Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 31 (The Singing Detective, Edge of Darkness)

The weakness of Doctor Who in 1985-86 would be one thing if it were a weak period for British television in general. Instead, however, two of the most acclaimed British television productions of all time aired during the Colin Baker era. The first, at the end of 1985, was Edge of Darkness. The second, airing at the tail end of Trial of a Time Lord, about 26 hours after each of the last four episodes and then for another two weeks after, was The Singing Detective.

For those not reflexively versed in the nuances of British television, Edge of Darkness is a conspiracy thriller written by the creator of Z-Cars and directed by Martin Campbell, who went on to be a serious director who did such high profile work as the Daniel Craig Casino Royale and, less satisfyingly, the recent Green Lantern film. If the name sounds vaguely familiar as a Mel Gibson film, I'm very sorry for you, as that's Martin Campbell remaking the series as a film a few years back and very much not good. The plot concerns a police detective whose daughter is gunned down in front of him and the nuclear conspiracy that unfolds as he investigates her death and discovers that she, not he, was the target.

The Singing Detective, on the other hand, is one of the two things that people point towards when picking the masterpiece of Dennis Potter, himself the consensus best writer in British television history. It stars Michael Gambon as a writer with a debilitating skin condition (one that Potter himself also suffered from) who drifts among his stay in the hospital, the detective novel he's writing in his head (in which Gambon also plays the  lead, the eponymous singing detective), and memories from his childhood.

It goes without saying that both are very, very good. Less clear is whether they're meaningfully comparable with Doctor Who. Certainly both have wildly higher production standards. Indeed, in the case of The Singing Detective the production standards were actually too high - Dennis Potter had wanted the hospital scenes shot on video to look like a sitcom, but he was overruled and the whole thing was done on film. As a result, both are much better looking than Doctor Who.

And this is not, to be clear, just a special effects thing. Television is a visual medium. We Doctor Who fans are used to overlooking bad effects, but in doing so we can be prone to blinding ourselves to just how much good directing can matter. (Consider the degree to which Revelation of the Daleks was salvaged by Graeme Harper. Even in the new series directors matter to a great extent - consider how much The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex were elevated by Nick Hurran's revelatory direction.) It's not just that Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective look ritzier, they're fundamentally better and more complexly shot pieces of television. Doctor Who didn't have the money to let directors cut loose the way they can in these shows, and as a result struggled to get directors as good as these - one of the few claims in the infamous Eric Saward Starburst interview I have no trouble believing. As a result, yes, of course these shows look far better than Doctor Who. The long tracking shots that pop up throughout the start of Edge of Darkness, for instance, are just something that Doctor Who was never going to do.

So on that level, at least, looking at Doctor Who next to two of the legend of British television is terribly unfair to Doctor Who. But that's never been the way in which Doctor Who has compared to the highlights of British drama. Look back to the Troughton era, when Doctor Who was succinctly an thoroughly outshone by The Prisoner. Doctor Who in the 1960s never had an episode that looked half as good as The Prisoner looked, even ignoring the color issue. But eventually, starting, really, as early as The Mind Robber, Doctor Who managed to get bits of writing that could stand toe-to-toe with The Prisoner. In many ways this is the default mode for Doctor Who - production values far below other shows but writing and, at least much of the time, acting that goes beyond it.

The central example here remains The Ark in Space, which looks incredibly bad but is played with utter conviction such that it works. And, more than that, it thrives such that its most visible faults become virtues. When done right, Doctor Who is actually more likable for its shoddy elements simply because of the determination to make good television despite the limitations that they put on display. Because The Ark in Space cannot simply casually be good the ways in which it is good are even more vivid. And at the heart of why The Ark in Space works is the fact that it was written by Robert Holmes, a writer who, as the cliched observation goes, never quite got that he was actually one of the best writers at the BBC.

So in this regard we can compare Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective to Doctor Who. Because even if Doctor Who was never going to look like either production, it could at least be written like them. I mean, OK, maybe not quite as good Dennis Potter, but Troy Kennedy Martin, though a very good writer, is firmly the sort of writer that Doctor Who, in order to work, needs to be in the same league as. And even Dennis Potter, well, even if Doctor Who's writers aren't going to be quite as good as Dennis Potter they can at least contend for the open spaces in the ranking immediately below him. And more to the point, they have to. Doctor Who has always relied on having genius writers, whether they be ones capable of mass acclaim or more troubled, oddball geniuses who need a show like Doctor Who to thrive.

Of course, Season 22 had two writers who were at least plausible entries into the leagues in question: Robert Holmes and Philip Martin. And it's telling that Vengeance on Varos is the one script in Season 22 that plausibly belongs on a list of truly great Doctor Who stories. (Holmes, on the other hand, is clearly in open rebellion against the show as conceived.) But on the whole Doctor Who is not only lacking in writers who threaten to break out into genius at any moment (and even at its best it has only had enough of those for one or two stories per season), it's lacking in writers who can noodle along confidently at a level just a bit below genius.

And in the case of The Singing Detective one can even suggest that Doctor Who is trying to aspire towards it. The central conceit of The Singing Detective is its switching among three distinct narratives and its use of ambiguous gaps among the narratives that allow the strands to blur together. It's worth pointing out, then, that both Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks were overtly playing with similar ideas. The Singing Detective took it further, yes, but it's absolutely the case that Doctor Who is in the same context as The Singing Detective from a writing perspective.

So let's look at Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective and ask what good writing in 1985-86 looked like. For the most part the two shows are very, very different. Edge of Darkness is a relatively straightforward thriller. It doesn't use any massively complicated narrative tricks save for some ambiguity at times over whether or not the main character is really seeing his dead daughter's ghost or just cracking. What is perhaps most notable about it is that there's next to no effort to spend a lot of time on exposition. The world has its rules and largely gets on with the business of storytelling within it. It's not until the sixth episode that people really start getting into lengthy philosophical speeches with one another.

The Singing Detective is less straightforwardly a mystery, but it also shares this style of letting its world unfold for the audience. The normal term for this is, I suppose, "show don't tell," but there's more to it than that. What's interesting about how The Singing Detective and Edge of Darkness unfold isn't just that they avoid clumsy exposition for the most part, it's that they carefully control the audience's knowledge and expectations without ever having to resort substantively to telling instead of showing.

This is a key approach for Edge of Darkness, because at its heart Edge of Darkness is a mystery. Over time we're meant both to figure out the conspiracy behind Craven's daughter's death and the nature of the world Edge of Darkness is set in (which is, Quatermasss-like, almost but not quite our world). So it very much just depicts the world it's set in in an ostensibly straightforward manner. It's not actually nearly as straightforward as it appears, but it's a method of storytelling that shifts an enormous weight onto the audience.

This is, to be frank, something Doctor Who has not come close to doing at this point. The Edge of Darkness approach requires a tremendous amount of respect for the audience - something Doctor Who hasn't had in a long time. I mean, the show has tremendous, even excessive faith in the audience's ability to remember who the Sontarans are and to think they're very cool. But there's very little respect for the audience's ability to fill in gaps on their own. The show very rarely just shows things without lengthy exposition sequences or infodumps. And that's largely a straightforward mark of maturity. The audience is more than capable of understanding the basic outline of science fiction worlds, especially after twenty-two years of Doctor Who and at this point nearly a decade of post-Star Wars culture, the fact is that Doctor Who displays a distressing lack of confidence in the ability of the audience to understand the worlds it depicts without exposition.

As a result, it's miles from being able to tell a story where we learn about a mystery progressively by watching people interact with it. And this is a real thing. It's easy to draw an arbitrary line between "highbrow" television and trash and put Doctor Who, as a ropey sci-fi series, on the trash pile. But first of all, neither Edge of Darkness nor The Singing Detective particularly support a highbrow/trash dichotomy given that one is massively indebted to low culture iconography and the other is also a piece of science fiction. Second of all, just because the highbrow/lowbrow line is sometimes arbitrary and silly doesn't mean that there isn't real content to it sometimes. And this is one place where the line really does start to assert itself - highbrow media is much more likely to hold to a "show don't tell" principle while still carefully managing audience expectations and knowledge. It's a technique that, when successfully used, almost guarantees a highbrow reception to this day.

It's not even that Doctor Who is melodrama and thus not prone to that. The Singing Detective is firmly melodramatic at key points. There are aspects of it that aren't played for melodrama, but melodrama is absolutely central to what that show is doing. Because Doctor Who has played it in the highbrow manner before - The Massacre is the most obvious example, but even more recently something like Warrior's Gate unfolded that way. It can be done - it just isn't at this point in time.

The other thing that Edge of Darkness and The Singing Detective do that Doctor Who never really does in this period is focus the drama on the experiences of characters. In both series the most powerful moments are those in which we watch uncomfortably as Michael Gambon or Bob Peck suffer visibly. Most of the best moments of Edge of Darkness's first episode are those in which we watch Peck portray Craven's grief at his daughter's death. The show resolutely refuses to speed through it, instead showing Craven's bereavement in aggressive detail. Similarly, much of the thrust of The Singing Detective is capturing Gambon's humiliation and agony at his condition. Even as we delve into his psyche and understand more and more of why he's the way he is, the series is at its most powerful when we see the raw misery of Marlow's illness and the way in which he's callously marginalized and mistreated for it.

This is something Doctor Who never really does. It doesn't take the time to show an extended treatment of a single character's experience. And this is a real wakness. One of the best and subtlest moments of Vengeance on Varos is when we find out that Peri secretly wants wings. But what's powerful is that this is the one moment where Peri starts to be more than "generic human female" as a companion and to acquire some character traits. But the fleeting nature of it just exposes the way in which thought of actual emotional experience is sidelined. So much of what was horrible about the strangulation scene in The Twin Dilemma is that no space was ever provided to see Peri's reaction to it or to allow the audience to empathize with her. Instead she forgave the Doctor readily and the incident was brushed under the rug. When the thing that needed to exist for that idea to have any chance of working was an extended treatment of Peri and her reactions.

Again, this isn't something totally foreign to Doctor Who - it did it as recently as Kinda with the extended focus on Tegan's dreamscape. But it's been largely and conspicuously absent - most obviously in the failure to have Nyssa or Tegan ever react to the Master in a meaningful sense. And, to look ahead, as awkward as some of the Ace sequences in the latter part of the McCoy era are they're major improvements simply because they're instances of the show trying to focus extensively on imagining the experience of being in the world's it depicts. (Actually, it's worth remarking in the general case on the influence of Edge of Darkness on the McCoy era. Andrew Cartmel infamously declared in his interview for the position of script editor that his ambitions for Doctor Who were to bring down the government. Given John Nathan-Turner's visible resistance to overtly political Doctor Who over the seasons immediately prior to hiring Andrew Cartmel the fact that he then hired Cartmel after that interview seems surprising to say the least. But it is worth remembering that Nathan-Turner was always a savvy viewer of television. He'd have been well aware that Edge of Darkness was by miles the most successful piece of science fiction on the BBC in half a decade. And the hiring of Cartmel goes, I think, hand in hand with that. For all his poor judgment in the latter days of the Davison era and the Baker era, Nathan-Turner was not a fool.)

In the end, then, it's all too clear looking at what top notch British drama in 1985-86 is next to Doctor Who that there were serious problems with the show. The problems the series suffered are not, much as one might suggest, that it's badly of its time. Rather, it's that the series was hopelessly out of touch with what worked at the time. The simple, damning fact is that Doctor Who badly missed a trick in this period. It's not that it wasn't as good as two of the best series the BBC ever made. It's that it wasn't even trying to be.

49 comments:

  1. As another example of direction in the new series, I think Hettie MacDonald's direction doesn't get nearly enough credit for the success of Blink. The script is arguably Moffat's least strong in the Davies-era.

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    1. You found it weaker than the library two-parter?

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    2. I wouldn't use the word 'weak' anywhere near either script. But Blink is basically working out a high concept, while Silence in the Library uses the combination of three or four high concepts to generate an emotional resonance that's greater than the sum of the parts.
      Also, as has been said elsewhere, Blink requires an actor with sufficient charisma and talent to pull off a line like 'sad is like happy for deep people'.

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  2. I'd love to read more about the art of direction, and how it contributes if not establishes the language of motion pictures. Loved that bit from Planet of the Daleks where Jo "takes over" the discourse of the narrative. Can we get more video reviews, Phil?

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    1. I keep thinking I should do one, but I never see a good story to do one with. Maybe Time and the Rani.

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    2. Hi Jane - you might enjoy the posts on this very subject by SEK (from the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog). A round-up of the various posts he's made onthe subject can be found here:

      http://acephalous.typepad.com/acephalous/2012/02/scott-eric-kaufmans-visual-rhetoric-compendium-as-of-11282011.html

      (sorry, I am sure there would be a much more elegant way to post that link).

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  3. Regarding Edge of Darkness, it's an interesting point to consider how disconnected from environmental issues Doctor Who was in the Saward era too. The Colin Baker era especially focused on generic adventure stories: the Doctor arrives in a world threatened by monsters and villains, and fights them. Environmental problems and conflicts are so much more complex that the storytelling frameworks of the Colin Baker era can handle.

    It's another aspect of how the show had grown out of step with its time. Environmental issues were entering the popular parlance, and our cultures were working through them, sometimes with great difficulty as the movement unsettled a lot of widespread presumptions about humanity and nature more broadly. Edge of Darkness, especially in its last two episodes, explored these ideas in a very complex and deep way. Doctor Who of 1985 went near none of this. It's as if the production staff was incapable of believing that the show could handle actual serious issues.

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    1. Even more glaringly than the environmental issues, there is the whole context of the Cold War. It's a major theme of Edge of Darkness, of course, and Threads was broadcast in 1984. Slightly earlier, the rather lighter, child-oriented but still effective movie WarGames came out in 1983, and in 1986 there was the oh-so-cheery When the Wind Blows.

      The threat that we might suddenly destroy our entire civilisation in a fit of violent folly was palpable during the time when Saward was on Doctor Who, and yet the show never really engaged with this during his time. Sure, there was a cheesy future cold war in Warriors of the Deep, but that was never much more than an excuse to have a military base for the Silurians to besiege. The Mysterious Planet had all the elements with which to tap into these ideas, but did noting with them. Only Frontios really resonates with fears of a post-apocalyptic future, but is more engaged with psychology than with cold war issues.

      It's not as if Doctor Who couldn't address these ideas. The Curse of Fenric manages it, but comes a bit late: the Berlin Wall fell between episodes 3 and 4. There are also plenty of cold war themes in the Williams era - The Armageddon Factor and Destiny of the Daleks spring to mind - as well as earlier in the show.

      But for some reason this theme, hugely prominent at the time and ideal for treatment by a science fiction show, was practically overlooked by Saward. Is it because it would risk showing up his beloved space mercenaries as futile?

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    2. I don't think the show in the 80s could have added anything to what it has done before on the futile war theme. Doctor Who did the Nazis in Genesis, for example. There'll never be any need for them to do that again. And besides, perhaps the 80s are characterised not so much by cold war dread as by the spirit of resistance, of upsurge. Threads (which I watched a couple of weeks ago, by chance) hit a political sweet spot, and gave people a morbid thrill, but its immense dramatic energy emerged from the CND campaign and the greater awareness of what was going on in Russia (of Russians as people, with problems, like the rest of us). That's not to do with fear (although it may pretend to be) but with a spirit of community, and optimism, and the feeling that we're freer than we were to speak about our own dreams and nightmares,

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    3. Except that late as they came, both Battlefield and Curse of Fenric managed to find new takes on cold war fears. So I think the idea that there was nothing more to do there is fairly thoroughly disproven.

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    4. Interestingly, this month there's a Big Finish lost story from 1985 called Power Play, and deals with environmental and nuclear concerns albeit with aliens and Victoria Wakefield
      http://www.bigfinish.com/releases/v/doctor-who-power-play-417

      Of course it probably wouldn't have been made, or might have been cut down. Even if it had been it probably would've been too little too late.

      Very interesting take on this era, one that I had never thought of. The standard take has been is "If only they had/could've afforded better directors" (like Gareth Roberts in DWM). But even if Graeme Harper had directed Trial, it still would've been slow storytelling for the time, especially with constant interruptions

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    5. Not to mention Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced a storyline about a self-destructive, pointless Cold War with the Romulan Star Empire in 1987-1988 and then Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country dealt with the collapse of the Cold War with the Klingons a century earlier in-universe in 1991.

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    6. "Doctor Who of 1985 went near none of this. It's as if the production staff was incapable of believing that the show could handle actual serious issues."

      Vengeance on Varos was driven by serious and political issues. It's one of the few Doctor Who stories to really attack our justice system and expose the brutalising nature of the prison environment on both its prisoners and captors. And through that it has a lot to say about exploitation of the underdog particularly through the power of global corporations, and the idea that political leaders are simply powerless puppets of a hidden capitalist agenda.

      I'd say Doctor Who in 1985 was as political as it's ever been.

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    7. "That's not to do with fear (although it may pretend to be) but with a spirit of community, and optimism, and the feeling that we're freer than we were to speak about our own dreams and nightmares,"

      I'm afraid I can't agree. My memories of that time are of a constant background hum of pessimism and fear. I watched Threads when it first came out, and while it was very striking, it was essentially portraying the future that we already expected.

      We didn't know at the time about the close calls that have more recently been revealed, such as Able Archer 83, but the political rhetoric of the time was nothing short of terrifying. Paranoid old men in the Kremlin, out of touch with reality, and an American president who seemed to revel in provocation and seemed just crazy enough to push the proverbial button.

      That said, there was in Britain at least a sense of commonality between ourselves and the everyday Soviet citizens. For a great depiction of this in media, I would recommend Bill Forsyth's fine movie Local Hero.

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    8. Tommy, Philip Martin's and Robert Holmes' scripts in season 22 were pretty much the exception to a rule of storytelling governed by, as I think Phil made it impressively clear over the entries for that season and especially Doctor in Distress, a distorted Troughton-era nostalgia and continuity obsession stoked by the fan-industrial complex. The narrative tools available to most writers were attacks by generic monsters and generic villains.

      Writers like Holmes and Martin who could see through that framework and critique it were few and far between. They were basically Philip Martin and Robert Holmes. Even Stephen Gallagher found his Terminus blandified as all the more complex concepts were removed in favour of generic, politics-free adventure. And I use the word 'adventure' very loosely.

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    9. Iain, point taken. Unreliable memories, maybe, or at least unreliable interpretations.

      I think Pip and Jane write a very good script in Mark of the Rani, which spends a lot of its time affectionately mocking the clichés in a very New Who style. And the mining environment is done better than in the Green Death, at least. I think Season 22 is being held to far higher standards other eras of the show. And Revelation (and no other story (including in the New Series) has done this) builds creatively on the Davros of Genesis, and makes him a character capable of doing something other than threatening and sneering and ranting.

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  4. Well, Peri does mention hedgerows in Mark of the Rani, and the vegetarian theme of the Two Doctors plugs into the upsurge in animal rights awareness.

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  5. I feel that Phil is being led along by his politics here. Season 22, for good or ill, was like nothing else on TV, and like nothing in the surrounding culture, and that's not an unreasonable place for Doctor Who to occupy. The Singing Detective was highly prestigious event TV, but any account of 80s Dennis Potter has also to take into account what gradually came to be seen as serious failings: his preference for rather stolidly televisual directorial styles, and his growing authorial self-consciousness, which resulted in the underwhelming thematic recycling of Lipstick on Your Collar, the dull grotesquerie of Blackeyes, and a general resistance to script editing. The Singing Detective has just been repeated on BBC4, to not much public interest. I get the impression that Dennis Potter nowadays attracts the kind of dutiful praise otherwise reserved for worthy but unimaginative plodders like Ken Loach. I don't see how visually, how in the way the camera moves, how in the way the shots are composed, etc., Doctor Who is far below the serials you refer to. All of them are nothing like the movies. The Singing Detective was its own sort of dead end, with little to teach Who. And if JNT wanted to make souffles and every one of them sank....? Well, in the political context of the time, it's just as worthy an ambition as singing on Top of the Pops about being a Red Indian or a mediaeval knight. Certainly I think it's more interesting than mid 80s dourness, cynicism and paranoia.

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    1. Certainly The Singing Detective marked Potter's critical peak, but I think you're underselling the quality of its direction. Nor am I sure the amount of public interest a thirty year old serial that's widely available on DVD being rerun on BBC4 was ever going to be that high. I think it would be difficult to treat The Singing Detective as a model for Doctor Who directly, but I don't think that means it has little to teach Doctor Who. In terms of character-based storytelling, how to use genre conventions for more than straightforward genre-based thrills, and about non-linear storytelling I think it has quite a lot to teach.

      Similarly, while Doctor Who will, in the Cartmel era, prove to be quite good at paranoid anti-Thatcher screeds, I don't think those are the only way to be political, nor were they the only way to be political in the 1980s. To point at something that gets adopted as a model for Doctor Who ere long, Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing is intensely political in this period without being dour, cynical, or paranoid. Even something like V for Vendetta doesn't strike me as paranoid as such.

      But more broadly, I don't think Doctor Who has ever worked by being like nothing else in the culture. I think it works by being visibly different from everything else in the culture, but still clearly in contact and context with it. Yes, I think Doctor Who in the 1980s should (and eventually will) offer an alternative to the cynical paranoia of much of the culture. But I think that critique has to come from within the context, not from outside of it.

      Then again, I love the cynical and dour 1980s.

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    2. Interestingly, there's little if anything in Jon Amiel's later career as a director -- or at least in the films of his that I've seen -- that would lead you to expect him to have helmed a project as good as The Singing Detective.

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    3. Talking about great direction, have any of you seen the adaptation of Sheridan LeFanu's Uncle Silas, oddly retitled The Dark Angel, and available on Network DVD? It was directed by Paul Hammond, who later did stuff like episodes of Inspector Morse and Sherlock Holmes. Hackwork, in other words, but my God with Dark Angel it's as if this is his one and only shot at showing everything he can do. It reminds me of something by the Polish director Andrzej Zulawski: every single shot without exception is either beautiful or odd - weirdly angled, strangely filtered, Hammond never once let's up. It's exhausting, absurd, but at the same time poignant, because it's clear how much wild creativity must have been stifled by the limitations of serial TV.

      Which is part of my beef with Potter, really, although of course I've been very unfair to him, Compare Terence Davies: he gives the viewer a quite similar experience in some ways to much of Potter, but his films have a visual lavishness the possibility of which never seems to have occurred to anyone at the BBC. Except Paul Hammond maybe!

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    4. By lavishness, sorry, I meant something much more substantial than mere gorgeousness of course: as Phil has explained - telling a story and also a way of communicating politically and morally in a wholly visual way.

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  6. I don't think Nick Hurran should get all the credit for The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex being so good; I remember being extremely skeptical when I first heard he was directing, considering his mediocre-to-horrible prior credit list, but was pleasantly surprised.

    Still, I think the series just wanted the prestige of having a "film director" do episodes, and though there's been worse directors, I'm sure someone else within the organization could've done as good (if not better) a job.

    Also... the situations of Doctor Who and the two miniseries (key word, there) you mention differ greatly; Doctor Who, of course, was something of an assembly line process -- as an ongoing series, it had to produce episodes on time, on budget, etc., without taking more time to "get it right" (if you'll remember, that's why Lovett Bickford, Paul Joyce, and the upcoming Andrew Morgan were never invited back after their budget-busters).

    The miniseries were made on entirely different schedules, where care could be taken to create artistic shots; these days, obviously, with fewer episodes per series, Doctor Who is also able to work similar magic with HD cameras, but at the time, the BBC simply could not break out of that hidebound bureaucracy to try a different shooting and scheduling format -- and even if they had, the fans would've given them hell for making Doctor Who the equivalent to an annual miniseries.

    ...but, who knows; it might've given it the spark of life it needed.

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    1. Hurran is spectacularly good with actors - Karen Gillan in particular gives her two finest performances under his direction, and while some of that comes down to the material giving her a lot to do, he still seems to bring out the best in her. And his camera angles are consistently inventive and effective.

      I don't think he's the director I would have pointed to out of Series 6 - both Richard Clark and Toby Haynes did much better work. Hurran's set pieces are clumsy, something that certainly can't be said of Clark and Haynes, and his episodes are substantially less atmospheric as well. But he's not a bad choice to single out to show how a director can enhance a script, given the strength of the performances and camerawork.

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    2. @JJ

      For someone new to the conversation about directing, could you tell me more about how Hurran's set pieces are "clumsy"? And what did Clark and Haynes do that you think makes their work better?

      thanks so much!

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    3. I don't know a lot about directors or their art, but I found the imagery of TGWW and TGC quite striking, with all kinds of interesting shots selected to highlight some truly outstanding performances.

      Not sure about the "prestige," Matthew -- just looking at Wiki, he's been out of film for five years, and has a lengthy television resume. But then, I don't pay attention to any of the Beeb's marketing or their press releases, so I don't know if they played up his credentials or not.

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    4. I haven't watched the episodes since last fall, so my set-piece comment is hard to follow up too directly right now. Mostly I just recall the climactic slash-and-run finale of the otherwise superlative Girl Who Waited to feel clumsily choreographed but distractingly stylized, replete with Zach Snyder-style slow-motion/fast-motion editing, but much less effectively than Snyder.

      In general, though, compare how Haynes, Clark, and Hurran do a scene like, say, running down corridors. Haynes and Clark both use deep, dramatic shadows and elaborate lighting to make the corridors creepier, more mysterious places and they both get more effective music out of Murray Gold. While Hurran sets the camera in a cool place, but the lighting is bright and uniform, the music comparatively generic. Essentially, they use a fuller range of techniques to get a deeper atmosphere.

      Hurran's The God Complex has an infinitely more interesting and ambitious script than Clark's Night Terrors, but Clark makes the hallways and rooms of the apartment complex uniquely creepy, while Hurran just makes a hotel look like a hotel. And when Clark is handed a brilliant script in The Doctor's Wife, he really makes it sing.

      It's a vastly more subtle difference than, say, the corridors in Ark In Space vs. those in Alien, but it's that general type of difference.

      On the other hand, if you just look at Hurran's camera angles, pacing, and the performances he gets out of the cast, there's no end of praise to be heaped on him. He's definitely good. I just wouldn't think to call his directing "revelatory" given that he was, at best, the third most effective director of the season.

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    5. @ JJ

      Thanks for the wonderfully specific examples -- it's those kinds of details I'm wanting to get more adept at reading. (It also probably helps that I've seen most of these episodes ten or twenty times now -- a lot of these images are burned into my head.)

      I'm vexed by TGWW's climax. On the one hand, I can see the silliness of the fight choreography -- the Handbots have to be the least imposing monsters of Series Six -- and how Hurran covers its up through his directorial choices. On the other hand, I think it really works; I love this scene; it gets me riled up in a good way. And I think I know why: if I take it as a reflection of Amy's perspective on what's happening, I don't think I can quibble with it, it's absolutely reflective of her character.

      On the other, other hand, I think the fight scene at the end of DotM by Haynes is even better. It doesn't need as much trickery with its superb choreography (though it does take more special effects.) The lighting is brilliant, especially the harsh, over-saturated beaming down on Amy strapped in that chair. Point Haynes.

      Now, Night Terrors -- yeah, I have to agree Clarke creates a completely creepy environment, and he does that through some judicious lighting, shots through narrow spaces, and some amazing transitions. The Hotel looks completely banal in comparison.

      But isn't the hotel supposed to look banal? Right off the bat, the Doctor discusses at length how much the Hotel looks just like a hotel. Hurran isn't going for creepy. If anything, I think the plainness of the environment (including the lighting) makes the bad dreams of the rooms more disconcerting. And I think the choice is appropriate given that the Minotaur feeds on faith rather than fear; this is a story concerned more with existential dread than a child's night terrors.

      I'm more sure of my opinion that this is what Hurran is going for when I look at the labyrinth of mirrors in the Pasiphae Spa. After the Doctor cuts the lights, the primary source of lighting in the scene comes from a sheet of Water cascading over Glass, and a bowl of Fish -- all significant motifs not just of the episode, but of Moffat's tenure.

      In comparison, the lighting of The Doctor's Wife, which has some incredible use of shadows and contrast, is rather uniform throughout the episode -- everything is cast in the same tones of light and darkness, whether it's Amy confronting a nightmare Rory (the most terrifying part of the episode), Idris breathing out the Artron energy of the TARDIS, or the Doctor quipping about "reliability" with his wife.

      So, saying all that, I'm not sure Phil's comment that Hurran's direction being "revelatory" is out of place, especially when it comes to TGC, which I think is a much more complex and yet subtle script to direct than what Haynes and Clarke were given.

      And saying all that, wow, Haynes really knocked it out of the park when it came to the season opener, and Clarke's work was superb, too -- but we already knew these guys could do Who. Isn't it a revelation that Hurran has got some chops as well?

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  7. When we get to the current era, do you plan to do any pops between realities for Moffat's other shows (e.g. Coupling, Jekyll, Sherlock -- to name the only ones I've seen)?

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    1. I probably won't do all of his shows, but both he and Davies will have their pre-Doctor Who careers represented. But I'll probably do Sherlock as an Outside The Government.

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    2. I hope we get coverage of Moffat's "Continuity Errors"

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    3. Off-topic, but Moffat-related -- in Jekyll, there's an exchange between a British and American agent:

      "He's moving."
      "Of course he's moving, he's on a train!"
      "You obviously haven't got the hang of England yet, have you?"

      Can anyone explain to this benighted American what this means?

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    4. Less off-topic, Amy & Rory have occasional echoes of Coupling, while the Klein & Utterson Institute in Jekyll seems an obvious parallel to Torchwood. And of course the Sherlock parallels are extremely clear, from both Sherlock and the Doctor making fun of (other) humans' "funny little brains," to both characters' elaborately faking their deaths (though we now know how Sherlock did it).

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    5. I haven't seen Jekyll, but the English train network is one of the things that the English like to imagine are world-beatingly awful. I assume the joke is that a moving train in England is a noteworthy occurrence.

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    6. Ah! Thanks. My experiences with English trains have all been delightful, so perhaps I've been cheated out of an authentic experience.

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    7. I think it's just a rotten attempt at a joke; English trains have been pretty reliable since the 80s. I mean, hardly comparable to Switzerland or Japan, but I can't remember the last time Chilternrail was late.

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    8. I said 'like to imagine' for a reason. Although the railways were subject to neglect in the eighties, which meant that in the late nineties and early twenty first century there were a lot of delays especially at weekends due to needed repair works. Also, if you look at the figures running the London commuter network is somewhat like trying to make a world-class SF series on a BBC budget.

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    9. Moffat's not just wrong in assuming that British trains are prone to stopping. He's even more wrong in assuming that American trains aren't.

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    10. There's an odd aspect to the British character (or at least English - I can't really speak for our friends just to the North and West) in which doing something badly is seen as a mark of pride. We love to think that the railways are badly run, regardless of what they are really like compared to other countries - after all, Mussolini made the trains run on time, and he was a Fascist and we're not like that, are we? We're a nation of amateurs.

      It's faded since the time of Flanders and Swann's Song of Patriotic Prejudice and lines about foreigners playing cricket who "practice beforehand, which ruins the fun" - but it's still there enough to be recognised as a stereotypical attitude.

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  8. Fundamentally, for Doctor Who to look good alongside other dramas of the time - not just these big prestige serials but also the likes of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes - it would have had to change from multi-camera video to single-camera film.

    This would doubtless have been more expensive, and on those grounds alone would have been impossible without a radical change of strategy from the BBC. On top of that, all the special effects expertise and technology was based on video. I don't know how challenging it would have been to switch the FX side over to film, but I suspect it would have been non-trivial.

    Without those changes, Doctor Who was stuck with a look that was once acceptable for quality drama, but which was increasingly confined to sitcom and soap. I am inclined to doubt that any amount of great writing and acting would have made up for that increasing presentational gap between Doctor Who and what people saw as proper drama.

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    1. Is there a way to find out which shows are shot on video and which on film? I looked at a few shows on IMDB, but most of them listed both e.g. "film editing" and "videotape mixing" in the credits.

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    2. I don't know, back in the late 80s some important dramas were still being shot entirely on video and OB. For example Howard Brenton's Dead Head in 1986 and PD James's Taste for Death in 1988. Also most BBC children dramas were being made on video (even big budget prestige stuff like Box of Delights and the Narnia films). Not to mention almost all other genre work on the BBC like Star Cops, Virtual Murder and even Neverwhere as late as 96.

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    3. Even today, it's still all video, but put through some sort of process to look like film; with the upgrade to HD and the time and care put into cinematography, we get, well... Moffat-Who, and it looks all the better for it. :-)

      Sadly enough, Revelation of the Daleks was the last Doctor Who serial to use film; starting with Trial, the series for the rest of the '80s would use OB video... and it doesn't really look as good, to my eyes.

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    4. It's also worth noting that the new series, though done on video, is still done single camera and not multicamera. I find the video sections of the classic series to look better than the film sections for the most part simply because of the higher resolution of video and the fact that it looks more like HD and what "professional" stuff looks like today, but the multicamera setup still kills it.

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    5. What's the story on something like As Time Goes By? That looks video-y to my eyes, yet it's relatively recent (late 90s/early 2000s) and, despite technically being a sitcom, is much closer to being a serious drama than the average sitcom (and stars two big names, one very big).

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    6. I'm sure I was making the transition sound sharper than it really was, but some of the examples above make it even clearer how Doctor Who was on the wrong side of the divide. More and more, single camera film was the mark of proper drama, while multi-camera video was for childrens' drama, genre stuff - anything that could be put in a box marked "not serious". I'm sure it's part of why Star Cops met with little acclaim, despite its many fine qualities. And as for Neverwhere, by the time that came out video really was for the kid's shows and sitcoms. Neil Gaiman was very insistent that it should be shot on film, and appalled when it was shot on video, because that immediately put it in the "silly kids' show" box.

      With the rise of more sophisticated post-production techniques, and now HD, it's a different story for video. As Phil says, it's now the single camera setup that really makes the difference.

      Imagine how Doctor Who would be received if it were shot like The I.T. Crowd.

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    7. Of course, much of the McCoy era is shot on single camera (even in the studio). It's just that only Wareing, Mallett and Clough (on occasion) make good use of the possibilities it offers. There never was enough time to make the shooting completely film-like however.

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  9. Just to recap: we're starting with the presumption that Doctor Who had (or has) a mandate to live up to either of these; or, in the broader sense, to maintain equilibrium with all prior works of sci-fi literature by telling a wholly original story with each iteration, while simultaneously drawing inspiration (i.e. competing) with contemporary works of the same genre, without relying on "continuity for the sake of continuity" (Deadly Assassin); ideally by subverting the audience's expectations at every turn and/or deconstructing Doctor Who's decadent (The Two Doctors), arrogant (Talons of Wang Chiang), morally lazy (caves of Androzani) premise.

    Even if Doctor Who were up to the task, could it really sustain its creative momentum like that for an any extended period? The conceit of the series is that Doctor Who has no continuity, right?

    ..Oh, and we as fans have t be careful not to be too bitchy. (A Fix With Sontarans)

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