...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Day 3373: DOCTOR WHO: Bad Doggie


Time is running out for Dr Woo. It won't be long before the new fellow arrives.

And Daddy's been distracted by another TRAILER!

This calls for DRASTIC ACTION. Let's try changing channels at random and see what we end up with. Ooh! It looks a bit like this…

It must be one of the most arresting openings of any Doctor Who story: materialising in a broom cupboard, the Doctor staggers out to find himself literally live on Big Brother and Davina summons him to the diary room. As the man himself puts it, you have got to be kidding.

The story doesn't really take flight until they actually get out into the Game Station, nee Satellite Five, after which there is a pounding acceleration towards Rose's "death" and then it just keeps building up until the reveal of the Daleks at the end.

But to say that is to overlook the opening half hour as though it's a redundant curiosity, when obviously it's the whole point. Doctor Who hasn't done anything this bizarre, this outrĂ© since "The Mind Robber" and certainly hasn't done anything like it subsequently. Even an episode like "Love & Monsters" doesn't push the series so far outside of running up and down the corridors of the comfort zone. This is biting satire about our relationship with television itself, performing wicked parodies of some of the most popular mass-entertainment shows of the last decade… with the collaboration of the stars of those very series.

Why are all the game shows familiar ones? Why, 198,095 years in the future would TV producers look back to early 21st Century television?

Well obviously it's because this is Science Fiction and, as everyone knows, Science Fiction – particularly when written by Russell – is very much about the now, not about the future.

It's important to remember that in 2005 the shows parodied here were all at the heights of their popularity, even if they have waned since (and we have seen the rise of the Phone-in-vote Talent Show). They're all from different genres too: quiz show, reality show and make-over show, and they're all, there's no kind way to put it, examples of the nastier sort, celebrating the bitchy put-downs and humiliation of the participants.

The making of Doctor Who, the scheduling of it on a Saturday evening, is clearly a rebuke to all these lazy, lowest-common-denominator shows that pad the ratings an anesthetize the viewers rather than stimulate them.

Either that or the Daleks are obsessed with TV Century 21.

There is one anomaly. All of the shows mentioned are familiar ones – Ground Force, Stars in their Eyes, Call My Bluff as well as the three we actually see – except for "Bear With Me". But that's strange too. How is it possible for the Doctor to be familiar with "Bear With Me", in particular a specific celebrity special that Lynda has seen too, when he as good as states that this entire timeline is unfamiliar to him?

Are his Time Lord memories adapting to the new timeline? Or do we have to infer that "Bear With Me" is supposed to exist in the timeline that the Doctor remembers? That, if potentially violently fatal TV series exist then anyway, may be slyly commenting on Human nature in the "real" version of history. Interesting that the Doctor enjoys them too, although he once claimed his favourite period was the French Revolution, so there's no accounting for his tastes.

But let's look at what this episode is doing. Doctor Who did "social comment" in the Barry Letts era, dressed up as monsters and frilly shirts; Philip Hinchcliffe took the idea of the Doctor and threw him at someone else's genre; and under Graham Williams guidance multi-layered stories were made to blend witty repartee with the monster shtick. Here, Russell Davies does all three.

The crucial line is where the Doctor, appalled at having to face the outcome of his own failure to tidy up after himself, rounds on Lynda-with-a-Y to denounce the state of the Earth in space year 200,100:

"Half the world is too thin; half the world is too fat; and you all just sit there watching television?!"

This is the Doctor's "second coming" to this blighted future and Christopher Eccleston has played the messiah for Russell before, of course, so in part this "Jesus moment" is prefiguring his coming martyrdom. (Just as throwing away the gun with a "like I was going to shoot you" prefigures his choice with the Delta Wave.)

But the point he makes is a powerful one.

We, by which I mean we watchers of Doctor Who, so largely the United Kingdom, and then America and Australia and the West in general, we are all to blame. We have too much, use too much of everything: too much food; too much energy; too much carbon. We love our cars and our computers; our air-conditioned homes and our all-you-can-eat hamburger joints; and we love our television.

Doctor Who won't make such a pointed criticism of its audience again until "Planet of the Ood" ("Where do your clothes come from?") and – as Lawrence Miles is never tired of pointing out – the Doctor backs down from that remark remarkably quickly too.

What happens from here on in is that the producers become conscious of the huge hit they have on their hands and, sadly, choose to become much more safe. This production team is willing to take risks. Thinking that they may only get one year of Doctor Who, they want to make it really matter. Future series will exhibit far greater caution.

It may seem odd for a television series to be attacking the passive interaction of television, but at it's best Doctor Who is a celebration of getting out there, exploring and finding things out for yourself.

As the Doctor tells Adam in explicit prequel to this story, "The Long Game":

"Time travel is like visiting Paris. You can't just read the guidebook, you've got to throw yourself in. Eat the food, use the wrong verbs, get charged double and end up kissing complete strangers."

And remember, Russell's first break in television was, after all, "Why Don't You?" as in "Why Don't You Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something More Useful Instead?"

As a piece of television (appropriately), though, this really does push the envelope of what the series producers can realise on screen, in fact it slightly exceeds it and as a result cheapens the TV pastiches.

The Big Brother House isn't very big. It's a little too obvious that they've saved money by not having a garden. Trine-E and Zu-Zanna's studio is a coat rail.

And, although the cast is huge – and it is huge, with all the contestants and androids and TV controllers and Nick Briggs… as the voice of the Daleks – but it's clear that the budget can only run to just so many extras – there are only two other Housemates and, rather blatantly, two of the Weakest Link contestants are non-speaking parts (even when being disintegrated!).

And the film-look is wrong; it looks like Doctor Who, not "Big Brother" or "Weakest Link".

To be fair, it's a brilliant satire, a brilliant pastiche and it's brilliant that they got Anne Robinson, Davina McCall and Trinny and Susanna to do the voices, but as a story it doesn't quite work as well as it could.

Our Heroes are just too aware that they are in the wrong place, so we never accept the pastiches as anything other than the phoneys that they turn out to be. It's almost as though Russell wants to say this big political thing but has no confidence in it as a story; he wants to hurry us along to the action adventure with the Daleks. And that's a shame, because there is more you could do here, having the Doctor work it out and slowly break free of his conditioning, rather than just suddenly remember everything would have made "Bad Wolf" more of a complete story in its own right.

These days, of course, he could have done "Bad Wolf" in the usual forty-five minutes and finished with the reveals that the Game Station is Satellite 5, and that the "Bad Wolf" corporation is running the show, and then "killed" Rose… and then demanded an hour long special for the season's big finish.

Instead what we get is a half-hour of cute set pieces and then a fifteen minute intro to next week's first-time-ever official Season Finale.

Having said that, it's a really good intro to the concluding story. Once it starts it's a real thriller, bettered only by the similarly-formulated last fifteen minutes of "Utopia".

What we see here is the weaving together of all the threads that have played out in this first series.

The theme of the "Bad Wolf", the teasing little references that appeared in every story except "Rose", that is everywhere Rose went after joining the Doctor aboard the TARDIS…

(The Mox of Balhoon mentions the "Bad Wolf scenario" to the Face of Boe (who may in face be Captain Jack, who'd know); Gwyneth's vision for Rose includes "the things you've seen: the darkness, the big bad wolf; the words "Bad Wolf" are graffitied on the side of the TARDIS; Van Statten's helicopter call-sign is "Bad Wolf One"; the Face of Boe (again) appears on the Bad Wolf Channel; another graffiti, "Bad Wolf" is scrawled across on of the smiley-face posters that Rose and the Doctor pass as they approach the site of Pete's death; Captain Jack sits astride a German bomb stencilled with "Schlecter Wolf"; Margaret Slitheen's nuclear ambition is dubbed the Blaidd Drwg Project.)

…caught the public imagination in a way that the producers never imagined, spawning endless online speculations and even making the news so excited were the viewers.

And yet, in it's way, it's an incredible double-bluff. Yes, it's a flag that all these events are linked. But the real point is that all the things that we've seen on this "Trip of a Lifetime" are linked.

At the most basic, that means that the Daleks are back, but – unlike in their subsequent inevitable mass-resurrections and re-defeats – here that means something. It links into the ideas that were discussed in "Dalek", about the Doctor's guilt and deathwish.

The revelation that it's all taking place on Satellite 5 (a bit undermined by the "previously on…" of course) links us to "The Long Game" but it's also quite explicit that this is the Doctor finally confronted by the consequences of his run-away-before-I-have-to-pick-up-the-pieces lifestyle.

And "consequences", as I've said many times, are what Russell's Doctor Who is all about. (At least for so long as he remains on form.) Just as Captain Jack had to learn from "The Empty Child" that his actions have a tangible effect on the world around him, and that he's responsible for putting it right, so the Doctor must face up to the fact that he can't just wander through eternity taking no responsibility for what he leaves in his wake.

This is the conversation that he had with Margaret Slitheen in "Boom Town" re-written as "a hundred years of hell".

And here, as in "Aliens of London" Russell uses the implications of Time Travel to great effect: can you change History? Even one line? Mark Gatiss said so explicitly back in "The Unquiet Dead". Paul Cornell showed us what that might mean in "Fathers Day". And Russell clearly thinks so too, and he and other writers are going to spend quite a few subsequent episodes working out the implications of this and what can and can't be changed.

The irony that their reappearance means he's not after all guilty of genocide actually seems to give him the strength in the climax to confront his failure now that he's got a second chance.

Spotting the "Bad Wolf" references is easy. Russell's point though, is that television, good television, isn't about the fifteen-minutes-of-fame ephemera that "Big Brother", "Weakest Link", "What Not to Wear" and all their ilk have to offer. It should all tie together. It should make you work at it. It should make you think.

Television is the Big Bad Wolf; if it doesn't huff and puff and blow your doors in… what's the point?

Next Time...


…time's up. "The Parting of the Ways"


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