Doctor Who Book Review

Here’s my review of Matt Hills’s book, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating DW in the 21st Century. It’s published by IB Tauris and is available from Amazon.

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This is the first serious academic study devoted exclusively to New Who and Matt Hills is definitely the man for the job. Based at Cardiff University (where else?), he’s a longstanding fan and has written earlier studies of fan culture and the horror genre.

A background in cultural theory – something I personally lack – would probably help you to get the most out of this book; the first paragraphs of some chapters can seem daunting to someone who barely knows their Foucault from their Fanfarlo. But persevere – it does get easier and there are extensive citations and suggestions for further reading, should you wish to extend your explorations. Hills is unashamed to challenge cultural assumptions concerning “quality” versus “popular” TV, or “cult” opposed to “mainstream”. The discussion of where New Who has positioned itself on this axis and how fandom, fans-turned-TV-professionals and a more general audience relate to each other makes interesting and sometimes provocative reading.

Murray Gold gets a long-overdue chapter to himself as Hills explores the musical devices used in the show to make it more appealing to a general family audience. Hills also looks closely at the importance of Chris Eccleston’s involvement to ground the relaunched show in an established tradition of high-quality social realism (with limited success, since CE then expressed his frustration with what he saw as a formulaic role lacking in dramatic development opportunity). Discussion of David Tennant is largely confined to Who’s history of trying to align itself to high culture via Shakespeare. There’s comment on attitudes to Tennant playing Hamlet, particularly from Greg Doran at the RSC who took exception to the local chippie putting a Dalek poster in the window and regarded DW as an unhealthy viewing habit for anybody more than ten years old. Hills also makes the perceptive point that JK Rowling has been used as a kind of Shakespeare substitute for the younger generation (she’s mentioned at least twice in The Shakespeare Code: 3:2).

The book is confined to RTD’s era and deconstructs a number of his statements about the show, as well as glancing at the well-established connection between cult SF and homosexuality – Hills quotes from, though doesn’t explicitly endorse, sources that suggest the gay worldview permeating cult SF is intrinsically hostile to characters finding lasting happiness in houses with carpets, doors and, by implication, kids. I still think there’s work to do on the gendering of Doctor Who fandom and the way the relaunched has brought large numbers of heterosexual women into the fanbase; for an excellent interview with Hills, covering this topic and several more, check out Harry Jenkins’ weblog.

The last chapter examines changing attitudes to fandom seen in RTD’s Who, pointing out that the character Clive in Rose (1:1), the archetypal obsessive, male, conspiracy theorist stereotypically associated with old-skool fandom, actually dies and is supplanted by Rose herself, the everyday, working-class embodiment of the new order. By the time we get to Fear Her (2:11), the franchise is confident about making the Doctor the object of general public adulation via the 2012 Olympics, and this theme is developed further into a narrative device that can rescue humanity from the Master in Last of the Time Lords (3:13).

The book was completed (though not published) just before the end of RTD’s tenure and the author hadn’t seen Tennant’s final episodes.  Should it run to a second edition, it would be interesting to read his overall assessment of the Davies years, which he points out early in the book are distinct from Classic Who for a number of reasons, but particularly because they are an example of hitherto-unknown “authored” DW – that is, subject to a clearly-defined individual’s creative vision. How this has played out in relation (sometimes opposition) to the various constituencies within fandom and the BBC is largely the subject of this enjoyable study.

 

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12 thoughts on “Doctor Who Book Review

  1. I had a thought. Did Mickey take over Clive’s website, or was that just a bit of fanon? Because, if he did, then, since he actually knows the Doctor, that makes him a BNF, Big Name Fan.

  2. Not read that one, but I did find “Time and Dimensions in Space” hard going, and my eyes glazed over once they got to terms like “mise en scene.”

  3. I come not for your review, though it was fascinating and almost made me wish to read this critical theory of Doctor Who under RTD, but to wish you a happy birthday.
    Happy Birthday!
    I also have been reading myself, but nothing so high-brow as this work you review. I was reading a lovely book entitled, “Master Class In Fiction Writing” by Adam Sexton.
    This book draws on the very essences of storytelling, which naturally will appeal to me, by illuminating examples from classic works. And I loved how the author illustrates the exact problem with RTD’s storyline as a whole and coherent narrative. Using Jane Eyre as a template he states, Not until Jane Eyre can tell us, “Reader, I married him.”–or at the point where Rochester marries another, or Jane marries another or one of them dies–are we finished with the story of Jane’s growth and development.
    He points out that a protagonist must embody a concrete need, rather than some abstract one, for the reader to connect with the character. That is, Rose wishes that she would never be separated from the Doctor. Rose consistently acts upon that belief. And, Ten consistently responds to it, though he is shown to be emotionally torn, not by lack of love, but perhaps by something else, and finally physically torn into two men. But we are still left without concrete resolutions, because Rose is shown to reject the Doctor she’s given in JE.
    This is the problem. RTD robs us of an end to his story by focusing on the wrong person at the end. Or in the beginning of it. He wants us to switch our P.O.V. to an alien Doctor, one with no obvious motivation or goal, after Rose is abandoned. But in critical studies of New Who over and over again the reviewers tell us that RTD focused on Rose…we see the Doctor through her. We are expected to relate to her experiences, but we are given no satisfactory end to her story. It cannot end with the Doctor’s death in End of Time, because we know that the Doctor doesn’t really die and his story with Rose already transcended regeneration. It had to end there on the beach in JE…but we are left feeling that end is inconclusive. Rose is still running toward her Doctor.
    I feel that the problem with RTD’s work is that he didn’t commit to any course of action or give us a conclusion at all. Instead, we sort of wander off into another story. Of course, many viewers may find solace in the idea that Moffat will give them a more interesting or conclusive narrative. But I feel most people simply have no interest in narrative structure or can’t be bothered following this sort of complex study of “a kid’s program.”

  4. Nice to hear from you again, and thanks for the birthday wishes. I’ve been thinking of you as I follow the health care debate in the USA.
    I came across the clip of an interview with RTD recently where he said how much he enjoys the freedom to write happy endings, because they don’t happen in real life
    http://www.bleedingcool.com/2010/03/25/russell-t-davies-jonathan-ross-armando-iannucci-ian-rankin-muriel-gray-and-frankie-boyle-to-contribute-to-mark-millars-new-comic-project/
    I’ve become completely weary of following the inconsistencies in his public statements – I think he must say exactly what he feels like saying at the time, regardless of consistency. Either that or he was overruled at some critical point or lost his nerve roundabout JE. I think maybe the very things that made him the perfect person to revive the DW franchise, his childish enthusiasm and confidence, became a fundamental inability to follow through long term. Seems to me he lost interest and enthusiasm roundabout the end of S3. These things don’t always show up right away, because he was surrounded by talented people from DT downwards and they covered for him.
    The fundamental points you make about storytelling ring true for me and I think the reason I’ve never written a story I’m satisfied with post-JE is that creatively it doesn’t work and there’s no real way to fix it. As you say, it isn’t possible to transfer your interest and affection to an alternative character, particularly when you see the original suffering. It introduces the fundamental concept of alternative timelines which is death to emotional investment in any story – even one concerning time travel and AUs!
    Maybe, ironically, RTD’s worst problem is he tries to please everybody, and ends up pleasing nobody? Whatever the reason, LJ tends to remind me painfully of what has been lost, and I don’t hang around here much these days for that reason.

  5. Just had a look at Sexton’s book on Amazon…
    The point he makes about characters needs, how they have to be specific, not abstract, makes me wonder if RTD’s biggest problem was explaining what the Doctor’s specific needs were and then following them through. Once we define a character’s specific needs we humanize them, make them into a person the reader can identify with.
    But of course, the Doctor isn’t human, and there’s a continual fear of losing his alienness by giving him a human motivation. It’s tempting to keep making the Doctor’s motivations abstract because then you can claim to be writing great and meaningful drama. (Not that Shakespeare ever had a problem with that particular either/or). And there’s another difficulty. Anyone involved with DW professionally is terrified of doing anything that might finish the Doctor’s story. Once he stops, the reasoning goes, then the show stops. So as soon as you begin to characterise the Doctor in a realistic way (and for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that Classic Who never did), once you give him an inner life, that drive towards completion will be there, and it’s totally fundamental.
    It’s part of the age-old tension between storytelling and the maintenance of a brand, a franchise, that eventually the story stops. Otherwise, it’s not a satisfying story. The battle cry we hear at EoT “but the story goes on” is, in fact, the worst thing a story can do. That’s why sequel after sequel is rolled out in modern storytelling, until the original narrative collapses under the weight of its own silliness and contradiction, or people lose interest, or both.
    There’s a difference between a satisfying ending and a happy ending. It’s arguable that even King Lear has a satisfying ending. Lear as a character has to square a circle – he wants to give up his power but can’t deal with the reality of doing so. In the end, even in the darkest, most nihilistic productions, that gets answered – he finds that power is worthless. Or occasionally you come across a production – the Gregori Kozintzev movie, for example, where he discovers he’s a member of the human race and learns to appreciate real love, but it’s too late. But he has still developed, even when he cries with his dead daughter in his arms, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, and thou no life at all?” That sentence comes at the end of a story of personal growth.
    So, to return to the Doctor, he’s trapped in a bind – he has to want something, but we have to separate out the bit of him that wants that something and push it away, in case it diminishes him, or at least diminishes his bankability. The real sadness of RTD’s Who is a very predictable one – it became a brand, trapped by its own success and all the compromises that makes. I was very intrigued to read in the new Writer’s Tale that Julie G tried to persuade Billie to return for the Specials. Even then, they were trying to do a damage limitation exercise. But eventually what happened was a very modern triumph of two successful brands – David Tennant as tragic actor in the Shakespearian mould, which demands narrative closure, and DW as the never-ending, continually resetting story, which demands the precise reverse. If the show had been less successful, if it had clearly run its course by the end of S2 or S3, we might well have got our happy ending. As it was, it was just too valuable for the POTB let that happen.

  6. …and moving on from this (I’m on a roll)…it seems to me that End of Time, from the title downwards, is an increasingly hollow and frantic attempt for RTD, again, to have his cake and eat it. Lots of things about the finale screamed, “This is closure! It’s the end, really it is – it’s what I was going to do all along!”
    We get the odd attitude to regeneration, for example. Tragic Doctor reacting to it as death, when in fact it’s something quite different. Regeneration is pushed to the absolute limit – it happens agonizingly slowly with a huge amount of rage against the dying of the light. That’s because, deep down, The Doctor as conceived by RTD has become human, and so he’s not dreading a regeneration, he’s dreading the end that death is to a human being.
    Then, the attempt to round things off with Gallifrey and the Master. I felt that was the least unsuccessful narrative strand because there was some sense of closure there – what happened did seem to vindicate the Doctor’s original choice that has caused him such agony throughout his narrative. But again, that was never commented on, instead the story limped on and shoved it into a siding.
    And then we had all those goodbyes. They didn’t work for me because they all said the same thing – I don’t want to go. I’ve learned nothing and I don’t want to go. I still think Jack’s issues can be resolved by fixing him up with a date. I’ve convinced myself that money will fix what happened to Donna. And I’ve never come to terms with losing Rose, I still need to do something incredibly dangerous and cross the timeline so I can see her again.
    Every imposition of closure screamed lack of closure. Yes, it gave Tragic Hero Tennant loads to do. But the problem with a big farewell speech is you can only do it once. After that it becomes mawkish. Say what the audience needs to hear, “I’m going to die, but I’ve learned something.” Or at the very least, there needs to be acceptance. Ten’s death gave us neither.

  7. I think you sum it up nicely. I believe it was a combination of being out of ideas and, yet, still clinging to his childlike enthusiasm for the concept of the show and for David’s work, perhaps. After all, we see that he basically saw David in Hamlet and inappropriately layered those Prince of Denmark emotions over the Doctor. As I’ve said before if Ten had died in JE and then Ten 2 had returned…we probably would have been able to switch our love to Ten 2 based on the idea that PART of the Doctor Rose loved had returned from the grave. But…instead we were forced to deal with the part of the Doctor that was faithless…and to go on with him in our stories.
    I do believe, also, in what you have to say about the transfer of interest to the alternative Doctor and how mostly people attempting to do that simply remind us of what was lost. I am struggling to transfer the part of my devotion that belonged to Rose to the alternative universe Doctor…while still going on to enjoy the television universe Doctor.
    And the interesting thing is that I did, indeed, pick one of the acceptable endings for the story if we follow the Master Class model. Not the one so many other fans accepted–Jane marries another (Rose loves Ten2 just as much). I accepted it by deciding that one of them dies. Basically, I feel now that the Doctor I grew up with, and that Rose loved, is dead. He died at the metacrisis, not the aborted regeneration. So, right at the moment that RTD, I believe, lost all interest in writing Doctor Who and started writing something spectacular and bold but ordinary.
    And not to depress you with the LJ talk, but I found a New Who fan with a comment that really interested me from a storyteller’s POV. This person saw the Doctor as making a journey toward becoming human, just as you and I did, but this person is thrilled with the brilliant RTD, because he equates human with all of the rage and sorrow that we see in the Specials. To this person, the new and improved Doctor is the one who snaps his fingers to open the TARDIS, has sexual affairs with interesting but ultimately unimportant people and shoots guns. That is so very sad to me…that instead of an intelligent program that allows the Doctor to show us the best of what is inside humanity…RTD left us with a show that has reduced the Doctor to a point where he embraces all of our worst traits.
    Gosh, I’m cheering! How goes your Shakespearean studies? Are you hanging out with the literary crowds these days? We still love you on LJ even if you have pointed your attention at new horizons.
    Happy Birthday, Again!
    Rae

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