Should Doctor Who Be “Cinematic”?
One of the more common epithets applied to the modern era of Doctor Who is that it’s ‘cinematic’. Much was made of the location filming for Asylum of the Daleks and A Town Called Mercy. But do fancy locations and HD film stock merit calling something ‘cinematic’? Was Arc of Infinity cinematic because it was shot in Amsterdam? Does how Closing Time was recorded make it a masterpiece?
The answer to both is definitely ‘no’. So what does make cinematic Who?
The first flourishing of ‘cinematic’ Who comes in the late Sixties, when increased location filming gave the series a little more elbow room in terms of what could be realised. Producers Innes Lloyd, Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin were keen to ape the contemporary trend for spy thrillers. With seasons full of six-part stories to produce, it helped to be able to swap episodes of exposition and walking round the same prop tree for a bit of action.
However, running around outside does not good Who make: a sense of scale is required to be truly cinematic, and that comes from the script. The most consistently ‘cinematic’ run in the series’ history is arguably Season 7. Building on the groundwork of Troughton stories like The Web of Fear and The Invasion, the Third Doctor battles global threats (virus outbreaks, counter-espionage, the end of the world), aided by a UNIT that still acts like a military outfit. The Pertwee era would never be this strong again, increasingly substituting plot for gadding about in different vehicles to mark time in overstretched scripts.
Changing tastes mean we may one day see a season-long story, a la The Wire or Breaking Bad. Done well, it could have scope and scale- think of HBO’s ethos of a small film every week- but would the result be ‘more cinematic’? We’ll see…
Controversially, that’s it for cinematic Who in the classic period. The Hinchcliffe era is cited as classic Who at its best, but stylistically it’s more akin to the gritty output of Euston Films than what was happening in the cinema. UNIT re-emerge as a proper military outfit in Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, where Douglas Camfield’s direction complements the darker world of the early Fourth Doctor. Both stories have an edge that makes them stand out in a season stuffed with classics that play as high quality TV drama. As for Seventies’ Who’s other highpoint- 1979’s City of Death– despite its wit and Parisian élan, it’s great TV: that filmic edge just isn’t there.
After that, Eighties Who takes a retrograde step into heavy exposition and high concept, where any sense of scale largely depended on your grasp of pure maths and/or Buddhism. The 1996 TV Movie was doomed from the get-go, coming at a time when the kind of sci-fi that was doing the rounds was the sort that Who never has been and never should be.
As the spikes in quality in the late Sixties and the early and mid-Seventies show, Who works best when it’s able to compete with what’s popular. Consider the show in the Star Wars era: its attempts to compete were awful (Underworld, The Armageddon Factor) because the results were completely unattainable on a BBC budget. In 1985, when the show went up against ITV’s US action imports, the end result got it shelved. Nowadays, Who is the standard, with story arcs designed to build to an epic conclusion. Whether they succeed is a matter of personal opinion, which impacts on the cinematic feel (or not) of the end result: if scale and concept are to play a part, is 45 minutes long enough to do it? Modern Who sometimes crams too many ideas into not enough time, leaving you feeling like you’ve just watched a brainstorm in the writers’ room instead of a cogent story. When it’s good though, it’s great- countless awards and healthy viewing figures have put the series back in the vanguard of not just the sci-fi genre but of British drama as a whole.
The Peter Capaldi era has got off to an assured start. Deep Breath was atmospheric and eventful, but did showing it at the Odeon make it cinematic? Ben Wheatley’s direction was as strong as we’ve come to expect from his film work, but, like Sightseers or A Field in England, you don’t need to see it at the cinema. The Day of the Doctor was epic in scale and deserved to be seen ‘at the pictures’: Deep Breath, for all its merits, less so.
So, is Who cinematic? No. When it was more cinematic, the format was different and the production team had different influences. At its next spike in popularity, the show reflected the harder-edged turn that popular drama had taken in the less-certain mid-1970s. Nowadays, the shorter, faster-paced format fits the way audiences prefer to watch TV- even the occasional two-parters are on the wane. But these things change: who knows? Changing tastes mean we may one day see a season-long story, a la The Wire or Breaking Bad. Done well, it could have scope and scale- think of HBO’s ethos of a small film every week- but would the result be ‘more cinematic’? We’ll see…