countdowns

to me, countdowns are a very silly way to create a false sense of tension in telly.

there’s only two situations that i can think of in which employing a countdown for some sort of Event is practical: the first is when the Event needs some lead time for get away because the triggering of the event has to happen within the proximity of the Event’s effect. an antagonist needs to set off the timer for an explosion and then get away, or some place needs to set off the self-destruct protocol or lock-down protocol to contain a threat. the second is when the timing of an Event itself is critical for coordination of other events. Multiple explosions need to happen at once, or an explosion is used as the trigger for another action to start.

There are times when media will be thoughtful enough to build into a plot one of the two above scenarios, but more often than not shows will put bombs or other doomsday devices with fancy countdowns on them merely to try to create a sense of urgency and tension to the situation that fails to create actual urgency and tension because of the predictability of the outcome.

A recent frustrating example of this is in one of the recent episodes of Doctor Who, Victory of the Daleks. In a sea of otherwise outstanding episodes thus far under new management, Victory, despite a decent plot conception and decent character interactions, suffered from poor execution of solving the mystery and resolving the conflict. In what was supposed to be the Turning Point of the episode, the Doctor is faced with the classic pursue-or-save-the-hostage choice of “eliminate the Daleks once and for all” or “let the Daleks get away because otherwise they’ll destroy the world with a bomb.” Which is fine even though it’s pretty standard plot fare because it’s a pretty reasonable scenario, but the problem in this instance was that when the Doctor made the predictable hero choice, the Daleks said, “we’re going to destroy your world anyway!” and…. started a very long countdown to the bomb.

Given the fact that the Daleks were already in the throes of getting away from the planet, that sequence of events was ludicrous. First off, it invalidated the Doctor’s choice moments before because they were going to set off the bomb regardless of the choice that the Doctor made. But worse, it invalidated the daleks’ threat because if the Doctor would have chosen to destroy the ship and the daleks managed to start the countdown before the Doctor managed to finish them off, he still would have been able to stop the bomb because the countdown was minutes long. Resultingly, it just brought about lots of “why?” questions. if the doctor was saavy enough to anticipate that the daleks were going to detonate the bomb in the first place, why didn’t he let the attacking ship destroy the daleks at the same time? why did the daleks create a bomb that had such a long countdown and was so flawed that it could be stopped just by trying to convince the bomb that he was a human being? How did the new Daleks even know that a bomb existed in the *first* place? They weren’t the ones that planted it; they had just been born.

Another great example of a frustrating countdown situation was in the first season Leverage episode The 12-Step Job. In that episode, two of the protagonists, Elliot and Hardison, are searching a car. Hardison opens up the driver door and sits down in the driver’s seat right as Elliot determines that the seat has been tampered with. They discover that Hardison sitting down in the driver’s seat arms a weight bomb that will go off if he decides to get up. Fair enough. But while he’s trying to come up with ideas on how to get out of the car whilst still maintaining weight on the driver’s seat, Elliot inspects the bottom of the car and sees that Hardison arming the bomb also sets off a countdown timer.

Given the fact that the antagonists of the situation were nowhere to be found at the scene, the only reason that the bomb was set up in such a stupid way was to give the protagonists a way to get out of it. If you want to be sure that the bomb goes off, why not just rig it so that it will detonate when the protagonist first sits down? Why give them the opportunity to be able to sit in the car and then react to a visible countdown? Not only that, but immediately after Hardison and Elliot successfully disarm the bomb and escape the car, the protagonists suddenly come out of nowhere and point guns at them. Why point a gun at them at a point when they’re now able to defend themselves? Why not get to the scene earlier when they were helpless because they were trying to deal with the bomb?

I seem to remember that one of the seasons of 24 had a similarly ridiculous countdown issue, some bomb that was hidden at an airport or something. I don’t quite remember as that was many years ago and pretty unmemorable (it’s a pretty unmemorable show as far as i’m concerned). I’m sure that if i thought about it i could come up with many other modern examples, and i find it truly bizarre. These days there are much more effective ways to create crisis tension, even some that involve a specific and known timeline. Countdown tension situations to me belong in the same category of the damsel-tied-up-on-the-train-tracks scenario. It has its history and you appreciate its use in historic television and movies, but even in the face of our current terrorist-panic environment, the premise of a doomsday device with a countdown seems old and tired, and will always seem old and tired to me until the moment when the main protagonist actually fails to stop the bomb and gets killed.

Or maybe i’m just disgruntled and should just relax about the situation.

Doctor/companion dynamic in New Who

One of the marked differences between Classic Who and New Who is the role of the Doctor to his companions. Companions of the Doctor have always been made better people because of the Doctor, but in Classic Who, the Doctor was more of a father figure and mentor to his companions rather than New Who’s companions who are treated more as potential romantic companions or at the very least lifelong travel companions. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with the more emotionally charged New Who, but as i watched the series four finale this past weekend, the fate of Donna made me realize how Russell’s more emotional treatment of New Who over the past four years corners some of the writing into a path that’s hard to wrestle away from.

Half a year ago, when Voyage of the Damned aired, fans knew that Kylie Minogue’s role as the Doctor’s companion was for the Christmas special only. So the moment the Doctor smiled his Doctor smile and agreed to let Astrid travel with him in the TARDIS, i knew it was the kiss of death – i would have been surprised if her character didn’t die by the end of the episode. In mid-series four, the Doctor expressed a similar approval for Jenny to travel with them in the TARDIS, and although that had more potential to go the way of Adam Mitchell, the attachment that the Doctor ended up developing for her throughout the episode made her death not only unsurprising, but the circumstances contrived and utterly ridiculous.

In a couple of episodes in series four, Donna put forth a sentiment that she would travel with the Doctor forever, and even though the relationship between the Doctor and Donna didn’t have that sense of sexual/romantic tension that Doctor and Rose had, the comfort that had developed between the two made it similar enough that it was virtually impossible for Donna to be written out of the series as a voluntary separation.

All of this to me is evidence that the New Who Doctor/companion dynamic has a negative side effect, a writing trap. Throughout New Who, travel with the Doctor has been greatly romanticised and glorified, a fantasy turned reality. And even though the adventures have their dangers and perils, you have the Doctor (and his sonic plot saving device) and you have the TARDIS – two things that represent a large degree of safety and security amongst all of the potential chaos around that kind of lifestyle. Given that set up, it’s no wonder that anyone who is blessed enough to become the Doctor’s companion would never want to leave. Martha is an exception to this, but I strongly feel that if Martha hadn’t felt like she was constantly living under Rose’s shadow, she similarly would have had no reason to leave.

Resultingly, it feels like there’s only three options for a lead companion’s end to their stint on the series: 1) Rose – alive, but separated with no possibility of return, 2) Astrid – death, or 3) Donna – retcon. And all of those options in the series have been set up as such Tragic Events whose dramatic effect on screen may be somewhat effective but ultimately and retrospectively prove to be more annoying than anything else, particualrly the retcon/reset button approach with Donna.

There are a couple of reasons why the resolution of Donna’s character angered me. First, we had just come off of a series where the resolution to the conflict was a large scale retcon (blow up the Paradox machine, and miraculously the events never happened, the ultimate deus ex machina). I’ll give credit to Russell for not resolving the Reality Bomb crisis with a similar “let’s break into the Time War and prevent Dalek Caan from rescuing Davros so that none of this ever happened”, but the fact that the answer to Donna’s fate as a human/time-lord hybrid was a “and then she woke up” felt like a cheap way to get her out of the series and also a cheap way to answer the implications of her demise given first by River Song and then by Dalek Caan – particulalry since i can’t reconcile that the human/time-lord Donna wouldn’t be able to handle it, yet the time-lord/human Doctor could.

Secondly, i was angered because i felt that the character deserved better. Not, understand, that i think that there shouldn’t be times when tragic things happen to good people. But in this particular case, it felt like it was more a product of the logistics of Tate’s contract that drove that decision rather than the dramatic effect retconning Donna would have at the end of the series. And of all of the ways they could have dealt with Tate’s role of companion only being for a single year, the way they handled it felt like a writing blunder. One of the big things that New Who has touted itself on is character growth and development. One of the reasons we go on journeys with fairy tale characters on the telly or in books or in comics is to see how people change either for better or for worse. Rewind to what Davies had said in Confidential at the end of series two – that the journey of Rose from her introduction to her departure was supposed to show how being with the Doctor turned her from random teenager who worked in a shop to a driving force in the alternate world’s Torchwood. That the Doctor would be more cautious with his travels and with his companions because of the huge loss he had suffered when he lost Rose. At the end of it all, you could see the bookend of how those characters would move on and become something new..

(Never mind that the Doctor never did seem to learn how to not neglect his future companions all that well, and never mind that Rose’s interactions with the Doctor in series four seemed to be no different than series two lacking the supposed maturity she had gained after suffering such a huge loss two years prior.)

Now look at the end of series four. Not only do we have a situation where the retconning of Donna makes her forward character movement null and void, but retconning in this instance felt like all of the character development for everyone seemed to go back to ground zero. Donna, the clear best companion of New Who, forgets everything that happened and goes back to assumingly her shallow office temp life. The Doctor’s judgement against Sylvia and her reaction to his harshness show that unlike the prior companions’ families, she hasn’t changed her attitude about him nor Donna. The Doctor himself goes back to being the “lonely god” and because of the way things have gone thus far (although who knows what will happen with Moffat at the helm), any change to his character as a result of having travelled with Donna will be lost because of the current companion and current crisis. The one character that seemed to go through a proper change was Wilfred, and thankfully so, but amidst all of the other characters that went absolutely nowhere in their growth and development (which includes Rose, Jackie, Martha, Jack, and Sarah Jane, whose characters in these episodes felt like too many people crammed into a lift), it left me thinking yet again, “oh, is that it?”

One thing that i therefore wish with the new series in 2010 is for Moffat to create a companion storyline in which the relationship between the Doctor and his lead companion be one similar to that of the Classic series or that of Martha but done better – a storyline where the companion decides that their time with the Doctor has come to an end for no real reason other than the fact that the journey is over, and they say goodbye with no big emotional tugs and sweeping string soundtrack by the melodramatic Murray Gold.

One can hope.

mutli-episode stories in the New Who

In the history of the revived Doctor Who series, there have been ten multi-episode stories thus far. If we classify these multi-episode stories into three rough categories of “hits”, “misses”, and “neutrals”, most of them frustratingly fall into the category of misses than anything else. The most recent two-parter helps to further solidify a theory i have as to what makes more of these New Who multi-episode stories disappointing and also touches upon a fundamental problem with the series overall.

When the executive manatees of New Who get together to decide which idea balls they want to put into the episode tank, i have to expect that one of the balls that never leaves the tank has “epic clash between the good guys and the bad guys” on it, and in a way, that idea ball has a frightening influence over how the rest of the episode plays out, particularly when it has come to the reintroduction of Classic Who enemies into New Who. The reintroduction of the Sontarans in The Sontaran Strategem was a very successful one – a proper representation of the warrior race in both their physical appearance and their mentality, complete with the single weakness of the probic vent in the back of their neck. The crisis of having poisonous gas being put into the air because of an overpopulated world of cars may have been a recycled idea from Gridlock, but even so, the mystery surrounding the Atmos system and the gas that it exudes made for a decent set up for the inevitable “Tune In Next Week!” that had me counting down the days until the second part – albeit with some skepticism given New Who’s track record of multi-episode stories and particularly with Helen Raynor’s prior attempt at a two-parter with Daleks In Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks.

And true enough, while The Sontaran Strategem had me counting down the days until part two aired, when the second part (The Posion Sky) did air, it had me counting down the minutes waiting for the episode to be over and done with.

In truth, the “epic clash” idea ball is only one of the many annoying things that made the episode horrible, but while it may not be the most troubling thing about the episode, it was the most prominent to me because of how much the idea ball affected, specifically a) the “battle scenes”, b) the crisis scale, c) the crisis resolution, and d) the bigger implications behind how episodes arrive at the epic clash in the first place.

Addressing the battle scene first: for those that may not know the Sontarans from Classic Who lore, the reason why Sontarans were given the probic vent in the back of their neck in the first place as a weakness was because their armor was supposed to be otherwise invincible to any other conventional weapon, or at the very least damned near hard to kill. That being the case, the UNIT/Sontaran “brute force versus brute force” battle scene was disheartening because it essentially took all of the well-crafted and otherwise authentic exposition of the Sontarans from part one and reduced them to “generic enemy” in part two. Allowing the Sontaran to fall and “die” in battle using less than a single round of rapid machine-gun fire makes it difficult to believe that they are a truly formidable warrior race that can be in a war that has lasted for over 50,000 years, and makes the probic vent a pretty useless characteristic of the Sontaran. Oh, they have this weak spot? That’s too difficult to try to script in a battle sequence, let’s just pull out lots of ammo.

Granted, we might be able to stretch some credibility to this if we apply Why-The-Asgard-Needed-Humans-To-Help-With-The-Replicators reasoning, but it’s difficult for me to give New Who that sort of credit given how many times this “epic clash” idea ball has already been used. The clash felt like it could have been transplanted with the “Cybermen versus the army” scenes in Doomsday (and i think even the same music was recycled for it) or the guards versus the Ood in Planet of the Ood. That the Sontarans were spitting out war language dialogue or doing aerobic war dances versus shouting “Delete! Delete!” doesn’t mean all that much if the core of the battle amounts to the same thing of gun fire versus laser fire.

Secondly, the “epic clash” paradigm causes a problem because of the kind of bar that New Who set when it comes to crisis scale, something that they share with the show 24. At the end of most of the multi-episode misses and series finales in particular, New Who seems to think that it can only be exciting if the entire world is in crisis, and by a massive amount of enemies. In Parting of the Ways it was millions of Dalek ships, in Age of Steel it was the world being converted into Cybermen, in Doomsday it was “billions” of Daleks (never mind the question of how the Doctor knew that there were billions of Daleks in the prison ship when minutes before he didn’t know that it was a prison ship) and Cybermen, in Last of the Time Lords it was billions of Toclafane, in The Poison Sky it was the world being converted into Sontarans. Insert in some news footage that show scenes of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty under alien threat along with close-ups of newscaster’s eyes or lips saying, “OMG WE’RE GOING TO DIE!”, and you have the perfect template for New Who crisis building.

And the problem with setting the crisis knob so high so often isn’t that the viewing public becomes too used to it and therefore numb to it. The problem is in how the solution to the crisis is typically a “press a single button” or similar deus ex machina like answer, the most insulting to viewer intelligence being The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords. The Doctor, upon discovering the paradox machine says, “i can’t stop it until i know what it’s doing” and that meddling with it haphazardly could blow up the solar system. Yet what ends up being the answer to the problem is Jack going in guns blazing and shooting the whole thing up, which causes the embarrassing i-wrote-myself-into-a-corner-oh-shit-now-what answer of turning back time as if the crisis had never happened in the first place. And while The Posion Sky didn’t quite reach that level of immaturity in the solution conception (because the idea that Rattigan’s lab contained the means of creating an atmospheric converter was believable given that element of the story’s plot), its execution was so “Reset Button” in nature that it gave me physical anxiety. Igniting the sky appears to have completely free the earth’s atmosphere of the Atmos gas in seconds including ground level even though it was only the sky level that ignited, and i guess all of the mountains and planes that happened to be flying higher than the Valiant didn’t suffer any issues and i suppose it makes sense that across the world all of the Atmos cars stopped spewing out the gas all at the same time and i guess all of the ground Sontarans were destroyed by UNIT and oh for fuck’s sake.

The thing about the Reset Button solution is that it belittles the scale of the crisis. In Doomsday, the solution of “reconfigure the machine to pull anything that has void stuff back into the void” would have worked if there were fifty Daleks and Cybermen or two hundred or two hundred billion or ten trillion. Numbers on that sort of scale end up not mattering if the answer would be exactly the same and be executed exactly as easily. It’s oddly analagous to the scene in The Sontaran Strategem where Ross and the Doctor dive for cover against the Atmos-fitted jeep and all it does is fizz out instead of create what they expect to be a big explosion. Hit this lever or this button or point the Sonic Crisis Saving Device at this panel or stick the mobile into the conveniently mobile-friendly slot with the destruct code or just unplug that machine, and i end up thinking about how much build up there was to the crisis, what the solution ended up being, and thinking (in my best Tennant imitation), “oh, is that it?”

(Thankfully the end of Torchwood series two didn’t fall into this trap, deciding to make the crisis essentially just Cardiff and the Torchwood team, although i still had the “oh, is that it?” sort of thought while watching a generally poor conclusion to an otherwise stronger series than series one.)

And ultimately this shows one of the fundamental flaws with New Who – that too often it seems like the stories don’t create the action sequences as much as the action sequences create the story.

Doomsday is a good example of this. The executive manatees look at the history of Doctor Who and say, “the Daleks have never fought the Cybermen before! Let’s get out our super expensive action figures and have them duke it out! yaaaar!” So they create a very unbelievable plot point of the humans and the cybermen coming to some sort of “truce” to deal with a common enemy because apparently having a handful of humans helping to shoot ineffectively at Dalek force-shields is better than pulling in the millions of Cybermen from around the world or even what’s concentrated at Canary Wharf.  And the only reason that they did it is to help create the ultimate child’s fantasy battle scene which doesn’t advance any plot whatsoever because eventually everything is solved by the Doctor and Rose pulling on the two big levers (so i guess the cybermen got the short end of the stick of that truce). A flimsy pretext creates the desired action spectacle, and the manatees pat themselves on their collective manatee backs because they’ve helped to create Doctor Who History, regardless of whether that History is a good idea or not, and regardless of whether or not that clas has any significance to the story – which it doesn’t, being upstaged by what truly motivated the end of the series in the first place, which was Rose’s departure.

When Lawrence Miles reviewed Planet of the Ood, he talked a great deal about how Russell thinks like a director and not a writer, and as that distinction sinks into my consciousness more, so does my faith in the quality of New Who. In general i like sci-fi televsion series more than sci-fi movies because i generally see movies as overbudgeted fluff entertainment whereas good sci-fi television series will build up the characters, the backstory, a mythos and set of rules that show the depth of storytelling and the depth of humanity. But with some notable exceptions, New Who episodes aren’t aspiring to be episodes in a television series, they’re aspiring to be a series of “mini-movies” favoring the fluff entertainment and using very broad story and character themes to glue the fluff together driven by a brand that had its precedence started almost half a century ago. Surely i’ll still watch it and enjoy it and find moments that are pure genius amidst that which is merely entertaining, but in the back of my mind there’s always that thought that the dazzle of New Who will never compare to the likes of some of the great Classic Who stories or the great Blake’s 7 stories whose special effects by today’s standards may be cheap but still hold a wealth of depth in creative sci-fi story-telling that will never have any equal.

Still, at least we have Moffat’s two-parter to look forward to.