Saturday, 12 July 2008

Week Thirteen-And-Then-Some: Mission Debrief

If you thought what happened to Donna was sad...

As a 36-year-old obsessive who's now classified as being at the less intense end of the "Autism Spectrum" (a recent invention, which replaces the now-obsolete Spastic ZX-81), I've increasingly found myself able to look back at the cultural history of the '70s, '80s and '90s, and see just how badly the last three decades have been mis-remembered. I now appear to be living in a curious and unfamiliar world where everybody always said that Han Solo was the cool one out of Star Wars, and sci-fi fans immediately acknowledged Yoda as a modern icon instead of shouting "he's meant to be a Jedi Master, but he's just a shrieky Muppet!" for the first three years; where the whole of mid-1980s society revolved around The Breakfast Club, and viewers were shocked and appalled by The Word instead of saying "Christ, this is shit" but watching it anyway because they were too stoned to change the channel; where Kurt Cobain was a legendary figure even before he proved that he really, really did have a gun, and Oasis were the epitome of BritPop instead of the slug-bodied MOR behemoth that rolled over BritPop and flattened it forever; where Davros was always a ratings-winner, and we watched Doctor Who from behind the sofa instead of pressing our faces up against the screen.

This isn't just the result of all the clips shows and nostalgia exercises, in which minor celebrities who half-remember something from a conversation they had in a pub in 1986 are allowed to re-write the last thirty years in fast-setting soundbite-crete. Nor is it just the result of all the re-brandings and re-packagings, in which the stars of high-profile remakes try to tell us what the original film or TV series was "about", according to what the new version wants to be about (even Doctor Who Confidential is prone to this). No, it's the sheer speed of the modern media that really does it. These days, cultural events can be mis-remembered mere days after taking place: the first simple, one-paragraph description will be repeated and quoted until it becomes absolute. We might refer to this as Peter Haining Syndrome, and I mention it now just because of the media reaction to "Journey's End". According to the Entertainment News section of BBCi, the bank-breaking, logic-defying Season Finale received a "mixed" reaction from fans - which I'm assuming is accurate, in much the same way that the statement "sprouts receive a mixed reaction at Christmas" is accurate - but crucially, it used the words "anti-climax" immediately after pointing out that some viewers expected a New Doctor Who. I'm convinced that this is how pop-history will remember things, and that posterity will claim we felt disappointed because David Tennant didn't regenerate properly. Whereas in fact, we felt disappointed because the entire episode was one of the stupidest things ever broadcast on BBC Television.

Mind you, I can think of worse lapses in history. On the letters page of the latest Radio Times, one viewer writes (with some bitterness, but posing as sarcasm) that he was "surprised" to see professional Jesus-baiter Richard Dawkins appear in "The Stolen Earth", since Doctor Who involves a Cosmic Lord who's prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of humanity every week. Once again demonstrating that Christians not only believe themselves to have invented and copyrighted the basic tenets of human civilisation, but all the stuff they nicked from the world's other cultures, as well. Oh, yes... the Radio Times. Following last week's account of its descent from "Friendly Face of BBC Broadcasting" to "Heat magazine with more pictures of Daleks", you might perhaps find it surprising that I still read the sodding thing. I admit that until recently, my sentimental attachment to the publication which gave us Clive Doig's Trackword and Frank Bellamy's Skarasen allowed me to overlook the work / noxious bile / general existence of Alison Graham. But now, it seems time for a change. And not simply a change of listings magazine, either. Because in the last few weeks, an acquaintance of mine has done something which those of my generation and background once considered impossible: she's decided not to have a TV set any more.

Her logic seems sound. There's nothing she wants to watch, or at least, nothing that justifies paying £139.50 every year. If there ever is a Major TV Event, then she can always go and watch it round a friend's house, or possibly in a pub. And this has forced me to consider my own viewing habits. Last week, there were only three new programmes on UK television that I actually wanted to see, only three names I bothered to circle in the Radio Times (yes, I'm one of those people). Two of them had "Doctor Who" in the title, the latter being a 45-minute exercise in self-congratulation, the former being... well, a 65-minute exercise in self-congratulation, padded out with rotten old computer graphics. If I wanted to stare dumbly at spaceships blowing up and cartoon characters firing bazookas at robot-people, then I'd buy a PlayStation, not a TV Licence. (Admittedly, this all stopped after 45 minutes, and we then got twenty minutes of actors looking pleased with themselves. Did you know that the viewing-figures rose by 400,000 in the last quarter of an hour, as people started to drift over from the tennis on the court next door? Just try watching the episode from the towing-the-Earth scene onwards, while pretending that you don't know anything about the plot, aren't a natural Doctor Who fan, and aren't likely to make quasi-erotic squealing noises at the sight of Billie Piper kissing what looks like the Doctor. Not pretty, is it?)

Last week I suggested that although I'm perfectly-tuned to television as a medium and an institution, I'm also thirty years out of synch with its content. I belong in the world of I, Claudius, Dennis Potter and "Genesis of the Daleks", yet I've somehow become trapped in the world of Rome, Ashley Pharaoh and "Journey's End". It's like Life on Mars, only backwards and even more predictable. However, the wider issue is that for those who couldn't care less about "slick", the BBC has failed in almost all its duties as a public service provider. True, BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4 are palpably ahead of the commercial channels, but this is saying nothing. It's still an insult to expect anyone to pay £139.50 for the privilege of Bonekickers. Although if we're talking about insults, then let's not forget: it's only been a week since the revelation that Jeremy Clarkson has an annual contract worth £2 million. The knowledge that this vicious, bigoted thug is receiving such obscene quantities of Licence-Fee money, as a reward for making programmes which go against every principle the BBC has ever stood for, almost makes Jonathan Ross seem like a good investment. He can't even keep his bloated face out of QI, supposedly the Corporation's last-ditch attempt at in-te-leck-chew-ul TV.

(Oh, on a sort-of-related matter... this week, I've learned that Big Finish has hired David Quantick to write one of its audios. Is it now a kind of tradition, then, that only the worst people on Earth are allowed to write for Doctor Who? First the Neil Gaiman thing, now this. For those who aren't familiar with his work, Quantick is a comedy-hack-for-hire whose idea of "satire" is making the same cock-obvious jokes about celebrities that have already appeared in all the showbiz wank-mags, but in a grumpier voice. More tellingly, though: in the days when nobody seriously expected it to make a comeback, he described Doctor Who as "shite" and its fans as near-subhuman. He's obviously changed his mind now that it's both fashionable and profitable. Next month, BBC Books will be launching Jeremy Clarkson's younger-readers novel Doctor Who Gives It Some Grunt, in which the Doctor lands on the planet of the fox-people and slaughters its population with a twenty-mile-high combine harvester. Just for a laugh.)

Getting rid of the television seems counter-instinctual, and the fact that I can comfortably use a phrase like "viewing habits" should tell you something. Watching telly is part of our anthropological makeup, like hunting, mating, or marking our territory with urine. But for people like us, there's always going to be that extra question, isn't there? If I get rid of the TV, then... I mean, for God's sake... how am I going to watch any future Doctor Who? The obvious answer is "make lots of friends and always visit them at tea-time on Saturdays", but for me, the real answer is rather sad. The truth is that I now find it hard to imagine Doctor Who doing anything I might want to watch, at least in the forseeable future. Russell T. Davies has said everything he wants to say, and doesn't seem to have any back-up strategy apart from hitting the "bigger" button, over and over again: it's a bit like watching a teenage boy trying to blow up the dirtiest bits of a nudie JPEG, only to find himself staring at a screen full of meaningless pixels. And I think it's fairly clear by now that Moffat isn't likely to come up with anything I haven't already thought of. Bear in mind, though, that this isn't really about intellectual "depth". Great pop-art can surprise you by being bold, dynamic and inventive, even if it isn't particularly clever. The Eccleston season startled us all by telling contemporary fantasy stories in ways that had never been tried on TV before, and to an extent, great Doctor Who has always followed this pattern. But the last thing the series wants right now is to surprise anybody, least of all somebody like me.

I'm disaffected more than dissatisfied. Well, look at it from my point of view: geeks may not get loyalty-points, but I still feel as if I've spent a lifetime in the service of the Motherland. The fact that I've written around 85,000 words here in the last fourteen weeks - Dear God, that's longer than any book ever written by Terrance Dicks - should demonstrate that I still think of this as my native territory, however badly the 2008 series may have suffered from the global competence-crunch. And it's not as if I haven't fought for Queen and Country. When BBC Books re-launched / stole the Doctor Who range in the late 1990s, I did everything in my power to make it interesting enough for the twenty-first century, a duty which often involved sitting in the foyer of the BBC Worldwide building and waving my arms at Stephen Cole for hours on end. Whatever the results may have been, I genuinely tried to push the series forward, and - if only by chance - pre-empted a few things that ended up in the TV version when it finally reappeared. This is why it feels so painfully, heartbreakingly wrong that I should now find myself exiled from the books, while writers whom nobody likes are allowed to treat the show as a merchandising cash-cow. Just as it feels wrong that Big Finish still refuses to touch me (well, apart from giving me hovel-space in the Bernice Ghetto), while hiring people who've never demonstrated anything but contempt for Doctor Who. Now, however, the programme doesn't even seem to want me as a viewer. I'm simply not part of the target demographic.

Next week I'm going to Wales, in a Make-Yates-trying-to-get-the-dinosaurs-out-of-his-head sort of way. I'm not going to have easy access to a TV set while I'm there, although I will have my own radio (because I'm quite blatantly Homo BBC7, and besides, you don't need a licence for that). If the lack of pictures doesn't kill me, then... oh, damn it to Hell, this isn't fair. The BBC is our last remaining bulwark against the shrieking void of commercial anti-culture, but if it won't do its job properly, then I just can't keep paying for it. It's richer than I am, and it wants me to give it money for Graham Norton. Is it insane?

And now, a series of repeats to fill the schedule over the summer holidays: my three favourite angsticles from this year's Doctor Who Thing. A couple of them have even had the mistakes taken out.