Thomas Sutcliffe: This is no job for a grown-up
‘In the wilder extremes of Whomania, I’ve felt like the one person whose brain doesn’t respond to an alien hypnosis beam’
Friday, 23 May 2008
Something rather remarkable happened this week, though it's possible that it passed unnoticed by those of you without a professional interest in the matter. For the first time in around the past 140 issues, the Radio Times appeared without any mention of Doctor Who on its cover. No illustration of a Sontaran in Sontaran evening dress. No little red flash promising you an opportunity to meet Doctor Who's daughter. No copyline implying that an ornament of the Royal Shakespeare Company has finally achieved career apotheosis with a walk-on part. It was so uncanny I had to check twice, but it was really true. It was a Doctor Who-free zone – which I'd come to assume was as unlikely a thing as a first-class stamp without the Queen's head on it.
It helped, of course, that Doctor Who isn't actually on this weekend – having been bumped out of the schedules by the Eurovision Song Contest – but I'm pretty sure that such details haven't stopped them in the past... and I was naturally tempted to interpret the absence as evidence of a larger cultural shift. Just as Kremlinologists used to detect shake-ups in the Politburo hierarchy by checking out who was sitting where on the May Day reviewing stand, could this vacancy be a sign that the hegemonic power of Doctor Who is, at last, beginning to fade?
That eerie Radio Times cover coincided this week with the news that Russell T Davies is to give up acting as the programme's executive producer, though he will be in charge of four specials that are planned for next year. Davies is to be replaced by the writer Steven Moffat, author of the sitcom Coupling and the recent series Jekyll, which showed that he could give fantastical storylines a nice edge of adult wit. This seemed to me to be a good news/bad news deal. On the one hand, one of Britain's most interesting television writers has at last been liberated from the task of thinking up silly nonsense for a teatime audience and could be welcomed back to the real world. On the other hand, this had only been achieved by the cultural equivalent of a hostage swap. There are writers one would be quite happy to see chained below decks in the Doctor Who galley, so that their energies are entirely consumed in a broadly harmless manner, but Moffat – who can write for grown-ups – is not one of them. He didn't see it this way himself, of course, announcing that it was the "best and toughest job in television".
I'd beg to differ – and it's one of the reasons that I'm so glad that Davies has finally sprung himself from literary incarceration, even if he's only on provisional parole for the moment. Because although it is undoubtedly quite tricky to come up with a really memorable bit of Gothic for the Doctor Who series (Moffat's episode "Blink" comes to mind as an example, as it happens), it's also true that most episodes of Doctor Who are forgivingly predictable in their plot and psychological dynamics. In the wilder extremes of Whomania over the past couple of years I've occasionally felt like the one person on the planet whose brain isn't wired to respond to an alien hypnosis beam – a lucky break obviously not shared by the editor of the Radio Times, BBC commissioning editors and, I might as well confess, my own children. Can't everybody see that it's OK for immature audiences but hardly justifies the black hole gravitational pull it seems to exert over genuinely talented writers? Does nobody else feel like giving Christopher Eccleston a heroic conduct medal for getting out so quickly, before the franchise had a chance to scar him permanently? And am I the only person who yearns to see David Tennant released into a less two-dimensional role? (People like to pretend it's three-dimensional characterisation, but it's actually just like one of those novelty postcards which flicker as you turn them from side to side).
Of course, it's a good thing that children have decent writers writing for them and possibly a good thing, too, that families have something they can all watch together (though I thought we were all supposed to be outside, playing a fat-burning game of park football). But, pace Moffat, the really tough job on British television remains writing decent drama for grown-ups – popular series that don't invent other worlds to escape to, but address the one we actually find ourselves living in. There aren't that many writers who can take on the tricky post-watershed topics of how human beings – not Daleks or Oods or Cybermen – relate to each other. Davies is one, and it's good to have him back on Earth.
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