A Study in Contrasting Perspectives

Over at Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts reviews Doctor Who's third season. The first half of the review focuses on the season-ending three-parter, which Roberts criticizes for its myriad plotting malfunctions while ultimately concluding that
This question of puerility is, of course, the key one. As the Dobby-version of the Doctor was placed in a cage, I found myself wondering whether this was a deliberate allusion to the Sybil in Petronius's Satyricon, immortal but continually ageing, eventually so shrunken that she was kept in a bottle (this is the passage Eliot uses as the epigraph to The Waste Land: and when the boys come to ask her "what do you want?" she replies "I want to die"). But by the end of the episode it was clear that Davies was aiming at a lower age group. And that gave me pause. Had I so overwritten my experience of Who with pretentious adult expectations that any childishness in the show had become intolerable to me? Was I really criticising Who for being a kids' show?

When you put it like that of course it's obvious. Not only is Doctor Who a kids' show, its great glory inheres in that fact. In one sense the large adult fanbase it has accrued is an encumbrance to its proper functioning. My five-year old daughter watched "Last of the Time Lords" in a pleasurable agony of dramatic anticipation and excitement; only the fact that the sofa in our house is set against the wall prevented her from hiding behind it. She found the resolution thrilling and utterly satisfying. It ought to go without saying that fans—actual children or adults in touch with their childish hearts—will not be bothered by a Peter Pan ending, and are unlikely to mourn the fact that allusions to Petronius Arbiter and T. S. Eliot aren't more thoroughly worked through. Kids are not cynical jaded old hacks like me. There's a freshness to their spirits that the show captures precisely.
(While we're on the subject of Adam Roberts and Strange Horizons: if you haven't done so already, be sure to read Roberts's joint review of The Children of Húrin and Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind. It's a very fine meditation on the differences between Tolkien-ian epic fantasy and the modern kind, as well as a heartfelt ode to Tolkien's frequently and unfairly maligned prose. Also, Strange Horizons's fund drive is ongoing.)

Even as Roberts chides himself for taking Doctor Who too seriously, Edward Champion is laying into Russell T. Davies for not taking the show seriously enough:
Russell T. Davies, you fucking wanker. How could you do this? How could you destroy a sizable chunk of the human population in the present day? How could you write scenes in which characters effortlessly infiltrate major executive scenarios? How could you write something so adverse to the show’s quirkiness, wit, intelligence, and charm?
I find myself, unsurprisingly, somewhere in the middle. I've always known that Ed judges Doctor Who more harshly than I do, and in spite of my problems with the third season--which, in my opinion, had a soporific beginning, an exceptionally strong middle, and a schizophrenic, yet ultimately enjoyable ending--I certainly wouldn't go so far as to call it, as he does, 'flamboyant tripe.' On the other hand, I'm wary of the 'but it's for kids!' defense. It seems to me that Roberts is equating complexity with quality. Even at its finest, Doctor Who has never been complex, but then neither are many of the finest and best-written works of entertainment out there. Roberts is right to conclude that we need to judge the show on its own terms, which generally means not looking for T.S. Eliot references, but by the same token there are universal yardsticks that apply to all fiction. The issue isn't what Davies is trying to do--it's perfectly valid for him to aim for nothing more than entertainment--it's whether he does it well.

The scene in "Last of the Timelords," in which the Doctor is restored through the hopes and prayers of all humanity, is a perfect demonstration of this distinction. The core concept is actually quite strong. Having established the existence of a telepathic field surrounding the planet, through which the Master has manipulated humanity, it is, I think, internally consistent to argue that humanity can turn that link around. It ties into some of the show's core themes and some of the Doctor's most cherished beliefs--celebrating humanity's potential, embracing unity and rejecting violence. It's the execution that is flawed--the floating Tinker Bell Jesus Doctor, which fails on every level, denying the audience the catharsis they've been expecting, throwing us out of the story and leaving us frustrated. Rather than calling adult fans jaded, isn't it more accurate to say that with our greater experience comes greater discernment, the ability to tell good writing from bad?

That said, I don't think we should lose sight of the important point Roberts raises in his review. Davies and his staff are writing a show for kids, and as viewers and reviewers, we need to figure out what that means before we can try to enjoy or critique the show. We need to work out where to cut the writers slack and where to hold them to universal standards (just for the record: gigantic plot holes such as Jack shooting up the paradox machine when we had previously been told that to do so might destroy the universe fall in the second category). It might not be fair to watch Doctor Who as rigorously as Ed Champion seems to be, but neither is it fair to dismiss the show--its accomplishments as well as its failures--as nothing more than kids' stuff.


Brendan Moody said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
'Writing for kids' is not an excuse for rubbish plotting or stupid jokes. My ten-year-old daughter, who is Doctor-Who obsessed and clearly the target audience for the show, thought Blink was terrifying and wonderful. She asked who wrote it; she asked what else Moffat had written; and then concluded, smugly, 'Well, he's the best writer then, isn't he?' Right.
Fred said…
I think somewhere in the middle is a perfectly legitimate place to be. In England, the show is very much considered a kid's show, and so some expectations are just foolish. But you're absolutely right that there's still a difference between good children's programming and bad.

I wasn't really bothered by the things that troubled you in this episode (or season) -- and I certainly wasn't as troubled by them as Ed.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Alison. If we accept the "writing for kids" defense, then dos that mean that we should likewise accept the "writing for imbeciles" defense that inexplicably perpetuates the career of Akiva Goldman?
Mike Taylor said…
Maybe in a year or two when I look back at The Sound Of Drums and The Last Of The Time Lords, I will feel more forgiving than I do now. But coming at the end of a season that had just given us arguably the best Dr. Who story ever (Human Nature/Family of Blood), immediately followed by the best single episode ever (Blink) and then a very strong opening to the three-parter (Utopia), the last two episodes were horribly weak in oh so many ways. They were a terrible let-down by the standards that the very same series had established for itself.

What's become apparent to me is that while Davies is very good at the big-picture overall plot arcs, and also at some individual little details (e.g. the Doctor's being so distraught at the Master's death), he just doesn't have the ability to write good episodes. The difference in quality between the writing of Moffat and Cornell, on one hand, and that of Davies, on the other, is getting embarrassing.

This is despite the fact that some of my favourite individual moments have come in Davies episodes: for example, the way Chris Ecclestone's hologram in the TARDIS turns and looks straight at Rose in The Parting Of The Ways; and David Tennant's persuading Torchwood not to run the Ghost Shift by doing absolutely nothing at all. I hope Davies can still find ways to get these inspired moments into the show. But I hope he can do it without writing episodes himself. Or at least without writing more than one or two per series, which is maybe the limit that anyone can do and expect to keep the quality up.

So for me the single factor that the continuing quality of New Who hangs on is whether Davies has the humility to restrict his contribution to where he is strong, and not to feel that he has to do everything.
Anonymous said…
I do dislike the "writing for kids" defense, because among other things it encourages a tone of voice when *talking* to children that is very annoying. And it does cloud the issue of quality, and even that of complexity. It's an issue that crops up with all children's literature that might be criticised, and "it's for children!" has become a not-very-steady crutch.

That said, I've never seen a single episode of Doctor Who. Not one. (They never aired in India, and in the UK I have no tv.) But I like reading what peoples think about Doctor Who. Which means I need to watch it.
Anonymous said…
Since way back at Boom Town, I've been of the opinion that Davies' episodes tend to be a whole lot of good ideas that deserve better than to end up in the incoherent mishmash he makes of his plots. The overall effect is of a poorly-made necklace - beautiful stones in an ugly setting. The close of Season 3 was no exception.

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