Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Army of Ghosts/ Doomsday

By Shiny Shelf on 18 July 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Anyone who watched some of this year’s thinner ‘Doctor Who’ episodes wondering where either the budget (‘Fear Her’) or the cleverness (‘The Idiot’s Lantern’) had got to now has their answer – pennies and smarts alike were being saved up for this sweeping two-part season finale.

Due to a structure which pushed his episodes to the start and end of the season, Russell T Davies’ presence has been keenly missed through the middle part of this second season of his ‘Doctor Who’ revamp. While all of the episodes have been entertaining, and some quite brilliant, there’s a mastery of television scripting technique to Davies’ work that only Steven Moffatt (‘The Girl in the Fireplace’) ever really matches. Coming from Russell T Davies’ pen to your lucky eyes, even a budget-saving oddity like ‘Love & Monsters’ has a momentum and wit that is lacking in even a very good non-RTD ‘Who’ episode like ‘The Satan Pit’.

It’s hard, for instance, to think of any other writer (barring possibly Moffatt) getting away with half of what Davies does in ‘Army of Ghosts’ and ‘Doomsday’, juggling scenes of tragedy, humour, action and excitement so fast that you never even realise how jarring it should be.

There’s a war, for a start, between the Daleks and the Cybermen. Director Graeme Harper, who did fun stuff with the big dumb Cyberman two-parter earlier in the year, goes crazy with the battlescenes, but also handles the quieter moments as well. He’s as comfortable with big dramatic moments as he is with humour, and is often called upon to walk a fine line – the scene where the Daleks and the Cybermen insult each other is the funniest in the whole of ‘Doctor Who’, but Harper makes it clear that neither side realises they’re funny. It’s just one bit of smart scripting in a two-parter that sees Davies at full tilt.

Take, for instance, the scripting acrobatics required to write the scene where alternative universe Pete Tyler and ‘our’ universe’s Jackie Tyler, two halves of a marriage from different universes, meet for the first time. Both have seen ‘their’ version of the other person die. The amount of baggage that scene has to get too, while maintaining the pace of an action adventure, is daunting, but Davies’ script skips through it with a couple of minutes of perfectly chosen dialogue that’s funny, emotional, and slightly unnerving all at the same time. One impossible character situation resolved, all in an entertaining way.

That’s not even the big task that has to be dealt with before ‘Doomsday’ is over. The intense relationship between the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper) has been the cornerstone of the series so far, yet actresses’ careers can only be held back so long to serve one storyline. With Piper leaving, what to do with Rose? You couldn’t kill her (too harsh, and in danger of traumatising the Doctor back into his pre-Rose state of surliness, which would be no fun), or have there be some great betrayal between them (which would, in some ways, be even harsher). Yet there was no way Rose would voluntarily leave the Doctor, as is made quite clear in the episode.

Davies’ solution is typically elegant, and characteristically well prepared for. Rose gets stranded where the Doctor can’t reach her, with a fulfilling life ahead of her but a sense of deep loss. Sad, but not too sad for either the audience or the characters to bear. This plot development also writes out all of Rose’s supporting cast with her, which provides some level of closure for those characters. The Doctor, and the series, is cut free to move on.

And move on they must. Closure is the enemy in an ongoing action narrative like ‘Doctor Who’, there’s little room for heavy contemplation and no room whatsoever for settling down with a comforting ‘the end’. It would have been easy to end with the poor lonely Doctor, but then ‘Doctor Who’ isn’t about neat endings or sitting around crying, and Davies knows it. Davies also knows that it’s never too early to hook viewers in for the next episode, even if it’s not until Christmas. Last year he had the curveball of a regeneration to throw at us, and this year we get… Catherine Tate.

Yes, it’s jarring, but in a very good way. The previous scene ends with a more emotional Doctor than we’ve ever seen, one on the verge of declaring his love… but that’s a note that can only be hit because it’s the end of a story, not the beginning of one. The series needs to move on, the Doctor needs to be forced back into the action without any room for extended moping, and the audience needs a quick reminder that this is an adventure they’re on. Most writers would have the TARDIS attacked by some monster or other as the cliffhanger, but instead Russell T Davies gives us a comedienne in a bridal dress, exchanging comedy shocked expressions with the Doctor (and, before I forget, Tennant is brilliant in these episodes, as good as he ever has been).

It’s completely jarring, but then that’s in keeping with ‘Doctor Who’ a series that moves from space to history and comedy to tragedy and all points in between. While there’s been the odd misfire among this year’s episodes, these two final episodes show that, with its lead writer in full effect, this version of ‘Doctor Who’ is still a journey well worth taking, one which can spin you between different ideas and stories faster and more enjoyably than any other show, or any other writer, could.

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By Shiny Shelf

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