Sunday, 13 July 2008

Journey's End for Dr Who

DOCTOR WHO!! Damn, I’ve been trying to put this off, but it’s no good. Every other blogger has been going on about it so I’ve got to get my two penn'eth in.

T'was on a damp November evening in 1963, as a wide-eyed child, I watched the first episode of a new TV programme – Dr Who – and I was hooked. A few timeouts during the Peter Davison years aside, I have watched virtually every episode since then.

I have generally rejoiced in its return but there is one thing that has niggled me about nu-Who and I can’t seem to shift it, and it is to do with pacing. Dr Who gives the impression, on occasion, of barrelling along almost out of control. No sooner has the exposition finished and we are lurching towards the finish. Some stories and the last Christmas show (the Kylie one) was a prime example, appear to career along at breakneck speed with edits every few seconds, endless corridor running and characters shouting at each other over an increasingly noisy soundtrack and it’s all a bit overwhelming and ultimately boring.

It is obvious that today’s Dr Who suffers from perceived attention span deficit in its audience and hence cannot always allow stories to continue over several weeks for fear of losing audience to the playstation. Nor can they slow the pace without losing watchers with their finger on the channel flip button. It seems that the makers are giving in to a form of desperation that says ‘keep your ratings high at all costs!’ And it is being spoiled by a surfeit of style over content. By contrast, I often find that episodes of Gerry Anderson’s brilliant new CGI version of ‘Captain Scarlet’ seem much longer even though they run for barely 25 minutes.

Nonetheless, I have followed the good Doctors adventures with much enjoyment for these past few years and the last few episodes have been as good as any, so now that the dust has settled, what did I think of ‘Journey’s End’, the finale to Russell T Davies’ tenure in charge of the Timelord’s exploits?

I thought it was OK. It was spectacularly epic and lovingly compiled from the show’s legacy and it was exactly as RTD intended – a classical tragedy. All the great sci-fi writers understand that in essence, those with superpowers or of an alien nature are tragic heroes/heroines because they are outsiders and no one will ever understand outsiders. Ever.

H G Wells dealt comprehensively with this concept way back in 1897 when he wrote ‘The Invisible Man’, probably the sci-fi tragedy to end all sci-fi tragedies. Even further back in 1818, Mary Shelley applied the same concept to her gothic horror, ‘Frankenstein’. More recently, Joss Whedon has followed suit with ‘Buffy’. If ever there was an epic TV programme with a tragic heroine at its centre it was ‘Buffy’. RTD has clearly taken very careful note of Whedon’s philosophy and that is to rack up the emotional weight by ‘giving the audience what they need, not what they want’. In the case of Dr Who, what we want is for Rose to be reunited with the (real) Doctor and for Donna to bestride the universe as a heroine and for the Doctor himself to find true companionship. But what we need is to feel the pain of a Timelord because we know in our heart of (two) hearts, these things are just not possible.

So given the above, RTD has succeeded. My gripe is that whilst I always felt an inner sadness tempered with a sense of hope at the end of each successive season of ‘Buffy’ (and never more so than at the end of season 2), somehow, I do not feel it now. I feel no hope for Torchwood assuming the addition of Mickey and Martha to their ranks nor do I feel any hope for Rose, or the Noble family. I feel despair, so something has not worked and I’m not quite sure what it is.

Let’s hope that Steven Moffat, easily my favourite Dr Who writer of recent times, will give us some answers when he takes over the franchise later this year.

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