...a blog by Richard Flowers

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Day 3170: DOCTOR WHO: The Long Game


And now, onto a story where one or two cunningly placed words in the media can change an opinion, shift an agenda, and mutate a Great and Bountiful Empire of a million Worlds and a million species into a retarded, xenophobic monoculture ruled by a blob of evil.

Is it just me, or does this remind you of something?
Alex spotted it: the first thing that the Doctor says to Adam in this episode, just after the titles, is "open your mind". I think we can be pretty sure he didn't mean that to be taken quite so literally.

Where exactly does Adam go wrong? There are several small steps, the first being when Rose lends him her phone, a simple act of kindness that enables him to contact his parents back in, presumably, 2012. He actually means to give it back, you can see him turn to make the offer, but Rose has already rushed off to the Doctor, and so you also see Adam realise that he's suddenly got a super-phone for free and he pockets it.

The second step is choosing to deceive Rose when he says he's suffering from culture shock and needs to sit things out on the observation gallery for a bit.

To Rose that's an entirely natural reaction, and she is probably thinking of the parallel scene in "The End of the World" where she fled the reception to take some quite time in the gallery where the TARDIS landed…

…actually, it's pretty obvious that whole of the opening of "The Long Game" is designed to parallel the opening of "The End of the World": the TARDIS arrives on a space station, the Doctor announces (or allows Rose to announce) the date, they go to look out of the window and see the Earth from space. (They are, incidentally and in rather obvious numbers, on floor 139, but the zoom out at the end of the pre-title sequence puts the observation window about halfway up Satellite 5, suggesting that they should perhaps have been on floor 239.) After the titles, the previously-empty station suddenly becomes a hive of activity and soon the new companion feels overwhelmed by the culture shock.

In part, this is a simple re-selling of the series' basic weirdness for anyone who's just joined us halfway through; but it is also a way of saying that the first "phase" of the series, which was all about introducing a new generation to a quick sketch of Doctor Who – alien invasion, the future, the past, monsters, Daleks – that phase is now complete and we are, metaphorically, beginning again with the "proper" series now.

Phase two of the 2005 series, which begins here, is very much more about the consequences of meddling with Time.

Clearly, the bookending story about the (pardon my whopping great spoilers) Daleks altering human history is a big part of this, but Captain Jack's interference nearly re-writes history in "The Empty Child", and "Father's Day" makes it even more personal, and shows the direct consequences. "Boom Town" is, if anything, even less subtle, when meddling with the TARDIS rips open a rift in time and space through the middle of Cardiff and actually creates the events that we witnessed in "The Unquiet Dead" earlier in the season.

Bearing all that in mind, with hindsight it becomes clear that the Doctor's punishment of Adam for attempting to cheat Time is justified. Childish, too, in the way he goes about it, but then this Doctor is summed up by a mix of childish with the weight of the world. He can never quite bring himself actually to enjoy life – except in rare moments with Rose – so often his humour is dark, spiky, even rather unpleasant. His baiting of Rose about Adam being her "boyfriend" (with definite emphasis on the "boy"), which she takes with incredibly good humour, is of a piece with this. The Doctor may be dressed for a mid-life crisis but he's vacillating between death-wish and jealousy like a teenaged Goth.

Adam's third step is when he is tempted by the nurse on floor 16. By this stage he's more than half convinced himself of wickedness, but his conscience is pricking him hence his repeated finding of reasons not to go through with it. Or is he just squeamish about getting his head drilled? The nurse, it must be said, does such a delicious job of beating down his every excuse, her fixed expression of dispassionate boredom concealing her seduction beneath a breathtaking banality of evil. And the vomit-o-matic on special offer is hilarious. Given her determination not to lose a sale, she's just got to be on commission; perhaps in a hundred years she can be running the Game Station's deadly version of "The Apprentice".

Adam's claim that it's the Doctor's fault is unfair, but the fact that he is able to pay for a front door in his head is down to the Doctor giving him unlimited credit on a stick In the first place, that's terribly trusting of the Doctor, since he's basically just given Adam the ability to buy a star cruiser to go rumbling around the Great and Bountiful Empire in, or a planet or for that matter Satellite 5 if the mood takes him… come to think of it, if the Doctor has no qualms about creating unlimited credit with a wave of his screwdriver, why doesn't he buy Satellite 5, then he wouldn't need to pretend to be management and he could sack the editor without all that exploding Jagrafess business. Perhaps because then he might have to stick around and run it.

But this also begs the question of where that money actually comes from? Think about it, either the Doctor has just raided someone's account or he's told the system to create it from nothing. And the problem with creating it is that we see how sensitive to data manipulation the editor is, but he entirely overlooks this. Either way this is still theft – pointing the sonic at a hole-in-the-wall and having it spew notes across the street ("The Christmas Invasion") is only a more blatant example: someone must have paid for those notes to be loaded into the machine in the first place; similarly someone ultimately ends up paying for Adam's brain op.

(Actually, there is an alternative explanation, which is that this is the Doctor's money, that he has – like the Meddling Monk – placed a certain amount on deposit in most Humanian eras and that he's just programmed the sonic with his card details and PIN. "Unlimited" credit may be a polite exaggeration on the nurse's part.

Adam's final step is where he has no one else to blame but himself: while the Doctor and Rose are off on floor 500, where the walls are made of cold, it turns out, rather than gold, Adam is breaking into the newsroom for a quick infodump. He doesn't have temptation put in his way this time; he has to take action in order to steal the secrets of Satellite 5.

There's another interesting reflection when the Editor begins to pump information out of Adam. "He's telling him everything," wails the Doctor and I'm reminded of the Doctor's answer to Adam's "how does it work" question at the top of the episode: "Go and find out!" The Doctor believes in earning knowledge rather than just acquiring it.

(There may be some slight hypocrisy here from a man who had the Time Lords' repository of all knowledge wired into his head, though in fairness he did leave Gallifrey in the first place in order to learn by experience rather than merely received wisdom. He's also, in fact, wrong about almost everything he tells Rose at the start because he's relying on what he's learned rather than actually finding out.)

"Go and find out" is, of course, the theme of the story. It's not exactly subtle satire, though perhaps sharper than in "World War III". The dangers of all your news coming from one source have hardly gone away, and clearly the finger here is pointed at the faux news of, ahem, "Faux News" and the market penetration of News International into British newspapers which has long been argued as for the worse, though there is some irony now that with between them the recession and the Internet making it seemingly impossible for local or even national newspapers to turn a profit from reporting, there's a danger of the BBC becoming the beastie rather than "Max". (Come on, he's hardly "Max" though is he – Maxwell was dishonest to his employees not his readers; with all those little fibs turning us against the nasty foreign aliens, "Digger" would be closer to the mark, surely.)

With its great big metaphor hanging out, then, it's terribly easy to see this as "the cheap one": the million worlds of the human Empire are represented by a dozen humans in a couple of rooms. Floor 139 is not only redressed twice here, as Floor 16 and Floor 500, but destined to serve as three more floors on the Game Station too, when the CG exterior will return as well. And the million species in the Great and Bountiful Empire are – conveniently for the budget – no longer welcome in Earth space and so absent. All we get is another chance to use the large expensive Face of Boe prop and, since he's going to turn out to be the very human Captain Jack, hindsight means that he no longer counts either.

But it doesn't look cheap; it looks colourful and busy: lots of rich purple and red tones for the overheated workpit of Floor 139; plenty of clinical white for Medical Non-emergency; icy blues and darkness for the Editor's frozen lair.

There are glittering guest stars. Anna Maxwell-Martin, pre-Bleak House, giving a dual role as both flighty Suki, subtly undermining her boss Cathica at every opportunity, and committed-but-doomed freedom fighter Eva san Juliene. Tamsin Greig as the Mephistophelean nurse coming close to stealing the whole show. And, on the brink of his Hollywood career, Simon Pegg as the full-on bonkers Doctor Who villain he always dreamed of being.

And there are crowds of extras. The place looks bustling, and there's lots going on in the background, even if it is allegedly "The Leisure Hive" in one shot.
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Floor 500 is like a frozen sepulchre by comparison, and deeply creepy – like suddenly finding a graveyard on the top floor of your office. Which is exactly what it is, of course. The Editor surrounding himself with the dead, though these dead men do nothing but tell tales.

Having said that the first half of the season is a sketch of Doctor Who as a whole while second half concerns meddling with Time, I am compelled (because Alex points it out to me) to say that 2005 as a whole is full of the living dead. From Autons as plastic cadavers to Gelth wraiths to Slitheen wearing the bodies of the dead; from gas-mask zombies (and everyone lives) to Rose's father, to Daleks made from dead humans. And just wait till Captain Jack "Resurrection" Harkness turns up! It's almost as the Last of the Time Lords is condemning himself to live among the dead, isn't it.

Meanwhile, back on Floor 500, yes, it makes no sense for the top floor to be frozen if the Jagrafess is supposed to be pumping out all that heat, and the business of it needing to pump all its heat down the station (rather than, say, into the nearby near-absolute zero cold of space) is even sillier, but stylistically it is absolutely right. The workers are literally sweating to keep their fat boss cool. And at the same time they've been brainwashed into overlooking the most obvious source of their oppression: Rose notices it almost the moment she steps out of the TARDIS, and it's the first observation she makes that hasn't been prompted by the Doctor (who is wrong about almost everything, remember).

So Adam fails as a companion because he tries to be the evil genius, like his mentor Mr Van Statten, stealing secrets to make himself rich; he fails as an evil genius too because he's not really brave enough to seize the opportunity nor smart enough not to overreach when he gives in to temptation.

The Doctor takes him home and leaves him there with, as punishment, hilarious opening cranium still intact. One would hope that Adam works out how to change the "open" setting or he's in for real trouble and a very sheltered life, though of course really it's just for the final really-not-terribly-funny mum-walks-in-and-catches-you… gag (no seriously: Adam shouts "don't come in yet, Mum", but she does and finds him with his, er, brains all, er, hanging out).

And that, if it has a flaw, is the thing that is wrong with "The Long Game": it's trying to do all the satire and scary and setting-up stories and it's trying to be funny – a bit – on top of it all. Funny is always risky, because if you're not quite funny then people will remember you as the not funny one. And these jokes are only mildly funny. Simon Pegg can do funny-sinister shtick like falling off a log, but the actual gags don't add up to a hill of beans. Apart from the vomit-o-matic, of course.

In the wham-bam that follows, "The Long Game" tends to be forgotten as "the middle one" in the 2005 season, but it's actually doing a very important function in setting up the themes and tropes of the second half of the season, so it's a pause after "Dalek" to get you ready for the next twist of the big dipper.

But it's also doing something important by telling a story that Doctor Who has never told before: "the Companion who Failed". We've seen that Rose is brilliant, and brilliant for the Doctor, but we've never had this kind of comparison with what does and doesn't make a companion. Overlooking this story means missing the very uniqueness that it should be celebrated for. Adam throws Rose into sharp relief; and that's why this is brilliant.

Next Time: Make Daddy's Day – feed him to a Chronovore. Rose breaks the Blinovitch Limitation Effect as Jackie carries on up the Eighties in "Father's Day".


1 comment:

Millennium Dome said...

Special thanks to Mr Tat for supplying the visual evidence!