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Everything Old Is New Again, if you have a TARDIS

Well, and Your Humble Blogger has been watching some Doctor Who lately. Mostly, this is to introduce the Perfect Non-Reader to the show—we watched the first season of the Sarah Jane adventures, and many of her friends watch or have watched the new version of the show, and she had finally indicated a willingness, at first, and then an eagerness, to watch some TV with me. We started with City of Death, of course, and then watched The Leisure Hive and then I thought we would sample the Key to Time series. So we watched The Ribos Operation over a couple of days, and I loved it.

If you had asked me, ten years ago, to list my favorite episodes, or even my Top Five or Six episodes from the Tom Baker years, I wouldn’t have listed The Ribos Operation. What would YHB have listed? I have no idea. City of Death, absolutely. I’m awfully fond of The Brain of Morbius and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. The Invasion of Time? The balance of irritating and lovely may come out in the wrong direction. Genesis of the Daleks, I suppose; it’s obligatory on such lists. Within the Key to Time, I would have put The Pirate Planet ahead of The Ribos Operation—we’re watching that one next, so it’s possible that I will still like it better.

Anyway, the point is that I liked The Ribos Operation much more than I remember liking it back in the second millennium. And musing about that, it occurred to me that this may be because most of the things that irritate me about the New Who are absent from this episode, and in some cases the episode shows the opposite of the irritation factor. So let’s go over that list of Sources of YHB Irritation, shall we?

  • The Stakes: one of the most irritating things about the New Who has been the constant threats to the entire space-time continuum. Hardly worth the Tenth Doctor getting out of bed in the morning just to save a few lives and solve a mystery. And the Eleventh! Planets aren’t in it. The destruction of everything that ever was or will be has to be coupled with a direct threat to his personal buddies, and that’s only to get his attention. In this episode—after some preposterous folderol about the Key to Time that is clearly the worst thing about the episode—the Doctor’s goal is to get in, get the First Segment and leave. He gets caught up in the story because (a) people are making that job more difficult by messing with stuff, and (2) he’s terribly interested in these interesting people. Over the course of the episode, the threats escalate from inconveniencing his quest to direct attack on his person to potential planetary destruction, although that last was the ranting of a madman, so maybe we don’t need to worry about it. Still, it’s just the right level for me: not preposterously apocalyptic and worth fussing over primarily because the Doctor is the Doctor and interested in things.
  • Supporting characters: more accurately, I could enjoy the character of Garron, an interplanetary con man, without worrying about whether he would return at some point. It’s not true that all the good characters in New Who become recurring characters, but it happened often enough that I began expecting it. I like one-time characters, particularly characters that make no sense. Oswin Oswald the insane Dalek was a wonderful character—Clara the impossible girl is a pretty good character, but in order to have her we had to give up Oswin Oswald. Harriet Jones is a good character, but even Penelope Wilton couldn’t redeem the fact that her constant reappearance was a stunt. The Face of Boe? Random appearances by Ian McNeice playing Churchill? Lady Cassandra returning, for crying out loud? No, I like the safety of watching the show knowing with confidence that Garrom’s existence will not outlive my patience.
  • Death and Sobbing: A great minor character called Binlo arrives halfway through, is sweet and helpful, and then is shot to death. His death is a shock, and is terribly sad, and he has the opportunity to gasp out a final tragic line of dialogue because bad-guys do have to shoot people with the delayed-action lasers after all, but the whole death scene takes, like, five seconds. The New Who signals the death of minor characters by stopping the entire space-time continuum for hours at a time whilst everybody is compelled to engage in Acting! without having anything to say or do. I loathe that. Oh, and the dramatic music. I loathe that, too. In fact, that gets its own bullet point:
  • Music: I don’t remember the music, but it didn’t irritate me. It did indicate what we were supposed to feel about things, particularly of course the sting at the end of the part (Nobody makes a fool of the Graf Vinda-K… and lives! pyeeeeeeeeeooooooogh doo-doo-do-doo, doo-doo-do-doo) but generally I find the New Who has an unfortunate tendency to beat me over the head with the emotional content. Feh.
  • Seriousness: this is, I expect, connected to the stakes, but whereas that’s fictional self-importance, this is just a sense that I have, as a viewer, that New Who takes itself seriously as Good Television. Old Who did on occasion tackle Serious Topics or grapple with Big Questions, but mostly it was just making a fun show about aliens and time travel. Adventure.

The whole Key to Time mishegos is a pretty good example of that, as far as my own experience goes: the Guardian pretty much just hijacks the Doctor and sends him on an errand that he can’t be bothered to do himself. The impending crisis that requires the Key is so vague as to be nonexistent, the relation of the Key to that crisis is so attenuated as to be invisible, and the writers make only the most perfunctory wave at pasting a Six Hidden Segments sticker over the Six Plot Coupons. The Doctor himself doesn’t want anything to do with it, participates only under threat—I think it’s worth mentioning that the threat is the only memorable thing about the Guardian at all. There’s no deadline, other than the Doctor’s understandable wish to be done with the whole business. It’s about as McGuffiny as a McGuffin can be without actually naming all the various parts after Hitchcock films. The whole thing is just an alert to the viewers that the Doctor will be going from place to place looking for things and getting into trouble, as opposed to being sent places by the Time Lords or UNIT or a randomizer built in to the TARDIS. Or an error. He missed the opening of the Brighton Pavilion twice, you know.

I suppose that’s another aspect—in the scheme of things, the Doctor in Old Who was just not terribly important. I mean, yes, he saved the Earth over and over again, and saved a bunch of other planets as well. He wasn’t supposed to, but he did. Yes, when the Time Lords need someone to do the dirty work, they send the Doctor, but that’s just because he is available and already in disgrace so they can push him around, not because he is peculiarly able. UNIT and the Brig make use of the fellow when he’s around but never quite trust him, and follow his advice only when shooting fails to work. Romana shows up and takes him down a peg right away; her inexperience is the only thing that makes her the junior partner.

Oh, that’s another thing I should mention—it’s true that the Old Who has some unfortunate attitudes toward gender, race and class. New Who would be much less likely to have a White Guardian that appears to be a West Indies colonial administrator. New Who is somewhat less likely to use accent markers of class and ethnicity as indications of value, and is—more likely isn’t really in it, but let’s be clear that you could watch Old Who for decades without seeing an Earthling who wasn’t European of the palest descent. And yet, for all that, New Who has its own problems, particularly with gender. When Donna Noble becomes, essentially, Romana for a Day, it blows her tiny mind to pieces. Clara’s hacking genius doesn’t seem to extend as far as using iPlayer. Martha’s medical expertise just lies unused on the floor of the TARDIS. Romana is obviously smarter than the Doctor, has technical skills that far exceed his and that she actually uses in episodes and everything, and while she is fond of the Doctor, in a way, is far from blind to his many faults and shortcomings. There’s a scene in City of Death when the Doctor ignores Romana’s observations, and she pretty much shrugs and goes to investigate the secret room herself, and the episode makes it clear that this was the correct and valuable use of her time. And they do not, later, spend much of the episode having a row about it, which would not be a correct and valuable use of my time.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I enjoyed reading this and agree with it entirely. City of Death remains my favorite doctor who episode ever.

Thanks, this is very close to my own take on the shortcomings of New Who and the cheesy-but-dramatically-satisfying approach of the Old. (Except that I'm somewhat of a sucker for the new music versus the electronic bleepage)

And I'd like to give shout outs to Pyramids of Mars and The Ark in Space as highlights of Tom Baker doctordom.

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