Sunday, April 13, 2008

Doctor Who 2008, Week Two: The Past is Another Country… It's Full of Bloody Tourists

Now I'm imagining Jon Pertwee shouting: "We're on Spiridon… and it's Icecano Day!"

However, on to this week's grand philosophical question: why do Doctor Who people have such a problem with big-H, fully-contextualised, Simon Schama-flavoured History? This has been an issue since the stone age, or at least since "The Tribe of Gum", but it's a problem that's taken various forms over the decades. The Hartnell-era outings with periwigs and lumbering henchmen are now thought of as "straight" historicals, in the sense that they don't involve history being molested by crashed spaceships or werewolves (or, indeed, anything more threatening than Barbara Wright in Aztecwear), yet they were nothing of the sort. When I said that early Doctor Who was the TV branch of children's literature, I meant something specific: most of the '60s historicals aren't based on bona fide history at all, but on the kind of historical adventure stories that children were expected to read in those days, or at least recognise.

Hence, "The Highlanders" has more to do with Robert Louis Stevenson than the actual events of Culloden; "The Smugglers" is Moonfleet with the novel inclusion of a heroine in a miniskirt; "The Reign of Terror" features characters straight from the pages of The Scarlet Pimpernel and A Tale of Two Cities, as if it's a test-run for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and dear God, wouldn't that be a better model for the twenty-first-century historical than the one we're stuck with); "The Crusade" presents itself as a Shakespearean history play with extra flesh-eating ants, as if it's a prelude to King John; even "The Massacre", the supposedly serious one, hangs on an Identical Twin gimmick just like the one in The Prisoner of Zenda.

This is no bad thing, of course. We've got to remember that in the 1960s, literature was the second-best way of engaging with the furthest reaches of the planet: the best way, actually going there, was unthinkable for 90% of the population. More importantly, though, it was the only credible way of engaging with the past (it still is). "Marco Polo" may not actually tell you much about thirteenth-century China, especially now we know that the real Marco Polo made it all up, but it does encourage the sprogs in the audience to recognise and understand the written sources. This is why Tat Wood has wrongly-but-tellingly tried to argue that Doctor Who is, in its naked state, "about" literacy. Here in 2008, where literacy only stretches as far as Harry Potter and taking in interest in the furthest reaches of the planet is actively discouraged by most of the people who run the media, this doesn't just sound old-fashioned but actively antisocial. What, kids were expected to read in those days? Euuuurrrrr! What was the matter with them, didn't they have Sky Plus?

No, let's wind it back a little, because we should consider what happened in the 1980s. The deliberate blurring of the line between "history" and "classic fiction" in '60s Doctor Who was perfectly sound, and yet it had a rather odd effect on the minds of those who grew up in its wake. You can rely on the fact that Doctor Who fans of any era will know more about history (or at the very least, European history) than the average citizen, for obvious reasons, but they can have a certain… shall we call it a lack of perspective? We all rationally know that the Siege of Troy didn't really pan out that way, or even the way Homer claimed, yet if the baseline of your knowledge is "The Myth Makers" then it's bound to affect your view of the era. An interesting case-study here is Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration, the twentieth-anniversary volume that filled so many Christmas stockings in 1983, when fan-guides were still a rarity. It's interesting for two reasons. Reason One: the book details the history of Doctor Who itself, but gets it wrong in exactly the same way that Doctor Who stories get "real" history wrong, giving us a survey of the programme's past that's based more on mythology than fact. Many of the great misconceptions about the Mark One series originated with this volume, which is why we still have to remind ourselves that "An Unearthly Child" wasn't broadcast late because of the Kennedy assassination, that "The Gunfighters" wasn't the lowest-rated story ever… and so on.

But Reason Two is more interesting: Peter Haining went on to become a proper historian, or at least, that's what he thought. In the 1990s, he gave us Sweeney Todd: The Real Story of the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in which he claimed that Todd was an honest-to-goodness historical figure rather than the legendary bogeyman we tend to assume. The book was reprinted shortly before Haining's death in 2007, to cash in on the Tim Burton movie, and yet it'[s got to be said… for a volume that sits in the "History" section of W. H. Smith's, it's only fractionally more believable than "The Gunfighters". Haining wilfully fudges the line between fiction and actuality by passing off nineteenth-century romances as if they were primary historical documents, then presents us with a complete biography of the "real" Sweeney Todd without bothering to tell us where he got the information from or how much of it he's making up for the sake of effect. And yet astonishingly, many people have managed to take this work seriously. The most obvious cheap-shot would be to say that Haining's standard of research didn't improve after 1983, although the bigger issue is that you really have to expect someone with a background in Doctor Who to do this. Sweeney Todd never actually existed, any more than Nero actually burned down Rome or Barrass actually planned the rise of Napoleon in the backroom of a French pub, but if you've seen the Great Fire of London being started by Tereleptils then anything goes.

Back to the present, a time in which the past is very much in the past. At its very worst, historical drama in the BBC's "Golden Age" meant period flouncing-around and character actors giving it their all. Now the best you can hope for is period flouncing-around with occasional bouts of shagging. The Tudors is the most obvious example of the modern style of antiquity, a version of the past that borders on the "Al Pacino is Arthur Scargill" Hollywood model, with token nipples every twelve minutes. (More amusingly, the same screenwriter gave us Elizabeth, in which the Virgin Queen gets a good seeing-to at least twice during the course of the movie. I look forward to a "controversial" new adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, in which Anne is captured by the Nazis after they hear her banging in the attic [see footnote].) What's notable about recent Doctor Who is that it's basically following the same pattern, except with monsters instead of sex. However, without a proper context, monsters are only marginally more interesting.

We might have guessed that with the modern-day series giving so much of itself over to the Cult of Celebrity, "historical" stories would largely involve semi-famous people of today playing famous people of yesteryear. "The Unquiet Dead" laid the ground-rules for this, although the real test-case is obviously "The Shakespeare Code", just because its complete lack of interest in actual history is so utterly - dear Christ, I didn't spot the pun until it was too late - shameless. It's always tempting to point out the historical glitches in this kind of script, given how many there are (my favourite is the thought that although Shakespeare meets Martha after writing Love's Labours Lost and spends much of his time trying to get into her anachronistic pants, just one year later he publishes Much Ado About Nothing, in which Claudio's line about wanting to marry his betrothed "were she an Ethiope" demonstrates that Shakespeare considered black woman to be the ugliest creatures on Earth… does Martha go back to 1599 at some stage, and really, really piss him off?). But the nit-picking is pointless, because "Code" doesn't give a rat's codpiece about history. Clearly it doesn't care about historical fact, hence the depiction of Shakespeare as a member of Oasis, but nor do the story or its themes have anything to do with what was actually going on in Elizabethan England. History is there to be scenery for monsters. End of.

This borne in mind, the modern Doctor Who historical can be seen as a kind of time-tourism. History plays up all its regional clichés in order to attract the casual traveller, without doing anything that might scare the crowds away or - God forbid - tell them anything they didn't already know. The ending of "The Shakespeare Code" is quite gratuitous in this. You can almost hear the American tourists standing in the balcony, saying: "Gee, look, honey! Doctor Who and William Shakespeare are fighting some monsters, using a spell from Harry Potter. Have you got the camera?" Plus ca change: the more things change, the more we re-write the past in order to make it look as if they don't. Shakespeare is like a rock star (although, perhaps mercifully, there's no attempt to create a running gag by having him say "what the Chaucer was that?" at any stage), while the teenagers of ancient Pompeii act just like teenagers from a BT commercial.

Ah yes, "The Fires of Pompeii". Given its pedigree, we wouldn't have expected anything less rudimentary than the standard "period costume + alien invasion = enough to keep the Radio Times happy" formula: James Moran's episode of Torchwood may not have been the series' worst (I was about to say "Sweet Jesus, can you imagine an episode of Doctor Who written by the author of the worst episode of Torchwood?", but then I remembered that there already is one and that I've been trying to block it out of my consciousness), yet it is among the most pointless, and that's saying something. If we'd seen the Confidential before the actual episode, then we might have feared the worst, with Phil Collinson repeating the "Voyage of the Damned" mistake of assuming that Big Effects are enough to justify an episode's existence. What we actually get is therefore a surprise, not only because it's half-competent, but because - perhaps uniquely - it doesn't follow any one single model. Moran's Radio Times interview makes him sound as if he was in a state of borderline schizophrenia when he wrote it, aiming at something that would entertain his fan-self and his ten-year-old self and a modern audience of eight-million, which explains a lot. This is almost a Historical Doctor Who compilation tape, a demonstration of all the things that pretend-period-drama has tried to do over the years.

Ergo, we have a Roman nuclear family, halfway between the 1960s version of history ("everything before the present day was a test-run for the perfect consumer society", the thinking behind both The Flintstones and "The Time Meddler") and the 2000s version ("everything before the present day was a test-run for the perfect consumer society, except that the audience in the '60s knew it was a joke, whereas we're actually daft enough to believe it"). We have expensive-looking street-scenes featuring the creepy one out of Dead Ringers, like a cross between the Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum stylings of "The Romans" (vintage 1966) and the big-budget tele-gloss of Rome (vintage 2006, a very poor year). But we also get nods and apologies to the versions of history that only Doctor Who can do. The weakest, drabbest part of the affair is the standard-issue plot about This Week's Aliens trying to colonise Earth, complete with standard-issue drivelling rant about an "empire", and yet… the script treats this almost as an afterthought, so the scary priestesses become part of the scenery. Naturally, we also have the inevitable CGI footsoldier-beast, which at least has some elan this time around: if the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings looked like an end-of-level monster from Tomb Raider, then this looks more like Ray Harryhausen doing the effects for "Transformers: The Rock Years".

But most obviously, there's the same smack of tragedy that drove "The Massacre", with many of the same moral arguments being waved around in front of our noses. In fact, if anything, the greatest flaw in "The Fires of Pompeii" is that it doesn't go far enough in this direction. And "direction" may be the key word here, because there are moments when it seems as if Colin Teague is just trying to get the human horror out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible, so he can focus on what he considers to be the real star of the show (i.e. the big exploding mountain). Even given Catherine Tate's grotesque attempts at tragedy, as she belts out lines about death, suffering and responsibility like a six-year-old having a strop, the scene in which Donna tries to tell the locals to run for the hills - and specifically, the moment when she realises it's pointless - should pack more of a punch than the eruption itself. Instead, Teague directs it as if it's an action sequence, part of the catastrophe montage rather than the point of the whole story. No wonder this all seems like such an odd mix. Even when the writer decides to do "serious", the programme thinks we'll feel cheated if we don't see people waving their arms around and panicking.

On balance, you'd have to say that it works more often than it doesn't, simply because there's so much going on in this 48-minute toga-party that it's bound to get something right every couple of scenes. It's not great, of course: historical Doctor Who won't be great until we see a story that's got the nerve to absolutely, unapologetically do one intelligent thing and do it well. Yet the consensus, at least among old-school fans who want to sound as if they know all about modern television, is that a historical has to be something like this; that there must be a CGI monster and a possessed villain in order to keep the punters watching; that any broader view of the programme is inconceivable in today's consumer-driven, showbiz-addled, idealism-free environment. All these things are quite untrue, but then, we should know that instinctively. It could be - should be - the pure human drama that drives an episode like this, and to assume we're only watching it because of the big bang at the end is rather insulting. Especially when you realise that if you take away the effects, then this is actually a rather small story, about the fate of a single family more than the grand scope of humanity.

The truth is that even if the audience is no longer capable of caring about big-H History, it is capable of caring about people, at least when the screen isn't clogged up with computer graphics. In a world where special effects are omnipresent and there are multi-million-pound spectaculars in every ad-break, even a monster-free remake of "The Massacre" would make more of an impression than the sight of several dozen screaming extras being showered with tissue-paper ash.

Footnote. There was a sketch about this "nipples and sexy assassins" version of historical drama on BBC7's Tilt this week. I mention this purely because I was the one responsible for it, although the version I wrote wasn't exactly the version they broadcast. The scripted line parodying The Tudors was: "Yes! Yes! Come on my tits and dissolve the monasteries!"