Sunday, 29 June 2008

Week Twelve: "The Stolen Earth", Minute by Minute

What I was thinking at the time, even if I didn't add the long words and complicated angst until later.

Minute -3. Right. Drink: check. Sausage pasta: check. Empty cola bottle, in case of emergency: check. DVD recorder in full working order, and not likely to blow a sparky thirty seconds before the start of the programme, like it did with "The Unicorn and the Wasp": check. Vague feeling of guilt at the thought that one of the girl contestants on The Kids Are Alright is going to be really, really fit when she grows up: oh, it's not on this week, and they've cancelled The Weakest Link as well. Well, let's hope it's an omen. We're all set for the big Dalek bonanza. Hmm… Bonanza. Dang daga-dang daga-daga-daga-dang daga-daaah-daaaaah, dang daga-dang daga-daga-daga-dang daga-dang daga-dang-dang-daaaaah. Why was a Western series called Bonanza, anyway? "Bonanza" is, in all other respects, a word you associate with supermarket giveaways. Is there time to get the dictionary? Yeah, there's time.

Minute -2. I can't believe I managed to make it this far without seeing any of the trailers. I averted my gaze during the teaser at the end of "Turn Left" (a title that still makes me want to sing '…life is peaceful there'), in an attempt to avoid any "Parting of the Ways"-sized spoilers, so all I picked up from the soundtrack was that "The Stolen Earth" involves a giggling Dalek. And a Red Dalek, 'cos I saw it on today's page of the Radio Times. Oh, and Davros, obviously. And probably Bernard Cribbins. On Thursday, daytime BBC1 showed a trailer, then a short news bulletin, then another trailer, as if testing my diving-to-the-floor-and-putting-my-hands-over-my-ears reflexes. Ahhh, a Red Dalek and Bernard Cribbins, all in one package… it's like Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 AD all over again. I wonder if Wilfred Mott is going to sit on a pudding in an amusing way?

Minute -1. Bonanza, sense two: a mine or rich vein of ore, according to the dictionary. From the Spanish "calm sea", hence, good luck. That's ironic, for a series that was set in the middle of a bleeding desert. Why am I thinking about Bonanza, when Doctor Who's about to come on…? Oh, I know: it reminds me of Sunday afternoons spent at my cousin's house in the 1970s, during which period he bequeathed unto me his red plastic Hartnell-era Dalek (minus all three of its stalks) and his hideously defaced copy of The Dalek Book. I'm guessing, or maybe just hoping, that this episode is going to be closer to The Dalek Book than any televised Doctor Who we've seen so far. The Radio Times said something about a "Dalek Freakshow" on the front cover… Daleks on stilt-legs, wading through alien swamps, like in that comic-strip with the two-headed dinosaur on page 73? No, that's too much to hope for. Anyway, they don't even need hover-boats these days, they can levitate. Bastards. I remember the days when a Dalek invasion could be halted by a single mole tunnelling under their landing-strip in Kent. It says so on page 66. Wouldn't it be great if some of the Daleks in this episode couldn't see the colour red, though? Or claimed that "J" is the forbidden letter of their language?

Minute 0. Oh, Girl Made of Neon. I was cruel to you, I know: at first, I wanted the BBC to change the channel ident every week, so that our off-air recordings might become a time-capsule of the modern age. But now, I've come to enjoy the way you flirt and tease. After all, you bring me Doctor Who every week, even if it's usually rubbish. No wonder those other neon creatures follow you so eagerly along the embankment, and I'm sure that the knight in armour who rides on the back of the giant hot-dog is pointing his sausage your way. And every week, you lead us to the London Eye, perhaps acknowledging that this is where it all started. Neon may be an inert gas rather than a plastic derivative, but is some form of Nestene Consciousness still buried there, bringing you to life and coaxing you down from your bill-hoarding every Saturday? How I've wished that you might turn out to be the surprise end-of-series villain, although admittedly, that wouldn't make much sense to overseas markets. Invariably, you end up waving your legs out of one of the carriages of the Ferris wheel, like a teenage slapper after too many Cider and Blacks. As if we might look under the hem of your dress at any moment, and see a flashing red sign that says ENTER HERE. Next week, we part, my luminous coquette. Until then… show me the Daleks, whore.

Minute 1. Even the announcer is officially referring to this as "the biggest adventure yet", as if Russell T. Davies has turned into P. T. Barnum (OBE). Oh, here comes the TARDIS. I see the Bad Wolf Effect - which is a bit like the Lynx Effect, except that it makes sexy words follow you around instead of women - has already worn off, although it's nice to see that after so many years of being asked improbable questions by time-travellers, the bystanders of Doctor Who Earth have started responding to queries like "what day is it?" with a direct answer instead of wasting time with "what, you mean you don't know what day it is?". Also nice to see that in England, the first sign of the universe collapsing is bottles rattling on a milk-float, as if creation itself is under attack from the Humphries.

Minute 2. Oh, Lord, now Donna's trying to make the Doctor emote about Rose. Luckily, we have the theft of the Earth to distract us, and - for pedants - the question of why the TARDIS doesn't get transported along with the rest of the planet. Maybe the people who've nicked the world have got some kind of spam-filter that stops alien time-machines being picked up as well. Which is a wise precaution, if you're stealing planets in the same universe as the Doctor. [With hindsight, however… this one improbable feature stops us going directly from Minute 2 to Minute 42. If the TARDIS had been taken along for the ride, then this whole episode wouldn't need to exist.]

Minute 3. Ohhhhhhh dear. This story isn't going to be set completely on Earth, is it? As we all know, the series has developed an almost morbid fascination with the Here and Now over the last few years, to the point where the end-of-season epic has almost become an exercise in seeing how much havoc Russell can cause in the present-day before the reset switch gets pulled. Nobody seemed to feel that the stakes were any lower in "The Parting of the Ways", just because it was set 200,000 years after the Chav Age. Here, the pretext seems to be that we're watching a "Five Doctors"-style reunion for all the regulars, only… sixteen years too early. Because there comes a point in the life of every "cult" series when the programme-makers lose sight of what viewers actually need as part of their weekly fix, and begin to massively overrate the impact of bringing back old characters. Just as Star Trek: The Next Generation could never quite grasp that nobody wanted to see "funny" episodes involving Gene Rodenberry's wife, and just as John Nathan-Turner refused to listen when Robert Holmes said that he had no interest in writing a script involving the Autons, the Master and the Rani, modern-day Doctor Who hasn't considered the possibility that only people who write Torchwood slash-fic ("tenderly, yet with manful strength, he fisted the pterodactyl to the very core of its being…") will wee themselves with joy at the reappearance of Captain Jack.

Minute 4. Wait, that sounds much too unkind. I rather liked Captain Jack in the Eccleston days, and I enjoyed his comeback in "Utopia" a great deal, despite the mediocre pay-off. But apart from appearing in so many light-entertainment shows that it looks as if he's found a way of defying Blinovitch, John Barrowman is now decidedly That Man From Torchwood rather than That Man Who Used To Be In Doctor Who. Once you've seen "Exit Wounds", in which Chris Chibnell's incompetence finally reaches a point of density beyond the event horizon and swallows all light and reason, Jack is simply… tainted. He doesn't belong around here any more, he belongs in a gloomy cellar in Cardiff, pretending to have "issues" with people we don't care about. Either that, or he should be appearing as Prince Charming at the Bournemouth Pavillion. In the wake of Jonathan Miller dismissing David Tennant as "that man from Doctor Who" (we should respond in kind by referring to him as "the one who wasn't funny from Beyond the Fringe" whenever possible), we have to remember that an awful lot of people treat the stars of this show as if they should be doing Panto instead of serious drama, and Big John the Tripod is the showbusiest of the showbiz.

Minute 5. Yes, someone's moved the Earth. We get the idea. No wonder the announcer wanted to Big Up the scale of this episode: it'd be perfectly reasonable to do a story about the Earth getting shunted across the universe as a low-budget one-parter (nobody ever made a big hoo-hah about "The Mysterious Planet", thankfully), but the programme needs us to believe that this is something huge. Ergo, we get (1) a massively over-inflated pre-credits sequence, and (2) lots of anxious close-ups of people who regularly witness the impossible as they look at the sky and say "but that's impossible". Oh, and see how they choose this moment to develop the irritating American habit of putting the names of special guest-stars right after the opening credits, just to make sure that we can't be surprised by the return of Harriet Jones or Martha's mum.

Minute 6. No, look, it's no good. Despite the whole of last week's episode being a last-ditch effort to make us like her, I still don't know anything about Donna Noble. After the first year of Rose and a year of Martha, they were so familiar to us that we instinctively knew which way they were likely to jump in any given situation: when they didn't do what we expected, it was a deliberate surprise rather than an ugly hole in the characterisation. But Donna remains an excuse for Catherine Tate's schtick rather than a character, an empty celeb-shaped space where the heart of the series should be, which is yet another reason that the Doctor has ended up doing most of the hardcore emoting this year. I have no idea how clever she is, how stupid she is, how strong she is, how vulnerable she is, how acute she is, how gullible she is. I have no idea what she wants from life, what kind of childhood she had, what she might be like on a first date (her approach to men varies drastically from episode to episode, according to the comedy needs of the individual situation), how she might vote in an election, or even why she's so determined to stick with the TARDIS. Yet I do know everything I need to know about her granddad, partly because he's a lot more consistent, and partly because Bernard Cribbins is a much better actor. Donna is an individual whose only defining feature is to be "modern", performed by an actress who's been cast purely because of her showbiz appeal. In other words, she's the nightmare companion… Dodo Chaplet played by Bonnie Langford.

Minute 7. I like the way David Tennant says 'I'm taking you to the Shadow Proclamation' as if it's a dodgy nightclub in Aberdeen, and as if he's half-apologising for not being able to take her anywhere classier. Of course, it wouldn't be a proper alien invasion story without fake news footage and Lachele Carl, but I was sort of hoping that this wouldn't be an alien invasion story at all. And while the Richard Dawkins thing is clever, Paul O'Grady always makes me think of the smell of old women. When you remember that he was (inconceivably) given a royal honour on the same day as the executive producer, this programme starts to look like a remarkably camp gentleman's club. "Oh, you must come to my estate in Cardiff next summer, I'm getting two-dozen nubile young catamites to prance around in Ood masks while we shoot apples off their heads."

Minute 8. Good God, UNIT is run by that man from Dempsey and Makepeace. Ah! Incoming spacecraft, now we'll get some action. Obviously, it can't be the Daleks who actually stole the Earth, because that would turn this entire affair into just another routine Dalek-based two-parter: we were promised "bigger", so clearly, something vastly more powerful and interesting is throwing the universe out of whack behind the scenes. Since the walls between dimensions are a-tumbling down, I'm guessing that Daleks from parallel universes are swarming in to take advantage of the crisis. So the Daleks will turn out to be secondary villains for once, thus preventing this whole outing from looking no more apocalyptic than "Daleks in Manhattan". Yeah, that must be it.

Minute 9. So, faced with 26 new planets in the sky, the people of London… run up and down, screaming. No, really. They actually run up and down, screaming. Since the TV stations have had time to analyse the astronomical data, since they've managed to drag Dawkins away from his Romana-shagging activities for long enough to sit him in front of a camera, and since Paul O'Grady's script has been rewritten to include topical material about the end of the world, it must've been… what… at least a few hours since the planet was abducted? Yet the inhabitants of the capital have apparently spent that whole time shrieking, waving their arms around, and dashing through the streets with no particular sense of direction. Aren't their throats sore by now? Why don't they just go home? What are they screaming at, exactly? Why do all the people in the exterior scenes believe it's time to riot, when the audience of a Channel 4 talk-show are happy to sit in a cosy studio and laugh at jokes about drinking furniture-polish? And why do so many people seem to believe it's Judgement Day, when this is significantly less alarming that what happened in "The Poison Sky"? Has the BBC announcer told them it's the biggest catastrophe so far, as well? Oh, and that's all we need: Rose Tyler threatening people with a gun to make them behave. Remember, kids… guns don't kill people, they just make it vastly easier to kill people.

Minute 10. Donna Angst #2. Not only am I still mystified as to the nature of her personality, I don't even know who's supposed to like her. With one exception, none of the Doctor Who fans with whom I regularly chew the Adipose-fat can stand her; my family doesn't seem to want anything to do with her; the kindest things I've heard said about her have been along the lines of 'well, she was all right in "The Runaway Bride", but a whole year…?'; and my extended peer-group finds her ridiculous, which is telling, when you consider how many professional comedians I know. As I've said before, we could have had anybody as This Year's Girl. We could have had Elaine Cassidy, the most companiony actress in the history of time. We could have had Carey Mulligan out of "Blink", at a pinch. Instead, they gave us the female Harry Enfield, with whom almost nobody can empathise. I can't even find it in myself to hate her, I just find it bewildering that someone whose only skills are mugging to the camera and doing silly voices should be somehow mistaken for an actress. And now we have the worst of all possible combinations, Donna Noble in the middle of an overblown sci-fi story-arc. We're supposed to be thinking "ooh, what's the secret of Donna's destiny?", but in fact, we're thinking "please just die". A-hah! The spaceships are sending a message. Is it the people who moved the Earth? Are they going to explain all of this? Oh, wait, there's a thought: maybe they're actually nice, and they've moved the planet in order to save it from the oncoming darkness. Right, the message is…

Minute 11. …oh, Christ, no. It can't just be the Daleks who are responsible for all of this, can it? That'd be the ultimate insult in a season full of insults, as if we're supposed to feel a sense of profound doom-stroke-excitement over the return of a monster that comes back every sodding year and never seems to learn anything. I was, after all, only getting worked up about this episode because I thought we'd have freaky psychedelic Daleks from another dimension. And, more crucially, I was expecting them to be just one element in a trans-universal free-for-all. No, wait… no need to panic just yet. Maybe the Daleks are just taking advantage of this situation, like I thought. Maybe they're only menacing the Earth because it happens to be there. Sod it, maybe one of the other 26 planets is their homeworld from a parallel universe, and they're as confused as the humans are. There's a Red Dalek in the Radio Times, so they must be parallel Daleks of some description, they can't be the boring old ordinary kind. Why is Sarah-Jane so convinced that she and her Bane-spawn are going to die, anyway? She's only ever met really rubbish Daleks before now: the ones she saw on Exxilon were so pathetic that they carried cardboard cut-out TARDISes around for target practice, and the ones she saw on Skaro were 'primitive', apparently. Why does she think that a spaceship full of them is such a catastrophe, when she hasn't seen "Bad Wolf" like we have?

Minute 12. The man from Dempsey and Makepeace has just said 'ladies and gentlemen…' in a dramatic way. Please don't say 'we are at war'. Please don't say 'we are at war'. Please don't say… bastard. Yeah, go on, bomb his building. That'll show him.

Minute 13. No no no no no. Nooooo no no. You're telling me that the Red Dalek - who now gives a "Masters of Earth" speech in front of the obligatory floating-Dalek CGI shot, as if Earth would be of any significance to a species which now has the power to threaten everything that's ever existed - isn't a parallel-universe Dalek, but just their leader? Why would they take orders from a Dalek that camp? It looks as if his subordinates have painted him a funny colour while he was asleep. Gayest. Dalek. Ever. Oh, that's better, we're heading for the Shadow Proclamation Things should kick off now. Judoon, that's what I pay my Licence Fee for.

Minute 14. Donna Angst #3. Now she's defiantly putting herself forward as a representative of humanity in front of the Shadow Proclamation, and she's seriously presented as if we're supposed to be shouting "go girl!" like the audience on Ricki Lake, whereas in truth… well, in truth, we're shouting "put a sock in it, you mouthy slag" like the audience on Jeremy Kyle. Only Catherine Tate can be quite so annoying while attempting to be inspirational. They should get her to perform the "make the foundation of this society a man who never would!" speech, just to see whether the universe ruptures itself out of shame and embarrassment.

Minute 15. Hold on. To recap… whoever took the missing planets (and I'm still guessing, hoping, praying it's not the Daleks themselves) took twenty-four of them at exactly the same moment, i.e. more-or-less our present. But they took Pyrovilia, Adipose Three and the Lost Moon of Poosh up to 2,000 years ago. Erm… why? If they've got the power to steal planets from anywhere in time as well as space, then why draw attention to themselves by taking two-dozen at once? Or, if they don't care who knows about it, then why waste time-travel energy stealing three of them from the past? I mean, apart from giving the writers a chance to insert pointless teasers into the scripts of "Partners in Crime", "Fires of Pompeii" and "Midnight"? See, I said story-arcs were a bad idea. And how can the entire universe be up in arms about the piddling loss of 24 planets, many of them not even inhabited? It's like the United Nations being concerned about the death of a couple of old tramps in Luton. Top marks for the Judoon's use of the phrase "cold case", though. This obviously presents us with the potential for a Judoon spin-off in the style of Waking the Dead, starring Trevor Eve as a tough, uncompromising space-rhino with relationship issues.

Minute 16. Now even the Doctor thinks the Daleks may have been responsible for all this planet-wrangling, assuming that his 'someone tried to move the Earth before…' is a reference to "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" and not "The Trial of a Time Lord". Or that time when the Fendahl got boozed up and tried to knock the planet out of orbit for a laugh, but missed and got Mondas instead. I have an increasingly bad taste in my mouth, which is unfortunate, because I've finished the sausage pasta and it was rather good. On the plus side, the Daleks are twatting the Valiant. But they're also twatting huge swathes of the Earth, which is ominous. There can't be another reset switch at the end of all this, can there? Not so soon after last year's "reversing time" atrocity? Wouldn't it be nice if, just this once, the world saw aliens and didn't immediately forget about them? After all, that's the kind of world we were promised in "The Christmas Invasion", two-and-a-half years ago. Everyone on Earth should be like Wilfred Mott by now. If Torchwood hadn't bottled out with its inane first-episode "my boyfriend says that people only saw spaceships because there was something in the water" blather, then the series might actually have been good: a TV programme set in a version of Britain where aliens are a known quantity would have been a lot stranger, and a lot stronger, than the Men in Black pastiche we ended up with. Since Russell isn't shy about nicking things from comic-books, I might point to what Grant Morrison did on The New X-Men as an example of how you might integrate modern life and non-human pop-culture. But then…

Minute 17. …but then, mention of comic-books just underlines the problem I'm having here. I assumed that this story was going to be like Crisis on Infinite Earths, with the dimensions collapsing, parallel universes overlapping, tripodal Daleks from Earth-17 meeting the Evil Nazi Doctor from Earth-76, Victorian Cybermen fighting with Neanderthals from the future, and history itself going to Hell. Instead, it's another f***ing invasion, like "The Last of the Time Lords" with brand-name monsters. Yeah, and with another pitched battle involving UNIT troops, thanks a bunch. And now Martha's been given a top-secret piece of hardware with a scary-sounding name. You know it's going to do something hopelessly trite in the next episode, because Russell isn't even trying to disguise the way he contrives his stories any more. Just as long as the announcer's there to say "this is the biggest thing ever, ever, ever!", he can get away with it. The sad part is that on this evidence, he's not actually very good at "big": he hasn't had a new idea for an epic spectacular since 2006, but he is still capable of turning in solid, well-characterised "little" scripts. The nature of the series, however, demands an endless stream of gunfights and disaster-movie parodies. Or so he believes.

Minute 18. This is starting to look less like a narrative, and more like Character Options' 2008 action-figure catalogue. At least there'll be more exciting toys than "Old Woman With No Face" in the shops this Christmas. If they do the job properly, then the Red Dalek will be friction-drive instead of battery-operated, for that full-blown retro feel. Oh, that reminds me… according to the Radio Times, loyal viewer-consumers can now obtain Doctor Who Pest Control from the BBC's mail order division. Sadly, this turns out to be a book, and not a brand of rat-poison with a picture of Daleks killing Cybermen on the box.

Minute 19. Dalek mutants - I don't suppose we can call them Kaleds any more, it's political correctness gone mad - are at their best when they look as if they've been thrown up along with someone's stomach-lining. I've vomited Quorn ready-meals that looked an awful lot like the remains of Dalek Caan. It's interesting to note that now Davros has been dragged back into the spotlight (or, more properly, into the shadows on the edge of the spotlight), the control-centre of the Dalek Empire looks more like a decadent court than a passionless military operation: the Divine Fool is traditionally the only one who can speak the absolute truth in the presence of the monarch, as in King Lear, so it makes sense for Davros to accept advice from a gabbling pile of sick with visionary powers. Whose laugh is somewhere between Peter Sellers and Peter Griffin. Nick Briggs is enjoying this far too much.

Minute 20. Donna's growing a second heart, isn't she? God, I wish I didn't have to care about the outcome of this whole stupid… wait a minute! What's that ring she's wearing? Has she always had that ring? I'm sorry, I get edgy about people turning into Time Lords when there are big rings around. I'm still dwelling on that cackling harpy who nicked the Master's finger-bling at the end of "Last of the Time Lords". Has she been soaking up Gallifreyan genes all year, or what…? Oh, f***ing story-arcs.

Minute 21. The real kiss of death for Donna, though, comes in "The Doctor's Daughter" (ironically, the only script that gives her a credible personality, dire as the rest of the dialogue might be). This is a story in which Freema Agyeman - by no means a great actress, but a woman with so much energy and enthusiasm that she's never less than watchable - makes us love her just with the look on her face when she's petted by fish-people, something that Tate simply wouldn't be able to do without dropping her jaw and doing her God-awful cartoon "shocked" expression. Apart from Stuart Fell and his ilk, Agyeman is the most physical performer who's ever had a regular role in this series, a slinky, athletic blur across the screen who did for the 2007 season what Franka Potente did for Run Lola Run. They could use Martha in a Sure for Women commercial: she already looks like the heroine of a modern-day, sci-fi-tinged deodorant ad, who remains eminently snoggable even after running three miles to escape neo-fascist policemen in a futuristic city. Surely this is the "proper" way of things, and the companion should do all the running while the Doctor thinks his way out of trouble? Russell has explicitly said that any modern Doctor has to be young and nimble, but Catherine Tate couldn't run properly even before her air-bags unexpectedly ballooned in this week's episode, and you know the series is in trouble when David Tennant has to do more acrobatics than his sidekick. As we see in "The Stolen Earth", Martha is good for just about anything, whereas even our Creator-God is still struggling to find uses for Donna. All we know is that the Doctor finds her 'brilliant', although we've yet to be told why.

Minute 22. Given that we've already had a reference to Callufrax Minor, the line about bees evacuating the planet before the catastrophe just makes me wonder whether they did a little dance that means "so long, and thanks for all the pollen". The sad part is that although bees really are vanishing across Britain, bee-scientists (I'm going to make a guess at "apiologists", but even I can't be bothered looking it up) have now positively concluded that this is due to a virus rather than stellar migration. I know, 'cos I saw it on Newsround.

Minute 23. Brilliant! Right, so that's the USP of this story: the Shadow Proclamation is going to force the Doctor to lead them into war against the Daleks, which means that for the first time - and against his will - we're going to see him becoming a commander at the vanguard of an immense intergalactic… oh. The bugger's run off. No, don't go! The albinos were just trying to make the story more interesting! If you run away now, then you know you're just going to end up on Earth, jury-rigging another tedious, improbable piece of equipment to end the invasion with the flip of a switch. Go on, get involved in a proper war for once. See what happens.

Minute 24. Meanwhile, on Earth, a typical suburban family is incinerated by the Daleks as a way of establishing that this is serious and tragic. I was right, Russell really isn't trying any more. This episode's got almost as many pre-fab scenes as a Moffat script. Murderous they may be, but at least Daleks are civil enough to point out that their vision isn't impaired when they get paint-balled, just so long-term fans can giggle at the subverted catchphrase. Maybe one of the human heroes is going to sarcastically impersonate a Dalek at some point, just so Davros can say 'no, don't… don't do that'.

Minute 25. In which Sylvia Noble finally gets her Joyce Summers moment. Ah, so that's the Medusa Cascade: clearly, we're being shown all the things that Russell has mentioned in passing over the last four years, although Woman Wept was presumably removed from the universe ahead of time in case the ice-oceans broke the CGI budget. I can't express how bored I am with "rifts" in space-time, although if you want to look on the bright side, then you can see this as a useful demonstration of how the technology of TV affects the content of SF. In the '60s, telepathy and mind control were the "in" things: in an age when BBC drama was all about stagecraft, a creepy internal monologue seemed more instinctive than a laser-gun battle, as well as cheaper. In "The Abominable Snowmen", the climactic struggle between the Doctor and the Great Intelligence is - or was, before it got wiped - entirely done with close-ups of Patrick Troughton's face (and "Midnight" is perhaps unique in being a modern-day story from the same tradition). But now that any idiot with a computer can make wobbly CGI holes in the universe, everything's about "rifts". Why is it called a "Cascade", when it looks like a great big splodge?

Minute 26. Now, y'see, this is exactly what I was talking about in Week Ten. The consequence of using an "emotive" Doctor, whether there's any actual emotion involved or not, is that he has to stare into space and look haunted at regular intervals. This time, the problem is a little more serious than losing the TARDIS down a hole in the ground, and yet… once again, the techniques being used here are all too obvious. The writer needs us to accept that the Doctor is suddenly and unexpectedly on the verge of giving up, so the script has him talk about visiting the Medusa Splodge when he was 'just a kid', as if this prior relationship explains why he looks so morose. "Silence in the Library" had him act out-of-character by suggesting that his future time-crumpet had somehow hit a raw nerve, whereas this has him act out-of-character by suggesting that a hole in the universe brings back the same kind of painful memories as an ex-girlfriend who was killed in a hideous tractor accident.

Minute 27. I've only just realised how good the (surviving) cast of Torchwood are. Until now, this has been rather eclipsed by the fact that they're in Torchwood, and gap-toothed geek-totem Eve Myles had the misfortune to be in "The Unquiet Dead" as well. Removed from that context, even a script as not-awful-but-faintly-disappointing as this one makes them seem rather cuddly. If [consults the Radio Times, because I've actually forgotten her character's name] Gwen Cooper had been the one looking scared on board the TARDIS instead of Donna, then we might actually have been able to feel something. Can we do swapsies?

Minute 28. Bernard Cribbins is really stealing this. Mind you, he's been doing that all year. You do realise, I hope, that this sextagenarian with no combat skills or running-up-and-down potential has been in half the episodes this season (admittedly, I'm counting "Voyage of the Damned")? That's more than Mickey Smith got in 2005. And there's a certain humour in the thought that the failed eco-parable of "The Sontaran Stratagem" involves, as its cliffhanger, the imminent death of the man who used to be Great Uncle Bulgaria.

Minute 29. Oh, it's the Doctor Who Brady Bunch. It turns out that salvaged Sontaran teleporters work like magic ruby slippers, and take people back to their mums in a crisis. Actually, this makes a certain sense: all Sontarans (presumably) come out of a great big vat on their homeworld, so there's no difference between going back to your mother and making a strategic withdrawal to headquarters. That's the second time they've done the 'yes, I know who you are' gag in a single scene. Now I'm the one who feels like saying 'no, don't… don't do that'.

Minute 30. Captain Jack, flirting with Sarah-Jane… this is the most expensive piece of fan-fic since the last season of Buffy. We're really fisting the pterodactyl now. Moments later, we get another all-too-obvious Russell T. Davies technique: the casual mention of something that's likely to be important next year, in this case the Mr Copper Foundation. It sticks out a mile, just like the mention of Mr Saxon in "The Runaway Bride". I'd ask who Mr Copper is, but I'm past caring.

Minute 31. Is it just me, or does Harriet's 'I stand by my actions…' routine sound disturbingly like one of Tony Blair's bleating speeches about wanting history to judge him fairly? Odd, given that "World War Three" specifically set her up as Blair's Good Positive-Matter Twin (the opposite of an Evil Anti-Matter Twin, natch). It should be fairly clear, by this point, that Rose can't get through because only people called "Smith" or "Jones" are allowed in this club. Come to think of it, they could've just called this episode "Smith, Smith, Smith, Smith and Jones, Jones, Jones, Jones".

Minute 32. Jesus, hasn't this scene finished yet? How do you think the viewers who don't watch Torchwood, who don't watch The Sarah-Jane Adventures, and who don't remember "Aliens of London" are going to feel? If my mum's watching this, then I bet she's gone out to make the tea by now. The convention-style get-together of Friends of the Doctor has been going on for nearly five minutes, and all they've done is wire up an interdimensional mobile 'phone mast. I assume this shindig is meant to be some kind of iconic moment, but if I hadn't unexpectedly developed a thing for Eve Myles during this episode, then I'd be bored cockless. Just to rub it in, the dramatic conclusion shows us four different sets of people typing things into computers. If I wanted to watch that, then I'd go and sit in an internet café.

Minute 33. So that's it, is it? All this mammoth co-ordination comes down to is that it lets the Doctor land his TARDIS, even though his inability to get past the Medusa Splodge only became an issue six minutes ago, and the script could've saved us the bother by having him say "we can't go beyond this point… oh, all right, let's try something else". Ah, Davros is back. Thank God, I thought the rest of this episode was going to involve ex-companions reminiscing in bars. But since I've already mentioned action-figures, another thought springs to mind here. When I was a kid, everyone I knew who collected Star Wars figures always had the wrong goody-to-baddy ratio: inevitably, you'd end up with half a dozen different versions of Luke Skywalker, but only one "classic" Stormtrooper. Which is hardly a fair fight. Similarly, this story presents us with twelve familiar Champions of Earth / friends and family, but… only one kind of monster. Bloody Daleks, and standard-issue Daleks, to boot. If they'd done it the Crisis on Infinite Earths way, then we could've had the Doctor facing Davros in the Medusa Cascade, Captain Jack taking out the Sontaran homeworld, Martha fighting a guerrilla war in the universe where Laszlo's pig-faced offspring are America's ethnic underclass, Sarah-Jane defeating the cyborg Benjamin Disraeli, Rose squaring up against the Reaper Brood-Mother at the end of time… that's the sort of thing I was expecting from this episode, anyway. Was it really too much to ask?

Minute 34. That was very nearly a whole minute of people holding up mobile 'phones and trying to look urgent in front of VDUs.

Minute 35. Now… you do realise that when I said I was expecting Davros to say 'no, don't… don't do that' as part of the Daleks' new running-gag programme, I was only joking? I'm still a little puzzled that we're supposed to feel moved by the death of a character whom we never particularly liked and never expected to see again, at least not until the post-credits credits told us she was on her way.

Minute 36. Whoahhh there. So the Doctor couldn't find the missing planets, because the Medusa Splodge was one second out of synch with the rest of the universe? Let's leave aside the thought that this is the same technique he used to conceal the TARDIS in Damaged Goods, by the same author. Let's even leave aside the thought that for a Time Lord, this should be the most obvious hiding-place imaginable. Let's instead ask… could he really not deduce this from the bee-trail? When the signal reached its sudden end, didn't he consider the possibility that it might - feasibly - have been shifted backwards or forwards in time? Especially since the people who've been filching planets have the power to steal them from the ancient past, for some reason? And yet, this relative no-brainer is the thing that makes him stare blankly into space for ten dismal minutes. Remember, Harriet Jones died because he's such a spaz.

Minute 37. Yeah, and you know what else this series really needs? The Doctor banging equipment and shouting 'no no no', while Donna stands next to him with her jaw hanging open.

Minute 38. And so, after all the teaser shots of the figure half-concealed in darkness… after all the speculation about the nature of the New Beast, and all the fuss about the lack of a publicity photo in the TV guides… after all my personal fantasies that he'd be played by Christopher Eccleston, as a version of the Doctor from a parallel universe where he created the Daleks… Davros reveals himself. And turns out to be exactly the same as he was in 1986. Not even the same as he was in 1988, when he seemed to be turning into something more promising. And having spent this episode showing us things we've previously only been told about, Russell now gives us a whole stream of spurious new Time War events, which should inspire Big Finish audios for decades to come. But the real problem here is the writer's crazed belief - almost as mad as the delusion that Daleks are intrinsically scary, even after "Evolution of the Daleks" turned them into such bland, second-rate monsters - that Davros is in some way a great character. The usual claim is that he's a "Hitler figure", but this is bunk: Hitler was a bipolar neurotic who could swing between joviality, sentimentality, political acumen and murderous rage from moment to moment, and if we had a villain like that, then he'd be far more engaging than this one-dimensional monomaniac who sits in his chair and makes hackneyed speeches about mastery of the universe. The truth is that if you strip away the last thirty years of fan-mythology, then Davros is just a stock villain with a bad complexion, and that everything interesting about him in "Genesis" lay in the ethical arguments rather than the character himself. Or aren't we supposed to notice that?

Minute 39. Russell has always been prone to cop-outs, but what's most alarming is the way he can hamstring a script by building whole subplots around them. In "The Sound of Drums", it would've been perfectly reasonable (and far more entertaining) to claim that the Master had spent the last twenty years on Earth, slowly assembling his forces and building himself a political career. Instead, there's some waffle about the Doctor limiting his travel to eighteen months before the "present", just so Our Heroes can spend the whole episode droning on about the boring, poxy satellite system that's brainwashed the population into believing in Harold Saxon. Now look what we've got here. The walls between realities are collapsing, yes? Therefore, you can bring Davros back just by saying that he's the Davros from another universe where he didn't die in the Time War, yes? No. What we get is a painful, drivelling explanation about Dalek Caan making a temporal shift into the past and somehow rescuing his creator. I wouldn't expect anything that weak from Stephen Greenhorn. We know this doesn't make sense, and having the Doctor say 'but that's impossible!' doesn't excuse it. (A bit like one of those dreadful episodes of The Simpsons where the writers can't think of an ending, and have the characters make jokes about the fact that the episode doesn't have an ending. In publishing circles, this is known as "you can't fire me, I quit", and I don't think I can describe how much I loathe it. You might just as well say: "Look, this is shit, isn't it great?")

Minute 40. I see the bad guys are still taunting the Doctor for not having children. Anyone would think that as Russell gets older, he's starting to sense a hole in his life that venom grubs just can't fill. On the subject of biomass, is it really necessary for Davros to scrape off bits of his body and replace them with cyborg parts? If he's got the power to force-grow Dalek mutants, then he must have the power to force-grow new flesh on his stinky old bones. Actually, can't he just cultivate the new Dalek tissue in test-tubes, since even a modern-day lab technician would have no problem replicating his DNA? And why doesn't he give himself his other hand back, either by growing a new limb in a jar (he could challenge the Doctor's spare hand to an arm-wrestling match) or by giving himself a cybernetic one? I appreciate that he likes being in a wheelchair, since it's an important part of his identity, but surely there's no benefit in only having one working index finger with which to punch he controls? Ah, now… Caan has made a prophecy about the future, and wants us to guess which of the Who Gang is 'the most faithful companion'. Well, he can go whistle.

Minute 41. I see Jack's got his teleporter back. That's what tends to happen, when Russell needs to get all the characters into position for the big pay-off (q.v. the pre-credits sequence of "The Sound of Drums", which must surely be in the Top Five of his most monstrous cop-outs). I can't for the life of me work out how Project Indigo might help him with this, but then, logic isn't a criterion here: this is Russell in one of his "it's weird technology, just accept it" moods. I also note that Jack leaves his two sidekicks in Cardiff to fight off the oncoming Daleks, even though they're facing near-certain death, and even though he knows the teleporter can shift three people at once. What a c***. Woo, Daleks in the Torchwood Hub! That must be really, really exciting, if you've got any reason at all to care about Torchwood.

Minute 42. I was just thinking… when we saw "Bad Wolf" for the first time, we weren't taken in by Rose's apparent death in the Weakest Link studio, because we already knew that Billie Piper had signed on for a second series. But the script does at least try to make it look believable, by presenting Lynda Moss as if she's about to become Rose's replacement: when it was written, nobody knew how big Doctor Who was going to be, so it can't have occurred to Russell that people would be thinking "well, if she were going to join the series, then we would've read about it in the papers". What if you did want to kill Rose, though? How would you go about it? Personally, I'd do it by… cutting her off from the rest of the Doctor's gang, portraying her as desperate to get back in touch with him, and then butchering her just as it seems they're about to be reuinted. Hmmmm…

Minute 43. Long run-up. Too long. No cinematic reunion should start with the "lovers" this far apart. Something's going to go wrong, isn't it? Something's going to come between them. Something's… yes! Lone Dalek sniper in the side-street. It's seen them… we're going into slow motion… oh, she doesn't stand a chance. This is it, isn't it? This is really it. Rose is going to -

Minute 44. - ah.

Minute 45. I have the worst feeling in the world. This could, feasibly, be for real: after the debacle surrounding Eccleston's departure, if they were going to (permanently) regenerate the Doctor, then they might well try to cover it up until the very moment it happens. No… no, it couldn't be, could it? It isn't even that I want the Boy Tennant to stay, it's just… at this point in time, with the production-team's judgement impaired by so many different factors, I simply don't believe that anyone competent could be his successor. Ever since "Turn Left" established that something's been tinkering with Donna's destiny, I've had the terrible nightmare-sense that she might be some future shadow of the Doctor himself, and that he might actually regenerate into Catherine Tate. Or worse. I told myself I was being silly, but now, time appears to slow down as I try to deal with the feeling that… that… that there might be a flash of light and CGI in the console room, and that when it clears, Ricky Gervais might be standing there. My stomach feels like it's rupturing, and my pulse is quicker than I ever remember it being, but not in a fun "rollercoaster" way. It's the all-devouring fear that in the next few moments, this series may f*** up even worse than it's been f***ing up for the last twelve months. Even the announcement about Donna being the new companion - the most heartbreaking cultural event that's happened in my entire life - wasn't as bad as this. For the very first time, I actually want to hide behind the sofa, if only to escape the possible horror of the future. No. No. It couldn't be. Surely?

Minute 46. No. It couldn't. It's not just that David Tennant is, supposedly, guaranteed to be in the Christmas Special (because I'm sure there's something funny about that Cyberman-in-a-graveyard shoot, and I wouldn't put it past BBC Wales to stage the whole thing as an elaborate bluff at the licence-payers' expense). It's not even that I'm sure… sure… they wouldn't have been able to keep his departure secret. It's that the regeneration is exactly like Eccleston's last scene. Traditionally, no regeneration should look like any other, unless you're forced to put Sylvester McCoy in a dodgy blonde wig as a last resort. Russell, especially, would be unwilling to stage the same kind of death-scene twice. And I refuse to believe that he'd allow 'I'm regenerating!' to be the Tennant-Doctor's final words. No, you'd only set things up this way if you were faking it.

Minute 47. Wouldn't you?

Minute 48. Wouldn't you?

Minute 49. Right, I've got it. The Doctor is going to regenerate into someone completely different, either a well-known celebrity (if they want to make it look legit) or someone we already know from the series (if they want to go for comedy value, so Mickey Smith is a very real possibility). Then he's going to die. However, his DNA / Time Lord essence / biodata will somehow be transferred to a human host, and it'll turn out that Donna has been a carrier of Doctorness all the time. She's called "Noble" because she's a Time Lord, hence the second heart we can almost hear beating in her chest, and all that jism about her "sacrifice". In other words, she's going to regenerate back into the Doctor we know, thus qualifying her as his most faithful companion. And then, and then, and then the Dark-Matter Cybermen are going to arrive with the Zombie Adric and wake up all the Silurians, and… oh, Auntie Em, it was such a strange dream.

Minute 50. Mind you, I'm only contemplating the "Donna as donor" idea because it's already so familiar to me. This is exactly what Sabbath in the EDAs was supposed to be, after he stole the Doctor's second heart in The Adventuress of Henrietta Street. (You know, the one about the Doctor getting married? Where Moffat only flirts, I go all the way.) My logic - and I use the word loosely, if not actually sarcastically - was that when they needed to change Paul McGann into the next-in-line, the Doctor could literally, definitively die… at which point, his biodata would overwhelm Sabbath's flesh from the inside out, turning his body into the New Doctor as a symbolic "fresh start". It didn't happen that way, of course, not least because the bastards insisted on ripping the heart out of Sabbath's chest after a couple of months. Yet now I'm imagining exactly the same thing happening to Donna, whether she's been Doctorised since birth or just altered through contact with some unlikely Time Lord artefact. Perhaps it's not surprising that I should try to superimpose my own obsessions onto Catherine Tate's gormless, slack-jawed face. Still, I have been known to pre-empt the series in the past, most recently by trying to steal the Earth five weeks before Russell did. Although at least I had the elan to hide it in a book, rather than putting it behind a big splodge in space and covering it up with technobabble. Plus, my Time War was better.

Minute 51. But if nothing else, then this is the only truly meaningful cliffhanger in the programme's five-decade history. It's also the only thing in the last fifty minutes that's managed to surprise me (except in a "I'm surprised how unsurprising this is" sort of way), but then, that seems to have been the point. Now Confidential is talking about the return of Davros. Davros?!? I don't want to know about Davros! Davros is rubbish! The Doctor just got shot, for God's sake!

Minute 96. And now Freema Agyeman is appearing as a guest on BBC3's Glastonbury coverage. The presenters are asking her how she's enjoying the festival experience, how she's coping with the weather, which bands she's seen, which bands she's hoping to see tomorrow. They don't ask her anything about Doctor Who. What's the matter with them, are they not well? The bugger's regenerating, and this woman's read the script of the next episode. G'wan, pin her down and make her talk, like any normal person would.

Now I look back on what I've written, I realise that "my cousin's house in the 1970s" makes it sound as if he permanently lives there.

Is it "Cider and Blacks", or "Ciders and Black"?

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Before Anything Else...

Come back tomorrow for the full version.

Right, I've got it. The Doctor is going to regenerate into someone completely different, either a well-known celebrity (if they want to make it look legit) or someone we already know from the series (if they want to go for comedy value, so Mickey Smith is a very real possibility). Then he's going to die. However, his DNA / Time Lord essence / biodata will somehow be transferred to a human host in the past, and it'll turn out that Donna has been a carrier of Doctorishness all the time. She's called "Noble" because she's a Time Lord, hence the second heart we can almost hear beating in her chest, the ludicrous coincidences, and all that jism about her "sacrifice". In other words, she's going to regenerate back into the Doctor we know, thus qualifying her as his most faithful companion.

And then, and then, and then the Dark-Matter Cybermen are going to turn up with the Zombie Adric and wake up all the Silurians, and... oh, Auntie Em, it was such a strange dream.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Week Eleven: "We're All Going to Die, We're All Going to Die, Ee-Aye-Addie-Oh, We're All Going to Die."

This week: the future. No, the real future this time.

I. Control

It's strange, for someone who grew up in the days when Doctor Who annuals gave us illustrated articles about lunar rovers, to think that I might need to clarify the subject of this week's lecture. Thirty years ago, it would have seemed bizarre that any article which talked about "the future" would be expected to involve either (a) speculation as to whether the new producer is likely to bring back the Silurians or (b) predictions about what's going to happen in the end-of-season two-parter, rather than tackling questions like "are we really all going to be living in moonbases by the year 2100?". Viewers in the 1970s didn't even (consciously) notice when there was a change in the production-team, and nor would they have expected the last story of any given series to involve a massively over-inflated story-arc, which is why there was no '70s equivalent of Mark Braxton to ask what "answers" we were going to get in "The Seeds of Doom". (I've been critical of the cult of the story-arc before, mainly because it requires the audience to focus on what's going to happen next week rather than what's happening now, which means that competent scriptwriting becomes less important than big revelations. In that light, I'd just like to point out that BBC7's Heroes fanzine-show has been running trailers which begin with the words "we're hurtling towards the end of this series of Heroes…" ever since episode five of an eleven-part run. When nothing matters except the season finale, you know something's gone dreadfully wrong.)

The actual future, though - the one where we'll be spending the rest of our lives, unless Bill Gates' new masterplan to save the world involves messing about with tachyons - is no longer in vogue. I'm sure it can't have escaped your notice that with the peculiar exceptions of "Dalek" and "Fear Her", which are effectively set in the present-plus-a-few, modern Doctor Who has refused to show us any vision of the future that's less than two-thousand years away. The reasons for this are less obvious than you might think. Apart from the standard fan-observation that setting a story in the year five-billion stops the current Doctor bumping into Patrick Troughton all the time, the usual assumption is that modern writers prefer "abstract" futures to "immediate" futures because there's less chance of them looking silly in twenty years' time. We've reached this conclusion because, among other things, we've seen so many BBC4esque documentaries about the history of science fiction in which alumni from the Kim Newman School of Smug Punditry point out how utterly wrong most SF predictions have been.

However, this argument doesn't hold water. True, it's hard to think of a single SF future that even comes close to the way things actually turned out, although Jules Verne at least deserves special mention for coming up with the fax machine. But the vast majority of science fiction writers have never really tried to be accurate, and over the last hundred years, most future-based fiction has been a way of examining our concerns about the present. When you remember that, the reason for Doctor Who's lack of interest in the World of Tomorrow (rather the World of the Day After the Day After the Day After Tomorrow) seems a little clearer: unlike the generation of the 1960s, we no longer want to examine our concerns about the present. In fact, we'll go to any lengths to avoid thinking about them, as we'll see shortly.

Firstly, though, we have to remind ourselves that we can't lump together all future-set Doctor Who stories as if they're a single sub-species. It should be fairly obvious that "The Enemy of the World" has very little in common with "The End of the World", and the difference isn't just the temporal distance travelled by the TARDIS, or that one of them is a '60s tragedy while the other is a '00s comedy. Sir Big Russell's logic - and it's a perfectly sound logic, in itself - is that since the far, far, far, far, far future is likely to be too alien to be comprehensible, you can use it as a blank surface on which to write rude graffiti about the modern world. No, more accurately, about the modern media: this has always been Davies' favourite approach, and we see it for the first time in Lady Cassandra, who's presented to us as Californian body-obsession made flesh. Or an absence thereof. By contrast, '60s "future" stories tend to be about the kind of world where younger members of the audience might actually have to grow up. David Whitaker didn't literally expect the planet to be run by a Mexican in the twenty-first-century, but he was trying to imagine how the anxieties of his own era might affect his descendants. Stories like "The Enemy of the World" (originally set circa 2017, although the novelisation shunted it back to 2030) and "The Wheel in Space" (clearly set in the early twenty-first century, whatever Lance Parkin tries to tell you) sell the viewers a world they might just live to see. Every schoolchild knew there'd be wheel-shaped space-stations by 2001.

And as Tat Wood pointed out in About Time, Professor Eldred in "The Seeds of Death" comes across as a '50s / '60s schoolboy grown old, a Dan Dare reader who's lived to see the wonder of space-travel being replaced by something cynical and humdrum. With hindsight, it almost looks like a metaphor for what really happened, although we got twenty-four-hour TV to distract us from deep-space exploration instead of T-Mat. Even early stories like "The Sensorites" and "The Rescue", set in (ooh, let's say) the middle of the third millennium, have a sense of expectation about them. There was a feeling, as late as the '60s, that Britain might still play a vital part in the Conquest of Space. In the era of the Festival of Britain (1951), the UK prided itself on having the finest technical minds in the world, and it was routinely expected that we'd supply the brains of the future while America supplied the muscle. Didn't turn out very well, did it…? Nonetheless, the Union Jack on the tail-fin of Vicki's spaceship was in no way meant to be "kitsch". We didn't seriously think we'd meet either the Mekon or the Didonians, yet British space-pioneers seemed positively logical at the time. (Oh, and don't try to tell me that it's a Union Flag rather than a Union Jack. It's a spaceship, all right? Naval rules can be expected to apply.)

If it was normal for '60s stories to reflect the viewers' anxieties about the future, then perhaps we should take stock of what those anxieties were. There's undoubtedly some kind of sinister subtext behind the slippery-smooth machine-worlds of the black-and-white series - even Innes Lloyd, the dullest producer Doctor Who ever had, seems to have acknowledged it - but to us in the twenty-first century, it's all too easy to miss the context. We know that the original Cybermen turned up at a time when both plastic surgery and the word "cybernetics" were hot topics, but… no, something else is going on there, isn't it? Surely, nobody was that concerned about evil surgeons ripping people's lungs out and replacing them with accordions? Mentioning the Cold War is another dead end, since the programme was much less prone to scaremongery than its nearest US equivalents, and refused to believe that we might be invaded by Communists at any moment (well, apart from the absurd right-wing hectoring in "The Dominators", and arguably the Soviet Zarbi in "The Web Planet"). So what was really preying on the minds of the grown-ups?

A key point about this period, without which the stories on Patrick Troughton's watch make a lot less sense: social control was one of the big issues of the future, and not because the populace was worried about the Kremlin turning everyone into tractor-factory workers. The 1960s was a boom-time for rioting. These days, we're primed to think of specific decades as being made of pop culture, since we're usually only shown the archive footage when we're being sold a nostalgia-piece. The very mention of "the '60s" immediately makes us think of the Beatles, which is rather unsettling, when you consider everything else that was going on. Ergo, talk of "rioting" makes us think of fun-loving long-haired students protesting against the Vietnam War. But we shouldn't forget that this was the era which made the term "race-riot" so popular, and as we've already seen in the article SF Iconoclasty 101 [about halfway down this page], the starting-point for Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59) was his belief that the ongoing tribal conflicts in America and Europe were proof of something profoundly evil in humanity's nature. Furthermore, the educated audience of this period was instinctively aware - more than we are today, although we'll return to this later - that we're an ever-growing species on a planet with finite resources. Even if the pundits were more concerned with the thought of food-riots than all-out ecogeddon, it seemed obvious that if the people of the world refused to stop breeding, then the violence would become… no, not even worse. The violence would become ubiquitous.

It also seemed obvious that in the event of us making it to the end of the twentieth century without triggering World War Three (and anxiety about this began to wane after the flashpoint of the Cuban crisis, which may explain why alien worlds in Doctor Who tend to treat nukes as a historical detail rather than an ever-present threat), then we'd only survive if someone or something kept us properly organised. This was accepted by all political persuasions. Just look at the Doctor Who stories made between 1967 and 1968, the clump of episodes now known as Season Five. In the space of a single year, five out of seven stories are set in the future - I'm counting "Fury from the Deep" (deliberately pitched as a near-future scenario), but not "The Web of Fear" (since the idea of the UNIT stories taking place in the '70s didn't emerge until "The Invasion") - and every single one of those five involves a "Controller". In all but one case, "Controller" is given as the individual's official rank. We'll ignore the suspicion that the writers expected all futuristic institutions to be run like the BBC, and concentrate on the broader issue: it was taken as read that if our species isn't going to get into a terrible muddle, then somebody has to make cold, rational decisions about the distribution of resources, whether those decisions affect a single space-station or an entire continent.

Typically, this isn't portrayed as a bad system, but there's a belief that the human element will always be required to temper the Controller's clinical logic. The Controller of the ioniser ("The Ice Warriors") fails because he lacks imagination, yet he's fundamentally a decent man, while the Controller of the W3 station ("The Wheel in Space") fails because he's emotionally unbalanced. The Controller in "Fury from the Deep" fails for numerous reasons, although it doesn't help that his only superior in the organisation is a grudgeful ex-girlfriend who clearly wants to go at him with a strap-on. Less positively, we have the Cybermen, and we're left in no doubt that their Controller is meant to be a two-fingered salute to anyone who goes on about "cold, rational decisions" all the time. You'll note that the Brotherhood of Logicians, like most science-nerds in the Mark One series, want to take over the Earth because humans are soft-headed and untrustworthy rather than because the Brotherhood's members want all the money and girls.

But even in the case of "Tomb of the Cybermen", we're not being told that it's wrong to have a Controller per se, just that it's wrong for the Controller to ignore his touchy-feely side. Let's not forget, everyone "knew" that computers would be part of the decision-making process in the world of tomorrow. Before the age of the ZX81, it was believed that all computers would be mega-brains capable of telling us how to avoid extinction, not mindless tools that sit in the office and regularly need to be switched off and on again. Some SF writers, most notably Isaac Asimov, made compelling arguments that organisation by computer would free us rather than enslaving us. Not everyone was so sure, of course. We in fandom tend to forget that despite its title, "The Ice Warriors" is really about the machines-versus-men debate, not about the monsters: the real climax of the story isn't the final assault by the Martians, but the moment when hardware-fetishist Clent finally makes his peace with free-thinking genius Penley.

Yet until the RAND corporation made it clear to the world that computers made catastrophic mistakes because of the way humans programmed them (see especially "The Armageddon Factor" and "Destiny of the Daleks"), it was still widely agreed that a form of technocracy might be our salvation. It was certainly felt that the world needed some apolitical organising principle, if we were going to be saved from self-destruction and / or cannibalism. This is why it's almost touching that in "The War Machines", everyone on Earth trusts a single computer in the Post Office Tower to run all the world's technical systems, and doesn't expect the programmers to fiddle about with its solutions for their own benefit. Or cripple the French economy, just for a laugh.

II. The Gravitron of the Situation

Whoahhh now… we're actually getting to the heart of the issue. Ask yourself this: can you imagine any modern programme claiming that autocratic, ultra-rational rule might possibly be a good thing, even if it stops us wiping ourselves out? The answer is an immense "no", which might seem perverse, given that we're now even closer to an extinction event than we were when Kennedy was facing off against Khruschev. But there you have the nub of it. The people of the '60s assumed that there had to be a centralised control element in the world of the future, because they were prepared to accept that it's reasonable to give up part of your own individual freedom for the good of society. In fact, as things turned out, the West found a way of controlling the populace that didn't involve computers or moonbases: neo-liberalism, of which both Thatcherism and neo-conservatism are manifestations. (I know, I know. You'd expect something called "neo-liberalism" and something called "neo-conservatism" to be polar opposites, wouldn't you? They're not. "Neo-conservatism" involves the use of conservative rhetoric and an aggressive foreign policy to prop up a neo-liberal economic strategy, although that's admittedly the bonehead version, and a hardcore political theorist would chin me for saying it.)

Here comes the politics, then. Neo-liberalism is the ultimate creation of right-wing economic thinking, which assumes that there's no such thing as society; that as a result, nobody has a responsibility to society, or to any other human being beyond his or her own household; that any plans for the future of a society are therefore pointless; that all political philosophies should be discouraged, other than the promotion of self-interest; that a population will remain placid if you give it enough affordable consumer goods, without any need for the kind of state intervention that might get in the way of big business (essentially a more carefully-calculated version of the Roman "bread and circuses" concept); and that as a side-issue, it's reasonable to keep producing those goods even if it does destroy the planet's biosphere and lead to the mass exploitation of dusky-skinned natives outside the Western World, because anything else would be an affront to "freedom".

Well, to be fair, it did work. Which is to say… without any need for a big central cyber-brain, without inventing the Gravitron or T-Mat, and without the intervention of Ramon Salamander, we're now a lot less intent on rioting than our forefathers were. Of course, this passivity requires a constant flow of cheap mobile 'phone attachments and a reliable source of energy: the '70s generation was brought up to believe that power-cuts were perfectly normal, but if you took away this generation's electricity supply for more than a few hours, then they'd burn down half of London. The other problem is that on a global scale, it's killing millions and consigning millions more to intractable poverty. Still, since the victims are all (excuse me) wogs and darkies, we don't have a responsibility to them. Besides, the last thirty years have seen a conscious effort to push the neo-liberal agenda in all areas of the media, to the point where anyone who argues against it is viewed as a deluded agitator who probably wants to bring back Stalin and force us all to eat Spam for every meal. One of the key strategies of neo-liberalism is to portray anyone with different ideas as an enemy of "freedom", if not actually a terrorist. The "freedom" in question is the freedom to build yourself a bigger DVD collection than your neighbours and choose whether or not you want fries with that haemorrhage, but then, that's the only kind of freedom we now understand. Planning for tomorrow is forbidden, since it might involve telling people what to do, and that would destroy the illusion of consumer choice.

But as we've seen, the first-time viewers of Season Five were perfectly happy to accept that it was all right for a central authority to control the Big Picture. It was the application that could cause problems, not the principle. Nobody jumps in at the end of "The Ice Warriors" and says "right, now we've stopped taking orders from the computer, let's put control of the ioniser out to tender and make this society more 'democratic' by introducing corporate sponsorship". Instead, they treat everything that's happened as a lesson in the importance of human instinct. No writer in 2008, not even a vaguely left-wing writer with dim memories of a time when we had "social responsibility" instead of "individual consumer freedom", would be satisfied unless the machine ended up being blasted into tiny pieces as an enemy of everything that's right and proper. Yet the irony is that our idea of "freedom" is far more mechanistic than the world/s we see in any of the '60s tales about cybernetic overseers, since a society free of state intervention will always do whatever makes money for the shareholders, regardless of the human cost. As I've said before, nobody other than the BBC would even consider attaching this sort of budget to a programme as stubbornly eccentric as Doctor Who, but even this series has found itself compromised.

As we all know, Doctor Who is a product of the Licence Fee. And neo-liberalism hates the Licence Fee, because it's a form of socialism (no, really… Thatcher said so herself, and almost uniquely, she was right). Yet it's being made in an otherwise wholly consumer-driven culture, and this is bound to put pressure on its creators, as well as the BBC as an entity. Since I'm not the type who believes that cattle mutilations are part of a federal plot to control the minds of decent Americans, I'm not going to claim that the series is caught up in a deliberate conspiracy to eradicate all non-neo-liberal politics from the media - although that would be true if it were made by Fox Television - yet the very nature of modern TV is inevitably going to change the programme's agenda. In the '60s and '70s, any decent writer working for the BBC would be aware that experimentalism was an important part of the job, and the best of them stretched the medium even if (or especially if) it made the audience uncomfortable. Today, making the audience uncomfortable is a TV no-no on a par with pro-celebrity kiddie-fiddling. It may not have been a conscious effort, but the astonishingly staid nature of this year's stories can be thought of as a consequence of this. Only "Midnight" is an honourable exception, and whether you like the finished work or not, it's closer to an "old-fashioned" BBC drama than anything else the series has attempted in the last four years. As David Troughton pointed out, his dad would've liked it.

Now, d'you remember what happened in Week Three…? We've established that neo-liberalism has perverted our language, in such a way that it can happily talk about the greatness of "freedom" (i.e. consumer pseudo-choice) while indulging in forms of exploitation that would have made the Victorians blush. In "Planet of the Ood", we have a story which depicts slavery as being unequivocally wrong, yet which treats the subject-matter as an abstract: slavery is just the kind of thing that happens in sci-fi shows, it's not a real issue. And then, suddenly… the Doctor asks Donna who makes her clothes. It looks, for a moment, as if this story actually has a meaning. Nope, false alarm. Even though he's just said the most sensible thing we've heard in the series for months, Donna snaps at him for making cheap shots, and the Doctor immediately apologises. Once again, we'd be daft to believe that Keith Temple is deliberately trying to stop the audience thinking about the issues, but we do need to understand that this sort of thing is inevitable in a consumer-era TV series which thinks it's competing with ITV. The Doctor might as well be apologising to the viewer rather than his sidekick. Sorry, might have made you feel a bit awkward there. Might have, y'know, made you consider the consequences of your actions. Sorry. Very sorry. It's okay, nothing's wrong. You can keep buying the sweat-shop produce if you want, it's no big deal. Please don't turn over to Ant and Dec.

So the answer to the original question, of why recent Doctor Who has steered clear of the near future, begins to seem rather ominous. It's not just that consumer society is obsessed with the now, it's not just that corporate interests have spent the last few decades urging us to buy into the present without thinking about the aftermath. It's that even under the auspices of Russell T. Davies, who's not shy about occasionally prodding the status quo, any half-credible depiction of life in the rest of the twenty-first century would horrify today's viewers rather than scaring them in a living-statues-and-gasmasks sort of way. Just try to imagine a new story set in 2030, or 2050, or 2070. Never mind trying to imagine what life might actually be like, just try to imagine how a television programme might depict it. Well? What comes to mind?

It's a tough assignment, I know. So here are some facts - and I'm going to try to stick to facts, not speculations - about life in the rest of the twenty-first century.

Point One. The oil is going to run out. Politics may be chronically unfashionable now that we've all got iPods to keep us quiet, but at the very least, anyone who claims to be "not political" should bear this in mind: during the lifetime of your children, or at best your grandchildren, there's not going to be any more petrol. Even US institutions with a vested interest in the oil business, after years of pooh-poohing anyone who points out that it's a finite resource, have now admitted that "production" (meaning, the act of sucking it out of the ground) has passed its peak. We've also learned that the OPEC countries are lying about the amount they've got in reserve. Since our entire culture is founded on oil, and since saying "all right, let's switch to nuclear" doesn't even begin to solve all the problems this entails, our civilisation must at the very least undergo a catastrophic change over the next few decades. Naturally, our current leaders aren't preparing us for this, since they're informed - let's not say "controlled", it makes the whole thing sound much too logical - by organisations that really don't want consumers to change their habits. When we think of a world where oil's a precious commodity, we tend to think of schlock like Mad Max 2, but at least that's set in a bloody great desert where everyone's got room to breathe. What happens to the cities when fuel starts to become scarce? How do you feel about being "not political" in a world where feudalism is more workable than consumerism?

Point Two. The biosphere of the planet is in a much worse state than any of us are prepared for. I'm going to try to avoid the phrase "global warming" here, and I'm certainly going to avoid "climate change", an expression which has been deliberately promoted by the American right as a way of making the eco-crisis sound less threatening (the Republican Party memo which started the ball rolling claimed that "climate change" sounds about as harmless as moving house). I'm avoiding these terms not only because they make an imminent atrocity sound like a series of catchphrases, but because the rise in temperature is just - and how's this for the least appropriate figure of speech imaginable - the tip of the iceberg. If anything, I'd prefer to use the expression "global meltdown". The world is facing so many simultaneous environmental catastrophes, in the strictly scientific sense of the word "catastrophe", that it'd make Kit Pedler's head burst if he were around today. We can't pretend that this is something which might happen, nor even that it will happen. It has happened, and is still happening: the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s was a direct knock-on effect of pollution from North America, thanks to the unfortunately-named phenomenon of "global dimming", which makes the deaths of millions of people sound no more serious than leaving a lightbulb on all night.

The point is that the meltdown already has a truly astonishing body-count. In the rest of this century, millions more will die, vast stretches of the planet will be rendered uninhabitable, and most non-human life not overseen by commercial concerns will be wiped out. Perhaps the most frightening part, if this doesn't already make you want to drink yourself to death in an attempt to avoid seeing it, is that the various environmental cataclysms are liable to affect each other in unpredictable ways. Any shift in an ecosystem will have long-term effects that nobody anticipates, but when numerous major changes take place at once, you're into the realms of "pick a worst-case scenario, any worst-case scenario". The belief that all of these things will reach a point of equilibrium, rather than exacerbating each other, was popular in the heyday of "Gaia" but now appears desperately naïve. A bit like that episode of Futurama in which the human race survives global warming because it's perfectly balanced out by a new Ice Age.

Point Three. The social issues. Even in the 1960s, when we were allowed / prompted to think about these things, we could never have anticipated anything so immense. As I've already suggested, a consumer-driven world is more likely to go berserk when its power, gadgets and cars are taken away, so neo-liberalism can be seen as intrinsically self-destructive: if society doesn't officially exist, then you can't prepare it for its own breakdown. Now add the social consequences of Point Two to the mix, as refugees from the ecologically scarred parts of the world head towards Europe and the US. Ironic, in a way, that the right-wing agenda of publications like the Daily Mail should guarantee that millions of non-white people are going to be pushed in our direction. But this isn't just about a few "asylum seekers", it's about the biggest human upheaval ever known. And many of these immigrants are, not unreasonably, going to blame us for causing most of their problems. Islamic extremism isn't even the start of it. I'll stop short of claiming that there's a deliberate strategy at work, but the dehumanising, draconian legislation being put in place by our current leaders - whether it's the Americans' ability to torture foreigners at will, or the UK's determination to legitimise detention without trial - may provide our governments with a useful weapon during the population crisis. When consumerism fails to keep us quiet, concentration camps are a very real possibility.

So, imagine that you're a Doctor Who writer, as I frequently do (come to think of it, at least three of you reading this article actually are… God, that's a scary thought). Imagine that either Big Russell or Curmudgeonly Steven has given you a brief to write a "near future" story. You want to make the middle of the twenty-first century look credible, even if you know there's no chance of making exact predictions. What should you be writing about? A perpetual race-war in a hugely overpopulated and pathologically violent country, with minimal electricity and a political system that makes Zimbabwe look civilised? It's not even one of those futuristic-looking "fascist" colony planets where the characters all have funny names and the Doctor can save the day with a shrug, it's got to be a society that looks vaguely realistic. Even the thought of it - again, not the actuality of life circa 2050, but the BBC version starring David Tennant - seems horrific. New Adventures in the Warhead mould liked to flirt with socially degenerate futures, but even they only ever presented us with a disintegrating, goth-riddled consumer culture, not a consumer culture that's become entirely unworkable. Besides, the writers of the 1990s believed that the twenty-first century would at least be quite cosmopolitan, whereas we're actually heading for the kind of insular, tribally-divided dystopia that seemed unlikely even in the time of cyberpunk.

III. Thatcher, Thatcher, Suncatcher

The result of all this is that the history of the future has a whacking great hole in it. Thanks to "Dalek", we know that the world of 2012 is much like the world of the present. We know that in the far future, humanity is happily exploring planets made of diamonds and interbreeding with sexy non-terrestrials. What we don't know is how the Hell we get from one state to the other, how we manage to survive the next few centuries and create a reasonably optimistic intergalactic empire. (Incidentally… doesn't it strike you as odd that "Dalek" should be set in 2012? Why set it in the future at all? It may be significant that when the story was made, nobody knew whether the resurrected series would be a success or not, and even those working behind the scenes were inclined to think of it as a potential "cult" hit rather than an all-out ratings-winner. And "cult" American series have a tendency to run for seven years, as was the case with Buffy, and the three latter-day forms of Star Trek that didn't get cancelled. Was 2012 chosen as the earliest future date that wasn't expected to overlap the lifespan of the series? In other words, was it meant to be set at the start of the post-Doctor Who epoch, immediately after Season Seven…?)

The strangest thing is that if you were to write a story in the mid-2000s, and if you had a mind to be particularly anal, then you could easily make it fit the continuity of the Mark One series. "The Enemy of the World" presents us with a twenty-first-century world in which the developing nations are unexpectedly prosperous and well-fed, yet this is only made possible by the Suncatcher: until recently, we're told, Earth was going through a period of strife and famine. Well, that could be the era we're entering now, and the work of Salamander's Australian nerd-slaves could be the thing that pulls us out of our ecological crash-course. Yes, it'd be possible, but… it'd also be wrong in so many ways. Doctor Who may be compromised by consumer society, yet those responsible for it are at least semi-aware that it has some form of social duty. There are, as we all know, an awful lot of business interests with a profit-motive for telling us that everything's going to be okay. For the series to claim that something's going to save us in the nick of time - and not even in a "well, if we all work together then we can make a difference" way, as in the later New Adventures - would be unforgivable. Let's bear in mind, certain friends of the Republican Party have openly stated that we don't have to worry about the global meltdown, because God will be announcing the Day of Judgement soon. I'm not joking. I only wish I were.

Not that the series can't go astray, although when it does, it's usually a result of clumsiness rather than an attempt to brainwash us with alien mind-slugs trained by ExxonMobil. The saddest example is "The Sontaran Stratagem", because even apart from the colossal folly of trying to force the Sontarans into an eco-parable, it sends out completely the wrong signals. For one thing, it makes the now-traditional Doctor Who mistake of presenting a sci-fi idea as a metaphor for something in the real world, but then messing it up by mentioning the real-world thing at the same time: in this case, the alien poison is supposed to make us think about carbon emissions, but it comes out of a device that's specifically designed to cut down carbon emissions. Eh? (Likewise, "World War Three" makes parallels between the Blairite Slitheen and the invasion of Iraq, but then has Harriet Jones inform us that the invasion of Iraq has already come and gone in this universe. Davies does it again in "Doomsday", by hinting that the temperature rise caused by the universe-hoppers is a nod towards global warming, then having Parallel Pete say 'that's not just global warming, is it?'.) There's also the problem that making cars belch out smoke is just about the least scary thing they could do on television, especially compared to what happens in the Car Tax ad, as we saw in Week Seven-and-a-Half.

More crucially, though… what exactly is the audience supposed to take away from this? As with the slavery non-issue in "Planet of the Ood", "The Poison Sky" seems to be acknowledging that there are serious problems waiting to erupt in the world, but copping out at the last minute and refusing to ask the viewers to think about them. Cars turn evil, for a while, and everyone walks to work the next day. Well, that's all right then. The Doctor states that the "nice" aspect of the ATMOS technology is a few decades ahead of its time, suggesting that there really is an easy solution to the gradual poisoning of our entire species, one that won't require us to do anything difficult like changing our driving habits. Then - in a bizarre turnaround - he lambasts the creator of this non-existent technology by pointing out that it'll just cause the world's oil reserves to run out. Yeeeees, but that's going to happen anyway. If we really did have a "nice" ATMOS, then we might at least have a workable biosphere afterwards. On the Great Scale of Environmental Rhetoric, this is substantially less convincing than claiming that pollution causes giant maggots.

But even apart from the unwillingness to rattle the modern audience, there's an extra difficulty in Doctor Who presenting us with a believable future. Any form of environmental concern, with or without the social consequences, can be misinterpreted as a party-political statement rather than something that worries us because millions of us are going to die for f***'s sake. I live in London, a city whose walking hoax of a mayor doesn't even accept that global warming exists. Others are capable of lobbying much, much harder, which is why a recent survey has shown that most British adults "aren't sure" what's causing the eco-hazard (like the creationist front in the US, the oil industry's approach is to claim that there's a "debate" about the issue, even though non-partisan scientists who don't acknowledge global warming are as rare as cartographers who still believe in a Flat Earth). The result is that any serious depiction of the immediate future is open to allegations of bias, and the BBC can hardly afford this, especially since its request for more funding was turned down by a government still smarting from the David Kelly affair. Just look what happened to Live Earth. We might similarly note that even though the world of the future seems like ideal material for a disaster movie, the only movie of the sort that's actually been made is The Day After Tomorrow… which gives us a freezing planet, i.e. the opposite of what's actually happening. Oh look, it was distributed by Fox, the entertainment wing of the neo-conservative movement. What a shock.

Because let's be clear on one thing here: there's no such thing as "non-political" or "escapist" entertainment. As I tried to explain in the introduction to Interference, I find it hard to believe in the value of escapism even as a concept, especially if your civilisation happens to be on the edge of an abyss. (Paul Cornell subsequently criticised me for this, not because he disagreed with the politics, but on the grounds that authors' introductions are invariably shit. He was quite right, and I wish he'd pointed it out before the book was actually published.) Nor should we kid ourselves that Doctor Who is an apolitical animal, even if it can look that way with hindsight, in much the same way that Dickens' social critiques look "quaint" when they're taken out of the context of the nineteenth century. The programme's first producer was an ideological firebrand, at least in the days before she somehow ended up being responsible for El Dorado. Verity Lambert (OBE), like most of the interesting people who've worked in television over the last half-century, saw the medium as having - or even being - a social conscience. Even if Doctor Who has never been overt in championing a political cause of any specific colour, it has repeatedly demonstrated a philosophy than can safely be described as "leftist". As we've seen, the reason "The Dominators" looks so out-of-step is that a story written in support of the Vietnam War just isn't welcome in these parts.

We should remember, though, that "left-wing" isn't a single movement. While you could argue that "right-wing" always means roughly the same thing, i.e. the belief in keeping a society as static as possible, "left-wing" covers any number of principles which don't necessarily agree with each other. "Right-wing" isn't the direct opposite of "left-wing", in the same way that "staying in your house" isn't the direct opposite of "being somewhere else other than your house": once you're outside, there are a billion other places you might possibly be. Unlike its grumpier forerunner Quatermass, Doctor Who is xenophiliac by its very nature, and that's a form of leftism in itself. This doesn't make it Marxist, anarchist, or any other brand-name flavour of leftyness, but even so, it's noticeable that you don't meet many overtly right-wing Doctor Who fans. Those who do exist seem to believe that it's a "sci-fi" show in the same mould as Star Trek, and have trouble understanding what it actually represents. They're also insufferable bores, but you could have guessed that.

(Some of you may be aware that I have personal issues here. A few years ago, the phrase "Eleven-Day Empire" - first used in Interference, although it's since become a core part of the Faction Paradox mythology - ended up being used as the name of a right-wing American website, run by what I can only describe as pro-military Doctor Who fans. Yeah, I know… never has the word "oxymoron" had so much emphasis on the "moron". The fact that they'd stolen the title from a novel which argues against everything the American right stands for, especially its connections with torturing states like Saudi Arabia, seems to have gone unnoticed: from what I could gather, they chose the name because my reckless use of the word "eleven" had reminded them of September the Eleventh, an event which apparently justified their belief in bombing anyone who didn't agree with their own hatemongering form of lunacy. I thought about taking legal action, then decided it wasn't worth the bother.)

Which leads us to consider modern-day Doctor Who's relationship with politics as a whole. Almost inevitably, there's a soft-left approach in effect here. It's taken for granted that we're all going to be dead-set against racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other vaguely meaningless bigotry-tag, yet there's no sense of how hard we had to fight to get this far, nor any suggestion that we should keep fighting. There's just an ever-present subtext that the "good" parts of our society are the universal standard of civilisation, which leads to a certain… what? Smugness? Complacency? I find myself remembering that one of the reasons I ended up falling out with Paul Cornell - yeah, him too - is that he went through that unfortunate metabolic change from "left-wing" to "New Labour", a common problem amongst men of his age and background. Those who developed a social conscience during the Thatcher years tend to become convinced that the most important political principle is to stop the Tories getting back into power, even if it means adopting Thatcherite policies, and even if they lose sight of the fact that there are far bigger and more lethal issues in the world. Moffat once tried to claim that the arguments between myself and Paul were like battles between the Popular People's Front of Judea and the Judean Popular People's Front, but in this he was quite wrong. Paul has a Blair-age philosophy, in which it's vital not to rock the boat, in case it offends the floating voter / floating viewer and makes them vote Conservative / watch ITV. I think you already know that this sort of thinking goes every strand of my RNA.

While we're in this area, an interesting case-study is the Big Finish "Young Bernice" novel Genius Loci, written by old New Adventures hand Ben Aaronovitch. We should remind ourselves that we've lost a Hell of a lot of optimism in the last ten years, and that in the epoch of the New Adventures, we were far more positive about the way the future might work out. Certainly, optimism was always Ben's strong suit. Transit was one of the few novels that wilfully bucked the trend of early '90s SF, and asked what might happen after the corporate cynicism of cyberpunk (which is why it's so galling that many semi-literate fans mistook it for a cyberpunk novel), while The Also People gave us a post-scarcity culture in which grubby politics has simply become unnecessary. In general, the New Adventures were keen on the idea of building utopia, although the Virgin history of the future is often troubled by military-industrial horror: the novels quite commendably depict war as a murderous side-effect of interplanetary capitalism, in which soldiers are blank-eyed cannon-fodder, denied any nobility or individuality by the powers that control them. On the surface, Genius Loci appears to be written in the familiar New Adventures style, and yet… hang on. This time around, the soldiers are actually nice. There's still a sense that they're little people caught up in big events, but their crusade is suddenly a righteous one. War is a necessary evil rather than a waste of biomass. Conscription is in no way a terrible thing, even if it leads to occasional tragedy.

The reason Ben can get away with this is simple: the book is set against the backdrop of the war against the Daleks, and as we all know, Daleks are the one thing that even the Doctor is allowed to kill with impunity. And this has been a subtext every since Terry Nation's day, so it's not merely a return to Ben's much-misunderstood "genocidal" agenda in "Remembrance". It's more worrying, though, if you put it in a real-world context. The New Adventures' version of the Earth military is largely modelled on the US marine corps, and there's a tendency for future wars to mirror Vietnam, most explicitly in Transit. But now… now we live in an age when the neo-lib, neo-con bombardment of the media is so overwhelming that even previously left-wing, right-minded or (loosely) liberal authors are starting to accept that maybe it's all right for Uncle Sam to go around invading other people's countries. Because after all, those nasty Muslims have started killing white, middle-class folk in New York, whereas they used to just kill their own. Of course, Genius Loci is never so crass as to make a connection between Daleks and al-Qaeda, yet when we meet the real baddies of the book - religiously-inclined aliens with a thing about moral purity - there is the creeping suggestion that fundamentalists deserve everything they get.

Why is this interesting? Because Ben is the brother of David Aaronovitch, the erstwhile left-wing columnist who switched sides in the early part of this decade by writing strident newspaper columns insisting that it was "necessary" to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. How it can be "necessary" to initiate a bombing campaign that slaughters over 100,000 civilian men, women and children, in order to dispose of a single political figure who was helped into power by the Americans in the first place, I'm still not sure. Nor did he explain why it was essential to depose a murderous, torturing despot like Saddam by killing so many of his unarmed subjects, but not essential to get rid of a murderous, torturing despot like the American-allied President Karimov of Uzbekistan. Naivety, not zealotry, is the tragic flaw of Aaronovitch (D): he actually believed that the US was acting for moral reasons. Now, I haven't spoken to Aaronovitch (B) in over a decade, so I don't know what his current political outlook is. But even if he hasn't been wholly taken in, it's hard to believe that he wouldn't have been affected in some way by such a close relationship to such a vocal pro-military demagogue. Whatever his voting habits, though, there's that terrible smack of New Labour about Genius Loci. Decent, soft-left values, on the surface; say no to bigotry and intolerance, in theory; treat foreign cultures with respect, as long as they're a bit like yours; but when your own cosiness is disturbed in some way… oh, now the world's getting scary. Send in the troops!!!

IV. Clifford Jones Good, Ianto Jones Bad

Russell T. Davies, meanwhile, is still happy to give Leaders of Men a good poke in the eye. This is why the OBE raises such a smile, and it's lucky the announcement was made a week before he dropped a replica of the Titanic on the Queen. Since he's much less embarrassing than Bono, he's done this through comedy rather than by pretending that his voice can change the world. When it was suggested to him that "Aliens of London" was "satirical", he wisely denied it, and claimed that it was more like Spitting Image. It's heartening to know that some writers are still capable of understanding the difference. "Satire" provokes its audience to ask questions, and there are few things in our society which still have this function, especially since most "satirical" comedy is a simple matter of pointing out that John Prescott is a fat bastard. Have I Got News for You is in no way satire: any attempt to query the hideousness of the modern world will immediately be derailed by Paul Merton making a joke about Bagpuss, and since it was responsible for giving catastrophe-denier Boris Johnson enough public recognition for him to mount a "serious" mayoral campaign, it's now responsible for making the political landscape rather than surveying it. Or making it worse, anyway. But Davies is just mooning the politicians, not making in-depth criticisms of government policy, and he's smart enough to realise it.

Tragically, not all SF on television is acute enough to know its limitations. Several times last year, I felt compelled to mention the po-faced idiocy of Battlestar Galactica, a series which seriously believes it's got important things to say about current affairs. Sci-fi nerds love this sort of thing, because it makes them feel as if they're watching something more significant than bloated, artless space-opera. In the case of Galactica, I tried to express this delusion with the phrase: "Hey, we’re making an important new sci-fi show that deals with serious, uncompromising issues in a post-9/11 world! It’s about shape-changing robots in outer space." (It's since been pointed out to me that the Cylon spies don't literally change shape, although if that's the strongest counter-argument geeks can come up with, then I'm not inclined to change my opinions.) Before now, I've pointed out that if you want to talk about global concerns on television, then the best way is… to make programmes about global concerns, not programmes about CGI monsters who might possibly represent Islamic terrorists in some way. But a more straightforward argument is simply that if Battlestar Galactica had any remotely meaningful political message, then it wouldn't be shown on a Murdoch channel.

It'd be nice to say that nothing in the Doctor Who universe has ever sunk to this level of crassness, but in fact, the Home Side has actually managed to sink even further. I'm referring, of course, to the Torchwood episode "Fragments". If you felt compelled to watch it, despite the evidence of the previous eleven weeks, then you may recall that this is the story in which the leggy Japanese girl from "Aliens of London" is arrested by the UN for handling ultra-sensitive alien-related technology; shovelled into an orange jumpsuit; and detained in a scary prison complex that's presented as an ironic reference to Guantanamo Bay.

Wait a minute… an ironic reference to Guantanamo Bay? Before we examine why this is so grossly, agonisingly wrong, let's remind ourselves of the facts. Guantanamo Bay is a facility where people found guilty of having brown skin during an American invasion - some of them sympathetic to hardline Islamic movements, but most of them wholly innocent of anything other than "looking a bit like the men behind 9/11" or "getting on the wrong side of the local big-shot during the war in Afghanistan" - are locked up without trial, held in conditions that wouldn't be legal for cattle, subjected to the kind of psychological experimentation that Mengele would have been proud of, and in some cases shipped out to other "specialist" American-allied facilities, where they're systematically tortured in order to extract information they don't possess. After years of being blasted with white noise and having their fingernails pulled out with the blessing of both the US and UK intelligence services, a few of them are then released without charge, but still branded as "terrorist sympathisers" for telling journalists about the atrocities committed against them. This isn't done in order to uncover some evil al-Qaeda masterplan, because no such masterplan exists, and only a Battlestar Galactica fan would be idiotic enough to believe that to-torture-or-not-to-torture is an "ethical dilemma". It's simply a demonstration of absolute, accountability-free power by the world's most dangerous military empire, and we're actually letting the bastards get away with it.

Faced with this, Torchwood "references" Guantanamo Bay… for a laugh? To look "topical", even though it doesn't have any point to make, or any grounding in the real world at all? In my round-up of the entire unforgivable second season - you know, you kept quoting the comment about "Blink" for months afterwards, even though much more important things were going on - I suggested that if the producers are so keen on using crimes against humanity as a cheap way of looking up-to-date, then they should consider introducing an alien who kills people in exactly the same way as Levi Bellfield. (Bellfield was - is - a serial killer who'd just been imprisoned for smashing young women's heads open with a sledgehammer. He came to mind simply because he was so close to home, since one of his crimes was committed on my local bus route.) But unbelievably, that's not the worst part of it. We have to remember that Guantanamo Bay isn't an inevitable symptom of the modern world, and nor is it typical of a nominally democratic government: it's an operation run by one specific, corrupt administration of one specific, corrupt nation-state. Its existence is a product of the modern American right, not something you can roll your eyes at and say "tssk, I dunno, bloody politicians". Yet Torchwood actually presents its pretend-Guantanamo as… God, the stupidity of this is so vast that I'm not sure I can get it to come out of my keyboard… a United Nations facility.

The UN? You know, the body that's actually been trying - however ineffectually - to prevent the Bush administration's abuse of power? The body which has repeatedly described Guantanamo Bay as a pox on the face of human civilisation, and whose report on the institution not only demanded its closure, but the criminal prosecution of all those responsible for it…? Yet here, in what we tragically have to accept as a part of the Doctor Who universe, the crimes of the neo-con movement have been blamed on its opponents. It's like blaming the Holocaust on rabbis. I've been trying to think of anything else in film or television that even comes close to this level of wrongness, and the only thing that springs to mind is Mel Gibson's The Patriot, which "proves" how evil the British were to the American colonials (in the 1770s) by accusing them of atrocities that were actually committed by the Nazis in occupied Europe (in the 1940s). If the programme had claimed that the destruction of the World Trade Centre was really an extra-terrestrial attack, then the media would have howled in protest, yet it's apparently reasonable to do something even more offensive if the victims of the real-world horror aren't white, aren't wealthy, and have funny-sounding accents.

(I know I've always been savage about Chibnall's work, even beyond my normal level of hatred for ineptitude, but I feel it's justified in his case. As we all know, he appeared on television as a member of DWAS to complain about the state of Doctor Who in the mid-'80s, two decades before demonstrating that he's not even capable of writing something on a par with "Timelash". This alone would qualify him as fair game, even if "Cyberwoman" weren't the only piece of Doctor Who-related television I still haven't been able to sit through. I can only hope that if I'm working in the media twenty years from now, then others will be just as harsh to me if I'm even one-thirtieth as incompetent.)

Why can Torchwood get away with this, though, without invoking universal condemnation? Again, we come back to the central point of this entire argument. It's a function of the consumer society that anyone who mentions / cares about / understands politics should be considered dubious by his or her very nature, and an essential part of this is the belief that all political philosophies are ultimately the same… and therefore equally pointless. The result of this belief is, of course, that it gradually becomes true: all three leading political parties in the UK now hold that the neo-liberal style of government is the only option, and that direct economic intervention in society is a bad idea (well, unless rich people need a hand-out for any reason). This is why Britain is no longer a democracy, in any meaningful sense of the word. Similarly, the Torchwood prison complex is supposed to be an all-purpose symbol of shifty governments, as if it's perfectly reasonable to turn the mutilation of political prisoners into a prop from The X-Files. The US, the UN, what difference does it make…? Actually, it makes all the difference in the world, but that's not the lesson we're supposed to be learning here. We're supposed to accept that all politics is obviously evil, then focus on the sexual tension between Captain Jack and the Welsh techie.

It's hard to overestimate how damaging this sort of thing is. No, I can hear what you're saying even from here, and you're quite right: children won't grow up with a stunted social conscience because of Torchwood. But they will grow up with a stunted social conscience because of a culture composed entirely of programmes just like it. Only not quite as awful, and usually not in such sickeningly bad taste. To me, this is the Mini-Pops of the twenty-first century.

So, our final conclusions. Modern Doctor Who is terrified of the future, and not without good reason. But more importantly, it's massively constrained by the political climate, to the point where anything beyond the pre-apocalyptic optimism of the 2012 Olympics might as well be forbidden territory. You can see, I hope, why this becomes an issue in the week of "Turn Left". The nightmare alter-UK we're shown here, with refugees, a crippled economy, and spurious detainment in "labour camps", is darker than just about anything we've seen in any version of the series (certainly much worse than the alter-UK of "Last of the Time Lords", basically a storybook version of the same idea). Yet it's also closer to what's actually likely to happen than anything we've seen so far, or at the very least, it's a more creditable vision of Tomorrow's Britain. Russell T. Davies can get away with it here, because he's careful to establish that this is a horrible Doctorless world, while failing to remind us that ours is also a horrible Doctorless world. Like the parallel universe where Hitler won World War Two, we can mop our foreheads and say "whew, thank God we avoided that"… except that this time, we didn't. This alternative-present is, on the latest evidence, just like our probable-future.

Above all else, we should remember that the people of the 1960s knew far less than we do about the social and ecological consequences of their decisions: if they'd had any real inkling, then they never would have let us reach this point. They knew how to resist, whereas we've spent thirty years being primed not to. Just keep collecting the DVD boxed sets, and… oh, make sure you live in a gated community, so that you've got a way of defending your Blue-Ray collection when the immigrants arrive. And sadly, in the real world, it doesn't seem likely that sacrificing Catherine Tate will make things any better. Because unlike Russell T. Davies, we don't get a reset switch.

Next week in this column, something nice and harmless involving Daleks. Nice and harmless, and hopefully, quite short.