Probic Vent Ood For Thought

1Nov/152

The Zygon Invasion: Sour

the zygon invasion

Watching The Zygon Invasion reminded me that Paul Cornell once wrote that the Third Doctor in a Prisoner-Of-War camp would be 'sour'. Yet he also argued that the Seventh Doctor in that environment would not be. His reasoning, I guess, was that no writer could sustain something as artificial a construct as the Third Doctor - with his 'mother hen' and UNIT family and going cross-eyed when in danger - within a setting as real, visceral and sensitive as a pogrom.

In The New Adventures - a series that contained racism, sex, swearing and everything in between - the tone could support a deeper, darker level of material. I may not agree with Cornell, but I can see the point. There has to be an envelope in which the series exists - push too far in different directions at the same time and the whole thing becomes uneven, uncomfortable, perhaps inadvisable. Sour.

zygon invasion

Yet in The Zygon Invasion we got precisely that: the nightmare scenario. A Doctor that plays his own theme tune on an electric guitar one week; plays hide and seek with a character out of a two Ronnies sketch another and in the next he battles terrorists who converse in the same language and medium of people who are - right now - slitting the throats of people they judge to be different from themselves.

A story that has our hero advising a UNIT commander that her troops should 'try not to kill all of them' and has Kate Stewart surveying industrial bins full of human bodies. In a series whose tone isn't wildly out of kilter with the stuff you can see on CBeebies and also contains references to Isis execution videos. It's a show that can wave around words like 'radicalisation' and 'funkenstein' within minutes of each other.

zygon invasion

The general irrelevance of the Doctor to the plot was instructive. Instead we got people designed to be relatable, believable, because in the world of The Zygon Invasion the Doctor strikes a sour note. We cannot ever square the man from The Daemons, City of Death, The Five Doctors, Time and the Rani, New Earth, The Crimson Horror with this Doctor.

That's what Paul Cornell was talking about: he was wrong to say that solely the Third Doctor - played by a man, lest we forget, who served in WWII - could not enter into certain fictional spaces. But he was, I think, right to suggest the Doctor cannot and should not move in some fictional spaces because whatever happens the show will always have a high level of absurdity.

Doctor-Who-zygon invasion

It's always been there in the series' texture; in recent years the childishness of Doctor Who has been ramped up to 11. When it's mixed with the kind of gruesomeness we saw in Dark Water or an atrocity allegory the whole concoction curdles.

What we saw in The Zygon Invasion was Doctor Who Meets The Taliban; An Exciting Adventure With Muslim Extremists. Despite the direction, acting and even Murray Gold managing to keep a lid on his usual histrionics, we had something that some people sensed was... wrong. Sour.

the-zygon-invasion-capaldi

Steven Moffat may believe Doctor Who has moved beyond tone. To me The Zygon Invasion was evidence of a programme that has slipped its moorings. It no longer knows what it is or who it is for.

Doctor Who now operates on a level of its own. It's setting its own rules. A programme that simultaneously mines the depths of day-glo stupidity and visceral everyday horror. The Zygon Invasion demonstrates that it no longer operates as parody nor pastiche. In modern Doctor Who the only question is 'should we go there?' and the answer is always 'yes'.

Watch it here on iPlayer

25Oct/152

The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived

THE WOMAN WHO LIVED

Like it or not - I don't - Steven Moffat's Doctor Who is based on throwing enough at the viewers that they daren't leave the room nor switch over, lest they miss something surprising, revelatory or just sufficiently entertaining. Add in a lot of money and a production team that is well-oiled and has an understanding of what's required of them and you can't really go wrong as long as you observe that basic template.

Sonic sunglasses, messing with the theme tune, guest stars, returning characters and standing on a bloody tank playing an electric sodding guitar. The Doctor gurning, whirling around, shouting variations of "I. AM. THE. DOCTOR!" or pulling faces or doing something, well, a bit dickish. It's a template that has served the series very well but there have been indications this season that Doctor Who is moving away from it.

The best episode this series by a long way - Under The Lake - was noticeably empty of this tiresome artifice and, barring some familiar "Vikings! But also SPACE VIKINGS!" stuff in The Girl Who Died (see also: Robot Of Sherwood, Vampires of Venice, Curse of the Black Spot, The Pandorica Opens, The Shakespeare Code - all romps if every I saw one but a also genre coined amusingly by someone else as Doctor Who Laughs At History) was fairly straightforward too. It boasted a lot of mood, a fair amount of talking, a nice scene where Capaldi did his Timecard Victorious bit and a silly device - the Doctor can 'talk baby' - that wasn't simply mined for an idiotic pay-off but used to moving effect.

Even from The Witch's Familiar onwards, it's been possibly to detect a slight restyling towards a more thoughtful series. Slower, more considered, apparently attempting to wean itself off the watch-the-birdie style that has defined Moffat's much of tenure as show runner - the show is also 'darker', not obviously for an audience of young children in the way that episodes such as Aliens Of London or even more recent episodes such as the very enjoyable Mummy On The Orient Express - are. The timeslot is so late that my recorder asked me to input the code that means a show is considered post-watershed.

THE WOMAN WHO LIVED (By Cath Tregenna)

This is a good thing, in my view, simply because the show has to move on. When Doctor Who stays still for too long it suffers and Moffat seems be aware that, despite Capaldi's strong performance, The Twelfth Doctor has struggled to define himself in an idiom that still seems rooted in The Eleventh's.

But the show is only as good as its stories, and this week's was a stinker of historical proportions. Catherine Tregenna's debut for the series was oddly stilted, dull and had some decidedly wobbly production problems - Maisie William's wooden performance most obviously. Perhaps worst of all, though, it was tonally weird. The Woman Who Lived veered between rather childish and decidedly feeble humour (complete with two knob gags), a fire-breathing feline baddie, dead babies and the horrors of immortality.

So startling were the sudden switches in tone that Murray Gold's unsubtle and often unsuitable music signalled just how jarring the writing was by segueing jarringly from his trademark Harry Potter-lite repertoire to the sort of sledgehammer incidental intoning that signals A Serious Bit. It was awkward and confusing to watch and for the first time in a while the production seemed somewhat inept. Within minutes The Woman Who Lived jumped tracks from Wodehousian slapstick to the Wandering Jew via Mark Gatiss' Phantasmagoria and Thundercats. What was the audience supposed to make of it? What were Capaldi and Williams supposed to do with it?

In such a confusing piece of work, scenes such as the one where Rufus Hound's character - perhaps offering the episode's best moments - and The Doctor attempted to delay the former's hanging, by cracking deliberately weak gags, just collapsed into dust. We had comedy historical yokels who conversed in yoofspeak - nullifying the BBC's much-vaunted ability to accurately reproduce eras past - squeezed unceremoniously into Doctor Who's hyperreality.

What's more it felt old. That the Doctor wrecks people's lives is not news to us and has been explored many times before. We also get several explorations of immortality and long life throughout Doctor Who - so the talky scenes feel rather tired. Through Sarah and Rose, River Song and Amy we have explored this issue, again and again. Yet The Woman Who Lived offered it up as if Cath Tregenna had never seen Doctor Who before and was under the impression she was breaking new territory.

Girl-Who-Died-11

No matter where the series goes these days, it never really feels as if it can escape its central tropes and themes. I've long since given up on Murray Gold ever leaving the show, but it will never feel tonally or texturally different until he goes. The same is true of Steven Moffat, but rumours suggest that there is no-one willing to step into his place. So the show chugs on, offering up diminishing returns - even with new writers attempting to explore what is clearly an effort to change the show. And even its fanbase seem wearily disappointed. Just look at the tweets below - the 'top tweets' on my stream about an hour after the episode started.

Doctor Who fans can't be bothered with the show any more - and more than can be written off as the usual suspects. Viewing figures have taken a knock, the episode has one of the lowest average scores on Gallifrey Base since it returned in 2005 and the immediate future of the show seems to be in doubt. At most other times in the last ten years this would worry me. Now I genuinely think it would be a good thing if the show underwent the sort of reboot it did in Season 4, 7, 18 and 25. A year off may be no bad thing.

Following a tired story that dealt with the ennui and issues long life being with it, it was hard not to dwell on the problems facing the 52-year-old programme.

Hush child stop addlepating me!

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