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Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Who Loves Ya

To quote The Fast Show, this week I has mostly been watching Doctor Who.

I hadn't seen the show in at least a couple of years and, frankly, I took one look at Matt Smith in pre-publicity and thought WTF? He's twelve! and so wasn't too encouraged to visit again. The enthusiasm of friends did little to influence me because, frankly again, I have some dear friends who often enthuse about total crap.

For me, relaunched Who had been rather like Jonathan Creek, a steady evolution from the fresh and ingenious to the forced and ludicrous. In Creek's case I think the explanation was simple, over-working its creator instead of putting him in charge of a crew. I have no theory for why I went off Who. It wasn't because of Tennant, who (in disagreement with Good Dog) I thought was pretty good.

It was just that the episodes piled up on my DVR and when they've been doing that for a while, you know the technology is trying to tell you something. I singled out Blink and watched that, but only because it was Moffat and Moffat always seemed to think at right-angles to the routine. Blink was exceptional. But exceptions don't change the landscape, they just stick out of it. And the landscape seemed increasingly to consist of stories that often didn't work coupled with a grating obsession with chav culture.

All of this left me with mixed feelings about the achievement of Russell T Davies. Because let's face it, he did something remarkable. These days you can't move in the BBC without someone telling you how hard they fought to help the show get back on the air. But the truth is that until its popular success, Doctor Who was an object of institutional disdain. Its fans were ridiculed as sad, arrested people in love with ropy makeup and wobbly scenery. But I've said it before. No one ever loved Doctor Who for its bargain-basement production values. They loved it in spite of them. Davies pulled out the core values of the show and delivered something smart, modern, new, and entirely familiar.

But I think it was some time around 2007 that we were walking one weekend in the Yorkshire Dales, and fell in for a mile or so with an American backpacker of around thirty years old who volunteered that he was a Doctor Who fan. I didn't mention that I had any connection with the show. I tend not to in those situations. Partly because my experience must seem like ancient history (I was 25 when I wrote Warriors' Gate) and partly because I don't want to be taken for a liar or, even worse, a smug twat.

But of RTD he said, "The episodes that he produced and didn't write are always better than the ones with his name on them." Which pretty much nailed the thought that I'd been circling around. I was letting stories that I didn't enjoy colour my appreciation of a producing triumph.

So, fast forward. Over the Easter weekend I borrowed the Season 5 boxed set, mainly to try out the new Blu-Ray player that I'm too cheap to buy discs for. I was only going to sample an episode but I've been charging through them at the rate of three a night. Smith's as good as they say. Better, even. I still think he's twelve but it's not the problem I imagined. It's a less sentimental, more honestly-felt show and I think Moffat's nailed it with his Peter Pan/Wendy take on the core characters and their situation.

OK, I'm back in. By Saturday I'll have caught up.

But here's something. While I was on hiatus from Who, I did watch Sherlock. And during my week-long blitz something jumped out at me.

They're the same characters. It's the same show.

10 comments:

Farsighted said...

Lovely! Glad you enjoyed series 5.

About Sherlock, yeah, I noticed that right away. The same bloody show (without a time machine, and a sonic, though).

Though to be be fair, Sherlock is a bit nasty and the Doctor is more kind, clumsy and caring. Moffat has some words to that effect. And Karen Gillan is a lot more attractive that Martin Freeman as companions go.

Bring them both on.

Hope you write a review of the new series 6 episodes as they go along, be interesting to hear your viewpoint.

MB said...

Haven't seen Sherlock, don't watch WHO for pretty much the same reason as you. The last one I saw had John Simm as the ULTIMATE baddie. He didn't convince me. From current trailers, I get the impression there is an ULTIMATE baddie in every, is it episode or series ?
However, from the trailers I've noted that Mr.Smith appears to be as outrageously quirky as Mr.Baker did during his tenure, (Sh** am I that old !) which has to be good. Good luck with the catching up.

Iain Coleman said...

Moffat insists Sherlock and Doctor Who are opposites: Sherlock is a man who wants to be a god, the Doctor is a god who wants to be a man.

Good Dog said...

Sassafrassarassum! That backpacker said in one sentence what I took paragraphs to get vaguely close to.

What I particularly like about Moffat overseeing the show is that his more defined story arc essentially turned the separate episodes into a multi–part serial – which is what I always remembered Doctor Who to be – rather than when RTD had them all bob about with just an odd bit of dialogue that was supposed to foreshadow the season climax. He also has a better handle on the tone so it doesn’t grind gears when it shifts between the laughs and the scares.

I think Matt Smith is absolutely remarkable in the role. Obviously the writing helps inform the character but the way he can play young and old at more or less the same time is quite astonishing, as is his turn from ebullient to deadly serious without appearing like he’s suddenly come down from a shot of adrenaline and a mouthful of Space Dust. But then all the characters are turning out to be well rounded and what he’s doing with River Song looks like it’s going to be particularly heartbreaking, which gives adult viewers something to connect to.

I do wonder what it would be like watching Moffat’s run as a kiddie. As an adult the weeping angel appearing out of the video loop in the way it did creeped me out. As a tot it probably would have had me running screaming from the room.

I hadn’t actually noticed the Sherlock connection until you mentioned it. Now it seems so obvious. Still, that was a bloody good show too.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Bring them both on, indeed. I see Moffat's point but to my eye the Doctor and Sherlock are like pre- and post-watershed iterations of the same creation. As if the god on his way to humanity and the man aspiring to deity were to cross at roughly the same place.

Someone closer to the new show than I, who's given permission for me to pass on his views as long as I don't attribute, has suggested that RTD's brilliance as a proper, old-fashioned script editor has been under-appreciated, his time and effort going into that with a resulting impact on some (though not all) of his own episodes. My correspondent suggests that those episodes were rushed and needed a good, critical fresh eye that just wasn't there.

This strikes a chord and explains a lot. Contributors get a high polish while the producer's own stuff effectively goes out as first draft. I know from my own experience that a 13-season arc is a big beast to handle, and the one thing you don't get is contemplation time - essential for progressing your own work, not so essential for spotting and fixing what's needed in the work of others.

Editing and necessary rewrites are pretty much a real-time thing because there's no 'step away' period involved. Writing is a close-focus business. Rewriting is guided by a broader view and it takes time to move between the two positions. You have to let your muscles forget all that heavy lifting, so that you don't misjudge the effectiveness of what you've done by the effort that you put into it.

That kind of time isn't available when you're in production. This is why the final 'showrunner pass' on every script is an accepted element of the American system, implying no detriment to the material or criticism of the writer. I might add that there is no such thing as a 'director's pass' in American TV. The director is working for the writer.

My anonymous source also suggests that to his further credit RTD understood the wider audience best, and worries that more adult themes and complex storytelling might leave the peripheral non-genre audience and youngsters cold and confused.

I can see that. While I thought the Richard Curtis 'Vincent' ep was the weakest of season 5 (what is it with Curtis and his sexy young women falling for middle-aged men? No need for an actual answer) I also reckoned on reflection that in its structure and emotional simplicity it was the most kid-friendly of the stories, in what is at root still supposed to be a children's show.

It must be a really hard balance to strike, given how much value now resides in the licensing and merchandising of stuff that sells more to fans than kids... very easy to end up hijacking the toybox (mental image of bored kid sitting by on Christmas morning while Dad plays with the Scalextric).

MB - not so many Ultimate Baddies in season 5, but the 'last surviving member of its species' card was played more than once. The real 'engine' of the season concerned love, loss, and memory, which I think is why it scored so highly with me.

Steve Jordan said...

Really glad you liked the series. I agree with almost everything said. It makes sense that RTD's role as producer may have weakened his own efforts, and the series 1-4 arcs as a whole. I remember Rob Shearman mentioning that RTD had no idea what 'Bad Wolf' was going to mean in series 1, before he started asking the other writers to include it!

I haven't seen Sherlock, but I bloody well want to!

Good Dog said...

As I said before, I think the difference between having Davies and Moffat in charge mirrors the difference between Dreamworks Animation and Pixar. In both instances the latter melds together the elements that appeal to different ages seamlessly, truly making it a family show, something the former never quite managed to do. Obviously with Moffat’s background writing Coupling he can write humour that doesn’t solely rely on really, really juvenile jokes, and uses it really well.

I take it you’ve seen all the episodes now. I think The Big Bang is pure genius. Not only does everything make perfect sense as it ties everything up but there are some wonderful throwaway gags to offset the drama, like “Oh, it’s all mouths with you!” There’s a great line later, which I didn’t quite catch until about the fifth or sixth time I’d watched it, where, after once character vaults a table, in the background the other says, “I used to be plastic!” right at the time when anyone with a pulse should be choking back tears.

But it is the way he kept everything to a much more personal level that made it work for me, keeping it, as you said, to love, loss, and memory, rather than simply defeating the big bad alien. If you haven’t seen it, Moffat carries that through to the Christmas special with absolutely startling effect too.

Dimbleby said...

"because I don't want to be taken for a liar or, even worse, a smug twat."

Laughed out loud at that - Mind you, I bet he'd have loved to know who you were:)

best,

gcw

lamohamo said...

I'm seeing a similarly hysterical, cluttered first draft feel to Moffat's scripts since he became showrunner. Streets away from his stylish, creepy, funny creation Blink.

Have felt since partway through last season that Moffat as showrunner has been playing to the "in" crowd, archly laying his season long arc at the expense of telling compelling stories week on week. Say what you like about RTD, but Moffat hasn't yet engineered any hugely moving moments like the Doctor and Rose on a beach.

He's running dry. The Silence are a Weeping Angels retread, but are only intellectually - rather than viscerally - frightening. And the Amy/Rory companion dynamic feels very played out.

The Who showrunning model is American, but it seems clear from their output that RTD and Moffat have both suffered burnout. Is it because British budgets cannot sustain keeping a core team of writers on staff to support them?

Stephen Gallagher said...

Fair point. If you look at the credits of US series you'll notice that showrunners tend not to write many of the episodes themselves. Key ones, usually, often the season finale, but most of their time is spent running the show, not writing it.

The UK attempts to emulate the showrunner model with a lead writer supervising a group of freelancers. That was the system we had on Crusoe and I'm pretty sure it was none too satisfying for those involved.