Doctor Who - The End Of TimeI don't watch much TV. For some reason I'm not very good at it. I think it's the non-interactive nature that's the problem, because I can spend all day and night playing a computer game or reading a book, but start to get twitchy after an hour's TV. It's a shame, because I know there's a lot of stuff out there that I would enjoy (and indeed do enjoy when it happens to be on), but I just can't summon up focus to actually watch it. Luckily, my peer group have eclectic taste, so having missed any given program is no bar to conversation, because there are always other people in the same boat. And once you factor in PVRs, downloads and DVD boxed sets, it's very rare for there to be a programme that everyone's watching at the same time, no matter how compelling.
However, Doctor Who is about as close as we get, and what with this one being the last of the season (or specials, or whatever) and the Doctor scheduled to die and all, I could be fairly confident that there'd be a discussion about it and didn't want to feel left out. When I was an impressionable teenager, peer-group pressure never got me into anything worse than drinking Coke and roleplaying, but now, as an adult, I was going to do something that I didn't feel comfortable with just to keep in with my friends.
Well, all right, it wasn't just that. For me, the recent episodes of Doctor Who have what I have come to think of as the Voyager Effect. I'd never been very into any of the flavours of Star Trek, but during my listless days immediately post-university I did go out of my way to catch episodes of Voyager. While I found the other series boring and hokey, Voyager was different: it was consistently compellingly awful. I had much more fun groaning at the terrible 'Irish theme pub in spaaaace' holodeck episodes, or the one where they went too faster than light and evolved into newts, than I ever did watching any of the blandly competent alien-bothering of the other ones. I'm sure they had their terrible moments too (and I'm willing to believe they even had good bits), but I actually found it more pleasing to watch something reliably bad. And though I've heard spirited attempts to deny this, the last few Doctor Whos have been reliably bad. So, in summary, I watched something I expected to hate just so I could trash it in conversation later. I am given to understand that most reality TV is popular for the same reasons.
So that's why tinyjo and I sat down on Christmas Day at her parent's house to watch it. It was a oddly nostalgic feeling; as it had been a long time since I'd watched TV with grown-ups and found myself terribly embarrassed by it. As a teenager, it was the fault of unexpected sex-scenes or risqué jokes, but this time it was just the fact that we had actually asked to watch something so incoherent and mawkish. I found myself worrying that tinyjo's (very non-judgemental) parents would think that this was the sort of thing that we liked or, perhaps worse, that this is what science fiction is like.
My lovely grandmother was always pleased that I read so much, but always a little bit disappointed that it was pretty much all SF. I think she hoped that it was a phase I'd grow out of, then start reading proper books. I tried to explain that it was a genre at least as capable of being mind-expanding and thought-provoking as any other, but she never seemed convinced. In fact, I'm pretty sure she didn't really have much of an idea of what science fiction really was, just a vague impression that it was full of bad writing, slim characterisation and arbitrary rules. Recent Doctor Who feels like an inexplicable attempt to prove her right. SF fans who are pleased just because it's a big budget mainstream science fiction show are as wrong as people who are glad that teenagers are reading Twilight because at least it means they're reading. In both cases, I think the wrong lessons are being taught, and I profoundly hope that no-one takes these things as representative. Doctor Who is a bad ambassador.
I realise that I've spent all this time writing about my response instead of the programme itself, but I'm pretty sure that's a legitimate school of reviewing. On the other hand, I feel that I should probably make at least a cursory attempt to explain why I though it was terrible; after all, there were enough good reasons. A key problem, shared with the previous episodes in this series, is that it felt far too long, or, perhaps equivalently, that the plot felt far too sparse. There was a horrible moment when we were breathing sighs of relief that it was ending, then a quick press of the pause button revealed that there were still twenty minutes to go. We both groaned in despair. Entertainment should not have this effect. This is not even so bad it's good, it's just a painful waste of time.
Maybe the problem was that there wasn't really much of a plot at all. Instead a situation was (gracelessly) established, then we alternated between derivative action, limp comedy and ghastly character development until the Doctor sorted it out. I'm inclined to blame the magical nature of the plots. For instance, we have a device that's turned every human into copies of The Master (unless they were in a special box) and hence(?) a planet is materialising from some[where/when] outside time and space to just above the earth. I've read a fair few Doctor Who books, seen odds and sods of previous seasons, and (as I've explained) even discussed the lot from time to time, but I had absolutely sense of why any of this was happening, or what could possibly stop it. In fact, I was in much the same position as the Doctor himself, in that we both assumed that solution would present itself if he ran around a lot until he found himself in the right time and place, put everything back to normal, then died. Sure enough he did, and not nearly fast enough and I was still none the wiser.
I can but hope this either discourages my friends from watching any more and I can allow it to drop back off my radar, or that the new writers manage to turn things round. Sadly, neither seems likely.
I still stand by all of the above, though I am pleased to note that, in retrospect, that final line was pessimistic. The Matt Smith episodes have been vastly more enjoyable, and occasionally actually good, and thus my resentment of my friends' tastes has much abated. In time, I may even come to forgive them.