Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Who

So another year of Doctor Who comes to an end and on the whole I’ve enjoyed this year. Since the reboot I’ve blown hot and cold on the various seasons. For me Eccleston was near perfect, and I dipped in and out of Tennant’s tenure, mainly out while Rose and Martha were there and in when Donna was around. I gave up when Matt Smith arrived when I realized that I didn’t like the Doctor, his companion, or the stories so there wasn’t much point watching any more.

But the joy of Who is that if you don’t like a Doctor, another one will come around again one day, and when Capaldi arrived I returned to the show, and I’ve found him to be a suitably intriguing figure with just the right level of quirkiness and authority. Maybe he was too stern in the first year and too soft in the second, but on the whole he’s always watchable. Sadly, I still couldn’t abide either the companion or the stories, but one out of three ain’t bad.

I never once got the point of Clara. She was given near divine status on the show for no reason I could see. Every week we’d get a speech about her importance and attributes, but nothing she did on screen ever seemed to warrant that, and her ‘death’ was written as if she was the most beloved character in sf history, and so was more gruelling for the viewers than for the character. Spock, who really was one of the most beloved characters in sf history, got about five lines before Trek’s peculiar form of time-dependent deadly radiation got him, but Clara got twenty minutes to bang on about it and then another half-hour after she was resurrected to bang on about it again. I did not get any of that.

I watched the episode on the Horror channel recently where Adric, the previous, and much-unloved, companion to die finally bit the dust. There were no speeches in that episode about how his character was an annoying, know-all twerp who deserved to get blasted away. Adric just acted like an annoying, know-all twerp and let the audience decide for themselves that he deserved to get blasted away. And he stayed dead, sort of.

I didn’t get ‘Me’ either, who also got more screen time than the character warranted. Maybe it was a brilliantly original idea to have an immortal react to the pain of being forced to live for all eternity by mooching around aimlessly with a gormless smirk on her face, but it was lost on me.

But, those minor gripes aside, the thing that’s the most important part of Who is of course the stories. This year every week I found myself wondering if there’d be a story this week, and most weeks the answer was no, despite all the two-parters. There were some weeks that actually had a plot. I liked the Fisher King tale as that used time travel in a good way and there were twists and turns and a solvable mystery. The eye gunk monsters, which I gather is already ranked as one of the worst in the show’s history, played entertainingly with the idea of how stories work. And I enjoyed the hapless Vikings, except for ‘Me’, as, again, it had a plot, but most of the rest weren’t so much stories as situations.

The usual structure to most episodes was to provide a huge amount of set up to create an interesting scene. Everyone then stands around admiring the scene from several angles, and I’ll admit that usually it was worth admiring. Then, just as you’re suitably excited about how this situation might develop, absolutely nothing happens, other than the cannon-fodder characters getting killed, until the episode ends.

The thing about the Davies years that I only now truly appreciate is that he knew how to plot. Stuff used to happen and it then developed and twisted and reacted and did all the things that make a story. Even better, every bit-part character was given a character. Davies used to do it in a painfully obvious way that gave everyone a domestic reality to their existence, but at least you then cared when they got exterminated, but that doesn't happen any more. People are just thrust on to the screen and we’re told to care about them, usually quite literally by someone making a speech about how they are important.

And then there are the feeble bad guys. As a kid it was the baddies that I loved the most about Who, and it was the thing that started the whole sofa hiding myth. You could always guarantee that the bad guys were very evil indeed. Yes, they’d lose in the end but that was the charm of the show. No matter what the Daleks did, in the end they’d end up spinning round with smoke coming out of their grills while cursing the Doctor, but you had a lot of evil to get through before that moment. The baddies would do something bad, the Doctor would react, the bad guys would fight back, there’d be a few twists, a few punches and counterpunches, a few corridors to be chased down and a few captures and escapes until finally the Doctor would save the day.

It doesn’t work like that any more. Now the bad guy announces that he is Rassilion, or the Fisher King, or Me. While the Doctor cringes away in fright, the bad guy says, ‘I am your Nemesis, your worst nightmare. I am the most evil creature in all creation, the horror that will bring this universe to an end kicking and screaming as countless billions of entities burn in the very fires of hell due to the fact that I’m unspeakably evil, and that means nobody can stop me from completing my evil plan to conquer all of creation from the beginning of time to the end of time plus several other dimensions. Oh, and did I mention that I don’t find puppies cute either?’ The bad guy twirls his moustache. Then he promptly disappears for the rest of the episode while doing absolutely bog all behind the scenes, before at the end he reappears, if we're lucky, to announce he’s lost. That just isn’t good enough.

As this feeling, that if the show was half as good as it thinks it is then it’d be twice as good as it actually is, is the feeling I have whenever I watch Sherlock where the build-up is great and individual scenes are a joy, but the whole fails to deliver, I guess that problem won’t go away any time soon.

Anyhow, I should stop whinging as I really did enjoy most of this year's run, and hopefully next year will build on this year by giving Capaldi better material, preferably with a companion who isn’t the most special person in the universe, or if they are special, then they do special things and let us decide they’re interesting rather than have the Doctor tell us to love them. Then there's the arc. Arcs aren't required in Who, but if there has to be one, I'd prefer it to use the Bad Wolf template. Back then, the arc had small, subtle clues that didn't impinge on the story that built to a big pay-off in the final episode. The arcs now are unsubtle and involve contrivances to shoehorn them into episodes that build in annoyance until they fizzle out when they are dismissed with a line of dialogue and zero pay-off. That's not good.

Oh, and some stories might help, too.

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