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May 05, 2008

The Gas Man Cometh

Doctor Who: The Poison Sky


You can tell it’s a bank holiday.  Why else would Kirsty Wark, the doyenne of Newsnight, One Foot in the Past and, for viewers in Scotland, Words with Wark, be stuck with a newsreading shift?  At least, post Fraser Report, we probably won’t be seeing her making a documentary about the Sontaran invasion.

Yes, once again it was another ridiculous foray into the world of mass media from Doctor Who, as we get our annual glimpse at someone famous from the BBC newsroom desperately trying to ground something ridiculous - like, say, a quarter of the world’s cars suddenly becoming impenetrable poison gas generators.

Notably, we rarely see the same face twice on the BBC, yet that woman from AMNN is always there.  Perhaps she’s America’s answer to Kay Burley, wheeled in front of the cameras whenever there’s a disaster brewing.

I loved the resolution of the cliffhanger, worrying implications for Mrs Noble’s no-claims bonus though it had.  Not to mention Bernard Cribbins’ head.  I’d perhaps have picked a bit of window further away from where the old boy had slumped, just on the off-chance that the follow-through from her psycho woodcutter impersonation went a bit wrong.

She got her revenge though, getting Wilf to seal the house up while she gabbed away on the phone to her daughter.  Cribbins is 80, for goodness sake.  I’d not let my 80-year-old granddad change a washer these days, for fear of a major disaster.  Yet she’s got him down on his hands and knees with the Ronseal.

But that cliffhanger resolution was about all I could enjoy, plotwise, from a story that just felt like a runaway horse, careering down a icy cobbled hill with little to stop it’s momentum.  After all that work last week in producing a tense, enjoyable if somewhat uneven build-up, it utterly failed to deliver.  It's not just the gas hitting 80% density - it's the quality of writing.

Yes, there were some nice touches, and some lovely character moments - the Doctor casually lobbing aside Rattigan’s gun, Donna's believably terrified determination to find the teleport for the Doctor - but there was so much to outweigh them in the nonsense to quality ratio that it became a chore at times to watch.  As with Evolution of the Daleks last year, Helen Raynor’s second episode went royally off a cliff.

Where to start?  Well, let’s try for the climax and work backwards.  Putting aside the basic science of setting fire to the gas, and all the oxygen up there that you think might sustain the blaze - or at the very least, blow the Valiant up in the process - you’d think the Doctor, having condemned his own planet to a fiery death, might consider an alternative to setting the sky ablaze.  Or at the very least, have had the odd flashback and post-traumatic incident.

If you’ve got the kids pondering obvious errors, then Joe Public’s not being fooled

Also, what about all the gas at ground level?  We’ve seen this stuff choking the bejesus out of everyone since it’s coming from car exhausts.  And never mind the trees, birds, exposed humans and everything else that’s just been boiled alive by the resultant heat of igniting all that gas. 

And I’m not just saying this as a cynical, jaded fanboy and hack on the verge of hitting 30 - at least, I hope I'm not.  My eight-year-old nephew - who acts as my benchmark of how good the show is at engaging the target audience - asked why the Valiant or the trees didn’t just catch fire.  And if you’ve got the kids pondering such obvious errors, then Joe Public’s not being fooled by the pyrotechnics and ballyhoo.

Dodgysprinkler Also, if the Valiant’s dispersing the poison gas... where’s it dispersing it too?  France?  Gloucestershire?  Has the density there built up suddenly to more than 80% thanks to rolling clouds of toxic vapour, wiping out Paris and half of Cheltenham in one swift cloud of death, just so the Unified Intelligence Taskforce can storm their local MOT centre?

Plus, as my nephew pointed out, so much for the Doctor’s “You can’t fight the Sontarans” claim.  If the Valiant’s got a bloody great laser mounted underneath hit, why the hell don’t they just keep bombarding the factory with that and wipe all the Sontarans out in one go, rather than engage them in battle?  Even if, we learn very quickly, that Sontaran body armour is about as much use as a strip of wet cardboard in a shootout

That said, clearly Sontaran technology is not only more advanced than human, it’s got a better user interface, too.  Either that, or Steve Jobs has been having a quiet word with Staal on the side.  How else could Martha control NATO’s nuclear launch sequence with her iPhone?  That must be some almighty hack she’s had installed on the thing.  Perhaps it’s a feature in the developers kit that went out recently... Google Maps, Youtube, NATO, iTunes.   I’d like to think the button features a wee mushroom cloud on it.

I’ll admit to allowing myself a wee grin at the line about the Sontaran-Rutan war, if only on the offchance that someone googling the Rutans might stumble across BBV’s website and be tempted to buy my old audio drama, In2Minds.  I believe there are copies still available, and I thoroughly recommend it - the CD makes a perfect coffee mug coaster.

And of course, that wasn’t the only piece of gratuitous continuity shoehorned in there, as we finally got to hear what happened to the Brig.  Although I did rather hope Helen Raynor might try to subvert things a wee bit and have Col. Mace respond that Bambera was stuck in Peru instead. 

I actually liked the Colonel.  I know a lot of people have been dismissive of him, not least on this website.  But you got the sense of a proper military officer trying to keep things under control, and being shown a frankly unnecessary lack of respect by the Doctor.  Even if that kiss at the end was so far beyond stupid, it was in another country.  And an opportunity missed if ever there was one to have him see the two Donna’s and do a double-take...

In fact, it’s stuff like that kiss which has me cringing during Doctor Who.  So many times now have we had to endure moments that leave me contemplating hitting my head off the wall in frustration.  ‘Are you my mummy?’  ‘Now get them out of there!’.  The crap FX shot of the lasers shooting down the corridor at the squaddies.  Rattigan’s footstamping tantrum.  You know the bits I mean.

The producers are trying to restore the clever/dumb balance during the show

It feels as though the producers are looking for a sponsorship deal with Egg.com by trying to restore the clever/dumb balance during the show.  For every wonderful character moment - Martha and her clone's lovely little talk, you-know-who’s cameo, Donna’s bravery, the Doctor throwing the gun away, the Colonel’s Independence Day speech - they have to do something jaw-droppingly bad instead.

And I feel sorry for the people working hard on an episode like that to make it seem superficially good.  Ropey laser guns aside, the FX were by and large lovely to look at.  The direction was reasonable.  The performances were by and large spot-on, and even Freema seemed to improve once she was back to being Martha and not the clone.  Even, for once, the music wasn't too intrusive.  But all those are just fig leaves to cover a story seemingly to be made up on the hoof.

At times with new Doctor Who I wonder if I’m just nitpicking.  If I’m picking up on flaws that the general population is either missing or just doesn’t care about.  After all, with consistently high AIs the show must be doing something right.  But then I sit and watch something like The Poison Sky, where things just happen, for the sake of happening, and think: ‘I don’t care if it’s just me, because ultimately I’m just a viewer, too.  And I’m now not a happy one.’

Genuinely, the only thing really wrong with The Poison Sky was the story, but for a series supposedly driven by story, that's a big thing to get wrong.  Given last week’s flawed but genuinely enjoyable The Sontaran Stratagem, this was a massive letdown.


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