Saturday, 29 April 2006

School Reunion

Virtually every other review of this shebang is going to focus on Sarah and K-9, so it's the one bit I'm going to ignore. Those scenes are, surprisingly, quite good. Especially when you realise that viewers who weren't even born in 1976 are going to take one look at the wrinkly-yet-spunky woman and automatically understand that it's supposed to be Rose Version 0.9.

Those scenes aren't, however, the meat of the episode. Tragically.

Let's leave aside the tin dog: the *really* obvious thing to notice about "School Reunion", the thing that tells you most about the way this series is progressing, is the choice of writer. As we all know, a decision was made in the Series I Still Insist on Calling Season X1 to hire the kind of writer whom we might describe as "DOCTOR WHO-literate". God knows that a knowledge of the canon is more of a curse than a blessing for someone working in modern-day TV, but the one thing you can say about all the non-Russell T. Davies authors who worked on the 2005 run - even the rubbish ones - is that they were all people who had some genuine interest in things that are strange, exciting and never-before-seen. Even Moffat, who publicly likes to pretend he doesn't know what nanites are in order to look less geeky in front of the chicks, has a secret penchant for great big whooshy spaceships. Read that in Freudian terms if you like, but it hardly matters. The point is that even the most cynical Season X1 writer felt *some* sense of joy in what this programme can do.

By contrast, a quick look at the credentials of Toby Whitehouse will tell you that this is a man with a background in demographically-engineered, easy-sell television. This is the man who created Channel 4's nurses-are-gagging-for-it series NO ANGELS, the only redeeming feature of which was the opportunity to see Lynda Moss having oral sex performed on her while wearing a nurse's outfit. We can conclude that this isn't a man to whom writing about space, time and rubbery monsters is second nature. And here, please understand, I'm not questioning his competency: merely his level of interest. Given the brief of writing a script for "that hit show about monsters", he's got nothing to do but write a script which does "the kind of things that hit show about monsters does". Write the supporting characters as well as you can, but ignore the rest, because nobody cares about anything except "the effects".

The result is an episode which - in conception, at least - doesn't have a single redeeming feature. For only the second time in the series' history (arguably the third, depending on how you interpret the TV Movie), this is DOCTOR WHO specifically pitched as a piece of "cult TV": the first was "The Unquiet Dead", with its checklist of sci-fi Victoriana and its STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION ending, although at least the occasional oddness of seeing Charles Dickens fighting ghosts suggested that Gatiss was *trying*. But in much the same way that Glen McCoy stuffed "Timelash" full of token references to H. G. Wells and the Loch Ness Monster just because he thought it was what DOCTOR WHO usually did, this has got all the usual "cult" trimmings because that's what Whitehouse thinks "cult" is supposed to be. Plus a reference to the Loch Ness Monster, ironically.

Here, then, we have the least interesting creations in the series' history: however awful the giant rat or the invading dinosaurs might have looked in the '70s, they were at least good in theory, and we couldn't spot the join when we were kids. But the Bat-Things Whose Name I Can't Even Remember Because It's All So Dull are so generic that they barely even seem to exist, so dolled-up in CGI that they're indistinguishable from anything you might see on Channel 5 at one o'clock in the morning We have a villain so monstrously boring, and so incredibly badly-written, that he'd be unwatchable if anyone less iconic than Tony Head were playing the part. Even
as it is, he makes you squirm for all the wrong reasons. The accompanying CONFIDENTIAL documentary was unintentionally hilarious, just for the sight of the programme-makers trying to pretend that the face-off between the Doctor and Whatever the Villain's Called is somehow "intense", when if fact it just looks like two quite-good actors delivering piss-poor furniture-chewing melodrama at each other. But Head's presence seems almost apt, given that the story shares so much with the last couple of years of BUFFY. There, as here, nobody could be bothered to think up new stories to hold the soap-opera elements together. In BUFFY's case, we ended up reverting to a standard template of lonely teenage boys summoning demons. In ours, we revert to some drivelly cack about genetically-modified aliens who want to take over the planet.

(Pardon me, but this "alien invasion" thing is a long-term irritation for me. The general public might permanently associate DOCTOR WHO with off-world takeovers, not least because of what happened to the series in the early '70s, but it's an illusion: only around 17% of the stories in ye olde seriese were about monsters trying to take over the Earth, whereas around 50% of the stories in the new series are. This is, frankly, getting dull. The producers have said that they wanted to go out on a limb in Season X2, and show us alien worlds done properly, something they weren't initially sure they could get away with. I'd suggest that if they *really* want to try pushing the boat out, then they should try a "straight" historical, in which the Doctor goes back in time and there aren't any aliens waiting for him. If we're going to have flash CGI every week, then it'd be nice to see the occasional story where it's CGI a la GLADIATOR rather than CGI a la ALIENS VS SODDING PREDATOR. I could come up with a lovely little story about eighth-century Persia that'd look gorgeous with The Mill supplying the visuals, but sadly I'm not TV-qualified yet.)

So we come back to the question: why was someone like Whitehouse hired to write for a series like this? The answer, and it's not a pleasant thought, seems to be that the series feels the need to entrench itself. "Proper" writers, what we might call "professional" writers in the '80s sense of the word, would appear to be the preferred way of doing it. Season X1 established, quite brilliantly, what this programme can do: I still hold that it was probably the greatest series of anything, ever - even if it wasn't technically the *best*, which is quite a different thing - but at the same time, it established a set of rules for what DOCTOR WHO is meant to be. And unless I've grotesquely misunderstood the situation for most of my life, a big part of the appeal of the series is that you're never supposed to be sure exactly *what* it's meant to be. You can see, then, how I'd consider "School Reunion" to be... disappointing.

No, sod "disappointing". I'll come out and say it: it was shit. I may find "The Unquiet Dead" more offensive, but at least I didn't get bored ten minutes into the story. The moment we saw a bunch of brainwashed teenagers being plugged into computers, with the same half-hearted attempt at sinister schoolroom paranoia that fuelled '80s movies like WAR GAMES, we knew it was going to be lingering around the "tedium" line. And when the Doctor abruptly announced that chip-fat-science held the key to human salvation at the end of the episode, I think we were all within our rights to throw things at the screen. The argument in favour of this episode would seem to be "it's not about the fantasy elements, it's about the characters", and even Davies has likened it to SEX IN THE CITY. Leaving aside the fact that I'd rather gouge my own eyes out with a kebab than watch SEX IN THE CITY, I can understand the argument, but if that's the case, then why are we watching a fantasy at all? Why not just watch SEX IN THE CITY?

Is this the start of a new tradition, then? Is the third episode of every series going to be the appalling, predictable, invaders-by-numbers one? To an extent, I hope so. Because if it is, then we can get all the "cult TV" nonsense out of the way in the first few episodes, and then move on to something more interesting. And let's be honest, even GRANGE HILL is more interesting than this.

Hail the new "Timelash"!