...look over there!
Monday, 28 July 2008
Thursday, 17 July 2008
Click here for Part One
Two Hearts to the Doctor
It would be tempting to try and split this tension into some Doctor vs Rose dichotomy, presenting the old Gallifrean as uneasily cohabiting the Tardis with some “happenin’” street gal from Streatham (innit). Something like the Simpsons episode where Itchy and Scratchy get Poochy dumped on them because he’ll appeal to “the kids”. Certainly, the Rose subplots are at times the most annoying and the least Doctor Who-like. In The Empty Child, for example, the Doctor gets caught up in some genuinely creepy goings-on with a gas-masked kid, while Rose puts on a trendy Britpop T-shirt and employs the whole of the BBCs CGI department for no discernable reason before bumping into the equally gimmick-prone (and ceaselessly annoying) Captain Jack.
But that would be more neat than accurate. To see past this, we have to somehow see past Billie Piper and get to Rose as a character. In Dalek for example, Rose plays a pivotal role, effectively telling the Doctor how things are done on his show. It’s even arguable Rose should be seen as the central character. Not only is the first episode called Rose but the last is Bad Wolf, after her nomme de plume. Perhaps, like Alan Moore’s Halo Jones, New Who is really the story of an ordinary girl who did extraordinary things.
Besides, the Doctor doesn’t always behave absolutely like the Doctor here. As a character, he is famously reluctant to resort to violence. He has two hearts rather than two fists. For example, in The Empty Child he mentions replacing a weapons factory with a banana plantation – “I like bananas.”
But let’s take the episode where the Doctor acts the most un-Doctor – the aforementioned Dalek. This pulls a similar rug from under us as End of the World. At first it seems to be about the conflict between the Doctor and the cocksure arrogance of millionaire collector Van Statten. The Doctor explains the Dalek will kill everything it encounters because “it honestly believes they should die.” The Dalek’s like a snake or scorpion, living out its nature. Van Statten, conversely, is the underbelly of human society – a spoilt child wanting all the toys for himself. The drama is wrought from Van Statten not heeding the Doctor’s warnings. But slowly we come to realise it’s about Rose, about her telling the Doctor not to become what you fight. “Look at you”, she tells him, as he finds himself holding a heavy-duty ray gun.
All very effective… except the Doctor has already had his persona blunted by too close an association with today’s he-man heroes, who mix right with might so often we’ve almost forgotten there’s any other type of character. Seeing him pick up a weapon loses some of its impact when we’ve already seen him guide missile strikes and the like. Captain Jack may be intended as an action man for the Doctor to counter-balance and overrule, but it rarely works that way in practice. At times it just feels like he’s contracting out the he-man stuff.
The true dichotomy at the heart of the series between Davies’ ‘man out of time’ vision and the supposed demands of today’s ‘yoof’ audience. There’s a Doctor Who where Davies’ childhood nostalgism mutatred with his more downbeat adult sensibility, and produced a dark meditation of alien-ness and exile. But there’s another where Davies got boyishly excited to play with all the action figures – hence the struggle. As Davies himself put it: “Right from the very first meeting, the BBC said to me ‘early Saturday evening, six or seven o’clock’ – and that has decided what the show is.” Most of the endemic weaknesses almost everyone has seen in the series – the lack of extended stories, the rushed and over-neat endings, the preponderance of Earth-bound settings – come from this source.
Of course, the BBC’s populist instincts may well have been correct in themselves. It’s worth pointing out that Davies’ dark vision of exile wasn’t really ‘old Doctor’ either, and could have turned into one of those cult classics which you and I loved and no-one else watched. What’s important to note is that the old Doctor was part of an era where it was more possible to straddle such contradictions, indeed where such an ability was regarded as one of the very foundations of broadcasting. For today’s narrowcasted times, things are much harder.
We Demand Narnian Wardrobes and Lucky-Dip Landings!
…and there’s another (associated) piece of traditionalism that should never – repeat, never – have been thrown out. In the ultimate rule of if-its-not-broke-don’t-take-your-sonic-screwdriver-to-it, the Doctor should not be able to control the Tardis! This rediscovery of the time-flight manual may well have been brought in to allow for the preponderance of Earth-set stories. Though there’s allusions to adventures on far stars, the furthest the on-screen antics get from our home planet is a couple of satellites around it. Davies has openly said the Saturday-night-at-six-or-seven-o’clock audience might not take the Quadrillian quadrant or whatever, so he was more prone to set events in central Swansea instead. A working Tardis might explain why they keep coming back to the same place week after week. If so, this was a mistake built to justify another one…
Of course the Tardis is like a microcosm of this, or for that matter any other, successful series. Apparantly occupying only a set amount of schedule time, it gives the optical illusion of being bigger than it looks – hinting at other offshoots and adventures which we never see but tease at our imaginations. But as any stage magician will tell you, for optical illusions to work the audience mustn’t look at them too hard.
There are functional reasons for a random Tardis apleanty. For one it keeps the box in the background, where it belongs. It works best as a Narnian wardrobe, enabling another adventure then sitting quietly in the corner until its end. (The corollary rule to its uncontrollability is that only the Doctor and his chosen assistants ever get to go inside it – a rule which gets broken just as often and just as annoyingly.)
For another, it stops the Tardis being a get-out-of-trouble-free card. A go-anywhere-at-any-time box which is by-the-way indestructible needs a pretty hefty chunk of green kryptonite to counteract it’s power. Without any of this it becomes either a story-extinguishing deux ex machina plot device or a time-paradox worrying tooth, with neither a path to go down. After I’d had this thought episodes appeared to encapsulate both these ideas, which marked the twin low-points of the first season. Fathers Day (the one with Rose’s Dad) nominally blamed the death of the Time Lords for it’s ultimately nonsensical timebending games, but it was the souped-up Tardis which (literally) drove them to it. Boom Town (the Slithene-in-Swansea episode) took the opposite tack and ended up in perhaps even a worse place. It’s bizarre to think we’d complained about deux ex machina endings before this gormless literalisation of the concept, where Tardis becomes just another word for God. We truly didn’t know when we were well off.
Finally, and most obviously, the lucky-dip landings make for a perfect source of stories – like the Tardis is a dressing-up box without a bottom. But there’s more than plot functionality afoot, and this takes us closer to the heart of it. The Doctor’s nomadism, his exile from his sedentary race, is the very nub of who he is – the endless itinerant, the astral traveller… (If you really can’t guess where this is going, it gets revealed in the finale.)
But the contradictions of Davies’ two vying approaches (as alluded to earlier) cut straight across this heart. Returning once more to The End of the World, imagine how much more poignant Rose’s plight would be if she was not just a visitor to a strange time but marooned from home. Her Earth would be as dead to her as surely as the other Earth was dying before her. Her calls to her mum on her astrally-assisted mobile could have become a regular feature. As the years travel go by her mum’s still inside the same afternoon she left, asking her what she wants for tea that night. The mobile, the totem of street-girl empowerment, would paradoxically come to underline her isolation. But this is Saturday-evening-at-six-or-seven-o’clock, and there is time for none of that.
The Re-uniting of the Ways
You really want to know how Doctor Who it all is? There’s a simple measure. Listen to the theme tune! Music is often drama’s skeleton key, the element they assume you’re only taking in subliminally. The new theme tune has strings added, this is true. They are annoying, an unnecessary intrusion to the cold electronic beauty of Delia Derbyshire’s original. But then it could be worse – they could be higher in the mix! With a little effort of will, you can even block them out. How high those strings are in that mix is a barometer of how watered-down the concept has become.
But, as the saying goes, who cares? Though everybody inevitably measures this Doctor against their childhood favourite, he should most sensibly be compared to his nearest neighbour – Sylvester McCoy. This despite the fact that so much is nicked from the McCoy era – modern tough-gal assistants and flying Daleks – then labelled as new by the hype machine. But, while the McCoy era could throw up some good ideas, it mismanaged them. This incarnation rediscovers and makes more of them. Though it’s anti-traditional ruthlessness is often pushed too far, it’s still the right direction to travel. And thank the Tardis for what it isn’t – a perfectly preserved museum piece.
Besides, in many ways this series takes things back to basics. For all his years of going anywhere and being anyone, the Doctor must have something at his core. In fact the series’ endless flexibility only makes it more vital that this core remains inviolate. Who – who really – is the Doctor?
Andrew Rilstone defines him as “an essentially non-violent character who solves things with his mind.” Fair enough in itself. But the Doctor is more than a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, asserting brains over brawn and subjecting mysteries to rational explanation. A brain in the wrong hands is just as much a weapon as an exterminator stick. The Doctor has an enlarged brain, true, but more crucially he has two hearts. He’s called ‘The Doctor’, has magician-like ‘assistants’, travels astrally. Science is merely his magic. He’s a shaman and an alchemist, and the thing he’s ultimately about is transformation. He’s even given to transforming himself from time to time.
Evil in his universe tends to be less an absolute force and more a product of the misguided or misunderstood. It’s less about kicking bad guys and more about healing the sick. In The Empty Child, for example, the malevolent monster disguised as a child crying for his mummy turns out to be nothing other than a child crying for his mummy.
The fans might baulk to hear this, but the character can only time travel as well as the script writers allow him. Unless this new series is made for us, about our time, it’s a waste of our time. Its conceit is to present something that’s about now but to aim for the audience of old – the universal, family audience of long-lost liberal England. It finds that audience more fractured, less homogenous than in the past. So it presents its main character as lost, the last of his kind, fighting battles others have forgotten. The adventure is on. Just as he journeys to heal some imaginary alien society, the Doctor must spin stories whose telling re-bonds us, which heal our society. If that sounds like a tall order, then small wonder the failures are frequent. But adventures are not made to be easy. And there are successes in there too.
“You need a Doctor”, Christopher tells us in the series’ finale.
Damn right we do.
Sunday, 13 July 2008
Exploring new frontiers of time and relative dimensions in lateness, here’s something about the Ecclestone era of Doctor Who – beamed in from the old print days of Lucid Frenzy. After the second part, something slightly more recent will follow. Try to imagine the title atop an imaginary Target novelisation, Daleks advancing across village greens and exterminating cricketers. Oh, and PS – Plot Spoilers!
The Time Paradox
It’s reminiscent of that quote from the Woody Allen film, about wanting our loved ones to take over the role of our parents – while simultaneously putting right every wrong thing we feel our parents ever did to us. But it’s also reminiscent of the scene from the Simpsons where Bart hugs the TV instead of Homer, because “it did more to raise me than you did!”
In short we expect the new Doctor to live up to every selective and over-inflated childhood memory we have of the old – while simultaneously souping up and revitalizing the show for our more discerning modern palettes. And then we go and invest a completely disproportionate amount of emotional weight on it succeeding.
Meanwhile, in counting up special effects budgets or measuring the wobbliness of sets, we simultaneously miss the point from the opposite angle. Just turning a Dalek’s plunger arm into a deadly weapon is like sticking a tail fin and cattle grille on an old banger. Without changing anything under the bonnet, you’re just weighting it down.
Perhaps the best thing the new series can do is sidestep the whole question, and encourage us to do the same. Like a rock star’s son, it has to cut itself free from the shadow and take to the stage in its own right.
Mirrors That Reflect
Besides, for all our nostalgism there’s a lot with the old Doctor Who which needs putting right. How familiar does this sound? An old boy with contrived eccentricities and some annoying kids turn up on some arbitrary planet. There reside some good but rather ineffectual guys, who turn out to be beset by some apparently effectual bad guys. They run around for a bit, then by episode six find out the bad guys are super-susceptible to something or other. Maybe it’s the rubbing of fingers on balloons, the seven times table being recited backwards, or something else along those lines. This dispatches said baddies screamingly, there’s a wheezing groaning noise and they’re off to do it all again the following Saturday.
The very professionalism of the Doctor’s philanthropy becomes a problem. He’s like a cosmic plumber, the bodily extension of his sonic screwdriver, never actually touched by the problems he solves. He’s like a space tourist, admiring the scenery but never actually getting out the car. The right hands saw this problem and made sure the situation reflected the inner state of the Doctor and his companions in some way. But all too often he was in the wrong hands, and became a cipher.
The new series strides in proclaiming its desire to fix this fault in our cosmic fixer-upper. As ever, Andrew Rilstone puts it well: “[Russell] Davies said that he wanted Doctor Who to be character driven. Or ‘emotionally literate’, if you insist… The main ‘fantasy’ plot can be quite silly, but this doesn’t matter because it is really only a peg on which to hang some character drama. The End of the World was not really about a lot of rich aliens on a spaceship being menaced by a baddie, it was about the Doctor’s relationship with Rose.”
Once you grasp this central point you get the very advantage, not only of Doctor Who but of fantasy, SF, magic realism or whatever you choose to call it. In a soap, to reflect the character’s mental state you have their kitchen or front room. If they’re in a bad way, this room could look a bit messy. In SF you can build a whole planet up from scratch just for them. Its like comparing a fairground hall of mirrors with the mirror in your bathroom. One looks more interesting than the other, but that interest is based on the knowledge that its still reflecting you in some distorted way. Forget that and it soon becomes a gimmick or mere distraction.
No Direction Home – The Strange Death of the (Old) Doctor
Once you get the sense that this could all be going somewhere, then good plot construction can come on board. This means more than simple plot twists, such as the near-weekly notion that Rose must be dead… no really dead this time, no wait, there she is by the drinks machine. Several times it pulls the street magician’s trick of getting our eyes to follow him in one direction while he pulls the rabbit out from another. Returning to The End of the World, we start off thinking this is Rose’s story, about her exile from home. Then we’re hit with the Death of the Time Lords! The Doctor’s the one who can never go home! Whok! We never saw that left hook coming!
Once introduced, this ‘never go home’ theme becomes the main thread of the series.It’s not one that every episode hammers away at, but the more successful episodes tend to allude to it in some way. It’s a smart card to play for it has a metafictional dimension, which plays on the series’ nostalgism. In a very real sense the Doctor’s home world is dead – the family sitting down together and tuning in the paternalistic old BBC set, with honey still for tea. His reappearance conjures up associated memories of our own childhoods, also dead.
But it also has a deeper, more political dimension.The Doctor was the epitome of English enlightened paternalism. Shouldering the white man’s burden as he sorted out their problems for the Thals or this week’s gang of grateful foreigners. Yet there was simultaneously a genuine liberalism about him – a distrust of conformity, a celebration of difference, a faith in brains over brawn. Its scarcely a coincidence that the series’ classic era was the ‘permissive’ Sixties and Seventies, a moment of opportunity poised between the crushing rocks of the two Cold Wars.
But while the strange death of liberal England has dragged most popular media rightwards, Davies’ Doctor recoils to the left. Most episodes have some political subtext or other. Let’s take The End of the World again, seeing as it’s lying so handily where we last left it. It parries resurgent British xenophobia by exposing the absurdity of keeping Earth-race purity alive while the planet is dying. So far, reasonably traditional. Pertwee or Baker could have done all that. Other episodes push it a touch further, putting crop-tech dystopias against anarchist rebels (The Long Game).
But Aliens of London most decisively runs up the colours, which are no longer classic small-l liberalism. The real Prime Minister is usurped and locked in a wardrobe by shapeshifting profiteering alien imposters, only for the natural order to be restored and the golden age returned. In The Empty Child, the Doctor tells wartime London not to forget to create the welfare state. (Even though we all have.) For all its frenetic modernity and foregrounding of mobiles and internet connections, the New Doctor is Old Labour.
Try Satire and Some Take Ire
But perhaps the biggest leap is into direct political satire, undertaken most blatantly by the controversial Aliens of London. The significance wasn’t that the Doctor was put into conflict with some value embodied by the British Establishment (such as warmongering), but that he was put into conflict with the sitting Cabinet – or at least an immediately transparent stand-in. This was a leap too far for even the more intelligent quarters of Who fandom (aka Andrew Rilstone) who complained the programme traditionally addressed such questions through “allegory or morality play… Had I been briefed to talk about Iraq in the Doctor Who format, I would either have sent the Doctor to… some totally fictitious world on the brink of war, or else… used the real war as a backdrop to an alien-invasion story.”
As well as being ‘un-Who’, Andrew seems to take exception to the metafictional implications – the story is simultaneously set in our ‘real’ world and yet not. Well so is every other piece of political satire ever written! I have a vision of a puzzled Andrew sitting before Spitting Image or holding a Steve Bell cartoon, wondering why Thatcher is suddenly a puppet or Dubya now has a monkey’s body.
As for it being ‘un-Who’, perhaps so. Perhaps traditions are being undermined. But, if you’ll pardon the expression, who cares? For the post-war generation, sticking a Dalek spaceship in Trafalgar Square had a particular resonance. That’s why its variants could be repeated so often over the next twenty-five years without everyone switching off out of tedium. For us a flying machine crashing into a tower has a particular resonance, even when the tower’s the very un-twinned Big Ben. But it’s not the same resonance. The different image works upon us in a different way. We’re different folks and we need different strokes. New times warrant new approaches.
But if there’s no rule to stop the new Doctor doing satire as a genre, that doesn’t mean he can undo its own intrinsic flaws. This is less true of Aliens of London than of Bad Wolf, which mixes the old Pertwee episode Carnival of Monsters with Kneale’s Year of the Sex Olympics and then throws in a dash of the Truman Show for good measure. A parody of our TV-addled times is welcome, even from the TV, but going specifically for the Big Brother brand and the Anne Robinson quiz show is a mistake. It’s what turned the latter-day Simpsons to folly, seduced into toothlessness by the neatness of celebrity cameos. Animal Farm is not made a lesser work by the fact that Stalin never read Napoleon’s lines out on Jackanory. The first rule of satire is to never get too close to your target. Pissing on them works better that way. (Little capital is made from going for the brand names anyway. Giving The Weakest Link the death penalty is the throwaway gag you thought of the first time you saw it. More critical distance may have given more bite, not less.)
All Along the Telegraphing
But while the programme needs updating for our age, it can’t be taken too far or change be made for change’s sake. Can’t, but inevitably does. The old Doctor cuppa is put through the makeover cappuchino machine, and ends up tasting different but with a whole lot of froth to wade through. The first episode in particular gets things off to a very bad start, with lots of flip ‘ironic’ dialogue clearly tailored for the Buffy generation.
And of course on the back of this comes the hype. Which at best is harmless, and its even fun to see Daleks back on the cover of the Radio Times. But with the hype comes the telegraphing. You can run from this, but it’s hard to hide. For example, even if you didn’t read the hype articles it was hard to switch off the telly before the next-episode trailer. First the initial Dalek appearance was given this way, when it was clearly written to be a surprise sprung on you mid-way through the episode. But this was beaten hands down by the second Dalek appearance, given away despite being a cliffhanger twist delivered at the end of the next episode!
Of course you can get all meta-historical about this if you so desire. Legends and folk tales absolutely lack the concept of a first reading (and with it the concept of a twist or surprise), as they were normally recited communally. It would be like putting a twist in the middle of the Easter Mass. Even early novels had chapter-head summaries which existed solely to give the game away – “whereupon Jane discovers Mr. Rochester’s first wife to be still alive, quite mad and hiding in the attic” etc. But those things were written that way! Today’s stuff is written with the twists in mind, then spoils them itself!
Part Two will follow shortly…
Sunday, 6 July 2008
SILENCE IN THE LIBRARY/ FOREST OF THE DEAD
Never one to shirk controversy, I’m willing to stick my head on the block and call Stephen Moffat a quite good Doctor Who writer. It’s only surprising how few others have noticed this…
This two-parter partly reminded me of The Matrix, only in a good way. After hordes of horrific copycats, including some by the makers of The Matrix, you need that qualifier! But like The Matrix it divided everything into two realities, then signifies the ‘real’ reality (where people do normal things) as fake and the big adventure one as real. It’s quite literally the TV adventure show which is the real thing here! Moffat even extended to convention by metafictionally lumbering ‘real’ reality with storytelling devices, such as jump-cutting.
By this point Moffat’s mofits are starting to show, for example the innocuous phrase turned into sinister catchphrase ("are you my catchphrase?", "Hey, who chose my catchphrase?"), or its corollary the hysterical cry repeated in modulated tones. Does this mean that in three years time we'd be as glad to see the back of Moffat as much as Davies? Possibly, except many of Davies' devices were bad news to start with. (Deux est machina = Latin for cheating.) A better example might be Chris Claremont, people found his scripts fresh at first but the faster and faster he was made to churn them out made them old fast. Maybe Moffat shouldn't write any more episodes per series than he is currently.
A combination of the fact we know this to be the budget episode and the trailer suggested we were to get something of a rip-off, specifically of the classic Twlight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,00 Feet- so it was a pleasantly surprise when what appeared was a more intelligent homage to another episode entirely, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.
Personally, I’m always a sucker for claustrophobic/cabin fever stories so I was away. I didn't quite understand the point of the trip if they couldn't even look outside once they got to the emerald waterfall, but...
Perhaps the moment which sums up the episode’s effectiveness is when the woman is first taken over by the monster. As she slowly turns to face us we naturally expect some sort of rubber mask, but the spooky expression she makes merely with her own face is much more effective. It was fitting for the 'monster' to stay unexplained (what was its relationship to the Sky woman? etc), and we can only hope they don't retrofit some post-hoc bollocks onto it later. With the whole point that it was the Wormtongue thing which could make you think and do the worst, to explain it would just undermine it. It’s also cool the way the Doctor didn't solve everything, the second time they've done that this series. (After Planet of the Ood.)
Whilst watching the episode, I wondered how much more involving it would be if this wasn’t a Doctor Who story at all, if we didn’t know for sure whether the stranger was or wasn’t involved with us all. However, some people on the Barbelith board argued it was effective to see the Doctor deprived of his powers – after all we’re used to his power of persuasion being used almost as a super-power.
It's classic wish fulfilment stuff of course. If we'd just taken one random turn left instead of right, we wouldn't be working in offices but out living lives of adventure and saving the universe on a semi-regular basis. Not that there's anything wrong with that. As a measure of how much I liked this episode I don't have actual criticisms. But there's a few points I was a bit agnostic about...
i) I found the motives for the Trickster a bit obscure. (Assuming it doesn't turn out to have been on the side of Armageddon, which isn't suggested. It’s more like it was a mega-cardshark who came across Donna at random.)
ii) The series often foregrounds genre conventions. Normally you're not supposed to ponder on the likelihood of the Doctor meeting Donna twice, you just accept it as a story enabler. Then they suddenly pick it up and wave it at you. The risk here is that by flagging up some conventions they’ll expose and undermine all of them, and bring down the house of cards we’re watching.
iii) Perhaps relatedly, this episode was heavily reliant on past continuity. You even had to think why the Master and the Toclafane don't turn up. (Presumably because the Doctor going to the far future makes that happen.) While elements had previously been seeded, that tended towards the background and the episodes themselves worked pretty much standalone. It's true I happily watch serials where the very opposite is true (I've even watched Babylon 5 from time to time!), but I'm not sure that a series shouldn't come down on one side or the other.
Moreover, this question perhaps has an extra edge in the context of New Who. More than anything else, New Who has two sets of foundations – the old mass-broadcast family TV show, then the later novels and radio plays thrown to hungry fans whilst it was off the air. I had previously dismissed these (sight unseen) as fanwank, though I was later to discover some of my more favourite stories to be based in them. (For example, Family of Blood.) Nevertheless, while it will be forever pulled in the direction of its more vocal audience, the show neglects its general audience at its peril.
THE STOLEN EARTH
These grand finales can’t help but induce a split reaction in you. Throughout New Who, they’ve normally been eclipsed by seemingly more minor episodes. And that seems true of them taken as a whole, it’s not just a matter of the pay-offs not packing enough of a punch. Dalek was much more memorable than Parting of the Ways, Girl in the Fireplace than Doomsday and Blink than Last of the Time Lords. It’s as if Who was always an eccentricity, a quirk of scheduling which didn’t translate into the scale and portent of event TV. (True, the mid-season two-parters have often fared better, for example Silence in the Library from this very series.) And yet when you sit down before them, cup of tea in hand, you find your hopes are high…
This finale induced a big fear in particular – crowding. With so many guest stars (most from two spin-off series I don’t even watch) would there be room to actually do anything, or would this be the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards? This did become a problem, but not as much as might have been feared. While some complained the ‘subspace network’ was yet another contrivance, we needed such a contrivance if this was to be stitched together at all. But Davies’ real smart move was to remove the Doctor from most of the action; the more and more who reappear the more we’re reminded the Doctor isn’t there.
However, the one pointless reappearance and cul-de-sac of a subplot was the Juddoon. It’s already been established that they’re the only sort of police we’re ever going to get in the Whoniverse, rulebook-bashing meatheads who border on mercenaries. Now, for the first time in his many lives, the Doctor goes running for the fuzz? Then gets surprised when they react a bit like… um… the police might do? Neither do they actually help him solve the riddle, their ostensible purpose, so much as stand around while Tennant speed-dates some exposition. It would have made more sense and induced more tension to keep the Doctor offscreen rather than subject us to this.
Now you, me and everybody has had cause to complain Davies just writes big set-pieces stitched together by sci-fi gobbledygook. But then again those set-pieces don’t write themselves, and at times he exhibits a huge talent for them. When we look upon our heroes crestfallen faces as they hear the massed Daleks endlessly chanting “exterminate… exterminate…” it’s a memorable moment, a positive twist on the way they’ve been successively reduced to a catchphrase over the years. (Though admittedly its heartrending to try and imagine how much better that would have worked if we hadn’t been tipped off the Daleks were coming.)
Better still, this is smartly followed by a scene which suggests the very opposite. Though not picked up on by the good guys, there’s clearly murky goings-on in the world of Dalek politics. What might have been mere melodrama suggests a slightly unstable triangle between Davros, the Red Dalek and the insane, babbling Caan.
Okay, so Davies ain’t gonna quit those deux est machina devices anytime soon. We know going in that he’ll paint everyone into a corner, give us some feint about letting off a big bomb, after which it’s Donna’s go at becoming God - fixing everything then getting better. (Or more accurately, worse.) But why does it have to be yesterday’s card trick up his sleeve? What we get is a fusion of the ending of the first and second series, or possibly the second series upside down. Donna’s temporarily granted everything she was ever after, but this not only means she can never have it again – it has to unhappen, she has to be taken memory-less back to her former life, a kind of death.
But admittedly Davies is bringing back something which works. Donna’s entire plotline has throughout been classic wish-fulfilment, if a temp from Chiswick is ‘special’ enough to save the entire Universe then what price could be laid on you or me? (“You've had a life of work and sleep and telly, and rent and tax and takeaway dinners. All birthdays and Christmases and two weeks' holiday a year, and then you end up here.”) By embracing such wish-fulfilment, Davies hits the nail on the head.
And then what is there left to do to the nail but bend it? It’s perhaps ironic that after worlds have been moved and put back again, the most memorable scene is the Doctor telling her he’s off, her not really hearing and him walking out into the rain. Understatement can be the strongest language of all.
Onto other business… the Doctor’s ‘reincarnation’ was in itself merely manipulative. Davies had clearly thought there’s no point to a cliffhanger which ‘kills’ the Doctor, as we all know he won’t die. But he just might reincarnate – so let’s throw in that!
However, it did give us the subplot of the ‘other’ Doctor. There’s the nice scene when Davros triumphantly brings up something oft-mentioned by fans, that the Doctor merely outsources his destructiveness to others. The other Doctor is clearly his id, this destructiveness made manifest – as witnessed by his exterminating the Daleks. Unfortunately the episode is so busy that the plotline feels undeveloped. Though the proper Doctor registers his disapproval of this explosive solution, we really need a confrontation between them we don’t get. As in the genre conventions it foregrounds, it ends up almost proving the very rule it set out to undermine – in the absence of anyone else, the Doctor just conjures up another him to do the dirty deed.
And on the subject of underdeveloped subplots… It’s revealed that Davros is far from master of his creations. Though the Doctor taunts him as their ‘pet’, it seems more like he’s treated like an awkward grandfather, given his own flat from where he’s visited rarely. The supreme egoist might have preferred death to this dishonour. However this splendid revelation is dropped only to fall, it’s not really taken anywhere.
And what’s all this about the Daleks wanting to destroy the universe? Haven’t they previously clamoured to conquer, to press the rest of us into servitude? Isn’t one of the ironies of their limbless existence that they need slaves, to quite literally be their hands and feet? If they had reasoned that they were never likely to conquer the universe, that their failures had been too frequent, so instead they needed to burn Rome, that might have been a nice moment. As it was it pushed them back into the generic – they were simply bad aliens doing bad things, just so they could be stopped.
NOT MUCH OF A CONCLUSION...
After the distinctly below-par third series, this was something of a return to form. (Admittedly it had duff episodes, but Who always has and probably always will…) Whether this was Davies saving the good stuff up for his swan song is of course another thing but (as the saying goes) who cares?