...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Day 2006: DOCTOR WHO: Army of Ghosts


Three-D glasses; glamorous female villain; inter-dimensional shenanigans; setting close to the meridian line; old monster favourites returning in bucket loads; Peggy Mitchell….

Is it me, or is there some sort of extended "DIMENSIONS IN TIME" joke going on here?

Let's see what Daddy Richard thinks:

"Army of Ghosts" opens with a monologue from Billie Piper which clearly tells us that the news of her departure was intended to leak. "This is the story of how I died" gains a huge frisson of "they really mean it" from knowing that the lead actress is about to depart the series. A beautifully shot montage of scenes from the series near-signature London bus, to a stunning alien world, to what for all we know could be the shores of the undiscovered country itself, a bleached out beach of rock and a departed Rose composing her own eulogy.

And then juxtapose that against the happy, jaunty arrival – a jazzy swing version of "Song for Ten" playing over the TARDIS arrival in a playground ("Nod to Survival?" asks Alex) followed by hugs and kisses from Jackie (and doesn't the Doctor just have that "snog from granny at Christmas" look).

It's another perfect rendering of the 2000's series core values: weird, nay, mystic science fantasy collides with domestic.

Anyway, onto the story. The dead, it seems, are back – and in a way this turns out to be true, though in a more horrible way than even the Doctor imagines. The episode moves very quickly, and is full of excitement and spectacle, but don't take your eyes off this moment: this story is about things returning, dead things even.

Russell doesn't miss the opportunity utter another cautious word about credulity: the all too human ability to believe things because we want to believe. Jackie twice gives voice to the opposite view: "you're spoiling it" she complains when the Doctor's reaction is not one of acceptance; and "you're always doing that, reducing things to science" could be the mission statement for the whole series – "Science, Miss Hawthorne!" – but it's good to be reminded that some people do not want their illusions shattering. Jackie's illusions seems harmless enough (though try and remember just what it really is in her kitchen that she is blithely calling "Dad") but Yvonne Hartman's illusions (that she is in control of the dimensional rift) have the most appalling consequences, and she too won't let the Doctor shatter them.

But this is a great episodes for Jackie – let's not forget that it is probably her swansong too – with a trip in the TARDIS, and a lot of the companion lines (while temporarily subbing for Rose) showing that it's not just her daughter who can be quite bright. But all delivered with Jackie's usual abrasive style – classic Jackie lines like: "ooo, 'e doesn't like it when I know more than 'im, does 'e!", "If we end up on Mars, I'm going to kill you!" or "I'll tell you where my ankle's going!"

And was that another little homage – to "Frontios", this time – outside the TARDIS door?

Speaking of homage, you have to ask yourself what else Russell T Davis has been reading this year. It might just have been me, but it seemed that this episode went out of its way to tweak the nose of the Outpost Gallifrey rumour mill. One early rumour, sparked by the title "Army of Ghosts" was the return of the Gelth ("Unquiet Dead") – quickly scotched by the Doctor himself; another doing the rounds is that Rose will evolve into a Time Lord (rather as Ace was destined to do in the lost season twenty-seven and again in the webcast "Death Comes at Tea Time") which seemed to be being heavily hinted at in the scene where Jackie speaks of Rose in the future as "a strange woman, not Rose Tyler any more, not even human any more."

Russell has long since said that he always knew the end of Rose's journey. I had thought that he intended that she would come home in the end, discovering her place in this world having been so far out of it. And I don't believe, dramatically, that Rose's story can end in her actual death. And yet, and yet… the drama is written well enough that at this moment, I can't guess.

The big star of this episode is, of course, the Torchwood Institute itself.

Like last year's "Bad Wolf", we've been tripping over the forward references to Torchwood as the season has progressed. Unlike last year, people have been much more ambivalent about it. Perhaps they were trying to catch lightning in a bottle twice; perhaps the early announcement of spin-off series "Torchwood" took the edge off. Whatever it was, there wasn't the same buzz about it this time. But then maybe that helped: people thought it was all a trail for the spin-off and suddenly blam the Doctor is caught by them and they’ve labelled him the enemy.

Or for Mad Larry fans: The Enemy.

I wondered, previously, whether this two-parter would lead to re-evaluation of the rest of the series. I begin to be more confident that it will, with the whole seeming to pull together now, not apart. An example from "The Impossible Planet": Mr Jefferson's line "fuel for the Empire" suddenly has a different and darker spin on it now we know that Torchwood (they all work for the Torchwood Archive, remember) Torchwood's aim is a resurrected British Empire. Somehow an Earth Empire sounds, well, cleaner. The British Empire – like much else on this show – is a dead thing that should not be brought back.

Tracey Ann Oberman deserves a round of applause – "I'll say!" – for her star turn as the management-speak gushing face of the Institute. Perfectly capturing that "I want to punch you" false bonhomie, she makes a terrific hubristic villain. Special kudos for the couple of moments where she does let the act drop and we see the darker Yvonne underneath. Even in the trailer last week, from her sunglasses and grin, we knew that this was a terrific "I deserve everything that's coming to me" performance. Like Jackie, she's a terrific foil for the Doctor, and I think it even improves David Tennant's performance too, giving him a relationship more abrasive to strike off.

Worth mentioning, this week also sees the first Doctor Who appearance for Freema Adeyama, next year's new companion Martha Jones, but this year – in a Doctor Who tradition that goes all the way back to Morton Dill in the Chase – she is playing Adeola, lackey of the Torchwood Institute and victim of the Cybermen. She only had a little time to impress on screen, but managed to give us charming in both naïve and sinister flavours. Bodes well.

Lovely reveal of their "secret" location (even if the slight difference in stock just screamed "stock footage", possibly for the first time this series.)

London Eye, Big Ben, Downing Street, Tower of London, Gherkin, Battersea Power Station, Alexandra Palace… I suspect that Number One Canary Wharf was just next on Russell T Davies shopping list of London landmarks, though it would be nice to think that it was another of the TV series nods to the books, referencing "The Time Travellers".

(Actually, it would also be nice if the new series decided to go to a few other places than London or Cardiff. Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, the Angel of the North, Clifton Suspension Bridge, Stonehenge, the new Birmingham Bull Ring, York Minster or Yorvik, or Manchester circa 1973 (erm): these and many other all deserve inclusion on any list of Great British Landmarks. Some of them even have BBC studios nearby.)

Their Vault (can I mention that reference to the books, too?) is terrifically well realised: a Jathaa Sunglider (NOT a Jaffa Death-glider – that would be copyright "Stargate"); a sarcophagus (from Sutekh's tomb, perhaps?); and was that a salvaged X-Wing under that tarpaulin behind the TARDIS when Rose slipped out? It's a visual treat that speaks volumes of Torchwood's jackdaw habit. "If it's alien, it's ours!"

The Lever Room and the Sphere Room – the top and bottom of the Torchwood Tower – are further great pieces of visual design: the one sterile white the other brassy gold, they could almost be made as reception areas for Cybermen and…

…ah, it's nice to have a great entrance, isn't it?

We didn't know for sure, but we had had it spoilered by the newspapers and the Internet rumours, the BAFTA appearance and the series' own BBC press release so it wasn't an "Earthshock" level shock. Nevertheless it was the biggest of big "give the audience what they want" moments.

The Daleks are back. Dead things returning.

Their Void Ship – and doesn't it just impress upon you that the Daleks really could have fought a war against the Time Lords when even the Doctor thinks that their ship is impossible – is another Mad Larry riff, I think, with a featureless black sphere overseeing the unfolding events "outside of time and space" in his "The Adventuress of Henrietta Street" – and that would have turned out to be Daleks too, had copyright lawyers in bonded-polycarbide armour not intervened.

It was great to see them back, but it was also great the way they were brought back. Doctor Who without the Daleks was always unthinkable, and last years destruction of the Emperor and all his human-Daleks seemed… unwise. But it would have been too easy to have a lazy "so you survived after all" cliché of the kind that turned the Master into a laughing stock. This way, it is their own devilish cleverness that let them ride the Void ship into hell and thus escape the annihilation of the Emperor in his "heaven".

All of which is a magnificent set up… but will next weeks finale pay off? Doctor Who is in danger of falling into that old Star Trek trap of having a terrific episode up to the cliff-hanger… and then it all being a bit too easy in part two. "The Parting of the Ways", "The Age of Steel" and even "The Satan Pit" have all had a slight sense of let down – and though "World War Three" was definitely better than "Aliens of London", it still had the terrifically lucky "my password will hack anything" factor to overcome.

And have the production team set themselves up? For the ultimate rumble, Daleks versus Cybermen, you're going to have to answer that age old question (Barry Letts wanted to answer it for season ten!): "who would win a fight between…" (Don't even think about wimping out.) So someone's going to be disappointed if it doesn't turn out that their favourite monster is best.

Someone's got to win. And let's face it, it's the Daleks.

Next week: We're doomed, Cap'n Mannering, dooooooooooooomed


Will said...

Please tell Richard her surname is Agyeman. :)

I disagree about WW3 being better than AoL - and although the first Cyberman story did have a bet of an easy resolution, The Age of Steel with it's full-on action had more going for it than the first part, although it probably works best edited together into one feature length episode.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I haven't seen WW3 (the small matter of a General Election got in the way), but I agree about The Age of Steel being better than Rise of the Cybermen. I'd also be pushed to say which was better between Empty Child and the Doctor Dances.

In terms of the Rise of the Cybermen, my hope is that the Void Ship/Torchwood were somehow responsible for why the Tardis ended up in that parrallel world in the first place.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Incidently, I agree strongly about the series needing to go to more places than just Cardiff and London, and the Selfridges in Birmingham is an obvious backdrop, as would Newcastle's Millennium Bridge.

Nick Campbell said...

The Torchwood/British Empire fusion reminded me immediately of the crashed spaceship on Dido with the Union Jack tail. Such a fantastic idea, and a wonderful episode (although at the time the half hour it took for that sphere to open was slightly annoying, after some twit somewhere gave away what was inside it). As for the 'second episode' debate, I don't completely agree that it always holds. The Satan Pit, for my money, was a thrilling ratchetting-up of the tension; I'd also put The Doctor Dances down as a better episode than its prequel, and I enjoyed The Age of Steel much more than Rise of The Cybermen, basically because both of them had doddery scripts but at least the second ep looked better! I have a lot of faith in RTD, and I also have a couple of theories about that Genesis Ark...