Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Clinging to the Skin of this Tiny Little World (The TV Movie)

I don't like Mondays.
It’s May 14, 1996. (That is the date we’re going with in this post. You’ll understand.) Mariah Carey is at number one with “Always Be My Baby,” while Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Celine Dion, Coolio, Tracy Chapman, R. Kelly, and Whitney Houston also chart. As does Alanis Morissette with “Ironic,” which isn’t. Those are, of course, the US charts. The UK goes with George Michael in number one with “Fastlove,” with Gina G, Smashing Pumpkins, and Blur also in the charts. And, actually, both Liverpool FC and the Manchester United FA Squad dueling it out in the charts instead of the pitch. So that’s funny too.

In news, let’s go with the whole month of May, since we never did. ValuJet Flight 592 crashes in the Florida Everglades, killing 110. Thunderstorms and a tornado kill 600 in Bangladesh. The MV Bukoba sinks, killing a thousand. Eight die on Mount Everest in severe weather. Fifty-three die in a Sudanese jet crash. Outside of calamitous death, Benjamin Netanyahu is elected Prime Minister of Israel for the first time, the Supreme Court overturns a Colorado state law forbidding municipalities from protecting gay rights, and the Duke and Duchess of York divorce.

While on television… we have a problem. Or, at least, I do. This was always going to be an autobiographical post. I feel like I need to put that out front in it, before the analysis. I’ve known this post would be autobiographical since Planet of the Spiders. This entry was in part about the end point of a childhood love of Doctor Who: the moment where it came crashing down, becoming an old past love, on the shelf following Masters of the Universe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, remembered with affection, but clearly and decisively left in the past. The weird British sci-fi show I was the only one who had heard of made a new movie for American television, my friends and tormenters watched it, and… it sucked. There was nothing to defend. People came up to me the next day and told me that they’d seen that Doctor Who thing I liked so much, and it sucked. And I couldn’t disagree. They had me dead to rights. The big, climactic return had happened, it was awful, the series keeled over and died again, and that was that. There was nothing left to do but walk away. And so there’s the lens of history. 1992 to 1996: my Doctor Who fandom. Which, of course, involves some reflection on the early days of my fandom, curling up in the corner of a fifth grade classroom in Newtown, Connecticut and reading Target novelizations.

And then the day before I was set to write this post some bastard murdered twenty children in my town.

It wasn’t my elementary school where twenty kids got murdered. I went to Head O' Meadow school, on the other side of town. I know people who went to Sandy Hook, obviously. The town’s school system worked by having four separate elementary schools that merge together after into single middle and high schools. So plenty of my middle school and high school friends went to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The school, for what it’s worth, is named for the part of Newtown it’s in. It was founded almost as soon as the main town was, in 1711. The town’s symbol is a golden rooster, the weather vane from the top of what is now the Newtown Meeting House, previously the Congregational Church. General Rochambeau and his troops camped in Newtown in 1781 marching towards Yorktown, Virginia. Local legend has that they used the golden cock for target practice, a figurative shooting at the golden dawn.

The main town is based on a pair of roads crossing what is now Main Street. The first, now Sugar Street and Glover Avenue, is the road my parents live on. The second, now West Street and Church Hill Road, winds to the east down into Sandy Hook, a settlement a few miles from the main town founded by people looking for larger plots of land. Sandy Hook lies along the Pootatuck River, named for the indigenous tribe that sold the town in the first place. That tribe continues to be denied federal recognition in any of its forms. The Pootatuck was the same river where, in 1986, Richard Crafts disposed of his murdered wife’s body by feeding her through an industrial woodchipper in the midst of a November Blizzard three days before the final part of Terror of the Vervoids aired. The murder was lightly adapted to form part of the plot of the Coen Brothers movie Fargo,

The river eventually turns to the artificially built Lake Zoar near the Stevenson Dam, one of the largest dams in the United States that also serves as a bridge. It lies on Route 34, which turns off of Church Hill Road right before one gets to Sandy Hook Elementary School. The killer lived on one of the streets off of Route 34, right near the town’s high school, and about two blocks from where the author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, lives. At the corner of the plot the high school sits on Wasserman Way winds up towards the Fairfield Hills campus, the site of a former mental institution that now sits as a crumbling white elephant. The buildings were in poor condition when the hospital closed in 1995, and delays in deciding what to do with the property meant that when it finally was sold to the town the buildings were nearly beyond repair. In 1941 five attendants were charged and two were convicted for beating patients, one of them fatally. The hospital was a hotbed of the fad in psychosurgery, conducting a hundred lobotomies in a single year.

It would, of course, be trivial to knock all of this together into a meta-narrative about the unsettling flavor of the place. Violent murder and mistreatment of the mentally ill. It’s like psychogeographic gold. The truth is that Newtown’s a perfectly ordinary suburban smear in the northeastern megalopolis. The refrain that these things don’t happen here is the definition of silliness. This is exactly the sort of place that these things happen. We stared at Littleton, Aurora, and Oak Creek with the same slack-jawed horror that we’re now stared at. That you’ll be stared at when it’s your town. We carried out the same empty rituals of public mourning that are now done on our behalf. The #prayfor____ Twitter hashtag serves every purpose. The shop-worn descriptions that get trotted out. “A quiet town.” Now a rallying cry for gun control laws that are never going to happen.

And by the time this posts, a week and a half since the shooting, you’ll have moved on. We’ll just be another town on the familiar list, waiting for the next entry. Until then comes the lachrymose pornography of public mourning: candlelight vigils, the same photographs of police cars and ambulances outside buildings, interchangeable glurge from politicians. Even David Cameron weighed in to tell us his thoughts were with us. I bet we’ll even get a benefit concert or comic or something.

More than anything, I want to skip that. I want to opt out of the nauseating theatre of our public mourning. I’m told reliably that America is grieving with me, and I wish they’d stop. Because if I hear one more person ask what’s wrong with the world I’m going to scream. What’s wrong with the world is that you’ve already started to forget. What’s wrong with the world is that we built a world where things like this happen and there’s a process to deal with them and then we all just move on. That we’ve developed an entire cultural apparatus to anesthetize the shock and horror of this so that we can move on to the next time it happens. Our beloved master narratives...

There are few topics in Doctor Who, or indeed, in the history of television in general as meticulously and forensically analyzed as the failures of the TV Movie. Everybody knows what went wrong here. And I’ve been setting it up for entries. Still, in the interests of completism, let’s go ahead and rehearse the autopsy. As I said back in the post on Lungbarrow, the usual thing that is seized upon as evidence of the TV Movie’s wretchedness is the establishment that the Doctor is half-human. This is ridiculous. The most obvious thing to seize on is the fact that the Doctor’s half-human nature, which is explicitly said to be reflected in his retina structure, is never actually used to affect the Eye of Harmony, which we’re told can only be opened by human eyes. A major revelation about the character, repeated three times throughout the movie, never actually has anything to do with resolving the plot. There’s some evidence that this is something that got lost in successive rewrites - the fact that the Doctor is half human is mentioned by the Master in such a way as to suggest both that the Doctor tried to open the Eye at some point and that he failed because he’s only half human. But it doesn’t actually parse or make any sense. The revelation is important enough to come up three times, but it’s not important enough to do anything. This is so blindingly obvious that for nearly seventeen years I misremembered the plot of the story and just assumed it went the way you’d expect.

But the whole thing feels similarly cursory. Grace’s character arc is absurd, and she flips from belief to disbelief almost entirely based on the needs of the plot. Even less thought, shockingly, seems to have gone into the question of how to introduce the series to new viewers. Sylvester McCoy has several times suggested that the biggest problem with the TV Movie was that he was in it, which overstates the case, but not by as much as you’d think. It’s not that introducing the idea of regeneration is too much. But McCoy’s character is too perfunctory to generate any audience attachment, and McGann’s version doesn’t meaningfully show up until the halfway mark, spending a healthy chunk of time dealing with post-regenerative trauma, which is here an even worse idea than in The Twin Dilemma. Huge quantities of stuff are put in odd places - the relationship between the blue thing labeled “Police Box” that whizzes around the screen and the room in which McCoy’s Doctor sits must have been baffling to anyone unfamiliar with the old “bigger on the inside” routine.

Typically this is blamed on the excessive number of Philip Segal’s “kisses to the past,” as though the continuity was too dense to follow. This is only partially true. Certainly McCoy’s point - that it would have made more sense to give McGann the entire ninety minute block in which to properly be the Doctor - is sound. The TV Movie is a prime example of something that tries simultaneously to appeal to a hypothetical new audience and to appease a base of entrenched fans and fails spectacularly at both. What’s really striking, though, is the lack of meaningful effort made at both. Other than the strange structure imposed by McCoy’s presence it’s difficult to argue seriously that the excess of existing continuity obscures what’s going on here. No, what obscures the plot is the fact that nobody has bothered to think through how to introduce Doctor Who to a new audience, instead just throwing in a standard Campbell-by-numbers set of plot beats in with no attention to the fact that McCoy’s presence should force a different structure or to making them intelligible as anything other than familiar story beats.

Instead we get generic American cult sci-fi. It appears that given the choice between going to series with Doctor Who and producing another season of Sliders Fox opted for the latter. To be fair to the TV Movie, for all of its innumerable flaws it is not, in fact, worse than Sliders. The reason Sliders was picked ahead of it was purely that Sliders was made in-house by Fox. In fact the TV Movie is about as good as Sliders, which is in some ways more damning. There’s a slightly irritating current of thought about the TV Movie that suggests that its problem is that it’s “American.” While I’m never one to turn down the opportunity to prefer the UK to my own country, this is at least a bit unfair. The problem isn’t that it’s American, but that the specific type of American television it’s emulating is mediocre, and it has no ambitions whatsoever towards surpassing that mediocrity. The TV Movie is trying to be bland and pointless American sci-fi, it succeeds admirably, and for that, at least, it is rightly hated.

Certainly the people in it seem to have a distinct lack of interest in being here. Eric Roberts, for all the criticism he gets, is at least having fun with the script. His decision to devour large swaths of scenery locate him firmly in the tradition of Graham Crowden and Joseph Furst. Which is to say that he’s not destined for fan acclaim, but he’s easy to like if you’re of the mind to. Geoffrey Sax is actually on the ball, directing with a sense of droll whimsy that at least makes a noble effort to have something oddball in the story. But past that finding things to praise is a challenge. The less said about Yee Jee Tso and Daphne Ashbrook the better. Sylvester McCoy puts in an effort, but since his Doctor is overtly marginalized and made characterless in a doomed effort to deal with the narrative implications of starting with a regeneration there’s nothing for him to work with.

And then there’s Paul McGann, about whom… Look, however good he may be on the audios, he’s on autopilot here. Curiously, he’s much livelier in the audition tapes included as a DVD extra, where he’s delivering lines out of the (mercifully) abandoned Leekley version. This is almost understandable - for all the horrific flaws of the Leekley version, it at least offered McGann a story arc instead of leaving him an essentially reactive character. But in many ways what’s most striking is that so much of the DNA of the Leekley draft is still in this. The script is constantly harking back to a theme of parentage that has little relation to anything that’s going on elsewhere in the script, a strange legacy of its development history. In any case, McGann has little to work with and seems at times to be rooting against the project just so he can move on to something that isn’t misery-inducing. His reluctance, initially, to come back to do the Big Finish material is utterly understandable.

We should also deal with the claim that the ratings were good. The usual excuse by which they're good for the circumstances is that the episode was up against the episode of Roseanne in which John Goodman’s character has a heart attack, but this holds little water. The movie aired in May, which is, in American television, what’s called Sweep’s Month - one of the three times per year at which advertising rates are determined, and thus where networks go all-out with big event television. Yes, Roseanne was doing a big show that week, but May is a month where everyone does big shows. The TV Movie was supposed to be Fox’s big event, and it got lower ratings than the previous week’s rip-off of Twister. It did indeed do better on the BBC, which at least demonstrated a general desire for Doctor Who to come back, but at this point we fall into one of the basic fallacies of television, which is to treat a given episode’s ratings as indicative of how well that episode was liked. Ratings indicate how people thought they would like an episode. They tell us nothing about how popular it was, and there’s little evidence that the TV Movie was considered good by much of anybody.

We haven’t yet touched the fact that the TV Movie makes a complete mockery of Doctor Who’s past continuity. There are two things we should note here. I have argued before that the proper measure of a story’s canonicity is the degree to which it influences the future of the series. In that regard the TV Movie seems not so much to be non-canonical as anti-canonical: something that exists almost entirely as a negative example that the future of the series actively avoids copying. It would be one thing if the half human revelation were simply ignored in the same way that Cho-Je and the Watcher are. But the subsequent series has gone out of its way to bring up the possibility of the Doctor being half human just to shoot it down. There are, I think, several reasons for this. The first is the fact that it simply jars with so much else in Doctor Who. But plenty of other things do as well: the series is littered with radical breaks from the past. As much as people grouse about the difficulty of reconciling School Reunion with The Five Doctors, they don’t get nearly as bent out of shape about it as they do over the half human revelation.

Which suggests that there’s something more about the half human revelation that requires rejection. The answer, I think, is the logic that it gets at. Its sheer superfluousness within the narrative suggests that it’s there for no reason other than that everyone involved thought it was the sort of thing that belonged in the script. The Doctor/Grace kissing scene is similar: a detail that exists for seemingly no other reason than having an obligatory romantic subplot. These things are usually accused of being part of the Americanizing of Doctor Who, and that’s certainly not untrue, but the important thing isn’t that it fits into the American taste but the underlying logic here.

For all that the movie is packed with “kisses to the past,” after all, the resemblance between this and Doctor Who is tenuous at best. It would be one thing if this were Doctor Who’s take on American cult television. But Doctor Who never gets the drop on the American show. Instead we get the American cult take on Doctor Who, with Doctor Who’s tropes and ideas overtaken and subsumed by the American tone. Crucially, this means that there’s no real sense anywhere in this of the Doctor as a mercurial figure who drops into differing settings. The Doctor arrives on more or less contemporary Earth, by force. We never see anything that suggests the full scope of his character, or, more to the point, of the series’ premise. The TARDIS may be a time machine, but the idea of “anywhere in space and time” is miles from this. And so we get a very different conception of who the Doctor is and what he does than we’ve ever seen before.

The first clue is the hilarious profusion of clocks inside the TARDIS. Part of this is a matter of packing in the “he’s British!” signifiers, which, in American, means having him wear a frock coat and be old-fashioned, so lots of clocks and candles in the TARDIS. But it also is the most crassly literal-minded interpretation of “Time Lord” imaginable. The Doctor has a TARDIS full of clocks to demonstrate that he’s a Time Lord, and for no other reason. On the one hand this is moronic, but it does indicate the degree to which the story is animated by the idea that the Doctor is a Time Lord. But this is, predictably, interpreted in the most literal-minded way ever.

Throughout the TV Movie the Doctor demonstrates a new ability previously unseen in the series, which is the ability to know people’s futures and pasts. Apparently there are those who suggest that there is some explanation here based on him having met the people he meets in this story before, but the implication, heightened by the bits of dialogue about the complexity of the web of time, are that the Doctor has some sort of quasi-psychic ability to sense the fate of people and see their timestreams. (A second suggestion of this comes up when the Doctor handles the clothes he adopts in the hospital and the discussion of it being a “Wild Bill Hickok” costume is replayed in a manner that suggests it being some sort of psychic impression the Doctor is picking up from the clothes.

This strongly implies a worldview not only in which history is fixed, but in which there is a sense of destiny and fate. It’s not merely the oppressive arc of history, but a fixed set of individual destinies - ones that can be altered by the powerful, important people, but that is largely set in stone and immutable. Master narratives ahoy.

It would be lying to say that this is why I hated it in eighth grade. I didn’t notice it at the time, at least not in an articulable form. But this is, at least, a large part of what is so miserable about the TV Movie: its sheer banality. There is no spark of strangeness in this version of Doctor Who. It’s not just that there are no monsters or alien worlds. It’s that the Doctor is not a figure of anarchy or of the weird. He’s a figure of authority: an old-fashioned British man who sorts things out. He’s the enforcer of our destinies.

This goes hand in hand with the TV Movie’s eschatological tone. The world is going to end at midnight on January 1st, 2000, apparently. This isn’t even overtly connected to your garden variety millennialism. The date, within the narrative, is nothing more than a coincidence. The Master just happens to have sent the TARDIS crashing to Earth in time for some millennial world-ending. Which is to say that the TV Movie buys into the logic of eschatology not just uncritically (after all, it does everything uncritically) but reflexively, adopting the cultural logic of the apocalypse as simply a basic aspect of the world. Again, it presents a world dominated first and foremost by master narratives. And not in a conscious way. The absolute dominion of the master narrative is not something that the TV Movie consciously points out. It’s just completely rampant in its basic ideology. It’s the unconscious assumption animating every single thing it does, from its Campbell-at-all-costs structure to its depiction of the Doctor to its setting.

Which brings us back to where we started. The strangely isolating drear of our ritual of public mourning. Pray for Newtown, we’re told. Money raised for the families. A line of cameras opposite the church where the funerals are being held. The obligatory Presidential visit. I remember on the smaller scale, after my father’s stroke. The two weeks where we got more baked goods than it was physically possible to eat. And then the silence as we found out who among my father’s colleagues and running mates could be accurately called “real friends” who would come by and sit with him and confront the fact that a brilliant and funny man could barely speak anymore. Nobody wants to stick around for the long agony of grieving. They want to send a box of cookies to assuage their own grief and move on to something else.

Even within the town there's something unsettlingly alienating about the grief. A display of twenty-six miniature Christmas trees for the victims, with blue lights for the boys and pink lights for the girls, their identities quietly erased by our larger social narrative. The man in the diner who talks about how he doesn't even want to celebrate Christmas, then five minutes later is trying to get the waitress to come down to his car dealership. The arrival of Pies Across America, an organization that apparently shows up places to cheer people up by giving out free slices of pie. This is what we prefer. The grand gesture that can safely be followed with silence.

Newtown is a staggeringly rich town. A median household income of $90,000, twice the national average. We’re 95% white. I remember when the high school did West Side Story. We made terribly unconvincing Latino street gangsters. We do not need your money. We do not even need your prayers: we’re a strong and good town, and can pull through this, hard as it will be. We’ve pretty much got this.

Recent news has revealed that the United States has been engaging in what are called “double tap” strikes in its drone attacks. These strikes involve hitting targets twice in rapid succession, such that the second strike hits first responders. One hundred and seventy-six children have been killed in these attacks. Thousands of people die every year in my own country because of inadequate health insurance. People commit suicide having slipped through the cracks of our mental health system. There are over two hundred and thirty-two rapes a day in the United States, and over six hundred and eighty-four a day worldwide.

The master narrative, of course, dictates that you care about all of these things less than you do twenty dead first-graders in my hometown. I, at least, understand why I care about the deaths in my back yard. But I an unable to feel anything but alienation from this public chorus of grief. This isn’t my sorrow. This isn’t my town in the news. This is some strange copy of it, edited to the sensibilities of wherever I’m reading about it. The Guardian likes us quiet and idyllic, and prefers the degree to which Adam Lanza cannot be understood. In the Daily Mail Adam Lanza was a ticking time bomb, and Newtown is a “small town forever tainted by tragedy” framed in terms of a British family who moved here, declaring it an "American adventure" days before losing their son in the massacre. Salon declares it a consequence of masculinity and psychoanalyzes the capitalist implications of the fact that our local pizza place is called My Place. The National Review says it's because we're too feminine. I’d check more, but I haven’t the stomach for it.

There's a really, really great Chinese restaurant in Newtown called New Wok. Some of the best Chinese food I've had, anywhere, and I've eaten in some of the best Chinese restaurants in London and Chicago. One shopping center down there's a fantastic Italian bakery. I still have half a cheesecake from them that I bought to celebrate my girlfriend finishing her last day of work at her old job. And my favorite breakfast spot, King's, which we still call Leo's even though it hasn't been called that in over a decade, is right there too.

My comic shop is just up the road from Sandy Hook Elementary School. It's in an old train station, and Jerry Ordway buys his comics there. If he has something out that week he'll walk over to the rack and sign all the copies of it, and just leave them there. No fuss is made about it. The store never announces a signing or does anything like that. There's just signed Jerry Ordway comics sitting there. The comic shop is right near an old railway bridge that had low clearance, and trucks would keep ripping their tops off on the bridge.

Every year we do a big tree lighting ceremony. They line the streets with luminaria, almost right up to my house, and people park all around the house to walk down to Ram's Pasture and watch the tree get lit. For years the tree was the dumbest looking thing - we called it the Christmas Thumb because of how it looked lit, and one year the star fell over and just looked like a flying saucer over the tree. Last year the tree came down in one of the storms and they just started using a smaller tree nearby, so now most of the people at the tree lighting can't even see the tree.

Our main landmark is the flagpole. We tell people that if you look at it and wonder "is that the flagpole," it's not the flagpole. Because it's a giant flagpole smack in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in town. It's the most gloriously idiotic thing ever, and there are lots of photos of it at half mast on the Internet right now and none of them explain what it is or why it's so important to the town.

Most days these are the most important things there are to know about Newtown. And if everyone in the world is going to know the name of my town then I really wish they knew those things too and not just that some bastard murdered a bunch of children. I really wish they knew my Newtown instead. My Newtown, where I was bullied for years for loving a weird British sci-fi show nobody had heard of. Where I watched a crappy American remake of the show and gave up on it for nearly a decade. Where for two years running the school where I was bullied has had Doctor Who-themed scarecrows outside it for their annual Halloween competition. A dumb little town indistinguishable from any other dumb little town, safely insulated from the arc of history and the teleologies that now insist that whenever it’s talked about it’s framed in terms of one horrible day.

A dumb little town, completely and wonderfully unique, just like all the other dumb little towns.

Earlier in this post, when I had to make the transition from the school shooting to Doctor Who, I opted to do it with a jump cut. I figured any attempt to smooth it out would just be tacky. Better to rip the band-aid off. You can go from Doctor Who to unimaginable tragedy easily enough. Going big’s always easy. But to go from twenty dead children to a ropey sci-fi show is inappropriate. And yet next door to every family who’s child didn’t celebrate Christmas yesterday is one that played at normality. The transition from history to humanity is just a step down the street. Indeed, there’s no real history in what happened in Newtown. Just twenty-six families, each of them wholly unique in their grief.

In May of 1996, I loved a silly British sci-fi show that was unlike unlike anything else on television. And then people I will never meet with power I will never dream of took it and made it just like everything else. And I walked away from it and lived my life in my own little town of tragedies and good Chinese food. And I live there still today.

51 comments:

  1. Well done. Kudos for your honesty. Amazing to see how you can make the themes of life going on fit into two such jarringly different narratives.

    But of course, that's the point. All of these things - even the most horrific of them - are just a part of life, going on.

    Thanks for letting me see a little ways past the media event, and into your town.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, thanks for the "warts and all" picture of Newtown. You could have titled it "Now My Home Town" - it's a very personal view, which is possibly the only way of getting past the - well, "sanitised" is perhaps the wrong word, but certainly artificial - version published on the news. Oh, and the British media have already moved on, if my limited recent experience is representative.

      Delete
  2. To be fair I sometimes think if people really were entirely aware of or thought about society's capacity for wanton malice and mad dog violence as being anything but isolated incidents that are best not dwelled on.... I suspect many people would become too paranoid or disillusioned to function properly in life anymore.

    As for the TV Movie, in regards to McCoy's presence I don't have a problem with it, and I suspect I'd have more of a problem with them excluding McCoy and throwing him under the bus the way RTD did to McGann and to Nick Courtney (incidentally I've never liked RTD's rather reactionary, messy, regressive take on the Ninth Doctor as the rough, thuggish 'anti-McGann'). I don't think a regeneration is a bad starting point for a pilot episode per se, but I think the best way to do it would be to have it happen early on, and most importantly, make sure the companion character actually witnesses it.

    In that regard I often think they should have simply dusted off the Seven Keys to Doomsday stage script and made that into the pilot episode. I think that'd be a great way of reintroducing the show to a new audience.

    I can't really see the TV Movie as damaging to the show, or at least not in the same way as Twin Dilemma was. From a British perspective I'd say it was quite the opposite. People who didn't like the TV Movie at least seemed to be moved to a more affectionate nostalgia toward the old series, when previously it was still kind of seen as an embarrassment. And people who didn't like the show for its poor production values and more wooden acting at least got a glimpse of how a modern take on the show might improve on that aspect.

    So I can't see it in the same light as Warriors of the Deep, Twin Dilemma or Attack of the Cybermen where it's not just off-putting to the kind of people who have a stereotypical view of the show in mind, but also to the kind of people who might have potentially been fans and could have appreciated the show's morality and message and focus on good storytelling, and would be put off by something that was as rotten-hearted and as far from those values as possible.

    Of course if there was no hope of a reprieve, then at least it'd be just possible to see the TV Movie as bringing some closure to the old series, rather than the dour and bitterly unresolved note of Survival.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Not much to say other than that was a pretty damn great bit of writing. Last place I expected to find probably the least sensationalistic article possible about the shooting.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for some perspective, on a lot of things. I never know what to think abut these sorts of things, I'm wary of being drawn into any 'master narrative' logic, so I just keep out of it, stay away from the news articles and hashtags, etc.
    So it's (important? different? 'nice'?) to hear something about it and feel like I can let myself engage, not have to hold myself at a distance from other people's tragedy for fear of having an agenda forced down my throat.

    In the rather more trivial world of the TVM, I'm of a different generation. I was five or so when it came out and watched it in a BBC special Doctor Who night. Hazy blurs of The Daleks, and some Tom Baker story or other being shown before-hand. It never killed the show I loved, I was young enough to take it's incomprehensibility for enigmatic mystery, so now when I see it, though I see that it is awful, and that McGann is unenthused, I cannot escape the flame of childhood in me which sees great flickering phantom versions of these things, more magical and infinite than their true selves.
    Not that this redeems the film for what it did to to countless fans old enough to see it for what it is, young enough to still be hurt by that. But it is worth noting that at the right age, for the right mind, on the right night, even this managed to plant the seed of wonder that is Doctor Who into hearts where it would one day bloom.

    Impossibly, there is always hope.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Wonderful post.

    Incidentally, were you ever taught by Miss Lang?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Tommy skrev:

    To be fair I sometimes think if people really were entirely aware of or thought about society's capacity for wanton malice and mad dog violence as being anything but isolated incidents that are best not dwelled on.... I suspect many people would become too paranoid or disillusioned to function properly in life anymore.

    Given how many people become paranoid or disillusioned in a world whose master narrative treats these incidents as isolated, I suspect you're right.

    I often think they should have simply dusted off the Seven Keys to Doomsday stage script and made that into the pilot episode. I think that'd be a great way of reintroducing the show to a new audience.

    ...that's so obvious and brilliant I'm not surprised I've never heard anyone propose it before. After all, a wise man said it takes a true genius to see the things anyone could have seen.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To be fair I sometimes think if people really were entirely aware of or thought about society's capacity for wanton malice and mad dog violence as being anything but isolated incidents that are best not dwelled on.... I suspect many people would become too paranoid or disillusioned to function properly in life anymore.

      Bit of a chicken and the egg question, seeing as how most of this wanton malice and mad dog violence is perpetrated by people driven by paranoia and/or disillusionment with contemporary civilization. Case in point: Lanza used automatic weapons purchased by his mother who reportedly was a "prepper" who was obsessed with the imminent collapse of American society.

      Delete
    2. IMHO, if everyone knew what was in the heads of their fellow human beings, they'd form long lines, waking down the street, shaking hands and apologizing for what they thought before.

      Delete
  7. I study Ancient History for a 'living,' such as it were. The Romans, for fun, liked to sit in large structures and watch people die. Stabbed, whipped, piked, beheaded, set on fire, ripped apart by animals, they watched humans and animals die in orgies of blood for hundreds of years. Then I look at all the pearl clutchers in Washington D.C., a city that - as much it pays lips service to Greek cultural forms - is as conscientiously modelled on Pompey's Rome as it is possible to be. As I watch them rend their garments and question 'why,' I wonder if they ever bother to look out the window.

    As to the article itself, as per an above poster: thank you for your honesty. It was very well written indeed.

    ReplyDelete
  8. One of the big problems for the TVM for me is that it's got what I tend to call a "third season plot" -- a plot that is essentially introspective, where the entire story only happens because the hero didn't just decide to sleep in that morning -- where the plot boils down to "There is something about the hero which someone else is seeking to exploit to a horrible end". Nothing in the story would have happened if the Doctor, upon receiving the summons to collect the master's remains, had just said "Meh" and gone back to bed -- not just "Things would have happened differently" but "nothing would have happened at all." I call it a "third season episode" because it's a plot that only could work if the audience already cares about the character -- it's not a plot that works when you first introduce the character. (The 2009 revival of Knight Rider did the same thing, with its plot hinging on "If the bad guys capture the car, they will be able to take over all US weapons sattelites." If I don't already care about the car, then the solution is "Well let's just blow up the car and be done with it.") The Doctor tells us that the anesthesia nearly destroyed his regeneration process -- in a certain sense, we'd be better off if it had. The master would be foiled and the earth would be safe. (It is a happy coincidence that 'Human Nature' was a third season episode. It's hard to imagine that one working earlier in the series either).

    That kind of navel-gazey plot is terrible for a pilot, but it seems fairly common for shows going for cult sci-fi, I think because the "real" point of the pilot is to be an extended backstory dump, so an introspective plot gives you an excuse to have the hero explain himself and how his powers work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excellent point. It's the kind of plot that has to be based in interiority, and the TV Movie had very little of that.

      Delete
    2. One of the big problems for the TVM for me is that it's got what I tend to call a "third season plot"

      That reminds me of one of my gripes about ST:TNG. The very second episode was about an alien virus affecting the crew's personalities and making them act out of character. That's obviously the sort of story that should wait until after we've actually gotten to know the characters in the first place.

      Delete
    3. ST:TNG at least had the mitigating circumstance that a writer's strike forced them to run with a bunch of weaker episodes that they'd originally meant to rework and integrate later (Tellingly, that's one of the "Wesley Crusher Saves The Day" episodes. They'd originally intended to do *1* Wesley Crusher Saves the Day story by taking the best bits out of several scripts, then rework the leftovers into non-Wesley Crusher Saves The Day stories, but with the writer's strike, they ended up having to just run with what are essentially a half-dozen first drafts.)

      Delete
    4. The Writer's Guild strike was in *1988*. While it was something of an issue at the end of Season 1, it most greatly affected Season 2, which had a lower episode count, a clip show season finale, and recycled a script from Star Trek: Phase II. (The discovery of a full-color print of the original series' pilot was repurposed and hosted by Patrick Stewart as a special episode of sorts for TNG's station as a further "make-good" in the wake of the strike.)

      Delete
  9. I actually thought Roberts wasn't bad as the Master (given the incoherence with which the Master was introduced -- a casual viewer might be forgiven for mistakenly believing that ALL Timelords were actually floaty green energy-snakes that possessed human bodies for fun). For most of his scenes, Roberts exuded a casual menace mixed with some wry humor. I laughed out loud when he corrected Grace's grammar in the ambulance. Then, it all went to absolute shit in his last scene when he took the time to "dresssss for the occasion" in a costume stolen from Ming the Merciless. It was without a doubt the silliest thing any incarnation of the Master has ever worn.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Also, how nauseating to be reminded of John Leekley's involvement with this fiasco. From 1985 to the present day, the two great pop culture loves of my life have been Doctor Who and White Wolf Games, specifically Vampire: the Masquerade. And Leekley managed to get his grubby little mitts on both of them and remake them in his own twisted, derivative image. Leekley's Doctor Who was going to be a vapid "hero's journey" to find the Doctor's missing father (and whatever you think about Lungbarrow, I will always love it for the utterly gratuitous way it craps over that idea by saying that Timelords are loomed not born).

    But that was nothing compared to the embarrassment that was Kindred: The Embraced. The Ventrue and the Brujah were rival mafia families? The Gangrel were wusses who kept getting beaten up by the Toreador? All Nosferatu are just regular looking blokes in bald caps? Everybody walked around in bright sunlight, drinking cocktails, eating canapes and acting like they were in a Spelling soap opera (which they were)? And most implausible of all, C. Thomas Howell is a driven homicide detective?

    ReplyDelete
  11. "...the TV Movie is about as good as Sliders"

    When/if they start releasing Doctor Who on Blu-Ray, that's just about the perfect box quote right there.

    ReplyDelete
  12. The invocation of dropping a second wave of bombs on first responders reminds me so much of The Hunger Games, and I liked that. I liken the semiregular school shootings to lotteries, and the kids mowed down are Tributes to America's "freedom," where all we need do is honor their courage and their sacrifice. As The Lord of AL mentions above, it shouldn't take all that much more to move the narrative from lachrymose tragedy to an exciting free-for-all befitting the new Rome: just give all the teachers guns. The Empire Never Ended.

    Still not sure about the TVM having a Campbellian structure. Anyone care to actually map that out? I'm having a hard time seeing it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Put Grace in the hero's position and it's fairly straightforward.

      Delete
    2. Excellent: the film ends with the hero having no further need or use for Dr Who.

      Delete
    3. That's sort of interesting because even though it's kind of terrible here, the idea of the Doctor being less the hero himself and more a sort of Obi Wan character who acts as a catalyst to make the nascent hero become heroic isn't all that wrong -- it's probably the single longest-running theme in RTD's Doctor Who (Another one of those places where I broke with the old-school fans, there were a lot of complaints during the Eccleston season about how it always seems to be someone other than the Doctor who actually saves the day -- Rose, Jabe, Dickens, Cathica, Mickey, Jack, Rose again). For that matter, it's got strong parallels with the Hartnell era, where the Doctor's role was very different and it was the male companion who did most of the straightforward heroics.

      Delete
  13. Before I got into audios and novels, and I had only this movie with which to judge the 8th Doctor, I found I really liked him because the short glimpse encapsulates exactly what I see the Doctor as: potential. The 8th Doctor is only potential, and there's nothing that shapes him or drives him down a path that would keep him from doing something else. He can do anything, and probably will. So, if nothing else, the TV movie allowed me to articulate why I love the Doctor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Certainly we got a better, more flexible and possibility-fueled characterisation of the Doctor here than we did during most of the JNT era.

      And infact to me it marks one of the first times since The Five Doctors that the show on TV (I never really read the novels much so can't comment) seemed capable of keeping itself going through something other than spite.

      Delete
  14. Is the photo caption meant to tie the movie and school shootings together or is it just a comment on McGann's appearance?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I wanted to maintain the usual structure of a silly comment on s screenshot, but I didn't want to fall into jarring inappropriateness. I thought the Boomtown Rats reference split the difference.

      Delete
  15. Hopefully I'll be able to write a more thorough comment later, but for now: Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  17. By May of 1996, I had completely fallen out of love with a silly British sci-fi show that had been unlike anything else on television. Virgin's New Adventures (and to a lesser extent, their fans) had ruined it for me.

    Consequently I sold all my Doctor Who books on eBay, gave away my posters and recorded over the few episodes I'd taped. I moved on to other things, and never expected to look back.

    And then people I can never thank enough took it and made me fall in love with Doctor Who all over again. I've remained a fan ever since.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I do remember that sense of despair watching The TV Movie. It just felt soul crushing to watch. But I never quite lost interest in Doctor Who afterwards. I remember reading the Radio Times comic strip with the Ice Warriors(which seemed quite good at the time) afterwards. I never quite lost interest in Doctor Who after the TV Movie.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I never quite lost the love myself, and I don't think I recognized it at the time, but I did undergo a definite shift in the way I related to Doctor Who not long after the TV movie. It drifted away from being an active interest and rolled into the domain of "fond childhood memory". I guess the really telling point for me was when my parents got me the Key To Time box set for Christmas in 2002, and I returned it and got a Gamecube instead. (I did eventually buy the boxset again, a rare example of something I've gotten twice and ended up regretting both times, since the special editions were announced not long after I got the feature-poor versions)

    ReplyDelete
  20. The half human thing is an endorsement of the American political system.
    If the Doctor and Gallifrey are both alien, then the relationship between them is one that can parallel the relationship between any political establishment and those outside it. But if the Doctor is half human, then Gallifrey is a contrast to us - the half of the Doctor that is Other. So the flaws, and virtues of the Time Lords are no longer a figure for our own political establishments. Of course, given the way US cultural imagery works, from a US perspective 'us' can be the US and the 'Other' can be the UK (or England), so that making the Doctor half human makes him half American. And therefore, the Time Lords have nothing to do with the US political establishment. The Doctor becomes explicitly an endorsement of the US' self-perception as seen in relation to the UK.

    It works that way with Spock as well. Spock's character development almost always consists of him coming to terms with his human side. And in the recent film that is explicitly bound up with realising that Kirk, the human, makes a better captain than he does.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's more fundamental than that, I'd say - it's the simple old trope of "humans are special". Which can easily map to "whatever group the audience is part of is special", but given the ludicrous number of British signifiers he got - and the absence of signifiers otherwise - "half American" seems a stretch. (It's much easier to argue with Spock and Kirk, tho. But note that the new movie has a Spock who has fully integrated both sides as the best of all.)

      Delete
  21. Also, on a positive note, I got the first two Eruditorum volumes for Xmas!

    ReplyDelete
  22. What a great post.

    My main memory of the TV Movie, after the crushing disappointment of it all, was that the Millenium had been done so much better by the film Strange Days the year before.

    By the time we actually got to December 1999 I was heartily sick of it all.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I never really minded the TV Movie. No matter what was wrong or different with it, it was still Doctor Who. My earliest memories are of watching Doctor Who in the late 60s, and although I fell out of love with it during the 80s and 90s, that was probably because I had changed into a person who had no time for it anymore. There are people out there who grew up with Davison and McCoy, Doctors who for them could do no wrong, and yet Doctors who I just couldn't find any interest in watching. So I watched the TV Movie and I took out of it what I liked (the TARDIS interior, McGann's fresh-faced Doctor) and ignored what I didn't (the theme tune, the Master). It didn't rape my childhood or shatter my memories, because after almost 3 decades I'd already seen Doctor Who change several times into something unrecognisable from my childhood. By the time the 90s came along I was far from being bent out of shape every time Doctor Who did something I didn't like. Sometimes they do things we don't quite enjoy, but at the end of the day it's just a bloody TV programme. Enjoy it.

    ReplyDelete
  24. The more I watch the TV movie, the less I like it. I basically just enjoy Eric Roberts' wonderfully scenery-chewing Master and those moments when McGann actually gets to be the Doctor. Apart from that, repeated rewatchings just expose the abritrariness and incoherence of the story.

    That said, there are two good reasons to look upon the story more kindly now than one might have done at the time. The first is simply that, since the successful 2005 revival, the TV movie is no longer the failure of the last hope for more Doctor Who on TV: it is simply a bad Doctor Who episode, of which there have been plenty since 1963 and yet life has gone on.

    Secondly, as more has emerged about the development process and the earlier story treatments, we can see how much worse it could have been. For all its faults, the TV movie does at least feel like a Doctor Who story in a Pertwee-esque mode. Imagine if it had still had all that bollocks about the Doctor going on a quest to find his long-lost father, Ulysses. Jesus wept, that would have been unutterably awful.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I don't know. The Doctor going on a quest to find his long-lost father would have at least been a whole plot, rather than an hour of the Doctor being unconscious/amnesiac/someone else followed by half an hour of the cast just meandering into various set-pieces until they meandered into the Floor Show for the climax.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would rather slash my dick and plunge it into a barrel of salt than watch the Doctor go on a quest to find his long-lost father. Your mileage may vary.

      Delete
  26. There are two very big problems I have with the TVM.

    First is the lack of a monster. THAT'S what it needed. Forget the "Master trying to use the TARDIS to take the Doctor's remaining lives," what it needed was a big ol' beastie with great big fangs and its guts on the outside.

    Second is the plot, a Frankenstein-like hybrid of previous, aborted scripts. Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier's "The Nth Doctor" goes into greater detail, but I'll summarize two big points for you:

    1: The Master's on trial because, as we would have learned had the series gone into production, he invaded Gallifrey with his own "brand" of Daleks as a private army.

    2: The "Millennium" business comes from a draft in which the Master used something called the Millennium Star (as its name implies, it's visible only once every 1,000 years) in his masterdly plans. (Ooh, there's a good word.) To what effect, I don't know.

    So, what can we learn from the TVM? Ideally, we can learn that one must NEVER, EVER open a series assuming that a series is SURE to follow. The TVM had a Whobris about it--there are a whole bunch of unsolved mysteries because it didn't get a series.

    A bit less ideally, the whole thing needed better marketing. Say what you will about Russell T. Davies' 2005 opener, but "Do you want to come with me?" is a better tagline than "He's back...and it's about time."

    ReplyDelete
  27. An incredibly moving and well written post which gets right to the truth of both the recent events in your home town and of the (lesser) disaster of the TV movie. Thankyou.

    ReplyDelete
  28. the TV Movie seems not so much to be non-canonical as anti-canonical: something that exists almost entirely as a negative example that the future of the series actively avoids copying.

    But not in every respect.

    a) The tv-movie's version of regeneration (with pixie-dust coming out of his mouth) is the closest forerunner of the new series' version of regeneration.

    b) The tv-movie inaugurates the tradition that every major companion kisses the Doctor.

    c) And the Doctor gets his new clothes by stealing them in a hospital -- which looks both back to Pertwee and forward to Smith. (The considering-different-weird-options is also a nod to T. Baker.)

    the Doctor is not a figure of anarchy or of the weird. He’s a figure of authority

    Maybe in terms of the plot, but that's not how McGann projects it, at least.

    The Doctor has a TARDIS full of clocks to demonstrate that he’s a Time Lord, and for no other reason

    I assumed it was a deliberate nod to the opening of Back to the Future.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A number of points you make is why I have come to see the TV Movie as a bridge between the classic & modern (you could also add TARDIS interior design). I mean take a look at example B, even BF, when introducing companions, follows the line that the first four Doctors has classic series style relationships with companions where the Eighth's female ones have crush on him (I haven't listen to Dark Eyes).

      Delete
    2. I just watched this again last night and counted 14 things that originated with the TV Movie and ended up as non-trivial elements in the new series. Well, okay, the ubiquity of newscasters and the "Oh no. Not again!" tag are kind of trivial, but yeah.

      If nothing else, compare the Master's abilities and the way the ending "works" with "The End of Time" and "Last of the Time Lords," respectively.

      Delete
  29. Among the tv-movie's failings we can add a criminally incompetent hospital whose staff violate every procedure on the book.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Granted, I was a senior in high school at the time and regularly working 5PM-10PM shifts at my high school job, but I don't even remember hearing about the TV movie. Though, given my impression of the show when I first heard about it, I may have stayed away because of concerns about jumping into the show and a desire to see the series in order. But even then, I was well aware of how Fox liked to screw with shows (I was watching and did enjoy Sliders at the time, but it was clear that the network was screwing with the show, and the third season, the one made in favor of Doctor Who, was when the show went beyond stupid), and had also been burned by UPN with Legend and Nowhere Man. I'm still a pretty jaded viewer because of this period and the later Fox screwings I would suffer.

    I do find your leaving behind your fandom behind a bit depressing, Phil. Maybe it's just because I'm an excessively stubborn person, but around the time of the Who movie, I was presented with the DiC-produced episodes of G.I. Joe when they were being rerun alongside the '80s episodes of the show (which was, and still is, a strong personal favorite) on USA's old Cartoon Express, and came to swiftly reject DiC efforts, which served to further solidify my appreciation for the original, high-quality series.

    I do want to say that even though the TV movie is pretty bad as you say, it's difficult for me to make a final determination since the Doctor Who Restoration Team has seen fit to time-compress the TV movie on the home video releases because they loathe NTSC's 3:2 pulldown that badly and went through hoops to take the 24 film frames/second out of a 30 frame/second video master for the express purpose of time-compressing it in the usual, poorly conceived standard PAL transfer method. It's one thing to see shows I like (the aforementioned G.I. Joe, Transformers, Jem, and pretty much everything made by Filmation) subject to crap remastering because of the actions of people who don't know what they're dealing with, but when a normally intelligent group of people screws with a movie, it's quite aggravating.

    ReplyDelete
  31. If you need anything more than a simple cleanser and washcloth for the face, if you love the idea of an electronic skin brush (created by the makers of Sonicare), then this is the tool for you. It gently exfoliates while it deep cleanses, making it a great product for women who wear a lot of makeup. According to the product Website, syeda basri

    ReplyDelete
  32. Sometime in the late 90s (not 1996, I'm sure. I think it was 1999, in point of fact), I was home from school, probably sick but possibly it was a Saturday. I'm fairly certain it was the middle of the day anyway. My memory of the whole thing is pretty hazy, so bear with me. Anyway, I was channel surfing, and I stopped on the Sci-Fi Channel. Up next, they said, was a movie called Doctor Who. I was vaguely aware of the existence of this show. I'd never seen it, but I was actually familiar with a few of its concepts, like the fact that it was about time travel, that it involved a phone booth (as I thought of it at the time, being unaware of such a thing as a police box) that was bigger on the inside, that it had run for a long time, and that the actor playing the main character had been replaced a number of times but it was still essentially meant to be the same character. I was, at this point, rediscovering a childhood love for science fiction. At some point, probably about 1996 in point of fact, I had decided that science fiction and fantasy were for little kids and I should stop watching shows like Star Trek and Sliders and the X-Files (the fact that such shows were actually at their low points at the time probably had something to do with it) and try to find more adult pursuits. I never found anything that captivated me like sci-fi, though, so after only a couple of years or three I decided to embrace my geekiness and rediscover sci-fi. Farscape went a long way in this regard, as did, later, once it came to the Sci-Fi channel, Stargate SG-1. So I decided, basically on a whim, to watch this Doctor Who thing and see what it was about.

    I fell in love.

    I can't really articulate what it was about this movie that captured my imagination but it certainly seemed to me to be very different than anything on the air. You say it was Doctor Who as an American cult sci-fi show, but even if that is the case, even in that circumstance, it still felt different from any cult sci-fi I was familiar with. It was the sense of weight, I think. There was a deeper story here, something underneath the surface. The Doctor and the Master had a history. The Doctor obviously knew a lot and had been a lot places. References to the Daleks; what were they? What was Gallifrey like? What sort of people are the Time Lords? And mostly, how had this been running for decades and never crossed into my conscious knowledge until now?

    Yeah, rewatching it now, familiar as I am with Doctor Who, I can see the flaws. I can see why people didn't like it and why it didn't lead to a show, and why a show based on it would have been a disaster. But they do say you never forget your first Doctor. And that's why, even though I've never read any Eighth Doctor novels or listened to any Big Finish audios I'll still say that Paul McGann is my Doctor, the Doctor I ultimately compare all the others to and the one who pops into my mind when I think of Doctor Who. Tennant comes close, but McGann was there first.

    ReplyDelete
  33. I'd apologize for commenting on this so long after the fact, but comments out of time seem somehow appropriate given the subject. I've just watched this again for the first time since it's initial U.S. airing, and while it really is as slipshod stupid as I remember, and as you illustrate, there are a couple bits that stand out to me watching 17 years later and in the wake of The Night of the Doctor.
    The obvious thing is how nice it is that McGann finally got a decent Doctor Who outing on video. But I also think I may have caught a direct reference to the TV movie in The Night of the Doctor. When McGann first comes across the Wild Bill Hickcock costume in the hospital locker, one part of the costume he comes across and immediately discards is the prop pistol, holster and ammo belt. In the minisode, on Karn, he deliberately chooses a different ammo belt as part of the War Doctor's identity. One more thing that's not related, but I also found it amusing to imagine that Eric Roberts playing the Master as Lou Reed.

    ReplyDelete