Thursday, May 07, 2020
Doctor Who – The Long Game and Why It’s Better Than You Remember #Fragments
Doctor Who – The Long Game was first broadcast fifteen years ago tonight. In the future, fascists and media hostility to immigrants have turned society on itself, crushed asking questions and made life crap. Imagine. Russell T Davies writes; Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper star; Simon Pegg, Anna Maxwell-Martin, Christine Adams and Tamsin Greig guest. It’s funny, scary, clever, political. And no-one loves it very much.
This started off as a Twitter thread earlier today, which I’ve collated and polished and expanded here into something not quite an article, more than a set of Tweets, but it’s much the same idea: why I love a story that isn’t ‘the best’, and what’s got in the way of loving this story, including ‘the best’.
Doctor Who in 2005 was the great return to TV. It was fresh and new and different. But it was much more than that – Series One, Season Twenty-Seven, The Trip of a Lifetime, whatever you want to call it – was absolutely fantastic. For me, it’s one of the greatest Doctor Who seasons ever made. If I were to rank all thirty-eight in order, it would be very near the top (I say ‘If’ to distance myself from the fact that that’s what I do, and I love to do it, and for the record, it’s at number three). Heralded by the most fantastic trailer I’ve ever seen, opening with the perfect introduction, brightly optimistic yet steeped in death, I adore it.
The Long Game is part of that season, so why doesn’t it get more love? This is the least-loved story in one of Doctor Who’s most marvellous years.
…Which answers itself, really. We make lists, and relative positions don’t do it any favours. Ranking ‘the best’ means there must be a worst!
I confess I tend to rank it lower than the rest of the season, too. But this season is fantastic. It’s not just that the pressure of making a list forces us to think of the least as much less than it deserves; for me, this Doctor Who season is terrific for its joy, for its thematic power, for its look, for its leads – for so many reasons, but one reason is its (ahem, relative) rarity in having many highs yet no lows at all. Looking at my really, really big list of all 297 TV Doctor Who adventures, this one still makes the top half, and for me stories well below the top half are brilliant, too. So the habit of thinking ‘But which story this year is the designated crap one?’ has long warped people’s view of The Long Game.
I’ve got another theory as well.
Every other Ninth Doctor story glows gorgeously. Beyond even the design and the travels in time and space, the whole season looks like nothing else on TV. For just this one story, the director turns down the filter on the lens and it looks a bit ordinary. Is that why, subconsciously, people don’t warm to it?
This takes a risk with being a deliberate let-down (and even having the Doctor say so): the off-the-Pegg familiar clothes, the burgers, the everyone-only-humans… After glamorous, glorious The End of the World, it’s disappointing to go into the future and find it’s only like now. But it’s too easy to be too busy saying ‘This is a bit rubbish’ to realise that’s the clue.
I love how the episode outright has people say ‘This is a clue!’ several times – most strikingly when Rose, like Arthur Dent, spots something crucial in the temperature that the blasé long-time traveller didn’t list – to distract us from the whole story being just that. It’s a story in itself, but it’s one big clue.
The unseen villains hate aliens; they can alter time; the moral is ‘ask questions’. Once, a Doctor Who story called asking questions “The Human Factor” – in contrast to…
For me one of the biggest questions for the Liberal Democrats [keep reading, this is less of a swerve than it seems] is where to put the emphasis between two often complimentary, sometimes rival ideals when the party needs both but can only lead on one – call them moderate and Liberal, kindness and fighter, love and liberty, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ and ‘Stand up to bullies.’
Doctor Who inspired my politics, as so much else of my life, so I tend to think of Doctor Who’s politics in a similar way. Pretty much the series’ founding moral is to pit itself against fascism, but even when stories raise difficult questions, its default tends more towards ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ 2005 Doctor Who is striking in that it often looks the audience uncomfortably in the face instead. Perhaps it’s braver in this year than once it knows it’s a success because knowing this might be your only chance to make a difference makes you burn brighter than when you’re doing comfortably and don’t want to lose what you have.
The Long Game starkly tells us that blaming immigrants, enforcing conformity and asking no questions moulds a meaner, smaller, stagnant society.
So this message is sharper – and it’s not just a message, but a clue: who in the whole series is most famous for hating aliens?
This is very much part 2 of Dalek: Adam becomes Van Statten In Space, exploiting rather than exploring wonders; beginning and ending, to the point, with the TARDIS; the very rich are very bad.
Though of course, this week, the Daleks aren’t behind it all.
[Looks to camera]
This is also Russell T Davies’s answer to Genesis. No – not ‘of the Daleks’. The other one.
Eve has been offered knowledge, then with it she’s discovered things for herself and generously wants to share.
Adam wants to steal everything, won’t take responsibility and blames someone else when it all goes wrong.
Adam is thrown out of paradise.
And the gods above don’t want you asking questions, which is why they’re wrong.
The Doctor’s companions really didn’t use to faint all the time, but I enjoy the shorthand:
‘This is not the Doctor Who you expected’ – the only one who faints is a man;
‘Adam’s fall’ – before viewers can ask ‘Shouldn’t his name be in the titles?’, with brutal economy Russell’s already shown us why not.
A dystopian future with Anna Maxwell-Martin as one of “The Freedom Fifteen”!
Which makes me smile, because now I imagine her starring in ‘Enid Blyton’s Blake’s 7’.
Plus Simon Pegg and the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe (but you can call him Max).
I’d loved every episode of this fresh new series (still do, and possibly even more than I did in 2005). I didn’t need it to be old-style Doctor Who… But this enormously entertaining week I found out I was still a sucker for a cackling, scenery-chewing villain with a beard.
The Doctor’s pointed
“Don’t you even ask?”will never date in a story which, in its broader swipes at the media with ‘Max’ in charge, couldn’t be any more ’80s if there was a giant blancmange, living on the ceiling.
“Why should I?”
“You’re a journalist!”
…I’ll get my coat.
One of the crucial themes here is that you shouldn’t just trust what you’ve been told; go out and find the answers for yourself. Almost the first line sets up in three words the story’s moral, the clue to what’s gone wrong, and even the closing gag: “Open your mind.” Even the Doctor comes a cropper with history he ‘knows’ – he assumes this period will have intellectual curiosity, fine cuisine and different cultures. He’s expecting BBC4, and gets Bad Fox.
A final thought on Season Twenty-Seven, and something a shock-reveal on Floor 500 made me realise first time round: from Autons as plastic cadavers to Gelth wraiths to Slitheen wearing literal body-suits to a Dalek coming back from the greatest slaughter in history, this season’s been full of the living dead – and this time, dead men do nothing but tell tales (and pull your leg). No wonder the Doctor’s got massive survivor’s guilt.
The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe, a huge maw roaring down from the ceiling
This is the first of what might be a series of Fragments – not-quite-finished, not-quite-polished, but I’ve written up ideas over time and maybe I’ll share some of them anyway. If you’d like more, please let me know, and if you’d like to help, please ask me, ‘Have you at some point written something intriguing about Story X, and could you post it?’ You might pick one that I can (TS;RM [Too Short; Read More]? Here).
And a small thank you to the lovely Brendan @brandybongos, who is making Fifteen Years Later YouTube videos for this season and – as well as their being delightful and insightful – by asking for people to write in with comments, inspired me to go back and look at what I’d thought over the years about The Long Game.