The Nimon Be PRAISED! (Seasons of Fear)
It’s March of 2002. Westlife are at number one with “World of Our Own,” which goes a week before Will Young takes over with “Anything is Possible/Evergreen.” This lasts almost to the end of the month, but Gareth Gates’s “Unchained Melody” ends up playing us out. Kylie Minogue, R Kelly, Shakira, Nickelback, Ali G and Shaggy, Celine Dion, Marilyn Manson, and Natalie Imbruglia also chart. In news, the US war in Afghanistan goes on, though really, it’s not like I’m going to write that for every entry for the remainder of the blog. Milly Dowler goes missing, which will turn out to have impressive effects on the British newspaper industry. And the Queen Mother dies, it being another bad year for the monarchy.
And in specialty shops, Seasons of Fear. There is a problem that plagues writers. It manifests in one of the most depressing comments imaginable from readers: I liked your old stuff better. Nobody likes being told this. And understandably so, given that its distinct implication is that you’re washed up and past your prime. It applies to all forms of art, really. But there’s a real problem underlying the complaint: people early on in their careers have a hunger and an ambition that often fades with critical and financial success. Even a very good writer like Neil Gaiman suffers from it: once he hit mainstream American success with American Gods he entered a decade-long fallow period in which he did virtually nothing that wasn’t predictable and catered to his existing fanbase, and it was only when he was put in the position of writing for an audience that hadn’t heard of him, and with an editor who was as accomplished a writer as he was that he turned out The Doctor’s Wife. (And notably, this, along with marriage, seems to have given him a late career spring in his step.
But there’s another and somewhat bleaker reason this happens, which is that some artists fuel their best work with anger or depression and, as they mature, grow to be altogether stabler and happier people. And in terms of his Doctor Who work, Paul Cornell largely has that problem. His first four New Adventures are all brilliant, but they’re animated in a large part by Cornell’s tangible anger in the period. When, later in the New Adventures, he settled down and wrote his comedy books like Happy Endings and Oh No It Isn’t!, both of which are terribly fun, but neither of which have anything like the impactful heft of Love and War, little yet Human Nature.
Cornell has said that he wrote The Shadow of the Scourge and The Shadows of Avalon from a very dark place, and it shows. Both are flawed works, but they very much rekindle the crackling passion of his early New Adventures. But by Seasons of Fear Cornell had gotten his head screwed back on, was working with his girlfriend and soon-to-be fiancee Caroline Symcox, and was largely back to the more comedy-adventure mode of his latter New Adventures. And, well, the fact of the matter is that though Cornell is very good in this mode, it’s not the approach he’s Paul Cornell for. And so while Gatiss and Shearman were ultimately hired by Davies to do things very similar to what they did for Big Finish, Paul Cornell was, with Father’s Day, given the brief to go back to the New Adventures style – a brief that was made even more literal with Human Nature/The Family of Blood.
In fact, the truth is that after Human Nature it was Kate Orman who most thoroughly embodied the stuff Cornell was known for, and for most of the late 90s/early 00s she was the brighter star and better Doctor Who writer. It’s not like Cornell was slacking in that period, however – he racked up soap opera credits and established himself as a credible force in television. But in terms of the sorts of things he was best at in Doctor Who, Orman was beating him handily. The only thing is that Cornell broke meaningfully into British television, and part of the deal with the BBC showering money on a revamp of Doctor Who was that it wasn’t going to be massively beholden to fans and was going to use real television writers. (So much so that Davies actually had to have a bit of a fight to get Shearman, who was only a terribly well-acclaimed playwright and radio writer with a television episode under his belt) So Kate Orman was simply not in the cards because she’s not a television writer, and the BBC, for wholly understandable reasons, would prefer new television writers not start with their terribly expensive flagship series.
I mean, I’m not suggesting that Cornell was somehow the second choice. He was friends with Davies, had worked with him before, and was a superlative Doctor Who writer with solid television experience. He was a no-brainer to hire. But I am noting that he was hired primarily on the basis of work that, by early 2002, was seven years old. This is an odd sort of criticism. Effectively it means that Cornell was the first writer to qualify to write for the new series. But he ended up stuck in amber for a bit. I should also note that this does not amount to a criticism of his entire career. These days Cornell works mostly in comics (though he had a good-sounding book out with London Falling that I’ve not had time for yet), where his work is a mixed bag that occasionally tips into outright brilliance. He’s found ways of balancing his instinct towards frockish levity with his skill at emotional drama and genuinely dark material, and can more reliably hit the balance that characterizes his best Doctor Who work.
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that Seasons of Fear puts Cornell strangely far from the stuff he’ll be doing in just three years time. Unlike Gatiss and Shearman, who are moving closer to what they’ll provide for the new series, Cornell is actually retreating from it a bit, writing something less like his new series work than The Shadows of Avalon, where his treatment of grief and the Brigadier put him very close to Davies territory. What’s particularly strange about this is that in The Shadows of Avalon we noted that he ended up not really working with the ultra-passionate Doctor created by Orman and Blum in Vampire Science, despite the fact that this Doctor seemed tailor-made for him. Here, however, he does work with that Doctor, but the result is oddly disappointing. There are two aspects of this, both of which are worth discussing.
First there’s McGann, who, as we’ve noted, is mostly uninterested in playing the Doctor as a foppish adventurer, although he can get into moments of giddy excess occasionally. Cornell, in at least one interview, sounds just a bit prickly about this, actually. He complains that McGann’s Doctor is “difficult to get a handle on” and “very straight down the middle… it’s a question of giving him stuff he can use. And what he can use, at the moment, is from a quite narrow band as he finds his feet.” There is an extent to which this is true: McGann’s performance is still embryonic. This stretch of six audios was recorded over the course of a twelve-day period, McGann hasn’t spent a lot of time with the character, and there certainly hasn’t been a lot of work done on the nature of the character. In terms of time spent playing the character, since the TV Movie McGann has been in studio about as long as it used to take to make two episodes. Add in the five weeks spent shooting the TV Movie and you’ve basically got McGann having spent as much time in the part as Patrick Troughton had at the end of The Highlanders Episode One. So we’re still in “I would like a hat like that” territory.
But there’s a sense of a larger tension bubbling under this. McGann has, quite reasonably, not taken his cues from the years of stories written in his absence, but is trying to figure out the part anew. Writers are still trying to catch up. Cornell is still describing the Eighth Doctor as one defined by “passion,” which is a ways from McGann’s sardonic adventurer. So everyone is writing for generic Doctor and hoping McGann puts his stamp on it. McGann is hitting the mark squarely each time, but nobody’s been confident enough to push the character yet. McGann may have only spent a little time on the character, but the writers have spent more with it. Everyone is still a bit gun-shy.
But there’s a second issue, which is that the Eighth Doctor era, even in 2002, is still in a large part a rebuke against the Virgin era that defines Paul Cornell. The Virgin era had dramatically accelerated the process that existed embryonically in the latter Cartmel years, and incompetently in the early Baker years of making the Doctor a somewhat darker figure. This was, at the time, controversial, and the regeneration into McGann’s Doctor was used as an opportunity to have a counterreformation, moving the Doctor back into being a lighter figure. And for all that Paul Cornell is a hopeless romantic and the granddaddy of the frocks, this is simply not an approach that served him well. Cornell’s best work came from the contrast between his romanticism and the darkness of McCoy’s Doctor – so much so that he’s associated as much with the darkness as with the romanticism. But McGann’s Doctor, as developed at this point, doesn’t have the toe-holds for that, leaving Cornell to go for pure romantic silliness. He’s great at pure romantic silliness, but it’s not where he does his best work.
And it’s notable that the new series made its choice definitively in this regard, and it chose the Virgin approach. Not in the completely literal sense of having the Doctor be manipulative again, but in the sense of making sure that the Doctor always had a dark side, whether it be Eccleston’s post-traumatic angst, Tennant’s angry hubris, or Smith’s self-loathing. The fact of the matter is that the counterreformation against the darkness of the Seventh Doctor was a mistake. The savvy authors realized this immediately, with Orman and Blum rushing to find a way to reskin “romantic and passionate” as “reckless,” and Miles quickly realizing that the way you had to make the Eighth Doctor work was to have him blunder into a terrifyingly dark situation like, say, his own death and a war that threatens to destroy time itself. And the arc of the Eighth Doctor Adventures is a steady backpedaling from the counterreformation.
Ironically, McGann has no patience with the counterreformation either. He clearly wants darker material, and to start figuring out ways to balance the Doctor’s romanticism with darkness. Which isn’t actually hard, since, you know, the romantics weren’t exactly all sweetness and light themselves. (In this regard it’s telling that McGann’s first audio begins with a discussion about the composition of Frankenstein, a romantic horror, and that the character eventually ends up with Mary Shelley as his companion.) But the idea that the Virgin era had “excesses” was, in 2002, still influential, if not as openly stated, given that it was a five-year-old war at that point.
All of which highlights another key truth about this period. We’ve covered the complex fan politics of the era several times. And there’s a degree to which the story of the era is the way in which the monster success of Davies’s Doctor Who in 2005 finally washed most of those politics away. But it’s key to realize that the toxicity of the fan politics wasn’t just, or even primarily the way in which they were divisive within Doctor Who fandom. After all, they weren’t; with few exceptions, as we’ve noted, Big Finish and BBC Books shared authors. What was poisonous was the way in which a given work was contextualized. What was really, really bad was the fact that every single piece of Doctor Who had to have a position on the rad/trad debate, a position on the frock/gun debate, a position on how dark the Doctor should be, preferably a theory of continuity, and if it’s not too much, maybe a new take on the Gallifrey debates. Left to fandom the paratext and metatext of Doctor Who had simply gotten too dense and weighty to sustain.
For the most part Big Finish’s great innovation was stepping away from that, and to their credit they mostly managed just that. But the problem with the fan politics were that they had grown to the point where they didn’t need to be consciously engaged with. They had become the ideology of the time – a passive system that lurked perpetually in the background of everything in Doctor Who. You didn’t need to actively engage fan politics. If you were actively engaging Doctor Who you were stuck in them. What’s crucial about the new series isn’t that it was successful and replaced fandom. It’s that it was monstrously successful and won. Its position on every single fan debate became the winning side by virtue of it being an absolutely massive hit.
But before that happened a story like Seasons of Fear, which is mostly a fun bit about a villain who the Doctor fights when he should have helped and about the amusing return of the Nimon, held back with conscious irony as though their appearance was a big deal and a surprise instead of a joke, had to become a story where we get bogged down for two thousand words on the tension between Virgin Books and the romanticism of the Eighth Doctor and how Paul Cornell fits into various eras of the series. Given this context, it’s no wonder McGann can’t quite get anywhere with the character despite his obvious skill at it.
March 15, 2013 @ 7:07 am
The worst thing about the 'bleaker and darker period = better work' equation is that "your early stuff was better", while possibly true, becomes ever-so-slightly sociopathic in a way, as if the reader is basically telling the creator "never mind your health and/or psychological wellbeing, you should remain messed up so that you can continue to provide me with high-quality art and entertainment. And if you should happen to die young and early of a drug overdose or something, even better — it'll make you a legend."
Not that the reader necessarily intends to tell the creator this, of course (although a few worrying comments of this nature do tend to crop up from time to time), but it does seem to be something of an unfortunate implication in the way that we, as a culture, tend to (perhaps over-) venerate tortured genius over contented adequacy.
March 15, 2013 @ 7:21 am
As far as Seasons of Fear goes, I liked the central idea, and playing around with time as a running theme. Grayle’s an interesting character, but I think he’d be more compelling if he hadn’t become so one-dimensional — though perhaps that's the point given how the Doctor practically drags him into that role? Anyways. The Nimons at the end, well, I love me some Nimons, but the final act just seemed to drag on. A lot of this story seemed to be a slog, though maybe I'm prejudiced against stories in excess of two hours, Zagreus notwithstanding. “Geronimo!”
March 15, 2013 @ 7:31 am
And furthermore, we take this to the point of not believing in happy, balanced geniuses, or even sober, hardworking ones. Every masterpiece has to come out of a drug trip or a psychotic break.
March 15, 2013 @ 7:49 am
And on top of all that, "your early stuff was better" isn't even usually true. It's usually their early-middle stuff that's better, after they've gotten a rhythm down
March 15, 2013 @ 9:14 am
When Byron asked William Godwin why he hadn't written any more novels like Caleb Williams or St.-Leon, Godwin answered "To write another book like those would kill me. Byron replied, "So what, if we could have had another St.-Leon?"
(Godwin died at age 80, and Byron at age 36, FWIW.)
March 15, 2013 @ 9:28 am
Seasons of Fear is actually one of my favourite McGann stories from the early years of the audios. And I would have liked to hear more details of your take on it. It incorporates a lot of ideas about time travel and determinism that the new series has had some fun with, and that is always interesting to see new takes on in Doctor Who. McGann's Doctor hits a perfect balance between the frockish impulsive character that the books shaped with the sardonic ironist of McGann's own contribution. I'm thinking in particular of his comedy moments as he and Charlie travel to the different eras of Grayle's life, and his solo flight through the vortex and slapstick landing in ancient Greece.
Yet this entry more than anything points to what I think seems to be a major theme of your take on the McGann era. Because new Doctor Who at the time was being produced for an insular community of people who were already fans (and very few new fans were being made at the time), if you were to look at the explicit state of Doctor Who, you'd see a community obsessed with trad/rad, frock/gun, and other fiery debates of nerdly classification. Meanwhile, all the pieces were falling into place for the categorical shift in character and focus that would come with the new series. But no one could see it because the forum debates were so loud, raucous, and (as it turned out) utterly inconsequential.
What was important about Seasons of Fear was Cornell exploring and refining his template of complex storytelling with dark undertones in a general air of whimsy. The reception of the play itself would have ignored all of this to talk about how to slot it into the confrontational categories that animated fan discussions.
March 15, 2013 @ 9:31 am
P.S. – Godwin did eventually write a few more novels, but … well, they weren't exactly soul-devourers like their predecessors. There's a reason that Godwin is remembered only for two early novels and one early nonfiction treatise, despite writing scads of both fiction and nonfiction during his later years.
March 15, 2013 @ 9:36 am
P.P.S. – Though come to think of it, Godwin did write two forgettable novels BEFORE Caleb Williams and St.-Leon. So Ross's "early-middle" suggestion may apply.
March 15, 2013 @ 9:41 am
Why would they have to think we have to choose between trad and rad, or between frock and gun? Did they assume that all Doctor Who stories had to be tonally identical, and each individual story tonally uniform? It reminds me of French classicists taking Shakespeare to task because plays like Hamlet had both comedic and tragic bits in the same work.
March 15, 2013 @ 10:51 am
As an aside, will the book have an entry on the Big Finish Bernice Summerfield audios? At the moment, the blog has the Virgin Books line leading only into Lawrence Miles.
On topic, the bits in Seasons of Fear where Cornell sends up his own Anglicanism made me giggle out loud. On reflection, I think the Cult of Mithras bits deserve a lot of praise as a critique of religion that actually lines up the target.
March 15, 2013 @ 11:47 am
I actually quite enjoyed Seasons of Fear; it's fitting you mention Cornell's comics work here, as I feel this story forecasts it to a great degree, especially in its general tone.
And speaking of his comics work, The Black Ring is one of the best things Cornell is ever written and everyone should go read it. Not only is it the greatest Lex Luthor story ever written and, by the end (and despite the fact that he only shows up in the last issue of the arc), one of the greatest Superman stories ever written too. Plus it's generally a master class in how to make use of a shared universe setting and various nooks and crannies of continuity in a completely accessible and coherent way. Anyway, end of tangent.
March 15, 2013 @ 11:48 am
Indeed! The heart of Doctor Who is its variety, and the strength of all culture lies in that heart.
March 15, 2013 @ 12:13 pm
I feel like following the Virgin line through to its solo Benny stories goes downt hat rabbit hole the right amount. It's not a knock on the audios so much as a question of how far into a spinoff I want to go, and two novels feels about right.
March 15, 2013 @ 1:09 pm
"But there’s another and somewhat bleaker reason this happens, which is that some artists fuel their best work with anger or depression and, as they mature, grow to be altogether stabler and happier people."
I think the best example of this occurring, for me, was with the musical Follies, whose book was originally written by James Goldman in 1971, during a time where he was going through a divorce and in general feeling pretty miserable. As such the original show is a masterpiece of theatre with themes on age and commitment, of faded memories and unwarranted nostalgia, and is one of the triumphs of musical theatre as a whole (the Stephen Sondheim score didn't hurt).
About a decade later (when he had remarried and was doing much better) he looked at the book of Follies, found it horribly depressing, and revised it heavily, resulting in the absolutely atrocious London revival of the show (directed by Cameron Mackintosh, which didn't help). Follies has since then gone through countless revisions and rewrites (I think there are currently 4 or 5 separate versions of the script), none of which unfortunately match up to the strength of the original.
March 15, 2013 @ 1:36 pm
Possibly you could do one as one of your thousand-and-seven extra book entries.
March 15, 2013 @ 2:13 pm
Can I ask blog commentators a question? The McGann audios that have been featured in the last week or so. Would you say that they have "dated" in any way? I'm curious, because Doctor Who the TV Series has always been very much of it's time, and becomes dated within a few years. Pertwee is so 70s, McCoy is so 80s, and (having recently watched most of his series) Eccleston is so mid-200's.
But strangely enough Tom, Peter and Colin seem to have dated slightly less, and I wonder if grounding a series in the "modern" day dates it quicker.
But the audios. Are they more…I dunno…timeless?
March 15, 2013 @ 2:29 pm
I read London Falling recently, and it's great. It definitely fits in with Cornell's darker work, though the anger is equally clearly coming from a position of stability and maturity.
Apart from the fact that it's about a bunch of policemen and therefore not an awful lot like Doctor Who, it's actually quite a lot like Doctor Who. Everyday life recast as mythic grandeur and everything.
March 15, 2013 @ 5:25 pm
They have dated in the sense that they are structured very much like 'classic' Doctor Who serials, the pacing, the 4 episodes with three cliffhangars that sort of thing. Going back to them after watching the modern series makes them seem slow at times, and indeed Big Finish themselves have very much adapted their work in line with the structure of the New Series. The more recent 8th Doctor Audios, first with Lucie Millar and then last years excellent 'Dark Eyes' tend to be faster paced, 45-60 minutes, one off stories like the TV show. How much you’d find them dated will depend on your tolerance for classic Who. Personally i love them and cannot praise them highly enough (though i do like the New Series As well)
March 15, 2013 @ 5:30 pm
Spacewarp — it's worth pointing out that there is a rough (admittedly not perfect) correlation between which Doctors you think have dated the most and which Doctors spent more time on Earth. Could that be a factor?
March 15, 2013 @ 8:29 pm
Cameron Mackintosh is not a director – he's a producer. The production was directed by Mike Ockrent. And even in the original version, most of the criticism went towards saying that Goldman's book didn't work. But the constant re-fixing and re-fixing seems to have not improved.
The Doctor Who connection is that the london revival hosted Delores Grey, hence why she popped up in "Silver Nemesis".
March 15, 2013 @ 10:40 pm
You're right- I knew he produced it but always thought he directed it as well. My bad. Don't know how I made that mistake.
And yeah, Follies' initial mixed reaction definitely exacerbated the presumed need for re-working- but I remember reading a quote by Goldman saying that his revisions were specifically because he was unhappy with the rather depressing nature of the original, and wanted to give things a somewhat lighter touch (I need to dig that up- I thought it was on the Wikipedia page but apparently not).
March 15, 2013 @ 11:38 pm
On topic, the bits in Seasons of Fear where Cornell sends up his own Anglicanism made me giggle out loud.
I'm pretty sure that Cornell has said that this story was largely written by Caroline Symcox, in which case this would be Symcox — later to become a priest — sending up her Anglicanism…
March 16, 2013 @ 12:33 am
I hadn't thought about it before, but I do think the transformation of Grayle from troubled soul with family problems to one-dimensional villain is most likely deliberate, as he gets manipulated by his masters and pushed about by the Doctor. He's the living embodiment of how the aberrant, sketchily-described alternate timeline comes about, in contrast to the richly-textured history he's moving through.
I've realised that four out of my top five eighth Doctor audios are set in this season, though ironically two of them – Living Legend and Solitaire – are "Time Can Be Rewritten" candidates. Seasons of Fear is my second-favourite from the actual season as released. So you can guess that I didn't find it a slog. However, the stretch from the duel to when we get back to Roman Britain did leave me a bit cold. I'm not sure if this is because it actually dragged, or because I have a love for Roman and Dark Age history.
Speaking of which, some bonus nitpicky trivia: there were a lot of Ediths in the period leading up to the Norman Conquest, and the one in this story isn't the one famous for being called 'Swan-Neck'! Tut tut…
March 16, 2013 @ 3:02 am
My reason for asking was that I gather, from your Sword of Orion essay, that Big Finish earned the right to do Doctor Who by doing Bernice Summerfield first. So the Bernice Summerfield audios, before Big Finish did Doctor Who, ought to be part of the story. Just at the moment, the impression given is that they're a rabbit hole that didn't go anywhere relevant at all.
I can understand not wanting to spend too much time on a spin-off that hardly anyone has heard of.
March 16, 2013 @ 4:48 am
"Its position on every single fan debate became the winning side by virtue of it being an absolutely massive hit."
That's hardly a valid argument. And if it were then, it'd be equally true about other awful Doctor Who stories that still got huge audience figures like Four to Doomsday, Time-Flight, Resurrection of the Daleks, or Dimensions in Time.
March 16, 2013 @ 5:52 am
Hm. I mean, you're highlighting what I do consider to be a real problem in the chronology as I line it up, which is that unlike any other strand of Doctor Who's history, Big Finish began in the series' past. Which means that under the structure of this project we do have to join them half-formed, a fair number of audios in with Storm Warning. And I couldn't even tuck their first audio in a Time Can Be Rewritten somewhere, because it was a multi-Doctor audio that didn't go anywhere.
So possibly for the book version some essay dealing with a subset of an Audio-Visuals story, a Benny story, and Sirens of Time would be reasonable. We'll see how well it fits.
March 16, 2013 @ 6:17 am
Slightly backwards as I understand it. Cornell was commissioned, wrote a script, got it back with notes from Gary Russell, and just didn't have time to make the revisions. So he asked Symcox to do the second draft, and then fiddled slightly on top of that.
March 16, 2013 @ 6:31 am
Well, except it is a valid argument. There's no "right" answer to any of those dichotomies, not inherently (though if there were, I suspect it'd be embracing both sides of either polarity simultaneously.) So the fan debates were little more than rhetoric to influence how future Doctor Who stories would turn out, and how those stories would be received. In that context, the Revival has made all of those debates moot, debates that could only really flourish in the vacuum created by the absence of a televised series.
The other weakness to your point is you're comparing individual stories from yesteryear to the entire franchise as it stands today. Not exactly apples-to-apples. Nor did the occasional blip of those big audiences translate into "an absolutely massive hit" for JNT's run; the Revival enjoys much higher audience appreciation, critical recognition, and cultural heft than the old series ever did.
The Revival is "the winning side" for the time being. However, that doesn't necessarily mean it's "the right side," but to go there requires defining our intents and purposes for the show up front, and I'm not sure we're ever going to agree on intents and purposes.
March 16, 2013 @ 6:44 am
Part of what frustrated me was that Chimes featured quite a bit of Charley-development, and of all the tropes of Doctor Who I love most, it's development of the Companion, and the Companion-Doctor relationship. On the heels of hitting my sweet-spot, this was a real letdown.
You can probably guess how I feel about Creed.
March 16, 2013 @ 7:09 am
Basically, if "winning" is defined as "defining what the majority interpretation of the series would be", then not only does the New Series win, there's no way it couldn't have won unless Eccleston had been a TV Movie-level flop. (And in that case we would all have lost.)
March 16, 2013 @ 7:24 am
I don't think that's how "winning" is being defined here, exactly. It's not simply "the majority interpretation", it's "You can instantly shut down anyone's increasingly angry rant about why they are right and the show is wrong and anyone who disagrees with them is stupid by adopting a sarcastic tone and saying 'Yeah, it's a shame the show didn't do it your way, maybe then it wouldn't have been a flop'"
That is, it's not simply the more popular view, but rather, the popularity of the series is such that it's impossible to seriously argue that the show's version is invalid or that any contrarian view is the "only valid" version.
You can't, for example, seriously say "If the doctor were ever to kiss a girl, the show would be RUINED FOREVER and no one would ever love it again!" any more
March 16, 2013 @ 8:53 am
Slightly backwards as I understand it.
Thanks for clarifying, Phil. Here's the tweet I was thinking of: "@Carolinesymcox really did write most of it."
March 16, 2013 @ 9:06 am
To be perfectly fair (and to clarify), though, Tommy doesn't hate ALL of New Who; he just hates what he feels are mediocre episodes/arcs. He's already mentioned "Bad Wolf" as being one; he also despises most of RTD's other episodes on the show (save for "Tooth and Claw" and "Utopia"), as well as the works of other writers he feels are subpar, such as Helen Raynor and Stephen Greenhorn.
He also dislikes "Let's Kill Hitler"; don't ask me why, because he can explain it better than I ever could. (I like it, personally, but… shrugs)
(In case anyone's wondering, I know him from another site. I remember these things from what he's posted on there.)
March 16, 2013 @ 1:53 pm
You know I originally put that in my post and then removed it! But yes I had noticed that. Any season of Who that spends time in contemporary Earth does seem noticeably dated, so we find the odd scenario where Troughton has dated less than Pertwee, and Tom Baker less than McCoy. I don't think that's exactly what's happening though. I think older Who looks dated for the reasons Commander Maxil points out – it's slower, it has a 4/6 episode 25 minute structure, and direction is much less snappy than we're used to.
But I wonder if the stories set on other planets and/or in other times tend to look less dated simply because the setting is unfamiliar. Perhaps whenever Who is set in contemporary Earth, it tends to be played in a similar way to drama of the time. So we watch Pertwee swanning around in 70s Britain and we're unavoidably reminded of 70s soaps, simply because it's directed and acted that way. Stick the 3rd Doctor on another planet and you don't have to follow the conventions of contemporary drama, so the story dates better. Maybe.
March 16, 2013 @ 2:14 pm
I used to indulge in discussions over New Series vs Classic on "another" forum (we know which one), and the arguments would rage over whether the NS was better than the Classic and how high ratings were no guarantee of "Quality". If 10 million for a Who episode meant it was great, then 12 million for Eastendera meant that was fantastic. But everyone knows Eastenders is shit, ergo someone could claim NS Who was shit for the same reasons, and ratings meant nothing. These irreconcilable arguments whirled around my head until I finally made peace with myself. I realised that trying to marry Quality with "What people like" was the fundamental flaw. Someone who says "all RTD's stories are crap, and here are my reasons" is simply stating their dislike of RTD's stories, but they use this as both evidence for the sub-standard quality of RTD's eps, and justification for their dislike. In effect they're saying "RTD's stories are rubbish, and this is why I hate them." But that's not the case. Not only does dislike come first in life, but it has no relation to quality.
I dislike Eastenders and Coronation Street, but does that mean they're rubbish? Well more people like them than like Doctor Who, but it would be elitist of me to claim that they are all misguided. They like what they like, and I like what I like. Is Eastenders "good"? I don't think any programme can be considered good in that sense. If a Doctor Who fan thinks an episode is mediocre, he/she is using a subjective assessment to make an objective statement. To say that "Bad Wolf" is mediocre is not right or wrong, it's meaningless. You can say it was popular, and that a lot of people liked it (me included), but you can't make any claims about it's "quality" because such a term really means nothing in an artistic context. Art falls in an out of favour, as does furniture and music. This year's No. 1 album is a work of genius, while the No. 1 album of 197x is now considered indulgent pap. Doctor Who is no different. You like what you like, and you don't what you don't, and other people feel differently.
March 16, 2013 @ 4:15 pm
I don't know that the power of the new series lies in quality per se. I think it's a very different style from the 20th century series, and from the various lines of Wilderness Years Doctor Who. I think the new series transforms the debate over what matters for the show in terms of its sheer size and impact.
The t/rad and gun/frock debates and their various corollaries and spinoffs are about how to interpret what makes a Doctor Who story good. Each category has its own criteria for what makes a story fit it, and what makes a quality story within that interpretation. So the debates are over which stories fit each model of style, what constitutes high quality articulations of each style, and whether one style over another should predominate over the production of new Doctor Who stories.
With the advent of the new series, we have a clear answer to the last question: the predominant style of Doctor Who story is the style of the television series. It's the only place to go now if you want to find out how to make new Doctor Who. And that style is so different from the categories that were argued over in the Wilderness Years debates that it rendered all of those debates moot.
Remember what Lawrence Miles said at the start of the century: If they revive Doctor Who, it'll be absolute shit and will kill the franchise for good. He thought this, I think, because all he saw of the ideas floating around about how Doctor Who stories should be made were the ones in the forums. He never noticed the work of the actual people who were going to make new Doctor Who: aside from Gatiss, Cornell was out of the scene, and Davies and Moffatt were marginal (if that) figures in the creative community of the show. The new series was such a shock to fandom not only for its existence, but for its complete departure from all the ideas on the internet about how to make Doctor Who. It made all those old concepts obsolete.
March 16, 2013 @ 7:52 pm
@Spacewarp: Definitely. A huge part of what makes classic Who look dated doesn't come from the fact that it gets all tangled up in the trappings of the period in which it's made, but from the fact that it's simply made in a way that modern TV just isn't. When you watch Doctor Who from the 60s, you often get the impression that the people involved were still figuring out exactly how this whole "television" thing worked, and discovering that it wasn't like making stage or radio drama. (Like, have you ever noticed that it's fairly rare in the Hartnell era for someone to talk while they're doing something else — they generally stop whatever they were doing before they deliver any dialogue).
Who doesn't feel dated in the sense of feeling like it would fit better in an earlier era, but rather, it feels dated in that it feels like — I don't really have the vocabulary for this — it's a sort of abstraction. It feels dated because it feels like history, sort of in the way that period pieces do — even in the stories which were set in a time period contemporary to when they originally aired, they feel like they're in "period dress". An 80s serial set in the 80s feels very much like it's deliberately trying to be set in the 80s.
This actually reminds me a little of Diamanda Hagan's reviews of Adam Adamant Lives: she pointed out that, much like Austin Powers, the main character is a sort of caricature of a bygone time period (Edwardian for Adam, the 60s for Austin), but it's just as true that the "contemporary" world the character is in is also a sort of caricature. The 60s of Adam Adamant is composed almost exclusively of Stuff That Makes WWII Veterans Complain About Kids These Days, and the 90s of Austin Powers is composed almost exclusively of Stuff That Makes Ageing Hippies Complain About How Everyone Sold Out.
Similarly, when classic Doctor Who shows us, say, the French Revolution, what they show us is "What do people think of when they think of the French Revolution?", but when they do a contemporary story, they approach it the same way — so when Monarch asks Teagan how contemporary humans dress, of course she draws about the most Eighties outfits you could imagine.
Contrast with the new series — which also takes an abstract approach, but it's a very different kind of abstraction. When you watch a Pertwee episode, you could be forgiven for imagining Jo Grant waking up every morning and saying "My, I'm feeling very 1970s today." Contrariwise, what RTD wants us not to lose sight of is that if you're a person living in the year 2006, you do not wake up in the morning and say "My, I'm feeling very 2006 today," and if you're a person living in the year 3 million, you don't wake up every morning and say "Boy is it totally The Future out there," so he stresses the normalcy of every place we visit — sure, some people might be blue, but if you actually lived here, that would be totally normal.
I think that sense of "if you lived here, this would all seem normal" is what's absent in the classic series, and I think that greatly exacerbates the sense of datedness you get watching it.
March 16, 2013 @ 8:54 pm
Which is why I say we have to be upfront about intents and purposes in order to have a meaningful discussion of "quality" that goes beyond our individual experiences of liking or disliking certain stories or styles. It's possible to compare special effects, score, direction and pacing, and to make arguments about how the different ways of doing them better serve this intention or that. We can show the how the Revival exercises more reflexivity than eras past; again, this works better for some purposes than others.
March 16, 2013 @ 9:38 pm
Something else that might work towards this is politics; McCoy at least is heavily tied up with and focused on the politics of the late 1980s, and in Eccleston's case, the Daleks as religious fundamentalists and the conscious echoes of 9/11 conspiracy theories in "Aliens of London"/"World War Three" scream 'written not long after 9/11'. They seem a bit more closely tied to the political and social issues of the day than the more general approaches taken by some of the other eras of Who discussed, which in turn ties them to these eras a bit more closely.
March 17, 2013 @ 5:38 am
"The other weakness to your point is you're comparing individual stories from yesteryear to the entire franchise as it stands today. Not exactly apples-to-apples. Nor did the occasional blip of those big audiences translate into "an absolutely massive hit" for JNT's run."
Okay, the ratings successes of Resurrection and Dimensions in Time were one-offs yes. However Season 19 itself was consistently successful in the ratings. I still think it was by and large awful though, but there were people writing in to say they found it more thrilling and better than ever now. This is why I've come to see Season 19's success (and particularly Earthshock's) as something that saved the show and yet damned it too.
Why JNT's era floundered in popularity from there and New Who didn't, I would put down to that RTD's version was much more heavily promoted, and it didn't squander interest by serving a finale pay-off like Time-Flight. But making a better finale than that isn't that hard.
"You can instantly shut down anyone's increasingly angry rant about why they are right and the show is wrong and anyone who disagrees with them is stupid by adopting a sarcastic tone and saying 'Yeah, it's a shame the show didn't do it your way, maybe then it wouldn't have been a flop'"
That just reads to me as a cultish mantra to suggest that criticisms of New Who can only come from a fannish perspective and therefore are always wrong and a sign of a fan malaise (and typical of a fanbase that spent most of the latter 80's praising every new episode just for existing at all). And rather paradoxically it suggests that proprietorial fans who think they know better than everyone are always wrong, even whilst the show was being run by exactly that kind of fan.
For the reconrd I don't think that the mass audiences who watch and enjoy the show are idiots of lesser intellect, but I certainly think the writing often treated them as such and continually fed their diminished expectation. So yes it does baffle me at how the show gained such massive public and fan good will whilst itself demonstrating so little. I don't think fans of new who are idiots, but I do think some of them do come off as pretty frighteningly indoctrinated and fanatical and very very suspect.
"You can't, for example, seriously say "If the doctor were ever to kiss a girl, the show would be RUINED FOREVER and no one would ever love it again!" any more"
I've never particulary minded the prospect of the Doctor and Romana or Grace hooking up. I don't buy that he'd see anything in Rose though. I might have bought River as a future love of his if we'd not revisited her.
But the point is, sure you can change the Doctor's character and the new audience won't mind/ You can make him a more conformist hero and a hotheaded thug (as Eccleston and Tennant often were), and the show will be a success. But what's the point of bringing it back at all then if you're just going to forget what made it special and make it just like what's popular and remove everything that made the show and its hero different to everything else? You might as well have made a different show entirely.
March 17, 2013 @ 5:40 am
"Remember what Lawrence Miles said at the start of the century: If they revive Doctor Who, it'll be absolute shit and will kill the franchise for good. He thought this, I think, because all he saw of the ideas floating around about how Doctor Who stories should be made were the ones in the forums."
Although Phil's making a good try at showing how Doctor Who in the early 2000's was in a sense leading up to the new series, I don't anyone could have predicted how the 2005 revival actually turned out. It quite simply wasn't based on previous Doctor Who. To take a leaf out of the Battlestar Galactica community, it was almost WINO – Who In Name Only. It owes most of it's DNA to early 21st Century drama, and what fans would disparagingly call Soap, whilst wearing a Doctor Who hat and coat…but wearing it very well. So well in fact that as a lot of people are pointing out, it has become very much the Default setting for new Doctor Who.
Personally I think the same thing happened in 1969, when fandom (if it had existed then) would not have been able to predict accurately the almost complete reboot of the Third Doctor's UNIT/Earthbound era. Sure, in hindsight it's easy to look back on the later Earthbound Troughton stories and cite them as the template for 70s Who, but that's more likely to be because Troughton and Pertwee are only a year apart, and therefore the style of television hasn't changed drastically.
March 17, 2013 @ 5:49 am
"Tommy doesn't hate ALL of New Who; he just hates what he feels are mediocre episodes/arcs. He's already mentioned "Bad Wolf" as being one; he also despises most of RTD's other episodes on the show (save for "Tooth and Claw" and "Utopia")."
Well I had mixed feelings about Bad Wolf in terms of wanting to like it, but lately I've been soured by realising just how cynically and insincerely it takes both fan and non-fan audiences for a bunch of mugs.
Tooth and Claw I did like. Utopia I didn't like so much, apart from Derek Jacobi's presence, but I've always said it had a potential premise for a season finale set at the final days of the universe, before RTD decided the audience didn't have the imagination to follow it unless it was set on present day Earth and recast Jacobi to someone more desperately young and hip and we got the trashy train-wreck mess we did because the entire narrative collapsed in the relocation.
"He also dislikes "Let's Kill Hitler"; don't ask me why, because he can explain it better than I ever could. (I like it, personally, but… shrugs) "
Lets Kill Hitler I tend to see as the Time-Flight problem in terms of appallingly handling the tragic repercussions of the last story, except worse because it was meant to concern Amy's beloved daughter as opposed to Adric. It was the point where my emotional connection to the Ponds completely flatlined.
Also it was the point where River ceased being a welcome part of the ensemble, and just took over the show. I was incredibly team-Moffat until then, but it was the point where his writing became too full of incident and not enough coherence or soul.
It was a similar problem to RTD. No-one could reign him in, and so what we got was rather souring excesses.
March 17, 2013 @ 7:09 am
@Tommy: Lets Kill Hitler I tend to see as the Time-Flight problem in terms of appallingly handling the tragic repercussions of the last story, except worse because it was meant to concern Amy's beloved daughter as opposed to Adric. It was the point where my emotional connection to the Ponds completely flatlined.
This is the one complaint you've made that I can really get behind. That entire second half of the season, despite very good storytelling in the individual stories, has this serious mood whiplash problem. I'd peg The Girl Who Waited as being even worse in this regard: Amy spends decades alone in Two Streams pining for Rory, but her daughter doesn't get so much as a mention?
"Let's Kill Hitler", to a large extent, you can play off as "Amy and Rory are still trying to process this", but I find it much harder to excuse the way that all the subsequent episodes act as if LKH has cleaned up and sorted out that emotional arc and now Rory and Amy just move on with their lives and never really think about their loss again.
March 17, 2013 @ 7:17 am
I would say that objective measures of quality in art exist. There are some parts that are wholly subjective, but more often, the subjectivity is about how much you enjoy one thing over another. I think this is more what people are talking about when they say they enjoy something bad – there are objectively measurable qualities that are lacking, but there are things that make it up for them anyway.
That said, Ross's point is a good one, I think. The new series "wins" in that it shows that all the things it does can be popular, because, of course, they are. (Well, maybe not all the things.)
March 17, 2013 @ 7:19 am
I'd say it was definitely based on Doctor Who. Just not the parts that everybody in the Wilderness Years thought were important.
March 17, 2013 @ 12:33 pm
"This is the one complaint you've made that I can really get behind. That entire second half of the season, despite very good storytelling in the individual stories, has this serious mood whiplash problem. I'd peg The Girl Who Waited as being even worse in this regard: Amy spends decades alone in Two Streams pining for Rory, but her daughter doesn't get so much as a mention?"
Indeed. Before then the Doctor being 'fated to die' arc was still intriguing, despite a foregone cop-out conclusion, because there was interest in why the Doctor was being targeted for death. Why did the Astronaut try to kill him. But with Lets Kill Hitler and Amy and Rory's lack of reaction, it's was as if suddenly rational motivations and character decisions were no longer on the agenda.
I realised that quickly and as such I treated The Girl Who Waited as a separate standalone, and on those terms I found it to be the best story of the season, even better than The Doctor's Wife at the risk of fan heresy. And it even seemed to do right everything the Series 6 arc had done wrong, where the timey-wimey actually had an impact on the characters, and it was a mature character piece, rather than just filling the story with as much incident and overkill as possible.
Maybe you disagree, but for me Girl Who Waited was at least a brief blip on the heart monitor after the flatline.
""Let's Kill Hitler", to a large extent, you can play off as "Amy and Rory are still trying to process this", but I find it much harder to excuse the way that all the subsequent episodes act as if LKH has cleaned up and sorted out that emotional arc and now Rory and Amy just move on with their lives and never really think about their loss again."
That's the problem with Let's Kill Hitler for me. It felt like nothing more than a long meaningless distraction tactic whilst the ramifications on the Ponds were swept under the carpet.
The thing is, there are moments in The Pandorica Opens where Amy seems prone to a certain kind of autism behaviour of crying without being consciously aware of her sadness, and I think had more moments like that been present in Series 6b it might have papered the crack somewhat. But it just seemed shockingly short-sighted from a writer of Moffat's talents.
March 17, 2013 @ 6:40 pm
As Phil pointed out a while back, one of the huge influences on the Revival was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not just in creating ongoing character arcs, but in using monsters as metaphors for the issues the characters are facing.
It's the same with Series Six. In LKH, the primary monster is the Tesselecta, and when it "becomes" Amy, it represents Amy's repression three months after her daughter's been abducted. It also stands in for her judgment of Melody for poisoning (and eventually killing) the Doctor; in the end, Amy uses the Tesselecta to show Melody her potential for being a savior.
NT is about coming to grips with having an alien child. TGWW examines the ramifications of their desire to go back and retrieve baby Melody, which would completely erase the River they know. Finally, TGC gets to the heart of how Amy and Rory feel about the Doctor. It's all metaphor; the emotional reactions are all considered, they're just offset to the monstrous situations of the weekly adventure.
Now, whether that's emotionally satisfying from the perspective of the audience is another matter — most people, I don't think, are going to be taking metaphors into consideration when they're expecting a direct emotional payoff, like Rose on the beach in Doomsday.
On the other hand, for people who find that too melodramatic (including certain kids) it allows "the adventure" to take a dominant position. It also gives the show an opportunity to become "fractal" in nature — if one is inclined to see monsters in the Jungian sense, that they represent our subconscious fears and traumas, then positioning the characters in the same light may create a different kind of "mirror" for those of us who are watching, a mirror that's more personal and intimate, rather than a reflection of the larger sweep of social and historical forces that we've come to expect from Daleks and the like.
March 17, 2013 @ 11:48 pm
Sorry, missed this – I understand why Seasons would be a disappointment for you, then. And I think there are probably very few people for whom Creed wasn't a huge letdown – even among those who didn't like Scherzo!
Hm, looking at it, the releases after most of the Rob Shearman stories have been a big drop – for me it's a toss-up between Scherzo/Creed and Jubilee/Nekromanteia for biggest. Shudder
March 17, 2013 @ 11:54 pm
Good point Scott. 60's Who was pretty sparse on political agendas, but there was a fascination with the space race. Ally that with the growing interest in Psychedelia and counter-establishment and you've more or less encapsulated Troughton. Whereas Pertwee's years are all about concern for the environment and the planet running out of resources. Funnily enough this seems to be why Pertwee periodically oscillates between datedness and prescience.
March 18, 2013 @ 12:04 am
Jane, can I just say that I really appreciate your (very different) perspective on the show? Most of the non-obvious metaphor misses me completely, though when you point it out I sometimes find that it has affected my appreciation subconsciously. Even where I have noticed it, I can rarely articulate it. Your commentary complements Dr. Sandifer's; and together they are giving me a much wider appreciation of the show.
On this specific point, I have enjoyed the stories of series 6b individually, but always been unsatisfied by the lack of focus on the Amy/Rory/Melody situation in the arc as a whole. This reading allows me to look at that in a different way – I'll have to see how it feels next time I watch!
March 18, 2013 @ 1:15 am
Just realised: I replied to this but it seems to have got lost (perhaps it never completed publishing and I didn't notice).
Thanks – I can now understand why you were disappointed in Seasons. I think almost everyone felt the thump on listening to Creed – even those who disliked Scherzo!
I had a look at the releases, and the ones after a Rob Shearman story were often a huge comedown. I can't decide if the worst drop was Scherzo/Creed or Jubilee/Nekromanteia…