter Davidson – have been zapped for Christopher Eccleston’s northern accent and David Tennant’s alwight geezah tones – rather than Tennant’s own strong Scottish accent, interestingly.

Russell T Davies has been hailed as the saviour of Doctor Who (although the Guardian reports this week that the BBC approached him, rather than vice versa. An important distinction) but as a writer the man is more soap opera than sci-fi. Jackie Tyler. Donna Noble. That hideous couple on the Kylie Christmas special. If a pair of Daleks glided into the Rover’s Return and demanded “BOD-ING-TONS! BOD-ING-TONS!” they could not have been more out of place than Davies’ beloved soap opera characters are in Doctor Who. All this and wonderful Martha Jones, beautiful, clever and oh-so-brave, exiled after only one season. Bizarre.

Davies’ emphasis on the Doctor’s loneliness and other, more adult, themes is out of place. If you want adult themes, go read some Russian novelists. This year’s Star Trek reboot got it right in pitching the movie exactly where it should be, at ten year olds. They can worry about sturm und drang when they’re shaving. In the meantime, they should have their minds opened up to wonder, and left to run with that as far their dreams may take them.

Tennant’s charisma was such that he was able to ride through some of the appalling writing, just as Patrick Stewart was able to spew out any old blather about the dilithium crystals on the deck of the starship Enterprise and make it sound like Cicero denouncing Cataline in the Roman senate.

Matt Smith as Doctor WhoTennant’s successor, Matt Smith, may yet surpass Tennant himself, just as the unknown Tom Baker surpassed Pertwee, because of the sheer quality of the writing, which cannot but improve considerably.

From next year Steven Moffatt takes over the running of Doctor Who, and the show is in safe hands. Moffatt not only wrote some of the best episodes of the revival, he also wrote the best single episode of the series ever, Blink, in Season 3 of the new run. Perhaps next year, when appetite is whetted for the Eleventh Doctor, we’ll go through here why Blink was so very outstanding. In the meantime, it’s vale atque ave, farewell and hail, to David Tennant and Matt Smith respectively. Can’t wait.

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