Saturday, July 31, 2010

Doctor Who 2010

So I've finally got around to watching the last episode of this year's season of Dr Who (definitely no question mark as it seems these days), by which time all the serious fans have already blogged about it, sometimes at extreme length and occasionally with useful insights. So anything I'm going to say is going to feel deeply superfluous.

But since when did that stop a blogger?

One thing that those fans spotted was that this season seems to have been largely about Steven Moffat doing the sort of things that Russell T Davies previously did with the show, but doing them well. Now, while this is vastly preferable to many other things (such as, doing them the way that Russell T Davies was doing them), it wasn't what some of us were at heart hoping for (which was, at minimum, him doing Steven Moffat things well). Still, this approach produced some episodes that I enjoyed well enough... Until the last two.

Though the two episodes in the story in question were annoying in different ways. The first was just padded - okay, so bits of it involved classic Who thrills, but all the stuff with the Romans felt rather desperate, and when you're playing for these stakes, some running around and screaming with one (1) damaged Cyberman feels a bit feeble. It also involved some amazing incidental mental thickness; okay, the Doctor might somehow might be expected not to notice the obvious about his little speech about what was in the Pandorica, but you'd have expected one of the two smart-arse companions present to react with "sounds like you".

The plot felt cobbled-together and implausible, too. Okay, hoping for plausibility in a Who plot is a bit forlorn, but there has to be some kind of break point, some chance that stuff might be explained in such a way to make one go "ah!". The Alliance of Enemies had some credibility problems, too; there's infinite comic potential in trying to imagine their planning meetings ("THIS MEETING IS CALLED TO ORDER!" Later. "We have a cunning plan. He's going to cause the end of the universe because of these crack thingies, so we're going to raid his assistant's brain through one of these cracks, construct a hideously complicated plot to attract his attention, and then capture him." "And then we exterminate him?" "No, we lock him in a box that any idiot with a sonic screwdriver can open." "Can't we exterminate him a little bit?" Later. "What are the Silurians doing here? We thought that he liked you lot." "You mean, apart from giving us a scientific name that puts us in the same genus as those monkeys?" "Yes." "Well, he put us into hibernation, and set the timer so that we woke up in the 31st century - just when he knew damn well that solar flares would be sterilising the solar system...").

The second part, on the other hand, showed the severe difficulties with fairytale-style wild science fantasy, by just not doing it very well. If anything is possible - anything that fairytale magic might bring about, anything that wide-screen baroque space opera might conceive - then the most that you can get on screen is pretty pictures and over-acting. This was all-too-Daviesian NuWho, the Doctor as a demigod who can save the entire universe with a bit of dubious technobabble and some pained claims about self-sacrifice, and the assistant du jour as the mostest important magic girl in all the universe who can restore things which have been wiped from history by wishing hard enough. It just wasn't satisfactory.

This series has also given too damn many hostages to fortune. Another thing that some proper fans noted about the whole series was that Steven Moffat seems to like time travel stories - that is, stories in which stuff happens in the wrong order, cause and effect are chopped up for dramatic or comic effect, and so on. Actually, I think that the time travel is just an excuse, a convenience; Moffat simply has a lot of fun tinkering with causality within narrative structures. My favourite script of his, ever, anywhere, remains episode 1 of season 4 of Coupling, "Nine and a Half Minutes", which is essentially Rashomon as an urban sex comedy. However, Who has usually been a little bit careful about time travel stories, in this strict sense; to this show, time travel is just a way to get our heroes into an infinite variety of places and times, and any suggestions about going back in time to stop bad things have been clubbed down with pronouncements about the Laws of Time or Causal Loops. And there are several good reasons for this caution, given Who's nature as a mass-market TV show; time travel stories tend either to confuse casual viewers by being difficult to follow, or to bug the bejasus out of attentive geek types by being sloppy and illogical. Furthermore; they present huge problems for the long-term design of the show, in the way that excessively powerful technology does; if the Doctor can use time travel to solve one problem, to determine which flat to rent to find the monster of the week, why doesn't he use it every time a problem is serious enough to, say, involve the deaths of a few dozen people? The rule has been broken on occasion, of course - Davies broke it once or twice - but Moffat seems happy to plain ignore it. It'll come back and bite him, I tell you.

Anyway, Steven Moffat is definitely engaged in reinvigorating a classic British popular culture hero for television in the 21st century, and doing a fine job of it from what I've seen so far. Unfortunately for this blog post, the hero is Sherlock Holmes. This jury of one is still out on his work on Who; let's hope that, now that he's worked through the unhappily established conventions of 21st-century Who in his first season, the second will do something really worthwhile. The presence of, for example, an actual married couple on the Tardis (a first, I think) does at least suggest that we might get some proper Moffat foibles instead of the tired old Davies foibles.

1 comment:

Hugh said...

General agreement here. NuWho does seem to suffer from a serious Law of Inverse Ninjas, or as the case may be, Daleks, problem.

And the ending was indeed awful "we'll tech the tech with the tech" babble. I was hoping for and expecting more. Let's hope the second series does better.

(On the other hand, I did enjoy the first part, regardless of huge plot holes. Tension? Check. And the unexpected ending of there being nothing in the Pandorica, regardless of how obvious the Doctor was as a candidate, worked for me.)