Timelash II. Series 5. You know the drill. Thank goodness this tiresome, needless, self-imposed task is now almost over.
The Eleventh Hour
How interesting that, whereas RTD usually got public figures to play themselves in contexts that took the piss out of them (even if they didn’t realise it), Moffat drafts Patrick Moore and casts him as a prestigious and influential expert with a naughty twinkle in his eye, rather than as a sexist, right-wing old pratt.
I’ll post seperately on The Beast Below. I’ve looked at the heavily biased and ideological representation of Churchill in Victory of the Daleks here. The only other thing to note about that wretched story is the cynicism with which the Daleks have been redesigned in order to launch a new range of toys.
The Angels Two-Parter
I like the bit with the angel on the screen. Nice bit of appropriation from J-horror.
Otherwise… well, I’ll once again quote my friend vgrattidge-1, who captures it concisely:
Just what ‘Who’ needed – another straight-to-video style ‘Aliens’ rip-off that undermines a brilliant (one-off!) monster and makes them behave in illogical ways for plot expediency, plus the smug and annoying River Song (I just can’t bring myself to care what relationship she has with the Doctor) and well, not much else. It’s hollow stuff with the Doc making another tough-guy speech before firing a gun…Yawn
One interesting thing about this story is the matter of the Church Soldiers (related to the Church Police perhaps… will they be investigating dead Bishops on the landing and rat tart?). I remember Paul Cornell saying he was grateful to Moffat for his generosity in portraying relgious people in a positive light. So… Paul sees it as positive when monks are shown going around in fatigues, obeying orders within a military hierarchy and carrying machine guns? How telling.
Vampires of Venice was too boring to write about. Here is my (positive) look at Amy’s Choice.
The Hungry Earth / Whatever the Other One was Called
The Silurians become dull, generic reptile aliens… and, as I recall, such reptile aliens featured in one of the very few half-decent episodes of ST: Voyager, which actually tried to intelligently investigate some of the cultural ramifications of ‘common descent’, etc. It comes to something when Who can’t even do reptile aliens better than Voyager.
The less likeable side of Star Trek actually provides the inspiration for story. It resembles the worst excesses of Trek when it’s in liberal-moralising-allegory mode. There is the fatuous treatment of racial suspicion, the vapid semi-allusions to Israel/Palestine (lets get round the table and sort out a deal… all we need is a reasonable negotiating partner!), etc.
Worse, it wants to have its cake an eat it. On the one hand there is the morally myopic liberal fingerwagging at nasty old inherently-xenophobic humans… but this contradicts the half-assed (bordering on offensive) subtext about Guantanamo Bay / Abu Ghraib, where the mother who tortures a recalcitrant and inherently hostile Arab terrorist… sorry, I mean a Silurian… for information is shown to be acting from understandable necessity. It’s the televisual equivalent of Sam Harris and Alan Dershowitz advocating torture.
The Doctor’s moral compass is symptomatically skewiff too. He declares his love for a Silurian liberal scientist… who was until just then conducting scientific experiments on living human subjects.
Also, as Charles Daniels has pointed out, the story suggests that the way to tackle problems like racial prejudice is to do nothing, sit back and wait for the human race to ‘progress’ all by itself.
Vincent and the Doctor
I’d been very disappointed with most of the celeb historicals up to this point. I think there’s something inherently flawed in the notion of gawping at historical figures like modern celebrities. And I’m not – to put this mildly – a fan of Richard Curtis. So I approached ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ with a high degree of wariness.
I ended up gushing about it. I might be a bit less ardent now that I’ve calmed down, gotten over the sheer relief of seeing something watchable after the Chibnall/Silurians atrocity and rewatched ‘Vincent’ a couple of times in a more balanced frame of mind… but I still like this a lot.
Mind you, I have some whinges (you’ll all be stunned to learn). Even as the episode tries to stress the artistic value of his work, it skirts close to ‘Unicorn and Wasp’ territory by repeatedly contrasting the billions that the paintings are worth today with their original neglect. It’s hard not to detect an obsession with the posthumous monetary value of the paintings in all the scenes where people refuse to trade a glass of wine for a self-portrait, or in the bits where the Doctor flinches as Vincent leaves mug rings on a canvas.
Gallibase forum regular Affirmation almost immediately reminded me of some Curtisian tweeisms in the script… but he agreed with me that the story was absolutely beautiful to look at. The recreations of Vincent’s pictures were done with just the right degree of similarity to the famous images that we knew what we were looking at, but were not so slavishly similar as to detract from the great leaps of visual imagination that Vincent put into his representations of these scenes. After all, if the real scenes had looked exactly like the paintings, wherein lies the interpretive genius of the artist?
The skeletal plotette about the monster was just substantial enough to provide a framework. The idea of making the monster visible only to Vincent was a simple and direct way of expressing both his talent and his isolation. The nature of the beast – as a blind, lonely figure abandoned by a “brutal race” that leaves the weak behind – chimed with Vincent’s isolation in terms that skirted pretty close to being sledgehammer obvious… but just got away with it. All in all, I appreciate the willingness of the story to allow in some poetic metaphors… particularly in the discussion of the simultaneous beauty and morbidity of sunflowers. Sadly, there is also a tendency for the characters to explain the metaphors to us…
For once we get a depiction of the historical celeb as a weak individual. He is also shown being obsessive, sullen, violent in his passions, irritable, sentimental, lustful… perhaps more of his dark sides should and could have been looked at, but it isn’t the same as giving Churchill a free ride. Van Gogh, after all, never bombed anyone. He was not powerful… except as an artist. This may be the single biggest plus point in the episode’s favour… for once, the celeb in the historical isn’t an icon of the establishment, isn’t powerful or rich, isn’t a success or a star in his own lifetime, isn’t a swanky well-to-do type… And, although the Doctor is horrified by the idea of getting Vincent prematurely killed, the episode also remembers that non-artistic-heroes have valuable lives that deserve respect, hence the scene with the village girl’s funeral procession.
Van Gogh is a painter who is sometimes downplayed nowadays, ironically enough because of his immense popularity… but he was undoubtedly a great painter and a fitting subject for a fulsome tribute. Actually, the tribute probably is too fulsome. I think it’s going too far to state, as though it’s an objective fact, that Vincent was “the greatest artist who ever lived”. Apart from anything else, it’s not a contest.
It’s also a bit of a shame that the episode feels the need to validate Vincent to us (and himself) by relying on the (admittedly sincere and nicely acted) praise of an art expert… especially since the episode captures Vincent’s enormous posthumous popularity with the people, but fails to capture one of the most powerful essences of his work: the sheer, empathic democracy of it. He was a great painter of ordinary people… one of the greatest, arguably. From The Potato Eaters, through his paintings of his postman, of prisoners circling in a jailhouse yard, of sowers of seeds… Vincent was an artist who had immense respect for ordinary people and their labour, expressing their individuality and dignity. I’m far from an expert, but I suspect overstatement in the scenes where he is all but pursued by as-good-as pitchfork-wielding villagers who think he’s a sort-of walking curse.
The story perhaps overstates the effect of the depression on Vincent’s work. Lots of critics will say that the late, great paintings are so superbly wrought on a technical level that they can only be the work of a man in control of himself.
Still, points must go out for showing museums and art to the viewing kids without snobbery or psuedo-populist sneering. I loved that Amy should turn out to be a fan of Vincent, should view a trip to the gallery as a treat. Amy is at her sweetest in this episode. She’s a character I have serious issues with, but here I can like her. Karen Gillan (who has never been the problem) excels… even, at times, stealing the show from the superb Tony Curran.
I could’ve lived without the bloody pop song, but the sentimentality was kept at a just-about-bearable level. Maybe it seems less aggravating in this story because the obligatory attempt to make us mist-up actually has an emotionally meaningful referent, for once. Perhaps the fact that the episode had to have an unhappy (or at least complicatedly happy) ending acted as a vital disciplining factor upon the evil rom-com writer that has taken over Curtis’ brain since he co-wrote Blackadder II.
The final image of the sunflowers with “for Amy” added was gooey sentiment, sure… but it also expresses the way the Doctor and his friends seem to leave their mark on time. It was a little bit of time graffiti, left by Amy through her friend Vincent, through the brief but sweet connection she made with him. Amy showed her childlike side with her expectation that they’d saved Vincent from his demons. I dreaded seeing loads of fake “new” Van Gogh’s in the gallery (in the end, we get one in the season finale… and proper ghastly it is too). But they had the basic guts to leave the ending of the episode bittersweet, to not trivialise Vincent’s problems by magicking them away after one adventure with the Doctor.
The Doctor plainly never expects that his ‘gift’ to Vincent will change anything, precisely because he realises something that Amy hasn’t quite caught: that Vincent’s deepest problems remain unsolved, that he is still on course to his self-imposed quietus.
The Doctor’s act is charity and is just as unsatisfactory as all charity. But the episode doesn’t dodge this (oddly enough, considering who wrote it). That’s the brutal truth about depression: sometimes all you can do is try your best to palliate. It’s better than simply abandoning people to their lonely fate, the way those nomadic turkey aliens do.
This is a serious issue, treated fairly well… with even witty moments that mock the possibility of a more earnest approach, especially in the lovely little bit when the Doctor starts talking solemnly and awkwardly about the complexity of depression, only to be shushed by an uninterested Vincent who is trying to work.
An attempt to redo ‘Love & Monsters’ with just the cute bits… all the sharp edges sand-papered smooth, all the dark corners brightly lit and all the creepy, mordant undercurrents drowned in gallons of puréed rom-com.
Even Gareth Roberts can usually do better than just reworking the usual will-they-or-wont-they? (yes, of course they will) subplot from a thousand tedious sitcoms. It doesn’t make the cliché any less clichéd if you cast people who are overweight or have slightly-less-than-model-looks in the roles: it’s still those same shiny, happy, cutesy tedium-engines from Friends, just in self-consciously unglamorous Brit disguises.
Meanwhile, call centres look like quite nice places to work.
The sci-fi subplot is pure Moffat, oddly enough. Malfunctioning runaway tech, little girl, etc. And, naturally, the day can only be saved by Craig declaring his love for Sophie. Funny how these things turn out, ain’t it?
Mind you, this isn’t actively offensive… which is relatively good going for an episode of Series 5.
It starts quite well, with the Doctor’s lovely self-description: “not a young professional… more an ancient amateur”. Sadly, the Doctor’s eccentricity and quirky wisdom are overplayed and overstated to the point where he becomes a totally characterless blur on the screen.
Oh, and it’s nice to see James Corden (a man of no discernible talent whatever)… because, y’know, that guy really wasn’t on TV enough in 2010.
I’ve whinged about the closing two-parter, here.
A Christmas Carol
This is beyond bad. This is borderline sinister.
If anything bit the Doctor on the bum in the last story, it failed to bring him down a peg. On the contrary, his hubris, high-handedness, offhand self-appointed puppetmastery and unaccountable meddling know no bounds here.
He actually goes back into a man’s life and fiddles with it – as the man watches!
Ebeneezer Scrooge was made to think. He was asked to contemplate his past, present and future. He was persuaded.
Sardick, by contrast, is simply rewritten. His past is invaded. Essentially, his innermost self is violated.
Yes, he was a bastard… but that isn’t the issue. The issue is one of choice. Offer a person your influence or even opposition and you open up future choices. Meddle in a person’s past (against their wishes!) and you not only ignore their free will in the present but also obviate their self-creation in their own past!
Aside from real ethical considerations, this is the exact opposite of the Doctor’s often-stated creed. From ‘The Mind Robber’ to ‘Masque of Mandragora’ to ‘New Earth’, he has championed the freedom to choose and self-create. One cannot alter one’s past but one can always choose one’s future, within external limitations… and one’s past is the history of one’s previous acts of self-creation.
You could argue, I suppose, that young Sardick has as much freedom with the Doctor as he had without. He’s free to accept or reject the influence of the time traveller. But, at the risk of sounding tautological, the issue of time travel itself (specifically: foreknowledge) is what makes the Doctor’s meddling different to, say, the contemporary influence of a parent or teacher. It puts the Doctor in the god spot. He gets to know the possible objectives and results, like someone peeking at the answers page in a quiz book as they do the crossword. He has a ‘desired version’ of Sardick that he can aim at as he shapes the man’s life. The Doctor has become the controller of Sardick’s existence and identity. “Hey Kazran”, he effectively says, “you are free to choose… to be who and what I design you to be!”
I realise that the story lends support to the idea that we’re products of our upbringing and experiences, so there’s no intimation that people can be ‘born bad’ in any simple way. Which is good. But the script substitutes its own determinism in the form of the Doctor’s enforced moral hegemony.
And as for Abigail… her freedom of choice doesn’t appear to occur to anybody as worth considering! As Gallibase poster LucasS put it:
What offends me here – and I am rarely offended by Who – is the treatment of Abigail. She is given no real character of her own but is treated like a glorified sex doll, dragged out of her cupboard whenever the boys want some fun. She has no say in which of her remaining days she would like to spend. She is used, if not abused, throughout. And this is apparently a heartwarming triumph.
Sardick gets to have an angry moment where he bitterly condemns the Doctor for changing his life and thus breaking his heart. But the interesting thing about the ending – which shows Sardick flying off into the sky next to his blondcicle plaything, gloriously happy despite the fact that she’s got a day to live – completely proves the Doctor’s point about “better a broken heart than no heart at all”, thus explicitly undercutting Sardick’s objections and criticisms, vindicating the Doctor’s actions and endorsing his manipulation of the man’s life.
And then there’s the question of all the other frozen people. I suppose the New Improved Sardick Mk II (© The Doctor) will free them. But maybe he wont, for all the Doctor knows or appears to care. It never even occurs to the Doctor that it might be a priority to free loads of people who are being held captive as literal collateral in the vault of a rich bastard. Who is this man? I don’t recognise him, even with his two-faced little speech about never having met an unimportant person. It’s clear that the important people are the rich or the pretty. As in ‘Voyage of the Damned’, there is an attempt to cover this up by making the special little buttercup at the centre of the story into someone lowly… which is undermined by casting a glamorous star.
Aside from the dubious ethics and hypocrisy, what about the level of hubris on display? And we’re meant to find it cute, funny and inspiring?
Moreover, this is a demonstration of how Moffat views plot. Just rewrite it as you go along. As long as you can dress it up in a time paradox and garnish it with a vulnerable child…
Lets ignore the fact that the Doctor’s actions create a paradox (because if we go down that road we’ll end up arguing about how Scaroth could possibly expect his plan to work)… the problem here is that they undermine the whole notion of story itself. In ‘Smith and Jones’, the Doctor’s tie trick ties the story in a bow, illustrates a concept, allows the episode to do something unexpected and makes a character point. In ‘A Christmas Carol’, the Doctor obviates narrative itself. And not in the constructive way that narrative is interrogated and deconstructed by, say, modernist literature or surrealist film.
And the episode inherits and exacerbates a problem within its source book. Reform the nasty rich bastard and everything will be okay. Mind you, in just about every other way, this libels Dickens. In Dickens, Scrooge gets reformed partly by seeing the parties of his youth when he was an apprentice at Mr Fezziwig’s. They were great social occasions, levelling occasions even. Everyone was invited and everyone had fun. In Moffat, the parties that help to reform Sardick are debauched celeb bashes where the Doctor flirts with Marilyn Monroe (who is, incidentally, talked about as though she actually was nothing but the man-crazy bimbo she sometimes played).
And then we have Amy and Rory indulging in oddly clashing cosplay, for no reason but to titilate the audience.
And flying sharks? How lazy and dull is that? We’re supposed to thrill to the imagination on display, yet its meagreness would be demonstrated by just about any of the kids watching as soon as they get given a piece of paper, some felt tips and the freedom to draw anything that comes into their heads.
Worthless, verging on nasty.