Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dinosaurs on Spaceship

When we met Amy, she was a little girl writing a letter to Santa. Well, not so much writing, as praying: a sort of farewell to the RTD era which had embarrassingly re-branded the Doctor as a Jesus figure. 

Of course, the Doctor turns up in answer to her prayer: her imaginary friend, the Raggedy Man of her dream. This becomes one of the new new show's running themes. Last Christmas, the Doctor was a gift-bringer somewhere between Santa Claus and Willy Wonka; this year he was a sort of male-Mary Poppins, living on a cloud. It's an established part of the mythos that if children wish hard enough for the Doctor, he will sometimes hear them. 

The Doctor as Santa Claus. Hold onto that concept, as we turn to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship the episode when new new new Who finally figures out what it was supposed to be about, and then hopelessly buggers it up. 

When the Doctor arrives on the space ship, we see him running across the floor and then skidding to a halt. 

Later on in the same episode, we see the Triceratops do the same thing. Run; stop suddenly; skid to a halt. 

When the Doctor hitches a ride on the back of the dinosaur he cries out "I am riding a dinosaur!" 

Later, when Rory and Ron Weasaley's Dad are, as a result of a perfunctory plot device, left flying a space ship, Mr Weasley cries out "we're flying a spaceship!" and "this is better than golf!". 

Indeed, when the spiky dinosaur shows up in the pre-cred, the Doctor cries out the name of the episode, with evident delight. 

And when The Great White Hunter is making his dramatic last stand, he announces that he's never been happier. 

(Last week, when Amy found herself in incredible danger from the most evil creatures ever invented, she exclaimed "Is it bad that I've really missed this?") 

Summary: everyone is having fun, and everyone knows that they are having fun. 

Now: even when you were a little kid, you probably knew perfectly well that real war was no fun at all, without pompous grown-ups telling you. The difference between playing "war" and having a war is obvious to everyone, except Miss Walker and certain Guardian columnists. I am quite sure that there were lots of kids in January 1964 having a great time "playing" Daleks; but you could hardly imagine Ian or Barbara saying "whoopee! This is fun!" as something scary chased them down a corridor. It was fun for us because it was scary for them, and we knew that it was scary for them because they were treating it as if it was real, not as if it was a game. 

We are asked to pretend that you can make a triceratops go where you want it to go by throwing a golf ball: the big lizard smells the grass on the ball and chases it. This is there primarily so they can do the "What have you got in my pocket?" "My balls" joke, which isn't funny. The second time they try the stunt (though not the joke) the dinosaur catches up with the ball, picks it up, and drops it at their feet. 

Now, I don't know much about the behaviour of triceratops, but I am pretty sure that that's not what a rhino or an elephant would do. Or a crocodile. We've forgotten for a moment why the big green chap was chasing the ball, and made him into a puppy chasing a stick. Because it's fun. Because we're only playing. 

What is John Riddell doing in the story? He's a contrast with Queen Nefatiti, I suppose: there is a certain amount of mileage to be got out of Classically Chauvinistic Male and Powerful Historical Female. And Moffat wants to give us the impression that the Doctor has a life apart from the little slice that Amy sees -- other companions that we've never heard of. A lady from ancient Egypt and a man from the Olden Days are too cool, off-the-wall semi-companions for him to have. But I rather fear that the main reason he is there is that someone start brainstorming "dinosaurs" and immediately came up with "wassisname, Muldoon, from the good Jurassic Park film."

Which is not a bad reason, actually, providing what you doing is playing at dinosaurs. 

So a playful version of Who, a cartoon Who, a bunch of adults where are quite clearly kids having a great time, being delighted by each new danger. And it really is playful and fun: like a child excitedly making up stories about his favourite characters, not like a geek joylessly putting the Jurassic Park Action Figure next to the Queen of Egypt Action Figure. The whole of the Third Doctor's era was a game, after all: the relationship between Roger and Jon makes no sense if you believe for one moment that the Master really was a psychotic mass murdering villain next to whom Hitler was basically just a bit naughty. Sword fight in a castle? Leaving the pretty lady in a death trap? They are playing at goodies and baddies, and loving every minute of it. 

And that's the problem. If you are playing at Doctor Who, you have to do it playfully. You can't drop a serious villain who had done something seriously villainous into the middle of it. You can't make him pathetic and evil at the same time. You can't make cold blooded genocide the subject of a game. 

Was there really no better way to manoeuvre the Doctor into a spiffing yarn with cartoon dinosaurs than wiping out the Silurians? We are meant to like the Silurians. The idea that they've hung around in caves for a zillion years, been nuked by the Brigadier, only to get casually wiped out by a travelling junk-dealer seems unfair. And don't say "life isn't fair": we don't want to learn harsh life lessons during a game of dinosaurs, thank you very much. The Doctor treats the whole thing oddly lightly; when he's setting up the McGuffin in which Rory and Brian fly the spaceship home, he makes a weak joke about monkeys and then laments that he didn't have a Silurian as an audience. That makes him seem callous. Under the circumstances, that's like sliding straight from the liberation of Auschwitz to the one about the the comedy Nazi and Jewish mother-in-law. 

Some people had a problem with the Doc killing the baddie at the end. That didn't worry me so much. Haven't the people who said it was out of character spotted that acting out of character is part of the Doctor's character? The question of whether the Doctor does or does not show mercy to his enemies, and the question of whether that does or doesn't make him a bad guy himself has been the main thing the show is about since Boom Town at least. Next weeks episode is called "A Town Called Mercy", for fred's sake. In the same way that Amy and Rory are endlessly trapped in the moment of falling out of love / falling in love and Amy is trapped in the moment staying with the Doctor / leaving the Doctor, the Doctor, this Doctor is trapped in the moment of becoming the dark Doctor / stepping back from brink. But it sits badly in a story in which people run around and banter with the comedy Dads while admittedly having a great time. 

Which is a shame, because it seems to me that "Doctor Who is a silly, crazy romp in which you get away with things you could never get away with in any other kind of drama" is a refreshing, fun model of what the series could be. If we can't have Moorcockian insanity like Let's Kill Hitler and The Marriage of River Song every week (and I think it would get tiring if we did) then at least let's have this kind of mad silliness. 

So. Fun romp. People playing at Doctor Who. Clash of registers between the silly and the serious. What does that have to do with dinosaurs skidding to a halt, or, indeed, Santa Claus?

Well, obviously, people are shown running like that because that's how people run in cartoons, and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is "coded" as a cartoon, in the same way that Asylum of the Daleks was "coded" as being frightening. Once the Doctor has gathered the pulp fiction characters and various Amy's and Rory's into the TARDIS, he remarks, and I do not quote: "I have a gang now. Gangs are cool." 

A gang? 

Well, we know that since 2003, Doctor Who has been modelling itself on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, without ever managing to be quite as good. Buffy was always about a group of friends, and the changing cast of gay witches, mortal demons, reformed vampires and teen werewolves which made up the supporting cast was occasionally referred to as "the Scooby gang." And of course, the non-existent companion Emma famous told the non-existent Twelfth Incarnation of the Doctor "You can't die.....You're like Father Christmas! The Wizard of Oz! Scooby Doo!" 

"Like Father Christmas and Scooby Doo."

Father Christmas.

And Scooby Doo.

We knew that Curse of Fatal Death was Moffat's personal love letter to the show and letter of application to the BBC. But we probably never realized how literally he was going to end up taking it.

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