Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Matrix Repeated

Doctor Who
Extremis
Series Ten, Episode Six


All right, Series Ten – you’ve had your fun, with your one-off episodes about robots and bugs and zombies (oh my), now it’s time to get your arc in gear.  Steven Moffat’s back on pen duties and everything.  So, what have we got?

Well, it’s a very Steven Moffaty episode in lots of ways.  Missy’s in it.  River is mentioned, and has an (arguable) impact on the plot.  There are some sassy, clever-old-me jokes.  The answer to a big mystery is revealed and, oh, it’s the first thing we all guessed, isn’t it?  There’s a clever twist at the end (with perhaps a few holes in it).  But possibly the most Moffaty thing here is that despite being nearly an hour long, and driving snazzily towards a grand revelation, there’s a miniscule amount of actual forward-moving story on offer.  It’s a well-dressed single piece of information.  Here’s a plot summary:

Who's inside?  Answers this week.
Probably.  Unless they're fibbing.  Which they might be.
The Monks are coming!

Or a longer one:

The Doctor receives an e-mail telling him the Monks are coming!

Or the deluxe, director’s cut spoiler version:

The Monks are running a simulation of Earth to test humanity’s responses to the threat of invasion.  The simulated Doctor finds out and e-mails the real one.

I mean yes, the revelation that the sim world is false is clever, but consider: what do we find out that we didn’t know last week, besides the Monks are coming, and they’re wizards at computer code?  This episode is about a simulation, not the Monks’ actual plan for Earth, which we still don’t know.  (It’s not even a simulation of them invading Earth, which seems strangely unhelpful.)  And the simulation was likely scrubbed when the credits rolled.  It probably hasn’t been part of our Series Ten so far or they’d have dropped hints, and it probably won’t figure into the Monks’ plan again later because they’ve presumably got what they needed, so all in all, the time we spend with the simulants (including finding out that they are simulants) is a bit of a wash.

(Still, the Doctor tries to tie this into the real world with a spooky, throwaway pronouncement that all video game characters think they’re real.  That’s a standard “Change how you look at everyday things” Moffat bit, except it’s a bloody big stretch.  There’d be no reason for the Monks to make video game characters that way, since they’re testing humanity and not Donkey Kong, and the Monks don’t make our video games, so what the heck is he on about?)

Okay, all that grumpy dismissiveness is slightly unfair.  Extremis does serve to make a point about the Doctor’s character and what he is really like, er, in extremis.  That’s what it’s really about, and it’s a valid point to make: even if it’s not the “real” Doctor, it’s still going to be someone who doesn’t give up, and then finds a way to meaningfully dent the bad guys’ plan.  The Doctor is the Doctor, no matter what.  (Although said dent doesn’t make much sense.  “There’s always one thing you can do from inside a computer… you can always e-mail!”  Yeah, but this isn’t the internet, it’s a simulation somewhere.  The Doctor isn’t “online” with it, so why would he get that information?)  Even so, this is not exactly a revelation.  The Doctor Is A Hero was the “Tada” of Series Eight, and Series Nine told us that’s specifically why he looks like Peter Capaldi.  We know this stuff.

Even more obviousness: the whole point of the simulation was to recreate humanity (and chums) and test their responses.  A good copy of the Doctor probably will act like the Doctor, won’t it?  And knowing that, his subsequently throwing a spanner in the works seems such a likely / potentially damaging outcome to them that I wondered why the Monk just stood there and let him witter on (and send e-mails), since not doing that is practically Lesson #1 in battling the Doctor.  Maybe it’s deliberate?  (Stay tuned.)  Come to think of it, if they’ve run lots of simulations before – which they have, they’ve killed him before – why is this the first sim Doctor to send that e-mail?

Hey ho: as well as finding out the horrible truth about this world, which has been causing clerics to kill themselves as soon as they read about it, the episode illustrates its point about the Doctor by cutting back to the “real” Doctor’s past, when he was assigned to execute Missy for reasons unknown.  (We all know she has an extensive rap sheet, but hopefully there is a reason coming.  I know, don’t bank on it…)  There’s a neat switcheroo at the start over which one is really for the block, and that’s followed by some incredible underplaying by Capaldi and Michelle Gomez.  This is easily my favourite appearance from Missy, as she appears to be somewhat sincere for once and isn’t more like the Mask on a caffeine bender.  The Doctor won’t, of course, execute her; he’s jiggery-poked the special Time Lord snuffing device so it’ll only make her sleepy, and then as promised he’ll watch over her body in the Vault for 1000 years.  Won’t that be fun for both of them.  (Kind of dampens Nardole’s “Don’t let them know you’re blind!” protestations to know this all started with him rescuing her.  Then again, so did opening the Vault to share his dinner.)

Intoducing Strappy, the chair with safety straps!
Guaranteed to make Moby Dick an easier read!
(Friend who turns the pages: not included.)
Two observations to make about the flashback scenes.  Firstly, oh for pete’s sake, it’s Missy in there?  What kind of satisfying answer is that?  Zipping back in time to last week, I asked any vaguely interested viewer who they thought was in the Vault, and got precisely two answers: the Master and the Doctor.  (Or a Doctor.)  Those are by far the most obvious answers, and after Knock Knock the case for “anyone but the Master” more or less disappeared, since the Doctor wouldn’t play “Pop Goes The Weasel” at the thought of kids dying.  (Well, perhaps in Series Eight.)  What a jip for that to be it, the most obvious thing, yet again.  (Be calm, nerd rage: despite effectively telling us it’s Missy several times, we never see her in the Vault.  That seems like an egregious thing to omit, so maybe all is not what it seems?  We all know John Simm will turn up eventually.  Tada?)

Observation #2: Nardole turns up to offer a scathing reminder of the Doctor’s personality (and what he should and shouldn’t do), courtesy of an evidently not-too-dead-to-meddle River Song.  This is a bit clumsy, even for the increasingly re-tooled and less slapsticky Nardole.  He announces here, and again later that he’s allowed to “kick the Doctor’s arse”, which to put it mildly is not totally convincing.  But it’s also completely pointless.  The Doctor already made his alterations to the machine, because of course he isn’t going to execute Missy even if she is the worst.  He doesn’t need Nardole or River bloody Song to explain his own personality back to him.  But that’s River, innit?  And it’s Moffat, imagining this basement-level Doctor stuff needed highlighting.  Maybe it’s more of that Series Ten “explain Doctor Who to new viewers” stuff; it would also explain yet another appearance by our old friend, “The Doctor frightens off an aggressor by saying ‘look me up.’”  Ah, The Entire Universe: where everybody knows your name.

Despite it all being a bit obvious (character-wise) and a bit showy-yet-pointless (plot-wise), Extremis does pack a punch.  It’s terrifying to see Bill wink out of existence, pleading as she goes, just as it’s harrowing to realise the characters you’ve been following for an hour are not getting a happy ending.  The Monks seem like a force to be reckoned with, although what they actually want (besides somewhere to hang their robes) remains a mystery.  And… well, the problem with episodes like this is that apart from the (usually singular) job they’re doing, which in this case does ultimately work, all you’ve got are random good bits and crap bits.  So I guess I’ll list them.

   ·       There’s so much sonic sunglasses action in this, especially now he’s using them to get around without eyesight, I don’t think I have the strength left to complain.  It’s like immersion therapy.  Peter does look cool in shades.
   ·       The device he uses to briefly restore his eyesight is a lot of bother for no payoff: there’s talk of how he’ll lose something (like any future regenerations), which might be dramatic and interesting if this Doctor didn’t wink out of existence anyway at the end.
   ·       Actually, if he’s got the sunglasses for most eventualities, does the blind thing even add anything?  Bugger.
   ·       Bill’s date scene is a cringey mess.  Hooray, gay representation – except Bill’s foster mum is a shrill caricature from the 50s who doesn’t know about it, and Bill’s date is newly out, so much so that Bill has to say “there’s nothing to feel guilty about.”  Yes, this is setup for the Pope walking in on them and comically freaking Penny out, but since you wouldn’t have a joke if they weren’t gay, it actually makes a song and dance of that fact and so isn’t doing anybody a favour with representation.  I much preferred The Pilot, where – apart from doing slightly too much work to point it out – Bill happened to fancy a particular gender and that was it.
   ·       As if Nardole’s “kick the Doctor’s arse” line wasn’t already trying too hard, it’s wheeled out a second time, and the ensuing back-and-forth with Bill (“Are you a secret badass?”  “Nothing secret about it, babydoll”) bears little-if-any relation to actual speech.  I think my toes actually curled.
   ·       All the stuff about simulated people not being able to generate random numbers is probably accurate, and it’s a neat way to hint at what’s really going on, but it begs a couple of questions.  What else can’t they do?  If they don’t think like us, isn’t it a bit of a crap simulation?  Also, why do Bill and Nardole stand around playing Guess My Number at all when they’re surrounded by dynamite that’s about to go off?  (Also, this is CERN, and it’s 2017.  Why the hell are they using dynamite?)
   ·       The Monks open portals to the sim world, and portals open in front of the Doctor and co. allowing them to get about in an instant.  Except… who’s opening those ones?  (Again, maybe this is all planned by the Monks.  Remain tuned.)

I sort of like Extremis, believe it or not.  It’s a little more challenging than Series Ten so far, and it’s been a while since Moffat flexed his brain.  (And attempted to explode ours.)  The Doctor and Missy are compelling together – well, they’re very good actors, it’s usually just the writing that drops the stink-bombs.  Capaldi is wonderful throughout, and Pearl Mackie gets to test her relationship with the Doctor, yelling at him for ruining her date and pleading – failing – to get him to save her.  As for the story, I’ve seen the “Nothing is real” twist before, thanks to The Matrix and Star Trek and Steven Moffat’s episodes and oh just Google it already, but it’s well executed here.

The trouble is that it’s one of those episodes that’s a long upwards crawl on a roller-coaster that eventually stops at the top.  Perhaps it’ll be a revelation when you revisit it later; in the meantime, let’s see where it’s going.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Breathing Space

Doctor Who
Oxygen
Series Ten, Episode Five


Shortly after this one aired, several of my friends raved about it.  “Best one yet” is the general consensus.  Fair enough.  I can’t tell if I disagree or if the bar for Series Ten is just a bit low.

Oxygen is by Jamie Mathieson, well known for turning in good stuff, and technically this is no exception.  It ticks the right boxes: we have a contained (space station) setting with a few survivors being picked off by creepy things (in this case, their dead comrades in automated spacesuits), which gives the Doctor and companion(s) something to run away from, and offers a tight time limit until he unveils his brilliant solution, probably with a showy-offy speech.  So far, so New Who.  And there are strict rules – because Moffat era Who is all about the rules.  In space you only get a certain number of breaths, because they’re charging for it nowadays.  So don’t breathe!  Or rather, do, but don’t waste it.

Fig. 1: typical movie/TV space helmet, i.e. lots of lighting to help us see them...
...not so useful for them to see anything else.
(Also, what's with the frosted glass?  Why make it a bit see-through?)
This is a natty, if severely pessimistic commentary on the evils of capitalism, which is a favourite target for Doctor Who.  (And that’s still not the half of it.)  It’s admittedly a bit silly, even for Evil Capitalism, to give everyone their own air limit to worry about – what if your Chief Engineer uses it up and doesn’t have enough money to get more?  You’re all up a creek then, which is bad for business, surely?  And what about when you’re asleep, and can’t exactly regulate it?  Since they’re all aware that they’re paying for air, why does everyone talk so much?  If ever there was a need for text messages or a pen and a whiteboard, this is it.

It’s a little odd to give everyone such a specific limit, too, from a dramatic point of view: the Doctor, Bill and Nardole get about 2,500 breaths each, yet there’s no countdown, and incredibly no scene where anyone runs out of air.  There isn’t time for that, with the automated suits either murdering or malfunctioning on you.  (Of course I did wonder how anybody could get away with charging for oxygen, when we’ve established that Earth’s trees can repopulate at will, so we have an endless supply!  Silly Jamie Mathieson.  Except oh, hang on, we’re supposed to have forgotten about that one.  Moving on then…)

The air thing isn’t always relevant, but the space setting creates some neat problems, such as Bill losing her helmet on a space walk – beautifully and nightmarishly shot with very little sound – and gives us an unexpected consequence, the Doctor going blind as he gives Bill his space helmet and has to work in a vacuum himself.  His determination to help Bill no matter the cost, repeated when he tries to give her his space suit after hers malfunctions, is a lovely reminder of his “duty of care” for his companions.  Blimey, the days of the Series Eight Arsehole Doctor feel long ago, don’t they?

Anyway, the suits: it’s established that they are technically intelligent but “dumb as rocks”.  Eye-roll on standby – is that another bit of duff technology on the murder?  That’s three in five episodes!  Except we then find out the suits are just following orders, and are therefore working perfectly, so there.  The space station is deemed unprofitable, so their bosses dispense with the useless humans and send in replacements to do the job better.  You won’t be needing that air, so let’s make with the killy-killy.  It’s very neat, if a bit reminiscent of Mathieson’s Mummy On The Orient Express, which also had an unseen villain dismissing human lives.  Not to mention the movie Moon, which tackled the same theme (among others) in a much more interesting way.  (No spoilers, go watch Moon.)  It’s a bit weak to never see the people responsible for all this, give or take non-sentient spacesuits that are just doing their job, and also a bit flimsy to tell us (via epilogue) that it all worked out in the end.  You’ll find that in Mummy On The Orient Express as well, so I’m tempted to pin these niggles on Mathieson rather than an unforgiving script editor.

Fig.2: what to do on a space station full of killer spacesuits
(if you wish to get killed).
The mixture of evil capitalism and well-meaning technology that kills you is like flicking through The Big Book Of New Who Tropes; it’s so inevitable that a few more survivors will cark it that you don’t bother to get attached.  (Either that or there’s bugger all to them.  One bloke is so blasé about his now dead fiancé that I’m still not sure if they were an item.)  But it’s all done with reasonable panache.  The zombie-spacesuits are horrifying enough, and will make decent playground fodder.  The survivors get killed and crack under pressure as the story requires, otherwise shrug.  It is, like most episodes, a decent showcase for Peter Capaldi: he makes a good fist of blind acting, and the “You’re not my mum” banter makes a good case for Nardole being here.  (I also love his response to Bill’s reasonable question “What if you’re wrong?”  “Well, we’ll be horribly murdered.”)  Matt Lucas continues to underplay the comic observer, thank god, and Bill goes through the wringer, though her main impact on the plot is making it necessary for the Doctor to go blind.  I’m happy for a three-companion setup, but I’m not entirely sure they’ve cracked rationing out the action yet.

Episodes like this, i.e. plot-driven base-under-siege, at best they work, but they’re still just a case of having a plot and successfully unfolding it.  And... tick.  But I’m mostly here for the character development, and I can’t spot much else to get out of it.  Yes, the Doctor’s blindness will continue at least into the next episode, which is a bit interesting; there’s a sweet reminder that Bill feels a deep connection to her departed mum when she talks to her as she’s about to die; and it all feeds that ongoing need of the Doctor’s to escape his (self-imposed?) exile to watch the Vault.  He’s happiest when he’s gallivanting or answering distress calls, as we know.  Series Ten is supposed to be a jumping on point for new viewers, and defining who the Doctor is, complete with one of those drearily self-important “Who am I?” speeches, makes sense for new viewers.  It’s just not much of a newsflash to those of us who’ve been here a while – and who inconveniently make up most of the viewing figures, such as they are.  So well done, all these elements (still) work.  Now rearrange them into something new.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Creaky Crawly

Doctor Who
Knock Knock
Series Ten, Episode Four


New writer, everyone!  Get the nice china!  And Mike Bartlett has quite a prestigious job to do, handling the first “scary one” of Series Ten.  Small group of people trapped in a creepy old house, creaky floorboards, sinister guest star?  What’s not to like?

Probably my favourite scary film is The Haunting, and the most famous bit in that is just a load of knocking on a door, so an episode called Knock Knock is off to a good start with me.  And I was a student once, so I’ve been in that boat of having no accommodation when term’s almost upon you.  Now that’s scary.  (I also had a housemate that disappeared, but I’m pretty sure she wasn’t eaten by space bugs.  I ought to check, really.)

Incredibly, they don't do that joke.  You know the one.
(Didn't stop the BBC announcer though, did it?)
Stuck for accommodation, Bill and half a dozen fellow students meet The Landlord (no name; bit odd that nobody asks), who gleefully points them to a huge house they can rent for cheap.  Is it too good to be true?  Well duh; not one of them bothers to read the contract, including Bill, so I’m sort of with David Suchet on this one.  The Doctor helps Bill move, cannily elucidating what a huge help the TARDIS would be in that situation.  Of course he only has to glance at the house to know something is wrong, and he promptly embroils himself in their first night at home.

There’s something very satisfying about locking a bunch of characters in a house and letting the plot unfold more or less in real time.  The Doctor puzzles out what’s happening as it goes along, noticing the trees outside are moving despite no breeze, flagging that a housemate remaining unseen in his room for an entire day isn’t normal for anyone, and immediately clocking something very odd about Suchet’s kindly-yet-creepy Landlord.  Some serious guest star power here: Suchet plays it like Mole from Wind In The Willows, but with an evil agenda that keeps slipping his mind.  You never know how complicit he is in the deviousness that’s going on, which works given his reasons later on.  You’d be right to think that getting him and Peter Capaldi in a room together was worth tuning in for; Capaldi has so utterly hit his stride now, he can make eating a crisp look interesting, or make a smile terrifying.  (He also slips into a Tom Baker impression at times, which few could get away with.)

The episode wobbles a bit early on with the Doctor-Bill relationship.  She’s really keen to keep her private life and her, uh, Doctor Who life separate.  This is annoying because virtually every companion since 2005 has kept one foot in their living room at all times – forget traveling through time and space and changing your life, what about the safety blanket?  But it’s also unearned.  Bill’s university studies and her life with the Doctor are linked: he’s her tutor and it’s his input that got her there, plus he’s the reason she has any photos of her mum, so she’s got even more reason to have him in her life.  Fair enough if there’s a reason for Bill to act like an awkward kid being embarrassed by her dad at the school gates, but they haven’t set this up, so she’s just a bit of an arse towards him.  (They don’t even give her the obvious reason, a housemate she fancies and wants time alone with.  Quite the opposite, with a misunderstanding about orientations.)  At least this gives Capaldi some amusing business, like insisting he doesn’t look old enough to be her grandad.  I love when the Doctor doesn’t register his own appearance, like thinking he did look old enough to be Amy’s dad when he looked like Matt Smith.  And it’s always nice to reiterate that the Doctor = a grandfather figure.

Anyway, we’re here for the creepy, so something weird has to happen and somebody has to snuff it.  (Preferably multiple somebodies.)  Knocking isn’t actually integral to this; everything in the house creaks all the time, but there’s only one scene with a sinister knocking going from door to door on its own, and that doesn’t really go anywhere.  Something is in the wood, and it eats people when there are high-pitched noises.  (Or, uh, when it wants to?)  There’s some top notch screaming, generally from the men because the companions aren’t allowed to do that any more, and a moment when we see someone half-absorbed in wood is like something out of Guillermo del Toro.  Overall though, Knock Knock mostly just talks scary, especially when it turns out the problem is alien bugs.  This is personal preference, but for me the more “seen” the threat is, the further it gets from an Old Dark House story.  The moment it becomes about CGI creepy crawlies, I lose a bit of interest.

So his music summoned the bugs, but is also keeping him here?
Ah, who cares, it looks creepy AF.
As for the bugs and what they’re doing here, this is the messy bit.  Suchet is luring kids to his house every 20 years so the house can feed on them.  (It prefers to feed on young people, judging by some vague lines about “youthful energy”.)  This in some way keeps his sick daughter alive, as they have developed a symbiotic relationship with her.  But why do they want to keep her alive, besides bargaining for more kids to eat?  And “alive” in this case means “made of wood now”, which seems like a mixed blessing.  What would happen if they stopped?  Would she become more wooden?  I wondered if she was meant to look more human once all the kids were dead, at least until another 20 years goes by, but I assume not as we see the effect one of the deaths has on her and it’s no effect at all, besides a shimmery thing.  (She looks the same afterwards.)  I wanted to know how Suchet even learned that dead kids = alive-but-wooden daughter, and what happens to them both in the 20 years between feedings, but alas, these episodes are 45 minutes only, so we must leapfrog through the “explanations” while the end credits tap their watch.

It all builds (too quickly) to a satisfying climax between Suchet and his “daughter”.  (Or is she?)  Epiphanies come a bit too thick and fast here – again with that troublesome pacing – as the Doctor talks himself into understanding and her into action.  (I liked his line about “infodump, then busk”, but I wish it wasn’t true every week.)  Suchet is incredible here, bouncing between malevolent and heartbroken, and Mariah Gale matches him, which is even more impressive under all those prosthetics.  Add Peter Capaldi and well, yeah, it’s pretty good actually.  Until Mariah saves all of Bill’s housemates, pulling the last bit of scary rug out from under the episode and replacing it with a fluffy pink carpet.  That “eaten by bugs” effect is genuinely horrifying, but once you’ve seen that it might as well be a teleport.  (Plus the finale is a bit of a mix of Love Conquers All and Heroic Self-Sacrifice; effective, but not exactly new ground.)

Cut to Nardole and something playing a piano in the Vault (I hate myself for this, but I do want to know what’s in there), and that’s Knock Knock.  Itpretty good, rather unclear but not exactly stupid, creepy but could be a lot creepier, thank god for Suchet.  There are some little arc-plotty touches if you like that sort of thing, like all the grandfather bits and the rather pregnant nod towards regeneration.  (Nope, lock the doors, we’re keeping him.)  It’s another episode I’d struggle to say a lot about, but after The Pilot it’s the best so far.  Knock on wood.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Codzilla

Doctor Who
Thin Ice
Series Ten, Episode Three


Ehh.  This one’s pretty good, so why aren’t I jumping up and down about it?

On balance, probably because we’ve been here before.  Even before you get into what the episode is about, Thin Ice is unavoidably stuck in that Learning The Ropes phase all new companions must go through.  They’re trying their hardest to make it fresh, with Bill asking fun questions and even coaxing fun responses out of the Doctor – like her worrying about changing history and him taking the piss that they’ve already erased another companion on their travels.  But I’d be a lot happier if the Doctor got all this “bigger on the inside, wow the future, wow the past, oh no people die” stuff on a memory stick and just sonicked it into the companion’s head on Week #1.  It’s all good fodder for the new actor, and Pearl Mackie is great at it, but it’s variations on a bloody old theme.  Which is sadly also a good way of describing the plot.

I KNEW THERE WAS SOMETHING I FORGOT TO MENTION.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: the TARDIS arrives in Regency London and the Doctor and Bill go to the “frost fair” on the Thames.  There are strange lights under the ice and something is eating people.  Sarah Dollard’s script handles this very nicely, with Bill noticing the lights and thinking the Doctor hasn’t, until he reveals that of course he spotted it, he just “assumed they’d get to work eventually” and was waiting for her to catch up.  There’s plenty of time for them both to revel in history, making jokes about not stepping on butterflies, all while Peter Capaldi looks positively, ludicrously Dickensian.  Then they get to work.

A young urchin named Spider is the next victim, and before you can say “Did they really kill a kid, like really properly kill him?”, the Doctor fails to rescue him, although he does rescue his screwdriver.  Cue a bit of Rope-Learning 101: people die and the Doctor moves on.  If he spent all his time moping then other people would die.  Deal with it, Bill.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this.  Yes, the Doctor has to move on or he’d be an inconsolable wreck.  Valid point and all that.  But the way it’s shot, the Doctor doesn’t seem all that bothered in the first place.  Is he even reaching for Spider, or just his screwdriver?  His “moving on” is immediate, cooing with relief over the sonic and showing zero interest in the dead kid.  No wonder Bill calls him on it.  More problematic, we later find out that just being sucked under the ice doesn’t mean instant death, as the fish might not eat you right away.  Yes, Spider would have frozen or drowned pretty soon after, or else been gobbled up, but he isn’t automatically “gone” by any means.  The Doctor could even sonic a hole in the ice if he really felt like it.

Ah well, his focus is apparently on saving everybody else, so it’s time to investigate, find out who’s using the gang of urchins to lure people to their deaths and why.  The Doctor and Bill go underwater and they spy the big fish, noticing it’s in chains.  So it’s a captive, and there are people mining its poo nearby (yep), because it handily doubles as OMG amazing factory fuel.  And if you want fish poo you’ve got to feed the fish, hence the frost fair.  (Presumably when the Thames isn’t frozen over they… host swimming competitions?  Treasure hunts with the “prize” underwater?  Push drunk people in when no one’s looking?)  Their next step is finding out whodunit, and whether it’s an alien or a human, to say nothing of where the giant fish comes from and what to do with it.  In another very Davies-era twist, it turns out Lord Sutcliffe is indeed human and just, well, a shit.  He’s also a racist, in case you didn’t get the memo.

Yes, it’s unsubtle to make him a racist.  But it’s also a bit novel to actually show some racism when you’ve got a non-white companion travelling through time.  By comparison, it wasn’t exactly believable for the Doctor to tell Martha to “strut around like you own the place”.  Easy for you to say, Handsome White Guy.

"Doctor, is someone pumping air down here?"
"Sorry, I thought they worked like spacesuits."
It also allows for the Doctor to lose his rag and sock Mr Racist in the jaw.  Is it wrong to show the Doctor punching someone?  Well, it’s mostly a punchline (!) to him telling Bill to keep her cool and let him do the talking.  It’s also a bit of characterisation, i.e. when faced with a multiple-murdering capitalist who has zero regard for human or animal life and no remorse, he might betray that “I don’t have time for outrage” line and actually get a bit cross, especially when the guy spouts a racist threat to his friend.  I don’t think impressionable young fans will start hitting people.  I do think they’ll figure out that Lord Sutcliffe isn’t a role model, and that the Doctor really feels more than he says he does.  For good measure, the Doctor tries reasoning with Sutcliffe afterwards, and accomplishes precisely nowt.

Pretty soon the Doctor and Bill are tied up next to some explosives, because this isn’t a think-piece.  Except then it tries to be exactly that: what do we do about the fish?  Let it go, and potentially let loads of people be eaten, or keep it here and let Sutcliffe continue his empire of poo?  The Doctor leaves the choice in Bill’s hands, because it’s her planet, and he’s just a humble servant.

Except that’s bollocks.  I mean, it is more Bill’s planet than his, but when has that stopped him wading in and acting on their behalf anyway?  Okay, he did just that in Kill The Moon, but he later said (in the stupid one with the trees) that it was his planet after all. He’s always making life or death choices that decide the fate of Earth.  The whole thing feels like a last minute copy and paste from The Beast Below, which barely had an IQ as it was, and this works even less well as a moral dilemma since there’s no reason to keep the fish here, and they’ve got no idea where it came from or where it should go.  We never find out, incidentally: it’s just been around for generations, has magically never been spotted by anyone, and its poo fuel has presumably been part of Britain’s economy without anybody ever questioning Sutcliffe’s magic ingredient.  We’ve no idea if the fish is sentient or anything like that either.  Then off it goes to live somewhere – cue the obvious joke about humanity missing the obvious, and shrugs all round.  We never find out if it’s an alien, though it clearly is, nor the little pilot fish that can magically cut and re-freeze ice.  (The Doctor says this is “irrelevant”.  Not if you want to take it home, you wazzock.)  Much like Sarah Dollards Face The Raven, I suspect theres a more coherent earlier draft somewhere on her hard drive.

There’s a cute epilogue with the urchins inheriting the bad guy’s wealth – take that, racism! – and then it’s back to the Doctor’s study for tea and disapproval from Nardole, curtailing the accidental journey through time and space I was hoping would stretch throughout Series 10.  But oh well, the Doctor commits to travels with Bill anyway, so there’s more to come.  Bless.

Ehhh.  It’s fine, really, Thin Ice.  The plot is creaky and heavily borrowed, but it’s more fun and less dim than Smile.  Peter Capaldi is knocking it out of the park.  Pearl Mackie has some lovely bits of outrage.  The stuff Bill’s learning about the Doctor is obvious, but it’s more interesting than just pointing out he has “advice and assistance obtainable immediately” written on his police box.  There are arguably problematic bits, like the Doctor right hooking a fool or extolling the wonderfulness of theft, but then again he isn’t perfect, and it’s sort of nice to remind us of that.  Perhaps most important, Thin Ice gets the Doctor and Bill onto an even footing, so hopefully it’ll all become more interesting and less tried-and-tested from here on.  Relax.  It’s not like they’re about to change the cast or anything.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Doctor Who
Smile
Series Ten, Episode Two


Well, if it isn’t Frank Cottrell-Boyce, back for more after his Series Eight episode that asked “What if there were trees everywhere?”, and bravely answered “That’d be nice, I like trees.  Oh they’ve gone now.”  Obviously I’m excited.

Of course I can’t resist pitting his efforts against each other, so: Smile is better than In The Forest Of The Night.  There’s a plot this time, and the Doctor actually takes part in it.  Wow on both counts.  But despite featuring numerous deaths and the fate of humanity, this is somehow another episode that dawdles along humming to itself.

There’s this bunch of human colonists escaping a doomed Earth.  We’ve seen this numerous times before – even the Doctor points that out, so okay, what’s happening to these ones?  They’ve found a nice uninhabited planet, which to be honest is usually their main hurdle, and they’ve got these amazing micro-robots that can link together and build things, so they send them on ahead to make a city to live in, with larger emoji-faced robots acting as go-betweens/butlers.  Things look pretty good for humanity (most of whom are still in cryo-sleep), so long as the robots they’ve pinned their entire future on don’t, for example, malfunction and kill everybody.

Ye-eah... Bill?
I don't think that's "algae".
(Soylent Blue?)
Oh, fiddlesticks – you’ll never guess what they’ve gone and done.

To be fair, why they malfunction is (sort of) a new one: they are designed to ensure your satisfaction and happiness, so when somebody dies and that causes grief, they perceive that unhappiness as a problem… and promptly kill everyone exhibiting it.  Apparently they’ve never encountered death before.  (Bit odd.  Aren’t these the last humans ever?  What happened to the rest?)  And apparently they respond to unhappiness by turning you into bone meal.  I’d hate to see what they do when you’re actually sick.

So it turns out this isn’t just Ye Olde Robot Uprising Plot – it’s also Ye Olde Moffatian Dumb-Technology-That-Means-Well-But-Then-It-Kills-You Plot.  You may remember it from such episodes as the one immediately preceding this.  Smile isn’t exactly boiling over with originality so far.

The emoji-bots, for instance, feel like a repeat of the Smilers, who also communicate using different faces.  (This time it’s supposed to be a satire on our reliance on emojis, but it’s such an obvious hindrance that it’s hard to believe they’d really do away with speech.)  They also come with that old Moffat trope, the “do/don’t do a thing if you want to live” gag.  A lot of effort has gone into them, but it’s the swarming micro-bots that do the actual killing – recalling the Vashta Nerada as they go – leaving their cutesy counterparts pointlessly bobbing along in the background, and then (no, really) hugging you until you die.  Adding a “skull” emoji doesn’t make them scary: so long as the Doctor and Bill can smile enough to fool their facial recognition, they can pretty much elude them indefinitely, or even just escape.  The only thing keeping them here is the Doctor’s desire to help.  There’s consequently no claustrophobia or excitement to the story.

It’s no bad thing for an episode to be just the Doctor and Bill for the most part: they’re both good actors (to say the least of Capaldi), and The Pilot was mostly just these two chewing on a bit of character development, and that worked.  But it’s what you do with them, and Smile puts them in a futuristic (Spanish) location and just has them look at stuff and talk their way through the creaky plot.  Aside from some bog-standard “Why do you do what you do?” Companion 101 from Bill, we don’t learn about either of them.  I suspect that a two-hander works better if they’ve actually got something to talk about.

Bill asks some fun questions, which seems to be her thing (more so than it’s every companion’s thing), but her point of view isn’t really needed.  There’s nothing to react to or be more than generically outraged about, since they quickly suss that the robots killed everybody and just need to stop it happening again.  The “Smile or die” thing is perhaps intended to say something about grief, but since there are so few people here to react to that, and neither the Doctor nor Bill are grieving about anything, it just comes across as a random quirk and makes no deeper satirical point.  I can’t help recalling The Happiness Patrol, which is also about a world where happiness is the law, except it was full of people with points of view, as well as politics and satire.  It was a lot more interesting than “do a thing to avoid the killer robots for 45 minutes”.

"We're filming in a really snazzy futuristic city in Spain!"
"Cool!  And the ship's engine room?"
"Washing machine on a gantry, I guess."
And speaking of doing a thing, and the Doctor’s desire to “help”: on seeing a colony where robots have turned on their masters, and figuring a colony ship must be on its way to join the slaughter, he promptly decides to blow up the city.  Bill understandably raises her eyebrows at this, as did I; surely that’s the sort of overreaction you’d expect from the robots?  Blowing things up is rarely his first resort, plus it’s odd that he didn’t first try to fix the robots, nor even check if there were any humans still alive.  Surprise!  There are!  Turns out the colony ship came at the same time as the robots.  So, uh, cancel the red alert, then; wasn’t that a thrilling twenty minutes?  (And hang on, so the robots and the “skeleton crew” (ho ho) weren’t sent on ahead?  Why is everyone else still asleep, then?  Sure, the robots are better at building things, but the things are built now.)

Eventually some other people wake up, thank goodness, and they’re not best pleased that the robots went and did that thing robots always do.  And then Smile makes a last ditch effort to become interesting: the robots aren’t just dumb, they’re an emergent life form!  The Doctor decides to negotiate peace, aka tell the humans to play nice (even though he was happy enough to blow up the robots a minute ago) and wipe the robots’ memories, which is apparently his go-to these days.  Cue a happy ending… allegedly.

As nice as it is that most of the humans are still alive, it’s hard to believe they won’t still be angry that their friends and families were murdered, and retaliate in kind.  Similarly, the robots might one day remember everything and kill them all.  If they are an emergent life-form and not just idiots after all, that puts the whole “turn you into a skeleton” thing in a more sinister light.  Maybe there was another reason for it, like not wanting to live out their existence as a bunch of walls?  Also, since they’re alive, it’s more than a bit morally dubious to wade in and delete their memories.  (Hasn’t he learned anything from not doing that to Bill last week?)  Oh well: the entire “debate” is bundled into a couple of fast-talking minutes right at the end, with a literal reset button ending that involves pointing the sonic screwdriver at a thing.  It’s an improvement on “And then all the trees went away”, but not much.

Okay, enough grumbling.  What’s good about it?  The location is an absolute boon: if you want to see a city from the future, you might as well hope for Valencia.  There’s an actually quite good bit with Nardole at the start, as he assumes the role of the Doctor’s “mum” telling him he’s got to keep an eye on the vault and not have any fun.  The series arc continues to be delightfully unobtrusive, and I’m happy to wait for the answers.  And the ending!  After promising that the TARDIS will bring them back the moment they left, so he hasn’t really broken his promise to stay put, they find themselves in snowy Victorian London.  For a moment it was like the Hartnell era had picked up again, with the TARDIS going wherever it likes.  (Is it too late to hope they’ll make it permanent?)  That’s both a lot of fun and a simple way to raise the stakes for the arc.  Not, admittedly, the work of Smile itself, but I like it a lot.  Oh, and Capaldi is brilliant, while Mackie puts in solid (if underwritten) work.  Thumbs up.

Nonetheless, its a long, boring wait for Frank Cottrell-Boyce to come up with an interesting answer to The Only Plot Involving Robots Ever, and then he goes and thinks of another one when it’s too late to do anything with it.  Smile is far too familiar, and it’s a much watered down repeat of those earlier, more interesting stories.  Sort of like replacing a complex emotion with a simple pictogram, you might say.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Trouble With Puddles

Doctor Who
The Pilot
Series Ten, Episode One


Altogether now: phew.

It’s been a while since Doctor Who brought on a new companion.  The Doctor’s life, and seemingly the entire universe has revolved around Clara for years – frankly I’m surprised we escaped – so it’s a major relief that Steven Moffat has still got it.  With, perhaps, a little help from the Russell T Davies era.

Say hello to Bill.  She’s a nice person who serves chips at Uni.  She lives with her foster mum and she’s a bit lonely, though she doesn’t go on about it.  Oh, and she’s gay.

That latter point made the news, which seems hilarious when you see the episode.  There are a couple of references (one a bit rambling and random but ah well, they do need to actually say it; the other probably meant to show her foster mum doesn’t know about it) followed by a story about a crush, which would have worked exactly the same if it was girl-boy.  (And quite right.)  If it were any lower key it wouldn’t be there.  Are we sure this is Steven Moffat, who previously couldn’t contain his excitement about two women making a baby in Jekyll, and a woman marrying a lady lizard in Who?  (Not to mention Clara and Amy both giving themselves the eye when the opportunity arose – phwoar, obviously.)  Our little creep is growing up!  Bless.

Okay, but y'know... no touching.
I know some people really liked Clara, but watching the Doctor interact with somebody else for once is like coming up for air.  Based on this one episode – don’t panic, there’s plenty of time to balls it up later – Bill feels real in a way Clara didn’t manage in years.  There’s a moment where she looks through photos of her mum, whom she doesn’t remember, and just smiles and cries in honest amazement.  Her trips to see the Doctor, hiding out as a university lecturer, speak of her loneliness without making a fuss about it.  She doesn’t have a very eventful life but unlike Rose, doesn’t grumble; she’d just rather have a more exciting one if it comes along.  And she’s got a crush on Heather, a flighty girl with a pretty imperfection in her eye.  When she is absorbed by an alien puddle (!) and transforms into an unstoppable puddle person (!!), the episode becomes about escaping a scary thing, of course, but it always comes back to that sense of longing Bill has, and the gutting sadness that it didn’t work out.  It’s all so small and real; it’s the kind of emotional core Clara never had despite a ridiculous amount of time and effort, and consequently the show has lacked something as well.  Well, now it’s back.

The Doctor is quite refreshed by all this.  (He’s doing a thing and guarding a vault, which obviously is this year’s arc plot; you’re not allowed to avoid those, but much like Bill’s home life they don’t go on about it, so I’m actually intrigued.)  He’s reluctant to go adventuring, but he can’t help being drawn to Bill, who has a lot of curiosity and a healthy sci-fi imagination.  The scene where she gets him a Christmas present and, to pay her back, he orchestrates some photos of her mum is incredibly sweet.  It’s only a pity I misunderstood it the first time as something of greater, arc-plottier significance.  (Come on, we’re always encouraged to look for this stuff.  What do you mean, “he was just being nice”?  Mind you, it’s pretty odd that Bill doesn’t march up to the Doctor and ask a) how he knew her mum, b) why he didn’t say and c) how frigging old he is.  But maybe she’s already assuming he can time travel?)

Escaping Heather is a good enough excuse to dust off the TARDIS, and before you know it the Doctor’s explaining how it works and facing down a Dalek.  Well, that’s what he does with new friends, innit?  Peter Capaldi wonderfully sells the Doctor’s excitement at getting his Doctor on after 50 years.  (I also loved the TARDIS’s little “ahem” of encouragement at the end.  The Cloister Harrumph.)  Okay, he’s evidently had Nardole around this whole time, but that’s not the same, especially since Nardole has been retooled as the Doctor’s dogsbody.  Good; I like him better as staff.  (He’s far too silly to be a person, so it’s almost a relief to find out he’s some sort of robot.  I guess that explains how he’s still here post-decapitation?  Matt Lucas is playing him more robotty than he did at Christmas, anyway.)

This isn’t one of those New Companion episodes where she has to save his life to earn her place; it’s more that these two people could do with having each other in their lives.  But at first he’s so concerned about his vault that he’s prepared to wipe her memories altogether.  (Cue a great bit where she “knows what a mind-wipe looks like”.)  It’s fair play to call back to Clara here – so long as that’s all, mind! – and use the Doctor’s own unhappiness at what he once lost to change his mind.  Good continuity, have a biscuit.  This whole arrangement is more organic than I’m used to.

As for the “monster”, which is really a form of spaceship that just wants a pilot and subsequently a passenger, and finds them in Heather and Bill, it would be fair to draw a line to The Empty Child: it’s Moffat’s Dumb Technology That Accidentally Kills You once again.  But he’s doing something different with it this time, and it underlines that loneliness stuff for Bill, so I don’t mind.

The "repeating what you said" thing is a bit Midnight,
but hey, at least is isn't as irritating.
It is also holy hell creepy.  Puddle-Heather just stands there staring most of the time, and sometimes hovers directly over the ground, which is euuuuggggghhhhhh NOPE.  All of this is creepier than conventionally gnashing and threatening, although for some reason she does scream a few times.  It’s rare that a “monster” can be explained as something innocent and, well, a bit sweet in the end and not ruin itself completely, but I found all of this just as unnerving the second time.  There’s a tremendous sadness and horror to Bill’s would-be crush being paraded around like that.

The Pilot is, admittedly, a very small episode.  I know I’m sounding like a broken record now, but I thought that was a relief: everything has revolved around supposedly massive questions and ancient mysteries for so long, it’s nice to shear all of that away and just make some Doctor Who.  Besides, Episode 1s are supposed to be the accessible ones; you’re here to meet the new person, and here they are.  Steven Moffat has been touting Series 10 as a great jumping on point, and while that seems like a wasted effort given that it’s all going to change again when he leaves, he’s not wrong.  It’s one of those episodes that quietly gets on and does its job.

…aaaand okay, there are nitpicks.  Of course there are.  Shall we?

Bill’s chip story is funny and (uh oh) it introduces the gay thing, but it is very very irrelevant, which won’t exactly deflect the knives-out anti-gayers watching; Bill’s comment about a fat girl no longer being pretty is, uh, problematic, isn’t it?; “You know you’re my foster mum?”  There’s a good chance she does, aye.  Still, mustn’t grumble, a quick glance at forum-land indicates some people still didn’t get it; who put the Doctor’s rug down?  Unless he moved the TARDIS, put it down, and moved the TARDIS back.  Pfft!; what’s with all the flashbacks?  When Bill sees Heather sitting on a bench, we’re treated to a repeat of them meeting in a club a couple of minutes ago.  We’re not goldfish – was the episode massively running under?; Nardole works better than he used to, but he’s still just A Comedy Character, which seems especially redundant next to Bill trying to be all realistic and that.

And we’re done.  A couple of details aren’t perfect.  What else is new?  There are plenty of other little things I liked, such as the Doctor’s lecturing style, the photograph of Susan on his desk (yay!), that bunch of classic series sonic screwdrivers, the fact that it’s Bill and Heather (Hartnell?), the bloody Movellans!  Pearl Mackie makes a lovely first impression and Peter Capaldi has a wonderfully balanced Doctor to be getting on with.  It’s a nice, neat little episode, and all of a sudden the future’s bright.  I might even be sad that it’s so short.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Virgin Novels #45 – Infinite Requiem by Daniel Blythe

Doctor Who: The New Adventures
#36
Infinite Requiem
By Daniel Blythe

The New Adventures are going somewhere new again.  Ace is gone!  Properly gone this time, although for all I know there’s a cameo waiting to happen.  (Hush.)

So we’ve got Doctor Who starring the Doctor and Bernice Summerfield.  Good.  Now, I wouldn’t put Daniel Blythe’s name forward as the obvious inaugural writer of The New Doctor And Bernice Adventures (it’ll catch on), but he did a good job with her in his first novel, The Dimension Riders, so why not?  It wasn’t a very accomplished book, even among these humble Who stories – it dealt too much in cliché – but there were times when it sparked.  Roughly all of those times were when Bernice had something to do.

I might as well burst that bubble up front.  The Doctor is in it, Bernice is in it, and that’s about as exciting as they get.  Blythe is far too interested in his own characters to dwell on these two, or even put the two of them together.  But hey, at least you’ve got loads of interesting new characters to focus on… and I might as well burst that one as well.  Big fat nope.  Infinite Requiem seems in a constant rush to point out how many people and things and places it covers, but it rarely provides a reason to be captivated by any of them.  This is a sprawling, thin piece of work.

Fair’s fair, as it got on the wrong side of me immediately, maybe I wasn’t very receptive.  Infinite Requiem is an eye-roller of a pretentious title, and the book begins with yet another mystifying prologue.  Just what is with all the damn prologues, anyway?  I’ve taken them for granted most of my life, and I’m only now wondering if they’re an especially Doctor Who obsession.  As if 200+ pages aren’t enough to instil a bit of mystery, many of these authors feel the need to fanny about with some metaphysical what-the-effery first.  (If it’s not a mysterious figure being sinister in the dark, then it’ll be someone or something going “Light!  Dark!  There is pain, only there isn’t!  I am one, many, nothing!  Wait, what?” usually in the first person, maybe present tense.)  I tend to re-read these things desperately trying to figure them out, but it’s always pointless.  If they have any relevance it’ll come so much later that you won’t recall them anyway.  And once you get past that you’re rewarded with yet more epigraphs, in all their “Well done me, I read a book once” glory.  And then the book is divided into four named parts, so… it’ll be more like the telly?  And the fourth part is called DARK TRINITY ASCENDANT.  There are so many earnestly snooty bells and whistles in this, and they all give off a whiff of “Take me seriously, I beg of you!”  I mean, bless, but stop it.

We then launch into a battle on Gadrell Major, which highlights another problem: lots of (not terribly deep) characters, lots of things happening, all crammed into too few pages.  Who are these people?  No time, off we go again.  And if we’re not chopping over to somebody new, the character is pausing to indulge in a flashback.  It takes some of the excitement away from, you know, a warzone when the characters we’ve just met are standing about wishing they were somewhere else, and gradually trying to figure out how they got there.  Let alone how boringly obvious it is to pause the action so the characters can join those dots for us.  I actually missed St. Anthony’s Fire reading this, even though the war-torn characters there did a lot of reminiscing as well.  Mark Gatiss just handled it with a bit more patience.  I still remember the sight of a weary general getting a moment to himself, and pulling his knees up slowly to his chin.  He had more humanity than this lot, and he was a lizard.

Speaking of the past, it might help to remember how Blythe handled different settings in The Dimension Riders.  These worked out roughly as 1) sort-of-sequel to Shada set in Oxford, 2) sort-of-Star Trek stuff on a spaceship where the bad guy is.  The Shada stuff was much more enjoyable.  Even the prose bounced off the page a little more, seeming sharper and funnier, whereas the spaceship stuff was forgettable, with stock space characters going about their duties (I’m guessing, since I had forgotten most of it by the end of that book) and a Big Bad ranting and raving like they all do.  Well, Infinite Requiem is like The Dimension Riders if you took out all the Oxford stuff.  The occasionally witty prose is AWOL.  I can only assume it was just a fleeting bit of Adams mimicry.  (In its place is an occasional random bit of wit, like a character saying they can’t wait to devour a good book, then eating one; also there’s a chapter entitled “Womb Service”.  Nobody said it was consistent.)  The characters have a few painful back stories, but none of those translate into interesting people.  One of them turned out, to my horror, to be a recurring character from Blythe’s other book.  Since I didn’t recall Darius Cheynor at all, it will come as little surprise that he made no impression on me here.  Every time we cut back to Gadrell Major, and the wooden Cheynor trying to resolve a conflict with the peculiar Phractons over a wrecked planet, it was a fight to keep ploughing through pages.

To the extent that the book comes alive, it is in the 1997 part of events, when the Doctor meets Tilusha Meswani, a pregnant woman with a psychic foetus.  (Yep.)  Her abusive love story, with her family turning their backs on her, carries pathos.  Her story also informs the battle against Shanstra (head of a psychic triumvirate, blah blah Big Bad) later on.  There’s a quite exciting moment when an ambulance crashes with her and the Doctor in it.  Tilusha is the closest Infinite Requiem gets to a real person, and (inevitably?) she isn’t in it very long.  As for her baby, mingled with another mind from the triumvirate and quickly grown into an adult, Blythe bundles him/her into the TARDIS for most of the book, where he/she can wait for the final confrontation with Shanstra.  Once it’s all over, Sanjay is left as a one-day-old adult alone in the universe.  The book doesn’t begin to ponder that, or how much he’s lost, relegating him to the usual panto walk-down of goodbyes at the end.  If it isn’t our old friend, the reasonably interesting yet unexplored idea.  (And seriously, what an absolutely appalling start he’s had!  His mother’s gone, his family pre-emptively hate him, he won’t get back there anyway, and his lifespan comes up about 20 years short.  So long, good luck etc.)

Meanwhile, we do (sort of) explore the idea of psychics, or at least provide four whole groups of them.  There are the dangerous Sensopaths; invading (but broadly not-evil) Phractons; the Pridka, who are another group of psychics in this apparently (oh wait, fins, they have fins!); and there are some telepathic humans as well.  And yet, for the word-count devoted to them, Infinite Requiem doesn’t really say anything about telepaths.  The Sensopaths, or two out of three, are miserably predictable bad guys, excusing brutal murders because they’re “beautiful” and greeting our heroes with naff lines like “‘Have you come to play?’  The Phractons are globes with psychic jelly in them, and they have a whole linked society, but it never comes to much; they’re just part of the war scenery.  The Pridka inhabit the book’s weakest and least developed setting, the Dream Centre, where the other still-not-as-bad-as-the-main-one member of the triumvirate is causing problems.  This is so without interest that it barely registered, and ditto the Pridka, a bunch of thingummies milling around there.  The psychic humans are indistinguishable from the rest, apart from occasionally pointing out that they’re psychic.  Really, I wonder why the book is so obsessed with this topic if it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about it.

If I seem a little disjointed in tackling this one, perhaps it’s because I rarely sat down and read it in one sitting.  On top of a simply unengaging story and a lot of sketchy characters, the book’s structure works against getting the reader involved.  Blythe writes almost entirely in short bursts, which means there’s never any hope of momentum building.  Now, this device can work very well at doing precisely that: if your story is reaching a critical point, keeping it short-but-sweet can create a certain excitement.  But it doesn’t work like that when it’s the entire bloody book.  Nothing in Infinite Requiem ever seems like a big deal because we’re always off somewhere else – no worlds build, no characters breathe.  Every time we return to Gadrell Major, for example, it’s just the same bloody boring slag-heap full of tanks as when we last saw it.  And that writing style backfires all over again when we reach the action-packed finale – when, of course, a staggered pace might ordinarily have helped, now it’s so par for the course that it doesn’t add anything.  Shanstra’s inevitable demise reads like the rest of it; i.e., totally underwhelming.

The writing that comprises these short sections is not exactly distinguished.  Blythe seems as obsessed with similes as he is with cutting away.  Like any device they’re perfectly fine in moderation, but he sprinkles the damn things everywhere, from the banal (“landing neatly on all fours like a cat”) to the awkwardly odd (“‘Rain,’ the Doctor said softly, watching it lash like angry monsters against the ambulance”).  There’s also an inconsistent habit of using characters’ full names, as if we might run into more than one Darius, Phil or Tilusha ’round these parts.  And while I can understand this might seem like no big deal, there’s a pretty embarrassing collection of Doctor Who references on display.

These came somewhat naturally to The Dimension Riders, since it was more or less a sequel, but what reason is there now for the Doctor to bring up the Key To Time, point out that characters remind him of the Brigadier and Sarah Jane (they wish), admit that his fourth incarnation was a hoot at parties but his sixth was “stranger” (shots fired – or more likely, another reference), or quote a Venusian lullaby?  And it’s not just him: in a tediously typical display of forced “character development”, Sanjay (whilst inhabited by a psychic force) starts picking apart his character arc for him, including the early juggling-and-spoon-playing era, his later tendency to behave like a “chess player”, and various events that have happened during the New Adventures.  I like continuity when it informs the characters or the story – it worked for Set Piece – but this is just a back-slapping display of “I know stuff about Doctor Who.”  To the extent that it is saying anything, it’s obvious.  And with all due respect, more than 30 books into the series and after a whole sub-set of past Doctor books has begun, the average reader and fan is unlikely to be impressed by a cameo from the Monoids.

But there is a flicker of usefulness to continuity.  In the early chapters, Bernice and the Doctor are still reeling from Ace’s departure.  Bernice is wondering what it’ll be like when it’s just the two of them (you and me both…), while the Doctor – naturally wondering if Bernice will bugger off too when he isn’t looking – is still so exhausted from Set Piece, he catches himself longing to regenerate.  It’s difficult for me to get too excited about character development derived from Ace, since I’m desperate for these books to forge a life away from her, but it’s an interesting place to find our characters.  Aaaand then there’s a story that doesn’t do very much with either of them.  Bernice gets bundled off with a holographic Doctor, who seems to exist to provide a distraction in two crucial scenes where a handful of glitter might have done, and the Doctor (in a not atypical dark mood) manipulates people.  The book ends on a sour note as two characters are consigned to tragic deaths in history.  The Doctor’s, and ultimately Bernice’s acceptance of this really ought to give bittersweet pause, but this bit of climax is just as rushed as the rest of it.  (And the characters in question are of such miniscule fascination that it is, at best, mildly surprising that they’ve died.)  Two books to go, just-the-Doctor-and-Bernice.  Step it ruddy well up.

I usually enjoy eviscerating really bad books, but Infinite Requiem doesn’t even have the gusto to stink.  It’s not as diabolical as something like The Ghosts Of N-Space, which makes reviewing it a bit harder.  There’s a dull, but basically serviceable story in here, and a variety of stock ideas, which some people will like.  But it’s an utter chore to wade through, testing your patience by hitting Pause every half-a-page, pouring misery into its characters’ lives but never really bringing them to life, and juggling a solid variety of stuff with a frustratingly docile imagination.  I think I’m past giving these books the benefit of the doubt, certainly on an author’s second go.  I’m too fed up after all that: following it was a misery, remembering it isn’t terribly easy.  Still though, every cloud.

3/10

NB: And that’s the end of this Blog Week.  Stay tuned for reviews 46–50, starting with Steve Lyons’s Time Of Your Life.