Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Which is Worse: Langford or Tate?

What we've learned from history is this: there can come a point in the career of any Doctor Who producer when the years spent hanging around with minor celebrities and Cybermen begin to take their toll, and he finds himself either lost in space or lost in showbiz. In 1986, John Nathan-Turner went berserk simply because nobody really liked Doctor Who any more, hence his decision to retreat from the world by pretending to be famous and hanging around with as many People From Telly as possible. In the case of Russell T. Davies, renowned scriptwriter turned championship-level shark-jumper, the problem is that everybody likes Doctor Who and nobody's capable of slamming on the brakes. But the end result is the same: the tendency to pick a well-known ginger personality from the world of Light Entertainment to play the Lead Human, rather than a proper actor. And it's easy to make a connection between the two, because the casting of Catherine Tate in 2007 has provoked a very similar response to the casting of Bonnie Langford in 1986… which is to say, a very similar response amongst actual viewers, not amongst coke-happy BBC3-addled media types who still believe Catherine Tate to be the Hip New Thing in Television and probably think The Friday Night Project is funny. (This morning, a relative of mine greeted me with the words: 'Shame about Doctor Who, isn't it?' This is interesting, not because he thought that Tate was a cripplingly bad choice - everybody outside the BBC thinks that - but because he automatically assumed I'd agree with him, suggesting that everybody knows everybody outside the BBC thinks that. The official announcement was much like a news report about an earthquake in India, something to unite the nation in a response of 'tt'.)

Clearly, the key difference between Langford and Tate is that hardly anyone saw the episodes featuring Langford, whereas these days Doctor Who actually has an audience. The end result of this situation is, of course, international terrorism. There's a logic here. Britain is currently reeling from a wave of deeply rubbish terrorist attacks, apparently organised by Islamic extremists who don't really have any ideas about using terrorism to elicit political change, but who - faced with the nation's failure to pray five times a day and cover up Katie Price - feel so impotent that their only release is to drive cars into airports. Ineffectually. Doctor Who fans will already be familiar with this feeling of helplessness: consider the notorious postings on Outpost Gallifrey after Christopher Eccleston's early retirement, by emotionally-retarded monomaniacs who wanted to launch an organised campaign of harassment against him for the heinous crime of "being knackered". Leaving aside the obvious ethical problems with wanting to give a punishment beating to an actor… what, precisely, did they want to achieve? As with the Rubbish Bombers in London and Glasgow, their purpose wasn't really to change anything but to provide an outlet for frustrated rage. At around the time that Bonnie Langford became the new companion, one Doctor Who fanzine ran the headline "John Nathan-Turner Must Die". And since Langford only handicapped the programme rather than making it a completely unworkable proposition, the offices of BBC Wales must surely be a greater area of risk than Heathrow. We should also beware of people dressing up in Tetrap costumes and setting themselves on fire.

So which is really worse, Langford or Tate? In order to draw a line under this whole hideous issue, the evidence has been broken down scientifically, and we'll be comparing their performances - and their potential for damage - in five key areas…

1. Ability to Be Unpopular. This is nowhere near as cut-and-dried as it may seem. In 1986, Bonnie Langford was universally loathed amongst the general population, known throughout the land as a B-list game-show filler who'd once been a shrieky child star and who apparently hadn't changed much. Comedy shows of the day treated her as an all-purpose object of hatred, much like Jade Goody or Ann Widdecombe today. On the other hand, Catherine Tate is supposedly popular, supposedly because it's hard to find anyone outside the media who actually likes her. Her sketch show gets reasonable-but-not-great viewing figures, yet this seems to be a result of the BBC's drive to push every new "catchphrase comedy" series as the Next Big Thing rather than a result of audience enthusiasm. More crucially, though, there's the problem that catchphrase comedy - let's not call it "character comedy", we don't want to overstate things - irritates a lot more people than it attracts. Hire an actor from a sitcom, and most people will be ambivalent. Hire someone who makes a living by shouting the same joke over and over again, only with increasingly unlikely co-stars (up to and including jovial war criminal Tony Blair), and… well, for every viewer who likes it, there'll be nine who say "Christ, I can't stand her". It is, if you will, like installing Crazy Frog on the TARDIS computer. Nonetheless, we're forced to conclude that some real people actually like Tate, which certainly wasn't true of Langford in the mid-'80s. Langford 9/10, Tate 7/10.

2. Ability to Completely Distort the Nature of the Series. Bonnie Langford is, beyond the surface layer of mewling '80s showbizness, not actually a bad actor. Mediocre, possibly, but not bad. Whereas Catherine Tate is… not an actor at all. Like Peter Sellers before her, she specialises in a kind of performance which is more interested in getting the audience's attention than in making any part seem credible. She gets one single, straightforward scene in Bleak House, and she utterly destroys it, responding to every line of dialogue as if she's doing a "comic reaction" and therefore warping everything around her. Her comedy-drama vehicle for ITV was much the same, although thankfully, nobody can even remember what it was called. The point is that this isn't acting, it's what old-school comedians used to call schtick. In "The Runaway Bride", there are moments when she looks as if she's desperately trying not to look straight into the camera while she's doing her "surprised face" mugging; she gets away with it, almost, because this is the one-off Christmas Special and we know we're not going to have to put up with it for long. The idea of living with this for thirteen weeks, however, is much like the idea of watching Ali Bongo do the same water-in-the-newspaper trick for nine hours on end. The problem worsens when you realise that a lot of writers on Doctor Who just don't like the companions very much. In the gap between "Smith and Jones" and "The Shakespeare Code", Martha Jones goes from being acute, intelligent and inquisitive to being an ignorant she-parrot who makes cock-obvious statements and then says either 'yeah?' or 'you are kidding me' at the end of the sentence, basically a grotesque 2-D parody of a Modern Woman Circa 2007. Given a character like Donna Noble, who already is a grotesque 2-D parody of a Modern Woman Circa 2007, what are the odds of Tate even trying to play the part properly? Langford 4/10, Tate 9/10.

3. Ability to Play a Character Who Makes No Sense in This Context. We thankfully never get to see the moment when Melanie Bush joins the TARDIS, despite the attempts of various fan-fic writers to provide us with an Origin Story. As all good fanboys will know, she turns up in chronologically-confusing circumstances between the story that's probably called "Mindwarp" and the story that's not really called "Terror of the Vervoids", and perhaps this was a deliberate damage-limitation strategy on the part of the script editor: in much the same way that George Lucas couldn't possibly kill Jar Jar Binks at the end of Revenge of the Sith (because the audience would just cheer), the programme couldn't possibly show us the moment when the Doctor turns to Mel and says 'would you like to come with me…?' (because the audience would throw things at the screen). Mel is the woman with no personality, no background, no reason for being there and - ultimately - no reason for leaving, apart from the obvious "universal hatred" one. But while she is there, her presence on the TARDIS at least makes a form of sense. Mel is an all-purpose roll-on roll-off companion, who does all the things companions are supposed to do and squeals like a child when she gets overexcited. And it's Bonnie Langford, so being overexcited covers most of her existence. By contrast, Donna Noble is a petty, self-obsessed reject from Footballer's Wives who believes the fate of the cosmos to be Somebody Else's Problem. Not a single thing about her in "The Runaway Bride" is remotely likeable - or feasible, but that didn't seem so bad, when we thought she was just meant to be a joke - yet at the end of it all, the Doctor asks her to stay with him. This puzzled many viewers, although it makes sense when you realise that Russell T. Davies has actually come to like his creation, and can't understand that nobody else does. The comparison with Jar Jar Binks is a good one, because even he served a specific function, i.e. to make small children laugh. Donna can't even do that. Langford 6/10, Tate 7/10. Which brings us to…

4. Ability to Alienate a Large Portion of the Audience. If Doctor Who chased the ratings then it wouldn't be worth watching, but there's a sizeable gulf between "trying something controversial" and "just pissing everyone off". A lot of people hated Peter Kay as a big green bogeyman, and others couldn't understand why "Gridlock" was full of people talking when the whole thing could have been about giant CGI space-crabs, but no individual episode can wreck the set-up of the whole series. Nor could Mel, who may have been a non-person but who still performed her companionly duties to the best of her ability. When she has to say things like 'how utterly evil!' and (most astonishing of all) 'a megabyte modem!!!', we can at least tell ourselves that we might get something completely different next week. But Donna as TARDIS-fodder destroys the programme's entire dynamic. We need a point-of-view character, however exotic or annoying, in order to make sense of both the Doctor and his universe. Even if we could feel any sense of compassion for Donna at all, she'd still seem less believable than any of the monsters, and she'd still change the shape of the series from "young explorer and lonely god" to "a couple of grown-ups bickering". For once, you really have to feel sorry for the people at BBC Books, who are actually going to have to provide novels for ten-year-olds which use her as the central character. Given Bonnie Langford's perpetual childishness, an opening line like "Melanie Bush stood in the TARDIS console room, on the way to another exciting adventure in time and space" would at least be conceivable, whereas the words "Donna Noble stood in the TARDIS console room" can only really be followed by something like "wondering whether a promotion to head of the HR department would require shoes with bigger heels". For this reason alone, the casting of a 39-year-old should have raised questions in the BBC hierarchy - a companion who's older than the actor playing the Doctor could work, but only if the non-middle-aged parts of the audience were given something else to hold on to - yet if she's playing the same character who got on our tits so much in "The Runaway Bride", then it's hard to understand why even Big Russell was allowed to get away it without someone slapping him round the chops and telling him to wake up. Langford 5/10, Tate 8/10.

5. Ability to Generally Irritate. A tough one, this, although… with hindsight, it's difficult to say exactly how Bonnie Langford's debut looked to us in 1986. Yes, the whole world seemed to hate her, and those who still bothered tuning into Doctor Who had difficulty believing it was really happening. But watching it back on video, you realise how little difference there was between Langford's "character" and her public image at the time. Was this supposed to be ironic? Is there an element of self-referential angst in the fact that when we see the Doctor and Mel in the TARDIS console room for the first time, she's going out of her way to irritate him, her never-ending sparkiness making him feel the same way we feel? Were we supposed to laugh along with the programme-makers, and if so, then did we? Much of the irritation she caused while on-screen has to be put down to the writers rather than Langford herself, who might have been able to make a proper go of it if (say) she'd been told to play a murderous Victorian prostitute who turns out to be the daughter of Jack the Ripper. Or anything, in fact, other than TV's Bonnie Langford. This "potential irony" issue returns to haunt us in 2007, since Catherine Tate's character is also supposed to be annoying, to an extent. She's not playing TV's Catherine Tate, though, she's playing… the kind of character who might typically be played by TV's Catherine Tate. We don't see Donna as a person, we see her as a comedy persona with a known celebrity behind it, and that's definitely the sort of thing John Nathan-Turner would have gone for. The upshot is that as with Langford, Tate's ability to irritate might possibly be kept in check by the scripts, as long as they don't give her any opportunity to do her "surprised" schtick or her "shouting at the end of sentences" schtick. The chances are slim, but we'll give the programme-makers the benefit of the doubt, because otherwise her horrible miscasting would be too depressing to even think about. Langford 7/10, Tate 7/10.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

The Doctor Who Thing: An Apology

In last week's review of "The Sound of Drums", the author of this journal commented: 'I also have a terrible feeling, more a nightmare than a rational response, that "The Last of the Time Lords" will feature a shock ending in which David Tennant regenerates into Matt Lucas. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it'd be somehow typical of the kind of mistake this series is starting to make.' The suggestion in this article was that if Doctor Who were to hire a media-friendly yet grotesquely overrated comedy performer, whose talents only extend as far as Doing Silly Voices and whose attempts at drama tend to distort the rest of the production so badly that the "real" actors look as if they're in a completely different programme, then casting Matt Lucas as the Doctor would be as bad as it could possibly get. In light of today's announcement by the BBC, we now accept that this is not the case.

The review of "The Sound of Drums" also criticised Russell T. Davies' belief that the audience can only "accept" regular characters from a contemporary suburban background, describing it as "insulting" and pointing out that the programme's obsession with all things present-day is becoming both repetitive and embarrassing. This paragraph should, of course, have ended with the words: 'The result is that the ideal companion is now a one-dimensional caricature of Someone Typically 2007 who wouldn't even be acceptable in an episode of Footballers' Wives, an individual whom the programme-makers believe to be "modern" despite the fact that there isn't a single section of the audience which is capable of relating to her, even if she weren't played by a comedian whose idea of "acting" is to put on a generic surprised-looking face and start shouting when she thinks it might get a laugh.'

The review went on to suggest that Mr Davies is now so well-insulated in the Doctor Who bunker that he's no longer capable of seeing things from the audience's point of view. This was clearly written before we learned that the new regular on board the TARDIS will be a forty-year-old woman with relationship issues and a job in an HR department, a character who will simply be bewildering to any children watching, and whose presence will inevitably cause life with the Doctor to become a BBC3 sitcom about bickering grown-ups who occasionally get interrupted by annoying things like "having adventures" while they're trying to agonise about their biological clocks. We therefore freely acknowledge that we underestimated the scale of the problem, and that "we couldn't possibly have expected them to do anything this rubbish" is not an adequate excuse.

We apologise for any inconvenience caused. As, indeed, should BBC Wales.

We'd also like to ask whether we can have Bonnie Langford back.