...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 3793: DOCTOR WHO: Apocalypse Not Now


How RUDE of the BBC to schedule part two of this Dr Woo adventure for after the Apocalypse! Tune in next week to discover that the Rapture is a load of old CHIBNALLS.

Frankenstein is close to the surface of this series of Doctor Who. Not so much Mary Shelley's Modern Prometheus as the movies of James Whale, most noticeably last week with the patchwork people, not to mention Elsa Lanchester hairdo, of "The Doctor's Wife". Even the Silence managed to paraphrase: "we belong dead". By comparison, this week's lightning bolt bringing inanimate flesh to life was merely banal.



The story would actually be more interesting if it didn't need a great big god-metaphor to stick in his proverbial finger and zap the copies to life.

The opening teaser, blackly humorous as they treat a melting man with complete disregard, finished with the last of Buzzer's dying Ganger screaming as it dissolved. That surely implied that the Gangers carried on being alive even after the user disconnected.All the Doctor's talk about how the flesh was more than slightly psychic yoghurt – has anyone ever done a yoghurt golem before? – seemed to be pointing to something more interesting, as though it was learning, evolving or even stealing their identities bit by bit.

Basically, anything more interesting that just another "Transporter Accident".

I find myself pulling in two ways on this story, because the location filming was atmospheric; the effects were the right mix of chills and pathos; the direction was mostly pacey and exciting like a good thriller, only occasionally telegraphing developments; and the acting was almost universally good – Marshall Lancaster being, for me, slightly too bored with the proceedings, but Sarah Smart and Raquel Cassidy were both terrific ("Oh that's so me" has to be my favourite line); Mark Bonnar (also on TV at the moment in "Psychoville" as murderous detective Finney) was rather sweet as family-man Jimmy who you could see him almost empathising with his ganger, while Leon Vickers as Dicken looks like he might be pretty and let's hope they give him something to do next week.

But the writing was deeply flawed: the story was slow and clichéd and, worse, predictable; the setting made no sense whatsoever – it's a monastery, that's also a factory, that's also a mine, for acid – and the characters were taken directly from stock – the northern one (in it for the money), the Scottish one (family), the young one (sneezes), the one who falls for Rory and the idiot in charge. Meaning Sarah Smart and Raquel Cassidy were both terrific in spite of their characters performing motivational loop-the-loops: Jennifer-ganger goes from "hug me Rory" to "kill 'em all" for no readily apparent reason – okay, she does witness Buzzer-ganger getting zapped, but the change from reactive and fearful to proactively murderous is still a bit of a handbrake turn – and Cleaves' intelligent, witty persona is totally at odds with her "I just wanna pump acid" actions.

Cleaves, in particular, seems to be going out of her way throughout to actively engineer the cliffhanger: ignoring the Doctor's warnings about the coming Solar Tsunami, for that matter ignoring the actually foreshock they've already received, ignoring the fact that they've lost communications with the mainland – surely that alone should require emergency shutdown of the acid pumping? – and then, after the lightning bolt, immediately jumping to the decision that killing people is the response that the situation requires.

The idea that the gangers might not be "real people" too seems incredibly crass, frankly, and hardly worthy of the amount of effort that the episode puts into hammering home that "this is wrong!"

Some reference has been made to philosopher Donald Davidson's in-no-way-ripped-off-from-Alan-Moore "Swampman" thought experiment: a bolt of lightning (of all things)blasts an unlucky human to atoms while elsewhere another bolt coincidentally spontaneously arranges a different set of atoms into the exact form of the human, including the pattern of memories in their brain. In short, nature invents the accidental teleport.

Davidson suggests that the words and actions of the newly created person are without meaning because they have no true causal history.

I say that that is nonsense.

For starters, I cannot actually tell that I haven't just been created – memories and all –by some cosmic accident, because the sense input would be functionally identical to my memories being true.

Descartes could prove that he existed in the instant of his doubting that existence (do I have to say "cogito ergo sum"?), but even he had to infer that his past history (and everything else his senses and memory told him) really existed on the grounds that "god isn't a bastard".

To me, it seems self evident that anything capable of passing the Turing Test should be treated as alive and sentient, not least because the consequences of mistakenly choosing the opposite are dreadful.

In a way, this is another of the episode's cop outs: the flesh gangers are essentially robot waldos. And real robots would be so much more practical in the acid environment. But would the moral question be so clear if they looked like machines? (Very few people seem to notice that the "Star Wars" universe is built on and endorses slavery, for example: C3PO clearly passes the Turning test and yet is bought and sold and mind-wiped at will, and not just by "evil" characters. "Oh but he's got an off switch!" "So have you, if I punch you hard enough." I'm drifting…)

And of course the "robot struck by lightning comes to life" is another cliché; it's just less obvious when the "robot" is made of goo.

Where the writing succeeded was in giving Rory something to do. In fact, this may deliberately be "the story that's about Rory", as a lot of the time the script and direction chose to favour him over Amy or the Doctor. And about time too. Give Matthew Graham some credit, he's thought about Rory's choices, to be a nurse, and used that to inform the character, while giving him a dry sense of humour about his own situation too. "Welcome to my life!" The implicit Amy/Rory/Jennifer-ganger love triangle works; Karen plays Amy with a nice air of surprised "aren't you supposed to chase after me?" while Arthur gives Rory a kind of self-knowing "yes I fancy you but I'm not going to be unfaithful to Amy". And he is the very best of humans when he defends Jennifer-ganger from the others' hostility. (I've changed my mind: "you don't know anything about her"/"I know she's frightened" has got to be my favourite line.)

It does mean that the plot slightly loses track of real-Jennifer for a long while, before she turns up again near the end with a limp (and possibly getting surprised by the ur-Doctor). And Rory too seems to lose track of which Jennifer is which, as he goes running off to find the real one even after becoming close to the ganger version.

The scene where they bond is the episode at its most touching. It slightly tries to riff on the "Blade Runner" idea of implanted memories, things that look human and think that they are human because of the memories they've been gifted with.

But this isn't "Blade Runner". The Gangers know that they are Gangers. In lots of ways, but most obviously because they have to concentrate to retain their fully human form, and then there are those Mr Fantastic super-powers.So the copies know they are copies; they don't face Rachel's existential crisis.

Which also seems to undermine the briefly-intriguing possibility that Amy and Rory – who wake up in front of the flesh's giant font – have been copied too. Or that all the "humans" are actually gangers, and that what we have are copies of copies (and maybe copies of copiesof copies etc).

Essentially, it's another riff on "Who Goes There" most famously filmed as "John Carpenter's The Thing", with all the fun of guessing which crew member is 'real' and which is a doppelganger with added visceral fleshy attacks.

And of course, the Changelings of Star Trek's Deep Space Nine owed a debt to "Who Goes There" as well, in particular the idea of blood testing to identify who's an alien, so it's only natural that the flesh should inherit Changeling Odo's half-formed features.

Nor is it unfair to suggest that this is "The Hungry Earth" done right. Or at least done better.

There's a gang of diverse human stereotypes and a more identikit race of non-humans in a base-under-siege situation. Conflict arises because they both stake a claim to the same territory: the Silurians and the humans want the same planet; the gangers and the humans want the same lives. The non-humans aren't intrinsically hostile (apart from the war-monger within their ranks) and the Doctor, who knows more about what's going on that he's saying, tries to negotiate a peaceful outcome. But it is (as usual) the humans who initiate hostilities, when a hot-headed female ignores the Doctor's explicit warnings and kills one of the no-humans provoking a "war". "Our heroes" are left barricading themselves into a chapel waiting for the cliffhanger. All of which just adds to making the "it's us against them" conclusion so crushingly familiar from last year's disappointing lizard-fest. (Which itself was hardly scoring highly for "originality".) Just once why not go for something different, maybe a third faction where some of the humans and copies accept each other?

And a clone Doctor, well colour me stunned. If I hear Moffat say "you've just got to do that" one more time I will, well, tut a bit. It looks, in fact, as though the Time Lord is trying to cause the flesh to clone him, what with sticking his hand in the gloop and later nipping back to the chapel to sonic the stuff, what is the man up to? And what does he know about the future of this technology (that means he refers to this version as an "early" version). Please note, wingnuts of Gallifrey Base, this is not the origin story for the Autons, Sontarans, Silence or Wombles, no matter what your over-active conspiracy glands are telling you.

One conspiracy theory I did like though, was the one from Sir Guinglainlinked to by Jennie that "our" Amy is herself a (more advanced) ganger and the real Amy got kidnapped ages ago and is being looked after by the Eye Patch Lady.

The twenty-second century is a moderately unusual time setting for a Doctor Who story, though possibly one we will start to see more of. Back in the original series, it was the twenty-first century that was the acme of futurity.In a handful of Troughton-era adventures in rocketships and silver lamé underwear, "The Moonbase" "The Wheel in Space" and "The Seeds of Death" established a plausible (ish) near future of space travel and solar exploration. Now that we're in the twenty-first century – and a good decade into it, mind – then we have to start looking at the next century again for our "this is the future" shorthand.

Except of course, in Doctor Who the history of the twenty-second century has been written and it's "The Dalek Invasion of Earth". Which is kind of why it's a good thing that the series has steered us away from that period.

It's not a problem, as such – the Daleks don't smash the Earth to a pulp until the 2150s, and this can be 2111 (these things can usually be dated to an exact 100 years into the future). But it does feel… odd. Any developments – say, humans and flesh living in harmony – are going to be reset really soon when the planet gets bombed back to the Stone Age.

Or, perhaps, it's post-Dalek Invasion and the flesh is much cheaper than robots when they're short of resources. Horribly they've not learnt the lesson from Robomen. Or worse, leaned all the wrong lessons from Robomen: adapting the Dalek's bio-technology but not recognising the slavery. Actually, that would make more sense of the whole operation, wouldn't it: where did the acid come from, and why do they need it? It can't be natural – clearly it swallows the TARDIS in nine minutes flat but hasn't done that to the monastery in nine centuries – but if it's the residue of a Dalek weapon… and they do say they are sub-contracted to the military.

So there we are. If this seems like a fairly perfunctory review, just saying all the obvious things, then that's only because it reflects the episode itself.Perfectly functional, perfectly average, but somehow not quite satisfying.

An aspiration to be better than "Fear Her" does not appear to have carried us very far.

Hopefully next week's instalment will make the whole more than the sum of, well, this part anyway.

Finally, technobable-wise, if you're riffing on "Evolution of the Daleks" – gamma particles, and the Doctor struck by not-quite-lightning – then you may be onto a losing streak.

Although inside the solar power cockerel (whatever) there did seem to be what looked like a Solex Solar Agitator from the James Bond film "The Man with the Golden Gun".Which of course there would be if it's converting solar power. So that made me smile.

Next Time… The Two Doctors.



Andrew Hickey said...

Davidson is self-evidently talking complete and utter dribble as soon as he starts talking about 'different atoms'.

If you have a box which contains two helium atoms (say), and you swap the two atoms around without changing anything else, what you end up with is *the exact sanme state*. If there was any way, even in principle, of distinguishing between atoms - in other words if there were such a thing as actual individual atoms (rather than just blobs in configuration space), there'd be an increased number of possible permutations of particles to consider statistically, which would lead to the laws of thermodynamics being wrong.

I really do wish sometimes that an introduction to quantum physics was required in introductory philosophy classes, so all these philosophers doing thought experiments would at least be doing them about conceptually coherent worlds, rather than assuming we live in a classical universe made out of little billiard balls with markings on them so you can tell them apart.

(All your other reasons for treating anything that passes the Turing Test as human are, of course, still correct).

Tat said...

How right that there are vinyl copies of Dusty Springfield records as well as vinyl copies of the staff - and how pleasing that it wasn't Chesney Hawkes this time. I think stories about the genuinely scary notion that you might not be the person who went to sleep last night are too thin on the ground for today's kids (Star Trek did transporter malarkey but that was before the target audience for this series were watching television). All the things that are on Moffat's list of How To Scare Children failed to work on me but the Mysterons genuinely did.
I found this episode reminiscent on 'Doctor Who', especially the Troughton Base-Under-Siege. The Doctor did all the things he should have done in the Moffat two-parter (and I'm finding it less awkward calling Matt Smith's character 'the Doctor') but I querie why he's there and what he's really up to - they come close to asking and then change the subject. I'm also wondering if this hour-long minute when everyone was out cold is like the Missing Pirate, another part of Moffat's 'Lost'-for-the-under-fives Agenda. It could just be a cock-up.
Apart from that I'm hopeful they won't drop the ball this week but I'm really just concerned that they keep making the basic mistake of showing something in late spring with a picture that looks like they've mixed porridge and cod-liver-oil and flung it at the screen. It certainly looks better at twenty to three in the morning, when they showed the trailer yet again. (What's happening there? Were the ratings really so bad?)

Rankersbo said...

Very good, will be interested to read the follow up.

Rankersbo said...

PS Tat isn't of the wooden/yak butter variety there?