The terrible boredom of existential threats to the universe

terrible-boredom-headerSome of the best BBC dramas can be the most irritating. By the best I mean those they’re most pleased with, whose cushions they are forever plumping, whose production values are the most ambitious. Take, say, the increasingly indistinguishable Sherlock and Dr Who, for which the structure, pacing, editing, characterization, mannerisms, tics and assumptions have become hauntingly similar.

Much of what annoys me is peripheral and forgivable, and may be largely personal, but there is also something wrong at the heart of things. It starts with a sort of cult of personality, and that begins outside the programmes themselves. The advance advertising isn’t so much trailing as propaganda, and new series and episodes aren’t so much drama as events. It’s bombastic, overblown, played with artificial and self-important secrecy, while the semi-redeeming humour is now weaker and more self-regarding. This is effective enough and wouldn’t matter much if it didn’t spill over into the programmes themselves; after all, this is the world we live in, and PR is the great tentacled entity sprawling over every part of public life. But then the cult of personality is in the programmes, and it’s a subtler and more corrupting business than we might first guess.

Both Holmes and the Doctor lend themselves easily enough to this, as do their principal adversaries; they are at least partly outside the world they inhabit or pass through, while they have unusual powers and gifts. Nietzsche might have doffed his cap to them, or at least stood up when they entered the room. In older renditions, however, this was offset by a strong element of ordinariness, of domesticity. Holmes and Watson had their lodgings at Baker Street, an eccentric variation on the lives of Victorian bachelors at a time when eccentricity of that type wasn’t so very extraordinary; then Watson married uneventfully and things carried on not very much changed. Those helped by Holmes and Watson were as often as not ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Exotic excursions were fairly rare, though Conan Doyle does bear the blame for introducing Moriarty, the lazy catch-all plotting device. Above all, it was usually, though not always, Holmes and Watson alone against the criminal world, two people, one of them a fallible genius, in an amateur adventure.

The Doctor was probably circumscribed by happy accident rather than design, with small budgets and an unfashionable genre limiting his where, what and how. Normally he would land up at a single location and be marooned there for the duration. There was a strong sense of location for each series. His set-up was also quite domestic, even homely; a small household outside of time. There were huge perils to face down, but often it felt like a spot of local difficulty.

The earlier episodes of Sherlock and the relaunched Doctor Who had some promise. (I am much more of a Holmesian, but quite liked Who back in the day.) There’s nothing wrong whatever in reinterpreting and in changing timelines and what would be the point of imitating, say, Granada’s orthodox Victorian retelling of the Holmes stories, in which Jeremy Brett was so good? Nor could you seriously argue that there is a pristine canon to protect, not when Conan Doyle wasn’t even consistent with Watson’s first name. The new episodes were fresh, had some gusto and were agreeably inconsequential in a stylish way; the best retained the old smallness of scale. But then the eponymous heroes became ever more heroic, while the stage they acted on became ever greater.

There’s nothing new about using quasi-propagandist techniques to create a cult of personality around characters in drama; cf. many older Westerns, especially those starring a well-established John Wayne, and of course it goes back much further than that. What is peculiarly obnoxious about it here is the archness, the knowingness, the sense of being self-pleased. In their corporate character the dramas have become like adorable children who have discovered their adorability and play up to it, expecting the applause they now receive and occasionally winking at their admirers about how lovable they are. Episodes are no longer pieces of plotted dramatic fiction (admittedly rarely Conan Doyle’s strongest suit), they are events, a medley of action, dialogue and effects to please not ordinary viewers but creators and fans. They have the self-indulgent, playing-to-the-gallery, run-through-the-favourite-numbers flamboyance of a Liberace gig. There are, of course, in-jokes and self-parody and self-referential nudges.

This is where the artistry begins to fail and the programmes become less amiable. The stage on which these great characters act has grown larger, while the world/universe has shrunk around them. Rather than being acted upon by Eliot’s ‘vast impersonal forces’, people are acted upon by vast personal forces, namely Sherlock, Moriarty, Mycroft, the Doctor, the Master, etc; heroes and anti-heroes. Often enough it is suddenly revealed that everything that had seemed to be happening was false; events were elaborately engineered by whichever preternaturally gifted character was manipulating the common run of people (creatures, etc) and the universe to achieve their ends at the time. This place where superbeings order things to their ends and everything, however trivial or accidental seeming, is at their direction has its atavistic attractions, even if it is a kissing cousin of conspiracy theorist lunacy, but it is illiberal, anti-democratic and, most importantly, usually makes for bad drama. (Not always, the Iliad seems to handle these things well enough, though there it’s the heroes who are being worked by the gods, who themselves are constrained by Fate.)

There’s no place left for the ordinary and there are no contrasts. Holmes in an ordinary milieu is striking; Holmes in a world where even Mrs Watson is an elite assassin is … what? Where are the plots involving ordinary people, and what is important about commonplace lives? Are the B-list characters anything but collections of more-or-less entertaining psychological impressions? Cogs in the clockwork machinations of the gods.

Finally, the plotting is contemptuous. It’s all deus ex machina. A collection of events, a lot of snappy chat and high-speed editing, then the cosmic rabbit is pulled out of the hat. And it’s always a huge rabbit. A rabbit for whom all the universe has been unknowingly working to give it all the carrots it wants before it destroys them, itself and everything. Because you can’t have a plot where, say, a shopworker is threatened with mysterious ruin and is/isn’t saved, you can only have the universe in peril, always. Ultimately, it’s boring. Everything matters, and yet nothing matters. Stalin probably didn’t say, ‘One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’, but I’m going to.

Paul Fishman (Bristol, July 2014)

Thinking about all this put me in mind of G K Chesterton’s piece, In Defence of Dramatic Unities, collected in Fancies Versus Fads (1923). An excerpt is below, and the full piece can be read here. Some things are timeless; or, ars longa, vita brevis, as they used to say.

We might say that superior literature is centripetal, while inferior literature is centrifugal. But oddly enough, the same truth may be found by studying inferior as well as superior literature. What is true of a Shakespearean play is equally true of a shilling shocker. The shocker is at its worst when it wanders and escapes through new scenes and new characters. The shocker is at its best when it shocks by something familiar; a figure or fact that is already known though not understood. A good detective story also can keep the classic unities; or otherwise play the game. I for one devour detective stories; I am delighted when the dagger of the curate is found to be the final clue to the death of the vicar. But there is a point of honour for the author; he may conceal the curate’s crime, but he must not conceal the curate. I feel I am cheated when the last chapter hints for the first time that the vicar had a curate. I am annoyed when a curate, who is a total stranger to me, is produced from a cupboard or a box in a style at once abrupt and belated. I am annoyed most of all when the new curate is only the tool of a terrible secret society ramifying from Moscow or Thibet. These cosmopolitan complications are the dull and not the dramatic element in the ingenious tales of Mr. Oppenheim or Mr. Le Queux. They entirely spoil the fine domesticity of a good murder. It is unsportsmanlike to call spies from the end of the earth, as it is to call spirits from the vasty deep, in a story that does not imply them from the start. And this because the supply is infinite; and the infinite, as Coventry Patmore well said, is generally alien to art. Everybody knows that the universe contains enough spies or enough spectres to kill the most healthy and vigorous vicar. The drama of detection is in discovering how he can be killed decently and economically, within the classic unities of time and place.

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