Monday 23 June 2008

Too much time on my hands ...

My good friend Andrew wrote me an email this afternoon concerning ‘Turn Left’, it went something (or almost exactly) like this:

“But if the Doctor died at the end of the Runaway Bride then he wouldn’t have been able to stop the Carrionites. Or the Daleks. Or The Family of Blood. Or the Weeping Angels. Or the Pyrovilles. So Earth History would have been completely knackered from at least the eruption of Vesuvius, no? Or do RTD scripted invasions carry greater potential danger than all of the above?

It’s time for your timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbly Oodcast post to sort all this out!”

It’s a conundrum and an arresting one at that. For a series based around the central conceit of time travel, Dr Who (particularly this new iteration) plays its cards surprising close to its chest where matters of temporal chronology are concerned. RTD OBE would rather tell a good story than get bogged down in the geeky nuts and bolts of it and more power to him if that’s how he feels. However, I’m a Dr Who fan, dammit, and for a lot of us the geeky nuts and bolts are not beside the point, rather they are the point. No, perhaps that’s overstating it slightly but they are an integral part of the tissue of rarified pleasures that make up the dna of the show. So, with that in mind, and with every intention of arriving at an answer to Andrew’s query at some point down the line, it is my great pleasure to present:

The Troubadour’s Laws of Time Travel* **

First Law: Time Lords are creatures of time

Wow. Incisive stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. Let me unpack this a bit for you so you can see why it’s relevant. What I mean is this: time is a Time Lord’s natural habitat, they move through it as easily as a Silurian through water or a human through nitrous rich air. It’s natural for them, it’s the way they’re built. Witness the Doctor’s extra sensory perceptions, he can literally see time in flux, respond to its ebbs and flows, he is as aware of changes in time as keenly as we perceive changes in temperature or light. Also, long time fans of the show will recognise that the TARDIS is less a vehicle and more an extension of the Doctor’s physiognomy. He’s not just a bloke with a time machine, to all extents and purposes he is part time machine, the TARDIS in this case analogous to a set of gills or an exo-skeleton - a physical, outward manifestation of an evolutionary advantage.

Now this is all well and good but how does it help us explain time travel? Aha, read on my confounded friend and I will elucidate. You see, if we accept that it is a natural state of affairs for the Doctor to be traveling in time then we can also accept that his personal timeline was never meant to be linear. Whereas we Earth bound organism were only ever meant to travel A to B, time wise, the Doctor’s personal history is more like a cosmic plate of spaghetti, all over the place basically. Where as a human companion is being pulled out of their timeline when traveling in the TARDIS, the Doctor is merely fulfilling a function of his existence. The crucial point here though is that the Doctor can no more travel backwards through his personal timeline than we can decide to visit last Tuesday. He may treat human history like a personal toy box to rummage through at will but he’s as powerless as anyone else to go back and change his own past. That’s why he can’t go back and save Adric or tell his 4th incarnation to touch those two wires together in ‘Genesis’ and win the Time War without a shot being fired. The only time he can cross his own personal history is if he has played no active role in events*** (like Father’s Day) and even then the results can be devastating. From a distance it looks like he can go anywhere and see anything but in actual fact his travels cause time to coalesce around him, possibilities solidifying into certainties as he experiences them. Setting history in stone by his very presence.

Second Law: Gallifrean Mean Time

So why can the Doctor change Earth’s history and not his own? The most popular theory involves a concept called Gallifrean Mean Time (or GMT). This states that the universe has an event horizon, a present day in effect that advances forwards and before which one can no longer time travel. All Time Lords, wherever they are in time and space, share this awareness of what is the present, even though they are all over the place, all over time in different incarnations, shot through the universe like a stick of rock, only one of those incarnations is ever the ‘present’ Time Lord. The rest are fixed past selves or possible futures. The twist in the tale is that this ‘present day’ is actually still billions of years in the past and Earth is actually just a probable future planet (made more probable, it must be assumed, by the amount of it’s future history that has been fixed in place by the Doctor and other time travelers experiencing it). GMT also explains why there is only ever one president of Gallifrey at any given moment, why the Doctor knows what time period to visit if he gets a distress signal from his own world and why he only ever meets the Master one time after another in a linear order despite jumping between times and places. It also explains why there was only five Doctors to choose from at the time of ‘The Five Doctors’ and not thirteen. Most of all it explains why he can never see his own people again, despite them all being time travelers, the event horizon of the present has passed by the destruction of Gallifrey, committing it to the past, and he can never go back there, nor can anyone from there ever be in the same place as him at the same time. The Doctor has to obey the second law of time travel just as surely as we have to obey the law of gravity, he can bend it but he can’t break it. There are things that are lost to him forever.

Right, on to Andrew’s question. Armed with these theories the answer becomes pretty straight forward (I hope). When the creature forces Donna to turn right rather than left it creates a parallel universe where the Doctor has died and everything has gone to hell in a hand basket. But this is certainly not a fully fledged parallel universe of the kind we visited in The Age of Steel. It is a rickety, cowboy-builder-esque construction created by a creature of dubious power. We are told time and again in the episode that reality has been bent around Donna herself, the changes have been made with her as the conduit so we can reasonably assume the new universe shares her linear limitations when it comes to time. Consequently, the only changes that are made are one’s where the Doctor’s wibbly-wobbly timeline intersect with Donna’s timeline from the right-turn moment onwards. There’s no way that the creature could extrapolate every change that the Doctor’s death would have across all time and space, it’s host is an ordinary, A to B, time-bound human and so it can only affect change in one direction - forwards. In fact, it is entirely possible that this new universe doesn't even have a history before the point of Donna's decision - that it merely branches off from the main continuum and exists in a little paradoxical bubble by itself.

(If we also take the second law into account, we can really see the creature has bitten off more than it can chew. Because the Doctor manifestly didn’t die during The Christmas Invasion and that has now been set in stone. Time can not just shift slightly around such a colossal error. That is why the whole bodged-up, rubbish, fragile parallel universe came into existence in the first place.)

So there we have it - it was one crappy time beetle against the last gate-keeper of an intrinsic function of the universe’s temporal physics (or the champion of time to give him another name). And the stupid beetle lost. Hope that helps.

* Specifically in the Whoniverse, this doesn’t hold true for Back to the Future, Quantum Leap, the Terminator milieu or JCVD action classic ‘Time Cop’.

** I would be wrong to pass this off as all my own work. Rather it is a bastardisation of hundreds of things I’ve read over the years all cobbled together into a Frakenstein-esque whole. I’d gladly name my sources if I could but unfortunately I’ve forgotten most of them, I seem to remember several copies of DWM, an editor’s note in a Virgin New Adventures book and one of those interminable Dr Who encyclopedia of the mid-80s all played a part. So well done to you guys!

*** Or through massive Time Lord intervention, probably holding it all together with some sort of paradox machine on a planetary scale (see any episode where the Doctor meets himself)

Friday 20 June 2008

When the night is long…

I find straight-up horror films pretty boring these days. I almost think its fair to say that if a film states that it is a horror film, and is not made in Japan – its probably not very scary unless you’re a horror virgin or too young to see one. They generally end up in three categories, in my experience – the unheard-of, non-english-language original version, the plastic-bimbo-populated Hollywood remake, and the half-baked predictable teen-horror.

What’s impressive with Doctor Who at the moment, is how far they seem willing to push the boundaries for the timeslot they’ve been shoved in (I say shoved in: series 1-3 were all shown in a slot an hour later – and all pulled in roughly a million more viewers per week).

But this hasn’t quietened down the ambition of the production team. This series has had a feel of the inevitable about it – a kind of running dread that has wound its way around the storylines. But – no stories that have tried to freak viewers out with “scary” CGI monsters… Not that spring to mind, anyway.

And RTD’s episode, Midnight, seems to be the pinnacle – so far, anyway.

I’ve said before that I have my doubts about some of RTD’s episodes. In fact, I wasn’t overly impressed with Partners In Crime – although I enjoyed it…

I have found some of his other episodes a bit suspect – especially with Rose and the 10th Doctor. My personal view being that series 1 served Rose better as a character than series 2 with all the will-they-won’t-they rubbish that came along with it... A main culprit of that must have been RTD, being in charge of the overall “story arc”, and it seemed to be his episodes where that whole romance thing was dwelt on. I was disappointed with the start to series 2 – in particular New Earth, and I really wasn’t sure about the Peter Kay monster and pavement-love in Love and Monsters.

But, with Martha, his writing seemed to hit the mark more. And even more so with Donna. Or in the case of Midnight, without Donna…

This showed how far Doctor Who has come, I think. It wasn’t a monster-fest. It wasn’t a space war. It wasn’t an invasion. We didn’t even see the monster or get to hear what it was. And that was its strongest hand. Something that particularly Steven Moffatt has played on regularly is what people genuinely fear, and RTD has just pushed on into the psychological territory with this episode. People have an amazing talent by blowing fears up to huge proportions just by talking themselves into believing it… Just like this group of tourists.

Opinion seems divided with the newspapers, anyway. The Times were broadly critical, the Guardian were extremely enthusiastic. Out of the two, the Guardian had the better-written review, even if that’s because the reviewer seems to have approached the episode in a better frame of mind. The Times had a point, possibly, about the episode being a bit wordy, but it the reviewer was needlessly cynical, and doesn’t seem to have bothered either doing any research on this year’s series or taking a sense of humour to the sofa with him.

I agreed with this:

Midnight felt too much of a writing exercise to be really scary”

Well, to an extent. I think its proved with the moment when Sky looks up at the Doctor for the first time after she is possessed. Her head movements and the way she looks through him really was frightening.

I don’t agree that Tennant’s Doctor is becoming irritating, though – in context of the whole series, he’s not been short on confidence (after all, why should he be?), and I personally found the arrogant comments funny.

But on the whole, Midnight was great. RTD may well have been watching the Horror of Fang Rock when writing – the claustrophobic atmosphere is every bit as good, and its well-realised without going OTT with the effects.

There is just one thing though. I don’t see why the “hostess” would do what she did. She seemed far more concerned with rules and regulations than the good of her passengers...

Strong performances from another really good cast made this even better. And at least this monster wasn’t unrealistic!

Thursday 19 June 2008

I’d like to be ten again. I think it was when I watched Dalek in the first series that I first thought that. Watching that final scene where the mutant inside the machine realises the bigness of life and that it would have to stop being a Dalek to cope with it. But it realised that this conflicted with its prime motive in life: to be a soldier to advance the Dalek race. Big stuff done big.

In my first post on this blog I looked back at what Doctor Who had meant for me as a kid. So what’s it mean to me now? What makes it stand out as must see telly?

Its uniqueness is always going to be its biggest selling point. A quirky, unpredictable traveller in a time-space machine that looks like a phone box who never carries weapons and has an unshakable moral backbone faces a limitless diversity of situations and sets out to right wrongs. You can’t beat that for an idea. It’s incongruous, enchanting. It makes you think and it’s entertaining. Gotta love it.

I like my telly to be challenging. You can be challenged by all sorts of telly but Doctor Who does it in a way that embraces and salutes life. It doesn’t dwell on negatives. It takes the challenges of life and reflects them in ways that bring them to the fore in fresh and sparkling ways. The Lazarus Experiment’s discussion of immortality, The Last of the Time Lords on political power and the untapped power of the masses, Girl in the Fireplace, Human Nature and The Family of Blood on unrequited love and self sacrifice. Gridlock as brilliant satire and an exploration of community and, oh all sorts of things (I could watch it over and over), Utopia on the potential of the very wicked (Derek Jacobi’s take on the dim awareness that Yana was more than he thought was amazing), Fathers Day on self sacrifice and parenthood. Ha! Take that Eastenders! Ya boo!

It’s thanks to Russell T Davies, the head honcho of the series, that it’s been so good, been written and made in such a full blown gutsy, hard hitting, clever, provoking and rigorous way. And the production team. What a team. RTD’s bold and un-dentable enthusiasm and self assurance in what he wants to achieve is a huge inspiration. He just knows what he wants to achieve and does it. Each episode of the series shines with this commitment and assurance and it’s a rare thing. Fourteen episodes a year of rigorously written creative television that is really, really different each week is not a mean feat. It’s always fascinating and challenging, whether it’s the Doctor’s insistence on giving any villain a chance to change their ways or the uncomfortable way that he has sometimes dealt with them - it has created splendid debate in my office and, I hope, in the playground too. The depth of life experience too. The horror of and the choices in war, the reality of relying on people, the Doctor and Rose’s friendship - the most platonic relationship ever portrayed. The madness of the Master. Donna’s desire for betterment. The acceptance of the diversity of life. What a smorgasbord.

My personal favourites are each of the stories written by soon-to-be head writer Steven Moffatt. He hits a deeper resonance than RTD, who I think underwrites. (I thought RTD’s Midnight didn’t quite make it as a truly extraordinary exploration of human fear but was close). With the Moff you get the full whack every time, his plots are so intricate and his themes so solid. And his dialogue must make actors melt with delight. Who can forget the exploration of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose in the exchange, Rose: ‘Don’t tell me the Universe implodes or something if the Doctor dances. Go on then, show us show us your moves.’ The Doctor: (flustered) ‘Rose…. I’m trying to resonate concrete.’ And in Blink, the extraordinary reflection on Sally and Billy’s relationship that never was summed up when Old Billy shows up in the present: Billy: ‘It was raining when we met’ Sally: ‘It’s the same rain’. And Miss Evangelista’s final words: ‘I… I …. Ice Cream’. Or was it ‘I scream’? Goodness. Brrr. I wonder how the Moff gets away with such unveiled full-on drama in a family show. Whether referring to sex as dancing or the Doctor’s yearning for a normal, mortal life in the Girl in the Fireplace he breaks all sorts of assumed Who rules and no one complains. The mark of a great writer. Obviously the deeper and more adult stuff goes right over the kids heads and that's fine. I hope he has the same overall creative vision as RTD cos if so we are in for a few more years yet of this remarkable show reaching the heights that I have almost started to take for granted.

I’d like to be ten again so I could be inspired by all this great telly at the right age. Doctor Who was doing all this in the 1980s but today it’s just better. Telly is produced better these days. There are less restrictions. Doctor Who is so richly written and made with such assurance and shining team work. It speaks of the reality of life in a way that is always realistic, inclusive and optimistic and mostly outstandingly moral. What’s not to like? Darn, the series will be over soon!

Thursday 12 June 2008

And the nation's libraries were empty...

Oh so often in television, cliffhangers are abused. Cruelly used to drag viewers back against their better instincts to watch the next installment of whatever it is they're watching. And often, this is a complete let-down. Imagine sitting back to watch the new episode of Eastenders because the end of last night's has intrigued you - only to find out that its still a soap opera of negligable merit about depressing people and their petty little existences. Nothing is ever discussed - always dismissed as either "it's family" or in fisticuffs. Or a bottling. It is London, after all.

Where are the Krays when you need them, eh?

Well, I'm always worried that a cliffhanger in Doctor Who was just such a hook to drag you into a mediocre fishing net, filled with slippery little bores that rumble on endlessly about continuity, mythology and characters. Incidentally, I'd like to set up a forum for people to discuss and enjoy the good doctor's universe - but it would have a strict policy - the rules of Just A Minute would apply. Say continuity twice and you're out of here!

But why was I worried at the end of the Silence In The Library? Why did I even entertain the idea that the next part would be anything other than magnificent? I'm not sure. But I'm glad I was worried, if only that it meant I enjoyed The Forest of the Dead even more.

I think I'm pretty clear that this was "nu-who" all the way. It was involved, and emotional to levels that really didn't even register as an option in the 80s. I particularly liked the dream-time sequences - and Catherine Tate is starting to become impressive, even... Who'd have thought after Partners In Crime that we'd see this sort of performance from her. Stunning. And considering my views at the start of the series, I don't use the word lightly.

There were moments that brought a lump to my throat (but no, I didn't cry, in case you're wondering). And I sat grinning like the sad little fool that I am for the last ten minutes. You know the feeling when you see David Tennant sprint with such purpose, vault over things to get to what he needs to do, and slowly spread his Tom-Baker-esque grin out for all to admire, that something brilliant is happening. And in this case, I don't see how people couldn't have enjoyed this - it was a very Doctor Who ending - he couldn't let everyone die. No matter what happened, everyone still had to be saved.

I LOVED the double bluff in the mystery of what CAL was. Everyone I talked to and listened to in the intervening week assumed that the girl being CAL would be too obvious - after all, this was Steven Moffatt - it had to be more complicated, and more chilling than that. But it wasn't. And that was brilliant, somehow. It does prove that the writing doesn't have to be complex to work.

The completely bloodless confrontation with the Vashta Nerada is fabulous - a real harkening back to the old-school... Threatening an alien predator with an entry in a book could only be done by the Doctor, couldn't it?!

But I do have questions about the end... For one thing - they said that the planet was cracking apart - and yet he "saved" them in the Library's core. They're not safe for very long then...?

Also, he brought the others back from the hard-drive, so why not them?

But oh, this was great. Anyone else? We seem to have gone oddly quiet...

Thursday 5 June 2008

When The Going Gets Tough, The Moff Gets Going

Well. How to describe The Silence In The Library... I sat still afterwards for a few minutes, looking at the now empty screen I'd been watching it all on, and became very aware that I had a dark room behind me...

I've loved this series so far - so many things to like about the writing, the elusive "story-arc" (yawn). But the one thing I think we've been missing is suspense. Last year was not short of suspense - I think most, if not all the stories had elements of suspense - with 42 being extremely tense all the way through, and then the ultimate trio of episodes from Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat topping it all off. But this year, I think we've seen things coming.

The Sontaran story, as enjoyable as it was (and I mean that sincerely - it was incredibly watchable, even if I did have reservations about the plot), was not tense at any point, to me. The Doctor's Daughter gave away the suspense within a minute of the start and from then on was light on plot and pretty predictable (but great all the same). The Fires of Pompeii had some suspense in, and was a cracking early episode, but that's about it.

But as usual, The Moff defies us all. From start to finish, this episode pulsed like one of the classic Dalek tales or the relentless tension in the Web of Fear. There were some fantastic touches in structure - they're sealed in a library, but there's a little girl on earth (? Is it earth?) who can see all and communicate with them - even if she doesn't understand. Shadows that eat you alive - "not every shadow, but any shadow" is how the Doctor described it. Weapons useless against such an enemy is something that also screams classic Who to me - and makes all this even better.

Then there's Professor River Song. Odd name. Hope that means something good or important, because otherwise it'll annoy me as a useless comedy name that reminds me of an Ocean Colour Scene song.

We discussed River Song briefly when we "did lunch" last week - only briefly, as none of us wanted to spoil anything and I'd only mentioned that I'd heard a couple of "facts about her". Namely that she is meant to be the Doctor's lover, but she's from a future he hasn't got to yet. So far, that's half right.

Lovely touches, too, with the references to Donna - the way River started saying something about how the Doctor talked about her and then stopped herself. I wish they'd stop with all that now. We pretty much know that something horrible is going to happen at the end of the series - I just wish they'd let us wait for that in peace!

Fabulous cliffhanger too. That is something I miss from Classic Who - the weekly cliffhanger. Even the one in The Sontaran Stratagem wasn't all that nervy (like Wilfred is going to die that early...). But this was great - with a horrible but brilliant touch of the real faces on the robots.

Those are creepy too, and I liked Donna's earlier reaction to them "It chose me the face of a dead person that it thought I'd like?!"

By the time it had finished, I'd felt like I'd only just sat down to start it. It really didn't register that I'd just seen 45 minutes of brilliant TV until I'd seen the clock. I'm not sure I'd breathed for the last half an hour of that, either. This is what it's all about.

Bring on Saturday!