doctor who 3.9: human nature

29 05 2007

Finally, series 3 hits it’s stride.

Too much of the third season has disappointingly chosen to rehash elements of past episodes, so it’s strange that the only story to be explicitly based on a previously published story (the New Adventure novel of the same name, published in 1995) is the freshest episode yet, crackling with innovation and energy.

Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson), fresh from being the best thing about Magicians, is on sparkling form here. Tennant is great as the perpetually bemused John Smith, perfectly realising a new facet to the Doctor’s character.

It’s a good episode for Freema Agyeman too, as Martha finally stops being annoying and starts being feisty, smart and spiky. Quite why she has to be a housemaid isn’t entirely clear – couldn’t she just sit things out in theTARDIS? – but it does provide a social commentary subtext.

The standout performance is Harry Lloyd, whose wonky-faced posh possession is exquisitely creepy. An Old Etonian himself (and descendant of Charles Dickens), his stare burns a hole in the screen with every appearance. Coupled with the scary zombie-like scarecrows, I can imagine that this episode will imprint on the younger generation, to be cited with a shiver on I Love 2007 in 20 years time as ‘the one with the scarecrows’.

Human Nature is refreshingly short on badly-designed-spaceship moments – except the big question of why isn’t Martha looking after the watch if it’s so important? And why doesn’t it have a lock on it? But we’ll ignore that as a trade-off for the wealth of old series continuity references. I especially liked the sketches of the previous incarnations, and the mention of ‘Sydney and Verity’ as Smith’s parents (named for Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert, the 60s ‘parents’ of the show).

It’s interesting that the series has continued it’s collection of unconventional families with the villains of the piece, the Family of Blood. Like the Raxacoricofallapatorian family Slitheen, these villains are related as well as hunting together. Here’s hoping the next episode resolves the question of how they found Martha and Smith in the first place.

The flashbacks (and forwards) give the whole thing an epic quality that I can’t wait to see resolved. Cannot wait. Cracking stuff.


doctor who 3.8: 42

29 05 2007

Ironic that, just as Danny Boyle’s Sunshine echoes elements of the Doctor Who episode The End of The World, 42 turns up and is basically Sunshine with the brakes off.

If Sunshine wasn’t so fresh in my mind, I might have enjoyed 42 a bit more. Sure, it’s solid and entertaining, and holds its own in visual and effects terms with the much larger-budgeted film, but the breathless real-time gimmick doesn’t really nail you to the floor. The main problem yet again is that it’s just too reminiscent of stuff we’ve seen before: not just Sunshine, but last season’s The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. Both those episodes generated more tension with slow-burning atmospherics than 42 does with all its sweaty histrionics.

As such, the highlight is the slowest, stillest moment, as Martha falls into the sun while the Doctor looks on despairingly. It’s a moment of real anguish that kicks proceedings into top gear.

The following scenes with the Doctor possessed have potential – the Doctor as the villain of the piece! – but instead the momentum dissipates as the Doctor flops about looking ill. A missed opportunity.

I quite liked the pub quiz gags, but it didn’t seem the most logical security measure… Just another example of bad spaceship design, which to me encompasses anything that has no basis in logic and exists solely to create drama. Like a handle… on the outside of the spaceship. On the outside… andjuuust out of arm’s reach. What idiot designed this spaceship?

Churlish to question such things, perhaps. But it’s all tied up in the suspension of disbelief. I’ll buy time travelling aliens, hospitals on the moon, and zombie scarecrows, as long as the door handles are in places that make sense. It’s the trivialities of everyday life that sell the big fictions.

Environmental message aside, it’s all on the surface. None of the subtexts and ambiguity that made The Satan Pit so interesting. Passably entertaining, but hardly the answer to life, the universe and everything.

doctor who 3.5: evolution of the daleks

1 05 2007

Booorrrrringgg. Have to admit I only saw half of this episode (ATP!) so my biggest complaint is aimed at whichever time meddler at the BBC keeps shunting the show around. I run home from work and I’m forced to sit through forty minutes of Man Utd poncing about, and this week I break off my weekend of fine live music early and I’ve missed half of it!

Anyway. Wasn’t really moved by Evolution of The Daleks. More repetition (the Doctor climbing the antenna, just like in The Idiot’s Lantern). Tallulah was annoying. It all seemed a bit static: characters lining up to blather at each other, then going somewhere else and lining up again. Like the shootout at the end: a line of Daleks and a line of people just standing there shooting at each other. Not very dynamic.

Plus Martha isn’t showing half the feistiness of Rose, and is in fact turning out to be, well, just dull. And hey, this week her family’s in it! Jeeeeeesssuuus.

I did like the Dalek Tommy guns: touch of class. And I really like Dalek Sec now, but he was wasted here just standing around for a while and then crawling around for a while and then dead. If he and the Doctor had gone on the run together that would have been more interesting, maybe encountering some actual humans. He should have found himself in Hooverville, getting a taste of what it was like to be different, marginalised. If he’d had a greater awakening of that sort, fed by the strength and dignity of Solomon as a resident of Hooverville and as an African-American, then his extermination would have had much greater pathos and poignancy.

Still, at least this episode wasn’t afraid to develop the mythos of the Daleks. Straight invasion stories are old hat these days, so it’s nice to see continuation of the internecine conflict along genetic/purity lines first suggested in Remembrance of the Daleks. Remembrance frankly blew my mind sideways as a kid, and still holds as one of the pieces of fiction that inspires me in the way it twists and reinvigorates an established genre or narrative (alongside The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and Grant Morrison ’s Dare, all of which freaked me the hell out then and stagger me to this day).

Hey, maybe the theatre was an underlying metaphor for the performance of social roles: in the climax, the Daleks, on stage, perform their purity routine but are overwhelmed by those who revel in difference and diversity. How’s that for Sec’s in the City?

the horror, the horror! (of fang rock)

23 04 2007

Daleks in Manhattan: the most does-what-it-says-on-the-tin episode title since The Deadly Assassin (wouldn’t actually be a an assassin otherwise, would he?)

Better than the execrably-named Aliens of London, World War Three or Doomsday for the sheer kitsch value, maybe, but still not terribly imaginative.

Whatever happened to the days of titles like The Talons of Weng-Chiang… Planet/Face/Mind of Evil… Four to Doomsday… Mawdryn Undead… Carnival of Monsters… The Mind Robber… The Time Meddler…

Great evocative titles all.

How about Dalek Dalek (so good they named it twice)?

doctor who’s greatest enemy: self-deception

16 04 2007

One of the major themes of the new Doctor Who is how apathy and denial in the face of social breakdown was just as pernicious an enemy than the agent of that breakdown. This was made most explicit in The Long Game (1.7) and it’s semi sequel Bad Wolf (1.12), with television providing the world with a distraction from the bad stuff going on.

As the seventh Doctor noted in Remembrance of The Daleks, humans have an “amazing capacity for self-deception.” The Doctor’s role is often to act as a catalyst, freeing the perceptions of the oppressed, to defeat the threat by first facing up to it.

The series is littered with examples of characters turning a blind eye to something, trying to conceal or ignore something bad – and often punished for this hubris:

•    Sneed the Undertaker stuffs overactive corpses back into their coffins and bullies Gwyneth into silence in The Unquiet Dead (1.3), only for one of the cadavers to later snap his neck.
•    Adam Mitchell’s happiness within Van Statten’s set-up could be seen as the first sign that he is a wrong’un in Dalek (1.6). He pays for his self-interest over social concern in Bad Wolf.
•    Nancy is in denial over the danger of the Empty Child (1.9), which is defeated by her acknowledgement that he is her son.
•    The Doctor says to Mickey that humans do not notice unusual things such as the TARDIS, in Boom Town (1.11).
•    The Sisters of Plenitude in New Earth (2.1) keep scores of infected people hidden in their hospital to develop cures. These plague carriers wipe out many of the nurses, although Novice Hame survives to be redeemed in Gridlock (3.3).
•    Mr Parsons and the other teachers don’t seem to notice children going missing, distracted as they are by the intelligence of their pupils in School Reunion (2.3), which is suspicious enough to attract Sarah Jane and Mickey’s attention.
•    Eddy locks Grandma up in The Idiot’s Lantern (2.7) and is eventually kicked out of house and home.
•    The Doctor confronts his own refusal to accept something that challenges his beliefs when he encounters the Beast in The Satan Pit (2.9). He is able to defeat the imprisoned being secure in his faith that Rose will not give go quietly to her doom. She is no victim; and will always act.
•    Stretching the theory perhaps, but the suggestion is that love should not remain unspoken in Love and Monsters (2.10). Mr Skinner and Bridget, and Elton and Ursula, initially hide their feelings for each other. Elton and Ursula find happiness despite her being melted into a paving slab – love will find a way, even in extremely non-traditional relationships.
•    Trish’s failure to address with Chloe the problem they had with her Dad leads to Chloe’s emotional problems in Fear Her (2.11). These problems take physical form, but Chloe and Trish overcome their fear together and sing the Dad monster away.
•    The people of the world almost will the ghostly forms into being with their self-delusion in Army Of Ghosts (2.12). Jackie imagines the smell of her grandfather’s cigarettes and clings to the belief that this is her grandfather returned.
•    Donna admits she missed the human race’s first contact with alien races because of a hangover and a scuba-diving trip in Spain in The Runaway Bride (3.0).
•    The motorists cling to the hope of arrival and try not to think about the noises they hear from the Fast Lane, and never wonder why they’ve never actually seen a police car in Gridlock (3.3). However there is an element of hope and social cohesion here that is seen as positive in a bad situation.
•    Less positive is the populace’s use of drug-like mood patches in this episode, altering the user’s emotional state. A specific ‘forget’ patch is available for those unable to deal with the horror of the Motorway, to the Doctor’s great disgust.

Here the existence of the villain or threat to society enters the social conscience as an ‘urban myth’. Such myths are proved (fatally) correct in Tooth and Claw (2.2), Rise of the Cybermen (2.5) and Gridlock. In the parallel universe, the rumoured disappearances galvanise Ricky and his cohorts to action. Although the Doctor is often the catalyst for change in a threatened society, resistance movements frequently exist before his arrival, and defeat the enemy with his help.Acknowledgement that something is rotten is often the first step in defeating the problem, or indeed the only step, as in The Doctor Dances (1.10) and Fear Her.

Conflict between the Doctor and Rose’s is stirred up by her inability to give up on the idea of meeting her dad, in Father’s Day (1.8) leading to a wound in time and the Doctor’s death, and placing them in harm’s way in Rise of the Cybermen (2.5). Despite defeating the Cybermen, Rose loses Pete.

Rose’s tenacity saves the day in The Parting of the Ways (1.13) when she refuses to accept that she is out of the fight. It is for this that she is rewarded with a family reunion, as her actual attempts to reunite with her father all ended in disaster.

Perhaps the Doctor is so conflicted about this particular issue because he is unable to see his family again, despite his great power, perhaps suggested by the bitterness in the line “…while I lose everything” from Daleks in Manhattan (3.4).

Despite his pain and loss, The Doctor never gives up and flinches from recognition of social threat or decay. As well as directly fighting threats to society, he often acts as a catalyst for members of society to face their problems. This is a pressing contemporary concern in a world of television and text messaging, drugs and distractions, celebrity gossip and cultural genocide.

doctor who 3.3 gridlock

16 04 2007

Oh come on, back to the same place again? The Doctor and Martha arrive on New New Earth in the year five billion and something, last seen in at the start of season two. The Doctor Who team are certainly getting value out of the props and costumes (judging by the trailer the pig fella from Aliens of London (1.4) may be back next week) which is a laudable use of our license fee, but the amount of repetition is stretching credibility a little.

So Gridlock doesn’t start at all promisingly, with another return to an old setting, a reprise of the stalls-opening-for-business from The Long Game (1.7) (which was a bit silly then too) and a really clunky start to the narrative (the Doctor and Martha stand around until, oh look, Martha’s been kidnapped. What is this, 1972?).

Then we’re introduced to the Motorway, and things really pick up when we encounter the hovercar-driving denizens of this dystopian traffic jam. Ardal O’Hanlon is great value as the charming cat-fella Brannigan, the Cassini sisters are the first actual gay couple in a long line of non-traditional relationships in the show, and a businessman inspired by 2000AD’s pinstripe freak Max Normal surely deserves a name.

The highlight of the episode is a bravura sequence in which the Doctor leaps from hovercar to hovercar, searching for Martha. In each car we glimpse the people of the future, and these brief encounters are the beating heart of the episode, establishing a context and texture to this future world that no amount of exposition from chirpy pharmacists can achieve. The redressing of the single car interior is a triumph of diversity and detail, and also easy on the license fee. Hurray!

Unfortunately, Martha is lumped with Milo and Cheen, who are easy on the eye but really, really dull. They nearly get snapped up by the Macra, a Troughton-era race of villainous crabs.

It’s fun to see the colossal crustaceans rendered in CGI in comparison to the original (fondly shown in Doctor Who Confidential). The use of such an old enemy gives resonance to a peril that is really only incidental to the narrative and its themes, and provides a microcosm of the current show’s strength: Doctor Who was always good, but now it actually looks as good as it was always meant to.

The Doctor encounters the Face of Boe, who despite (or perhaps because of) never actually having done anything has become a fascinating and resonant presence. More repetition, sure, but I’ll let this go because it’s a well-handled end to the character arc of Boe, who imparts his much-vaunted secret, and Hane, who finds redemption for being so bad in season two.

The episode ends with some neat Doctor/Martha stuff. Martha asserts her character after an episode of companion 101 (get kidnapped, sulk about it, get rescued) and the Doctor faces his own failure to open up to his new companion. It’s good to hear the Gallifrey stuff in there too.

The strength of the episode is the details, like Brannigan’s “Friends list” line, rather than the story. The brief flashes of the future motorists lives are just lovely. There’s some great little character touches: the Doctor getting his coat from Janis Joplin, bossy medico Martha upbraiding Cheen for using a mood patch while pregnant, Brannigan’s flirting with the Cassini sisters.

If apathy and mass self-deception in the face of social decay or external threat is one of the major themes of the new series of Doctor Who, this episode finds the positive side of a society in trouble. There is potential for chaos on the Motorway, yet the system works. Despite being boxed in, isolated, the drivers form interactive support networks, even families and friendships. They get by, and most importantly they hope, hope that things will get better. And through that getting by, through that hope, things do.

So what’s the episode about? I would argue that it’s a metaphor for the contemporary culture of unrealistic aspiration. We’re all stuck on a motorway, progressing slowly, and dreaming of life in the Fast Lane, dreaming of houses made of wood. But they’re just dreams in this closed system, and besides, what we aspire to may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

If you make it to the fast lane, you just get crabs.

In fact the true worth of life is in the family and friends around us. It’s not about the distance traveled, it’s about the people you travel with. So forget the Fast Lane and let’s head for the sun together.

the real (blokey) mccoy

19 03 2007

There’s an unpleasant advert doing the rounds for McCoy’s crisps in which a blokey bloke in a blokey pub accidentally puts a romantic song on the jukebox and is whisked away for his mistake.

It might make you want to eat some straightforward, blokey crisps, but it certainly wouldn’t make me want to go to that pub, or hang round with the blokey blokes we see on screen. Sure, it’s a reaction to girly crisps with silly flavours and crazy herbs on and half a calory per pack or something, but it seems a bit extreme.

The ad presents a world where men are closed off and impenetrable alpha males jockeying for power within their relationships. After the unfortunate bloke is whisked away up a giant tube by the god of blokey blokes, his blokey mates return to their conversation without comment, one of them demanding of the others “So we all set for Tuesday then?” in a tone that is more challenge than invitation.

Why does being a bloke mean never letting your guard, or the side, down? You won’t catch me in that pub.