Tuesday, July 11, 2006

La Vie Sans Rose

Prefect SlogShe's gone. She's history. She's in another universe. Yay! But no, this isn't the time for a "wicked witch is dead!" style celebratory dance, because Billie Piper's Rose was a good Doctor Who companion and her departure was an undeniably sad one. A potent counterpoint to the entertaining proceedings of Doomsday, the big season finale for this year's Doctor Who. And the episode itself was a lot of fun. Expectations of a cop-out ending ultimately served in its favour, as did the atmosphere in which I watched it, surrounded by Who fans, all seated in front of a big screen in a London pub, as an integral ingredient of a birthday party.
And it didn't disappoint. First of all, let's not mince words, the invasion resolution was a big cop-out, and any writer - or non-writer - could easily stack the odds so massively against the world and the Doctor when your alien invasion has an 'off' switch. It's laughably poor and it's a trait that Rose only draws attention to when she boasts of having disintegrated the Dalek Emperor. Well, sure, girl, as could anyone if they'd chugged down a sufficient helping of Deus Ex Machina. And it's something of a challenge to see the Doctor as much of a hero when all he has to do is pull a lever and rely on his legions of fans to plug up all the plot holes.
But - knowing it was coming (and sipping happily at a pint of Guinness) - allowed me to relax and enjoy the ride, despite the inevitability of the destination. Rose's 'death' was predictably metaphorical too, but genuinely moving all the same - and was only a 'disappointment' in the sense that I'd heard a few far more intriguing speculative fan theories in the week leading up to it. Which is something you can scarcely hold against the story. As it was, the key factor was that it felt right. Not only in the right and proper, fan-approved sense of the word, but also in the cynical, bit-bored-with-Doctor-Who-lately scheme of things, in that here was a companion who couldn't travel in the TARDIS without regularly touching base with her family and friends back on Earth (for all that she declares that "I made my choice a long time ago"). So it's fitting that she ends up back with them - or, more accurately, with something of a regenerated family, in the form of Parallel Pete, Jackie with a new baby on the way, and - life just wouldn't be the same without him, would it - Mickey. At the time, I did find the coda in Bad Wolf Bay (mini-groan) a tad over-laboured, and the preceding scene where the Doctor and Rose were either side of the wall (in separate universes) - compared to Pyramus and Thisbe, by one of my more intellectual DW friends - spoke such volumes and left such a powerful impression, that I felt the added goodbye was over-egging the sentimental pudding somewhat. But it's hard to imagine what we might have had in its place and it was a nice touch that the Doctor's final words were cut off - running out of coins to put in the supernova - although that did raise a groan and a giggle or two around the room. It does at least illustrate that the Doctor has learned from his experience with Sarah Jane (and Reinette) and has determined not to make the same mistake again. He has been encouraged to think about the people he leaves behind.
On which note, I have to hope that the series feels it has covered that topic adequately and can now do a bit less of that and shift the focus back onto the people who are actually doing the travelling in the TARDIS. Because, of course - and here is the reason for my celebrating her departure - without Rose, there is no need for revisiting her family and friends, and the Doctor has a future with a new companion, someone a bit more independent, we hope, who can enjoy all her exciting adventures without the need for phoning home or popping back for cups of tea and doing her laundry. Yay!
But that's not to knock that element of the story, because that is where the substance of the episode lies. The rest is a pissing contest - although there's no contest at all, really. The Cybermen are like an army of Tim Henmans, facing just four Roger Federers - and it's clear from the get-go who comes out on top. The Daleks are spectacular, while the Cybes are clunky and pedestrian for the most part, only managing to impress to any degree in their battle with the soldiers on the bridge and while marching the Torchwood staff off for emergency conversion. Yes, they threaten to stick Yvonne's brain in a metal shell and fit her with an emotional inhibitor chip - imagine that, an Yvonne incapable of expressing emotion. Of course the heavy irony here is that she crops up as a Cyberman and displays more emotion than the actress could manage beforehand - and graces us with the painfully bad scene of a crying Cyberman. Thanks, Yvonne. Fortunately, this is easily forgotten, and we're still laughing away at the exchanges between the Cybes and Daleks when they first met - some cracking dialogue and, along with Mickey and the Doctor's traded looks when Jackie tells Parallel Pete "There's never been anyone else", it's a real comedy. Other than the Rose story, there's little drama on display here and even Mickey's error in activating the Genesis Ark is immediately dismissed with a "They'd have opened it by force anyway" comment from the Doctor. Yes, he's come a long way from calling Mickey "Stupid!" all the time.
The Genesis Ark is a cool device and it's impressive to witness in action. It is, of course, at least as full of questions as it is of Daleks - why in the name of Rassilon's Rod would the Time Lords construct a prison ship and fill it full of Daleks? Before the truth of it was revealed, I was thinking it might have been a device to re-seed the Time Lord race, which the Daleks had happened to take over, and - after the revelation - I couldn't help thinking that would have made more sense.
But this one was not about making sense, it's just there to entertain and get the job of concluding Rose's storyline done. And on that level, it succeeds. Taken in the context of a string of disappointing episodes, it is something of a case of too little too late, and somewhere in the sequence from Rise Of The Cybermen to Army Of Ghosts, Doctor Who, for me, fell from something special to 'just a TV programme'. Too many of the plots are paper-thin and full of holes that don't need to be there, and if they applied as much polish in the stories as they did to the FX and the Dalek armour, well, I'd find more in them worthy of many re-watches. As it is, I shall doubtless have a go at re-watching them later in the year and seeing what, if anything, might have changed in my - now traditional! - season overview, but I'll probably exercise my right to skip one or two of them along the way. In much the same way, I suppose, that I'd like to be able to ignore the fact that Catherine Tate cropped up at the end of this episode. Maybe that was the 'Doom' part of the title. The odd thing is that the scene gave us one of the genuine surprises of the show, but against that, I'm sorry, but Catherine Tate is one of those 'talents' who is 'highly rated' (although not by anyone I know) but who - rather like Peter Kay - generally has me - like the Doctor in the face of an overwhelming alien invasion force - reaching for the 'off' switch. Another fan theory speculated that the big surprise the BBC had in store for the Christmas special might be Gillian Anderson, a theory which, unfairly or not, only served to emphasise the disappointment felt when Catherine Tate loomed in shot.
Fortunately, between the Rose departure and my pint of Guinness, there was enough substance to counteract the resulting groan and hold Doomsday by and large together, while leaving me with no persuasive reason to believe that Season Three will be any better than this one, but with a degree of hopeful optimism nonetheless.

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.