Tuesday, May 20, 2008

4.6 The Doctor's Daughter

This Saturday's 6.45 slot was given over to a publicity video for a proposed new sci-fi series Jenny: Defender of the Universe.

This isn't the first time RTD has tried to launch such a spin-off series. There's been Rose Tyler: Defender of the Earth which sadly never made it to the screen and Torchwood which sadly did.

The "Doctor's Daughter" didn't give us much of a clue as to what Jenny is going to be about but then "The Doctor Dances" and "Bad Wolf" didn't give us many clues about the dreadful Torchwood. The whole point of the episode is to introduce Jenny and persuade us to like her.

It's a clever publicity stunt. The title of the episode is a blatant lie and the secular press fell for it hook, line and sinker. Davies said that the story would "do exactly what it said on the tin", and everyone bought into the idea that a story called "The Doctor's Daughter" would be about a girl who was, er, the daughter of the Doctor. Now, I'm no fan of big revelations about the Doctor's past. Second-rate writers may get a brief buzz if they think that, with a stroke of the pen, they can change the nature of a long-established character and constrain what writers yet unborn will be able to do with them, but it's usually a bad idea. It usually leaves the Great Character less interesting than he was before you started fiddling. However, I cannot deny that a revelation that the Doctor has living relatives would have been interesting. But we haven't got to the end of the pre-cred before we've been told that absolutely nothing interesting has happened at all. Jenny is simply a clone, the Doctor's daughter in exactly the same way that Evil Sontaran Replicant was Martha's Daughter. (Less so, actually, because E.S.R shared some of Martha's memories.)

By lying about the basic set-up, Davies has made everyone in the whole wide world switch on. He is clearly hoping that Georgia Mofett's winning smile will prevent some of them from turning off when they find they've been hoaxed. We're supposed to love Jenny, not because she's the Doctor's Daughter, but just because she's Jenny. She is not bad looking. She smiles a lot. She has that tomboyish eagerness that you usually find in people who are about to dress up as a boy and disappear to another part of the forest (pursued by a bear.) She refrains from slapping her thighs. She does acrobatics. She isn't as pretty as Sarah Michelle Geller. She clearly expects words like "fiesty", "spunky" and "vaguely irritating" to be applied to her. But I'm afraid I don't instantly love her. (The thing which really worked about Season 1 is that, regardless of what you may personally think about Rose Tyler you could absolutely see what the Doctor saw in her. In this case, I can't.)

But, very, very cleverly, we are manipulated into liking Jenny more than she deserves. First of all, every other character in the story is fantastically dull. Martha spends most of the story having one sided conversations with a fish; and the rest of the supporting cast are the kind of plucky but misguided warriors who've been running up and down corridors since 1963. Despite having made such a song and dance about the TARDIS translation circuits in "Fires of Pompeii", the fish-people can only communicate with Martha in gurgles. If they'd have been given any actual dialogue, they might have become interesting and distracted our attention away from Jenny.

Secondly, the foreground plot is the most generically old-style Who story since the series returned. If "Sontaran Stratagem" (*) is a 1972 story, "The Doctor's Daughter" is in all respects a Graham Williams era run-around. Human and alien colonists locked in a genocidal war; aliens that look like refugees from the Muppet Show; a brief expedition across a quarry; a surprise revelation that no-one really believes a word of. Maroon Romana with the Hath and let K-9 spot the significance of the writing on the wall and the story would fit neatly between "Creature from the Pit" and "Nightmare of Eden". So, of course, the casual viewer – Donna's Mum, say, -- filters it out. Oh yes, Doctor Who was that programme in which spacemen and aliens ran up and down corridors for reasons which I didn't understand. Let's ignore them and concentrate on Wonderful Jenny.

And for those of us who are paying attention, the foreground story is really, really dull. Donna solves a number code which doesn't actually make much difference. The Doctor goes on and on about how war is good for absolutely nothing. Martha bonds with a kipper. RTD has previously served up stories which are silly, impenetrable, corny, campy and vulgar: this is the first time he's actively bored me. Again, I assume that this is intentional. The story is so un-interesting that it appears to brighten up every time Little Miss Sunshine hoves into view.

The real story is another take on last week's "family good, soldiers bad" routine, with another dollop of "express your emotions." The Doctor denies the importance of family because he doesn't think that mere genetics creates any special bond between him and Jenny; Donna, who knows that family is all shows him that he is Wrong. She does this by demonstrating that Jenny, like the Doctor, has two hearts: this physiological similarity trumps the Doctor's perfectly reasonable claim that it's shared knowledge, history and culture that makes someone a Time Lord. Donna is proved right. Jenny, even though she was not raised by the Doctor and has no background in common with him, turns out to share a number of his characteristics. Genetic determinism; nature over nurture; blood will out.

"How can you call me English? I don't speak English, I don't know English history, I've never lived in England, I've never eaten a crumpet and I don't like tea."

"But dammit man, you've got a genetically inborn sense of fair play and mores the point white skin."

The Doctor also denies his own emotions claiming that since his own family were killed in the Time War, his capacity to bond emotionally has been shut down. Donna, again, tells him directly that he is wrong, and she is proved to be correct. When Jenny dies (having been offered a place on the TARDIS and thus become subject to The Curse of Kylie) the Doctor weeps – showing that is still capable of being Time Daddy after all.

When the Fish – who Martha has known for about three quarters of an hour – drowns, Martha doesn't have a sniffle, she has a bloody good cry. A person who was that emotionally incontinent would not be able to function as a soldier or a medic, any more than a person who was squicked by poo and vomit could function as a hospital janitor. But to be a hero or heroine, histrionic emotional displays are mandatory. It's worth comparing this post-Diana bullshit with the genuinely moving scene from "Tomb of the Cybermen", in which Doctor Pat helped Victoria deal with the death of her parents. He can still remember his family, he says but he has to really want to before he can bring them back in front of his eyes. "The rest of the time, they sleep in my mind and I forget." How very mature. How very British. We'd better cure you of that.

We are, clearly, supposed to share the Doctor's grief when Jenny is killed, and, in a sort of E.T moment, will her to come back to life. (She's a Time Lord, sort of, so we hope that she can regenerate.) We are supposed to be overjoyed when she wakes up. The final scene in which she flies off into space is meant to be so joyous as to get her first series commissioned by the sheer "Last of the Time Lords" power of feel-good energy alone. I didn't.

Still, it could have been worse. After we found out that the war had been going on for a week (seven days) and after we found the Sauce (a big globule of terraformy stuff) in a temple that was full of plants and trees like, you know, a garden, I had this terrible premonition that Jenny was going to announce that her real name was Eve.

Had it not been quite so obvious, this ending would have felt like another big cheat. Granted the existence of green goo that turns barren planets into a populable ones, why does inhaling green goo necessarily repair a gunshot wounds? Who cares? I don't. Russell Davies doesn't. Move on.

"It can be terrifying, brilliant and funny, sometimes all at the same time", Yeah. I remember when Doctor Who used to be like that, too.

(*) Do two parters have their own titles, or should we refer to them by the title of the first episode, like "The Dead Planet" and "The Nightmare Begins"?


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Dave said...

"What is understood does not need to be discussed"

I know that Dawkins is an intolerant winker. I know that tabloids print poisonous distortions. The reason I read this blog is that you always say things about Dr Who that I hadn't thought of before, yet tend to agree with. Or as I say to my friends "that Rilstone is a f**king genius".

Thanks for your excellent reviews of this series.

Personally I had a real culture shock moment when I realised that the human leader was King Arthur from Excalibur.

I also assumed that the goo breathed when Jenny was revived the same special effect as when Rose became Bad Wolf and hence this was a clue for something that will happen later.

Andrew Stevens said...

In a very, very early performance, Nigel Terry also played Prince John in the excellent Lion in Winter, though he was completely overshadowed by the rest of the cast.

nickpheas said...

Rather jolly I thought.

Mark Goodacre said...

Hmm, two review read now and I am beginning to spot a pattern! I am enjoying your curmudgeonly remarks, but nevertheless, this episode was hugely enjoyable. I wonder if you liked any of the others. I will continue reading.

Andrew Rilstone said...

But you must admit, Nick, that "rather jolly" wouldn't have made a very interesting article.

(Sings) Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream....

Dave said...

"Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream"

Like most late, psychedelic Beatles tracks Tomorrow Never Knows works much better as a cover than by the original artist. While the gothic version by The Mission is pretty good the version that works the best is by Phil Collins - however unhip that may be.

For pure rocked out, hippy joy the version of It's all too much by Steve Hillage rules.

Norrin said...

Sometimes I think that the only reason I keep watching dr who these days is to gain full enjoyment from Andrew's reviews.