The Snark Net.
An occasional series in which I praise the underrated, unacknowledged or unmentionable.
The internet’s capacity for negativity and outrage is probably its most tiring aspect for me. I use Twitter quite a bit, for example, and my feed is often flooded with CAPITALISED, vehement opinions about everything from breastfeeding to The Hobbit. Some fights are worth fighting, of course, but there’s a hunger for outrage and unpleasantness — a desperate hunt for offence — that (in my opinion) only makes the world an uglier place. I’m all for being decent, excellent even, to one another.
In that spirit, I thought I’d start a semi-regular blog in which I come to praise, not bury. The fact is, even the most shoddily assembled art usually has some redeeming features. Why not focus on those for a change, rather than the innumerable failures? So this is The Snark Net, where cheap jibes and snorting derision are unwelcome.
As it’s Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary this week, I thought I should start with something Who-related. Thanks to last week’s minisode The Night of the Doctor, my first pick is a topical one.
The truth is, I love Doctor Who: The Movie (the 1996 half-American TV movie with Paul McGann). It’s an incarnation of the long-running show that, at best, seems to be tolerated by Whovians. Given it was an unsuccessful attempt to relaunch the then-dead programme as an American, X-Files-type series, there’s a general air of failure that lurks over it. The kindest words said usually amount to: Great Doctor, lousy script.
Admittedly, I can’t really defend the denouement, if only because I don’t really know what happens. Something about rewinding time and alarm clocks which, if examined too deeply, kind of spoils the potential for drama in every other episode of Who. But The Movie is hardly the first (or last) episode to rely on some last minute technical gobbledygook or sciencey magic to resolve a crisis.
What The Movie has is a genuine joie de vivre. From its opening moments, there’s an energy that earlier episodes never quite mustered. Sure, the voiceover is more mystifying than explanatory and starting a new series for a new audience inside your spaceship that is, astonishingly, bigger on the inside is a disastrous move. But the direction has such flair, sweeping through the spectacular TARDIS interior, whooshing us down to Earth, through some clever and startling cuts, that we can’t help but be swept along. This is Who at its most cinematic. Witness new companion Grace Holloway sprint down hospital corridors, dressed for the opera. For the first time, the show felt like proper drama, rather than the ephemeral Saturday night entertainment it was intended.
That’s not say the tone is note-perfect. Most of the humour works — it had been a long time since Who had actually contained intentional humour — but there are unquestionably moments of thudding joke-crapness. (Although I rather like those moments, for their quaint 90s-ness.)
Key to its success as a drama is, undoubtedly, the casting of a proper actor in the lead role. Following the series’ demise in 1989, newspaper rumours about new Doctors tended to go: Eric Idle, Tim Curry, John Cleese, Paul Daniels and Eric Idle. Always Eric Idle. McGann was not a comedian. McGann was not a lazy caricature of British eccentricism. McGann was a fine, young actor with a great body of dramatic work including The Monocled Mutineer, The Hanging Gale, Nice Town (which really deserves a DVD release) and Withnail & I.
Put simply, McGann makes the best debut of any Doctor to date. This is particularly impressive, given he spends much of his 60 minutes of screen time in an amnesiac state. He is charismatic, enigmatic, hydromatic (No, wait, that’s Greased Lightning) and romantic. He is at once the most human and most alien of Doctors. He seems more attuned to the emotional lives of others (to the point of telepathy) than previous incarnations, but keeps himself apart — even the much-criticised snog with Grace lacks any real passion. We’re charmed by him, but we’re not sure how much we trust him. It’s a shame that subsequent attempts (in spin-off fiction) to develop McGann’s Eighth Doctor focused more on the romance and the apparent sweetness than his slipperiness.
Cards on the table — McGann is my favourite Doctor. (Tom Baker aside, obviously. Nobody can compete with Tom.) He treats the part as a proper acting gig, rather than an excuse to flail around and hog the screen. As the recent minisode proved, he brings a welcome emotional weight to the role and despatches the required humour with subtlety. He understands that the funniest things are rarely those moments that are telegraphed as such. His disarming of a policeman is probably the single most perfect Doctorish moment yet seen on screen.
Grace Holloway, his quasi-companion, is no less wonderful. In the hands of Daphne Ashbrook, she is strong, funny, vulnerable and, again, more human than most of the Doc’s sidekicks. She has a dropkick boyfriend, she has a high-powered job, and she has a nice line in sarcastic banter. We know people like her and we like people like her. It’s a shame, perhaps, that the story doesn’t wholly belong to her. The structure would make a lot more sense if we began with her being called into hospital, to attend to a mysterious gunshot victim. When the series returned in 2005, writer Russell T Davies understood the drama in letting the mystery of the Doctor unfold from the companion’s perspective, rather than being cancelled out by an infodump.
For all of its alleged flaws, The TV Movie is great fun. When it first showed back in 1996, ordinary, sane people were talking about Doctor Who again. People who hadn’t watched the show for more than a decade. Remember, this was before Buffy brought a snappy self-awareness to sci-fi, which made it okay for the mainstream to tune in.
I honestly believe Who is at its best at its least geeky — when it caters to the mainstream by incorporating elements of other things we love. This is something the TV Movie does very well. People who don’t watch sci-fi will recognise elements of ER, The X-Files (okay, technically sci-fi, but more horror-based and massive at the time) and Sherlock Holmes. At the time, I appreciated the lack of bug-eyed monsters. This was Who attempting to ground itself in the proudly cynical 1990s, without losing any of its wit, invention or joy.
In the UK, the episode rated more highly than Who had for 20 years or would again until David Tennant was in full swing. It proved similarly popular in Australia, where it was repeated several times over the next couple of years. In the US, of course, it was killed by Roseanne. We never got to see where McGann’s Doctor would have taken us, but the recent glimpse suggests it would have been somewhere pretty fantastic.
I may have watched this a few times today. What can I say? It’s been a long time coming. (And he might just be my favourite Doc.)
A: He lit a cigarette. His glass of whiskey lit a cigarette too. “I can only truly love my best friend,” he said, “but not in a gay way. Women wouldn’t understand it. They’re too gay.” Both of the cigarettes agreed.”
This amused me. *goes and removes whiskey and cigarette references from WIP*
“All the people who were geeky at school and mocked have, through their passions, become powerful people in entertainment and revitalised all these things that were thought to be uncool.”
Nicholas Briggs, interviewed for Screen Education
As many of you are no doubt aware, I’ve been a lifelong Doctor Who fan. Surprising, really, that it’s taken me this long to write anything about it. The feature below is a piece I wrote for Australian magazine Screen Education. It’s a somewhat personal guide to Who, looking at the show’s ability to inspire its young viewers to embark on their own creative feats. It certainly did the trick for me.
The article features interviews with Nicholas Briggs (voice of the Daleks and producer of the Doctor Who audio adventures) and John Richards (writer of sci-fi sitcom Outland and one half of current Who podcast Splendid Chaps).
Fifty Years of Doctor Who: Revenge of the Geeks(scroll down to the bottom of the page)
"Firmly grounded in reality, the film balances its moments of extreme, exhilarating tension against tender moments of human drama."
GRAVITY reviewed for The Weekly Review