Thursday, June 6, 2013

Twelve Gangly Men

By Jay Stringer

Last weekend Matt Smith announced he was leaving the longest running Sci-Fi show in the world after three seasons and untold heroism. It's not bad as a career goes. He has big plans for his future and his directorial debut is getting good reviews. Maybe we'll see him directing OLD GOLD someday, who knows?  I look forward to seeing whatever he does next, but today is more about looking backwards.

"Do you know what I keep in here? Absolutely everything."

A few months back Russel wrote a great piece about his love of the show. I enjoy talking WHO with Russel. We're the same age, and we have a few of the same show-defining memories from the McCoy era. Broadly speaking we agree in our vision of the show and the character, but we also have our own ways of looking at it. Dave White joined in the conversation around the time Smith stepped into the role, and it's also been great fun talking to someone new to the property, someone diving headfirst into the mythology. That healthy mix represents a large part of what is so great about the show. The same and different. New and old. Common ground and alien worlds.

For my part -as the obligatory qualification portion of the post- there were a lot of DOCTOR WHO and STAR TREK fans in my family, especially my Grandfather, my parents and my uncles, so I can remember it from an early age. It was always on, whether I was paying attention or not. My earliest memory is of Davison, but the memory is also tainted by the fact that all of the adults around me didn't like him. Then he seemed to vanish and there was a curly haired shouty man, and I didn't see very much of it. Then there was a short Scotsman with a hat. And he was The Doctor. But where was the blonde guy I remembered from years before? That was when I learned about the whole regeneration thing, and that the shouty man had also been The Doctor. And that someday there would be another one. But MY Doctor was Scottish. And he had a great companion. I'd go so far as to say she was an ACE companion. At that young age, I didn't want to be The doctor, I wanted to be Ace.

And then, just as with Russel's experience, one day he was gone.

That could have been the end of it. Maybe it should have been the end of it. But then in the early 90's a channel on satellite TV started re-running the show in it's entirety (well, as much as was possible for a show that had so many lost episodes) and my Dad spent money we really didn't have on subscribing to the service so that he could sit and watch it every week. And my brother and I would take it in turns to watch with him. That's where my education started in earnest.

Why does any of this matter?

I have no urge to be an elitist in these things. It doesn't matter when you came to the show. Maybe you've been watching since the first broadcast, maybe you've started with the most recent episode. All aboard. All welcome. Part of the spirit of the show is to embrace both change and newcomers. Fandom can get quite cliquey, but as far as I'm concerned if you're any kind of fan of the show you're a Whovian.

But with that said, there is one observation I'd like to make. In the wake of Smith's announcement I've seen quite a lot of comments online saying "well, he was great, but he had some bad scripts." And It strikes me this is something you say maybe if you came onboard with the relaunch, because some more recent fans maybe don't understand that 'twas ever thus. The longer the history you have with the show, the more you realise these things are business as usual.

I think it was Paul Montgomery on the fuzzy Typerwriter podcast who said DOCTOR WHO was like a comic book. And he's right. Its a sprawling 50 year adventure. Continuity is made up on the run, themes come and go, plot lines are planted and forgotten, and writers have good streaks and bad spots. Every actor to take on the role has had to take the rough with the smooth. Each has had some high points, each has had some real lows. If we only judge each Doctor by the strength of the writing then we do them a disservice. If we only judge them by the best-written episodes we give little credit to their acting. We don't judge Matt Smith by those "Eleventh Hour" or "Doctors Wife" moments when the magic has lit up the screen, we judge him by the whole run, and by whether he breathed life into bad scripts.

Something many Whovians like to point out is that Colin Baker's era was ruined by things that were beyond his control. Bad writing, bad producing, bad budgeting, terrible costuming. All of these things are true. And if he had been allowed to to things his way, then he would have lasted a lot longer. But to my mind he also didn't do near enough to elevate the material he had. Sylvester McCoy's era was damaged by many of the same problems. In fact we could argue that he suffered from them even more so. And yet, he dug in, he found the character, and he elevated the material. We can look back on his era now and find some truly great moments. Paul McGann's only moments on screen in the role were in an awful TV movie made as a joint production of American, Canadian and British companies. The script was bad. The story was bad. McGann excelled. He found something in the role that couldn't be buried by any amount of crap being shovelled onto him.

A message to all actors, past present and future, is that your time as The Doctor is what you make it.

So what did Smith make of it?

I'll make a bold statement here. Smith's debut performance was the strongest of any Doctor. None of the previous incarnations have bounded on screen and, within 45 minutes, owned the role so completely. I was ready straight away to declare him once and for all to be my Doctor. But from there he had to take the rough with the smooth. For every "Eleventh Hour" or "The Pandorica Opens" he also had to contend with "The Curse Of The Black Spot."

Christopher Eccleston was perhaps canny is this regard. Although there are weak episodes in that first season, the show stayed on course. He got in, he did a great job, and then he got out again a year later. There was no chance for a diminishing return, and he escaped from having to carry the show through some of the directionless plotting that was to follow.

Something else Eccleston did very well was to play an alien. David Tennant, John Pertwee and Peter Davison played very likeable, decent, human Doctors. They just happened to be aliens with two hearts. Eccleston played a flat-out alien. He looked like us. He sounded like us. Deep down he loved us. But he was also very capable of completely failing to understand us. Patrick Troughton played an alien. Tom Baker and Sylvester McCoy both played aliens. Matt Smith realised this, and played to the same idea. My only caveat is that he played an alien with a somewhat human libido. That's my only criticism of him overall.

Season Five (Smith's first season) rivals Season One (Eccleston's) for me as the finest of the modern era. There were a couple of very weak episodes, but Smith was amazing in them. From "The Eleventh Hour" right up until we learned what the 'Pandorica' was, we were treated to a finely plotted and cohesive story. The excitement that I felt each week during that season has never quite been replicated by the two that have followed. The same happened under the previous showrunner.

Russel T Davies had spent a decade trying to get WHO back on screen. By the time the BBC gave him the greenlight, he had years worth of ideas ready to roll. He told his story and gave us a Doctor for the modern age. The season built up to a moral dilemma, with the Doctor having to decide whether it was okay to become a monster for the right reasons. It was a perfect summation of the character. But then the show was a hit, and Davies had to go back to the well to keep producing 12 to 13 episodes a year whether or not he had a story ready to tell. What happens then? Well, you start to make things up on the fly. You throw ideas up in the air and see what lands. Things all get a bit loud and a bit silly. I was ready for the change when Davies announced he was stepping down, and I was thrilled at the choice of writer to replace him.

Steven Moffat had written the best episodes of the Davies era, and his take on the character seemed to sit very well with me. He had a long time to prepare, with over a year between the announcement and the fifth season. It was fun, it was fresh, it was intelligent and it was bloody exciting. Everything built to a finale that was even more epic, moving and intelligent than season one.

But then, as with Davies, he was expected to repeat the trick. And he didn't have a year to prepare. And from there, he, too starts making things up on the fly and seeing what works. Added to this was the problem that he was also running the BBC's other main genre show; SHERLOCK. Moffat was starting to stretch too far, and I do think the show has suffered a little because of it. When he's on form, he's still one of the best writers to have written for WHO in any era, but that form has gotten a little rarer of late.

There's been another problem common to both showrunners.


The problem of the female companion is not new to "Nu-Who." The criticisms and the attempts to change have been as constant as the presence of the TARDIS. For their part, both Moffat and Davies have  introduced us to quirky, interesting and self-reliant female characters. The problem seems to be in keeping them that way. Rose Tyler started off as a wonderfully realised modern character, but during the second season she faded away. Martha Jones had a great first few episodes before it became clear the writers simply didn't know what to do with her. Donna Noble stayed true to herself throughout her run, which is more a testament to the portrayal than the writing, but was then written out via a horrible invasion of her mind and her identity. River Song was fun and interesting at first, but perhaps suffers from "Wolverine Syndrome" in that the more you learn, the less the character works. Amy Pond burst onto the screen at the same time as Matt Smith, but after season 5 she seemed to slowly be relegated to the role of plot device, while her husband Rory grew as a rounded and believable character. The current companion, Clara, has yet to really be given life. The actress is clearly capable, and in the odd moment she sparkles with wit and charm, but the character has yet to be allowed to rise above being a plot device.

Are these issues enough for me to scream misogyny like many fans on the internet seem to like doing? No. I agree with the frustrations, and I want to see a show that is truly inclusive and embraces all comers. But what I see when I look at modern WHO is a show that tries to do the right thing, but then makes clumsy errors. Whilst it's fair to point out the errors, I think we're in danger of picking an easy target sometimes. This show tries. There's a world full of shows that don't. They're not hard to find. There are crime procedurals on primetime TV, and daytime soaps, and medical dramas, that all display far less effort to be inclusive. They objectify, they ridicule, they exclude and ignore. Perhaps that lack of effort is what saves them. They're never seen to fail because they're never seen to try.

I find that we can sometimes see a problem and look at the wrong source. The show's modern format doesn't allow for much development. They have 45 minutes to tell a story. In WHO, that can mean 45 minutes to set up an alien world and culture from scratch, to set up a threat and some goals, to deliver a narrative that gets us from A to B to C and then get out with a satisfying story told. This format affects the writing, it affects the depth of the story and, yes, it affects the ability to develop the supporting cast. Davies perhaps realised this early on, as a lot of the episodes were earthbound (which also helps with budget.) With less time needed to sell the audience on things with which they were already familiar -earth- the writers could focus more on Rose's human reactions to travelling with an alien. The problem is that you can't keep doing the same thing. With a box that can travel through time and space, the show demands that we see that travelling. The fading away that I mentioned of Rose's character came as the show tried to move on and travel, and give the audience new things. Something had to give. Quite a lot of things had to give. Perhaps a solution is to gave a female showrunner for the next era. We may see a different focus and format, or we may see the same problems all over again, but either way it would be a step in the right direction.

Though quite where that female showrunner would come from, when female writers aren't being given the chance to write on the show, would be a fair question and one of the most valid criticisms.

Perhaps some of the criticism comes because we have a sense of ownership. DOCTOR WHO has grown into a British cultural institution in the same way that STAR TREK and SUPERMAN are a part of American culture. There's a sense in which these properties and stories are bigger than any one TV network or publishing company. Generations of families have watched these stories unfold. We all own DOCTOR WHO, in a sense, and that maybe means we hold it to a more personal standard than some primetime BBC2 crime drama that objectifies and victimises the female form. I'd still argue that the double standard is wrong, and that we should be more balanced in where we aim our criticism, but perhaps it's more understandable if it comes from that cultural ownership. It also seems that some (not all) of the people who throw the criticism at WHO are people who will defend a fantasy show that presents women as whores, schemers and people to be sexually assaulted a lot. Again, there's a double standard there that confuses my poor little brain, but I'll save that for another time.

I would love the chance to put my money where my mouth is. I'd love to write for this show. I'd love the chance to soar or fail with a Doctor. Maybe one day people will get to judge my failings as a writer the way we judge Davies and Moffat.

But to bring all of this back to the point of today's post. Matt Smith. Season Five was (overall) fantastic. Season Six was very flawed -and made some big mistakes with key characters- but contained a couple of classic episodes. Season Seven has lacked a cohesive feel, and most of the episodes have felt like they needed ten more minutes, but we've still had great episodes like HIDE. And key to all of them, both as the leading light in the great episodes and the saving grace in the bad ones, has been Matt Smith.

I've loved every minute of his Doctor. He doesn't need to act to the back row, he can act to the camera. He can sell heartbreak and pain with a twitch of his jaw. He can go from anger to joy in a heartbeat, and he can play both the hero and the killer of worlds.

I don't think I can ever have one favourite Doctor. There are too many greats. But Smith has put himself onto that list. Troughton, Baker, Eccleston, Smith. With McCoy coming in somewhere just below that.

Who next?

I'd like to see something different. The Britain of 2013 is a very different place to the Britain of 1963. And though the show has always tried to reflect the times by changing the themes, the tone and the supporting cast, I'd argue the time is right to change The Doctor. I'd like a female Doctor. Or a black Doctor. Or an Asian Doctor. But you know what? Whoever get's it, whatever his or her background, all that matters is that they will be The Doctor. And, for a while at least, for a brief few moments in the first episode, he or she will be my Doctor.


The Doctor said...

I find this hard to read, because you keep saying 'Davidson'. It's Peter DAVISON. No second D!!!

Other than that, quite a fair review of things, the history, and the state of the show. You have to find something to love with each Doctor. They all have their own, individual strengths and weaknesses, and it's the variation and recombination of these things that makes him the Doctor.

Jay Stringer said...

Heh, fair point. I'll go back and fix the error.

Dave White said...

Great post, I loved it. Though I do tend to disagree here and there. I think Moffat had some very particular ideas he wanted to get to with the Doctor, stuff that's been burning in his brain for years (there are message board posts of him from the late 90s talking about some of the ideas that he ended up putting in the show). What I think has been the problem has been Moffat's affinity for short hand. He figures "Eh, everyone will just know how stuff happened or fill it in themselves" so he spends a lot of time on the cool build-up without focusing on too much resolution. At the same time, some fan speculation has been 100 times better than what he's come up with (happens in every show like this) and that's hurt him.

Matt said...

I agree with a lot of what you've said here, though I'm not sure about your speculation over preparation showrunners get for each season - there' just no way of telling beyond what's written in the Writers Tale and interviews.

I do agree with the general theme of what you're saying though. It is all about what the actors do with the part, even in the bad scripts. For instance; I too found Series 5 to be my favourite of all Smith's series, but Vampires in Venice is one I have never really liked... that said, Smith is still brilliant in it.

Also, I think you're right about the shows approach to gender equality. In terms of story, I think it usually manages to deliver excellently-written female leads, but in terms of production they need to do more. The writing team of Community imposed a 50-50 mandatory split and Dan Harmon - the show's creator - said it actually really worked well. It makes me think that forcing it would not necessarily have a bad impact.

Series Six was, for me, very spotty. It also included the only finale that I haven't enjoyed since the show returned in 2005. Whilst I think Series Seven has been better than Six and I do also think that lots of episodes have felt like they needed longer. Particularly Amy and Rory's final story - which could have done with two parts, or an extra five minutes. Rushed resolutions tend to sour episodes which are otherwise very well written, which is always a shame.

Smith is probably my favourite Doctor, followed by Eccleston, then Tennant, then Tom Baker. I watched the Classic series first as a child, but tend to lean more to the revived show these days because I think the acting is broadly better and (obviously) the production is of a higher quality. These things have obviously evolved over time. (Though I realise that, to some fans, saying the revived series is better is a grave sin indeed.)

I think Smith has done a wonderful turn as the Doctor and I'll be sad to see him go. That said, I must admit that my first reaction to his announcement was actually more excitement than sadness... once again, the game is afoot! As long as they find the person right for the part, I don't mind who it is...