Sunday, 30 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO: 'THE HUNGRY EARTH'/ 'COLD BLOOD'


I don’t have a whole lot to say about this latest ’Doctor Who’ two-parter, partly because I’m not convinced that Chris Chibnall had a whole lot to say when he was writing it. Of course that may well be down to me. I’ve most fixed on how Moffat has moved things on since the Davies era. So to reprise the Top Twenty Greatest Pertwee Scenes ain’t what I’m after right now. If I had to sum it up in a phrase I’d say “serviceable but generic.” It was certainly a more effective piece of teatime TV than it’s risible predecessor ’Vampires In Venice’.

I more-or-less agree with Frank Collins’ review, including the point about it being “an improvement on Chibnall’s previous efforts”, though that phrase possibly counts as damning with faint praise. (Please note Collins’ review was written after the first episode, so when he suggests “the meat of the story is in the second part” he can’t be held to account.)

After ’The Sontaran Stratagem’, Andrew Rilstone suggested we should take an indulgent approach when ’Doctor Who’ turns to the generic. (“If I'm offered 'cliff hangery flying saucery earth invasion stories', then I'm inclined to accept them as such.”) Perhaps he’s right. (And the subject is likely to come up again, after all.) But this is made harder when they insist on writing the same moral set-pieces into it; which, devoid of any meaningful context, become drearily sanctimonious. Chief offender here was the bright lad Elliott “getting” the Doctor’s speech about truth and reconciliation more than the adults – oh, please!

It was all rather neatly summed up when the captured Alaya has her warrior mask removed to reveal a reptilian but more expressive face beneath. As if to say, these are not the simple rubber-suited Silurians you remember from your youth! Yet nothing in the story’s content ever builds upon this image, it remains unearnt.

What surprises there are mostly come from things being telegraphed and then not happening. A big deal is made of Elliott reading ’The Gruffalo,’ but no Gruffalo is invented to defeat the foe. Elliott is pointed out as dyslexic, but there’s no follow-up scene where all depends on him reading something. Admittedly had these cod-obvious notions been followed up, then that would have been cause for complaint in itself. But without anything better to replace them, withdrawing them just comes to feel like sleight-of-hand. (In a story already full of manipulations. In the first episode the Silurians have already dissected several human corpses, the living Mo and are about to make a start on Amy. But all of that simply gets forgotten in the rush to make the medics goodies.)

The one exception to this rule is the Silurian Alaya’s prediction “one of you will kill me. Do you know who?” Naturally we assume it’s the tongue-lashed Tony, who’s already somewhat green around the gills. But it turns out to be Ambrose who, in a nicely chilling scene, is goaded by Alaya into killing her - thereby scuppering all chances of peace. (In fact the better scenes tend to revolve around the capture of Alaya, such as the Doctor’s interrogation of her.)

So, woman kills woman. A warring military against noble, truth-seeking scientists is scarcely groundbreaking stuff for ’Doctor Who’ or SF in general. (Think of the gorillas versus the chimps in ’Planet of the Apes’.) But having a female warrior class set against male doctors? Added to which Ambrose’s motivations are portrayed as rounded, and not simply stemming from weakness or fear. Perhaps nothing is really done with these notions. But they flicker with interest while they’re on the screen.

The one telegraphed element which did happen was the death of Rory - an event about as expected as his eventual return will be. But this was given a nice twist by the Crack then causing Amy to forget him, with the Doctor struck unable to say anything. Dying is one thing, but the idea of being forgotten by those who loved us is excruciating. This both moves things on from ’Flesh and Stone’, where we didn’t actually care about those forgotten soldiers, and drew its strength from what wasn’t up on the screen – it’s Amy’s frisky obliviousness which is hard to take. This is so much more effective than the grief porn which Chibnall subjected us to at the end of the risible ’Cyberwoman’ episode of ’Torchwood’. It rather beggars the question, “If you can write, why don’t you?”

And we did get two whole episodes of Karen Gillan back in her miniskirt. Amy should be made to “dress for Rio” every week, methinks...

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

RAINBOW ORCHID DISCOVERED IN BRIGHTON



"I will edit that into some kind of sense!"

...well that never happened. But the increasingly freeform nature of this podcast is half the charm! It was caused by Garen Ewing, creator of the somewhat splendid 'Rainbow Orchid' turning up for "for an informal chat amongst fellow comic creators" at Cartoon County last month. It starts off nearer to a 'proper' interview and it's meandering away from this path does seem to coincide with my turning up part-way through!

Sunday, 23 May 2010

MY LIFE AS DESCRIBED TO ME BY OTHER PEOPLE


"This neighbourhood's for the artists
So how come I don't see any art?
This neighbourhood's for the smartest
They wouldn't pay so much if they were so smart
I'm so BUSY
I'm so BUSY man
At Artland!"
- Jeffrey Lewis, Artland

Sunday, 16 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO 'AMY’S CHOICE'


Picture the headlines. ‘Doctor Who Fan in “Not Worst Episode Ever” Shock!’ Because that was better than expected...

I may have initially been put off this episode by people continually claiming it would be “this season’s ’Father’s Day’”. Unlike the majority I didn’t care for that storyline, because whenever the show gets wrapped up in the mechanics of time meddling it pretty soon gets tangled up. But this seemed much more the episode that fans of ’Father’s Day’ claimed they had seen – where all the rulebending of reality was not some abstract philosophical query but very much a means to serving up something character-centred.

True, the psychic pollen was as empty a MacGuffin as the fast return switch in ’Edge of Destruction’. But that doesn’t really matter because this time it just was a MacGuffin – something to put the characters through so they can learn more about themselves.

In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, the key line of the episode is precisely two words long. Sitting on the park bench, the Doctor asks derisorily what they do in such a dull village. “We live,” Rory replies.

Conversely the other reality, the cold star, represents life with the Doctor. What you might expect to be warming and dynamic is actually cold - a kind of un-life. The man who had travelled the universe for centuries and seen a thousand sights, who so ironically calls himself ‘the Doctor’, is completely thrown by Amy’s contractions. Real life is something that passes him by, a gap he covers by ceaseless adventuring.

The other plotline, where ’Night of the Living Dead’ was recast with old people, was actually pretty dull and routine. (And made scant sense. If the aliens were simply piggy-backing the old folks’ bodies where did their super-strength come from? And if they weren’t, why had they taken them over? Or stay inside them once uncovered?)

But if dull Leadworth was made no more exciting by their arrival, that wasn’t a major flaw. Unlike Prisoner Zero from the first episode, they weren’t central to the story. From the off it was fairly obvious which was the ‘real’ world (okay, primary dream world). It would even have been obvious had you not already seen the somewhat similar ’Forest of the Dead.’ Or without the hefty clue of the camper van numberplate. (ADW, presumably standing for A Dream World.)

I was, however, taken aback by the revelation that the dream world stemmed from the Doctor. Despite the clue of the matching bow ties, I had assumed it would be Amy. This didn’t come just from the title, but from the way she was forced into the deciding vote (the Doctor and Rory’s “competing” cancelling each other out) and her being isolated for the Dream Lord’s temptations.

By convention reviewers appear decisive, even when they’re not. But in all honesty I’m still mulling over whether this was a good move or not. As others have pointed out, creating a shadow self for the Doctor is hardly radical. What else was the Master? It’s not even news to make it explicit, what else was the Valeyard?

In one sense, it clearly does work. Secretly aware that Amy will choose Rory, the Doctor tries to perpetually defer this moment by extending the night before her wedding as long as he can. True, he doesn’t deliberately arrive at that time or even know of her big white dress, but it works in terms of an unconscious wish marinated in some fuzzy logic. The Dream Lord is simultaneously an expression of that desire and his guilt in indulging it.

But if we’re dealing with the Doctor’s shadow self, does it make much dramatic sense for Amy to be making the choices? Shouldn’t it be him volunteering to give her up for a life of Rory and Leadworth dullness? It’s like revealing this deeper level of psychology to the protagonist, showing us the self-doubt inside our hero, but then doing nothing with it. It’s wafted past us in a sophisticated sort of fashion, then life carries on as normal. (Assuming, of course, there’s no further ramifications in future episodes.)

And it also means the ending of ’Flesh and Stone’, when the Doctor realises the connection between Amy and the Great Big Crack, has now effectively been thrown away. ’Vampires In Venice’ nodded vaguely at it, though already reducing it to a soap opera response. Now it’s gone altogether. (Am I right in thinking this is the first episode not to feature the Crack at all?)

Also, it’s possible this episode may sap some of the energy from the finale. It’s been made abundantly clear that dream states play a large part in the overall story arc, with the Doctor cast as Amy’s imaginary childhood friend. The ‘Jacketed Doctor’ from ’Flesh and Stone’, which has set the net so abuzz, I imagine will turn out to be some kind of ‘dream Doctor’. (And not the ‘future Doctor’ popularly supposed.) But by making the dream logic explicit half-way through, will this mar the effect when it is done again? Isn’t this a bit like Davies foregrounding narrative conventions such as coincidence, then having to hide them again? As the saying goes, only time will tell.

Perhaps I’m subconsciously lowering my expectations to the point where they might be met, but I’m not expecting much from the next episode. The Silurians look cleaned up, much as I had to complain about the Sontarans before them. Plus, Chris Chibnal was responsible for the wearily derivative ’42.’ Perhaps what we have is a one-on-one-off pattern, in which case hope resides with no less a personage than Richard Curtis! Or perhaps this now is it till Moffat’s finale. But if so it’s one more than I expected...

Friday, 14 May 2010

ONE LAST WORD ABOUT THAT WEEPING ANGEL BUSINESS, AND THEN WE CAN ALL MOVE ON




Okay, last week’s ’Doctor Who’ was so unworthy of comment that I’m simply not going to. Comment on it, that is. I am not going to mention, for example, how the Doctor finally finds the crack is “all about” Amy, that “possibly the most important thing in the universe is that I get you sorted out right now” and this somehow translates into getting her back with her boyfriend. Nor about how it’s all such a tired reprise of Mickey as the metal dog. Not a whsiper about the annoying way that every line sounded exactly like a line. And I shan’t be making scathing gags about sequels, ’Werewolves in Worcestershire’ or ’Mummies in Marlborough’ or the like.

Instead I’m going to go back to talk about those Weeping Angels.

I pointed out that Moffat had craftily fine-tuned the rules from ’Blink’, to create a story in which the Angels fitted better. Everyone Else in the World complained how he had violated the earlier story’s elegant simplicity.

Upon reflection, I am willing to consider a rapprochement with the rest of the world by suggesting we’re both right.

Moffat himself has described the shift from ’Blink’ into ”Time of the Angels’ as the same as from ’Alien’ into ’Aliens.’ But as Everyone Including Me noticed, he was also riffing heavily off ’Ring.’ And indeed, you could equally compare the shift to the one from ’Ring’ to ’Ring 2’.

Like ’Blink’, ’Ring’ was an intimate psychological horror story built around an elegantly simple concept. “Don’t blink” equates to “don’t watch the video.” One comes from a child’s game, the other an urban myth, but that’s the only real difference.

But as soon as we get to the sequel, this very simplicity turns from selling point to albatross, from neat notion to constraint. There’s no way to retain the same set-up without retelling exactly the same story. It would be like reloading a gun, for the bits to fit together at all they need to fit together the same way. “Still don’t blink” is mere second helpings.

Both sequels wisely decide it is time to sidestep. ’Ring 2’ is essentially based around asking what happens if you catch a partial view of the video. ’Time of the Angels’ serves up monitor-screen Angels (the direct lift everyone noted), talking Angels, taking-over-people Angels, even moving Angels. From there they cram themselves so full of crazy ideas they virtually dazzle, but in the process becomes somewhat scattershot. Once everything locked into place with a chilling precision. Now we get so many more ideas. True, those more ideas equal less. But if the only way is down we may as well take the scenic route.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

THOUGHT FOR TOMORROW


“It's a wicked old game that the government plays,
When they treat you like dogs, then you must have your day”

Disclaimer! Since the one and only time I saw Weddings Parties Anything, back in the late Eighties, I have remembered that line and always associated it with electoralism. However, some elementary Googling revealed it’s target is actually charity! It seems in fact that I should be posting it on Christmas Day, quite a way to wait! So with apologies to writer Mick Thomas (who may well be a keen voter for all I know), let’s go with my interpretation for today.

And just in case its not obvious, more on anti-electoralism here and here.

Monday, 3 May 2010

DOCTOR WHO: 'TIME OF THE ANGELS'/ 'FLESH AND STONE'


Who (if you’ll pardon the pun) can say? Who’s to say what counts as influence and what constitutes theft? Writer Steven Moffat has himself acknowledged the debt this two-parter owes to Aliens, and few have missed the scene stolen straight from Ringu. (Though no-one seems to have commented on the similarities to Dan O’Bannon’s original script for the first Alien film, with the spaceship crashed into the pyramid.) To which we could add River Song’s space rescue, which was reminiscent of the first episode ending from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.


But counting ‘em up ain’t the same as knocking ‘em down. Genre fiction is virtually a folk art, where ideas are considered to be built for sharing. If we’re going to trace it back to Dan O’Bannon, then he commented: "I didn't steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!" (One suggested source even being the Old Who story ’The Ark in Space’!) Besides, Doctor Who has from it’s inception stolen anything from anywhere which wasn’t nailed down. (And ideas don’t nail down too easily.) The only rule is that the show has to absorb that input. It shouldn’t try to compete with Hollywood on its terms, which (as we’ve already seen) it isn’t.

But if the show’s going to start cannibalising itself, isn’t that a different story? Isn’t what we have here ’Silence In the Library’ with the bad guys from ’Blink’ inserted? Okay, so Old Who gave us the same stories every week, often even using the same quarries and chase-corridors. But isn’t that like your parents telling the same anecdotes over and over again, something you indulge? Isn’t New Who like your pub-meet mate? A different encounter, where different rules apply.

One line of defence might be that shuffling the pack like this can create a genuinely new combination. Moffat is surely right to argue that “good Doctor Who monsters have to come back - it's a rule. But... you always have to... do something different with it.”

’Blink’ has become not just a popular Moffat episode so much as the popular; it trumps polls so often as to normally be considered the highpoint of New Who. And it was of course a very good episode. But few comment that it was clearly hewn from two different sources, with monsters and storyline sticky-taped together. First we have the Time Displacement Box which has ended up in an abandoned building, innocently screwing with those who encounter it (a bit like the capsule in ’The Empty Child’.) It’s presence leads to quite an intimate storyline which ruminates rather philosophically on how time can change us but we can’t change time, we’re better off accepting what we’re dealt and all the rest of it. (Even Sally Sparrow’s solving of the mystery is significant precisely because it means she can now put it behind her, and instead start living her life.)

But in order to get some much-needed menace the Weeping Angels get grafted onto the box. They snarl and claw like they’re out to kill you. But instead they just displace you in time. It’s a bit like getting caught by a notorious serial killer, who then inexplicably decides to drop you off in Rickmansworth. We’re told they do this to feed off your displaced energy, which doesn’t add up to a lot in the way of sense. You’re still alive, after all, just sometime else. And in fact for most people it all seems to work out rather well. This disjunction is masked by lines which describe them as “the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely”, and by the fact that we think of statues as old, so in some way timeless. But masked isn’t resolved.

Moffat seems to implicitly acknowledge this by rejigging the rulebook on their return. This time they do kill you, they even get off on it. And alongside the time-displacement other rules get quietly dropped - the idea they can’t look at each other, or their hots for the Tardis. (Which they now show not the slightest interest in.) They’re bigged up, promoted in status from shadow selves, personal adversaries representing your fear of the dark and unknown, into an army raging a cosmic battle.

Some have pointed out that this in some ways normalises them, even strips them of their menace by giving them a voice. But it does give us a theme which actually matches the Angels. They represent the idolatrousness of classicism, something which looks dead to us but which gains power from being looked at. “That which holds the image of an angel itself becomes an angel”, simply to gaze into one is to become one. The Soldier Monks which combat them have no visual signifiers of their faith, which is solely an inner thing. Against these images their chief weapon is a book without pictures – a succinct a description of the Protestant Bible as there could be. There’s a significant scene where they’re lured to their deaths (in the inevitable serial fashion) by being told to come and see something which can’t be told. Finally, the ship is called the Byzantium, after the era of classicism where Christianity came to take over from idolatory. (Though, for a contrary view, check out Frank Collins of Behind the Sofa, who sees in the Angels militant jihadism, surely the most anti-idolatrous movement of history!)

...which makes them into an interesting adversary for the Doctor. ’Blink’ already hinted at the similarities between our hero and his foes. (“Their greatest asset is their greatest curse... Loneliest creatures in the Universe.”) Don’t we tend to see the residual beauty of classicism, the art and architecture, and overlook the extensive violence they were built on? Yet the Doctor is from that world; he’s not just old but a Time Lord, from one of the great ruler races who turned his back on it all. A human equivalent would be someone from the Roman empire, a Caesar who turned Spartacus. When the Romans come back, he’s expecting blood more than circuses.

...which makes it simultaneously appropriate and disappointing that the Crack in Time devours them. As the soldiers disappear one by one into it, it’s like an inverted echo of their earlier scene – this time they’re going off to see the light. It also means that their classicism is fittingly devoured by time.  Added to which, if the Crack’s going to run right through this season it’s better foregrounded rather than rumbling along in the background, as ominous as it is repetitive. There’s already been too many Bad Wolves.

But, after Moffat has done so much to present us with a refreshingly extemporising, detective Doctor it feeds some way back to the deus ex machina days of the Davies era. The Angels are killed not by some weakness of their own (as in ’Blink’), but by Something Big Turning Up. Added to which, why should “a complicated space-time event” sate the Crack? Isn’t that a bit like saying “because I said so?” It feels like the theme of the episode was suddenly pre-empted by the theme of the season pulling rank on it. (And while River Song’s story was obviously going to take a while to play out, it was never adequately explained why the statue was on that spaceship in the first place.)

And worst of all, it’s now been confirmed that the Crack is in some way centred around Amy. Old Who companions represented the everyman, however given they were to mini skirts. A companion who can rescue herself, who isn’t simply something for monsters to tie to pan-galactic railway lines, is all to the good. But while science fiction and fantasy has always been about wish fulfillment, it’s now made a cocaine-into-crack shift and become about fully fledged megalomania. It’s like the me-now society has shaped us so the only way we can react to art is if it tells us we are special, we are crucial, we are the centre of it all. Whatever is causing that Crack, I fear it to be cringeworthy.

Could River Song be a future Amy Pond? We’ve already had plays on her name (with the duckpond), so could it be she steps from a pond into a river? Yet, with so much netspace taken up by speculation on her “spoilers”, perhaps that obscures River’s real role in this drama- what she's doing right now. She does to the Doctor what he normally does to others, turn up from outside his timeline and upend his life. This even works better with the current Doctor as her foil, for he’s simultaneously less human and more fallible than his predecessor. He’s quick to impatient anger at human weakness, and generally socially awkward in anything outside life-or-death situations.

For all its more obvious formal similarities to other episodes, in some ways this feels most akin to ’Waters of Mars.’ Both felt a lot better than they had any real right to be, given how derivative they were. This may be partly down to the sheer number of cool concepts almost casually tossed in along the way. River Song’s hallucinogenic lipstick was a superlative concept. (In combining sex, druggyness and espionage, it was very reminiscent of The Avengers). Her totem and signature, her self-defining equivalent of the sonic screwdriver was made all the more appealing by being thrown into the opening as though there was much more to spare. Amy's involuntary countdown was the show understanding exactly what it can do, and doing it well. The fibre-optic forest was perhaps reminiscent of the biomechanical spaceship of ’Girl in the Fireplace’, but memorable nonetheless. 

But perhaps underlying all that, what pulled you through the episode was a deft sense of construction. So many incidents hit you along the way you took your dazzled eyes off the big picture, and forget how familiar it actually was. Yet what goes down well isn't always what's best remembered.

I entered Moffat’s tenure as Head Writer with both high hopes and deep fears. But we’re approximately half-way through and hopes are neither dashed nor realised. In fact it’s all tended towards the even, less a rollercoaster ride and more a bus trip. True the series has not just been satisfactorily rebooted, its whole conception is probably preferable to Davies’. (Though in fairness it should be compared to Davies’ early peak, not his later repetition masked by excess.) But no episode has hit the heights which Moffat earlier reached – no ’Girl in the Fireplace,’ no ’Empty Child’ - for the very reason that it is all too similar to them. 'Blink,' for all that it was a slightly awkward assemblage, a less smooth and realised vehicle for the Angels, simply hit you harder. (It will now be easier for the Angels to return again. But we will care less.)

Moffat now only has the final two-parter to hit his six. (And frankly I’m not expecting much of the intervening episodes). There may still remain the chance we’ll be hit by a final humdinger. Finales tended to run to Davies’ worst excesses, but perhaps this first finale for Moffat may well buck that trend.