Friday, June 20, 2008

Doctor Who, "Silence in the Library": The time-traveler's wife?

Spoilers for "Silence in the Library," the latest bit of Steven Moffat-penned "Doctor Who" brilliance, coming up just as soon as I explore all the buttons on my remote control...

Spoilers. Heh.

So here we have an episode in which The Doctor states his desire to protect Donna from spoilers about her future, and then in which The Doctor meets a woman who has her own book of spoilers about how and when she'll know The Doctor in his own future (as well as what horrible fate awaits our Donna), and in the real world we have me, Alan Sepinwall, trying real, real hard to obey the law and my own responsibilities as a critic(*) by not downloading and viewing a copy of part two of this story so I can know what happens with Donna's face, and the little girl/security-bot, and the million-million lifeforms, and The Doctor's apparent future romance with Professor Song, and...

...wouldn't it be easier if I could just look through the book and see what happens next?

(*) Really, it's the critic thing more than the lawful thing that's preventing me from jumping straight to "Forest of the Dead," as I don't want whatever I say here to be colored by my knowledge of what's coming. Sure, I've written about series where I've seen entire seasons in advance, but the cliffhanger nature of something like "Silence of the Library" makes me want to be responding emotionally to what happened in the same way I would if I had been in England a few weeks ago when it originally aired and there was no way to jump ahead to the next one. Anywhooo...

Slight nerd digression (as if a "Doctor Who" blog post isn't enough of one on its own): Like Grant Morrison's comic books, Steven Moffat's "Doctor Who" scripts are always overflowing with ideas, like the "ghosting" of the telepathic comm system, or the faces from beyond the grave, or the Vashta Nerada shadow creatures themselves. (As with the stone angels of "Blink" or the clockwork robots of "Girl in the Fireplace," the genius of Moffat's monsters is in their simplicity.) But unlike Morrison's trippier work (say, Invisibles instead of Animal Man), Moffat never lets his desire to stuff in every stray brainstorm get in the way of solid storytelling. "Silence in the Library" has plenty of moments where I wonder exactly how Moffat thought something up, but it's primarily one hell of an unsettling thriller, one where we're never allowed to gain our footing.

First we're set up by the teaser to wonder how exactly The Doctor and Donna landed in some little girl's imagination, and by the time we loop back around to their meeting, we find out that the girl isn't a girl at all. (Or is she? They didn't cast Colin Salmon just to play a figment of some security drone's imagination; how do we know we should trust anything he tells his young patient?) And then, before The Doctor can devote much brainpower to figuring out what's happening in the library, he gets thrown off his game by the arrival of the colorfully-named River Song, who clearly has a lot more experience with him than he does with her at this point.

Because I've read the book I name-checked in my subject line (coming soon to a theater near you!), I'm used to the concept of lovers(**) first meeting each other at very different points in their respective timelines, and so I put two and two together well before either The Doctor or Donna did. And I'm damn curious to see whether Alex Kingston will be appearing regularly once Moffat takes over the show for good with the 2010 season. (I quite liked Kingston early in her stint on "ER," before the writers made the baffling decision to place Corday in Mark Greene's gloomy orbit, which took away all her spark.)

(**)And are we supposed to infer that they're lovers? Married? What? It's clear she doesn't travel with him, or else she wouldn't keep running into him out of sequence with his own timeline, so if she's a companion, it's a very unusual arrangement. And we know The Doctor's not exactly a monk. He had a child of his own even before Jenny, and it was becoming clear by the end of Billie Piper's run on the show that The Doctor's feelings for Rose ran deeper than for just another companion.

And then there's the matter of Donna herself. Where Rose and Martha both fell in love with The Doctor himself, Donna has fallen in love with the life that he's opened for her, so much so that I've been worrying that this can only end badly for several weeks, well before River couldn't quite look Donna in the eye once she realized who she was. Something awful's coming, I think. I don't expect Donna to stay a post-dead face in the library, but I also think the only way her plan to spend the rest of her life traveling with The Doctor will succeed is if her life winds up being very short indeed. Either she'll die, or her journeys will end quite abruptly and unpleasantly, but she's obviously out of the picture before River ever meets The Doctor before her first time, and it wasn't a good exit.

You know what? I think I've figured out a way to fight the impulse to jump ahead. I'm gonna go back and watch this one again. It's worth an instant replay, and then some.

Finally, I cannot be clearer on this point: Do NOT discuss anything, however obliquely, from episodes that have yet to air in America. I don't care how badly you want to discuss part two (there are other sites where you can find that opportunity), and if you think you have some clever way to hint at things to come without spoiling things for the rest of us, I can assure you that you're wrong. Anything with even a scintilla about "Forest of the Dead" or any other episode will be deleted, immediately, by me.

And with that bit of awkward business in mind, what did everybody else think?

23 comments:

Anthony Foglia said...

Excellent. My hypothesis, and it's only a hypothesis, is that the little girl, her father, and the psychiatrist are all some of the 4200 who were saved. They were saved by downloading their consciousness into the library's devices. That doesn't explain why only the girl can save them though.

I'm not sure why you think River Song isn't a companion? She could have written stories the Doctor told her about his past while they were travelling together. It would prove useful in cases like this when you might need to call someone at some unspecified time in their lives.

If the character comes back, and we do see her first meeting with the Doctor, I'd expect they would cast a younger actress.

Last time statues, now the dark. What will Moffat make us fear next time?

Eric said...

I guess I pretty much have to wait until next week to say anything. But was anyone else reminded of Lucien's Library from Sandman, which contains all the books never written?

And I just want to throw an idea out there - that the next time The Doctor gets to meet a famous british author, like last week it should be Terry Pratchett, playing himself while he still can. Perhaps with a Douglas Adams chaser.

Karen said...

As a librarian, there was no way I wasn't going to love this one, frankly. But boy it delivered with bells on.

Steven Moffat--as you say, Alan, the genius of his monsters is their simplicity. The sight of those shadows bleeding out from the feet of Proper Dave's suit...that was easily as scary as anything I ever saw on an X-Files episode. As was the oncoming click-off of lights from which the Doctor and Donna were running when they first ran into the main room.

I love how Moffat never lets you rest on any assumption. We saw in the cold open that Donna and the Doctor speak to the little girl--but when we see her from their vantage point, a few moments later, she is no little girl, but a kind of steampunk CCTV.

Dr Moon is definitely sinister (or is he?), and his whispered warnings to the girl further confound the story. Fantastic to see Colin Salmon--as it was to see Alex Kingston, the sight of whom was simply startling, and to see Steve Pemberton as well. "Who" gets some righteous guest stars, I'll tell you what.

I can hardly wait until next week. Good ol' Steven Moffat. He never disappoints.

Jason S said...

It's actually brilliant when you think about it -- if in the future the Doctor and River Song are an item, but she never travels with him regularly (only sporadically), then it allows occasional guest-visits from Kingston if possible, while giving the producers a very good reason why the Doctor doesn't get romantically involved with any more of his companions: because he's already got a girl, out there, somewhere.

I loved this episode.

J said...

I was massively disappointed, but that's about 83% due to Moffat overexposure. Just about every element of this story is an echo of an element in his first three Who episodes, and though there are variations -- River Song's out-of-sequence relationship with the Doctor obviously goes deeper than Sally Sparrow's -- the lack of new ideas made me really worry about an all-Moffat season. "Hey Who Turned Out the Lights" is the new "Are You My Mommy?" The Vashta Nerada are the nanogenes. etc. etc. etc.

The other 17% of my disappointment came from bad plotting -- after something as tight as "Blink," this had people looking for flashlights for twenty minutes, people in and out of shadows, etc.; the plot-serving inconsistency of the Vashta Nerada; and the way the Doctor was just written dumb. Seriously, given his life, he couldn't figure out that Song and he have some sort of future together in her past?

That said, it opened beautifully -- me, too, Eric re: Lucien -- there were good lines, and the pretty girl's death scene was very moving. It's a huge jump up from the episodes that preceded it, and it's solid, but given its pedigree I count it as a letdown.

Charles said...

Something I'm continually impressed with in Moffat's episodes (and often in Davies' as well for that matter) is the way he quickly creates identifiable characters that seem deeper than mere caricatures. When these characters die or are threatened you feel a little extra thrill.

Karen said...

To eric and j, I thought first of Borges' "The Library of Babel," and THEN Sandman.

Toby said...

With regards to the actual library, did they say how long the planet had been a library? I'd like to think it was the type of place Samuel Cogley (played by Elisha Cook, Jr.) would visit before we met him on classic 'Star Trek'.

And Eric, as for your idea about future episodes with the Doctor meeting famous authors, I've always wanted to see him encounter Tolkien in a story about Jabe's people from the Forests of Cheem. It could be how Tolkien came up with the idea for the Ents!

If Ms. Kingston is to be featured after Moffat takes over, I hope they get to it as quickly as possible. She's still a beautiful woman, but Time's not going to wait for the right script where she should be playing River as being younger.

anon said...

j,

What you read as unfortunate repetition I read as deliberate repetition. Having seen Coupling and Jekyll (and having had friends praise Press Gang), I know Moffat cold write a different sort of episode, a straight out comic episode even ("Doctor Who and the Melty Man"?), but he clearly has a set of themes he likes to work with on Who.

All of his episodes concern strong women whose strength does not in any way derive from their interaction with the Doctor (not even Sally). They are resourceful and resilient and admired by the Doctor and yet remain "outside of his orbit" at episode's end -- with the implication that that's not necessarily a bad thing. Often related to this is a strain in the Doctor/companion relationship, an acknowledgment that there's something slightly manipulative and egotistical in the Doctor's relationship with his companions: he doesn't want to lose them (like Rose to Captain Jack) but he does indicate a willingness to discard them (Rose for Madame Poisson) or use them for his convenience (Martha supporting him via a chip shop job). Donna's jealousy in this episode seemed of a piece with this tradition, creating some conflicting emotions in the viewer (supportive of the current companion but intrigued by the possibility of a new one).

There are also other stylistic touches (or tics, if you prefer) common to Moffat's other work, like out of sequence storytelling -- taken to the nth degree that sci-fi allows here, but certainly present in Coupling and Jekyll (and apparently Joking Apart) -- and a fondness for catchphrases (Coupling again).

I can understand if you're becoming tired of both the stylistic and thematic touches. I could go either way on the stylistics, myself, but I'd be quite happy if the show delved more deeply into the thematic issues Moffat raises once a season -- I was hoping it would happen with the Martha, but it mostly didn't -- and am therefore looking forward to his future showrunning.

Anon

J said...

Anon,

I'm all for strong female characters, which can be created in any situation. And appreciate auteurist obsessions. The non-linear structures and verbal tics are enjoyable... until pattern becomes formula and scenes become a checklist of repeated concerns. This one felt cobbled together from bits of the other three, and weaker than any of them.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I'm not sure why you think River Song isn't a companion? She could have written stories the Doctor told her about his past while they were travelling together. It would prove useful in cases like this when you might need to call someone at some unspecified time in their lives.

Two reasons:

1)He gave her a sonic screwdriver to keep when, as he notes, he simply doesn't do that (though he's occasionally loaned it to companions like Rose and Martha for a specific mission).

2)As described by River, her relationship with The Doctor has been both out-of-sequence (for him) and intermittent (for her). That doesn't work if she's traveling around on the TARDIS with him.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Something I'm continually impressed with in Moffat's episodes (and often in Davies' as well for that matter) is the way he quickly creates identifiable characters that seem deeper than mere caricatures. When these characters die or are threatened you feel a little extra thrill.

Yeah, that's been a consistent thing for modern "Who," but Moffat's episodes are especially good at that. Other Dave vs. Proper Dave was a nice bit of characterization shorthand.

anon said...

j,

Like I said, I can see your point. I just think Moffat is capable of going deeper but the "one two-parter a season" approach has reached its limits. We'll see what I think in 2010.
But I will say, I didn't think the Doctor was being thick when he kept asking River Song who she was. I thought he was fishing for a spoiler.

Alan and Charles,

In addition to Proper Dave and Other Dave, there was the nice pre-introduction to Mr. Lux and his family via the library-bots.

Anon

Nicole said...

It's hard to discuss this one knowing how it ends, but I do recall wondering how the Doctor would save Donna from being a library robot, and it was a much more effective cliffhanger than the Sonatran one, where I thought "just break the glass to get in the car".

The Moffat two-parter is the best of the season so far, and it gives me great confidence that he is taking over the series.

I love Colin Salmon (ever since that Keen Eddie show that was canceled too soon) and I bought what Alex Kingston was trying to sell, especially since she comes in acting like she knows the Doctor, not only more than Donna, but more than himself.

Next week can't come soon enough to fully discuss this one.

M.A.Peel said...

Salmon's private words to the girl that 'this house, your father etc. are a fake, the library is real' certainly had a Matrix vibe to them.

I'm a Alex Kingston fan, and I thought DT's interaction with her was some of the best acting he's done (I not being in the Rose Tyler fan club, okay, kill me now).

River Song is a great name. Slightly evocative of the Song of the Oods

stevie said...

I thought this was disappointing too. There was a lot that worked, but it also felt a little rehashy to me. I won't say anything more to stick by the spoiler rules but I think this is the weakest Moffat we've seen.

barefootjim said...

I would probably agree that this is the weakest Moffat we've seen, but that just means that it's an 8.5 instead of a 9.8.

Which works for me. BTW, there's another reason to download besides being ahead of the U.S. curve: full episodes with no edits for commercials.

Re: the library. I wasn't reminded so much of Lucien's Library from Sandman, but rather the Library of Trantor from Foundation.

Karen said...

Mrs Peel, I heard "River Song" and could only think River Tam...

Ellen said...

I think the critic thing just means we're used to instant gratification. It's probably GOOD for us to have to wait like everyone else. (And, yes, that's the Catholic schoolgirl, not the critic in me, speaking.)

Though since we'll be well into our cross-country drive by then, I'm hoping wherever we land that night has a) the Sci Fi Channel or b) wi-fi for my Slingbox. Because that was a killer Part 1...

Anthony Foglia said...

Alan wrote, re: why he believes River's not a companion, Two reasons:

1)He gave her a sonic screwdriver to keep when, as he notes, he simply doesn't do that (though he's occasionally loaned it to companions like Rose and Martha for a specific mission).

2)As described by River, her relationship with The Doctor has been both out-of-sequence (for him) and intermittent (for her). That doesn't work if she's traveling around on the TARDIS with him.


He gave a sonic screwdriver to Sarah Jane. Well, technically sonic lipstick, but has the doctor ever used the screwdriver as a screwdriver?

You're probably right that she's not a companion, and she's definitely not a normal companion, but anything more than that is just hypothesizing at this point.

Sister T said...

I thought of the Matrix when the rotary telephone rang.

The River Tam connection (even if unintended) bugged me, so I refer to her as Alex Kingston in my head.

I also liked how Alex Kingston didn't have too much chemistry with David Tennant. It helped me imagine what kind of and what number Doctor she falls in love with in the Doctor's future.

jim treacher said...

Putting Alex Kingston in a bulky spacesuit is WRONG.

amy said...
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