Review by Martin Odoni.
Steven Moffat isn’t half labouring the digs at Russell T. Davies to death. This episode was very consciously a series of loosely-connected set-pieces in the style of Doomsday, David Tennant’s first season finale, the Doctor’s P.A.-delivered speech about, “You’re all scared of me!!!” was overflowing with the Tenth Doctor’s messiah complex, and the sight of yet another vast fleet of alien spaceships in season-ending orbit around the Earth is getting so tired now that I just can’t understand why the occupants of Earth still seem terrified and bewildered when they show up. But all of these aspects are being done this time around as part of a deliberately snarky mindset. Moffat appears to be saying, “Here’s a reminder of how it used to happen… wasn’t it crappy? But now, here’s a glimpse of how it should be done!”
There’s no doubt that the ending redeems the episode to some degree, as the total transformation of the show’s dynamic is a stroke of incontrovertible genius. For nigh-on fifty years, there has been an unceasing campaign by the Doctor to fight the evil of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Zygons, the Sontarans, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all, in order to save the Universe. Now, these monsters have united because they believe that the Universe – themselves included – needs saving from the Doctor. That is such a startling turnabout that it arguably disguises how implausible such an alliance is. Would the Daleks really agree to work with all those other species? I can accept them working with the Autons, and possibly even with the Cybermen, as they were both integral to the plan, but most of the others, such as the Zygons and the Judoon, had no clear practical role. So I can’t quite picture the Daleks, what with their racial superiority complex, tolerating them for long.
Still, remarkable the last few minutes undoubtedly are. They put the previous forty-three or so into perspective as a snide mickey-take out of RTD at his contrivance-spewing worst. But does that mean it was a great episode in disguise? Does the way it caught us rolling our eyes and fearing the worst mean it was brilliant entertainment all along? No. As I’ve pointed out before, forty minutes of rubbish may be deliberate, self-conscious rubbish designed to lull us into a sense of false familiarity, but that does not stop it being rubbish. It was still tiresome to sit through, and a departure-from-formula should have happened more quickly. All of this is to say nothing of the annoyance I’ve highlighted before that Moffat’s roll-call of swipes at RTD is getting really old and boring. The reason I was happy that RTD would be gone was that it would allow for a new approach, not that we could see an ongoing parody of the old one.
The Pandorica itself spent much of the episode reminding me of the Genesis Ark from Doomsday – again, probably deliberate – but it was a genuine surprise to discover it was empty and that its purpose had not even begun yet. And the reason for its creation is another of those time paradoxes that have been done to the point of cliché; the old ‘event-in-history-is-caused-by-the-very-attempt-to-curtail-it’ routine. In this case, imprisoning the Doctor to prevent him from splintering the universe means he is powerless to prevent the TARDIS from exploding, and it is this very explosion that will causes the fabric of space to fragment and unravel. It can be a fascinating irony when done well, but in this case, it’s at the tail-end of a lot of pulpish mediocrity, and so it’s hard to ignore the seen-it-all-before feeling.
The series’ penchant for stealing ideas from Douglas Adams continues apace, with God’s Last Message To His Creation, from So Long And Thanks For All The Fish, parodied with barely even a pretence of disguise. Even the message itself is every bit as twee and throwaway as the one in Hitch Hiker. And again we appear to have a continuity gaffe surrounding River Song. It was established on her last appearance that it was the first time she had ever met Amy. From the dialogue here, it seems this is earlier in River’s personal timeline, yet she shows signs of knowing who Amy is already – she doesn’t even need to be introduced to her, even though she did In The Time Of Angels.
Sorry, gotta ask this; why the horses? Why didn’t The Doctor, Amy and River just get into the TARDIS? It would’ve taken them to Stonehenge in seconds. Do I hear the distant clang of ‘any-excuse-will-do-so-long-as-it-gets-the-Doc-to-ride-wild-stallions’? He’s not a cowboy, and he’s in pre-Dark Age Britain anyway. (Yes, I realise similar questions to this could be asked about a great many episodes through Dr. Who’s history, but it only really occurred to me during this one.)
Rory’s return in this story was widely predicted, and for all the sweetness of his later scenes with Amy, much of the time his return was handled too flippantly to leave much room for pathos. But it was genuinely shocking and saddening to see his Auton-programming force him to attack her.
Production was a cut above the average, with some fairly good sets and effects. Acting was also better than usual, the Doctor’s “I’m tough and you’re afraid of me” speech excluded. Alex Kingston’s performance was sharper than previously, and she allowed River to appear generally a lot less pleased with herself. Karen Gillan thankfully only got one of those cocky head-bobbing moments, and so largely managed not to annoy. But Murray Gold… please, someone slap him. Slap him and repeatedly, it’s what he does to us every week with his overblown music after all, and sometimes a good hard slap across the chops is the only kind way.
I can’t deny I am looking forward to part two, an enthusiasm based almost entirely on the last five or so minutes here. Without quite enjoying the episode, the closing scenario has left me eager to learn how the Doctor is to redeem things. We can assume he does so given that the River in The Time Of Angels is from a later part of her time-stream.
Well, what score can I give? I’m going to be generous and emphasise the positive here and give it a 7 out of 10, but that’s largely because I don’t want to give out yet another 6. This one has had the benefit of the doubt, so part two can expect no such favours should the issue arise.
June 13, 2010
Review by Martin Odoni
You’ll have to bear with me while I write this, I’m just ticking items off my ‘By-the-numbers formula for writing modern Dr. Who stories’ checklist. Let’s see…
1. Nondescript townhouse with a mysterious figure living in the room upstairs. Check.
2. Silly over-the-top music score designed to dull the senses and deafen the thought-processes of the audience. Check.
3. Twee, mushy, romantic sub-plot to provoke approving sighs of, “Awwwwwwwwww…!” from the soap opera-loving editorial staff of the Radio Times. Check.
4. Smattering of technobabble and post-modern self-digs in the dialogue to demonstrate the series’ ‘willingness to laugh at itself’. Check.
5. Surfeit of smug, unnatural-sounding, snappy quips like a script from a Spider-Man cartoon. Check.
6. Lots of loud shouts and screams during the conclusion of the story to convince the audience that something really exciting and scary is going on. Check.
7. Superfluous, scarcely-relevant visual references to all the previous incarnations of the Doctor. Check.
Oh, you get the idea.
Actually, this is probably a little unfair, as The Lodger had its share of redeeming qualities. But as has been the case quite a bit in recent weeks, original ideas were not among them. Even the Doctor playing football was clearly just a pastiche of the Fifth Doctor playing cricket in Black Orchid (shamelessly confirmed by the BBC website).
It was helped somewhat by the decision to separate off the Doctor from Amy. As Amy was the one who spent the whole episode trapped aboard the TARDIS, and the Doctor was the one who was stranded, the dynamic was at least somewhat new, so that at least can give the impression, however misleading, that we were watching something different. Sadly, the unrequited love story has been done absolutely everywhere, while the ‘evil-secret-upstairs’ scenario mentioned above was done twice in David Tennant’s first season alone (The Idiot’s Lantern and Fear Her).
Craig and Sophie were both rather dull guest characters that could just as easily have been slotted into an episode of EastEnders. Craig’s a couch potato, Sophie’s the girl who has a couple of keys to his flat. The only vaguely interesting aspect about them was Craig’s fast-cultivated resentment of the Doctor, which at least gave the episode a sorely-needed edge. As for Sophie, well, what can I say? Sophie wants an adventure! Sophie wants to get out there and live! Sophie wants to see far-off places! That wouldn’t remind you of one or two or three former companions of the Doctor would it? (Or indeed the present one?) It’s like every woman in the Dr. Who universe since Rose’s alarm clock went off is a bored chav who’s on the lookout for exotic travel (or the irascible mum of a bored chav who’s on the lookout for exotic travel).
The computerised hologram on the nonexistent top floor seemed very derivative as well. Not really much to distinguish its programmed nature from that of the robots in The Girl In The Fireplace. Still, that wasn’t a completely terrible aspect, as the robots were rather cleverly-written in that. If you must steal, you might as well steal from the best.
Once the spacecraft disappeared, the single-storey house suddenly looked ridiculously out of place against the two double-decker houses around it. Also, there’s clearly no way up from the house to where the spacecraft had landed, so how exactly did all those people who climbed the pseudo-stairs manage to board it? And by the way, the ‘perception-filter’ (TM & © of Deus Ex Machina Enterprises: ‘Emergency-Meaningless-Technobabble-For-Helping-A-Stuck-Writer-To-Contrive-A-Convenient-Way-To-Climb-Out-Of-The-Plothole-He’s-Dug-Himself-Into’ Division) was like those preposterous keys in Last Of The Time Lords; another cheap rip-off of the Somebody Else’s Problem field in Life, The Universe And Everything.
In defence of the episode, the acting was generally better than usual. Matt Smith is now looking triumphantly in command of the role, and making it his own rather than just a hand-me-down from David Tennant; Smith really is a natural for this part in a way no one has quite been since Tom Baker’s time and is developing into one of my all-time favourites now. Karen Gillan is back to good form as well, though more by circumstances than design; with Amy put in such a protracted, sustained position of panic, she never got the chance to resume her strutting-cockiness motif, which meant that, for the first time in about a month, she ceased to annoy. And given that they were playing a pair of dreary ciphers, James Corden and Daisy Haggard were commendably good as Craig and Sophie.
Production standards were reasonable, although if you think about it, that was hardly difficult seeing almost all the story is set in a shabby urban townhouse. But the set for the spacecraft is quite well done – if a little sparse – and the hologram effects did all that was asked of them. Pity that Murray Gold was profoundly reverting to type in the later scenes.
So, unoriginal but inoffensive again. The season is still stagnating in one-tone mediocrity, but rarely drops to worse than that, and seeing the mighty Moffat’s return to the writer’s saddle is imminent, there’s a good chance things will improve soon. The Lodger gets 6/10, which is becoming a very familiar scoreline this year.
Review by Martin Odoni
You know, this had all the makings on paper of being a real festival of originality and creativity. And, given that it was to be about van Gogh, it should have been a great tribute to originality and creativity too. It had everything going for it. Richard Curtis is a hugely successful writer and satirist, with a career entirely independent of the creative team of Dr. Who (so he should have had plenty of room to explore his own ideas), it has some very effective and valid things to say on the subject of depression and emotional disorders, and the concept of meeting one of the great artists of human history (not Da Vinci for once, which is rare for a Dr. Who episode about artists) sounds really promising.
So let me ask the eternal ‘biggie’; why does Vincent & The Doctor turn out to be such a cowardly adherence-to-formula? Seriously, it doesn’t take a single chance with anything. Routines are recycled from elsewhere so liberally that they might just as well have repeated The Unicorn & The Wasp.
Am I really the only one getting sick of these episodes where a great artistic or political figure from British history meets the Doctor and his companion and they spend half the episode trying to feed them things to say or do that they will become famous for in later life? In Tooth & Claw, Rose kept trying to get Queen Victoria to say, “We are not amused!” In The Shakespeare Code we had to endure round after round of the Doctor and Martha throwing around quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, setting up the bard to say, “Hey, I might use that in one of my scripts!” In the aforementioned The Unicorn & The Wasp (one of the most truly awful episodes of Dr. Who ever made), the Doctor and Donna feed plot ideas to Agatha Christie. And now we have the Doctor and Amy suggesting Vincent van Gogh should paint images that we already know he’s going to do in the future. It seems, even with a new producer in charge, the series will not stop congratulating itself for jokes it’s done a hundred times before (and weren’t even particularly funny the first time).
Another routine is lifted, this time from Evolution Of The Daleks, where the Doctor spends a minute or two trying to reason with the evil monster, which appears to listen quietly, and then wordlessly resumes its dreadful attack. Remember Hugh Quarshie’s character getting exterminated after his tedious, “We’re all in this together!” speech? Samey. The repetitive bow-tie gags are getting pretty boring too.
The actual plot is as half-baked and generic as they come. An invisible monster is haunting somebody, the Doctor and his companion arrive on the scene, spend a while running around and getting agitated a lot, then kill the monster. And that really is about it. Now, even sidestepping the matter of what a 50’s sci-fi movie cliché an invisible monster is anyway, this story is so linear and meat-less that it’s probably the least satisfying episode of the season from a purely cerebral point of view. Given how brainless Victory Of The Daleks was, that’s saying something pretty major. Perhaps it’s a glaring sign that the plot itself is only a paste-on to justify what was really needed, which was an excuse to have a story starring Vincent van Gogh. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised though, as plotting has never been Curtis’ strong point. I mean in all those years working on Blackadder, even with Ben Elton working alongside him Curtis could only ever come up with about five different stories.
Still Vincent & The Doctor has its strengths. As I mentioned before, the details about depression and mental illness are perfectly valid and quite well done – they hit quite close to home for me as well, for reasons I won’t go into here. It also looks very well made as an episode. If there’s one thing that Dr. Who has always done well, old era and new, it’s producing historical environments and making them look authentic. And the music is again composed for the most part with commendable caution by Murray Gold, which is another redeeming feature.
But the performances are all off-colour for differing reasons. Matt Smith seems nervous all the way through. I don’t just mean that he makes the Doctor appear nervous, I mean he seems agitated and unsure what he should be doing. Karen Gillan’s “look-how-sexy-and-cocky-I-am-and-how-clever-I-sound!” strutting, head-bobbing saunter is now p*ssing me off no end, and I really want something bad to happen to Amy just to force Gillan to rein it in a bit. She’s still a companion with great potential, but it’s being thrown away far too often in favour of resurrecting the old Rose-Tyler smugness. Meanwhile, Tony Curran doesn’t seem to have been informed that van Gogh was Dutch, and not from central Ibrox. Not a big problem, as fussing too much about accents can detract from the rest of a performance, but it still bears mentioning. Bill Nighy was rather good as the curator, mind, but dreadfully underused in what was really just a walk-on role. Surely they could have given him more to do than that?
Things did improve a bit towards the end, and Amy’s tears when she realised that they had failed to resuscitate Vincent’s self-esteem was quite affecting. But it’s asking a lot to sit through forty-odd minutes of very by-the-numbers television to get to it.
I do like historicals. And I do think that the personal-historical (meeting a great figure from history) genre that the series keeps going for does have potential. But so far, none of the episodes they’ve made in that genre have been much kop. The Shakespeare Code was about the best of them, and that doesn’t exactly draw comparisons with the work of Dostoevsky, does it? I guess it’s worth giving the idea one more try, but they have got to ditch so many of the conventions that keep getting brought back into them.
I’m afraid that, after a great start, this season really is stumbling through the mire of mediocrity and has been for weeks now. It’s still generally been far better than the last two years of utter trash under RTD, but it’s still not living up to its potential. As for this episode in its own right, I can only give it 4 out of 10.
June 6, 2010
by Martin Odoni
There are ghosts. They’re not exactly what we think they are of course, but ghosts do exist, and they always have the same effect when they’re near. An uneasy, nervous sensation grips you, a sense that something that shouldn’t be there is hovering just over your shoulder. You turn to look out for it, but you can never quite fix it in your sights; whichever way you turn, however fast you move, it always seems able to match you precisely and stay off right on the very edge of your vision. Just enough to remain a frightening distraction, but not enough for you to do anything about it.
There then may follow a heart-stopping impression that something isn’t there that should be, as though the ghost has snatched away something precious. Or even worse, the ghost itself is what is missing, and it’s shouting loud, begging you to help it return to the real world, and yet you can never quite make enough sense of its words. This is the impression the ghosts of Exeter might give you.
Now Exeter is a city that has its fair share of spectral legends. For instance, the ghost that supposedly haunts the top floor of St. Katherine’s Priory near Stoke Hill, or the lost soul that apparently lurks in the early-Modern refectory on Cathedral Close. But these are not the type of ghost under discussion here.
Wander up the slope of South Street, or along Sidwell Street’s deceptive length, and you may find yourself glancing up, to the side, over your shoulder, thinking to yourself, "What am I missing? What should be here…?" But of course, you can never see it, never get any answer to the nagging question. You know something should be here, possibly you even have half an idea where the missing element should go, but you haven’t a clue where to find it or what it is.
What is missing, it could well be argued, is Exeter itself.
This is not to say that the Cathedral city is unpleasant or empty. On the contrary, it’s quite a mild, appealing mix of lively modernity and ornate tradition. But there is a certain uniqueness, a depth of character that just isn’t quite there, and yet you know – you’re not always sure how you know it, but you know it nonetheless – that it was there once.
In the 1930’s, Exeter, one of Britain’s oldest and proudest cities, really was something special. After centuries, it was still the effective capital of the West Country – easily more prominent than today’s chief urban centres of Bristol and Plymouth – a beautiful, grand little city, full of life, full of colour and with a vibrant energy that survivors of the era would hark back to for many years afterwards. It had busy, narrow, winding streets lined with timber-framed buildings, almost a Twentieth Century throwback to the Tudor age. Some of her buildings, such as the mansions of Bedford Circus, the Commercial Union Building, Eastgate Arcade, the Globe Hotel, and the Church of St. Lawrence, were among the finest architecture to be found anywhere in the British Isles; if you don’t believe me, photographs of them exist in the archives, so Google the names and see for yourself. But in the year 2010, these structural masterpieces are no longer to be found.
The changes began in the 1940’s, although few in the city had wanted to make them *. Instead they were forced upon them in the most violent manner possible. The Second World War had been raging for several years already when the British decided on landing a punch below the belts of Nazi Germany **. On the night of the 28th and morning of the 29th of March 1941, two hundred and thirty-four British bombing planes and fighters flew across the English Channel into German airspace. This flotilla then dropped one hundred and forty-four tons of incendiaries and one hundred and sixty tons of high explosive on the small, unprotected German port of Lubeck, triggering a firestorm that, directly or indirectly, caused the deaths of over three hundred people, and destroyed well over half the buildings in the city. A strategically-unimportant city was engulfed in fire, and as the planes turned for home, they left behind them a city scarred, broken and ruined.
When Germany’s Fuerher, Adolf Hitler, heard word of the attack, his considerable fury was piqued, and he ordered a series of reprisal attacks against five equally unimportant towns across England. One of his chief propagandists, Gustav Braun von Stumm, dubbed this macabre campaign of revenge ‘Baedeker’, named after a travel guide to Britain that had been written for German tourists in the 1930’s. “The Luftwaffe will target every building marked with three stars in Baedeker.”
The targets selected were Bath, Canterbury, Norwich and York. But first of all, a small Luftflotte of thirty-two jets was sent to the English West Country to bombard the regional capital of Exeter.
Exeter had in fact faced air raids on a very small scale since as early as August 1940, at the height of the Battle Of Britain, so the sight of Luftwaffe planes overhead was hardly something the people of the city were new to. But what ensued in late April and early May 1942 was something altogether different. After a ‘warm-up’ sting on the 23rd of April, the first really intense attack was on April 24th. German bombing raids destroyed Comrie Crescent entirely, and much of King Street and Wonford Street.
But all this was as nothing to the fledgling hours of the 4th of May 1942. This time, the heart of Exeter, its narrow streets and timbered houses ripe for the swift spread of fire, was reduced to smouldering rubble and ash in a quick, thorough series of bombing attacks from the sky. This was the night that became infamous in Devon’s local history as the Exeter Blitz.
It is not always appreciated today, even among many of the city’s own inhabitants, the real degree of the destruction that night. The main span of the Blitz was only about an hour and a quarter, but during that time, the central hub of the city, High Street, Sidwell Street, South Street and Fore Street, and dozens of narrower streets around and in between, were all devastated by explosives and fires, with many more buildings damaged or destroyed than left intact. Two-thirds of the High Street and Sidwell Street were burned down. The top quarter of Fore Street was left in ruins, as were the top two-thirds of South Street. Catherine Street, running parallel to the High Street, more or less ceased to exist ***. Bampfylde Street was flattened ***. Paris Street lost its famous Palladium Cinema and over a dozen shops. Summerland Street was almost wiped off the map ***. Of the twenty-three great buildings on Bedford Circus, only eight were still standing by sunrise. In the Newtown district just beyond Sidwell Street, many houses in Portland Street and Prospect Park (a street I was to live on in the late 1980’s) were reduced to bombed-out shells. St. Sidwell’s Church was literally sliced in half by a bizarre bomb impact that sent a quarter-ton slab of granite flying about a quarter of a mile, landing with lethal force through the roof of a distant house.
One hour and fifteen minutes of madness later, over a hundred and fifty people lay dead, over five hundred and sixty more were injured, over one thousand five hundred buildings had been destroyed, and thousands more were damaged – many so severely that they were unsafe and required demolition anyway. In the space of less than eighty minutes, the heart of Exeter, one of England’s oldest, most historic and beautiful cities, had been smashed and gutted out. Some of its finest long-standing buildings and most popular landmarks were among those lost. Even the great Cathedral had been struck by a high explosive bomb, destroying St. James Chapel and the Choristers School in their entirety, and causing severe damage to the southern aisle of the Cathedral-proper; two of its supporting buttresses were destroyed, and damage to any of the others might have caused much of the Cathedral’s structure to collapse.
Exeter’s blitz of course had parallels with the Battle Of Britain and the horrors inflicted on London, but there was a difference for the inhabitants. Londoners could mass in huge numbers below ground in the Underground Stations. Exeter was too small a city to have its own underground rail network, and so the inhabitants had few places to hide except in their own homes ****, which of course offered little protection.
Hitler himself gloated when he received reports of the destruction. "Exeter was the jewel of Western England… we have destroyed that jewel," proclaimed Nazi propaganda. On both counts, correct. Exeter was the soul of the West Country at the time, and the destruction was so extreme that when many of the dazed and bewildered inhabitants finally emerged, blinking and shaking, into the morning daylight of May 4th, they surveyed a (still-ablaze) city so broken that they could hardly identify anything they looked at. To see the photographs of the aftermath is to realise that saying, "Exeter was destroyed in 1942" is not much of an exaggeration.
Put an Exonian in suspended animation in 1938, and then revive him in, say, 1970, and he would have trouble recognising the city he is waking to as his own. This was chiefly because of the horrors of the Blitz, but partly also because of what followed.
The general exhaustion and economic destitution caused by the war meant that large stretches of Britain were littered with wrecked wastelands for many years afterwards, with sufficient resources for rebuilding much of what was lost only becoming available piecemeal.
This led on to the additional difficulty that much that was lost was almost impossible to replace; some of the greatest, most intricately-crafted buildings of the United Kingdom were destroyed, and some of them were old enough that the original blueprints for their construction were long lost.
This was especially true in the mutilated city of Exeter, which had lost most of its finest and most loved landmarks, many dating back centuries. The difficulty therefore lay not just in finding the resources and the will to go back and rebuild, but also in judging exactly what shape the revived city should take, tasks that weren’t really addressed on a concerted scale until ten years after the end of the war.
Of course, it’s easy to sneer when you aren’t in the difficult position of having to make such decisions, but it has to be conceded that the path that was eventually chosen was something of a cop-out. Although some of the rebuilt housing was of good quality and passably easy on the eye, much of the rebuilding of the city centre through the 1960’s very much erred on the side of caution.
To compare, in particular, modern Sidwell Street with pictures of its pre-war manifestation would be like comparing ice to steam. Your brain tells you that you’re looking at the same thing, you know with your head that geographically this is the same place, and you can even see the odd surviving remnant of the old city here and there. But every instinct in your being tells you that it can’t possibly be true. Your heart says you’re looking at some place entirely different.
To get things in perspective, I must make clear that the architecture in modern Exeter is far from bad – genuinely ugly buildings in the city remain mercifully rare – but as you walk along Sidwell Street towards the (amusingly-named) Pennsylvania district, you quickly get the impression of what a city must look like when it’s fallen asleep. So many samey brick structures. So much concrete. So much blandness. So little colour. So few daring shapes. With the obvious exception of the hopelessly-sited (and now deserted) old Debenhams monolith on the corner with Longbrook Street, there are no buildings that actually offend your sensibilities or make you think, "Holy cow, what an eyesore!" but in truth, there’s little in this corner of town that will inspire any aesthetic feeling in you at all. It’s just tame. The town planners simply decided to play it safe and throw up a new, uniform town centre made of featureless concrete and blockishly-arrayed red bricks, and leave the question of character to another day.
If you go back and look at the pictures of the pre-war Sidwell Street, in all its shapely variety and grandness, the word "character" is precisely what leaps to mind. This was a city that was unique and had an according sense of itself. And there is truly no resemblance to the Sidwell Street of today, which looks generic enough that it could be part of almost any large English town. It thus has no sense of uniqueness or of itself at all. (Its eastern half has even been re-sited somewhat, to fit it with the new street plan.)
The rebuilding program saw a number of the streets that had been destroyed in the war simply swallowed up into the new concrete monoliths that were thrown up in an almost indecent haste around the High Street and Paris Street. Some older buildings that had survived the Blitz intact were mercilessly pulled down to make way for the new street plan – including surviving remnants of Bedford Circus. To people who had memories of Old Exeter, the horror of what was emerging was almost as great as the horror of the Blitz itself.
We should not be too quick to condemn the town planners for this, as they were in a difficult position. For one thing, none of this would have had to happen were it not for the Blitz. (And by the way, before we digress into nationalistic rants about the evil of the Nazis and those "demonic Huns", we should also not forget that the attack, however unjustified, was provoked by an equally brutal British attack on Lubeck **, a city that was just as peaceful, innocent and strategically-unimportant.) For another, given the perilous financial situation of the country after the war, there was no way a rebuilding program could be attempted without private investment. And one of the sad realities of private investment is that the terms of the investors must be met, first and foremost; otherwise they will simply withdraw the funding. So if the investors do not consider aesthetics a priority, then nor will any of the others involved.
In any event, although the architects were not brave, enough of the old city remains in some areas to keep Exeter true to itself, after a fashion. The gleaming white Cathedral was fully restored and remains one of the finest and most stunning architectural sights to behold anywhere in Europe. The revived Cathedral green that surrounds it is also beautiful and picturesque. While some new bits of the High Street continue that characterless pattern from Sidwell Street, other parts, such as the millennium-old St. Stephens Church and the Medieval Guildhall are testament to the continuity of an ancient city. Same could be said of the White Hart Inn on South Street, or St. Olave’s Church on Fore Street.
The problem is, what remain most striking and appealing about modern Exeter are the remnants of the old city that survived the Blitz, far more than the modern edifices that were put up in the aftermath. (Too often, the word ‘modernisation’ is used by its proponents as a euphemism for ‘vandalism’.) The surviving beauty is largely in spite of the reconstruction work, and not because of it. As I say, the new buildings of Exeter rarely offend (although Renslade House on the riverfront is another unfortunate exception, a truly grotesque, oversized heap of multi-storey, miscoloured concrete that has no place in a city like Exeter at all), and their featurelessness in some ways allows them to ‘blend in’ with the remnants of the older city quite comfortably. This contrasts sharply with Chester, where the construction of new buildings has been forced next to the old in a way that sometimes clashes jarringly. But the sense of loss in Exeter is still real, as the new buildings don’t come anywhere near to replacing what was there before them.
Through the last five years or so, the pre-war grounds of Catherine Street and around the remains of the old Roman Wall were built over a second time and fully pedestrianised into a new, innovatively-styled shopping arcade called Princesshay, named after an unpopular shopping area built on the same site in the 1950’s. The new Princesshay certainly has a lot more character than the architecture of the 1960’s to the 1980’s, and is very pleasant to look at. I was rather startled to see it when I visited Exeter in 2008, as it had simply not been there on my previous trip home way back in 1992. It’s definitely a plus, but even there it doesn’t fully compensate. This is because the design has an unmistakeable whiff of the urban renewal projects that have been taking place up and down the country. It ends the sterile concrete feel that has spread through parts of the city centre since the war, which is undoubtedly for the better, but it does little to bring back Old Exeter’s uniqueness.
None of this, I must repeat, should be taken to mean the modern city is actually unpleasant. On the contrary, it is still a snug, mild, safe and intermittently-lovely environment to visit or live in, inhabited by polite, good-humoured, eccentric people. But there’s still something not there that should be. Although it’s still special to me, and always will be – that’s only natural, it’s my hometown after all – to the wider world it is not as special anymore, and it is precisely because it is not quite as unique anymore. The potential still shines through in every brick, every stone, a potential that had been realised long ago, and was then lost.
The bombing itself was not quite a catastrophe. Compared with the near-annihilation a couple of years later of the major cities of the Third Reich, such as Berlin, Wurzburg and Dresden, what happened to Exeter in 1942 looks like a boxer sustaining a couple of cracked ribs while his opponent succumbs to severe neurological trauma. And indeed, just within the sphere of Baedeker, Bath and Canterbury suffered wider destruction and loss of life. Nor is the half-heartedness of Exeter’s reconstruction a catastrophe, for it is still a beautiful place, at least sporadically *****.
But still, there is something sad about it all. For the ghosts I spoke of earlier are not the souls of dead people, but more the echoes of an idea realised and then lost. And the sadness is not that the rebuilding of Exeter was a missed opportunity, but that it was an opportunity that the city would have been far, far better not to have been presented with in the first place.
So when I walk the streets of the city I love, and I hear the ghosts in my ear, I realise now that they are not trying to scare me or to make me jump. They are screaming, begging, pleading with me to remember what they were, and not to allow the memory of the city that once existed to be forgotten. The ghosts are the past of the city itself.
And where the catastrophe for Exeter really lies is that while we may be able to hear the ghosts as they plead with us, still we cannot see them. And our eyes are truly the poorer for that.
* There is some debate about whether there were those in Exeter City Council who were secretly delighted by the Blitz, as it saved them a job of getting approval to demolish half the city centre. Documents released in the late 1960’s under the Thirty-Year Rule show that plans were already in place as far back as 1937 – not just before the Blitz but actually before the war – to demolish every building on Paris Street in order to widen the road. This is a strong indicator as to how unsentimental the Council was about the city’s legacy, and how ruthless it was prepared to be about making the flow of traffic easier. But it does not prove that the Council was always going to sweep away the city centre in its entirety, nor that it would end up looking the way it does now regardless of the war.
** It is possible that the attack on Lubeck was an accident caused by pilots mistaking it for the correct target, which has been the official British position on the subject for many years. However, this is not altogether borne out by the statements made on the subject by the officers and pilots involved in the decision themselves. For example, Air Marshall Arthur "Bomber" Harris cheerfully admitted that he gave the order to destroy it just ‘to be on the safe side’, so to speak. His exact words were, "It seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city." Given the repercussions for not only Lubeck but also cities like Exeter, Bath and Norwich, Harris’ definition of ‘better’ perhaps requires re-analysis.
*** Summerland Street, Bampfylde Street and Catherine Street do exist in modern Exeter, but they bear little resemblance to their counterparts of the 1930s. Summerland Street is on roughly the same site as its predecessor, but is entirely built up with brick industrial outlet buildings. Once again, none of them are actually ugly, but all of them are generic and uninspired. Bampfylde Street’s current incarnation is a narrow back road running parallel to Sidwell Street behind the Bus Station on Paris Street. The site of the original Bampfylde Street is now a wide footpath leading from the High Street, through the new Princesshay shopping arcade, down to Southernhay. It is called Bampfylde Lane. Meanwhile, modern Catherine Street is not even a road anymore – it’s just a narrow back alley running behind St. Stephen’s Church on the High Street.
**** It is worth mentioning that, in this context, Exeter did have its version of the Underground Stations, a series of Medieval underground passages built for the movement of clean water supplies around the city, and people did hide out in these during the Exeter Blitz. However, there was only room in them for around three hundred people, and the conditions were infinitely more cramped; I’ve been in them, and I can tell you that in most places you can’t sit, crouch or stand up straight, but only poise yourself in a very stressful stooping position. Staying down there for hours with the bombs thundering and fires raging overhead, and without clean air, must have seemed like purgatory.
***** Given the old city’s terrible slum areas, whose clearance was long overdue and only completed after the war as part of the rebuilding program, it could well be argued that the beauty of Exeter was just as sporadic in the old days as in the new. Certainly, those who claim that pre-war Exeter was uniformly a better place than the post-war city are guilty of nostalgic cherry-picking.
June 5, 2010
Review by Martin Odoni
Not bad. Indeed by Chris Chibnall’s standards, pretty good. It has some interesting, if not exactly original, things to say about human desperation and its capacity for corruption and violence. The points raised about over-population and resource-limits are worthy, although again not exactly revelatory. Restac and Alaya are unsubtle racism figures, about as subtext-lite as the Kaleds in Genesis Of The Daleks, but I guess they’re still valid. I still find the portrayal of Alaya and Restac a bit limited and hard to reconcile with the Silurians in general – they really do have nothing to like about them at all – but happily they prove to be the exception. Eldane in particular is very much more in keeping with the Silurians of old. It does smack of cheapness, by the way, that Alaya and Restac were both played by the same actress.
It’s a better-than-usual second part, which is an achievement in itself, but there are still weaknesses.
The dialogue remains hit-and-miss, as it always does in NuWho. Many lines are too flippant and smartass to sound natural, and they really start to annoy more than usual here, particularly from Rory and Amy. There are excellent moments from most of the guest cast, usually when their characters are affected by real moments of turmoil and are therefore having to play things straight. The story does have some very effective patches of real drama, and I can’t help feeling it would have worked a lot better if it had tried to focus on that instead of playing for casual laughs at unsuitable junctures.
Some of the characterisation is a bit inconsistent and implausible, and this is especially evident from Mo’s interactions with Malokeh. In the first episode, Malokeh was a heartless, indifferent scientist who was fascinated to learn about unknown life-forms, but quite unmoved at the thought of dissecting sentient creatures while they’re wide awake, like a toddler unthinkingly tearing the legs off insects. Suddenly he is shown here to have a deep conscience and to be greatly troubled by the prospect of an unnecessary war. And I am frankly amazed that Mo does not sneer, or even react, when the Doctor expresses his love and admiration for the old scientist. Has Mo simply forgotten that Malakay had opened up and examined his insides without anaesthetic an hour or so earlier?
The negotiations between Eldane and Amy and Nasreen are amateurish. I know they’re meant to be, but I refuse to buy the idea that it took Eldane such an apparently long time to suggest, "We can offer you improved technology in exchange for living space." Surely that would be the first thing he’d put on the table!
The scenes when Alaya is murdered, and also when the Silurians learn of it, are strong, again highlighting that when the episode tries to do drama instead of playing for laughs, it’s pretty good to watch. It’s a pity it has to keep ruining the effect by littering itself with lazy, self-satisfied slang references to "it’s pretty cool" and "super-squeaky bum time".
This is another of the recent episodes where the resolution isn’t really enacted by the Doctor. Eldane is the one who thinks up the idea of fumigating the Silurian tunnels, and also puts it into effect. Not a problem as such, but the Doctor is starting to look less effective than he used to.
One-note over-familiar-complaint-of-the-week: can we please have an episode or two where the sonic screwdriver is not used as a gun?
The ending with Rory’s annihilation from time arrived a bit out of nowhere. Bit of a shock-value-only send-off for him. And how come the Doctor wasn’t wiped when he put his arm in the time crack if Rory himself is wiped just by lying down near it? Still, it’s moving at the last, especially Amy’s desperation not to forget him. When she suddenly does forget him at the end and immediately cheers up, it is even more poignant, as there’s something very disturbing about someone being wiped from the slate like that. The true horror of totalitarian ideas laid bare, though I doubt that was Chibnall’s intention.
The final moment is really startling though. The TARDIS is set to explode in the relative future, and that, presumably, is what causes the time crack. That’s good stuff at least!
Performances are okay. Matt Smith is looking very settled in the role now. Arthur Darvill is inoffensive but still not really given much of use to work with. Karen Gillan is excellent at the end when she’s given something real to do other than make smug, flippant remarks, but again the strutting, sauntering smugness early on is a real ball-ache. Of the guest cast, I reckon Nia Roberts is probably the highlight, which is unsurprising given that she has the most complex role to play; a mother torn by fear for her family, and forced to behave with terrible dishonesty accordingly. Stephen Moore is predictably good as Eldane, although at times he does look a bit tired. Maybe the costume was a bit too heavy and warm for his comfort? That’d explain why he didn’t wear the Marvin costume in the TV version of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
Hmm, I wonder if there’s a reason why Restac is an anagram of ‘traces’?
Okay, what score to give it? It’s too flawed, alas, for me to give it better than a 6 out of 10, but it’s a whole lot better than Chibnall’s usual offerings, and it at least has the benefit of being a second part that isn’t weaker than the first for once. As both parts got a 6, I suppose the two-parter as a whole should get a 6 as well, although in fairness, the story as a whole is clearly better than the sum of its parts, so I was tempted to give it an extra point. I’ll think about it.