The weakness of Doctor Who in 1985-86 would be one thing if it were a weak period for British television in general. Instead, however, two of the most acclaimed British television productions of all time aired during the Colin Baker era. The first, at the end of 1985, was Edge of Darkness. The second, airing at the tail end of Trial of a Time Lord, about 26 hours after each of the last four episodes and then for another two weeks after, was The Singing Detective.
For those not reflexively versed in the nuances of British television, Edge of Darkness is a conspiracy thriller written by the creator of Z-Cars and directed by Martin Campbell, who went on to be a serious director who did such high profile work as the Daniel Craig Casino Royale and, less satisfyingly, the recent Green Lantern film. If the name sounds vaguely familiar as a Mel Gibson film, I’m very sorry for you, as that’s Martin Campbell remaking the series as a film a few years back and very much not good. The plot concerns a police detective whose daughter is gunned down in front of him and the nuclear conspiracy that unfolds as he investigates her death and discovers that she, not he, was the target.
The Singing Detective, on the other hand, is one of the two things that people point towards when picking the masterpiece of Dennis Potter, himself the consensus best writer in British television history. It stars Michael Gambon as a writer with a debilitating skin condition (one that Potter himself also suffered from) who drifts among his stay in the hospital, the detective novel he’s writing in his head (in which Gambon also plays the lead, the eponymous singing detective), and memories from his childhood.
It goes without saying that both are very, very good. Less clear is whether they’re meaningfully comparable with Doctor Who. Certainly both have wildly higher production standards. Indeed, in the case of The Singing Detective the production standards were actually too high – Dennis Potter had wanted the hospital scenes shot on video to look like a sitcom, but he was overruled and the whole thing was done on film. As a result, both are much better looking than Doctor Who.
And this is not, to be clear, just a special effects thing. Television is a visual medium. We Doctor Who fans are used to overlooking bad effects, but in doing so we can be prone to blinding ourselves to just how much good directing can matter. (Consider the degree to which Revelation of the Daleks was salvaged by Graeme Harper. Even in the new series directors matter to a great extent – consider how much The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex were elevated by Nick Hurran’s revelatory direction.) It’s not just that Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective look ritzier, they’re fundamentally better and more complexly shot pieces of television. Doctor Who didn’t have the money to let directors cut loose the way they can in these shows, and as a result struggled to get directors as good as these – one of the few claims in the infamous Eric Saward Starburst interview I have no trouble believing. As a result, yes, of course these shows look far better than Doctor Who. The long tracking shots that pop up throughout the start of Edge of Darkness, for instance, are just something that Doctor Who was never going to do.
So on that level, at least, looking at Doctor Who next to two of the legend of British television is terribly unfair to Doctor Who. But that’s never been the way in which Doctor Who has compared to the highlights of British drama. Look back to the Troughton era, when Doctor Who was succinctly an thoroughly outshone by The Prisoner. Doctor Who in the 1960s never had an episode that looked half as good as The Prisoner looked, even ignoring the color issue. But eventually, starting, really, as early as The Mind Robber, Doctor Who managed to get bits of writing that could stand toe-to-toe with The Prisoner. In many ways this is the default mode for Doctor Who – production values far below other shows but writing and, at least much of the time, acting that goes beyond it.
The central example here remains The Ark in Space, which looks incredibly bad but is played with utter conviction such that it works. And, more than that, it thrives such that its most visible faults become virtues. When done right, Doctor Who is actually more likable for its shoddy elements simply because of the determination to make good television despite the limitations that they put on display. Because The Ark in Space cannot simply casually be good the ways in which it is good are even more vivid. And at the heart of why The Ark in Space works is the fact that it was written by Robert Holmes, a writer who, as the cliched observation goes, never quite got that he was actually one of the best writers at the BBC.
So in this regard we can compare Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective to Doctor Who. Because even if Doctor Who was never going to look like either production, it could at least be written like them. I mean, OK, maybe not quite as good Dennis Potter, but Troy Kennedy Martin, though a very good writer, is firmly the sort of writer that Doctor Who, in order to work, needs to be in the same league as. And even Dennis Potter, well, even if Doctor Who’s writers aren’t going to be quite as good as Dennis Potter they can at least contend for the open spaces in the ranking immediately below him. And more to the point, they have to. Doctor Who has always relied on having genius writers, whether they be ones capable of mass acclaim or more troubled, oddball geniuses who need a show like Doctor Who to thrive.
Of course, Season 22 had two writers who were at least plausible entries into the leagues in question: Robert Holmes and Philip Martin. And it’s telling that Vengeance on Varos is the one script in Season 22 that plausibly belongs on a list of truly great Doctor Who stories. (Holmes, on the other hand, is clearly in open rebellion against the show as conceived.) But on the whole Doctor Who is not only lacking in writers who threaten to break out into genius at any moment (and even at its best it has only had enough of those for one or two stories per season), it’s lacking in writers who can noodle along confidently at a level just a bit below genius.
And in the case of The Singing Detective one can even suggest that Doctor Who is trying to aspire towards it. The central conceit of The Singing Detective is its switching among three distinct narratives and its use of ambiguous gaps among the narratives that allow the strands to blur together. It’s worth pointing out, then, that both Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks were overtly playing with similar ideas. The Singing Detective took it further, yes, but it’s absolutely the case that Doctor Who is in the same context as The Singing Detective from a writing perspective.
So let’s look at Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective and ask what good writing in 1985-86 looked like. For the most part the two shows are very, very different. Edge of Darkness is a relatively straightforward thriller. It doesn’t use any massively complicated narrative tricks save for some ambiguity at times over whether or not the main character is really seeing his dead daughter’s ghost or just cracking. What is perhaps most notable about it is that there’s next to no effort to spend a lot of time on exposition. The world has its rules and largely gets on with the business of storytelling within it. It’s not until the sixth episode that people really start getting into lengthy philosophical speeches with one another.
The Singing Detective is less straightforwardly a mystery, but it also shares this style of letting its world unfold for the audience. The normal term for this is, I suppose, “show don’t tell,” but there’s more to it than that. What’s interesting about how The Singing Detective and Edge of Darkness unfold isn’t just that they avoid clumsy exposition for the most part, it’s that they carefully control the audience’s knowledge and expectations without ever having to resort substantively to telling instead of showing.
This is a key approach for Edge of Darkness, because at its heart Edge of Darkness is a mystery. Over time we’re meant both to figure out the conspiracy behind Craven’s daughter’s death and the nature of the world Edge of Darkness is set in (which is, Quatermasss-like, almost but not quite our world). So it very much just depicts the world it’s set in in an ostensibly straightforward manner. It’s not actually nearly as straightforward as it appears, but it’s a method of storytelling that shifts an enormous weight onto the audience.
This is, to be frank, something Doctor Who has not come close to doing at this point. The Edge of Darkness approach requires a tremendous amount of respect for the audience – something Doctor Who hasn’t had in a long time. I mean, the show has tremendous, even excessive faith in the audience’s ability to remember who the Sontarans are and to think they’re very cool. But there’s very little respect for the audience’s ability to fill in gaps on their own. The show very rarely just shows things without lengthy exposition sequences or infodumps. And that’s largely a straightforward mark of maturity. The audience is more than capable of understanding the basic outline of science fiction worlds, especially after twenty-two years of Doctor Who and at this point nearly a decade of post-Star Wars culture, the fact is that Doctor Who displays a distressing lack of confidence in the ability of the audience to understand the worlds it depicts without exposition.
As a result, it’s miles from being able to tell a story where we learn about a mystery progressively by watching people interact with it. And this is a real thing. It’s easy to draw an arbitrary line between “highbrow” television and trash and put Doctor Who, as a ropey sci-fi series, on the trash pile. But first of all, neither Edge of Darkness nor The Singing Detective particularly support a highbrow/trash dichotomy given that one is massively indebted to low culture iconography and the other is also a piece of science fiction. Second of all, just because the highbrow/lowbrow line is sometimes arbitrary and silly doesn’t mean that there isn’t real content to it sometimes. And this is one place where the line really does start to assert itself – highbrow media is much more likely to hold to a “show don’t tell” principle while still carefully managing audience expectations and knowledge. It’s a technique that, when successfully used, almost guarantees a highbrow reception to this day.
It’s not even that Doctor Who is melodrama and thus not prone to that. The Singing Detective is firmly melodramatic at key points. There are aspects of it that aren’t played for melodrama, but melodrama is absolutely central to what that show is doing. Because Doctor Who has played it in the highbrow manner before – The Massacre is the most obvious example, but even more recently something like Warrior’s Gate unfolded that way. It can be done – it just isn’t at this point in time.
The other thing that Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective do that Doctor Who never really does in this period is focus the drama on the experiences of characters. In both series the most powerful moments are those in which we watch uncomfortably as Michael Gambon or Bob Peck suffer visibly. Most of the best moments of Edge of Darkness’s first episode are those in which we watch Peck portray Craven’s grief at his daughter’s death. The show resolutely refuses to speed through it, instead showing Craven’s bereavement in aggressive detail. Similarly, much of the thrust of The Singing Detective is capturing Gambon’s humiliation and agony at his condition. Even as we delve into his psyche and understand more and more of why he’s the way he is, the series is at its most powerful when we see the raw misery of Marlow’s illness and the way in which he’s callously marginalized and mistreated for it.
This is something Doctor Who never really does. It doesn’t take the time to show an extended treatment of a single character’s experience. And this is a real wakness. One of the best and subtlest moments of Vengeance on Varos is when we find out that Peri secretly wants wings. But what’s powerful is that this is the one moment where Peri starts to be more than “generic human female” as a companion and to acquire some character traits. But the fleeting nature of it just exposes the way in which thought of actual emotional experience is sidelined. So much of what was horrible about the strangulation scene in The Twin Dilemma is that no space was ever provided to see Peri’s reaction to it or to allow the audience to empathize with her. Instead she forgave the Doctor readily and the incident was brushed under the rug. When the thing that needed to exist for that idea to have any chance of working was an extended treatment of Peri and her reactions.
Again, this isn’t something totally foreign to Doctor Who – it did it as recently as Kinda with the extended focus on Tegan’s dreamscape. But it’s been largely and conspicuously absent – most obviously in the failure to have Nyssa or Tegan ever react to the Master in a meaningful sense. And, to look ahead, as awkward as some of the Ace sequences in the latter part of the McCoy era are they’re major improvements simply because they’re instances of the show trying to focus extensively on imagining the experience of being in the world’s it depicts. (Actually, it’s worth remarking in the general case on the influence of Edge of Darkness on the McCoy era. Andrew Cartmel infamously declared in his interview for the position of script editor that his ambitions for Doctor Who were to bring down the government. Given John Nathan-Turner’s visible resistance to overtly political Doctor Who over the seasons immediately prior to hiring Andrew Cartmel the fact that he then hired Cartmel after that interview seems surprising to say the least. But it is worth remembering that Nathan-Turner was always a savvy viewer of television. He’d have been well aware that Edge of Darkness was by miles the most successful piece of science fiction on the BBC in half a decade. And the hiring of Cartmel goes, I think, hand in hand with that. For all his poor judgment in the latter days of the Davison era and the Baker era, Nathan-Turner was not a fool.)
In the end, then, it’s all too clear looking at what top notch British drama in 1985-86 is next to Doctor Who that there were serious problems with the show. The problems the series suffered are not, much as one might suggest, that it’s badly of its time. Rather, it’s that the series was hopelessly out of touch with what worked at the time. The simple, damning fact is that Doctor Who badly missed a trick in this period. It’s not that it wasn’t as good as two of the best series the BBC ever made. It’s that it wasn’t even trying to be.