...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, January 06, 2012

Day 4011: DOCTOR WHO: Forest Gump

Christmas Day:

And now for a very special sneak preview of NEXT YEAR'S Dr Woo Winterval Special…

"What could be more Christmassy than a James Bond film at Christmas," cackled the Mister Moffster as he penned the title of the 2012 Christmas Special:

"No Doctor You Only Live On Her Majesty's Secret Service From Russia With The Spy Who Loved Me Twice!"

Scene One: "Phew, that was close!" cried THE DOCTOR as the TARDIS flew within a gnat's whisker of the Copyright-Infringement-Lawyer-Bots from the planet Intellectual Property Six…"

Anyway, more of that next Christmas. Here's Daddy's review for this year…

Well, it's always nice to see a new writer and I'm happy that this Stephen Moffatt, author of light, character-driven comedy-drama such as "Press Gang" and "Joking Apart", has been chosen to replace the plot-twist-crazed fanboy farceur Steven Moffat who's been running the show for the past two years, the man behind such "reimaginings" as "Jekyll", "Sherlock" and, er, "Who".

It's hard not to think that there's just a touch of overcompensation, reacting to all the "Amy isn't behaving like a mother" criticism, in this Christmas paean to the power of "mum", which sees plucky Forties mother Madge Arwell seemingly take everything in her stride from the Doctor falling out of orbit into her path to Bill Bailey in a spacesuit melting an alien forest for battery acid.

(Pity he still feels the need to toss in a joke about "women drivers". "I'm respecting you… as a woman." Or possibly not.)

Okay, there are just a couple of dollops of timey-wimey added to the sugary mix.

The first is the Narnia-referencing "time goes faster across the dimensional barrier". Which means Mum coming looking for them doesn't entirely make sense, since if twenty minutes for Cyril in the forest translates to just a few seconds, then with the whole adventure taking less than an hour, Mum should not have had time to notice they were gone. (In fact, I'll see your "time passes differently there" and raise you a "What do they teach in schools these days?".)

The other is the way that Madge manages to create her own problems by retrospectively rescuing her husband from the 19th December which results in the telegram that leads her to believe this is the night he died which in turn leads to her rescuing him from the 19th December in a typical Moffat ontological paradox. (In fact, I'll see your "timey-wimey" and raise you a "just this once, everybody lives".)

But that aside, and it's hardly an original observation, it's surprising how linear this story is. Again, Moffat seems to be kicking against his reputation for convoluted story-telling. Although, I'd argue that this one could have done with just a little bit more non-linearity. For example, the story of Madge and the fallen Doctor could have appeared part way through, maybe told as a story to her children to cheer them up in the middle of the frightening forest. Because we start off knowing she helped him in a moment of need, we know why there's a great big present under the tree. In a story that's supposed to be about the sense of wonder, there's not a lot to wonder about.

In a lot of ways, though, what really undermines this story is the presence of the Doctor in it.

It's ironic, really, because the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the episode are a fantastic, frenetic explosion of joyous fun, relying almost entirely on the enormous talents of Matt Smith.

From the cheeky pre-title sequence (never mind the physics, feel the performance) doing "The Christmas Invasion" in under thirty seconds, to the hilarious backwards spacesuit (we see the back of Matt's hair-do just a beat before "I've gone blind!" – Alex laughed out loud, the first time in ages he's had the simple pleasure of genuinely enjoying current "Who" and so worth a million River Snogs; and when the Doctor checks himself out to see that he's not being put back together "backwards"… well, it's quite rude for Christmas!), to the tour of the house (we're genuinely not sure whether he doesn't understand stairs or he's done something to them that isn't working), right through to that huge present, it's all fast, funny and rather marvellous.

This is "Doctor Who" as sketch show, it's "The League of Gentlemen" without the grotesque, or "The Fast Show" with catchphrases "I've made some repairs" and "it's developed a fault" (where the Doctor clearly believes "I've made some repairs" to be synonymous with "I've made it do something bonkers" while Matt's ability to look puzzled and affronted each time he delivers the "it's developed a fault" line is a particular delight). It's probably the perfect form for Moffat the comedy-drama writer to write.

Where the story falters is when it needs to develop an actual plot.

We are, essentially, in classic children's tea-time serial territory: think "The Box of Delights", "The Phoenix and the Carpet" or, obviously, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" itself. The crucial thing about all these stories is that the protagonists are the children. Adults are either silly, unobservant creatures that blunder about doing "grown-up" things and missing the wonders that the children participate in, or occasionally slightly weird, wise figures who know what's really going on but choose not to interfere except to explain it all at the end.

There's an extent to which the Doctor (or "Caretaker") is being thrust into the latter role, a sort of Professor Digory Kirke (taking over from the absent Uncle Digby, no doubt). But he's too pro-active to accept the role. Of course, he's kind of a big kid himself, playing at being an uncle or a caretaker, but the big kid crowds out the little ones.

In a "proper" version of this story, the children would discover the house for themselves rather than being shown it; the children would both enter the magical wood unaccompanied by anyone to explain it to them; and the children would resolve the problem, rather than waiting for mum.

These stories were always about going out and experiencing; the children learned lessons, but they learned by doing.

In Moffat's version the two kids have very little to do beyond gawp. (Which, I hasten to add, they do very nicely. Both child actors are pretty good, actually, so why not give them something concrete to do?) Cyril "gets into trouble" by exploring the forest ("boy's stuff", watch that, Moffat – though to be fair, Lily was on her way to examine the box when the sound of the sonic distracted her) while Lily mostly gets to hold the Doctor's hand and quiver. (And say "Oh God, Oh God" – both Alex and I wondered whether a nicely brought-up girl from 1941 would blaspheme quite so easily).

The Doctor already has all the answers and babbles them out like Basil Exposition on speed. We've turned the story into one about the passive acceptance of data rather than the learning of stuff by trying.

"In a forest in a box in a sitting room, pay attention!" says the Doctor waspishly when Lily asks where they are, which is either a clever reference to Moffat's own earlier episode "Flesh and Stone" or a summary of everything that he's doing wrong.

Lily's question is not a stupid one, despite the way the Doctor snaps at her, and he's actually going to spend most of the rest of the episode explaining the actual answer.

The weak/strong female/male "mistranslation" is just as blunt and crass. Simply reversing a stupid generalisation does not of necessity make it any less stupid. As certain persons have recently learned. In 1988's "Remembrance of the Daleks", the intergalactic fascist pepperpots want someone imaginative and adaptable to power their battle computer so they use a girl. When the Daleks are doing better gender politics than you, it's time to stop and ask what you're doing wrong.

I can imagine a version of this story with much less Doctor in it. If we started with the evacuation (no need for cute lines about Uncle Digby being in a home – actually, if he is in a "home", why aren't the Arwells living in his house already?). The children explore the house, find weird stuff like the lemonade tap and the Christmas tree and discover the giant present. They both go inside, they each meet the forest people (great wooden statues, pity they didn't do anything, and did I really see the lovely Paul Kasey credited as "wooden queen"?!). Possibly they meet one each, and the King and Queen have conflicting agendas. And we only discover the Doctor near to the end because he's behind it all and probably the captive of one of the forest monarchs.

That's not the Moffat way, though, as he once again bends over backwards to try to write drama without conflict. The principal threat here is not from the impressive statues but from Bill Bailey and friends' intention to burn down the forest with acid rain. There isn't even a suggestion that they are bad for wanting to do this. As Alex puts it: it's OK to kill trees, because if you’re a hippie they’ll turn into stardust, because obviously that’s what trees really want. I'm not totally sure that's how photosynthesis works. (And this in a story where the Doctor has just blown up the Vogons one ship in orbit for merely pointing a gun and a loudhailer at the Earth.) They're just slightly inept, almost a pastiche of a "typical" Doctor Who space crew: "the cold captain", "the psycho security chief" and "the nice one" – think "Colony in Space" or "Kinda" or, gawdelpus, "Terror of the Vervoids". It's Doctor Who as sketch show again.

It's not much of a part, but it's quite nice to see Bill, and he does some great reaction shots. There's not a lot more for Unbound Doctor Arabella Weir to do either (and how's that for respecting her as a woman?), while Paul Bazely gets to mug like crazy and hang a lantern on this week's theme with his "mother issues".

(Oh, and their hand scanners are foiled by Madge's cardigan because it's made of "natural fibres". They're in a forest. I have to ask: do any of their platform's sensors work?)

And they tell us they're from Androzani Major.

Look, I don't have a problem with them being from Androzani Major, that's a nice touch. All too often the Doctor visits planets in one episode that are never heard of before or since; reminding us that this is all one Whoniverse is good, and of a kind with the Sense Sphere/Ood Sphere thing that Russell did.

And I don't mind "Androzani platform" for their vehicle, either. But "Androzani trees"? Given that they're from Androzani Major not on Androzani Major, isn't that a bit like us landing on, say, Beta Caprisis or Draconia Prime and saying "hey, these trees are impressive; let's call them Earth trees"?

(And on the subject of tree-based niggles – if you're CGI'ing a forest, surely you can manage more than one "sweeping over the panoramic vista" shot.)

Anyway, as I'm sure you know, this is a reference to Peter Davison's swansong: "The Cave of Androzani". (And the spacewalking without a spacesuit is a reference to the first story Peter recorded: "Four to Doomsday".)

"Caves" tells us there are five planets in the Sirius System. We're not on Major, nor Minor because we know what that looks like and it can't support forests because of the mudbursts. If you recall even further back, the Pertwee space opera "Frontier in Space" lets us know there are Commissioners from Sirius Four. That doesn't entirely rule out forests on Sirius Four as well, but suggests a terraformed planet rather than a Christmas tree world. Maybe this is Sirius 1 or Sirius 5 then.

I'm not quite sure how to get a handle on the character of Madge Arwell. Claire Skinner plays her as almost "simple", as though she has a wisdom of innocence, except in the "crying is useful" bit when she's suddenly sly. Certainly she pegs the Doctor with a single glance: possibly a spaceman, possibly an angel. The possibility of Doctor as fallen angel has been big this year (and, I'm afraid, not terribly well handled) so thankfully that's about all we get of it here. Instead, he's the Christmas genie, from the (box with a) lamp, granting wishes and not quite getting them right. I guess if you want a woman to play against this hyperactive child persona then the lead from "Outnumbered" is the first one you'd call.

The other guest star is Alexander Armstrong, who got to be slightly wasted in this while his comedy partner Ben Miller got to spend six months in the Caribbean filming "Death in Paradise". Who got the better deal, I wonder?

Matt however remains absolutely the star of this show. The moment when he turns on a sixpence to speak wisely to Madge about why her children should be allowed to be happy is key, as is the reversal at the end where she sends him to be happy with his "children" / "parents-in-law" Rory and Amy.

And the moment at the end, where he discovers he is capable of crying with happiness, for that, for Matt's expression and one gleaming tear, I'll forgive "humany-wumany". Eventually.

I do hope that he'll be staying longer than just one more year – the messages have been somewhat mixed recently, whether he's going to try his luck in Hollywood after another year of the Doctor or whether he's enjoying it just fine. Perhaps because of the interconnectedness of his stories, or because he hasn't had one "great" story yet a la "Human Nature", or possibly because he's only had Amy (with or without Rory) as companion he hardly seems to have been here any time at all. I think the news that Amy and Rory will be leaving in the next season is welcome (inasmuch as we all thought they'd left already!) because a new companion will make the lifespan of the eleventh Doctor feel that bit longer. And maybe persuade him to stay an extra year.

Someone very wise said that the difference between Moffat and Russell is that Moffat writes for his children, but Russell remembers being one. I think that nicely captures both Russell's habit of treating Doctor Who as the "biggest playroom evah" regardless of consequences for plot or character, and Moffat's flaw of – occasionally – writing down to his audience.

When he lets himself have free rein, as in the two episodes of "Sherlock" that he has written, Moffat's writing takes flight, it lifts in song almost, but exposes the deep flaws that he has regarding character, particularly, I'm afraid to say, women. Did he put so much soul into Lynda Day that he just can't do it any more?

"The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe" shows every sign of him making an effort to overcome those flaws, to write against his usual tropes (well, some of them) and produce a simpler, sweeter, kinder piece. That's courageous, even if it's not always completely successful. It starts off as seat-of-the-pants exciting as anything, but the effort to be nice means it rather goes off the boil in the second half. But it made Alex laugh, so top marks for that.

Next Time… Shockingly, not a dickey bird. Not even a title for the next episode! Come on, Moffat! Some of us have a template format to fill in, you know!


Tat said...

Erm... aren't children supposed to get a bit bigger over three years? Still, at least nobody sang this time.

Tat said...

I guess if you want a woman to play against this hyperactive child persona then the lead from "Outnumbered" is the first one you'd call.

Err... didn't they want Miranda Hart originally?

Millennium Dome said...

Mr Tat (#1)

Millennium says: "Well *I* never seem to get any bigger!" ;)

Millennium Dome said...

and Mr Tat (#2)

Did they want the lovely Miranda? I never knew that!

There's a bit of a rumour on Gallifrey Arse about her being considered for a companion role - with typical Catherine Tate backlash. I think she's be a wonderful partner for Matt - such fun! - though I think she might have been a bit miscast as Madge Arwell.

Tat said...

1. Well, you have 21 months' gestation, so you started from a different point.
2. The first I heard about her being asked (and Danny Cohen refusing to let her) was a questionable tabloid story around the time they would have been casting fo the Festive thing. And, let's face it, she does look like she belongs in the 1940s. She looks like a 'Madge' in a way that Claire Skinner doesn't. (Which is why she's about to be this century's Nerys Hughes). Maybe the 'woman drivers' thing would have worked better with her. Or maybe it should never have been allowed on air. Eventually we'll find out the truth, just as one day we'll know who was sacked from writing 'Tooth and Claw'...

Matthew Kilburn said...

I thought the failure of the children to age was an indication that this was pushing the envelope of non-naturalism, together with the Doctor's ability to apparently survive in a vacuum and swim through space.

Tat said...

Swimming in vacuum could be put down to Moffat's obsessive love of crap Peter Davison stories (see 'Four to Doomsday'. There, against all reason, it was revealed that a Time Lord can faff about in space for up to six minutes, although on screen it seemed much, much longer.