4 years, 10 months ago
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.
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