Sunday, 28 April 2013

ETC: Doctor Who's Pacing

"I say stuff." -The Doctor
"My turn." -Me

So, the recent episode "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS". It bothered me. But not for the temporal aspects, as remarked on by some, including at io9 in the article "We're mighty sick of Doctor Who stories where time travel is magic". I think the show got the temporal aspects RIGHT, for the most part. The trouble was in the storytelling, and to a certain degree, in the staging and pacing.

Ok, spoilers ahead.

By the way, speaking of staging, there's storyboards up for the episode.

Also, here's a review from someone who apparently liked the episode a lot. More than their first comment, at any rate.

Have I mentioned that I've written time travel fiction? I also wrote about the movie Looper and "Asylum of the Daleks".

Also, you realize I'm just killing space here, because SPOILERS!  Hello!

You DID catch that, yes?  Sure you want to scroll?

Okay, just checking.


So, let's start with: There isn't necessarily a problem with a reset button episode. Not when it's done well. I should know, I've seen a bunch and written one into my "Time Trippers" story. In fact, I did mine in a way which, upon further analysis, is not completely dissimilar from this episode. (So, okay, biased.) Yet I think that's also why I find this Doctor Who episode simultaneously really good, and yet rather aggravating.

I think that the point to a reset button episode is character development. Bear with me, I know that sounds weird since the characters don't remember it... but the point is, WE DO.

In this case, we get to see the Doctor being rather manic about who Clara is, while she does the same in turn... we're effectively afforded the chance to look inside their heads, and learn how they would react to certain things, without those things actually occurring. That's NOT a bad thing. It's only bad if it's never brought up again.

Now, there are other ways to do this aside from time travel. "The Zeppo" comes to mind, from Buffy, season 3, episode 13. We see the story from Xander's point of view, we get new insight into his character that the other main characters do not. We can now look at him in a new light. The people in the story don't know what happened, so they lack that ability. Of course, we don't get the benefit of Xander really interacting with the others.

There are also ways to botch this using time travel. "Year of Hell", the Star Trek: Voyager two parter from Season 4 comes to mind. The resolution made no sense, and the actions of the characters (like Chakotay, in investigating temporal paradox) were completely isolated from the rest of the series itself. For an example of it being done well on that show, go with "Timeless", sixth season.

Doctor Who's "Journey"... the rules are consistent, not magic, but it falls down in execution.


Now, here's why it works. We're effectively seeing the second iteration of a time loop. The same plot device, by the way, as used in Stargate Universe's Season One Episode "Time". (There are no new plots?) In the grand scheme of things, here's what happened:

TARDIS gets zapped. Doctor appears, tells himself how to fix it, time loop gets fixed, end story. Which is (in theory) all Clara knows. But that's barely even a teaser.

So here's what actually happened:

TARDIS gets zapped. Big problems, temporal echoes, people die, maybe even Clara actually dies, then Doctor has a flash of insight, sends the critical device back in time, inscribing it with a message to tell his future self to push it. Bringing us to second iteration. Clara retrieves device, still big problems, still temporal echoes, still people die, this time Clara survives, helps Doctor with his flash of insight, and this time he has the time or inclination to actually interact with his prior self. Time loop closes.

We only see the second part of that run. Which is part of the problem, but at the same time, we don't necessarily want to be subjected to a replay of Haruhi Suzumiya's "Endless Eight". So I can forgive them that. The trouble is, it's not obvious unless you make a habit of thinking four dimensionally.

For instance, the "time will reassert itself" issue discussed in the io9 article comes from the fact that the group is effectively trapped in a room that will burn them alive. The Doctor's 'plan' is that the two salvage guys separate. His theory being that, according to future history, when they die, they get fused together. But if they stay apart, that can't happen, meaning the beings now trapping them won't actually exist, meaning they can get out.

Time hates when you try to rewrite it though. Even future time. Just ask my character, Carrie. So that failed.

Moreover, it seems to me even had separating the guys WORKED, they'd become trapped by two SEPARATED future salvage guys. So that's where even more of the theory falls down. Also, to even be with me at this point, you'd have needed to notice the burn victim parallel, which is where the rest of it potentially falls down. Which brings me to the bigger problems.


A HUGE problem with the show itself lately is the pacing. Everything is frantic, and the characters talk so fast that I miss chunks of dialogue, and it's all an action adventure, and really? Does no one sit and talk anymore? I watched the episode a second time, and here's a few rather KEY bits of dialogue that breezed by me on first viewing:
1) "This little baby can disable entire vessels." Okay, so THAT'S why the device was so helpful. I was trying to figure out how it acted like a reset.
2) "You're my guides for this." Okay, that's at least a possible reason for the Doctor to trap them inside... they do know salvage, and his ship is a bit of a wreck. He didn't know the half of it.
3) "So that's who." Which I think I only got on the second viewing because I saw a reference to it on the 'net. Maybe cut away even faster and have Clara whisper quieter next time, then no one will get it.
4) "Recent past." Aha, so that's how the Doctor was able to set the time rift. (See? It's never that easy, honestly.)

I also thought the first time that ALL of the salvage operators were androids, because that bit of dialogue was unclear. Oh, and I missed the swimming pool. Yeah, lots of people mentioning the pool as I browsed the net, passed right by me in the initial viewing. Don't blink.

Now, I realize part of the point is that they WANT to pull us into multiple viewings, but can we not always be lurching from crisis to crisis? The bit in "Cold War" when Clara is reflecting on the people who died was genuine, and important in the grand scheme of things.

There was time for that sort of thing here. Just nix some of the stuff where the salvage people are wandering around trying to salvage the TARDIS, with it trying to stop them, because that turned out to be pointless. Or at the least, it could have been done SO much more intelligently. ("Let's split up!" - how was that NOT the plan in the first place?!)

Which brings me to the other big deal...


Maybe it's the lack of female writers. But when The Doctor was talking about putting the TARDIS in basic mode for her, and then the talk about driving, my jaw nearly hit the floor. Also, it took how long for The Doctor to realize Clara was still inside? And the way he described her? Oy. (Maybe he was overcompensating after that, what with the self destruct?)

Clara wasn't much better. "A hug is really nice"... pardon me? This guy has just said he saw you DIE in the past, and YOU'VE just recently seen yourself dead, and a hug is nice? No. Just no. A hug is now scary, and this guy you thought you knew is acting kind of creepy insane, and you're smarter than that. Or you should be. And you COULD be.

Again, the point of a reset button episode is CHARACTER development.

Show me Clara giving The Doctor what for about his secrets, and/or the Doctor sincerely apologizing. Show me the Doctor scared; I bought it in "Hide", I didn't buy it here, the script forced him to act too manic. Heck, show the Doctor collapsing to his knees or something when he sees the engine, actively distraught over the TARDIS. Maybe show him choosing the TARDIS over Clara. Show Clara standing up to The Doctor, or leaving him.


Oh, and then there was this gem:
"Don't worry. You'll forget."
"I don't want to forget. Not all of it."

Which leads to... pardon me?! I'm thinking there are a few things you'd want to remember ASIDE FROM A RANDOM NAME. Writers, don't use your "vanishing" episode to drop hints ABOUT THE PLOT. Either state the plot OUTRIGHT (as the characters won't remember it), or have a discussion. About whether they'll still be the same people if The Doctor manages to repair the damage, or whether they have the right to do this if the future is already written (and wanting to assert itself), or what will become of the salvage people should none of this ever have happened. You could have made time for that! Easily! Then people won't end up annoyed in this way.

For that matter, it would make the end line of "Do you feel safe? I need to know you're not afraid." ring true, instead of hollow, as it did for me at the end. Sure she feels safe. Apparently she always has. Boring. Instead, wind back a bit to show me a Clara who's overcome, who isn't sure she can go on, who has been wounded, physically and emotionally, and who isn't sure she'll ever trust again.

THEN reset her and ask her if she feels safe.

If she does, that's not only better foreshadowing, it's far creepier for the audience than a noise in the dark. Don't you think?

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