I could never have written this post as well as Richard Jones, and so I asked him to step in for a guest post. This is one of the best decisions I have made in the course of this project.
In 2009 everyone was hard at work writing blog articles in anticipation of ‘The End of Time’, the grand finale to Doctor Who’s Davies era. io9’s contribution took an interesting approach, offering a list of the errors the production ran the risk of making.
“Though there’s absolutely no denying Davies has successfully forged a massive popular (and, to a slightly lesser extent, critical) success with his revival of Doctor Who,” wrote Alasdair Wilkins, “I’m sorry to say that I’m still not entirely convinced he’s all that good at writing episodes of Doctor Who.” Yet hope remained. Perhaps Davies could learn from the mistakes the article identified and seize this last chance to convince? A key point on this syllabus of errors was the way Davies’ Big Climactic Epics interacted with pop culture. The article made it clear that it didn’t “have anything against Richard Dawkins having a cameo on Doctor Who” but that it’s “kind of a shame that Christopher Eccleston’s final appearance will forever be linked to Big Brother.”
For Wilkins, timelessness and obtrusiveness were what made Dawkins okay and Davina not, but for some who find Big Brother’s role in the 2005 finale to be a thing of shame there may be a few more cultural value judgements weighing down. Many fans have a lot invested in the idea that Doctor Who is one sort of television and Big Brother is another. For them to be occupying the same space so brazenly is a challenge. This is the Ninth Doctor’s regeneration story. This will be in lists. This grants “a Dalek plot involving Big Brother” the same eternally iconic status as “falling off a big telescope.” What are we supposed to do with this?
The BBC have on three occasions obtained the rights to broadcast shows using the Big Brother format. Two of them made it very clear how they felt about it. Extras was tediously and hypocritically anti, while Celebrity Big Brother was so uncritical that it found itself reabsorbed as an enduring stand of Big Brother, the fact that it was once a strand of Comic Relief quietly forgotten. If the very thought of Big Brother makes you angry then you’re going to get on fine with Extras and have no truck with Celebrity Big Brother. But what are you supposed to make of ‘Bad Wolf’?
It feels like it should be a showdown. The ratings demolition of ITV’s Celebrity Wrestling is such a part of the 2005 season’s industry mythology that it almost feels like that’s the arc here. Scripted Family Drama returns to a broadcasting landscape dominated by Reality TV! Scripted Family Drama casts down the Wrestley Champion sent by Reality TV to oppose it! Scripted Family Drama arrives at the Castle of Reality TV to do final battle with Big Brother, UNHOLY SIRE OF THE DARK POWER THAT HOLDS THE LAND IN THRALL!
This story could be that. It is, after all, a story where the Doctor and his friends arrive in Reality TV Land and find it to be murderous, numbing and a dastardly Dalek plot. It’s massively dishonest television if it is that though. If a writer who schedules his interviews in such a way as not to miss Big Brother launch nights and who has modelled this whole season after Pop Idol has offered us the story of how Doctor Who will save us from the horrors of Reality TV then that’s a big swizz. Which it might be. Davies, just about the only person in the media who’ll speak up to congratulate Blue Peter when they fake a competition, doesn’t seem to hold honesty as the prime virtue of television. I don’t think it is a big swizz though.
There’s little affection for What Not To Wear or The Weakest Link here, but ‘Bad Wolf’ clearly likes Big Brother and wants us to be into Big Brother things happening where they shouldn’t. We’re asked to be excited at the initial incongruity as we head into the credits and to be delighted by the familiarity as the housemates trot out all the tropes. The Doctor’s positioned not as someone opposed to Big Brother, in its murder-free iterations, but as someone who’s watched plenty of it, knows how it works and is a bit fed up now. Cherishing fond memories of classic TV moments like that bit with the bear in the bath, he’s ending the season the casual heat reader he came in as. The narrative also makes it clear that this isn’t a clash between two fundamentally different species of television. This is something the Doctor caused, something he’s a part of. Following the defeat of news broadcasting, this is an internal dispute within light entertainment. But what is that dispute?
There are ways in which Doctor Who and Big Brother are natural enemies. For one thing they’ve got very different ideas about boxes. Which matters in 2005 because televisions still are boxes at this point; People are still buying cathode ray toobs and will be until the end of 2006. Even in the many houses where the flatscreen has gone up on the wall, the imagination lags behind the physicality. The television is still ‘the box’ in the mind. Nobody’s received a memo telling us we all have to start mythologizing them as magic windows or anything. Boxes. And we know what Doctor Who thinks boxes are for. They’re for transporting us places. We love ‘behind the sofa’ so much because it accords with Doctor Who being fundamentally about how our furniture works. Doctor Who is a game we play with the way objects in our lounge create and maintain spaces.
Big Brother is a more static and literal fantasy. It doesn’t need to invent the TARDIS because it taps into an idea we’ve all already had – What if this box is full of little people?
Big Brother takes the puppet theatre daydream and works to make it real. It builds the airless, finite, sealed world that would exist inside your telly and then puts it in there. I’ve always thought the ‘Robots of Death’/Father Dougal “faraway box inside the near one” explanation of the TARDIS is rubbish for the imaginative game of Doctor Who, but it’s spot on for what’s happening here with Big Brother. We’ve performed just that operation in order to take a magical misapprehension of television and make it more or less true. The Big Brother house is the space inside your television. Doctor Who is interested in where the box is taking us and Big Brother is interested in what’s in the box.
And what is in the box? Well, it’s a lot of very desperate people concerned with what’s going on outside. That’s how it works in most countries, anyway. America’s Big Brother has, by this point, become a closed system in which ruthless, Machiavellian game theorists trade alliances and betrayal as they manoeuvre for victory. Big Brother US occurs largely within the bounds of its box and its winners needn’t care if you like them or not – their success depends upon their strategic choices and ruthless pursuit of self-interest. That alone wouldn’t get you far in the British version, which is a popularity contest.
Or rather it’s two different popularity contests that compel housemates seeking victory to play two contradictory games. I shall now share with you the basic mechanics of Big Brother UK. These have been fiddled with a lot in order to produce SHOCK TWISTS and have been radically changed since the show moved to Channel Five, but this is the iconic format and the state of play in 2005. So pay attention.
A load of people go into a house and are denied contact with the outside world. After they’ve had a while to get to know each other, they each individually nominate two housemates they’d like to see the back of. These nominations must be, or must be seen to be, the housemates’ own choices for their own personal reasons.
When Big Brother began on British television it was very interested in the idea of being some form of psychological/social experiment. Nowhere is the legacy of that more enduring than in the strange mystique that surrounds the sacrament of nomination. Big Brother is a game where you win a load of cash if you’re the last person left in the house and where the only mechanism you have for getting shot of anyone demands you pretend you’re not playing a game in which that’s the case. If you want someone out then the only valid reasons are interpersonal. Strategic reasons are disallowed and discussing nominations amongst yourselves or attempting to influence the nominations of others is strictly forbidden. The one point where you have potential power over the game is one where you must act as if you hadn’t noticed there was a game going on.
What happens next? I’ll tell you. It’s thrilling. The housemates with the most nominations face the public vote. The world outside the box comes into play and the world outside the box has settled and eccentric ideas about what it wants to see in there. We’re voting to evict, voting to banish the nominee who has incurred our wrath, and our criteria are deliciously frustrating to Big Brother US fans who, once into the YouTube era, look on in horror as the British public shoo off what they’d consider the most worthy winners.
Here are the worst crimes a Big Brother UK contestant can commit –
– Not being ‘real’/‘genuine.’
– Being two-faced.
– “Having a game plan.”
– “Wanting to win.”
As the weeks roll by and the process repeats, these accusations are made only in hushed tones or in the heat of anger. Nobody speaks lightly of the crime of wanting to win.
There’s a solid historical reason for this. In Big Brother UK’s first season a confrontation between Craig (working-class hero and paragon of honesty) and Nasty Nick (smug posho who was attempting to direct nominations) became the series’ first true moment of drama and pop hit. It was Big Brother’s Daleks. And as the success of the Daleks locked in Doctor Who as a show about monsters, the success of ‘Craig Versus Nick’ locked Big Brother UK in as a show which celebrates straightforwardness and selflessness and punishes cunning and self-interest.
So the game of Big Brother is one where you must win a popularity contest outside the house dependant on you doing none of the things necessary to influence the equally crucial popularity contest inside the house. It’s a subtle and sophisticated super-double-Zen game which you much both play and not play in order to win. So subtle and sophisticated that it’s unwatchable as a gameshow. You can’t follow along and assess who is playing well because, if they are, it’s invisible. So nobody does watch it as a gameshow. It’s enjoyed like a soap, a sitcom or a game of The Sims, with the fact that it’s ultimately a competition used to provide structure or fuel for such. This way of watching determines the qualities the world outside the box is prepared to reward. Give us the drama and comedy we’re after and, so long as you don’t seem to know you’re in a gameshow, we’ll help you win it.
You know what Big Brother’s all about now. It’s about the relation of the internal and the external. What’s seen and what’s unseen, revealed and concealed, inside and outside. And it’s about the social process of rejection by which something moves from inside to outside. Which is where Doctor Who finds it, takes it and associates it with other shows based on that process to build up a picture of the Television of Rejection. While the Doctor finds himself in Big Brother, Rose is given to the simpler and crueller world of The Weakest Link which runs purely on the mechanic of rejection and on Anne Robison’s pretend-but-actually-real contempt for all human life. Jack’s up against the most sinister expression of the principle – television that encourages you to reject yourself, to vote your own identity out of the house – but is hilariously immune, playing along happily until his identity is in real danger and then flouncing off with a line about his ultimate ownership of it. The wickedness shared between the Bad Wolf shows we see up close is utterly consistent.
Which would have suited Big Brother’s 2004 season, the run ‘Bad Wolf’ is a direct response to. It so badly wanted to be wicked. The previous season was, and shall forever be remembered as, a disaster. When Channel Four eventually staged a funeral for Big Brother in 2010, accurately predicting that Channel Five’s would be some sort of shambling cadaver, the eulogy included the words, “You were never boring…except for Big Brother 4.” Four years in there was no pretending this was any kind of experiment and there was no drama to extracted from a niceness competition that gave the crown to the man with the best manners. Going into Big Brother 5, Channel Four were determined that it wouldn’t be like that this time. This time it would be evil.
The relationship between the show, the viewer and the housemates would be changed. “Why are there little people inside my television?” was a question we were previously encouraged to answer with “to see what happens when you put little people in a television.” In 2004 then the BIG BROTHER TURNS EVIL trails, the tone of launch night and the sheer amount of cackling involved made it clear that the answer was now “to suffer for our amusement.”
The concept runs into a few problems. The first being that by this, the fifth season, the housemates have all arrived with their own stories ready to construct. In the first season the producers bore the burden of turning footage into stories; The housemates had all sussed out that they should probably try and do some entertaining things now and again, but this was of the order of “let’s get naked and throw our mud-painted bodies against the walls to make SHAPES!” rather than of the order of “let’s fashion narratives!” But Big Brother 5, which Russell Brand considered ‘the end of innocence’ saw people walk in the door with stories in their suitcases. They knew who they wanted to play, what they wanted to gain and what story they wanted to tell.
Those stories were responses to the Big Brother they’d seen rather than to the evil Big Brother they were in, or were supposed to be in. Because the first week was utterly dominated by the story of Kitten, a radical who was unsure if she considered herself a Marxist or an Anarchist but whose modest personal goal for her time in the house was the overthrow of the government and the abolition of the monarchy. Her plan for achieving this seemed to be standing on roofs and interfering with fixtures and fittings until the Establishment just gave up and called it a day.
Kitten’s attack on Big Brother was founded on her having successfully identified that a program in which an all-seeing Big Brother lords it up over a bunch of housemates represents a patriarchal power structure. She hoped she could bring us to this understanding by inventing a rival power called ‘Big Sister’ with whom she’d have imaginary conversations, eventually organising revolutions against both Big Brother and Big Sister, and forming some sort of cult around one of the statues in the garden. It was all very exciting, but not only did it misunderstand that the audience already know perfectly well that Big Brother is a patriarchal power system but it interacted poorly with the way this series was attempting to define the relationship between the show and the housemates. This year was meant to let us delight in the format being about sadism and persecution rather than simply about authority itself, but until Kitten left the house then the show was about what Kitten wanted it to be.
The killing blow to Evil Big Brother would be its one great success. It actually managed to but its housemates in real physical danger to the extent that a criminal psychologist who’d worked with Charles Bronson walked off the show deciding that it was all a bit much. Situations were being increasingly designed to provoke conflict and alcohol was being liberally provided at times when perhaps in nice mug of cocoa would have been better. Twenty days in then the housemates learned that two of their number they’d thought evicted had rather been placed in a ‘bedsit’, a second box from where they could watch all that transpired in the house, and from which they returned. Their understanding of boundaries of their world had been challenged and, watching the escalation of events that night, it’s scary how much that’s rattled them. The sense of being inside or outside is powerfully dramatised as the laughter and celebratory antics of those pleased at this turn of events becomes physically painful to those outside that group. By two in the morning, actual violence is happening and the live feed has been cut. By three the police are in the house. Mario Winans (featuring P.Diddy and Enya) is at number one with I Don’t Wanna Know.
From that point on, with all the eyes of Offcom and the Hertfordshire Constabulary on the show, we hear quite a lot less about it trying to be evil. Kitten returned it into being a show about authority and the producers are now left desperately trying to make it look like the responsible exercise of that authority.
Fortunately, the housemates have evil covered amongst themselves. By this point the house has, for the first time, cleanly separated into two tribes that’ve named themselves and understand themselves to be both social groups and unspoken voting blocks; The Jungle Cats and the Lipgloss Bitches. Not only is the separation distinct but so is the way in which they represent the values the audience responds to. The Jungle Cats present themselves as diabolical schemers out to scheme their way to victory and the Lipgloss Bitches as kooky funsters out to enjoy their time in the house and bring mirth into our weary lives. In the moral terms that Big Brother UK has developed we’ve got a clear battle of good versus evil.
Which plays out perfectly. The Jungle Cats endure in the house longer than gameplayers typically do, thanks to one of them being so entertainingly diabolical and the other being a rare example of a sinister mastermind who’s good at it, and so we reach a situation where a representative of each group is the only person remaining in the house. The series that set out to offer us the decadent pleasures of evil has turned into a heroic fantasy where IT… ALL…COMES…DOWN…TO…THIS between the goodies and the baddies. Which the goodies won, of course. In the final week Big Brother moves from ‘vote to evict’ to ‘vote to win’ and the narrative moves from one of rejection to one of acceptance. The winner was a trans woman to whom that acceptance meant a great deal and we got a big memorable finale in which we all got to imagine we’d been instrumental in some sort of social change, fireworks went off and everything felt lovely.
The movement from being about rejection to being about acceptance was always jarring in Channel Four’s Big Brother, but much smoother in the Talent Show strain of Reality TV that was becoming dominant. There we start by dismissing hilarious losers and glide towards the point where we’re desperate to see our favourites survive. The 2005 season of Doctor Who sticks close to that Cowell format, offering the open audition of the “you wanna come with me?” trails and the dismissal of the Mikeys and the Adams before filling the screen with Jacks, Lyndas and Roses and asking us to stress about which will be left standing. There’s no criticism of the television of rejection in ‘Bad Wolf’ because it runs on the same rules by which it produces memorable telly. The Doctor achives his heroic apotheosis by owning this and becoming Davina.
Which the Big Brother of Satellite Five is not doing. It’s shown to be incapable of producing stories or memorable moments. Bears in the bath are long behind us. With scores of simultaneous Big Brother houses and a homeostatic society there’d be no way to watch the Bad Wolf Big Brother and imagine anything was happening. Nadia’s win wouldn’t matter. Kitten wouldn’t amuse. Fight Night wouldn’t horrify. All that’d be left is all that we see – people doing the Big Brother catchphrases. 2004 was the year that Big Brother tried to be evil and failed. In 2005, Doctor Who tried to work out what it would have to do to be properly evil and arrived at a very Davies conclusion. To be evil, it would have to be bad television.