For only the second time ever, December 25th, 2005 featured the debut of two separate new episodes of Doctor Who. Immediately after The Christmas Invasion viewers were invited to press the red button and thus to watch Attack of the Graske, an interactive Doctor Who story in which viewers take on the role of the companion in stopping an alien invasion.
Attack of the Graske had no real prospect of being a conventionally good Doctor Who episode, nor of being a conventionally good piece of interactive fiction. This is less a factor of the people involved with it than it is a basic medial limit: the BBC Red Button service is not actually sophisticated enough, and the amount of footage they can actually afford to film with David Tennant for a throwaway like this is not actually high enough to make this work. And so what we get is about ten minutes of footage, virtually none of it actually involving Tennant (who does all his scenes from the TARDIS, meaning this was probably shot in about a lunch break), in which there’s not so much interaction as a series of tests you’re graded on. Only the final scene allows you to make a decision that affects the plot, and it divides squarely into a good ending and a bad ending.
All of which is seems a spectacularly churlish set of things to say about something with the sole purpose in life of allowing children to have their very own Doctor Who adventures. I mean, the point of this is being invited onto the TARDIS to be a companion, right? And the Doctor saying he might come back for you? And your remote getting linked with the sonic screwdriver? It’s pure fantastic glee, isn’t it?
Well, no. Probably not. I mean, children aren’t stupid. They get how the red button works. They understand the difference between fiction and reality. And they’ve played enough video games to tell a good one from a bad one. This is firmly within an aesthetic they’re familiar with. Admittedly being Doctor Who probably wins some substantive points from a fair number of kids, and it’s not as though Attack of the Graske is an outright bad game. Indeed, we should remember that as originally conceived it’s not a game at all but an interactive episode of television. This is more Silence in the Library than Call of Duty 2. It had a specific airtime in which it could be watched, and is controlled with a TV remote.
We should detour briefly here to explain the technology, as there are Americans around. The “red button” is more or less exactly what it sounds like, and launches a service that was then called BBC Red Button, but now goes with the marginally less intuitive name “BBCi,” the vowel standing for “interactive.” The service is the technological heir to the late, lamented Ceefax, a 1970s form of interactive television that gave news headlines and allowed several rudimentary games to be played. Ceefax was not what you would call hi-fi – the graphics were definitely 70s/80s quality computer graphics, and there was only so much it could do. But it was interactive television – I remember a family vacation in the 90s where I discovered Ceefax and thought it outright magic. Nothing like it existed in the US, and still doesn’t, really. (It’s an artifact of the glorious experimentalism that was still in place at the BBC up until the 1990s – the same thing that brought you the Radiophonic Workshop and the strange soundscapes that haunted Doctor Who prior to the John Nathan-Turner era. And, for that matter, that brought you Delia Derbyshire.)
By 2005 it was an altogether fancier affair capable of more technological sophistication. But still not that much more, all told. Attack of the Graske has about as much complexity as a DVD game, if you’ve ever encountered one of that odd breed. It’s more or less on the technological level of Dragon Lair, though, to its credit, unlike Dragon Lair it’s not an absurdly finicky and difficult game that inspires nothing so much as rage in the player. Still, this just isn’t that inspiring a bit of technology. It’s neat, and may even have a few quite good things you can do with it, but the “interactive movie” genre that Attack of the Graske fits into has not exactly been a stunning and memorable genre known for its remarkable effect upon the world. Attack of the Graske was probably about as good as it could be, and, though it’s preserved in amber on the BBC website, was always designed as a fun ten minute diversion on Christmas.
But this is a dangerous line of argument, coming perilously close to suggesting that Attack of the Graske works because its status as unrepeatable time-sensitive entertainment – one last bit of fun at Christmas – means that it doesn’t have to be that great. If it can avoid being a satsuma then it’s a winner. Ah, the joys of low expectations, basically.
This is not really a criticism of anyone involved in this specific production. The puzzles are mostly reasonably kid-friendly and of a difficulty level that matches a good old-fashioned puzzle book. It’s not perfect – the first one, in which you have two camera views to monitor as you look for a detail that only appears on one, is a bit unfair – but it’s pretty good. The ending is positively delightful, with its quiet prioritizing of saving a family’s Christmas over beating the bad guy.
But this, in its own way, highlights the underlying futility of the exercise. The ending relies on a relatively high level of genre awareness. One has to remember the captured family from the start of the story (though one gets a clue in this direction as you see them teleported into the Graske’s collection), and to realize that under the basic ethics of Doctor Who saving them by picking the “return everyone to where they came from” option is much more important than shutting down the Graske’s operation. To win the game one must, in other words, have internalized both the ethics and plot logic of Doctor Who, since the explanation of what the two options mean is done at terribly high speed.
But that sort of familiarity is the same reason why the story can only aspire to being a fun thing to play with for ten minutes after The Christmas Invasion airs. Because anyone familiar enough with Doctor Who to win the final decision as something other than a coin toss is going to also recognize this as sub-par. And this gets at what we might call the more interesting point here. One of the quotes I’ve trotted out several times, because I think it’s terribly revealing, is Russell T Davies’s comment that the idea of a child viewer realizing Rose can’t really be dead in Bad Wolf isn’t cynical, it’s wise. What’s so revealing about this quote, to me, isn’t just the valorization of a trope-aware television viewing, it’s a rejection of immersion-based storytelling. That is, it’s not just praising a viewer who realizes that the series isn’t going to kill off Rose, it tacitly criticizes as unwise any viewer who watches the series in such a blindly credulous way.
This is important, because it absolutely decimates an entire model of watching Doctor Who. And, unfortunately, it’s the one that’s at the heart of Attack of the Graske. That is, of course, the model of uncritical fantasy – of wishing the Doctor would come to take you away. There certainly is an age bracket that reads television as if it’s real, but this has always been a model I’ve been skeptical of at best, and the new series just completely fails to support it. But this raises a question – how is this not cynical? Isn’t rejecting the innocence of childhood fantasy the very definition of cynicism?
Well, no. I mean, for one thing, this isn’t rejecting childhood fantasy at all. What it is rejecting is the passivity of childhood fantasy. If there is something to be frustrated about with Attack of the Graske it’s the passivity it demands. The viewer is ultimately asked to sit and wait for the Doctor’s return. The only authorized way to interact with the Doctor is via the TV remote – in other words, the audience’s engagement with Doctor Who becomes coextensive with watching Doctor Who. If this is some idyllic thing to cherish and protect then frankly, long live cynicism.
But lets consider another model – one in which childhood fantasy isn’t based on uncritical immersion, but on, oh, let’s go ahead and be Aristotelean here, imitation. And specifically, an intelligent imitation that recognizes how story structure and creation work. Why would we valorize the quasi-reality of Doctor Who when it can find just as much power – indeed, even more power – in its fictionality. Because if Doctor Who is treated as real then it’s a system in which only the authorized companion ever gets to have adventures. But if it’s fictional then all one has to do is recognize the material conditions under which it’s made. If it’s fictional than we get to recognize that the difference between David Tennant playing the Doctor and us pretending to be the Doctor is the paycheck. We get to recognize that the Doctor Who stories we imagine have just as much validity as the ones we watch.
And this really is important, because it is, in point of fact, how Doctor Who gets made. Matt Smith famously developed his use of the sonic screwdriver by taking the prop and playing with it in a manner not particularly dissimilar to what any kid unwrapping their own sonic on Christmas morning does. Writing a Doctor Who story really is just a matter of opening a notebook and starting. This is how creative work actually takes place: people do stuff. By understanding Doctor Who as something that is created and constructed, and that follows certain narrative rules we do not lose our ability to become immersed in Doctor Who. We gain it. We actually learn how to make Doctor Who. Even on a more basic level, the realization that you can have a Dalek story with nothing more than a trash can, a whisk, and a plunger is tremendously empowering. Doctor Who’s true immersive potential comes when it gets out of the box, not when we get in. As we’ve seen, that’s the real way “bigger on the inside” works.
This is not, to be clear, an argument against video games, which can readily be understood as being just as constructed and created as anything else. It is, however, an argument against the immersive fantasy of video games. At their best video games are thoroughly conducive to learning to treat stories this way, since they are in practice about learning sets of rules and systems. Video games are marvelous for this sort of thing. No, what’s frustrating and disappointing is the practice of using video games, well, like this.
Again, I really want to underline the degree to which this is not a criticism of anyone in particular with Attack of the Graske. In fact, it is in almost every regard as good as it can possibly be with the technology available. Nor do I particularly blame Davies, Roberts, et al for falling partially into the trap of immersion and “becoming the Doctor’s companion,” because it’s such a longstanding fantasy that it would be almost impossible to avoid it forever. The problem is that the rest of the time the series is so good at moving beyond the fantasy and at providing something altogether more useful. It’s hard to fault Attack of the Graske because it is such a well-meaning and frankly cuddly piece of work, but equally, it’s hard to get that enthused about something that’s so actively rejecting what’s really magical about Doctor Who in favor of “wouldn’t it be fun if you could go on a kind of naff runaround with aliens.”
If one really wanted to push the argument one could suggest that this is in practice the exact danger that being a massive hit entails for Doctor Who. It’s fun, but little else, and, worse, lacking in any desire to be anything else. It wholly and completely believes that being Doctor Who is enough to make it inherently fun and interesting, and thus that no further ambitions are required. It is, in a sense, exactly what The Christmas Invasion seems afraid of Doctor Who becoming. And perhaps it’s worthy of fear – certainly Attack of the Graske is an unsettling vision for the future of the show. But it’s not a vision of the future; it’s a fun way to spend ten minutes towards the end of Christmas Day. Here, at least, nothing more is required.