Friday, 5 March 2010

"I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system…"

Written by Russell T Davies, directed by Dan Zeff, 2006

I was one of those who absolutely loathed this story on its original broadcast; rewatching it now, more than anything I just see a wasted opportunity. Taking a look at the Doctor via an oblique viewpoint is a strong idea, and unique for the TV series up to this point – but the concept deserves far better than its cartoonish realisation.

Bitching about this particular episode, I know people will assume I’m either too closed-minded to deal with an story that doesn’t obviously fit into an established format from the original series, or feature the Doctor all the way through, or that I’m completely heartless and immune to, y’know, emotional exchanges and meaningful stuff about friendship. But none of the members of LINDA are recognisably human beings; the emotional content and background is there, but only as a token gesture that’s swamped by the clumsy realisation of the story at large.

While the video diary format could have been interesting, the story drowns in its numerous flashbacks and -forward (though the Super-8 style ones of Elton’s mum are arguably more effective), making the format very ugly. (Similarly, I don’t expect total verisimilitude, but I hate approximations of videocamera images; that’s just not what they look like.) Imagine this made in the more serious and (by contrast) higher-minded approach of Steven Moffat’s stories, say; that could have been really interesting. As it is, the format is disjointed and (though you get the impression this is meant to be ‘postmodern,’ as if that means anything at all) the tone all over the place – it’s supposed to be funny, I guess, but just comes across as throwaway and superficial, but with moments of pathos (ie, Elton loosing Ursula).

Drinking, football, Spain. I’m sure this isn’t Russell T Davies’ world, but he’s so obsessed with his lower-middle-class milieu – which he presumably thinks appeals to the broadest audience – it comes across as very arbitrary, like those are things he uses as shorthand for ‘normality’ and ‘real life’. It results in archetypes – Elton as ‘crap normal everyman’ rather than a real character – and is dispiritingly lazy. He’s a horrible eyebrow-less goblin anyway; not likeable, just irritating.

As for the final paving slab related revelation (which, surely, undermines the ‘emotional core’ the story seemed to be trying so hard to develop), Jesus Christ… Actually, if this were, say, a Paul Magrs story, he could probably take the, erm, more outlandish elements and make them seem perfectly believable, by creating a world consistent with such things, where they wouldn’t seem out of place. The trouble here, I think, is that Davies is trying to make such implausible events co-exist with a pseudo-‘realistic’ harsh world in which there is pain, unfairness, etc. Unfortunately, these two approaches completely defuse one another. Which is not to say that implausible events (even to the degree of living paving slabs) and emotional content are mutually exclusive; however, this episode is such a mess that nothing whatsoever gels. (Don’t even get me started on the Scooby-Doo running around at the beginning.)

This story epitomises everything that doesn’t quite work in the lacklustre season two. From the original broadcasts, especially since it took til series three for me to really be bothered about Doctor Who again, I found it hard to judge the new series in terms of seasons (especially since I’m used to watching the classic series piecemeal and out of order). Now, I appreciate why people still see series one as the best so far; it’s more focused than those that follow, its obviously (relatively) tight budget giving rise to something more inventive and coherent than any of the subsequent series managed. I know calls for increased ‘darkness’ are the eternal lament of the unsatisfied fan, but, by comparison to Tennant’s era – speaking in broad terms – series one is darker (even visually), despite its undeniable mass appeal, and I do like that. It feels less of a cartoon than what followed.

Series two, by contrast, I really dislike. It’s bland and brash and seems far more desperate to be ‘modern’ – never a good idea for a franchise with a forty-year shelf life. Even a seemingly well thought of episode like School Reunion, despite Lis Sladen, is tired and flimsy (Toby Whithouse, I expect better). And the trouble is, there’s nothing redeeming. I truly love The Girl in the Fireplace, but that isn’t enough. Whereas series three and four are to an extent redeemed by Human Nature/The Family of Blood (and, arguably, Blink) and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, series two has The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, which, though entertaining, just doesn’t live up to that slot.

A lot of people seem far more down on series three and four, but to me series two really is the doldrums of new Doctor Who, which just doesn’t have the variety of those around it, and a brash, somewhat irritating Doctor who doesn’t really get any stories that stretch him. Love and Monsters, the Barratt Homes soullessness of the subsequent Fear Her, and the execrably mundane, tedious Army of Ghosts/Doomsday makes a run of four stories set in dull old contemporary London, exemplifying a relentlessly one-note tone. In a series predicated around variety of locations and approach, I can’t think of anything more damning than that.

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