A Sonic Screwdriver Too Far

I’ve just finished watching both Friday night’s Battlestar Galactica on Sci Fi — the mid-season finale “Revelations”, the last episode until the start of 2009 — and Saturday night’s Doctor Who on BBC One — “Midnight”, another mid-season episode, but with more to come from next week onwards.

The current productions of Doctor Who suffer massively from some serious problems. Don’t get me wrong, it has its good points: the acting is usually pretty good, with special kudos to David Tennant, the plots and attempts at story arcs have improved massively over time, and its capacity to scare us all behind the sofa is still there. But the problems are still there too, and they stop Who from achieving true greatness in the way BSG has.

The orchestral score, while much more polished than the classic BBC Radiophonic Workshop bleeps and wails, is simply too loud. This week’s cacophony owed a lot to Michael Giacchini’s work on Lost, almost to the point of pure plagiarism.

The visual effects, while much improved over their counterparts of the 1960s through 1980s, still suffer from an at times amateurish feel. Some shots of The Library in previous weeks’ episodes were truly stunning, but this week’s attempt to render a diamond planet were just shoddy. The entire show was from the get-go a “bottle show” — a Star Trek-ism where to keep the budget low, the episode would be set completely within the starship, with minimal use of visual effects and location shooting. Here, the bulk of the show was set inside the Crusader tour bus, thus keeping the vfx requirement to a minimum. I can understand not wanting to blow an entire series budget in one episode, but you’d think they could spend a little bit of time on the vfx, bottle show or not.

The production quality seems utterly dependent on what location they decide to shoot in to — again — save money. A few weeks ago we had a story set in an underground tunnel complex on a far-off planet. Why, on such a planet, would there be a sign printed on a fire alarm control box with pageholder contact instructions and mobile phone number? This wasn’t even hidden in the background in such a way that my geek eyes wpuld catch it fleetingly in a Photoshop-processed still frame; this was clear as day for several seconds in shot. Last week, we had the latest thin Apple keyboards on the terminals of an alien library. This week, while being set presumably in the future, we were in a tour bus fitted out with seats and fittings from an old Boeing airliner, and a coffee dispenser and paper cups very clearly from the present. I know, it’s a TV show, and there’s only so much room to reinvent the present, but it jars when you recognise something so very “now”, and the narrative, however compelling and immersive, is disrupted.

The scripts thus far have been pretty damn good, with few real clunker stories — although the 2007 Christmas special starring Kylie Minogue was absolute crap — and some great comedic moments have been given to Tennant, who luckily has a flair for delivering them. But — and of course there’s a but — there have been plenty of moments with nothing but cheese on display.

The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver — originally a device rarely seen — has turned into some sort of tricorder-cum-deus-ex-machina. Any time the Doctor needs to find something out that he can’t figure out visually or intellectually, out comes the screwdriver. Need to close or open a door? Screwdriver. Darken a helmet visor? Screwdriver. Data storage device? Computer hacking? Screwdriver.

Oh, and Rose appeared yet again, bleating silently from a screen while the Doctor wasn’t watching. The Doctor may not have seen it, but thousands of pasty geeks will have. Cue endless discussion about something we know is happening, namely the return of Rose. Again, this is something US shows — and BSG in particular — do so much better than recent Who has ever done: foreshadowing. Surely there are less blatant ways to do this? I can think of one way not to do it: tell us what’s happening next week. This may work well with soaps and non-episodic drama, but when you’re trying to build an arc, what’s the point in giving us spoilers a week before? I understand the “why” — it gets you all excited so that you can’t wait to tune in next week — but if you feel the need to show the audience part of the next episode, what faith are you showing in the capacity of the episode that has just aired to keep the viewers on tenterhooks for a week? Moving the schedules around doesn’t help either: 7pm one week, 6:45pm the next. Those with PVRs are fine; those wanting to sit down at the same time every Saturday with their friends and/or family and enjoy the show — surely the very raison d’être of weekend evening entertainment shows — are fucked.

This week’s episode “Midnight” has me definitely interested in what’s to come this series, as Who’s current strong points were evident en masse. Yet the problems are still there. And while it was fun to hear the Enterprise bridge sound effects from Star Treks II and III in the cockpit of the Crusader tours bus, perhaps if the Radiophonic Workshop was still involved, the producers could have created some original — and appropriate — sound effects to suit the mood. Perhaps while they’re at it, we could hear less of these irritating stock audio library sirens whenever the slightest thing happens? Please? I guess that even with these issues, the fact that I still want to watch next week speaks volumes. Who is still a great show. I’d just love if it was the real deserved classic it could so easily become.

Then there’s Battlestar Galactica. Over roughly the same time as the newest series of Who, BSG has managed to build a stunning story arc, created fascinating characters portrayed by great actors, and smothered them in music, visual effects, quality production and scripts week-in and week-out that would not be out of place in a movie theatre. Yes, there are unbelievable plot moments; yes, there are similar jarring “now” prop moments, but these have all been noted by the show’s creator, and are all addressable before the show’s end, while Who’s prop faults are harder to deal with on a narrative basis; and yes, sometimes the acting is scenery chewingly over the top. Yet, again it transcends these problems to be massively compelling. The ongoing storylines and the sheer darkness and drama of it all place it that much higher on the “engaging” scale compared to Who, which only occasionally reaches the immersiveness that the BSG universe gives us. The sheer attention to detail alone offers us a vision that Who can only dream to offer. Couple that with the Who producers unwillingness to produce the show in high definition — “cost”, is their main concern for the BBC’s flagship entertainment show, while Torchwood gets the HD treatment without a mutter — and Battlestar Galactica is easily the best science fiction show airing today. Thank goodness there’s at least one.

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