An Epic Whinge

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A review of 'The Stolen Earth' / 'Journey's End'.  This is from the old site; heavily edited and partly rewritten.  Not much politics in this.  It's mostly about what I see as shortcomings in dramatic values.  

So, it’s the end of the season again and it’s time for the Earth to be invaded again, by semi-mechanical aliens again, some of them flying down from the sky to shoot the people who are conveniently milling about in the streets like targets. Again.

Meanwhile, the obligatory soldiers are dying as they fight their obligatory pointless last stand while General Dempsey (or is it Makepeace? I never could remember which was which) gets to say things like “Ladies and Gentlemen… we are at war!” (how original) and hand Martha the obligatory Ominous Bit of Unexplained Technology, which this week has a name that sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel.

But all that stuff is happening in the background, ceding the foreground to the Meeting of the Spin-Offs.

The fact that we are watching the linkage of bits of a franchise (rather than, say, characters meeting each other) is underlined by the fact that they meet on a screen, as though Rose (who’s been off doing all the stuff that would’ve constituted Rose Tyler: Earth Defence if it’d got made) is watching four different Doctor Who programmes at once.

But what is the point of all this multi-show and multicontinuity convergence? ‘The Stolen Earth’ is behaving like it is trying to “sum up an era” (i.e. the last four years) in order to provide a fittingly epic swansong for David Tennant. In fact, it seems almost as if this vast fanwank panorama has been created in order to gull the unwary (all those people who hadn’t seen the pics from the filming of the Christmas special) into thinking that a proper regeneration really is on the cards.

The approach taken by ‘The Stolen Earth’ might be the kind of thing that the general public would expect from a Tennant bow-out. A ‘Greatest Hits’ medley before the curtains come down. How strange that ‘Rose’ insisted on behaving as though the fans didn’t exist and now ‘The Stolen Earth’ treats the entire nation like fans, expecting them to put up with acres of technobabble and to be thrilled by the reappearances of Harriet Jones, Captain Jack, Sarah-Jane, the Judoon, etc., etc., etc. They are even expected to be thrilled by the return of Davros. Even the continuity announcer talked about “the return of an old enemy”. Hearing that, those millions of non-fan viewers watching probably expected to see the Master turn up, or Margaret Slitheen, or the Dalek Emperor.

The only explanation seems to be that RTD & Co. are actually thinking of their viewership as all being fans. That’s why they can pitch ‘The Stolen Earth’ as David Tennant’s Epic Last Story (Or Is It?), Featuring All Your Old Favourites.

Thing is… from amidst this vast collision of back-references, something bigger does emerge. A feeling of unity. And, with it, a feeling of mythic hugeness. Suddenly, Doctor Who seems aware of its vastness and seems to be trying to unify its disparate but interconnected parts. Sadly, the feeling is very superficial and entails the further fetishisation of Our Hero, shown in the way people are talking about him in hushed tones when he's not around.

The end result? A sort of volcanic eruption of a story, caused by the tectonic plates of three linked TV shows (and at least two more untelevised ones, if you follow me) smashing into each other and grinding against each other over a fault-line.

And what a massive fault-line it is. A great big crack up which the programme is disappearing.

The thing that could've made the first episode worthwhile was a follow up episode that closed into a smaller and more intimate drama about people with conflicting viewpoints trying to survive. Not 'Midnight' all over again, but something which nonetheless played to RTD's strengths as a writer about people trapped together in boxes.

Sadly, we got an avalanche of mindless technobabble in the service of a contrived and clunky plot that was, despite some nobler intentions, fundamentally about things exploding.

Davies began in 2005 by trashing the paradigm of Doctor Who as a culty programme about monsters and technology and instead tried to make it human drama against a sci-fi backdrop. How strange that he should end his tenure as show-runner with a dramatically inert orgy of Sawardian narrative spaghetti and Douglas Adamsesque technogobbledegook. And, continuity. Lots and lots of continuity.

There is a quite breathtaking disregard for how stories work. Previously unmentioned plot devices pop up by the dozen in order to do things that don't need to happen, which mean nothing and which don't lead anywhere. Sudden eruptions of apparently improvised nonsense materialise in order to subvert the Doctor’s regeneration, create a second Doctor, turn Donna into a demi-Time Lord, and so on.

Mickey and Jackie are brought back for no reason. There wasn’t anything done by Mickey and Jackie that couldn’t have been done by Gwen and Ianto, or more properly by Wilf and Sylvia, but they’d all been clumsily written out or sidelined in order to make space for… Mickey and Jackie.

The sidelining of Wilf is a particular shame. The Cribbmeister really was the jewel of the season and I did enjoy seeing him running around a Dalek-infested London in ‘The Stolen Earth’. I kept on expecting to see adverts for Sugar Puffs behind him.

The TARDIS ends up crammed with pointless passengers in a way not seen since the limp final scenes of ‘The Awakening’. The actual story (regarding the threat to the universe and other little things like that) ends ages before the credits in order to let the Doctor say “emotional” farewells to passenger after passenger. There simply wouldn’t be time for this sort of thing, plus all the febrile technobabble, plus the ridiculous sequence in which the TARDIS tows the Earth home, plus the nonsense with the Osterhagen Thing (of which, more later), plus all Davros’ sub-Lecter taunts, etc., etc., etc… except that RTD was by now in a position to get an extra 20 minutes of episode length into which it can all be crammed.

As for Donna’s destiny… well, the companion gets infused with yellow energy that gives her special powers that enable to her save the day when all seems lost; this event ripples back through time causing peculiar foreshadowings to occur in the previous episodes of the season. Heard that before somewhere.

Thing is, Donna's thunder is stolen by the totally unnecessary duplicate Doctor, who seems to be in the episode solely so he can go back to the alt-universe with Rose and become her Time Lord-shaped love toy. We don’t need the duplicate Doctor. He does nothing for the plot that a Gallifreyanised Donna couldn’t do. Apart from doing the genocidal dirty work for the real Doctor (a particularly weasley cop-out), he’s just another flapping indulgence in a whole script full of them.

At least the Osterhagen Wossname gave us the only really witty and pointed sequence in the episode, the scenes in Germany with Daleks gliding around the sylvan birthplace of legally sanctioned Nazi anti-semitism, shouting at the locals in German!

Sadly, this whole sequence seems like an afterthought. The reference to Nazism is clearly deliberate (the Osterhagen Thingummyjig could’ve been anywhere, it didn’t need to be Nuremberg) and links up to the running themes of ‘Midnight’ and ‘Turn Left’ about xenophobia and hysteria, but in the middle of ‘Journey’s End’ it just floats there, looking promising but not really doing anything. The Daleks’ plan is, presumably, predicated upon their conviction that nobody in creation deserves to live except them, but at no point did the episode try to bring their ultra-racist ideology to the fore.

There was, seemingly, an attempt to hint at a sort of sub-theme regarding apocalyptic human destructiveness. Nuremberg has inescapable connotations. Osterhagen turned out to be a load of nuclear weapons (tediously enough). But, sadly, none of the hints add up anything particularly interesting or intelligible… which is a shame because the episode tries, several times, to hark back to one of the most sophisticated and intelligent of all classic Who stories: ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. We have a Wisher-style Davros who once again meets Sarah-Jane. Shame Sarah says something silly about having “learned how to fight”. She knew how to fight in ‘Genesis’! She organised a slave rebellion, bravely endured torture and egged the Doctor on to commit genocide!

Audios aside, in ‘Journey’s End’, Davros was probably at his best (at least as a character in his own right) since his first appearance... though that isn’t to say he was particularly interesting. Julian Bleach gave a superb performance and relished those few scenes in the story in which Davros is allowed to do anything vaguely interesting, i.e. the scenes in which he taunts the Doctor for his alleged hypocrisy. Once again, Davros becomes worthwhile (just about) whenever he starts talking like a person with a viewpoint. The view of the Doctor that he expresses is quite fitting. To him, the Doctor is a war criminal with a sanctimonious line in false pacifism.

Davros accuses him of taking “ordinary people and turning them into weapons” and “murderers”. But, the thing is, Davros doesn’t really have much of a point. He contradicts himself by earlier accusing the Doctor of being a mass murderer. Well Dav, which is it? Is the Doctor a coward who gets other people to do the dirty work for him or is a he “a Time Lord who butchered millions”? You can’t have it both ways. The Doctor’s response to this incoherence is to go all wobbly-lipped and stare at the floor having sad flashbacks.

If the episode is to be anything more than just a load of CGI explosions and continuity porn, then this scene has to amount to something. Davros has to have a point and the Doctor has to have his nose rubbed in it. This is obviously what the episode is aiming for, but it doesn’t happen.

The Doctor’s soul is revealed, we are told, when the “Children of Time” appear and threaten to blow lots of people up. This, supposedly, reveals the Doctor’s inner darkness by demonstrating how he takes harmless people and makes them killers. Davros then lets loose with some spiel about the Doctor “never looking back because he dare not, out of shame.” But shame about what? Turning people into killers? Very little evidence of that in those anguished flashbacks. Harriet might kill the Sycorax but she does so without the Doctor’s prior knowledge or approval. Jabe doesn’t kill anyone. The Controller of the Gamestation organises the harvesting of humans for the Daleks; it’s nothing to do with the Doctor. Lynda doesn’t kill anyone. That bloke from ‘Tooth and Claw’ doesn’t kill anyone. Mrs Moore doesn’t kill anyone. Neither do any of the people in ‘Love & Monsters’, or the Face of Boe! Chantho tries to kill the Master entirely on her own initiative. Astrid kills Max Capricorn, I grant you. Luke kills a load of Sontarans but the Doctor doesn’t ask him to. To be honest, ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ was so boring that I can’t remember if Jenny kills anyone or not, but if she does then it’s because she’s bred for war. River kills no-one (up to this story anyway). The Stewardess from ‘Midnight’ is prepared to commit murder without needing the Doctor’s persuasion or approval, and – apart from herself - she only kills Sky, whose consciousness is probably already dead.

So what, exactly, is the Doctor remembering with such shame. A trail of deaths? Okay, well, that means that the focus has shifted from the Doctor’s hypocrisy in making people into killers (which seems a weak charge on the basis of the evidence so far) and is now on how many people die when he’s around. But, once again, the Doctor is personally responsible for few of those deaths recalled by the flashbacks. It might be sad to remember all those dead people, but I can’t see any reason for the Doctor to feel ashamed.

It’s also interesting that some people are left out of the Doctor’s quivering, angsty, flashback-fit. He forgets about Morvin and Foon and Bannakaffalatta. He also forgets about Gwyneth from ‘The Unquiet Dead’. Funny that she should be left out, because he’s probably more directly responsible for her death than he is for any of the other people in the flashbacks.

Then there’s his failure to remember all the people who died because he drew the Family of Blood to Earth. Surely, if the Doctor was going to feel genuinely conscience-stricken, he ought to be thinking about that poor little girl with the red balloon.

The unfortunate fact is that this sequence, as it stands, fails to say anything meaningful about the character of the Doctor. All it really does is underline the annoying frequency with which people in nu-Who suddenly decide to sacrifice themselves in order to end plots and force the audience to mist up.

Moreover, none of this ersatz soul searching is followed up. There is no scene in which the Doctor is forced to confront a choice that undermines his sense of himself, as in ‘The Parting of the Ways’ or, far more intelligently, in ‘Genesis of the Daleks’. The issues are left unresolved, though not in the same way that ‘Genesis’ refuses to give pat answers to its own knotty questions.

‘Journey’s End’ weasels out. The real Doctor doesn’t have to decide to kill all the Daleks (again) because his double does it for him. Martha’s situation with the Osterhagen device is potentially interesting. In a sense, she’s in the same situation as the Doctor in ‘The Parting of the Ways’: should she destroy the human race in order to end their suffering? But she isn’t forced to make the choice. She is transmatted up to the Crucible for the Big Confrontation… meaning, in practice, to stand around like everybody else until Donna and Doctor2 sort things out with technobabble!

Donna’s doom, being forced to once again become her former self, was probably the best part of the episode - the harshest, most disturbing, most uncompromising part. The only bit with any guts.

So, the season 4 finalé proved not to be a big farewell party for the tenth Doctor, with all his old friends invited; instead it looked like a big farewell party for Russell T Davies, with all his old characters invited. Trouble is, it’s a self-organized party and, like all self-organized parties it’s rather embarassing.


Lucy McGough 7 years, 11 months ago

... I should probably stop now. Still, this was highly entertaining :-D

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