Sunday, September 25, 2011

Only Fools And Cybermen

Last night saw the return of the show’s spin-off sitcom Two Pints Of Vraxoin And A Packet Of Jelly Babies, penned by Gareth Roberts and currently enjoying a season of only one episode a year. This time it’s The One With The Cyberman In The Changing Room and, like The One With All The Football, it’s funny stuff.

Unlike the Cybermen, our hero Craig (James Corden) has progressed, becoming a dad and the episode gives us a far more credible portrait of a father struggling to cope than Doctor Who’s earlier (and less hilarious) Night Terrors. This rarely falls short of being entertaining, liberally peppered with laugh-out-loud lines – and even Corden is liberally peppered at one point – with pepper – as customary guest star, the Doctor, does a dazzling bit of faffing about in the kitchen shortly after his arrival. It’s just one of many inspired touches of visual comedy to go with the positively fizzing dialogue. And Roberts does a good job of running with Moffat’s idea that the Doctor can speak baby. You’d have to be a fool or a Cyberman not to find this amusing.

Indeed it’s so good, the sooner Gareth Roberts lands a BBC 3 sitcom commission and retires from Doctor Who, the better for us all.

Briefly, I had to cast my attention back to what I wrote about The Lodger last year, because as I pondered the delights of this episode I grew wary of repeating myself. Because – very like the Cybermen – this is exactly like the previous iteration but slightly worse. For the framework for all the domestic comedy antics, I can only imagine Gareth retained the original script and did a quick cut and replace on a few details. Hidden TARDIS-like ship upstairs becomes hidden Cybership downstairs, defeated by the combined psyches of the two singularly unadventurous protagonists becomes destroyed by emotional feedback from one of said protagonists.

Honestly, Mr Roberts, did you deem your own story so forgettable that we wouldn’t notice? Lazy, abysmal stuff. Utterly unworthy of most of the writing that fuels proceedings, insulting to the audience and the people who paid your cheque, and about par for the Gareth Roberts course.

I remember being pleasantly surprised by The Lodger because, finally, it seemed that Roberts had found his appropriate level and delivered something that wasn’t entirely expected. (1. The Shakespeare Code: comprehensively unsurprising Who-meets-Shakespeare-by-numbers, feeble resolution. 2. The Unicorn And The Wasp: atrocious and puerile Who-meets-Agatha-Christie-by-numbers guff, feeble resolution. 3. the 'special', Planet Of The Dead. Overblown and shallow Pitch Black imitation, feeble resolution.) The Lodger is still his best offering – on this steeply downward sliding scale - but unfortunately now this new (sitcom) format seems to be the new pro forma.

In Who writer terms, Roberts always strikes me as the equivalent of one of those X Factor contestants who really shouldn’t have been let through to the judges’ houses but, you know, Louis Walsh insisted because they were ‘fun’ and camp enough to promise some basic lowest common denominator popular appeal. Jedward or Wagner, say. In this regard he does, I suppose, realise his potential.

It’s a shame, because there’s cleverness at work here and there and the man plainly has a gift for funny lines. But ultimately his tales fall over like, well, Cybermen in the face of pretty much anything.

Far from my (admittedly remote) hopes for realising the Cybermen’s potential, this tale blatantly fesses up and admits just how crap they really are. I don’t know what it is exactly, a syndrome or a disease, but for the series ‘second best’ monster, they’ve been treated abominably by their writers over the years. Here, only the poor deluded Cyberleader believes that six would be enough to conquer the world. I’m only stunned that the Doctor doesn’t contest this point, shrug off the ‘threat’ and go and have a nice dish of fish fingers and custard with Craig and little Stormageddon. An army of them would be about as dangerous as the stockpile of Iraqi WMD we all went to war over a few years back.

Through the course of the series, these poor machine creatures have been susceptible to radiation, gravity, gold stars for mathematical excellence and a zippy silver-clad mime artist. Here, they reach their saddest nadir yet, courtesy of the emotional inhibitor chip introduced in modern Who, defeated by a father’s love for his wee bairn. Awww. (I’m reminded at this point of that great sound effect from The Five Doctors of a Cyberman throwing up.) Spare parts? Spare us.

What makes this painfully worse is that the Cybes have apparently downgraded their conversion process to an eminently reversible process of ‘donning a suit of armour’. This regression is in keeping with their modern clunky, trudge-dread aesthetic, but it beggars belief that, in a universe where technological advances outpace evolution by a factor of umpty-gazillion, a machine-race are not constantly evolving. Hate to say it, but Star Trek:TNG’s rather plodding and pedestrian Borg addressed the perpetual adaptation concept better, even if it was only to add the occasional bit of hosepipe or groinal socket attachment.

Worst. Cyberman. Story. Ever.

Ah, but of course it’s not a Cyberman story. It is, as stated, a story of a guy struggling with his recent promotion to fatherhood. That’s the key and it’s echoed in the way this episode opens with a nod to Rose (assistant staying late to close up shop, something lurking in store): Who is less about Auton mannequins breaking out of shop windows to terrorise the nation; it’s much more about the people who work in that shop. The late, great Barry Letts (whose role Steven Moffat now occupies, albeit in the modern capacity of ‘showrunner’) told me that his mission was simply to produce entertaining sci-fi action adventure and, despite inheriting a setup he didn’t want – a time and space traveller stranded on contemporary Earth – succeeded, for the most part, in investing a succession of alien invasion and mad professor stories with respectable degree of variety and creativity. Back in his day, incumbent Doctor, Jon Pertwee, said that "there's nothing more scary than coming home and finding a Yeti on your loo in Tooting Bec", as opposed to in some alien environment. And there’s something to that. The contrast between the alien and the everyday and mundane makes for a potent mix.

New Who follows that recipe to a large extent, but the balance of ingredients has shifted. Character and emotion has been brought very much to the fore and this is a good thing. But I do wonder sometimes if this hasn’t been at the expense of the sf adventure side. A lot of these 45 minute episodes barely present scenarios, rather than fully fledged stories (at best, this week’s would have made for a poor if amusing short story in an anthology) and perhaps a greater deftness of touch is needed to give equal weight to both elements.

We live in a world where ‘getting away from it all’ is increasingly difficult. While on holiday, I’ll usually make a point of going offline as well as away somewhere. My mobile phone’s available for emergencies, of course, but escape – let alone actual isolation – is a challenge in this increasingly interconnected society of ours. Thus, we see this reflected in Doctor Who – at one time the ultimate in escapism – where we have companions, whisked away in the TARDIS, all of time and space opened before them, and a string of strong, independent female companions possessed with a need to frequently touch base with home and family. Once was okay as an exploration of that facet of the time travel experience, but to have the experiment repeated ad nauseam was a bit too much for my tastes.

Now at last we have the domestics packed up and travelling with us, with Rory and Amy’s relationship centre stage in the TARDIS, but – much as I love em, I really do – their love has been often been put under the microscope, pushed to the forefront and, coupled with the arc concerning their daughter, has often nudged the framing SF adventure story into peripheral vision territory. As I've noted here before, there's this too-frequent appearance of an "It'll do" attitude, as though the importance of a strong scenario has been comprehensively underestimated in terms of selling us on the emotional import at the heart of the presented situation.

At the same time, the tricky issue of Amy and Rory missing out on raising their own child has been conveniently swept under a carpet – sure, the temporal shenanigans have rendered it somewhat moot from a practical perspective, but I think it creates an odd disconnect with the powerful parental – and particularly maternal – bond. It’s something that was clearly in evidence after the birth, when Amy was pleading with her captors against the baby being taken and demanding that the Doctor get her back. And it’s an especial oversight in such an emo-centric incarnation of Doctor Who. It’s as though the (laudable) aim to lend these adventures extra depth goes hand in hand with a desire to keep things simple.

Roberts exemplifies this modus operandi. Hence we have this effective domestic sitcom married to a token hidden alien ship scenario and a resolution straight out of the appalling Doctor Who For Dummies handbook. It has its merits – yay, verily, it abounds with merits: the humour is consistently above most current BBC1 sitcoms (not fantastic praise, I know, but still), forget the BBC 3 ones; there are some nice guest characters (must mention Lynda Baron, much more successful than her panto pirate turn in Enlightenment); I loved the inclusion of Rory and Amy, and the nice little extra of Amy stopping to sign an autograph, as the face of the perfume. (Although it fills me with this niggling feeling that Amy and Rory have been given a future and a life together so, maybe – noooooo! - they won’t be returning, after all. Grounds for an upside down smiley at the very least!) And the Doctor’s little talk with Alfie at the end would have been thoroughly lovely if only not undermined by the sinking feeling that we’ve been there before. Oh dear god, it’s TennantDoc all over again, getting all maudlin and self-absorbed about his impending end. May I make this humble request: in the future, when or if the Doctor is actually about to meet his ultimate demise, can he please please not know about it in advance? All this prophesy and foreshadowing is getting a teensy bit lame and tiresome. Fair dues to Smith, he subtly underplays it to a welcome degree and there’s none of the self-referential “I don’t want to go” mopeathon to which we were subjected in Tennant’s final stages.

But viewed on its own with all the episode’s undoubted strengths in mind, I just can’t see where the harm could have been in framing all this in a smarter, more involved and – oh, what the hell, let’s go all out here – original story with a resolution that didn’t suck lemons.

Emotional feedback is a long way off destroying Doctor Who, but this isn’t the first tale this year that has suffered its effects. Emotional weight, like good CGI, should serve the story and ideally the story should serve that emotional weight. What would have been so wrong with embedding the good material in a decent Cyberman story? (Assuming such a thing could ever be written.) If you have something worthwhile to say, give it all the thought and attention – and the story - it deserves. Just a suggestion.

As it is, yeah, that was amusing. Next.

And talking of next, we can’t let this pass without touching on the promise of the impending season finale. The transition, through the young eye-witness accounts, to River Song and the lead-in to next week, was skilfully done – Moffat at work, maybe, tail-ending Roberts’ efforts? – even down to the minor detail of the Doctor liberating his ominous blue envelopes from Sophie’s stationery supplies. Nice.

Fair warning, Mr Moffat: we anticipate great things. Because there is at least one writer who has – apparently – crafted a complex and fiendishly clever story to the credit of all the themes and character relationships he is out to explore. At least, he’d better have. Since the arc has been so pervasive and all-important throughout this and the previous season, the longer term investment warrants a greater return.

The banks may have slashed interest rates, but in the closing stage of this patchy season (patchier than a one-eyed pirate dog named Patch) I’m trusting Doctor Who will not end up doing likewise.


No comments: