Saturday, 7 June 2008

Week Nine: "Shopping List of Terror"

We have nothing to fear except people going on about fear itself.

This week's skull-faced spectre at the feast: has Doctor Who ever, ever, ever actually been scary?

Careful, now: there is, as we should all know by this stage, a huge gulf between what the original-brand programme actually did and what we've been primed to remember it doing. The standard cliché about Doctor Who involves children hiding behind sofas, but the curious thing is that… I have difficulty remembering anyone talking about this while the series was on-air. Nobody at my school was ever spooked by it, and that was in the late '70s, when a quarter of the native population could be relied upon to watch Suzanne Danielle pretending to be a robot in a disco-wig. "Behind the sofa" didn't enter the Little Book of Lazy Media Catchphrases until the late 1980s, when only geeks and semi-ironic students were bothering to tune in, and it was initially used to explain why Doctor Who wasn't worth watching any more. The programme wasn't as scary as it used to be, said the grown-ups, and that was an end to it.

The debate amongst the fifteen-year-olds of 1987, however, had nothing to do with fear. In the art room of Sunbury Manor Secondary School, where we traditionally discussed such matters, it was said that Doctor Who had gone belly-up because… well, if the programme couldn't be bothered to take itself seriously, then why should we try? "Warriors' Gate", we remembered with affection. But "Delta and the Bannermen" was an insult even to poxy '80s adolescents who thought V was watchable. (Verity Lambert took a similar view, and wisely pointed out that even if you're making a "funny" episode, the show doesn't work unless the cast actually look as if they're being menaced. In other words, the problem isn't the Kandyman, it’s the human characters' reactions to the Kandyman. Russell T. Davies has learned this lesson well, which is why nobody finds Wheelie Bin Laden objectionable in "Rose".) Yet the phrase "behind the sofa" had become an inescapable part of the series' mythology by the mid-1990s, mainly because it seemed to sum up the notion of Doctor Who belonging to another time, something that represented childhood perceptions and childhood anxieties.

So when my short-tempered collaborator Tat Wood wrote an article for About Time which described the "behind the sofa" idea as bunk, I felt relieved that someone had finally come out and said it. And when one prominent SF pundit went on national TV to point out that the series had never scared him even slightly, but that the video for "Bohemian Rhapsody" had made him clench every available part of his body, I knew exactly what he meant. What we felt for Doctor Who wasn't fear. It was simply fascination.

My earliest memory, as is now rather well-known (for reasons I'm not sure I understand), is one of fear. Specifically, I was startled by a giraffe at London Zoo when I was eighteen months old. My second-earliest memory is of "The Sontaran Experiment". I remember Styre taking off his helmet, and revealing the pasty-faced dome-head underneath. I remember my granddad saying, in his horrifically cheery "joke" voice: "Oh look, it's Humpty-Dumpty!" And I remember thinking, if not in these exact words: "You twat. Can't you see it's a space-monster of some description?" I think, even at the age of two, I would've been faintly insulted by the idea that this might scare me. My third-earliest memory is of… get ready for this… evacuating the room in horror when "Bohemian Rhapsody" started on Top of the Pops, barricading the door of the kitchen with a kiddie-chair, and refusing to come out until I had the assurance of three separate family-members that it had finished. My fourth-earliest memory is of the Skarasen rearing up over London, and since three-year-olds don't notice the quality of the effects, I quickly reached the conclusion that this was the best thing I'd ever seen. See the pattern here?

In fact, whenever the content of Doctor Who has been scary, it's been scary for reasons rather more sophisticated than the "lurking monsters" model of the series would have us believe. We go back to Tat's testimony in About Time, and his acute observation that the frightening part of "The Ark in Space" isn't the intergalactic wasp, but what happens in episode one: a semi-conscious Sarah is cut off from the Doctor in the sterile, white-walled space of the Ark's medical facility, not only echoing a child's fear of being separated from the family, but of being divorced from everything s/he knows while confined to a hospital. This is actually more effective, if less overtly memorable, than the use of the same anxieties in "The Empty Child". And the only time I can remember being even slightly rattled by the programme was at the surprisingly advanced age of eleven, when the first part of "Terminus" ended with Olvir shrieking "this is a leper ship… we're all going to die here!". To a child who's slouching towards puberty, waiting to be born as a grown-up, the thought of being trapped in a confined space with a diseased, half-crazed mob is scarier than… all right, I'll come out and say it. Scarier than anything in modern-day Doctor Who, although we'll come back to this argument shortly. The Mark One series covered so much ground that inevitably, everybody over the age of thirty will have been given the willies by something in it at some stage, yet the scariest memories (a) vary wildly from person to person and (b) aren't necessarily of the things you'd expect. You can probably think of your own examples.

I say "when the content has been scary", and there's a key point to be made here. In the 1960s, Doctor Who seemed alarming not because of the stories, but because of the medium itself. In the days of black-and-white, 405-line TV, the television set was a focal-point in the middle of a darkened room (you had to shut the curtains and concentrate in those days, or you wouldn't be able to see or hear a thing), which could make shapes and noises unlike anything else on Earth. Our present, media-saturated generation has nothing to compare with this experience [see also the article SF Iconoclasty 101, below, and its explanation as to why Quatermass seemed remarkable in 1953]. The programme may not have scared us as a work of fiction, but there were children - and, it's been said, some adults - who couldn't bear to be in the same room as the '60s title sequence, because it seemed so hideously alien. If anyone was ever really scared of the Cybermen, then it was because they were blobs in a snowstorm even when they weren't literally shambling around in Antarctica (q.v. "Carnival of Monsters"), and your imagination could supply the rest of the horror. This is what grown-up commentators were remembering when they insisted on the "behind the sofa" version of the series, an age when the television itself was like a monstrous alien tendril reaching into your home. "The Idiot's Lantern" got that much right, if nothing else.

This leads us to a conclusion that seems rather startling. The truth is that no producer before Russell T. Davies has consciously set out to frighten children. Verity Lambert commissioned stories like "The Daleks" because she wanted to make a programme that didn't look, sound or move like anything else on TV, not because she wanted to scare kids. Innes Lloyd insisted on truckloads of monsters because he knew that monsters got good publicity in the newspapers, not because he wanted to scare kids. Barry Letts set the alien menace on contemporary Earth for logistical reasons, not because he wanted to scare kids. Philip Hinchcliffe used the "gothic" approach because it was such an appealing aesthetic, not because he wanted to scare kids. John Nathan-Turner gave the thumbs-up to stories set in half-lit space-hulks because Ridley Scott was in vogue, not because he wanted to scare kids. Over the course of twenty-six years, any fear that may have been generated was largely a side-effect of the production style. Only a producer after the sixteen-year hiatus, after the element of fear had been misremembered and misinterpreted by the "retro" crowd, would go out of his way to make eight-year-olds wee themselves. It's telling that halfway through that hiatus, the TV Movie didn't even acknowledge that children might be watching, let alone attempt to put the fear of God into them.

And yet… even Russell T. Davies doesn't appear to have thought about a conscious, deliberate campaign of terror until his second year in the job. Nothing in any of his scripts for the Eccleston season indicates that he wanted the younger viewers to run and hide. The Autons were perhaps the closest that old-school Doctor Who ever came to a calculated attempt at freaking out the little 'uns, yet when the new-style Autons burst out of their shop-windows in 2005, it was presented as a dramatic moment rather than a horrifying one. The point of the shopping-centre scene is to show us that the aliens are about to win, and that nice people like Clive can die in this universe, not to provoke an automatic fear-response. Davies said as much in his script-notes. And nothing in "Aliens of London", which could so easily have been a textbook Yeti-on-the-loo story, puts fear above humour. Let's not forget, the ominous-looking scene in the mortuary is deliberately deflated with a funny-looking pig-person. When an alien does finally sit on the loo ("Boom Town"), we're just meant to go "awww".

So when Big Russell stated in a 2006 Radio Times article that Steven Moffat was the King of Terror, and that "The Girl in the Fireplace" would give us something just as creepy as the author's previous story, many of us were rather surprised. We've started to forgot this now, because we've had two years of the producer repeating the Moffat = Fear equation, but… fear wasn't seen as the be-all and end-all of "The Empty Child", at the time. True, the gasmasks came across as a wilful attempt to remind us of the horrid bits from "The Deadly Assassin", and the child himself was probably the most alarming monster that year. Yet if you actually watch it instead of half-remembering it, then you realise that the zombies aren't given any more emphasis than the other key elements of the script: Captain Jack's smartarse (or, under the circumstances, smartass) backchat, the sexy-hardware feud between the Doctor and his new rival, the emo-babble of Nancy and her secret baby… you can, in fact, imagine that Moffat might have been a little put out when his boss announced that he was now officially the Royal Fearmonger. As we saw last week, nothing in his prior work suggests that horror is his oeuvre. His Decalog tale "Continuity Errors" - not only his best Doctor Who work to date, but almost certainly the best Doctor Who short story ever written, although it may seem overly familiar now that he's recycled its central concept so many times - is set in a library, yet there isn't even the tiniest hint that libraries are in some way terrifying places, which is what Confidential has been telling us for the last two weeks.

All of which is rather worrying, especially if we're still obsessing over the question of what Moffat is likely to do once he becomes the huge, pulsating brain at the centre of BBC Wales. Traditionally, Doctor Who has always gone up a blind alley when the production team has decided that the series is "about" something or "must do" something. The programme-makers have now become convinced that fear has to be part of the package, even though this is based on the misconception that the stories were scary in the old days, rather than the nature of TV technology itself. Yet again, we turn to Tat, and his About Time essay (rewritten by me, for reasons of taste) entitled Was Yeti-in-a-Loo the Worst Idea Ever?. Here, he argues that the notion of Doctor Who being as simple as putting an incongruous item in familiar surroundings has caused the series to get things terribly wrong, time and time again. He wrote this before we had to suffer the banality of stories like "The Sontaran Stratagem", so he was doubly acute in spotting that it's not enough to put This Week's Monster in the heart of Middle England and expect it to automatically gel. My own argument is that it can work beautifully, but that knowing how to mix the real and the not-real is a specific skill [see the article The Immortality Gene, near the bottom of this page, for more]. However, here in 2008, Steven Moffat keeps telling us that the essence of Doctor Who is to "take something real, and twist it a bit". Is this a bad sign…?

It may well be, and "Silence in the Library" provides us with some telling evidence. Another thing we discussed last week, may my bones rot for mentioning it, is that Moffat is a little too self-conscious about his reputation. He needs to live up to Davies' hype, which has meant doing everything possible to embrace his King of Terror role, even if he never chose this path for himself. "Silence…" is, to date, his most forced attempt to freak out (but at the same time endear himself to) the children. It should be fairly obvious that the corpse of Proper Dave, shambling along the hallways while repeating innocuous-sounding phrases like "hey, who turned out the lights?", is an attempt to make this "The Empty Child" Parts Three and Four. Yet although there's much in this story that works, it doesn't work for the reasons its makers seem to believe. Yes, the kids will emulate it in the playground, but not because they're scared: "avoid the shadows" is just an irresistibly neat spin on "You're It", and as ever, fascination is more of an issue than fear. And yes, the lumbering cadaver will make an impression, but… in much the same way that the glut of CGI on television prevents any CGI in Doctor Who being remarkable, the sheer quantity of slightly-macabre cinema in the modern world removes any chance of this being genuinely terrifying. After The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter et al, a nasty skull-man is squarely within the realms of fantasy, not out-and-out nightmare. As one correspondent pointed out to me this week, a skeleton in a spacesuit is one of the cheapo "filler" monsters that can be seen wandering around Mos Eisley in Star Wars.

A much more obvious error, though, is the nature of the location. According to Confidential, it's set in a library because libraries are "creepy". The problem here is that… they're not. They're really, really not. For most people - especially the kind of people who might regularly watch Doctor Who, we hope - libraries are cosy, welcoming places, homes-from-home rather than ghost-infested labyrinths. In my childhood, the local library was the only public facility where you wouldn't get threatened by gangs of teenagers, the place where Tony Hart once turned up and gave a demonstration of collage-making. Unless the current generation is really buggered, I doubt enough has changed in the last twenty years to make everyone below the age of thirty believe that the books might hurt you if you stare at them for too long. It's a recurring problem with the new series (and especially with Moffat's work), but we're once again being told that we should have a specific emotional reaction to something, without being told why.

This wouldn't be so bad if it didn't come across as yet another salvo in Doctor Who's ongoing war against literacy. Despite repeatedly mocking us for being obsessed with all the latest iPod upgrades, the modern series seems to be of the opinion that anyone who reads anything more complex than a text-message must be mentally aberrant in some way. As we saw in Week Seven, this programme's idea of showing the audience "great" literary figures is to put a parade of historical stereotypes on the screen and then tell us just how great they really were, without any indication of what their work actually means. The real insult of "The Shakespeare Code" isn't that the depiction of the man himself is complete bollocks (it is, although that's apparently "part of the joke"), but that it presents his plays as automatic masterpieces without any context and without any sense of the age in which they were written. As a result, Shakespeare becomes something like a Big Brother contestant, who's famous just because he's famous. And don't tell me that you couldn't do the job properly in 45 minutes, because there's at least ten minutes of filler in the middle of that episode which could've been replaced by something that's actually about Elizabethan England, instead of being about Doctor Who as an entity in itself. "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is much the same, but with all the problems doubled: we're told by the Doctor that Christie's stories are the best mysteries ever, yet the only justification is that she's known heartbreak. What, and no other writers in history have ever been through a messy break-up?

Modern-day Doctor Who's vision of literature is that books are something which sit on best-seller lists, not something you read. This is why it's so troubling that "The Shakespeare Code" presents J. K. Rowling as a genius in the same bracket as Shakespeare, and why the Doctor's use of sales figures to back up his "why Christie was best" argument should be so utterly repellent to anyone who grew up with this series. But "Silence in the Library" virtually pisses in your face while explaining the modern world-view to you, although possibly I shouldn't bring urine into things again. The point is that the Library is meant to be the largest collection of wisdom in the universe, yet rather than revelling in the joy of the written word, it gives us a selection of sneering jokes about bad best-selling authors: with the whole history of printed language to choose from, the only names we hear are Jeffrey Archer and Bridget Jones. Fuck, in a very real sense, off. Worse, there's no actual reason for this to be set in a library at all, apart from the supposed "creepy" element. None of the ingredients here - books, shadows, zombies, '90s-style virtual reality, a little girl with a magic Sky-box - belong together at all, except that they're all on the author's Shopping List of Terror. The Doctor's sudden, unexpected revelation about the Vashta Narada living in forests / trees / wood-pulp is almost an admission that Moffat needs excuses to fit all these elements into a single storyline. A remote-control that makes books fly off shelves…? That doesn't make any kind of sense, aesthetic or logical.

You can see why I'm grumpy. At about the same time that this was being shot, I was amusing myself by writing "The Book of the World", a much shorter (and, to Hell with it, better) great-big-cosmic-library story that was actually about the uses of literature: the dissemination of knowledge, and the way it's controlled. To use books as nothing more than background scenery seems… disingenuous. In bad faith. Its only nod to the idea of even liking books is the Doctor's spiel about the way they smell, and that's copied straight from an episode of Buffy. After the first ten minutes, the script gets sick of talking about boring old books altogether, and rubs it in by showing us a girl talking to the Doctor via a TV set. At the very least, if this story is going to have any sort of meaning or consistency, then shouldn't she be communicating with him through a book (as in Harvey or The Never-Ending Story, both of which might be described as a lot closer to the spirit of Doctor Who than this)…? The real reason for the TV sequence is, of course, that the same idea went down so well with the audience in "Blink". Once again, this is Moffat's attempt to live up to his reputation, whether it's coherent or not. This may well be the most cynically contrived Doctor Who story ever made, although the worst part is that it's still technically more competent than almost everything else in this season.

Ah, but just look at the language I've used. Talking about the "spirit" of Doctor Who is a trap in itself. Nobody should ever be certain what this show is really "about", especially now we've been hoodwinked into thinking that it's "about" frightening the young. The oddest point, since "Silence in the Library" / "Forest of the Dead" is trying so hard to be what a certain generation remembers the series being, is that it's also the closest thing we've seen in the twenty-first-century to an old-style four-parter… or rather, the closest thing to what the old-style four-parters might have become, if the Mark One series had lived just a few years longer. You can easily imagine something like this turning up a year or two after "Survival", especially since Donna's VR nightmare-world would have been the height of fashion in the era of Total Recall, The Lawnmower Man, and that Red Dwarf episode with the squid. Here it's worth pondering the way modern two-part stories work, though. We have to remember, for example, that Russell T. Davies takes a completely different approach to everyone else. His epics all consist of two distinct episodes which happen to be connected, so that - for example - "Bad Wolf" is about television while "The Parting of the Ways" is about Daleks, or "Army of Ghosts" is about Torchwood while "Doomsday" is about a Godzilla-style bitch-fight between monsters. "World War Three" is boring if you think it's the second half of a movie-length adventure, but works if you treat it as a self-contained episode about the Doctor saving the world while stuck in a single building (which is why it was such a mistake to change the original title, "10 Downing Street").

On the other hand, everyone else writes two-parters as if they're single adventures with a split down the middle, to the extent that "Rise of the Cybermen" / "The Age of Steel" is unwatchable unless you understand that it's meant to be Doctor Who: The Action Movie. Moffat has a less "widescreen" attitude, and as a result, "Silence…" isn't so far-removed from the structure of Doctor Who in the days when we had to wait a whole month for a bad story to finish and a new one to start. What's more, this is the kind of story that could have been made even during the programme's most low-budget epoch. It's not as if we need to see the Doctor dangling from the outside of the building, or the surge of ugly CGI in the hi-tech lift-shaft. For the most part, it's a script about characters standing around and talking (and there's nothing wrong with that, although I bet the people who described "The Book of the World" as "too slow for the modern audience" are feeling silly now). The curious thing is that a story this… well… this neo-traditional should try quite so hard to provoke a terror-reaction from younger viewers. No actual story from the late 1980s would have done such a thing, just as no actual story from the 1970s would have been as banal as a "trad" Missing Adventure.

We return to the original question, then. Has Doctor Who ever, ever, ever really been scary? To which the short answer is… yes, but only by mistake. Fear was an occasional by-product of its real purpose, namely to show us things we'd never seen before, which is why it's ironic that "Silence…" looks so much like the new producer's Greatest Hits package. This week, spurred on by all the hype in the Radio Times, even the BBC announcer made a "behind the sofa" comment while the Girl Made of Neon was giving us the eye. But to be frank, the following 45 minutes wouldn't have scared me at any point in my life, not even when I was two. What we end up with is a series of increasingly manic attempts to raise the fear-factor, from the awkward (trapping the Doctor between two space-zombies, so that he has to reveal an astonishingly improbable escape-route at short notice) to the meaningless (Miss Evangelista's Picasso-face, yet another thing that doesn't belong in this story, and I bet she's not as brilliant and unloved as I am). We've long been referring to him as Steven "Did I Mention I've Got a BAFTA?" Moffat - although these days, we should perhaps take the Arthur Jackson approach and call him "Two BAFTAs" - and those parts of the script which aren't a sales-pitch to the children make him look as if he's doing tricks for the judges. River Song presents us with an almost Pavlovian repetition of the "tug on their heartstrings and they'll lap it up" technique from "The Girl in the Fireplace", this time with five minutes of extra-mawkish, extra-grotesque sentimentality tagged onto the end of the episode.

But as we already know, Moffat's not going to be able to keep this up across a whole series. For a start, he's just about exhausted his catalogue of textbook childhood phobias now - although I notice that he hasn't done "evil reflections" yet, so look out for an episode in 2010 with "Mirror" in the title - and hopefully, that means he'll be able to shake off his reputation as the village scarecrow. Otherwise, the producer himself may become more of a menace than any of his creations, in much the same way that Nathan-Turner's shirts were more offensive than anything Mary Whitehouse ever complained about.

Oh, now I think about it… the other thing which scared me as a child was the thought that it might rain upwards. After the freak weather conditions in "Smith and Jones" and the Bohemian Rhapsody Sycorax in "The Christmas Invasion", all I've got to worry about now is the possibility of aliens with the heads of giraffes. Maybe the intergalactic coastguard service, to compliment the rhinoceros police force.