Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Camera Obscura
    by John Joseph Adams
April 2006

Dr. Why-God-Why?

The new series of Dr. Who has made the Doctor available to a whole new generation of viewers. But was that really necessary?

Dr. Who
Episode 1: "Rose"
Episode 2: "The End of the World"
Episode 3: "The Unquiet Dead"
Directors: Keith Boak, Euros Lyn
Writers: Russell T. Davies, Mark Gatiss
Starring:. Christopher Eccleston, Billie Piper, etc
Rated NR / 1 hour
(out of four)

The first episode of this new incarnation of Dr. Who begins with Rose Tyler, a young woman who lives at home with her mum and works at a clothes shop. We see a montage of her somewhat dreary life — all to the dulcet sounds of frantic, obnoxious music. She wakes up, gets ready for work, etc. There's some really dreadfully cliché interaction with her boyfriend Mickey, before we settle down into real-time to watch Rose as she's getting off work, only to get stuck with one last task before leaving. She has to take something downstairs to Wilson, the chief electrician.

Wilson's office, apparently, is within a labyrinthine basement. Rose can't find him, so she wanders around looking for him, which, if she'd ever seen a scary movie, she'd have known better. Just when all hope of finding Wilson seems lost, the door to the basement mysteriously slams shut, locking Rose downstairs. Which wouldn't be a big deal, except that the dozens of mannequins stored down there suddenly start coming to life.

Rose, of course, flees, but just when death seems certain at the hands of this mannequin menace, which are lurching toward her like a pack of brain-eating zombies, the Doctor appears beside her, takes her hand, and says, "Run!"

Finally, some action, for run they do, holding hands, oddly enough, even though they're fleeing for their lives. Though Rose seemed perplexed by the basement's layout, the Doctor has no trouble navigating, and leads Rose to the safety of the elevator. It's a narrow escape though — although our protagonists were running full out and the plastic zombies were lurching and shuffling, the plastic people are right behind them, and one of them manages to thrust his arm between the elevator doors. Fortunately, the Doctor is quick to whip out his sonic screwdriver, which he uses to disable the mannequin's arm, wrenches it off at the joint, and tosses it to Rose as the elevator closes its doors and whisks them to safety.

The Doctor escorts Rose from the building, only to tell her to forget about him, wiggle a bomb at her, and tell her to run for her life. He goes back inside to slag those plastic zombies, and shortly after Rose departs, the whole store explodes and goes up in flames.

Fate gets the Doctor and Rose back together again the next day, and Rose learns that the thing controlling the mannequins "want[s] to overthrow the human race and destroy [it]."

The Doctor and Rose inexplicably bond and the Doctor spouts some really strange stuff that Rose seems to take in stride, then leaves her and vanishes in his Telephone Box time machine — what we will soon learn is called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space).

Puzzled after the Doctor's disappearance, Rose goes home to google the Doctor, and after some pathetically lame search terms, tries "doctor blue box," and conveniently gets a relevant hit as the first search result: the website of a conspiracy theorist, who seems to be an expert on the Doctor, and just happens to live close enough to Rose that she can drive over for a visit.

Rose's boyfriend, Mickey, who has been demonstrating his complete lack of talent as an actor with every moment he's been on screen, tags along, and waits in the car as Rose goes into a strange man's house to gather information. Curiously, he seems more concerned about the garbage can in front of his car, than he does his sweetheart, and when he goes to investigate this mysterious can, it quickly becomes apparent that the can is being controlled by the same thing controlling the mannequins, and Mickey, well, the garbage can eats him. And burps afterward. Really.

When Rose gets back to the car, however, our good friend Mickey is back in the driver's seat, no worse for the wear, albeit a bit more shiny and Ken Doll-like. Strangely enough, Rose doesn't notice he's any different. So they go off to a restaurant for food and conversation, and while Rose tells Mickey about what she learned, he starts asking about the Doctor.

As if on cue, the Doctor shows up, and Mickey goes berserk. He tries to kill the Doctor, his hands transforming into plastic cleaver/mallet things, which he uses to smash everything in sight in his attempts to behead the Doctor. But it's him who gets beheaded — the Doctor manages to pop his head off like cork, then runs off with Rose to the TARDIS.

With Mickey's head in hand, the Doctor is able to use the TARDIS to track the source of the signal that's been controlling the living plastic. He explains a bit about the TARDIS to Rose — basically, it's a transporter that also functions as a time machine — and off they go in search of the "Nestine Consciousness" that's been wreaking all this havoc.

Why? It all comes down to that very basic need: food. The plastic people want to eat us.

So, more running ensues, and an altercation with the Nestine Consciousness, which looks a whole lot like a bit vat of lava. Luckily, the Doctor has just the MacGuffin to save the day, which he can do at any time once he finds the villain, but he wants to reason with it first. That's a mistake, of course, leading to some suspense: will the Doctor and Rose save the day? Gee, I wonder!

They do, of course, in lackluster and predictable fashion — anyone with half-a-brain could have seen the right course of action to take five minutes before either of them does. And la-de-da, everything's well again, and the loose threads are all tied up in a pretty little bow.

But before the Doctor disappears again, he offers Rose the chance to go with him. At first, she refuses, claiming someone needs to look after poor pathetic Mickey (who was found alive and well at the Nestine Consciousness's lair), though why anyone would pass up the chance to travel through time and space for a lunkhead like him is beyond me. But wisely, Rose reconsiders when the Doctor pops back and points out the time travel part. Apparently, that whole "it can transport you instantly anywhere in the world" thing wasn't enough for Rose — since it's got time travel, well, in that case, see ya later, Mickey. So, Rose goes off with The Doctor to have wonderful new adventures, and all is well and happy.

Their next two adventures, "The End of the World" and "The Unquiet Dead", play on some very familiar SFnal themes (which themes are very likely obvious from the titles), and unfortunately don't do a whole lot to make them fresh and/or exciting.

"The End of the World" has Rose and The Doctor traveling to the very distant future to witness the Sun going nova. It's not as tragic as it sounds — humanity had abandoned Earth a long time ago, so it's just a lifeless rock. In orbit around Earth is a space station from which a bunch of strange aliens and "the last human" will watch as Earth gets consumed by the Sun's expansion. Technobabble explains why it's safe to be there even though the Sun's about to go nova. Needless to say, there are some malefactors aboard the station, and Rose and The Doctor have to save the day.

This is by far the best of the three episodes I viewed for this review. It has some cool space FX (including a nice shot of the Earth blowing up), and some of the aliens are interesting, most notably the tree humanoids.

That said, it's still far from good. For instance, consider the following scene. One of the station's stewards is sitting at a control panel, which is located in a room with a large window facing the Sun. This window apparently has some kind of shielding on it, which prevents the steward from getting burnt to cinders. You'd think that the deactivation of this kind of shield would be a complex process to insure that one doesn't do it accidentally. However, the mischievous spider-like robots that have infested the station (and do the bidding of the abovementioned malefactors), have no trouble deactivating the shield, as all it takes is one touch of a button to turn it off, and the steward goes up in smoke.

No daft enough? Well how about this: after some station malfunctions arise, The Doctor goes in search of the problem. His search eventually leads him to a cavernous room with a series of hundreds-of-feet-high walkways right out of "Star Wars". The switch The Doctor needs to throw is at the end of one of these walkways, which is blocked by a giant spinning fan with blades that would turn a man into quivering bloody sushi. It's a scene as ludicrous as the one lampooned in "Galaxy Quest", and for a show to use such a scene in a non-satirical way is itself ludicrous.

After watching this episode, despite its problems, I was optimistic about seeing the next one. The second had improved dramatically upon the first, so I thought that the trend might continue. Alas, it does not.

In "The Unquiet Dead", The Doctor and Rose travel back to the late 1800s, and a good thing too: it seems those titular dead are not just noisome — they're ambulatory and hungry.

The episode was painful, so let me sum up quickly. Our heroes encounter Charles Dickens. The Doctor acts like a gibbering fanboy. Rose makes no effort to fit in with the times (except for her clothing). A psychic girl is the key to understanding the undead menace. It all has something to do with gaseous aliens.

I have a theory: maybe the dead were unquiet because they'd learned that the requisite undead episode was going to be so awful? How would they know that in advance, you might ask? Maybe the psychic girl told them. Or maybe they read the script.

For the most part, the show has very much of a B-movie feel to it — in the acting, the writing (and dialogue), the production values...in every aspect. I mean, come on: living mannequins? (Somebody help me! I'm having an Andrew McCarthy flash back!) The FX also pale in comparison to the show Who replaces in SCI FI's lineup (Battlestar Galactica); in fact, the first episode doesn't have much FX to speak of, and those that are present are woefully inadequate. But some of the FX sequences in later episodes are interesting (if not visually stunning), such as when the Earth goes boom in episode two. Which is not to say that an SF show should be all about the effects, but in this day and age, viewers have come to expect a bit more. It would be more forgivable if the stories themselves were stronger, but alas, they're not good enough to make up for the terrible acting and production values.

In the end, Rose — and the show — wisely casts aside the deadwood of Mickey and the talentless hack playing him. (Or have they? Future episode summaries seem to indicate he'll be back.) But the overall acting doesn't fare much better. Christopher Eccleston (The Doctor) and Billie Piper (Rose) are a couple notches above poor, useless Mickey, but neither one of them is going to get nominated an Emmy any time soon. Eccleston, at least, we only have to put up with for this first season — he bailed on the show and was replaced by David Tennant, who really can't be much worse (one can hope). Though I seem to be in the minority in this, as Eccleston and Piper seem to be receiving a lot of praise from the fan community for their portrayals.

I should point out that I've never watched any of the previous incarnations of Dr. Who, so I'm viewing this series with a fresh eye, and my opinions are not influenced by childhood affections or nostalgia. I understand that Dr. Who has a fanatical following, and for those people, I expect the show will be very popular and will remain a hit. But while it'll please those fans, I doubt it's going to make many new ones.


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