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.

The Doctor Who Thing (Week 12.2)

To recap, then. On first viewing:

* * * * *

Boring.

Boring.

Boring.

God, "The Sound of Drums" is boring.

* * * * *

On second viewing:

* * * * *

Actually... it's not that boring. But if nothing else, then it 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. A
problem which might easily be cured by going back to 1963-basics rather than
1970-basics, and by making sure that the TARDIS never lands in the sodding
early-twenty-first century ever again (or at least, by making sure there are no
comical politicians around if it does end up there). Because 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.

But the biggest problem here, even if you can accept that it's made up of bits from
other two-part stories, is that 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 face-off 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.

* * * * *

Now, on third viewing (and at this point, anyone might think I've got too much time
on my hands):

* * * * *

Perhaps the worst part 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 sex-kick 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.

And: "Paradox Machine"? Dear God, even I never sank that low. It's like The
Ancestor Cell all over again.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

The Doctor Who Thing (Week Twelve)

Boring.

Boring.

Boring.

Christ, "The Sound of Drums" was boring.

Ten minutes in, I was bored, but looked at the clock and said "Hell, there's thirty-five
minutes left, it can still be good". Twenty minutes in, I was bored, but looked at the
clock and said "Hell, there's twenty-five minutes left, it can still be good". Thirty
minutes in…

…you get the idea.

Boring.

Boring.

Boring.

Pointless.

Self-indulgent.

Boring.

Arse.

Not one single redeeming feature. Nothing interesting in the whole episode.

Nothing worth watching in the entire 45 minutes.

Just… boring.

Boring, and based on the media-happy conceit that presenting John Simm as a
Time Lord will excuse everything. Sorry, but no, it doesn't work that way: John
Simm just isn't very good. He's flat, dull, humourless (which is to say, he attempts
humour, but it doesn't come off), and as drab as everything else in the episode.
Setting him up as the anti-Tennant would only work if he were as sparkly as
Tennant. He patently isn't. He's… boring.

Boring.

Boring.

Pointless.

Self-indulgent…

…like "Aliens of London", but without the surprise value…

…arse.

Russell… ? You've lost it. Sorry, but you've just lost it. It's boring. You're trying to
pull off exactly the same trick you used two years ago, and no trick works twice. So
stop it.

Boring.

Boring.

Really, really boring. No-point-even-watching-the-second-half boring. "Doctor Who
has jumped the shark" boring.

I mean, we did the "Evil Tony Blair" idea in 2005. Bit late to go through the same
shit now, don't you think?

Boring.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

The Family of Blood

This week I'd like to ignore the complex issues of mortality and social responsibility raised by "The Family of Blood", and talk about monsters. Old monsters. Dirty old stinking monsters.

Once, many years ago - or at least, more than ten, which qualifies as "many" because I'm attempting to sound wise while still retaining a facade of youthful enthusiasm - I read a Doctor Who book in which the villain was a malignant bodiless intelligence who could control the minds of human beings. On the whole, this was no more interesting than any of the other malignant bodiless intelligences we've seen over the years, yet I still found myself wondering about the similarities between this spurious new aether-monster and the Great Intelligence from "The Abominable Snowmen" (1967, although you probably knew that). And, weirdly assuming that this was "continuity" rather than a desperate lack of imagination, I heard myself think: 'Wow, the Great Intelligence! This might be its first appearance in the series for nearly thirty years!'

Looking back on it, this was clearly a moment of epiphany. The moment when I was hit by the sudden, shocking realisation that… if it did turn out to be the Great Intelligence, then it wouldn't actually make the story any more interesting.

This revelation was less obvious than it might now seem. Bear in mind that I entered fandom (of a kind) via Doctor Who Weekly, and learned most of what I knew about the history of the series from chunky "anniversary" volumes like Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration, now clogging up the shelves of Oxfam shops nationwide. Most of these books were hugely inaccurate, but that's beside the point. In the years before cheap video, the fans were obsessed with the series' past - a past we never thought we'd actually see, not even the bits that hadn't been taped over by the BBC - leading to intense debates about whether the Daleks or the Master were the Doctor's greatest enemy, depending on whether you counted their appearances in terms of stories or individual episodes. I was part of the generation which thought about Doctor Who in much the same way that American sports fans think about baseball, with scorecards and statistics for every occasion: part of me still "knows" that there are nine-and-a-half Cybermen adventures, even though this information is clearly out-of-date as well as completely useless. In the 1980s, the return of any "old" monster was greeted with a great whooping and cheering, because (in effect) it improved that monster's batting average. Even the producer came to think this way after a while, which is why he kept bringing back the Master even when everyone was sick of the bastard. So, a brand-new story featuring an arch-enemy not seen since 1967…? Even if it only happened in print rather than on TV, it still scored points. As if attaching the name of something from the before-I-was-born era of Doctor Who was in some way an excuse for the wretched banality of it all.

I've been thinking about this a lot, in the wake of "Human Nature". For all its highs, there are parts of the episode which just seem slow, but… not in the ways we might expect. The slow bits aren't the "talky" bits: in fact, the three-and-a-half-sided love-triangle between the Doctor, the New Girl, the Semi-Doctor and This Year's Love Interest are a pleasant reminder of what things were like in the days of "proper" telly, when characters were allowed to have quiet conversations and not everything had to be rapid-cut or filmed with a shaky hand-camera. No, the slow bits are the "monstery" bits. Aliens disguised as human beings are never interesting, and in the case of "Human Nature", they spend the whole episode establishing themselves as generic body-snatchers. In a series that treats spaceships and bodily possessions as an everyday occurrence, it really shouldn't take four minutes of screen-time for Baines to find a UFO and then demonstrate that he's been taken over. We've seen all of this before, many, many times, so it's not as if we need to be told every little detail. Nor do we need all those scenes of possessed people acting out-of-character and plotting amongst themselves, when we know they're going to say exactly the same things that alien plotters always say in these situations. Because while the Family of Blood is indulging in all this routine villainy, the regulars are doing something much more involving, and even the fourteen-year-old boy on the games field is going all Twelve Monkeys on us.

But: a-hah, I thought. A-hah. The Doctor describes these aliens as hunters. They track their prey by smell. They have a strong sense of family. They insert themselves into human bodies, they've got a thing for strange gases, and they clearly prefer fat victims. Even Rebekah Staton looks like a younger, cuter Annette Badland. Is the message not clear, I asked myself? After all, the villains in the original novel of Human Nature were far less generic, and why would any writer make his own creations less interesting unless he were planning to turn them into some other form of monster? In short: are these not the Slitheen, or at least some other Raxicoricofallapatorian family? Is this not likely to be the big twist in the second half of the story? True, they seem more reliant on other people's flesh than the Slitheen we used to know, and their mother is so degenerate that she's become a vapour who lives inside a novelty paperweight (unless, of course, she's a Slitheen guff who's somehow acquired the power of speech). But they have so much else in common, even more so than the Bane from the Sarah-Jane pilot, who might be considered Slitheen wannabes anyway. Then there's the curious fact that although we don't see any Slitheen when Smith flips through his Journal of Impossible Things, there's a later scene in which Nurse Redfern specifically points to a portrait of one, just so we get a close-up of its smug Raxicoricofallapatorian face. As if we're being gently prodded to remember something. Oh, yes: ah-hah is very much the word.

I thought.

The Slitheen turned out to be like all other gas-men, though: I waited for them all day, and they never turned up. Now I feel a sense of disappointment that's wholly of my own making. But the question remains… even if the School Bully and the Scary Little Girl had unzipped their heads and revealed themselves to have big green baby-faces, would that have made any difference? Because whatever their true nature had turned out to be (and it's got to be said, their status as vaguely-defined near-immortals seems to have served the plot rather well in the end), it wouldn't have changed the fact that the first half of the story is still a bit slow when the bad guys are on the screen, or that the Family is still made up of generic body-snatchers. The Slitheen in "Aliens of London" work because they avoid the usual gamut of "possession" clich├ęs: putting big flabby monsters inside politicians isn't an attempt to generate hokey sci-fi suspense, it's a way of turning them into Hogarth-style grotesques. They don't waste time creeping about the place with mad staring eyes, the way the Family of Blood does. Whatever you call the villains in "Human Nature", hokey sci-fi suspense is their stock-in trade, and it's the one whacking great flaw in the story. Although admittedly, they automatically become more interesting once they're dumped in collapsing galaxies or trapped in mirrors.

I've never believed that a single line of dialogue, or even a single name, is enough to change the basis of an entire script. Generations of fanboys have (for example) tried to claim that "Image of the Fendahl" raises the stakes of the whole series, because it pits the Doctor against an enemy which "is" death, and yet… we only know it's supposed to "be" death because the Doctor says so, once, in a single line of a single scene. Watch the rest of the story, and the Fendahl just looks like any other poxy life-sucking monster we've seen over the years. And clearly, a generic disembodied intelligence doesn't become any more worthwhile if it's a generic disembodied intelligence from 1967, although it took me a distressingly long time to break the '80s fan-conditioning and notice this. Likewise, only Mark Braxton would be a big enough arse to believe that if the Doctor refers to some giant CGI crabs as "Macra" - rather than as "Crabulons", or "Clawrentulas", or "Sniptrodines", or any other spurious sci-fi name - then it changes the nature of an episode to such a degree that it's even worthy of a mention in the Radio Times. Yet somehow, I find myself disappointed that a bunch of family-obsessed hunting-monsters in 2007 don't have the same name as a bunch of near-identical family-obsessed hunting-monsters from 2005. Even by my standards, this is irrational.

Mind you… given that the Family wants to be the Doctor, it's tempting to imagine that each member of the group is a distorted aspect of the Doctor himself, especially since this is the only twenty-first century story in which we see the (hurriedly-sketched) faces of his previous selves. We might suppose that the Fat Bloke is Colin Baker, or that the One Who Looks Much Too Young is Peter Davison, and they've even got an army of Jon Pertwees circa Worzel Gummidge.