Monday, September 30, 2013
Outside the Government 14 (The Infinite Quest)
We’ve covered Totally Doctor Who and its inadequacies at the end of the second season. To recap, it was a show that did a poor job of engaging with Doctor Who, treating its audience like they’re idiots. Given this, The Infinite Quest is actually not that bad. Everyone is clearly putting effort into it - the animation is by the remnants of Cosgrove Hall, who did Scream of the Shalka and the two episodes of The Invasion. David Tennant and Anthony Head both do quite well for dealing with a script that they clearly first saw about twenty minutes before they started recording. Freema Agyeman is rougher, turning in a shockingly poor performance, but to be fair, voice acting is a different skillset from screen acting, and there’s not actually an inherent reason why being good at one means you’re good at the other. (Actually, I’m curious when this was recorded - given the lead time needed for animation, it wouldn’t surprise me if Agyeman did this before she’d substantially gotten to work with the character.)
The problem is that, structurally, it seems messy. Several ideas seem underdeveloped in the extreme. For instance, early on it introduces a world in which interplanetary oil piracy to free needed resources from powerful corporations is common. This is a neat, politically incendiary premise. Indeed, it goes politically further than the series is usually willing to, coming off better than, for instance, the attempt to deal with exploitative labor conditions next season in Planet of the Ood. The problem with it is that it seems to be dealt with and discarded shockingly quickly, taking up only about ten minutes of screen time total.
But this is just an illusion caused by repackaging The Infinite Quest into a quasi-episode of Doctor Who. In reality the oil pirates storyline was explored for three or four weeks, roughly (based on the timing in the episode), from Gridlock through to The Lazarus Project. Far from seeming like an underdeveloped theme, this is actually quite a substantial amount of time spent. And the idea that the entire story should have focused more tightly on one or two ideas is ludicrous. The Infinite Quest was designed to be experienced over the course of three months. It has as many episodes as The Daleks’ Masterplan (counting Mission to the Unknown). Of course it jumps around a lot - spending ten weeks of Doctor Who in one setting with one idea would be unbearably dull.
And yet there’s a complication here. You’ll note that my account of exactly which parts of The Infinite Quest contain the oil pirates plot is speculative. This is because the DVD omnibus is the only version that’s available. And in this case, I don’t just mean “legitimately available.” The second season of Totally Doctor Who is nearly impossible to find in any format. I flat out could not find any copy of it in time to write this post. Which brings up an interesting issue, because the only version of The Infinite Quest that exists is one that is fundamentally different from The Infinite Quest as a piece of transmitted television that aired over thirteen weeks in 2007.
This is not a new problem. We’ve been dealing with the problems of the archive since Marco Polo, after all. And even before that, as I pointed out during the Hartnell years, there’s something profoundly different between how I watch An Unearthly Child (on a fairly large HDTV with an LCD screen, via digital files streamed from my computer that were themselves converted from DVDs that contain digitally treated versions of the film recordings of the original episodes, which existed on video) and how An Unearthly Child was watched on November 23rd, 1963 by 4.4 million people (on broadcast television, on 405-line sets). This project has always been concerned in part with the difference between the preserved version of a Doctor Who episode and the cultural object.
(This also seems like a good time to disclaim that I have purchased legitimate retail copies of every Doctor Who story to receive a commercial release, and that the DVD rips are purely an issue of what’s easiest to use with my A/V setup.)
But with The Infinite Quest, and more broadly with Doctor Who in the new series era things become even more complicated. The astonishing reach of television is already something we’ve talked about (to recap, it’s actually fairly likely that more people have seen City of Death Episode Four than have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although exact numbers are hard to come by). This means that the actual thing that aired on television on a specific date is a very big deal, and that the archived versions we look at are little more than the darkened glass through which we peer to understand the historical event that was television.
But by the time of the new series this gets trickier. It is, of course, a guess, but between DVD sales, Netflix, broadcast outside of the UK, and good old-fashioned piracy I would wager that substantially more people have seen Blink since June 9th, 2007 than watched it on the day. This isn’t entirely a new issue - I would be gobsmacked if the number of people who had seen the first episode of Doctor Who since November 23rd, 1963 did not dramatically outstrip the 4.4 million who watched on the night. But there’s something striking about the fact that we can say that about Blink just six years after its broadcast, whereas on November 30th, 1969 there was no chance that this was true about “The Cave of Skulls.”
This is something that has been a quandary when dealing with things like the New Series Adventures novels, which fill a fundamentally different role than books did for the classic series. By the time of 2005 the existence of a long-lasting archived version of a television program was taken for granted. If you miss Doctor Who on broadcast, you can always get the DVD set. Davies has said that the way he coped with fear that his revival of Doctor Who would bomb was to remind himself that at least he’d have a DVD set. There’s a fundamental inversion here. In the 1960s and 1970s, the paratext of Doctor Who was the enduring part, and the episodes were what faded into memory. Now it’s nearly impossible to get a proper copy of The Infinite Quest, but a copy of Blink that’s functionally identical to the digital master can be streamed to my phone.
And this changes the nature of Doctor Who. Throughout the blog we’ve treated the historical moment of broadcast as sacrosanct - as the real moment a story exists in. But now, in an era where we know Davies had plotted out the broad strokes of the Master’s return in his head before Rose even aired and where we’re invited to reread Last of the Time Lords in light of The End of Time, the moment of broadcast becomes devalued. Not erased - Davies is still a populist who knows to chase ratings. But we’re rapidly nearing the tipping point (if we’ve not already crossed it) where more people catch up on Doctor Who via iPlayer and timeshifting than watch it live, and where the release of a new episode of Doctor Who is an international event instead of a British one, such that the moment of broadcast on BBC One is merely a plurality of the first week of an episode’s existence, and certainly not something with any claim to be the real version of it.
And yet it’s still very easy to go too far in this direction. The moment of broadcast is significant because it provides the cultural context episodes existed in. Doctor Who has always, as we’ve seen over the past three years, responded to the world it’s transmitted into. The phenomenon of broadcast matters no matter how much of the audience watches later. I mean, nobody seriously suggests that Macbeth is not firmly rooted in 1606, and that no number of centuries of popularity can ever change that.
For the most part this is a fairly abstracted theoretical debate. It plays in occasionally - how one reads Martha’s departure and the marginalization of her in The End of Time is impacted heavily by whether one treats the Davies era as a single narrative with a defined endpoint or whether one thinks about it from the perspective of the much larger number of people who have not seen every Martha episode and who had long since forgotten the plot line of her being in love with the Doctor by the time of The End of Time (or who don’t remember the few minute scene in The End of Time and just think of her as that nice pleasant companion from 2007). But it’s fairly rarely a debate upon which fundamental issues of interpretation hinge.
But The Infinite Quest is an exception, just because in its omnibus format it’s a messy and trashy story with little purpose, whereas one suspects that as a three month serial of mini episodes it’s actually reasonably fun and probably the high point of a given episode of Totally Doctor Who. But this opens up a wealth of odd questions. If The Infinite Quest is preserved in a version that undermines its basic point, what does that mean for its status as part of the Doctor Who paratext? In a world in which the show is well-archived, do comparatively poorly archived extras even matter anymore? And how do we understand television when it becomes a strangely shifting target, simultaneously a broadcast event and a fixed and enduring text?
I should sheepishly admit at this point that the bulk of these questions are rhetorical. A new interpretive approach for television in an age where the technology itself is in flux is not something I’m quite hubristic enough to propose in a blog entry that I’m trying desperately to finish before I have to go run some errands.
But I will suggest this: the size and depth of the archive, and the expectation of the archive’s existence has fundamentally shifted the nature of what Doctor Who is. And more to the point, it’s shifted it in a way that Doctor Who is oddly better suited towards. Prior to the archive we had paratexts like novelizations and comics through which we tried to reconstruct the ephemeral object of the episode. But there was always a single thing called Doctor Who that we tried to get towards.
Now, on the other hand, Doctor Who is not a singular object but an endlessly churning mass of texts that continues to grow, and where various points respond selectively to other points in the mass without attempting to contribute to any sort of singular coherence. Doctor Who is no longer a single thing to understand, but a tangled mess, all parts of which exist in knowing conflict with other parts. Doctor Who has itself become mercury, ever-shifting and expanding.
In this regard The Infinite Quest is interesting less as a narrative in its own right than as a snapshot of a particular moment in Doctor Who’s history. What’s interesting is less its particular take on Doctor Who and more the fact that this take comes out of the series in 2007, reflecting the transition of what “Doctor Who for kids” meant away from the limitations of Totally Doctor Who and towards the more intelligence-respecting take of The Sarah Jane Adventures. But as a piece of Doctor Who, this, and indeed the spinoff material in general, is just... inscrutable.