Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 40 (Dark Season, Century Falls)

If you want to date your argument from Press Gang then the story of Doctor Who’s return begins a few months before its final season. But Steven Moffat didn’t bring Doctor Who back, and indeed has said in interviews that he could never have done what Russell T Davies did with the series without having seen Davies do it first. In that case, then, the return of Doctor Who begins about two years after its cancellation, in November of 1991, with the debut of Russell T Davies’s first created television series Dark Season.


Dark Season is a straightforward show - a bit of a nostalgic throwback. It features a trio of schoolchildren investigating sci-fi mysteries going on around their school. The plot is split into two three-episode runs, with the fifth episode cliffhanger suddenly revealing that the villain of the second story is in league with the villain of the first story. Our main character is Marcie, whose conceit is that she more or less recognizes that she’s in a sci-fi television show and so plays for the right set of conventions instead of bumbling about trying to figure out things that the audience had ages ago. Aside from being entertaining, this also means that Davies can pick up the pace nicely. Finally, it’s obligatory to mention that Dark Season features a very early role for Kate Winslet, who is famous for stuff.

The fashion these days appears to be to suggest that Dark Season is not, as it initially appears, a direct heir to Doctor Who. This is absolute rubbish. Dark Season is as flagrant a Doctor Who descendent as has ever been descended, so much so that it’s tempting, albeit inaccurate, to call it a clone. The script could be trivially adapted into a Doctor Who story to fit into Season Twenty-Five or Twenty-Six. Marcie, the lead protagonist, is channeling Sylvester McCoy throughout her performance to a degree that is downright creepy given that she’s playing a pre-teen girl, prone to cryptic mutterings mixed with solid humor. You’d barely need to change her dialogue to have her work as the Doctor. Combining the roles of Reet and Tom into a single companion would have been somewhat trickier, but even there you’re not looking at much - spin one off into Ace, and keep the other as a temporary companion to give the Doctor and Ace a way into the events at the school and you have a pair of linked three-parters.

Which begs the question of why the party line is that Dark Season isn’t a Doctor Who . To some extent the answer is one of saving Davies from a genuinely unwarranted reductive summary of his career. If his first show is a Doctor Who knockoff and his eventual crowning glory in television is bringing Doctor Who back then the rest of his career gets reduced to, well, the stuff he did when he wasn’t doing Doctor Who. Which is terribly unfair to a host of genuinely important and quality television that Davies wrote and created.

But Davies’ pat answer, that it wasn’t inspired by Doctor Who although he obviously watched a lot of Doctor Who and was influenced by it, is rubbish. Davies, as savvy a viewer of television as has ever existed and as massive a Doctor Who fan as has ever existed, didn’t realize that he was writing Doctor Who? When he’d submitted a script to Cartmel not four years earlier? Yes, Dark Season has a considerably more mundane quality than his Cartmel-submission, which was basically a primitive version of The Long Game, but given that Cartmel’s rejection included the suggestion that he write something more worldly than his futuristic news space station, this isn’t exactly a strange shock either.

So yes, Dark Season is clearly derivative of Doctor Who. But what follows from that? Certainly not, in any reasonable sense, a reductionist approach to Davies’ career. So his early work pushed in the direction of what is, clearly, his dream job. This should be obvious and uncontroversial, and it’s only our tendency to favor overly neat and tidy narratives that makes this a potentially hazardous observation. And were I writing for an audience I have less regard for than mine, I might share that caution. But I’m not, and I won’t.

For one thing, doing so obscures the way in which Dark Season does show a way forward for Doctor Who. The first thing we should note, and this is something we’ve talked about in the general case before, is that Davies figures out how to speed Doctor Who up tremendously. Marcie acts Doctor-like, yes, but the explicit reason she’s able to be Doctor like is that she’s watched a lot of television. This means that she’s not just the most capable person on the screen, she’s capable precisely because she recognizes the genre of her own show. (Indeed, at one point, while making an escape through a ventilation duct, Marcie complains, “marvelous, I’m a cliche.”)

One effect of this is that Dark Season is able to move along at a truly impressive clip simply because it doesn’t have to waste any time with getting its characters to learn how to behave. Marcie simply acts like the plucky girl protagonist of a children’s sci-fi series set in a school. The key thing about this is that the audience, who also knows the conventions of all of this, is moving at the same speed as the protagonist. Exposition happens at almost precisely the speed the audience needs it. And so despite being two three-part stories, each half of Dark Season has about as much event a four-parter.

And in addition to moving at a really satisfying clip, Dark Season is funny. The meta-referential humor of things like the “marvelous, I’m a cliche” line is entertaining. Dark Season is consistently clever and fun like this. And while the Doctor has gotten occasional bits of humor out of this approach in the past, it’s nothing like the consistency with which Davies plays that card with Marcie. And so it can hardly be called a surprise when, fourteen years later, Davies introduced the Doctor with considerably more awareness of his own genre tropes, and has the show going at a much faster pace than it ever did before.

The other thing that’s misleading about the observation that Dark Season is heavily Doctor Who inspired is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. Two years after doing Dark Season Davies did another children’s series called Century Falls. Century Falls is a much darker piece of work than Dark Season, focusing on a girl named Tess who moves into the village of Century Falls and discovers a bunch of ancient secrets and evil cultists and the like.

Like Dark Season, Century Falls has visible antecedents in past children’s television. Specifically, it’s a flagrant heir to Children of the Stones, with a similarly unnerving tone throughout and several of the same tropes. It’s not fair to call it a ripoff - nor is Dark Season a Doctor Who ripoff. Both shows are clearly inspired by their antecedents, but neither one of them is simply slavishly remaking them. They’re modern takes on their source material.

But this reveals a lot about Davies, specifically that there is a persistent sense of the old-fashioned in his work. He’s terribly innovative, but his innovations tend to be in the form of polishing up and improving past tropes. (This, more than anything, is the big difference between him and Moffat. Both of them are unrelentingly sentimental in how they write Doctor Who, but Moffat goes for big ideas and attempts to be clever and creative, whereas Davies goes for something much more old-fashioned and non-denominationally nostalgic. Or, to put it another way, Moffat would never come up with a character like Wilf, while Davies would never have come up with River Song.)

In some ways this stands in marked contrast to Doctor Who at the time. It’s a mistake to push the angle that Davies and Virgin are in some way at odds particularly hard - after all, Davies wrote for the Virgin line, and if you count “Continuity Error” then over three quarters of the episodes of the Davies era were written by people who contributed to the Virgin line. (And if you don’t you’re still at two-thirds) And he’s spoken with effusive praise about at least some of the things going on in the Virgin books. Pitting his vision of Doctor Who against Virgin’s is clearly a mistake.

But equally, Virgin has, as of this point in its run, been moving away from straightforward updatings of the past. That was the problem with Lucifer Rising - it was a very good flashy and modern take on a Pertwee-style space adventure that tried to focus on its metafictional commentary on the nature of Doctor Who and only half-succeeded. There are some older ones that are more traditional - particularly Timewyrm: Exodus and Timewyrm: Apocalypse, and there’s Nightshade, but for the most part the New Adventures have been moving actively away from this sort of approach.

Again, this isn’t a criticism. In the process it’s been coming up with all sorts of new approaches and perspectives on the series, and they’re things that are going to be absolutely central to Davies’s attempt to revive the series. And perhaps more to the point, when we come around to Davies’s actual contribution to the New Adventures, he’ll end up doing all manner of bracing new stuff. (But more on that later, and it goes against my point less than it initially looks like it might.)

But equally, there’s something to be said for the sort of thing that Davies is doing here. It might be useful here to drill a little deeper into the broad term “postmodernist” here, in fact, since part of what we’re seeing are two very different forms of “postmodern takes on Doctor Who.” Of course, to touch this with a ten foot pole we have to raise the question of what postmodernism is. Which I’ve probably done before, but I’ve been writing this blog for aeons now and I don’t remember everything I’ve said, and hey, maybe you’re a new reader and could use the review.

So, short form - postmodernism is, first of all, impossible to offer a single and concrete definition of. Second of all, postmodernism tends to play with swapping around the codes and systems governing things, or, at the very least, exposing them while still engaging in them. Doctor Who is often very postmodernist, since one of its basic tricks is “you thought you were doing this sort of story, but really you’re doing this sort of story” and has been ever since a more or less socially realist piece about some schoolteachers suddenly ended up in the stone age.

One take on postmodernism is what we might call the cynical style. In this approach things are taken apart to a large extent in order to show their flaws and contradictions. This isn’t done maliciously or nihilistically, but it’s distinctly a form of critique. Transit is an excellent example, with its insistence that the Doctor regards his companions as pets. That’s not done out of dislike of Doctor Who in the least - accusing Aaronovitch of that would be ludicrous, frankly. But it’s a reworking of the concepts of Doctor Who that is clearly a critique of it. As is Paul Cornell’s take on the Doctor in Love and War. Brilliant, yes. Based on a love of the character and the series, absolutely. But it’s still clearly a critique.

But there’s a second style embodied by Dark Season and even, although it’s hardly a light or funny story, Century Falls. In these the process of reassembling or exposing the conventions of the narrative isn’t done in order to critique them, but in the same spirit as a Spooner-style historical: as what we apparently call “romps” in Doctor Who. It’s a mode of postmodernism with its roots in camp and performativity - the sort of postmodernism that The Happiness Patrol springs out of. But if you recall, in our discussion of that story we found ourselves facing a dualism between the artifice of camp and the sincerity of more authentic engagements. But Davies, in serving up a character like Marcie, offers a way through this dualism: why be insincere in your love of the camp? Why not just straightforwardly embrace the fact that these are the things you love, and do them in a self-aware way that also demonstrates what’s fun about them? What’s not marvelous about being a cliche?

And the truth of the matter is that Doctor Who, in the New Adventures, has largely been too cautious for this. Even Gareth Roberts, who will eventually become more willing than just about anybody to embrace this sort of “yes, of course this is what I love about Doctor Who” approach to doing Doctor Who, has in his only attempt thus far held back and done something a bit more restrained and critique-based. The critiques it’s raised have both been interesting and productive. And there’s obvious love for the program throughout. But there’s also a nagging sense of guilt - a sense that loving Doctor Who has to be justified and apologized for instead of simply embraced. And as long as that’s in place, there’s no way the program is ever coming back. So even in 1993, it’s clear that Russell T. Davies is the closest thing on the block to someone who can bring Doctor Who back. After all, he loved Doctor Who unambiguously enough in 1991 to put a slightly reskinned version of it on television without a hint of irony but with a massive dollop of self-awareness. As of 1993, nobody else can claim anything like that.

24 comments:

  1. I don't know anything about these RTD's shows, but your book turned up from Amazon at 7am this morning and so I thought I'd post here.

    My wife did want me to go to work, but I hid under the duvet and shouted "go away, I have an intellectual book of very long words on Doctor Who and I'm going to skive off today and read it."

    It's excellent, and I'm really enjoying it, even though it's about the rubbish black and white stuff that Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker weren't in. Thanks.

    also, don't you wish you done a doctorate in philospophy, so you could style yourself dr. Phil. Phil. ???

    ReplyDelete
  2. I finally got the DVD of this six months ago and it was just as good as I recall, even if the first triplet ended with a suicide egged on by Marcie. She was, however the methadone I needed.

    A similar series called Springhill on Channel 4 was written Paul Cornell but has dropped off the radar. In a thread on OG in the first half of last decade Paul asked our opinion of his work, and I reminded him that he wrote it! A bizzare mix of the supernatural and clubbing with a few comming out stories thrown in. I wish I could find out if was as good as I remembered.

    ReplyDelete
  3. There's a difference I think between a camp approach of the sort typified by the 60s Batman and a postmodern approach such as Buffy or Jane Austen. (Postmodernism begins with Cervantes.)
    That is, Austen isn't simply treating the romance novel as the occasion for a romp that she happens to love; she's also showing that there is potential in the romance novel for seriously looking at human life/ society, once you recognise that the romance novel isn't a perfectly transparent window on human life and society. You can use a form of double vision because to tell the truth you have to tell it slant.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Moffat would never come up with a character like Wilf, while Davies would never have come up with River Song

    Well, that certainly gives the edge to Moffat.

    why be insincere in your love of the camp?

    That reminds me of "let's revamp, make more camp, a sci-fi show from yesteryear," which in turn reminds me to ask, do you have any plans to cover "The Ballad of Russell & Julie"?

    In these the process of reassembling or exposing the conventions of the narrative isn’t done in order to critique them

    Would you call movies like Scream and Cabin in the Woods the critique-style or the romp-style of exposing horror conventions? Or some of each?

    ReplyDelete
  5. David Anderson,

    Postmodernism begins with Cervantes

    Why not with the Greeks? Euripides has Electra comment self-consciously on the conventions of the Electra story. In Aeschylus's version, Electra had recognised that her long-lost brother Orestes was in town because she finds a footprint and a lock of hair that perfectly match her own, and again later because she recognises his robe as her own handiwork. But in Euripides' play, when these same tests are suggested, she replies: "How should our hair correspond? His is the hair of a gallant youth trained up in manly sports, mine a woman's curled and combed; nay, that is a hopeless clue. Besides, thou couldst find many, whose hair is of the same colour, albeit not sprung from the same blood. ... How should the foot make any impression on stony ground? and if it did, the foot of brother and sister would not be the same in size, for man's is the larger. ... and even if I had woven him a robe, how should he, a mere child then, be wearing the same now, unless our clothes and bodies grow together?"

    What is Euripides, then, but a clever, kibitzing fanboy who finally gets a chance to write for his favourite show? He's one of us!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm horribly late to the party -- I would have pegged Melville's Confidence-Man.

      Delete
    2. I think what Euripides is doing there is one of the basic ways that literature establishes an aura of realism: a work points at earlier works of art and says, 'how unrealistic'. The work by doing that implies that its methods of representation are closer to an ideal of realism than the earlier work. If Don Quixote were all about a madman charging windmills it would be a paradigm example; Flaubert's Madame Bovary is a good example as well.

      Postmodernism (or literary modernism in general - I don't think there's a valid distinction) does that too, but then goes a step further and also highlights the flaws in its own attempt to be a transparent depiction of reality. And Cervantes is the first major master of techiques of doing that.

      Not that I'm sure you couldn't find examples of Greek writers doing that, and I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Euripides doesn't do it somewhere; but I think on the whole he's more of a realist than a postmodernist.

      Delete
    3. True, but to have the characters themselves point out the unrealistic nature of earlier versions comes close to their acknowledging that they're in a fiction -- which is not realism.

      Delete
  6. Ewa Woowa,

    don't you wish you done a doctorate in philospophy, so you could style yourself dr. Phil. Phil. ?

    "He's a man, who's not really a man; a Doctor, but not really a doctor! Like Dr. Phil -- but awesome!" -- Crag Ferguson, from the Doctor Who cold open

    ReplyDelete
  7. On a very minor level, there's also the idea that Marcie never tells the villains what her name is meaning, like the Doctor, the forces of naughtiness must always describe her, rather than identify her.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I've noticed lately that some of your pops between realities, like this one and Press Gang, have grown concerned less with the present era of Doctor Who, and more focussed on tracing the seeds of its resurrection in the future, even though none of that future history could have been known (or even predicted) in the 1990s. In a way, it violates the original mission statement of the Eruditorum to follow the present of the show as it exists in that moment. But I'm not about to complain. In fact, I think this focus on the 1990s as sowing the seeds of the future renewal is incredibly important for the fan community, and the institution of Doctor Who studies and history.

    Frankly, I think that as a community of fans, we still need a solid antidote to the hangover of the Wilderness Years. That period of Doctor Who was most definitely characterized by the misery of a slow decline into a painful and lonely death, all the wonderful potential of the show and its ideas torn up and shoved in a school desk. In the 1990s, Doctor Who was a dead show, an outcast from its people, the British public, slowly becoming just another weird little obscurity. You touch on it in White Darkness: Doctor Who is afraid to embrace what it was; its writers are developing an inferiority complex. This was the show that was cancelled. No matter what vibrant and interesting ideas were going on, Doctor Who was still a defeated entity, essentially post-mortem.

    That paragraph was fucking depressing to write. And it was probably just as fucking miserable to read. It's exactly why we need entries like this one and Press Gang. Because I think there's still this anxiety in the fan community that 15 years of slow, obscure dying has created. This applies only to people who were fans before the revival, though. And I think it still accounts for some of the distrust of some pre-2005 fans for post-2005 fans. I remember SK back in July describing the McCoy years as "real Doctor Who" as opposed to the Davies and Moffatt eras. He had his own aesthetic reasons of course, but I think the split of people who were fans of the classic series first vs the new series first is based on a much deeper schism than a hipster-ish "I liked it before everybody else did."

    I remember the uproar of fear on the internet when the hiatus year was announced. Half of us had heart palpitations just when 2009 was described as a hiatus. That word strikes fear into us all, and does make companions of people who fell for the classic series first, exclusive of the others. In a way, Ian Levine spoke for the fears throughout the fan community that Doctor Who would be destroyed again. You were right to call him out on it, because that fear was completely moronic and irrational.

    But the irrational fears are the hardest to remove, because no matter how many reasons we find in the world not to have those fears, they recur. That's why I think we as Doctor Who fans need a project like the Eruditorum. The Wilderness Years weren't just about the misery and the sadness; they were also about the fear and the shame. White Darkness has that feeling that it doesn't really want to be Doctor Who because of that shame. Doctor Who in the Wilderness Years isn't something to be proud of, but something to hide. And I see the Eruditorum transforming the dominant narrative of the Wilderness Years not as a terrible blow that struck us down, not as a time of shame and humiliation, but as the greatest adversity over which we and Doctor Who have ever triumphed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In a way, it violates the original mission statement of the Eruditorum to follow the present of the show as it exists in that moment.

      But I don't think this blog has ever committed itself to looking only sideways and never forward, as it were. Indeed, way back with "Unearthly Child" Phil was writing:

      "Already, in the first episode, Doctor Who is about its own mystery. About the question of what Doctor Who is going to be. ... It doesn't know what it will become. Doesn't know the history and wonder that's coming. ...
      But that history is here. Right here, in this first episode, with its haunting theme music and impossible knowledge of the future and obsession with a Police Box. ... It's impossible. The fact that a Police Box would look out of place everywhere in the universe within six years, that the theme and TARDIS console would be iconic, that Britain would go to decimal currency, none of this could have been there in 1963. But watching it, that knowledge does not feel like a secret history, but like a real history, there and unfolding in front of us. And when we stare into it, it is impossibly big."

      I remember SK back in July describing the McCoy years as "real Doctor Who" as opposed to the Davies and Moffatt eras.

      And then there's Tea With Morbius, whose author seems determined to dislike anything post-1989.

      Delete
    2. The wilderness years were a fruitful time- all those novels, the birth of the audio medium. I don't think it was a time of misery at all.

      I'm positively looking forward to the next 'wilderness years' when the current show gets cancelled. We will see some really interesting and creative developments, I am quite sure.

      Delete
    3. BeserkRL, you obviously haven't read any of my reviews of Virgin novels, BBC novels, Big Finish audios or the lastest post on Death Comes to Time. I love some of the post-1989 stuff.

      Delete
    4. I have to agree with Matthew. For me, the early 1990s seemed to be a time of great creativity as writers in all kinds of media, free from the tyranny of canon, gleefully created their own various futures for Doctor Who. And then it was 1996.

      Delete
    5. But after 1996 things get really interesting; with Death Comes to Time ignoring the TV Movie, Scream of the Shalka offering a new Doctor and the Eighth Doctor novels doing fascinating things with the Time Lords.

      I became a fan in this time and it feels really special to me.

      In the Wilderness Years, Doctor Who belonged to fans and we were able to enjoy Doctor Who in a way that people can't enjoy it now that Doctor Who is the stuff of the popular media.

      Delete
    6. OK, I'll agree with Adam instead, save that the slow death of the JNT era was as nothing to the traumatic full stop that was the TV movie. "He's back..." marked the end of my activity in DW fandom, and that of many of my friends. I'm glad that something survived to inspire Matthew and his contemporaries.

      Delete
    7. Note that the TV movie was actually the first Doctor Who I ever saw! Mind, I'd heard about it (as one of those "cool British shows that people watch on PBS, except none of the stations in your area carry it, loser"), but that was the first of it I watched. And I enjoyed it! I mean, I could see it was cheesy, but I didn't care - I was at the point where I could consciously enjoy over-the-topness for the fun factor. (MST3K helped with this, though I admit, growing up on Power Rangers factored in.)

      Delete
    8. Wm Keith, I agree that the TV Movie was awful. I remember watching it aged 15 and hating every minute of it. But it led to some really interesting stuff regardless.

      I think the TV Movie was taken by a challenge by so many writers to come up with something better.

      Delete
    9. By contrast I'd lost all interest in Doctor Who after being exposed to Virgin's New Adventures. It was the TV Movie that rekindled my enthusiasm.

      Delete
    10. Christopher, that was another great thing that the Wilderness Years brought: Choice.

      You could buy the NAs if you wanted, then the Virgin Benny books, then the Big Finish audios if you wanted something more traditional. If you liked the McGann Doctor, you could follow the BBC EDAs, or if you hated him you could read the BBC PDAs. Then when Lawrence Miles fell out with the BBC editors, you could get into his leftfield Faction Paradox books.

      The wilderness years shattered the idea that there was one fixed way to do Doctor Who or one version of the Doctor Who mythos.

      Delete
    11. The TV Movie and Lungbarrow were the one-two punch that killed my interest in Doctor Who for years. I was pretty slow to start watching the new series, and even slower to start liking it, largely because I was afraid it was just 1996 all over again.

      Delete
  9. Wow, this pretty perfectly encapsulates the type of storytelling I love. Marvelous.

    ReplyDelete
  10. "Marcie acts Doctor-like, yes, but the explicit reason she’s able to be Doctor like is that she’s watched a lot of television. This means that she’s not just the most capable person on the screen, she’s capable precisely because she recognizes the genre of her own show."

    I know I keep droning on about Terry Pratchett, but it is interesting (well, to me at least) how what he was doing in the 90s reflects what Doctor Who and Who-related stuff was doing in the 90s. In this case, as soon as I read that passage I thought of something Terry said about the Johnny Maxwell Trilogy, published 1991-1996:

    "One of the things that makes the books both harder and easier to write is that both Johnny and Kirsty, and to a lesser extent the rest of the gang, have indeed got a sophisticated volcubulary of weirdness. They've *read* the books about kids having adventures, they've seen a thousand re-run sf movies and all the current blockbusters and all the TV sf soaps. So when they end up somewhere 'adventurous', in a sense they know the script.

    "So when a certain mysterious elderly character was introduced early in the book, I knew two things: that the readers would instantly start guessing, because of their familiarity with the nature of the genre, and that Johnny himself is like the reader. There's not point in pretending it's some major shocking plot point, because it can't be."

    ReplyDelete