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June 06, 2008

Britain's Got Tennant

Doctor Who: Silence In The Library

Lib_1So ITV’s singing dogs and lapdancing grannies were all set to give the opposition a pasting on Saturday, but don’t worry – the Beeb’s continuity announcer had it covered: “New initiatives to bring down waiting times - and Charlie’s not happy, in Casualty” he promised tantalisingly, as if daring us to so much as think about touching that dial.

But before Holby General’s preternaturally reasonable head nurse could come along to apply his patented “scratching head while looking bemused” shtick (imagine Stan Laurel being told his entire family has just been wiped out in a freak bobsledding accident, and you’ll get the general idea) to the NHS apparatchiks’ latest Kafkaesque machinations, there were 45 minutes of Steven Moffat-penned Doctor Who to get through.  How ever would we stand the suspense?

JobCentre Plus! Under the sea!

It’s getting pretty boring to say Moffat is Who’s best writer, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Even without his reputation and groaning trophy shelf, though, this story would apparently still have been a shoo-in because, in the never knowingly under-effusive words of Russell the T himself: “Space! Library! How can that not be commissioned? It’s a must!” (Blimey - if I’d known that was all it took, I’d have sent in my own one-line pitch - “JobCentre Plus! Under the sea!” years ago.)

But I guess Rusty has a point: Libraries are kinda cool. And, as Moffat pointed out on this week’s Confidential, being a bit of bookish, nerdy sort does set the Doctor apart from the alpha male Bonds and Bourne’s of this world, and is thus officially considered by champions of public service broadcasting to be a good role model for The Kids.

Having said that, it’s difficult to see how turning libraries into terrifying temples of doom where, even if you manage to avoid an overdue fine, you're still in danger of having the flesh stripped from your bones, is exactly going to help the nation’s child literacy crisis. But then, as Who’s scarifier in chief, Moffat brings a wonderfully unrepentant zeal to his mission to leave no bed un-wet, delighting in poking about in the corners of our primal, atavistic fears, be they creepy statues, monsters under the bed or, erm, gas masks.

Giant pink brain! It's A Knockout! Mr Sheen!

This time, of course, he’s taken the plunge and gone straight for the biggie – chapter one, page one of the Big Book of Scary Things: darkness itself. "Almost every sentient species in the universe has an irrational fear of the dark,” says the Doctor, who has developed a habit of speaking in movie tag lines. “But they're all wrong. It's not irrational..." Oh, and just for luck, it turns out the dust in sunbeams could quite happily have your face off as well. Who's writing this - Mr Sheen?

In many ways, Moffat would have been an ideal writer for the budget-stretching “classic” series, sticking as he does to the edict that it’s the things unseen that inspire the most dread. After all, why pay The Mill a fortune to produce a giant pink brain, or go to the effort of stitching Peter Kay into a comedy It’s A Knockout suit, when all you have to do is position a few lamps to throw some spooky shadows around the place?

Mr! Whippy!

The absurdity of screening this journey into Who’s heart of darkness while the sun was melting ice creams on the pavements has been noted elsewhere in this forum, but this was still pretty scary stuff for 7pm – and no less so for the terrors being as much psychological as physical. After all, would seeing Miss Evangelista being eaten alive have been any more disturbing than being confronted with her disembodied, final thoughts? This wasn’t fear of death, this was the fears of the dead (from BEYOND THE GRAVE) – a pretty chilling concept, even if did have to compete with Mr Whippy nosily plying his trade outside.

Lib_2And then, because nothing in a Moffat script is ever wasted, minutes later the newly-minted terror of “ghosting” came back at us in the most trouser-browning manner imaginable. From his multiplying shadows to his eerily uplit skull, Proper Dave’s slow surrender to the Vashta Nerada was truly horrifying – even if The Sun did dedicate a full page to its similarities to a 40-year-old Scooby Doo ’toon (and how surreal was that? They’ll be asking Lawrence Miles to write the TV Biz column soon).

Again, the most unnerving element was not what had been taken, but what was left behind: Dave’s casual insistence that “I’m fine, I’m okay, I’m fine…” and his confused, halting “I can’t, why can’t I…?” were positively haunting, like one of those car crash victims who walks from the wreckage without a scratch on them and then drops dead a few minutes later. (Did I mention that this stuff is for kids?) “Who turned out the lights?”, meanwhile, is clearly intended to join “Don’t blink” and “Are You My Mummy?” in Moffat’s ever-expanding playground glossary.

Oh, and if all that wasn’t enough darkness for you, Catherine Tate gave us what most rank as the most blood-curdling scream in the series’ history (yeah, beat that, Langford) before being forcibly turned into what appeared to be this season's must-have Apple accessory; the iGob, perhaps?

Harold Pinter! Fighting robots!

Some have been quick to criticise the talky nature of this episode, but that’s a bit like dismissing the works of Harold Pinter on the basis it doesn’t have any good fights between robots. It’s not a question of whether you’re talking, it’s what you’re saying, and you could hardly accuse dialogue like this of being time-filling verbiage. A few choice examples:

“The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real.” “I’ve dated androids – they’re rubbish.” “If you understand me, look very, very scared.” “I never land on Sundays. Sundays are boring.” “She’s a footprint in the sand and the tide is coming in…” and, my personal favourite, “We go way back, that man and me. Just not this far back” (which has definite shades of last year’s killer “They send you back in time and let you live to death”). And I loved the Doctor hacking into a sophisticated piece of alien tech, only to be confronted with the question: “Would you like to speak to my dad?”

All this, and I haven’t even touched on Professor River Song (more on her next time, no doubt), the classy production design, Euros Lyn’s assured direction and Other Dave’s frankly magnificent hair.

GeorgieBut you get the idea: Simon Cowell may have won the day, but people will still be watching Silence In The Library (probably in “classic flat-o-vision” or some such) in a hundred years’ time, which is approximately 99 and a half years after anyone outside his immediate friends and family will give more than a passing thought to breakdancing “sensation” George Sampson.

Britain’s got talent? You bet your life it has.

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