Thursday, May 2, 2013

TARDIS: That Was Easy


Even in the advert for Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS one can see that Matt Smith's Doctor is not the genius who thought his way out of problems as his predecessors were, but an inept, almost stupid bumbler who somehow manages to sonic screwdriver his way out of difficult situations.  Putting aside the use of one of the most unoriginal title in Who history (wonder where they came up with THAT particular title...) and putting aside that the poster seems to be a take-off of a previous Doctor Who story (the Fifth Doctor story Castrovalva), Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is a bad story: not in a 'it's a fiasco' style of bad but in a 'it just isn't completely thought out and a massive waste overall' style of bad.  While I did find some things to like, the God, the ENDING...

The Doctor and his newest Companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) are in space and he is concerned that Clara and the TARDIS are not getting along.  Therefore, he gets her to drive the ship and puts it in 'basic mode', which means no shields.  Wouldn't you know it...a group of space scrap salvagers just happens to spot this odd thing floating around and decide to grab it at that precise moment?  The scrappers, the Brothers Van Baalen, think it's just junk but a third scrapper, the android Tricky (Jahvell Hall) senses that this latest object is...alive.

The Doctor magically appears outside the crashed TARDIS, but poor Clara is still inside.  The Doctor then tells them he offers a trade: in exchange for helping rescue Clara, he will let them scrap the TARDIS.  However, NuWho First Rule: The Doctor Lies (I can point out he didn't before the 2005 revival, but it's a waste pointing that out).  He tricks the Van Baalens into the 'salvage of a lifetime'...literally, a lifetime of Clara.  To get them to see his way, he sets the Self-Destruct System: first an hour, then on almost a whim 30 minutes. 

Clara, meanwhile, is left to wander the many corridors of the TARDIS, where she finds the library (or wanders in...I can't believe that in the travels the Doctor would be so unchivalrous as to not show her around the place).  She is also aware that something is after her: a strange monster who is within the TARDIS for reasons unknown.

As she wanders around the TARDIS' massive library she comes across a very important book: The History of the Time War.  While glancing through it, Clara makes a shocking discovery: written within the book is...The Doctor's NAME! She sees it and says, "So THAT'S Who," but we don't have much time to worry about 'spoilers'.  The Space Zombies are a'comin' for her.  We soon find that the TARDIS is defending itself after one of the Van Baalem brothers took a bit of the Architectural Reconstruction System, which is what makes it larger on the inside than the outside.

The TARDIS is also taking steps to fight off the forces against them.  One of them, however, isn't the Self-Destruct.  After realizing that the TARDIS is repeatedly recreating the console room and that they and Clara are in slightly different times the Doctor manages to pull her to his time, he casually informs the Van Baalems that, surprise, there WAS no Self-Destruct Mechanism.  He even stops long enough to congratulate himself on his performance.  However, he does realize we DO have a problem: the Zombies and the TARDIS looks like it's about to go kablooey.

The Doctor knows what the Zombies are but won't tell, and then we find we must go into the center of the TARDIS.  And Clara gets briefly separated from them...again.  She also keeps bumping into previous versions of herself and the Eleventh Doctor, but it's those pesky rips in time.  All this time she is attempting to heal from a burn she got before crashing when she had picked something up and burned her hand, with odd writing on it.

Eventually, we make some shocking discoveries: Tricky is NOT an android, but a human slightly altered and told he was an android by his brothers as a joke and that the zombies are really the burned remains of the Van Baalems...and Clara herself.  They manage to enter into the center of the TARDIS, which is frozen in an effort to stop its destruction.  Finally, the Doctor realizes that there is a rift (or a crack) in time that is causing all this, so if he warns himself and provides a device that can basically reset everything, all will be resolved.  He does so with a grenade-type device where he writes "Big Friendly Button" with the sonic screwdriver and everything was as before...right down to Clara having her memory wiped of what has happened previously, including reading The Name of The Doctor.

Gallifreyan for Deus Ex Machina...

Do you know what damns Journey to the Centre... for me?  The Big Friendly Button, that's what!  We've had some sorry examples of a Deus Ex Machina, some outside force/source that magically appears at the last moment to save the Doctor from the insurmountable crisis.  The wildly overpraised Cold War had the Ice Warrior army sweep in just as Skaldak was about to push the button (neither big or friendly) and save the world.  Other times either River Song or Madame Vastra will show up and fix things for him because the Doctor is basically too stupid to figure anything out himself. 

However, of all the things that Doctor Who has done to provide an easy way out, having the Doctor literally 'push a reset button' ranks as one of the WORST plot devices in the history of the entire franchise.  I was so appalled at how easy it was for him to get out of everything.  It was a cheap way to solve a dilemma, almost to where it would be a parody if it weren't a Canonical story. 

I also point out that in a sense, pushing the reset/restart button is what Journey to the Centre... repeatedly did.  Stephen Thompson (returning for a second go-round after the shockingly bad Curse of the Black Spot...which stubbornly won't shift from its place as one of the worst Doctor Who Stories of All Time--current standing: Num. 4) has now created something nowhere near as atrocious but instead something filled with total ineptness.  The Doctor basically resets things TWICE: besides the "big friendly button" he also basically informs everyone, "No Self-Destruct System...backfire on you, wasn't I so clever and convincing."  There is something appalling about how smug he can be in his manipulativeness.  Yes, the Doctor can use people, but he doesn't delight in emotionally torturing people...or at least he didn't before. 

By taking the "Self-Destruct System" out of the equation, what little (and I do mean little) sense of urgency was gone.  If the ship isn't going to destroy itself, what then is the rush, the worry of rescuing Clara?  That was already bad enough, but by sending in the "big friendly button" and resetting everything, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS informed us that it was all a big waste of our time.  Not since Pam Ewing woke up to find her husband Bobby in the shower and thus wiped away an entire season's worth of Dallas storylines because 'it was all a dream' have we encountered a more idiotic resolution to a conflict.

To get out of this situation, all he had to do was 'push a button'.  He even had time, amid all the crises going on around him, to write "Big Friendly Button" on it.  I want people to ponder that and wonder why I have been so hard on Series/Season Seven of NuWho.

However, there are other things wrong with Journey to the Centre... For example, the entire subplot of the Van Baalems and the 'android'.  First, why should we care?  Second, how did the Doctor put two and two together (well, on that point, given how Smith has decided HIS Doctor is going to be an idiot, we should be grateful for small favors...).  However, once we get the 'big reveal', what of it?  Why should we care that these two brothers (to whom we're barely introduced) played a mean prank on the third?  There really is no compelling reason for us to bother, and the episode feels the same: once the 'big twist' is exposed, we all but forget about them.

Imagine how much better Journey... could have been if the 'android' had been the compassionate one and the 'humans' were the mechanical ones, or even if we find out that the situation is reversed.  Now THOSE might have been shocking twists.  However, since they didn't opt for either, well, big deal.

The biggest problem Journey... has involves what is suppose to be the Doctor's greatest secret: his name.  For far too long, The Name of the Doctor has been played to be this gigantic secret, something that might shatter the fabric of time itself.  Now we find that his name is easily available to anyone with a library card.

What's my name?
You'll find it in Chapter 26.

Let's go over this shall we?  In the TARDIS' library we have the book The History of The Time War.  Articles are important. If it were A History... then it would suggest a memoir, but since it has the definitive THE History..., it looks like it was written by someone not there.  The real First Question should be "Who wrote the book?"  We have three options: the Doctor himself, someone else, or someone else with the Doctor's cooperation.  If we go for Option A. or C., then the question must be asked, 'why did the Doctor, who harbors this terrible secret about his name, whom he's shared it with allegedly only one person (River Song...guess Susan Foreman never knew her own grandfather's name) write it down in a book that any of his Companions could easily have read?' One doesn't think that Rose, Adam, Captain Jack, Mickey, Martha, Donna, Amy, Rory, River, or Clara didn't have any down-time between adventures.  A little light reading at bedtime, perhaps?  Therefore, the Doctor's Name, appearing so freely in The History of the Time War, was easily accessible to any of them.

However, if we go for Option B., we come up with an even bigger problem.  This book, if published widely across the galaxy, would have required research, and if in that research someone wrote, "The war ended when (John Smith) triggered a device that destroyed Gallifrey" or something like that, then The Name of the Doctor is no secret. 

No matter how one cuts it, by putting in that little bit in Journey..., the entire effort to build up The Name of the Doctor as some massive mystery (which I would have said was never this galaxy-shattering event showrunner Steven Moffat has insisted it must be) has been effectively rendered moot.  How big of a mystery can The Name of the Doctor be if it can be read by anyone with a copy of The History of the Time War?  A producer MUST have thought that out.  He or she could have pointed out, 'No, The Name of the Doctor CAN'T be literally written down in the book because then it wouldn't be a mystery' and ordered the writer to alter the story.  The fact that this did not happen shows that basically everyone is making things up as they go along.

Sadly, the response to this lapse in logic would be "you don't apply logic to Doctor Who", which is a remarkably cheap and easy way to excuse plot holes and discontinuity errors such as The Name of the Doctor being this terrible secret, one that must never be known...which is in a book.  One HAS to apply logic to any program, especially a science-fiction show.  Not doing so is an insult to the audience.

Truth be told, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS IS an insult to the audience: you put the characters in danger only to literally just push a button and everything goes back to the way it was: no one save the Doctor remembers anything and it was just as if it never happened.

In terms of performances there really is very little to note.  Smith still can't make the Doctor into something other than a nitwit, particularly with the sonic screwdriver.  He whips it out almost reflexibly but he seems to use it like I would use my cell phone as a light source.  The interplay between the Van Baalem Brothers is uninteresting, and poor Coleman.  We've had good Companions (Sarah Jane Smith), we've had bad Companions (Mel Bush), but with Clara, we've never had such a dull Companion.  The Doctor described her as 'feisty', but that description seems to be applied to all NuWho Companions.  Each pre-Clara Companion had at least something: working-class Rose, medically-trained Martha, chatterbox Donna, belligerent Amy, wimpy Rory, slutty murderous River.  Clara, however, after five episodes still has nothing.  She's just so blank, and I put that less on Coleman than on the character she plays, who is not interesting in the slightest.

However, there are a few good things in the episode.  Coleman has a good line when she says, "Red flashing light...means something bad," and some of the cinematography, particularly within the TARDIS, is quite beautiful.  I didn't even mind that the same cinematography was deliberate obscure to attempt to make the Time Zombies more frightening.  It didn't quite work but I appreciate the effort.  There were also efforts to note Doctor Who's long past: when the console is opened by one of the Van Baalem brothers we can hear voices from previous Doctors (I instantly recognized Susan's voice, and I think I heard the Fourth Doctor).

Again, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is not a terrible episode compared to some truly horrifying ones.  I'd rather watch it than say, Love & Monsters or Closing Time.   The bad thing about Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is that it is completely forgettable and also introduces a major inconsistency that if not addressed by the series/season finale will forever damn the program as something that doesn't have much thought to it.

Just like the Doctor used a "Big Friendly Button" to change the course of history, I have a "Big Friendly Button" to do the same.  It's called a remote, and I would have used it during Journey to the Center of the TARDIS

It was all a dream...


Next Story: The Crimson Horror

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