Probic Vent Ood For Thought

1Jan/124

The Geek Clique on Season One

I have a theory with Doctor Who. You can break down Doctor Who series fairly evenly into a 30:30:30 split by my reckoning: 30 per cent great; 30 per cent mediocre; 30 per cent utterly awful.

This is something I've come to believe particularly since the advent of the new series, which can send me in raptures, fury or a doze over three consecutive weeks.

Distance and nostalgia lends the classic series a different aura. It's more difficult to critically assess because it's more familiar, but you also need to bear in mind that some of it was intended to be broadcast exactly once.

There are periods of the series where lack of cash or instability among the production team clearly show and there are certain peculiarities of the era that you need to bear in mind.

With the new series, by which I mean since 2005, there are a whole new set of considerations, but budget isn't really one of them. Nor can it be argued that these new episodes have not been made in a DVD, Youtube and Sky+ era.

Certain rumours suggest that, once again (as of 2011), Doctor Who is again beset by production difficulties. But let's forget about that. For now this is all about season one.

I bring my own prejudices and preferences to the new series, so I thought I'd ask a gang of friends to bring their own set of prejudices to the news series. There's a good mix of people. People who dislike much of the news series. People ambivalent to much of it. People who love it pretty much unreservedly. People who enjoyed Russell T Davies' take on the series, but not Moffatt's and vice versa.

Some watch with their other half; some with the kids. Some love the old series and will always be loyal to it; some are unimpressed by it/ambivalent to it or believe the new iteration vastly superior to the new.

There is one common strand: We were all Doctor Who fans prior to the new series starting.

I asked them which new episodes they actually liked. No ratings, no reviews, no caveats. Just which ones they liked.

We're starting with season one (or season 27 if you prefer); something that seems like a long time ago now. Eccleston, Billie, RTD, Slitheen, Daleks, Autons, Reapers, Keith Boak.

Are you my mummy? Run for your life! Do you wanna come with me?

Oh yes, we were willin'.

Season one - results

NB. The ones in bold are my selections

An unsurprising winner is The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, by far the stand-out story of the first year for me - and the start of fandom's erstwhile love affair with the Moff. Be careful what you wish for, eh?

Second is Dalek, an oddity in the new series for me. Rob Shearman really does inject something back into the Daleks though, with a number of iconic scenes and a lovely prologue where the DOctor comes face-to-face with an Invasion-era Cyberman head. Why Shearman has not written again for the series is a mystery to me.

Third is The Unquiet Dead, Mark Gatiss' only decent story by my reckoning. It was a clear nod to the glory days of Holmes and Hinchcliffe, the kind of story that has disappeared from the new series for some reason, and a good effort at that. Who's first effort of the new series of doing frightening - surely the very raison d'etre of Who - does a very good job indeed.

Fourth was the end of season two-parter, Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways. Watching Bad Wolf recently I thought it very good, but the second part has so many elements that became emblematic of everything I disliked about the new series. It's 'chips and work' mise-en-scene, its 'love saves the day' conclusion and its deification of Rose, a character I never really cared for, even though Billie Piper was great.

Rose, The End of the World and Father's Day got six votes each. The first two are interesting for me, as they're both very clearly RTD scripts. I hated the former - and I don't believe it would have received many votes at all if not the first of the new series - but I thought End of the World witty, touching and exciting.

Father's Day is another first series oddity - one not without its problems but one that brought a bit of a New Adventures tone to the new series, something I was bound to enjoy.

Boom Town is next, an episode that is fun and then fascinating and then utterly fucking awful in its three acts, for me. Aliens of London/World War Three - a spiritual cousin to Rose - and The Long Game, a story I'd charitably refer to as filler get one vote each.

As for my 30-30-30 (good; forgettable; shit) notion, I can split them as follows:

  • The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead, Dalek, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances;
  • Father's Day, Boomtown, Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways;
  • Rose, Aliens of London/World War Three; The Long Game

    Here's what the Geek Clique had to say about some of the episodes and the reboot on the whole:

    [Rose] changed everything about the show while keeping it all just the same, reached parts of the world, and myself, that it never had before, thus making this discussion even possible, had numerous excellent set pieces and passages of dialogue, introduced numerous inspired ideas and likeable characters, all of which hit the ground running, not least of which were the Ninth Doctor and Rose themselves, who were absolutely fucking great. IMO. And it had an utterly brilliant scene with a wheely bin.

    [Rose] may not be best suited to repeat viewing or the kind of close reading fans like ourselves bring to it but by the end of Rose anyone who had tuned in would know what the show was and wasn't about and most of them would be coming back next week and be asking for a Christopher Eccleston action figure for Christmas. I'll forgive a ropey CGI wheely bin and Noel Clarke thinking he's in the Chuckle Brothers for that.

    [Rose is] a bit panto but that's partly down to Keith Boak and partly because - at least according to Shearman - there was a genuine fear at the time that the BBC would not allow onscreen deaths in that timeslot, so they had to do a massacre scene in which nobody was seen to die. Nevertheless it does a far better job of setting out the show's stall than the TVM did, and for all its flaws I remain very fond of it because it managed the impossible task of bringing back a series which most people had come to despise in such a way as to make it credible again and yet still feel like "Doctor Who". That's one heck of an achievement.

    The problem I have with Rose is that it goes so all out to be loved it's waaaay out there. It's really, really stupid. It's like the aggressively pink fizzy pop we all used to drink full of e-numbers that sent us loopy. It laid down a marker for how Doctor Who was made for the next five years and it's visible in most of the worst bits of the next five years. It didn't have to be anywhere near as dumb as it was.

    [Aliens of London/World War Three is] so damn leaden! I really struggled to get through the first episode.

    The last third of Aliens of London was the cliffhanger, wasn't it? Dear God, that was the most drawn-out cliffhanger in the show's history.

    First third involves Jackie being upset that her daughter has been away for a year - only she hasn't, from her perspective and from the viewers' perspective. SO the emotion is all pretty meaningless. Second third involved the spaceship crashing, and the Doctor watching it on telly. The Doctor gets upset that they killed a pig. Last third involves large farty people about to do something a bit wicked. World war three involves them still being about to do something a bit bad, whilst the Doctor is fretting that Rose might get hurt.

    I actually think AoL/WW3 might be quite good if Keith Boak wasn't directing it. I really like Aliens of London.

    Eccleston doing funny was dire. (On Aliens/World)

    Good writers edit for brevity, and brevity was painfully unapparent in either Aliens of London or the much worse Boom Town. Doctor Who isn't a place for experiments into character. It's a place where narrative drive dictates and personalities have to be cleverly and concisely fitted in between the plot.

    Badland's great throughout, and her and Eccleston's restaurant scene is a step above. [I] share the ennui with the Mickey / Rose situation, the time rift stuff looks tacked on for the sake of some supposed excitement and the way the TARDIS sorts everything out fails to convince. (on Boomtown)

    [Boom Town] was shit. False moral dilemma. Rubbish Slitheen. Unbelievable premise. And Captain Jack has an unflattering outfit.

    ...if I'm being totally honest I will enjoy a Doctor Who episode with a good Doctor far more than a Doctor Who episode with a shite Doctor regardless of the relative merits of the stories - and Eccleston was a great Doctor.

    The thing this whole 'which do you actually like?' thing has really brought home to me is just much 'mission creep' there was in the RTD years. I think his great strength was realising that continuity was bad. Then he became part of continuity and he didn't realise that was problematic.

    I would suggest that RTD requires the larger apologia for what happened after Season 1. He had no idea how to react to the hit he had on his hands and no long term plan. He panicked and started writing by the seat of his pants, leading to a very shallow series of episodes and seasons that relied too heavily on set-pieces strung together with no internal consistency, merely gooey clumps of pathos. What's worse is that, as a writer, RTD was so much better than that: look at Midnight. He'd have been much better off if he hadn't been showrunner. He needed someone standing over him (possibly with a two by four) and acting as a moderating influence on him.

    RTD's target audience was 13 year-old girls rather than 8 year-old boys.

    Brilliant showrunner, great dialogue, excellent characters, but tended to push the limits until they broke. Without checking, I suspect if you look at how we have all voted, RTDs episodes will get a lower average than the majority.

    As a side note, the Geek Clique tends to hold the first season in high regard. 58 votes were cast, giving the series an average score of 5.8. That figure reflects the number of votes cast, so without knowing how many people participated it's hardly a scientific rating, nor one that makes much sense in isolation.

    On the assumption that ten people voted on each season, however, season one received the second-most votes of all six NuWho seasons.

    Tune in at a later date to see which one has the current highest score - and vote for your favourites below.

  • 8Apr/110

    Caves and Twins: Rose

    Russell T Davies, not a man given to modesty, remarked recently how he'd dug out Rose - the story that relaunched Doctor Who in 2005 - and rewatched it for the first time in years.

    He had feared that it would not look that impressive but, blow him down with a feather, it was wonderful and funny and clever and lovely!

    Was it? I don't think I've rewatched Rose since 2005 either but it was on the telly the other night. I loathed Rose at the time and was not keen to rewatch it either, but I thought I'd give it the RTD test.

    Rose is a funny one, because a couple of years before it hit the screen I'd mused that a rebooted series could do a lot worse than a rehash of something like Spearhead From Space. Fast, simple, scary. Maybe RTD had the same thought, or maybe he just wanted an established monster with a neat set-up that could frame a knockabout story and act as a bone thrown to fans.

    Whatever the case, I nearly went upstairs and burned my copy of Doctor Who - The Unfolding Text afterwards, back in March 2005. Weirdly enough, I loved The End of the World the next week and got back into the swing of it.

    So, what did I make of Rose on a repeat viewing. Was it Spearhead From Space or was it, well, Rose? I was eating a bowl of soup at the time so simply jotted down these thoughts on what was playing out on sceen.

    The start

    That's not the theme tune!
    Titles are OK tho- OH FOR FUCK'S SAKE THOSE AWFUL FONTS!
    Terrible bontempi Randall and Hopkirk (Rebooted) music to start
    Micky established as complete arse by eating a sandwich in a funny way at Rose

    Rose doesn't like her job
    Ponderous shots of Billie in lift
    I can pinpoint the exact Graeme Norton moment here

    The next bit

    Thankfully music drops off but there's no spooky music in place when the Autons threaten Rose, unless it's a Harry Potter/Midsomer Murders interpretation

    "Run!" Good opening line for the new Doc but the dreaded music kicks in again.

    Eccleston ponders two more seasons of this shit

    Beans on toast - there's a meme we'll be seeing a lot of over the next five years

    "Run for your life!" - like that bit

    The inescapable music is almost like a soundbed, chuntering away underneath a 14-year old Radio 1 Newsbeat presenter

    Moments of Rose just standing around while she waits for a bomb to go off, like a startled cat working out what to do next following a loud noise

    Really bad SFX of the burning building - remember reading Bonnie Greer on the Newsnight Review commenting on how cheap it looked. This is what she was thinking of. It was also at the point that, allegedly, a flaming sofa nearly killed a harmless Welsh pedestrian.

    Trademark 'people running around, wacky camera' thing that's a constant of Nu Doctor Who that renders any action sequences instantly laughable

    The first proper introduction to two really annoying characters - Micky and Jackie.

    Thoughts at this point

    Fast. Really fast. But like a Big Mac and strawberry milkshake. Empty calories that leave with a sugar rush and subsequent crash - all headache and nausea and guilt.

    It's not frightening. Almost everything is played for laughs. It's no coincidence that Moffatt's were best received for years. His episodes were scary.

    RTD makes another mistake. He mistakes not being too scary with 'not taking itself seriously'. So any potentially scary moments are full of mugging or people laughing or silly sound effects or silly music.

    For a long time Doctor Who was very careful to be the show that was aimed at children but didn't patronise them. At times during the RTD era - Rose for example - it blundered way over that line in a way that's often hard to watch. Seriously, what age group is this aimed at?

    Is stuff like Rose a deliberate kick against the po-faced US sci-fi dramas of the time? With a liberal sprinkling of Joss Whedon through a British kitchen sink lens.

    Chav culture references embed this firmly in the mid 00s and already serve to make the programme feel dated.

    Rose's flat

    We get a Yeti in a toilet in Tooting Bec moment that turns out to be Ecclestone in a tower block peering through a catflap. If I were Ian Levine I'd probably assume this was a cast iron reference to Survival.

    Jackie quickly established as a slag and the Doctor as asexual. Pity it didn't last.
    Eccleston gets his cards

    Gay and alien. Heat. Little Britain. 2005.

    An ears comment. I once caught sight of Eccleston's email address - it had the element 'MrPunch' in it. Nice.

    Regeneration trauma?

    Eccles mugging just wrong; he looks unhappy doing it.

    Why does Rose ignore what's going on right in front of her when the Doctor is being attacked by the Auton hand?

    Early bit of squirming about between Doc and companion on the floor.

    Outside the flat

    "See ya" "Hello!" "Sort of, yeah" - do these lines even sound good on paper?

    Running and bad music - one of a number of traits that could have formed a mission statement for the next five years.

    Eat chips, goto bed and watch telly - another one to get familiar with.

    Peter Moffat-esque long shot from Boak.

    Earth revolving. Bad but well played by Eccleston - his Doctor remains one that was difficult to pin down.

    The Clive bit

    Internet bit well played - we nearly get a moment of dramatic tension.

    "She's a she" - heh.

    Mark Benton playing himself again - is he an Ian Levine cipher?

    Appalling Photoshop on Kennedy pic.

    Nice speech from Benton.

    Wheelie bin = nice idea in promising a set up (plastic=death!) that has remained frustratingly unexplored.

    The burp is the TV equivalent of shovelling e-numbers down a kids throat.

    Bad bad bad CGI.

    Why doesn't Rose notice that her BF looks like Theo Walcott, only knows one word and inexplicably drives his car all over the road?

    Restaurant

    Things almost get a little frightening here with Noel flashing an unnerving, unnoticed smile but then immediately goes back to 'idiot' for no apparent reason. And Rose doesn't notice at all. Brilliant, brilliant Rose...

    Silly wrestling and silly music and silly screaming as it's played for laughs again.

    Nice TARDIS reveal.

    First properly decent Doctorish moment in the TARDIS as Eccles stops jamming and mugging and shouting for a second.

    First appearance of 'stupid ape' meme.

    "Lots of planets have a north!"

    Anti plastic - something you can get away with precisely once (or not - see also Boomtown, TEOTW, The Parting of the Ways in this season alone).

    Ecclestone quintuple take on the London Eye doesn't come off at all due to poor scripting and poor direction - and then we're back running through treacle with Murray Gold - terrible music that sounds like an off cast from the Vic and Bob reboot of Randall and Hopkirk while we see more running on a bridge.

    Nestene HQ

    All Auton/Nestene things that are interesting (plastic comes to life, automata, facsimiles) are dealt with in throw away comment.

    The Nestene Consciousness is a vat of liquid that can talk -apparently, as none of the sounds it makes could be recognised as speech - that is 'terrified' of TARDISes and parlays with other races via the articles of a galactic constitution. What next? Sutekh at the UN?

    Weird one-sided conversation that is meaningless without knowledge of story arc and gibberish as we can't understand from the Nestene.

    Auton invasion

    Back to dreary Jackie who survives about ten thousand autons not shooting her for some reason - bad direction.

    Autons break out and promptly... shoot out the back of a minicab, numerous plant pots and a fat bloke. Curiously unthreatening. The fan/Levine cipher is killed off. Hmm.

    The action of the Auton invasion is conveyed through a cameraman having a fit. Eventually Jackie gets her cue, having stood still for about a minute looking confused, while people are gunned down by walking shop-window dummies, and runs away screaming - having spent the last 40 seconds looking like she's trying to solve a particularly hard puzzle.

    A scene that last for three hours where Jackie is menaced by bride Autons, the Doctor does nothing, Micky establishes just how useless he is and Rose - for the first time among billlons of subsequent times - saves the day by swinging on a chain. Awful, leaden direction.

    A scene that could have been great shows a couple of twitching Autons. The sum of the Auton invasion includes a backlit double decker, two tiny fires and some rubbish. That's even less impressive than hijacking a bus.

    "You were rubbish" - that's the Doctor firmly emasculated for the next three years.

    The end bit

    "Work and food and sleep" - yes, we get it.

    Micky mugs like a twat.

    Weird slomo final shot.

    Conclusion

    Moffat said he puts in scares for the kids and jokes for the adults, but RTD never seemed to bother with scares. Everything in Rose says 'jokes for kids, different jokes for adults'. It left me feeling completely cold.

    Here's something I read recently from Moffatt's 2011 series press launch, which sums up how I feel about Doctor Who.

    "You put the jokes in for the adults, and you make it scary to appeal to children. They absolutely rank the best Doctor Who episodes in order of frighteningness."

    Indeed.


    Caves

    Fast
    Eccleston does OK with some shonky stuff
    Confident start for Billie

    Twins

    Everything else

    • Caves and Twins? What are you dribbling on about?

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