...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Day 2652: DOCTOR WHO: Partners in Crime


Hooray! Doctor Who is back! This makes my Daddies very happy.

And, to celebrate the return of Ms Catherine Tate as Donna we… ooh, a new flavour of Pringle!

Noble Elephant
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Scoff, snarff, snargle… over to you, Daddy…

Brilliant, that's the first thing to say. A successful combination of comic and dramatic in the same way that "Smith and Jones" and even "Rose" managed, and that failed to come off in "New Earth". There's a terrific stunt sequence in the middle and a magnificent special effects finale, with one big shock in the coda.

Russell Davies takes the time to reintroduce us to Donna Noble, despite the audience's alleged familiarity with her from "The Runaway Bride", and I think that it's this aspect of introduction that helps to make for a good opening episode; see also "Smith and Jones" and "Rose" and again not "New Earth".

Because we have met before enables Russell to get playful with our expectations, to the extent that the opening sequence – Donna walking up the street towards the camera and the Doctor walking down the street towards the camera – is almost a match for the opening of "Smith and Jones" up to the point where they fail to meet each other. And then they spend the first half of the episode in farce mode, with Donna and the Doctor approaching the same problem from different directions (literally, according to the stage directions) and repeatedly missing each other. But it's not just screwball comedy; Donna's duplication of the Doctor's methods isn't just funny, it's also establishing that she is really quite good at this, and is perfectly cut out to be a companion.

The climax of this theme is the moment when the Doctor needs a second capsule to block Ms Foster/Matron Kafilia's signal and save everyone. Donna, quite calmly, makes him tell her what he needs and then – and this is the proof that she's companion material – shows him that she's got it.

It's the counterpart to the "Rose would know" moment from "The Shakespeare Code" last year, when Martha wasn't being treated properly by the Doctor (remember that at the end of the episode Martha does know just the right word to finish Shakespeare's charm and banish the Carrionites).

Compare Donna too with the comedy journalist Penny, who in any scheme of things ought to be being set up as the potential companion, except she clearly doesn't know when to ask the right questions, when to bluff it out and, most importantly, when to run for it. She deserves to end up tied to a chair; as Donna says: some people haven't got what it takes, and some have.

So, at pretty much exactly the halfway mark though this (quite long at 48½ minutes) episode, Donna and the Doctor are reunited, in the brilliant "Mimed conversation" scene. Their eyes met across a crowded room… hilarious. There'll be those who think that Catherine Tate's open-mouthed drop-jawed mugging – on first seeing the Doctor – is a bit much, but then her miming of "I looked on the Internet…" etc is just fantastic. Tennant (thankfully) is more restrained, making him the perfect straight-man in this exchange… up to the point where Sarah Lancashire's deliciously wicked Ms Foster butts in, almost steeling it.

The super-nanny from hell and/or outer-space is another terrific RTD lady villain, following in the high-heeled footsteps of Lady Cassandra, Margaret Slitheen and Yvonne Hartman. She's certainly not dissimilar to Mrs Wormwood, played with relish by Samantha Bond in the Sarah Jane pilot "Invasion of the Bane" – so much so that even the BBC website's "Fear Forecasters" notice. However, their motivations are completely different: Mrs Wormwood was planning an old-fashioned invasion (yes, the clue is in the title) whereas Ms Foster in spite of her icy character and amoral methods thinks that she's going good, by bringing a new generation of cute CGI muppets into the world.

(And, as the Doctor points out, it's only when they go to "emergency parthenogenesis" that there's a problem – though since it's lethal it is a biggie. There's a beautiful symbiosis just waiting to happen once we've made first contact.)

It's almost a shame she's so enthusiastic about killing the Doctor and Donna – ordering her gun-wielding goons to shoot them, as well as trying to sever the cables of the window-cleaners' cradle in which they are trying to escape – since it would make her (literal) downfall all the more tragic. On the other hand, she'd not be nearly so much fun if she wasn't so gleefully malevolent.

It does make for a good opening to the season: nothing too heavy, plenty to laugh and joke about, but also an interesting idea to make you think. Who actually suffers here? There are only two deaths – innocent Stacey and guilty Ms Foster – and you could argue that both of those are caused because Donna and the Doctor interfere. Breeding baby Adipose from human fat is against "Galactic Law" but does that make it "wrong"?

I suppose I really ought to eat humble pie after my comments about "Galactic Councils" in my review of "Revenge of the Judoon" only last week. And yet, just to be perverse, where I feel that "Galactic Council" sounds far too much like something that "Star Trek" would set up, somehow calling it "The Shadow Proclamation" makes it seem all right. As with the hired police services of the Judoon last year, it adds to the impression of a busy galaxy around us.

I know I'm reading all this into it – but that's how Russell loves to write – so to me "Shadow Proclamation" suggests an appeal during or in the aftermath of the Time War to "please stop hurting us". By inference, I imagine it less like Star Fleet and more like an interstellar UNIT – rather homespun, muddling though and trying to sort things out for the best. In short, more British and less American.

Perhaps most significantly, the Shadow Proclamation aren't just the people who turn up to put everything right. It's a more credible universe where you can't rely on the law riding up on a white horse. In fact, they never come to arrest anyone at all, and this is a crime that the criminals get away with.

The people who are really responsible are the never seen Adiposian First Family, as Russell himself points out in the accompanying Confidential (forty-five minutes ought to be too long for these things, it was at Christmas, but this one felt right, probably because it was more like three different Confidentials in one: the Donna one, the cradle sequence one and the in the read-through one). They have a cool spaceship, though, with its rather lovely homage to "Close Encounters" in both appearance and sound.

The Adipose creatures – it's hard to call them "monsters" when even the Doctor recognises that they're only children – are cute little cartoon critters, nicely realised and there's some brilliant software that gives hundreds of them individual movement and character. Their mewling and waving made them irresistible.

I did wonder, briefly, if like the Meeps, the Adipose cuteness was a disguise for something altogether more malevolent, but it's not: they were just babies, and that allowed for a reminder of the Doctor's vengeance on the children of the Racnoss and for Donna to appreciate that the Doctor isn't always that way. I'd like to think that the Doctor doesn't usually go around massacring alien babies unless they’re insatiable carnivores, but it is also nice to feel that it might be, as Donna says, because of Martha's influence.

Alex thought that the little Adipose resembled nothing so much as an army of Mr Stay-Pufft's ("Ghostbusters", obviously), and by extension the meeting of the Sonic Screwdriver and Sonic Pen was "crossing the streams" (hence BAD!). Myself, I saw the duelling sonics as very much magic wands in the "Harry Potter" tradition, with the Doctor expelliarmus-ing Ms Foster's pen, and that would make the sonic vs sonic similar to the clash between Harry and Voldemort's wands seen in "…and the Goblet of Fire".

And it was rather nice that the last shot of them has them looking rather sad that Nanny has been dropped to her death by their all too guilty mummies and daddies.

Speaking of families, with Donna return hers, although tragically real life intervened so that Howard Attfield, who played Donna's dad Geoff, passed away before being able to complete his filming for series thirty. For this reason, Bernard Cribbins character Wilf was drafted into the role of Donna's granddad. In some ways this actually works better, because Wilf's role is to encourage Donna in her quest for the Doctor, and that's much more the sort of thing you'd expect from a grandparent – indulgent and willing to conspire in mischief – rather than a doting dad. Fathers and daughters have a different relationship, one that is more protective. The scene is re-edited in a different order to the way it appears in the cinema trailer, and it makes a small but noticeable difference to the tone. It also makes for a clever link to this year's Christmas voyage, and is of a part with the theme of the episode: Donna doesn't realise that her Granddad has met the very man she's looking for. It is so lovely – and speaks so well of her character – that Donna's first trip in the TARDIS, to go anywhere in time and space, is to fly over his allotment where he is stargazing in order to wave goodbye.

Happily, Jacqueline King makes a welcome return as Donna's overbearing mum, Sylvia. Haven't we all had moments that feel like the scene where Donna drifts away as "Raston Warrior Mum" blurs around in a frenzy of chores and nagging? It's so evocative of how a loving mum trying to help can sometimes come across as more of an antagonist than a friend. I do feel for Sylvia as, especially with Geoff gone, Donna leaving on her adventures might be more of a blow to her than Rose's leaving was for Jackie or Martha's was for Francine. And where Grandpa gets waved off from the doors of the TARDIS, all Sylvia gets is a phone call and her car keys in a bin.

Of course, it's impossible to finish without mentioning the stunning surprise re-appearance of Rose Tyler. The producers went to such trouble to keep this unspoilered – even excising the reveal from the press copy shown at the launch party. Billie Piper's performance is marvellously enigmatic (Alex will reply: or is she?) and we wonder whether that is sorrow or anger on her face. How can Rose even be here at all, after the Doctor sealed the Universes in "Doomsday"? Has Dalek Caan smashed them open again to rescue the Dalek Race? And what makes Rose fade away? Is she going to be literally haunting the Doctor's adventures for this whole season?

Donna meeting but not knowing Rose returns us to the farce of the first half of the story, but this time with a more ominous overtone, helped along by the reprise of the doom-laden "Doomsday" theme.

Phew, what a start to the new series.

"Partners in Crime", incidentally, is David Tennant's 24th story as the Doctor, levelling him with Jon Pertwee (in stories, though with less than half the screen time).

Next time… When in Rome… or at least the Roman Empire… do as Romans do: run screaming! Prophecies, scarlet-clad sisterhoods and sacred fires; no, it's not the "Brain of Morbius" – we're on Earth and it's Volcano Day in "The Fires of Pompeii".

This year I have learned that I have a SPECIAL RESPONSIBILITY to my readers because we have discovered that I am being QUOTED in a proper book! Or at least a guide-book from Telos Publishing!

(Fluffy thanks to Mr Booth for dropping me an e-mail to tip me off that I was in there; what a pity that the author didn't think to do so too! Big thank-yous for reading, nonetheless!)


Knife and Spoon said...

Nice and exciting about the book - I like your reviews and everybody should read them. Put them on the primary syllabus, that's what I say.

I was genuinely worried about this episode, but I realise now that I've got to stop that. It was so assured, and so funny. I loved Sarah Lancashire too:

"Ooh, I don't think so..."

And Donna is heading down a supersonic runway toward being my favourite companion - in the best possible sense, she feels like she's stepped out of the NA's (I could so see her having a chat with Professor Summerfield).

Looking forward to following the show and following your reviews.

Laurence Boyce said...

My favourite line was: “Is anyone going to tell me what’s going on?” – “What are you, a journalist?” – “Yes.” – “Well make it up!”

I can’t believe I’m watching this stuff!