Doctor, leave the moralising in the past

It isn’t only Doctor Who who has been regenerated as a younger model: so has spiked’s weekly TV columnist.

David Bowden

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So, what do you think of the new bloke then? Isn’t he a bit young, inexperienced and wet for the part? Isn’t his old-mannish dress sense just a preposterous affectation? And isn’t his face just plain weird-looking?

Well, spiked readers will have to remain disappointed. Because Patrick West has gone and I’m the new TV columnist in town. If you’re foreign you’ll just have to go elsewhere to be abused and insulted for being foreign, because I’m all about the internationalist love-in. I even like Belgium. Belgians don’t even like Belgium.

One group of fans who haven’t been disappointed with the new man are fans of Doctor Who. With much fanfare on Easter Saturday the otherwise unknown 27-year-old Matt Smith stepped into a role which made the Great Dane out of David Tennant, and he quickly made it his own. Even the BBC weather forecasters took time out of promising barbecue summers to talk about it – and that’s certainly licence fee money well spent.

Making even more of a splash, however, was the Doctor’s new assistant Amy Pond (played by Karen Gillan). Or more precisely, her legs. Only in the quaint world of BBC family programming do people care about young women’s legs so much, rather than the grown-up lady-parts. In possible anticipation of the forthcoming election campaign, Britain’s media have spent this week legs akimbo. Teenagers were gawping at them, dads were crossing them, moralists have been bashing them and serious Whovians wondered when they’d stop being forced to look at the pretty lady’s legs and get on to the alien cyborgs.

Appropriately, given that the aliens in question were giant robotic eyeballs, the Daily Mail and the Sun have been asking its readers to cast a bulging eye on Gillan’s dirty, sexy legs pretty much every day this week. She had to go on This Morning (ITV1) to defend her legs as ‘part of the plot’. The more highbrow Independent, having preserved its delicate liberal flower from the sweaty overtures of the evil Liddletron, has been keeping above this sort of thing. They just want to know what was going on between Gandhi’s legs.

Actually, as the keen-eyed fans have observed, the most important arrival was neither a Time Lord nor a saucily-dressed kissogram, but a humble writer. For this first new episode, ‘The Eleventh Hour’, also marked the debut of Steven Moffat as producer and lead writer, taking over from Russell T Davies. RTD (as he is known) had been widely praised for resurrecting the show back in 2005 and giving what had become a niche and much-mocked franchise a makeover for a twenty-first-century mass audience. Combining a fanboyish knowledge of the original series with the warm-hearted, camp edge he honed on shows such as Queer As Folk, he managed to produce a programme with genuine crossover, mainstream appeal.

Davies has a sharp eye for social detail and he was willing to mischievously play around with issues which would’ve been treated with agonising earnestness on the BBC’s supposedly more ‘adult’ EastEnders. Unfortunately this meant he also captured most of the infuriating and patronising orthodoxies of the age. The Doctor was reinvented first as a traumatised war victim (Christopher Ecclestone) and then as touchy-feely serial apologist: David Tennant’s catchphrase became, in an echo of the official state apologies over slavery, ‘I’m so sorry’.

Metrosexual (omnisexual fellow time-traveller Captain Jack Harkness became a recurring character), liberal, cosmopolitan (on a universal scale) and sexually chaste (but he does like girls), the Doctor is an alien sent from the future to improve the lives of today’s polluting, wastrel and childishly passive human race and to protect them (largely from themselves). Tellingly, the two longest-running assistants, Rose Tyler and Donna Noble, were both council-estate girls: like a caring social worker the Doctor helped them realise the potential of their otherwise wasted and insignificant little lives spent getting fat in front of the telly, and in return they loved him for it. As the series’ popularity soared, so Auntie’s paternalistic instincts took over. One of Davies’ most grating obsessions was with depicting the Doctor as a Christ-like figure: one imagines for BBC executives burned by ‘Sachsgate’ and stung by repeated criticism of their distinctly un-Reithian output, the Doctor must’ve resembled a dapper saint sent to give the masses a hug and boost the Beeb’s credibility.

Moffat, meanwhile, promises a much darker and comic turn for the series. Primarily known as a comedy writer for the underrated school-based sitcom Chalk, and for the slightly overrated relationship sitcom Coupling, Moffat was also responsible for ‘Blink’ – considered without question to be by far the best single episode of the new Who era. Genuinely suspenseful and cleverly structured, ‘Blink’ thrilled in finding ways to bring out a sense of terror in the every day: the Gothic statue, the dark corner, the blink of an eye. No moral lessons were imparted, no improvements to humanity were offered: instead Moffat simply sought to engage the audience – young and old alike – in thrilling and magical escapism. Television, in other words, which fills its audience with childish wonderment, rather than treating its (numerous) adult viewers like children.

All of these characteristics were in evidence in ‘The Eleventh Hour’, and with a dash of humour to boot. Moffat himself has observed that Doctor Who is not so much sci-fi as fantasy: indeed, with its frequent Earth-set historical and futuristic stories, the new incarnation invokes the spirit more of Mr Benn than Battlestar Gallactica. Here’s hoping the Beeb will put aside their own fantasies of improving the masses and let Moffat get on with a proper public service: giving us good TV.

David Bowden is spiked‘s new TV columnist.

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