I’m fairly certain that I will have asked specifically if I could review this Steven Moffat-penned two-parter from Series Four, but as it turned out I ended up wishing that I’d pushed for The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End instead. I had little to say about what appeared to me if to nobody else to be a rather slow and ponderous effort, and what little I could find to react to were minor grumbles that would later prove to be early hints of the serious misgivings I would soon have about the direction Doctor Who was shortly to take. But more about that later. I was never entirely happy with this review as, while I’ve never quite got to the bottom of how and why it happened, substantial edits were made without my involvement for design-related reasons and in the process some of my remarks on fans and their attitudes were toned down in a manner that actually felt like the end result was taking the piss out of me a bit. I was very unhappy about this and wrote a deliberately tongue-in-cheek blog post distancing myself from it. This however is my preferred edit, reinstating some of the cut material and removing some of the less pertinent silliness, as originally prepared for (I think) Well At Least It’s Free. See if you can spot the bit I really wish I hadn’t left in, though…
Meanwhile, if you’re interested in finding out what I actually made of The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, then you can find that in Well At Least It’s Free, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
In those technological dark ages before the Internet, libraries were always a special place for Doctor Who fans. Where else could you find a full set, albeit one annoyingly spread out according to the author’s surname, of the tie-in novelisations, in their hardback ‘WH Allen’ editions to boot? Venture only slightly further afield, and you might well come across such forgotten gems as A Day In The Life Of A Television Producer, a photo-heavy book with disorientating large print in which John Nathan Turner explained how he prevented the Foamasi from being too frightening (by, one can only assume, making them rubbish). If you managed to get into the the adult section, what esoteric joys awaited you. The dense and impenetrable academic reference work Doctor Who – The Unfolding Text! That book about the Radiophonic Workshop where Roger Limb talked about having sex with synthesisers or something! American ‘Movie & TV Guides’ informing you that ‘Dr Who, the famous British sci-fi show on BBC, was created by Terry Nation’! Meanwhile, if you were one of that small percentage of fans who later had reason to visit a ‘larger’ library in search of back issues of Radio Times, many joyful hours of exasperatedly frowning at the frenzied Blake’s 7 fan who had gone to such page-lacerating lengths to remove a small and fuzzy publicity photo of Paul Darrow.
When reading about Doctor Who, especially in one of those new-fangled ‘libraries’, you get to familiarise yourself with a lot of words. There’s ‘crochety’, for a start. And ‘emblazoned’. And let’s not even get started on ‘clad’. Yet even those pioneering fan writers, who knew an interesting word that they could repeat and repeat and repeat until their typewriter started crying out for mercy when they saw one, could never quite muster up more than a handful of superlatives between them. And that’s the problem with trying to review Silence In The Library/Forest Of The Dead – how can you really do it justice when you’ve already used every single superlative in existence twice over when discussing Steven Moffat’s previous Doctor Who contributions, even though they weren’t what you were supposed to be reviewing in the first place?
But hang on, don’t go scrambling for your copy of The Third Doctor Who Quiz Book for inspiration just yet; it’s not that there wouldn’t be gratitude for your superlative-scouting efforts, just that there might not actually be any need for them. These two episodes might well be great, but do they really match up to the established might of The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink or indeed The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, in either its combined or individual incarnations? In strict adherence to the Dewey Decimal System (probably), let’s start with Silence In The Library and work our way across the shelves from there. Even by New Doctor Who standards, this episode was the subject of anticipation and high expectation. The lofty reputation of Steven Moffat’s previous contributions is troublesome enough to have to live up to, but this episode also had to contend with another of those excitement-multiplying ‘mid-season breaks’ with attendant fan speculation (which we’ll come back to in a minute), and a really rather splendid teaser countdown on the BBC’s own Doctor Who website wherein an astutely-judged collection of fan-pleasing tomes (including the works of Douglas Adams, Monty Python and, erm, Terrance Dicks) jostled for shelf space with well-worn prop books from the original series, and a battered handwritten diary that, brilliantly, flicked past a pencil sketch of Rose Tyler at midnight every day. So, not much riding on it then.
Following all of that build-up, both intentional and inadvertent, Silence In The Library almost delivers. Almost. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it in itself. In fact, there’s an extraordinary amount right with it. The tension takes a long time to start building up, but when it finally does it proves well worth the wait; the idea that the whole sense of danger is based on nothing more clever or sophisticated than making sure you don’t stand in the wrong place, like an episode of The Adventure Game gone nightmarishly wrong, works fantastically and is nastier than any amount of spaceships straying too close to dangerous things could ever hope to be. Meanwhile, the flashing between the library and the mysterious little girl who claims to be able to see it all in her head really does keep the viewer guessing, and hands up who else mistakenly thought that they’d spotted the forthcoming end-of-series story arc and that The Doctor and Donna had accidentally slipped into some sort of non-reality while the ‘real’ universe carried on oblivious?
The same more or less goes for Forest Of The Dead. Although the tension seems to flag very quickly indeed, the journey through Donna’s apparent dream world is nicely surreal and unsettling, and the twist when it comes is startling but makes perfect sense, unlike so many other attempts at ‘big reveals’ in New Doctor Who and Torchwood (well, mainly Torchwood). Despite the obvious disadvantage of using a big gleaming clinical modern library rather than a creepy old wood-panelled look, both episodes are visually impressive and strongly directed, and there’s also plenty of well-judged dialogue and character interaction, and then there’s the ‘corrupted’ face, the poignant final non-encounter between Donna and Lee, the way that the Vashta Nerada even sounded frightening… and Alex Kingston.
I’m still not sure what I make of Professor River Song. The idea of The Doctor meeting a character from his future, who knows all about him in all sorts of intimate ways that he doesn’t even know of himself yet, is a brilliant one with plenty of potential. However, something about it just failed to work, and in the end she seemed nothing more than Just Another Character, failing to elicit much sympathy from the audience (who probably cared more about Lee to be honest), nor indeed much interest in her sonic-screwdriver-owning Tardis-diary-waving future-event-referencing antics. It’s hard to pinpoint where this went wrong exactly, as there was nothing amiss about the scripting or portrayal, but she just somehow failed to make quite the same sort of impact as her close conceptual counterpart Jenny from The Doctor’s Daughter a couple of weeks beforehand (although in fairness Jenny stood out in an episode that seemed to have stolen its plot from the old Viz strip The Adventures Of The Human League In Outer Space, whereas River was jostling for space in a much more assured one). Because of this, her knowledge of The Doctor’s name seemed insufferably smug rather than a moment of audience shock, though on the other hand her obsession with ‘spoilers’ was one of the highlights of the story. In these days of rampant spoilermania it’s hard to know which side of the fence you’re on, with the glory-hunting fans determined to be the first to know even the most inconsequential detail (and in a moment of impressive postmodernity, Steven Moffat felt compelled to wade into a speculative online discussion of Silence In The Library, still some months away from broadcast, to remonstrate with one particular repeat offender) seeming every bit as ridiculous as the media blowhards who implode their own heads with efforts to keep details of even the most pathetically inconsequential sitcom ‘under wraps’, so it’s nice to see the whole concept being broadly mocked in such a disdainful fashion. Take that, feeling like you have to have an opinion on things!
‘Hang on’, you’re probably not unreasonably asking yourself, ‘if these two episodes are so good then what was all that ‘almost, but not quite’ business about’? Some minor yet still severely niggling problems with them is what it’s all about, and not just that pretty dodgy attempt at making a joke out of stammering. As impressive as both episodes were, there was a sense that regular viewers had pretty much seen them done before, only better, and usually by Steven Moffat to boot. Plot twists aside, nothing about them seemed particularly unexpected or ‘new’, and the overall effect was a bit like when a band (naming no Portisheads or Blurs) follows up a highly successful and acclaimed album with one that, while intrinsically good, pretty much does the same thing only to noticeably less impressive effect. In addition, the two episodes seemed to sit very awkwardly next to each other, with the sharp detour from the nailbiting end of the first into the surreal ambience of the second not quite working as well for the viewer as might have been expected. Still, no matter how much they may or may not impact on enjoyment, these are really cosmetic issues – you could even argue that the variation in pace and style might be a result of their being designed for rewatching, something that was never really a consideration in the cliffhanging days of old – and they’re still pretty impressive in their own right, not to mention streets ahead of that Cybermen two-parter.
You probably don’t get too many Doctor Who fans lurking in libraries any more – after all, it’s much easier to just hop online and get the latest up-to-the-minute news on why ‘harrysaxon88’ thought Fires Of Pompeii was an eight out of ten but now thinks it might have been only a seven – but now they’ve got another, entirely different reason to feel affection towards those most dusty, wooden and book-festooned of places. And no, it isn’t ‘because they all look like the Secondary Console Room’.
Some things that may need explaining…
That Roger Limb semi-quote – no, I’m not making that up. I wish I was.
The American ‘Movie & TV Guide’ I was almost certainly thinking of here was Halliwell’s Television Companion, which was admittedly compiled by a British critic but had a nauseating and fawning pro-American slant, displaying a profound cultural snobbery and ignorance and a corresponding lack of attention to detail. At least when it came to, say, Rising Damp or The Prisoner; if you wanted to know how many episodes of The Littlest Hobo were made, you were quids in. Basically, if you ever felt a bit short-changed by the bias that the frankly essential Halliwell’s Film Guide had towards the supposed ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, this was fifteen thousand times worse. In fact that’s probably how many episodes of The Littlest Hobo there were. It was the bane of my library-going days and you can find a feature about that in Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
The pages of The Journal Of Impossible Things flicking past a sketch of Rose on the stroke of midnight seems to have entirely disappeared from history for some reason. But it happened.
The Adventure Game was a loosely Douglas Adams-influenced Children’s BBC game show in the early eighties, in which celebrities had to solve whimsical logic puzzles to win a place on a shuttle back to Earth. Two popular rounds, The Drogna Game and The Vortex, involved working out which place on a huge game board was ‘safe’ to stand on.
Steven Moffat really did personally tackle one particularly persistent spoiler merchant online, and it was childishly satisfying to see that particular individual taken down a peg.
The secondary console room was an eerie minimalist set with carved wooden furnishings and stained glass windows seen in several 1976-77 stories. I used to be especially amused at how early reference works could seemingly never mention it without clarifying that the set’s walls ‘warped when put into storage’. Which they apparently didn’t anyway.
It’s fair to say that I was not nearly so well disposed towards these two episodes this time around. Pertinently, this began right with the opening scene – a wishy-washy chronologically-skewed attempt at being all abstract and mysterious and meaningful doubtless inspired by the frustrating vogue at the time for ‘cold opens’. Kickstarted by the admittedly brilliant opening to the second series of Lost (which made up for this by having probably the worst ending of any television series ever), almost anything made for about five years afterwards apparently had no option but to start each episode with characters you hadn’t seen before in an unfamiliar situation doing and saying things you didn’t understand which would apparently be rewarded through loyal and attentive viewing. Well, most people watch television to be entertained, not to be set homework, and I hated that trend then and still hate it now. That and so many other aspects – the tedious change of pace between the two episodes, the dreadful “Whole armies turn and run away”/“I am The Doctor” – “Yeah, someday” mythology building, the dreamy voiceover about precisely sod all, and so much else I could spend all day listing – were the very first glimpse of everything that would come to put me off the next couple of series. I expressed misgivings about this at the time, and while I fully accept that I’m in the minority at least amongst fans, I do feel in retrospect that this caution was well placed. I did grow to like River Song a lot, though. All in all, this was a story that, by opening (well, after that nonsense opening was out of the way) by acknowledging that Monty Python and Douglas Adams were perplexingly now part of the Doctor Who ‘universe’, should have been tailor made for me but just wasn’t. Oh and that bit I wished I hadn’t left in? It was some scathing comments about the then-recent movie version of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy which, after writing the above, I went back and took out. I mean, I don’t want to sound like I’m being unduly negative or anything.
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Not On Your Telly is a collection of columns and features with a slant towards ‘forgotten’ television, including plenty of pieces related to Doctor Who. Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
You can hear me talking to Emma Burnell and Steve Fielding about politics and Doctor Who in The Zeitgeist Tapes – the show where politics and pop culture collide – here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.