Thursday, June 9, 2016

Review: Doctor Who "The Long Game"

There’s was really no place in my Review of this episode to squeeze this in, so I’ll just say it here. When you take away the aliens, the future is very.... well, no getting around it. Monochromatic. 90% of people are white, and the majority of the remaining people are black. So whatever happened to all the Native Americans, Indians, Mexicans...?

The apparent belief that human beings are either white, black, or indeterminate-beige-with-no-specific-ethnicity will be an ongoing problem in this show for a while.

Plot
This episode has its origins in two separate ideas Russell T. Davies had for Doctor Who.

Adam's story was outlined in Davies's pitch to bring back Doctor Who, where it was referred to as "The Companion Who Couldn't." But the rest of the episode has its roots in the Classic Series.

Back in ‘87, Davies submitted his script about human beings who were controlled by the news. And that makes a lot of sense. This form of satire would pretty much end up defining the Seventh Doctor's time on Doctor Who, with episodes like "The Happiness Patrol,” so it’s not like Doctor Who can’t do satire. And since the 80s saw the rise of media moguls like Rupert Murdoch, the time was perfect for Doctor Who to do a riff on journalism. Tomorrow Never Dies, but a decade early!

But the BBC didn’t see it that way.

Nobody knows if anybody at the BBC actually read Davies’s script, but he got a rejection letter suggesting he should write more realistic scripts about "a man and his mortgage.” Yeesh. So Davies sat on the story for about a couple decades before whipping it back out once he was put in charge of the Doctor Who revival.

Playing the long game, indeed, Russell.

Here's the problem. The script's age is very obvious if you know what to look for. This episode smells like 70s-80s Doctor Who in the same way that middle school boys smell like sweat and body spray. Seriously, kids, dousing yourself in Axe does not equate with an actual shower.

First of all, an alien is secretly shaping Earth’s destiny. Just like Scaroth of the Jagaroth, the Daemons, the Osirians…. Yeah, the Jagrafess isn’t the only alien that has been “humanity’s guiding light.”

“Won’t be the last, either.”
Second of all, Suki and Cathica are classic examples of the two types of minor characters the Doctor would always seem to run into; the helpful nice ones which would die for shock value, and the abrasive and obstructive (but not actually evil) ones.

Third, the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire references the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire from the Classic Series.

Finally, the Editor is just another in a long line of humans serving an evil, yet rather powerless, alien. See also: “Pyramids of Mars,” “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” “City of Death,” et cetera.

To be fair, I’m not sure how many of those aspects were in the original 1980s script, but it cannot be denied that this plot carries many hallmarks of classic Doctor Who. And little else, I’m afraid. But that’s where Adam’s subplot comes in to elevate the story from a generic Doctor Who tale into the time a companion nearly doomed everything.

Themes
Media/news satire is the order of the day, and I must say that the idea of clueless journalists who don’t know how to use common sense and rely on shock value and ratings… well, it’s pretty spot-on as an exaggeration of real life. And the idea that humans could be tracked and monitored by corporations through things as innocuous as their shopping habits is pretty much real life. A+ there, Davies.

But as much as this story satirizes the media, it also presents us with a brilliant riff on Rose’s first couple of episodes.

Characters
Adam Mitchell

This is the end of Adam’s story (unless you count the Doctor Who comics, but never mind).

Much like Rose, he started off as a British teenager whose life was turned upside down by one of the Doctor’s classic foes. And like Rose, he gets taken to a space station in the future where the sight of Earth from space overwhelms him.

The same room, technically.
But Adam is not Rose.

Adam, as seen in "Dalek," is a bit of a schemer who’s too clever for his own good. And that’s what leads to his downfall. He’s not a bad person, just a greedy one who thinks that he should do things because he can get away with them. Remember, by his own admission, he almost started World War III as a kid just for kicks.

And so, the Doctor kicks him out. Because when presented with the opportunity to travel throughout time and space, he doesn’t appreciate the rare gift he’s been given. He tries to find a way to make it benefit him. Originally, Adam would have been researching a cure for his incurable father (in one draft, he suffered from arthritis) back in 2012, which is a detail that they still mention on the commentary. So I imagine it was taken out at a fairly late stage, since it made him too sympathetic of a character.

But one detail that I kind of wish they had kept was setting the episode completely from Adam’s point of view; that would have hammered home just how alien not only the Doctor is, but how alien Rose is. I mean, let’s face it, she’s gotten pretty used to the whole time-traveling thing, hasn’t she?

In the end, Adam’s failure as a companion is a great twist that plays with the expectations of an audience that might be used to the Doctor acquiring new companions halfway through a season. I mean, give it three episodes, and he’ll have another.

Doctor
The Doctor has rarely been at odds with a companion. Sure, Turlough was trying to kill him, but he repented and redeemed himself. This is really the first time a companion has done something wrong on purpose with no hint of actual remorse. Unless you count the time Barbara Wright tried to end Aztec sacrifice, but she had good intentions, at least. Which is why the Doctor leaves him behind, even though that seems like a terrible decision that will end up with Adam on a slab getting dissected. Or if he’s unlucky, vivisected.

Still, what better way to keep Adam away from civilization? After all, Adam will probably remember that tidbit about single-molecule transcription. And now, he can never act on that information. Probably become a hermit.

But for the next episode, keep in mind that Adam never once sincerely apologized or felt remorse for his actions. And in fact, he lied about what he had done. It’ll be important when I talk about Rose….

Suki (Anna Maxwell Martin)
The characters from the future are, unfortunately, the weakest link in this episode. Not that they're bad, they're just... undeveloped. Their most prominent personality traits are simply the roles they play in the story.

Suki, for example, is the standard-issue likable cannon fodder. She's basically the only decent human being in the future and she's a kick-awesome freedom fighter who's already aware of the big Satellite 5 conspiracy. Which builds up to her shining moment where she leads to the Editor's downfall from beyond the grave.

Is the Jagrafess using the chip in her brain to take the Editor with them? Is there some glimmer of consciousness left? Is Cathica doing it as part of her sabotage of the station?

It's left vague, but from a writing standpoint, her role in the Editor's downfall balances the scriptwriting equation.

Likability+Early Demise=Meaningful Sacrifice

The character feels more like a writing tool than a human being. And so does her co-worker....

Cathica (Christine Adams)
Cathica is your standard issue redemption arc. She starts off as an unpleasant person, and a bit of an obstacle, only to step up and help save the day when the time comes.

Other than the actress's over-the-top performance and the character's general abrasiveness, there's really nothing else to the character than how she fits into the story with her desire to go to Floor 500, only to find it at the heart of a conspiracy. There aren't any quirks or details to her that make her very interesting to watch. And it’s not the actress’s fault; she went on to larger roles, like Mira in Terra Nova. The script just isn’t giving her much.

But to be fair to the Satellite 5 characters, Adam's subplot is the primary focus to the episode, so maybe giving the minor characters more to do would have cluttered up the episode with subplots. However, that doesn't mean that the characters can't be more interesting to watch. Suki and Cathica have little in the way of personality to disguise that they're little more than tools to move the plot forward... but the Editor doesn't have that problem.

The Editor (Simon Pegg)
My God, but Simon Pegg is phenomenal in this. And pretty much everything else, but that's beside the point.

The role of the Editor is boring and generic. He really has no motivation to betray his own species other than the money, and a lot of his lines are villain cliches. "Who do you work for?" and so on. But Simon Pegg brings a charm to the role that is equally bubbly and slimy, which is a very interesting dichotomy. He's creepy and cold, but can have his gleefully-evil moments as well. And Simon Pegg has admitted that he had a lot of fun playing the villain.

So while the character isn't exactly the most three-dimensional and well-developed of Doctor Who villains, he sure is fun to watch. Still, kind of a waste that they used him up as a one-shot character.

One does not simply waste Simon Pegg in a minor role.
Monster of the Week: The Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadorjassic Maxarodenfoe
Fun fact: Simon Pegg found the name very difficult to say. You can still catch a few times when he seems to say “Jagrafress.”

When it comes down to it, the Jagrafess could have been anything. A monster, a computer, a figment of the Editor’s imagination. But the design’s goal was to evoke a lump of meat that moved like a shark, which not only accentuates the Jagrafess’s inhumanity (increasing the horror as to its station as the ruler of Earth), but I’m fairly certain the idea of an obese predator controlling the news is a jab at media moguls. But there’s not much more I can say about it, other than that the CGI is passable. It mostly just snarls.

Yeah, like that.
Still… you have to wonder. If the Editor and the Jagrafess are really in this for the money, then why the plan to use the Doctor’s TARDIS and eradicate human history? It’s almost as if someone else with different goals was behind the Jagrafess….

Visuals
The visuals of this episode are very striking, and I'm not sure whether I like them. And I'm not talking about the CGI Jagrafess.

I have very... uncommon tastes when it comes to science fiction. If you gave me a choice between a dark-and-dank Blade Runner/The Matrix aesthetic and a squeaky-clean plastic-and-rayguns aesthetic... I'll actually choose the latter. And that's not to say I hate the former, it's just not my cup of tea.

That's the stuff.
So I find the aesthetic of Satellite Five to be very intriguing.
The basic structure seems to borrow heavily from the sets of Solar Platform One in "The End of the World," though the sets have been redressed. SP-1 was primarily used for entertaining rich people, so it was styled around comfort like a resort, although it had a dingy underbelly to it in the maintenance areas and such. S-5, on the other hand, took cues from both modern sci-fi and classic sci-fi.

The lighting and "used" look resemble the sort of environments you'd see in modern sci-fi, but the details and embellishments are classic sci-fi goofiness.

Misaligned frames around screens recall cheap 50s-60s sci-fi.
And the last time I saw a font that “futuristic,” it was stenciled on the side of a robot dog.
In the end, Satellite 5 is sort of a combination of goofy classic sci-fi design filtered through the world of more modern "gritty" sci-fi. And yet, when you look at it put together, its garish color scheme and cheap CGI place it firmly in the early 2000s. So... I'm not actually sure how I feel about it. It looks like a location straight from classic 70s Doctor Who with the budget of modern Doctor Who. But it doesn't always work.

Apart from that, the CGI backdrops of Satellite Five can be iffy at times, and the CGI hole in Adam’s head doesn’t always stay in place as he moves his head, but what do you expect when the CGI budget had been used up by this point? In fact, the original idea would have had the whole head open up, but that would have been too costly. Allegedly.

Even Overdrawn at the Memory Bank had the budget to do that with practical effects.
So much for this episode being written as a money-saver.

Final Thoughts
A fairly solid entry in the Ninth Doctor's short run, even if it seems much more like a Seventh Doctor story. The lackluster guest characters and rather generic evil scheme are buoyed up by Adam Mitchell's subplot as well as a fun performance by Simon Pegg.

Speaking of Simon Pegg, did you know that the role of the Editor was a last-minute change? He was actually supposed to appear in the next episode, playing a far more important character. So important, in fact, that the fate of the universe is in his hands.

See you then!

4 comments:

  1. "When you take away the aliens, the future is very.... well, no getting around it. Monochromatic."

    Thank you! This, unfortunately, has been a problem in 21st century sci-fi, and I blame Battlestar Galactica! And to a lesser extent firefly. And before any browncoats reading this take out your pitchforks let me just say this. Whereas the absence of aliens in Firefly proved revolutionary at the time (along others aspects) and it helped streamline Battlestar galactica as a journey focusing on humanity's survival, it has possibly proved detrimental to sci-fi when you're only legitimate spacefaring species is homo sapiens sapiens! Part of the joy of sci-fi, particularly sci-fi from the nineties, was exploring these different species that although looked similar to humans were different as well and exploring those differences, whether biology wise or cultural. Even though the new Doctor who continues to have aliens, whenever in space the focus is virtually always on humans as opposed to other spacefaring alien species unlike it seems during classic Doctor who that we visited a mixture of spacefaring humans and aliens. and you bring a good point, how expensive is it to put rubber make up on someone? And that's a shame too, that we don't really get to explore an alien culture and the only aliens the Doctor now faces tend to be those trying to kill him.

    Mind you though, I think we've seen a slight reverse in this trend recently with series like Defiance reintroducing humanoid aliens and the later seasons of fallen skies and especially with the new marvel films like guardians of the galaxy. we even had an episode of the eleventh doctor with clara in their second episode that had NO relation to earth or shockingly humans. took you long enough, like seven friggin seasons! seriously though, it felt somewhat nostalgic seeing aliens who looked human apart from a few features on their faces saying otherwise.

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    1. I'm glad I could stir up such an interesting examination of sci-fi... even if I was only mentioning the lack of HUMAN diversity.

      But you've definitely made me stop and think about sci-fi and whether the lack of aliens is because we're getting sick of rubber foreheads, or because elaborately inhuman aliens is expensive, or what.

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  2. Hey, this is completely off topic, but are you still open to doing superhero redesigns? Because if so, I'd like to see your take on Bullseye. Never liked that costume, always seemed too silly and Silver Age for a psychotic serial killer. Sorry for rambling. Great review by the way.

    - That One Anon

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    1. Don't apologize for rambling here; I do it all the time.

      As ever, I have only lack of time to blame for the lack of Redesigns. I'll add Bullseye to the list.

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