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June 29, 2008

Don't Believe The Skype

Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth

Stolen Poor old Wilf. All he wants to do is join in the nearly 14 billion conversations that were made by 12 million users of Skype by the end of last year but Sylvia wouldn't let him even have a web cam as he innocently quips, 'she said they're naughty.' I suppose in a way they are but if it means Harriet Jones can pull together all the conversations that matter in the world then, bugger it, Wilf should have a bit of naughty even if it is to allow Rose an 'I just called to say I love you' moment

The Stolen Earth is another chapter in Russell T Davies' ongoing fascination with forms of mass communication.  Here, he's utterly beguiled by sensory communication using telephony, text messaging, video conferencing and social networking and how shared interpretations affect storytelling styles and propel the narrative. There is a sense here of a society's huge engagement with media products and its capacity to intervene in and contribute to the course and content of the communicative process. Our heroes are participants in a structured process of symbolic transmission where constraints such as time and space are reordered and eliminated. Hence, we have all the major characters talking on phones and via the internet with that hugely symbolic moment of mass messaging the Doctor's mobile just simply to get him away from the rather dull sub-plot with the Shadow Proclamation and bring him back into the action. At one point, I thought Davies might even be so cheeky as to ask the millions watching to 'vote' and choose their own, or any, plot. Because, let's face it, there wasn't really one much in evidence here.

It's the skilled art of taking information transfer and adding on a whole set of sensuous economics to provide a strung together series of character presences and big action moments and making them work just by themselves. There's a huge amount of crowd pleasing, and fan pleasing, moments in The Stolen Earth and they're used, in the absence of plot, to get us to the apex of revelation. That cliffhanger. Those of us 'in the know' were aware of what the cliffhanger would entail but even so it was an enormously grand, epic and funny ride to get to that closing scream of the theme and the rolling credits. Having said that, most of the audience will have read their papers or been on the internet and are perfectly aware that David Tennant will be in the Christmas Special and thus, the cliffhanger is a bit of bluff on the production team's side and the question we're all asking now is how does the Tenth Doctor get to remain as the Tenth Doctor despite that oncoming regeneration? It's a deliciously manufactured tension.

...a typical piece of Davies flippancy and knowingness that relieves the very palpable tension but also suggests that Davies himself has been at the furniture polish...

So as the episode strings together the Super Friends of the Doctor (the 'children of time') we also get to see Davies indulging in another of his favourite storytelling devices - the comic book. The power of comic books, scene-to-scene, to take great leaps in time or space is immediately evident in those typewritten captions 'Far Across The Universe' 'New York' 'Cardiff' that close off and reopen narrative in rapid succession. There are the illogical non-sequiturs of comic books that produce a weird alchemy in the viewers minds in even the most jarring of combinations.  So we get Richard Dawkins popping up with a bit of pseudo science juxtaposed with Paul O'Grady being watched by Ianto in the Torchwood Hub in a typical piece of Davies flippancy and knowingness that relieves the very palpable tension but also suggests that Davies himself has been at the furniture polish whilst writing this script. He emulates the comic book team ups and the grand narratives of stuff like DC's Crisis On Infinite Earths. The twelve part comic book series dating back to 1985 was not just an exercise in bringing together their stock range of superheroes in one gigantic meta-narrative but it was also an attempt to tidy up a 55 year long continuity. I do get the sense that this is also Davies clearing his desk and having a go at wrapping up narratives whilst also giddily chucking lots of references out to the audience. And he does it with the customary recycling of many of his more familiar narrative tropes that work in both subtle and crass ways. It's his Greatest Hits compilation CD and this phenomenon of observing the parts and perceiving the whole has a name. It's called closure. And this sense of sprawling comic book sagas and Greatest Hits compilations are a closure of sorts on Davies' reign.

The Doctor's a bit busy having shouting matches with a woman in a hairnet - the Ena Sharples of the Shadow Proclamation - in order to find his way back into the centre of the narrative.

OK. French critical theory time. It's a bit of a tradition. Don't sigh. When Harriet Jones emerges from the ether via an untraceable sub-wave signal and starts to gather together the 'children of time' I think we get a sense of an alternate Shadow Proclamation being formed. It's a strange little emergency government - and yes, that 'Harriet Jones - Former Prime Minister' joke is taken to its logical conclusion here - and Michel Foucault noted that the science of government developed out of an earlier conception of economy as the art of managing family and household. Harriet gathers together the 'family' of the series, past and present, and grapples with ' how to introduce economy - the correct manner of managing individuals, goods, wealth within the family and of making the family fortunes prosper - how to introduce this meticulous attention of the father towards his family into the management of the state'. For Foucault, governmentality thus comes to depend upon the family and household more as an instrument of government than as a model for government. The trick here is that as the family comes together to form an ad-hoc government it's being done in the absence of the Doctor. The Doctor's a bit busy having shouting matches with a woman in a hairnet - the Ena Sharples of the Shadow Proclamation - in order to find his way back into the centre of the narrative. And he does that with a virtual, Skype powered community and ensemble mythology. The business of fathers and their relationship to their children is also an underlying theme too with Davros and the Doctor as symbolic opposites where the Daleks represent a physical, non-humanoid extension of their creator and the ensemble companions embody the extension of the humanistic ideals of the Doctor.

It's great that Harriet's redemption is addressed and she doesn't capitulate on her original decision to shoot down the Sycorax ship whilst standing in the path of Dalek extermination.

The script keeps the Doctor pretty much out of the way, trying to solve the mystery of where the earth has gone and finally working out the real reason for the disappearing bees, until the closing act and for that massive cliffhanger bluff. Giving everyone screen time is problematic here but only because we're seeing part one of a two part narrative. So the roles that Sarah and Martha will play isn't yet clear and unfortunately they are are slightly short-changed here. I don't really know how effective it was to bring the worlds of Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures crashing into this but somehow the script copes with it all and manages to leapfrog between all out action, comedy and tragedy with all the characters. It's great that Harriet's redemption is addressed and she doesn't capitulate on her original decision to shoot down the Sycorax ship whilst standing in the path of Dalek extermination. As one moment in a succession of great moments, it makes up for the missing plot and The Stolen Earth is, in the end, closure on a huge, giddy, entertaining scale. A fairground ride with so many cool, de rigeur rides that in the end you do feel a little nauseous.

Julian Bleach superbly channeling Michael Wisher, Briggs camping up as the utterly loopy Caan, the massed ranks of Daleks, the Dalek Supreme, the Independence Day style visuals are the massive wheels moving this juggernaut but there is still room for the wonderful laugh out loud scenes with Wilf paintballing a Dalek, Sarah telling Mr. Smith to pack in the fanfares and tons and tons of continuity references - everything from the Medusa Cascade, mentions to Donna that there had been "something on her back", Mr. Copper, the airborne aircraft carrier Valiant, the Defabricator gun, and the crossovers with the other series with mentions of Sarah Jane's encounter with the Slitheen, the deaths of Torchwood personnel Toshiko Sato and Owen Harper. Excuse me whilst I have, what is commonly referred to as, a fangasm. Phew.

Get through all that with your nerves in shreds and you've still got the question of that regeneration, the weird drumming sound as Donna stares into space and the exact nature of Davros' plan to look forward to. Russell has emphatically cleared his desk and by sheer dint of his personality has had the balls to get away with this epic. It might not stand up to repeat viewings but as a 'watching it live' experience you couldn't help but get carried away by the sheer gobsmacking giddiness of it all.

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