Prequel Smequel.

It may not be that unusual in a Doctor Who drama for the audience to be shown reveals before the Doctor.  What does strike me as unusual in some of Moffat’s Who is that the audience finds out things that the characters will never know. The final shot of ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ reveals a crucial piece of information that makes sense of the events of the story for the audience, after the Doctor has left the story admitting he still has no idea just why Madame de Pompadour was fixated upon by the droids of a ship from the future. That the ship bears her name is revealed only to us.

Of course normally the Doctor knows more about what’s going on than anyone in the room, and in the unfolding of ‘arc’ mysteries that span seasons, we tend to experience key reveals along the way with him: in The Sound of Drums, as the Doctor, Jack and crucially Martha realise the Master is Harold Saxon, the pieces of the season-long puzzle fall into place for us at the same time. Likewise the Doctor discovers River Song’s identity as Melody Pond at pretty much the same time we do, leaving her hapless parents to represent those members of the audience who really need it spelling out.

In the Current Epoch of the show, known as Nu-Who, single episode stories strung in a loose arc has been the norm, with RTD stating his Bad Wolf scenario was only ever meant to be a bonus thread not affecting the comprehensibility of the individual episodes, not expecting it to be picked up by the Guardian and the mass audience (used, as has now become a cliche, to watching TV with an eye to ongoing arcs). Bad Wolf became a brief natIonal talking point. But again, it’s all fairly straightforward narrative exposition. We find out the solution to the Bad Wolf mystery with Rose, and subsequently, with the flabbergasted Doctor as Rose tells him ‘I am the Bad Wolf’ and promptly saves his ass which he was confidently expecting to experience extermination very shortly.

With the ongoing saga of Clara Oswin Oswald, the knowledge available to the audience comes in different ways.

In this new scene acting as a teaser for the new series, and focusing on the search for Clara, picking up from the  end of the Xmas special, again we are left knowing more than the Doctor. I won’t say too much, but suffice to say there’s a charming use of one of Moffat ‘s box of tropes – just playing with the audience, teasing them as to whether the obvious and almost inevitable pay-off. In this case, the pay off implies to me that the Doctor will never know what we find out in the second to last shot. Because he doesn’t need to. It’s not a detail he ever needs to know. The meaning of this particular unfolding of the Oswin story is left to us to decide. I suspect it always will be.

The Bells of St John: A PREQUEL

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

By the way, I must observe this usage of the term ‘prequel’ in more detail.

The term prequel was surely invented to capture the ambiguity of a follow-up movie (normally called a sequel) which relates prior events. The first notable example I can remember in popcorn land is Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which I believe is meant to be set before Raiders of the Lost Arc. Lucas really exploited the form with his Star Wars prequels depicting the first, descending half (?) of the story of Anakin Skywalker. And of course the most obvious current ‘prequel’ would the Hobbit movies.

But in book form, The Hobbit was written and published before the Lord of the Rings’s three volumes. To call it a ‘prequel’ would be to apply a new word to something it doesn’t even describe. Nor can the Dr Who episodes ‘Utopia’ or even ‘Mission to the Unknown’ adequately be called prequels to what they introduce.

This latest addition to Doctor Who shouldn’t be called a prequel’. In my view it is both wrong, draining  the meaning of the word of any of its delicious irony, and for that reason, looks silly. A marketing term used to market something it was originally not intended to market. Namely, a Prologue.

Oh well. Thank the goddess they didn’t call it a Minisode this time.

The Bells of St John: A Prologue

>http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016r6pw

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Christmas Countdown

In review: Doctor Who 2012 Christmas Prequels

Ah, the Doctor Who Christmas Special, instant tradition invented in 2005 with The brilliant Christmas Invasion, followed each year with variations on traditional Christmas film styles: a midwinter’s journey, from screw-ball comedy via blockbuster disaster and mock epic, to the current mode of romantic and literate sf-fantasy with hints of steam-punk and paganism.

This year, the Doctor Who team revisit Victorian values, in The Snowmen, due for broadcast on Christmas Day at 5.15pm. If two years ago the Doctor played ghost to Scrooge, it seems this time the Doctor himself is cast as an uncommon Scrooge.

Back in November Cardiff revived an aspect of the tradition going back to 2005: the Children in Need prequel to the Christmas special.

The Great Detective.

TX: 16 November 2012

My main problem with this was the arch, knowing humour which plays incongruities for laughs. How Mark Gatiss plays the narrator’s line about the Victorian detective! Inter-textually, this refers to Sherlock of course, thus setting up the punchline: ‘I refer of course – to Madame Vaastraa’. A moderately clever gag lampshaded and rendered excruciating by Gatiss’s unfortunate delivery. A rocky start led to another over egged gag about the henchman Strax

‘whose countenance was too horrible to be photo-graphed’,

which when revealed as a not particularly horrible Sontaran accompanies one of Murray Gold’s musical exclamation marks.

Fortunately this air of beautifully produced but rather forced humour is punctured by the arrival of the ‘fourth member’, the ‘shadowy figure’ of Matt Smith.

Tom Baker in Shada
Cool

I have to say I adore his new Xmas costume, I feel the Doctor looks genuinely ‘cool’, perhaps for the first time since 1979. So I was pleased to read recently Moffat’s comments on costuming the Doctor, signalling a move towards varying the actual clothes while retaining some ineffable essence of this Doctor’s look or style, a reading of the 1970s ‘version of it’.

The Doctor’s melancholy rejection of the gang is well played, and mysteriously finished off by the Doctor disappearing into thin air as he walks off, as if walking through dimensions. Disregarding that, the format and hook of the special is set up in Jenny’s final ‘Merry Christmas’ to him, reminding us that, as has been noted by the Tenth Doctor in 2007, Christmas always seems to be a busy time for the Doctor these days. Something is bound to come up.

Ending on a repeat of the joke about Strax threatening the moon is I presume the rebel in Moffat producing an anti-cliffhanger to rival Barry Lett’s finest.

Pleasingly, there’s a part two.

Vastra Investigates

TX online: 17 December http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p012q4yl

I loved this sketch’s combination of info-dump and comedy, giving us useful back story, reminding the audience who exactly Jenny, Vastra and Strax are. I watched this with a mate the other day and he loved all the jokes, as did I. TBH the trailer shown an hour or so after the first ‘minisode’ in November didn’t excite me, but I remain intrigued. The Doctor the Widow and the Wardrobe has had an airing to general like this year. Two very different friends of mine watched it recently and both reassessed their formerly low opinion. It’s a grower. Maybe they’ll pull off something even better this year.

But, evil snowmen? Maybe this one’s best watched with child-like eyes. Leave your cynicism at the door, but please don’t forget Strax’s grenade!

Merry Pagan Feast Day everyone.

Loving Angels Instead

In review: Doctor Who The Angels Take Manhattan

TX: 29 September 2012 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n70f3

Some died. Not them, Brian. Never them – the Doctor, The Power Of Three

I wasn’t thinking of anything quite so…long term – Amy, Flesh and Stone

SO the big news this week, as covered by the Guardian, was the release of a deleted scene in storyboard and audio form, from this episode. The Chibnall written scene gave Rory a chance to let his Dad know what happened to them, by letter delivered by an adopted son, resolving rather prosaically the thread of Amy’s infertility, in a scene clearly inspired by a similar event in Blink. The scene picks up on certain fan desires for resolutions somewhat underwhelmed by elements of this episode. I think there was an intense fan reading generated for this episode, but it seems to talk about alternatives. A desire for more resolution to the River Song/Amy aspect of the story, for instance, has people assuming Amy and Rory somehow meet up with young Melody in New York, filling in the gap between her 1969 New York regeneration and arrival in 90’s Leadworth.

This companion departure was always going to be strained, deriving narratively from the Doctor’s feelings for Amy, and Rory, feelings whose motivations were made explicit for the first time last week, but have always been there. In review I mentioned The Power of Three‘s play with the format of the show, an experimentation enabled now the characters have been positioned to this point. The set up of Rory and Amy as, dare I say it, lame duck companions, by the coda of The God Complex proved both logical and potentially format-busting, raising the question of the whole status of a ‘companion’ in modern Dr Who. In some ways a consequence of the Doctor’s more perfect control over the Tardis, as much as any subtext that the Doctor must grow up, if you have a Doctor who is able to visit ‘companions’ at will, it disrupts the tradition of the companion role, into something more akin to another meaning of the word – an occasional traveller.

As far back as the departures of both Captain Jack (The Parting of the Ways) and more especially Martha (Last of the Time Lords), the possibility has been raised of a companion leaving the Tardis, but not necessarily leaving the show. I always thought this was a great idea, and the use of the Ponds since The God Complex has satisfied this viewer’s desire for a more realistic and involved treatment of the format implied, but never realised, by how RTD re-imagined the Doctor-companion relationship in terms of an attachment to home and hearth.

It lays possible groundwork I think for a more extended run of stories with occasional companions, perhaps those the Doctor has less of an emotional attachment to, so you don’t need to ‘write them out’ so artificially. Maintaining their base, these nu-companions can grab some agency in the series. With Amy however he has made his feelings clear, finally: Pond will be there till ‘the end of me – or vice versa’. A constant companion. So a combination of that emotional thread, and the realities of life in TV land, mean an ending which ensures that somehow the Doctor cannot visit these people again is required. Some reviews have suggested this episode plays out like a series of plot devices to get us to that point, both emotionally and mechanically, with Moffat exercising his plotting muscles and interest in exploring time travel within Dr Who, rather than telling a story. Yet Moffat said  the ending of this story – ‘the most important part of any story’ – was written and rewritten many times, to get it right. In public, this has been a mutable story with many possible paths not taken, a story with a public face of having multiple versions in the culture around it.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the episode. I wasn’t expecting any further resolution to the Amy/Melody story, and I enjoyed appreciating it on its own terms. Pacing this year has been interesting.  I loved the opening sequence. Much as I disliked A Town Called Mercy, I admired the pacing, a sense of the story slowing down at key points, for character to unfold. Here to me, the pre-credits sequence felt pleasingly like the beginning of a play. Some found the sequence wasted on a scene-setting mini-story whose characters proved entirely incidental after the credits, but I admire the unusual pacing going on here.

To be honest I feel put in a difficult position by my inability to resist spoilers. Off the top of my head, I was aware in advance of the following elements:

  • the statue of liberty as weeping angel
  • Rory sent back in time by the angels
  • to a 30s/40s setting
  • they filmed in a Welsh cemetery

And so, when considering if these elements were well used, I’m finding it hard to know if my judgement is clouded by knowing in advance, lacking the surprise necessary to judge them on their own dramatic terms. I shouldn’t read spoilers. I think I’ll stop now. I can’t help however in joining the chorus of disappointment towards the use of the Liberty Angel for pure ‘marquee’ effect. the statute of liberty angelThe appeal of the idea I think lies already in it’s audacious popular appeal, but to plonk it into the story without any visible means of support at all? Reminiscent of RTD’s Cyberking in London incident, which Moffat himself took the opportunity of his ‘crack in time’, swallowing both things and the memories of things, storyline to cover for. How is it not quantum locked?

The episode proper presents a classic Moffat time puzzler  The drama’s initial gambit, the kidnapping of Rory and his instant appearance in the book the Doctor is reading to Amy, certainly arrests and intrigues, but, as people are beginning to argue, Moffat’s distinctive use of time travel in Dr Who has a price when the basic rules in the show are so slapdash. The drama’s credibility suffers. While the incident in which Amy reads ahead succeeded for me in heightening the drama of the time paradox the Doctor and Amy had to negotiate. The drama of River’s wrist however, played out as a key emotional  moment in that negotiation, played out poorly because of how poorly it fitted what Amy did read in the book.

How did the Angels fare as a Dr Who monster here? Certainly creepy in a story which returns to their time-active abilities, it took me some time to realise there was no particular plan at work here, just an unfolding of Weeping Angel culture. There was no plot involving the Mike McShane character, no mystery behind who he was or his connection with the Angels and somehow I feel this was a weakness. Once we understand that, we can focus on the angels, the Doctor and co happening to cross paths with them in a city they frequent, and the tension of knowing Rory and Amy will not survive the story, according to contract, serving as the foregrounded plot. This took time to play out unlikely possibilities: Rory being the locus.

So, an angel people farm. Again, great idea but the specifics didn’t bear examination. In an alternative story called The Angels Take Manhatten posited by some fans, the same ideas are rejuggled.  The Statue as a permanently imprisoned Angel, always gazed at by someone in the insomniac city, with the angels out to free her was a Chinese whisper of a ‘spoiler’ trailed before the episode. The only sensible way to bring this about would be blinding everyone, Day of the Triffids style. Another alternative constructed after the episode prefers the Ponds final farewell to occur back in time, say 1969, with the Doctor (from earlier in his timestream, for timey-wimey fans), or perhaps River Song herself, guiding them to toddler Melody, to raise her before sending her on her way to Leadworth.

Yes, there are still people who don’t get it. Melody survived New York because she was programmed to do so. She sought out the young Rory and Amy to be raised by them (in a way), because she was programmed to kill the Doctor, and to give at least some resolution to the whole storyline of Amy having her new born baby kidnapped. That timey-wimey sort of resolution was all we were ever meant to to get. That, along with Amy’s sub-Eastenders declaration to Madame Kovarian in The Wedding of River Song that “Melody’s all grown up now and she’s fine – but I’ll never see my baby again,” resolves the issue as far as the screen is concerned.

The ending came down once more to the theme of Amy’s choice. It’s simplicity and suddenness appealed, her choice inevitable the moment Rory disappeared. She chose the angel, the route to live with Rory, over life with the Doctor. The Doctor was predictably gutted by this, and unfortunately River, who apparently is free to go sort out a publishing contract with Amy, isn’t much consolation. I really don’t understand why she says ‘one psychopath per TARDIS’ as a reason for not joining up with him full time: if it is a joke I don’t get it. Interpersonal relations in Moffat’s Who are…unusual.

Of course, the ending is beautiful, and clever, rewriting the past and resolving a loosethread fans haven’t generally paid attention to: an emotional thread connected with young Amy’s audition of yer classic Brian Hodgson Tardis, all the way back in the Eleventh Hour, on the first night she waited.

This post’s featured image is a detail from a photo in Greenwood, NYC by Tor Johansson

The Power Of Three

In Review: Doctor Who The Power of Three

TX: 22 September 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n2tmc

Infinity begins with the third person.
Michel Maffesoli, Le Temps des tribus

In the round, I like Chris Chibnall’s stuff. His work suggests a lively and imaginative writer.
42, his debut Doctor Who story, is excellent in my opinion, Countrycide feels like Robert Holmes on Ketamine, and his work on Torchwood series two, redolent of Joss Whedon, had a lot going for it. The Silurian two parter wasn’t outstanding, but production was maybe more of a let down than the script (I’m of the camp which believes too-humanoid-Silurians a misstep, but I agree using ‘Homo Reptilian’ simply because Malcom Hulke and the New Adventures used it isn’t clever, is fannish, annoys non-fan scientists/linguists who watch and misleads about both science and language). Snakes on a Plane Cubed was pretty good on the whole, although the engine room’s lack of CSO wibblyness did not convince.

The Power of Three, I found an amazing journey; a proper grown-up human drama (for the most part), yet so dense and rich with allusions and references – maybe a little too fan-pleasing to give fandom any immediate sense of critical distance. For example: RTD-era tropes, but also The Prisoner, Zygons, a Keff McCulloch reference, Image of the Fendahl, not only the Brigadier but her daughter from a little seen fan-spin off of the 1990s, and raising the question of Moffat’s Twitter distraction and whether he timed it to coincide with the Doctors disdain for same, are just the references and in-jokes I can recall off the top of my head. Add to that confirmation of the rumour that these episodes don’t occur in the order we see them, raising the possibility the Dr already knows what final fate will befall Rory and Amy next week, you’d think there’s far too much for even a fan to take in, alienating the not-we. The in-jokes, references and allusions however came so thick and fast, yet were so skilfully woven sometimes in the same breath, it was a delight. It was post-modern, but smart and felt like reconstruction as much as deconstruction. The episode for me demonstrated the show is moving on and that people are properly thinking about the format and how it could be stretched and adapted, and sometimes the allusions worked with that progressive sense of the new. For instance, the superb innovation of including whole ‘missing adventures’ within an episode is brilliant – the kind of thing literary Doctor Who might have done many times over the past 20 years, but no one’s found a way to do that on television Dr Who before. Until last night.

That’s gotta be a good sign. Add excellent direction and some of the best performances and FX work of the Moffat era and you have an amazing journey, a great mystery, formal innovation, style, substance. Hearts.

Rory’s arc was amazing in this and Arthur Darvill rose to possibly his best performance. Amazing. His discovery of the portal, and entrance onto the ship especially impressed. Its actually better than Hollywood now. The weave of ‘real’ and ‘doctor’ life faciliates that play I think, and Rory’s arc carried that as well as the Amy’s; I liked how Rory heading off to work, to look after those attacked by the alien cubes, bridged the ‘real life’ and ‘Doctor life’ arenas the script opposed.

So too Karen Gillan; her performance was the best yet given such strong scenes with the Doctor, but it’s in the little things – her slight hesitation before entering the lift such a perfect note – that she shined out here. This team  is really coming together now, after so long spent exploring potential.

But yeah, the resolution of the mystery, in which we discover the cubes are sent to control humanity in the same way you control rats – a cull – lost something there. I can totally buy aliens wanting to wipe out humanity simply as a pest. That’s a good hook for a sf story and great hook for a Doctor Who story. I can understand aliens taking that perspective: many humans hold that perspective. It resonates with something deep, existential, an abstract issue about humanity that nonetheless has relevance for how we live. It’s both horrific and logical, simple and deep. That’s what we want. What you don’t want to do, I think, is attach that to some obscure Gallifreyan mumbo-jumbo that not even a fan can relate to, because it doesn’t relate to anything even we’ve heard of before. I think what went wrong was not the nature of the threat, but it’s style, focusing on a camp mysticism rather than a mechanical process. I mean, it’s all gone a bit Star Trek, but bad Star Trek. Arsenal of Freedom was better than this. The only thing I liked about the ending was the way they cleverly pre-empted Stephen Berkoff’s TRULY EPIC FAIL (one of the greatest worst performances in Dr Who of all time, not up to to Joseph Furst standards but pissing on Richard Briers) by writing his character as a ‘propaganda hologram’ and therefore supposed to be ham and corn to the power of three. berkoffI don’t know what he thought he was doing with the part, bad beyond reason and a delight to savour.

But I think at this point the audience needs a credible starightforward exposition  and cares more about the nature and motivation of the threat as it pertains to humanity (and by extension to life in general), and less about the Doctor’s reactions. Humanity-as-pest is a live issue, but it’s abstract. No need to make it more abstract by bringing Gallifrey into it. Maybe it worked for a fan audience, but I am skeptical as to it’s effect on non-fans, and non-sf fans, (ie, the not-we and the mundane, who I love and cherish) amongst the audience.

I do need to see it again, but just felt the tone of that one scene was way too camp, inflated, and overly complex for the very real, stark, bleak and arguably very relevant theme it conveyed. I thought it a shame – this story was heading for Hugo Award winning material, and with a simple, elegant resolution of the mystery based on the same idea it would have been a very serious contender. Believe me, when/if humanity does colonise space, and proves it’s true mettle, pestilence or peacemakers, it ain’t gonna be no fairy tale.

Not your grandmother’s fairy tale anyway.

I didn’t mind the ‘everybody lives’ reset so much. It annoyed me, but I didn’t mind it, it’s a nit pick, a niggle, especially since everyone did not live. Reading between the lines (the ghost of Robert Holmes again) I would say only a minority of the Cubes’ tally were revived. I wish that had been made more clear. The revival of the victims seemed a little old, the kind of pat happy ending the series the series is in danger of overusing now. In particular the CCTV scenes of people casually getting to their feet hours after suffering heart attacks failed to endear, a dreadful lapse in (2nd unit?) direction.

Thank god for the sweet coda.

So, a seven out of ten I think. It would have been 6 but the formal innovations are a really good sign, and I think Chibnall had an off day with the ending. Give it time. It’s his Spearhead from Space, let’s say.