The Future of Doctor Who (possible spoilers for S7 finale)

Predicting Doctor Who finales is a high-risk strategy. I remember sticking my neck out a long time ago and declaring that Lucy Saxon was Rose or Romana in disguise. But the promises that “The Name of the Doctor” will be a game-changer of epic proportions does invite such speculation.Image

Will Matt Smith be quitting? Who will the mysterious Clara turn out to be? Theories abound.

I don’t propose to get metatextual about this. Instead, my predictions are based on commercial realities. Doctor Who seems to be on the verge of making it big in America. Mainstream, not cult, big. That kind of thing attracts big money and all the associated strings that come attached.

In the ill-fated but spasmodically brilliant Torchwood series ‘Miracle Day‘ we’ve already had a test run for a DW- universe series with a production team spanning the Atlantic. Some things about it were terrible, but the production values and writing input definitely had potential. Julie Gardner and Jane Espanson spring to mind as two high-profile people who could conceivably be very interested in a Stateside relaunch of Doctor Who. I’d also be willing to bet a significant sum on John Barrowman being involved. Glee, love it or loathe it, has blasted a trail for gay-friendly primetime TV. It would explain many things, including his vagueness on his involvement in the Anniversary Special and the future of the show as a whole.

But if I was a network executive having that pitched to me, I’d have real concerns. Too quirky, too English, too much weight of backstory, poor production value history, format not ideal for the one-hour-minus-commercial-breaks slot, insufficient movie potential and stories that are way too complicated. Then there’s the problem of the target audience. Kids or adults? Fans or mainstream?

So are we talking reboot? Quite possibly yes. If you buy the 12-regenerations theory, the Doctor’s coming to the end of his natural life cycle anyway. He’s gone most places, done most things, and it’s hard to think of anywhere further to go with him. Except back to square one. In fact, it seems to me that the main evidence in favour of my theory is the increasingly tired, desperate and played-out character of the current over-hyped Series 7b.

My money is on that happening, somehow, on the Fields of Trenzalore. And in the fullness of time, there will be a relaunch, with a lot of American production talent on board. Quite possibly a US show-runner. In a perfect world, Neil Gaiman would be offered the job. We can dream.

It’s even conceivable, likely indeed, that the BBC input will be minimal. And there will be movie deals on the table, you can bet on that.

But what about the English fanbase? What about the Anniversary Special, and the fact that as recently as this week, a new Executive Producer has been appointed by the BBC? Will he be moving to LA?

I think the key to that dilemma lies in the carefully timed clip released this week from the S7 Finale:

“The path I carved through time and space, from Gallifrey to Trenzalore. My own personal time tunnel, leading back to every moment I ever lived. Every step, every tear, every kiss. Even the days I haven’t lived yet.”

In those words lies the answer. It’s the perfect set-up for the British market. Even by the standards of recent DW publicity, the public setpieces of the filming of the Anniversary Special have been extremely staged. It’s a promotion, a reassurance if you like. David Tennant does not have a good track record of success on American TV, but the British public still can’t get enough of him. Matt Smith doing a Boris-type hanging stunt in Trafalgar Square – how British can you get? Filming with Tennant, a Zygon and a Queen Elizabeth I lookalike in a castle. Not to mention the high-profile announcement of Tennant and Piper’s return.

The main action reboots and crosses the pond (parden the pun). The BBC continues to make occasional crowd-pleasing Specials for the domestic market. More committed fans, who are willing to put their money where their mouth is, could have access to further material online. Big Finish have been doing it with audio, on subscription, for years. Don’t tell me the BBC haven’t been looking at that model. Put it together with House of Cards on Netflix, and you have a winner.

The potential is huge. For a start, you could get Tennant back. Heck, you could even get Tennant and Billie Piper back – just nip down the Time Tunnel and turn first left. You could find ways, digitally or otherwise, to revisit other eras, too. CG animation is pretty close to the point where Baker or Hartnell could be recreated, and CGI monsters look a helluva lot better than people in lame plastic suits. Matt Smith could stick around if he feels so inclined. . The possibilities are endless, the purists are kept content and a lot of people in Cardiff get to keep their jobs.

It would be nice if decisions like this were made on the basis of artistic integrity, but in fact that is rarely the case. It usually boils down to money. The Doctor will survive, in some form. And often, whatever the hardcore fanbase claims, these things work out better than you think.

You’re never alone with a clone – “Futureshock” reviewed

Imagine being forcibly woken after eight hundred years of suspended animation, to be faced by a heartless corporate clone informing you that the programme you signed up for has run out of money, so you’re going to be turned out into a society you can barely comprehend with no support whatsoever. This is the unenviable position that Laura, heroine of the play Futureshock, finds herself in. Back in 2030, with Earth going to hell in a handbasket, NASA funded an exploratory mission to an alternative planet many light-years away. To encourage people to sign up, they promised to deep-freeze their loved ones and reunite them in a thousand years’ time.

But NASA went bust centuries ago, Laura discovers that she’s the only person who survived the revivication process, and her partner’s mission won’t reach its destination in her lifetime. Worst of all, perhaps, humanity has found alternative solutions and nobody really cares.

Laura’s an appealing character, if a little dogmatic at times. A poet, passionate and romantic, she believes that she has been betrayed and that, regardless of the current circumstances, society is morally bound to honour the sacrifices that the original explorers made and underwrite them, regardless of cost. It’s an argument that cuts little ice with the glacial, cloned manager of the facility, Nicoletta. In her world, clones are accepted as completely human, legislation protects them from offensive language and the imperfections that, Laura feels, make her uniquely human are despised.

Between these two extremes, a male mediator, Stampfer, proposes a compromise. Laura will be humanely killed but everything about her, both physical and emotional, will be uploaded into a data file and made available to her partner, if and when he returns. The only alternative is for Laura to stay alive and live a miserable life on the fringes of society with no means of supporting herself.

What would you do?

"I look like him..." Rose Tyler (probably) isn't buying it

If you’re a fan of Doctor Who, you might have come across this dilemma before. Back at the end of the 2008 series (we won’t go into details) the Doctor managed to grow a second version of himself, one that “had the same memories, same thoughts, same everything,” and left him in another universe with the woman he loved, as a kind of consolation prize. The storyline split Doctor Who fandom down the middle. Many saw it as a happy ending, giving those who appreciate such things a whole imaginative universe to play in. Others were appalled – how could you really love someone, and then settle for his double, while the original person continued to live and suffer without you?

For all its laughable plots, Doctor Who has often shown an uncanny  knack for asking the questions that challenge us to define what makes us human. Futureshock does the same. Laura’s objection to the proposed solution is that the data file “won’t be the real me,” because already she’s had experiences, and laid down new memories, that won’t be included. But eventually she goes along with the proposal. I’d love to have seen a second act where we heard the arguments from her lover’s point of view, assuming he eventually got home.

Science fiction and theatre aren’t natural bedfellows. Maybe it’s because we tend to think of it as epic and spectacular. By contrast, Futureshock, a three-hander on a minimalist set, is a very intimate piece. But, in addition to establishing three characters who were more than just representatives of conflicting positions, it opened up all kinds of cans of worms, shedding light on the preoccupations of contemporary society. There was satire of the way that inhumane, financially-driven government welfare cuts are couched in impersonal language to remove their sting. There was commentary on our idolization of physical perfection and the fickleness of celebrity culture. However, it’s Laura’s philosophical dilemma that stays with me.

If you believe in the concept of a unique human soul that survives after death in a recognisable form, you’re going to have problems with Laura’s fate. On a personal level, what interests me was that I thought it was a humane, pragmatic solution. I understood, without really endorsing, the arguments of the future society that they couldn’t commit in perpetuity to expensive promises made centuries ago for reasons that were no longer relevant to them. This was very different to the way I’d felt about Rose being left with the duplicate Doctor. Admittedly, I’d had years, rather than minutes, to get emotionally invested in the characters in Doctor Who. And I resented being expected to settle for pragmatic compromise. I saw the narrative as an epic romance, and such an ending jarred and did not sit well with me. It was a bit like Aragorn acknowledging that really he’d been a bit silly to go around mooning after an Elven lady for so long, and settling for a quiet life with a nice village girl instead.

That suggests that, when it comes to whether or not we’ll buy into an ending, the tone of the narrative is all-important. Some stories stick up their fingers in a glorious WTF gesture to real life and glory in being an alternative to it. Others make it clear from the start that they’re about ideas rather than feelings. That’s an over-simplification, of course, and the best ones should aim at doing both. Whether or not they succeed is, of course, another matter.

And then there’s post-modernism, and the self-aware narrative. But that’s another story.

Futureshock – review

 

If you can’t say something nice…

One of my earliest movie memories is of Thumper the rabbit in Disney’s Bambi tapping his foot laconically and saying, “If you can’t say sumfin’ nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

I read a lot of criticism and meta-textual analysis. I have two English degrees, one pre- and one post-theory, and occasionally feel I’ve seen it all. Before I give anyone the impression that I am some sort of cultural titan, most of my critical activity has been focussed on two areas – Shakespeare (the subject of my recent MA) and Doctor Who. I was a late arrival in that odd Internet-driven constituency known as “fandom”, drawn there by the emotional power of David Tennant’s performance as the heartbroken Tenth Doctor in the 2006 episode, Doomsday.

Up to that point, I’d always thought of people who wrote fanfiction as rather odd and a bit sad, definitely in need of Getting a Life. What surprised me was what an intelligent, informed and academic community at least one subsection of Doctor Who fandom turned out to be. Many fan-fiction stories are in fact meta-textual analyses in disguise; they posit alternative plotlines, speculate on what might have happened in between episodes or seek to make the subtextual overt; this leads naturally to discussions of the subtext itself and a variety of possible interpretations. It was in fandom that I gained the confidence to tackle postgraduate study, something I’d been vaguely planning to do for decades.

This essay is not, as it happens, a defence of fandom itself. If anything, it’s a defence of the right of creative people to express themselves, regardless of their limitations. Because we all have them. Dickens, as Stanley Wells, the Shakespeare scholar, notes in his piece for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, “…can be sentimental, diffuse, sententious, preachy, muddly in his plotting, overlong. But I value him for the abundance of his imagination, the variety and warmth of his characterization, his inconsequentialities, digressions and irrelevances, the resonance of his prose, the vitality of his dialogue, the piquancy of his observation, his depth of human feeling.”

The writers of the past often express, overtly or indirectly, political and social views that are now unacceptable to us. For example, the argument that The Merchant of Venice, though possibly liberal for its time, is now unacceptably anti-Semitic, is well documented. If I were a Holocaust survivor, I might well feel that this limitation was too serious a matter for me to appreciate the serious messages Shakespeare’s vision carries about love, loyalty and money, themes that still resonate today. There are critics who feel that The Taming of the Shrew is simply too offensive to be staged, since it presents a reductive view of gender politics that no production, no matter how imaginative, can make acceptable.

All writers have their limitations. These may be cultural, or there may just be things that they don’t do very well. This may not necessarily preclude them being very successful. At the moment the TV series Sherlock has propelled Stephen Moffatt, the current show-runner of Doctor Who, into the stratosphere of popularity. In the blogosphere and indeed in the general press, people have pointed out that his view of women is decidedly lacking in subtlety, and this affects his ability to write convincing characters, particularly female ones. (I won’t go into details here, being reluctant to commit the unforgivable sin of spoiling people who have yet to view the latest episodes). But here’s a link to a piece in the Guardian, written before the Sherlock finale aired, for those who would like to probe into this further.

I happen to agree with these charges and I’ve contributed to more debates than I can remember on whether the last showrunner of Doctor Who did a better job than Moffatt. Both writers had their blind spots and hypothetically there is a perfect text somewhere that lacks them all. However, we live in the real world. I’ve got my views, like everyone, but one thing I would always defend is the right of writers to have a go at something difficult, preferably in public. That doesn’t given them the right to be offensive without being called to account, and close reading of the subtext of any cultural artefact, coupled with the right to discuss it publicly and freely, is essential to a civilized society. For that reason alone, I find it unutterably depressing when armchair (or should that be keyboard?) critics use the Internet as a platform for their own particular versions of “Thou shalt not suffer a witch [insert sexist/racist/insult of choice] to live.” By all means talk about it. Hopefully, the writer under discussion, if s(he) is still alive, will take genuine criticism on board and either up their game or, where possible, call in help. There is evidence that Moffatt does that. On both his high-profile TV series, he tends to delegate the emotional heavy lifting to other writers.

By all means point out a writer’s limitations. It’s fun, if you enjoy the activity as much as I do, and it’s important to do so. Let’s try to avoid the blacklist, however, the fannish flounce that declares, “I’ll never watch this show again!” To return to the example I know best, Moffatt has a vision for Doctor Who that is stronger on myth, symbolism and intricate plotting than it is on the convincing depiction of personal relationships. He doesn’t write very well about how it feels to have your baby abducted, for example. He probably knows that, but it was a story he wanted to tell and he had a go. I admire him for that, even while his portrait of Amy Pond makes me roll my eyes in despair. We make allowances for writers who were professionally active years ago, without suspending our critical faculties. Contemporary writers deserve the same civility. Let us endeavour to celebrate what they manage to do well, whether it’s Our Mutual Friend or Sherlock, and be grateful that they stick their neck out and enrich us all. In their position, our own prejudices would be equally noticeable to others, and probably invisible to ourselves.

The Satan Pit Revisited

 

I watched “The Satan Pit” again tonight and it made me cry. That came as a surprise because I’d remembered it just being a big space opera with a stupid, deus et machina ending (I mean, the Tardis towing a rocket, c’mon!)

But it got to me on a number of levels. First, just knowing where the series ends up, and that Doomsday was actually filmed months before TSP – it made me feel, even more strongly than I did before, that TSP is the real ending in a way. Anybody who’s ever tried to write a story will know that the characters take on independent life and make their own journeys to their own destination. Of course, in something like TV you are always too constrained to allow that – there has to be a narrative arc and it may be influenced by factors completely different from the aesthetics.

But omygod, that ending, with its wonderful reunion scene, its optimism and happiness flaming out against all the darkness around it – to me, that is the real spirit of the show. We see so much in that particular two-parter that underlines and explains the Doctor’s love of the human race – their curiosity, their hope when all seems lost, their resourcefulness, even the ability to appreciate beauty in the midst of horror (I was blown away when Ida, certain she was going to die, stopped to say that the underground cavern was beautiful).

And, quite apart from any David/Billie thing, I found the whole story something of a metaphor of my own marriage. I was a completely blinkered evangelical Christian when I married my partner, and spent nearly 20 years fighting to hold onto both my faith and him (he is very much an evangelical athiest in the Richard Dawkins mould). In 2000 I very nearly lost him, for reasons too complicated to go into here. Several influences, including the wonderful His Dark Materials, which blew my mind when I read it, led to me finding the courage to quit going to church. At the time, it felt very like the Doctor jumping when the rope runs out. Most of all, I was afraid that without religion life would be senseless and meaningless, and I wouldn’t have any moral touchstone. In fact, it hasn’t been. I find it far more beautiful and wonderful now I have to join human beings in working it out for myself.

For me, so much metaphor was packed into that scene with the Beast, the Pit, the Doctor and the two urns. (Just a thought, was any continuity intended with the very similar vase Pete Tyler was holding when he died?). Religion puts this enormous scary thing right in front of us, playing on our deepest and most primal fears. If that doesn’t work, we are threatened with the loss of people we love. And then, that moment when the Doctor cries “I believe in Rose!” and smashes the urn anyway – because he trusts her to work out her own salvation – I find myself wanting to cry just thinking about it.

What is it about this series that can get to me and move me so deeply?