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June 28, 2008

Cloister-fuck

Cloister Ah.  The cloister bell.  The dull clang of that harbinger of doom inevitably warms my black and shriveled little heart.  It may only get a few seconds of screen-time, but as soon as I heard it, I knew bloody well that I wanted to incorporate the word "cloister" into the title of my review.

Well, I'll have you know that coming up with a clever title based on the word "cloister" isn't easy.  Especially if you're not exactly sure what a cloister is.  One might assume it refers to that which "cloists", but that leaves me in much the same dark. Or perhaps it's a comparative...the opposite of "less cloist".  I imagine that somewhere in England there's a city called "Cloister." Of course, they, no doubt, spell it "Cloicester", or some such.

Regardless of meaning, there's just something about the shape of the word that doesn't lend itself to entertaining wordplay.  My options were fairly limited in both agent-noun form ("Cloisters Rockefeller") and conjugated verb form ("Jesus Cloist!")  Needless to say, given the end-result,  the deciding factor was "which one is most crass?"  I suppose that was predictable, on some level.

That's one of the best things about this "blog": Everyone has their own highly-individual style.  No two of us are alike.  We're like foul-mouthed, sarcastic snowflakes.  Frank's reviews are all "Look at me!  I can read!" with their French intellectuals and a clever allusion to "Finnegan's Wake" under ever punctuation mark.  Stuart is generally giddy about anything the producers throw at him, and posts within seconds of the episode airing.  Damon's are compact diatribes about bus toilets and the future regenerations of his curries.  My reviews are long, rambling, nit-picky things where I bitch about where everything went wrong, even if I liked the episode, and try not to sound as intellectual as Frank.  And they're always late.

The point here is something about how we all fall over ourselves to make sure that whatever we write in our reviews, we make sure we're not just saying what's been said before, and if we do, we try to do it in a new and original way.  Unfortunately, the current production team on Doctor Who, especially Russell T. Davies, could stand to learn a little from this approach, because there's a lot of times when I feel a bit too much deja vu during certain episodes.  Either that or it's food poisoning.

It's too bad this was the Doctor-lite episode, or I might have just dropped the whole "cloister" thing and gone with "Gurn Left."

Doctor Who: Turn Left

Copyleft:

I'm not sure if this found its way over to the side of the pond that you lot are on, but over here during the 80's we had a disturbingly popular sitcom called Family Ties, based on a premise something along the lines of "conservative teenager has lefty hippie parents."  Now that the programme has been off the air for twenty years or so, my recollections of the programme are somewhat hazy, but one thing that has managed to burn itself into my unwilling mind is that Family Ties was infamous for its overuse of one of the more unfortunate narrative devices to ever hit the world of television: the clip show.

I imagine some of you are familiar with the concept of the clip show.  The producers, rather than coming up with an entire episode of new material, would recycle most of the material from previously-aired episodes, and wrap it all in what is generally an appallingly weak frame-story.

How clever!

Well, I think Turn Left is officially Doctor Who's first clip show.

Admittedly, the frame-story is probably significantly better than the average version, where the family sits around their living room and reminisces about various events that happened over the course of previous episodes.  Nonetheless, much of the exercise comes across as an attempt to reuse footage and special effects from myriad (mostly RTD's less-well-scripted) episodes from the last couple of seasons.  Even when they didn't actually use recycled clips they feel the need to play the name-dropping game with Sarah Jane and the Torchwoodians and that lot, and then they make extensive re-use of their favourite gimmick, the far-too-ineffective exposition-by-television-news-channel.  To bring it all back around, at the end we get flashbacks to clips pulled from this same episode...but, get this...they're backwards!  How clever!

Bar sinister:

Chipo It can probably be argued that most narratives are only as good as their villain, and Turn Left, at least in the outermost frame story, comes up short here.  Chipo Chung's portrayal of the fortune teller is woefully marred by at least a couple of deficiencies. 

First, she's so clearly, telegraphically evil that I'm surprised that the makeup department didn't outfit her with a goatee she could stroke malevolently while she salivates at the prospect of Donna turning her car to the right.  The end result was sort of the bastard stepchild of Anthony Ainley and Sarah Parish voiced by Frank Oz.  Donna should almost certainly have been more suspicious about her insidious "chan reading is free for red hair tho."  Then again, she's a bit thick in this episode; look at the whole labour camp thing.

I'm not sure which I find more disturbing...Chung's mildly offensive caricature of Chinese people, or her mildly offensive caricature of Evil people.

Secondly, her  portrayal comes across as some sort of cartoon version of a Chinese person, complete with an atrocious accent.  Mind you, this broad ethnic plastering is sort of par-for-the-course in the episode, with Joseph Long's stereotyped Italian ("Mama!  Is people!  Nice-a people!") and Loraine Velez's evil-eye-giving Spanish Maid similarly difficult to endure.

I'm not sure which I find more disturbing...Chung's mildly offensive caricature of Chinese people, or her mildly offensive caricature of Evil people.

Not all the blame for the fortune-teller fiasco can be laid on Chung, however; Davies' script didn't give her a whole lot to work with.  Lines like "Turn right and never meet that man...turn right and change the world!" almost demand to be followed by an evil cackle, though instead we just got the opening credits, and while I fully expected the fortune teller's last line to be something along the lines of "And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!", what we got instead ("You were so strong!  What are you?  What will you be??  What will you be??") makes me wonder if Davies' owns stock in foreshadowing.

Dung Beetle:

No, I'm not talking about Paul this time.

It's too bad that the Mill blew its entire budget on computer-generated banners and lanterns, and one small mushroom cloud, because it sure would have been nice if the beetle weren't such utter rubbish.  I mean, really...why a beetle in the first place?  My theory is that they opted for the beetle because they happened to have a big rubber one lying around in the prop department.  We get lots of unconvincing scenes of beetle-puppet gnawing at Donna's hair.  (Now, I can see the appeal of gnawing on Donna's hair...I'd consider doing it myself...but somehow it would have been more effective if it just sat there attached to her instead of groping her ponytail.)

The beetle scenes weren't helped any by Catherine's least-convincing performances of the episode.  Maybe she's just not cut out for abject fear; she's far better at trying to be brave even when she's afraid...or maybe the rest of this season has made the terror out-of-character for her.  I was unimpressed by Donna's franticly chasing her own tail while trying to see the beetle on her back, complete with thundery little sound effects that I can only imagine are supposed to indicate how quickly she's snapping her head around trying to see it.  The rest of the special sound also hindered my beetle-appreciation; the clichéd chittering, scuttle-y beetle-sound that played on the soundtrack whenever the beetle was even hinted at got old before it even started.

Port Forwarding:

The entire episode, of course, was carried, if you will, on Donna's back, like a big, rubbish beetle.  While we get a little more of the old shouty Donna near the beginning of her new life, and as mentioned the screamy "get this thing off my back!" Donna certainly wasn't the high point of Tate's Donna Noble career, most of what works about Turn Left works because of her.  The ever-increasing hints that she's going to have a spectacular exit-stage-left at the end of the season are getting to me, because, as you're well aware, I think she's the best thing since sliced bread.

I can see the appeal of gnawing on Donna's hair...I'd consider doing it myself...

Nonetheless, ominous omens are afoot, mostly focusing on her specialness.  From the "most important woman in the universe" to realities bending around her, we're being set up for some spectacular reveal about Donna...let's hope it's good; they've already brought back "Bad Wolf" for the denouement, and you know what rubbish that is.

Between the flashbacks and the foreshadowing I think I'm getting motion sickness.

Tate's work stands in marked contrast to Billie Piper's strangely affected performance.  While Tate's missteps result from her being too into the character, Piper's alien characterization of Rose is strangely fascinating, if not spectacularly convincing.  From her bizarrely poor attempts to play nonchalant when she runs into Donna to her inability to tear her eyes away from the thing on her back to her ominous declarations set to spooky music, she spends most of the episode looking like she's off her meds.

Left Behind:

Hairbeetle No...I'm not referencing the ridiculous Christian Dispensationalist movies staring Kirk Cameron...this is just the part of the review where I run on about random nitpicky things I can't think to put anywhere else.

Donna tells the fortune-teller "It was on Earth.  This planet called earth...miles away."  I'd say other planets are definitely something you want to keep "miles away" from your own.  If they're any closer than that you're in trouble.  And why assume a person from a planet colonized by Chinese people has no awareness of this "Earth."?

I learned from the credits that Donna's friend who kept staring at her back was named Alice Coltrane, no doubt in honour of the late, great jazz musician.   Too bad they didn't find a way to use some of Coltrane's music in the episode; it would have been better than the pop music Murray Gold scattered throughout much of the ending.

Between the flashbacks and the foreshadowing I think I'm getting motion sickness.

It finished, of course, with that lengthy fan-serving trailer.  I like to think of it as a clip show for next week's episode.

Rose tells Donna that the day she chose to "turn left" was a day she "...wouldn't remeber, it was the most ordinary day in the world."  This seems odd, since the entire premise of the episode hinges on the fact that she remembered it.

Where can I get a ridiculously large "Leeds" stamp?  This entertained me, for some reason...

When parallel Donna first sees the TARDIS she says "What's a police box?"...what...hasn't she ever seen Doctor Who?

Two Left Feet:

It's getting to be a bit of a tradition for us to generate somewhat schizophrenic reviews.  We, apparently, want to have our cake and eat it, too (what else does one do with cake?)  We either heap our love and affection on the episode and then mercilessly eviscerate it, or vice versa. There always seems to be a significant portion of the episode we love dearly (Hi, Catherine Tate!) and a whole lot of bollocks that rubs us the wrong way (Hi, plot, dialogue, rubbish science and Freema Agyeman!)

I blame the writers.

No...I don't mean those of us writing the reviews; we're doing the best with what we have to work with.  I mean the writers of Doctor Who.  And maybe the producers.  And script editors.  Here's the problem...even a hollow, manipulative, heavy-handed slab of fanwankery like Turn Left is simply sodden with brilliantly conceived character moments and It almost makes me think that if RTD were saddled with, say, a good producer and script editor, he'd have the makings of a good writer.

There were tons of little things in the episode deserving of praise.  The dropping of Donna in Sutton Court was, I'm pretty certain, a clever reference to the Doctor's failed attempt to return Sarah Jane to South Croydon.  I also appreciated the observations about the U.K. teetering on the brink of fascism.

Predictably the Donna/Wilf moments were some of the strongest.  Of particular note is the exchange "You're not gonna make the world any better by shouting at it!"/"I can try!" and their thoroughly defeated reaction to seeing the Adipose on television is a wonderful contrast to their enthusiasm about aliens in the "proper" universe.

C'mon.  Do us a favour.

There was effective comedy: Donna's thinking the Titanic crash was a sequel; "Don't tell me...the hospital's back!"; Rose's recognition of the meaninglessness of "it seems to be in a state of flux."

Rose's ambiguous lack-of-response to "Were you and him...?" said more than any answer she could have given.  There were, shockingly, a couple of moments where Jacqueline King's Sylvia almost seemed human. Effective tear-jerking all around.  Even the special sound people have something to redeem themselves: the nuclear shockwave was a brilliant touch.

Why can't you people be more consistent?  C'mon.  Do us a favour.  Throw us a bone, here.  Those nice people over at Torchwood generally have no qualms about serving us a steaming plate of crap umpteen times a year.

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