After the Moffat/Willis/Wenger team broke up, Moffat was paired with Caroline Skinner as his new co-executive producer. As we’ve already discussed, this was seemingly not a creative partnership that ended happily. Nevertheless, Caroline Skinner occupied a position on Doctor Who that was nominally as Moffat’s equal opposite number, and though her tenure is brief, it must surely be considered as important as, say, the departure of a script editor or a producer during the classic series. To wit, Caroline Skinner was, upon taking the Doctor Who job, most recently coming off of a BBC Three series called The Fades. This, then, provides us with one of our occasional opportunities to see what the BBC thinks Doctor Who’s nearest equivalent shows are. This is, apparently, how you get the top job at Doctor Who: make The Fades first.
In their defense, it was a well regarded show. It got lovely reviews, and a BAFTA. It has a fine pedigree, and there are no reasonable grounds to complain about Caroline Skinner’s appointment based on it. There’s a few very reviewish paragraphs following this one, and they’re going to point out strengths and weaknesses, and it’s worth noting that all of the strengths are things that would have been in Caroline Skinner’s remit as producer, and all of the weaknesses can be laid at the feet of the writer, Jack Thorne. In other words, appointing her was a smart move – they got the producer of what was, in hindsight, apparently the country’s single best drama in 2011.
No, neither the BBC nor Caroline Skinner can really come in for any criticism here. What can come in for some real criticism is, apparently, British drama in the year 2011, because The Fades is a bit shit. It’s a frightfully generic show. It’s clearly BBC Three trying to get another Being Human together. It’s a generic British horror show for teens and twenty-somethings made in 2011. It’s very post-Skins, and the writer worked on that show, but it’s just as much post-Buffy and post-Being Human and post-Supernatural (nope, not doing a Pop Between Realities on it) and, for that matter, post-Marvelman, about which you can at least say it has the decency to namecheck Alan Moore in the second episode. But the point stands – this is the same basic stunt with genre fiction that’s been going around since the 1980s. Whatever its merits, at the end of the day, The Fades is a TV show that can accurately be described as children’s telly tarted up with some Natalie Dormer nude scenes, and really, that’s a tough criticism to recover from.
On top of that, there are some infuriating things about the writing. It takes three female leads to have one who comes off as a remotely nuanced or interesting character, and one suspects that’s mostly down to Natalie Dormer, who’s one of those actresses that instantly elevates anything she’s in. But it’s perhaps more damning and accurate to note that neither Lily Loveless nor Sophie Wu, who are also both quite capable actresses, can rescue their characters. The climax involves gratuitously fridging the main character’s girlfriend, who is literally gunned down purely to provide motivation for the main character. (And I mean literally – the person who shoots her is explicitly doing so to get the main character to do as he’s told.) I use the word “climax” deliberately, because there’s nothing resembling a resolution here. The final episode hits “this is the apocalyptic finale” notes throughout, but it forgets to actually resolve them in the final act. The final episode ends with a cliffhanger that’s not so much “here’s the next season big bad that emerges out of the ashes of the previous season’s victory” but rather “after this season’s big bad is killed off the story never actually decelerates at all, and we just stay in the crashingly epic tone until the final credits.” It feels like you must have missed the seventh episode.
This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the show has rather too much premise, such that it takes several episodes to actually map it out to any satisfying extent. This is fine if you’re actually going anywhere with your complex premise, but the resolution really does just turn out to be a bombastic “find balance between dark and light” resolution that doesn’t need half as much premise as it has. The key “aha, here’s how we defeat him” moment is entirely a product of fiddling with the series premise as opposed to the characters, which is disappointingly bland. All of the show’s best moments come out of the character drama, and yet it never has the confidence to actually spend time there.
It’s not all bad, however. It’s very well cast, a fact that’s especially visible a few years later when you realize three prominent characters went on to Game of Thrones and the lead got picked up for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This last one is particularly good – Iain de Caestecker is extremely, extremely good, with an ability to make it feel like he’s underplaying it no matter how intense he goes that lets him, in turn, get incredibly intense without ever feeling like he’s about to start munching on scenery. He’s a very clever choice for a lead, especially here, where he has to make compelling drama out of repeatedly and seriously proclaiming, “I’m not a killer.” But other bits of casting are less solid. Joe Dempsie’s a fine actor, but he’s completely out to sea with a charismatic and villainous leader figure. He sells the banal ordinariness of evil, making John into an adequate counterpart for the equally obsessive “light” figure, but given that the role is clearly intended to be the Devil, it ends up feeling like you were going for Tom Hiddleston and cast Chris Hemsworth. And it all looks gorgeous. In terms of shooting effective horror, this is top notch. Beautifully lit, great locations.
It is, to be clear, easy to see why people like this, given how many things exactly like it there are in the world that people also like. But it’s also, if not slightly frustrating, at least slightly wearying. This feels in many ways like the statistical average of television in 2011, and the fact that such a bland show provided the nearest Doctor Who equivalent is a bit disheartening. Though in the BBC’s defense, despite its BAFTA, they cancelled it after one season. Less in their defense, that seems to have been more about money than about recognizing that this was not a show that looked like it would improve after going through the initial set of best ideas and into the ideas that weren’t quite good enough for the first season. All the same, it feels like the tier below Doctor Who should be livelier than this.
Which is all a way of saying that as of 2011, it had been a while since anything really disruptive and innovative happened within genre storytelling. It really has just been a matter of watching various media catch up to where Alan Moore was in the mid-80s. Use the basic structure of children’s adventure fiction, only throw in adult elements (whether as a synonym for “complicated” or “has shagging”) and be sure to state your theme loudly and explicitly in the dialogue in case anyone misses it. That really does describe not just The Fades, but half of sci-fi/fantasy television. I mean, The Fades may obviously be trying to scratch the same itch as Being Human, but it’s not like Being Human didn’t nick a scene from Miracleman in its third season. And, I mean, the reason the approach is repeated as often as it is is, at the end of the day, that it works.
But it still, to be honest, feels tired. It’s easy to do perfectly adequately, but the degree to which it’s easy increasingly feels like a reason not to do it. There’s a real need for something that feels different. And for all its experiments in non-linear storytelling in the last two years, Doctor Who, if we’re continuing with this whole honesty thing, hasn’t much transcended it either. And clearly, if The Fades is what they think people who make good Doctor Who would also make, the BBC doesn’t expect it to, and is perfectly happy to see it trot out the same old basic formula that it’s perfected and been successful with for six seasons now. Which, fair enough – not many shows are as successful as Doctor Who for as long as Doctor Who. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Instead, go for capable imitators.
Which tells us about what to expect heading into Season Seven: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
September 17, 2014 @ 1:38 am
I am a British TV viewer with a moderate engagement with BBC3. Obviously I enjoy genre television in some way or I wouldn't be here.
I have never heard of Fades, let alone have an opinion about it.
To be fair, I've only watched 5 minutes of Skins, a couple of episodes of Being Human, a few hours of Torchwood. But I knew they were there if I wanted.
Fades? No memory at all. Did the Silence produce it?
September 17, 2014 @ 2:08 am
I watched and enjoyed The Fades, but I'm struggling to describe Phil's criticism as anything other than harsh but fair.
I suppose one of the problems Fades has is the simultaneous struggle to construct a premise that will stand on its own for one series, but will also end on a cliffhanger that can expand into a deeper premise for subsequent series.
We seem to have skipped Misfits. Are we going to look at Utopia? Or The Killing / The Bridge?
September 17, 2014 @ 3:09 am
Game of Thrones seems like an obvious one, given that it's a wildly popular genre show that actually does do something different from the pattern Phil identifies here. The presence of lots of Doctor Who actors in the cast can't hurt.
September 17, 2014 @ 3:19 am
The Fades must be truly mediocre if the most inspiring conversation to have about it consists of speculating what other TV shows Phil will Pop Between Realities for.
September 17, 2014 @ 4:26 am
Well I was just going to ask if Phil was going to cover "Wolfblood" at any later date, since I've never seen "The Fades" either. (New series starts Saturday on CBBC!)
September 17, 2014 @ 5:06 am
one of those actresses that…." and who are also both quite capable actresses" ?
The preferred title would be 'actors'.
September 17, 2014 @ 5:41 am
Odd – I remember it being quite aggressively trailed, with me seeing a short ad with an almost-whispered "The Fades are coming…" repeatedly over a number of weeks. I watched the first episode, couldn't be bothered to stick with it.
September 17, 2014 @ 5:53 am
I think it's more that it's the most inspiring conversation to have about Phil's post about the Fades, which is not quite the same thing. Natalie Dormer's character had an interesting arc; there are at least two memorable secondary characters (the best friend, the 'light' side extremist); Daniela Nardini had a couple of strong scenes. But whatever mythology there was was subordinated to plot and to the need to keep things back for a second series.
And given that the powers are apparently inherited, it was a missed opportunity not to give them to the main character's sister also. I think Phil's right: it was still working off a template established by Cooper's Dark is Rising, if not earlier.
September 17, 2014 @ 6:26 am
Depends who you talk to. I have friends who prefer "actor" because it brings focus to the quality of their work and not their gender, and I have other friends who prefer "actress" because they are proud of their gender and don't wish to hide it.
That said, I prefer "actor" but decades of habit still finds me saying "actress" on occasion.
September 17, 2014 @ 6:33 am
Interesting entry. It's good to see that someone else didn't rate The Fades. It was functional but despite some early promise it never really managed to transcend its influences. But others, including the BAFTA board, seemed to go crazy for it, especially after it was cancelled, and so I presumed I must be the one missing something.
I can't say I agree with your penultimate paragraph though, especially coming off the back of a series 6 that has been as ambitious as Doctor Who's ever been (individual mileages may vary as to whether it was successful or not). I think I can see where you're going with this, and no more than perfectly adequate is absolutely a fair criticism to level at much of series 7, but it's hard to square that with the way you've been writing about the Moffat era so far.
September 17, 2014 @ 6:59 am
Totally with you Chris. I generally try and gauge the individual's preferred title. However if I don't know I default to 'actor' for both genders. I was just a little surprised that a self professed feminist such as Doctor Sandifer doesn't do the same.
September 17, 2014 @ 7:17 am
Just read the wiki page for "The Fades" which I had honestly never heard of before. So apparently, the Fades are just ghosts. And the protagonist can see ghosts. And the ghosts are trying to break into the living world. And no one calls them ghosts, presumably because you can't trademark "The Ghosts."
September 17, 2014 @ 8:05 am
Apropos of not much, Natalie Dormer has rocketed up to the top of my list of female Doctor candidates.
September 17, 2014 @ 8:40 am
The most retweeted thing I've ever put on Twitter was when I proposed Ruth Wilson as the Doctor facing off against Dormer as the Master.
September 17, 2014 @ 10:08 am
Are we bound to cover "The Musketeers", as well? Or is that beyond our remit, here?
September 17, 2014 @ 11:22 am
Seems like a slippery slope that could end up leading to "The Vicar of Dibley" and "Lair of the White Worm."
September 17, 2014 @ 11:24 am
The titles and title music were everything they should be.
Everything else was pretty poor. There was too much exploring issues where our heroes explain to each other that they all hold conventional modern opinions, but can't act on them because they're completely anachronistic and History.
September 17, 2014 @ 12:44 pm
Oh no you didn't.
In defense of the show, it's a good examination of heroes Concerning the characters, it's has a twist on the mentor relationship, along with an examination on battling evil, and what one has to do as a "good man." You say that's it's just "good battling evil", but note that (spoilers) the person who does the fridging is supposed to be "light." (end spoilers) And the show has a very good male/male friendship in the leads. It may not be the best, but I think you being a tad bit harsh (though, I haven't seen all the eps. I have read all the excellent rophydoes recaps.), Either way, as a fan of the series, thank you for covering it on your blog.
September 17, 2014 @ 12:51 pm
Slightly off topic but in light of the new dark and slightly more 'adult' oriented Doctor I wonder if this announcement of a change of transmission time for the rest of series 8 to the later slot of 8:30 is significant?
September 17, 2014 @ 12:58 pm
Oh, I hope that doesn't mean it gets pushed back in America, as well… 🙁
September 17, 2014 @ 5:21 pm
Unlikely, it was probably deemed too scary to go on before Strictly Come Dancing here (because that'd be about 6:10-7pm), so it had to go on after instead.
September 17, 2014 @ 9:14 pm
Wondering out loud (in text)… but would this, maybe, come some way toward explaining the falling out between Skinner and Moffat? Sounds like very different approaches to making TV. One wanting to push the boundaries or what can be Doctor Who and even what can be called TV for the masses. And the other wanting to make genre TV that is like everything that's gone before.
September 17, 2014 @ 9:51 pm
Nothing in television scheduling is more important than Strictly vs the X Factor.
Personally my money is on Polaris and Quicksilver.
September 18, 2014 @ 1:15 am
Yeah The Fades wasn't that inspiring.
September 18, 2014 @ 1:18 am
I do remember watching the first couple of episodes with my partner and then not seeing any more, not that we hated it but the show didn't have that grab that made us both feel the impetus to bother with continuing to watch it.
September 18, 2014 @ 1:19 am
Could be a good theory.
September 18, 2014 @ 1:21 am
I am very excited about have the show airing during the autumn, as opposed to hot summer days.
September 18, 2014 @ 1:50 am
I read that change more as an indication that live television viewers are more likely to watch competition shows than dramas. With being shifted against X-Factor, the expectation as I imagine it is that people will watch Strictly Come Dancing, and when it's over they've already missed half an hour of X-Factor, so no point in changing the channel to watch that. Not unlike how I didn't watch X-Files for years because I got home from work at 9:30pm and, really, if you miss even just the cold open of that show you'd never catch up with that week's story.
September 18, 2014 @ 6:00 am
I suspect that this is more to do with the Beeb's realisation of the decreasing importance of overnight viewing figures. The industry still reports them (and the tabloid media jump on any drop with relish) but are they as relevent anymore? This series of Who has seen the biggest Timeshift between overnights and consolidated ratings (28%), which could mean that families with younger children are watching the recorded version the next day when the kids are awake, and the scares aren't so scary.
Overnights of course still count for Event TV like Strictly or X-Factor, where there's absolutely no value in watching them even 24 hours later. So I'm surprised that Cowell is moaning about the BBC putting Strictly up against X-Factor, because isn't that like the point? Mind you, he's a record producer, so he doesn't think like a TV exec.
In case anyone's wondering, Series 8 is looking absolutely fine audience-wise. http://spacewarp.co.uk/who/DWSeries8.htm
September 18, 2014 @ 6:14 am
@Chris. I live with an X-Factor addict and a SKY+ box. We watch Who live (primarily because of me!) and then the wife switches over, rewinds X-Factor to the beginning and skips the adverts. Everyone's happy.
Yes, Strictly viewers will have missed half hour of the X-Factor, but rather than skip it, they'll do what my wife does and rewind to the beginning.
Of course if they've got Freeview and SKY HD+ it's quite possible for a typical family to record 2 programmes while watching a third.
September 18, 2014 @ 5:55 pm
@Spacewarp – Well, my conjecture is based on the idea that those left who cannot timeshift (no DVR or computer) will watch shows like X-Factor. I have no idea if that's true, but it would be a condition that allows the scheduling to make sense. Of course, we are talking about TV execs, and they never make sense.
Regardless of their sense making, your household is exempt from my babbling, because you are not chained to live television. I'm only speculating that the overnight ratings matter most with this particular kind of program.
September 19, 2014 @ 12:07 am
@Chris. No, you're absolutely right. Live Competition TV becomes pointless if not watched on the night, which is why the slightest drop in ratings is so damaging for Strictly or Factor, and also why their Consolidated ratings are probably not much different to their Overnights. Drama on the other hand can be recorded and watched the next day, especially if the next day is Sunday, when there's nobody round the water cooler (or in the school playground) avidly discussing the programme that you haven't watched yet.
Although not every household has DVR, PC or SKY, I bet most of them still have VCRs capable of recording digital widescreen.
Also, the percentage of Doctor Who viewers watching on the night has gone down from about 92% (in 2005) to just over 70% (for Series 8)…but the overall number of viewers has stayed about the same over the last 9 years, indicating that those who couldn't record, still watched on the night. I still maintain that though things like Daleks, Christmas Specials and New Doctors may cause temporary increases in viewers, there is a hardcore audience of 6-8 million in the UK that will continue to watch Doctor Who, whether they have to miss half hour of X-Factor, watch the repeat, or record it.
September 20, 2014 @ 6:11 am
I wonder if the time will come that, acknowledging that most people are recording and watching later, many popular shows end up airing in the middle of the night, leaving prime time only for event television.