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July 05, 2008

The Shallow Conflagration

Stolenearth1In the wee hours of Sunday morning last weekend, in the aftermath of The Stolen Earth, after my initial "'the fuck was that?", I started to try to wrap my weary brain around what I thought of the episode.

Ever been to the circus?  No, neither have I, but I have seen circuses portrayed in myriad films and television programmes, from La Strada to At the Circus to Series 25's The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and let me tell you one thing: based on the evidence, those places are simply infested with clowns...and the penultimate episode of Season 4 of the born-again Doctor Who was so over-filled it felt like two-dozen of those gurning misanthropes piling out of a tiny little car.  Packed to the gills, it was.  Stuffed like a haggis.  A veritable Berliner of in-your-face fanwankery.

With this as my initial impression of the episode, that, like Wales, it was simply too overpopulated for it's own good, the clouds that lay over my sleep-deprived mind parted to allow a beam of inspiration to alight in my consciousness with a title for my review: "The Swollen Earth".  It was perfect.  Simple...yet elegant.  A clever play on the title of the episode, as well as a biting criticism.  I promptly went on "the internets", clicked on "New Post" and proudly started this review under said title and saved a draft version to finish later in the week.

Well, much to my annoyance, within a day a review was posted up by one Iain Hep-burn.  Up near the top of the review, it contained this line: "Stolen Earth?  Swollen Earth more like." 

"Damn you, Iain Hep-burn!" I shouted, shaking my fist in the air.  Defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory!  Crestfallen, I have since had to settle for a review proclaimed by a title which is a mere shadow of my original idea.  You'll just have to make do.

Doctor Who: The Stolen Earth

How does that old adage go?  Too many companions spoil the broth?  Something like that...and The Stolen Earth is a fine example.  The episode is simply sodden with so much exposition and forced emoting that it doesn't leave a lot of room for any of the characters to do much of anything.  There certainly isn't room for any individual development.  It's all about spectacle; there's surface, but no depth.

Damn you, Iain Hep-burn!

Not that some of that isn't nice.  The Mill outdoes itself with eye-candy from all the money they saved by not having to do anything for the last couple of weeks.  They have some great spectacle of Dalek saucers attacking New York, the nicely-rendered (if structurally questionable) Shadow Proclamation outpost, Daleks attacking the Valiant and the Medusa Cascade.

Part and parcel with the overblownedness (I just made that word up) of  it all are the relentless and gratuitous attempts to tug at our heartstrings, which often comes across as cackhandedly blunt.  A little finesse would probably improve matters significantly; throughout the episode we are repeatedly bludgeoned by dialogue that seemed to be applied by a trowel and a score that seemed to be applied by Murray Gold.  Even Harper makes some strangely heavy-handed choices in camera zooms when Rose first appears in her flash of lightning.

Probably the height of this problem is the reunion between Rose and the Doctor.  Rose appears in the distance with her big gun and bigger teeth.  The music swells.  They run toward each other.  Even the Doctor's extermination happens in slow motion.  I can't help but think the mawkishness of this scene is probably intentional so it could be subverted by the Dalek attack, but even that is undermined by its predictability.

Poor Martha still seems to be saddled with the most hackneyed parts of the script.  Even Dame Judy Dench couldn't deliver contrived pap like "Maybe Indigo tapped into my mind, because I ended up in the one place I wanted to be!" and be convincing.  (Her mom doesn't fare much better: "you came home.  At the end of the world you came back to me")  In fact all of UNIT and the "Project Indigo" storyline suffers from stilted dialogue and delivery and poor plotting.  Where's Colonel Mace when we need him?  I suppose I should be pleased that at least she gets to bandage someone's head for a change.   

Well, at least Freema got a part for a change, and they apparently had to bump someone else to make room for it: it seems to be Sarah Jane's  turn to get the "Guest star Freema Agyeman" treatment.  All Liz Sladen gets to do is look terrified and/or sad for a few minutes, and then go drive her car into a couple of Daleks.  I can only hope they find more for her to do in Journey's End...and less for Gwen and Sylvia.

Another contributing factor to the lack of room for character is that what seemed like a full third of the episode is devoted to a video conference call with lots of people introducing themselves to each other and spouting exposition and flirting like it's one of those "meet hot singles" toll lines you see advertised on late-night television. Oh, and Rose gets all jealous and feels left out.  The climax of this extended scene erupts into techno music and very, very dramatic typing.  I suppose it could be worse: before the split-screen thing everyone was just moping around being despondent.


What little room there is for character moments seems to have been reserved for Rose, Donna and Harriet Jones.  Rose returns to form after her thoroughly perplexing turn in last week's episode.  Donna's...well, Donna's Donna.  That's a good thing.  And I rather enjoyed Harriet Jones' hurried, stubborn performance (though her reveal was no surprise to anyone who paid attention to the credits).  Wasn't Penelope Wilton magnificent?


Parallel Worlds:


If RTD was looking for a place to trim some of the extra bloat off of The Stolen Planet, let me suggest this: perhaps we could have done without the whole deal with the Shadow Proclamation.  You see, deep down, when looked at closely, the Shadow Proclamation turns out to be all a bit shit.  After some four series worth of ominous-sounding buildup, all they turn out to be is the space police??  The intergalactic equivalent of CHiPs?  So much for the mystery.

...even for cops, the Shadow Proclamation don't turn out to be all that much cop.

Now, my general distaste for jackbooted-thugs of all stripes tends to give me a low opinion of all armed agents of the state, but, even for cops, the Shadow Proclamation don't turn out to be all that much cop.  They seem to consist of about half-a-dozen Judoon and a couple of haughty, palid zealots looking for a crusade.  They're like the old "homespun" version of UNIT from the 70's or 80's, but with digital technology.  Once the Doctor materializes in their hallway and places an order for Ma-Po Tofu, nothing much happens.


On top of the fact that the Shadow Proclamation itself isn't exactly exciting, I think the lengthy interludes where Donna and the Doctor mull over the missing planets and follow bees really throw a spanner in the pacing of the episode.  Sure, I realize the narrative function of these delays: the earthbound Planeteers need to fret and whine about how the Doctor's cell-phone battery must have run dry and they're all going to die.  Nonetheless, they seem to be twiddling their thumbs while high energy exciting-type stuff happens to everyone else.

The Masters of Earth

Stolenearth2 I have something to confess: I've always liked the Daleks.  Sure, some of the earlier models were easily thwarted by stairs and mirrors and mud on their eyestalks and insulating materials on the floor and people pushing them from behind; and sometimes they have been known to e...nun...ci...ate... all... of... their... di...a...logue... like...this (I'm looking at you, Dr. Who and the Daleks!), but, overall, they've done a great job of filling their role as iconic Doctor Who monsters.

Now, some of you older readers may remember an obscure space opera called Star Trek: The Next Generation that aired back in the late 80's and early 90's.  Somewhere in the middle of its short run, the series introduced a wildly popular enemy called The Borg.  They were sort of like Margaret Thatcher's worst nightmares about the Soviet Union, or the Legion of Doom with coordinated outfits.  They were pretty much an unstoppable, malevolent force with designs on literally consuming the rest of the universe.

No more of this sifting and perverting one human cell in a billion crap.  No more pig-slaves.  No more religion.

Well, it didn't take long for The Next Generation and its sequels to water down The Borg until they were not only a stoppable force, but one that seemed to have trouble getting started.  Unfortunately, the Daleks have often followed a similar path.  For decades now Doctor Who has been tainting the Daleks' biology with human DNA, diluting their menace, and making them behave in a thoroughly un-Dalek-like manner.

Well, I'm pleased to note that the Daleks are finally back to being real Daleks.  No more of this sifting and perverting one human cell in a billion crap.  No more pig-slaves.  No more religion.  No more breeding with humans.  I hope the reveal next episode of whatever the hell they're harvesting the humans for doesn't let me down terribly.

Okay, so they aren't perfect.  They're probably a little too talky; they used to be all "Exterminate!" and "You will o-bey the da-leks!", but now they're all "maximum extermination!" and "annihilate UNIT!" and  "Daleks do not accept apologies."  And they still seem to panic a bit too much whenever the Doctor is mentioned.  ("Emergency!  Locate the TARDIS! Find the Doctor!")


And what's with the Daleks being so giddy about being masters of Earth?  The Supreme Dalek intones, "We have waited long for this ultimate destiny," and they all bob up and down in space chanting "Daleks are the Masters of Earth."  So what?  As far as galactic backwaters go that's right up there with "Today: Germany...Tomorrow: Davos, Switzerland!"


Julian Bleach and the production team have done a stellar job of bringing Davros back to life (if that's what it is).  Harper handles Davros's slow reveal well, and his exchange with the Doctor, complete with nipple-slip, was likely the best dialogue of the episode (except, perhaps, for the incongruous "bye!")


On my second pass through the episode I'm even slowly growing to appreciate Dalek Caan as he gurgles and sputters and laughs maniacally.  The bizzareness of the performance is fascinating in much the same way that Billy Piper's was in Turn Left.  The tentacled abomination, in a spotlight, squealing, "Death is coming...Ho ho...I can see it!  Everlasting death for the most faithful companion.  Hee hee."  Certainly not something you're going to see anywhere else.

No Signal:

I know that when some of us go on to point out the scientific inaccuracies and implausibilities in Doctor Who, certain frustrated individuals like to throw around this argument that Doctor Who isn't actually science fiction at all, but it's actually fantasy and, therefore, we should treat it exactly like Harry Potter, and hold it to no standards of plausibility and scientific integrity.

Well, that's bollocks.

Unfortunately, so is much of the science in this episode.  When Doctor Who, or any other science-fiction programme, starts pulling bad science out of its arse, that doesn't make it fantasy...that simply makes it bad science fiction.

Do you know what happens when millions of cell phones try to call the same number at the same time?  Busy signals.

The worst culprit of "bad science fiction" in The Stolen Earth is the nonsense with the phones.  Do you know what happens when millions of cell phones try to call the same number at the same time?  Busy signals.  And probably crashing a lot of computers.  Even if they could all do their calling at the same time, and even if they still had satellites and whatknot to help 'em along, it still wouldn't result in cartoonish smoke-rings pulsing slowly up the giant phallus in Torchwood Plaza.  It was even a dramatic catastrophe, with Billie Piper and a bunch of other people staring wishfully into space while hammering away at their cell phones.

A consideration of the science of the episode also brings up the question of why the hell the 27 planets were so close to each other, and, more importantly, why they don't seem to be experiencing any of the massive gravitational effects one would expect from the proximity.  ("It was on Earth.  This planet called earth...miles away.")   I guess that if you take those sort of things into account you'd have to forgo the spectacle of a whole bunch of planets filling up your entire night sky.

Interagency cooperation:

Here are a bunch of random observations I couldn't put anywhere else...

t's a pretty thick coincidence that the three missing planets from the past happened to be on Donna and the Doctor's radar, but none of the other 23.

Why exactly was the cloister bell ringing?  When he got to the earth everything seemed fine.  Who or what set it off?

"Donna...I'm taking you to the Shadow Proclamation...hold tight!"  Why?  Is there turbulence?

One of the more unintentionally funny exchanges in the episode:
Martha: "I've been promoted.  Medical director on Project Indigo."
Jack: "Did you get that thing working?"
Martha: "Indigo's top secret.  No one's supposed to know about it."

Why does Jack just insist "We're dead".  Jack, in particular, we know is going to not stay dead.

That comic chemistry at work: "You're saying bees are aliens?"  "Don't be daft!...not all of them."

Daleks Attack Formation 7 seems to be a fancy way of saying three Daleks all facing the same way.  Interestingly, that seems to be the same formation they use to exterminate Harriet Jones, Former Prime Minister.

I'm with Frank.  I enjoyed the final "We know who you are" joke...

If Jack had shared his info about the teleportation device with UNIT, maybe they'd have had working teleporters and been able to, you know, combat the Daleks or something.  A little inter-agency cooperation goes a long way.  And, for that matter, if it was just a matter of figuring out 4 and 9, I'm sure Jack could have tried all 100 combinations in relatively short order.

The Pirate Plot:

Stolenearth3Apparently a lot of the...what do you call them? min-g-mon-gs? ...have been up in arms at the possibly-gratuitous references to continuity and such that has been scattered up and down the last couple episodes, and will probably reach a boiling point with Journey's End.  I for one wasn't particularly bothered, because the passing references generally seemed appropriate (such as mentions of Tosh and Owen).

Interestingly, however, the episode has a lot more connection to The Pirate Planet than the idle name-dropping of "Calufrax Minor".  Just like the Captain's victim planets in the earlier serial, the Doctor notes that the 27 stolen planets are "in perfect balance."  All those worlds fit together like pieces of an engine (a very big engine, it would seem).  I don't recall what it was actually for in The Pirate Planet, but I wouldn't be surprised if RTD lifted it directly from Adams' earlier script.

Bait and Switch:

And finally, I want to discuss at some length my feelings about the cliffhanger...

To (Bang) Be (Bang!) Continued (Bang!)....

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