Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Goodbye, Get Lost, Get Out!

Doctor Who
Army Of Ghosts and Doomsday
Series Two, Episodes Twelve and Thirteen

As an obscure scribbler once observed, parting is such sweet sorrow.  It's also an inexhaustible source of drama, particularly in a show like Doctor Who, which in some ways is a lot of hellos and goodbyes punctuated by monsters.  The Doctor/companion relationship has been more vital than ever since 2005, so the departure of Rose was always going to be a big event.  Particularly if you don't like Rose, and were counting the days.

You may have guessed this already, but I've never quite "got" this character, and I've never understood the idea (in subsequent series) that the Doctor entirely regrets losing her.  Too much says otherwise.  She isn't just going.  It's time for her to go.

How they toy with us.
Evidence for the prosecution: in School Reunion, Rose was forcibly reminded that the Doctor has other friends, and told that he couldn't spend the rest of his life with her.  In The Girl In The Fireplace, the Doctor fell in love with another woman (hmm) and abandoned Rose to be with her.  In The Impossible Planet, the Doctor didn't want to share a mortgage with her.  In Fear Her, when Rose said they would never, ever part ways, the Doctor said "Never say never ever."  And look how Army Of Ghosts starts: in a cute flashback to an alien planet (before another episode set in London, thanks a bunch), the Doctor asks Rose how long she's going to stay with him.  Regardless of her answer (which is predictably, "Forever"), why would you even ask that question if you wanted to be BFFs for life?  The Doctor, like it or not, doesn't see this going on forever.

Never mind characters name-dropping "Torchwood".  This is what Series Two has been building up to.  But you can't spend two whole episodes getting rid of one character.  What's it all about?

Well, after moaning in my previous review that it'd be nice to start an episode part-way through the action, that's exactly what happens.  (Yay!)  The Doctor and Rose pop back to the Powell Estate and find that ghosts are turning up every day, and have been completely accepted by society.  This is thoroughly disconcerting, especially for the Doctor, who doesn't like being out of the loop and quickly "reduces it to science".  (A nice point from Jackie, and while this isn't quite what she means, it is rather boring always making ghosts, werewolves and vampires into aliens from planet Zog.  Still, it's better than slapping them all over TV screens, which is what happens here, including dully and improbably a ghost on Eastenders.)

The Doctor is sure there's something sinister at work, and suggests a lot of stuff about psychic links and people like Jackie "willing the ghosts into existence".  There's some lovely stuff when Jackie talks about her old dad, coupled with a twinkle of music from Father's Day (niiiice!), but then all the psychic link stuff turns out to be complete bollards.  Isn't it a bit unusual for the Doctor to make guesses this wide of the mark?  Why are people so convinced that they are ghosts?  I wonder if there was a previous draft where this actually went somewhere, or if it's simply meant to mislead us before the big reveal.  (Something that's doomed to failure, if you take into account Next Time trailers.)

Next Time: Army Of Ghosts.
Featuring... um.  Ghosts?
The ghosts are coming through a rift thanks to Torchwood, a shady organisation who pilfer alien technology to "protect the British Empire".  (With the increasing visibility of nasties like UKIP and the BNP, this seems less like a loopy conspiracy theory, more like a scary alternate future.)  Tracy-Ann Oberman is nicely overconfident as Yvonne Hartman, the head of Torchwood, and sells the fabulously disconcerting idea that they are A) thrilled to meet the Doctor and B) keeping him prisoner.  The scene where he arrives is wonderful: exiting the TARDIS with his arms in the air ("They can shoot me dead but the moral high-ground is mine!"), he is roundly applauded, and he introduces Jackie as his companion, in order to give Rose some time to sneak around and investigate.  This is deftly handled and very funny.  And ooh, look!  Props from old episodes!

There's more intriguing setup here, such as what Torchwood want with the Doctor, what the ghosts are all about, and what the mysterious sphere they're keeping an eye on has to do with any of it.  And the Doctor is brilliant throughout.  (Apart from singing the Ghostbusters theme.  CRINGE.)  There is, admittedly, yet another scene where he implores someone not to do something, only for them to ignore him I'm surprised that never caught on as a meme but then, joy of joys, Russell T Davies inverts it!  In one of his finest moments, Ten just lets Hartman get on with the ghost shift despite his warnings, pulls up a chair and smiles at her.  And it does the trick.  At last, the Doctor stops trying to get his way by just shouting louder.  It's quite a scene, taking a regular annoyance and making it brilliant.  Kudos.

Anyway, Torchwood are using the ghost energy as a reserve for Britain, to avoid depending on the Middle East.  Ho hum: the specifics are instantly forgotten when – dun-dun-DUN! the ghosts turn out to be Cybermen.  Funnily enough, once the cat's out of the bag the ghosts start doing the Cyberman Stomp.  Why weren't they before?  Do Cybermen tip-toe?  (And here's the real poser: there's an "advanced guard" of Cybermen sneaking around Torchwood Tower, converting people.  Setting aside how they've gone unnoticed, if all the other Cybermen are having to fade into our universe as "ghosts", how the hell did this lot get here?  And why don't the rest of them do the same?)

All the intriguing setup, with the ghosts and Torchwood, doesn't amount to much when the Cybermen get here.  And sadly, they are still terminally unimpressive.  With their choreographed stomping, Diet-Exterminate catchphrase and sorry-I-didn't-catch-that mumbly voices, they just don't do anything for me.  Fortunately, something better is on the way.  Although it does instantly make the Cybermen look even worse.

Fun fact: watching this episode is how Neil, and this blog, got its name.
Dalek Sec: "Kneel.  KNEEEEEEEL!"
One of us instinctively said: "YEEEEEEES?"
Remember that pesky sphere?  Well, it's a "void ship", and having broken through from the void between universes, it has allowed the Cybermen in as well.  (We later learn it, the Cybermen and anyone who travels inter-dimensionally is covered in "void stuff", which is just about the worst oxymoron I've ever heard.)  The void ship is carrying Daleks.  Dun-dun-DUN again!  In all seriousness, great cliff-hanger, and a timely reminder of Doctor Who's only A-List monsters.  We get a slightly embarrassing Yo Mamma So Fat contest between the two – "This is not war, this is pest control!" is delivered with that cute little angry-Dalek wobble – and then the answer to a question eight-year-olds like to ask, Who Would Win If Daleks And Cybermen Had A Fight?  Spoiler alert, the answer is Daleks.  Absolutely 100% all of the time, with no Dalek casualties whatsoever.  It actually gets kind of boring, fast, watching Daleks mowing down Cybermen.  I knew they were rubbish, but did we have to rub it in?

Like Torchwood and the ghosts, all the stuff about Cybermen then pales to insignificance when the Daleks turn up.  Sigh.  These episodes do a good job of escalating the threat, but it comes at the price of throwing away everything that came earlier.  Anyway, the Daleks have a Genesis Ark, which – gasp! – contains a lot of Daleks.  Cue Daleks whizzing around the skies, zapping people and mopping the floor with Cybermen.  It's all very spiffy-looking, but it's still not quite as bad as blowing up every country on Earth, which they did in last year's finale.  This one might have Daleks and Cybermen, but try as it might, the scale is nowhere near The Parting Of The Ways.  And as for this year's actual parting of the ways, well...

It's clear from the start that the Doctor is everything Ev.  Ree.  Thing. to Rose.  Narrating, she says: "For the first 19 years of my life, nothing happened.  Nothing at all.  Not ever.  And then I met a man called the Doctor!"  Cheerful, isn't she?  It's not inconceivable that someone would be completely obsessed with traveling with the Doctor, it would be brilliant after all, but other Doctor Who companions have been interesting people before they met him, and have actually gone on to lead lives.  (Although School Reunion places the second bit in some doubt.)  Not Rose.  Life without the Doctor means patiently eating chips until you die of old age.  No wonder she refers to their parting as "how I died".  (Okay, she's literally talking about a misunderstanding in the papers but, really?  Also, what a let-down, after two episodes and a Next Time trailer going on about how she's going to die!)  All this, combined with the little hints throughout the series that Rose is the only one who feels this way, makes me perfectly comfortable – and unfortunately, not sad – seeing her go.

"No, thanks.  Off you pop!"
The Doctor must seal the two universes, handily hoovering all the Daleks and Cybermen back into the void.  (Cancelling out all previous threats, again.  How many people got killed by Daleks and Cybermen?  Any survivors in Torchwood Tower?  Meh!  Throw the switch!)  Everyone (including Pete Tyler, who is now Rose's dad again, sort of) must pick a universe and stay there.  Rose's glassy-eyed, butterfly-net-crazy insistence on leaving Jackie forever, despite the Doctor telling her to go, is not endearing.  (And it's a bit self-involved.  "He does it alone, mum!"  Well, apart from the Sarah Janes of his past.)  He sneaks a dimensional transporter around her neck, and when Rose returns moments later, the Doctor snarls with irritation.  Do people really look at this stuff and think the Doctor wants to stay with her?  Yes, she's in considerable danger if she stays, but they've faced danger before.  He wouldn't send her packing unless he wanted to.

It's open to interpretation why he does this.  To protect her from danger, like in The Parting Of The Ways, or stop her getting too obsessed with him, or save himself the misery of losing her one day.  Perhaps he's thinking of Jackie, after accidentally stealing Rose for a year, and thinks taking her away forever is a step too far.  Whatever the reason, he still makes the choice, even if it doesn't stick right away.  The moments after Rose's return are hideously awkward, and then she has to make a life-or-death choice, and is ripped away from the Doctor forever anyway.  (Well, until the next trip to a parallel universe – something that's clearly not as impossible as he keeps saying.  Why do they bother using words like "impossible" in Doctor Who?)  This doesn't work all that well, as the Doctor is forced to do nothing to save her, which is a bit awkward.  But then Pete Tyler zips back and rescues her, possibly reminding us that there's only room for one father figure in Rose's life.  (Even if this Pete Tyler is a bit rubbish.)

We then settle in for The Big Goodbye, with Daleks and Cybermen long forgotten, and at this point if you're not a fan of Rose, it's just plain not for you.

"Same old life, last of the Time Lords."
"On your own?"
Not pictured: crossed fingers.
She can see the Doctor one last time, as a hologram, somewhere in Norway.  (It's less weird than it sounds.)  Rose convinces her family to drive her there, and they meet on a beach.  Feelings come way out into the open, and a lot of fans cry buckets watching this.  I personally could have done without Rose saying "I love you!"  Did it need vocalising?  Did any of it?  But, if anything, I find the Doctor's reaction even more awkward.

Firstly he tells her that "living a life, day after day" is "the one adventure I can never have."  Maybe underscoring why he and Rose have to part ways?  Except, well, oh no it isn't, you big fibber.  He might not want to settle down and eat chips, but that doesn't mean he can't do it.  Then there's a white lie, nodding when Rose asks if he'll continue traveling on his own.  Yeah, a quick glance at the TARDIS guestbook suggests that's another whopper.  And there's what he actually says to "I love you", which is "Quite right, too."  (Gee, thanks?)  He doesn't get a chance to say the L word back, since the power cuts out, for which I'm grateful.  Even if he did, though, on past form, it wouldn't be entirely honest.

There's so much going on here that I never know what to take away from it.  It bears some hallmarks of a tragic parting of the ways, complete with heroic (if illogical) sacrifice and "I love you".  But there are so many mixed messages underneath you mustn't leave home or you'll hurt your family; you must leave home or your life is meaningless; staying with the Doctor is wonderful; staying with the Doctor will make you "not even human" that Doomsday leaves me cold, even with Murray Gold blaring and oo-ee-ooing like mad.  Some things just don't work.

Still, some things do.  There's some stellar setup and some really neat ideas, even if none of it goes anywhere.  Some people probably really like Cybermen, and we all like Daleks.  It's just a shame that ramming them together makes them both a bit boring.  There's a resoundingly good guest cast (including the scrumptious Freema Agyeman as a doomed Torchwood-er), even though certain cameos – like Mickey and, uh, Jake – don't ultimately add very much.  And hey, some thumping good performances from the leads.  I may not get some of the writing here, but it's hard to fault the actors: Tennant and Piper give it their all.  Like most of Series Two, however, anything built on the Tenth Doctor and Rose is going to be a bit wobbly.  By the end of this, I should be in tears.  Instead, I'm checking my watch.  Fortunately, change is just around the corner.

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