Wednesday, June 11, 2008

River Runs Through It

Toward the end of the 1980s I found myself working for Richard Williams on his long-cherished feature, The Thief and the Cobbler. I was probably there for only six or seven months, and it was tight schedules we were working to, but I knew pretty much all the staff from working at Disney and it was a really fun time.

The animation, including work by Ken Harris and Art Babbitt, set against Errol Le Cain’s astonishingly luxuriant backgrounds, was just astonishing. There were times when we’d sit back and watch the scenes that had been painstakingly put together over twenty-odd years.

There was one scene inside the palace when The Thief comes down a flight of stairs, takes the corner wide as he makes a turn, his shoes slapping on the marble as he gains enough traction to carry on down. It’s a gag Harpo Marx performs in Duck Soup, which I mentioned as the scene unfolded, naturally assuming it was an homage to the original.

I remember Dick saying that you should never copy something unless you can make it better in the process. Watching the animation, The Thief still retained a centre of gravity, but brought to life with a pencil meant the character could, for just a few extra frames of elasticity, thumb its nose at the laws of physics without it going over the top.

His comment has always stayed in the back of my mind. It’s what rises to the fore and drives the incandescent rage brought on by half-arsed, lazily written dramas that steal ideas and imagery from other, more celebrated sources and then does pretty much fuck all with them because the writers simply don’t know what to do with them.

It also reminds me of the line in Jurassic Park when Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm says: “You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could...” Lazy motherfuckers! Hopefully there’s a special place in hell waiting for every one of them.

The inherent problem with science fiction is that the existing conventions have already been lazily recycled over and again, down through the decades across the media. I wasn’t impressed with Moffat’s first Doctor Who story, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances two-parter, because the concept of aliens trying to heal an injured human and not getting it quite right was already a tired idea during the era of the pulps.

Counting off the days in the wake of Silence in the Library, the main concern was that the second half wouldn’t live up to expectations. There’s always a danger anyway with two-part dramas that so much effort is put into setting up the story that it then simply dribbles away to a less than satisfactory resolution.

Thankfully, Forest of the Dead did absolutely nothing of the sort. Instead, Moffat refused to fall back on so many of the existing conventions of science fiction. Given that the Vashta Nerada had been established as unstoppable and something to simply run away from, cut from the chase and wisely spent the time concentrating on the mystery of CAL and solving the conundrum: 4022 saved. No survivors.

When it came to the revelation that Donna had been saved into the virtual world, the initial fear was, please don’t let this get within sniffing distance of a riff on something like The Matrix. Oddly enough, there was a brief glimpse of the interior of The Hub in this week’s episode of Battlestar Galactica that looked like the real-world power plant from the Wachowski’s film.

Instead we got something very different. Giant super computers always tend to be vengeful, like Skynet, or Colossus, or even AM that preceded either of them. Instead with CAL we got a computer traumatised from doing toe right thing. Even then it was still just part of a very clever, very human story.

The backbone of which continued to be River Song and the gentle teasing out of her future relationship with The Doctor. In fact, River’s description of her Doctor could be interpreted as Moffat slyly stating his intentions of where the character will go once he takes the reins for the 2010 season.

Throughout the episode the narrative constantly threw idea after idea at the screen rather than snapping up just one of them and running with that. Taking that approach it created one of the best pieces of adult dramas on television this week. I wouldn’t be surprised if a whole lot of the little kiddies that had been given the willies the week before sat on the sofa scratching their head as the story unfolded.

Having just blathered on about films that should have ended sooner, friend of the blog Jaded and Cynical mentioned on the previous post that he felt that Forest of the Dead could have done without the extended coda. A grumpy bastard myself, I like to see characters die, especially when they really deserve it. But this time I think Moffat got it right.

I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m going soft in my advanced years – for the last time I must have had grit in my eye!! – but those final fifteen minutes of the episode were as necessary as the previous half hour. After all, how could such a vital character as River Song be introduced and then callously snuffed out?

The bittersweet resolution even meant that CAL was no longer alone either. It showed marvellous ingenuity and compassion, and at no point did it feel forced or fake. It even reined in Catherine Tate, giving her a chance to act rather than simply be shouty-shouty. Which means that four days later I’m still trying to fathom it.


At 7:28 am, Blogger Ian said...

Agree with everything you day, although it's been fascinating reading all the complaints about the episodes and Moffat on some of the internet forums. For some reason people really took a dislike to River Song. And it's quite scary how many adults found it "too complicated". I guess it was hard work after weeks of predictable stories featuring endless running down corridors!

At 2:44 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Oh, then they must have loved the recent episode of Battlestar Galactica when, during the battle to destroy The Hub and thereby make the Cylons mortal, Baltar has a discussion about God with one of the robot Cylon Centurions.

...Hold on, Doctor Who fans watching Galactica? What the hell was I thinking of?

I expected the much younger fans to be a bit thrown by the fact that it wasn’t the 45 minutes of being chased by skeletons in spacesuits that they were hoping for, but older fans were complaining it was “too complicated”?

Complicated as in intricate, yes. Complicated as in confusing...? I suppose, if you don’t pay attention.

And they’re complaining about River Song? Really? She’s the best character they’ve had in the whole show since... well, forever.

What do these retarded little knobhead fuckwits want? I suppose you’re right, it is the predictable stories that resort to everyone running down endless corridors.

Well then, instead of creating something new and interesting, simply bring back the Sea Devils and the Yetis and all the other rubbishy, useless characters that were made from scraps in the big dressing-up box. And give these fuckwit fans enough warning so they can have a box of tissues at the ready.

At 6:11 pm, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

The thing that's surprised me most about the UK scribosphere over the past year is that almost no one is willing to write anything remotely negative about any British programme.

It's as if everyone has had a collective critical lobotomy. Or, more likely, people are just terrfified that a single negative remark will ruin their 1-in-5000 chance of getting paid a week's wage to write an episode of Doctors.

And yet there you go, GD (you, too, Ian) praising a well-written episode of a series you've lacerated in the past.

See, people, it is possible to have a range of opinions, and to express them in public without fearing the wrath of the gods.

I wish more would do the same.

At 11:57 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

Shit! Shit! SHIT!!!! I’m jeopardising my chance to write an episode of Doctors? Oh, cocking Christ on a bendy bus! I was really looking forward to that.

I get what you mean about the near widespread collective critical lobotomy. It does seem like everyone trying to get a start up the greasy pole is pretty much terrified of expressing an opinion in case it’s frowned upon. Maybe they think there’s never enough “yes men” in the world.

Or, maybe, they like the shows because they’ve simply got nothing to compare them to. You know, like the final year student on De Montfort’s MA in Television Scriptwriting who didn’t know who David Milch was. I found that really fucking scary because it means there’s also a partial cultural lobotomy.

So you get the little script monkeys who excitedly chatter about wanting to write for this lame fucking trio of UK hospital dramas but don’t bother catching ER or have never watched Bodies or No Angels or Cardiac Arrest. Holby Blue looks brilliant to them because they haven’t watched NYPD Blue.

Because they now live in a time when the schedules are filled with year-round “continuing drama” they don’t seem to have a single clue about the time when television drama was made of glorious single plays and serials which had a beginning, middle, and end. Would names like Alan Plater, Trevor Preston, Nigel Kneale, GF Newman, David Mercer, Jack Rosenthal, Peter Watkins, Troy Kennedy Martin, Trevor Griffiths mean anything to them?

Is that important? Is knowledge still power? I suppose if you want to write television drama it might help to know what good drama looks like, unlike the flaccid, useless nonsense on nowadays. Still, why bother nailing your colours to the mast when you can jump up and down in your seat, and probably pass a little bit of wee in the excitement, at the thought of having your name sparkle through the cathode ray tube.

At 1:16 am, Blogger qrter said...

I thought the coda did feel a bit slapped on - I would've liked the first appearance (for us, the viewers, I mean) of River Song to have also been her very last, although not actually ofcourse, because we'll see more of her in the future, etc. Swishing through the time/space continuum in an old blue police box means never having to say sorry.

It also felt a bit too much like the happy-happy Russell Davies Ex Machina school of writing. Actually, there were a few Davies-like clunky plot elements in the episodes (and a lot more that weren't clunky at all, I hasten to add) - Moffat needs them to tell a chilling story, but the setup is a bit grating. For example, the "data ghost" concept - it's clearly a mechanical glitch, yet we're supposed to think it's the real person still in there and when a character asks River Song if he can 'prematurely' disconnect Miss Evangelista (I had to look that name up) and everyone goes "no, no, NO!", a few moments later when the "ghost" is caught in a loop suddenly it's okay to disconnect. It sounds like a small thing, but to me most writing is about effect and I love being manipulated by a writer/actor/director to achieve that effect, but I shouldn't be able to "see the strings". The idea of the Vashta Nerada stripping a corpse and therefore leaving a skeleton inside a spacesuit works wonderfully, on the other hand, it creates a beautifully iconic image.

That said, finally an interesting story in this series - I'm not a fan of New Who, I find most of the writing piss poor and absolutely loathe anything T Davies puts to paper, but Moffat at least gets what makes sci-fi sci-fi - the playing with ideas and concepts, as you say in your blog he doesn't just take one idea and runs with it, he keeps throwing new balls into the air.

Anyway - I've only been reading your blog for the last month or so, I really enjoy it a lot, learning a lot from it. Thank you.

At 8:15 am, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

Never see Doctor Who nowadays (except by accident) which goes for most TV actually, but loved what you said about Dick Williams and his often brilliant little film...

I used to visit Dick when he had his studio in Soho Square and got to meet several animation legends there, including Art Babbit and Gim Natwick.

Dick's insights and enthusiasm were wonderful and I'll never forget his describing his first reaction on seeing Milt Kahl's animation of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book: as he told the story, his mouth fell open and - animator/pantomime artist to the last - he literally fell off his chair onto the floor!


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