The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

No Surprises

Gradually getting back into this blogging lark. I’ve even made a list of a dozen things to write about, and that’s without Getting Me Started On Politics.

There’s a new issue of Doctor Who Magazine in the shops. It comes in a plastic bag this month, for three reasons. One, because there’s a free poster. Two, to discourage people from reading it in Smith's (“What is this, a bleedin’ library?”). And Three, because the actual cover is a desperate cry for help. :)

My contribution is, of course, the comic strip, the fourth and concluding part of the epic The Golden Ones. Will Axos destroy Tokyo and take over the world? It looks quite likely on page 1, looks rather less likely by page 10. Along the way, there’s some stunning artwork by Martin Geraghty, inked by David Roach, coloured by James Offredi and lettered by Roger Langridge. They, along with editors Tom Spilsbury and Scott Gray, deserve all the credit. I just come up with the jokes and paragraph-long descriptions of things that might look cool. This month’s strip contains sort-of references to Godzilla, Harry Hill and Jon Pertwee’s catchphrase. I can’t wait until next month’s, though, it’s a Christmas special, with stunning artwork by Rob Davis, and an idea which will make people either go ‘Ahh’ or ‘WTF?’

Elsewhere in the magazine – I read it all, you know – there’s an interesting article on the differences and similarities between Doctor Who and soap opera (it’s a much better article than that dreadful one they once printed about it being a game show, and that other one about it being a comedy). In the article Gareth Roberts “asserts”, quite correctly, that the big difference is that Doctor Who stories are about surprises, the viewer not knowing what will happen next, whereas in a soap opera, the viewer does know what will happen next and the fun comes from watching the characters find out.

Where Gareth is wrong is where he says this “never happens in Doctor Who. Not once! Ever!” when I can think of three examples off the top of my head (I’m sure if I engaged Story-By-Story Fact Search I could find more). They’re all good examples of why the ‘audience knows more than the characters’ approach isn't a very effective way of telling Doctor Who stories.

First example is The Gunfighters, in which Doctor Who lands in Tombstone, Arizona shortly before the events of the OK Corral. However, in this story Doctor Who is written as a complete buffoon, so throughout the story the audience knows what is going to happen next while the lead character is in complete ignorance. This, I would suggest, is one of the reasons why this story is so frustrating and dull to watch; Doctor Who, rather than being one step ahead of the audience, is about twenty yards behind them.

Second example is The Two Doctors, where the story begins with the second Doctor and Jamie visiting a space station, which is then attacked by Sontarans, who kidnap the Doctor and take him to Seville (don’t ask why). After which we then spend the next hour of the story with the sixth Doctor and Peri as they investigate the deserted space station trying to discover what has happened. Not until the third episode, when everyone has got to Seville, does the Doctor start to find out stuff that the audience doesn't already know.

And the third example would have to be Daleks In Manhattan. In the first ten minutes or so of the first episode, we’ve seen that the Daleks are up to no good, building an antennae on top of the Empire State Building and turning people into their pig slaves, including the unfortunate Laszlo. We then spend the rest of the episode watching the Doctor, Martha and Tallulah finding this out; the Doctor analysing a green blob to discover that it comes from Skaro, home planet of the Daleks, Tallulah spending ages talking to Laszlo before she realises a) he’s Laszlo and b) he’s been turned into a pig... and so on.

(At this point some pedants may go ‘Ahh, but Jonny, doesn’t Rise Of The Cybermen have the same problem?’ To which I would reply, “No, it doesn’t, Rise Of The Cybermen had an extremely well-structured script in which the audience never knew more than the Doctor and his companions, and where the characters and monsters were introduced in clever and surprising ways, which was then undermined by the last-minute addition of a pre-titles sequence which contrived to give away all those surprises in advance.”)

Actually, I’ve thought of a fourth and a fifth. The Dominators & The Mark Of The Rani. And a sixth. The Time Monster. A seventh. The Twin Dilemma. An eighth. Fear Her. Must disengage Story-By-Story Fact Search. But it’s no coincidence these tend to be the least well-regarded stories amongst fans.