Friday, 11 July 2014

Fat Friends

Doctor Who
Partners In Crime
Series Four, Episode One

Okay, Series Four.  New year, new start, new companion.

Just kidding!  Despite initial plans to introduce a cute blonde the Doctor could fall in love with (see The Writer's Tale, and count your blessings), Partners In Crime brings back Donna Noble.  Last seen politely declining an offer to travel in the TARDIS, she's thought it over and wants to say yes.  The difficult bit is finding the Doctor, and that's mostly what Partners In Crime is: a bubbly, well-orchestrated comedy about friends finding each other.

Judging from polls and online chatter, not many fans like this one.  General reasons for disliking it include the comedy (spit, spit!), the silly aliens (silly?  Argh!) and the comedienne companion (are those laughs she's getting?  Shoot me in the face!).  Now, there's stuff I don't like in here – gee, there's a surprise – but on the whole I think it's underrated.

Seriously, though, this is brilliant.
Imagine the Classic series doing this,
as a throwaway joke!
For starters, good comedy is hard to pull off.  All that literal near-missing is really well choreographed, and adds to the momentum of the episode: you're totally willing these guys to meet up.  It's even seeded into the story, as both Donna and the Doctor investigate Adipose Industries, both going about it in their own way and hence, they're just out of reach.  Then they finally do meet, during a show-stopping sequence where both of them have to mime their reactions through a window.  David Tennant and Catherine Tate are both hilarious throughout, but this is just perfect.  So, so funny.  What's not to like?

And once they're together, all that effort is totally justified.  This Doctor shows off a lot but is, ultimately, sort of winging it; Donna, unlike a few other companions, sees right through it.  She's the perfect Tenth Doctor companion, full of excitement about space travel but noticeably short on awe and longing for the Doctor.  (Although she is, understandably, quite excited to see him.)  They've cracked it.

There's also some solid characterisation at work.  I was pretty miffed that the Doctor barely mentioned Martha in the Christmas Special, but he brings her up here, and totally admits fault.  (About time, buster.)  Not for the first time, we gain an understanding of why the Doctor needs somebody with him (let's face it, Russell T Davies can do that in his sleep now), which comes across best during an amazing scene with him alone in the TARDIS.  It's not big or showy, and there's no music.  He just talks, realises no one's there, and stops.  I love small moments.  This, along with the fantastic window mime, makes two perfect moments in one episode.

What else is great?  Well, the bad news first.  We're once again stuck with the companion's family, which means Jacqueline King as Donna's doubting mum... but also – yay! – Bernard Cribbins as her open-minded granddad!  And why not bring him back from his scene-stealing cameo?  He makes a refreshing change from the usual family woes, and although some of his and Donna's dialogue is on the corny side ("You shout for me, Gramps, oh, you just shout" – who says that?), he's a delight in every scene.

And then there's the Adipose.  Here's another alien (not "another" like "oh god here we go again") that's not actually evil.  They're not even capitalists!  (Although Adipose Industries is.  Sigh.)  They're made out of people's fat, and they're completely innocent.  It's a bit iffy to do this without the people's full consent, but since they want to lose the fat anyway, everybody wins.  It's an original, potentially harmless alien story, on top of which the Adipose look like genuine, adorable little stress toys.  (And thanks to the BBC's toy department, they are.)  Moral complexity comes in many forms; you can make things more interesting just by making the bad guys less monstrous.  They're great.

But, falling from the sky like a bag full of Thor's hammers, there's no getting around the stuff that's obviously wrong with this episode.  Starting, funnily enough, with the Adipose.

You want to lose weight.  The Adipose want to be born.  Everyone's happy.  So what's the problem?  Thanks to the Doctor's (and Donna's) intervention, the Adiposes' guardian decides to "fully convert" the million subscribers she's already got, which means killing them.  If the Doctor hadn't waded in with the old "This is your one chance" routine, a lot of people would have lost weight and a lot of harmless blobs would have been born.  Of course, all this depends on the devious Miss Foster promising not to kill anyone and not forcing anyone to take Adipose pills who doesn't want to – and it's made boringly clear that she's amoral, so anything's possible – but there is certainly room for discussion.  Alas, not for the first time, the Doctor gets on his high horse, pronounces all of it "wrong" and ignores the grey areas.  All that stuff about moral complexity?  It kind of doesn't amount to much.

Just for laughs, the Doctor later concedes that "Actually,
as a diet plan, it sort of works."  Oh, you've noticed that, have you?
"Boringly amoral" is the best way to sum up Miss Foster.  Despite no real reason for her to be evil, Sarah Lancashire has a pretty standard Evil Diva on her hands, complete with posturing and excruciating puns.  ("Foster!  As in foster mother!"  Oh yes, very clever, have a biscuit.)  Most of the plot surrounding her is equally witless, particularly her battle to outsmart the Doctor.  He needs to get into a building, so she "triple deadlocks" it.  (What does that even mean?  Was she really expecting a sonic burglar?)  They have a contest of sonic devices (urgh) and he nicks her sonic pen.  (Why would she have a sonic pen?)  When he accesses her mega-computer, she simply "doubles the power".  (Why does extra electricity make things work better in sci-fi?)  It's techno-babble-a-go-go, and not the kind that's based on any actual techno'.  All of which is a pity, as reading The Writer's Tale shows just how much effort went into moving the plot along.  (The scene where the Doctor rams some wires together to knock out the guards, for example – well, what would you do with them?)

Also dragging Partners In Crime away from my Favourite Episodes list is our old friend, the tone.  People get unashamedly killed in this, which is fair enough if that's what's at stake, but as often happens, it's treated with exactly the same zaniness as the comedy.  Pity poor there's-an-Adipose-in-my-pants Stacy (who only dies because Donna fiddles with an Adipose bracelet, it is literally Donna's fault she's dead), and Miss Foster, who falls to her doom just like Wile E. Coyote, but with an extra just-audible splat.  The episode's probably too silly overall to get away with genuine horror, so rather just not doing that, it treats everything as silly.  It's misjudged.

Plus Rose is mentioned again, not to mention she's actually in it for one scene.  Yeah, that's not going in my plus column.  Since it was largely the ghost of Rose that scuppered Martha, isn't it a teeny bit soon to bring her back?  Really, guys?  If you never entirely shut up about her, is she ever truly gone?

Hey ho.  Partners In Crime is one of those episodes that unabashedly has a job to do – get Donna back to the Doctor – and all those bits are a triumph.  Their conversation at the end, side-stepping the usual "Bigger on the inside" bit and dealing (nice and briefly) with the "It's dangerous" bit, almost makes it seem like we haven't done all this guff at least twice before.  I like it.

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