Monday, June 28, 2010

Down, Down, Deeper and Down

Across the land, storm clouds gather and terrible omens are reported. Brave men weep and women wail and rend their garments, and possibly vice versa. Horses whinny and dogs howl, unable to understand or express any more than that something is amiss.

The Doctor has just learned that Malohkeh, the Silurian scientist, has spent centuries abducting human children from the surface world and experimenting on them – and as we know from the cliffhanger, even though he's noticed that his human captives are wearing artificial fabrics that could only be produced by an intelligent species, he's quite happy vivisecting them. He's the Dr Mengele of the Silurian world. Was he acting alone, or as part of a group, the Doctor asks? In a group at first, but lo these many years alone, replies the scientist. And the Doctor says, I rather love you, and they bump fists.

This is a horrific mis-step for Doctor Who. I'm inclined to view it as less grievous than the Doctor's plan to lobotomise the whale in The Beast Below, if only because the entire resolution of this story doesn't hinge on it; but at least then the Doctor himself acknowledged, within the script, that he was doing something grossly out of character, and at least he voiced some criticism. Here the Doctor doesn't even seem to notice what's going on. He sees in Malohkeh a fellow loner, another solitary man of science – at least, that's how I assume we're meant to read the scene – and somehow this blinds him utterly to what the guy's done to who knows how many people, including two other characters who are right there in the same room. Of all the things wrong with Cold Blood, this is the one I find most startling. And it's one little scene that could so easily have been re-written at any time, even while they were filming it – it astonishes me that Steven Moffat could have failed to do anything about it as much as that Chris Chibnall wrote it. D minus, detention, Doctor Who.

Other problems with the episode are less easily remedied.

Permeating the whole script is the idea that Ambrose (human = sympathetic) can be forgiven for her actions, yet she's far from redeemable. Her killing of Alaya might be considered manslaughter rather than murder, but she's obviously prepared to torture Alaya to get what she wants, and never mind the “I don't want to do this” bullshit. That taser sure as hell didn't walk into that church crypt on its own – see also last week, when her first instinct was to reach for the surprising range of weaponry she has at home. She also threatens the entire Silurian community with the mining drill, with Tony Mack's assistance – an act that requires malice and calculation, not the panicked act of a hysterical mother. What we're shown in both episodes is that she's a premeditating aggressor, and not the sympathetic character the writer wants us to believe she is.

The Doctor's initial reprimand of her, and his later smiling admonishment, constitute one of the limpest slaps on the wrist I've ever seen in this series. She's threatened to destroy the entire Silurian city and she's killed, yet she will never be held accountable for either because no one outside her village knows what a Silurian is. She's getting away with murder, if you like. But the Doctor doesn't come out and say that, presumably because somebody thought it would be too strong for teatime family viewing. Given the personalities involved, there's every reason to assume that by the end of the week, her husband and son will have forgiven her, the whole incident will have come to seem like a kind of game or a dream (even if the time crack doesn't erase it outright), and she'll be no better than she was before. Certainly, she can look back on it all and say that she achieved exactly what she wanted – she got her family back and she made the scary lizard people go away for (as good as) ever.

I've seen it suggested that we should consider Ambrose and Restac as parallel characters, but the whole way they're handled is just too different. Restac (non-human = unsympathetic) is written to be an out-and-out psycho Рshe kills Malohkeh out of sheer spite, and her revenge for her twin's death is to chase through the tunnels, even at the cost of her own life, just so that she can kill whichever of the retreating humans she gets a shot at. Now, it's an easy and cheap clich̩ to depict military commanders in dramatic fiction as psychos, and it's common enough in children's programming, but it's far from honest Рpeople don't get promoted into positions of strategic responsibility just by being murderously deranged. (Although having a political leader who's prepared to patronise her in front of foreign visitors might not have done her any psychological favours.) It's just dodgy characterisation. Restac's motivation may be broadly similar to Ambrose's, but while the script is busy pulling the viewer in one false direction with Ambrose, it's pulling equally hard in an opposite but equally false direction with Restac.

In a story that metaphorically touches on issues of colonialism and/or immigration (depending on how you choose to interpret the Silurians' situation in general), it's a valid (if cynical) choice to show our sympathetic characters reacting in a blinkered and aggressive way towards the Other, provided the Doctor – the show's moral touchstone – gives us some indication of what ought to happen instead. In 1970, he continues to press for peace between the two species until the Brigadier goes behind his back and blows up the Silurian base, to which his response is, “But that's murder!”. In 2010, he suggests the Silurians all bugger off like a good, docile minority for the next thousand years (which their leader agrees to!) and hope that things change for the better in the meantime. So who's going to change – the Silurians, out of sight and out of mind for another millennium, asleep the whole time? The humans who, in the Silurians' absence, aren't going to have to get used to the idea of sharing the planet with them? I hope you see the problem here – action replay in 1000 years' time.

(I realise that we might imagine other isolated pockets of Silurians popping up in the intervening centuries, but this particular group is presented to us as the “entire civilisation”, and there's no reason for the average viewer to believe otherwise.)

Now, I know that there's a good argument to be made that you can't have the Silurians cohabiting with humanity in a present-day setting, even if time is in flux, for the practical real-world reason that it would hobble future production teams. For the sake of internal believability, they'd have to include Silurians (or at least mention of them) in any given contemporary story; in doing so they'd lose external believability, because lizard people aren't a part of regular, everyday life in contemporary reality. The solution, of course, assuming the writer wants to do something positive and (perhaps more importantly) original with the Silurians, is to set the story in the future – but The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood isn't set far enough into the future. It's a half-arsed ten years away, for no obvious reason except the spurious scene where Amy and Rory wave at their future selves. Even so, there's no reason why we couldn't have left the Welsh villagers and the Silurians tentatively getting to know each other, while the Doctor briefs Elliott on his adult role as the first human co-chair of an inter-species equivalent of the UN, in a safe twenty or thirty years' time. All right, that's not the story Chris Chibnall wanted to tell. But Malcolm Hulke already told the story Chibnall wanted to tell forty years ago, and for my money he did a much better job of it.

A few smaller gripes now. The voiceover – and that's something I've missed off my list of series motifs – is cheesy as well as unnecessary, especially in the negotiation scene. Which I disliked, by the way - “But if we let the Silurians reclaim the bits of the planet we can't live in, what's in it for us?” (Very modern ethics there. How about “not being killed in an inter-species war” for a start?) Some rather nasty cod dialogue throughout that scene, and elsewhere there are some horribly glib lines from Amy. Cutting back to the voiceover, apparently Eldane is yet another character who inexplicably knows all about the series arc and what the Doctor's got coming to him. In the control room near the end, I noted the Star Trek bridge noises, which at least fits with the new Silurian make-up. Amy getting hold of that gizmo from Malohkeh's pocket is a bit... hmm... and why is it that you need the right genetic code to unlock the medical specimen cubicles, but any fool can open up the Silurians' hibernation cubicles and steal their guns? Oh, and somewhat stupid of the Doctor to tell Restac that the last time a group of Silurians woke up, the humans wiped them out.

The best bit of the episode was the series arc stuff grafted on to the end, a state of affairs that doesn't exactly reflect well on the episode itself. Rory's death scene was so-so, but I did very much like the scene afterwards of the Doctor trying to persuade Amy not to forget him – the montage, the music, the whole general thing, the sudden jolt that wrecks the situation. Interesting to see how Amy's Choice foreshadowed both big moments at the end of this episode – the death, and the explosion shrapnel.

I'm inclining towards a 3 out of 10 for Cold Blood, but this may tilt into a 4 by comparison with The Beast Below. It's gone beyond merely mediocre and into bad, but even so.

I haven't had the chance to sneakily watch any whole or part episodes after this one on Y**t*b*, so it's virgin viewing from here on in. Next week's episode looks like a good 'un.


Ben said...

And absolutely no one asks why a plainly reptilian race has mammary glands, or points out that Ambrose is a boy's name.

Didja spot that Chiefy Silurian was played by Stephen Moore? See

John Toon said...

Weeeell, at least they didn't give the lady Silurians' costumes a revealing decolletage, even if they did put them in short skirts.

Somebody on the Who forum suggested "venom sacs" as an excuse for casting someone with breasts as a Silurian, which I'm sure is both laughable and fair enough.

But you're absolutely right about the name Ambrose, and I don't think anyone's got a good theory about that.

We did indeed spot Stephen Moore! Jo couldn't place him at first, but she knew there was a Hitchhikers connection from the moment his opening narration started.

Christopher Pittard said...

Well, this is where we'll part company for a bit until the finale, not having seen the next two episodes the first time round, and not really being desperate to see them on BBC iPlayer either (a Richard Curtis script? A James Corden episode? How could I possibly resist?).

Good points, all. The voiceover was clearly a hamfisted attempt to put all of this in some global context; I wouldn't be surprised if Moffat imposed this later in an attempt to make this story seem less like it was taking place in a bubble (which it was, literally, in part one). The fist-bumping horror was, to my mind, sidetracked rather by the more ludicrous idea of the negotiations at the centre of the story. So, assuming that Meera Syal and Amy succeed, what's their next move? Walk straight into the UN and lay out their roadmap for an entirely new world politics? Who do they think they are, Superman? At worst they'd be dismissed as lunatics, at best they'd get a response of "Very interesting. Now excuse me while I polish my nukes."

I'm also not entirely clear on how the light from the crack is best avoided at all costs, except when you decide to stick your hand right into it and pull something out. I'm not even sure why it's inherently better for Amy to be aware of Rory's death than have him completely removed from history, beyond some very vague assertion that the former is just better in itself.

Overall, this is about 3 or 4 out of 10. Are you goading me into further defence of "The Beast Below"?

John Toon said...

Surprisingly, hilariously or tragically (depending on your broader opinions), all indications suggest to me that the next two episodes are among the best, if not the actual best of this year. And I'm not mad keen on the abstract concepts of Who Actually or DW in a Hila-ha-harious Flatshare with James Corden either, so it's going to be an interesting couple of weeks.

Re the foul, foul negotiation shenanigans - this is another part of why my suggested alternative ending would've worked for me. Leave the Silurians and villagers bargaining amongst themselves on a small scale and suggest that things could blossom onto the global scale in a couple of decades - that looks believable to me. Suggest that whatever those three agree in that room on the spur of the moment is going to be in any way binding outside that room - that looks like bollocks.

Good point about the crack light, but I think by this point in the series we've firmly established that the magic time cracks do whatever is most convenient for the narrative at any given moment. Well, there's any number of fudges and hand-waves waiting in the wings there. Fans can invent kludgey excuses for it to suit themselves, which is how it used to be back in the day and is presumably what Steven Moffat is hoping for now.