Monday, June 2, 2008

Doctor Who - Overdue Fines


Walking in a strange light
Looking at the walls
The walls are getting higher
And I think they're gonna fall!
They're gonna fall down over me
And crush me till I scream!
Now I'm only hoping
That I'm living in a dream...

Fear lies over me
I feel it all around!
Something's looking at me
And I think it's got a crown!
It's not a king or a queen
But something inbetween!
Now I'm only hoping
That I'm living in a dream...

Wars and violence
It happens every day
And I am in another world
A million miles away!
It's just like real life, true life
Living in a dream
But it's always feels so better
Well, that's the way it seems!

...well. That was pretty disappointing. I feel it's probably down to my expectations being ludicrously high, but the fact is, there's something 'off' about this episode. If ratings were actually a measure of quality, I'd be worried that Silence in the Library is actually the poorest performing episode post-Rose. In Peter Haining logic, this story is so bad it could be by Sticky Yellow Liquid (using his cunning penname Lemon Bloody Cola). It just goes to show that shoving the Eurovision song contest in the middle of a series can harm the ratings, especially when, unlike last year, the publicity department assume it'll be fine. Let this be a lesson, you CANNOT trust the public. Or the BBC. And if one week can kick Doctor Who in the bollocks like this, than the 'gap year' encroaching on us will be the equivalent of Vyvyan Bastard's Quite Unnecessarily Painful Death Machine, an experience even the Spanish Inquisition would consider gratuitous.

So, what went wrong?

Well, first off, it's me. Once again, Steve Moffat has found a concept that seems specifically designed NOT to impress me. I don't think of a kid in a gasmask scary at the best of times. And I don't find libraries scary. Especially not libraries in the dark. My mum's a librarian. I have spent, therefore, a good chunk of my life in deserted/darkened libraries. See my pulse quicken? No, nor do I. Ultimately, therfore, the scenes with the Doctor and Donna exploring a deserted local has less-than-normal effect on me. It does nothing. Unlike Mad Larry, I won't damn the story as a complete waste of time, but like an Adam Rickitt nudie calendar, it does nothing for me. Sorry.

What's next? OK, the Darkness. Now, the way RTD and the Moff bigged this up - plus the Darkness refs in the trailer - I was expecting something big. Something mindbogglingly huge. Well, get this boys and girls, darkness is... the absence of light. As it always was. And isn't actually dangerous at all. What IS dangerous is Vashta Nerada, the cool-sounding air pihranas which exist all throughout the universe but are normally harmless to everything except roadkill and the occasional drifter. Basically, there is a mindless carnivore that hides in the shadows. Like 99% of all monsters ever. And considering the Doctor notes being attacked by Vashta Nerada is so uncommon as to be unheard of, it's even more unimpressive.

One big problem in fan fic I've noticed is to create a whacking huge addition to the mythology that a) sticks out like dog bollocks on the rest of the canon and b) is pointless. Vashta Nerada join the Apshai, the vortex gremlins and mauve being the universal colour for danger as 'one off ideas that were apparently so fundamental to the universe that the fact they have never mentioned before or since does make this all rather stupid'. For want of a Blink-style 'beware statues' moment, we're expected to be afraid of shadows.

Fuck off!

Seriously, the story would be a lot better if these darkness parasites were unique to this story. It'd add a bit more tension with the Doctor being clueless. But, the Doctor is clueless of another 'whacking big idea that you know will never be referred to again', archaeologist River Song. While I applaud the Doctor's complete contempt for the profession (in your FACE, Ben Chatham), I have to say, River Song sucks. Big time. Pathetic. Shithouse. Unworthy, in short, of what Moffat is trying to do.

The Doctor meets an infuriatingly smug and self-aware bint (in fairness, this is the 51st century, where everyone chokes on how cool they are) who knows who he is. And has a sonic screwdriver. His sonic screwdriver. And has met him before. And has a TARDIS-blue diary. Now, if you HAVEN'T worked out that she is an acquaintence of the Doctor from his own personal future, I think less of you. Yet this is supposed to be a whacking great surprise. Like me, Donna is unimpressed with River Song's 'ooh, isn't this mind-expanding', because it isn't. It's just annoying how long it takes for a) the Doctor to realize River Song knows him from his future and b) for River Song to realize the Doctor has no idea who she is. She doesn't fit his requirements as a hot blonde, either, and the idea that she is his future wife (or whatever) is more annoying that shocking. I don't want her in the next episode, so if the Moff intends for her to be a regular fixture, my hopes for his reign sink. But even worse is the fact she WON'T reappear again, and it all boils down to one thing.


Yes, that's all Moff's got for us. Spoilers. Spoilers are bad. Knowing the Doctor dates River Song in the future is bad, as bad as us reading spoiler threads on OG. Only difference is, there's a budgie in a microwave's chance anything in a spoiler thread will have any relevance to the future. I will be more likely to buy Mark Gatiss taking over as the Eleventh Doctor than us ever seeing this frizzy-haired and, to be blunt, unattractive River Song ever again. She is, therefore, a complete waste of my time.

And, for some reason, time seems very precious in this episode. It has to be the shortest-feeling ep I have ever seen, ESPECIALLY considering the painfully-drawn-out cliffhanger, which is just as bad as The Empty Child's. Yes. We get it. They're fucked. Stop mindlessly repeating buzzwords at us. We GET IT! I dunno whether it's my high expectations of Moffat, but this seemed to make the story a lot worse than The Doctor's Daughter. It seems twenty minutes too short, and we hardly get to know many of the characters. I still don't know half their names. And this is Moffat, remember, who creates whole world in two minutes flat!

Spoiler amnesia, while we're on the topic, is another thing. The trailer ruined this story, at least bits of it. When the Doctor and Donna meet a scared little girl, the nature of the arrangement is bad enough without Colin Salmon booming that, yes, reality is the other way round and dreams are real. When a swarm of space-suited figures lurch out of the smoke, we're supposed to be scared. But how can we be scared when we know the ominous looking leader is River fucking Song? Dudes, you shoved it in the trailer at the end of the last episode! The trailer for next week's ep is even worse, now I mention it: with all material featuring Donna removed from the ep, we're left with 'runaround'. The Doctor and River Song shouting at each other as they run around being chased by stuff. I'm sure the episode will be better than that, but we've already had running around the library in the dark being chased by stuff. It is ungripping me, and the idea I'd want to tune in to next week for more of the Doctor demanding River Song tell him what the fuck is on with them, you're mistaken.

As for Mad Larry's effort, well, I have to say... in some respects, he hands Moffat his arse. For all its faults, his portrayal of a library world consisted of more than three rooms. Pretty much the whole episode is set in one room which in a sense appeals to me for nostalgic Who-cheap reasons, but I'm left with the thought that this story (on evidence so far) could have been set in a big library rather than a library planet. Larry's world is a library you need transport to head from section to section, and crucially has the "false alarm" aspect. Silence in Library makes it clear that the library is a place full of evil and death. Ergo, the long scenes WITHOUT blood-spattered carnage feel almost boring. You don't put people in a deadly killing zone and then do sweet fuck all, you put them in a place that SHOULD be safe and then murder the lot of them.

Larry also has a slight edge in his concepts - books containing planets, people perpetually falling, ghost alien monsters that NEED you to agree with them, the Earth vanishing, books made out of screaming children. Moffat has three concepts: microscopic death monsters, the Doctor's relationship with River Song, and reality being a dream. Of course, it's not the idea but what you do with it is what matters. Larry screws up on that take, but Moffat doesn't do much better. The Doctor and co quietly forget about instant shadow death to cut from River Song to cute little girl and back again. Attention is drawn to the sheer paucity of what's on display, and we're reminded that Girl in the Fireplace and Blink were one-parters. Even Coupling and Press Gang had two-parter stories at absolute maximum, and they were more linked plots, while Jekyll was, of course, six one-part stories with a continuing narrative.

So, in short, stop with the multiple episode stories, Moffat. You've proved rubbish at it. Or at least not as good as you are with other things...

Am I judging this too harshly? Is it any worse than the Sontaran two parter? A Cyberman one? On the positive, Moffat gets Donna pitch-perfect, especially her maternal instincts - a far cry from his notable failures with the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Martha, and his more-forgivable stuffup with Mickey and Rose. He creates personalities with a line of dialogue, and unlike all Mad Larry's efforts I cared about these people, even Lux the guy I'm supposed to hate and, to a degree, River Song, the stupid tart I think I'm supposed to like. The Sun's efforts to undermine this episode (ooh, Scooby Doo had a skeleton in a space suit and evil scarecrows! Get a fucking life you people, Greek Mythology had evil statues! And stop slagging off Billie Piper while you're at it) are totally wasted, though I think that evil-possessed-skeleton-of-death is simply not as effective a threat as the data ghosts. As Donna notes, that's wrong on a WHOLE different level, and I detect the Moff watched Voyage of the Damned and, while unable to piss it in his sleep, saw an idea that could be played up a lot more than it could have been: that is, Astrid's damnation as a barely-sentient ghost. Thus, people aren't just killed, but an imprint of their minds live on briefly, a confused disembodied voice rapidly becoming senile and unable to do more than mindlessly chant things. In comparison, the Vashta Nerada are just nanobots - the don't-let-them-touch-you-but-we-can't-afford-dispensible-characters stuff of Moffat's first story. Frankly, the Heavenly Host were scarier, and Donna's cliffhanger doesn't work at all. We know she gets out.

I'll reserve judgement but all in all, this episode is mediocre. I'd forgive that, but it's trying to be cooler than it was. The Doctor claims Vashta Nerada, the thing we've never ever heard of in any way ever before, is scarier than Daleks and Sontarans. It's like the cliffhanger in The Mysterious Planet where the Doctor panics and wails, "This is the end!" despite the fact we know he survives because two scenes earlier he was shown to survive - and it's not as if he's in much danger at all.

Take away the week-long absence, and RTD announcing he's quitting, and leave us with an episode run-of-the-mill written by a bloke we kind of like, Silence of the Library could easily make us laugh and freak as its opening credit sequence. But now this is The Future of Doctor Who, written by The Showrunner, and the Last Decent Start Episode before 2010 AND it better be as good as the other ones by the best author ever.

Few episodes could cope with that weight on their shoulders, and this one collapses without a sound.

Seriously, how difficult is it to resolve a cliffhanger nowadays? Come to think of it, how difficult is it to come UP with a cliffhanger? Look at the ones they trot out again and again and again...
1) The Doctor and co are surrounded by monsters with a fatal touch, in more than one location and all hope is lost (Aliens of London, The Empty Child, Rise of the Cybermen, The Satan Pit, Silence in the Library)
2) Fuck! The Daleks are turning up! (Bad Wolf, The Army of Ghosts, Daleks in Manhattan)
3) The baddies have the upper hand and you're all fucked - cue DT looking around in abject terror. (Human Nature, Utopia, The Sound of the Drums, The Sontaran Stratagem)
4) A regular character leaves the TARDIS only to be instantaneously replaced by something/someone wierd (The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, The Last of the Time Lords, Time Crash)
And what are the resolutions to these cliffhangers?
1) The Doctor pulls some solution out of thin air and the monsters piss off
2) The Daleks don't actually do much before having a big shoot out in the next episode
3) The Doctor spends 45 minutes pulling some solution out of thin air
4) Tune in to The Christmas Special.
And that's EXCLUDING brilliance like "the cliffhanger turns out to be completely irrelevent" (Satan Pit) "Martha escapes with a single bound and threatens to put a cap in the ass of a passing alien" (Family of Blood) and of course the brilliant "one year later". So. The painfully drawn out cliffhanger (certainly one of the weakest things Moffat has done for the show) has the two elements (Donna apparently dying and the Skeleton in a Space Suit) shouting catchphrases at each other. At least "EXTERMINATE! DELETE!" was brief and to the point. "Who turned out the lights?" and "Donna Noble Has Been Saved" yelled at each other over and over again made me look at my wrist watch. And I don't WEAR a wrist watch. Maybe Moffat wanted to capture the cliffhanger in Power of the Daleks where the Doctor's screams that the Daleks cannot be trusted are drowned out by Nicholas Briggs grating "I AM YOUR SERVANT!" over and over again? If so, you failed, Moff. You failed bad.
And I haven't got to the cliffhanger resolution yet! You remember that bit where the Ninth Doctor, Rose and Jack are caught in a hospital corridor with the Empty Child on one side and the gasmask zombies on the other, closing in and there's no way out? Well, it's a bit similar to this bit where the Tenth Doctor, River Song and the archaeologists are caught in a library hospital with the Spacesuit Skeleton on one side and Vashta Nerada on the other, closing in and there's no way out.
Well, if you remember last time, the bolshy-to-the-point-of-irritation female sidekick snatched up a 51st century squareness gun and simply created a portal for them to flee through while the two menaces did fuck all to stop them. Moff is clearly very proud of that scene, as he reused it, but without any of the hilarious (well, amusing) bits of the Doctor and Jack screaming abuse at each other while it happened. So instead we get DT silently freaking out so bad you think this is the Extras Christmas Special, and River Song seemingly having lost a small puppy. Yeah.
So, The Forest of the Dead gets off to a poor start. And even if the cliffhanger had been more interesting (say, Vashta Nerada and Spacesuit Skeleton FIGHT TO THE DEATH? Or maybe Cute Little Girl uses REMOTE CONTROL?), it didn't have the best of all possible stories to continue on with in the first place, DID IT? Oh look. They've cut to one of those old mansions Jekyll used to spill blood in style - I only recognize it from the ambulance pulling up outside. This should be novel. OK, Moffat. You got 43 minutes to stop me denouncing this as a thoroughly underwhelming exercise in your greatest hits albeit better characterized than The Empty Child. The traditional absolute-lack-of-any-feedback-from-RTD-and-co can only forgive so much, dude...
(40 minutes later)
...okay, you smug bastard, I'll give you it this time.
RTD's main failing in this series (not that he has many this year to start with) is him rightly or wrongly going for the 'dark ending'. Or rather, letting everyone except HIM, go for the dark ending. And it's starting to grate. After the downers of Human Nature, Sound of the Drums and Voyage of the Damned, we've had the agonizingly bleak Fires of the Damned, the nasty Planet of the Ood and the frankly offensively-downbeat The Doctor's Daughter. It's getting too predictable, especially in that last case where Moffat physically kicks down the door and rewrites the ending because, right or wrong, IT'S BEEN DONE BEFORE. If the end of The Doctor's Daughter was a proper version of the Master's death, then this story is Moffat proving he could have pissed Voyage of the Damned in his sleep. And with a better ending too. And I promise to be the last time I use a published author's urinary tract for a cheap laugh... or do I?!?
The Forest of the Dead is superior to Silence in Library - even the scares work, and despite getting less screen time, the archaeologists come across as much better characters. Certainly, this would have been a brilliant one parter, if only for cutting out the ten second delay between the audience working out the truth and the Doctor doing so. The plot thread about River Song really can't stretch out far enough and the hint she is the future Doctor's wife (whatEVAH) falls flat. I suggest Moff stop nicking things from Big Finish (specifically The Game) and more from Rebecca Anderson's Synethesia Trilogy if he wants someone we can believe the Doctor would actually want to settle down with. Nevertheless, it still has RTD's arse handed to him in comparison; the Doctor glumly watching on in silence is a lot more powerful than his insane screaming over Astrid, and his chatting to an encroaching death on legs works a bit better too.
The scenes with Donna in the dreamworld were a slight letdown for me - NOT, I stress to add, because Moffat let us down. In fact, there's a real hint he enjoyed these scenes a lot more than the boring stuff in a library (which FINALLY becomes relevant, nice to know), and the way he puts the scenes of the little girl watching a Doctor Who story on TV and shouting advice to the characters, well, bit of transference there, Moff? The only downer is the scenes with Donna and the sinister ragged figure (the Watcher's darker cousin) sparked a million and one conspiracy theories about the season finale - yes, the Trickster from The SJAs writes the Doctor out of existence, leaving the universe at the mercy of Davros and only Martha, Rose and Donna can stop it.
Not from this bit anyway, which delights in preying on Donna's maternal instincts (something you could hardly do with Rose or Donna) and has some beautifully creepy images - the grim reaper sitting on a bench in a children's playground is still creepy when the truth is revealed. The plot thread terminates in another recycled Moffat idea, but it's from Press Gang and still heartbreakingly frustrating, as the star-crossed lovers are separated by bad luck and never realize it's so easy for them to rejoin. All in all, it's a much more exciting and optimistic story than we've seen since 42 (well, The Unicorn and the Wasp, but still...), with an ending happy enough you can want to go through it all over again, City of Death style. RTD has spoken at length that it's far easier to do gritty, dark conflict than write something decent (another slag-off at Torchwood, by the by) and uplifting, and Moffat can still pull that off. As River Song's little speech (which refs/mocks Boom Town!, Family of Blood, and of course The Doctor Dances) shows, unremitting gloom and tragedy is unbelievable as unremitting happy endings. The fact the Doctor doesn't win all the time makes his victories special, but the endless emotional wringer has to be used sparingly or they lose the point.
And was ANYONE shocked at what River Song (seriously, what stupid name is that?!) said to the Doctor to shut him up? There are ameoba on Saturn who could have guessed that and it would have been smarter if they took away the mystery and left the audience to muse on what could have left the Doctor so speechless and shaken.
Next Time: "Taking a big space truck with a bunch of strangers across a diamond planet called Midnight? What could possibly go wrong?"
Can you say budget saver, boys and girls? Confined to the most part to a single room with a small cast of stock characters and Donna only getting a cameo, this is so small scale you could get claustraphobia watching it. While Leslie Ash and David Troughton are present, it's all too clear they're just walking canon fodder for the mysterious unseen monster trying to break into the ship, leaving the Doctor trapped with a bunch of unbelieving jerks who... didn't we have this last week? Oh, and with one line I hate that blonde Sylvia-type bint who jeers at the Doctor for claiming to be able to help them. Well fuck you, woman! And whatever happened to RTD in his childhood to include these palsied harridans in the script - you hate mums, we GET IT! Let's be honest, who gives a flying fig about a busfull of tourists when next next time is the return of Rose? And Wilf? And the Daleks?
All in all, I'd give this episode...
Overall, however, the 'pre-credit sequence extended by thirty five minutes' drags the score down to


Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

I can see why you trashed the trailer, having watched Unicorn. It's... wow, underwhelming in a whole new way.

And the ep doesn't sound too good either. But then... well LM has a point (seriously, inbetween the complete nervous breakdown in text form) that libraries as a scary place isn't a logical progression and that there's a limit of what you can do with shadows.

The trailer was also enough to make me decide that I don't like River Song. She came across as insufferably smug in the couple of seconds that they gave her, and insufferably smug with a Sarth Affriken accent (as it sounded like) is a bad combination..

So... not really looking forward to this one. Which is a new experience for something written by Moffat...

Youth of Australia said...

I can see why you trashed the trailer, having watched Unicorn. It's... wow, underwhelming in a whole new way.
I'm seriously glad it's not just me...

And the ep doesn't sound too good either. But then... well LM has a point (seriously, inbetween the complete nervous breakdown in text form) that libraries as a scary place isn't a logical progression and that there's a limit of what you can do with shadows.
I'm surprised, to be honest, Moffat didn't tackle his other annual story, "Corner of the Eye", which deals with parasites you can never quite see, which means you have no idea how long they've been around. The scene where the guy realizes that there is SOMETHING in every single photo taken of him, standing in the background, watching him... brrr.

The trailer was also enough to make me decide that I don't like River Song. She came across as insufferably smug in the couple of seconds that they gave her, and insufferably smug with a Sarth Affriken accent (as it sounded like) is a bad combination..
The accent isn't actually that bad, as her curious pronunciation is actually a joke in context. But yeah. She's very smug, and not half as smart as she should be. I mean, lines like "I trust him to the end of the universe and, by the way, been there!" aren't supposed to be delivered in a formal drawl...

So... not really looking forward to this one. Which is a new experience for something written by Moffat...
I know. Still, if this IS Moffat at his worse, we can count ourselves lucky...

Could have been Mark Gatiss.

Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

Fires of the Damned
Man, you're just determined to get that title wrong, aren't you?

You left out The Sontaran Stratagem, with it's ultra jolly ending wherein the Doctor briefly appears to destroy all life on Earth... but it's okay because of magic and stuff. Yay!

And I promise to be the last time I use a published author's urinary tract for a cheap laugh... or do I?!?

Personally I like the way that it's become part of the fanacular.

unremitting gloom and tragedy is unbelievable as unremitting happy endings

Yep. I got really pissed off when I read RTD banging on about 'the happy ending' being nothing but a ridiculous fiction invention. I can say the exact same thing about unhappy endings, for the simple reason that at no point in our lives does the entire existence fade out at a moment of maximum pathos, leaving nothing but theme music and scrolling credits.

Anyway, nice little review.

Youth of Australia said...

Yeah, the review for FOTD has been bloggered - all the edits and stuff I did, gone.

at no point in our lives does the entire existence fade out at a moment of maximum pathos, leaving nothing but theme music and scrolling credits.
Well, unless it's on Gauda Prime...