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June 29, 2008

Saturday Night’s Non-event

Tbc Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth

Three words.  Three simple words to undermine the credibility of the biggest cliffhanger since the show returned.

To.  Be.  Continued.

Good grief, who’s bright idea was that?  Talk about putting the c--- into continued.  What is this, an episode of Live and Kicking?  This was beyond family TV -  with whacky sound effects, it was like something from the worst cheapo kids game show.

And while this might sound like a ridiculous piece of nitpicky ranting that’s recycling an old Screenwipe joke, there’s a reason why I’m starting at the end of the episode.  Namely, that the ridiculously OTT graphic is perfect encapsulation of everything right and wrong about The Stolen Earth.

For The Stolen Earth was preposterous, overblown, loud and in your face.  This was Doctor Who as Michael Bay would make it.

Stolen Earth?  Swollen Earth more like.

Clearly the theme at the tone meeting was epic.  Everyone’s talked about a Crisis on Infinite Earths scale romp but that’d only really have been true if the final scene in Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures’ most recent series had been a cliffhanger leading into The Stolen Earth.

What this feels more like are those god-awful annoying crossover episodes that shows like CSI or ER would do with other programmes on the network.  The ones where the characters crossing over are written by people who don’t normally write for them, who perhaps don’t grasp the nuances or subtleties from the host show, and thus give us a broadbrush caricature that only superficially, if we’re lucky, resembles the characters we know.

This is an episode of Doctor Who with guest stars from established shows that Russell hasn’t written for

In fact, it feels very like that because it’s exactly what Russell T Davies has done here.  This isn’t the Doctor Who multiverse, this is an episode of Doctor Who with guest stars from established shows that Russell hasn’t written for - ever, in Sarah Jane’s case, and for more than two years in Torchwood’s.  So the Ianto, Gwen, Luke and Sarah Jane here aren’t the ones we know and love (or tolerate, in Gwen and Ianto’s case).

This determination to cram in every aspect of the last four years, no matter how desperate, stretches the episode close to breaking point.  Harriet Jones’ appearance makes so little sense dramatically as to be nonsensical, especially the idea that she’s now some superhacker able to unite Dumbledore’s Army... sorry, the companions.  It means having the Daleks attack New York while Martha’s there, as a nod to last year.  It means throwing in references to Klom and Slitheen, to Owen and Tosh's deaths, to Maria and her dad.  It means dragging Dalek Caan out for one last go-round, and throwing in dialogue tributes to just about every episode featuring the dustbins over the last 45 years.

And it means three separate reprises of the sodding ‘Yes, I know who you are’ gag about Harriet in the space of a couple of minutes.  One of which involves the Daleks.  I mean, seriously.  The Daleks - the all-conquering, most fearsome race in the universe, able to move Earth half way across the universe and subjugate its population in hours - are reduced to playing comic stooges.  Frank described it in his review as taking the joke to its logical conclusion but I see it as quite the opposite.  It’s unnecessary, and ineffective in inverse proportion to the way ‘No, don’t do that’ became chilling and tense in Midnight.

Tw Part of this does indeed feel like Russell clearing the decks, getting rid of the last four years worth of loose ends so that the new production teams (plural, to include Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures) inherit a relatively clean slate for 2010.  But it also feels like Russell has got caught up in his own hyperbole.  Every year he sells the season climax as the new biggest threat ever.  Last year we had the Earth enslaved for a year, and a Doctor/Jack/Martha team-up.  This year it’s the whole universe at stake, with pretty much anyone who’s ever appeared on camera getting a look-in.

And eventually something has to give.  It’s not the performances - everyone’s pretty much uniformly great here, even Billie, who’s apparently recovered from her dental work last week, and Freema, who finally reminds us what she can do.  But everywhere else, there’s a sign of creakiness, almost desperation, creeping into the production.  The sets don’t look quite so polished or convincing as usual. 

More than once the CGI looks ropey - and indeed, in one obvious case is a reused shot from The Parting of the Ways.

But mainly it's because of the script, which leaves monstrous credibility gaps.  Why would Sarah abandon her son, if she knows the Daleks can trace the signals and could, potentially, work out where he is?  Why does Jack bugger off from the Hub, knowing the Daleks are on their way, with the only Dalek-killing gun in the complex?  For that matter, why doesn’t he teleport Ianto and Gwen with him - we KNOW the bracelet can teleport three people, because we saw it last year.  In Russell’s script, no less.

Occasionally, you feel Davies should have his creative licence revoked.  He's so desperate to work on the bigger picture here that the fine detailing, what made his work on Doctor Who by and large so notable  has been lost.

I don’t want to suggest that they’re being overambitious, but this is a production team that has worked bloody hard, consistently, for almost four years solid as we come into The Stolen Earth.  And maybe, after all this time, the strain has started to show.

The biggest giveaway that things are stretched just that little bit too thin this time round is the Shadow Proclamation.  For four years we’ve had the Shadow Proclamation name-checked in dramatic, universe-shattering terms.  It’s clearly something to be feared, invoked as it is against the Autons, the Sycorax et al.  But we’ve never known what it is - a treaty?  An organisation of some kind?  A planet?

When we finally get there, after four years of build-up, the Shadow Proclamation turns out to be a branch of Pizza Express run staffed by Judoon and a couple of albino Scottish Widows.  And all the tension and the threat and menace that concept, that warning the name carried... gone.

After four years of build-up, the Shadow Proclamation turns out to be a branch of Pizza Express run staffed by Judoon and a couple of albino Scottish Widows

 

Valiant So this is Doctor Who as BayVision.  It’s big and loud and flashy, and ultimately dumbed down and as hollow as a toilet roll tube.  And it’s sad, really, because there’s lots in there which works.  There’s lots of moments that are wonderful to watch.  The Daleks swooping down and attacking the Valiant is the new series’ version of the Trial of a Time Lord space station FX shot - a breathtaking, dizzyingly gorgeous visual that looks so far ahead of everything else in the show you can’t help but forget for a second that this is just Saturday night telly. 

Rose’s jealousy at Martha?   Spot on - it’s exactly as it should be, and it works so much better when we remember how pissed off Martha got about the constant Rose mentions.  The cliffhanger, kicking the stakes up to furious levels of danger as four main characters face death (of a sort) - wonderful.

And there’s Davros.  Julian Bleach’s performance is wonderful, evoking the clinical genius of Wisher and the deranged villainy of Molloy.  The design is consistent yet fresh, looking like an aged decrepit version of the Great Healer.  The menace Davros carries is perfectly judged - it’s not just the Doctor who sells it, it’s also Sarah Jane, which gives that connection back to the first time we met him.

But there’s little to hang it on.  The pacing’s all over the place.  Harper’s direction is good - he’s been here before, of course, so this sort of stuff he can do in his sleep, really - but there’s too much going on.  The production team are trying to pour a pint and a half in a pint glass, while jogging.  Stuff’s sloshing about everywhere, it’s seeping out the sides and being left in a messy trail behind so that, crucially, once the job’s finished there’s still a lot to be unaccounted for, and there’s far less left than we started with.

Now, I’ll be charitable and fair.  About time too, I hear the squeeing fangasmers reading say to themselves.  This is only the first part of a two-parter, or the second of a three-parter depending on how you count, and so much of it is set-up for next week.  There’s still many loose ends to be resolved, not least the matter of a certain regeneration.  It could turn out that the hour-long finale is a work of genius, and the most audacious piece of TV broadcast in decades.

Until then... don’t you think they look tired?

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