Saturday, 7 July 2007

The Tate Hate Support Group

While the Americans were waking up to the sound of fireworks and general merry making on the 4th of July this year, a very different sound could be heard in Britain. If you listened really carefully you might just have caught the thud of tens of thousands of jaws hitting the floor. Perhaps you heard a muttered "Oh no..." or an indignant "They can't be serious!" This is the day when Dr Who fans everywhere woke up to the news that Catherine Tate had been cast as The Doctor's regular traveling companion for the fourth series of the new Dr Who.

The Russell T. Davies Publicity Department, formerly known as the BBC, announced that the "comedic" actress would be reprising her role as Donna, the Runaway Bride from the show's 2006 Xmas special, because apparently she was such a hit last time. No honestly. I'm being serious. Incidentally this is definitive proof that trans-dimensional travel is possible, because in my world her performance was almost universally panned and only Mr Davies' most ardent apologists could muster anything approaching even a lukewarm response to her appearance.

Dr Who as we know it is dead and has been since the end of Davies' first season as ruling deity on the show.In all honesty the BBC should rebrand this series as "Russell T Davies' Dr Who", they've obviously lost all creative oversight and in its current incarnation it's about as far removed from the classic series as boy bands are from Beethoven.

"RTD's Dr Who" is ignoring most of the rules that helped make the original show the longest running SF series the world has ever seen. When he cast Tate he ignored what was probably the most important dictum from that era.

The companions are the most important part of the show.

They're more important than the TARDIS, the Daleks or any of the monsters and baddies. They're more important than the alien planets or even the character of the Doctor himself.

The series' both old and new have gone through phases where the TARDIS wasn't featured. The stories have been Earthbound for years at a time and yet the show flourished. At the height of "Dalekmania" in the 60s about half the stories were historical dramas, rubber tentacles, tin foil robots and Lego spaceships didn't get a look in. The Doctor was hardly on screen for the most highly praised story of the last season. The much lauded "flexible format" of the show can take all these changes and still deliver some cracking television, it's the audience that decides if a show is successful.

The viewers watch the show through the eyes of the companion. We identify with them, we share their sense of wonder and excitement. It's their perils that thrill us the most. They ask the questions that we want answered. They're our conduit to the worlds of Dr Who. So it really is vitally important for the success of the show that we have companions that we're sympathetic with, in a nutshell we should enjoy their company as much as the Doctor.

The show has had unpopular companions in the past, and the ratings have always dipped as a result. Jon Pertwee's era started off with relatively low ratings. Yet there was a new Doctor, the show was in colour for the first time and the stories centered around the popular UNIT concept, viewing figures should've been at their highest. His companion at the time, Liz Shaw, was a physics scientist intended to be the Doctor's intellectual equal, but the audience couldn't identify easily with her and the ratings stayed low. When her character was replaced with the much ditzier but more lovable Jo Grant, ratings started to climb, peaking at an incredible 25% improvement over Shaw's season.

It takes time to make that recovery though, years in fact. When the original series was canceled in 1989 ratings were actually starting to trend upwards slightly, the companion at the time, Ace, was popular with viewers and critics, who'd had to endure years of the spectacularly unpopular Mel (Bonnie Langford) and Peri (Nicola Bryant).

Tate's previous outing as Donna was almost universally detested so it's not as if her character or her take on the role are unknown quantities. As an actress her range is limited to shouty chav type characters, a sort of nightmare guest at a wedding reception.

Ah but this is New Dr Who isn't it ? We've got to move with the times, the companions have to reflect that, don't they ? Nope, not at all. Only six of Patrick Troughton's twenty one stories had contemporary companions. Tom Baker, the most popular Doctor ever, went for four and a half of his seven years in the role with companions from the far future or who were out-and-out aliens. When Dr Who tries to show that it's trendy and with-it, it usually fails, and those stories are the ones that go past their sell-by date first. Did we have a punk companion in the 70s or a skinhead in the 80s ?

We should spare a thought for Freema Agyeman who played Martha Jones. She's the one who's being replaced and for no sensible reason. She's a talented actress who's shown a maturity beyond her years and managed to wring decent performances out of the oft times woeful scripts she's had to work with. She's not leaving entirely, she will feature as recurring character in the fourth season's later episodes, but at the end of the day I can only imagine her sense of confusion and disappointment. She did everything right, pressed all the right buttons and jumped through all the right hoops, and she still gets kicked in the teeth for it.

We'll finish this by speculating why this decision was made. We know RTD is leaving next season, David Tennant has also said that he knows when he'll be leaving and it's an odds on bet it'll be next year. We also know that RTD has not been best pleased with the reactions of the fans, the dwindling viewing figures or the distinct lack of awards now that the honeymoon season is over.

His attitude to the fans of the classic show has been dismissive and borderline arrogant in interviews, he's been quoted as saying"if they don't get it that's just tough." So I'm speculating that this is a scorched earth policy that Davies' is operating. When he leaves the franchise will be in tatters, Dr Who will be a parody of its former self. He's probably hoping that history will look kindly on his tenure and focus on the first year or two, picking out the gems. If that's his aim then he's ignoring one other lesson from the classic series, we have long memories.


Kelli said...

Good for people to know.