As mentioned last time this week’s final episode of this series of Doctor Who sparked a few things off in my head. This was mainly in the reaction to it online and the fact that the Emperor has no clothes but if you distract people from this you can create a success out of anything as long as people ignore the obvious. From now on there’s spoilers so be warned if you’ve not watched it yet.
Now I’m not talking about enjoying something. I still enjoy Doctor Who most of the time and thought the Neil Gaiman episode last week was excellent, and Mark Gatiss did a great one the week before that which played on the campness of Who while mixing in influences including a large League of Gentlemen one which is always going to get my approval. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy something and notice the huge gaping problems with what you’re watching. I’m talking about that most horrible of things in modern genre fandom, the Squee Factor. Which isn’t to say that people are wrong, but if you’re just sitting there thinking that something is good because it’s ”cool” and it’s what you as a fan want, then all that’s on the screen is a version of fanwank which is building and building things up but forgets to create drama or characters in order to get what the writer, and a large chunk of the fans want but it doesn’t mean the story or the programme actually needs it.
This creates the defence of ‘but if I love it then it can’t be bad’, or ‘ur a hater!!!’ because when the writer of the programme itself is a fan then the temptation to write professional fanwank is huge and this is the huge gaping hole that Stephen Moffat has written himself into. In creating a programme aimed more and more at the fans as opposed to the populist days of Russell T. Davies (which did end up being tied in knots because of pandering to fans) that’s ended up fetishising the character of the Doctor in a way only a fan of the programme could.
So that’s why The Name of the Doctor isn’t anything more than fanfic writ large on HD screens and funded by license payers rather than banged out online, or in the old days, hammered out on a typewriter then photocopied and distributed as fanzines. I’m not knocking fanfic per say, but when you have an episode made up essentially of actors spouting large unweildy chunks of exposition at each out while the writer hammers home the point that Clara is ‘important’ and the Doctor is the huge mythological figure akin to God, or Allah, or Jebus rather that this weirdo alien bloke going around having adventures. It can’t be as simple as that as producers and writers (many of which were fans growing up) see the character as a HUGE INFLUENCE on EVERYTHING which is really some sort of meta-commentary on how Doctor Who influenced them as children and children tend to make influential figures in their lives bigger than they actually are so that’s why we end up with the Doctor being this massive figure in all of creation which makes people think it’s all grown up and dark and stuff.
In reality it takes away from the core of the character in that he was one of many of his people who escaped the cloying nature of his people to do good because he wanted to escape. He was a drop out created just before the idea of a drop out became part of the sixties culture on both sides of the Atlantic, so the Doctor was this rebellious figure saying ‘fuck you’ to the establishment even though he was sometimes part of that same establishment. In fact the entire first year of the Jon Pertwee era rams this point home as he’s constantly trying to run away like a child would if they were unhappy with their family and I found that amazingly powerful when I started watching the Pertwee era when I was a kid because things weren’t all bread and roses when I was growing up, so what I’m saying is that I’m as much as a screaming fanboy as anyone. I am able however to spot steaming shite when it’s served up to me.
This is where we have a little diversion and I have to recommend going off and reading the TV criticism of Clive James. In particular I remember reading The Crystal Bucket around the age of 15 or so thanks to an English teacher who tried to spark some ember of writing skill I must have shown in school but never properly did anything about. It’s a fantastic book and James is the best critic of television I’ve read apart from Harlan Ellison. His essays collected in The Glass Teat are spectacular and comparing both James and Ellison’s criticism compared to say, Sam Wollaston’s barely literate ramblings in The Guardian shows you just how lost the skill of criticism has become in the media.
Go read this stuff. It’s important and it shows you how to do it rather than recapping the synopsis, adding a funny line, adopting a popular stance, then moving on.
When you have a programme written by fans, for fans and criticised by fans (normally along the lines of ‘this was awesome’ or ‘squeeeeeee’) in the newspapers, online and on fansites, genuine criticism becomes swallowed up in the fight to get heard. Part of this is people who genuinely did enjoy it, and I’ve no real problem with them. Part are people bandwagon jumping trying to get in on what’s ‘cool’ or just parroting what they’ve heard elsewhere and a large part are people desperately trying to be heard so they can get a paid job in the media and this last one causes problems because this is generally where all critical facilities tend to go out the window.
See, it’s very hard to seriously criticise what might be a future employer, or something you want to work on should be lucky enough to do so. This leads to the horrible situation of the sort of soft criticism you see especially on comic sites like a Bleeding Cool or CBR because you don’t want to lose those exclusive interviews, the review copies, the access to professionals and all the other stuff that you really want to get involved with rather than actually write criticism. You want your cake and eat it, or indeed, gorge on it. If you’re really lucky you might get a job with Marvel or DC Comics, and that might lead to working for a TV production company, or a TV channel or a film studio and then you’re quids in. It’s a means to an end rather than a goal in itself so it suppresses real criticism so rather than reading about how Moffat doesn’t seem to understand anymore how to form a drama in it’s own right, you just read thousands of versions of ‘squeeeeeee’.
Which brings us to the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and a storyline which has been building for years, or at least the consensus is it’s been building for years rather than being thrown together and made up on the hoof as some of it clearly looks like it has because everyone is so intent to make things HUGE and EPIC like a fan would that they’ve forgotten that the best drama is made up of what people can relate to and simply put, you can’t relate to a God. You can relate to someone breaking free of a cloying establishment and doing good things to help people, but a God who is so important we can’t even know his name or something bad will happen somewhere to everyone isn’t a relatable hook, so it all becomes fanfic. It all becomes about rushing from one scene to the next so someone can spout another huge bit of exposition and the Doctor acts like a cretin because that’s how some people growing up saw the character, and it plays well in the US.
Creating good, populist drama is hard. Creating good criticism is hard. It involves hard work, research and an education and by that I don’t mean a degree, but a knowledge of television, how it works, writing, dramatic structure and of the world generally rather than just recycling what you know. It also takes a will to demand quality be it Doctor Who, or Eastenders or anything because why should the audience accept rubbish because it throws some bones to the fans who will watch it regardless of quality. Spouting exposition at each other isn’t drama. Telling us in huge unsubtle strokes that a character is Very Important isn’t creating a human drama, it’s just demoting female characters on the programme to plot points rather than people as it’s only the female characters who act as these important plot points. It’s odd, and there’s a weird feel about seeing female characters who only exist as a puzzle for the Doctor to solve rather than being people in their own right which says something about what’s rattling inside Moffat’s head.
Really though the point of this rambling nonsense isn’t to have a pop at a popular programme, or fanboys or anything that ”haters are going to hate” but to demand quality and honesty rather than shouting ‘squeee’ at the screen every five minutes because the script has spat out another piece of fan service.
And it’s not just Who that suffers from it. It’s virtually everything genre related out there because production companies and film studios do their market research online which means they encounter the hardcore fan, and when something new or different is proposed to try to widen the appeal/audience you get fans tied up in knots complaining how it’s not ”their” version of the character, or just plain outright misogyny or racism.
I want Doctor Who to thrill, excite and challenge me like it did when I was watching all those great Robert Holmes stories, or even a return to the quality Moffat is clearly capable of. As said, it’s still fun to watch most of the time but it’s fell into a hole of it’s own making by building up everything to a huge and massive scale that the drama is lost in the twists and turns of the plot. All the likes of Moffat is doing is just eating the history of the programme and spewing it out but bigger and more epic and this is the final point. Fans want their programmes or genre fiction to be more epic and big and huge and massive and enormous, but there’s a point where you can’t go anywhere else and this isn’t helped by the feed of uncritical, or basically crap criticism.
Saying something is ‘shit’ or ‘sucks’ isn’t criticism. It’s just an opinion. Saying something is ‘cool’ or ‘fun’ isn’t criticism. It’s just an opinion. Far too often that’s what we get as criticism and frankly it’s shite…………
Next time, something else……