Sunday, May 11, 2008

Week Six: Response to "The Doctor's Daughter"... Minute by Minute

What I was thinking at the time, even if I didn't write it down and add the long words until later.

Minute 0. I wish to protest in the strongest possible terms about the fact that this programme is introduced by the Girl Made Of Neon every week. In previous years, the BBC has thoughtfully put a different station ident at the start of each episode, so that anyone recording the series for posterity (and who prefers the personal touch to the DVD boxed set) will be able to look back on it in fifteen years' time and feel a nostalgic warmth for the quaint old idents that the BBC used to make in the days before it was taken over by Sky TV. This year, on the other hand, they've used the Girl Made Of Neon ident week after week after week. It's not just me who notices these things, is it? True, the announcer almost makes up for it by saying something like "coming up next, Graham Norton sends another one of the Nancies home" over the end credits of every episode, but… oh, it's starting.

Minute 1. If Donna's so concerned about swallowing hamsters, then she should try closing her mouth occasionally. They probably crawl in there while she's asleep.

Minute 2. Yes, I was wondering how long it'd be before someone from Skins turned up in this series. The most entertaining thing here, however, is the thought that the last shot of the pre-credits sequence has become a replacement for the first-episode cliffhanger. If Terry Nation had written this story, then the TARDIS crew would have spent twenty-five minutes creeping around in unoccupied tunnels and occasionally spraining their ankles, and Jenny - which is, after all, a very Terry Nation sort of name (q.v. "The Dalek Invasion of Earth") - would only have turned up at the end of Part One. As a surprise twist. Even though the story's called "The Doctor's Daughter".

Minute 3. It's no good, I still instinctively cheer when "David Tennant" comes up on the credits. But only so I can instinctively boo at "Catherine Tate".

Minute 4. Really, though, the title "The Doctor's Daughter" is telling in itself: the programme's determined to sell the audience on This Week's Big Wow Gimmick, and a title that's actually about the story-world we're seeing here (rather than the episode's novelty talking-point, who's a character on this occasion instead of a special effect) would be untenable. For a start, it might confuse the Radio Times reviewers. So, the next generation of monster-fighting hero after the Doctor is an ersatz Buffy the Vampire Slayer… is this a deliberate irony, or does Stephen Greenhorn just not have much imagination?

Minute 5. He wrote "The Lazarus Experiment", what am I thinking? Oh look, explosions.

Minute 6. Hath masks: a great way to ingest vodka at a fan-convention without anyone noticing how much you're drinking. A bit like a beer-hat for geeks. I like the idea that someone on the set had to say to Paul Kasey: "Do you think you can lumber sympathetically instead of menacingly this week?"

Minute 7. Yes, yes. Martha helps the funny-looking alien, all very nice. But - and as I ask myself this question, I find myself thinking of Dr Zoidberg from Futurama - how can she be so confident that her shoulder-popping procedure will work on a non-human patient? For all she knows, they might have prehensile reproductive systems, and she could just be twisting his nob off. Oh, Christ! She didn't actually just say 'I'm Dr Martha Jones, who the Hell are you?', did she? Just because the Doctor's offspring looks as if she'd be at home in an episode of Alias (note to self… there's an "Alias, Smith and Jones" gag here somewhere), that's no excuse for macho American face-off dialogue. The next thing you know, the companions are going to be fighting over the Doctor and calling each other 'bitch'.

Minute 8. Now I'm remembering the speakeasy in Bugsy Malone, where they press a switch and all the furnishings revolve, so that the place looks legal when the police turn up (many people of my generation still associate this idea with French Golden Delicious, thanks to an advertising campaign which… no, never mind that now). I'm remembering this because somewhere at BBC Wales, there must be a button that automatically transforms the nearest dilapidated building into a struggling colony world full of cargo-boxes and people in overalls. It'd save so much bother.

Minute 9. Yes, let's all stroke Martha! So, to summarise: all you have to do to earn the trust of the cyber-pilchards is fix the arm-joint of one of their soldiers? Even if you're a member of a species which has been attempting to commit genocide against them for as long as anyone can remember? If the Hath are so trusting, then have the humans on this planet really not thought of strolling into enemy territory, pretending to be nice by handing out Band-Aids, and then planting explosive charges when they're left to roam around the place unattended? I'm amazed the war's lasted this long. Unless, of course, Martha really did pull the injured one's nob and they all just want a piece of the action.

Minute 10. Oh, wait, I zoned out for a minute there. What did I miss? Erm, Nigel Terry's talking. Something something colony something… generations ago… war started… right, the usual. The Hath came with the humans, then? Were there no Monoids available?

Minute 11. The thing is… leaving aside the minor question of why we can't understand the Hath, this whole dialogue-light strand of the story (Martha gives us half of the conversation, and we can work out the rest for ourselves) works beautifully. Mute characters are, traditionally, more likeable than talky ones: this is why Newt in Aliens is bearable and Anakin in The Phantom Menace isn't. I'm just left with the terrible suspicion that if we could understand them, then these would be some of the most banal conversations in the programme's history. Why would a species that (apparently) breathes liquid want to colonise a dry old planet like this one, anyway? Even if they're planning on terraforming the place - land for humans, sea for Hath, according to the Doctor's old three-point Sea Devil peace-plan - you'd have thought that the Hath would have flooded their half of the colony, which wouldn't just give them a more comfortable environment but also stop the humans taking it over. Instead, they seem to have kept the place as dry as the human part of the complex, purely so they've got the pleasure of walking around with unwieldy survival apparatus strapped to their faces. To balance things out, maybe the humans should flood all of their tunnel-systems, so that they have to wear scuba suits all the time.

Minute 12. Is it really that easy to mass-produce Time Lords, then? Makes you wonder how the buggers lost the Time War. It also raises the question of why the Doctor hasn't already thought about restarting the Time Lord line, rather than moping around the universe and droning on about being the last of his kind every few weeks.

Minute 13. 'It'll give us the power to erase every stinking Hath from the face of this planet!' Why is it that bad SF dialogue is always so obsessed with smells? Much like the (tragically) unforgettable line from Torchwood about being trapped in the void with 'the darkness and the stench of fear'. It doesn't help that General Cobb keeps going on about 'the breath of God', which just makes me think of halitosis and unlevened bread.

Minute 14. Yes, let's stroke Martha some more! Well, so far, this episode is nowhere near as awful as it might have been: some of the dialogue is atrocious (especially Cobb's, although the casting of Nigel Terry turns the character into an escapee from A Fistful of Dynamite instead of a standard-issue military fanatic, even if Terry looks as if he can't figure out how he got here from the RSC), yet sheer enthusiasm seems to be keeping it all going. Looking at the clock, however, I notice that we're only a third of the way through. This is going to slow down soon, isn't it? Any moment now, the Doctor and Jenny are going to start agonising about the nature of war, I can just feel it.

Minute 15. Oh, God, here it comes.

Minute 16. On the plus side, Donna has a personality this week. The problem with a "down-to-Earth" companion, whether it's a Rose, a Martha or a Donna, is that most writers are middle-class white boys who know very little about living on a council estate or working as a temp. As a result, the companion can end up as an all-purpose prompt with a liking for vaguely modern-sounding catchphrases, whose purpose is to ask the Doctor all the pertinent questions while saying 'no way!' or 'you have got to be kidding me!' every few minutes: consider "The Shakespeare Code", written by Gareth Roberts, who unashamedly prefers the late-'70s approach of treating the Doctor as the core of the series rather than the Doctor-human relationship. But even Big Russell, who has an obvious affection for these characters, has a tendency to use their life-stories as a way of generating throwaway "common person" gags (so that a character can, for example, make a flip comment about her sister-in-law throwing up in Ibiza while the Doctor's trying to explore a hostile alien planet). Yet here, Donna's lines about the Doctor having the look of a Chav-dad suggest that's she's talking about the real real world. For the first time in this series, she's stopped being a sketch character. [Afternote: in the accompanying Confidential, Davies seems genuinely surprised that Donna's so believable here. But surely, that should be a minimum requirement for this season's scripts?]

Minute 17. And, oh! Just look at the Doctor's face when Jenny asks him about the Time War, that little disappointed smirk. I do believe that after doing the same schtick for over a year, David Tennant has just found a new expression.

Minute 18. Furthermore, Freema Agyeman seems to be far more convincing when she's dealing with burbling fish-creatures than when she's dealing with other human beings.

Minute 19. "What's that you say, Sooty? The surface is dangerously radioactive? But you want to come anyway? Oh, all right then."

Minute 20. Now, in my day, female companions would flirt their way out of trouble by having abstract conversations about moving faster than light. Two decades on, nothing less than a full-on tongue-spasm between the prison bars will do. I'm mostly dwelling on this so that I don't have to dwell on the other thing that's going on here, i.e. the suggestion that if the Doctor hadn't stepped in with the clockwork mouse, then we'd have to watch Donna doing "sexy" as well. This prospect has been preying on my mind all week, ever since an acquaintance of mine described her as "the first female Doctor Who companion I wouldn't have a go on". I sympathise with this view, although I felt I had to explain to him that Barbara Wright isn't the kind of woman you can just "have a go on": she's a classy lady, and must be slowly coaxed with fine wine and knitwear.

Minute 21. Another stretch of overwrought Torchwood-level dialogue ('you can stay down here and live your whole life in the shadows…') ends with Martha promising the Nice Hath that if he follows her up to the surface, then he'll be able to feel the wind on his face. Is that really something a bipedal guppy would want to feel? If these creatures aren't fully adapted for air, then it's a bit like trying to encourage someone by promising to blast them with a water-cannon. Of course, I'm assuming that Hath Peck is male, simply because of Martha's body-language towards him. Great big fish-flirt that she is.

Minute 22. Actually, I hope he's critically wounded at some point in this story. Given Martha's track-record last year, she'd probably try to give him mouth-to-mouth. If she gargled at him, then would he hear it as Welsh?

Minute 23. Donna Noble: Ace Cryptographer. Meanwhile, Jenny's doing her sort-of-like-the-Doctor-but-raised-as-a-soldier routine, as expected. I foresee an awful lot of people trying to spot the overlap between Jenny and Miranda (the Doctor's last surprise daughter, from Lance Parkin's Father Time), but if anything, she's a cute white version of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart (from Ben Aaronovitch's Transit, among others). I've no idea why the Doctor keeps turning to Donna to explain why he isn't a soldier, because it's not exactly a hard one to field, philosophically speaking.

Minute 24. May I ask why the colonists have set up a game of laser-beam Ker-Plunk in this corridor? Surely, they could make a much more reliable and much more efficient anti-Hath barrier by arranging a small number of these lasers in a regular grid formation? Because this whole section only seems to exist as a pretext for high-risk limbo dancing. Sadly, the Doctor is obliged to fry the clockwork mouse at this point, probably because it's getting more laughs than his co-star.

Minute 25. Protracted gunfight. If I go out to the toilet now, will I miss anything? Sod it, I'll just do it in an empty Coke bottle, who's going to know. The gas-guns on show here are, if nothing else, the greatest step forward in Doctor Who arms technology since "Earthshock" (when the monsters learned how to shoot in straight lines, rather than sending the entire TV picture into negative).

Minute 26. "I'm addiiicted to you, don't you knooow that you're toxiiiiic…"

Minute 27. It's like The Hound of the Baskervilles, only with a giant fish-man instead of a mass-murderer. A fairly obvious point, which I'm sure will be crossing everyone's mind about now: are we sure that the Nice Hath can't survive under the quicksand? It's not as if he's a fish out of water, and even if the sludge isn't "breathable" for his species, his face-pack should surely keep him alive for a while. After Captain Kirk was killed off in that terrible Star Trek movie, William Shatner - determined to continue his relationship with the Star Trek universe, whether anyone wanted him to or not - wrote an equally terrible novel in which Kirk is resurrected under unlikely circumstances, and goes on to become the messiah (or something). Along similar lines, I can see an elderly Paul Kasey trying to extend his life on the convention circuit with his book Hath Peck: A Dark Undoing, in which the Nice Hath is rescued from his swampy grave and we get a glimpse into the more disturbing psychosexual side of his nature. David Banks got away with much worse.

Minute 28. Yeah, I cried when my first goldfish died.

Minute 29. The Doctor's just invited Jenny on board the TARDIS. She's going to die, isn't she? Or get flung off into time and space somehow, so that she can't come back until the end-of-season two-parter. Ironically, the idea of a three-girl-rumba on board the TARDIS would have really appealed to Peter Davison twenty-five years ago.

Minute 30. Jesus, is this conversation still going?

Minute 31. Well, I'm glad someone enjoys running up and down corridors.

Minute 32. Nothing to see here, move along.

Minute 33. And so, in yet another attempt to give Donna some kind of useful talent, temping skills become unexpectedly useful in a life-or-death situation (see also "The Sontaran Stratagem", and the subplot about the medically-suspect Polish workforce that never goes anywhere). I remain unconvinced that a woman who wasn't even clued-up enough to know about the Cyberman Invasion of Earth (in "The Runaway Bride") would (a) care about the meaning of serial-numbers on the walls of a spaceship or (b) bother to remember the exact workings of the Dewey decimal system, but what troubles me most is this: she had a job in Hounslow Library, and that used to be my local library. There was a deeply attractive redhead who worked behind the check-out desk, and it worries me to think that in the Doctor Who universe, her place was taken by Donna Noble. I feel strangely soiled.

Minute 34. However, the real problem here is that we've just spent two whole minutes of screen-time (plus all the "what are these numbers?" scenes beforehand) establishing that the war has only been going on for seven days, and yet… it turns out to be completely irrelevant to the story. Why does it matter how long they've been here? The Doctor doesn't even bother to share this information with the colonists, and it certainly doesn't change their situation. It's almost like a backwards version of "Full Circle", in which the twist is "this hasn't been going on for long" rather than "this has been going on for longer than we thought". And while we're on the subject of ye olde Doctore Whoe stories…

Minute 35. …we've got a gigantic hangar-cum-colony set, covered in foliage. See, I said they should've hired Monoids. Except that here, there's no sign of animal life apart from the humans and the aliens: the thing that made "The Ark" seem so remarkable in 1966, namely a bloody great elephant on a spaceship, is sadly absent from this latter-day space-jungle. Which means that the whole shebang seems less impressive than a (relatively) low-budget BBC show made forty years ago, and surely, that can't be right. Maybe they shouldn't have spent so much time and effort getting Georgia Moffett to jump over laser-beams [that one short stunt-sequence took two days, according to Confidential], and could have used any money left in the kitty to hire livestock instead.

Minute 36. Doctor Who has been brought to you this week by the word "generation".

Minute 37. Leaving aside his current romance with the World of Showbiz, one of Russell T. Davies' greatest flaws as Chief Writer is that he doesn't seem to understand what the word "war" means. In his world, it's something you can end with the flip of a switch, quite often a reset switch. "The Parting of the Ways" saw the last battle of the Time War (his words, not mine) concluded with a single burst of improbable logic, but if anything, "Doomsday" was even more of a disappointment on that score: the previews promised us that the Doctor and Rose would face a "war on Earth", yet what we actually got was half an hour of aliens shooting at each other, brought to an end by the activation of a spurious time-hoover. An actual war is complex, messy and protracted, and it'd be nice if we could see one in Doctor Who someday. Until then, we get the Doctor bringing a 140-generation conflict to an end by smashing this week's magic artefact and releasing some more of that all-purpose Deus Ex Machina energy. If the colonists have been hot-housed to believe in the Source as the holiest of holies, then why don't they all want to kill him as an obvious heretic? Or is General Cobb the only one who actually believes in the local religion? It's like standing in front of the Taliban and saying: "At last, here are the bones of Mohammed… and I'm going to smash them to bits in front of your stupid faces, for no reason you can possibly understand!"

Minute 38. Oh, dear. Cobb's looking at the Doctor in a menacing way. He's going to open fire, isn't he? And someone's going to throw herself in front of the bullet, isn't she…? We might have hoped that the series had got this love of gratuitous self-sacrifice out of its system with Luke Rattigan, but apparently not. [Rather sweetly, the accompanying Confidential reveals that Georgia Moffett believed Jenny's "death" to be a surprise twist. She clearly hasn't been paying much attention to this series.] Yep, there she goes. Why is Cobb the only one who's packing a conventional firearm instead of a nifty new pilot-lighter gun?

Minute 39. David Tennant is contractually obliged to cry at least once in every season, usually over someone we've been forced to care about at gunpoint. Here, the circumstances are so contrived that it's actually impossible to feel moved, or - indeed - to feel anything at all other than a sense of grinding inevitability. I bet he's going to sit there sobbing for about another forty seconds, then get angry and start shouting.

Minute 40. Look, we know you're not going to pull the trigger. You're not impressing anybody. Perhaps it's just that I was already thinking of William Shatner, but as Jenny's laid to rest while the planet terraforms itself around her, the Doctor's awkward 'she was too much like me…' speech seems perilously close to: "Of all the souls I've encountered in my travels, hers was the most… Time Lord."

Minute 41. Riiiiight. So, the TARDIS detected Jenny and took the Doctor into the future, but arrived too early and therefore caused an 'endless paradox' by allowing the Doctor to create her. Obvious question: why did it detect her at this point in time, both in terms of its own existence (i.e. after six-hundred years of slouching around the universe with the Doctor) and in terms of its relative surroundings (i.e. when it was securely parked on twenty-first-century Earth)? Martha's long-distance call to the Doctor in "The Sontaran Stratagem" makes a certain sense, if we assume that the TARDIS keeps things nice and linear, and that the 'phone rings in the console room after the same amount of time has passed for both the Doctor and his ex-companion on Earth. But this is just a nonsensical non-explanation, and it's the creator of Faction Paradox who's talking here.

Minute 42. Now Donna's insisting that she's going to travel with the Doctor forever. Is she going to die, then? Because it's got that ominous On Her Majesty's Secret Service ring to it. Big Russell has hinted that one of the regulars might finally snuff it at the end of this series, although as I've said before, I assumed that Donna was safe for the Jar Jar Binks reason (you knew he was going to make it to the end of Revenge of the Sith, because too many people in the audience would cheer at the moment of supreme tragedy). I find myself dwelling on the recent "Cyberman in a snowy graveyard" photos, and wondering if they really are from the next Christmas special, as we've been led to believe. Bit early to be filming the Christmas special, isn't it? And if the walls between parallel universes are collapsing - as Rose's presence would seem to suggest - then won't we get Cybermen in "Journey's End", along with Daleks, Davros, Jenny, an alternative-universe version of the Doctor, the laughing time-witch who filched the Master's ring at the end of "The Last of the Time Lords", and God knows what else? I'm just saying, that's all. The funeral could be anybody's.

Minute 43. Yeah, yeah. Companion debrief. Sad-yet-stirring music. We get the idea.

Minute 44. Wait a minute… is that terraforming energy coming out of her mouth, or nebulous Time Lord energy? Which is to say, has she been Spock'd, or Bad Wolf'd? It's slightly green and vegetable-like, so I'm assuming the former. Perhaps it'll escape the atmosphere and attract the attention of some "pilot fish" Robot Santas, if they want their five portions a day.

Minute 45. You know how I said she was a cute white version of Kadiatu Lethbridge-Stewart? Read the last scene of Transit again. Then watch the last scene of this episode. That's all.

Minute 46. "The Nancies are all warmed up," according to the announcer. Now I think about it, though… at the start of the episode, Donna uses the phrase 'like swallowing a hamster' as if she's actually tried it, which might explain why she's incapable of keeping her trap shut: she's like one of the rodent-eating reptile-people in '80s sci-fi mini-series V, and her detachable jaw has somehow got stuck in the "down" position.

Minute 47. Mission completed. Empty out the Coke bottle and turn to BBC3.