Friday, March 13, 2009

TV LOVES YOU BACK MARCH: The "Doctor Who" Cut-Away

So, there's some show on the Sci-Fi channel by way of BBC called Doctor Who, and it's liked by the same fans as the old show. But seriously: this metrosexual doctor that's the wrong kind of ironic riding the Tardis all around doesn't really feel right - really, other than the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker, none of the Doctors feel right or feel as right.

This is a post about the brilliance of Doctor Who, but it's really about the Tom Baker years, in which it seems like everything weird and awesome about the show totally aligned.

The show makes for some of the best TV ever when Tom Baker's on the screen, as he's ideal for the time (mid-to-late 70s) with goofball style (Willy Wonka perm, super-long scarf) and a kinda wizened, post-Vietnam sardonism about him. Certainly too smart for whatever problem he's stumbled into, Baker's Doctor Who has a kind of Byronic meta-charm about him. He never seems threatened and treats, say, an evil, deformed despot like Davros in the definitive episode(s) "Genesis of the Daleks" like he's just some asshole in a rubber suit squawking and croaking about destruction.

Baker doesn't play it straight - or he plays it especially not-straight - and the Doctor doesn't either, so it works. And because the charm of Doctor Who is in its handmade-ness - from the oddball creatures and contraptions created with like crap from your garage, to the awkward but somehow perfect-because-of-it switches from on-set video and location-shot 16mm - the "first run-through in rehearsal" attitude Baker brings to the show adds to its rarefied, perpetually 3 a.m. weirdo vibe.

Like glitch music, or 808-oriented regional rap, the charm of Doctor Who comes in the odd accidents that are the product of making the most of to-be-expected limits and restrictions and realizing the results are sometimes more wondrous. In short, whether you choose to not spend money on "perfect"-looking robots or you plain don't have the money and go for it anyways, it's an aesthetic decision. And what makes these aspects even cooler and more effective are some especially lperfect, couldn't get any cooler tone-setting decisions: namely, the bad-ass theme song and what I call "the Doctor Who cut-away." Two acts of pure intentionality on a show that reeks of budget restraints and compromise.

The way this, like, rubbery from-space bassline meets some synthy or theremin noises and extra-terrestrial whooshes plays as a poppier version of Dave's trip from 2001 flies across the screen - well, it gets you pumped. It's a classic telling theme song, the same way the Full House song gets you ready for family comedy wackiness or, like, that sad-sack joint from Cheers gets you amped to empathetically chuckle along with some losers in a bar, the Doctor Who theme prepares you for the odd, always 3 a.m. alternate reality, hung-over-but-heady pace of the show. That's the thing about Doctor Who: it's this strange, kinda boring but engrossing show, and just as you're nodding off or whatever from the flat, mostly music-less tone, that space-prog theme song kicks-off the new episode and you're just like, "Oh shit, how's Sarah--who's kinda bangin' by the way--gonna escape the Wastelands?!". It's on.

That signature, extended ping sound and bassline though, serve an even greater purpose in regards to the cut-away. See, each show always does this super-abrupt, kinda avant-garde, mid-word, mid-action jump to the credits. It doesn't fade-out or wrap-up nicely, it's this odd, a-few-seconds- before-you-expect-it cut-away just as each episode's action is about to come to an end or building up to something that won't wrap-up in the next 18 seconds. You know it's coming because the Doctor Who theme starts rising out of the soundtrack to warn you, but it's always jarring when, just as the bassline chugs through, the credits arrive. Here's a fairly typical example. Just as a new, obviously important character arrives, the cut-away:

Now that, though, is still sort of a typical use of TV (or just serialization in any kind): End theme on a shocking twist or new piece of information. It's especially cool and fucked-up, but it's still working on the need to have questions answered and all that. The best use of the Doctor Who cut-away is when it's employed at episode's end almost to like, let you have a breather or chill-out when things have gotten too crazy and the stakes too high. Because it's sci-fi, people's lives or the universe's fate is often seconds from destruction, so this happens quite a lot.

But there's just something so perfectly disturbing about letting an episode build to this moment of fear and disaster and just as it seems too much, go to credits. See below, where it's not even something like explainable that's happening, it's just that Davros is yelling "DESTROY" and it's weird and fucked-up feeling and there's nowhere to go but the end credits. I'd advise, if you can spare the entire five minutes, even if you don't know what the heck is going on in the clip, to watch the whole thing. You'll get a better sense of the palpable sense of apocalypse that the cut-away relieves you from:

An argument can be made that this adheres to the main goal of TV: to keep you coming back. It's an especially cool and effective way of doing so, and while it has the strange byproduct of making you relieved the episode's over, you'll return next week or load your next tape in because nothing's completed. But even when an entire serial's over, the cut-away remains. Notice how this serial wraps-up, the Doctor even imparts some kind words and junk and the cut-away's as awkward as ever:

I think it has something to do with the never-goes-away, onto another adventure reality of a character and series like Doctor Who. That weird dread or jarring unexpectedness never's totally gone; comfort lasts a few moments, duty and responsibility return and you'll be up against a creeper like Davros soon enough.


Raymond Cummings said...

Thanks for that, man. I was never a huge fan of Doctor Who, but I remember that my dad was, once upon a time when I was a kid, so sometimes when I'd visit him on weekends he'd be watching VHS cassettes of the original while I was playing or something. All I can remember was the afro, the scarf, the phonebox, the cheap FX. Good times, though. Whenever I picture Doctor Who mentally, I think of a young Bob Dylan for some reason.

One time we went to visit my Uncle Craig - not literally so, he's an old buddy of Dad's - and while they were chatting I happened upon a copy of the Doctor Who handbook or something, which is analagous, I guess, to the DC Universe's "Who's Who?" series that explain who characters are, their histories, and so on. Anyway, it ran down the various tools and gadgets and alien races and such, and for a 10 year old kid who read way too much sci-fi some of this stuff was really scary; on the show itself it wouldn't have been, because the show's so goofy, but in text form reading about, say, an alien race that basically became robots because they'd begun replacing organs and limbs with cybernetics as part of some fashion trend was downright terrifying.

brandon said...

Ha. I'm a relatively new convert to Doctor Who. I found these old issues of the comic that Grant Morrison, early in his career wrote and it made me re-think the show ha. I saw it as a kid and just felt weird about it, but I found a bunch of tapes at this used book store and have been hooked.

Tom Baker Doctor Who is this Willy Wonka, Dylan hybrid.

And yeah, the show's ideas are pretty messed-up and scary. When you're like watching and in it, the show can do that too, especially this 'Genesis of the Daleks' serial.

MF said...

Great post.

Genesis Of The Daleks is definately my favourite adventure in the history of the show and Tom was my Doctor. Partly because he was the one i grew up on but mostly because he simply was the definitive Doctor. City Of Death and The Talons Of Weng Chiang were classic Baker-era adventures too.

I highly recommend the BBC workshop albums of all the Doctor Who music and the In Their Own Words magazines, which are basically like highlights of various interviews from Doctor Who Magazine spanning the duration of the old show. Totally engrossing as there was a lot happening behind the scenes and Tom was just as eccentric in real life. Issues 2 and 3 cover the Baker years.

Also essential : Tom's post-DW appearance in Blackadder II as Mad Captain Rum during the episide entitled Potato :