...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, May 05, 2008

Day 2680: DOCTOR WHO: The Poison Sky


This was GREAT: a plot to poison the world's atmosphere; a secret base in orbit; a Bond villain's palatial home where he trains his track-suited followers; a breeding plan for a new human race; laser battles and a turkey shoot that's "such good sport"… still, enough about MOONRAKER, Daddy's been watching Dr Who again.

Déjà vu, Monsieur Drax?
Posted by Picasa

To the surprise of nobody on Earth, Bernard Cribbins is saved within moments by the smashing of the car windscreen… what WAS a surprise was that he wasn't saved by Donna, but by Donna's mum wielding an axe.

(Though why an axe, incidentally, and not, say, Granddad's garden spade for his allotment that wouldn't have needed clumsy dialogue to explain its presence?)

It was nice to open with an unforeseen twist, especially when so many of the upcoming "surprises" were undone by over-lingering direction or telegraphing or just being too obvious for words (I'm thinking of Luke Rattigan's "Adric Moment" in particular).

And on the whole I would say that this week's episode was a lot more satisfactory than last week's. There were explanations, well some at least, and having promised us war between humans and Sontarans it actually delivered and in spades axes.

Maybe I'm just being strange, but I found that, unexpectedly, my favourite character was Colonel Mace – treated almost dismissively by the script (and the Doctor) he really stepped up to the mark and filled the Brigadier's famous shoes (while their original owner was apparently "trapped in Peru" – so at least there's a hope for a cameo for "Sir Alistair" there, then). Mace demonstrated the sort of grace-under-pressure and wry humour that made the old Brig such a national treasure in the "Blood and Thunder" days of the third Doctor.

More than that, he was also resourceful and adaptable – once he knew what the problem with the guns was he could fix it (without the Doctor's help) with a nice nod to "Battlefield" where UNIT also had access to alternative armaments should circumstances require. Plus, of course, his strategic deployment of the Valliant to clear the air and make it possible for him to attack was inspired. (And I notice that the Valiant is now equipped with Torchwood's Death Star weapon – or one based on the same technology – so clearly UNIT have mopped up after the battle of Canary Wharf.)

And of course he was right too. We're not in Harriet Jones shooting the Sycorax in the back as they retreat territory here. With the Doctor offering him nothing by way of solution, and with the Sontarans apparently trying to secure an invasion bridgehead, not to mention massacring his troops, his retaliation was justified and proportionate. The very measure of a just military engagement.

He won't even shoot Commander Skorr in the back. Now in a way that's equivalent to the Sontarans' code of facing their enemies… but it's also a parallel to the Doctor's code of offering them a choice before he kills them all.

In fact, the big surprise was that he didn't die: I expected him to be casually offed in the same way that Major Blake bought the farm in "The Christmas Invasion". Instead he gets a snog from a lady captain that has Alex groaning about another "UNIT dating" gag. (The "tragic death™" is reserved for young private Ross Perkins, which of course was the "shock" moment that I thought was undone by lingering.)

All of which makes the Doctor's dismissal of anyone with a gun a little bit sneering, not to mention hypocritical.

It's quite wrong to suggest that the Doctor is a pacifist. Never mind what he's done to the Daleks in the past, in this very story he condones extreme violence against the Sontarans as a solution. Just because he intended to get blown up too doesn't make his exploding the air in the Sontaran cruiser and killing them all in any way different to the UNIT troops shooting them on the ground. And just because it wasn't a gun, doesn't mean that he didn't arrive on the cruiser carrying a weapon. Certainly, he's made the decision that saving the lives of everyone on Earth at the expense of killing all the Sontarans is a fair moral bargain… but Colonel Mace has made the exact same decision.

So why is it okay for the Doctor to save the Earth, but not for us to save ourselves?

There is an answer, though it's not presented here: in the future, the Doctor knows that humans will expand from Earth in an aggressive, militaristic Empire that will conquer and enslave. We will do so much more besides that, of course, but there will be a dark side to a human future. And much as he loves humans, in fact even because he loves humans, seeing us with guns reminds him of all that dark future history that, in effect, he's responsible for because he keeps saving us.

Anyway, there're plenty of other things that don't make sense in "The Poison Sky".

The sky burning as the Doctor destroys the Sontaran gas was truly spectacular, a real punch the air triumph but… well, I'm not going to quibble about fire using up all the oxygen in the atmosphere as you can make up your own pseudo-chemistry to explain why that didn't happen, but I will say this: wasn't the gas all down at ground level and choking people in their cars and homes… so how come it only burns up there in the stratosphere where it can't incinerate anyone?

And for that matter, isn't a great big fire burning all around the atmosphere going to be like turning the Earth into a huge oven and roasting the lot of us in a fatally ironic moment of global warming.

(Incidentally again, has the series ever been this heavy-handedly moralistic since the Pertwee era? The "Slavery bad" message of "Planet of the Ood" was at least counter-balanced by some nice characterisation from Catherine Tate and David Tennant; here the "Carbon emissions bad" subtext – well not very "sub" subtext – was such a sledgehammer you could have rescued Wilf from a car with it. Even the more… pedagogic stories of the Cartmel era, "Battlefield" ("nukes bad") and "Survival" (social Darwinism bad") are at least more nuanced and multi-layered, with Arthurian references or lesbian undertones.)

Oh, and if you think Millennium's "Moonraker" allusion was bad enough, Alex points out that using an atmosphere modifier to introduce the alchemical element that will rid the Earth's air of a choking menace introduced by one of the Doctor's old foes is… actually the plot of "The Seeds of Death" from 1969. (Okay, so that was water rather than fire, but the principle is exactly the same.)

Of course if the gas is so flammable that the Sontarans are concerned to prevent any rocket launch (temperature some three thousand degrees centigrade) that might set it alight, perhaps they should have more concern for the typical bolt of lightning (temperature thirty-thousand degrees centigrade) of which hundreds strike the planet's surface in any given minute of any given day of any given year… you get the picture, this stuff is going to blow.

You don’t think Helen Raynor should know about lightning? You've forgotten the climax of last year's Dalek two-parter already!

Still, Dr Science often has to leave the building when Doctor Who is on; let's not necessarily hold that against "The Poison Sky". What about military strategy?

Well, it does strike me that the Sontarans could have avoided the trouble of having to invade the factory and fight UNIT if they had taken the simple measure of teleporting Martha up to their ship and cloning her there. Given that their teleport pod is right there in their cloning laboratory in the factory, this would not appear to be excessively complicated and would have made sure she was in a much more secure place.

You could also have made more use of Donna aboard the Sontaran cruiser, with her finding and rescuing Martha (because we loved that: Martha on the Sontaran cruiser, alone and afraid and knocking out the Sontarans with a mallet).

The whole business with Martha's evil double felt a bit wasted though. I mean it's nice that the Doctor saw through her in half-a-second flat, but it did make you wonder why they bothered. And wasn't the "we must keep the original alive in order to keep her memories" the Zygons' modus operandi, anyway?

Still we got a touching scene of Frema Agyema acting against herself, and we learned a little bit more about what the Sontaran Stratagem actually was.

Although, the "they're making Earth into a cloning world" almost opened up more questions than it answered: if the Doctor thinks that a world the size of Earth will let them clone billions… what do they normally use? Asteroids?

And I'm still left wondering why they didn't bother conquering the planet first.

I'm not convinced that these are real Sontarans anyway; taking great pleasure in shooting people who can't shoot back – not exactly "glorious" warfare, is it? And when they face an enemy that can retaliate, they get their tiny plastic-armoured butts handed to them by UNIT.

But then why go to the enormous trouble of converting an inhabited planet in the first place? Venus is right next door, almost as big as Earth and with most of the same chemical components but no pesky apes on the surface with ideas about fighting back. Nor can you complain about Venus' runaway greenhouse effect when this entire story is based on the assumption that the Sontarans come provided with a CO2-scrubbing technology.

It's almost as though having (just about) got away with some vague hand-waving about Time Lord DNA and lightning strikes last year, Helen Raynor has decided that she doesn't need proper explanations at all.

It's not as though you couldn't have tossed those answers in – just a mention that an invasion would attract the Rutans' attention and spoil the "surprise attack" element of the Sontarans' Stratagem would have cleared up a lot of the problems; perhaps a hint that living organic matter is a necessary part of the matrix for breeding new Sontaran clones would have settled the 'Earth not Venus' question (and would have made for an interesting development as the Sontarans as plague metaphor – if they destroy whole colonies of other races to raise new hatchings of their own clones).

Also wasted, I'm afraid, was what could have been a nice ironic turnabout when Luke's "minions" turn on him and say, basically, well you never asked us. This could have been great… in an "Austin Powers" movie. I mean, yes, fine it defeats the dramatic expectation and says that the gang of geniuses aren't just cipher hench-persons. But it's also very, very silly to suggest that Luke manages to set up this whole plot without thinking to recruit like-minded people. For that matter, what kind of geniuses play about all day in the lab building terraforming equipment without saying: "hey, Luke, like what's all this planet colonising stuff for? And who are you talking to on the invisible telephone?"

Equally thrown aside was the rather nice relationship that had been developed between General Staal and Luke. But then that did work to make him, the General, more of a total bastard.

And what I will give them is that Luke's self-sacrifice at the end worked rather better than it deserved to. The villain-turns-good-but-dies ending is a cliché of the Terry Nation Old School. But in this context, with Luke coming to empathise more with the Sontarans than humans, and with General Staal having just said "It's worth dying because I know that I've killed you", Luke gets to do exactly that to Staal, robbing the General of his victory and gaining for himself a very Sontaran "glorious" death.

Sontar-ha! indeed.

I'm sure that I'll warm to this story with more viewings – I know that I was already getting more fond of "The Sontaran Stratagem" by its third repeat on Friday night. The lowering of expectations, knowing that it's just a big dumb action flick, will help because it's really rather a good big dumb action flick, with some truly special special effects and a great story for UNIT. Spectacle for spectacle's sake has its place, especially in Doctor Who. I just think that another couple of passes at the script stage could have made this genuinely classic.

Next time… What? What?? WHAT??? Fandom goes into meltdown as we meet "The Doctor's Daughter"


Susan Gaszczak said...

Are you not speculating about Rose's screams for help?

Onlinefocus Team said...

I'm getting very excited about the Doctor's daughter.

There's been quite a few references in this series to the First Doctor.... I do hope this lass is Susan's (the First Doctor's Granddaughter's ) mother.....

sanbikinoraion said...

I'm sorry, I've managed to keep quiet through this series of Doctor Who but it really is just awful in every single way. If you want a big dumb action movie, watch a big dumb action movie, not a BBC TV low budget knockoff. Hell, watch that thing with Ross Kemp on ITV!

New Who has no redeeming features whatsoever. If it were a show by any other name, it would not have survived three episodes, never mind three seasons, on Saturday nights.

Joe Otten said...

All this sloppy science leaves me almost missing Star Trek.

While it looked like fire, you could argue that this was just an autocatalytic atmospheric conversion process, that need not have been particularly hot.

What really bothered me about it though was that when viewed from near ground level it seemed to be propagating at about 100mph. From space it propagated at about 1000000mph. C'mon, look like you're trying please.

And, yes never mind Miss Who, What, What?, What!? What about Rose?

Nick Campbell said...

A very fair summary of the episode in my eyes, even if I did watch it in reverse - last 20 minutes in Wilmslow, then the first 20 minutes on iPlayer. A really stupid story but not quite the waste of a monster that Age of Steel proved to be. And Donna, again, made you forget all the bad stuff. Love love love her. I just wish I wasn't so excited about the season finale this year, as the rest of the season slightly feels like it's treading water till we reach her. I mean, it.

But next week - crikey. Who *is* that girl?! (Susan's Mum, please please please...)