The Game and How Toby Whithouse Lost It


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Right, I suppose I should start with what this thing is and why I want to write about it. The Game is Toby Whithouse's six episode 1970s-set spy drama, seemingly originally intended to be a big BBC production before never quite making it to the schedule and making its debut on BBC America, where it got next to no coverage and largely sunk like a stone. To some extent, this last fact is what interests me about it. When announced, it felt like Whithouse's audition piece: his big BBC One drama with which he'd become the inevitable successor to Steven Moffat. But between his absence from both 2013 and 2014's Doctor Who and the fact that this basically landed flat on its face, the landscape has changed, such that Whithouse has largely fallen away as the heir apparent. And since this really looks like it's going to disappear without much of a trace, that seems worth documenting.

So, first, because I assume essentially none of you have seen it, the basics. The Game follows an elite MI-5 team as they investigate a seemingly massive Russian operation involving sleeper agents in the UK. You've got a pretty standard set of stock characters. Brian Cox is charming as MI-5 head "Daddy," Paul Ritter is the poorly closeted gay high society type, Chloe Pirrie is the secretary who proves terribly competent and eventually becomes an agent in her own right, Victoria Hamilton is what in a more modern-set show would be the profiler, Jonathan Aris is her autism-spectrum husband and audio specialist, Shaun Dooley is a cop assigned to MI-5, and Tom Hughes is the protagonist, Joe Lambe, who was blatantly cast on the principle of "cast me somebody who looks like Benedict Cumberbatch only a decade younger." Over the course of the story, it becomes obvious that someone's a mole. Is it Joe Lambe, whose loyalties have been questioned since a botched operation a year ago that resulted in the death of his lover, and who has old scores to settle now?

No, it's totally Sarah, Victoria Hamilton's character, which is in hindsight obvious because she's the only one of the set who isn't a blatant cliche, so clearly she has to turn out to be a femme fatale in the end.

This is making The Game sound like it's excessively easy to mock, which, to be fair, it in many ways is. The 1970s espionage setting means that it's unabashedly competing with two of the great heavyweights of British television drama: the BBC adaptations John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People, and The Sandbaggers, an ITV number that famously only ran for three seasons when its creator Ian Mackintosh disappeared, prompting endless conspiracy theories suggesting that Mackintosh, a former Royal Navy officer, had revealed something he shouldn't have on the show. Both shows crackle with 1970s authenticity, what with having been made in the 1970s (well, Smiley's People was early 80s, but), and are nuanced character pieces about flawed geniuses in worlds full of flawed incompetents who do terrible things in pursuit of noble goals. In short, exemplars of that classic British television trick of replacing all the action sequences in something with tense conversations between great and good British actors like Alec Guinness, Roy Marsden, Richard Vernon, and Michael Jayston. This is a tradition of television in which anything short of outright greatness is going to be conspicuous in its failures. Given this, the blatant mediocrity of The Game is an obvious failing.

Except that's not quite fair. The Game isn't so much blatantly mediocre as it is a show that constantly threatens to resolve into something brilliant before turning out to be perfectly content with being derivative. Even well into the final episode, there's an electrifying tension based on the ambiguity over who does and doesn't still have secret plans that haven't been revealed. It's just that none of it actually manages to go anywhere. Still, its failures are instructive in terms of understanding how television operates in late 2014, and what the dominant tricks and concerns of the medium are.

One thing that interesting television, where interesting is defined as "interesting to me," has been increasingly doing is trading hard on making the basic nature of the show a source of ambiguity and tension. Moffat, of course, is the reigning master of this, with his work being hugely concerned with the question "what sort of story is this." (Case in point, Death in Heaven, where the central tension is "what sort of protagonist is the Doctor," and where the teaser for Last Christmas involves explicitly discussing whether the ending of the episode is an acceptable resolution or if the story ought be defined differently.) This is a tricky business in some ways, because it really screws with a lot of models of narrative based on some notion of "playing fair" with the audience.

Generally, there's two approaches to doing a suspense-based narrative. In one, the audience's knowledge is kept basically in line with the protagonist's knowledge, so that we get information at the same time they do. The tension comes out of trying to figure out the gaps - it's the tension of a mystery. In the other, the audience knows more than the protagonist, and watches the protagonist catch up to them. In this approach, the tension comes out of the question of whether the protagonist will catch up. It's the tension of a countdown, the archetypal example being one from Alfred Hitchcock about a bomb under a table.

But the "what sort of story is this" approach requires a third variation, in which the audience knows considerably less than the protagonists. The Game, for instance, hinges massively on the question of whether Joe Lambe is a traitor or not, carefully giving strong evidence in each direction while never allowing us to actually get solid confirmation until the climax of the final episode. More to the point, it relies on a narrative structure in which revelations to the audience dramatically alter the way in which we watch scenes. The reveal that Sarah is the mole, for instance, takes place in the final scene of the fifth episode, in a scene that deliberately comes out of almost nowhere, and in an episode where a key plot beat is a red herring reveal that Alan, her husband, is the mole, which is built to with a montage of various characters going about their morning routines while we wait to see which one is going to check a dead drop. (Alan, it turns out, is innocent, but has already figured out that Sarah is the mole and has decided to protect her, although why he checks her dead drop is inscrutable.)

More broadly, the entire Russian operation is an endlessly shifting thing, the contours of which change episode-by-episode. By the end, it's an entirely incoherent shamble - a series of deliberate red herrings and decoys that turns out to hinge on the assumption that Joe will figure out that Sarah is the mole on a precise day chosen a year in advance, that he'll confront her privately, and that he'll respond to the information she gives him in a precise and predictable way. The climax involves a montage of events that, in order for the resolution to work, must not have actually been taking place concurrently, or that require Brian Cox to effectively teleport from a confrontation with a treasonous deputy Prime Minister (my aren't we subtle, Toby) to the ops room in a matter of minutes.

It would, of course, be a mistake to complain that these are plot holes. This is the sort of thing Doctor Who and Sherlock get away with as a matter of course. And the fact that the show can work like this is telegraphed repeatedly. It's called The Game, after all. The idea that everything is just a charade is there in the title. And withholding key information from the audience is explicitly one of its basic tricks. It's not a problem in the least that the resolution not only can't be guessed from the setup (that being an essential part of how the "what kind of story is this" show works), nor that the Big Elaborate Russian Conspiracy doesn't actually make sense (what evil mastermind's plan does?). Not even Brian Cox's teleporting routine is a problem as such. Enough information is conveyed with pacing, camera angles, editing, and music to keep the dramatic arc running, and by the end the audience is so used to the structure of "and now here's a reveal that changes our understanding of the basic structure" that we can be trusted to put aside our previous knowledge without protest.

No, the problem is that the end configuration just isn't very interesting. The big twist is that Joe's fridged lover is secretly alive, and the Russians plan to use that to blackmail him into complicity with their operation at the last second. The resolution is that Joe was not actually stupid enough to walk into their trap without backup, and there's a sniper positioned to take out the Russian sniper. The final confrontation between Joe and the Russian mastermind has the dying Russian gloat that he's beaten Joe anyway, because he can never truly trust his lover. Only the subverted fridging is even remotely clever here, and it's not actually allowed to have any impact because everything else is straight from the "obvious genre trope" bin.

Which is the crux of the problem. The "what kind of story is this" structure relies on the answer being "something new and innovative." Certainly this is the implicit logic of the show that The Game tacitly invokes, Game of Thrones, which takes this structure to its most all-encompassing and bombastic end. That show is electrified by the way in which it uses psuedo-historically accurate materialism to engineer surprise disruptions of the mythic fantasy logic that quietly (albeit increasingly loudly) underpins the world. But given actual historical materialism to work with and a similar central metaphor, Whithouse is ultimately unable to conjure anything more interesting than a story about a brooding white male protagonist indistinguishable from every other brooding white male protagonist in contemporary television. (It's in this regard both revealing and damning that Whithouse is on record as being opposed to a female Doctor.)

Perhaps most frustratingly, the show comes close to a much more interesting approach. A subplot about Sarah secretly taking contraceptive pills comes to a head in the same episode that she's revealed as the mole, and she's got a fantastic monologue about how she's not willing to bring a child into the world she sees every day at work, and not willing to stop working her job in such a dangerous world. It seems for all the world like we're going to get an explanation whereby she's turned traitor because she views any end to the Cold War, even a British defeat, as preferable to the game's continuation - a sort of maternal Ozymandias motivation that, given Whithouse's avowed love of Alan Moore, seemed entirely plausible.  Instead she's a traitor because... erm... well, actually, they never get around to resolving that.

The result is a show that isn't awful, but that is unsettling in its flaws. Or, at least, a show whose flaws are such that they cast Whithouse's previous successes in a new light. Even back with A Town Called Mercy, there was an increasing sense of Whithouse as a writer who was basically in step with the television of 2008 or so, but who has spent six years failing to evolve. It's not that he's not learning new tricks - The Game is blatantly a response to Sherlock, and tries to make a go at that show's mesmerizing shell game of ambiguity over who's figured out what. Rather, it's that he's not really taken on board anything about why these tricks work. He's not interested in telling new sorts of stories.

To be blunter, Whithouse belongs to the very 00s era of television where it is all about, as I said, brooding male protagonists. In this regard it's unsurprising that he was drawn to the 70s spy setting, which was in many ways ahead of its time in its choices of protagonists. But it's nevertheless slightly shocking how, in just a few years, Whithouse has managed to go from looking like a talented up and comer to looking like someone who's on the wrong side of an aesthetic revolution. Frankly, if we're going to have someone stuck in the past for the next showrunner of Doctor Who, I'd rather have Gatiss, whose nostalgia is idiosyncratic and weird, than Whithouse, whose nostalgia ends up being a reaction against almost everything interesting going on in television right now.

Which just about sums up The Game: it's a show about the 70s that's tragically stuck in the 00s.


Steven 6 years, 1 month ago


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John 6 years, 1 month ago

Gatiss over Whithouse is, I think, a pretty unusual position in the fandom, which, from what I can gather, hates Gatiss above all things.

I've not seen The Game, but from what I've seen of Whithouse (Being Human, his Who and Torchwood episodes), I think I might agree. I just haven't really loved any of it, although I've not rewatched The God Complex and don't really remember what I thought of it at the time.

And I guess I have a very good sense of what Whithouse would be like as Doctor Who showrunner, and it doesn't seem super appealing. I actually kind of have no idea what a Gatiss-run Doctor Who would be like, which strikes me as at least potentially interesting.

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Jarl 6 years, 1 month ago

I've been seeing commercials for The Game, which I also just lost, for seemingly forever, and it just looks... terminally uninteresting. Maybe that's my own aesthetic biases butting in, but it just looks so dull in all the commercials that should be drawing us in. I don't know.

I am, at this point, basically convinced that Gatiss Who is the future. For me, the interesting question is more of when than who.

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Terry 6 years, 1 month ago

While I definitely enjoy Whithouse's episodes, even A Town Called Mercy, which didn't really fit in with Series Seven but, at least to me, was well-executed enough to completely get away with it, cliche and all, I never could see him as the showrunner of Doctor Who.

Whereas with Gatiss' episodes... I find them relatively boring. There's always the hint of something wonderful, a gem waiting to break through, but it never really makes it out of Gatiss' by-the-numbers episodes. I really would not like to see him as the showrunner of Doctor Who, but sadly, it seems more likely then not/

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David Anderson 6 years, 1 month ago

Something else that has been hovering around my thoughts about Whithouse is that women in Whithouse tend to be underused. In particular, Annie in Being Human tends to be subordinated to Mitchell and George's characters, and it looks as if the same dynamic was being repeated with Alex, Hal and Tom. (In that regard I'm not at all surprised to discover that the mole in this series is one of the women.)

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ferret 6 years, 1 month ago

So, I've just lost the game. So is anyone else reading this, I'm afraid, although unless you skimmed the title of this blog post you just lost the game anyway, so I don't feel bad. I think I lasted a few months this time, but of course it's notoriously hard to keep track, as that just encourages you to lose the game.

Anyone else playing the game?

Reset the clock.

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Aylwin 6 years, 1 month ago

nuanced character pieces about flawed geniuses in worlds full of flawed incompetents who do terrible things in pursuit of noble goals

Totally unjustifiable nitpick of a passing observation: as far as the Le Carres are concerned (never seen The Sandbaggers) I don't think "incompetents" is right. There are allusions to institutional incompetence, but as far as the actual characters are concerned it's more like "mediocrities, washed-up wasted talents, and Oleg Kirov". And even that requires ignoring the apparent implication that "flawed geniuses" refers only to the protagonists - George is the alpha genius, but people like Bill, Connie, and of course Karla are quite brilliant enough themselves. And Control is, if nothing more, extremely intelligent and doggedly efficient. One of the tragedies diagnosed by Le Carre could be expressed as "I watched the finest minds of my generation destroyed by spending their lives gambling with blank dice". Even someone like Percy, whose limitations make him a laughing-stock among his colleagues, would probably be the smartest guy in a fair few rooms.

Not too sure about the noble goals either, in as much as Le Carre surely wasn't too sure about them even then, and while George is a man of indissoluble faith in the purpose of what he does, it's the kind of faith that walks hand in hand with doubt. Plus his motivation in Smiley's People is more personal vendetta than public service.

Pushing the pedantry even further, I don't think George actually does anything particularly terrible in those two stories, though I suppose Smiley's People is suffused with a sense of the accumulated brutalising effect of his work on people. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a different kettle of fish of course.

Oh, and there's a significant comma missing.

OK, stopping that now.

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Aylwin 6 years, 1 month ago

Would I be right in thinking that Phil has observed that setting up a scenario based on familiar genre conventions and then subverting the implied expectations by switching tracks into a different narrative outcome is a very old standard of comedy writing, and more broadly that erecting a set of rules which instill expectations and then subverting them is the basic structure of a joke, and hence that his narrative substitution techniques can be regarded as a matter of Moffat the comedy writer bringing comic conventions to bear on drama?

I think he probably has, but on the off chance he hasn't, I'm bagsying that observation.

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Daru 6 years, 1 month ago

Initially on the basis of hearing and reading about The Game, I felt that it would be good to watch. Now after reading your essay Phil - which I did pay for via Patreon, and really enjoyed reading, thanks - I don't know if I want to bother. I had held out a lot of hope for Waterhouse's writing, but yes he has seemed to wane. In contrast, even if he does go down the nostalgia route a lot, I do enjoy Gatiss's experimentation a lot more.

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Adam Riggio 6 years, 1 month ago

That's a very interesting way to think about narrative substitution and Moffat's sense of genre play. I think I'd been dancing around this notion in my own conception of what it is that he does narratively speaking, but I've never quite been able to put my finger on it as precisely as you do.

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Adam Riggio 6 years, 1 month ago

Thinking on what you've said about Whithouse, Phil, it seems to me that he'd be a throwback for Doctor Who in more ways than just the sense of narrative and character priorities that you have here. Whithouse seems to be primarily interested, as far as his focus in a story's drama is concerned, on the angst of brooding male protagonists. You're right that this fits right in with the narrative conventions that were common to television in the 2000s, and with the cop and spy genres of the 1970s.

But Whithouse's focus on male angst also fits rather too well for my liking with the central drama of the Davies era, the Doctor's regret over the Time War and having committed genocide against his own people. You were right to identify his last Doctor Who script, A Town Called Mercy, as a creature from another era. Whithouse is well suited to dramas about male angst and anger over terrible, regretful things in their own pasts. But Moffat's crowning achievement in ensuring the future of Doctor Who was having redeemed this moment in Day of the Doctor, and leading the show on from this obsessive return to the Doctor's moment of terror. Moffat also completed the full influence of Joss Whedon's innovations in female cult television characterization in Doctor Who. While Davies began this in the basic style of the stories, only Moffat has brought Whedon's innovations in popular female protagonists to full articulation with Clara.

Whithouse would, while unable truly to destroy Gallifrey (yet) again, bring the storytelling of Doctor Who back to the model of angsty haunting from which Davies wrung so much drama. His myopic focus on male angst as a source of drama would undo all the progress of Whedon's influence on the program. He's precisely the wrong person, now, to take over Doctor Who.

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Jarl 6 years, 1 month ago

I swear I remember reading him say something about that, though it is possible I'm misremembering another time that Phil discussed the ramifications of a sitcom writer writing a sci fi drama.

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Eric Gimlin 6 years, 1 month ago

You're welcome.

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Daru 6 years, 1 month ago

Good points Adam. I think the fact as you say that Whithouse's style of drama focuses on the "male angst and anger over terrible, regretful things in their own pasts" is why I gradually found Being Human quite difficult to watch. For me the whole of the drama was about being consumed by that angst, and for me it just stopped being interesting or entertaining. I don't think now I could enjoy his take on Doctor Who - even if I did adore The God Complex as one of the highlights of New Who - as his vision feels somewhat limited.

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Adam Riggio 6 years, 1 month ago

The God Complex was a highlight of new Who, a combination of Whithouse's writing and Nick Hurran's direction. But its own story model was very much of a pre Day of the Doctor era. Whithouse's is a Doctor who is constantly haunted by the casualties of adventuring, torn by the angst that there are so few times where everyone lives.

Thinking on it now, I see another angle of Whithouse's retrograde style. Under Whithouse, Clara would have been right in Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline: the Doctor is ethically primarily about strategic decisions, and constantly weighs the value of the people around him by how they can solve the mystery of the week. And Whithouse's drama would come from that angst.

If Whithouse's failure in The Game teaches us anything, it's that the era of the anti-hero is over. Moffat's vision of Doctor Who has shown how we can have heroes again.

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Daru 6 years, 1 month ago

Indeed, The God Complex is one of those beautiful beasts that shows what happens when collaboration really clicks and alchemy is created. A great vision of the show haunting itself.

In your last paragraph you really nail it for me. Since I read Phil's article something has been nagging at the back of my mind, the feeling of disappointment at the hollowness of the tortured heroic male. It is over isn't it? At least I hope it is, for the stories we need now I think need to be full of beauty, wonder and real inspiration - enough of angst.

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ferret 6 years, 1 month ago

I enjoy it in a way, I don't want to be free :-) But dammit, you just made me lose the game again.

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Carey 6 years, 1 month ago

Thanks to the vagaries of the BBCOne scheduling department, I haven't seen The Game yet, but I m looking forward to it (although I've just spoiled myself on that front! Shouldn't matter: I've experienced Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as book, tv series, movie and radio adaptation, and enjoyed all three despite knowing the outcome beforehand). I can't comment on everything in the review because of this, but can add a note or two.

Firstly, authenticity. It's well nigh impossible to maintain the authenticity of the tv series of Tinker Tailor (or The Sandbaggers) primarily as you so note because they were made in the era they depicted. Oddly this is something that comes to light in the movie adaptation of Tinker Tailor, which is scale: the movie is simply too big. The Circus depicted in the tvseries reeks of the 70's: claustrophobic rooms full of pained silences. The huge expanses of space and boxes filled with boxes, while fitting on a thematic level, misses that. I would imagine that visually The Game harkens back more to the movie than the tv series.

Then there is authenticity in writing: Ian Mackintosh was not the only writer with connections with the secret service: David Cornwell also served within that department, and liked secrets so much that he didn't even write under his own name, but chose the more baroque Joh Le Carre instead.

From reading your views on the male fixated narrative and the revelation of the mole in The Game, this seems very much a comment on Tinker Tailor and its sequel again. The two books are written as mirrors to each other, and Smiley's People sees Smiley adopt (and therefore become corrupted by) the same practices as Karla used in Tinker Tailor: find his opposition's weakness and exploit it. In both cases that weakness is a female family member (Ann, Smiley's wife in Tinker Tailor; Karla's illegitimate daughter in Smiley's people) who, for all they impact on the narrative, barely appear in it. The only other female character of note in either novel is Connie, a character who once again, although impactful on the narrative, appears in one chapter in each book, and is depicted as a physical and mental wreck of the person they once were. There is also an appearance by Irina, the lover of Riki Tarr, but again, she is there purely as a victim in the Cold War game being played out around her.

It's also interesting to note that on transmission one of the episodes of Smiley's People was heavily criticised because it featured a long scene set in a strip club. In short, institutionalised sexism dominates the 70's source material, and I wonder how much this dictates the revelation of the mole in The Game.

Despite your review, I am interested in watching it: I agree with you the Whithouse has his flaws as a writer: oddly they are the same as those of one of his heroes, Alan Moore since the failure of Big Numbers, in that he feels the need to look back at genres and deconstruct them, but without adding much more to them beyond that. Could this work as a show runner of Doctor Who? Possibly.

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Aylwin 6 years, 1 month ago

Good thoughts, but would just say that the thematic impact of space can work either way. I mean, big spaces give you faded grandeur, that "giant's robe upon a dwarfish thief" idea, but small, shabby offices give you diminished fortunes and cramped horizons. Handled right, either one gets you to the necessary sense of the post-imperial condition.

Oh, and digressing on the question of methods, the idea of the Karla-obsessed Smiley sinking to his enemy's level in order to defeat him makes a harmonious narrative shape in retrospect, which is to say it would have made sense for that to come at the end if planning it all out from the start. But the unplanned way that one book followed another means that George has already been a great deal more low-down and dirty before Karla is even conceived. What Karla and Bill do with Operation Testify and Jim is just a rearrangement of the gambit Smiley and Control play with Alec in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, not only in the form of the trick but in the betrayal of the pawn, while the latter actually has a whole lot of extra nastiness rolled up with it. The way George gets Karla is thoroughly innocuous by comparison.

"I got him home, didn't I?" works as a grossly inadequate plea in mitigation on Bill's part, but the obvious parallel must also cut George pretty deeply, whether the implication is meant by Bill or not.

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William Silvia 6 years, 1 month ago

Everybody who reads this blog lost the game.

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Katherine Sas 6 years, 1 month ago

Dammit, you (and every comment above which references the game) just made me lose the game.

I can't wait for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I'll be interested to see if that moves Peter Harness up in the list of show-runner to be.

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