Saturday, 8 May 2010

Ain't broke

Well, I say it ain’t broke - but the voices, they’ve broken, haven’t they? Big and deep equals scary, obviously. We all know that, especially if we’re in marketing. And tall. Tall is threatening. Really, really tall. And big, like those Cybermen toys that sold so well last Christmas. When you think about it, why didn’t all the early Who team, people like Verity Lambert – why didn’t they get that? Big, tall, deep voiced. Like a Bad Dad. And easy to package so it fits on the shelves at Toys-R-Us. Golly, it’s a wonder the Daleks ever got going without ticking those boxes, isn't it?

That’s the committee view. It took one man to create the Daleks, and one man to design them, and after half a century it’s taken a committee to bugger them up. There are criticisms of the Daleks' brief off-screen appearance in the Paul McGann movie, but at least the producers of that understood what made the Daleks the best sci-fi villains of all time. Listen to them shrieking for the Master’s blood. They’re like angry children. Shrill, self-centered, hysterical. The Daleks are paranoid. They’re fanatics. You can’t reason with them. That’s why they’re scary.

I mean: why they were scary. Now that they’re big and gruff and pantomimey, you wait and see: the stories will all be about puncturing that pomposity. Don't worry children, there's no bully in the world that you can't see off if you just show him a bit of cheek. “Here’s a biscuit, I’m going to blow up your ship with it.” Rubbish - you can’t do any deal with a Dalek. You can’t say, “What do you mean?” and have it say, “I don’t understand.” They don’t engage with other life-forms that way (that’s their weakness, incidentally). They don’t bother with threats and boasts: “Pest control” – lazy writing, that; just prole-pleasing. To talk like that means you are engaging with the other person, that you have some inkling (and care) how he thinks. But it's when we come up against the wall through which connection cannot flow that, with a prickle of dread, we realize we are dealing with the Other.

The scariest thing about Daleks: they are untroubled by doubt. Put a floppy-haired schoolboy with a fake-blokey accent up against a Taliban theology student, see how much of a meaningful dialogue you’d get then. Turn the Taliban teenager up to eleven and give him a gun. Hate is all about fear. “Conquer and destroy”, geddit?

Look at what the Daleks were up to in The Invasion of Earth. Robotizing people, burning out their brains to enslave them. That’s creepy shit, man. Those little bastards were evil and relentless. Hate and fear were all they knew. Even the movie version, dumbed down and jokey, couldn’t help but deliver some real chills. Now we have “running to and fro" stories that are full of twaddle about DNA and empty threats and bloodlines and blowing up walking bombs and – yawn. It's like a Marvel crossover on fifteen double espressos. When did the Daleks cease to have a plan? When the writers ceased to have a clue.

It’s easy to knock the BBC. Well, it is if they make decisions on the basis of bone-headedness and greed. The new Dalek design was apparently imposed by order of BBC Marketing, who want more toys to sell. Allowing marketing to drive content is always a mistake (and, ironically, it's usually a commercial mistake as much as a creative one) but this is particularly iniquitous in Britain because of the TV Licence Fee, a form of poll tax levied on UK households if they want to watch any live television broadcasts, whether supplied by the BBC or another network. This makes the British viewing public the primary investor in the BBC itself; therefore to treat them as gullible punters who you can fleece of a tenner for a crap plastic toy is really unforgivable.

The one glimmer of intelligence in the whole sorry spectacle may be the message in a bottle Mark Gatiss planted, presumably after seeing exactly what the committee had cooked up to emerge from the magic cabinet – er, DNA replicator thingy: “We're talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.” Hmm, I know I’ve heard those words before...

Well here, for a generation who may never know, is an example of how single-minded the Daleks really were. “Every problem has a solution.” Yep, except the problem of the BBC committee.

SUSAN: Can't we stop them? Can't we do anything?
DOCTOR: Just a moment! I haven't told you how we came to this planet.
DALEK: It does not matter now.
DOCTOR: But…but it does! I have a ship capable of crossing the barriers of space and time. Surely this would be invaluable to you?
DALEK: A ship? What do you mean?
DOCTOR: A machine.
DALEK: I do not believe you.
DOCTOR: But I have!
SUSAN: It's true! We have!
DALEK: You are not capable of creating such a machine.
DOCTOR: You took a part of my ship away from one of my companions - the young man.
DALEK: What did it look like?
DOCTOR: A small rod with metal at either end. It belongs to my ship. A fluid link containing mercury. Examine it for yourselves. You will see it's part of a complicated machine.
DALEK: Yes, I have it here.
DOCTOR: Well, let me show you the ship, explain it to you, help you to build another.
DALEK: A bargain for your lives?
DALEK: Where is this machine?
DOCTOR: In the petrified forest outside the city.
DALEK: Good. When the neutron operation has been completed, we will find a way to travel outside the city limits.
FIRST DALEK: We will examine your machine.
DOCTOR: No! Not unless you stop what you're doing. Otherwise, I won't explain its secrets to you and its philosophy of movement.
DALEK: Now that we know of the machine, we can examine it for ourselves.
DOCTOR: But you can't operate it without me!
DALEK: Every problem has a solution.


  1. I'm all for reinvention if it improves the original, brings out new relevance and so on. But this is dumbed-down marketing-led vandalism.

  2. Excellent post Dave, really echoes my sentiment about the Beeb. They've actually managed to drive away quality writers like Jed Mercurio {Cardiac Arrest, Bodies) to the States.

    Can't imagine series like "Our Friends in the North" ever getting past the current marketing driven committees.

    Time for an "Emma" cull.

  3. I agree the new version of the Daleks is disappointing, and I am sorry to hear it came from marketing, as they can rarely if ever be reasoned with (they are a destructive race themselves!).

    But I have to say that I am enjoying this new series quite a bit. The two part "Blink" sequel had some intriguing moments that appeared to be connected to parts of the overall story arc we hadn't seen yet, something I love about time travel story threads and a feature that usually gets overlooked in Dr. Who.

    It's a shame so many creative endeavors end up being made via committee, though. It is almost impossible for a creative vision to survive the process. :\

  4. I haven't seen much of the new series, though I did notice that they are (a) trying to continue RTD's approach of "emotional solutions" and (b) they are just not as good at that as RTD. Convince the robot bomb that it isn't human and it won't blow up? Well, I might grudgingly have accepted that (Spielbergian kiddywink crap though it is) if it had been set up earlier in the story, but in fact it was just an example of what Sir Terry Pratchett calls makeitupasyougalongeum. Read his guest blog post on SFX:
    Though I guess if you accept Dr Who as a Harry Potter fairytale rather than as SF, it all works. Personally I prefer Harry.

  5. That episode wasn't one of the better ones, I agree. The Blink sequel was much better (written by Steven Moffat, who wrote the original).

    If you watch any of them, watch the first one. The overall story was good, but I felt the part of the episode that covered the back story between the new Doctor and Amelia Pond was wonderful. I felt it gave both the Doctor and his companion's characters much more depth than I had ever seen before.

    You have seen many more of the older episodes than I have, so perhaps that sort of depth existed in the past stories and has been lost since. But as a relative newcomer to the stories, I really enjoyed it.

  6. I haven't seen many of them. I understand RTD developed the relationship between Billy Piper's character and the Ecclestone and Tennant Doctors quite a bit, ie she's the "first love" that no other companion will ever match. The concept of Amelia's disappointed childhood encounter - yes, a good idea, though Moffat had no space to develop it because of the ho-hum alien criminal and police plot.

    Was that first ep a double-lengther btw? It felt like 45 minutes. The writers may be packing too much rushing about into the episodes, which leaves no room for the interesting stuff. The show needs to be fast-paced, of course, but too clipped and busy actually ends up being less effective. There's a scene in Fahrenheit 451 where Montag reads David Copperfield to his wife's friends. Worried that it was too slow, Truffaut kept on cutting - but ended up with a short scene in which the camera is busy and there's no emotional heft. The movie's editor, Thom Noble, remarked years later that they should have simply left the camera pointed at Doris as she breaks down and cries at what Montag is reading. That would have seemed quicker, though it took four times longer, because we only need fast cutting and rushing about when we aren't involved emotionally. A lesson for the Who crew there.

    I haven't seen the original Blink, but it sounds like a great one-off if they can resist the temptation to turn those creatures into running villains. I just hope they weren't finally defeated by the Doctor saying, "I'm the Doctor, be very afraid," and they just scarper in fear. He's getting like Kanye West: "Yo Daleks imma sterminate you I'm so hard."

  7. I haven't seen ANY of the new series yet, because we don't have TV reception (we use Love Film). We were going to wait for the whole series on LF, but Dave keeps sneaking off and watching them on iplayer, from which he then emerges to pen a rant (or a rap - I think his Kanye has potential).

    Anyway, it looks like two kinds of rot were setting in with the storytelling in the previous series, and they're continuing here - Kanye West Dr Who, and 'let's give the bomb counselling'.

    Kanye West Dr Who is offensive because it is embarrassing, and also because audiences hate being told what to think and feel. If we'd been shown that the Doctor was a remarkable, fear-inspiring creature, in other words we'd been made to feel that about him ourselves, we might accept it. But to have him just say it from time to time ('I'm the Doctor, I've done powerful things') just makes us snigger. We've all known a plonker like that.

    The second bit of storytelling rot, about coaxing bombs/aliens/hoovers to find their inner humanity, might well have worked if the writer had set up a weakness that could be exploited in that way. As that isn't usually done, it looks like sentimental crap and the last resort of a writer who couldn't think of anything better.

  8. I can't recall if the first episode was a two-part one. Thinking back it did seem like an awful lot happened, so perhaps it was?

    With last last few DW series, I have found the episodes to be hit-and-miss. When they miss, they miss big (some of last season's were awful!) but the good ones are incredible.

    The original Blink was one of the truly exceptional ones, and worth seeking out if you haven't seen it.

  9. I obviously do need to see Blink - everybody says so :) but I hope the writer of that doesn't make the same mistake as in so many other Who episodes, which is what Terry Pratchett was rightly complaining about - ie that they just don't do the basic groundwork of setting up the out-of-a-hat solution that the Doctor comes up with at the end. Until they can get used to doing at least that elementary story work, it's hard to justify putting in my time as a viewer. Shawn Ryan or Joss Whedon or David Chase I know will not let me down this way - so they are getting my money instead of having to pay the BBC licence fee.

  10. Update: now I have seen Blink. Nice episode. They should have left the "Weeping Angels" there, though, not brought them back every season since. More is less. And they belong in Harry Potter anyway.