Doctor Who Showrunners reviewed #5 Russell T. Davies #5 Season twenty-seven Episode seven The Long Game
Doctor Who Showrunners Reviewed (formerly Doctor Who Head Writers Reviewed) is a series I’m running on a weekly basis here, in-which I review each episode written by the three Showrunners (executive producers who write episodes): Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall. After viewing each episode, I give the episode a verdict of either success or failure, and explain how I came to that decision. A running score will be included at the end of each entry, showing how each Showrunner is doing in terms of episodes written to episode I’ve considered a success. And I don’t use information from anywhere other than the episode itself (unless it’s fact-checking).
I’ve also recently decided not to review episodes written by Showrunners when those Showrunners were staff writers; staff writing is a different principle to Showrunning. Moffat and Chibnall wrote episodes before becoming Showrunner – those episodes won’t be included in Doctor Who Showrunners Reviewed, because Moffat and Chibnall wrote those episodes before they actually became Showrunner; in that sense, they’re only “Showrunner episodes” retrospectively, and therefore originally weren’t during the writing process. Which is why I won’t be including them here. We continue with season twenty-seven’s seventh episode: Russell T. Davies’ The Long Game.
Did you know Davies wrote The Long Game based on an idea Davies himself submitted to the Doctor Who production office during the original series, before Doctor Who even had “Showrunners”? That anecdote explains a lot. And, for the record, The Long Game doesn’t work, but unlike Davies’ previous episode – World War Three – which was a minimal success, The Long Game is a minimal failure. One more draft of the script would’ve probably made The Long Game work – not necessarily on any level more than World War Three, but The Long Game would’ve worked nonetheless.
And the specific tweaks that needed to be made reveal a lot about the showrunning process, and what makes Doctor Who different in the era of Showrunners compared to a partnership of producers and script editors. Through season twenty-seven so far, we’ve already seen how episodes are linked by a seasonal plot as well as episodic an plot. Whereas The Long Game is the first instance of the seasonal plot taking control; the episodic plot is relegated to a status of less importance. Which is fine – there’s nothing wrong with writing an episode as mostly set-up if the pay-off works, but the set-up itself also has to work of itself.
And The Long Game, in that sense, accomplishes everything that the specific episodes being set-up need: a location and an event, which will be returned-to later. But that’s a different debate, and as such I’ll only get to that when the time is right – which would be the episodes The Long Game is setting-up here. However, the problem is that the set-up for-which The Long Game has been written isn’t complicated. When the events of The Long Game is elaborated-upon in episodes-to-come, we learn that all we need to know was what Satellite Five was and what happened there, and why that event was relevant.
The true controllers of events (season twenty-seven’s “Big Bad” – thank you Joss Whedon), are revealed to have exploited the Doctor’s defeat of the Jagrafess, and therefore all The Long Game needed to accompish from the out-set was to show the Doctor’s defeat of the Jagrafess. That’s all that needed to happen. And that does happen, as the solution of the episodic plot, but the problem is, the episodic plot hadn’t really been given much thought up-until that point. And understanding how that happened is understanding how Doctor Who episodes are written.
While the advent of Showrunners may have changed the format and long-term writing of seasons, episodes have remained the same, because the genre’s still the same. With Doctor Who, a writer establishes a world and then does something with it. The Long Game spends a long time establishing the future of 200000, but any plot doesn’t really happen until the last act. By the time that arrives, we’ve come to understand what Satellite Five is, how technology works in this future, and the functioning of Human civilisation.
But all of that is completely meaningless when nothing is done with it. It’s only until the final third that the Doctor and Rose go to Floor 500, and by that time, there’s so little time left to develop the story that the Editor begins expositing like a Bond villain – and even then all the Editor does is talk about “a consortium of banks”, and the whole scene feels more like a boring business presentation than a scene in a scripted drama series. There’s a lot of political subtext, of course – in fact, just about everything a person writes will be political, because politics is so influential to people that writing something apolitical is impossible; if that happens, it’s just because the whole thing is badly-written from the beginning. But with The Long Game, the political subtext only feels like it’s inserted just for the sake of it.
Which is unlikely, given the setting is a satellite orbiting the Earth, broadcasting the only news in the empire, and ultimately functioning as a life-suppport system for a slathering monster. The rule of watching a Doctor Who episode written by Davies is that, if something’s a slathering monster, it represents the government. The Slitheen are slathering monsters, and they literally were the government in Aliens of London. The Nestene Consciousness in Rose was a slathering monster, and was perpetrating the destruction of Humanity using plastic.
As it is, though, I don’t need to analyse the Jagrafess all that much, because what the Jagrafess represents is pretty obvious simply from how much subtlty isn’t there. The Editor even feels the need to explain that the Jagrafess controls Humans from birth. So there’s that. And, just as the political subtext is transparent, so, too, is the whole plot.
The Editor explains everything nicely because there’s no other way to wrap things up in such short time. And there was so little time left because everything at that point had just been establishing a world, even though that world wasn’t even used until the rushed ending. Even the TARDIS key is mysteriously lifted-out of Adam’s pocket for no apparent reason. The framing of that scene seems to imply that the data stream is doing it, but there’d been nothing to show that the data stream was even capable of doing that.
It’s by far the least convincing moment of the episode because of how obviously improvised it was. All storytelling is improvised, yes, but no storytelling should ever show its mechanism. That scene is construed without build-up, but needed to happen so the Editor could suddenly learn about the Doctor. And the Editor needed to suddenly learn about the Doctor in order for the Doctor to discover what Adam had done.
And the only reason the Doctor needed to discover what Adam had done was in order for the Doctor to eject Adam from the TARDIS – something that had never been done before. No previous TARDIS passenger had ever been kicked-out for breaking the rules. Previously, any potential companions had just been denied access for having already betrayed themselves. But this was Davies trying to be innovative; like in Psycho, when the top-billed star is killed at the end of the first act.
I do admire Davies for this, because it is surprising that nobody had already thought of this. What I don’t admire is Davies trying to acheive this in the same space as an episode that only exists as a prologue to the two-part season finale. There’s only so much plot you can put in one episode. This is all me assuming, here, but it seems Davies had two ideas for episodes: one that was based on the story he came up with twenty years earlier, and another that features the new companion departing on their first trip.
Why could they not have been two episodes, one for each idea? Storytelling is at its best when it’s simple. Take one simple idea and make it good, not two ideas, and combine them to the detriment of each. I appreciate that there wasn’t the space to do both episodes, but in that case, all the attention should’ve been on setting-up the finale and just telling a good story in one episode.
Mainly because the effect Adam has on the overall storytelling is belittled by Jack being introduced as a semi-regular a few episodes later anyway. It’s ambitious, but rubbish.
Russell T. Davies – 3:5
Next episode: Boom Town, by Russell T. Davies.