Thursday, 2 February 2012

Your hopelessly late Doctor Who Season 6 round-up – The Doctor's Wife.

Never let it be said that I am not topical!

Firstly, a housekeeping point. I've turned on the log-in for leaving messages and feedback. I know its a ball-ache having to log in. But against that is the simple fact that it is impossible for me to tell one “anonymous” reply from another and I'd like to know who I am replying too! I can't be arsed with moderation though, so say what you like. If I don't like it I'll simply respect your opinion or tell you to eff-off or ignore you.

Let me continue by saying The Doctor's Wife left me with a problem. My normal “what I like” v “What I don't like” v “general comment” review was never going to be any good. I loved the episode and had little that was unique to say. Most of what could be said about the episode had been said by someone within 24 hours of broadcast. The “what I liked” would basically have consisted of me quoting about 80% of the script verbatim. The “what I didn't like” came down to the slight disappointment caused by the nondescript TARDIS corridors and the use of the RTD era control room rather than the Five Doctors to Survival era one. That was it, and even that was offset by the cool TARDIS grave yard, makeshift control room and the bliss of seeing proper old fashioned roundalls again.

It was only when I finished reading Michael Moorcock's “Coming of the Terraphiles” that I recognised a different way to consider the episode.

One thing that the episode absolutely isn't is a “Game Changer”. I think perhaps that everyone has realised that by now, but this was a common opinion at the time. The list of Game Changing stories is not a long one. By my reckoning the only true game changers are: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, “The Tenth Planet”, “The War Games”, “The Deadly Assassin” and “Rose” all of which reverberate throughout the following era's of the show.

The Doctor's Wife is actually an anniversary story in disguise. We come away feeling that we have learnt so much more than we actually have. The notion of the TARDIS as the Doctor's wife has been spoken of as being surprising. In reality it is completely obvious and has been explored and hinted at in the books, comics and audio's long before now. Similarly, the notion of the TARDIS being alive and in some sense sentient has been hinted at practically from An Unearthly Child onwards. That the TARDIS “stole” the Doctor is a new bit of history, but one which can be easily and logically inferred from the previous episodes. Was it really all that surprising to know that the TARDIS wants to see the universe too or that the Doctor was the only Time Lord made enough to go with her? Along the same lines, The Corsair's sex changing regenerations simply confirms what has long been speculated and again is a logical extension of a process known to allow for changing species (see Destiny of the Daleks, The TV Movie and iirc The Runaway Bride).

What the Doctor's Wife actually does is to consolidate and re-iterate the existing mythology of the show across all media and to flesh out long held fan theories. It is not so much an episode of the show as an episode about the show. It is does for “New Who” what the Five Doctors did for “classic who” albeit in the guise of a darker fairy tale. The hook here is that instead of seeing the Doctor interacting with himself, we finally see him interacting with the TARDIS in a way that is utterly appropriate and completely beautiful. Neither story does adds as much to the mythos as you first think, but both use the mythos to celebrate the show and ultimately confirm that the show is and always will be about a mad alien who stole a space time machine in order to travel the universe.

Neil Gaiman has always been one of the writers on the average Who fan's wishlist. He achieved much with this episode. It works as an accessible story in its own right far better than one could reasonable expect, it is a wonderful affirmation of the series and it somehow managed to meet or satisfy expectations even though we really weren't sure what to expect. Finally, it manages to feel like a typical Neil Gaiman story whilst also feeling like a Era Who story. The switch from series 5 to 6 actually helps out in that respect. Series 5 was an awkward hybrid of the Moff's Burton/Spielberg/Fairy Tale vibe and the RTD ear. Series 6 has definitely lost the RTD era tropes.

Michael Moorcock's Terraphiles is by contrast a case of a writer failing to meet expectations and putting a story out at just the wrong time. I'm not one for synopsis so the linkage for that is here: Note the cover its stunning.

Moorcock is another writer who has always had a significant following amongst Who fans and who also seemed to be a natural fit for a novel. The announcement that he was to write the first major Who hardback was greeted with almost universal praise and eager expectation. However, many of those voicing an opinion were simply conservative Who snobs who wanted “an established SF author” as opposed to a “fan writer”. Moorcock is obviously an SF powerhouse, but that very fact should have tipped people off that he was unlikely to be satisfied emulating some nebulous concept of “serious” or “proper” Who (Which almost always boils down to Dicks/Letts and Hichcliffe/Holmes). Those who are familiar with Moorcock's work also knew and realised that he writes in different flavours and voices, a literary David Bowie.

Terraphiles is very far from being “serious” who. It's so whimsical that it makes The Unicorn and the Wasp look like Cracker. It's basically a PG Woodhouse pastiche and has proven to be Marmite to the Who fanbase. It doesn't fit with the general feel of the Moffat era. The Doctor is generally well captured and feels like Matt Smith more and more as the book goes on. The characterisation of Amy is more hit an miss, but that's not surprising given the inconsistent writing for the character throughout season 5. A character needs to live and breath consistently on the show before a novelist can have any hope of capturing them.

Terraphiles is a story that would never go out on prime time BBC1. It could only ever be a novel and that's part of the appeal for me, especially some passages of quite beautiful prose which would only amount to some bog standard CGI on the telly. The books, audios and comics should do things that can't get on the TV, that's their greatest advantage. What is jarring is that this is the clash of Epic Cosmic Scale with twee Bertie Wooster – boys own story telling. This is not an entirely new approach to Who, Dave Stone has done much the same thing, albeit on a much less publicised scale. That the Beeb chose to Launch the “Guest Author hardback line” with what is essentially a Mash-Up is either a terrible false start or a confident and bold mission statement.

Ultimately, I am not sure anyone's expectations were really met. The book is too many things at once to be a classic Who story or a classic Moorcock story. But I don't accept that it is a failure in its own right either. I read it is four sittings and enjoyed all four sittings. On the other hand those four sittings were spread over several months so I can't claim the book is easy to pick up, only that once you have you will quickly get lost in it.

I started out by saying that Terraphiles was badly timed. It may have faired better if it had not been saddled with the expectation of being the first Guest Author hardback. It would have faired best if released in 1979. The Fourth Doctor and Roman flitting around space with a bunch of literary pastiches in search of an artifact which holds the universe in balance between chaos and order is just So Graham Williams.

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