Sunday, November 09, 2014

The Wanking Dead

Fanwank was a term coined by a friend of mine, the late great Craig Hinton. We had a lot of larks and laughs attending the Gallifrey convention in LA in 2005, the year Doctor Who returned to our screens. One of his convention highlights was being presented with a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Fanwank God. A title nobody would wrest from him.

This year’s season finale was fanwank extraordinaire.

And for those unfamiliar with the term, that’s not like calling Steven Moffat a wanker. It can amount to the highest praise in Doctor Who land.

And it’s probably best to be absolutely clear on one point: when I say you need tissues at the end, it’s only for the tear-jerking, heart-tugging farewell between the Doctor and Clara. Hate to see her go, but loved to watch her leave. That, for me, was the crowning scene of the whole story. Each lying to one another about the new life they’d found and their hug as a way to hide what’s written in their faces. Magic of the very best kind.

So what about the rest?

In the two-part Dark Water/Death In Heaven we have a packed show with Cybermen, a gender-bending Master, UNIT (or UIT as I guess they should now be called) including Kate Lethbridge Stewart and Osgood, honourable mentions to Gallifrey and even an appearance from a metallic Brigadier (Nickel Courtney?). Liberal splashes of brilliance and outstanding moments, nods to the Troughton Cyberman story, Invasion, with the silver giants on those steps outside St Pauls, scares, creepy atmosphere and a stream of ideas hurled at the screen in quick succession. Cyberpink is the new genre.

Clever and utterly dumb in roughly equal measures. Like a Cyberman it had a number of shiny parts but was generally fairly clunky. Much like the majority of this inaugural season of President Peter Capaldi. Luckily for this story, the second episode was an improvement on the first and it’s always helpful in a two-parter because it avoids the pitfall of a major letdown and failing to meet the promise of the opener.

All’s well that ends well?

Not entirely. Because the stupidity and the crassness lives on from episode one and is built upon with more mind-boggling logic failures in episode two.

When Missy reveals her plan involving uploading dead people’s minds and downloading them into Cybermen, she declares how brilliant it is and wonders why nobody ever thought of it before. Er, because it’s over-complex, rubbish and makes no sense.

While skeletons in tanks provide for some creepy imagery and the idea of ‘dark water’ cloaking non-organic materials is novel, it begs the question why would Cybermen, a race that has replaced all its limbs and organs with cybernetic parts, retain the brittle skeleton? It’s rubbish and makes no sense.

While the scene requiring Clara – or somebody – to shut down Danny Cyberpink’s emotions is great drama, why the hell would Cybermen incorporate an emotion-inhibitor chip that has buttons around the outside for activation? It’s rubbish and makes no sense.

Rainclouds laced with Cyber nanites is a powerful and innovative notion, except the Cyber nanites had the capability to convert living matter amd have now been modified to convert the dead. And the dead outnumber the living, so taking over the world should be a breeze. Er, except that it would be an easier breeze if you converted the living and the dead. It’s honestly a bit rubbish and makes no sense.

The Doctor visiting the afterlife is also something I have a problem with. Not that he did, you understand – it was all a Matrix doo-hickey and that’s fair enough in DW. But Jesus, if you’ll pardon the expression, the story kicks off with Danny dying (preferable to Danny Dyer) and the Doctor agreeing to take Clara to ‘wherever dead people go’. Like that’s a thing. They make use of the psychic navigation gizmo on the TARDIS and hey presto, abracadabra, they’re led to fake heaven. (And I can’t quite fathom why the TARDIS wouldn’t deliver Clara to some past Danny instead of ‘the next time [their] paths intersect.) Whereupon the Doctor refutes everything and declares, exactly as I’d expect the Doctor to do *from the start* that it’s all a lie. The dead just die. If he even once entertained the notion of an actual afterlife, why the hell wouldn’t he have been driven to seek it in the wake of all the countless lives lost in the Time War? Makes no sense.

 The makes-no-sense list is a long one and ultimately there’s not  a great deal of sense in going into every single item on it.

What’s funny, I suppose, is that I have no issues at all with a female Master – due in large part to Michelle Gomez being an absolute star in the role and so much better than John Simm – who should have been brilliant but was, I can only assume, encouraged to sail so far over the top it felt to me too far a departure from the character. Michele Gomez gives us a malign Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sinister to help the evil medicine go down.

Of course, she does kill Osgood, a character I really quite liked. But the Master – or Mistress – has to be allowed to murder and perpetrate genuinely horrific acts. And for that, we have to pay as an audience in the currency of likeable characters. The portrayal, anyway, is inspired and never mind that the Doctor and Master kiss is something that’s probably been done a thousand times in fan slash fic, the actress makes the transformation work.

The ‘revelation’, I will say, came as a bit of a disappointment, because the idea that she could be a female Master was the most obvious possibility on offer. Personally, I had (imaginary) money on it being a corrupted River Song from the Library, where all the dead people were being uploaded. So naturally I would’ve preferred to be right, but I wonder if Moffat could bring himself to do something so horrible to a character he so loves.

Speaking of which... Hmm. The Cyberbrigadier. I understand it would have been intended as an affectionate nod, but my use of the entirely disrespectful Nickel Courtney gag was to illustrate a point. Nick Courtney was a star of the show way back when and was a vital part of the UNIT family chemistry, everything that made Doctor Who tick through my childhood experience of the show. A third heart for the Doctor, if you will. A military-minded foil. And for the record, the Brig would never have drugged the Doctor just to get him on a plane, no matter what a writer makes his daughter say. It wasn’t that kind of relationship and it strikes me as really odd at the tail end of a season in which we have witnessed the Doctor’s newfound hatred for soldiers to have this affectionate nod to an old friend with absolutely no attempt to address the insane psychology behind this phobia. Then to bastardise the memory of this favourite character from the show’s past by making his corpse a Cyberman. It’s like serving cake at a funeral and icing it with silly putty. Let’s all wear Cyberpoppies on Remembrance Sunday.

Honestly, I’ve mixed feelings about it: I guess I respect the intention, but it strikes as a misfire.

It’s a fair epitome of the uneven handling and direction of this two-parter. On the one hand you have a very similar brand of overblown epic from the RTD series finales. This was overly reliant on fx, but more than that it was heavily reliant on effect – skeletons in tanks, Cyber-arms thrusting up from graves as though steeling a scene from DePalma’s Carrie, Cybermen rocketing through the sky and engaging Blair Force One in a riff on Iron Man 3. At times hugely audacious and entertaining stuff, at other times – through most of episode one, for instance – it’s a drag and misses the target it’s striving so hard to hit.

Dark Water, in addition to annoying me (with the Doctor’s belief in an afterlife – but I guess after magic trees, you’d believe anything), managed to drag itself out into a barely dramatised philosophical discussion. Some of the dialogue exchanges were painfully drawn out as though the script was anxious to spell things out for the hard of understanding. When the Doctor insists the guy gets on with it or he’ll hit him with his shoe, it’s both a laugh out loud line and an exact echo of my own sentiments at that point. And where there was opportunity for genuine shocks, the director underplayed it, making too little of the moment when the skeleton in the tank first turns its head, for instance. Unfortunately, the BBC publicity machine also shot this episode in the foot by waving a big cyberflag before hand to announce the Cybermen were back. So for all that Moffat complains (justifiably) about fans who spoiler the series for others, he might want to have a word with the Corporation on that too.

Death In Heaven was blessed with improved pace and a better balance of elements, contributing to a more enjoyable experience. It didn’t manage to redeem the failings of the previous episode but it’s actually very rare in a double for a second part to be better than a first so I’ll colour that a success.

It could have made more of the Cybermen in the cemetery. That reveal should ideally have been made more personal and direct, with a Cyber hand bursting from the ground as Clara wanders the graveyard maybe. Then follow with the  news item to expand it to the national/international picture. And it was disappointing to see the Cybermen emerge only to stumble uselessly around. All very well to rationalise it as their behaving like newborns, but it has all the drama of an unexploded bomb – after it’s been defused.

The episode was also guilty of dubious quantities of grandstanding, with the likes of Kate Lethbridge-Stewart’s entrance, obliging the Cybermen to stand there and listen just because she throws down a head from an alternate Cyberman timeline. Again, nice nod to the past, but the actions of the various players don’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t pull its punches in the shocks department, what with Missy murdering Osgood, but even there I was left to wonder why the two guards were standing by letting it all happen. These appear to be setpieces that Moffat is so attached to in the draft stage that he has his characters behave abnormally in order to make the scene work. Except it often doesn’t work because you can feel the contrivance like a stiffness in the joints, but at least it allows him to preserve the scene as originally envisioned.

That’s just the impression I get, by the way. I have no insights into Moffat’s writing process.

What is abundantly clear is that the man is fiendishly clever and brimming with great ideas. And (I hope) he’s having tremendous fun. Why wouldn’t he? He’s a Doctor Who fan running the playground he used to play in as a young lad. He’s sticking all the brightly coloured Doctor Who Lego bricks together in every way he can imagine and if his creations won’t quite hold together he’ll blimmin well hammer them into place. Fair to say, I prefer my Doctor Who creations with sounder structural integrity, but I can still appreciate the creative imagination at work.

It’s fanwank of the highest order. Not necessarily the highest quality of story, but – to paraphrase Monty Python’s Life Of Bwian – it wanks as high as any in Who histowy. Alas, I can’t actually speak for Craig Hinton, but it’s my bet he would have bloody loved it.

I wouldn't have been able to wholeheartedly agree, but that would be fine. For me, there’s not quite enough here to scrape together a total win – and not nearly enough to save a disappointing season – but Death In Heaven salvages a poor start and keeps its head above Dark Water. Again, that final scene (before the one with Santa) crowns the whole thing, overcoming logical deficiencies and mechanical parts with pure organic emotion. Stitch that, Cybermen.

Capaldi remains, to my mind, the best thing to happen to Doctor Who since its return to our screens in 2005. We have a fantastic new Doctor and I hope he sticks around for a good long while.

All we really need now is a fantastic new script doctor.

SAF 2014

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