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May 30, 2010

Malohkeh Myrka Mystery

Stuart Ian Burns spits Doctor Who: Cold Blood

Companion deaths on the television version of Doctor Who are comparatively rare.  Adric and Katarina is about the shape of it, and probably Sara Kingdom.  In the spin-off Whoniverse it’s a veritable bloodbath, from C’rizz through to Roz Forrester with a whole multi-novel plot arc dedicated to finishing off some television’s plus ones (or twos) in ambiguous circumstances, including Sarah Jane Smith.  They get dropped in a parallel universe, walk from the TARDIS or have their memory wiped and there’s collateral damage outside of the Doctor’s immediate circle but the death of a Tardis traveller in a family show on Saturday night BBC One?  That’s a very thick chalk line to cross. 

Unlike the viewers who immediately ran to twitter and made Rory’s name a trending topic for the next hour right into Eurovision and on the night that Dennis Hopper died, I wasn’t emotional drawn by the death, certainly not in the same way as the last time a main character died in the Whoniverse (#saveiantojones?  Um, no.)  Partly it was the shock that Moffat had done the one thing Russell T Davies said he could never do (cf, Donna Noble) but mostly its because the writing and direction seemed to want to us to ponder the implications of the death rather than feel it on a gut level.

#saveiantojones?  Um, no.

Most of the scene was played from the Doctor’s point of view.  From the moment Amy desperately asked him to do something to save her already gone fiancé’s life, we were given a sea of reaction shots of the timelord’s impotent face, and the ensuing action was about how he was going to get Amy into the Tardis and tellingly when he finally managed to bring himself to simply grab her by the torso and carry her through the threshold, instead of a close-up of her crying desperately at the door as the machine took off, we were right up on the Doctor blankly working the controls.

Only as the two worked to try to and keep Rory’s memory alive did the story become a joint one again but the implication throughout was still that the nurse’s death wasn’t simply a random fatality but an important part of the ongoing storyline and we were left to ruminate on the narrative consequences, for the rest of the series and beyond.  If Rory didn’t exist, what was Amy’s choice?  How did she escape Francesco, let alone get into the non-vampire school in the first place?  What about all of the people he helped save in his day job?

If Rory didn’t exist, what was Amy’s choice?

The implication is – evidenced by the irksome reappearance of future Amy, alone on the hill this time – that the web of time has knitted itself back into place to resolve any of these inconsistencies.  The crack, in wiping someone from existence, goes in with the Dettol equivalent of quantum physics to sterilise the wound and give it some stitches, but unlike the reapers in Father’s Day the process also removes them from the memory.  Except, presumably because he’s a timelord, the Doctor remembers.  As does BBC Books who have given Rory extra adventures in the next three releases in the range.

Rory’s death was slotted in at the close of what up until then had been a fairly stolidly traditional Doctor Who story which wasn’t especially bad and like last week offered moments of nostalgia but didn’t quite sing, giving the impression that Moffat and Chibnall’s motive was to put us into a false state of security (even if Arthur Darvill’s non-appearance in the previews of upcoming episode in Doctor Who Magazine gave the impression of something occurring) before smacking us around the head with Rory’s old lady battering stick: “You’re watching nu-Who, stupid.”  

“You’re watching nu-Who, stupid.” 

Unlike last week’s episode which could be viewed with all the comfort of a classic series dvd release bar the annoying unskippable caption, easter egg of a continuity announcement and randomly edited documentary about dinosaurs, this was about as entertaining as one of those generic Star Trek: Voyager episodes in which Janeway’s negotiations towards an alien race are going well until Seven of Nine goes borg and shoots one of them in the face (before attempting to assimilate the corpse).  With a sub-plot in which Harry Kim tries to teach the EMH about the joys of flower arranging.

I was better disposed to The Hungry Earth because it seemed like a genuine attempt to tackle classic Who in much the same way that Todd Hayne’s worshipped Douglas Sirk in Far From Heaven or Steven Soderbergh riffed off Michael Curtiz and old Hollwood during The Good German.  Except both those films and other similar experiments then attempted to do something interesting, either by introducing greater thematic weight or simply content that would not have been permissible in the earlier form and that seemed to be way things were heading in the, as it turned out, rather disingenuous NEXT TIME trailer with all the talk of “fixed points” and the implication that Rory would be going Jack Bauer on prisoner Alaya.

all the narrative simplicity of the Gordian Knot

Unfortunately Cold Blood simply continued to be a rough remake of Doctor Who and the Silurians which is fine, except television has moved on and our expectations have changed and though there will be a large section of the meagre audience that won’t have seen Malcolm Hulke’s classic, there has to be more to it, especially in a season with all the narrative simplicity of the Gordian Knot.  The picture book nature of The Beast Below worked for me because despite its unsophisticated structure, it still pinioned on big emotional character beats for the regulars.  It’s funny how in this concluding episode, when the moral questions are passed to the incidental elements of humanity, it’s far less potent.

Partly that was to do with execution.  Neither of the sub-plots, the negotiations for humanity or the protection (or not) of Alaya were presented from Amy or Rory’s point of view.  There was no conflict here.  Amy was slightly reticent, but we caught little of the responsibility which had been placed on her shoulders and the point of agreement with the Silurians was treated with all the excitement of a corporate brainstorming session in a firm of accountants -- though admittedly it was interesting see that in this televised debate, Meera Syal’s Nasreen was the one to present the case against immigration with Stephen Moore’s amenable Eldane offering a list of benefits.

we caught little of the responsibility which had been placed on her shoulders

Additionally, because Rory wasn’t sitting on top of their prisoner for the duration, he just became one of the humans rather than a regular.  He should have been in there, trying but failing to defend their captive from Ambrose, who by this point had simply become an example of the human waste that inhabited the shuttle bus in Midnight.  I know I’m drifting into writing about what wasn’t there instead of what was, which is a dirty habit, but Chibnall’s approach to scripting in Cold Blood took a retrograde step backwards to the first series of Torchwood when it was usually impossible to consistently see the interior of a character unless they were having something inserted into them. 

My hunch is that like The Hungry Earth, Cold Blood overran and whilst the structure and expositional point of most scenes survived, the local colour is still sitting on a server connected to the Avid editing suite, despite the longer timeslot it was gifted.  Syal’s participation seemed truncated and until the very end and the burst of emotion, Amy was largely reduced to a default wisecrack setting.  Moore’s voiceover, however welcome to those of us who remember his audiobook version of Hitchhikers, and however epic its motives in suggesting “big history happening right now!” sounded like something imported to paper over some narrative cracks.  No not those kinds of cracks.

"big history happening right now!”

And yet, and yet, despite these reservation, it wasn’t horrible, it’s was still watchable.  Mostly that was down to Matt Smith who is a god, basically, someone managing to collect all of our childhood memories of what the Doctor was like with those pesky expectation built up over the past five years.  He oscillates between wimpy, genial and commanding, Pertwee’s indispensable moments of charm, stretched out across an entire performance.  When he said to Ambrose that she wasn’t the best humanity had to offer, I felt like he was disappointed with me too. 

Anyone who suggests that he’s still no David Tennant should be made to sit down at loud-hailer shaped gun thing-point in front of the closing moments of this episode in which a mixture of guilt and bewilderment wash over him but unable to really show it in front of a companion who’s entirely unaware of the source and probably wouldn’t believe him anyway.  There was some good support too from Robert Pugh as the stoic Tony and Nia Roberts who at least sought to turn her character into something approaching a real, if flawed human being.  Richard Hope was similarly effective as Malohkeh, initially giving the impression of being a reptilian Mengele but turned out to be a good sort really.  Despite the torture.

Why bother making the connection at all etc. etc.

If only these performances weren’t being slightly undermined throughout with niggles like the reappearance of a hardly redressed Platform One from The End of the World (Cardiff’s The Chapel of Peace) and the CG explosion of the drill which was less convincing than a similar interpolated detonation on The Time Warrior dvd which was probably produced on a fraction of the budget.  I was also finally drawn to admit that the rather generic make-up for this genus of Silurians simply lacked the imagination of the originals -- and omitting the third eye was vandalism basically.  Why bother making the connection at all etc. etc.

Will Rory stay dead?  Well, if Adric can be resurrected for an audio, it could be that when the Pandorica opens,  the Doctor sacrifices the TARDIS to save him and put time back together.  Which would be about right because I’m developing the opinion that the cracks are actually lesions created by the time machine, the Doctor’s travels having finally begun to create holes in space-time and that the cracks appear when he does something to change the natural order of events.  When he said in The Beast Below that they shouldn’t become involved, he was right in every respect and that despite his decades long protestations to the contrary, he knows less about what he’s doing than Rose in Father’s Day.

Next Week:  We hopefully get the Richard Curtis who wrote The Girl in the Café, rather than the hack who turned out Love Actually.

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