Monday, June 26, 2006

Who Review

Strange time though it may be, I'm going to post some thoughts on the lastest series of Doctor Who - BEFORE the final two-parter changes everything. (At which point you may reasonably expect a follow-up post.)

Now, I saw a bit of Who as a kid, but as an adult it never really got to me. The new series have made me go back and look at the old shows again, but I'd never call myself a 'fan'.

With that in mind...

David Tennant is proving to be a remarkable choice. He's funny, charismatic, sexy, peculiar...

Hang on. Sexy? Since when was the Doctor sexy?

Yah. Interesting, that. He never was, really. And yet here we are, with a TARDIS driver of serious hotness. Was this a bad decision? Probably not. TV has a different landscape now. In (perhaps misguided) attempts to mirror American TV, casting has lurched to the hottie end of the scale. The theory Russell T. Davies puts forward for this is that it works to bring channel-flippers to your show. They stop mid-flip to check out the sexy face that caught their eye.

And dammit, shallow or not, the guy's not exactly wrong.

Still, he's balanced it by actually making sure the Hot Doc is also very talented. No question, Tennant is 'a good actor'. Oddly, this is where my real issues begin.

I had the same problem with Eccleston, who, as an actor, I worship above almost all others. His death in Cracker is burned into my brain, and his work in so many things since - not the least of which are Jude and The Second Coming - is just awe-inspiring.

But, like Tennant, he's an actor-actor. A proper 'I shall allow the character to inhabit me' type. And, for me, that robs the Doctor of something. That thing, it turns out, is madness.

I had zero problem believing that Tom Baker was crackers. Pertwee, too. Nutters. Because the actors were nutters. Because they weren't just nutters, they were 'characters', and blended those (somewhat affected) personalities with the Doctor. Which really, really worked.

When Tennant or Ecclseston do the 'eccentric' bit, I always feel it's all script, no nature. It's the turn the script said to take. Not that I'm against sticking to a decent script - it's just that, when a writer writes madness, it's almost impossible to avoid being deliberate, being structured. Which madness, of course, isn't.

The structure of filming the way they do makes this necessary, of course. You can't spend an hour lighting one part of the set only to have tour Doctor bounce over the another part mid-scene. This was the gift of the old, cheap production. I'd hate to have it back, but it DID force directors to floodlight entire sets and just follow the actors - no cutting, no stopping, not unless you absolutely have to.

Quite what the solution is, I dunno. Videotaped rehearsals, maybe? In a rehearsal room somewhere, long before filming, letting the actors go nuts and picking what stuff to keep - maybe not the stuff the writer had in mind - for the final shoot?

Not sure. And frankly I'm getting a little edgy at the idea of ignoring the script, so let's move on.

The companion is, apparently, due to leave. There was a BBC statement, confirming rumours the actress had denied. Me, I hope it's the crew trying to fake people out. Sadly, the trailer for the coming episode suggests otherwise.

Billie Piper has huge teeth. She's also very likeable, even when her performance hasn't been top-drawer. (I'd also point readers to Queer as Folk, a series written by Doctor Who head Davies, where, again, performances are often a little...stiff. But, again, this is traded for charisma, charm and production value.)

Why does the teeth thing matter? Not sure. Sometimes an actor doesn't engage you enough and your mind wanders, I guess.

Still, every so often I'll watch her and be surprised. Often - more so this season than last - she'll find line readings that really impress. I mean, it's the same line, as written, but she manages to play multiple meanings without killing the joke. This is, frankly, a HUGE skill. I can name only five or six actresses of the younger generate who can do it well on TV - Billie, Alyson Hannigan, Emma Caulfield (both from Buffy) and Lisa Kudrow (from Friends) among them.

It's like...funny and scared, or joking but serious, confused and narked. Sure, it ain't rocket-science, it ain't DeNiro, but it goes beyond what's on the page. Keeps the old meaning and adds a new one. That is, FACT, good acting.

What a flat old start to a series. Great make-up effects wasted on characters with very little going on. (Shame, really - Cat-Nuns, coulda been interesting.) A plot that never gets beyond ticking over (though I don't bemoan the ending as some have. Sure, drugging people with a shower wouldn't work as a disease cure in real life...but it makes emotional sense. And I'll take that over a hundred Trek climaxes that go heavy on science which is probably true, but has zero connection to an audience.)

Still, we did get Cassandra's return. Pointless as it was, it made for a body-swap sub-plot that allowed Billie to be HUGELY funny. So, that's fine.

A lot of the problems of the solid previous year return - most importantly a reliance on zombie armies and/or cash-hungry characters. Both of which I enjoy, but they do suggest a shortage of new ideas. Not that I have better ones.

The overriding feeling I got from this episode was that the wad had been shot on the Christmas special. A series opener should be kick-ass. It should get you pumped for the later episodes. This didn't do that - it felt like episode two. Which, if you count the previous special as episode one, makes sense...but still leaves you kinda cold.

Supernatural? Nonsense. Not in the Whoniverse. Werewolves, ghosts, devils...these are all alien entities. It's all explicable. And, for this one show, I like that. Even if it does mean we keep getting the same couple of riffs time and again. One being 'I'm breaking through to your world' (the Gelth last year, The Satan Pit this year - and, if I'm guessing right, the forthcoming Army of Ghosts). The other being 'possession'.

So - Queen Victoria, wolf creatures, lunar light, big diamond...interesting stuff. This one gelled. It was exciting, climaxed just right - last piece of the mystery in time with the life-saving solution. Character chemistry, too. All good. A little on the nose (snout?) occasionally, but basically sound.

Plus, hey - ninja monks!

Get down with your sweet self! The Doc faces off with a genuinely convincing bad guy - one who looks human. WAY scarier than all the Dalek Emperors and CGI Devils you can muster. Good job, Tony Head.

Another lovely Buffy trick is utilised - bringing back a character and using it to reflect on the 'now'. Remember how the return of Oz made Willow look closely at her relationship with Tara? How super-straight Riley's one-ep come-back showed Buffy just how...messed up she'd let her life become?

It's like that. Only with a robot dog.

Rose had to face up to the fact that all the Doctor's companions have to go bye-bye sometime, somehow. And it was sad. As, in its own, funnier, way was Mickey's realisation that he's the mechanical canine.

There are three truths to the new Who series. One: the production will have to make a cheap episode or two to compensate for all the explosions and graphics in other stories. Two: cliffhanger resolutions will be disappointing (see later). And three: Steven Moffat will typically write the best non-arc episode(s) of the series.

Yes, from the pen that wrote 'Are you my mummy?" comes a sweeping tale of romance, terror, mystery, wit...all the stuff good Who can do brilliantly.

And it does it. Brilliantly. Natch.

Clockwork creatures - no CGI, all real, all sinister. Comedy horse? Funny, and yet great for the climax.

And that final shot. The audience gets the mystery solved, the Doctor doesn't. It makes perfect sense of's gasp-worthy.

Sorry, I may have dozed off. Yeesh! What went wrong here? Sarcasm review mode:

'Hey, I know - we'll bring back the cybermen. Only, we'll ignore their interesting history and just do it on Earth. With an overacting loony in control - cos it's a great cliche that. That's why Who already did it with the Dalek's creation. Then we'll drag Rose's daddy issues out all over again, cos that's an easy way to manipulate the audience's emotions. Plus, we can use them twice by re-dressing those issues as Mickey's Granny issues. Brilliant!

'Plot...plot...erm, hang on...Oh, got it. They make cybermen, they kill, the doctor stops them, lots of stuff blows up. Remember when we dangled Rose from an airship? We'll do that again, too. And let's dump Mickey for a surprise comeback in the season finale by having him stay behind...for no adequately explained reason whatsoever.

"Finally, we'll set it in an alternate universe so there's no knock-on effect and nothing means anything. These aren't even the proper versions of anyone!'

Sorry guys, it was fan-fic. Fan-fic with a LAME cliffhanger resolution at the half-way point.

After last year's The Unquiet Dead I had the feeling that writer Mark Gatiss had a knack for solid, rather than exceptional, episodes. Plots and ideas that worked well enough, managed so-so supporting characters, had at least one Good Idea at the heart...and managed, somehow, to have a brilliant title.

Well, check all them boxes, m'friend. Uninspired, consistent stuff. Please see my post entitled Wonderfully Average for more.

So how come this two-parter, which uses as many SF cliches as the cybermen story, is so much better? I have no bloody idea.

Oh, no, hang on, yes I do. Execution. Manage to be actually scary, not just tell people 'this is scary'. Manage to puzzle, confuse, astound, instead of just chucking plum visuals and old emotions at people.

Sure, the guest characters were pretty 1-D. But man, this is the closest I've been to behind the sofa in a long time. Walking outside in zero-atmo, cracking glass, corpse of a pretty girl floating in space, tattoos appearing on hands with no warning. Rock and roll - this is the stuff!

Some flaws still - the sets were a bit 'Space Vets' - but the good massively outweighed the bad. And still we don't forget the emotional angle, as the Doctor and Rose discuss the possibilities of being TARDIS-less. Would they share a house, get a mortgage? I believe that little sit-com might be worth watching...

Maybe they could have a comedy Ood as a next-door neighbour? Why not - they're the best creature-designs since the new Who began. Gotta love a malfunctioning translation unit that claims domination and death in the same tone of voice as offering you some lunch.

Cliffhanger issue: same as before - which is to say, disappointing. POV shot of evil thing rising from pit...only it turns out it's not a POV shot at all. It's just a camera move. The biggest anticipated scare of the cliffhanger and it's just something the director's doing with the camera. Cheats!

Or 'The Comedy Episode That The Doctor Isn't Really In'.

Davies himself mention Buffy: The Zeppo in reference to this show. Good for him, saves me doing it.

Still, where we get into trouble in what is, basically, a fabulously energetic piece of comedy, is the fact that our lead character - Elton Pope, played without too much 'blatant geek' by Marc Warren - ISN'T Xander. He isn't a series regular. He doesn't appear in most of the shows, albeit as second fiddle.

In short, he has nothing to prove. Xander proved how important he was - that's what these 'look at the little guys' episodes do. But Elton, fun though he is, isn't the heart of our show. He's a newbie.

Still, the fact that the episode still mostly worked is credit to a decent script. Peter Kay over-acts even before he gets into the monster make-up, but it's a performance that suits the episode he's in. One that's so related to the farting aliens of last year that the character is made a cousin-race. From Klom, apparently.

It's an ep that proved too strange for some tastes, and I can see why - the chasing of a monster in corridors was ACTUALLY 'Scooby Doo' - but I hope that people will eventually see it for what it is. It's a lightener. An episode designed to pull back from the intensity of the last few weeks; to make things fun before the Big Finish that's due.

It's worth asking, though, what's next for this production. Last year, to make the schedule work, they wrote a sub-plot in for a minor character (it involved having a hatch put into his forehead. Not especially inspired). Just so the main actors could have a break. This year they made an entire episode without the mains (a couple of scenes aside).

My suggestion: split the buggers up. Doctor goes one way, companion goes the other. Then you spend two weeks on a single storyline, told from both sides, from two perspectives. You can even cliffhanger the companion's half, then resolve it at the 30-minute mark of the Doctor's ep.

Oh, and get Steven Moffat to write it. Because he does fragmented narrative structure brilliantly (see BBC2 sitcom Coupling).

I seem to be alone in my liking of this ep. Lacking in effects due to low budget, It's written, instead, to generate atmosphere in boring old suburbia.

The kid who traps people in her drawings. And can also CREATE from drawings. (Killer scribble!) It's such a straight, clear concept. And when you get to the drawing of her abusive dad in the, that's primal fear.

Getting bored of alien possession, but the fact that the entity was a child as well had a nice feel. Not evil, just a lonely tantrum. This also had some sharp dialogue from the creator of Life on Mars, yet more solid performance. Better secondary characters than usual, too.

And, yes, I liked the ending. Doctor grabs the Olympic torch and takes it to its destination in order to send the alien home. Hackneyed? Hell with it. I likes me some cheese. Cheer at the telly!

Particularly special, for me, was the way the Doctor was accepted into the crisis. The psychic paper has done so much work, just to keep stuff moving - this ep suggested that, actually, when a crisis occurs, you'll accept the help of anyone who sounds like they know what they're doing.

The cybermen return, Rose leaves, blah blah. I dread it because it has so much to live up to, while at the same time being a sequel to my least-favourite story to date.

That, and the fact that I'll have to wait until Christmas for the next episode!


At Fri Jun 30, 03:47:00 pm, Blogger China Blue said...

I never watched Dr Who until now - I only ever saw the one where Rose meets her parents and the one with the cat-nuns. And I actually enjoyed them, too. Aside from being an X-Files uber-nerd back in the day, I'm not a big sci-fi fan.

I can't bear watching the older ones, though - the sets are crappy, the lighting is poor at best, and watching a load of Equity members getting their luvvie on - no thanks, not when there's some perfectly good paint drying in the next room.

And what's with the whole, 'Daleks, so scary I hid behind my sofa' nonsense? How much of a pussy would you have to be to hide from a robot in your telly? Like, get on all fours and say 'meow'!

Sorry about the rant, but I feel quite strongly about that... had to get that off my chest.

At Fri Jun 30, 05:38:00 pm, Blogger sorking said...

Hey, chest-relief is all part of the service here on Before My Eyes!

I have problems with the old shows. I can almost forgive production values and stuff because, once you've worked the biz a little, you realise just how hard people have to try to make anything look at all decent. For that, I have sympathy.

For the acting...not so much. Family TV don't have to mean OTT.

It's the scripts that really get to me. I have seen some decent Who writing in my time - a story here or there that manages to make you ignore the flaws elsewhere - but overridingly I'm finding forced cliffhangers, bad resolutions and weak characterisations.

Which, given that scripts cost, relatively, nothing, isn't so easy to forgive.

As to the Daleks - they never scared me. As a kid, some Who REALLY did, though. Just not the pepperpots.

Last series, though, the solo-Dalek episode made a great attempt - finally realising that drama is action, not talk. And that when a cocky git like the Doctor is actively scared of something, to the point of becoming irrational and violent himself, that transfers to the audience.

The kids, anyway. I was clearly ON the sofa, not behind it. Honest.


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