The 80s, media and The Long Game (2005)

the long game 1

So, let’s go back to the Doctor Who production office, late 1980s. Script editor Andrew Cartmel is looking for new writers who can breathe new life into a show now a quarter of a century old. He picks up a script from the slush pile by some newcomer called Russell T Davies. That script is original version of The Long Game.

It eventually got to the screen in 2005. I remember watching it for the first time and being reminded of the late 1980s. This is a story which feels like it could slip in to seasons 24 or 25. And I’ve seen that sentiment expressed elsewhere too. Looking at this story again got me asking myself why exactly.

There are specific story elements which have been copied across. Like Paradise Towers, this story features a many storeyed structure, accessed by a lift. Both stories feature characters trying to get to the highest floor. On floor 139, there’s a busy space-age market complete with junk food ala Dragonfire.  Floor 500 feels a bit like Dragonfire too, where a sinister man runs a business in a refrigerated environment, employing zombies to do his work. And back to Paradise Towers, that man turns out to be the slave of a growling, inarticulate beast permanently installed in the infrastructure. That beast is a pink, fleshy, organic lump, like the oversized brain in Time and the Rani.

Thematically though, this is allegory and social commentary, presented through a society which although highly stylised is a twisted version of our own. To that end, it’s reminiscent of The Happiness Patrol, a critique of Thatcherism as potent as The Long Game‘s critique of broadcast media. Any doubt that writer Russell T Davies was specifically parodying Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp empire is dispelled when the Editor (Simon Pegg) looks straight down the camera. And says ‘Gotcha!’, a clear reference to The Sun’s infamous headline used during the Falklands war.

The baleful influence of Satellite 5, The Long Game tells us, is that it holds humanity back, stunting its growth. This is presumably the threat Davies sees NewsCorp and its ilk representing. ‘We are the news,’ says journalist Cathica (Christine Adams), succinctly expressing the element of  media control this story fears; an populace dependent on one source for its information is open to manipulation.

It’s a common fear. But watching it these days, in the wake of the Milly Dowler affair, there are elements which seem oddly prescient. The episode’s most visceral image is of a stream of compressed information being fed directly into people’s brains, exposed to the outside world by a dinky automated hatch. There’s something about that image which speaks of the invasion of privacy experienced by victims of NewsCorp’s phone hacking; access to secrets and the most private of thoughts, just a brain spike or a phone call away.

It’s the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, midway through his annus Doctoralis) who recognises that the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire is being held back. ‘This technology’s wrong,’ he says. ‘You’ve got a door in your head!’ But here we strike one of the story’s problems.

This future world is 90 years behind where it should be, and that’s a gap which is difficult for the audience to grasp. To all intents and purposes this looks like a miraculous futuristic world, where brain surgery takes minutes and humans interface directly with computers. How can we tell the difference between this amazing world, and what it’s meant to be like with 90 years’ more development? Perhaps we needed a snippet more dialogue, to illustrate the point:

ROSE: Oh I get it. Like if we went back home and everyone was walking around like it was 1915. Telegrams instead of text messages. Carriages not cars.

Except, you know, heaps better and written by RTD.

Anyway, back to the 80’s. Whether it was a conscious decision or not I don’t know, but the design work has a particularly 80s flair to it. Primary colours, reds and blues dominate the colour palette. Rose’s smart red zippy jacket isn’t that far away from something Bonnie Langford might have worn in season 24. And elsewhere it’s power suits and elaborate hair… It just has a bit if that 80s glitz going on. A few synth crashes in the soundtrack wouldn’t have been out of place.   Evoking, lord help us, the plasticy sounds of Keff McCulloch.

Then we have boy genius Adam (Bruno Langley) who turns out to be such a disappointment to us all. He starts off as a potential rival to the Doctor for Rose’s affections, but he faints at the first sight of a green screened star scape, so Rose knows instantly he’s not cut out for 13 episodes of this a year. He brings back memories of that other boy companion of the 80s whose name starts with Ad and who came to a similarly undistinguished end.

But to his good fortune, he gets a number of brilliant scenes with Tamsin Grieg’s deliciously arch Nurse. (It’s a little odd to think that this fairly unremarked upon episode has two such awesome comic talents in Grieg and Pegg in it. Both warrant return appearances in new roles.) She turns from pained administrative fatigue to flirty temptress at the sight of Adam’s shiny money rod. She slyly upsells the poor hopeless lad to the premier option with a playful flick of her finger. Adam has no chance against her. Looking for an extra companion, Doctor? She’s the one you want.

There’s another pretty strong link to the 80s and that’s through one off (so far) director Brian Grant. Grant, it turns out, directed some of the most iconic 80s pop videos. Kids in America, Physical, Private Dancer… The list goes on. Who better to direct this tribute to classic Doctor Who‘s final years? And if the much mooted musical episode of Doctor Who ever gets off the ground, then surely it’s time to get Grant back. Doctor Who via Duran Duran and Donna Summer. C’mon, you’d watch that. Who wouldn’t?

Back in the Doctor Who production office in the late 80s, Cartmel sends Davies’ script back with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Apparently, he recommends writing something about mortgages; we can be thankful RTD ignored that advice. But it just goes to show that a good idea is worth hanging on to and nearly twenty years later this product of the 80s makes it to screen. Now that’s a long game.

LINK to Galaxy 4. Both feature hideous, immobile alien creatures which are more than they seem.

NEXT TIME… How can I go to the Admiralty with a story like that? We see devils in The Sea Devils.

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