Friday, June 18, 2010

Doctor In The House

In much the same way that certain things in Doctor Who (Churchill and Daleks, return of the Silurians) fuel anticipation with possibilities and promise, some things just ring alarm bells and put you on your guard. The name Gareth Roberts, for instance, is like a big Beware Of The Dog sign at the gateway to an episode.

In canine terms, I suppose he'd be one of those yappy little ones who'd like to prove he has teeth and go for the jugular, but only manages to annoy with lots of attention-seeking jumping around and nipping at your ankles. He's rated by a bewildering number (where any number above zero can be considered bewildering) of Who fans and as far as I can tell he is convinced of his own pedigree.

As such, when you're met with a story that's as average, unambitious and unpretentious as The Lodger from a writer who's so spectacularly failed to impress in the past it's a refreshing change. It didn't appear to aspire to much beyond being fun. It certainly didn't aim for a decent, well-constructed plot. So as long as you weren't expecting anything of that sort, you were pretty safe from disappointment.

I guess one remedy for a writer too often bound up in his own cleverness is to write a story that's not even trying to be especially clever. What you're left with is a script that clearly delights in its characters and their situation. Arguably, a sitcom.

And like a sitcom, it works to maintain the status quo because, since the comedy arises out of the situation, the last thing you want is for the situation to change too dramatically. Of course, this is Doctor Who, so ultimately it has to change – the evil has to be defeated and so on, so we can move on to the next episode, the next situation.

But that's essentially the level The Lodger is on. Two Pints Of Vraxoin And A Packet Of Jelly Babies – so to speak.

And it's funnier than a lot of sitcoms. In being out of his element, the Doctor is in his element and whether it's playing interfering gooseberry to his landlord's relationship, building fantastic Scrapheap Challenge contraptions in his bedroom or swapping Black Orchid's cricket for a spot of footie, Matt Smith is hilarious. Even James Corden, who I'm not a fan of, is perfectly cast and there's a nice enough rom-com chemistry between him and Daisy Haggard as Sophie.

As a rom-com it's less successful. Many (all?) rom-coms blatantly identify which two characters are destined to kiss in the final reel, but they work (the ones that do anyway) by throwing in more barriers, setbacks and misunderstandings to romance than are in evidence here. It's fair enough, because there's only 45 minutes to play with and also the small matter of a Doctor Who story to tell.

In this case, a mysterious predatory presence living upstairs, luring innocent victims to its lair. Despite a decent stab at atmosphere and the creepy images of shadowy figures on the stairs, it's on this level that the episode is weakest. The identity of the menace – a TARDIS hunting for a pilot - is sufficiently novel, but the resolution is rushed, messy and not immediately clear.

Ship wants pilot in order to leave. This desire is overridden by combined psyches of two inveterate stay-at-homes. So ship self-destructs or simply vanishes - it's unclear: the Doctor says 'implode', the fx say disappear. I freely admit I could have it all wrong there, but explanations were hurriedly shouted under a crescendo of sparks and Murray Gold.

I'm all for throwaway lines, but you're not meant to actually throw them away. Least of all the ones that (perhaps) explain what's going on.

Worse than that, though, is the fact that this is a climax without any proper build-up. It's because of that sitcom need to maintain the status quo, but it means that in terms of the mystery there's no carefully measured peeling away of layer after layer. It's all just the one big reveal at the end when the Doctor and Craig charge up the stairs because Sophie is the latest in a long line of victims. Story progression prior to that is minimal, essentially limited to the spreading stain on the ceiling, which is little more than a flag to tell us that the crisis, whatever it actually is, is worsening.

All of which is incredibly critical of a story that, it must be said, I enjoyed watching.

My main gripe with it at the time of viewing was the manner in which Amy was horribly sidelined. It's fair enough that she needed to be out of the picture in order for the premise to work, but for preference I wouldn't have done that by placing her in a predicament where the character was largely hapless and helpless. The rest of the season has worked well to build her as a resourceful and resilient – and highly spirited – companion and here that's all rather carelessly tossed aside because the writer apparently considers it too unimportant to give the matter any thought.

It's half-arsed and the Bill & Ted-style timey-wimey 'plot twist' with her placing an ad (in red pen) in the local post office just so the Doctor can find the right house etc falls far short of mitigating the laziness.

Oh and the one-storey house at the end looked really odd. To the extent I did wonder if it wouldn't have made more sense to have the offending TARDIS appear as an out-of-place third storey, which is what first attracts the Doctor's attention to the mystery and in the resolution the building goes back to looking like every other house in the row...

Other than that, expectations played their part again, this time to the episode's benefit. I wasn't expecting a decent story from the pen of Gareth Roberts, so could sit back and enjoy the comedy. It's not particularly cutting edge stuff - the Doctor fails to fit in is hardly news – but it does deliver plenty of giggles.

It's a fish-out-of-water situation, and that generally involves a lot of flapping about before expiring feebly at the end. Enough said.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Chicken Little

And now a welcome break from my opinions, as guest blogger, Zoe, airs and shares her views on Richard Curtis-penned Doctor Who episode:

Vincent And The Doctor has a very poignant, very touching message which has very little to do with the invisible bloodthirsty space chicken terrorising both the "mad" artist and Provencal ladies.

For those of us with loved ones in the creative industries, the sad truth is that recognition and popular success often has little to do with either talent or skill, and this is ultimately the story of Vincent Van Gogh, the tragic artist who, during his lifetime sold only one painting, to be "discovered" less than 20 years after his death (by self-inflicted gunshot wound at 37).

Whilst the causes of Vincent's real "madness" are far more complex than portrayed in the episode (his depressive moods were likely the downswings of bipolar disorder which he attempted to correct with nearly lethal doses of absinthe - a side effect of which is the tendency to see more yellowing tones or yellow spots - alternately, this may have been caused by one of his doctors treating his epilepsy with digitalis; visualising halos around objects as seen in The Starry Night would be consistent with lead poisoning from using lead based paints), we see through Amy's eyes how the story should have unfolded: once Vincent was shown that he was indeed a great and beloved painter - in the future - he was meant to cast aside self-doubt and and frustration at the small-mindedness of mid 19C society and happily paint into old age. And although the story did not show Vincent's all too quick spiral from elation at his eventual appreciation to punctual suicide, one cannot imagine it as separate from the crash-landing to the status quo, where drinks must be paid for, and anyone who considers buying a Van Gogh must surely be laughed out of town.

This sobering message aside, I urge anyone slaying their own invisible creative bloodthirsty chickens, or creative demons, take Amy's lesson. Somewhere, someday, someone will appreciate your work. Someone who makes the effort worthwhile. It may be someone you know, but someone who, because they are not a publisher or agent, doesn't have a ... valued opinion. Or it may be most of the world, but in the future. Or it might be most of the world, just in ten years' time.

If there is any lesson we can take from the Doctor, it is that things happen in their own time, not when we want them to. Don't let the invisible chicken win. Keep creating as though you know your work will be valuable one day, whether you will live to see it or not. It is the only way to live. Make Amy proud.

But as for that chicken...

The chicken has it's pluses and minuses. On the plus side, it's an engrossing way to get the Doctor and Amy into Vincent's life, to put him in danger, that just going for a visit with Amy's favourite painter wouldn't have done. The design was imaginative, but ridiculous, so I suppose that's a plus and a minus. And the big minus is in its demise. A little tear-jerker moment when they realise they've just murdered a, well, admittedly a killer alien monster, but a blind, frightened killer alien monster, who was just shredding local girls out of its own terror (which begs the question, then why didn't it respond to the Doctor speaking so kindly to it?). There's a moment of pathos when they all feel guilty, then the moment passes and there are no real consequences of what they obviously feel, in retrospect, was a rash act. And also, I hesitate to point out, no clean up. I mean, surely it is even more important to dispose of the body when the corpse is enormous and invisible. Imagine someone coming into the chapel and running into it?

So, in summary, a beautiful story about a complex and tortured man, stunning visuals, excellent use of Amy, extra 100 points for Bill Nighy's cameo, but no extra credit for the invisible bloodthirsty space chicken.


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Flat Earth

I've said it before (quite recently too) and I'll say it again: if you want a decent rule of thumb for what makes a good Doctor Who story, you could do worse than 'something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue' (where blue is just a handy metaphor for mood/atmosphere). It's that special blend of the familiar and the original that, to my mind, makes for the best stories, the ones that endure and lodge themselves in the imagination for years. If you get the balance right.

Unfortunately, something old, something borrowed, something borrowed, something borrowed and precious little new is not going to do it. If The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood leaves any lasting impression at all, I'll be surprised. Which, given the two-parter's inability – with a single (arc-related) exception - to surprise in any other respect, seems unlikely.

Was it rubbish? Well, it wasn't a complete landfill, but for me it qualifies as the poorest offering of this season so far. As with Victory Of The Daleks, the scale (haha) of disappointment is inevitably measured against expectations and a revisit of Doctor Who And The Silurians territory, one of my all-time favourite DW stories, is saddled with the burden of high promise. Truth to tell, the anticipation was tempered by the knowledge that Chris Chibnall (of Torchwood 'fame') would be scripting the episodes and the trailered glimpses of a new brand of Silurians who looked a lot more ordinary.

With optimism duly kept in check - after a return from a rather lovely holiday - I sat down to watch the two episodes back to back and found a story that fell spectacularly short. Sadly, it was for the most part a bit flat and dull.

It's almost a cybernetic reconstruction of an old story, with all its complex organs removed and replaced with functional mechanical parts, along with an artificial heart. Not content to retread And The Silurians, it stops to riff on Inferno (drilling project reaching to the depths of the Earth), The Green Death (infection of popular alien hue) and The Daemons (energy barrier seals off village from rest of world) along the way.

Within its scenario, it does at least succeed in generating a degree of tension in the first part, with the ground swallowing people up, the impending menace of monsters making their way towards the surface and the flitting of shadowy figures about the graveyard. But it never really conveys any sense of a global threat in the way that And The Silurians does, with its widespread plague. Unlike The Green Death and The Daemons, it doesn't even manage to give us the sense of a community under threat. Probably because the village that's been targeted has a current population of about four.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for small-scale threats focused on a handful of characters in isolated locations – Horror Of Fang Rock is another favourite of mine, for example. But this story doesn't have the predatory suspense and tension necessary to pull that off. It appears to want the best of both worlds, and although it shows us a vast reptilian army in stasis, it never properly evolves to extend its scope of menace beyond the regulars and limited guest cast.

And by 'limited' I only mean in terms of numbers, because to be fair the performances are pretty much all better than the script warrants. But nobody in particular shines. Meera Siyal is good, dependable guest star material but her character feels a bit sketched and generic. It's a nice little bonus to have Stephen Moore in the mix, throwing in a spot of voice-over to accompany a shot of the Earth and adding a dash of Hitch-Hikers nostalgia. But at the same time, it feels odd, thrown in at the start of the second episode – and then not really satisfactorily tail-ended. Wouldn't it have been better to use that device (albeit better-written) to frame the entire thing? Perhaps giving us at least the illusion that there was some point to it all.

Because pointless is what it felt like to me.

As well as the need to be great, it really needed to have something new to offer. All it had in the new department was bio-manipulated soil (fair enough) and a lashing lizard-tongue for the Silurians. Which, okay, was a reasonably interesting accessory, but not remotely as interesting as the third eye which they lost. Indeed, this branch of the Silurian race is as ordinary and dull as I'd feared and instead of the creative vision inherent in the original Silurian (and Sea Devil) masks are reduced to your bulk-standard Star Trek reptilians. I'm not averse to a change in design, I just would have liked to have seen more evidence of inventiveness applied. It's as big a misfire, albeit in different ways, as the re-modelled Daleks in Victory. I gather these Silurians may have owed their humanised appearance to budgetary constraints, but back in the days of old man-in-a-suit Doctor Who monsters I was always led to believe that tight finances were one of the things that inspired the fx experts and creature creators to be more creative. Lady Gaga looked more alien in a green scaly outfit in her Bad Romance video. (It you don't know the outfit I'm referring to, it appears at around the 3:30 mark). These Kermit-coloured Klingons completely fail to convince.

When one of them - Alaya - is captured, the story hands itself an opportunity for a major twist, as she declares she knows one of the humans will kill her and she knows which of them will do the deed. Then blows it, by it turning out to be exactly the same one you thought it would be. It's that level of predictability that compounds the (unforgivable) averageness of it all.

There are, of course, some compensations to be found in the mix, snatches of amusing dialogue here and there, for instance, and even if it lacks the sharpness of a Moffat script, say, Matt Smith continues to prove his credentials as the best Doctor since Davison. His lecturing a desperate mother on morality doesn't sit quite right next to his declaration of love for the Silurian vivisectionist, but that's the script's fault for not letting the Doctor in on the scientist's habit of dissecting living human specimens. But heck, even his subjects appear to forgive a bit of surgical probing a tad too readily for my liking.

Gillan's still great, even if the signs are minimal that Amy values Rory any more since making her Choice in the previous episode and, not for the first time, it seems she only appreciates him when he's gone. Which makes her look like a slow learner. More attentive script editing could have taken care to show better character/relationship development there. Meanwhile, Rory is as entertaining and engaging a character as ever, whether it's the business with the ring, being mistaken for a plainclothes detective or being left in charge of the group on the surface.

His death, when it comes, is the two-parter's only genuine shocker and there's real tragedy in Amy's battle (which she loses) to retain her memories of him. It's the first time in the two episodes my emotions are engaged. Then, of course, there's the follow-up whammy when the Doctor reveals the piece of wreckage he fished from the fissure. Okay, that last revelation wasn't totally unexpected, but it still delivers a pleasant oooer tingle. And the fact is, it's all so much more dramatic than anything that precedes it. (My only concern at this stage is that this, coupled with Rory's demise, points towards a big Undo at the climax of the season... but I guess we can worry about that when the time comes.) It's not all Mr Chibnall's fault then, because clearly this critical arc material needed to be squeezed in and that takes charge of proceedings at story's end. In a better story though, it might not have dominated quite so much and with the materials handed to him, the writer really should have been able to deliver something that was at least equal to those closing events and not so easily overpowered.

As it is, the effect is rather like following a meal with one of those mouthwashes that practically makes your head explode. The taste of what went before is obliterated, but actually in this case it's no great loss, because the meal was mediocre.

Those rumbles? Not the Hungry Earth. That'll be me hankering for something a darn sight better and a good deal more substantial.