Saturday, 23 April 2011

Cheap Shot Redux

Same schtick, but now with analysis.

The cover of this week's Radio Times...

...and what it looks like to me.

That piece of Radio Times cover sabotage was instinctive, if you can use the word "instinctive" to describe something that ultimately took about half an hour on PhotoShop. The point being, that really is how I see modern-day Doctor Who: the adventures of Jar Jar Binks and a blow-up doll, trying to look as if they smoulder against a bad CGI background. I was planning to leave it at that, but...

...but another week's exposure to the trailer has led me to realise something. Specifically, why the Gungan Doctor seems to fit this picture so perfectly.

Well, here we go again.

We know, by now, that there are certain... all right, let's be positive, and call them "tropes" rather than "clichés" or "acts of desperation". Certain tropes that Moffat will always use, the most obvious being the "going back in time and messing about with history in order to produce the desired result" idea. '90s-era fandom will know that this began with his Decalog story "Continuity Errors", the first (official) thing he ever wrote for Doctor Who, and magnificent in itself. "In itself" because he's pirated bits of it for almost everything he's done since. "Curse of the Fatal Death", "The Girl in the Fireplace", "Blink" (but perhaps more tellingly, the Sally Sparrow story that "Blink" was based on), "Silence in the Library", and then - finally, or at least, I hope it's finally - "A Christmas Carol", not so much a cannibalisation as a remake with festive icing. Although the most cloying example is obviously "The Eleventh Hour", because the moment you see two unnamed "Girls" in the Radio Times cast list, you know they're going to be two previous versions of the new companion and you know the Doctor is going to spend the whole twatty hour going backwards and forwards while being surprised by things that don't even surprise the audience. Even a mook like Charlie Brooker called it "business as usual".

Easy to see why Moffat is pulled towards this kind of thing, though. We can cover up its obviousness by giving it a cute nickname like "timey-wimey, in-and-outey", but we all instinctively know it's the product of a background in comedy. Jack Dee, during his BBC Britain's Best Sit-Com segment, argued that Fawlty Towers is the Perfect Farce. Rubbish: Moffat's comedy writing shows the same precision, yet he can do it in four dimensions, effectively sticking a turkey down the vicar's trousers EVEN BEFORE THE VICAR WAS BORN. It's what he's good at. A comic structure that intersects with itself in time, space, and slapstick.

Arguably, it's the only thing he's good at.

Put in the spotlight, Moffat returns to a stimulus-response kind of thinking. If he does something that works, something that people like, then he does it again. This is how all comedy writers, those who demand an instant reaction from the audience, are primed to think. He once told me that he found writing drama incredibly easy after writing comedy. Therein lies most of the problem. Drama isn't easy, it's just harder to see when you're not doing it properly. If you get comedy wrong, then the audience won't laugh. If you get drama wrong, then... hey! They'll still applaud politely. If your drama passes the time and doesn't frighten the horses, it'll get recommissioned. That doesn't mean it was actually dramatic, or that it hit its target.

No, this is getting too grandiose, so let's stick to the Moffat Era in specific. Moffat is trained to repeat what works. He specifically looks at the kind of thing People Who Watch Doctor Who like, and what might appeal to them again in future. In terms of People Who Watch Doctor Who, he's homed in on two main groups. One of which is a perfect partner for his going-back-in-time-and-fiddling-about model (what I'll hereafter call the Farcical Version, for the logical reason and because I enjoy it). That group is, of course, children.

It worked brilliantly in "The Girl in the Fireplace", and the logic seems sound. Four points here. Children watch Doctor Who; children are scared by Doctor Who; children idolise the Doctor; therefore, get the Doctor to interact directly with a child who's being threatened by a scary monster in the dark, and it'll be a winner. Perfect, yes? So much so that it can be repeated at every opportunity in order to get the children on-side. "Silence of the Library" (again), "The Eleventh Hour" (again), "A Christmas Carol" (again), and now - if the trailer's anything to go by - "The Impossible Astronaut". All of them bring the Doctor into direct contact with an audience-substitute child who's being menaced by something, since the suggestion is that this is what every under-twelve secretly wants. The excitement of danger, but the reassurance of a saviour who can - gee! - go anywhere in space and time.

And it's this tendency that truly links Moffat to his soul-twin, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman never had the excuse of being a comedy writer. He just wanted to spend the early '90s nicking all of Alan Moore's best ideas and then hanging around conventions in sunglasses, trying to impress the chicks. But modern Who-cynicism works the same way. Gaiman's odious Books of Magic provided, pre-Harry Potter, a bespectacled future messiah exactly like the typical reader of comic-books who used to get bullied at school; worse, Sandman turned Death (i.e. the obsession of all literate teenagers, especially the sort of pseudo-goths who might be interested in "alternative" culture) into every Teenage Boy Outsider's perfect blow-up doll and every Neurotic Girl Outsider's vision of what she wants to look like when she's at university. You can call this sort of drivel "writing" if you like, but it's actually closer to what advertising agencies do when they want to sell spot-cream. Moore was (and still is) a sometimes-genius who might get residual highs from licking his own eyeballs; Grant Morrison was (and may still be) a spiky little punkette who often got things wrong, but always went "RAAAAH!"; Gaiman has continually been that awful boy at sixth-form who tried to get into girls' pants by claiming that he'd rewritten the poems of Lord Byron to fit the meter of "The Joshua Tree". Yes, I went to college in the late '80s. The analogy still holds.

Moffat, meanwhile, sees children as half of his target demographic. This is also a problem, but mainly because his foundations are shaky. Let's look at those key four points again.

1. Children watch Doctor Who. Yep, that's true.

2. Children are scared by Doctor Who. Ahhhhh. Here we're walking on thin ice, if not clingfilm. In the '60s, children were definitely scared by Doctor Who: the sensation of never-before-seen luminous worlds and never-before-heard radiophonic sounds, coming out of a crackling box in the corner of the room, drove the young 'uns under the furniture. In the '70s, less so. I was never scared by it, as a child. As I (and many others) have already noted, I was terrified of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" video, but never of Daleks. Colour, and the sense of Doctor Who as an extension of Top of the Pops when Queen weren't on, made it exotic rather than pant-wetting. The younger viewers of the '80s remember being interested, not frightened. Post-2005...? Modern Doctor Who is, to the excited kidling, about playing games with fear rather than actually being afraid. Eight-year-olds in the time of Eccleston looked at the Autons and went "YESSSSSS!", but they didn't hide behind the sofa. "Blink", for all its terrible sitcom dialogue and dribbling "character" scenes, is a brilliant playground game. It didn't cause nightmares. "Keep watching that statue, Jay! We'll build something to stop it. No, don't turn round! DON'T TURN ROUND!"

In other words, the idea that children are scared by Doctor Who is based on the nostalgia of grown-ups, not on the way the programme works at its core. Let's face it, we're in 2011, where even pre-watershed-TV is full of CGI horror that the thing from "The Lazarus Experiment" is barely going to scratch. Any movie on Channel 5 is likely to supply the same mix of special effects and things going "bleuurugguughhh". The children aren't scared, they want to act in a manner that allows them to seem scared, primarily so they can fight it: the idea that Doctor Who is a scary programme may have led to a typically Pavlovian tendency for the Radio Times to squeal "IT'S THE SCARIEST ONE YET!" every other week, yet it's mainly based on the folk-memories of old gits like us. And likewise...

3. Children idolise the Doctor. No, they don't. Fans do, generally when they get older. Eight-year-olds don't want David Tennant to burst into their rooms and protect them: that's the desire of a rather more mature age-group, on both sides of the gender line (this is why "The Girl in the Fireplace" pulls it off, and why it's significant that the Little Girl rather unbelievably snogs the Doctor as soon as she's a Big Girl). Children don't ask for the Doctor's intervention, because children want to be able to do the job themselves. This may be why so many Moffat Era stories remind you of Time Bandits, but why none of them have ever been as good. Terry Gilliam at least knew that the child should be the smart one, not the one who's patronised for his intelligence by a particularly nerdy grown-up.

4. The final point is the most crucial: the idea that you make Doctor Who popular with children by getting the Doctor to interact directly with a child. And it's this that brings us back to what George Lucas did in 1999.

Now, when Lucas made The Phantom Menace, he specifically wanted to make an "innocent" film. He wanted to make an adventure story that focused on childhood, in the same way that Attack of the Clones focused on teenage angst and Revenge of the Sith focused on the failure to become a proper adult. In this, he succeeded. Geeks of all colours loathed Episode I, largely because they'd spent the previous twenty years pretending that Han Solo was the important one, and nauseating adolescents always hate to admit that anything designed for children might be any good. (When I was fourteen, I started hating the Muppets. Jesus! Can you imagine that...? Nobody good hates Muppets. Or Bagpuss.) Yet children rather liked The Phantom Menace, because it was... you know... fun. Not "dark". Not "scary". Not "full of Freudian terror, like we pretend The Empire Strikes Back is these days". Just... fun.

Yet Uncle George made two mistakes, or rather, one mistake twice. Since he was thinking about childhood, he included characters specifically designed to accord with children. This is always a bad move. Even in his own universe, no kid watching the original Star Wars needed prompting this way. Most children circa 1977 empathised with R2-D2, a sarcastic little bugger who saw things from a child's perspective, who could tell when the grown-ups were going astray and gently prod them in the right direction. Those with a more dynamic streak could empathise with Luke Skywalker as well, given his perpetual my-family-are-dead-and-now-I-have-to-save-the-galaxy-hooray-I-mean-boo-hoo demeanour. On a less boyish level, Leia was the first fairytale princess who kicked back. Children don't particularly like watching other children, but tend to stick with characters who express a child's frustration on a larger scale. The newly-spawned generation (all right, especially newly-spawned boys of that generation) who watched The Phantom Menace sided with Little Obi-Wan rather than Anakin, since Ewan MacGregor had a Liam Neeson-shaped father-figure to remind them of family life, but enough will of his own to make them feel he was "one of them". They didn't give a stuff about the actual sprog. And as for Jar Jar Binks...

Jar Jar Binks was designed to be Every Child's Imaginary Friend, a ditzy, rubbery-faced comical alien. Real children, of course, don't respond to that any better than the nauseating adolescents did. The point of an imaginary friend is that you want to be that friend: you don't want to laugh at him for pulling faces, you want to be able to fly / walk through walls / stop time like he does. Lucas got more right than we acknowledge, but this was his biggest error. Ironic, then, that Moffat makes it repeatedly. By forcing the Doctor to interact with children, he really has made Matt Smith a Jar Jar figure. If he does goofy things in your own kitchen, then the Doctor becomes unnecessary and rather annoying. We want to see him explore the universe on our behalf, we don't want him to be exactly like the magician who came to our sixth birthday party and did that rubbish trick with the string.

Again, remember that the "Fireplace" logic is ultimately there for us, for grown-ups who've ended up resorting to fetishism. Just like terrible party magicians are never hired by their audience, but by the audience's parents. And when the Doctor makes things worse by delivering horribly misplaced faux-macho action-movie dialogue ("there's one thing you don't put in a trap... me!!!"), you've got a script full of frustrated teenage hormones being delievered by characters who'd be better off saying "exsqueeeeeeze me!" and admitting that there's nothing remotely "dark" about it.

I'll wind this up with a personal reflection. Halfway through last year's season, I was on a train coming back from central London, sitting just behind a family who'd spent the day at the Natural History Museum. They had a stegosaurus-shaped helium balloon and everything. The mother mentioned Doctor Who, and the girl-child (I'd estimate eleven years old, although I'm not an expert) said in a semi-interested sort of way: "Yeah... yeah, I don't always watch it." This makes sense now, but would've been bizarre only three years earlier. I instinctively connect the urge to watch Doctor Who with the urge to go to museums. They're both about curiosity: rightly or wrongly, I feel that wanting to examine a diplodocus is much the same as wanting to know how someone from the fiftieth century might pretend to be an ancient Chinese god, and I can't put myself in the place of someone who'd be interested in one but not the other. In the Moffat Era universe, however, curiosity isn't a criterion. The Doctor never explores; he just changes the timeline until the universe suits him. The Doctor never discovers; he knows all the answers, so that he can make flip comments without having to think about what he's actually saying. The Doctor never investigates; he disposes of monsters because he's the Doctor, and therefore wins by default.

If you wanted to be really cynical, you could say that the Matt Smith version is the perfect Doctor for the consumerist world, making the universe comfortable for all the people who want comfort without imagination. But that tendency started on Tennant's watch. Moffat simply doesn't want to argue, because asking questions doesn't get an instant audience response, even if it makes better television and (ultimately) better people. In this remake of the universe, libraries and museums are there to be "creepy", not places you might actually enjoy or (God forbid) learn anything from. "Silence in the Library" forgets it's even about a library after the first ten minutes, and switches to a subplot in which the Doctor communicates with a child via a TV set. "The Big Bang" could only have been written by someone who thinks of museums as intrinsically alien rather than a second home. Moffat used to be a schoolteacher, of course. I'll let you draw your own conclusions about that.

So if it isn't really doing anything for the children who keep appearing in it, then where's Doctor Who really being aimed...? The answer's even more obvious than it was a year ago: this is Twilight with time-travel, more interested in the Doctor's love-life than in going anywhere outside the sci-fi comfort zone. That's "sci-fi" in the sense of "sci-fi TV", naturally, not the good kind. We recall that Moffat refuses to read SF literature, which he considers saa-aad. This is why the new series is filled with all the clichés that a mid-'90s geek would like: Area 51, "tragic" Doctor-driven story-arcs, mysterious lovers who manage to be both two-dimensional and transdimensional, plus - inevitably - Neil sodding Gaiman.

So the final judgement on the Moffat Era, at least as it stands, will fit into two short sentences. At its best, Doctor Who was a programme for intelligent children. Now it's a programme for very stupid adolescents.