...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Day 2708: DOCTOR WHO: Silence in the Library


Sadly I did NOT watch Doctor Who this week, as I have been busy in my OWN library!

Yeah Yeah, Doctor Whatever
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Daddy Richard seems to think it was quite good. Although for some reason he hasn't turned the lights off since Saturday…

I haven't read "The Time Traveller's Wife", but I understand that I may now have a fair grasp of the plot, though I imagine it involves fewer walking skeletons.

But let's be honest, all the Timey-Wimey-ness is just a bit of dressing: 'Silence in the Library' is a horror story, pure and simple. It's there to frighten the children, and writer Steven Moffat is very good at this. He has the knack of spotting the childhood trauma and translating it into Doctor Who monster. Being the child left out becomes 'The Empty Child'; the monster under the bed becomes a literal monster under the bed; grandmother's footsteps is re-imagined as a game where you dare not blink; and so this year fear of the dark becomes a completely sensible approach to the shadow killers, the Vashta Nerada.

(Alex cannot help but think of "Sredni Vashtar" the eponymous polecat in the tale by Saki, read by Tom Baker as one of the "Late Night Stories" found in the extra features of "The Armageddon Factor" in the "Key to Time" box set.)

They work terrifically well as a bogey-man, though how they actually work seems a little confused and varies from moment to moment: you need to stay out of the shadows, but apparently they can be seen when they're caught in sunlight as dust motes (so, what, does the light just render them inactive?); they can exist in any shadow, but they also seen to be able to be a shadow; and if they're a shadow without anything to cast it, doesn't that make them a dark patch on the floor rather than motes in the air? Surely, if they're dense enough to cast a shadow themselves then they ought to be visible? Essentially, the idea of moving shadows is the creepy one, and the explanation – tiny things in the air – doesn't properly fit. I suspect that the 'explanation' comes from the dust in sunbeams analogy – because when you see those motes catching the light you think that it's weird; it's as though they only exist in the sunlight and not continuously through the atmosphere. So by referencing something that doesn't seem credible but that does exist in nature, that weirdness is extended to the Vashta Nerada making them seem credible too.

Of course, the fact that 'don't tread on the shadows' translates easily into a playground game won't hurt either.

As with all typical 'Horrors', you have to have a cast of diverse, easily recognisable characters – some likeable, some not – who will probably get polished off one by one. Here we have the 'League of Gentlemen's Steve Pemberton, a little unsure of his accent, as a cross between Klieg and Kaftan from "The Tomb of the Cybermen" i.e. he's the sinister balding slightly Germanic one and he's funding the expedition; Tallulah Riley, almost entirely wasted as the insultingly dim Miss Evangelista, except for her poignant and horrible departure; two blokes who are cleverly made into characters by having the same name, hence distinguished into "other Dave" and "proper Dave"; a woman whose only characteristic so far is to be the other woman so I wouldn't rate her chances highly, though apparently her name is Anita; and Alex Kingston as Professor Benny Summerfield… er, Professor River Song, the lady with the mysterious (but easily guessable) relationship with the Doctor.

Actually, I say easily guessable, but the Doctor Who forums are overflowing with every more bonkers speculation about her identity – ranging from the absurd (Rose, Martha, Donna, his biographer!) to the barkingly insane (the Master) and I assume it's only a matter of time before we reach Adam or Davros – as though it's even remotely likely that she'll be revealed as someone from the Doctor's past.

Of course, in the classic stalker horror it is the couple getting together – implicitly the loss of protecting innocence – that triggers the rising of whatever the unspeakable menace might be. Here, as soon as River Song walks though that door and starts treating the Doctor… flirtatiously, that's when the deaths start. As always, the message is never ever even think about dating.

The great irony here appears to be that the most important book in the Library isn't on the shelves, but is the one that is brought in by River Song, her diary detailing her past with the Doctor and his future with her.

Speculating now, but it seems to me that Steven prefers to clean up the loose ends of his own stories rather than set up long-term arcs – though that may change – so I wouldn't be surprised if River doesn't make it out of the Library either, and we see a closing montage of the Doctor taking her diary and using it to visit each of the places it says that he must in order for him to have met her. The sadness in his eyes knowing that he's already met her at the end is what is missing when she looks at him in the Library and says "you're so young". Or I could be way off-beam.

It does seem very odd that the setting is so specific.

We're in the Fifty-First Century again, as we were with Captain Jack and again with the SS Madame de Pompadour. But unlike Russell Davies' "Year Five Billion" stories, or even the Forty-Second Century set stories – "The Satan Pit", "42" and "Planet of the Ood", plus "The Infinite Quest" if you're counting – there isn't a sense of consistent world-building here.

There's a feel for overall story that you can pick up from Russell's chosen future histories: five billion, while it's a time of diversity run rampant and near total technological supremacy, is very much about a nostalgia for home and in particular Earth; while, with its pirates and slavers and freebooters, the Forty-Second Century is a grungy, industrial, neo-Thatcherite future built on greed and exploitation.

That may not be realistic (just think how diverse our cultural stories are just today) but it is aesthetically pleasing.

There isn't that same sense that by choosing this particular time zone, Steven is asking us to prepare for a story in a certain style or theme. Perhaps that's fair enough for an era that's also supposed to have spawned both Magnus Greel, with Oriental effects all over, and the chunky robot technology that gives us K-9.

Admittedly, you could at a stretch believe that the nodes come from the same culture that develops clockwork maintenance robots – one where artistry and functionality are blended in a slightly, to our humble Twenty-first Century eyes, cockeyed or even gruesome way. But how does the wood-panelled Coruscant that is the Library fit in with the key-shaped spaceship? And if Captain Jack is a typical Fifty-First Century kind of a guy, then shouldn't we expect to see rather more "dancing" from our party of archaeologists?

More importantly, there isn't a sense of why we keep coming to this time zone – if it's not to cue up those aesthetics to prime us for a "theme" then why not the five-hundred-and-fifty-first century; if nothing else it would make for a spot of variety.

And, contrary to what the Doctor Who Confidential team seem to think, libraries are comforting places: great wombs of knowledge that offer safe harbour not fear. And that ought to go doubly so in the Doctor Who universe. In "Tooth and Claw", the Doctor was delighted to be trapped in a Library; the greatest arsenal they could have, he called it.

Having said that, a place of safety violated can be more terrifying than any Gothic castle or haunted ruin. It would have been nice to have played with that, though.

My guess is that the real significance of the setting lies in its connection to the mysterious little girl. In a rather classy pre-title sequence, we follow her inside what we think is her dreamworld and share her apprehension as something tries to break in… of course it has to be the Doctor and Donna. It turns out that they don't see her, although she sees them; instead they see a wooden security camera drone, very nicely in keeping with the setting. Later, however, when the girl finds that she has the Doctor on her television (hoho) it appears that the Doctor and the archaeologists can see her as a little girl, even though, slightly frustratingly, we the audience never see the screen from their side. This seems a slightly curious mixed approach.

As with River's identity, it seems fairly obvious that the girl is the Library's index computer, aka Cal (named after her older brother Hal, perhaps?). Like the nutty computer of 2001, the girl has her own computer shrink, in the form of Doctor Moon, played with gravelly smoothness by Colin Salmon (who really should have been James Bond rather than just in them, but is equally cool as Avon in the remade Blake's Seven on audio).

Furthermore, Alex notices that the "ghosting" that gives such a frisson of horror to the post mortem thoughts of Miss Evangelista, and lends the stomping skeleton its "who turned out the lights" catchphrase, is also very likely foreshadowing of properly uploaded consciousness, those "no survivors" who have been "saved".

The Library is therefore a disguise for a whopping great big computer system, big enough to store people.

(This may even make Astrid Peth's fate in "Voyage of the Damned" into foreshadowing, if the Doctor can save Donna by retrieving her body from the teleport emergency buffer and recover her consciousness from the computer – perhaps we can expect to see Donna meeting with the girl in part two.)

So, this is the start of the Grand Moff Takeover (thank you Jenny): on the whole a simple story but ever so well told. Unlike "The Sontaran Stratagem", it starts off with one mystery – what's happened to everyone in the Library – and answers it – they've been eaten by Vashta Nerada. But also leaves us with bigger questions as well as one hell of a "now, get out of that!"

Next time… My guesses: either there'll be some intervention from the girl or the Vashta Nerada will be temporarily satiated enough with one of them to let the others escape… the "Forest of the Dead"


Andy said...

Y'know, I've been waiting for this review since pretty much the moment the episode finished to explain to me why it was any good...

...and I still don't get it.

To me, it seemed a jumble of ideas that didn't add up - enough for at least three separate and unconnected episodes, but instead of meshing into something more than the sum its parts they worked about as well as mixing up a tin of baked beans, a tin of custard and a tin of shoe polish and calling it dinner.

Donna's siding-with-the-underdog schtick has now got so predictable that you KNEW from the moment Miss Whatserface opened her mouth that she'd home in on her, but even without that the sentimental bits were so over-written and bludgeoned home with a sledgehammer that they were spoiled beyond redemption. The whole post-death / nice lady bit could have been brilliant and heartbreaking if it hadn't been allowed to go beyond a page of script at most.

And the scary bits just weren't scary - ANOTHER lurching, slow-moving, but oddly inescapable villain with a catchphrase that might have been sinister on first delivery but which was just comical on constant repetition. At the end, with the two supposedly sinister phrases repeatedly intercut like a Chas and Dave single played at 33rpm, we were just splitting our sides and saying "THIS is supposed to be scary?"

Alex Kingston was brilliant, obviously, but apart from that we're scratching our heads trying to see what we've missed.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

So far, I've enjoyed this story but found it very predictable. On the other hand, I can't help but feel they are deliberately making it predictable with a view to throwing a curveball in the midst of ep 2.

On the third hand, that's what I thought about the Matrix, which the little girl sequences reminded me of. And how wrong I was about that.

FWIW BTW, I think the 4,000-odd people who were "saved" are going to appear at some point. I fear you may be right about the fate of River Song, which is annoying because that hadn't occurred to me until I read it. And speaking of "spoilers" I think the Doctor is going to learn at least one.

What I really want to know though is this the same darkness that Rose is banging on about in the trailer?

Jennie Rigg said...

My pleasure ;)

Am pretty much in agreement with Andy; was not impressed at all. Your point about libraries being comforting rather than scary (mmmm the smell of books!) is a good one, but unfortunately, lots of kids these days DO find books scary. Sad, isn't it?

Asriel said...

I understand these reactions to the episode, but I found it rather different.

For me, the attractions included stylish visual design, cracking dialogue, hints of the Doctor's future, the dangers and paradoxes of "spoilers", the heart-rending sadness of meeting a very close friend who doesn't know you yet, possibilities of the Matrix-like humanoid representations of software processes, the horror of being told that it is the nightmares that are the reality, mysteries that one can unravel for oneself if only you can think calmly while imminent danger lurks...

OK, so it is unlikely to be desperately scary for the grown-ups, but my nine-year-old son - usually a sound sleeper - has now had three consecutive broken nights of absolute, shaking terror about Saturday's episode. Not pleasant for his parents, but a testament to the power of this terrific writer.

It's only with the announcement of the passing of the reins to Steven Moffat that I've discovered my favourite episodes from each series were written by him. "The Empty Child", "The Girl in the Fireplace" (I wept), and "Blink" (which caused my daughter, usually a wry viewer, to scream with terror).

Could it be that the faithful aficionados have seen all the elements of this episode before, and so it doesn't hold any surprises for them? And the resolution in the second part - outlined in the post and comments here - are exactly what I'm anticipating too. So perhaps the second episode won't hold surprises either, and will turn out to be at least as disappointing for you?

Maybe a second viewing might help you, but I doubt it: the irritation might well increase.

The episode didn't work for you, but for some of us this was excellent. The way all these disparate elements were brought together, lightly yet with profound intent was terrific. One man's meat...

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Lest I be misunderstood, while I did find the episode "predictable" I did enjoy it a lot and am hopeful that at least some of my predictions will be confounded on Saturday. Indeed it has probably been my favourite of the series so far.

I don't see what's wrong with having more than one idea in an episode. Frankly, a lot of episodes have been a little one note recently. The plot is no more convoluted than the average short story.

Onlinefocus Team said...

I just loved this episode. It's going to be one of my all-time favourites.

These are some of the things I liked:

1. Clever and beautifully performed sequence before the credits.

2. Great performances in the 'living room' from the girl and Dr Moon. (does this planet have a moon?)

3. Very good lighting, a beautifully visualised setting.

4. I really believe in this place, unlike the Country House in "The Unicorn and The Wasp",or in fact just about anywhere since maybe the hospital on the moon in "Smith and Jones"

5. All the little details - the faces on the libraty node points, the ghosting, seem to be meshing together well.

6. Generally good to very good performances from everyone in the library....

7. I liked the cliffhanger , the jarring of the two phrases worked for me.

8. River Song in the plot gives some delicious possibilities for fans to speculate this week..... my bit of speculation is ... Is it a coincidence that this story comes just after meeting Agatha Christie?

Millennium Dome said...

Dear Mr Andy, Daddy Richard says:

Sorry to have disappointed you, Andy. I think, for me, that – thanks to stylishly direction in a well chosen location and great performances from Kingston and Tennant – it managed to prove MORE than the sum of its parts. Partly, I admit, because those parts were in many cases nonsense or – as James has pointed out – rather obvious.

The lumbering skeleton-in-a-spacesuit, (so reminiscent of the cover of New Adventure "The Dimension Riders") is NOT the monster, of course: it is what the fast-as-lightning too-small-to-see monsters will DO to you… although you can argue that that's just a repeat of the gas-mask zombies from "The Empty Child".

I should add that the child-me would have been SPECTACULARLY freaked out by a walking skeleton, particularly the moment where the skull just thumps forward against the suit visor.

And, of course, "Silence…" does manage to do BOTH forms of the undead: the ghost, i.e. mind, spirit, soul, whatever living on past the death of the body AND the zombie or in this case living skeleton, which is obviously the reverse. There might be a glimmer of something of an idea there. Or it might just be another wasted moment.

I didn't dwell much on the girl. Matrix-like is exactly the description of her I should have used, though it's a Matrix in reverse, with the computer program thinking it is human. I particularly liked that her room was filled with icons, from the blatant use of the same symbol on the floor as appeared on the robot camera drone to the more subtle appearance of a Robbie the Robot as a clue to vast machinery in the heart of the planet and, perhaps, the significance of monsters created from the subconscious. And for the sharp eyed, on the wall behind Doctor Moon when he makes his "the real world is lies" speech are a child's drawing of a blonde-haired girl and of a wolf…

I do agree with Asriel that predictability doesn't necessarily undermine the story (or we'd never watch ANYTHING on DVD) and that perhaps it's we grups who are jaded. As I mentioned in the review, I haven't read "The Time Traveller’s Wife" so that aspect was not an automatic cliché for me, but I did spot where it was going in very short order. Confirmation of that will, I hope, be satisfying rather than disappointing.

And sorry James if my 100% uninformed guesses turn out to be spoilers…would be an irony as a few thoughts about "spoilers" are another of the little wry curlicues that Steve M has added to his basic script.

Paul Hulbert said...

A few more 2001 links, apart from CAL=HAL...

The lights going out in the library - just as the lights go out as Dave pulls out HAL's memory boards (= the books perhaps?)

The fading data ghosts = the voice of the dying HAL.

Maybe the Ghost in the Machine? Has the TARDIS landed in the girl's imagination?

Also, if HAL was IBM, CAL = DBM, so what's that?

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Let's not forget SAL, the chica pooter in 2010.

Paul Hulbert said...

And weren't there two Daves? One's the Dave from 2001, so I wonder if the other is Dave Lister? Anybody seen a cat?

Nick Campbell said...

Well, I thought it was the business. The best episode so far this year by a country mile - certainly the only episode so far this year that I've wanted to see again, and show to others.

I know that aspects of the plot seem slightly predictable but all the same, I smell twistiness afoot.

My only real disappointment is that River Song, despite her description in a text from a friend of mine, did not turn out to be Iris Wildthyme. But you can't win 'em all.