Saturday, 5 July 2008

Week Thirteen: "25 Ways to Make Doctor Who More Interesting"

Oi, Moffat! We're looking at you here.

Now, I could dissect this week's extra-length technobabble-spasm with another minute-by-minute breakdown, asking why the line about the Doctor becoming one of the 'playthings of Davros' makes it sound as if he's going to be used as a Rampant Rabbit for all his remaining lives, or pointing out that Phil Collinson is still turning up on Confidential with a big grin on his face and shouting "this is the biggest thing ever!" as if he's the child who's just done the loudest blow-off in the school, or querying how on Earth Russell has managed to make the outrageously over-budgeted End Of All Possible Universes seem quite so teeny and incidental. But on the other hand, there's a very real risk that it'd end up as a list of sixty-five items which all read "what a bloody cop-out". So all I'll say is that I now know exactly how people who don't like "Love & Monsters" must feel: the Abzorbaloff is acceptable (if only in a one-off comedy), but this is silly. On the plus side, if Donna ever tries to come back, then she explodes.

So instead… let's take refuge in the future, one last time.

By this point, it's fairly obvious that the series does have a future, and that even "Journey's End" isn't likely to make Doctor Who asphyxiate under its own bloated mass. Just a few months ago, this was by no means certain. Note that I say "series", not "programme": there was never any chance of the BBC leaving its flagship to rot, but the decision to make "specials" in 2009 might feasibly have been interpreted as an attempt to put it on an Only Fools and Horses footing. We should remember that we live in an age which prefers the one-off Big Event to the series, and that this is a far more credible reason for the audience drop-off between "Rose" and "The End of the World" than either the content of the show or the imminent loss of the leading man (and given that he was the first truly Northern Doctor, I still can't think of his departure without thinking of the words "Bye Ecc"). After the first forty-five minutes, a lot of people simply felt that they'd seen Doctor Who now, and that they could move on to the next thing. The BBC must realise that occasional specials are a much cheaper way of keeping the golden goose alive, as well as a much more efficient way of pulling in the ratings.

Except that… they don't really seem to care about the ratings. True enough, everyone involved must feel a certain smugness at being able to snare eight-million-ish viewers, at least unless ITV's broadcasting something more audience-friendly like fat people falling over. But the appreciation index appears to be more important to rabid fans than to the BBC's commissioning editors. We know for a fact that media people like to please other media people, far more than they like to please the masses. I said at the beginning of this season that the target audience for modern Doctor Who is Jonathan Ross, and this is worth keeping in mind. Even if the ratings permanently fell to the ITV-dented level of "Silence in the Library", or the appreciation index permanently fell to the "Jesus Christ, are these people philistines?" level of "Love & Monsters", the programme would almost certainly be recommissioned anyway. Media people love it. Many of them want to be in it. Russell T. Davies (OBE), Kylie Minogue (OBE) and Paul O'Grady (CBE) are the new TV aristocracy, and perversely, the back-slappiness of this series could be the very thing that ensures its survival. Media people aren't like us, remember. They think Catherine Tate can represent an "ordinary" woman-in-the-street. They think Alex Kingston is in some way a major coup.

Nor is the new producer likely to see things any differently. Nearly two years before Jekyll was broadcast, Moffat told me that the project was going to be delayed, because they were still waiting for its Mystery Big Star to be available for shooting. I felt rather let down, to say the least, when it just turned out to be that bloke from the Yellow Pages adverts. Nobody in the "real" world would consider James Nesbitt to be a serious actor - especially after Moffat's series, in which he doesn't so much chew the furniture as swallow an entire branch of Ikea - but the "real" world isn't the crucible in which TV is forged.

In the last three weeks, Doctor Who has been on the cover of the Radio Times twice. This would have been inconceivable even in the days when there were only eight programmes on television. And let's make no mistake about it, the RT is a much better indicator of the strength of the series than any mere statistics. Its reviews get far more attention, certainly from the programme-makers themselves, than any opinion we punters might have. This is rather disturbing, when you consider what the magazine actually says. We know that this year's season has been a suffocating disappointment, not because it offends the sensibilities of fandom (again, "Silence in the Library" has to be interpreted as an all-out effort to appeal to fans more than floating viewers), but because it's so often been lazy, banal, half-arsed, sluggish, obsessed with its own reputation, and - in places - chronically misjudged. Whereas according to RT hack-in-general Alison Graham, "Journey's End" is "the finale of one of the best-ever series of Doctor Who". This makes more sense when you remember that Graham considers anything more complex, imaginative or inspirational than Desperate Housewives to be beyond human comprehension. She can't follow the plots of Waking the Dead, and she didn't understand what either "The Girl in the Fireplace" or "Forest of the Dead" were all about.

Twenty years ago, it would've beggared belief to think that the future television editor of the Radio Times wouldn't even be able to make sense of populist, mainstream BBC programmes, but this is indicative of what's gone heartbreakingly wrong with British television. TV drama is virtually a redundant art-form, while documentary doesn't get much more challenging than The Woman Whose Vulva Fell Off, so it makes sense that the RT should cease to be an inquisitive-yet-humorous look at BBC programming and become a celebrity-obsessed "lifestyle" magazine instead. Graham, certainly, sees Doctor Who as nothing more than a stage for big-name guest stars and tepid soap-opera. "The Sontaran Stratagem" seems to have been her favourite of this year's stories, partly because it involved so many turgid "relationship" scenes, but mainly - we suspect - because it was on her intellectual level. The idea that any television programme might exist to broaden the minds of the viewers, let alone do anything inventive, is alien to her. She admits to recoiling in horror at the thought of The Ascent of Man. And if she doesn't "get it", then she gives the review to her pet sci-fi nerd, Mark Braxton… but he only understands over-inflated story-arcs of the Battlestar Galactica oeuvre. The result is that while "The Sontaran Stratagem" is hailed as "barnstorming", "Gridlock" is "slow" and "Utopia" is "a clunker". Is it any surprise that much of the 2008 season has been such a gutless mess? These are the people whose opinions really affect the thinking of BBC Wales.

(While I'm on the subject of idiocy and the Radio Times… I note that on this week's letters page, the Letter of the Week award has been given to a complaint about Panorama's investigation into Primark which has clearly been written by Primark's public relations department, posing as an outraged viewer. Nobody outside PR would use the phrase "hatchet job" in this context, and nor would a regular audience-member say something like "employment of children and exploitation of the poor in India are complex social issues" before immediately falling back on Primark's standard if-we-didn't-exploit-them-then-they'd-be-unemployed argument. The prize for Letter of the Week is a digital radio, and I'm amused by the thought that the Primark board might hold a special meeting to decide who goes home with it. Hmm… maybe they were the ones who inserted that "cheap shots" cop-out line into "Planet of the Ood"?)

Enough of the blather, let's get down to business. The following 25-point programme may not be a way of guaranteeing that Doctor Who is great - only a competent scriptwriting team could ensure that, and in the Age of Chibnall, even competence is a precious commodity - but it would at least give the series a chance to escape its current rut of showbiz fan-fic and computer-generated slurry. Tick the ones you agree with, and if you tick all 25, then I'm available for a September wedding.

Here are our demands. If they're not met, then we'll kill another hostage every two hours…


1. A companion who isn't from the early twenty-first century. The Davies-era production-team has, for the last four years, insisted that an audience "needs" a connection with the modern world in order for SF to function. It believes this because it comes from a bizarre parallel universe where Star Wars isn't the most popular movie ever made. Naturally, pretend-historians like us know that when the series was at its most iconic in the late '60s, the (supposedly) less media-savvy audience was quite happy for the "point of view" characters to be an eighteenth-century Jacobite and an idiot savant who used to live on a space-station. We also know that when it was at its ratings peak in the late '70s, it ran for four whole years without anybody Earth-born on the TARDIS at all. Yet despite all reason and audience research, the belief remains that our identification figure has to be an ordinary-but-somehow-great individual who's got a worried mum in 2008. This is a blind alley, for reasons we've already covered in this journal, although there are two noticeable ironies here. One is that Billie Piper went straight from Doctor Who to The Ruby in the Smoke (repeated on BBC1 straight after "The Stolen Earth", and neatly scheduled to clash with Confidential on BBC3), in which she plays a character no more and no less sympathetic than Rose, but this time in period costume. The other is that Catherine Tate alienated enough of the audience to force the Doctor to become the identification figure for most of this year's stories, burying the "everyday boy or girl" theory once and for all. Which obviously leads us on to…

2. A companion who's played by a proper actress. There's no point savaging Catherine Tate again, although it is worth recalling that her most notable "serious" roles before "The Runaway Bride" were in Bleak House (she gets a single scene, and warps it out of all shape by mugging while everyone else is acting) and an ITV series so awful that nobody can even remember what it was called. The more important point is that even if they'd cast a good celebrity, her status as a Star Name would inevitably have opened up a gulf between the audience and the character. Even Hollywood knows better than to cast Will Smith as an Ordinary Joe rather than a superhero or a cyborg policeman in the future. They got lucky with Billie Piper, since nobody expected such a compelling performance from the girl who sang "Because We Want To" (you know the one, there's a Judoon in the video). I was told about her casting on the 1st of April, 2004, and seriously thought it was an April Fool's joke. The producers seemed to acknowledge the one-off nature of this success by hiring a complete unknown as her replacement, something that paid off, at least in those episodes where the writers gave her something to do: it's no coincidence that the tabloid criticism of Martha eased off after "Human Nature", one of the scripts that doesn't treat her as a cartoon teenager who says things like 'no way!' every thirty seconds. I'm lookin' at you now, Gareth. But if the New Girl has to be a known quantity, then she should at least have a track-record of being likeable, which is why I keep telling people that my ideal model for a new companion is Elaine Cassidy as an Oirish peasant-girl from the Potato Famine. I say "New Girl", but…

3. We don't necessarily need a single companion. In fact, it'd be a positive boon if we expanded the crew-compliment of the TARDIS. This sets alarm-bells ringing for many off us, because it reminds us of the overstocked console room of the early '80s, and therefore of Adric. But we should bear in mind that the original plan was to keep Tegan while ditching Nyssa, something that was only scuppered when Peter Davison insisted on Sarah Sutton staying around, for diabolical reasons of his own. Now, I'll freely admit it… up until this time last year, I was convinced that the 45-minute format couldn't support a regular cast of more than two, but recent events have changed this. Consider: the current set-up of the series demands an "emotional" Doctor who has "emotional" crises, often involving love affairs, implied or otherwise. These "Doctor Weepies" have now become an almost ludicrous sub-genre, as well as twisting the character beyond recognition, as we saw in Week Ten's angsticle. But if we must have Relationship Issues, then wouldn't it be preferable to let the companions do the job? A lurking relationship between Boy Companion and Girl Companion - possibly even Girl Companion and Girl Companion, if another man on the TARDIS would look a bit Captain Jack these days, or if Moffat wants to surround himself with totty a la Coupling - would not only spare the Doctor from soap-opera, but be sustainable across the series, since the UST could be gently suggested within the stories rather than requiring specific, mawkish-looking "romance" episodes. Oh, let's just come out and say it now…

4. No more affairs for the Doctor. I mean, really, this is just getting daft. "The Girl in the Fireplace" was acceptable, even if was so desperately contrived that it necessitated Moffat's worst-ever scene (y'know, where he has to introduce a Vulcan mind-meld in order to justify the relationship). But "Human Nature" / "The Family of Blood" did this sort of thing as well as it's ever, ever, ever going to be done. As we saw in Week Nine, the implication of "Forest of the Dead" hovers somewhere between "bewildering" and "irritating", depending on (a) how you interpret River Song's Doctor-naming capability and (b) whether or not you just want to slap her. I'm harping on about Moffat here, not only because he's the one most likely to attempt this sort of thing as a Fangirl Trap, but also because he's the one whom other writers are most likely to try to emulate. The fan-reaction to "Fireplace", in itself, raises the possibility that future writers will see this as a model of what "proper" Doctor Who should be like. And with its author now in Big Russell's Big Shoes, it's not hard to imagine the scriptwrights trying to flatter his vanity. It's always been easy to picture Russell T. Davies ensconced in his debauchery-riddled palace, forcing script editors to dance for his perverted entertainment and dropping them through a trapdoor when they cease to amuse him: only Helen Raynor has managed to survive, since he finds her sadism entertaining, which is why she's been made his major-domo-cum-slavemistress. On the other hand, we might imagine Moffat as a Ming the Merciless figure, demanding constant tribute and adoration from his vassal-princes. Actually, let's cut through this whole tangled issue by saying that what we really need is…

5. A less sexy, less athletic Doctor. The question is whether the public is even capable of accepting a non-sexy Doctor in the wake of the Boy Tennant. Tellingly, the thing which most surprised younger viewers about BBC4's repeat of "The Daleks" wasn't that the Daleks themselves were so rubbish, but that the Doctor was an incontinent old ratbag who had to get other people to do all his running for him. This is, however, just another reason to consider tag-team companions instead of a single girl assistant. A Boy Companion might reasonably allow BBC Wales to bring in a leading man who isn't quite so pretty, just as a Boy-Companion-meets-Girl-Companion relationship might allow the Doctor himself to avoid the romantic interludes. The other issue is that we've reached the point where the Doctor has to do bloody everything, the technobabble and the diplomacy and the stunts and the snogging, while the companion hovers nearby and makes occasional out-of-character comments about the Dewey system. Anyone who's seen '80s straight-to-video curiosity The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, about a two-fisted science-adventurer who's also a brain surgeon, engineer, racing-car driver, expert marksman, rock star and comic-book writer, may find this awfully familiar. And I do mean "awfully". The really interesting thing would be for the Tennant-Doctor's regeneration to half-fail, leaving him crippled and confined to a wheelchair, and forcing the New Ian Chesterton to do all the fighting. Seeing the nation's favourite hero as a crip would do wonders for the disabled. All right, that's probably too much to ask, but at the very least…

6. No spurious super-powers. It makes sense that there are certain things the Doctor should definitely, instinctively be able to do. While the '60s series didn't even see him as biologically different to the rest of us (no second heart, and the Daleks refer to him as "human" even after his rejuvenation), the '70s series drew the not-unreasonable conclusion that since he's a Time Lord, he should be immune to / aware of niggling little issues like time running backwards or Jagaroth messing around with the internal workings of history. Even his nanite-juggling skills at the end of "The Doctor Dances" are acceptable, if you re-insert the cut dialogue between the Doctor and Rose in Captain Jack's spaceship, which establishes that he has this ability before it's used to save the day (page 373 of the script-book, if you're taking notes). The trouble is that as we've already seen, Moffat's version of the character is both God and Father Christmas. The logic is that since we know how hugely iconic the Doctor is, the universe he inhabits should perceive him as all-powerful. But history teaches us that this is a bad idea, not least because we remember Tom Baker's ability to acquire any super-power of his choice at any given moment: we might especially recall the final episode of "The Invasion of Time", in which he puts Rodan into an instant trance just by saying 'you're hypnotised'. The worst of all portents is "Forest of the Dead", since it hints at a future Doctor who's even more powerful than the massively over-fetishised one we've already got, even though many of us would prefer him to be rather less powerful. The sister-issue of this is…

7. The Doctor shouldn't know everything. Another thing which surprised the junior geeks about "The Daleks" was that the Doctor seemed so bleeding clueless. He'd never even heard of the Daleks, for God's sake. The original vision of the series, with its suck-it-and-see approach to TARDIS navigation, forced the regulars to work out where they'd landed and deduce how any new world might function: all they had was A-Level history and a grasp of basic scientific principles, yet this sense of being thrown in at the deep end was a big part of the programme's appeal. This changed almost overnight in "Spearhead from Space", in which the Doctor suddenly became an all-purpose know-it-all who insists on regaling his sidekicks with stories about Lamerdines and Medusoids, simply because a programme about an alien stuck on Earth has to work differently to a programme about the exploration of other cultures. Sadly, his smart-arsedness never went away when he got his dematerialisation circuit back - especially not during the Douglas Adams script-editorship, in which he became a poster-child for smug, university-educated bores across the galaxy - and the new series has taken this to extremes. With the honourable exception of "Midnight", the Doctor now routinely knows the details of any species, planet or piece of technology he comes across. "World War Three" at least has him struggle to find the right information, as if his memory works like Google, but even this idea has now been put aside. We're no longer being invited to learn about the universe along with the characters, we're being asked to swallow rapidly-recited info-dumps, even though the information doesn't always make sense. Perhaps we can simplify all of this just by saying…

8. The Doctor shouldn't be perfect. A tale from personal experience here. When BBC Books re-booted the Doctor Who novels at the turn of the century, the editors decided on a universe in which the Doctor would be the only remaining Time Lord, and in which the structure of time itself would be in doubt. My contribution to this was a recurring character called Sabbath, the idea being - and this was made quite explicit in the character-notes - that he was the Doctor's "replacement" in this new continuum, which meant that the Doctor himself could be a fish-out-of-water again. After years of knowing all the universe's cheat-codes, he'd suddenly find himself exploring an environment where he didn't really belong, and which he couldn't automatically predict. The sort-of-villain, not the hero, would be the one who knew how the universe worked. It sounds good in theory, but did it come off…? Did it arse. Within months, the other writers were churning out books in which the nasty, evil Sabbath was making horrible mistakes that threatened space-time, while the all-wise, all-knowing Doctor patiently explained what his arch-nemesis was doing wrong before rushing off to stop it. We might consider Lloyd Rose's comment that Sabbath was indistinguishable from the Master, which makes me wonder if she's even literate, in any meaningful sense. Mind you, the complete wrongness of the bad guy is only the ninety-eighth worst thing about Camera Obscura. Wait a minute, I'm getting bitter, let's start this again.

8. The Doctor shouldn't be perfect. The reason for the Sabbath debacle - and, indeed, for the relative shiteness of many of the later novels - was simply that the fan-audience, including the part made up of semi-professional writers, just doesn't like the idea of its time-travelling love-poppet failing in any way. The neo-TV version of the Doctor has, once again, taken this tendency to absurd extremes. The highs are when he jumps through mirrors on horseback, but the lows are… look, do I really have to use the phrase "make the foundation of this society a man who never would" again? The writers have the freedom to assume that the Doctor is innately inspirational, and that everything he does must be right, which means they can have him spout utter cackpole and claim it's a meaningful moral argument. It may have been a long, long time since the Doctor was flawed enough to mess up the mercury supply of the TARDIS, just out of spite, but the modern version can't even make elementary mistakes like locking everybody in a lighthouse with a Rutan shape-changer. The only time he ever misjudges anyone is in his personal relationships with human beings, which means that he's thoroughly good, decent, noble and true, but still capable of looking "haunted" and "tragic" every few weeks. God, what a f***ing bore. Danger should always be a skulking presence in the Doctor's persona, and I don't just mean the satsuma-of-death kind, either ("The Christmas Invasion"). Even cuddly Troughton was envisaged as a Pied Piper figure, capable of bringing down a whole society if you treated him badly. And to complete this line of thought…

9. The Doctor's presence should never, ever be the solution. It should be fairly obvious by now that if you dropped the Moffat version of the Doctor into any story made in the 1960s, then he'd sort everything out in under five minutes and still have time to flirt with the Embodiment Gris. Increasingly, there's the sense that it doesn't really matter what he does, just as long as he's around to do something. The character himself is gradually becoming a deus ex machina. "The Christmas Invasion" just about gets away with it, because it is meant to be about "swearing in" the New Doctor as the Doctor, so we're not disappointed when the story ends ten minutes after he wakes up. But even the best of scripts, like the otherwise remarkable "Gridlock", can suffer from this sort of thing: the whole plot is geared towards getting the Doctor into the Face of Boe's sanctum, at which point he saves the world by… erm… I dunno… messing around with some wires, or something. And we've already covered the "do you know who I am?" scene in "Forest of the Dead", a Bad-Wolf-sized cop-out disguised as an iconic moment, which sees the Doctor win out just because he's the Doctor. This problem reaches critical mass in "The Stolen Earth", which is all about summoning the leading man to the intergalactic crime-scene. Alison Graham may love this sort of thing - the idolisation of the Doctor is, after all, a form of celebrity culture - but it can lead to some truly pointless stories. Is the Doctor present? Is there unlikely-sounding technology in the vicinity? Then it's game over. Which points the way to…

10. No technobabble. Discussing the script for "Rose", Russell T. Davies pointed out how important it was to avoid a technobabble-heavy solution, which is why the Doctor's defence against the Nestene Consciousness is only referred to as "anti-plastic". This was, of course, quite right: if the hero has a weapon that's designed to do a specific job, then it should seem iconic, not shrouded in a pseudo-explanation. Looking back at the old series, we realise that a little technobabble is tolerable if it makes an aesthetically-pleasing idea seem credible (the concept of a crushed planet releasing energy on psychic wavelengths seems sound in "The Pirate Planet", so we're not greatly offended by lines like 'a peak power level of 5347.2 on the vantalla scale', even when Tom Baker keeps fluffing them), but not if it supports the entire plot ("Arc of Infinity" makes no sense whatsoever, and every new development is driven by a spurious piece of hardware that does something we don't understand for reasons we're never told). Yet now he's older, more careless, and swaddled in royal patronage, Russell seems to have forgotten this. Even on a good day, technobabble can clog up an otherwise workable scene. We can accept that alien bees might leave a trail across the universe, we don't need to hear pretend-science about the Tandoka Scale. We might pause to reflect that despite David Whitaker's weird, alchemical ideas about mercury and static electricity, the early series only ever depended on science that had some relation to actual physical laws. This is wise, not for "educational" reasons, but because it makes manic alien technology seem almost instinctual. If a device uses transmodrahangelistic energy, then we couldn't care less about it. If it uses gravity, then we immediately know what it's likely to do. But more importantly still…

11. Absolutely no "magic wand" technology. Those of you who witnessed the interview with Russell on Friday's This Morning may recall him saying that although the Doctor technically should die after thirteen lives, the series can always 'wave the magic wand', and give him another thirteen by having him find the Crystal of Mangooska Six or some such. (He didn't actually say "Mangooska Six", but I wasn't taking notes.) Though this is a fair point, it's still alarming to hear the words 'magic wand' from the man who's been responsible for more heartbreaking cop-outs than any other writer in television history. We might list any number of examples, but perhaps the most typical is the Dalek Hoover in "Doomsday", which doesn't even make a shred of sense: there's nothing in the void, yet anybody who goes there soaks up background radiation you can see with 3D glasses, and this causes things to get sucked back into the abyss if you open it up. Riiiiight. "The Last of the Time Lords" is even worse, despite being comparatively (I said comparatively) feasible. In my review of "The Sound of Drums" - the proper one, not the one that just repeated the word "boring" twenty-eight times - I said that I couldn't see any point in spending a whole episode droning on about the boring Archangel satellite system, except for the horrible suspicion that it was going to be This Year's Reset Gadget in the second half of the story. See, I know what I'm talking about. Even so, I don't think any of us were expecting the whole of "Journey's End" to be an Argos catalogue of improbable hardware and meaningless adjectives. While we're in that neighbourhood…

12. Please, in the name of God, less stories set on modern-day Earth. I'm reminded of the ads for the American Doctor Who novelisations that used to appear in Famous Monsters magazine, which didn't seem to believe that anyone would care about adventures in space and time unless the human race was in peril, and which even claimed that Davros in "Genesis of the Daleks" wanted to conquer the universe "…including Earth!". It doesn't seem as funny after these last two weeks. This brings us back to point 1, although the problem here isn't so much that the producers think we "need" constant, near-identical Earthbound stories, it's their belief that pitched battles involving UNIT troops are a crucial part of what the series does. Yet even leaving aside the fact that the original series went three whole years without bothering to land in contemporary London, we should remember that when we did start to see Yeti-on-the-loo stories - most notably "The Invasion" - it was part of Derrick Sherwin's escape-plan to get out of BBC Drama and make flashy, film-based adventure programmes for companies like ITC. "Spearhead from Space" comes from the same loam as Department S, so to believe that this is "typical" Doctor Who rather misses the point. Besides, isn't it the job of Torchwood and Sarah-Jane to do this sort of business…? The usual argument is that episodes set in the "real" world help to balance the budget, but although that's fair enough in the case of "Blink", it doesn't ring true in the case of "The Poison Sky". Which may not be the absolute worst that the modern-day series has to offer, but which is rapidly becoming the model for How To Make A Programme That Can Go Anywhere In Space And Time Yet Somehow Isn't Interesting. Actually, let's go further…

13. No more alien invasions. As you may have gathered from the SF Iconoclasty 101 article, one of the most galling things about the work of Mark Gatiss is that he honestly believes Doctor Who and Quatermass to be the same sort of thing, even though they come from radically different traditions. Indeed, many of the elements that fans now consider "trad" are clich├ęs from other forms of SF rather than from the series itself. As a result, it's taken as read that alien invasions are a "standard", even though the only prior period when this was true (the early '70s, natch) was actually something of an aberration. Many of those who were there at the time remember thinking that stories like "The Ark in Space" saw the programme getting back on track after the Department S years. Again, we note that in the ratings-winning Late Baker epoch, there isn't a single "conventional" alien invasion story. The simple fact is that alien invasions aren't interesting, and lead to plodding, gargling, personality-free monsters. But the killing irony is that even in the UNIT years, the writers did their best to avoid invasions wherever possible, just because the idea seemed so trite: they preferred Silurian politics and interplanetary diplomacy to UFO warfare, and even "The Claws of Axos" gave us a kind of threat we hadn't seen before. You may note that "The Christmas Invasion" doesn't actually feature an invasion - the Sycorax just want a hold full of slaves, and as far as we know, they've got no interest in the territory - but the i-word is invoked to suggest a specific sub-genre of story. The final insult is that with "The Stolen Earth", even the end of the universe becomes a pretext for yet another boring takeover, and Russell seriously believes we'll treat it as a big event just because the flying saucers have got Daleks on board this time. On the subject of scale…

14. Stop wasting money on "big". Hey, kids! Wouldn't it be nice if the TARDIS went somewhere completely new every week / two weeks, not just visiting historical set-pieces and colony planets, but messed-up interdimensional spaces as well? The answer is "yes", I'm sure you'll agree. However, we're led to believe that part of the reason for the programme's obsession with the London Borough of Cardiff is the relative cheapness of Earth-based stories. We believe this because the series' relocation to UNIT HQ in 1970 was also meant to be a cost-cutting exercise, yet this often backfired, and "The Mind of Evil" ended up being the most expensive story ever made (well, arguably… working out the rates of inflation is a bugger). But we have to face the fact that the modern series could be vastly more ambitious if it stopped throwing away money on large-scale crowd-pleasers which don't really please crowds. As we saw in Week Seven-and-a-Half, the most engaging parts of "The Fires of Pompeii" were the "human" moments, not the immense eruption effects: in a society as image-saturated as ours, the audience really does prefer drama to explosions. Why bother pouring precious Licence-Fee cash into epic shots of Dalek saucers tearing down skyscrapers, when anyone who likes that sort of thing would be much happier going to see schlock like Cloverfield or The War of the Worlds? The full scale of this problem will only be obvious to you if you've seen the episode of ChuckleVision set in ancient Rome, which - with nothing more than a few stock sets, props and costumes - looks exactly as convincing as the good bits out of "Pompeii". But of course, the biggest single issue here is…

15. Less CGI monsters. Or "Christ God It's Monsters", to give them their full title. We've had a complete article examining this, so let's just go through the basics again. Nobody's impressed by them; they're in every ad-break on ITV; they cause writers to write lazier scripts, and actors to put in less convincing performances; they'll inevitably be perceived as gosh-wow special effects rather than credible parts of the story-world, which is why the audience finds it so much easier to engage with "solid" monsters; and apart from anything else, the living mannequins, gasmask-zombies and weeping angels have proved to be a damn sight more popular than the Reapers, Krillitanes and Carrionites. CGI can be a wonderful thing, when it's trying to be genuinely beautiful (as in the latter stages of "Gridlock") or just setting a scene (the use of computer technology to fill the Globe Theatre with wenches and peasants), but only the neurotic billionaire perfectionist George Lucas has ever been responsible for organic CGI forms that don't distract the viewer's attention from whatever the story's supposed to be about (meaning the computerised Ewan McGregor in Attack of the Clones, not Jar Jar Binks). And writers tend to be guided by a consensus view of what's technological practical, so in the CGI era, no SF programme is complete without a ripply space-time portal or a tedious energy-burst sequence. The hackneyed "evil" energy seen in "42" is bad enough, but worse is the deus-ex-machina energy that leaks out of Georgia Moffat in "The Doctor's Daughter". I know what I'd like to see leaking out of Georgia Moffat, although that's another issue. However…

16. Stop making straight-to-video horror movies with all the horror taken out. …for the most egregious abuse of CGI, we have to look to "The Lazarus Experiment". You may recall that a walloping great photo of the Gatiss-faced abomination appeared in the Radio Times under the headline "Is This The Scariest Monster Yet?", and you may also recall thinking "is it f***", but the crassness of the Lazarus Horror is nowhere near as annoying as the nature of the story. The word "story" has to be used cautiously here, since this - more than any Doctor Who of yore - really is just about being chased up and down corridors. Even Heat magazine noticed that it was a big-screen monster movie condensed to 45 minutes, although since Heat is Britain's foremost celebration of ugliness in all its forms, the reviewer was under the impression that this was a good thing. We should know better. Chris Chibnall, as a long-term fanboy, certainly should. Yet just two weeks after Greenhorn's attempt, he gave us "42", and I've already pointed out the tragic irony of this episode being broadcast on the same night that Jason X got its UK television premiere. Now, it is true that horror tropes can work quite well, in this continuity… if they're the right tropes. It makes sense for "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" to be staged as a Hammer Horror, because after all, Hammer shared so many of its influences / traditions / actors with pre-1980s BBC drama. But modern TV's obsession with making everything look as Hollywood as possible has led us to believe that it's perfectly all right for the series to remake chaff like Event Horizon without the eye-gouging sequences. You know the story I mean. Let's push the point, though…

17. We need writers who can write, not just directors who can direct. The Grumpy Fandom University lecture which appeared in Week Three of this blog ("The Complete History of Doctor Who: Director's Cut") didn't provoke much response from the Student Body, possibly because it was less scurrilous than most. But it said something which strikes me as key, not just to this series but to British TV as a whole: that the shift of emphasis in TV drama, from theatre-for-television to big-screen-movies-for-television, has had a devastating impact on the content of the programmes. As a result of this, there are almost no great TV dramatists left. The fact that a lowest-common-denominator hack like Paul Abbot is considered a "serious" writer is bad enough, but a more telling sign is that even those who write good scripts tend to write good cinematic scripts. At his best, Russell T. Davies is one of these, and perhaps the greatest challenge for future-era Doctor Who will be finding others. Here it may be worth noting that the reason "The Chimes of Midnight" gained a reputation as the strongest of the early Big Finish audios wasn't its content - amusingly, it has the same plot as an episode of The Real Ghostbusters, with exactly the same surprise twist - but that Rob Shearman is a properly-trained writer rather than an author of fan-fic or a professional storyboarder, and it's significant that his background is in theatre. It's also significant that Moffat has apparently welcomed him back into the fold, because can you really see someone as dialogue-obsessed as Moffat wanting to hire Stephen Greenhorn again? Oh, all right, I'll say it…

18. I should obviously be hired as a writer. You know it makes sense. Especially in the light of Russell's This Morning interview - broadcast on ITV, a sure sign that commercial television knows it's not worth putting up a fight - in which he revealed that it takes him a month to write a script. A month? It took me four days to write "The Book of the World", and it was oodles better than "Voyage of the Damned". And let's not beat about the bush, if I'd written something like "The Stolen Earth" / "Journey's End" as a piece of fan-fiction, then everyone would have laughed. Instead, I came up with something completely different for Doctor Who to do, in under a week. Since I've repeatedly pre-empted this series, but always been slightly more interesting, surely my complete lack of television experience and habit of insulting everybody / telling the truth all the time shouldn't stand in the way? Dennis Potter used to offend almost everyone he met, and it never stopped him. (This is a serious point, by the way. I'm the ideal television writer. Sadly, I'm the ideal television writer circa 1976. Apart from the fact that I'm on the wrong side of the theatre / cinema divide, the modern media is New Labour rather than Old Commie, and anyone involved in it has to be "on message" all the time. This doesn't suit my liver.) I can understand why Russell never decided to draw on my wisdom, since he only seems to be familiar with my early work, and I'm not sure I'd hire me on the strength of Christmas on a Rational Planet. But Moffat knows better. No? Fine, then let's try a different writer recommendation…

19. Make sure you hire the right "cult" comic-book author. Grant Morrison, yes. Alan Moore, certainly, if you can convince him that television isn't a medium of pure and unapologetic evil. But Neil Gaiman? F*** off. Actually, let's think about this in more detail. We might remember that although Alan Moore may have a hatred of all moving pictures now, he's admitted to being a former Doctor Who purist who felt personally offended when Hartnell left, and I do keep saying that the programme needs to remember its original principles rather than revelling in Hollywood set-pieces. Also, Moore wrote early, seminal DWM comic-strips like "4-D War", the soil in which modern-day fan-writers fed their hungry, thirsty roots. So why anyone would conclude that a self-important spinal parasite like Gaiman is the ideal man to work on the series, I have no idea. No, that's not true… I know exactly why, but explaining it would libel two people at once. Let's abandon this whole tectonically-unsafe area now, and turn the clock back to…

20. We need one - just one - proper historical story. We used to call them "straight" historicals, although as we learned in Week Two, even the most upstanding of them can go bendy in the middle. But once, just once before Jonathan Ross' kids get sick of this programme and the BBC cancels it, it'd be nice to see a story set in the past which doesn't involve an alien spaceship crash-landing there or a disembodied intelligence trying to take over the body of Jane Austen. The argument against this seems to be that the twenty-first-century series needs to fulfil its monster quota in order to keep the family audience watching, but this is demonstrably bunk: nobody had a problem with the pan-dimensional psycho-drama of "Turn Left", and it's fair to say that the novelty-shop time-beetle wasn't what held everyone's attention. Moreover, it should be clear by now that if you must have a CGI showpiece, then the public is more likely to respond to something historically "epic" than to a flying saucer or a shape-changing robot. After all, you're less likely to see an army of crusaders sacking Constantinople in the ad-breaks of Ant and Dec, so it has an obvious novelty value (and even children tend to find the men-versus-tigers scenes in Gladiator more exciting than modern space opera). If CGI is better at grandiose architecture than slippery monsters - and, oh, it is - then recreating the past should be this programme's stock-in trade. At least, it should if it can remember how to tell a proper historical story, which brings us to…

21. Historical stories which are actually about the era in question. This list is fast turning into a "Best Of" compilation of things I've already said in previous episodes, but if Moffat can get away with it, then so can I. Over the past few years, the programme has been quite shameless in using history as a form of background scenery, without feeling any need to remind the audience that it's part of how we got here. We can almost (I said almost) forgive "The Unicorn and the Wasp", since it's aping another form of drama rather than trying to show us the '30s, which is why it comes across as a shoddy episode of Poirot with an even shoddier giant insect pasted into the middle of it. More worrying is Gareth's prototype, "The Shakespeare Code", which isn't even set in the Elizabethan era: it's set in a tourist-trap built for Americans and / or Alison Graham, where the only realities are the Globe Theatre and in-jokes. Once again, "Human Nature" scores points for actually reflecting the concerns of 1913 in its themes, although it loses a few for the scene in which the Doctor's squeeze states that women of Martha's colour can't be doctors (a contrived way of saying "hey, boys and girls, people used to be really racist!", even though someone in Joan's position would be far more likely to assume that Martha studied for a slightly dodgy doctorate in one of the colonies). Even the head writer is prone to using other centuries as wallpaper, because I'm still not entirely clear why the decision to feature Queen Victoria immediately suggests the idea of bringing her face-to-face with a werewolf. Or karate monks. But perhaps there's a larger issue here…

22. Monsters that fit the story. All right, back to "The Unicorn and the Wasp". Let's be generous, and accept that they chose a wasp as the villain because of the "Death in the Clouds" connection, rather than because it was an easy special effect to do. (You know why it's not as good as the one in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, don't you? The Harryhausen wasp makes horrible, twitchy little movements with its legs that make you go "wuuuh". The CGI one just floats around like an end-of-level monster from Sonic the Hedgehog.) But it kills people by… stabbing them, poisoning them, and pushing masonry onto their heads. What?!? The killer is a giant alien insect, yet it doesn't even sting anybody, and - from the point of view of the murder mystery, such as it is - might as well be an ordinary human being. This is pure madness, although sadly, it's not a unique case. It was just as berserk to use the Sontarans to tell a story about atmospheric pollution, and even the Doctor has to point out that they don't usually operate this way. It makes sense for an episode like "Rose" to introduce the series to a new audience by using ever-present contemporary menaces like shop-window dummies and… er… wheelie-bins, just as it makes sense for the monsters in a Pompeii-based episode to be made of volcanic rock. But in a story like "School Reunion", the choice of bats as this week's God-awful effect is wholly arbitrary. Bats? In a story about school…? Although I'll excuse "Smith and Jones", because a tale about a hospital being teleported to the moon is so pleasingly mental that the aliens might as well be rhinos as anything else. And on the subject of ill-fitting monsters…

23. Enough of the Daleks. No, really, enough. The horrible truth is that Daleks aren't interesting in themselves, which is why Terry Nation could never get his US Dalek series off the ground. They were superb in the context of '60s British television, because they were so perfectly suited to the harsh monochrome environment and its radiophonic techno-spookery. They started to look obsolete in the early '70s, until Robert Holmes forced Nation to rethink his "Genesis" story (the original outline was barely distinguishable from "Planet of the Daleks") and turn them into an ethical fable. As we've seen, Davros himself only really works in this setting, and in "Journey's End" he could bore for Skaro. With Holmes gone, the Daleks reverted to rubbishness for "Destiny of the", then became Eric Saward's bitches until Ben Aaronovitch reinvented them as a nostalgia exercise. The same issues affect the new series. "Dalek" works because it's iconic; "The Parting of the Ways" works because we've never seen a true Dalek epic before; "Doomsday" works because there's so much else going on; but "Daleks in Manhattan" stumbles by taking them for granted, and so they become second-rate monsters again. And perhaps the greatest flaw of "The Stolen Earth" is its belief that we really, really care what the buggers get up to. But we don't, and neither does the general audience. "Dalek" didn't do much for the ratings, because Doctor Who and the Daleks are so closely-connected in the national psyche that nobody who doesn't already watch the former will tune in to see the latter. "Rise of the Cybermen" saw a much bigger spike in the figures, because people of a certain age associate Cybermen with a specific Golden Age, and wanted to see how the new versions compared. Which means that these days, the Yeti would be a bigger draw than yet another Dalek Invasion of Earth. Right, what else? Oh yeah…

24. Say no to story arcs. Again, my own personal experience tells me what a bad idea these are. Hardcore fans love a nice bit of foreshadowing, but the fact remains that the more importance you place on the arc, the less important the individual stories become. More worryingly in our case, an arc-driven programme can only surprise the viewers by giving them "shock revelations", rather than by using television in an unexpected way… which is what Doctor Who has always excelled at. Fans of arc-heavy sci-fi shows believe everything to be slaved to the end-of-season finale, but this is a dangerous tendency, and one which perhaps led us to expect more from "The Stolen Earth" than it was ever likely to deliver (especially since, for my £139.50 per annum, it was less unexpected than "Midnight"). I'm sure I can't be the only one who feels cheated that "the walls between realities are collapsing" actually turns out to mean "Rose, Mickey and Jackie are coming back for a couple of weeks". The other side-effect of the story-arc culture is that the final instalment ceases to be a narrative, and instead becomes a checklist of Who Lives and Who Dies. In this case, "Journey's End" looks a lot like a universe-hopping edition of I'll Do Anything, in which the companions are lined up in front of the audience and told that one of them will be permanently removed from the continuity. Following the show with Last Choir Standing would have been rather unnecessary, if one of them had actually died. Okay, just one more thing and we're done…

25. Less Confidential, more Totally. Let's come out and say it, Doctor Who Confidential has done everything it usefully can do. Every important aspect of the show's production has been covered (with the obvious exception of writers bitching about each other in restaurants), and increasingly, it's a platform for Russell to explain how "vital" it is for the companions to have dreary, meandering conversations about their relationships with the Doctor. And do you honestly want to see Moffat's leering, snarling face on BBC3 every week in 2010, as he pretends to be humble about having the best job on Earth? No you do not. If we're going to have a "fanzine" show, then surely something along the lines of Big Brother's Big Mouth would be preferable? Then we could all tune in to watch Ian Levine wrestling the Abzorbaloff in a fit of righteous pique. Totally Doctor Who may frequently have made us squirm, but to be honest, it was exactly what we would've liked to see on children's telly when we were kids. Now that the "official" magazine is so repellently dumbed-down (I'm referring to Doctor Who Adventures, which would have been an insult to the intelligence of the seven-year-olds who read the original Doctor Who Weekly in 1979, and which honestly seems to be modelled on the Teletubbies magazine), Totally has more reason to exist than ever. Although I can understand why it'd have to take a year off while the companion is a thirty-seven-year-old temp who looks as if she hates children.

Besides, I'm suffering Kirsten O'Brien withdrawal. I've had a thing about her ever since I saw her as part of a double-act on the London comedy circuit, where she finished the set by rubbing whipped cream into her crotch. You don't forget a thing like that.