Monday, 21 May 2012

Up-words - The Mummy

Up-words features the best of the articles from This way up when it was published as a print fanzine from 2002- 2010.

The Mummy / Dave Rolinson / June 2005

Ever since Press Gang (1989-93), my other favourite series in the whole world ever, I’ve been waiting for Steven Moffat to find a vehicle for the sheer breadth of his talent as a dramatist, and here it is! Although Press Gang respected its Children’s ITV audience (particularly in its early investigative and ‘issue’ episodes and dating gossip), Moffat’s boldness and versatility also made demands of that audience. Take ‘Monday-Tuesday’ and ‘The Last Word’, suspenseful and emotionally draining stories built upon ambitious time-schemes, unapologetically comedic farces like ‘In the Picture’ and the sex-obsessed ‘Food, Love and Insecurity’ (sample filthy dialogue: ‘Do you want to blow my cover?’ ‘Sounds great, when do we start?’), or the semi-mystical final episode ‘There Are Crocodiles’. Press Gang’s central relationship combines Moonlighting-style banter with emotional and psychological complexity: the Freudian nightmare of Lynda’s realisation of her similarity to Spike’s mother, or the just-plain perfect ‘Love and War’, in which we realise that Spike’s angry answerphone messages to his father are his way of dealing with his father’s death. High drama, fascinating ideas, cracking one-liners: for some of us, Moffat seemed destined for a glittering career as a dramatist.

Instead, he has enjoyed varying degrees of success as a sitcom writer. His comedies often balance intricately-plotted farce with explorations of (often sexual) relationships. At his best (the fabulous Joking Apart and a few ground-breaking episodes of Coupling) he taps raw nerves and experiments with forms of storytelling; at his worst (other bits of Coupling; quite a lot of Chalk) you’re left wondering why such a talented writer is faffing around with puerile bodily function jokes, smart-arse banalities and clunky plot contrivance. Therefore, although Doctor Who has rewarded his inner nerd (see the cult-TV themed Press Gang episode ‘Un-X-Pected’, his Doctor Who Magazine pieces, short stories and Comic Relief [Doctor Who in farting aliens shock!]). The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances do fit in with his previous work: he often uses unanswered telephones, has an entire episode of missing-leg humour in Coupling, also describes life as ‘nature’s way of keeping meat fresh’ in Joking Apart, and turns Russell T. Davies’s request for anxious antagonism between Rose and Jack into Press Gang flirting, with Captain Jack a smoother Spike Thomson. However, more importantly, Doctor Who has also given Moffat to write the way we always knew he could: with warmth, depth, crackling one-liners and an eagerness to flirt coquettishly with the target audience.

I won’t run through the highlights of the two episodes in too much depth, given that the internet age means that they’ve already been listed to the point of spoiling them. The odd thing is how conventional the plotting is: The Empty Child establishes a mystery, immediately separates the Doctor and Rose to explore it independently, and then reaches a climax as the threat is established (it may be yet another unimaginative ‘parallel’ cliffhanger, with an interlinked threat in two locations, but it’s handled much better than in Rose or Aliens of London, and also leads into that resolution in the second episode). The Doctor Dances is a rare new-series episode in that it answers its own questions, resolves the mystery, and allows the Doctor to use ingenuity to resolve the threat. The Doctor’s ‘dance’ isn’t the padding it might seem: it’s a glorious coda but also a resolution to many of the story’s strands (and not just the sex euphemism of ‘dancing’), just as much of an ‘ending’ as the scene on the bombsite.

 Along the way, there are plenty of jokes for ‘fans’ which would be shared by the new audience, using iconography in interesting ways (the TARDIS’s telephone ringing was a bit of a jolt) and, more importantly, funny ways (Rose’s ‘at last, a professional’, the Doctor’s lament about ‘the “don’t wander off” thing’ and Captain Jack’s response to the sonic screwdriver: ‘Well, I’ve got a banana and in a pinch you could put up some shelves’). Plus, the threat itself is inventive and arises organically, and is well-motivated, avoiding an ‘evil’ protagonist in favour of the nanogenes, creatures who think they’re doing the right thing - in the best Malcolm Hulke tradition. The result is hugely satisfying, and the children I’ve seen playing ‘Are you my mummy?’ shows that kids respect having their intelligence respected rather than some CGI thing-in-search-of-a-plot. What’s not to like?

 There’s wit here (Moffat’s critics may be surprised that it’s wit, City of Death wit, not ‘jokes’), but also much more. On Doctor Who Confidential, Russell T. Davies described the tone as ‘romantic’, and the banter between Rose and Captain Jack is pure Moffat. But there’s also a complexity of tone - just as Robert Shearman smuggled some of the series’ best jokes into the darkness of Dalek (creating a much more satisfying effect than stopping the action to congratulate himself on a joke, as Davies did in World War Three), so Moffat employs some rich and subtle subtexts into these episodes. The ‘threat’ is caused by the consequences of sexual repression (Nancy’s teenage childbirth; her escape by using knowledge of a gay fling with the butcher) and sexual abuse (the chilling, unspoken reasons for the children returning from evacuation). So, although the Doctor hails the symbolism of Britain’s fight against the Nazis (alarmingly, though presumably coincidentally, slightly rewording a film quote I used in a forum posting when welcoming Eccleston and Moffat’s casting: ‘I don’t know what you do to the enemy but you scare the shit out of me’), there are cracks beneath the surface.

 This gives the episodes a real edge, although, with the children’s audience in mind, perhaps Captain Jack’s involvement is a bit problematic, as intimations of child abuse share an episode with a guy with a voracious sexual appetite (like the soundtrack he’s certainly In the Mood), and who ogles the ‘excellent bottom’ of a character associated with by child viewers. Perhaps, as in Moffat’s Press Gang child abuse two-parter ‘Something Terrible’, which combines incest revelations with jokes about Spike and Lynda’s rabbit-like leisure activities, it positively shows normative sexuality alongside exploitation, but this - and the Doctor’s sexual jealousy for a relatively young girl - make it a bit of a tone problem for me. Having said all that, I love Moffat’s handling of the Doctor’s discovery of his own ability to ‘dance’ (after initially deadpanning, in a great Doctor-ish line, ‘I’m trying to resonate concrete’) and the phallic comparison of sonic devices between him and Jack. I’m also unconvinced by the Doctor’s comment on the 1960s, as if time travellers are taking back our ‘superior’ sexual liberation. However, the episodes gamely explore the dark underbelly of the Second World War, in this case sexual repression: not characters who are sexually repressed, but the emotions and consequences. The repression theme is neatly worked-through: the ‘threat’ is caused, and resolved, by a mother’s struggle to talk to her son because of pressures in society.

Here, Moffat is superbly served by director James Hawes. These are two stunningly well-directed episodes. I’ve written on direction in Doctor Who before: how directors are restricted by budget and time pressures and also by the expectations of genre. The new series’ directors have been liberated from the intensity of multi-camera recording and time pressures experienced on the ‘old’ series. They have more money and time, so that they can light and shoot individual shots for their desired effect. But do they have more space for personal expression? Keith Boak might disagree with that, given his rumoured treatment: it would seem that the expectations of genre bite as much as they ever did, and the specific demands of Russell T. Davies provide limitations.

Therefore, Hawes is ‘serving’ the script and operating within Davies’s requirements, but he does so beautifully. In such a speed-written article (and without the last decade’s comfy critical climate of re-viewing familiar episodes), I’ll take one shot as an example: when the Doctor and Nancy are in the passageway of the house and the telephone rings, it’s done in a shot in which the telephone is foregrounded and the camera angle is canted. The obvious effect of this is to emphasise the importance of the telephone through economic visual storytelling, but there’s more to it than that. It creates an unsettling effect, which builds upon the other uses of canted camera which similarly create menace and a nagging sense of unease, and serve to show the world through the eyes of the boy (compare these tilted images with the boy’s frequent tilting of his head), which emphasises the importance that his vision, his point of view, will play. The influence of film noir is blatantly obvious in the use of shadows, but - to pay Hawes an even greater compliment - his direction reminded me of the 1940s films of the British director Carol Reed. Like The Third Man, this is a world whose rubble-strewn landscape echoes its moral ambivalence; like The Fallen Idol it’s a story about the innocence of children and their ‘witnessing’ of the adult world (in The Empty Child, Nancy seeing the boy’s feet from under the table is pure Reed). This loss of innocence is integrated with the Second World War not simply in plot terms (the evacuated children scavenging in the Blitz) but more fundamentally than that, both in the script and Hawes’s shot strategies.

 Compare these episodes with Peter William Evans’s description of Reed’s ‘interest in child’s-eye narratives’ (from his 2005 book on Reed) and the attempt by Reed and others ‘to use childhood as a convenient focus for reflection on the loss of pre-1939 innocence in the crucible of war, and the promise of renewal symbolised by child-centred narratives’. As in the films discussed by Evans, this is a story with absent or surrogate fathers; The Doctor Dances ends with the restoration of a family unit, but (unlike in Moffat’s original version) without a father. This isn’t as problematic as in Evans’s examples (the unconvincing returning father at the end of The Fallen Idol, for instance). The recurring motif of communication - telephones, typewriters, radios, spools - demonstrates that this story revolves around getting two people to talk to each other. The fact that the ringing telephones are shot in the ways I’ve described emphasises that it’s the boy who’s calling, but also that such communication will be disruptive and unsettling, at least to the normative view of society.

This creature emerged from a bombsite: he is literally the product of war. However, what’s fascinating here is that, despite the Doctor’s speeches and the romanticism brought by Captain Jack and Davies’s Saturday-night vision, the war is not the source of the stereotypical image of plucky, stoical Brits: not only is it every child for himself, not only is there an apparent rich-poor divide (as the Doctor says, either Marxism in action or a West End musical), but also war doesn’t provide the moral centre usually depicted in representations of the period: it provides an emptying. This is inextricably linked with the iconography of war, particularly that fabulous use of gas masks on ‘zombies’: it’s almost as though victory in war and the creation of the iconography of survival and stoicism have created an emptying myth, an emptying of our identity, of Britishness (Rose’s t-shirt here is very well-chosen). Is post-war Britain an empty child? The Doctor clearly revels in the iconography of wartime resistance, and dances with delight at being able to help, but then he’s the traumatised survivor (or, perhaps like the child, witness) of the Time War. Like the nanogenes, the British perhaps need to see that there is a human face beneath the gas mask, that the two are not interlinked, that (as at the end of the war) there is a need to reassert individual identity, to emerge from the zombified mass…

I’m nearly out of space and there’s so much gushing praise left unsaid: what about the parallel between the Doctor and Richard Wilson’s Doctor, more on the glorious resolution (‘everybody lives!’), the ‘Welfare State’ line, the Doctor’s final dance (which, despite my reservations above, desexualises Jack’s idea of ‘dancing’)? Why haven’t I gloated about my eerily accurate predictions of Eccleston and Moffat’s fabulousness? I haven’t even mentioned Billie Piper!! Even the Blitz sequence (the only bit that didn’t work for me) is so gorgeously executed…

You’ve probably guessed by now: I love this new series. As somebody whose entire writing output (both amateur and professional) has resisted received wisdom, I find that quite annoying! Davies needs no more adulation (he could do with some perspective going by his commentary on the DVD of The Second Coming, in which his self-congratulation is astounding even before the story wimps out from the implications of its central idea), and the hype machine is having negative effects (there’s clearly something wrong when Doctor Who Magazine’s Seventh Doctor Special discusses episodes purely as anticipating the 2005 series). And yet, and yet… I could cop out and use the ‘it’s for kids’ argument: someone I know was at a 10th birthday party at which children grumbled at the time spent opening presents because The Doctor Dances was about to start; the party stopped for Doctor Who; everyone fell about laughing at ‘go to your room!’ and shrieked during the scary bits. But no, I can’t get away with this: although it hasn’t been perfect by any means, I’ve loved most of it. And I find myself about to type a sentence that is pure Comic Book Guy, just as acquiescent as some of the people I’ve criticised, because I just can’t put it any other way: The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances are two of the very best Doctor Who episodes ever.


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