Sunday, 17 June 2007

Utopian Dominoes

Well, what to make of last night's Doctor Who episode, Utopia?
Thirty odd minutes of listlessness followed by fifteen minutes of genius perhaps?
Thirty odd minutes of set-up (including tedious techno-babble about footprints and the like that left my son fidgety) followed by a string of rising aha! moments that had us glued to the tv?

So, how were those magic fifteen minutes set-up?

[Here there be spoilers! Actually, that pic is probably a spoiler too so don't look at it. You already have? Darn, I should've set the spoiler up.]

It's hard to tell because the set-ups are designed to be invisible: for this reason, the aha! moments become surprises. However, the set-ups do need to be registered by the audience for the ahas! to work their magic. Moreover, we need to be able to look with hindsight and see how inevitable the ahas! were (and not 'out of the blue' coincidences - we need to feel that the surprises are logical).

It struck me as very odd that the vid-monitors displayed the callers' names, not least the weird retro typefaces and, if I'm not wrong, a close up of the names(?).
I'd have to watch it again; however, this fact certainly impressed itself upon me, and that is the key. I gave it little thought thereafter.
Add to this the repeated mention of Professor Yana's name, including the Doctor asking 'What was your name again?', and the Professor's little monologue about his title meaning nothing and universities not being around for however many years (I seem to remember it was 1000 years which struck me as odd again, for it's not a very significant number given that he's hanging out at the end of time), and the big revelation is almost ready to rumble.

Then dear Martha reminds us of the Face of Boe's dying words: 'You are not alone.'

Then the pocketwatch comes out (in a terribly crap link: you can just imagine the script guys thinking 'How can we get the Professor to pull out a pocketwatch in a really natural way?' If memory serves, Martha happened to make casual mention of the time).

This is where the episode begins to kick ass. All the dominoes have been lined up (and let's not forget that the first few dominoes were erected a good while back with the Mr.Saxon headline in the Abzorbaloff's newspaper and the Face of Boe's proclamation in the hospital, and probably then some) and the first one topples - a chain reaction.

Subliminal impressioning.
We need to feel that something is significant.
We knew the Face of Boe's proclamation was significant, because a big deal was made of it.
We knew that the title and name of the Professor were significant because of repetition.
There are tricks that are peculiar to visual media: the close-ups, the prolonged shot (when the camera lingers on a doorknob, we expect it to turn), the unnatural link, etc. We writers have our own approximated set of tricks.

Sometimes, something stands out and we don't know why and we put it out of our conscious mind but it lingers in the unconscious mind.
Why was a big deal made out of Jack's invulnerability? Well, there is he is prancing about in an irradiated room, saving lives.
Why was a big fuss made over Jack's time travel device ('boys with toys')? Well, I'm guessing, but the TARDIS has vamoosed and the Doctor and his chummies are stuck in the future.
The chameleon pocketwatch was made significant in the previous two-parter: a prolonged show - we see what it can do. But we are not aware that it will play a major part in the season's climax.
Given that the climax is of utmost importance, we could even imagine that the previous two-parter was entertaining misdirection: a set-up for the big finale.
And there, staring you in the subconscious face, are assorted wordplays: Mister Saxon is an anagram of Master no. six, and YANA is an acronym for You Are Not Alone.

What other dominoes have been set-up?
There was repeated mention of the conglomerations: will they have significance?
This Utopia place - is it significant?
Captain Jack's invulnerability: He's pushed in a few radiation rods, but is that the end of it?
The Doctor instigated Harriet Jones' downfall. Is this set to become a big deal?
What else lurks in the audience's subconscious, waiting for the trigger that will unleash the aha! - a cunningly positioned domino loaded with goosebumps?
We place those dominoes in the reader's subconscious; we make significant in invisible ways such as repetition, unusual context and misdirection. And we look down on our domino landscape and burst with excitement and trepidation as we push the first one over ...


R1X said...

It's all about the layering - good pick up on Jack's time-bounce thang. I'd forgotten because I was still rolling my eyes and the camp feel of the set up between them. You're right, the first part was really stale in its set up. But I knew it was the Master - why else would Derek Jacobi want to play the role?

It's all about those layers isn't it, like the opening of a film when there's something going on tv, some brief reference to the objective story.

So, what was your son's real reaction to the opening? Was he holding out for something special? Was his mind wandering?

solv said...

Yes, we'd heard rumours and were both holding out to see if Derek Jacobi was the Master.
It's not hard to tell when a seven-year-old is bored: they bounce and sprawl and crawl and pounce; they remember that you promised them chocolate; they suddenly realize that they're thirsty; they suddenly decide to tell you what they did at school. And so forth.
I wonder how he would have reacted if I had said, thirty minutes in, that he could play on his PS2? Would he have forsaken the ending?

Btw, his fave Doctor Who is the two-parter with the Beast and the black hole, and his least fave is the Abzorbaloff one. Curiously, I know a seven-year-old girl who loved the Abzorbaloff episode above all others.
If he's in the mood one evening, I'll ask him what he likes and dislikes about Doctor Who.

R1X said...

I missed the Abzorbaloff one, and didn't much like the Beast and the Black Hole.