Friday, December 26, 2008

Doctor Who - A Clue: No


Why must you hurt me, do what you do?
Listen here, girl, can't you see I love you?
Make a little effort, try to be true
I'll be happy, not so blue

If you keep on tellin' me those lies
Still goin' out with other guys
There'll come a day I'll be gone
Take my advice, won't be long

When that day comes, won't be mad
Be free of you, but I'll still be sad
In spite of your cheatin', still love you so
I'll be unhappy if I let you go



The Next Doctor was not the shameful waste of time of Music of the Spheres, nor was it the affront to the existence of intelligent design also known as The Idiot's Lantern. Nor was it Midnight or even The Sontaran Experiment. You know how every Doctor seems to have a story that is completely forgotten, that no one talks about (but everyone mentions in lists, cause we're like that) - The Space Museum, The Faceless Ones, Underworld, Terminus, MindWarp, Search Out Science, Something Inside, The Long Game - and I think that The Next Doctor is Tennant's entry. I don't care enough to hate it. I don't like it enough to rewatch it. Now, this complete lack of emotion might reflect I might have got incredibly passively stoned (which is what happened when I sat through Last of the Time Lords without any reaction of any kind), but a quick glance at the Doctor Who Forum formally known as OG, shows that I am not alone in such a 'who cares?' mood.

In his wholy remarkable (and irritatingly well-illustrated) book, The Writer's Tale, RTD in 2007 made it clear that - whatever circumstances lead to it - the gap year was a brilliant idea. Quite simply, he would have introduced such a limitation anyway. His belief is that the public can only cope with Doctor Who for several years before they'll get sick of it. His solution is to take it off air for a year and get everyone so desperate they'll accept whatever they're given (not, I hasten to add, that they should be given any old crap). It will add to the legend, apparently. RTD was so confident at the time that he considered 2009 barely merited ONE special.

Well, he showed his working, but expecting the masses to scream for more after The Next Doctor is delusional.

Now, Christmas specials (with the exception of The Christmas Invasion) are basically RTD whoring himself. Nothing clever. Nothing witty. Instant popcorn writing to entertain everyone. He admits this himself, and he rewrote Voyage of the Damn repeatedly so that the audience (only watching because they're too fat and drunk to change channels) could appreciate it. Any critique you have of the plot RTD did first. Before he actually wrote the script. There's a lovely ongoing sequence where Rickston continually bitches that his phone isn't working and annoys everyone, in particular the Doctor until he realizes that the phone is a supermobile and should be able to work - ergo, they are being jammed! Evil is afoot.

So, no doubt there's a draft script of Return of the Cybermen that's full of such gems before RTD hollowed it out like a termite. Unfortunately, as I've been saying, he's running dry. He's gone from a brilliant script writer to a brilliant script editor (a big difference, though I doubt anyone would have sat through the version of Fires of Pompeii before RTD worked his magic) and now reduced to a great ideas man. You get the feeling he's done a vaguely decent polish on a very mediocre script. It's like his Season 4 finale - lovely little vignettes, but a collage covering absolutely fuck all. The Daleks are trying to make a really BIG delta wave, then they blow up.

The man's turned into Helen Raynor!

Which, let's all be honest, isn't the worst case scenario. If this was a mid-season episode, or even a season opener, it wouldn't be so bad. But it's not. It's supposed to leave us screaming for MORE. We're supposed to feel EVERY DAMN HOUR until Planet of the Dead screens. I honestly couldn't give a damn if the series was over. No cliffhanger endings. No ongoing story arcs. No reason to tune in. Barely any reason to sit through the bloody thing. Considering how the show can lose such affection from a one week gap, I'll be amazed if the public even remembers what Doctor Who is by 2010.

The problem, methinks, is that with his declining faculties, RTD has decided that he hates fandom and wants them to suffer. So he messes with our minds. Fair enough, I suppose, but this mixture of outright lies is lack his usual cunning and we're left with a truly pathetic spectacle. David Tennant is leaving. No one knows who the hell is replacing him. So the episode is called The Next Doctor.

By this logic, The Empty Child should be renamed The Next Doctor as well. The Doctor arrives in historical London, meets some downtrodden natives and encounters a mysterious know it all who has no name bar "the Doctor". What Moffat considered a throwaway gag, RTD tries to turn into a whole story. Well. Half a story. And not very well done in some respects. The problem of who the hell David Morrisey's character is and why he's chasing Cybermen isn't the flaw in the script, it's the fact we're supposed to be amazed at it. It's like The Creed of the Kromon. Even if you haven't heard several certain Big Finishes, it's still the fact this is the B-plot, the Pilot Fish to keep us occupied until the Cybermen in Victorian London A-plot kicks into gear. But everyone has been grabbed and shaken violently while RTD screams, "IS HE THE NEXT DOCTOR?!?"

Fuckingly obviously, he isn't.

Because that wasn't the point. The point is "WHY does he SAY he's the Doctor?". And when you skew that premise the whole thing becomes a complete waste of time. The story wasn't written to make us fear that the Tenth Doctor would perish before the credits roll. So, when, for the briefest of brief moments it actually looks like the Doctor is caught in an ontological paradox (not dissimilar to the Fourth Doctor and Adric visiting the Pharos Project during the first episode of Castrovalva), it feels... dumb. The audience are being asked to jump on a moment that is a throwaway. That is written, acted and directed like a throwaway. Imagine if The Face of Evil was hyped on the basis that the Doctor's jelly babies had been poisoned: that moment when the Doctor goes "I'll kill you with this deadly jelly baby!" gains ridiculous significance. But he doesn't kill anyone with them. And his confectionary isn't poisoned. And that disappointment is enought of ruin the whole story.

Now, when the BBC revealed just what cheapskates they had become by showing us the pretitle sequence for CIN instead of something original, we saw Dave Morrissey bound in like a parody of David Tennant (yet far more clever and convincing than Jon Culshaw's attempts) and face a very fake and shoddy Cybershade. If, for a moment, Morrissey WAS some future Doctor... why the hell is he a copy of the Tenth? Imagine if the Ninth Doctor and Rose bumped into the Tenth Doctor and Martha - if anyone had DT in a leather jacket with a shaved head and a Northern accent, and then asked you "Is HE the Doctor after Eccleston?" would you actually even stay in the same room?

No, the fans said. It was obvious the camp Morrissey was Banto Zame the Second, a Rob Holmes grifter trying to pass off himself as the Doctor for fame and fortune. RTD was ripping off The One Doctor. While this explained the rubbish Cyberman/gorilla outfit, it doesn't exactly explain why any time traveller would think a get rich scheme would involve dressing up as the least recognizable of Time Lords and loitering away from any witnesses who might provide instant cash transfusions. Of course, we were wrong, but that's what we SHOULD automatically have asked ourselves. But no, RTD and Tennant constantly big up whether or not Doc Ten will live through the night. They might as well begged us to watch out for Daleks in The Lazarus Experiment.


Epic fail on that regard.

But, if we strip away the truly cack-handed publicity and focus on what's actually there... there's not much. It's not BAD, per se. But not much that strikes as original or even innovative. The CyberShades, for example aren't very bad. Their monkey-like body language, snarling, oddly shaped heads... not a bad look. The idea of them being failed conversions isn't really explained, and the Doctor seems to think they are just crude Victorian Cybermen equivalents with animal rather than human brains. Um. Why? Is the conversion machinery not working? Can't they get the parts? Are the Shades just failed experiments? What was wrong with Cybermats? While I respect RTD's belief that the two Doctors should have been focus of the plot, why leave the bloody things in at all?

I have to say, I was chastened at the plot twist of the return of the Cybus men. It's obvious in retrospect: when Rose shattered the walls between realities, anything in the void could have escaped - so the Dalek and Cybermen armies have got loose and their respective genocides undone. Where the Daleks have gone is not revealed but they and the Cybermen were both nuked by the Crucible (erm... except that never happened...) and are both greatly reduced in numbers. In any case, a phallanx of Cybermen have ripped open a Dalek (FULL FIST!) and emergency temporal shifted, leaving themselves in the world of Oliver Twist. Lead by a Cyberleader sounding as un-Nicholas Briggsish as possible (with the alternate black faceplates a lovely reference back to the comic strips, so fuck you Mad Larry, it wasn't SUPPOSED to be a redesign.)

Perhaps it's a bad move that RTD edited the end of Journey's End - originally, sulking over the console, the Doctor was shocked when Cybermen passed, ghost-like through the TARDIS, as part of their escape from the void. With that cut, (and the bits where he asks that urchin about Cybermen), not only does the Doctor seem ridiculously blaise about their return and presence in the past, but we also lose the departure of Donna. Like in The Runaway Bride, this is a Doctor desperate, almost pleading to be distracted. He's also borderline suicidal (as much as he ever is), practically begging the Cybermen to smack his ass down. There is a truly beautiful moment - you know, I'm really starting to like this story now I look back at it - where the Doctor heads off to defeat the baddies. It's NOT a suicide mission but in a subtle moment it's made clear that the Doctor wishes it WAS. His final confrontation with Mrs. Hartigan is a deliberate parallel of The Runaway Bride. The Doctor tells the bitch she's got one chance, she refuses, he lets loose... but he doesn't blow her up or anything like that. It's an ending right out of Wierd Sisters or maybe Terror Firma. As Roj Blake said under the pen of Robert Holmes, "Killing them would be mercy. Do you feel particularly merciful?"

The more I review it the more I realize that the writing/directing/whatever isn't the problem, it's the increasingly insecure and exhausted showrunner. Had they bigged up the story for what it was, a kind of buddy movie, it would have been great. There are lots of lovely subtle touches - the two Doctors laughing at what retards they look like chasing a gorilla gram with a Cyberman voice changer helmet on; the fact that Rositta is clearly a prostitute; that Mrs. Hartigan has clearly had her own issues; the Cybermen continuing their belief they're doing us a favor; Morrisey's TARDIS complete with Cloister Bell; and the final scene linking right back to Tennant's first story (and not just "Oooh! Snow!"). Nothing big, nothing major. Even the crucial scene where the Doctor flips through the Cyberman's (stolen) record of the Doctor and we see ALL TEN DOCTORS, getting good looks at each one (curiously they all seem to be caught at the moment of thinking "Oh, shit!" - Hartnell when he twigs to the Monk in The Time Meddler, Troughton getting trapped in an airlock in The Ice Warriors, the Fourth Doctor going "a crack in time?" in City of Death... even Paul McGann is the moment when he realizes that the Master is the one who is his chauffer for the evening) is short and to the point. It's not there for us to squee over the first shot of Eccleston since Doomsday, it's there quite obviously so we DON'T see Morrissey. That's the point of it. An absence, not a presence. So RTD running around screaming about cameos from every Doctor is just bullshit. He leaves the audience expecting The Ten Doctors and ends up with less than part four of Resurrection of the Daleks.

If the guy hasn't totally lost his mojo when it comes to writing, he sure has when it comes to keeping the public on side.

Really, had they screened this after Journey's End we'd like it much more. It's the calm after the storm, the taking stock. Not as obvious and well-structured as The Runaway Bride, but the same theory: the heartbroken Doctor tries to pick up the pieces, along with some lovely comedy as Morrisey's Doctor is found to have a fob watch which proves to reveal his true identity... and not the way our Doctor expects. Or even fandom would. The snow-swirling graveyard scene is good too. The only trouble is it's small scale; the Cybermen don't even pretend to be in a position to kick ass until the last quarter of the show, and the do so in the dumbest manner possible. No, let me rephrase that, RTD does it in the dumbest method possible. There is a bloody good reason that in Cloverfield the monster appeared before the last ten minutes to smash up Manhatten. The only real reason that the Cybermen don't open a can of whupass is simple: there needs to be the faintest hint that the Doctor can stop them and leave history intact. (Though there is a hint that he failed in that regard)

As Buffy style epilogue to Season 2008, The Next Doctor is at worse adequate. As a Christmas Special featuring the final destiny of David Tennant, a complete reboot of the Cybermen and a 24-carat reason to watch Doctor Who forever and ever and ever? I'd rather check out Spara's time meddler/WOTAN/BOSS/Cyberman season four finale. That, at least, sticks in the memory.

4/10 (in context)
7/10 (out of context)


Jared "No Nickname" Hansen said...

I think it's testament to the story that I started watching it the night before last and am yet to finish it.

Youth of Australia said...

Oh you got your own copy? Cool.

Yes. It is a bit ho hum but as long as you block out all the mindless shrieking of the PR department, it's OK.

But it's good thing RTD's got someone to help him write the next two specials, cause he's stopped running on empty and ground to a halt.