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May 12, 2008

Jenny from the Doc

Doctor Who: The Doctor's Daughter

Doc_and_jenLike any good sci-fi spod, there’s a part of me that despairs at the nation’s obsession with soap operas (well, soap operas that aren’t Coronation Street, anyway). With the boundless potential of the human imagination at our disposal, my inner dork argues, why limit our interest to the same tatty carousel of adultery, family feuds and teenage pregnancies?

And yet there’s no denying the personal will always triumph over the political. It’s a basic evolutionary survival strategy to value your life, and the lives of anyone who can help propagate your genes, above all else, which is why we all spend a lot more time fretting about family and friends and whether that girl from Starbucks likes us or not than we do the fact the world is fast disappearing down the shitpipe.

So when Russell the T says it would be impossible to make 21st Century Doctor Who without heightening the emotional content, only an idiot - or someone who has just really enjoyed The Invasion of Time (and, let’s face it, those two groups are really more of a circle than a Venn diagram) – would disagree; without love, I am as a clanging bell and all that. What’s more, some of the most effective New Who episodes – School Reunion and both Paul Cornell’s contributions among them - are the ones extrapolated from a simple, one-line emotional pitch: What if the missus met the ex? What if Doctor were human? If I’d been Phil Collinson, then, when Russell turned to me during one of their brainstorming drives up the M6 and said “Ooooh, I know, what about giving the Doctor a daughter? Hurrah!” I too would have said yes, wonderful, marvellous and all those other things Phil Collinson likes to say.

The problem is (and here’s the grit in the Vaseline you knew was coming) when the entire story ends up tying itself in knots and jumping through hoops (or lasers, anyway) in a desperate, doomed attempt to sketch in enough background to support this initial, Ginsters-fuelled premise, you do have to wonder if the tail isn’t wagging the dog just a little.

So yes, playing Who’s the daddy was a good wheeze, and when you’ve got an actor of the calibre of David Tennant it’s good to stretch him and blah blah blah. But did anything about this story – set-up, characters, situation – actually convince? Or were they all just cogs and pistons grinding mindlessly away to deliver the Doctor a daughter – and then dispatch her – in 42 perfunctory minutes?

This guy has to be the most back of a fag packet Doctor Who villain since that Nazi who came over to England to steal a bow and arrow and watch the tennis.

One example among many: The beardy general. This guy has to be the most back of a fag packet Doctor Who villain since that Nazi who came over to England to steal a bow and arrow and watch the tennis. I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Nigel Terry asked the director what his motivation was. Was he really only supposed to be a few hours old? How had he become leader of an army? Why did he look so knackered and grizzly and disheveled? Why did he have a West Country accent? And, sorry, what was his name again? (I just looked it up in the Radio Times and it’s Cobb - probably on account of it being quite a small role. Small roll, see? Oh never mind.)

Martha_hathAnd he wasn’t alone. I mean, what was with that flatpack world in a fishbowl nonsense? Why did it start building the new planet to resemble a disused Welsh paper mill? And what, since we’re all here, was the point of the Hath, exactly, other than to remove poor Freema Agyeman from the main action again? (After Torchwood, The Sontaran Stratgem and now this, it’s starting to look like the writers haven’t got a clue what to do with Martha, which is a bit worrying, given she was specifically created to be the heart of the show and the viewers’ emotional touchstone. Maybe Russell should have gone with that Victorian parlour maid after all?)

Anyway, none of this would have been so bad if the central premise had been handled more credibly. As it was, any attempt to introduce Jenny in a convincing, measured and emotionally resonant manner had to be sacrificed to the exigency of having her arrive fully-formed before the title sequence kicked in. Talk about a lost opportunity. They could, at the very least, have had the Sontarans and Evil Martha just popping casually out of a pod last week and saved the bubbling bath of gloop for the Big One. That way we might have got some sense of a new life being brought into the world: something gasping, shivering, disoriented, frightened and generally a bit less… well, perky. Instead, we got Jenny Who stepping out with a grin and just stopping short of saying “Tonight, Doctor, I’m going to be your daughter!” (Then again, maybe you’d be happy to discover you were a genetic anomaly if you’d spent your life thinking half your DNA came from Sandra Dickinson.)

All this did was throw up more and more questions: Who created Jenny’s fetching tight t-shirt and leather pants combo? Who did her make-up? Who put her hair in a ponytail? (Is that scrunchy part of her DNA?) And is this the first example in television history of what can only be described as gratuitous non-nudity?

Of course, you could argue that, hey, this is Doctor Who - dumb stuff happens and you've either got to roll with it or get off the horse and watch The Wire or something. But I’ll admit I was fully pre-sold on the concept of this one, and genuinely disappointed to see it so badly fudged. And because I never felt able to believe in Jenny in the first place, it just made all those “let’s stop running and take five for a bit of bonding” moments seem unbearably contrived. (Jenny’s “death” being the worst offender – partly because this crushingly inevitable sequence was signposted the minute she was offered a place aboard the TARDIS, and partly because it was uncomfortably reminiscent of the horribly forced emotion of the Doctor cradling the dying Master in last year’s finale.)

Terrifying, brilliant and fun, all at the same time

But even if this was a bit of a pony tale, there was still much to enjoy. Like Stephen Greenhorn’s script for series three, the best thing about The Doctor’s Daughter (apart from Georgia Moffett, whose plucky performance and, ahem, demeanour helped us to cheerfully ignore the fact there'd clearly been a mix-up with the Who and Hollyoaks casting calls) was the dialogue. Though lacking a set-piece showdown to rival the Doctor and Lazarus’ electrifying dialectic on humanity last year, this should still comfortably fill a page or two of The Doctor Who Bumper Book of Quotations. The Doctor being outwitted by his own progeny on the question of whether he was a warrior was beautifully conceived, and there were a couple of successful passes at distilling the essence of the Tenth Doctor (“Not impossible – just a bit unlikely” and “You talk all the time but you don’t say anything”) into handy soundbites – not to mention a sly tribute to the magic of Doctor Who itself (“It can be terrifying, brilliant and fun, all at the same time”).

Catherine Tate, meanwhile, continues to avenge the theft of her comedy award by stealing every scene in sight. Donna’s teasing the Doctor over his “dadshock” (“You can’t extrapolate a relationship from a biological accident” “Child Support Agency can...”) was an example of exactly the sort of sparky interplay Tate was hired to provide, while her attempt to display her feminine wiles – only to be knocked back in favour of a clockwork mouse – was priceless.

With its underground humans praying to false totems, the plot, such as it was, contained echoes of The Mysterious Planet - not to mention the countless other Who stories in which a Godhead is unmasked as only a slightly more sophisticated version of The Wizard of Oz standing behind a curtain pulling some levers. (And yet people still insist on holding seminars about Christianity in Doctor Who; I guess Mark Twain was right - faith really is believing something you know ain’t true.)

RoadshowVisually, this had all the hallmarks of being a budget episode designed to save a bit of cash for the end-of-season all-star blow-out. It started impressively enough with a huge FX sequence – CGI, explosions and some kick-ass stunt work – but it turned out this was just a trailer for The Antiques Roadshow, of all things, and, after that, things were considerably more restrained, to the point where Jenny Who’s victorious flight to freedom was reduced to little more than a firefly speck of moving light.

Oh yeah, about that. It was lost on me at the time but, thanks to a bit of a-nodding and a-winking on Confidential (you know, in those rare moments that aren’t Danny Hargreaves blowing things up), it seems having a distaff Doctor rattling about the universe may yet prove to be Very Significant in the near future. But what’s the big secret? Will Jenny be used to lure the Doctor into the ultimate trap? Will she be turned to the Dark Side by an old enemy lurking in the shadows? Will she get her own Big Finish spin-off series? Or will the sheer force of will being generated by a few die-hard Ming Mongs force Rusty to finally lose it and turn her into the Rani? Like everything else about The Doctor’s Daughter, it wouldn’t be impossible – just a bit unlikely.

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