Gah. This coming home from work exhaustedly at four in the morning and then stupidly deciding to get a couple hours of sleep before I finish my review thing isn't working. I keep, you know, sleeping. The tornado-klaxons are probably warning me that I probably shouldn't be on my computer for reasons of inclement weather, but I have to hurry if I want to get this review finished before Stuart posts his review of the next episode (and I have to go back to work this evening anyway). Unfortunately it'll still probably be late enough to annoy that one guy who was annoyed last week. One of these weeks my schedule will quiet down and I'll be able to finish it during one of my theoretical "days off" in the midweek.
Doctor Who: Silence in the Library
From the moment in the pre-Eurovision trailer when the Doctor intones "Almost every species has an irrational fear of the dark...but they're wrong. It's not irrational." (a "shadow proclamation", if you will...), I was hooked. I have to hand it to Moffat (again)...the Vashta Nerada were sort of brilliant, especially the idea that they're already everywhere, including the earth, flitting about merrily in our sunbeams. The demonstration with the box-lunch made me particularly happy. The whole concept of the deadly flesh-melting plague lurking in the darkness creates an ominous sense of dread far more effectively than the Daleks have since at least "Dalek" and than the Cybermen probably ever have. The "Not every shadow...but any shadow!" ought to have the children spooked for months to come.
I can only assume it was a century-long orgy of cannibalism.
Not that there aren't plenty of unanswered questions that crop up: What did they eat in the intervening 100 years since the Library's been empty? I'm guessing they haven't gone vegetarian. I can only assume it was a century-long orgy of cannibalism.
They seem to have some level of intelligence, for a swarm of wee piranhas. If they've had a hundred years to turn the lights off...why did they leave them on? And, for that matter, why, prey tell, do they turn them off in order, starting with those farthest from the Doctor and Donna? Is it just for dramatic effect? Or do they just want to be sporting?
If light slows them down so much, why can they eat someone if they form an extra "shadow"? What are the mechanics of this?
Okay, so as a species there are a few not-perfect, unexplainey things about them, but that's okay with me. As a threat, they're bloody excellent. And, for all their theoretical implausibilities, at least they aren't carrying their brains around in their bloody hand.
Who's Afraid of the Dark?
Once again, Moffat has decided that the loyal viewers deserve to have the living shit scared out of them, and for the most part The Silence in the Library is bang on. A number of elements work in concert to help create the appropriate state-of-mind, from the leisurely tension-building pace to the claustrophobic atmosphere (in a planet-sized library!)
Aside from the thoroughly effective wee beasties, a lot of what makes The Silence In the Library work is the setting. I'm not talking so much about concept of a planet-sized library (which I also think is brilliant) or The Mill's flashy spectacle of design (which is spectacular), but about the rooms in the library. There's just something about the musty old rooms, the vast shadow-filled spaces, the sunbeams, the tall narrow stacks of books...maybe there's just something naturally creepy about libraries, but the location shooting on the episode is one of the best things about a mostly-excellent whole.
...screaming in sonic-screwdriver-induced pain (I know what that's like)...
If I hadn't already been hooked by that line from the trailer and the words "Stephen" and "Moffat" being attached to The Silence In The Library, I would have been by the pre-credits sequence. Yet another one of the brilliant things about the episode is the parallel between the scenes set in the library and those with The Girl. The danger faced by the people in the Library stands in stark contrast to the seeming domestic bliss of Eve Newton and her crayons watching cartoons. While The Girl is screaming in sonic-screwdriver-induced pain (I know what that's like), the Doctor and Donna have a pleasant little conversation about her "nice door skills." Newton even delivers a quite respectable performance...and exceedingly rare and wondrous thing in a world that produced Problem Child 2.
The "ghosting" is one of the more dramatically-effective tech-support problems I've ever seen, both when we first encounter it and at the end as Proper Dave stalks the rest of the party. It's just as horrible as Donna says it is.
Even Tennant's more-fearful-than-usual performance keeps things where they should be. Imagine if he were gurning about the entire episode with a big grin on his face. Not chilling at all. Well, at least not in the same way. Lines like "If you understand me look very, very scared.", while quite funny, he even manages to carry off with considerably disturbing aplomb. This is certainly one of Tennant's best performances, and much better than the over-emoted drivel we got at the end of The Doctor's Daughter, and a less pummeling score by Murray Gold certainly doesn't hurt matters.
Not quite everything about Silence in the Library comes together like a clockwork android in its inexhorable march toward scaring the bejeebus out of us. The most significant stumbling block: the slack-jawed Miss Evangelista. I probably can't blame Talulah Riley for the problems with Stackman Lux's "personal everything", as the role was far more caricature than character. The idea that she is literally so stupid she can't tell the bathroom from the escape pod (twice!) is just absurd, and hearkens back to the sort of broadly low comic portrayal ("Can't find germany on a map!") that loused up The Runaway Bride. Her stupidity is compounded by shallowness "They think I'm stupid because I'm pretty!" Did she really just say that? At least her stay was brief; I for one was relieved when she wandered vacantly off to her doom.
Absurdity is a fine thing sometimes. Honest. I'm a big fan of absurdity. Unfortunately, the absurdity of Miss Evangelista (and of the scene where the team is being attacked by flying books accompanied by music that seems like something out of a wackier moment in some Harry Potter movie) was somewhat incongruous with the atmosphere that every single item in the remainder of the episode was working to create. Think of the amount of actual dread/horror/fear you felt watching, say, any episode of Red Dwarf, or reading books by Douglas Adams. Were you genuinely scared when Agrajag cornered Arthur Dent in that-place-where-Agrajag-cornered-Arthur-Dent? (It's been a long time...I think they were in a mountain or something.) I wasn't. Absurdity is the sort of thing that may also affect our ability to take anything in those abominable Star Wars prequels with any shred of seriousness...though that's probably actually more attributable to preposterousness. Artists who can manage to combine absurdity with actual chills are few and far between (Hello, Jan Svankmajer!)
That isn't to say there isn't room for levity in an episode such as this. The bit where Donna and the Doctor shred the bullshit intellectual-property contract without missing a beat was handled brilliantly, though I have to wonder how the Beeb feels about that. The Other Dave vs. Proper Dave thing. Time travelers pointing and laughing at archaeologists. Donna's bypassing of the Sonic Screwdriver to get through wooden doors. All quite clever. It's just a problem when something is so ridiculous that it taxes my ability to suspend my disbelief (like, say, nearly everything in The Last of the Time Lords) that it gets in the way of the mood, and in an episode like Silence In The Library, the mood is everything.
Nobody Node The Troubles I've Seen
If there's one other element of the story that didn't agree with me, it's those goddamned "courtesy nodes". You have to wonder what sort of future design specialist would decide to model their information terminals after some sort of safety silverware for the handicapped. Come to think of it, you also have to wonder what sort of production designer on a 2008 BBC science fiction programme would think that's a good idea. While I can't wait for my local public library to obtain "extensive flesh banks", I have difficulty thinking that even Russell-T.-Davies years into the future most library patrons wouldn't be creeped out by a real dead-person's face spouting "the restrooms are on your left" in a flat monotone.
...if you don't mind shutting up for a a bit, I've got a shuffling space zombie after me, and its repeated meme is decidedly more threatening.
As if the concept of a fleshy human face on some sort of ergonomic, space-age feminine hygiene product isn't enough of a questionably annoying design choice, the courtesy nodes are apparently also designed to be verbally annoying. Sure, the decency filters editing the messages of abject fear for tone and content was kind of enjoyable, but do they have to repeat everything ad bloody nauseum? "Donna Noble has left the Library. Donna Noble has been saved. Donna Noble has left the Library. Donna Noble has been saved. Donna Noble has left the Library. Donna Noble has been saved." Yes, yes...got it already! Now if you don't mind shutting up for a bit, I've a shuffling space zombie after me, and its repeated meme is decidedly more threatening.
For once I have to forgo my usual four or so paragraphs about how amazingly brilliant Catherine Tate's performance was as Donna. This isn't because she wasn't wonderful (she was), but because she was sort of sidelined through most of the episode, at least in part by a similarly brilliant Alex Kingston. I'm worried that this will be compounded in the next episode, since once Donna was digitized all we get is her face on a kiosk chanting a mantra. I can only assume that she's currently battling the sinister Master Control Program in a series of crudely animated live-action video games.
Unfortunately, we also get another bit of vague, ominous foreshadowing that seems to indicate an imminent bad end for my favourite Doctor Who character. This would be a bad thing, as Donna Noble should "travel with that man forever." I'm hoping this is all just an elaborate red herring (and no, I don't mean one of the Hath). I'm tired of the revolving door.
Heather Has Two Shadows
Probably the peak of the tension comes, appropriately, as we approach the cliffhanger, with Proper Dave suffering from a particularly bad case of consumption. Proper Dave's fate is particularly well executed, with the "who turned off the lights", the reveal of Dave in blackface (I wonder if Other Dave found this offensive?), and the chilling "I'm fine. I'm okay. I'm...I'm fine.", and then Zombie Dave is off after the rest of them with some fine shuffling action. The following bit with the running (love the running!) is the one part of the episode where I think the pacing is a bit off; everyone seems like they're shuffling. I'm sure real spacesuits aren't exactly designed for running in, but this is one of the points in the episode where perhaps the leisurely pace should have been dispensed with.
...Properly Digested Dave...
I can't help but think the cliffhanger may have worked better just after Properly Digested Dave starts after them, or perhaps when Colin Salmon tells Eve Newton that the real world is a lie and "Only you can save them. Only you." The actual version seems a little drawn out as they crowbar the "saving of Donna" section into it. Nonetheless, it sets up a whole raft of tantalizing ambiguities that I'm hoping Forest of the Dead manages to deliver on: What's the deal with Professor Song? What's the deal with The Girl? What about that dead guy? How will Donna get out of the extensive flesh bank? Why haven't the V.N. eaten the extensive flesh bank already? They made me wait agonizingly all week for this...it better be as good as the first part.