John Walker's Electronic House

Television: Doctor Who The Hell Thought That Would Do?

by on Apr.12, 2009, under Rants

Imagine you had a time machine. Where would you go? Well, forward a year until Russell T Davies finally has nothing more to do with Doctor Who, and his insipid incompetent writing is gone. There aren’t griefs good enough to express the disgust at how hideous the Easter ‘special’ was. If someone took the cheapest, laziest Disney live action adventures of the 1980s and distilled them down into one concentrated drop of piss, it would look like a homeopathic solution compared to that stinking insult to humanity.

I come to this with no great passion for Doctor Who. I care little about its history – it was mostly dreadful, if fun – but when it’s good, it can be pretty special. David Tennant’s appeared in a number of such special episodes, and they’ve invariably been written by Steven Moffat, (who thank goodness takes over next year). At his worst, Davies has made Doctor Who tedious, and occasionally pathetic, but he’d previously managed nothing as monstrously dreadful as Planet of the Dead.

The checklist of lazy writing is almost obliterated for ticks. There’s a rag-tag group of what he apparently believes are ‘ordinary people’. What this means is poor and simple. Each person is given half a dimension, and is otherwise useless. One kid is so barely capable he failed to complete a GNVQ in car mechanics, lasting only two weeks, but might be able to tinker with an engine. Another kid has lost his job, and that, stunningly, that’s his personality. There’s a fluttering middle aged white woman, who schizophrenically flipflops between wimpering uselessness and simpering confidence. And then there’s the crowned queen of hateful writing, the Magical Negro. She and her husband, they only want to go home and eat their poor people’s chops. (I cannot think of anything I’ve seen more excruciatingly awful than the scene with the Doctor finding things for everyone to live for. Chops. They live for some chops.) But wait! She has magical psychic powers to go with her accent!

To say RTD borrows from Tomb Raider with Michelle Ryan’s Lady thief is to suggest the Nazis were just borrowing the Austrian’s gold. So, playing Lara Croft she steals a gold cup by using a technique Davies has seen in seven hundred cheap-n-stupid films, and thus is plucky and adorable. She’s primed to be the Doctor’s latest assistant, and making her getaway on a number 200 bus, she meets the Doctor as he pursues a rogue wormhole in – of all places – London! Who’d have thought it? Once again, Cardiff did its best London impression, because that’s where RTD’s special poor and simple people live. They go through the hole, and appear in a desert on another planet. People are surprised for a couple of seconds, but they’re simple folk and they accept their lot.

I’m not sure if Davies and co-writer Gareth Roberts had any more ideas after this, or if they just scribbled on the table with their crayons and the special effects department tried to build a plot around the wobbly lines. There’s some people with plastic fly-heads, and there’s some flying metal manta-rays, and one is coming toward the other so there’s a time limit. The story was literally: get a bus out of some sand. For an hour.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, UNIT spring into action in order to have some people hold some guns, while some other people tap on keyboards that make wormholes disappear. Sadly, the main keyboard tapping man was a disturbingly old and fat Lee Evans, whose grotesque life-long Norman Wisdom parody wearily huffed and puffed its way throughout in what you can only suppose was intended to be comic relief. His part is to eventually close the wormhole, which was portrayed by shouting gibberish down yet another magical mobile phone, and tapping at his keyboard. Because Davies hadn’t actually written a plot, or anything of any substance at any point, there could be no logic or suspense to his success or failure. Even an attempt to add suspense with his grumpy boss lady telling him he had to trap the Doctor and his companions on the other side of the wormhole came to a nonsensical climax, as he still didn’t close it when he knew the bus was safely returned. But someone held a gun to his head, so there was your drama.

The plastic fly-head people’s crashed spaceship was another set in a Davies episode to be lit fluorescent pink. You’ve got to wonder at whichever lighting technician didn’t go home and feed his exhaust into his car window the last time, and was prepared to do that again. So even if the whole thing didn’t reek of corners cut and cheap, tacky design, the pink lights sure as hell made sure it seemed that way. The opening scene in the museum as Lara Croft stole the gold cup was almost mysterious in how terrible it looked. It was a huge, impressive building, that was shot to look like it was made of cardboard. Everything in the episode was so lifeless, so flat and uninspired, and garish pink lights aren’t going to make it go away.

As ever, Tennant fought like a champion with the worst script he’s had so far, and the banter between him and Lara Croft was fun for the facial expressions, if not the half-arsed non-sentiment they were saying. Michelle Ryan did fine, once again getting to prove that she’s not the gutter-squawking ghoul she played in EastEnders, after a decent turn in Jekyll, and a less than decent turn in Bionic Woman (although that was in no way her fault). But it’s hard to believe that anyone else in the episode was auditioned. They surely must have been kidnapped from the street and forced to read out their seven lines each before they’d be released. In any of the seventeen or eighteen thousand celebration scenes in the closing ten minutes they grimaced and gurned, and managed to make clapping look like it was something they really had to think about. If there was any tension at any point, it was whether their hands would miss in the attempt.

Also unbearably incompetent was the Doctor’s refusal to take Lara Croft with him at the end. Switching moods with the skill and grace of Victoria Wood’s Dinnerladies (“Ooh, cor blimey! I’ve only gone and put the jam knife in the butter! I’m dying of cancer.”), the Doctor puts on his frown-face and tells her no, he can’t have any more of his assistants die. Then helps her escape from the police so she can run away in a flying bus. She’s the good kind of burglar, you see.

Talking of escaping on a flying bus, this is Davies’ most awful crime, and a legacy he leaves for Moffat like a dog leaves legacies in the park. He has taken the story somewhere that leaves almost no room for mystery. Ragnar Tørnquist wrote in The Longest Journey,

“Mystery is important. To know everything, to know the whole truth, is dull. There is no magic in that. Magic is not knowing, magic is wondering about what and how and where.”

This was the secret behind Doctor Who, and any number of other science fiction or fantasy stories. It’s so fundamentally obvious that it doesn’t make sense that he’d go so far into destroying it. You have mystery, and the viewer gets to know some secrets that the people outside of the protagonists’ circle do not. For decades the Doctor saved an unknowing Earth. Various members of the secret military organisations knew, as did a handful of humans he’d encountered, but the other six billion were complete unaware. It was our secret that we viewers shared with him, and it was where the fear came from.

When seeing the three suns from the desert planet this miserable exchange occurs. “Like when all those planets was up in the sky,” says one. “But it was the Earth that moved back then, wasn’t it?” responds another. There’s no mystery left for these people, there’s nothing that can shock or appal them. They’ve been on the planet when it went to the other side of the universe. They’ve seen huge spaceships destroy central London. They’ve seen behind the veil, they’ve seen the whole truth, and therefore there’s no magic left whatsoever. The whole Earth knows about monsters and aliens, and this was underlined at Christmas when Victorian England met a five hundred foot stomping robot. Daleks? Kids probably have posters of them in their bedrooms.

No one in the show’s world can wonder about what and how and where any more. Davies has made sure that’s the case, again and again and again. It is his mark on the show, his indelible fuck-up. And there’s no excuse. Even Sunnydale could go through seven years of being on a hellmouth without the locals ever cottoning on. Whedon argued this splendidly within Buffy, showing how people would rather reject what they’d seen for what they’d prefer was true. Davies hasn’t even left room for this, with an annual attack on London to make the worldwide news. The characters literally compare one impossible incident with another.

The only right thing Davies can do before he leaves is undo it all. Write an episode, no matter how badly, that undoes everything he created. Not because it was all bad – it wasn’t all bad. But because he has destroyed the mystery, and with it the potential for surprise and fear.

Although after The Planet of the Dead (which, by the way, wasn’t the damned story. The ghostly voices Mrs Magic hears at the beginning, the threat of a planet of dead people – nope. It was flying metal ray fish that we were supposed to be worried about) it’s hard to offer the suggestion he should write anything else ever again.

25 Comments for this entry

  • Martin Coxall

    It is, I think as John rightly points out that Davies is not even trying any more. Asking him to do the specials when he *clearly doesn’t want to* is stupid.

    I’d rather have a year off to forget all of the bad RTD episodes. Which is all but 2 1/2, maybe.

  • Steve W

    Just watched this tonight; it was like something RTD tossed off in ten minutes without even bothering with a second draft that would have at least caught the minor inconsistencies. Like, surely anyone who’s ever been on a bus even once has seen the signs ON THE DOORS explaining exactly how to open them from the outside, and the other mobile phone’s mysteriously getting a signal even though The Doctor hasn’t tampered with it.

    Very, very lazy.

  • Fat Zombie

    I quite liked Lee Evans in the special. I agree with everything else you said, it was pretty pants, but still. I just like Lee Evans.

  • John Walker

    Also, it was nice of them to put Lara Croft in the back of the only police car in the world where the back doors open from the inside.

  • Steve W

    Gah, I was supposed to mention that one too. Note to self: actual notes better than mental ones.

  • David McBride

    The Easter special was written by Davies? I thought Moffet had already taken over!

    I’m not sure I want to watch my recorded copy now..

  • Schmung

    Wait, you’re skewering the entire episode, but leaving Michelle Ryan out of it somehow? She has almost no discernible charisma.

    On an entirely personal note – I now finally realise why that bloody road near me was closed so often in winter and what the ‘fireworks’ were. Weird to watch Dr Who as someone who lives in Cardiff as they always seem to use the same bits of it located within a fairly small area.

  • chris

    I thought it was a good romp, nothing more/less.

    Calm down.

    Moffat-led Who might be a very different beast to the RTD-laced legacy. As history has shown.

    Nowhere to go? There’s everywhere to go.

    Time will tell (so to speak). Without RTD & co, it’s unlikely we’d even be close to having this conversation.

    And I, for one, am looking forward to the dribbly giblets of the next episode.

    As should we all.


  • John Walker

    Um, it’s a little bit strange to go to someone else’s site and then tell them to calm down. I didn’t burst through your front door shouting it.

    And seriously Chris, if you thought there was anything “good” about that romp, then you’re not allowed to have opinions any more.

  • chris

    Sorry, I missed the bit that said the agreement with your opinion on your blog in comments was compulsory. I didn’t think I was shouting, or bursting through your door. Just chipping in my thoughts, invited as they were through a “leave a reply” section.

    I have an opinion. I thought the episode was fun. Sure, not great, but hardly worth the (frankly) bizarre outpouring of a full on “OMG!! RTD sucks!” blog post. I could name several worse episodes. Written by RTD.

    We know not to expect too much. We’ve been burned by expectation before. And there’s probably worse to come before Matt Smith takes over (which is no fault of DT, who is always worth watching).

    I genuinely hope that Moffat-level episodes will be the norm rather than the exception. I just switch off that “expectation filter” for any other writer.

    And come on: “dribbly giblets” are words that are too infrequently juxtaposed, surely?

  • Pace

    Chris; I’m not trying to speak for Mr. Walker, but telling someone to ‘calm down’ is just a bit derisive and condescending. It’d irritate me.

    Anyway, I found myself agreeing with most of the things you say John, if taken seriously the episode is clearly a big old turd. But, I must say, I quite enjoyed it anyway. I thought it crossed some threshold of silliness so that I just went with it and enjoyed it. Take the opening scene. Sure it may have ripped off Tomb Raider, but it also ripped off Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible. Quite boldly. It said to me “alright, we’re just having fun with this one.” David Tennant was great as usual and that lady in the tight black outfit was, well, was in a nice and tight black outfit. And pretty good too, I thought. It never occurred to me to be bothered by the racial/social connotations, and maybe I was just in the right sort of mood or something, but I was smiling and enjoying it throughout. (I hope this doesn’t mean I’m not allowed to have opinions anymore. I know how you could feel though, whenever someone claims to have liked Requiem for a Dream it sends me into fits of apoplectic consternation.)

    I also think that quote from Ragnar Tørnquist is very interesting. I wouldn’t have thought to apply it to Doctor Who (though I think I see what you’re saying there), to me it’s very applicable to Battlestar Galactica though. A lot of the fun there for me is in the mystery, but also in trying to solve it, which is why I tended to get a little bit too into analyzing the show. I may be drifting off topic here, but the finale disappointed me because a lot of these little mysterious storylines throughout the show either went nowhere or had unsatisfying conclusions. I guess to enjoy the mystery I need to know that there’s a meaningful answer out there too.

  • alpha charlie bravo

    I had a more or less pleasant experience watching the episode, but everything you say about it is true. I was actively offended at the inclusion of a Magical Negro, especially from a writer who makes a point of having a diverse cast. Also, RTD’s “sympathy” for the poor is really condescending. He lightly pats the ethnically accented couple on the head for the nobility of their simple life just like he did with those obnoxious, fat characters in Voyage of the Damned.

    You couldn’t be more right about the loss of mystery and its potential impact on the series. (Maybe that’s why “Lara Croft” was so flippant throughout the ordeal. I’d be pretty nihilistic too if I were annually subjected to armageddon.)

    Moffat has to go small–make the drama about the characters again; real characters, not cardboard cut-outs on a bus. I have no shortage of confidence that he can accomplish this task.

  • John Walker

    Chris, you somewhat misunderstood. My problem was your telling me to “calm down”, as if *I* had burst through your door, shouting my opinions. I’ll pick the level of calm I think is appropriate when writing on my own site.

    Also, I’d slightly hoped you’d understand that telling you that you’re not allowed opinions any more was on the side of tongue-in-cheek. However, now you’re officially not allowed opinions. There’s been a decree.

    Pace, I honestly cannot understand how it could be interpreted as “fun”. I found it offensively awful. I was saying, “Oh, just fuck off,” at my screen in despondent tones multiple times through the episode, as lazy, meaningless references or cliches appeared. Had he been spoofing Mission Impossible or whatever with the opening sequence, fine. But it was just copying it, but really cheaply. Also, people who “like” Requiem For A Dream need to see a psychotherapist. However, appreciating it as something remarkable and disturbing is acceptable.

    ACB, I wish I could have the patience to be offended by all that stuff and yet still has a pleasant time : ) You are absolutely right about Voyage of the Damned. I have rather wildly broken the promise I made back then.

  • NM

    > I was actively offended at the inclusion of a Magical Negro,
    > especially from a writer who makes a point of having a
    > diverse cast.

    Those aspects are two sides of the same simpering liberal-paternalist coin; they should not come as a surprise. RTD doesn’t see people – he sees “diversity quotas”, and he wants to feel a pat on his back for fulfilling them. Clunky inverted racism has been a hallmark of his sentimental tosh, from the ghastly Mickey onwards. I remember seeing an episode where he was congratulating himself for having cast a mixed-race relationship. In between the congratulations of this “brave” step, perhaps he should have not simply said “bring me a brown one – any old brown one” to the casting director, but had as a first criterion sought some modicum of acting skill.

  • Juliet

    I caught the episode with about a quarter left to go, and it seemed like entirely forgettable fluff – very disappointing. What I love about Doctor Who is that there are some episodes that have me thinking about them long after they end – the Silence in the Library duo were brilliant. This one though, I doubt I’ll be bothering to go online to watch the beginning.
    I agree with you about the psychic woman, that was some horribly condescending writing. And I really hope Michelle Ryan isn’t going to be the next companion. My vote goes to Lenora Crichlow, I think she’d do a great job.

  • Pace

    If I had a vote on the next companion, it’d be Georgia Moffet. hello! (actually if pressed I’d have to admit that Captain Jack is still my favorite sidekick.) (and as long as we’re picking favorites, The Girl in the Fireplace is mine.) (sorry, I have no one to discuss Doctor Who with here in the US. I need to get it out somehow!)

    John; again, I can totally empathize with your position, it just didn’t hit me like that. It’s funny how people can agree on what they’re seeing, but react so differently. It even makes me look on Requiem for a Dream a bit more kindly. Glad I’m not a critic! :) I’d agree the script was probably atrocious, I guess it was what everybody else did with it that I liked. And come on, didn’t your heart warm a bit when you saw those bug-headed guys?

  • chris

    Ah… I seem to have completely grasped the stick entirely by it’s wrong end.

    So sorry about that. I’m an idiot.

    And actually, you’re right anyway. It was pretty awful.

  • x25killa

    Those flying alien mantarays reminded me of a film called “Pitch Black”

  • Rev. S Campbell

    You DO need to calm down, though, regardless of whose blog it is. You’ll burst a blood vessel.

    So let’s examine what’s happened here: you’ve watched a show that you knew you were going to hate and be infuriated by, because you hate and are infuriated by EVERY episode RTD writes, even the brilliant ones. You’d already vowed never to watch another RTD episode as long as you lived because you find them so hateful and infuriating. And yet now you appear to be angry at HIM because YOU chose to watch something that was absolutely CERTAIN to make you unhappy, even if it had been 10 times as good as it was, which was a middling episode with some shabby scripting and some good bits.

    The similarity to Midnight was lazy, the flying bus was embarrassing, the bits of sub-Tolkien dialogue (“They are shining”) as toe-curling as ever and the last 5 minutes, as usual with Davies’ “big” episodes, were pretty dire, stumbling through several half-endings before finally settling on one.

    The core story was perfectly decent sci-fi hokum about the metal stingrays creating wormholes and laying waste to planets. They weren’t trying to destroy the Earth (specifically) or the universe, they were just animals hunting for food. The progress of that story unfolded entirely reasonably – the Doctor thinks of a way to get the bus moving, and UNIT, with the Doctor’s help, manage to get the wormhole closed. They’ve managed to send Rose back in time and across dimensions before, so that’s hardly an outrage against logic.

    I’d happily push Lee Evans into a volcano full of sharks and AIDS, but he was rather charming as the supernerd here – the Doc is like God to UNIT, so it’s hardly implausible to imagine a geeky scientist reacting to him like Obi-Wan Kenobi and showed up at the Norwich Sci-Fi And Comics Convention.

    The Doctor’s attitude to Michelle Ryan’s character was entirely in keeping – he doesn’t want the heartache of another sidekick right now, but on reflection realises that on the grand scoreboard of existence, playing a crucial role in saving the entire planet probably scores more points than some petty thievery, and therefore spending the rest of her life in jail isn’t a very just reward.

    The flies? They’re a PLOT DEVICE for Heaven’s sake, a means for there to be a spaceship there for the Doc to find something he could use to get the bus moving. Would you have preferred it if he’d somehow saved the bus with another miraculous function of the sonic screwdriver? And the flies had to die, because I somehow don’t think Earth is quite ready yet to accomodate giant walking insects. As you point out, the planet’s had a bit of a rough time lately with regard to aliens, and would be unlikely to behave very welcomingly.

    If I’d been writing it I might have had the trigger-happy troops shoot them on the bus, but the way RTD did it at least had the benefit of leaving the Doctor with no reason to regard Colonel Magumbo or whatever her name was with suspicion, which hopefully opens up some possibilities for coming episodes and series.

    As for the passengers, what do you want from a random collection of six people on a fricking bus? He’s already got a psychic and a genius thief with a backpack full of tools, anything else but plebs making up the numbers and it’s just ridiculous. And as far as chops and gravy goes… wow, you’re really not very good with ordinary people, are you? The Doctor got them thinking about normal things to keep them calm and occupied, because otherwise all they were good for was panicking and dying, as we were clearly shown by the driver.

    The writing was unquestionably sloppy and full of silly, lazy, needless holes (Ryan’s escape being perhaps the most insulting one). Sadly that’s something RTD can’t be bothered to excise from his scripting a lot of the time, but then we’re just back to the fact that you hate him and shouldn’t be watching any of his episodes, because even when he really gets a hold of himself and writes a fantastic one you absolutely loathe it. Honestly, it’s like you walked into a bar and had a massive furious hissy fit that there were some drunk people there.

    In summary, then: shut up, you curmudgeon.

  • Optimaximal

    If we’re talking about bloopers, how could they fuck up the bus registration plates – they explicitly say the number out loud during the farcical police chase then when the CGI model appears at the end, it’s a completely different number!

    Shit like this annoys me – did so in Terminator 3 (plane reg #) and did here…

  • Rev. S Campbell

    Obviously, the above should read “like Obi-Wan Kenobi HAD showed up at the Norwich Sci-Fi And Comics Convention.” You make me so crazy sometimes I can’t even type straight.

  • Bobsy

    There were some cracking moments, not least a heartily relieved “Guns that work!” and “Are you saluting over the phone?” “…no…”

    But as an RTD episode this was, like the last Christmas special, deservingly okay. Compared to the ridiculous throw-up of every tasteless lump of bullshit that had been before that was the end of season 4, it was a graceful work of art.

    And yes the magical negro was awful, and yes Colonel Mugabe holding a gun to Lee Evans’s head might as well not have actually happened, but otherwise it was a decent enough bit of Doctor Who that rested just on the right side of average.

    Weirdest thing: I just looked up “Turn Left” – one of the very few genuinely good episodes of season 4 – and it turns out RTD wrote it. Funny old world, eh?

  • John Walker

    Yes, as Stuart likes to forget whenever he wants to tell me off, I thought Turn Left was a great episode. Which is why I say above that RTD isn’t necessarily awful.

    However, in terms of the positive things you say about the Easter special (and oh my goodness the Titanic abortion) YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG. I hope that’s cleared that up.

  • Bobsy

    Titanic abortion? I don’t know exactly what you mean by that, but I was referring to the pointless-giant-cyberman episode by the last christmas one. It was generally good, by way of being relatively restrained. At least compared to the episode before it. Plus it was character focussed, which is usually a good thing. Unless that character is played by Peter Kay.

  • John Walker

    I’m muddling my Christmases. But that Cyberman one was pretty forgettable.