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May 05, 2008

Small Man Syndrome

Doctor Who: The Poison Sky

Phone_sex_2Colin Baker used to describe Doctor Who has a “home baked loaf.” Once a Baker, always a baker, I suppose - but there was a general feeling abroad in the 80s that the only way Who could hold its own in the post-Star Wars era was by adopting the mantra that less is more; that, necessity being the mother of invention and all, the limitations of the budget actually resulted in better, more imaginative scripts.

This is not quite the desperate, rearguard defence it might appear (after all, which would you rather watch, Sapphire & Steel or the Thunderbirds movie?) - it’s just unfortunate that almost all of Colin’s scripts turned out, in the end, to be bollocks. But even during the pitiless depths of Timelash et al, there was a still sense of Doctor Who offering something a little more literate (i.e. talky); a little more BBC than the flashy pyrotechnics of The A-Team on “the other side”.

There's a reason BA Baracus and co bitch-slapped poor old Colin into extinction

Trouble is, while many of us grown-ups might still prefer our Who smaller, cleverer, Blinkier, there’s a reason BA Baracus and co bitch-slapped poor old Colin into extinction, and it’s that kids – even the brainy kids who choose smart, funny, goofy Doctor Who over slick, cynical McTie-ins like Transformers – really do like flashy pyrotechnics. And guns - lots of very big, very loud guns.

The Poison Sky, then, is what happens when Doctor Who can afford not to have three people standing about in TC3 discussing recursive occlusion and instead go balls-out for action-packed Spectacle. So if the episode was a bit rubbish, it’s because, well, kids are a bit rubbish. And, as we have to constantly remind ourselves through grinding teeth, this is their show now, and they’re entitled to a couple of big dumb shoot-em-ups each season, leaving us to feel the hot, prickly shame of partners and parents and friends’ accusing eyes upon us, and to wonder what that nice Mr Moffatt has up his sleeve for a few weeks’ time.

(Also, as Uncle Russell keeps reminding us, these days Doctor Who has to compete against shows with big shiny floors, and if there’s one thing viewers find it physically impossible to resist, it’s a shiny floor. Apparently. Personally, I think he’s confusing us with crows, but there you go.)

In case it’s not coming through, The Poison Sky and I didn’t really get along. Which is a shame, as I loved the wit and joie de vivre of the opening half, but not entirely unexpected, for reasons discussed last week (see also Evolution of the Daleks, Forcibly Sodomozed By, in JoAnne’s Sontaran Stratagem review). Having now suffered through four of these early season action blow-outs, not to mention a trio of Christmas specials with a specific remit to replace/replicate the once-prized Big Film, I’ve seen enough to know big budget Doctor Who just doesn’t butter my space buns.

Then again, maybe it if was genuine big budget stuff, it wouldn’t be so bad – but it’s painfully obvious the cash still doesn’t quite stretch to the job in hand; hence we get yet another global shitstorm reduced to a bunch of pictures from National Geographic plus Nu-Who’s Armageddon avatar of choice, a panicked BBC newsreader (or Kirsty Wark, as no newsreaders appeared to be available).

If you’re going to not be afraid to shoot over the bar, make sure Phil Collinson hasn’t snuck in and raised it again first

Like the Sontarans themselves, the show occasionally betrays signs of a Napoleon complex: We might not have the chops to keep up with the Indiana Joneses, but we’re sure as hell going to have a go. Really, you can’t fault such vaulting ambition, but there’s a cautionary tale here: If you’re going to not be afraid to shoot over the bar, make sure Phil Collinson hasn’t snuck in and raised it again first.

Both Helen Raynor’s script and Douglas Mackinnon’s direction seemed woefully adrift when it came to building up tension or generating any sense of a gathering threat. This was tell not show television: From Kirsty to Cribbins, everyone was working hard to persuade us the end was nigh, but it was hard to take them seriously when all we got was some dry ice and the odd plate shot of smog-choked London (which, let’s be honest, could have been actual shots of London – and isn’t it ironic this episode was shown on the weekend when the man who introduced the capital’s Low Emission Zone was thrown out of office by of an uprising in the 4x4-driving suburbs?).

Donna_tears_2Everywhere you looked in The Poison Sky, people were gamely stepping up to compensate for the lack of anything actually happening: The Doctor was flapping about doing his student peacenik shtick, Donna was turning on the waterworks for the third story running and Murray Gold was clearly ignoring what was on screen and scoring a much more impressive movie running in his own head. And, for Confidential viewers, Russell the T was on hand to tell us that, despite all available evidence to the contrary, the scenes with Donna alone aboard the Sontaran ship had been “really scary”. Cheers for that.

To the surprise of precisely no-one, Helen Raynor also cemented her reputation as the undisputed queen of the shameless deus ex machina. After Evolution’s DNA/gamma interface travesty, and the “psychic projection” gubbins that ruined her (otherwise surprisingly half-decent) episode of Torchwood, this time we got the Doctor burning up the skies - of the whole world - with a small patio heater. Built by a teenager. I mean, seriously, WTF? Did it really have to be the entire goddamn planet? Wouldn’t, say, the Home Counties have done the job just as well?

And, as if that weren’t irritating enough, we had to make time for that same self-serving little bastard genius to have his inevitable Big Redemption Scene – because, in case the big floaty resurrection thing in last year’s finale didn’t spell it out clearly enough, in our Godless, post-Nietzschean Universe, it’s now down to the Doctor to lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil and generally harangue us into doing the right thing.

Which is fine – the Time Lord as enabler, saving us from monsters and aliens and a career in retail is not such a bad central ethos for a show to have. It’s just it can start to get a wee bit predictable after a while – kind of like that scene at the end of Diff’rent Strokes where Mr D would lay some of his folksy wisdom on Arnold (“You’ve learned a valuable lesson today, son...").

Even the most enervated Doctor Who still contains enough moments of casual genius to justify hunting down and sterilising the four million people who willingly chose to watch Kids Do The Lamest Things instead

Ultimately, then, The Poison Sky was just a big bloody racket; all sound and fury, signifying precisely zip. But that’s okay, cos I’m sure the kids thought it was (drumroll please) an absolute gas, and even the most enervated Doctor Who still contains enough moments of casual genius to justify hunting down and sterilising the four million people who willingly chose to watch Kids Do The Lamest Things instead. Chief among these, for anyone who still cares, were: A relieved Martha hugging the Doctor, while Donna just gave him a smack – neat visual shorthand for their respective relationships; the “Back of the neck!” gag, Christopher Ryan's wonderfully blustery General Staal and, of course, the almost subliminal re-appearance of Billie Piper, series four’s very own human easter egg.

Billie_mouth_2Inevitably, much is already being made of what exactly Rose was trying to communicate through the TARDIS scanner though, from the face she was making, it’s equally possible the Doctor had simply forgotten to switch off his DVD of Secret Diary of a Call Girl. I mean, letting Donna fly the ship is one thing, but he really ought to think about locking the parental controls on the telly.

NEXT TIME: “Exhausted” Who’s The Daddy headline checks into rehab after week of gruelling tabloid overexposure.

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