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July 03, 2008

I lost heart with a Starship Trooper

Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth

DrandsjI don’t really like science fiction. That might sound like an odd thing for a lifelong Doctor Who obsessive – not to mention a writer for, duh, SFX magazine – to say, but it’s true. Sort of. What I mean is I’m actively turned off by so many of the staple trappings of sci-fi – spaceships, laser guns, big fuck-off battle scenes – I wonder if I oughtn’t find a better word for the bits I do like.

When I consider the kind of stuff that is – whether it’s the claustrophobic terror of Sapphire and Steel, the warped psychodrama of Twin Peaks or the whip-smart wit of Buffy – I’d say it roughly breaks down as “reality with a twist” - which is why you’ll find no bleating about a lack of alien planets from me.  (Just to add a note of confusion, my DVD shelves are also home to highly prized box sets of Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, though whether I like them because they adhere to certain sci-fi conventions or deliberately set out to subvert them (more dialogue than dogfights, basically) I honestly couldn’t tell you.)

So what of Doctor Who? I guess, more than any other show, it’s anything you want it to be. I know we all blether on about its “infinitely flexible format” all the time, but it really is its greatest strength, and the reason why my favourite episodes include unique spins on horror movies, historical epics, screwball comedies, romances, revenge tragedies and boys’ own adventure stories, but very little in the way of rocket ships, jet packs or chicken dinner pills.

Now, before you start accusing me of being an insufferable la-de-da smuggo who thinks you’re shallow for getting your kicks from space stations and fighting robots while I labour over illuminating studies of the human condition, I can assure you my tastes are not quite as recherché as I’d like people to think. For example, I’m a sucker for a good – or even a bad – rom-com, so while it’s true I’d watch literally anything rather than sit through the likes of Independence Day or Starship Troopers, that anything is a lot more likely to be Four Weddings And A Funeral or In Her Shoes than it is The Seventh Seal or A Matter of Life and Death.

But enough about me. Oh, actually, a tiny little bit more about me: I’ve never really “got” the Daleks, either. I mean, they’re just not scary, are they? Creeping shadows, creatures under the bed, dead kids in gas masks, men turning into plants – that’s the stuff of nightmares. But big tin cans with stupid voices who are always shouting the odds about how terrifyingly invincible they are, seconds before being bitch-slapped into submission - again? They never did it for me in my original behind the sofa days, never mind now.

The David! Catherine! Freema! John! With Liz! And Billie! title parade was like the world’s most thrilling Powerpoint presentation

You won’t be at all surprised to learn from this solipsistic preamble that I didn’t really like The Stolen Earth. Or, at least, I couldn’t help feeling it was aimed at someone else – someone younger, less grumpy, more squee-inclined (for more on this, should you be able to bear it, see my previous ruminations on the difference between Optimus Prime and a loaf of bread). Which is ironic, as this was the episode in honour of which words like fanwank and fangasm have been chucked around like… well, like the product of both those things - and I’m a big enough fan to have once owned a copy of Gary Downie’s cookbook.

DickydWhich is not to say my fan buttons didn’t take a few big punches along the way. For starters, I was unfeasibly giddy over the David! Catherine! Freema! John! With Liz! And Billie! title parade, which was like the world’s most thrilling Powerpoint presentation. And the combination of Richard Dawkins and Doctor Who – two of the great loves of my life – was enough to make me think the universe is now being run specifically for my personal gratification (and yes, I do appreciate the irony in that). I particularly loved the way Dawkins, true to form, was shown to be right about everything; no doubt somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic, Anne Coulter was insisting those planets in the sky were all a giant liberal atheist conspiracy.

There were also a few belly laughs, courtesy of the Doctor’s hilarious exchange with the Judoon captain (especially Tennat’s crowning “Ma-ho!”, which sounded like the sort of thing Mr T would say, were he fluent in Judoon), and Donna’s description of the subwave network as an “outer space Facebook” (though if anything’s going to date-stamp this episode, it’s that).

Rose’s petulant, jealous reaction to Martha on that same network was also a nice touch, neatly reversing the Rose-envy of series three and giving Freema her moment in the sun. In the end, though, poor old Martha couldn’t hope to compete with that emotional reunion, which took one of the conventions of those rom-coms I’m so guiltily fond of, milked it for all it was worth and then fried the hell out of it with a severe case of Dalek-powered coitus interruptus – an iconic moment destined for a long afterlife on a thousand TV clip shows.

And then there was Davros. It was fashionable for a time to criticise ol’ blue eye for having stolen all the Daleks’ thunder, but that’s a bit like accusing The Beatles of making Cliff Richard look a bit lame – a better alternative came along, that’s all. Davros is everything the Daleks aren’t – creepy, repulsive, insidious, and capable of holding his own in genuinely thrilling confrontations with the hero. And Julian Bleach has clearly nailed it from the get-go – the perfect synthesis of Wisher’s cunning and Molloy’s barely contained hysteria, he just might turn out to be the daddy of them all. (Is it just me, though, or is there something inherently funny about Davros being played by a bloke called Julian? Or is it actually slightly less ridiculous than his real name being Terry?).

Oh, and the cliffhanger was a bit of a doozy, too.

Sadly, these triumphs were in danger of being buried under an avalanche of lazy plotting, spurious continuity, vaulting over-ambition and a general, pervasive air of silliness. A few random examples:

What the hell was going on with the big talking kids’ TV computer?

Spin-offs-a-go-go. If last week saw a good episode tainted by its association with Voyage of the Damned, this week RTD went one better by smearing Torchwood all over it like some kind of cross-franchise dirty protest.  And I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for The Sarah Jane Adventures but, bearing in mind it pulls in a million viewers, tops, wouldn’t 80% of the audience have been wondering what the hell was going on with the big talking kids’ TV computer?

Continuity overload. On top of the cast who actually appeared, there were namechecks for Tosh, Owen, Maria, Maria’s dad, Clyde, even Mr bloody Copper, not to mention references to the plot of The Dalek Invasion of Earth and the planet Calufrax (see how my point last week about casual viewers not being familiar with The Pirate Planet suddenly makes sense? Hey, if RTD can retcon random nonsense as significant plot arcs, so can I.)

John Barrowman turning it up to 11. And then turning it up some more. This isn’t I’d Do Anything, you know.

The Shadow Proclomation. Once darkly invoked as the most powerful force in the galaxy, it turns out the SP is nothing more than “posh outer space police”. Way to undercut your own mythologising, Rusty. And while the exterior looked great, why did the TARDIS appear to land in some Victorian public toilets?

Too many “special” Daleks: Davros, Dalek Caan, The Supreme Dalek – typical bloody management-heavy organisation. I bet they’re all on whopping bonus packages, too.

“Annihilate UNIT”. Not sure why, but this really made me laugh.

DefeatistThe Doctor and Donna. They didn’t actually do an awful lot, did they? And what was with the Doctor just giving up and chucking in the towel like that? That just wasn't like Ten at all. Hasn't Russell got character notes he can refer to, or something?

Martha: “I’m medical director on Project Indigo.”
Jack: “They got that working?”
Martha: “Indigo’s top secret – no-one’s supposed to know about it!”

“Take this – it’s the Osterhagen Maguffin!” And where did Dempsey think he was sending Martha, exactly? Or was he just atomising her for the sheer heck of it?

The TARDIS, a time machine, bursts into flame with the effort of… travelling through time. Bit of a design fault, perhaps?

Harriet Jones - from mumsy MP to war-mongering PM to expert hacker. I believe this is what’s known in the trade as a “character arc”. And yes, the whole planet may have been taken out of time and space using technology so advanced the entire fabric of the multiverse is threatened, but don’t worry, all we need is a signal booster and we can still phone out for takeaway. (Using the power of a rift in time and space that ‘s now about a billion light years away. Did anybody actually read this before it got made?)

There’s a fleet of Daleks on the way to wreak more devastation on Cardiff than Charlotte Church on a night out to wet the baby’s head

The “wobbly TARDIS” shot. I know I’ve just spent ages affecting a snooty disregard for special effects and CGI set-pieces, but even I noticed this one. (The flying saucers over the street money shot was genuinely cool, though, I’ll give you that.)

I’m alright Jack: “Gwen, Ianto - there’s a fleet of Daleks on the way to wreak more devastation on Cardiff than Charlotte Church on a night out to wet the baby’s head, but I’m off. And I’m taking the Dalek-killing gun with me. See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.”

The direction. I’ve said this before but, while Graeme Harper was once the nearest thing Doctor Who had to a genuine auteur, these days he just looks a bit flabby alongside Young Turks like Euros Lyn and James Strong. For example, check out the way he introduces the “Exterminate” broadcast – it’s supposed to be a pivotal moment: a chilling invocation of the power of a single word to fate a planet to its doom, but Harper chucks it in as casually as a Skype call from his mum, without any attempt to build up the tension, and then proceeds to over-compensate by having everyone get instantly hysterical. Or look at the way he has Cribbins gawping up at the sky for about five minutes without noticing it’s full of giant planets (and he’s supposed to be an astronomy buff! No wonder he always misses all the action).

Of course, The Stolen Earth can’t have been all that bad, otherwise why would I still be in such a state of feverish excitement for the next installment? (Incidentally, I think all the portents of doom surrounding Donna are a red herring, and Billie’s going to be the one to cark it. That’s not a spoiler, just a hunch). I guess I was just disappointed the episode wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be: I was all geared up to be indulged by one kind of fanwank, and I got a whole different type instead.

LookupI love Doctor Who way more than is healthy but, considering this was the (almost) culmination of four years’ emotional investment, why was my most moving, enduring TV image of the day was Elbow’s anthemic triumph at Glastonbury? “Throw those curtains wide,” sang Guy Garvey exultantly. “One day like this a year would see me right.” This wasn’t that day but, in the same way a mistreated dog will always return to its tormentor, I’m still putting my faith in Russell delivering the goods this Saturday. Because love is blind, and hope springs eternal. Just go easy on the spacey spacey, stuff, okay?

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