...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Day 3435: DOCTOR WHO: Cold Turkey


Saturday was a bit of a WRECK, what with one thing and another, but at least we had Dr Woo to cheer us up, eh?

Well, except it was a bit SAD. And a bit SLOW. Though with a sort of PONDEROUS GRACE.

A bit like a HIPPOPOTAMUS ballet-dancing the SWAN LAKE in SLOW MOTION!

And if it was STUPID, at least Mr Chibbers was finding entirely NEW and ORIGINAL ways to be stupid!
A story using the Reptile People, and using so much of the Pertwee back-catalogue that goes with them, really ought to be cleverer than this.

The Doctor should not have been kind to Ambrose at the end. "It was murder" was his line to the Brigadier; it should have been his line to Ambrose too, and not to realise that misses the point of "…and the Silurians" by so far as to be truly shocking. Notice, "evil" murdering Silurian Restac ends up poisoned because she won't heed the warnings; equally murdering Ambrose gets let off with a stern lecture to "teach your boy to be better", a disparity of treatment by the writer that is probably racist or something.

If the Daleks are Doctor Who's metaphor for the Nazis – and stories with them are about the undiluted evil of treating the unlike as the enemy – then the Silurians and their stories are the flip-side of that: racism remains the point, but they are representative of a conflict where each side ends up acting like the Daleks by failing to recognise the "humanity" of the other.

That requires a parity of treatment by the writer so that the viewer can see this.

In "…and the Silurians", diplomatic Okdel, warlike Morka and scientist T'ko are an imperfect mirror of the Doctor, the Brigadier and Dr Lawrence (imperfect only in the sense that characteristics do not match one for one: Lawrence not the Brigadier is the overt xenophobe on the human side, say; and that there are more human characters). In "The Sea Devils", even though the Reptile People have rather less characterisation, it is still clear that there is a kind of equivalence between the chief Sea Devil and Captain Hart: they are both warrior leaders; they are both thoughtful of the cost of war, and so on. Even in "Warriors of the Deep", clearly the least of the classic series trilogy, you can spot reflections between the "noble leaders" Commander Vorshak and Silurian Icthar and their more belligerent subordinates.

"The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" ends up crushed in the mismatch between the entire Silurian civilisation and one human family. The sense of scale in "Cold Blood" was at least widened – cities full of Reptile People, the fate of the world, a thousand years of history (although, was that opening monologue anything more a crushingly banal rip-off of Timothy Dalton's narration in "The End of Time"? )– but it was at the expense of drawing in sundry other stupidities.

Most egregious is the point where Nasreen protests: "we can't negotiate on behalf of humanity," and the Doctor dismisses this with a casual, "sure you can." No, Doctor, they really, really can't, any more than I could commission the next series of Doctor Who on behalf of the BBC just because I'm a viewer.

If they hadn't failed to establish the "big" project in "The Hungry Earth", Nasreen could have had the government connections to maybe make it credible that she could at least open talks.

What we should have here is a situation where the Silurians don't even believe that humans are sentient; what the Doctor should be doing is having Amy and Nasreen change their minds through talking to them. Convince lead Silurian Eldane (played with weariness by Stephen Moore, best known as Marvin the Paranoid Android) and then he can end the threat of war.

It could have been genuinely interesting if Eldane had not believed humans to be intelligent until he actually met some; contrasting with the warrior cast Alaya and Restac who know perfectly well that humans are intelligent, but are ignoring it because they are so clearly into racial supremacy in a big way.

As a side-order of stupidity, we might point out that all the women are murderous bitches. Well, okay, Amy is just a Rio-obsessed bitch, and Nasreen is lovely, but apart from that…

We might hazard a guess that female actors were hired to play the warrior Silurians and male actors to play the scientists in order to establish some kind of species dimorphism – if only someone had said something along those lines. As it is, it doesn't half seem like the scary scaly ladies need the level-headed lizard gentlemen to set them straight about a few things. Sigh.

Nor was the story sufficiently clever to be drawing some kind of nurturing/vengeful mother parallel between Alaya and Ambrose.

Do I have to mention again that the Reptile People's city really is supposed to have implausibly survived down there for tens of millions of years. It does at least get implied that generations of Reptile People have been staying awake doing all the dusting. But that's stupid too. Even if you avoid mentioning that that's a fairly impressive span to live though without evolving into anything new, has no one thought to ask them why they didn't just wake up the rest of their species as soon as it became clear that the moon was not going to draw off the atmosphere or smash the planet or whatever else they feared? I mean it does just slightly negate the stories whole premise.

Along the lines of Reptile People being awake when they shouldn't, there seem to have been some kind of story points with Silurian Scientist Malohkeh that got dropped. The business about never harming the children, and that he's been at this for three-hundred years – probably tying in with the blue grass fairy rings last episode – and the implication that he's been up to something all fizzle out and go nowhere.

Also, at what point did the guy who conducts vivisection on live – and conscious – victims become the "nice" Silurian? Saying he doesn't harm children is surely begging a big big question, one which the stitching up Mo's tummy seems to answer. I'm reminded of what the Doctor said to Margaret Siltheen: "just because you let a few go, doesn't mean you aren't a monster".

On the flip side, Malohkeh then gets murdered by Restac, a development which looks sure to have repercussions for her… Only they never happen either. And no one in the Doctor's party seems to notice that Malohkeh seems to have gone missing either, even when they're planning on turning on the poison gas. Was there a whole scene excised where they found the body? It would certainly have helped develop Eldane's sudden desire to help them in any way that he can.

Just as unresolved was whatever was supposed to be going on with the all-new Silurian sting, green and poisonous and spreading over Tony Mack's neck and chest. One minute he's dying; next he's not but it's caused a mutation; finally, never mind all that, we'll just all go into hibernation together because the episode is over in five minutes.

Frustratingly, Tony's tale has got all the plot devices of a story, but none of the actual plot.

Did Alaya's sting not kill him because humans have evolved? Or because the venom interacted with paracetamol in an unexpected way? Or because of something Malohkeh might have been doing – was Tony, perhaps, one of those kidnapped by the Silurian as children and "altered" already?

It almost looks as though someone, somewhere along the line thought about doing a story where humans were being hybridised with Silurians (with possible implications for Alaya and Restac's racial purity) and then abandoned it.

The Doctor himself is being particularly dense today. Admittedly he's always had a serious blind spot about the Earth Reptiles – while, funnily enough he's always seeing the worst in those Martian reptiles, the Ice Warriors – but he's talked to Alaya. She's a full on name-rank-serial number soldier. Not to mention an fanatic. Any idiot should be able to see she's no more use as a hostage than a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines as a spy or a terrorist. And although terrorists have been known to take hostages in order to secure the release of one of their own, it must be a bit unusual to respond to hostage-taking by seizing one of the terrorists. She's not an innocent here; she's a criminal. Once again there is no equivalence between taking her prisoner and the kidnap of Mo, Amy or Elliot.

And anyway, he knows that she wants to provoke a war by getting herself killed. Leaving her exactly where she wants to be, particularly when you've seen how Ambrose's first instinct is to reach for weapons, is surely just asking for trouble. What he ought to be doing is dragging her back to the Reptile People city and, in front of any council of elders he can find, demanding an explanation for exactly why she's trying to do that.

Also, it's a bit stupid, and not actually accurate, when he says that the Silurians who he encountered before were "attacked by the humans". Under the circumstances – trying to prevent a Silurian invasion of the surface – wouldn't the truth have been a better idea? Those Silurians chose to attack the humans, underestimated their resourcefulness and got wiped out by them in retaliation.

Isn't it a key point that, while the Reptile People are immensely technologically advanced – though not so much further than they think – humanity has numbers on its side. Any war would do vast damage to both.

When trying to persuade the Reptile People of this, isn't "your cousins all got killed because they wouldn't just listen to what I'm trying to tell you" a cogent argument?

On the other hand, you can maybe forgive the Doctor being stupid about Alaya's deviously dippy plot, when it appears to be so obviously unnecessary. Alaya's own sister, Restac, is in charge of the whole Reptile military down in the underground city, and not only seems to be as entirely gung-ho about invading the surface as her sister, but also appears to have the keys to the freezing facility and can unlock her army any time she likes.

So why is there any need for a pretence? Just fire up the Tyrannosaurs and make like you're America liberating Iraq.

For the story to make any sense on its own terms, either Restac should have been opposed to the subjugation of humans and therefore needed to be converted to the war party by Alaya's "murder"; or she is in on the scam but not in a position to revive her army without a "pretext" i.e. she needs something with which to convince Eldane.

And, incidentally, the head of the military is the baddy is such a grisly cliché. Racist megalomaniacs tend not to get promoted to senior military positions for the very good reason that they cause a lot of wars and get a lot of people killed, which is not actually that good a military strategy.

(Far be it for me to point out how, in recent years, the politicians George Bush, Dick Cheney and Tony Blair were much more hawkish that their military, or even ex-military like Colin Powell.)

Alex being fair though, points out that there wasn't another race for her to be racist about when she went into the deep freeze, so nobody could have spotted that she's a megalomaniac since she doesn't go round, say, just shooting other Reptile People… Oh.

I know I said it about the last episode but it really is just all too Minbari. Has Chris Chibnall watched any television other than early-Seventies "Doctor Who" and "Babylon 5"? (I dread to think that he's only following the career of Guy Siner, as that means he'll be taking his characterisation from "Allo Allo"!) And there's just not the time to develop the different Earth Reptile factions properly, leaving the plot points to be taken from just the crude sketch of the Minbari Warrior/Religious Caste divide.

And we return to the series story arc. And let's be quite clear that this year it really is a story arc, just like they do in "Buffy" or "Heroes" or, oh all right, "Babylon 5". It's not a Russell Davies "light touch" allusion to an ongoing story through a series of impenetrable hints; it is a proper story that depends on you seeing each of the bits to understand the developments. That's an important change, because it's something Russell did not feel would work in Doctor Who, or at least not in his Doctor Who.

So, we return to "Doctor Who and the Cracks in Time".

There appear to be two distinct kinds of crack – or the producer hasn't properly made his mind up (surely not): in "The Eleventh Hour" and "The Vampires of Venice" we have cracks that "something can come through" (be it Prisoner Zero or the eponymous Vampires aka Saturnynians); alternatively, in "Flesh and Stone" and again here in "Cold Blood" we see a crack that is spilling out "time energy", which does the "erasing you from history" thing. What's the difference? And what is the mysterious "silence" that we witnessed falling at the end of the Venice story?

In passing, how does the Doctor avoid getting his hand erased from history when he's pulling shrapnel out of the "wound"? We can probably put that one down to "Time Lord Powers(TM)"; he does appear to be a bit agonised by the process, so possibly he is sticking his hand into non-existence.

So he stuck in his thumb and pulled out a… plot coupon: a fragment of TARDIS casing.

Where Moffat borrows from Lawrence Miles, here Chibnall writing for Moffat borrows from "Unnatural History" by Kate Orman and John Blum – which sees the TARDIS stuffed into a crack in time to stop the Universe shattering – and "The Shadows of Avalon" (again) by Paul Cornell – where the old girl explodes on colliding with a similar anomaly.

Jennie is quite rightly shocked by the Internet's casual disregard for this: it ought to be a truly shocking development, the death of the "most faithful companion" that we were promised in "Journey's End". Except of course, it's because of "Journey's End" – and all the other "prophesies" that came to nothing – that we just don't believe that any more. They've cried "Bad Wolf" too often!

So, in fairness, of the two it is Rory who is far more likely to remain dead. The series has killed off companions before, but destroying the TARDIS is pretty much the end of the show. Even if they hadn't just spent a fortune on a shiny new (and very beautiful) TARDIS set. The last time that the TARDIS was destroyed utterly and forever (in the aforementioned "Shadows of Avalon") she was back six books later. There's really just no keeping a good Type 40 down.

Killing off Rory – unless he's subsequently resurrected too, and I'm putting nothing past them at this point – will certainly add a certain amount of "memorability" to this story, generating an (undeserved?) amount of sentiment at the end.

But the question of "what does erased from time mean?" raises its ugly head again. It is difficult to work out how differently this adventure would have played out without Rory, thanks to his presence turning out to be pretty ineffective at each juncture. For example, I realise that she's a reptile and so it probably wouldn't work, but it's still odd that Rory the nurse doesn't even attempt CPR on the electrocuted Alaya.

What would have been more interesting was to do this as a three-parter: make Rory more integral to this week's plot and then re-run it next week without him to show the (presumably disastrous) differences.

It is inevitable, given that the format of the show presents the producers with a requirement to keep returning to a near-present Earth that is at least vaguely recognisable as our own, that a peace treaty between humans and Reptile People is going to fail. Doctor Who isn't a series like Stargate where the dedicated fanbase follow as the internal continuity drives the world gradually further away from the one we know; Doctor Who appeals to a broad audience as well as we, er, more enthusiastic followers, and you can't expect people tuning in at random to know why there are alien-looking people wandering about. There probably is a really interesting sci-fi series about Reptile People trying to integrate into human society – as it happens, it's Alien Nation – but it needs to be an ongoing series, not something you dip into once or twice a year. Besides, it would be bogglingly expensive to achieve. But that's no reason not to play with people's expectations first.

Consider this possible scenario: Restac has been shooting her mouth off about murderous apes; Ambrose, full of remorse, presents herself and confesses to killing Alaya; Restac gains the authorisation for defrosting her troops that she's been after… and then Rory arrives with a revived and shame-faced Alaya. War is averted, the Silurians sign a treaty with the humans and a new age is ushered in, flash-forward to the next thousand years of peace and cultural progress… Except then the vengeful Restac tries to kill the Doctor, gets Rory, and then Rory is erased from history, leading to a completely different version of the story next week.

So forgive me for saying that "Cold Blood" opened up a number of opportunities for being really interesting… and missed every single one.

Next Time…History: it's that place that famous people live. Not satisfied with one celebrity cameo this season? Let me paint you a picture, it's Vincent a-Go-Go in "Vincent and the Doctor".


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I agree with you on pretty much everything here. I am oh so idealistic and I was convinced that Rory was going to be able to revive Alaya, the Silurians would realise that we weren't so bad and the episode would end in peace and harmony of some description.

I feel a bit bad, cos I haven't had many good words to say about Rory. I'd already said that I was worried that his presence, unless he was later killed off, meant that Amy was a one season companion, which would never do.

Re Ambrose, I agree with you and Jennie that she got off lightly for murder but I struggle to see what would have been suitable punishment for her. It's not like they could have taken her into a Police station back on the surface and say that she killed a reptile person.

Having said that, had she actually learned her lesson, do you think, and will her son grow up better for it? There's a bit of me that understands how she must have been feeling at the time - as far as she was concerned, she had lost both her husband and son and her dad was turning green and scaly. It doesn't really seem to lead to rational behaviour.