Saturday, June 16, 2007

Name That Beast

[First posted after "The Family of Blood".]

This week I'd like to ignore the complex issues of mortality and social responsibility raised by "The Family of Blood", and talk about monsters. Old monsters. Dirty old stinking monsters.

Once, many years ago - or at least, more than ten, which qualifies as "many" because I'm attempting to sound wise while still retaining a facade of youthful enthusiasm - I read a Doctor Who book in which the villain was a malignant bodiless intelligence who could control the minds of human beings. On the whole, this was no more interesting than any of the other malignant bodiless intelligences we've seen over the years, yet I still found myself wondering about the similarities between this spurious new aether-monster and the Great Intelligence from "The Abominable Snowmen" (1967, although you probably knew that). And, weirdly assuming that this was "continuity" rather than a desperate lack of imagination, I heard myself think: 'Wow, the Great Intelligence! This might be its first appearance in the series for nearly thirty years!'

Looking back on it, this was clearly a moment of epiphany. The moment when I was hit by the sudden, shocking realisation that… if it did turn out to be the Great Intelligence, then it wouldn't actually make the story any more interesting.

This revelation was less obvious than it might now seem. Bear in mind that I entered fandom (of a kind) via Doctor Who Weekly, and learned most of what I knew about the history of the series from chunky "anniversary" volumes like Peter Haining's Doctor Who: A Celebration, now clogging up the shelves of Oxfam shops nationwide. Most of these books were hugely inaccurate, but that's beside the point. In the years before cheap video, the fans were obsessed with the series' past - a past we never thought we'd actually see, not even the bits that hadn't been taped over by the BBC - leading to intense debates about whether the Daleks or the Master were the Doctor's greatest enemy, depending on whether you counted their appearances in terms of stories or individual episodes. I was part of the generation which thought about Doctor Who in much the same way that American sports fans think about baseball, with scorecards and statistics for every occasion: part of me still "knows" that there are nine-and-a-half Cybermen adventures, even though this information is clearly out-of-date as well as completely useless. In the 1980s, the return of any "old" monster was greeted with a great whooping and cheering, because (in effect) it improved that monster's batting average. Even the producer came to think this way after a while, which is why he kept bringing back the Master even when everyone was sick of the bastard. So, a brand-new story featuring an arch-enemy not seen since 1967…? Even if it only happened in print rather than on TV, it still scored points. As if attaching the name of something from the before-I-was-born era of Doctor Who was in some way an excuse for the wretched banality of it all.

I've been thinking about this a lot, in the wake of "Human Nature". For all its highs, there are parts of the episode which just seem slow, but… not in the ways we might expect. The slow bits aren't the "talky" bits: in fact, the three-and-a-half-sided love-triangle between the Doctor, the New Girl, the Semi-Doctor and This Year's Love Interest are a pleasant reminder of what things were like in the days of "proper" telly, when characters were allowed to have quiet conversations and not everything had to be rapid-cut or filmed with a shaky hand-camera. No, the slow bits are the "monstery" bits. Aliens disguised as human beings are never interesting, and in the case of "Human Nature", they spend the whole episode establishing themselves as generic body-snatchers. In a series that treats spaceships and bodily possessions as an everyday occurrence, it really shouldn't take four minutes of screen-time for Baines to find a UFO and then demonstrate that he's been taken over. We've seen all of this before, many, many times, so it's not as if we need to be told every little detail. Nor do we need all those scenes of possessed people acting out-of-character and plotting amongst themselves, when we know they're going to say exactly the same things that alien plotters always say in these situations. Because while the Family of Blood is indulging in all this routine villainy, the regulars are doing something much more involving, and even the thirteen-year-old boy on the games field is going all Twelve Monkeys on us.

But: a-hah, I thought. A-hah. The Doctor describes these aliens as hunters. They track their prey by smell. They have a strong sense of family. They insert themselves into human bodies, they've got a thing for strange gases, and they clearly prefer fat victims. Even Rebekah Staton looks like a younger, cuter Annette Badland. Is the message not clear, I asked myself? After all, the villains in the original novel of Human Nature were far less generic, and why would any writer make his own creations less interesting unless he were planning to turn them into some other form of monster? In short: are these not the Slitheen, or at least some other Raxicoricofallapatorian family? Is this not likely to be the big twist in the second half of the story? True, they seem more reliant on other people's flesh than the Slitheen we used to know, and their mother is so degenerate that she's become a vapour who lives inside a novelty paperweight (unless, of course, she's a Slitheen guff who's somehow acquired the power of speech). But they have so much else in common, even more so than the Bane from the Sarah-Jane pilot, who might be considered Slitheen wannabes anyway. Then there's the curious fact that although we don't see any Slitheen when Smith flips through his Journal of Impossible Things, there's a later scene in which Nurse Redfern specifically points to a portrait of one, just so we get a close-up of its smug Raxicoricofallapatorian face. As if we're being gently prodded to remember something. Oh, yes: ah-hah is very much the word.

I thought.

The Slitheen turned out to be like all other gas-men, though: I waited for them all day, and they never turned up. Now I feel a sense of disappointment that's wholly of my own making. But the question remains… even if the School Bully and the Scary Little Girl had unzipped their heads and revealed themselves to have big green baby-faces, would that have made any difference? Because whatever their true nature had turned out to be (and it's got to be said, their status as vaguely-defined near-immortals seems to have served the plot rather well in the end), it wouldn't have changed the fact that the first half of the story is still a bit slow when the bad guys are on the screen, or that the Family is still made up of generic body-snatchers. The Slitheen in "Aliens of London" work because they avoid the usual gamut of "possession" clich├ęs: putting big flabby monsters inside politicians isn't an attempt to generate hokey sci-fi suspense, it's a way of turning them into Hogarth-style grotesques. They don't waste time creeping about the place with mad staring eyes, the way the Family of Blood does. Whatever you call the villains in "Human Nature", hokey sci-fi suspense is their stock-in trade, and it's the one whacking great flaw in the story. Although admittedly, they automatically become more interesting once they're dumped in collapsing galaxies or trapped in mirrors.

I've never believed that a single line of dialogue, or even a single name, is enough to change the basis of an entire script. Generations of fanboys have (for example) tried to claim that "Image of the Fendahl" raises the stakes of the whole series, because it pits the Doctor against an enemy which "is" death, and yet… we only know it's supposed to "be" death because the Doctor says so, once, in a single line of a single scene. Watch the rest of the story, and the Fendahl just looks like any other poxy life-sucking monster we've seen over the years. And clearly, a generic disembodied intelligence doesn't become any more worthwhile if it's a generic disembodied intelligence from 1967, although it took me a distressingly long time to break the '80s fan-conditioning and notice this. Likewise, only Mark Braxton would be a big enough arse to believe that if the Doctor refers to some giant CGI crabs as "Macra" - rather than as "Crabulons", or "Clawrentulas", or "Sniptrodines", or any other spurious sci-fi name - then it changes the nature of an episode to such a degree that it's even worthy of a mention in the Radio Times. Yet somehow, I find myself disappointed that a bunch of family-obsessed hunting-monsters in 2007 don't have the same name as a bunch of near-identical family-obsessed hunting-monsters from 2005. Even by my standards, this is irrational.

Mind you… given that the Family wants to be the Doctor, it's tempting to imagine that each member of the group is a distorted aspect of the Doctor himself, especially since this is the only twenty-first century story in which we see the (hurriedly-sketched) faces of his previous selves. We might suppose that the Fat Bloke is Colin Baker, or that the One Who Looks Much Too Young is Peter Davison, and they've even got an army of Jon Pertwees circa Worzel Gummidge.