Sunday, 19 October 2014

Doctor Who Review: Flatline

One of my purposes in writing about the latest Doctor Who season was simply as an opportunity to ponder a TV show that dominated my imagination when I was a teenager, and has returned, regenerated in such a different form, now that I am an adult.

Doctor Who was an early and deep influence on my decision to pursue a career in science. Beyond the questions behind the very premise of the show -- what are the inner workings of space and time? -- there was the simple fact that the Doctor is a scientist. In the first stories I saw, from the Jon Pertwee era, he far more often referred to himself as a scientist than a Time Lord. He was UNIT's Chief Scientific Advisor, and in countless adventures he argued down the military approach in favour of the scientific one, which meant being informed and intelligent and analytical, but also liberal, cosmopolitan, and compassionate. This Romantic channelling of Fifties technophilia with Sixties pacifism through the weirdly distorted lens of the Light Entertainment department of the world-straddling media outlet of a fading empire hardly resulted in a character who bore any resemblance to any actual scientist, living or dead -- but it was a hell of a potent image when further magnified through my own naive subconscious.

Such youthful enthusiasms are supposed to do their job, and then disappear, only to be recalled vaguely, and with embarrassment. At first Doctor Who played that role perfectly. It was duly cancelled in the late 80s, and I knew that I was supposed to be embarrassed to worship it even before it was over.

But then it came back, and it came back big.

It used to be, that if I was socially foolhardy enough to advertise my nerdy credentials by purchasing a toy TARDIS or Dalek action figure, I'd have to brave one of those comic-book shops frequented only by spotty misshapen teenage boys. Now I can go to the gift shop at the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff Bay and see it filled with hordes of the most abhorrently normal people, all weighed down by armfuls of Whovian merchandise for their children, their grandchildren, and themselves. It makes me happy and proud to see the Doctor vindicated in the public eye. But I also feel strangely resentful, and possessive. "You don't really know Doctor Who," I think. Maybe being 'cult' wasn't so bad after all.

As I have grown up, the show has grown up, too, with all its emotional outpourings and arguments and sexual tension. But it's also got more childish -- the frivolous jokes, and the villains who are cartoonish deliberately, and not just because of a low budget.

None of this has made it easy to appreciate the new show on its own terms. The wildly varying quality of the writing hasn't helped, either.

But the last two episodes have demonstrated for me just what this "new" show can be. As I said last week, the use of single 45-minute stories is a big part of it. They don't have time to explain everything that's happening, but that doesn't have to be a handicap. It can be an advantage. This week (we have finally reached some spoilers, in case you were wondering) the alien villains were creatures from a two-dimensional universe. How exactly does that work? How and why are they getting into this universe? How and why are they turning the local flora and fauna two-dimensional? How and why are they learning (in a wonderfully scary visual rendering) to become three-dimensional? Any answers to these questions would be nonsense, and a show that had to provide them, like the old Doctor Who, simply couldn't have included these monsters at all. In these short stories, ridiculous monsters are allowed precisely because they can't be explained -- and they can work, and they can be great.

The fast pace also allows plot gags that wouldn't survive if stretched beyond a few seconds of screen time. The sight of the classic cartoon gag of a sledgehammer emerging from a handbag was a revelation. And that was nothing beside the Doctor doing a Thing impersonation, and trying to finger-crawl the TARDIS out of harm's way. I am slowly appreciating (yes, it's taken almost ten years), that this new show can go places and do things that are entirely new and wonderful.

The other new element, of course, is more drama between the characters. In general I haven't been impressed by that, but I think it's a risk worth taking. This week's conceit of putting Clara in the Doctor's place, and letting her see the decisions he has to make in the course of an adventure, gave the story an angle that would have been unimaginable in the old series. I guess the producers would prefer to say instead that it gave the story "depth", but I don't think it got that far. It was interesting, and I appreciated it, but for me they haven't yet pulled off making the serious emotional stuff fit in with the comic lines and the comic-book adventures.

I don't know if all this means that I've finally got my head around the new Doctor Who, or if it's just that the excellent new writer Jamie Mathieson has pulled off the stunt of redeeming the whole thing. The only way to find out is to see if it lasts.

So: the anticipation builds for next week.

And speaking of anticipation: my own real science fiction adventure begins on Tuesday. I don't have the hype resources of a major television broadcaster, so you'll have to make do with last week's little warm-up, "the birth of science fiction".

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water
Death in Heaven

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