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Space and Time

The 2011 “Children in Need” special. Contains spoilers, so go and watch it on YouTube before reading any further.

Almost a harmless bit of fluff with some amusing lines; certainly less irritating than “Time Crash” (which involved hyper manic “skinny idiot” David Tennant being effortlessly outclassed by Peter Davison). But Stephen Moffat’s insightful comments on how women suffer from a glass ceiling amusingly and ironically inverted sub-adolescent humour was rather grating, and just a tad creepy – does he really think it’s suitable for either children or adults to have the entire situation arise because Rory is looking up Amy’s skirt? I was under the impression that they had got married recently, which in my experience obviates any compulsion the man might have felt beforehand to, ahem, “sneak a peek.” This feels uncomfortably like the writer’s prurience coming through, rather than anything else. As G.K Chesterton said, “A good story tells you the truth about its hero; a bad story tells you the truth about its author.”

This is on a par with Moffat’s rather awkward handling of the grown-up bits in various other stories, which at its worst is crossed with a mile-wide river of sentimentality; throw in some crass dialogue about “my lonely angel” and you have “The Girl in the Fireplace”…

Anyway, all the above sort of matches up with the peculiar and unlikable behaviour he foisted on Amy in the last series, such as having her throw herself at the Doctor and then, having apparently finally chosen Rory (in “Amy’s Choice”) she then tried to drag the Doctor into the bushes on her wedding day. This isn’t so much a strong female character, which I’m all for, as a person who treats her partner with complete contempt.

Anyway, moving on…

The spacey-wacey and timey-wimey stuff was OK, I suppose, but we have seen that sort of thing several times now, and it’s reached the point where a story that isn’t a ripoff of “By His Bootstraps,” “Man in His Time,” “Chronocrimes” or “Red Dwarf” would come as a refreshing change. It was amusing in The Curse of Fatal Death, clever and rather moving in Blink and at least impressive in A Christmas Carol. And, yes, it is nice that someone has noticed that Doctor Who is about time travel, and taken on board the implications, which in old-Who were only glimpsed occasionally (e.g. in “The Ark”, “The Time Meddler”, “Day of the Daleks”, etc) – and in RTD-Who just about nonexistent – but I do hope we aren’t going to spend the next few series’ stuck in the plot equivalent of a chronic hysteresis. (I realise that could be seen as ironic, but it could also be seen as a wee bit boring.)

So, I hope Moffat has a few more tricks up his sleeve; but if he hasn’t, I trust he will at least encourage other writers who do have fresh ideas. That was, after all, how the programme started, with lots of different takes on the central idea (compare, say, The Aztecs, The Daleks, The Celestial Toymaker, The War Machines and The Web Planet).

The previous showrunner apparently liked to put his oar into other people’s scripts, generally (IMHO) to their detriment. For example, Russell famously gave some writers “shopping lists” of things to include, for no obviously good reason (“New York 1930s, Pig Men, sewers, showgirls, the Empire State Building”), shoe-horned jokes into someone else’s script – and, indeed, changed the whole point of at least one story (“So, will you weep for the poor little Dalek? Russell T Davies says you will.”)

The only person whose scripts he never touched was, apparently, Stephen Moffat. I hope Moffat feels similarly towards all the other writers over whom he is supposed to exercise “creative control”.

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A Night at the Optera

Once upon a time, I attempted to write a review of The Web Planet. This is what came out.

(Note that this contains a few spoilers.)

First, hurrah! There are no soapy subplots here, no modern moral dubiety, no smug postmodern complexity – just a group of friends on an outing and a “Boy’s Own” storyline. Those were the days. The Doctor is mysterious and irascible, more concerned that he might lose his ring than wishing to receive the thanks of the people whose planet he saves. Ian and Barbara get their own mini-adventures, Ian showing a healthy sense of proportion by grumping about losing his old school tie while Barbara is the role model we expect, rallying the troops and planning an invasion. And Vicki is the Doctor’s sidekick, in case he needs someone to explain things to or hold his walking stick.

At 6 episodes, this story is a tad long and drawn out from a modern perspective; or rather, from the perspective of watching the whole thing in quick succession. (But the video library would have made us pay lots more if we’d tried to watch it over 6 weeks, as originally broadcast.) Also, of course, it would have been better to have been 8 years old, and to have watched it as part of an ongoing saga that was simply part of your life, and to be able to imagine oneself on an alien world so completely that one didn’t notice the strings or the actors’ legs. And to have had no idea that the series would last another 47 years, or that William Hartnell wouldn’t always be the Doctor…

However.

However, the first episode was marvellously atmospheric, and gave the feeling that this really was an alien planet, complete with acid pools, numerous moons, a lunar surface, and some sort of prism effect on the camera lens. And mysterious happenings – eerie noises, vanishing pens, people being controlled by their bracelets – and, of course, a disappearing TARDIS.

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I was surprised that the Zarbi (effectively giant ants, although evolution took a different turn on Vortis and they ended up with only two legs) were actually relatively convincing, in that you could easily forget there was a person inside (as I, at least, do most of the time with the Daleks). They only made weird sounds, which emphasised their alienness – one of the few species in the cosmos not susceptible to the TARDIS’s “telepathic translator”, apparently. The Larvae Guns, huge animated hairbrushes with glowing eyes and very long noses, were similarly quite convincing, given the limitations. The Menoptera and the “jumping bugs” were less good, inevitably, since they had to communicate with our heroes, which made their “human side” more obvious. It would have been better if they’d hidden their all-to-human looking mouths somehow. In an attempt to increase their alienness, they used flowing gestures and a sort of dominance display where they hissed at each other, but this just tended to highlight their inadequacies. The jumping bugs looked particularly silly in this respect.

The Zarbi were quite menacing in their appearance and behaviour, and the fact that you couldn’t talk to them. Just a force to be escaped or fought – reminiscent of the Yeti in that respect.

The Menoptera failed to convince as a fighting force, being on a par with the Thals in the first Dalek story, but with less justification, since they were allegedly the advanced force for an invasion rather than wandering farmers. (Although they were supposed to have been forced into war reluctantly, so perhaps that was intentional.)

And they were, apparently, only armed with one weapon. Just one. It was called an “isoptope,” and seemed to do them little good most of the time. It was supposed to destroy the Animus, the creature that had taken control of Vortis, although I’m not sure how they knew what would destroy it. (But then how would the Animus know how to devise things like giant wishbones capable of controlling people when put round their necks?) There was some confusing stuff about “aiming for the dark side” when the isotope finally came to be used on the Animus, and exactly how it was defeated was obscure. The gun obviously worked, but maybe not as expected.

(There were a few bits of dodgy science, e.g. how the Menoptera managed to fly in the allegedly thin atmosphere … but anyone who expects real science needs their neutron polarity reversed. As Stephen Moffatt would say, “it’s only Doctor Who“).

It was also a straightforward adventure involving goodies and baddies (hurrah!). Or a baddie, to be exact, who spends most of the story communicating via something akin to Get Smart’s cone of silence. Originally, Vortis was a sort of hippie paradise, full of butterflies frolicking amongst the flowers; only the Animus’ evil influence turned everything to custard. A plot that some may recognise from the Bible, or Lord of the Rings, of course, and which in modern times might seem a wee bit lacking in depth.

The story was at best average for televised SF of the era, especially if we ignore Quatermass and the Twilight Zone and so on. I suppose it rather cuts down on the story possibilities when the putative villains are restricted to speaking in high-pitched twittering noises. But The Web Planet was obviously intended to rest mainly on its creation of an alien world. It would have been better in this regard with a huge budget, of course, but I don’t think this is the main weakness – the story is too thin, drawn out over too many episodes, the dialogue is rather pedestrian, the (alien) characters rather childishly drawn. In fact, I’d say this story relies too much on special effects – which may strike some viewers of the modern series as a familiar complaint!

However, my 8-year-old son, who I was half expecting to be scornful, enjoyed it. (Although it isn’t his all-time favourite Doctor Who story. That’s The Chase…)

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