Monday, 22 September 2014

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS written by Stephen Thompson and directed by Mat King

This story in a nutshell: These titles really are self explanatory these days…

Nutty Professor: Matt Smith is trying his damdest to make this material work, toning down his usual nutty professor exuberance and playing the situation for real. The trouble is the characterisation, which felt off throughout. Even though it is revealed as a bluff, I cannot imagine the Doctor attempting to coerce people into helping him under the threat of death, I’ve always imagined that he is better than that somehow, even when the stakes are high. Why the Doctor thinks that this trio of non-entities, the very people that caused the problem in the first place, would be able to help him out (because they don’t, they merely make things worse) is a mystery. It was during this adventure that I realised just how cruel it was for the Doctor to be keeping this massive secret from Clara when she is clearly innocent of whatever it is he suspects her of. Even he comes to realise this throughout the course of this story. But that moment of revelation is snatched away by the reset ending and so the cold, mysterious Doctor is back, all development cancelled out. One of Matt Smith’s greatest strengths in the role is how he convinces that there is a relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS, it is there when he dances around the console, strokes the central column and addresses the ship so affectionately. It was especially apparent in the last stone cold classic the series offered, The Doctor’s Wife. When he contemplates the end of the TARDIS at the climax, stating that she has always been there for him it is the one moment where I felt something for him during this story. It’s a moment of quiet reflection on all the times they have had together, almost entirely driven by Smith’s performance (the script isn’t up to capturing the moment with any great poetry) that captures the great history of the craft in a way that the larger episode singularly fails to do.

Closed Book: For the love mercy, no! Stephen Thompson is given permission to advance the Clara Oswald character arc, something that has been desperately needed for some time now but only under the condition that he resets everything again by the end of the episode. Yes, that’s right folks…this is the episode where Clara discovers that she is the impossible girl and then conveniently forgets the whole thing by the climax and continues on her merry way in blissful ignorance. It’s like shoving a steak in front of a hungry man, allowing him to have a tiny bite and then taking the whole plate away and forcing him to vomit up the little he has been offered, leaving the lingering aftertaste of disappointment. Fancy suggesting development and then snatching it away? For the Doctor it is important that Clara and the TARDIS get along and one of the (under developed) threads that has run through this mini season is that the ship seems to be having some kind of allergic reaction to her. When Clara reads the Doctor’s name in a book she barely bats and eyelid and breathes ‘so that’s Who…’ as though it is something deeply ordinary like Bob Jones. I hope it’s not Bob Jones. Watch as Clara walks around the TARDIS in the first half of this story – there is simply nothing that defines her character. It could have been anybody wandering lost in those corridors. Compare it to Donna wandering the Sontaran ship in The Poison Sky; terrified, brave and proud of herself. It’s partly what an actor brings to the role and partly how they are written, Catherine Tate imbued every moment of her time on the show with pathos, humour and subtle character beats that made Donna a real person in crazy situations. Clara is just walking cardboard and for the first half of this episode she doesn’t even have anybody to interact with. A vacant character wandering around a vacant ship = not particularly gripping viewing. It’s only when she is reunited with the Doctor that she shows any depth of character (not that deep, but I’ll take anything), punching him repeatedly for his family of zombie creatures roaming the corridors. I liked the moment when she cut through all of the Doctor’s bafflegab and declared that they aren’t safe and his secrets are pointless if they are all going to die. For a moment it felt like she was a real person who had had enough. Watch how Jenna Louise Coleman plays the scene where the Doctor finally reveals the mystery that has drawn him to her – Clara is actually, properly scared and Coleman finally has something substantial to play. To my mind it is the characters greatest moment since the climax of The Rings of Akhaten, which, whatever you might think of it did at least give the actress a moment of emotional honesty to play. It is why the reset at the climax is so horrific, because at last it felt as if we were getting somewhere with the character. It doesn’t excuse her bland characterisation elsewhere but it’s a start…which is snatched away by this idiotic script. ‘I think I’m more scared of you right now than anything in that TARDIS…’

The Good:
  • Love the shots of the TARDIS being dragged into the salvage ship by the mechanical claw and the ship lying on its side amongst blasted and battered salvage. It’s such a spine tingling, iconic device that seeing it mistreated so disrespectfully is actually rather stimulating.
  • The console room is still the most impressive aspect of the TARDIS and seeing it smoky and picked out by torchlight is visually impressive.
  • The concept of an encyclopaedia that can be drunk is marvellous, the sort of enchanting concept that this episode should have been all about. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS introduces the notion and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it. 
  • I’ll give those lighting engineers a massive round of applause. Most of the atmosphere of this story comes from their superb use of light and shadow.
  • The heart of the TARDIS turns out to be a gantry overlooking the Eye of Harmony. Well blow me, I never knew that was there. It’s another gorgeously lit scene with some impressive effects. Have you noticed that the only things I am praising in this adventure are production values?
The Bad:

  • Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the idea of a salvage team going after the TARDIS and wanting to strip it down for spare parts – that is a pretty dramatic and intriguing idea on paper but the quantum leap between the concept and the trio of unconvincing characters that appear on screen is vast and incalculable. It is extremely rare these days for as story to be so hampered by such appalling guest casting and this must surely be the most badly performed siblings since the Conrad twins heralded in the sixth Doctor’s era. Ashley Walters, Mark Oliver and Jahvel Hall embody the worst excesses of hard man blandness that I usually bear witness to when I accidentally tune into Eastenders when trying to see what is on, an enforced lack of humour and self importance that manages to make the characters both thoroughly unlikable and unbelievable. These sorts of characters can be very funny when done well (Drax in The Armageddon Factor is very charming) but the salvage team that join the Doctor and Clara for this adventure wind up making a dull and stilted adventure even more uninteresting. I think the idea was to tap into that Battlestar Galactica level of tough guy mentality but the difference between the cast of Ron Moore’s reimagined show and this is that they are full fleshed out characters with real lives and these are boring butch ciphers whose only purpose is to add complications to the plot. Even the sight of them in white vests (admittedly appealing for a moment) isn’t enough to placate me. And some of the dialogue (‘What’s the matter TARDIS? Scared to fight me?’) is abominable.
  • The Reset Button (TM Star Trek Voyager). Oh how I hate the reset button. No good ever comes of pressing this laziest of plot devices and wiping out everything that you have just watched. With no emotional ramifications, no narrative consequences and no point to the proceedings than to experience it and then toss it away, it has to be handled spectacularly well in order to take something worthwhile away from stories that utilise this narrative blind alley. Last of the Time Lords just about got away with it because Russell T. Davies was clever enough to realise that if he was going to delete all of the Master’s plans then he needed to show that the regulars characters were still affected by what happened – to them these events still happened and they have been affected by them, even if nobody else can remember. He also managed to pull off a personal reset in Journey’s End with Donna which deleted her entire run on the show (at least as far as she is concerned) which proved heartbreaking because we can see for our own eyes over the past thirteen weeks how far she has come because of her travels with the Doctor. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is the worst kind of reset (which is the standard, in my experience), taking hold of a story that had the potential to mean something and throwing it all away. I don’t care if this is all undone in future episodes, for the here and now any development that this story professes to promote is effectively undone at a moment when it was needed more than ever. That’s not just daft, it’s enough to turn a fan who is finding a series of the show a struggle into somebody who is completely apathetic to future developments. Trying to make the reset cute and in-yer-face by having it realised in the most literal sense isn’t clever or witty, it’s a show trying to capture the confidence of shows like Buffy (that played with conventions playfully all the time) and falling flat on its face. Besides which, shouldn’t a story that is set inside the TARDIS be so much more inventive than that? This is as unconvincing as the busted spring from Edge of Destruction.
  • When you are promised a tantalising glimpse inside the TARDIS it is hard not to get excited by the possibilities. Unfortunately either Stephen Thompson’s imagination has been completely bypassed or the shows budget simply wouldn’t allow anything beyond the sort of rooms you would expect to see. The library is mildly impressive although if they were going to go to the lengths of sprucing up a real one they should have made it far more magical looking, like the full page spread at the beginning of Jonny Morris’ DWM strip The Professor, the Queen and the Bookshop. The swimming pool is seen for a split second but I think I preferred the visually bizarre but real life one spotted in Invasion of Time. Beyond these two rooms which are referenced all the time (not a great deal of creativity needed there then) we get to see a drive room, a power source and lots and lots of corridors. Somehow I was expecting something less functional and more extraordinary. A room full of glowing orbs hanging from a tree just doesn’t cut it. Who ever knew that the inside of the TARDIS was so…mundane?
  • I hate to make comparisons because the director is clearly trying to make the dreary corridor scenes that pollute this tale visually interesting (it is hard to do that with a corridor, but if any show can manage it, it’s Doctor Who) but the tilted and swooping angles are straight out of Farscape. It wouldn’t matter so much but the Australian show pulled off this trick in every single episode and what really grates is that the sets were much more ambitious, grander and organically designed too. In Farscape it felt like we were genuinely moving through the bowels of a living thing, in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS its like clomping through a utilitarian device. One is magical and a little bit sinister, the other leaves me indifferent.
  • I can only think that they blurred out the zombie creatures not because it made them indistinct and thus more scary but because seen through unfiltered eyes they looks pretty naff. It’s not an inspired design, I have to be honest, and the director has to deploy all manner of tricks to build up some suspense around them. Also I don’t understand the logic of these creatures (I know, I’m putting too much thought into this…but then I am a geek!) – I get that they are the burnt and twisted remains of the characters in this tale but why would undergoing such a devastating transformation suddenly turn you into a homicidal lunatic? Why are they      attacking themselves? If they were trying to warn themselves away from going through the same metamorphosis I could perhaps understand but as directed the Doctor, Clara and the others are simply reduced to slavering burnt out husks of themselves that seem to enjoy attempting to kill themselves. Surely the pain of what they have been through (it must have been agonising to leave them looking like that) would have killed them? When we later see a character undergo the transformation it seems to take all of five seconds and immediately turns them slaughterous, another set of zombies that has replaced the ones that have just been dealt with. It’s such a businesslike way of getting rid of the guest characters and introducing a new threat that it fails to convince on any level.
  • I might sound really hard to please (I’m not really, as you will discover if you explore the blog any further) but for a story that explores the innards of the TARDIS this was astonishingly lacking in fanwankery. I don’t want myriad of barely discernable audio clips that play for no reason that is explained (perhaps it’s one of those things that fans are supposed to debate over), I wanted the production team (especially one spearheaded by a fan) to plunder the series’ past (and not just its recent past with the appearance of the Doctor’s cot and Amy’s model TARDIS) and fill the sets with glorious items that the Time Lord has accumulated over the years. A Time/Space Visualiser here, Bessie there and a hat stand in every corner. This was the one time you could get away with that kind of indulgence and they failed to take the chance. A shame.
  • If you want to see how being lost in a labyrinth that always leads back to the same spot should be directed then check out Fiona Cumming’s handling of Castrovalva. As realised here, Clara simply walks out of the TARDIS console room and back into it again. How dull.
  • Another promising idea is that of time being jumbled together so echoes of the past, the present and the future are all jumbled up together. So why do we only start seeing those ghosts from the past when Clara realises what is going on rather than throughout the story? This story should be shrouded in ghosts from the past and future, companions that have been and that are to come. Haunting Clara’s every footstep, providing a hallucinogenic nightmare.
  • Remember in the wonderful Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest when Jason and Gwen are exploring the ship and they come across a massive set of chompers in the heart of the craft that serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever but to create some false jeopardy? Doctor Who has flirted with the idea before (the giant fans in The End of World might have served a purpose…but boy they were ridicuously giant!) but never quite as obviously as the flagpoles that come shooting out of the wall in this story for no sensible purpose. Things were getting a little slow so it feels like they are there to toss another obstacle in the way, albeit one that has been given no thought as to its purpose. Oh, except to reveal the twist that Tricky isn’t an android. Which alone should have secured the omission of this nonsensical threat.
  • You only have to think about the Tricky twist for one moment to realise that it makes no sense whatsoever. He might have lost his memory of his life before he was convinced that he was an android but how does that explain his need to eat or his ability to have a crap or how he perspires or why he needs to sleep? He might just be the stupidest man ever to appear in Doctor Who. That is before you start to probe the psychological madness of why his brother would ever try and convince him that he is an automaton. Seriously, why would you ever do such thing over a prolonged period of time? What could possibly motivate this kind of obscene identity theft? ‘It was just for a laugh, innit?’ just doesn’t cut it. Is there even a script editor working on the series anymore? I can’t believe this twist made it through Steven Moffat, a script editor, a tone meeting and a read through and nobody realised just how abhorrently worthless it is. A man is jealous that his brother was going to take over the family business because he was his fathers favourite and so he convinces him that he is a servile machine? I mean, it’s just shit, isn’t it? ‘You did this to me just to be Captain of a heap of junk?’
  • There’s a quarry in the TARDIS? That’s pretty neat. Oh, wait. It’s just a visual representation of quarry created by a snarling TARDIS…or something. I would have preferred it if it had just been a quarry smack bang in the middle of the ship.
  • The Doctor creates a magical door to the past where he can walk through and toss a big friendly button that resets the whole day so none of it ever happened. I can think of a number of other stories where this would have come in handy. If only he could have reset our memories of this episode too, then we would all be better off. I dislike calling writers lazy because I don’t think it is a particularly easy craft to master but this might just be the most indolent conclusion to a Doctor Who story ever. The fact that such an slack get out clause is actually built into the script makes me weep.
  • More to the point why would we ever want to see the centre of the TARDIS? Shouldn’t some things remain a mystery to maintain the mystery of the show. A bit like the name of the Doctor.
 Result: A hollow, illogical, confusion of unoriginal ideas featuring some of the worst guest performances in the shows long history, this is not Doctor Who’s finest hour. Irritatingly this was the story I was looking forward to most during this run (and bugger off to those people who say you shouldn’t set your expectations too high – why the hell would I watch a show if I didn’t think it was striving to be the best it could possibly be?) because I thought it was time explore the interdimensional labyrinthe that is the TARDIS with a healthy budget and 50 years of nostalgia and imagination to construct it from. What did we get to see? A library, a glimpse at a swimming pool, a weird tree of lights and lots and lots of corridors. This is supposed to be the most exciting ship in the universe but all I saw in this piece was a cut price Moya from Farscape. Don’t even get me started on the wooden performances from the three salvage men because I might get nasty but their efforts make an already apathetic story venture into the realms of abhorrence. A man who convinced his brother that he was an android because he was always his daddy’s favourite? Even if there was a screamingly convincing motive, a powerfully written and acted relationship that we were emotionally invested in and enough time to reasonably explore the idea it would still be an extremely hard idea to buy into. As it is it’s the nadir of an ill characterised season of Doctor Who (I could be seen banging my head on my dinner plate when this aired). I have heard comments that this story features a legitimate reset button. Is there such a thing? Just because you self consciously set up a climax that takes hold of the one strength of this episode, the development between the Doctor and Clara, and returns their relationship to its factory settings, does not in any way make it smart or sophisticated move. It’s retarded. In a season that has failed to generate any momentum despite constant reminders of the Clara mystery this is the point where I leapt from mild disinterest to complete apathy. Whilst I quite like the idea that this whole noisy, incoherent, unlikable mess of an episode never took place, to offer some desperately needed development of the characters and then to snatch it away is insulting. So bad that my husband (who is pretty easy to please, trust me on this) turned to me at the end and declared this run ‘the worst season of Doctor Who yet.’ A story that takes place entirely within the TARDIS in the 50th anniversary year should have been magic. Instead this was the weakest episode in a very mixed run: 3/10


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David Pirtle said...

I agree with just about everything you say about this poor episode. An intriguing idea and a suspenseful setup (on paper) that is totally wasted on this rubbish. And yeah, the guest actors were just awful. I mean, the material was bad, but the performances made it seem doubly so.