We’ve talked about comedy a few times before, and The Thick of It, in many ways, extends from those discussions. It is of course ridiculous to talk about British comedy as a monolithic entity, but if one were to try to one could be substantially more wrong than suggesting that the heart of British comedy is exposing the absurd foolishness of structures of authority. The most straightforward, standard issue joke in a piece of British comedy is, in essence, that the inmates are running the asylum – that how the world works is, in fact, determined by idiots who are immune to reason. Far from the comforting fiction that there’s actually some nefarious asshole running the show and screwing everyone, British comedy at its best suggests that the reason everything is completely fucked is that the world is run by blithering fools who aren’t malicious so much as they are wholly and entirely incompetent.
The previous classic of British political comedy was, of course, Yes (Prime) Minister, a sitcom in which the functioning of government is revealed to be inept because of the backbiting between elected officials and the civil service, and the bureaucratic nonsense each side engages in to establish power over the other. Principles and the actual issue of what would be best for the country are wholly extraneous concerns, and it is really the cold war between two groups who are ostensibly on the same side that drives government.
In that regard, at least, The Thick of It is a simpler program – a reversion to the more classical British comedy trope of everyone being an idiot. Yes Minister is ultimately a story about systemic breaks in the structures of power – about the idea that the divide between elected representatives and permanent government employees created fundamentally perverse incentives that rendered government dysfunctional. The Thick of It, on the other hand, is largely about a bunch of incompetent buffoons who cause trouble because they’re fundamentally bad at what they do.
There are, of course, stylistic things to note. The Thick of It is shot in a handheld style with lots of authentic-seeming conversation that puts it as a British cousin to the American mumblecore movement (added to by the partially improvised nature of the final performance). It’s of the style of modern British comedy that goes with long, extended discomfort as a mood, and that doesn’t bother with the unnaturalist structures of comic timing. There are handfuls of scenes that are done as straight-up, typically structured humor, but for the most part it’s a sitcom that isn’t hugely concerned with selecting the moments when the audience is or is not going to laugh.
But under the hood, in its attitudes, there’s something classical about The Thick of It that puts it firmly in the BlackAdder/Jeeves and Wooster/Monty Python’s Flying Circus/The Goon Show tradition of being about stupid people in charge of things. And yet in its own way this paints a bleaker picture of politics than Yes Minister ever could.…
|Roughly speaking, the tagline for Planet of the Dead was|
“David Tennant and Michelle Ryan went to Dubai and stood
sexily in front of a London double decker bus we smashed.
It’s April 11th, 2009. Lady Gaga is at number one with “Poker Face,” with Flo Rida and Ke$ha, Beyonce, and Taylor Swift also charting. This feels like yesterday, as is fitting for an era of Doctor Who that is already colliding with the series’ onrushing present. Since the banalities of The Next Doctor, Israel announced a ceasefire in the Gaza War, quickly followed by Hamas doing the same. The President of Guinea-Bissau was assassinated, and the Icelandic economic crash happened. And, a few weeks ago there was a G-20 summit on the subject of the financial crisis in London. Protests during this summit resulted in Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor who suffered a fatal heart attack after a severe police beating administered despite no evidence of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, at the summit a large financial stimulus was agreed upon, and the Queen scolded Silvio Berlusconi.
While on TV is the much-maligned Planet of the Dead. It seems strange that such a slender and basically toothless little story has attracted such condemnation as one of the worst of the Davies era. Certainly, in the cold, harsh light of the Capaldi era it is difficult to argue seriously that this is the era’s nadir. It is a piece of fluff, certainly, but a basically well-structured bit of fluff that gets its desired jobs done. There’s one big critique, which is the decision to film in Dubai, a location with, to say the least, problematic laws and policies not least of which is the active criminalization of homosexuality. Certainly there’s something to sigh somewhat wearily about in that decision, although, on the other hand, it’s not as though one couldn’t imagine any number of great outraged critiques about the moral obscenities involved in filming in a country that’s formulated a massive surveillance state with cameras on every street corner, or one whose actively imperialistic tendencies are the ruin of hosts of developing economies. Which is to say that while the political regime of Dubai is undoubtedly a nasty piece of work, it’s also low-hanging fruit that encourages a myopic view about how bad foreign places are.
But that’s not the usual critique anyway. The usual critique is just some variation on the idea that the story is “dumb.” This seems positively bizarre, save for the context of its original presentation, as an Easter special and as the only island of Doctor Who between Christmas and the end of the year. What would have survived perfectly fine in the giddy second or third episode slot of The Fires of Pompeii, Tooth and Claw, or The Shakespeare Code instead ended up having to serve as exactly the sort of big, tentpole event it was never designed to be. The episode’s officially sanctioned description was as the last time Tennant’s Doctor got to have fun, but that sits in almost conscious opposition to the notion of “the only Doctor Who you get in an eleven month period.”…
It is not as though there are not writers from the Wilderness Years who carried on writing tie-in material for the new series. Several have, from both the Virgin and BBC Books eras. And, of course, there are the handful of Wilderness Years contributors who have contributed the odd television story or two like Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, and Russell T Davies. Nevertheless, to anyone who’s been with the series for the long haul so to speak, the return of Lance Parkin seems significant. Parkin was a middle-to-late comer to the Virgin line, but ended up writing one of the novels that dealt most heavily with the Virgin line’s Gallifreyan mythology, and also ended up wrapping up the line with their one Eighth Doctor novel. And then for BBC Books he wrote a bevy of major books, including the single biggest piece of “let’s play with Gallifreyan mythology” ever, The Infinity Doctors, and, once again, the final book of the line, The Gallifrey Chronicles.
It’s not that Parkin is the defining author of the Wilderness Years or anything so much as that he’s one who is deeply associated not just with them, but with playing with their implications. His novels repeatedly play games with continuity and mythology, and, more broadly, with the importance and centrality of the tie-in media, carefully laying out the rules for his “it’s all true, and that’s the game” vision of what Doctor Who allows. He is not the defining writer of the Wilderness Years so much as the writer most defined by them and their possibilities – the one whose work is most bound up in the Wilderness Years.
Interestingly, he’s also the piece of the Wilderness Years that bled into the new series. As we observed at the time, the final novel of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, The Gallifrey Chronicles, came out around the same time as Boom Town aired, which is to say, well after the new series had established itself as a massive cultural object. Lance Parkin’s end to the Wilderness Years, in other words, is not actually a part of them, but a postscript – a letter from a point where the future was ensured, even if that is not quite the point from which it was written.
On a more basic level, of course, Parkin’s books tend to be games of structure. In several of them, he adopts a seemingly impossible premise just to demonstrate how it can be accomplished – a sort of Doctor Who novel as Mort Weisinger-era Superman comic, only with fewer malevolent toads. His books are ruthlessly high concept, though with the focus often as much on exploring the nature of the concept as on delivering it as such. This, at least, provides something of a contrast with the New Series Adventures, which are carefully and consciously positioned as secondary to the new series itself. The New Series Adventures are not there to rock the fundamental premises of Doctor Who. That’s not to say that they are unambitious, but they are expressly and by design not where major issues about the nature of the series get worked out.…
It’s a time-honored strategy. A skilled actor defined by one major role does some “challenging” work on a serious project to show that they’re flexible in anticipation of moving to a more serious and major level of their career. In the UK, the practice often involves a run in theater. For David Tennant, who had extensive theater experience anyway, it was the natural move – use the gap year opened in the production to do some high profile bit of theater.
Meanwhile, the Royal Shakespeare Company was in a position that could only be described as “in dire need of a hit.” The decision to terminate its relationship with the Barbican Centre in 2002 had left it with a vastly diminished presence in London, which, as it turned out, was not necessarily a great thing for a theater company, especially given that its Stratford-upon-Avon facilities were, at the same time, undergoing a lengthy renovation. The result was several years where the Company hemorrhaged money.
The two were natural partners, in other words. Tennant allowed them to have a high-profile production with a celebrity actor that would amount to a license to print money, and Tennant had a nice, high profile “respectable” role to use as he attempted to transform his post-Doctor Who career into, ideally, something American. And so we got the 2008 production of Hamlet in which Tennant pairs with Patrick Stewart, mostly running in Stratford. Adding respectability to the affair (on Tennant’s end) was him being a good RSC citizen and taking up a production of Love’s Labour Lost alongside Hamlet that, for a variety of reasons, was not treated as nearly as big a deal.
For all that this makes perfect sense on paper, it was in some ways an awkward marriage. The RSC was in many ways unprepared to handle the sheer popularity that it had, and found itself trying to avoid looking too much like a populist circus, grumpily banning audience members from asking for anything other than RSC memorabilia to be signed and generally acting as though they were a bit annoyed that a bunch of sci-fi fans were giving them piles of money for what rapidly became the summer’s hottest theater ticket. And things got decidedly awkward towards the end of 2008/beginning of 2009 when Tennant suffered a back injury requiring surgery and ruling him out of the bulk of the London run of the play.
But that this was such a controversy as to get repeated news coverage, and that a theater ticket in Stratford would be the hottest ticket of the summer speaks volumes about just how popular Doctor Who was at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009. Not only is Stratford a hundred miles and a two-hour train ride outside of London, it’s simply not a very big town – its population of 25,000 is smaller than that of Newtown, Connecticut, meaning that anyone wanting to see the production had to travel to a town with little else to do but tour a few museums and churches specifically for it.…
On January 3rd, 2009, Matt Smith was unveiled as David Tennant’s successor in a television special on BBC One.
Hindsight, if it ever bothers to look at these relatively ephemeral documents in the first place, will surely view this as the rough draft of the Peter Capaldi announcement. In every regard, that is a refinement of this – pacier, more variety, and more of a sense of what it wanted to be. This, on the other hand, is presented as a special episode of Doctor Who Confidential, and gives the overwhelming sense of being cobbled together so that there was something more impressive than a press release.
The bulk of the thirty-five minutes are given over to yet another history of the Doctors, with all the differences in emphasis you’d expect. Colin Baker gets about three sentences, clearly still retaining his status as the Doctor it’s OK to dump on. Indeed, everything here is very much the official history as of the Davies/Moffat era, which is basically the official history that existed before with a few nips and tucks. Tom Baker is given a decently technical analysis by Davies, Moffat, and Tennant, who combine to offer up a reading of why he was good. Pertwee gets re-evaluated a bit by Moffat, and Davies clears up the details of the Hartnell era a bit. There are the trademark musical montages that define Doctor Who Confidential in all its wonder and frustration.
Indeed, if anything the nature of this announcement as an episode of Doctor Who Confidential speaks volumes about the way in which the show thinks of itself at this point. The announcement of a new Doctor is big news that goes out on BBC One, but under the banner of the BBC Three “auxiliary material for the hardcore” show speaks volumes about exactly what Doctor Who still was – the property that had unexpectedly come back and become a hit. The underlying anxiety that fueled every second of Rose, and indeed of the first season (even if only in production) is still there. Nobody’s quite willing to just come out and bombastically declare “here is your major cultural news of the day” and then drop the mic. Instead we get a potted documentary about the nature of the role that means that more time is spent justifying why we should care about the new Doctor than anything else.
It’s possible to read this as another part of the Davies era’s arrogance – as Davies thinking it’s a big deal that the show would move on after him. But it is. Up to 2009, the show really was a freakish revival spearheaded by one creative genius who did the impossible. The fact of it continuing with a complete changeover of creative personnel was, in point of fact, a huge risk despite the fact that historically the show had done it loads of times. Nobody knew if this would work. We do know now, and we know in a way that makes 2009 look strange.…
|What do you mean they’ve cast him? He’s, like, five years|
It’s Christmas, 2008. X Factor winner Alexandra Burke is at number one with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” narrowly beating Jeff Buckley’s version, which charted in an attempt to thwart The X Factor from taking the Christmas number one. The remainder of the charts are basically unchanged since earlier in the month, save for Geraldine’s “Once Upon a Christmas Song” and a different choice of Beyonce singles. In news, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is arrested for trying to sell Barack Obama’s former Senate seat, 1400 people lose their jobs in Ireland due to a crisis caused by pork contaminated with dioxin, and Woolworths announces that it will be closing all of its stores.
On television, meanwhile, it’s the fourth new series Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Next Doctor. It is difficult to list anything that’s especially awful about The Next Doctor. David Morrissey is a fine actor, and while he is shamelessly hamming here, it is a skilled execution of the style that is inappropriate neither for the part nor the occasion. Indeed, it is almost preferable to call his performance charcuterie – a distinction without any difference in meaning, but with considerable difference in implication. The plot moves along with reasonable efficiency. There are funny bits, there are moments of quality drama, and the whole thing is good fun.
Why, then, does it feel so hollow? Even this is, perhaps, unfair. It’s hard to argue seriously that this is the nadir of the Davies era. Most people hate Planet of the Dead more, it seems. But for my money, and we’re getting ahead of ourselves slightly here, Planet of the Dead never purported to be anything other than a frothy romp written by Gareth Roberts. The Next Doctor, on the other hand, presented itself as altogether more significant.
The key step in this came on October 29th, two days after Secrets of the Stars wrapped, as David Tennant announced his departure from Doctor Who. This did not exactly surprise anybody – ever since the announcement that 2009 would consist of a run of specials instead of a full season of Doctor Who, the consensus speculation was that Tennant was leaving. Davies already played with this once with the regeneration cliffhanger of The Stolen Earth, and with the knowledge that Moffat was taking over the default assumption was that Tennant was leaving. But that was only true among the tiny portion of the audience who actually followed Doctor Who news closely. For the wider public, it was not until the 29th that the speculation over who the next Doctor would be properly ramped up.
Davies, of course, anticipated this fully, and designed The Next Doctor to played ludicrously with that speculation. And he succeeded wildly, with David Morrissey being the bookmaker’s favorite for the part. Almost anyone paying close attention assumed the truth – that Morrissey was being employed in a story distantly derived from Gareth Roberts and Clayton Hickman’s Colin Baker audio The One Doctor – but the general mood was nevertheless one highlighting this episode as significant and major.…
It’s December 1st, 2008. Take That are at number one with “Greatest Day,” and are unseated a week later by Leona Lewis’s “Run.” Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Akon, and Kings of Leon also chart. In news, Barack Obama announces more of his cabinet, three people die in the course of shopping for Black Friday, Russia and the Ukraine get into a tiff about natural gas supplies, and the legendarily wretched Lapland New Forest, a Christmas-themed park so awful that its management was jailed, both opened and closed in Hampshire.
Rather less wretched, and on television, is Enemy of the Bane, a story designed to work on two levels simultaneously. On one level it’s the structural trick Davies has been using literally since the dawn of his television career – the villain from one part of the season is shown at the eleventh hour to be working with another major villain. This time it’s a return of the titular Bane mixed with Kaagh from The Last Sontaran. And the story’s topic is clear enough – it’s a story about adoption again, and about the legitimacy of Sarah Jane’s status as Luke’s mother. And, like most of The Sarah Jane Adventures, it gets the notes right and provides a fairly touching story about what a “real mother” is, deciding that motherhood is about actions, not biology. All very nice.
But as part of the “big epic finale,” this was always slated to be a Doctor Who crossover. The plan was to have Martha, since of course there was still a show she’d not appeared in yet. Unfortunately (for Davies, at least), Freema Agyeman got poached by Chris Chibnall when he jumped over to do Law and Order UK, leaving a hole in the story that Davies and company eventually filled by inviting Nicholas Courtney to reprise the role of Sir Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, more conventionally known as the Brigadier.
For a project of this sort, then, there can be no other way to meaningfully approach this story. Never mind that the Brigadier is a relatively minor character in this story – a guest appearance with only a handful of significant interventions who spends most of his time standing in the background of scenes. This is the final appearance of the Brigadier. The Sarah Jane Adventures has an elegiac tone at the best of times due to its strange dual nature as a late career revival for Lis Sladen and the last work she ever did. Adding the last appearance of Nicholas Courtney to it feels borderline funereal.
And it’s easy to read the episode in this context. The trouble with endings is that they often come at a point when things are right to pass. From Verity Lambert’s departure from Doctor Who on, we have seen few endings in which things are cut down in their prime. Even when the endings have come through tragedy, it has often been a case of an undignified end that still comes near the right moment.…
It’s November 17th, 2008. The X-Factor finalists remain at number one, but are unseated by Beyonce for the second week of this story. Killers, Girls Aloud, Britney Spears, and Leona Lewis also chart. In news, the financial crisis rumbles on with another bailout of AIG, an IMF bailout of Iceland, and a request for a bailout for the US auto industry. President-elect Obama announces a Treasury team including Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, and Gordon Brown reveals plans to increase the income tax.
While on television, it’s The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith. Not surprisingly for a Gareth Roberts script, there’s a lot to like here. For one thing, he manages to make the frequently frustrating “morality of changing history” plot work. This is a tricky thing to do well – as we’ve previously observed, the “changing history is wrong” plot runs into significant trouble due to the fact that all morality surrounding it is necessarily invented wholesale for the plot, as the actual nature of changing history is unknown to us. The result is that it usually turns into either a story about the experienced time traveller and the newbie one and how the newbie one needs to stop rocking the boat and accept the rules (yuck) or one about arrogance and hubris.
The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith fits firmly into the latter category. Indeed, so firm is its fit that it proceeds through the arrogance plot with a calm meticulousness. The story really is one about temptation, with Sarah Jane not so much making a foolish decision to change the past but rather making a series of small decisions, each time edging a little bit closer to the big one, but never without a rationalization and a sensible justification. It’s a quite nuanced portrayal of how a good person can make a supremely, stunningly bad decision – another case of The Sarah Jane Adventures being made with a sort of meticulous care and precision.
It also manages to avoid any sort of ontological ethics of time travel. Sarah Jane saving her parents is a bad idea because the Trickster has set up a trap that destroys the world if she does that. Absent the Trickster, she probably could have gotten away with it and had it be fine. The problem isn’t that Sarah Jane does something that “violates the Laws of Time” or some similar nonsense. It’s that she does something risky when she knows it’s probably a trap, and it blows up in her face. That keeps the time travel ethics in the realm of the concrete.
Yes, there are complaints. The time travel actually doesn’t quite make sense – the initial setup of infant Sarah Jane being abandoned by her parents is a result of Sarah Jane’s actions in the story, which ties it up in a neat loop of the sort that time travel stories often go for. But if the ending situation is what always happened, where does the alternate timeline in which the Trickster reigns supreme come from?…
It’s November 3rd, 2008. The X Factor finalists are at number one with “Hero,” which lasts the entirety of this story. Beyonce, Kanye West, Girls Aloud, Britney Spears, and Pink also chart. In news, the US Treasury Department starts spending money bailing out banks, Viswanathan Anand retains the World Chess Championship, and Lewsi Hamilton wins the Forumula One Championship. Barack Obama is elected President, while Lindsay Roy is elected MP for Glenrothes. And €750 million of cocaine is seized off the coast of Ireland, or, for comparison, fourteen times the annual net income of HMV.
On television, as opposed to drugs, it’s The Sarah Jane Adventures again. Although The Sarah Jane Adventures has been consistently between watchable and rather good, it has not previously punched dramatically above its own weight. It has been a perfectly serviceable children’s show, generally protected by the absurd ethos that things made for kids don’t have to be as good as things made for adults. But it has never served up an episode of such quality that it can be called a classic of some sort. It is not a show that has a Midnight, a Human Nature/Family of Blood, a The Girl in the Fireplace, a Dalek, or even, for that matter, a Small Worlds or an Out of Time. It has been a show of remarkable consistency, both for good and for ill. With TheMark of the Berserker, however, that changes. The Mark of the Berserker is a phenomenal hour of television – a story that, on its own merits, ranks among the best of the Russell T Davies era.
We have noted before that fear makes for powerful children’s television. It’s just as true for children as for adults that stories and art are where we grapple with demons we cannot face in reality. But even the best children’s television that we’ve had cause to look at makes the larger world scary. It has traded on statues and children’s games, or on monsters and shadows. But here we get something more material – a story based around the horror of an absent or abusive parent.
That is, after all, what The Mark of the Berserker is about. It’s about introducing Clyde’s family, namely his single mother, and then introducing his absent father as a figure of fear and horror. And it really doesn’t shy away from that. Indeed, it repeatedly goes further than one might expect. Clyde’s father becomes genuinely scary as he realizes that he has the power to force people to do whatever he wants, and the increasing starkness of his abuse is unnerving in a way a Weeping Angel can never possibly be. It’s not just the ordering Clyde to forget Luke and Rani, nor even to forget how his father left him, but the moment when Paul orders Clyde to forget his mother entirely. Equally horrifying are the little side bits – Paul making Rani’s father do pushups forever is disturbing despite, on the surface, fitting perfectly into a harmless children’s program.…
It’s October 20th, 2008. Pink is at number one with “So What,” a situation that lasts a week before Girls Aloud take over with “The Promise.” with Snow Patrol, Leon Jackson, Geraldine, Katy Perry, Kanye West, and the Saturdays also charting. In news, Colin Powell offers Barack Obama his endorsement for the Presidency, the New York City Council decides to allow Michael Bloomberg a third term, and Ted Stevens is found guilty of seven counts of fraud, a conviction that basically costs him his Senate seat before being overturned. That being the most American-centric news roundup I think this blog has ever done, we should also note that the episode of The Russell Brand Show in which Brand and Jonathan Ross place obscene prank phone calls to Andrew Sachs aired two days before this story.
This story being Secrets of the Stars. Let’s start with the obvious point, which is that even by the standards of Doctor Who’s long history of ignoring anything that might inadvertently be mistaken as scientific reason or plausibility, this episode does not make a bit of sense. It hinges on the idea that astrology is real, not because of our universe (where it can’t be, as we’re reassured repeatedly), but because it’s the science of that popular repository of magical stuff that needs a quasi-scientific explanation, the universe before ours. Where it is apparently thus the science of Abaddon. And the Beast. And probably some other stuff.
It is worth pausing a moment in order to attempt to wrap our heads around that, if only so that we may savor the strange feeling of our heads failing to gain any traction whatsoever and slowly sliding off to form gibbering, uncomprehending piles of head at the base of this plot point. Astrology’s central tenet is that the positions of astronomical bodies has causal effects on phenomena in the real world. This is already a dodgy proposition, given that astrology is based not so much on the positions of astronomical bodies in any absolute space but on their positions in relation to the observation point of Earth. The central concept of astrology, used prominently in Secrets of the Stars, is the zodiac – a chain of constellations that conveniently line up so that the sun moves through them over the course of a year. But when we say “the sun moves through them” what we mean is that from the vantage point of the Earth as it travels around the sun, the sun appears in the sky in positions corresponding to those constellations.
It is also worth remembering something we’ve discussed previously, which is that a constellation is not an astronomical phenomenon but a perceptual one. Constellations are not formations of stars in real space, but coincidences in which stars from wildly different places line up into a geometrical configuration that was aesthetically pleasing to some ancient astronomers. The constellation of Taurus, for instance, is comprised of stars ranging from thirty light years away to hundreds of light years way, with no influence on each other or interactions other than happening to appear in about the same place if you look from Earth.…