3 years, 10 months ago
Let’s start with the end - the first season finale of Doctor Who Confidential, which culminates in a celebratory montage of the Ninth Doctor year arranged to Snow Patrol’s “Run.” To anyone with a passing familiarity with fan culture this, and a wave of similar montages across the preceding six-and-a-half hours of television is immediately identifiable as a vid, or fanvid. We could go down quite a rabbit hole here, but suffice it to say that fanvids are fan-made music videos that set clips of one or more films/television series to popular music. Many of these are just unabashed lovefests - four minutes of squee set to a Coldplay track. Others present new perspectives on the original text. Slash perspectives are of course common, as are reworkings to create new POV characters and other sorts of narrative commentaries.
There is, of course, nothing hugely innovative about this sort of thing. If we want to treat the end of Doctor Who Confidential as a fanvid then we have to allow the precedent to go back decades at the least. Putting the complete lack of effort into researching it that I want to, I can off-hand go back to the series finale of Seinfeld as having done a celebratory montage set to pop music. If we allow for sports programming to count then professional equivalents of fanvids are made to fill time on schedules on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, it sets the tone for Doctor Who Confidential. We should pause here to note that making a fanvid is bloody hard, doubly so if you insist on a measure of quality in the end result. Syncing events well to the music, getting the events selected to form a narrative, having clips long enough to be recognizable and intelligible but short enough to remain punchy and varied - these are hard things to do. And while there are no shortage of crappy vidders in the world, there are also ones who routinely demonstrate that they’re as good at editing as the professionals.
Which is, to a large extent, what Doctor Who Confidential is about: demonstrating the artistry involved in Doctor Who. Which is by no means inconsiderable. The vastness of the paratext surrounding the first six series of Doctor Who, across Doctor Who Magazine, Doctor Who Confidential, and DVD commentary tracks (every episode of the Davies era has a commentary track on the DVD sets, and after Series One every episode has a second commentary track available as a BBC Radio 4 Podcast) mean that Doctor Who in the Davies era is documented with a level of detail that is mind-wrenching. And one of the things that really comes out as a product of all of this is that an absolutely staggering amount of thought goes into a given episode of Doctor Who.
This is something that presents a critical complexity. One of the frequent debates about my readings and views on Doctor Who is the eternal question of whether I’m “reading too much into” things. There are a lot of things to say on this topic, and I’ve said them before, but I really want to focus on a very fundamental question here. When it’s clearly the case that scores of people have contributed reams of both practical and creative labor towards the making an episode of Doctor Who it becomes difficult to draw any line as to how much there is to read in a given episode. In the new series it is quite literally the case that every single shot has been thought about by someone in terms of how it advances the storytelling.
This is, to be clear, different from the classic series. That was filmed multicamera, which meant that several cameras would be set up and actors would play through an entire scene. An acceptable take would be chosen, and what was called a vision mixer would then select which of the camera angles on a given take were used at a given moment in the scene. You might drop in some special effects inserts, or even, in a pinch, merge together shots taken on different days, but for the bulk of Doctor Who you were stuck with the pre-selected camera angles of the multicamera setup.
The new series is filmed single-camera. What this means is that every individual shot is specifically captured on its own. Sometimes multiple cameras are still used - a dialogue scene might simultaneously run a medium-range camera for the establishing shot and close-up cameras for the actors. But equally common is shooting a scene multiple times and moving the cameras around so that on different takes they’re capturing different actors, with the scene assembled out of multiple takes during editing. This is a profoundly different production style, and one that means that the end product is not simply a series of acceptable takes but a collage in which every single shot that we see is chosen as part of the storytelling. It’s common to do pickup shots and inserts - a close-up of the Doctor’s hands fiddling with the TARDIS console might be filmed a month later than the rest of the episode and dropped in to highlight a given point.
And that’s just editing. Every department is making similarly detailed sets of choices. Actually, let’s take a quick survey of creative decisions made in this general period just to highlight the level and specificity of them. In The Christmas Invasion, Jane Tranter asked that a shot in which Rose reacts to seeing Tennant’s costume for the first time be inserted. The robots in Bad Wolf were consciously designed with a 1950s appliance aesthetic to make them look different from other robots (and Davies would have sent the What Not to Wear robots back to redo them with a flashing light or something to indicate speech had they not been shot on the last day). Captain Jack’s spaceship was designed to look a bit run down, with large amounts of attention given to Captain Jack’s chair for the purposes of characterizing him. John Barrowman thought through the logic of his choices on how to kiss the Doctor and Rose, deciding that the kiss had to be identical for each of them. The “next time” trailer for Bad Wolf was moved back before the credits because the cliffhanger wasn’t a “how will the Doctor get out of this one” but a ramping up of tension, and so previewing it didn’t undermine any suspense. The recap to The Long Game was added in part so that the “One Hundred Years Later” title card could be put in, mirroring the “Six Months Later” one in Boom Town on a more epic scale. Davies chose the Autons for Rose because for an episode largely told from Rose’s perspective the threat had to be something that could plausibly be thought to be human until well into the episode, thus prolonging the mystery for Rose. The Mill gave the spiders in The End of the World a distinctive gait to make them immediately memorable as monsters, and decided to make it so you could actually see right through Cassandra’s mouth when it was open.
These are, as I said, a tiny selection of the creative decisions that are made in Doctor Who, selected because I remember them out of the hours of special features I’ve watched and because they’re examples interesting enough to make it into the special features. But the particulars of the list are, in this case, less important than the magnitude of it. It highlights the degree to which Doctor Who is intricately put together. Which raises the question of whether, in the face of that magnitude of intentional detail, there can meaningfully be said to be such a thing as an “overreading” of Doctor Who. The fact of the matter is that I could have done the nearly shot-by-shot reading I did with Rose for any episode this season, or, indeed, of the new series. They’re all that densely constructed.
But what is perhaps more significant is the fact that we are, as viewers, actively invited to read the series that way. The decision to create a making-of documentary for every single episode has the primary effect of instructing viewers into the proper viewing practices for Doctor Who. This is a point I’ve made several times, but Doctor Who is written for a trope-savvy, highly attentive sort of audience. Correct reading practices for it are, in fact, extremely detailed and based on dense storytelling. This is a very different sort of object to anything we looked at on this blog prior to Rose. Certainly it requires a new sort of authorship, whereby Doctor Who is read as the product of a vast authorship for which the human entity known as Russell T Davies is largely a metonym.
First and foremost, then, Doctor Who Confidential represents that authorship. It produces the closest thing to an entity that can be read as a single author of Doctor Who. That this entity is not a person so much as a documentary, itself as meticulously constructed as the series (it’s relatively obvious that there’s a set of talking heads who were brought in after many of the actors were recorded for the primary purpose of providing linking comments for the existing footage) is unusual, but in a series that has featured a farting alien prime minister and a homicidal robot version of The Weakest Link it’s difficult to suggest that this is the strangest thing. Doctor Who has a diffuse authorship,
All of which is to say that it’s terribly self-congratulatory and a perpetual fetishistic celebration of the inherent wonderfulness of Doctor Who. Which, admitting that, it’s also a relatively savvy and reasonable celebration. All complaints that the new series fails to pay any respect to the classic series are rubbished efficiently by Confidential’s decision to devote the middle chunk of most of its episodes to clip shows from the classic series and interviews with classic series personnel. Yes, the classic series is in part there to rubbish, but it’s a loving rubbishing that is, if we’re being honest, wholly consistent with fandom’s mood throughout the wilderness years. And look, we get cameras at a Big Finish taping, mention of Erimem on the BBC, and shots of a big pile of EDAs. Surely nobody expected Sometime Never… to be acknowledged, however indirectly, by anything officially related to the new series. Which is to say that the classic series is treated with love, but not with deification, as a wonderful bit of history that the new series is proud to advance. It’s not an unreasonable take by any measure. There’s something genuinely grin-inducing about a montage of visual effects both successful and infamously awful in the classic series.
And yes, it’s utterly in favor of the new series. I mean, it has to be. Much like Doctor Who Magazine, anyone tuning to the BBC’s official documentary series on Doctor Who expecting blistering criticism is mad. What’s interesting is really that the foundation for more serious criticism is laid here. The nightmarish workload that Series One consisted of (and that appears to have been the crux of why Eccleston left) is shown pretty clearly in places. But more to the point, Doctor Who Confidential, even as it presents a party line approach to the show, does so with a clarity and intelligence that is itself productive. Teaching people how scenes are materially constructed, how writing decisions are made, what choices actors make, and other such material that, in amongst the pop music medleys, make up the bulk of Doctor Who Confidential is, in fact, valuable and creates a savvier sort of audience that will be better able to make more skeptical critiques on their own. Televisual literacy is important, and Doctor Who Confidential is as effective a teacher of it as Terrance Dicks’s novelizations were of textual literacy. Yes, it’s also initiation into Doctor Who fandom, but again, we can’t just blithely pretend there’s no such thing as a financial motive, or, perhaps more to the point, that it’s only just now been introduced to Doctor Who. If we’re going to be initiating new Doctor Who fans, frankly, thank God we’re doing it with an understanding of how television works as a medium instead of by playing “let’s memorize the list of companions.”
But perhaps the most significant thing about Doctor Who Confidential is where we began - a weird minutes-long fetishistic montage of the Ninth Doctor year. There’s a weird hubris to the very existence of this. It’s something you can’t possibly get away with unless you’re very, very successful and beloved as a show to begin with. And Doctor Who is. It’s now a titanically popular show that’s a flagship of the BBC. The fact that it can sustain Doctor Who Confidential - and that over the next two seasons it will sustain a staggering four auxiliary shows - is staggering.
Since this will be the last essay in the McGann/Eccleston book, it’s worth reflecting further on where we’ve been. Just about a decade ago Doctor Who was brought back as an American-style cult show, which failed epically and started the most woodsy of the wilderness years. This is not surprising. Doctor Who’s power has always come from its balancing of the mainstream and the marginal. When it embraced the marginal to the exclusion of the mainstream it suffered gravely. But now the pendulum has swung abruptly in the other direction - so abruptly, in fact, that the wilderness years are still ongoing, with The Gallifrey Chronicles seeing release the same month as Eccleston’s regeneration. In a real sense, it’s the end of Series One that brings the wilderness years to an end, the entirety of it having been produced in them and a response to them. But now Davies has managed a show so successful that it has destroyed Doctor Who’s status as a cult program and made it the most mainstream thing in existence. And now it faces an entirely new challenge: how does the BBC’s flagship program keep itself weird?
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