really is just stuff with bits in

TV Here we go again. The run up to this new series of Doctor Who has been pretty unbearable for those of us for whom such things effectively fill the gap where religion should be. The short trailer. The long trailer. The posters. The magazine covers. Drip, drip, drip. It wasn’t hard this time to sympathise with the bloke who turned up on Points of View (because it’s usually impossible to sympathise with blokes who turn up on Points of View except perhaps Jeremy Vine) who complained that because the publicity began what seemed like months before the premiere, his autistic son was becoming very ill with excitement. Three weeks should be just enough he suggested, which interestingly was about the time the billboards went up advertising Rose in 2005.

Me too kid, not least because ironically for a show in which one of the sort of lead characters has a catchphrase to the effect, more than any other drama series except soaps, each shot, each interview, each magazine cover, each midnight exclusive permission to show three screen shots which we received six months ago and was worked into the publicity plan felt like spoiler after spoiler after spoiler. Nixon’s in it you say? Spoiler. Wobbly-bob aliens that look like the sinister older brother the Sycorax and Faction Paradox don’t like to talk about? Spoiler. The cover of Doctor Who Magazine telling us one of the main cast and sort of main cast members is going to die? Spoooiiillllleeeer.

In the event of course, none of it really was a spoiler, although those shots of a regenerative Doctor from midnight last night did at least mean we didn’t go into The Impossible Astronaut completely cold – we knew something was going to happen to Him and there was that clagging reeling in the back of the mind waiting for the golden sparkles to start shooting from his hands, the nagging feeling that some piece of mass subterfuge had been perpetrated and for all the interviews and set photos within ten minutes of the opening episodes the golden glow would dissipate and Michael Sheen or Patterson Joseph or Justin Bieber or some other SEO link bait would be standing with his face reflected in the visor of the astronaut.

Writer Steven Moffat even worked the portents into the teaser what with the Doctor’s breathless trip about time. Moffat seems very keen to get Matt Smith naked probably since we now live in a society where something for the Dads simply isn’t enough to drag in viewers. The Mrs Robinsons must be catered for also. This kind of misdirection is another facet of the Moffat era, always keeping the audience wrong-footed. The RTD era simply wasn’t this shameless in the opening episode of a season; his teasers almost always focused on introducing or re-introducing the companion. For once, we’re beginning with the status quo intact, give or take some domesticity and Moffat takes advantage of that.

Such pre-regenerative last hoorahs aren’t unheard of as we saw in The End of Time in which the Doctor only needed to smell the bio-energy before copping of with Liz I. There was also a rather good Short Trip from the old BBC Books days, Gone too Soon by Christopher M. Wadley, in which the Sixth Doctor, realising his incarnation would be cut short returned to the dawn of Time and carves his name on the first inhabitable planet (which River presumably edited later), jam with the Beatles before they were, watches the birth of Beethoven, then visits his old mentor at the time of his death, to bid him thanks and farewell (reminder) then continues travelling safe in the knowledge he’s done everything he could possibly want to. Which must be why he could then stand to breath the same air as the screaming Bush.

These hijinks seek to make the Doctor’s actual death all the more convincing. Moffat had warned us he’d be bringing the Who back to Doctor Who but in his case rather than turning him into thoroughly repulsive character as arguably happened in the late 80s, his masterplan is to pile in some of the mystery of the early Ninth Doctor, returning viewpoint character status back to his companions and in a fabulous Moffatian twist the younger version of himself. This changes the group dynamic. By the end of the episode, for all His heroics, it’s River who’s essentially filling the narrative role of the Doctor. Which rather means at this point the Doctor’s Adric.

In the old days, restricting narrative information meant re-editing the final episode of Planet of the Spiders so the cliffhanger from the previous episode just sort of happened ten minutes in. Now, it’s us not seeing whose in the astronaut suit, why s/he’s shooting the Doctor and all the malarkey with the regenerative cycle. That is very new, I think. There was a Big Finish audio which resolves itself with a Time Lord being killed off at gunpoint by working through his regenerations shooting him after each new emergence (I’m not saying which one because it’s a spoiler) and this new method would have clearly been quicker and this seems rather more permanent.

Is he really dead? Time will indeed tell and in some ways not only is this episode set in America, it’s using a classic trope of US drama, hell even comic books. Here’s a really exciting moment in the character’s life; now we’re going to spend the next forty minutes, thirteen episodes showing how we got here. It’s what drew us all into Flash Forward initially although unlike that show, the format of Doctor Who or rather its inherent anti-format nature means we’ll be distracted by other things, pirates, old friends with new faces and writer Matthew Graham regaining his dignity (“Not you too, Bob”) to have the same kind of mission creep. Moffat’s promised answers and we believe him. He might even explain the duck pond thing.

Which is rather the tiny problem with that opening. As you can see from the previous thousand odd words, it threatens to unbalance the rest of this story. We’re so busy coming to terms with the summons and the secrets the regulars are keeping from one another, the going dark, that for all the trailing of the North American shooting visit, in the end it just becomes background to the big story being set up. Take away the icons and all of this could have happened on the banks of the Thames (and would have done in the 60s or more likely on film in Ealing Studios). We could have a discussion about whether that’s true for any Doctor Who story, but it's getting late and I'm working tomorrow.

Doctor Who’s always been slightly afraid of the USA, actually reflecting the special relationship in general. The Hartnell era features the most appearances, though usually these were visits to a genre rather than historical era, notably in The Gunfighters with its songs and toothache. Even in the new series, the only other appearance was Daleks in Manhattan though that lacked a proper sense of place (the soccer nets in Central Park?). The US of A just seemed too remote, too big for our little show to cope with. The best sojourn on screen has been the animation, Dreamland, but again we’re back into capturing a genre territory, the Area 51 thriller.

This is the second occasion the series has ventured abroad shooting and once again we open in a desert. Like Planet of the Dead, it certainly adds scale and remoteness and scale (did someone mention the scale?). It’s a reaction to the cramped Cardiff set conditions, getting as far away from corridors and factories as possible and it works. The material shot in Utah is stunning, it does have scale, it looks in fact like a completely different programme achieving what John Nathan Turner had in his head when he kept suggesting random places to have a holiday, only to find it all hobbled by the return to recording the bulk of the episodes on a two cameras in studio B. Not that shooting the whole of The Two Doctors actually in Seville would have helped much.

The shot of the TARDIS team and elderly interloper watching the Doctor’s burning remains drifting into the distance was one of the best of the new series, sneaking into cinematic and beyond and again, with all the questions and histrionics it’s a tragedy that these are the scenes fans won’t be talking about this evening. Similarly Karen's performance, as highlighted in Confidential, grieving over the body of the Doctor should hopefully put pay to the doubters who still think Gillan and by extension the character of Amy is too glib, too unconvincing. It’s her reaction just as it did in Cold Blood over her fiancĂ© which makes this moment real, the reaction of all the leads in fact. River soberly asking Canton who he is.

But again I’m dwelling. I’m almost forgetting that The Impossible Astronaut is a celebrity historical, Stuart Milligan and a prosthetic nose giving us a rather good Richard Millhouse Nixon for his first appearance in the franchise (at least according to sparse TARDIS Index File entry), the Doctor generally being a fairly good judge of character. The recreation of the Oval Office is so convincing I thought it really was the set of The West Wing, which is still being hired out to film crews. Now the BBC have their own version. The problem with looking over just the first part is that we don’t know the extent to which Dickie will become instrumental to the story. We’ll return to him next week, I suspect.

That’s the nature of the episode. It really is just stuff with bits in. Like most of Moffat’s scripts in his era, this review or a teenage boy with a copy of Karen’s Shortlist photo shoot, it’s easily distracted. No sooner have we settled in the Oval Office and met the younger Canton but Amy’s off to the toilets for an encounter with The Silent (not named in the episode but everywhere else) then we’re back in the TARDIS and the location of the FAUXDIS from The Lodger and Amy’s pregnant and shooting at the astronaut who’s looking for his mummy or whatever. This should not be seen as a criticism. Doctor Who’s littered with moments in which the characters sit around in a room waiting for the story to catch up with them (Timelash).

I’d much rather have this. I’d much rather have the beautiful character moment when Canton says Nixon wasn’t his first choice for president, immediately outing him as being a good guy. Rather have a writer who structures his writing so carefully that he manages to steer into the innards of the FAUXDIS the two characters who wouldn’t recognise it. Rather have the misdirection of Amy’s sickness apparently being caused by The Silent but actually by a baby. Knowing, or at least assuming that the walking Robert A. Heinlein reference won’t be who shoots the Doctor. That all signs point to River (“killed a good man”) even though we know it’ll be something even more delicious than that.

The episode did nothing to dissuade me from the new significance of the title of River Song’s first episode, Silence in the Library, or that Moffat’s clever enough to produce a series in which, if we watch the River’s episodes in reverse order we won’t see a perfect story arc for the character. The fear she relates to Rory in this episode, of the moment when she meets the Doctor and he doesn’t recognise her, as well as steering as close to Audrey Niffenegger as Moffat’s ever done, explains the archeologist's whole attitude in that story and are exactly the kind of fears any protagonist might have at the midpoint of their story and demonstrates Alex Kingston’s sheer skill in being able to communicate her character’s arc in reverse.

And with the cliffhanger, the cycle begins again, another week of photos and trailers and careless words on twitter from people who attended the series launch and have already seen both episodes. The speculation, the constant speculation, more intensive even than last year because Moffat has in mind to bring the tone of Lost and Flash Forward even further into the UK mainstream. The Impossible Astronaut is about as confidant a season opener as we’ve yet had and absolutely fulfilled Moffat’s ambition to kick of the season with something as exciting as a season finale. The perfect tribute to the legacy of absent friends.

Next Week: More stuff with bits in. Can't wait.

Updated: The Day of the Moon (or part two of the story) is reviewed here.


konstantsimpl said...

FAUXDIS is a brilliant term...

Atlanta Roofing said...
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