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April 10, 2008

A Mug's Game

"Fat just walks away".
Bet those greasy carpet stains
Are a bitch to shift.

Doctor Who: Partners In Crime

That can't be the real Catherine Tate, she's got something nice to say about someone.

Shut But that gap year has done Donna the power of good. Less shouty and abrasive, showing her own initiative, and more open to the wonders of the universe (ie., open-mouthed goggling at it). Well, except for the Titanic on Christmas Day, which was clearly just a bad effects shot in a studio. Stuff the moon landings. But if the Doctor hadn't thrown away the sonic pen (and what's the betting we'll see some future consequences of casually discarding that kind of technology on a level five planet), Donna would be showing all the hallmarks of maturing from this generation's Duggan into a more excitable Sarah Jane Smith.

"Wot, Sarah Jane Smith? You're having a larf"

No, seriously. I shouldn't need to remind everyone how Elisabeth Sladen viewed her time in the TARDIS with Tom Baker as two childhood best friends. Now that she's nudging this side of 40, assuming you don't count guest-star reappearances or Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier, this makes Catherine Tate the oldest TV companion since the days of Ian and Barbara, the last time the original TARDIS co-stars were purposefully conceived to each represent a different particular family audience identification figure. And since there's no romantic attachment promised this year, as she settles down, Donna might just grow into the 'every person' role more naturally than either of her two predecessors did; the viewing figures give every encouraging sign of this bearing fruit. But more that that, Donna shows more enthusiasm and gusto at the prospect of a trip into the wild blue yonder than we've had since the show rose from the ashes in 2005. It's the same gusto we're all sharing at home, because we're just so gosh-darned pleased to see the Doctor too. Well, some of us anyway.

That But perhaps the biggest compliment one could pay to this year's opener concerns neither of the two leads at all. And though the whole world and John Leeson's dog knew already before Saturday that Billie Piper was due for a comeback, the episode had held me so captivated that even with that oh-so-recognisable blonde head right there in front of me to whom Donna was wittering about her mother's car keys (oh God, she's got MY MOTHER), it was a total shock when Rose then turned around and that theme started playing. Which meant that Partners In Crime had done its job admirably. The first thought that sprang to mind was that I never have imagined we'd catch a haunting glimpse of Rose this early in the year. Then she walked away and faded from view, and the second thing was, "Hmm, well I hope Mrs Noble brings a wire coathanger then."

RTD, for better or worse, writes the kind of stories he wants to see on the screen. Well, duh. But if his podcast commentaries have taught the armchair critics anything, it's to watch out for the occasions when, as showrunner, Russell is too close to his own work that he appears to lose sight of his own strengths and weaknesses as a writer. When Russell concentrates on characters above all else, he invariably by this point comes up with a winner; when he blows it, it's when his world-building big-picture judgement gets swamped by an obvious love of Grand Guignol and blockbuster spectacle. The season premiers, with their own mandate to introduce new characters or relationships and put forward a rattling good yarn to showcase them in, are his compromise episodes, and at this his track record is pretty good, with only New Earth completely falling to bits. There are those who say it doesn't matter if the year gets off to a wobbly start, so long as the season as a whole stays consistent and the high points ensure the lows are quickly forgotten. But that's only true provided the media's love affair with the show (and by extension the public's) keeps going, which the show is having to work harder and harder to prolong. It's another good reason for the year off; once the show is relegated in the complacent public consciousness to just a regular television staple rather than a special event, that duff first episode will be the surest sign to everyone that the programme has lost its sparkle. John Nathan-Turner might have had something to say about that too around 1985, when the parody sketch suddenly got its second wind. Like the Royal Family to Spitting Image, the cheap gaudiness and corridor-running was no longer the sacred cow it once was.

"Bernard Cribbins compounds his pissed-up comedy tramp image by not having shaved or changed clothes since Christmas"

Bleedin End Of Part One would have had a field day with some of this plot though. It doesn't take Noam Chomsky to figure out that the only problem with the alien breeding plan is the total imbecile in charge of it. Why make your modus operandi and establishment reek of industrial skulldiggery when nothing required of you for success needs to be in any way morally reprehensible? Humans want to lose weight, you want the waste by-product, and everyone's happy. Sorted. But why draw attention to what you're doing with a process that causes inexplicable weird shit to happen in the middle of the night, which only the gullible or desperate would play along with? Instead of looking all secretive and shifty hiding behind some silly, too-good-to-be-true diet pill as your cover story, what's wrong with a chain of liposuction clinics? If they'd thought about this for more than ten seconds, they could have had a completely innocent and dynamic new - 'scuse the term - growth industry on their hands. And yes, that quaint Anglocentric-ness has always been part and parcel of Doctor Who, but what are they doing pissing about here instead of the most statistically obese nation in the world across the Atlantic Ocean, with four times the population of Britain? Because I'm not at all confident, and it certainly didn't seem apparent on screen, that there's as many as a million fat bastards in the whole of London. Even their business model is rubbish since the 'free' 18-carat pendant must cost more than the sale value of the capsules, for God's sake. And that fatty mass has to go somewhere; never mind the scientific journals, shedding a brick of it every night is bound to raise questions in the trashier wimmin's chat-and-diet mags, even if it were possible to burn a whole kilo of it in one day. Which it isn't. You see? They're just thick.

Gob Still, no matter; I don't see media honeymoon going stale for a while yet, not while Bernard Cribbins compounds his pissed-up comedy tramp image by not having shaved or changed his clothes and hat since Christmas. Partners In Crime is just the tonic after being locked in the Hub for three months of the freakshow that is Welsh Big Brother, without the saving grace of being able to vote the miserable buggers out. I know how Neil feels at Torchwood's po-faced overseriousness, because I'm bloody tired at being prodded by the scripts to look for deeper meanings within each episode and being made to look like a lemon in front of the other bloggers if I don't happen to see it. So hooray for an adventure with a sense of righteous fun again. Moral ambiguities be damned - sometimes all you want is a universe painted in nice simple blacks and whites, though the world isn't at all like that and even the Doctor admits the punishment does not always fit the crime. It's quite refreshing not to have the Doctor dish out his own brand of retribution for a change and still walk away contented at a job well done, espeicially since at a score of around minus ten thousand, this has to be the lowest body count in the entire history of the show.

Doctor Who is a cosy, comforting sort of formula, even when Stephen Moffat or Paul Cornell are in the driving seat. So I'm leaving the South Bank Show wittering on the deeper meaning of humanity to Stu and Sean, who are that much better at it, and sticking to cheap jibes instead. You take that kind of scrutiny too far with Doctor Who, you run the risk of turning into Stephen James Walker. And believe me, even our fandom's not big enough for two of those.

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