Doctor Who And The Long Game

If you're looking for my opinions on 'New' Doctor Who, they start right here!

At the last minute, I took the decision to drop a series of reviews of 'New' Doctor Who from Not On Your Telly, an anthology of some of my writing about the more neglected corners of archive television, due to them not really fitting the Neglected Archive TV 'theme' of the book, and also because they didn't really read well in strict chronological sequence and indeed tended to cover the same points in places. Again and again and again. Also, most of them are already online in various places (albeit usually not as they were originally written, but we'll come back to that in later instalments) - not to mention later heavily reworked into a gigantic overview of the entire Russell T. Davies era which you can now find in my book Well At Least It's Free - and so now they'll be showing up here again in brand spanking new 'Director's Cut' form. Well, sort of. Anyway, the very first 'new' episode I reviewed - although not actually the first review I wrote - was of infamous Series 1 clunker The Long Game.

In a lot of ways this was the most difficult one to write and indeed isn't really very good as a review; I still hadn't really made my mind up over how I felt about the new series as a whole, as at that point it still seemed like a wild contrast of highs and lows, and in addition I'd somehow managed to draw not so much the short straw as the straw that actually defied the laws of physics and folded dimensionally back in on itself as I ended up with the one episode in the whole of the first run that was so bland that there was virtually nothing to say about it at all (in fact, someone else had earlier asked me to review an episode purely because of my dissenting-ish voice, which they had felt would make a nice contrast to the rampant Who-mania if I was to tear into a substandard episode, but unfortunately for everyone concerned it turned out to be The Empty Child so we might just forget about that one). Even now, The Long Game is the one that people forget about altogether when they're trying to remember all of the episodes in order. Anyway, I can't pretend that this - originally titled Christopher Eccleston's Big Night in a joke about three people will get - is one of my more incisive or interesting reviews, and I ended up disagreeing with about sixty percent of it within a couple weeks anyway, but in the name of completeness here it is anyway.

The key to properly appreciating Doctor Who is to be able to laugh at it at the same time as enjoying it. To regard it with a healthy sense of absurdity, sarcasm and ridiculousness while also being able to understand what makes it great. Of course this isn't unique to this particular hobby and interest, but when you're dealing with something that attracts more than its fair share (or indeed, more than anyone's fair share) of humourless bores, it becomes more important than ever. Without that ability to find amusement in frantically padding Cybermen, you might as well just give up and join the massed ranks of tedious lunatics who spend their time writing angry letters about the likelihood of a BBC programme being introduced by the letters 'B', 'B' and 'C' and thereby ruining their enjoyment completely, or who fret over 'contentious' story titles like 'Dr Who And Tanni', 'Beyond The Sun', 'Enemy Within' and 'Ant Jones On Saturday Superstore' rather than simply chortling at them.

This was, and still is, the level on which most hardened devotees (as opposed to casual viewers) enjoy Doctor Who. Times have changed, though, since the original series bowed out with Sylvester McCoy walking into a tree and saying "the tea's going cold, aye, unless it's not", and the television industry is no longer the same place that would happily allow nonsensical cliffhangers about clambering over ice ledges with the aid of an umbrella for no readily obvious reason to go out on air unchecked. Everything about the new series is streamlined, stage-managed and slickly presented, from casting all the way down to merchandising. There are no jarringly incongruous lines of dialogue, no baffling editing decisions, no ludicrous character names, no endearingly tuneless pieces of incidental music, and no ridiculously miscast extras. There isn't even any Tardis bubble bath that promises to help "transport yourself to another dimension". It's all gloss and thematic seamlessness, and every bit of 'amusement' has been scientifically created to fit the bill. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is difficult to say; certainly there is a much higher overall standard of production, but at the expense of the endearing, honest and uncynical qualities.

That said, maybe this is all just a bit Shock Of The New, and maybe over time we'll all get used to it and see that, lack of stylistic cohesion with The Horns Of Nimon aside, it's actually a very well made show and the mere fact that it's on TV on Saturday nights is an almighty achievement in itself. That said, anyone who is bearing that in mind would do well to avoid aligning themselves with the excitement-crazed cheerleaders who have come to the fore over the last couple of weeks, who see it as their duty to sing the praises of the new series to the skies. It's not good enough to simply say that they liked an episode of the new series; it has to be lauded with ludicrously disproportionate praise that credits it with single-handedly reviving the aliling genre of small-screen drama, heralds it as the most important piece of television made since Stainless Steel And The Star Spies, and most infuriatingly of all declares it to be infinitely superior to anything that was produced under the banner of Doctor Who between 1979 and 1989 (as some predicted a while back, Paul McGann has seemingly been airbrushed from history). Although sadly the opinions of 1986 Doctor Who Magazine competition winner Randeep Kooner have gone unrecorded on this occasion; presumably he liked the music.

Anyway, in considering an instalment of the new series, it's important to try and remove it as far as possible from any preconceptions based on likes or dislikes of the old series, and within reason consider it on its own merits, but at the same time not shy away from subjecting it to the same level of critical dissection that has always been applied to the show by lovers and haters alike. To balance the the incisive and prejudice-loaded perspective of a fan with the face-value appreciation shown by the average viewer. Basically, in a sense, the review needs to be over there, and over here at the same time. And as Leela would rightly point out, that's silly.

The Long Game is the seventh episode of the first series (can we call time on this 'season' nonsense for good, please) of the revived Doctor Who. It was written by Russell T. Davies, and guest stars Simon Pegg as 'The Editor'; if the pre-transmission excitement was anything to go by, his casting was the main selling point. This is quite understandable, as Pegg is not only a bankable television star in the eyes of the general public, but also likely to lend some much-needed credibility in the eyes of those pesky fans, owing to his own grounding in sci-fi fandom and constant namedropping of various culty artefacts, though this is somewhat balanced out by his habit of throwing in comical shocked-face 'reaction' expressions which would have looked stagey and over-the-top in an episode of Galloping Galaxies!. That said, though hardly exactly giving the performance of his career as a futuristic managerial type dressed as an emaciated Derren Brown, his performance was, on this occasion, laudably restrained; no 'shocked' face reactions, no That Voice, and no attempt to lightly garnish his character and performance with a subtle veneer of hipness.

That's where The Long Game got it absolutely right. Unfortunately, none of the rest of it got anything right, or indeed anything wrong. It was just there. A weak and interest-deficient script where nothing happens until the last seven or so minutes, the two leads looking like they're in need of a William Hartnell-style mid-series holiday, events progressing without any proper explanation and leaving the viewer playing catchup, intrusive dialogue-swamping incidental music, a 'button that does this' solution frustratingly popping up yet again, and a plot revolving around the deeply irritating Adam, a 'companion' in a world where Katarina and Sara Kingdom were in it for the long haul. There's no getting away from the fact that it's a massive comedown after what's been seen so far, but they've attempted to cover for this by slathering it in so much 'production' that nobody notices.Well, you won't fool anyone who remembers that ice ledge cliffhanger.

By the way, if anyone has a copy of Stainless Steel And The Star Spies...

You can find my huge piece on the entire Russell T. Davies era of Doctor Who in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook hereStainless Steel And The Star Spies is now available on DVD. It's indescribably odd.