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April 06, 2008

A Rose-tinted Spectacle

Doctor Who: Partners In Crime

Crime1 Bless the BBC for their co-operative cross network scheduling.  On the evening that the new series premieres, BBC Four are broadcasting a night of programmes in tribute to Verity Lambert which included the first three episodes of The Mutants/The Daleks/Whatever it is in this new century.  I think of the kids, who having had their eyes blasted into their skulls by the sensory overload that was Partners In Crime, talking their parents into letting them watch these old episode, perhaps having been reminded that they were on at the end of Doctor Who Confidential.

I’ve just turned the telly back on at the start of The Dead Planet (I'm writing this on Saturday night).  The first thought that went through my head was ‘Is that vid-fired?’; the second was ‘Are the kids still watching?’  The four leads were stood in line, in a single camera frame as the Doctor held up a prop and said something like ‘Hmmm.  A petrified forest.  We should investigate this further.’ Cue conversation where they discuss whether they should investigate this further.  All in the same shot, which seems to drift on forever.  I’m gripped and then remember that (a) I have the restored copy from the dvd and (b) that I want to write this review.

The first thought that went through my head was ‘Is that vid-fired?’

I’m 33 years old and I can’t actually remember if I was sophisticated enough as a pre-teen to make allowances for the fact I was watching something made forty-odd years ago.  I’d like to think that the prospect of enjoying the first ever Dalek story would have seen me through the longers also having read somewhere that this was the last time the Daleks meet the Time Lords, but the first time the Time Lords met the Daleks, an idea which is replete with cosmic romance.  What I do hope is that the old series wouldn’t seem like an irrelevance to me, and entertaining for its historical content, not in terms of tv history but also because I was seeing an earlier part of the life of a character I hold so dear.

I’ve heard many people, online and in something called the real world saying things like ‘Well the new series is better.  It’s got proper characters and emotion and the special effects are amazing!!!! ;)’  But I just can’t agree.  It’s not better.  It’s just different, made at a different time, for a different audience (it’s true, we’ve changed, we all expect different things from our drama, we’ve grown, some of us, may be not me perhaps, but some of us) in a different idiom.  It’s the flexible format, flexing its muscles again.  Which is why when TateGate got underway and the ming-mongs (a term I don’t admire, by the way, but it has stuck) said ‘I’ll never watch it again’, I just thought ‘Well don’t’.  Enjoy the kind of Doctor Who you like because it’s still out there, in books and on shiny discs.  But you’ll be missing a treat.

It’s the flexible format, flexing its muscles again.

Crime2 And they did.  Catherine was, to coin a phrase (more of a word actually) marvelous.  I too was cautious about the shouting in The Runaway Bride but was won over or as I said then:  “Watching her crumpled at the realization that the last six months of her life were sham was really heartbreaking and by the end as she disappeared into the snow, although I wouldn't say I would have like to have seen the Doctor carrying her around the galaxy, shouting at everything that moved, my heart had certainly softened to her.”  By the time I wrote my third year’s review I was converted and what “I wasn’t prepared for is how good David Tennant and Catherine Tate (were) together; to some extent this is because I’ve a feeling that if Tennant was forced to spend an episode interacting with a goal post it would still be entertaining, but there’s a magic to the bruskness between these two.

Some people clearly thought Tate would show up, work through her catchphrases (even though she’s not even writing the script), shout a lot and generally get in the way of whatever magical adventure the Doctor was mixed up in.  Well, alright there was some broad and very funny humour and some shouting (wouldn’t you if you were dangling off the side of building?) but she hardly got in the way.  Donna is just as remarkable in her own way as the previous companions, with the right tool, for the right job, at the right time.  At the risk of simply regurgitating the copy from Doctor Who Magazine, she's going to challenge the Doctor in ways that make the Martha chair moment in Gridlock look like someone forgetting to put down a toilet seat.

Donna is just as remarkable in her own way as the previous companions, with the right tool, for the right job, at the right time.

The former (lets not forget) Royal Shakespeare Company actress Tate is giving a proper performance, as lovable and touching as both of the previous incumbents and without the dopey romanticism.  The Doctor Who Forum/Outpost Gallifrey/Splot is unobtainable as I write so I don’t know what they’re saying but I hope they’ve looked at that scene between Donna and her Granddad (a gleeful Bernard Cribbins) and their heart’s melted, because mine did.  I suspect that most of them are really only talking about one thing, sorry two things, but we’ll get to that later.  She was aided though by some very clever scripting which as I’d hoped keyed down some of the earlier excesses – and Donna believes in it all now and has been to Cardiff apparently.  Somebody somewhere is already writing the fan fiction.

This was a vividly thought out re-introduction with some brilliantly handled screwball farce of never bumping into one another despite breathing the same air (shades of Steven Moffat's sitcom Joking Apart  too).  The reunion was just hilarious and surprising and a first for Doctor Who – mime!  You couldn’t imagine even Lalla and Tom attempting that (although I’m sure someone’s going to leave a comment to the effect that they did indeed attempt that).  By now you’d expect Tennant to be on autopilot, but he’s still just as compelling as in the Pudsey Cutaway, all of those bursts of energy, everything’s still bwilliant! 

You couldn’t imagine even Lalla and Tom attempting that

It’s also a performance that has matured and you can see how in some moments which would have triggered a manic episode, he’s become much more relaxed – this probably has as much to do with the ever developing characterisation as anything else, having clearly worked through the fear that Christopher Eccleston voiced of find himself saying something in the same way over and over, he knows that there can still be many choices within that.  Even if there’s still only so many ways you can use a sonic screwdriver, its perennial over use to get out of a scrape one of the few low points of the episode.

Oddly, the episode trod through the formula of the ‘re-marriage comedy’ a genre of film which developed in Hollywood era around the time of the depression – It Happened One Night with Clark Gable in Claudette Colbert is an example in which polar opposites but previous paramours somehow find a common ground and go off together at the end, having spent the intermediate time developing a grudging respect.  There’s clearly to be no sex, Donna’s made that abundantly clear.  Plus, and I mean this as no disrespect to Catherine Tate (even though she’ll never read this) it’s refreshing to have a companion, for once, that I don’t fancy.  It means I can pay more attention to the story.

I mean this as no disrespect to Catherine Tate (even though she’ll never read this) it’s refreshing to have a companion, for once, that I don’t fancy.

Crime3 Which is a shame because the story wasn’t necessarily the best thing about Partners In Crime.  I think the reason it didn’t quite work is because in this spin-off rich time, I’m not sure that there was anything particularly ‘Doctor Who’ about it.  With very few changes it might have worked just as well in both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures (more twisted in the former, even cutesier (if that's possible) in the latter).  What made the story at all convincing was Sarah Lancashire’s arch and slightly camp (and dare I saw sexy?) performance as their nanny (I can’t be the only one who thought – as she pulled out her Sonic Screwdriver – it’s the Rani!  Nice misdirect that).  It’s a scripting issue, but Russell’s clearly never worked in a call centre – at no point does a manager stride in and tell us to stop work so that she can talk to us about productivity.  Customers tend to hang up on you if you’re not talking to them. 

At least the gang attempted to create in the Adipose an alien that wasn’t big and stompy and instead attempted to replicate the cute overload of the Dozers in Fraggle Rock and the rubber aliens in Toy Story ('Ooooh I have been chosen').  They chirruped, they danced, they waved as they were returned to the mothership, they did the opposite in fact of everything a Doctor Who monster usually does which is make us wet the bed.  Even on mass, they were more of a curiosity and as Tate, Tennant and Collinson agreed on the podcast commentary, are a clear merchandising opportunity, despite their colour, dictated by their origin (you’d think they would be somewhat flesh coloured considering what had been absorbed).

they did the opposite in fact of everything a Doctor Who monster usually does which is make us wet the bed

Brilliantly directed episode too from James Strong, despite what's been said on that podcast.  I’d be interested to know whether that shot in the kitchen in which Donna endured her mother’s nagging was scripted that way or a directorial choice, but it was just one of a range of interesting set pieces which weren’t of the kind you’d usually expect in an episode that wasn’t bending the formula (c.f. Love & Monsters).  It’s the show don’t tell philosophy which is one of the innovations of the new series.  But the pacing of the show was spot on, the handling of the main action sequences exquisite.  Despite being a relatively low key episode in some ways, it still managed to be BIG and probably the most entertaining of all the season openers -- and I know I said that last year.  But nothing we've seen this early in the season was as audacious as ...

The appearance of Rose, which made me gape even more than The Master's reappearance in Utopia.  Suddenly those dodgy camera phone shots, which gave the game away so early in the shoot make sense.  The scene apparently didn't appear in any of the previews, so all of the reviews appearing online from some publications, clearly written before the broadcast. are failing to mention one of the most exciting moments.  I wonder how many of those writers didn't bother to watch it tonight and are suddenly getting text messages from colleagues?  Some readers should certainly be scratching their heads over the tv reviews in the papers in the morning.  If only they could have gotten away with something like this in the aforementioned squee fest.

But it was still a surprise and slightly haunting; like the Doctor she looks older and having run the moment back (a few times), I’ve decided that’s sadness and regret in her eyes, the look of someone who knows that there’s far greater dangers ahead and that it’s not time for her reunion with the Doctor just yet.  It’s the kind of moment which simply didn’t happen in the earlier series – Mawdryn Undead did not look forward or lay seeds for The Five Doctors – and to be honest previously in these new series.  Where once a name or word would thread through the series, here it's ghosts from the past, which is far more compelling. 

Next Week:  "Oh no, I forgot about him.  Donna, meet me and Melanie Bush." "Red head's pattern with you are they?"

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