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Doctor Who 4[XXX].11: Turn Left

June 22nd, 2008 (07:33 pm)

Turn Left was certainly as good as Midnight, encouraging my faith that Russell T Davies has saved his best contributions to Doctor Who until the end. The central flaw in the premise seemed to be that only Earth contemporary to Donna was affected by the death of the Doctor towards the end of The Runaway Bride; thus (as daniel_saunders has already pointed out, there was no sign of a New York shaped by Daleks (unless the hybrids are among humanity), nor a London overrun by Carrionites. Nonetheless the effectiveness of the execution was more than sufficient to override such anxieties.

I watched Turn Left in the early hours of the morning, with the street outside silent and dark, and this heightened an eerieness which remained effective when viewing the episode again in daylight. The audience was plunged back into Russell T Davies-normality - everyday life which seems slightly grotesque because it is viewed by an outsider who doesn't share it. Donna's character development was well-sketched and the recreation of old scenes, no longer as crisis points which the Doctor would resolve with ineffable aplomb, but real disasters. The Titanic of Voyage of the Damned perhaps had that nuclear drive for just the moment where a mushroom cloud rises over London, witnessed from a country house hotel whose stone-muffled cosy prosperity will prove no protection.

Graeme Harper's direction of this episode was intelligent and subtle. The tone changes were as gradual as possible, incidental music dwindling to a minimum for the central section of the episode in Leeds, where liberal, pluralist Britain is worn down into a neo-Fascist England, until the audience accepts the transparent euphemism of 'labour camps' with the same weariness that haunts Jacqueline King's face. The angles and camera shakes reminded me a little of 1970s drama set in northern terraces, like Jack Rosenthal's The Evacuees.

Unlike many other commentators, I didn't find Billie Piper's accent noticeably different, but wondered if that is because, on closer inspection, it has moved closer to David Tennant's Mockney, and Rose in this episode played a role analogous in some respects to that of the Doctor. She remains a strong presence on screen, and her ability to carry the complexity of a character's emotions and intentions is if anything enhanced by her having been away from Doctor Who.

This is not to take away anything that belongs to Catherine Tate. This episode showed us a more than adequate substitute for the character development for Donna which I barely noticed in The Runaway Bride, so histrionic was Tate's performance in the earlier sections of the episode, and thus made the Donna of Partners in Crime seem somewhat discontinuous. There's an innocence to Donna throughout this episode, from her relaxed what-harm-could-it-do? decision to accept the free fortune-telling before the credits, through her career vicissitudes (Donna's mother seems the worst of the run of abominable mothers in Doctor Who, as whereas the Jackie and Francine were ignorant and self-focused respectively, Sylvia actively seems to want her daughter to fail), through her internal exile in Leeds, to her optimistic assertion that she isn't going to die, just have a different life - a reconciliation of facts and hopes which Rose can't bring herself to explicitly deny, only lead Donna to the truth with a grimace.

Turn Left was described in pre-publicity as Doctor Who's pastiche of Sliding Doors, but as so often in its past, the Doctor Who version provided superior entertainment to its source. Letting himself write on a longer and longer leash, RTD again revealed a cynicism about humanity's nature which can't be overcome by sing-songs inspired by 'wartime spirit'. It's difficult to imagine him pulling back from this to celebrate faith in humanity again in the finale; instead we must look to 'the Children of Time' - whoever they are. As Terry Nation once wrote, "We are the Daleks!" - but choices made mean that some of us never will or can fulfil that side of our natures.


Posted by: Andy (alitalf)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 09:03 am (UTC)

I'm not sure that the mushroom cloud requires a nuclear explosion, as such. I think that any sufficiently major and concentrated energy source will do it. The energy source for this would be the kinetic energy of a huge object falling, plus whatever energy is released from the spaceship's power source, which is almost certainly not fission.

I don't know for sure that a different energy discharge profile could cause a mushroom cloud while not flattening buildings whatever distance away Donna and family actually are. I wonder if Russell T Davies consulted a physicist - after all, many people who write science fiction books talk to scientists in order to make the story line as plausible as possible.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 09:36 am (UTC)

I very much doubt that Russell T Davies consulted a physicist. For him, the reason why a mushroom cloud forms, and the potential effects of such an explosion, just aren't interesting or important. What he wanted was what we saw - the family and other guests watching the cloud rising from an unspecified distance. It's their emotional reaction and the social consequences which make the event plausible.

Posted by: Naraht (emily_shore)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 10:12 am (UTC)
dw-Where's Jack?

I watched this at Lost Hope with freya_9 and louisekdyson, and I have to say that none of us found it all that good. I'm not really in a position to do a whole analysis of why, but it just seemed like it consisted of a lot of interesting ideas that had been thrown together willy-nilly, stirred a couple of times and insufficiently blended together. Perhaps it's the lack of realism, I don't know. I like Donna and I was pleased to see Rose, but that wasn't enough. As for next week... it seems a bit "all that and the kitchen sink too."

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 10:54 am (UTC)

It looks like this is another one where a gap is opening up between me and my more scientific friends.

Posted by: philmophlegm (philmophlegm)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 01:39 pm (UTC)

Science fiction should be more about the fiction and less about the science. I'm with you, and I liked this episode. Helps that I really like the character of Donna though.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 01:54 pm (UTC)

I think that were I writing something from scratch I'd be anxious to give the science a level of plausibility which it clearly doesn't have for a particular section of the audience; though with Doctor Who in the past few years I've quite literally found people listing what they see as unforgivable crimes of writing which match what I like about the episodes. In general though, I agree with the statement.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I think that were I writing something from scratch I'd be anxious to give the science a level of plausibility which it clearly doesn't have for a particular section of the audience

As I've said before, I don't think you can set rules for this kind of thing. For me, it's about internal consistency: does this world behave according to a set of rules (scientifically accurate or otherwise) or is the writer making things up as he goes along to suit him.

Actually, for me one of the biggest differences between Doctor Who old and new is that the original series was most comfortable as science fiction, or at least science fantasy, while my favourite new series stories have been much closer to magic realism. Fear Her is a good example of a widely-hated story that I liked for this reason.

Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:07 am (UTC)

RTD seems to have serious mother issues. One hopes his successor is able to contemplate the possibility of an older woman as something other than an abomination or an imminent cadaver.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:09 am (UTC)

I agree entirely - it's not fair that Russell's older women (particularly those who have given a lot of themselves for others) bear the brunt of his misanthropy (which isn't to say that he is solely misanthropic).

Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:14 am (UTC)

Do you mean misogyny? Really, even the females graced with his regard are a pretty sorry lot of Doctor groupies, defined by the man in their life. Even the ones who get away like Martha keep coming back for more.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:19 am (UTC)

I think that RTD shows a pessimism about human beings of both genders, really, with some individuals occasionally displaying some key redeeming feature. The emphasis on the Doctor as agent of redemption is potentially troubling, and points to the tension between the fantastic and the real in contemporary Who and, arguably, previous eras of the show.

Posted by: Pellegrina (pellegrina)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:34 am (UTC)
mouse in cheese

Yet despite this pessimism the Doctor is continuously given set pieces about how wonderful humanity is. The wider misanthropy rather gives the lie to it. Unfortunately to me that ends up making the Doctor feel shallow and badly written, rather than able to see the lovable spark in human beings despite the universal vileness of almost everyone but the companions and the few characters who are granted more than two dimensions.

But to be fair, I've only seen one and a half episodes this season. Have I missed any Captain Jack?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:42 am (UTC)

No - Captain Jack returns to the series, this time accompanied by fellow Torchwoodites Gwen and Ianto, for the big two-week end of producership party which starts with the next episode.

The really interesting thing about Doctor Who Confidential last week was RTD admitting that he wrote Midnight to atone for Voyage of the Damned not being 'true'. I wonder whether the Doctor's love of humanity is mistaken? That seemed to be a message from the season finale last year.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:55 am (UTC)
Doctor Who

The really interesting thing about Doctor Who Confidential last week was RTD admitting that he wrote Midnight to atone for Voyage of the Damned not being 'true'.

I find that a little odd. I wouldn't make sweeping observations about humanity always thriving or degenerating under pressure; different people react in different ways. In that sense, Voyage of the Damned was perhaps slightly more realistic, as there was one cynical, self-interested character among the brave altruists (the rich one, I can't remember his name) while in Midnight everyone was ruthless, even murderous, at some point.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 11:58 am (UTC)

I don't think I'd share Russell's pessimism either, or I hope I wouldn't; but his utterances were presented as a window into his real feelings. Who, though, can tell how much is genuine in the public pronouncements of the Doctor Who production team?

Posted by: Amanda (neohippie)
Posted at: June 25th, 2008 12:58 am (UTC)

Midnight also had less people, though, making it more plausible that they'd all be murderous cowards, or more like they all could be swayed by a couple of charismatic people (maybe the guys up in the cockpit were good guys, but they got fried early on).

I guess the point is that usually the Doctor is the one who is the charismatic person who brings out the best in people, but this time around it didn't work and the "throw them out!" folks got control of the situation instead.

Which doesn't look good for humanity, but... well, studies have shown that people really do things like this.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 12:05 pm (UTC)
Doctor Who

I also enjoyed this story, but I am not sure that Davies has suddenly become more cynical about human nature. While Davies always speaks positively about humanity in interviews, there has been a dichotomy in his thinking since his first season, where mankind survives for millenia and spreads out among the stars (The End of the World), yet humans are frequently portrayed as lazy, incurious and self-absorbed (The Long Game, Bad Wolf) and easily manipulated by warmongering politicians (Aliens of London).

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: June 23rd, 2008 12:08 pm (UTC)

That's true; but I think he's drawing attention to it more now, particularly as the Doctor no longer seems to be putting positive glosses on affairs.