Sharks in Space

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The only television show I’m currently watching is Doctor Who, but I’m watching it both now and in the past. It’s timey-wimey. Or, more accurately, internetty.

I’ve been watching the current show more or less as it’s broadcast for a few years now. In general, I’ve been watching the episodes within a week of the initial broadcast, meaning mostly while it is the most recent episode. The current season (Series 11) is now done, with the exception of a New Year’s Day special.

I’ve also been watching the old show, more or less in order, one or two nights a week, usually two or four broadcast-episodes—at the time the episodes were shorter and stories were designed to be broadcast in parts,usually over four or six weeks—starting with season 11, which was originally broadcast in 1974. On that front, I’m up to Season 20. That’s the first season that I watched almost none of as a teenager, that I am seeing for the first time now.

Series 11 is terrific. Season 20 stinks.

I have long complained that the term jumping the shark went into common use with a subtle but important shift in the original meaning. (Aha! I have indeed complained about it in this space, just over ten years ago. Sheesh.) The use I would prefer, and which I believe was originally intended, is an experiential one, describing the moment when a person shifts from thinking of a show as having some disappointing episodes to thinking of it as a show they used to enjoy. As such, it’s less a phenomenon of a particular episode of a particular show as a phenomenon of the interaction of people with that show. It is an aspect of fandom as much as of filmmaking.

So, for Your Humble Blogger and Doctor Who: this season, I am looking forward to each episode in anticipation of an enjoyable time. There have been three episodes I didn’t like and seven I did, which is pretty good (for me). The show is not, at present, a show I used to enjoy but a show I currently enjoy. And considered as an eleven-series show, it’s one that I used to used to enjoy. Really, I hadn’t been enjoying it since Series Five or so, but absolutely by the year before last I was saying that I had given up on expecting to enjoy the new episodes. That mental shift had happened. I was no longer expecting the show to improve. And now it has, and I’m expecting it to stay good.

Meanwhile, back in Series 20, I am no longer expecting the old show to improve. There may well be the occasional good episode, but I don’t expect it. I stopped expecting any further good episodes sometime during “Terminus”, I think. The genuine unironic enjoyment I was getting from the show is no longer an expectation—I am still more or less enjoying the experience of watching with my household, but more in a schlock-festival way, where the pleasure comes from the group I’m with much more than the thing on the screen. For the show itself, it has become a show I used to enjoy.

Now, this could be disconcerting from a timey-wimey point of view, in that the pleasure is past-tense for the past show, while for the current show I did, in the past, consider the pleasure to be past-tense but now currently consider it current. It is, of course, more complicated than that—I think that Doctor Who has jumped the shark for me in that sense at least three distinct times, and I fully expect it to again at some point.

But then, Doctor Who is pretty much sui generis, innit? There’s no particular reason why someone who liked Season Five would enjoy Season Thirteen, and frankly there’s not much reason why someone who liked Season Fifteen to enjoy the very different Season Eighteen. One of the strengths of the show is its capacity for reinvention. The new series is pretty much nothing like the old one, except for being about a time-traveling alien; the sensibility is very different, and then different again, and is now different again. I can’t think of anything even remotely like that—I mean, there simply aren’t very many generationally long-running episodic shows in the first place, and in the second I have no idea how General Hospital or The Archers have changed over the decades so can’t do the comparison.

Still, it’s a very strange feeling, watching the show jump the shark in both directions simultaneously.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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