My two word review of the first part of the two-part season finale of Doctor Who, The Stolen Earth:
(Pause to let Dan freak out a little)
My eight word addendum to my two word review on The Stolen Earth:
But. Why. Did. I. Enjoy. It. So. Much?
Because The Stolen Earth is the first part of a two-parter, I would normally wait until next Sunday before I review the story as a whole. But I find that I cannot do that in this case. For one thing, I suspect that next week’s episode is going to be a different kettle of fish. For another, this episode is such a textbook example of how to do Doctor Who wrong, that to wait a week potentially makes my review unmanageably long. And yet…
So, let’s roll up our sleeves, everyone. We’re going in. And don’t forget the shovels. We’ll need them.
(Images courtesy the BBC)
Recall for a minute my assessment of The Doctor’s Daughter earlier this year:
I wasn’t too surprised to conclude after watching The Doctor’s Daughter that we have encountered the worst episode of the season. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that this is the worst episode of the revival.
Well, hold that thought. We have a new winner.
It’s strange comparing The Doctor’s Daughter to The Stolen Earth, because by every objective measure, as much as I found The Doctor’s Daughter to be an embarrassment, The Stolen Earth is worse. The worst episode of the season, and very likely the worst episode of the revival. Writer Russell T. Davies engaged in a textbook case of how to write a Doctor Who episode wrong. The story is way too crowded with characters, and nobody and nothing is developed properly. There really isn’t much of a plot beyond what Davies can pitch on our screen to say “here are your characters” and “here are three guns on the wall”. The dialogue is hokey (always a danger with Daleks on the loose) and neither the actors nor the director have any opportunity to craft anything special out of the mess.
And yet I still had a fun time watching the screen. I think Cameron said it best in an e-mail he sent to me soon after the episode debuted: ‘The thing about RTD’s blockbuster episodes is that I can’t decide whether to listen to my inner child, who’s leaping up and down shouting “WOOOOOOOO!!!!”, or my outer 37-year-old, who’s saying “Oh, come on now…”’
As I apologized for the episode to Erin, who was merciless in her derision, I explained, “this is for the kids”. And it seems that the initial reaction from the younger demographics has been uniformly good. The episode looks pretty, and smacks the audience with the biggest plot-bats it has on hand: Rose is Back! And Torchwood! And Sarah Jane! And Martha! Oh, and Daleks! And DAVROS! Woo! Feel the epic! WHAM! Feel the epic beat you with a stick! WHAM!!
Fun, maybe, but it’s not good Doctor Who. When Doctor Who was at its best, it was never about the spectacle. The show lived and died on the strength of its story, and that’s sadly lacking here. Indeed, as Erin said, The Stolen Earth is so over-the-top and corny in its approach, that it actually starts to approach “good” from the other side.
With the plot failing to engage, a number of annoyances come to the fore and fester. Could the American general please pick a state for his accent and maintain it? Could the special effects of the TARDIS’s arrival where the 27 planets are hidden be any more dorfy (especially after the nice shots of the Medusa Cascade)? And as for the “TO. BE. CONTINUED” shoved in our faces with three accompanying “whooshes!”, I can only say: “LAME!”
The characterization also takes a considerable hit due to the lack of time and the heavy-handed writing. The worst moment comes when all of the companion characters (Jack, Sarah, Martha) give up in despair, only to have their spirits revived by Harriet Jones, former prime minister. Penelope Wilton’s return is welcome, and the actress gives us a good moment, but hold on a minute: Jack’s line: “I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do. We’re dead!” is completely out of character. This is the man who’s run Torchwood, and stood in the shadow of the son of the devil. This is the man who has fought Daleks before and has faced these odds before. And he gives up?!
Sorry. No. No way. Not at all. I’m absolutely not buying what you’re selling, here, Russell T. Davies.
We have a frustrating lack of development on all fronts, although Russell T. Davies does try his best, and the actors help out by being entirely familiar with their characters. Donna’s mother and grandfather get some good moments, but fade out behind the couch. And with all of the players in the game, the plot itself cannot be anything more than the barest structure to get the various players to collaborate to place a long distance call.
And not only that, we have not one but two devices that must not be used UNDER (wham!) ANY (wham!) CIRCUMSTANCES (wham!), except that one (the Indigo project) seems to be fine, and the other is a computer chip. This is a sloppy bit of duplication that should have been removed so that more time could be devoted to some real character development.
And, trust me, this is not going to get any better on subsequent viewings. Because what plot remains doesn’t make much sense. How do 27 particular planets form themselves into an engine? There is no justifiable science or pseudo-science that satisfactorily explains something that’s pretty central to the story. There is no sense that the Doctor figures out what happens through anything more than authorial fiat. And just how does a deposed prime minister get her hands on a sentient computer program? And how does one get developed? How is it that project Indigo latches onto Martha’s mind and sends her home rather than several million places at once? The answer is, only because Russell Davies says so. These story elements do not develop naturally and are simply thrown at the screen as Russell rushes through the story.
But though I have to say I didn’t like The Stolen Earth, and though I have to stand by my assessment that this is the weakest episode of the season so far (4 out of 10, at most), I cannot escape the fact that I enjoyed the story. Even Erin admits that she enjoyed it. So what elements conspired to work to keep me from turning off the episode partway through? What kept the smile on my face?
There are plenty of things to like about The Stolen Earth. It is genuinely good to see the various companions back again, and the actors and the script keep these people mostly in character and give us some nice touches. I loved the exchange between Sarah Jane and Captain Jack, and the consolidation of both spinoff programs into this episode did have a good epic feel about it.
I also liked Rose, her desperate search for the Doctor and her innate jealousy over Martha. Finally, I liked Donna. Catherine Tate’s performance as the Doctor and Rose are finally reunited outshines even David Tennant and Billie Piper’s exuberance. It is a remarkable set of emotions on display here, with Donna going “Ooo, look, my little brother is happy. Awwwwww!” Further, Donna’s mother and grandfather make the best of some slim pickings in this script, with Bernard Cribbins again stealing every scene he’s in.
And I want to like the Daleks. They are beautiful machines, and their action scenes are well handled. Unfortunately, this episode is yet another spit on the grave of the poor lone Dalek from Dalek. How many resurrections have these creatures had? I almost want to go back in time, pat the poor guy on the back (wearing a heavily shielded glove, of course) and say, “aw, there, there! Don’t worry. Just wait around a little while, and you can return to your murderous ways, just you wait.”
But I did like Davros. He is easily the brightest spot of this episode. He’s well cast (Julian Bleach), and the update of his design is brilliant. There’s also none of that hyperactive ranting that could easily turn him into an embarrassment; it’s just cool, suave sinister. The conversation between him and the Doctor recalls last year’s phone conversation between the Doctor and the Master. There are more hints of the Time War (and, Russell, if you keep this up, you’re going to have to put it all together, somehow — perhaps for one of the upcoming specials?) with some interesting additional names added. Like, the Nightmare Child? (I think I’ve just found the title for the sequel to The Dream King’s Daughter) Even more interesting was the revelation that the Doctor tried to save Davros from his suicide mission.
And, you have to admire the episode’s confidence. It just barrels forward, using all the emotional punches it can to beat into you that THIS. IS. EPIC! Graeme Harper gets a lot of credit for this, showing us a planet being depopulated with single scene shot on a town street, and showing us Daleks crushing all resistance with an explosion of a single house.
Finally, let’s take one more note of Donna, which Russell has deliberately faded into the background for a moment, and Tate wisely plays it as someone who is completely at a loss for something to do. Donna is frustrated, but is holding it together because even though she can freak out with the best of them, this is not a time for her to freak out. The link back to Turn Left, however, tells us that Donna still has a big part to play in the finale (and the dialogue portent of doom causes yet more head trauma to reinforce this fact). You can tell that the script and Catherine Tate is setting Donna up to show us an ordinary person about to do something spectacular, and I find that sort of development very compelling. It remains to be seen, however, if Journey’s End can survive the corniness and heavy-handedness of The Stolen Earth to make the spectacular moment of one character seem truly spectacular.
(As an aside, Donna doesn’t freak out until, that is, the final moments. You know, the Doctor should really sit his companions down and give them the Time Lord birds and the bees talk. For every companion since the revival started regeneration has been a surprise. It would save a lot of confusion for the poor people to have this foreknowledge, but I have to wonder if the subject is taboo among Time Lords. You’ll notice that he only started to tell Martha about it when he was on the verge of death in last season’s 42)
Unfortunately, all of this cannot save an episode that is this overcrowded, which has abandoned its plot and some of its characterization in favour of the quick action fix. The Stolen Earth tries so hard to be big, it’s become a parody of the blockbusting season finales of the last three years.
But let’s spare a thought to poor Russell for a moment. The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End represent what is probably his last season finale. Next year is only specials, which are a different kettle of fish, and which Russell is particularly adept at writing. These specials are likely to be self-contained stories, which means no more of those cumbersome story-spanning arcs requiring big payoffs that have infected the seasons before.
But for three years in a row, Russell T. Davies has ensured that each season ends in a blockbuster. And each has tried to top the other. First we had Daleks, and then we had Daleks and Cybermen, and last year we’ve had the Master. Each year, the Time War’s echoes have beaten louder. So how do you top bringing back the Doctor’s oldest adversaries to burst storylines that have been building for thirteen episodes previous, or more? And the answer is really: you can’t. But if you’re Russell, you have to try, especially given that this is your last blockbuster for this series.
You know, when you swing for the fence, sometimes the ball just flies past you. But in this case, Russell swung for the fence, not only to have the ball fly past him, but also to have the bat slip from his fingers and take out the right field bleachers. The Stolen Earth is a failure, but fortunately it is more than that: it is a spectacular failure. I cannot help but appreciate all the stops Russell pulled out for this one, even if it all fell flat.
So, how is it that Russell T. Davies could end up writing both the best (Midnight) and worst (The Stolen Earth) episodes this season? Well, dedication, mostly. I never said he wasn’t dedicated to his show. You have to try really, really hard in order to fail this spectacularly, and for this reason I give Russell a lot of credit here. We wouldn’t be in this mess if he wasn’t shooting for the moon. But then, we wouldn’t have been on the moon, either.
- Okay, so let me get this straight: pull the Earth out of its corner of the universe and put it in a void with twenty-six other planets, and the United Nations issues a “Code Red”. Send about two-hundred spaceships into Earth’s orbit, and the UN responds with… um… we sort of issued our highest alert rating just now. Oh! I’ve got it! An ULTIMATE Code Red! Yeah, that definitely has the feel of something a bureaucrat came up with on the fly. Erin and I would have given the program a few extra bonus points if instead they’d gone with Code Mauve.
- Allyn Gibson reports that Journey’s End will be 65 minutes long, which is the longest Doctor Who episode ever, other than the Voyage of the Damned special. That is a good thing. Length is probably the only way we can handle a story this crowded. But, as Allyn notes, the Sci-Fi Channel and the CBC had better be prepared to handle the extra long episodes with a longer timeslot. To compress 65 minutes into a 60 minute slot with commercials would involve gutting Journey’s End like a fish.