Sunday, July 02, 2006

Phantom Menace

Prefect Slog"All phantom and no menace", I heard it said about a certain prequel in a certain famous sci-fi movie series. And that's something that applies to this week's Doctor Who, another mediocre little number called Army Of Ghosts. Given the title, there's no shortage of phantoms - apparently they've been available on tap for the past couple of months by the time the Doctor and Rose turn up on the scene. And in that time, they've been so embraced by the world's population as to become integrated into numerous facets of popular culture and the media - appearing on Eastenders, cheesy daytime talk shows (Trisha) and incorporated into the weather report. A little far-fetched - especially in cynical Britain - but all good clean fun. Only trouble is, they're so accepted by the general fictional populace that they have a hard time being scary. As does this Doctor Who story as a whole.
The ghosts are there, but they're just a springboard into the rest of the story and, I suppose, a fitting one in an episode in which Rose is supposedly telling us the tale of how she died. (Of course, unless it's Desperate Housewives, it's very unlikely that the narrator is actually dead, so expect something metaphorical come the end of this ostensibly climactic two-part finale to this second series.) I don't know if any of it was intended to be scary, but I suspect it was intended to be exciting. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite succeed in either respect and the end result is something like a high street lined with lampposts - rather pedestrian with a few bright spots.
Now, in fairness to the episode, it had a few things working against it. Not least among them, the preceding episodes - from about the clunky Cybermen two-parter onwards - all of which have served to steadily erode my interest in Doctor Who. (Another item on the dislike pile is Tennant's inane babbling which is becoming a tad annoying and at one point in the episode became unintelligible - something about "Alonso", what? - and that's an especial shame, because I had begun the season liking his Doctor more than Eccleston's.) Mainly I continue watching more for the series' potential than anything that actually transpires on screen. That and force of habit, I guess.
Then there are the Cybermen themselves. On top of all the bad work done by their previous alternative Earth outing (wasted opportunity knocks - more than ever now, I believe they should have been seen to *win*), we knew they were coming. In that context, the mind boggles at just how ridiculously long the Doctor holds his cards close to his chest, apparently reluctant to identify these foes out loud, even though we've already had their presence confirmed with the sight of one of them emerging from all the hanging plastic. There, at least, you have the one scene with true atmosphere and it offers an additonal highlight in the shape of the Cybermen slicing through said plastic in homage to past Cyber tales. As usual though there are questions about the plot, and I don't get quite why the Cybermen are fleeing, in their millions, from the alternative world into this one.
Switching more to the positives for a moment, other highlights would have to include the 'ghostbusters' rig the Doctor kits himself out with - a pure Doctor Who contraption if ever there was one. Um. Some of the dialogue (it all started when "Peggy heard a noise down in the cellar"). Um. The pre-credits sequence, to a certain extent - although the flash of an alien landscape is like rubbing our faces in the fact that we haven't seen anything of that sort and reminds us just how much we've been cheated of more exotic locales than the one on offer - again! - here. Um. The earpieces pulled out with gooey bits of brain attached. Um. The Daleks look nice and shiny.
The Daleks. Yes. And funnily enough, they might have had more of an impact had I not known they were coming too. Unfortunately, it's just too difficult to isolate yourself from online spoilers and the rumour mill, or so it seems. But, even if that hadn't been spoiled, I feel sure I would have guessed it anyway. The clues are there and, in essence, we've seen this all before.
Bad Wolf/The Parting Of The Ways. A menace mixed in with popular culture, a major Doctor Who enemy revealed to be behind the scenes, unleashing millions of the buggers on an unsuspecting Earth. Not to mention, Torchwood's ethos is an echo of Van Statten's in Dalek, except here, instead of a museum, you have an agency who search for applications for the alien devices they acquire, and instead of the impenetrable Metaltron, you have the impenetrable Sphere, baffling and frustrating all the attempts to probe it until the Doctor and Rose show up.
Just in case you're not already thinking there are Daleks in the Sphere, there are Daleks in the Sphere, the episode turns into what feels like a fifteen minute drawn-out cliffhanger, piling up the odds with the big Cyberman invasion and giving you plenty of time to realise that there's some other Kinder surprise waiting for us at the end. I should add that the whole Daleks vs. Cybermen scenario - that we would seem to be headed for here - was one that I stopped being excited about back when I grew out of coming up with such things myself. Definitely a load of what's generally termed fanwank. And if you're not a fan, you're in danger of being left with something that's just a load of the second syllable.
Another of the minor 'surprises' along the way is the return of Mickey, of course, but that's about as surprising as all the other surprises (but at least may answer the question of what the Cybermen are running away from) and is another of the factors that conspire against all this episode's efforts to succeed. And it is making efforts, you can feel that. Despite the rather mundane and no-frills approach to shooting the Torchwood office interior, it's trying so hard to impress with many of its scenes, but it's an uphill struggle. It's not helped by the inclusion of Eastenders actors - the woman who plays Yvonne is unconvincing and a bit annoying - or by plain dumb scenes like the soldiers applauding the Doctor like a bunch of idiot fanboys. But I think what counts against it most is the fact that no matter how many surprises it endeavours to throw our way, they all fall a bit flat - because we know what's coming.
Army Of Ghosts is this year's Bad Wolf and as such we're primed to expect this year's The Parting Of The Ways to follow. There's even to be a parting of the ways, with Rose's departure already scheduled, flagged, signposted and heavily publicised in advance. But more than that, there is a pattern of disappointment attached to New Who two-parters (Empty Child/Doctor Dances excepted) that, along with all the other factors, gives rise to troubling omens that hark back to that big first season finale.
If I recall, I quite enjoyed Bad Wolf at the time, but The Parting Of The Ways was a big letdown with some truly awesome moments. At the close of Army Of Ghosts, the odds are similarly stacked against the Earth and the omens portend of a similarly horrible deus ex machina DW TV Movie rewind-style resolution that will have yours truly groaning and shaking his head in dismay. I hope - really hope - to be proven wrong and that next week Doctor Who will deliver the granddaddy of all episodes, but it's going to be difficult to overcome my doubts on that score because of past experience. It's tough to counter that standard of programming.


Stuart Douglas said...

It's odd, but I liked Army of Ghosts a lot when I was watching it and quite a lot in the hours after it finished, but now several days ahve gone past I'm finding it hard to pin down exactly what I liked about it, in comparison to other, less fondly remembered episodes from this season.

There are some obvious things - Peggy in Eastenders, the return of Mickey (maybe it's a comparative thing, but I was enormously chuffed when he turned round in the Torchwood lab) and the psychic paper not working (now if only the sonic screwdriver could get destroyed again and they could forget - which to be fair they seem to have done - that the TARDIS can now materialise round people and thus save them, then we might have a chance at the Doctor actually solving stuff as opposed to using a Get Out of Jail Free Card all the time).

But I can point to similar little things in even the worst of the other episodes - and since the two part Cyber story, I've been less than impressed with every episode.

And I thought the Daleks coming back was a bit rubbish - I can't help thinking envisaging this as a pattern and next year we'll have the Ice Warriors as main baddies, with the Cybermen and the Daleks appearing in the two part finale. A sort of 'Ha - but can you beat all three of ussss at once, Doc-tor!' moment.

Hmm, rambling a bit now, but I suspect that the reason I enjoyed it was simply that Tennant for once showed the ocasional flash of the character hinted at in tCI - killing the three Torchwood employees being the most obvious example. I'd be delighted if we got a more ruthless Doctor - one for whom shouting 'IT IS DEFENDED!' actually means something - sort of a COlin Baker DOctor but done with some style.

Of course, it all depends if Doomsday is any good - fingers and toes crossed...

SAF said...

Yes, it's not to late to save it - I even said that (optimistically) about Rise Of The Cybermen, IIRC! (Trouble is, too many of these fade on recollection or on rewatching - one reason I've steered clear of a rewatch of Girl In The Fireplace, which I liked a lot.) I don't think this one was as bad as it felt to me, but after a run of poor episodes, it would have taken a much, much better episode to impress me. Maybe that's what we'll get next week. FWIW, yes, I liked the Tennant ruthlessness too - but somehow that slipped my mind when blogging. Oh well. But now I'm rambling - which might make you feel at home ;)