Sunday, August 03, 2008

4:8 and 4:9 "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead"


The Doctor confronts a space-suit which contains the skeleton of "Proper Dave" but which also contains a swarm of invisible alien piranhas which ate him but because space suits use telepathic transporter technology in their intercoms there's a sort of print of his mind in the space suit which means that it's still talking with his voice which means that the doctor can theoretically communicate with the swarm of invisible alien piranhas through the suit because did I mention that they're telepathic invisible alien piranhas? We know that Proper Dave is dead because his suit keeps saying "Hey, who turned out the lights?" over and over again. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Steven Moffat has already used the idea of repeating an innocuous phrase over and over until it becomes scary in "The Empty Child.") We gradually realise that "Other Dave", who's also in a space-suit, is repeating "Doctor, I think we should go now" over and over again, which means he's also been eaten by the swarm of invisible alien telepathic piranhas as well. So the Doctor is trapped. Between TWO telepathic alien zombie space suits. So, he starts to talk really, really quickly and then he whips out his magic screwdriver and escapes by dropping through a concealed trap door which had been there all along.

Let's watch that again in slow motion.

Doctor. Trapped between actually genuinely quite spooky monsters.

David Tennant. Talks really, really quickly.

Trap door. Already there.

Hero. One leap. Free.

History will record that this was the exact moment at which Doctor Who jumped the metaphorical shark. The exact point at which the normal rules of narrative - of cause and effect, of simple logic, were abandoned, and everyone sensible switched off and started watching old episodes of Buffy instead. Or The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Or Bagpuss, come to that.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that this should happen while RTDs anointed heir was officiating.

Steven Moffat has penned two very good Doctor Who stories ("Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace") and one very, very good Doctor Who story ("The Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances"). The pity of it is that "Silence in the Library" is a very, very good first episode, introducing an unusual environment, an interesting situation, spookily different monsters and a non-obvious mystery to which "Forest of the Dead" palpably fails to provide any interesting resolution. Not that the two episodes aren't still a jolly enough way to pass 90 minutes on a Saturday evening; but it really does surprise me that anyone could call them flawless. "About as good as we can reasonably expect something jammed into the ludicrous formula that RTD has established for Doctor Who to be," is as far as I would go.

"Silence in the Library" consists of 5 disparate plots, any two of which would have been slightly too many for a 90 minute story.

1: The biggest library in the universe which has been left deserted for a century.

2: Invisible telepathic alien piranhas who live in the darkness and indicate who they are about to kill by causing him to grow a second shadow.

3: A little girl who believes that the library is only in her mind; and who can see what is going on inside it on her TV.

4: A mysterious woman who claims that she will be very, very important to the Doctor at some point in his future and her past.

5: Donna experiencing an alternate life in which she is happily married.

None of these plots goes anywhere: there is no sense of forward motion or development in the episode. The narrative is the process by which we gradually work out how the five plots connect up. There is nothing wrong with this. Many good stories present us with a situation and then work backwards to reveal how that situation came about. (One could mention High Noon, Oedipus Rex, Citizen Kane and every detective story ever written.) But the five stories turn out to be connected by, well, by trap doors. Since Doctor Who no longer functions according to any discernible kind of narrative logic, anything can be connected to anything else. So it's very hard to care.

The library, for example. There are any number of stories which might have been told about a library which contains every book that has ever or will ever be written. I mean, if you went to the biggest library in creation, which book would you go looking for? The book that contained the cure for cancer? The book that contained the story of your life? The book that you really loved when you were seven and have never seen a copy of since? And are there closed off sections which contain secrets that man was never meant to know? Vigilante groups that try to stop people going to the corridors that contain dangerous heresies? An erotica section that would make your body explode with pleasures too powerful for the human mind?

But Moffat isn't telling a story in that sense. The library's function is simply to exist: to be a big dumb environment which the Doctor can land in. The story wouldn't have been a whole lot different if the Doctor had landed in the Biggest Public Toilet In The Universe.

Or the piranhas. Why are millions of invisible piranhas haunting a library? Just before dropping through the trapdoor, the Doctor pulls a solution out of thin air. Vashta Nerada live in forests; books are made of paper; you make paper by cutting down trees; so the Vashta Nerada spores were brought to the library in the paper of the books. Q.E.D. But if Moffat had gone with my idea, he could just as well have said that Vashta Nerada are microorganisms that grow in the disgusting sewers of Tersurus and that would have made just as much, or just as little sense. (And loos are spookier than libraries.) This isn't story telling: it's just drawing a wobbly line between two arbitrary points.

Or, indeed, the little girl. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might say that the idea that the Doctor is a figment of a child's imagination has already been used in "The Girl in the Fireplace"; and the idea of the Doctor talking to someone through a TV set has already been used in "Blink.") The idea of a dying child's mind being transferred to a computer which also contains every book in the universe (because she loved reading) is cut-price Phillip K Dick, which is fine: Doctor Who has always been omnivorous about the material it rips off. But the idea of a "a disembodied mind in a virtual world" is not interesting in itself; it's a thing which you may or may not be able to do interesting things with. You can do philosophical things with it. That's what Dick does: what does it mean to be a mind without a body? Can you detach "the mind" from "the brain" any more than you can detach "90 miles per hour" from the car? If your loved-one is dead, does the fact that someone kept a back-up make you feel less bereaved? Or else, you can just do fun things with it. You can say "What would happen in a virtual world made of books? Maybe the Doctor could meet up with famous fictional characters, like, say, Gulliver, Rapunzel and, I don't know, maybe some superhero."

Moffat chooses instead to do nothing with the idea. We see Donna slowly working out that she is in a virtual world; and the Doctor opens a trap door which reveals that the virtual world was created for the dying child and that the missing library users have been saved onto the disc by the teleport, and we move on to the next idea.

And don't anyone dare say "You can't possibly deal with philosophical questions about the mind/body problem on 7PM on BBC 1. The mainstream viewers are too thick to understand that kind of thing." The sub-plot about Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pure P.K.D. If reality takes shape only in our memories, then what happens if someone messes with those memories? If Buffy's memories of her sister are real, then is her sister real, even though in the empirical world, she hasn't actually got a sister? And what's it like to be the non-existent person? This is assimilated so seamlessly into the structure of a high-school soap opera that we don't even notice that it's happening.

Then, of course, there's all the over-wrought nonsense about Mrs. Who. A perfectly good story could be written about two lovers who encounter each other non-sequentially. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Moffat has already touched on the theme in both "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink.") But this isn't a story. This is, as so often, an idea for a story. All sorts of interesting things could have happened. I mean, what if you married your boyfriend when he was 35, and then suddenly met him when he was 15, and he turned out to be just the sort of nasty teenager you least liked - could your marriage survive that? But no: we're supposed to think that the discovery that Bernice Summerfield sorry, River Song is the Doctor's future wife is interesting in itself, not because of its consequences. This is Doctor Who. Nothing has consequences. The only interesting question is whether the Doctor will trust River, or whether, in fact, she is misleading him in some way. This could have been explored by the use of Character and Motivation, but Moffat prefers to give River a Big Red Button which opens a Trapdoor. She knows the Doctor 's name. So that settles it.

The Doctor's true name has never been revealed. Unless you count The Making of Doctor Who. And The Armageddon Factor. And The War Machines. But anyway... Time Lords are known by titles, rather than names, apart from Morbius, obviously. And Rassilon and Omega. Oh, and Romana. But anyway... It's reasonable to assume that there is something quite special and secret about Time Lord names. But nothing in the previous half-century has remotely implied that Time Lord names are like True Names in Earthsea or Soul Names in Elfquest. Moffat's just made it up. On the spur of the moment. Out of his head. To save him the bother of actually telling a story.

The conclusion of the story, of course, involves David Tennant talking really, really quickly. All the people who disappeared from the library have been backed up to the hard drive, along with the little girl. The computer is failing, and all the people will be lost. But there's a trapdoor: the Doctor can save them all by incorporating his own brain into the machine, only this will kill him. ("And don't think you'll regenerate!" exclaims River Phoenix. Why not? Who cares? Change the rules on the hop, why don't you?) But it's okay because River has a trapdoor of her own: she knocks the Doctor out, ties him up, and incorporates her brain into the machine, killing herself. But that's okay, because the Doctor has yet another trapdoor: in the future, he will/has arranged for River's mind to be backed up onto the sonic screwdriver, so by talking really, really, really quickly and running he can save her to the hard drive where she'll live happily ever after with the little girl and various other people who've been killed and copied during the episode. So this time, everybody lives. Even the least cynical Doctor Who fan knows that "everybody lives" is a direct quote from "The Doctor Dances". The cynical ones are sitting in the corner chewing of their own legs with embarrassment.

The man who saved Doctor Who after the disastrous 17th season – and then managed to kill it all over again during seasons 22, 23 and 24 -- was universally known as "J.N.T". The man who resurrected Doctor Who in 2005 and dealt it a mortal wound in 2008 is known, by me at any rate, as R.T.D. Doctor Who is now becoming painful to watch, but many of us have a strange compulsion to put ourselves through this pain. I therefore insist that the incoming producer be referred to from now on as "S-M".