Tardis-travelling on television only

Doctor Who films should remain as nothing more than rumours.

Remember when Doctor Who was played by Eric Idle? Or how about the time it was Pierce Brosnan on a quest to find his father? Then there was the David Hasselhoff Doctor, with his trusty companion Pamela Anderson and a rapping time machine. Classic.

Rumours of Doctor Who movies roll round every couple of years and, generally, like the monstrosities described above, never actually happen. Most of the time, they don't even make it into serious development.

But there are two reasons to think this week's rumours have more truth to them. One is that they come from a plausible director, David Yates- he of the Harry Potter franchise. The other is the involvement of Jane Tranter, the BBC exec who did so much to bring Who back to TV in 2005. She, along with the lead writer of that version Russell T Davies, are now in the US trying to build the BBC's Hollywood business; this would seem to be an obvious project for her.

Just because something is possible, though, doesn't make it a good idea, and this is definitely not a good idea. Doctor Who is - I realise these points are obvious to the point of tedium- but they are key: British and a TV series. It is a spectacle of a kind designed specifically to be watched in the nation's living room on Saturday evenings, as an alternative to X-Factor or Ant and Dec. This explains so much about what makes the show fun; it's what allows cliffhangers and ongoing story lines, it's what makes it a shared cultural experience, something to be anticipated and tweeted and deconstructed. It's what allows the series to gobble up whatever bits of popular culture it fancies, and to turn them into monsters or silly jokes.

None of that would work in a film. You can't have ongoing stories or a nation watching all at once, clearly. But nor can you stuff it with the kind of silly gags that only make sense to those living on a single rainy European island. Can you really imagine a movie Who featuring Patrick Moore playing himself as a dirty old man? Or a version of The Weakest Link with a murderous robot Anne Robinson (the 'Anne-Droid')? In a movie version, kooky gags like that'll be the first thing to go.

But there's another less obvious reason why Hollywood and Who are mismatched. One of the reasons, I suspect, that so many literary or comedy types are unashamed Doctor Who fanboys is because it is a writers' series. It allows radically different scriptwriters to come in and offer their own take on the show without the risk of breaking it. How many other children's TV writers have become famous in their own right, like Davies or Steven Moffat have? How many shows have run publicity campaigns based on the status of a Richard Curtis episode or a Neil Gaiman one? Hollywood, however, doesn't think much of its writers. It's notable that a director is leading this, and one that doesn't seem too concerned that he has not gotten a script lined up yet; the writer, apparently, is just a detail.

Nonetheless, the show is probably still safe. A movie may conceivably make more money (although it would be one hell of a gamble), but in terms of the BBC's remit, and in giving it a centrepiece for the TV schedules, a TV series is far more valuable. That's good. A movie version of Who could quite plausibly miss the point of everything that makes the series worth having in the first place.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism