Yesterday, in a blog post attacking the lack of diversity in award nominations (particularly the fact that only white actors have secured all 20 nominations at the Oscars this year), TV director Rachel Talalay struck up an impassioned defence of one of the shows she recently worked on – Doctor Who – and its comparative struggle to gain mainstream awards recognition (its last main Bafta win not voted for by the public was in 2008).
“Yeah, sure, Peter Capaldi is a great actor, but who cares about that kids’ show?” Talalay imagined the judges speculating. “It’s sci-fi, not ‘real’ drama, and it’ll be around forever and we need to support new and fresh.”
Now, of course this could come across as sour grapes from Talalay, and we should take into account the fact that the Emmy and Bafta award nominations haven’t been announced yet. But despite all that I think there’s a lot of truth in Talalay’s criticisms– and it’s symptomatic of a larger issue.
Doctor Who hasn’t been consistently great in recent series, but 2015 saw a banner year for the BBC mainstay. Highlights include Peter Capaldi’s assured one-hander in penultimate episode Heaven Sent and the timely political allegory of the Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion, and I honestly think it’s the best the show has been in years. But I’d be very surprised to see it represented much in awards ceremonies, because it’s just not the right sort of show any more.
As Talalay points out, the problems are twofold. First off, the millstone of Doctor Who’s genre will always put awards bodies off, because no matter how intelligent or incisive science-fiction is it’s always written off as a kiddie genre (except in exceptional circumstances). To some it’s just not realistic, and no matter how good a story or performance it contains it can’t hold a candle to the oh-so-high culture of a detective who’s had A Difficult Past, or a famous person who Struggled To Get Where They Are.
The second issue Doctor Who faces is (as Talalay also notes) that it’s not a new series. When it first came back in 2005 amid great fanfare, it did pretty well in some awards (winning several gongs in 2006), but these sort of ceremonies always prefer to support the new and exciting stuff over a long-running drama on an upswing.
Returning soaps, reality and shiny-floor shows have their own categories to excel in, but there’s no category for an excellent returning drama to do well in after the first couple of series. And it’s not just Doctor Who that suffers from this – what chance does a show like Silent Witness, which has been on great form recently, have of getting the awards buzz it deserves after 20 years onscreen?
This focus by awards bodies on the new and “serious” is stifling. And it doesn’t end with TV – just look at The Force Awakens, the biggest film in the world right now with barely any Oscar or Bafta recognition. Of course, the reason why it isn’t nominated seems obvious to us. It’s populist, a reboot, lowbrow junk with spaceships in. That’s not what “good” cinema is.
But why isn’t it? Why is a film set in the real world objectively better than a well put-together sci-fi movie? What touches you more – the story about a man being attacked by a bear or the one that has a man twirling a lightsaber? And why do we so blindly accept the cultural snobbery that one is naturally more deserving of enjoyment than the other?
Of course I’m not saying the latest Star Wars film is necessarily as good a piece of art as every Best Picture nominee, but can we really say it’s worse than all of them, just because of the packaging the story comes in? And while honouring a story set outside the real world is considered shallow, isn’t the shallow person really the one who writes off a TV show or film just because of its age or genre?
“I’m not searching for votes,” Talalay concluded in her post. “I’m just asking the Voters to watch and judge on the work, not on pre-conceived notions of what the show is, as any Oscar contender would hope – watch before you vote.”
In a just world, that’s what we’d get – but as awards season goes on, I can’t help but think that everyone made up their minds about certain shows and genres a long time ago.