Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Swirly Thing Alert

TV SF specials a-plenty this Easter. And yet "special" wasn't really the word, in the end.

Doctor Who - Planet of the Dead
At last, an episode of New Who in which you can actually see a double-decker bus being driven through the hole in the story. I'm assuming that was deliberate on the scriptwriters' part. Best to give the benefit of the doubt.

The actual base plot - space locusts create wormholes from planet to planet, next wormhole happens to lead to Earth - was extremely simple and would have made a solid comic strip storyline. It should have taken some stretching to make an hour-long special out of it, yet strangely the story just seemed to fly by. All that time for explanations, character development... padding... and yet it just drifted straight past the eyeballs. Inconsequential is the word. It was candy-floss Who. The seasonal special you can watch without ruining your appetite. No fattening tension, no filling drama. In itself, it isn't a problem for the Who seasonal special to be insubstantial fluff, provided that the visuals are pretty, the characters are interesting and the dialogue is zingy.

It's at this point that you should imagine your humble blogger briefly grimacing and sucking in his breath.

Dubai - why? Let's all go to an exotic location, shipping a bus out with us (and crushing the top deck along the way), so that we can take full advantage of... the sand. Lots and lots of the boring yellowy stuff you can find easily and cheaply in substantial quantities right here in England, or else mock up with CGI and a studio set. The guest aliens - two blokes in boiler suits with big fly heads on. Just when you thought RTD might finally have got over having obvious men with (terrestrial) animal heads for aliens. As characters, they were thrown away after only a couple of scenes anyway, so perhaps it wasn't deemed worth the effort of doing anything more inventive. The flying monsters were at least quite pretty.

Only one definite character in the guest cast in Dubai, and that was Lady Christina de Souza. Yes, nice to have an assertive female assistant who's a match for the Doctor, but I'm quite glad not to have her as a regular. The posh accent was a bit ropey and as a character she was already starting to get on my nerves by the end. The rest of the bus passengers didn't really have anything to do except stay on the bus and variously scream, loaf and make cod ominous pronouncements. Damned if I can name any one of them now, mere days after the event. Damned if I could have fifteen minutes after transmission, or even tell you how many of them there were. Back on the London tunnel set, we had an off-the-peg comedy boffin; we had a UNIT captain whose job was to threaten the comedy boffin with a gun until there wasn't any need, after which everybody apparently agreed to pretend that the whole gun thing had never really happened at all, and to amusingly salute the Doctor because we all know he hates that kind of thing; and that was about it.

No stand-out zingers in the script either. The one bit that sticks in my mind was the comedy boffin telling the Doctor he'd watched all his DVDs (or some such thing) and the Doctor saying he bet The One With The Giant Robot was his favourite - and that's only because I'd mentally inserted the follow-up "Ah, no, actually that one was a bit crap, Doctor". And then, at the end, the Fear Her moment - the abrupt insertion of a bit of heavy-handed laid-on-with-a-trowel doomy foreshadowing. "He will knock four times" - gee willerkins, wouldn't be two postmen, would it? (Edit: that joke only works if, like me, you completely forget for a couple of days that The Postman Always Rings Twice. Numpty.) No, I think we can all guess who's in David Tennant's big finale.

So not an actively bad episode, but not really actively anything. This is Doctor Who, in the Year of Specials, when it ought to be giving us nothing but Event TV, decidedly marking time. Let's say 5 out of 10. The Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre have already produced their take on it:

Excellent point about the TARDIS.

Red Dwarf - Back to Earth
Now this is a shocker - apparently the ratings for this were not only Dave's best ever, but favourably comparable to Torchwood's ratings. And if a niche satellite channel can mount a successful comeback for Red Dwarf a full decade after the last TV series on a budget of naff all, there surely isn't any good reason why the Beeb couldn't pump some serious money into a full series.

The only question is, should they?

After seeing Back to Earth, I'm more firmly convinced than ever that Red Dwarf is a show that has had its day. I think the essence of the show in its heyday, what originally gave it much of its charm - apart of course from the excellent interaction between the cast - was that it was filmed on a physical stage set in front of an audience. It always worked best as a kind of theatre, and I think the move away from that as much as the departure of one half of the writing team spoiled the show for me after Series 6. Red Dwarf was always SF second, a sitcom first, and nothing gave the comedy a bigger boost than having a studio audience reacting to what the cast were doing, so that they could themselves react by discovering which bits of the script or their performance were funniest and ramping those up to best effect. People have said that what these new episodes were missing (like Series 7) was the sound of audience laughter, but I believe that's only the surface symptom of the true problem - without that feedback at the time of filming, the performances fall flat.

It doesn't help that there was bugger all comedy in the script in the first place. Rob Grant is still sorely missed.

Part 1 looked quite promising. Better than Series 8, although that wasn't hard. The nice shiny CGI didn't jar like the blocky, primary colour CGI in Series 7 and 8 did - the "outside" shot of the Garden of Remembrance can hold its head up high next to lovely model shots like the Series 2 observation dome. Even a few smiles and a chuckle or two in the bunkroom scenes.

And then it all went horribly wrong in Part 2. The script was exactly what you'd expect to get if you showed the plot outline to a teenager and asked him to write a fanfic around it. The plugging of the merchandise was merciless. The child actors were possibly the worst in the country. And for extra cheeky self-reference, throw in spurious references to a ninth and tenth series, although apparently the only interesting thing to happen in these two missing series (and ten missing years) is that Kochanski leaves Lister while he's in the bath. I don't think we missed much there.

It was in Part 3 that the Blade Runner references came to the fore (after a brief ropey interlude on the set of Corrie). This chimed nicely with the theme of the characters learning of their imminent deaths and asking their creator for more life, although it didn't sit well with the present-day real-world setting. Still, it gave the set designers a chance to show what they could do on a low budget, and it all looked good. (Implausibly, we're now asked to retroactively believe that the entire series was originally inspired by Blade Runner, even though the resemblance is non-existent and the obvious source film is Dark Star. Tsk.) Sadly, the ending was pat and, by retreading an old RD storyline, it only made it look as though Doug Naylor had run out of fresh ideas. The mash-up of reality and Blade Runner may have been awkward but it was livelier than the wrap-up.

Overall, a disappointment with occasional nice bits. Some good acting from the cast. Carbug was nice, as a prop. The pacing within scenes was bad, slowing the dialogue down which didn't help the less-than-zingy script - was this the fault of the director (Doug Naylor doubling up - not his first time, either) or the editor (if there was one - I can't find a credit anywhere for a production editor on this, which might explain things). Could've used some more close-ups of the actors' faces too - now that would be down to the director. Some moments where it seemed as though different versions of the script were poking through - what exactly was the point of the Russian hologram character, when she was disposed of so arbitrarily, and was there any reason at all for the strange Police Squad pause before Part 2's advert break (I'd expected some post-modern reference to the advert break, but alas, no)? A more satisfying coda to the show than the end of Series 8, perhaps, but still no great shakes.

Still, imagine if Doctor Who's comeback after sixteen years had looked like this. Small mercies, eh?

1 comment:

strabec said...

I have to admit after seeing the Dr Who episode I wondered why they'd bothereed with Dubai. I think a set would've been better after all they added filters and backgrounds anyway so they might as well have saved the budget not to mention the bus.
I found the 'bucket-o-doom' that was randomly dumped at the end a bit jarring considering the pace and relitive lightness of the rest of the episode.
I loved the sock puppets! Several good point made there. Presumably RussT wrote the TARDIS out of the script for precisely that reason, still didn't work though.

About the Postman joke, knocks or rings it's still funny!