Saturday, May 31, 2008

4.8 Silence in the Library

"Silence in the Library" was a nice episode of
Doctor Who. I enjoyed it very much indeed.


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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

O would some power the giftie gie us...

"The man who resurrected the nation's favorite timelord
(sic), reinvented him and bequeathed him to future generations of slightly inadequate men and women to obsess over once again, has stepped down...."

The Grauniad

Saturday, May 24, 2008

4.71: The Eurovision Song Contest

A strange, disconnected world in which vaguely camp characters, indistinguishable and without backstories, come in and go off without being properly developed, and periodically burst into song: I suppose, given that RTD's first love is Buffy, it was inevitable that sooner or later he would attempt to make an episode of Torchwood in the style of "Once More With Feeling."

Davies also has a bad habit of taking Very Good "Big Finish" stories -- "Jubilee", "Fires of Vulcan", "Spare Parts" and turning them into Not Quite So Good TV episodes -- "Dalek", "Fires of Pompeii", "Rise of the Cybermen." Gareth Roberts classic "Bang-Bang-A-Boom" is set on a space craft ("Dark Space 5") during an intergalactic song contest: transferring the action to Belgrade and making all the contestants human seems to remove the episode's central point.

The extremely tight filming schedules required by new Doctor Who has required that Season 2 and Season 3 both included episodes in which the Doctor played a relatively minor role. And of course, in the Very Old Days, actors had to occasionally have time off: Bill Hartnell missed part 4 of "Dalek Invasion Earth"; and during "The Mind Robber", Fraser Hines famously mislaid his face causing Jamie to go down with chickenpox, or possibly vice versa. But tonight's episode cleverly references "Mission to the Unknown" in that none of the regular characters appear. Presumably, the Irish Space Agent who is the only recurrent character has sent an SOS message that will be picked up by the TARDIS in the next story but one...


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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

4:7 The Unicorn and the Wasp

And the award for "Silliest episode of Doctor Who excluding those in which the villain is made of Liquorice Allsorts" goes to...

The Doctor goes back to the 1920s and meets Agatha Christie. Fine.

The Doctor finds that Agatha Christie is embroiled in an Agatha Christie mystery. OK: roughly what we'd expect.

The Agatha Christie story in which Agatha Christie is embroiled isn't an actual Agatha Christie story: it's a BBC adaptation of an Agatha Christie story, full of televisual devices like flashbacks and scenes from the P.O.V of the murderer.

I'm a Holmes man, myself, but didn't actual Christie stories take place on exotic locations like the Nile, the Orient Express, the Clouds and so on? And weren't her actual characters rather less generic than Nervous Country Clergyman and Stiff Lipped Anglo Indian? Isn't this, in fact, Agatha Christie as imagined by people who haven't actually read many many Agatha Christie stories, pretty much as last week was Doctor Who as remembered by people who haven't actually seen many Doctor Who stories? I mean, the opening scene: Prof. Peach is murdered in the library with the lead piping. That's not from Christie; that's from a board game that was a parody of Agatha Christie. First published 1949.

But this isn't even Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel: this is Agatha Christie embroiled in a TV adaptation of a parody of an Agatha Christie novel in which an evil shape shifting alien is deliberately and consciously acting out an Agatha Christie story. But it's more complicated than that: this fictitious alien-organized murder-mystery party is the explanation of the real mystery of why Agatha Christie disappeared for a fortnight in 1926. And it also turns out that's the place where she got the ideas for many of her best stories.

In short: what we have here is yet another example of Doctor Who chasing it's tail round and round in ever decreasing circles and eventually disappearing up its own eye of harmony.

There's no mystery about Agatha Christie's disappearance. She ran away because she was distressed after learning that her husband had got a young woman pregnant, although, in his defense, he always claimed that it was the policeman who did it.

We all miss you, Humph.

I found the solution to the metafictional mystery, which involved an evil shape shifting alien insect, only slightly more unsatisfactory than one of Christie's own. But that may very well have been the point.

No West End Theater manager today would consider staging a three act whodunit; such things are purely the province of church hall amateur theatrical societies. The Mouse Trap is not even especially good of it's kind: I'm told by people who know that Ten Little Wassissnames is a much better example of the genre. Yet The Mouse Trap limps on for forty, fifty, sixty years, famous for being famous, a mummified relic of the way theater used to be half a century ago. Christie's stories are not rooted in police procedure, or forensics, or logical deduction, or a particularly subtle understanding of character. Her twists endings surprise us; not because of what they say about the real world or her imagined world, but because they break the rules of the detective genre. The corpse dunit. The first person narrator dunit. The detective dunit. Everybody dunit. No-body dunit.

The analogy between Agatha Christie and Doctor Who is left as an exercise for the reader.


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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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Modified rapture!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

4:5 The Poison Sky

Militaristic aliens in flying saucers invading earth using a plan that's five times more complicated that it needs to be; the Doctor and UNIT rubbing each other the wrong way, but eventually pulling together to save the day; a quizzling turncoat who sells out Planet Earth to alien invaders who double-cross him at the last minute; the Doctor using deus ex machina technology to save the Earth with mere seconds to spare... If you'd asked me, in 2004, to imagine what a 21st century regeneration of Doctor Who would look like, this is more or less what I'd have come up with.

The story has had more money thrown at it than it would have done in the Olden Days. The budget runs to hiring halfway decent actors for even minor roles, so Ross-the-squaddie-who's-obviously-going-to-die and radio-operator-lady-who-kisses-the-Colonel-at-the-end come across as characters rather than ballast. And there are lots and lots and lots and lots of extras: the big battle at the end between UNIT and the Sontarans looks like, well, a big battle. Not one of those skirmishes where three Daleks represented an invasion force. And - if you really have so little imagination that this kind of thing bothers you - the "special effects" are "better" than in the old days. But in other respects, this feels a lot like a 2008 take on a 1971 story. If you told me it was based on the long lost Season 9 script, "Terror of the Sontarans", I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

Granted, a real 1970s story wouldn't have contained such big dollops of Archers style touchy feely emoting. But the domestic stuff actually works rather well: because we see her family, Donna remains rooted in her back-story. She's an actual person, albeit one who doesn't act nearly as well as The Mysterious Disembodied Face Who Appears On The TARDIS Monitor To Foreshadow Something Really Big At The End of the Season. (Martha's family never really came properly on-stage which encouraged her to slip into the role of Generic Doctor Who Girl just as much as Peri or Bonni did.) Juxtaposing scenes in the Sontaran space ship with scenes in Donna's Mum's Kitchen makes the space opera stuff seem bigger and more dramatic. I can't think of another example of a TV show which has interleaved Soap Opera and Space Opera in quite this way.

It has faults. I still don't understand what the Doctor was signalling Donna to do with the telephone. David Tennant still garbles important exposition far too quickly - and usually while something is exploding. Unless you are the sort of sad geek who videos the story and re-watches it, you have precious little chance of ever finding out why the Sontaran needed a clone of Martha in the first place.

Like too many Doctor Who stories, old and new, it shows signs of being a not completely viable hybrid. There's a perfectly good story about a group of super-intelligent teenagers who plan to wipe out all life on earth and then decamp to a new planet. And there's a perfectly good story about Sontarans planning to re-model the Earth as a factory for breeding baby Sontarans on. (Very much like the Adipose. And the Pyroviles. Hmm...) But the two halves don't entirely fit together. It isn't clear why the Sontarans need to put gas generating devices into people's cars rather than, say, just dumping them into the atmosphere. It isn't clear why they need something quite so elaborate as Luke Rattigan's genius school to facilitate this. And as ever, the resolution was plucked out of thin, if slightly polluted, air. Of course Rattigan had a Big Red Button which cleanses the earth of all the nasty gas that the evil alien sat navs had pumped into it lying about his lab. Of course you could set fire to the earth's entire atmosphere in a matter of seconds, rather than, say, weeks.

Oh - contrary to what I said in our last thrilling instalment, Luke's academy is co-educational, and the combination of geeky toys and Army Training Corps P.E lessons makes sense once his Evil Masterplan has been revealed. Astonishingly, the real life United Nations seems to have requested that UNIT be renamed the Unified Intelligence Task Force. Figures: the BBC are the only people on earth who pay the slightest attention to the U.N and so far as I know, there wasn't even a special resolution.

But I don't really think any of these details matter. This two part story conveyed the sense that we were watching a Big Space Opera in which the earth was in terrible danger. The fact that the story was taking place on multiple levels -- Luke's academy; the space fleet; UNIT H.Q; Donna's kitchen -- made the whole thing feel much bigger than it actually was. The story believed in itself. The ending surprised me, more or less. The space-ships and the Sontaran army were impressive. The jokes were quite funny. The aliens themselves were well characterized. There was a reference to the Brigadier. This is what we want more of.

That's what's so depressing. Who-fans are clicking their heels with joy; talking about Stratagem/Sky as if it were some kind of triumph -- rather than a bog standard Jon Pertwee earth invasion story with added gloss. I have nothing at all against bog standard Jon Pertwee earth invasion stories. But they shouldn't feel like series highpoints. They should feel like "The sort of story that the Beeb reliably churns out every week." If I feel inclined to greet bread-and-butter as if it was birthday cake you can bet that something has been allowed to go very, very wrong.


This story is based around a series of structural conflicts. Emotion, represented by families, is regarded as good; the repression of emotion, represented by the military, is regarded as bad. It is also held that intelligence ("cleverness") will lead to the repression of emotion.

Donna finds it reprehensible that the Doctor has turned Martha into a soldier: it is taken for granted that "being a soldier" is a Bad Thing.

Martha appears to concede this point: the Doctor only recognises her as the Old Martha Jones when she says that by working for the military, she might be able to make them "better" – i.e less like the military. The Doctor goes so far as to identify "possessing weapons" with "being the enemy".

Soldiers cannot be bad simply because they kill people. At the end of the story, the Doctor takes on the role of a suicide bomber, purposing to exterminate the entire Sontaran battle fleet. (He would make a good Dalek, as the fellow said.) And they cannot be bad simply because they send people into situations in which they may be killed: the Doctor orders Donna to put her life on the line on the Sontaran spaceship. The difference appears to be that while the Colonel remains detached from the situation, the Doctor emotes about it. He feels guilty about putting Donna at risk; he calls Ross by his name rather than his military call sign; he gives the Sontarans a chance to surrender before wiping them out. Soldiers are bad because they do not express their emotions.

Luke Rattigan is "intelligent". He is also immature (stamping his feet like a toddler when he doesn't get his way), socially inept and physically unattractive. The female girl genius seems more shocked when she hears that Luke wanted to have sex with her than when she found out that he intended to wipe out all life on earth. Luke feels - and the Doctor agrees - that by virtue of his intelligence, he is a natural outsider. He has withdrawn into a commune / school where only other "clever" people are admitted; and hopes to withdraw further onto a completely new planet. Luke's sin, then, is the same as the sin of Colonel Mace: emotional illiteracy. That's why is academy for the super-intelligent is "a bit Hitler Youth" and why he has run into the arms of the super-militaristic Sontarans.

Family is the antithesis of Military. Donna takes time out from saving the earth to visit her family. When Martha indicates that she hasn't bothered to check up on hers, the Doctor knows that she's an evil Sontaran clone. Luke's students walk out on him, not so much because they are shocked by his amorality, as because they want to be with their families during the impending holocaust. Luke's proposed new civilisation won't have any families at all: everything is going to be run according to a breeding programme that he's worked out.

The equation of "intelligence" with "social and sexual inadequacy" and "emotional illiteracy", is very much what lies behind the popular and offensive archetype of the "geek". In order to create his Utopian geek-world of emotion free breeding programmes, Luke has made a pact with the Sontarans. Within the schema of the episode, the Sontarans are the supreme example of the repression of emotion. Having been engaged in a war for 50,000 years, every Sontaran is a soldier, and nothing but a soldier. And, being clones, grown in tanks, they have no familial connections whatsoever. Clearly, this story should have been re-titled "Planet of the Asexuals."


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Thursday, May 01, 2008

4:4 "The Sontaran Stratagem"

-- Girl reporter thrown out of sinister stately home. Ah. Seems we've come in in the middle of episode 2. Again.

-- Boy genius. Haven't we seen this character before? Wasn't he in "Dalek"? (Twice?)

-- Sat-nav drives girl reporter off the bridge. Ooo! A ubiquitous consumer device has turned evil. Again. Like the evil alien diet pills. And the evil alien living in the TVs. And the evil alien mobile phones. (Twice.) Can't we have an evil alien daffodil once in a while?

-- Car actually going into river: nice little action movie scene.

-- Martha calls the Doctor home. Hey! That would have been cool, if you hadn't told us it was going to happen a year in advance. And then a week in advance.

-- Martha looks into camera. Leaves blow up and she looks round at TARDIS. Donna seen inside TARDIS, so Doctor has his back to her as he goes to Martha. Don't think we've scene that before. Bit obvious, but nice.

-- Martha and Donna get on really well. The Sarah-Jane plot in Season 2 has set up the expectation that former companions, like former girlfriends, will always quarrel.

-- Unified Intelligence Task Force? Unified? Why? Why? Why?

-- Martha says they are looking for illegal aliens. One of those "joke" things.

-- The Doctor worked for UNIT in the 70s, or was it the 80s. Ho-ho, ha-ha, he-he.

-- What is the POINT of showing us the Sontaran out of shot, and then from behind when we have already been shown what he looks like in last weeks trailer and on the cover of the Radio Times?

-- Squaddies marching down corridor in factory that builds evil alien sat nav. Could we get on with it? Could we get to the Sontarans, please?

-- Squaddies faff around with coffin full of luminous green glue. COULD WE GET ON WITH IT PLEASE?

-- Doctor mucking around with soldiers...feels a lot like, well, a UNIT story.

-- Ooo, it's a Sontaran! Were Sontaran's always small? (Stop pretending that we don't know what it's face looks like!)

-- Ooo -- he's taken his helmet off. We see the partial close up of his face. Very nice. Except we saw it in the trailer at the end of the last season and we've ALREADY SCENE THE FULL VIEW IN THE SODDING RADIO SODDING TIMES!

-- "I don't like people with guns", "People with guns are usually the enemy": nice.

-- Donna using her brain to spot the the Clue in the personnel records. Nice. (Using HER brain, as opposed to Rose's brian or a generic companion brain.)

-- Donna tells the Doctor she's going home. Could have been very funny, but so desperately over-done as to be embarrassing.

-- Donna goes home; feels a montage coming on. (NOTE: She's seen a lot of weird stuff, but her mother was in a pub where alien jelly babies were breaking out of people's tummies.)

-- Ah: they are treating Donna's family more as a soap opera than a sit com this week. Bernard Cribbens is a lot better than he was in the first episode. Positively good scene.

-- School for geniuses. (Is that the same building as the school in "Human Nature".) Are there any girl geniuses? (Does RTD like stories about boys boarding schools, for some unaccountable reason?) Why is it "a bit Hitler youth" rather than all geeky and nerdy? Lab where everyone is experimenting is awfully old fashioned? Wouldn't boy genii mainly be working on computers?

-- Toys lying around in Rattigan's room, obviously meant to to evoke Google and other laid back IT companies: doesn't fit in very well with Hitler youth and early morning runs.

-- Big reveal moment, the Sontaran unmasks. BUT WE'VE ALREADY SEEN IT.


-- The Sontaran walks through the teleport and into the space-ship followed by the genius kid. This is the first moment this season -- no, the first moment EVER -- when I (almost unconsciously) think "Hey! I'm watching Doctor Who."

-- Martha imprisoned, tub of green goo, oh god, it's going to be a clone. There's nothing more boring than clones, dopplegange's and evil doubles.

-- Sontaran and kid looking out over earth through window of spaceship. Admittedly, the same scene was done in -- "End of the World", other places as well -- but very nice.

-- Would the Sontarans really know the Doctor as a one of their enemies? "Time Warrior" and "Sontaran Experiment" (and "Two Doctors" come to think of it, must have erased that from my memory) must be pretty minor encounters. I suppose they blame him for their invasion of Gallifrey failing. Odd that a race mad enough to invade Gallifrey wasn't involved with the Time War. Sorry. Having a geek moment.

-- Pull back from window to Sontaran fleet. OK, Babylon 5 was proud that it could do this ten years ago, but it still looks cool. Nice spaceships, too.

-- Doctor convinces the alien sat nav not to drive them into the river by ordering it to drive them into the river. A bit like Spock making alien computers blow up by feeding them simple paradoxes! But, quite fun that it stops on the very edge of the river and then fizzles out.

-- The realistic soap opera - Donna, Gramps and her mother - works very well as a brief interlude to off-set the space opera rather than the main event. The whole scene with them round the car is really very nice indeed.

-- I like the Sontaran's little beard. Only just noticed that.

-- Loads of Sontarans and loads of Sontaran spaces ships. I love it.

-- Sontar-ha, Sontar-ha. You see that almost imperceptible dot on the horizon? That's Russell T Davies' sense of good taste, tht is.

-- Apart from the fact that Gramps was stupid enough to jump in the car, that's really a very good cliffhanger.

Monday, April 28, 2008

4:3 "Planet of the Ood"

There is a vicious and unfounded rumour going around that I don't like new Doctor Who. In order to counter this libel, I shall concentrate on what I liked about "Planet of the Ood".

1: It was recognizably a Doctor Who story. The final scene, in which the underdogs who the Doctor has liberated gather round the TARDIS and promise never to forget him veered towards pastiche. (The title of the story felt so retro that I was afraid the story was going to be a parody.)

2: Come to that, it was recognizably a story. It had a beginning, a middle and and end, more or less in that order. It introduced a conflict (slave owners vs oppressed slave caste); set an objective (free the slaves); placed some obstacles in the Doctor's way and more or less resolved everything by the end of the episode. On the way, there was physical conflict (the Doctor chased around the warehouse by the mechanical grabber) and emotional conflict (the tour-guide almost seeing that what she culpable for the slaves' oppression.) There was an element of Mystery: how do the Ood's communication balls work? what's in the warehouse? what doe "The circle must be broken" mean? -- with a pretty satisfactory solution.

3: It had some emotional resonance. The scene in which the slave driver beats the Ood slave was a little corny, but the scene in which the Doctor and Not-Not-Rose find the Ood dying in the snow was really quite affecting.

4: The Ood felt like olden-days Doctor Who monsters; but they showed signs of having been thought up as fun aliens for the Doctor to meet; not simply as a collection of plot device to join some scenes together. The Big Reveal about the contents of the mysterious warehouse made some sort of sense on its own terms, and went some way to explaining the behaviour of the Ood in "The Satan Pit".

5: Finally, finally, finally a story set on an alien planet -- see, Russell, we are not too stupid to deal with the planet Zod, and the Non Wobbly Special Effects department did a good job at creating a convincing backdrop. The giant ice-bridge was particularly cool. (Do you see what I did there?)

6: The story was only slightly rushed. I felt "That could have done with being a full hour" rather than "That could have done with being a two parter."

(The morality of the story was pretty trite. It is clear in the first three minutes that the humans are all bastards and the Ood are gentle and harmless, so it's just as much about Good vs Evil as if the Daleks had been trying to wipe out the human race. Again. For the story to have actually been about something, you'd have needed to have added a wrinkle, say

a: Despite their obvious cruelty, Donna feels she should side with the humans because they are her people

b: There is a predator on the Oodsphere and, if not for the humans, the Ood would have long ago become extinct

c: Freeing the Ood will deprive the humans of their workforce, bringing about the collapse of the Great and Bootiful Human Empire and ensuring that the Daleks rule the galaxy for years to come.

As it was, the ethical issue served only to illustrate -- I would not use such a strong word as develop -- the relationship between the Doctor and Prima. The Doctor makes the valid observation that the 21st century humans use wage-slaves to make their clothes, but this scene is "about" the Doctor's self-righteousness and Donna's reaction to it. The Strange Interlude in which the Doctor uses the Vulcan Mind Meld to enable Donna to hear the Ood's telepathic singing is "about" Donna discovering what it's like to be the Doctor. He, apparently, can hear the Songs of of Captivity (wasn't that by Bob Marley?) all the time. The more Donna learns about the Doctor, the more she sees that what she thought was callousness is actually The Burden of the Time Lords. (But the most wonderful thing about Time Lords is I'm the only one). This doesn't, so far as I can see, change anything about their relationship. )

But I'm really happy for my criticisms to be parenthetical. This episode represents a much needed step from appallingeness towards good, solid, entertaining mediocrity.


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Monday, April 21, 2008

Umberto Eco sums up what I've been trying to say about Doctor Who so exactly that I assume I must have read the book at college and forgotten it.

"We should beware of understanding this distinction of levels as though on one side there were an easily satisfied reader, only interested in the story, and on the other a reader with an extremely refined palate, concerned above all with language. If that were so, we would have to read The Count of Monte Cristo on the first level, becoming totally enthralled by it, and maybe even shedding hot tears at every turn, and then, on the second level, we would have to realise, as is only right, that from a stylistic point of view it is very badly written, and to conclude therefore that it is a terrible novel. Instead, the miracle of works like The Count of Monte Cristo is that, while being very badly written, they are still masterpieces of fiction. Consequently the second-level reader is not only he who recognizes that the novel is badly written but also the one who is aware that, despite this, its narrative structure is perfect, the archetypes are all in the right place, the coups-de-scene judged to perfection, its breadth (though at times stretched to breaking point) almost Homeric in scope--so much so that to criticize the Count of Monte Cristo because of its language would be like criticizing Verdi's operas because his librettists, Maria Piave and Salvatore Cammarano, were not poets like Leopardi. The second level reader is then also the person who realize how the work manages to function brilliantly at the first level." -- Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

4:2 "Fires of Pompeii"

If Captain Kirk used his superior technology to impose his superior morality on every planet he visited, he would come across as a colonialist or a communist. But if he said that it's up to everyone in the universe to fix their own troubles, then there wouldn't actually be any stories. Ergo: The Prime Directive. Kirk is signed up to a Sacred Law which says that he can't interfere with the affairs of other planets, except when he can. Although this is said to be one of the laws of the United Federation of Planets, it's actually one of the laws under which a TV show like Star Trek always and necessarily has to operate. It's a way of drawing a circle around a genre-assumption and saying 'please don't think about this, or the whole thing will collapse'. It's a sacred mystery that enables us to believe that when Kirk reintroduces war to an otherwise peaceful planet, he's doing it in the name of non-intervention. It's only a problem when someone tries to tell us what the Prime Directive actually says; to examine it's philosophical ramifications. That's a bad idea: it's there to facilitate story-telling; it's not what the stories are about.

I know I'm banging on and on about rules: but ever since a big hairy cave man stepped out of the shadow of the TARDIS and started talking in a RADA accent, it's been absolutely clear that Doctor Who has at least two Prime Directives:

1: Everyone, anywhere in the Universe, speaks English.

2: If the viewer knows the outcome of an historical event, the Doctor can't change it.

Directive 1 is so obvious that for fourteen years, no-one noticed it was there at all. In, I think, 'Masque of Mandragora', Sarah wonders why she is understanding Italian and Doctor Tom mutters something about sharing a Time Lord gift with her: the subject isn't raised again until RTD starts to obsess about it in 'End of the World.'
Directive 2 is more of a problem: it comes on stage from time to time (in 'The Aztecs', 'The Time Meddler', 'Day of the Daleks' and arguably 'Genesis of the Daleks'), but it patently makes no sense whatsoever. If helping Harold beat William at Hastings counts as time meddling; why is helping the Thals beat the Daleks on Skaro perfectly OK? In general, the series has been happy to say 'Because the Laws of Time say so' or, in the vulgar, 'It just is, okay?'

RTD has followed Big Finish in adopting Peter Darvill-Evans elegant theory: the whole of the future is in a state of flux and pretty much everything counts as 'future' from the Time Lords point of view. When the Doctor materializes at a particular point, he 'crystallizes' history around himself and makes the events he experiences, and any which depend on it immutable. The fourth dimension is a collection of fixed points, linked together by more or less mutable time-lines, in a sea of unresolved possibilities. But 'The Web of Time' is just another way of spelling Prime Directive: in the Doctor Who universe, history is immutable, except when it isn't. Why can the Doctor change the outcome of the war between the Daleks and the Movellons, but not the outcome of the Second World War? He just can, okay.

Sadly 'The Fires of Pompeii' is yet another example of Doctor Who turning in on itself and making the 'prime directives' -- both 'why does everyone talk English?' and 'why can't we change the past' the actual subject of the story?'. Doctor Who, it seems, is about the narrative conventions of Doctor Who. It's about our nostalgic memories of a show called Doctor Who. It's about the nature and significance and state of consciousness of a character who is carefully not called Doctor Who. About anything, in fact, apart from coming up with an entertaining answer to the question 'What would happen if a none-too-bright 20th century girl was transported back to ancient Pompeii?' Which some people might have thought was the object of the exercise.

This is rather a pity: because, after the grit your teeth embarrassment of the Season 3 finale, the total waste of time that was the Christmas Special, and the 'what the hell are they thinking' comedy of 'Invasion of the Jelly Babies', 'Fires of Pompeii' was quite a decent little story. While nominally about Pompeii, it felt a lot as if the Doctor and Not-Not-Rose had materialized on the set of Rome, largely because they had. (Indeed, I kept wondering whether Quintus was going to be buggered by Ceasar and declare himself Emperor.) The joke that, because the TARDIS translator turns Latin into colloquial English, the market trader talks like Del-Boy and Lucius' family talk like soap opera characters lasts for about five minutes. By the time we get to the serious bits, everyone starts talking Theatre. The question: 'If the TARDIS makes my English sound like Latin, what do the Romans hear when I speak Latin?' is the sort of question only a child (or, I suppose, a fan) would think to ask. The answer 'Welsh' is funny the first time. But not very.

Donna wants to use the TARDIS to save the people of Pompeii from their impending destruction. The Doctor knows that this violates narrative conventions, but Donna persists. He bends the rules slightly, rescuing a single family, because, presumably, introducing thousands and thousands of their descendants into human history doesn't constitute 'interference.' The point of the story is not that the Doctor saves the earth or Lucius's family but that he realises that he needs Donna, even though the audience still can't stand the bloody site of her. Without her, he would have callously left everyone to be incinerated just as he would have wiped out the jelly babies and did in fact kill the ickle bubby spiders. The old man in 'Voyage of the Damned' told the Doctor that if he kept making life or death decisions he'd become a monster and the Dalek in 'Dalek' said he'd make a good Dalek.

Well, yes: every hero is potentially a villain. Surely the Master was introduced precisely to make this point? Sherlock Holmes would have made an excellent murderer; come to think of it, the very first thing we're told about him is that he'd think nothing of killing a friend in cold blood. But I do hope we are not building up to a story in which the Doctor turns evil and, say, Donna, Martha and Rose have to get together to bring him back.

This core story only requires that the Doctor and Donna appear at some historical crux: to give them a chance to assassinate Hitler or stop the Black Death. Arriving in Pompeii 24 hours before the volcano erupts does the job admirably, even if it does effectively decanonize a rather excellent little Sly McCoy / Bonnie Langford audio. One might think that 'Do we save the city or not?' would be quite a big enough question to fill 45 minutes of airtime. (It took basically 100 minutes for Barbara to work out that weaning the Aztecs off human sacrifice was a: a bad idea b: impossible.) But no: it has to be enmeshed in half a dozen other story lines. The overwrought climax in which the Doctor has to choose between destroying Pompeii and allowing some aliens to destroy the whole world diminished, rather than intensified, the dilemma. Save Pompeii or Save the World is not really a difficult call: just a matter of choosing the lessor weevil. Save Thousands of Humans or Obey The Laws of Time could actually present a problem. (And anyway: isn't Pompeii actually part of the world?) It makes a good point about the Doctor's burden: it's in his nature as a Time Lord that he can see the consequences of his actions, that merely by time travelling, he's causing historical events to happen, making decisions which effects who lives and who dies -- which could turn him into a monster, remember. But this -- plus the emphasis on his unimaginable fourth dimensional consciousness -- is one more step towards turning him into a god, if not actually God.

This is overlaid with the amusingly silly idea that the people of Pompeii are physically turning to stone so the city is actually populated by creatures which resemble the plaster casts you can see when you visit the archaeological site. (I wonder if Draft 1 involved the plaster casts in the museum coming to life and menacing the modern visitors, as Egyptian mummies do all the time.) This is happening because they are breathing in dust from the Volcano, through hypocausts, which is related to some alien life form that crashed there in the past, and which is having the effect of making everyone telepathic oh, and also precognitive. These aliens eventually manifest as Transformers made of fire and magma; although they are not very threatening, because they can be defeated by chucking water over them.

This is really only sketched in the most perfunctory way. At the last minute, the Doctor says slightly desperately, that the precognition powers came about because a rift in time was blown open when the alien space craft crashed, and that the 'eruption' has blown it closed. Well, obviously.

Which, as I say, is a pity, because the basic story is really quite good. The soothsaying scene, the moment when the Doctor rescues the family, the epilogue, and the moral dilemma itself were all quite well done. It is one thing to use monsters as plot-devices to facilitate character based stories. Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it every, single week : but the monsters have still got to be either believable and comprehensible, or far enough off stage that we don't notice. It's okay to for the Daleks to be a sort of Prime Directive which lasts for a single story. 'Why do they want to drill a hole through the Earth's core?' 'They just do, okay. It's the rebels you're meant to be interested in.' But the fire monster was complicated, contrived and fussy: it simply generated noise which drowned out, rather than illuminated, the passably interesting story about the Doctor and Donna which RTD presumably set out to tell.


When bad SF writers realised that they had written bad cliches into their bad SF, they used to think that it would help the audience suspend disbelief for the dumb blond to say 'Gee, professor, this is crazier than one of those nutty Science Fiction movies.' RTD's preferred technique is for someone to say 'Oh, you are kidding me.' Please stop it.


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Friday, April 11, 2008

Oh, all right, you talked me into it

Another reason not to review Doctor Who is that it is forearmed against critics. "Fans always find fault with the new series, as a matter of principal" goes the argument "Since this writer finds fault with the series, he must be a fan; therefore, we can discount his criticisms." Curiously enough, this argument is usually put forward by, er, Doctor Who fans. They are a self-loathing bunch, these asexuals.

But it is perfectly true that the fan's perspective is slightly different from that of the heterosexual community. There is some excuse for the director who says "I know that my film was savaged. But that was only the movie critics. It was never intended for clever people who've seen loads of films. It's intended for stupid people who haven't." The correct, normal thing to do is to say: "Apparently, Simon Pegg is appearing in a new science fiction movie. His character is the engineer on some kind of space-ship. He comes from Aberdeen." Only someone in an aberrant mental state would even know that this character – Taffy, is it? -- is vaguely based on one that appeared on the telly about forty years ago. The director certainly doesn't want anyone to make that connection.

So: let's cast aside my fan goggles and try to watch 'Partners in Crime', not as part of a thing called Doctor Who but as 45 minutes of TV intended to fill the gap between The Weakest Link and I'd Do Anything.

I think that what the straight viewer would see would be a situation comedy. The long drawn out opening gag, in which one character is looking for the other, but keeps missing him, despite the fact that he's only ten feet away, is the kind of thing you'd get in cleverly timed seaside farces or Carry On films. The main characters are broadly drawn comic 'types': there's the working class girl with the mockney accent, day dreaming about the one that got away; her nagging mother; her bonkers, dishevelled grandfather and the sinister company director who's part Anne Robinson and part bondage queen, explicitly compared with Supernanny. (Women in powerful jobs are both sinister and funny.) Only the science journalist, (this week's Highest Ranking Sympathetic Supporting Character) is played straight. The Doctor himself, of course, is hardly even a character, more a grinning collection of comic mannerisms: Basil Fawlty rather than Inspector Morse.

The opening scenes of 'Rose' said to the viewer: "These characters behave like people in a soap opera: please take them seriously". The opening scenes of 'Partners in Crime' said "These characters behave like people in a sit-com: please don't".

Approaching the show as comedy, I think the straight viewer will have quite a good time. There is lots of action, but it's all fairly obviously blue-screen and CGI: there's no real sense of danger. Common Girl and Crazy Man seem to be enjoying themselves: they are doing comedy stunts in the mode of Buster Keaton or Frank Spencer, as opposed to Indiana Jones. The scene where they finally catch up with each other and have to communicate in sign language is particularly good.

There is also a streak of what is evidently supposed to be 'drama' running through it – Crazy Man is supposed to be lonely (we see him in posing moodily in his spaceship) and Common Girl, who met him once before, is miserable because she can't find him. There are a lot of references to Crazy Man's previous two girlfriends. The scene between Common Girl and Cockney Newsvendor Grandad isn't funny, but it isn't proper serious drama, either. I think that the straight viewer is rather bored by these scenes, but she thinks that they are necessary exposition to set up what is obviously turning out to be a rom-com.

The plot is so surreal that the straight viewer will very sensibly ignore it. Since she has seen Harry Potter and the Golden Compass, she is hardly likely to be bowled over by the wondrous special effects. She's more likely to treat it as a cartoon. ('Supernanny' remains suspended in mid-air for a few moments after the tractor-beam is switched off, which will make anyone think of Roadrunner.) The little aliens are cute and funny, but not quite convincing; since we are obviously not supposed to believe in them, this hardly matters.

(In the old days of Doctor Who, the model space ships and monsters were frequently imaginative and well made, but the actual filming was so primitive that it couldn't really prevent them looking like models. This is what straights mean when they say 'wobbly sets'. I feel that the new series suffers from 'wobbly CGI': well-animated but still pretty obviously animation. The aesthetic is a lot like, say, the football match in Bedknobs and Broomsticks -- the whole fun is in seeing characters who are real interacting with ones that obviously aren't.)

The straight viewer will not understand, nor even listen to, the explanation that supernanny gives about what the cute little aliens are, but since it hardly makes any sense at all, that won't matter. She may recognise the scenes in which the aliens burst out of the bodies of human beings as being a quote from a horror movie with Sigourney Weaver that she once saw, and so get the concept of 'parasite' which is the only scaffolding she really needs. The animated sequence makes perfect sense on its own terms: globules of fat break off comically lower class obese people; turns into millions and millions of jelly babies who fly home to mummy on a flying saucer out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind – the same kind of logic you'd get in one of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations. The final, ridiculous image, of the girl and the crazy man waving at the old guy from a phone box in space confirms that what we are watching is a cartoon and should be treated as such.

So: what is the straight community's verdict? I think that they find the early comedy sections and some of the stunts quite amusing. And there certainly isn't anything else on TV that wraps sit com and farce and some less than subtle social satire around a surrealistic cartoon in quite this way. I think that the sheer strangeness of it will keep them watching. I think that they will be either bemused or intrigued by the romantic sub-plot – this girl is going off in some kind of space ship, but she's treating it either as a holiday or a date -- but they will certainly want to see how it turns out. But no-way will they regard it as 'drama' along the same lines as Casualty or Morse or even The Archers. Is there any other TV show (even The Sarah Jane Adventures) that would be allowed to get away with such a paper thin plot.

Catherine Tate is less irritating than she was the first time around. Unlike some people, I am less than confident that she is going to have a platonic relationship with the Doctor. She seem to tell Tom Campbell – sorry, Gramps – that she's interested in the Doctor romantically; but to tell the Doctor himself that she just wants to be his friend. Isn't this precisely how you reel in the straight but geeky guy who isn't all that interested? I imagine that the Doctor will declare his love for Donna in episode 7 and Rose will turn up and spoil things in episode 8.

The sad thing is that, while this mess spins around him, David Tennant is still trying to present a character who is recognisably the Doctor. His performance does, at least, give me some kind of reason for switching on. But, oh, as the fellow said all those years ago, what has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?


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