Monday, 1 October 2012

DOCTOR WHO: 'DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP'/ 'A TOWN CALLED MERCY'




DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP

Okay, this is a classic example of scripting as reverse-engineering. Start with a snappy title. Then dream up a list of photo-op events, such as the Doctor riding a Triceratops or robot guards plundered from 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', and then string them quite casually into some semblance of order. Take explorer Riddell and Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, hitching along for ill-explained reasons, adding little to the mission bar colour and banter.

...which is precisely the way they should be playing it right now. Okay there are some strange plot holes. The opening cliffhanger would seem to suggest dinosaurs can operate lift buttons. But remember when they tried casting long lines ahead of them on this show? Those lines just got tangled in some terrible cerfuffle, until we neither knew nor cared where we were. At this point I am quite happy to sit and watch the prettily coloured beads shine, and not worry so much over how they're joined together. Through-lines? I'm through with the things. This was like every pulp adventure you've ever read, all happening at once.

Besides, the show has a history of simply throwing up strange and surreal imagery, like an Advent Calendar of oddness. It has never really done that scientific kind of science fiction. And some of us like to see beaches on spaceships, or workmen opening their lunchboxes in space. (That image of Rory's Dad was clearly based on the classic 'Lunch Atop a Girder' photo of Manhatten construction workers, as well as an update on the earlier image of Amy floating outside the Tardis. But it works better for both those things. It's juxtaposition of the everyday English with the fantastical is virtually the epitome of the show. And what could be more mundanely English than a workman with a thermos?)




After the Doctor's Marvel death didn't really seem to be going anywhere soon, it was nice to have a reference to it which was integral to the story. Solomon can't identify him, so goes after Nefertiti to enslave instead. It's like an anti-through-line. Somebody is not after the Doctor. The fate of the universe may not be at stake. He's back to simply being a mystery man who shows up, just like he was in the old days before we had to pretend we were clever. (Though admittedly the story is contingent on UNIT calling him in.)

If things didn't seem to bode well after Chris Chibnall's previous Silurian escapade (dissected here), in a way this reversed everything. One of my main prior complaints was that they grafted a gravitas and significance onto an old Third Doctor story, while functioning less well than the original. Here Chibnall seemingly serves up a mere escapade, and yet beneath that whizz-bang title there's something of a green metaphor going on. Look at those two crossed spaceships. The Silurian ship, wave powered, made of interlocking pods is a visualisation of an ecosystem. It's not just an ark aimed at the Earth, in a sense it's also a metaphor for our home planet. (Which is almost the final image.)

...while Solomon's ship, much smaller and dependent on the larger entity, represents the predatory world of commerce. He looks at the genesis of life and sees only a sale. Though within the plot a raptor cripples him, this is of course the real reason for his hobbling. Genre fiction likes to scar or disable it's villains, to portray them as some distorted reflection of good. But this is something further, the crippled Solomon is placed outside of life, dependent upon others. He's reliant on his only companions, two rather disgruntled robots.

Though let's not get too hung up on this. For one thing, most viewers will be oblivious to all of this. (Assuming it's not merely in my head to start with.) And making Solomon a piratical black marketeer more easily dresses him as a villain, sidestepping rather than confronting the usual defences of capitalism. (His business plan involves neither making anything nor providing any employment, unless you count the two robots.) And as Mark Fisher has argued,an apparant anti-capitalism can come all too easily to the mass media. “It is capital which is the great ironist, easily able to metabolise anti-corporate rhetoric by selling it back to an audience as entertainment.” The main reason to appreciate it may be that it adds a dimension to the surface story.

Alas, however, every silver lining has a cloud. What has crossed many about this episode is the Doctor's final slaying of Solomon. (See for example, Andrew Hickey's or Mike Taylor's response.) Now it may seem excessive to 'civilians' to see grown men get so worked up over such a thing. Yet we are aware, thank you very much, that nobody is actually dead. Just as we're aware that, in this sort of thing, when the hero is unwilling to fell his foe the job is just delegated to some script contrivance. (Not much of an option in real life.) And it does seem strange even to myself that, after making one passing reference to the explicit and quite possibly excessive violence in the new 'Dredd' film, to get all fired up over a bad guy tastefully blowing up off screen.

But one of the attractions of this show is that it's (more or less) avoided making it's protagonist a conventional two-fisted hero and has (every now and again) taken a questioning approach towards violence. (Unless you count the Sixth Doctor. Which we don't.) This would seem something worth hanging on to. And what's really the problem here isn't that the Doctor resorts to the ultimate sanction, it's that he does so so casually. There's no “have I that right?”, there's “let's have a big explosion for the finale.”

People speculated at the time that this was intended to set things up for a new round of 'dark Doctor', and was just being introduced clumsily. Yet we've had all this 'dark Doctor' stuff before without it really going anywhere. Besides, writing with the benefit of hindsight, there seems little sign of this being taken up in further episodes. What seems more likely is a fumbled attempt at a throw. Chibnall intends to make Solomon a return villain, so feigns at killing him off to try and make the reappearance a surprise.


'A TOWN CALLED MERCY'

This just in! Some people neither entirely good nor bad!

...well let's not be too harsh. It's not a bad idea for a genre show to question it's own polarised presumptions and moral absolutes from time to time. And a Western is a traditional setting for a morality tale. In the days of the Wild West, you couldn't just phone justice up. If you wanted to see it happen you had to make it happen. For all the snobs who scoff about white hats and black hats, Westerns were the arena where all those questions were set loose. A good writer could do something with that.

The only trouble is, they got Toby Whithouse to write this.

Well, let's try to give him a fair trial. From the title, 'Dionsaurs on a Spaceship' was telegraphed as a big rollicking adventure. For the title this was telegraphed as an allegory. Which is, you know, fine. Westerns were rarely about recreating the world of the Wild West, any more than pirate stories were really about pirates. They were a way of framing questions in an arena which made them seem more live and direct. But the setting needs enough of a sense of solidity, or we fail to relate and lose any interest in what goes on. (Unless you're aiming to highlight the way the Wild West is now a received image, like the Star Trek episode 'Shadow of the Gun.' Which they're not, so I don't know why I bother to mention it.) It's a balance creators of Westerns don't always make. For every 'High Plains Drifter' there's a 'Quick and the Dead.'

And there were some promising concepts thrown in along the way. Such as the line of stones that surround the town. In Westerns, towns are far apart with plenty of wilderness between them. Outlaw gangs come a-shootin' out of that wilderness, then need driving back into it. The line of stones just enshrines what's already implicit, a magic circle to keep out the bad spirits, like home base in a game.

But actually, let's just forget the trial. Let's just grab the guns and drive Whithouse out of town. Though all his previous episodes have been (to put it kindly) trite rubbish, so wild did his aim seem from capturing the tone or characters we know, it was hard here to believe he'd ever written for the show before.

Plus it failed repeatedly to maintain it's own premise. The Cyborg for example is only after the war criminal Jex, and won't endanger innocents. Except for when he does. (I would list more, but that would involve having to spend longer thinking about this episode.) It pulled off a remarkable combination in in being both simplistic and incoherent, acting sophisticated while doing dumb.

Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't as bad as 'Unicorn and the Wasp'.

Coming Soon! The other two episodes. Just as soon as I get five minutes...

2 comments:

  1. Nice to see you keeping up your record of having opposite opinions to me :-)

    On re-viewing Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, I did enjoy it more the second time. But it still feels like a flubbed opportunity.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The funny thing is, I would have imagined that episode to be up your street! Not just for the dinosaurs. (Though it did have the nifty way of mentioning the Triceratops was vegetarian.)

    I will post the final two, soon as I get a chance. Then the comparison can be complete.

    ReplyDelete