Sunday, August 28, 2011

Let’s Kill Hitler

Ok, Who’s  back.  Lots of questions answered.  Lots of questions not answered.  Lots of new questions.

spoilers ahead …

First.  I liked the episode.  It really made me laugh.  A lot.  Beginning with the crop circles.  It’s always nice to remember that in the UK this is a family hour drama that’s meant to be enjoyed by kids.  So laughing and having silly, corny monsters are part of the appeal of Doctor Who.  And we haven’t had a really funny Doctor Who story in quite a while.

Second, I loved the Teselecta, which doesn’t really count as a monster but was a good addition to the Whoniverse.  And that guy who was the captain?  Really handsome. I hope they bring him back.  I loved how he kinda sort looked like  William Shatner (but better looking) and the set looked like the bridge of the Enterprise.  (Although the spaceships in Stargate also had bridges that looked like the bridge of the Enterprise.) 

I loved the timey wimeyness of the Baby Melody/BFF Melody storyline.  I didn’t mind the closed time loopiness of BFF Melody bringing Amy and Rory together or that Amy named her daughter after her daughter.  It makes my head spin but I liked it. I didn’t  like Mels herself though and was glad she was gone really fast.  I had her pegged as River from the second she showed up and I found out her name was Mels.  I was surprised how dislikeable she was though.  I should say that, if the girl in the spacesuit regenerated into Mels in 1970, she must (i) age slowly and (ii) have been knocking about for over 20 years before she found Amelia which, combined with the horrors she endured before she regenerated, could turn anyone into a dislikeable person.  Slow aging can also explain how River can potentially be around for a number of years at about the same age before she dies in the library.

I liked that (finally!) Rory and Amy were like equals.  And when Amy said “I love you” to Rory right before they were going to die – I thought that was the most honest emotional moment I’d seen between the two of them through the whole series.  Now maybe we can get past the whole “Does Amy Love Rory” angst and move on to another emotion?

I liked how when the Doctor asked for an interface with the TARDIS we didn’t get Idris (too obvious) but the old companions that the Doctor felt guilty about and himself who he doesn’t like. I’ve felt for a while that part of the story arc for the Doctor these couple of seasons could be self-forgiveness.  In the episode called Amy’s Choice the doctor says of his counterpart, the Dream Lord, only one person hates the Doctor that much.  And of course he meant himself.  And in The Doctor’s Wife Amy accuses him of looking for forgiveness and, in a nice little emotional moment, he says “Aren’t we all?”   Ten was such an emotional Doctor; but then he regenerated into Eleven and – well he’s so British now, isn’t he?  Keeping it all bottled up inside. I thought those scenes inside the TARDIS where the Doctor is laying on the ground talking to the images was a nice emotional scene and dealt, rather belatedly, with what Ten was feeling right before he regenerated. He needs a companion to keep him honest but he always screws up their lives.

I liked many of the explanations we got:

  • Why River knows how to pilot the TARDIS (loved it!  And loved that the TARDIS had a daughter).
  • Why River goes by River and not by Melody Pond.  If I were Melody Pond and was brought up to be an assassin, I’d change my name too once someone told me that River was cool.
  • That the Silence aren’t a species.  (Although the whole question thing has a real Douglas Adams ring to it that I’m not sure I like.  My bet is that the obvious question is Doctor Who?  And don’t we all think the Doctor whispered his name into River’s ear when he thought he was dying?)
  • Loved that the Doctor started teaching River “his’ rules and loved that Rule No. 1:  “The Doctor Lies” came from him.   Or maybe that was just a clever lie to shut us up?
  • Not a surprise that the Doctor gave her the Blue Book, but still nice.

So on the whole I liked this episode.  Still lots of questions, especially about the Silence and about the Doctor dying (again).  And we still don’t know how Rory became a plastic Roman way back when.  I didn’t especially like that we found that River became an archaeologist to find the Doctor – I’d rather have had her do that because she was passionate about history etc.   And I’d really like to go a whole episode without the whole “A character is going to die!” crap. 

It did move fast but not as fast as A Good Man Goes to War, and there were some nice moments of Matt Smith being emotional. On the other hand, the evolvement of the characters within the episode, particularly the beginning of the evolvement of Mels into River seemed rather fast.  I went with it but the whole time I was thinking that I could have used a little more help from the production team on that.   But that’s probably because for the last couple of days I’ve been considering the importance of directing and editing on television programs.

It’s weird that when we think of television, we seldom think of who the director is.  Most of the time we never even pay attention to who the director is.  It isn’t like that with the movies.  When we think of Lord of the Rings we think of Peter Jackson.   Any Martin Scorsese film is, well, a Martin Scorsese film.   We may remember Ron Howard as Opie but we go to a Ron Howard film today because he directed it. 

And, yes, sometimes the director also has screenwriting credit. But often he doesn’t.  Tom Hooper, last year’s academy award winner for The King’s Speech, was directing a screenplay written by David Seidler.  Danny Boyle directed Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire but didn’t write them.  And we take that for granted.  We take it for granted that a screenwriter has a vision of a story and the director and editor and production designer and the actors all work as a team to bring the vision to life.  And we usually give the Director equal credit with the actors.  At least, I do.

Television seems much more fair to the writer, especially when the writer is also the showrunner (or executive producer).  That’s probably because television has such a grueling schedule that no director could direct every episode in a long season.  So it is the showrunner who must oversee the overall vision of the show. 

But we shouldn’t minimize the importance of TV directors.  And I’m beginning to think that we shouldn’t minimize the director in judging how successful a Steven Moffat-written episode is.

During the recent Doctor Who hiatus, I went back and re-watched all the episodes in which Steven Moffat has been credited as the writer, including the episodes in the series in which he was not the showrunner.  My conclusion?  If I were him, I’d do whatever it took to get Euros Lyn to direct every episode I ever wrote.  And get Crispin Green back to edit them.

The duo of Lyn and Green were the director/editors of The Girl in the Library and the Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead episodes that Moffat has writing credit for.   And they are beautiful.  The stories move along at good clips and never drag but there is plenty of time for emotion.  The reaction shots are things of beauty.  The cutting between reaction shots is brilliant.   There are multiple times in the Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead  where action is going on in the foreground but a key character is in the background either engaging in dialog we hear or evolving though reaction shots. Brilliant.  A very layered direction of a layered script involving characters with many layers.

I think part of my problem with the current season of Doctor Who, which I have attributed to lack of emotion, can be traced to the direction and editing.  Some people, including me, have blamed Steven Moffat’s complicated story arc for leaving no time for emotion and for exploring consequences.  But that’s a bit unfair.  The more I think about it, the less I think it is a problem with Steven Moffat the screenwriter but with Steven Moffat the executive producer and with the production choices that have been made.  Including the choices made in direction and editing.

Yes, the story moves very fast and that leaves little time for emotion.  But television is a visual art.  Not every part of the story has to be told in words. While words are being said we could be seeing other things that give us emotional responses and/or character growth.

I’ll give you an example from this episode.  I thought the evolution of the character who looked like Mels from a character like Mels into what will be River – the moments before she took the step of getting into the TARDIS to try to save Rory and Amy --  were not quite as emotional as they could have been and I think it was because we didn’t see enough of River’s character evolving before our eyes.  Was that a problem of the writing?  Or was it a camera angle problem? 

Obviously, as written, the character evolved.  But when the director went to shoot the scene and/or when the editor went to cut the scene, what did we the audience end up seeing?  We saw the Doctor (the very emotional, dying Doctor) lying on the floor.  We saw a pair of legs in the backround that were the robotic Amy’s legs (that bugged me for a bit because I kept thinking they were supposed to be River’s legs except that River was sitting).  Then occasionally there would be a cut to River sitting in a chair and talking.  Finally there is a cut to where River gets up and comes into the frame with the Doctor. 

But didn’t we need to see her the whole time? Didn’t we need to see her face the WHOLE time?  Her character wasn’t evolving only when she was talking.  It was evolving the whole time and what she was saying was maybe not the evolution but the results of moments of evolution as she thought about things and listened and watched the doctor.   Is there a reason that the scene couldn’t have been shot with the Doctor in the foreground but River visually present in the background the entire time?  Matt Smith doesn’t have a very expressive face but Alex Kingston does.  She could have evolved River in the background quite satisfactorily in my opinion.  It would have added emotion to the scene because it would have showed the effect of what the Doctor was doing and saying on the person who was supposed to be effected.  And then River’s  words would have meant more.

Look at this scene from Silence in the Library and see how often things take place in the background behind things going on in the foreground.  And when David Tennant asks Mr. Lux about the data core we can see Alex Kingston in the background with the smile on her face that later leads up to her egging the doctor with the question “Then why didn’t you sign his agreement”.   You can see on her face that she’s a shit-disturber, but then we are distracted for a moment and are still a bit surprised then she asks the question and proves it.  

Little things, but they all add up to a brilliant episode. Not just a good story.  Not just a well acted story.  But a brilliantly realized story.  Rewatch those episodes and see how many reaction shots and dialog take place in what would usually be the rear.  One of my favorite reaction shots is right after River whispers the Doctor’s name in his ear.  Yes, we see a closeup of David Tennant’s brilliant reaction when he says they are “ok” now but then when the scene moves on he is still in the rear of the scene staring at River and pulling himself together before he takes over again and starts demanding answers.   Again, brilliant acting but also brilliant camera angles. And editing.  All showing us not just what happened but the immediate consequences to the psyche of the characters.

I don’t know anything about the directors for Doctor Who this season but whoever directed A Good Man Goes to War had a galloping story line that needed the emotion to come through visually and I don’t think he succeeded in that endeavor.  The Director of Let’s Kill Hitler was more successful.  But not as brilliant as Euros Lyn in his Steven Moffat written episodes.   And that kind of director is what Moffat needs for his stories.  His stories are layered, his characters are layered.  He needs a director who directs in layers.*

* Euros Lyn also directed every single episode of Torchwood: Children of Earth.  That was a story that could have devolved into melodrama so easily.  Instead it held together brilliantly partly because of the direction and editing and was an absolutely brilliant moment of television.