Saturday, 6 June 2009

Doctor Who: The Ark

The Steel Sky

"Look, stop prancing about over there. What happens if you get lost?"

"I catch a bus back!"

A nice little mystery to open with, although I've no idea how obvious or not it may have been to the unspoiled that they were on a huge spaceship. I started this episode with some trepidation; we're about to get an exploratory episode one without a settled TARDIS crew. Instead we have a barely post-row Steven and Dodo who's... well, Dodo. There's an instability to the TARDIS crew that there hasn't been before, and a lot of this is down to the fact that Dodo as a character, with no hinterland whatsoever, is no more than a cipher. Incidentally, the comedy accent has been toned down but she sounds more northern than we're often led to believe.

From the moment Dodo leaves the TARDIS she's constantly annoying ("Earth? Earth? Well, it couldn't be anywhere else, now could it?"). But after a while, perversely, I start to like her, if not necessarily for the right reasons. Some combination of the lines and the delivery just makes me laugh- "I think I'm beginning to enjoy this space travel or whatever it is". I suspect to some extent I'm subconsciously rebelling against what I know to be fan orthodoxy (oh, to come to a story completely fresh!). Of course, the joke is quite likely to wear thin eventually and I reserve the right to perform a u-turn later. Or sooner.

Pausing only to marvel at the awesome computing technology of the far future, we're quickly introduced to our surroundings by means of, er, loads of exposition. But the ideas are good; this is a time when sci-fi was primarily seen as a literary, rather than cinematic, genre. Indeed, I recall the recently released BBC documents from the dawn of Doctor Who referred to the sci-fi novel as primarily based on ideas rather than character and as such it, er, shouldn't form the basis of television drama. But actually I rather like the fact that we're getting a literary sci-fi take on Big Ideas, and we certainly get some; a space Ark, with 700 years to reach its destination, most of the population of Earth miniaturised and frozen in filing cabinets (a detail that's dated somewhat!), and some individuals fated to be "guardians, living and dying on the Ark, never living to see their destination.

Incidentally, I assure you that I will endeavour never to write a sentence as long as that again. Clearly I need another stint in semi-colon rehab. But I'm enjoying the story so far.

The Plague

"That unfortunately tells me only one thing."

"What is that?"

"That the nature of man even in this day and age hasn't altered at all. You still fear the unknown, like everyone else before you."

Annoyingly, all the poncy things I've been wittering about have to be interrupted by the plot. And some recycled music from our first visit to the Dalek city, naturally. But I'm still enjoying this. There's no character development for the regulars here, of course, but there's a nice bit of acting from Hartnell early on as he starts moving to hug Dodo to comfort her but can't; he's not able to be tactile with Dodo as he was with her predecessors.

Nothing actually happens for ages, and the guest characters are all extremely bland. But the ideas nevertheless carry the story and carry it well; the idea of the travellers causing a fatal outbreak of the common cold amongst their far future descendants is actually quite good, and has a fair bit of mileage as long as it isn't dwelt upon too much, which it isn't.

The justice system aboard the Ark is a little dodgy, amounting effectively to mob rule, but fortunately that nice Commander manages to briefly gather enough strength to use his arbitrary dictatorial powers to sort things out. This is crude drama, perhaps, but I'm still quite impressed by the hard sci-fi ideas. This fantastic and radical season continues to experiment.

The ending rather glosses over the fact that people have actually died from the TARDISeers' carelessness, but rather more interesting is the treatment of the Monoids. Yes, the Doctor gets a line to a Monoid foreshadowing the next two episodes: "You're far more knowledgeable than most people realise". But I still feel uneasy that at no point have our heroes denounced what is pretty clearly a system of apartheid.

So far this story has been great, in spite of not actually being very good as such. A very nice cliffhanger, yet more gleeful experimentation with the concepts and format of the show. What a season! Oh, and apparently Michael Sheard was in this episode.

That's all for now cos I'm knackered- I'll post the rest tomorrow. In this story of two halves will the second half match up to the first, he said, trying not to exude too much dramatic irony...

The Return

"Are you up to something?"

"Um, no..."

There's something quite fundamentally comical about the Monoids' voices. And we hear a lot of them, as the first few scenes consist of lots of exposition. And the message suggested by the situation here (oppressed minority overthrows dominant majority due to "weakness" of dominant minority) seems on the face of it to be a bit Enoch Powell, even pro-apartheid. Or at least it seemed so at the time- fortunately the next episode makes it clear this isn't so. Phew. Don't worry, I'm not Lawrence Miles and this is not The Unquiet Dead.

The Monoids saying "Get back" reminds me of a certain most excellent video I've seen at a certain online location.

Still lots of exposition, plus a rather interesting take on science- so a solar flare turned the Refusians invisible, did it? And the cliffhanger is a bit artificial too. All of a sudden the fun and the great ideas seem to have gone. The concept of seeing the Ark again after 700 years and of the Monoids taking over was initially a great idea with real impact, but we've been treading water since a couple of minutes into the episode. This is very dull.

The Bomb

"Stupid trusting creature!"

Gosh, what imaginative names the Monoids all have. And why do they only communicate with each other through a device invented by the Guardians? Gah!

On a positive note, although none of the characters get any development worth mentioning Steven is at least shown to be resourceful and heroic in this episode, essentially acting as the Guardians' leader. But the episode is still infuriating. The bomb's going to explode in a whole 12 hours' time- oh, the suspense! How helpful of Monoid Four to tell a Monoid something he already knows just so he can be overheard by the hidden Doctor and Dodo. And what's motivating the Refusian to be so extremely helpful, to the extent of taking a shuttle to the Ark and staying there, in the full knowledge there's a bomb on it? Gah!

Oh, and the Refusians are pretty much the ultimate in (dare I say it?) deus ex machina. I mean, they're practically gods anyway and we know for the entire episode that at some point they're going to just walk in and stop the plot. But it's nice to see the Doctor's speech at the end, effectively denouncing South African apartheid. So the allegorical content is now clear, not that the story was in any way about this theme.

We end with Dodo's fab gear, Steven being allowed to operate the controls, and a truly bizarre cliffhanger...

Overall, it's a story of two halves. The first half, in spite of the stock plot and moments of clumsiness, was packed with interesting ideas and charmed me into liking it. But the second half was just plodding, dull, and lacking in any sense of real peril. sadly, this is below average overall and so gets a 2/5. But there's a lot I liked about the first two parts.

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