Thursday, December 27, 2007

Voyage of the Damned Pedestrian Action Movie

What I find odd in reading reviews of Voyage around the 'net is the curious double-standards people seem happy to employ with New Who.

Having a disaster movie where the two big set pieces were crawling through a small hole in a wall which luckily got bigger in time for the fat people to get through, and crossing a short bridge doesn't say drama and spectacle to me.

But people are happy to make excuses for Voyage, disguised as comment: "a very, very simple story...Christmas is not a time for aching complexity" for instance. No, possibly not - but did it have to be that brain-dead?

Generally people have been praising it as a good disaster movie - leaving aside the two 'great' set pieces above, the action consisted of a short walk with a small metal gun to destroy the baddies, the world's most ineptly shot and ludicrous suicide, a ham-fisted anti-discrimination message which would have looked clumsy in a Very Special Episode of The Cosby Show, all culminating in Kylie killing herself for no obvious reason (perhaps she too wanted to experience the moving homage to Caves of Androzani which was the completely amateur matting of her body falling down the Big Hole?), then being resurrected using Scottie's transporter buffers only to be released as Tinkerbell into space after a bit of anguished shouting from Tennant.

If Big Finish had turned that out not so long ago, the knives would be out for Gary Russell already. But Rusty gets a free pass.

Similarly I've seen any number of posts on mailing lists and message boards which basically consist of slack-jawed astonishment at the poverty of ambition and talent evident in Russell's new comic strip. But who gave him permission to do it?

Or - and I've done this myself - blame for the decision to commission Joe Lidster (a man who, even if you think he can write for toffee, has no TV experience whatsoever) has been laid at the door of (admittedly) renowned nepotist, Gary Russell. But surely Rusty has final say on who writes and who doesn't for everything in the world of Who? Or is that only when it suits him?

In a different medium, fifteen or so pedestrian and lifeless New Series books in a row, and I lost count of the number of emails and webposts I saw which boiled down to 'and obviously no-one has ever shown these to Rusty' or 'clearly Cardiff don't pass these', thereby nicely ensuring Who's Messiah doesn't get his sandals dirty - in spite of the fact that at various points great play has been made of the fact that Rusty personally approves everything from stickers in the DW Adventures magazine to every word of every script.

And yet when *anything* is sub-standard or just a bit mad at Big Finish, Gary Russell gets the blame. The author sometimes gets it in the neck too, but hardly anyone misses Russell.

Now, this is no impassioned defence of either GR or BF, both of whom largely turn out work which is a waste of time and money. But just why is it that when, say, Neverland came out the blame was laid squarely with GR's poor decision making, nepotistic commissioning model and general lack of ability, but when something shit comes out of New Who it's never Rusty's fault?

Here's a more specific example - Gary Russell praises Josef Mengele as a 'genius' in Scales of Injustice. It's monumentally crass and stupid, obviously - but I can't escape the feeling that the adjective was used because GR never bothered to check up on Mengele and is, consequently, simply a sign of a poor quality writer not doing a proper amount of research. It's not a good thing and makes Russell look an idiot, but it's not deliberate. Yet I've seen people crucify him for it.

Meanwhile, Rusty comes out and says for a joke that Hitler would make a good Doctor because he's so 'stern and strong' and...nothing happens.

What the situation reminds me of is when a football team gets a new owner who is an autocratic prick who treats the place like his own private fiefdom, but who owns the club and could shut it down in a second. As a result the fans are terrified to say anything negative about him in case he does just that. Who fans are like that: they have to see Rusty as the Messiah because - as has been hinted - if he walks away then the show could shut down. And - if rumours are to be believed - Rusty likes a bit of sycophancy. Or rather he likes a lot of sycophancy.

I don't buy for a second the idea that Rusty is the saviour of Who. At its core, that belief requires us to assume that Rusty took a broken down and done for pile of tat and polished it up to a gem-like gleam. The truth of the matter, however, is that it's a brilliant concept which was always destined to work, given the backing the BBC had given it in terms of promotion and cash. The only way I can imagine that it could have failed is if the whole thing was presented as some massive and incomprehensible continuity-fest - and no-one genuinely in the position to run New Who would have done that.

No-one.

If we'd had Gattiss in charge (the other person much suggested at the time as someone who could bring back Who) it would probably have been a more traditional style of show (as his two scripts for the show demonstrate) but there's nothing inherently wrong with that, and as he grew more confident I can easily see elements form his other writing coming in which would be very welcome. And we'd still have Simon Pegg, Gareth Roberts and the cream of Big Finish, all of whom have worked with Gattiss - but hopefully given their head to turn out their own scripts without excessive interference from a writer who too often doesn't seem half as good.

Segueing smoothly, I've now heard from several people that only Steven Moffat gets his scripts passed without massive Rusty input, to the extent that unless it's a direct lift from the original novel, almost every good bit in the fabulous Human Nature/Family of Blood was written by Rusty. Ditto for Rob Shearman's Dalek*. If this is true then Rusty obviously is capable of exceptional writing, because there's exceptional writing in both of those scripts.

But at the same time if we accept that, then he must also in large part have written the Cyber and Dalek mid-season two-parters, both of which were dreadful.

And he wrote under his own name both the excellent Utopia and the Harry Potter-level poor Last of the Time Lords.

He dumped to screen the bad fan-fiction of Doomsday and the moral soft-shoe shuffle of Boom Town, but also the intriguing and genuinely exciting Impossible Planet/Satan Pit (alienating the named author, Matt Jones, in the process). He fills the series with guns disguised as screwdrivers and has whole episodes where the narrative lurches from one US television-friendly set-piece to the next - and yet he may well also have written the archetypal Doctor Who line "Books! The best weapons in the world!."

It's strange and difficult to explain. Maybe he just can't do plot and needs someone to provide a framework on which he can hang his words, and the better the framework, the better the words. Maybe he just doesn't really recognise any fault in his own work but is so wrapped up in self-love that he thinks whatever he does is great - and it's more likely to be so when someone else has taken a first pass at it. Maybe he just sees this as a good way to get major US TV exposure (might explain Torchwood as well) for the show.

Who knows, but it would be nice if people would admit that sometimes Rusty's writing just isn't up to snuff rather than constantly making excuses for him or constructing a hagiography round him.

* about which I'm ambivalent as I thought 'Dalek' - while good - was far less subtle than the source matieral of Shearman's 'Jubilee'
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9 Comments:

Blogger SAF said...

Gosh, I don't know how I missed that excellent post. It is amazing how both blame and credit are selectively redistributed by fans and I can't help wondering if other producers got the same 'treatment' when they were in the driving seat. Of course, most others would have been pre-internet and for this sort of crass stupidity to really blossom, you really need something like the internet.

Still, it's good for some things, your post included.

10:11 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Gosh, I don't know how I missed that excellent post."

Obviously Blogger thought it less excellent since it dumped it into a space below the Destiny post, even though I wrote it after :)

Regarding other producers - JNT got it big style from DWB, but before then there wasn't much by way of organised fandom, was there?

11:27 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "JNT got it big style from DWB, but before then there wasn't much by way of organised fandom, was there?"

Not that I'm aware of. My first encounter with fandom was at the 1983 Longleat convention, and that seemed pretty *dis*organised. Didn't read any DWB, but I got the impression from others that it largely slammed JNT, which if true would be the opposite of the treatment Rusty seems to get. But maybe you can set me straight on that.

1:08 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

My first encounter with fandom was the Pagoda c.1999 so I'm no use at all.

I did buy a lot of DWBs on eBay a few years ago though and they do fairly rip into JNT, generaly without much cause.

1:34 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "My first encounter with fandom was the Pagoda c.1999 so I'm no use at all."

You're too harsh on yourself :)

Stuart: "I did buy a lot of DWBs on eBay a few years ago though and they do fairly rip into JNT, generaly without much cause."

Hmm, were they in print while he was still presiding over the show? There are large chunks of the "JNT era"* I'm not fond of (and wasn't fond of at the time), but I don't remember there being this great sense of producer as 'showrunner', so the idea of laying blame - or indeed credit - at one person's feet seems a relatively recent thing to me. But then, really I was completely out of touch with fandom until 2002 when I started joing a few mailing lists, and the odd online forum like OG. And even now I try to maintain a healthy distance - even if it's just arm's length ;)

*which was long enough that it was characterised by several different 'phases' and, hence, there had to be more than one person to blame/thank, depending on your POV.

2:28 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "You're too harsh on yourself :)"

:-)

DWB first came out (quick Google) in July 1983 if Wikipedia is to be believed, so plenty of time to moan about JNT. I have to admit a bias with JNT in that he was producer during the Davison years and - for all the chunks of rubbish that came out thereafter - he gets forgiven a lot by me for that.

2:41 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "DWB first came out (quick Google) in July 1983 if Wikipedia is to be believed, so plenty of time to moan about JNT."

Shit, so that makes us the modern equivalent of DWB, grumbling about the incumbent producer. :)

2:58 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Yeah, which one of us is going to change his name for no obvious reason and be named in various fandom sex rumours, and which of us is going to hang around and pick up the big bucks when our moans go professional under the title "Anyone but Rusty"?

3:02 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

:)

Er, bagsy the big bucks.

SAF

3:27 pm  

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