Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Doctor Who - The Poison Sky

According to the ratings, the Sontaran two-parter has really not done as well as other episodes. The first part came in with 6.4 million viewers and was beaten by ITV's Britain's Got Talent which had 9.4 million, and the second part fared even worse with 5.9 million and was again beaten by ITV which had 8.5 million. One way of reading this sort of trend is that people aren't that excited by Doctor Who any more and would rather watch brainless people be insulted by so-called 'celebrities' ... and also that the first part of the story was not gripping enough for people to want to watch the second part ...

This broadly matches my own feelings about it. I talked last time about the sense of having seen it all before, the familiarity and the ennui which set in on watching the episode ... well the second part really failed to do much to change my mind. What it did do was to jettison the elements which were interesting in the first part (the clone plot mainly), and replace them with lots of soldiers running around, shooting guns and getting killed ... which doesn't really cut it these days.

So we're back in the fray and Wilf has collapsed in a car. I think we are really struggling when the cliff hanger revolves around someone we have met only a couple of times in the series being trapped in a car! Luckily Donna's mum has the brains and also a handy axe (something that every home in leafy Croydon owns) and she smashes the front window to get Wilf out.

Meanwhile clone Martha (C-Martha from now on) downloads UNIT's security protocols to a PDA and is able to control the launching of a nuclear strike from there ... just nod and smile and ignore the ludicrousness of this as a concept and go with it, okay?

Oh no ... now we have the almost obligatory fake news broadcasts with 'real' newsreader Kirsty Wark in a head to head battle with 'fake' US correspondent Lachele Carl as to who can sound the most ominous in close up.

The news out of the way and in Helen Raynor's Big Book of Scriptwriting it says that we now need to split everyone up, so Donna goes back to the TARDIS for no reason and is promptly transported to the Sontaran ship in space. The Doctor meanwhile is suspicous of C-Martha and wants to talk to the Sontarans, so he opens a channel to them. Donna can also see this exchange on the TARDIS screen (but misses Rose shouting the Doctor's name for a second before the Sontarans appear - a nice moment and for once fairly subtle).

Questions here ... how did the Doctor know that C-Martha would get the TARDIS transported, that Donna would watch the screen or that the TARDIS would even be able to pick up the signal? Never mind.

So the Doctor tells Donna to use the phone ... but she's mystified, not knowing who to call. So she calls her mum and has a cry at her down the line. Doesn't ask Sylvia or Wilf to contact UNIT, doesn't try ringing anyone else who might be able to help ... fairly useless really.

But we're losing track of all our characters ... and the Big Book says we need to keep flicking between them now. So back to Luke Rattigan and his followers. I was wondering why they were following him? He's an annoying brat-like clever dick. Why would anyone follow him? Rattigan unveils his real plan, to go to another planet and start the human race anew with his faithful few. Yup, he's barking. So they all leave him. This is also shades of 'Operation Golden Age' from 'The Invasion of the Dinosaurs' back in 1973, only it was better realised and integrated into the plot back then.

UNIT prepare to blast the Sontarans out of the skies using missiles fired from all around the world at the same moment. But they wouldn't all arrive at the same time, and some are on the other side of the Earth from the Sontaran ship. There's some very dodgy planning going on here.

Suddenly there are hundreds of Sontarans in the ATMOS building - I assume they did teleport there after all, so why were their little space balls flying around in the previous episode? What need would they have to do that?

Of course, when the Sontarans attack, the troops' guns don't work ... so the troops get slaughtered. Why would a warlike race with an ethos built on honour think it was good form to disarm your opponent and then to kill them - now that is cowardly.

Hang on ... we've missed something! Ah, where is the Brigadier in all this? Don't worry, the Big Book says that all references to Doctor Who's long history can be dropped in as throwaway lines, and so we learn that the Brig is 'stranded' in Peru. Well that's okay then.

Luke realises that the Sontarans have betrayed him, but, actually, we don't really care as the subplot about going to another planet was so badly nailed to the rest that even the people involved hadn't been told about it until too late. So what does Luke do? Return to his Acadamy and cry. Poor baby.

The Doctor phones Donna on a phone borrowed from one of the UNIT folk, and yet she answers it knowing it is him. How? That's some impressive caller display. The Doctor gets her to leave the safety of the TARDIS and reactivate the teleports (having assumed in another leap of deduction that the Sontarans had disabled it). Along the way, Catherine Tate forgets she is supposed to be acting and lapses into pseudo Lauren-mode with a pithy 'Shut up' to the Doctor. I wince when these lapses happen. We had a 'Why did you call me miss? Do I look like a miss?' in the Ood episode, and various other pronouncements which are just so bad. I find it hard to believe we've not had an 'Am I bovvered?' yet, but I just feel in my bones that we will get it one week.

What else is happening? Ah yes, UNIT don gasmasks and the Doctor quips 'Are you my mummy?' to hilarious applause from the continuity brigade, and then the Valiant (more applause) descends from the skies and in true Thunderbirds style, uses its engines to blow the poison gas away from the area. Then the Valiant fires on the factory.

Hang on. While we're doing continuity, in 'The Christmas Invasion' didn't UNIT use a powerful ray weapon to blow the retreating Sycorax ship to smithereens. Why not use that now against the Sontaran ship?

With new guns that work, the troops renew their assault on the Sontarans and gain ground. Interesting that the Sontaran's body armour is not bulletproof. Something of an oversight methinks.

The Doctor and C-Martha (still using her PDA to stop UNIT from launching the missiles) head to the still-deserted basement, and find the clone tank. The Doctor knew C-Martha wasn't real all along as her iris response was wrong, she had thinning hair on her left temple, and she smelt of clone! So he frees the real Martha from the machine and C-Martha collapses.

While the Doctor rewires the Teleport while on the phone to Donna like some sort of mad Teleport help line, Martha talks with C-Martha who takes an age to die. And the music is rubbish here as well - I really don't like the music in this story, it's all wrong, being intrusive and just naff for most of the time.

C-Martha reveals that the gas is clone feed and the Doctor realises that this has been the Sontarans' plan all along, to convert Earth into a clone world. But he knows how to stop it.

The Doctor rescues Donna, gets the TARDIS sent back to Earth and teleports to the Rattigan Acadamy where he uses the lab to build an atmosphere converter which Rattigan had the parts for as he was planning to do the same to the new world once he and his acolytes arrived there.

As Staal orders the ATMOS systems in the cars to full power (why weren't they on full power anyway?) the Doctor, to music which sounds like very light hearted Tim Burton, launches a flare into the sky from the atmosphere converter and sets the atmosphere on fire! The flames engulf the Earth ... but strangely not a single person is apparently harmed as the gas and atmosphere burns explosively. Then it's all over and the flames clear to reveal a perfect human atmosphere again. So who turned the ATMOS system off in all the cars? Why didn't they just continue belching out the clone feed? Finally, we get stupid 'triumphant' music as the Earth rejoices that it is saved.

So now the Doctor teleports back to the Sontaran ship with the atmosphere converter to burn it away unless the General leaves. So the air on the Sontaran ship is different from on Earth? How did Donna and Luke breath when on board?

Staal prepares to blast the Earth and kill everyone on the planet. Why he didn't do that first and avoid all the problems with Rattigan and complex plots involving ATMOS and factories and whatnot is beyond me. With a deserted planet they could have converted the atmosphere in their own time with no resistance.

Unfortunately for the Doctor, rather than offering any defence, the Sontarans launch into another victory Haka until Luke manages to swap places with the Doctor and detonate the converter himself, blowing the Sontarans and their ship to smithereens.

So peace is returned to the Earth and people apparently can now deactivate and remove the ATMOS devices from their cars - if it was that simple ...?

The Doctor, Martha and Donna return to the TARDIS, with Donna being told to go off by Wilf, who is, I think, head and shoulders the best new character this season. Cribbins manages not to play him for laughs, and has built a believable character who you can really empathise with. I wish we could ditch the annoying Sylvia and just have Wilf as Donna's link with Earth.

At the very end ... possibly the best part of the episode. Another cliffhanger. Boy I missed these and I loved this one. Very much shades of the first Doctor and how his stories ran one into the next. Martha is all set to leave but the doors to the ship slam closed and the TARDIS is off again, but apparently of its own volition. What a great ending.

And next week? Seems to be monsters, a cute blonde, backflips, snogging and ... what? She's the Doctor's daughter!


Abu Yair said...

You have raised so many issues that it's difficult to know where to start.

1. Ratings: I always wonder about this one. I suspect that the ratings in any given week are at least in part related to the quality of the previous weeks' shows.

2. The Sontarans: I liked the realisation of the Sontarans in this story, in particular their characterisation and make-up, less so the costumes. I agree with you that their diminutive stature adds to their characterisation (nasty, brutish and short). I quite liked Ryan's performance, and the other chap's rendition also grew on me by the second episode, since they both conveyed the Sontarans' adoration of warfare and positive glee at the prospect of fighting with such relish that they really brought these nasty little guys to life. I guess the fact that they didn't look identical finally sets the nature-nurture debate to rest. Personally, I'd be delighted to see both of them return for a rematch soon, assuming a decent story (Stor-ry?) can be found for them.

3. David Tennant goes from strength to strength, but it's a pity that he's not given any moments of real drama to contend with. Not more running around and shouting, but something weighty and serious.

4. I've never seen Catherine Tate's comedy performances, and I think she's doing a reasonably job as Donna, though quite how she can be Bernard Cribbins' granddaughter (!) is puzzling to me. He's 80 and she's 40, so even assuming they all reproduced at a young age, that would put her mother somewhere around 60. She doesn't look it.

5. I am also impressed at Bernard Cribbins. Like you, I grew up watching him on TV, and have fond memories of his work. His portrayal is warm enough to make him a likable character yes sufficiently dotty to give him a certain edge. However, find the endless scenes of Donna going back to her family tedious in the extreme. Doctor Who has seldom handled this kind of personal drama well, and I still find it embarrassing to watch. Only rarely did it work well in the classical series (I think the end of Green Death is probably the most successful example in the series' history) and I find that it considerably holds up the story-telling and leaves me bored.

6. So we have another invasion of Earth, another chance to dig out those TV news-readers and to do shots of various things over the skies of London and New York. And another chance for our series to do its usual cheery Tommies vs. pig-headed stuck-up officers routine (at least this time "pig-headed" was only an idiom, not a reality). I wonder if any of the production team have actually met a senior army officer or have any idea how they behave for feel about the men under their charge. I hear that UNIT is now the United Intelligence Taskforce because the United Nations wanted to impose heavy sanctions on the Sontarans and only agree to trade with them through the corrupt food-for-gas scheme. As for the Sontarans, they're not much of a fighting force if they fail to notice an enormous space station coming down to blast their ground forces. Where's their areal support?

7. Oh, but the Doctor has a plan to ignite that highly volatile gas. And that gas is quite remarkable, because although it burns like a sea of fire over the houses, not one of the trees or houses beneath it ignite from the intense heat.

8. The music was particularly intrusive in this story. Why can't anybody speak without heavy music behind them? Why is it all so Wagnerian?

9. It's all a great pity, because everything is in place to make these shows great. They have a good actor as the Doctor, an ability to attract great supporting artists and technical abilities that outstrip anything seen in the classic series. But as you say, the ideas are rapidly running out, and the temptation to go for "gags" (be they jokes or Nigel Planer turning into an Ood) just seems to be overwhelming. The moralising is heavy-handed and self-righteous, but then most of the stories only last 42 minutes and there's hardly time to develop anything but cardboard cutout characters in that time. I try hard to appreciate the positive aspects of the new series, but unless they can improve their storytelling, cut out the obnoxious moaners and naggers (I couldn't stand them in the Nathan-Turner era either) and bring aboard some more literate writers, I suspect I'm going to continue to be disappointed.

Alden said...

"in 'The Christmas Invasion' didn't UNIT use a powerful ray weapon to blow the retreating Sycorax ship to smithereens."

That was Torchwood London. Presumably Captain Jack has control over the death ray now (but he was stranded in Peru with the Brigadier and Sarah Jane Smith and anyone else helpful).

Anonymous said...

"Meanwhile clone Martha (C-Martha from now on) downloads UNIT's security protocols to a PDA and is able to control the launching of a nuclear strike from there ... just nod and smile and ignore the ludicrousness of this as a concept and go with it, okay?"

Blimey!They had a similar plot-line
of nukes being controlled by a
PC in "World War III". Who's in
charge of nuclear safety in
UNIT-Dr. Strangelove ?

Matthew said...

The solution to the problem was utterly ridiculous, burning the atmosphere!? I especially like how it swept righ through the Valiant without harming it. And North Korea's nuclear weapons online?? Wouldn't Israel have made a bit more sense if they really needed another nuclear armed country, NK would never in a million years give control of its weapons to the UN. I was wondering about the great big spaceship weapon they used at Christmas, and it appears to be mounted on the Valiant now (I think it's what was used to destroy the factory), and pointing down instead of up, which seems completely pointless. Surely the Brigadier is just a little bit too old to be in Peru, a retirement home or somesuch would've made more sense.
I always think they need to hire someone who's not a script writer to go to their initial readthroughs and just point out all the bits, that although dramatic, don't make a jot of sense. (Like the entire plots of all 3 Christmas episodes).

Anonymous said...

I agree David; the satnav/ poison gas idea was supremely lazy writing - that is extremely bad news for a script produced by the script editor.

I liked the Sontaran's make up & costumes and the performances were good. But it was a supremely boring couple of episodes. (The cliffhanger was almost as bad as "Dragonfire's"!)

Raynor simply isn't up to the job & the sooner someone bribes/blackmails or hypnotises Steven Moffat to step into the S.E. role the better.

Maybe I'm just old-fashionned but I preferred the old 4 episode format & the current two parters are full of "DRAMA",( note the use of unsubtle capital letters,) and sometimes empty of truly thrilling storytelling.I don't believe its bad to discuss complex issues in a narrative format but let's be honest the rollicking yarn "The Green Death" is a far better eco-drama than the self-important satnav Sontarans, even with its dreadfully phallic maggots & Welsh stereotypes.
I'm not saying that Who always has to be cheesy sci-fi; just I feel that the secret of the series current success is that it is a show that isn't reality tv or a lifestyle show but a show full of fantasy & storytelling. It doesn't need to be a soap as well.

While Lost, Hereos etc... do deal with serious issues these are the servant of the story and not vice-versa. So, please, could Who get back to its roots?

There is nothing wrong with straightforward adventures Tennant, Moffat, Gatiss & RTD all love that, so why all the attempts to show who as a allegedly mature show?

The decline in ratings is possibly due to the new timeslot & a lack of horror based stories in this series.

I hope I'm wrong but the last 2 series have had awful concluding stories & if this happens again maybe the "floating voters", as it were, may stop watching in the planned gap year.

I hope this is just a blip but 2 good episodes out of 5 so far doesn't bode well.