Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Squee Doctors

Doctor Who
Time Crash
2007 Children In Need Special


It's Pudsey Time!

Doctor Who fans are lucky.  Where other Children In Need Specials are just actors mucking about for a good cause (not that there is anything wrong with that), we get fully-fledged mini-episodes.  The last one was downright seminal: six minutes of pure character-development for a new Doctor.  How awesome is that?  And this one features a past Doctor!  I appreciate it.  Really, I do.  But... well, it's still not very good.

Bit like the Fifth Doctor in general.
Hi-yo!
Now, it's great to see Peter Davison again, and I say that as someone who never really liked the Fifth Doctor.  Coming right after the googly-eyed Time Lord lunacy of Tom Baker, he was generally rather wet and ineffectual; the only Doctor, so far as I am aware, to sit quietly in a prison cell hoping somebody else would come and rescue him.  Nonetheless, Peter Davison had it in him – if he'd played the Doctor the way he played Albert Campion, he'd be in my top three – and he's just got better with age.  He's reassuringly wonderful here.

And like last time, with only seven or eight minutes to play with there isn't time to screw up what little plot we've got.  Two TARDISes collide, they'll explode any minute now, so the Doctors work together to separate them.  Easy peasy.  (Timey squeezey?)

The problem is the tone.  Is this a proper mini-episode, like the last one, or is it actors mucking about for a good cause?  Again, nothing wrong with the latter, but there is if you're trying to go for the former.  There's loads of dodgy fourth-wall jokes crammed in here, like the TARDIS's desktop theme and the Master's beard, but having David Tennant tell Peter Davison that "You were my Doctor" brings the fourth wall crashing down faster than William Hartnell turning to the camera and wishing us all a Merry Christmas.  (It may amuse you to know that this actually happened.)

What does it mean, one Doctor saying "You were my Doctor"?  Nothing: it's just the writer, and possibly the actor as well, voicing his fan preference.  It takes something momentous – a Classic Doctor – and uses it just for a bit of fan-service.  Is that really all they're good for?

Okay, Peter Davison also provides a bit of context for David Tennant's Doctor, which is helpful for younger viewers: they both wear trainers and "brainy specs", they're both young and full of vim, and they both say "Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey" – apparently.  (They also share a habit of asking people to do things and then being ignored, which possibly explains why Five is Ten's favourite.)  Sadly, all this does is reduce both Doctors to a gimmicky little list.  On the one hand it fires a well-deserved shot at Doctor #10 for jabbering like an idiot, but on the other hand it takes the piss out of how Doctor #5 didn't have a sonic screwdriver to get him out of every situation.  (Let's not dwell on why the writers got rid of it, eh?  You wouldn't want viewers to notice that it's an even bigger contrivance in the modern series.)

Time Crash is all for a good cause, obviously, but despite being less than eight minutes long it's still hit and miss.  If Peter Davison was your Doctor, perhaps it works.  But for me, it's neither one thing nor the other, and it takes Doctor Who an awkward step closer to the empty nostalgia and silliness of Dimensions In Time.  And in my book, that's a wibbly wobbly timey crime.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Sound Of Raspberries

Doctor Who
Utopia, The Sound Of Drums and Last Of The Time Lords
Series Three, Episodes Eleven, Twelve and Thirteen


Brace yourself.  Russell's getting his finale on again.

You know the drill by now: large scale destruction, a classic Doctor Who monster, a parting of the ways.  Russell T Davies obviously felt pressured to step it up for his third year, so we've got a three-parter set over a year (bouncing from 2007 to the end of the universe), in which probably a billion(ish) people snuff it, and a whole secondary human race gets mutilated as well.  Mission accomplished?  Er, yes and no.  It's big, all right.  But you know what happens to bubbles of a certain size.

"For God's sake, John, fine, you can be in the finale.
Now stop inserting yourself into the title sequence."
"Heh.  Inserting myself."
"THAT'S ENOUGH, JOHN."
The first episode, Utopia, is the best by miles.  It's nearly all setup – which is why it doesn't count as a separate story, so there – and though there's not much substance, there is plenty of excitement.

After Captain Jack (literally) hitches a ride on the TARDIS, our heroes arrive on a barren planet.  The last of humanity are preparing to blast off to "Utopia", with the help of a fustery old professor.  No one really knows what Utopia is, but it's got to be better than here, where they're constantly harassed by the savage, pointy-toothed Futurekind.  Unfortunately their rocket won't fly, and the Professor's work is at a dead end.


This isn't the first time Russell T Davies has used a satirical utopia to spur on his characters (although it's the first time he's given up all pretence and actually called it Utopia), and as usual, they're wrong.  The Futurekind are a pretty big hint about what their future really holds – and they serve almost no other purpose – but in the meantime, the Doctor meets Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi), who's adorable, and the two of them get on famously.

It's a lovely, layered performance from Jacobi, containing several hints of what's really going on here.  He wears inexplicably Edwardian clothes.  He's paired with an adoring young friend, Chan-Tho, pretty obviously to draw parallels with the Doctor.  (And to achieve Russell's lifelong dream of having a character end every single sentence with "though".)  He wishes, just once, he could be recognised for his achievements.  And he keeps hearing drums.  Spotted it yet?  If it were any more obvious, he'd have a William Hartnell wig and a police box.  But it's quite exciting waiting for the penny to drop, even on repeat viewings.

Meanwhile, in an abrupt break from tradition, Captain Jack gets some character development.  He's understandably upset that the Doctor abandoned him in The Parting Of The Ways, but the Doctor apparently feels that Jack is "wrong" now that he can't die, and it's sheer Time Lordy instinct to avoid him.  This is an odd fit for someone as friendly as the Doctor, and it ignores the fact that he left before he saw Captain Jack alive and well again.  (Also, he was a bit busy regenerating at the time.)  However, a discussion between the two, where the Doctor asks Jack if he wants to die, takes David Tennant to an unusually dark place.  I like new stuff, and I like this.

We'd better make the most of her.
Oops!  Too late!
There are several lovely moments for Martha, such as a hilarious info-dump about the Doctor's regrown hand (I love her tone of voice when she says "You've got two hands!  I can see them!"), and there's some great business at the end, when she realises what's going on with Yana (hold that thought) and tries to keep from spilling the beans.  Freema Agyeman puts across Martha's mingled shock, horror and excitement beautifully.  Isn't she great?  And she gets to rage (understandably) and sulk (unfortunately) about Rose, whom we still can't stop talking and reminiscing about, apparently.

Yeah, about that.  Knowing this is Martha's last story makes it all the more painful.  Why do we keep dwelling on Rose?  What's it for?  It's obviously deliberate, using Rose over and over again to stop Martha gaining a place in the Doctor's affections, but why?  Does it make the Doctor more interesting?  No, it makes him rude.  Does it make Martha more interesting?  No, it just pushes her out of the TARDIS.  Hey, I'm sure there are Rose fans out there, high-fiving each other and crying every time they hear the R word, but it's a non-starter for anyone not irrationally obsessed with this one character.  No doubt we're meant to cheer when Martha decides to learn from her experiences, leave the TARDIS and live her own life – which is how companions should leave, by the way – but the damage it does to the Doctor, who has spent most of this series behaving like an ungrateful jerk, is a total own goal.

Anyway, we've still got two episodes to cover (!), so back to it.  The Doctor fixes the rocket (because he's clever, i.e. he has a sonic screwdriver, how fascinating) and everything goes great until Martha notices the Professor's got a fob watch.  You guessed it!  He's a Time Lord in disguise!  As we've already ticked off Daleks and Cybermen, it's time to meet the Master.

Suggested in 1971 as (literally!) Moriarty to the Doctor's Sherlock Holmes, he's been portrayed differently through the years.  He was a suave, bearded gent (Roger Delgado), an emaciated monster desperate to survive (Peter Pratt, Geoffrey Beevers), the bearded guy again but with added camp (Anthony Ainley), and an all-camp point-thoroughly-missed American ex-ambulance driver (Eric Roberts).  In which direction does the new one lean?  Well, once Jacobi discovers his inner Master (during the episode's thrilling ten minute climax), it's a mixture of all the good ones.  He's bitter, malevolent, intelligent and scary.  (And okay, a little bit hammy.)  He's everything I want from the Master.  But then, after one of the show's best cliff-hangers, with the TARDIS stolen and the Futurekind about to burst in, the Master regenerates into John Simm.  And this three-parter promptly begins its nose-dive.

Gaze into the mousey little face of terror.
When The Sound Of Drums begins, we whiz back to the present (throwing that brilliant cliff-hanger right out the window, oh well) and see that the Master has installed himself as Prime Minister.  He has lingered through all of Series Three's modern-day episodes, turning Martha's mother against the Doctor, presumably to drive him and Martha apart, because um.  (Wouldn't that prevent them from going to the future / opening the fob watch / getting him a TARDIS?  What was his plan before the TARDIS miraculously turned up?  And how come he could make plans whilst transformed into a human?  John Smith couldn't.)

Anywho, he's got a wife, who may or may not be hypnotised.  (She continues the "Master Is Like Doctor!" routine begun with Yana and Chan-Tho, because some viewers didn't get the memo.)  And he's got the Toclafane: billions of psychotic spheres that are, in fact, those optimistic humans from Utopia.  They conquer the world instantly, murdering ten percent of humanity as a show of strength.  This creates a paradox – future humans killing past humans – but that's okay, because the Master cannibalised the TARDIS into a Paradox Machine.  (So it's red now.)  When the Doctor gets uppity, the Master uses Lazarus technology to age him to the point of uselessness.  Game over.  This Master gets results.  Terrifying, right?

Not exactly.  This Master is naughty, impish and zany.  In many ways, he's comic relief.  (He also works as a satire on politicians, and the power of personality to overcome a complete absence of policy.  This is as subtle as all Doctor Who satire, which is to say: CLANG!)  Obviously intended to parallel David Tennant's more exuberant mannerisms (so, his worst bits), Simm's Master is one of Russell T Davies's dodgiest impulses – juxtaposing horror and comedy, the broader the better – personified.  He camps it up, chews the scenery, and tries very hard to be funny whilst he kills people.  There's an entertaining dimension to this if you're in the right mood, and don't have nerdy opinions on What The Master Should Be Like, but as a terrifying counterpoint to the Doctor... oh dear.  It doesn't work.

The Master is driven by an urge to survive.  (Or has been since Roger Delgado died and they had to re-jig his character.)  Fair enough.  And there's lip service paid to that, at the end when he refuses to blow up the Earth and take himself with it.  But no, that's not what this Master is really about.  (And he chooses death immediately afterwards, so nuts to all that, then.)  He's damaged.  Insane.  He needs help, and despite all those atrocities, the Doctor wants to fix him.  Altogether: awwww!  No, wait, he's a scary villain, not a sympathetic John-Simmy diddums!  Honest!

The Master's plan is, essentially, fire missiles into space.
At everything.  And it's been done.
By FuturamaAs a joke.
Infusing anything with over-the-top comedy is like sprinkling raw onion on your dinner: whatever it was before, it's now pretty much onion-themed.  But the Master's pantomime antics, combined with the undercurrent of he-really-just-needs-a-cuddle, completely undoes the menace Derek Jacobi (briefly) brings to the part.  The Doctor's attitude is the cherry on the cake, enabling some of the gloopiest, writes-its-own-fan-fiction-iest bromancing you're ever likely to witness, with dialogue like "Are you asking me out on a date?", just to drag any form of subtext screaming into full view.  Subtle it ain't.

Neither of them comes out of this well.  Nice as it is for the Doctor to take the sympathetic way out, it comes at a high cost.  Millions of lives are lost, the entire Earth suffers for a year, and the Doctor – the guy you're here to see – spends most of the final episode sat in a wheelchair feeling sorry for himself.  Doctor Who?  More like Doctor Why Don't You Get Off Your Arse And Do Something.  Once again, it's up to Martha to put in the leg-work.

I should be thrilled about this, because I love Martha and it's great that she gets to do something important, but brave as she is, this doesn't actually say anything about her.  Martha spends a year travelling the world and telling people about the Doctor, so that when the time comes they'll all think "Doctor" at the same moment.  This (thanks to the Master's network of hypnotic satellites, designed to keep people scared) will somehow transmit their thoughts to the Doctor (who has coincidentally aged and shrunk) and somehow make him briefly invincible and able to fly (and restore him to his proper age and size, as well as rebooting his clothes).  Somehow.

Setting aside how stupid this all is – and dear god, it's the Stupidpocalypse – this isn't empowering for Martha.  She's just following the Doctor's orders, and she's put in her place yet again when the Master (!) harps on about how great Rose was by comparison.  As for the plan, it's (literally) all about bigging up the Doctor – who just sat there and let millions of people die, waiting to enact his I Do Believe In Fairies master-plan, quietly hoping there'd be a reset button at the end of it.  (What if there wasn't?)  Meanwhile, Jack fixes the Paradox Machine by shooting it with bullets, and everything goes back to how it was before the Toclafane killed everybody.  Except it's after they killed the US President, because... you can't win 'em all?  (And oh yeah, those future humans still get mutilated and become the Toclafane, because whoops, forgot that bit.  They're in another dimension now, probably called The La-La-La-Pretend-It-Never-Happened Place.  Presumably with the Futurekind, who you've forgotten about by this point.  Admit it!)

I do believe in plot contrivances mixed with ridiculous religious symbolism,
I do, I do...
The Master is now the only loose end (well, not the only one!), so his wife helpfully steps in and shoots him.  Why not?  It's not as if her character serves any other purpose, and it saves the writer the effort of thinking up a proper comeuppance.  (The Doctor's best idea is to bundle him into the TARDIS and keep an eye on him.  Yeah, that'll work.)  Cue much sobbing and there-should-have-been-another-way-ing from David Tennant, and an epilogue with Martha deciding that enough is finally enough.  I'll miss her; I have no idea why they thought it was a good idea to sabotage this companion from the get-go, but Freema Agyeman did wonders with it all.

So, three episodes, and really a whole series, building towards... what, exactly?  Martha deciding it was time to go?  Well, okay, but there were episodes this year (42 and Blink) where they seemed to put the tension behind them and act like good mates, and the rest of the Doctor's behavior never made sense in the first place.  The horrible Mr Saxon/The Master, then?  Well, okay, but his character is so thoroughly cocked up that by the end, one is not so much in awe of the Doctor's nemesis as feeling sorry for a lonely, unbalanced guy with severe tinnitus.  Call me old fashioned, but I think the Master should slot more into Category A there.  Especially the first time we meet him.

This story's emotions and ideas generally don't work.  (And something's definitely wrong with a story that requires this many flashbacks.)  The tension isn't really there, either: the moment you see millions of humans murdered in the present day, followed by a One Year Later caption, any semi-intelligent viewer will simply wait for the inevitable reset.  It comes as expected.  (Except for the President and the Toclafane, both left inexplicably in tatters.)  As for the plot, cut out a cross section and you'll find one word (rhymes with "frollocks") stamped through it like a stick of rock.  How did the Doctor time all this a year in advance, with no idea that he'd be canary-sized by the end of it?  How come the hypno-satellites work in reverse?  How does shooting the Paradox Machine make everything nice again?  How does thinking "Doctor" turn him into a youthefied flying Jesus Jedi?  How... why... what?  Trust me, don't.  It's like looking into the abyss.

Is this the worst of Doctor Who?  Well, the plot's appalling and the characters are a mess, so it's up there.  (Or down there, I should say.)  It's certainly the worst finale so far, botched and misjudged in most important respects.  Still, that first episode is very exciting, and the cast put in tremendous effort throughout.  It's not their fault things like "tone" and "threat" got utterly lost in the mess.  However, it is definitely the mess I take away from this one, as I run screaming in the opposite direction.  Last Of The Time Lords?  If we're lucky.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Don't

Doctor Who
Blink
Series Three, Episode Ten


Okay.  Who honestly saw this coming?

I'll never forget the Next Time trailer for Blink.  It was, frankly, not inspiring.  Don't blink?  A whole episode of trying not to blink?  It looked like a 45-minute staring contest.  And it was set to be this year's Doctor-lite episode, which for a lot of people went down like a lead balloon with a death wish the last time they tried it.  The omens, they were not good.

"You can't kill a stone."
Oh really?  Fetch a sledgehammer.
Of course that was then and this is now, and Blink is one of the most popular episodes of Doctor Who ever made.  Surprise!  It won Steven Moffat his third Hugo, which is quite a result seeing as he mostly wrote it as a favour after backing out of Daleks In Manhattan.  (Now there's a What If.)  It's safe to say it struck a chord with fans and critics; it certainly did with me.  And it went out on my birthday!

Okay, what's so super about it?  Well, it's a small story that is at once complicated and logical.  Essentially a time paradox, much thought has gone into ensuring it makes sense, if you're prepared to give it a bit of thought.  That feeling, of having your concentration rewarded, is a big part of its appeal.  We also have a fabulous new monster, and again, Steven Moffat has clearly sat down and worked out how best to frighten you with them.  Their success, still felt in Doctor Who years later, was very much earned.  And there's also the matter of the characters, who by virtue of necessity must not be the regulars.  They need to be interesting, and they need to keep us from getting too upset that the Doctor and Martha didn't show up for work.  They do not disappoint.  Blink might be a Clever (with a capital C) episode, but it's a tremendously human story, and we care about the people in it.

Instead of the Doctor, we've got Sally Sparrow.  She's a plucky, interesting woman who can't help investigating a strange old house.  In it, she finds a message addressed to her from the Doctor, circa 1969.  And she immediately meets a very suspicious statue that might be able to move.

This is a cracking, no-time-to-waste opening, immediately setting up the episode's ideas: the Doctor trapped in the past (a handy excuse for a Doctor-lite), the angel statues having something to do with it (creepy as hell), and Sally Sparrow being the only one who can put things right.  Carey Mulligan is up to the task.  She makes Sally a fun presence, believably kooky but still recognisably real, instantly earning years of fan discussion over how nice it would be to have Sally as a full-time companion.  (I wouldn't mind, but let's leave it a while.  Doesn't the Doctor sideline Martha enough without us joining in?  Anyway, the way she tells a character that his sister loves him, and says "That's nice, isn't it?", actually reminds me more of the Doctor than his companions.)

Sally joins Harriet Jones, Nancy, Lynda-with-a-Y and Martha
in the elite Preferable To Rose club.
Soon, Sally's friend goes missing, and in a direct (but very apt) steal from Back To The Future Part II, she instantly receives a letter from her, dated decades earlier.  She's been sent back in time by the Angels, and there's no way back.  That's what we're up against.  The Doctor, via a series of DVD easter eggs and messages across time, is trying to tell Sally how to stop them.  (He only knows to do this because Sally will, at some point, meet him and tell him everything he did.  By all means think about this, and the inherent implication that free will is an illusion, if you're in the market for a really top-of-the-range headache.)

Let's talk about the Weeping Angels.  They are "assassins".  (Although I think "predators" is more accurate.)  They freeze to stone if they are observed, but can move unimaginably fast when they're not.  One touch means you're sent into the past to live out your life, while they absorb the energy of the days you might have lived.  Apart from the abstracty "days you might have lived" stuff, this is all instantly terrifying and well thought out.  Most of us have been a bit unnerved by statues at one time or another, particularly as kids; who hasn't wondered if they can move when we're not looking?  And the elemental terror of something touching you, or "getting" you, is a staple of nightmares.  It's a barmy idea, but you can still relate to it.  Like the Ood and the Judoon, the Angels are one of the show's best inventions, at once brilliant and deceptively simple.

They also allow Steven Moffat to explore one of his favourite themes, time-travel, from a different perspective.  Like The Girl In The Fireplace (only better), Blink shows us lives being lived in, well, the blink of an eye.  Sally's friend Cathy, and a policeman named Billy, both end up in the past, allowing for that neat Back To The Future bit and a genuinely creative and beautiful death-bed scene for Billy (who we only met one scene earlier).  Steven Moffat often shies away from killing his characters, but old age seems to be an acceptable compromise.  Despite only knowing Billy for two scenes, via two actors, we feel the weight of his death.  It's very well done, and helps sell the horror of what the Angels can do.

Admittedly, there are two sides to this.  Yes, the moving-when-you're-not-looking is terrifying, as is the one-touch-and-you're-dead, but listen more closely to the writing.  They're "weeping" (i.e. they can't look at each other), they're "lonely" (see "weeping"), and apparently they're "kind" (because they "let you live to death").  In spite of everything, isn't it all a bit... cute?  The only victims we hear about in this episode die, and that's sad, but both get to lead full and happy lives.  If anything, they owe the Angels their happiness!  It's a little difficult to be terrified of something if it's sending you directly into the path of your one-true-love, and all those cuddly adjectives don't help.  For good measure they're also referred to as "psychopaths", though there's nothing at all to support that.  They're just hungry, and this is how they feed.  By that logic, all predators are psychopaths.

So, the Doctor's plan: get the Angels round the TARDIS,
dematerialise, trap them in their own gaze.  Clever.
But hang on: why leave Sally and Larry behind?
What if one of the Angels isn't trapped?
Why risk their lives?
And while Blink works like a puzzle, and most of the irregularities (like the Doctor telling a man precisely when he's going to die, which is a bit out of character for him) are explained because it's a pre-destination paradox, there are some questions which don't get answered.  Like the Angels' plan.  They want the TARDIS – fair enough.  They have the key, and they've got the Doctor out of the way.  What's stopping them?  The police, apparently, as they've taken the TARDIS (along with all the other victims' cars) to a police car park.  But we see that the Angels can move in a crowded area (somehow), so why don't they just go and get it?  Oh, that's right: they gave the key to Sally, and they subsequently need to get it back.  Why did they do that, then?  (And don't tell me that scene, with an Angel holding the key towards her, is not them giving her the key.  They could easily hide it if they wanted to.)

Did they need her help finding the police station?  If so, they're awfully lucky, since it's a coincidence she went there in the first place.  (If she hadn't overheard some guy saying "Why does nobody ever go to the police?", would they have got the TARDIS back?)  Couldn't they have just followed the police when they nicked the TARDIS?  Or zapped the police back to 1969, or something?  Just how soon did the police whip round to pinch the TARDIS, anyway, and why hadn't the Angels made use of it already?  Really think about it: if they kept the key, they could have followed Sally to the police station (or just gone there on their own, because how many police stations are there?), and the plot – not to mention the human race – would be finito in no time.

Come to think of it, if the Angels can move around cities – and they can, we see them do it – why are they hanging around a smelly old house in the sticks?  In the commentary (how cool am I?), Steven Moffat says it's because they're basically a bit rubbish, and all they've managed to conquer is this one house.  Pull the other one: why can't they set up shop in the city, and feed to their hearts' content?  And what about all those cars?  Why are all those people coming to a house in the middle of nowhere?  It's a shame there's no reason for this in particular, as (due to their self-imposed exile) it's the only reason the Angels have anything to feed on.

It's an episode built on paradoxes, indeed, where you are rewarded for paying attention to the plot... but not this bit.  Or that bit.  But, it's unwise to dwell on the various plot hiccups and stuff-that-isn't-ironed-out-properly.  Blink does add up, in a broad sense, and it's still cleverer than most episodes of Doctor Who.  It'd be sheer churlishness to let its cons get in the way of its pros.  It's got one of the All Time Great baddies, the Doctor and Martha (briefly) acting like good mates (which makes a bloody nice change, doesn't it?), and Carey Mulligan and Finlay Robertson, both effortlessly hilarious and compelling main character stand-ins.  Blink ultimately has a charm and wit that sets it apart from every other episode to date.  Happily, I think this also sets it apart from its plot holes.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

I Don't Want To Go

Doctor Who
Human Nature and The Family Of Blood
Series Three, Episodes Eight and Nine


And now for something completely brilliant.

Series Three is not what I'd call consistent.  I've been sat here cherry-picking the good bits out of otherwise mediocre episodes, and then something like Human Nature comes along and socks me between the eyes.  It's thoughtful, compelling, moving and utterly different.  Is there a reason Doctor Who can't always be this good?

Some of it's love at first sight.  Human Nature begins part-way through, and as you may have noticed, stories like that tend to be my favourites.  The Doctor has transformed into a human, and works in a school in 1913, with Martha as his servant.  They're in hiding from something, and only she knows what.  There's no laborious setup (a snippet of a dream is more than enough), we just get on with it.  Pow!  I wish more episodes could roar to life this quickly.

"We are the Family Of Blood!"
As opposed to all those Families Of Water?
Their pursuers are the Family Of Blood, a sinister, formless group of four with a limited lifespan.  They want the Doctor's near-immortality, and the only way to evade detection is to change species and wait them out.  And they're brilliant villains.  It's about time someone coveted the Doctor's greatest asset – if not his TARDIS, his ability to cheat death.  They have a simple, achievable aim.  (Which means we can skip one of Doctor Who's usual pitfalls, the Circuitous And Illogical Evil Scheme.)  And they've got a good reason to do what they do.  They don't want to die.  It's an impulse we all understand and, taken to extremes, it allows them to act with an over-the-top, murderous disregard.  The actors playing the Family are all inches away from hamming it up, but I think it's a well-judged distinction.  All their mannerisms are not quite usual, including a few subtle things like sniffing and tilting their heads, which makes it quite shocking when they suddenly shout, or laugh manically.  Their simple alienness looms incredibly large over the very stuffy and ordinary 1913 setting.

And speaking of the alien vs. the ordinary, what draws most people to these episodes is the Doctor, and specifically, David Tennant.  The Tenth Doctor has always irked me because he seems a little too human.  Too much pop culture, too much of wearing his heart(s) on his sleeve(s), not enough otherworldliness.  Whether or not that's deliberate, it makes Human Nature the perfect story for this Doctor.  By making him human, it underlines the things about him that are not human, and what it is about him that makes him the Doctor.

Obviously, it's a remarkable performance from Tennant.  I've always preferred his more subtle performances, and that's what we get here: no sonic screwdriver abuse, no running and shouting, just a concentrated dose of acting his socks off.  He does a mesmerising job of seeming dimly aware that he might be someone else, and he does it all with the odd faraway glance.  It's also in the writing: there's a marvelous scene where he instinctively rescues a woman from a falling piano, and a moment at the end where, having panicked and ordered his pupils to fire on an advancing army, he simply can't pull the trigger.  He might not act the same, especially under pressure, but the Doctor is in there, peeking through.

There's clearly a voice somewhere inside the Doctor,
and it whispers:
Bow ties are cool.
But then, even his most human impulses echo the Doctor.  Raging to insist that he's real, and has a right to exist, isn't so different from the Doctor's zest for life.  His ability to cheat death is the source of the story, after all, and John's initial refusal to be swept away, allowing the Doctor back, is deliberately likened to regeneration.  There's a conversation at the end (probably added by Russell T Davies) which mirrors the 2005 Children In Need Special.  "Could you change back?"  "Yes."  "Will you?"  "No."  Given a choice, the Doctor would rather not change: that's consistently him.  It's just brought agonizingly to the fore by John Smith, realising he is nothing more than an aspect of a larger person.  It's a clever, refreshing and well, heartbreaking way to re-examine a familiar character.

Of course, Smith also falls in love, and doesn't want to give that up either.  To this I say: still not too different from the Doctor.  He's able to fall in love, same as anyone, but he's previously explained that it just won't work with humans.  Being John Smith allows him to just not worry about it and enjoy something normal, and real, that his lifestyle doesn't allow.  As myself and others have pointed out, the Doctor's the only one stopping himself from parking the TARDIS and living a life, but as John Smith, with smaller horizons, he can honestly be okay with that.  It makes sense that the Doctor, on some level, wouldn't want to give that up.  Indeed, when he's restored to his brown suit and trainers at the end, he asks Smith's love to come with him.  Ever the alien, the Doctor fails to see how horribly inappropriate this is.  It underscores the difference, but reinforces the similarities.  It's beautifully complex.

As for the romance, this is not something Doctor Who has had massive success with in the past.  In The Girl In The Fireplace, all of the Doctor's bonding with Reinette happened off-screen; his attraction unfortunately never amounted to much more than a list of her historical accomplishments.  This time it's different, much more ordinary, and consequently more convincing.  John Smith has only known Joan Redfern for two months.  It's not a great love affair so much as a beginning, blossoming thing that might get there eventually.  Joan is a widow, miserable because the world expects her to "stop" rather than be loved again.  John yearns to experience human life, which includes love; perhaps on some level, he knows that he's not meant for anything of the sort.  Their attraction makes sense.  Its brevity, and the fact that we as an audience know it can't possibly pan out (and to poke the fourth wall, they know that we don't want it to), makes it bittersweet.

Joan is not a particularly romanticised figure, just as John isn't entirely likeable.  Both fall into the trap of casual, contemporary racism against Martha, which rings unfortunately true of the time.  This is another way to underscore the difference between John and the Doctor, who as well as generally abhorring racism, might hesitate to love someone with that outlook.  But there is an understandable appeal to her, as Joan is smarter that those casual remarks about Martha suggest: in time, even she understands that the Doctor is real and John must go.

Jessica Hynes plays Joan as prim, frustrated and restrained, fluttering briefly to life when she's with John.  It's a brittle, deliberately pained performance, and it enhances Tennant's bittersweet Smith.  It's no surprise that she ultimately rather hates the Doctor "John Smith is dead, and you look like him" and sticks him with a nasty question: if you hadn't come here, would anyone have died?  That's a little unfair, since the TARDIS chose the location and he didn't, but it does raise an interesting question.

"We wanted to live forever.  So he made sure that we would."
...in the middle of a field, in your case, where you'll be discovered
and be removed from in due course.  I wonder where he'll end up.
The Doctor's consciousness is contained in a fob watch.  A somewhat psychic boy, Lattimer, instinctively picks it up and keeps hold of it for most of the story.  The Doctor's voice urges him to keep it hidden until the time is right – in which time, people are murdered.  Answer in the Comments if anyone out there knows this, but am I missing something here?  What's the hold-up?  What is gained by putting it off, other than making it harder for John Smith to go and giving the Family more time to cause havoc?  It wouldn't have been very nice, but it would certainly have been quicker just to open the thing as soon as the Family showed themselves, and it becomes clear later the Doctor had a way of dealing with the Family if provoked.  I've seen this story many times, and the Doctor's apparent refusal just to sort this mess out is one of the few things I struggle with.  It is his fault really, because he waited too long.  (Of course, he could just be clambering to stay human for a bit longer.  He does say, just before the change, "Never thought I'd use this.  All the times I've wondered...", which suggests he's at least contemplated it before.  So who knows?)

The "official" reason is that he was "being kind", as evidenced by the rather fantastical and horrific punishments he visits on them in the end.  (A shame he isn't "kind" to their victims, really.)  Why do they get such special, nasty treatment?  Well, to underscore once again what a mythic, enormous thing the Doctor really is, I suppose.  But also quite possibly because he's just had all the misery of a regeneration, and didn't take kindly?  It's left a bit ambiguous he's certainly never revenged himself like this before and I think that's okay.  Some things ought to be.

Yes, there's certainly plenty of Doctor-stuff to talk about.  But what about Martha?  As I never tire of saying, Freema Agyeman is a breath of fresh air, and episodes tend to be pretty good if they can just give her something to do.  Human Nature does that with a vengeance.  Martha shoulders a huge responsibility in these episodes, knowing the Doctor is what he is, and that he must stay hidden.  Thanks to the TARDIS's randomly-chosen location, she's not in an ideal position although the job of servant in this time and place is oddly typical and consistent for Martha, as she is rarely appreciated, especially by the Doctor.  And that's never-changing.  When the Doctor offers to bring Joan aboard at the end, he shows no awareness that three might be a bit of a crowd.  Sigh.

Bearing all that in mind, Freema gives Martha a steely, world-weary determination in this, particularly when people (and especially the Doctor) make casually racist remarks.  She's also smart as ever, particularly in a scene reminiscent of Rose going to dinner with Auton Mickey (Russell T Davies again?), where she immediately susses that her friend is possessed by the Family.  This is unlike Rose, who failed to notice her boyfriend's skin had changed colour.  It's odd that we're using The Doctor Doesn't Notice Martha in plots, especially when they got along famously one episode earlier, but it's slightly gratifying that it's serving a purpose, or a greater one than just mourning for dull old Rose.

The same cannot be said re Martha's feelings for the Doctor.  "You had to go and fall in love with a human.  And it wasn't me."  I'm not convinced she is in love with him, although obviously there have been some mixed signals.  (She got the wrong idea about their first (and only) kiss.)  With a mention of Rose thrown in as well, just to remind us who's boss, it feels like an unnecessary addition to Martha's personality, particularly when she already has good reason to be frustrated that the Doctor has fallen in love and (generally) doesn't seem to register her company.  I hate the tiresome implication that one can't travel with the Doctor unless one also has the hots for him.  Quick reminder: Rose loved him too, and he didn't return it in kind.  We've simply no need to do all that again.

"He's like fire, and ice, and puppies,
and rain, and lollipops, and sandcastles..."
Is anything else not-brilliant about this?  Well, I have mixed feelings about the Family's army of scarecrows.  While they're certainly creepy, and they do a great deal to enhance the tragic boys-going-to-war subtext bubbling behind the action, they don't really achieve anything besides adding some fodder.  It's difficult to avoid the suspicion that they were added to make it all "a bit more like Doctor Who", and dare I say it, sell some toys.  Also, while I'm perfectly happy to see the Doctor made just a little bit mythic, if it means keeping him interesting, I'm never sure if I like Lattimer's flowery description: "He's like the night and the storm at the heart of the sun.  He's ancient and forever, he burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe.  And he's wonderful!"  It's probably the Russelliest-sounding line in here, apart from Davies-esque stuff like "Did you see it, though?", and it attempts poetry by way of sheer, portentous bloat.

On the other hand, is anything else brilliant about this?  Well, I may not fully understand why Lattimer keeps hold of the watch, but Thomas Sangster is astonishingly watchable while he's doing it.  There's something unnervingly intense about his stare, particularly in an oddly electrifying moment where he comes face to face with the youngest member of the Family.  Above-average-child-actor fight!  Murray Gold's music seems to be in a sumptuous world of its own, for once not stomping all over the dialogue and heightening, rather than dictating the emotion.  The whole thing has a whip-crack, not-a-moment-wasted sense of pace.  (It's directed by Charles Palmer, who coincidentally helmed another really good Series Three episode, Smith And Jones.)  And while it's not hard to spot some of Russell's additions, praise must go to Paul Cornell for concocting such a rich novel in the first place, and no doubt writing most of the brilliant script we're seeing here.  I wish he'd write for the series again.

It's tempting just to list the things that make Human Nature great, but what's really special is that it is about something.  This isn't your average defeat-the-baddie plot, with some good bits and bad bits.  It's a real, flesh-and-blood story about mortality, in all its forms, at once applicable to Doctor Who and life in general.  It's dazzling proof that Doctor Who can go beyond its limits.  If we're lucky, it may do so again.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Clichés On A Spaceship

Doctor Who
42
Series Three, Episode Seven


Ho hum.  Another episode that won't frighten the horses.  Workmanlike is the word for this one, or to coin a phrase: Chris Chibnall in the house!

42 is by no means his worst.  (That's still Series One of Torchwood, which is rumoured to be the source of all worldwide misery. [Citation needed.])  But it's got many of his hallmarks.  Hokey dialogue, over-familiar plot elements and a general lack of spark.  He's not a great ideas man.

The TARDIS responds to a distress call, and lands on a ship hurtling towards a sun.  For once, the Doctor suggests something sensible: pile everyone into the TARDIS and go.  Unfortunately he's parked in the room where all the heat gets vented.  So, it's a race to restart the engines, all while a mysteriously infected crewman picks them off, one by one.

The TARDIS is supposed to be intelligent.
Why would it park in the most dangerous room on board?
You may have noticed a few problems there.  First, the entire plot hinges on a massively stupid contrivance.  Why the hell would you vent heat into a room?  Do not vents, by their very nature, tend to face outwards?  And how come it only occurs to the Doctor to use The Most Massively Obvious Solution To All Plots when it's not going to work?

Second, while it's a novel idea to make an episode a literal race-against-time, and there's (possibly?) some mileage left in a serial killer in a confined space, is it a good idea to do both?  Oh no, we're hurtling towards a sun and there's no escape, but hang on, let's also worry about a killer on the loose?  The presence of two threats makes them both seem like less.  This episode should be almost unbearably tense, but instead, despite the efforts of the talking clock, it dawdles by.  Things don't seem to get any worse and bizarrely, the ship doesn't get any hotter as the episode progresses, rendering the "42 minutes" idea oddly moot.  No wonder they threw in a masked killer.  It stops the crew getting bored.  (Funnily enough, the movie Sunshine came out shortly after this aired, did exactly the same thing [with an identically-named spaceship, the unbelievably-obvious Icarus, until Doctor Who changed theirs], and it still didn't work.  D'oh!)

Third, that "picking us off, one by one" thing isn't just a trope: it's dialogue from this episode.  You'll also find "What is this, an interrogation?", "I don't know how much longer I can last!", plus that old standard, "It's alive!"  And where characters aren't dutifully reciting clichés, they often sound stilted or just plain weird.  Too many names (particularly surnames) crop up in the dialogue for it to sound like real speech.  "Scannell, tell him, Korwin is not a killer!"  Urgh.  And let's not forget the bit where a crewman, who's avoiding a murderer on a ship hurtling towards a sun, pauses to whinge about having some work to do.  Obviously it's meant to sound like the-sort-of-thing-people-say, but who'd complain about that, at a time like this?  (The supporting cast, incidentally, never feel notably three-dimensional.  Michelle Collins doesn't remotely convince as the ship's grizzled captain, or as the wife of the possessed killer.  She keeps calling him by his surname, the same as the rest of them.  How romantic.)

A lot of it is just plain tired.  What about that infected crewman?  I've seen "mysterious person picks off crew as ship hurtles to its doom" in movies (Event Horizon, even Alien to an extent) and telly (Star Trek: Voyager, probably others), but also closer to home.  How well do you remember The Impossible Planet?  Possessed crewmen, Doctor/companion separation, realisation that home is long gone – we've definitely been here before.  (There's even a couple of music cues re-used from it.)  As for the menacing mantra of "Burn with me", that's a not-too-imaginative echo of "Are you my mummy?", and the revelation at the end (that the captain stole her fuel from a living sun) is about as Star Trek as Doctor Who has ever got.

"Kill me now", followed by death.
Yes, we see what you did there.
And yet, despite all this, there's quite a few things that work about 42.  None of it's Best Episode Ever material, but there are definitely plus points.

Firstly, the Doctor has stopped treating Martha like an unrequested Ofsted examiner.  He's given her a phone that'll call anywhere (bit boring, but at least it means he likes her), and generally seems to get along with her, and trust her, to an extent which he hasn't since her first episode.  (A moment where he comes close to telling her about regeneration certainly stuck in my mind afterwards.)  They took their time getting here, but at least they did it in the end.  It's a sprightly, fun performance from David Tennant, and although I'm not convinced his possession at the end would really be enough to reduce him to a quivering wreck, it's a good work-out for his acting muscles.

Secondly, there are some good ideas in the plot.  The ship's under total lock-down (I've no idea why wouldn't the alien sun want to make it easy to release the fuel?), and all the doors are sealed with pop quiz questions.  That's a fun, believable concept, and even better, it allows the Doctor to apply a little knowledge.  It's not much, but the scene where he briefly rattles off something mathematical about "Happy primes" makes him seem genuinely intelligent.  No shortcuts, no handwaving, he just actually knows stuff for once.  More of this, please.  (He still fits in another bit of pop culture savvy, which once again drags the Tenth Doctor down to our level, but then I can believe the Doctor would find the Beatles interesting.  Who wouldn't?)

Thirdly, there's a pretty great scene in here that's no-really-I-mean-it well executed.  Martha and Riley (a character whose name I just had to look up) are running from an infected crewman, and end up in an escape pod.  Mr Infected hits the release button, and the Doctor is forced to look on as the pod detaches and floats away with Martha (and Riley) in it.  In an editing masterstroke, there is no music here.  There's barely any sound at all, and it's an incredibly powerful moment because of it.  You see what happens if you tell Murray Gold that there's a time and a place?

Fourthly, Martha calls home.  Not a new phenomenon, and not even the first time that Martha has realised that if she dies, her family won't find out about it.  (That was Gridlock.)  But it's a nice piece of juxtaposition against Martha's impending probable-death, just as her earlier call (to find out who had the most #1s, Elvis or the Beatles) is amusingly frustrating in amongst a race-against-time.  ("Hang on, the mouse is unplugged."  "AAAARRRRGH!")  We're "treated" to more of Martha's mum being psychotically mistrusful, but at least she's got Mr Saxon's entourage pouring poison in her ears by way of an excuse.  (Quite what they hope to gain from tracing the phone call, which they appear to be doing, I've no idea.)  And hey, at least she's quite nice to Martha as well.

"Keep her talking.  We've got it narrowed down to... space."
Fifthly (okay, it's more like fourth-and-a-half-ly), Martha's pretty great.  Not so much the scene where the Doctor gives her a TARDIS key, and she cups her hands like it's all she's ever wanted in the universe give her some credit, guys but her scenes with Riley resonate, and how nice is that little kiss with him at the end?  A real moment of not-quite-romance, the sort of thing that happens when people escape from dire situations.  Not a big or important bit, but Martha seems like a bona fide grown-up in it.  Elsewhere she's as smart, capable and fun as ever.  Give me an M!  Give me an A!  Give me an R...

Lastly, and this is a really little one: no sonic screwdriver!  And what a blessed relief.  Think how boring the Doctor's life-or-death struggle to flip a switch would have been, if he could just point and click.  But no, this way, it's exciting.  This is exactly what's wrong with the sonic screwdriver.

And that's about it.  42 isn't brilliant, and you've heard almost all of it before, but surprised as I am to say this, I quite enjoyed it.  Maybe it's the Doctor and Martha's relationship, or just the Doctor and Martha being pretty diverting in it, or the fact that I've got Daleks In Manhattan fresh in my mind and surely nothing could be worse, but for all its done-to-death ideas it works pretty well.  Does what it says on the tin, and a dash extra.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Binman Experiment

Doctor Who
The Lazarus Experiment
Series Three, Episode Six


Well, that was...  I mean, it's really...  Okay, it's got lots of...

Sorry, but I really struggled with this one.  The Lazarus Experiment is one of the dullest episodes of Doctor Who I've ever seen.  It's don't-pause-it-while-I-put-the-kettle-on boring.

It sounds pretty exciting when you stack up all the bits.  It's got a man "changing what it means to be human", played by Mark Gatiss; a decent CGI creature running around monstering up the place; a couple of ominous hints towards the finale; and the Doctor and Martha's relationship finally going somewhere.  The trouble is, that's all just stuff.  It doesn't necessarily add up to anything.

This is probably my favourite bit of "stuff".
Is it me, or is that a Tom Baker impression?
Okay, so the Doctor drops Martha off at home and is about to leave (isn't he lovely?) when he overhears something on the telly: a man named Richard Lazarus has changed what it means to be human, and is about to perform a groundbreaking experiment to prove it.  Martha has an in there (her sister Tish is the professor's head of PR), so she and the Doctor attend the big experiment.  And in front of various black-tie-wearers and waiters, Lazarus steps into a magic booth as a 76 year old man and emerges a blond thirty-something.  Cue gasps, people taking pictures, and the Doctor musing that it'll all end in tears.

Already, the episode is sliding from "exciting" to, er, "not so much".  Professor Lazarus has just changed what it blah blah blah, right in front of everybody.  This has enormous implications on the human lifespan.  It's a ruddy big deal.  And what does Professor Lazarus, and everyone else, actually do about it?  They chat and eat nibbles.  It's one small step for man and apparently, one giant bore for mankind.  I mean really, all that hyperbole on the news, and nobody's rushing to phone the papers?  What are you guys in the corner chatting about that's more interesting than this?

Anyway, the Doctor was right, and the experiment goes awry.  The Professor has unwittingly activated a dormant evolutionary path (or something), which means he becomes a giant life-sucking scorpion with a human face.  (I see Series Three isn't quite done misunderstanding evolution.)  He must feed every so often or, presumably, he won't stay young.  On the one hand, this is boring because it's completely random.  He turns into a what?  When did humanity almost decide to be a bunch of giant scorpions, and then think "That's a lot of bother, let's go mammal instead"?  Why's it giant?  Why doesn't it eat, y'know, meat or something?  Why does he keep transforming back and forth?  And why does he still have a human face, voice and mind, if this is a "different evolutionary path"?  (Besides the obvious answer of giving the Doctor someone to talk to.)

On the other hand, it's boring because even though it's a totally unforeseen and horrible turn of events, Lazarus is totally okay with it.  I know he's a bit of a bastard and he wants to stay young forever he's obsessed, I get it but would you instantly be okay with transforming at random intervals, and needing to murder people all the time?  How long does he see this going on before, say, the military intercede, or someone drops a giant boot on him?  Mark Gatiss convinces as the elder Lazarus, oozes unpleasantness as the younger one, and does a horribly good job of writhing in agony between transformations, but the character's so improbably cool about all this that none of it seems very interesting.  He's obviously been dying to letch on some younger women, but being A-OK with killing them seems ludicrous.

I can't be the only one unconvinced by Tish's sudden
attraction to Lazarus.  She was repulsed by him when
he was 76, but now he's young(er) she's "found someone"?
Shallow much?
And speaking of the good professor, I should probably address the elephant in the room.  He's called Lazarus, and he finds a way to extend the human lifespan.  Wow.  Jaw-dropping imagination, there.  You don't think maybe it's a bit on the nose?  If he's been Richard Smith, say, or Richard Binman, would any of this have happened?  (Although saying that, The Binman Experiment is a catchy title.  I'll have that!)  I mean, for God's sake, Lazarus?  There's a moment later on when the Doctor says "Lazarus.  Back from the dead.  I should have known, really."  Really?  You're making that joke 30 minutes into the episode?  Lazarus?  It's no better than calling your Bond villain Mr Megalomaniac.

If I get slightly stuck on details like this, it's probably because there's so little else going on.  The Lazarus Experiment soon boils away to the big scorpion running around, and David Tennant running around as well (does he have to do that silly run, with his eyebrow up and his teeth all gnashy?), and both of them trying to kill each other, and failing, and is it over yet?  There's lots of sonic screwdriver pointing, lots of party guests spilling their cocktails, and a random CGI thingie offing them with ease (which the Doctor fails to stop prop me up, in case I faint with surprise!).  It's just not very tense.

The monster mash is boredom in motion.  The episode's at its best (such as it is) when it's quieter.  There's a scene near the end where the Doctor grills Lazarus on the realities of a long life, the only certainty being that you'll end up alone.  (Well, unless Lazarus fixes his machine, in which case we'd all get to keep our loved ones forever.  Win-win!)  This is great stuff for David Tennant, and Mark Gatiss matches him perfectly, but it's still a bit damp.  I can't help thinking of School Reunion, which tackled a very similar subject before and, to my mind, did it better.  Sarah Jane's final understanding, that pain and loss define us as much as the good stuff in life, landed with a more resounding thud than any of this, try as it might.  (And it tries very hard, throwing in gobs of T. S. Eliot, including that "not with a bang, but with a whimper" quote you've heard so many times you're bored of it.)  The parallels with the Doctor are drawn in thick marker pen, but they're not entirely sound.  Lonely as he is, well, he's not actually alone.  He loses everyone in the end, but by the same token he's always making new friends, as well as touching and improving lives.  The lack of a tell-tale cut to Martha at this point speaks volumes, unfortunately.

Alas, Martha.  She's probably the best thing in this.  She's smart, sneaking a DNA sample out of Lazarus when he kisses her hand.  She's capable, helping her brother with his concussion.  And she's mature, taking the Doctor's initial thoughtless "Bye then" not with a sulk, but with a sincere "Thank you".  She puts him rightly in his place at the end, insisting on traveling full time or not at all.  How great is she?

"What happened inside the capsule was what was supposed to happen.
No more, no less."
"You can't know that until you've run proper tests."
Yes!  I was about to say that!  Love her.
If only he'd notice.  The Doctor says yes, but he still seems cold towards her throughout, even though he's got no good reason to.  Yet again, when he saunters off to do things by himself, he doesn't seem to bear his companion in mind, what she's up to, or whether she's safe.  (Martha nearly falls to her death at the end; it's Tish, not the Doctor, who pulls her to safety.)  I know it's character development of a sort, perhaps it's "different" to have no chemistry between Doctor and companion, but it's frustrating and bloody boring watching Freema Agyeman throw all her effort away.  Who thought this was a good idea?  Maybe a visit from Donna wouldn't go amiss; he could use a slap.

Fortunately, Martha's mother is on hand to provide one, not that it helps, and not that she's personally got a good reason to slap him anyway.  What's her problem, exactly?  There's lots of dark dialogue about how Martha is "abandoning" them all for this mysterious stranger, and one of the arc-hinty Mr Saxon's entourage tells her a few things about the Doctor, which makes her hate him all the more.  This is hilariously unnecessary, given her already psychotic mistrust of the man.   It's not necessarily bad writing she's incredibly bitter at her husband for his mid-life-crisis divorce, so it makes sense for her not to trust new men on the block.  But Martha was first seen with the Doctor last night from her perspective, and she's an adult, so what's the big deal?  (As for what Saxon's lackey tells her, I hope we're not supposed to be on tenterhooks wondering what dark truths were divulged.  We know the Doctor quite well enough to suspect it's going to be bollocks.)  The whole situation feels like they're simply too used to having companions' mothers hate the Doctor to not do it again.  (Certainly the Doctor's "mothers!" joke suggests as much.)  The difference is, Jackie Tyler actually had a good reason to dislike him.

It's difficult summoning any enthusiasm for The Lazarus Experiment, but I can't entirely condemn it either.  The acting's often great, and the CGI's excellent.  It's just that so much of it feels like going through the motions, and given all the time and effort that goes into Doctor Who, I find it oddly infuriating that an episode should feel so much like filler.  The worst thing about it is the thought that this was on the top of the pile.  Slim pickings, this year.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Sec And The City

Doctor Who
Daleks In Manhattan and Evolution Of The Daleks
Series Three, Episodes Four and Five


Wow.  I don't even know where to start with this one.  Rarely have I seen episodes that so fundamentally Do Not Work.

Or: When Working Titles Accidentally Make It To Transmission,
And Everyone's Too Embarrassed To Point It Out.
Okay, let's consider what this story sets out to do, and how it might have succeeded.  It's about Daleks spoiler alert! and it marks their fourth appearance in the new show.  Now, popular as they are, you can't just keep wheeling them out and have them do the same things.  We know they want to exterminate everybody.  What else?  Well, they want to survive, and there's more to that than just killing all the things.  Fair enough.  This is precisely the sort of thing for which The Cult Of Skaro (four special named Daleks Russell T Davies came up with in Doomsday) were created.  So, lads: what have you come up with?

Well, they've noticed something about humans.  No matter what happens, humans keep existing.  "Right then," says Dalek Sec, or Caan, or Jast, or Neil (or whatever the fourth one's called), "humans must be doing something right, and Daleks must be doing something wrong."  This is actually not a new idea in Doctor Who.  Back in the '60s, in a serial called The Evil Of The Daleks (currently missing all bar one episode sniff!), they tried to figure out "the Human Factor", which enables those pesky humans to keep thwarting them.  Bravery, courage, all that jazz.  Of course it turned out they were lying, and they just wanted the Human Factor out of the way so they could come up with a Dalek Factor and force that on everybody.  Clever!  This time, alas, they're not lying.  They genuinely believe humans have a magic ingredient, and they want to make babies with it.

This is wrong in several important ways.  First off, why do humans always survive?  Is it because they're really great?  Well, no: they just hang in there after every disaster, and keep breeding in smaller numbers until they're back on top.  It's the same strategy the Daleks already use with great success, which is why, y'know, there are still Daleks.  It's why the Doctor says, in this very episode, "They always survive."  And, oh yeah, elephant in the room: the other reason humans survive is that they've got the Doctor.  Which is coincidentally the reason the Dalek population keeps reducing to single figures.  Guys?  All this arsing about with DNA is completely unnecessary.  You just need to kill the Doctor.  Quick, there he is!

At least there's an excuse for not just churning out more Daleks.  They're stuck in 1930s New York, the technology won't support a new batch of Daleks, so they've got to think outside the box.  Okay, that's logical.  But it is illogical to think, "Let's trade an impregnable flying tank for a human with some Dalek DNA."  A Dalek casing can fly, survive in space, repel firepower, attack, and apparently travel in time.  What can a human do?  Age, bleed, catch the measles and die.  It's certainly a puzzling usage of the word "evolution", given that it's a dramatic step backwards in survivability.  Did anybody making this ever take the time to look it up?

"Is it too late to recall the Radio Times cover?"
"Yes."
"Bugger."
To get the ball rolling, Dalek Sec mixes himself with a human, the devious Mr Diagoras, and becomes a "human Dalek".  This is realised on-screen as "Mr Diagoras with a Dalek mutant instead of a head."  Not the best monster design, quite frankly: his black suit, tie, even his sharp shoes are weirdly untouched, while a lot of rude-looking tentacles wiggle on the side of his face.  (Stop laughing!)  The human Dalek finds he's not so evil after all, and says the Daleks can't go on as they are, so they should incorporate what's good about humanity in order to survive.  It's the Human Factor again!  And the Doctor is willing to help.  Well, it's (apparently) too late to rescue the blank humans they've prepared for the experiment, Dalek Sec (supposedly) doesn't mind them being relocated, and the Daleks might turn out nice after all.  Apart from common sense, why not?  The Doctor "has to believe it's possible" that "one man can make a difference".  (Not especially brilliant writing, but it's different, and at the same time true to his character, for the Doctor to try to help them.)

Except, hang on: didn't they pick Mr Diagoras because he's so evil and Dalek-like?  If you mix that with an already-evil Dalek, where does the inner Gandhi come from?  And great as it is to think the Daleks can start afresh, isn't it a bit cavalier to sign off on a whole new race of them, which needs recycled humans in order to reproduce?  Aren't they going to want more of them?  What's the next stage of the plan live peacefully?  How long would that last?  And all this on the word of a genetic experiment, who could be lying (like they were last time), and could be exterminated by his peers for going Full Human.  Because, oh yeah, big surprise: the other three Daleks aren't keen on the plan.

At least Daleks In Manhattan gets that right.  Probably the best bits are when we see Daleks Jast, Neil and Derek (or whatever) chattering mutinously about their boss.  It's actually a smart comment on Dalek behaviour, that for all their Cult Of Skaro cleverness they simply can't repress the desire to be Daleks.  And it's satisfyingly old-style-Who just to see Daleks being devious.  It's amazingly dull to have the Doctor point all this out, however.  "You had to start killing, because that's the only thing a Dalek's good for!"  Well, duh.  What show were you watching?

All things considered, this is not the Doctor at his brightest, or best.  He makes repeated attempts to shame or embarrass the Daleks for acting like Daleks, which he ought to know is not going to work.  (Just like urging people to do or not do things, which he just won't stop doing even though it never works.)  What's the use in pointing out that Daleks have no concept of freedom, or music?  It's all very stirring (well, it's obviously meant to be, but it's actually quite embarrassing), but there's nothing remotely surprising about the Daleks responding with a bored-sounding "Exterminate".  It didn't work for Solomon an incredibly cringe-worthy character who urges the Daleks to help him "build a better tomorrow", with hilariously predictable results and it won't work for the Doctor.  He's smarter than this.  Well, usually: he's very nearly exterminated at the end, and only survives because Dalek Sec jumps in the way.  Did we all see that?  How he had no plan and was just going to get shot and die?

"Kill me, if it'll stop you attacking these people!"
Er, or they could kill you and attack these people.
But sure, you get yourself killed on the hope that the Daleks
will randomly spare people for the first time ever.
Idiot.
Well, he has some plans.  When he fails to remove Dalekanium from a lightning rod (don't ask), he hugs it just as the lightning hits, and that apparently transfers some Time Lord DNA into the blank humans, adding "that little bit of freedom" and allowing them to question their orders.  Brilliant!  Just two problems with this.

1) DNA isn't going to jump out of his body, through his clothes, into a lightning converter, and then into the genetic makeup of some bodies.  Just all kinds of no.  Do they even know what DNA is?

2) Er, are we talking about the same Time Lords?  Since when did they give two hoots about freedom?  Aren't they famously pompous and power-obsessed?  That's all very Doctorly stuff, but that's his outlook, not his DNA!  Wouldn't human DNA make a bit more sense?

There are a few moments where he doesn't act like a total boob, and seems to have that Doctorly heft.  There's his steely you're-on-my-list-mate glare at Mr Diagoras.  There's a bit where he chats to one of the Dalek pig-slaves (hold that thought) and, though everyone else recoils, he promises to help.  And as above, it's great that he's going to put all his anger behind him and give the Daleks a chance, even if he's going about it so naively that it's doomed to failure.  (Announcing "There's no way this lot are gonna let you do it!" in front of the other three Daleks is not going to help, you absolute berk.)  But everywhere else, he comes across as poorly characterised, stupid, or just David Tennant on auto-pilot.  (Dramatic raised eyebrow, lots of shouting and running, "Allons-y".  Yawn.)

And none of those moments go anywhere.  Take his promise to the pig-slaves.  (And briefly, a word on the pig-slaves: what?  Why would the Daleks mix humans with pigs?  They're just a random, far less effective version of the Robomen from The Dalek Invasion Of Earth.  And oh good, another monster that's a recognisable Earth animal in a uniform.)  He promises to help, because that's what the Doctor does.  Which is lovely, but then what?  He successfully makes sure the Daleks won't do this to anyone else, but that's all.  The rest of the piggies get roasted or forgotten about or die anyway.  His offer is just lip-service a photocopy of Typical Doctor Behaviour.

He does "help" Laszlo, a guy who mysteriously escaped full conversion and kept his mind, power of speech and hair-do.  (The Daleks don't notice this because um.)  He uses his Doctorly amazingness to lengthen his lifespan, so hooray!  Now he can live on, hiding in slums with his girlfriend who can't show him to anyone!  (This is almost as "helpful" as turning Elton's girlfriend into a talking paving slab in Love & Monsters.)  A quick trip to a plastic surgeon might do the trick, and yeah, doesn't the Doctor have some sort of time-space-travel-thingie?  (I forget what it's it called.)  But no, he doesn't think of that.  Bad luck, Laszlo.

A note on the direction.  The Doctor says:
"I don't exactly want to get noticed."
This is him 'hiding'.
Not content with being merely stupid, the Doctor's pretty unlikeable in this.  That brilliant scene at the end of Gridlock, where he opens up to Martha about the Time War, might as well not have happened, since it's had no impact at all on their relationship.  The Doctor spends most of the story with other people, which is obviously thrilling as they're all cringe-worthy idiots, and at one point when he and Martha are reunited after a battle, he says: "Hi.  You survived, then."  Yeah, that's a fair summary of their relationship.  Why are they written like this?  Martha meanwhile is back to moaning about the long shadow of Rose, and oh dear god can we let that go now, but there are a few good scenes which remind us she's a doctor in training.  She values human life, and objects strongly to killing.  She deserves better.

I'm at a loss.  Nothing here works.  The New York setting?  A novel backdrop for Daleks, but the action's awkwardly limited to sewers, a theatre, a laboratory and a park in Pontypridd, so big whoop and everything, but it could be anywhere.  The accents are ham-tastic ("Top o' the woild!"), and none of the supporting characters seem at all like real people.  The dialogue is sodden with clichés.  ("If you choose death and destruction, then death and destruction will choose you!"  "And from this island, we will conquer the world!")  And the plot, oh, the plot.  But it's probably best I give up now, before I go completely mad trying to list all the things that don't work.  You might as well try counting stars.  As for what works?  Well, the whole thing has a certain camp, comic value, but I doubt much of it's intended.  The human Dalek's face, for instance, is a constant source of hilarity.

Stupid Daleks, stupid Doctor, stupid everything.  Chuck the whole thing in the bin and pretend it never happened.