Posted on October 26th, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »
Oh dear, what went wrong?
It’s a pretty good test I think of any narrative work of art to ask yourself – what would happen if the lead character was not present? The answer here is: absolutely nothing. The Doctor and Clara are stripped of all agency and just left to spectate as the plot sorts itself out. It’s a dramatically inert climax to a tedious and impoverished episode which brings the recent strong run of stories to a grinding halt. I may not have liked Vincent and the Doctor – another script from a celebrity writer attempting to do something different with the format – but I recognised that that was a matter of taste and I could appreciate the craft in Richard Curtis’s script. This is insultingly poor as a piece of writing and the production creaks under the weight of the visuals that the script requires, just as reality creaks under the weight of those which are omitted.
To be fair, the central idea of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script is a cracker. Overnight a dense forest has sprung up and covered the entire Earth (including the oceans it seems, judging by the shots of the planet from space). To be equally fair, however, the veteran writer seems to have been so pleased with this that he’s knocked off early and gone down the pub.
Nothing about this works on any level. An idea as striking, as simple, as bizarre as this needs to be grounded thoroughly in reality for it to work as a piece of television airing in 2014. But right from the beginning, everything is a little “off” – and by the way, saying “fairy tale” with a hopeful expression doesn’t turn a badly thought through and poorly executed concept into a gem. First of all, school sleepovers in museums. Is that a thing? I don’t remember it ever happening to me. What’s the point of it exactly? Other than to surround the Doctor with yet another troupe of adorable moppets?
Once the first shoe begins to drop, we really start to confront the two different problems which this story has to contend with. The first is that neither on the script, nor the production level, is anyone really trying to make me believe this. What very few people we see react with mild puzzlement, or keep their focus on what’s right in front of them – or not, as in the case of Maebh’s mum. Surely, if this were to happen for real, there would be panic, outrage, pandemonium. At the very least, in the middle of central London there would be people. But the casting money having all been splurged on moppets this week, we are denied even token extras, and the dialogue doesn’t even try and hide this fact. All poor director Sheree Folkson can do is plonk some road signs down on location and keep doing lens flares and hope for the best.
Just on the basic level of individual incidents, nothing really works. It’s bad enough that between emerging from the museum and watching the plot sort itself out from orbit, the Doctor, Clara, Danny and the moppets just sort of aimlessly traipse from the TARDIS to the forest, back to the TARDIS, back out in to the forest again and so on. This kind of narrative vamping is fair enough in episode four of a 1970s six-parter, but in a 44 minute episode it’s just appalling.
But even when the story stumbles across a good idea, like having all the animals from London Zoo released and roaming the woods, the production can’t really make it work, and the script can’t be bothered to think it through. Once Danny has shone a light in a tiger’s eyes, we’ll never ever be troubled by any of those animals again. Yeah, and Guy Crayford has never looked under his eyepatch before today either.
The resolution when it comes makes no sense and is very easy to see coming. Both of these statements require caveats. I let Kill The Moon off the hook (controversially in some quarters) for its nonsensical science for two reasons: firstly, the rest of the episode was gangbusters and secondly, it did make sense on its own terms, just about. But the idea that a bunch of magic trees will protect Earth from a gigantic solar flare just like an air bag makes no sense at all on any level. It doesn’t make sense when I say it, and it doesn’t make sense visually. An air bag absorbs a force, because the air is in a, well, a bag. Bagless air doesn’t work nearly so well. That’s why cars don’t come equipped with safety air. But unburnable trees will just sit there as the fire rages around them. Just how will they prevent the local air temperature from shooting up. By creating excess oxygen? Like when you blow on the embers of a fire you mean? It doesn’t sound like it’s going to work and it doesn’t look like it’s going to work. And it’s very far from clear from whence the trees came – moppety voices? Tinkerbell sparkles? Homework doodles? Um, did I miss something?
And I saw it coming, which might just be luck. Any good plot twist needs to be hidden in plain sight or what’s the fun of it, and if you hide something in plain sight, a few people will be lucky (or unlucky) enough to see it coming purely by chance. But I can’t be the only one who noticed that with an enormous solar flare on the way and magic trees suddenly appearing, we seemed to be playing a game of Double Mumbo Jumbo. Isn’t it rather more likely that one of these things is the solution to the other? I got there about twenty minutes in.
And, as noted, the Doctor has nothing to do in the climax. Yes, he issues some sort of dementedly childish warning to the people of Earth to let the trees alone, which would have had a great deal more impact had it not been comprehensively shown how indestructible they were mere minutes earlier. Then he and Clara just sit back and enjoy the show – rather more than I did, it seems.
Of course, if a planet-killing solar flare were on the way, astronomers would have noticed and the world would already be in crisis mode. This is hinted at, but never properly explored when Clara says she knew but didn’t tell the kids. So – the end of the world is coming, and you aren’t going to prepare in any way, or discuss it ever, or mention it to your space alien wizard friend, you’re just going to carry on doing your job because… I don’t know how to finish that sentence, I’m sorry.
Clara’s “trick” of packing the Doctor away to life and freedom when it becomes clear that the end is nigh (because of the flare or the trees, or the sparkly forest fairies, or magic Maebh, or some other damn thing, I was past caring by this point) falls utterly flat as drama, because I just didn’t buy a single moment of it, having checked out from the reality of the programme some time earlier.
And then finally, just when this impoverished production of a tissue-thin story looked like it couldn’t get any worse, we get the final kick in the nuts. The utterly unearned, unbelievable, treacly, reappearance of missing sister Annabel. This moment is meaningless because I was absolutely not invested in that loss, and false because that’s not what happens when family members go missing, and it certainly isn’t what would happen if they were to suddenly and shockingly reappear. The brilliant French drama The Returned worked incredibly hard to show us what would really happen if a daughter or a sister, long thought dead, turned up out of the blue. To “season” an already over-sweet story with this extra dollop of syrup is utterly misjudged and pointless.
I really am struggling to find any redeeming features, but this is easily the worst of the season so far. Capaldi does what he can with the limited material (stripped not only of agency but good jokes – even the naive and sloppy Bobbins of Sherwood gave him a couple of decent one-liners), and Jenna Coleman continues to do good work, but the relationship story with Danny is starting to feel unnecessarily drawn-out now, and Samuel Anderson is hitting the same notes over and over again. Missing the sweet spot of grounded drama with a hint of fairy tale magic by absolutely miles, this was a story which Doctor Who’s budget could never have made work, which doesn’t entirely excuse all concerned from trying so little in its execution. Certainly the poorest effort since Journey to the Nadir of the TARDIS and maybe poorer than anything in the Moffat reign to date. One star. Bugger.