|Suck it, Redgrave|
It’s June 24th, 2006. Nelly Furtado is at number one with “Maneater.” Shakira and Wyclef Jean, Bon Jovi, and Pink are also in the charts. In news, ummm… the United States celebrates Go Skateboarding Day. This is a real thing. I just looked it up. It’s a boring week, yes. England earn a 2-2 draw against Sweden in their last and largely irrelevant group game, setting them up for a clash with Ecuador the day after this story airs.
This story, of course, is Fear Her, the consensus worst story of the Russell T Davies era (and, I suspect, worst story of the new series were a thorough poll to be run today – I can’t think of any Moffat stories with enough sheer volume of hatred to overcome it). As ever, I don’t find the issue of why it’s bad supremely interesting. The short form is that the story was rushed and misconceived. Stephen Fry’s planned script for the second season had to be abandoned late in the process, so they grabbed Matthew Graham’s planned Series Three script off the reserve pile and put it into production quickly. Graham, for his part, appears to have had a crappy brief – he was told to do Yeti-on-the-loo style local terror with a target audience of seven-year-olds. To say that this is an awkward combination is an understatement, and virtually everything that’s wrong with the story can be traced to the basic inability to decide whether it’s a scary story or a naff cheap one for the kids, and the fact that these are a particularly bad pair of stools to fall between.
But two specific aspects of this tension are worth remarking upon. The first is Murray Gold, or, more accurately, his music. It’s become the populist choice to criticize Murray Gold’s Doctor Who scores in general. I’m not entirely sympathetic to this line of argument, but it’s not incoherent wibbling spat into the void either. Those that dislike Gold’s music usually point to two related problems. The first is that they are simply mixed too loud and too omnipresently. This is probably true, but not actually Murray Gold’s department, as he doesn’t do the final sound mixes for episodes. Still, Gold’s music is particularly prone to becoming overpowering because of the other complaint usually leveled against it, which is that it’s heavy-handed. This is also not inaccurate – Gold’s music exists largely to inform the audience how they should be feeling, and it is usually a bit unrelenting in the pursuit of that. This means that when it’s put a bit high in the mix the effect is more overwhelming even than the usual tendency towards volume over all else within sound mixing these days.
As I said, in the general case, at least, I am hard pressed to find much to complain about in Golds’s music. It’s blatant, but this is not necessarily a vice. One of the things that characterizes the new series is its relentlessly fast pace. This pace is accomplished through narrative shorthand – establishing details of characters and situations in a comparatively sketchy fashion and trusting the audience to fill in the details. Murray Gold’s music is tremendously helpful in accomplishing that, because it provides an extremely efficient means of communicating emotional tone to the audience. A few notes of Flavia’s Theme is sufficient to communicate “this is a spooky and mysterious bit.” The chirpy lilt of Clara’s theme is sufficient to cut through any amount of epic bombast and immediately communicate “and now the perfectly ordinary human is taking charge of things for a bit.” The insistent bass and piano hits at the start of “Doomsday” (the music piece, not the episode) immediately say “we’re building up towards something now.” All of this is accomplished in seconds, and without a moment of dialogue. It’s an invaluable tool to increase the density of the music, and more to the point it’s a solid use of the full scope of television as a medium. The music is often relied upon to communicate vital pieces of information. And since Gold combines that with a reasonable ear for a catchy tune (there’s not a fan alive who can’t hum “I Am The Doctor,” even if they don’t know that that’s the official name of the Eleventh Doctor’s hero theme).
Nevertheless, when it comes to Fear Her we get a bracing demonstration of how it can go all wrong for Murray Gold. His brief was clearly the same as Matthew Graham’s, namely “kids episode,” and so he covers the episode with a sort of plinky music that screams “television adaptation of The Famous Five” and not “otherworldly horror consuming a neighborhood.” And this ends up smothering the episode in its grave, keeping it from ever getting any dramatic tension. The music is working against it at every turn, saying “this is not actually a big deal at all” about every aspect of the drama. This makes the entire episode feel disposable and silly in a way it doesn’t have to. It’s the musical equivalent of that moment in Coupling where Jane declares that being a children’s presenter is easy because “you just have to waggle your head a lot and shout.” It’s making children’s television that doesn’t actually have any respect for children as an audience, and it’s painful to watch.
This brings us to the second odd moment of tension within Fear Her, which is the moment when the entire population of the Olympic Stadium vanishes into thin air, to the only minimal alarm of the television announcers, who blithely go back to covering the torch relay, and who later seem more upset when the torchbearer keels over than they were when, you know, tens of thousands of people vanished into thin air. (Notably, the torchbearer being struck by lightning was not seen as something worth investigating.) Now, I carefully cultivate a reputation for being just about the most permissive person imaginable when it comes to plot holes. On Monday I’m going to side firmly against the idea that the resolution of Doomsday is even remotely out of nowhere. But even I’m forced to admit that the Olympics coverage going on in the background of Fear Her is spectacularly crap.
Why, though? What is it about this particular bit of narrative contrivance that becomes infuriating where others get away with it? You can, at least, see how the series thinks it’s getting away with it. The usual way you paper over a plot hole is by making sure the audience’s attention is somewhere else. So the Olympics stuff is supposed to work because the audience is really paying attention to the drama around Chloe, and if the story is working shouldn’t be thinking about the imaginary Olympics going on. And while the problem might just be that nothing else in the episode is sufficiently compelling to distract from the plot holes, that’s unfair. I can honestly admit the ludicrousness of the Olympics coverage did not jump out at me on a first viewing – the cheesiness of it, sure, but not the fact that they just calmly go back to covering the torch relay after everyone in the stadium vanishes.
On top of that, the story has at least a bit of a built-in hedge, since it firmly establishes that it’s working according to purely symbolic logic. We’ll call this the redemptive reading of the story’s other massive headscratcher of a scene, when the Doctor erases the scribble monster by just touching it with an eraser. This is not, to be clear, a case of getting a bit of reasonably complex science surrounding black holes wrong. This is getting how pencil erasers work wrong. The belief that erasers just casually wipe out material like they do in Photoshop is not some complicated matter that will go over the audience’s head. Everybody knows full well that erasers simply do not work that way. But, of course, this is not how the story is put together. The scribble monster is a child’s drawing. Its relationship with the physical medium of pencil-drawing isn’t based around literal embodiment, but around symbolism. And that’s how everything in the story works, the Olympics included. This is not inherently a problem – if you decide that this is the logic you’re using for a given story, you can in fact get away with it. In which case the fact that the Olympics commenters are just calmly spitting out plot information instead of providing a quasi-realistic portrayal of how the Olympics might reasonably be expected to go is not necessarily a problem. This is the usual way you get around plot holes, after all – by having the hole be in a part of the story that isn’t really the point. Not to get too far ahead of myself, but this is why Doomsday gets away with it – because the resolution isn’t really about how the Doctor gets rid of the Cybermen and the Daleks, but about the fact that he loses Rose doing it.
But more broadly, what works about Doomsday is that the resolution feels like it makes sense within the thematic content of the episode. We’ll discuss that in detail on Monday, but for now let’s note that the real problem with the sloppy plotting of the Olympics broadcast is that it’s there in the first place. I’ll save my curmudgeonly horror at the nature of the Olympics for some later post, but surely it’s non-controversial to point out that they add nothing whatsoever to this story. In fact, they undermine it – the decision to have the ending be the Doctor lighting the Olympic torch moves the plot away from the day-to-day lives of the people on the street and towards the grand national narrative. The ending’s an active refutation of the best bit of The Idiot’s Lantern – the Doctor’s declaration that real history is the street party and not what’s going on on television. Here the restoration of everybody on the street is irrelevant – it’s only the restoration of the Doctor that matters to the ending, and life on a perfectly ordinary street just unfolds silently and without comment in the background. Within the context of Fear Her, this is inexcusable. Fear Her spends its entire runtime trying to be everyday suburban horror, then bombastically sells it out in favor of being about how wonderful the Olympics are going to be.
And that’s why the Olympics announcements are so awful. Because it compounds this error by suggesting that even the apparent death of tens of thousands of people is less important than the image of love and athleticism represented by the Olympic flame, which is just sociopathic. Actually, you could just about rework this episode into something sane if you decided that it was supposed to be about the way in which the Olympics are used as an excuse to completely steamroll ordinary life in favor of a master narrative, but you’d need an ending that isn’t about wallowing in that. Instead we have an element of the story that doesn’t really fit, and whose internal logic is flawed in the exact same way its inclusion in the story is flawed. And that’s not a plot hole you can just swerve around. That’s a plot hole that gets at the heart of what’s wrong with the episode, not one that can be dismissed as “not really the point.”
Beyond that, what is there to say, really? That Russell T Davies’s admirable commitment to racially diverse casting leads him ever so slightly astray when he decides the black family should also be the one with the physically abusive father? That the entire episode might have worked better if the cliffhanger into the credits wasn’t more “Take on Me” than horror? This is, at the end of the day, a story that just doesn’t work. Its fatal decision came too early on, in the decision to do scary television while pandering to seven-year-olds at the same time. There’s more to say about the relationship between the series and children’s television, yes, but since I’ve got a post on Totally Doctor Who planned for next Friday this isn’t even the time for that. Elsewhere in the season weak episodes have at least been weak in interesting ways. This time the episode is weak because it was a rush job that got slapped together without thinking about it. The Russell T Davies era finally has its equivalent of The Dominators, The Monster of Peladon, The Android Invasion, or Warriors of the Deep: a story that sucks because nobody put any effort into making it do otherwise.