“We all know what happens to non-entities. They get promoted.”
The history and legend of the original BBC DOCTOR WHO series – and I really hate to bring it up too much in the context of the new BBC DOCTOR WHO series because the two are so very different and comparisons are odious – is built on a solid bedrock of enjoyable, unexceptional adventure stories, punctuated by stories often referred to as ‘classics’, stories which enter the public consciousness and became shared memories. So where shop window dummies, Daleks, giant maggots, Cybermen lurching down the steps at St Paul’s and Sea Devils rising out of the sea are iconic moments in the series and classic moments in British television who, apart from the die-hards with extensive video collections, can remember the delegates of Peladon, the foetal Zygons, the snake-like Mara, the lousy Tractators? They all appeared in perfectly-servicable DOCTOR WHO stories but they’re not well-remembered outside the fan community because?ell, they just weren’t memorable enough. They appeared in countless stories which were just part of the whole, good stories which filled in the gaps between the great ones. (There are, in fact, a couple of story strata below these, of course – we’re talking tacky but well-meaning and truly diabolical, the latter category of which contains most of the show’s post-1984 output).
‘The Long Game’ quite clearly belongs in this secondary strata of DOCTOR WHO yarns. After the adrenalin rush of ‘Dalek’ and the sheer vitality of the five episodes before it, here’s an episode which is nothing more or nothing less than what it is. It’s your fairly ordinary, run-of-the-mill episode which won’t live long in the memory of its new admirers because it didn’t have any Daleks or Slitheen or any particularly outstanding visual motifs. In some ways it resembled one of those forgettable tacky late 1980s stories where a desperate production team tried terribly hard to be satirical or blackly comic and almost always fell flat on their faces because they didn’t have the money or the scripts available to do it with conviction. ‘The Long Game’, however, has both of these and, despite the fact that the episode was very much an unknown quantity amongst the fan community and had precious little in the way of advance publicity by the BBC, it turned out to be a real triumph.
In a virtual rerun of the first moments of ‘The End of the World’ the TARDIS brings its crew – now the Doctor, Rose and braniac newboy Adam – to a space station orbiting the earth some 200,000 years into the future. But this time the Earth is at the height of its powers, the human empire spread out across the cosmos and the sheer scale of Man’s achievements and his own personal voyage through Time causes Adam to faint. “He’s your boyfriend,” observes the Doctor with not a little smugness. “Not any more,” remarks an unimpressed Rose. Before long the trio are exploring the station – Satellite Five – which, they discover, controls all broadcast media right across the cosmos. Something strange seems to happen to journalists promoted to the mysterious Room 500 and when Adam is left to explore unsupervised, temptation becomes too difficult to resist for the boy geniuszbr />
‘The Long Game’ is undoubtedly the most assured script Russell T Davies has turned out for this new series. The humour is much more subtle and underplayed (although he still can’t resist his love for the lavatorial in the sequence with Adam and the compressed vomit) and story follows a distinct narrative line and actually?ay it quietly?akes sense within its own internal logic. For reasons not yet explained in the series a monstrous shark-tooted creature called the Jagafress has installed itself in Satellite Five and is subjugating humanity by controlling the media flow. The Doctor locks horns with the suave Editor (a superb turn by the ever-wonderful Simon Pegg) who is directing proceedings on behalf of his monstrous master.
‘The Long Game’ just rattles along and there’s so much to look out for on the way. Brian Grant’s direction is tight and evocative, the production design is, as always on this series, outstanding, the Mill’s FX work is exemplary and there are some fine performances from the cast. Eccleston and Piper are somewhat sidelined for the first half-hour or so and Langley comes into his own as the self-serving Adam who puts the future of his own timeline at risk just so he can return to his own time with far more information than is good for him. He even undergoes unpleasant but painless surgery in his quest for knowledge. Of course the whole raison d’etre of Adam is so that Russell T Davies can remind as (as if we need reminding) of how good a character Rose is and how some people just aren’t cut out for travelling through Time and Space. What better way of showing this than by discrediting a potential love interest for Rose? The fact that this has already been done by the humiliation (and redemption) of Mickey in earlier episodes slightly robs this story arc of its potency but it’s well-handled here and it’s a testament to the strength of the script and, surprisingly, Langley’s performance, that it works as well as it does in this episode. Also worthy of mention are Christine Adams as Catheca, Anna Maxwell-Smith as the doomed Suki and Tamsin Greig as the cool, calculating nurse who tells Adam, all he needs to know about futuristic brain surgery.
‘The Long Game’ (which has probably only just begun in terms of the series’ over-all themes) has a point or two to make about media manipulation and although the points are made well they’re also made rather simplistically. In its basest terms, ‘The Long Game’ is telling us it might not be wise to believe everything the media force-feeds us because if we do we become like brainless cattle incapable of independent thought because we don’t need to be. Or it may be about a giant snarling shark-tooted monster who wants to take over the world. You chose your own interpretation.
There are some minor niggles, of course there are. Some of the science-fiction concepts are cliches of the genre and some of the detail is just too vague to be entirely believable. It’s still odd that the story reaches its conclusion without the Doctor being directly involved in the denouement- it’s either a creative decision for reasons we don’t yet know or an irritating deficiency in the scripting department. Eccleston is still a commanding presence in the lead role but his cheery man-in-the-street matiness has a tendency to become just a little wearisome week-in, week-out. On the other hand there are some nice nods to the new continuity – the Doctor’s “slightly psychic paper” reappears as does Rose’s augmented mobile telephone and there’s even a cheeky cameo by the Face of Boe from episode two. The mystery surrounding the nature of the Doctor’s existence deepens with the Editor’s observation that the Time Lord and Rose don’t appear to exist or, presumably, to ever have existed. “How can you walk through the world and not leave a single footprint?” Curouser and curiouserzbr />
All in all, there’s a lot to recommend in ‘The Long Game’. It’s a solid, workmanlike episode with an intriguing premise and some superb performances and production. But because so many of the episodes surrounding it are the stuff of legend it isn’t destined to become either a fan favourite or a story likely to endear itself to the huge new audience the series has found. It’s just another DOCTOR WHO story, nothing more and nothing less. And sometimes that’s really all it needs to be.