Saturday, 14 June 2008

Week Ten: "Who Actually Likes This Programme, Anyway?"

The final, epic question about the future of That Thing On Saturday Nights Before The National Lottery.

I've asked a lot of questions over the last ten weeks, some of them quite big, at least by the standards of a world as small and unthreatening as fandom. I've asked whether our view of "historical" stories actually has anything to do with history; whether the shift in BBC drama from stage-plays-for-television to Hollywood-movies-for-television inevitably means a change in the programme's message; whether a story about dinosaurs at the Earth's core would be more interesting than "The Runaway Bride" (I believe this is what young people call "a no-brainer"); whether Doctor Who has ever really been scary at all, or whether the nation's children just want to play at being scared [see Footnote 1]; and whether Moffat is honestly the best man for the job, or whether we're all going to end up as eunochs in his personal harem, rolling cigars on our voluptuous thighs while he sups fine liquor from the faces of concubines in Hath masks. The answers I've supplied to these questions have sometimes been controversial, though apparently not as controversial as the incidental abuse of other writers. But we've known each other for a while now, and I think it's fair to say that I can't say anything to surprise you any more. In which case, here's the big one. It's a query that seems apt this week, since "Midnight" is the episode which sees our leading man ditching his celebrity sidekick, and since Jonathan Miller has (unintentionally) raised certain questions about the way this series is perceived. It's this:

How far are we past the point where David Tennant should sod off?

As you can see, I've been quite careful in loading this question, a la "have you stopped beating your wife yet?". It's based on the assumption that even if the answer is "no", then he should obviously leave the series now, and this in itself is a fun-size heresy. But that alone should tell you something. Naturally, any Doctor Who fan who grew up in the 1980s will be familiar with the sensation of wanting a specific Doctor to go away, and even Peter Davision elicited disapproval from those who favoured someone older, taller, or in some other way more like Tom Baker. Yet even in the days of Mad Tom himself, it wouldn't have been considered such a faux pas to suggest that the lead actor is no longer doing the series any good. And with that in mind, I should make my position clear right now. I have no criticisms of the Boy Tennant, in himself. His work has been exemplary. He's brought an enthusiasm to the job which is rare for any actor in any production, and when the scripts have failed, he's virtually held the programme together single-handed.

That's the problem.

If we're going to understand what the writers of this series have forced Tennant to become, then we have to understand that this is the first era in which the creators of Doctor Who are agonisingly aware of its reputation. The old-style, hand-crafted series was almost always made on the fly, and even at its ratings peak in the late '70s, nobody expected it to be on the cutting edge of popular culture. This was never a "flagship" programme until 2005. In the first two decades of its existence, it was considered perfectly normal to hire writers who didn't watch the series, didn't know anything about its history, and didn't have any ambition to write dialogue for Cybermen. On the plus side, this gave us Robert Holmes. On the minus side, we got Bob Baker and Dave Martin. The point is that since early Doctor Who was a make-do-and-mend affair, designed to be shown once on BBC1 rather than endlessly repeated on BBC3 or sold off as a DVD boxed set, there was no sense that writers should be aware of what had gone before. In fact, it could be a positive boon if they weren't, since it let them bring their own thing to the party. Look at the episodes that survive from the black-and-white epoch, and you'll see the Doctor developing new tricks all the time, as the actors and scriptwrights start to integrate new ideas into the performance. Since we've mentioned Robert Holmes, let's remind ourselves that he had no interest in the programme at all until he started subverting it. His scripts from the '70s were a reaction against what he considered to be "normal" Doctor Who, not a celebration of it.

It should be fairly obvious that this sort of thing is no longer possible. Any new writer on the series in the Davies-going-on-Moffat era is likely to be a fan, or at the very least, ultra-sensitive to the idea of what modern-day Doctor Who is "supposed to do". David Tennant has suffered from this even more than we have. His version of the Doctor has become a series of catchphrases, set-pieces and in-jokes, to the point where it takes a script as outré as "Midnight" to break the pattern. ("Outré" by modern standards, obviously. This is closer to the kind of television we had in the 1970s than any Doctor Who made since the 1960s, if you can unscramble the logic of that.) It's not the skills of the actor that are at fault, it's simply the way he's been used - abused, even - by the stories. Doctor Who scripts are now beginning to look like checklists of Tennant-Bites.

In its most blatant form, this has involved what we'll politely call "references", although that's obviously a euphemism for "things we've already seen done to death". Many of these exist purely to keep the fans happy, in much the same way that "Attack of the Cybermen" was meant to keep the fans happy. When the Doctor's "no, don't… don't do that" gag from "Tooth and Claw" gets a repeat performance in "The Shakespeare Code", it seems needlessly cynical, as if the modern programme is already relying on its own mythology. When Gareth does exactly the same thing again in "The Unicorn and the Wasp", it's not just embarrassingly unfunny but borderline insulting, although it's almost excusable if you treat it as a reminder for non-fans before "Midnight" turns the running gag into something rather more disturbing. Note that I say most blatant, not worst. You can at least try to ignore an in-joke, but it's so much more distracting if a Tennant-Bite turns up during a key moment in the story. You'd be forgiven for not being able to remember what actually happens at the end of "Forest of the Dead", because it's so cluttered with Tennant-era clichés - talking very quickly while re-wiring the electronics, banging the side of a piece of machinery while shouting "no no no no!", urgently trying to convince this week's New Woman In His Life not to sacrifice herself, doing his "everybody I care about dies" routine when he fails - that the narrative is almost completely obscured.

But if we want to examine the most telling, most egregious example, then we have to look to "The Doctor's Daughter". The lead character's "climactic" speech to the colonists, with its almost impressively unconvincing gun-to-the-head moment, is so inept that it's hard to believe the programme even has a script editor any more: the author has seen a selection of Tennant-Bites, most obviously the face-off against the Sycorax in "The Christmas Invasion", and written something that looks similar but lacks any of the wit, tension, or flair for language. "Make the foundation of this society a man who never would" is, in itself, deserving of some kind of award for being the most misjudged attempt at rousing rhetoric since Jeffrey Archer appeared on Question Time [see Footnote 2]. Yet the finished production just about gets away with it, purely because Tennant's performance is so self-assured that we can still believe he's wise, noble and world-changing, despite the garbage that's coming out of his mouth. The writers may seem determined to make him repeat the same tricks over and over again, like a freakishly sexy performing monkey, but it's a testament to his abilities that he still manages to retain some sense of passion. Raw enthusiasm is carrying this show, not the writing.

But for all his merits, we can't lose sight of the fact that the very presence of Tennant has distorted the shape of the programme. For the first time, we have a Doctor who's as much a celebrity as an actor, a Doctor who's become a non-ironic national sex-symbol, a Doctor who's an icon of something stylish and… whatever word teenagers use to mean "groovy" these days. Jonathan Miller's pooh-poohing of him was grossly unfair, but it does underline the point that many people see Tennant as a star name rather than a performing artiste. And this means that the Doctor himself is the focus of the series, rather than the places he visits. Some of us have been worried about this ever since 2005. Doctor Who is, in at least one version of its grand philosophy, a programme about exploration and empiricism: finding out how other people might live, how other cultures might think, how other worlds might fit together. It goes without saying that in "The Doctor's Daughter", the world we're visiting is such a side-issue that the mystery of how the colony was built is explained in one long, clunky sequence of revelatory babble, while Murray Gold supplies fast-paced "plinkety-plonk" music in case the talky scene seems boring after all the gunfights. The "exploration" side of the experience has never been sidelined to this degree before. Even when the series was slaved to Tom Baker's ego, and the plots were secondary to the lead actor's attempts to hog the camera, we didn't have anything comparable. Because now, it's not even the Doctor's actions we're supposed to be interested in, but his private life.

We've been primed to believe that this new "emotional" version of the Doctor is obviously an improvement. According to received wisdom, this is how telefantasy has to work these days, and the Mark One series obviously got it wrong: it's not enough for someone to explore the universe, he also needs to agonise about his feelings and occasionally break down in tears. Certainly, this is the way Tennant has been groomed over the last three years, but there's an awful lot of faulty thinking here. Firstly, it assumes that this teardrops-and-robots approach has been shown to work. Well, Buffy was good for the first few years, but… sorry, didn't that work because it was about teenage angst? And didn't it work, as I've said so many times before, purely because all the monsters were extensions of the characters' own adolescent crises? How does forcing David Tennant to look lonely every few weeks qualify Doctor Who as the same kind of programme? When Star Trek: The Next Generation first brought this self-indulgent mixture of SF imagery and over-the-top "emoting" to the BBC in the 1990s, everybody hated it, especially after Channel 4 started showing Babylon 5 in the same kind of time-slot. (This week on Babylon 5: a half-glimpsed horror from the dawn of creation reaches across the galaxy and tricks the whole of human civilisation into becoming cannon-fodder in its ultimate War of Armageddon. This week on Star Trek: Counsellor Troi remembers how distressing it was when her periods started. Go on, guess which one we preferred.)

The second problem is the definition of "emotional". In truth, what we're being presented with here isn't emotion as much as it's a pretext for soap opera. Since Tennant is every fangirl's favourite time-puppy, it makes sense to mine him for sexual tension, or just to find excuses for him to start relationships with girls. As a result, there's a New Woman In His Life every few weeks. Most of them die, although a few are promptly resurrected, to make sure we get both the "sad" and the "feelgood" kicks. Sometimes the resurrection is only temporary ("Voyage of the Damned"), but it's always spurious. It's rumoured that Steven Moffat himself stepped in and asked whether Jenny could come back to life at the end of "The Doctor's Daughter", apparently forgetting that he was scheduled to do exactly the same thing three episodes later. Are we quite sure that this is the "proper" way of making television in the modern age…? I personally don't know anyone in the "real" world, i.e. anyone apart from hardcore fans (who can obsess themselves with the continuity issues) or people who work for listings magazines (who can somehow manage to be impressed by the presence of an actress from ER), who felt even remotely engaged by Professor River Song. Most people I know said they just found her irritating, but we'll come back to the public reaction later [see Footnote 3]. The key point is that this programme is turning into Sex in the City with walking skeletons. If, indeed, that isn't what Sex in the City is.

By now, it should be obvious that putting an "emotional" Doctor at the heart of the series will inevitably warp the nature of the stories. What's less well-recognised is the way it warps the nature of the character, and what he's supposed to represent. The fact is that if they want to fulfil their quota of contrived pathos and tragedy-by-numbers, then the writers have to force the male lead to act in a variety of inconsistent ways. A handful of you may remember what I said about "The Impossible Planet", two years ago now. One of the ninety-two things which horrified me about this story - or "minutes", as they're also known - involved the notion that when the Doctor and Rose lose the TARDIS down a big hole in the ground, they behave as if it's the most appalling thing that's ever happened, and seriously believe themselves to be stuck in this time-zone forever. What?!? It's just a hole, for God's sake! In the unlikely event that they can't find a way to recover the TARDIS with the equipment on the Sanctuary base, all they have to do is get a lift back to the nearest Earth colony, make a small fortune by hiring themselves out as technical consultants / using the sonic screwdriver to give themselves an unlimited credit rating (as in "The Long Game") / robbing the nearest available Evil Corporation, then finance another expedition to the planet with proper lifting equipment. That should take the Doctor, what, a few months at most? An extended holiday in the fifth millennium, basically. (Come to think of it, there's so much filler in the story that they could easily have done something like this as a three-minute epilogue… no, that would have required imagination, wouldn't it?)

Instead, Our Heroes break down in tears and start hugging each other. You're not fooling me, what have you done with the real Doctor and Rose…? The agenda is plain, though: even after killing off the station's Token Sacrificial Young Woman, Matt Jones still wants to press the point that this is a "downbeat" story, so it's necessary to have the Doctor act like a shadow of himself in order to hit the right note of tragedy. And if this sort of thing was a problem in 2006, then now… well, just look at "Forest of the Dead" again. Despite being a testament to the Doctor's wonderfulness that ends up sounding like an overwrought love-letter from a fan (a standard Moffat technique to get fandom on his side, which he's been using ever since he appropriated Paul Cornell's "neither cruel nor cowardly" line for "The Curse of the Fatal Death"), the need to supply us with another Woman In His Life requires the Doctor to act out-of-character for much of the story. Which is to say, out-of-character for any of his incarnations. Presented with a friend from his own future, any Doctor I'm familiar with would (a) be delighted, (b) point out that this sort of thing is likely to happen quite often, and (c) instinctively trust her, while maybe keeping an emergency plan in his the back of his mind in case she turns out to be an alien shapeshifter of some description. That's what the Doctor does: it's in his very essence to expect the best from anyone he meets, and even the William Hartnell version would have greeted someone like River Song with a smiling "ah, but you see, my child…"

But, no. In fact, it takes the Doctor longer than the audience to work out who she is and what she represents, and he then wastes whole scenes snapping at her and demanding to know who she is. This is justified with the suggestion that River Song has hit some kind of (unexplained) raw nerve, but the real reason is that if you've got a Doctor whose private life is more important than his adventures, then you've got to have "angst". The fact that these "angst" sequences are both tedious and pointless is something we're not supposed to mention, because in the Desperate Housewives era, there's an implicit understanding that this is how "emotional" television is made (by which logic, the filler argument scenes in "Inferno" should be the most "emotional" thing in olde worlde Doctor Who). Nor are we supposed to notice that the entire nature of the character has been perverted. And I don't mean "perverted" in the fun way, either.

Even "Midnight", a script that goes out of its way to make the Doctor do something different, suffers the hangover of the same problem. Once again, we see him forming an emotional bond with a female guest-star. On this occasion, there's not a hint of UST, but the story turns up at exactly the wrong time. Over the last six-weeks-plus-Eurovision, we've had a two-parter that settles his relationships with his two female companions, a one-off about his cute daughter, a one-off about a "strong" female historical personality, and a two-parter involving a future companion-cum-lover. And next week we've got another episode about his relationships with two female companions, post-mortem or otherwise. It wouldn't have been so bad if Sky Sylvestry had been a man, and yet… now I've said that, focus on your instant gut reaction to it. You may well be thinking, "yes, but that would look a bit gay". If so, then this should tell you the whole story: everything the sexy Tennant Doctor does has to look like a form of flirting. More than anything else, that's what the programme is now "about". Not exploration, not adventures, but… flirting.

And even when the relationship is a non-sexual one, there's usually an implied schoolgirl-crush element, which is why the Doctor is only seen to engage with little girls and not little boys. I say "non-sexual", although one of those little girls insists on snogging him as soon as she meets him as an adult, which might be considered an extreme reaction to someone who once popped out of your fireplace and looked under your bed when you were eight. If the Doctor is Father Christmas, as Moffat tells us in "The Doctor Dances", then he's the Father Christmas it's okay to lust after. Just as soon as you're old enough.

Of course, there's a large part of fandom - and not just the female / gay part, either - which can't get enough of this sort of thing. But then, these are the people whose idea of the perfect Doctor Who story would involve the Doctor stripping to the waist and wrestling with Captain John Hart… and the reaction of fandom is, horrifying as it may seem, an important factor here. Opinion is still divided as to whether Russell T. Davies (OBE) pays any attention to the voice of on-line geekery, although at the very least, we can assume that it doesn't affect his judgement as much as the Radio Times coverage does. But we know for a fact that Steven Moffat lurks around the internet, because after all, the bugger's got nothing better to do at weekends than make badly-thought-out criticisms of my blog when I give him mediocre reviews. And Moffat wants us to adore him, which means making us sigh dreamily at the beauty and wonder of Our Doctor, as if David Tennant were a squidgey little voodoo doll through which he can absorb our love-vibrations. Oh, the slash-fic possibilities. We've already established that the entire Mme de Pompadour romance was a calculated effort to put fangirls in the mood for some hot, hot lovin' ("The Fire in the Girly-Place"…), but River Song's final elegy to the Doctor is almost as overwrought as Stephen Greenhorn's "a man who never would" scene, and it doesn't help that she ends up in an afterlife that looks like a Steps video.

A side-issue here… Moffat's intention is, and always has been, to present the Doctor as God as well as Santa. As we may have gathered from the "Fatal Death" line about saving every planet in the universe X times over, the author's logic is that since the audience knows how omnipresent the Doctor is, this should be reflected in the world/s around him. It's a workable idea, even if it's anathema to the original "exploration and empiricism" concept: the Moffat Doctor already knows everything, and never has to work anything out. Crucially, though, he's a cult figure in his own universe as well as ours. This is another sign that Moffat is deliberately pitching the show at a fan-audience (q.v. the Fifth Doctor's wholly out-of-character "are you a fan?" dialogue in "Time Crash", or the way "Silence in the Library" keeps going on about "spoilers", a word that isn't generally used outside fandom), but what we eventually end up with is the Doctor defeating the Vashta Nerada by saying "do you know who I am?", which is really just a massive cop-out disguised as an Iconic Moment. By this point, the "shadows" part of the story has served its purpose, and the script is more interested in the "tragic death and upbeat resurrection" part, which is why the writer has to contrive an unexpected auto-destruct sequence three-quarters of the way through. Then Our Hero obtains the power to open the TARDIS doors with a click of his fingers, the first step in an apotheosis that's precisely judged to make Tennant-groupies start giggling with joy [see Footnote 4].

So the magnificently cynical ending of "Forest of the Dead", if not the entire River Song strand of the plot, was aimed at you rather than the general audience. Even Alison Graham, whose Radio Times review of "The Girl in the Fireplace" was along the lines of "I couldn't understand it, but how romantic", found this episode baffling rather than moving. And since this argument is bound to start trouble at t'newsgroups, I'm immediately going to try to stop the playground fight by running to my mum. No, seriously: as a literate seventy-something-year-old woman, who has a nostalgic devotion to the Tom Baker version of the Doctor but no notion of modern-day "sci-fi", her opinion is useful if you want to see past all the clutter and self-obsession of fandom. A quick survey reveals that although she particularly liked "Smith and Jones", because the rhino-people on the moon were funny and exciting, she has no interest in the Moffat / Greenhorn vision of the series at all… because she can't understand why a programme that's meant to be about adventures in time and space should be so gushingly sentimental. If she wants that sort of thing, then she'll watch Holby City, like everyone else. Well, how can I explain it to her? "Yes, but you see, that's how it's done these days. Fandom has gone for this sort of thing ever since Buffy, and the writers want to appeal to that audience, so… you're not following this, are you? Look, do you know what the word 'squee' means?"

What we have to remember is that we in Geek World, being the type of people who find it much easier to get involved in silly television programmes, also find it much easier to surrender when someone points a gun at our collective head and insists that we should cry. I've already suggested that the "emotional" version of Doctor Who isn't really emotional at all, which is why I've had to use the words "contrived" and "cynical" so many times over the last couple of weeks, but here's the clincher: to an audience that doesn't already have our level of emotional investment in the show, an episode like "Forest of the Dead" is rather puzzling. Even beyond the massively over-inflated closing sequence, only a fan - with a fan's understanding of how important, and how iconic, the companion is supposed to be - would care whether Donna finds her perfect man inside a virtual reality machine or not.

We find ourselves getting to the nub of the issue, then. Is David Tennant actually popular with the general public? To which the answer is… yes, of course he is, are you blind or something? But the general public aren't like us. They don't see him as a good actor (which is how he sees himself) or a good standard-bearer for the long and wondrous tradition of Doctor Who (which is how we see him), but as a good celebrity. And, to be fair, he is: if I had a daughter, and by some twist of fate I hadn't managed to save her dignity by encouraging her to become a lesbian, then I'd much rather see her fantasising about Doctor Who than Justin Timberlake. Uniquely amongst Doctors, Tennant is one of us, not just a long-term fan of the series but someone who's even closer to the POV of the viewer than Peter Davison was. Nobody who saw his second appearance on Trick or Treat, playing Derren Brown's evil version of The Adventure Game, could have failed to like him. But just because he's popular, that doesn't mean the Tragic Doctor is an automatic audience-grabber. At this point in time, more than ever before, the average viewer doesn't give a pissing blink what kind of character he is. At least 45% of the audience would be perfectly happy if he started packing a gun and saturation-bombing any planet he didn't like the look of. Whether he's "emotional" and ends up crying over dead women every fortnight, or a goggle-eyed alien know-it-all like the late-'70s version, is of no consequence to them. That's for people like us to obsess about.

This leads us to the bigger, wider and scarier question of just how popular this programme really is. It's a delicate area, of course, because fandom has been defensive about this every since "Rose". Most Doctor Who fans, or at least those who can remember what a TARDIS made of Ceefax graphics looks like, still aren't used to the idea that millions of people now like the same thing they like. This has made them… may I say, rather belligerent? Suddenly treated as an important section of the audience rather than a sewer-dwelling, CHUD-friendly underclass, modern fans can be terribly sensitive about anything that might insult the programme's honour, and are more desperate than ever to close ranks. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, at least until someone pays attention: the startling backlash against my "Unquiet Dead" angstplosion only makes sense in an environment where the writers are seen as messiah-princes, leading us out of the darkness and into a shining new world of prosperity. A large portion of fandom still seems to feel duty-bound to protect this aristocracy, but since Mark Gatiss is a leading figure in the British media whose face has appeared on movie posters up and down the kingdom, I doubt he needs a retinue of geek-bodyguards to defend him from the likes of me. If I'd said that Tom Cruise sucks peanuts from the prostate glands of dead Mexican schoolboys, then nobody would even have shrugged. Likewise, I've been libelling Neil Gaiman for years, but no-one objected until it turned out that he might actually be part of the new Doctor Who writing team. [See Footnote 5.]

This has led to an obsession with statistics, with ratings, appreciation indices and merchandising sales-figures, that's unprecedented in our history. It's also led many fans to justify some of the programme's worst mistakes as "necessary", because "that's the way you've got to do things nowadays". I'd be prepared to gamble that in years to come, some of those fans will look back on the stories in question and think "hang on a minute, that was rubbish", but for now… for now, the reputation of the series must be protected at all costs. The irony is that at a time when the programme is less short-term than ever, when we know that any given episode is guaranteed to be repeated on digital telly for years to come, the show's obsessions are increasingly concerned with the Big Now. Present the audience with a new twist - like the arrival of the Doctor's offspring, a guest appearance by someone from his future, or the sudden return of Rose - and the fans will squick their own eye-sockets in excitement. Yet half a decade from now, once we know what all the pay-offs are, these episodes may appear rather flat. Just like Babylon 5 does once you know what the Shadow War is all about, or like Heroes does if you try watching it again on DVD, apparently. The story-arc obsession, like the Tragic Doctor, is another "way you've got to do things nowadays" that doesn't seem to strike a chord with the general audience as much as it strikes a chord with fandom. But anything the series does must be right, according to the faithful, because the ratings are so good.

Hang on… the ratings? Don't I pay £139.50 every year so that the BBC doesn't have to care about the ratings? True, ratings can give you a loose idea of a programme's popularity - very loose, as I'll demonstrate in a moment - yet since 2006, raw numbers have been used as an all-purpose argument. If you find "Love & Monsters" objectionable, then I'm not going fight you over it, even if you obviously need a sense of perspective. But when previously-reasonable fanboys start murmuring that Russell T. Davies shouldn't do that sort of thing, because it'll scare away the viewers and we might not get a new series, then you know something's gone fundamentally wrong. This entire series is, by its very nature, a gamble that paid off. Virtually everything the production-team did in 1963 was an experiment. Bringing it back in 2005, and pumping a colossal budget into it when most people saw Doctor Who as a nostalgia-piece, was a brilliantly absurd risk. This is why ITV never managed to make anything similar (Robin of Sherwood was the best it ever managed, and even that wouldn't have been necessary if the series had done its job properly in the mid-'80s), and why commercial television's attempt to cash in on the reborn family-adventure-series format is as sterile and as demographically-managed as Primeval. So when I hear fans criticising any form of risk just because it's risky, it sounds an invocation to make Verity Lambert's zombie rise from the grave and hack these people to bits with a poleaxe.

Still, it's not just the determination to hold onto the series that's made fandom want to chase the ratings. We've been so blinded, gagged and hog-tied by the market-driven notion of TV that the current generation barely understands the concept of television having a "duty". In the modern parlance, the BBC is what's known as a "public service" institution, but this makes it sound a little too much like a small Canadian channel that shows non-stop documentaries about whittling. We never called it "public service" in the last century, it was just… the BBC. We instinctively knew that publicly-funded television was part of a public trust, and saw it as a force for civic good. We could never understand, in the days of I, Claudius, The Ascent of Man and the golden age of Attenborough, why US commentators kept talking about TV as the "idiot box". It makes more sense now. Yet even today, the fact remains that in a television environment which has never been as commercially-obsessed as America's, ratings just aren't a useful way of measuring a programme's impact. As should become clear, if we pause for a moment to dwell on what happened to "Silence in the Library".

The viewing-figures for "The Unicorn and the Wasp" topped the eight-million mark, which is about as good as this programme can regularly hope for in the modern age. You could argue that this statistical triumph is partly due to the current season's strategy of avoiding stories which casual viewers might find unsettling, controversial, or remotely surprising ("The Sontaran Stratagem" might, in itself, be seen as a demonstration of why going after the numbers is a bad idea), but perhaps the most crucial reason is that just as in the 1970s, the series has established itself as part of the British way of Saturdays. Gareth must be delighted. Yet just one episode later, the overnight figures dropped to 5.6 million, barely higher than the "disappointing" first night for the new series of Big Brother. As everyone in the UK knows, the reason is straightforward: on that particular evening, ITV scheduled its misleadingly-titled freakshow Britain's Got Talent against Doctor Who. Just think what this means for a moment. It means that roughly one-third of the viewers will vanish if there's an ugly bloke dancing on the other channel. It's a crude estimate, but we might suppose that one-third of the "Unicorn"-sized audience is what we might call "loyal"; one-third isn't that bothered, but thinks CGI monsters are prettier than Piers Morgan; and one-third will watch anything that moves while stuffing its fat gestalt face with oven-ready pizza.

The "appreciation index" isn't any help, either. When the viewing-figures plummeted for "Silence…", fandom was determined to point out that audience appreciation rose to an all-time high of 89%, and that this was surely the important thing. Do I really need to point out what's wrong with this picture…? The first thing to remember is that the appreciation figure is guaranteed to be higher in 2008 than it was even during the heyday of the old series, thanks to the immense shift in the way people watch TV. In the 1960s, the audience would stick with a single channel on a Saturday night, whether they liked all the programmes or not. We all know that they didn't have remote-controls in those days, and that there was only ever one television per household. But more crucially, viewers were conditioned to think of the television schedule as being much like the bill of a variety show, in which you patiently sat through the warm-up acts in order to watch the star attractions. Doctor Who was one of those warm-ups, even if the children didn't see it that way. The '60s series sometimes got appreciation figures as low as 30%, and the answer to the question "why didn't they just switch over?" is that it simply wasn't how people did things back then. In a sense, they were too polite.

Now think about the "Silence in the Library" score again. The audience drops to two-thirds of its previous size, and suddenly the appreciation index pops up to 89%. Are you really surprised? The programme has just lost one-third of its audience, the one-third which is most likely to answer "no" to the question "did you like this programme?". The remaining 5.6 million includes a higher proportion of people who always like Doctor Who, no matter what, so naturally the score is going to hit its peak. If anything, the most surprising part is that the difference was just a few percentage-points: in a world where anybody who doesn't like the programme is liable to switch off after the first five minutes, a score above 90% would hardly be shocking. Or, in short… the appreciation scores are as meaningless as the viewing-figures. I'd put hard cash on "Midnight" taking at least five points off the percentage, even though - for my money - it was better than any non-Davies episode this season. Look, I've paid my £139.50, I'm entitled to something I like every now and then.

Oh, and there's one other problem with the appreciation index: in order for it to have any meaning, you have to assume that everybody else in the world is stupid. Wait, let me qualify that. Supposing they'd asked me whether I appreciated "Silence in the Library" or not. What on Earth would I have said? As you've probably gathered by now, I thought it was cynical, contrived, slow-moving, a long way from the author's best, and so full of recycled material that the "monsieur, what are you doing in my television set?" scene manages to look like "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink" at the same time. However, it was unquestionably better than virtually anything else on television that week, so I'm not going to insist on a negative rating just to poke Moffat in the eye. If we're talking numbers, then I'd give it a 6/10, but does that really sum up my feelings? Complex opinions aren't welcome in this system, and when we talk about the reaction of "the ordinary viewer" to Doctor Who, we tend to make the assumption - sometimes snobbishly, sometimes born of experience - that the "ordinary viewer" is an ignorant pikey who isn't even capable of complex opinions. If someone told you that the index is designed to establish the response of Mr and Mrs Wayne Riddock from South London, then you'd accept it without question. But if someone told you that it's designed to establish the response of people like you, then you'd feel rather insulted by the suggestion that your views can be reduced to a binary choice. Wouldn't you? [See Footnote 6.]

The upshot is that whatever it's supposed to measure, no numerical system is capable of capturing the impact of any popular phenomenon, especially not a TV series as potentially unpredictable as this one. We could go further, and say that any attempt to reduce things to an uber-score is likely to hobble the programme, whether the voting is done by the viewers or by other TV people. We might once again consider the damage that's been done by Doctor Who's newfound status as an award-winner, firstly as a result of Sir Big Russell hanging around at gala events and believing that celebrity culture is what constitutes "the real world" these days, and now by Moffat's insistence on maintaining his reputation as a Friend of the British Academy. I've already pointed out that the monsters in "Voyage of the Damned" look like walking BAFTA awards, but this is quite apt, since the BAFTAs have proved themselves more adept at destroying the Doctor than any other enemy [see Footnote 7].

We just have to face the fact that there's no reliable way of judging the effect of this series on the public consciousness. All we know is that the action-figures are still on sale in Tesco's, but that very few of them have been snapped up since Christmas, and that the Queen obviously didn't think "Love & Monsters" offended her dignity too much. You probably have your own system for assessing the quality of the series at any given point in time. Mine obviously involves anal mathematics - I am, after all, the man who went speed-dating five times (with twenty dates in each session) just so he could establish his attractiveness to the opposite sex as a percentage score - and it tells me that while the 2005 season scored an astonishing 6.5, the 2006 season scored a disappointing 2.5, and the 2007 season scored a roughly acceptable 4.5, the 2008 season is currently so far into minus figures that it'll be lucky to hit zero. With viewing figures of eight-million, we can probably assume that the general public don't hate it. However, we're also left with the impression that they'd watch just about anything as long as it involved our slinky leading man and lots of spangly colours. All the evidence, and not just the note from my mum, would certainly seem to indicate that there's nothing in the current "trad runaround and occasional weepie" model of the series that the viewers are particularly keen on.

In fact, the idea that people will watch anything that's full of Tennanty goodness is a curse more than a blessing. All the signs are that the Moffat-era production-team will have to find a new star soon. When the nation accepted that the Doctor was supposed to be played by an eccentric character-actor, up to and including Christopher Eccleston, finding the next-in-line was never really that difficult. But Tennant's status as celebrity, sex-symbol and victim of various tragic love-affairs makes him even harder to replace than Hartnell was, back in the days when "regeneration" was just something starfish did. It means that the producers are shockingly limited in their options. Russell T. Davies has gone on-record as saying that a modern Doctor has to be young and athletic, but that's just the start of it: he also has to be good-looking and an instant hit with The Kids. Troughton, Pertwee, Baker and Davison wouldn't stand a chance these days, even if they happened to be the right age. Nor would Paul McGann, the most forced attempt at a generic "handsome" Doctor so far. Nor would Eccleston himself, whose boxer's-face would make teenage girls say "eww, minger!" after the current model, and whose arrogant manner would be discomforting to people who've become accustomed to Tennant's matey, non-threatening approach. I did say he'd warped this series, if through no fault of his own.

If it sounds as if I'm saying "who can possibly be the next Doctor?", then I'm afraid I'm actually saying something much worse. It's simply this: with search-parameters so narrow, replacing Tennant is going to be impossible unless the producers distract the audience's attention by presenting them with a big enough gimmick. Why do you think I've been so terrified that the next incumbent will be either David Walliams or Matt Lucas? Neither of them is Tennant-sexy, and Walliams isn't even half the actor he's been made out to be, but as well-known, well-liked comedy stars - as people who automatically come with the aura of celebrity, and with an associated amount of audience goodwill - either one of them would be instantly accepted as a familiar quantity. Actually, I've been trying not to say out loud it until now, but… Catherine Tate's appointment as a companion can be thought of as a knock-on effect of Tennant's own star-status. She would have been unthinkable if Eccleston had stayed on, yet she makes sense if the public have come to think of Doctor Who and his companion as a light entertainment double-act. Now, there's always been a light-entertainment aspect to this series, and it's traditionally been closer to The Morecambe and Wise Show with aliens than Battlestar Galactica with extra English accents [q.v. the article Bring Me Sunshine-Monsters, on the next page of this blog]. But at its best, it's been driven by actors who realise that their job is to supply the drama, not the hi-jinx. That's now in doubt.

I hate to say this, because some idiot always says it when it looks as if we're coming up to regeneration time, but on this occasion there's actually a logic behind it. This is the first time in Doctor Who's history when the producers might, conceivably, cast a woman. No, think about it: the only way to overcome the negative-shock of Tennant's departure is with someone identical-but-better, or with someone whose novelty value lets the programme-makers get away with anything at all. Apart from the extra publicity generated by the massive psychic trauma - because let's face it, when it comes to ratings, the Bluestocking-Doctor's first episode would be the only thing capable of topping a Christmas Special - the sheer confusion, as schoolgirls gloated over schoolboys and arguments raged in every broadcast medium, would allow the producers to cast a virtual unknown if they wanted to. It's one of the very, very, very few escape-routes that the Tennant era has left us. It is, if you will, like the Doctor dropping through an unexpected trapdoor when sandwiched by zombies. Besides, Moffat likes working with sexy actresses. He's not stupid. [See Footnote 8.]

So, what have we learned? David Tennant has become irreplaceable, in the bad sense of the word; the show is now almost as fan-conscious as it was in the days when John Nathan-Turner used to say things like "I know, let's have the Cybermen and the Autons and the Mentors of Thoros-Beta in one story!", even if the results are a lot less disastrous; any attempt to replace the leading man will be like tickling Atlas under the armpits; and the first person to mention Joanna f***ing Lumley gets kicked in the face. But most of all, we've learned that nobody really knows what this programme is, or what part it plays in the public consciousness. Doctor Who is still a peculiar thing to find in a modern consumer society, however staid it may have become in these last few days before Sir Big Russell's retirement. A programme with some form of ethical agenda is still a novelty, even if that agenda has become… all right, let's say "strained" rather than "compromised". Nobody, least of all the new generation that watches it, has figured out exactly how to react to its existence. Glossy "lifestyle" magazines - from the RT to Heat - have pretended that it's a show about CGI and celebrities, because they can't quite get a grip on it otherwise. We know it's something more than that, although we can't always express what. And one of the hardest tasks that Moffat and company will have to face, when they re-boot the series for 2010, is working out what the mission statement is supposed to be.

Which means answering that fundamental question. Who does actually like this programme, anyway? No, more than that: who is it for?


1. Something I should've mentioned last week, when discussing the appeal of "The Empty Child", "Blink" and "Silence in the Library": from a child's point of view, are-you-my-mummy, keep-watching-the-statues and count-the-shadows are all games more than nightmares. Tom MacRae reported to Moffat that the week after "Blink", children in his local playground insisted on keeping one of their number "on point" to make sure the nearby statues didn't come to life, but it'd be an insult to the intelligence of eight-year-olds to suggest that this was because they were actually frightened. Rather, they were integrating what they saw in Doctor Who into the rules of their own private game-world. The element of "play" has always been more important to the success of this programme than the element of fear (part of the appeal of the Daleks is that they're so easy to impersonate), but even Moffat may not realise the full extent of this.

2. This is the third week in a row that I've had to mention Jeffrey Archer, and I'm not happy about it.

3. Actually, not all the listings magazines were distracted by Alex Kingston's appearance as a Strategic Guest-Star: Time Out, a publication that's usually quite happy to fawn over big names from American TV shows, seemed to find the whole affair rather silly. We might recall that despite being at least as loyal to Doctor Who as the Radio Times is, Time Out also refused to take Torchwood seriously. They're not all daft, these journalists.

4. In this light - and I'm sure someone must already have said it on the newsgroups - we might reconsider the subtext of River Song knowing the Doctor's name. If the Doctor is God in Moffat's view of things, then does he call out his own name during sex? Like that old joke about Jesus hitting his thumb in the carpentry workshop, and shouting "oh, me!".

5. If you recall, I compared Steven Moffat (actually quite favourably) to Neil Gaiman, who spent much of his early career trying to groom himself into something like a rock star: Sandman began its run at a time when comic-books were the "in" thing, and he consciously set out to present himself as the first uber-celebrity of the medium. The fact that he used to have his publicity photos taken in sunglasses and a leather jacket was in no way intended to be ironic. In the wake of "Silence in the Library", however, the rock-star analogy seems rather apt. This is only Moffat's fourth story, yet he's already depending on his back-catalogue. You know what it's like when a band splits up after the third album, and the record company puts out a "Best Of" compilation, even though everybody knows there isn't enough material to fill it…? We can only hope that he'll reform in 2010 with a whole new line-up, although it'll be a bad sign if he starts wearing shades on Confidential. Maybe we can treat Doctor Who like the Reading Festival, and throw bottles of wee at him if he gives us a bad performance. (Why do I always start talking about urine when Moffat's involved? Is it just because his "alpha male" behaviour makes me want to mark my territory?)

6. Correction: researching this further, I'm informed that those involved in compiling the index are asked for a score between 0 and 10. So it's not binary, but it's still inadequate. "Silence in the Library" gets 6/10 as a work of Doctor Who, yet Doctor Who gets 10/10 as a Platonic ideal, and I doubt there's a box you can tick on the questionnaire that says "disappointed, but still feeling a strong emotional attachment that's largely rooted in childhood optimism". I'd be interested in knowing what the index for Britain's Got Talent was like, although I've found that if you type "Britain's Got Talent" and "Appreciation Index" into Google, then you just get endless Doctor Who sites pointing out how good the score for "Silence..." was and how evil ITV is. Oh, and I'm also told that the Torchwood episode "Exit Wounds" got 90%. Is it possible for an appreciation index to be sarcastic...?

7. All right, never let it be said that I can't own up when I'm wrong. Two weeks ago, I stated that The Singing Detective was never nominated for a BAFTA award. A quick consultation with the British Academy's database reveals that this is untrue: I took my information from an interview with the director, who clearly doesn't have much of a memory for these things. But the point I was making, that our expectations of TV drama have sunk like a Hath in quicksand over the last two decades, still holds. Apart from The Singing Detective (the kind of masterpiece that the BBC simply wouldn't risk making any more), 1986 brought us The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (bizarre-looking now, but in a good way) and A Very Peculiar Practice (written by Andrew Davies in the days before his soul was torn out), as well as The Monocled Mutineer. As an aside, I can't help noticing that these three programmes gave us Tom Baker squeezing the biggest pair of jugs ever seen in a serious television drama, Peter Davison starring in his second-best role opposite "Midnight" henchman / celebrity offspring / former Peladon autocrat David Troughton, and Paul McGann doing both his "working-class" voice and his "posh" voice in a single production.

8. Until recently, you could have argued that the other obvious "surprise" tactic is to cast a Doctor who isn't Caucasian. But since this is now the only programme on British television in which the proportion of non-white people in the universe is (not unreasonably) higher than the proportion of non-white people in the UK, this would be less than shocking, and more likely to make Mr and Mrs Wayne Riddock say "oh, now they're just being politically correct" than to start a heated national debate. It's worth noting that there's still a relatively small hard-core of actors who perform most of the Black Character duties on British television, and over the last four years, Doctor Who has used up all of them except Colin McFarlane.