Dr No No: a thoroughly modern post?

BcXInM9CIAEZsokThe Christmas Dr Who has met with very mixed critical reaction

Dr No was, of course, the first James Bond film, released in the autumn of 1962. As such it has almost nothing to do with this post, except that All Change Please! can’t help wondering if that during the following 12 months it influenced the writers at the BBC to name their new children’s Sci-fi series Dr Who?

Now in true alien monster fashion, All Change Please! has already vented its spleen on the subject of Dr Who, but the latest Christmas Day Special left it foaming at the mouth. It’s immediate reaction was to dismiss it as one of the worst loads of old rubbish ever broadcast, and to wonder who allows programmes of this quality to be screened at all, and how Steven Moffat, author of such brilliant TV series as Chalk and Coupling, can allow himself to be associated with it, let alone admit to writing it in the first place?

But having calmed down a bit, All Change Please! has developed an alternative theory. And that is that Dr Who is actually pure genius. Pure postmodern genius that is. Perhaps Steven Moffat has even succeeded in creating the first populist postmodern TV show?

The largely impenetrable academic concept of what is termed Postmodernism developed throughout the 20th Century. It challenges our social and cultural values and expectations and demands new ways of thinking about the world we live in, questioning the everyday forms and structures we are most familiar with. Applied to literature, art, design and music it freely plunders and transforms existing structures, styles and genres to produce something new that cannot readily be identified as belonging to a particular age or culture. Thus conventional, so called ‘mid-century modern’ stories, music and buildings take on new, uncategorisable, sometimes absurd forms, lacking in any sense of the logical, organised and easily recognisable. As such they can, for those brought up on the constrained, carefully co-ordinated, minimilistic approach of modernism, be difficult to accept. Up to now the consumer has largely ignored the postmodern, and behaved as if it didn’t exist. But even if they have remained unaware of it, there is an increasing overlap between the modern and postmodern world.

Applying this approach to Dr Who, this is exactly what we get. This is no hierarchical administration-led, science and logic-driven Star Trek. There is no coherent plot, because a structural narrative is no longer of central importance. Instead it is an extended fast and frantic assemblage of short scenes, each one freely drawn from a wide variety of familiar and established genres – such as romance, conflict, loss, thriller, transformation, nostalgia, festive, comedy, religious, etc. Thus the audience receives a jumbled, ‘wibbly-wobbly’ series of brief but emotionally intense experiences, not unlike jumping from one webink to the next without any idea of the time or place in which it was created. Meanwhile TV programmes have become increasingly less about the content and more with the engagement with the media-hyped, attractive, good-looking male and female ‘eye candy’ celebrities, and indeed the writer, or creator, himself. We are simultaneously watching The Doctor and Matt Smith, Clara Oswald and Jemma Coleman. We are watching Dr Who and at the same time analysing what Stephen Moffat is up to and where he might be going next. And a growing number of us are taking this a step further and tweeting as we watch: our former ‘water-cooler’ moments are rapidly becoming live, as we watch, social interactions.

By rights, the viewing public should be completely baffled and bemused – as indeed some are – and viewing figures should be tumbling. But instead, while us rapidly ageing modernists struggle with the shock of the new, the evidence is that the good doctor is delivering exactly what the majority of the audience wants. This seems to suggests the emergence of a significant cultural shift away from a demand for conventional narratives, while at the same time clearly providing maximum provocation for use of the new ratings holy grail of social media interaction – indeed the episode was identified as the most tweeted about Christmas TV show.

As a result of all this though, it’s no longer scary – no-one watches Dr Who from behind the sofa anymore. Indeed in terms of terrifying monsters, perhaps it is The Silents, created by Moffat in 2011, who most personify the postmodern Dr Who.  Their existence is a secret because anyone who sees them immediately forgets about them after looking away, but retains suggestions made to them by the Silence. This allows them to have a pervasive influence across human history while being difficult to locate or resist. Likewise anyone who sees a scene from the current Dr Who programmes immediately forgets about it after watching the next one, but retains the suggestions made to them.

In the postmodern age we are finally entering there is therefore no longer any sustained or developmental narrative, little understanding of the past or anticipation of the future, but merely a series of immediate, intensely-flavoured and largely forgettable fast-food like experiences instead of a carefully balanced five course menu eaten at leisure and consumed in the context of interesting social conversation and an attractive setting.

And of course, despite Dr Gove’s best attempts, the world of teaching and learning is inevitably moving towards a postmodern approach to education, seemingly based on isolated, anytime, anywhere exposure to video clips and quick answer multiple-choice questions. And what we need now is a curriculum and pedagogy that accepts and builds on the new realities, rather than delivering a solution to a sabre-toothed monster problem that no longer exists. There are surely more things in postmodernism than are dreamt of in Gove’s philosophy?

So is Steven Moffat an evil postmodern genius, or a sad old modernist failure? Which is it? You choose… Vote now!

Meanwhile, all this has understandably left All Change Please! somewhat shaken, not stirred…

Image freely drawn from: https://twitter.com/tomscott/status/415959116595470336/photo/1

3 comments on “Dr No No: a thoroughly modern post?

  1. I just watched Xmas Dr Who again tonight after my first failed attempt on Xmas day due to a turkey-induced sleep-coma (in front) of the sofa. It was much better than I originally thought first time around. This time I caught the context of the loosely-woven, roughly-explained, fast-paced dialogue/story and things have better connected together for me.

    But maybe this episode could have had a bit more of the kind of fun and trickery with time-travel that we’ve seen in things like Back To The Future and various time-related episodes of Star Trek (NG particularly), i.e. the bit about Clara being sent home the first time (without the Doctor remembering about a possible turkey-time-dilemma) but then hitching a ride back on the outside of the TARDIS to the Doctor 300 years late, and then later the Doctor taking her back home again (this time with her remembering the turkey), and then even later her seeing the Doctor for a third time as an old man, well, this was about as exciting as the convoluted time-paradoxes got.

    As for being postmodernist and all that means? Well, I suppose it was quite good.

    As for there being any further episodes of the evil Dr Gove, I hope not! We wouldn’t want him regenerating and regurgitating any more abstract, random and preposterous postmodernist ectoplasm all over the place now would we?…!

  2. Rob B adds the following comment:

    I enjoyed your post on Dr No No, but I don’t think it is postmodernism at work. It seems much more like old-fashioned showmanship – if we have enough whizzes and bangs then the audience won’t stop to question what the bloody hell this is all supposed to be about. The problem with this Xmas episode might be that it slowed things down too much, with the Dr spending a perfectly sci-fi rational 300 years in one place, with the village of Christmas a nice microcosm for his Earth-protection fetish and one Christmas villager (I forget his name – Bartleby, something Dickensian like that, wasn’t it?) standing in for his helpers. When you looked at it like that, the Dr protecting an insignificant backwater from a whole galaxy of chaos and menace which were only actually threatening Christmas because the Dr was there in the first place, you could see the complete paradox the Doctor (and his TV audience) is facing – Earth would be a lot safer is he just disappeared off somewhere else. Hence the whole thing collapsing up its own black hole.

    That’s my theory, anyway. And I think it works for Mickey Gove too – did you hear him on Start the Week? He is, he said, defending History and other proper subjects from attack by other lesser subjects encroaching on their curriculum time. Yet his protection of his favoured subjects is simultaneously destroying them from within, as he is making them too difficult for most students to handle / be interested in.

  3. And this in from Alan J:

    I like it – one of your best, I think. But it seems to me that the programme’s a bit more complicated than that, that in fact it’s a kind of representation of the current war going on between modernism and postmodernism. This is a BIG SUBJECT, but, put briefly, we live in an increasingly postmodern world but actually behave as though we don’t. So – we still form stable or semi-stable relationships, are appalled by the random murder of army officers in broad daylight, worry about our children and animals, etc., etc. The programme might seem to be postmodernist (I agree, it does) but in fact could be said to suggest old-fashioned, very modernist ideas of love, spiritual belief, father/god figures, good triumphing over evil (or trying to), etc. The turkey is actually a running leitmotiv in the episode – it’s a traditional celebratory symbol of family togetherness (modernism), whilst being cooked in a time machine (postmodernism).

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