...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, August 04, 2006

Day 2034: DOCTOR WHO: The Stone Rose


Not put off by the fact that the SERIES IS OVER, my Daddies are STILL making Saturday night their Doctor Who night. Even when I tell them to watch JAMES BOND instead!

Recently, the BBC published some BOOKS about Dr Who and Rose's adventures when they are not on the telly, and have got a man called DAVID TENNANT to read them onto shiny CDs for us to listen to. Mr David look SUSPICIOUSLY familiar… but he sounds SCOTTISH so that's all right.

Each of the books takes up two CDs to read onto, which makes for a good old-fashioned two-parter every fortnight. I think they are hoping to fill in the gap until Captain Jack gets back in Torchwood.

Anyway, I was BORED and played Dalek versus Cyberman connect -4 against Mr Stripy while my Daddies were listening, so you will have to see what Daddy Richard thought, as usual…

Almost regardless of the quality of the writing, the best thing about this was pretty much bound to be the fact that David Tennant is reading it. Alongside commentaries, documentaries, appearances on CBBC's Totally Doctor Who, this is another example of how generous with his time Mr Tennant has been for Doctor Who. Yes, we know he's a fan, and yes, he's no doubt getting paid, but it is still a tremendous level of commitment.

He narrates in his natural accent, which is good as the reassuring Scottish tones go well with the format, and differentiate the book's voice from the Doctor's. In fact, he's not quite doing his normal Casanova-Doctor accent, perhaps because the jumping back and forth is too tricky, but more likely because he needs to make more of a difference between the Doctor and his rather broader "Rose" "mockney" accent. He does a rather good Kenneth Williams "Snide" on the second disc, though I must admit his Mickey voice sounded less Noel Clarke and more Top Cat, at least to me.

So what about the story?

Written as a novel, Jacqueline Rayner presumably not knowing that it might become an audio book on two CDs, it is surprising how well "The Stone Rose" divides into two episodes.

In part one, Mickey has discovered a stone statue from Roman times of the goddess Fortuna and she's an exact likeness of Rose. Quick as you like, the Doctor and Rose are off to the past to see about the statue getting carved so as to resolve any time paradox, only to discover sinister sculptor Ursus and a spate of missing models, all of whom he has recently rendered in marble. Rose, of course, offers to model for him in order to further their investigation and it shouldn't take anyone too long to work out where the statue of Rose comes from.

Discovering Ursus fled, the Doctor is faced with a dilemma: with more than one statue to dispose of, there are wagon trails leading in either direction on the road – towards Rome, or away from it. So the Doctor has to guess. The rest of the first CD consists of an entertaining run-around in Rome.

This includes a diversion, predictably via the Circus Maximus, which would probably have been better excised in its entirety during the abridging process. The Doctor annoys a nasty consul; the nasty consul has him arrested and thrown to the lions; the Doctor outwits the lions, frees the Christians, converts the guards and the consul comes to a sticky end. It's another of those examples where Jac Rayner misjudges her talent for writing light and witty comedy drama and it tips over into "let's laugh at the slaughter". She may be aiming for Bob Holmes-esque black humour, but she can't do it. The scene is too ludicrous to be proper drama; but there are too many casualties for it to be funny. And since it just stops the plot dead for a ten minute side track, it could have been done without.

Anyway, apparently favoured by the real goddess Fortuna, the Doctor obtained an anti-petrification antidote. Handy that. With it he is able to restore to life the "statues" that Ursus has sent to the capital. But, of course, Rose is not amongst them.

In what is probably the books most effective sequence, the Doctor realises he must return to the twenty-first century because obviously that is where Rose's statue has got to end up. The Doctor's confrontation with Mickey that becomes the cliff-hanger is great. It is good to see some character arc-work for Mickey here, helping to bridge the gap to him become "defender of the Earth" in "The Age of Steel".

The second CD, opens with the Doctor trying and failing to de-petrify Rose. However, the effect of this is slightly undermined by the Doctor retuning to Roman times and very quickly tracing and restoring Rose. In fact, it seems that the story is unexpectedly all being wrapped up, as Ursus is despatched in as grizzly way as possible.

However, the story turns to Vanessa, apparently a slave girl able to tell fortunes, but whom the Doctor quickly spotted as a displaced time traveller. Add to that the sudden revelation of the "McGuffin" behind all these impossible goings on, a "Genie" or genetically engineered creature from the future, capable of granting wishes, and instead of being in "Murder She Wrote" Roman style, we are catapulted into "Five Children and It". Bit of a hand-brake turn in plot terms that.

Rose and Vanessa, well mainly Rose actually, then spend most of the rest of the story dealing with fallout from the inappropriate use of the words "I wish…". Personally, I don't notice many people wishing aloud for things in day to day life, but the plot only works if you ignore the suddenly non-naturalistic dialogue that Rose has to spout.

The "genie" itself is a bigger problem. No attempt is made to rationalise its seemingly limitless powers within the usual Doctor Who science concept – it can grant wishes therefore it can do anything. It is, to all intents an Infinite Improbability Drive. (So long as it is given enough power – actually, one moment when Jac does get the black humour right is when the "genie" explains how it would obtain enough energy in the Roman, pre-electrical-power-grid world.) What Jac seems not to have spotted is that Douglas Adams was poking fun at the clichés, and the Infinite Improbability Drive is there not to cover but to flag up the dirty great plot inconsistencies. It also doesn't help that this "genie" is a very dumbed down version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (a much better "be careful what you wish for" story from Virgin's Missing Adventures, even if it is by Christopher Bulis.)

And, in spite of the way that later parts of the story interact with earlier chapters – obviously where the Doctor got the petrification cure from – it does very much feel like the story ran out of juice and needed to be re-started.

On the other hand, Jac is very good with character and handles the new Tenth Doctor with élan, also writing a solid believable Rose who is often more like the Rose we know from 2005 than the early episodes of the 2006 series managed to portray! Nor does the book become over-sentimental in the way that the series teetered towards, keeping the relationship at the right pitch of mutual unstated love. Incidental characters tend to become rather one-dimensional as a result of this spotlight on the leads, but that doesn't matter as the heart of the story of is the Doctor's compelling need to rescue Rose. This is later reflected in her need to get him back, but that does not capture the focus of the second half of the book in the same way, perhaps another reason why I found the latter part unsuccessful.

In keeping with the tradition of the current series, dates are well flagged up, both twenty-third century and Roman times zones being specified, plus of course the "present day" of 2007 London.

In the Doctor's personal chronology, the inclusion of an Earth-bound Mickey places the story before "School Reunion": Outpost Gallifrey suggests between "Tooth and Claw" and "School Reunion" which seems fair, although even between "The Christmas Invasion" and "New Earth" could be possible – the departure scene at the start of "New Earth" seems like it might follow on from the end of "The Christmas Invasion" but it doesn't have to: Rose is clearly often popping back to Earth at this time (as indicated by both "School Reunion" and "Love & Monsters"), and also there's a notable lack of Sycorax spaceship dust on the ground as Rose says her farewells. Thematically, "New Earth" and "The Stone Rose" both feature petricication (one only incidentally, of course), but neither references the incident of the other.

It is a flaw of these new series novels in general that unlike the televised version they are not capable of interpretation on multiple levels. They are "kid's books" but kid's books shouldn't be dumb. (In my head I hear Bill Hartnel saying: "the children of my civilisation would be insulted!" for some reason). The Target novelisations found rather more to say in rather fewer pages. Christopher Eccleston said that he wanted to make excellent television for children so that they would expect excellent television all their lives. That's a marvellous ambition; can the BBC books range try and match it.

1 comment:

tavella said...

this is another example of how generous with his time Mr Tennant has been for Doctor Who. Yes, we know he's a fan, and yes, he's no doubt getting paid, but it is still a tremendous level of commitment.

Yes, I've been very impressed by this, and his general enthusiasm. I thought it was a nice sign that even in the latest filming he was seen running around with his own video camera. He's either doing some sort of video diary for the DVD release, or he's still so enthusiastic even a year plus in that he wants to document it for himself.