I recently broke down and bought a bunch of classic Doctor Who stories on Blu-ray, and then figured out how to watch Blu-rays on my computer monitor. I had some of those episodes on DVD, and the picture is noticeably better on Blu-ray, even if the show was filmed in SD. (It was also filmed in PAL, which has higher picture quality than a standard NTSC DVD could capture.)
Anyway, in between catching up on recent shows, I’ve been rewatching some Who stories from the 1970s and 1980s, and… I just can’t overlook the flaws of those episodes as well as I used to.
I’m not just talking about the obvious stuff. Like, sure, the gender politics of old Doctor Who were usually iffy, despite the occasional attempt at introducing a brainy character like Zoe or Romana, or a badass like Sarah Jane or Leela. Not to mention the pretty blatant racism—Doctor Who writer Malcolm Hulke wrote in his 1974 book Writing for Television that British TV of the era was considered too racist to be shown in Apartheid-era South Africa.
And I’ve always been well aware that the classic series has pacing problems, especially any story longer than four 25-minute episodes. (Two different stories in Jon Pertwee’s final season feature an episode-length car chase.)
But I think I’ve passed some kind of singularity, where I can’t ignore how clunky a lot of the writing in even the best old-school Doctor Who is. I’ll give a few examples:
I used to think “Keeper of Traken” was a magnificent Shakespearean tragedy about a flawed hero (Tremas) who is torn between duty and family, and ends up losing both. This time around, I couldn’t help noticing the story mostly consists of the same event over and over: the Doctor gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and the Trakenians overlook the obvious. Rinse, repeat. If the Keeper had given his council a heads up that he was inviting the Doctor, the whole story would have been ten minutes long.
I watched a big part of “The Face of Evil” the other day, and… oof. The Tribe of the Sevateem is a pretty heinous collection of “primitive” stereotypes, and once again the plot requires a lot of gullible people. Also, I’d forgotten that Leela’s father is killed horribly in the first few minutes, and Leela never mourns for him at all. (Run of the mill for classic Who companions, to be fair—Adric, Nyssa and Tegan all lost a close family member in their debut stories, and it’s hardly mentioned afterwards.) Leela meets the Doctor, who she’s spent her whole life being taught is the Devil, and decides to risk her life to save him a few minutes later.
They put out “Spearhead on Space” on Blu-ray years ago, and it’s got the best picture quality of all (because it was shot entirely on film.) But… Liz Shaw gets a much worse introduction than I remembered, even by the standards of old-school companions. She’s drafted to join U.N.I.T. against her will because she’s a brilliant scientist, which ought to lead to interesting scenes where she butts heads with the Brigadier. But instead, he just lectures her about exterrestrial stuff, and then drags her to the hospital so she can stare at his comatose friend. She does eventually butt heads with the Doctor, but it’s way less interesting than the similar scenes with the Second Doctor and Zoe.
The less said about Colin Baker’s “Trial of a Time Lord,” the better. I’m really struck by how weird it is that so much time is spent turning the mass-murderer Sabalom Glitz into a lovable anti-hero, and how annoying he actually is. The Blu-rays of “Trial of a Time Lord” include extended cuts of every episode, and just… save yourself. Seriously, don’t do that to yourself.
The point of the above is not just to poke holes in these stories which I have loved and cherished for so many years. (Well, except for “Trial,” which I never cherished.)
I guess I’m just thinking more about just how much television has changed. I’ve had a few conversations lately with other folks who say the same thing: pretty much any TV made before about 2000 feels a little sedate and low-energy, and features characters who are more stylized and less emotionally complex. The kind of problems I mention above, including the repetitive plots and gullible people, are widespread.
Even shows from the 1990s, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the many 90s space opera shows, feel like they belong to a different world than ours.
What changed? There are many things you can point to:
The rise of cable TV and direct-to-syndication shows in the 1990s birthed a lot of television that could appeal to a more niche audience than the handful of big broadcast networks had been chasing.
Audiences who had grown up watching television became more sophisticated, and probably more jaded.
The internet became widely accessible in the 1990s, and offered people communities to over-analyze TV shows, sometimes in conversation with the people who made those shows.
DVDs and other options let you rewatch shows over and over, a huge change from when television was designed to be seen once or twice in first-run or reruns. So the makers of TV started to change their product to reward repeated viewings.
And I think all of those things were a factor for sure, but not the main factor. Here’s what I think is the most important change that happened in the 1990s.
TV shows finally got rid of the rule that each episode had to stand on its own. People, and things, no longer needed to be the exact same at the end of each story as at the beginning. This rule was designed so that casual viewers could follow a show without difficulty, and episodes could run in any order in syndication. And it really hampered the storytelling of these older shows—I think often about how much cooler it would have been if Will Ryker’s transporter duplicate had been allowed to take his place on the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation, as the writers reportedly wanted.
This rule meant that characters couldn’t change as a result of the things that happened to them. And that meant they couldn’t grow, which in turn meant they had no inner life to speak of. Twentieth-century television frequently feels as is it’s trapped in the uncanny valley, with actors trying to act like human beings but not quite getting there. Returning to Doctor Who, the best companions were the ones who felt like they had a subtle, gradual arc, growing and changing as a result of their time with the Doctor. And of course, Blake’s 7 felt like a breath of fresh air when it aired on PBS stations in the early 1980s: every episode counted, the characters went through changes, there were Consequences.
But most non-soap-opera scripted television from the twentieth century feels oddly sterile because of the refusal to serialize. Even most shows which experimented in greater serialization in the 1990s have a janky, primitive feel, as if they can’t quite let go of the need to keep arcs contained. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 come off better than most, but it’s getting harder to ignore stuff like “oh, this character’s father just died, and she’s just never going to mention him again.” It feels creepy.
“Uncanny valley” is actually an apt term for it.
Note: I got some feedback after last week’s newsletter that I understated how horribly burnout can affect some people. And also, I failed to be clear that I was talking entirely about volunteer burnout, in which people pour themselves into doing some good purely for the luv, and not work burnout, which can stem from an abusive work situation. Also, the original version of the above post neglected to mention Babylon 5. I regret these errors.
This supercut of the entire relationship between Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen in Adventure Time is like a perfect short lesbian romance film. I hadn’t seen half the episodes these scenes came from, and I could still follow it just fine. And I may or may not have watched the whole thing five times. (The latest Adventure Time: Distant Lands episode, “Obsidian,” is all about PB and Marcy, and it’s so great.)
The cishet white liberal dudes who insist that they’re above all of our partisan squabbling—that they can look down and see the ridiculousness of both sides’ shibboleths—probably think that they’re being the Grownups. They’re being the adults in the room.
But really? Nothing could be more childish than refusing to acknowledge that people are hurting, and that they’re hurting because of entrenched problems that sometimes manifest in the form of microaggressions. Thinking that racism, misogyny and transphobia will go away if you ignore them? Childish. Thinking that you can just pretend everything is okay and people aren’t angry for a reason? Infantile. These people need to grow the fuck up—which, in their cases, probably means talking less and listening more.
Once again, there’s a new episode of Our Opinions Are Correct going up on Thursday.
In case you missed it, Open World’s audio dramatization of my story “I’ll Have You Know” has gotten some praise lately, and it’s really worth listening to.
And finally, I would be incredibly grateful if you were to pre-order my upcoming young adult space fantasy novel Victories Greater Than Death, and my upcoming book of writing advice, Never Say You Can’t Survive.