Sunday, April 11, 2010

Small Beautiful Events

"For some people, small beautiful events is what life is all about!"

-The Fifth Doctor, 'Earthshock' (1982)

I tend to view Doctor Who in terms of the small, beautiful moments. I think it might be a hangover from my earliest days, because I've been aware of Doctor Who since long before my young brain was capable of processing actual narrative. Moments after my younger sister was born, my parents were so struck by her greyish, wrinkled/squashed appearance that they gave her the nickname "Davros" - as you might imagine, this rather stuck with me (and, I suspect, with her, although possibly in a slightly less happy way). My friends and I used to eagerly dissect the latest episodes on the way to and from primary school, but it was never the plots which got us truly excited - I seem to recall Ralph Bisset doing a pretty good approximation of Sylvester McCoy's histrionic "If we fight like animals, we die like animals!" the day after Part 3 of 'Survival' aired. The imagery and iconography of the show is imprinted on my brain at such a deep, all-encompassing level that my response to the revived series has frequently erred towards the Pavlovian – if it looks, sounds, and quacks like Doctor Who, then the odds are that I’ll be tickled pink by it, whether it’s actually any good or not. That the show has, for the overwhelming majority of the past five years, been both very Doctor Who and very good indeed, is somewhat remarkable.

I generally avoid clip shows - they tend to bore me, and rarely capture the essence of whatever it is they’re trying to represent. But I could, and occasionally do, watch compilations of moments from Doctor Who for hours on end. This montage,
from a 2007 episode of Doctor Who Confidential, genuinely brought a tear of joy to my eye the first time I saw it, and still fills me with a palpable sense of delight:

It's not that I can't appreciate some of the stronger plots with which Who has occasionally deigned to provide us - 'The Caves Of Androzani' is a masterpiece of tight, economical writing, and it's probably my favourite serial from the entire classic era. Steven Moffat's 'Empty Child' two-parter remains, I think, his finest work for the show, and it's still one of his most cleverly-plotted scripts. Even my favourite Russell T. Davies stories - and rightly or wrongly, he's not a writer known for his intricate, rigorously-constructed plots - tend to be the more tightly-plotted ones, like 'Smith & Jones', 'Gridlock', 'Midnight', or even 'The Christmas Invasion' (although I do retain a definite fondness for some of his less consciously-structured flights of pure, wild magic imagination). But if I had to settle on what really makes the show sing, for me, it all comes down to the moments.

So, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that I loved last night's 'The Beast Below' more-or-less unreservedly. Mild spoilers to follow, scroll down past the gerbil if you don't want to see them.

The plot, to be honest, was middling-at-best, and the societal structure and history of the Starship UK don't make a whole lot of sense if you really try to piece them together. Significant amounts of vital information were left completely un-filled-in (why was Britain the last country to leave? Why, since the other countries presumably managed just fine, were the Brits unable to put together a starship with an actual engine? What, exactly, were the Smilers for, and why were some of them half-human?). The escape-from-the-whale's mouth sequence, combined with the physiognomy of the creature itself as seen in the final shot, does rather beg the question of why the Doctor and Amy weren't just vomited directly into the void of space, and I'd love to know how they were able to dry their clothes so quickly for the subsequent scenes. But none of that matters at all, because so many of the moments we were given along the way were so wonderful, so note-perfect, and so essentially Doctor Who that I don't care for a second if the details of the backstory add up or not. Besides, the story of the episode wasn't really about the day-to-day details of the setting - that was just background colour, and it served the purpose admirably. The real meat was in the cataclysmic impact the Doctor's arrival has on that society, and that was delivered with delightful, and uncharacteristically-unrestrained, aplomb by new show-runner Steven Moffat.

This was, as a lot of people are pointing out, probably the least Moffat-esque script that the man himself has written for the show since 2005. None of his usual timey-wimey paradoxes, relatively-little overtly-comic banter (which isn't to say that it wasn't funny), not a hint of romance, and at no point did an almost-but-not-quite human figure repeat anything even vaguely reminiscent of a catchphrase. In fact, the lurching-monster quotient was surprisingly-low, with the Smilers failing to make as much of an impact as their appearance in earlier trailers might have suggested. It did, however, really hammer home what I think is going to shape up to be the fundamental difference between Russell T. Davies' Who and Steven Moffats – for all the scares in ‘The Empty Child’, ‘Blink’ or ‘Silence In The Library’, his vision of the show is ultimately lighter, more optimistic, and without the nihilism which was often lurking just below the superficial frothiness of Davies' vision for the show.

Just think of the Toclafane, from 'The Sound Of Drums’/’Last Of The Time Lords' - the inevitable future of mankind, to degenerate into a callously-homogenised army of hideously-mutated Steel Balls of Death, who kill, slaughter and maim their own ancestors for the sheer glee of it. And for all the sometimes-justified criticism of Davies’ reset-button endings, that one’s never fixed – that’s now the official Whoniverse End Of Humanity. Never mind shadow-piranhas or creepy statues which jump out and say "Boo" - that's how you do "dark" in a Doctor Who story. In the finest spirit of post-apocalyptic horror being served up to a post-football Saturday evening audience, it's one of the most shockingly-bleak ideas in the show's entire history. Nothing Moffat has ever done is that genuinely dark, and I seriously doubt that it ever will be. His mind simply doesn't work that way. His stories tend to be a lot more complicated than Russell’s, but at the same time, they’re arguably less complex, at least emotionally.

They're also, generally, a lot less freewheeling, more tightly-controlled and elaborately-structured. Which is why ‘The Beast Below’ came as such a delightful surprise (it’s also, I suspect, why it seems to have been a bit of a ‘Marmite’ story within Who fandom at large). Instead of exhaustively wrapping every idea, every loose plot strand up into a neat, intricate package, this was a sprawling mess of a script, packed with more ideas than it really had space to properly explore, and it was all the better for it. Watching the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential, I was delighted to see that Moffat’s explanation for the half-human/half-Smiler creatures amounted, essentially, to “I just thought it was a cool idea”. It didn’t turn out to be intrinsic to the episode’s plot, as has been the case for most of the apparently-incongruous elements of his previous stories. He wanted a cool monster, so he stuck it in there, and trusted his audience to simply accept it because it felt right. That’s pure Doctor Who, and now that Moffat’s shown that he’s willing and able to let his imagination run unfettered when it seems appropriate, I think I’m finally ready to relax, and just enjoy his era on its own merits.

Speaking of merits…Matt Smith IS the Doctor. Brilliantly-so. If I had any reservations after ‘The Eleventh Hour’, it was that a lot of his dialogue, and a few mannerisms, were heavily-reminiscent of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor – this episode absolutely blew those concerns away. While the character retains that innate essence of Doctor-ness which has been in place for well over forty years, Smith is bringing a lot to the part which is fresh and new. Simultaneously, though, he's cherry-picking elements of older Doctors, particularly Patrick Troughton, which weren’t really present with either Eccleston or Tennant. His freewheeling, unforced eccentricity is infectious, but there’s a lot more to him than just wackiness or mania – there’s an analytical, professorial air which is in sharp contrast to his immediate predecessor.

Very astutely, given Smith’s relative youth, both this episode and ‘The Eleventh Hour’ have included prominent scenes where he gets to interact with children – not only does he have a charming, easy-going chemistry with the young actors, but by placing him in that context, we get to see him from their perspective – not quite an authority figure, perhaps, but still as someone Old, who radiates wisdom and kindness in equal measure. That instinctively colours our impression of the character - it’s a very clever touch on Moffat’s part, and it’s worked magnificently.

Karen Gillan, as new companion Amy Pond, is similarly-excellent – she was split up from the Doctor for quite a bit of this story, which gave Gillan a welcome opportunity to show how the character fares alone. Happily, she more than holds her own. I’m trying hard to steer clear of the adjective “feisty” – not only does it seem to come as standard for all red-headed actresses, but it’s also been applied to every female Doctor Who companion since the ‘60s, and has become terribly-stale as a result. She blatantly is, though, which makes it rather hard to avoid. Independent, intelligent but clearly troubled – partly as a direct consequence of the Doctor’s appearances throughout her life, which gives an interesting twist to their relationship – it’s clear that there are still depths to her character which we’ve barely seen hinted at, and much of the meta-narrative of this season is presumably going to be devoted to the Doctor’s attempts to draw them out. Shades of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, perhaps, but hopefully rather better-written. That should fit well with the Troughton-isms in Smith’s performance.

The story was, like ‘The Eleventh Hour’, distinctly-reminiscent of a number of previous episodes – but where that one drew heavily from Moffat’s own back catalogue, this was a far more haphazard blend of elements from what I like to think of as RTD’s “mad future” stories – ‘The End Of The World’, ‘Gridlock’, and even ‘The Long Game’ were brought to mind, although it remained still very much its own entity. It reached further back, too – most notably to Tom Baker’s ‘The Ark In Space’, whose 29th Century exodus from Earth was directly referenced. There was also a sizeable chunk of Sylvester McCoy in there, with the Doctor effortlessly bringing down a whole corrupt society in a few short hours, just as he did in ‘Paradise Towers’, ‘The Happiness Patrol’, and so many of the Virgin New Adventures novels.

This Doctor may be good with kids and quick to crack a joke (the “escaped fish” gag was inspired), but there’s a steeliness, an unwillingness to compromise, behind that youthful fa├žade, and it’s intriguingly-different from his predecessor’s “no second chances” persona. Quieter, less bombastic, but more intense and possibly more frightening – the moment in the torture chamber/pilot room, where he coldly dismissed Amy without a second thought, was genuinely chilling. We haven’t seen that side of the Doctor since Eccleston unceremoniously dumped hapless would-be companion Adam back on Earth, and that cold brusqueness was even more un-nerving here, directed at a character who we actually like. It’s good that the new Doctor is likeable, but it’s even better that we can’t always be entirely comfortable with him, either.

OK, here’s the gerbil.


I’m trying hard not to get too carried away, but if the show maintains this sort of standard, then not only are we in for a very strong season, but Matt Smith may just shape up into one of my favourite Doctors ever. So far, so very good indeed.


Anonymous said...

Glad you mentioned the "drawing on earlier episodes" thing. Gridlock was the first one that sprang to my mind with this week's episode too, and "The Eleventh Hour" had more than a hint of Rhinos in New Rocks in that some sort of intergalactic police-force turns up looking for an escapee and may just accidentally wipe out humans as a by-product. Oh and in the process, the Doctor gets a new companion.

But, as you said, despite that, I'm happy to put all the minor faults aside cos the new Doctor, new assistant and new writer are just that damn good. There was a suspension of disbelief with Ecclestone and Tennant, but there's seems to be something infectious about the Moffat/Smith combination that leads to a willing suspension of disbelief and it's that intangible something that is making this series stand out so far.

Anonymous said...

You'll like this

Mark Patterson said...

Why yes, yes I will. Thank you, mysterious stranger!