My rant about the new series of Doctor Who

I don’t want to, but I have to admit it: I hate the new series of Doctor Who. I tried not to, because that’s exactly what a betrayed fanboy would feel, and though I was a real fan of the series, I don’t like thinking of myself as a fanboy.

But I do have reasons — one all-pervading reason, in fact. There’s a quality the show has that it didn’t have before, a quality not just evident in the content and style, but in the very way it’s marketed. That quality is smugness. The new series of Doctor Who is smug.

The show’s acting (from the lead actors, anyway) is smug. It’s probably very good acting, but it doesn’t serve the drama. Rather, it seems to be trying to prove what good acting it is. The two lead actors seem so pleased with the way they can add little interpretative frills to each line, the way they can spin the dialogue to make it sound throwaway and casual and humorous (or, too often for my liking, self-righteous, which is the dominant tone of the likes of Eastenders), but the result, for me, is most definitely not a sustained narrative trying to create an overall effect (horror, or wonder, or the thrill of adventure), but merely a series of affective soundbites — emotibites, you could call them — no doubt intended to keep a jaded, emotionally sluggish audience engaged.

The show is smug in relation to its audience in other ways. It tells its audience what to feel, moment by moment. For instance, in an episode from the first series where Rose is taken out onto the top of Captain Jack’s spacecraft hovering above a blitzed-out London, she says something like: “I’m standing on a spaceship hovering above London!” The subtext of this statement of the obvious is: “Look, you stupid audience, this is a wonder moment — feel the wonder, feel it!” Not only is this treating the audience like a bunch of idiots who can’t feel anything unless it’s spelled out for them, it’s doing an injury to the deeper psychological function of the show’s drama. The great thing about any sort of drama is that it allows a viewer to interpret it in a way that’s personal to them. It’s only by doing this, by allowing the viewer to impose their own emotional concerns, that it’ll be able to have its effect — cathartic, uplifting, whatever. The difference between that and what the new series of Doctor Who is doing is the same as the difference between a laugh generated by a funny joke and a laugh that comes from someone holding up a card that says LAUGH. If you constrict a viewer’s emotional responses by telling them what to feel, you cut them off from their genuine emotional concerns and do them no benefit at all. (And I thought the above example of Rose’s spelling-out-the-wonder was bad till David Tennant came along and over-egged the wonder at almost every opportunity. He’s always saying something like, “Aren’t humans brilliant?” like that kid from The Fast Show. Who was brilliant.)

The show also has what I call the smugness of the present. This is a special sort of smugness you feel if you think the age you’re living in is so much better than every other age simply because it’s the age you live in. It’s the smugness of people who think history is over now we’ve got everything right. It’s the smugness that leads to remakes of classic movies, a smugness that says: “Of course we’ll make Psycho better this time round, because we’ll be doing it with modern technology,” or, “Of course we’ll make Dracula better this time round, we’ll be doing it with a modern sensibility,” or whatever. But here’s an example from the show. It’s the episode from the first season that had Charles Dickens in. Rose meets a Victorian-age serving maid. Almost straightaway, Rose asks something like, “Where did you go to school?” A pretty unlikely question to ask someone you’ve just met, unless you feel they might have gone to a school known to you. (Which in this is quite unlikely, as Rose is talking to a woman born a century before her, and half a country away.) The only reason she asks the question, then, is so viewers in the 21st century can feel self-satisfied at how much more enlightened they are when the serving maid answers, “I didn’t go to no school.” Oh how misguided those Victorians were! Oh how much more enlightened we are in our wonderful age of school and… school and… Oh, all those other wonderful things we have in our wonderful age! We treat our poor so much better! (We still have poor, though, so let the smugness end there.) The thing that’s wrong with this is that the whole point of science fiction taking us to other worlds is not to make us feel how much we, in our current age, have got it right, but how much we’ve got it wrong, how much further we’ve still got to go.

Another smugness that gets to me is how the show is being marketed. The Christopher Eccleston season of Doctor Who was released on DVD as “Season One”. Why? Because this new series of Doctor Who is obviously so much better than those others, it requires a whole new chronology. Those last thirty years of the show, they were B.C. This new series is A.D. We’re out of the dark ages and into the light! The messiah has come!

If only the new series was worth being smug about. It gets so much wrong. The format is too short to build up both an entirely new fantasy world and a drama set inside it, so as a result we get what I call tokenised fantasy, where you end up in situations like the end of that recent two-parter with the Beast living on a planet near a black hole, where the Doctor had to smash some vases or whatever in order to defeat it. Smash vases? It’s meaningless. It was simply a way of resolving the drama by inserting a “this story ends here” token. Tokenised fantasy. The Doctor and Rose’s are they/aren’t they relationship (modelled on a far more believable sexual tension between Mulder and Scully in The X-Files) just doesn’t work because we know it won’t ever happen, so it comes across as audience manipulation on one level and confusion as to what the characters’ real feelings are on another. The show’s style is comedic. This isn’t to say the old show didn’t have its comic moments, but when they worked it was because it was the characters who were being funny, while the world they were in remained serious, meaning the darkness they were facing within that world remained potent. (I of course exclude the Sylvester McCoy, or “pantomime”, era from this statement.) The new series can’t take itself seriously, almost like it’s embarrassed to be dealing with the vivid emanations of its writers’ imaginations. You can joke about fantasy, but if you don’t at the same time allow yourself to value what the fantasy’s about, to take the underlying drama seriously, you’ll gain nothing from it. It’s like all those awful stories that end with it “just being a dream”. If it’s “just” a dream, you don’t have to take it seriously, and all that darkness within you, well, you don’t have to take that seriously, either, you don’t have to face it, you can just let it boil away and devour you from the inside, nice and slowly. The new series of Doctor Who wants to come across as non-threatening; as a result it comes across as fluff.

know the old series of Doctor Who wasn’t perfect. It’s almost a rule that even the best stories were flawed by at least one really awful moment (the giant clams in Genesis of the Daleks, the fluffy rat in The Talons of Weng Chiang), but this was because of their tight budget. Knowing they weren’t able to produce something to rival Hollywood’s Most Expensive, they were forced to make sure they got the tone right. They quite literally couldn’t afford to be smug.

I could go on and on, but I’m sure I’ve embarrassed myself enough for the moment, betrayed fanboy that I am. I’ll go away now and mumble to myself in the corner.

But — alright one more thing — the music. The music. The old Doctor Who theme tune was an invitation to another world. It was weird, frightening, mysterious. It was numinous. The new music is an invitation to curl up with a cushion. It’s multi-layered, beautifully produced, ever so correct. It’s technologically smug. And sterile.

Alright, I really will shut up now.

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

matheson_iamlegendEvery so often when I finish a book, I give a little nod and think, “Yeah, this could be a read-in-a-day book.” This is something that goes back to when I was a kid — when, that is, I was a lot more likely to actually have a whole day to dedicate to nothing but reading — though I think it was Garen who was the first to actually perform the feat, by getting through Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth in a single day. Naturally, I felt the need to rise to the challenge; my first book-in-a-day was Doctor Who and the Robots of Death. Since then, I’ve accumulated a short list of titles that can, if the need arises, be called on to be read in a single day.

Now, a read-in-a-day book doesn’t just have to be a short book. In fact, it shouldn’t be too short, otherwise reading it one day doesn’t really mean much. (The Mr Men books are out.) It has to be a book just long enough that reading it really does take most of a day. The most important thing about it is that it should really call out to be read in one day. In other words, it should be exciting, compelling, and absorbing.

I’m happy to say that Richard Matheson’s SF/horror classic, I Am Legend, is a definite addition to this category. The reasons:

First off, its basic premise. Robert Neville is the last human alive on a near-future Earth whose population has been turned into bloodthirsty vampires. Simple, immediately dramatic, and definitely appealing to my particular hunger for man-versus-monster situations (AlienThe Thing, etc.). (I’ve also had several dreams of being in a similar situation, which is always a plus point.)

Secondly, its prose is clear, but not so simple as to be boring. I’ve been reading some Hemmingway short stories recently, and I thought I detected a bit of influence there — though maybe that can be said of all mid-20th century American fiction, I don’t know. Anyway, the images flick off the page as effortlessly as frames in a film.

Thirdly, the story keeps moving. In some cases, there are the situations you just know, from the premise, are going to have to happen. For instance, we know at some point Robert Neville’s just going to have to get caught outside his vampire-proofed home when the sun goes down; it happens. It’s no surprise, but it’s still thrilling. Then there are the turns you don’t expect, and for me, this includes the ending, which I won’t give away, but I will say it was definitely a more intelligent conclusion than you’d expect from a pot-boiler. So this book, as well as being thrilling and readable, is also intelligent.

Thrilling. Readable. Intelligent. The perfect ingredients for a read-in-a-day book.

I Am Legend. I recommend it

Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black

mantel_beyondblackI spent most of Sunday reading Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which I bought back in December of last year, because of the Philip Pullman quote on the front: “One of the greatest ghost stories in the language.” Once bought, it sat on my to-read shelf for about six months while I furiously disbelieved Mr Pullman and regretted buying it. It’s literary fiction — how can it be a great ghost story? Literary fiction most often doesn’t do stories, let alone ghosts, and when they do, they have to be all ironic and meta-para-textual about it.

But I saw Hilary Mantel interviewed on BBC2’s Culture Show a few weeks ago, and felt sufficiently re-enthused when it turned out she’d seen something like a ghost when she was a kid, so I picked up the book and gave it a go.

However, I didn’t spend so much of Sunday reading Beyond Black because it was necessarily page-turning. (It is well written, and quietly humorous.) Rather, it was because the middle section was a bit dull plot-wise and I wanted to get it over with so I could start Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. However, it did at last repay the effort, as the ending provided a real sense of chill, as well as the possibility of emotional release for its long-suffering heroine, the psychic and medium, Alison Hart. (Real name Alison Cheatham. “I changed it,” she says. “Think about it.”)

The story really gets going when Alison’s live-in manager/business partner, the non-psychic and somewhat sour Colette, suggests they write a book to “flog” at the various psychic fayres and gigs Alison makes her living from. Taping interviews with Alison proves problematic, as her voice can sometimes be drowned out, on playback, by all sorts of whistles and whoops and other ethereal noises. But Colette pushes on, and we start to hear of Alison’s awful childhood. (The full revelation has to wait to the end of the book, as certain parts are a mystery to Alison herself.) Neglected by her prostitute mother, sexually and physically abused by the coterie of male hangers-on (all of them petty criminals) — this, most of all, is what haunts the sensitive Alison, as well as the feeling that she herself did something terrible, which has driven her, all her life, to try to do something equally good to balance it out.

Though humorous, it’s hardly a feel-good book. The language is generally soaked in a feeling of the drab futility of things, the essential difficulty and lack of fulfilment of life. But what came through for me was Alison’s faith in human nature and the need to do good despite all the wrong that has been done to her. The central idea, of Alison as a medium surrounded by so many spirits of the dead, is really used well by Mantel to bring out the emotional truth of her main character’s situation.

Worth it in the end.