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Doctor Who: The Long Game (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Long Game originally aired in 2005.

No, no, you stick with the Doctor. You’d rather be with him. It’s going to take a better man than me to get between you two.

– Adam outlines another reason he had to get kicked out of the TARDIS

The Long Game is a breathtakingly ambitious piece of Doctor Who, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the fact that it’s basically Russell T. Davies pushing through a story idea that Andrew Cartmel rejected when he pitched it to the classic show in the eighties, but there are a whole bunch of other reasons. The Long Game is trying to do so many things at once that it ends up getting a little lost. However, it does serve as an example of what Davies was really trying to do with this first season of the revived Doctor Who.

On the surface, The Long Game a clever and daring piece of science-fiction television, a piece of social commentary hidden behind funny-looking aliens and scenery-chewing villains. It’s really a spiritual successor to the science-fiction stories of the Cartmel era. However, it’s also something else entirely. It’s a conscious embrace of the new realities of television, an acknowledgement that these trappings have be blended with character-based storytelling and more modern tea-time telly conventions.

After all, for a show about the manipulation of the media to corrupt the public consciousness, the teaser doesn’t end on a monster reveal or a shocking twist, but a pithy personal comment. “He’s your boyfriend.”

Body of work...

Body of work…

There’s a lot that is interesting about The Long Game, probably more than is ultimately successful. But that’s easy to forgive. After all, the first season of any show is about laying down the ground-rules and trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. The Long Game is the show’s second big “futuristic” episode, following on from Davies’ The End of the World. However, The End of the World was really a paper-thin murder mystery with science-fiction trappings that served (in effect, if not in name) as the second part of Rose.

The Long Game is a much more traditional Doctor Who science-fiction story. That makes sense, given that Davies is really just reworking an idea that he originally pitched to the show in the late eighties. Andrew Cartmel reportedly asked him to focus on a more mundane and grounded story instead, which seems to indicate that Davies’ more grounded first season is really a direct successor to Cartmel’s approach to the show, just extrapolated and enhanced through the wilderness years.

A frosty reception...

A frosty reception…

And yet, despite the fact that this is an old script, Davies takes great pains to remind the viewer that this isn’t the classic show. The Long Game follows directly on from Dalek. The presence of Adam among the TARDIS crew is a rather obvious nod towards modern storytelling conventions. Much as Aliens of London demonstrated that the notion of Rose and the Doctor just absconding into all of time and space couldn’t be sustained in the television of 2005, Adam’s presence is another indicator of how times have changed.

Not every adventure can be self-contained; not every status quo will be reset. It’s telling that the Ninth Doctor only sticks around for a year (thirteen episodes, ten stories), but goes through three different TARDIS crew configurations. The Ninth Doctor and Rose only travel alone for about half the season. Adam joins the crew in Dalek and leaves in The Long Game. Captain Jack will show up in The Empty Child and remain part of this crew until The Parting of the Ways. The Tenth Doctor spends the same amount of time travelling with Rose, but more time on their own. (Only Mickey’s brief stop-over interrupts their time together.)

Getting his head in the game...

Getting his head in the game…

Doctor Who can’t be what it was. You can’t have the same unchanging status quo that used to exist, with the same Doctor and companion team staffing the show for years at a time. Similarly, you can’t really push the whole “no hanky panky in the TARDIS” rule, because that’s not how television works. Sexual tension between characters is a staple ingredient of television diets, so it will inevitably be a part of Doctor Who.

The Long Game makes this quite clear, but it’s a point that Davies feels the need to emphasise. The whole two-parter The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances is built around sexual relations, and the freedom to talk about those relations. It’s a freedom that currently exists that didn’t necessarily always exist. The Long Game seems to consciously spoof the rather sterile “no touching female co-stars” rule that existed during Davison’s time in the TARDIS. When Suki tries to hug the Doctor, he relishes it. “All right. I’ll hug anyone.”

A cool customer...

A cool customer…

Eccleston’s Doctor is perhaps the most human version of the character, with the possible exception of Davison’s portrayal of the Time Lord. He’s hurt and wounded and bitter, but he’s also humanised in a way that no other version of the character had been before him. It’s not just acknowledging that the Doctor can have a sexuality, because The TV Movieas Steven Moffat pointed out – introduced the concept of the Doctor as a romantic lead.

Rather, Eccleston’s Doctor seems to be the first Doctor who has to deal with people on a rather personal level, rather than as an outsider looking in. He has to navigate the personal relationships that exist around him. There’s a lovely introductory gag where the Ninth Doctor introduces Rose to “the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire.” He gives her a quick prep talk, and then allows her to make the introduction to Adam.

Stream of consciousness...

Stream of consciousness…

Although he jokes about the pair of them as a couple (urging them to enjoy their “first date”), he’s keenly aware that there is some hint of chemistry there. Given how oblivious the Fifth Doctor (and the show) was to the weird pseudo-sexual chemistry that existed between Nyssa and Adric on that TARDIS (come into my  bedroom with your giant cable!), it’s an obvious indication that the Doctor is getting better at these things; and that the show is going to have to deal with them.

Indeed, the first season seems to suggest that the strength of the Doctor is as a figure who inspires others to action; that his gift is the ability to navigate human relationships and help people to help themselves. This was obviously an element of the classic show, and remained a part of the series after Eccleston left, but it feels much stronger in the first season. The Long Game is perhaps the most obvious example, with the Doctor standing on the side-lines urging Cathica to action, but it’s also part of The Parting of the Ways, where the Doctor inspires Rose Tyler to save the universe.

Satellite of Love...?

Satellite of Love…?

This is a part of other seasons – most notably the climax of The Last of the Time Lords in the third season – but Eccleston’s successors tend to be more proactive. The Doctor resolves the threat of the Daleks and the Cybermen in Doomsday single-handedly. The “reality bomb” in Journey’s End is defeated by the genius of three Doctors, one of which just happens to be inside Donna’s body. (Although Donna is part of the equation, she’s explicitly identified as “the Doctor Donna.”)

To be fair, it’s easy to see why Davies and the show moved away from the “Doctor inspires supporting character to be the real hero” motif. It doesn’t make for exciting television, watching the character wander around and convince random people to save the day with the power of his words. It involves the intermediate step of convincing the audience to care about the strange new world of the week and the people in it, which is a lot tougher than convincing viewers to invest in a consistent leading character.

Open-minded...

Open-minded…

It also serves to undermine the lead character, by making him appear somewhat marginalised in his own show, which is very much the case with quite a few of the episodes centred around the Ninth Doctor. Gwen has to make the big heroic decision in The Unquiet Dead and save the day, after the Doctor miscalculates; the Doctor lacks the heart to put the logical conclusion into effect in Father’s Day; The Doctor Dances hinges on an admission made by a guest star.

Still, this reliance on inspiration rather than direct action is something that remains relatively unique to the Ninth Doctor, perhaps making him the perfect expression of the “man who makes people better” philosophy espoused by the Master in The Sound of Drums. While it wouldn’t necessarily have worked in the long term, and perhaps explains why the Doctor feels almost out-of-focus in this first season, it is an interesting and clever approach. It demonstrates how much the Doctor, and Doctor Who, rely on people.

She Rose to the challenge...

She Rose to the challenge…

There’s a decidedly “soap opera” aesthetic to Davies’ approach to Doctor Who, and he brings that on to the TARDIS in the form of Bruno Langly, who is best known for his work on Coronation Street. Indeed, Davies seems to consciously poaching from soap operas – part of the subtext of getting Kylie on Voyage of the Damned is her work on Neighbours. In the same year, the second season of Torchwood managed to recruit Alan Dale, another Neighbours alumni who would probably still be better known to viewers for his work on that soap opera than the large volume of his genre work on American television.

While Davies is making a very clear point by devoting so much time to Adam, he creates the first significant problem with The Long Game. There is simply far too much going on here, and not enough room to reconcile it all. Adam’s subplot involves the character wandering away from the TARDIS and being completely divorced from the plot until the climax. “You know, it’s not actually my fault, because you were in charge,” Adam argues, trying to deflect blame, but he has a bit of a point. He doesn’t seem like a member of the TARDIS crew, he’s just a bloke who arrived on the station the same way that they did.

Ideas above their station?

Ideas above their station?

Still, Adam is an interesting character, if only because he’s so very shallow. He exists to get kicked off the TARDIS. His sole function is to assure viewers that there must be something inherently special about Rose, and that not just anybody can travel with the Doctor. The episode accomplishes this in the most blunt manner possible. Adam tries to use time travel for personal financial gain, and the Doctor kicks him off the TARDIS for it. “I only travel with the best,” he explains, rather bluntly.

There are several problems with this. For one thing, Adam feels incredibly under-developed. He’s more a plot function in the series’ over-arching plot than a character in his own right. In the audio commentary for the episode, director Brian Grant talks about how early drafts of the script gave the character motivation and depth – he was trying to find a cure to help his sick father. This was trimmed from the episode, however, leaving us with the generic and simplistic “greedy capitalist” archetype.

Phoning home...

Phoning home…

That said, cutting that explanation does at least make the Doctor’s decision seem a bit less callous. The Doctor’s decision to boot Adam off the TARDIS seems almost petty and vindictive, particularly the way that he keeps clicking his fingers to open Adam’s head socket thing and the way that he bullies Adam into living a dull and normal life. “If you show that head to anyone, they’ll dissect you in seconds,” he warns. “You’ll have to live a very quiet life. Keep out of trouble. Be average, unseen. Good luck.”

Given that the Doctor is about enabling and empowering people, and encouraging them to be all that they can be, the punishment feels almost malicious. His punishment is that Adam could never be exceptional in any way, shape or form. He probably can’t even go out in public. While kicking him out of the TARDIS for trying the change history is perfectly fair, leaving him in that state feel a little bit mean.

A media monster...

A media monster…

Of course, the treatment of Adam here feels especially vindictive in light of Father’s Day. In the very next episode, Rose herself changes history. Sure, she doesn’t do it for monetary gain, but her scheme is far more manipulative than Adam’s simple opportunism. As the Doctor points out, she came with him when he said “time machine”, and she asks to revisit the scene of her father’s accident specifically so she can alter history.

Given that Adam’s plan didn’t lead to the destruction of time itself, and given it was purely opportunistic, the Doctor’s willingness to completely forgive Rose feels a little simplistic. We’re beginning to stray into the series’ familiar “Rose is special because she’s Rose” philosophy, with the narrative of Doctor Who conspiring to give the character absolutely anything she could ever want, because she’s just so awesome.

He needs this like he needs a hole in his head...

He needs this like he needs a hole in his head…

Still, this is just one half of The Long Game, and it’s the half of the episode that is very clearly looking forwards – defining what Doctor Who needs to be in order to survive in the television landscape of 2005. It needs character arcs and long-form storytelling, and big themes resonating and playing out across the season. However, the other half of The Long Game is very clearly looking backwards – connecting to the show’s roots.

The Long Game followed on from Dalek, which was obviously a major point of intersection between the classic show and the revival. Not only did it reintroduce the Doctor’s iconic pepper pot villains, it also featured the detached head of a Cyberman. These are iconic elements of Doctor Who, and aspects of its past that have managed to seep into popular consciousness. It’s easy to bring back the pieces of Doctor Who that everybody loves and recognises. After all, even The TV Movie featured a shout-out to the Daleks and the reappearance of the Master, while still having difficulty understanding what Doctor Who is.

They've really got him Pegged...

They’ve really got him Pegged…

It is much more challenging, then, to bring back the parts that people had difficulty with, the more complex aspects of Doctor Who. The Long Game represents a conscious effort to reconnect with the classic series in a way that is just as important as bringing back the Daleks and the Cybermen and the Master. In this case, it’s confirming that “Doctor Who” doesn’t just mean “the Hinchcliffe and Holmes stuff” or “the Barry Letts era.” It must include the less popular eighties stuff. The Long Game effectively confirms that Davies’ vision of Doctor Who is a spiritual successor to the version that was edited by Andrew Cartmel.

The Long Game is about bringing back the quirkier bits of Doctor Who, the parts that people might not have been watching, or the bits that even some fans don’t like. The Long Game is a fairly direct successor to episodes like Paradise Towers and The Happiness Patrol. Those are two very contentious pieces of the Sylvester McCoy era, but two potent examples of Doctor Who engaging with current politics and issues. Davies will follow up The Long Game with a season finalé that owes a conscious debt to Vengeance on Varos. Indeed, The Long Game even includes the oddest of continuity shout-outs, with “kronk burgers.”

Three's a crowd...

Three’s a crowd…

And The Long Game feels as if it is a direct continuation of the sort of angry political commentary that Cartmel would encourage during his tenure as script editor. It’s a strongly socialist condemnation of excessive and unchecked capitalism, of the exploitation of the weak by the strong. The station is structured as a rigid class structure, with groups insulated from one another, but with an aspirational goal sitting on top. Cathica explains the structure of the station, “Cooling ducts, ice filters, all working flat out channelling massive amounts of heat down.” The Doctor clarifies, “All the way from the top.”

The Doctor is appalled by the way that people have been so manipulated. “But you’ve never been to another floor?” he demands. “Not even one floor down?” Cathica explains that this is just how things work. “Satellite Five, you work, eat and sleep on the same floor. That’s it, that’s all.” The station is ranked by the floor, with all members of staff yearning to move upwards. The ultimate goal is Floor 500, which seems like a reference to the Fortune 500. “Why?” the Doctor asks. “What happens on Floor 500?” Cathica assures him, “The walls are made of gold.”

Talk about a brain drain...

Talk about a brain drain…

Of course it’s not true, just a comforting lie to keep people in line. The snapshots of life on the station present a corrupt and decayed society. When Adam visits the medical bay to consider a procedure, the nurse assures him, “You’ll have to pay for it. They’ve stopped subsidising.” An announcement tells us, “All staff are reminded that the sixteen forty break session has been shortened by ten minutes. Thank you.” The working conditions are abyssmal, always too hot.

People are even used as processing power on Satellite 5, just “human resources.” When Rose and the Doctor witness Cathica plugging herself into the feed, the Doctor explains how her brain has become part of the machinery. “Compressed information, streaming into her. Reports from every city, every country, every planet, and they all get packaged inside her head. She becomes part of the software. Her brain is the computer.” Of course, she doesn’t get anything out of it. “She wouldn’t remember any of it. There’s too much. Her head’d blow up. The brain’s the processor. As soon as it closes, she forgets.” She’s just used.

Reviewing reports...

Reviewing reports…

This is the ultimate capitalist dystopia, one where people don’t even realise they’ve been controlled and enslaved and manipulated. When Suki asks what is making the noise, the Editor explains, “Your boss. This has always been your boss, since the day you were born.” When the Doctor points out how mankind has been enslaved, the Editor ponders, “Is a slave a slave if he doesn’t know he’s enslaved?” The Doctor replies, quite bluntly, “Yes.”

This brings us to the second major problem with The Long Game. It’s very clearly a script that was intended for the classic series. It has a rake of big and clever ideas, but it relies on world-building that can’t easily be crammed into forty-five minutes alongside plot and character development. The station would seem more nuanced and sophisticated if we spent a bit more time there, but we never get enough of a view to really see this society as anything beyond a one-dimensional capitalist dystopia.

Intent is key...

Intent is key…

To be fair, this is the first season. There is a learning curve, and Davies learns quickly. The show would go on to visit several futuristic settings and alien species repeatedly, allowing for world-building and development to be more evenly spread across several episodes. The repeated visits to “New Earth” help to build a sense of a society, and Planet of the Ood plays well off The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. It even happens in the first season. The use of this same futuristic Earth for Bad Wolf allows the viewers to be brought up to speed a lot quicker, and allows Davies to establish what he needs to establish efficiently.

Still, while The Long Game has difficulty building an entire world in only forty-five minutes, it’s clear that Davies is trying very hard. There are moments when The Long Game is a bit too “on-the-nose”, with a sense that Davies is hammering the same points a little too hard. On the other hand, it’s hard to hate a story about an evil future where the Daleks have installed an alien Rupert Murdoch to help keep us humans in line; only to fall back on reality television when that doesn’t work.

Careful, they'll work you to death at the top...

Careful, they’ll work you to death at the top…

(Okay, maybe not Rupert Murdoch. It seems like the villain of the episode is a light-hearted dig at Robert Maxwell, who was born Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch. That’s a rather long title that isn’t too far removed from “the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfoe.” The fact that it’s shorted to “Max” suggests that Davies may even had had Maxwell in mind while writing the episode.)

The core idea is a clever one – the way that the media manipulates and alters the way that people view the world. When the Doctor questions Cathica about why there are no aliens on the station, Cathica offers all manner of justifications and excuses. Most of them are decidedly vague. “I suppose immigration’s tightened up,” she suggests. “It’s had to, what with all the threats.” When the Doctor wonders what threats, Cathica responds, “I don’t know… all of them? Usual stuff?” She offers, “Just lots of little reasons, that’s all.” As the Doctor sums up, “Adding up to one great big fact, and you didn’t even notice.”

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

It’s a very pointed a clever piece of social commentary about how what we hear and repeat shapes the way we look at the world over time. As the Editor himself explains, “Create a climate of fear and it’s easy to keep the borders closed. It’s just a matter of emphasis. The right word in the right broadcast repeated often enough can destabilise an economy, invent an enemy, change a vote.” This is properly and boldly political Doctor Who, and it’s just as exciting as Daleks or Cybermen.

It helps that The Long Game has aged quite well in the years since it was originally broadcast. The Editor, as played by Simon Pegg, seems like a perfectly topical villain. He isn’t a megalomaniac or a zealot. He’s a middle-man, an enabler. When Rose points out that he’s human, he replies, “Yeah, well, simply being human doesn’t pay very well.” Apparently he’s the banal form of evil that stands in for “a consortium of banks.” These banks are, as Bad Wolf reveals, controlled by the Daleks. Had The Long Game been written a few years later, it would have seemed a little heavy-handed. Instead, it seems deliciously prescient.

He manages...

He manages…

The Long Game isn’t the strongest episode of the first season of the revived Doctor Who. However, it is the episode the makes the clearest connection to the tone and form of the past, if not necessarily the content. It’s an episode that is very much about reconciling the history of Doctor Who with the demands of its current format, and proving that the show can still be politically and socially relevant.

It doesn’t do all this flawlessly. It’s quite clumsy in places, stumbling under the weight heaped up it. At the same time, it’s hard to hate the ambition of the episode.

 

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