Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Mars Of Malcontents

The problem with staying out later than expected on Monday evening was that I didn’t get back in time to catch Enid, the BBC4 drama detailing what a raging cunt Enid Blyton apparently was, or for that matter University Challenge. Ordinarily that wouldn’t be that big a deal with iPlayer making the programmes available to watch for the next seven days or so after transmission, except for this week. Every time I went near the damned application it kept offering up Sunday’s Doctor Who special needs as a popular programme to watch.

Having that come up again and again was like checking a holiday website that kept offering up a week on a sinking ship anchored in the middle of a lake filled with raw sewage. I’d given it a wide berth last weekend, and probably would have ignored it completely if I had avoided the BBC website altogether. But after four nights of chronic insomnia I was running out of ways to occupy my time. I’d already gone through all available episodes of The Thick of It, twice, and the plan to pass remaining hours with a repeat viewing of Verdi’s Don Carlo from Friday evening, which had already made a pleasant alternative to the nonsense over on BBC1, came a cropper because it was still being listed as “coming soon”.

So I held my nose and dived right in. It was bad. Frankly, there’s no other way to describe The Waters of Mars. The only real consolation is that there have been episodes that were far worse. I’m sure there are people who will say if you don’t like it stop bloody watching! It would be easy to give it a miss but Doctor Who is like an itch I have to scratch, or more likely a scab I can’t stop picking at. I suppose because it played a part in my childhood television viewing, which were the Jon Pertwee and early Tom Baker years, I kept trying to figure out why this reinvention just doesn’t work. The Waters of Mars finally began to provide answers and certainly confirm earlier suspicions.

Four years on from when it first returned to television, Doctor Who has had its share of highs and lows. As with any long running show, some episodes really hit the heights while others plumb the depths, either brought down by inferior writing, a tight schedule or an inadequate budget, or a combination of all three. There shouldn’t be anything too unusual about that, except in this instance the person chiefly responsible for this particular catalogue of dismal failures has turned out to be none other the show’s big cheese, Russell T Davies.

It really is as simple as that. As he continued to turn out one retched episode after another over the years, with each being met with wholly unwarranted adulation, it could only mean that the really fanatical fans of the show were either extending him far too much goodwill for bringing their beloved Doctor Who back to television, and thereby overlooking the glaring inadequacies, or evidence that they wouldn’t know a good drama if it climbed out of the TV and bitch–slapped the life out of them. As I’ve said before, unconditional love simply doesn’t wash in the Good Dog kennel.

From the start it didn’t take long to realize that whenever Davies’ name appears in the opening credits the following forty–odd minutes are liable to suffer from a heady cocktail of bad storytelling that would all too frequently rely on a deus ex machina to wrap it up, useless foreshadowing, horrendously slipshod pacing and godawful character development. To make matters worse it just as quickly became apparent that he had no real understanding of science fiction either.

Whereas Steven Moffat, James Moran and Paul Cornell – who between them have written the handful of superior Doctor Who episodes – all appear to understand that however fantastical the story science fiction, as with every other genre, still has to work within set parameters, Davies output suggests such trivialities as internal logic and common sense need not apply to whatever he put down on paper. His fourth year episode Midnight for example, which fans inexplicably raved about, had an interesting and potentially terrifying premise of alien possession but was tragically let down by the utterly preposterous setting: a holiday resort in the most inhospitable environment imaginable.

Whether this is down to plain arrogance or just general ignorance, whenever the end credits roll on one of his episodes whatever was good about the story is always crucially undermined by the bad. If only there was somebody on staff with the balls to stand up to him and point out the numerous deficiencies I don’t doubt the end results would have been so much better. Watching any of the behind–the–scenes documentaries that accompanied each episode, it’s obvious that the reason he can carry on blithely churning out such nonsense without being challenged is because he surrounded himself with a crew of unashamed sycophants.

Too many people drank the Kool Aid again. (Or maybe Davies has photos of them all in “bra, suspenders and fucking blackface” which are ripe for blackmail). But the one thing that’s interesting about the few editions of Doctor Who Confidential I’ve tried my best to sit through is that when the footage gets beyond the oleaginous adoration to Davies being interviewed, once his tiresome self–promotion has been separated from the tireless promotion I get the distinct impression that he’s far more in love with The Doctor rather than Doctor Who. If that were the case it perhaps would account for why most of his stories appear so listless and contrived at times, in particular the one–hour specials that began last Christmas and continued into this year.

What The Waters of Mars and the previous one with the bus in the desert and the actress who can’t act both proved is that The Doctor needs a companion to act as a foil and a worthy adversary who can articulate their intentions rather than be reduced to an unknown, unstoppable force. In their absence, especially in the 45–minute format, he liable to come across as an arrogant and annoying know–it–all, prancing around and chewing the scenery on his way to saving the day, while everyone around him stands about like a gormless meat puppet either waiting to be saved or waiting to be offed.

I’m sure Moffat understands this, which is why both Sally Sparrow in Blink and River Song were such fully realized and memorable characters. Loathed as I am to say this, because I’ve never found her comedy remotely amusing and her persona grating, I think Catherine Tate actually worked best as The Doctor’s assistant because rather than fawning all over him like the teeth and tits that came before her, Donna Noble stood up to him on numerous occasions and questioned his decisions. That was never more evident than in the closing minutes of The Fires of Pompeii where she effectively guilt–trips him into the saving just the one family from the fiery eruption of Vesuvius.

Because The Doctor could always be counted upon to defeat whatever alien menace pitched up, the best stories from Doctor Who invariably involved a moral dilemma. Probably the most famous of all was Tom Baker debating whether to destroy the evil pepperpots in Genesis of the Daleks. Although as memory serves before he could come to a final decision a rubber tentacle wrapped itself around him and that was the end of that.

So The Waters of Mars took that argument from the final moments of The Fires of Pompeii and stretched it out across the whole episode. I suppose it’s all about The Doctor letting the power go to his head, leading to a final meltdown because he doesn’t have a human companion to keep him grounded. Before that all kicks off – with The Master apparently working as an albino secret assassin for Opus Dei – Sunday’s hour–long episode spent most of the running time treading water rather than fighting it.

Here’s a quick question: Do you get pissed off when you have a fire drill at work? They used to bug the hell out of me if the alarm went off while I was in the middle of compositing a real bitch of a scene, and personally I’ve have preferred a protocol that insisted a whole bunch of the animators were locked inside and left to burn but apparently that was against the law. Still, four or five times a year we had the drill so that in the event the studio needed to be evacuated in a hurry everyone knew exactly what to do.

That might seem an odd thing to ask but whenever Davies features the crew of a spaceship or space station in one of his adventures he never takes into account that these people are professionals who would have been relentlessly trained for worst case scenarios even if things don’t always go to plan when the time comes. Even the less than disciplined crew of the Nostromo in Alien got their act together when their lives were in danger. Whereas the personnel of the Mars base acted like they had seen the job advertised in a newsagent’s window, and wouldn’t be able to wipe their own arse without The Doctor there to lend a helping hand.

When they’re faced with an alien infection transmitted by ingestion or simply by touch, wouldn’t the first order or business be to don some form of bio–hazard suit? When they’re stuck in the command module and losing oxygen, shouldn’t one of them have the smarts to completely extinguish the fires? Instead of just getting on with it, instead of actually doing something, they just fanny around like a bunch of fucking lemons. These points may not seem like that big a deal but they illustrate the carelessness in storytelling that blight almost all of the Davies–scripted episodes while he concentrates on how ace and skill The Doctor is.

And because The Waters of Mars was all about The Doctor everyone else on site was literally expendable. Apart from Lindsay Duncan’s character they were all killing time until they started spewing water and didn’t get beyond becoming more than a brief sketch. While I could see how Captain Brooke’s heroic sacrifice on Mars could inspire her granddaughter to decide that the stars would be her destination, having her survive the explosion and then off herself back home in the front room didn’t seem like it should have the same galvanizing effect. I suppose that’s just kids for you!

On the bright side at least the frigging robot died. Glossing over its caterpillar tracks leaving Back to the Future–style burn trails on the floor in much the same way that it’s best not to point out the flames that continued to burn in the planet’s carbon dioxide–rich atmosphere, what was with the “Gadget! Gadget!” – or whatever it was the damn thing kept repeating? That would have grown old real quick out there. For a moment I thought the prick operating it (like the kiddie in the Lost in Space movie, but even more irritating) had his fingers in splints because one of the crew had had enough of the inane electronic burbling and justifiably lost it.

While its presence on the base seemed to be solely so it could be pimped to speed from A to B, it did raise the question why there wasn’t some mode of transportation for the personnel to get about inside a base that large? Flagging up the fact they couldn’t have something even as basic as a bicycle because of the “weight issue” in transporting goods and material from Earth to Mars was utterly bogus. Even when it was turned into a running gag, that explanation felt like a drop in to stifle any queries about the lack of assisted mobility.

How can the weight issue hold water when the accessways connecting the various domes were massive empty spaces that required far more construction material than necessary, not to mention the heat, light and oxygen required to make them a habitable environment? After all, rather than some flight of fancy alien palace the Mars base was, I assume, supposed to suggest a potentially convincing setting. Hopefully the answer is that budget constraints forced them to make do with what was available because otherwise it shows that the production designers and set decorators go about their work as half–arsed as the writers, putting no real thought put in to creating a credible environment.

Whatever shortcuts the production team had to make at least they didn’t fail as badly as whichever doofus had been assigned the task of creating the website obituaries for the Mars base crew that repeatedly popped up on screen. At one point I had to pause iPlayer to truly believe what I was looking at, sitting stock still while the bastard dawn chorus, which had inexplicably started chirruping at 3:30am, decided it was time for an encore. Below the main body of text a supplementary headline read:



Now I know a lot of folk, even if they bother to consider the previous criticism, will come back with the rather tiresome and well–worn mantra that it’s a family show essentially aimed at kiddies and shouldn’t be taken that seriously. When I first heard that my retort was that’s no still excuse. Back when I was a youngster I had an enquiring mind so when I discovered something new I’d bury my head in atlases and encyclopaedias to investigate further. Hopefully we all did that.

Nowadays it just seems to be a case that television programmes are more interested in serving up the most retched juvenile humour rather than something of interest, encouraging kids to be lumpen dumb shits that slump in front of the television, gobbling up the absolute worst of popular culture. That leads me the name of the Mars base in the Doctor Who episode: Bowie Base One. I get it. Life on Mars, right? Oh, ha–bloody–ha! What an utterly wasted opportunity!

I may not be that enamoured by JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels but then I’m not the target audience. And, much like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Anthony Horowitz’s series of Alex Rider spy novels, which I’m sure I would have loved to have had on my bookshelves when I was a nipper, at least all the silly wizard shenanigans has got children reading.

If only Davies could have looked beyond the stupid cheap gags maybe he would have got an inkling that – still keeping with the B – it would have been better to name the base Burroughs or Barsoom or even Bradbury. That way an enquiring mind, looking for its source, would find themselves in worlds of adventure that surpass the load of old bollocks they had just watched on TV.


At 4:09 pm, Blogger Eni said...

Fortunately Enid Blyton's BBC biopic coincides with the publication of my book on the writer, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (

Stephen Isabirye

At 9:32 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

Thank fuck I didn’t tune in to the DW shite-fest. I think I might have blown an O-ring, as I would have spotted the same gaping plot-holes and content-vacuum.

The UK seriously needs to do something about the enormous fucking blind-spot that is Doctor Who and stop screeching at the world that it's in any way comparable to decent science-fiction. Or drama. Or creative endeavour...

At 9:33 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...


At 1:59 am, Blogger Good Dog said...


Well what a thing to say! The teeming hordes will come and pelt you with jelly babies. Try and run and they... well, trip over their long multi–coloured scarves, no doubt, and start crying for mummy. Still, you are setting yourself up to be labelled an elitist snob – says the person who has used lines from Shakespeare for these last two posts.

Seriously though, if there was a room full of writers hearing this particular story pitched as is, surely it would be torn to shreds even before their first cigarette break.

Take, for example, locating the base in the middle of a high–sided crater. Doesn’t that suggest a pretty forceful impact from whatever caused it however long ago? And wouldn’t that crater now be filled mainly with dust? So, probably not the best place to pick for a settlement.

Then, when it came to building the base you’d expect there to have been various loaders of some sort on hand to help erect the structure and move all the pieces into place. I couldn’t exactly see the crew putting it together by themselves, piece by piece. Any equipment like that wouldn’t be shipped back home.

And wouldn’t they be issued with some sort of rover vehicle for getting out and exploring the planet? If they’re staying there for a number of years wouldn’t it be a wasted opportunity for the crew to remain inside the base all the time? If all surface exploration was simply being left to the useless robot then it would need to be more practical, requiring balloon tyres attached to an independent suspension to cope with the planet’s inhospitable environment for a start. On caterpillar tracks the piece of junk would get fucked up the first time it had to deal with an uneven surface.

Of course all this doesn’t mean there have to be loaders or rovers or whatever else that the budget obviously couldn’t cope with. It just means the writers come up with a better bloody excuse for there being no practical means of transport available than bicycles weighing too much – which was only mentioned just to make a cheap recurring gag.

If it was an exotic alien world they could put unicorns out of their arses and ride off into the sunset for all anyone cares, but if the goal is to create a supposed credible scenario of humans establishing a base on Mars, put some thought into it!

At 9:28 pm, Blogger Riddley Walker said...

They could have just read the Kim Stanley Robinson books. All the research will have been done for them then.

Oh, and better story-telling. :-/

At 4:58 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

So what you're saying is more Kim Stanley Robinson and less Kim and Aggie.

At 10:28 pm, Blogger qrter said...

"Now I know a lot of folk, even if they bother to consider the previous criticism, will come back with the rather tiresome and well–worn mantra that it’s a family show essentially aimed at kiddies and shouldn’t be taken that seriously."

That argument always makes me want to vomit blood. For once, I'd just like the people who say stuff like that to really listen to themselves, basically treating children with complete and utter contempt, saying any load of vapid shit will do for them, who cares, shovel it into their little brains.

Really makes me angry.

Enid was very enjoyable. I regularly couldn't stop myself laughing, just because she was so unrelentingly horrible. Hope all of it was true (well, except for her poor daughters).

At 5:39 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Hello fella,

Though it’s a stretch to remember exactly what I watched as a kiddie, I certainly don’t remember any of the programmes either talking down to me or treating me like a complete moron.

Whereas the likes of Moffat and Moran just tell a story that can be wholly enjoyed by the whole family – even if there are elements that will scare the bejeezus out of the youngsters – Davies’ scripts are always divided up into the adult section, the teen section and then the juvenile nonsense for the wee kiddies, all of which never fit comfortably together and are detrimental to the narrative. It’s like the difference between Pixar and Dreamworks Animation movies.

Hopefully now that Moffat has taken over the reins things should improve.

Enid was an absolute hoot. I loved her writing about what a scamp the dog was while the husband was outside burying it in the garden, or her telling the poor chap that he was being selfish for going off to take charge of the Home Guard unit. I bet he would have preferred to fight German paratroopers with pitchforks rather than stay home with her.

It was great that they got the little girl from Outnumbered to play her youngest daughter. When she explained to her father they only had one rabbit because mother and “Uncle Kenneth” had eaten the other for dinner I had a coughing fit from laughing so hard. Whether it was “Bunny meat ration one” or “Bunny meat ration two”, I suppose we will never know.

As beastly as she was to her girls at least the flashbacks of the wooden coat hangers was about her absent father and didn’t turn into some kind of Mommie Dearest moment.


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