Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 50 (Neverwhere)

(69 comments)


For all that the TV Movie was a staggering aesthetic failure, it’s telling that so many people in the UK watched it. Yes, nobody actually liked it, but in a way that’s preferable from the perspective of someone who wants something resembling Doctor Who to come back on television and under the name “Doctor Who.” There is, in the wake of the TV movie, at least a clear mandate for Doctor Who’s return. The details on what that return should look like beyond “not like a generic piece of American cult television” were hazy, but it was at least clear that people wanted something Doctor Whoish on their television screens. Jonathan Creek, as we saw, did a good job of feeling like what Doctor Who would feel like if the BBC put some effort into it, but in many ways it is therefore Neverwhere that is more interesting, being as it demonstrates what mid-to-late 90s Doctor Who would look like if the BBC completely half-assed it.

It’s tempting to say that the answer is “not very good,” but saying that requires a slightly strange misreading of history. It’s true that there are many things that are deeply wrong with Neverwhere and that the series disappeared more or less without a trace initially. But one has to take a step back and look at this within the larger arc of Neil Gaiman’s career in order to quite understand what’s going on here. The first thing to realize is that in 1996, Neil Gaiman wasn’t Neil Gaiman yet. His career consisted of some time as a journalist/freelancer followed by considerable success in US comics. His lone novel was Good Omens, co-authored with Terry Pratchett. He was not even a star writer in the UK, little yet in the US. So his doing a fantasy series for BBC2 was a substantive increase in his profile. He wasn’t a novelist doing television - he was a jobbing writer who bounced around media. And in 1996, at least, Lenny Henry’s co-creator credit on the series undoubtedly carried more weight than Gaiman’s name.

On the other hand, Neverwhere was clearly the beginning of Gaiman’s breakout. The US release of his novelization of it and, a few years later, the text from his illustrated novel for DC Comics, Stardust, paved the way for his big debut with American Gods, the novel that firmly lodged him as a major writer. So whatever the inadequacies of the television version, Neverwhere is clearly seminal - the first real step in Neil Gaiman going from a writer who’s influential to a writer who is absolutely huge.

All of which said, there are some inadequacies to the television version. Put simply, and this is hardly an unusual criticism, Neverwhere looks kind of rubbish. It was set to be shot on video and then “filmized,” but the filmization was abandoned after it had already been shot. This means that it looks like it was shot on video, which is generally taken to be synonymous with looking cheap. This is, of course, terribly strange. We covered the film/video divide way back in The Sontaran Experiment, but it’s worth doing again. The short form is this: despite having a largely crisper image and higher frame rate, video is typically considered to look “cheaper” than film because it’s associated with cheaper productions like soap operas and because film has softer colors and lighting - to the point where The Hobbit has caught a lot of flack in its high frame rate version because it looks more like video, and is thus accused of looking cheap and nasty despite being, by any sane technical standard, “better.” So by leaving it in video the BBC ensured that Neverwhere looked cheap - especially because it was lit with the expectation that it would be filmized, making the lighting look especially bad. On top of that, there are some bad effects, including an attempt to give Peter Capaldi a luminescent gown as the Angel Islington that mostly ended up making him look like a he was wearing reflective tape.

In this regard, of course, it is a more faithful homage to Doctor Who than was intended, right down to an infamously bad effect involving a terrifying beast and some underground tunnels. This time the famed Great Beast of London is rather obviously a cow, but the resemblance to The Talons of Weng-Chiang is palpable. Similarly, the annoyingly “cheap” look of video makes Neverwhere look like nothing so much as what you’d expect to get if Graham Harper had directed an episode in the (all video) Sylvester McCoy era. The visual reference point for anyone watching Neverwhere was that it looks like Doctor Who. And this was not meant as a compliment.

But equally, it wasn’t really a dealbreaker. The television version is generally considered something of a curiosity in the face of the (quite solid) novel version of Neverwhere, with its effects being judged as having let the writing down. And yet its failings just aren’t that damning. Nobody is thrilled with Neverwhere, but it’s not treated as a grotesque embarrassment to be swept under the rug and never spoken of again. If one is so inclined they can argue this as a US/UK divide. Neverwhere made it out on DVD in the US years before it saw a UK release, coming out in 2003 here while it took until 2007 to sneak out in the UK. This may sound uninspiring, but it’s important to realize that this is almost completely backwards from how DVD releases worked in the early 2000s. For the most part the DVD Season Set was established much faster in the UK than in the US, even for American shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance, saw every single season released first in the UK, sometimes more than a year early. So to see Neverwhere, a British show, released years earlier in the US suggests a peculiar imbalance. And, to be fair, Gaiman’s career as a whole reflects that imbalance: he didn’t just make the switch from the UK to the US, he has consistently been more popular in the US than the UK.

But another way of looking at this is that there is somehow a bit less anxiety over rubbish effects in the US than the UK. This is perhaps understandable: nobody has ever suggested that any piece of American television should get a British remake, and yet virtually everything in the UK is subject to pillaging US versions. Virtually anything we make is considered good enough for UK consumption, whereas we insist on redoing virtually everything from the UK. The TV Movie is emblematic of this: to bring Doctor Who back it had to be Americanized. This is, of course, nonsense - it’s astonishingly rare that the US improves on (or even renders watchable) a UK series, and most of the time British television should be the envy of the world. But the cultural bias exists, and it can hardly be called a surprise that there’s a bit of an inferiority complex.

The truth, however, is that the UK audience is entirely too harsh on their domestic production here. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy Neverwhere wart and all. And while I’d have to dramatically overplay my hand if I wanted to claim that Neverwhere wouldn’t be improved at all by the sort of visual flare that the BBC these days brings to, say, Doctor Who. It absolutely would be better if could visually evoke the glorious weirdness of London Below or if the Great Beast of London were properly a slathering terror.  All the same, the frailties of the production are not dealbreakers. Ropey effects are, broadly speaking, an acceptable price to pay for an inventive script and good dialogue. There are plenty of people who will happily trade in effects for a different sort of quality.

What sort of quality, though? It’s an easy argument that Neverwhere is Doctor Who-like. The arguments made about Jonathan Creek and the unraveling of familiar spaces apply perfectly well here. Even as the occasional tourist of London I was in 1997 the delight of monsters in “the gap” that is to be minded and of actual friars living in Blackfriars was obvious. It’s a masterpiece of making familiar cultural tropes strange and otherworldly.

What’s more interesting is the particularly Gaiman aspect of the approach. For all that Sandman was a massive influence on the Virgin (and for that matter on the better parts of the BBC) lines, it was still a comic book series doing a sort of ultra-high fantasy. It’s influential among writers, but Gaiman could have slipped into semi-obscurity as someone who made a living off their writing, but a far cry from the phenomenal wealth and success he enjoys today. What Sandman demonstrated, however, was that Gaiman has a superb grasp of how to make things into a mythology. This is different from making things mythic, a term that implies the headlong slide into the master narratives of the epic. Gaiman makes objects and concepts feel as though they have a mythology - a lived in set of stories that lurk below things. And in Neverwhere he goes from making obscure bits of comics history and the grand arc of the universe strange into making London strange, before finally hopping over and giving a slight outsider’s perspective on the US via American Gods and finding absurd success.

This is also an approach that applies well to Doctor Who. Gaiman and Lawrence miles have separately talked about learning Doctor Who as their first mythology, and this captures something sensible about its history, which is that it is a mythology to draw from. There are a wealth of compelling cases to be made for why this approach rose up in the late 90s (and  why it still dominates), but for my part, at least, I would posit it as the natural response to the same flood of information that engenders paranoid readings. Gaiman presented an enormously populist alternative. Gaiman’s work still relies on a flood of information and references, but that flood becomes an ever-variable playground for creating compelling images and character exchanges.

Gaiman, of course, is the popular end of this, and the more theoretical end is best left for another day. All the same, Neverwhere feels like a moment of catharsis - a reminder of the McCoy-era ethos that “good cheap-looking television” is a meaningful category worth exploring. And while it remains the case that Doctor Who, to come back as major television, would have to embrace decent production values, Neverwhere feels like a sort of permission slip. It’s the moment where we can at least say that it becomes clear that the heart of this sort of television is its conceptual approach, with its technical qualities providing a useful bonus. It is, if nothing else, a demonstration of where the thought in how to bring Doctor Who back needs to go.

All of which is to say that there is a real disjunct between how Doctor Who felt like it was doing in the aftermath of the TV Movie and how it was, in practice, doing. At the time it felt like the opportunity had been wasted and like the series was never coming back now. What series, after all, gets a second try at a comeback? And after the disaster of the BBC Books launch - the further details of which are still to unfold here - it seemed bleaker for Doctor Who than it had in the early 90s. In hindsight, however, we can see that the pieces were coming together. The failure of the TV Movie was not the final nail in the coffin but the necessary attempt at one approach that had to happen to finally shut a particular contingent of fans up for good. The question of what Doctor Who was for had finally been answered as other shows slipped into the gap and were simultaneously good and reminiscent of Doctor Who. And with Neverwhere, particularly when placed directly opposite the TV Movie, it’s clear what the actual important part of Doctor Who was. Once you’ve seen Neil Gaiman create an international career on the back of a Doctor Who knockoff (and one that’s utterly Campbellian in structure to boot) it becomes impossible to imagine that someone wouldn’t try it with Doctor Who itself. There are still a few pieces of the puzzle of how to make Doctor Who to snap into place. And so we have an odd situation. In 1997, nobody would believe you if you said that at the end of 2005 Doctor Who would be the breakout hit of BBC1. And yet in hindsight, looking at 1997, you can see why we’re only eight years from exactly that.

Comments

Mike Russell 4 years, 1 month ago

Yeah, "nobody" liked the TVM. Nobodies such as RTD and Moffat have said they loved it. I'll bet the bullies at your school told you "nobody" liked your favorites, too.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Good point, overall ("Doctor Who knockoff" feels a bit harsh, but I get what you meant). Nitpicks and comments:

"The first thing to realize is that in 1996, Neil Gaiman wasn’t Neil Gaiman yet."

Well, he was Neil Gaiman: Creator of Sandman, and that's certainly a Neil Gaiman, even if it's not the Neil Gaiman we have now.

"This is different from making things mythic, a term that implies the headlong slide into the master narratives of the epic."

You know, I've been reading the first book volume, and it talks a lot about how they made Hartnell mythic by having him step out and be mythic and have the camera and the setup treat him as mythic. I prefer that "mythic" to the "mythic" that's part of the whole "epic as all-consuming master narrative" thing.

"Gaiman and Lawrence miles have separately talked about learning Doctor Who as their first mythology, and this captures something sensible about its history, which is that it is a mythology to draw from."

And I note that this mythology is what I tend to call "Whoniverse", and I prefer that Whoniverse to the Whoniverse of the stasis-bound every-detail-in-place continuity.

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Tommy 4 years, 1 month ago

"Gaiman and Lawrence miles have separately talked about learning Doctor Who as their first mythology"

Somehow even seeing the words 'Gaiman' and 'Lawrence Miles' in the same sentence makes me half-dread it's gotta come to a punch-up to decide which one has to go.

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doublethreatmagee 4 years, 1 month ago

For anyone interested, here's a link to Gaiman's introduction to Paul McAuley's Telos novella of a few years back, where he discusses *exactly* what Phil's talking about: http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2007/05/nature-of-infection.html

I was lucky enough to see Neverwhere very close to its original broadcast here in Australia and have loved nearly every iteration of it since (except the comic book, natch). Maybe it's because my visual literacy c. 1996 was learned almost entirely through watching Doctor Who, but I never once equated the VT with cheapness.

(Side note: oh God, wouldn't Paterson Joseph have been fantastic as the Eleventh Doctor?)

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sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years, 1 month ago

Neverwhere was my first exposure to Neil Gaiman, introduced to me by a massive fan of his. "I have to tell you," she said solemnly and apologetically, "it's a bit cheap. You have to look past the bad effects." "Don't worry," I said cheerfully, "I watch Doctor Who." And I had no trouble loving it.

(Still, I've often wondered why, if it was shot and lit for a film effect and the only thing missing to improve it was the film effect, why they don't just filmise now for a special edition DVD?)

"The failure of the TV Movie was not the final nail in the coffin but the necessary attempt at one approach that had to happen to finally shut a particular contingent of fans up for good."

I certainly agree that the TV movie was, in a sense, useful as a lesson in how not to do it, but I think the fans are far from the only people to blame. Quite honestly, from my memories of the period, it seems like the entirety of British culture had completely lost the plot as far as Doctor Who was concerned; from the BBC's endless fruitless attempts to make the mega-budget movie version, to the press' endless speculation as to which A-list action hero would star in the mega-budget movie version, and the inbility for public discourse to consider the old series in any other terms than its low budget.

On the one hand you had the success of Independence Day convincing people that the main and perhaps only point of SF was spectacle, on the other you had The X-Files as the rare example of a cult series becoming a hit on BBC1, somehow convincing people that cult = success. And in a way, the supposed brand power of Doctor Who was the curse, causing it to be endlessly sucked into this vortex of wrong-headedness on the part not just of fans, but the BBC, the press and the public.

"It’s the moment where we can at least say that it becomes clear that the heart of this sort of television is its conceptual approach, with its technical qualities providing a useful bonus."

I completely agree, but it does seem to have taken a while for this attitude to overcome some of the prevailing moods.

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Alan 4 years, 1 month ago

This is perhaps understandable: nobody has ever suggested that any piece of American television should get a British remake, and yet virtually everything in the UK is subject to pillaging US versions. Virtually anything we make is considered good enough for UK consumption, whereas we insist on redoing virtually everything from the UK.

Well, there was "The Upper Hand," the British version of "Who's the Boss" (the one with Honor Blackman playing the Katherine Helmond roll). Ran for several seasons, I think.

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Alan 4 years, 1 month ago

I certainly agree that the TV movie was, in a sense, useful as a lesson in how not to do it,

Indeed, it is fascinating to me to compare DTM to S1 of the new show. The Movie started nattering on before the credits about "Timelords," "The Master," and the lead character having multiple lives, and one of the first shots shows a police box flying through space followed by McCoy in a spacious Victorian parlor, with no explanation for the audience about what's going on. "Rose" starts off small -- a young woman is working as a shop assistant when aliens attack -- and you see the Tardis at first only as in the background with a music cue to tell you its important. The first time you see the inside, it is A Big Deal. The aliens are a Classic DW alien but are also easily comprehensible to the audience ("An alien blob that can possess plastic wants to take over Earth because we have a lot of plastic"). The head alien doesn't even have speaking lines, let alone a chance to vamp around for half the show eating all the scenery. You don't learn anything about the Timelords until the next episode, by which point, "whoops! they're all dead and shan't be mentioned again." Part of me wonders if RTD consciously wrote the first two episodes as a deliberate reaction against the mistakes of DTM.

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Pete Galey 4 years, 1 month ago

The whole "it would have worked if it had been filmised" argument that Gaiman himself used to trot out (I don't know whether he still does) is utter bollocks. To prove it I ripped the DVD once, and presented two versions to a friend who had trotted out that line, one as it is on the DVD, one filmised. He couldn't tell the difference. He'd presumably expected "filmising" would make the whole thing shimmer like a David Lean masterpiece, rather than just look jerky and weird (see also Red Dwarf season 7). There were improvements to the technique after the switch to digital shooting, to the extent that RTD's material was filmised all the way up to The Next Doctor, but the real changes came with a pure digital pipeline, better motion-detection algorithms, and lighting and shooting single-camera.

As it happens, it amuses me that these days people have their televisions set up to automatically videoise filmic material (including, of course, material that was once video and has already been filmised) because they prefer the smoother motion, but do it deliberately as a filmmaker and all the critics suddenly say how cheap it looks.

Meanwhile, the real flaw in Neverwhere is where no one ever dares to put it: the script. Two-dimensional characters, a mostly overly linear plot, acres of tedious dialogue, no end of clunky lines, all add up to something very uninvolving. But sure, let's drop every other field and see if that suddenly makes it AMAZING.

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elvwood 4 years, 1 month ago

I wasn't much of a television watcher in the 80s and early 90s, and I'd left Doctor Who behind long ago (I think the last time I saw a whole story was The Five Doctors, but I'm not even sure if I saw that on original broadcast). I was getting more interested in TV again in time for the TVM - and not being a fan I was able to enjoy it as disposable entertainment. But I was a bit disappointed that it didn't feel like Doctor Who used to when I was a child, and in my head it justified my stopping watching. It certainly didn't rekindle the love.

Neverwhere was an entirely different kettle of fish. My (soon-to-be) wife and I both loved it, and were dismayed at the negative reception in the press. She asked for (and got) the DVD as a birthday present a couple of years ago, and we enjoyed it all over again.

The cheapness never bothered us. I was going to say that I'm sorry I never saw the seventh Doctor's run as it wouldn't have bothered me there either, but at the time of broadcast I would have sneered at it; so I'll modify that that and say I'm sorry I didn't see it (or seasons 25 and 26 at least) in the late 90s, when I had grown up enough to appreciate them.

Actually, the unfilmised look added to the sense of strangeness for us, I think. And the obvious comic-book feel (in some ways reminiscent of the slightly later film Dark City), which was a negative feature for the reviewers, was for me more a "hint" towards a way to watch it.

So, count us among the "nobodies" who were thrilled by Neverwhere!

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elvwood 4 years, 1 month ago

And outside of drama, we do remakes and rip-offs - think The Price is Right for the former and Jeremy Kyle for the latter.

But Phil is prone to state things as absolutes when they are instead strong trends. In this post he's already been called out on three of them (one by me)! He doesn't really believe that nobody loved the TVM or Neverwhere; nor that the statement you quoted is literally true. Perhaps it's just his way to stir up debate.

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John Callaghan 4 years, 1 month ago

He would have, but I'd like to repeat myself from the Jonathan Creek post: the problem is that the audience would know exactly what to expect and wouldn't be 'intrigued' to tune in, even if he then made his performance very different.

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John Callaghan 4 years, 1 month ago

Philip, there are other shows which I've thought are nearly-but-not-quite-Who, paving the way. There were a few 'grown-up' BBC 1 comedy-drama fantasy shows on at 9pm on Saturdays. These would include Crime Traveller and the Vic & Bob Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased). If they'd put the latter on at 6pm, with tamer violence and less sauciness, and made it a touch less weird and better acted, it could have been the family smash which Who was.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 1 month ago

Don't forget The Brighton Belles, the UK version of The Golden Girls.

Actually, *do* forget it. Work very hard at forgetting it.

From what I've heard by people who liked Law & Order, Law & Order: UK was okay.

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John Callaghan 4 years, 1 month ago

And it was even written by Mark Gatiss and Gareth Roberts.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

"Paul McGann doesn't count."

Which is to say that Davies and Moffat both did, upon ascending to the throne, switch to an attitude of loving everything. Even still, Davies's comments about the TV Movie have been barbed since then - I recall a quote in which he said that he enjoyed it despite a host of grave storytelling flaws. It's not exactly a ringing endorsement.

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Nick Smale 4 years, 1 month ago

Or for that matter "Days Like These", the UK version of "That 70s Show"...

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

Not quite a way of stirring debate, though it's close - a mirroring of the tone of argument that characterizes fan debates over drinks. It's been a stylistic choice since the start of the blog, back when it had to distinguish itself from the (willfully mad) tone of The Nintendo Project. It still serves at least some use, mainly in keeping this from becoming "proper" scholarship in tone.

In that regard, more telling than my occasional stylistic overgeneralizations are the moments when for no particularly useful reason I start meticulously splitting hairs. :)

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Christopher Haynes 4 years, 1 month ago

Each time Philip brings up the TV Movie I'm reminded of the RPG term "bad wrong fun":

http://wiki.rpg.net/index.php/RPG_Lexica:ABC

Well, that and I keep waiting for him to claim that anyone who liked it "actually hates the vast majority of Doctor Who".

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David Anderson 4 years, 1 month ago

I think Neverwhere's problem is that it's trying to do two different things and they're at cross purposes. The one is to have a set of interesting weird things going on: an Earl's Court at Earl's Court, an angel called Islington at Islington, and a Night on a bridge at Knightsbridge. And on the other it's trying to depict a society that's dropped out or been excluded from upper London. And the two don't mesh. For Richard having adventures, the night on the bridge is part of the dangers he's facing in trying to survive. But it doesn't belong with people trying to get by from day to day or run a market.

On the plus side, Croup and Vandermar make themselves into the archetypal pair of villainous henchmen, so that other pairs of villainous henchmen are now automatically Croup and Vandemar imitations.

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

I don't know that " shut a particular contingent of fans up for good" is even right. My recollection at the time is that a big chunk of fandom considered the sin of the TVM to be 100% "Too american, not enough continuity" and that what they wanted was a show that was just as much in the cult sci-fi mode but more british-flavored. Something with "none of that rubbishy soap stuff with girls and feelings" and more science and explosions. And a more slavish adherence to continuity. (There was a lot of "What they should have done is hired ME as their continuity advisor and given me veto power over anything that violated so much as a word of the preceeding 35 years of the show")

@Alan: When you get to The Parting of the Ways and have the Doctor kiss his companion, have his companion open up the heart of the TARDIS, and have the use of the magical glowing energy therein bring the dead back to life, I know I kinda felt like RTD was saying "See? You actually can pull that stuff off." (Because of my break with a lot of fandom over the reaction to the TVM, I see it less as RTD sticking it to the TVM and more as RTD sticking it to the fanboys back in 97 who thought the problem with the TVM was with petty details like kissing rather than it being a fundamental lack-of-getting-it.)

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Arkadin 4 years, 1 month ago

I enjoyed Neverhwere immensely when I saw it in 2005 or thereabouts, around the time the new series started. It definitely fell within the tradition of Doctor Who and other British television that I'd watched a fair amount of, growing up in an academically-oriented family. Like a lot of British TV, it felt more like a theatrical production than a television one. In that context, the non-specialness of the special effects didn't matter--"The best of these kind are but shadows and the worst are no worst, if imagination amend them." In fact, I found the relative slickness of the New Series to be a little alienating at first. (I probably would have liked it less if I'd read the novel first.)

It's also worth noting that Paterson Joseph, who plays the Marquis de Carabas, continually comes up as a fancasting for a black Doctor.

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Arkadin 4 years, 1 month ago

Gaiman would win the same way Dream defeated Choronzon in Sandman #4--by becoming Hope. Lawrence Miles was always more at ease with bitter "realism" than hope, though a vastly more intelligent version of that creed than most of its worshippers, and with the sweeping and vast scale of history than the small and human. Which is why, for all his brlliance, his way of Doctor Who was ultimately a dead end.

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elvwood 4 years, 1 month ago

Some blantantly, of course, as with the New Firm, Mr Pin and Mr Tulip, in Terry Pratchett's The Truth. I remember being completely boggled to find out they weren't actually based on the Old Firm, especially given the relationship of Mssrs Gaiman and Pratchett.

It didn't stop me using their -ing voices when reading the book to my children, though.

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Archeology of the Future 4 years, 1 month ago

Neverwhere never did it for me, mainly because it felt like an attempt to do a more mythic version of 'Archer's Goon' by Diana Wynne Jones (and its 1992 children's telly adaptation). There was something kind of embarrassing about the 'myth of the city' stuff with Angel Islington etc.

My feelings about Gaiman are complicated. In the autobiography of the founder of geordie Viz comic, Chris Donald, he talks about meeting Harry Enfield for discussions about writing material for him. Donald talks about the overwhelming sense that he had of Enfield choosing comedy as a career in the same way that someone might choose law or accountancy. My feelings about Gaiman have always been similar. I picture him in the careers office at school answer the careers teacher's question about what he wants to do for a career with 'I want to be a maker of modern myths.'

Gaiman is evidently a good writer, but I don't quite connect with him. His writing always, to me at least, feels calculating and considered as if he creates writing that exists expressly to hit the buttons of various audiences. There is a limited amount, for me at least, to 'read' in Gaiman. He is almost too coherent, to aware of critical approaches. To my mind at least when left to create his own characters and situations he tends to create ones that to me feel already locked down and dead to interpretation.

My problem is that he is too coherent, too savvy. I did however like his early work writing stuff that others had set up. His book of Miracleman/Marvelman is fascinatingly inconclusive and sad, as are the various bits of work he did on various DC shorts when he was being groomed as the successor to Alan Moore on Swamp Thing. He's really very good at ringing new angles from established continuities and mostly adding melancholy.

His creation of his own mythologies has always left me cold.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

"I certainly agree that the TV movie was, in a sense, useful as a lesson in how not to do it, but I think the fans are far from the only people to blame."

See, I think it had far more to do with shutting up a particular segment of TV producers who were very rarely fans. I mean, there's a certain aspect of nonsensical continuity that seems to stem out of Philip Segal's fannishness, but I'd think that the greater effect in terms of cutting off future possibilities was the idea of just straightforwardly shoving the series into whatever mold you had available and putting it out there.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

To be fair, in that paragraph he did at least say "virtually".

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Apparently, it does, measured by the relative success of the novel.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

He certainly hasn't attacked anyone for liking it. (Heck, the bit you quote specifically mentions Hartnell as well, and if he thinks it's bad to like that I'll eat my hat.)

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Arkadin 4 years, 1 month ago

Well if nothing else we know the Word Lord enjoyed it.

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Jon Gad 4 years, 1 month ago

Law & Order: UK, for that matter.

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minkubus 4 years, 1 month ago

Must we as adults treat high school as the moral center of the universe?

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Mike Russell 4 years, 1 month ago

Check out the Doctor Who Confidential introducing Matt Smith. RTD amd Moffat are genuinely enthusiastic about McGann, but in contrast, RTD is very political and guarded about Colin Baker's era, calling it "brave." And yes, RTD has pointed out the storytelling flaws in the TVM, saying "so not what I would do, but I love it." He also said that the best parts of it are among the best Doctor Who ever made.

It's perfectly fine for you and many other fans to despise the TVM, but please don't try to speak for everyone by saying that nobody liked it. That kind of stance suggests a lack of mercury on your part. :)

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Christopher Haynes 4 years, 1 month ago

Anyone who knows my wife would never accuse her of being a nonconformist. She goes to all the mainstream films, watches the most popular TV programs, and listens to Top 40 radio.

Yet when I recently asked her who her favorite Doctor was, she mentioned some of the more recent actors but finally decided hers would always be William Hartnell.

I was, of course, horrified. I never knew she hated Doctor Who so much.

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Bob Dillon 4 years, 1 month ago

Surely the same argument could have been advanced for Pertwee?

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encyclops 4 years, 1 month ago

I was a huge fan of Sandman when I first read Neverwhere the novel. I had no idea it had even been filmed until it came out on DVD in the US. And I'm with Pete on this one: to me it read like lukewarm self-parody. I thought it was OK (in contrast to Stardust, which I hated, and American Gods, which I loved) but it dealt a mighty blow to my opinion of Gaiman at the time.

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Galadriel 4 years, 1 month ago

I love Neil Gaiman--after watching his episode in season six, I dove headlong into his works, from Sandman to American Gods and Coraline. I actually read Neverwhere before watching it and you're right--the effects are cheap, but not so bad it stopped me from watching it.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 1 month ago

Except, I'm sorry, the wigs made me laugh. Honestly, why do you have wigs? :-D

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 1 month ago

Weren't Croup and Vandemar themselves a more sinister version of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, though?

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Steven Clubb 4 years, 1 month ago

I would imagine a very large part of the "Americanization" of UK shows stems from the demands of American TV. If you're not producing 13 episodes a year, then networks don't quite know what to do with you. Masterpiece Theater just crams about of short series into an anthology format.

While there's some obvious cultural differences, we've never exactly been a tough sell for British entertainment (Bond, Harry Potter, the English Hugh Grant rom-coms, and our general fondness of English actors even when they're not playing villains). It's just the major networks want 22 episodes a year and cable networks want 13. British TV is just a weird fit.

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David Anderson 4 years, 1 month ago

Thinking about Wint and Kidd now, you just think that they're not as well done as Croup and Vandemar. Gaiman's made over that archetypal space.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Pratchett pointed out that, basically, all these sets of characters are part of a classic double-act of bad guys:

"Fiction and movies are full of pairs of bad guys that pretty much equate to Pin and Tulip. They go back a long way. That's why I used 'em, and probably why Neil did too. You can have a trio of bad guys (who fill roles that can be abbreviated to 'the big thick one, the little scrawny one and The Boss') but the dynamic is different. With two guys, one can always explain the plot to the other..." "

Other examples include Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction and the two Rons from Hale and Pace. (At least, according to the Annotated Pratchett File.)

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Scott 4 years, 1 month ago

@ Ross: Heck the fact that the new series is a hugely successful, popularly and critically acclaimed, award-winning and increasingly internationally successful cultural behemoth ... and there's STILL a fairly sizeable hoard of continuity-obsessed wingnuts whinging about how the series would be so much more successful and better if they just got rid of the girly stuff and implemented the fan's personal spreadsheet timeline (which settles the three Atlantises, UNIT dating and precisely how McGann regenerated into Christopher Eccleston) at once suggest that it will take the end of time itself to shut that contingent up for good.

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

That's one problem with Gaiman. The other is that he's a one-trick pony. I was a big fan as a teenager, then American Gods made me realise that every single thing he writes has the same idea behind it: what if things that aren't people (abstract concepts, norse gods, other gods, stars, tube stations, the TARDIS) acted like people?

It gets wearing after a while. And I don't need to read endless variations on the same idea, which add very little to each other.

But there is clearly a large market who do need to read endless variations on the same idea: large enough to make him very rich, at any rate. As a writer I put him in the same class as Stephanie Meyer and Ian Flemming: he does one thing very very well, and it's one thing that a lot of people like.

And Sandman? Well, then I grew up. Goodness, sixty-odd issues just to do a bit metaphor for reinventing yourself when you go to university? It's so very, very teenage. Which I suppose is why I loved it as a teenager (I remember discussions with people at school over who the as-yet-unnamed missing member of the Endless might be).

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

That quite describes Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Violent Cases, Mister Punch, Signal to Noise, his two Marvel series, and most of his short stories.

Which is to say that he's as much a one-trick pony as Alan Moore.

I am more sympathetic to Archeology of the Future's complaint. I think, somewhere around American Gods, Gaiman fell into the trap of believing his own hype and writing for his fans. And like many writers, his best work came when he was still hungry for success and writing for himself. There was a solid decade in which Gaiman just did not surprise me once with anything he wrote. And I think when he fell into that trap he does start feeling clever without substance.

That said, I've had a sense that the tide has shifted in Gaiman since about The Graveyard Book. I can just about point to the chapter of The Graveyard Book where it's clear that something's shifted in Gaiman as a writer (the Danse Macabre chapter), and his work since then has felt interesting and like a writer trying hard to challenge himself again. I'm actually quite excited for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which hasn't been true of a new Gaiman book for... twelve years now.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

To expand on the above slightly, it also occurs to me that part of the style of TARDIS Eruditorum is a deliberate slight overplaying of my hand. Indeed, one of the larger ironies is that for all that I rail against master narratives, the entire blog tacitly assumes Doctor Who, and by extension British and American culture, has one. Which is self-evidently nonsense, but terribly interesting nonsense.

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

Which is self-evidently nonsense, but terribly interesting nonsense

So self-evidently, I think, that it becomes clear that you don't seriously mean that the master narrative exists.

A bit like RTD's penchant, whenever a story calls for a really large number, to insert one so ridiculously huge as to communicate not just "A very big number" but "Look, clearly what I am going for here is 'mind-bogglingly huge' not some specific value for the fanboys to slot into their spreadsheets and obsess over."

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

"what if things that aren't people (abstract concepts, norse gods, other gods, stars, tube stations, the TARDIS) acted like people"

This, to me, seems as much "just one idea" as "a man comes to town and everything changes" does.

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doublethreatmagee 4 years, 1 month ago

Apparently, part of Pertwee's schtick when developing the character with Peter Bryant was that for once he was going to be able to play himself rather than hiding behind a silly voice, as he had done for most of his career up to that point. So possibly a lot of the audience *hadn't* actually seen him in that sort of a role before.

And I do sort of see your point John, but it would have been fascinating to see (a) how Joseph might have developed the Marquisesque character into a Doctor Who framework and (b) how Steven Moffat might have written a Doctor that pushes away from Joseph's already established role.

Instead, we got Troughton-lite.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

I think the master narrative is the Eruditorum version of Glycon: something that's of use primarily as an image in the mind more than a real-world phenomenon.

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Daibhid C 4 years, 1 month ago

I liked Neverwhere. I wasn't very familiar with Gaiman, I think I'd read two or three issues of Sandman, mostly because I recognised the name as that of the guy who wrote Good Omens and wasn't Terry. Neverwhere convinced me it was worth tracking down more. It was a bit flawed though, and not just because of what Terry called "Morag the Friendly Cow".

I can't recall much about it as television, though. After all this time all that sticks in my mind is the revelation that the Angel Islington is a bad guy, and my Mum saying "Well, obviously; he's played by Peter Capaldi..."

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

After all, what is the whole idea of 'material social progress' but a master narrative?

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

Well, almost. It's more like 'a man comes to town and everything changes, but always in the same way.'

So, you know, that might be 'a man comes to town and bring out simmering tensions so it all ends up in a big gunfight.' You can do that with different men, different towns, and different tensions, which provides a lot of variety, but you always know you're going to get the gunfight at the end (and there are authors who have built careers on doing exactly that, and to an extent all crime fiction is the same, 'a detective comes along and exposes the hidden secrets of the cast and at the end the crime is solved').

Gaiman has a formula (and okay, saying it's all he ever does may be the same overplaying of the hand that is common on this site, but it is the vast majority of his output, including quite a few of the short stories, actually) which he does very well. I happen to find formulae boring (I rarely stick with any American TV series, for that reason; and it's why though I once loved Aaron Sorkin's dialogue, since spotting the formulae I sometimes find it painful to listen to) so I started disliking his work once I noticed it, but I don't deny that there are a lot of people who like formulae in general and Gaiman's formula in particular, and that's why -- once he perfected it, and then marketed it well enough -- he became very rich. Well done him.

At least Doctor Who never stays one thing long enough to get boring.

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Ross 4 years, 1 month ago

At least Doctor Who never stays one thing long enough to get boring.


Well, except for "The Doctor has grown weary of his life of adventures and loss, and gives up traveling with a companion, becoming dangerous and detatched, until he meets That One Special Spunky Girl with 'Attitude' who breaks him out of it."

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SK 4 years, 1 month ago

Well, some eras do tend to do the same sorts of stories over and over again, it's true, but then it changes.

(And in the case of the Christmas episode, it's clearly not the girl he's interested in, but the mystery: though that is rather a repeat of Amy. If there's any annoyingly repetitive formula in the current era, it's companions temporarily dying.)

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 1 month ago

Ross - each of those elements in isolation has precedent. The combination has occurred exactly once that I can think of. To head off each of the examples you're thinking of.

Rose: the Doctor is not weary, nor has he seemingly given up on traveling with a companion. He just doesn't have one. When we first meet him he's in full cheery adventure mode. ("Run!")

Smith & Jones: The Doctor seems basically functional here, and not actively traveling without a companion. He's upset about Rose in The Runaway Bride, but to be fair, that followed Doomsday by seconds.

Partners in Crime: the Doctor is functional, not detached, not dangerous, and not actively traveling without a companion.

The Next Doctor-The End of Time: No special girl here.

The Eleventh Hour: I suppose if you really want you can decide that this is picking up directly from the funk at the end of the Tenth Doctor's era, but Amy is not presented this way. That funk is shown to have ended in The End of Time.

The God Complex-The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe: The Doctor isn't dangerous, and it's not the loss of people that's bothering him, it's his own imminent death. Which he has sorted out on his own. He's not dangerous in The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe, and he's certainly not weary. The observation that he should go back to the Ponds is based entirely on the fact that he's being a shitty friend by letting them think he's dead.

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

After all, what is the whole idea of 'material social progress' but a master narrative?

Exactly. It needs a counterbalance, "individual internal progress," to be properly alchemical, to escape the noose of master narratives.

But isn't the idea that "we should avoid master narratives" itself a kind of master narrative? It's the master story against master stories, which means at some point it has to attack itself and eat its own tail, or tale, if you prefer. This is the height of irony, and the pinnacle of postmodernism.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

"We should avoid master narratives" doesn't seem like a narrative itself - just a rule that can itself lead to many narratives, as long as they're not master ones.

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David Anderson 4 years, 1 month ago

Ben Aaronovitch is I think not going to crop up on this blog anymore. So here's a good place to say that the Rivers of London series he's doing at the moment has a strong feel of Neverwhere done in a way that works more consistently.

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John Callaghan 4 years, 1 month ago

Fair enough! I'll stress now what I should have said initially - the idea that the Doctor's casting should be surprising and intrigue people in is my own personal criterion.

I like Matt Smith ("he's so young and weird-looking! How's *that* going to work? I'd better tune in and find out") and think he has elements of Troughton but in the main very much has his own personality.

And I like the TVM too. Ner.

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John Peacock 4 years, 1 month ago

I thought they were fairly direct copies of Breughel and Mahler from the original Max Headroom movie, myself.

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Matthew Blanchette 4 years, 1 month ago

I suppose one could add the Mitchell and Webb-bots from "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" to that list... ;-)

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

So not a master narrative, just a master rule. And as long as we don't transmit it narratively, we're okay?

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Ununnilium 4 years, 1 month ago

Well, as long as we don't make it an all-encompassing theory of everything, we're okay. Simple stuff, once you remember the reasons why he said a master narrative was bad.

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Arkadin 4 years, 1 month ago

It's interesting how, with the 50th anniversary, an awareness of the series's history is starting to re-enter the wider fannish/pop-cultural consciousness that's been created for the new series. For instance, they're doing a bunch of "e-shorts" featuring every single one of the Doctors, which are written by various children's authors.

There will also be anniversary reprints of some of the Doctor Who novels, mostly BBC books. These are mostly odd and disappointing choices, though two are perfect--I won't quibble with Festival of Death or the Remembrance of the Daleks novelization. A lot of the more interesting wilderness years novels are too adult or too arc-oriented, but I would have gone with:

One: Doctor Who and the Daleks
Two: ???
Three: one of Malcolm Hulke's novelizations?
Four: Festival of Death
Five: Goth Opera
Six: Dunno, I guess Players is as good a choice as any
Seven: Remembrance of the Daleks
Eight: The Scarlet Empress (yes, it's weird and tangly and postmodern, but it has a very young adult-y feel)
Nine: Stealer of Dreams
Ten: The Eyeless
Eleven:...I haven't read any Eleven books, but I like the comics I've read from Abnett so that might be good
And cap it off with the Infinity Doctors, because there's absolutely nothing wrong with having two Lance Parkin books.

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Arkadin 4 years, 1 month ago

Oh right, forgot the link. It's here, under these somewhat unnerving mugs:

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jane 4 years, 1 month ago

Does that include the 3-Act Structure?

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Wm Keith 4 years, 1 month ago

I absolutely love "Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the Daleks", with its narration by an Ian Chesterton who might almost be Harry Palmer and with its unintentional half-reference to Marc Bolan's car crash, but as a novel it makes explicit some of the unspoken attitudes of the television story. For example, on removing the Dalek creature from its machine: "Chesterton, if I had any doubt at all about what we were contemplating, the sight of that disgusting thing has totally dispelled them. And they call the Thals mutations!" or "Like the men, all the female Thals were perfectly proportioned and their hair was fair."

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Daibhid C 4 years, 1 month ago

But everything doesn't always change in the same way in a Gaiman book. "What if this abstract concept was a person?" is a beginning; it doesn't tell you how the end's going to be. I can certainly see why you might find it irritating that it's something he keeps doing, but AFAICS it's a "formula" in the sense that "What if an anarchic figure in a time-travelling police box wandered into this situation?" is a formula, not the standardised plot beats of westerns and whodunnits.

Interestingly, I was flicking through Terry Pratchett's Once More With Footnotes this morning for the amusing anecdote about why Neil Gaiman doesn't wear a hat, and found that Pratchett's praise of Gaiman is pretty much a positive interpretation of the above criticisms:

What can I say about Neil Gaiman that hasn't already been said in The Morbid Imagination: Five Case Studies?

Well, he's no genius. He's better than that.

He's not a wizard in other words, but a conjurer. Wizards don't have to work. They wave their hands and the magic happens. But conjurers now ... conjurors work very hard. They spend a lot of time in their youth watching,very carefully, the best conjurors of their day. They seek out old books of trickery and, being natural conjurors, read everything else as well, because history itself is just a magic show. They observe the way people think, and the many ways in which they don't.

And they take center stage and amaze you with flags of all nations and smoke and mirrors, and you cry: “Amazing! How does he do it? What happened to the elephant? Where’s the rabbit? Did he really smash my watch?”

And in the back row we, the other conjurers, say quietly: “Well done. Isn’t that a variant of the Prague Levitating Sock? Wasn’t that Pasqual’s Spirit Mirror, where the girl isn’t really there? But where the hell did that flaming sword come from?”

And we wonder if there may be such a thing as wizardry after all...
(endquote)

(SK, I think, is in the position of someone who isn't a professional conjuror, judging Gaiman by that standard, but does know how the trick is done - and moreover, knows that the last five tricks, while they looked completely different, were based on the same mechanic, and therefore weren't that interesting. Which is fair enough, really.)

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Arkadin 4 years, 1 month ago

Might as well link to the definitive deconstruction of the three-act structure.

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