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May 09, 2008

Where's The Bloody Foam Machine?

Doctor Who: The Poison Sky

Harrumph. Bah, humbug.

So what exactly happened here? Was it the 'monster first, script second' dynamic, which, if I were feeling especially cruel, I might cite the viewing figures as possible proof? Was it a Helen Raynor hangover? Or is it, as Neil is all but screaming from the rafters and not without justification, just me?

Well, let's review what we learned in this episode. For openers, demanding that an army which values death before personal dishonour goes home with their metaphorical tails between their legs is categorically not in any way a good idea. With two decades separating The Poison Sky from The Two Doctors (which most well-meaning fans and Tat Wood try their hardest to forget), it's absolutely proper for the episode to demonstrate to the newer audience that Sontarans practice what they preach and what their response would be. So that's one-nil to Neil. But not for the first time in a Helen Raynor two-parter is the Tenth Doctor made to look, at the very least, a naive fool.

Redemption This is different from The Parting Of The Ways, where pressing the plunger would have taken out not only himself, the satellite and the Daleks, but everyone on the planet below, and the Ninth Doctor couldn't bring himself to do it. Here, the only sacrifice that would be made besides the Sontarans is himself, and the Earth will be destroyed if he doesn't. And this Doctor can topple governments from the sidelines, he can wipe out a species in the name of justice with the flick of a switch, but when he has to look into the face of his opponent, suddenly he can't pull the trigger; and while it wasn't the intention, the scene goes on for so long and times it so close to the wire that it doesn't half look like he's stalling for time until the inevitable beamed-in redemption that takes his place. Couldn't they have made him show a little remorse or surprise, or at least ask what happened when he comes back out?

The Sontaran way is normally to barge in like you own the place, then pound away at it until you do

I'm not letting the potato-heads off the hook that easily either, because there's an awful lot of boondoggle to the Sontaran plan. Surely there must be quicker and easier ways to gas a planet? The Doctor would think so too, since he knows as well as we do that the Sontaran way is normally to barge in like you own the place, then pound away at it until you do - and if the Sontarans had simply turned up and declared war on the Earth, let the humans launch their nukes to no effect, and then bombarded them up with gas grenades until they choked while mopping up the resistance, they'd have won by a mile. No plonkering about waiting for ATMOS to do its job really slowly while hoping nobody lights a fag in the meantime. And no need in your gameplan either for a duplicitous pissed-off agent who might conceivably use his genius and your own technology to bite you in the ass once the jig is up. Risk assessment ought to have seen that one coming. Have we got to the point now where RTD and his writing team have upped the whammo stakes in the alien invasion plot so many times, that new invasions have to be written with built-in catastrophic flaws in order for the human race to stand any chance of winning? It sure looks that way.

Spaceballs And I'm sorry, but there's no getting around it: the science on display is miserable. It's not like Evolution Of The Daleks, where Helen Raynor was making up stuff on the top of her head; rather, it's logic and reason being sacrificed on the altar of boffo CGI effects, and not really 'science' per se. Possibly I've been traumatised reviewing the six-part snoozeathon that was The Seeds of Death, as it's exactly the same kind of credibility gap that that one had, only more expensive. Let's say that you have got a gas dense enough to need a Valiant-sized jet engine to blow it away, that accumulates at skyscraper level instead of on the ground and burns without incinerating anyone that's breathing the stuff in. There's still the small matter of the 70 percent of the Earth's surface covered by water - you know, the bit with no cars in it - which is kind of crucial if the Doctor hopes to get rid of it all in one go in a massively cool-looking way. I can accept one or the other, but not both.

OK, I'll come right out and say it: who else, after the Valiant appeared, couldn't help thinking of the giant robot maid from Spaceballs, coming to vacuum the entire atmosphere up?

Shall we try a compromise? The Poison Sky is season four's equivalent, so far, of a Micheal Bay blockbuster. But just because an episode is a massive crowd-pleaser, doesn't mean it's all that great or memorable when you come to watch it again. There's a lot of great setpieces and character moments; Rattigan's petulant temper tantrum perfectly underscores how pathetic and impotent he really is, and the UNIT/Doctor relation, where neither of them are fully in the right or the wrong, would have been unthinkable under Barry Letts stewardship. But in spite of all the old-style UNIT and Sontaran trappings, its classic-Who heart very much belongs in the JN-T gaudiness of the 80s, in the same way that Earthshock and Resurrection Of The Daleks absolutely bowled me over when I was twelve. We've been down this road many times already in the last few years; it looks like the regular folks have better things to do on an early Saturday evening and the earlier timeslot has more work to do to keep everyone interested. All eyes are certainly going to be the upcoming viewing figures for this Saturday, when the show has a go at something different and surprising again - stuff the sprog, this'll be the episode that gives birth to a million slash fics. Brrrrr.


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