And now, Tony on Venusian nose-harp…
Doctor Who has always been able to do absolutely anything, subject to support from programme-makers and fans.
It’s been a morality play, a grand adventure, a comic romp, a philosophical exploration, a soap opera, a cosmic romance and much else besides.
But its first and most important role has always been to tell good stories.
It stopped doing that in the Sylvester McCoy era, or “The Concept Album Years,” as I think of them.
Audiences will forgive a lot if there’s a decent story underneath it all. All of the best – and plenty of the worst – Doctor Who stories had that going for them; a structure that takes the viewer from a start point to an end point, through a series of thrills and chills with some internally logical explanation along the way. Even The Twin Dilemma had that. Even Timelash.
But the McCoy era marked the progressive erosion of active storytelling in Doctor Who, in favour of stews of ideas and elements that were less and less coherently explained, less and less convincingly connected, meaning Doctor who in the later McCoy era had nothing to fight its opposition on commercial channels with, nothing much in the way of storytelling to tell people who tuned in what Doctor Who was about. In a quest to make the Doctor ‘more mysterious’ (sure, he’s a 900 year-old time traveller who can completely change his physical appearance, has two hearts and bobs around time and space in a police box that’s bigger on the inside – nothing mysterious there), stories became a soup of concepts, broody silences and action that made no sense. They became less like stories, more like jigsaw puzzles, challenging the viewer to fit the pieces together. The show did some good things, particularly giving Ace a background and a story-arc, but the quest for mystery meant disconnected storylines and intellectual soup replaced storytelling logic.
Were this an absolutist position, it could be easily disproved, so let’s be clear – there are still great Doctor Who stories right to the end of McCoy’s run. Really, the idea of the McCoy era as the “Concept Album Years” rests on four stories, amounting to half of Season 25 and half of Season 26.
Season 25 began in spectacular style with Remembrance of the Daleks, a story jam-packed with actual storytelling, with which I have no quarrel. Similarly, The Happiness Patrol, while subject to 80s budgets and the execrable execution of the Kandyman, made perfect sense – Evil regime, needs overthrowing. Graeme Curry’s story spent a long time getting its mood on, but the story of the Doctor and Ace working to overthrow the regime is standard, linear storytelling of the kind that could be picked up by non-fans and understood by them as both allegory and adventure.
The trouble really started with Silver Nemesis. Silver Nemesis was little more than three episodes of running around, with four random power groups – Cybermen, Nazis, Lady Peinforte and Richard, and the Doctor and Ace – grabbing a piece of a multi-element MacGuffin en route to a nonsensical conclusion that replaced the even more nonsensical conclusion thought up for it on the spot by Kevin ‘no preparation’ Clarke - that ‘the Doctor is God.’
The only thing about Silver Nemesis to really grab the attention was the fact that it was crawling with Cybermen, but even this element made no sense – they arrived at the end of Episode 1, wandered about looking for the elements of the Nemesis statue, and were killed with ludicrous ease, mostly because neither Clarke nor Cartmel realised it should be harder than firing a doubloon at them from a catapult – nor, it seems, cared enough to check. The Cybermen, the so-called masters of logic, were also entirely illogical in the story, refusing to be interested in the secrets of the Time Lords, after faffing about on Earth trying to steal one of the secrets of the Time Lords. It was just a single mad idea, strung out over three episodes, with a lot of running to fill in the blanks where the storytelling should have been.
The rot continued in The Greatest Show In The Galaxy, but in a more insidious form. Where Silver Nemesis showed ‘couldn’t care less’ plotting, Greatest Show, by Stephen Wyatt, was the beginning of the trend towards ‘concept’ plotting. Was the idea of a creepy circus a good one? Of course. Did The Greatest Show have something about it that made it worth watching? Absolutely – it had Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown. Did it make any sense under the sun? No, not really. A circus that kills people could have made sense, absolutely – it’s since been adapted to make perfectly good gothic sense at Big Finish in the Jago & Litefoot range. But the gods of Ragnarok? What-now? It ended up looking and feeling like a single idea stretched out over an agonisingly long four episodes, with stunt casting – Peggy Mount, TP McKenna, Gian Sammarco – thrown at the screen to cover up an unending parade of circus acts in a quarry. Great concept, zero storytelling.
Season 26 kicked off with another Ben Aaronovitch script, which stood head and shoulders above everything since the last Ben Aaronovitch script, but even there, the sense of easier going storytelling demands was felt – there are some fairly chunky logic-gaps in Battlefield that were never explained, and nor was it felt necessary by anyone on the Production Team that they should be. The Invasion of the Arthurian Knights was the concept, and it largely didn’t matter what the next four episodes actually contained, so long as the concept was clear.
Ghost Light was fantastically atmospheric, and touched on evolution versus stasis, which was a great concept. But if it made sense to anyone outside Marc Platt’s head, there are hats to be eaten, along with a healthy bowl of primordial soup. The storytelling was forced along simply by some executive notion that there should probably be some, but again, it’s magnificently irrelevant when compared to the concept of the story. The point about which is that storytelling dies when it’s smothered to death by concepts, and Ghost Light helped to suffocate the storytelling strength of Doctor Who. The move towards concept-heavy, story-light tales, as part of the noxiously-named ‘Cartmel Master Plan’ (a name Cartmel eschews at every possible opportunity) ended up killing one of the crucial things that had set Doctor Who apart – its ability to entice passing viewers with an intriguing story.
And then there’s The Curse of Fenric. Yes, yes, I know, sacred ground. The Curse of Fenric is the ultimate example of a Concept Album story – which is not to say it doesn’t do some things extremely well. You absolutely have to give credit to Ian Briggs for the development of Ace in this story, and the brave decision to show the Doctor destroying her faith in him. But beyond that, what the hell is the story? Viking runes, a curse passed down, an Elder God/Djinn/Some Other Damn Thing that possesses people and manipulates events. The idea of Fenric is great – or would be, were it ever more than hinted at. Then there’s the British Army mob, one dressing up like a Nazi, one with a cipher-cracking machine with a canister of lurid green gas in it to kill the enemy with. Could this be more convoluted to no real point?
Oh hold on, here come the Haemovores, from…somewhere. And then there’s the Ancient One, who may in fact be from a polluted future. And the teenage girls who go vampire-creepy, rather than full-on Haemovore, for no reason that makes any sense. And faith is a shield for…reasons! It looks interesting, and it does the Sea Devil thing of weird creatures emerging from the sea, but ultimately The Curse of Fenric is the twelve-minute guitar solo on a prog rock album.
Survival, perversely, is that track at the end of a concept album that sounds strangely addictive and commercial, the season – and the show – ending on an up-turn thanks to the conscientious construction work of Rona Munro. It’s an engaging story of people going missing and the Doctor and Ace putting a stop to it, as well as all the underlying sturm and drang of its high-concept emotional and anti-violent arc.
In seasons as long as Hartnell’s or Troughton’s, Pertwee’s or Baker’s – or in series as long as New Who’s are - you can get away with experimentation and the occasional concept album. But in McCoy’s era, where four stories made a season, the decision to favour concepts over storytelling gave no-one but the hardcore fans (and only some of them) anything to hold onto in Doctor Who. There were plenty of other factors at work in the show’s eventual cancellation, but for the time and the predicament in which the show found itself, the Dark Doctor and the Concept Album approach were absolutely the wrong way to go.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk