Please be warned that this review is extremely spoiler heavy.
No, seriously. I am about to review Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, the two-part season finale of Doctor Who, in depth. I’m about to give the entire game away, with lengthy and detailed analysis of every major plot element. Turn back now if you don’t want to be spoiled about key elements of the second season.
I’m not kidding!
Still here? Okay, here goes:
Russell T. Davies is, without a doubt, the weakest writer on the revived Doctor Who writing staff. As a writer, I am not happy with his plotholes and the contrivances of convenience he uses to bring a story to a close. One example would be the Deus Ex Machina ending he pulls to bring the Bad Wolf storyline to a close at the end of season 1. Another would be Season 2’s New Earth, where we have Cassandra taking over the body of her servant, finding he had a weak heart, and then just accepting death, despite spending the better part of the episode desperately avoiding it.
Of course, saying that Russell T. Davies is the weakest writer of the current Doctor Who writing staff is like saying Glen Sather was the weakest player on the Edmonton Oiler bench during one of their Stanley Cup championships. If Glen Sather strapped on skates and played, of course he’d be the worst, but then he’s the coach. Playing isn’t his job.
Russell T. Davies is the new Doctor Who’s showrunner. He’s the one who hired the brilliant writers, actors and directors that made the revived series click. He is the script editor, responsible for the overall creative direction of the series, and his work is more than sound. As a writer, he writes better than Glen Sather plays hockey. Russell has a good sense of pacing and of evoking an emotional response. His plots may not make sense in the cold light of day, but they often feel right. This is both a strength and a weakness, because while Russell can craft stories that evoke strong emotions, he tends to favour ideas which evoke the “oh, that’s cool!” response, rather than ideas which make narrative sense. Nowhere is this more apparent in the two part finale of the second season, Army of Ghosts and Doomsday.
The second season of the revived Doctor Who doesn’t appear on the CBC until this October. Unwilling to wait, and knowing a friend who had a friend with access to downloaded video and a DVD recorder, Erin and I have been watching the episodes about a week after they come out on the BBC. I intend to support the show by watching the episodes again as they air on the CBC, and I had intended to wait and only review each episode on this blog after they appeared, but given that my friend has broken radio silence, I suppose there is less reason to wait. Also, Army of Ghosts and Doomsday have so many good and bad elements within them, that I have to get this off my chest.
Army of Ghosts and Doomsday bring to a close an interesting season of Doctor Who. We have Rose adjusting to the Doctor’s new appearance. Their travels take them back to Five Billion Years AD and to Victorian Scotland. We nip over to a parallel universe and arrest the development of that universe’s Cybermen, and we’ve gone into a black hole and fought the Devil himself.
Throughout the season, one element has been popping up over and over again, Bad Wolf style. A government agency so secret, not even UNIT knows about it, has been dogging the Doctor’s footsteps. Torchwood can be found in every episode after Tooth and Claw quietly investigating the same cases the Doctor runs up against. They are even at the edge of a black hole in the far future. In Tooth and Claw we learn that they were established by Queen Victoria to protect the British Empire from alien incursions in general, and the Doctor in particular. Finally, in Army of Ghosts, the Doctor lands in Torchwood headquarters.
But before that, the Doctor and Rose return home to a changed world. Jackie greets them in her apartment and tells them that her dead father is about to pay a visit. And before Rose can put her mother in a looney bin, that’s just what happens. Two or three months ago, it turns out, millions of ghostly figures started to appear and disappear throughout the world. People were frightened at first, but when they realized that the ghosts were harmless — just appearing and disappearing in shifts — they relaxed and incorporated the ghosts into their daily lives. There follows a funny montage of media clips, including an Eastenders cameo appearance by the ghost of Dirty Dan, and Alistair Appleton (the enthusiastic host of such shows as Cash in the Attic and House Doctor) as the enthusiastic host of a program called Ghostwatch.
And here, we have our first element of sloppy plotting: why do people just accept these ghosts and assume that they are spirits of lost relations? Why isn’t there more of a reaction given this amazing challenge to the scientific and religious beliefs of the planet? And why is it important that people think they’re seeing the ghosts of long-lost friends and colleagues, given that the facial features of the apparitions are not clear at all?
The Doctor hints at a possibility: that people like Jackie, assuming that the ghosts are dead relatives, are inadvertently establishing psychic connections with these apparitions and drawing them through, but this is not made clear. Another possibility is that, given that these apparitions turn out to be Cybermen from the parallel earth, people are reading the original personalities within these creatures, but that’s not clear. I, on the other hand, was left with the impression that Jackie’s assumption, and the assumptions of society, were a case of massive public wishful thinking, which would have been a nice touch, if it had been picked. Unfortunately, this key element gets glossed over, as the Doctor goes to the source of the apparitions, conveniently located inside Torchwood headquarters (well, convenient for the Doctor; Torchwood did have to build their skyscraper around it), and people start shooting.
Sometimes you can get away with hinting at explanations for a phenomenon if it’s more important that viewers just accept the phenomenon and move on with the story, but it is a serious risk to take. In order to allow the audience to suspend its disbelief, there has to be something to suspend their disbelief on. Here, Russell T. Davies shorthanded his story by saying, “so there were these ghosts, and we go to Torchwood institute where” and the audience has to barge in saying “woah, woah, woah; there were these ‘ghosts’?! What’s up with that?” But unfortunately, the relationship between Russell and the audience is strictly one way. He’s moved forward, whether or not the audience is ready for it.
Once in Torchwood, the storyline becomes even more muddled. Torchwood Institute is either drawing power from a rift through which the ghosts are passing, or they are widening the rift, and pulling the ghosts through, drawing power as a nice side-effect. Did Torchwood initiate the appearance of the ghosts, or not? If the ghosts appeared on their own, what influence does Torchwood have? It’s not made clear. Torchwood houses a mysterious sphere, which registers on no instrument other than the human eye, possibly the first item that passed through the rift, and possibly connected with the ghosts.
Worse, there is a section of Torchwood institute under renovation, where the truth starts to come out. The Cybermen from the parallel Earth visited in Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel have established a foothold here. The ghosts, as I said, are actually Cybermen from that parallel world, pushing through the dimensional barrier, looking for greener pastures. And, of course, after taking over key Torchwood personnel, they push the rift wide open and materialize fully (including a delightful little scene that had me shouting, South Park style: “Oh, my God, they killed Alistair! You bastards!”). As the Doctor says, this isn’t an invasion, it’s a victory. But just when you think it can’t get any worse, the sphere finally activates (why? I don’t know) and unleashes its cargo. It’s not Cybermen; it’s …… Daleks! (cue dramatic music).
You know, you would think that an institute as paranoid and as pervasive as Torchwood would have discovered an alien invasion going on right next door and done something about it. But I think the realization of Torchwood is at the heart of the problems of Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. The Torchwood tale has been building for more than a season. References begin as early as the first season episode Bad Wolf. It’s suggested that, as an agency of humans capturing and salvaging alien technology, its’ a player even in the 51st century. It has been established specifically as a counter to the Doctor. And yet, when we arrive in Torchwood headquarters, we encounter a group of people with a lot of guns, and not enough braincells to realize that the renovators hammering next door are actually Cybermen.
We, the audience, along with the Doctor, should have been taken on the path of admiring these humans for their pluck, being creeped out by their secretive nature and knowledge far exceeding what twenty-first century humans should have, being appalled by their lackadaisical attitude towards the forces they’re playing with, to (possibly) helping with their redemption. But the Doctor/Torchwood storyline gets short shrift. There is almost no Torchwood character that stands out and gets a character arc (not even the Torchwood leader, despite a valiant attempt). And this is not surprising, because there is so much else to do.
Consider the storylines in addition to Torchwood looking too far and digging too deep. We have the Cybermen from a parallel universe invading our Earth. We have forces from the parallel Earth (including a welcome return by Pete and Mickey) chasing the new Cybermen down. And then we have the Daleks.
When the four Daleks appeared out of the sphere at the end of Army of Ghosts, Erin let out a cry of “oh, f—-” — fortunately out of earshot of Vivian. However, I could tell from the tone of her voice that half of that phrase was “oh, dear, these guys are in really big trouble, now”, while the other half was “oh, for heaven’s sake, can’t these creatures just die already?”
Army of Ghosts and Doomsday would have been much better if the Daleks had not been here. The sphere — a void ship used by four special Daleks to hide from the Time War between dimensions — is nothing more than a magical pathway through which the Cybermen come (never mind how the Cybermen, who are made from nothing more than highly advanced human technology, could register it, much less make use of it). The Daleks aren’t needed, and had they been moved to their own story, everybody would have benefitted.
I’m not too upset that the Daleks returned, despite being utterly annihilated with much much fanfare last season. They do reduce the emotional impact of The Parting of the Ways and make Dalek even more unfortunately pointless, but their plot had many interesting elements. So, the sphere is a void ship that allows a group of highly imaginative Daleks to hide from the Time War. I can buy that. They have a piece of Time Lord technology with them that’s a remnant of the Time War. I can buy that too. I’m genuinely interested in the Doctor’s reaction, here. I’m also interested that these Daleks have names, and a special ability to imagine. But that’s as far as it goes. The story does not get developed, and the only saving grace is that the Dalek supreme gets to escape, holding out hope that something more will come of this particular plot thread.
Indeed, none of the main stories - Doctor/Cybermen, Doctor/Torchwood, Doctor/Daleks - moves forward to a satisfying degree. After a big shoot-em-up (which had one confusing image of the Cybermen and Torchwood soldiers apparently cooperating against the Daleks), the Doctor pulls a resolution out of a hat and sucks both invading armies to oblivion. The end result is that Army of Ghosts and Doomsday has to be considered a failure. It doesn’t help that there is a conflict of scale, here, where we have not one but two (two!) massive invading armies, and the plot doesn’t really leave the building.
But let’s go back to what I said about Russell T. Davies and his strengths. He has a good sense of pacing, and he knows how to evoke an emotional reaction. I’d further say that he has a good idea of how to manage the emotional arcs of characters, if he’s able to develop a character to any degree. It is telling that the one story that succeeds in Army of Ghosts and Doomsday is the tale of Rose and her family. Rose actually makes a key emotional choice over the course of the tale — the only character given that opportunity. Forced to choose between her family and the Doctor, she chooses the Doctor (she ends up thwarted in that choice, but it’s still a satisfying emotional development).
The best scene of this story, after Rose and the Doctor’s tearful goodbye, is the reunion (or, more accurately, union) between the Jackie and Pete from the respective parallel universes. The most satisfying element of this tale — and it’s an important element — is seeing Jackie, Pete, Rose and Mickey together at the end. Russell handles this story with care. I love the way Russell teases that Rose might be pregnant (it’s a nice twist that it turns out it’s Jackie).
This is a story that Russell T. Davies has been building for two years; it’s been at the heart of the show and possibly its most successful element. What happens to the family the Doctor’s companions leave behind? How does travelling with the Doctor change you? Can humans truly hold onto the Doctor’s lifestyle, with all that holds them back on Earth? Here, Rose’s constant revisiting of her family for the past two seasons — something the show has never done before — is given a satisfying conclusion. It’s brilliant plotting, and the emotional impact of this tale’s climax saves Army of Ghosts and Doomsday from mediocrity.
There is much to recommend Army of Ghosts and Doomsday. The acting and directing are excellent, and are supported by nice character moments. I loved the interplay between the Doctor and the head of Torchwood Institute. Jackie and Mickey are given good material, and director Graeme Harper delivers the visceral impact of the Cyberman invasion of Earth by having two Cybermen menace a family in their home (a scene which is the stuff of nightmares).
I doubt that the audience dissects a Doctor Who episode as much as I do. I can’t help myself because I’m a writer; I agonize over these plot details that Russell T. Davies glosses over. But for somebody just watching the episode, I believe they had a good time. All they’ll care about is that this episode had Daleks and Cybermen and lots of cool explosions, and it’s something they’ll remember for some time to come. And in the end this may be the true brilliance behind Russell T. Davies’ style. Sloppiness aside, he knows what puts butts in seats.
I, on the other hand, will appreciate the fact that Russell T. Davies rehired Stephen Moffat for Girl in the Fireplace and hired Matt Jones for The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. I will appreciate the diversity of episodes he’s given us, and the overall direction the season took. I may gripe about the flaws of Army of Ghosts and Doomsday, but that’s only because the series has achieved so much more under Russell Davies. It’s been a good ride, and those waiting for it to come on the CBC this October are so going to be rewarded.