Probic Vent Ood For Thought

4Oct/151

Under The Lake: Romp

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I hate the word romp. It's a shorthand for switching off your critical faculties, settling for the mediocre and acknowledging that the end result simply isn't very good. I'm all for changes in pace in Doctor Who - not everything has to be serious, frightening, mythical, revelatory and nor would I want it to be. But I don't think it's a good idea to essentially make episodes of Doctor Who that are, almost by definition, rubbish.

In the olden days 'romps' tended to be stories that just weren't very good. I sincerely doubt that anyone went into them with the express purpose of making a 'romp'. It just so happened that they weren't of a very high quality so, retrospectively, we excuse these stories as romps. "Oh, just a good old-fashioned Doctor Who romp," someone like Gary Russell or Tom Spilsbury will say of, for example, Time And The Rani. What they mean is that it's a load of old balls.

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What has changed, I think, is that Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have approached the new series of Doctor Who with a view that, every now and then, they will actively commission a romp. And this, I think, is a mistake. Because 'romp' remains code for 'not very good'. That they veer towards meta-fiction due to the amount of self-reflexivity, in-jokes and general indulgence, amounts to barely more than a fig leaf.

The most egregious example of the self-aware, self-described romp in recent times is Robot Of Sherwood, only the second-ever Doctor Who story whose end remains a mystery to me. I simply went and did something else, unable to bear the colossal weight of archness thudding out of the television. Robot Of Sherwood was surely commissioned as a romp, written as a romp and executed as a romp. People are barely trying at any stage of the proceedings and it's only the typically glossy production values and some 'aren't-we-clever' dialogue that saves it from a reputation as bad as anything the classic series could throw at you.

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Even The Magician's Apprentice was unable to wrest itself out of the gravity of romp - the deleterious scene where the Doctor plays his own theme tune on an electric guitar for no meaningful reason is an example of the currency that the production staff seem to think the show must deal in. It exists only to be eye-catching, Vine-able and thoroughly pleased with itself. It reeks of romp. Moffat clearly believes that this is part of the fabric of the show these days. But it doesn't have to be like this.

Toby Whithouse's latest episode for the series was everything a romp should be. There is - so far - no narrative trickiness, no unreliable narrators, no postmodernist stylings, no mythicism (otherwise known as fanwank) and no scenes that exist just to give a platform to the Doctor to be boastful, idiotic or just downright twatty. It rattled along without sub-plots or series arc; it developed at a pace that, while fast, was not incoherent; it adopted the same tone throughout; it was funny rather than wacky; the Doctor was an alien, not a dickwad. It did not aspire to do anything more than tell a fairly straightforward story well. Put simply, it was a romp. And so much the better for it.

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Doctor Who has been tiring me for a while now. My patience with the series has stretched to the point where, on two occasions in the last two years, I simply turned off the television halfway through an episode. I no longer watch the stories as soon as I can - often waiting a few days before watching it on catch-up or iPlayer. And last night I found myself discussing this with a couple of other fans who are tired of the programme. Despite the brilliance of Peter Capaldi, the odd flourish when Steven Moffat really tries and the fact that this is, after all, a constant companion, we're all a little bored of Doctor Who. This brand of it anyway.

Moffat's take on the show - after the enjoyably straightforward and rather ingenuous Season 5 - has tied itself up in narrative knots, so much so that Moffat's production notes section in DWM has become a sort of addendum to his episodes where he explains - admittedly with amusing turns of phrase - what the heck is going on. It's aware of its own cleverness - just like the Doctor as written by both showrunners - and, as with a boastful colleagues or loudmouth braggarts, this becomes tiresome. And like anything that becomes too familiar, it breeds contempt.

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Davies and Moffat both demonstrated that they understood the show must evolve and change. In the worst moments of Season Eight - and the crashingly predictable Dalek two-parter of the last fortnight - the latter seems to have lost sight of that.

With a tight, pacy, funny and frightening episode Toby Whithouse has demonstrated how it can be done. The Doctor's cue cards made me laugh out loud. A back-on-song Capaldi - socially inept but odd, funny and basically nice - thrilled me with the possibilities of his Doctor, written here as well as he has been by anyone.

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And a scary, intriguing story harked back to Doctor Who's best traditions - with a cliffhanger to match anything in the series. With its Weyland-Yutani company man and game of monster-tag there was Whithouse falling back on a reliable old Doctor Who trope of wearing your influences on your sleeve. It felt traditional - both in terms of the story and how it used to brazenly rip off genre favourites to make something greater than the sum of its parts. That's how you do a romp.

Under The Lake also feels definitive in terms of where the current series - and Twelfth Doctor - can and should go. Cast against Steven Moffat's recent efforts it was a breath of fresh air. Could it be that, over the past three weeks, we've seen the torch passed on? Just as Steven Moffat rebooted the series by playing against Russell T Davies' weary interpretation - and in going back to a tight but simple storyline - Whithouse has demonstrated a template for how Doctor Who can thrive in a post-Moffat world.

10Oct/100

Hush, child, you’re addlepating me!

Sydney Newman wanted to turn Sylvester McCoy into a woman, the Torygraph 'revealed' today in a report on what a spot of archive research turned up while the extras for Time and the Rani were being shot.

Thing is, I'm 99 per cent sure all of the stuff in the newspaper's report was already well known. I remember reading all of this some time ago, in what I imagine was one of Andrew Pixley's comprehensive Archive pieces in DWM or possibly the Howe-Stammer-Walker 80's book. Either way I reckon it's a good 15 years since this research first came to light.

Newman, recognised as the person who can lay most claim to being the creator of Doctor Who (not Terry Nation or Vere Lorrimer!), was drafted in to reboot the series at the end of Colin Baker's tenure.

Unfortunately Newman's ideas for a rebooted series were utterly abysmal, consisting of a time-warp back to the early sixties where Patrick Troughton would be brought back in with a couple of children as companions; one of whom would brandish a trumpet whose sound would herald the start of battle.

The one thing I clearly recall is that Newman suggested that the new Doctor should say ‘Hush, child, you’re addlepating me!’ whenever the young companions were talking too much, or something.

One of the story outlines he details is a literal lift from Planet of the Giants too, while another suggestion involved the three regulars being shrunk and injected into a human body. Two ideas about 40 years past their sell-by-date.

This has always suggested to me that Newman scrawled down a load of old tat on the back of a fag packet during a boozy lunch – and if people thought the last three years of Who during its original run weren't that good, they would pale into insignificance if the car-crash television envisioned by Newman had come to pass.

The headline element to it all, of course, is the suggestion that the Doctor should be turned into a woman, something I've always thought of as a horrible, senseless gimmick that not even JN-T or RTD ever seriously considered.

The Telegraph article ends with a quote from some 'women in science' group who reckons - surprise, surprise - that the next Doctor should be a woman for some reason too tedious to explore any further.

I suppose this story has broken in the national press now because 2Entertain are trying to flog Time and the Rani; a desperate task by any standards. Ed Stradling was apparently 'astonished' by the contents of the Newman letter; something that must come as a surprise to Doctor Who fans.

Anyway, the release of Time and the Rani should give us time to reflect on all of this. I personally think that it's a story of totally unremitting dross, with literally nothing to redeem it.

It's become fashionable to call Pip and Jane Baker's nadir (I know, I know!) things like 'wonderful and silly' and 'lovely and fluffy' by people who should know better. It's utter shit and hails from a period when Who was almost totally lost.

For my money it got somewhere near back to its best over the next two seasons - with some obvious exceptions - and it's a huge relief that we got stuff like Ghost Light, Remebrance, Fenric and Survival instead of Newman's addlepated vision.

Good old Syd. We have a lot to be grateful for. But, by God, a rebooted Newman series in 1987 may well have killed off Who for good.

   

Hush child stop addlepating me!

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