Sunday, June 11, 2006

Pitfall

Prefect SlogWhat a ride. I mean, only last week Doctor Who left us gasping with a three-way cliffhanger, which - after a shabby piece of expositionary storytelling - showed a real knack for drama and heightened tension.
So what went wrong?
If you're so good at blowing up all those dramatic balloons, surely the thing to do is let them loose and see where they fly. Not pop them all in quick succession and spend the rest of the time desperately trying to keep them up in the air. At the end of The Impossible Planet the possessed Ood are on the march, the planet's hurtling into the black hole and something's rising out of the pit. At the beginning of The Satan Pit, Jefferson decides to open fire on the Ood, begging the question why he didn't get around to doing that last week, the planet decides to stop heading for the black hole, and all that rose out of the pit, it turns out, was the camera. And unfortunately, from there on in, too much of this episode was just like that - throwing away good dramatic potential like it was going out of fashion.
Thankfully, while this shameless waste was going on, there were saving graces. It was hugely spectacular, for one. I'm not usually one to be easily impressed by spectacle alone, but credit where it's due, this one was dazzling and cinematic for most of its screentime. So much so, that the big-budget fx made the cast look too much like low-budget actors. Yes, I'm afraid to say it, but there was little sign of that elusive charisma from the previous week, but again I'm disposed to be charitable and put that down to the failings of the script. There are, after all, moments when the script is working - and the actors work with it. Too much of the time though, they are toiling against script inadequacies: each of the crew has backstory, it emerges, but it's only something that we're made aware of as Satan dishes out token character sketches like helpings of Protein 3, or whatever slop they were serving in the Sanctuary Base kicthens last week. It's a perfunctory, shorthand form of storytelling that's best reserved for a synopsis, and doesn't belong in a completed and, we would hope, finely polished TV episode. Of them all, only Toby really comes alive to any significant degree, and that's largely because he becomes the Devil and is voiced by the mighty Gabriel Woolf, the man who gave us Sutekh and the man who, if the truth be known, inspired us to do our best Sutekh impersonations in the playground all those years ago.
Setting the crew aside, there are further problems with the storytelling that grate a little more and jumped me out of the action just a little too frequently. Immediately after the multiple-deflation of the cliffhangers, things revert to exposition and explanation territory, as the Doctor engages the Ood legions in a little conversation and gets the Beast to oblige us all with a little information about itself. There's no attempt to learn or uncover the truth in the proper manner of an epic tale of archaeological discovery, which, come on people, this should have been. And even the Doctor at one point postpones the action by backing away. It's a fair attempt at a twist, but dramatically speaking it does the story no favours. It's another deflated balloon and also feels very un-Doctorish. Or, to put it another way, very Ninth Doctor.
The tension and drama are given a welcome shot in the arm with a chase through the ducts, but this feels a bit like it's been shoehorned in simply because chases through ducts are requisite scenes in stories of this nature. It's undermined too by the fact that the action follows an entirely predictable path: we knew Jefferson was going to sacrifice himself, and we knew there would be Ood waiting for them behind Door 9.2. It wasn't helped either by an oddly placed lull in the middle, where we are even given a fart gag to relieve the tension, when being relieved was the last thing the tension needed.
There are all manner of other niggles along the way, most of which are sprinkled in for convenience: how did the Doctor hear the rocket taking off when he was, what, ten miles or more down? how did the TARDIS end up all the way down there (which we knew it was going to) when the Pit was closed at the time it fell? when did the TARDIS acquire a tractor beam device? The answer to that last one, of course, is 'When the writer realised the story required it to have one.' (Grounds for a rejected book proposal, right there, if you'd ever care to try your luck.) But there were alternatives that were not only more expedient but potentially more satisfying, dramatically speaking. The TARDIS could have materialised in the rocket and the Doctor rescued everybody while the air was still being sucked out into space and the rocket being dragged into the black hole. But no, Rose shatters the windscreen and - ooh, look, the Emergency Shield slides up. That's handy.
Unfortunately, that scene in itself illustrates perhaps the biggest pitfall of the lot. And this is a key lesson that all would-be supreme forces of evil really ought to take on board: don't go manifesting yourself in human form or possessing a human body. Most especially if you're an inexorable elemental force or, say, a fifty-foot tall Horned Beast. Word to the wise: in human form, you are surprisingly vulnerable to quite mundane and predictable forms of attack and generally a good deal easier to kill. The Beast himself was, frankly, a supremely impressive piece of CGI - a veritable Balrog of a creation - but when you know it's just a dumb brute helplessly chained to a cavern wall, it kind of loses something. Especially when you happen to have worked out a while back that Satanic Toby was going to be finished off by Miss Tyler, in the rocketship, with the bolt gun. At that point, and an unfortunate number of points throughout, it's a competition between me and the black hole to see who can yawn the widest.
Against that, you do have some solid conflict in the Doctor's dilemma, and his struggle against his own belief system offers some good material, particularly when he's hanging suspended and alone in the darkness of the Pit, but really, it's not given a sufficient foundation earlier on to ensure that we all know that this is what this story is about and it lacks a certain potency. If we'd seen a story that was more apparently built around that core from the beginning, we might have been onto something better. And in the end, smashing a few vases to bring about the Beast's destruction, is not all it's (haha) cracked up to be.
In the end, what we're left with is a two-parter that had a great scenario, given the full cinematic treatment - and that's a rarity and something of note for Saturday night telly. There's energy and pace to a lot of it and a good deal between the two episodes that's worthy of applause. It's a rollercoaster ride, with some good ups, a few too many downs and a lot of minor bumps along the way. What it needed was a good script doctor and, sadly, come the concluding part, instead of having all that dramatic potential come spilling out of the Pit, it just unearthed a convenient hole in which to dispose of it all.

5 comments:

Stuart Douglas said...

I must be getting mellow in my old age. Whereas I;ve generally been utterly annoed by the plot holes and lazy scripting/editing of other episodes in the new series, this one carrie dme along on a wave of goodwill built up from tIP with the result that I honestly never noticed a thing wrong whilst actually watching.

In the could light of day, I agree that the three great cliffhangers were thrown away too cheaply and some of the cast weren't up to it (the asian computer guy in particular remained as lightweight this week as last). And the small scale info dump was kinda crappy, now you mention it, almost as though this two-parter desperately wanted to be a series in itself like Lost, with time spent stretching out these miscro backstories. Better not to have them at all if there's going to be neither foreshadowing nor flashback to build them up.

Still, tIP/tSP is now officially my favourite story since Who came back (how fickle seems my choice of School Reuinion in my top 10 now)...

SAF said...

Part of my problem is when something jumps me out of the action, the writer side of my brain is engaged and it's then difficult to just switch that off again. Who knows - I'll be 40 next year, maybe I'll mellow by then ;)

Stuart Douglas said...

I'm only 36 and already mellow - I'm either far more mature than you or it's a legacy of excessive student dope-smoking in my younger days.

Stewart M. said...

I'm such an idiot - I've only just realized that you're SAF! As in 4dprefect. As in the author of Emotional Chemistry, among others!

That being said, I definitely agree with the vast majority of your review. Every script thus far presented this year has been a disappointment in one respect or another.

SAF said...

stewart m: "I've only just realized that you're SAF! As in 4dprefect. As in the author of Emotional Chemistry, among others!"

Indeed, tis me! But I only realise that myself some days. ;)