Monday, June 20, 2011

In the bleak midwinter

It's the right season for it, out here in NZ.

So anyway, I suppose the last thing I ought to do before I start posting about the new series of Who is blog about A Christmas Carol. On the face of it, this was a rich and engaging story with some nice lines and moments and at least one extremely well examined supporting character. Great work from Michael Gambon, and Katherine Jenkins turned out to be a pleasing actress too. I'd certainly compare it favourably with previous Christmas specials, although that's a pretty low benchmark achievement - I'd compare bloody Timelash favourably with some of the Christmas specials we've had. At least a 7 out of 10 for this one, but subject to the following observations.

So, here we see the most extreme example yet of Steven Moffat's favourite gimmick - interfering with linear causality - as the Doctor changes Kazran Sardick's past in front of his very eyes in order to manipulate his personality. There's a spaceship full of people that's going to crash in the next hour or so, and the Doctor's solution is to nip back in time and spend... days? weeks? months? having jolly adventures with the young Kazran, in the hope that it'll make him a more malleable person. I dunno, as a narrative ploy it kind of works and it kind of grates. It also gives free will and self-determination in the DW universe an unlooked-for kick in the recreational facilities.

In the end, though, it turns out to be for nothing: firstly, Kazran's still a git, only now he's a git because the Doctor's interference led him into a heartbreaking doomed relationship rather than because the plot flatly demands that he be a git; and secondly, he can't operate the weather control machine post-interference because the machine is apparently stuck in the original timeline and doesn't recognise him any more. So the Doctor's manipulated his past, hasn't actually redeemed him to any significant extent, and hasn't even achieved what he wanted. Although this somewhat undermines what's gone before, it's an interesting development. The Doctor's last-minute solution is to defrost the love interest so that she can save the day, then enjoy her last few hours of life with crusty old Kazran.

The character of Abigail is thus reduced to the status of a tool, firstly as the means by which the Doctor softens up Kazran, and secondly as the means by which he ultimately resolves the plot. She's just a beautiful young woman in a freezer who can be wheeled out to sing when the story demands it. I'm reminded of the subornment of Amy's character (if "character" is the word) to the requirements of plot and the crass gratification of viewers (and presumably the writer as well) in the 2010 series.

The broader topic of Steven Moffat's use of female characters is one that I warmly hope fan writers will have some fun with in the fullness of time. Whatever you do, folks, do not get me started on the subject of this year's charity scenes.

Incidentally, since we're dealing here with a Doctor who's prepared to use the TARDIS to solve his problems within a story, why does it specifically have to be Abigail, down to her last alloted day of life, who saves the day by singing? All right, so the Doctor may not be able to think of anyone else on the spur of the moment, but since Moffat's set a precedent - and within this very same story too - there's no reason for him not to nip back a few years and stage a singing contest, or even found an operatic school, and then take his pick of singers to save the day. Or he could just pop back to Earth and bring back Kiri Te Kanawa, friend of the rich and famous that he is.

That's another thing worth noting: the one supporting character that we're particularly encouraged to sympathise with is the morally suspect rich industrialist. Even Abigail's unspecified terminal illness is presented as something that affects poor(/rich) old Kazran more than as something that affects her. Is it a bold subversion of the usual good/evil character dichotomy, or a blatant and terrible example of bourgeois classism? (Answers on a pamphlet.) Note again that the Doctor here is the kind of time traveller who hangs out with Frank Sinatra and gets "accidentally" married to Marilyn Monroe. Note also that there's never any suggestion that Kazran has or will let out any of the other serf-sicles he's got locked away in his basement as insurance against his dodgy loans to the poor. The Doctor sends him off on one last magic shark-drawn carriage ride with Abigail and seems to assume that everything will work out in the end - echoes of the way he merrily buggered off after failing to "bring down the government" as promised in The Beast Below. That last shot just doesn't sit right with me.

Doctor Who has some time since lost its radical heart; I think that's what I'm trying to say.

On yet another related note, viewers may not have given any thought to the other serf-sicles at all, simply because the only one given a voice is the one who's actually benefited from being banged up in Kazran's freezer, the one whose family has worked the dodgy loan system to spare themselves the cost of her medical care. In her specific case, being pawned as loan insurance and kept in cryogenic suspension is a good thing. I feel that this isn't an entirely wholesome dimension to the story.

Dammit, this happens a lot with Moffat-era Who, doesn't it? I enjoy it on a basic level, but as soon as I start to pick at it to any extent I find these gaping depths of horror staring back at me. Moffat's id and mine clearly aren't compatible. I hope some sort of roaring invisible Id Monster smackdown doesn't result.

Time to be a bit more positive. It was nice to see a bit of self-referential tomfoolery, with all the business of Kazran watching the Doctor change his past along with us - Kazran himself as the viewer. And I suppose one might argue that Scrooge pretty nearly acted out the part of the theatre-goer in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, so it's in keeping with the source idea. And there were several noteworthy dialogue triumphs: "In 900 years of space and time, I've never met anyone who wasn't important" was the winner for me; "I keep 'amazing'... out here" was a nice one, if the delivery was a bit off; and of course, "I'm a mature, responsible adult..." being the lie that breaks the psychic paper.

Yes, for all my grumbling it's at least on a level with Voyage of the Damned. High praise indeed, readers! Ho, ho, ho. Coming soon, real soon, some blogging about this year's DW episodes.


Christopher Pittard said...

Oho! So begins our out-of-sync comparison of nu Who reviews, in which I try to recall what I saw a couple of months ago... If I may hint at what's to come: don't expect it to make a whole lick of sense (especially episode 2, which comes under the heading 'stylish bollocks'), but do expect some eminently guessable twists (having fallen for the Pandorica last year, I was gratified to have outguessed Who at almost every turn this time round). But hey - I'm getting ahead of myself...

John Toon said...

Don't worry about hints - I've actually seen all 7 episodes of this year so far. I agree re stylish bollocks and the twists being guessable. More anon.