Doctoring the TARDIS

Zarquod knows, I’m not (quite) old enough yet for Blimpish Letters to the Editor, but I did send something cranky to the relevant cubby-hole at the BBC about its use in this piece of ‘Edinburgh Fringe Festival’ to refer to the ‘Edinburgh Festival Fringe’. It’s been mostly changed now — curtseys to whichever minion fixed it — but still, grrr. Names are important; they tell you where something came from, how it came to be what it is now. It’s the ‘Festival Fringe’ because it began as a minor sideshow to the main event. Calling it the ‘Fringe Festival’ is a bit of neo-confusion that’s getting more common. See what the Fringe calls itself.

Aside from that, is it just me or is the Beeb kicking some righteous butt at the moment? It’s been ages since I’ve seen an example of public service broadcasting as outlandish, experimental, as simultaneously high-brow and populist — which is to say, exactly how public service broadcasting ought to be — as Flashmob Opera. It makes me ache with a kind of odd pride in the Corp., and makes me miss it all the more. BBC America is fine for some things, but it does try to feed the American expectation of television as a purveyor of the familiar and the comforting, preferably stretched as wide and thin as possible. Even BBC America has little space for the grand single gesture, the odd and the quirky. BBC America aside, public service broadcasting is squished into practical insignificance in the US, and that saddens me a great deal. Television has such potential to be a medium of social cohesion, support, and — shit, I’m going to use the word that came into my head — enlightenment. Treat it as if it can only be a popcorn machine, however, and that’s all you’ll get from it.

Someone at the Beeb has their eye on science fiction, too, for the first time in many years. It’s ironic just how daring and forward-looking the idea of recreating the live Quatermass Experiment from fifty years ago seems in a modern context.

And then Doctor Who, of course. We watched the first couple of episodes last night, and, with some small qualifications, it’s quite fantastic. The long fallow period it needed has paid off. There are great lines — ‘Lots of planets have a north’ — some very creaky acting in supporting roles (which seems oddly in the very spirit of Who), but most of all Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper completely own their parts already. Eccleston has a mercurial energy and danger that’s not been seen since Tom Baker. (Some nods to the costume department for getting rid of those farcically meta question marks on the Doctor’s clothing that lasted from Baker’s transformation right up to the end of Sylvester McCoy.) The two of them have a lovely easy chemistry. Watch the final scene of the second episode for some really skillful naturalistic acting from both, as their bonding moves from the huge universal to the small universal. It’s funny and touching.

Also note what looks to me like a change in film stock for that last scene. The Doctor Who of my childhood was the typical BBC of the period: videoed studio interior shooting, intercut with filmed exterior shooting. The new series seems to use the modern technique of post-processed video for both interiors and exteriors, to create a consistent sense of film, but at a small fraction of the cost and complexity. It’s not a look I’m fond of — it smells too much of compromise — but it serves. The final scene in episode two, though, looks to me like it’s genuinely filmed. That can only be a deliberate choice. For whatever reason, it works to set the scene apart for a couple of minutes. The Doctor and Rose are taken away from the frantic relevance of their adventures and set among a crowded shopping street, where they take stock. They’re just two apparently ordinary figures in the mass, talking first about the darkness in his back-story, but then suddenly overcome by a need for chips (the big fat deep-fried British kind, of course). The light of the film-stock is colder, bluer. Focus is pulled just to them, so that they’re separate, but still the same. It’s just the sort of moment that gives confidence everyone — writer, director, actors — knows exactly what they’re doing. It’s going to be fun.

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