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December 05, 2009

Let's build a homeland together in the sand.

Doctor Who: Dreamland

There’s something moderately disconcerting about watching a new Doctor Who episode for the first time on a Saturday morning.  Right day, right season (depending upon your opinion of these kinds of things) just at completely the wrong hour, totally missing the day long anticipation that comes with a tea time transmission.  I ended up with the 10am showing because I lacked the patience for trying to follow the timings of the episodic version on the red button service and my limited mobile internet package simply couldn’t have taken the strain of the chunky bandwidth sapping web edition.  But this is a cartoon, and it’s probably (on reflection) about right that it should be in this time slot – it served The Infinite Quest quite well the other year and changes our expectations as to content.  Dreamland would have been simply incongruous in the tea time slot though there was enough to entertain adults, not least the Die Hard references …

Dr Televisual Who has been unsurprisingly reticent about setting itself in the big country and most often it has been with a format that aped an established Hollywood format like westerns (The Gunfighters), silents (The Feast of Steven), the TV movie (failed sci-fi tv pilots) and gangster films (Daleks In Manhattan).  Though the spin-offs have redressed the balance somewhat, it's perhaps because the show’s essential Englishness, that which makes it unique amongst genre franchises, is tied to heavily to it's parochialness.  Planetary colonies are established predominantly by the British, aliens tend to threaten London and the expectation that audience are less willing to empathise if the human plight is over there, despite something like Independence Day grossed nearly £10 million in the UK alone – though even that had a UK radio spin-off with the classic scene of Sir Patrick Moore duffing up one of the aliens, big Willie-style ("Either I'm concussed, or I'm watching Patrick Moore fistfighting with an extraterrestrial!").  Even global threats are envisioned through an anglophile prism.

So what would seem like the hugest narrative magnet, Area 51, has gone largely untapped with only a mention in Dalek and the early BBC Missing Adventure novel The Devil Goblins from Neptune actually spending time within its walls (the Doctor clearly having forgotten this earlier visit when he had Pertwee’s face, probably during one of the eighth Doctor’s many amnesiatic episodes, it’s all canon etc), presumably because UNIT and now Torchwood serve much the same function.  In attempt to redress the balance, Phil Ford’s script drops the Doctor into a pot pourri of 50s b-movie tropes from the all important greys to giant insect predators and marries them to the kind of US military types who lined their tanks up to give Klaatu a talking to In The Day The Earth Stood Still and then fragrances them further with a smattering of cold war paranoia (“The reds?  Manchester United?”) and contemporary horror references (Alien, Aliens, stopping just short of a McGann fan pleasing reference). 

After his less than stellar adventures with Sarah Jane but excellent collaboration with Mr Davies on The Water of Mars I was quite nervous to hear what Phil Ford would do with a solo adventure.  Well, he certainly didn't "nuke the fridge".  Presumably because of the requirements of the short episode format, the story rattles along, shifting from one end of the desert to another, taking in all of the locales you might expect from these studio quickies, from empty diners to abandoned towns that might have been part of the studio backlot to the rocky interior of “Dreamland” Ford is clearly understands his subject and he’s very comfortable writing for animation (I’ve heard good things about his Captain Scarlet revival), knowing that often simplicity is the key.  There’s a sense of wonder here which is sometimes absent from his Sarah Jane adventures.

Grey Within that, Ford layers elements more associated with Doctor Who; a huge interplanetary battle underpinning a small terrestrial skirmish, the seeming mcguffin that turns out to be the solution, and the Doctor’s expectation that entire races never deserve annihilation, no matter how blood-thirsty, because they may have the capacity for change, including a useful contrast of the infamous “Have I that right?” scene.  Some might argue that the Tenth Doctor’s motto is “no second chances” but in this instance he appears to have seen the Viperox’s future and knows that peaceful intentions lay ahead.  Though on the surface Ford’s script seemed entirely superficial, as the story blasted onward, he manages to subtly and sometimes not so subtly smuggle in quite weighty thematic material.

Otherwise the format seems to restrict Ford’s characterisation though that doesn't hamper the actors too much, most of them rising to the challenge.  The greys, Rivesh and Seruba are the most sympathetic and depthful and played by with heartfelt ease by Lisa “Bernice” Bowerman.  David Warner brings a certain pantomime brilliance to Lord Azlok and Stuart Milligan is perfectly gruff as Stark but it seems a shame to have Clarke Peters from The Wire and only give him about three lines (well, at least it means I can finally unify an old joke from movie blog Ultra Culture and my own rip-off of it).  It’s also obviously a very good thing indeed to finally see Georgia Moffat’s name in the titles (albeit not playing the character we’d like her to be playing), but neither she or Tim Howar have much to do beyond the some old school question asking companionism as waitress Cassie and her friend Jimmy Stalkingwolf.  A few good jokes here, cliffhanger solving escapades there from the former, bit of social commentary from the latter. 

Having said that, Fords presentation of the Doctor is perfect, capturing the expressive nature of his bluff and shade and the element of bluff which was a feature of Tenth in his first series before some of the gloom which developed in the wake of Doomsday, more like the version that turns up for the novels and the comic strips, tuned closer to the Adventures comic and IDW standalones than Magazine and IDW mini-series perhaps but certainly more complex than Battles In Time (I’ve probably thought about this too much haven’t I?).  As with his turn in Sarah Jane Adventures, Tennant relishes the chance to return to some of that unforced lightness and I like the jokes!    Most often the humour in the series develops from the Doctor’s anomalousness within a given situation and sarcastic word play; one liners are more a Clyde Langer thing (or Spider-man for that matter).  Yet here they are and utterly tittersome.  “Some have greatness and some have crates thrust upon them!” Hah!

Cassie Because Dreamland works so well as piece of storytelling, the animation seems slightly beside the point which (with apologies to bloggers Paul, Will and David, who detailed the technological efforts involved) is exactly as it should be.  But if can't go without comment that look of special project #2 (again with apologies) especially in relation to the human figures is by no means perfect.  Often very stiff, the Tenth Doctor’s face, so expressive and animated in real life, despite the brave attempt as stylisation often resembles Howdy-Doody or Johnny Cab from Total Recall with haemorrhoids, the rest often also very stiff when called upon to move about, with the glacial Cassie coming off worst.  But like The Infinite Quest before it, when the “camera” is focused on the landscape, on the aliens, on the vehicles, Dreamland  is often very beautiful, resembling the painterly poster art used to advertise those b-movies or a 2000 AD strip with the crated storage facility clearly influenced by Michael Pangrazio’s matt painting at the close of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Considering this has been a gap year in series terms, the production team have worked very hard to make sure Doctor Who still had a very strong presence.  From the Matt Smith announcement attracting high viewing figures to the stunning Torchwood: Children of Earth and the mostly enjoyable Sarah Jane Adventures there’s still been plenty to keep us entertained with some of the spin-off material, old and new school worthy enough to stand alongside the best of what the tv series has had to offer with special mentions for Trevor Baxendale’s novel Prisoner of the Daleks, Paul Magrs’s Hornet’s Nest and Reza from the second season of 24 seemingly telling the world Patterson Joseph was going to be the new Doctor even though he wasn’t.  In terms of the specials, Planet of the Dead disappointed some (not me, ello Michelle) as did amazingly Waters of Mars (generally idiots who don’t deserve their televisions), but this has been a very good year for the franchise which has been topped off nicely by Dreamland and special project #3, the Chrimbo ident, which makes me giddy.

Next time:  Izzy-wizzy, let’s get busy.

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