Jack Graham, of Shabogan Grafitti, asked me a month or so ago if I’d seen Merlin. I said I hadn’t, but it was on the list to cover before Season Two of Sarah Jane Adventures. He then proceeded to tell me how appalling it was, and I decided that I’d rather read him writing about Merlin than actually watch it.
pop between realities
Logan Locksley helps fill in a needed gap.
The year is 1996. It’s a leap year. As usual for a year on Earth, all sorts of things are happening. Independence Day, Twister, and Mission: Impossible are among the highest grossing films of the year. Musical hits include Breakfast At Tiffany’s by Deep Blue Something, Virtual Insanity by Jamiroquai, and Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic. In other news, a chess computer called Deep Blue defeats world champion Garry Kasparov for the first time, the Nintendo 64 console is released, and France performs the last atomic bomb test.
Andrew Hickey writes on Final Crisis. His book on fifty years of Doctor Who, Fifty Stories for Fifty Years, is available from Amazon, Amazon UK, and, for print editions, Lulu. You’ll also probably enjoy the interview he just did with me for Mindless Ones.
Well, look, the pilot was in 2008. So we’re only a little ahead of ourselves. And it’s worth exploring now simply because Being Human is a show that reveals a lot about what television became in the wake of Doctor Who. Because in many ways Being Human is the first significant post-Doctor Who show. It’s had its imitators, as we saw back when we looked at Primeval and Robin Hood, but those were just that: attempts to discern the underlying formula of Doctor Who and replicate it. With Being Human we have something else – a show that on the one hand clearly exists only because of Doctor Who and on the other is clearly not a Doctor Who clone by any measure.
The premise of the show is simple and cheeky: a vampire (Mitchell), a werewolf (George), and a ghost (Annie) attempt to live together and maintain a semblance of a normal life. They routinely fail spectacularly, getting embroiled in supernatural goings-on – vampires trying to take over the world in the first and third seasons, and human supernatural hunters in the second. It’s good – it started, as mentioned, with a 2008 pilot, and then kicked off properly in 2009 and ran for five seasons. But we’ll cover it here, because it’s not really a show that had an influence on Doctor Who going forward: it’s one that, by its existence, demonstrates the influence Doctor Who was having.
And yet if you are to look for obvious influences on Being Human you’d end up in the 90s looking at the wave of goth-inspired vampire stories in the wake of the Interview with a Vampire movie. The ur-text here is probably White Wolf Entertainment’s World of Darkness line of role-playing games, the flagship of which was Vampire: The Masquerade. This game was an important moment of cultural history in terms of the steady merger of the goth scene and geek culture (see also the Sylvester McCoy era), synthesizing as much classic vampire fiction as possible into a game set in a gothed up and sexy version of the then-present day. Indeed, there are many points where Being Human feels like someone dusting off their old World of Darkness campaign notes and turning them into a television series.
Its self-descriptor – gothic-punk – is an interesting phrase, both because of the strange ahistorical nature of it (goth is, after all, an aesthetic that derived from punk) and because it situated Vampire: The Masquerade in its more relevant tradition, namely the “____punk” tradition kicked off by cyberpunk. That is to say, grim stories with tortured and fairly violent antiheroes wearing mirror shades at night. Matching traditional horror fiction tropes up with it is one of those ideas that’s both reasonably clever and so dead obvious it hurts. And so despite being trapped in one of the grimiest corners of nerd culture, White Wolf ended up accurately calling how vampires were going to work from now on.
(Yes, huge swaths do go back to Anne Rice, but Rice is ultimately writing romantic vampires.…
One of the most consistently entertaining aspects of Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook’s consistently entertaining The Writer’s Tale is the two writers’ continual enthusiasm for Channel 4’s Skins. Davies went so far as to write fanmail to Skins creator Bryan Elsley. It’s all terribly endearing.
It’s also telling, because other than its manifest lack of aliens, Skins is striving for the same general cultural space as Torchwood. Which is already a bit of an odd observation, in that it puts Torchwood in the same general space a straightforward inspiration for Skins, Queer as Folk. But let’s put that outside of the equation for a moment, at least, and look at the similarities between Skins and Torchwood, as they’re non-obvious.
Skins, after all, is a teen drama, although not a straightforward one, in that it brazenly contains loads of adult content. Sex, nudity, and drugs abound in Skins; indeed, if you were to try to come up with a television show to piss off Mary Whitehouse, the only thing you’d want to do differently is to make it before she died. And yet its concerns are so visibly adolescent. This is a show about teenage lives and teenage concerns that takes great pains to stress its authenticity and the degree to which it mirrors the lives of real British teenagers. Being neither British, a teenager, nor in fact real, I have little to say on its authenticity. Nevertheless, let’s take at face value the basic claim here, which is that Skins is television that’s aimed at a generation of teenagers.
That Skins should do this while being so self-consciously “adult” speaks volumes about the degree to which the “adult” label is not really about target audiences in any meaningful sense. “Adult” really doesn’t mean much more than “going to get OFCOM complaints.” And indeed, for all that Torchwood’s high concept tagline is “Doctor Who for grownups,” this was never really its point. It’s Doctor Who for teenagers. Which was always a significant part of the new series’s targeting, hence the careful nicking from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, and a host of other American shows aimed at that market.
In this regard, Torchwood is best understood as the new series of Doctor Who with most of the influences of things other than American television for teenagers stripped away. There’s an open question in how that differs from just imitating American television for teenagers, but that’s neither here nor there. It at least gives us an understanding of what Torchwood is supposed to be. Equally, however, most of what Torchwood takes from those American shows is a plot structure: a team of basically stock characters investigates paranormal events weekly over a light soap background.
In this regard, turning the lens such that we look at Torchwood as a cousin of Skins is interesting. Particularly given what Skins is really good at, which is its small human moments. Indeed, in its first season Skins was subject to many of the same criticisms as Torchwood; it was gratuitous, characters were underdeveloped, and the whole thing was a bit trashy.…
So following Doctor Who’s titanically successful launch in 2005, it was basically inevitable that there were going to be imitators. The major first two to market were the BBC’s 2006 version of Robin Hood, which was explicitly designed to fill the Saturday drama slot during some of the weeks Doctor Who wasn’t on the air, and ITV’s 2007 debut Primeval, which features time travel and dinosaurs. Neither show did phenomenally well, though both did respectably, getting a few seasons run and surviving with enough of an afterlife that they’re not recklessly obscure.
In many ways what is most interesting here is the underlying logic. That is, what do people think imitating Doctor Who means, exactly? After all, for all that there have been a lot of similar programs to Doctor Who over the years, only occasionally has anyone made a program that’s explicitly and consciously mimicking it.
Of the two, it is Primeval that feels the most like a straight-up imitation. There are, to be fair, significant differences. In many ways Primeval is closer to Torchwood – a team of people investigating weird things that come through a hole in space-time type thing. (Mostly dinosaurs, as it happens.) But equally, it’s an action-adventure sci-fi show featuring time travel of the sort that only exists because suddenly one of those was the biggest show on television. The producers made noises about how their show was more real-world and grounded, which is an absolutely wonderful thing to declare of a television show about dinosaurs attacking things. But this was a fig leaf fooling exactly nobody, and the points where it cribs the Doctor Who formula are at times amusingly blatant. (Most notably, casting a former pop star in the lead female role)
As a show, Primeval is solidly not bad, which is, of course, the exact worst thing a show can possibly be for the purposes of blogging about it. The staggeringly execrable and the absolutely phenomenal are both fairly easy to write about.…
Over the course of 2007, the future of Doctor Who became clear. It was to nobody’s particular surprise that Tennant and Davies walked away from the program they did; it was about the length of time people spend in jobs like that. But what was going to happen to Doctor Who after Davies left was always a question mark, and cancellation was always a viable answer. Until 2007, at which point everybody on the planet knew what was going to happen. The next showrunner became self-evident. Of course it was going to be Steven Moffat. There was no real decision making process. It’s just that everybody realized the same obvious fact around the same time. There were two basic causes for this. The first, of course, is Blink, which we’ll deal with on Monday. But Blink merely demonstrated what we already knew: that Moffat could write really good Doctor Who scripts. Sure, it demonstrated it more emphatically than it had ever been demonstrated before, but it was nothing new. No, the real game changer was Jekyll.
In many ways what is most striking about Jekyll is what it isn’t. If it were made today, it would almost certainly be produced out of Cardiff with numerous names familiar to Doctor Who. Instead we have a production done in relative isolation from Doctor Who, in England, whose major interaction with Doctor Who was that it forced Moffat to drop out of writing the opening two-parter in favor of taking the Doctor-lite slot later in the season, where he apparently handed in his script dreadfully late and they basically shot the second draft. Sure, Douglas Mackinnon, who directed the first three, went on to direct for Doctor Who, and assorted actors (Meera Syal, Michelle Ryan, and Fenella Woolgar) worked their way over, but other than Moffat and a brief acting cameo from Mark Gatiss, this is very much something going on in its own corner of the world.
Which is not to say that its existence doesn’t owe much to Doctor Who. It clearly does, at least inasmuch as Steven Moffat only got handed this project on the strength of having done a successful episode of Doctor Who – something he’s admitted opened doors for him. But what we have here is in most regards Moffat trying to establish himself as a credible producer of genre material on his own, separate from Doctor Who. This process is obscured by the fact that Moffat was announced as the next showrunner of Doctor Who within a year of this, and by the fact that BBC Cymru Wales came to devour all the oxygen in terms of drama production in the UK. Nevertheless, that’s clearly what Jekyll is meant to be – the show with which Moffat establishes himself as a viable showrunner for genre material.
In that regard it succeeded. Jekyll, in point of fact, is quite good. But in many ways what’s most interesting about it in hindsight are its hesitancies and shortcomings. It’s a very good piece of television.…
There’s a decision we have to make going into The Runaway Bride, which is, in effect, the same decision we make about The Web of Fear – namely whether or not we’re going to treat the episode as extra important because it includes a character who was brought back later in a retooled and far more popular form. Grudgingly following the precedent of The Web of Fear, we should at least acknowledge it, while simultaneously explaining why this is transparently not the way the episode was read in 2006. Still, there’s a question worth squaring away up front: why is it that a comedian known for playing a variety of grotesques came to be what is, by a significant chunk of audience, the greatest companion of the new series?
First we should understand Catherine Tate herself. Or perhaps more accurately, we should understand David Tennant, as it is very specifically his Doctor that Donna ends up being a spectacularly good companion for. It is difficult, if not impossible to imagine Donna pairing well with Matt Smith’s kinetic and physical performance, nor with Eccleston’s often brooding portrayal. (Although arguably she’s exactly what Paul McGann always needed, and by arguably I mean “is Lucie Miller bovvered?”) It is something about the interaction of Donna with Ten specifically – or, more broadly, given that they’ve also produced compelling turns at both sketch comedy and Shakespeare, about the interaction of Catherine Tate and David Tennant.
We have previously discussed the way in which Tennant’s performance is based on a visible density of decisions. That is to say, when Tennant plays a part, his approach is usually to pack every scene and every line development with as many moments where he makes a visible decision, particularly a decision to change what he’s doing, as possible. The result is a very mannered performance, though not at all in a bad way. When one is watching David Tennant, however, one is always aware that one is watching a performance. There’s not a sense of Tennant trying to maintain an illusionary unity between actor and character. His performances are based profoundly on the longstanding British acting tradition in which the point is not the authenticity of the character but the business of communicating information to the audience.
Another way of putting all of this is that Tennant’s performance is not entirely dissimilar to a comedic performance, with particular similarity to comics who develop characters. A third way is that Tennant is, as actors go, an extremely cerebral one. He’s the sort of actor who says, with all seriousness, that as a child he had his parents explain what television actors were, and him immediately realizing that was what he wanted to do, and furthermore saying that he understood “the difference between the fantasy and reality of that, and that making it even more exciting.” He’s profoundly analytic in his approach.
All of which is to say that, quite separate from the question of which of his costars is the most skilled actor, on the basic level of technique, Catherine Tate was obviously a natural fit for him.…