Monday, April 12, 2010

Doctor Who - Scream of the Space Wail


Time was drifting
This rock has got to roll
So I hit the road and made my getaway
Restless feeling, really got a hold
I started searching for a better way

New York City took me with the tide
And I nearly died from hospitality
Left me stranded, took away my pride
Just another no account fatality

But I kept on looking for a sign

In the middle of the night
But I couldn't see the light!
No, I couldn't see the light!

I kept on looking for a way

To take me through the night!
Couldn't get it right...
I couldn't get it right!

As Jared recently reminded me of some of my crackpot theories, I look back at the one that basically goes "every Doctor's second story is a Hartnell story in every way". Looking back at it, it's a rather gratuitous statement as the Hartnell era could go from one extreme to the other in six weeks. It beggars belief that The Crusade, The Space Museum and The Chase were made by the same programme, let alone in that sequence!

But the original idea behind the theory was that, the moment the new production team are satisfied the New Doctor is going to work out, they immediately do a story that you could have shoved the First Doctor in with next to no real difficulty. Don't believe me? Look at the first time they tried - The Highlanders. A pure historical with the Doctor on a slapstick GBH identity theft binge, which makes it a throwback to The Reign of Terror. Next The Silurians - which with the Doctor as a peacemaker between humanity and a bunch of individual monsters who unintentionally drive people insane and cause plagues, surely brings back memories of Billy and The Sensorites? Hell, Baker's second story was so similar to a certain Hartnell tale even The Guide got confused in the 1990s and dubbed it The Ark of Light, where the Fourth Doctor fought the Monoids. The most un-First-Doctorish stuff is the body horror of the Wirrn, and even that is almost a perfect evocation of the Vaaga plants. Four to Doomsday is a best hits package of the show's first season, with comedy Chinamen, trips back to the creation of the universe, unreliable spaceships, three companions, along with wierd science and dodgy history that ends on a cliffhanger into the next story. To be honest, I'm not sure which Colin Baker story counts as the "one after he's done regenerating" as technically that counts as Timelash. Which could fit, but the previous story do remind a tad of An Unearthly Child (an alien in Totter's Lane), The Time Meddler (a Time Lord trying to change British history) and The Space Museum (a bunch of mad loonies keep trying to experiment on the Doctor and turn him into something else). But Paradise Towers, Storm Warning, The End of the World and Tooth and Claw could all be stories in black and white with an old man as the Doctor.

Does this work with The Beast Below?

Well, maybe. I suppose I could see in my mind's eye Ian and Barbara discovering the Britain they have returned to is the wrong side of the end of the world, the Doctor concerned about a young girl crying and Vicki taking matters into her own hands and saving the day while everyone else argued morality. But that skeleton, like the bones of Ian Levine, are deep beneath the surface. A surface that seems much more suited to the Seventh Doctor era - Starship UK is more in line with Paradise Towers, Terra Alpha or Segonax, a wierd allegory for modern Britain where the Doctor deliberately goes to stir up trouble and lets his companion have her own adventures. Even more typically, the Doctor's half-assed plan of exploration goes completely wrong, his companion proves slightly unreliable, harsh words are exchanged and the next thing you know... the situation's been resolved by words alone, understanding the situation rather than blowing it up. Just as Helen A was defeated simply by the truth, or the Gods of Ragnarok by an early curtain call, the horrible cycle aboard the starship is defeated simply by a fresh eye at the situation. Everyone's so convinced as to how utterly screwed they are, no one has ever even TRIED to find another option.

Even the Doctor falls into this trap and it's interesting because, technically, this is first story. He's still only an hour or so old and - like his predecessors - have to relearn some hard truths, from accepting he is the only Time Lord left to humans being complete arseholes to never underestimating his companion. Nevertheless, Matt Smith works wonders with the script, proving YET AGAIN that we were all wrong to be worried. Though, in fairness, what were given gave us very good reasons to be afraid - I bet even the trailer for the next episode was structured to flip a V-sign to the fans, ala "See, it works in context you bunch of lavatory bowls." Yet I am strangely irritated by the way he acts like his arms have been sewn to his sides. Then again, maybe it has been, judging by Moffat's descriptions (notably his fear when Smith entered a room wearing a guitar and he started screaming, "Not the face, Matt! NOT THE FACE!!!").

Amy Pond works too, keep up her habit of keeping secrets from the Doctor and also the audience - I mean, we don't actually know who she's marrying in the morning, do we? And now we don't know if she marries them at all. And props for having her in her nightgown, soaked to the skin and somehow NOT making it exploitational. I did find it a bit hard to swallow that she suddenly knew the Doctor was the last of his entire race, when he didn't really say that. For all she knew there could be countless Gallifreyans alive and well, so she read a lot into a single statement when she didn't even realize he was an alien. I also note a reuse of the "you look Time Lord" gag from Planet of the Dead. Clearly, like many others, Moff considered that joke the only part of the sixty-minute special worth using.

Some plot. The TARDIS fetches up in deep space in the 32nd century where they find one of those civilizations deemed unworthy to join the Sleepers on Nerva Beacon, Starship UK. An entire city celebrating British culture hurtling through the void to a new home planet, but despite the Doctor's insistence on not getting involved with events future or past, they soon twig that the people of Starship UK are terrified of the "Smilers", ventriloquist dummies that rule this place. There's a terrible secret about this world, and everyone who finds it out chooses to forget it, or else they disappear. Amy chooses the former, but the Doctor is never one to take the easy route.

Seemingly inspired by the "shock" revelation that The Happiness Patrol was, get this, about the political state of Britain, Moff seems to have rolled his eyes and had the Doctor out and out repeat Andrew Cartmel's job application: "We're gonna bring down the government!"

The Sunmakers was subtle compared to this tale where British subjects only find out how really shitty the world is once they reach voting age, where the Queen is just a figurehead on some stamps, and the education systems chews up and spits out kids as a police state watches on and does sweet FA about it. Security cameras are everywhere, they're just Bakelite, and the MIBs are dressed as death-loving monks and lead by a guy the real world knows only as "the Demon Headmaster". Subtext rapidly becoming text, ladies and gents. The Doctor doesn't even pretend to be surprised the society isn't halfway decent, the first words he says to Amy about the new world they are in is full of evil and suffering and by jingo by crikey someone is going to have to sort it out! People grumble that The Eleventh Hour was too steeped in the universe of RTD, well, this should shut them up. The superficial similarities to The Long Game and Planet of the Ood cover the brutal truth that Moffat can be just as socially aware and deeply cynical as his predecessor, albeit in a slightly more brain-damaged storybook way. RTD has the government offer children to alien monsters to turn into hallucinogenic drugs. Moff has the government offer children to alien monsters simply to eat. A necessary evil, for the greater good - the only real difference is RTD likes to paint characters into a corner to see which way they'll jump, whereas Moff is a firm believer that imagination can always find a third option.

I don't know if the Smilers are a particularly threatening monster - certainly they're much more creepy when smiling gormlessly then trying to look mean and evil, but at least The Beast Below isn't built on the idea of "Smilers SCARY!" like it could have been. The end result is rather like The Macra Terror - the story's not really interested in giant gas-eating crabs, but in a society that deliberately brainwashes itself to reject the truth. Ben turning on his friends is what's supposed to really get to you, rather than the giant crabs foaming at the gills and snipping people's heads off. If anything the Smilers are like traffic lights or incidental music, they say when bad things happen but don't actually do anything. We never see them hurt anyone, or do anything but grimace. So, as effectively some props, they work quite well.

The Beast Below works quite well, but I'm not perfectly happy with it. While The Eleventh Hour raped and pillaged the RTD era, there was a real point to it, whereas here there's not as much new as I was expecting, more like Moff went 'I wish I could have done a story set in the year 5 billion'. I dunno, maybe it's him playing it safe to a degree, easing the new version of the show past the skeptical viewers. The Hartnell-era cliffhanger into the next story was an interesting twist, but I dare say Mad Larry is foaming with blood that the Doctor can be rung up by various historical figures like some god for hire. I mean, OK, it happened all the time with Tom Baker, but is that necessarily a reason to repeat it?

Speaking of possible complaints, the sonic screwdriver returns. On the plus side it doesn't get used much beyond forgivable things like opening doors and such, but it retains the amazing ability to make a space whale vomit. Barbed wire fixing I can buy, reactivating time windows I'll accept, but are we supposed to imagine the Doctor on one long weekend building the screwdriver and went, "Hang on, that Pat Mills script might get made one day and I'll end up stuck in a space whale! Better make sure there's a button for that." Then again, triggering a gag reflex in a cyborg probably isn't very ridiculous and it does allow the full-fist moment as the Doctor straightens his bowtie before being washed away by sick: "This isn't going to be very big on dignity..."

No, a definite complaint is this is the second episode in a row when the main characters have an LSD flashback that moves the plot forward. This better not happen every week, as I cannot imagine myself enjoying seeing Churchill having visions of "reverse the polarity" allowing him to resolve the drama. And the crack... why? Yes, cracks forming throughout the universe of time and space. So what? It's not like the space whale used it, or it was used on it. As a freaky bit of story arc, I might have forgiven it if it weren't for the multiform last week bigging it up with a lack of subtlety that Queen Victoria would have flinched at.

Worse, what is this shit about the Earth getting roasted in the 29th Century? What kind of fan is Moffat? Has he not noticed that The Mutants, Terror of the Vervoids and others are set in the 30th century whereupon there were no solar flares? I mean, it misses the whole point of the bit in Ark in Space that basically goes...

Doctor: Harry, you see that prop? Definitely 30th century. Or maybe later?
Harry: we're now in the 30th century?
Doctor: Nope. No idea. But way beyond it. Which is why you never touch the TARDIS controls again.
Harry: Sorry.
Doctor: Yes, you are, aren't you?

Oh, and it turns out the Tenth Doctor did have sex with Elizabeth I. At the very least he was responsible for her losing her virginity... and that's enough of that.

In short, this reminded me a lot of The Happiness Patrol. And that's always a good thing.

Oh well, since the original Power of the Daleks is gone, I suppose a remake might be justified... but even if Mark Gatiss didn't have some whacking great marks against his name, why the hell ask someone to write a Dalek story when they continually bang on about how much they prefer Cybermen? Eh?



Matthew Blanchette said...

I finally saw this episode last night... and, to be fair, I rather liked it.

Was a bit confused by the Queen's intentions, though; didn't know whether she was bad or good, at first...

Youth of Australia said...

That was probably the point.

After all, the Winders makes it clear they work for the highest authority, Liz 10 is the highest authority, ergo they work for Liz 10 - so why doesn't she remember?

All part of the plot.

Matthew Blanchette said...

True, true... but I had a bit of difficulty understanding the dialogue; optional captions on the part of BBC America would've helped things.