Every little community has its in-jokes, and each community has its bottom-of-the-pecking order geek who catches on late and then fails to realise when everyone else has moved on. In the world of Doctor Who – which has become a big world again, due to the success of the TV series’ revival – the fast-track to lamer status is to make cracks about wobbly sets and dodgy effects and watching from behind the sofa.
(I go back to the Hartnell days, and I never watched from behind the sofa. More likely my nose was four inches from the screen and I’d have to be picked up and moved so that others could see.)
Looking at some of the ’80s stuff in the company of cast members a few days go, I was struck by something that I’d been far too self-absorbed to notice back when I worked on the show. Which is that everybody, but everybody involved, was reaching for something way beyond what the budgets, the available technology, and probably even our own abilities, could deliver. Back then I was in my mid-twenties and the Whos were my first writing job in TV. I fretted and railed and grew depressed at my failure to deliver something that might stand alongside the great sf that I’d grown up reading.
In my head, it was always perfect. But in your head, it always is.
What I can see now is the extent to which everybody took the base materials of 80s studio-made TV with its low technology (compared to today), crippling time schedules (compared to any time in history) and inadequate resources, and shot for the moon. That’s in every department – sets, costume, effects, performance. Knowing what I now know about how TV is made, I realise that I was witnessing the spectacle of seasoned professionals trying to squeeze a quart of ambition into a half-pint pot of opportunity, and doing it on a timescale that doomed everyone to a world of “if only”. I took everything for granted back then; only now do I see how hard others were pushing themselves for this under-appreciated, under-respected kids’ science fiction show.
Of course the end result fell short. Under those circumstances, the only way you can ever ensure that it doesn’t is to aim low. But as the proponents of ‘poor theatre’ have always asserted, when your resources are meagre then your audience will compensate with their own imagination.
That, I believe, was the true secret of the show’s success. There never was a poorer theatre than the screen fare available to a science fiction fan, back in the days before screen sf was a universal commodity. A cardboard robot, a spaceship on a visible wire… these were the agents of awe. The point of it was that you looked past the flaws in the presentation and responded to the vision behind them.
We don’t do that so much, now. The flaws aren’t so obvious and I fear that our imaginations have grown seriously soft. I’ve heard people say, with some air of superiority, that the special effects in the new Who aren’t all that great. Same with Primeval, and Torchwood, and Walking with Dinosaurs.
Well, point one. They f*cking are.
And point two, so f*cking what?