Given that most of my exposure to Doctor Who growing up came from reading Target novels – which was fine, but it didn’t help me when I needed to know how to pronounce some of the names. This was in days long before any kind of phonics teaching, so how the hell would I know how to pronounce ‘Turlough’? The books featuring the Doctor Peter were becoming my favourites, second only to Doctor Jon, but how can you really understand The Awakening when you don’t know who’s called what. Sontarans were called ‘Sonatarans’ in my head; I misread The Five Doctors (its shiny cover defaced by the Target library numbers I would scrawl in biro on every book in an early obsession with categorising) and thought the villain of the piece was called Rassilion.
(in those days, Literacy lessons were little more than a teacher standing at the front of a class and saying ‘Go on then; write a story.’ Ninety per cent of what I chose to write was a Doctor Who piece. After reading The Five Doctors I decided to create a new Time Lord hero – Rassilion – a young, rebellious Time Lord, fleeing Gallifrey and not afraid to use guns. My teacher read the piece, and – I still have the work book to this day – commented ‘Nice story. Makes a change from you-know-who.’ Little did he know…)
What is the programme’s obsession with Gallifrey? The Doctor’s home planet was irrelevant for the first six years of the programme, and not even named after another four. Why do we insist on imposing a home on the most restless of travellers?
* * *
This is what a ‘cheap’ episode of Doctor Who looks like in 2007 – nominally, the reuse of the car set, should allow for a reduced budget, but CGI scenes, giant mechanical faces, cat costumes aren’t cheap. So a small story about a society gone wrong, becomes a quite wonderful glimpse into a thousand different lives.
The third series of Doctor Who (and they’re very much series now, not seasons), is one that is in the process of being re-evaluated. It was seen as a success at the time, but now seems to not be blessed with fandom’s fickle hand of popularity. In part, this is due to the presence of Freema Agyeman – the abandoned companion who is defined by an unrequited crush on the Doctor throughout her time on the show. Following on from the epic romance of Rose Tyler was always going to be hard, but the production team had little interest in creating a genuine rival for our affection. The second reason seems to be in endings. Story endings seem to be vital in the ‘Golden Age of Television’. At the time, The Shield was seen as the poor cousin to The Wire, but the fact that The Wire’s final season was a sensationalist piece of drama, quite out of place with its previous years, and The Shield’s final season was a successfully tragic dismantling of a world, means that it is the latter that is now referred to as a masterpiece. The West Wing, Deadwood, Lost – all considered masterpieces at the time, but utterly neglected once they couldn’t land their endings. Series Three, with the Utopia / Sound of Drums / The Last of Time Lords hysteria and narrative disconnect, means that fandom loathes what it is confronted with.
I disagree. And Gridlock, the cheap, rushed-out story, knocked-off by the lead writer to fill a gap, shows how imaginative and bold the series is. At this moment, the series is riding a wave, genuinely the most popular show on British TV and one that children everywhere adore.
A big part of this is due to David Tennant… who honestly, is just about the most overrated lead actor in the part. Doctor David is an irritating, smug chancer – whose main response to any moment of dramatic tension is to shout a lot. Here, he plays the ultimate cock-tease, flirting with Martha to feed his ego. He is nothing but a tourist; when he visits the decaying, urban wasteland of the lower levels, he has no real understanding of the suffering of those he meets. His accent, one that is rarely commented upon, is that of a thoroughly middle-class individual pretending to be poorer than he actually is. London is littered with these Estrurian-sounding, Jamie Oliver knock-offs.
Maybe I needed to be eight years old to truly appreciate him.
Despite the mainstream popularity of the show, it still remains precious to the fans. This is no more evident than in the use of the Macra. One-off monsters from forty years before, repurposed to fill a gap. It is notable that they are missing – there are no surviving episodes of The Macra Terror in the archives, so the reimagining of them as CGI creatures is done with ease. But they exist as little more than a wry smile, a knowing wink to a small part of the audience.
In the episode, Davies is hoping to examine the tendencies of modern society. The unwillingness of many in lower society to report crime. How the society remains more stratified than ever, despite some material social progress. How the move to a secular society has not brought about the destruction of faith; instead the stories of ‘god’ are replaced with the stories of ‘humanity’ (Davies is significantly guilty of this – see The Last of the Time Lords.) The structure is the same, the patterns we follow are the same, it’s just the words we choose that have changed.
Russell T. Davies, a man abandoned by everything, decides to put his faith in a living story. The mutable, overwhelming story of Doctor Who. It is a story that will outlive his tenure on the show. More than anyone, he understands that it is a story that will never end…
…so this is perhaps why his endings to his episodes are so throwaway.
KKLAK! LIVES will return towards the end of April.