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June 01, 2008

Darkness Falls

Doctor Who: Silence in the Library

Darkness Blimey.  Last week’s strategic announcement that the writer of this episode Stephen Moffat would be taking over the stewardship of the franchise was perfectly timed to keep the series in the public mindscape during the Eurovision stink and add to our expectations for his next story.  All eyes would be on this opening episode, perhaps with some viewers not wanting to watch the dancers, acrobats and jugglers on the other side tuning in to see how good a writer this new producer is.  It’s a disappointment to report then that at just the moment when the franchise had to produce one of its best stories ever we were presented with Moffat’s worst script, a cloggy, poorly written disappointing dirge that all seemed to take place in the same room, lacked mystery or excitement and frankly if any of his writing for the fifth series is this bad then there’s unlikely to be a sixth.

David Tennant in particular was at his most expressively annoying, Catherine Tate undid all of the depth she’s brought to her character in the past seven weeks, Alex Kingston brought in a career worst performance, Steve Pemberton reran all of his old League of Gentleman ticks, Euros Lynn showed that he'd lost his touch and couldn’t direct traffic let alone television these days, the crashy  version of Murray Gold returned and just layered sound all over the visuals in a desperate attempt to have them make sense and The Mill brought some unintelligable excesses proving the point made before the revival was a glimmer which said it’s logic would be ruined by special effects.

It's a Doctor Who episode set in a library.  Yawn.

Yes, this episode was rubbish and I’m not sure what else I can say.  Except that it clearly wasn’t.  Everything written in the first two paragraphs is a lie and I just wanted to see what I felt like to write a thrashing review of a Steven Moffat episode because the man’s a genius who can’t do wrong (expect fake pull quotes).  From the opening teaser in which we were introduced to a mysterious girl in a bedroom rather than the formulaic Tardis dematerialisation onwards it simply feels like a different series, like Douglas Adams pitching up and writing an episode for Season 24 with Bob Holmes as his script editor, a wholly new, expressive way of presenting the status quo.  At heart, the Silence in the Library was a fairly classic base under siege story but trust Moffat to set it within a library the size of a planet, literally with a kind of hush all over the world (with thanks to Karen and Richard). 

In a perfect bit of timing, the script was also doing many of the things which are anathema in Davies written and rewritten version of the franchise, perhaps reflecting the future.  The one character who’d clearly survive a Russell T Davies script, the cute, cuddly, likeably dim one with the low self esteem is killed first and then (like Astrid) when she lingers on its to a certain death not to live on as stardust (sigh).  Presumably because in this episode, the stardust will kill you.  The aliens of the piece are mute, and live in many shadows which means that no one is safe (although expect them to be living in the cracks in the pavement in the next series), especially those of us on Earth since they’re living here too.   I've already seen criticism of the Doctor immediately knowing and telling us who the enemy is, but Daleks In Manhattan demonstrates what an first episode looks like with the timelord spending most of the duration discovering who the enemy is and its not fun.  Moffat wants us to be scared of the shadows as soon as possible and he wouldn't get that if the Doctor was spending most of his time testing everything.

It just wasn't funny.  Where was the Moffat of the screwdriver envy, the horse, Nightingale and Sparrow?

On top of that to runs a parallel, dayglo story about a little girl, which though echoing The Matrix, the Buffy episode Normal Again, the odd episode of Star Trek, and probably a bunch of stuff I'm too tired to remember it feels fresh because it just doesn’t fit with anything else and is so unexpected.  The Girl (who like Marwood in Withnail and I lacks for a name unless like Marwood in Withnail and I it’s in the script and/or will be revealed next week) and the Morbeus-a-like Dr Moon and the reality they are living is just one of the mysteries set to explode next week (or whatever). 

Doctor Who Confidential rather stole my thunder on this, but Moffat understands more than most that in information rich, media intensive, Prozac scoffing times, a ‘How do they get out of that?’ type cliffhanger simply isn’t enough to hook the audience in to watch the following week because we know he will.  There have to be greater mysteries at hand and here the writer includes a raft full.  How did those travellers land in the library and what does the symbolically surnamed Strackman Lux want with the place?  And just who is Professor River Song, a question which is bound to fill up the discussion on a fair few blogs and discussion boards in the next week until some ming-mong who knows more than we do gives it away and spoils it.

We’ll probably find out next week just how good Alex Kingston’s performance is but so far I’d say it’s one of the best of the series simply because in this dvd/iplayer/illegal download world when such stories will be watched in one block in this first half she simply couldn’t give too much away, but just enough that in the next episode everything matches up.  Hopefully.  To offer some random speculation, she’s either (just) a companion from the Doctor’s future, Bernice Summerfield made flesh and giving a false name for some reason, adult Jenny or my favourite, since some timelords apparently survived the suck, would be Romana or the Rani or another timelady with a name beginning with R.  As I said in the previous paragraph, we didn’t see how she arrived at the planet (there was talk of a ship but that could mean anything) so she could have her own Tardis too.  Much of her text was redolent of Lalla’s Romana but if Moffat’s being devilish it could simply be that Rani’s either turned over a new leaf or pretending to.  The diary (or merchandising opportunity) could just as well be his as hers for all he and we know.

Catherine Tate's back to not being bovvered.  Fail.

Until one or two of them became stiffs, none of rest of the cast were, well, stiffs either.  To an extent, Moffat underwrites these characters and only provides enough information about them for us to have an idea of what they’re like.  He understands that with a limited screen time there’s probably little point in building up the part of someone whose going to die horribly and quickly.  When I was in call centres there were always multiple Daves and they would be called things like old Dave, new Dave, blonde Dave or probably Dave Dave (because he was the Daviest) – that’s a very real bit of scripting and the explanation was played with sitcom brilliance by O.T. Fagbenle channelling someone from The Office or The IT Crowd, but none of them stunk the place up and like the Briggsian ensemble which turned up on The Impossible Planet and 42 seemed like a group which had been travelling together for some time rather than having just met at the read-through.

I appreciate that with the exception of the shocking opening couple of paragraphs this has been a rather bland set of plaudits masquerading as a review but I do tend to get very wigged out when Moffat’s episode’s scroll around.  I didn’t even bother to write about The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace merited but two paragraphs, and my reaction to Blink was deliberately more of a personal journey than anything else.  So if I note that David was flawless, Cathy was clever, Euros took full advantage of the massive interiors at his disposal and The Mill produced some of the best landscape special effects yet seen in the series it’s simply because I wish the show was this straight down the line entertaining and clever and everything I’d want to be, all of the time.  When the only thing you can find to criticise is that the location used is going to be demolished or turned into flats and we need to start a campaign to save it and have it turned back into a library if only so that there’s somewhere for tourists to go, it means my critical faculties have failed.  Now back to thrashing mode for people who only read the first two paragraphs, the pull quotes and the final paragraph.  That'll learn them.

This was so bad it made The Long Game look like the work of Dennis Potter.

What now then for the future of Doctor Who.  For all we know, next week’s episode might be a work of genius and Moffat might have saved all of his imagination for his second script.  But I’ve the desperate feeling that the cliffhanger’s going to be resolved in seconds and once again we’ll have to sit through another forty-five minutes of boredom, distracted only now and then by the colour of the décor in the alternate reality which looks like it was saved from the skip of an old Big Brother house.  Moffat needs to get away from employing so many clichés and return to the good honest scares of gas masks and statues and the depthful characterisation of a Sally Sparrow.  Otherwise 2009 is going to be a very long wait to see how quickly the show is decommissioned and he'll be asked to return his Hugos and Baftas.

Next Week:  More of the same presumably.

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