...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Day 2687: DOCTOR WHO: The Doctor's Daughter


Time for a quick BACKGROUND CHECK on this Time Lord "doing the business" business!

Posted by Picasa

Oooh! Blushes!

Despite superficial similarities to "The Sontaran Stratagem" (a race of clones; perpetual war; an aquatic enemy; gas for reforming the world; a warrior copied from one of the TARDIS crew) this was an enormous amount better. There's a proper "science fiction" idea at the heart of it – the perspective difference between "generations" and "years" – and it was fast and fun.

The very title has been titillating and traumatising fans for months now: will she be Susan's mum? Or Miranda, his adopted daughter from Lance Parkin's "Father Time" novel? "The Doctor's Daughter" almost laughs at us with the speed with which it disposes of those questions, popping her out of the magic cloning machine in seconds with what I'm sure will be recognised as a classic line: "Hello, Dad!"

(And of course by looking forward rather than back, the story doesn't tread on the toes of anyone who holds either or both of those other daughters as canon.)

In fact, she was neither Time Lord offspring nor future Empress of the Universe; it was Ben Aaronovitch's turn to have the "hang on, that's…" moment, as it turned out she was Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart, from Ben's book "Transit" and various sequels. Okay, she's a little bit blonde and white to be the genetically engineered super-soldier, derived from the DNA of the series' stalwart, who ends the story stealing a space shuttle to set off in pursuit of the Doctor's life of adventure, but…

Georgia Moffett (yes, she really is the Doctor's daughter, Peter Davison's to be precise) gave a rather marvellous "girly" impersonation of David Tennant, evolving her performance throughout, capturing a lot of the way he conveys the Doctor's enthusiasm and intelligence and thereby really selling the idea of Jenny as a Doctor-derived clone.

I use the term "clone" although that's not strictly accurate, because she's zapped straight out of a machine in seconds. And frankly, that's how we all expected the Sontarans to be being made – breeding a million in four minutes, is how "The Invasion of Time" has it, and that seems to preclude all that messing around in tanks of green gloop.

And the script also found room to give a really good story to Martha and a strong role – and voice, especially in the "dad shock" scene – to Donna. It was good that she was much more quickly onside with Jenny, and kept pushing at the Doctor to recognise and accept her. I think the "super-temp" line is going to get old really quickly, but it was great that Donna first noticed and then worked out the significance of the numbers.

(Incidentally, if it's a city built by robots… was I the only one hoping to see some big, lumbering, spherical Mechonoids at the end of the tunnels?)

Meanwhile, Martha gets to play Doctor in her own half of the adventure. What really worked here was that Martha is both good at the companion stuff but also get it quite a bit wrong when she tries to do the "Doctor-inspiring-people-to-be-better" bit, ultimately being responsible for Hath Peck's death.

The Hath "monsters" (or "people" as they turned out to be) were an idea that sort of just about worked in realisation. Obviously they were rubber fish suits, but the bubbling liquid face pieces added something bizarre that made them more successful. And the decision not to translate their language for us, even though the TARDIS was clearly translating for Martha, added an interesting "work out what they're saying" tick to the whole that was rather good in a "The Clangers" sort of way. Not that I want to do the mighty Nick Briggs out of work, but it made a change from playing another tune on the ring modulator.

Not speaking as a gun-fan, I thought that the weapon props were rather clever and new, with their pilot light flames and little gas-pops on firing: quite innovative and managing to capture the grittiness of "real" weapons and a sense of futurism too, avoiding both the usual clichés of "plastic laser gun" and "that's just a present day gun".

A couple of problems with the episode's logic. The rate of attrition in this war would have to be an awful lot higher than what we actually see on screen if twenty generations are being wiped out each day. I guess that that level of continuous slaughter isn't really conducive to a Saturday teatime show, but even so, what we actually see is one battle and then a hostile truce, during which – I have to ask – why aren't the humans and Hath building up huge armies as quickly as possible? In fact, there did appear to be some limits to the way that the cloning machine worked. It just wasn't even made terribly clear what they actually were. Can you only clone a limited number of people off of one individual? And where does the matter and energy come from? And if Humans can develop the five-second cloning booth by the year 6012 (even if that is in the New Byzantine calendar… and the mission commander died of Byzantine Syndrome, too; a clue, perhaps?) then why can't Sontarans manage it after fifty-thousand years of warfare?

The other question is, of course, why is General Cobb old? Alex suggests that the machine decides to clone one person as general and gives him/her a body to match the "respected elder" archetype they're expected to fit. More cynically, I wonder if he isn't supposed to be the last of the original colonists and actually knows what's really going on, but has been shaping the myths (and programming the cloning machine) to breed him more compliant followers. It would help to gloss over the more glaring plot holes if he was manipulating the process.

Oddly, there doesn't seem to be an equivalent Hath general. But then, the Doctor's tinkering with the humans' map also affected the Hath version, so it's possible that Cobb has (perhaps inadvertently, or even unknowingly) been simultaneously programming the Hath to be hostile troops on the same genocidal mission as his own.

What was nice was that (inspired or written by Cobb or not) the people's creation myth of a "breath" from the creator captured in the temple did turn out to have a basis in fact. The "breath" was a ball of "Russell Davies magic fairy gas"™ but it did come from the "creator" (or "terraformer", as it was revealed to be).

The musical score reuses some of Murray's most beautiful – if blatantly manipulative – themes: Martha's theme, the Gallifrey theme and, of course, the Doctor's. Admittedly it's a little heavy-handed (well this is Murray Gold, master of SUBTLETY) but it also left me humming those tunes for days.

It is, of course, possible to see the ending coming a mile off, where Jenny "dies" to save the Doctor. Likewise the even more obvious "twist" of her returning from the dead in true Time Lord style – yes, that's Time Vortex glowey magic fairy gas not terraforming glowey magic fairy gas that she exhales there. It's possible to think that this makes the episode crushingly banal. But you have to have no soul to do so.

This is the beautifully acted interaction of a tragedy. It's just as obvious that the Scottish play is going to end badly for the title character, but that's barely even remotely the point. It's about how you get there. The Doctor starts off rejecting Jenny quite cruelly because it's just as obvious to him how this grand tragedy is going to have to play out: if he lets himself start to experience some hope of happiness – and he does – then she's doomed. But you still want to slap him: Doctor, she could be the First of the Time Lords, you want to cry. And in spite of himself, and all the deep down horror and sorrow and loss of the Time War that starts to come back, he allows Donna to coax him into opening up to that possibility. And Jenny's natural talent and enthusiasm, and the fact that she is clearly won over by him and his philosophy, make him open up to her. Both Doctor and Jenny blossom over the course of the episode, and it's all the more piquant because we can see where the inevitability, banality, of the drama is going to take us.

And of course, it's down to Martha misdiagnosing Jenny as "dead" that the Doctor leaves, leaving her behind, his loneliness restored to full rage.

And Donna says that she'll travel with him forever. Now what did we just say about seeing where the ending is going?

Next time… Good lord, that's the games-mistress of St Trinian's as Agatha Christie, no less. And we're going to need a really very big jar of jam to deal with that insect in "The Unicorn and the Wasp"


Richard Gadsden said...

Nick Campbell said...

This is your best Doctor Who review, ever. I think. Enthusiastic, cerebral, generous, but even-handed. And the stuff about 'knowing where this is going', which is one of the big criticisms non-fans level at the show, is really important.

Stuart Douglas said...

That's a damn fine review - a little too forgiving of the various plot holes and incredibly over-forgiving of Martha the Dead Eyed Plank, but it's good to read a positive review which explains in depth why the reviewer liked it (a far rarer trait than I would have expected).