...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Day 4269: DOCTOR WHO: One Million Years P.C.


On the shiny new DVD of "Vengeance on Varos" there's an (unbroadcast) French and Saunders sketch, using the "Trial of a Time Lord" set, in which the duo appear in costume as aliens from Planet Siluria. Oh, how fans laughed at the ignorance of the Not-We not getting that the Silurians come, not from "Siluria", but the alien planet... Earth!

So, the Doctor's postcard from "Siluria" at the end of "Dinosaur Writes a Space Script" is a gag about another gag, itself a gag about "Trial" which, in turn, makes Mr Chibnall gag. And the wheel turns full circle...

A teenage Mr Chibnall dreams of the day he can write Doctor Who PROPERLY.

With Big Guns.

And Knob Jokes.

Mr Christopher Chibnall first made a name for himself by appearing on the telly being quite rude about "The Trial of a Time Lord" to the then current writers of Doctor Who.

And some might argue that his entire subsequent career has been a case of "Well, if you think that you can do any better..." and largely demonstrating that he can't. Given that the writers he was berating were Pip and Jane Baker, you can see where in my esteem league Le Chibnall usually resides. Two diabolical seasons of Torchwood, one dreadful one of Camelot and the unspeakable "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" have all contrived to place him there. "42", I will concede, was a brighter spot amid the gloom.

So, you can imagine my quandary when assessing this episode.

On the one hand, he does appear to have actually constructed it well: given a shopping list by Moffat of "dinosaurs" and "spaceship" he's made the fact that this is a spaceship that has dinosaurs on it central to the plot: it motivates the villainous Solomon and drives the conflict with the Doctor. And he's actually got a very good in-series reason for combining those elements by making this the Silurians' very own Ark in Space (and always good for sucking up to the boss, as it's said to be Mr Moffat's favourite story).

But on the other hand we get a series of crude innuendos – the Doctor's psychic paper getting a honk-honk ringtone when Nefertiti (yes, that Nefertiti) presses her advances; the big game hunter flourishing a stun rifle and boasting of the size of his weapon; and Mark Williams as Rory's dad, Brian, mustering all the dignity he can to respond to the question "What have you got in your trousers" with "only my balls". I swear, at that point I very nearly began to implode with embarrassment.

It's not that the jokes aren't funny – though they aren't – or even the generally disparaging attitude to women – because Chibnall tossing in an aside about gender politics isn't funny either – it's the cringing inappropriateness, like your dad suddenly making knob jokes. At a children's party.

Jenny seems to have had similar difficulty with the episode's ambiguities, labelling it "passable", while Simon was much more willing to give it credit as a comedy romp.

And I'm reluctant to mark it down for the cringe-worthy moments, because there is much here to enjoy, not least the eponymous dinosaurs, finally redeeming "Invasion of the Dinosaurs" with some lovely CG renderings and excellent models – bonus marks for Ankylosaurs, Alex's favourite dino. The fight with the raptors was exciting and well-staged – and let's say they're Utahraptors which really are person-sized, rather than the infamously turkey-size veloceraptors. The pterosaur attack was nicely done, too; lovely moment where the Doctor tells the Williamses that "they're not kestrels" just after I'd remarked that "that pterodactyl's getting a bit close", even if it was yet another return to Bad Wolf Bay, a location that is becoming as ubiquitous as the Temple of Peace in Cardiff.

I do like the idea of powering the ship with waves. It might even work, if the water is somehow collecting the kinetic energy from planets as the ship orbits and releasing it for use it in flight. Although the idea of a basically tidal power system being constructed by the Silurians ought to be unlikely if you remember that their reason for launching the ship in the first place is that in their time the Earth has no moon, and so no tides.

On the subject of technology, though, I'm afraid Solomon's robot sidekicks didn't do it for me. Their bickering dialogue was, I felt, neither clever enough nor funny enough to be worthy of the talents of Mitchell and Webb. And the fact they suddenly couldn't shot the broad side of a triceratops was enough to break the suspension of disbelief. (They should have made a joke of it and had them miss Brian when ordered to shoot him at point blank range.)

But I liked the rest of the guest cast. Riann Steele as the Egyptian Queen, once we got past Chibnall's cack-handed reprise of Moffat's equally cack-handed "Amy throws herself at the Doctor" scene, demonstrated steely competence (pardon my pun) while Rupert Graves as big game hunter Riddell (does Chibnall not know that Allan Quatermain is well out of copyright?) gave the role both barrels and was clearly having a whale of a time playing what M would no doubt call a sexist misogynist dinosaur (pardon my pun again). Personally I'd have thrown in a world-weary "Oh, all right" on being made to use stun guns on the dinosaurs, and I'd rather have reversed the positioning in the final shot of Riddell and Nefertiti so that she is the Queen of the African veldt and he is her nubile tent-slave, but if you can't have all the gender politics you want I'll settle for Amy demonstrating that she's the equal of the Doctor and then saying she's worth two men.

The scenes where Amy gets to be Doctor with Nefertiti and Riddell as her companions gave something back to the character that had been taken away last week. It was good to make use of her history with the Silurians too to help her figure out what's going on (although, as Alex said at the time, those carefully sculpted-to-fit masks make it painfully clear that they've only got two actors who can "do" Homo Reptilia). The "show me the difference between then and now" was a reasonable shorthand for a proper Doctor-ish investigation (better, actually, than Mr Sonic-Waver manages these days) though it did leave me feeling "Yeah, but in the sixty-five plus million years this things been up there, there may have been more than one thing that's changed...". Also, it doesn't half make it obvious how the mobile phone would have short-circuited a lot of "classic" era Doctor Who.

And to be fair, there were lovely moments for Rory and for his dad too: the Williams boys bonding over the things they keep in their pockets; Rory getting to be a nurse; and the moment of Brian sitting with a sandwich gazing out at the Earth. Brian's postcards from all over the world, having overcome his fear of travel, were a happy return to the idea that the Doctor makes people better.

Although the whole business of the Silurians programming their ship with "from the same genetic path" rather than "is Silurian" that meant Rory and his dad could between them fly the spaceship raised "contrived" to new levels. Sure, you can post-facto justify by saying the TARDIS recognised the ship and worked out what would be needed, and hence chose to pick up the Ponds from a time when they had a parent and child to hand, but really... wouldn't you choose to pick up Amy and River in that case, at least one of whom actually can fly a spaceship?

There's also the question of Rory's age – apparently he's thirty-one now (and too old for a Christmas list).

However, his (misprinted) hospital I.D. back in "The Eleventh Hour" was dated 1990 which many take to be his year of birth, so if he's thirty-one "now" then the year is 2021, and the Ponds are just back from waving to themselves in "The Hungry Earth". (Presumably this is the 2021 where both of them still exist.)

Given that "The Big Bang" firmly establishes Amy's wedding day as 20 June 2010, and hence the events of "The Eleventh Hour" as 2008 for grown-up Amy and 1996 for seven-year-old Amelia then, by reversing the calculation, Amy is twenty-one in season five/thirty. Rory's been at school with Amy since childhood, as seen in "Let's Kill Hitler", and can't be more than a year older or younger than her. (A birthday in 1990 would see him six when she is seven, which is consistent.)

But even if Rory's two years older, so twenty-three when not dead in season five, it's difficult to see how eight years could have elapsed for the Ponds (and if he's younger, it's even more). Particularly given Amy's complaint that "it's been ten months this time". Of course there could have been many, many unseen visits in the meantime, but still.

Having said that, the ten months could be indicative of the Doctor's feelings towards the Ponds having cooled – a possible connection to the Daleks "deducting love" last week.

And, in that vein, I do find interesting the Doctor's current choice of companions. He denies to Amy that Nefertiti and Riddell are "the new Ponds", and in a way this is true, because he's clearly picked new travelling companions who have a moral compass somewhat South of "Twenty-First Century".

Does the Doctor have a problem with mercy now, following his decision to give Amy his protection from the Daleks' nanoswarm?

There's been a lot of comment on the Doctor's treatment of Solomon. (Though I notice that no one at all seems concerned that he murdered the Mitchell-and-Webb-bots almost in passing. Honestly, does no one watch "The Measure of a Man" any more? They clearly pass the Turing Test, so they're alive. It's as bad his dismal treatment of Drathro – never mind the monkey-racism; the Doctor never seems to give a fig for synthetic lifeforms!)

I did quite like what we saw of David Bradley's Solomon, his scenes with Mat Smith crackling with energy. Alex particularly liked the first time we saw him standing, weirdly gaunt between the two hulking robots – he looked (appropriately enough) like a drawing of an evil old wizard come to life. But I don't think he was given enough time to develop into a truly memorable villain. You kind of need a reason to secretly root for a really good baddy, but all Solomon's moments were unlovely, whether shooting the Trike or threatening Nefertiti with his bladed crutch, and it rendered him rather shallow, which in turn made the Doctor's despatching him seem somewhat over the top.

A deal of the speculation has suggested that there'll be a Moffat "everyone lives" moment later in the series when it is revealed that the Doctor got Solomon off the ship before the missiles hit. In just that way that he couldn't when it was Adric.

I've also wondered if the Doctor's rather heavy emphasis on the missiles locking on to the Silurians' signalling device wasn't supposed to be giving him a chance of the "Just chuck this out the window, mate" variety.

But mostly, it seems, the Doctor just murders him.

What happened to "The Man Who Never Would?" Regeneration aside, this is the guy who wanted to take the Master off for cuddles and counselling after slaughtering half the Earth. This is the guy who couldn't bring himself to execute Davros, or to destroy the Daleks at their creation.

The case that seems to keep being brought up is the Graff Vynda-K, who is exploded by his own bomb after the Doctor slips it into his pocket at the climax of "The Ribos Operation". Well, the thing is, that's poetic justice there – the Graff left the Doctor with the bomb because of a prophecy that "All but one would die", so giving the bomb back to him is in-story apt. It's fairy-tale logic – do as you would be done by, or be exploded as you would explode. There's no such aptness to Solomon's execution. The Doctor could, quite easily, have offered him the choice to get off his ship and face the consequences or stay on it and try to avoid the missiles – and that would have been very Doctorish.

Nor does he seem exceptionally wrathful. The Doctor's not beyond meting out punishment when he's really pissed off.

The massacre of the Silurians (about whom the Doctor has deep-seated and on-going guilt issues) and the slaughter of an innocent Triceratops right in front of him, added to the objectification and abuse of his friend Nefertiti, might all combine to put him into one of his "good men don't need rules" moods, much as the Family of Blood push him too far in, well, "The Family of Blood".

But we need to see that on screen. We know that Matt is as capable as Davy T of delivering the towering rage of the Time Lord, so someone between the script writer and the director forgot to tell him to turn it on.

And nobody calls him on it either. Ever since he contemplated a wounded caveman and a rock back in "The Forest of Fear", it's been implied that the Doctor, as a Time Lord, needs human companionship to help him with "human-scale" morality. Tom Baker's Doctor contrasted walking in eternity with Sarah's human (read "mortal") concerns. When the fifth Doctor used the Movellans' virus to destroy a force of Daleks, it took Tegan's departure to show him the error of his ways. It featured strongly in the seventh Doctor's era, particularly once they got into the New Adventures. And even more recently, when he destroyed the Racnoss and again when he was going to leave Pompeii to its fate, Donna was there to remind him that that's a bit off. This week: nothing.

So the episode appears to say that it's okay to kill people just for being "bad". And I accept that some people, many people, do think that that is true. It's just that the Doctor is unequivocally not one of them.

Given who is writing this, and added to all the inappropriate humour, it reminds me all too much of the morality of Torchwood. Particularly (ironically) its humourless first season, which equated "adult" with sex, violence and swearing.

If this were a one-off (yes, I know what Moffat says), then I'd put it down to Chibnall having all the moral sensitivity of Eric Saward on a bad day. But given the events on the Asylum last week and given that I know that next week's episode is called "A Town Called Mercy", I wonder, I speculate, is Moffat trying to do a character-based arc – possibly to demonstrate that he can - where the Doctor is shown to be lacking and needs to go find himself a companion. (Again.)

Next Time...The Doctor's brain has crashed and he's dreaming he's in the Wild West with Farscape's Ben Browder. Sigh, Ben Browder. Or possibly Mr Pritchard from Upstairs Downstairs. Can Kryten compile a dove virus in time to cure him in "Gunmen of the Apocalypse"... hang on, I think I'm getting confused...


Simon Fernandes said...

Blimey, I'd forgotten about Chibnall doing Camelot - a show so bad that not even drooling over Jamie Campbell Bower could make me watch it to the end.

I don't have as much of a problem as you with the Doctor's 'murder' of Solomon. As you say, "This is the guy who couldn't bring himself to execute Davros", but Seven did manipulate Davros into not only killing himself (which didn't work) but also blowing up the Daleks' entire planet, which presumably still had some Thals on it. I said in my blog, "He never points the gun at the baddie and pulls the trigger", then later remembered I was wrong even on that - both Five and Six happily blast away at Cybermen with guilt-free abandon.

The point that this would have worked better if we'd seen the Doctor driven into a rage enough to happily transgress his morality is well made though. Matt seems to go from mild contempt of Solomon to outright murder (although he did tell Solomon what the missiles were homing in on, so if he had any wit he could have jettisoned it). A better character progression from contempt to anger would have made it more believable, if not more acceptable.

Your other point is good too - someone should have pulled him up on it, as with Donna - "you need someone to stop you". While the Doctor is often a role model to his fans - I certainly picked up many of my codes of morality from him - he's not portrayed as perfect. But the show SHOULD be - ie, when the Doctor does something like this, its own morality should demand that he be called out.

Richard Booth said...

That's why I'm not keen on the Doctor's murder of Solomon; he just wasn't a villain who clearly *needed* to be killed. But nor do I like the idea that the Doctor may have been trying to 'hint' at a way for Solomon to save himself. That seems just as callous, and is definitely more sadistic, than simply killing him. If the Doctor is willing to give Solomon the chance to save himself, then why not *actually* save him? Unless, as you suggest, it is a clear choice between Solomon giving himself up, and getting *himself* killed because of his unwillingness to give himself up, or somesuch.

Odd that the Silurian ship just happened to have an easily identifiable and discrete 'missiles-lock-onto-this' device, whichever way you look at its use as a murder weapon. If tomorrow's news tells me there's an apocalyptically huge asteroid hurtling toward Earth, I'll be praying for it to just happen to have just such a device, so our missiles know where they're going.

On the subject of tidal power, the Earth would have still had tides pre-Moon, albeit significantly weaker than they are today. Even with no tides at all, the Silurians would surely be intelligent enough to come up with the idea, as you describe it (which I do think is rather neat). Although, on the other hand, they must have had means of power generation that would have been much more obvious to them - whatever keeps their underground shelters ticking over for millions of years, for a start.

(Also, where the hell had this 'ark' *been* for 64+ million years? It seems that, as ahead of us as they may generally be, technologically speaking, the Silurians just can't seem to make a working clock).