Monday, October 08, 2018

The Regeneration Game

Reviewing schlocky movies is, I find, relatively straightforward, as I usually approach them with no expectations. After all, we're generally talking here about exploitation films made on shoestring budgets, so if they are anything other than entirely terrible, it is a pleasant surprise.  And many of them are much better than they have any right to be bearing in mind their limited resources.  Sure, I will often have read plenty of other people's opinions about these films before I watch them, but I've never let that sway my own opinions of them: there are some films universally decried by others that I've loved.  Of course, even if we don't have preconceptions of a film's quality, our own prejudices, beliefs and perspectives will inevitably influence how we interpret them.  But there are other forms of media I find it much harder to be objective over television and, most specifically, long running shows I've watched, as a fan, for years, sometimes decades are impossible to approach without expectations and preconceptions.  Which brings me, finally, to the latest episode of Doctor Who, which, last night, kicked off both a new series and a new regeneration.

Yo be honest, I'd had no intention of watching it.  With all long-running series I think that all of us, even the most die hard of fans, come to a point where they feel that the show's evolution has finally reached a point where it is no longer the programme we fell in love with all those years ago.  At this point, some rant and rage and denounce it all as a travesty, others simply quietly disengage from it.  Which is what I had intended to do with Doctor Who. My enjoyment of it had been in decline for several years, as it became bogged down with story arcs which never seemed to be properly resolved, often perfunctory plot resolutions, constant revisionism with regard to established continuity and two seasons of poor scripting for Peter Capaldi.  His third and final series was an improvement, but the announcements of Chris Chibnall as the new showrunner (his scripts were OK but had never really impressed me) and Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor killed off any lingering interest I had .  And no, I'm not some sort of sexist dinosaur, but I'm afraid that I simply don't see a sudden gender change for an established character a natural evolution.  Rather, it seemed to have been forced upon the show as part of the BBC's peculiar idea that gender and racial imbalances of the past can somehow be rectified by the arbitrary imposition of casting 'quotas' on existing productions.  Surely a better solution would be to develop new programming which features strong female characters in the leading roles?  Even more than that though, I just thought that Whittaker was miscast - she just wasn't up to the role.  If you are to have a female Doctor, than there are many, many far more capable actresses I can think of for the role.

So, for all these reasons I'd decided to simply stop watching.  Certainly, none of the promos for the new series had done anything to enthuse me about it.  But, as it happened, I was somewhere yesterday where the TV was tuned to BBC1 while it was on and, out of politeness to my hosts, I ended up watching the last half.  Having seen it, I thought I might as well jump on the bandwagon and give my impressions of the show along with every other geek.  Out of fairness, I thought that I should watch the whole episode, so I caught up with the first half on iPlayer.  Well, the first thing to say was that it wasn't as bad I had feared it would be.  But that really is damning it with faint praise, because it still wasn't that good.  The script was overly simplistic and shamelessly ripped off Predator, but without the budget.  There was no real sense of menace or threat, no real ideas, no subtlety, no sub-text.  it was entirely superficial. Some viewers have complained that, stylistically, it didn't even feel like Doctor Who.  I'm not sure I agree with them, but it was certainly Who-lite, neatly lobotomised for what its current makers clearly think is a mass audience.  It actually reminded me somewhat of the sort of stuff we were served up in the Sylvester McCoy era.  Which is no good thing - too many weak stories, too much dumbing down in the search for a wider audience.  It is perhaps no coincidence that many of the cheer leaders for this current incarnation of the show are self-professed fans of the McCoy years. 

To be fair, I rather liked the 'look' of last night's episode.  It reminded me of the style used by low budget British exploitation directors like Norman J Warren (whose highly enjoyable Prey, a rather more effective low budget science fiction thriller, I watched the other day) in the seventies.  That said, I rather think that the BBC should be setting its sights a bit higher than that in terms of production values.  There were other things I liked: the new version of the theme music was agreeably retro and the new companions seem quite promising, particularly Bradley Walsh, who is actually a pretty decent dramatic actor.  Which brings us, inevitably, to the matter of the new Doctor.  I'm afraid that Whittaker did nothing to contradict my feelings about her.  I found her performance flat and uninvolving.  There was no nuance to it, no depth, no resonance, no authority, no real presence.  It appeared as if she had no grasp of the character beyond being 'a bit whacky'.  She certainly didn't convey any of the alien-ness of the Doctor.  Now, I know that there are many who will say that you can't judge a Doctor's performance by their first appearances while they are still settling in to the role.  But the fact is that opening episodes for new Doctors are usually filmed part way through the series shooting schedule, so as to ensure a a more assured performance, (certainly, that's how it has worked since Doctor Who was revived in 2005).  So, if that is how she plays the part after having several months filming already in order to establish herself, I'm really not impressed.  There was, for me, a vacuum at the heart of the episode, where there instead should have been a charismatic performance.

The question is, of course, whether I'll be watching it again.  Actually, before we get to that, there is another question: to what extent were my reactions to this episode coloured by my preconceptions and prejudices?  Was I going in determined not to like it, or Whittaker's Doctor no matter what?  A fair question.  I would like to think that I tried to put these aside and judge it as I would any other episode, regardless of the writer or star.  As for watching again - I will probably try at least one more episode, later in the run to if it has improved.  I dearly hope it will.  Even if I'm no longer a regular viewer, I'd hate to see the show cancelled or put on a lengthy hiatus again.



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