Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shop Of Little Horror

Prefect SlogThere are times when I wonder whether I've simply grown tired of Doctor Who. Saturday night's instalment, The Idiot's Lantern, was one of those occasions. It was nothing as bad as the Rise Of The Cybermen/Age Of Steel combo that preceded it - it wasn't anywhere near that big a mess. Neither was it as disappointing. How could it be? There was far less at stake here: all this one had to do was entertain. By the end of it though, the best I could say was that I felt it had managed to distract me for 45 minutes, but that was about it. It was okay - no more, no less - and probably, as result, less memorable than the Cyberman two parter.
It started reasonably enough, with Mr Magpie working late in his shop, being addressed directly by the creepy lady on the telly, whereupon lightning-like energy lashes out and grabs a hold of his head. I thought he was going to be sucked into the telly, like John Ritter and Pam Dawber (Mrs Mork!) in the movie Stay Tuned (1992). No, thankfully it didn't go down that unoriginal road. Instead it pootled along its own entirely predictable course like, well, like that motor scooter of the Doctor's.
There were some expectations attached to this one. I have fond memories of The Unquiet Dead from last season, so I was looking forward to another offering from Mark Gatiss. And at least this one did deliver a nice sense of period, along with a great character actor in a key role. In the place of Victorian times, we have the 50s; in place of Simon Callow as Dickens, we have Maureen Lipman as the Wire.
And right there, I have to stop myself because the comparisons fall down. Actually, there are no comparisons. The characters are nowhere near as well-drawn, the period, although nicely realised, is lacking the atmosphere of the previous Gatiss story and Maureen Lipman, although brilliantly creepy to begin with, is hampered by the fact that she's been called upon to play such a generic alien entity with such a rubbish name and then hamstrung by the fact that she's given a stream of tiresome, repetitive pantomime dialogue. She does her best, she really does, but reduced in later scenes to shouts of "I'm hungry!" and "Feed me!", she comes across as a bizarre humaniform Audrey Two from Little Shop Of Horrors.
With that in mind, I'd have welcomed the Doctor and Rose striking into "You'll Be A Dentist" while riding along on that scooter. At least it would have been a surprise.
The one memorable 'shock' moment would have to be the sight of the faceless granny in the upstairs bedroom. But the creepy potential of these 'Faceless Ones' was somehow left underexploited and the thread with the police whisking them all away appeared contrived as a means of justifying the scene in the warehouse where the Doctor is surrounded by all these featureless somebodies. It did offer one bright spot: the nicely played reversal of position between the Doctor and the copper in the interrogation scene, but the thread as a whole beggared belief. When 'Operation Market Stall' rolled into action - in essence, er, rolling a market stall out into the road and closing a gate - I just laughed at the idea that the Doctor had been so easily duped. Especially this Doctor who, by the constraints of the 45 minute rush-a-thon story, is generally obliged to know or work things out a little too easily. As always, if this had occurred within a great story, I'd have probably overlooked it. But because this one only ever rises to the level of 'all right', it throws such flaws into sharper focus.
I think we were supposed to be shocked and horrified by the sight of a faceless Rose, but the unfortunate downside of that moment was that it confirmed, much too far ahead of time, that all these unfortunate 'faceless ones' were going to have their features restored in a miraculous and barely explicable solution. One that was duly delivered. By the time the celebratory street party was underway, I was yawning and waiting for the Next Week... trailer to roll by.
Through all this, there was some okay character stuff, with the family frictions, but that was fairly basic and again predictable and for me, The Unquiet Dead is proof that Mark Gatiss could have done so much better. I hate to say it (because it's getting as repetitive and tiresome as the Wire's "Feed Me, Seymour"-style exhortations) but the story wasn't helped by the fact that it was another one set on Earth. In London, for crying out loud. And this idea of Russell T Davies', of using Earth as an anchor, is rapidly becoming a ball and chain for this incarnation of Doctor Who. What we want is the kind of telly that kept all those people glued to their sets in the early days, and thus so vulnerable to the Wire's attacks. More of this kind of thing, and the Wire is liable to find even this dedicated Doctor Who idiot forgetting to tune in to his lantern one of these weekends.
Still, I am being overly negative there. On balance, so far this series, I've seen three episodes that impressed, three that sucked, and one - this - that was just 'meh'. So at this midway point, the scales are even. And on a more optimistic note, here's hoping for better things in the second half.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Lead Zeppelin

Prefect SlogWell, that went down a treat. No, wait, it just went down - and not in a good way. After last week's episode climbed to the dizzy heights of mediocrity, the follow-up Age Of Steel managed a nose-dive into the ground, which became something of a race to see whether it could crash spectacularly before the whole thing deflated. Either way, this particular viewer was left to salvage what he could from the wreckage.
To be honest, I'd be hard-pressed to think of anything sufficiently positive to save this sorry shambles. Mickey's departure should have been like a golden light at the end of this two-part tunnel, but by that stage I was so thoroughly dismayed by the whole thing, even that ray of sunshine only managed a dull glimmer. That and the realisation that Mickey, set on a globe-trotting campaign against the Cybermen, was soon to be more widely travelled than the Doctor and Rose. (Next Week: looks like we're headed for... somewhere in the UK, Earth!)
It wasn't that this was the worst Doctor Who episode ever (Timelash? Time And The Rani? Boomtown? You tell me.) It was just that this was such a huge wasted opportunity. This was the Cybermen's big comeback. And it should have been big. Monumental. Event One of this series. Instead, all we got was a load of old Cyber pants.
It started poorly, with the Doctor side-stepping last week's feeble cliffhanger with an even more feeble get-out clause. Even his miraculous deployment of the TARDIS energy crystal might have been redeemed dramatically speaking had he burnt out their only option of escaping this dreary alternative reality. But no - "It'll recharge in 4 hours." Fine, wake me up when it's done.
From there, it went downhill, continuing with a lengthy confinement in the back of a truck for the purposes of some 'vital' plot explanation, interspersed with lots of meaningless metal mayhem, and a convenient Thames-side conference to discuss how to go about defeating the menace, all culminating in a final plummet towards a finale worthy of Independence Day and Stargate SG-1, which may, along with warm woollen mittens etc, be a few of Julie Andrews' Favourite Things, but they're certainly not mine. "Ooh look - an emotional inhibitor chip." "Ooh look, a handy USB port for my mobile phone." I mean, I remember being dissatisfied with the Cybermen's previous Achilles' Heel: their vulnerability to gold was fine enough for the purposes of Revenge Of The Cybermen, but after that it was overused - some would say flogged to death - as subsequent degenerations of Cybermen succumbed to what only amounted to metal fatigue. They just used to show up and blow up. But at least the gold thing was only built in by the writers as a too-convenient plot device. This emotional inhibitor chip override was, on top of that, built in by their creator within the context of the story. Apparently I was mistaken about John Lumic. It really was Trigger in that wheelchair.
I realise the aim here was to make Mickey the hero, but surely there was another way besides coming up with such a dumb resolution? Sorry, but I expected better of a New Series Cyberman story. And what compounds the disappointment here is that we know they were capable of so much better. What a waste.
The Cybermen themselves were only 'scary' when they were standing still - either in the tunnels or staring at Mickey through the fence. Otherwise they were tramping about like a lot of dumb ham-footed robots. (What is it with this need for overly stylised movements? The street-mime Autons from Rose were similarly misjudged.) It didn't help that the Cybermen spoke such electronically treated gibberish, forcing us to concentrate to hear what they were saying, generally to discover that it wasn't much of note. Having their mouths flash lights as they spoke was no help in understanding the dialogue and also had the misfortune of looking A Bit Crap(TM).
The shots of the cyber-surgery and the incinerations might have been more effectively creepy had they not been undermined by all the hard work done by the first part: as they appeared on screen, I couldn't help think back to them operating to the tune of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'. Thanks for that, guys.
During that first episode, the writer side of my brain was too busy thinking of ways in which this could have been done better. During this one, that same side of my brain had reached the conclusion that the only way to go was to scrap the thing and rewrite from scratch. Sadly, that's not going to happen. What's done is done. A lot of actors and production crew wasted their time and talent and I'm left with that overwhelming sense of a thoroughly wasted opportunity.
Unfortunately, rather more of New Series Who than is strictly necessary appears to rely on that old mantra used for crossing yourself (and here, to my shame, I'm remembering a quote from Eric Idle in Nuns On The Run): Spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch. Essentially, go for a lot of spectacle, throw in some things that are a bit bollocks, give it the big budget treatment and hope to rake in the viewers. Eurovision follows the same philosophy, but it was sad that I actually found that more entertaining than Age Of Steel that evening. (And that included the more compelling mystery of why so many people across Europe voted for Finland - fair enough "The Day Of Rockening" is a priceless lyric, but we can't all share the same sense of humour, surely?) The thing is, we generally get what we expect from Eurovision - but we know that Doctor Who can do so much better.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Not Another Doctor Who Top 10, Honest

Prefect Slog
As I sat down this week to enjoy my regular dose of Space:1999 courtesy of ITV4 the horrible wrongness of the opening music (a feeling like tuning into Doctor Who to find the unique Ron Grainer theme replaced with, say, the non-music that fronted every episode of JMS’ B5 spin-off, Crusade) tipped me off that they had jumped to the start of Series Two and the introduction of metamorphosing Maya. I’m sure it will be fun to continue (re)watching them, but right from the outset you know it’s an altogether different series, the point where the whole thing went all Frieberger and cheese - to coin a phrase. Anyway, the unexpectedness of the jump was owing to the fact that I couldn’t really say whether ITV4 have been showing these in the relevant order: as familiar as I am with dear old Space:1999 and the rest of the Gerry Anderson catalogue, I simply don’t have that same intimate knowledge of episode titles, episode order and what have you that I have with some series. Doctor Who, for instance, I’ve long had what amounts to an episode guide in my head, although with a lengthy programme of therapy and learning not to care to quite such an unhealthy extent, it’s become more of an impressionistic work and not the factual compendium with the worrying level of detail it once was. Thank goodness for that, because I wouldn’t want anyone mistaking me for a Fan with a capital F. Still, the fact that I rattle off a review of the New Series episodes each week and am still enthusiastic about the nice continuity touches (Doctor James McCrimmon, International Electromatics, Sarah Jane Smith – sigh!) is an indicator that I still give an f, no matter how lower case it might be.

Anyway, given that I’ve moaned a bit about certain aspects of New Series Who that have been less than satisfying, especially in the light of how the Rise Of The Cybermen fell somewhat short of expectations, I thought it was a good time to leaf through that internal episode guide of mine and come up with a list of my own Top Ten Doctor Who stories.

Now, bear in mind that these lists are about as changeable as a British summer and that, unless you’re compiling a Top Ten of Chantelle’s brain cells (in other more depressing news, the woman has just landed herself a £300,000 deal for her autobiography – dear God) it’s almost impossible to sensibly limit yourself to ten. This exercise was, in any case, prompted by Stuart Douglas, fellow Doctor Who fan and friend-in-blogdom, responsible for Half A Dozen Streets And A Bit Of Wasteland. So I absolve myself of all blame.

As with his worthy list, these are in no particular order:

The Talons Of Weng Chiang (TV – Classic)

A popular choice, apparently, but a fairly obvious one. Okay, the fluffy giant rat could do with being a bit more terrifying and a bit less Basil Brush, but Talons gets away with it. Frankly, I could forgive a lot more of Talons, but there’s precious little else to forgive. It's smogbound Victorian London, it's deadly Chinese Tongs, it's Mr Sin, Magnus Greel, Chang, it's Jago and Litefoot, it's Leela – it is, dare I say it, the Good Old Days. This is not just good Doctor Who, it's essential Doctor Who. Horror and history and science fiction, dark and humorous, great characters, bags of atmosphere and gorgeously realised.

Spearhead From Space (TV – Classic)

You can keep your Roses, this is the best introductory story for any Doctor post-Hartnell ever. (We'll allow David Tennant a few points of handicap for the fact that his was at Christmas so had to incorporate spurious Santas and deadly Christmas trees into what was otherwise a fun romp.) This is the one in which the Autons first broke out of shop windows and this is the one in which they didn’t move around like a bunch of jerky street mimes. This is the one in which they’re scary. The Doctor’s erratic and out of it for much of the time, but thanks to Pertwee’s charisma and screen presence when he is on, we get to know him fairly early. And it introduces Liz Shaw. Sure, the Nestene is just a blob in a tank and a lot of rubber tentacles, but anyone who thinks the CGI blob and the ‘climactic’ fight at the end of Rose is any better has been duped by the often flimsy illusions of better technology and bigger budget.

The Ambassadors Of Death (TV – Classic)

Ah, Season 7. How to choose? They all feature Liz Shaw and so score valuable points over the rest, but it really doesn’t help when it comes to deciding between them. Well, Spearhead’s already earned a slot. I can hardly include Inferno after having a go at the alternate Earth setup in Rise Of The Cybermen – although Inferno, which does suffer from the fact that the Primords are A Bit Rubbish™, is better in that respect since the parallel Earth featured there is more interesting than the real one. So I’m left with a really tough call between Doctor Who And The Silurians, to use its full title, and Ambassadors. Ambassadors has all the requisite James Bond stuff, decent sci-fi stuff that’s half-Quatermass, half-Avengers and one of the best endings ever. It has a similar moral resonance to Silurians in that the monsters are not villains and both stories are presenting something novel. Both stories are long and Ambassadors does involve a lot of runaround (but since some of the running around is done by Liz, we can certainly forgive that) to fill it out, but to be honest every time I’ve watched either of them I just enjoy immersing myself in the adventure for the long term. In the end, well, it comes down to that ending I guess – the Doctor walking away and handing the actual task of first contact over to humanity – and the fact that this one was responsible for what must be my earliest childhood memory of Doctor Who: the simple but effectively creepy images of the alien ‘astronauts’. So Ambassadors wins not by a nose but by a whisker.

An Unearthly Child (TV – Classic)

This is the best introductory story, full stop. It’s that perfect bridge between the world of the mundane – teachers at a school – and escapism – one of the pupils knows far more than she should but also has telling gaps in her knowledge, and her Grandfather has a time/space ship in the shape of a Police Box in the corner of a local junkyard. With Ian and Barbara we’re crossing over into a whole new dimension and it’s all conveyed with that vital sense of wonder. Their reactions are perfect. Susan’s suitably ‘alien’, and the Doctor is a terrifically remote figure, all the more engaging for his famous irascibility and smug superiority. Never mind all the gubbins with the cave people afterwards - they had to go and travel somewhere so it might as well have been One Thousand Pence, BC. It’s the first episode that counts.

The Aztecs (TV – Classic)

I felt the need to name a purely historical story, and this is the one that stands out best to my mind. Some nice moral questions raised for Barbara and a romance for the Doctor.

Fury From The Deep (Novelisation/Audio)

I'll admit it may well be better in my imagination than it ever looked on screen, but thanks to the highly effective combination of the novelisation and a couple of listens on audio, the imagined version remains intact. Again it scores oodles on atmosphere, it's a great setup for the base under siege scenario and manages to make seaweed creepy, for goodness sake. Plus it has some strong emotional touches with Victoria’s impending departure in the, er, pipeline. Lovely.

Planet Of Evil (TV – Classic)

This one I’m including as an alternative to The Ark In Space, which is brilliant and also gave me lots of welcome nightmares as a kid. (Stuart included Ark in his list and I was tempted to do the same for all the same reasons he cited, but at the same time I didn’t want this gem to be overlooked.) Unlike Ark, it doesn’t have Harry and that is a point against it, but the horror is just as effective and the memories just as vivid. It’s Jekyll and Hyde with a Forbidden Planet vibe, and Sorenson is great in the Jekyll/Hyde role. Also, take note ye makers of New Who (and here’s another reason for including it), it features an alien planet, creepily effective and effectively creepy and all managed on a fraction of today’s budgets. Prentis Hancock is a bit annoying but what else do you expect from Paul Morrow? The one they really needed to enlist from Moonbase Alpha was Sandra Benes, who would have spent the entire story screaming her lungs out. Right up until the mostly-invisible monster with the crackly energy outline sucked her soul out and spat out her horrific dried-up husk of a corpse. Luckily plenty of other Morestrans were on hand to die for our viewing pleasure. Plus Sarah Jane Smith is as gorgeous and terrified as she can be.

Caves Of Androzani (TV - Classic)

Ah, Graeme Harper, what happened? From the superb melodrama of Androzani to the mellow drama of Rise Of The Cybermen. This story’s giant rat is the Magma Creature, of course – a big plastic walking bat that looks, let’s be honest, a bit guano. The odd thing is, it’s really not needed and adds nothing to the melting pot. And what a melting pot. As with Talons, there’s that balance of humour and horror, but here it’s stretched taut as a tightrope, walking a fine line between taking itself incredibly seriously and sending itself up. Morgus talking to camera is completely mad but it really works. Sharaz Jek is a memorable Phantom Of The Opera who does all but break into a chorus of ‘The Music Of The Night’, and the Doctor’s not trying to save the day for a change, he’s just caught up in everyone else’s conflicting motivations, trying to save Peri and paying the ultimate price. Finally, a Davison story that makes you sit right up and pay attention.

Fear Itself (BBC Eighth Doctor Novel)

Best EDA I had the pleasure of reading. (And that’s no offence to the others.) It just had that perfectly judged balance of substance and pace, atmosphere and action, dark and light. Nicely written throughout, some great character material – special mention to poor underrated (and often underserved) Anji – and a lot of neat sf ideas pooled together in a very Doctor Who-ish mix.

Heritage (BBC Seventh Doctor Novel)

Quite simply better than any Sylvester McCoy story on the telly. Doctor Who meets Unforgiven, and better than that makes it sound. The atmosphere is so palpably dark that you feel the presence of monsters where (at least in the expected sense) there aren’t any, and yet somehow it gets away with throwing a dolphin into the mix without detracting from any of it. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Bernard is portrayed with the same conviction as the heartfelt human story at its core. Arabella the crow is as well characterized as the human cast. It also kills off Mel and should therefore be considered definitive, canon and all the rest.

And, bubbling under at Number 11…

One I Haven’t Written Yet

Dear me, that sounds conceited, but I’d be lying if I pretended otherwise. Somewhere in me lurks a great Doctor Who story, one of the best, and it wants out. Of course I do have other things to write, quite possibly better things too, but until it’s written that Doctor Who story is not going away. I think it’s probably more of a ‘classic’ Doctor Who, so until we see the return of what was the Past Doctor range to the bookshelves I expect I’m stuck with it, although I may have to just get on and write it in my spare time to get it out of my system. Time will tell.

It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice – least of all mine – that there aren’t any New Series entries here. I don’t think that need be very telling – plenty of great ‘Classic Series’ stories are necessarily missed off the list too! New Series highlights such as The Empty Child and School Reunion might have nudged out The Aztecs, for instance, but for the fact that a pure historical helps to represent the range of stories Doctor Who can do effectively. But to pursue that line is to extend a Top Ten to a Top Twenty, then a Top One Hundred and so on until we’ve ranked all the stories in whatever medium according to their various pros and cons. And none of us wants that, do we? I’ll leave that to the Fans with capital Fs. :)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Pedal To The Metal

Prefect SlogAfter complaining about the frequently 'rushed' pacing of the new 45-minute format Doctor Who, I am going to feel like such a hypocrite for saying this, but the Cybermen have returned, plodding onto our screens in an episode in which I just couldn't help feeling should have had more of the energy and drive we've been used to seeing. Let me just say that Rise of the Cybermen was not bad, but the most overwhelming impression it left on me come the end credits was how much better it all could have - and should have - been.
Now, to be fair, it had some disadvantages at the outset. For one, I knew it was going to be set on an alternate Earth. Which, sorry, instead of a 'pinch me, I'm dreaming' scenario, leaves me in a 'poke me, I need waking up' frame of mind. It's much harder to care for alternative worlds populated by alternative people - even more so when we're faced with an alternative Mickey and an alternative Jackie Tyler. The other key element hampering this story was one that only really emerged as the episode went on, in that it lacked impact because it was all too much like the Troughton Cyberman story, Invasion. Fortunately, I think the story will have an impact on the young uns who have no idea there was a Troughton Cyberman story, but for this seasoned DW veteran, as much as I enjoyed seeing International Electromatics emblazoned on the side of the truck, I already knew most of what was coming. And I think what I most wanted out of a new Cyberman story was something that could surprise and impress me, as well as the new generation of viewers.
I'll try not to bang on for too long about this one, because it may all come out in the wash, or failing that the second episode (thank you BBC for remembering not to tack a spoiler-packed trailer on the end), but I was left wanting something more - from this week's episode as much as next week's.
What I wanted less of was Rose Tyler's family, alternative or otherwise. Too much focus on the domestics and you're going to end up with a very domestic, dare I say pedestrian feel to the thing. It started well, I thought, with Roger Lloyd Pack engaging wheelchair-bound Rotwang mode, but then followed it up with a lot of padding, too much plodding and too many misjudged moments. Of the latter, off the top of my head, the ones that stood out the worst were the premature 'solution' to the dead TARDIS situation (what was the problem with leaving the Doctor & Co stranded in this reality with no hope of escape?) and (dear oh dear) cyber-surgery to the tune of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Tarantino pulls this sort of thing off, using "Stuck In The Middle With You" to accompany a chilling act of torture. This was just a poor choice of soundtrack for the moment, whatever effect the director was aiming for. On a much smaller point, they could have also saved the Rose-is-a-dog-in-this-reality gag until Rose gets to discover the amusing fact for herself. A joke loses something in the repetition. Also, I did wonder why, when everybody was equipped with natty earpieces, the Cybus signal bothered to patch into stray mobile phones.
These are fairly minor points, but they're part of what added up to 45 minutes of me in writer-mode, thinking how it could have been done differently. Instead of me being absorbed, involved and enthralled, the way I generally prefer.
There were a loose collection of positives that I should cite, by way of balance: the Metropolis-style Cybermen (although, going back to the plodding, probably a bit too much focus on those clumpy great feet); good to see Don Warrington as the President of the UK (although he did ask for it at the end, didn't he, harping on about what would happen if he refused the Cybermen's offer of an upgrade - D'uh!); the scene with Mickey and his blind Grandma was nicely played (although a bit too much of an attempt to shoehorn in some background for the character now that he's a companion, when really we should have been let in on some of it before, given how long we've had to put up with him).
But, further to that parenthetical aside, the last thing the story needed was more domestic stuff to hold up the pace. Impatience is not something I'm used to feeling in a Doctor Who story these days, and I am all for allowing the story time to develop and come alive, but most of what we got here was diversionary and, since the Rose and her family kitchen sink stuff has been done more than adequately before, a bit old hat. The time should have been taken to build up the Cybermen - the clue was there in the title! - but at the end of the day, they simply weren't given the chance to be scary enough. As I say, the whole thing may well have had much more impact on the youngsters and that's to its credit, but for me this one lacked the necessary metal.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Lost: A Leap of Faith

Prefect SlogFor those of you who, like me, are irrevocably hooked on Lost, something to think about. This whole thing with the bunker and the pressing the button every 108 minutes, it's just a metaphor for us, the hopelessly addicted viewers, isn't it? We have to keep tuning in every 168 hours, otherwise we're afraid something dreadful will happen. In our case, of course, we're afraid something dreadful will happen and we'll miss it. C4 kept trailing the series' return with the tag line, "Finally, some answers" and, as expected, all we have are more questions. They really threw a curve ball my way by having that guy, Desmond, turn up in the bunker. WTF? I thought, not for the first time. Yes, I can accept polar bears, black smoke, bad robots and all sorts of twisty turny stuff, but for some reason I can't quite explain, Desmond was possibly a stretch too far. Now, for all I know, the producers have a wham-bam, huge WOW of an explanation for all of this, but the more the series goes on throwing curve balls, the better that explanation is going to have to be. If you've ever read a Peter F Hamilton SF epic, you'll know that the conclusion has to be proportionate to the time invested in following the story - and that it rarely is! So I do wonder if the whole business with the button is a deliberate tongue-in-cheek metaphorical piss-take stuck in there by the producers because they know what they're doing to us. Naturally, they're afraid we'll all stop tuning in every 168 hours. In the case of poor old Locke and Jack and the others it's only by *not* pressing that damned button they will ever find out the truth - whether there's anything really explosive to it, or whether it's just a scam to keep them pressing the button. All I can say is, to the producers, I am going to keep pressing the button, but there had better be something big at the end of all this; and to anybody out there who has stopped pressing the button, what is it like? Did the world implode? Are you plagued with curiosity? Or do you just get on with your lives and snigger at the rest of us poor deluded individuals who are continuing to take the Lost leap of faith?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Doctor Almost Dances

Prefect SlogOf all the writers contributing to this season of Doctor Who, Steve Moffat had the most to live up to. With last year's The Empty Child, he showed how brand new 45-minute Who should be done and with The Doctor Dances, despite a slightly painful to watch extended dance mix on the end, set the bar for the two-parter. The title of last night's episode, The Girl In The Fireplace, suggested something similarly creepy, to the point where I had to wonder if Mr Moffat had a thing about creepy children. But before I get done for defamation of character, the end result was I came at last night's episode with an unpredictable combination of a great deal of positive feeling and high expectations. Things could have gone either way.
I certainly didn't expect a time-spanning love story - and anyone who's read my own Doctor Who books will know how fond of those I should be (Emotional Chemistry ranges from the 51st Century back to the early 19th, so Mr Moffat threw a few extra decades on his temporal fire, but hey). And I didn't expect the second story in a row to bring a tear to the eye and a lump in the throat. Bastards! I'm a grown man - there's only so much I can take!
This is less surprising when you realise that the stories are thematically similar. Sophia Myles is, no offence, no Sarah Jane, but in The Girl In The Fireplace we have a whirlwind romance that is, in effect, the answer to the questions raised in School Reunion. Questions that were already answered in that episode, but here they're illustrated, shown rather than told. I've heard it suggested that the stories should have been shown farther apart, but the other alternative would have been to press them closer together. Thus, in School Reunion we could have been prompted to wonder why the Doctor moves on and leaves his companions behind, often - as in Sarah Jane's case - without so much as a by your leave (sniff), and then in The Girl In The Fireplace we could have been shown the answer. The curse of the Time Lords: the Doctor lives on while those he loves fade and die.
In fact, The Girl In The Fireplace should really have been a two-parter in its own right. It's positively crammed with stuff, but once more it's given the whiz-bang treatment and the Doctor's romance with Reinette is conducted at such a whirlwind pace that they omit the one vital scene where they actually dance. 'Dance' in The Doctor Dances meant something else entirely, of course, but here I'm not speaking in metaphors. A revolution or three around the grand ballroom, the Doctor and Reinette losing themselves n each other until they are the only ones there would have spoken volumes and would have had the added benefit of looking gorgeous. Honestly, six episodes of the BBC's Pride & Prejudice (the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle one) and not a minute goes by without a major dancing epidemic, and they can't even give us one bloody waltz where it really counts. It stood out as such an obvious missing piece at the time that I was left dismayed, while they cut straight to the scene where the drunken Doctor rescues Mickey and Rose (who are, funnily enough, something of a couple of spare parts in this anyway) from a spot of clockwork surgery.
Then to be further dismayed by the sound of the Doctor spouting insults at the androids like Edmund Blackadder: "Mr Thickety Thick Thick Thick." And when you're producing such a curious, wonderful blend of fantasy, history and sf, you need to take care not to jump your audience out of the action with oddities like that.
Luckily, for the most part, as with School Reunion, I was so absorbed and involved by the human story that I could quickly forget that little glitch and, more importantly, overlook the flaws and inconsistencies in the more Doctor Who-ish aspects of the plot.
Indeed, it was all so magical that at the time (the station reminded me of the house in Gulliver's Travels, full of mirrors leading to different times, and the Doctor riding through the mirror on horseback was the stuff of fairy tales) I wasn't questioning the logic of 1) the time portals (how, exactly, did they work and why, if the androids knew so much about Madame Pompadour's history, didn't they go straight to when she was thirty-seven?), 2) the clockwork androids (why?) or 3) the cannibalising of the crew for parts (I mean, okay, a heart's a pump and a liver's a filtration unit, but there are a limited number of useful parts in the human body when it comes to patching up a spaceship). A mate of mine picked far more holes than those and to be honest, I couldn't disagree with any of them. But nevertheless we ended up with diverse impressions of the episode. And it's just another illustration of what often happens with Doctor Who, old or new: namely, that it comes down to a measure of what you're willing to forgive, based on the overall impression left on you by a given story. With School Reunion, the feeling was overwhelmingly positive, with The Girl In The Fireplace, slightly less so, but more than sufficient to prompt me to look on it like the clockwork androids: illogical, but beautiful.
They certainly gave me the chills, with their creepy masks, the most effective scene of course being where the Doctor is rooting one of them out from under the young Reinette's bed. But there's really not enough time to savour that creepiness after that, and the whole thing, as usual, flies by in a rush. To be fair, the story may have needed a few more complications in order to warrant a two-parter, but the dividends might well have been worth it. Ultimately, with this one, everything would appear to hang on whether you buy into the love story or not. Me, I'm a hopeless romantic and a writer of a Doctor Who love story myeslf and therefore an easy target. There was a tangible chemistry there, fairly obviously, between Tennant and Myles, and it's especially obvious in the kiss, which did much to convince. (Sophia Myles is also one of those actresses who looks like she's born for period costume and short of hiring Kate Winslet, whom some of us might have liked to have seen in a Doctor Who, she does the job admirably enough.) And the mind-meld works well to cement their bond - I particularly loved the turnaround, where Reinette is able to step through and see into the Doctor's thoughts. But two parts would have lent the story an epic feel more befitting a story that's meant to span 3000 years and allowed us to really experience the two-speed romance as it should have been experienced: at two speeds. Most crucially, two parts would have allowed plenty of time for that missing scene in the ballroom. This was one occasion where the Doctor definitely needed to dance. With that, I might have loved it unequivocally. Without it, I still loved it, but it was more of a fleeting love affair that did well to last past the end credits.