British newspaper columnist AA Gill famously described the Welsh people as “stunted, small-minded, ugly pugnacious trolls,” following up with the assessment that nothing of any merit ever emerged from Wales. But Gill appears to have completely missed the singularly best thing to come out of that vowel-challenged land – Doctor Who. That such great TV can be produced by the BBC in what one would assume to be a production backwater obsessed with male choirs and coal is nothing short of a triumph.
But while the first three series of Doctor Who were eminently watchable, there was always something unfortunate that would pop-up to spoil my viewing pleasure.
Usually, it was that tosser Captain Jack. I don’t know whether he’s a sop for American audiences or whether the BBC’s gay lobby demanded a friend-of-Dorothy be allowed into the TARDIS, but please keep the annoying twat out of the show in future.
Then there’s the sonic screwdriver. Once upon a time it simply screwed or unscrewed things, but it’s now evolved into a fully fledged Harry Potter-esque magic wand, capable of doing anything that the scriptwriters dream up. This is annoying as it smacks of merchandising people being involved in the scripting process with a view to selling toys. “Hey Terry, can we have the Doctor using the screwdriver to: cut a rope/incapacitate an alien/create a force field/get Billy Piper’s rocks off? And can the props department put more lights in it? We’ve got a factory in Guangdong province ready to churn out 2 million of ’em for Christmas.”
Worse were the embarrassing plot resolutions usually trotted out in the last 45 seconds of each episode. “Wait! If we just reverse the time vortex polarity it will send them back to their own universe!” Usually this involved fiddling with a few wires and then ramming two cables together in a shower of sparks.
But what always kept me tuning in were the storylines, which were brilliant. For a sample, check out “Blink” (episode 10, series 3). It featured quantum creatures that only existed when they weren’t being observed. An episode that was scary as all hell with the beneficial side-effect that it probably made kids interested in physics.
Storylines make or break sci-fi and that’s why the Americans are so crap at sci-fi. Witness the banality of Battlestar Galactica. It seems to use a script from a daytime soap with some spaceships and robots dropped in. It’s dire and annoying; particularly the sheets of paper with the corners cut off. Memo to Battlestar Galactica props dept: an octagonal piece of paper isn’t futuristic, it’s Welsh.
Paradoxically, in Doctor Who, props don’t seem to matter too much. An old carousel slide projector in a spaceship is completely acceptable for some reason. Crappy old BBC props get reused all the time and, surprisingly, it works.
But perhaps most importantly, in American sci-fi the actors actually try to deliver an authentic dramatic performance. Pullleasse. American performers don’t understand the subtleties and nuances of overacting. When Americans overact, they overact AT you. When Brits overact, they overact WITH you. This is perhaps the biggest part of Doctor Who’s appeal when compared to American sci-fi crap.
So, cracking storylines and agreeably histrionic performances. What else has series four (yet to be screened in Australia) got? How about that annoying cow Catherine Tate?
Whoever cast Catherine Tate as Donna Noble, the Doctor’s assistant, has big cojones. She sure as hell ain’t in the mode of semi-shaggable Billy Piper or the slinky-but-tightly-wound black chick whose name I’ve forgotten. Jesus, Sarah Jane Smith (who features in this series) is STILL more shaggable than Tate. Tate doesn’t even register a tremor on the MILF scale. Who knows? Maybe she was runner-up in a Miss Wales pageant.
Anyway, despite my misgivings about Tate, the scriptwriters do a good job of keeping a lid on her. They let her out of the box (metaphorically speaking, not the TARDIS) occasionally and she does turn in some good scenes – usually involving the vast swathe of luggage and personal effects she brought on-board the TARDIS. Series four also has plenty of appearances by the Doctor’s past assistants/companions which helpfully dilutes the Tate factor a bit.
The best episodes of series four are at the end, specifically Episode 8 (“Silence in the Library“) onwards. The creatures are creepy but even more scary is the beautifully written dialogue, where simple exchanges can engross and send shivers up your spine (Episode 10 – “Midnight“). Spooky stuff which is often more like theatre than TV.
I also particularly liked the way the writers are now creating characters that challenge our basic assumptions about the Doctor. The Doctor can always talk some sense into a panicked crowd, right? Wrong. The crowd turn on him and want to throw him out of the airlock in one episode. Has he got a wife? It would seem so and she knows the Doctor’s REAL NAME! And he has a daughter! People always trust the Doctor, right? Wrong! And even the Doctor doesn’t seem to know what’s creating the vast network of interconnected cosmological creepiness surrounding Tate’s character Donna Noble.
And to cap it all off, there’s DAVROS!!! And it seems that we haven’t heard the last of Bad Wolf! Shit, people, check this out when it screens here.
(Thanks to Pete for the advance copy)