Friday, May 16, 2008

 

Doctor Who and the ‘Celebrity Historical’

Tomorrow evening at seven, Doctor Who takes us back to 1926 for The Unicorn and the Wasp and a meeting with Agatha Christie. What makes odd goings-on in history so uniquely Doctor Who? Why has the new series made linking adventures in history with famous figures so much its own? Will the dads sigh at Felicity Kendal, and the kids shriek at the giant wasp? How will this new story compare with the series’ last attempt at ‘Agatha Christie pastiche’, Peter Davison’s 1925-set Black Orchid? What is the secret of Ms Christie’s missing days, and of Black Orchid’s well-furnished cell? Excitingly, as yet I only know the answer to one of those last two.

The Unicorn and the Wasp (and the anticipation)

I have to admit, there are many reasons I’m really looking forward to The Unicorn and the Wasp. It’s Doctor Who – so by definition I’m excited. There’ll be a fortnight’s gap before the next one to make way for Eurovision, so we’ll all have to enjoy this one doubly. I glanced at next week’s Radio Times yesterday and whooped with delight: never mind Felicity Kendal – who surely wasn’t accidentally the subject of a round in last night’s edition of Heresy – it also guest-stars Henry Gordon Jago (actor Christopher Benjamin, from fabulously flamboyant Doctor Who Victoriana The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which brilliantly pastiched not Agatha Christie but Sherlock Holmes and everything else in sight). It’s by Gareth Roberts, a hugely talented writer whose intelligent, funny, endearing books made him stand out in the much-missed Virgin Doctor Who novels of the 1990s. Last year, he was the writer on four pieces of Doctor Who (ish) for the telly, too: will this be like the squarely, magnificently entertaining Invasion of the Bane and Revenge of the Slitheen for The Sarah Jane Adventures? Will it have the emotional depth and vivid characters of The Sarah Jane Adventures’ finest hour, Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? Will it perhaps have that story’s multi-layered and rewarding Doctor Who homages and in-jokes, from the Guardians to a certain radio programme in which one of the Doctor’s companions was replaced seamlessly by Jane Asher? Or… Will it have the nice visuals and witty dialogue but flatly disappointing story and characters of his Doctor Who story The Shakespeare Code? I’m on edge with hope that he’ll deliver to his best. But most of all, what makes me more excited than with most Doctor Who stories is that the Doctor’s adventures in history always have a special extra something for me.

Adventures In History

I’ve always been fascinated by history, but what makes Doctor Who’s approach so vivid is that it’s not pedagogic and certain but eclectic and imaginative. I’ve said before that if you asked me to pick the perfect sort of Doctor Who story, it’d be the ones set in real history but wilfully challenging what we know, whether through showing a different side to the people there or, of course, juxtaposing images from the history books with some futuristic alien menace. There’s something uniquely Who-ish in the historical anachronisms of meeting aliens or time meddlers in our past, and there are few set-ups closer to my heart than when the Doctor travels back to a well-known period of Earth’s history, meets both exactly the sort of people we’d expect him to and some outer space people we really wouldn’t, and they all have larks together. I’ve always loved reading (and now seeing on DVD) the stories from the ’60s that educated me about real events and tried their best to get them right, but putting the real details alongside something so ostentatiously fictional makes perfect Doctor Who for so many reasons: it broadens what could be a niche historical interest to a more mass appeal; it makes things more unpredictable, rather than separating ‘space’ and ‘history’ into safe little boxes; it’s something at the heart of no other series; and that mixed-up, what’s real / what’s imagined approach even furthers Doctor Who’s underlying liberalism by positively encouraging you to ask questions – what budding historian, or politician, or scientist, or journalist, or human being could be given a better message than that you should think about things for yourself, find things out for yourself and decide things for yourself, rather than just believing everything you’re told?

That’s why among my all-too-sporadic Doctor Who reviews I’ve picked stories like The Time Meddler or Horror of Fang Rock (EXCLUSIVE! For any of you who read my review of the latter and wondered whether the script really did write Adelaide as Lord Palmerdale’s mistress, despite none of the actors playing it that way, I met Terrance Dicks a couple of months ago and asked him: “Oh, yes,” he replied, “I think she is his mistress. But they’re all keeping up their Victorian façade, you see”), or even an alien-planet-that-still-feels-like-Earth’s-history story like The Ribos Operation.

Doctor Who’s always had a wider mix of styles and influences than any other series could – a traveller in time and space, who can go anywhere, do anything – and part of that is that it’s always had a shifting balance between past, present and future, between the old world, our world and alien worlds. And every different period of the show has given different weight to each of those elements, usually downplaying one of them. So when the new series is criticised for not having enough alien worlds (and even though I’d like us to see more alien worlds too, and have them feel more alien when we do), it shows a lack of grasp on the series’ own history, which is of an ever-changing set of settings. I love Tom Baker and Patrick Troughton’s space adventures and alien worlds, for example, not least the way that often led to stories with smaller stakes but greater tension – paradoxically, space and claustrophobia mix – but if I watch a full season from the late ’60s or the late ’70s I often find myself wishing for more time travel into the past to turn up in the mix.

Something Doctor Who has got very right since it returned in 2005 is that, whatever the balance of places and periods once a season gets going, each season has started with what’s pretty much a Doctor Who manifesto: ever year, new viewers have been given three opening stories that say, ‘This is a programme that goes to past, present and future’, with one for each to firmly state what the programme’s about. It’s surprising how few seasons opened the same way in the old series, though some of the best have that in common – Tom Baker’s second and third seasons as the Doctor, for example (the series’ thirteenth and fourteenth years), but if you think about it, what could be a better introduction for the show? A story I’d place close to the best of the lot, 1967’s epic The Evil of the Daleks, appeals in part to me because it has the sheer breadth to start in the present, go back to the past and then take an alien world for its climax, all following a seamless plot rather than feeling like (as it could have done without a sufficiently strong story) it’s hopping between different levels of a computer game. And if Doctor Who has spent a bit too much time on roughly modern-day Earth at the expense of strange worlds for some tastes, here’s something that startles and delights me about the new series: David Tennant’s Doctor has seen more stories travelling into Earth’s history than any other Doctor since William Hartnell. And hooray for that.

Dawn of the ‘Celebrity Historical’

Russell T Davies’ idea to grab viewers’ attention for the historical stories is one that, in its fourth year tomorrow night, is now instantly recognisable. He calls it the ‘Celebrity Historical’. The hook to pull you in is not ‘this is something you might remember being bored by at school’ – or excited by in a spectacular historical movie, I’ve always thought, though carry on – but someone you’ve heard of and might be interested in. Though there have been other historical stories, usually set in the Twentieth Century when increased familiarity needs less of the ‘booster rocket’ of an individual famous name, many of the ones with the firmest sense of history have ‘starred’ Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare and, now, Agatha Christie.

You might spot a few things about this ‘Celebrity Historical’ approach. It’s a very modern form of TV storytelling that starts with an individual human story rather than pages of ‘great events’. It’s conversely what’s now a very old-fashioned use of the word “celebrity” – yes! Imagine! You’d almost forgotten that the word used to signify ‘a person that absolutely everyone knows about and will hear about wherever they are and throughout their lives,’ rather than ‘a person who’ll be in Heat Magazine for a fortnight and will then disappear forever,’ hadn’t you? Most of them have been writers – not ‘great deeds’ by ‘great generals’ echoing down the ages, but great ideas and great stories. And, if you’ve been watching Doctor Who for more than the last few years, you’ll notice something else about the ‘Dawn of the Celebrity Historical’, too; dawns don’t just happen once, but again and again.

Way back in 1964, Doctor Who had already become such a hit by its fourth story that the series was put on the cover of the Radio Times. And who was on it? Marco Polo. Doctor Who’s first Radio Times cover promoted the programme on the basis of an historical celebrity author – and Agatha Christie’s had one, too, though (confusingly) it was six weeks ago. Richard I, the Emperor Nero and Helen of Troy were among the other ostentatious historical ‘celebrities’ to feature in William Hartnell’s stories as the Doctor, showing that as well as writers, royals – like Queen Victoria – are a good bet for a name people recognise (plus the gunfighters of the OK Corral who, like Helen, Nero and the Lionheart were all familiar to audiences of the time from films, no history books required). Others appeared with more minor roles in a given story, such as cameos from Shakespeare (yes, 42 years earlier) and Robespierre, much as Elizabeth I appeared last year; then there were a scattering of major figures who’d be less well-known to the audience and so might not be termed as much of a crowd-pulling ‘celebrity’, such as Catherine de Medici (with her famous war-of-God-cry “Catholics conquer and destroy”), echoed in 2006 with a story about Madame de Pompadour. So this new innovation might be a little less new to 1960s viewers, but is no less effective for it.

After Billy’s time, the Doctor’s historical adventures tended to be based more around historical fiction than historical figures, taking a setting in the past to construct a thrilling adventure in the style of Kidnapped or gradually building up Doctor Who’s own special style of history colliding with anachronism. Though there were a few faint flutterings of throwing historical celebrities into that mix for Colin Baker’s Doctor – George Stevenson, and making a right mess of HG Wells (goodness, another writer) – it’s the new series that’s really run with the combination of the approach to history perfected in William Hartnell’s time and that perfected for Tom Baker. And it works magnificently. So who next for a famous historical figure juxtaposed with outer space robot people? I can’t quite picture Jane Austen with aliens, but though Tom Baker’s Doctor didn’t meet any historical ‘celebrities’, he kept missing Leonardo da Vinci – so he might be irresistible, despite the Dan Brownness of it to many audiences. Winston Churchill is worth putting money on. And how about explorers, Richard suggested to me the other night? An ideal match for the Doctor in many ways, and he was only slightly put out when I recalled his suggestion of a galleon on a voyage of exploration being attacked by Sea Devils had already been thought of in a long-ago strip for Doctor Who Weekly. Raleigh, perhaps, after being name-dropped insufferably by the Third Doctor? When Doctor Who becomes a huge success for the fifth time in 2086, I won’t be around to watch it any more, but I like to imagine that the Doctor’ll have an adventure with Douglas Adams.

Indiana Jones and Other Stories

Before I move on to review Peter Davison in an exciting adventure in flapper fiction, I suppose with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull out next Thursday I should note that there are plenty of other historical blockbusters available, though mostly lacking Doctor Who’s distinctive taste for anachronism and bizarre juxtapositions. There’s thrilling pulp adventure like the Indy movies (not just set in the past but with an archaeologist hero), or endless romantic adaptations of Pride, Prejudice and all that crowd, or the historical epic that’s been a mainstay of the cinema since the likes of DW Griffith’s Intolerance, still one of the greatest movies ever made (just look at Babylon! No CGI there) or DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, still one of the most brilliantly assembled works of repellent propaganda ever made, right up until movies like Troy and Alexander suggest they’ve rather forgotten how to do it. No, that’s unfair; their problem was that they were trying to be the next Gladiator rather than tell their own story, and for all that its historical details may have been iffy, Gladiator had a grand sweep of historical passion that I can imagine capturing kids today as I was enthralled when I was a boy. I can’t put it better than Alix Mortimer’s piece last year on how the historical soul was missing from Elizabeth, but how Gladiator radiated it, just as I, Claudius did – and I, Claudius was another of the reasons I had to fall in love with history, just as (to jump from one Doctor Who time period to another) I can rarely resist the never-real-but-vivid Victorian era that’s one of the reasons people still make Sherlock Holmes adaptations to this day.

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones have been released on DVD recently too, of course, but they’re more of a lesson in how not to do it than successors to the spectacular populism of the movies. Have you seen them? One of the biggest tumbles from huge ratings to tumbleweeds and cancellation in TV history, they sound before you see them like a perfect match for the Doctor Who ‘Celebrity Historical’. Young Henry Junior, before and after he acquired the dog’s name, dashes all over the early Twentieth Century world and meets every famous person going. And made by George Lucas on a budget of millions. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Doctor Who viewers might suggest that a few aliens might help, preferably by exterminating the irritating kid incarnation of Indy, and that while the Doctor has a TARDIS that can take him to meet anyone he wants it’s just a little unlikely that someone with no foreknowledge and travelling through time at the more mundane rate of a day each day would just happen to meet so many people who are going to be so famous. But the biggest problem is that the stories… Lack stories. They expect the viewer to be so impressed by a famous person in a famous situation that they forget that drama and fun rather need something to happen, rather than audiences to marvel, ‘Gosh, this is so worthy! I must watch it and be ready to answer questions at the end.’ Even before you get on to the DVD extra features, documentaries about the ‘Historical Celebrity’ of the week so hagiographic that it’s a race to see whether your brain or your teeth fall out first, there’s one utterly deadly thing about these stories. They’re exactly like BBC history programmes for schools used to be, just on several thousand times the budget. And even schools’ programmes draw kids in with more fun these days. I’ll still watch the one that has Emperor Palpatine and President Servalan in the same episode, though.

Doctor Who – Black Orchid On DVD
“Thank you, Lady Cranleigh, for a delightfully unexpected afternoon.”
The closest Doctor Who’s previously attempted to a traditional Agatha Christie ‘feel’ was when Peter Davison’s Doctor travelled to 1925 for a comedy of manners crossed with Gothic Jane Eyre, all set at a country house. Though this was shown back in 1982, before the Doctor’s daughter last week was a twinkle in this Doctor’s eye, it’s just been released on DVD and is well-worth picking up – it’s a short but very diverting story and has some great extras, despite being one of the cheaper ‘standard’ range (other Doctor Who DVDs simply have an immense amount of extras). It’s the only historical Doctor Who story since the 1960s not to feature any anachronistic alien strangeness other than our heroes, though it keeps wrong-footing you into thinking there’ll be some and the Doctor’s TARDIS plays an improbably significant role. Oddly for a story widely regarded as Agatha Christie pastiche, however, the ‘whodunnit’ is the least satisfying aspect; there’s really only one suspect, and it’s much more of a ‘whydunnit’ and ‘what’s he doing there?’ The first episode of charming people playing cricket and dancing the Charleston is gorgeous, though when watching the DVD recently, Richard identified the problem with the second and final episode: it has to bring in all the complications as the Doctor gets into deeper and deeper water, accused of murder, with more murders discovered, the TARDIS vanished, he and his friends locked up… But as it’s only got 25 minutes to do all of that and reveal the real killer and resolve the whole story, no sooner are they in trouble than they leap out of it. Two other unwieldy elements are when the host stops Adric and Nyssa drinking because they’re “children” – they patently aren’t, and as one of them’s the spitting image of his fiancée, it suggests a rather unhealthy relationship – and the rather ‘exotic’ secret of the disfigured man, which is much more Victorian than 1920s in feel, given that just after the First World War there were many terrible injuries around (mental and physical), making the need for concealment rather more improbable. Though it’s not a ‘celebrity historical’, incidentally, the character whose concealment is most crucial to the plot is a (fictional) celebrity.

Neither the Doctor achieving rather little nor the skimpiness of the ‘mystery’ plot matter much, however. The Doctor’s role has much in common with Peter’s outstanding final story, The Caves of Androzani, where an ostensibly passive Doctor is so caught up in events that he sets off a chain reaction among doppelgängers and disfigured ‘villains’. As for the plot… For me, the really appealing thing about the story is that it looks very shallow with all the swish upper-class partying, but is actually very clever. The centrepiece of the social whirl is a masked ball, and the story’s theme is all about keeping up appearances and masks, literal and metaphorical: all those secrets; all those double identities; an old-fashioned Gothic Romance disguised as Agatha Christie; and it even keeps fooling us into thinking it’s a traditional Doctor Who mystery. The Doctor proving he’s not a murderer by revealing the TARDIS seems naïve to the point of barking… But in a story where everyone is concealing the truth about themselves, the Doctor being the character who demonstrates he’s ‘true’ makes thematic sense.

The DVD is a miniature masterpiece, too. The picture restoration is outstanding, with details sharp and colours vibrant – though, like the recent release of The Five Doctors, the reds are distinctly orange, appearing (for example) to give Lady Cranleigh glowing lipstick. The commentary is very enjoyable, despite the actors criticising the story pretty much from start to finish, disliking the script and, as usual, ganging up on poor Matthew Waterhouse (who, told his pirate fancy dress outfit here is “no Johnny Depp,” eventually admits it’s more “jailbait cabin boy”). Restoration and commentary complement each other perfectly when you can now clearly see the difference between the two days over which the masked ball was shot: the sunny first day, and the hilarious second where it was dark, pouring with rain and so windy that wigs are in constant danger of flying away and Janet Fielding’s beautifully relaxed flirting has changed to “I’m freezing my bazongas off!” The sharper picture also reveals that the Cranleigh XI is supposedly playing Guy’s Hospital, which if you’re as clever as Richard you’ll spot means the props manager really got the wrong end of the script. A handful of deleted scenes are charmingly presented, and though you can see why the first sequence was cut – too many giveaways – the second has some rather nice business with guests at the ball. The same scene crops up in a Blue Peter feature about the costumes for this and many other productions, in which if you can stand Simon Groom’s nasty blue nylon underpants he has a surprisingly nice chest…

The best of the special features isn’t directly related to the story – though it also features the Fifth Doctor playing cricket – as it casts a great little overview across the Doctor Who comic strips of the time, with Gary Russell and Dave Gibbons especially good value and quite a bit on The Tides of Time (still, for me, the greatest of all Doctor Who comic strip adventures). The worst of the special features are the text notes, for which it’s astounding new writer Karen Davies was actually paid. Martin Wiggins’ notes on DVDs are informative, well-written, interesting and witty; Richard Molesworth’s are much stodgier but have a lot of information; but this latest lot are just lazy. There are great long gaps between pop-ups, such skimpy research that not just the BBC’s Written Archives appear neglected but so do, say, ten seconds’ search on Wikipedia or IMDB (being unable to tell us what a Tom Collins is, for example, or offer more than a couple of snippets from Moray Watson’s long career). Repeatedly, the text opens up a subject and then drops it as if it can’t be bothered: saying there are lots of black orchids in legend and literature then, er, not identifying any; citing the Peter Cushing film The Ghoul as a source, but not bothering to say why… There’s nothing about the book, or what was cut from the script, or Terence Dudley’s outline “The Beast”; the unfunny comedy asides after long stretches of doing no work at all come across as the would-be class joker trying to divert attention from missing homework (I should know – I was doing that sort of thing back when Black Orchid was transmitted, and my flip comments weren’t funny either); and there are shoddy little mistakes like alleged Doctor Who story “The Space Wheel” (a load of Moroks) or scoffing at a character’s credit as “The Unknown” – even when a murder mystery’s not entirely complex, saying you should name “whodunnit” in the end credits to the first episode’s a bit dumb, surely? Still, all told the rest of the DVD is very enjoyable, and for once even the menus are pretty good, offering a charming cricket montage rather than the usual spoilers for the climax.

But Are Historicals ‘Popular’?

Here’s a funny thing. When I write articles, I stick on music in the background, and it tends to be music without words – usually film or TV scores (it’s a shame the Black Orchid DVD doesn’t have an isolated music score). Today, unusually, the CD in the background isn’t the Doctor but the Who, and as Another Tricky Day pumped out behind me I couldn’t help notice the line “getting burned by the Sun”. It probably wasn’t a pointed attack on Mr Murdoch at the time, but it reminded me of one of the less savoury things I’ve been inspired to do through Doctor Who: buying the Sun a couple of months ago for coupons to collect Sun-minted editions of Doctor Who DVDs and a Sarah Jane CD. Well, I posted them two months ago and my cheque was cashed, it turns out, exactly a month ago today. It’s bad enough giving money to the Empire of Evil; they might at least send me what I paid for! And remembering the DVDs they’ve not sent me reminds me of something odd about their selection of Doctor Who stories, both this time and when they last offered some, a couple of years ago. Despite this meaning you lose a large part of what gives the series its identity, if you look at the Sun’s DVDs there are no historical stories. I wonder why?

My suspicion is that the Sun’s selection was influenced by the often-repeated urban legend in TV circles that the Doctor’s adventures in history are just put in as some sort of weird nod to the formula, and not because anyone really likes them – that people watch a traveller in space and time mainly for his adventures on modern-day Earth, because those are obviously what makes it different to any other TV show. And because nobody ever watched Indiana Jones, Pride and Prejudice or Gladiator, obviously. This strange idea’s been around a long time, but it’s still not true. Former Doctor Who Producer Barry Letts, for example, who ran the series during the early ’70s when Jon Pertwee was the Doctor (one of its most popular periods in the ratings) repeats the old canard about historicals on the DVD of The Time Warrior, the story that introduced Sarah Jane Smith (long regarded as the most popular companion), introduced the Sontarans (long regarded as one of the most popular monsters) and was, of course, Barry’s only ‘historical’ story. Barry announces that stories set in history were “always having very low audience figures” such as in the case of the Doctor “meeting historical characters like Nero” (The Romans, with, er, between 10 and 13 million viewers) and the eponymous “Marco Polo” (8.4-10.4 million) that he explicitly mentions and explicitly gets it wrong on. Barry produced 24 Doctor Who stories, totalling 129 episodes: unfortunately for his argument, of the two “very low audience figures” he cites, The Romans’ audience ratings peaked higher than any of Barry’s episodes, and Marco Polo’s higher than all but 9 of his 129 (one of those episodes being found in The Time Warrior. Which was another historical).

Take that right up to modern Doctor Who, which is regularly getting the highest chart ratings the series has ever won; in 2006 Tooth and Claw, set in 1879, was the most popular story of the season, with a million more viewers than the return of (popular) Sarah Jane Smith to the series a week later. So far this year there’s been one historical story, set in 79 AD, last month’s The Fires of Pompeii – absolutely terrific, and the best of the new season so far for me – which scored two to two and a half million more viewers than the return of the (popular) Sontarans in an attack on (popular) modern-day Earth. Yes, the Doctor’s trip to Pompeii was watched by over 9 million viewers, putting it in the top ten most watched programmes for the week across every channel (beating an episode of Eastenders), with an ‘Appreciation Index’ of 87% - which means a rating of ‘excellent’ and made it the most liked show with its viewers among all BBC1 and ITV1’s shows that day. So let’s hope a lot of people tune in for Agatha Christie tomorrow, too: on past evidence, I suspect they will.

And Finally… The Avengers Tonight

Oh, and if you like murder mysteries in a highly stylised traditional English countryside… Why not turn on BBC4 tonight at 11.30pm and twenty past midnight for a double bill of highly entertaining Avengers episodes? They’re the series’ inspired take on Batman The Winged Avenger – and The Living Dead, each of which are well worth watching, and I even have a couple of reviews for them that I’ve prepared earlier. The Winged Avenger, in particular, I described last year as “teetering on the edge of genius”. Go on, tune in tonight!

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Comments:
An interesting (I thought) fact about Agatha as a Celebrity Historical figure.

As she died on 12 January 1976, she could - had she wished - have watched Tom Baker in the second part of Brain of Morbius on BBC1 just before she died.

Which makes her not so much historical as contemporary, if you ask me :)
 
Good fact, Stuart, and you’re strictly right, of course. I remember when I was 1 or 17 and Doctor Who started doing stories like Delta and the Bannermen and Remembrance of the Daleks, in the 1950s and 1960s and clearly within the lifetime of most people involved with the show (or indeed watching), I argued myself into knots about whether they were far enough back to count as ‘historical’. Now I’m much more laid-back about it.

Except Father’s Day, which obviously can’t be an historical, because I was alive when it was set ;-)
 
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link



<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?