Archive for the “Doctor Who” Category

Neil Cross’ second episode of the season works, but it works for several reasons, some of which are slightly complicated. For one, this is the first episode in a long time that feels like a throwback to an earlier era. Specifically, this feels like a story that could have fit in quite well during the period when Robert Holmes was the show’s script editor, or for that matter Andrew Cartmel’s tenure in the same role. Superficially, it’s because the gothic pseduo-supernatural setting paired with the science-fiction hand waving explanations, matches the tenor of those periods and the kinds of stories the writers were interested in telling. The choice of period works along with these, as with some set dressing and costuming, the episode has the same look and feel of 70s British television horror, the period that gave us The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones and Sapphire and Steel.

The story works for reasons beyond the expert recreation of the mood of the stories of the past. The limited sets and relatively small stakes of the story mean that it’s much more focused, with room for characterization and exploration. Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are each given nice moments to build character and properly emote, and Matt Smith and Jenna Louise Coleman also get some good bonding moments. Clara gets some particularly good dialogue and depth, which is nice, because we’re again given an episode where she doesn’t have much to do. Even the obligatory moments devoted to the mystery of Clara are integrated as seamlessly as possible and fit with the tone and flow of the story.

While it was nice to have a story where the “monster” turns out to be nothing of the sort, a nice tie-in to the relative morality of the Ice Warrior last week, and a change of pace for the show in general, the story is somewhat let down by the actual presence of the monster. In that this is a story that didn’t really need one. A ghost that turns out to be an out-of-phase time traveler is story enough. While the presence of a monster fits the Gothic tone of the story, it doesn’t serve much purpose other than to be misunderstood. The resolution of that aspect of the story is tacked-on, almost an afterthought, and very much occurring after the real climax. Again, it feels a little bit more like a need to have a toy for each episode than an actual story requirement.

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Online reaction to Mark Gatiss episodes always seems very mixed, which surprises me in this case because, to my mind, this was the first genuinely good episode of the current half-season.

I think a big part of the reason why this episode worked, when so many haven’t, is that it’s a very simple story. In a lot of ways, it’s a call back to the original series. At it’s heart, this is a “base under siege” story, with a small group of humans in a single location dealing with an incursion by an extra-terrestrial threat. In this case, it’s a Soviet sub in the North Atlantic during the early 80s, which makes the mistake of thawing out an Ice Warrior just as the Doctor and Clara arrive. The Ice Warrior picks off the crew until a small band of survivors make their final stand. The only thing different from an original series story (and, to be honest, most of the new series) is that the Doctor, for once, actually reasons with his enemy instead of setting up an elaborate death trap.

The Ice Warriors are an interesting choice for a returning monster. While they have a handful of appearances and a good visual design, they’re not exactly a top tier monster. So it’s impressive that relatively few changes to update them were made and took the form of expanding on the original appearances rather than offer us a “new subspecies” or “parallel universe versions.” They’re an interesting choice as well because they are of the small handful of classic series monsters that escape the “evil race” presentation that most sci-fi shows exploit. Ice Warriors are usually “bad” but not necessarily so; it depends entirely on the needs of the story.

The only real weak spots in the story are that Jenna Louise Coleman isn’t given much to do and the jokey and forced references to 80s music. Clara is just sort of…around, which is nice in that we’re spared any blatant foreshadowing about what her big secret is. But after turning in such a good performance in the previous episode, seeing her reduced to the standard companion-in-peril role is disappointing. Giving her a more active role would have been more satisfying than a little question and answer session about whether or not she passed the Doctor’s test. The 80s music references feel somewhat like a necessary evil to establish time and place; a shorthand way to remind the audience that “hey, this is the 80s” given that a good chunk of the audience wasn’t born yet.

I think I’m going to end this on the semi-depressing realization that the 80s were far enough back in time that they now qualify for a historical story…

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One of the curious things about the “diminished expectations” era of Doctor Who is the fan reactions. A middling-to-bad episode like “Bells of St. John” is praised and starts, predictably, a flurry of jokes about changing wifi names online, but a middling-to-good episode, like Neil Cross’ “Rings of Akhaten” inspires such anger and fury that you’d be tempted to think that viewing the episode caused the spontaneous deaths of people’s pets.

It’s not an episode that is particularly deserving of great praise, by any means. Studio-bound, with lots of bits of the same set shot from different angles to look like different locations, and an inordinate amount of time devoted to the characters running back and forth between three areas, it has all the feeling of a rather cheap affair. The extras in leftover rubber masks doesn’t help the feeling much, either, nor does a plot with yet another energy vampire of some kind. But it’s amusing despite all that. As an introduction to Clara, this actually works much better than last week’s episode. We have a chance to see Clara doing stuff and interacting with people and get a sense of her as a person, and not the macguffin that the Doctor has to unravel. This is a character who feels worth exploring; one who gets dropped off on an alien world and wanders off to help a child. Despite the seeming cheapness of the sets and costumes, at least some effort feels like it went into building the alien world. There’s a sense of culture to it, that’s let down a bit by yet more monsters that have a creepy gimmick but not much in the way of personality or defined goals.

As I implied, the story itself is fairly mediocre. We’ve seen these sorts of vaguely defined emotional/energy draining monsters a little too often since the series relaunch, it seems, and defeating one with “the untapped human potential” is a rather trite, feel good denouement that smacks very much of the “someone goes glowy and everything’s okay again” cop out endings. But Matt Smith gets some nice speeches out of it, which is good, since about half of them look like they were delivered to a green screen. And the story feels properly “Doctor Who”-ish when all is said and done; strange world, interesting ideas, and, frankly, not quite convincing delivery in the end.

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The Adventures of K9 and Other Mechanical Creatures, 1979, Terrance Dicks
Who’s an adorable little cybermat? You is! You is!

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I think I’ve finally hit on what, precisely*, I find frustrating about Steven Moffat’s tenure as show-runner on Doctor Who, and it’s this: the show is neither particularly bad or stupid or offensive, but it’s not exciting or compelling or very interesting either. The episodes in general, and Moffat’s in particular, tend to follow a pattern of being light and frothy as you watch them, hold up to no serious scrutiny or even thought, and are forgettable almost as soon as the episode is over. “Fear Her” may be regarded as the nadir of the modern series, but it’s still stuck in my memory more than most of the episodes we’ve seen this season. Heck, I can remember bits of “The Twin Dilemma” better than I can anything that happened in “A Town Called Mercy.” I actually had to resort to Google to even remember the title of “A Town Called Mercy.”

Take the 2012 Christmas episode, for example. While it had some cute bits, it mostly acted as a prologue to this episode. It featured guest stars who were charming at first, but ala River Song, are already in danger of becoming tedious through overuse. And while it should have introduced Jenna Louise Coleman as the new companion, it ended up simply teasing us with yet another stupid mystery that will either have a stunningly pedestrian resolution (River is Amy’s daughter) or simply be ignored (the TARDIS blew up). And that’s apart from the resurrection of the Great Intelligence as the new series “big bad”, a minor villain only familiar to long term fans, one who didn’t need an origin story to be effective, and with the whole “yetis in the loo” bit is at least partially responsible for the show’s reputation for being silly, stupid and childish back in the day.

So, what about this episode, then? Well, it had some cute bits, it was fun to watch while it was happening, but nothing in the plot holds up to any thought or consideration and it was ultimately pretty forgettable. Take Clara. What do we know of her? She’s cheeky and spunky and her big ambition is to travel. So she’s as stereotypical a Who-girl as you can get, basically. She’s brunette Rose without the dodgy accent. At least we might be spared the domestics, seeing as how the only relative we hear about is the sort of person who rants at strangers over the phone about politics. And there’s a mystery to her, because of course there is. Why else would significant hints be lingered over by the camera multiple times? (“Two years missing in her book? Why that must be a clue!”) This would be the fourth Moffat created companion with some sort of mysterious history to deciper, and I’m starting to suspect it’s his version of “outsider discovers they are special person in strange world adjacent to our own.”
That she just reappears in the Doctor’s life whenever she dies robs any danger she could be in of dramatic import just gets lost in the shuffle of all the other portentious clues. “Clara’s dead! Again! Guess I’ll pop off to ancient Rome and run into a version of her there.”

So what of the actual story. Well, we’ve got another monster whose gimmick is that their head spins around, and we’ve got the basic story of “The Idiot’s Lantern” being recycled. And that monster, while it’s visually unique, feels more like a writer flailing around for something mundane that kids might be scared of. A spoon, plus wifi and “the cloud”-two things kids have heard of but probably don’t really understand, and now you have a new toy to sell for Christmas. But the actual goal and intent of the villain? Well, it doesn’t make much sense. People are being uploaded into the cloud for the returning villain to eat? Okay…why? Someone had to set this up for the Great Intelligence, but the only agents we see are being controlled. And the Doctor uncharacteristically focuses on the symptom, the uploading, and doesn’t even bother to investigate the why, even when explicitly told that they are working on behalf of someone else. So not only does he let the real villain get away, setting up a second tedious “arc” for the season, but he seems disturbingly unconcerned that who knows how many people are simply going to die because he wants to save Clara. That’s the sort of situational morality I expect from Law & Order: SVU not Doctor Who. Heck, the Doctor even contradicts himself here: if the cloud is a “living hell” why would he be okay with sending River and her crew there in the Library? It’s the same damn thing, essentially.

So, that’s what we’re at with Who these days. “Turn off your brain” television that’s more interested in setting you up for the disappointing “secret” tomorrow instead of telling a compelling story today.

* apart from the general Tumblr-esque fan-wankery that permeates it these days, of course

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