Monday, October 26, 2009

Raw Deal: DOCTOR WHO!

I call this series "Raw Deal" because to me there's an injustice against the character, due to bad writing or just misguided ideas. Normally I let other people do what they want with their characters, but when they get so misused, their original greatness so forgotten in the chase for something new and different - that's when someone has to try to stop the madness.

That definitely goes for Doctor Who, at least for the last few seasons.

Sometimes the best fixes are the simplest ones. I think every problem with Dr.Who as he is currently seen on TV could be fixed by getting back to the roots of the character and riffing off of what was certainly his best, most well-rounded incarnation - the Third Doctor.

Part of the challenge of writing for Who is in the casting. Every actor brings their own thing to the role, so casting is important, you can't have Tennant playing a Pertwee Doctor, no matter how well written the dialogue or how well-plotted the episode.

During Tennant's run the resurrector of the show, Russel Davies, and his crew have set about to systematically deconstruct everything about the series. Every rule, broken; The Whoniverse turned entirly upside down.

There are a lot of people who would probably agree with this. Hell, no "probably" to it. Tennant's run has received rave reviews. Sadly, the great effects, the prime-time promotion, the acclaim, the return to America, all the things that Whovians like myself dreamed of for years have come with a "Monkey's Paw" twist, and I don't think I'm alone in saying that we should have been careful what we were wishing for, because now we got it.

I think Davies has a plan that will ultimately be realized when Tennant leaves the show and we see the Eleventh Doctor, who based on nothing at all but my suspicions and some trailer footage and publicity photos I have taken to calling the Tweenth Doctor. Because I think that it the direction Davies has been pointing the show.

Look at the progression - Eccleston's 9th Doctor is new but pretty safe. Doctor Who is back and fans rejoice. That was a great season, but the signs were there. Eccleston's wardrobe is drab, the TARDIS's console room looks too alien, a huge, cathedral-ceilinged waste of space that becomes sort of a touchstone for the series. This is not an understated, classically British Doctor Who, this is the post-modern Doctor and he aims to blow you away with his awesomeness.

With his foot in the door, Davies brings in Tennant, who started out okay but whose runs quickly devolved into a morass of total self-indulgence, cringeworthy narcissism, moral choices that leave the viewer scratching his head, and moments of dead-on seriousness that instead make you laugh out loud. Tennant's Doctor is a whinging muppet, flapping his arms, his face rubber, who then somehow becomes a Christ figure, he is the center of the universe - so much more like an awkward teenager than a Time Lord.

I gave up on the last season halfway through and no longer care about reports of the new seasons. I guess I will give the Tweenth Doctor one episode to see how he does but I'm not holding out hope or anything.

Doctor Who has never seen anything like this before, systematic deconstruction of the entire franchise so that it can be remade into - what?

What sad about this is that it's all so damn predictable. The kids-TV crowd has been dragging Dr. Who in that direction for years. From the beginning it was supposed to be for young kids to watch and get scared by rubber monsters. But it was kids-TV that didn't speak down to kids, that didn't make the whole world revolve around them. Instead, like all the best TV for kids, it introduces them to the real world in a way that's easier for their little brains to comprehend, with enough adult mystery to keep them enthralled, as it's (hopefully) still the case that every little kid wants to be grown up as fast as they possibly can.

But everyone always thinks that maybe we could just get more kids watching if we did this, and this ... the actors get younger every year, if Dr. Who ever gets to the Thirteenth Doctor he will probably be played by whoever the UK's Teen Idol of the moment is, a thirteen-year-old Dr. Who would be the ultimate apotheosis of the series.


To me this misses the most important point. Dr. Who is OLD. As Tennant's Doctor likes to shout to the rooftops, "Oh-vah 900 yeahs old!" Here's the thing, muppethead. I didn't need Pertwee to shout that in my face to tell me that he was an immortal fucking master of time. He did it with a wink and a knowing, sad smile, or the way he would cast his eyes over a pile of ruins.

So ironically the way I'd write the character is the way he was written during his best years, the Pertwee and Baker runs. Dr. Who is a man with gravitas, who's apparent age belies the amount of time he has existed but hints at it. He is an eccentric, dressing how he likes but always with a sense of style that makes him a bit dandyish and emphasizes that he is outside of Time.

He has almost always seen it all before, very few things are new to him, so he observes most of what goes on with a calm detachment - until he encounters some fiendish device, usually built by his nemesis the Master. He knows when to run - but he knows when to fight, too, and is a master of several forms of self-defense, most of which are essentially non violent, but he can fight with a sword or a gun if he really has to. Dr. Who is almost never at a loss and his eventual triumph is rarely in doubt, the enjoyment of his stories comes from watching him work through the mystery or beat the obstacle course.

And he is a special friend of the people of Earth for whatever his reasons; this is what separates him from his society, he rejects their staid culture for the rough-and-tumble of adventures across the cosmos (as The Doctor says at the end of the triumphant "The Five Doctors", "after all, that's how it all started").

And Man is a natural companion in this, they are a race that is just breaking out into this new world, and the Doctor has taken it upon himself to help us out, not by giving us all the answers, not by making it easy, but by making it possible. When all the odds are against this bunch of monkeys ever making it out there, the Doctor comes in and smashes the game - he often will have a quip or a off-the-frilly-cuff reason for doing so, but his reasons are really his own and we'll probably never completely understand him. His is alien and human at the same time, his famous two hearts indicating his dualistic nature.

In short the Doctor is a mysterious secret agent, living in the cracks of our reality, always on the scene but rarely really known, working behind the scenes, letting others take the credit. He's not some kind of space Jesus and when his work is done he's happy to hop back into his TARDIS for the next adventure and let people work the rest out for themselves, not stand around and revel in the attention. The Doctor's existence is a special secret known only a select few in the governments of the Western world, notably the UK.

He also means very little without his own mysterious world. The Time Lord Council, Gallifrey, Rassilon, the Master, even the frigging Black and White Guardians - as scary as the rubber monsters and the caves and the windswept plains and the foggy quarries are, these things hint at a cosmos on an even larger scale - one in which even the Doctor is merely a player in a very big, very old game.

Sweeping all that away and casting the Doctor adrift was the ultimate insult. He has been reduced from this towering figure to a gibbering loser who gets too handsy with the help, cries way too goddamn much - a hollow character, an impostor playing with grown-up toys while their attention is elsewhere and deserving of reprimand when they finally come back to find him wearing their clothes and sitting in their chair, a little boy pretending to be a man.

The real Dr. Who is everything the current one is not. That was done deliberately and it's why I think Dr. Who has gotten a Raw Deal. And if I had my way I'd wipe it all clean. It would probably be my greatest challenge - but I think I could do it.

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