This is the first of a series of reviews of entirely randomly selected episodes of Doctor Who broadcast between 2005 and 2011. They were originally written for fanzines and fan websites, and at one point were on the shortlist for Not On Your Telly, a book collecting some of my writing about the more neglected corners of television history. After deciding it would be a bit of a stretch to call post-2005 Doctor Who ‘neglected’, they were cut from the final running order and the likes of Fist Of Fun, R.3 and The 8:15 From Manchester came to dominate the finished book instead. That said, Doctor Who fans were still well-served by Not On Your Telly, as it included a feature on a BBC Light Programme film show’s coverage of the second Peter Cushing Dalek Movie, lengthy pieces on roundly ignored stories The Space Pirates and The Android Invasion, and an extensive history of the BBC’s ‘Sunday Classics’ productions overseen by former showrunners Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks; often these literary adaptations were essentially Doctor Who in all but name, featuring former cast members, scriptwriters, directors and musicians, and even an all too familiar production style. If you’re interested – which I hope by now you would be – you can get Not On Your Telly in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Infamous first series batting-average-lowerer The Long Game wasn’t actually the first episode of the revived Doctor Who that I reviewed. It’s a long story but I was asked by the editor of an occasionally acerbic television review site to come up with a negative take on the series to counterbalance the often embarrassingly effusive praise coming from pretty much everywhere else. Looking back it seems very strange that I agreed to do this, but at that point I still hadn’t been convinced by the new direction and also was a bit more keen on intentionally rocking the boat than perhaps I am now. Anyway, the episode that I’d been assigned turned out to be The Empty Child, so you can probably work out for yourself how that turned out; if you can’t, it was a botched and muddly affair that convinced nobody and impressed nobody. Reading it back now, it was so confused, boring and forced that I have opted not to include it here even for the sake of completeness. Please be advised that if you take it upon yourself to republish it in the hope of ‘impressing’ me, you will do the exact opposite and I may even arrange for some piranha fish who are especially keen on Looks Unfamiliar to pay you a visit.
So instead, we’re starting with The Long Game; I hadn’t particularly enjoyed it, but I was understandably keen to write a review that was entirely my own take and a genuine reaction and – high on the excitement of how good that first series as a whole was – I approached the whole process with an enthusiasm I can still recall vividly now. Even if it did mean having to watch it again when I’d barely made it all the way through in the first place. Incidentally this review was originally called Christopher Eccleston’s Big Night, in a subtle and sophisticated joke about ITV’s late seventies high-concept overambitious Saturday Night variety show Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night, which precisely nobody got. On a lighter note, when I republished this on my previous website, it opened with an image from the episode of Billie Piper roaring her head off laughing, which, like or dislike individual episodes, is about as definitive a representation of the sheer fun and enthusiasm of that first series as you’re likely to find. This time, though, I’m going to be rewatching the episodes in tandem with republishing the reviews. Will I enjoy The Long Game any more this time around? Wait and see…
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 blowhards 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 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 television 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 ailing 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. 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 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 he is 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 cult 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 lapses into his annoying ironic ‘quote marks’ 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, events progress without any proper explanation and leave the viewer playing catchup, intrusive dialogue-swamping incidental music plays throughout, and the plot revolves 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…
Some things that may need explaining…
The reference to fans arguing about whether the ‘BBC’ logo should appear over the opening shot on transmission – this was a genuine and furious forum debate that I’m still baffled by. What possible difference could it make to anyone, and why should Doctor Who be any different to any other BBC programme? This ludicrous display of entitlement and lack of sense of proportion continued to annoy me long past the point where it should have, to the extent that I actually found the trailer strap with an animated Graham Norton over the cliffhanger of The Time Of Angels and the ensuing furore amusing rather than angering. Incidentally, if you’re watching on the iPlayer, the current series has the ‘B’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ in the top left corner throughout, and nobody much seems to care.
‘Doctor Who And Tanni’ was the commissioned title for the script that became The Rescue and there are those that maintain it should still be used as the correct title, even though ‘Tanni’ had become Vicki by the time that it was made. ‘Beyond The Sun’ was assigned to an unused early script though again there are those that maintain it’s a correct title, they just don’t seem to be entirely sure what of. ‘Enemy Within’ was a working title for more scripts than I can be bothered going and counting up. ‘Ant Jones On Saturday Superstore’ refers to the actor who played said ‘trendy’ character in Grange Hill appearing on a BBC children’s magazine show and is just me being flippant.
Stainless Steel And The Star Spies was a very strange pilot film made by Euston Films for ITV in 1981, depicting the comedy sci-fi adventures of puppet robot aliens designed by cartoonist Gray Joliffe, and voiced by a cast of sitcom veterans. It was produced, staggeringly, by Doctor Who’s original producer Verity Lambert. It has since been released on DVD and I can confirm that it is every bit as indescribably odd as you are thinking.
Randeep Kooner was a genuine competition winner and this is a genuine quote; I was always amused by it for no readily obvious reason.
Watching The Long Game again, I was struck more than anything else by how fresh it felt. In common with the rest of that first series, it’s bright, enthusiastic and big, airy and echoey, with a sense of straightforward excitement and fun that never really let up across the entire run. It’s definitely the one major misfire of that series – although I enjoyed it a good deal more than I expected to this time around – but from this distance it’s easier to see it as being like one of the flimsier songs on a Supergrass album; you wouldn’t listen to it in isolation or on shuffle but in its proper context it is carried along nicely by the strength of what’s around it. The major problem with it seemed to be that it was made up of so many disparate elements that just didn’t really fit together under that lightweight a story, not least Adam who I’d actually managed to forget was even in it. Though not how much I couldn’t stand him. Rose on the other hand is exceptionally likeable, and it’s pleasing and refreshing to see how much explanatory setup dialogue she gets given without it ever sounding like clunky exposition; if only that vital economy of scripting had been maintained. There are also far more great gags than I think I realised at the time, including the sidesplitting ‘he’s your boyfriend’ jibe and the Beef Slush Puppie, which surely has to be a deliberate reference to Fist Of Fun. Simon Pegg still seems like he belongs in another series entirely but time and distance have been kinder to his performance than you might have reasonably expected. Oh and I fancy Suki. Did I just say that? Moving on…
Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty of pieces related to Doctor Who. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
The last episode of Series One of Doctor Who is discussed as one of my Ten Greatest Endings Ever in Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea…, which you can find here.
You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics and Doctor Who, especially in relation to the modern era, in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.