Monday, 30 June 2008

DOCTOR WHO SERIES FOUR (Part One)



PARTNERS IN CRIME

It would be less than entirely unreasonable to assume the brief for this episode was 'Supernanny turned into Alien Villain'. As I would rather New Who reference current trends than just recycle old monster outfits, I don’t consider that a bad idea. Plus, if they're going to 'do' other TV shows I'd rather they did it this way, than actual parodies of Trinny and Suzannah or The Weakest link. (The author is here thinking of no previous episode in particular.) But... Davies, we have a problem.

The problem isn’t the lightweight tone, whatever was cried in some fan circles. (With Catherine Tate previously known as a comedian, fans may have feared she marked a permanent resetting of the series.) Who is hardly stuff to take in deadly earnest, it normally features some comic elements and has featured out-and-out comedies before now.

The problems are much more specific. It’s largely an attempt at the ‘screwball’ comedies of old. These don’t normally have much of a socially important theme to get across. They’re more like watching tapdancing or ice skating, you don’t expect innovation, what you hope for is that the predictable is done with style and panache. Consequently they don’t tend to be just okay, they either come up with a chemistry which reacts or one which just falls flat.

This episode does perhaps achieve this at times (for example the Doctor and Donna’s mimed conversation across a room), but only intermittently. Worse, the problem was not that the episode was lightweight but that it was indecisive about how lightweight it should be. Was it a dramatic episode with comic moments, the reverse or neither? A telling feature is that it can’t really decide how evil the Adipose or their Nanny are supposed to be. It’s nearest neighbour would be Boom Town, though admittedly it wasn’t as risible as that particular low point.

And one final complaint, call me a fundamentalist, but I don't like the
idea of the Doctor as some sort of Cosmic Detective going on
missions and investigating irregularities. The true Doctor should be a wanderer, and trouble should find him. He’s a personality, not a job!

Undoubted highlight: surprise reappearance of Rose. Even though you knew she was coming…

FIRES OF POMPEII

After the first few scenes, this put paid to any lingering fears that we were now watching a comedy show. Which was cleverly done, except the joke anachronistic dialogue worked against them when they wanted more gravitas later on. "These people are going to die? But they're only characters from a toga sitcom in the first place!"
But overall this was a quite strong episode. I'm not sure the intervention thing made much sense beyond "the Doctor can intervene when the scriptwriter says he can, just not when he doesn't". But the emphasis was on the emotional effect that had on the characters. You naturally assume the eruption was just being hidden from the soothsayers by the sinister aliens, stopping you seeing the twist coming. Equally, returning to rescue the family makes little sense. Is the worth of a human life measured in screen time? But it’s dramatically effective!

And were the two conceptions of time borne out by the sides? Were the rock-based Pyrovile intended to represent a fixed, linear perspective on time, while the Doctor introduces chaos and flux?

PLANET OF THE OOD

I suspect this won't go down well with Who fandom in general, who seemed to take against the upfront political allegory in Aliens of London. It’s quite clearly (at one point explicitly) an analogy for slavery. The references to the Circle, for example, presumably come from 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' while the Great Galactic Empire… well, I expect you got that one yourself.

Some elements did seem to be present purely to stop it getting too literal, as a kind of self-denying schema. (I’d guess it was set somewhere icy to make it as much the opposite of Africa as possible.) But it also understood the point of using analogy is that you can deliberately distort the mirror to make your points the more sharply. Making the Ood a kind of telepathic hive-mind contrasted them against the single-minded entrepreneur who would enslave them.

It seemed to give the Doctor very little to do, bar witness events then switch off the bombs as an afterthought. This may have come through political correctness, wanting to avoid a ‘white-man-frees-the-slaves’ plotline. But again, it carried with it its own effectiveness. On a story—function level you’re waiting from the off for the Butler Ood to go all red-eye, then are caught out by the twist. And the twist itself, if not carried out by the Doctor, fitted well in the Whoniverse – a piece of poetic justice and an ironic twist on the ‘all men are brothers’ saying. Was there a kind of underlying contrast between the red-eye Malcom X Ood and the more patient Martin Luther King Ood?

SONTARAN STRATEGEM/THE POISON SKY

If we accept that Partners in Crime tried to do something a bit different just not very successfully, this was Who so formulaic as to be generic. Worse, with decades of back-history to raid, and just about any other film or series fit for plunder, why recycle things we’ve only just seen? Aliens hiding their sinister machinations in modern technology – what a novel and innovative idea, I wonder why no-one’s thought of that before! Ho hum…

At times it even felt like a remix of other episodes, scenes we've seen rearranged into a different order. Telling indeed was the extended 'mystery' of who was behind this plot, complete with cut-to shots of malevolent hands, rendered slightly less mysterious by being given away in the title. What happens here is the sort of stuff that's supposed to happen in Doctor Who, with no need to give the matter further thought.

Worse, while I’m not an old-show fundamentalist nor have some sentimental attachment to low budgets, in the Radio Times they contrasted the modern Sontarans against the first appearance…and really gave the game away. (Similar examples below.) One looks more realised, less thrown together, while the other draws it appeal precisely through looking rough and unfinished. As Timothy Hyman argued in his essay A Carnival Sense of the World “such grotesque figures may be best understood as conscious repudiations of the closed body of the Renaissance, in which all protuberances will be smoothed down, all apertures closed.” These Sontarans looked smoothed, and there is no better way of summing up this storyline.




Best bit? The Doctor deducing from the off who the interloper is, but not bothering to say.

THE DOCTOR’S DAUGHTER

As mentioned under Fires of Pompeii, it’ s possible to ignore lapses of logic in favour of dramatic truth. There are limits, however…

i) If both sides in this war can just keep cloning themselves for extra infantry, why get so excited when some
strangers pass by to clone? If they materialised inside the Royal Mint, would everyone look up and say "look, people with a bit of cash on them?"
ii) Why were the Hath there anyway? It might have made some sense if it was a water-world but no mention of that. As soon as one comes across anything resembling a liquid he promptly drowns in it!
iii) How come Time Lords understand any language in the universe apart from bubbly ones?

As soon as you get the 'two warring sides' set-up there's no real doubting where all this is going. And how's it all fixed? The Doctor scattering more bloody magic pixie dust!!! Can't we have a pixie dust embargo for the rest of the series now?

There were however, some counterbalancing nice bits:
i) The generations-not-years twist. (Even if it didn't make much logical sense it served to underline the horror of war rather than just repeat it - "Yeah, gotcha! War bad.")
ii) The Doctor arguing with his daughter about whether he's a warrior or not. It’s cool the way the series can sometimes questions its own hero.
iii) Martha's first scenes with the Hath where she's not sure what to make of them.

UNICORN AND THE WASP

If Partners in Crime confused itself over which tone it was using, this episode got similarly indecisive about a bigger question - what genre it was employing. It’s the difference between not knowing what mood you’re in and not knowing what you’re doing. It simply couldn’t decide whether it was a pastiche or an example of the Christie genre, while either option might have done.

There were plenty of examples of parody (the lead piping, the Doctor milking the ‘revelation’ scene). But we also seemed expected to take the whodunnit business seriously. For that to work, it has to be conceivable that we could get it. The best whodunnits aren’t those where you say “what a brilliant unguessable twist”, they’re where you kick yourself for not having got it – “oh of course it was him!” That doesn’t square well with shape-shifting carpet-pulling alien who can bend the rules of reality and do impossible, unguessable things. You can combine whodunnits with SF, but they tend to go with hard SF (Asimov etc) or somewhere where you canna bend the laws of physics. They don’t tend to go well with Doctor Who and it’s “timey wimey stuff.”

The story was so clearly retrofitted around the Christie cover you didn’t cry “of course” so much as “so that’s where all this nonsense came from.” (Contrast this final revelation with the one from Girl in the Fireplace.) The only exception seems to be the title. It’s not clear where that came from, but it was clearly invented before it had grafted onto it the pointless appendage of the Unicorn subplot – not so much a red herring as stinky.

But what really rankled was that it seemed permanently on the edge of exploring something interesting. Why is Christie still so popular a writer? Why is The Mousetrap or Cluedo so enduring? Is there some part of our brains that keeps wanting to go back to the Conservatory accompanied by the Candlestick? By metafictionally signposting that it was inserting itself inside that landscape, the episode was perpetually starting to ask what lies there which our minds find so appealing. As it was, instead of offering any insights in the genre, it failed to understand its most basic rules.

Compared to this, those Sontarans weren't smooth at all…

1 comment:

  1. I did object to Planet of the Ood's heavy-handed allegory. Major objection? The fact that one of the overseers actually used a whip on one of the Ood. This is obviously just to underline how evil the slavers are since there's no reason on earth to whip the entirely compliant Ood except sheer sadism.

    Doctor Who trod this ground at least twice before - the first Doctor story The Savages which was a nice little take on apartheid and slavery and the fourth Doctor story Warriors' Gate. Both were much more subtle and much more effective. The slavers in The Savages were thoroughly civilized and kindly people who didn't think they were doing anything wrong - the savages, after all, weren't terribly advanced and were giving their life energy for (in their view) a good cause. The slavers in Warriors' Gate were thoroughly bored and banal people just doing their jobs. (And it turns out the slaves, the Tharils, weren't quite the helpless victims they appeared, having long ago ruled their own ruthlessly oppressive empire before they received their comeuppance.)

    Planet of the Ood's allegory has cartoon villains and cartoon good guys. I don't necessarily object to cartoon villains and cartoon good guys if you're telling a simple action story, but it doesn't really work if you want to tell a moral allegory.

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