Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 47 (Touching Evil, The Grand, Springhill)
Let’s change the camera angle slightly, however, and look at Russell T Davies’s career in general as of the mid-90s. He was, at the time, undoubtedly a successful television writer. He was not, however, the Russell T Davies of legend. He was a working writer, making a living entirely off of his writing, and with rising acclaim. But he was not a superstar of television yet. And perhaps more importantly, his work just isn’t up to the standard of what his later work is like. I pointed Monday to the dividing line seems to be the overdose that Davies cites as what got him working on Queer as Folk. We will, of course, do a Pop Between Realities on that show when we get to its appropriate time period in late January and look at where Davies’s work really started to feel like Russell T Davies.
What is perhaps most striking about his projects immediately prior to Queer as Folk is that they are aggressively, unrelentingly dark. Which may sound familiar, because it’s exactly what we were saying about Damaged Goods on Monday. Indeed, let’s go one further. If Damaged Goods does not read like the Doctor Who novel you’d expect the writer of Rose to write, it reads exactly like the novel you’d expect the writer of Springhill, The Grand, and a small bit of Touching Evil to write.
Let’s start with Touching Evil. The show is actually created and mostly written by Paul Abbott, who is another one of the absolute superstars of British television (and who we’re not done with either). Davies only wrote one episode of it, the first half of the first season’s finale. Mark Aldridge and Andy Murray’s T Is For Television, which has been an indispensable reference for both this and the previous entry, suggests that the episode is evidence of how well Davies could write to the specifications of someone else’s show. Aldridge and Murray suggest that the script is unrecognizable as Davies’s work, but this isn’t quite fair. If Davies is writing to spec, after all, the spec is Paul Abbott’s, one of his closest friends and collaborators. It’s not accurate to say that Davies and Abbott are indistinguishable – they’re certainly not. Abbott is more inclined towards a structure of set pieces to generate scenes of intense drama. Davies, left to his own devices, prefers to give characters sparks of intense drama in amongst otherwise low key scenes. It’s not that he eschews the set piece – quite the contrary, he loves a good set piece. But he builds to his set pieces out of character interactions. Davies’ trademark move is to give a character a soaring and triumphant monologue stemming out of relatively ordinary action. Abbott likes to crank the action up to eleven and watch the characters respond.
You can see this difference clearly enough across the two episodes of Touching Evil. Davies’s episode ends with a character confessing to another that he’s committed a vigilante murder. Abbott’s episode continues along this line of plot. But the approaches are visibly different. Davies’s episode drops the conversation in unexpectedly, as the two characters are sitting in a car. Abbott’s, on the other hand, builds relentlessly to a final jail-cell confrontation in which the vigilante cop commits a second murder right in front of his fellow officers, meticulously building tension with big, high concept scenes that move the action forward and make it progressively inevitable that it’s all going to end tragically.
But if their preferred structures and techniques vary, their approach is largely compatible. Touching Evil is a grim little series, but its grimness is largely what you’d expect. Cops, horrific crimes, the usual psychological focus on what happens to people who spend their time thinking from the perspectives of criminals, namely that they become dark and troubled people full of angst. As I’ve been saying for posts on end, this is absolutely typical of late-millennium television. The paranoia and lurching in the wake of the collapse of the entire historical order of things combined with the looming odometer rollover had us all a little worked up. And so the looming, paranoid darkness of humanity was all the rage. Touching Evil is blatantly a part of this. It’s a reasonably good example, in fact. As are Davies’s other shows of the period. The Grand, for instance, is Davies’s swing at Downton Abbey, only every episode of the first season is unrelentingly depressing. (Davies admits that he was, at the time, confusing drama and tragedy, and credits a friend’s comment on his writing for The Grand for pushing him towards the blended tone that characterizes his later work.)
The Touching Evil two-parter even goes for the triple crown, combining its general bleakness with paranoia about Internet and psychotic and dangerous children. The Internet stuff, unsurprisingly, dated poorly, although one would have to be pretty aggressively uncharitable to suggest that it’s notably worse than quite a bit of contemporary television dealing with the Internet. (The all-time champion on that one remains CSI New York’s famed line, “I’ll create a GUI interface using Visual Basic, see if I can track an IP address,” although there’s something charming about the repeated scenes in NCIS in which two people type simultaneously on one keyboard.) Heck, it’s less grating than some of Davies’s Doctor Who stuff, most notably Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, which felt as dated at the time as his Touching Evil episode does now. But the effect is clear enough: Touching Evil isn’t just grim, it’s broadly concerned with the conditions of apocalypse. It’s not just that the show is grim, it’s that it portrays a world in which the collapse of society feels inevitable. Touching Evil has a world where kids pointlessly go on killing sprees because, jaded and alone, they form dysfunctional and cult-like communities on the Internet, and where efforts to stop things like this just involve losing your own soul to the darkness.
But of the stuff that Davies did in the mid-to-late nineties the thing that is most clearly relevant both to Damaged Goods and to his later work on Doctor Who is very clearly Springhill, a two-season apocalyptic soap opera with light supernatural elements butting up against the standard soap opera material that he co-created with Paul Abbott. It’s clearly a fresh, original idea, and on top of that provided early writing credits for Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts. It’s obviously a key step in the development of Doctor Who, and we should do a Pop Between Realities entry on it and it alone. There is only one problem, which is that Springhill is, so far as I can tell, completely impossible to find anywhere at all. So I’ve got to go off of the description in the Aldridge and Murray book. The first thing to note is that the series is absolutely gonzo. It’s a soap opera set on a council estate that turns out to be about the coming of the Antichrist, and it’s as weird as you’d expect. On the one hand there’s a host of stuff that points towards Paul Abbott’s later success with Shameless. On the other hand you’ve got a bunch of Doctor Who fans getting their genre ya-yas out.
One thing that should jump out immediately, however, is that the plot is familiar. There’s a character named Eva who turns out to be the birth mother of several children in another family, and who, in the first season cliffhanger, kidnaps the newborn child of the adoptive mother. There’s a creepy child named Gabriel. It is, in other words, large chunks of the plot of Damaged Goods. I’d say “large chunks with the names changed,” but Davies, characteristically, didn’t even do that. The concern with stolen children is, as we noted, at least partially explained by Davies’s biography – there are some images he’s clearly drawing on from his own childhood.
But what is perhaps more interesting about Springhill is that, by all accounts, it didn’t quite work. The show appears to have been disjointed and to have reliably sounded better on paper than it actually was. Which is to suggest, and I think the output of the era supports this in general, that the sell-by date on apocalyptic millienialism predated the year 2000 by a fair margin. Which makes sense. The grimness of the early nineties continued to stem out of the seemingly interminable tenure of right-wing governments in the US and UK, both of which had moved into second generation versions of themselves. By the late nineties things looked pretty good. The millennium felt like more of a big party than anything, with only the “Y2K bug” seeming like a plausible annihilation. And the texture of the Y2K bug was interesting – its problem lay in the lack of foresight of past decisions. The problem with the Y2K bug wasn’t so much that something terrible was going to happen, it was that some people in the past who had failed to anticipate that there would be a future. It is, in many ways, the most optimistic doomsday ever.
Which is to say that Springhill, much like Damaged Goods, points to a certain creative bankruptcy for a set of ideas and approaches. We’re nearing when Warren Ellis actually did Planetary and the issue with that Thatcher quote I’ve trotted out a few times. It’s notable, though, the context in which that quote was delivered: Ellis was calling for an end to the 1980s comic style characterized by the British Invasion. You know – the whole Alan Moore/Neil Gaiman inspired style that’s been driving Doctor Who for, at this point, nearly a decade. One of our refrains has been that the sixties ended. Well, it took into the latter half of the nineties, but so did the eighties. And perhaps the biggest problem with Springhill, and, for that matter, with Touching Evil and The Grand is that they’re still in the eighties at a time when the correct decision is to walk away and do something new.
It’s not, of course, that Davies has to abandon these approaches entirely in his later career. Not even close. As I said, you can start to see the ground shifting under him in the latter half of The Grand as he clearly sees that what he’s got here is a dead end. And fittingly, it does appear to be Damaged Goods where what he’s trying for in this period comes together best. That, at least, manages to be the definitive statement of a particular approach instead of the just-past-its-time attempts of his other things. But more important than the fact that he’s clearly learning is the fact that his themes and approaches here are ones that carry him through his future career.
We can see, in the focus on the Antichrist in Springhill, the beginnings of one of his favored tropes, what he calls the “lonely god.” But we can broaden this to refine it: Davies is interested in the end of the world, but what he’s really interested in is what it’s like to be one of the people who brings it about. The seeds are sown here for The Second Coming, and notably, when he brings Doctor Who back, he does it as “what the man who ended the world did next.” Progressively, in other words, his interests shift, moving from the looming apocalypse to the receding one. The nature of this late-nineties shift, in other words, isn’t a rejection of the things that worked and worked quite well over the last decade of Doctor Who, and worked quite well across the culture for the last fifteen years or so. It’s a shift to moving through them and into something new. And Davies is a key figure in this shift, serving as a figure who both saw where one approach gave way and who began to pioneer what came next.
December 5, 2012 @ 2:22 am
It's just occured to me that this is also around the same time as RTD's was writing Children's Ward. I only saw odd episodes of that, but am I right in recalling it was about as dark as you could get in a CITV slot?
December 5, 2012 @ 7:51 am
I remember one of the many making-of bits of paratext that sprung up on the 2008 season of Doctor Who (Don't ask me if it's a Confidential, a commentary, a season wrap-up doc, a companions special, or whatever — I've lost track), where Steven Moffat described, referring to Donna's tragic end, that "Russell T Davies is a very very bad man." And I think in these earlier adult shows, you can definitely see that. His vision of human nature is mean, cynical, and his laughter is cruel. After all, he banged his head to Bon Jovi and his head fell off.
If one element enters Davies' worldview, as expressed in his writing, after the drug overdose and the development of Queer as Folk, I'd have to say it's hope. That's what allows the joyful spirit of his Doctor Who to thrive. The hopelessness is, I think, the essential problem with why Torchwood doesn't always work. This was true especially in Children of Earth, the triumph of Torchwood that shows how incompatible it is with the spirit of Doctor Who: victory can't come in Torchwood without some manner of self-destruction. In Doctor Who, we can come out the other side. Queer as Folk and his Doctor Who have a joy that can plough through the darkness, where with these shows and Damaged Goods, I don't think that joy is there.
December 5, 2012 @ 8:13 am
Children of Earth certainly gave the lie to the Doctor's "When you talk of the Earth, then make sure that you tell them this. It is defended." speech in The Christmas Invasion, didn't it?
December 5, 2012 @ 9:01 am
Oh yes. It was really depressing. I hated that program when I watched it as a child.
December 5, 2012 @ 9:15 am
Ah…"Touching Evil". Essential viewing for us during the late 90s. But we jokingly referred to it as "Touching Cloth", so much so that we occasionally forgot that this wasn't actually what it was called. Imagine our surprise and amusement at the recent Procedural Crime Drama parody, also starring Robson Green…"A Touch of Cloth".
December 5, 2012 @ 12:49 pm
And yet before all this, he was writing ChuckleVision and Why Don't You..? (Granted, he completely reinvented Why Don't You..? to make it another Not Quite Doctor Who, but I don't recall it becoming depressing as a result; certainly not to Children's Ward standards.)
December 5, 2012 @ 8:41 pm
I watched much less tv twenty years ago-acting in a lot of plays in the early-to-mid 90s and I had my telly stolen at one point. but I did see exactly one episode of Springhill. It felt almost parodic but intriguing: like a Magical Realist Brookside.
December 6, 2012 @ 1:01 pm
I wouldn't necessarily say that Russell had a heart four sizes too small before his OD. Anyone who can do children's television well needs some sense of intelligent whimsy. But having some basic wellspring of happiness to channel enough of it into children's television to avoid losing your job is one thing. The mind-set Davies eventually brought to Doctor Who (and Queer as Folk) created a tone that he didn't seem capable of before that era of his life. There was no longer an equation between adult drama and cynicism.
His children's television successes used to be the exception to an otherwise cynically satirical outlook. Now the purity of his misanthropy is the exception, just as Torchwood is in the context of Queer as Folk, Bob and Rose, Doctor Who, and Sarah Jane.