Outside the Government 14 (The Infinite Quest)
The Infinite Quest is almost completely unsuited to the form in which anyone actually encounters it these days. These days it’s reskinned to appear like an episode of Doctor Who that happens to be animated – complete with a cold open and credit sequence. In reality, it’s a thirteen episode serial consisting of short episodes lasting roughly three and a half minutes that were one of several components of the second and final season of Totally Doctor Who.
We’ve covered Totally Doctor Who and its inadequacies at the end of the second season. To recap, it was a show that did a poor job of engaging with Doctor Who, treating its audience like they’re idiots. Given this, The Infinite Quest is actually not that bad. Everyone is clearly putting effort into it – the animation is by the remnants of Cosgrove Hall, who did Scream of the Shalka and the two episodes of The Invasion. David Tennant and Anthony Head both do quite well for dealing with a script that they clearly first saw about twenty minutes before they started recording. Freema Agyeman is rougher, turning in a shockingly poor performance, but to be fair, voice acting is a different skillset from screen acting, and there’s not actually an inherent reason why being good at one means you’re good at the other. (Actually, I’m curious when this was recorded – given the lead time needed for animation, it wouldn’t surprise me if Agyeman did this before she’d substantially gotten to work with the character.)
The problem is that, structurally, it seems messy. Several ideas seem underdeveloped in the extreme. For instance, early on it introduces a world in which interplanetary oil piracy to free needed resources from powerful corporations is common. This is a neat, politically incendiary premise. Indeed, it goes politically further than the series is usually willing to, coming off better than, for instance, the attempt to deal with exploitative labor conditions next season in Planet of the Ood. The problem with it is that it seems to be dealt with and discarded shockingly quickly, taking up only about ten minutes of screen time total.
But this is just an illusion caused by repackaging The Infinite Quest into a quasi-episode of Doctor Who. In reality the oil pirates storyline was explored for three or four weeks, roughly (based on the timing in the episode), from Gridlock through to The Lazarus Project. Far from seeming like an underdeveloped theme, this is actually quite a substantial amount of time spent. And the idea that the entire story should have focused more tightly on one or two ideas is ludicrous. The Infinite Quest was designed to be experienced over the course of three months. It has as many episodes as The Daleks’ Masterplan (counting Mission to the Unknown). Of course it jumps around a lot – spending ten weeks of Doctor Who in one setting with one idea would be unbearably dull.
And yet there’s a complication here. You’ll note that my account of exactly which parts of The Infinite Quest contain the oil pirates plot is speculative. This is because the DVD omnibus is the only version that’s available. And in this case, I don’t just mean “legitimately available.” The second season of Totally Doctor Who is nearly impossible to find in any format. I flat out could not find any copy of it in time to write this post. Which brings up an interesting issue, because the only version of The Infinite Quest that exists is one that is fundamentally different from The Infinite Quest as a piece of transmitted television that aired over thirteen weeks in 2007.
This is not a new problem. We’ve been dealing with the problems of the archive since Marco Polo, after all. And even before that, as I pointed out during the Hartnell years, there’s something profoundly different between how I watch An Unearthly Child (on a fairly large HDTV with an LCD screen, via digital files streamed from my computer that were themselves converted from DVDs that contain digitally treated versions of the film recordings of the original episodes, which existed on video) and how An Unearthly Child was watched on November 23rd, 1963 by 4.4 million people (on broadcast television, on 405-line sets). This project has always been concerned in part with the difference between the preserved version of a Doctor Who episode and the cultural object.
(This also seems like a good time to disclaim that I have purchased legitimate retail copies of every Doctor Who story to receive a commercial release, and that the DVD rips are purely an issue of what’s easiest to use with my A/V setup.)
But with The Infinite Quest, and more broadly with Doctor Who in the new series era things become even more complicated. The astonishing reach of television is already something we’ve talked about (to recap, it’s actually fairly likely that more people have seen City of Death Episode Four than have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although exact numbers are hard to come by). This means that the actual thing that aired on television on a specific date is a very big deal, and that the archived versions we look at are little more than the darkened glass through which we peer to understand the historical event that was television.
But by the time of the new series this gets trickier. It is, of course, a guess, but between DVD sales, Netflix, broadcast outside of the UK, and good old-fashioned piracy I would wager that substantially more people have seen Blink since June 9th, 2007 than watched it on the day. This isn’t entirely a new issue – I would be gobsmacked if the number of people who had seen the first episode of Doctor Who since November 23rd, 1963 did not dramatically outstrip the 4.4 million who watched on the night. But there’s something striking about the fact that we can say that about Blink just six years after its broadcast, whereas on November 30th, 1969 there was no chance that this was true about “The Cave of Skulls.”
This is something that has been a quandary when dealing with things like the New Series Adventures novels, which fill a fundamentally different role than books did for the classic series. By the time of 2005 the existence of a long-lasting archived version of a television program was taken for granted. If you miss Doctor Who on broadcast, you can always get the DVD set. Davies has said that the way he coped with fear that his revival of Doctor Who would bomb was to remind himself that at least he’d have a DVD set. There’s a fundamental inversion here. In the 1960s and 1970s, the paratext of Doctor Who was the enduring part, and the episodes were what faded into memory. Now it’s nearly impossible to get a proper copy of The Infinite Quest, but a copy of Blink that’s functionally identical to the digital master can be streamed to my phone.
And this changes the nature of Doctor Who. Throughout the blog we’ve treated the historical moment of broadcast as sacrosanct – as the real moment a story exists in. But now, in an era where we know Davies had plotted out the broad strokes of the Master’s return in his head before Rose even aired and where we’re invited to reread Last of the Time Lords in light of The End of Time, the moment of broadcast becomes devalued. Not erased – Davies is still a populist who knows to chase ratings. But we’re rapidly nearing the tipping point (if we’ve not already crossed it) where more people catch up on Doctor Who via iPlayer and timeshifting than watch it live, and where the release of a new episode of Doctor Who is an international event instead of a British one, such that the moment of broadcast on BBC One is merely a plurality of the first week of an episode’s existence, and certainly not something with any claim to be the real version of it.
And yet it’s still very easy to go too far in this direction. The moment of broadcast is significant because it provides the cultural context episodes existed in. Doctor Who has always, as we’ve seen over the past three years, responded to the world it’s transmitted into. The phenomenon of broadcast matters no matter how much of the audience watches later. I mean, nobody seriously suggests that Macbeth is not firmly rooted in 1606, and that no number of centuries of popularity can ever change that.
For the most part this is a fairly abstracted theoretical debate. It plays in occasionally – how one reads Martha’s departure and the marginalization of her in The End of Time is impacted heavily by whether one treats the Davies era as a single narrative with a defined endpoint or whether one thinks about it from the perspective of the much larger number of people who have not seen every Martha episode and who had long since forgotten the plot line of her being in love with the Doctor by the time of The End of Time (or who don’t remember the few minute scene in The End of Time and just think of her as that nice pleasant companion from 2007). But it’s fairly rarely a debate upon which fundamental issues of interpretation hinge.
But The Infinite Quest is an exception, just because in its omnibus format it’s a messy and trashy story with little purpose, whereas one suspects that as a three month serial of mini episodes it’s actually reasonably fun and probably the high point of a given episode of Totally Doctor Who. But this opens up a wealth of odd questions. If The Infinite Quest is preserved in a version that undermines its basic point, what does that mean for its status as part of the Doctor Who paratext? In a world in which the show is well-archived, do comparatively poorly archived extras even matter anymore? And how do we understand television when it becomes a strangely shifting target, simultaneously a broadcast event and a fixed and enduring text?
I should sheepishly admit at this point that the bulk of these questions are rhetorical. A new interpretive approach for television in an age where the technology itself is in flux is not something I’m quite hubristic enough to propose in a blog entry that I’m trying desperately to finish before I have to go run some errands.
But I will suggest this: the size and depth of the archive, and the expectation of the archive’s existence has fundamentally shifted the nature of what Doctor Who is. And more to the point, it’s shifted it in a way that Doctor Who is oddly better suited towards. Prior to the archive we had paratexts like novelizations and comics through which we tried to reconstruct the ephemeral object of the episode. But there was always a single thing called Doctor Who that we tried to get towards.
Now, on the other hand, Doctor Who is not a singular object but an endlessly churning mass of texts that continues to grow, and where various points respond selectively to other points in the mass without attempting to contribute to any sort of singular coherence. Doctor Who is no longer a single thing to understand, but a tangled mess, all parts of which exist in knowing conflict with other parts. Doctor Who has itself become mercury, ever-shifting and expanding.
In this regard The Infinite Quest is interesting less as a narrative in its own right than as a snapshot of a particular moment in Doctor Who’s history. What’s interesting is less its particular take on Doctor Who and more the fact that this take comes out of the series in 2007, reflecting the transition of what “Doctor Who for kids” meant away from the limitations of Totally Doctor Who and towards the more intelligence-respecting take of The Sarah Jane Adventures. But as a piece of Doctor Who, this, and indeed the spinoff material in general, is just… inscrutable.
September 30, 2013 @ 12:54 am
in its omnibus format it’s a messy and trashy story with little purpose, whereas one suspects that as a three month serial of mini episodes it’s actually reasonably fun and probably the high point of a given episode of Totally Doctor Who.
I can confirm this; I used to put Totally Doctor Who on and then read a book and ignore it as much as possible until The Infinite Quest started. And once Infinite Quest was over, I'd switch off.
September 30, 2013 @ 2:05 am
In the general spirit of taking into account how programmes were watched, I'm willing to stick my neck out and say that I rather enjoyed Totally Doctor Who, watching it as I did on lazy Sunday mornings (I think) as an undemanding accompaniment to a slow breakfast. Certainly I was more inclined to watch that than Confidential, particularly so as the latter was screened on Saturday evenings directly after the episodes they were regurgitating.
September 30, 2013 @ 2:32 am
between DVD sales, Netflix, broadcast outside of the UK, and good old-fashioned piracy I would wager that substantially more people have seen Blink since June 9th, 2007 than watched it on the day.
According to the Nerd Cubed interview with Steven Moffat that was released last week, each episode has an eventual audience of 70 million people. 70 million. The BBC1 audience is, as they say, just the tip of a very large iceberg.
September 30, 2013 @ 3:11 am
As far as the mess goes, I like Neil Gaiman's metaphor of literature being a giant soup pot. He'll ladle out some soup with bits from Tolkien and Baum and then, when he's made his soup, he'll pour it back into the pot, where Rowling will ladle some out for her soup. All these forms and flavors of Doctor Who are part of the stew and they'll inevitably affect each other, while some bits will be indigestible and sink to the bottom of the pot.
Deep Space Transmissions
September 30, 2013 @ 3:14 am
You touch on an interesting point here about archiving and how – even in this era where fanciful claims with concrete dates are bandied around about the internet containing all of human culture by year x – there is still stuff that slips through the cracks. Stuff from not that long ago that doesn't seem to be preserved anywhere, in some cases only publicly (as with Totally Doctor Who – presumably the BBC have archived the actual episodes), in others that there doesn't seem to be any sign of it at all.
As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time trying to track down obscure Grant Morrison stuff and there's good portion of it that seems to have disappeared into the ether, maybe forever. Interviews hosted on websites that opt themselves out of the Internet Archive; podcasts or internet videos where the actual file has long gone but links and discussion of it remain, mp3's uploaded to MySpace pages. The list goes on.
I think we all have an idea that everything is saved by everyone everywhere these days, but when you send a shot-in-the-dark email to BBC Scotland to ask if they have a 1992 episode of a long-running radio show in their archive and they respond with "As far as we know, no archive of this programme exists", it makes you rethink how far we've really come since those Wicker Man reels were buried under the M4.
September 30, 2013 @ 3:23 am
Ditto. My son (who was only just five at the time) would watch all of Totally, I would tune in for The Infinite Quest then go back to whatever I was doing. It was certainly a lot more fun than the later Dreamland in that format!
September 30, 2013 @ 3:33 am
and good old-fashioned piracy
Sailing your galleon up alongside a freighter full of DVD box-sets and firing cannon at them until they surrender, then taking what's worth stealing and murdering the crew as you see fit?
(Years ago, there was a webcomic that ran a storyline in which the Microsoft-expy made a deal with the RIAA whereby they'd offer amnesty to pirates in exchange for all their personal information. All went well until someone called to confess to raiding ships. Once the hero explained what they meant by "piracy", the union of seafaring privateers sued the RIAA for misappropriating their trademark on the word "pirate".)
September 30, 2013 @ 3:41 am
'This isn’t entirely a new issue – I would be gobsmacked if the number of people who had seen the first episode of Doctor Who since November 23rd, 1963 did not dramatically outstrip the 4.4 million who watched on the night.'
Especially as the repeats of the episode a week later in 1963 and in 1981 both gained 6 million viewers, and it's likely that a substantial amount of the viewers of the latter were people who hadn't watched it on either of the first two occasions.
'But there’s something striking about the fact that we can say that about Blink just six years after its broadcast, whereas on November 30th, 1969 there was no chance that this was true about “The Cave of Skulls.” '
I don't know about that though. The series was sold to many countries in its early years, so would have had several further showings, and while I don't know what the total viewing figures for all those broadcasts put together of The Cave of Skulls were, it's just possible that they might have been over 5.9 million, I suppose.
September 30, 2013 @ 4:23 am
Doctor Who is the squid monster at the end of Watchmen.
September 30, 2013 @ 4:46 am
Your writing about the importance of having the DVD gives me intimations of some of your takes on what, as far as the media on which Doctor Who is composed go to me, is the most fascinating part of the Moffat era: the DVD extras. I've seen many folks on the internet complain that Moffat doesn't do proper characterization in Doctor Who because there are no moments in the episodes where the characters sit down and try to work through the traumatic events that have happened to them, or develop the emotional subplots that it seems the transmitted series skips over in favour of adventure.
I remember in one of those discussions here, Jane made an illuminating comment that the adventure stories are packed with symbolism and metaphor for the arc plots. The key example she discussed was in response to some commenters who disparaged Moffat for failing to have his characters work through Amy and Rory's trauma of being alienated from their child, and forced to miss decades of her life as a member of her family. The story of Night Terrors is the former, and the story of The Girl Who Waited was the latter. But the show as a whole dealt with these emotions, instead of a quiet dramatic moment of the characters discussing it. The modern form of Doctor Who just doesn't have time for these quiet conversations, like we're sometimes used to seeing on more conventional drama shows.
Until we get to the DVD extras, where Moffat deals with all these emotional developments explicitly. This kicks into high gear on the extra scenes for the Series Six set, and continues in the Series Seven set. Series Six includes a scene where the Doctor and Amy have a quiet talk about her time in the incubator at Demon's Run, and a scene that's a comedic timey-wimey collision of the Doctor and River's first and last dates that becomes a heartbreaking acknowledgement of the Doctor's pain at loving a woman whose death he's always known. The Series Seven box has a wonderful extra scene of a day in the life of the Doctor and River's marriage and TARDIS travelling.
And that complaint also forgets that part of the climax of Asylum of the Daleks is an intense emotional conversation between Amy and Rory over how her post-Demon's Run infertility strained their relationship. I also found it ludicrous that some commenters, both here and in the less polite forums, found it so unrealistic that a couple in love wouldn't have their marriage strained or even broken for a while by the sudden revelation of infertility and the effects of that discovery. No matter how true a love might be, it doesn't always survive fundamental aspects of your planned future being thrown into doubt. But perhaps our critics were more offended by Amy's pursuing a career in modelling than in explicitly integrating emotional and domestic storytelling into the plot of an episode.
September 30, 2013 @ 5:46 am
That metaphor is older than Neil Gaiman, and I doubt he's laid claim to be the original author. It's actually found in Tolkien's essay "On Faerie Stories," where he quotes George Webbe Dasent, Though the attribution could be considered an example of this principle in action
September 30, 2013 @ 6:33 am
Recycled from an old episode of Dan Dare…? You're not wrong!
(Dave Gibbons is recycling his own 2000AD work rather than Terry Nation lifting the plot of Reign of the Robots for The Dalek invasion of Earth, though, so he's forgiven…)
September 30, 2013 @ 10:14 am
a copy of Blink that’s functionally identical to the digital master can be streamed to my phone
Except for the missing "one year later" title, present in the broadcast version but absent from the dvd.
September 30, 2013 @ 10:15 am
Claiming original authorship of a metaphor designed to undermine claims to original authorship would be somewhat self-defeating.
September 30, 2013 @ 10:17 am
"But now, in an era where we know Davies had plotted out the broad strokes of the Master’s return in his head before Rose even aired and where we’re invited to reread Last of the Time Lords in light of The End of Time, the moment of broadcast becomes devalued. Not erased – Davies is still a populist who knows to chase ratings."
And with River Song, Moffat takes that three steps further and utterly subverts the moment of broadcast version of Silence in the Library.
September 30, 2013 @ 11:35 am
And that's only with a limited definition of "eventual".
I think it's safe to say that a fair portion of each Doctor Who episode's 'audience' hasn't even been born yet (which is something you can't say for The X Factor).
September 30, 2013 @ 11:49 am
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September 30, 2013 @ 11:51 am
"I also found it ludicrous that some commenters, both here and in the less polite forums, found it so unrealistic that a couple in love wouldn't have their marriage strained or even broken for a while by the sudden revelation of infertility and the effects of that discovery."
It's probably that those commentators simply aren't yet married or in a relationship where such discussions have come up. A large proportion of Doctor Who's audience (those under the age of 10) might well not appreciate or understand the reasons why Amy and Rory have split up. I as a married man with two children understood completely how they might have felt.
September 30, 2013 @ 12:06 pm
Things fall out of the world sometimes, but they always leave traces. Nothing is ever forgotten, not completely. And if something can be remembered, it can come back.
September 30, 2013 @ 12:21 pm
How could an Infinite Quest possibly be completed in a finite number of episodes?
September 30, 2013 @ 12:23 pm
By reversing Zeno's Paradox.
September 30, 2013 @ 1:02 pm
The presentation could really have been clearer. It's not apparent (or at least it wasn't to me) whether the infertility issue was explicitly the reason for the divorce or just the underlying cause of a raft of other symptomatic arguments, and thus whether they'd actually talked about it before (and were only now, in the heat of danger, being direct enough about their feelings to work it out) or if this was the first time they'd gotten to the heart of the matter, or what.
The reason it matters, and the reason it's not just a case of "fill in the blanks yourselves," is because as written the dialogue comes off just this side of farcical — a case of well why didn't you just say so? — especially if you haven't been in enough long-term relationships to know how even after many years these little communication breakdowns can snowball.
I think if we'd seen evidence of a real problem there — e.g. maybe Rory really had always wanted kids, maybe he'd been passive-aggressive about it, maybe she'd been depressed and taking it out on him in oblique ways, something they were learning slowly but successfully to accept — it would have made more sense to people right away. As it was, the resolution was a little too "perfect," so if you've never found yourself fighting because you each thought something was more important to the other person than it really was, you're like "so what?"
Also, I think it's very clever to look at "Night Terrors" and "The Girl Who Waited" as working through Amy and Rory's issues, and maybe it was the best choice for the series and its audience as a whole, but I might be too dense to understand how it amounts to the same thing (maybe it doesn't). For one thing, I'm not sure what it means that the alienation is resolved with "we accept you as our child" (apart from a stretch of "Let's Kill Hitler," when was lack of acceptance the issue?) or that the separation is resolved by killing the older version and keeping the younger one.
September 30, 2013 @ 2:04 pm
Again I kind of get an inkling of the Amy-River thing myself. My first daughter (from an earlier relationship) grew up largely without me around, and it wasn't until she was 16 that we managed to rekindle a father/daughter relationship. Since then (she is now 30) we have seen each-other regularly and get on very well. She is now married with her own children (my grandkids!), and although a part of me still horribly misses the young child that I didn't have a chance to bring up, I realise that it is in the past and can never be reclaimed, and we have both moved on to an adult relationship.
Ok not exactly timey-wimey, but there's enough points of congruence for me to say that Rory and Amy's attitude is at least (from the writers' perspective) vaguely informed by reality.
September 30, 2013 @ 4:07 pm
Or reversing the polarity of Zeno's Paradox.
September 30, 2013 @ 10:06 pm
Indeed, Doctor Who went international as early as 1965 when Australia started airing it.
Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that once it began airing on the ABC there was "at least one repeat of each story during school holidays which meant Australian viewers saw the series more times than those in Britain where it was very rare for any part to be repeated."
October 1, 2013 @ 1:24 am
But wonderfully post-modern.