Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Microreview (TV)- Doctor Who: The Unearthly Child (1963); An Adventurein Space and Time (2013); The Day of the Doctor (2013).

On the 23rd of November, 1963, as British families gathered in the front of their television sets, watching in shock and disbelief at the news of Kennedy's assassination the day before, a new programme aired on the BBC. A then-startling psychedelic image, caused by a camera filming itself in a monitor, slowly revealed lettering that formed into the title of what has since become the longest-running science fiction show of all time. Now, half a century later, a very different BBC, with a global reach and American co-funding, has been celebrating this event with pride and not a little smugness. Despite this self-satisfied air to the publicity and some of the supportive programming, the three central broadcasts I will discuss here all managed to be individually wonderful and collectively really rather impressive.

'Doctor Who' was not destined to be the success it's become. It began as an attempt by a charismatic Canadian producer, poached from rival channel ITV, to drum up bigger Saturday night audiences between the end of the football results and the evening variety shows. Believing in science fiction's popularity with children, but wanting, as the BBC still did back then, to also educate, he envisaged a show with a cranky old character who could travel through space and time, resulting in both fun adventures and a little science and history tuition.

As an experiment of a project, it was relegated to a novice female producer and a young Indian-background director (both hugely unusual hires at the time) and shot in the smallest, least well-maintained studio. It was reshot after bosses complained about the result, and as said earlier, the JFK murder distracted from its launch, resulting in its being repeated the following week. Convinced they had a flop on their hands, all were surprised when suddenly it began to capture the minds and hearts of children around the country.

This tale has been dramatised by the Sherlock and Who writer and actor (and League of Gentleman legend) Mark Gatiss as 'An Adventure In Time and Space'. It succeeds admirably, with keen attention to period detail, the evident (self?) love of the series, the strong cast (including Brian Coz as the afore-mentioned producer and a revelatory David Bradley as William Hartnell, the cranky and difficult original star), and painstaking recreation of the scenes, shot for shot, that are in the original episodes. There is also a transcendent moment at the very end which put a lump in my throat, which I won't spoil but it wonderfully linked the history of the series together in one surprising shot. There remains something self-congratulatory about proceedings, and the regular winks to our knowledge of events grates occasionally - and I'm sure my job in TV makes me fonder of depictions of its processes than others -  but it immediately made me want to watch that very first episode. BBC4, the home of highbrow and low-action, obliged straight after the drama ended on BBC2.

And here was the finished article of all that behind-the-scenes drama. Despite growing up with the series, I was an early 80s fan and had never watched these early black-and-white series. What I expected was there - stilted acting, prim accents, shaky sets and limited budgets. 

What I didn't was a joy - the edginess, the eccentricity, the humour and the silliness of the episodes I knew were all there from the start, albeit in a very old school English fashion with all speaking in brittle Received Pronuciation. The single best thing was also the moment I loved as a kid - the title sequence. Here, as I mentioned earlier, was the truly rebellious imagery, along with an electronic score and effects soundtrack that was the wacky love-child of the Beeb's sound dept; as shown in the Adventures drama, keys were scraped on piano strings to make the sound of the Tardis, the Doctor's vehicle.

Hartnell was a choice for the times. Paternal and wrought with gravitas, he is as far from the current (and youngest) actor to take the role as it is possible to be (until the Bieber stage musical). Matt Smith, however, is the real star of the celebrations. The heir to David Tennant's mastery of the modern throne, Smith enjoys the same appreciation and respect as Tennant and Eccelstone, but Ecclestone never seized the fun and celebrity of the part the way Tennant and Smith have. And here was young master Matt, grinning gamely and effusing emotionally, over every broadcast moment they could seize, from behind-the-scenes specials to live studio events, to the films themselves. Despite the fairly public knowledge that it is a tough show to work on with huge demands for a relatively tight budget (Agents of Shield it ain't) - Ecclestone even claimed he left due the unpleasant work environment - it is a crown in British TV production, an outright success that is near critic-proof. The fact that the anniversary episode was shown in 94 countries simultaneously and in cinemas in glorious 3D shows how beloved it is.

And the new episode itself, The Day of the Doctor, worked seemingly effortlessly. It would be pointless to go through the pretzel plotline here. Merely google-searching 'Doctor W..' will get anyone what they need to know and I'm not about to be a David to the Goliath of write-ups and blogs about this programme. I loved what I loved in it, and was bored by what dragged for me, and annoyed by what cherish quirks grated - for me. I thought John Hurt was indulged and underwritten. I thought the music was lazy at times. The aliens were terrible. I didn't get to watch with 3D specs. But I'll join the general chorus in saying it worked, it was fun, it had more plotholes that a novel written on Swiss cheese, it was amusing and touching.

Matt Smith was especially good, and as it was he who got me interested in the series as an adult, having always liked his work, and I prefer his goofy limbs and stern mania to Tennant's bolshy mate with a heart of gold trick. To be fair, Doctor David set the scene for Doctor Matt, bringing a sadness behind the glee and a tragedy behind the silly monster fights. And Smith, and Stephen Moffat- the 'showrunner' as you may say- have run with it. So, here, as with Adventure, there is a final moment so sweet, so cheeky and yet so respectful, that any fan or geeky follower of any genre would recognise a true love of the programme, a genuine desire to be a part of its history, that is so much more than the sly winks of Weedon or the nods of Abrahms.

One of the real pleasure of being a modern Who fan - and I am a late one, slow to join my friends in enjoying the revived series (don't let the 50 year hype fool you- the series all but paused between 1989 and 2005 due to falling fans) - is this mesh of old and new, of carefree modern special effects highs jinks and that rare beast in TV: lineage. Carson clips with Letterman watching. Attenborough seeing his younger self with the gorillas. An early news report from David Frost or Larry King. Such tangible reaches back to the past are rare, and to be treasured. And Smith smiling in wonder and respect at one of his forebears is for me one of the tv moments of the year. 

Will Doctor Who will be around in 2063? In a way it's an idea that can live for ever (as the protagonist pretty much can), but this blast of affectionate nostalgia over the last few weeks has made it clear how rooted in the post-war, quaint world of police phone boxes it remains, and how important the memories of parents watching as children are to the popularity of it. Whether as that world fades away and as those memories die off the audience will dwindle too, it will be interesting to see. But I'm glad something of that quirky post-war sci-fi charm remains, for now at least.