3 years, 10 months ago
Call it a hunch - the sense that maybe having an essay like this written will eventually make sense in the same way covering Dark Season and Press Gang did.
Even without that hunch, though, its relevance would be easy to argue for. Though it might require some consideration of a general theory of how television shows relate that extends beyond the limited notion of “other shows by” and spin-offs that provide the limited but canonical list of shows “related” to Doctor Who. In practice the process is trickier. Life on Mars, for instance, predated Doctor Who in its conception, but aired in its wake, out of BBC Wales, and with at least one documentable inspiration from Doctor Who. It’s not a spin-off so much as it’s an allied program.
But what do we make of No Angels? Like Life on Mars, two of its writers got poached for Doctor Who-related work in this period. Unlike Life on Mars, it’s not even remotely a genre program, wasn’t for the BBC, and predated Doctor Who (The last episode of its third and final season aired four days before New Earth). It would be going too far to suggest that it’s an influence on Doctor Who - it’s clearly a show from a younger generation of writers than Davies belonged to, and Davies’s style for Doctor Who can be entirely accounted for within his other work without need for looking at No Angels.
Instead what we have is an instance of Doctor Who reaching three channels down the digital programming guide (ah for the days of more romantic television metaphors) and plucking up a modestly successful comedy-drama about nurses and saying, “this is the sort of show we’re like.” It’s not a case akin to Bad Wolf in which Doctor Who literally absorbed Big Brother into its narrative. Rather it’s a strange note of respect. There’s the sense, in hiring both Whithouse and MacRae (both of whom turned out to be phenomenal choices, even if MacRae took a bit longer to ripen fully) that Doctor Who is giving a stamp of approval to another show, or, at least, that Russell T Davies is.
Nevertheless, there’s something more than a bit odd about it, perhaps that a comedy-drama about nurses does not seem like an obvious choice for something that Doctor Who should be loudly endorsing. I actually don’t want to make this next bit into a debate about the critic in question, so I’m going to go ahead and offer a quote without naming the critic. Google it if you must - it won’t surprise anyone, but it’s really not relevant. In any case, one famous-in-fandom critic proclaimed, “a quick look at the credentials of Toby Whitehouse [sic] will tell you that this is a man with a background in demographically-engineered, easy-sell television. This is the man who created Channel 4's nurses-are-gagging-for-it series No Angels, the only redeeming feature of which was the opportunity to see Lynda Moss having oral sex performed on her while wearing a nurse's outfit. We can conclude that this isn't a man to whom writing about space, time and rubbery monsters is second nature. “
There’s several interesting things about this. The first, of course, is that it’s completely wrong. Toby Whithouse is, in fact, a man to whom writing about space, time, and rubbery monsters is second nature. He’s a self-professed Alan Moore obessive who swiped a key scene of Miracleman for a climactic bit in the third series of Being Human. For that matter, he created Being Human, the single greatest piece of Vampire: The Masquerade-related fiction ever written. And these days the default sentence is “well I hope it’s Toby Whithouse, but I’m really afraid it’s going to be Chris Chibnall or Mark Gatiss.” What he’s not - and this in many ways what’s most interesting about him becoming the populist choice for showrunner - is a survivor of the wilderness years.
But the second and actually more interesting aspect of it is the discussion of demographic engineering. The critic tips his hand just a bit in contrasting genre television with No Angels while suggesting that its appeal is an oral sex scene of someone in a nurse’s outfit, particularly when that person is referred to by the character they played on Doctor Who and not by their character in No Angels or the actress’s name. Setting aside the horrific sexism of dismissing a show as worthwhile only because of a sex scene, the criticism makes clear that there’s that type of show that those people watch, and this type of show that we watch. And more to the point, that those people are girls and we’re boys. And Toby Whithouse is suspect because he writes girl shows, not boy shows.
To be clear, I’m not particularly bothered by the sexism there, except inasmuch as there’s an implicit hostility to the idea of boys watching girl shows (and thus presumably of the reverse). The reality of the world is that television is designed according to the same “four quadrant” marketing theory that dominates films whereby the world is sliced casually into men and women above and below the age of twenty-five. There are more divisions to be had, but those are the big four. You’ve even got media distinctions - it’s a well-established “fact” that men pick what movie you go to but women pick what’s on television, so TV tends towards female-targeted stuff while films are male-targeted, with, occasionally, nods in the other direction. That this practice is deeply fucked up is almost immaterial, simply because it’s so ingrained in television production that it’s unavoidable. The most social justice-aware writers in television can’t avoid thinking like that, because even if they try they’ll just be made to by executives.
And more to the point, the observation that No Angels is targeted at a different sort of audience than Doctor Who seems to be, and that Whithouse is thus an odd choice as a writer is not entirely wrong, at least from a 2006 perspective. It’s particularly eyebrow-raising for the episode he was hired for, which is the most self-consciously continuity heavy episode of the new series to date. And within that there are several observations to make.
The first is that Doctor Who is every bit as demographically designed as No Angels, it’s just designed as four-quadrant television. This is one of its big innovations under Russell T Davies: being a show women want to watch. We’ll talk about this more next entry when we actually deal with School Reunion, but suffice it to say that Davies’s Doctor Who is consciously designed to use the tropes and signifiers of “girl television,” and, more to the point, its doing so is an integral part of its success.
Let’s also note that it’s difficult to be too upset about this, or, at least, that any attempt to get upset at it makes it difficult to approach television at all. Yes, again, the way in which girl and boy television is split up is horrific, but it’s also sufficiently prevalent as to be descriptive and unavoidable. We live in a culture where this happens, and where successful marketing thrives on these assumptions. Fighting against those assumptions does not mean pretending they don’t describe how the world works; in fact, it means the exact opposite. And more to the point, by being four quadrant television Doctor Who is, in practice, fighting against that by showing unequivocally that, as Mad Norwegian so artfully put it, Chicks Dig Time Lords.
The second is that these divisions do not particularly describe television writers, in no small part because television writing is a sexist boys club. I mean, it’s one thing when only four out of the hundred-and-one episodes of the new series are written by women, since Doctor Who at least looks at first glance like a boy show. It’s another when you realize that even girl shows like No Angels are crawling with male writers. Which gets at an observable and in some ways rather obvious fact about an awful lot of writers: they are largely geeks. The boys club of television is closely related to the boys club of fandom and the con scene.
Which is to say that of course Toby Whithouse, despite being best known for a comedy-drama about nurses, is an unrepentant genre geek who “gets” Doctor Who without even having been a particular fan of it prior to getting the gig. Because that’s just writers for you. I mean, what were Steven Moffat’s cult bona fides before The Empty Child? A Doctor Who comedy sketch and a Dalek joke apiece for Coupling and Press Gang? No, writers are largely geeks, in no small part because there’s a level of meticulous technical obsession that really helps with writing.
There’s also, it’s very important to realize, a matter of learning to write in a structure or style. Neil Gaiman has commented that looking through his early work he noticed that it was years before he actually had anything that sounded like his own work instead of like imitations of other people. The comics artist Neal Adams argues, not unreasonably, that an artist’s “style” is just the mistakes they never stop making - in other words, the things that stick out as they imitate other artists. Heck, I notice it in myself. Jill and I were on our way back from seeing Iron Man 3 a few weeks ago, and she commented that I was particularly manic, and I thought, “well, yes, I’ve just spent two hours listening to Robert Downey Jr. Dialogue, what do you expect?” The writing style of TARDIS Eruditorum changed when I started reading About Time a lot alongside the episodes, and it’s changing again implicitly as I start work on The Last War in Albion because I’ve been developing a different prose style for that. You learn to think in terms of style and structure. And, if you're halfway decent, you learn to think in terms of people who aren't like you.
And in practice, what makes a good television writer is the ability to jump from style to style and to write a variety of characters. What’s key about No Angels in hindsight, and what really makes it speak volumes about Toby Whithouse’s ability is that he doesn’t put in a bunch of Alan Moore pastiches. It’s a competent execution of comedy-drama about nurses. It does the job it’s built for, and does it well. Put another way, you absolutely can see the strings and scaffolding, which only confirms the degree to which Whithouse is a writer writer, not a cult writer or a girl writer. And is, I’d bet money, one of the things that attracted Russell T Davies to the show. No Angels is gloriously well designed for its purpose.
You have four main characters, each of whom get a focus episode within the first four, but who are distinct enough that you know the basics of them from the first one. The show is carefully focused on them - it’s not a medical drama about the patients. Every scene has at least one of the four leads in it, and we only see the story as it plays out in their lives.
Equally well-engineered is the comedy-drama tone. Because frankly any show about a job where getting peed on is a daily risk has to have a bit of a sick sense of humor in order to have any sense of authenticity at all. And any show about a job where you have to deal with death and dying on a regular basis has to feature characters snapping, burning out, and behaving in self-destructive ways to have any sense of authenticity at all. I’ve been watching the show with Jill, and she’s more than a little in love with it because it’s the first medical drama she’s ever seen that actually demonstrates any understanding of what being a nurse is like, even if the actual situations are at times a hair unbelievable in how outlandish they aren’t.
And this, in turn, is bolstered by the quality of the characterization. The second episode deals with a woman facing an arranged marriage who tries to keep her future husband in the dark about her promiscuity while she waits for said marriage. And there’s a really wonderful tone to how it’s dealt with. It’s not, as most shows about the young Indian woman rebelling against the traditional demands of her family are, about her wanting out of the arranged marriage. She never expresses that sentiment once. Nor is it an endorsement of arranged marriage. It acknowledges that these still happen and then paints a very human picture of what people do with situations they’re OK with but not thrilled with. And its end resolution - that her husband-to-be is sleeping around too and they’re both fine with it - manages to be more than a touch sweet and romantic. Which is hard to land within the sexual mores of contemporary twenty-somethings, since our entire apparatus for “sweet and romantic” as an aesthetic is based on Twue Wuv and whatnot.
The fourth episode is similarly impressive as it takes Beth, Jo Joyner’s character, and reveals her working class and dysfunctional family background. This is done by introducing her aunt, who she hadn’t seen in years and who apparently all but raised her, and her cousin, who is an abusive prick. The endpoint is a marvelous scene in which Beth escorts her aunt from the hospital to a car while her cousin berates and abuses her. It’s a marvelous scene in which Joyner has to play her character realizing that her aunt isn’t going to get the care she deserves at home, Marjorie Yates, playing her aunt, has to communicate to both the audience and Beth that she understands and is happy for Beth and doesn’t want to see her dragged back into her cousin’s abusive circle, and both of them have to do it while mainly just reacting to being shouted at. It’s top notch acting and character work, perfectly hitting the balance between refusing to be ashamed of a working class background and refusing to be dragged back to it. And when Beth responds to her newfound confidence with a delightfully weird seduction scene in which she ensnares a guy by stealing two bottles of champagne from him and leaving him to watch porn it’s… oddly satisfying.
The marketing of the show plays up the “naughty northern nurses” tagline, in part because it’s alliterative and in part because it makes the show sound like fellow four-girl sex obsessed show Sex in the City, but No Angels is no more Sex in the City than Coupling was a Friends knockoff. The heart of this show is the women and their jobs, and the fact that these wonderfully human-seeming sex-addicted narcissists are repeatedly shown to be the most diligent and caring people on the planet. Yes, they’re “naughty,” at least in the sense of not being well-behaved doormats, but given one of the things that the show depicts all too accurately is the often appallingly demeaning treatment of nurses by doctors this more often comes out in their favor. And details like one nurse taking disproportionate interest in a patient’s care precisely because she’s a cantankerous and unappreciative old woman are, again, downright refreshing in their honesty.
It is, in other words, all a very sound and intelligent set of choices. Which is, I’m sure, what Davies liked about the show, and, perhaps more to the point, what marked Toby Whithouse as a writer who could handle a show like Doctor Who. And as we’ll see on Monday, handle it he did.
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