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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Harness’

I don’t usually pay much attention to other people’s reviews of Doctor Who, especially the new stuff – but, and to go off on a tangent almost at once, it has increasingly seemed the case recently that the official review column in DWM has been paying attention to what I write here, either by answering the points I raise (Robot of Sherwood is apparently not the ‘worst episode ever’ – obviously I beg to differ) or cribbing some of my own observations (e.g. the one about the current theme arrangement sounding like Telstar). This isn’t a carp, Graham, but – just between the two of us – it’d be great if you could sneak a name check for this blog into the next set of reviews. Go on, you know you want to.

Now where were we? Oh yes: Mummy on the Orient Express, which has received generally positive reviews from both friends and those few online outlets I vaguely pay attention to. Possibly I am guilty of prejudging this episode, but I didn’t find it grabbed me as much as the previous week’s, despite having more of a sense of fun about it and a somewhat better plot.

I think this is partly because – well, here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with a high-concept episode made with one eye on the visuals that will accompany it, but I don’t think this should overpower the reality of the scenario or the plot itself, and I do feel this was happening here. A futuristic reconstruction of the Orient Express I can buy, but not the visual of a steam train flying through space on ‘hyperspace ribbons’ or whatever they were supposed to be. That’s an ask too far for me in what’s still supposed to technically be an SF series, especially when the fact that the train was in space was fairly incidental to the plot – it could have been a force-shielded train travelling around a planet with a hostile atmosphere and the story could have unfolded in exactly the same way.

In the same way – well, look, if you’re going to do a Doctor Who story about killer Egyptian mummies (and that’s ultimately what this was) you’re really setting yourself up for a fall, simply because you’re actively inviting comparisons between your episode and Pyramids of Mars. That’s pretty much the definition of a no-win scenario, because Pyramids of Mars is the work of the cream of Doctor Who‘s A-team operating at the very top of their game. And it also illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Here are the Mummies from Pyramids of Mars:

mummies

Very different from the Mummy on the train, aren’t they? Less obviously horrific, and less authentically a proper Egyptian Mummy. There’s something weird going on with the face, not to mention that convex chestpiece. But, as it turns out, there’s a very good reason why these Mummies don’t look quite like a proper Mummy – in the fiction of the episode, they are revealed to be robots, not embalmed cadavers. As a result, I think it gives the whole story a touch of verisimilitude, rather than just relying on visual cues for its excitement.

On the other hand, we have the Mummy from the train, which is as perfect a representation of a classic Hollywood Mummy as one could wish for. Which, for me, just begs the question of why – this is, after all, supposed to be some kind of alien warrior, and there should surely be some hint of that in the realisation of the beast. Otherwise the story is basically just playing dress-up with visual cues, rather than trying to create a convincing self-contained universe.

mummy-on-the-orient-express

While we’re on the topic of Pyramids of Mars, let’s talk about the characterisation of the Doctor (again). No complaints about Peter Capaldi, obviously (more Pertwee-esque than ever in his costume choices this week, and on a similar note I wish I could find some way of commenting on how cute Jenna Coleman looked in that 1920s outfit than simply saying ‘wasn’t Jenna Coleman cute in that 1920s outfit?’), but… well, look, the Doctor has alien values and can sometimes seem callous.

Let’s step back to 1975, or possibly 1911, where the Doctor and Sarah have just discovered their friend Laurence Scarman has been murdered:

The Doctor: His late brother must have called.
Sarah: That’s horrible! He was so concerned about his brother.
The Doctor (clearly preoccupied by a deactivated Mummy endoskeleton): I told him not to be. I told him it was too late.
Sarah: Oh! Sometimes you don’t seem…
The Doctor: Human? (regarding the Mummy) Typical Osiran simplicity…
Sarah: A man has just been murdered!
The Doctor: Four men, Sarah. Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself, and they’re merely the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped.

And this lovely understated character moment is pretty much all they have to say on the subject (Uncle Terrance, in his novelisation, has a typical go at softening up the Doctor by suggesting he is simply hiding his real feelings of grief, but none of that is there in Tom Baker’s performance). This week, on the other hand, felt like the latest in a long series of episodes primarily about the Doctor’s niceness, or lack of it, with long sequences of dialogue only present to allow this to be discussed. I felt like shouting ‘Come on, give it a rest!’ at the screen as the episode went on. Again, rather than choosing a story and then developing it in an organic-feeling way, it seems like they are just selecting a set of cues (emotional this time) and constructing the plot to emphasise them.

Possibly I’m just too in love with an old-fashioned style of storytelling. But it does seem to me that one of things distinguishing Old Doctor Who from New Doctor Who is that what was left as implicit subtext in the original show is dragged centre-stage to become an actual theme in the current version (or, to put it another, it still feels like fanfic – high quality fanfic this week, but fanfic nevertheless).

Apart from all this the rest of the story was a mixture of good and bad stuff, probably inclining towards the good. Most of the guest performances were decent, with even Frank Skinner thankfully understated, although some of the dialogue and line readings were a bit too 2014 to really be¬†convincing. I’m still not sure what’s going with Clara’s characterisation – is she supposed to seem as unreasonable and manipulative as she’s coming across at the moment? Any moral high ground she may once have occupied has slid out from under her feet, and it’s hard to see how she will be able to criticise the Doctor in future without seeming like a dreadful hypocrite. Still, I’d rather they made kick-Clara episodes than kick-the-Doctor ones, all things considered, and next week’s offering looks rather intriguing.

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‘The time-travelling companions crash-land on the moon, where they find a mining base full of corpses – while spider-like creatures wait in the dark, ready to attack.’

Over the last few weeks I have found my weekly Doctor’s appointment has increasingly become a bit of a trial – yes, I know I say this every week – even to the point where a supremely promising-sounding episode description like the one above (completely authentic, by the way) only triggered wariness and cynicism in me.

It sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it? It has that classic Doctor Who ring about it, possibly because of that felicitous combination of the words ‘crash-land’, ‘mining base’, ‘corpses’ and ‘spider-like creatures’. This is despite the fact that, on closer reflection, it’s hard to say exactly which previous era it brings to mind – the hard SF setting doesn’t really fit with most of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes period, while the hard-core horror of the corpses and spiders doesn’t bring to mind anything else. It definitely transports one back to around 1975, anyway, and some arbitrary and unreal junction of the Pertwee and Baker tenures.

ktm

The episode itself seems to collude with this idea at first, cramming in a couple of, to my experienced eye, blatant (to the sane eye: incredibly obscure) references to The Ark in Space , but as it went on it became increasingly clear that this was a more generally retro episode, acknowledging a few different periods in the show’s history. But before we got to that, there was that extremely unpromising opening to get through, built around the idea that the Doctor is somehow unreasonable in refusing to tell a child she is ‘special’. I’m sounding horrifically Daily Mail-ish, I know, but when did it become obligatory to tell everyone they were ‘special’? I don’t feel ‘special’. I don’t think I am ‘special’ (not in any positive way, at least). I was hoping the Doctor would come back with a snappy quote from Gilbert and Sullivan – ‘if everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody’ (a line I only normally wheel out when teaching indefinite pronouns), but clearly that’s not where the BBC1 audience is at on a Saturday night these days. Hey ho.

After this, though, Kill the Moon turned into a rather superior piece of current Doctor Who, coming as close to being genuinely scary as any episode I can remember (I should mention I am quasi-arachnophobic, something else which I occasionally think I may owe to Doctor Who: specifically the part two cliffhanger to Full Circle, but I digress). Watching the sequence with the child stranded in zero-G, with the spider scuttling up the wall towards her, I was genuinely astounded this was going out at prime time on a weekend – I know the series is currently in the latest timeslot it’s ever had, but did they know that when they were assembling the episode?

Being quasi-arachnophobic, I am rather ambivalent about the way that the spiders ultimately proved to be only an incidental scare, the episode shedding its Apollo 18 influences to become another moral dilemma story, this one recalling The Waters of Mars not just in its aesthetics but the Doctor’s refusal to take an active role in a key historical moment. I must confess to being slightly confused – are we supposed to agree with Clara about the Doctor’s behaviour in this episode? Is she in fact, right? (In other words, was this intended to be yet another kick-the-Doctor episode?) I didn’t have a problem with it – I thought it was morally defensible, and very much in tune with the way the character has often been presented in the past (right back to ‘You must help yourselves’ from Tom Baker in The Seeds of Doom, and beyond). I expect less ancient viewers may have a different opinion, of course. If this is the case, then the writers arguably fluffed their own intentions, although for me this was only to the story’s benefit.

There was a lot of other interesting stuff going on in this story, too. It’s odd that the orange-and-yellow E-suits first seen in The Impossible Planet have now become standard-issue whenever TARDIS-travellers visit a hostile environment. It can’t be that the Doctor is just re-using the same suits he picked up then, because he could only have acquired two (his own and Ida’s), and there were three in this episode. Either he bought a job lot offscreen somewhere, or the TARDIS is somehow manufacturing its own new suits copying that particular design. One wonders why, in the case of the latter: you’d expect Time Lord technology to have come up with a much more sophisticated solution.

I am anticipating many complaints about bad science in this episode – the spiders being described as mono-cellular prokaryotes, for example, when they’re very clearly highly differentiated organisms – but the central conceit of the episode does actually match up with the series’ mythology, albeit an element not really mentioned in over forty years. The real-world Moon probably isn’t a giant egg, as we are virtually certain it is the remnant of a vast glob of matter smashed out of the Earth by a collision in the primal period of the solar system. In Who-world, however, it’s still technically canon that the Moon approached Earth out of deep space and was captured by its gravity at some point in human prehistory (I have written at length elsewhere about why I think this must have happened about 35 million years ago). So that was nice. The idea of a newly-hatched creature being ready to lay another egg, apparently the size of its own, moments after its birth, is still absurd, though.

I suspect the Moon-2 element was just inserted in an attempt to explain why, in the light of the Moon’s destruction in 2049, the Doctor has ‘previously’ been able to visit the Moon in 2070, 2540, and whenever-it-is that The Seeds of Death is supposed to be set. This was well-intentioned, but we¬†have surely reached the point where any single, coherent history for Who-world is becoming an impossibility. We’re only a few years away from a 2018 which will be utterly unlike the one in The Enemy of the World, and this is before we even get onto the increasingly unresolvable problem of giving Who-world a coherent 21st century.

Off I go again: we now have Kill the Moon, set in 2049, at a point at which the human race seems to have abandoned space exploration (prior to the episode, at least). This doesn’t even match with The Waters of Mars, set in 2059, in which Adelaide Brooke is supposed to have dedicated her career to space travel, and – according to background detail in that story – her crew have backstories which similarly don’t tally with what we see here. That’s before we even get to The Moonbase, set in 2070, in which there has supposedly been a gravitron station on the Moon for 20 years. This must, of course, be Moon-2 now, but it seems rather unlikely, knowing Moon-2 is also a giant egg, that people would fly straight up there and start building bases (let alone penal colonies, and the like) – unless Moon-2’s development was quietly terminated.

This doesn’t even begin to address the problem of The Seeds of Death, which has to be set at some point in the 21st century, prior to the human race establishing any colonies on other planets, and when space travel has been abandoned in favour of matter transmission. Obviously it has to be prior to the Martian mission of the late 2050s, but how is its technology supposed to tally with that of Kill the Moon? Did humanity, at some point in the next 35 years, develop transmat tech and ion-drive spaceships and then abandon them for refurbished NASA space shuttles? The only other option is to fit it into the impossibly small decade-long gap between Kill the Moon and The Waters of Mars, and that just doesn’t work. So, to conclude: while this was another strong episode, and while the Moon-creature survived, the same cannot be said for the concept of a single unified history of Who-world: this episode really seems to have killed that dead. I expect I will still continue to interfere with the corpse, though.

 

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