Probic Vent Ood For Thought

11Apr/121

The Geek Clique on Doctor Who – Season 3

Hmm, season 3. Weird one. I think some of these episodes are as good as the new Doctor Who ever got. It's got Moffatt's perfectly-formed masterpiece in Blink (arguably, controversially, the last great thing he's written for the series); it has the balls to go outside the box with Human Nature, which has lovely moments; it has New Blake's 7 with a masterful (I genuinely didn't intend that pun) reveal in Utopia; and it has something that's just mental in the form of Gridlock.

But it also has two two-parters that are just bloody awful. First we have Helen Raynor's risible Daleks In Manhattan (and can't you just imagine how RTD came up with that one - its title is a mission statement and brief rolled into one, clearly on the basis that it's funny or wacky) with a squawking showgirl, 'pig-slaves' (whatever you do never type that into an image search engine) and oh for God's sake I can't go on.

Then the Simm Master finale. This actually has some wonderful moments in it. Simm's thumbs-up to a dying cabinet minister's "You're insane!" is brilliant and he has other good moments but - whether its acting, scripting or direction - he's simply stupid in much of it. Eat your heart out Anthony Ainley, who at least was acting in a pantomime most of the time back in the 80s. And then the hideous shrivelled Doctor thing, which then turns into The Doctor as Jesus. The deification of the Doctor had been there for some time in RTD's scripts, but really.

The rest are - for me - utterly forgettable. I've never again watched 42, the Shakespeare one, Smith and Jones again - and I've only seen several others cos they happened to be on television at the time.

The Geek Clique - mostly new-series fans - largely gave this season the thumbs-down; not least because this season ends, as the previous two did, with the show-runner writing himself into a corner and then doing the only thing he could do - turn off the plot.

Poor Freema Agyeman also gets her fair share of criticism here. I don't think Freema was helped by the part of Martha and I think she has her fair share of very strong moments in the series. Still, Martha could hardly be thought of as a success - one wonders just how quickly RTD sketched out that character, one he never really seemed sure of - even if Freema is the most beautiful companion ever (and I include Anneke Wills and Mary Tamm in that, though I fancied most of the companions truth be told).

The Geek Clique (see season one and season two for an explanation of this weird gestalt entity) was not generally impressed. Was Who fatigue setting in? Tennant fatigue? Davies fatigue? This series scores an average of 4.2, which places it above series two but well below series one.

For me it's one of wild fluctuations in quality - we know that RTD found the pace of production very difficult and, frankly, this shows in a number of weaker episodes, which have to be carried by Tennant.

So, where does this leave my 33-33-33 split for season three? Pretty much intact actually:

Good - Gridlock, Blink, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Utopia
Meh - Smith and Jones, The Shakespeare Code, 42, The Lazarus Experiment
Shit - Daleks in Manhattan / Evolution of the Daleks, The Sound of Drums/Last of the Timelords

But will the Geek Clique agree? Did season three make us want to not blink. Or did we, er, want to teat out our brains and put them in Zeriods?

Simm! Jacobi! Toclthingies! Marf! Helen's Rayn'or Terror! New Adventures! The Angels! Cats! A run of four straight stories that were utter shit! It can only be season three of NuDoctor Who!

Season 3

This one is the most Meh season for me. It's not as offensively bad as season 4, true, but there's really nothing I felt any urge to watch again with the possible exception of Blink. Even more damningly, it's the first season of new Who for which I didn't buy the DVD Box Set: for completist nerds like us, that's surely a fairly big warning sign.

The season was a catalogue of missed opporunities and errors caused by RTD starting to believe his own hype and the hype surrounding Tennant.

On a recent cheap DVD-fuelled rewatch I skipped the Dalek one, Lazarus and fell a bit asleep during 42. Which is surprising given that it's based around a pub quiz.

There were some real standout stories - Human Nature, Blink, and apart from the finale and the dalek second episode there were none that were really poor. But it showed me that RTD's alternative to avoiding getting too dark (which he said was the failing of every long-running show) was to get too big. Far, Far too big.

I don't see any of the scripts for this year as being outstanding... I actually can't remember the vast majority of the stories in this season.

In terms of the stories I think the run from Human Nature to Utopia is very strong. Unfortunately there's also the run from the Daleks one to 42, which is utterly forgettable (see also: Shakespeare Code and Smith and Jones). And the final two-parter an absolute disaster; the second part perhaps the nadir of the whole series. Another series of radically fluctuating quality for me.

The first one was fun but inconsequential, the Shakespeare one was smug twaddle (and the scene in Bedlam in which the Doctor screams at the gaoler about his treatment of the inmates and then leaves without having even tried to change things sums up the problem with the tenth Doctor very nicely: he's all mouth and no trousers), I'd probably like "Gridlock" far less if I watched it again, the Dalek two parter was I thought rather nice in a slightly clumsy way until Jesus showed up at the end, and "The Lazarus Experiment" was a nice little filler episode let down by a stupid CGI monster (and, like most of the overtly Christian Series 3, is proof positive that RTD is the least atheistic atheist who ever lived).

Smith and Jones

Smith and Jones, while I enjoyed it at the time, is a first draft of the much-superior Partners in Crime.

The Shakespeare Code

[...of] the celebrity historicals, The Unquiet Dead wasn't bettered until Vincent & the Doctor. Shakespeare Code is perfectly servicable though, Harry Potter jokes and all.

Gridlock

Have come round to the position that Gridlock is conflicted in all the right places. A lovely little filmlet, that one.

42

How can a thing featuring both Doctor Who and a pub quiz make me fall asleep? I don't know. If anything you'd think it might even make me angry, given that Martha cheats.

Blink

Blink has a good concept but an appalling script. Like all Moffat scripts, the only voice the characters have is his.

Blink was one of the best episodes of the new era.

Human Nature / Family of Blood

Human Nature was anti-Doctor Who for me. The Doctor was cowardly and cruel. I hated it.

I didn't find Human Nature as good as other people obviously did.

I really don't get the love for Human Nature: the script is baggy, and some nice concepts are lost in yet another tiresome adventure for Captain Emo. Those scarecrows looked brilliant, and moved fantastically; they could have been the defining Who beastie for a generation, but who remembers them now? Frittered away, just like the concept of the Master would be later in the season.

Human Nature is bloody good.

Utopia

The last ten minutes of Utopia was stunning (apart from that line reading) and really had me on the edge of my seat.

Utopia was actually amazing. Brilliant set up and an absolutely dreadful John Simm finale, with all the good undone by the two episodes that followed. Unfortunately it doesn't exist as a story in it's own right.

Utopia was like 70s Doctor Who. The guest star over-acting, an alien planet I don't care about, unthinking racism and dreadful direction. Bizarrely, I loved it, though. And was there ever a better break of the fourth wall in Doctor Who than when Jacobi said, "I ham the Master"?

I don't really get the mass love for Utopia and can only conclude it is because it is mostly set at night and has got a official "real famous Shakesperian Act-Or" (albeit not a very good one) in it. It felt very long, the Mad Max baddies were dull and Chan fucking Tho has to be the most awful Nu-Who character ever.

The Utopia love, for me, is based upon its precision-tooled raising of the dramatic tension from minute 1 to minute 45.

Sound of Drums / Last of the Timelords

The First part of the Simm two parter was fantastic, Simm clearly having a whale of a time and the Tocclafaines being fun new baddies. Then it all went to complete shit in the second part with magic jesus Doctor and all the rest.

I was definitely looking forward to the second part.

If I could vote for "The Sound of Drums" but not vote for "Last of the Time Lords" I would.

Both episodes deserve damnation for introducing the fucking Valiant. I have an issue with the modern day setting for stories. The global awareness of aliens and advanced technology like the Valiant make the world quite definitely not our own, despite the soap opera attempts to keep the characters grounded in our world. It's counter-productive. It undermines what should be the strength of present day set stories - the proverbial Yeti in a loo in Tooting Bec.

The point of the modern stories has to be the whole 'fuck, there could actually be a monster in the garden and I wouldn't know' thing. Otherwise what's it for?

Again, brilliant ideas (the Toclafane, the Paradox machine) chewed up and shat out to give Tennant the opportunity to look sad and do his thin-lipped, glistening-eyed biting back back emotion schtick. I honestly can't bring myself to think about Dobby the Messiah, let alone say anything.

Simm was fantastic. Her who played Mrs Master wasn't too shabby either. The regulars kept things together. And the Toclafane were one of the creepiest villains Doctor Who has ever faced.

But the story was somewhat less than the sum of its parts. A series of barely-related set-pieces, a huge FX budget, a sadistic way with the show's eponymous hero and a subplot involving domestic violence do not make for the best Doctor Who ever. It's been pointed out that, had the story been part of the original series, the Master would've ended up being betrayed by the Toclafane, joining forces with the Doctor and escaping whilst everybody's back is turned. But no, RTD had to wring more and more emotion out of his audience, had to make it all about life & death, had to up the ante one last time. And it didn't work. Arguably, it's never worked again .

...restraint might have spared us the Jones family's nigh totally vacuous onscreen humiliation, Freema lugging narrative weights that might've crushed lesser talents and obviously everybody's favourite detestable sight - floaty Doctor Jesus. But you can prise my Jacobi-Simm Master trilogy out of my cold dead etc.

The Tenth Doctor / David Tennant

Tennant really upped his game to compensate for the lack of charisma or chemistry in this series, and he is superb during a great deal of this, but even so, the Doctor needs a companion to keep things bubbling during the dull bits, and we just didn't have it.

I think the real mistake RTD made was that he cast an actor he knew could act anything - so RTD made him.

The Master / John Simm

The crowning nail up the urethra was Simms portrayl of the Master: given that this one was sold to us as very definitvely a reflection of the Doctor, it gives us a chilling glimpse into what RTD thinks the Doctor's USP is - but worse than that, of course, is the debasement of the character into a sociopathic Chuckle Brother with all the menace of the Grumbleweeds blasting out disco tunes.

I love the Simm Master - he even made Tennant's swansong watchable.

Martha Jones / Freema Agyeman

The biggest problem for me was Freema, gawd bless 'er. Easy on the eyes but, Christ, I trained with nomarks who had more acting talent than that.

Freema's acting by numbers sort of spoils most of the series for me - certainly Shakespeare and the finale. The others sort of spoil themselves. I'd probably watch all of them again without grimacing, apart from the Dalek one which was a good story, with just a really really bad idea.

Martha was a nice idea: as a professional, she could have been new Who's Liz Shaw. But instead she's wasted by being lumbered with yet another love story. And - let's be honest here - Freema, whilst easy on the eyes, could not act her way out of a Terry Nation plot.

Freema is no worse than Aldred or Tamm or Lane, and Martha is a breath of fresh air after the unbearable Rose, but the problem is partly that she is set up to fail and partly that Davies can't write women. Oh, he can do chavs (Rose), and chav harpies (Jackie), and comedy chav harpies (Donna), but if he can't copy a female character archetype off Paul Abbott then he hasn't a clue. Look at the preponderance of ludicrous ice maidens in his stories; look at the way in which middle and upper class women and black and ethnic minority women are given really, really awful dialogue, and then look at the RTD women who actually work. Neither Martha nor Freema ever stood a chance.

Freema's been bloody awful if in everything she's been in. At least Tamm could deliver lines without putting the wrong emphasis on the wrong words.

She's set up to fail from the very beginning: she's compared every five minutes to bloody Rose and found wanting. It's like the Fifth Doctor despising Turlough because he's not as special as Adric instead of despising him because he's a shifty ginger.

Freema can't act. It was like having a sexy Adric on screen. That took me a hell of a while to come to terms with.

I think she got a terrible rap with the part she had to play. I think she's OK during comic moments and seem to remember her being good in Utopia. Sarah Sutton can't act; Mathew Waterhouse can't act. Freema can act, she's just not especially good at it. But I'd say she's ahead, on average, against most old Who companions.

I just think that they made a mistake in the character of Martha and in the casting. They tried to paint her as a strong independent woman, whereas they more or less wrote her how Rose would have been in the Doctor hadn't fancied her.

Russell T Davies

There's just something about the Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords that strikes me as being the point at which Davies's confidence tipped over into being arrogance. After Doomsday, he shouldn't have tried to do a big series finale again for a while. Unfortunately he did, and his writing started to creak under the strain. Upping the ante continually made me lose a little interest - it's like the boy who cried wolf. This culminated in Moffat's bizarre "the Doctor really has died" obviously lying bollocks in 2011, but 2007 was when it started giving diminishing returns.

RTD has no idea how the world works or how people - except for very camp men and very brassy women, for whom he writes in exactly the same way in any case - talk. Never has done. I mean that.

I rather liked Season 3, the horrible '42' and 'The Shakespeare Code' excepted, and was pretty pleased with things until Episode 13 came along and more or less permanently fucked the RTD era up. But then, I maintain that Nu Who seasons are the antithesis of 'Trek' films in that the odd numbered ones are rather better. The bulk of seasons 2, 4 and 6 have been pretty well unwatchable (and, in the case of Season 6, I mostly didn't even try), whereas 1, 3 and 5 were mostly worth watching, if not necessarily worth watching twice.

RTD's strength lies in the fact that his stories make emotional sense. Unfortunately they make bugger all of any other kind of sense, and there aren't many actors who can carry off his brand of high octane emotion without looking like a tit. Eccleston could do it. Capaldi could do it. So could Tate (a bit) and Cribbens. Piper can't, Barrowman can't, and although Tennant pulled if off to start with having to watch him do the same wobbly lip followed by gritted teeth followed by shouting followed by sobbing schtick every week was unbearable. That's the trouble with soaps, though: if you keep upping the ante on suffering as an easy alternative to drama then sooner or later you have to bury somebody alive or steal their baby or have them come back from the dead for no good reason and it's always, always shit.

It reminds me a bit of the 'Xmas in Albert Square' thing - something that's become a joke because each Christmas needs to beat the previous one in terms of how ludicrously miserable it is (the funfair explosion one being my personal favourite). It's a matter of some astonishment that every Doctor Who series has essentially ended in this way - only much more so. To the point where 'how on Earth are they going to get out of this one?' is answered with a big fat reset - or the original narrative is demonstrated to be a lie.

And finally... (and possibly not seriously)

It is 2007, Iggy Pop is in the charts and Skegness declares itself a free democratic republic for three glorious weeks before the tanks roll in on the orders of one Margaret Thatcher. And on Television a strange little show called Doctor Who is preparing to broadcast one of the strangest and most cryptic shows of it's long run.

The episode shows three interracial romances ranging from the wholesome flirtation between Martha and Some Guy, the consensual sexual relationship between the mixed race human/pig man "Lazlo" and the chorus girl and the physical violation of the bloke in the two tone shoes by the "black" dalek Sec.

The first of these is presented as being utterly chaste and has no negative consequences for either character.
The second of these although wrapped up in a superficially sappy "love conquers all sentiment" is clearly tormented, secret and will require both parties abandoning their careers and giving up on any semblance of a normal life.
The third of these is presented utterly negatively; by consorting with the "black" dalek as a partner the bloke in the two tone shoes (and if that isn't straightforwardly obvious symbolism we might as well give up on the last 200 years of Western Critical tradition) ultimately surrenders his individual identity and is viciously absorbed into a miscegenated, vile inhuman creature.

So far so a straightforward story of middle class western fear of interacial relationships and black sexual potency.

But think about this; the Dalek Sec creature is ultimately potrayed positively. He is the only one who can lead the daleks "out of the darkness" and "into the light". His original scheme to "infect" the human subject (and it is surely no coincidence that these are mostly played by white actors) with Dalek DNA is replaced after his transmogmification with a subtler scheme to fuse the Dalek and the Human into one being, similiar to what he has become but at once greater; entierely Dalek and entierely human and greater than the sum of either parts. Just as Christ in Christian mysticism was entierely mortal and entierly god... or more appropriately given what we know of Doctor Who's alchemical nature entierley male and entierely female; a key symbol of alchemy and western msysticism. Further in this blurrirng of gender roles (in the first episode of Doctor Who written by a woman since it came back no less!) there is accomplished a key goal of third wave feminism that given Raynor's background we can only expect her to be steeped in.

Sacred Feminism and the Sacred Feminine in one easily digested bit of pop-culture. The promise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer realised in a superficially simple story of a Man in a Blue Box.

But it would be a mistake to see this as soft and cosily presented chocolate box mysticism. Sec's goals may be laudable but how does he accomplish them? By a vicious attack and violation of the man who thought he was his equal partner. Alesteir Crowley (one of the key figures in Doctor Who so far, cropping up in veiled forms in every season of the show's original run) held that the way to obtain mystic power and wisdom was through a ritual of violation. A symbolic act of rape that would free the seeker from the bounds of social convention.

Here the "black" dalek Sec violates a white partner and achieves mystic enlightenment freeing himself from his Dalek programming.

But there is something else going on here as well. In his exploitation of the native workers the bloke in the two tone shoes echoes the exploitation of the workers by the British Empire, the Daleks are explicitily colonialists, the story takes places in "New" York; one of the most famous and most ancient colonies of the British Empire.

...and also one of the first to throw off the Colonial yoke and establish it's own brash and distinct identity independent of it's colonial past. The famous melting pot where new cultures rub up against each other metaphorically and literally and strange synergies are created. As the British colonised New York and something strange and new was created so by colonising the bloke in the two tone shoes was Sec changed and something new created.

It is literally impossible at this point to argue that the show is not saying that the way for the metaphorical rape of colonialism to be overcome is through a mystic synthesis of the new and old into something else entierely. In a word; alchemy.

So there we have it. Post-Colonial Reaffirmation of an Alchemical Mystic Ideal and renunciation of conventional narratives of rape, interacial relationships and feminism all in a superficially simple story of Daleks in Manhattan.

18Aug/100

Doctor Who sweeps board in SFX sci-fi poll

The Doctor has been voted 'Best Hero' in an SFX poll of its readers; with the Daleks voted Best Monster; and The Master voted Best Villain; with various other Whoniverse characters peppered around various other polls.

I'm biased, but it's tough to see how any other genre character can really compete with the Doctor – eleven faces and personalities; bigger-on-the-inside time machine; anywhere in time and space; mysterious background and abilities. Who could compare?

Blake's 7, Babylon 5 and Farscape, three other series I have big soft-spots for, get a few mentions in the poll too, which is mainly dominated by the Trek franchise and various tedious vampire stuff.

Elsewhere The Master was voted best villain. A right and just result considering the brilliance of Roger Delgado and the sheer evilness of Anthony Ainley. Simm had his moments too. In his less interesting stories, including some of the recent ones, The Master is just a generic pantomime villain.

But gven something more interesting to do, all the actors who played the part have brought something new to the role in the way that every Doctor does. Seven shades of evil. Again, who could compete?

As it goes, I don't really have much interest in the Daleks. Every new appearance since Remembrance of the Daleks - barring Dalek - has been an exercise in diminishing returns and I'm frankly rather bored of them now.

The Daleks, yesterday

Daleks have arguably been rebooted three or four times now, but beyond that original concept there's not a huge amount to them. Most of the best Dalek stories since the 60s have concerned how people react to their presence and existence as much as anything - Genesis, Revelation and Remembrance specifically - although Day of the Daleks is brilliant sci-fi fun.

RTD and Helen Raynor failed completely in doing anything of interest with them in my opinion, and while Victory of the Daleks had some nice moment, it was pretty incoherent stuff.

Nevertheless, Daleks are slightly beyond that now. They're such a massive icon it doesn't really matter any more.

And now, in an SFX poll, they've trumped something called Lorne from Angel, the Aliens, Gollum from Lord Of The Rings, Gizmo from Gremlins, and the thing from, er, The Thing.

I wonder what Ray Cusick, designer of the Daleks, makes of it all. Legend has it he got an ex gratia payment from the BBC that amounted to £50, while Terry Nation bought a massive house in the country and a fleet of sports cars.

Cusick may not be rich, but designing the best monster ever isn't a bad legacy.

Other Doctor Who-related results in the SFX poll include:

• K9 named fifth-best robot
• Cybermen named 13th-best monsters
• Davros voted fifth-best villain
• Captain Jack Harkness voted 11th-best hero
• Donna Noble, Rose Tyler and Sarah-Jane Smith are voted fourth, eighth and tenth as Best Heroine respectively

   

Hush child stop addlepating me!

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