Sunday, 24 June 2007

The Doctor Who Thing, Week 12.3 (Now Reassembled into a Single Coherent Chain of Thought)

God, that was boring.

It seems strange to use the word "boring" when describing something which ends
with the sky being ripped open and six-billion machine-creatures pouring onto the
Earth to destroy one-tenth of the human population, but therein lies the problem. If
nothing else, then "The Sound of Drums" marks the point at which modern Doctor
Who enters its self-parody phase: the point at which you can positively, definitively
say that there's such a thing as a "typical" Davies-era story, and you positively,
definitively know what all the set-pieces are going to be like in advance. It's always
been taken as read that the series will return to the same tourist-friendly, politicallysuspect
version of the early twenty-first century for at least one "big" story per year,
but now there's also the assumption that modern London is obviously going to be
the venue for the season finale, because attacking the capital is a way of making
things seem important. Yet as we've already seen, the idea that the audience
"needs" a constant return to Earth circa 2007 - like the idea that it can only "accept"
regular characters from the present day - is not only wrong, but rather insulting. And
the sight of Big Russell constantly trying to trump himself, by making the alien
hordes and the human body-counts bigger every time, is getting embarrassing.

And even if you can accept that it's made up of bits from other two-part stories,
nothing in "The Sound of Drums" has the gravity it needs. It certainly doesn't have
the gravity it thinks it's got. We're supposed to believe that the Doctor / Master faceoff
is an iconic, world-changing battle, but we don't, because John Simm just isn't
interesting enough. We're supposed to be impressed by the epic political scale of
the story, but we're not, because this sort of thing happens every year. We're
supposed to be shocked by the Toclafane (literally) decimating the population, but
we're not, because to us it looks no different to what the Cybermen did twelve
months ago. We're supposed to be appalled by the Doctor becoming an old man,
but we're not, because... well, it looks silly. (The obvious fan-comment is to point out
that this happened in "The Leisure Hive", but the most important thing to notice is
that it made sense there: "The Leisure Hive" was a story about age and renewal.
Here, it's simply gratuitous.) Since this is That Difficult Third Season of Doctor Who,
we might draw a comparison with The Godfather Part Three, which failed - quite
notoriously - because the writer and director were so obsessed with the details of
their own creation that they didn't bother looking at things from the audience's point
of view. Only a film-maker with too much power could seriously believe that
Michael Corleone's relationship with his ex-wife deserves more screen-time than
the Calvi Affair, and likewise, only a writer-producer with nobody to rein him in
would think that putting Martha's family in peril is a good way of generating tension.
To Russell, these are essential human characters at the heart of an epic drama. To
the rest of us, they might as well be glove-puppets. And who's going to tell him
that? Are you going to? 'Cos nobody in the production office will, and I'm fairly sure
he's not going to listen to a word I say.

On the plus side... in an episode which puts so much store in its special effects, the
special effects are at least remarkable. "Remarkable" in the truest sense of the
word, because this is about artistry rather than proficiency. CGI is now so everyday
that effects work has become a matter of one-upmanship, and we're asked to be
impressed by computer-generated set-pieces because they're "big" or "technically
advanced" instead of being meaningful in themselves. The result of this has been
bloated, artless garbage like The Lord of the Rings and "The Satan Pit", and a
sense that it'll soon be impossible to tell the difference between movies and their XBox
tie-ins. But used properly, CGI can produce something genuinely beautiful
rather than simply oversized. The Lazarus Horror aside, this year's stories have
seen the crew at The Mill graduate from technicians to aesthetes, making New New
York look like a place you'd actually want to live and giving "42" a sense of menace
even while we're being bored gutless by the script. Now "The Sound of Drums"
gives us the most beautiful apocalypse we're ever likely to see, and a flying aircraftcarrier
that makes us go "ooh" because it looks like a great work of engineering
rather than because we want to give a round of applause to the software that
generated it. We even have a vision of the Doctor's homeworld which lives up to
forty-four years of expectation, at least until the script turns Gallifrey into Hogwart's.

It's not enough to save the story, of course. Perhaps the saddest thing is that this
pathological need to raise the stakes every year, this pattern of putting more and
more people in jeopardy from more and more elaborate CGI sequences, plays
against the author's strengths. Less accomplished writers generally seem to feel
that since Doctor Who is either fantasy or (God forbid) sci-fi, any sort of depth or
credibility is to be avoided, and that "drama" means bashing goodie-stereotypes
and baddie-sterotypes against each other until something "dramatic" happens (the
most egregious example of this in modern-day Doctor Who is probably "The Idiot's
Lantern", in which even the members of the POV character's family only exist so
that they can make loud, grating comments about beating homosexuals, but the old
series is full of this sort of clunking stupidity). Russell T. Davies' greatest strength
has always been his ability to let characters exist on their own terms, even when
they're only on-screen for thirty seconds: this is, for example, why even the doomed
hospital consultant in "Smith and Jones" has more of a personality and a backstory
than anybody in "The Shakespeare Code". Even Shakespeare, weirdly. Yet this
kind of detail is bound to suffer, under the crashing weight of six-billion Toclafane.
Suddenly, humanity is represented by two-dimensional grotesques like Jean Rook
and President Winters, not to mention Sharon Osbourne. Faced with this, it's hard
not to be on the Master's side... especially since the only genuinely human human
character around here is his wife, a woman who can't even stop herself dancing to
the end of the world. When the brainwashed villainess who gets an obvious sexkick
out of genocide turns out to be more likeable than the companion's family,
something's gone mightily wrong.

So we're left with cop-outs, with routine explanations for routine events. The worst
of these is the set-up which lies at the heart of "The Sound of Drums", and which
therefore hamstrings the entire episode: the Master has only been on Earth for
eighteen months, yet he's brainwashed everyone into believing that he's been here
all the time. Why, for Christ's sake? Why not just say that he's been around for the
last twenty years, revelling in his false identity and setting up his uber-plan? If
you're going to write a story in which the Master infiltrates the British political
system and turns the entire country against the Doctor, then it only carries weight -
both dramatically and as a work of satire, assuming that the word "satire" really
means anything here - if he becomes the Prime Minister "properly". Captain Jack
even points out how easy this would be, and it makes perfect sense. But, no... the
Doctor immediately pooh-poohs the idea, paving the way for endless, turgid
exposition scenes about co-ordinate lock-offs, mind-controlling mobile 'phone
networks (what, again?) and perceptual filters. This is the greatest single cop-out of
the series so far, basically a way of saying "don't worry, he's not really the Prime
Minister, it's all just a horrible dream" while simultaneously weighing us down with
technobabble. If this had been done well, then the sight of the Doctor going on the
run from the whole of British society would have been genuinely scary. As it is, it
just looks as if everybody's gone temporarily mad, so we're killing time until he finds
a way of sabotaging the Archangel Network and putting everything back to normal.

Russell T. Davies' biggest problem - and I've said this before, but it's never been
more relevent - is that he doesn't understand what "war" means. We were promised
a "war on Earth" in "Army of Ghosts", but what we actually got were a couple of
pitched battles and then a whacking great reset switch. Fortunately, the rest of the
story was good enough to distract us from this, and the same could be said for "The
Parting of the Ways". But wars don't end with the push of a button. Now we've got
the biggest catastrophe so far, and I have a terrible feeling that all the twaddle
about the Archangel Network is only there so that the Doctor's team can use it as
this year's spurious doomsday weapon.

I also have a terrible feeling, more a nightmare than a rational response, that "The
Last of the Time Lords" will feature a shock ending in which David Tennant
regenerates into Matt Lucas. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it'd be somehow
typical of the kind of mistake this series is starting to make.

Good! Now I've written a review I'm happy with, I can formally delete it.