Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Won't You Admit it's Getting Better?

Why is this season of Doctor Who so much better for me than the last several years?

Some people have claimed that any differences are so minor that any stated preference for one over the other *must* be a result of prior unreasoning dislike of one writer or other. This is clearly nonsense. For all that the basic set-up of Doctor, companion, TARDIS has remained the same and Steven Moffat has chosen to use the RTD season template wholesale for this new year, the cumulative minor differences in tone, style and set-up make this a very different beast from the Russell T Davies years.

These differences range from the utterly unimportant (say, the fact that there are fewer gay characters in this season than in previous ones), through interesting, but hard to see that it really matters (the redesign of the TARDIS console, for instance) to fundamental shifts in the entire shape of the series (granted, it's harder to label that a minor change convincingly but I'll get to that).

Taking the minor issues first, there are several things in the Davies' years which, taken together are enough to generate a low level irritation field round the entire series.

1. Russell T Davies is simply not a witty writer.

I don't think Davies would recognise actual wit if it bit him in the arse and announced itself as a Tom Sharpe character. I like injections of humour in my Doctor Who, and for all that Davies constantly tries to force some jokes into his episodes he inevitably fails miserably. Burping wheelie bins and farting aliens I can forgive on the grounds that Davies was still experimenting with tone at that early stage, but exchanges like
The Doctor: I am a doctor.
Jackie: Prove it. Stitch this, mate!

Rose: My mother's cooking.
The Doctor: Good. Put her on a slow heat and let her simmer.
are so ancient that they might as well have been the words written on the first planet in The Pandorica Opens. Even the most highly praised of Davies' jokes - something like Donna complaining that the wedding reception went ahead without her, say - would fit imperceptibly into a sub-standard seventies sitcom like On the Buses.

2. I can't be bothered with super-humans...

...regardless of where they start from. So I find Rose's thirteen week move from shop girl with no future to Defender of Earth, flitting from one universe to the other as annoying and false as Martha's journey from junior doctor to guerilla fighting, planet saving uber-mensch.

3. He's a lazy bastard, isn't he?

I want the every element of plot and setting to make at least a modicum of sense within the over-arching framework of the series and it annoys me when they don't, especially when they could so easily be fixed. Fans online spend hours patching up these Davies plot holes and though they make interesting reading they're also often rather desperate stabs at explaining some of Davies' more mental logic disasters. And don;t let anyone convince you otherwise - there are more annoying and lazy plot holes (for want of a better term) in the first half hour of, say, Gridlock than there have been in the entirety of Steven Moffat's first season combined (minus Beast Below which I didn't like for much the same reason, but which slightly gets away with its illogicality due to the sheer force of Matt Smith's performance as the Doctor).

The fact that Davies doesn't seem to care about such things - even basics like his grasp of UK politics and how exactly the internet works - annoys me even more because it feels so contemptuous of the viewer.

4. No Payoff

Well there just isn't any - dying heroically to save Wilf (which was done so badly in any case that it was actually a little bit astonishing) is not payback for the arrogance, hubris and plain old fashioned up-himselfness of the Tenth Doctor.

As to the major differences, well they're quickly covered since they all link together.

First off, I hate Hollyoaks. For some inexplicable reason it's become acceptable to assume that 'soapy' is an insult. Consequently anyone accusing Davies of soapy writing is apparently making an unwarranted attack on the poor dear soul, but that shouldn't be the case. Good soap opera is good writing, and soap characters are merely normal dramatic characters written ever so slightly larger. Add in exaggerated situations, melodramatic scenes galore and a large cast of people with issues and problems and you have a soap opera style drama.

Which is what Davies created. Rose, Jackie, Pete and Mickey and their various interpersonal issues necessitate frequent trips back to Earth to visit the crappy sink estate on which the motley bunch live. Plot lines based round Mickey, the Doctor and Pete appearing as other Universe duplicates of themselves, second Pete coming back from the dead and getting together with Jackie, Mickey taking Ricky's place to nurse his old granny, then eventually marries Martha, Rose hooking up with the equivalent of the Doctor's twin brother - it's all so like a series of plots for some sort of soap pastiche, which is what I assumed Hollyoaks was for quite some time. And since I can't be bothered with any of the soaps in 2010 it's no real surprise that I find Davies' collection of ill-functioning families tiresome. I don't watch Doctor Who to get teenagers and their problems with boys and spots, or middle aged women who can't keep a man. I couldn't care less about Marta and her implausible family of over-achievers or Rose and her raddled bag of a mother. Clearly some people do like that sort of thing, but I'd prefer if they got their fix from actually watching Hollyoaks instead of dragging the tropes of that genre into those of Doctor Who.

Which is sort of beside the point (except tangentially). The real issue is that from 2005 to the introduction of Donna (at best, most forgiving reading), the series was as much about the companion and her life as it was about the Doctor and his adventures. Suddenly Rose was a legitimate series lead, on a par at the very least with the Doctor, in a way that no companion had been before. And though that's something I first mentioned back in 2005 in a blog post entitled 'Re: The Rose Show [was Doctor Who]' at that point I was really just complaining that Davies had allowed his love for his own creation (Rose) to blind him to the series' format and thus made her the person who saves the Doctor as opposed to vice versa. And like I said, I can't be bothered with super humans.

Martha continued that practice, to the point that - just as Rose saves the Doctor through the power of lurve in 'Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways' so Martha saves him in his Dobby Doctor form in 'Last of the Time Lords'. Doctor Who used to be a show about the triumph of the intellect, compassion and honesty of a mysterious alien over the forces of evil, but in the Davies years it became a show about the triumph of brilliant, plucky, fantastic humans over anything that gets thrown at them, a thread which reached its logical conclusion in Turn Left' where Rose and Donna combine to save the world without the Doctor's help at all. Donna, at least, starts off far more flawed than the soon to be perfect Rose or the Perfect from Day One Martha, but by Journey's End she's a half human, half Time Lord super Donna.

Compare that to the first Moffat season. Amy is quite clearly the junior partner in this relationship. The Doctor leaves her when it suits him, even when she's in danger she's demonstrably unable to deal with. She's brave and reasonably intelligent, but she doesn't understand how many things work and the Doctor explains only if it suits him. She comes on to the Doctor and he tells her to bugger off - none of your moody looks and protestations of mutual love here, thankfully. She's getting engaged to someone a bit rubbish and wimpy and she acts with him like real people act with the apparently slightly unsuitable partners that they are inexplicably in love with. She's a real person, in short, but one only sketched in in many ways and only properly formed in those respects which the Doctor needs to know about.

I was called sexist the other day because I said there was no need to have any companion as a joint lead of the show, nor for them to serve any major purpose other than making necessary exposition less painful. And I felt a bit guilty at first for saying that, then realised that it was true - because Doctor Who is not a show about two equals travelling through time, it's not a series about a meeting of minds over a steamy console, and there's no need for the human companion to be half the story, trailing hangers on and family of her own behind her. Certainly, in today's tv environment there does have to be some recognition that the audience identification character is more than a mere cypher, but there's huge distance between that and episodes in which every human character ever featured in the proceeding year or tow comes together with all their mates and kids and boyfriends and forms a Legion of Super Humans to - yet again - Save the Day.

None of that (for me) is what Doctor Who is about in short - and I'm delighted that it looks at last that someone in charge has remembered that.


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Blogger MediumRob said...

It's not sexist to say that a companion in Doctor Who shouldn't be as knowledgable as the Doctor. It's sexist to assume that the companion should not be shown to have other skills that may be as valuable as the Doctor's and in some areas superior - or if she doesn't, to fail to address her feelings on the subject.

To put it in terms you'd understand, simply because Sheldon's around, does that mean Penny should simply sit there and look pretty or should she get something to do that proves her worth or explores her situation, too? ;-)

9:25 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

I continue to disagree and think you're seeing sexism that doesn't exist. My point is that the companion is wholly subsidiary to the Doctor and need only exist to be a mouthpiece for the audience. I personally have no interest at all in the companion much beyond that.

You obviously disagree with what the companion's role should be but it's not sexist for me to claim it - especially given that only people claiming sexism seem to be insisting that the companion can only be female.

In terms you'll understand, Penny doesn't fulfil the same role as any Who companion so you're analogy is false.

8:55 am  
Blogger MediumRob said...

Surely to insist that the (female) companion needs to be wholly subsidiary to the Doctor and need only exist to be a mouthpiece for the audience, rather than have any traits, skills, etc, of her own is inherently sexist: "the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other." That's what it means. That's the definition of sexism.

Sure, we're talking about specific characters here, rather than the genders per se. And, yes, the Doctor's alien and much older so will naturally be skilled in a lot of things, and sure the companion is there to some extent to be one of the people who asks "WTF is that Doctor?" But to then say that's the extent of the character's value, if that character is female, is sexist. If it were any other TV show being discussed, the idea of having a superior central male character and a central female character whose one use was to stand there and look pretty and ask "WTF is that?" would be immediately recognised by all as sexist. Doctor Who can almost get away with it because the Doctor's alien, etc – but not quite.

I can understand that you're saying that the nature of the companion is to fulfill a particular plot function and nothing more. But that's something that few people would agree with. It's certainly not been the majority of DW producers' opinions, and audience identification has been part and parcel of the companion's role as well as merely being a mouthpiece/someone for the Doctor to explain things, too. And how much of the audience would be able to identify with a companion who's devalued and depicted as worthless and skill-less? These days, I suspect not many, particularly not girls or women (at least not with Matt Smith around. With David Tennant, maybe...).

From a personal perspective, off the top of my head, I can't think of a single Doctor I actually liked. They're pretty much all cocks. If the show's only regular character was the Doctor, I probably wouldn't watch. My interest in any DW story has pretty much been dependent on the quality of the plot and whether the companion has been at all interesting. When the companion has been dull (cf Martha) or useless (cf Jo), I've had had considerably less (or sometimes zero) interest in watching it.

But hey ho. I wasn't actually calling you sexist, just trying to explain why some people might have called you that.

9:32 am  
Blogger 祁禾 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

6:10 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

I understand all you're saying - for all that I think more people would be happy to agree that the companion role is a wholly subservient one - but the point I qwas making is that I wasn't suggesting female companions should be subservient and male not. What I said was that the companion role as a non sexually differentiated part should be subservient.

And I still can't see how that statement is sexist.

Also, obviously every Doctor except Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and David Tennant has been great!

7:20 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

"for all that I think more people would be happy to agree that the companion role is a wholly subservient one"

Well, we've been continuing the conversation over here without you, I'm afraid (you never stop by, you don't call…), and the general (self-selecting) consensus is "no they wouldn't". But YMMV.

"What I said was that the companion role as a non sexually differentiated part should be subservient"

It's a power-thing. Look at this way: I'm casting a new show. The lead is a white bloke who's just awesome. I want to cast the following lead with the following personality:

They should be very athletic, highly sexed, but a bit stupid. They love loud music and fried chicken. They can be very aggressive, use a lot of slang, may smoke illegal drugs, treat women badly, wear branded sports gear, lots of gold jewelry and may have a criminal background.

Cast a white guy in that part and would it be racist? Probably not, although people might squint hard at it a bit.

Cast a black guy? I think there's just an outside possibility that might be racist. Why? Because it's an obvious negative stereotype, and using racial stereotypes is racist.

The issue is to do with power, stereotypes and history. Women have traditionally been regarded as not as intelligent, brave or capable as men, and that's a stereotype. By having a female character with those stereotypical characteristics, the show would be depicting a negative stereotype of women. That would make it sexist.

It does work both ways. Until relatively recently, there was no equivalent stereotype for men. If you'd shown a man with those capabilities in the company of a superior woman, it probably wouldn't have been sexist (I'm prepared to hear counter-arguments). But following 15-odd years of commercials and sitcoms targeted at women in which there are men who are weak, useless, slobs, etc, there is now a TV stereotype of that nature, so any sitcom with such a male character in the presence of a female character is being sexist.

I think in 20-50 years or so, the stereotypes will probably have changed and become something else or even disappeared altogether - just as the early 19th century continental European stereotype of the English used to be that we're over-emotional, flighty and bursting into tears at inappropriate moments - at which point you could probably get away with such a female companion and it wouldn't be sexist. Not yet though.

9:01 pm  

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