Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cold Blood: I Am The Lizard King, I Can Do Anything

'I trust the Doctor with my life.'

Cruelty, sacrifice, hurt, fate and causality, family ties and, magnificently, redemption. These are just some of the themes that Chris Chibnall explores in Cold Blood, the second of his two-part Silurians story. It's an episode that the reptile creatures creator, Malcolm Hulke - a rather lovely old left-wing hippy who wrote stories with beautifully balanced and observed characterisation - would, I'm guessing, have enjoyed and very much approved of in its world-view. Complete with plenty of continuity reference to Hulke's 1970 seven-parter Doctor Who & The Silurians, Cold Blood takes a caustic variant on an age-old Doctor Who staple - science versus the military - as the central prop for some quite beautiful scenes. 'There's always a military, isn't there?' asks the Doctor, sadly, when confronted with the familiar looking Restac. One of the best moments of the episode is when dignified old politician, Eldane, tells the hot-headed and vengeful Restac to 'go and play soldiers, I'll let you know if I need you.' It's a plot idea that finds echoes in Doctor Who as far back as The Daleks in 1963. If we stop posturing, we can start to communicate. A gorgeous example of classic theoretical McLuhanism from a series that has always worn the incongruity of its inherently pacifist leanings with considerable pride. Even, when those appears at odds with exciting an audience.

Chibnall's plot might be - necessarily - unoriginal in some ways but the dialogue in his script simply sings. From lines that appear to be little more than fillers on paper ('how does it feel, ape?'), to pointed socio-political observations that both surprise and challenge the characters, and the audiences, preconceptions ('we are not monsters. And, neither are they'), to a few necessary restatements of some of the series essential core values ('we have to be better than this') here is an episode that, in the words of one of its characters, strove to 'achieve greatness.' For the most part, it gets there, with a series of interesting character pairings - the Doctor and Nasreen, Amy and Mo, Ambrose and Rory - to the fore, and finding time for unexpected moments, key conflict and, essential resolution. There are wise and angry voices, fear as a catalyst for tragedy and, amid the cacophony of misunderstanding, moments for quiet reflection and consensus. Doctor Who at its best, as always, bearing gifts and breaking up fights. And, how interesting that - against notional dramatic typing - in a story about the wish for, and the avoidance of, conflict, it was for the most part the men who wanted to make peace and the women who wanted to fight. Subtle.

Even in an episode as full of portentous (in the nicest possible way) and deadly serious moments as this, though, there's still time for the odd click of humour. For every piece of dogmatic 'this is war' rhetoric, there are clever, witty, neatly observed little jokes. 'We're in the centre of the earth. And, there are lizard men,' might, on reflection, be my favourite line of the current series. It's certainly a classic example of Doctor Who's ability to wink in the face of those times when it's in danger of being just that bit too po-faced and serious. The saucy celery reference might have been lost on the kids, but the two allusions to 'squeaky-bum time' would have caused ripples of barely suppressed giggles right across the land, of that I'm certain. Amy's delight at 'picking the lizard man's pocket' was a joy to see. And, even a child would have be able to understand the clever double meaning to Nasreen's line 'I've got what I was digging for.' Cold Blood, like the best of Doctor Who, works on at least three levels - as surface, as subtext and as metaphor. The story's ecological elements and observations on selfishness are there if you know what you're looking for. But, if you don't, it needn't worry you, there's so much more to enjoy.

And, of course, there was the episode's other major theme, that of sacrifice in all its forms. The Doctor's entire 'there are fixed points through time' speech is, to a seasoned viewer of the show, a sinister forewarning of the personal sacrifice that is to come for the Doctor himself. 'In the future,' he tells Ambrose, sadly, 'when you talk about this, tell people there was a chance. But you were so much less than the best of humanity.' It's dangerously close the the apportioning of blame which, in retrospect, is just asking for trouble. Because, the real blame here points straight towards the TARDIS. Disastrous consequences follow the Doctor letting his curiosity get the better of him of the least appropriate time. Investigating the sudden appearance of yet another crack in the universe, we get the Matt Smith era's first major casualty when Rory dies in the worst possible way - his very existence erased from reality. Hindsight, again, loans Rory's line early in the episode 'I trust the Doctor with my life,' a horrible irony. And, events make hollow and sick, the line in the previous episode in which the Doctor says, confidently, 'nobody dies today.'

The death of a companion is always, of course, an emotional rollercoaster. Here, it's aided by delicate and nuanced performances by Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill that have everything to do with giving the audience a poke to remind them that they're watching a programme about conflict. And, that in conflicts, there are casualties. Amy's poignant 'I thought I saw someone else,' at the climax is a fitting epitaph to a character whose stay on the series was brief but whose impact upon its direction will, I expect, be significant. And the inherent tragedy that the love of his life will never remember he was even there is, possibly, the series cruelest ever departure. Gone, and forgotten, as emphatic as any cold stone epitaph. 'This ends here.' Literally.


Starfy said...

Oh my... very well observed with poor Rory's comments, and the Doctor last week. I remember loving the Doctor's simple "Yes" to whether he could save the father last week - maybe we trusted him too much!

springyrice said...

Great review as always. I do enjoy reading your Who reviews. Sorry to a pedant but who is Karen Pond?