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Who's Better, Who's Best: The Christmas Special Discussed
The Quietus , December 22nd, 2008 06:40

In anticipation of the Dr Who Christmas Special, our resident expert Joe Stannard looks back on chief writer Russell T Davies' contribution to the Whovian legacy: discussing queer politics, sentimentality and, of course, David Tennant's replacement...

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Christmas Day 2008 will witness the further entrenchment of what has over the last few years become a British televisual tradition, the Doctor Who Christmas Special. Starring both David Tennant and David Morrissey in the lead role – the rumour mill grinding appropriately – The Next Doctor is one of those rare things in our jaded epoch: a hotly anticipated TV event which requires the surrender of neither intellect nor imagination. The special rounds off another triumphant year for the show, its fourth season - now out on DVD - distinguished by rapturous acclaim, formidable ratings and a spectacular season finale which saw the defeat of resurrected Dalek mastermind Davros. But there's more to the success of Doctor Who than terrifying monsters, interplanetary hi-jinks and frothy melodrama. In the hands of chief writer and executive producer Russell T Davies, Doctor Who has revitalised mainstream television at a crucial time, and the show's history of subtle subversion as well as its uniquely British democratic agenda, have once again brought moral agency, emotional complexity and challenge to family entertainment. The queering of prime-time TV has seldom been so effective, nor so much fun.

"There's very classically and traditionally a strong gay fan base for Doctor Who," Davies told The New York Times in March 2006. "He is a loner and a wanderer. He doesn't represent the authority - he is a man, unlike any other, doing his own thing. I think you can see the emotional connection.”

Given that many gay, bi and trans people are forced at an early age to sever links with their background, to replace their blood relatives with more accepting and understanding 'families' of friends, it's easy to see why the Doctor strikes a chord. His continued penchant for young travel companions, whose company he prefers to the fusty conservatism of his Time Lord peers back on Gallifrey, offers another neat parallel to this particularly painful form of exile. There's also a political dimension to the Doctor's own estrangement from his homeworld; he's an agent of change, not content to idly observe as time plays out across the multiverse. His wish is to intervene, to vanquish evil and injustice wherever it may be found. This desire for action reflects the LGBT community's desire for progress, for the reconfiguration of an unfair, often fatally bigoted, world. Then there's the inevitable question of the Doctor's sexuality, which remains a mystery despite his decidedly mixed feelings for recent companions. It is notable that at the end of the fourth season, the Doctor had to split himself in two in order to submit to a life of domestic bliss with the lovelorn Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) in an alternate universe – and Rassilon only knows what we're to make of the fact that he flies through time and space in what resembles a big blue closet, albeit one bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Russell T Davies is unquestionably the most 'out 'n' proud' producer of Doctor Who to date, and has achieved something previously unthinkable for a prime-time TV series with the introduction of an unambiguously heroic bisexual character in the hunky shape of 'Captain' Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who also heads adult-themed spin-off Torchwood. But the Davies effect is not entirely without precedent. It could be said that the late John Nathan Turner, the charismatic gay man who produced the show from 1980 to 1989, provided a sort of wobbly template for Davies' fully-fledged reboot. Like Davies, Turner was determined to modernise the show, constantly threatening to alter or do away with familiar elements while also reintroducing characters from the show's history. As the classic series slumped towards entropy, Turner incurred the wrath of fans for such controversial decisions as bringing in ex-child star Bonnie Langford as companion Mel Bush and casting light entertainers such as Ken Dodd (in Delta and the Bannermen) and comedy double act Hale and Pace (in the original series' ignominious final adventure, Survival). Intriguing, when one considers the recent casting of showbiz sorts like pop icon Kylie Minogue and comedian Catherine Tate. If Turner were alive today, perhaps he would view Davies' success as the ultimate realisation of his aim of making Doctor Who large-scale, populist entertainment of the highest quality, though he would surely turn Erato-green at Davies' stellar budgets and ratings.

Of course, in order to become one of the most watched shows on British TV, Doctor Who has had to make sacrifices. Looking back at classic episodes from the show's 1963-1982 golden period, even those blighted with shaky sets, mediocre scripts and poor acting exude an atmosphere generally lacking in the current series. Much of this is due the intervening decades, which inevitably lend such artefacts a fuzzy charm; but the psychedelic strangeness of stories such as An Unearthly Child, Web Of Fear, Spearhead From Space and Image Of The Fendahl, as well as their avoidance of sentimentality and romance, is certainly missed, as are the gorgeous, painstakingly crafted electronic soundtracks of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; and, as blogger Mark Fisher (aka K-Punk) has pointed out, the original series made inventive use of location, coaxing out the latent weirdness of the British wasteland and employing such already unheimlich sites as Dungeness Power Station in Kent to memorable effect. Needless to say, it'll be a fair few budget cuts down the line until we see the Doctor and his companion opening the Tardis door onto, say, a Dorset gravel quarry.

For some fans of classic Who, the drawn-out departure of companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) at the end of series two offered a stark indication of the difference between old and new, highlighting an occasionally intrusive predilection for Buffy-style touchy-feely melodrama. Here, the programme crashed so far through the barrier marked 'moving' it ended up hitting the wall marked 'icky'. Contrast this with the quiet dignity of Jon Pertwee's third Doctor at the conclusion of The Green Death, leaving companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) to celebrate her new engagement, silent and crestfallen, alone once again in a chaotic universe. Alternatively, check out 1976's The Hand Of Fear, which ends with Tom Baker's fourth Doctor abruptly summoned back to Gallifrey. Forbidden from accompanying him, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) is unceremoniously dumped in Aberdeen. She does not see him again until 1983's The Five Doctors (she reappears in the recent School Reunion, and subsequently the rather splendid Children's BBC series The Sarah Jane Adventures). There's a brutality to this kind of forced separation that no amount of explicit anguish or 'But Doctor, I...' could ever match in terms of genuine emotional impact, the kind which remains imprinted on the heart because it's you doing the feeling, rather than the programme doing it for you.

Nowadays, when a much-loved companion leaves the series, it seems there has to be an sentimental apocalypse of some kind, an agonising decision to make, rather than life simply taking place, people coming and going, as they do. That isn't to say that Davies' approach is entirely without its successes; the conclusion of the fourth series leaves Catherine Tate's Donna - whose only wish after her first contact with the Doctor was for him to return and rescue her from the unbearable boredom of her workaday existence – plonked back on the interminable 9-5 treadmill, wiped of any memory of the Doctor, the Tardis or their time-traveling adventures. Merciless? You bet, and likely to strike a chord with anyone longing for some kind of release from the shackles of normality. The Doctor, having lost another friend to time, travels alone once again, and will for the remainder of this incarnation, spanning four specials spread throughout 2009.

If there is one element of the Doctor's character Davies and Tennant have brought to the fore over the last couple of series, it's the Doctor's loneliness. Having lost all of his own kind but one in a devastating Time War – his murderously insane counterpart the Master survived, but apparently died at the end of series three – his closest family is now the human race, to whom he has, in the past, expressed a range of attitudes running from bemused affection to bitter frustration. Just lately, he's been singing our praises almost to the point of tedium. But given the genocidal resolution of the Time War, one wonders whether the tenth Doctor's admiration for humankind reflects a deeper, darker truth – that we, poor pitiful apes, are all he has left. A classic co-dependent relationship, then, but will future episodes witness sentimentality curdling into resentment? It would certainly be gratifying to witness the resurfacing of the character's old disdain and distance, which manifested itself to a greater or lesser extent in each incarnation from William Hartnell's irascible professor to Sylvester McCoy's scatterbrained yet ruthless game-player, peaking with the blisteringly arrogant and vainglorious sixth Doctor, performed with camp abandon by Colin Baker in the mid-80s.

Much of this depends on whether Davies' successor Steven Moffat – responsible for some of the best and darkest scripts of the revived series – is willing to take a gamble on a more obviously alien Doctor following the departure of the fresh-faced, approachable (and let's be frank, rather excellent) Tennant. Several actors who have already appeared in the series have been linked to the role, including – somewhat bizarrely – ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper and John Simm (The Master). At time of writing, though, bookies have mysteriously stopped taking bets on Paterson Joseph, an accomplished British actor with a rich CV, who appeared in the second series episodes Bad Wolf and The Parting Of The Ways. Despite barely concealed racist muttering on the net, the question as to whether or not there should be a black Doctor is, of course, a no-brainer – given the obvious variations in ethnicity displayed throughout the ten incarnations so far, there's no reason why not, and Joseph displays all the humour, charisma and gravitas to make him a damn near perfect candidate. The current odds of 7/17 are tantalising enough, but in a recent BBC News 24 interview, Philip Rhys, one of Joseph's co-stars in the current remake of Survivors (the original 70s series of which was written by none other than Dalek inventor Terry Nation), seemed to reveal rather more than his paymasters might have preferred. In a widely circulated clip, Rhys describes Joseph as the actor "who's gonna be... er, potentially, the new Doctor Who," before squirming like a schoolboy contemplating the headmaster's cane.

A key to the future? Who can tell...

_The Next Doctor will be broadcast on BBC1 at 6.00pm, Christmas Day.
Doctor Who - The Complete Fourth Series is out now on BBC/2 Entertain DVD_

jonny mugwump
Dec 22, 2008 12:14pm

Great great piece. There are a few problems with Davis doctor. first the music is just godawful- massively intrusive, completely unalien, strangely tedious and over-dramatic at the same time.
Secondly, what you described as sentimentality also can be described as soap opera. This started right at the start with Rose's bloody family. The knock on from this then has been the most dreadful reliance on returning to present day earth, over and over again. This is what killed it for me completely. Tennant i find unwatchable- he was so good in Cassanova, promised so much but is just way OTT.
This is not to take away from Davis' achievements though- some of the episodes have to rank as the greatest teatime TV ever seen- entirely unpatronising, intelligent and genuinely scary. Considering also that he has managed to achieve this with one off episodes has been miraculous. So, yes, a wonderful achievement. But it really is the right time for him to go and for Tennant to go with him. Davis has achieved so much but has also built new cul-de-sacs and the innovations are now beginning to feel far to much like post-modern smugness. I really hope that Moffatt is brave enough to know that it is the character and the concept that is the genius here and he carve out a new direction and get off-world once in a while.

Finally John Simmm a once fine actor needs to be applauded for the worst depiction of the Master in the programme's history.

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John Doran
Dec 22, 2008 1:39pm

But by Christ, the incidental music is awful isn't it?

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white hotel
Dec 22, 2008 2:30pm

I'm not sure how accurate it is to say that Davies' use of the 'present-day earth' is boring. I think of it as an exploration of one of the underlying principles of Dr Who - that of Englishness as alienness. It's not just Earth the Doctor returns to, it's the UK, and use of English character stalwarts like Bernard Cribbins in cameo roles more than justifies the inclusion of the companions' families, for me. I feel it's actually more interesting to foreground the structures of London - the Ally Pally, the Eye, both used by Davies - as alien landscapes, both familiar and frightening, than to emerge into a quarry or an overdressed moonscape. Think of how rarely you remember the landscapes and cities of the various Star Trek incarnations. Bigger budgets, greater variety, but utterly characterless because they have no sting; you really don't care that the rocks are red*, that the million lights of a hidden city wink in the distance. The Doctor brings the landscapes of Dr Who to life by knowing their history, but also by feeling most at home, in his own disengaged way, in England than anywhere else. And we know this because of his misappropriation of English iconography: Peter Davison's cricket jumper, Tom Baker's jelly babies, Jon Pertwee's bow tie - for god's sake, Paul McGann's doctor came dressed as Mr Darcy. To a great extent, the Doctor's own loneliness is that of not just the queer outsider, as Joe points out, but also of the Englishman in New York.

*unless they hide Tribbles. Then all bets are off. Like having Bernard Cribbins in a cameo.

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Comfie Nwabia
Dec 23, 2008 1:53am

I really am going to miss David Tennant and while I don't want him to go I know I don't want him to be replaced but some idiot, especially if it's just because he's black. Paterson Joseph is not that good anyway, and I'm black and I don't want him. My first thoughts were either Harry Lloyd or Richard Armitage because Steven Moffat was taking over as Head Writer and I thought people who can bring out a dark side would really work well with him. However now I think Charles Aitken would make a great new Doctor. I know that this will be totally out of the blue, but with Eccleston and Tennant both being surprise castings I really think this guy could pull it off. He was born in England and grew up in America. He graduated from RADA and I saw him in Othello as Iago at the Lyric Hammersmith. I just thought he could make a really good Doctor. Especially with Moffat taking over this could really work. He can really bring out a dark side. I know it sounds random but it really could work, believe me. Look him up, he's not done much but he's got 'next big thing' written all over him.

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white hotel
Dec 23, 2008 3:50pm

In reply to Comfie Nwabia:

But Paterson Joseph is ace! Not as good a Richard Ayoade (sp?) would be, but definitely a shoo-in over popmous lightweights like David Morrissey. According to wiki, Robert Carlyle is in the running, and I'm sure he'd make a stunning character doctor, but I still prefer Joseph's presence - and after Tennant's gabbling and twitching I think we need a stoic doctor for a while.

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John Doran
Dec 23, 2008 3:55pm

Wait a second! Paterson Joseph who plays the boss in Peep Show?! He's the best idea for Dr Who ever!

Well, he's the best thing about Peep Show anyway.

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white hotel
Dec 24, 2008 1:39pm

In reply to John Doran:

Oh yes,that's him. And he played the hot IT guy in Green Wing too. I can't resist posting the clip that shows his Survivors co-star letting cats out of bags all over the shop:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3TUcXlTXfHU

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Joseph Stannard
Dec 24, 2008 2:20pm

I was dubious about Joseph at first - he often seems to play ciphers in various sitcoms. But checking his resume, it appears he's a bit of a wildcard. I think his TV appearances are only the tip of the iceberg, although I remember him being a standout in Neil Gaiman's flawed Neverwhere series of many years ago. It's possible that Who could bring out his eccentricity in much the same way it did for Tennant.

I strongly disagree about David Morrissey being a lightweight though. I think he's one of the better TV actors of his generation, and if the whole 'Next Doctor' thing was anything more than a red herring, I'd be very glad to see him take the role.

On another note, I wonder if the Valeyard will ever make a return? Between the 11th and 12th incarnations, wasn't it?

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Hagbard Celine
Dec 24, 2008 10:51pm

"The queering of prime time" is precisely the flaw in Davies' tenure on Dr. Who. The agenda massively subtracted from the entertainment. It's a ham-handed muddling of politics and entertainment and it's always at the cost of entertainment. There shouldn't be a "Question of the Doctor's sexuality" because the question itself is irrelevant. Davies gets all the plaudits in the world for reviving Dr. Who, but his ridiculous descents into camp and the injection of identity politics has left a pretty dark stain on the series. Hopefully it will stop with his departure. We can hope.

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David McNamee
Dec 26, 2008 8:08pm

YES YES YES.

this will be addressed in my forthcoming piece on the Radiophonic Workshop.

empowering or not, i just want doctor who to be a bit less shit under the new management.

"John Doran
Dec 22, 2008 1:39pm

But by Christ, the incidental music is awful isn't it?"

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David McNamee
Dec 26, 2008 8:18pm

"Wait a second! Paterson Joseph who plays the boss in Peep Show?! He's the best idea for Dr Who ever!"

I'm still holding out that the new doctor will be David Mitchell (the comic actor), with Jez from Peep Show (the character) as his assistant.

have to say, i'm not really fathoming the across-board PJ love, but I'm not really familiar with his non-Peep Show oeuvre.

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David McNamee
Dec 26, 2008 8:33pm

also, sorry to keep posting, but i don't necessarily agree with 'hagbard' that camp is what has rotted the franchise (shoddy writing and the same recycled logic-defying deus ex-machine plot devices, as well as gratingly default histrionic delivery, has done that), but i think the rather reductive assumption that camp is not only inherent to but is the *essence of* what Doctor Who is - which seems to be kind of what Davies veered towards, in his later plotting - is a starting point for wrongness. the beauty of the series was always that it could be a million different things, often at the same time, and the whole regeneration kerfuffle is a very neat reset button that allows new producers and writers to painlessly about-face, reconfigure mood and fiddle with the darkness/strangeness/humour levels.
i agree with joe that it'd be kind of cool to have a scheming, arrogant doctor again, but probably unlikely given its current saturday night telly status.

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Joseph Stannard
Dec 28, 2008 7:28pm

In reply to David McNamee:

I find it odd that some believe the political agenda of the new Who detracts from its entertainment value - with 11.7 million viewers of The Next Doctor, the show is clearly entertaining plenty of people! I agree that there have been occasions when the writing is less than inspired, but to be frank this has *always* been the case with Who. For me, the show isn't measured by traditional standards of excellence, but by the effectiveness of its atmosphere, and that's where I believe the classic series excels. There have been signs of this of late, though, with Blink, Silence In The Library springing instantly to mind.

I'm not sure Russell Davies genuinely believes camp to be the essence of the show - if he's been quoted as saying this, forgive me - I still believe it's only one aspect of the series, important and definitely interesting, but nowhere near as overbearing as some might suggest.

Would anyone care to comment on The Next Doctor? I'm withholding my opinion for the moment...

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white hotel
Dec 29, 2008 2:27pm

Honestly, I thought it was really disappointing. Poor characterisation and muddled cultural references - the Cybermen could have made a spectacular addition to an industrial revolution setting, but the workhouse conceit was very underdeveloped and the governess character was loopy. What was she, a symbol of suffrage? the denoument was ridiculously fast and widget-based (I really dislike showdowns which see the hero pull out a heretofore undiscussed bit of kit and point it at the villain, thus solving the problem - think the movie of the Batman series, and Batman's shark-repellent Batspray. Fail, I'm afraid.

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David McNamee
Jan 2, 2009 1:47am

"I agree that there have been occasions when the writing is less than inspired, but to be frank this has *always* been the case with Who."

this is quite true. at least half of the fun of liking doctor who is getting to moan about it on the internet though.

that and saying things like "what about Ace? Ace never left him! bring back Ace!" when he says emo stuff like in the xmas special about everybody leaving him.

sophie aldred still rowr.

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David McNamee
Jan 2, 2009 2:35am

In reply to David McNamee:

the special was rubbish. i was kind of hoping that somehow david morrissey MIGHT be the next regeneration, and that the episode would end with Tenant carking it. this could set the scene for each of the special episodes to have a regeneration per episode, a completely new doctor for each episode (ie each of the rumoured ones, morrissey, blokey from peep show, james nesbitt, er, jason statham), with the doctor in the final special being the actual real next doctor!

i mean, the master has regenerated so many times that the thing about timelords having only a limited number of regenerations doesn't really apply anymore...

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Joseph Stannard
Jan 2, 2009 6:44pm

Hahaha, I have a very good friend who adores Ace (the lovely Team Brick from Bristol). Don't see it myself, but boy, she was an improvement on Mel Bush aka Bonnie Langford.

Have you seen The Curse Of Fenric, where it's hinted that Ace is experiencing a sexual awakening of some sort? I watched it recently and was really kind of startled at how intense it was, especially considering how closely Who resembled a straight-up kid's programme during the McCoy era.

Incidentally, I concur with Kim Newman on McCoy - his best performance came (tragically) at the beginning of the 1996 TV movie, just prior to his regeneration into Paul McGann (another wasted Doctor).

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David McNamee
Jan 3, 2009 4:22am

crikey. new doctor approaching: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7807742.stm

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