Posts Tagged With: doctor who series seven

Why the Weeping Angels are rubbish

Let’s get this out of the way. ‘Blink’ is my favourite episode of New Who. Moffat achieves more in the forty-odd minutes of that than he’s achieved in two bloated, choppy series as head writer. There have been some wonderful Eleventh Doctor moments, and Matt Smith has been terrific, but – as we feared – the quality of Moffat’s writing has suffered. The time was that everything he did was wondrous. These days, for every ‘Eleventh Hour’ there’s a ‘Beast Below’, and for every ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ there’s a ‘Wedding of River Song’. It’s unclear whether this has happened because Moffat simply no longer has the time to tighten and refine his scripts as before. That would be a normal explanation. What’s more likely, however, is that the habits and conceits that were effective over single episodes simply do not translate well to the season-length arcs for which he is now responsible.

Like Davies before him, Moffat has his recurring themes. The use of technology for emotional impact (across video screens, telephones or voice communicators) is one. The ontological paradox is another. ‘Blink’ was full of them, but a common trend these days is to stretch them over the course of a series or even beyond. (Series five eventually revealed that the cracks were caused by an exploding TARDIS, but even at the end of ‘The Big Bang’ we still had no idea about what ‘Silence will fall’ meant; there are days even now when I’m not entirely sure.)

At this point, you’re either nodding your head in recognition because you agree with me, or (more likely) shaking it in dissent wondering “Where the hell is he coming from, saying our beloved Weeping Angels are rubbish? I’d rather have them than a Dalek any day”. And in a way, you’d be right. Because in ‘Blink’, the Angels are terrific. They’re simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, relatively original and (in that first appearance) utterly terrifying. ‘Blink’ is the cheap episode and it shows, but credit where credit’s due: Moffat takes a shoestring budget and, much like the original production teams in Classic Who, uses his imagination to work wonders.

But less is more. And the truth of it is the Angels should have been a one-time appearance, like the Minotaur in ‘The God Complex’, the scarecrows in ‘The Family of Blood’ and the Absorbaloff in ‘Love and Monsters’ (albeit for quite different reasons). They’re unique to the story in that they’re exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to find in an old gothic mansion (all right, a big house) and that makes them all the more effective. If we’d left them there, never to be seen again, I’d have been happy. But Moffat has his favourites, and the Angels have now become the kid in class who’s popular with the sports teacher and is picked to captain all the teams, even those for sports he doesn’t play. And the more you analyse and explore them, the more the inconsistencies and problems come to light. Let me explain.

Blink

What’s The Time, Mr Bad Wolf?

Let’s begin with the central premise. In ‘Blink’, the Doctor describes the Angels as being quantum locked. In other words, they can only move if you’re not looking at them.

I’m not a physicist. I’m an English graduate. And, like me, the Doctor was renowned for being a rubbish student, so perhaps he’s simply out of his depth here. But my very limited understanding on quantum theory suggests that the word ‘observe’ does not mean ‘look’. Wikipedia defines it as “a measurable operator, or gauge, where the property of the system state can be determined by some sequence of physical operations. For example, these operations might involve submitting the system to various electromagnetic fields and eventually reading a value off some gauge”.

In other words, you don’t have to actually be looking at the Angel to freeze it. Touching it is enough. So a blind person in the presence of an Angel can ‘observe’ the Angel by touching it. And once observed, its presence is noted. You’re still aware of it even when you’re not looking at it. (Moffat would solve this problem with the Silence, who are also a bit silly.) Or presumably you could just train a video camera on the Angel or set up a thermal imaging unit or carry something to measure radiation, and you’d be observing the damn thing, and it would be stopped in its tracks forever. I know that not everyone owns portable Geiger counters, but you’d think River Song’s crew would have thought of packing them when they set off for the Byzantine.

Let’s assume – for the sake of the argument – that the ‘quantum locked’ thing is simply inaccurate and that what Moffat really means is “you just have to be looking at it”. I could just about buy this as a theory, except for one crucial element: if, as the Doctor says, the Angels have to be observed by living things in order to freeze into rock, does this mean sentient living things, or will anything with a pulse do? For example:

EXT. MEADOW. DAY

A beautiful sunlit meadow; two Angels are spreading out a picnic blanket. They do not look at each other.

FIRST ANGEL
There’s sand all over this rug. Did you remember to wash it after we went to Swanage?

SECOND ANGEL
I thought you’d done it.

FIRST ANGEL
You wash, I do the ironing, remember? Pass me the wet wipes, I need to give it a scrub. Oh, bugger.

SECOND ANGEL
What?

FIRST ANGEL
Ladybird.

SECOND ANGEL
Where?

FIRST ANGEL
That leaf. Just there. No, COME AROUND ME, DON’T LOOK OVER MY SHOULDER.

SECOND ANGEL
I don’t think it’s seen us yet.

FIRST ANGEL
Of course it hasn’t seen us, you twit. Would we be having this conversation if it had?

SECOND ANGEL
It still has its back to us. Hold on, it’s flying away.

FIRST ANGEL
I told you we should have gone to that abandoned shopping centre. That thing’s airtight.

SECOND ANGEL
We’d still have to watch out for spiders. And you remember the time we found that bee’s nest. We were there for over a month.

There is a sound of buzzing.

FIRST ANGEL
Speaking of winged insects –

A wasp flies past, freezing both Angels into rock. It passes and they unfreeze.

FIRST ANGEL
Well, let’s hope that’s the last we see –

It flies back the other way, lingers round the picnic basket for a second, then vanishes.

SECOND ANGEL
I bloody hate summer.

octavian-angel

The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely

“Look, Steven. I know you want to bring back the Angels, and we don’t have a problem with that, except for one thing.”
“What’s the matter, Piers?”
“They’re not particularly evil, are they?”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, they’re scary. I mean, truly scary. The way they jump out of the dark is great. But – well, they don’t really do much, do they? They sort of zap you into the past and live off your energy. Which by the way makes no sense, but let’s not go there just now.”
“Zapping you into the past is pretty evil, you know. Think about it. You have to start over from scratch. You won’t have any friends. The money you’re carrying is going to be worthless. Your family will never see you again. Plus it gave me a chance to write those heart-rending ontological scenes. Don’t you remember I-have-until-the-rain-stops?”
“Yes, I still cry at that. But it’s a one-story gimmick. Can’t you do something else?”
“I could have them try and nick the TARDIS again.”
“Been there, done that. Besides, that scene was silly. Why the hell did they think shaking it was going to open the doors? It’s not a toy fire engine.”
“I wasn’t really thinking straight; I just thought it looked cool.”
“Anyway, Steven. If we’re going to invest in a two-parter can’t you have them be a little bit more vicious?”
“Hmm. I could have them snap your neck when they get close enough.”
“…”
“Too much?”
“No, it’s good, let’s run with it.”
“Do you think we should worry about the continuity?”
“Oh, why start now?”

The main thing, of course, is that people who get zapped into the past always seem to end up in nice places where they manage to survive and thrive – compare this with (for example) Henry from The Time Traveler’s Wife, who always seems to end up naked and cold in the middle of locked museums, back alleys, or shooting ranges. Closer to home, poor Jamie McCrimmon has his memory wiped by the Time Lords in the closing chapters of ‘The War Games’, and is unceremoniously dumped in the middle of a highland battlefield with an angry redcoat swiftly bearing down on him. But in ‘Blink’, the characters all find themselves happy and contented and fulfilled, which leads me to question whether the Angels are really as nasty as they seem. You could almost picture two Angels taking high tea (with their backs to each other), perhaps in Wester Drumlins in its finer days, chatting:

“Now, Algernon, where are this week’s drop-off points?”
“Let me see. Royal Leamington Spa, 1937. The shores of Antigua. Oh, and Disneyland.”
“Splendiferous. You know, it really is a thankless task being an energy-sucking parasite, isn’t it? We spend all our time ensuring our victims are relocated to comfortable places, and we don’t get the tiniest bit of gratitude.”
“Way of the world, my dear. Anyway, I’m off to bed. See you in twenty-five years?”
“No, you won’t.”

carpark-tardis-angels

Against all odds, the Angels have the phone box

“That’s why they cover their eyes. They’re not weeping. They can’t risk looking at each other. Their greatest asset is their greatest curse. They can never be seen. The loneliest creatures in the universe.”

Fine. It was enough to defeat them at the end of ‘Blink’. But seriously, how did they get anything done? Picture, for example, two Angels playing tennis. Go on. Picture it. Now add an umpire. It’d be the slowest game in history. Even Stephen Hawking could have beaten them. How did the Angels manage to carry the TARDIS out of the police station garage without looking at each other? How would two Angels move a sofa? How does Angel chess work? Can Angels talk on Skype? How do they travel? I’m guessing they don’t drive, or if they do they don’t use car pools, because whoever’s in the back seat would freeze the driver into rock, which would result in chaos on the roads. I should imagine they’re okay at punting, but for the most part they presumably walk, largely at night, favouring wide open spaces where they can stroll along side by side.

“If they have quite narrow tunnel-ish vision,” says Gareth, “with not much peripheral vision, then they could walk in side-by-side chain, each going forwards until one of the ones behind sees them, then freezing until the others catch up. Or they could go forward in small groups, circling around, with each taking turns to be the one at the back who can actually move – a bit like cyclists taking it in turns to be the one at the front of the pack.”

And you thought the Silence Olympics was silly. The Doctor posits that the Angels have survived as long as the universe has by evolving “the perfect defence mechanism”. I’d suggest that they’ve survived this long because even a family meal takes over a century.

Doctor-Who-Time-of-Angels-Next-Time-17

“That which holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel”

Oh, don’t get me started on this. I don’t deny it was a good scene. It’s creepy and effective – MY GOD, THEY’RE COMING OUT OF THE TV! – until you actually think about it. That would mean, for example, that you could never draw them, because the result would be death. It would be like drawing Mohammed. Time Lord academy art classes would result in carnage. On the other hand, it does explain how they procreate; they just set up a video camera and then leave it running while another Angel walks into shot. It’s certainly more clinical than Gareth’s proposed method, which involved both Angels wearing blindfolds, “with maybe a kinky Angel taking its blindfold off every now and then to taunt its partner”. This, presumably, is the ultimate BDSM, and the Weeping Angels’ favourite book is Fifty Shades of Grey Stone.

The point behind all of this is that the Angels in ‘Blink’ are built on a very shaky house of cards. And the moment you start to put turrets on top, which is what ‘Flesh and Stone’ tried to do, you get cards all over the place. For example, the ending of ‘Flesh and Stone’ – in which a blind Amy is told to advance through a horde of Angels who don’t know she’s blind – doesn’t work because the Angels figure out halfway through the walk that she can’t see them. But they don’t freeze voluntarily, keeping as still as they can like in a particularly nasty game of musical statues; they freeze because someone’s looking at them and they can’t unfreeze until that person is looking away. Concordantly, if Amy was blind they would never have been frozen in the first place, and she wouldn’t have been able to even start the walk. That’s unless, of course, the other-Doctor was there, wandering around before not quite coming into shot, but it’s a stretch (and likely the sort of thing that only gets inserted after the fact, when the fans start complaining).

You see what I mean, anyway. The whole mythology as it was built across the series five episodes made no real sense and just diluted the Angels to the point where they almost became parodies of themselves – a legacy that’s set to continue at Christmas in a series mini-finale that will ensure, as we have been assured by the chief writer, that “not everyone gets out alive”. And if I am weeping, it’s because I can’t bear to look, but for quite different reasons to those of the lonely assassins. The bottom line is that the Angels were one-story villains, and that’s how they should have stayed: frozen, locked in time, staring at each other, never to move again. Giving them voices was just about excusable, giving them a backstory was tenuous, and giving them visible movement was a disaster. And before we can say “Dancing Graham Norton” –

Sometimes you just need to know when to stop.

Categories: New Who | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

The (Jurassic) Ark In Space

I’m sure Comic Con is great. And I’d love to see San Diego. But I’m glad I wasn’t there for the Q&A I’m going to talk about tonight, because I suspect it would have set my teeth on edge.

A lightly spoiler-ish article on io9 – forwarded to me by Gareth – details the Grand Moffat’s plan for the new series, and on the face of it, the outlook isn’t pretty. As much as I look forward to every new season of Who, hopeful that it’ll in some way eclipse the last in terms of quality – or, perhaps, atone for some of the sins of previous episodes (I’m looking at you, Ms. Raynor) – I think it’s fair to say that this one has me as unexcited about the show’s return in autumn as I’ve ever been.

Let’s start with the trailer.

To anyone under the age of ten or who happened to love Cowboys Vs. Aliens, this is undoubtedly brilliant. To anyone who was watching TV in 1993, or who happens to have seen TV that was made in 1993, it rips off at least two episodes of Red Dwarf. I was one of the few who thought ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’ was overrated in the first instance; I have no wish to see it remade by the Doctor Who team. And that’s before we even get to that shot of a Dalek eyestalk, which is in itself oddly reminiscent of Return of the Jedi.

Yes, those Daleks. Moffat assures us that we’ll see

“more Daleks than you’ve ever seen in one place — and every generation of Dalek.” And it looks fantastic, now that the visual effects are just being completed. “Lots and lots and lots of Daleks. All the things you see when you close your eyes.”

Maybe I’m in a minority here, but when I have nightmares about Who, they don’t involve Daleks. They involve reruns of ‘Fear Her’. I’m not frightened by the Daleks; overexposure has rendered me completely indifferent to them. The Daleks are no longer scary, and thus no longer appealing. And there is a glint of fanboyish glee about Moffat’s desire to get the gang together, as if he were a chubby, bespectacled ten-year-old appearing on Blue Peter or The Antiques Roadshow with his collection.

I didn’t even object to the Power Rangers Daleks, despite the cynical (and rather obvious) collect-the-set marketing ploy. It’s just that I don’t trust anyone at the New Who offices to be able to do anything interesting with the Daleks. And making the Daleks interesting is crucial to their success, and the very reason why so many of the post-2005 Dalek episodes have been second / third-rate: include the Nation’s Finest, and you’ve got a clear ratings winner, so there’s no need to actually come up with a story, just a different setting (Daleks in Churchill’s England / depression-era New York / the Black Forest). Chuck in a couple of cries of ‘Exterminate!’, add some trigger-happy military types who don’t know what they’re dealing with and who are certain to meet early and untimely deaths, and you’ve got yourself an episode. I’m not unremittingly nostalgic for Classic Who, but the unfortunate truth is that Dalek stories are lazy, because the last time they did anything genuinely interesting was back in 1988.

Things don’t improve with the second episode of the series which will, apparently, be called ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’, which calls to mind obvious (and, one would assume, quite intentional) parallels with Snakes on a Plane. No episode with such a title, you may think, could possibly fail on any level. I’d counter thus:

1. The last time Doctor Who did dinosaurs, they were shit. The story wasn’t, but the dinosaurs were. I know they were on a shoestring, but still. Just saying.

2. ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ is written by Chris Chibnall, who also wrote ’42’ and the season 5 Silurian episodes, all of which were shit.

3. Snakes on a Plane is also shit. It’s not even mindless entertainment, fine-if-you-don’t-take-it-seriously, so-bad-it’s-good shit. It’s just shit. Irredeemable shit.

I think that’s enough shit to be going on with, don’t you?

Meanwhile, at an arc level…

How did Moffat come up with the idea that the Doctor’s name was “the first question?” someone asks. “To be honest, it’s been there from a start. He never gives his name. Other Time Lords do, but he doesn’t. Clearly, his name is very important. Only I know why. We actually find out the truth” about the importance of the Doctor’s name.

That Doctor. His refusal to give his name is indeed unique, and categorically unacceptable. I was just discussing the sheer bloody-mindedness of it only the other evening, in the pub with my mates the Rani and the Master. That was before we were interrupted by the Other and the Meddling Monk, who wanted to borrow 20p for the pool table.

Elsewhere:

Someone brings up the idea that the Doctor leaves the brakes (the “blue boringers”) on when he flies the TARDIS — and Moffat notes that River Song was probably winding the Doctor up about that — because you might notice that when she flies the TARDIS, it still makes that same wheezing, groaning materialization noise.

Yawn, the brake-crunching, pull-to-open, needs-six-people-to-fly-it-TARDIS. But here’s a thought – and I voice it aloud despite the fact that it’s going to stomp all over everything I’ve just written. We might, to be honest, be at the stage where we have to stop taking these throwaway remarks seriously and just accept that the continuity of Who is one big mess. As, of course, one would it expect it to be, with a multitude of writers and guest writers and chief writers and script editors, all with their own ideas as to what the show should be, and that’s not to mention the novelisations and comics and BF productions, with inconsistencies and disputed canonicity. Consider, for example, the Doctor’s regeneration limit – established as twelve in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ and adjusted accordingly thereafter until, in the SJA ‘Death of the Doctor’ story, it was mentioned by the Eleventh Doctor that “there isn’t one”, a story that was promptly picked up by the Guardian and made into a front page web article for a few hours on a Tuesday evening.

Moffat’s consistently making silly jokes, and while the remarks about the TARDIS brakes have no doubt stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate amongst the engineers who post at Outpost Gallifrey or wherever the fans hang out nowadays, there is nonetheless the strong possibility that he just put it in because he thought it was funny (and it could have been, except it came from River, who is irritating). Similarly, Father Christmas is probably not called Jeff (now that was funny) and the Doctor probably didn’t throw the TARDIS manual into a supernova (although I’m sure the story where he did just that exists somewhere). And yes, the pull-to-open thing in ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ was wrong. But that’s the point. Under Moffat’s reign (and, to an extent, Davies’ before it), episode writing is a dialogue, a nod to the fans, an acknowledgement of their presence and – often – a subtle dig at them. Every episode is going to be pulled apart and analysed to death within hours of its transmission, and the writers know it. Such things are thus put in to purposely wind us up, and they succeed.

The truth is that Doctor Who can be whatever the chief writer wants it to be, because it’s transcended continuity. There are certain fundamental ground rules – no true love, no kissing, no beards – but that’s it. The fans have spent years shoehorning and explaining and reconciling continuity, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. For example, Tegan’s appearance in A Fix With Sontarans‘ is non-canon, because the story is non-canon, because it’s a story that occurs within the context of a children’s programme hosted by a chain-smoking northerner in a tracksuit – and the subsequent fanfiction attempts to reconcile Tegan with the Sixth Doctor, while undoubtedly well-meant, were frankly silly.

Besides, the Doctor lies. At least this one does, because that’s how Smith likes to play him and Moffat likes to write him – and ultimately they’re the ones calling the shots. Personally, I’d consider the revelation of the Doctor’s name to be a clear violation of one of the unwritten rules – but they’re myrules, not his. However much I may have whinged this evening, the fact remains that mine is a singular viewpoint, and my own views of what Who ought to be are always going to be different from even the most like-minded friend or colleague or fellow-blogger. Phillip Pullman said that writing isn’t a democracy, and Doctor Who – despite the collective input I mentioned earlier – isn’t really a Jungian collective. It’s whatever the person in charge makes it. The bottom line – and the only question we should really be concerning ourselves with, when all is said and done – is whether or not the creative decisions made at the top make for good television. Because ultimately that’s the only thing that really counts. So perhaps we should be viewing series 7 in that light. Roll on autumn – and bring on the dinosaurs.

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The new girl

OK, so….

The Guardian has revealed that the new companion will be <spoiler> and that <spoiler>. And also <spoiler>. And, in episode <spoiler>, we’ll see <spoiler>.

Oh, what’s the point? I don’t want to tell you about it because I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did, which is to read the damned thing and encounter a WHOPPING GREAT REVELATION by the writer-in-chief. The Guardian didn’t really signpost this effectively – there was a little information at the top, but far more was revealed therein than I’d have liked to know. At the same time, the real focus of my ire is Moffat himself, because he’s really starting to piss me off these days. The writing style is brilliant, I’m not going to deny it, although I take issue with some of his plot arcs (more on that below). There are some fantastic one liners and some genuinely moving moments (the ghosting in ‘Silence in the Library’ still gives me the shivers), and the way he weaves technology and emotional involvement into a cohesive whole is reminiscent of 1980s anime.

At the same time, he annoys me, because he’ll rant about spoilers on TV A.M. (or whatever it is they call it now; ye gods I’m showing my age) and then tell us everything himself. And if he must insist on courting the press, he has to accept the consequences. Unless you want to make it illegal to disclose such information, you have to deal with the fact that people are going to tell all, and not get cross when it leaks out, and taking to the internet to complain with his customary self-righteous arrogance.

I am aware that I am ranting a bit. Because I don’t want to depress you, and because I don’t want to include anything of the new companion just yet, here’s a picture of a hamster.

And I am calm.

Joshua and I were watching ‘Blink’ last night – as you probably gathered from my previous entry – and I was reflecting this morning what a tightly focussed, brilliant little episode it is. The Weeping Angels, back when they were fresh and innovative and when they actually worked, because as interesting as ‘The Time of Angels’ was, it showed up the inadequacies of the Angels when you put them in an inappropriate setting, multiply them tenfold and then, unforgivably, have them move. Moffat can write good, continuous drama – Press Gang, Jekyll – but as a Who writer his best work has been standalone (and if River Song’s involvement with the show had ended with ‘Forest of the Dead’, I’d have liked her a lot more).

The central problem with the way the show is constructed these days that the ontological Ouroboros paradoxes work well in the context of single episodes, but break down when Moffat tries to make them fit over entire seasons, or even half seasons. The big bang / universe reboot that closed season five was an absurd piece of handwavium, the River story has devolved into mind-numbing tedium, and the charade that was the Doctor’s ‘death’ and the mirror universe built around it was so badly constructed it almost made ‘Last of the Time Lords’ work in comparison. I thus equate Moffat with Kate Bush during recording of The Dreaming. She’d just got a Fairlight, and she completely saturated the album with it. The result is a very full texture crammed with different ideas and innovations and experiments. And not all of it works. There’s some whopping clangers on there and a few moments of beauty. It’s a better album than it’s given credit for, because it tends to live in the shadow of Hounds of Love (which follows it and which she never bettered).

But it was basically a kid who was given complete control and who went a bit wild. And that’s how I see Moffat. Just a big kid who’s been given charge of something and wants to bring his standalone technique to a show that really doesn’t suit it. This isn’t the Black Guardian trilogy. It’s a mess.

I have, in any event, figured out what that crack in the universe actually was. It isn’t the TARDIS exploding. It’s the chief writer, stretching a literary conceit to fracturing point.

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