Sunday, 6 July 2008

DOCTOR WHO SERIES 4 (Part Two)



SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/ FOREST OF THE DEAD

Never one to shirk controversy, I’m willing to stick my head on the block and call Stephen Moffat a quite good Doctor Who writer. It’s only surprising how few others have noticed this…

This two-parter partly reminded me of The Matrix, only in a good way. After hordes of horrific copycats, including some by the makers of The Matrix, you need that qualifier! But like The Matrix it divided everything into two realities, then signifies the ‘real’ reality (where people do normal things) as fake and the big adventure one as real. It’s quite literally the TV adventure show which is the real thing here! Moffat even extended to convention by metafictionally lumbering ‘real’ reality with storytelling devices, such as jump-cutting.

By this point Moffat’s mofits are starting to show, for example the innocuous phrase turned into sinister catchphrase ("are you my catchphrase?", "Hey, who chose my catchphrase?"), or its corollary the hysterical cry repeated in modulated tones. Does this mean that in three years time we'd be as glad to see the back of Moffat as much as Davies? Possibly, except many of Davies' devices were bad news to start with. (Deux est machina = Latin for cheating.) A better example might be Chris Claremont, people found his scripts fresh at first but the faster and faster he was made to churn them out made them old fast. Maybe Moffat shouldn't write any more episodes per series than he is currently.

MIDNIGHT

A combination of the fact we know this to be the budget episode and the trailer suggested we were to get something of a rip-off, specifically of the classic Twlight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,00 Feet- so it was a pleasantly surprise when what appeared was a more intelligent homage to another episode entirely, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.

Personally, I’m always a sucker for claustrophobic/cabin fever stories so I was away. I didn't quite understand the point of the trip if they couldn't even look outside once they got to the emerald waterfall, but...

Perhaps the moment which sums up the episode’s effectiveness is when the woman is first taken over by the monster. As she slowly turns to face us we naturally expect some sort of rubber mask, but the spooky expression she makes merely with her own face is much more effective. It was fitting for the 'monster' to stay unexplained (what was its relationship to the Sky woman? etc), and we can only hope they don't retrofit some post-hoc bollocks onto it later. With the whole point that it was the Wormtongue thing which could make you think and do the worst, to explain it would just undermine it. It’s also cool the way the Doctor didn't solve everything, the second time they've done that this series. (After Planet of the Ood.)

Whilst watching the episode, I wondered how much more involving it would be if this wasn’t a Doctor Who story at all, if we didn’t know for sure whether the stranger was or wasn’t involved with us all. However, some people on the Barbelith board argued it was effective to see the Doctor deprived of his powers – after all we’re used to his power of persuasion being used almost as a super-power.

TURN LEFT

It's classic wish fulfilment stuff of course. If we'd just taken one random turn left instead of right, we wouldn't be working in offices but out living lives of adventure and saving the universe on a semi-regular basis. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As a measure of how much I liked this episode I don't have actual criticisms. But there's a few points I was a bit agnostic about...

i) I found the motives for the Trickster a bit obscure. (Assuming it doesn't turn out to have been on the side of Armageddon, which isn't suggested. It’s more like it was a mega-cardshark who came across Donna at random.)
ii) The series often foregrounds genre conventions. Normally you're not supposed to ponder on the likelihood of the Doctor meeting Donna twice, you just accept it as a story enabler. Then they suddenly pick it up and wave it at you. The risk here is that by flagging up some conventions they’ll expose and undermine all of them, and bring down the house of cards we’re watching.

iii) Perhaps relatedly, this episode was heavily reliant on past continuity. You even had to think why the Master and the Toclafane don't turn up. (Presumably because the Doctor going to the far future makes that happen.) While elements had previously been seeded, that tended towards the background and the episodes themselves worked pretty much standalone. It's true I happily watch serials where the very opposite is true (I've even watched Babylon 5 from time to time!), but I'm not sure that a series shouldn't come down on one side or the other.

Moreover, this question perhaps has an extra edge in the context of New Who. More than anything else, New Who has two sets of foundations – the old mass-broadcast family TV show, then the later novels and radio plays thrown to hungry fans whilst it was off the air. I had previously dismissed these (sight unseen) as fanwank, though I was later to discover some of my more favourite stories to be based in them. (For example, Family of Blood.) Nevertheless, while it will be forever pulled in the direction of its more vocal audience, the show neglects its general audience at its peril.

THE STOLEN EARTH

These grand finales can’t help but induce a split reaction in you. Throughout New Who, they’ve normally been eclipsed by seemingly more minor episodes. And that seems true of them taken as a whole, it’s not just a matter of the pay-offs not packing enough of a punch. Dalek was much more memorable than Parting of the Ways, Girl in the Fireplace than Doomsday and Blink than Last of the Time Lords. It’s as if Who was always an eccentricity, a quirk of scheduling which didn’t translate into the scale and portent of event TV. (True, the mid-season two-parters have often fared better, for example Silence in the Library from this very series.) And yet when you sit down before them, cup of tea in hand, you find your hopes are high…

This finale induced a big fear in particular – crowding. With so many guest stars (most from two spin-off series I don’t even watch) would there be room to actually do anything, or would this be the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards? This did become a problem, but not as much as might have been feared. While some complained the ‘subspace network’ was yet another contrivance, we needed such a contrivance if this was to be stitched together at all. But Davies’ real smart move was to remove the Doctor from most of the action; the more and more who reappear the more we’re reminded the Doctor isn’t there.

However, the one pointless reappearance and cul-de-sac of a subplot was the Juddoon. It’s already been established that they’re the only sort of police we’re ever going to get in the Whoniverse, rulebook-bashing meatheads who border on mercenaries. Now, for the first time in his many lives, the Doctor goes running for the fuzz? Then gets surprised when they react a bit like… um… the police might do? Neither do they actually help him solve the riddle, their ostensible purpose, so much as stand around while Tennant speed-dates some exposition. It would have made more sense and induced more tension to keep the Doctor offscreen rather than subject us to this.

Now you, me and everybody has had cause to complain Davies just writes big set-pieces stitched together by sci-fi gobbledygook. But then again those set-pieces don’t write themselves, and at times he exhibits a huge talent for them. When we look upon our heroes crestfallen faces as they hear the massed Daleks endlessly chanting “exterminate… exterminate…” it’s a memorable moment, a positive twist on the way they’ve been successively reduced to a catchphrase over the years. (Though admittedly its heartrending to try and imagine how much better that would have worked if we hadn’t been tipped off the Daleks were coming.)

Better still, this is smartly followed by a scene which suggests the very opposite. Though not picked up on by the good guys, there’s clearly murky goings-on in the world of Dalek politics. What might have been mere melodrama suggests a slightly unstable triangle between Davros, the Red Dalek and the insane, babbling Caan.

JOURNEY’S END

Okay, so Davies ain’t gonna quit those deux est machina devices anytime soon. We know going in that he’ll paint everyone into a corner, give us some feint about letting off a big bomb, after which it’s Donna’s go at becoming God - fixing everything then getting better. (Or more accurately, worse.) But why does it have to be yesterday’s card trick up his sleeve? What we get is a fusion of the ending of the first and second series, or possibly the second series upside down. Donna’s temporarily granted everything she was ever after, but this not only means she can never have it again – it has to unhappen, she has to be taken memory-less back to her former life, a kind of death.

But admittedly Davies is bringing back something which works. Donna’s entire plotline has throughout been classic wish-fulfilment, if a temp from Chiswick is ‘special’ enough to save the entire Universe then what price could be laid on you or me? (“You've had a life of work and sleep and telly, and rent and tax and takeaway dinners. All birthdays and Christmases and two weeks' holiday a year, and then you end up here.”) By embracing such wish-fulfilment, Davies hits the nail on the head.

And then what is there left to do to the nail but bend it? It’s perhaps ironic that after worlds have been moved and put back again, the most memorable scene is the Doctor telling her he’s off, her not really hearing and him walking out into the rain. Understatement can be the strongest language of all.

Onto other business… the Doctor’s ‘reincarnation’ was in itself merely manipulative. Davies had clearly thought there’s no point to a cliffhanger which ‘kills’ the Doctor, as we all know he won’t die. But he just might reincarnate – so let’s throw in that!

However, it did give us the subplot of the ‘other’ Doctor. There’s the nice scene when Davros triumphantly brings up something oft-mentioned by fans, that the Doctor merely outsources his destructiveness to others. The other Doctor is clearly his id, this destructiveness made manifest – as witnessed by his exterminating the Daleks. Unfortunately the episode is so busy that the plotline feels undeveloped. Though the proper Doctor registers his disapproval of this explosive solution, we really need a confrontation between them we don’t get. As in the genre conventions it foregrounds, it ends up almost proving the very rule it set out to undermine – in the absence of anyone else, the Doctor just conjures up another him to do the dirty deed.

And on the subject of underdeveloped subplots… It’s revealed that Davros is far from master of his creations. Though the Doctor taunts him as their ‘pet’, it seems more like he’s treated like an awkward grandfather, given his own flat from where he’s visited rarely. The supreme egoist might have preferred death to this dishonour. However this splendid revelation is dropped only to fall, it’s not really taken anywhere.

And what’s all this about the Daleks wanting to destroy the universe? Haven’t they previously clamoured to conquer, to press the rest of us into servitude? Isn’t one of the ironies of their limbless existence that they need slaves, to quite literally be their hands and feet? If they had reasoned that they were never likely to conquer the universe, that their failures had been too frequent, so instead they needed to burn Rome, that might have been a nice moment. As it was it pushed them back into the generic – they were simply bad aliens doing bad things, just so they could be stopped.

NOT MUCH OF A CONCLUSION...

After the distinctly below-par third series, this was something of a return to form. (Admittedly it had duff episodes, but Who always has and probably always will…) Whether this was Davies saving the good stuff up for his swan song is of course another thing but (as the saying goes) who cares?

5 comments:

  1. The RTD / Chris Claremont analogy is an interesting one. RTD doesn't overwrite his scripts like CC, but other than that... yes.

    Like you, I thought the issue of Davros' new role in Dalek society was ignored after being introduced and the character was wasted as a result. However, going back to the first appearance of the Daleks in New Who (Robert Sharman's 'Dalek'), they were presented then as Death Incarnate - their greatest desire being to kill, which correlates more with their mission this time... though makes them a difficult villain to write unless you sometimes give them another plan too (otherwise they'll just kill the Doctor as soon as they see him).

    Best thing about this latest Who - Bernard Cribbins. His final scene on Saturday made the whole series for me.

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  2. Thanks for the comments, Rol!

    However, going back to the first appearance of the Daleks in New Who (Robert Sharman's 'Dalek'), they were presented then as Death Incarnate - their greatest desire being to kill, which correlates more with their mission this time...

    I guess my objection is that the genocidal nature of the Daleks seem to come from purely schematic reasons, with nothing to do with their nature.

    First, and quite rightly, Davies needed something to knock the bloody Time Lords out the show. And as the Doctor's primary antagonist, the Daleks get given the job.

    Secondly, this is 'event TV' so subject to those hyperinflationary pressures where everything has to be bigger and BIGGER than before. It's not enough for the universe to be in danger, the multiverse had to be being destroyed. For product recognition reasons, the Daleks need to appear in the finale so the two get grafted together.

    But as I argued in my review of the first Dalek story, I think they worked best when given an element of pathos and worse when they were just guns with catchphrases. They can exterminate a flower but never pick a flower, that sort of thing. For that reason Dalek-the-episode is my favourite Dalek story from New Who.

    Best thing about this latest Who - Bernard Cribbins. His final scene on Saturday made the whole series for me.

    Lots of people have been saying that. I'll admit that pay-off scene is a pure "something-in-my-eye" moment, and certainly more than emoto-porn.

    But E Randy Dupre mentions something on the Barbelith board:

    Apparently, a scene cut from the episode quite late in the day showed Donna, at the very end of the episode, looking up from her phone call as the Tardis disappeared, recognising, on a low level, the sound it made, then returning to her chatter. If that had remained in, the whole end sequence would have been vastly improved. Otherwise, as it stands, the end of the episode feels like it just peters out.

    I've no idea whether he speaks truth there. But understatement usually does more for me than overstatement, and less is generally more than more.

    I love the bookend sequence in Brief Encounter, where we first just see the two silent characters in the railway cafe, being joined by an overly chatty woman. Then we go back to that scene at the end, exactly the way we left it, except now all the emotional substance has been filled in for us.

    Probably more Who-related stuff will follow...

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  3. I agree with you that the Daleks work better if they're not genocidal, but there is the whole bit in Genesis of the Daleks where Davros and the Doctor talk about a virus destroying everything in the Universe. So it's consistent with the latter part of the series. Heck, even in the first story, they were out to exterminate the Thals, not enslave them.

    The Trickster's motivations are explained in the Sarah Jane Adventures story where he appeared. The Trickster feeds on chaos. (Like the Angels in Blink, it apparently can nourish itself on metaphysical concepts. I sometimes think Davies-era Who should be labeled philosophical fiction rather than science fiction.) Of course, no points to Davies for not bringing it up in the episode itself.

    By the by, it's deus (god) ex (out of) machina (machine). Deux est machina means 'two is the machine' and is only two-thirds Latin (the other third French).

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  4. It's true that in the first story they even talk about the 'extermination' of the Thals, from whence that famous catchphrase came. (And of course it literally means to eradicate or destroy.) But there's a internal reason for this, they can only live on the surface of Skaro by making it uninhabitable for the Thals. That's not the same as the Bringer of Death stuff we got last week.

    And by their second showing (when they invade Earth), they explicitly offer humans life in exchange for servitude, and trade under the catchphrase "We are the masters of Earth!"

    Conceptually the two things aren't at odds - they could be purely destructive in intent whilst having an element of pathos. (In fact that's their first story pretty much summed up!) But it seems to me that historically speaking, the two things grow to be at odds...

    Thanks for clarifying the Trickster thing. (I don't watch either of the spin-offs.) Ironically this is a balance Davies normally strikes right, It was only when I started watching the old episodes when I realised how much he was referencing them, but in blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments which more regular viewers would simply glide over. Yet here he's assuming we know stuff we actually need to be told!

    And thanks for correcting my spelling! I suppose I could claim it was all to do with some Gnostic dualistic cult but... mea culpa, as they say in Germany. The only Latin I ever learnt was from the philosophical pirate in Asterix, so its no surprise I'd get something like that wrong.

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  5. Davies has been, in a way, writing more and more for fans as the years have progressed. Those last couple of episodes were pure fanwank, bringing back everybody from Davies's first four seasons, but there are also acres of references to the old series in every Davies script. I agree that he generally does this in a very unobtrusive way. One of my favorite bits, though, was when Davros refers to the Doctor as "the man who never carries a gun." Davros obviously has forgotten Resurrection of the Daleks when Peter Davison aimed a huge rifle at him, but then didn't have the guts to pull the trigger. (Though he happily engineered a virus to kill all the Daleks later in the episode.) Of course, Davros shouldn't be expected to remember the other couple of dozen times the Doctor carried a gun in the old series.

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