And after that long, rambling assessment, here’s the epic season finale to my reviews of Russell’s tenure in charge of Doctor Who.
Every producer has had a recognisable style. Witty dialogue laced with philosophy and pratfalls? You’re watching Graham Williams/Douglas Adams. Moody Tom lurching through a dry ice recreation of a classic horror story? You’re watching Philip Hinchcliffe/Robert Holmes. Militaristic action laced with homespun Buddhism and environmentalism? You’re watching Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks. Similarly, there are several ways to tell you’re watching a story from ‘the RTD years’. Well, apart from the vastly improved budget, acting and sets. Here are some of them:
1. Sex. The classic series only ever vaguely alluded to shagging – logically the Doctor must have done some to get a granddaughter, and companions kept leaving him because they fancied a bit – even if they’d barely met, like Leela and Andred. New Who lets it all hang out – literally, in the case of Captain Jack. But the Doctor ‘dances’ too; thanks for the euphemism, Mr Moffat. He just doesn’t do it much, so presumably those parts don’t regenerate as effectively. Though, according to The End of Time, the Doctor can disprove Queen Elizabeth I’s nickname of ‘The Virgin Queen’! Elsewhere, we’ve got Jackie Tyler lusting after anything in trousers, the Doctor snogging every companion – even Donna, who isn’t interested – and even Mickey teaming up with his parallel universe counterpart’s boyfriend! Which brings us neatly to:
2. The gay agenda. Presumably these were the script pages colour coded in pink. Actually, the much-vaunted ‘gay agenda’ mostly took the form of showing that homosexuality actually exists – thankfully we never saw Captain Jack rimming a Slitheen. In keeping with the Virgin New Adventures style of showing that, in the future, sex will be pretty much equal opportunity, Captain Jack was a perfect poster boy for omni-sexuality. Elsewhere, we got references to Shakespeare fancying the Doctor, 1920s aristocrats fancying the footmen (Unicorn and the Wasp), smutty innuendo aplenty about happy bald men (Tooth and Claw), long married lesbian couples (Gridlock). Even Steve Moffat (the straight one, remember) got in on the act with that naughty man shagging the butcher in The Doctor Dances. Come on, there isn’t really a ‘gay agenda’, fan people. RTD just acknowledged that sexuality might be as diverse as the peoples of the universe.
3. The ‘Davies ex Machina’. Yeah, cheap shot, I know. But you know it’s RTD when he’s presented the Doctor with such a formidable threat that no amount of technobabble, ingenuity or plain old nous can save the day. Only some hitherto unsuspected miraculous event, indistinguishable from magic, can help us now! What’s that you say, the TARDIS can do it if only you can open that big panel? (The Parting of the Ways) Oh, we all have to pray to the Doctor at the same time, like children clapping to resurrect Tinkerbell? (Last of the Time Lords) Wait, mixing all that crap together and spraying it around will cure everyone, even though it’s referred to as ‘intravenous’? (New Earth) Ooh, I can avoid regenerating thanks to this handy hand which will incidentally give my companion the necessary superpowers to defuse the entire situation by pressing a few conveniently placed buttons and provide my other companion with a more compatible duplicate of me she can settle down with? (Journey’s End) Well, you get the idea.
4. Gratuitous set pieces that have no logical place in the story but look really cool. Viz: the liftshaft slide in New Earth (They still have cable lifts in the year 5 billion?), the window cleaning lift peril in Partners in Crime (originally in a different story but so irresistible it had to be shoehorned in elsewhere), the inexplicable spacewalk to retrieve the escape capsule in 42 (the button to do this is on the outside of the ship?), the reset button inconveniently placed on the other side of lethal, whirling fans in The End of the World (“Whoever wrote this episode should die!” – Galaxy Quest), the TARDIS/taxi chase in The Runaway Bride… I could go on, but shouldn’t.
5. Pop culture references. Until now, the quotiest Doctor ever was Colin Baker, with a literary aphorism on hand for every occasion. Plainly, it was his misfortune he didn’t nip into the future and read Heat magazine for some handy quips. As early as the first season, we had such instantly dating references as the Big Brother house (cancelled now, so unlikely to be around in the year 100,000), while later the Tenth Doctor had a handy sideline in quoting from EastEnders, The Lion King and Kylie Minogue. Oh, and Shane Warde’s Greatest Hits on a billboard in Fear Her (Set in 2012, remember). Methinks the team overestimated the staying power of crap talent show winners. Obviously, Buffy’s constant pop culture references were an inspiration here, but Joss Whedon had the sense to use references that had already guaranteed their staying power, rather than leaping on the bandwagon of whatever was trendy at the time. Thankfully, before things went too far, Shakespeare rushed in to save the day.
6. The sentimental bit that will make you cry. Actually, sometimes this was good. Mainly in stories written by Paul Cornell, who has the art of subtle emotional manipulation honed to a fine skill. But elsewhere it just jarred: like the bit in New Earth where Cassandra inexplicably decides she’s just going to die after all, and the Doctor gives her a ‘second chance’ to get the viewers’ tearducts flowing. The ‘sad bit’ became such a staple by The End of Time that my tearducts had become nearly immune to it – but not quite. Thanks for that, Bernard Cribbins.
7. The companion’s large, irritating circle of family and acquaintances that the Doctor just can’t get away from. Until now, companions’ friends and relatives were either unseen plot devices (Jo Grant’s string-pulling uncle, Sarah Jane Smith’s conveniently absent aunt) or there to be horribly murdered (Tegan’s Aunt Vanessa, Nyssa’s father, Victoria’s father etc). New Who gave us the opportunity to be consistently menaced by soap opera subplots about who Jackie was shagging, whether Martha’s Dad was having a midlife crisis, if Donna’s mum would ever approve of her, and so on. With hilarious consequences.
8. The Doctor is God. Actually, it’s not really fair to have a pop at RTD about this one, as the Virgin New Adventures had already established this to be the case. But his messianic resurrection in Last of the Time Lords left little doubt, after the Face of Boe had already referred to him as ‘the Lonely God’. And that bit in The Family of Blood where we didn’t even see how he trapped the family but just took it for granted kind of clinched it too. At least we get to see him shamed after abusing his godlike powers in The Waters of Mars.
9. Really, really loud music. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Murray Gold’s sweeping, almost cinematic style. Once he’d got over the urge to score it like Queer As Folk, as seen in Rose. The trouble isn’t in the music, it’s in the mix. When you can’t actually hear the dialogue over the swelling emotion of the string section, someone needs to fiddle with the sound settings. And no, it shouldn’t be the viewer.
10. The Doctor is sexy! Yes, even Christopher Eccleston. Hartnell would never stand a chance now, with the posterboy likes of David Tennant and Matt Smith. As if that wasn’t enough to freak out the old school fanboy, the Master’s quite fit now too! Especially with all the homoerotic overtones between him and the Doctor… oh no, it’s the gay agenda!
I’ll just finish by saying that all of the above is meant in fun. Like the Roman satirists of old, I’d like to conclude by begging for a free pardon from Steven Moffat:)