Roses doctors lovers and Gods: Russell T. Davies' year on Australian TV.
'It's not love, it's better than that!'
Television doesn't seem like the natural home for big pictures, but upon examining the recurrent themes in Davies' work, we can see what he's aiming for--in his heart of hearts he's a romantic. This includes not only the content, but also the shape of the stories that he tells. For example, when asked to create a ten-episode sequel to Queer as Folk (obviously intended as a springboard for an ongoing series) Davies found himself unable to deliver. 'A story should tell the one, special time in a character's life,' he asserts. 'Invent new stories, and you're saying that all their times are special, and I don't believe that.' (2) Thus, by concentrating on signature drama, Davies is always searching for the rarefied stories outside the churn of normal TV. Bob & Rose is a prime example, a six-part series about a gay man who falls in love with a straight woman. What could have been a bad joke instead plays out as a story driven by the notion that anyone can fall in love with anyone--and it works. Similarly, of all the women seduced in Casanova, it is the great lover's unconsummated desire for Henriette (Laura Fraser) that truly obsesses him. History might have remembered him as a philandering rake, but it's the sight of Casanova (David Tennant) alone with the woman he can't forget, dancing to stolen music, that is Davies' final image.
Linked to this is Davies' fascination with heroes who transform, gleefully transcending the prosaic. It could be Bob (Alan Davies) phoning Rose (Lesley Sharp) to declare his love in the middle of a riot, or Casanova exulting as the clothes of a gentleman fly onto his body, constructing his legend thread by thread, but both scenes are rifling on the same subject. These are ordinary people glimpsing part of something larger, and they can't stop hungering for more. And neither can the viewer--as Davies has pointed out, we don't get to see Big Pictures on the telly nearly as much as we'd like.
Given this, it's almost inevitable that Davies should want to revive Doctor Who, a program blessed with an irresistibly romantic conceit. Despite the monsters and alien planets, at its core Doctor Who is about a magical, inspiring figure coming into your life and literally sweeping you away. Hence, for a writer so fascinated by transcendence, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) is the ultimate character; repeatedly inspiring others to live above their ordinary lives, to fight, to question, to resist the things that would destroy us. This is a Doctor who literally makes people better.
Moreover, compared to classic Doctor Who's slightly sexless Time Lords, Davies is careful to invest the Doctor and his companion with a kind of grand love. Interestingly, for the most part, it's not a physical relationship: when her mother or her boyfriend accuse her of having an affair with the Doctor, Rose (3) (Billie Piper) snaps, 'It's not love, it's better than that!' Like Casanova's 'awakening' by sexual contact, something about the Doctor shakes Rose out of her parochial little life, and equally something about her changes him. This is a Doctor left completely alone after his people have been destroyed in a war; a Doctor, although he will never admit it, who needs company, needs a soulmate. By the time Davies parts them, both have staked their lives on saving the other, and ultimately the Doctor dies, kissing Rose for the first and last time, sacrificing himself so that she might live.
Only The Second Coming eschews this overt romanticism, although paradoxically it presents us with the Biggest Picture of them all. It opens with ordinary slacker Steve Baxter (Christopher Eccleston) discovering his identity as the Son of God, and in turn he seeks to transform the world. After demonstrating that he's bona fide and therefore cannot be ignored, Steve declares that humanity must write the Third Testament or face Judgement Day. Needless to say, these particular transmogrifications are far scarier than those in Davies' other stories. The world simply isn't ready to accept proof of God's existence, let alone the threat of Armageddon. We see the faithful panicking; major religions are debunked at a stroke and the Vatican loses their spiritual primacy overnight. Likewise, the world's faithless also struggle to accept the proof that their beliefs have been mistaken. With the end of the world literally on its way, people have been forced from their comfortable niches. This change is uncomfortable, and The Second Coming is a remarkable example of how a Big Idea can be successfully translated into Big Pictures.
That said, it's important to note that Davies doesn't conflate 'Big Picture' with 'Big Budget'. Programs like Doctor Who and The Second Coming paint on a global canvas that Casanova or Bob & Rose cannot, but all four understand that the Big Picture can be as small as human relationships. 'Honestly, it drives me mad,' Davies explains ...
Because there's so much potential in science fiction, but you read the listings magazines and under Star Trek: Enterprise it'll say, 'The Crystals of Poffnar have been hidden in a cave, and so-and-so argues with the Federation that they have to be retrieved.' What is there to watch in that?! But one of Buffy's billings might be, 'Buffy falls in love and discovers he's a monster.' Brilliant! It speaks to your heart. (4)
Thus Davies' work is always careful to juxtapose the marvellous with the mundane. For example, although his revival of Doctor Who is still very much about the Doctor and the 'trip of a lifetime' that he offers, the real difference is the promotion of the traditional sidekick role to co-lead. In creating Rose Tyler, an ordinary shopgirl, complete with recurring roles for her mum and her boyfriend, Davies keeps the series anchored in reality. Rose might travel through time and space, but she is never more than a phone call away from home ... and it is this that breaths new life into an old format. Unlike previous sidekicks, who might as well never have had a life before they met the Doctor, Rose is missed. As she is hitchhiking with an alien she hardly even knows, her mum is worried sick and her boyfriend is accused of murder. This trip of a lifetime has consequences. The silhouette of the old format is still present, but through Rose's eyes it now seems creepier, more dangerous. In reintroducing a new generation to a long-dead format, Davies makes a virtue of returning to first principles. Like Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns or David O. Russell's Three Kings, this new realism subverts familiar genre tropes and helps us to see Doctor Who afresh--not a bad trick for a show that had already run for twenty-six years.
Queering the Apocalypse
By contrast, The Second Coming also tackles a familiar fantastic premise from a realistic perspective, but the results are completely different. Having been turned down by Channel 4 on the grounds that 'we think you are going to look stupid', (5) Davies became particularly sensitive to the danger of The Second Coming being seen as send-up. Consequently, where Doctor Who is fundamentally optimistic, full of warmth, wit and colour, The Second Coming is grim and apocalyptic, its documentary flourishes reminiscent of Orson Welles' radio production of War of the Worlds. The result is a style that, while it has much in common with Doctor Who (the 'Aliens of London' depiction of first contact with aliens through the media is strikingly similar), it utilizes a more sober brand of realism, underlining Davies' desire for his story to be seen as challenging rather than simply controversial.
Of course, Davies is no stranger to controversy. The British Queer as Folk has never been shown on Australian free-toair TV, but its unapologetic depiction of gay characters--including a 15-year-old boy--sent all the usual British tabloids into apoplexy. Making Davies name, it also forever typecast him as a gay writer (the announcement that he was reviving Doctor Who led to several homophobic headlines, the most memorable of which was 'Ducky Who?'). Although this typecasting is somewhat simplistic, it's undeniable that Davies' fascination with sex coupled with his ongoing interest in writing controversial television has helped fuel the fire. It's the 'gay writer' tag I'd object to, however. While there are plenty of gay elements in the series under discussion here, Davies' exploration of sexual politics and identity is far more complicated, most obviously in Bob & Rose.
Originally a subplot in Queer as Folk, Davies soon realized Bob & Rose was a separate entity in its own right. It's a wise decision. Although based on a true story, a romance between a gay man and straight woman was always going to be thorny territory, and exploring the subject at length avoids superficiality. But although there wasn't tabloid outrage, Bob & Rose is still the series for which Davies gets the most virulent hate mail. The notion that men like Bob can be 'turned' is obviously potentially offensive, particularly for a group aware of the dangers of their sexuality being seen as a choice. Asserting that sexuality is immutably fixed, many gay critics of Bob & Rose dismiss any deviance from the usual binary roles as 'confusion' or a charade committed for some personal gain.
The ironic thing here is how similar these critics sound to those that criticized the 'disgusting' Queer as Folk. Transmitted while Britain was debating the age of homosexual consent, an interviewer pointed out that although the characters indulged in all kinds of illegal behaviour, it was only when sexual laws were broken that the series seemed worthy of comment. Davies replied that he had expected that, continuing:
Most political discussions and conversations that you have are just so stupid. You end up having very, very simple conversations about morality and behaviour, because when people are discussing the law, they talk as though people are legal and actually follow the law in their hearts, which of course they don't do. Otherwise we wouldn't have laws. That's also a television thing, that we're so saturated with bog standard morality from eight in the morning until midnight on television. Television is the most moral world. It's like Disney, the villains are vanquished and the good prosper, and it's very, very simple stuff. Even adult television is children's television. So try and do something a bit different, a bit closer to real life, and people sit up going, "that's wrong, that's wrong!' People with small minds. (6)
Admirably, Davies admits that he was also guilty of prejudiced assumptions about the real-life Bob Gossage. It was only after a frank conversation with his friend that he realized he was just as guilty of being one of those 'people with small minds'. However Bob & Rose is about far more than a lecture on prejudice. Like the changes undergone by all his other characters, the events of their story make Bob and Rose increasingly difficult to categorize. Bob repeatedly objects to being called bisexual, declaring to Rose, 'I'm gay and I want to be with you,' and later snapping at his father 'Don't be so glad, I'm not better.' Although Davies is wary of the media-friendly notion that all sexual labels should be discarded, it's perfectly apparent that a character like Bob needs something far more specific than the binary labels (or, if you like, laws) that society uses to pigeonhole sexuality. 'I'm labelled gay and I love that label,' says Davies, 'I need it. Maybe we need more labels. Like five million more, and that's just for starters.' (7)
Casanova didn't generate any hate mail, perhaps because it was the first time that Davies tackled straight males' sexuality with any real enthusiasm (previous attempts were characterized as either bigoted, boring or bizarre). Casanova goes some way towards redressing the balance, although it's interesting to note that the sex scenes are notably less realistic than in Davies' other work. Almost exclusively, the sex is presented as cartoonish, bearing closer resemblance to a Benny Hill sketch than something like Bob & Rose. This decision is partly driven by other imperatives--Davies was keen to inject some fizz into the stately period genre--but it also presents us with another unique take on a familiar character.
In short, Casanova is more complex than the legend of the great lover might suggest, and from its first moments, as Casanova puts the words into the mouth of his younger incarnation, we can see how that legend is created. Behind the 'lascivious, misogynist' myth, Davies found a Casanova he could admire, declaring, 'I wanted to rescue him, to show what he was really like. This man genuinely loved women, and respected them with an astonishingly modern mentality.' (8)
It's this 'modern mentality' that really ties Casanova in to the pantheon of Davies' characters. Like Captain Jack (John Barrowman) in Doctor Who (a bisexual conman from the fifty-first century who thinks nothing of kissing either the Doctor or Rose), Casanova is someone who isn't scared of his sexuality, and follows his heart wherever it might lead. His relationship with Bellino (Nina Sosanya), a woman masquerading as a castrato, is initially ambiguous, and his modernity is confirmed when he declares his love for her while still believing her to be male. Davies underlines this when Casanova marries Bellino and presents her to society, remarking proudly, 'We are so modern.'
But unlike Jack or even Bob, Casanova's slippery sexuality seems more ... equivocal. To be sure, we are meant to applaud his acceptance of Bellino, but when she turns out to be a woman after all, he glances at the camera and grins at the audience. The implication seems to be, just a little bit anyway, phew--that was close. Moreover, while the script firmly rejects sexual prudery, there's also something of a contradiction in the way Casanova defends his 'filthy' memoirs against Edith's (Rose Byrne) accusations. The conversation runs:
How many were there? How many women?
I honestly don't know ... Only a bastard keeps count. They're not notches on a bedpost.
Then what's the book for?
It's because I did more than listen and talk, I remembered. If they were just conquests they'd be forgotten tomorrow, but here they all are.
He proceeds to lists several of his conquests, but even as he does so and they appear rutting on the screen, Henriette's face keeps intruding--evidence that she is different, more special than the others. It's Davies' romantic streak peeking through again, and while we ultimately understand and even approve of Casanova's treatment of women, it's clear that the 'pure' woman looms largest in his memory.
The most telling scene of all sees Casanova meet Bellino for the last time. Living in Naples under the shadow of Vesuvius, Bellino's home is a city of the damned, cruel, lascivious and decadent. She talks of being radical and going to extremes, but Casanova recoils at the depths she has plumbed, up to and including incest between his own children.
Even worse, Casanova's son defends the behaviour precisely because it is what his father has taught him--to get it wherever you can. Even sexual modernity has its limits it would seem, and although Casanova is horrified at this characterization of his creed, it's closer to the truth than he'd like.
It's a striking scene, not least because there is a real sense, both in the writing and the mise en scene, that Davies is presenting us with a place on the outer suburbs of hell. Like the unsatisfying singles scene in Bob & Rose, there's no love here, no romance ... only sex. In turning his back on such behaviour, Casanova differentiates his legend from the 'filth' that others ascribe to him. There's still a price to be paid of course: he lives out the remainder of his days in obscurity; a former gentleman taunted by cooks and scullery maids. But like Davies' gay characters, Casanova has recognized the emptiness of mindless, posturing hedonism, and it is romance that carries him softly into death.
The sex in The Second Coming is equally significant, with the night that Steve and Judith (Lesley Sharp) spend together functioning as a thumbnail sketch of the story's wider concerns. On the DVD commentary Davies remarks, 'I think this is beautiful and I think it's absolutely human. I mean, he is the Son of God; he's human, and what is more human than sex? He loves her. If you want to understand the human race and what it feels like to be human, this is the ultimate.' (9) However, Davies is also well aware the scene is potentially offensive, most obviously because, as Scorsese had amply demonstrated in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), depicting the Son of God getting his leg over is impossible to read neutrally.
Steve and Judith's conversation after sex ('Do you love me?' 'Yes.' 'Are you the Son of God?' 'Yes.') is one of the story's key moments. In contrasting the 'ultimate human experience' with the wariness Judith feels towards Steve's new identity, the tensions between humanity and the divine become the engine of the narrative. As with Bob & Rose, it's difficult to tackle such a relationship without upsetting people. By emphasizing the ordinariness of the Son of God (another prime example of Davies' ordinary/extraordinary motif) controversy was almost a given. No matter what the Bible might say about the full humanity of their Saviour, Christians have Iong had an odd phobia about the depiction of Jesus as an ordinary man. The Second Coming might have dodged some of the bullets because its story doesn't purport to tell the life of Christ in the Gospels, but depicting the Son of God as a working-class loser from Manchester was always going to be dicey.
Losing His Divinity
The upside is that Davies' concentration on realism avoids so many of the usual biblical cliches (for instance Steve's heavenly 'downloads' are blessedly devoid of backlighting or choral music). However The Second Coming's chief weakness is Davies' uncharacteristic failure to engage with the extraordinary. Steve's confusion about his status is well drawn (Steve equating his visions with trying to download the internet into a pocket calculator is a nice image of how brain-busting it is to engage with deep philosophical conundrums), but it quickly becomes apparent that Davies has little interest in exploring what it means to have a direct line to God. Despite his ability to perform miracles, Steve remains resolutely ordinary, the dramatic 'rules' carefully contrived so that he's not connected too closely to his Father.
In fact, the only examples of the extraordinary that are really highlighted are when Steve demonstrates a tendency towards 'power madness', creating a subtle but palpably negative portrait of anything that won't aid Davies' polemic. Annoyingly, this allows Christian critics to calmly dismiss the series simply because they don't recognize their saviour, but part of the blame for this lies at Davies' door. In his eagerness to attack religion, he's constructed a secular, straw-man Messiah simply to knock him down on secular, straw-man terms--and that's a shameful waste of a brilliant premise.
The vexing thing is that it could so easily have been more rigorous. Davies identifies Father Dilane (Rory Kinnear) as a key character in making the story work, reasoning that if a priest comes to accept Steve's divinity, so will the audience. However, upon validating that premise, it's interesting to speculate that Dilane is then removed from the story precisely because of his belief.
The Second Coming is really the story of Judith--no surprise given that she articulates Davies' atheistic point of view. Unlike Steve or Dilane, both of whom become passive characters before the story reaches its halfway point, it is Judith's point of view that we are led to identify with, and it is she who takes the series' decisive action. Once more Davies privileges characters who favour the transformative, but unlike his other heroes, there is no one to counter Judith's assertion that this transformation is the right thing to do.
The Second Coming's final scene portrays Steve's 'crucifixion' as he eats a bowl of pasta that Judith has laced with rat poison. Like the sex scene, it's obviously designed to shock, but perhaps the most curious thing about it is that there was surprisingly little controversy. Why this should be is purely speculation, but my theory is that it does the reverse of what makes Bob & Rose's central drama so satisfying. The controversy in Bob & Rose centres on Bob's 'turning' and how that affects all the facets of his life. A scene like Bob coming out to his parents about having a girlfriend works beautifully, partly because of its novelty, but also because it comes so early in the story. The reactions of his mother and father are given time to develop, and Bob has to then deal with the pain he has caused them.
But to simply bump off God in the final moments of your story is ... well, whatever the opposite of a deus ex machina is. The uncut version works slightly better than the starker conclusion shown on the ABC, but it seems to me that if Steve's death were going to have any genuine impact, it should have happened earlier. Davies' assertion that religion is something that mankind needs to outgrow is worth exploring, but as Bob & Rose demonstrates, we need to see the consequences of controversial decisions in order to explore them properly. Instead, Steve's death is perfunctorily glossed over. There are some clumsy documentary-style addresses to camera that attempt to explain the aftermath, but it's just pat uncertainty substituted for complexity. How would mankind deal without God? Would it really be happily ever after, as Davies basically implies? Certainly these are questions I would have loved a writer of his calibre to explore, but instead we are presented with a conclusion that is both dramatically unmoving and intellectually lazy. It's not the only cop-out lurking in Davies' oeuvre (two of his Doctor Who scripts also propose fascinating moral dilemmas before punking out spectacularly), and given his claims that his stories concentrate on 'proper drama', it's annoying how often he concentrates on the heart and forgets the head.
However despite his various missteps, it would be remiss to forget all the times that Davies has succeeded. All of the programs that aired in Australia during 2005 were shot through with brilliant writing, and if their ambition occasionally exceeded their grasp, they are to be commended for reaching at all. It's rare to find a writer for television who dares to show us the world's greatest lover seducing someone without using a single word, or the Son of God demanding that we write the Third Testament, or a shopgirl staring through the window of a space station at the death of planet Earth. In a medium that all too often behaves like the bastard child of radio and theatre, we need more creators like Davies to transport us, to push the boundaries of the box until it expands or breaks. We need those transformations, that giddy rush of forbidden ideas being snatched out of the hands of their usual gatekeepers. We need more of Russell T. Davies' Big Pictures.
(1) Benjamin Cook, 'Tooth and Claw', Doctor Who Magazine, issue 360, Panini Pub., Tunbridge Wells, 2005.
(2) Russell T. Davies, Queer as Folk Introductory Booklet, Red Productions DVD Extra, 2003.
(3) Davies seems to have a bit of a thing for the name Rose.
(4) Cook, op. cit.
(5) Russell T. Davies, The Second Coming DVD commentary, Hopscotch Entertainment, 2002.
(6) Katherine Bell, 'Russell Davies: The PlanetOut Interview', http://www.planetout.com/entertainment/interviews/2000/09/davies.html
(7) Rose Rouse, 'Best of Both Worlds', http:// www.q.co.za/2001/2002/04/29-sexual.html
8 'Casanova', http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/ tv/casanova_1.shtml
(9) Davies, The Second Coming commentary.
Dave Hoskin is a freelance writer. His plans for world domination are progressing well.
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|Title Annotation:||THINK AGAIN: CRITICAL RESPONSES|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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