What does Doctor Who look like? I’m talking about special effects and sets and costumes here. At least 33% of people think they don’t look very good—probably more: I gave up thinking of synonyms for dodgy and wobbly to poll.
I think Doctor Who looks just fine. Many reviewers hold up 2005′s Season 1 as a dream realised; I think the series looked as good in 1989′s Survival, 1970′s Inferno, or 1968′s The Tomb of the Cybermen. Of course, I’m picking the better productions, but my honest gut feeling is that Doctor Who generally looks good.
Honest gut feelings are the stuff of consumer advice, following the belief that my gut and your gut digest the same way, whatever we might say about something. I want to try a critical approach to explain why we differ on whether and which olives are good.
Doctor Who might look good enough because: 1, it was state of the art when it aired; 2, it makes an acceptable trade-off for scope; 3, flashiness doesn’t matter; or, 4, it has a thorough aesthetic at work. Choose!
1. By state of the art, I don’t mean the inside art, but the outside one. What did people expect of television in 1964? And what did they think aliens or moonbases looked like? What did they think things sounded like in space? You might say that Doctor Who looks crap compared to Battlestar Galactica, but you can’t use the eyes of 2006 to judge what was made for the eyes of 1986, 1976, 1966… You can be certain that in ten years time, Battlestar won’t look so great. Realism is relative.
(A variation on the above: you can’t use the eyes of 29 to judge what was made for the eyes of 14.)
2. As I’ve noted before, it would be impossible for any television show to look perfectly glossy (or stylishly grungy) if it wants to visit a new world, with new people, every four weeks. Battlestar Galactica has a handful of sets, everyone wears the same type of costume, and all the people (Capricans and Cylons) look like you and me.
3. I’ll let Ray Carney field this one:
If you’re a real artist, you can make art with no money: Red Grooms used house paint and plywood to make his art. Paul Zaloom sets up a card table and moves toy soldiers around. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls. I had a friend, Freddie Curchack, who made shadow puppets on a sheet.
Point 1 kind of says, “it looks crap now…” Points 2 and 3 kind of say, “sure it looks crap, but…” Point 4 is more subtle. Does it underly the first three, or synthesise them?
As per point 2, an artist must decide how their budget is going to be allocated. As per point 3, they might decide to use shadow puppets rather than CGI. But between the inside art of what is technically possible, and the outside art of what the audience expects, there is the state of the artist’s art. The artist develops their own aesthetic, and part of that is developing a private relationship with their materials. They work out how to best use their materials, and they also learn how to deny accident.
It is an accident that a Doctor Who serial has dodgy monster costumes or wobbly sets, but the best writers and script editors and producers and directors denied it. As a novelist thinks through writing, as film noir was shaped by black & white and the Hays Code, a Doctor Who serial takes form through the special effects available. The director adjusts lines, etc, accordingly. Special effects become aesthetic choices.
Now since this is a blog post and not an essay, let me swerve off and talk about Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5.
Next Gen made the opposite budget allocation to Doctor Who: the executive producers chose to have very few sets, costumes and effects shots, with the understanding that these would all look very good. In fact, those computer-controlled camera shots of that detailed Enterprise model still look more realistic than anything on television. The budget allocation required the action to take place standing still, for the ships as well as the crew.
But the production team went further, developing a philosophy that reflected and emphasised their choices, creating a unified aesthetic. The Federation has an existentialist/scientific view of the universe. Reality is out there, observable, knowable, reproducable. Starfleet are interested in going out there and experiencing it, but in a way that favours being and contemplation over action. The characters themselves are solid and fixed.
Babylon 5 responded to Next Gen in part by reversing its budget allocation, aligning itself (at a tangent) with Doctor Who. Its CGI can get pretty cheerful, but it is one with the show’s aesthetic, which places a premium on dynamism and interactivity, and wherein political expedience always trumps reality.
Yes, I’m saying that looking at these shows tells you things about them!
That a viewer says Doctor Who has dodgy effects and wobbly sets has sociological meaning(s). That a Dalek looks like a pepperpot has aesthetic meaning(s). Fandom starts with the aesthetic and ends with the sociological (as documented in the best episode of this year’s season, Love and Monsters). I want to get back to the aesthetic, I want to deny accident, I want to see what Doctor Who looks like.