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Danny Oz on Playing Safe in Doctor Who

Danny Oz, TLex and GodZoe

a guest blog by Danny Oz

Danny volunteered to write an article for Dark Matter’s Doctor Who special edition zine but due to life getting in the way – that thing that happens while you’re making plans – it didn’t arrive in time. Instead I’ve put this must-read article up here. – Nalini

I have a few issues with Doctor Who since it came back in 2005.  There’s so much the new series gets right so much of the time – the importance of character, giving the companions a more active role and a life outside of their travels with the Doctor, for instance – that the things it gets wrong jar.

So much of the time now it seems as if simple story-telling logic is considered unimportant.  The sound mix is often done so poorly that one can’t always hear the dialogue over the music.  And it’s now a very safe series.

I don’t mean safe in that there’s no danger, though given the amount of times people who know the Doctor come back from the dead after being killed, that is certainly an issue.  I mean it’s not a production to take risks any more, to do the unexpected, or even the inadvisable.  Which is a shame, because a hit TV series should be able to weather some risks.

Doctor Who used to be low budget but cutting edge in what it attempted in terms of on screen realisation and variety. All I can think about is what sort of ill-advised, weird, bizarre risks would those old production teams have taken if they’d had access to half the resources of the new series.

When the show was originally made, it was as family drama that was also educational.  It was never designed as a children’s program, despite what so many have said, but as a drama that could be watched by the whole family.  And by its nature it was a chance for the production teams and writers to play with concepts, designs and story ideas.

There are many examples of this.  In the first story, the cavemen weren’t in nice looking animal skins: their hair was messy, their teeth were bad – a very different take than the one usually used for TV or film.  No matter what one may think of the Daleks, they were way ahead of most other machine creatures or robots portrayed not just on television, but in feature films.  The design aesthetic for their city mostly made sense in Dalek terms, not human.

The choices made in term of music, ideas, and effects, were all experimental and different.

Now what we have is more of the usual.  It’s another show with an orchestra, producing beautiful scores that are just like the scores that appear on many other shows.  The quirkiness is of the safe, funny type.  The danger is often made out to be huge and deadly, but can be dealt with not through hard work or intelligence but the wave of a sonic screwdriver.  And the stories are less varied.  I think it’s telling that over seven years of production the new series has produced at least seventeen stories that feature temporal paradoxes as a major story element, compared to the four that appeared over the first nine years of the original.

Don’t get me wrong, what Doctor Who from 2005 does well, it does very well indeed.  The problem is, it rarely moves away from that.

Here’s a small selection of stories from the original series that I believe New Who would be too wary to try.

Ian and the warrior Ixta fight to the death atop a pyramid in The Aztecs in Doctor WhoHistoricals

There is a popular myth that historical stories with no SF/fantasy elements rated badly so that’s why they were phased out.  There are many SF tales from the show’s history that rated significantly below the lowest rating historical, so if ratings were the prime reason we would have had more historicals and less SF.

Some of the best stories from the original series are historical in nature, focusing on human drama and intrigue.  Realistically, the villains in The Aztecs are the Doctor and his companions because they are lying to the priests: everyone else is acting and reacting based on that lie. Tlotoxl is actually the hero who is trying to protect his people’s way of life and beliefs.

However even though a single pure historical story would be unlikely to harm the new show, they’ve yet to do one.

The Web Planet in Doctor Who The Web Planet

This is, without doubt, one of my favourite stories just for the sheer insanity of the attempt.  The only true humanoids within the tale are the crew of the TARDIS.  The rest are giant moth people, ants, grubs and a sort of planetary cancer.  The moth people, Menoptera, speak in an oddly stilted, even poetic way, with weird hand gestures.

The closest we’ve come to a live action feature film attempting something like it is Star Wars or Avatar, and even then the aliens are little more than strange looking people with Western mindsets and attitudes.  It doesn’t matter whether you think Web Planet succeeds or fails, it’s the attempt at producing a alien ecosystem with alien thinking on the small screen that was important.

Modern Who has gone even more safely human, to the point where the reptilian Silurians have been more humanised in terms of their look, and even a parasitic planet is given a humanoid face.

Daleks lie dormantThe Power of the Daleks

Arguably the best Dalek story of all time, it’s a six part story that spends two thirds of its time tension building.  We know the Daleks aren’t the obedient robots they pretend to be, the Doctor is trying to warn everyone but no one is listening to him.  Instead, the Daleks quietly make their plans, manipulate the humans into a civil war, and then attack both sides – as we always knew they would.  One production photo features a human colonist carrying a baby.  Given the sheer death toll and brutality on display at the end of this story, I doubt very much she made it through unscathed.

Contrast this with Victory of the Daleks, where the ‘good’ Daleks show their true colours within 15 minutes.  The new show needs to pump up the excitement and thrills on a regular basis, rather than build mood or tension.  There’s a fear of boring the audience, something current show runner Steven Moffat has actually said is his great concern.

 The Mind Robber in Doctor WhoThe Mind Robber

The Doctor and his friends are trapped in a world of fiction, meeting and interacting with fictional characters.  It’s a genuinely surreal and occasionally very creepy story, with moments of brilliance scattered throughout.

The new series occasionally edges towards the surreal, but quickly shies away.  Though credit where it is due, this season has managed it a bit more with stories like The Rings of Akhaten.  Some might point out that The Wedding of River Song is quite surreal, but it also lacks much in the way of an underlying logic, and is more a collection of cool moments.  Mind Robber is internally consistent and makes sense.

The Daemonsthe Master in the Daemons The Daemons

I bring this one up more as a statement of the overall series attitude than as a story new Who wouldn’t do.  One of the things about the original series was that no matter what was happening, gods, devils, or demons had a scientific explanation.  It was pushed as the answer, even if the science might be ropey, non-sensical, or beyond our understanding – there was at least an attempt to explain things.

The new show has a strong ‘magical’ science angle, but with less rules to the magical aspects than one would find in most decent fantasy.  So the Sonic Screwdriver can do almost anything, except when it can’t.  It’s hinted in The Satan Pit that the creature may have been the devil.  The Family of Blood features someone trapped within every mirror for all eternity.  Doctor Who had always been more fantasy than science fiction in its execution but no matter how surreal and fantastic it went, it tried to push a rationalist mindset.

 Warriors’ Gate

Set within a white void, it talks about probability theory, plays with time in interesting and different ways, and sometimes has colour characters against black and white backdrops as part of its visual storytelling style.  It is a deep and complex tale, one that can be understood at a basic level on a first viewing, but that with subsequent watchings rewards the careful viewer with greater understanding.  It has layers of meaning, and themes and ideas that it returns to again and again.  There is even a detailed guide to the story that is a very rewarding read, even to someone who has seen the story multiple times.

We haven’t come close to a new series story willing to attempt this level of complexity.  Yet another temporal paradox story is not about presenting a thought provoking examination of concepts and ideas, it’s about the puzzle gimmick of time travel.  Certainly, many stories and arcs fall apart under even a cursory examination of events, and lack any real examination of their themes and ideas beyond the merely superficial.  The series is highly popular at the moment – there’s no reason not to risk the occasional more intellectual story.

 The Caves of the AndrozaniThe Caves of Androzani

‘The Caves of Androzani’ is a dark and brutal story.  Even its moments of lighter banter have a gallows humour running through them.  More importantly for a regeneration tale, it doesn’t contain threats to the universe or time, it’s simply about the Doctor and Peri trying to survive a minor skirmish that is ultimately motivated by the lust for power or revenge of two men.  It’s the sort of darker adult tale that we used to get in the Hinchcliffe era of the show, and there’s a real feeling of threat to the Doctor and his friend as the scale is smaller and more intimate in nature.  ‘Androzani’ takes the brave and scarier leap of making the Doctor and Peri little more than collateral damage in a small private war.  It take a lot of restraint and a deft hand to write something like this.

The new series does do dark, and it does do smaller stories, but it’s already shown that by the end of a season or regeneration story the universe will be in danger.  It’s the false economy that a large universal threat is more exciting.  In fact, the opposite is true for couple of reasons.  One is that we can’t easily comprehend something the size of the universe being in danger, the other is that when the Earth and/or the universe has been threatened with extinction at the end of every year and usually saved without any real cost, we know everything will be okay.

 The Happiness PatrolThe Happiness Patrol

A world where sadness is outlawed and happiness enforced?  Where the ruler’s executioner is a psychotic robot made out of confectionery?  This is one of the show’s real strengths – the ability to examine the world and characters through a bizarre looking glass.  ‘Happiness Patrol’ is a Doctor Who fable complete with a moral.  And while it might be half an episode too long, it works on multiple levels and shows the sort of bravery that most television shies away from.

In fairness to new Who, it’s actually starting to get there with stories like the aforementioned ‘Rings of Akhaten.’  The strength of stories of this ilk is that by their very nature, they polarise the viewers.  People either love them or hate them, and that’s a really positive thing.  It means it’s not a safe story that takes no risks in terms of tone or content.  But it’s still a rare thing for the new show.  More often it merely gives you more of what was popular last time.

Musical Score

The bravery the original series showed with regards to its storytelling and scope also showed in its musical choices.  Musique Concrete was the original musical order of the day, with stories like the ‘Dead Planet’ taking on an extra level of alienness due to the quiet, haunting, creepy sounds that were part musical, part mood, part background noise.  It was a place to play with styles and sounds.  Then we had stories like the six-part ‘Abominable Snowmen’ that featured no music at all.  That decision actually helped add to the tension of the piece by using the sounds of the environment and the Yeti.

Yes, there are those who would point to the music in stories like ‘The Silurians,’ ‘The Sea Devils’ and ‘Death to the Daleks’ and mock the choices made, but each of the musical choices in those stories is based on experimentation and/or inspiration from the actual stories themselves.  ‘Silurians’ uses an instrument from the Renaissance, to reflect the ancient nature of the reptile race.  ‘Sea Devilss score is totally electronic and experimental.  And at a point in the show’s history where most of the music was electronic in nature, using a saxophone quartet for the score of ‘Death to the Daleks’ was an attempt by the composer to emphasise the idea that there was no electrical power.

It doesn’t matter if you hate all these scores, what matters is the thought that went into them and the bravery to attempt them.  Musically the series is more mundane than ever.  I like the new series scores but, especially in recent years, they are little more than minor variations on a couple of themes.

While people might say that Dudley Simpson was samey, they tend to ignore the fact that he was producing all his music with only four or five musicians most of the time.  The man had a huge and successful career before Doctor Who, writing for things like the ballet.  He brought that experience to the show and managed some subtle and inspired little touches, like the use of upright piano for his score for ‘City of Death’ – a story set in Paris where the upright piano was commonly used to provide music in bars and restaurants.  He actually chose an instrument based on its historical appropriateness to the environment.

Simpson was capable of great restraint, understanding that sometimes the most powerful statement  music to could make to a scene was to be absent so that the acting, camera work, or action was emphasised.  I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that given the BBC Wales Orchestra, Simpson would have produced some amazing and radically different scores.

Like Murray Gold, Simpson developed a theme for the Doctor.  It only appears occasionally within the series, as opposed to Murray Gold’s I Am The Doctor piece, which appears in almost every Eleventh Doctor story in one form or another.  It’s a fabulous piece, but like so much of the show’s writing, it’s taking a shorthand approach.

Risk-taking

In fairness the new series does occasionally take risks.  Stories like ‘Love & Monsters,’ ‘Blink,’ ‘Turn Left,’ ‘The Lodger,’ ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ and ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ all do odd unexpected things in terms of story, concept, or character.  Some have some serious flaws, some polarise opinions strongly, but all tried to be different.

And the most popular experimental tales inevitably got sequels and knock-offs that lacked the oomph and originality shown in the originals.  But the show can do it.  It can be a series that experiments again.  They can still do the standard, expected, safe stories, but where’s the harm in risking some real originality twice a season?  They did it this year, and while some dislike them, both ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ and ‘Ring of Akhaten’ were stories that broke the mould in interesting ways.

In episode 46 of the Adventures in Time, Space, and Music podcast, Dr. Louis Niebur, Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Nevada, makes two comments about the show’s music and, to some degree, the show itself.

In the first one he comments that one of the criticisms of  new Doctor Who is that it’s “…perhaps not as thoughtful as earlier eras… it’s not as clever, it’s just much more conventional.  The score is reactive, often, rather than creative.”

He goes on to say that it just sounds like TV music to him “…substituting originality with loudness.”

I think that “Not as thoughtful or clever, just more conventional,” and “substituting originality with loudness,” sum up my feelings about the 2005 series perfectly.  It’s completely watchable, and enjoyable, and just a bit ordinary.

 

Nalini
Nalinihttps://www.darkmatterzine.com
Nalini is an award-winning writer and artist as well as managing editor of Dark Matter Zine.

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