Saturday, 24 April 2010

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY



"Ever'body might be just one big soul,
Well it looks that a-way to me,
Everywhere that you look, in the day or night,
That's where I'm a-gonna be.
"

- Woody Guthrie, Tom Joad

Sunday, 18 April 2010

DOCTOR WHO: 'VICTORY OF THE DALEKS' (aka NOT THEIR FINEST FORTY FIVE MINUTES)


On the basis of the first two episodes (alright, one and a bit), the new series of Doctor Who was generating a generally positive consensus in the nerdsphere. Andrew Rilstone had commented: “Fanboy says new Who ‘quite good’, shock.”

That didn’t last long, did it?

Way back when the show was first revived, I actually got quite excited about Mark Gatiss being brought on board as writer. Not just because I’d been a fan of League of Gentlemen, but because a writer of surrealist black comedy seemed a far better fit for the show than a ‘proper’ SF writer. And while it's true that neither ’The Unquiet Dead’ nor ’The Idiot’s Lantern’ really lived up to this promise my mind had made itself, I still await a new script from him with that promise.

In the following documentary, Doctor Who Confidential, Steven Moffat enthused “it’s like British icons shoved together!” And so it was. A shopping list of British icons stuck on the screen, with no thought of plot or character development or even a linear viewing experience.

The trouble with committing your words to print is that they can come back to haunt you. Last time I wrote “Nowadays, you can get old episodes on DVD. There’s no need to keep remaking them.” So of course the next thing they do is remake an old story which you can’t get on DVD, one which has been lost! The early part of this episode was ’Power of the Daleks’ in a transported setting with something different written on the lid. (Alright, half different.) The Daleks are pretending to be dutiful robots, only the Doctor knows what they’re up to and no-one will listen to him. And some of the individual scenes captured this tension and paranoia well. I especially liked the Doctor raging at Churchill, then stopping and realising a Dalek was hovering outside the doorway. But these scenes were just that - individual scenes!

With ’Power of the Daleks’, David Whitaker set things up so as to make this tension effective. First, no-one knows who the Doctor is and has no reason to trust him. Second, the Daleks’ plan makes some kind of sense. (Here it relies upon Churchill being scared into summoning the Doctor, then abruptly losing that fear as soon as he turns up. Did their whole plan hinge on the vagaries of a human whim?) But more, it gave that sense of tension six episodes to marinade in. The fact that we the audience know just what the Daleks are up to just makes the tension all the more unbearable. Here it gets maybe twenty minutes. This is a classic example of the new, sophisticated show not being able to do things the old one could perfectly well.

The new DaleksV2 appearing and exterminating their begetters... okay, that was a cool scene. There’s no reason why the things-within shouldn’t update their carriers, any more than we should still be driving around in cars from the Sixties. And it might have finally ended the whole ‘human DNA’ theme, which worked so well in ‘Dalek’ but has now run its course. But, yet again, the word is ‘scene’! These new Daleks didn’t do anything the old ones couldn’t, nothing bigger or badder or eviller.  They just looked more blinging and spoke in more grating voices. Their appearance was incidental to the main plotline, which could have carried on the same way even if the khaki Daleks had hung about. It was just one more sight on a whistlestop tour, not a development.

And the dogfight in space even broke the one sole unifying factor they had been applying, the British icons thing. You didn’t think Battle of Britain, as the two in no way resembled each other. Instead you simply thought “finale of Star Wars.” A fourth-rate, years-behind-the-times copycat of Star Wars.

You could if you wanted list all the logical inconsistencies. Couldn't the Doctor have proven the Daleks weren't servile robots by opening a lid and revealing the green globby thing inside? Did the blackout really hinge on generators being shut down and not people blacking out their windows, as the term might seem to imply? If the Doctor is already known to Churchill, why didn’t the Ninth Doctor enlist his help in ’The Empty Child’? Why did all the Dalek technology have to be taken away if Bracewell could just be left to roam? That whole thing about his implanted human memories overriding a bomb, how was that supposed to work anyway? Yet the way the episode was strung together it would be more a challenge to look for con-sistencies, so let’s leave it.

Perhaps most worrying of all was the way the episode seemed to cast a shadow over the direction of the series in general – principally over Amy. Her line “ever fancied somebody you shouldn’t?” is an ill omen. If the companions are going to simply alternate between having unrequited hots for the Doctor and generating some star-studded love story, then things are going to get schematic. But I was perhaps tempting fate when I wrote (in Andrew Rilstone’s comments) on the theme of all this part-happening in her imagination:

“However if (as some are already speculating) this is made into a Big Plot Twist, like the whole thing’s happening in Amy’s mind in some ‘Life On Mars’ scenario, that would ruin everything. Fans have a ‘better out than in’ philosophy, in which whatever is implicit is better made explicit. Taking such a turn would be a classic demonstration of how wrong they are.”

Amy not recognising the Daleks is clearly connected to the over-riding ‘crack in space’ theme. But we’re getting more and more suggestions that she is not just a symptom, but is in some way connected to this mysterious crack. It first appears on her bedroom wall. The duckpond is empty, in the same episode we learn her surname is Pond. And most ominous of all is the line that she “understands” the android Bracewell.

The theme of the ordinary person thrust into extraordinary situations is a staple of British fantastical literature. It was the very basis of the original Doctor Who. Though the show had the same name as now, Ian and Barbara were clearly intended as the audience identification figures, to the point where it could easily have been called ‘Schoolteachers in Space’. But this idea is being increasingly and repeatedly lost. (See for example the godawful Day of The Triffids remake on last Christmas.) If Amy turns out to be anything other than an ordinary girl with an extraordinary imagination, they will ruin the very thing they have created. 


Worse, you get the feeling it is all being done backwards – purely for the sake of being able to set up clues, which can get the message boards a-whizzing. I am no fan of this confusion between dropping clues and writing, but a mainstream show like Doctor Who makes the worst home for it. (Needless to say, I hope to be proved wrong here.)

Of course, having already sat through ’Boom Town’, through ’The Lazarus Experiment’, through ’The Unicorn and the Wasp’ I will carry on watching. ’Love and Monsters’ and ’Fear Her’ went out back-to-back and somehow I still carried on watching! You have to allow a show such as this to have off-episodes. And as next week starts a new Moffat two-parter, the dial will hopefully shift into the plus zone once more. In one sense, I’m even questioning why I should bother writing about this. Why not write about that gorm-free remake of The Prisoner for the Lost generation, which went out shortly after it? Is it illustrative to list the badness of bad things?

The answer is in no small part down to a Doctor Who obsession on my part, itself explained by what constituted my youthful viewing habits. But, as mentioned, the episode did raise problems with the wider series. (And it came from an idea of Moffat’s, after all.) And above all it so exemplified another claim I came up with last time: “It suggests Moffat is writing down incidents and images as they come to him, then later stringing them into storylines.”

...which is in many ways a perfectly valid approach. A TV show should strive to produce striking and memorable images, particularly a show not bound by the constraints of literalism. But the downside of this approach is that all too often things stop at this first stage. It’s like someone picked up the shopping list of images instead of the script, and shot that instead. It’s simply... well, “shoved together” would be a fitting phrase.

The Daleks have become such an icon that this seems particularly true of them. Their only possible rival for the defining image of the show is the Tardis. (Even the Doctor keeps changing his face.) Consequently, their popularity has had a paradoxical effect on the show, simultaneously bringing out both it’s strengths and weaknesses. You had to have a Dalek story, ready or not. But there’s no need to tell us about them, for the point is simply to show them.

In the old days their return could signal fresh new twists, as with 'Power of the Daleks'. But it all too often meant the return of the first Dalek storyline, albeit restaged and with new actors. ‘The Daleks’ meant ‘the Dalek story’, taken in the singular. Now what counts is the Dalek icon. With ’Evolution of the Daleks’, when the Dalek-human hybrid graced the cover of the Radio Times, it seemed a striking image. Yet the whole of the episode seemed to a chain of events to get us to that image (plus a few others along the way). Instead of the old Dalek story, we didn’t get any. ‘Repeat till cancelled’ versus ‘shoved together’.

But let’s not call this the darkest hour when it’s barely even the end of the beginning. Next week will hopefully bring a better choice of fare...

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

IT'S RUINATION DAY!



"It was not December and it was not in May
It was the 14th day of April, that is Ruination Day
That's the day... the day that is Ruination Day"

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...