Then Why Is It Dark? (Embrace the Darkness)

(37 comments)


It’s April of 2002. Gareth Gates is at number one with “Unchained Melody,” which lasts almost the whole month before Oasis unseat them with “The Hindu Times.” Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, Nickelback, Marilyn Manson, Britney Spears, and Shakira also chart. Christ, so much for historicization. In news, a military coup to unseat Hugo Chávez fails, and the Queen Mother’s funeral takes place.

Audios, then. It’s more than a little jarring to go from Seasons of Fear to Embrace the Darkness. The Eighth Doctor audios hadn’t done something so self-consciously sci-fi since The Sword of Orion, and that was a deliberately nostalgic throwback. Here there’s less of a clear sense of that. Embrace the Dark is old-fashioned, yes, but it doesn’t trade on an explicit image of the past in the same way that The Sword of Orion does, or even, for that matter, in the same way that Seasons of Fear did. And yet it still feels out of place. Why?

The first thing to realize is that it’s a story at odds with its medium. And, more to the point, that its medium is actually relatively new.  Two-CD sets featuring self-contained four episode audio adventures aren’t something that really has a lot of precedent. Sure, radio drama does, and books on tape do, but this isn’t either of those. Unlike radio drama, it’s not serialized or transmitted live. Unlike books on tape, it’s not an adaptation of something else. So the shape and structure of it are up in the air. On top of that, the audios are fundamentally tied to the structure and logic of classic Doctor Who, which is to say, everything must be a four-parter of approximately half-hour parts.

The result of this, or at least a result of this is that the basic structure of the audios is at times wonky. For instance, there’s a pretty good Doctor Who structure in which each of the four episodes represent a different phase of the story, with cliffhangers that reveal new information that change the stakes. For television, at least, it’s a good structure, albeit with some flaws. But those flaws are largely intrinsic to any episodically serialized story - mainly that the half-hour format is a straitjacket. But there’s always a structure, and you learn to write to your structure.

The problem, however, is that the structure exists to solve the problems of serialization. The “change the premise slightly every episode” approach ultimately developed as a response to the failings of structure and pacing in much of the Hartnell era, where stories would often expand or contract arbitrarily to fill the space allotted to them, with little thought about how to structure them on an episode-by-episode level. And it’s a reaction against the slow pace of serialization. Terror of the Zygons - to pick a story that really embraces the “change the tone weekly” approach well - does it in part so that after four weeks of Zygons the audience is still fresh.

Embrace the Darkness is perfectly structured along these lines. Episode one sets up the world, its cliffhanger slotting the final puzzle piece in, episode two ends with the Cimmerians attacking, and episode three ends with the Solarians. And so each episode has a distinct purpose and job to do within the story. It’s in many ways as neatly structured as Seasons of Fear, with its three individual parts each in different time periods leading up to a final runaround. This story is one where a lot of attention has been paid to making sure it works well in the four episode structure it’s built for.

The problem is that when Doctor Who was transformed into its DVD/VHS format this structure became, if not a liability, at least a non-advantage. A story like Terror of the Zygons can survive on the basis of its other qualities, but The Hand of Fear, a similarly structured story that, by all appearances came off quite well on transmission, withers when watched in one stretch on DVD. It’s a structure that works well for the problems it solves, but those problems are problems of weekly television in the 1960s and 1970s, not problems of DVDs, little yet of two-disc radio dramas. The cliffhanger structure is almost entirely artificial within this context. There is little to no expectation that people will space out the cliffhangers. On the one hand, Big Finish has some fantastic cliffhangers. The one at the end of Embrace the Darkness Episode One is a prime example, as Charley nervously asks, “you don’t know, do you?” before revealing that the colonists have lost their eyes. It’s chilling, it’s disturbing, and it changes the direction of the story. And, on top of that, it’s geared towards audio: the cliffhanger works precisely because Charley can see something the audience can’t, which is difficult to do on video. (On video you’d have to have the colonists approaching and slowly coming into view, which makes them monstrous. The whole point of the Embrace the Darkness cliffhanger is that they’re not actually made monstrous, thusa llowing the horror of them being eyeless to take on a new resonance.)

But on the other hand, there’s no real point to the cliffhangers. The “you don’t know, do you” cliffhanger is great, but it’s wasted here in a format where the overwhelming majority of the audience is just going to plow straight on to episode two. Indeed, if anything the cliffhanger is damaging, as the entire thirty-minute first episode is structured to hold off on that key plot point until the end, and as a result has nothing like thirty minutes of incident. This was a common enough problem for the classic series, but at least there was a reason for it there. Big Finish has no inherent reason to be caught up in that structure. They do it purely in an attempt to echo Doctor Who of yore. And so they end up with all of the worst flaws of the structure and none of its advantages, since they don’t actually have the problems it was meant to solve.

Many writers handle this by just half-assing the cliffhangers, putting in some moment of danger every thirty minutes and simply telling a two-hour story. And that often works reasonably well. But Embrace the Darkness is too nostalgic or its own good. It doesn’t just mirror the structure of the classic series, it’s written to that structure, despite the fact that the structure isn’t right for its medium. And this is made stranger by how many places Embrace the Darkness seems to get the audio medium. The first episode cliffhanger illustrates this clearly, and it’s hardly the only example we could reach for. This is a story that knows how to use audio, but inexplicably retains the structure of 1970s television while doing so.

And it’s a real problem. The story only ends up revealing its premise at the end, largely because it’s embraced a structure where revelations about what’s going on are hoarded and doled out at slow intervals in order to get the episodes to work right. The problem is that what’s interesting about the story is the conflict between the Solarians and Cimmerians, and we don’t get to it until well into episode four. Prior to that it’s all atmosphere and stock characters, which are certainly a staple of Doctor Who, but can’t sustain a story on their own. And to be clear, it’s not really that this story is mispaced. It’s more complex than that: it’s that the structure it’s paced to is inimical to what it’s doing.

A few days ago one of my readers pinged me on Tumblr to ask what I thought Doctor Who would be like if it had never been cancelled. And one of the tricky things in answering that question is that one has to make the jump that Russell T Davies did in production style somewhere. The 26x25 structure with cliffhangers simply isn’t a modern production approach, nor, increasingly, is the split producer/script editor role. But short of the break of the wilderness years, it’s in some ways difficult to see how this would have happened. Because the truth is that it took the large sums of money of the BBC and the fact that they demanded that Doctor Who be updated in order to make the switch to modern production. The fact that he could pitch Doctor Who in modern terms is part of why Davies got the job. Even within Big Finish, which, as we’ve said repeatedly, were very good, there just wasn’t the institutional will to throw away some of the basic structures of Doctor Who’s production. If “four part stories of twenty-five minutes an episode” held complete sway over Big Finish, who had no incentive to make the change, it’s difficult to see how an ongoing television production could have, given the increased inertia involved with that.

Which is to say that for all that we point to the new series as a continuation of the classic series and have been arguing all through the wilderness years that there is a continuity from the old series, through the projects of the wilderness years, to the new series. And there is. But it’s also true that Russell T Davies created a ton of stuff on his own, and that a major part of the launch of the new series was the dynamiting of a raft of received wisdom about how Doctor Who was “supposed” to work. The fact that Big Finish is so slavishly attached to the 4x25 structure of stories speaks volumes about how much received wisdom there still was to kill off.

But the eccentricities of formatting do not manage to explain all that is odd about Embrace the Darkness. The other thing about it, if we’re being honest, is that it’s sci-fi. Which may seem like an odd thing to say, given that Doctor Who is ostensibly a science fiction series. But that observation, while factually true, is misleading. The science fiction tradition out of which Doctor Who grew was one based on a sense of strangeness and alienation. This was clear from the first seconds of Doctor Who, as Delia Derbyshire’s ahead-of-their-time tape loops swirled in time with the bizarre howlaround graphics. Doctor Who was science fiction, yes, but only because science fiction was terribly weird.

By 2002, however, it wasn’t anymore. Science fiction wasn’t defined by strangeness: it was totally mainstream. This is old history - it happened back in the 1970s with Star Wars, and we covered it at the time. But in many ways this is where it comes to light, simply because here we have a very straight science fiction story done after three stories that are, on the whole, much more interesting. Because Embrace the Darkness is, in many ways, very straight-up science fiction. Everything from this story is viscerally familiar as a major science fiction tripe, from the alien factions who turn out to be the same species to the slightly malevolent computer to the artificial suns. The story wears its sci-fi roots on its sleeve, openly naming the robot after Karel ?apek’s R.U.R.. And all of it is perfectly good classic science fiction. This would make a really great Star Trek episode.

And so, as Doctor Who, it feels boring as sin. Because straight science fiction isn’t where weird estrangement comes from anymore. Since at least 1975, and really for a ways before that we’ve been tracing a second sort of Doctor Who: the genre collision. And done right, the genre collision can create weirdness and anxiety very well. This “season” it’s been The Chimes of Midnight that has nailed this most soundly, but the next story we look at, although deeply flawed in its own right, produces similar tensions. But more to the point, straight science fiction stories just feel a bit dull at this point. Even if you’d fixed the structure here, you’d still have a story that has few good ideas beyond “sometimes the monsters are the good guys” and “overly logical computer systems are bad.” All the pacing in the world couldn’t paper over the fact that, by 2002, there’s just not much meat left on those bones anymore. Doctor Who isn’t at home in this genre anymore.

Comments

SK 4 years ago

'Everything from this story is viscerally familiar as a major science fiction tripe'

Freudian slip?

Link | Reply

elvwood 4 years ago

Ah, I think you've pinpointed why this was my least-favourite story of the season despite it being such a well-crafted script. (And I hope you mean SF trope, not SF tripe - it's not that bad!)

It's notable that when Nick Briggs took over from Gary Russell as Big Finish's Doctor Who Head Honcho - after the start of the TV revival - he cut back on episode lengths to make them strictly 25 minutes, even when it damaged the story (as he later admitted about Son of the Dragon). Now that's dedication to the form!

Link | Reply

Abigail Brady 4 years ago

But then, the way they'd ended up being bloated 4x35m stories really was not good. I think they ended up better for it.

The first Lucie Miller series is 45 minute long standalones, with two 2x45 ones as opener and finale. But that proved unpopular, so they've gone to 2x25, which they're also using for the Tom adventures (and you wouldn't -believe- the number of complaints about Tom not being 4x25 and the odd 6x25, even though then there would be way less individual stories as they only have Tom for a certain number of days).

Big Finish's problem here is the tension between the writers who want to experiment and innovate and a good portion of their listeners who are seeking respite from awfulness that they see in the New Series. It's trad vs. rad all over again. (This is not to say there's not a bit of a tendency towards box-filling.)

Link | Reply

sorrywehurtyourfield 4 years ago

Of course, the old series had given 45 minute episodes a go in 1985, and I think it’s fairly clear that the only reason it failed was because Saward and the other writers couldn’t seem to figure out how to pace it at all; indeed, that particular generation seemed lost without the imposition of peril moments every 25 minutes. It does, however, suggest that the BBC management had figured out the way forward shortly before they lost confidence in the series, and that adapting from 25 to 45 minutes during a continuous run was possible.

Ironically, just two years later, I think Doctor Who finally got the writers who might have been better equipped to use the 45 minute structure. Much as I love the McCoy era, it has a lot of fairly underwhelming cliffhangers, although I don’t intend that as a criticism. It comes across to me that Cartmel and his writers had little patience with the constraints of the increasingly anachronistic 25 minute episode structure and the weird pacing it inflicted upon their stories, and if so I have a lot of sympathy. Was it you who read the Dragonfire Part 1 cliffhanger as essentially a parody of the form, or am I thinking of somebody else? I do think it’s very revealing in that light.

I agree that Doctor Who couldn’t have simply evolved from the 1989 version to the 2005 version gradually, and I imagine that had it been continuously in production over that time, there would probably been a decisive ‘revamp’ moment in one year, whether under RTD or somebody else. Like the shift from Davies to Moffatt but more fundamental. The only analogies that come to mind are older, like The Avengers and Special Branch shifting from VT to film and undergoing dramatic creative changes in the process, but there are certainly precedents for big jumps forward in ongoing British series.

The 25 minute approach on Big Finish used to annoy me when it first started, as it seemed to represent a wish-fulfilment on the part of the producers to be making an old-fashioned TV series and a faint embarrassment about the medium for which they were actually doing such creative work. The fantasy Radio Times entries probably irritated me more in principle, even though they had no impact on the story, as they seemed to indicate a lack of ambition beyond straight nostalgia which often did the plays themselves an injustice. I feel it must have been obvious by 2002 that any new Doctor Who television series was going to be in 45-60 minute episodes, something Big Finish seemed to tacitly acknowledge by structuring ‘specials’ like Neverland and Zagreus in such a manner.

Nowadays I mostly listen to Big Finish on a half-hour commute, so the traditional structure suits me well. (Hate it when they overrun though!) Although I appreciate the argument that it can impose odd issues with the timing, in a way it’s possible to view it as a like the chapters of a book, which provide a sense of pacing and rhythm whilst not obligating the reader to read one chapter at a time.

Link | Reply

T. Hartwell 4 years ago

"Was it you who read the Dragonfire Part 1 cliffhanger as essentially a parody of the form, or am I thinking of somebody else? I do think it’s very revealing in that light."

That was Shearman joking about it on the Cliffhanger doc from the Terror of the Vervoids DVD.

Link | Reply

jane 4 years ago

I like Phil's analysis here -- it's that genre-collision that's missing from this story. And not just that, but strong characterization. These really are all stock characters, and I didn't get invested in a single one. I wonder if the "collision" form helps in this regard, because even smashing together "stock" characters can produce some interesting results.

Also, and I recognize this is just my pet peeve, I hate that so many of the characters' "characterization" revolves around a thick foreign accent or a heavily modulated voice. Not only does it make it more difficult for me to hear (I'm partially deaf) but it makes me despair to think the only way I can distinguish characters is through such gross manipulation.

Link | Reply

jane 4 years ago

:)

The one original bit here was brilliantly original: having lost their eyes. And it's perfect for the medium -- not just in the unveiling of the cliffhanger, but that such body-horror goes straight to the listeners. By virtue of being in an audio drama, it's like we have lost our eyes.

I was at first quite prepared to get invested in the plight of the supporting characters, but unfortunately there wasn't enough there for me to connect; the story's more invested in exploring SF tropes than character psychology.

Link | Reply

Ununnilium 4 years ago

The thing is, I could see Doctor Who evolving into a 45-minute show on TV. Because the thing is, there are pressures on TV that don't exist in the world of Big Finish, pushing the form of TV more towards whatever's around it. And, importantly, there are pressures in Big Finish's world too; it's not simply fans who don't want anything to change ever, it's people who are interested in the serialized format itself, and couldn't find it anywhere else. (Of course, that's changed too, now that the Internet allows people to actually serialize in formats that don't work on TV. So there's not much of an excuse anymore.)

Also, I'd say that there's definitely science fiction out there that can bring that level of strangeness - you just have to go for the concepts that haven't become so mainstream yet. Hell, the first episode of The Space Museum still fits into that space. For more modern examples, we can go with Dollhouse or Fringe, and that's just what's on TV.

Link | Reply

jane 4 years ago

Neither Dollhouse nor Fringe are straight-up classic SF, though. They're very invested in character development, and they both mash up their genres, Dollhouse in particular (and in a particularly meta way.) It's the principle of fusion that generates the strange attractors in these shows.



Link | Reply

elvwood 4 years ago

Abigail Brady: "But then, the way they'd ended up being bloated 4x35m stories really was not good. I think they ended up better for it."

In general, I'd agree - it was the rigidity of it that I was rolling my eyes at (and Nick Briggs also rolled his own eyes at, later). It takes us right back to the BBC policies c.1988-9!

Briggs also introduced his own innovations around the same time - like the interviews, or releases which were four single-episode stories, or 3-and-1 - so it's not like he was a bastion of rigidity even then. It just seemed like it was an unfortunate thing to get strict on, and this seemed an appropriate blog post to bring it up.

Link | Reply

Daru 4 years ago

I have been in the background reading away at your blog for a while. I experienced a major pause in following your essays at the Logopolis entry due to a heavy period of work. From my point of view as an artist and storyteller, I absolutely loved that entry and still return to it.

'Poetry, my boy, sheer poetry!'

Since then my reading of your work has actually been a little inspired by that entry and I have skipped from tale to tale, then followed a logical flow with Davison for a while (up to Black Orchid) - and now I have ended up here. In a lot of ways, your blog entries could be followed in a 'Choose Your Own Adventure' style. 'Recursive Occlusion: Logopolis' sits there at the centre of your sprawling and growing work, like the Tardis within the Tardis.

Personally, I am a great lover of McGann's portrayal of the Doctor on Big Finish. I agree with your take at the end of your last blog entry:

"He clearly wants darker material, and to start figuring out ways to balance the Doctor’s romanticism with darkness."

Even when the writing is deficient, there is often I feel interesting developments in his characterisation. Also I have no memory of listening to this story - even though I know I have. I have the whole collection. I may go back and listen at some point, but I do think this is because it just didn't work for me. 'The Chimes of Midnight' certainly did - and I can listen to that again and again.

Link | Reply

Daru 4 years ago

Just wanna add - glad to be back with the 'live' commenting community!

Link | Reply

Daibhid C 4 years ago

On the subject of Big Finish cliffhangers, for me at least, the episode 2 cliffhanger is the important one. At that point I might well decide that since I've reached the end of the CD, I should do something else, come back to it later, and let the cliffhanger do its job. Come to think of it, I still have a few Big Finish tapes (from the days I had a working personal stereo), where that decision applied to all four cliffhangers.

Of course, all this may change now that I have an iPod, and am slowly coming round to the idea that you can spend money on things that don't have a physical presence cluttering up your house.

Link | Reply

David Anderson 4 years ago

That's a little bit No True Scotsman, isn't it? I mean, Frankenstein is classic SF if anything is, and that's a gothic romantic novel.
You can certainly isolate a subcategory of SF, militaristic, and heavily invested in the ability of technology or the clever application of scientific knowledge to solve all problems. And maybe that's the subcategory that's most obvious to the non-SF community and was dominant at a particular period. But it would be misleading to say that anything else isn't classic SF.

Link | Reply

Alan 4 years ago

Your comments about McGann point to something that I've thought ever since the post-cancellation novels started: The choices of whichever actor is playing the Doctor are more important to the character's development than anything a writer could ever hope to inject. When the series was cancelled, the new writers took the NA Doctor as dark as they did because that was the most important innovation that McCoy brought to the role -- the idea that the Doctor could be ruthless to the point of actual cruelty. But lacking both further input from McCoy and the impetus for a new Doctor that would have inevitably come whenever McCoy decided to leave, the writers could only keep going back to the same well. Then, the Movie regenerated McCoy into a new, seriously undeveloped character which, bereft of an actual actor to define the character's personality, caused the writers to put him all over the map. And but for RTD and Big Finish, we would likely STILL have 8th Doctor adventures that rebooted the Doctor's personality every few years but which would never simply regenerate him because, absent an actor leaving, there is no reason to do so.

Link | Reply

jane 4 years ago

Yeah, "classic" is one of those ambiguous words. There's SF that's "classic" in the historical sense, and we can speak of all the pinnacles from the many SF subgenres as "classics" -- and then there's the subcategory of "classic SF" which Phil touches on at the end of his post to describe Embrace the Darkness, which is the usage I was employing to differentiate Dollhouse and Fringe, and how getting away from the "classic subgenre" may well be essential to finding "the strange." (BTW, both Dollhouse and Fringe are "classic" in my opinion -- in the sense of being "great," not in their conformity to the single-minded genre considerations that makes EtD merely mediocre.)

In part, I think this notion of "technology or the clever application of scientific knowledge to solve all problems" is a bit antithetical to generating weirdness and the anxiety of the surreal. After all, the "classic SF" subgenre is all about putting forth a perspective that's confident in discerning order and successfully manipulating the world around us.

Link | Reply

Alan 4 years ago

I wonder which came first, the 22-minute chicken or the traditionalist egg. Does Big Finish favor the 22/4 format because they feel like "that's how Doctor Who should be done" and this is attractive to nostalgia fetishists? Or does Big Finish quite sensibly market their products towards nostalgia fetishists (honestly who, other than a mildly obsessive fan, buys the things?) who would be put off by a deviation from the traditional format?

Also, the funniest thing to me about the debate is the Colin Baker 45-minutes era because, the few 6th Doctor stories to have made it to Netflix are bizarrely reedited into 22 minute episodes, even when there's nothing resembling a cliffhanger at the 22-minute mark. IIRC, in "Vengeance on Varos," episode 3 ends with the Doctor saying something completely innocuous and then running out the door. Cue credits!

Link | Reply

Commander Maxil 4 years ago

Completely agree with this, McGann shapes the evolution of his character in a way that was not possible in the EDAs, simply by the virtue of being the actual actor who played this underdeveloped Doctor (and a very good one too). This also points to one of the problems with the Virgin Books, McCoy had introduced a dark and manipulative side to his Doctor, but that was hardly his sole characteristic, even in stories like Ghost Light and Fenric there is much more going on than simply the Doctor manipulating the events, he shows a concern and care for Ace and you always get the feeling that the Doctors carefully orchestrated plans can (and do) go awry at a moment’s notice. Yet the books take the Doctor’s manipulativeness to such an extreme that he almost ceases to be the same character and you wonder why Ace and Benny travel with him at all (one thing the McGann audios brought back, and the new series has built on is that sense of fun and wonder that travelling with the Doctor should involve). With Big Finish McCoy has developed the character over the years in such a way that he retains his dark side, but there is much more nuance to it and he remains fiercely attached to his companions and unwilling to see them hurt at all costs, and I think the 7th Doctor has ended up in a much better place with Big Finish, but it must in part be down to having the actor involved and I suppose having him developing his character over several years, certainly longer than we ever would have got on TV. The same goes for McGann, the scripts are occasionally uneven but he injects quality through his performance and this story is an example of a fairly generic story kept interesting by McGann’s great performance, which is doubly important when the supporting characters are basically just plot ciphers with little background fleshed out.

Link | Reply

elvwood 4 years ago

You know, I'd forgotten that they came on double cassette tapes at one point (before my time with Big Finish). So, at that point there was a genuine reason for the episode length, just as restricting as a TV timeslot. Yes, they could have used C90s - but the BBC could have used 45-minute slots (and didn't, generally). So, four sub-30-minute episodes, and not just for nostalgic reasons. Interesting.

Link | Reply

Ununnilium 4 years ago

The thing is, there's no real "classic SF" genre there that's gotten worn-out, just a certain subset of tropes that recur sometimes in related but distinct genres.

Link | Reply

Ununnilium 4 years ago

I don't know. I think this blog has aptly demonstrated that, rather than returning to the same well over and over, the New Adventures let the 7th Doctor evolve over time. The "Death in the Family" entry especially shows how these changes worked and why.

Link | Reply

Ross 4 years ago

I think we may have discussed this elsewhere before. It's a bit of a tweak to the language to describe "SF" as a genre; it's something more akin to a setting: "genre" (as used to market fiction) sometimes refers to something more properly termed a genre, such as romance, or adventure, or mystery, and other times it refers to a.. Hm. Maybe the right word would be "motif"? And in some cases, that motif "trumps" the "proper" genre, at least for marketing purposes (though this also pollutes discussion and scholarship to some extent): if it's a love story, it's a romance... Unless it's set in Space, in which case it's science fiction. A whodunnit about a murder? Mystery, unless it's set in the old west, then it's a Western. Story about a group of people on a journey to find some long-lost relic of immense value? Adventure, unless there are elves, in which case it's fantasy. (And then on top of that, take any of those statements and add "Targeted toward a teen audience" and now the genre is "Young Adult")

Link | Reply

Philip Sandifer 4 years ago

I've touched on these themes in a few older posts - the one on Star Wars in particular. (http://tardiseruditorum.blogspot.com/2011/12/pop-between-realities-home-in-time-for.html )

Short form - I think there is a point where it makes sense to talk about science fiction as a distinct genre, namely the Asimov/Clarke/Heinlein golden age. But it was a very short-lived genre, and science fiction in that model hasn't had a great track record since the 1970s. "Classic sci-fi" is a decent shorthand for this particular moment in science fiction's history, I think.

Link | Reply

Adam Riggio 4 years ago

This theme of the blog is one that's gotten me most excited (and crazy-sounding) in the comments over the past couple of years. Classic sci-fi — that Asimov / Clarke / Heinlein model — only seems to have a destructive impact whenever it's applied to Doctor Who. Thinking over the Saward era, especially Phil's analyses of it, so many of the period's flaws seem rooted in a single category mistake: believing that Doctor Who, because it involves time travel and spaceships, is a sci-fi show, and that sci-fi is that classic model like Star Trek.

It's something of a wild interpretation on my part, but I think even continuity-obsessed Whoniverse thinking is a development of this mistake that Doctor Who is a straight sci-fi show. The Whoniverse is about articulating a single consistent continuity and story that comprehends all activity that has been and could be in Doctor Who. And this kind of thinking kills the program. Indeed, it kills most programs, because it gets the creative staff thinking not about new stories to tell, but crafting their stories to fill continuity gaps and inconsistencies. Star Trek may be a fairly traditional show, but it could still make quality TV. But the worst Star Trek episodes ever were those Enterprise stories that existed solely to fix some inconsistency from the original or Next Gen series.

Strict continuities create a fully articulable and complete truth for what happened in a particular creative universe. It's fully in line with the attitude of classic sci-fi that the world is fully explicable and manipulable using the scientific method and technologies derived from it. It's poison to Doctor Who, which in its fundamental premise was rightly opposed to there being a single universal scientific method, or a single universal mode of knowledge, thinking, and life at all. (For more details, see my essays at social-epistemology.com that have come out over the last 18 months.)

Link | Reply

Commander Maxil 4 years ago

Hmm, having reread the post of Death in the Family I am forced to concede the point, the NA Doctor does develop over time. I think my views have been coloured by the fact I am currently re-reading all the NAs in order, and having just reached All-Consuming Fire, have just come out of what was probably the most manipulative period of the 7th Doctor in that series (culminating in No Future). Nonetheless I think on the whole I prefer the Big Finish 7th Doctor to the one in the NAs, though that is as much about how I like to consume my Doctor Who (Big Finish have made me a lover of audio drama, esp through their 8th Doctor work) and the presence of the actors.

Link | Reply

David Anderson 4 years ago

I think golden-age sf is more meaningful in that sense than classic sf. (Although even then, things like More than Human and A Canticle for Liebowitz, don't quite fit.) But you could define a silver age of sf which would include things like The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. If The Left Hand of Darkness isn't sf, it's hard to say what it is.

(I don't know whether this is a pond difference. The Golden Age is very much a US phenomenon as I understand it, even if Clarke was British. UK understandings of what sf is have I suspect always been less dominated by it.)

Link | Reply

David Anderson 4 years ago

On a related note: does anyone else remember a pair of collections of sf short stories from, I think, Puffin in the early eighties, marketed with Peter Davison as Doctor Who on the front cover?

Link | Reply

Bennett 4 years ago

And not just on Netflix. I originally watched the series as weekday-ly repeats on Australia's ABC, which also split up 45 minute episodes (aside from Resurrection and Revelation which weren't shown at all).

Strangely enough, the weakness of these cliffhangers never registered with me. I think as a result of originally watching it once-a-day instead of once-a-week I don't take much notice of Doctor Who cliffhangers in general. The only one that has ever made an impact on me was the cliffhanger to An Unearthly Child - because that was the moment I decided to continue watching a quaint black-and-white show.

And as we're on the subject, Ian Levine stated in his DWO Podcast interview that he takes episodes of New Who and edits them into the 22 minute format. That says it all, really.

Link | Reply

jane 4 years ago

Here's another take on SF nomenclature, one of the most comprehensive I've ever seen. (Reminds me of Jack Graham's take on the tentacular.)

http://drudginggoblin.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/history-of-scifi-full.jpg

Link | Reply

Ununnilium 4 years ago

I'd say, though, that "golden age SF" isn't really a genre, and that there's a science fiction genre that's much much larger than those writers, their influences, and their copiers. But this wouldn't be the first time we disagree! It's cool.

Jane: I like it!

Link | Reply

Bob Dillon 4 years ago

I had always assumed that the time restriction was so that the stories could be played on speech networks like Radio 4 Extra. Not having a predictable lenght would cut out an audience they were hoping to increase.

Bob

Link | Reply

SK 4 years ago

I'm also quite surprised by 'boring as sin': if sin were that boring, surely it wouldn't be as popular as it is?

(Yes, having not listened to any Big Finish plays (well, some, but under half a dozen), I am reduced to commenting on language).

Link | Reply

SK 4 years ago

There's an old tale the BBC head of new writing tells, regarding radio drama, of a writer, now established, whose first attempt at a radio play was about a group of young women from somewhere in the Grim North (sorry, that's tautologous, isn't it?) who go on a coach trip.

So that's five or six characters all of the same sex, age and accent. When it was pointed out to her that this would not work at all well on radio she realised how silly she'd been (and never made the same mistake again).

Accents do help in distinguishing characters on radio: it's the same reason a TV or film casting director, for example, shouldn't cast three actors or actresses all of the same height, build and hair colour (unless of course part of the point is that the audience can't tell them apart, eg it's a mystery story involving a case of mistaken identity).

Obviously you don't want that to be the only point of characterisation, but in an aural medium, it's good for the audience to be able to instantly identify which character is speaking and accents do help with that (though ideally you cast someone with the real accent rather than getting one of your rep company to put it on).

Link | Reply

jane 4 years ago

I'd much prefer the natural accents of greater Britain to the heavy (and fake) "foreign" accents we've gotten at this point. Nor did we need the only other female voice to be so overdone to distinguish her in a rather small cast.

Link | Reply

Ununnilium 4 years ago

Oh, also, super-late, but:

If you're lumping Heinlein in with Clarke and Asimov, you have to kind of ignore that, while moving in this general space, he took "science will save us all" in a much weirder direction and became an integral, inseparable part of the '60s counterculture movement.

Link | Reply

Tommy 4 years ago

I think this story captured Nick Briggs at his best prime. Between this, Creatures of Beauty and the first two Dalek Empire series, I'd say he had the makings of good stuff. And I think it's one of his more disciplined scripts where it doesn't succumb to his tendency toward overkill (which he can sometimes indulge for better as well as for worse).

Sadly I think Nick has for too long been working under the RTD regime that produced the Last of the Time Lords abomonation, and as such RTD's brand of meaningless pity-mongering whiney emoting, lots of meaningless explosions, erratic, horrid characterisation seemed to creep into Nick's own audio work, especially with his unpleasant Noel Clarke star vehicle, Dalek Empire IV.

There's a beautiful dramatic integrity and cohesion to this story about forces of nature, cultural guilt and redemption, the infinite capacity for human survival, and themes of archaeology and anthropology. I'm pre-emptively cringing for the coming days when this blog comes to the Heat-reading, Big Brother-watching, self-absorbed parasitic vision of RTD's New Who and comparatively praises it just because its characters cry, whine and emote occasionally on cue. Oh and it gets ratings figures.

Will this blog be also lauding the rotten, petty characterisation of the Tenth Doctor who throws a tantrum over saving 'unimportant' Wilf, over the noble Doctor here who braves everything just to face and apologise to the aliens he's misjudged and wronged.

I'm baffled by commenters claiming this is typical convoluted insular modern serial sci-fi, when this is actually one of the few successful standalones of McGann's second season.

Link | Reply

Daru 3 years, 11 months ago

Just to add first -

I have had real problems posting my comment. I am trying to keep persisting in posting. So hopefully this one works - as I want to get back into engaging 'live' with folk on this blog!

Alan: “Your comments about McGann point to something that I've thought ever since the post-cancellation novels started: The choices of whichever actor is playing the Doctor are more important to the character's development than anything a writer could ever hope to inject.”

Hi Alan – I do agree with your points above. For me this is one the key things that makes this show entirely unique. What we have is a show that has survived in creating a series of stories with one character played by many actors – both on- and off-screen. Many people are very concerned about strict continuity being adhered to, for me this does not matter – what counts are the characters, especially that of the Doctor.

“…the sad thing about Doctor Who fans has always been what they liked about Doctor Who. It’s always been that they genuinely thought the series was about its monsters and its thrills.” (From Philip’s Earthshock post)

What is absolutely brilliant and exciting at the heart of this show, for me, is that many actors have played him and that we are usually witness to this change and that it has been made a part of the character. Genius.

With regards to Paul McGann I have loved the fact that he found the persistence to continue with playing the Doctor within Big Finish, as at one point after the early stages it seemed that he would give up. It has been a joy to experience his role developing beyond the TV Movie, where his ideas (I heard) had been rather steamrollered – he was intending to appear almost like the 9th Doctor originally, but the THAT wig appeared! Recently it has been interesting to see the new appearance/ costume be used on CD covers, etc. and also new depths be brought in for McGann’s take on the Doctor (Big Finish – ‘Dark Eyes’). Much better having this happen with in ‘in the flesh’, rather than a ‘ghost’ version of him in the novels, I look forwards to where he will go from here…

Link | Reply

New Comment

required

required (not published)

optional

Recent Posts

Archive

Tags

Authors

Feeds

RSS / Atom