The Oncoming Storm?
An overview of the 2006 series of Doctor Who by Fiona Moore and Alan Stevens
Originally published in Celestial Toyroom Issue 342
The second new series of Doctor Who was, if anything, more keenly anticipated from all quarters than its predecessor; unlike its predecessor, however, this anticipation was followed by a critical reaction which was decidedly mixed. Here, then, we will explore some of the reasons for this mixed reaction, and the changes which have taken place between the first and second new seasons.
Before we do, however, we hasten to say that a mixed reaction is not a wholly negative one. The second season has, if anything, outdone the first in terms of quality of special effects, and the Mill are to be congratulated: Murray Gold has also struck out in a couple of new directions, particularly with his music for "The Impossible Planet" and "Doomsday". Many of the performances have been of a high standard, and the second season has contained a number of memorable moments. However, it must be said that the standards in general have not been quite as consistently high as in the first series, and it is this which we will be addressing here.
One thing which this season has done is to explode a number of the myths which sprang up over the course of the first outing, to wit:
We shall thus use these myths, and the response to them, as a basis for exploring the developments which have taken place as the new series takes root.
MYTH 1: THE SERIES WOULD BE BETTER WITHOUT ECCLESTON
In December 2005, David Tennant seemed like a worthy successor to Christopher Eccleston: by July 2006, however, even many of his supporters admit, sotto voce, that Tennant's performance has not been all that it could be. While it is unfair to place all of the blame for this on Tennant himself, and while it has to be said that he is at least acceptable in half of the episodes this season, it is unfortunate that the other half of the season indicates a certain amount of room for improvement.
The most obvious reason for the problem with the performance is that some of the episodes, and/or sequences within episodes, have clearly been written with Eccleston, or someone like him, in mind. A notable instance occurs during the swimming-pool scene in "School Reunion", in which Tennant's attempt to give gravitas to lines like "I'm so old now. I used to have so much mercy. You get one warning," falls audibly flat and he is consequently upstaged by guest star actor Anthony Stewart Head: where Eccleston's shell-shocked, dangerous Doctor would have sounded natural saying that, Tennant sounds rather weak and silly, as if he is bragging himself up rather than making a natural claim. Whereas Eccleston's obsessive behavior towards Rose came across as the actions of a man who has lost too many people he cared for, Tennant comes across as a stalker, in a development which is a reverse of his portrayal in "The Christmas Invasion". The frustrating aspect of this is that, had these sequences been tailored to Tennant's strengths, rather than Eccleston's, there would be no problem: Tennant's performances in "The Christmas Invasion", "The Girl in the Fireplace," "Tooth and Claw", "Fear Her" and the "Rise of the Cybermen" two-parter, in all of which he is written as the kind of witty, insouciant and emotion-led character that he portrayed in the excellent Casanova, are fine.
The reason for this seems to have been that the show is something of a victim of its own successful reinvention. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when Doctor Who was effectively a series, with most of the stories being stand-alone, with very little continuity carrying on from one set of episodes to the next, it was indeed possible, as Russell T. Davies asserts it still is, to write a script for one Doctor and have it work all right for another Doctor: a case in point is "Robot", clearly written by a team still thinking of the Pertwee era, but nonetheless perfectly acceptable as a Tom Baker story, albeit a slightly unusual one. However, one of Davies' writing team's major innovations was to reinvent the series for the post-Babylon-5 era, in which the order of the day is now story arcs which focus on the characters, their families, and their relationships, the character of the Doctor has been so carefully and tightly written that Tennant, reading an Ecclestonesque scene, comes across as a man reading a script written for a different actor rather than a new actor playing a generic dramatic role.
With other episodes, the reason for the poor performance becomes more mysterious, notably "The Impossible Planet"/"The Satan Pit", which were written and filmed late in the day. The most obvious explanations are, first, that Tennant, like Patrick Troughton before him, is the sort of actor who has a tendency to drift when presented with a script which he doesn't like; second, that the gushing praise from both the mainstream and the fan press for "The Christmas Invasion" caused both actor and directors to become overconfident; thirdly, that Tennant was encouraged to overplay it, possibly to make his character more "child-friendly" (see below), or, finally, that the punishing schedule was taking its toll, given that Eccleston is also on record as having found the filming of the series quite gruelling. Whatever the cause, attention should be given to why Tennant's performance in certain later episodes is so problematic.
As a side point, the series appears to have developed a decidedly 1980s casting policy with regard to supporting actors. Whereas the previous season had very few "celebrity" actors in secondary roles (Simon Callow and Richard Wilson, plus occasional less-well-known-but-still-famous actors such as Tamsin Greig), and all appeared to have sound reasons behind their casting, this season harks back to the notorious "celebrity casting" of the JNT era, with a large number of actors seemingly being cast solely for their fame/notoriety, and with the question of whether or not they will work in the role seemingly being a secondary concern. Consequently, while Tracy Ann Oberman's performance as Yvonne is a pleasant refutation of the myth that soap actors are inherently second-rate performers, Roger Lloyd Pack succeeds less in imbuing John Lumic with the pathos, depth and wit of a latter-day Tobias Vaughn, and more in turning him into an Ed-Wood-esque figure of fun.
It must be said that this is not a thorough condemnation of the series' characterisation, casting and central performance, so much as an indication that there is room for improvement. If the team start focusing more on Tennant's strengths and the exploration of what makes this particular Doctor the man he is, Tennant tones down the Muppet-on-speed impressions, and the casting more generally focuses on the actors' abilities to play the role rather than to generate small celebrity-gossip items (usually with some dreadful pun along the lines of "Just What the Doctor Ordered" or "Look Who's On Television") in the tabloid press, the series will be back to the standard set by the first.
MYTH 2: HAVING FANS WRITING FOR THE SERIES IS A BAD IDEA
On the writing front, the 2006 series has counterintuitively given us a lineup of stories in which (with the exception of "The Idiots' Lantern" and "The Satan Pit"), the better episodes have been the ones by fans of the series, and the worse ones those by non-fans (and not in terms of their ability to push the buttons of the series' fanbase, either: Toby Whithouse's "School Reunion" is far more of a continuity-fest than, say, Steven Moffat's "The Girl in the Fireplace"). We will now briefly explore the highs and lows of the writing of the new series' episodes.
An arguable exception to the above trend is "Rise of the Cybermen"/"The Age of Steel", which were among the episodes we actually enjoyed most upon viewing. However, they are enjoyable less because they are good stories, but more for the same reasons that B-movies are enjoyable: it's fun to watch the two-parter open-mouthed as the story becomes more audacious in its deployment of cliche and plot contrivance, but at the end of the day, the much-publicised return and revamp of a classic villain really deserves a good story, not a so-bad-it's-good story. The presence of a quasi-fascist alternate universe with zepplins, while very pretty, is such a cliche of (particularly British) science fiction, from Alan Moore to the forgettable 2002 attempt to cash in on Matrixmania Equilibrium, that one would have liked, at the very least, some more in the way of justification for it. The coincidence factor is through the roof: not only do the crew just happen to fall into an alternate universe where Pete Tyler is successful and Mickey a brave resistance fighter, but the fact that Mickey's alternative self is called Ricky takes the Doctors' insistence on calling Mickey Ricky in the first new season out of the realms of the mild jocular insult (recalling the First Doctor's limitless number of variations on the surname "Chesterton"), and turns it into a suggestion that the Ninth Doctor somehow knew about the existence of this universe. While Lawrence Miles has argued that alternate universes are created by the individual who arrives there, but is not represented in said universe, and thus that this universe must be a kind of spin-off from Rose's hopes, fears and desires-- and while it would make sense if, say, the alternate universe had been an accidental by-product of Rose's brief period as the Bad Wolf-- this is not referenced or even hinted at in the story. It has recently emerged in an interview with Russell T. Davies (in DWM #373) that the original idea was much less sophisticated: to have Queen Victoria die in "Tooth and Claw", thus creating the alternative universe; however, he later decided that this idea was "very subscription channel, cult-audience, male sci-fi... you'd start to lose viewers, its legacy is too complicated and too dark in a boring way"-- despite the fact that a similar plot was used in the children's series The Tomorrow People, in a story called "A Rift in Time", suggesting that it would be neither too complicated nor too dark even for younger viewers, and thus that the production team were sacrificing credibility in an attempt to cater to the perceived tastes of the mainstream audience.
"School Reunion", for its part, is certainly a great return for Sarah Jane Smith, handling the character's development sensitively and well for the most part (although the question does certainly arise of how K9 managed to get that battered in less than thirty years, and why she appears to habitually drive around with a damaged tin dog in the back of her car). However, the rest of the story, which should be the driving force of the action, simply feels like it is there to prop up the reunion episode: the story is being led by its B-plot, giving it an insubstantial, if feel-good, tone. Matthew Graham's "Fear Her" is a disappointment after the heights reached by the same writer's excellent Life on Mars: to be fair, he didn't have long to write it in and was told to keep to a tight budget, but the result has something of an after-school-programmes feel to it, and one might uncharitably suggest that the main reason to set the story during the runup to the 2012 Olympics was just so that the writer could legitimately shoehorn the words "torch" and "wood" together in a single phrase. Also, unless David Tennant actually does light the Olympic flame in 2012, it is running a bit of a risk to feature such a sequence in a series as well-remembered as Doctor Who, opening the programme up to light-hearted ridicule both on fan fora and on the inevitable Olympic-themed retrospective TV specials which will no doubt saturate our screens come 2011.
While more will be said on Davies' contribution to the series in the next section, on the fan-writer front, Steven Moffat surprises pleasantly by producing one of the better stories of the season: although the idea has been done before, and more extensively, by other writers, it is one which fits well with the Doctor Who setup and which, like the previous season's "Father's Day" and "Boom Town", explores aspects of the lives of time-travellers which have only been glossed over before. "The Impossible Planet" and "The Satan Pit" are less good; while "The Impossible Planet" sets up what promises to be a clever story about evil, racism and divinity, the second half eschews complicated explanation in favour of a "kill all the monsters" solution. Mark Gatiss, finally, proves something of a disappointment: while "The Unquiet Dead" was flawed, he can be given the benefit of the doubt on the grounds that it was his first full-length television script. Gatiss' follow-up effort, however, has little to recommend it: a pointless (and derivative) villain, a lot of padding mostly involving the (fantastic-looking, it must be said) Maureen Lipman yelping "Feed meee!" over and over like a twisted audition tape for Little Shop of Horrors, and inconsistent characterisation, with Tommy's father going from a slightly authoritarian but generally loving and reasonable parent in his first scene to a cliched crypto-fascist in all subsequent ones.
There are also a few overall complaints which can be made about the current series' scripts. For one thing, although the first season of the new series had a few references to series' continuity (alluding to Davros in "Dalek", for instance), these were generally limited and unobtrusive; although they have not become too intrusive yet, the new series does contain far more of this sort of thing, for instance referring to the Draconians, Kaleds and Daemons in "The Satan Pit", Jamie McCrimmon in "Tooth and Claw", and International Electromatics in "Rise of the Cybermen". The series' approach to monsters and aliens also appears to be suffering from oversimplification: where "Dalek", "Boom Town" and "The Parting of the Ways" successfully questioned the cliche of the inherently villainous alien, none of the stories this year are as complex and soul-searching. Where last year's "Bad Wolf" references were fairly subtle, and also added to the mystery of the series, the "Torchwood" references this year could not have been less subtle if the writers had thrown a brick with "Torchwood" scrawled on it through the windows of every television viewer, and, since we all knew something of what Torchwood was due to publicity for the new Doctor Who spin-off series, provided considerably less fodder for speculation and conspiracy theory. Also, a number of similar running themes appeared to start at various points in the series and then die out abruptly with no payoff: Moons in "New Earth", "Tooth and Claw", "School Reunion", "Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Age of Steel", villains with bird-themed names in "School Reunion", "Rise of the Cybermen" and "The Idiot's Lantern", and shadows in "Love and Monsters", "Fear Her", "Army of Ghosts" and "Doomsday", all feature prominently, then vanish with no payoff. On a side note, the series' tie-in websites have also become ubiquitous and scattershot: whereas last year there were only one or two tie-in websites, which served as grace notes to the series, this year it seems as if there is at least one (if not several) new websites a week, sometimes only tangentially connected with the story, all with associated Flash games. The new series thus is showing worrying trends towards exaggerating certain of its successful elements which were, in actual fact, dependent on subtle handling and careful usage.
MYTH 3: THE SERIES WOULD BE BETTER IF RUSSELL T. DAVIES WROTE LESS OF IT
After some of the poorer episodes this series, it has become something of a relief to hit a Russell T. Davies episode: while he is also showing something of a downturn since last year (with "New Earth" and "Doomsday" being disappointing to say the least), "Tooth and Claw", "Army of Ghosts" and "Love and Monsters" are all clever, and generally entertaining. The problem is that Davies, as the series' self-confessed guiding hand, has to take at least some of the blame for what has gone wrong this season.
The idea that the second series' problematic nature has something to do with Davies' own actions is hinted at strongly in interviews and commentaries with the man himself. For instance, a recent interview in Dreamwatch quotes Davies as saying that, despite the fact that the first series gained its popular and critical acclaim for being ground-breaking and unafraid to challenge expectations, he now wishes to cease doing that and instead to establish "traditions": that every new series must have a story with a well-known historical figure in it (a "celebrity historical" in Davies' words), a wacky offbeat story, a story set in the year Five Billion, and so forth. Those who liked, or even simply respected, the series that brought such controversial stories as "Dalek" "Father's Day", "Boom Town" and "Bad Wolf"/"The Parting of the Ways" can't help but feel rather let down when the person who oversaw these stories comes out and admits that he does not want to take risks, saying, in the Dreamwatch interview, that when one has a successful series, "you don't want to tinker with it."
This previously-unseen side of Davies' character also emerges during the commentary for "New Earth", in which Davies admits that he had previously written a downbeat storyline, in which the Doctor has to kill the experimental subjects and the Face of Boe actually dies, tying in thematically with Cassandra's death, but then he read Steven Moffat's introduction to Doctor Who: The Shooting Scripts where he remarked (in Davies' words) that Davies “invents interesting characters, then melts them”, and decided to rewrite the story to graft on a happy ending. The result, however, has weakened "New Earth", with Cassandra's acceptance of her own mortality seemingly coming out of the blue, and the scenes in which the experimental subjects are cured by the application of the Sisters of Plenitude's medicines raising the question of why the Sisters were using the subjects for experimentation, if their diseases were so easily curable. In some ways, this change of the story almost seems like a microcosm of Davies' own apparent change of attitude towards Doctor Who: that, rather than be encouraged by its success to carry on doing what he wants to do, he has instead become conservative and afraid of upsetting people, or, alternatively, like he was surprised by the positive response to the first season, and didn't really expect to get the chance to do a second one.
"Love and Monsters" is also curious, in that, firstly, its essential message is: "Doctor Who ruined my life, and the lives of everyone around me." Secondly, the story revolves around a group of people peacefully engaging in fan activities, whose lives are then irrevocably disrupted when a stoutish gentleman arrives and promises that he can give them the Doctor. It almost seems as if Davies is expressing some misgivings about the new series, and its effect on people, making the story certainly worth watching from a psychological point of view; however, while we found the satire on fandom generally on-point and enjoyable, it seems calculated to ruffle feathers, again suggesting a worrying trend in the series towards a more inward-looking, and less progressive, view of its mandate.
MYTH 4: THE SERIES WOULD BE BETTER IF THERE WAS LESS FOCUS ON ROSE
As noted above, the lack of an overall arc this season poses problems. In an era where even the new Captain Scarlet series, visibly aimed mostly at boys aged 8-12, has story arcs dealing with the characters' relationships and issues, it seemed a natural thing that Doctor Who should start doing the same. This year, however, although there are various attempts to begin an arc, for the most part the stories are stand-alone adventures; while it's true that this has been the norm for most of the series' history, after the extensive character development and background-exploration of the previous year, it all starts to feel rather flat. The result has been a number of complaints about the stop-and-start development (notably regarding Rose's sudden change of heart towards Mickey between the ending of "School Reunion" and the start of "The Girl in the Fireplace"), and also attempts to see an arc where there is none, as with the rumours (started, incidentally, by Davies himself) that the Doctor and Rose were being set up for a fall and would soon experience a life-shattering disaster. The characters also begin to suffer: Rose, lacking any further development since last year, comes across not as a slightly naive and selfish, if generally good-hearted, young woman, but as an insensitive cow. Without last year's focus on relationships and their development, the characters lose depth and the stories lose a degree of interest.
This also spills over into the relationship between Rose and the Doctor. One frequently-heard complaint about the new series is that Rose and the Doctor are now coming across as annoying, and it has to be said that their smug, blase attitude towards seemingly every situation they come across not only makes them seem irritating (like the sort of popular kids at school who were secretly hated by everyone behind their backs), but also robs the viewer of any sense of wonder at the events unfolding: if Rose and the Doctor aren't excited at being on a station in the far future, but simply react with a silly forced laugh, then the viewer isn't going to feel excited either. Rose's treatment of Mickey seems to have gone from, in the first series, the result of her ignorance at his true feelings for her, to, in the second series, outright nastiness and a desire to exclude him, which is also inclined to diminish the viewer's sense of identification with her.
Mysteriously, also, this series includes far more children than ever seen in the series before: "The Girl in the Fireplace", "School Reunion", "The Idiot's Lantern" and "Fear Her" all focus heavily on child characters, as well as the brief appearance of children in "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday". This might actually prove counterproductive, as it would not only alienate adult viewers, but is also likely to alienate children, who are well-known to prefer stories about older young people, or adult childlike figures (hence, perhaps, the popularity of Tom Baker's Doctor), to stories about children too close to themselves in age and background. Furthermore, it is rather unnecessary: at 19/20, Rose is old enough to have adult adventures, but young enough to provide a figure for children to identify with. The presence of so many children thus rather smacks of a misguided marketing decision, and one might cattily suggest that the programme will eventually wind up being shown at 4:30 PM on CBBC if the trend continues.
The ending of the series is also something of a disappointment. In the first place, not only does "Doomsday" come across as a series of set pieces, but a Dalek versus Cyberman battle is, like Alien versus Predator, something which works better as an idea, or a drunken post-curry suggestion, than an actual story. This is partly because fans have been imagining such a battle for years, meaning that any attempt to bring it into reality is never going to quite match the scenes in the imagination, and partly because one of them will emerge looking a bit rubbish. Fond though we are of the Daleks, and good though they were in "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday", bringing them back not only makes the Cybermen look appallingly weak, but also is a tacit suggestion that Cybermen alone aren't exciting enough to carry a climactic story, adding insult to injury. The final battle feels rather like an admission that the series hasn't been very good overall, as if the thinking was to put a Dalek and Cyberman battle at the end in the hope that everyone would remember that and forget the earlier problems.
The situation with the Tylers and Mickey at the end of their story arc also sends a bit of a worrying message. Whereas before, the new Doctor Who series has been celebrating non-traditional families, non-heterosexual relationships, and the freedom to be oneself, it seems unusually conservative for the story to end with Rose miraculously gaining a heterosexual family unit, complete with new baby, and there is the suggestion, although it remains ambiguous, that she herself is back together with Mickey. The senior Tylers' baby, also, seems at least partly to blame for the surprising introduction of the idea that Jackie Tyler is only forty: while Camille Coduri is a fine-looking woman (and was in fact forty herself this year), there is no way that the Jackie we see in "Father's Day" is under twenty-five (as even the best makeup artists in the world cannot make a thirty-eight-year-old woman look twenty), and there is also no narrative reason why she couldn't have been forty-five or forty-seven in the birthday party scene in "Rise of the Cybermen". The only discernible reason seems to be so that she can get spontaneously pregnant in "Doomsday", which is possible at forty, but highly unlikely at forty-seven. It furthermore seems to go unnoticed by all that, for Rose to have her nice heterosexual family unit, the alt-universe Jackie has had to die a pretty horrible death; the Doctor also seems disturbingly happy with the implication that Rose now intends to go and work for Torchwood, an organisation which, in both universes, is dedicated to using alien technology for human benefit, an activity which the Doctor berated van Statten and Adam for in the previous season (we also only have Jake's word for it that the alt-universe Torchwood is any better than the one in our universe, particularly since the alt-Harriet Jones is now President and thus in ultimate control of it). In passing, it might also be worth noting the strange dearth of gay characters this season: with the relationship between Jake and Ricky in 'Rise of the Cybermen'/'Age of Steel' having been removed (though surviving among the deleted scenes on the DVD release), that leaves only Tommy in 'The Idiot's Lantern' (identified as a "mother's boy," and making a speech which emphasises in passing the importance of tolerance for alternative lifestyles at one point) and (arguably) Cassandra as the sole major non-heterosexual characters in the season. Once again, the series failed to continue with its earlier messages.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Doctor Who at present, however, is that it seems to be engaged in an effort to debase its own currency. Any number of powerful moments are now diminished: "Good heavens, Doctor, you just killed Cassandra in cold blood!" "Not to worry, she actually survived and is going to spend twenty -three years hiding in a hospital basement, so that's OK then." "Mickey's gone forever, because the barrier between the worlds is unbreachable." "Oh wait, turns out that it's not that unbreachable after all; so much for the touching departure scene." “Rose, your father's dead, and you have to come to terms with it.” “OK (sniff), I'm coming to terms with it.” “Well, now that you've come to terms with it... surprise! You've got him back! You don't need to come to terms with it after all!” There is also apparently no comeback at all from Rose's sudden adoption of godlike powers, barring the Doctor's regeneration. The end result is, again, a series which seems to be afraid to support its own messages, and afraid to do anything controversial or downbeat.
The close of the second season thus sees the new Doctor Who hanging in the balance. Will the series recover to become the exciting innovator, well-deserving of its multiple BAFTAs, that it originally was, or will it turn out that all the series' former strengths in terms of writing, performance and the challenging of social conventions have crept off in the general direction of Torchwood? Only time, and the gradual revelation of what has actually been going on behind the scenes, will ever tell.