Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Time Traveller's Plank

Doctor Who
The Girl In The Fireplace
Series Two, Episode Four

The Girl In The Fireplace is a love story for the Doctor, and there have hardly been any of those.  Why is that?  Well, School Reunion explained quite eloquently that the Doctor lives longer than anyone else, so he doesn't feel he can ever stay attached.  And that's just his close friends: he's never around anyone else long enough for it to go anywhere.  He's still got a heart two, actually but those are the facts and "close friends" is the best he can do, if that.  It's The Curse Of The Time Lords.  He literally said so last week.

Steven Moffat's brilliant way round this is to ignore it and just have him fall in love anyway.  Uh.  It works for a lot of people, and it won a Hugo Award, but... no.  It doesn't work if you take the previous episode into account.  It doesn't work if you want to actually see any evidence of love on-screen.  It doesn't work if you watch these two characters alone in a room, supposedly being in love.  It's a to-the-point shopping list of Doesn't Work.

What does work is the time travel jiggery-pokery where the Doctor pops in and out of a person's life.  (See The Time Traveler's Wife, as Moffat so obviously has.)  After hearing the Doctor/human relationship put into words last week, here it's enacted on the screen, and it's like a point-by-point account of why he can't fall in love with a human.  Fair enough.  Except, d'oh!  It's inexplicably being used to make the opposite point.  The Doctor doesn't build a bond with this woman, he barely meets her at all.  And okay, there is such a thing as love at first sight, but this first sight happens when she's about seven years old.  Ick.

The main thing wrong with it is summed up by Rose: "Why her?"  Madame de Pompadour is one of the most accomplished women in history, okay, but none of those accomplishments are on the screen.  We're told she's great, but that's not the same as seeing it for ourselves.  What we do get is a stuffy, wooden, rather unremarkable aristo with a bit of a crush on her imaginary friend.  What, exactly, does the Doctor like about her?  He seems glad to have snogged a famous person, but then what?  There's no wit, no soul, no steel about her; all her womanly strength comes from depending on him.  She's not beguiling, she's not interesting, and (aside from being able to invert a mind-meld, just because), no match for him.  Come off it.  This is the woman who makes his hearts beat faster?  He had more chemistry with Queen Victoria.  He had more chemistry with Charles Dickens.

It doesn't help that Madame de Pompadour is played by Sophia Myles, who makes a bunch of clockwork robots look expressive by comparison.  Here is a woman who actually dated David Tennant, and yet their scenes together fizzle miserably.  Tennant, who played Casanova, and one episode ago communicated boundless love and affection for Sarah Jane with a couple of smiles.  It just ain't happening here.

Of course, the Doctor had years to form a bond with Sarah Jane, and so did we along with him.  There was a weight to School Reunion because of it.  You can't cram that kind of thing into 45 minutes.  You know all that not-seeing we're doing, of all Madame Pom-Pom's accomplishments?  The Doctor's not seeing them either.  Apart from a few scenes where we miss the tail-end, he knows this woman about as well as we do.  Oh, there's the I-think-he's-being-euphemistic-it's-too-subtle-to-be-sure "dancing", and more importantly the mind-meld (because apparently there weren't enough shortcuts in Doctor Who), but if their relationship's based on something that's impossible to interpret as an audience, then how the hell's it supposed to work as televised drama?

Nonetheless, Moffat insists in the clumsiest way possible that this is the real deal.  When the Doctor charges to Madame Pot Pourri's rescue, he's marooning Rose and Mickey on a dangerous spaceship in the future.  They're trapped forever, and he doesn't even mention it, presumably because he loves Madame What'shername so much he's willing to abandon his closest friend.  Even after what he said to her last week, about specifically not doing that.  Russell T Davies reportedly never edited Moffat's scripts, and dear God does that backfire here.  What happened to Rose's obvious annoyance that Mickey was joining the TARDIS crew?  Now they're thick as thieves.  Hello?  Is anybody screening this stuff?  Clearly not, as otherwise they'd have thrown out all that ridiculous "So lonely, lonely then and lonelier now, my lonely Doctor" twaddle.  Was there a scriptwriter's bonus if Steven Moffat used the word "lonely" in bulk?  (Besides which, if the Doctor's so lonely, what's with the conveyerbelt of bezzie mates he's had since 1963?  Yeah, they leave or they die in the end, but doesn't everyone who's ever lived have to deal with that as well?  And okay, the Time Lords are gone, but didn't he spend all of Classic Who avoiding them anyway?  I guess you really don't appreciate a thing until it's gone...)

Lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely,
I sometimes wonder if this even is a love story.  Aside from his foolhardy rescue plan, the Doctor seems utterly blasé on all things Madame Diet Pepsi until the very end, when he receives the Big Letter Of Lonely and looks miserable about it.  He could just as easily be sad because he's lost a new friend a new just-a-friend – who was hoping to see the stars.  Well, couldn't he?  But this does nothing to dislodge the feeling that, no, that's what they're going for, it just isn't working.  (And Wikipedia informs me that Russell T Davies called it "a love story for the Doctor", so that's that, then.  I also now know the episode's working titles included Reinette And The Lonely Angel and Every Tick Of My Heart, and yes, you are supposed to read those without sicking on your lap.)

Okay, okay, enough about the love story.  What of the plot?  Clockwork robots are invading Madame Pompous Orc's history in order to steal her brain.  They want it to use as a computer, because their ship is lacking in parts and it's named after her and they are apparently deeply stupid.  The body-parts-as-spare-parts stuff is intensely creepy, but it's always disappointing meeting a baddie who does what they do because they're an idiot.  (Besides which, Moffat already did it in The Empty Child.)  Rose and Mickey have little to do other than witness the Doctor's tryst and react hardly at all.  Seriously – why isn't Rose crazy-jealous?  But I enjoyed them getting along for once, even if it does totally contradict the last episode.  Billie and Noel are good.  And I liked the horse.

This is one of those episodes that lives or dies by the idea at its heart, and it dies a strange, awkward death because of it.  Does Not Work.  So there.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Most Likely To Succeed

Doctor Who
School Reunion
Series Two, Episode Three

Oh boy, School Reunion.  This one's got "My Favourite" written all over it, in sparkly ink, surrounded by love-hearts. 

To be fair, any episode feauring Ye Olde Doctor Who characters is going to be a fan-favourite before it even gets off the drawing board.  The hard part is making it more than just a nostalgia trip and School Reunion does, skilfully using the past to help ground the show's present.

It gets off to a running start, instantly sparing us the usual "Step out of the TARDIS, run into trouble, flash the psychic paper" rigmorole.  Before the opening credits roll, we've already got an amazing villain Mr Finch, a headteacher with "sinister" ingrained in his walk, the way he smiles, even the way he hums and an amazing setup, with the Doctor as a schoolteacher.  Who wouldn't be hooked?  And then Sarah Jane Smith walks into the room.

"And, cut.  Okay Dave, you can stop now.  David?"
Younger viewers won't have a clue who she is, but that's okay.  It's perfectly obvious this person is important to the Doctor.  Well, I say perfectly obvious, but it's really David Tennant's expression that gets across all that history in an instant.  It's debateable whether this is magnificent acting or just what happens when fanboy meets fan-favourite, but either way, the look on his face is utterly genuine.

Before you know it, we're tackling one of those issues that should come up all the time in a long running show, but never does: what happens when he leaves you behind?  Never mind nostalgia – this is absolutely key character stuff, especially for someone as Doctor-obsessed as Rose.  So what about it?

As audience-members, we gloss over the chasm between the Doctor's life and that of his companions.  It's easy to assume, given that he travels in time and occasionally becomes someone else, that his companions are as timeless as the Doctor himself, all of them still there should he wish to pop back and see them.  But that's an illusion.  They age, he doesn't, and he'd rather not think about that, thankyouverymuch.  The script comes dangerously close to over-egging this, when the Doctor nearly uses the L word but-then-poignantly-doesn't, but apart from that it's perfectly put, brutally addressing a skeleton in the Doctor's closet and frankly, getting him bang to rights.

He doesn't come out of this in the best light, effectively using the Time War as an excuse even though that happened ages after he ditched Sarah.  And apart from a promise, there's nothing to say the same won't happen to Rose.  (If anything, her feelings for the Doctor might drive him away even faster.)  But, fair enough.  Why should all character development be of the fluffy and nice variety?  (In his defence, the Doctor did say goodbye to Sarah all those years ago, and quite poignantly too.  Perhaps she remembers it differently after obsessing for so long.)

All of this has a flipside, something that bothers me generally about New Who.  The Doctor's probably genuine when he says he assumed Sarah got on with her life.  Back in the day, companions actually had lives to get back to, learning from their time in the TARDIS and growing as a result.  Now, though?  Rose's life before You Know Who amounts to nothing much, the thought of leaving him is inconceivable, and if Sarah's anything to go by – good old, headstrong Sarah – the same is ultimately true of everyone he meets.  I'm not sure I buy that.  I certainly don't want to.

Either way, there's more than enough character development to be getting on with.  What about the actual episode – the plot, and all that jazz?  Well, the mysterious school (with creepy teachers and hypnotised students) is a bit more Demon Headmaster than Doctor Who, but given that it's a backdoor pilot for The Sarah Jane Adventures, the lighter tone seems appropriate.  The school's a nicely eerie setting, especially at night.  It's fun watching the Doctor as the leader of a "gang", sans all the smugness that made Boom Town so awkward.  But as for what the Krillitanes are actually up to... ye-eah, about that...

First, the good news.  Anthony Head is so relentlessly brilliant as Mr Finch that even when their plans make little sense, even when he makes little sense, it doesn't really matter.  Why, for instance, if all the other Krillitanes keep turning into bat-creatures does he stay as a human?  Because Anthony Head is more interesting than a CGI bat-creature, that's why.  I'm not going to quibble with a villain who brings out the best in David Tennant.  Finch brilliantly uses the Doctor's own crisis with Sarah to attempt to get him on-side, and their face-off at the swimming pool is an absolute showstopper, especially for the Tenth Doctor.  Gone is the New Earth shouting, AWOL the futile "Listen to me!" cries of Tooth And Claw – the Doctor here is fantastically restrained, and consequently at his best.  All the big-hitting emotional stuff is reserved for the scenes with Sarah, which lends this performance a lot of light and shade.  It's a joy to watch, and remains one of my favourites.

No smiley-face for you, Mr Nasty Krillitane Man!
But, okay, the plot's got some holes.  The Krillitanes evolve, right?  They cherry-pick "the best bits" from species the way human cultures steal words and customs.  But just because they've got big wings like a bat doesn't mean they're going to be susceptible to loud noises as well.  They're not bats.  Even if they were, why would they steal that bit of a bat?

Far more puzzling, though, that mysterious Krillitane oil.  In order to crack the "God code", they need children to type on a lot of computers.  (Just go with it.)  In order to get smart children for typing, they need a lot of food dipped in oil.  (They also use the kids for food.  Because... waste-not-want-not?)  This oil is part of them, from long ago when they looked different, and it handily makes kids smarter... for some reason.  But the Krillitanes have evolved so much that it also makes them explode if they touch it.  Uh huh.

Setting aside how massively dim it is revolving their entire plan around this stuff, and having huge leaky vats of it to hand (a Krillitane dies just lugging one through the kitchen!), why, besides supreme plot convenience, would it do that?  "Their own oil's toxic to them"?  As usual, a cursory one-sentence "explanation" that just states the silly bit as a fact, like how the sonic screwdriver is now easily foiled by "deadlocks".  Er, okay.  (Why would they bother deadlocking things?  Has news of the Doctor's irritating screwdriver traveled far enough that bad guys build in this random fail-safe, just in case?)

Like Father's Day, this is a case of the important stuff winning out over the, er, other stuff.  Yes, it would be better if the Krillitanes' plan made more sense, and if certain puzzling edits had not been made (such as a scene where a Krillitane dive-bombs the Doctor for no reason), which otherwise leave disjointed roadbumps in the pacing.  But what the episode is here to do, it does beautifully, and then some.  It's not just emotional for the Doctor and Sarah: it's important for Rose, and an absolute revelation for Mickey.  K9's got something to do for once.  As for Sarah Jane, the years melt away in an instant, helped nicely by Lis Sladen being completely fantastic.  Why yes, you can have your own series!

And you know how the Doctor's all with the light and shade this week?  Ditto the script.  Despite heavy emotional themes, this is very often one of the funniest episodes around.  Funny's good, as another Doctor once said.

With a knockout Doctor performance, a solid reason to bring back an old friend, a tissue of laughs and chills, and basically the best thing ever to happen to K9, who cares about a few poxy roadbumps?  Throw this one on the Classic pile and gather round it for warmth.