Doctor Who this good deserves better music

Anybody who hasn’t enjoyed the new series of Doctor Who so far is presumably impossible to please; we have been treated to the best season opener since at least 1988, with a script that was witty, frightening and fiendishly clever without being wanky – and which, most importantly given the show’s recent past, packed in more story than you’d think possible in 45 minutes. Long may it continue: it looks gorgeous, the acting is great and it is genuinely edge-of-seat/behind-the-sofa stuff (depending on your age and furnishings).

Yet still it remains, the one element of the series that noticeably falls painfully short of the standard now being set: the music. From the synth-clappy theme music onwards it is simply relentlessly crap.

It isn’t that Murray Gold can’t write suspenseful or exciting music – he can, though his vocabulary is woefully limited, even for a television composer. The problem is the lack of imagination with which he persists in slapping his literal and banal musak onto every scene. The Doctor makes an announcement: Murray Gold gives us a fanfare. The Doctor makes a discovery: Murray Gold gives us a fanfare. The Doctor is sad: Murray Gold gives us Andrew Lloyd Webber.

This is tantamount to writing a ‘duh duh duhhhhhhh!!!’ cue every time something bad happens. Twice in the last episode the American President walked into a room and Murray felt it necessary to give us a blast of the ‘Hail to the Chief’. Twice. Was it meant to be a joke? If it was, it was a shit joke (and a shit rerun of the shit Mr Smith joke from The Sarah Jane Adventures at that). But the fact that I don’t even know if it was a deliberate joke or just unintentionally laughable says it all, really.

Film music is a subtle and nuanced art, at best matching a level of sophistication found in many an opera, and there’s no reason why television shouldn’t aspire to the same (especially television that clearly aspires to be great in every other way). Indeed, Doctor Who‘s past is littered (albeit rather sporadically) with some brilliant scores. The understated but often inspired composer Geoffrey Burgon (who sadly died last year) penned two exceptional scores in the Tom Baker era, and Mark Ayres’ scores for three Sylvester McCoy stories were thematically and harmonically urbane in a way that punched well above the weight of the synthesisers they were made with. Moreover, Doctor Who was in those days both a breeding ground and a pension plan for talent and in the same way that it continues to give brilliant writers, directors and designers either a leg up or a way in, it ought to be finding the best composers out there and employing them.

Until it does, the series will continue to have in the ears of at least one viewer a Creature From the Pit-sized flaw running through it. Yes, that was a Doctor Who reference.

Nine reasons to be cheerful about Doctor Who

It seems inconceivable that there would be, but just in case there’s any doubt: the series of Doctor Who that ended at the weekend was wonderful and a huge improvement on everything Russell T. Davies did with the show. We can remain distantly grateful that Russell brought the series back but everyone ought to breathe a long sigh of relief that he has been replaced by the far more talented Steven Moffat.

Most people can stop reading there, but if you’re still in any doubt as to what has improved, here’s what:

1. Matt Smith

After all of David Tennant’s gurning and shouting (the greatest achievement of which was to give me a fresh appreciation of the subtlety of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor), I was willing to be pretty forgiving of any casting decision, but I was more than a little doubtful when they cast somebody who is actually younger than me. A 26-year-old actor playing the Doctor? Really? Isn’t that just pandering to the children and/or the housewives? Isn’t it time for another older Doctor with the gravitas of Hartnell or Baker (Tom)?

I needn’t have worried. Matt Smith is a revelation – he can go from funny to serious in the blink of an eye, he has an energy that is infectious but not irritating, and unlike either of his two predecessors he can do charmingly bonkers without overacting. As for his age, Smith is playing a Doctor far older than he looks, and is actually far more convincingly 900 years old than many of the older actors who came before him.

2. The writing

It has been said by some people that no single episode in the series stood out as a masterpiece in the way that previous Moffat-scripted outings did – that there was no Blink or The Empty Child. I prefer to see it the other way round: unlike previous series, there wasn’t a single episode that made me hurl things at the television. The quality of the writing has rocketed, purely because the focus is much more on storytelling and far less about lengthy goodbyes or saying how amazing space is the whole time. At last, after five seasons of bad plotting, nearly all of the stories had a middle to go with their beginning and end, with plenty of sparkling dialogue, clever twists and compelling concepts along the way. There were a couple of weak episodes, true, but no monstrosities to rival David Tennant’s last dismal outings as the Doctor, or the-one-where-they-tried-to-do-The-Exorcist-meets-the-Olympic-games, or the-one-where-they-were-in-Cardiff-and-nothing-happened.

3. The other regulars

The subtlety with which the character of Amy Pond was crafted to compliment the Doctor, the series arc and the style of the show highlights just how two-dimensional Russell T. Davies’ companions were. Those could be summed up in one or two words (chav, ethnic minority, shouty comedienne); Amy Pond is far more fully-rounded than that, and instead of relying on any working-class-girl clichés the production team have made her a genuine individual. She’s witty, resourceful, vulnerable, flawed, different. And she has a really sexy accent that doesn’t require her to drop her Ts.

She also has none of the baggage that Russell T. Davies was convinced companions needed for us to empathise with them – gone are the frequent visits to mothers, fathers, peripheral boyfriend characters and kitchen. And when a boyfriend character eventually became involved, he was much more than an appendage, being himself a fully rounded person who is both comic and pathetic but also tragic and brave. And both as beautifully acted as they could have been.

On top of which, we’ve revisited the character of River Song, who is absolutely wonderful and, crucially, genuinely mysterious. This is a character whose encounters with the Doctor are happening in reverse order to his with hers (itself a stroke of genius because of the changes of dynamic each time they bump into each other). Moreover, she’s clearly dangerous, has unpleasant secrets and may or may not be married to the Doctor. The whole character gets more mindblowing every time she turns up, in exactly the way that Captain Jack didn’t. Russell T. Davies gave us a bisexual man from the future played by John Barrowman; Steven Moffat gave us an enigmatic time traveller from the Doctor’s future played by Alex Kingston – draw your own conclusions.

4. It’s not a children’s programme any more

…and at its best, Doctor Who never was. At last, we’ve moved away from patronising cultural references and fart jokes and Doctor Who is properly smart, witty and frightening. In other words, adult. The kids will of course continue to love it, because it’s smart, witty and frightening, but nothing about this series said ‘children’s television’ – the stories were complex, the themes were challenging and there was a darkness that makes the series genuinely unsettling in exactly the way it needs to be if it’s to have pre-teens scuttling behind the sofa. The ruthlessness with which Rory was erased from history, then reappeared but turned out not to be Rory at all! shows that we really don’t know what to expect from this production team and they will horrify us and break our hearts as any good drama series ought to.

5. The Doctor is genuinely alien

Russell T. Davies’ Doctor was invariably one of the gang – the popular kid in school, quite often rubbing other people’s faces in it and (at his worst) bragging about who he’d been shagging. To make him simultaneously an ‘outsider’ (because he’s an alien, after all) scripts were forced to shoehorn in a whole load of boring angst (he’s bouncy and fun but so lonely underneath!).

All that has changed. The new Doctor is genuinely ‘different’ – his behaviour, his actions, his attitudes all showing him to be from a different world. He’s still successful and sometimes popular, but it’s not what drives him – in fact, the childlike glee with which he discovers people like him or that he’s good at football is much more that of the quirky kid in school who doesn’t quite fit in but gains respect for being an individual. Exactly the sort of role model he ought to be (especially as this Doctor speaks the Queen’s English properly for once).

6. The Doctor isn’t fetishised

Russell T. Davies clearly felt the Doctor ought to be a sex symbol, with each of his companions (and sometimes their mothers) having a tedious crush on him even though the implications of teenage girls being in love with a 900-year-old man are actually a bit unpleasant. This policy reached its nadir when Russell T. Davies had the Doctor cloned so that Billy Piper could have him as a fuck-buddy.

So thank goodness that for all of his youthful floppy-haired appeal, we now have a Doctor who stands apart from all of that; when Amy Pond did try it on with him it was clear how much had changed – rather than going all Peter Stringfellow, he set out to repair her relationship with her fiancé. It’s not that he’s asexual, it’s that something more interesting than adolescent infatuation is the thing holding the TARDIS crew together.

7. The special effects

It’s not that they’re better. But when the old production team spent money on a shot it was like they wanted you to study it until you knew exactly how many thousands of pounds it was worth. The correct approach to special effects is to hide them, pretend they’re the same as all the other shots, so that they tell the story and don’t draw attention to the inevitable shortcomings of a BBC budget. As such, the series has achieved a far more expensive look, which is ironic because money has certainly been slashed from the budget in line with the spending plans of the rest of the country.

8. The season finale

Yes, everything was solved by magic in the end and it didn’t really make sense, but who cares when it was done so stylishly? For the first time since it was brought back, a Doctor Who finale actually exceeded expectations and absolutely made an asset of the series arc. From its opening, which elegantly revisited locations from previous stories and beautifully wove an even more complex picture than that which had already been built up, to the conclusion, which trod back through the series and started where everything began, revealing precisely how cleverly the whole story had been laid out from the start, this was as satisfying a resolution as we could have hoped for.

9. The future

Russell T. Davies’ best series, overall, was his first. That had the feel of a series where everyone was trying hard to make it the best it could possibly be, to explore the range of the concept in every single episode. The subsequent drop in quality (pretty much consistent from one series to the next) was absolutely the result of complacency. Lazy writing and self-indulgence became habitual.

Why do I think this won’t be the case under Moffat? Primarily because of Moffat’s own writing. Even though it can be argued that some of his later scripts are not his finest work, it’s very clear that he’s not standing still. Where they fail it’s because he’s doing something different. Where they succeed they show a writer who wants to do something better each time he puts pen to paper. Even Doctor Who Confidential has lost its smug, self-congratulatory air. So what we’re going to get next year will, I predict, be even better than what we’ve had so far.

Lest you’re worried that I’m being so uncharacteristically positive about everything from the coalition government to Doctor Who that I must have been replaced by an Auton replica: of course there have been things that pissed me off. There’s still a tendency for the Doctor to run around stroking his sonic screwdriver like BBC marketing are breathing down his neck (it’s just a screwdriver…) and there was that daft Richard Curtis episode in which nothing happened. But it’s churlish to complain when so much has improved and when it looks set to get even better. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing in need of urgent attention, which has been a constant problem episode after episode:

1. The music

It’s awful. Not just the new theme arrangement (though that is the sonic equivalent of a motorway pile-up) but every single time the incidental music pipes up it’s wrong. It’s often that sub-Stravinsky relentless thump that blares away even when people are trying to talk and which for Pavlovian reasons now conjures up a mental image of a little cartoon Graham Norton swinging his hips. But it’s just as likely to be a sickly sweet melody telling us quite how emotional we ought to be getting when something – erm – emotional is happening. Murray Gold is about as heavy handed as a composer can get, wallpapering the show with the most literal music interpretation of what is on screen (ooh, it’s a country scene, I’ll writing something cheerful and pastoral! …or how about you just shut up for once?) and now that the series has achieved a new level of subtlety it feels even more inappropriate than it did before.

A programme as music-heavy as Doctor Who is clearly not being served by a single man having to score the whole lot, so why Murray Gold has ended up doing it all is a mystery (unless he’s giving them a special discount – buy music for one episode and I’ll recycle it for a further two episodes free?). It’s absurd to rely on the efforts of a single hack when there are loads of composers highly capable of delivering superb television scores.

And yes, the fact that I’m one of them makes it rankle even more.

Doctor Who: the contenders

Later today we will know who is taking over from David Tennant as the Doctor, but in the meantime bookmakers and journalists are enjoying all sorts of speculation which ranges from the too obvious to the completely barmy. So let’s just have a quick run-down of who’s being pipped for the post and, more importantly, why…

Paterson Joseph

Who?: David Mitchell’s boss in Peep Show.

Why?: because he’s black.

I say that with the greatest respect for his acting skills: even before the Presidential election it was fashionable to have a black candidate for everything, and it’s the reason he’s the favourite to win. But in much the same way as Christopher Eccleston being Northern didn’t massively refresh the character of the Doctor a few years ago, let’s hope Joseph isn’t simply going to be “the black Doctor”; when they ticked the “black assistant” box a few years ago they thought that it was enough that she was black so didn’t bother writing her a character. That was a mistake, that was.

David Morrissey

Who?: the star of Basic Instinct 2.

Why?: because in the Doctor Who Christmas special broadcast just days ago, he played a man who thought he was the Doctor. He wasn’t. Much as I can understand why nobody would put themselves through watching said Christmas special, the fact that he turned out not to be the Doctor suggests he’s going to turn out not to be the Doctor.

Russell Tovey

Who?: the least appealing character in The History Boys.

Why?: because Russell T Davies wants to sleep with him. This much he has admitted in so many words in his new book, in various interviews, and probably to himself every night before bed for the last year. It doesn’t necessarily mean Tovey would be a good person to play the Doctor. In fact I suggest it would be a hideous error of judgement, primarily because Russell T Davies is old enough to be his father.

Catherine Zeta Jones

Who?: that Welsh one.

Why?: because she’s a woman.

It has been virtually obligatory to jokingly suggest a woman for the role since 1981. At least, let’s hope this is a joke. Please please please please let it be a joke…

Billie Piper

Who?: singer of 1998 number one single “Because we want to” and Mrs Chris Evans.

Why?: this, I fear, is completely unanswerable.

I mean, what on earth is going on here? Billie Piper played the Doctor’s companion for two years, cropped up again in 2008 and was last seen snogging a clone of the Doctor on a beach in Norway in a particularly twisted story development where she basically got a fuck-buddy who looked the same as a different man she had lustful desires for; are the production team really going to take this a step further and suggest that the original Doctor, having seen himself playing tonsil tennis with his former companion, is suddenly overcome by a desire to look like her? That if he can’t get his hands on the real thing he’s going to follow her lead and make himself a copy, even if that copy is himself?

I mean, really? Is Billie Piper really a candidate? Has the whole world gone completely mad????

My obsession with Doctor Who spills into my religious convictions

I’m very much enjoying the series of afternoon plays on Radio 4 this week, Nick Warburton’s Witness: Five Plays from the Gospel of Luke (do listen again) which have so far avoided all the usual cliches of gospel dramatisations and are telling the familiar stories in an insightful and fresh way with some well-drawn characters and great acting all round.

But I can’t help hearing shades of Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor Who in Jesus’ Northern tones…and let’s face it, since Russell T. Davies has so unsubtley drawn parallels between the Doctor and Jesus Christ, it’s hardly surprising that there are a few similarities in this very 21st century approach to the story of Jesus.

So I’m kind of hoping that when we get to the resurrection, Jesus will come back with a cheeky cockney accent and perhaps utter words along these lines of “cor, that’s amazing! Easter! I love it!!!”

I also hope there will be a Children in Need special in which a former Jesus, perhaps Robert Powell though I’d hold out for Willem Dafoe if at all possible, meets up with the new Jesus and they do witty banter about how how different Jesus was back in the 80s.

Doctor who…what?

On the front page of the BBC News website at the moment there is a link to the following story:

“BBC interview with doctor who opted for assisted suicide.”

After re-reading it several times I am now assuming that this is an interview with a doctor, who opted for assisted suicide.

Rather than the sensational story I initially read into the headline, that somebody doing a BBC interview with Doctor Who opted for assisted suicide.

A better Doctor Who

We’ve seen a fair amount of the new series of Doctor Who, and while it’s pretty good, it needs to get better for the second series. Here are some of the things that seem obvious to me.

  • Write three times as much plot in every episode. There have been several episodes – even the Dalek episode, which was generally very good – where special effects, or protracted sequences of people doing nothing in blind panic, have been used instead of having more going on. Even the best episodes take a while to get going, and they all seem to have this appalling bit about thirty minutes in where everyone is about to die, and the camera cuts back and forth between all of them until someone remembers to press the “don’t die” switch. Write much more plot and this won’t need to happen.
  • When writing an episode, don’t assume you’re smarter than the audience. The two-part aliens-invading-earth story had a lot of painful hints that the female MP was going to go on to be Prime Minister – really, only one was needed. Get lots of ideas going, and trust the audience to keep up.
  • Learn the difference between comedy and humour, and don’t try to do comedy. There’s a bit in the first episode that is presumably supposed to be farcical, where the Doctor keeps on failing to notice the London Eye as the big circular thing he’s looking for. The joke isn’t bad, but the execution was terrible. (Actually, perhaps it was so protracted because they thought the audience needed time to get what was going on, in which case: see above.) Humour is a vibe that helps relieve tension and allows drama to be darker; comedy is something light and frothy that people forget by the morning. We don’t want people to forget Doctor Who.
  • Have a single person who oversees everything from story inception to post-production – Russell T Davies has made it obvious he doesn’t see this as his job as lead writer, but it’s a job that needs doing. This is what Doctor Who producers used to do, before we went all pseudo-American with executive producers. Interestingly, this is exactly what executive producers do on the best shows. The job of the creative mind behind an episode, or the series, is not done on delivery of the script.
  • Drop the minor characters and let Rose carry the weight of the human factor. Billie (and presumably her successor) is more than capable of carrying the human perspective in stories (indeed, The End Of The World had only one real human – Rose – but considerably more humanity than the episodes set on Earth have managed). Instead of half an hour of soap-style bickering and moaning to get the point that Rose isn’t sure whether running around with the Doctor is the right thing to do, one ten-second shot of her looking at a photo of her mother would be more effective. Trust in the actors.

And while I’m here, a technical niggle:

  • There’s something wrong with the process used to make the digital footage look like film – it looks stretched, and the colours are weird. I don’t know what actually needs doing here, but there’s something not right, and it needs fixing.

Prepare yourself, Doctor! For the End! Any minute now! Just wait!

I was quite looking forward to The End of Time (part 2); sure, part 1 had been lame and mostly involved running around some docks somewhere while our Christmas dinners digested, but there was the distinct smell of Time Lords about, and Timothy Dalton looked kind of awesome and clearly wasn’t messing around. I’d originally hoped that Russell T Davies would do the honourable thing and not actually write a series reboot as his outgoing story, leaving Steven Moffat the chance to figure out exactly how he wanted things to be, but since RTD has the world’s largest ego there really wasn’t much of a chance of that. So I was confidently expecting him to bring back Gallifrey, kill the Doctor, and then show us the face of Matt Smith with exactly the same characterisation as before. All fine, because come April we’d have forgotten a handful of lines and the Eleventh Doctor could go off in whatever direction made sense.

And of course I was expecting RTD to screw it up. A trainwreck. A disaster. But I had absolutely no idea quite how far he would manage to get things wrong.

Let’s look at the story, half hour by half hour (as I remember it), across the two parts.

  1. Some running around, the Master comes back to life, or maybe not, or something. He can now apparently break the laws of physics whenever he likes, and is stupid enough to think that when he desperately needs lots of energy the best use of what little he has is to repeatedly propel himself several hundred feed in the air. The Doctor finds him by the cunning method of going to his regular quarrydocks.
  2. An Evil Plot Device is introduced, which the narrator tells us portentously will lead to the end of, well, everything. They put the Master in it. He turns everyone into clones of himself. Apparently rich black people are crazy megalomaniacs, in the same way that poor black people are into voodoo (in Planet of the Dead).
  3. More running around; the Doctor goes into orbit for a while to avoid having to confront the Master, the Time Lords hatch an almost-believable plan to create a link between themselves and the Master as a baby (ignoring that this violates one of those pesky Laws of Time that the Doctor was talking about in one of the other tedious specials). This leads to the best music in the episode, where there isn’t any music and just drums, riffing on the timing of the theme tune.
  4. Timothy Dalton sends back a diamond to provide a physical link between him and the Master (while I’ll let slide, but only because I remember The Invisible Enemy), and then uses it to mosey on over to Earth, taking all the other Time Lords, and Gallifrey (only we don’t see much because all the money’s been spent on Timothy Dalton), with him. (At some point everyone clearly forgets that Gallifrey is Time Locked, and that trying to pull a planet through some sort of physical-psychical link created by a small diamond should leave you with, well, a very squished planet.) Timothy Dalton then undoes everything the Master has done (meaning that humanity exists again), the Doctor undoes everything that else Timothy Dalton has done (meaning that Gallifrey is still Time Locked, that the Earth is safe, etc. etc.), and then finally the Doctor realises that the Master (in a bit they didn’t show on screen, or possibly my brain blanked out in an attempt to survive) had made a couple of little death boxes, and Bernard Cribbins in locked in one, but it’s okay because if the Doctor goes in the other one they’ll both live, because the Doctor is a fucking Time Lord and he knows it’s time for him to regenerate because the Ood have been cropping up in his mind for the last year or so telling him.
  5. The Doctor goes on a farewell tour all around the galaxy to remind everyone of all the really shit characters that Russell T Davies created, and Sarah Jane Smith. Then the TARDIS explodes to remind you that RTD won’t be writing for the series any more and therefore it will be shitwe won’t have to suffer this shit from now on, and David Tennant becomes Matt Smith.

The End.

I’m not going to lay into the dialogue, the magical bullshit that makes no sense whatsoever, or even RTD’s obsession with making this Big Exit more about him than about the Tenth Doctor (if you don’t believe me, read some of the self-satisfied twaddle he’s said about writing these episodes); what troubles me is his cowardice. There was a beautiful moment (insofar as it could be beautiful with such first-draft writing) where Gallifrey explodes into the Earth’s skies and dooms humanity. Then, five minutes later, he undoes it because it feels all a bit too drastic.

This is the moment where anyone who didn’t already realise it was struck with the realisation that RTD isn’t actually a very good writer. (Except for the ones who are irredeemably stupid.)

If the outcome is too big, dial back the outcome a bit, don’t write it out in the next scene. A better ending would have been for Gallifrey to be brought into the Solar System in a kind of reverse Trojan position with respect to the Earth (we can ignore the problems with the science bit, since earlier in the story the Master shot bolts of electricity from his hands). Then the Earth becomes a subjugate planet to Gallifrey, and humanity becomes a slave race to the rather fun New Time Lords who have given up on the whole non-intervention thing and are out to rule the universe. The Doctor has to choose between joining them in ruling the planet he loves, or being exiled from it, in a nice reverse on the Third Doctor’s punishment, and the Master (who should have been weakened from being resurrected, as in say The Deadly Assassin, rather than being an unstable energy form or whatever) could be marched off to be executed for being a coward during the Time War.

Then the Eleventh Doctor can romp around the universe for a bit, with the aim of getting back and stopping Timothy Dalton; by which time of course the Time Lords will have moved on again, or something. Anything’s possible in this context.

Russell T Davies would still have managed to find a way to make that lame and drag out, but at least I could have respected him for it. Bringing back Gallifrey only to immediately send it back out of the series is a bit like saying “let’s see what you could have won” when you could have won an Aston Martin but you actually won a used tea bag. It’s an admission of mediocrity and of cowardice, at the exact moment you’re trying to convince everyone that you’re awesome. The remaining respect I felt for the man who brought Doctor Who back to our screens died today, killed by his own inabilities.

In case you think I’m utterly down on the story and being unkind, here are some things I didn’t have any problem with at all:

  1. The spiky headed aliens. Great fun, and the female one was cute.
  2. June Whitfield.
  3. The Visionary, telling fortunes for the Time Lord Council. (If you want to believe that she was channelling the Matrix, and driven mad by that knowledge, then feel free.)
  4. Mickey marrying Martha (although to be fair that’s because I don’t care about either of them).
  5. The Doctor calling The President that R word. He’s clearly not the original, who would have killed the Master as soon as he appeared, and probably the Doctor as well just to be on the safe side. The Wikipedia entry notes that the Doctor might just have been comparing them.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s what is to come. Or at least bits, with some excited singers in the background.