...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Day 4486: DOCTOR WHO: Ice Hot


At last Mark Gatiss delivers on years of promise, turning in his best Doctor Who story since the glorious early New Adventure “Nightshade”. Perhaps not quite as rich in character as the ripe and fruity Dickens of “The Unquiet Dead”, but without the unfortunate accidental “bogus asylum seekers”. And, in the setting of a Cold War warship, who’s going to notice the (companion aside) complete absence of roles for women.

There’s actually much less plot, much less creativity to explore, than in “The Rings of Akhaten”, but – hooray! – we get to run up and down some corridors!

There's a tonne of “fan lore” about the Martians, a lot of it straight out of the New Adventures, where NA companion Benny Summerfield was a (kind of) Professor of Archaeology specialising in the excavation of the Red Planet. And she had one or two Ice Warrior mates as well. It was in the New Adventures that we were introduced to the idea that the Ice Warriors' armour and "clamps" was attire, something previously only inferred from the divergent forms of the “Warrior” and “Ice Lord” classes seen from "The Seeds of Death" onwards. I must say, I was tickled by Grand Marshal Skaldak's long, skinny fingers – hinting that at least this much of the Martians physiognomy is shared with the War of the Worlds Martians (’50s movie and sequel TV series version, of course). And then, blow me, if he doesn't take his helmet off and turns out to be another New Adventures stalwart: a Chelonian, a bionic giant tortoise.

Actually we can run through a whole list of other monsters that the Ice Warriors “are”:

Like the Daleks they can come out of their shells;

Like the Cybermen they're cyborgs because their world was slowly freezing to death

Like the Rutans they dissect their enemies to find their weaknesses;

As well as the Chelonians, like the Selachians from Steve Lyons’ BBC books (and a Big Finish or two) they're actually skinny little things inside of their big, butch armour

And, like the Silurians, they're reptiles awoken from a long slumber by inferior “apes”. And in fact, had this been set in 1984 rather than 1983, it would have been an even better re-tread of 1984’s “Warriors of the Deep” – it could even have had that title – done, as everyone always says, “right”, by turning down the lights and having the monster lumber through dark and dank and confined (well a bit) corridors...

(One theory that Mark doesn’t “borrow”, though it’s not contradicted either, is the one where the Ice Warriors are, like the Sea Devils, another offshoot of the Silurian species, one who – rather than burying themselves in survival chambers – took to the rockets to escape the believed-impending doom of elder Earth and flew off to colonise Mars. Thus allowing the Quatermass continuity – which sees Mars home to an insect species who, maybe under the influence of the Fendahl, wipe themselves out in a frenzy of civil war – to fit into Doctor Who canon, as implied by “Remembrance of the Daleks”.)

None of that detracts, however, as these characteristics – and a sense of honour (I’d have added the Draconians to that list, but this is more the Star Trek Klingons’ idea of martial honour than the Japanese-in-drag system of chivalry to which the Draconians conform) – add up to a complex and credible yet alien civilisation, which is exactly what we expected of the Ice Warriors after their more nuanced turn in “The Curse of Peladon” and its sequels in books and audios. And of course that's entirely right in this setting where the Russians are a complex yet alien civilisation.

As an aside, I like the idea of the Martian civilisation occupying – and defending – the Solar System in the just-prehistoric past. With Earth in a busy part of the galaxy, surrounded by hostile alien Empires – Daleks, Sontarans, Rutans and the rest – it’s a wonder that we are not an occupied planet already, and a powerful Solar Empire would help to explain that. (Similarly, in the books, David A McIntee writes about the Tzun, your basic X-Files greys, whose Empire controlled our area of space but recently collapsed.) Perhaps 10,000 years ago would have been slightly better than 5,000, as that would push it back to before the start of human civilisation and, more importantly, into the last glaciation period of the current Ice Age – if the Ice Warriors abandon Mars due to the cold, it begs the question why they didn’t go all War of the Worlds and invade Earth. It would be a neat answer if the Earth had been a snowball at the time, and tie in with Varga, the original Ice Warrior, being frozen since “the last Ice Age”. (Although actually, I suspect that that 5,000 years is itself a fanboy’s nod to the supposed dating of “The Ice Warriors”.)

Pastiche and montage clearly work very well as tools for Mark Gatiss’s writing. His best includes: “Nightshade” (Quatermass with the serial numbers scratched off); “Poirot” and “Sherlock” (after Christie and Conan Doyle, obviously); and his M R James inspired “Crooked House” series. “Cold War” clearly takes much of its inspiration from “Dalek” and “Alien” (as well as the likes of “Das Boot”, “The Hunt for Red October” and “Grey Lady Down” obviously).

But there’s no shame in that. When hasn’t Doctor Who borrowed? Or indeed, received off the back of a lorry at midnight no questions asked. Gatiss manages to retell these stories with a new twist and extra polish, and that’s worthy of some praise in itself.

Yes, there is less plot, but you cut your coat according to your cloth (as the sixth Doctor almost certainly would not have put it). If you’ve got only got forty-five minutes, then I’d rather see those forty-five minutes used well, with less story spread more evenly over the episode, than have a well-developed opening spoiled by cutting straight to a rushed ending.

Which is, in précis, my complaint of the last two weeks.

In my review of “The Rings of Akhaten”, I talked about the lack of an “episode three”. Of course it’s more complicated than that; Andrew was quite right when he said “But the problem is actually that there’s no episode two or four either”. (Do go and read the rest of his piece, as he makes some very good points about how the modern conception of the series is forcing episodes to do triple time with “character growth” and “story arc” material on top of their own stories, overloading more into less story time.)

There was a series of excellent articles in Doctor Who Magazine – “The Adventure Game” (issues 296, 298, 300 and 302, if you want to track them down) – that set out how a serial could do worse than follow a template that runs: inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, resolution, (aftermath).

Or in Doctor Who terms:

“episode one – where are we?”;
“episode two – what’s really going on?”;
“episode three – nozink in ze vorld can schtopp me now!”;
“episode three cliffhanger – scream in the key of F”;
“episode four – something immensely clever”;
(“end of episode four – I can’t stand long goodbyes”).

The “exploration” of an episode one was particularly important in the Hartnell era (think “The Dead Planet” or “The Web Planet” or, particularly, “The Space Museum”) and again in the second Baker era in a variation where the Doctor was often totally excluded from the main action for a long time in order to let the viewers do the exploring of the world he was about to collide with (especially “Vengeance on Varos” and notoriously “Revelation of the Daleks”).

The classic example of the “complications” would be “Enlightenment” where the episode one cliffhanger overturns all that we think we’ve learned and we virtually have to start again; similarly “Kinda” asks us to re-evaluate what we think we’ve learned about who is “sophisticated” and who is a “barbarian” over the course of the story; while “Carnival of Monsters” shows us two separate stories in part one and then cliffhanger reveals how they are related, allowing us to re-examine the relationship in part two. Or at the crass end of the spectrum, Terry Nation would introduce the Daleks at the end of the first episode. (Though, to be fair, this really works in both “The Daleks” and “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”.)

Here Gatiss goes through the stages swiftly, and with ruthless efficiency. His episode one: “we’re on a Russian submarine and it’s sinking” is overturned with the forgivably Nation-esque reveal that there’s an Ice Warrior standing behind the Doctor; his episode two see the Doctor delivering rapid-fire info-dump to bring the audience up to speed – essentially “we’re in a remake of ‘The Ice Warriors’ and you’ve thawed out an alien” (Matt delivers this very well and hangs a charming lamp on it with the “you see, I’m telling you all about them and there isn’t time!” line). But that’s just so we can get more quickly into the more interesting confrontation between Clara and Skaldak and the reveal – and she’s clever enough to spot there’s something wrong – that he’s slipped away!

(Come on, all those people complaining “why did he do that if the armour could break free on its own”: clearly he slips out and then loosens the chains so that the armour can come when called; it’s not rocket science.)

And the crisis arrives when the Grand Marshall decides he can end the world and has reason to do so.

Less does turn out to be more. Although the plot is thin, and there’s hardly any character development, there is this decent-enough conceit at the heart of the episode on which to hang a story: the “who blinks first” analogy between the superpowers’ stand-off and the final confrontation between the Doctor and the Ice Warrior.

This is, essentially, the “Morgaine gambit” from the end of “Battlefield” but (again) done right – i.e. appealing to an honourable enemy to behave with honour.

“Are these the weapons you would use” is a powerful argument, it’s just that in “Battlefield” – as Alex points out – coming from the Doctor who nuked Skaro to a crisp the year before and delivered to the Witch-Queen who just minutes earlier literally unchained the Destroyer of Worlds it is a bit:

“Are these the weapons you would use like wot I did?”

“Yes, weren’t you paying attention five minutes ago?”

“Oh bugger!”


I should like to add that Alex also suggested a particularly good refinement of this story: with the Martian’s making so much importance of Clan, he was sure Skaldak should have taken issue with the “Clan” of the Russians’, rather than mankind as a generic whole, with the intention of launching the missiles against Moscow specifically. Global annihilation would have followed anyway – the “just one launch would trigger a war” is heavily played up in the episode as is – so the threat level would have been the same, but the added piquancy of the Doctor saving the Russians – because he loves and defends all humanity – would have been played up. (Particularly apt in the week of Cold Warrior Mrs Thatcher’s funeral.)

The Doctor of course has a deeper empathy with Skaldak, appreciating the feeling of “he’s got nothing left to live for”, drawing on his own experience with a death-wish in his ninth incarnation. Along with the reference to the Time War in his big speech to the vampire planet last week, is this a sign that Moffat-age Who is now comfortably referencing the Russell years along with the rest of the classic canon? It turns out, in a nice twist, that Skaldak is not the last of his species (well, it’s a twist in story, though not if you recall the future setting of every other Ice Warrior story, and particularly the Peladon ones – especially since that reverses what the Doctor did to the Martian invaders in “The Seeds of Death”, and better not to dwell on that.)

Saving the word by appeal to an honourable warrior's honour works for me better than last week's power of lurve. The solution is emotional, but it’s the use of emotion as emotion and not as magic fairy pixie dust. Skaldak decides not to end the world because the Doctor appeals to him not to be a dick about this, and because Clara reminds him of his lost daughter. Yes, there’s another song, but any comparison between Clara nervously singing the half-remembered words of an old Duran Duran hit to give herself courage in the face of Armageddon and the sing-along-a-max love in at the end of “Akhaten” is clearly ridiculous.

With the plot already pared down to a minimum, there’s almost nothing to add to the season’s Clara-arc story this week, and all the better for it. No time is wasted having the Doctor picking her up again; we just go straight into the action with them travelling together. To Vegas, obviously. There are just a few slightly-odd moments in the scene between Clara and Professor Grisenko, where she seems to be appraising her own performance as a companion. Now it might just be a case of having a bit of a post-trauma shock, as it sinks in how incredibly dangerous it was to go in there with Skaldak, now that she’s seen what he leaves behind when he’s in a less-than-chatty mood. Or it could mean something about how “real” she is. Jenna-Louise continues to impress as the sympathetic and enthusiastic (too sympathetic too enthusiastic?) “perfect” travelling companion.

Lovely performances from David Warner, Liam Cunningham and especially Matt Smith – and a different voice for Briggsy – all add to the overall satisfaction.

Warner, in particular, has long been overdue in Doctor Who on the telly, as his many appearances for Big Finish attest (and also as Steel in their sadly no long in production “Sapphire and Steel”). His light and whimsical performance as the Professor is almost Doctor-like in the way that he wanders onto the submarine conn singing Western tunes or how he cheers and chivvies Clara in their scenes together, and shows what an awesome Doctor he could have been.

Alongside Richard E Grant’s Shalka Doctor, he’s another “alternative Doctor” (this one from two of the Big Finish Unbound stories: “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Masters of War”, both very worth checking out) to appear this year. It’s probably a coincidence: two others, Derek Jacobi and Arabella Weir have already appeared in the post-millennial series; and of course Geoffrey Bayldon and David Collings had already been in stories in the original series as had, self-evidently, Michael Jayston as the Valeyard; and Nick Briggs, of course, has been an alt-Doctor several times over, and is all over the new series. Including here! But it would be nice to think they’re including all the Doctors in the anniversary. Perhaps we could have Peter Cushing appearing by synthespian technology (cue “Daleks vs Mechons”).

It would be nice to see him return. There are hints that the Russians are not totally ignorant of extra-terrestrial affairs, as indeed, the West via UNIT are not. It would be intriguing and open up some new and interesting plot lines to have Grisenko “seconded” to a Russian UNIT.

Less to do for Liam Cunningham other than bring some world-weary solidity to Captain Zhukov, in contrast to his rather more apocalypse-eager subordinate Stepashin (Tobias Menzies – one of those actors we’re always seeing in things – from “The Thick of It” to “Eternal Law” to even “Casino Royale” – and going “oh it’s… him”; pity his story didn’t go further). You can catch both of them again in season three of “Game of Groans Thrones”.

And of course again Matt Smith, the best thing the series has going for it by a mile at the moment. I’ve already praised his delivery of info-dump, but I’d really like to single out the ending where he confesses that – this being a Troughton tribute episode – he lost the TARDIS because he reset the Hostile Action Displacement System or HADS introduced in the Krotons, arguably seen last in “Voyage of the Damned” when the Ship, cast adrift, headed off back to Earth under her own steam. Everyone else has a jolly end-of-episode Scooby Doo laugh... and the Doctor laughs along with them and then turns his back and starts grousing to himself about the stupid humans. Lovely touch.

There’s something very “old school” about “Cold War”, a flashback to the ’Eighties in more ways than one, and that’s possibly borne out by the comparison of the audience appreciation index, or AI, of 84 – still respectable, but actually down on “The Bells” and “The Rings” – and the ratings on Gallifrey Base where it currently polls an average 7.6 out of 10 slightly up on “The Bells” and substantially up on “The Rings”. And as a grumpy old-school curmudgeon, it probably explains why I like it too.

On the strength of those figures – and final ratings still comfortably in the 7½ to 8 million range that the series has enjoyed pretty much since it returned, exceptionally performing episodes, usually Christmas, aside – it’s still Moffat who has the knack of bridging the divide between what the public want and what the fans want. But, on the strength of this episode, and his Sherlock work, I’d be less wary of a future Mark Gatiss taking on the showrunner role. So long as he doesn’t cast himself as the twelfth Doctor.

Next Time... Another chance for Neil Cross to show us what his Who is made of. It’s actually his first go, but also it’s the one he actually wanted to pitch. From classic base under siege to classic haunted house, and it’s time for the scary stuff. Get ready to “Hide”.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Day 4479 again: DOCTOR WHO: …and another Ring

Saturday reprise

Before we get on to reviewing last night’s terrific episode, another thought:

“An ancient clade of wizards whose eternal, endless chanting keeps the dreaded devourer from awakening and ending us all… until a Time Lord interferes, and silence falls.”

“The Rings of Akhaten” or “Logopolis”?

The difference being, “Logopolis” doesn’t pull its punches and people die. Sure, the eponymous planet is destroyed in both stories, [oops, spoilers] but the difference could not be more stark between the hideous visceral dissolution of Logopolis, visibly aging to dust along with its population, and the planet-god disappearing up its own swansong.

People criticise Christopher H Bidmead for his approach to the series, yet for me the “science fairy-tale” of “Logopolis” is far more successful than anything Moffat has produced, because – like a proper fairy-tale – it is about something.

Entropy is inevitable, and arguably essential for a Universe with free will, and the Doctor does not defeat the “big bad” in the end. At best he lights a candle against the oncoming dark – the CVE in Cassiopeia that will give the Universe just a little more life. His real victory is when he dies… and regenerates and becomes younger, turning the processes of entropy on their heads in defiance of the rule that “change and decay” are synonymous and represent a further step away from Godliness. The Doctor’s Fall brings us freedom from tyranny under the Master. He brings us hope.

Put it this way: all those limitless potentials of Clara’s magic leaf… they are meaningless in a Universe imploding under the weight of total entropy… they only happen because of what the Doctor did here.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Day 4481: A Few Words on the Passing of Queen Maggie the Martyred


All news has been CANCELLED for the announcement that Queen Maggie, elected Prime Monster three times in the Nineteen Eighties and twice more in the new Century under the name Lord Blairimort, famous for her catchphrase "the Mummy Returns"... won't be returning.

As Dumbledore would have put it:





Or as the late Francis Urquhart said:

"Even the longest, most glittering reign..."

If we learned ONE thing from Queen Maggie it's that STRONG GOVERNMENT is a REALLY BAD IDEA, and if this Coalition is WEAK because it has to LISTEN to PEOPLE and CHANGE its mind...

...well, you might very well think that. WE couldn't possibly comment.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Day 4479: DOCTOR WHO: Ring Modulator


I miss “Episode Three”s.

In many ways this was exactly the sort of thing that the Doctor should be doing: travelling to exotic places to see astounding events.

And this was visually stunning, a triumph for the visual and physical effects people: from the first reveal of Akhaten to that really terrific “alien bazaar”, from the golden pyramid to the giant space pumpkin, it delivered on Clara’s request for something awesome. For thirty/thirty-five minutes the episode builds, mood darkening and tension growing, as events spiral out of control. And then, as happened last week, it falls off a cliff, resolving itself far too quickly (and with yet another variant of “love conquers all”), defeated by the forty-five minute movie-of-the-week format once again.

What I missed was the “episode three” bit where the mummy chases them up and down corridors in the pyramid for a while.

That’s not just padding; it’s breathing space so that your plot developments don’t collide, so that your viewers have time to take in the exposition.

It’s the era of montage. After last week’s remix of “The Idiot’s Lantern” by way of “Partners in Crime”, this week we were doing “The End of the World” meets “The Beast Below” with a touch of “The Satan Pit” at the end (and just a soupçon of “Pyramids of Mars”). It’s not like the original series never reworked an old plot (notoriously, “The Cave of Androzani” is “The Power of Kroll” done right) but twice in a fortnight – “zat is most embarrazzing” – suggests a dimming of the creative juices somewhere, which is a shame as this is only the second outing for Luther-scribe Neil Cross (his first is the yet-to-be-screened “Hide”).

(And on the same day that Ben Aaronovitch plumped for Luther himself, Idris Elba, as the Doctor and rowed with Terrance Dicks about it at their mutual books-relaunch, too.)

Ben Aaronovitch and Idris Elbaphant

The plot hangs around two fairly catastrophic misconceptions: Clara’s failure to realise what the young Queen of Years Merry’s role will entail – “don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington,” Alex wanted to cry; the Doctor’s mistaken belief that the mummy in the pyramid and the old god everyone’s worried about are one and the same. Neither of these are well delivered, and would be so easy to fix.

After all her fears about getting her song wrong, it is far from clear that being snatched into space in order to get eaten is what happens to Merry because she got her song right. What fails to sell this is the lack of reaction from the crowd.

With all the aliens looking superior to… well frankly Lucasfilm’s efforts, never mind Russell’s on Platform One… it’s easy to overlook that they lacked interaction: excepting Doreen (and why were her barks not translated by the TARDIS?), this was a dumb show. The singing, at least initially, was entirely in keeping with the weird/fantastical vibe, but when Merry is taken, there are neither cheers nor alarm, so we are without cues to whether this is supposed to happen or a break with tradition. When Clara leaps up to try and save the little girl, no one helps, but no one tries to stop her either.

If only someone had done the Tlotoxl thing of warning her not to interfere with the sacrifice, we would have been much clearer that Clara – and then the Doctor – were interfering, not trying to save a situation that had gone awry.

This in turn has knock on effects. The song of a million years coming to an end ought to have been a much bigger deal. The Doctor should have deeply regretted the loss of another of the seven hundred wonders of the universe. Or made the point that it was about time, if the song requires the repeated sacrifice of girls. Instead it’s all a bit ho-hum that’s over.

(And while we’re at it, if the lullaby is so important to you, wouldn’t you have more than one chorister on hand? Just in case one gets a frog in his throat or a touch of stage fright?)

Next, the Vigil turn up, another great piece of design, nicely creepy, but totally wasted. They’ve not been given the chance to build up their sinister presence – they didn’t really do anything in Clara and Merry’s game of hide and seek at the start and now they just stand there and face off against the Doctor and his sonic lightsabre. Er.

At least Russell knew to throw in the odd death to keep raising the tension (and here, aside from the planet-god itself, once again nobody dies). An increased role for the Vigil, having them as the religious police of this society, giving them the “don’t interfere with the sacrifice” line, having them kill someone for a transgression, all this would have strengthened them and unified the episode.

Then there’s the way the mummy smashes its way out of the glass case only to collapse. Surely this should be played as a huge dramatic anti-climax; we’re expecting the big fight and we’re wrong-footed. (If you’re already quoting “Indiana Jones” in the way that the Doctor rescues his sonic from the falling pyramid door, then you must be familiar with the way Indy just shoots that big scimitar-wielding fellow.) But the director doesn’t seem to bother. It’s just cut the strings and have the Doctor go “oops, no the threat is somewhere else”. Now my preference, as above, would have been for the mummy to pursue them into the pyramid, the Doctor do something very clever and/or drop another door on it, only to realise that he’s actually released the soul of the planet and made everything so very much worse. But failing that, at least a heavy beat where everyone freezes and goes “huh?” as the mummy carks it.

And then the resolution. The Doctor’s big speech appears to have divided opinion. A wonderful example of those “big” Doctor Who moments from “some corners of the universe” to “he burns in the centre of time”. Or a five-minute soliloquy for Matt Smith to prove he can “do a David Tennant”? (And hadn’t we all had enough of La Tennant wallowing in the acting by the end?)

Or did Neil just leave them a five minute gap in the script and Moffat said “oh, Murray and Matt can just busk it”…

I would have minded less if it had been clear that the Doctor was going to kill Akhaten at the expense of killing himself. Yes, that’s been done before but at least it’s in character. Having the Doctor’s sacrifice not be enough – but Clara’s does it because she’s oh so special – just undermines the character. Because you’re saying the loss of Gallifrey and everyone he’s ever loved is outweighed by Clara’s merely human grief for her mum. I know how much that grief weighs and I don’t believe this.

(And of course the planet should have imploded under the Doctor’s grief, but exploded under the infinity of Clara’s lost hopes.)

The bigger flaw, as in “The Satan Pit” from which the ending borrowed, is that Akhaten doesn’t get any lines. You’ve set up an epic confrontation there, between gods, between grandfathers, and you kind of miss it by just having the Doctor emote at it for a bit.

There are so many unanswered questions here: why do the people call this god grandfather? Was the (lovely) reference to the Doctor visiting with Susan significant? Or just a suggestion that the Doctor also gets through a lot of young girls? Is there any truth to the story that all life originated here? Who imprisoned the god in the first place? Are the rings actually the bars on Akhaten’s prison? This federation that seems to have brought together so many diverse alien races seems like a good thing, was that just a – “Genesis of the Daleks”-like – fear of a bigger bad? Or was Akhaten a god that did good as well as the eating little girls bad? Giving the planet-god voice would have helped add shading to these questions. (The simplest touch might have been to show Akhaten giving life to the Vigil – or turning a humanoid into one, depending on preference.)

There’s been a certain amount of grumbling about “Dawkins-esque” religion-as-parasite bashing. There may be a taste of that, but more because fake gods are a part of Doctor Who’s DNA than out of any atheist agenda inspired by Mr Lalla Ward. Nevertheless, giving Akhaten a voice would – ironically – help distance the show from that. It’s easier to believe a god is a phoney if they can talk to you like any other conman.

Built around all this (almost literally, as it’s mostly in the pre-titles and at the end of the story) we have the more Moffat-y parts of the story – which at least fold into the main plot reasonably, by use of the loss and hope motif. Clara’s mum passed away in March 2005, so just before Doctor Who returned (though I think it was March 5th rather than 26th, the actual broadcast date of “Rose”) in keeping with the metatextual referencing that keeps going on. And we meet her dad who seems much nicer than the man who went on at length about the government (apparently) in “The Bells of St John”. We do have the rather odd point that if the Doctor is now retroactively inserting himself into Clara’s earlier life, is he changing her memories – e.g. she now remembers that he was there at her mother’s funeral. Equally, there’s some mystery as to whether the TARDIS likes Clara – why does she expect to be able to get in? Surely the Doctor has just – entirely sensibly – locked the doors. You can’t just have any old alien wandering in. But it seems to be played more significantly than that. That would seem to suggest that it’s not, as I had previously suspected, the TARDIS who is responsible for Clara’s “perfect companion” status, which in turn makes things more sinister.

(Nice that Clara’s nanny/governess/child-minder status was played into her instant rapport with the child Merry.)

By rights, this should have been a magnificent success. It certainly has so much going for it visually and imaginatively. Where it doesn’t work are again down to pace, structure, editing and a reliance on the crutch of artificial emotion instead of a proper ending. If anything, it shows once again, as if it were in doubt, what a genius Russell Davies is, because when he takes these elements he somehow alchemically makes them work. So far Neil Cross – nor yet Steven Moffat – is no Russell Davies. And that might just be the problem if you’re going to try and recreate a Russell story.

Next Time… Cold Warriors meet really cold warriors, and never mind base under siege, we’ve got a submarine. Under water! With Game of Thrones’ worthy ex-smuggler Ser Davos Seaworth in command, no less. Mark Gatiss pitches us into a “Cold War”.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Day 4472: DOCTOR WHO: Bell du Jour


Doctor Who returns with engaging and entertaining episode of chaotic plotting lifted by three winning performances from Matt Smith, Jenna-Louise Coleman and Celia Imrie, that looks and sounds wonderful but may not add up to a Shard of beans.

Perhaps we can start with a retcon: at Christmas, we saw “memory snow” or “mirror snow” falling to Earth. It fell from space through what we might call our “astral plane” and on its way it passed through the Great Intelligence of “The Abominable Snowmen”. So what we’re dealing with here is snow that thinks it is the Great Intelligence…

(And be thankful it was the Great Intelligence and not a Silent on Miss Babs’ screen of doom!)

But, if we’re thinking about questions of identity, who exactly does Steven Moffat think the Doctor is? It’s an important question in a season that purportedly will end with the revelation of the Doctor’s biggest secret (subject to many pinches of salt – see also “the Doctor really truly is dead in ‘The Impossible Astronaut’… oops, no he’s not.”)

Lawrence Miles described Moffat’s writing for the Doctor as “a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person is like”. I think that’s a bit harsh, but we do seem to be approaching “a dullard’s idea of what a bi-polar person is like”. If “The Snowmen” was about the Doctor being in a massive sulk for fifty years and rediscovering his zest for life, then why does “The Bells of St John” begin with him having another massive sulk, this time as a monk? (It’s clear he’s been there quite some while; they’ve had time to build a stone shelter around the TARDIS, as you can tell from the way the entrance is TARDIS shaped.) It really is a case of needing to do the set reading: the “prequel” this time has the Doctor losing heart in his search for Clara, having tried his usual method of “wandering about a bit and hoping she bumped into him”.

(And in typical “Moffat will eat himself” fashion, this is of course the young Amy Pond… er, I mean Clara not-yet-Oswin Oswald. Actually, to digress, there’s a lot of previous Moffat to be found here. To paraphrase the Moffat Times Table: “Monsieur, you’re in my television” (“Silence in the Library”) x “Donna Noble has been saved/revolve to spooky reveal” (“Silence in the Library”) = “Help I’ve been sucked into the Wi-Fi!”)

Anyway, what we appear to have is a Doctor with huge mood swings from hyper manic to brooding despair. I suppose we should be grateful that we’re at least one small step up from the usual Moffat writing where every male character is “Steve” and every female is “Sue” (see especially “Coupling” where literally all six leads are variations on his own Mary-Sue or his wife). We also have another typical Moffat morality-fail: it’s cool to see the villain “hacking” humans, dialling their paranoia or their obedience up and down; it’s emphatically not cool to see the Doctor doing the same. Particularly when you’ve had the Doctor explicitly say he doesn’t do that sort of thing earlier in the same scene! What I'd expected was the Doctor to dial conscience up to eleven, and let them sort it out for themselves. (Not that imposing conscience on people isn't without its problems: see also “The Keys of Marinus”, in case you think that “dicking about with people’s free will is baaaad” hasn’t been part of Doctor Who since year one.)

In fact, the Doctor’s moral core seems way off beam throughout this episode, where he’s entirely focussed on Clara almost to the total exclusion of the threat to absolutely everyone else. We, the audience, are aware that the “Wi-Fi” (yeah, whatever) is a threat to everyone, but the Doctor barely seems to notice. I had thought, when he sent his message – “Under My Protection” – to Miss Kizlet, that it would turn out he meant the planet not the person. But no, there was never any payoff for that, and pretty much all the other victims were just collateral damage to him. I think that the issues of terminating the lot of them are a bit too complex to dismiss with “they’ll all die” “at least they’ll be free”. When his dead girlfriend-from-the-future found herself in the very similar situation of uploaded into a memory chip, he went to the trouble of ensuring an entire virtual reality afterlife for her. Is this really the same Doctor?

It’s very hardline “Live free or die!” – ironically in view of how the Doctor has his latest Tesselector-Doctor use the meat puppet app – and ironically because if that’s his philosophy then that makes it not his choice to make.

As Alex says, if the alternative is eternity in hell, screaming they don’t know where they are with their brains being nibbled on by the Great Intelligence, then it might just make sense. It’s just that that doesn’t make sense either. How does that make them a useful part of a brain-gestalt thingy? In which case, why not put them in a ‘neutral’ VR like The Matrix, or even a VR paradise? Perhaps the Great Intelligence feeds off their despair, but it’s also said they’re being put to some use. Why splice computer genius powers into Clara's memories if she no more than a morsel on the smorgasbord? Did Moffat just not make up his mind?

If it was as simple as “in despair for ever and feeding the enemy,” that’s a relatively simple moral choice, but that’s confused and unclear in an episode that glosses over it in a single exchange of lines.

We do have the enormous talents of Matt Smith to thank for this being in any way believable. Even hugely talented actors like Jack Davenport or even Eccleston can fall into the “look at me doing comedy”/pulling faces trap. Smith manages to find ways of doing it that seem real, and adds little flashes of anger and sadness to give some edge to the madcap. He’s also been brave enough to start to add some of his own personality to the mix, in the freewheeling physicality and, dare I say, a little of the frustration at not being taken seriously. And, on re-watching, I see that he has a look of total self-disgust on his face when, playing the robot-pretending-to-be-the-Doctor, he turns up the “obedience”.

And boy it must be hard work when you’re given lines like “Doctor who?” “Ooh, say it again” to contend with. Yes, it’s a callback to the Christmas episode where Madam Vastra told him “it always begins with that question” so for him “Doctor who?” is as good as Clara asking him on a date. And yes, it’s the impossible-to-answer question that he’s going to face at Trenzalore and allegedly the end of this series (confession: I actually quite like the rumoured title for the finale of “In the Name of the Doctor” ‘cos it’s quite a clever word play for once). And yes we “geddit”: it’s the name of the series and it’s endlessly hilarious to reference it in the dialogue and draw attention to the central mystery of the character and to your absurd plot arc, but if you keep on doing this you’re going to wear a hole in the fabric of reality, never mind that any payoff you’ve come up with – he’s John Smith and the Common Men, or Leggy Mountbatten, or Rassilon or Clara’s father or Leela’s son or a monkey's uncle, or The Other or the Great Intelligence in mortal form or he just doesn’t darn well remember – no payoff is going to be enough for fifty years of a series called “Doctor Who”, so don’t set yourself up for the fall.

Over at the Mindless Ones, Andrew talks about Moffat’s writing lacking proper structure, that no effort has gone into the “craft”. He cites the missed opportunity of a Chekov’s antigravity motorcycle (for once not Moffat lifting from his own back-catalogue, but do check out 2000 A.D’s “The ABC Warriors” where Deadlock rides up the Eiger Building on Mars). He’s right of course. I’d also point out that the set-pieces are arranged to suit the pacing of a TV episode, rather than following the natural evolution of the story: the baddies go from cheerily willing to throw an aeroplane full of people at the Doctor, to preferring to show off their tech and chatter by taking over people in a coffee bar. Why aren’t those possessed people grabbing him and jumping off the balcony? Answer, because the plane in peril is the mid-episode climax and this is the talky bit before the big finish. And because we need to keep the aircraft-as-suicide-weapon as far away as possible from the very-tall-building lest anyone think we’re doing something a bit post-September 11 tasteless.

The possession scene is also much cooler than the plane – whose “bigness” is diminished by brevity and plot-irrelevance (it’s almost as though it’s only stuck in for the trailer reel; surely not!) – though it would seem to make more sense if they’re hacking the Doctor rather than all those people (that is they are altering his perceptions, like a Faction Paradox Shift, rather than taking over people and having everyone else ignore them).

But I think it’s deeper than that. There’s almost no exposition in this episode at all, hence the need to have Matt Smith gabble the bit about being a thousand years old twice. What we felt was that this was, for forty minutes, give or take the odd misstep, a perfectly acceptable “part one”; the problem is that there’s no explanatory “part two” and “part three” and “part four” are done in the last two minutes with a throwaway reference to UNIT tossed in to keep the fanboys warm.

But, as I keep on finding myself having to write in these Moffat reviews, this was enjoyable. Alex, particularly, said he didn’t mind Moffat rewriting himself for once so long as he was taking the things which worked poorly the first time out and doing them better.

Some of the direction was lovely. Especially the transition, dollying left to right as the Doctor grabs Clara by the hand and drags her into the TARDIS for the first time and the reverse when he falls out of the doors because the TARDIS is now on the plummeting plane.

Celia Imrie is delicious in a role lifted straight from Russell’s “Partners in Crime”, all the better for the little touches of humanity she gives the two-dimensional Ms Kizlet: her naughtiness at manipulating the emotions of her subordinates, her fear and her anger when she is caught in her own trap. Most tragic of all is the broken little girl to which she is reduced at the end, another shout back to the Christmas special where it was Richard E Grant's character who was seduced by the Intelligence as a child. As reward for a lifetime of service, that is terribly cruel.

Jenna-Louise Coleman is bright-as-a-button sparkling as Clara. There were good reasons for Amy to be spiky and unlikeable – and arguable Karen Gillan had a harder job portraying the more complicated character, and kudos to Moffat for at least trying to write a complicated, damaged person. But that doesn’t help with the fact that Amy was spiky and unlikeable. Clara is adorable, and has the least personality of any companion since the series returned (arguably since Mel, actually, and she was a whizz with computers too!). She’s the perfect companion. Which leads me to suspect that she’s artificial.

Didn’t for a minute buy “run you clever boy and remember” as a mnemonic for her Wi-Fi password, but again that was a Moffat-y writing trick to get around the fact that neither she nor the Doctor introduced themselves on their “helpline” phonecall. (Real people do that, you see, but never people on telly, 'cos it wastes screen-time.) “The woman in the shop said it was the best helpline in the Universe” did she? Like she won’t be turning up to haunt us later.

And it was the TARDIS that brought the Doctor together with this too-good-to-be-true sidekick: the TARDIS telephone (oh look! Another retro-Moffatism, this time from his first big hit “The Empty Child”) providing both the connection and the episode title. Hopefully, hopefully, that’s because there’s more to that than another throwaway gag in the first five minutes.

So who is the Doctor? For Terrance Dicks, the thing about the Doctor is that he’s a Time Lord from the Planet Gallifrey. For some of the people writing for Andrew Cartmel – and Paul Cornell in some moods – he’s god.

We have to arrive at the possibility that, in his eleventh incarnation, the Doctor’s finally just gone nuts. Arguments that this is the ruthless Time War of the seventh Doctor coming back to haunt him; or too much time on his own; or a consequence of that “Time Lord Triumphant” mania and then hanging on too long by the tenth; or an inevitable step along the path to the Valeyard can all be retro-fitted to try and make it look like this is an evolution of continuity rather than a vicious side-swerve on the lead character’s personality by the showrunner.

For Moffat, the Doctor is a story that writes himself, the ultimate storyteller.

I suppose at least that’s handy for the writer who always writes himself.

Next Time: Bells? Rings? Is there a theme developing here? The Doctor begins to unfold the mystery of Clara and we find out why that leaf is chapter one. Plus more cool aliens than we've seen since the End of the World when we visit "The Rings of Akhaten"