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

A beginning, a muddle and an end?*

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The doctor who doesn’t seem to care about the narrative

Now All Change Please! is not exactly stupid. It even has a number of your actual original, authentic Gold Standard O levels and A levels, taken in the days before they were supposedly dumbed down and made so easy that a child of five could pass them. Not to mention a proper degree from a time long ago when there were real lectures and weekly tutorials to attend, even if you didn’t.

But despite all this, it still has problems making any sense at all of the plot of Doctor Who, which has itself been recently (and fairly enough) dumbed down to make it more of an adventure story for younger viewers. Except for the stories to work it throws in references to some highly sophisticated and completely unexplained notions of time and space, and of the nature of artificial intelligence and self-consciousness.

Take last week’s episode (Series 7, Part 5). The TARDIS (which apparently, like the rest of us, seems to have some serious reservations about the Doctor’s new companion) somehow gets dragged on board a passing space ship and is seriously damaged. A mysterious pair of legs are identified sticking out from under some debris, but are never referred to again. In an attempt to repair the TARDIS, despite lengthy and emotional protestations from the Doctor, some essential parts of its workings are stolen, but after a while this plot line simply disappears. Next, a character who ‘believed’ he was a robot discovers he is actually a real person, and yet seems to have no problem walking round a few minutes later having had his left entire arm amputated. Finally after meeting themselves from the future the Doctor throws a mysterious gizmo with a message on it through a rift in time back to himself at the start of the episode, somehow enabling him to prevent everything happening in the first place. Maybe there’s a 5 year-old out there somewhere who could kindly explain it all to me?

But of course it’s not just Dr Who where such liberties are taken. These days it’s all special FX and dynamic quick-cut editing that seems to count the most. It really doesn’t seem to matter whose shooting Who provided it’s visually dramatic enough. Meanwhile car chases have become sequences random incoherent and shots vehicles colliding of speeding seemingly of, or to put it the old-fashioned way, incoherent sequences of shots of seemingly random speeding and colliding vehicles. And, when the dialogue is actually audible, it’s usually not worth listening to.

Now All Change Please! hates to be a fuddy-duddy old killjoy of a Gove-sounding supporter who thinks we should get back to making movies and TV drama the way they did in the 1950s, but nonetheless it has to admit, in this respect at least, it is. It thinks children – and their parents – deserve better than this. Whether the stories are told backwards, forwards or inside out, all it wants is a half-decent plot where all the clues, red-herrings and loose ends are neatly tied up, with everything reasonably explained and edited together in a coherent richly-worded narrative that represents something more than just a beginning, a muddle and an end. With perhaps even the odd unexpected plot-twist or a ‘Or did they?’ thrown after the essential ‘They all lived happily ever after…’ finale.

While new interactive and personalised digital narratives will undoubtedly change the nature of storytelling in the future, it is important that new media companies continue to provide quality content. And more than ever before, teaching and learning media literacy is needed, yet it remains conspicuously absent from the National Curriculum. Somewhere along the lines the government seems to have lost the plot too. Perhaps someone should call for the Doctor?

Or maybe not?

*Possibly attributed to C E Lombard

Image credit: BowBelle51