turnleft

The Last Days of Russell T. Davies

“Turn Left” isn’t quite as appalling as last year’s “This didn’t really happen” two-part Doctor Who finale. But it’s still filled with Russell T. Davies’s insufferable complacency. There doesn’t appear to be much of a purpose to this episode, other than for Davies to remind the Who fans just what he’s given them. It reminded me of the childish “Dimensions in Time” promotional nonsense that John Nathan-Turner was once deservedly ridiculed for, but that Who fans now accept without question. (I also don’t think it was an accident that we were given a moment in which the TARDIS was gutted by Torchwood, with numerous wires and cables affixed to the dying police box. There seemed something metaphorical here about Davies’s relationship with the show.)

Now I’ll give Davies last week’s “Midnight.” Once you got past that episode’s first ten minutes of touchy-feely nonsense (Wow! A lesbian!), Davies did spin a half-decent claustrophobic yarn, helped in part by Alice Troughton’s crisp direction and the fascinating bigotry channeled by David Troughton. But let’s face it. On the whole, Davies’s writing contributions have amounted to little more than camp, politically correct casting, and speculative fiction premises that are about as cutting-edge as a Betty Crocker recipe unleashed at an Eisenhower fundraising event.

“Turn Left” reminds us of the reprehensible fat blob babies from “Partners in Crime,” the disappearing hospital from “Smith and Jones,” and numerous other references to the last four years that suggest deep import. But it’s been Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Robert Shearman, and Steven Moffatt’s scripts that have offered originality and intelligence, and have kept the show rolling. (The less said about Helen Raynor’s “give the people what they want at the expense of Who mythology” two-parters, the better.)

That insectoid on Donna’s back was about as convincing as a leftover prop from a Roger Corman cheapie. Hell, Alpha Centuari, that silly six-armed alien from the Pertwee Peladon stories, was more convincing. And you want to know why? Because at least that silly supporting character had heart. The unspeaking insect was utterly ridiculous in its purpose and its motivations. “Turn Left”‘s premise, complete with the insultingly pedestrian paradox presented in the episode’s title, was bullshit. We’re expected to believe that the Doctor wouldn’t regenerate after being smitten down by a spider queen. Never mind that the Timelord was able to regenerate after being poisoned by spectrox toxaemia. Rose Tyler appears from another universe that she was supposedly trapped in without any reasonable explanation. And it has long been clear to anyone watching the show that the Doctor is useless without his companions. So why ramrod this point into the audience’s noggins?

Next week sees the first of a two-part finale featuring Captain Jack, Daleks, three companions, and a partridge in a pear tree. It too is written by Russell T. Davies. And I fear the worst. I hope that some of the “Midnight” special comes through. But until Russell T. Davies is gone permanently, I suspect that I will be forced to drink copious amounts of bourbon to cope with Davies’s unpardonable tamperings.

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8 Comments

  1. Care to elaborate, Eric? If you wish to accept “Doctor Who” solely as dumbed down entertainment and fun for the whole family, which it seems that you do, that’s fine. But I reject this. The Bad Wolf mythos is the kind of generalized theme that I expect from a pedestrian science fiction series. And I’m torn between the sense of awe I experienced from Moffatt’s Borges-like two-part offering (about as close to the glory days of Hinchcliff/Holmes as we’ve seen) and the farting aliens and assorted pandering from Davies.

  2. The show is campy. The cockroach wasn’t supposed to look real– it was intentionally a prop-looking thing, a signifier of its McGuffin-ality. You’re expecting the show to be serious when it’s not trying to be. The show is silly and sometimes the seriousness just crests to the surface. You’re expecting the wrong things from it.

    That said I agree with you that Moffatt is a much better writer than Davies, and frankly I hope I never see another script written by that guy who did the awful Christie and Shakespeare episodes. But Left Turn was a good episode, and so was last year’s season finale, which made me laugh and smile and clap my hands. That’s what the show is supposed to do.

  3. You’re referring to Gareth Roberts. The problem with RTD’s scripts is that he wants to have it both ways: he wants to be both completely campy (most infamously, that awful moment of the Master dancing to Scissor Sisters) and he wants to be emotionally sincere (Donna’s growing sense of her importance in this most recent episode). But what he doesn’t understand is that there has always been a firm determination on the part of Who to be true to the script DESPITE the camp and the flimsy sets. And that is where it has worked best. Alpha Centauri would not have worked if the scripts didn’t have ideas. Likewise, those crazed Shakespearean asides by the bad guy in “The Caves of Androzani.” Utterly ridiculous and campy, but they somehow contribute to the story. When Who oversteps this delicate balance, as RTD has repeatedly done, it’s disastrous. And it sure as hell isn’t Who. I’ve enjoyed Who for a long time because it has created awe and wonder from almost ridiculous limitations.

    This is now the second story from RTD — a year later, no less — in which it didn’t happen. Which suggests he has only a tertiary commitment to the emotional truth, however flawed, of the show. That truth, incidentally, doesn’t have to be all drama. Personally, I think some of Graham Williams’s contributions got a bad rap. But this crazed tension gives us the weird Nyssa skirt dropping scene in “Terminus.” (Man, I am really revealing my geekdom.) It gives us truth WITH the cheesy effects. Now that they have some money, why not try harder with this? As the above writers I’ve named have done?

  4. The point of this episode is the same as the point of last week’s episode – one highlighting its presence and the other its absence. It’s not so much that new Who thinks that the Doctor is useless without his companions as that it thinks his greatest strength is his ability to inspire his companions to be more Doctor-ish. So last week we get a story where he singularly fails at this, unable to persuade even the marginalized members of the group – usually his bread and butter, potential companion-wise – to rise above their baser instincts. And this week we get a story where, in the Doctor’s absence, his former companions step in to fill the void and save the Earth, sometimes succeeding only partially and occasionally giving their lives to do so. Donna goes through the same process by proxy – she starts out the same shallow person she was in “The Runaway Bride,” and is educated by Rose, who is performing the same function, albeit in a more sinister manner, as the Doctor in “Father’s Day,” which this episode closely parallels.

    I agree that the bug looked silly, but though in other episodes the silliness of the special effects was a deal-breaker, in this episode it was clearly not the crux of the story or even its horror – that was derived mainly by the reactions to the bug before people could see it, not to mention the bleakness of the alternate universe.

    (By the way, I agree that the episode plays fast and loose with the possibility of the Doctor dying, but Steven Moffat did exactly the same thing when he announced that the Doctor would die of electrocution in “Forests of the Dead.”)

  5. I’m not sure I think the show was ever MEANT to be campy. Many times, I watch an RTD-scripted episode and think, “Was this guy watching the same DOCTOR WHO I was growing up? Where did he get the idea it was campy?” I think the original series unintentionally veered into camp (your example of “Androzani” being a good example) but RTD wants to bring it to the forefront and, I agree, it doesn’t mesh with the emotion he tries to invoke.

    I also hated the “80 kliks later” schtick at the beginning of “Midnight” but got sucked in once the knocking on the exterior of the train started. From there, it had a very Rod Serling feel to it. But I didn’t buy the conclusion, with the Hostess being the one to make the sacrifice and to choose Sky as the person to be expunged. I thought Dee would have come to the logical conclusion as to which was the correct person to jettison. Minor point, I guess.

    I didn’t hate “Turn Left.” Yes, it was completely self-indulgent and a way to highlight the mythos he’s introduced. But I still found it watchable, unlike the series three finale. Watching Donna’s mother degrade into a soulless automaton, the horrors of martial law, Donna surrendering to destiny… I was entertained. (The bug? Meh. Whatever.)

    Given the nostril-raping repugnance of last year’s finale–Earth enslaved only to be reversed when Superman flies around the world backwards–and knowing the upcoming onslaught of guest shots and “the Darkness,” I can’t imagine this finale will be in any way satisfying. I’m bracing myself for him to pull out the Deus Ex Machina gun and give it to us full in the face once more.

    Breathe. Moffat’s reign is coming. Breathe. (But let’s not forget that Davies is still showrunning the Christmas show this year and next year’s specials… 2010’s still a way’s off.)

  6. Can I just say: I LOVED the Master dancing to Scissor Sisters. Adored it. I really, really don’t get your problem with it, I thought it perfectly established the Master’s character as the anti-Doctor, running around taking great joy in the suffering of others.

    I don’t mind either that the 3 finale or Left Turn is undone at the end because both are as much about an exploration of the characters as anything else. One of my favorite moments of the show so far was in the 3 finale when Martha goes off on her own and becomes a total bad-ass mofo over the course of a year, and you can see when she’s returned to Earth that this experience has fundamentally changed and scarred her and made her really brave in a way that Rose never was and Donna definitely never was. (Martha, btw, my favorite companion of the new series by far.)

    And I really don’t think you can watch the Talons of Weng-Chun and think the original series didn’t know it was campy. C’mon, the total Chinese stereotype complete with yellowface and “ah-so” accent? The bad guy who has mask ripped off and DUN DUN DUN has the twisted distorted weird face? The midget robot with the brain of pig?? It’s freakin HIGH camp.

    Left Turn gave us an interesting exploration of Donna’s character and an exploration of what the Doctor’s world would be like without the Doctor — with Sarah Jane, Torchwood and UNIT stepping in to fill the void and ultimately sacrificing themselves in the process. My favorite was Torchwood getting stranded on the Sontaran homeworld which had me in stitches. I thoroughly enjoyed the episode.

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