Monday, 4 January 2010

Doctor Who: The Long Game

“Look at me- I’m stupid!”

Again we’re introduced to this week’s setting by means of on-screen media- a developing RTD trope- but this time it turns out to be the focus of the story as well. We also have an extra character in Adam, allowing this to be the first of two sort-of Doctor-Lite stories. And at last we get to a story I’ve been confidently expecting to award less than 5/5 to, which was going to be a good thing- after all, giving 5/5 to every story since Rose would be rather embarrassing, wouldn’t it. Er, well…

Annoyingly for my plans, we get a rather good beginning. It’s the year 200,000 (that RTD likes his big round numbers, don’t he?), it’s Satellite 5, and it’s the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire. I remember being a little underwhelmed by the design four years ago but this time round I couldn’t see what made me think that- and it’s supposed to look rather less impressive than the Doctor’s expecting it to in any case. It’s all looking very 2000 AD, too, with Kronkburgers and all. And, as we’ll see, the way the subtext is done feels very 2000 AD, too. Much like the last two McCoy seasons did, in fact. There’s another thing I’ve learned from this Marathon; there’s far more continuity in style and content (Ace is also a kind of prototype Rose) between the McCoy years and the Eccleston years than I’d previously appreciated.

TV news is produced here, and it’s staffed by journalists, one of whom, Cathica, will be our audience identification character for this evening. And the journalists exist in a claustrophobic corporate atmosphere in which the ultimate is to be promoted to Floor 500, where “the walls are made of gold”. In the hands of a lesser writer this would already be food enough to supply the subtext for a forty-five minute tale. But we also get Simon Pegg and some interesting character stuff between Rose and Adam. On the one hand Rose is enjoying the chance to pose as the experienced traveller, but it’s clear that she’s unimpressed by him. He’s overwhelmed and needs to get away, and in doing so both rejects Rose’s lifestyle and subtly disappoints her. But worse, he has a selfish agenda.

There are increasing hints that all is not well; Suki is promoted to Floor 500, but we’re told, ominously, that those who go there never come back. Worse than that, though, is that Cathica, and those like her, are supposed to be journalists but show little or no curiosity for the world around them. Things just go unquestioned; Cathica hasn’t noticed the lack of aliens until it’s pointed out to her, casually guessing that security must have been tightened because of vaguely defined “threats” (“The usual stuff”)- a blatantly obvious bit of contemporary satire which I don’t remember noticing at the time and which also seems to have gone unnoticed in the media just a couple of weeks after RTD’s “massive weapons of destruction”. It just goes to show how much you can get away with in terms of satire when there are elements of the fantastic to hide it behind.

Things are not as they should be. Humanity’s development has been set back ninety years, and News Internatio- er, Satellite Five has been there for 91 years. Most damning of all is that the Doctor and Rose, who’ve only been there five minutes, instantly work out what’s going on and quickly get themselves to Floor 500 while Cathica just worries about getting into trouble and constantly fails to spot the obvious.

Adam, meanwhile, is behaving rather less impressively than the Doctor and Rose, having surgery to implant an “info-spike” for the purpose of relaying future tech to his family’s answer phone back in the 21st century so he can get rich. It’s a funny scene, but the consequences are going to be deadly serious, as the Doctor and Rose finally reach Floor 500 where they meet the Editor and his boss, the Jagrafess. And going by the beast’s appearance, it looks as though they got the real Rupert Murdoch to play him. Now there’s an impressive piece of casting.

We get a bit more juicy subtext which tears wonderfully into the tabloids’ favourite hobby horses (“Create a climate of fear and it’s easy to keep the borders closed,”), including a bit which has improved with end- the Editor represents a consortium of banks! But, essentially, our heroes are in dire peril, not helped by the fact that Adam has been an utter pillock and shown the Editor all of their innermost secrets. Fortunately, though, Cathica, “a member of staff with an idea,” has been listening, and saves the day. It’s the first time, but not the last, that an incidental character ends up as the hero, having been made a better person by the Doctor’s example- another fine RTD trope. And her ordinariness is wonderfully emphasised by the Editor’s dismissive “Who’s that?”

Adam, on the other hand, is dumped back on Earth for being such an utter pillock, and the family answer phone feels the wrath of the sonic screwdriver. “I only take the best,” says the Doctor. “I’ve got Rose.” In no way is this tempting fate for the next episode…

Er, it really has to be another 5/5, I’m afraid. Sorry. Duly embarrassed and all that. You never know, the season could still end up with less than a perfect score. It could happen. Seriously, though, it’s really surprised me how much I liked this. It’s the second new series story to enter my top ten, and the best so far of the twenty-first century.

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