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May 06, 2008

The Fog of War

Doctor Who: The Poison Sky

Psky4 I fell down some stairs a couple of weeks ago. Luckily, the blow that I sustained to the back of the head seems to have done wonders for my appreciation of Doctor Who. This time last year I would have been sticking the boot in with the best of them but I have to admit that I'm finding it rather difficult to say a bad word about The Poison Sky. If only I could get rid of the migraines...

Another reason why I'm currently embracing the show, rather than picking at it like an infected scab, is probably thanks to combination of Britain's Got Talent and Battlestar Galactica. I don't watch Doctor Who at 6:20pm (I'm not that mad), I tend to watch it after I've immersed myself in the relentless misery that is BGT and BSG. These programmes, no matter how groundbreaking and/or thrilling they are, also invariably result in one of the most depressing, soul-destroying and bitterly distressing experiences that you can put yourself through whilst slumped on a sofa. So, what better way to soothe your furrowed brow than a concentrated dose of pure escapist fun?

Has Doctor Who ever been this much fun before? Seriously? UNIT getting its arse kicked by Sontarans. The Sontarans getting its arse kicked by UNIT. The Doctor kicking everyone's arse. Does it really get any better than that? This was far more thrilling than watching emotionless Cybermen and Daleks bitch-slapping each other, and the direction and music conspired get my juices flowing even more than Iron Man did (and I loved that too!). Even during a second viewing, when I was more than prepared to critically savage it in the cold light of day, I still found myself being caught up in the drama of it all. So many great moments: Colonel Mace finally growing some balls, the victorious return of the Valiant, Bernard Cribbens sending his granddaughter on an adventure of a lifetime. For once, I could actually buy into the Doctor's ebullient cry of  "Bwrilliant!!'

This was far more thrilling than watching emotionless Cybermen and Daleks bitch-slapping each other...

PskyIn fact, Tennant has never been better. Aside from one terrible moment when he says "belittle" as if he's stifling a burp, I was utterly captivated by his performance this week. This is the Doctor I've been waiting for. His fear of the Sontaran war machine, masked by his dismissive treatment of Staal; his helplessness in the face of a nuclear count-down; his unbridled anger as the UNIT troops are butchered; his appreciation and love for his companions - he's marvellous in each and every scene. But best of all, his attempts to talk the Sontarans out of a no-win situation perfectly encapsulates what makes the Doctor a unique and inspiring hero. Coward, my arse.

One of the criticisms I've seen levelled at this episode is the fact that the gas defies all known laws of chemistry, physics and technobabble.  Personally, I don't give a toss if the gas burns up quickly and harmlessly. This is Doctor Who, not some hard-hitting sci-fi like Blake's 7, you know! This show has been making scientific faux pas from the very start; its track record when it comes to real science has been laughable so criticising its treatment of fake pseudo-science seems pointless in the extreme. And before you start, there's a fundamental difference between the bad science of The Poison Sky and the bad science of, say, Evolution of the Daleks. While a DNA-lightning conductor feels like an improbable, coincidental and thoroughly contrived plot enabler, the clone feed gas in this story not only felt right, it looked unbelievably cool, too.

Sure, there's plenty of stuff that I should be railing against: the convenient axe, Donna crying five times in four episodes (we get it, she can act!), Sylvia Noble (Jacqueline King is pitching her performance as if she's taking part in Rentaghost), and the Sontaran's ineffectual armour are all fairly galling, but they never conspire to bring the whole thing crashing in on itself.

This is the Doctor I've been waiting for...

Psky3However, as much as I enjoyed Luke Rattigan, I have to admit that he is the worst cult leader the world has ever seen. Perhaps he should have been dropping hints about leaving for an alien planet a little earlier in the curriculum. During the academy's fresher's week might have been a good idea. Springing this surprise on his "followers" at the eleventh hour was a little stupid for such an intelligent chap, but his uncontrollable ego just about makes it feasible. Rattigan was a fascinating character and his redemptive "Sontar-HA!" was so deliciously cathartic I simply don't understand how any sane person didn't punch the air and shout "Get In!" as the Sontaran ship went tits up.

And, for the briefest of moments, we got a 21st century version of the classic - yet overcrowded - TARDIS team, with Donna as Tegan, Martha as Nyssa and Luke as Adric. A subtle but oh-so-satisfying squee from me.

But what I loved most of all was how this two-parter, a few episodes into the run, had the look and feel of a season climax. A hint of self-sacrifice, a huge explosion, returning monsters, a chorus of "What? What? What?' and a glorious, old-skool cliffhanger that wouldn't have been out of place in the Hartnell or Davison era. It was ridiculously exciting.

Piper is on screen for less than a second and yet she gets fourth billing in the credits!

Psky2 And whatever you do - don't blink! If you do you'll miss the practically subliminal appearance of Rose Tyler. She's on screen for less than a second and yet she gets fourth billing in the credits! Fourth! Admittedly she made more of an impact than Martha Jones, but surely that's just silly, isn't it? No wonder the credits flew by so fast.

Next week looks like an exercise in ming-mong baiting gone mad. Prepare yourself for floods of messages pointing out that the Doctor had a granddaughter in the very first episode, lots and lots of fanboy denial, a distressed Lance Parkin, and theories about the Doctor and Romana shagging themselves senseless on the randomiser as K9 looks on dispassionately. I can hardly wait!

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