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Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Davison Era

I watched the Davison era in broadcast order for the first time, then read up on their production afterwards. I thought things as a result of these experiences.

  1. Davison's best performances come from scripts that aren't written for his Doctor.
  2. The wrong people were in charge, and learned nothing from their mistakes or successes.
  3. Doctor Who's production style wasn't ready for the best directors.

I will now expand on these.

Kinda was written for Tom Baker. Robert Holmes wrote the Doctor's dialogue like he used to, but with a situation that uniquely worked for Davison. Anyone who'd written for the show already simply wrote the Doctor they were used to, the safety version that relies on the actor's interpretation for effervescence. This is noticeable in Frontios when Christopher Bidmead gives the Doctor a situation where he can offer immediate and vital help, which rarely happens. It allows the Fifth Doctor a brief moment of heroism without fallibility, the one-note characterisation (and costuming) that overrides most of his tenure.

His companions suffer from this too, and their bickering reveals little about them other than their already established characteristic. There's nothing for anyone to bounce off, no fleshing out of anyone beyond their spec sheet. This undermines a lot of credibility, resulting in Tegan wearing the same clothes for an entire series, seeming obsessed with airplanes to the point of insanity. The Doctor's fallibility, likewise, leads to him insisting that the Silurians are honourable in Warriors of the Deep, whereas clearly some of the Silurians are honourable in Doctor Who and the Silurians, but all the ones in Warriors of the Deep are just generic monsters. A lot of people are filling roles in the story, rather than being characters in their own right. Davison does a lot with the role, but when he gets a script intended for the Fourth or a more typical Doctor, he does more.

In Frontios Bidmead writes the TARDIS crew's bickering more as teasing, playing it for laughs. It helps me imagine them as people who might travel together, whereas the arguing and general lack of fun just makes me wonder why Tegan, especially, bothers. Hence her departure doesn't work, because it never seemed fun for her at any point. This is part of a larger problem of consistency and realism. No one in the Davison era seems to react to events or speak like a real person, which is a shame because some of the character arcs and departures are potentially excellent.

Which brings me onto my second point. Caves of Androzani undeniably works better when you've gone through the Fifth Doctor's life in order, knowing everything that's happened to lead him to this point. However, this strikes me more as dumb luck than design. Tegan and Turlough's departures do add to the Doctor's, but they're both attempts at pathos that assume the characters are something else. The Doctor's death works in the moment, because of what's gone before, but what's gone before doesn't work.

On a purely character and story level this is because Eric Saward's version of Doctor Who would only work with better writers and directors than those available. Saward wasn't a good enough writer to pull off many of his own ideas, and JNT made things harder for him. JNT was, as is clearly evidenced, not good at storytelling, but was good at imposing casting and story choices onto other people. He was good at publicity, he was decent at budget balancing, but his hiring choices were frequently flawed and his personality led to talented people not working on the show (Peter Grimwade being the most notable example, Christopher Priest to a lesser extent, and of course his preference not to use writers who had written for the show). JNT also hired Saward on the basis of The Visitation.

The Visitation is twenty-five minutes of story stretched out to a hundred, directed by Peter Moffat with all the verve of a smaller-than-expected-jobbie breaking the meniscus. There are a lot of good quips, but these aren't enough to hide the fact that nothing is happening. The structure is three episodes of padding to delay the finale, which turns out to be a small scuffle. There's something in there, though, to suggest that Saward as a writer isn't bad, but nothing about The Visitation screams 'Let this man have creative control of the show for the next five years'. And yet.

Both Christopher Bidmead and his successor Antony Root suggested Saward as a potential Script Editor for Doctor Who for a brief period before Root returned. Root did not return. Saward worked on Season 19, but it wasn't until the following series he had a chance to commission stories. JNT meanwhile, brought in Ian Levine and took out the sonic screwdriver. The implication here is that Doctor Who is a show catering to middle aged men who really like clever ways of unlocking doors.

Earthshock is not about clever ways of unlocking doors. It's one of the unsung keys to its success. Saward nails the pacing, and smooths over the cracks in the story with stunningly effective confidence. 'It is when you've got an alien machine over-riding your computer' is a line that, had it occurred in the RTD era, would be pilloried, but here the sheer nerve of such obvious bullshit makes it work. The production team are tonally unified, Peter Grimwade put a hell of a shift in. The story is a success and, as such, ruins Doctor Who until 1987.

From it, we get the idea that bringing back old monsters is intrinsically good. Oddly, the story would work nearly as well with the Sontarans or Ice Warriors, the Cybermen are only necessary by virtue of their surprise return, nothing else in the story necessitates their appearance.

From it, we get the idea that bringing back things from the show's past is intrinsically good. Thus, the Silurians and Sea Devils come back in the sheer concentrated idiocy that is Warriors of the Deep.

From it, we get the idea that Doctor Who is at its best when it is dark and gritty. This idea has some merit if you look at fan polls, but it forgets that without contrast between the stories the impact is lessened.

From it, we get the idea that Doctor Who works well as a cynical action-adventure show. Doctor Who cannot make Earthshock every month. The production simply can't take it.

From it, Peter Grimwade gets chosen to direct the ultimately-cancelled Dalek story for Season 20, and from there JNT falls out with him for the flakiest of reasons.

The fallout results in Season 22, essentially. Earthshock and Androzani lend credence to the idea that Doctor Who should always be like this, when clearly the impact of these is based on a combination of surprise and rarity. If Doctor Who was like Androzani every week it wouldn't be Doctor Who. The nasty undercurrent that starts with bubbling aliens in Pudding Lane increases until it becomes a stick to beat the show with, without the well-meaning nearly-hero as a contrast to take the edge off.

The Doctor's story between Earthshock and Androzani is almost excellent. Davison's Doctor finally triumphing by saving someone, Peri, who he doesn't even like that much. The problem is the nagging sense that the story is only there by accident. This undermines the arc more than absolute fuckery of Warriors of the Deep (a story that shows how difficult it is to balance dark and gritty with Doctor Who's lack of good writers and directors, and JNT's insistence that the production go ahead despite the end result being inevitably compromised by a change in schedule).

Put simply, the Doctor's arc is there if you want it, but the character himself doesn't seem aware of it. Great as the cliffhanger to Androzani Part Three is, there's no real recognition from the Doctor that he's lost people, and this time it's not going to happen. It's all referencing the immediate story, not the longer one. There's no acknowledgement by the show of any intention to make the Doctor react against himself, which is a huge open goal missed. This isn't isolated to this particular part of Doctor Who though, it's just that with so many regular characters it really brings it to the forefront.

Speaking of Androzani and cliffhangers, Graeme Harper eh? Fucking hell. So much effort and energy and yet he didn't actually get all his shots completed. The Doctor was supposed to fight the Magma Beast, but they ran out of time. Serendipity, really. Also reminiscent of Warriors' Gate which Harper directed bits of, when Paul Joyce's ambition got in the way of How Things Were Done. Peter Grimwade was an effective director but to do so he didn't endear himself to people.

Direction which stands up now in the Davison era was done by people who ignored conventions. British TV simply wasn't up to the standards which Doctor Who needed to have to make the show soar. This isn't anyone in the production team's fault, though. It's just how television was. Warriors of the Deep might have a script written by an edgelord with a PG-gore-horn, but it could have looked amazing in the hands of Harper, Grimwade or Joyce. However, to make Doctor Who you needed to get the shots in the can and move on, and the BBC weren't going to give the show the format, time or money to change this.

The impression you get, borne out by the rest of the decade, is that the BBC had no interest in making Doctor Who an enticing prospect for anyone to work on, allowing the show to burrow and snuggle in its niche until it was too late. Thus you get directors who just wanted to get the shots in the can, script editors promoted too soon, and producers who arrived in the job sixteen years too early. Everyone, however well-meaning, seems to have regarded Doctor Who as something other than its best self.

It's a miracle that any of it was good.

Some of it was even brilliant.

I should probably write about that at some point.

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