Friday, April 26, 2013

Cold War [7:9]

Today I unveil a new metric for the testing of New Who episodes: the Ril-Moff scale.

Every Doctor Who story gets a rating based on how many minutes I was able to accept and enjoy the story on its own terms for, before giving up and yelling "Oi! Moffat! Stop!" compared with the overall length of the episode.

Cold War scores an impressive 84%.

From time to time, someone sends me an e-mail saying something along the lines of "Oh, writing a critical assessment of Lord of the Rings, are we; well, until you have written a thousand page fantasy novel with made up dialects and really boring descriptions of forests and changed the course of twentieth century Beowulf scholarship, you should just shut up about it." I regard them as being on about the same level as the ones who can't tell the difference between comparisons and analogies.

But on the other paw.

I have over the last few months occasionally idled away the odd minute by strumming on a ukulele, and no, that is not a euphemism for anything at all. This has greatly increased my tolerance for musical support acts. The fellow singing the not terribly good songs about American ladies, trains and whisky before the act that I paid money to hear may not be all that good, but he generally shows signs of knowing more than three chords, and being able to do one thing with his left hand while doing an entirely different thing with his right hand, and often singing at the same time. 

"Well" I often find myself saying "I certainly couldn't do that."

I came around some time ago to the idea that while I was quite clever at doing things with words, I didn't have the knack for arranging them into stories or scripts. And this makes me slightly nervous about accusing someone who can clearly construct a script, write dialogue and get it commissioned and filmed of being a rank amateur who I could do better than.

He clearly isn't and I clearly couldn't. I even quite like Sherlock.

But for goodness crying out loud sake!

Yeah, I get the idea of doing Alien with an Ice Warrior, and I get the idea of it doing it on a nuclear sub so you can turn the jeopardy up to 11 and I get that it has to be a Russian sub because a Brit or American sub would be too obvious and I get (obviously) that if that's what you are doing then it has to be in the 1980s when T.B.W was trying terribly hard to help Reagan (who believed in the literal truth of the book of Revelation) to start a nuclear war.

But couldn't think of a better way of reminding the young people that this is the olden days than by having the elderly, Russian scientist obsessed by young English people's music? 

At least Clara resisted the temptation to say "What was a 'tape' Doctor".

I wish I'd been a giant maggot on the wall during the script read through. I don't have to read this rubbish. I was King Lear and the Cardasian in that episode of Next Gen.

Is this the story where a monster gets loose on the Russian nuclear submarine? Or is it the one in which an Ice Warrior gets loose on a Russian nuclear sub-marine? Or is it the one where an ICE WARRIOR does some stuff somewhere or other, it doesn't really matter, a nuclear sub will do?

How exciting, basically, do you find the arrival of an Old Monster?

Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors. Daleks and Cybermen and Ice Warriors go together like lions and tigers and bears. The Daleks appeared, what, fifteen times? The Cybermen appeared seven or eight times. The Ice Warriors appeared twice, in a very good story imaginatively called The Ice Warriors, which the BBC have lost, and in a rather weak one officially called the Seeds of Doom, but usually known as Invasion of the Bubble Bath (by me, at any rate.)

They also had a supporting role as one of a number of alien races attending a parish council meeting in The Monster and Curse of Peladon. Their function in that story is to be Old Monsters; former enemies of the Doctor who the Doctor naturally suspects of murdering the Lord Chancellor, even though the Hound of the Baskervilles dunnit.

It's almost as if the Ice Warriors whole job is to be Old Monsters. Iconic monsters. (I wonder if this is really because the kinds of people who drew the Doctor Who Monster Book and the Weetabix Picture Cards grew up during the Troughton era?)

There is no reason why, when the Ice Warrior comes on stage ten minutes the Doctor shouldn't say "Ice Warriors...Ice Warriors...who the hell are they?" as we presumably did when the Macra appeared at the end of the one with Father Dougal. But he doesn't. He says "We go way, way back" and it's one of those old fan validation moments. 

"So do we" we all cry out "So do we!"

I think that what Cold War wants to be is THE ONE WHERE AN ICE WARRIOR TAKES OFF ITS ARMOUR. If you are in the fan party, then you have been waiting to know what a naked Ice Warrior looks for forty years. At least, the episode seems to have been constructed on the assumption that you have. I am not sure I ever even realized that the Ice Warriors were wearing armour. I think I thought it was shell. I think I thought they were ancient warlike Martian turtles. Still, I thought the final scene where the Warrior takes off his armour so he could look the Doctor in the eye was rather nice, and the creature was both alien and sinister and pathetic.

I think that maybe the original brief was "Do Alien, but set on a Soviet Nuclear Sub." The problem with that brief is that the Aliens in Alien are slithery lizard-like spider-like vagina-like penis-like things you can hardly see whereas Ice Warriors are great big clunking space vikings who talk like Worf. 

No problem, says Gatiss, we'll detach the Ice Warrior from his armour, and have him slithering along corridors like a green slithery thing. He can have big long scary fingers which can hug people's faces like an Alien Face Hugger. And we can do that scene where someone says everything's all right, and then a big alien hand comes down and grabs them from above. And then we can do it again.  And then we can do it again.

On the other hand, maybe Moffat looked at the first draft, in which an Alien Soldier was trapped on a sub with Human Soldiers (and was eventually beaten by the Doctor holding his nerve and threatening to blow everybody up) and said "This is great Mark, really really great: it's just that in Doctor Who, everyone including evil green space vikings has to have a sensitive side. And I really, really like the idea of reintroducing an Iconic Alien Race by just showing how threatening one single individual who thinks he is the last of his kind can be. But we did that once before. Could you go and dig up the first season story with the Dalek in it and make this one more like that?" 

Which would explain why Ice Warriors have become scary pathetic creatures in a big metal suits; and why "what does the Ice Warrior look like?" was done as a big reveal, and why the situation was finally resolved through dialogue, and why we had the wholly gratuitous and nonsensical scene in which the companion is locked in a dark room with a chained up monster just before it gets loose.

If you were going to do the Naked Ice Warrior plot, wouldn't it have been cleverer to have a green slimy thing running loose around the sub for 30 minutes, and then finished Act III by revealing as a total out of the blue surprise that actually it's an Ice Warrior? But that, I suppose would have risked the mainstream audience crying out "An Ice what?

Mostly, I really liked it. It was an old fashioned, traditional Doctor Who story, made in a modern style with modern special effects and modern sensibilities. Put this Ice Warrior alongside a Troughton-era Ice Warrior, and it would be very clear that we were looking at a new version of the original creature: jazzed up a bit, more animatronics, and, of course, in colour, but definitely the same beast. The New Silurians and the New Cybermen really only had a coincidental similarity to the original versions. (This is also true of the Daleks, except insofar as anything with a dome and a sink plunger is unmistakably Dalekoid.)

The look and feel of the story — the individual shots, the pictures we see on our magic screens — were far prettier and far more atmospheric than anything that ever happened in the original series. I felt this was how the original series would have looked if it had had the time and the money. Doctor Who not as it was but as it should have been. Doctor Who as we remember it being if we are the sort of people who embellish old TV in our heads or only know Fury From the Deep from the novelisation. The Doctor and the Ice Warrior facing off in extreme close up; the Russian commander's finger, and the the Warrior's claw, hovering over the big red button; the sheer smallness and wetness of the sub — I kept thinking that it looked like and exceptionally high quality 1980s fanzine, when fans with pen and ink could pull off special effects that the BBC couldn't.

Doctor Who has been a lot of things in its time. It has been costume drama and nerdy sci-fi and action adventure and whacky and unpindownable surreal stuff with Douglas Adams and a robot dog. But if we say "This is a Doctor Who story" I think we know the kind of story we are talking about. Aliens invading London; plucky soldier boys trying to help, boffins saving the day. Big galactic empire at war; broken down freighter ship caught in the middle; Doctor mistaken for a spy. Moonbase full of scientists besieged by nasty robots. Polar base full of scientists besieged by nasty robots. Oil rig full of scientists besieged by nasty sea-weed. Lighthouse full of Victorians besieged by nasty balloon.

I do not think that the return of the Ice Warriors is a Good Thing In Itself. But once I spotted that Cold War was going to follow the good old Base Under Siege format, I certainly stood up and cheered "Hooray! Proper Doctor Who! At last!"

The attempt to do a very traditional Doctor Who story shows how wrong New Who has been allowed to go  at any rate, how far it as departed from its original format. I myself would be happy for the Doctor to be trapped in some interesting environment — submarine, temple, space ship — full of interesting non-player characters  threatened by interesting monsters on an almost weekly basis. I think that would be much better than running through five different styles in five episodes. But the Base Under Siege is no longer Doctor Who's natural storyline; Horror of Fang Rock and the Web of Fear are simply not tell-able in Moffat-style. Moffat has killed the thing he loved.

And that's OK, change is good and only the dead don't change and  a stopped clock gather no moss and so on;  but we should all accept that this is what has happened and move on. We shouldn't keep harkening back to forty year old stories in a style we've decided to jettison. Old Who was about a boffin with a magic box that he couldn't steer, who was stuck wherever it put him with nothing but his wit and his companions to help him. New Who is about a god-brat with a magic wand and an infinite supply of fairy dust. The New Doctor could have taken Skaldac back in time 5,000 years, dropped him off on Mars, fixed the submarine (or nipped back in time to a point before it was broken) and been on his way before the opening credits rolled. To set up the trapped claustrophobic scenarios that used to be the Doctor Who hallmark, there had to be a silly plot device to put the TARDIS our of action and a silly plot device to separate the Doctor from the sonic screwdriver to say nothing of a really silly plot device (and what the TV Tropes People would call a Gilligan Cut) to engineer a scene in which Clara gets to be heroic and important and the equal of the Doctor in every respect.

The B.U.S format emerged in a world of four and six part serials, long on atmosphere and suspense, punctuated by cliffhangers. There is, I grant you, some good dialogue between Clara and the Prof. I get the impression that we are meant to think that there is a sub-plot about the young Russian Officer who thinks that triggering nuclear Armageddon would be a good career move, but it gets too little screen time for us to really notice. It's structured and paced far more like a trailer for an episode than an actual story.

This is okay, too: the manic pacing works really well for mad stories like Let's Kill Hitler and silly stories like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. But it completely prevents this kind of suspense / horror story from being either suspenseful or horrific.

Unless, of course, I missed the point again and it wasn't meant to be a suspense / horror story but a serious human drama about the futility of war which happened to borrow part of its form from the suspense / horror genre?

You may remember that Patrick Troughton never appeared in a story entitled The Slightly Different But Probably Equally Valid World View of the Daleks. During the golden age of Doctor Who monsters were evil and that was that. Some corners of the galaxy have bred the most terrible things; they had to be fought. But that doesn't work in the touchy feely 21st century emotionally literate version of Doctor Who. The Ice Warrior can't be defeated and obliterated. It has to be shown the error of its ways; and we have to have a go at seeing things form his point of view. 

I have spent the last eight years complaining that the Doctor too often defeats enemies by having a special Enemy Defeating Device in his back pocket. So I am hardly going to complain that this week the Doctor defeats his enemy by talking to it and persuading it that it doesn't really want to be quite so evil after all. 

As a matter of fact, I really liked this scene. It made sense on its own terms and in terms of the metaphor about the "ice warrior" and the "cold warriors" (and the fellow from the Red planet being trapped with the Red soviets). The idea of nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction has been spelled out to those of us who haven't got that far in our history lesson yet. The Ice Warrior has spotted that by firing a single nuke, it can trigger a war that will wipe out the whole of the human race. Declaring war on a whole planet because one human prodded you seems a bit harsh, but he is the baddie. So when the Doctor announces (once he gets his sonic screwdriver back) that he would rather blow up the submarine himself, it makes perfect sense. It's the only way he can think of (deprived of his magic box but reunited with his magic wand) to save the earth. It's his own version of mutually assured destruction. The Ice Warrior takes off his mask, looks the Doctor in the eye and asks who will blink first. It was a really good ending. It really pleased me.

Thirty eight minutes. I'd been on board up to this point. Thirty eight minutes.

First, bloody Clara intervenes, and instead of appealing to the Ice Warrior's military honour, or facing him down tactically, she appeals to his sense of mercy and family ties. You aren't really a soldier, deep down, she says, you are really a cuddly fluffy bunny who wants to skip through the dead Martian meadows singing Ultravox songs.

I suppose that this is the only, and I used the term advisedly, politically correct ending available. If the Doctor's plot had worked it would have meant that in the end M.A.D was right and T.B.W won the cold war by outfacing Communists with nukes, but because in the end everyone decided that they'd just rather be nice. 

"Okay" says the Ice Warrior "Fair point. I won't blow up your planet after all" and is instantly beamed up by a passing Ice Warrior mothership. This is almost exactly as believable as a frozen Alexander the Great being discovered at the North Pole, and the first thing he does after he's been defrosted is send out a carrier pigeon and 40 minutes later a Greek Aircraft Carrier arrives at the North Pole to take him home. 

Yes, I know it's not meant to be real.

Third, we find out why the TARDIS vanished. This is so appalling it's actually brilliant. The Doctor has been fiddling with the TARDIS and has accidentally switched on a plot device which makes the TARDIS fly away whenever there is danger. He calls this the Hostile Action Displacement System. What is utterly wonderful is that the HADS were alluded to in once before, forty four years ago, in a story called the Krotons. (The Krotons was the only extant four part Patrick Troughton story until another one was discovered, so it was the one shown in 1981 as part of a repeat season to commemorate the departure of Tom Baker. So fans of a certain age know about the HADS.) The genius of this is that older fans, who are the only ones still paying attention, are so busy jumping up and down in excitement that they don't actually have time to notice that this was the Worst Plot Device Ever. Why did the TARDIS vanish? Because it did. But never mind. He referenced the Krotons!

Good concept, good execution, tolerable script, terrible ending, shows that classic Old Who Stories don't really fit into the New Who Format any more and the Clara's natural accent is Northern. But that's okay. Lots of planets have a North. Move on.