|At last, the new series pays homage to one of the most
fundamental transitions of the classic series: monsters that
look like cocks.
It’s May 7th, 2005. The damn Tony Christie song is still at number one, stubbornly keeping me from getting to ay anything new. Snoop Dogg is new to the charts this time, as is Destiny’s Child, and Bruce Springsteen’s return to moody acoustic form Devils and Dust is topping the album charts, but it’s mainly a bit of a slow one in music. In news, Tony Blair wins his third successive general election, but with a sharply reduced majority that in effect starts the clock on his resignation as Prime Minister in accordance with the Granita pact. Which is a fairly good week for The Long Game to air during, given that it is, in the end, a story about the way power functions in the background.
It would have been easy not to do The Long Game. Much as the series could have avoided a remake of The Web Planet, it could have avoided ever touching the 1980s stories like this. The Long Game, in terms of structure and concern, belongs to the Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy eras. Actually, in a perfectly literal sense it belongs to the Sylvester McCoy era. Its basic story is from the script Davies submitted to the Doctor Who office while Cartmel was script-editing – the one Cartmel rejected with the suggestion that Davies write something more grounded, with the specific suggestion of “a man who is worried about his mortgage, his marriage, his dog.”
The critique is interesting in terms of what The Long Game became. The suture between the two versions is, after all, relatively obvious. The original story consists of the bits about overthrowing a despotic news organization, which fits smoothly into the Cartmel era’s sensibilities. One can fairly straightforwardly imagine Russell T Davies watching Paradise Towers or The Happiness Patrol and thinking “ah, yes, that’s the way to do it.” Actually, the story The Long Game has the most obvious similarity to is Vengeance on Varos, which, if the 1987 date for Davies’s failed submission is correct, suggests pretty straightforwardly that Vengeance on Varos and Paradise Towers are the two big antecedents of this.
There are worse things. It’s not like the 1980s were a wasteland of irredeemable stories. There were some high points, and Vengeance on Varos and Paradise Towers were among them. (For newer readers, yes, Paradise Towers really is absolutely brilliant.) But what’s striking, as I said, is that it would have been easy not to do it. I mean, perhaps not easy to resist turning your fifteen-year-old script submission into an actual episode as a sort of cackling and triumphant “I’m in charge now,” but certainly easy to bury the 1980s. None of it made a particular cultural impression in terms of Doctor Who beyond “they’re the rubbish years.” That is, of course, not true, but it would have been perfectly easy to just never mention it.
Then again, it would have been easy not to mention The Web Planet, which Davies did immediately. Part of the project of the first series has been not just to map out the scope of what Doctor Who can do but to make a case for its extremes. Davies is focused intently on creating a broad concept of Doctor Who that draws on all of the good bits. Not just all of the popular bits or the beloved bits, but all of the good bits, which, to Davies, includes no shortage of the rubbish bits. So of course he doesn’t take the easy option of pretending that Doctor Who ended with Tom Baker.
Mind you, it doesn’t quite work. It tries, but there’s a fundamental problem, which is that the type of 80s story that Davies is trying to emulate is based on world-building, which is the one thing forty-five minute episodes aren’t that good at. Paradise Towers has a wealth of problems as a story, mainly in its larger plot structure. But the time it spends in the texture of its world, looking at what its panto JG Ballard tower block is like is, generally speaking, gold. Similarly, the best thing about Vengeance on Varos is its exploration of the sick and nasty world of Varos and its entertainment/political culture. And those are both things that oddly enough, work because of the relative luxury of a hundred-minute structure.
The move to forty-five minute episodes means that instead of worlds we get iconographies. The 19th century Cardiff of The Unquiet Dead in fact consists of a theater and a funeral home, and only the latter actually has any substance, but because it’s such a familiar set of textures we don’t need more than that. It assumes an audience who is used to Victorian costume drama, and thus that isn’t going to worry about the world too much. Put another way, what The Unquiet Dead asks isn’t “what sort of world is this,” but “what sort of story is this.”
Even when Davies has done the alien, as in The End of the World, it’s been based on iconography. He builds a gaudy set of images of strangeness, but he grounds them all in the momentary familiar of 2005. But in The Long Game he has a story that was actually written for a 1980s model where exploring the world mattered. And he just doesn’t have time to. Satellite Five never feels like a coherent place. There are bold attempts – the scene of Cathica slowly realizing how the news manipulates perceptions so that nobody need to ask questions is marvelous. But that’s also the point of the story: that the nature of giant news media is that it can manipulate the world into not noticing that something is wrong.
Put another way, if a major part of your plot hinges on the fact that the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire is wrong then you probably need enough space to communicate what it’s supposed to be like and how it’s being manipulated. And we just don’t have that here, because that’s not what the forty-five minute format is good at. Maybe, just maybe it could have been done in forty-five minutes if that was the entire purpose of the plot – Davies will, in future years, manage to sketch worlds much more deftly, most notably in Gridlock. But here Davies insists on grafting the Adam plot onto it.
Ironically, it’s Adam’s scenes that give the most texture to the world, but it’s not the right sort of texture. It’s miles from the news stuff, and is mostly odd technical details about the head-opening stuff, which is a cool visual but probably didn’t need quite as much explication as a sense of what the news coming out of Satellite Five is like. For the most part Adam’s plot jars with the Satellite Five plot – there’s not enough room for both, and they don’t bolster each other sufficiently.
As a result Satellite Five never quite comes to life. Simon Pegg is wasted as the villain here, not because he’s anything less than fantastic (he’s the best thing about the episode), but because he’s too good for the material. He ends up anchoring the entire story – in the absence of a well-developed world or a particularly innovative plot (this being a bog-standard 80s Doctor Who plot) the story becomes about his marvelous villainous turn.
Nor does Adam quite come to life. He never has any motivations beyond being a bit shit. He was apparently supposed to, and scenes to this effect got shot, but they were ultimately cut for space reasons, further highlighting the degree to which there was simply too much going on here. But much like Aliens of London/World War Three doesn’t quite figure out how to get the two-parter to work, here Davies can’t quite figure out how to get both components working. He tries to do too much for a forty-five minute episode. It was bound to happen eventually, and like Aliens of London/World War Three is more properly a weak spot in the season than it is some sort of aesthetic disaster.
At the very least both parts of this story are, on their own merits, interesting. It is nice to see the 1980s structure of Doctor Who employed again, especially because it was the structure of many of the best episodes of the late 1980s. And it’s nice to see the series used for this sort of bracing social critique. Underneath this is something wonderfully politically radical – the idea that our entire sense of the world is, in practice, a lie created to maintain existing structures of power, and that it can only be disrupted through a careful mixture of curiosity and impertinence. The suggestion that the existence of Rupert Murdoch/The Jagrafess is actually retarding the progress of history itself is wonderfully audacious. It’s difficult not to love this story just for its scope alone; is there another new series story that’s so willing to just brazenly advocate revolution? The double-header of this and Dalek, and really the triple-header of those and Aliens of London/World War Three are all deliciously prescient. For all that we’ve talked about how Series One is first and foremost about the televisual landscape of 2005, the concerns of these stories age very well: corrupt wealthy people and disaster capitalism remain wonderfully 2012 concerns.
Meanwhile, the exploration of a bad companion is interesting. The working title of this story – The Companion Who Couldn’t – shows where the focus was, which is on Adam. This is an interesting exploration of the role of the companion, and an interesting angle to take on it. We’ve never really seen the companion defined in negative before. It’s been an annointed role – one you ascend to by playing a particular part in the narrative as opposed to through any actual character traits. So by showing us a failed companion we understand a successful one better, or, at least, we should.
But in that regard perhaps cutting all his motivation was a mistake, but even in the absence of an explanation for the character we have something where the iconography works. Adam contrasts Rose nicely, in part because his actor, Bruno Langley, is a reasonably major soap star with a Coronation Street run. Given that Rose is characterized, at her base, as coming out of the soap opera tradition, this sets up a sensible contrast – we’re invited to compare Adam to Rose. But what’s the difference? Adam is selfish, in a specifically capitalist/profit-driven way? Fair enough, but that’s not a difference that actually stems out of the soap opera milieu Adam and Rose hail from, so it’s a bit pointless.
And anyway, if Adam is selfish, what’s Rose in contrast? Well, actually, in this story she’s not anything – this is by far the least the companion has had to do all season. Because there’s not enough time for three plots her only role is asking to have the plot explained to her, and even that gets subsumed by Cathica so we can have the ordinary people rising up and taking charge at the end. As a result, she has nothing to do in the plot save for the fact that she frees the Doctor because her cuffs come undone first. So what we get is “Adam time travels for his own self-interest, whereas Rose is basically passive and just wants to soak in new experiences.” Which is, first of all, contrary to everything the episode is trying to say, and, second of all, is blown away as an explanation by the very next story, which is all about Rose acting selfishly in terms of time travel.
So what we get is basically “Adam doesn’t work as a companion and Rose does because Rose is Rose.” Which is tautological, but not necessarily problematic – indeed, this is basically the argument that backs up Rose’s ontological force in later stories, and it’s not one I have any problem with in the general case simply because Rose, like the Daleks, has at this point acquired a genuinely totemic force in the narrative. (Put another way, would anyone seriously object to a story that portrayed Ian and Barbara as super-special companions?) But seven episodes into the new series we’re not there yet. Past episodes have made the case for Rose’s centrality by demonstrating her narrative-transgressing powers. This one just blithely asserts it in a way that’s a bit hazy and unconvincing.
But not quite working is hardly a major or unprecedented sin in the world of Doctor Who. The series would be poorer if it didn’t try and come short with some frequency. And inasmuch as the first series is a land grab to establish the scope of Doctor Who it’s terribly useful. Along with Aliens of London/World War Three this story assimilates the news into the fabric of what Doctor Who is, as well as making it clear from the start that overthrowing corrupt structures of power in allegorical sci-fi societies is one of the basic milieus of Doctor Who. It doesn’t work, but we can ourselves afford to play the long game and see how it puts key pieces into place. The scope of what Doctor Who can be remains dizzyingly ambitious. And if it’s not always extraordinarily good, it is at least consistently non-awful and reasonably watchable.
Put another way, every show has weak episodes. If this is the quality level of crappy Doctor Who, we’re in good shape.