This is a round-up of my Timelash II stuff on Series 3… well, those bits of it that I haven’t already posted elsewhere. The ‘Smith and Jones’ bit is a tweaked version of something from the old site. There’s nothing about Axons in here, I just found myself amused by the anagram.
The Runaway Bride
The Doctor cold-bloodedly kills the Racnoss children… and the episode tries to have its cake and eat it by both giving the Doctor ‘no choice’ and implying that he ‘went too far’. The probably unintentional implication is that neocon logic is unpalatable but inescapable, that we need people who will ruthlessly kill on a massive scale in order to protect us from the forces of unreasoning hostility.
We’re a long way from “massive weapons of destruction” being a lie from a politician with an evil, greedy alien baby inside him.
Smith and Jones
Russell reuses many of the ideas and techniques that made ‘Rose’ work as an introductory tale. There is a frenetic opening scene which introduces Martha, her family situation and her workplace. As in ‘Rose’, the new companion meets the Doctor at work and, as in ‘Rose’ he is already in the middle of an adventure. As in ‘Rose’, the Doctor and his new friend form an instant connection which takes the form of banter, intelligent co-operation in the midst of a crisis, lots of running and lots of holding hands. As in ‘Rose’, the new companion saves the Doctor’s life. As in ‘Rose’ we see her enter the TARDIS at night, in a London backstreet and immediately run out again in surprise (the only naturalistic way to portray a reaction to the TARDIS). Bits of the first Torchwood episode are reused too.
But there’s also a lot that’s different. Instead of beginning with the Doctor and showing us Martha from his P.O.V. or holding the Doctor in reserve and letting Martha encounter him at a moment of high drama (as in ‘Rose’), the episode instead allows him to pop up both after and before any of us were expecting to see him! Some of us might have thought he’d be in Scene One. Some of us, gulled by the opening scene’s echo of the structure of ‘Rose’, might have expected him to appear only when Martha needs rescuing from the Judoon. But instead he pops up when none of us were expecting him, does something entirely inexplicable, and then walks off.
Of course, it would have made sense to bring the Doctor in as soon as possible because the audience knows him whereas they don’t know Martha. But a pre-title sequence featuring the Doctor would destroy that Year Zero vibe that RTD is going for. For the moment, he wants us to feel like we’re beginning again. This is essential because he’s trying to make Martha – a brand new character in another character’s show – the central audience identification figure. Let’s pause for a moment to consider how incredibly difficult that is.
His strategy is still to ground the series in everyday life before zooming off into space opera. He makes Martha’s life instantly recognisable, introducing a different family member per phone call and allowing each to offer their own perspective on the same event, the brother’s birthday party. The device of the multiple phone calls is zesty, if slightly contrived (though can we really complain about contrivance in a show like Doctor Who?) and the sequence more competently fulfils the same function as the opening montage in ‘Rose’. The opening salvo of ‘Smith and Jones’ is far more confident and it introduces more characters.
By the time the Doctor appears, we already know Martha. She has a fractured family full of inwardly pointed tensions; she seems to be their nexus, their relay and their peacemaker. In the debate about whether Martha’s family is too soapy, its easy to miss just how much information Russell feeds us about these people in such a short space of time. We are told many things about Martha’s family in the space of two minutes, through a combination of snappy dialogue and detailed visual storytelling. We learn that Martha’s parents are acrimoniously separated, that her mother is an intelligent and acerbic professional woman, that her brother is an easygoing guy with a female partner and a baby, that she is very close to her less diplomatic sister, that her father is well-off and undergoing a midlife crisis and that his girlfriend is primarily attracted to him because of his credit card. Soaps are not generally skilful or ambitious enough to pull off such rapid feats of narrative athletics. On the contrary, it is part of the remit of soaps that they should be slow and plodding. This sedate pace is part of the hypnotic effect of soap operas. Even old-fashioned glam soaps like Dynasty unfolded at a pace that is glacial by the standards of modern drama programmes. Moreover, there is little need for soaps to blast their viewers with information because their viewers will already know the backstories of the characters from interminable previous episodes. Soap operas don’t use characterisation as a means to propel or contextualise a wider plot. In soap, the personal problems and domestic conflicts of the characters are the plot (at least until ratings start to fall and, as a result, jumbo jets start doing likewise onto pubs). If they fired information at us as quickly as ‘Smith and Jones’ does soaps would exhaust themselves before getting started. Soaps need to develop their characters slowly because in soap that is the whole show. In Doctor Who you need the characters established quickly so that you can get on with the stuff about space rhinos. Even when a spaceship did show up in Dynasty, it was there to remove a character, not to give a character something to do.
There’s a confidence of judgement all through this episode. Russ makes the Plasmavore an internal shape changer and so resists the temptation to let her transform into a Big Impressive CGI Vampire for the hell of it, which would have both deprived the sublimely sinister Anne Reid of screentime and left the audience scratching their heads and wondering why she/it didn’t just morph into a pseudo-Judoon.
The Judoon are great because they’re not trying to do anything so tedious and Krillitane-like as take over our planet or suck out our minds… they’ve been hired to do a job, enforce a law and apprehend a criminal. They had jurisdiction. While it lasted, they did everything they felt was necessary (in their own brutal, unsubtle yet fundamentally non-malicious way) to complete their task. That makes them more than monsters. That gives them a psychology, a mindset. A familiar one too. They are recognisable, like the personality types we meet in Martha’s family. They make aesthetic sense, something best illustrated by the contrast between their paramilitary demeanour and the black markers they use to catalogue you.
I also truly loved the “Ro bo sklo fro mo!” scene and the way in which they then assimilated the English language. I remember being fascinated by just such linguistic playfulness in Doctor Who when I was a kid, revelling in making up my own versions of the Androgum clan names and the bureaucratic serial-number nomenclature of the Caretakers.
Justice isn’t a political ideology for them. They’ve been hired to do justice and woe betide you if you get in the way… and yet they don’t abuse their power. Justice isn’t simply what they say it is. They are clearly following a rule book. Phsyical assault is punishable by death. They didn’t kill that guy because they wanted to. They did it because the rule book stipulated it as the appropriate response. The Judoon are more like a SWAT team with a few rules and regulations. The best bit of the episode was when Lead Judoon (or Big Chief Rhino Boy as the Doctor called him) gave Martha her compensation. They’ll execute you on the spot for hitting them with a vase but if they push you up against a wall and it turns out you’re “innocent” they’ll give you some vouchers to say sorry!
I’ll finish off by looping back to the central facet of ‘Smith and Jones’, the Doctor’s time travel demonstration for Martha. The Doctor’s “cheap trick” is, in many ways, the cleverest thing in the episode… which is rather clever in itself: pulling off a narrative stunt like that (something that only Doctor Who could do and which, nowadays, it does far too often and to little import) and having your main character, the one who pulls it off, refer to it as a “cheap trick”. But think about it for a moment… in the programme we’re talking about, the main character, at the end of the plot, travels back to the start!
Now, we can look at that in purely literal terms (the Doctor travels in time, big deal) or we can look at it as a vertiginous feat of pure narrative, narrative unbound and free to loop back upon itself, to eat its own tale (if you’ll pardon the shameless pun). In the old days, the revelation of a temporal paradox would be the Big Sinister Episode Three Cliffhanger. In modern Who, it’s a “cheap trick” harnessed to the service of character development. That sounds like a criticism… it even feels like it ought to be a criticism as I write it, but if you’ve seen The Terminator or Twelve Monkeys or even ‘Day of the Daleks’ then you’ve already seen the Big Sinister Time Paradox story! You surely don’t need to see it again! What you haven’t seen before is a moment when a character makes a completely believable decision to accept time travel as a reality before they step out onto Platform One or meet the Tribe of Gum. Well, you’ve seen it now!
Its a significant advance on ‘Rose’ in which our heroine believes the TARDIS can travel in time simply because the Doctor says it can and, by that point, she’s ready to believe anything. But who would believe such a thing until it was proved? Until you saw it work? Someone who just believes in time travel because they are told about it? In my book that’s far more unlikely than the MRI Scanner of Doom. In ‘Smith and Jones’, the proof of time travel is offered to Martha before the assertion is made, before she even knows that the assertion will be made and it’s the proof that starts her on the journey towards the moment when she will ask for proof… which is really the ultimate way to prove time travel, isn’t it! In other scripts, the characters travel in time. In ‘Smith and Jones’, the script itself travels in time, overtaking itself before it starts running. This, in its own quiet and flippant way, is remarkable and mind-bending stuff.
Oh, one last thing… am I only person amused by the idea that if Doctor Who is resurrected for 3D HeadPlug Interactive Cybervision in 2047 and a whole generation of kids, entranced by the new stuff, go back to the scratchy old episodes from 2007, they’ll all be wondering what the hell Martha means by “Planet Zovirax”?
Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks
I so want to like this. It’s got the right Who vibe within it, unlike so much of, say, Season 2. It’s got a sense of politics and myth. It’s got characters who vaguely resemble human beings. It attempts to have a sense of history.
There’s lots of good stuff. There’s a representation of poverty and inequality and injustice. There’s an exuberance to the production. There’s an attempt to have the Daleks merge with and emerge from the art deco decor of the building, as though they mesh perfectly with the aesthetics of the monstrous, imperial, vainglorious demonstration of wealth and power amidst misery. The musical number is cute. The idea of Daleks meshing with humans has potential.
Sadly, it doesn’t really work at all. Tallulah isn’t in it for any reason. Racism is glossed over. There is some terrible dialogue (though there is also some great dialogue). There is no interest in the actual mechanics of evolution or mutation or genes… which wouldn’t be so bad except that the episode doesn’t even attempt to make its own inaccurate version of evolution (which appears to be about mutations of the soul caused by lightning or something) work consistently… Also, the episode once again peddles the idea that personality (Good or Evil) is directly encoded in the genes, which is very reactionary and very simplistic. It would be easy enough to avoid all these nasty subtexts and an incoherent, flailing plot by simply dropping the scientific terminology and using some bit of sci-fi nonsense… which is what David Whitaker did when he did the same story better in the 60s.
And the direction is clumsy in the extreme. Good direction might have been able to make the script work, even when it calls for the Daleks to fail to notice the Doctor though he’s standing directly in front of them in plain view… good direction might have been able to make it look less ridiculous when the Daleks crowd around the Doctor screaming “EXTERMINATE!” for the umpteenth time but then don’t exterminate him. But, no.
The Lazarus Experiment and 42 were too boring to sit through, let alone write about.
And I shall be addressing Human Nature / The Family of Blood seperately at some point.
The story that won Timelash II. The best, apparently.
Well, look… obviously this is overrated… but that’s understandable given the immediate effect of its bravura construction and wonderfully gothic monsters.
It’s actually not that overrated.
Moffat certainly does take sitcom situations (comedy nakedness) and sitcom characters, some of whom border on social/gender stereotypes… with geeky Lawrence entirely crossing the border. But he subjects them to narrative contortions and grotesque experiences that characters actually in sitcoms never have to cope with.
In so doing, he manages to turn the episode into a surprisingly careful, sympathetic, compact and poignant study of the passing of time and the achievement of emotional maturity.
Shame about the business whereby a woman ends up marrying a man who just decides to follow her, thus seemingly endorsing stalking as a romantic wooing strategy.
And it’s also a shame that the Angels are explained as much as they are. It overcomplicates them and dullifies them… though nowhere near as much as their follow-up appearance.
Also, why don’t the characters just close one eye at a time?
The one thing that no aspect of this should ever have been was any kind of template for the show as a whole.
My confused thoughts on the closing trilogy may be trudged through here.