Saturday, 31 May 2008

Shelf life... and death

…and that is how you do that, in case anyone, anywhere was in any doubt.

Good news, fellow travellers: the future of Doctor Who is looking absolutely dazzling… and very, very, very dark. Really, very. I think it’s fair to say, without any hint of over-exaggeration, that Silence in the Library was one of the Greatest Things Ever To Happen - not just on telly, but anywhere, ever… and the bloke who wrote it is taking over the whole show very soon.

I need a sit down, or air, or a non-sonic Screwdriver (large, please, barman)…

As the Doctor nearly said, there were so many brilliant, brilliant things in those 43 minutes (how could it be a mere 43 minutes?) that we’re gonna need bigger heads to take it all in!

Space. Library. Sounds like a Hartnell classic, a brilliant, pure concept. But then, you see, already the dark mind of writer Steven Moffat (you’re buying him two pints of whatever he’s having, next time you see him, by the way) is twisting it into new, confounding shapes, refining and expanding themes and motifs from previous work: the fierce power of a child’s mind; how ideas shape reality; disturbing fusions of personality and technology; how writing and recording a life is sometimes the only way of adding meaning to it (All those books! All those biographies! All those adventures!); and the sorry turning of the last pages (All that silence. All that death).

But even then, there’s more to unpack. What if you don’t travel the slow path, one way through time? If someone has a book of your life - even the stuff that hasn’t happened yet - do you read it? What about the spoilers?

And this isn’t even the bit that everyone in the playground/office will be talking about - that’s the Vashta-ruddy-Nerada, the scariest-ever baddies since the last scariest-ever baddies, Blink’s Quantum Angels, created by - yup - yer man Moffat.

Imagine: it’s not what’s in the dark you should be scared of - and you should - but the darkness itself.

So, Mr Moffat: there are indeed monsters under the bed; statues are, as many of us suspected, alive (don’t blink, by the way); and the darkness can tear you to shreds in seconds. Yes, I’m afraid your application for the position of supply teacher has, sadly, been unsuccessful, this time…

But know the darkest thing here? Probably the most genuinely disturbing thing on telly in a while? The sad undoing of that pretty, stupid girl who wandered off into the shadows, just like in the fairytales.

Words let the mind express, create, communicate, code your personality. How horrible, then, when suddenly they become empty, meaningless (remember ‘Are you my Mummy?’; who could forget). How hopeless they are at comforting. And how horrible the silence that follows when they stop - the sound of Moffat, a book-lover, a word man, briefly losing his faith.

He then twists it again, making Proper Dave’s sad, confused ‘Hey! Who turned out all the lights?’ into a chilling mantra - probably about existence - only one uttered by a skeleton in a spacesuit bent on death. Only, as they say, on Doctor Who.

And to think some people actually believe Doctor Who is a kids’ show! Listen: everything else is a kids’ show. Fact.

Anyway, next time…


Who turned out all the lights?

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Whorovision: It's really no contest...

Look, keep quiet at the back, will you. Yes, it’s a more than a bit annoying that the Eurovision Song Contest (all 38 hours of it) has nudged the Doctor off into Dark Space 8 for a week, but let’s be honest: the two shows do have what might be considered a shared constituency - last week’s writer Gareth Roberts co-penned a nice DW/ESC spoof called Bang-Bang-A-Boom! a few years back - so there will be some Audiential Carry-Acrossput, as we say in digital media circles.

Simply put, many of you will be happy enough.

Not the Watcher, though. As far as we’re concerned the contest hasn’t been the same since sixth-Doctor-lookalike Michael Ball was stitched up back in ’92 (or was it ’91? Pain clouds the memory).

The cherubic nans’ favourite bounded down the old stairs, like an overfriendly tiger promised a couple of steaks for his trouble, and simply roared into a killer - kill-er - versh of One Step At A Time. ‘One step out of time/ One reason to put this love on the line again/ Can’t believe that it’s true/ Now I’m one step out of time…’ it went. Er, probably.

Anyway, fast-forward to the end of a very sorry saga: The Ball was second. Or third. Not top, anyway. The winner was - and I can still ‘tsk’ about this, when memory catches me unawares - Melinda, a handsome-enough Belgian with a ’tauche, and her thoughtful take on the old why-can’t-we-live-together? business, End The Crazy Madness (This Nuclear War In My Heart). Impossible to dance to, need I add.

And - not to put too fine a point on it - I had money on Ball. ‘Can’t believe that it’s true’! You said it, Mikey. Talk to my landlady.

Anyway: has the ESC ever been the same since the participants and organisers twigged the camp thing? It was just more fun in old days, when someone who looked like Lordi - but without the make-up - might just have won it. Never shall we see their like again.

So at Watcher Acres it’ll be the new, old routine: pizza, a crate of Strongbow and a Curse of Peladon/End of The World double-bill, two prime slices of Who with a spiritual kinship to the old Euro V, in which disparate casts of aliens (variously, a woman who looks likes a trampoline; a desiccated skull in a bubblegum machine; a five-foot hermaphrodite cucumber in a shower curtain; and a warthog dressed like an ageing Teddy Boy) all come together on strange ground to forge Galactic Peace Through Song.

Or something like that. Well, in the 1972 story, the godlike Jon Pertwee croons a Venusian lullaby, while the 2005 episode does have Tainted Love and Toxic in it; people, you know what I’m talking about. And with the sound down and ESC coverage on the wireless you wouldn’t know the difference, honestly, especially when the ‘apple champagne’ kicks in…

Some parting thoughts:
Sandie Shaw: The companion we never had!
Lulu: The other companion we never had!
Lynsey de Paul: Likewise!
Abba: Stylists to the Cybermen!

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Wonderful nonsense

Well, that’s more like it. After slightly undercooked, over-egged fare of late, here was something light, sparkling and giggle-inducing - just perfect for a garden party (and they’re always bugged by wasps, aren’t they?) Surely no one summoned to the parlour for the Unicorn and the Wasp could have been disappointed? And it was On At Seven O’clock, aka The Proper Time, schedulers, d’ya hear? Except… well, we’ll get to that later…

Confession: Team Watcher are suckers for the ‘celebrity historicals’ in new Who, and writer Gareth Roberts’ follow-up to The Shakespeare Code was a smasher, sharing its playful sensibility, knowing references (there were loads of book titles slipped in, of course, though no Man in the Brown Suit, oddly enough) and deliberately heightened atmosphere.

Shooing a real figure into the Whoniverse whets the appetite, sets the tone quickly, gets the audience up to speed - and then allows a clever script to start playing with the conventions. A country house mystery with Agatha plus the Doctor plus Felicity Kendall’s illegitimate alien wasp-child? Bring it! You don’t get that on EastEnders. Yet.

It was very much in Christie’s image too: prod the plot too hard and it might just fall over, but what a lovely way to pass the time. And - clever old thing - Roberts linked this to the deeper idea of Christie’s real-life disappointment and doubt. Did her books matter? Would they be remembered? The phrase ‘wonderful nonsense’ was seeded throughout, an idea thrown between the show’s own writers and fans for 45 years; does any of this stuff from the imagination really matter?

Well, yes: it helps create the Real World so many non-believers are proud of living in, and Roberts underlines his faith in the power of the imagination by making Agatha’s mind the engine of the action. Whatever her fears, she writes on, as did Shakespeare, as did Dickens, a fine message for the kids and further proof that Doctor Who is good for you, friends.

There was tomfoolery aplenty, too, of course: The ‘Agatha Christie/What about her?’ business; the wheelchair revelation; the body in the soup - all that and the Doctor’s inhibited-enzyme kitchen freakout, to boot. It’s good when his cool’s blown, just occasionally.

And the ‘Doctor Smith of the Yard and his plucky girl assistant’ schtick fits nicely with the ongoing idea of Doctor as shape-shifter, a role-player, an actor: hard to pin down, finding puzzles, putting off The End.

Knowing your role was an idea played with here - the minute that pretty girl said ‘toilet’, the mask dropped for everyone at home. She was, perhaps, our suspect… and we liked how clever camera angles telescoped us into the drawing room for the denouement, too, viewers getting their thrills from the safety of the sofa, as ever.

A hit then: Who did it.

Anyway, next time: an exciting adventure with… The Eurovision Song Contest, it sez here! Our sworn enemies the schedulers up to their old tricks, again! But fear not: there’s a way you can get your Who fix and still enjoy the third-campest night of the year. Watch this space…

Saturday, 10 May 2008

You big kidders...

As the Watcher prepared to dematerialise from the office on Friday night, thoughts turned to the upcoming Doctor’s Daughter, 24 hours in the future (Earth time).
‘There’s a lot riding on it,’ said a sympathiser.
‘As long as this ‘daughter’ business isn’t a flippin’ swizz,’ replied the Watcher, with some feeling.
Fast-forward 24 hours…

…and it is a flippin’ swizz! Sort of. Well, it is inasmuch as ‘Jenny’ (tch!) hasn’t come floating out of deep back-story to throw the show in a Whole New Direction and change Received Fan Wisdom forever - but did we really think that would happen? Well, the production team sort of hinted… but did we really want it to? You know how your real friends die inside a bit when they get kids: do we really want that to happen to the Doctor? Exactly - and what if this ‘Jenny’ (honestly) turned out to be some winsome, Ace-like, combat-trousered action-bunny with a spaceship and boundless enthusiasm for the endless possibilities of the universe? Er, hang on, we’ve accidentally got ahead of ourselves here…

Not that the Watcher has any problems with Georgia Moffett. Quite the opposite. But ‘Jenny’ is a warrior-clone-thing created from a scratched hand (and wearing mascara, too, noted the Watcher’s companion; warpaint?). You could forgive our man if he should signally fail to bond deeply in 44 minutes, although the Dadshock-savvy script also noted that fatherhood can often stem from such unplanned biological ‘incidents’. Respect to Tennant and Moffett for making it work well enough, then, and hinting at how emptiness inside, rather than a shared wellspring of hope, can still create a connection.

Tennant’s saving this season, wringing everything he can from less than he deserves. The Time War speech was controlled and bitter; his warnings to General Cobb (sounds like a low-rent sarnie shop) were cold and on the edge; and the final confrontation with the gun was chilling and brilliant. For a second there - just for a double-heartbeat - he might actually have shot the bad guy’s face off. Occasionally Tennant lets you see - just around the eyes - what 1,000 years of death and disconnection could do to you. The Doctor seems thrillingly close to tipping over into something very dark, and very bad. There’s gonna be a reckoning, I tell thee…

But as for some of the rest… nyeeaah; just bit too much sci-fi shorthand, perhaps. The seven-day war idea was nice, but unexplored - it was ultimately just another wrong-headed space spat, sorted by a hero who thrives on self-mythology then damns it. So another meaty idea slips by. Is there ever a case for a just war?

And what was Martha doing here? There was enough peril and puzzle-solving for one companion, but not two. Did they just get the (great) Tate in again, after realising they missed a trick not asking her on board after the Christmas special, then divvy out the lines? We need to be told.

And it was a bit tricksy: The Watcher and companion both said ‘She’ll get killed’ the minute Jenny bounced in, and she did… then didn’t! Be braver, script editors! Not that we’re unhappy Georgia Moffett could return. Quite the opposite.

Anyway, next time: it’s The One With Agatha Christie… and we suspect it might be rather good fun…

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Looks aren't everything...

The textbook definition of a scoundrel used to be “Someone who mentions the wobbly sets whenever Doctor Who is mentioned”; never mind the rich ideas on offer, the championing of the imagination, and the heart, or the limitless possibilities of adventure in time and space, some bozo would always chip in with a sink-plunger/ tinsel/ double-sided sticky tape reference.

These sorry souls suck up the commercial stations now, of course, their too-small minds utterly rotted out… but in a weird, alternative universe, reversed-polarity sort of way, your correspondent is suddenly them: probably the best thing about The Poison Sky – or at least the bit one has something to say about - was how it looked.

Perhaps we’re taking all this snazzy stuff a bit for granted, Whofriends. Rewind a couple of weeks and the Ood one only got nyeaaah out of ten – but the early-on spaceship shot alone was a thing of lovely wonder. Pompeii looked ravishing, too. Here, the burning skies of the denouement were beautifully done (especially as seen on the Big Telly the Watcher is enjoying in his current east-coast exile). And yet, and yet… none of it can cover a paucity of ideas, or at least thought-through, satisfying ideas.

Like last week, this was bitty fare. The Sontarans-Are-Back!! factor, and some performances, kept it together last time – but did a second episode really add anything? Life and Death, The Glory of War (or Not), Families, Eh? We’re Killing Our Planet, People! – big, potentially meaty themes either undercooked in Helen Raynor’s script or smothered in RTD’s patent I-Want-All-This-In-Too sauce – you decide.

It wanted us to care, but didn’t give us enough well-drawn characters to care about: only Bernard Cribbins’ lovely old eyes make me root for Donna’s lot. The sappy, misunderstood geniuses were just Beat The Kids swots in tracksuits; the new UNIT chief’s speech was more, incidentally superfluous, hot air; and as for the ‘We won!’ kiss, and its implied subtext… well, you wouldn’t have got the Brigadier and Yates doing that. Probably.

Yes, we know the Doctor wanted us to feel sad about ‘His-Name-was-Ross’ Ross – but how could we? Ross, we hardly knew ye! The excellent Commander Skorr we did get to know, a bit, but the fascinating ideas thrown up in the ecstasy of his dying were never explored. So while the Doctor complains about guns and bangs as solutions, that’s all we had really. Shame.

Idea: there are brilliant characters in Who already – like Donna and Martha - so use ’em (but not at the same time, eh?). No companion worth her salt should spend more time round the kitchen table/phoning her mum than she does fighting evil. Where’s Sarah Jane Smith when you need her? Oh, look, she’s coming back - and flippin’ Rose too! And as if it wasn’t crowded enough round here, here’s the Doctor’s daughter – Jenny(!) – back-flipping into view…

Yes, Who’s the daddy, in what’s already looking a decisive/divisive episode six. Let’s just hope it delivers – if we must have family, show us it matters.