Saturday, 16 August 2014

Space Under Siege

Doctor Who
The Waters Of Mars
2009 Winter Special


And now for something slightly different.

On the face of it, The Waters Of Mars is business as usual.  A base under siege?  Most of us Doctor Who fans (and sci-fi fans in general) bought that T-shirt many times over.  Russell T Davies and Phil Ford shake it up a bit, making it a fixed point in time so the Doctor cannot intercede.  But we've seen that before too, in The Fires Of Pompeii.  This time, however, the Doctor's not going to let it happen.  He's the last Time Lord, so why not?  What's the worst that can happen?  The Waters Of Mars is at its most interesting when it's asking these questions.

"You could have shot Andy Stone, but you didn't.  I loved you for that."
What, for endangering everyone's lives?  Pacifism is super, but it's not
that simple if you know you'll have to "deal with them" later anyway.
Which he does.
Mind you, there's a lot of business (as usual) to get through first – after all, you can't turn it upside down unless it's right-side-up to begin with.  Please find enclosed 1 x Base, 1 x Alien Menace, 1 x Group Of Survivors Picked Off One By One and 1 x Doctor.  There's a lot of running back and forth, and making jokes about running back and forth, and locking doors to keep the monsters out, and making jokes about how that doesn't seem to work, and then doing it some more anyway.  "Routine" is a fair description; you just wait for them to get on with it.  As for what the monsters want, take a wild guess.  (It rhymes with "Blinvade Flanet Mirth".)  All in all, The Impossible Planet pushed this setup further in 2006.

But if we must do it all again, at least they've come up with a decent monster.  A water-borne virus is turning the pioneers of Mars's Bowie Base One into something new.  Think 28 Days Later zombies with water pouring out of their mouths and hands.  It's a simple idea, oh-dear-god disturbing to look at.  The obvious suggestion of insanity gives them an extra (arguably excessive) scare-factor, particularly the one that doesn't come with reassuringly alien contact lenses.  (No reason given: she's just "closer to human" than the rest of them, because terrifying.)  Water makes a suitably ambiguous and ever-present threat, and as it's set on Mars, it allows for a bit of name-dropping for the Ice Warriors.  Which this fanboy was more than happy with.

As soon as the Doctor arrives, we learn that Adelaide Brooke and the rest of her team will die in the next 24 hours.  And let's just get this out of the way: we learn all of this in due course, seeded in dialogue and in the Doctor's attitude, which is beautifully understated but still makes it clear.  It's very well done, but there's a lot of blunt flashbacks and computer-screens full of information to help us along as well.  This stuff is completely unnecessary.  Accompanied by ridiculous "Crash, boom!" sound effects, it's literally the clunkiest exposition I've ever seen.  Thanks, guys, but I was already paying attention to the dialogue and the acting.  I wish it were possible to remove these steaming info-dumps and let the story make its own way.  We're not idiots.

Right, back to it: their deaths will propel the human race into a realm of space exploration, so the Doctor must let it happen.  It's a neat idea to put a fixed point in the future, as the audience is automatically more ambiguous about changing it.  Does it really matter?  I never really liked the whole "our deaths = incentive for our descendants" idea, but they do set it up with Adelaide's history.  She went into space because of a personal tragedy, and the same happens to her granddaughter.  Fair enough, they need to go.  (Although, about that: a Dalek spared Adelaide's life because it knew her death was a fixed point.  So it must have also known the Dalek plan would fall on its arse.  "Uh, guys...")

The Doctor's conflicting emotions make sense.  Without a Donna, a Martha or a Rose, he's got no one to argue that he must help no matter what, so he could just get on with letting it happen – but he knows what they would say, and he's tired of letting this sort of thing happen.  David Tennant is fantastic, wrestling with this the whole way through, and it's absolutely captivating to watch – one of his top performances.  (And on that note, how bloomin' amazing is Lindsay Duncan?  Just goes to show you don't need to drum up a "companion" in these Specials – you can just pit the Doctor against another brilliant character.)  I can believe that after losing everything again and again, the Doctor's ready to snap.

Which he certainly does.  When the Doctor finally comes around and decides to hell with it, he'll rescue them anyway, all his usual manic energy is amped up to complete madness.  This juxtaposition, as he does what would be entirely normal if there wasn't a fixed point, i.e. rescuing people, is amazingly jarring.  Coupled with the monsters succeeding way more than usual (breezing into the base and killing nearly everybody), this makes for an intensely horrifying and unforgettable second-to-last-act.  It's powerful stuff.  (Also, I like that he uses a little robot to zoom across Mars with the TARDIS key.  Fixed-point-wrongness aside, it's really cool.)

Wait – does the robot trundle through the water?  The infected water?
It sure looks like it.  But the Doctor drops that sucker on Earth!
Better hope nobody touches it...
Dropping off the three survivors, the Doctor then has a rant about how powerful he is, and how "little" almost everyone else is, much to the horror of Adelaide – and us.  It's a new dimension for the Doctor, like that bit in The Armageddon Factor where he pretends he's gone nuts, only for real this time.  Is it believable?  Well, yes and no.  These are extreme circumstances.  He's going directly against what it means to be a Time Lord, and he pays for it.  Ood Sigma appears (more or less) to signal that he's gone too far and this is it, regeneration soon.  He knows at once that it was wrong to behave like this, and that in all likelihood, this is how bad Time Lords get started.  His urge to do good and to survive are not innately destructive things, but The Waters Of Mars pushes them to extremes.  It's bold.  Though inevitably, divisive.

Because on the other hand, that crack about "little people" goes beyond nervous breakdown and into Acting Like Someone Else Entirely.  The Doctor loves everybody.  It's who he is.  I can believe that he'd do all this in a moment of madness, and that power corrupts, but sneering at the humans he's going out of his way to save is a nearly impossible sell.  Wasn't the moment loaded enough already, rocking back and forth in five minutes from "Time Lord Victorious!" to "Is this how I die?" to "No!", without throwing in a completely new personality as well?  I think so.  Oh well.  For good or ill, there is a hell of a lot to chew on.

And that's not all.  Finally accepting her place in history, Adelaide takes matters into her own hands and shoots herself.  History gets right back on course, despite the Doctor's interference.  This is impressively shocking at first, but as often happens when Doctor Who gets clever, it raises further questions.  If her granddaughter was inspired by her mysterious death on Mars, does it go without saying that she will be inspired in exactly the same way by a suicidal corpse turning up in her living room?  Even in the throes of (what I assume to be) a nervous breakdown, the Doctor seems confident that history will stay the course.  And it does – two of them survive, and no harm done.  Would Adelaide's survival, and her ensuing support for little Suzie, really prevent all that space travel?  Is her corpse automatically a better solution?  As the Doctor says, the details may change, but the story stays the same.

Speaking of other solutions, the Doctor brings up The Fires Of Pompeii.  As well he should, it being another fixed point and all that, but aren't we missing a sort of elephant-shaped-thingie in the room?  In Pompeii, faced with a fixed point in which everybody died, the Doctor still managed to save a group of people.  He just tucked them away somewhere else.  (And presumably told them not to mention Pompeii.)  What's stopping him sneaking Adelaide and everyone else somewhere they won't do any damage?  It's a big universe.  All they'd have to do is live quietly.  Their mysterious deaths are a part of history, but their corpses aren't.

Hmm.  It's definitely dark, unsettling drama, but also puzzling and perhaps a bit muddled as well.  Where the really good stuff is concerned, it's great that Doctor Who can go there, especially on a prolonged home stretch when you're not expecting very much.  You've no idea where the story will go from this point, other than the fact that it's nearly over, and kudos for that.  More's the pity The Waters Of Mars still goes exactly where you'd expect for the first 45 minutes.  It's a toss-up between The Fires Of Pompeii and Every Base Under Siege Ever, at least until the end, which is the bit you'll remember anyway.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Blandstorm

Doctor Who
Planet Of The Dead
2009 Easter Special


2009 saw Doctor Who at a crossroads.  A new showrunner was on the way, but Series Five wouldn't air until 2010.  What to do with the intervening year?  The outgoing team could justifiably have spent it checking their watches, playing cards or crying uncontrollably.  Instead they made a series of Specials leading up to David Tennant's regeneration.  We were lucky to get them.

Even so, gratitude only takes you so far.  It still matters that the episodes are, you know, good, since they've effectively got to carry the show for a year.  Planet Of The Dead was the only Doctor Who episode for miles around, and it feels half-hearted.  It's quite sad in a way; it was probably meant to show off Doctor Who's unique appeal, but ended up showing just how badly a change was needed.  And bugger me, it's boring.

Please tell me that is not a Psychic Oyster Card.
Admittedly, it has an exciting (if distinctly Mission: Impossible-rippy-offy) start.  We open with a cat burglar, Lady Christina de Souza, robbing an art gallery.  The alarm sounds so she runs for it, ditching her lover in the process.  (How charming.)  Seeing no alternative, she gets on a bus – as does the Doctor, who is tracking a mysterious something in the bus's path.  The police see Christina, they give chase (very slowly!), and the bus promptly disappears through a wormhole to an alien planet.  This is San Helios, a world of desert.  The only way back is via the bus, which is stuck and running out of petrol.  To make matters worse, an ominous cloud is approaching, and a psychic passenger knows this will mean doom for everybody.  (Well, it's ominous, innit?)

I know I should jump for joy because it's set on an alien planet (and filmed abroad, no less!), but the moment they arrive everyone starts tediously clambering to get back home again.  All of them.  Even the Doctor!  "That planet is nothing compared to all those things waiting for you."  He's talking about eating dinner and watching telly.  The Doctor is saying that.  You could well understand this viewpoint of one or two out of a group – it would be boring to have them all think like that just from a keep-the-script-interesting POV, but fair enough, some people are boring.  But all of them?  Including the guy with a TARDIS – who famously refuses to settle down, eat dinner and watch telly?  Why wouldn't you be excited to visit an alien world?  Why wouldn't the Doctor want you to be excited?  What the hell's so bad about visiting alien worlds, anyway?  (I'm looking at you, every-companion's-mother.  And by extension, Russell T Davies.)

Of course it doesn't help that San Helios is not an interesting place to visit.  There's a reason for it being covered in sand – more on that in a sec – and it looks great, especially the incongruity of a red London bus in the desert.  But sand is, well, a bit boring, isn't it?  And not to denigrate the money they spent going to Dubai, but they might as well have gone by green-screen for all the interaction there is with the landscape.  Our intrepid heroes spend most of the episode either in a spaceship or sat in the sodding bus.

In their defence, there is a time limit for getting out of here: that cloud is made of metallic stingrays, which eat everything in their path and travel so fast they create wormholes.  (And they're headed for Earth, naturally.)  The sand is what's left of San Helios, and everyone on it – which is probably meant to be a big revelation, since it comes at the halfway point, but the (hackneyed much?) title already gave it away.  As does a moment where The Psychic Passenger says they are "surrounded by the dead", and we cut to the Doctor tasting the sand.  There's nothing intrinsically wrong with plot-points being obvious, but there is if you act like they're mind-blowing.

Space.  The final frontier.
LOL, kidding!  Let's just stay on the bus.
A bus.  The final frontier.
LOL, kidding!  Don't even bother leaving the house.
The stingrays are not among the show's better monsters.  They depend on science, or rather, "science".  The Doctor says they're travelling hundreds of miles per hour, but every time we see them they are, to put it mildly, not.  (It takes them the whole episode to get from the horizon to the bus!)  As for how it all works, it's obviously 24-carat bollocks, so, eh.  But anyway, it's boring that they're just doing what their species does.  And it's confusing that they've created a wormhole already, which the bus came through, but none of them have gone through it yet.  Perhaps they like to make a big entrance?

Seeking to avoid the giant cloud of impending death, the Doctor and Christina stroll about leisurely (WTF are you doing? Run!) and they encounter some more aliens, the Tritovores.  (Because if all else fails, you can always make a joke out of how trite something is.)  These are another in a long line of Russell T Davies aliens which look very convincingly like an Earth animal – in this case, flies – but are nonetheless disappointing because they look like an Earth animal.  It's a small world after all!  Anyway, the Tritovores have some random anti-gravity clamps that can help lift the bus to safety.  They even fit over each of the bus's wheels, plus there's four of them.  Isn't that handy?  (I'm surprised Russell and Gareth Roberts didn't head us off at the pass and call it "Contrivium".)  Pretty soon the fly-people are dead, and the bus is off to Earth again.  Plot?  Oh, you can barely move for the stuff.  Oh, hang on – that's sand.

With the fly-people effectively mute and none of the passengers wanting to look at the nasty old universe, most of the dialogue is between the Doctor and Christina.  Fair enough: this is a "Special", and that means a new one-off companion.  What's she like?  Well, she's a jewel thief, plus a member of the Aristocracy; she doesn't need the money and does it for fun.  All in all, she's less relatable than the Doctor.  She's also clever and confident, with not an ounce of humility, and she's positively one-note.  But the Doctor likes her.  We know this because the script keeps drawing thick, brightly coloured arrows between the two characters, whether you like it or not.  "We were made for each other!"  "You were right, we're quite a team!"  "We could have been so good together!"  "Christina – we were!"  At one point, the Doctor even forgives Christina's life of crime because he stole the TARDIS, and that's... sort of the same as leading a life of crime?  Er.  No, it isn't.  If that really needs spelling out, then I don't know what show you've been watching.  WTF?

Ah, CGI.  Always making Doctor Who a bit better.
Especially on mute.
With all the clumsy hints (and a kiss, which may be required by law), it seems the writers felt they had to work harder to make this connection, possibly because she's so obviously cartoony and unlikeable.  Which begs the question, "Why make such a cartoony and unlikeable character in the first place?"  It does look as if he has noticed she's a total bitch at the end, when he says "No" to taking her on board the TARDIS.  Alas, that's just his usual "I've lost people before therefore I don't want to endanger your life" routine, and presumably it has nothing to do with her being a horrible person.  He lets her out of her handcuffs at this point; having learned nothing, that'll be her rushing off to commit more crimes, then.  Wizard.  The Doctor's behaviour towards Christina, as with his strange determination not to explore anything this week, makes me wonder who the hell this guy is.  Talk about an off day.

David Tennant is fine – pretty much on autopilot, but the script calls for nothing more.  It's not his fault he has to go against his character.  (Although he could have said "Oi, that goes against my character."  What are they gonna do?  Fire him?)  Michelle Ryan does what she can with Christina, which means making her more irritatingly cocksure.  Their conversations, which make up the bulk of the episode, are invariably dead weight.  The guys on the bus are an interchangeable lot; I yearned for the days when a marginally more interesting bus-load of people wanted to kill the Doctor.  (At least they had different opinions.)  Still, one of them gets to drop the He Will Knock Four Times prophecy, which is transparently the only reason a psychic person is involved.  Let's see, what else?  Despite the bad joke, I quite liked the Tritovores.  Shame they're dead.

Back on Earth, UNIT's Captain Magambo (a nice presence in Turn Left) converses with a scientist named Malcolm, also the Doctor's biggest fan.  Cue obvious Doctor Who fan allusions, and the frantic flailing of Lee Evans – and yet, I quite like Malcolm, too.  I like that he measures things in "Malcolms" and "Bernards".  He's not too much of a piss-take (it's no worse than the Tritovores or what's going on with the Doctor this week), and he briefly gets to show the Doctor up without becoming too much of a Mary Sue.  His subplot lacks a sense of urgency, but that may be down to the direction.  He's ordered to close the wormhole, trapping the Doctor on San Helios, and he won't do it until the Doctor gets back.  All very laudable, except when a London bus very noticeably appears via the wormhole, solving the problem, neither Malcolm nor Magambo seems to notice.  The Doctor has to phone and tell him.

Planet Of The Dead makes me wonder if the term "Special" should really be applied to every out-of-series episode that happens to run longer than 45 minutes.  Aside from the fact that this incredibly dull, rather stupid story somehow made it to the screen rather than any number of others, there is nothing special about it.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Oh No He Isn't!

Doctor Who
The Next Doctor
2008 Christmas Special


Well, there's a natty idea for a Doctor Who Special.  Have the Doctor minding his own business, then – whammo! – he bumps into a different Doctor.  Even better, it's a future one.  All at once, you've got the Doctor facing his mortality, plus the excitement of meeting another one.  It's a win-win.  And if the lead actor has recently announced he's leaving the show, some of the more easily-confused among us might think it's a glimpse into the future.  That's more people talking about it, and more viewers.  Win-win-win.

The future's orange.
Of course, you can't actually do it.  Anything you randomly guess about a future Doctor will unfairly bias whatever the next bloke comes up with, not to mention spoil the surprise, and you almost certainly won't have the right actor yet.  (Even if you do, as they did for the 50th anniversary, chances are you still won't have the costume.  A quick glimpse is clearly the way to go.)  That leaves us with a fake Doctor, which much of the audience will guess in advance, especially after the hyperbole of the Doctor's "daughter" (really a clone) and his "regeneration" (where he didn't change).  If you're seriously still falling for this stuff on the third go around, you probably shouldn't be in charge of any heavy machinery.

Oh well: the story of a man who thinks he's the Doctor is worth telling, and as long as the genuine article believes it, you get all that facing his mortality/excitement stuff for free.  The Next Doctor has a lot of fun with this in the opening twenty minutes, as the Doctor (David Tennant) plays companion to the Doctor (David Morrissey).  It's a change of pace for Tennant, who gets to view his character from the outside and thoroughly geek out about it.  Why not?  He's the last Time Lord, so this is the only way he'll meet another one.  He's tantalised by the idea of a guy who's had more adventures.  He's excited, as are we, by the idea of helping a Doctor remember who he is.  (The scene with the Time Lordy fob-watch is hilariously disappointing.)  After two Christmas Specials where the ever-so-lonely Doctor makes a new best friend for an hour, a fake Doctor is certainly one way to change the record.

Shame it doesn't last.  Granted, it's fairly obvious this isn't the real (Sylvester) McCoy.  David Morrissey's Doctor is little more than a bunch of half-remembered catchphrases, the flimsiest bits of David Tennant's already-as-broad-as-possible interpretation watered down beyond recognition.  He's got his own TARDIS and sonic screwdriver, but both of those are sight gags, and weak ones at that.  It's a very fun character, and Morrissey gives it loads of levity and pathos, but he's really not much like the Doctor.  In all likelihood, it was never meant to fool anybody.  (Right?  Right?)

Even so, the ruse is the most interesting thing here, and it's kaput before we even reach the halfway point.  "The Doctor" is Jackson Lake, a man who narrowly escaped an encounter with some Cybermen and had his brain accidentally filled with The Doctor Files.  (Which raises the question of why he doesn't recognise David Tennant.)  Once that's out in the open – and it's a heartbreaking, well-played reveal, even if it is obvious – all that's left is the Cybermen and whatever daft nonsense they're up to this week.  Settle in.  At this point, there's still thirty minutes to go.

Sod Jackson Lake.  Kids, look!  Proper Who!
Having escaped the Void (which, in true Russell T Davies style, is full of stuff), the Cybermen find themselves without the technology to convert everybody.  So, they set about kidnapping as many children as possible, and making them work on a huge Cyberman factory on legs, the Cyber King.  (Which mysteriously, they do have the right tools for.)

This all feels pretty random.  Why kids?  Are they known for being really great labourers, what with the no muscles and the tiny hands?  And the Cyber King looks really, seriously awesome, but you've got to wonder... what?  They have kings now?  If the Cybermen are in the habit of building colossal robots that spit out thousands of other Cybermen, why are we only hearing about it now?  Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the episode's budget, we have the the Cyber-Shades, a.k.a. blokes in woolly carpets with plastic Cyber-faces stuck on.  It's unusual for an episode to feature one of the most impressive-looking special effects in Doctor Who ever, as well as one of the worst, but they manage it.  These guys would have looked like total garbage back in the days of cardboard ant costumes.  Even better, they're completely pointless.

The Cybermen are as dreary as ever – stomp-stomp, mumble-mumble, "Delete", etc. – but they're not exactly helped by having to play second fiddle to the villain-of-the-week.  Russell dips into his Evil Diva bag to give us Miss Hartigan, a man-hating monster played by Dervla Kerwan.  She's cold, amoral and (like the equally two-dimensional Miss Foster) enjoys pointing out what a cleverly-chosen name she's got.  (I wish Russell would pack it in with the "literally" jokes.  They're just wince-inducing.)  She ends up in the Cyber King's hot seat because of her uber-amazing mind (which can't be that amazing since she didn't see this coming), but it's so strong it counteracts the Cybermen's control.  However she's quite happy stomping around in it anyway, so that was pointless.

The dark hints about her life of abuse are vaguely interesting, and not bad motivation for wanting to stomp humanity into little bits, but I've no idea how any of that translates into Cyber-impressiveness.  Perhaps they like her because evil people save you the bother of converting them?  She makes the Cybermen seem passive and ultimately redundant, which is hardly a new experience, but jeez, when will these guys catch a break?  (I should add that Dervla Kirwan is brilliant, and fortunately this comes as standard with Doctor Who guest actors.  She doesn't write this stuff.)

"Why do they not rejoice?"
It's probably the big shooty robot monster putting them off, love.
Probably the most important thing here is the Doctor, since adding a fake one is a handy excuse to underline the ways in which the Doctor, our Doctor, is special.  David Tennant's certainly very good in it, all doe-eyed enthusiasm when he believes Jackson, benevolent understatement when he realises what's going on, don't-mess oomf when dealing with the baddies.  But the Doctor is largely defined here by swashbuckling and derring-do, which is all very whiz-bang and Christmassy but never quite rings true.  He's not an action hero.

In all the dashing about and explosion-dodging, he rarely gets a chance to show off his brain.  Most of his problems are solved with the Cyber-gizmo du jour, "info stamps": a weird, retro way to gather information that is suicidally easy to turn into a weapon against Cybermen.  (Even Jackson can pull it off.)  The episode doesn't really say anything about the Doctor, although his ultimatum to the Cybermen raises questions.  Move to an uninhabited (and therefore useless) world, or die?  When they (entirely logically) don't agree to that, he takes it as cart blanche to zap them to death, even saying "You made me into this."  Hmm.  Friendly they ain't, but it would be nice if he'd accept that what he's really doing here is getting them to sign their own death warrants.  Meanwhile, in the "characters telling the Doctor about himself" stakes, Jackson points out that no one ever thanks the Doctor for his good deeds.  Ever.  Is that a fact?  If you can remember instances where people did just that – such as the endings to most episodes – you're wrong, apparently!

And another thing.  Coming right after another traumatic companion departure, you might expect The Next Doctor to have an emotional undercurrent like The Runaway Bride.  But no; the Doctor must have taken some time to deal with it, as he seems fine.  (Although at one point he suggests he has nothing to live for, which is at odds with his cheery behaviour elsewhere.)  Now, it wouldn't automatically make this episode better to have him sulking over Donna, and it would sail pretty close to plagiarising The Runaway Bride if he did, but when a plot deals with a character forgetting and remembering things, and the previous companion lost her memories under tragic circumstances one episode ago, it seems utterly bizarre to leave those dots unconnected.  Once again, I wonder why Rose was worth so much histrionic foot-dragging, since apparently nobody else is.

The Next Doctor has one great idea in its head and makes a reasonable go of it, but it's too quick to get it over with.  The rest is just the usual clunky bobbins, doused in naff Christmas Episode Victoriana.  By the end, anyone still watching will be Christmas-drunk or Christmas-sleepy.  Welcome to every Christmas Special, I know, but for once it feels as if Russell T Davies may have nodded off first.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Finale Countdown

Doctor Who
The Stolen Earth and Journey's End
Series Four, Episodes Twelve and Thirteen


The end is approaching – of the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, not to mention Series Four.  So, what to do?  A big finale?  Think bigger.  A retrospective of the whole series?  Think even bigger.  A celebration of the entire Doctor Whoniverse under Russell T Davies, including Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures?  That's more like it.  These episodes aren't just a big finish, they're a full blown wrap party.  You will get drunk and wake up with what's-her-name from Catering.

Both episodes radiate with affection, excitement and (not entirely uncalled for) smugness at the show's massive success.  Everyone involved is obviously having the time of their lives, and that energy works to their advantage.  It's never boring; it's often exciting and funny (favourite line: "Get back inside, Sylvia!  They always want the women!"); the special effects have never looked better.  But there's something missing.  Namely, anything more substantial than a two-hour round of applause for the people making it.

So many CGI!
Such pretty!
Shear away all the shouting and special effects and here's what you're left with: Daleks are pinching planets from all over the universe, which obviously means Earth, but also Pyrovilia and the various "missing" planets from Series Four.  These planets form an "engine" which will trigger a "Reality Bomb".  The Daleks want to blow up literally everything in existence besides themselves.  The Doctor's friends are brought together, they stop the Daleks, and they go their separate ways again, some happier than others.  And that's it for plot.  An unbelievable amount of window dressing and hot air makes it seem like more, but it ain't.  Despite an impressive 61-minute runtime for Part Two, this could be one of the most threadbare plots in Doctor Who.

That doesn't mean it's not exciting.  The Stolen Earth does an amazing job of keeping the audience's pulse rate up, with one "OMG!" moment after another.  OMG, Earth is gone!  Cool, it's Torchwood!  Wow, Sarah Jane!  Zoinks, Rose Tyler!  And Davros, and Daleks, proper Daleks, squillions of Daleks!  Squint, though, and you'll notice how the characters spend most of The Stolen Earth just trying to get the Doctor to RSVP for Journey's End.

He's trying to follow Earth, gets stuck, and uncharacteristically gives up.  (You what?  Do something, you lemon!)  He only breaks through because everyone on Earth dials his phone number and shoves it through the Torchwood hub.  Good luck making that look exciting – quick, Billie, hold your phone in the air! – and you'd better hope the audience doesn't think about it for a nanosecond.  (Millions of people calling one number will "boost the signal", will it?  As opposed to millions of people getting an "engaged" tone?  They're amazing, these newfangled "tell-ee-fones".  I wonder how they work!). It's a whole episode of almost nothing, of any import, happening.

Anyway, it's all about reunions, inasmuch as anything, so the Doctor and Rose finally get back together.  Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.  Are that many people really cut up about her leaving the show?  I was never a big fan, but I quite liked her in Turn Left when she seemed to have grown up a bit.  In The Stolen Earth she's right back to Whingeing Brat status, however: "Who's that?  I was here first!"  Oh, it's like she was never away.  Alas, the Doctor is kept out of her reach by the first Dalek in history to shoot straight.  Cue the episode's biggest OMG moment, the most contentious regeneration in the show's history.  And... cut!

The newspapers went mad for this.  A week of absolutely mental speculation later, and the Doctor chucks his regeneration in the bin and carries on, still noticeably David-Tennant-shaped.  You don't have to be very cynical to figure out there's no new Doctor next week, but even so, this was misjudged.  Regenerations are a big part of Doctor Who, and now they're a little less special, because apparently you can wriggle around them.  Not to mention that we all spent a week thinking about Doctor #10 leaving the building (however unlikely it was), and thinking "Actually, that would be pretty exciting," and he's still here.  Awkward much?  Oh well: John Barrowman's reaction is perfect, which is something.

"Okay, which of you bastards was excited to meet Matt Smith?"
So, after the mighty plot development of "all the characters have met", we're onto Journey's End.  Davros throws the TARDIS down a rubbish chute with Donna inside.  She has a little incident with the Doctor's extra hand, and presto, a brand new Doctor is born, half-human, David-Tennant-shaped and naked.  Tennant has fun as Human Doc, and there's some vague ominous gobbledegook about Donna's universal importance, but the two of them might as well play I, Spy until the plot gets back to them.

Meanwhile, the (proper) Doctor spends all his quality Rose-time chatting with Davros, who is in a philosophical mood.  Julian Bleach is good, isn't he?  There's not a lot you can do with a character like Davros – a ranting megalomaniac obsessed with his creations, he's always been a dully obvious Hitler to the Daleks' Nazis.  But Bleach finds a middle-ground between his various telly predecessors, and it's a fine, memorably evil performance.  Kudos, as ever, to the make-up department.  You don't really need him here, but hey, why not.

It's just a shame he's not better written.  The Doctor is often characterised via the super-subtle art of other characters telling him all about himself, and it's bad enough without getting most of it arse-backwards as well.  Plenty is said here about how manipulative and destructive the Doctor is, and there's some mileage in that – "He never carries a gun" was obviously bull from the start – but actually, there's a difference between killing people and fighting back.  The Doctor often does the latter, whether he's convincing others to pull the trigger or doing it himself.  Yes, it's unfortunate that billions of Sontarans, Daleks and Cybermen have gone to Villain Heaven because of him, and he feels bad, but when the alternative was They're Going To Kill Everyone Else, doesn't that muddy the waters?  And who the hell is Davros to throw stones?  At the end, with the Doctor once again causing the death of the bad guys via proxy, Davros calls him "the destroyer of worlds".  Who do you think you're kidding, Mr Hitler?  Claiming the moral high ground after trying to blow up literally everything that exists is some downright brazen taking of the piss.

On the subject of "not that well written", this is a Dalek plan, and that means dumbness.  At risk are 27 planets, the rest of the universe, all other universes and the bits in-between... which is a threat so grotesquely overstuffed that it feels completely meaningless.  Also, the Daleks have always been enthusiastic misanthropes, and it makes sense to try to kill everybody, but what's the point ruling a cosmos with absolutely nothing in it?  What are they going to do, besides bumping into each other in the dark?  It's not as if Dalek Caan is a great conversationalist.

He only speaks the truth!
(Presumably due to a whimsical Liar, Liar contrivance.)
Speaking of which, these Daleks only exist because Dalek Caan Emergency-Temporal-Shifted into the Time War (which is impossible, but he did it anyway, because shut up).  It turns out he is a) mad and b) in this to make the Daleks extinct, so he quite happily lets the Doctor and co. do the deed.  Okay, but if he wanted to make the Daleks extinct, couldn't he have taken a more direct route?  Like not manufacturing billions of them?  (Oh, but it's a "prophecy".  Don't you love those things?  They allow you do literally anything without bothering to invent a reason.)

To combat such a monumental problem, you need a monumental solution.  The Doctor is stuck in a forcefield (oh good, another finale where he patiently waits for rescue), so it's up to his friends.  Martha's got the Osterhaagen Key, a device for blowing up the Earth in times of crisis; Sarah Jane has a Warp Star necklace, which can create an enormous explosion and destroy the Dalek ship; and Human Doc has cobbled together an anti-Davros gun.  Much effort and technobabble goes into all three, especially the Osterhaagen Key (which has its own subplot), but it's all for nothing, and they're chucked away on a whim.

If you're going to invent stuff only to throw it away, it'd be better if it doesn't raise bizarre questions, like why the Earth has a suicide button, how any situation could possibly be bad enough to use it while the Doctor is around, and how anyone could ever agree on when we've reached that point.  It's a waste of effort bringing these characters back at all if you're just going to nix their plot-lines before they go anywhere.  Martha is only here to carry out all that Osterhaagen Key bumf.  Cut her, or Mickey, or Jack from these episodes, and see if you can spot the difference.  You can cut Rose as well, for all the difference standing next to the Doctor makes.  These characters aren't particularly celebrated – they're just here.

In the end it's Donna who makes the big difference, finally becoming The Most Important Person In The Universe.  Here we go: using her now-activated Time Lord DNA (thanks, Human Doc), she instantly knows how to use the Dalek controls to make all the bad things go away.  And well done her – but she's only able to do this because a) she's got some of the Doctor's DNA, and b) Davros mysteriously didn't stick a forcefield over her like he did with everyone else.  None of which is really Donna.  After all the hints and build-up, Donna's "importance" amounts to the Doctor's influence and some dumb luck.  It's not much of a pay-off.  The script tries to draw a line between her and the Doctor, in a "No, really, she's still special" sort of way, but since there's a corresponding half-human Doctor as well, it's difficult to see what she's got that he hasn't.  "That little bit of human"?  Well, gee, that explains everything.  Anyone else suspect they made this up at the last minute?

It happens to the best of us.
Still, it goes somewhere memorable.  After plenty of dreary hints about one of the Doctor's "children" dying, which fans of Doomsday will guess is not literal, Donna's new mind doesn't take.  The Doctor must wipe her memories of him, and all her adventures, to save her life.  It's a genuinely horrifying and sad moment, and probably the only really effective thing here.  Catherine Tate, whose "half Time Lord" never really progresses beyond a David Tennant impression, does heartbroken very well.  It's a legitimately grim way to end her story without actually killing her, and it affected me much more than Rose's still-mourned departure.

Ah yes, Blondie.  I used to really hate Journey's End, and watching it again now, I struggled to remember why.  It's long, overblown and smug, but that goes for a few other episodes as well.  Then I got to Rose's big goodbye.  Ah yes.  That was it.  Is there any part of this that isn't hideous?  From the totally unnecessary fan-service of doing it all again, to having Rose bring up the Doctor's unfinished sentence in Doomsday, and demanding to stay with him forever (because screw character development), to the unbelievable wrongness of gift-wrapping a brand new Doctor who'll sleep with her, not one bit of it works.

Of course, there's a certain dark corner of fandom for whom it will, but those guys write their own fan-fiction, and plenty of it.  The rest of us are stuck with this super-awkward scene, as the Doctor coldly decides Rose's fate and placates her with his hornier replacement.  (Which works.)  As for Human Doc, comparing him to the Doctor when he first met Rose is laughable; this guy isn't wracked with guilt about blowing up the Daleks.  Why should he be?  What else was the Doctor planning to do with them?  Asking Davros to stop what he was doing didn't seem to work (what a shock!), and as for giving him a complimentary offer to come aboard the TARDIS at the end, you can guess how well that went.  I'm all for the Doctor being glass-half-full, but this is just random, bordering on naive.

Rose's departure is the worst thing here – a self-serving, every-character-ruining-beyond-all-recognition train wreck of an idea.  But at least it puts the rest of it in perspective.  None of it's that bad.  Okay, it's two hours of Russell moving a bunch of action figures around, bringing back his favourites and making them kiss.  (Just look at the ghastly "towing the Earth" scene at the end.  Quick!  Find them something to do!)  Stuffed in between is a maelstrom of padding, half-digested technobabble and sheer bollocks, apart from the fate of Donna, although knowing Doctor Who that won't stick.  But there are times when the celebration is infectious, and you feel invited to the party.

Then again, the constant marching band of references doesn't so much interrupt the story as drive it in the first place.  It's smug – there's no getting away from it.  A moment where the Doctor pauses amid the chaos to connect Gwen Cooper to another character played by the same actress should stick out, but it's merely a part of the general effort to fanwank these episodes into oblivion.  You don't have to be Russell T Davies to be happy there, but it helps.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Doctor Where?

Doctor Who
Turn Left
Series Four, Episode Eleven


Riddle me this: what would Doctor Who be like without the Doctor?  Literally, if the plots happened and he wasn't in them?  It's a mind-bending conundrum which could go in any number of directions...

Wait, what?  What do you mean, "I already know what Doctor Who would be like without the Doctor"?  Gosh, you must be some kind of telepathic mega-genius!  Wait, what?  What do you mean, "Each episode would just play out exactly as it was going to before the Doctor arrived, only instead of him preventing a thing, the thing would happen, obviously"?

Above: every episode ever, minus the Doctor.
When Donna's past is changed so that she never met the Doctor, it results in his death.  This leads to global disaster on a regular basis.  All of which is novel in a morbid parallel world kind of way, but it's still not exactly eye-opening to point out that, instead of the Doctor steering the Titanic away from Earth, no one steered it away so it crashed.  What did you expect it to do?  Of course there would be death and destruction if he wasn't here – that's why he's here!

It seems to me the point of stories like this, such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer's "The Wish" (which probably inspired it), isn't just to show us the world going to hell.  It's to examine how the characters change under different circumstances.  What would they become?  Would they still be friends, or even good people?  Just how much do they really need each other?  It's another way of examining familiar things.  That doesn't really happen here, apart from Donna's mum becoming extra venomous and unsupportive – and judging from the bafflingly acidic car scene at the beginning, she's already there.  Donna previously had the choice of not travelling with the Doctor, and we know she regretted it (that's why she came back in Partners In Crime), so it's hardly a newsflash that she's miserable without him.  This is really just about plot elements crashing and exploding instead of not doing that, with people either dying or being very sad about it.  We don't learn or explore much during any of it, let alone worry, because any sentient being knows the only place this plot can go is The Land Of Reset.

Still, Turn Left does make us appreciate the Doctor, although it really, really rubs it in.  When the Juddoon kidnap Martha's hospital, all but one of its occupants dies, including Martha, Sarah Jane and Sarah's friends.  Then the Titanic nukes the south of England.  (Although wasn't it supposed to wipe out the human race?)  Next, the Adipose kill 60 million Americans.  (Although they had no intention of doing that, and possibly only killed anyone because of the Doctor and Donna.)  And the Sontarans get wiped out, but they take Torchwood with them.  (So, every cloud?)  Eventually this means millions of English people displaced in the north, and – oh, why the hell not? – the army starts rounding up foreigners and sending them to labour camps.  What next?  Well, now that you mention it, the stars are going out.  (What, at the same time?  What about the speed of light?  Some of them must have "gone out" millions of years ago!)

By the end of the episode, yes, we get it, everything stinks, please bring him back now.  But Turn Left isn't just about how great the Doctor is and how screwed we are if he ever goes on holiday.  It's mainly about Donna, and how important she is to the Doctor – which, three companions in, may take some explaining.  We get some idea of his need for a companion in most episodes.  Take Midnight: flying solo, the Doctor was about as useful as a toilet roll raincoat.  But that doesn't speak to Donna, specifically.  This week, with a little help from Rose Tyler, UNIT and the TARDIS (aww), Donna saves the world.  However, just like those listed in the last paragraph, it requires 100% more getting killed than when the Doctor does it.  Which is a fairly broad way to underline how great he is, and it doesn't quite nail down The Donna Factor, if there is one.

On the plus side, no Doctor = no Master, and no Series 3 finale.
Leave it, Donna!  It's fine how it is!
There are lots of dark hints about how important she's going to be, but for now, the only way to make her previous self turn left (and meet the Doctor, etc.) is to throw herself in front of a lorry.  (Perhaps they could have worked out a better plan in advance, but sadly they're in too much of a hurry.  Still time for a coffee, though.)  Not to take anything away from her sacrifice, but couldn't anyone go back in time and do that?  It's not as if Donna is the only one who'd like to change the world.  Maybe it needs to be her specifically, and that's the only way to shake the time-beetle off her back?  They don't say, though.  Shrug.

Slightly muddled as Donna's journey may be, the whole episode revolves around Catherine Tate, and she doesn't disappoint.  She's reliably caustic and hilarious during her unemployment woes ("Well, isn't that wizard!"), gently childlike around Wilf (who's brilliant as ever), witheringly miserable around her horrible mum, and otherwise unstoppably argumentative.  She has a real tour de force moment at the end, as she is sent on her way and celebrates the fact that she won't have to die to save the world, then realises she will.  (Her "death" still doesn't amount to much, as we know they're going to rewrite the whole shebang anyway, thus erasing "this" Donna.)  Billie Piper plays the scene well, communicating this complicated piece of bad news with a look.

Of course, Rose is here as well, but she's not quite her usual self.  That's all to the good: she's more of a Doctor stand-in, all technobabble and not-telling-anyone-her-name, which is a neat (if again, broad) example of people stepping up when the Doctor is no longer around.  (It's not due to his death, however, so it doesn't really count as one of those Buffy, alternate-reality-character-developy things.)  I've no idea where her see-the-future abilities are coming from, but then, we don't know how she gets between universes all of a sudden either.  Maybe they'll explain it later.  (Audience laughter.)

Rose is mostly here to set up the finale, which is largely what this episode amounts to: a stock-take of prior Doctor Who events, plus the implication that it's all leading somewhere bigger and worse; Donna's a part of it, and she needs to get there.  Even Donna's "importance" is largely an advert for next week's episode.  But Russell T Davies knows how to build excitement, and the bludgeoning awfulness of the non-Doctor world, along with Donna's increasing need to do something about it, gives the episode a momentum separate from the finale stuff.  Despite the connections, Turn Left is its own story, hence its own review.  (You hear me, Utopia?)

It's all a bit obvious.  Well, it's all a lot obvious.  (Labour camps?)  But overall, it's like Wilf telling Donna she can't fix the world just by shouting at it.  She may not be able to fix the episode, either – but she can try.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Magical Misery Tour

Doctor Who
Midnight
Series Four, Episode Ten


Let's say you're the showrunner and head writer for Doctor Who.  (Let's call you Bertram, er, Davies.)  You're a busy man (or woman – Beatrice?), and you've got thirteen scripts a year (on a good year) to write, or rewrite, or otherwise put into production, or all of the above.  You realise quite late in the day that one of them doesn't work.  No one else is available to fill that slot, so... surprise!  You've got to write a new one.  Oh, and you're shooting the series by this point, so licketty-split, Bertram.

This happens occasionally.  Notable replacement episodes include Boom Town and Fear Her, and neither is entirely without its charms (although Fear Her comes pretty close, and that was another writer), but both have got varying degrees of obviously-not-their-first-choice syndrome.  And then there's Midnight.  Written in something like a week, shot on a smallish amount of money and only featuring half the main cast (so, one of them), it's not exactly your blockbuster episode.  But if you didn't know better, you might not think it was a replacement at all.  (And I only know better because I read The Writer's Tale.  Sorry to keep banging on about it, but if you're watching Series Four you'd be mad not to read it.)

"Okay, Russell, it's a replacement episode, let's save some money.
EXT: BEAUTIFUL CGI LANDSCAPE, MADE OF DIAMONDS.
...Hi, Russell?  It's Russell.  What the hell are you doing?"
The Doctor takes a bus ride on an alien planet.  Donna's busy sunbathing, so it's just him and his fellow travellers.  They encounter something sinister – something outside, knocking on the walls, except no life can exist here.  It gets inside somehow, and into one of the passengers.  Things escalate.  And that's it: a short play, in real time for the last two thirds, wringing the tension out of a small cast on a tiny set.

Admittedly this setup isn't massively original.  I've seen it compared to Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (which I've not seen), Russell T Davies apparently claimed inspiration from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, and in The Writer's Tale he mentions seeing Jeeper's Creepers 2 and jokes that the writers must have stolen his idea and gone back in time with it.  But Doctor Who is versatile enough, in theory, to take any old setup and make it special.  You just make it Doctor Who.

What Midnight does is examine the Doctor's effect on other people.  Nearly every episode has him wading into a group of strangers and assuming command.  How does he do it?  Usually by appealing to their better natures and making them feel safe.  There's always a degree of trust involved, rounded off with characters dazedly wondering who the hell he is, generally as an afterthought.  Midnight is what happens when that doesn't work: when the psychic paper doesn't cut it and "I'm clever" isn't reassuring in the slightest.  And it's not exactly without precedent.  I'm forever moaning about how David Tennant's Doctor tries to get people to listen to him with no success.  Maybe it's the increased reliance on the sonic screwdriver or the psychic paper, both of which anybody could use with at least some success, but this Doctor never seemed all that influential to me anyway.  He's just very friendly and quite loud.

That said, it's a bit of a stretch that For One Night Only absolutely no one listens to him in the slightest – you may wonder how he's gone this long without being strung up.  The time it takes everyone else to go from "scared" to "let's kill the alien" is terrifying, yet also (thanks to the runtime) chucklesomely brief.  We're talking twentyish minutes here; these guys would tear each other's throats out in the queue at the chip shop.  It's probably A Sobering Examination Of The Dark Side Of Human Nature, but it's extremely pessimistic if it is.

Then again, this isn't the normal Doctor Who setup, since the Doctor's on his own.  Perhaps Midnight is A Sobering Examination Of Why The Doctor Needs Someone To Vouch For Him?  It may not be much, but having Donna on hand to say "I know he seems like a dipstick but trust me, he's clever", or at least "I vote not to kill the alien", might have made a big difference to the group hysteria.  In that sense, it's a very successful episode.  The Doctor clearly shouldn't leave the house without her.  (But then, she's great, so what else is new?)

All this arguing over throwing someone out, but if they do,
what's to stop The Intangible Knocking Thing coming right back in?
If this were a horror movie, it would end with: knock, knock, knock... 
While it is a bit of a leap that this group of people agrees to murder someone in the time it takes to watch an episode of Friends, it's still incredibly tense.  The "monster" is the ultimate in budget-saving technology, i.e. we never see it.  The driver thinks he saw something (I'll bet you went back and looked!), then there's a knocking on the outside (simple and scary), then it possesses one of them, who begins to copy everything anyone else says.  Slowly, the copying gets closer in time to what's being said, until she's speaking at the same time.  And then she speaks first, before the Doctor.  It's a brilliant, novel way to handle a possession story, and a brilliant, creepy way to create tension in a small room.  (Shut up!  SHUT UP!  Right, that's it, let's do a murder!)  It's also mysterious enough that it remains interesting, with the Doctor unsure whether the creature is evil or just trying to communicate.  You'll figure that out: Lesley Sharp does an amazing job with the looped dialogue, but also at scaring the hell out of her fellow passengers (and us) just by looking at them.  After she "swaps" with the Doctor, who's rendered motionless as he now copies what she's saying, her performance takes another devious turn, full of creepy little nuances.  Keep an eye on the lighting, which singles her out sinisterly.

All the while, David Tennant sits there unable to move.  Another thing I often bang on about (I'm beginning to sound like I take pots and pans everywhere) is how David Tennant is less effective the more over the top he is.  Following that logic, this is his best performance ever.  He is seriously brilliant early on, trying to get the others to listen and watching his efforts land like tossed blancmanges, but it's the final minutes of the struggle, as he's paralysed, listening to the conspiracy against him and repeating his own death sentence when he's at his best.  It's a stunning, gripping, lots-of-words-ending-in-ing performance, about as restrained as it's possible to be without clamping his mouth shut, and all the more potent for it.  The moment where he makes a relatively enormous effort to save his own life – sticking his foot out – is more compelling than anything he could have done with the screwdriver.  It's seriously good stuff.

The rest of the passengers are interesting enough, in particular David Troughton as Professor Hobbes.  (He's a wonderful actor, but I can't not geek out over how much he sounds like Troughton Senior.)  However, they're not exactly rounded.  The tensions running between them are amped up at super-speed, because we haven't exactly got all day.  (And also, as I may have mentioned, this was written in a week.)  This is particularly egregious when the Doctor says "I'm just a traveller, that's all", and one of the surlier passengers responds: "Like an immigrant?"  (Wince!  Doctor Who is good at lots of things, but subtext is apparently not one of them.)  There's still some room for complexity, as even though nobody's listening to the Doctor there's still one or two who notice that Lesley Sharp isn't what she seems, and then act on it without his influence.  But ultimately, one-note-to-quite-good as the others are, this is mainly a two-hander between Tennant and Sharp.  Both are amazing.

Midnight is a concentrated effort to create tension, and though it takes a few shortcuts to get there, and raises some worrying questions about the current Doctor's usefulness, it is utterly effective at that.  Just bear in mind you may need a lie down and a cuddle afterwards.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Shh!

Doctor Who
Silence In The Library and Forest Of The Dead
Series Four, Episodes Eight and Nine


When you watch something like Doctor Who, which usually has some element of mystery, it's inevitably going to lose something on repeat viewings.  Silence In The Library is no exception: the plot has a couple of big surprises and on the second go, they're blown, so the rest of it has to keep your interest.  But that's just telly for you (or rather, DVDs), so I try to approach each episode with a fresh(ish) perspective, forgetting my old opinions as best I can and pretending it's all new.  When the "Tada!" moments roll around, I can vaguely recall any surprise I felt the first time, even if I can't quite repeat it.

However.

It begins.
This isn't just a story about monsters invading a library.  It's the first appearance of River Song, a time-traveller the Doctor hasn't met yet, who subsequently appeared in twelve episodes, spanning four years.  Circa 2013 she's an integral part of who the Doctor is, but with her story running in (vaguely) reverse order, it ends here, where it started.  There's no way to "forget" the emotional context they added later, which of course was the plan.  This story worked great in 2008, but after watching River's (not to mention the Doctor's) story play out over years, it's on another level entirely.  Talk about planning ahead.

It's fitting that these episodes aired just after Steven Moffat was named as the next showrunner.  On the one hand you've got River, a walking statement of intent (full of references to adventures that hadn't been written yet), and on the other, there's a bunch of ideas you've already heard, acutely remixed.  It's Moffat's Greatest Hits – coming soon, all this and more!

First and foremost, a monster that taps into a fundamental childhood fear: the dark.  The Vashta Nerada are swarms of little things that hunt in shadows.  (They're also "the dust in sunbeams".  Sweet dreams.)  Cross shadows and die, basically.  This is a superb idea on paper which, let's face it, recalls the Weeping Angels.  (Blinking is still not recommended.)  But they suffer in execution, because do you have any idea how many shadows there are around you at all times?  Never mind on TV, where lightning is a full-time profession, and in a story set in a predominantly dark building.  "Count the shadows," says the Doctor, but I advise you not to bother.  The characters cross shadows.  They're covered in shadows.  They stand in shadows, looking in terror at other shadows.  The whole thing is hilariously unworkable.

The script does its best to wriggle around their limitations, but those are never exactly clear.  Since they're not really shadows (you heard the bit about sunbeams, right?), why can't they just swarm all over everybody?  Soon, they start getting into people's spacesuits, ergo Vashta Nerada zombies.  Okay, bring on the toy sales, but why bother doing the easy-to-run-away-from Shaun Of The Dead shuffle?  Why not just shadow the hell out of every room they're in?  Nothing stops them in the long run – for instance, space helmets, but people keep using them anyway, while the Vashta Nerada dither arbitrarily over how long to wait for dinner.  Again they are like Moffat's Angels: Unstoppable, But Thankfully Not Trying Too Hard.

It's a bloody good thing they're so easy to reason with.  The Doctor only has to mention his name (and accompanying rep) to earn a day's escape time for everyone on the planet.  Problem (instantly) solved, shame he didn't come up with it earlier.  I wonder if they will regret it when they realise there's nothing left to eat.  (Then again, what have they been eating for the past hundred years?)

The nodes should be creepy, but honestly, they're just funny.
They look like Haribo eggs.  Also Catherine Tate looks like
she's about to corpse.  And hang on, how's her face on there?
She's still got it at the end.
But wait, back up: I've missed a Moffat's-Greatest-Hit!  When a space-suited person dies, their consciousness lingers, or "ghosts", which gives the monsters another trope to frighten us with, the repetitive catchphrase.  "Are you my mummy?"  Er, better make that: "Who turned out the lights?"  This works reasonably well (although it is a bit annoying and seriously, I saw The Empty Child already), but then, it's more melancholy than scary.  It's a sign that someone has died, regardless of whether they've also turned into something scary, and Moffat lets that sink in.  Which brings us back to the Library, and the general tone of the story, which is one of loss.

The Library covers an entire planet, and it's empty.  The Doctor receives a "cry for help" on the psychic paper.  (We know it does text messages, god knows how.)  A team of archaeologists arrives, including the mysterious River Song.  (She sent the message – with a kiss!)  Soon it's a case of dodge-the-Vashta-Nerada (and we know how well that works), but there's more going on here.  Somewhere, a little girl watches the Library in her dreams, and on television.  There's a world out there, and it has something to do with the 4,000 mysteriously missing book-lovers, who've all been "saved" somehow.  Then, in a terrifying moment where a companion actually screams (they never proper scream any more), Donna is teleported to the TARDIS... but it goes wrong, and she vanishes.  "Donna Noble has been saved," says the little girl.

All that little-girl stuff is fabulously disconcerting, especially the way it's slightly out of sequence with the rest of the episode.  Moffat plays with time here, and it's fun to keep up.  Of course, that's nothing to Forest Of The Dead when we catch up with Donna.  Marooned in a suburban existence somewhere, she's cared for by Dr Moon (the benevolent Colin Salmon) and meets a man, Lee.  But she can't help noticing how time keeps skipping.  Almost like it's being edited together.  This is a brilliant way to evoke a dream-world, and it's downright ingenious to use editing, which we mostly take for granted, as a part of the story.

On the surface, all of this is just something to keep Donna busy while the Doctor gets on with the (more pivotal) River Song plot.  But it's a great window into Donna's mind.  She wants a normal life and a family, and she's happy, but she instinctively knows something's wrong.  (Shades of The Matrix here, thankfully no bullet time.)  Still, even when she finds out the truth, she doesn't want to lose her "children".  The moment she does – they vanish in a well-edited instant – is a brutal, nightmarish horror.  We don't know these kids, and we know they're not "real", but Catherine Tate still makes their loss feel genuine.  (And once again, can she scream!)

The Library was built by this guy's grandfather for his youngest daughter,
to house her dying mind and give her books to read.  But the Library
was abandoned 100 years ago.  How old is this guy?
Of course, it turns out the little girl is the Library's central computer.  This returns us to the issue of "Tada" moments and how they work in hindsight; I can't remember how obvious this one was, but seeing the girl double as a floating security camera is a pretty big hint, and that's fairly early on.  Similarly, "saved" is pretty easy to work out.  We're a computer savvy bunch, are we not?  What does "saved" usually mean, if not something to do with hard drives?  If you've seen an episode or two of Star Trek – and we know they have, what with mind melds and warp drives – you'll probably figure out what that's got to do with teleporters as well.  (Divert all power to the pattern buffer, Cap'n!)

Some of the story's "big" reveals seem a little dragged out, especially when you're ahead of the game.  See also the Vashta Nerada telling the Doctor their forests are located in the Library, to his utter bewilderment.  You'll be screaming "BOOKS ARE MADE OF PAPER YOU MORON" for ages before he finally gets the message.  (Incidentally, stop shouting at the TV, he can't hear you.  Weirdo.)

Once the cat's out of the bag about the Library "saving" people, the plot really begins to wobble.  The Vashta Nerada must have been losing Steven Moffat's interest, because he tosses in a 20-minute countdown-to-self-destruct, pretty much for the hell of it.  (Seriously?  A self-destructing library?)  With the Vashta Nerada sent packing ("Please stop."  "No."  "I'm the Doctor."  "Okay then."), it's now just an issue of hoiking people out of the computer.  Cue DavidTennanttalkingreallyfastbecauseplot, and the revelation that there isn't enough memory to make this happen, so the Doctor must plug himself into the machine to add another brainsworth of RAM, all before the place explodes (which they can't stop because um).  River can't let him do this – it would cancel out all their subsequent adventures – so she takes his place.

This is somewhat undermined by not making any sense.  If a computer the size of a planet's core does not have enough memory to do the job, what difference can a brain make?  But that doesn't stop it being an incredible, horrible moment.  This is River Song, a character I've known for years, killing herself to save a Doctor who doesn't know her.  From a 2008 perspective, it's a powerful reminder that the Doctor has a future he is powerless to prevent.  Literally – he's handcuffed in place.  We don't see River's death, but the Doctor's reaction is enough to hit home the tragedy of what just happened.  From a 2014 perspective, there's an extra emotional layer, and Alex Kingston plays it all just ambiguous enough that it totally fits.  It's a gut-punching conclusion to the story they went on to tell, woolly and all-over-the-place as that was.  It's one of Steven Moffat's best time travel ideas, and it's just getting better with age.

River is, of course, another Moffat trope: he toyed with "meeting people in the wrong order" back in Blink, but it's the whole show this time, and it's a dazzling reminder that the Doctor is a time traveller, and time travel is complicated.  It's great to actually think about that once in a while, rather than just using the TARDIS as a taxi to this week's plot.  Kingston makes us believe she knows him.  David Tennant sells the horror of an omniscient man not knowing how it ends, particularly in the moment where she whispers his name.  It's a brilliant performance from both of them.

I'm often underwhelmed by Ten, but this whole sequence
is made of wow.
And of course, the Doctor loses somebody he's only just met – big whoop, happens all the time, but this time it works.  It's not a direct callback to The Girl In The Fireplace, where he met a woman in the wrong order and then bittersweetly lost her, but there are similarities.  Frankly, I didn't care when Reinette died.  Who?  This time, not knowing what he's lost is part of the tragedy.

Donna has a similar, gruelling experience.  When both characters stand around at the end watching the happy survivors teleport to safety, it feels as if something real and meaningful has been gained and lost in the space of these episodes.  That's a big deal for Doctor Who, which often has to rush its emotional journeys.  While Moffat cannot ultimately resist bringing back River and her co-workers in the Library world – "Everybody lives!", which just so happens to be another of his little storytelling habits – it doesn't make much difference to the Doctor or Donna.  It's a Happy Ending, but the emotional thud is left reassuringly in place.  Phew.  (And it's not that happy for River, though this may not have occurred to Moffat: she's spending eternity with her not-so-scintillating colleagues, including the one nobody liked.  Oh well, at least their boss isn't invited.)

There's a lot of familiar stuff here, and not all of it works, but more important are the big ideas: there's change and heartbreak.  And let's not forget the usual witty, Moffaty dialogue, subsequently batted into the stratosphere by Tennant, Tate and everyone else.  I can't pick a favourite.  There's: "Oh, you're not, are you?  Tell me you're not archaeologists."  "Got a problem with archaeologists?"  "I'm a time traveller, I point and laugh at archaeologists."  And there's: "Sonic it!  Use the thingy!"  "I CAN'T, IT'S WOOD."  "What, it doesn't do WOOD?"  And also: "Oh, I'm Pretty Boy?"  "YES.  Ooh, that came out a bit quick."  But then: "Doctor, we haven't got any helmets."  "Yeah, but we're safe anyway."  "How are we safe?"  "We're not, that was a clever lie to shut you up."  The cast is small, and the story very melancholy, but they all have their funny moments.  Despite the buckets of Time Traveler's Wife pathos, River is foremost among them.  "Professor Song, why am I the only one wearing my helmet?"  "I don't fancy you."

It's a bit of a mixed bag.  Nonetheless, where it's good, it's amazing.  Coming soon...

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Pluck Tales

Doctor Who
The Unicorn And The Wasp
Series Four, Episode Seven


I say, what's this?  A trip back in time to meet a famous person, written by Gareth Roberts?  Goodness me.  What will they think of next?

Working title:
The Two Unconnected Plot Elements.
Stop me if you've heard this one.  The Doctor and Rose Martha Donna arrive in Victorian England Victorian Scotland Elizabethan England 1920s England, where they immediately meet Charles Dickens Queen Victoria William Shakespeare Agatha Christie.  Rose Martha Donna says things like "och aye" "verily, forsooth" "top hole", the Doctor says "Don't do that".  He then tells Charles Dickens William Shakespeare Agatha Christie how great he she is, because he's a massive fan and coincidentally he she is having a crisis, so cheers for that.  William Agatha overhears a few references to his her later works, and of course he she will end up using those.  But there's a famous mystery looming: Queen Victoria kept refining the Koh-i-Noor William Shakespeare wrote an unperformed play called Love's Labours Won Agatha Christie went missing for a week.  This is inexorably tied to the sudden appearance of ghosts werewolves witches a giant wasp, for which there is a scientific explanation.  Sure enough, the witches the giant wasp is directly inspired by the work of Shakespeare Christie, because he she is the most human human who ever lived the greatest mind ever.  To prove the point, our heroes tell Dickens Shakespeare Christie his her work will live on forever.

The Unicorn And The Wasp takes unoriginality to very nearly impressive lengths.  Everything is as knowingly expected as in one of those audience-participation Sound Of Music things; they even joke about the likelihood of meeting Charles Dickens and some ghosts at Christmas.  Not content with a homage, the plot plainly revolves around the seen-it-all-before-ness of a Cluedo murder mystery.  (As for the monster's fixation on Christie's books, could this be the J.K. Rowling episode that never was?)  Granted, there is a certain amount of fun to be had waiting for the inevitable references and "Don't do that"s, but all of that's a poor substitute for something new.  This is Doctor Who.  They could do "something new" every week.  Why don't they?

And yet...

Maybe I'm just punch-drunk from the universe-bending weight of derivativeness on display (derivativity?), but The Unicorn And The Wasp works.  It's so aware of its trappings that, mostly free from the burden of making anything up, all its energy goes on the delivery.  The cast, the direction and the writing all add tons of pluck; the thing zips along like a ruthlessly-targeted spoof.

A fair amount of its success rests on the TARDIS crew.  We all know Catherine Tate is a naturally funny person, and that frequently peeks out of her performance as Donna, but it's by no means all there is to her – and quite right, since she's a proper actress and everything.  But The Unicorn And The Wasp finally allows her to go straight for laughs and, bouncing off David Tennant who's happily at home here, it's like The David and Catherine Show.  I'd watch that!

Totally settled into her TARDIS life, Donna is on appallingly good form from the start.  "You can tell what year it is just by smelling?"  "Oh yeah."  "Or, maybe that big vintage car coming up the drive gave it away?"  She also offers pithy put-downs under her breath.  "He snatched Lady Babbington's pearls right from under her nose!"  "Funny place to wear pearls."  And she makes wry comments on the events around her, such as when she notices a clandestine love affair between two men.  "Typical.  All the decent men are on the other bus."  The dialogue is just sublime.  That's one of the pluses of comedy, and one of the reasons it's underrated in Doctor Who: in comedy it is often more important not to put a word out of place.  And Donna's reactions throughout – spotting the giant wasp, "I don't mean it's big!", and munching food excitedly as the Doctor and Agatha make their accusations – make the whole episode that much funnier.

"So the killer does all the murders with what's to hand?  Pipes, statues, knives?"
"Yep.  They're all totally Agatha Christie references.  Go me."
"Okay.  So... why make the killer a giant wasp, then?"
"..."
Donna also makes the Tenth Doctor more enjoyable by proxy, as ever, but Tennant's no slacker at comedy.  His dialogue's just as spiffy: "Inspector Smith, Scotland Yard.  Miss Noble is the plucky young girl who helps me out."  And he has a bundle of really funny inflections, like coming across a clue and shouting "MAIDEN!" excitedly, but still having no idea what it means.  The scene where he gets poisoned might be a direct yoink from Young Frankenstein ("HARVEY WALLBANGER?"), but they both sell it.  It's a good episode for the Doctor overall, as he's simultaneously humbled (because it's a murder mystery and he's no Agatha Christie, even with the psychic paper), and clever (because he's the Doctor and he knows what kind of alien we're dealing with).  He plays off of Fenella Woolgar's Christie beautifully.  (More on her in a minute.)

The supporting cast have plenty of moments to shine.  In particular, the alibis scene with all the flashbacks: a moment where the Colonel gets distracted and has a flashback within a flashback is a particular highlight.  But then, this is an episode about Agatha Christie, and much rests on getting her right.  Although I've seen lots of things inspired by her work, I've never read or seen any of her actual stuff – so all the references to "sparkling cyanide," "the moving finger points", "this crooked house" and so forth made as much sense to me as accidentally switching channels.  However, Fenella Woolgar gives a delicately troubled-yet-excitable performance as Christie.  She radiates intelligence and she seems real.  Dean Lennox Kelly's cartoony William Shakespeare is all but forgotten.

Agatha's story is reasonably well handled (albeit with requisite David-Tennant-gabbling-to-fill-the-gaps at the end), but it's not much of a murder mystery.  Let's face it, you're never going to guess that someone once had a love affair with a giant wasp.  Just by virtue of being Doctor Who this flunks the rules of a proper whodunit – which Agatha seems to recognise, as she is flummoxed by the sci-fi elements.  But hey, I've read some Sherlock Holmes stories that relied on somewhat random (and very detailed) character histories being divulged right at the end, so there's some precedent here.  Arguably.  The whole "accusing parlor" scene is a total showstopper, regardless, and I enjoyed the sad story lovingly unspooled at the end of it.  Like the rest of the episode, it's all sumptuously directed and pretty to look at.

I should probably mention the giant wasp.  So: that's a bit random, isn't it?  I'm guessing it has something to do with Agatha Christie?  (The book cover at the end.)  The CGI's very good and, though your mileage may vary, I thought the transformations of the human character into their wasp form (I won't say who it is!), complete with going "zzz" at the end of certain words, though risky, totally worked.  It's not as if it's the silliest thing here.  Wasps don't exactly follow on from the likes of ghosts, werewolves and witches (were zombies unavailable?), but I'd be barking mad to complain about something being different for once, however picked-out-of-a-hat it feels.

I'm not sure how many more times Doctor Who can get away with plots that resemble Madlibs, especially with this one scraping the wallpaper from the (now crumbling) fourth wall.  For now, it only matters that the formula is put entertainingly to work.  It's how you tell 'em, and The Unicorn And The Wasp ought to elicit no complaints in that department.