Thursday, 18 March 2010

"Ice cream. Ice cream. Ice cream"

Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Euros Lyn, 2008

It’s funny, but rewatching this story my overriding impression – over its cleverness and complexity, or visual beauty – is how emotional it is. I’m not one of those people who pride themselves on crying every episode, and lap up every contrived Emotional Moment, but for the whole last half of Forest of the Dead, I cried and cried.

Miss Evangelista’s death (a scene I believe will become rightly iconic); the little girl’s increasing anguish in the living room; Donna’s incoherent reaction to her children disappearing, and the separation from her husband (“I’LL FIND YOU! I PROMISE YOU I’LL FIND YOU!”) – which is all the more poignant than it would have been with Rose or Martha, as Donna is older and apparently unlucky in love; River’s sacrifice… I found it all completely heartbreaking.

The story’s sadness wasn’t my main impression before, but it is quite wonderful - especially as this level of emotion arises naturally from the story (as opposed to, say, the bolted-on codas to Doomsday and Journey’s End).

I know Lawrence Miles has criticised Steven Moffat’s approach, as encapsulated by this story – especially what he calls the fetishisation and “impending godhood” of the Doctor. In a sense, I can see that there is a very conscious mythologisation of the character and the series at work here. Arguably, Russell T Davies attempts this too, but doesn’t really manage it; I concede there is something almost too deliberate about the epic, big ideas about the Doctor’s power and majesty here, but I quite enjoy it (as long as it doesn’t become overdone in series five/one/thirty-one/fnarg).

There is also something very arch about Moffat’s stories, which operate on an almost hyper-real, almost too self-aware level (especially in terms of River, here), which I can see could become tiresome. In fact, the whole thing could almost be seen as too smart for its own good, or fitting together too slickly – but, let’s not be complaining about an embarrassment of riches at this stage.

(River is a fascinating addition to the backstory (well, future-story) of a character it’s easy to think we know, or take for granted and barely even consider as a ‘character’ per se. Certainly far more than the entirely anodyne non-daughter, Jenny. It’s funny how Moffat randomly created a character who has immediately been taken up as a big deal, compared to the committee-approved feel of Jenny, who was so obviously intended to be an ‘event,’ but ended up as a complete nothing. River is also perhaps the most plausible of the Tenth Doctor’s romances, mostly because a lot of the groundwork is filled in by their (to her) pre-existing relationship, which has a detail it’d be impossible to match purely on-screen.)

In the run up to Moffat’s take on the series, I don’t want to be lumped with the anti-RTD squad by saying I’m glad to see the back of Davies, because I am hugely appreciative of his revitalisation of the series. On a personal level, his ratings-friendly savviness is perhaps a little too transparent at times, and, often, I simply don’t enjoy his writing (the aptitude of which I think is massively exaggerated, especially in media circles). However, it’s too easy to say Steven Moffat’s approach appeals far more to me because given that, at the time of writing, we still haven’t seen Moffat take on story arcs, season finales, or returning monsters or characters, it's impossible to compare the two directly,.

I kind of feel this is a story that doesn’t need a great deal said about its specifics, as everyone must already be aware of its brilliance (and their loss if not), but this is how I want Doctor Who to be; complex and clever, and with genuine emotion, beyond the emotional pornography of contrivances like Rose’s twice-over separation from the Doctor.

Stories like this (arguably then, I’m talking about Human Nature/The Family of Blood and Moffat’s preceding stories) feel like the series progressing from those it was beginning to tell in season twenty-six (the ultimate example of how wonderful, clever, unusual and imaginative Doctor Who can be, in my opinion), rather than feeling exclusively like a successor to Pertwee and Tom Baker’s eras.

Visually, it’s also wonderful to see Doctor Who which – like Human Nature/The Family of Blood, its predecessor of comparable, atypical quality – is literally visually stunning. Beautiful isn’t something you can accuse much Doctor Who of being, but it is here. It’s such a relief to at least temporarily ditch conventional by-numbers sci-fi trappings for something richer and almost steampunkish.

There’s also a surfeit of particularly memorable imagery: the skeletons in spacesuits, obviously; the Victorian Evangelista in suburbia; the multiple identical kids; the nodes; the little girl watching the adventure on TV.

Stylistically, it’s modern, but not overly flashy or vacuous; this doesn’t look like Hollyoaks in space. It’s stylish and gorgeous - helped no end by the location filming for the Library; I love the contrast of the Jules Verne Victoriana with the almost pop-art stylings of the little girl’s house. The CG exteriors are, for once, equally beautiful, and not only add to the atmosphere but are so good they barely register as special effects (compare and contrast with The Next Doctor’s toy-town London, for example).

I find it both bizarre and depressingly all too credible that The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End and even Turn Left were popularly ranked above this story in DWM’s series four ratings poll (and that it didn’t make the top ten of The Mighty 200). Evidently, people really are taken in by transparently popularist button-pushing and the mentality that a surfeit of recurring characters increases quality; as far as I’m concerned, a story like this, bursting with original ideas, characters, and set pieces, utterly belies that thinking.

The joke in the same issue of the magazine that fans are hoping Moffat’s series will be so dark that they won’t be able to see it, is probably on the money – but I still can’t help but wish at least for an increase in intelligent, challenging stories like this. Emotional and complex – and, yes, dark – it may be, but this is also a witty and exciting adventure; ‘darkness’ doesn’t necessarily have to equal the po-faced humourlessness of, say, Christopher Nolan’s (bizarrely overrated) Batman films. Predictable it may be to say so, but I can’t help hoping this story is representative of the show’s future. (We’ll soon see.)

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