The inevitable round-up of my Timelash II stuff on Series 4 and the ‘specials’. It’s a bumpy ride.
Voyage of the Damned
In this story, fat people or little people are there to sacrifice themselves when the plot needs them to, having shown some fatuous mechanical bravery and/or expressed some mawkish emotion-by-numbers. Sexy, pretty people are inherently of more value, whatever their intellectual vapidity and hollowness as characters, as evidenced by the Doctor’s laughably protracted and exaggerated heartbreak over the death of anonymous, mechanised dummy Astrid (seriously, I was waiting for her to be revealed as an Auton). The episode itself mourns her too, with its frankly revolting music and hilarious over-emphasis on her passing (one last kiss with the radiant ghost, a shooting star, etc…)
We’re supposed to gasp with awe at the way RTD Subverts Expectations by letting Unpleasant Posh Bloke survive while ‘good’ people die (oooh, have a little pat on the head you good little people – you have done your master’s bidding and died on cue like the plot fodder you always were)… but so what? Bad people don’t always get their comeuppance? Wow, thanks for that.
And, in any case, this ‘message’ is undercut by the way we’re obviously supposed to consider the death of Astrid more important than all the other deaths in the episode. Why is this? Well, RTD makes the Minogue character into a lowly waitress… but this only suggests that he’s desperately trying to deny the patently obvious: she’s more important in the story because she’s played by a star.
Remember that bit in ‘The Stolen Earth’ when Davros taunts the Doctor about how he turns ordinary people into killers and the Doctor then has a maudlin (and irrelevant) series of flashbacks of all the people he’s known who’ve died? We get a flash of Astrid. Do we get flashes of Morvin, Foon and Banakafalatta? In a pig’s arse. Little people. Not important. That’s why it’s so unintentionally revealing when, in ‘Waters of Mars’, we’re supposed to be shocked by the Doctor using the actual phrase “little people”. Thing is, the show itself has been thinking like that for ages. Even in ‘Waters of Mars’, the death of the Lindsy Duncan character is more earthshattering because she’s played by Lindsy Duncan.
As Lawrence Miles said, RTD is now so thoroughly trapped in the self-celebrating Meedja echo chamber that he now has the Doctor being chased by BAFTAs.
Yes, the villain turns out to be a ruthless capitalist (who – as in Bond films – is bad because he’s a criminal, not because he’s a capitalist) but this hardly says anything at all… not in an episode in which we’re also supposed to think that Wilf’s patriotic bibble is cute and lovable, in which the Doctor is implied to be a friend of the Queen, in which his big achievement is to save Buckingham Palace. The implications are thoroughly and mindlessly reactionary. Right-wing, Little Englander, flag-waving, royalty-saluters are Lovable British Eccentrics. The British state and aristocracy are Lovable British Eccentrics. Nasty capitalists are quite a seperate, outside menace that actually threatens these Lovable British Institutions.
We’re a long, long way away from Prime Ministers with rapacious, sniggering, profiteer-warmongers inside them, plotting to destroy the world for money while Andrew Marr looks on and witters about process.
What’s this all about? I think it may come from the previous season, in which RTD seems to have slipped from his greatest height (‘Gridlock’, in which he saw human society … especially a post-hierarchy one… as essentially constructive and redemptive) by gradually convincing himself that humans are actually pretty vile creatures (c.f. the Toclafane). So, what’s left? Praise individual heroism, weep over the passing of special little (pretty and famous) buttercups like Astrid, melt into the media, fetishize the Doctor (at times in this episode he looks like Christ as depicted in a Calvin Klein advert), worship the status quo.
Of course, the other thing is that the show now clearly thinks of itself (so to speak) as another of these Lovable Eccentric British Institutions. That’s why the Doctor and the Queen are mates: because they’re both the same kind of creature. They’re both amusing, lovable aspects of life in Great Britain, circa 2007.
Only Britain’s great?
Piss. Right. Off.
Partners in Crime
Witty, unexpected, comparatively reserved and quiet. Almost like a rebound reaction to the excesses of the previous story.
The farce style is just on the verge of getting dull when it stops. I especially like the absence of any outright malice in the ‘villain’, the absence of any tedious I’m-cute-but-change-into-a-monster shtick from the Adipose and the way the stock Plucky Female Investigative Journo proves to be incompetant and pathetic.
A miraculous return to form… bordering on a minor triumph.
The Fires of Pompeii
Funny one, this. Probably the most visually spectacular episode made up to that point, even upstaging ‘Shakespeare Code’, and for the same reasons: the use of a huge, pre-existing ‘set’. Sadly, it also suffers from some negative ‘Shakespeare Code’ syndromes, though in milder forms.
The past is frequently presented as just like now but in funny clothes. This isn’t as bad as in ‘Shakespeare Code’, but the family do just seem like the Joneses down the road getting ready for a toga party. Does it need to be this way? Is it really true that modern mainstream audiences would be unable to empathise with characters who weren’t easily recognisable present-day stock characters?
Also, like ‘Shakespeare Code’, this has an all-female organisation as a nest of evil… though ‘Fires’ manages not to utilise crone stereotypes.
There’s something satisfyingly nightmarish and apt about the business of people turning to stone. A little obvious perhaps, but still very good as a foreshadowing of the fate of the Pompeiians.
The episode has some interesting things to say about language and literacy. I can do no better than to quote Simon Kinnear on this issue:
…for such an extraordinary visual experience, The Fires of Pompeii was really about language, and how it shapes and changes cultures. So the soothsayers’ visions of the future are couched in deliberately opaque, evasive imagery (even if, ironically, here they’re hiding the fact that they really can see the future), and new words, like volcano, can only come into existence when circumstances provide the necessary context to demand them.
More importantly we see how, once created, those words live on: the running gag about ‘modern’ Latin being understood as Celtic is actually a neat way of showing the debt we owe Roman society. Despite the obligatory monsters, this was a genuine historical, arguably the first true one of the new series in that, unlike the much publicised celebrity historicals, it genuinely illuminated both the era it is set in and what those dusty figures mean to us. The emphasis on Rome’s rituals and superstitions demonstrate how even the most advanced societies, with their strong cultural identities and sophistication, are as in the dark as the rest of us about what’s going to come.
Sadly, we get a pedestrian aliens-want-to-take-over-the-world plot which we really don’t need in order to make the episode work. It could have been used to chime with Rome’s nature as an empire… except that this is only really mentioned once, in passing. Even the fact that many of the people living in Pompeii would’ve been slaves is left out… which is pretty inexcusable. Even Big Finish did better than that.
We don’t really get much of a look at the wider society at all. It was a bit hard to care about the Pompeiian extras when they started dying, despite the cynically placed screaming child, because we hadn’t really met them.
There was a lot to appreciate in the way that Donna didn’t do what other writers make companions do when they want to make wheezy moral dilemmas happen in their scripts: she didn’t fail to understand the issues at stake or the nature of the Doctor’s decision. She didn’t end up throwing a childish strop when the Doctor didn’t cave in and save the day. She begged for some lives, knowing that this was all she could ask for. Given that the “oh Doctor why can’t we save them?” stuff was inevitable, it was much better than I dared to hope.
Trouble is… there wasn’t really a dilemma, was there? Not about stopping the explosion anyway. What was the choice? Condemn the Earth to conquest by the Pyrovillians (stoopid, Terry Nationy name) or permit a catastrophe that was already part of history. Unpleasant? Certainly. A dilemma? Nope.
Mind you, for once, I can forgive the deifying of the Doctor… because it was a question of social/cultural perception. And because Donna was made a god too. You can understand the attitude of the people who were saved thinking of him them that way.
I like ‘Planet of the Ood‘ (predictably enough). Here, I explain why.
The Sontaran Poison Sky Stratagem Thing
Very pedestrian. A gallumphing eco-message that fails to connect with anything politically real. The rich kid genius is an utter stereotype who gets to ‘redeem’ himself via suicide, the way utter stereotypes tend to do. Meanwhile, Donna is self-consciously given ‘clever moments’ (the story seems to think we should find it surprising and inspirational that she should be capable of cleverness!) and the Doctor indulges in revoltingly self-righteous and hypocritical sniping at that General bloke.
By the big fight scenes at the end of ‘Poison Sky’, the Sontarans have reverted to dull crypto-Klingons.
Silence in the Library
…is a story about information, consciousness, knowledge, technology, etc. Words as information, information as books, books as symbols of our lives. The Doctor’s future written down in a book that he mustn’t open.
The Library is a symbol of human knowledge, literacy, thought… yet it has been penetrated by darkness and silence. Smothered by predatory ignorance. Shadows that strip us of our information, that strip all the flesh from our bones.
Information Technology. What is a book, after all, but information technology? But technology has moved on, presenting us with new dangers. The technology around us can sometimes catch us within it. We are turned into information… “saved” like computer files. That way can lead to data children, runaway processes. Sophisticated and morally neutral but immature and incompetent… like all technology in Moffat scripts, from the nanogenes to the self-repair mechanisms on the SS Madame de Pompadour.
Humans mesh with technology and turn themselves into information. Corrupted files. Data ghosts. Feedback loops. Walking skeletons repeating the same phrases into meaninglessness. A gigantic storehouse of information, stalked by the living dead.
My only real criticisms of the first episode? Well, it’s Moffat reshuffling his usual tropes again. And the name of the shadow creatures sounds too much like Sredni Vashtar. I’ve never been able to hear the name of these aliens without thinking of Conradin’s polecat.
Sadly, Forest of the Dead fails to live up to these suggested potentialities.
The sequences with Donna and her dream-family in the Matrix… sorry, I meant the Library computer, are very well done. Tate is good, the manipulation of time into fragmented and fleeting dream/story scene jumps is very clever. Miss Evangelista’s transfigured new self adds pathos, a visual shock moment and a touch of gothic creepiness.
But the system of images and references and connections in the first episode is not mined for any of the promised polyvalence. The iconography just sits there being ostentatiously freighted with meanings that are never expressed. If the first episode is a series of gnomic utterances, the second is the hopefully pregnant pause that follows when the speaker realises he hasn’t actually got anything very much to say.
It’s noticeable that, for all the concentration on books, nobody reads any. Or learns anything from them. Even the little girl, who was supposedly put into the library so she could live out her eternal afterlife amidst her beloved books, prefers to watch telly.
On a cruder level, ‘Forest’ doesn’t come up with any plot revelations that weren’t thunderingly obvious. It’s the Nanogenes all over again.
And the whole River thing is just stupid. She’s an inherently dull character, a wisecracking know-it-all and it seems risible that the Doctor would see anything so special in her that he would bond with her on such an implicatedly deep level…. unless he enjoys being worshipped and fetishised… which is interesting, given that such worship and fetishisation is the course implied with the whole finger-clicking incipient-godhood thing that this episode hints at. (It’s worth noting that Moffat had previously written another episode in which the Doctor is loved… no, revered by a woman with whom, on the surface, he should find no rapport.) Meanwhile, the Doctor’s bemusement over the temporal anomaly of his and River’s relationship is also absurd. Why would he be puzzled by a concept that has been self-evident to the audience since his first private conversation with the woman?
Oh, and all the people that were stored on the hard drive died. What reappears is a copy created from computer information. People are more than just iterations of information. The whole thing with Miss Evangelista’s misplaced IQ point reveals a deepy embedded set of reductionist assumptions.
Moffat has said that your view of this issue is connected to your religious belief… or lack of it. If you’re an atheist and materialist… so the implication goes… then you don’t believe in the soul and so, to you, the person reconstituted from information is no different to the original. But an understanding of humans as material creatures without a supernatural element doesn’t necessarily mean that brains are just fleshy hard drives and minds are software that may be copied without losing any essence. That is vulgar materialism, without any notion that humans are self-creating beings whose physical nature puts them into an intensely complex dialectical relationship with the external world and society.
Mind you, Who as a whole has always been dualist. Maybe, in this script, Moffat is just finally defining how the ‘ghost in the machine’ works in the Who universe.
The Next Doctor
The Dervla Kirwan character (sorry, can’t remember the name) has some good lines which suggest abuse at the hands of the ‘respectable’ ‘charitable’ ‘gentlemen’… which links up with the steampunk CyberKing as a kind of expression of the industrial revolution (i.e. the machine, capitalism, empire, wealthy society) as a great big system that uses people (including child-labourers) like slaves or fuel or fodder… but it doesn’t really amount to much, truth be told.
Ends up looking more like a cod pseudo-Dickensian musical without any songs.
Major point deductions for the depiction of the Kirwan character as a stereotypical manhater and the obligatory schmaltzy ending, with applause for the underappreciated Doctor (awww, bless).
The Waters of Mars
This really is a very pedestrian and obvious monsters-chase-anonymous-people-around-futuristic-base script, though directed with touches of genius by Graeme Harper.
Even the ‘Time Lord Victorious’ stuff is less impressive when you consider the hypocrisy of it. We’re supposed to be shocked by the Doctor’s hubris and his words about ‘little people’… and yet, watch, say, ‘Voyage of the Damned’ and its pretty clear that this is the very attitude taken by the modern show, at its worst. And, in any case, isn’t it just another kind of fetishisation to make the Doctor into a dangerous and godlike temporal puppetmaster?