In 1976 the BBC broadcast the Doctor Who story The Deadly Assassin, which revolved around a virtual reality world called "The Matrix."
In 1999 the Wachowski brothers released a rather well-known film which also revolved around a virtual reality world called "The Matrix."
In 2008 the BBC broadcast the Doctor Who story Silence In The Library / Forest Of The Dead.
I guess this makes them even.
That said, this story nails Steven Moffat as the best writer Doctor Who has had in a very long time. Hang on, that's not quite as grand as it sounds, is it?
Despite consistently turning in just one story a season, (the solution to all four of which has been in the girl character's identity) Moffat proves that he has enough great story ideas to be script editor.
In this one, as well as virtual reality, he offers us a planet-sized library in the future, swarms of flesh-eating microscopic aliens that live in your second shadow, a girl who has another life whenever she closes her eyes, people who continue to talk after their death, and yet another group who remember their lives rather than live them.
Oh, and a book chronicling the Doctor's future!
Really – you could write a great story about each of those concepts, but they're all crammed together into this one, and that's in addition to all the usual Doctor Who-ish running-down-corridors and working things out.
And it's a scary tale this one too. The skeletons in spacesuits, the final log entry being calmly read-out by a dead person's face on a stone pillar, and the darkness.
I found the most chilling line was towards the end of episode one, when the little girl's psychiatrist sits down with her privately to reassure her not to worry about her 'nightmares'.
Instead he tells her:
"The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real."
Hey – and did I mention that both these episodes were set on an alien planet in the future? Zombies? Well, I'm actually not sure I can count the skeletons in the spacesuits, because it's neither the skeleton nor the spacesuit that is actually chasing our heroes, and the Vashta Nerada are only accidentally dragging the body everywhere.
This is Doctor Who firing on all cannons - the lighting, the music, and again, Steven Moffat's trademark one-liners...
Doctor: "The Library! So big it doesn't need a name – just a great big THE."
Doctor: "I never land on Sundays. Sundays are boring."
Doctor: "Now, the rest of you – helmets back on and sealed-up! We'll need everything we've got."
Donna: "But Doctor - we haven't got any helmets."
Doctor: "Yeah, but we're safe anyway."
Donna: "How are we safe?"
Doctor: "We're not, that was a clever lie to shut you up."
Really – he's not even trying.
My two teeny nitpicks would be the presence of a purposeless trapdoor in part two, (with no explanation of how the Doctor survives the fall and returns inside) and the CGI people at the end. Given that Donna realised she was in virtual reality when she saw that all the many kids in the playground were in fact the same two kids repeated, cutting this corner with a CGI 'crowd' shot of many repeated 'real' people was just quite stupid. Really lazy – some of them were making the same movements.
(Oh, and Miss Evangelista seemed to be better at the end too)
But those conceits are minor. There's only one element of this tale that I really didn't like, and if you've seen it then you'll likely have already spotted what that is.
With all these elements already bursting the story at the seams, Alex Kingston shows up as River Song - someone who heavily implies that she is the Doctor's girlfriend from the future.
But, y'know, hang on, that could work, if they handle it properly.
But no. We descend into smug innuendo and showing-off as said woman belittles him and shows him up like, like, well, like Donna when she first joined.
It also can't go without comment that the Doctor does get through a different girlfriend every season now. Rose, Madame de Pompadour, Joan, even his friendship with Sarah Jane got somewhat retconned. River Song? Just another one, so no big drama there. Rose had self-important delusions of somehow being the Doctor's only ever companion too.
When River heroically dies at the end, it comes as a relief, and is hardly unexpected. It's exactly what the Doctor's 'daughter' did in the story before last. She was even unexpectedly revived in a tag scene afterwards too. How formulaic is that?
The thing is, it quickly becomes apparent that River Song, while arguably material for a story on her own, just doesn't fit into this one. I might be completely wrong, but the whole story looks like it was once a great carefully-plotted epic, that has then had an extra character squeezed-in throughout.
The Doctor, against his character's motivation, has to keep stopping his efforts to save everyone's lives to give River some talky scenes, and the story's momentum has to accordingly keep stopping too.
I guess what really irritates me about this though is how much more sense the surrounding storylines might have made, without having to make room for this apparently additional one.
1. At the beginning of the story, River sends a psychic message to summon the Doctor to the library. That's why he and Donna travel there.
If we remove the River storyline from the plot though, why instead might the Doctor and Donna have made that journey? Well let's see.
At the end of the previous episode, (in other words in the Doctor and Donna's last scene) the Doctor dug out a book by Agatha Christie from the 50th century to prove to Donna how she was the most popular author in history. That seems like a much more natural reason for his taking her to this library in the future to me. Certainly more natural than neither of them even mentioning their recent brush with Christie. (BTW Donna also fails to mention her old job at Hounslow Library, but I digress)
2. After her arrival, River produces her diary which contains events from the Doctor's future. Throughout the story, the Doctor is tempted to read this book to learn of his future.
Again, if River were not in this story, where might a tantalising book of the Doctor's future come from? Oh that's right, the whole thing takes place in a library in the future. Yeah, yeah that would have made more sense too.
River even produces her book at around the same point as books begin flying off of the shelves around the Doctor, for no explained purpose. And, stone me, the entire story actually takes place in the BIOGRAPHIES section, meaning that all those books flying off the shelves around him are biographies. For me, this considerably ups the probability that the exciting book of his future was in the earlier drafts, but River Song wasn't.
3. Both the Doctor and River spend the story issuing orders to the crewmen who arrive. Again, without River, this would normally just be the Doctor.
4. When the Vashta Nerada are about to kill the Doctor, to prove how dangerous he is to them, he tells them to look him up in the library. With no means of doing this, the Vashta Nerada pause, and then without any explanation, decide to just believe him. Of course, if he'd had the biography of his future with him, (instead of having River hide her diary from him), then I guess he would have used that...
5. Just before the end, River knocks the Doctor out and sacrifices her life to save the people trapped in the computer. The 100-year-old child's stocky relative - Lux - does nothing except explain the plot, before being suddenly hurried out of the room and away from the action. Was that really all his character was supposed to do? Again, dramatically that sacrifice seems to have originally been Lux's to make, and a proper conclusion to his initially arrogant character's journey.
6. After River's death, the Doctor gets Donna back from the dead. Big dramatic moment – recovering her has really been his driving motivation throughout part two. Except, that scene has been cut. I guess with all those River scenes, that one had to be dropped, along with how he survived falling through the trapdoor, and how he got back inside the library again too.
7. At the end, after River's death, the Doctor and Donna stand on a balcony with her closed diary and sonic screwdriver. It looks like they're going to symbolically throw the unread pages to the wind. They don't though, they set the book down with her sonic screwdriver, on the balcony, and just walk away. That's right - they leave the poor dead woman's diary on a table outside a public library. The Doctor then gets an idea and runs back for the new sonic screwdriver, and then uses it to save River's life after all.
With no River, there's no new sonic screwdriver to save River in substitute of Lux's communicator, and his mysterious biography can just be thrown off the edge as the balcony implies. That sort of makes more sense too.
In the version that got filmed, as I recall, after the balcony scene the actual diary is just never seen again, and we're never even told what becomes of it. Sure, River has a duplicate of it in CAL, but that's not the same copy, is it?
8. River has told the Doctor that in the future he can open the TARDIS' doors by just snapping his fingers, so he's outraged at this. At the end of the episode he tries it, and for no explained reason it works.
It's just quite an odd thing for a person to say in conversation. Such an exaggeration of the Doctor's attitude and abilities is just the sort of act that you might expect a biographer to embellish such a hero with though. Well, you know what I'm supposing.
9. At the end of the story, the Doctor is left in a position where, when he first meets River in his future, he now has to take advantage of the woman's feelings. Ooh, I don't like that implication at all.
But all the above said, y'know, although I personally don't like love-interests cluttering-up science-fiction shows, I can understand why they almost always put them in. Getting people who don't like science-fiction to tune-in and watch as well, obviously boosts the ratings. Which is why my top reason for this storyline not belonging in this script is...
10. There is already a love-interest! Whilst inside CAL, Donna has a whirlwind romance with Lee, whom she falls in love with, marries, and even raises a family with, or at least remembers having done so. At the end of the story, she and Lee are both trying to find each other again in the real world, but tragically fail. There's yer love-interest storyline, already there.
I tell you, it's Jack Harkness standing around through The Empty Child all over again.
In conclusion, this story is about 80% brilliant.