So Many Ideas. So Much Darkness. (The Chimes of Midnight)
It’s February of 2002. Enrique is at number one with “Hero,” which lasts the entire month. Britney Spears, George Harrison, Pink, Ja Rule, No Doubt, Alien Ant Farm, Brandy, S Club 7, and Victoria Beckham also chart. In news, the Golden Jubilee proper happens, as do the Mitt Romney Winter Olympics. Slobodan Miloševi?’s trial begins at the Hague. And Princess Margaret dies of a stroke.
While on audio CDs, we have one of the highlights of the McGann era: Rob Shearman’s The Chimes of Midnight. If Invaders from Mars was frustrating for its lack of places to hook critical analysis onto, The Chimes of Midnight is at least a story where we’re spoiled for choice. Rob Shearman is a critic’s writer; his stories are dense with themes and references, bristling with self-awareness and commentary. They almost compel a critical response. In a way it poses its own problem. Invaders from Mars prompts little at all, existing in such a way as to defy speech. The Chimes of Midnight is almost more dangerous: it is a work that is capable of dictating its own critical response. It’s terribly easy to write an entry that is exactly what you’d expect a critical look at The Chimes of Midnight of being.
Critics hate this sort of thing. I was talking with my co-author on the They Might Be Giants book the other day about the way in which art rock is lacking in academic respect in a large part because it self-analyzes, and in doing so defies critique. The cynical explanation for this is that we hate being made obsolete. The more worked through explanation is that there’s a value to critique being independent of the work, and the self-awareness of art rock and other such self-critiquing forms is a barrier to that.
But these objections omit the possibility that there’s a reason for self-awareness beyond controlling the critique. The Chimes of Midnight is a prime example. Yes, it’s terribly self-aware, but this is part of Shearman’s basic theme for Doctor Who. All of his stories focus on confined worlds. The Chimes of Midnight is a prime example, taking place across just over two hours in the servants’ quarters of one house, although those two hours happen several times. But more than its limited space and time, The Chimes of Midnight, again like much of Shearman’s work, is focused on the constraints of our internal worlds. As the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that we are not so much in the basement of a house as in the internal psychic world of one of its inhabitants.
This works very, very well on audio, especially modern audio. The survival and, to a real extent, proliferation of audio as a narrative medium in recent years stems from one simple fact: it’s terribly good for a commute or an exercise routine. The Big Finish audios are overwhelmingly listened to in cars or through headphones. This makes audio an unusually claustrophobic medium these days. Unlike the screen-contained video, audio surrounds us in a tight bubble of diegesis. And that’s uniquely, particularly suited to the disturbing, enveloping worlds that Shearman creates.
In this regard there’s a real progression from Shearman’s previous audio, The Holy Terror, to this. The Holy Terror featured a world that steadily closed in on the characters, getting more and more claustrophobic as it reduces towards one specific character’s individual psychology. But The Chimes of Midnight steadily opens outward. Even as we find out more and more about what kind of world the Doctor is trapped in the implications of that world grow larger and larger. The story progressively becomes not just about Edith’s trauma but about the social circumstances that created that trauma.
In The Chimes of Midnight, this takes the form of a commentary on class. This is, admittedly, not necessarily the most incisive critique available in 2002. Ultimately Edith’s world hinges on her mistreatment as a servant in the early twentieth century. That’s all well and good, and it’s certainly true that class relations of the early twentieth century were awful, but in 2002 this seemed largely obvious. There is a point to all the drama, but it’s a deeply uncontroversial one: people have value and the working class isn’t just “nobody.”
But if The Chimes of Midnight pretends at being a moral parable about the value of the working class, this is mostly window dressing: the sorts of standard Doctor Who values that have to inhabit a story like this. They’re only the point if you assume that The Chimes of Midnight is first and foremost a story about having a moral. But there’s no good reason to make that assumption, and plenty of reasons to assume that things are more complex than that. For one thing, that would be remarkably strange to have that moment of sincerity in amongst what is, otherwise, a delicious bit of black humor.
In this regard it is very much like the best work of Robert Holmes – an author who we haven’t had cause to mention in a distressing amount of time. Shearman, however, is a proper successor to Holmes. Like Holmes, he’s got a basic belief in human dignity and all that jazz, but his focus is more often on the perversity of the world. And The Chimes of Midnight exemplifies this. It’s about the mistreatment of the servants in an ostensible sense, but its content is overwhelmingly sickly funny. It’s a story that wants to spend the bulk of its time wading through the terrible things people do to each other. It’s first and foremost an angry story that wants to lash out at unjust structures in the world. Yes, it has a sense of what would be more just, but its animating passion is its anger at what is.
And one of the things that it’s angry about, actually, is Doctor Who. It’s easy to miss the extent to which The Chimes of Midnight is subversive within the context of Doctor Who. Doctor Who’s central premise is the idea of falling out of the world. It depends on a logic of escape: on the fact that it is possible to depart the world, and, more to the point, depart it to a truly radical extent. Whereas Shearman’s worlds depict the exact opposite perspective. His worlds are traps, not just in the basic sense of places in which people are confined, but in a far more radical and unnerving sense where the very contours of the world are a trap.
And Edith exemplifies that. She’s held in place by a complex interplay of class, sexism, education, and emotional turmoil. She’s exhibit A for intersectionality. She can’t fall out of the world because there’s nowhere for her to fall, save for into death. Even the things she holds to, most obviously Charley, are fundamentally lacking. Charley, after all, doesn’t remember her until well into the fourth episode. Edith misjudges Charley as a friend, when in fact Charley was only ever the nicest of her oppressors. And by clinging to the illusion that the nice oppressor is not, in fact, still an oppressor Edith gets herself killed. And this is the Doctor’s companion. Yes, the events that mean that Edith kills herself are the ones that predate Charley traveling with the Doctor, and it’s very much the Doctor and Charley that rescue Edith from her internal prison. Nevertheless, it is still striking that the good guys are still part and parcel of Edith’s self-imprisonment. The Doctor isn’t morally above the fray in this story.
In terms of Shearman’s career, all of this is fairly straightforwardly setting up Jubilee, which we’ve already covered. You can see how Shearman goes from The Holy Terror, where the closed world is entirely one person’s personal tragedy, to this, where it’s a personal tragedy framed in the larger social order, and, more to the point, one in which the Doctor is partially implicated. Then, finally, comes Jubilee, in which, as we saw when we covered it, the larger social order is the bulk of the closed world, and it’s defined entirely in terms of Doctor Who’s larger mythos.
Which brings us to something about this first stretch of McGann audios in this “season,” which is that the writer list is recognizable as “the people Davies tapped to write for the first season of the new series.” Beyond that, this season is structured with much more of a sense of story arc – the earlier stories put pieces on the board in preparation for the big finale. The result is something that feels very much like a dry run for the new series. But equally, nobody is quite there yet. Much of the approach needs just a little more time to cook.
In Shearman’s case, this manifests with the ending. I recognize that, by convention, The Chimes of Midnight is above reproach, but if we’re being honest… the ending is a bit wibbly. There’s just a bit too much introduced in the last episode. Edward Grove is a magnificent villain in practice, but he gets lost in the rush of things in the episode. The exposition of what’s going on with Edith is a bit late. And the basic idea is just a bit too contrived: the Doctor and Charlie happen to intersect Edith’s life so as to cause a time paradox. The entire premise of the audio relies on a huge coincidence. It’s not so contrived as to not work, but it blunts the impact of the ending ever so slightly. It’s still brilliant – better than the five McGann stories on either side of it. But it’s not the beacon of holy perfection of its reputation.
Jubilee has flaws in its ending, certainly, but the basic shape of it holds together. Chimes of Midnight doesn’t quite have its overall shape in place. It has a few too many things going on and too many themes. But equally, Jubilee, and by extension Dalek, are both clearly works that follow from this, once Shearman figures out how to set up a social structure and tie it to the basic nature of what Doctor Who is. Much like the Eighth Doctor Adventures almost but don’t quite figure out how to give the Doctor a clean break from Gallifrey, this is almost but not quite figuring out how to do the story that eventually becomes Dalek.
Which is to say that in both of these first two stories, despite their flaws, we can very much see writers who are working in the same way that they will on the television series. Shearman is going to write a story very much like this, only where the confines of the world are some of the formative myths of the series. Gatiss is going to do another nostalgia-trip, but one that’s bound up tightly both in the past of Doctor Who and in the legacy of BBC television. The relationship between the next audio and Father’s Day is less straightforward, but it’s not like Cornell’s preferred themes changed wildly in three years either.
And this comes, we should note, not two years after the Eighth Doctor Adventures made their closest approach to the territory of the television series. And it’s far closer to managing the future than the Eighth Doctor Adventures got. In just a handful of audios Big Finish has gotten their storytelling together to an incredible degree. And more than that, they’ve gotten a sense of variety. And what is particularly compelling about this is that it’s not as though they have a house style. The last time Doctor Who made this sort of decisive jump in its storytelling was the Virgin era, but there was, if we’re being honest, a certain homogeneity across the best of the New Adventures. Big Finish doesn’t have a style.
So what is it that’s advanced Doctor Who for Big Finish? Part of it is their cadre of writers. And part of that is just that this is a particularly good stretch – it’s notable that the back half of McGann’s second “season” has a very different set of writers and a very different tone. Another part of it is simply that the production line approach of Big Finish does spur creativity. While it’s easy to argue that Big Finish puts out too much stuff, a collaborative pressure cooker is often a boon to creativity.
But another part of it – a very big part – is simply the dividends of the “storytelling first” strategy that Big Finish has been pursuing from the start. Having gotten in the habit of telling functional stories they’re in a position to make mad ambition work. The truth is that The Chimes of Midnight has as many rough edges as Father Time or EarthWorld, but it also has a team of people working on it who know how to bring out the good parts and minimize the weak parts. This is what collaborative production lets you do. In this regard, it’s more than just that Big Finish is hiring the same writers that Russell T Davies will. It’s that it’s focusing heavily on the basic task of learning to do collaborative storytelling and production. This obviously isn’t a new invention, nor a new addition to Doctor Who. But in applying it seriously to Doctor Who for the first time in over a decade Big Finish laid genuine groundwork for the series’ return. It’s not, in other words, that Big Finish picked the same writers as Davies. It’s that Davies picked writers from Big Finish.
March 13, 2013 @ 4:28 am
Isn't this all getting just a tad telelogical? You seem to be treating the 2005 series as an inevitable utopia, in which all is for the best in the best of all possible TV shows, up to which the wilderness years are inexorably leading?
I have been accused of similar things myself 😉
March 13, 2013 @ 4:47 am
Do you have any thoughts on this story as a pastiche of Sapphire and Steel?
March 13, 2013 @ 5:18 am
I hope no one minds me popping up on here. It's not really the done thing, is it? And it might look like an attempt to temper people's critical comments, and I assure you it absolutely isn't. Please all criticise away! 'Chimes of Midnight' feels so very long ago now that it doesn't even seem to belong to me any more. It's the only audio of mine I ever listened back to, which I did in 2009 or so, just because I'd never quite understood why this one in particular seemed so popular. And I recognised so very little of it, I promise, that it might as well be someone else's work!
I agree with Phil about the ending. That never really worked. The reason that for years I had a rather bad feeling about 'Chimes' is that it was written in such a rush. One episode a day. And I'd drag myself towards the latest cliffhanger, and never be entirely sure what was going to happen next. Of all the audios I wrote for BF, this was the one that I made up as I went along. My background is in theatre work, and there I make a very big deal about structure and the way that real meaning and theme can pivot around the structural conceits the drama adopts. I was very wary of doing a play in which the structure was so clearly random. And part four – in which I too discovered that Edward Grove was the house – no, really, it seems obvious now, but it was just one of several options I was sprinkling throughout the script – ended up being something of a race for the finish line.
In its very mild defence, listening back to it, I'd say that the solution it offers was meant to be a red herring. Something is badly going wrong with time. It's to do with the paradox of Charley being saved from the R101. 'Chimes' pretends that all the wibbly time stuff has been identified and solved by the little paradox I create in its wake. But it doesn't really make logical sense, and is all part of a much bigger problem. I was under strict instructions to set up some sort of paradox but not resolve it, because it would only be deepened by the rest of the season and confronted head on in 'Neverland'. I think the story falls between too stools, really: it's trying to be a chapter in an arc, but it's also (somewhat arrogantly) trying to be stand-alone and sum up the entire arc all by itself. That's because I'm a pretty bad team player, I expect!
Come to think of it, I never really get the structure right in my Big Finish audios. Not up until the end, anyway. 'Scherzo' at least has a structure I deliberately set to – I just think it has other bigger problems. My Unbound one, the last full audio I did, I think that one did a pretty good job, actually. But then that one very definitely didn't even feel like a Doctor Who story.
I sometimes wonder whether there's something in Doctor Who that makes doing endings very difficult. We fall over ourselves to praise those Hinchcliffe stories (well, most of 'em) but it's all three episodes of set-up followed by one episode of rushed anticlimax. That four episode structure is a very unusual one in itself. …Doesn't mean we shouldn't work harder to paper over the cracks, either way!
Anyway, thanks, Phil, for a really thoughtful essay. It really took me back to those heady days when I was young and carefree, and my beard had traces of colour in it. 🙂
March 13, 2013 @ 5:35 am
Well, surely within the context of Doctor Who, at least, that is what the new series is. We're at a point in the series where the lack of the new series would really preclude this sort of analysis in the first place, because absent its status as an organizing principle this period of Doctor Who would be barely worth commenting on, or worth discussing only as the sputtering embers of the concept before it finally gave up the ghost. I mean, at this point you've got a hopelessly fragmented series with two deeply flawed but occasionally brilliant lines each positioning themselves as the "present" of the series, and neither one reaching beyond a small faction of a dwindling fandom. Without the knowledge that the new series is 18 months away from being announced, what approach is there?
March 13, 2013 @ 5:57 am
The Revival of the television series is rather remarkable — not just the fact of its resurrection, but its ongoing success, a success that outstrips its first incarnation. I think it's all well and good to praise what actually works, just in terms of artistic technique. I find it very interesting to see what kinds of historical developments played into that success.
And not just for glorifying the Revival, or understanding what Davies did to give it legs. I think — I hope — that what Phil's doing now will give us an opportunity to peel back the obvious aspects of the show's success for a clearer view into what problems may lurk underneath. The better we understand the "discourse" — how the story is told — the better we can understand the stories themselves, and that can only further our critiques.
March 13, 2013 @ 6:21 am
You're very welcome.
And I never mind your comments. Though I admit it's a little more unnerving doing criticism when I know the writer is reading, it's a fun problem to have occasionally.
March 13, 2013 @ 6:27 am
Great hearing from you, Rob. As an avid reader and very sporadic commenter here (I think my last post was on 'Androzani' actually), I think it's very cool that you've graciously checked in w your two pence about your work.
I confess to not having heard 'Chimes' yet (most all of BF is still an unexplored country for me), but 'Dalek' is an absolute highlight of Series 1 for me, and I do hope you'll pop back in for that when Phil gets to it.
March 13, 2013 @ 6:27 am
I'd be very surprised if Dr. Sandifer minds you commenting – I know I was delighted when Jim Mortimore responded to a review I wrote of Campaign, and also when John Dorney sent me some notes on his thinking while writing The Rocket Men.
Perhaps Chimes isn't the best structured audio; but it has an accelerating pace that, for me, distracts from most of the flaws in the final episode. With a critical eye I can see that those flaws are there, but when listening for enjoyment I don't actually notice most of them! The exception is the explanation regarding Edith, which does feel out of place and squeezed for time. It's not enough to wreck the experience, though, any more than the magma beast spoils The Caves of Androzani (to pick another classic where I agree with the consensus praise).
As for the red herring paradox solution, I think it works fine: it does come across as incomplete, not quite right somehow, so it did its arc job (as did Seasons of Fear, which took the next step). But it's also complete enough to make the story work as a standalone, so the balance was just about right for me. It was also the first eighth Doctor audio I heard, so it did another job – which was to suck me in to this particular line.
I would never have guessed it was written in such a rush – thanks for getting me into this!
March 13, 2013 @ 6:51 am
"I sometimes wonder whether there's something in Doctor Who that makes doing endings very difficult. We fall over ourselves to praise those Hinchcliffe stories (well, most of 'em) but it's all three episodes of set-up followed by one episode of rushed anticlimax. That four episode structure is a very unusual one in itself."
I dunno, I thought the 4-parter would have a rather natural structure to it — Hook, Turn, Accelerate, Climax! But I wonder if the focus on creating great cliffhangers got in the way of figuring out a great climax. The climax is the whole point of a (good) story, the inevitable collision of all the players and themes preceding.
You'd think that for a team so adept at creating cliffhangers, they'd have figured out how to pull all the great stuff from those first three episodes and fire them at each other! But if they're not thinking in terms of the awful choice that must be made, the internal conflict of the characters' needs and what it all means in the end, if it's all tension, tension, tension — well, then, the anticlimax is almost assured, because the climax itself is a release of tension; therefore, tension can't ever really be "the point" because it's necessarily cancelled out in the end.
This is why, for example, I find The Ark in Space so much more satisfying than Pyramids of Mars. The Ark in Space has a point to make about humanity, easily seen in the climax, and that point seems to infuse everything that comes before it — the act of self-sacrifice (which is a kind of "ascension") practically describes the setup preceding it, people who are metaphorically raised from the dead to establish a new Garden of Eden. And it's the same story for the Wirrn! Except their Vira — the Queen — is the one who sacrificed herself, at the very beginning. The need to survive is constantly pitted against the need to extend the race.
It's all quite elegant, in a way that Pyramids is not. Most of Part 4 is anti-climax, solving puzzles on Mars, followed by a quick time-loop to kill Sutekh. There's no internal conflict here, just one "god" trying to survive against another, and the ending has very little if anything to do with this basic external clash. There's no connection other than a dribble of "science" to the story preceding it.
Chimes is much better than Mars, as the external factors of the climax — breaking the recurring time-loop paradox that gives Edward Grove life at the expense of everyone else — informs the whole story; despite your insistence, Rob, Chimes has plenty of structure, and just because you pantsed it doesn't mean your natural instincts for structure went by the wayside. What makes it weak is that despite all its wonderful exploration of psychology, the final inevitable choice to be made by Charley and Edith rings hollow — hmm, what will it be, a Paradoxical Life or Fatalistic Death? I'm not seeing that conflict of internal needs that's at the heart of a great climax.
March 13, 2013 @ 7:14 am
I've actually heard this one! (Always a bonus, as Big Finish audios are even harder to borrow than the EDAs or VNAs) The repetitive sequence reminds me of Midnight–not as creepy, since Chimes repeats a situation while Midnight repeats dialogue and threatens identity–but it's interesting to make that connection
March 13, 2013 @ 7:32 am
I sometimes wonder whether there's something in Doctor Who that makes doing endings very difficult.
As a humble writer of fan fiction, I definitely think you're right. For some reason, Doctor Who endings are a bugger to get right. This is why I tend to give a free pass to any story where the ending feels satisfying – e.g. Remembrance of the Daleks has its problems, but I can overlook them. I wonder if it has something to do with tuning the knob of what the Doctor can actually do? He has to be powerless enough not to solve things in ten minutes, but eventually able to get the job done. So a lot of the best endings come when the Doctor is artificially delaying his own success (Human Nature being a particularly neat example). My own stories tend to fall into the bracket of Banks' "outside context problem" (thanks to my beta-reader for pointing that out!) which helps enormously.
Another thought is that the best endings have a consequence – usually emotional – that follows from them. As well as helping make the story actually matter, that has the practical effect in a twenty-five minute format of giving five minutes over to post-climax material, which can help tighten up the earlier part of the episode. Pyramids of Mars lacks this, which means one or two too many Exxilon-city-style padding scenes. Of course, if those consequences are part of a wider arc, their appearance may be delayed, which might contribute to a sense of imbalance.
March 13, 2013 @ 7:42 am
It's so difficult to see the "Wilderness years" as anything other than comfortably bookended by the Classic and New Series'. One can look back on them with indulgence and see their faults, none of which matter as there will be another triumph along in a the next story. But of course at the time things did not look that way. The books and the audios were forever out on a limb, with fans wondering whether (or how long) they would continue. All it would have taken were enough sub-standard stories for sales to dip and either or both lines to be cancelled.
From a US perspective I'd liken this period to the gap between the cancellation of the original Star Trek series and the start of the Next Generation, although Trekkers were to some extent secure that TOS was forever safe in syndication, something Who was not.
March 13, 2013 @ 7:59 am
Ah, that's a shame. I'd always wanted that in spite of all the flim-flammery of explaining a time paradox, and the constraints that would impose upon the climax, that at least the emotional resolution was sincere. And for me that all came down to not wanting the relationship between Charley and Edith to be too easy or too glib: as Phil points out, Charley is quite deliberately an oppressor, the way in which she is so dismissive of the servants at the beginning of the play seems retrospectively quite cruel – and Edith's choice of life over death will guarantee her no happy ending. But it is, for all that, a glimpse of hope, and hope that Edith has earned, not that's been merely granted her by someone else. If that drama of internal needs doesn't come across, then I don't think Chimes is about anything very much at all. It certainly can't survive as an Agatha Christie spoof featuring a talking house – that's just too ridiculous for words!
I don't insist that Chimes has no structure, by the way – I can see what I was aiming for! The first part as atmospheric prologue, with the drama only really starting in part two; the false climax at the end of episode three. I'd been a full time playwright for eight years when I wrote Chimes, and I was grabbing on to structure by the seat of my pants to get me to the deadline! I just think, in final analysis, I couldn't quite get the plotting to fit that structure coherently. I hope I'd do it better now!
March 13, 2013 @ 9:20 am
The first point where Chimes lost me emotionally was this notion that Edith's suicide was in some sense a "sacrifice," that she died for Charley. I can see her dying of despair, of hopelessness, but the way it's framed here, I dunno. I kind of like that it's passive-aggressive, that she's blaming Charley for her own despair, but it needs more. "I died for you" doesn't feel quite honest — although it could have with a bit more bite in the performance, an edge of bitterness. If Charley's diary had shown no regard for Edith at all, for example — although such an indictment of Charley's character might have backfired in the long run.
Anyways, it comes down to Edith's needs. What does Edith need? On the one hand, she needs kindness, from someone, anyone. She gets that from Charley, and loses that when she believes Charley died. But her other need is to feel that she somehow matters in the world — and again, that's all wrapped up in Charley. Both of Edith's needs are externalized upon someone else… and neither of these needs are in conflict with each other. It's not like Edith has to choose between kindness and mattering.
So when the internal drama gets externalized into choosing between life and death, it's that that rings hollow. Choosing death doesn't meet any of Edith's needs, while choosing life meets both her needs, especially now she knows Charley's not actually dead. So it's not a matter of it being insincere, or Edith not earning her choice, but that the underlying conflict of the choice didn't have much grit in the first place.
There's a third need playing along with this, the need for clarity — which is, in a sense, a need for order — but it's complicated, first by the despair it engenders insofar as the lives of servants are so strictly ordered that order becomes a prison (so what she really needs is chaos!) and yet the need for clarity only arises from the paradox itself. Now here's some needs that are in conflict! But because they aren't founded on a solid emotional conflict in the first place, the steam of the pressure cooker escapes prematurely.
Dalek, on the other, is rife with conflicting internal needs, for all three principal characters, and that's what makes it so effective in the end.
March 13, 2013 @ 9:50 am
Fair enough! 🙂
I remain stubbornly proud of the emotional resolution of the story, but can see quite clearly why it doesn't work for you. Whereas I'm ambivalent about the emotional effect of 'Dalek', and have all these years rather suspected it comes across as rather forced.
Thanks for explaining where you find the weakness. I think the problem with emotional attachment within drama is that it does depend very much upon that magical 'other' that links one audience member to the material. Try as you might, you can never force an emotional response when you write something. There are plenty of moments in Doctor Who alone, celebrated for having the power to move, that strike me as contrived and fake. And plenty that can make me cry, that no one else ever seems to find touching at all! (I always howl my eyes out when Mergrave says goodbye to the Doctor in Castrovalva so he can help imprison the Master. So what do I know?)
None of which, I stress, in any way is intended to suggest you should have felt an emotional connection you didn't. Just sorry it didn't work for you.
March 13, 2013 @ 10:14 am
For all my critique, I still give Chimes top honors — because Edith's story still resonates with me, and Charley's realization of her privileges in the face of Edith's servitude worked. I genuinely cared for their outcomes, I was glad it didn't go cynical and force Edith to die for the sake of her masters, and I was especially delighted that it came down to choices for these two women with the Doctor only an Advocate — especially in a place of death. Really, all I've done is to try and explain a single fault-line in an otherwise quite remarkable piece of work.
And I don't disagree that there's something forced about Dalek, especially in how it juxtaposes the Doctor and the Dalek — but I don't care about that, because both of them (and Rose, to an extent) are dealing with conflicting internal needs — and it doesn't matter much to me what the needs are, since I can relate to most any kind of need, but that they are internally generated, in conflict, yet externally dramatized. That's what I look for in drama, because that's what hard about living, choosing between my needs — and not always choosing well.
And now I'm going to have to listen to Scherzo again, because that's one of only three Eighth Doctor audios that made me cry — the others being "To The Death" and "Zagreus", so what do I know? 😉
March 13, 2013 @ 10:34 am
For a certain kind of die-hard Generation 1 TOS fan maybe, but what's not commented on that frequently about Star Trek is that it didn't become a pop culture movement until the early-mid 1970s when it was in syndication and sold overseas. It always had a handful of extremely loyal and extremely vocal fans, but they were a remarkable tiny minority all things considered. Frankly, CBS' decision to cancel TOS was, well, logical. Also, Gen. 1 TOS fans were the last people who wanted Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least at first.
@Phil and Jack
Unfortunately I do have to agree your thesis is starting to seem a bit teleological and deterministic, Phil, at least from my perspective. I know why you're doing it this way and it makes sense, but there is a somewhat nasty side effect of making the New Series appear panglossian when a great many people would disagree with this premise, probably a lot less politely than we would.
Could the story of Doctor Who in the wilderness years not also be cast as one where the series explodes outward to become a near-infinite multiplicity of different stories and concepts, of which the New Series is only one and Big Finish and the book series are equally valid alternate interpretations? You gestured at this a little bit way back around "Survival", but the narrative of the New Series' inevitable return and rise to glory seems to have taken over and suppressed that thread of analysis since then. IMO that would also help explain why so many Classic Series fans refuse to accept the New Series: Not because they're stubborn, retrograde or no fun, but because they remain unconvinced the New Series has to be the undisputed heir apparent to the original show when there's so much other Doctor Who around, many of which predates it. That's a thread I at least would like to see explored a bit more.
Now, far be it for me to tell you how to run your own project, but that's just a thought I had. When cast this way, Doctor Who becomes almost the archetypical postmodern work of fiction the way I see it.
March 13, 2013 @ 1:30 pm
"Beyond that, this season is structured with much more of a sense of story arc – the earlier stories put pieces on the board in preparation for the big finale. The result is something that feels very much like a dry run for the new series. But equally, nobody is quite there yet. Much of the approach needs just a little more time to cook."
Oh no, we're not going down this road of suggesting a masterpiece like Chimes of Midnight is an inferior try out for the horrids and philistine RTD version of Doctor Who, just because it didn't get high ratings?
"I recognize that, by convention, The Chimes of Midnight is above reproach, but if we’re being honest… the ending is a bit wibbly. There’s just a bit too much introduced in the last episode. Edward Grove is a magnificent villain in practice, but he gets lost in the rush of things in the episode. The exposition of what’s going on with Edith is a bit late. And the basic idea is just a bit too contrived: the Doctor and Charlie happen to intersect Edith’s life so as to cause a time paradox. The entire premise of the audio relies on a huge coincidence. It’s not so contrived as to not work, but it blunts the impact of the ending ever so slightly. It's still brilliant – better than the five McGann stories on either side of it. But it's not the beacon of holy perfection of its reputation."
"Chimes of Midnight doesn’t quite have its overall shape in place. It has a few too many things going on and too many themes."
I wonder then if you're going to give a pass to New Who as being beyond reproach even when crowbarring in all that Reality TV crap into Bad Wolf that served no purpose except for a cheap ratings ploy and artificial suspense, that coincidentally is supposed to have survived hundreds of thousands of years after Rose's time and still maintained the TV format she recognises.
"Jubilee has flaws in its ending, certainly, but the basic shape of it holds together. But equally, Jubilee, and by extension Dalek, are both clearly works that follow from this, once Shearman figures out how to set up a social structure and tie it to the basic nature of what Doctor Who is."
Really? Most of the characters in Dalek were blase, one-note stereotypes. Hardly anyone that had the kind of history and breadth that the characters in Chimes do. And frankly the characterisation of the Doctor is better here. I could never imagine McGann's Doctor scoffing immaturely at the idea of learning, with the awful line 'what are you gonna do, throw your A-levels at them' for the sake of RTD's self-indulgent, belatedly redundant and actually quite fannish Adric-bashing in what's supposed to be a show for non-fans now.
March 13, 2013 @ 2:04 pm
"Could the story of Doctor Who in the wilderness years not also be cast as one where the series explodes outward to become a near-infinite multiplicity of different stories and concepts, of which the New Series is only one and Big Finish and the book series are equally valid alternate interpretations?… IMO that would also help explain why so many Classic Series fans refuse to accept the New Series…"
I dunno Josh, it's one thing to uphold these other formats as equally valid interpretations — I certainly do — but I think it's a bit hypocritical to come out and say it's a valid reason to "refuse to accept the New Series" in the same breath.
The truth is, the Revival has a much bigger following and a much bigger impact on our culture overall than all the other current forms combined. That a slice of Classic fans have rejected the Revival is really a drop from the bucket. Television is much more dominant today than books or audio plays, just in general.
And in the case of Doctor Who, the story itself has gone forward, moving on from the Doctors of yesteryear. In a sense, the audios and books are stuck in the past. They depend on the previously televised stories just to exist, and they're not going to be creating brand new 9th, 10th, and 11th Doctors. And in this sense, the multiplicity you speak of has disappeared. There are new books with them, and eventually there will be audios as well, but they'll still be derived from the prototypes established on TV.
Considering how beholden the alternatives are to TV, I find it difficult to accept the former while rejecting the latter. Yes, the TV show serves different needs, and certainly has its problems, but to outright reject it as the primary source of Doctor Who in this day and age is like sticking your head in the sand and chanting "la la la la la."
March 13, 2013 @ 2:29 pm
The problem is, as I noted, that at the end of the day the wilderness years just aren't good enough. And the bits of it that do work are mostly the ones that eventually led into the new series. The second McGann "season" is telling in this regard: three stories from writers who worked on the new series, three from ones who didn't. And the three from the new series writers are all better than the ones that aren't. So, I mean, when "good writers of the wilderness years" and "writers with a clear impact on the new series" correspond precisely…
But to go back to what I gestured at with Survival. There's been a complete turnover in the creative figures on the show. Even the bright lights of the McCoy era are long gone now. This isn't Aaronovitch, Cartmel, and Platt's series. And the people to whom it does belong are very, very new sorts of people. The transition through the counterculture happened. And those are the sorts of people who brought us the new series.
March 13, 2013 @ 3:53 pm
Oh, that's very generous of you, Jane – you didn't have to say that! This is the danger of the writer popping on to a blog like this – you shouldn't in any way temper your criticism for my sake. Genuinely, all my Doctor Who work – Dalek and all – seem so long ago now that discussing them is just interesting, that's all. You may well have put your finger besides upon that niggling problem I've always had with 'Chimes'. I always thought the emotional resolution was in place, but that some of the final plotting was contrived. It'd be a bit unlikely that the one wouldn't influence the other. Hmm. Definite food for thought. I should probably give it a listen again at some point… although I'm not sure I'm brave enough!
It's a discussion for another time, probably, but I always felt that the climax to 'Dalek' was pulling in two opposing directions. I intended very much that in the final stand-off between the Doctor and the Dalek, that the Dalek would be furious at its contamination, and its act of sacrifice was nothing more noble than an extreme racist refusing to live with the taint of an inferior species. It's there in the dialogue, I think – but the production (understandably) goes down a more emotionally stirring path: Murray Gold's music gives the Dalek more dignity than I'd have expected, for example. Now, I don't actually think I was right – I think the popularity for 'Dalek' with a wider audience was that they were allowed to feel greater sympathy for the monster than I intended, and the BBC were much smarter than I was giving it that upward note of redemption. But it still makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, sort of – that the direction I'd been pushing the story towards didn't get fulfilled the way I'd imagined. I think that's the difference between doing audio dramas for a niche market, and big event TV for everyone – and why if I'd ever been in charge of a Doctor Who revival (the idea!) it'd have never managed a single season before drowning in its own greyness.
I think every story – any story – depends upon an emotional resonance, or it isn't worth writing in the first place. It's actually quite easy to do clever-clever. We can all be clever-clever!
(Scherzo is a weird one. I've no idea what to make of that one any more…!)
Anyway, thanks for this, Jane – I've enjoyed the discussion, and hope it didn't put you on the spot! Did I read some entries ago you were trying to persuade Phil to come to the Chicago event in May? If so, see you there!
March 13, 2013 @ 3:59 pm
You don't like New Doctor Who at all do you?
March 13, 2013 @ 4:17 pm
Judging how you talk about your Doctor Who work (long ago) I suppose there's not a good chance of getting another episode from you? Something in the vein of "My Own Private Wolfgang" ?(a personal favourite of mine)
March 13, 2013 @ 4:35 pm
Oh, thank you for liking 'Wolfgang'! That was such fun to do.
I'd never say never to doing Doctor Who again. But, you know, it's funny… when you're writing the thing, it's really hard to enjoy it with the same perspective as when you're not. And if you're writing scripts back to back – and from 'Holy Terror' for BF in late 1999, right up to the filming of 'Dalek' in 2004, there was always some Who script or other I was supposed to be working on – then you do start to dream up Doctor Who stories almost as a matter of course. And once you stop… that particular well dries up somewhat. I'd decided in 2003 it was time to call it a day, I think my stories were getting a bit repetitive and I was getting complacent – but then the call from BBC Wales came, and I could hardly turn down working on that first TV season! I've been writing other things for the last few years (lots of books, radio, a new theatre play for London later this autumn, fingers crossed), and I suspect I've got rather out of the habit of knowing how to do Who. The cupboard is empty, because I haven't been putting anything fresh in there!
I honestly do love Doctor Who, and I'm not saying I'd never be tempted back. I still feel very close to both the TV and the audio teams. Moffat's an old friend anyway, and I was Nick Briggs' best man of all things a couple of years ago – so I never feel I've moved very far away. But it's wonderful now, all this time later – and my last regular work on Who was nearly a decade ago – to be able to sit back smugly and say, "Do you know what? I was on Doctor Who once. And there are bits of it I'm proud of!" …I'd hate to come back now and make a balls up of it, not seeing as I somehow got away with it at the time. I'd be so ashamed!
March 13, 2013 @ 4:54 pm
While I can respect that decision, I can't say it doesn't sadden me a little bit. I feel like Doctor Who needs more episodes like Wolfgang…I feel sometimes that the show forgets how to be fun. It's ansolutly facinating to get your retrospective on your stories. I really look forward to seeing your thoughts on Dalek
March 13, 2013 @ 4:55 pm
"I intended very much that in the final stand-off between the Doctor and the Dalek, that the Dalek would be furious at its contamination, and its act of sacrifice was nothing more noble than an extreme racist refusing to live with the taint of an inferior species."
The problem with this slant is that the Dalek's hatred ends up trumping Rose's compassion. It's a very Sawardian way to go — it's quite cynical. And sure, there are people in the world who never see the light of compassion, but is that a philosophy we want to uphold? I don't think so. Instead, the internal conflict of hatred and compassion are brought to an impasse; the Dalek can't let go of either. The only way for both these needs to be met is self-sacrifice — compassion for Rose, hatred for itself.
The other thing I like about where the story actually goes is that it's very bold to present a redemption arc for a monster. Just the very act of "monstering" is problematic in the real world. All kinds of atrocities are committed through monstering the Other, through dehumanization. Giving a monster a redemption arc counteracts that process, helps to de-mythologize monsters themselves, or that the very least re-mythologize them differently. It adds more grey to the picture — but more the shade of mercury than steel.
March 13, 2013 @ 5:09 pm
"Oh no, we're not going down this road of suggesting a masterpiece like Chimes of Midnight is an inferior try out for the horrids and philistine RTD version of Doctor Who, just because it didn't get high ratings?"
No, Phil's suggesting that Chimes is an excellent tryout for the magnificent television revival of Doctor Who, yet another step in the right direction from the flaccid and inconsistent Wilderness Years.
"I wonder then if you're going to give a pass to New Who as being beyond reproach even when crowbarring in all that Reality TV crap into Bad Wolf that served no purpose except for a cheap ratings ploy and artificial suspense"
There's plenty to choose from in reproaching the Revival, but the Reality TV satire isn't on the list. Not only does Bad Wolf take shots at the genre (deservedly) but the three shows target the particular fears of each of the characters — the Doctor's abhorrence of Orwellian police-states, Rose's intellectual insecurities, and Jack's vanity.
Not coincidentally, the show takes aim at the very "realism" that questions the reappearance of this dismal genre in the far future.
"I could never imagine McGann's Doctor scoffing immaturely at the idea of learning, with the awful line 'what are you gonna do, throw your A-levels at them' for the sake of RTD's self-indulgent, belatedly redundant and actually quite fannish Adric-bashing in what's supposed to be a show for non-fans now."
The show is now quite clear that intellect on its own is insufficient against brute force and cynicism. There must also be "romance" — in particular, compassion. Adam's plan is a combination of intellect and brute force, and hence deserves to be scoffed. (Of course, the delicious irony is that this is exactly the Doctor's plan at that moment — which is eventually proven to be inadequate, thankfully!)
March 13, 2013 @ 5:32 pm
Oh, there was still a redemptive arc for the Dalek. Its bond with Rose – the way it identifies with her, and shares fear with her in its final moments. The way that it has nothing but contempt for Van Statten, and the pathetic reasons for why it tortured him – refusing to exterminate him, and turning on its heel (if it had a heel) in dismissal. I don't think what I had in mind was especially Sawardian, really. (In fact, I met Eric socially – quite by chance, in fact – whilst I was writing 'Dalek', told him what I was up to, and he seemed duly horrified!) But I also wanted it clear that in the final analysis, the Dalek fails to accept its redemption entirely: it doesn't kill itself to save Rose or the Doctor, it's not an act of heroic self-sacrifice. At the end of the day, it's still a Dalek, tragically bred to receive orders and not to make any of its own.
I don't think the hatred that way trumps the compassion – if anything, it suggests that compassion is something hard fought for. The greatest danger with the story right from the first drafts was that Rose showing sympathy for the Dalek would make her look stupid to all those watching who recognised the iconic baddie of a famous TV show – I believed entirely the opposite, that this was a measure of how Rose had developed since 'End of the World' where she couldn't cope with being around alien species.
As I say, I think in the end the TV show got it right. I was wanting one more twist of the knife at the end, one more suggestion that the Dalek (who, after all, was being reintroduced after a long absence, and was set up as the big bad of the series finale) was amoral. But I think that might have been overkill. I am proud of the way I'm regularly told that people cried for my Dalek, even if they'd been scared of it half an hour before.
March 13, 2013 @ 6:18 pm
I don't think you should sell yourself short by suggesting that you've got nothing left in the Who cupboard; it might be non-fiction, but 'Running Through Corridors' has been an amazing celebration of the series and I'm eagerly anticipating Book Two. It's a different sort of Who work, but no less good.
And I have to say it, because the blog owner dared me to: I've always had a crazy fan theory that the scribe in 'Holy Terror' is actually Andred, placed in a Time Lord prison as punishment for killing the first child born on Gallifrey since the time of Rassilon. (Which explains why the TARDIS was drawn to the castle as a place to recuperate.) Any thoughts? 🙂
March 13, 2013 @ 6:28 pm
Oh, yes, I loved doing Running Through Corridors! (Well, I say 'loved' – I realise we still have to carve three more books out of that jog through the series! And the next one's long overdue. My fault.) It really felt like paying my due to the series, actually – trying to find a positive essay about not only every single story, but every single episode. (And clearly failing. But we tried.) No, cupboard-wise, I meant Doctor Who in a fictional sense, that's all. I can pontificate about it forever! And I can always put new stuff in the cupboard. Might do, one day!
As for Eugene being Andred… well, I suppose he could be! (Though if I'd ever said that to Gary, I know he'd have made sure we cast Christopher Tranchell!) In all honesty, I really wanted Holy Terror to be in a nice safely unexplained setting, so we never know what the aliens are called or which planet we're on – I felt back then (still do now, a bit) that the show often makes the universe feel terribly small by trying to identify everything. So I'd probably have strongly resisted this being a Time Lord prison. But, you know, it's a fun theory! I say, go with it!
March 13, 2013 @ 8:54 pm
Well certainly the pop culture impact of the New Series is unquestionable. And certainly Doctor Who's natural home does seem to be on television, so there's that. That's a very interesting, yet separate, train of thought from where I was trying to go. I was talking about a very specific trend amongst a segment of Classic Series fans to…not quite throw the New Series out of their personal canon, but to question its claim to be definitive Doctor Who at the expense of its own history (and the New Series, or at least those in charge of it, has, at times, acted rather history-effacing). There are those who seem to feel betrayed by the New Series and believe it's flaunting authority it doesn't deserve (mostly New Adventures fans I've noticed).
This is not a philosophy I hold myself I hasten to add, in spite of my numerous criticisms of the New Series. There's really no way to dispute the impact it's had on pop consciousness in the late-2000s and early 2010s. The New Series may not at all be a show for me, but there's no way to claim it's somehow irrelevant. I certainly consider it perfectly legitimate Doctor Who, even if I don't often agree with it. I have issues with huge swaths of the Classic Series and don't much care for the New Adventures or the BBC Books, but I don't go around calling their Who-cred into question either. This is a trend I've noticed though, and I just thought the idea of Doctor Who becoming a multiplicity of things in the 90s might go a ways towards explaining it (i.e. a segment of fandom arguing the New Series is trying to force Doctor Who to become a singular thing again, thus imposing an authoritarian structure on it).
March 13, 2013 @ 10:04 pm
The new series might not be the 'undisputed heir apparent' to the original series, but that's a mere technicality; frankly, say what you will about modern TV Doctor Who, it's got a much better claim to the title than any of the other contenders.
March 14, 2013 @ 5:11 am
I'd say the Revival is definitive Doctor Who — but then I'd say the same about Big Finish, and the book lines, too. Because at this point, I'd say it's definitively contradictory.
What is this argument that the Revival is "trying to force Doctor Who to become a singular thing again"? And where does "history-effacing" come into it — especially when effacing history is crucial to creating multiplicity in the first place?
March 14, 2013 @ 5:30 am
"But I also wanted it clear that in the final analysis, the Dalek fails to accept its redemption entirely: it doesn't kill itself to save Rose or the Doctor, it's not an act of heroic self-sacrifice. At the end of the day, it's still a Dalek, tragically bred to receive orders and not to make any of its own.
I don't think the hatred that way trumps the compassion – if anything, it suggests that compassion is something hard fought for."
I always forget about the "receiving orders" business! So you were really aiming for the Dalek being too biologically determined to find redemption in the end? Or too militarily encultured?
I'm torn — on the one hand, I wouldn't want to reduce compassion to something that's facile, something that comes without work, because it's not; breaking down ego sufficiently to be consistently compassionate is hard.
On the other, to suggest that any individual is incapable of developing that ability — whether through biology or culture — I'm really uncomfortable with that. It makes it all to easy to point to this group or that group and say they're permanently monsters, so it's acceptable to wipe them out.
I'm really not opposed to that last twist of the knife you were looking for in dramatic terms, it's my philosophical reservations that hold me at bay. Partly, I think, because I see Doctor Who as Myth. In a different mode — plain old literary fiction, say — that final twist would work better for me.
"I am proud of the way I'm regularly told that people cried for my Dalek, even if they'd been scared of it half an hour before. "
You should be!
March 14, 2013 @ 6:12 am
If anything, the fact that the revival didn't make any effort to cut off Big Finish's license while also not doing anything like giving Big Finish the right to any of their shiny new monsters, or even several of the old monsters once they make it to TV seems to mean that the new series tacitly embraces multiplicity.
To say nothing of the eternal comedy of reconciling Torchwood's last two series with Doctor Who.
March 14, 2013 @ 6:14 am
"I am proud of the way I'm regularly told that people cried for my Dalek, even if they'd been scared of it half an hour before. "
Okay, I'd been holding off on this because I wanted to write when we got to the actual entry on Dalek, but I have to say that my son regularly cried at that point when watching it. His preferred username online is still Metaltron, and for years we had a whole series of roleplay games in which he played a Good Dalek companion of the Doctor called Metaltron.
As for me – well, I didn't actually cry, but it definitely got me.
March 14, 2013 @ 7:49 am
IMHO, the new series acts very conscientiously as a gateway into the history of the format – significantly more so, in fact, than many parts of the classic series did to the eras before them.
March 14, 2013 @ 8:25 am
Awwwww! That's super sweet.
Jane: Well, one can fail at something without it being impossible to succeed.
March 14, 2013 @ 8:49 am
Well that got me right in the feels…
March 14, 2013 @ 9:07 am
Ununnilium: Yes — which is why literary fiction is often the better place for such a story. The problem with putting that kind of failure in Myth is that myths have greater potential to burrow into the subconscious and establish patterns there. I don't know about you, but a mythic story reaffirming that a racist militant monster can't redeem itself in the end (the status quo for Daleks) provides little opportunity for actual racist militants to redeem themselves, nor does it give anyone else reason to allow that opportunity to occur.
Now, if this were the story of two Daleks, one who finds redemption and one who doesn't, that can work in Myth because it leaves everyone with a choice — and it carries more truth than the story of a singular Dalek, as there are racist militants who won't go down that path.
The other thing Shearman's original plan would have done would have been to subvert the Redemption Story itself, and the tropes thereof. I'm all for subverting tropes, but aren't there bigger fish to fry when it comes to that? In the end, the story ends up subverting Dalek tropes rather than Redemption tropes, and I can't argue against that. (But I'm biased — personally speaking, I'd much rather subvert my inner Dalek than my redemption story, I think it'd yield a much better outcome for all concerned when everything's said and done.)
March 14, 2013 @ 11:14 am
Well, I hope my take on the story wasn't either cynical (as you say!) or inherently fascist (as you imply!). I didn't want to deny anything the chance of redemption. And it's why in Jubilee, the audio drama that this is based on, the change effected in the Dalek comes through long conversation and philosophical discussion, and why I do find that the Dalek in that story achieves a certain nobility.
But the TV story hadn't got time for that, quite understandably. It was suggested in my very first meeting for the show once I'd been commissioned that the Dalek's moral dilemma might be caused by Rose touching the Dalek casing, and infecting it with 'DNA'. Which is clearly ludicrous, but a necessary shorthand for getting on with the story – there was no time for the 'Silence in the Lambs' inspired discussions in this show. And that's why I think full redemption for this Dalek would have been rather trite and glib: you squeeze into 45 minutes a reintroduction to the alien I'm told to show to an entire new audience as the 'big bad' of the series, the destroyer of the Doctor's race, and the chance for redemption through a hand touch. I wanted the conflict to be a little more complex than that.
It's tricky: the job, really, from the get go, was to showcase the series' big villain. I went as far as I could to suggest there was more to the big shiny pepperpot than cool gunfire and the ability to fly up some stairs. The Dalek and the Doctor parallel each other – they're both the scarred survivors of a war bigger than either of them. But if I'd gone too far in that direction, I think I'd have done a disservice to real character development, and contravened the story brief. At the end of the day, my biggest criticism I made of my Dalek was his lack of imagination – he wasn't a Dalek Supreme, or a Dalek Emperor, or some great diplomat – he was an ordinary menial soldier who had accidentally done the extraordinary thing of surviving in spite of himself. I found that in itself made the poor chap quite sympathetic – I find him much the more so by being true to his own alien principles. He has a lot more character and resolve than the humans who imprison him.
But no more of this. Wrong story. And I suspect I should just shut up and move on. At the end of the day, 'Dalek' is a collaborative work, and it's a whole mix of different intentions from different people. I would hate anyone to think that my own intention was 'Sawardian' or pessimistic – if anything, I probably tried too hard to suggest that the redemption being offered wasn't some silly sci-fi piece of bad science, but had some extra thought to it. It wasn't about trying to subvert tropes as such – as, say, 'Asylum of the Daleks' managed seven years after Doctor Who has the recognition and confidence to subvert whatever it wants. This was the sixth week of a revived show that the BBC were still wary of, and which we were just hoping might find an audience and survive that first teething year. I was just trying to establish any tropes at all, whilst giving it as much dignity and sincerity as I could.
Thanks, everyone, for letting me invade the blog! Writers really have no place popping up in critical fora – authorial intent can only mean so much, it's the interpretation of the finished product that is more important. 🙂
March 14, 2013 @ 12:18 pm
Oh…I never made that connection with the game-shows before, although I think Jack's connection is less a "fear' than "weakness"
March 14, 2013 @ 1:41 pm
The new series is Big. Everyone in the country has known since 2005 exactly who Doctor Who is, and everyone in 1964 knew as well. You couldn't say that about the "wilderness years", when to the vast majority of the UK, Doctor Who was dead, gone, and almost forgotten.
So Phil simply can't treat them the same in the blog. Doctor Who at it's height has both reflected society and been a part of society. In the 60s Daleks forced themselves into the public consciousness in such a way that they're now in the Oxford English Dictionary. The blog's early pages are all about seeing Doctor Who in context of the world, and how it was regarded. The New Series pages should be the same, if not more so, because not only did we have children running around playgrounds shouting "Are you my mummy?" and playing a variant of "Mr Wolf/Statues" based on "Blink", but we had shows like Merlin, Robin Hood and Primeval, which simply would not exist without New Doctor Who.
But the Wilderness Years, though they may have reflected their time, made absolutely no impact upon their time, no matter what the fans who read/listened to them think. Even the current entries reflect this – we get a couple of paragraphs of what's in the charts, then a bit of politics and news, followed by analysis of a story that bears no relation to any of these. Now I've read none of the books, and only listened to a few audios, but I still read these entries, and without the continual reflection upon the approaching New Series they would consist of little more than their relationship to the landscape of fandom at the time. They don't reflect anything real at all. As jane says, they only reflect what came before them, whether that be the previous book, or any season of the classic series. They are like a person walking backwards, forever blinded by the future and seeing only the past.
March 14, 2013 @ 5:05 pm
That's a fantastic analysis there, jane, although I will quibble slightly and point out that Russell T Davies is reportedly a fan of the reality TV shows he skewers and included them at least in part as affectionate piss-taking rather than vicious satire — however, this shouldn't take away from your argument; as any Doctor Who fan knows, sometimes the most passionate admirers can also be the harshest critics.
"I wonder then if you're going to give a pass to New Who as being beyond reproach even when crowbarring in all that Reality TV crap into Bad Wolf that served no purpose except for a cheap ratings ploy and artificial suspense, that coincidentally is supposed to have survived hundreds of thousands of years after Rose's time and still maintained the TV format she recognises."
Considering that Phil has shown clear willingness to call out parts of the series that he loves when he feels he deserves it, I'm not sure why you'd think his critical neutrality would deserve him just because he suggests that what he clearly considers to be an excellent piece of Doctor Who is a stepping stone to how the series would eventually develop.
And to add to Jane's analysis, the whole point of the future in "Bad Wolf" is that it's stagnant and broken; they've returned to cheap tacky programming because the entire creative impulse of that society is stifled. He's making a comment on modern culture as much as the world of the future, where we churn out bucketloads of cheap reality programming because we can't think of anything better.
March 14, 2013 @ 6:03 pm
Weakness, yes — thank you Galadriel!
You're right, Scott, it's much easier to critique that which we know well. But reality TV is like fries/chips: Everyone knows they're crap, but salt and grease press all kinds of deep-seated buttons in our poor monkey-brains, so it's good to point out on a regular basis that they're killing us over the long haul — the better to reduce our consumption. Tommy's big mistake is thinking that the motives for satirizing reality-TV are as crass as the product itself, if not outright implying that their inclusion amounted to some kind of endorsement.
March 14, 2013 @ 8:22 pm
They made an impact on the future, and that's where we're charting their impact. It's just, we're charting it from the perspective of the then-present, so it seems a little wonky.
March 14, 2013 @ 8:24 pm
See, I had never really heard the details of the story, but I knew "Daleks infected with the Human Factor" had been a thing in the classic series at some point, so I assumed this was a conscious callback to that.
And that's a good point – he's only been able to move beyond his boundaries for less than an hour, he's only going to make it so far!
March 15, 2013 @ 12:31 am
I'm not sure they did make much of an impact on the future, or at least not one that was crucial to the existence of the new series. Some of the plots have resurfaced ("Jubilee", "Human Nature", "Spare Parts"…possibly) and some of the writers, but if Doctor Who between 1989 and 2005 had consisted to just the TV Movie, would we still have had the new series? I honestly think we would. RTD may have been instrumental in the success of the NS, but he wasn't the main driving force behind the decision to bring Who back. That was certain elements at the BBC. RTD was seen as the best man to do it, and as we've already seen in the Blog, RTD's successes in Television are not down to Doctor Who. They're down to his skill as a writer. Sure, his writing style and his imagination may have been informed by him being a Doctor Who fan, but if the EDAs and Big Finish had never existed, I think RTD would still be RTD and we'd still have Doctor Who in the 21st Century. There'd be some differences, sure. There'd be no Human Nature, and possibly no Time War, but then again the NS eschews any continuity with the Wilderness years, and positively embraces continuity with the Classic series.
The fact that RTD & his contemporaries read these stories and listened to these audios only colours the feel of certain elements of the new series. I don't believe it was directly responsible for it. Certainly the vast majority of the British viewership didn't read the books or listen to the audios…which isn't surprising since a large proportion of them are too young!
March 15, 2013 @ 2:08 am
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March 15, 2013 @ 4:56 am
Apologies for commenting so late, I popped onto the site to see if today’s entry was up, and as it wasn’t I thought I’d take the chance to comment on this one. I wanted to say how much I’ve enjoyed the discussion around the last couple of entries, as well as Dr Sandifer’s excellent analysis The second season of McGann audios is probably my favourite ‘season/series’ of Doctor Who of all time, for me there are 4 stone-cold classics (including the two previously discussed), one flawed but highly entertaining story (Neverland) and one fairly ordinary but still good story (Embrace the Darkness) Chimes of Midnight is brilliant, it uses the audio format brilliantly and I for one love the Sapphire & steel feel to the story. I had no problem with the ending, its clear that Edith’s idolisation of Charley is a result of her circumstances, rather than any intrinsic value that Charley, and I certainty took away the idea that the cause of this anomaly was related to the wider charley should have died on the R101 arc of the season. Its great. If I may also say to Mr Shearman how much I have enjoyed all of your fantastic scripts for Doctor Who over the years. Hard to pick a favourite, though this one would come very very high on the list (loved Deadline as well). I listen to them over and over again and always get something new from them.
March 15, 2013 @ 5:29 am
"No, Phil's suggesting that Chimes is an excellent tryout for the magnificent television revival of Doctor Who, yet another step in the right direction from the flaccid and inconsistent Wilderness Years."
I think "inconsistent" is the key word there. There may be heights of brilliance reached in the Wilderness Years not achieved during the revival, but even something like "Fear Her" doesn't come near the lows.
Big Finish is where the franchise ventures back into safe territory. As this story proves, they're interested in doing experimental work, but in the Great Rad/Trad debate, they pretty much refuse to see the difference. They take a great mind-bending concept and wed it to a pretty tradition structure (or vice versa), and they end up with something a bit more recognizable as Doctor Who.
The TV show takes it one further by hiding the fannish excesses of the Wilderness Years where new viewers probably won't notice them and wrapping it around a plot doing double-time.
With most stories being told in half the time, the exploration aspect of Doctor Who gets lost and I think this is what so many older fans get upset about. We're not longer discovering a world along side the Doctor, we're being given an exotic backdrop for a fast-paced adventure to be told. The Doctor waves his sonic at things, he climbs exploding towers to flip switches, and says "timey whimey" instead of techno-babble.
And while I don't think any of this is bad (in fact, I find it rather entertaining), we often are left with the Doctor acting like a hyperactive child because the show doesn't have the time to show him thinking his way through problems.
March 15, 2013 @ 6:30 am
@Spacewarp. You might be right that we'd still have New Who if the wilderness years had been the nothing years, but I'm not sure it'd be New Who as we now know it. It'd have been a completely different New Who.
It's 2005. After ten years of there being no Doctor Who whatsoever, RTD is forming his team. Maybe he's going to think "That Paul guy who worked on Children's Ward with me wrote a couple of fics for a DW fanzine. Clearly I want him to write an episode that's the emotional heart of the show." Maybe it'll occur to him that the bloke off League of Extraordinary Gentlemen might be interested in doing an episode. Maybe he's going to contact a playwright and theatre director who once did a BBV fake-Doctor audio drama. More likely, he's not. And even if he does, I'm not sure these people are going to be in the same place they were in our universe, creatively speaking.
RTD and his conteporaries didn't just read these stories and listen to these audios, they were involved in creating them. When the call came to bring back Doctor Who, they were already doing it.
March 15, 2013 @ 1:13 pm
"And to add to Jane's analysis, the whole point of the future in "Bad Wolf" is that it's stagnant and broken; they've returned to cheap tacky programming because the entire creative impulse of that society is stifled. He's making a comment on modern culture as much as the world of the future, where we churn out bucketloads of cheap reality programming because we can't think of anything better."
I don't buy it for a minute. Russell isn't taking TV at its most tacky and unimaginative to task in Bad Wolf, he's simply replicating TV at its most tacky and unimaginative, in suuch a way that it begs the question for me that if Doctor Who has to be that kind of programme now, at what point did the entire point of reviving the show in the first place cease to exist?
I used to somewhat try to go along with the idea that there was some valid criticism of Reality TV in there, perhaps more by accident than intent. Namely the Doctor's 'do you think anyone votes for sweet'. But even that line takes place in the same context of the Doctor letting Lynda out but for some reason leaving her flatmate behind (okay, the Doctor's about leaving people behind now?). And the more I think about it, the more clear it is that there was no such intent to even make the games fit the fiction.
For instance, in The Weakest Link, part of the game format is the voting off after each round. In this case Rose experiences her first voting off period and is shocked when she realises her vote has killed someone. But what happens next? How does Rose deal with the moral predicament of having to actually participate in further voting rounds knowing she could be signing someone else's death warrant?
Oh we're never shown. The story can't deal with those dramatic repercussions so it just sweeps them under the carpet. It's as if that bit of the story ceases even existing the moment the camera shifts away. And why? Because the Weakest Link game format, and this story are not compatible. So why is The Weakest Link and its format included wholesale? Clearly not for story reasons or critique. It's too poorly assembled for the former and too cowardly for the latter. It exists just because RTD thinks the audience has to be boosted by something big profile and desperate. Nevermind the story, nevermind Doctor Who being able to stand on its own, and the audience being assumed to have good will to the series without being cheaply pandered to.
August 21, 2013 @ 8:42 pm
There's a possibly apocryphal story about NBC's ad execs telling the people who cancelled Star Trek that they had done a stupid thing because Star Trek's demographics were excellent (and, in reality, that's why the show lasted as long as it did, in addition to the huge letter writing campaigns during the first two seasons). But even then, it took until 1973 for its popularity to reach critical mass, with the first "Committee" run conventions and the debut of Filmation's animated series on NBC (which resulted in NBC canceling Star Trek not once, but TWICE).
The big break with Doctor Who's wilderness years, however, is that Gene Roddenberry spent the bulk of the '70s trying to sell various low-budget Star Trek films (TV and theatrical) to Paramount, who remained uninterested and borderline hostile towards the series, as had been the case since they purchased Desilu in 1968. (Paramount even offered to sell the series to Roddenberry in 1970 for $150,000, but he didn't have the money.) It wasn't until the success of Star Wars that Roddenberry gained traction, first as a new TV series for Paramount's aborted fourth network, and then as Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
I think that trying to compare Star Trek's fallow period to Doctor Who's Wilderness Years falls into the suggestion Phil has made that the two franchises are wildly incompatible in their approaches.
November 20, 2015 @ 11:38 am
“…[I]t’s certainly true that class relations of the early twentieth century were awful, but in 2002 this seemed largely obvious. There is a point to all the drama, but it’s a deeply uncontroversial one: people have value and the working class isn’t just “nobody.””
It may be uncontroversial to some, but I rather think that the majority of the current Conservative cabinet missed the memo on this one.