Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE LONG GAME - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Doctor Who: The RTD Years Vol. 1 - Revisiting THE LONG GAME

Fake News! Cries Tony from the 500th floor.
There are episodes and stories in Doctor Who that are instant classics the moment they go out into the world. Then there are those odd episodes that take a little while to mature in your consciousness, and, on a rewatch, turn out to be much better and cleverer and more layered than you ever remember them being.

Welcome to The Long Game, the first sleeper hit of the RTD1 era.

Having just picked up billionaire Henry Van Statten’s errand boy, Adam Mitchell (Bruno Langley), as a partial thank you for his help in battling the “last Dalek in existence” in Utah (because, naturally…), the Doctor and Rose take him to the year 200,000, to a space station called Satellite Five, where all the news in the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire is made, packaged and distributed to a culture defined and dependent on that constant flow of news.

It tells them what to think, and how to think it, and from there it dictates their actions, their reality, and their horizons. Can we say “dark satire on the culture of round-the-clock news and the effect it has on society”?

Thought we could.

It gets a lot better and more layered than that, though. At the top of the pile, literally as well as figuratively, sits the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe.

Yes. Quite. No-one does made-up nonsense-names quite like RTD, and arguably, he never did it quite as wildly and freely and joyously as he did in Series 1. The point is, once you get past “Mighty Jagrafess,” no-one needs to remember the rest, and no-one does. Make it a giant, slavering, razor-toothed… erm… nub-ended knobhead, with a giant, sweat-slick mass of a body underneath its teeth and its self-importance complex, and it could be any of the world’s modern media barons. Which means it can handily stand in for all of them in this object lesson about the power of information control.

Information control, incidentally, is why history is in no verifiable way the thing you think it is. It’s why you cheer who you cheer, and boo who you boo. It’s how some wars are made to seem acceptable, even against the poor. You tweak the words used to describe a group of people, you repeat the words, regularly, as though there’s no other way of looking at the world but your own, and with astonishing rapidity, you’ll find constituents parroting your fantasies back to you, as though you told the truth. It’s a depressing reality (he said, influencing the flow of information) that peer pressure is barely a handful of heartbeats away from groupthink, and humans hate and fear to be on the outside of a gang position.

Emperors. Clothes. Etc.

There’s a neat ongoing gag in The Long Game – to receive the information and distribute it effectively to everyone else, you have to be literally “open-minded,” and the more news the human race consumes, the fewer questions it asks, and the more certain it becomes that things are the way they are because… they just are. Even the journalists – especially the journalists – are compliant clients of the bosses they don’t know, fed the most childish and transparent of fantasies to keep them in line (“The walls are made of gold…”).

No really – The Long Game is a lot better than you remember it being. It’s not just the story with Simon Pegg prancing about like a middle management Jack Frost with a spiky hairstyle.

I mean, it is, ALSO, the story with Simon Pegg prancing about like a middle management Jack Frost with a spiky hairstyle, but that’s absolutely no bad thing either. In fact, if he hadn’t already played the Editor in this story, he would have made a highly effective Master when that character was re-introduced into 21st century Doctor Who, because, barring the occasional laser screwdriver and a bit of dancing, he gives a fairly effective foreshadowing of the John Simm incarnation here – assuming the Master was also a toady who was ultimately terrified of some literal higher power.

In fact, the star or star-to-be power in The Long Game is impressive. That’s Anna Maxwell-Martin as Suki Macrae Cantrell, would-be journalist and secret freedom fighter. Christine Adams is Cathica, the careerist journo whose dream is to ascend to Floor 500 – the meaningless pinnacle of success, which ironically, she’s denied in this system because she’s too good at doing the job the Jagrafess and the Editor want her to do. And perhaps the most surprising star to pop up in the episode is Tamsin Greig of Black Books and Friday Night Dinner fame, as the creepily seductive medic who gives Adam his full news-spike conversion, complete with cranial opening.

Above the surface of the satire though, the top-level storyline is all about what it takes to be “the right stuff” to travel in space and time. While Rose ran into the box when she was promised danger and wonder in equal measure, Adam has been familiar with the reality of aliens for some time, and so he’s more vulnerable to greed, for knowledge and a way to set himself and his family up forever – essentially, to emulate Van Statten, rather than the Doctor – by plundering the far future for its technological knowledge.

When, ultimately, the Jagrafess is defeated (for which, read “exploded”), and the Doctor (naively, as it will come to be understood) believes the empire of humanity should regain the place in history he believes it would have had without a 90-year detour into intellectual slavery, the Doctor is absolutely merciless to Adam.

While he jokes early in the episode about Adam being Rose’s “boyfriend” – an element of racial whitewashing that’s slightly uncomfortable 18 years on (Mickey is Rose’s “boyfriend” if anyone, and it’s slightly odd that he’s immediately replaced in the Doctor’s imagination the moment a white man comes along who’s “a bit pretty” – just sayin’), by the end, he has no mercy left for Mitchell.

Having had the upgrade for the news-spike, the Doctor tells him he’ll have to live an unremarkable life and be average, stay out of trouble, for fear of being dissected for the knowledge of how his head opens at the snap of a finger.

Everyone remembers this as the story in which Adam Mitchell fails the test of the Time Lord and is punished accordingly. What’s less well remembered is quite how hard he fights the temptation – he tries really hard to downgrade himself to a simple, invisible chip in the back of the head (for all his ultimate intention is to broadcast future technology news to his folks back home, so he can capitalize on it when he returns). He’s only ultimately persuaded to go for the full upgrade by Tamsin Greig’s slightly vampy surgeon. If he falls, he falls with assistance, though the fundamental truth of his intention to become a new Van Statten through the mechanism of a trip through time can’t really be denied.

At the time of its initial broadcast, The Long Game was always going to suffer by comparison with the episode that preceded it, which reinvigorated the Daleks for the 21st century audience.

Rewatched 18 years on, The Long Game is much better, and more socially relevant, than it was in 2005. The coming of so-called “fake news,” social media bubbles reinforcing the views of everyone within them, the lack of even the most cursory critical examination of stories, and the increasingly blatant blurring of the function of the news media, resulting in things like the Brexit vote, the Trump presidency, and the January 6th insurrection, have made the themes of The Long Game about information management and the selling of a big lie by repetition much more potent now than they were back when it was originally transmitted.

Client journalism – a valid, if potentially slightly esoteric target in 2005 – has become practically the norm by which we’ve decided (or had it decided for us) that we’re going to live. So ironically, we’ve societally caught up with where Russell T Davies told us we were going in Series 1 of 21st century Doctor Who.

That fact, plus some cracking performances, particularly from Simon Pegg as a credible toady-cum-villain, makes The Long Game more than worth a rewatch as we head into the new era of Russell T Davies.

It was prescient then. It looks nail-on-the-head accurate now.

If the Jagrafess effects have aged a little poorly, with liquid pouring off thecreature but not being noticed by the actors “underneath” it, give the story a break – don’t get distracted by the minutiae of the visuals. Focus on the themes and The Long Game emerges as the beginning of a new, stronger strand of punchy, experimental storytelling in Series 1.

After the almost obligatory battle with alien evil in the contemporary world, a trip to the far future, a trip to the recent past, a political satire on public misinformation and unscrupulous capitalists, and the resurrection (ahem) of the Classic show’s greatest monster, Episode 7 in the run was the right moment to start striking out in new and bold directions. And while on broadcast it might have seemed like so much star-studded filler, 18 years on, The Long Game stands up exceptionally well.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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