Joshua and I differ in our love of Doctor Who in one respect: cliffhangers. I love them, and he can’t stand them.
Age is part of it. The problem with each successive generation is that they expect things to be done faster. There is a certain amount of raw nostalgia in my recollection of the time – only a decade ago – when it would take me fifteen minutes to burn a CD. I can remember loading software from floppy disks. I can remember tapes. I can remember sitting in front of my Spectrum for ten minutes waiting for Chase HQ to finish loading, and cursing with all the swearwords an eleven-year-old could conjure when it crashed thirty seconds from the final block. I can remember having to rewind VHS videos that I’d left cued at the end credits of Superman IV. I can remember mail order services that took weeks, rather than days.
(A friend of mine recently pointed out the semantic irony in that the universal symbol for saving is – of course – a floppy disk. When was the last time any of you actually used a floppy disk? These symbols arose because they fitted the times in which they were created, and this icon has now become so synonymous with its function that most of us, I expect, could never imagine using anything else. But paradoxically we’re raising a generation of children who need explanations of once self-explanatory visual cues like disk drives and gramophones and eight-tracks, explanations that I suspect we’re failing to provide, and – like the monkeys in the cage – many children have no idea why we use certain symbols, except for the normal explanation of “That’s just the way it’s done round here”.)
These days, I get grumpy when my download speed drops below 100K a second. I fire up a dual layer dub and look at the estimated time left and despair. I become frustrated when I place an Ebay order at eight in the morning and it doesn’t ship the same day, even though the terms and conditions said it would go within three. I drum impatient fingers when emails I’m telling people I’m sending while I speak to them over the phone fail to materialise instantly. I glance anxiously at the dashboard clock at every red light my Zafira encounters, and stare at my watch at every raised signal. I know that if you’re reading this you will be nodding in recognition at having done at least some of the above. We live in a society that enables us to do more than ever, if we want it, and somehow it’s never fast enough. What hope for us, and what hope for our children?
So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that Joshua wants instant resolution. When you’re a child the world moves slowly. I have an iPod app that counts off the sleeps until Christmas. Joshua starts asking me for the numbers in June, right after his birthday. When December 25th has been and gone, I am asked for the time that has to elapse until his birthday. We are trying to teach him the value of patience by making him wait for certain things. It is not working. And actually that isn’t true. I should say, rather, that it works inconsistently, depending on mood.
I don’t tell him that the cliffhangers are coming, because when I do he spends the entire episode whinging “But Daddy, why does this one have to be a cliffhanger?”. And I’ve run out of patience because I always give him the same answer: “Because it just is. The writers found it necessary. And they thought it would make it more exciting.”
“Oh, but I want to find out what happens next.”
“Well, then, you’ll have to wait.”
“Can you tell me?”
“Just give me one clue.”
“Certainly not. It’ll spoil it.”
“Come on, just one.”
And so on, all the way down to the bathroom and beyond.
Here’s the thing. I grew up with Old Who. That’s important, because it explains my current position, which is not altogether impartial. There are several hallmarks of Old Who that didn’t fully survive the transition: wobbly sets, frantic over-acting and the multi-episode cliffhangers. These days we have CGI, and ‘worthy’ performances that are usually relatively low-key, even if they’re less fun to watch (you may imagine that I found Phil Davis, in ‘The Fires of Pompeii’, an absolute breath of fresh air). As for the cliffhangers, that’s a problem with the episode structure in general: forty-two minutes, now, being the operative time to introduce everyone, tell your story and wrap it up.
Most weeks it works, but there’s something missing. The pace is up, up, up: tight cuts, shouted explanations while Tennant or Smith is running down a corridor, and fairly bog-standard character development. It was notable that for Children of Earth, the third series of Torchwood, Russell T. Davies’ writing improved immeasurably: he elected to tell a single story over the course of five hours, a story that (crucially) could probably have been told in two or three with a bit of trimming. Free of the shackles of the standard runtime there was room for more reflection, more space, and pauses – the scene in which John Frobisher first engages with the 456, through a glass darkly, is the unquestionable series highlight, if only because it’s so – oh, just have a look, you’ll see what I mean:
You see? It’s jarringly slow (jarringly in the best of ways, because there are no lingering close-ups of Barrowman with tortured eyes and an obvious lump in his throat, under soft piano and strings). I wish I could have shown you the whole sequence, which consists of protracted introductions between Frobisher and the 456, with the sort of pacing that a bog-standard hour-long episode couldn’t accommodate.
When it came to Who, though, something had to change come the revival: gone were the cliffhangers and multi-episode storylines, and instead you simply got in and got out. Because, according to the powers that be, audiences were fickle and couldn’t commit to the same thing week after week. (Anyone at the BBC who truly believes that has obviously never watched 24, The Wire, or Murder One.) As a token gesture we are given the series arc: a series of linked references to the finale, where cards are held close to Davies’ manly chest, and lots of rambling about the Bad Wolf or Harold Saxon.
Then Davies jumped ship, and in strides Moffatt, who writes an entire season the way he used to construct episodes: the ontological paradoxes of ‘Blink’ are sustained for an entire season, with mixed results, and you really do have to watch every episode to figure out what the hell’s going on. In a way that’s an improvement, but it’s also needlessly convoluted. Everything is potentially significant, which means that nothing occurs at face value – there are all sorts of hidden meanings and codes and layers, and sometimes I just want to watch something entertaining without constantly rewinding to pick up on the significance of this or that. I’m difficult to please, I appreciate that. It’s more substantial than Davies’ soap opera, and yet unnecessarily so. There has to be a middle ground.
But there was a middle ground. It was called Old Who, and it worked quite well, thank you very much. In the series as it was once structured you’d have separate stories of between three and six episodes, with an obligatory cliffhanger every twenty-five minutes or so. Said cliffhangers were, to be honest, usually quite silly. Let’s be honest. Either the Doctor or a companion would be forced into some sort of life-or-death situation, cornered perhaps by a grisly monster, or about to fall a great distance (as Sarah Jane memorably did in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, only for us to discover, the following week, that she’d only dropped about ten feet). The most effective cliffhangers usually involved the Time Lord himself, preferably in the presence of a female companion who could bellow “DOCTOOOOR!” at full blast just before the end credits rolled.
Then they’d have a week’s grace period, and the resolution of said cliffhanger would typically be fairly naff. ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ is a prime example: the sheer joy / abject horror of seeing a Dalek levitate, as its eye stalk zooms in on a terrified Doctor, trapped at the top of a staircase, makes it all the more tedious when an unconscious Ace manages to wake up and get the door open just in the nick of time. That’s the best they could have done? Really? A few years previously, ‘Mark of the Rani’ saw Colin Baker zooming down the Blists Hill incline towards certain death in a mine cart only to be rescued, rather incredibly, by George Stephenson (whose presence in the story is foreshadowed, but still, yawn).
But all that’s forgivable, really, because the whole point behind getting the Doctor into a sticky situation would be so that you’d worry about him, and worrying about the Doctor was what keeps the show going. It was something to talk about in the playground or over the water cooler, in the days when people actually did that instead of just discussing everything on Facebook. It’s not so much that you were worrying about whether he would escape, because you knew he would, but rather that you were trying to figure out exactly how he (or, typically, someone else) would manage it. The protagonists of shows like Doctor Who are granted a sort of unofficial immortality (in the case of Doctor Who, said immortality is even given its own name, context and rulebook) and there’s an unwritten law that states that their death must be given its own gravitas and significance, and cannot be shoehorned into a backed-against-the-wall-while-the-monster-approaches situation. Consequently, central characters would seldom die in cliffhangers, and the Doctor himself never really did (regeneration usually occurred at the end of an episode, but typically as the climax of a story, rather than as an ooh-what-will-happen-next type of thing).
Perhaps that’s why I felt so let down by the end of season four, because it really felt like they were going to do something different for once, and actually regenerate the Doctor with no warning. And it’s not just the fact that it’s a crappy resolution, it’s the fact that it’s dealt with so rapidly (and yes, I know that it comes back to haunt us later with the Human Doctor, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT) and the fact that Tennant is so smug in the way that the Tenth Doctor always was when he was at his most irritating (which is right about now). And oh look, as if we needed any more shots of fawning Rose, here’s her looking upset. With teeth you could use to open beer bottles.
In contrast, New Who has thrown up a couple of spectacular two-parters, with cliffhangers that work by varying degrees of success – but this is my favourite:
I mean, it’s bloody brilliant. Aren’t you getting goose bumps just seeing it again? The story as a whole is second-rate, but having the Doctor stand up to the Daleks (and comment pithily on his own resourcefulness with a single line of dialogue) is an extraordinary moment and almost worth waiting a whole series to see. It was the first time I truly believed in Eccleston as the Doctor, and he bowed out in the next episode, which is a shame.
Anyway, here’s a quick summary. The traditional cliffhangers were usually fairly inconsequential. The resolutions were predictable or silly, in equal measure. All the same, it was a part of the show, as central and integral to its structure as the cliffhanger in a two-part Batman story. Again, those would see the dynamic duo tossed into a ludicrous situation that usually relied on Batman’s possession of an obscure gadget in his utility belt that would do the job quite nicely, thank you, and there was never any real doubt of their escape and subsequent victory at the end of the story, but altering the structure would have felt somehow cheap.
I therefore miss the multi-part Who stories, and could frankly live without Moffat’s season-length meandering, with ‘clues’ that only a mindreader could spot. I’d just like to have him – the Doctor, I mean, not Moffat, although if he throws up another episode like ‘The Wedding of River Song’ I may reconsider – strapped to a table as a mad scientist tries to cut him open, or about to be fed into a compost machine, or dangling precariously from a wire by his umbrella (no, on second thoughts, let’s never go there again). It doesn’t matter how silly it is, because silliness is part of what made Classic Who so much fun. These days it’s far slicker, far more evenly structured, and almost doomed to implode from gorging on its own worthiness, but the change in format has, I think, made it lose a part of itself. Still, Josh is happy, so I suppose that has to count for something.