Thursday, February 22, 2007

About Time

The Lovely Jo's default comfort reading (pulled off the shelf during, for example, upheavals of the moving flat variety) is epic fantasy by the likes of Gemmell and Eddings. Mine seems to be reference books, particularly about Doctor Who - I've certainly browsed a few lately.

I've just this month started on what looks to be the ultimate Who reference work – About Time (Miles and Wood, Mad Norwegian Press, six volumes with five currently out and vol 6 to cover 1985-89 plus TV movie, due later this year). In their wisdom, the authors have written the volumes in the order 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, and imminently 6. I started with vol 3, it being the slimmest/cheapest/most immediately available from *m*z*n, but have now acquired vol 1 (reading) and vol 2 (waiting on the shelf).

It's indescribably addictive. It’s like the two or three perfunctory lines of "Roots" for each story in The Discontinuity Guide expanded to page after page of informative essay. I've never before seen a programme guide that analysed Who stories in terms of the political atmosphere at the time, what major events were happening, what the nation's mindset was, etc. It comes across as nothing less than an attempt to document all of British culture using Who as a pretext. Typical allotment per story in yer average programme guide – about a page and a half, and that includes half a page of production notes. Typical allotment per story here – about ten pages. I may never need another programme guide again.

Reading the first volume of this epic work (1963-66, 300-ish pages – woof), I've been struck by a realisation. Who fans, in the main, tend to use the word "classic" (by which we here mean "typical") to refer to stories with a Monster-Of-The-Week, running up and down corridors, capture/recapture (not an issue with the new, faster Who) and the Doctor solving everything by being heroic and/or a know-all. Tom Baker's stories particularly tend to do this, and so I shall dub this the Tom Baker Model. Yet as the very detailed analysis of About Time makes clear, the show was originally meant to be (and was, for a few years at least) experimental, character-driven and as unlike anything else on TV as possible, and not straightforward Monster-Of-The-Week action at all (early indications are that Terry "Daleks" Nation is mostly to blame for the later shift in emphasis). And this sheds light on why I like the Who stories that I like (mostly those thought of as "oddball") and couldn’t give a monkey's about boring old Genesis of the Daleks, which keeps topping fan polls. I've somehow latched onto this idea of experimental, different TV and somehow haven't been seduced by the simple pleasures of the monster runabout. It turns out I'm watching "classic" Who after all, but it's this other kind of "classic" Who – the Experimental Model rather than the Tom Baker Model.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I like a bit of Tom Baker Model as well, but it has to have something else to recommend it (favourites include The Robots of Death, which has beautiful design and surprisingly good sets and model work; The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which has a living ventriloquist's doll and comedy double-acts; and The Sea Devils, which has the most extraordinary incidental music of any Who story). But the majority of my Who favourites have no monster at all or a decidedly unconventional monster (The Mind Robber, Warriors' Gate, Kinda, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy) or have monsters that were admittedly (and obviously) added in despite the story, because the producer thought the show needed monsters (Inferno, Ghost Light).

And this sheds light on my preferences in the new series as well. Father's Day is clearly Experimental Model (character-driven, monsters added in just to satisfy perceived need for a monster). The Girl in the Fireplace is Experimental Model with very big knobs on. School Reunion doesn't quite do it for me because underneath the nice script it's a conventional runaround with monsters and corridors, and - probably the most Tom Baker Model thing any Who story could ever have - the guest appearance of Sarah Jane Smith. Mark Gatiss' stories are actually wilfully trying to be Tom Baker Model, because that's what Mark Gatiss thinks "classic" Who is. He tried to mask it in The Idiot's Lantern with a stolen bit of Sapphire & Steel imagery, but the graft wasn't entirely successful. Love & Monsters is Experimental Model, but so unlike not only other TV but all other DW as well, that many fans either love it or hate it. I liked Bad Wolf (Experimental, and parodies other TV to boot) slightly more than The Parting of the Ways (moderately Tom Baker, but crucially turns Experimental when the Doctor sends his companion home just before the gripping finale, so that she can sit in a greasy-spoon caff and agonise about missing the gripping finale before using a tow truck to make her return).

What it comes down to, I think, is how easy or difficult the story is to explain. City of Death is hard to explain – it's a kind of romantic, light-hearted French detective film with time travel and an urbane villain who also happens to be an alien who exists in several historical periods at once. The Happiness Patrol is hard to explain – it's an allegory of some sort in which emotional states are elevated to the level of political ideology and enforced by a leader with a pastel-coloured death squad and a chief executioner made out of sweets. Genesis of the Daleks is very easy to explain – it's a Dalek story. It's a war-in-space good-vs-evil story with Daleks in it. There are many such, and they're rarely very complex.

Disclaimer: The above is an over-simplification. I don't automatically like all Experimental Model stories – it's possible for experimental stories to be crap on their own terms (Paradise Towers springs to mind, and I wouldn't want to watch The Web Planet again while sober). The above also doesn't stop Tom Baker from being technically – technically – the best old-series Doctor.

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