...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Day 2379: DOCTOR WHO: The Infinite Quest


Daddy has asked me ESPECIALLY nicely and so I have decided to allow him another slot in my diary for reviewing Doctor Who so that he can tell you about this year's cartoon episode. No, not the one with Catherine Tate in it!

Although originally broadcast in bite-sized chunks as part of CBBC's Doctor Who companion programme "Totally Doctor Who", the whole lot was strung together into a single 45-minute episode including, rather charmingly, a proper title sequence, as per the series, but with a cartoon TARDIS standing in for the usual CGI one.

Broadcast on BBC2 on the same Saturday as the series finale, even getting some quality trailers to attract attention, and starring the current Doctor and his companion Martha, does this mean that it qualifies as a "proper" episode of the 2007 series? It's certainly the closest by far of the various Doctor Who spin-offs that have been tried by the BBC among others. The nearest equivalents would seem to be the LP of "Doctor Who and the Pescatons", staring the (then current) fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, and "Slipback" the radio adventure for the (again, then current) sixth Doctor and Peri, and neither of them actually made it to the television screen. So, I'm going to treat this as a proper episode, though many, I think, may prefer not to, no doubt citing the example of the mean-spiritedly "officially non-canonical" animated series of "Star Trek".

The obvious question, then, is when is this story supposed to be set? The 2007 season splits quite neatly in two, with the episodes up to "The Lazarus Experiment" being the "just one trip" that Martha is promised as a thank-you for saving the Doctor's life in "Smith and Jones", while the subsequent episodes are her journeys as full-time companion. The Doctor doesn't make any excuses about this still being her "one trip" (which he does in both "Gridlock" and "Daleks in Manhattan") and indeed is having Martha pick destination settings at random, so I think it's pretty obvious this falls into the second half. But equally, a lot of Martha's reactions are very naïve and she's still thrilled by the sheer possibilities of time travel: clearly not the same woman who has matured over the course of "Human Nature" and "Last of the Time Lords". Martha's decision to (at least temporarily) quit the TARDIS at the end of the season only reinforces that "The Infinite Quest" cannot take place after this.

It would be perfect to place it between "The Lazarus" Experiment" and "42" as her earliest on-screen adventures as full time companion. That would fit nicely with the characterisation and with the one-week gap in broadcasting. But there's a snag. Actually there are two snags, but I'm going to ignore one and, in fairness to the continuity cops, it's the important one I'm going to ignore. So, first, Martha is wearing her red jacket in "The Infinite Quest": she wears this in all the stories on her "just one trip", but then she only goes and leaves it behind when she boards the TARDIS at the end of "The Lazarus Experiment". She is then seen to pick it up again when they are in her flat in "The Sound of Drums". So, technically, "The Infinite Quest" can't be in the second half of the season. But I'm going to ignore that.

Secondly, and more trivially, for reasons known best to themselves, the BBC have arranged the releases of this season on DVD to have four episodes on the second disc (third if you want to count "The Runaway Bride" as part of season three). This is particularly odd when you think about the pattern of stories rather than episodes, so the DVDs have three stories, three stories, two stories and one (three-part) story, when they could have more evenly had three, two, two, and two if they'd chosen to put the four episodes on the last disc of the season. Maybe it's to do with the extras they have planned for the box set… Anyway, with a separate DVD of "The Infinite Quest" promised in November, it seems that the only sensible place to put this so that you can line up your DVDs on your shelf is between "42" and "Human Nature". Which will do.

The Doctor Who "quest story" has a noble history going back to the likes of "The Keys of Marinus" and "The Chase". The hokey Doctor Who quest story has a slightly less noble history going back to, well, "The Keys of Marinus" and "The Chase".

It is well suited to the "series of serials" nature of both the early Doctor Who and the "Totally Doctor Who" slot, since the changing locations and cast keep it fresh and interesting week after week and it's usually easy to pick up what's going on, while at the same time rewarding the committed viewer.

So "The Infinite Quest" consists of three mini-adventures set in a larger framing device.

The villain of the piece, scourge of the fortieth-century galaxy, the piratical space tyrant Balthazar, voiced a little predictably by Tony Head, is reported to be seeking a legendary spaceship that will grant him his heart's desire. The Doctor must therefore chase around the Universe in pursuit of four data chips that together will reveal the location of said spaceship.

(Minor criticism: during the expository sequence at the start, although we see the wrecked starship in the Doctor's mind's eye, at no point does he explain that this thing, "The Infinite", that he's burbling about is a spaceship, and not – say – a celestial toast rack or other MacGuffin. Yes, we know – but how does Martha? Just adding: "It's a legend, well it's a spaceship, well, it's a legendary spaceship…" would have helped.)

Presented with the first data chip by Baltazar's one-time ally, Caw, they follow the directions first to Captain Kalico and her crew of oil pirates, then the Mantasphid caverns on the planet Myarr, and finally to the prison of Volag Noc. Once they have all the chips, they can follow the intergalactic treasure map (Martha even remarks on the "X Marks the Spot" gash in the Infinite's side) to the wreck of the Infinite and a climactic showdown with Baltazar. Sort of.

Playing pirates in space seems to be a minor obsession for the fringes of the tenth Doctor series, what with Justin Richard's "The Resurrection Casket" and Simon Guerier's forthcoming "The Pirate Loop" as well as this. "Pirates of the Caribbean" has a lot to answer for, I suspect.

In fact, Baltazar's back story, with his cybernetic arm, robot parrot and hand-crafted starship, more powerful than anything else in the sky, seems to come straight out of Doctor Who's other Pirate Captain, the one from Douglas Adams' "The Pirate Planet". Unlike that Pirate Captain, though, Baltazar is, I'm afraid it has to be said, flat and two-dimensional. His dialogue is clumsily written and clichéd, even his heart's desire is somewhat… mundane.

And his plan seems a little overcomplicated. He starts off in prison with all four data chips to hand but lets his cell mates go wandering off with their chips; he starts off able to snatch the TARDIS out of space but then lets the Doctor go wandering off in search of the chips… wouldn't it have been quicker to kill his cell mates, steal their chips – which he does anyway – and then just grab the TARDIS? Obviously, you wouldn't have a story – or at least not episodes three to eleven of it – if that happened.

But it doesn't just make Baltazar look stupid; the Doctor looks rather dim as well. Clearly he works out that Baltazar is following him and killing off the people he meets, but then goes and leads him to Volag Noc anyway which gets Gurney killed too. He doesn't even think to mention it to Martha, and it's not like this is part of some enigmatic seventh Doctor plot to turn Baltazar's trap against him. Nope, the Doc just ends up getting zapped and left behind. Good job he put in a big temporal deviation when he was setting the co-ordinates for the Infinite.

What works well is how it all runs surprisingly smoothly when tied together. The "prologue" episode makes an excellent pre-title sequence, and the individual adventures flow together without seeming disjointed at the "cliff-hangers". It's not quite perfect – the Mantasphid Queen seems to change her personality every three minutes (co-incidentally tying in with the three episodes she appeared in) and the Doctor appears to say "Martha your brilliant!" twelve times in an hour. But there are also some very nice touches of interconnectedness – who, for example, would get the "you don't have a teaspoon, do you: I seem to have misplaced mine" gag with a gap of nine weeks between set up and payoff?

Disappointingly, though, "The Infinite Quest" never really makes use of its format to stretch the Doctor Who experience. The advantage of animation over live action – even in these days when Computer Imaging lets you stick cartoon critters like the Lazarus Monster into the picture with David Tennant – ought to be the ability to have the Doctor and Martha interact with non-humanoid shaped people as easily as anyone else, or to place them in extraordinary situations and locations.

The Star Wars "Clone Wars" cartoons use this to great advantage to create creatures even more bizarre than the ones that George Lucas was producing for his films. Furthermore, there was a definite sense of movement around the locations created, giving them a three-dimensional feel, and painting a more complete picture of them as real "worlds".

In contrast, "The Infinite Quest" is staid and stationary. There are only two really non-human characters: the reptilian Mergrass who could just be a man in a suit and seems only to appear in one pose; while the Mantasphid Queen, although she looks good, is as immobile as the Racnoss Empress. Balthazar himself is no more exciting than a man in a balaclava and stripy tank-top. This only leaves the living oil rigs and Captain Kalico's pirate skeleton crew to show any visual panache.

(That is by far the most interesting part of the adventure altogether, with those living oil rigs, artificial suns, Earth exhausted of mineral wealth and morally dubious Oil Corporations. Maybe it's because it's ripping off Robert Holmes rather than Douglas Adams… Mind you, Holmes had a go at "Space Pirates" too.)

There is the odd bit of nice CG 3D rendering: Caw, the gold-eating oversized pirate-parrot; Baltazar's somewhat Flash Gordon (1980) -looking warship; the Mantasphid swarm… though oddly enough, the CGI sticks out as much in a cartoon as it does in live action.

And visually the direction is very static too, far more scenes of people talking to one another and little by way of movement. Obviously each new "set" has to be paid for, the same in animation as it is in live action. But the disadvantage is that, unless it’s a 3D computer rendering, you have to do a new piece of art for each new camera angle you want – there's no opportunity for the director to just swing the camera around and say "let's try it from this angle". But the result is that everywhere the Doctor goes appears to be "backdrop" rather than an environment to explore.

The music is all rather recycled as well which is a mixed blessing, good use being made of Martha's song, but rather too much of the up-tempo Krillitane theme – ironically from the last time that David Tennant met Tony Head – whenever something exciting is supposed to be happening.

The other area of limitation is in the cast, as it becomes painfully apparent that the Doctor and Martha only ever meet two other people at a time: Baltazar and Caw; Calico and mutinous Pirate Swabb; Mergrass and the Mantasphid Queen – joined by pilot Kelvin! Okay, that's three – then Gurney and Governor Locke (and other Warders); and finally Baltazar and Caw again. That's not to say that the cast are bad, though the weakest are bizarrely Tennant and Head, the former slipping too much back into his "golly, I'm wacky" performance from 2006 and the latter's performance seeming, at times, even more telephoned in than when he was Lord Grayvorn for Big Finish's Excelis trilogy. Freema Agyeman, on the other hand, positively sparkles and really pulls the show together as she connects to Doctor, villains and audience. Toby Longworth's Caw is a sympathetic bad egg, and Lisa Tarbuck turns in a thoroughly enjoyable Captain Kalico, who deserved to be in much more of the show.

The small cast and talky script combine to give the thing a very sub-Big Finish feel, which is particularly ironic given the talented Alan Barnes in the writing seat and the talented Gary Russell in the director's chair. Between them, they've achieved much broader and more vivid stories on audio alone. Perhaps it was the brief that defeated them: the constraints of the visuals actually having to be realised, the need to make very specifically time-constrained scenes and episodes.

Alan Barnes has written for Doctor Who Magazine, praising the series sixteenth season, the "Key to Time" quest, and obviously here he recreates it, even including dodgy sponsor who makes the search for the object of power questionable in the first place. It doesn't really make any sense for one data chip to lead you to the next, but it makes no less sense than it does for finding one of the segments of the Key to Time to allow you to locate the next.

The casual mention of a "Great Old One" being responsible for the power of the Infinite to grant your heart's desire is an idea out of the New Adventures but one particularly seized upon by Gary Russell, as in, for example, his Celestial Toymaker story. (Not that Gary ever went quite as berserk as the late Craig Hinton in pinning Cthulhu Mythos names on elder Doctor Who things.) Here, less is more and the references to the Dark Times, the Racnoss and the Vampires and the Great Old Ones are slipped in slyly enough for them not to overwhelm the story.

It's just a shame that the story itself is so slight, and very obviously pitched at the level of children. And that just never works: Doctor Who is always better when aimed at the intelligent young person, when it is being the show that kids of all ages can enjoy. Here, like the ninth and tenth Doctor tie-in books, there isn't any greater depth for the older kids and grown-ups to enjoy. Baltazar explains that he's tracking the TARDIS in the opening sequence so it can hardly be described as a twist when he turns up at the end, and frankly neither can the "gold at the end of the rainbow" ending where it turns out that the Infinite's power is literally an illusion.

Ultimately, the ending is like the Infinite itself: empty. And after a dozen weeks following the story that tends to leave you feeling disappointed. There was a lot to enjoy along the way, though none of it quite as satisfying as last year's TARDISodes. Having said all that, the early Big Finish adventures were also occasionally a little clunking before Gary and his people really got the feel of what worked and what didn't, so hopefully this isn't an end in itself, but a new beginning and they'll learn lessons that will see a new quest next year that really pushes the boat out.

Oh yes, of course I intended that pun.

Next time… let's go back to the beginning for a review of Martha's year with the Doctor.

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