review by Martin Odoni.
Ah, gawd bless Steven Moffat, eh? After the travesty of The Unicorn And The Wasp, I cried out for him to come and rescue us, and sure enough he rides into town in his steel armour and fights off the demons of cr*ppy scriptwriting that have had us under siege and battling for our lives for almost the entire season. Quite simply, he does wee-wees from the top of the Eiffel Tower over almost all the other writers on New Who.
To be honest, even Moffat’s not at his absolute best here. as I found the early stages of the story a little self-conscious and meandering – similar to RTD’s tiresome obsession with the year Five Billion AD, Steven Moffat seems to have developed a bizarre fixation on the Fifty-First Century – while the crew of archaeologists, Alex Kingston apart, came across as very shallow. Miss Evangelista was a Mary-Sue, the stereotype nice-but-ineffectual wimp that everyone else looks down on and patronises, and then predictably dies first to make the others feel guilty about it later. (They don’t think you’re stupid because you’re pretty, luv, they think you’re stupid because you are.) In Lux, we have another stereotype, dating back to long before even Tomb Of The Cybermen; the pompous, officious, fanatical, but cowardly expedition leader. Meanwhile, Anita and the two Daves are just cyphers. Therefore, only Professor River Song comes across as having any real depth. And seeing she shows signs of being just another love-struck companion, even that depth is a bit too familiar to hold the audience’s interest beyond the mystery of how she knows the Doctor to begin with.
The Professor is also symptom of another fixation in Moffat’s writing that is manifesting itself a little too frequently for comfort, which is his ‘time-wimey’, events-out-of-sequence gibberish. He seems to like having people meeting old friends and family out of time, or having events in the future causing themselves by their effects travelling into the past e.g. the Tenth Doctor being able to solve the implosion effect by remembering being the Fifth Doctor seeing the Tenth Doctor solving it. With Professor Song remembering an entire relationship that hasn’t even started yet, Moffat is wearing out the time-paradox concept very quickly.
I should stress that I’m absolutely delighted by the news that Russell T. “Grand-Master-of-self-congratulation-and-lazy-plotting” Davies is leaving the series, and that Moffat will be taking over the role of Producer. He has a far wider variety of ideas than RTD, far more imagination, far less interest in cheap humour or overcooked melodrama, and I suspect he will also be infinitely more daring and willing to break formula. But one thing he is not madly better at is characterisation. In each episode he writes, he comes up with one interesting guest character – always female e.g Madame du Pompadour, Sally Sparrow – but the rest of them tend to be characters by short-hand. So while his succession should be very much for the better, I’m not counting on it yet.
But in most respects this episode is fresh water in the desert at exactly the time we most needed some. The only real break from formula that we’ve had all season – no alien invasion fleets, no unsubtle diatribes against the evil of Corporations, no guest authors from classic English literature, no infiltration-by-marketing of a sinister alien product – it probably has more new and fresh ideas in it than we’ve seen since Moffat’s last script, Blink. A library planet. A world that interfaces with the past through a human mind. Statues with faces made of flesh. Shadows that eat human flesh.
What Moffat is far better at than any other writer on the series is taking something normal and down-to-Earth (as RTD insists they all stick to because of his patronising fear that the audience won’t relate to anything that can’t be slotted into Eastenders) and managing to make it scary and different. Indeed, Moffat appears to be the only writer who recognises that, even if you have to stick to normal, mundane elements you can still let your imagination run wild, instead of assuming that it means you have to do more-of-the-same every week.
So, in the same way that. last year, Blink had the audience jumping in paranoia for weeks afterwards every time they walked past a statue in the park, so Silence In The Library will have people literally jumping at shadows for a long time to come. Shadows are as mundane, harmless and every day as statues, but with Moffat holding the pen, they become insidious, feral, and sinister carnivores. And by their very nature, you can’t tell which shadows are the carnivores and which are just shadows, adding to the sense of terror.
Moffat’s ability to keep the audience guessing is heightened by his knack for surrealism, and multi-layered reality. Seeing that RTD’s production rules restrict the series from having alien environments, Moffat compensates by giving us multiple environments – both of them fairly mundane in this case i.e. a library and someone’s living room – and makes them seem disturbing and alien by creating a metaphysical relationship between them.
He pulls off other clever storytelling tricks of a type reminiscent of classic Dr Who of the 1970’s, a rare example of subtext surviving in the modern era. The Doctor and the Professor both make use of the term ‘spoilers’ to describe books from the future. This is accurate in itself, as there is always the old moral that people should not know too much about their own future, but it is also a very amusing self-referential joke, and I suspect it may even be a dig at the current Producer. One of the many, many annoyances of RTD’s time in charge has been his frequent inability to keep his mouth shut about what will be happening in the stories to come; we found out that the Master would be returning at the end of season 3 before season 2 was shown. So having the Doctor and the Professor insist that you shouldn’t know what is to come is perhaps Moffat’s way of promising that when he is in charge, he will put a stop to the plot-leaks.
The episode retreads aspects of Moffat’s past work on the series. From The Empty Child, we are greeted with a spine-chilling cliffhanger with a zombie-like figure repeating a phrase that appears totally redundant over-and-over (in The Empty Child it was “Are you my mummy?” here it’s “Hey, who turned out the lights?”). From The Girl In The Fireplace, the child with the large, Mattie-Storrin-like eyes is reminiscent of the young Madame de Pompadour. The Vashta Nerada, as already mentioned, bear some similarity to the statues in Blink, which is also referenced by the Doctor talking to someone through a television screen. But the good thing is, while the items have an element of derivation, they are not merely recycled from what was there before, and further, the plot doesn’t hinge on them. It therefore keeps the story from being just formulaic, predictable or a lazy re-tread of the past.
The talking statues with the face of dead humans are also a clever idea, and intelligently highlights the way taboos change. If you think about it, such statues are actually a splendid tribute to the departed, but it sounds really leery to us because we see what appear to be dead people talking.
The dead talking is in fact a chilling theme running through the story, with books allowing the words of authors from the distant past to reach the people of the Fifty-First Century, and the neural relays allowing an echo of the dying members of the expedition to live on briefly as ghosts. (The Professor even refers to the phenomenon as ‘ghosting’.) And when one of the Daves starts ghost-walking, don’t his movements look like those of an Auton? Just an observation.
Given what a cliche character Evangelista was, the prolonged death-scene with the neural-relay was surprisingly poignant. It was helped that there was plenty of feeling without too much of the emotional exposition. If RTD had written that scene we’d have had to sit through loads of loud crying, with the rest of the crew grailing at themselves – “Oh GOD, I FEEL SOOOOOOO GUILTY FOR TEASING HER, YOU KNOW! I WAS GUILTY OF BEING MEAN TO HER AND MAKING HER THINK SHE WAS STUPID! I HATE FEELING LIKE THIS, I FEEL GUILTY!! DON’T YOU FEEL GUILTY TOO? I MEAN I DO, I FEEL SO GUILTY…” etc. We’d also probably have to endure five minutes of the Doctor ranting on about revenge and how nothing will stop him achieving it.
Instead, we simply hear Donna murmuring what a horrible thing she just saw, and the Professor, in an impressively understated way, admitting she’d “like a word” with whoever killed Evangelista. The rest is left to the performers’ facial acting – DT’s brooding look was particularly well applied here – and to the audience to figure some of it out for themselves. This is good; at least one writer on the series recognises that there’s no need to patronise us.
The guest cast is a cut or two above the usual standard this season. Alex Kingston shows her usual class for playing a knowing female, the kid playing the girl is very good, and the rest of the expedition actors do well with what little they are given. The exception is Colin Salmon as the mysterious psychiatrist, Doctor Moon. He was bloody awful as Avon in the Blake’s 7 radio series last year (bring back Paul Darrow, for heaven’s sake!), and although he’s better here, he still had me thinking he sheds leaves every Autumn. I also have to give credit to the two regulars. David Tennant gives his best display in a long time, and Catherine Tate gives her best display full stop, aside from her too-many-head-bobs delivery of, “Are you talkin’ rubbish? Do you know him or don’t you?”Just one step away from there to, “Am I bovvered?” Ouch.
A few other things I noticed;-
“Maybe they’re really, really quiet.” Well you two won’t fit in very well, will you?
One million million life-forms on the planet? Well, maybe the scanner was set to ignore single-cell organisms and the like (not that the Doctor gave any indication of that), but er… they could just be germs, you know.
The TARDIS diary is a lovely parody of the Doctor’s old 500-year diary. Oh, and some of the direction and camerawork were very cheesy. Please get rid of those stupid, tilting camera angles! It’s like watching a 60’s episode of Batman.
The Doctor shows more of his innate hypocrisy; telling Donna not to read things about her future, and then trying to read the Professor’s diary.
Anyway, bottom line. For about the only time in about a year, the series has managed to drag itself completely away from formula and silly gimmickry. And best of all… I didn’t notice any “We’re not married!” gags!!! Wooooot!! I almost gave it a bonus point just for that.
8/10. Please, please let’s have a two-parter that works all the way through!