Sunday, 11 April 2010

LOOK WHO’S BACK!






No, really!  The TV happened to flick itself on the other Saturday night and I discovered that, despite the lack of fanfare, it seems there’s a new series of that Doctor Who thing going on.

Initial prejudices:

I never quite rode the widespread wave of excitement when Steven Moffat was announced Lead Writer. Of course, I’d enjoyed his episodes as much as anyone else. But he seems to have lodged himself into the fan mind as the good writer, the savior who was going to rescue the show as the Davies era got more and more excessive. (Some later Davies stories could have been titled ‘Doctor Who in an Exciting New Adventure Against The Law of Diminishing Returns.’) A few times I’ve seen ‘Family of Blood’ referred to as a Moffat episode, presumably because it was above-par and presumption kicked in. Yet at the same time, and as I argued after ‘Silence in the Library’: “By this point Moffat’s motifs are starting to show.” The whole thing seemed to carry the risk that we were banking in our expectations of Moffat just as he’d given up the best of what he had to offer. (And no writer should be seen as an endless generator of story ideas, after all. Fields need to be left fallow.)

Moreover, Moffat’s new broom seemed to be stopping short of a whole bunch of the old writers, including ones like Chris Chibnall whose work I never cared for. This seemed a little close to rearranging the deckchairs, to “same as the old boss.”

And first sight of Matt Smith’s new (should that be new new?) Doctor had left me similarly agnostic. I liked the principle by which the series was being given a root-and-branch reboot, with not just a new cast but a new credit sequence, logo and everything. But Smith’s look didn’t seem enough of a break from Tennant’s frenetic, exuberant show of a performance. (In a shameless piece of fanfic, I even created a characterisation for the Doctor entirely to be an ‘antidote’ to Tennant.)


’The Eleventh Hour’:

The first episode didn’t feel crammed so much as double-booked, straining to both introduce that new cast and run with a full storyline. Which is perhaps partly inevitable, the same thing happened to ‘Rose’. (The last time an entirely new cast had to be fitted into a regular-sized episode.) So I withheld from print and judgement until Moffat had two episodes under his belt.

But what was more concerning was the way the story seemed to confirm my fears. It was very much a mash-up of episodes Moffat had already written, ‘Girl in the Fireplace’, ‘Empty Child’ and ’Smith and Jones’. (Okay, he didn’t actually write ‘Smith and Jones.’) Plus, as Andrew Hickey has noted, “the characters of Amy and Rory are more or less identical to the characters of Sally and Lawrence from ’Blink’.” Nowadays, you can get old episodes on DVD. There’s no need to keep remaking them.

With such demand on screen-time, you might expect Prisoner Zero, the obligatory monster, not to get much in the way of backstory. And in fact he doesn’t get any. But, more a source for concern, without it he seems to lack for motivation as well. You sometimes wondered if he’d been imprisoned for the crime of hanging round looking menacing, as he seems to do precious little else. (Or perhaps imprisoned simply because of this habit.)

On  Barbelith, Iamus comes up with a credible argument for what Prisoner Zero represents (scroll to 20:33 / 05.04.1 posting):

”Zero is not an alien from an intergalactic prison. Zero is the emotional residue left over from The Doctor's abandonment of Amy. That's his whole, sole purpose in this story. The dank and dilapidated little room he's been growing in for twelve years, the one that Amy is terrified to look at is the same as the one in her head that four psychiatrists told her to lock and ignore. “

...all of which is a very good argument. The monsters on this show are intended as id-creations, repressed parts of our own minds. Yet that “whole, sole” argument doubles back on itself. In an episode like ‘Dalek’ the Dalek not just represents the Doctor’s sublimated hatred and aggression, but is even able to draw them to the surface. Yet there the Dalek can be both, both alien and monster, both repressed self and antagonist. It is not a mere shadow but becomes a character in its own right, and even has a parallel journey to the Doctor’s. Zero, alas, is all too tellingly named.

However, the episode did contain some splendid snippets of dialogue, and some equally memorable images. (Such as the giant eyeball peering through the crack in the wall.) And the opening scene, where the Doctor meets the young Amelia, was (however derivative) almost sublime. Portraying the Doctor as part childhood fantasy, part unreliable blunderer, demonstrates a great insight into both character and series. What’s crucial is that, just as in Alice in Wonderland, the girl is made to take on the role of the adult, given the role of food provider, logically insisting “you said you liked apples”, patiently serving up fish fingers with custard even though she knows its weird.

’The Beast Below’:

Coming on more like a sequel to this first scene, The Beast Below made for a far better episode. True, it was still a little derivative, this time of ’End of the World’ and (even more) ’The Long Game’. But as Moffat wrote neither of those, and everyone agrees ’The Long Game’ was rubbish anyway, these seem smaller sins. (Thematically it’s also similar to ’Planet of the Ood’, but time enough to get into that.)

One masterful aspect of this episode was the setting, which kept up a long tradition of projecting a very British future. While New Who has, at it’s worst, strayed into pseudo-Hollywood brashness, this was very much our future. Incorporating quaintly retro elements like the London Underground signs or old BBC logos has a peculiar resonance. Surrealist objects such as lobster telephones are purely juxtapositional, they’re brought into existence exist simply because they shouldn’t be. But such settings get their peculiar resonance from being both absurd and fitting. Yes we’ll have spaceships, but they’ll still be slightly shabby. They will fly, but never quite on time.

There were perhaps functional problems with the premise. The concept is the elephant in the living room, the weasel in the cocktail cabinet - that a society based on a repressed truth will become riddled with petty repressions. (Given a visual correlative by the beast’s tentacles bursting everywhere.) But there’s logical incongruities. Why would a spaceship without an engine be run by fairground machines? Isn't the boy punished for poor school marks, nothing to do with spaceship propulsion? Perhaps you should expect such lapses from such a show, and just watch the sights.

A worse problem is the fact that it feels disjointed, like two different stories stuck together. The first is about the arbitrary rules the adult world presents itself as to a child. Grown-ups have such apparently capricious changes of mood that it seems they are forever showing different faces. At this point the young girl, Mandy, seems like the story focus. Yet, as soon as the mysterious Liz10 is revealed to be Queen, the focus switches to her – her attempts to solve the mystery, and ultimately her dilemma - which acts as an enhanced microcosm for everybody else’s. (In different ways, both introductory stories have felt like two halves stuck together. It suggests Moffat is writing down incidents and images as they come to him, then later stringing them into storylines. Whether this trend will continue remains to be seen.)

The episodes also finishes on one of Moffat’s patented motifs – the final reveal. Here we finally see what’s previously been hidden - the space whale and the city spaceship. Yet, while this reminds us of Moffat’s previous reveals, this time no harm is done. It doesn’t diminish what is on the screen before us now.

It was nice to see the Doctor’s insistence, repeated in both episodes, on solving problems through using your senses. (In fact, ’Beast Below’ is predicated upon his insistence on looking at what others shun from.) At one point, he even announces proudly a job done with “no Tardis, no screwdriver” – hopefully a statement of intent that the magic wand fixes of the Davies era have been given the shove.

It was equally disappointing, however, to see CGI used in both episodes. CGI on a BBC budget rarely looks good, but it’s more than that – it’s far too redolent of the show attempting to take on Hollywood, a battle it could never hope to win and would only rob it of it’s uniqueness. As mentioned earlier, monsters here are always id-projections and the rubber suits (however shoddy) underlined that by never looking too ‘otherly’. They should always look like our reflections, however distorted.

This was particularly annoying in the first episode, where the appearance of the monster was unnecessary to the point of being counter-productive. As Amy enters the room and looks at the monster the emphasis should all have been on her reaction – giving it the fearsome power of suggestion, rather than some cheap effects tool. The space whale’s tentacles were admittedly a more difficult problem, but could still have been rendered through animatronics.

Worse still is the repeated hints that Yet Another Big Universal Apocalypse Is Impending, due to arrive (at a rough guess) around episode twelve or thirteen. This is not just becoming formulaic, it also seems far too resonant of the Angry God era which should have died with Tennant. (With the references to the “panopticon”, I would guess the eyeballed Atraxi from the first episode are coming back somehow.)




The Doctor:

Whilst personally, I would still have gone for more of a contrast from Tennant, I will concede that Moffat’s Doctor is showing signs of becoming a character in his own right, and no mere variation on a theme. I’m not sure I’m keen on Matt Smith’s performance, but my responses are rarely actor-led and I even came to like Rose despite Billie Piper. Moffat clearly has in mind a more frazzled, ungainly Doctor than Tennant. At times Tennant’s eccentricities seemed like a mere disguise for a razor-sharp mind, while Smith’s is simultaneously sharp and askew.

There was one exchange he has with Amy...

”I thought... well, I started to think you were just a madman with a box.”
Amy Pond, there's something you better understand about me, 'cause it's important and one day your life may depend on it. I am definitely a madman with a box!”


...which did not merely bode will for the future but is the most pithy summary of the character we've had in a while. Or perhaps even ever.

Moffat has stated that the new, more Heath Robinson look to the Tardis is intended to reflect new Doctor’s state of mind. But given this, you have to ask, wouldn’t the first-seen ‘raggedy Doctor’ be a more appropriate look? Why does he have to don the bloody bow tie? When the Doctor cries “to hell with raggedy, time to put on a show!” it sounds too close to a Tennant line. It also suggests an attempt to marry the character to the current(ish) fashion for ‘geek chic’, and chasing fashions has never served this show well.


Amy Pond:

Despite the worrying signs that we’re in for more ‘deferred romance’ and ‘love triangle’ plotline, there does seem a lot of promise in the Amy character. The Doctor first entering her life as this Peter Pan figure is appropriate. He stands for her imagination, her sense of child-like wonder which she had come to believe was just a figment.

The first Amy we see, dubious of the Doctor, is disguised as a policewoman. But as the second episode starts we see her floating in space in her nightie, suggesting these adventures are still part-set in her dreamland.

There’s the suggestion that, as he part-lives in her imagination, she intuitively understands him more than have previous companions. She knows that he will interfere in events and so tries (however mistakenly) to prevent him in order to protect him. She then grasps the true nature of the space whale because it is like him, over a fact of his life he has only just imparted. Saving the day on your first trip must surely be a record! This suggests a different dynamic to the usual Doctor/companion relationship, which will hopefully not degenerate into another Mickey love triangle.

‘”Too early to tell” wouldn’t be much of a conclusion, would it? While signs are mixed overall, some are promising and others downright great! Enough to keep you watching further into the season...

2 comments:

  1. A perceptive review Gav, as ever. I’m a bit more optimistic about the new incarnation than you though. I’m encouraged by Moffat’s willingness to try and correct some of the worst excesses of RTD’s time (do I feel an Obama analogy coming on?). There are certainly logical flaws in these stories, but at least there’s a logic to have flaws in. Smith’s Doctor is showing the potential to be a rational detective rather than just a violently eccentric Nam Vet. OK - I do have some concerns. Moffat’s sentimentality is rather heavy-handed for repeated use and his obsessions are rather limited. Is every episode going to be about a little girl in a haunted house? But we have no RTD, no Tennant and an assistant who looks like she might last beyond one series. That has to be good news.

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  2. Thanks for the comments, Martin. (Tho' Obama analogies are actually barred on this blog!)

    I'm concerned about the limits of Moffat's concerns too, but at the same time I'd rather a little girl in a haunted house every week than a soap opera with crashing stars in the background.

    (On the other hand, we are now looking at the Davies era from the wrong end. I suspect his tenure will be revised upwards as we get more distance from it, and his sins counter-balanced if not actually forgiven.)

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