Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 61 (Big Brother)
I could never have written this post as well as Richard Jones, and so I asked them 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.
May 31, 2013 @ 3:36 am
You know, this is the first thing I've ever seen or read that has persuaded me that Big Brother has some merit.
I'm appalled – barriers have broken down and my entire sense of self has been called into question.
May 31, 2013 @ 3:39 am
Wow, this was enthralling – does Richard Jones have a blog we can follow?
May 31, 2013 @ 3:55 am
Great post. Not really relevant, but I find it interesting that when they did the "best of" to finish off the Channel 4 career, the pendulum had swung back towards salt-of-the-earth types, leading to Nadia's shrill egoism putting her on the villain's team, to her own apparent disbelief. Not long after on Channel 5, a transman wins after being so ordinary that his "journey" turned out to be nothing to do with his trans status (to Big Brother's apparent disbelief) and all about his bromance with the other popular guy. I like to think that says something about social change, though I'm not sure what.
My main complaint about this episode, other than the initial disappointment of it being the second direct(ish) sequel in a row to earlier episodes I didn't care much for, was the aching contemporariness of the choices of shows to parody. It was as if Davies was saying, "what will last of television, for good or ill, is what is produced by my generation." That's probably a bit unfair – his thinking possibly didn't go much further than "heh – Anne-droid! Geddit?!" but I would still have dropped the Weakest Link and Trinny / Susannah bits and made it all about BB, which was the only one that seemed to have much potential.
May 31, 2013 @ 4:24 am
The confrontation between Craig and Nick is a genuinely compelling piece of drama. It's a man having his worldview and self-image relentlessly torn down, live on TV. I'm sure RUssell T Davies would have been gripped.
May 31, 2013 @ 4:26 am
It was as if Davies was saying, "what will last of television, for good or ill, is what is produced by my generation."
Oh no, oh no, oh no. that's not it at all. He was just making explicit what everybody knows: that sci-fi is the genre out of all genres that is most about the present moment. Scif-fi tells you nothing about the future, and everything about the precise time it was made, and this is Davies recognising that fact and running with it by not even trying to make pointless guesses about what TV might be made in the future, but instead just transplanting 2004/5 into a sci-fi setting.
Lie it or not, its eyewateringly honest.
May 31, 2013 @ 5:07 am
Yeah, let's all go there instead! Sandifer is so Last Season.
May 31, 2013 @ 5:17 am
But then it runs into a problem that I run into with a lot of satires of this kind. To be really, lastingly good, it has to be written so that the referencing material is enjoyable and entertaining in its own right, without the references. Otherwise, when the original contemporary material loses its relevance – or when the audience isn't familiar with the original – then it dries up and blows away.
The original run of Looney Tunes is a classic example. Some of the shorts were based entirely around the references – like a battle between Bugs and Elmer, set in a restaurant filled with celebrity cameos, where the point was watching all the cameos – and today they don't have much to say to anyone beyond the few people who still recognize the cameos. Others, like the Honeymousers, were deliberate point-by-point retellings of the source material – but because the writers knew why the original material was funny in the first place, they were able to be funny in the same way even if you didn't recognize the references.
Sadly, the references in this episode fall into the first category for me. Without any direct experience with any of these shows, the sections with Jack and the Doctor fell completely flat; instead of being entertaining television about people locked in a box, the Big Brother sections were a barrage of references and catchphrases that didn't make sense and weren't interesting in their own right. Rose's section in Weakest Link fared somewhat better, because more of the referenced game show tropes are universal, but I think I still missed many things. Whenever I re-watch the episode, I almost always skip ahead to the point where the Doctor and Jack have broken out of their sets.
There's nothing inherently wrong with making commentary about the present moment, referencing contemporary issues – but it also needs to stand on its own well enough to say something to people who aren't intimately familiar with the details of the reference. If the episode had done more to show what life was like in a Big Brother house, instead of tossing around catchphrases and taking shortcuts that assume the viewer is familiar with the original, I think it would have been much better.
(Of course, that gets back to the compression vs. running time debate, doesn't it?)
May 31, 2013 @ 5:27 am
That's a problem with satire, sure, but I don't think Doctor Who has ever been made with the intention that it should still be intelligible in twenty years' time.
Heck, some of it doesn't seem to have been made with the intention that it be intelligible this week.
You could argue, and I might agree with you, that it would be better if Doctor Who were made with more of an eye on being something genuinely great that will stand the test of time like Edge of Darkness.
But the fact is that it isn't, it never has been, and you can't single out Davies for that when every single other producer, script editor and head writer has taken exactly the same approach.
If it's a flaw (and there's a good argument that it is) it's a flaw across all of Doctor Who, not one of Davies' specific flaws (and he has several).
May 31, 2013 @ 6:01 am
'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.'
Worth the price of admission for this sentence alone. Bonkers genius.
May 31, 2013 @ 6:07 am
I would argue that it'd be better to be made with an eye to enduring goodness, yes, or at least to avoiding so many contemporary to-the-moment references that episode become incomprehensible in 20 years' time – and I would also argue with the suggestion that the show was never made this way, since I can't think of a single example off the top of my head where contemporary references made a Doctor Who episode incomprehensible years later, to the degree that Bad Wolf is even today.
But that's not the argument I'm making. As I said, the topical British TV references were incomprehensible to me at the time the show originally aired. This wasn't 20 years down the road; this was in the here-and-now. (Although I think it's easy to argue that any references that don't fly contemporaneously will be even harder to understand two decades later.)
My argument is that depending on references that can't stand on their own are a bad idea in general – not just because they lose their meaning in a few years, but because they lose their meaning now to anyone who isn't familiar with the original. References like that can be a nice little add-on to the people who get the joke, but they shouldn't be the foundation of a story.
May 31, 2013 @ 6:08 am
Like Ace and the 7th Doctor encountering Courtney Pine in "Silver Nemesis". At the time most viewers might have been familiar with him, but now it's just some jazz guy that they watch, and why does Ace want his autograph anyway?
May 31, 2013 @ 6:15 am
You lived in Britain in 2005 and were unfamiliar with the programmes parodied? I mean, I had little direct experience of them — I didn't watch any of them myself — but I fail to see how you could have existed in that place and time, watched any television at all — even just gone into a supermarket — and not got what a 'makeover show' was, for example.
(Of course, if you weren't living in Britain, then you might not have been familiar with the concepts; but on the other hand then you weren't part of the target audience, so it's hardly surprising you didn't get it, and there's absolutely no reason why you should have done: there's no reason to make a piece of art comprehensible to every single human being on Earth, and such a thing would hardly be possible anyway).
May 31, 2013 @ 6:30 am
"a criminal psychologist who’d worked with Charles Bronson"
I suspect this should be Charles MANSON. Actor vs. Psychopath.
May 31, 2013 @ 6:37 am
May 31, 2013 @ 6:48 am
Scif-fi tells you nothing about the future, and everything about the precise time it was made, and this is Davies recognising that fact and running with it by not even trying to make pointless guesses about what TV might be made in the future, but instead just transplanting 2004/5 into a sci-fi setting.
I don't disagree, but I think the problem with that argument is that both BB and The Weakest link had been going for half a decade at this point, so they weren't the watercooler shows they had once been – hence it seemed more of a comment on that generation of television, rather than just sampling what was currently considered culturally relevant. In the summer of 2005, off the top of my head, you'd choose The Apprentice and Lost, probably – though of course script-writing lead times might have prevented nodding to either of those. What an episode that could have been, though! Anyway, this set a bit of a precedent – Who's feeble pastiche of 24 wasn't made any better by coming several years after everyone else's…
May 31, 2013 @ 7:00 am
I've always been fascinated by BB in the abstract mainly because of what it suggests about the difference between Americans and Brits. Season 1 of BB America was a flop and nearly got canceled because it followed the same format as the UK version (i.e. two people are put up, and the audience votes on who gets eliminated, usually based on who they think is the "bad guy"). Unfortunately, this meant that everyone on the show capable of creating drama was quickly eliminated, and then the show got boring and people stopped watching. Big Brother America only became a hit when they changed the format so that the Head of Household puts up two nominees to be voted on by everyone else. At which point, the show became a series of mind games played by competing sociopaths.
Seriously! The American winner of BB2 "Evil Doctor Rob" openly claimed to be a high-functioning sociopath, and he deliberately tried to drive a housemate to a nervous breakdown by making her think that her newlywed husband was angry over things she'd done in the house and wanted a divorce.
May 31, 2013 @ 7:05 am
The Charles Bronson reffered to here is a Brit Psychopath serving life imprisonment not the Hollywood actor of the same name.
May 31, 2013 @ 7:06 am
The Courtney Pine thing is the kind of reference I think is all right; it's cute if you know the reference and get the joke, but it's not important to the plot of the episode. It's there and gone in a minute or two, and at most you'd miss a quick laugh.
And no, I'm not living in Britain. 🙂 But I have a similar relationship to the American show that I'd guess is the nearest cultural counterpart, Survivor; it's a cultural phenomenon, people toss around references like 'getting voted off the island' in casual conversation, but I've never seen it and have absolutely no plans to. And I would have similar objections to a US show basing an episode around Survivor references that are crucial yet unsupported in the same way that Bad Wolf does.
I also think the argument is still reaching for strawmen. "there's no reason to make a piece of art comprehensible to every single human being on Earth"? Maybe not, but that's not what I'm arguing; I could just as easily say "there's no reason to make a piece of art that casually excludes huge swaths of people just because they haven't seen a source reference and the writers are too lazy to demonstrate what they're referring to." We're not talking about spending so much time explaining things that someone in an Amish community who's never seen a TV set will understand.
If the source is good enough/important enough to be a centerpiece of a work like this, surely the work can afford to show enough of it that the references make sense?
May 31, 2013 @ 7:14 am
If the source is good enough/important enough to be a centerpiece of a work like this
You mean 'good enough/important enough' to be a centrepiece of a bit of Saturday evening light entertainment?
That's not a very high bar…
Thing is, every moment spent explaining Big Brother would have been a moment of crushing boredom to the target audience, who would be screaming, 'Why are you acting like we've never seen big Brother?'. So you're basically asking for the work to be made worse for the target audience, to benefit people who, well, it isn't being made for.
And it is, after all, only Saturday evening light entertainment. I think even Davies would agree with that, except he'd say that there's nothing 'only' about Saturday evening light entertainment…
May 31, 2013 @ 7:21 am
I've lost count of the number of times I've been brought up short by a topical reference to some product or celebrity in U.S. TV shows. My usual reaction is to mentally shrug and say to myself 'this wasn't made for me. I can't be expected to understand everything'. It's usually possible to contextualise the reference and get the gist of tbe meaning. I remember a whole episode of 'Friends' revolving around the inherent hilarity and cultural significance of 'Pottery Barn' , I still don't know what kind of store that is specifically but by back engineering the gags I figured it to be some kind of pretentious faux retro shop. It didn't spoil my enjoyment, it actually probably enhanced it, I learnt something about another culture. Doctor Who is so quintessentially British that I would have thought this muat be a common occurance for non-Brits.
May 31, 2013 @ 7:59 am
Sigh. No, I'm not asking for the show to spend 20 minutes 'explaining' Big Brother. I'm asking for it to demonstrate enough of the show that the references make sense.
Take the Honeymousers cartoon I referenced at the start of this thread. It was a 1956 cartoon based off of an early-50's TV series called the Honeymooners, starring Jackie Gleason as a working-class schlub with a short temper, an oddball friend, and a wife he would trade smart-aleck remarks with. He and his buddy would often get into impractical schemes to 'make it big' that failed spectacularly.
Did the cartoon stop to explain all that? No! It just showed the character expys doing their normal routines, getting up to schemes reminiscent of the original show. And it was funny. It was funny to people who knew the original show, because here were mice doing great takeoffs of the original show and characters, adapted to the world of cartoon mice. But it was also funny to people who'd never seen the show, because the characterizations and plot were developed to the point where they were funny in themselves – not just as satires of the original.
And that's the standard I want to hold this kind of thing to. You think Big Brother is cool enough to spend half an episode referencing? Then show it! If it really is entertaining, then people shouldn't mind watching the cast go through enough of the regular schtick for the references to make sense, as long as the writers do a good job of portraying the original.
May 31, 2013 @ 7:59 am
Same! It's pretty great.
May 31, 2013 @ 8:17 am
Oops. Thanks for clarifying for us non-Brits. 😉
May 31, 2013 @ 8:28 am
I'm an American who's never seen an episode of Big Brother. I had absolutely no problem whatsoever following "Bad Wolf."
Frankly, the "What Not to Wear" bit was more confusing–for years I thought Jack was stuck backstage, being prepared for some show that he never actually got to because he escaped first.
May 31, 2013 @ 8:32 am
"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"
Oh good. I was worried I was the only person who thought "What Not to Wear" is one of the vilest, most evil things ever put on television.
I've never seen the British version, but the American one basically boils down to, "Oh, hello person who has their own sense of styles or differing priorities. Your friends are weirded out by this, so we're going to force you to throw out all your clothes and conform."
I imagine by now they're probably just shoving people into Dalek shells and calling it a day.
May 31, 2013 @ 9:54 am
I figured it to be some kind of pretentious faux retro shop
I assumed, as I usually do when something gets name-checked that heavily in a US show, that it's product placement! I know the episode centred around Phoebe's hatred of Pottery Barn, but everyone else was going "HOW CAN ANYONE HATE POTTERY BARN!!!" so much. I mean, who couldn't use an apothecary table?
May 31, 2013 @ 9:55 am
I do wonder what Doctor Who fans in 50 years are going to make of this episode. Will there be enough cultural memory of reality TV that it makes some kind of sense, or will it be as incomprehensible now as the role of holiday camps in The Macra Terror? (RTD bringing back the Macra makes a weird kind of sense in that light.)
Either way, I am looking forward to reading an erudite blog post from whoever the equivalent of Philip Sandifer is about the history and context of reality TV.
Archeology of the Future
May 31, 2013 @ 10:40 am
I hate the idea that things should be timeless. Nothing is timeless. Things are always of their time, even things that try to pitch for a timeless quality.
The idea that something 'dates quickly' is only an issue for people who have a beetling discomfort with being in the now of popular culture for the fear of backing the wrong horse and being shown up, in future, to have had dubious tastes.
Things that persist tend to either also include something that makes the story speak to those not present into its first blush of exposure (themes, characters etc) or become celebrated for the very textual or textural qualities that do precisely date them.
This blog has talked a lot about the fan embarrassment terror of Doctor Who, the feeling that the show that you love will look silly or childish when there are others around to witness it. This for me seems to be similar to the idea of soul deadening idea of 'guilty pleasures', cultural artefacts that you herd into a pen away from your respectable likes so that no one will ever suggest that you are one of the plebs rather than respectables.
It always puzzles me a bit when Doctor Who fans love 'classic telly' but don't like telly now. It's as if they're waiting for history to decide what the 'correct' and comfortable taste to have is rather than getting in there and rooting about in the dense and confusing undergrowth of popular culture for themselves. It's a strangely posthumous business, only allowing yourself to like something once its finished. It's almost as if you're trying to avoid a betrayal.
I think there's a kind of battle going on here over shared culture and who gets to define it. The idea that Big Brother and Doctor Who are separate types of entertainment seems to suggest a discomfort with the idea that shared culture isn't just placed in one container. Similarly with the idea that Doctor Who must be 'timeless' or only concerned with its own self referential world. Both seek to create a space for Doctor Who that is outside of the normal world and normal concerns, and more importantly, as far away as possible from 'those people', those people who are loud and brash and vulgar.
I think there's a lovely tension in the way that RTD first encapsulates that tension himself (Doctor Who nerd, committed telly watcher, devote of popular culture) and the fact that it eventually finds its way into 'The Waters of Mars' and the discussion of 'little people'.
I loved Big Brother up until the point where the manipulation outweighed the people. I still love 'reality television'.
May 31, 2013 @ 11:00 am
Yeah Travis I get your point but I think the episode spent exactly enough time on BB and the other game shows. I suspect you think you've missed something or some 'clever' reference that just wasn't there. The setting pastiched the idea of game shows in general using specific shows that were contemporary at the time because..well, why not? Would you rather they'd made up some fictitious ones rather than use existing references that, yes may have had a frisson of recognition for Brit audiences but that wasn't the point. The point was a bit of fun then Daleks and regeneration!
May 31, 2013 @ 11:12 am
peeeeeeet (was that the right number of eeees?) Of course product placement is another thing entirely from pastiche and I suspect you're right about the apothecary table. I wouldn't be surprised if a little bit of product placement/network balance was behind the inclusion of What Not to Wear and Weakest Link, particularly as they are BBC programmes where BB is not. This is, I believe, why those sections fell a little flat where the BB house scene worked well as both a literal incarceration for the Doctor and as social satire. There is probably something to be explored in the choice of of bitchilly hosted general knowledge quiz for Rose and flirty fashion embarrasement for Jack. I'm sure Doctor Sandifer will oblige.
May 31, 2013 @ 11:36 am
Classic Doctor Who also had contemporary pop culture references which have 'dated' or had their meaning changed by subsequent events. In the very first episode there is Susan's startling prediction of decimalisation ( not such a hot topic now) and, as has been pointed out, the Doctor specifically compares the 'bigger on the inside' nature of the TARDIS to the effect of watching a television. In a later scene the Doctor shows Ian and Barbara footage of the Beatles which Vicki is surprised to recognise as 'classical music' In The War Machines a girl in a night club looks at Hartnell and says 'He looks like that DJ' ( bit unfortunate this one in light of current events as it's a reference to the disgraced Jimmy Saville), the various hints in the UNIT era of female Prime Ministers etc. I guess in a show about time travel it would be odd not to contrast current events with an imagined future.
May 31, 2013 @ 2:54 pm
I'm not sure "guilty pleasure," at least as it's now used, actually denotes any guilt. I read it–and use it–more as "things I like for personal reasons, but am unwilling or unable to defend the artistic merits of."
May 31, 2013 @ 3:09 pm
But Big Brother is the only "reality" television we have or have ever had because of its unedited nature. The reason it works at all is that some of the observers* are not making judgements based on carefully edited highlights (or lowlights), but on long term experience. I can't think of any other show in the genre that doesn't distort the "reality" significantly – although obviously it's hard to make a fair judgement about that because we don't see the rest of the material. But the folks who put The Apprentice together can't be that cynical about the contestants, surely? 🙂
*obviously most observers/voters were making judgements based on highlights shows or surreal parallel channel discussions, but some were prepared to invest the time to do it properly. Although not me.
May 31, 2013 @ 3:25 pm
I remember the Brigadier's reference to a female PM in "Robot" and assumed at the time it was referring to Thatcher. I was stunned to realize years after the fact that"Robot" aired several years before she became PM.
May 31, 2013 @ 7:31 pm
How is it conceivably possible that anyone anywhere saw an unedited version? I mean, I suppose if there were a version with only one, fixed-position camera, and all the housemates stayed within that camera's field of view at all times, you could have an unedited version. Or you could spend months watching all the feeds from all the cameras for a single week, but by that time (a) you have already imposed an editorial judgment by selecting which order to view the cameras in, and (b) you've long passed the voting deadline for the week.
May 31, 2013 @ 9:06 pm
"I imagine by now they're probably just shoving people into Dalek shells and calling it a day."
Only on other channels. 😉
June 1, 2013 @ 12:52 am
OK, that's a fair point – it's a definition argument as usual: by "unedited" I meant approximately that the transmission feed was uninterrupted rather than that a single person could encompass everything that happened.
I think I was merely trying to differentiate a long-form broadcast in which you could spend all day observing if you so chose from a show which selected "highlights" for you and served them up later in a concise narratively constructed package. BB was a rare example of the former.
June 1, 2013 @ 5:51 am
@Froborr: For me, the behavior of the droids in the 'What Not To Wear' segment fit enough other stereotypes about OTT fashonistas that it took about ten seconds to just go "Oh, this must be some kind of extreme fashion makeover thing"
June 1, 2013 @ 6:14 am
It's as if they're waiting for history to decide what the 'correct' and comfortable taste to have is rather than getting in there and rooting about in the dense and confusing undergrowth of popular culture for themselves.
Fits a bit with what I said a lot after I had my falling out with the fan-industrial complex:
You can pretty much take any conversation you've ever overheard between two Doctor Who fans, and boil it down to two people shouting "Why can't you just accept that I am better than YOU?" at each other over and over.
It's a strangely posthumous business, only allowing yourself to like something once its finished. It's almost as if you're trying to avoid a betrayal.
This I have a bit more sympathy for. I imagine "Got heavily invested in caring for something, only to have it turn out to have been a catastrophically bad idea" is a pretty common part of human experience, possibly even more common among those inclined to nerdish interests.
June 1, 2013 @ 6:23 am
The show will do what it wants to do, and we can choose to do what we want with it. As I'm going to watch them over and over again anyways, for such is often the nature of fandom, anything I miss I'll pick up one way or another — I am capable of doing basic research. I for one applaud the game show references, they enrich the text.
By 2005, reality shows were been pastiched in all kinds of shows, and we were having conversations about the impact of such shows on scripted drama. So I was very excited to see Doctor Who drop into a game show and deform its narrative (though obviously I didn't have such words to describe it as such back then.) It's been hard on talent, because you don't need so many actors for it, you don't need a stable of writers, you don't even need to pay much attention to production values. They're cheap, they've got questionable values, and they've crowded out all kinds of other scripted shows.
And on that basis, to anyone who didn't get the references, get your head out of the sand! This is what's been happening to television, to popular contemporary television. This is mainstream, and relevant, and anything in the mainstream is fair game, especially stuff that's relevant.
The references themselves are quite artful in relationship to Rose, the Doctor, and Jack, playing on their insecurities. As our lovely guest writer so eloquently inscribes, there's a lot to glean from dropping the Doctor into Big Brother — especially the view of his psychology, just like a quiz show challenges Rose's insecurities about her intelligence and learning; in a delicious twist, the body-makeover show exposes Jack's complete lack of insecurities regarding his body, but it's still the perfect show to put him in.
Stepping back, the fact that the game shows are run by Daleks speaks to their role as agents of narrative collapse, and by extension the kind of narrative collapse that's threatened by these shows in our own world. Given narratives of brutal competition and winner takes all (hmm, I smell a political subtext here) we can expect an apocalyptic world that's not so different from what we have today.
June 1, 2013 @ 9:36 am
For me, it would have been better if the contest was an original construct, but with enough bits to make it a reference to BB rather than trot out the idea that centuries into the future, BB, The Weakest Link and Trinny and Susannah are still considered mainstream entertainment. It came across as clunky but the tabloid press at the time thought it was all so funky for it to be referenced into Dr Who.
I have this idea that while JNT courted the fanbase, RTD courted the tabloids and show biz TV.
June 1, 2013 @ 11:38 am
For me, the behavior of the droids in the 'What Not To Wear' segment fit enough other stereotypes about OTT fashonistas that it took about ten seconds to just go "Oh, this must be some kind of extreme fashion makeover thing"
Yeah, same here. Simple enough concept even if you're not familiar with the specific show.
And on that basis, to anyone who didn't get the references, get your head out of the sand! This is what's been happening to television, to popular contemporary television.
…well, okay, but it's not out of bounds to speak on whether these references were done well. Which is what's been happening here.
June 1, 2013 @ 11:39 am
Yes, perfect. XD
June 1, 2013 @ 11:43 am
The idea that something 'dates quickly' is only an issue for people who have a beetling discomfort with being in the now of popular culture for the fear of backing the wrong horse and being shown up, in future, to have had dubious tastes.
Or, alternatively, not that.
I mean, you're really going to throw every criticism ever made based on datedness into the "they're just covering for their own personal fears" trash bin? For shame, doc; that's how the debate gets diminished.
June 1, 2013 @ 11:57 am
But the difference between Bad Wolf and those examples is that there would be nothing left of Bad Wolf if you took away the reference. Once Big Brother is forgotten, Bad Wolf will be incomprehensible. Once Jimmy Saville's forgotten, there'll be one line in the War Machines which won't make much sense, which has already been shown in that the reference is now unfortunate (as you mentioned) and it changes exactly nothing about anyone's opinion on the story.
June 2, 2013 @ 1:21 pm
Scif-fi tells you nothing about the future, and everything about the precise time it was made
Surely an overstatement.
April 20, 2014 @ 11:04 am
@Travis: I'm going to assume that you're referring to "What's Cookin', Doc?", which isn't really that irrelevant, as most of the celebrities referenced (Bogey and Bacall in particular) are still pretty well-known. However, knowing some of the other celeb cameo-heavy WB shorts, I definitely get your point, as, say, "Book Revue" loses a bit if you don't know your '40s celebs (even the Sinatra riff in the short relies on details germane to the period).
"The Honeymousers", however, succeeded not just because it behaves exactly like an episode of The Honeymooners (with the addition of the cat-vs-mouse business), but because the McKimson unit "got" TV in a way that no one at Termite Terrace did in the '50s, which is remarkable since Bob McKimson a) was suffering from creative brain-drain in the '50s (staffers were poached by Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, as well as departures after a brief shutdown of the studio in 1953), and b) McKimson was Termite Terrace's longest-serving continuous employee, and certainly the most outwardly conservative (McKimson came to work, every day, in a suit and tie, up until his death in the '70s). The "getting" of the source material is what served RTD with the Who-meets-reality-crap mashup.
August 4, 2014 @ 6:58 am
Very, very interesting analysis, especially in light of Sandifer's "aesthetics/ethics" equation (or distinction?) made earlier – i.e. bad tv = evil tv, and vice versa.