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June 05, 2008

Nobody in the Library

Lib1 Doctor Who: Silence in the Library

I didn’t know whether or not to feel sorry for Steven Moffat going into Silence in the Library

Three series of rightly lauded, enuresis-inducing stories had ramped his reputation up to Bob Holmes levels.  When even critics of the stature of Charlie Brooker are praising Blink as “simultaneously the best piece of sci-fi AND horror the BBC has produced in a decade”, you start to worry if he can live up to the hype. 

And then came the big announcement.

So suddenly Silence in the Library takes on new, unprecedented levels of importance.  This is his template, the chattering classes murmur.  This is what we can expect from his forthcoming tenure as producer.  This is what Doctor Who will be for years to come.

Throwaway lines come under greater scrutiny than BBC taxi receipts

Whether it is, or it isn’t, is academic.  We won’t really know what Steven Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who will ultimately turn out to be like for another couple of years yet, and we’ve a quarter of a season plus all next year’s specials to get through before then.  So let’s not put Silence in the Library under any more of a microscope than normal.

But, that said... the thing is with Moffat’s scripts that their reputation proceeds them now.  Throwaway lines come under greater scrutiny than BBC taxi receipts.  You can’t help but see things in the shadows, as it were, where there may not be anything. 

That said, I can’t help but think that having a main character called Mr Lux, who’s family founded a library currently plagued by darkness, is just asking for trouble.  It puts me in mind of the old gag about Charles Dickens’ Cluedo.  “I think it was Professor Plum in the Library with the lead pipe, in the library, with the lead pipe.”

Anyway, lame gags aside, I loved this.  This is what Doctor Who does best.  Creepy, quirky, funny, charming and occasionally downright terrifying.   

It turns out the Holmes comparison was on the money after all, because Moffat’s approach to Who has been very much like his predecessor - take horror/sci-fi clichés, give them a slightly quirky twist, ramp up the fear factor as much as is acceptable in a family viewing slot, then let them loose.  We’ve had healers that take things too literally - to the point of death, monsters living under the bed, statues that hunt and kill, and now something deadly living in the dark.

Oh, and space piranhas.  Which makes it all the more incredible that he can get away with this.

But from this borderline genius/ludicrous premise came one of the most chilling, charming and downright Doctor Who-ish scripts the new series ever produced.

There’s something with Tennant where he clicks with 40-something redheads - sorry Kylie

And even better, the two leads were genuinely brilliant in this.  And by two leads, I mean David Tennant and Alex Kingston.  We don’t yet know what the significance of River Song’s relationship with the Doctor is, but what we do know is that Kingston and Tennant have a fantastic on-screen chemistry with each other.  Obviously there’s something with Tennant where he clicks with 40-something redheads.

Sorry Kylie.

In fact, this was Tennant’s best turn as the Doctor, for me.  A hugely restrained yet energetic performance that was Doctorish without being a cliché.  Much as with the Sontaran two-parter, this seemed a distillation of the best bits of the Doctor, where the clowning around is a cover for unease, menace and hidden danger as in the best moments of Troughton and Baker T.

And let’s not forget Catherine Tate.  By and large sidelined in this action-wise, she got the proper emotive stuff to do and carried it off with aplomb.  The sense of gutwrenching horror and disgust as Donna tries to reassure the dead PA’s dataghost, underplayed perfectly, was as powerful a moment as anything in the show’s current run.  She’s still rubbish at screaming, but otherwise Tate’s ticking all the boxes as a proper, classic companion, and who’d ever have thought that a year ago?

Lib2 The guest cast were all superb too, if slightly undeserved so far - although, distractingly, Other Dave looks disturbingly like Carlito from the WWE.  And that’s not cool.

And visually, it was gorgeous.  Absolutely gorgeous.  All the stuff in the library, thanks to the location shoot... just sumptuous.  With the best will in the world to set designers and construction teams, there’s no substitute - especially on Doctor Who’s budget - for a real life location that looks just so perfect as the Library did.  Meanwhile the CG shots of the planet were breathtaking.  The one thing, more than anything else, the Mill have got right since the start of the new series is being able to create wonderful rip-offs of Coruscant.

Meanwhile the side-plot stuff, with Doctor Moon and the little girl, seemingly in a normal little suburban world (although wonderfully, a normal little suburban world with a Robbie the Robot on the telephone table) is as intriguing as it is baffling.  Moffat and the directors have left just enough clues to make you think you know what’s going on, without actually being sure.

I was wracking my brains, writing this, trying to think of criticisms of the episode.  And eventually I had to stop.  Not because I couldn’t think of any - there’s loads.  The dialogue’s occasionally too knowing.  Donna’s too sidelined.  The archaeologist team just too clichéd.  The folders on the book shelves just too obviously folders.  That sodding psychic paper again.  Slightly dodgy compositing on the Nodes’ face.  There’s dozens of niggles when you stop and analyse it too much

No, the reason I stopped trying to think of criticism is that it felt like I was looking for criticism.  It felt like I was trying to balance out the love that this episode left me feeling, to be a cynical snarky fanboy.  Which I am, don’t get me wrong. 

But much as I knew I should have loved The Wasp and the Unicorn, but couldn’t, there were things here that should have stopped me loving Silence in the Library but didn’t.

Of course, this Saturday that's subject to change.  The last two parter started brightly, with an almost retro feeling of quality, then in episode two went off a cliff and never stopped falling.  But until then, the future’s bright...

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