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May 04, 2008

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Doctor Who: The Poison Sky

Sky As we picked up from last week's conclusion, I suspect Sylvia’s handiwork with the axe was probably a result of several frustrating attempts to get her car repaired at the local Qwik-Fit. The Doctor, flat out like one of their 'quicker than a Qwik-Fit fitter' grease monkeys, and buggering up her exhaust with the sonic screwdriver, obviously does nothing to appease the woman. As she wielded Helen Raynor’s blindingly obvious pay-off to the longeurs of last week’s cliffhanger, I pondered on whether The Poison Sky was on course to crash and burn in the similarly catastrophic fashion of Evolution Of The Daleks. Well, it possibly crashed and it most definitely burned.

As Dolly the sheep… sorry, the evil Martha clone, logged into NATO's mainframe and seized control of every country’s missile launch protocols, I knew we were in trouble. Why would a medical officer be given such sensitive security information? Do UNIT’s cleaners have a direct line to the Valiant on their mobile phones? With her finger on the trigger, Martha’s clone was all narrowing, suspicious eyes and stony-faced looks (so that, yes, we were in no doubt this was the sheep even if we hadn’t spotted the pupils and receeding hairline garbage the Doctor later spouts) and Freema’s best 'clone acting' couldn’t rid me of the feeling that Martha has so far been reduced to nothing more than the ‘tin dog’ this season. Raynor frittered away an opportunity to create some real tension with the audience but instead made the clone boringly traipse around UNIT for a while before trying to redeem a rather useless sub-plot with the more affecting scene of Martha watching her doppleganger bite the dust. It would have been all the more poignant if the clone had actually been more than a throw away plot device that the audience could be bothered about. I think Freema’s been treated worse here than she was in Torchwood and I’m now at a loss as to why Martha was brought back into the series.

Freema’s best 'clone acting' couldn’t rid me of the feeling that Martha has so far been reduced to nothing more than the ‘tin dog’ this season

Kirsty Wark stood in for Andrew Marr on News 24 and Lachele Carl was trotted out yet again as the AMNN news anchor to provide the now rather dull pieces of verisimilitude that pop up in every Earth based adventure. Once upon a time these were fun, playful winks at the audience but now they’re a sad indication that The Poison Sky is simply going to run through all the ‘events on a global scale’ tropes of the new series again and this familiarity is, like the Earth becoming a Sontaran clone world, beginning to breed contempt.

Even the amusing scenes of Donna alone in the TARDIS in the heart of enemy territory had a whiff of Rose’s antics in Army Of Ghosts and reprised the coded message via video link to Mickey in The Age Of Steel  but they succeed by the fact that they show Donna initially rather out of her depth and unsure of herself for a change and then triumphantly trusting in the Doctor’s confidence in her by belting a Sontaran (the ‘back of the neck!’ line being a real highlight of the episode) and fiddling with the teleport to save the day. Catherine Tate continues to shine and for me she makes this weak little exercise all the more bearable.

...when it all went wrong and his Academy cared more about the real world than they did about him all we got was some drippy little tantrum

Luke Rattigan, conversely, was the unbearable git that predictably a sulky child genius aspires to become and, by the time London was fog bound, his little academy of red garbed minions realised he was several sandwiches short of a picnic. And as I surmised, he does have a Robert Klark Graham complex after all by announcing his plan to get all the bright kids to interbreed. So, I’ll give Raynor a couple of points for at least acknowledging that. But Ryan Sampson played him as if he’d overdosed on Smarties and was riding a sugar rush so that when it all went wrong and his Academy cared more about the real world than they did about him all we got was some drippy little tantrum. It’s not effective enough to make us genuinely get any satisfaction out of his eventual, clichéd self-sacrifice and redemption. It’s painfully obvious from the start that Rattigan would come to a noble end but no one liked him and therefore no one gave a shit when he topped himself and saved the day. The Doctor instructs him to do "something intelligent" with his life but then through his own act of sacrifice perhaps he inspires Rattigan to follow his lead. I wasn’t sure whether I liked the Doctor’s methodology there even if Rattigan was a complete pain in the arse.

There were some nice bits of referencing in the middle of this expensive looking, if empty, spectacle. The brief flash of Rose on the TARDIS scanner screen ensured that the impending return of the character was kept simmering away on the back burner; the mention of the 50,000 year war between the Sontarans and the Rutans was welcome and an update on Sir Alistair Lethbridge Stewart (stranded in Peru, apparently) calmed those of us who were desperate for news. His replacement is certainly not very promising. And I’m still trying to decide if the Doctor’s ‘Are you my mummy?’ gag was genuinely funny or just a cheap shot.

Colonel Mace even seemed to get a stiffy with the arrival of that whopping great piece of machine fetish, the Valiant...

Christopher Ryan was another good reason to cut this episode a bit of slack. Staal was a superb character and Ryan did a great job of bringing the pompous little war-monger to life, managing to use the prosthetics and costumes to the benefit of the performance. He’s particularly nasty when he pulls the rug from under an already deflated Rattigan and reduces him to a weeping ninny. Unfortunately, Dan Starkey, as Skorr, wasn’t in the same league and his gap-toothed, child-like ebullience (‘this isn’t war, this is sport!') just didn’t have the gravitas of Ryan’s creation. The battle between UNIT and the Sontaran troops was done well, even if the death of Ross was completely expected (nice bloke and eye candy as ‘casualty of war’ cliché) and rather a waste of a sympathetic character. It did all get a bit gratuitously ‘war porn’ with UNIT finally going in guns blazing and casually mowing down Sontar’s not so finest. Colonel Mace even seemed to get a stiffy with the arrival of that whopping great piece of machine fetish, the Valiant, and even the Doctor got a bit carried away, despite his anti-gun policy, in the midst of such overwhelming machismo. The fetishism of weapons of war ultimately resolved itself into the worryingly phallic looking atmospheric converter that the Doctor rigged up to stick it to the Sontarans. The fact that Rattigan finally got to press the button must say something rather Freudian about the wimp finally getting his mojo back.  The climax to all this was, of course, the necessary big bang that polished off the Sontaran ship courtesy of some satisfying effects work. 

The Doctor fried the gas in the atmosphere in another piece of effects ecstasy and Raynor thinks we’ll happily accept both the rather dreadful blue skies and birds twittering coda to this reckless act and her troweled on anti-car message as Sylvia skips down the road with her shopping. This was as painfully realised as the terror of the sat-nav which she’d rather conveniently ditched at the start of this episode. Give me a break, but that conclusion to a supposed global disaster lacked any kind of integrity.

We’ve seen an awful lot of The Poison Sky before and frankly the majority comes across as lazy recycling of much of the Earth based stories of both the new and old series even if, structurally, Raynor is pretty adept at keeping all the sub-plots going at once and can obviously write witty dialogue and handle characters like Staal. Rather like Murray Gold’s ubiquitously looping music cues, it’s like a greatest hits package where a band has nipped into the studio to record one or two additional tracks just to flog the same old flannel. Actually, I'd like an entirely new album next time please.

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