Fans, fiction and A Good Man Goes to War (2011)

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Imagine if you pitched this story to any publisher of Who fiction, such as Big Finish or BBC Books or DWM‘s comic strip: The Doctor’s companions have had time vortex-exposed sex and conceived a baby. The baby is kidnapped by a squadron of religious soldiers, so the Doctor gathers an army of allies including Silurians, Sontarans and Judoon to help him rescue her. The Cybermen also make an appearance, as do Captain Avery and Danny Boy, and there are continuity references to nearly every story in the last year and a half. As it turns out, the baby is actually another of the Doctor’s companions who’ll grow up to be his a. assassin and b. wife. (Actually, the whole thing’s beginning to sound like a Virgin New Adventure. Let’s travel back to 1991 and pitch it to them.)

Surely, no one would touch it with a barge pole. Because it reads like fan fiction. A fan writing a story for other fans. And as fan lore tells us, that’s bad. That’s about the worst thing you can do if you’re writing Doctor Who. Apart from question marks on collars or not taking things seriously enough.

(A quick recap on how we got to the idea that writing for a fan-based audience is bad. 1980s Who saw some liberal reuse of old monsters, characters and costumes from stock. Internal references to previous eras peppered the stories. Initially a popular approach, it was overused and the production team were criticised for trying to please fans rather than entertain a general audience. And since then Doctor Who fans have taken a dim view of writers trying to please them. Don’t try to please us!, they say. Think of the general public!’)

But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that A Good Man Goes to War is written for folk with an advanced level of knowledge of Doctor Who since the beginning of series 5, some 18 months previous. In short, it’s written for fans. But who are fans nowadays?

Steven Moffat has argued that everyone’s a Doctor Who fan these days; that the general audience do tend to watch most episodes of the show so you can tell detailed narratives without worrying that they’ll be alienated and switch channels. If he’s right, then Joe Public would have been completely comfortable with the complicated story arc of Series Six, in which A Good Man etc is thoroughly embedded.

But if he’s wrong, then I think A Good Man would be greatly perplexing to less dedicated viewers. To offer an episode as dense with references to previous storylines as this must be very offputting at least and bewildering at best. How else can we imagine a casual viewer reacting to dialogue like this?

DOCTOR: It’s all running about, sexy fish vampires and blowing up stuff. And Rory wasn’t even there at the beginning. Then he was dead, then he didn’t exist, then he was plastic. Then I had to reboot the whole universe. Long story. So, technically the first time they were on the TARDIS together in this version of reality, was on their…
VASTRA: On their what?
DOCTOR: On their wedding night.

Get your head around that, casual viewers! Even the pay off to this story – the revelation that River is Amy and Rory’s daughter – only works if you’re invested in the series long story arc, and you care about such things. Otherwise, what does it matter who’s daughter River is? Why would anyone but a fan care?

*****

Old Who had its share of continuity heavy storylines, allegedly written with fans in mind. The granddaddy of them all was Attack of the Cybermen, so let’s pick on it as an example.

Broadcast in 1985, it contained various plot threads from stories as distant as 1966’s The Tenth Planet, 1967’s The Tomb of the Cybermen and 1968’s The Invasion. It has since been roundly criticised for expecting casual viewers to know detailed plot points from stories broadcast almost 20 years previously. Although I suspect that for a casual viewer, it can be enjoyed on a simple Doctor vs the Monsters level, in a way that A Good Man cannot because the very purpose of the Doctor’s actions in the latter story needs to be seen in context.

But we should remember that Attack of the Cybermen and its nostalgic 1980s stablemates existed in a very different space than modern day Doctor Who. With no repeat screenings, few home video releases and VCRs an expensive luxury, it was rare even in the mid 80s to see a story more than once. Under those circumstances, the less you distracted your audience with needless continuity the better. Modern Doctor Who is designed for multiple viewings – indeed, it rewards them – and its audience is better equipped to follow long, complex narratives. And if Moffat pulls Sontarans, Judoon and Danny Boy’s spitfire out of his toybox, it could well be that they cut down the costs of creating new prosthetics and CGI assets.

My point is not that A Good Man is this century’s Attack of the Cybermen, although they are both, to my mind, equally obsessed with fannish continuity. It’s more that fandom’s go-to criticism of writing for fans is outdated, because as new Who continually shows, you can write Doctor Who for fans and still make compelling TV. And if we accept that, perhaps we can look at some of those 80s continuity fests in a new light. Perhaps, we can learn to stop worrying and love the fanwank.

Anyway, enough of this. I’ve got another story to pitch to the powers that be. It’s going to be a match up between the Master and the Cybermen. They’ll walk down the steps of St Paul’s like in The Invasion! And UNIT will be in it. And the Brigadier will come back from the dead… Not too much continuity, do you think?

What do you mean it’s been done?

LINK to: Terror of the Vervoids: in both we meet friends of the Doctor from unseen adventures (Travers in Vervoids and all sorts of people in A Good Man).

NEXT TIME… When you’ve quite finished grinning like a Cheshire Cat, we’ll delve into The Mind of Evil.

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