Reviewed: The Witchfinders

Barry Letts, who knew how to write a good script, laid down some guidelines for how to write for Doctor Who.

The key thing, he said, was to imagine how real people would behave if they were put in completely extraordinary situations. So, if there were an extra-terrestrial invasion, or if the original rulers of the Earth were awakened after millions of years, how would ordinary people react? What would we do? How would we cope?

Ordinary people – because Doctor Who is a drama series. The fantasy element – the Doctor, the aliens, the threat from Earth or beyond – is extraordinary, and that’s why Doctor Who is different from other dramas, but human beings remain human beings. They should be written as such. Science fiction or horror elements should not mean that the normal rules about writing for human beings should go out of the window; because one element of a drama is fantastic or fantasy, it should not follow that all of it should be. People in science fiction should still be people.

This is where, I think, Chris Chibnall’s Who fails. There are dramatic conventions that drama should follow, of course; the way people speak in plays, films, or television series is different from “normal” human speech because normal human beings rarely speak in sentences. They interrupt themselves, contradict themselves, hesitate and stumble. (Paradoxically, when drama tries to imitate “real” speech like that, it sounds most unreal.) But cardboard characters and clunky dialogue are no more acceptable in science fiction/ horror than they are in any other drama. Neither is info-dumping, because real human beings do not stand around telling each other the plot. (And nor should aliens.)

These objections can be applied to The Witchfinders. Once again, it was another episode which failed to present real human beings behaving as real people would.

And please get your theology right (the Doctor would have known the Bible): “love your neighbour as yourself” comes from Leviticus, in the Old Testament, not the New; when Jesus said it was one of the two greatest commandments, he was quoting from the Torah.

Of course, it’s very difficult to write any drama about witch hunts or witch trials after The Crucible. Arthur Miller, this was not.

There were some good bits. Alan Cumming was splendid – and at least the King’s homosexuality was historically accurate. (Or was he bisexual? History doesn’t allow us such certainty.) But the 17th Century understanding of homosexuality was different from today’s, and yes, people were unenlightened then, but it was probably the best they could do. Homosexuality then was seen as something you did rather than something you were. 17th Century Christians, especially Christians like James, would have believed in the Old Testament’s and Paul’s condemnation of (male) homosexuality as strongly as they believed in the Old Testament’s excoriation of witchcraft. The historical King James would, alas, have been ashamed of being gay; he would not have embraced it or have been comfortable with it, as he was shown to be in the script. Yes, that’s sad; yes, it’s wrong – but it’s also historically correct. So, if you’re going to do a historical, please get your facts right.

(While homophobia still persists in Christian circles – Christians are usually the worst advertisement for Christianity – most Christians these days are probably more willing to take the historical context of the Biblical teachings into account. The infallibility of the Bible is actually a minority Christian view today, but that was not the case in King James’s time.)

And I’m sorry, but the episode was just boring. Again. Most of the scenes with King James were good, but a few good bits do not a drama make. The aliens were dull, dull, dull. Again. The Doctor’s being arraigned for a witch was entirely predictable. Ryan was as wooden as usual. But Graham did get to wear a very nice hat.

As we’ve now seen episode 8, I think – I hope! – it’s appropriate to offer some thoughts on the Chibnall series so far.

Jodie Whittaker has had time to establish herself in the role – and I’m afraid she’s just not got it. This isn’t really the actor’s fault; her other work, particularly on stage, shows that she’s hugely talented and has the acting ability and versatility to be very good indeed. She isn’t, because the directors clearly aren’t giving her the necessary direction. She’s also dealing with some very weak writing. There is absolutely no comparison between her performance and that of Troughton, or between her and Tom Baker or Pertwee at their best. She is just not a very good Doctor. The character has become first among equals rather than a central and dominant figure.

Nu-Who, to my mind, has always over-emphasised the Doctor’s eccentricity to the detriment of the character’s other aspects. The Doctor is an eccentric, but that doesn’t define him (or her). Having a sense of humour is not the same as being silly, nutty, or kooky. There are lots of other adjectives that one can apply to the Doctor (I’ll leave you to apply them particularly to different incarnations); he has variously been spiky, supercilious, contemptuous, impatient, irritable, outraged, patronising, wearily exasperated, callous (on occasions), dark, alien, and inconsiderate… Add to that: a massive personality, a strongly moral motivation, a compassion that’s almost limitless. Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor displays none of these traits. And another defining characteristic of the Doctor, far more important than eccentricity – that word again – is charisma. The Doctor should be a magnetic figure, capable of taking charge of any situation. The charisma may be tinged with bombast (Tom and Colin Baker), gentleness (Davison and Troughton), or even arrogance (Hartnell and Pertwee), but the Doctor should be hugely charismatic. And Jodie Whittaker is not.

She could be, with the right scripts and the right direction. The problem isn’t that she’s female; the problem is the performance – though I suspect that casting someone like Haydn Gwynne, Olivia Coleman (yes, her again), or even Louise Jameson (yup) would have given the performance the necessary weight from the outset.

And then there’s the TARDIS crew. They’re okay. They’re nothing very special. Bradley Walsh is clearly the best. But Yaz and Ryan are never going to join the A list of the best companions (which, I’d suggest, would include Ian and Barbara, Sarah, Donna, and Bill). I’d suggest that Bradley Walsh isn’t A list standard either; he’s just much better than the others. If he’d been in Capaldi’s last season, he would have been consistently outshone by the depth and subtlety of Pearl Mackie’s performance (though admittedly he would have been given better material to work with; the writing was hugely superior in the last season). The current TARDIS crew, to be honest, verges on the dreary.

And then we have the worst TARDIS set since Peter Cushing’s. It matters. The TARDIS is not just a time and space machine to get the Doctor from A to B. The TARDIS is, essentially, another character. The set has to look right.

Of course, there’s the relentless bludgeoning of message, message, message. We do actually know that racism and discrimination are wrong; most of us are content not to trumpet our virtues to the world and are irritated by those who feel the need to descant on their own sanctity. Sledgehammer exhortations to do what we do anyway are, at best, crass, and at worst, insulting. And the programme is very selective in who it seeks to champion: lots about interest groups who receive very high exposure anyway, little about those who don’t. (One million people in the UK use Foodbanks. One million. But let’s not bang on about the poor – they’re not sexy.) And hey, kids: don’t carry knives!

Is there another drama programme on television that trumpets its message so loudly? I can’t think of one. The nearest comparison is Cat Face on YouTube, which regularly ends with a fatuous exhortation from the floating feline (“Hey, kids, don’t do drugs, yeah?”). Cat Face is very funny and I commend it hugely, by the way.

Who is the series aimed at? The tone, the characterisation of the Doctor, and the simpler storytelling suggest it’s targeting a younger core audience, perhaps older children and younger teenagers. If that’s right, and if it’s trying to remain a family programme – well, is that wise? We could consider:

A basic business maxim is that it’s easier to hold on to your existing clients than it is to attract new ones. (Certainly something I find when trying to market our Doctor Who conventions!)

So, if you’re going to radically reinterpret the programme – and Chibnall Who presses a reset button as large as the one RTD had in 2005 – you have to be careful not to alienate your existing audience.

It’s hard to be certain of the figures, but, if we base our calculations on the 2011 census, 23% of the UK population is under 20. Exclude those who are under four (few of whom will watch it), and you end up with 14%. That’s a lot of people; if you can reach them, as CC seems to be trying to, you’ve got a big potential audience.

And yet:

a) The majority of the UK population (56%) is over 35. That means they’re old enough to have seen at least some classic-Who, even though lots of them will never have watched it. (But bet you they saw at least some of it.) They’re certainly old enough to have seen some of the Davies or Moffat Who.

b) Even if we stick with the 23% figure for the under-20s in the UK, almost the same number are over 60, at 22%. In other words, they’re old enough to have seen anything from An Unearthly Child onwards.

c) If you consider the proportion of the population who could have seen anything from Tom Baker’s debut onwards, they’d now be 48 or above. That’s 45% of the population. (And 29% are over 53 – my age! – and could therefore have seen and remembered anything from Spearhead from Space onwards.)

Statistics are boring and they’re hard to write about. If you’re still with me, though…

It would clearly be daft to assume, say, that just because 45% of the population could have watched Robot, or anything after that, that they actually did. Nor do we have the current viewing figures broken down by age. But it’s also clear that the majority of the audience are not new to Doctor Who, and are not even new to nu-Who; the majority of the audience will have watched classic-Who, and a substantial minority will have watched Troughton and Hartnell too.

The core audience know the programme and they know it well. And they like it, or at least they like it when it’s good. This doesn’t make them fans in the sense of people who are devoted to it or who have an encyclopaedic knowledge of it. And yet: talk to any Doctor Who viewer in their mid 40s or above, and you can bet their eyes will go misty as they mention that time when the Master had a chair that ate people, or the one with the giant maggots, or how brilliant Tom Baker was. That’s a huge part of your audience: far bigger than any younger, potential audience, who in any case watch TV far less than those of us who can remember cathode ray tubes.

Innovate, but build on the past; don’t junk it. Bring in new viewers. But tinker with the programme too much, make it less like it was in a scramble to win new viewers, and you risk alienating the established audience. They won’t watch it if they don’t think it’s Doctor Who any more. When they start turning off, the viewing figures will decline until the programme stops being viable, and then it’ll be cancelled. The future for Who depends more on the established audience than it does on any potential one. Alienate that established audience at your peril.

This has been a lacklustre season: the weakest of nu-Who, and the weakest season since Sylvester McCoy’s first. Some episodes have been dreadful, some have been reasonably good (but nothing more); the majority have been no more than mediocre. While the BBC will be pleased with the viewing figures, someone somewhere will know and understand that the critical and fan reaction has not been uniformly enthusiastic, and they will begin to wonder why. They may also come to appreciate that the BBC’s over-hyping of mediocrity will not con people into believing base metal to be gold. I suspect the time slot boosts the viewing figures; I doubt very much these would be so high if the programme was still on Saturdays, when people would be more likely to turn the telly off. How many in the audience watch Doctor Who because it is on, and there isn’t much else to see on Sunday evenings, rather than because it is good? And how long will they continue to bother?

At its best, and by any measure, Doctor Who is one of the best, most imaginative, and most gripping dramas on television. It certainly isn’t at the moment.

“Okay” is not good enough. “Okay” is actually pretty bad.

And I fear, ladies and gentlemen of the BBC hierarchy, that this just will not do.