Tag Archives: mark gatiss

Giving Up on Doctor Who

I’m giving up on Doctor Who again. This time it may be final.

I first gave up on Doctor Who in 1966, after The Tenth Planet. Or rather, I was banned from watching it for a while after an incident involving my dreaming there was a Cyberman in my dressing-up box. (I’m not sure how long the ban lasted as I saw a fair amount of Troughton’s Doctor Who but I am still wary of classic Cybermen.)

Once back, I watched all the way to Colin Baker’s Doctor Who and then stopped because of Bonnie Langford, and completely missed Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

I watched Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor but finally gave up on the Doctor Who reboot halfway through David Tennant’s stint in the role.

I gave up mainly because I’d got tired of watching talented actors reduced to eye candy and acting out the fantasies of overgrown adolescents who had somehow finagled their way into writing scripts. Where they were writing scripts that looked like old-time Doctor Who, without necssarily understanding why old-time Doctor Who worked and more importantly why it didn’t.

For the sake of nostalgia, I watched the mainly incoherent mess that was the 50th anniversary episode and the Christmas episode that made the anniversary episode look as though it had been rigorously edited. (And was incidentally glad I’d never watched any of the other Matt Smith episodes because … well, Geronimo. And if you don’t know why that upsets me, watch this.)

And I started the new series because … Capaldi.

I like Capaldi. He’s an excellent actor (as indeed was David Tennant, and Christopher Eccleston before him; and I think Matt Smith will just get better and better, too).

But three episodes into this new series, I’ve had enough.

Where to begin?

First, bear in mind that I write as a casual viewer, one who has not assiduously watched every reboot episode several times (except the anniversary episode because the soundtrack was so noisy I couldn’t follow a thing and I hate watching with subtitles).

But I have to say the writing seems to have deteriorated since I last watched regularly.

Badly.

It really is true what people say about Moffat’s inability to write women, or for that matter, to encourge others to write them well. Episode 1 of this series was my first proper encounter with Clara, and several people told me she is written so much better this series than last.

Really? That poor girl. It must have been bad if this is better.

I gathered too that the lizard alien, Madame Vastra, and her human wife, Jenny, are previous characters, which seems not to explain why we then had to go over and over and over the fact that they have a relationship, even before the lizard-human kiss. Because I was having a really hard time figuring that out until Moffat told me, and then went on to recreate Brookside all over again. And all that inbetween the casual objectfying of women. (And yes, if one woman objectifies another, it is still objectifying, honest.)

I still can’t decide whether to chalk it up to schoolboy prurience or daring progressivism, Moffat-style.

“See, puny humans, I can so write real women characters. So, yeah, ok, one is a lizard. But she’s a lady lizard. And a bit like Sherlock Holmes, too. Wow. Edgy, or what?”

OK, let’s instead say “I’m showing my insecurity about my ability to write women again, aren’t I? My wife says I’m good at writing women. I am a grown-up, honest. Please like me.”

And indeed, all three episodes are marked by a terrible insecurity and anxiety, particularly about Capaldi’s age and appearance. I suppose, after the girl cootie hysterics, it’s almost refreshing to turn to male-directed ageism. Though given that Moffat is not exactly a spring chicken and many of Doctor Who’s most devoted fans are not themselves in the first flush of youth, one might wonder quite where this anxiety springs from.

Jon Pertwee, the Doctor I remember most vividly from my childhood, was in his fifties when he played the role, and I don’t recall as a child being worried about his age. So one might assume the current child audience is unlikely to be bothered either. But neither, as an adult, am I bothered that Capaldi looks older than recent Doctors. (Capaldi is in fact, just over a year older than me, and believe me, I enjoy seeing someone close to my own age playing an action character – or I would if the scripts were any good).

Which suggests that somewhere along the way someone perhaps decided there was a target audience who wanted to see a Doctor who was pretty much like them in age terms, and that might also be flattered by having a slightly younger version of themselves to identify with, only to have it brought home to them in this series that yes, actually, we are all getting older. Or, to put a good face on it, we can all be grown-ups and still have fun.

Which is fine, but why do you have to keep going on about it? One school of thought explains to me that this shows the script team being aware of the sensitive feelings of their audience and addressing their anxieties about an older Doctor directly. And isn’t that wonderful of them?

Given the only response I’ve seen from the Doctor Who fans I know is “wow, Capaldi, yes”, inbetween “you know, John Hurt was a wonderful War Doctor”, I’m not sure exactly who it is they might be addressing about this issue. Themselves, possibly? This is beginning to feel like scriptwriters of a certain age playing out their own hopes and fears.

But all this is a distraction from the thing that is really annoying me this time around. Shoddy narrative, shoddy structure.

I’ve been struck by how none of the episodes so far actually fitted their allotted time. Episodes 1 and 2 both seemed to be dreadfully padded while last night’s episode suffered from quite the reverse, with an abrupt change of pace two thirds of the way through, as though Mark Gatiss had suddenly remembered it wasn’t a two-parter after all and, jesus, he had better start winding up NOW. Leading to the distinctly Bulldog Drummondish moment of Robin Hood and the Doctor fortuitously finding an off-screen blacksmith’s forge in order to release themselves from their shackles (though frankly, seeing them scrapping over that might have been more amusing than some of what passed for humorous interplay last night).

Last week, it was endless Dalek-on-human shooty-shooty in a series of wobbly corridors while Clara reactivated Hal, I’m sorry, Rusty, the good dalek, while in episode 1 there was so much infill and so many comic interludes it was hard to find a plot at all. There was probably about half an hour’s worth, which meant forty-five minutes of often exquisite tedium.

I’m also less than thrilled about the bolting on of moral points, and the relentless setting up of a story arc (i.e. the appearances of Missy, and references to The Promised Land. Shades of Bad Wolf again). It’s not that I object to story arcs per se. Handled well, they can be amazing things, but they need the individual stories to be strong as well (and here my view is shaped by watching Babylon 5, in its first two or three series one of the darkest things around). With Doctor Who it seems to have turned into a process of “bugger, another weak story, so hey, let’s put in something about the Doctor’s moral and existential angst a-n-d another story arc plot coupon. Collect the complete set to figure out what’s going on. The fans – the real fans – will love it.”

Possibly they will. Already, I am seeing critical commentary on this series that basically boils down to “and we learned this, which may mean that …”, which is not so much critical commentary as being a contestant on one of those solve-a-fictional-crime game shows so beloved of Radio 4. It’s also being used to elide the fact that the individual plots are as flimsy as hell, with a pop-up revelation at the end of each show.

And then there is the humour. Now it may be that I am indeed a humourless bitch, or it may be that as I said last night online, “My problem is that I like my comedy subtle rather than being elbowed in the ribs every two minutes to admire the waggishness of it all.” I could just about tolerate Strax the comedy Silurian Sontaran [Sontarans, Silurians, Silurians, Sontarans – let’s call the whole thing off] in episode 1, a little more than the arch exchanges between Vastra and Jenny, but last night’s attempt to recreate every cliché from every Robin Hood film ever became irksome (I can’t decide whether it would have been more irksome not to know the references than to be able to spot them, and yes, I knew them all – Gatiss is not the only one with a misspent youth). And there seemed to be slight but definite pauses before each stolen setpiece, as though to telegraph that it was coming. And after that came the meta-commentary on the laughing. As an observation it was spot on, but inevitably Gatiss overdid it, because they always do. On the other hand, I gather that children enjoyed the silliness of it all.

But, but, but, couldn’t it have been silly and told a better developed story as well? Like dealing with the whole notion of what Robin Hood means, as a real or fictional artefact, in more detail? Because then the silliness would have been a part of something else, rather than being the sole “thing” in the episode. As it was, it was obvious all the way through what was going on, even down to Robin Hood not being a robot. Even if one accepts that the Doctor has reasons for not “noticing” that something is wrong, one might wonder how, in the first episode, Clara didn’t notice, say, the oddity of the diners in that peculiar restaurant, because it was the first thing every viewer noticed, surely?

And perhaps that goes back to my earlier point about collecting story arc plot coupons. It seems to me that the audience is being flattered to believe it is cleverer than the Doctor and Clara in noticing these things, and that it will find the answer ahead of them. Even that isn’t in itself a crime but it is done so blatantly, and I find that offensive. All fiction, be it written or visual, is a form of manipulation of the reader or viewer, but the art is surely to do it without the consumer noticing. Unless, of course, you want them to notice and admire your cleverness, or encourage them to admire their own, a form of fan service.

And now we seem to be into reprising past shows. We’ve had the “mad dalek”; next week is this series’ “Are you my mummy?” episode. Which will of course remind us that Moffat did once produce an episode of genuine terror. (So much so that it had me awake in the night and sleeping with the light on, several nights running; it really was just like the good old days.) Somehow, on recent showing, I don’t think next week’s episode is going to do that.

Which is not to say that there aren’t good moments. There are, but they are very few and show how bad the rest of it is. The burgeoning relationship between Danny and Clara was surprisingly tastefully done, but feels like it’s a pilot for a totally different series in which a former soldier turned schoolteacher comes to terms with his past and makes a new life for himself in the civilian world. Could be quite gritty and all that. (One should also note Tom Baker’s cameo in the anniversary episode, which was probably the best thing about it after John Hurt.) And indeed, I find myself wondering whether Moffat isn’t now actually bored, having helped reboot the Doctor. I mean, where do you go next?

My single favourite moment of the entire series so far came last night as the arrow thudded into the Tardis and Capaldi just looked at it. Nothing was said. He just looked. And it was brilliant. Infinitely funnier than all the knockabout because it came out of incredibly good acting that turned a cliché into something special.

But that’s the problem. I can’t waste forty-five minutes of my life every week waiting for moments like that. Nor do I have any interest in collecting the plot coupons. I’m caught in a place between the people who can watch each episode totally uncritically and those who are so steeped in the lore of Doctor Who that every word, every slight nuance has so much meaning it would take a lifetime to accumulate the knowledge necessary to fully apprehend what is going on. And I don’t have the time to expend the effort needed to do that. In fact, I don’t want to have to study that hard in order to enjoy my Saturday night tv viewing to the full.

I want a tv series that can exist for those who watch regularly, a little out of nostalgia it’s true, but who also want a well-constructed narrative alongside the entertainment for the littlies and the fan service for the geeks and nerds, and that seems to be the one thing that Moffat et al are unable to provide.

In which case I shall with regret take my leave.

“there were cobwebs—thick”

His hat was on the table, and he had a bald head. I waited a second or two looking at him rather particularly. I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. […] He turned round and let me see his face—which I hadn’t seen before. I tell you again, I’m not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another, I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones there were cobwebs—thick. Now that closed me up, as they say, and I can’t tell you anything more.

This is William Garrett’s description of his strange encounter in a Cambridge library. Sent to fetch a volume for another reader, Garrett finds it already in the hands of ‘an old gentleman, perhaps a clergyman, in a—yes—in a black cloak’. When the reader returns the following day, and Garrett once again goes to fetch the book, the Tractate Middoth, the ‘clergyman’ is there once again, and it is at this point that Garrett sees his face.

To recuperate from the shock of the experience, Garrett takes himself off to Burnstow-on-Sea, where he meets Mrs Simpson, and her daughter, and the second part of the story begins to unfold. In effect, it’s a treasure hunt, based on Garrett’s realisation that Mrs Simpson’s cousin, who is hunting for a will made in her favour in order to destroy it, is the reader who asked him to fetch the fateful volume, and that the numbers which are her only clue are in fact a library classmark.

‘The Tractate Middoth’ is not, in all honesty, in the first rank of M.R. James’s ghost stories; it relies too much on the coincidence of Garrett’s meeting with the Simpsons in order to move the story along, and the ending verges on the sentimental. [I’ve noticed in reviews, a lot of people being exercised about its effectively being a chase sequence, which is true, but I am less bothered about that.] And yet, I’ve always had a soft spot for it, partly because of the title, partly because of the library setting, but mostly for the description above: ‘from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, there were cobwebs–thick’. It is so intensely visual even while being so very economical in its description. For that reason, I wasn’t overly surprised to learn that Mark Gatiss had chosen to adapt it for the BBC, for the Christmas night ghost story slot.

Ah, the Christmas night ghost story slot. I have become uneasy about the nostalgia that pertains to so much of the BBC’s output in the 1970s but Lawrence Gordon Clark’s James adaptations remain some of the best programmes made. I rewatched them last Christmas and there is no doubt that they really have stood the test of time. ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in particular, is a fine piece of work. Lawrence Gordon Clark was respectful of the originals while bringing his own artistic vision to bear on the material – the opening shots of ‘Lost Hearts’ are a particular example of this. And of course, over all this looms Jonathan Miller’s magisterial adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, its influence acknowledged even in the BBC’s 2010 revisiting of the story, a travesty that not even the presence of John Hurt could redeem.

And that, perhaps, is the biggest problem in adapting James for the screen (and to a lesser extent for the radio as well). James’s fans, in common with those of other well-loved writers, have such great expectations of dramatists and directors, and such a fierce love for those 1970s productions, it is hard to break away from the influence of the past. In fairness, Neil Cross tried, but then produced something that was so tangential as to be unrecognisable. Gatiss, I felt sure, was never going to take that path. Instead, I wondered just how slavish to the original he might be.

In the end, it turned out he was perfectly willing to play a little fast and loose in terms of the setting, much as Gordon Clark would do, while leaving the basic story intact. James’s story was published in 1911, so one would have been looking at a story with either an Edwardian or late Victorian setting. Instead, Gatiss has moved it into the twentieth century – the clothing and furniture suggested something vaguely inter-war, although the brief but identifiable presence of Pearsall’s Mountains and Moorlands volume from the New Naturalists series means that, in fact it could be no earlier than 1950. The change lent nothing new to the story but then neither did it get in the way, and there was nothing in the original story that was obviously period-specific. [I now wonder if this shift was a nod to the earlier tv adaptation of 1951.]

Gatiss followed the basic storyline quite closely, with a few elisions here and there (and I do wonder why he overlooked something so wonderful as Dr Rant’s being buried upright, at a table, in a tomb, though perhaps we should be grateful he resisted that one). In the story, John Eldred, the man in search of the Tractate Middoth, visits Garrett after his experience but cuts off the younger man as he starts to tell his story. We learn of it when he is visited by his friend, George Earle. Gatiss cuts this, and wisely, I think, given he has only half an hour in which to tell his story. Eldred is already positioned as a man with something on his mind. His unwillingness to handle the book in the library suggests that he has already had an unpleasant experience; it works better for a sceptical friend to hear the story.

It’s not the elisions that are a problem but the embellishments. Dust, its presence, its smell, plays an important part in the story as an indicator of the presence of Dr Gant, the man who sets the story in motion by hiding the will written in favour of his niece, Mrs Simpson, in a place where her cousin, John Eldred, can find it, but not her. In the story, James relies heavily on mentions of the smell of dust but, given this is tv, who could resist the thought of dust motes dancing in the light passed through stained-glass windows. But such dust! Not delicate grains caught in sunlight. This was DUST, great fluffy clouds of it, not so much fragments of skin as sheets of it. It reminded me of nothing so much as a description I once heard of asbestos waste floating in the streets around an asbestos factory. It was impossible to overlook the point being made.

And in case we missed that, there were also the spiders. Now, in the story, James mentions spiders only once, right at the end, after Eldred has died. At the spot where he died, Garrett discovers a mass of cobwebs and several spiders. In the drama, though, spiders appear several times – a design in a stained-glass window, a close-focus shot of spiders in a web on a window frame, crawling across the cobwebbed head itself, and, at the end, creeping across the floor of Bretfield Hall, after Mrs Simpson and her family, soon to include Garrett himself, take possession.

Small niggles, perhaps, but symptomatic of an unnecessary telegraphing of story points, a concern that the viewer shouldn’t miss anything. One might view the presence of the Nellie Deanish servant in a similar way; delightful as it always is to see Eleanor Bron on screen, her character apparently existed only to ram the point home that Dr Gant was a bad ’un: ‘where other people had a soul, he had a corkscrew’. And if we missed that, the camera lingered on his teeth, rather as it lingered on the lower part of the apparition’s face (an excellent prosthetic job, but not actually necessary). Too much, too much, as Mole said to Ratty in a completely different story, yet there is a sense of Gatiss’s Ratty fussing anxiously, trying to make sure that we as viewers have the very best story experience we can, just like in the good old days.

Having said that, there were also moments when one wondered what on earth was going through the writer’s mind. In the original story, as he boards the train for his rest cure, Garrett is startled by the sight of a clergyman in a cloak, echoing his original encounter. It is at this point he first encounters Mrs and Miss Simpson, who offer him smelling salts to counter the shock, and then offer him a place to stay. The tv adaptation, however, features an interminable few minutes of passengers, most prominently Una Stubbs, chatting away about this and that, before a scene as Stubbs’s character fumbles for her ticket while Garrett, feeling increasingly ill, notices the clergyman’s figure. There seems to be an element of social commentary coming into play: Stubbs’ character has been expressing distaste for the way in which young people travel abroad when they could stay at home more cheaply, and so on, but it is one of the most gratuitous additions to the story, as though inserted simply to give ‘Mrs Hudson’ a part.

As to the ending – James was a man who liked things neat and tidy closed ending. There were invariably explanations, not always complete within the story but sufficient to ensure that the reader was satisfied. On occasion one was left with a hint of after-effects: such an example would be Parkins’ ongoing nervousness of billowing clothing, etc. in ‘Oh Whistle’. But the revenant was usually satisfied and went away. Not so, here, where, Gant’s housekeeper having assured Mrs Simpson that she would need to watch out for him, in life and in death, the viewer is already primed to anticipate something extra, and it comes as less of a surprise than Gatiss might suppose to see dust and spiders come in through the door of Bretfield Hall, and a shadow fall across it. In fact, it echoes Gordon Clark’s ending for ‘A Warning to the Curious’ but whereas in that instance it seemed to work, here it just seemed very twentieth-century, very tiresome, and so very unnecessary.

And yet, these are minor cavils with what was on the whole a successful production, certainly one scary enough that Paul Kincaid said he felt hair rising on the back of his neck, and insisted we sleep with a light on that night.

And yet, and yet, when I say ‘successful’, what do I actually mean? Successful, undoubtedly, when it comes to recreating the mood of those old productions (and had I time for a closer analysis, I suspect I could point out a lot more in terms of visual resonances with those old productions) but I find myself whether it is possible to break free of the nostalgia mode. I praise ‘The Tractate Middoth’ for its fidelity to the original, for its fidelity to the mood of the 1970s, but what in it is original to 2013? It may be that James’s stories resist major reworking – the topics alone tie his writing so tightly in time it is difficult to bring it much further forward than circa 1950 – but Lawrence Gordon Clark’s work in the 1970s seem to have bound tv adaptations even more tightly in time, and Gatiss’s unabashed nostalgia finishes off the job.

Which is not to say that I don’t enjoy a good period production as much as the next person, and I did enjoy this very much, but neither can I overlook the fact that Gatiss is part of that group of writers and directors who grew up in the 1970s and who reach back to that time for their inspiration, with varying degrees of success. Their influence seems to permeate so much of the BBC’s output at present (Dr Who, the rebooted Sherlock and so forth) and I find myself wondering if this is entirely healthy.

Over at [feuilleton], John Coulthart also has some thoughts on the Gatiss adaptation of The Tractate Middoth.

I should also draw your attention to A Podcast to the Curious (hat tip to Fred Kiesche for drawing my attention to its existence), and in particular, to episode 11, on The Tractate Middoth.