Wednesday, 2 November 2011

DOCTOR WHO: THE (NOT-SO) SPECIALS

(aka ‘Who’ fan in obsessive behaviour shock)

Planning to create a special one-stop page for all my ’Doctor Who’ reviews, (which in fact lies here), I came across something I’d started then forgotten – reviews of the ‘specials’ which finished David Tennant’s run. Though I’m fairly sure I lost enthusiasm for them originally through the ‘specials’ not actually being very... well special, I decided to polish up and post them anyway. This is part of my idle fancy that I might one day have a comprehensive list of ’Who’ storylines covered. I haven’t re-watched any of the episodes (which I don’t currently have any access to), so they are slighter pieces than normal. As they date from some time ago, I’ve given them ’Friends’ style subheads as a memory jogger.

I did think of saving this to post in the ‘timey wimey’ hour when the clocks go back, until it occurred to me that saying that was easier than doing it yet had a similar result.


’THE NEXT DOCTOR’
(aka ‘The one where the Cybermen go Victoriana Cyberpunk and David Morrissey plays the Doctor who isn’t the Doctor’)

I think I probably enjoyed this one more than the average fan. (In fact for some reason I’ve tended to like ’New Who’s Cybermen episodes more than the average fan.) Maybe I just liked the underbelly of Victoriana being broadcast on Christmas Day.

I wasn’t even bothered by David Morrissey so obviously not being the Doctor from the off. (Or from earlier. It was really given away in the trailers, by showing off his conventionally heroic personality. Even when fools don’t know what to do with the Doctor they don’t make him conventionally heroic. Instead they give him question-mark lapels.)

But did it have to assert so vehemently that this Doctor is the actual Doctor? Couldn’t it at least have flirted with the idea that anyone who wants to be the Doctor can be? (At least, you know, sort of.) The invitation in a character like Rose is that you can be a shop girl one week and sailing the universe the next. Does that have to stop dead at the companion? Does copying the Doctor inherently involve a cargo cult mentality?

It professionalises a character whose appeal rests so much on his gifted amateurism. Worse, it shifts the role of heroes in stories from inspiration to delegation. And it renders almost meaningless all those big-up speeches about how much the Doctor values humans. ...actually, if it’s going to stop those irksome audience backslaps perhaps its not so bad after all. Okay, forget I said anything...


’PLANET OF THE DEAD’
(aka ‘the one which has flies drawn to it for some unaccountable reason’)

A London bus, with its vivid colour coding, marooned in the desert is a strong image. Not necessarily a different image from the Tardis being anywhere at all, but strong nonetheless. So enjoy it, because unfortunately that’s all this least-special of all the specials has to offer.

Ripping off films is fine, in fact its virtually a ’Who’ tradition. But simultaneously ripping off ’Flight Of the Phoenix’ and a caper movie is simply dumb. Unlike the bus in the desert, it’s not an interesting juxtaposition but an oil-and-water clash. Caper movies have an almost de rigueur gravity-defying scene, normally where the fabled jewel is nicked despite the laser wires, and in fact that’s exactly what we get here. ’Flight of the Phoenix’, conversely, is precisely about the effects of gravity. It’s set in a world of real physical rules, it closes in on the sweat of people’s brows, on ropes fraying with strain.

One suggested improvement - Lady Christine’s stolen cup was made from a rare metal from a meteorite, and is what the aliens were after (rather than the Triotian MacGuffins). She ends up having to give up her precious booty to the Doctor, as it’s unique properties make it essential to their escape.

Okay then, two. Enough of these info-dump psychics. Carmen was the most egregious one yet. Do London buses usually have a resident medium on board? Wouldn’t a cleaner or call centre worker be more common? And her powers played no part in the story, just ostentatiously foreshadowed a later one. Why not just have a telegram arrive from the scriptwriter? “Doctor in peril. Stop. Foreshadowing. Stop. See episode after next. Stop.”


’WATERS OF MARS’
(aka ‘the one with a base under siege, soggy zombies and where the Time Lord Victorious is wrong’)

Despite the generic plotline, this one nearly gets away with it, through a combination of speed and style. Two scenes stand out. After the Doctor has refused to help he stands still in the airlock as the chaos is unleashed behind him in the control room. This plays the normally frenetic Tennant against type, the stillness in the middle of all the noise shouts louder.

And yet there’s still something very New Who about this moment. Not only do we know full well he will turn and intervene, that this is just Campbell’s Refusal of the Quest from Screenwriting Basic. But there’s also the whole high-sounding business of “some fixed points in time” is just an excuse to have it both ways – moments can be decreed ‘fixed’ or ‘unfixed’ as is convenient. In short, this moment isn’t being milked for its emotional weight but the very reverse – the emotional weight is found a useful hook where it can be hung.

The coda scene (with the ‘Time Lord Victorious’) admittedly goes some way to remedying that. (Also, as we think the first scene was our statutory twist, we’re not expecting another wringer.) Of course it refers back to ’Voyage of the Damned’, with Mr. Copper’s line “if you could decide who lives and dies, that would make you a monster.” (Somewhat presented as  A Significant Line at the time, but at least not delivered by another bloody psychic.)


’THE END OF TIME’ (Parts 1 + 2)
(aka ‘the one where Russell T Davies started writing more like Russell T Davies than we had previously thought Russell T Davies capable’)

More than anything else in ’New Who’, this two parter succumbed to the lure of ’The Matrix’, throwing lots of crazy-sounding concepts and wild images at the
screen in such a hectic way that you don't really notice their not
joining up. In a way it was all summed up by an early line - "we see so much yet understand so little."The whole Donna subplot, for example, was pretty much superfluous.

At the same time, the Master replacing everyone with himself is Davies’ writing par excellence. It’s not just a dramatic cliffhanger, it’s quite a neat image of megalomania that he would literally rework every other person into his image. I guess the general idea is to establish the two rival kinds of megalomania, the Master wanting dominion and the Time Lords deciding to destroy what they couldn't control. But in terms of story logic it doesn't really make much sense - how exactly does it aid him, more than would taking over everybody?

And once he’s stuck himself with that image, Davies, isn’t sure what to do with it – and in fact just reverses straight out again. The Master doesn't know the guard's been replaced when the guard is him? That'd take a fairly hefty no-prize to explain!

In general, having more developed three-dimensional characters, like a Doctor who can cry at the idea of his forthcoming death, fits poorly with "in one bound he was free"-style get-outs. ’The Matrix’ has ciphers for characters and intends nothing else. Can you ask the audience to buy into those emotional payoffs, then say “oh, it’s only sci fi, of course lots of it doesn’t make much sense”? Davies seems confused about what kind of thing he’s writing at quite a fundamental level.

But one thing which annoyed me was the theme of the Doctor's own megalomania, so heavily foreshadowed in ’Waters of Mars’, suddenly being so absent. Of course the Time Lord Victorious gets projected onto the Master, as the Doctor’s shadow. But it all feels like a cop-out from the idea that the Doctor himself might go baaaad. However, it is to some degree brought back in the end, and brought back fairly well, when the Doctor must sacrifice himself for the “not very important” Wilf.

4 comments:

  1. Yeah, these episodes were a bit of a tragedy, and such a weak way for Tennant and Davies to go out.

    The Next Doctor was about as good as the preceding Christmas specials, which is to say not very good -- and is absolutely left for dead by A Christmas Carol.

    Planet of the Dead is my single least favourite New Who episode ever -- so completely by the numbers that it's hard to believe it took two people to write, or indeed one. The one-shot companion is the most pointless and unlikeable one I can recall. The "comic" performances back on Earth make my skin crawl. The whole is just mundane.

    Waters of Mars stands up much better than the others, largely because of the Time Lord Triumphant stuff which left me with a real shiver down the spine and a powerful sense of anticipation for The End of Time ...

    ... which of course turned out to be a horrible, horrible let-down. It's not so much that the episodes themselves were weak and incoherent (though they were), it's that they totally dropped the Time Lord Triumphant ball. Like it had never happened. Talk about a missed opportunity.

    On the positive side, 2009's specials lowered the bar so much that they probably helped Matt Smith's debut season to appear as sensational as it did in comparison.

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  2. We seem in almost agreement here! I quite liked 'Next Doctor' at the time, certainly more than I did 'Runaway Bride.' But certainly not a highpoint or anything.

    There probably was a combination of the 'specials' exacerbating Davis' weaknesses and him being well past his peak. I'm tempted to say he should have left a good deal earlier but them (as we were saying only recently) we'd never have had 'Midnight' or 'Turn Left'.

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  3. Indeed, we found the one (non-)series of New Who that we agree about!

    It's odd how Midnight and Turn Left just popped up during the late stages of Davies' slow decline. I think if I were to graph the quality of his episodes, they would completely muck up the best-fit line.

    One thing I forgot -- the very first Christmas special, Tennant's debut, was good. Not as good as A Christmas Carol but much better than all the others.

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  4. Agreed!

    (This is getting a bit uncanny...)

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