If you watch The Big Bang Theory, you may be familiar with a third season episode entitled ‘The Staircase Implementation’. Told principally in flashback, it has Leonard recount to Penny the time he moved into the apartment, his first encounters with Sheldon, and the tentative formation of the dysfunctional friendship group as it existed before the cute girl moved in across the hall – and, at long last, we find out why the elevator doesn’t work.
The episode’s humour exists on two main levels. On the one hand, we get to see how Sheldon has changed under the influence of his peer group. It’s a classic exploitation of the sitcom cliché whereby an unpleasant / inept character is temporarily replaced by someone who is so gut-wrenchingly awful, the other characters realise that the misery they’d previously experienced actually wasn’t so bad after all. (I’m sure this technique has a name, but I can’t find it on TV Tropes.) It’s been used in Father Ted, Black Books and Red Dwarf, with varying degrees of success, and here it’s an excuse for Jim Parsons to turn the crankiness up to eleven.
The other thing the episode does – rather less effectively – is rely on a series of dramatic irony-laden gags, most frequently at Sheldon’s expense, about cultural references. In the same way that The Wedding Singer had the sweet little florist announce that the couple-in-denial that she’d mistaken for an actual couple were destined to be as happy as “Donald and Ivana…and Woody and Mia…and Burt and Lori”, so here does Sheldon proclaim his love of Firefly, assuring Leonard that “It’s going to be on for years,” before later declaring that “You’ll be sorry you wasted your money on an iPod when Microsoft comes out with theirs”. I’m sure the writers came up with a whole string of stuff like this, plumbed from the archives of ‘stupid things people said that are actually only stupid in hindsight’. It’s designed to make Sheldon look foolish, as if to take him down a peg or two from the general omniscience that is his usual personality in an episode where he’s being even more irritating than usual.
I normally love The Big Bang Theory, but writing like this is lazy and sloppy. It relies on the ability to sneer at the past, and laugh at decisions that were made years ago in earnest and with the best intentions. Dick Rowe refuses to sign the Beatles? Of course he did: they were rubbish back then. Closer to home, I was convinced that MP3 was a fad and that minidiscs would be the future, because the Internet – while it was taking off – was nowhere near what it was today, and even if you had ADSL the sound quality of some of those early MP3s was rather like dragging a Walkman through a bathtub, inserting a chewed C90 and then playing it back through the cheapest headphones the local discount store has to offer. (I may be exaggerating a little, but not much.)
Anyway. My point (and I do have one) is that if you’re going to write a show about the past, you don’t need to pepper it with stuff like this. Life on Mars did it only sparingly, despite ample opportunity, and it is all the richer for it. It is very easy to drop in jokes about how stupid we all were back in the day, but we do so at our peril, because in a couple of decades’ time our children will be doing exactly the same. Gareth describes the cliché of sneering at the past as “the sort of ‘knowing wink at the audience’ lines that work because we have fifty years of knowledge that the characters don’t. [They] make me wince, but bizarrely make certain people whoop with delight. (Like New Who randomly referring to a planet/race/event in Old Who – to me it just goes clunk painfully.)”
And what does all this have to do with Doctor Who? Well, those of you who know your TV will be aware that later in the autumn we’re going to see a brand new drama about the show’s creation, with an impressive cast (Brian Cox, Jessica Raine and David Bradley as William Hartnell) and cameos by Carole Ann Ford and William Russell which have annoyed Gareth, as “now I’ll probably feel I have to watch it”. An Adventure In Space And Time will chart the story of Doctor Who from its inception through to…well, I have no idea when they’re planning on finishing the narrative, but the casting of Reece Shearsmith as Patrick Troughton would suggest that they will go at least as far as 1966. In fact, that’d be a good place to stop, because Hartnell’s deterioration will be the dramatic focus for the latter third of the show, with the programme’s future in doubt until Lambert decides to recast the Doctor. The stage is set for a thrilling whistlestop tour of the early 1960s, and a candid insight into the mechanics and politics of the BBC as it was back then.
Except it’s written by Mark Gatiss.
You remember Mark Gatiss. He’s the man who managed to defy the laws of physics and engineering by producing experimental Spitfires from nothing but a theoretical blueprint before getting them to the dark side of the moon in under twenty minutes. The one who had a Victorian crowd singing ‘Jerusalem’ years before it was written. The one who built an entire episode around a character fainting every time he saw something unusual. It’s not that Gatiss is necessarily a bad writer, he’s just lazy, apparently figuring that if he doesn’t care about a repeated gag or logical inconsistency, neither should the rest of us. This is Doctor Who, of course, and not Godel, Escher, Bach, but even children’s TV has its limits.
Gatiss is capable of surprising us all. For all his inadequacies he did produce the best two episodes of this year’s run, and I will admit to enjoying ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, despite its writer’s conviction that blustery shouting matches in a London terrace actually have any place outside Eastenders. But he’s not the man to be given a job like this. For one thing it will involve some restraint, which is something that does not seem to come easily. For another, I do not trust him to tell the story accurately. I’m not opposed to a bit of dramatic license, but I can see huge liberties being taken in the name of cheap entertainment, and much ruffling of feathers.
Of course, it may be Gatiss’ way of atoning for the last time he wrote anything about the making of Doctor Who, some fourteen years ago when he contributed three sketches for a BBC theme night. Gatiss is capable of good comedy writing, but this isn’t it. The last sketch, in particular, is excruciating in its structure and execution, consisting of a potted history of the show and a series of ‘jokes’ about Doctor Who’s idioms, climaxing in some rather mean-spirited remarks directed towards Davison, Baker (II) and McCoy. (Legend has it that McCoy, ostensibly described in the sketch as “any old fucker with an Equity card”, was approached by Gatiss in an art gallery, but when Gatiss said hello, McCoy’s response was to shout “Bollocks!” before storming off.)
It would be nice to hope that Gatiss has learned his lesson, and certainly he’s expressed remorse, but I still have my doubts. I’m convinced that despite best intentions, An Adventure In Space And Time is going to consist largely of the sort of knowing winks that I was criticising a few paragraphs back. You know, the sort of thing that we laugh about now, or the idiosyncrasies that have become part of the show but which were once very big production decisions. Given his past form, odds are that Gatiss is going to skim over the substance and go for the irony-laden punch line. I know that I’m often wrong about these things (to the extent that I even blogged about it) but I suspect the temptation to avoid stuff like this is just too great. So here, gentle reader, is a list of the sort of thing you can probably expect to hear in November, or whenever the programme is aired.
“These Daleks will never catch on. What’s scary about a dustbin carrying a sink plunger?”
“Oh, wipe them. It’s not as if anyone’s going to want to watch it again in fifty years.”
“Change the lead actor? It’s suicide. The show will never survive this. It would be like trying to re-cast James Bond.”
“Fine, you bring in the bug-eyed monsters if you want. But mark my words: in years to come, people will look back and decide that Doctor Who was a fine educational programme that lost its way once they started dabbling in science fiction.”
“Yes, but it’s a children’s show. It’s hard to imagine kids wanting to watch it once they’ve grown up.”
“There’s no tune. It’s just a bunch of tape glued together. Sure, it suits the mood, but it’s not as if they’ll ever play it at the Proms.”
“You want the hemline shorter? Listen, I don’t think we’re in the business of casting young ladies specifically so the men in the audience can ogle them, are we?”
“I know it was called ‘Fury From The Deep’, and I know it was an accident, but you didn’t need to actually drop it in the river.”
Have any more? Let me know below!