Finally getting round to watching series seven of 24 around the same time as the Christmas two-parter for Doctor Who highlighted a common challenge faced by both shows.
Both have often made use of a special plot reset button which, when pressed, not only can get the plot out of any apparent cul-de-sac but it can whisk you in high speed reverse to undo whatever you thought had been done. Where, though, does that leave development of tension or unrolling of plot?
What’s mere death as an obstacle when you can pull two Doctors out of the hat or one Tony Almeida? However grim, however irretrievable the situation, the viewer knows either show might still turn everything on its head, not due to some really clever trick of plotting that had been missed before (or even the old cliche of identical twins) but with the all powerful special script reset button.
After a while it undermines attempts to build tension. Someone held hostage with a gun to their head? I used to think that was a tricky situation to get out of. But after seven seasons of 24 I know that holding someone hostage pointing a gun at their head is about as effective as standing the other side of the room eating a chocolate bar whilst muttering quietly, “Please don’t move”. Either way Jack Bauer can easily get you before you harm the hostage.
Doctor Who, courtesy of the ability to change companions and even change Doctor, has more of an ability to keep itself fresh than 24 which, even with season 7 being relocated to a new city, with the old Counter-Terrorism Unit closed down, not only quickly ends up with many of the same characters as before but also even the new ones fit well-established roles. The names have changed over the seven seasons but the basic character types (what? a chap in charge who doesn’t understand Jack? well I never) remain.
Spooks is a rare example of another show that has managed to repeatedly churn its cast, and done so by getting rid of major characters in a range of ways in plots where the outcome has often been genuinely up for doubt. But Spooks also has a range of characters central to the dynamic of the good guys in each plot where the death of any of them is shocking and can turn the plot. 24 only has Jack Bauer and so burns through characters at a fair rate of knots but without that same sense of doubt and tension attained by Spooks. Killing off any or many of Bauer’s colleagues is never going to do much to stop Jack.
Spooks, like 24, really has only one type of episode – the action packed one. Doctor Who, in contrast, has the funny, the action packed, the character development, the quirky, the mystery and more. Part of the entertainment – and tension – often comes from working out what sort of story it is going to be in its first minutes.
With 24 only having the one action packed style, but also the magic reset button and a series long plot line, there is a sense that any action, until the final moments, doesn’t really matter. Because there’ll be more action along in just a moment and however the plot appears to have moved on, it may yet all be undone at a later moment. It’s a missed opportunity. Imagine, with the acting, camera, lighting and sound skills of the 24 team, how they could do a version of the Eastenders episode that simply was two people talking to each other, reminiscing about the war. It being 24, it’d be more likely to be Bauer shouting and pleading with someone for an episode but that would be a dramatic, memorable and brave change of pace from the staple turn on, heat up action for 42 minutes, cue credits plot serving.
Whilst the action is done with style and panache – as inadvertently demonstrated by the movie Vantage Point (great concept, but imagine again how it would have been in the hands of the 24 team) – 24, as with Doctor Who, also relies on the rush of action to get you past holes in the plot. That too undermines tension in the plot – because a mysterious loose end or inconsistency may turn out just to be sloppy writing.
I give you in evidence the ‘secure room’ without a secure air supply from 24 season 7 or the suddenly impotent sonic screwdriver from Doctor Who (yes! it can fix a spacecraft! no! it can’t flick a switch for Bernard Cribbins!).
24 and Doctor Who are rarely compared but at heart they have the same problem: when you regularly have not just the improbable, but the impossible, take place, how do you keep the tension going? Both shows have dug themselves into a hole – though given how entertaining they still are, it’s a far, far better hole than any TV series I was let loose on would end up in.