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June 01, 2008

Cooking The Books

Doctor Who: Silence In The Library

Lib1 'C'mon, give me the remote. There's a dancing dog on the other side and it's got to be better than this shit set in a library.' One would be forgiven to think that this might well be the reaction in quite a number of households up and down the land tonight during the transmission of Silence In The Library. It's a terribly brave thing to face off against Cowell's vacuous freak show any night of the week but trust Doctor Who to decide to be at its most atypical when most people aren't looking.

Moffat gets out his clipboard and once again runs through his checklist. Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff - check, recognisable everyday fear or phobia - check, catchphrases - check, fan-baiting - check, and technology running amok - and, check. You could almost accuse him of being a one trick pony...well, a five trick pony to be specific...but he does this stuff so well that you tend to allow him some room to manoeuvre. Such is the case here. For the first ten minutes you simply have the Doctor and Donna wandering around a deserted library, slowly teasing out the narrative. It looks spectacular, atmospheric and odd but moves at a snail's pace. Once the expedition arrives, things do perk up a bit but again there are quite a number of scenes where all the characters are simply standing in the middle of the library...erm...chatting, arguing, debating with each other. All adequately performed, complete with superb production values and a slowly building tension. Slowly. And then the narrative is stopped stone cold dead for a long sequence in which the rest of the characters watch the death throes of Miss Evangelista. It's just not on. Those other writers and directors fairly rattle through 45 minutes with lots of short scenes punctuated by explosions, with cameras often doing a St. Vitus dance and the Murray Gold dial turned up to maximum plus. Not this week. Not by a long chalk. They'll be switching over in droves to Britain's Got Bugger All Talent when in fact all the real talent is busting its balls on Doctor Who.

And if you didn't turn over? You can count on Moffat to riff on a number of proper science fiction ideas, everything from Jorges Luis Borges story The Library Of Babel, where a vast library contains all of the secrets of the universe, to Vonda McIntyre's Starfarers which takes the internet beyond computer access to symbiosis with the human brain where data storage and human memory allow experiences to be recorded and reshaped as a form of living art.  I suspect Moffat's thesis here is to argue that the human brain is like a library or a computer memory where information is organised into some accessible form. The first library was the human brain and still is the source of information we rely on the most, but it's got a fair amount of flaws: variable capacity, potential memory loss or alteration, and access issues. Mix into that ideas about books telling the stories of lives lived, hence the Doctor's comment on biographies being his favourite, and the idea that the Doctor's future is written down in a book that he isn't allowed to see. Everyone can be turned into information that can be 'saved' but data can be corrupted and infected so that consciousness and reality can often become nightmares, as Dr. Moon so eloquently, and frighteningly, explains to the girl. Technology gone awry is something of a motif in Moffat's scripts and the ideas expressed so far, including data ghosts and nodes with living/dead faces, seem to chime with the misdirected nanogenes of The Empty Child and the self-repair droids of The Girl In The Fireplace.

Moffat makes no concessions and sets out to tell his story in such an idiosyncratic way that it sometimes bashes up against the televisuality that Euros Lyn lavishly applies to it.

There are problems with the pacing early on, despite Euros Lyn's lyrical direction, and the slowness, whilst building the story in a magical, atmospheric way, as the Doctor and Donna enter the labyrinth of the library, is perhaps taking too far the episode's determination to entirely misdirect its audience. The pre-titles sequence of the girl and Dr. Moon is intriguing and later cleverly loops back into the main narrative after the Doctor's initial arrival in the library and the episode keeps switching back to these scenes, suggesting that the bits in the library are happening in the girl's head. This meshing between the human brain and technology is further compounded when the Doctor establishes a link through a security camera and, later, the television set, to talk to her. Moffat makes no concessions and sets out to tell his story in such an idiosyncratic way that it sometimes bashes up against the televisuality that Euros Lyn lavishly applies to it. For most of the episode they are working hand in hand but just occasionally there are too many static scenes and no amount of visual flair can force life into them. The core of the episode is most certainly the death of Miss Evangelista. It is rather heavily signposted that she's the air head who will get bumped off and then make everyone feel guilty for them being so rotten to her but it is an astonishingly powerful scene, brilliantly played and again highlighting Catherine Tate's acting chops. It's heartbreaking as Donna tries desperately to deal with the "Data Ghosting", where a copy of Evangelista's conscience cries out temporarily from the suit's communication device. Tate does get slightly sidelined in the rest of the episode simply because Alex Kingston arrives as River Song and blousily charms her way through the episode, particularly evident in her lively chemistry with Tennant. And watch that great scene between her and Tate when Donna asks about her future because it's a masterclass in the 'less is more' school of television acting.

I'm not sure if the resulting zombie skeleton in the space suit does work, coming across as a bit of pulp 'Monster Of The Week' nonsense

The other risk here is in trying to make shadows that eat flesh translate into the truly scary concept, for a child, of not being able to sleep with the lights off. It only gets a genuine pay-off when Proper Dave gets gobbled by the microscopic Vashta Nerada and the Doctor spots his double shadow on the floor. Again, it's a scene with a genuine frisson to it that just about manages to get the concept over well enough. It isn't quite as potent as Weeping Angels and kids wearing gas masks but it works. I'm not sure if the resulting zombie skeleton in the space suit does work, coming across as a bit of pulp 'Monster Of The Week' nonsense amidst the dream-like, surreal and esoteric quality of much of the episode. The triple whammy of the cliffhanger not only develops out of the lurking skeleton and the closing shadows but also from the far more chilling fate that befalls Donna. She's teleported to the TARDIS but it goes horribly wrong and her blood curdling scream as she 'dies' is one more powerful moment to savour. Lyn does rather over-egg the pudding though and dwells for far too long on the Node, now with Donna's face, constantly intoning one of the episode's many catch-phrases, " Donna Noble has left the library; Donna Noble has been saved". Frankly, it got a bit annoying.

It's also Murray Gold's best score in ages and he goes for a very appropriately subtle palette of sounds here, including a rhythmic piece that echoes some of the tonalities of Martin Slavin's 'Space Adventure' stock music from The Tenth Planet. And did my ears deceive me but did some of the crescendos sound very similar to those by Michael Giacchino in his scores for Lost?  He balances the music in much the same way that Euros Lyn manages to provide more than enough space to air Moffat's weirder ideas and concepts.

Overall then, it isn't as immediately striking or likeable as Blink or The Girl In The Fireplace and it's the sum of the glorious parts that just about make it work. It is too slow to begin with and some of the expedition crew are slightly lazy caricatures that flatten out the drama when it cries out to be allowed to hitch up its skirts and get running but then it seems a bit churlish when this is so leftfield compared to the majority of the episodes this season by virtue of the ideas Moffat is toying with. Difficult to grasp how all this fits together just by the first part alone, which is another thing in its favour, and I eagerly await the conclusion and hopefully Moffat's cleverness at arranging the layers of the narrative to provide a satisfying pay-off.

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