Five things that Doctor Who could learn from Twin Peaks (part one)

It was a revival twenty-five years in coming. It was the revival we thought we’d never actually get and could scarcely believe was actually happening until the moment the first trailers dropped onto YouTube. It was confusing, horrifying, hysterical, perplexing, frustrating. It was brilliant. It was obscene. It was the second-best thing we saw on TV this year.

It was Twin Peaks, and I can’t help thinking that while its very uniqueness made it special, other shows would benefit by copying at least some of its examples. Whatever your feelings on the dark, twisted return to Washington and the evil in those woods – on the questions answered and the others that sprung forth from nothingness like an emerging tulpa – there can be no arguing that it was a unique spectacle. Love or hate it, there was nothing like it on TV this year, nor is there likely to be again.

Let’s start with a disclaimer: the immediate response to a blog title like this one is that Doctor Who is a very different show and it would be risky, if not downright irresponsible, to emulate the sort of example that Twin Peaks set with its layers of enigmas and disturbing content. Doctor Who is a tinpot sci-fi show for Saturday evenings. It is enjoyed by millions precisely because it is accessible. Turning it into Twin Peaks Lite would be nothing short of monstrous. They are cut from very different cloths: it’s forming a handkerchief out of cow hide. It would kill the appeal of the original stone dead; it’s Gershwin seeking piano lessons from one of his idols, only to be told that he’d be better off serving as a first-rate Gershwin, rather than a second-rate Ravel.

Doctor Who should not try and be the new Twin Peaks, even if the new showrunner spent three years on Broadchurch attempting that very gambit (with some or no success, depending on who you ask). Simultaneously there were moments we watched it when I found myself seething in frustration. “If Doctor Who did this,” I remember saying, at least once, “it’d be a much better show.”

Today – and tomorrow, because this turned out to be longer than I’d expected – we’re going to explore just some of the things that might turn a fun show into a great one, provided they’re tackled in the right way.

Warning: this is spoiler-heavy. If you don’t want to know what happened in Twin Peaks: The Return, you would be advised not to read any further.

 

1. Not everything needs to be explained

There’s a thread on the Doctor Who Facebook group I just had to mute. It concerned ‘The Almost People’. “Why,” this person was asking, “did the Flesh solidify into real people when they walked into the TARDIS, but Amy was still a Ganger?” There is a perfectly simple explanation for this – Amy’s avatar is more advanced, thereby rendering the TARDIS technology obsolete – but it wasn’t enough to deter the usual crowd of Moffat-bashers. “Shit writing,” we were told. “Typical of this showrunner. Be glad when he leaves.”

It isn’t shit writing, nor is it quite as concrete as we’d like it to be. It is a partially resolved loophole, delivered in the same manner as Amy and Rory’s final story (which has a convenient get-out clause that’s disgracefully overlooked, in order to maximise the emotional pathos of their departure without actually killing them off). I was told a few weeks ago that there was no such thing as a plot hole – just a need to look elsewhere. If something happened that didn’t make any sense, you could usually find the answer by listening to a particular Big Finish audio, locating an obscure book, or scouring through 1800 words in a Reddit thread. “This,” I remember replying, “is just the sort of thing I find monumentally tiresome. I don’t mind the occasional mental workout, but I don’t want to go through Doctor Who with a notepad so I can write down all the things I need to research so that the episode will make sense.”

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering whether I was wrong about that, and whether there might be any mileage in having stuff that doesn’t make sense, on any level. ‘Ghost Light’ is about the best Classic example, although ‘Warriors’ Gate’ comes a decent second. It’s not that they don’t make sense, it’s just that strange things happen for no apparent reason and we basically deal with it. There is no follow-up to ‘Warriors’ Gate’ that I know of, and thus much of the weirdness is endemic to the zen themes the story drifts around, not to mention its peculiar (and gloriously effective) directorial style. It’s fun because it’s about as abstract and indefinable as Who gets. Somewhere in a parallel universe there’s a director’s cut of ‘Heaven Sent’ that’s missing Capaldi’s voiceover, and it’s hailed as a masterpiece.

In one episode of Twin Peaks, Sarah Palmer is accosted by a man in a bar. The scene concludes when she opens up her face. It is nonsensical – and, in its own way, quietly horrifying. It has absolutely no bearing on anything that’s come before – a brief supermarket meltdown aside – and it’s not mentioned again. Sarah is a bereaved woman who has suffered much and who has, for whatever reason, got a monster living inside her. It reminded me of the ‘house-heads’ storyline from the 1991 Comic Relief graphic novel spin-off, which someone has (rejoice!) written up and reproduced here so that I don’t have to. What happens to Sarah is all the more horrifying given that it has no place in the story, and seems to have sprung into existence fully formed – King Lear may have told his youngest daughter that “Nothing will come from nothing”, but try telling David Lynch.

Elsewhere, there’s episode 8. No one understood episode 8. It is one of the most bizarre and disturbing things the director has ever committed to film, and that includes Eraserhead. There’s no denying that The Return was, in many ways, more pure Lynch than the original series – it felt like the show he’d always wanted to make, but couldn’t until he could find a way to get those nasty network executives off his back. It is unpleasant, grotesque, riddled with profanity and occasionally indecipherable (this is all a good thing, by the way, let me be clear on that) and episode 8 was arguably as indecipherable as it got. Beginning with an attempted murder, the episode’s centrepiece is a lengthy black and white segment which opens with the birth of BOB, seemingly from a mushroom cloud, blooming in slow motion from the force of the atomic explosion and accompanied, appropriately enough, by Penderecki’s Threnody. Then it gets weird. For those of you reading this without having seen it, I really can’t begin to explain. For the rest of you, anyone got a light?

Over in the Whoniverse, Rory Williams dies, and then gets erased from history. Come the series 5 finale, he’s back. When asked how this could happen, the Doctor says “Sometimes, impossible things happen, and we call them miracles.” And true to form, it’s eventually revealed that both Rory and the other Romans are a construct based on Amy’s school project (and, one assumes, a photo on the mantelpiece). But I like the first explanation better. I like the idea that it might be an unexplained miracle. Perhaps, sometimes, that’s all you need.

2. Remember what peace there may be found in silence

Regular readers will know that this is a particular bugbear of mine. Number one on my laundry list of Things Doctor Who Ought To Do is turn it down a bit. Murray Gold’s score has its moments, but the effect of them is diluted by a series of droning incidental tracks that don’t go anywhere, and merely serve to dampen the dialogue. Watch some of the scenes unscored and the sheer power of the acting shines through – and there is a goodness in Doctor Who’s acting, however much it may be drowned by an unwanted undercurrent of strings and pianos. There is a bravery in presenting your material naked and raw, allowing the audience to form its own emotional bond without the crutch of a score (used, at least in Doctor Who, in a similar manner to a laugh track) that tells you what you ought to be feeling and when.

Twin Peaks has a scene in its series 3 opener where Dr. Jacoby is spray-painting shovels. It takes place in more or less complete silence, with nothing but the wind, the ambient noise of the forest and the quiet hiss of the spray can accompanying the psychiatrist’s diligent work. The effect is calming, contemplative, meditative even. It appears at first glance to bear absolutely no relation to the plot: as was typical with The Return, many seeds that were sown earlier bore fruit many weeks later.

Even some of the musical scenes are quiet. Fairly early on in series 3 there’s a scene in which a man sweeps the floor of the Bang Bang Bar, accompanied by ‘Green Onions’. All of it, more or less. These scenes hold up as interludes, like the 1950s interludes the BBC used to show when they needed to fill an extra couple of minutes before the next broadcast. The effect – a series of seemingly unrelated sequences, built up over a number of weeks into a brightly covered but loosely strung patchwork – is startling. This is a programme that takes its time with just about everything, and that turns out to work in its favour.

When it comes to dialogue, Lynch sticks to his guns: the bulk of TP dialogue takes place with little or no soundtrack, save the occasional ambient drone. The effect this has is that when music does show up, it’s all the more memorable: there are a number of examples we could draw upon, but things perhaps reach a zenith in episode 16 when Cooper revives in the hospital. As he rises and dresses and makes phone calls, suddenly all business and more himself again than he’s been all season, the Twin Peaks theme plays quietly in the background, rising in volume as Cooper finally gets to say all the things he’s clearly been wanting to say since first being trapped in the stunted, almost catatonic state that defined much of the third series. “You’re a fine man, Bushnell Mullins,” he says, shaking the insurance mogul by the hand. “I will not soon forget your kindness and decency.”

As he turns to leave, the dumbstruck Mullins finds his voice. “What about the FBI?” Whereupon Cooper turns in the doorway, offers one of those reassuring smiles, stares directly through the fourth wall and says “I am the FBI.”

As the Man From Another Place might have said, “ELECTRICITY.”

Part Two available here.

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