Doctor Who: The Poison Sky
The Poison Sky was something of a nostalgia trip, for me at least. At university (the second time around) one of the set assignments was to show how a piece of fantasy or sci-fi inspired literature or poetry of a picture or song might be adapted into a film. Given that I had a brilliant tutor who liked Doctor Who, and having just read it, I decided to tackle Lance Parkin’s Eighth Doctor novel The Dying Days. To cut to the chase, I decided the best way to set it apart from Hollywood would be to do all of the special effects ‘in camera’ (mad eh?) using models, mirrors and in the case of the murderous Red Death which ravaged the small village of Adisham, smoke.
As I said in the supporting essay, “The Red Death, which would otherwise undoubtedly be a candidate for computer generation using ‘particle simulators’ might carefully, using camera angles, frame skipping and rapid montage, find life through smoke blowers and red dye.” So it was quite heartening to see, in Doctor Who Confidential, members of the production team desperately trying to waft smoke into shot, pleading with it to stay there before the wind changed. Of course, the weapon of the Ice Warriors was far more malevolent than the gas passed onto the planet by the Sontarans – the eradication of the human race was still a priority, give or take some environmental reconstruction, which just goes to show that Parkin’s novel continues to be the I Ching of these globe effecting alien invasion stories.
The Land of Happy Endings
If the crowd pleasing spectacle that would have been my adaptation of The Dying Days will never see the light of day (you would have cheered when Paul saved the cat), the other half of my opinion is that The Poison Sky was as good as this type of story gets, a zinger which more than delivered on the promise of the opening episode. It’s equally difficult reviewing a second episode because you find yourself repeating yourself yourself but this was just as dense managing to somehow tie together all of the elements convincingly and drawing in some hot UNIT v Sontaran action, Catherine Tate being amazing again, apocalyptic visions, global catastrophe and Kirstie Wark. Unlike many second halves, this was also genuinely a continuation of the story, not simply the firing off of a new set of events in the same scenario.
Box-ticking resolutions have always been a component of these concluding parts, but on this occasion it all seemed perfectly valid to give misguided genius boy Luke an extended resolution and evil Martha more to do in with her dying breath and most of the rest of the episode (producing one of Freema’s best scenes ever for the series). True, this also led to the Doctor largely flitting between locations sorting out problems like an alien plate spinner or a contestant on The Crystal Maze, but at least he acknowledged it and we were able to witness the brilliant moment in which what looked like glorious climax to the episode, the burning sky, was undercut by his matter of fact realisation that the worst was yet to come. Along with his ‘Please, please, please, please, please …’ and the almost grand gesture, I don’t think the Tenth Doctor’s been closer to his eighth incarnation.
Was it gratuitous to hover in the Valiant? No but it was logical and actually one of the pleasures of the episode was the number of times it did exactly what we were thinking. Almost, no actually, every review of last week’s episode, including my own, noted that the best way to save Bernard was to break the glass and sure enough the suddenly ballsy Sylvia goes at it with an axe. The Doctor’s standing there in a gas mask and he actually said ‘Are you my mummy?’ out loud before we could in the kind of wink to the audience not seen since Tom addressed us in The Face of Evil. Where’s the Brig? It turns out Sir Alistair’s in Peru (Why Peru? That’s too random a location not to be some kind of set up for a future appearance). And indeed, where’s the Valiant? Oh, there it is.
Some people rather grumpy about these kinds of references and thinks that the series has lost its element of surprise. Personally, I think the surprise is that the series is confident enough to make these kinds of touchstone allusions ‘in passing’ (as opposed to kronkburgers) and unlike the Gallifrey flashback from The Sound of Drums or the Macra making them an event. Presumably the production team feel that the series has been back in circulation long enough for even latent viewers to have caught up with some of what they’ve forgotten, that Jon didn’t just battle Welsh maggots week in and out and will know who the Brigadier is.
As a sidebar, isn’t it odd that the BBC charter, which stopped the new series having direct continuity with the spin-off fiction since it can’t force viewers to buy one thing to understand what’s happening in another, does allow the reintroduction of elements which in general can only be enjoyed these days through the purchasing of dvds? Why is it right that we can have Sontarans on screen in the same month as the Bred for War boxset, but the production team wouldn’t be allowed to bring back a certain archaeologist played by Lisa Bowerman?
The Crooked World
I’ve read some quite detailed debunking of the Doctor’s solution to ridding the world of the gas, noting how unlikely it is that the Earth doesn’t show some physical ill effects given the intensity of the heat, largely forgetting that this Doctor bloody Who not a Kim Stanley Robinson Mars novel and that scientific accuracy has always taken a back seat to exciting imagery (depending upon the budget). Like all fantasy realms, the natural laws clearly work differently in the Whoniverse where, lets not forget, people can time travel in machines whose interior real estate makes the barns masquerading as houses on Grand Design look like a lean-to on a terraced council dwelling. Are we suddenly at the stage were the bad science that brought to a conclusion to many a story in the past should be seen as faux-pas enough for a whole story to be dismissed out of hand despite everything else which is going on? If so, then we’re just fulfilling the stereotype of us the not-we had in the past before they became the we too.
Hello again Rose and wasn’t that interesting? The former companion seems to have found some way of communicating across the void, but can’t quite manage to become corporeal enough to make herself heard. My immediate thought about the shenanigans at the end of the episode was that she can at least give the Tardis a nudge (the movement wasn’t unlike the dimensional break from Rise of the Cybermen) but the appendage in a bottle will probably be the more likely source.
Next Week: She doesn’t look old enough to be Susan’s mother. But then again, regenerations can do wonders. Look at Iris Wildthyme...