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Progress Report: Doctor Who Series 6 (Part 2)

October 1, 2011

This year’s ‘split’ run of Doctor Who was very arc-heavy in its first half. With some of the series’ ongoing mysteries resolved with great brio in ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’, the opener of this second half, the episodes that followed have sometimes felt rather like elements of a different season altogether. Sometimes that has worked rather well, sometimes it hasn’t.

For instance, there’s ‘Closing Time’. Gareth Roberts’s sequel to last year’s hugely entertaining ‘The Lodger’ capers along quite winningly for most of its duration, replaying its antecedent’s laughs and scrapes with, this time, added baby, added pathos, and added Cybermen. As is common in their new series appearances, the Cybermen are a bit rubbish here, though their guest spot is aided by their more beaten-up appearance and their by now seriously addled priorities. Picking affable, loyal, stay-at-home James Corden — reprising his role as Craig Owens, the only person Doctor Who has ever addressed as ‘mate’ — to be their new Cyberleader is a new low for the race even the Doctor notes are “metal morons” — itself continuing  a long line of putdowns from their enemy: as early as 1975’s ‘Revenge of the Cybermen’ they were being taunted as “a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking around the galaxy in an ancient spaceship” (sad fan admission: googling afterwards confirmed I can quote this line verbatim from memory). In the end, of course, Craig breaks free from the Cybermen’s bonds, saved from having his emotions scrubbed by the sound of his baby Alfie’s crying. It’s no sillier than the resolution of many other stories, and while schmaltzy in the extreme is at least at home in a very charming episode, full of lovely lines and details, and a ‘gay agenda’ subplot which will, I’m sure, have Daily Mail readers frothing while their children are roaring with delighted laughter. Making its own return to the show is one lone Cybermat, a sort of diminutive Cyber-pet last seen in ‘Revenge’, and here gnashing its way around a department store for no terribly good reason. (The Doctor stifling his whoop of joy when he catches the little silver fellow in a net is my favourite Matt Smith gag of the episode — try to imagine any of the other Doctors doing that.) In some of the spin-off media, Cybermats are revealed as Cyber-converted stray pets or even (did I imagine this?) babies, which would have lent ‘Closing Time’ more horror than its scenario could really have borne, especially as Craig puffs about with his own baby son in a papoose throughout the episode.

Of course, this is called ‘Closing Time’, and sees the Doctor visiting an old friend just before his own impending death. It’s a lot more fun than when his predecessor stood around in the snow for forty minutes looking sadly at Rose, and Matt Smith shows how good he is as he confides his fears to the baby. Off he goes for “one last trip” at the end — and suddenly we’re jolted to where newly-qualified Dr River Song is hoisted into a spacesuit by villainous Mme Kovarian and two slimy, rattling Silence henchmen. Frances Barber has evidently watched some old Blake’s 7 episodes and is trying to outdo SF’s last great eyepatch-wearing villainess Servalan — if she doesn’t shout ‘Maximum power!’ at some point in Episode 13, I’ll be terribly disappointed. This scene, which brings so many Who threads together to set up the finale, should come as a terrible shock, but instead makes what’s gone before look far more frivolous than it deserves.

Likewise, Toby Whithouse’s thougtful, clever ‘The God Complex’ is banjaxxed somewhat by its own coda, in which the Doctor drops Amy and Rory off, having decided it’s simply too dangerous for them to travel with him any more. Amy, the trollop, is distracted by the nice new house and car the Time Lord has given them (“How’re they going to pay the insurance on that on a nurse’s and a stripper’s income?” wondered a friend), while in a recent interview Arthur Darvill shows he understands his character of Rory far better than anyone actually writing him, saying that his Rory would never come pottering out with champagne glasses but instead watch his wife’s final goodbye to her best friend through the window, staying out of it one last time. Of course, no-one who’s been watching Who the last few years will be conned into thinking this is Amy and Rory’s actual final goodbye; their cameo in ‘Closing Time’ seemed an unnecessarily prompt reminder they’ll be back.

What precedes all this is, as they say, a story you won’t find any other television show doing (okay, maybe Whithouse’s own Being Human), a meditation on faith and fear, set in a chintzy, muzaky haunted hotel with worst nightmares lurking behind every door. This promised a lot in trails — the ventriloquists’ dolls, the mysterious silent clown — and in execution worked thrillingly until, I felt, Star Trek-like explanations started to materialise for the hotel’s surreal horrors. The Doctor also supplies answers without really showing his working: he correctly, through no obvious deductions whatsoever, realises that the hotel feeds on faith rather than, as we have expected, on fear; a clearer alignment with the revelation that mole-like alien Gibbis’s people have survived so long through cowardice might have helped this dozy audience member follow the otherwise improbable leap. As they did by casting James Corden as Craig, the production team still picks its higher-profile guest stars well; David Walliams, virtually unrecognisable as Gibbis, is perfect casting. There’s also an even more latex-covered creature around, a minotaur pacing the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel. Doctor Who has never had great luck with minotaurs (‘The Time Monster’, ‘The Mind Robber’) and this one doesn’t buck that trend terribly: it’s far better partially glimpsed or in distorted close-up than when it lumbers, blue-eyed and mouth agape, into full view. Like the Ood, this chap has to have the potential to be sympathetic as well as monstrous, and maybe errs a little on the side of the former. But then, ‘The God Complex’ is a story about monsters and, in some ways, the suspension of disbelief, so maybe it’s apt that it looks that way.

No such monsters in the preceding story, Tom McRae’s ‘The Girl Who Waited’: the blank corridors of the Two Streams medical facility are patrolled instead by the handbots, featureless white droids whose hidden guns and white void surroundings occasioned great nerd-forum excitement: were we in for a sequel to ‘The Mind Robber’? (For those unfamiliar with that 1968 Patrick Troughton oddball classic, in which the Doctor becomes trapped in a world of fiction, the unsurpassable Adventures with the Wife in Space blog is currently hosting a hilarious ‘commentary’ on the story.) Instead we got a story only New Who could tell, focusing on the companions while the Doctor was written out the script on a McGuffin technicality. Arthur Darvill always quietly impresses; here, Karen Gillen, playing two versions of Amy, demonstrated at last there’s more to her than an ability to quip and pout. I didn’t completely buy the gravelly older Amy, though visually well-realised with some subtle makeup, since the keystone attitude that she would come to hate the Doctor when he failed to rescue her didn’t, for me, really ring true, and seemed to be called upon to stand in place of the more nuanced exploration of what she’d been up to all these decades. (In forty-odd minutes, this isn’t practical, of course.) And while the denouement, giving Rory an impossible choice between two versions of his wife, was well-played and emotionally engaging, I didn’t find it moving, exactly. This is a story which seems to have been reverse-engineered from the final act. It has an intriguing beginning, but the wait for the pieces to be slotted into place to allow that ending is more than a little boring, not helped by the generic white-void backdrop where much of it takes place. (I also didn’t quite believe Amy would find a garden, of all things, so exciting she’d decide she was happy staying indefinitely there with only handbots and Imelda Staunton’s disembodied voice for company.)

And so to ‘Night Terrors’, Mark Gatiss’s fourth script for Doctor Who, and a sight better than his last, ‘Victory of the Daleks’. It’s strangely retro, the council-block setting being something we used to see fairly regularly in Russell T. Davies-era Who, but with a Moffat-era child-centric plot bolted onto that. Moved from the first half of Series 6, it perhaps suffers from proximity to ‘Closing Time’, which again would feature a dad’s love for his son saving the day. In ‘Night Terrors’ there’s a fairly overt gay subtext I found rather touching: when troubled dad Alex clutches his not-quite-son to him and declares he’ll love him no matter his real nature, it releases all from the confines of the wardrobe or, if you will, the closet. As well as being the most gorgeous-looking episode of this batch — stunningly coloured, creepy and filmic — ‘Night Terrors’ also boasts the best monsters we’ve seen in a while, a clutch of blundering, giant ‘peg dolls’ (was I really the only person never to have heard of peg dolls before?) with tiny features crushed into the centres of their bobbing, oversized heads, ratty ropey hair trailing lankly down their soiled costumes. Amy’s transformation into one of these, too, was a great body-horror moment.

Emotion saves the day in all these stories, and it runs the risk of becoming just as predictable an outcome as reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, or ending the story with a big explosion. I appreciate that Doctor Who has got where it is today by appealing to the hearts of its audience and not just dazzling them with monsters and effects — a worthy and forward-thinking thing to do in an era of vanishing BBC budgets. But there must be other ways to solve problems than by emoting at them, and there is still a place for spectacle. Memorable new monsters have been thin on the ground this year, the Silents aside; returning baddies the Cybermen aren’t terribly well-served by ‘Closing Time’ (I’d have loved it if the Cybermats had been the chief monsters, desperate to find a suitable human to convert into a proper Cyberman to give them some sort of direction, like the Dalek in ‘Dalek’ who doesn’t know how to behave without a superior giving him orders.)

These four episodes have a problem. They’re standalone stories of the sort Doctor Who has always been about, a variety of new adventures (even if their respective conclusions are strangely repetitive). But sandwiched between the insane ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ and the slightly more restrained but very arc-heavy ‘The Wedding of River Song’ (which hadn’t aired when I started writing this post, but had by the time I reached this conclusion), they seem like they’re treading water while we wait to get to the Big Events again. This is a failing, I suppose, of lots of series which have arcs or mythology: it’s what led to people giving up on The X-Files. If you remind viewers regularly that the ongoing storyline is the ‘important’ bit, it inevitably diminishes those stories which don’t contribute to that strand. That’s why the coda to ‘Closing Time’ is annoying (and now, having seen Episode 13, since this is a show which fastidiously over explains some points while totally neglecting others, I wonder if we did really need to see Kovarian, River and the Silents at the end of Episode 12), and it’s why I feel irked to have felt these episodes were lesser Doctor Who — when in fact it’s the now baffling and overlong ‘River Song arc’ that’s really the least Whoish material we’ve seen this year.


From → Doctor Who

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