Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Celebrating 48 Years Of Stockholm Syndrome

Doctor Who
An Unearthly Child
Season One, Story One

Strange white shapes swirl in the blackness.  A mesmerising tune throbs and wails.  The strangeness gives way to a junkyard shrouded in fog and darkness: a police box, more like an obelisk, stands among the detritus, a strange hum emanating from within.  The first ever episode of Doctor Who begins.

What more can you say?  The opening gambit of schoolteachers Ian and Barbara following the mysterious Susan home from school, only to find a police box guarded by a deceitful old man, is strange and thrilling.  Ditto what they find within: the TARDIS, a glittering spaceship that’s a lot bigger on the inside.  And just when you think it can’t get any more amazing, the old man refuses to let them go, flicks a switch and sends them hurtling aimlessly through time and space.  If you think the post-2005 Doctor is starved for company, get a load of this guy: he takes hostages.

Mine now.
William Hartnell is mesmerising as the Doctor.  He’s unquestionably the leader, but it’s still up to William Russell’s humanely strong Ian to fight the battles, and earn the audience’s sympathy.  The Doctor, on the other hand, is a lying, selfish, callous individual, quite happy to offer cavemen the secret of fire if it means his own survival and willing to cave in a man’s skull just to speed up his escape.

He’s a far cry from the lovely wizard with a magic wand we’re more used to nowadays.

I agree that the original Doctor is a far cry from his modern counterpart, but I don’t think it’s because he’s a lovely wizard now.  He might run around yelling a lot more, but he’s still lying, selfish and callous.  I think the difference is that these days he stands on a chair and yells at the top of his voice ‘LOOK AT ME, I’M LYING’ and we’re meant to think that’s impressive and acceptable, whereas back here, it’s not acceptable and that’s why it’s good.

But the modern Doctor would never kill a man purely to speed up his escape.  This Doctor just doesn’t care about human life.

When the 10th Doctor euthanizes that Cyberwoman, he doesn’t get her permission or try to help her, he just decides she’d be better off dead and kills her.  Where’s the companion to step in the way and say, ‘no, that’s not acceptable’?

That’s all incorporated in the Doctor now.  He’s happy, sad, compassionate, angry, fire, ice, salt and vinegar, puppy dogs’ tails…  William Hartnell was part of an ensemble, with each character offering a different thing, but now the Doctor does it all himself, with a bit of optional eye candy to pass him his test tubes and twist her ankle.  Or, these days, shout at people and fancy him a bit.

That was a rhetorical question.

We never quite know what to make of the Doctor, which makes each adventure – leaping from one place to another with no hope of a set destination – more thrilling.  We miss all that unpredictability these days, the unreliable TARDIS and the danger of coming aboard, possibly never to see your home again.

There’s a heck of a lot to love, and this is only the first adventure.  But, well, yeah… it’s not perfect.  Don’t get us wrong: the premise and the first episode certainly are, and there are marvellous moments later on, like the Doctor contemplating murder and Ian putting a stop to it, cementing (in one brilliantly clipped exchange) one of the reasons the Doctor needs companions.  But as time-travel adventures go, a run-in with cavemen isn’t the best they could have come up with.  It’s only four (twenty-minute) episodes, and it feels pretty long at that.

"Fire good."
"Second.  Me table motion?"
It’s not that the cavemen aren’t interesting; if you’re going to set up time travel then this is the starkest contrast you can make to the present day, and it’s a clever background to form our main characters against – showing that compassion and humanity are more important than power and self preservation.  (What’s that, is the Doctor learning from his companions already?)  The power struggle between Za and Kal mirrors the uneasiness between the Doctor and Ian, and very well at that.

It’s an unexpected move opening Episode Two with the grunting beardies rather than the four travellers.  Then there’s a couple of shocking murders later on, one idly observed by our four heroes, and a perilous trek through the jungle.  If the whole thing was a bit shorter, it’d be positively action-packed.  But it’s mostly talking.  Episode Two is practically a non-event, consisting almost entirely of ‘fire’ this, ‘leader’ that and other tedious caveman back-and-forth, rather than some character development for the Doctor and co.  We said it was unexpected; that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Episode Three is the first in a long line of ‘escaping-only-to-be-recaptured’, although they do stop to save a life and do interesting character stuff, so it’s excusable.  But what a shame that after all the talk of saving his life, all Ian needs is a wet hanky and Za magically gets better one scene later.  Way to completely undermine the crux of an episode.

Still, despite the occasional lack of pace, the caveman debating society and the embarrassingly wobbly camera, this story has drama, fear and thrills in an intensity that’s both shocking and satisfying.  By the end, there’s a shared sense of curiosity and excitement among the travellers, all trapped in the same predicament (regardless of who kidnapped whom), far from home in a spaceship that doesn’t work properly.  There’s an intricate and important balance between the four.  It’s a wonderful dynamic, and we’re looking forward to exploring it.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Calamity Lame

Quantum Leap
How The Tess Was Won
Season One, Episode Four

Quantum Leap is TV comfort food.  That’s not to say it isn’t intelligent or important – being set between the 50s and the 80s it plays all the major social reform equality cards, race, sex, disability, sexuality – but it’s about a good through-and-through hero running around helping people out because God (or whoever) wants him to.  You don’t get fluffier than that.  But every now and then it strikes a discordant note.

This week Sam leaps into a shy vet living in Texas ranch country.  He’s not sure if he’s there to save a sick piglet or win the heart of cowgirl Tess.  We like Sam’s determination to rescue the pig.  And we love how it ends, bumping into someone famous in that inimitably Quantum Leap way whilst also sneakily subverting the whole premise of the show.  Genius.

Less successful is the romantic plot beforehand.  It’s unashamedly going for the Calamity Jane story, and Tess is just like Calamity in that she’s tough and dumb, but she hasn’t the charm, humour or romantic spirit of Calamity Jane.  (And not once does she burst into song.)

And here it gets uncomfortable.  Tess doesn’t want to get married, but she has to.  Sam has to prove he’s more man than her.  He consoles her by pointing out that while men are better than women when it comes to physical strength, women are better at having babies.  He’s probably trying to show Tess that being a woman is wonderful and she doesn’t need to want to be a man, but it comes across as incredibly misogynistic and all women are good for is their womb.  He manhandles her a bit, but also manages to be more sensitive and romantic than her, so basically, she’s rubbish both at being a man and at being a woman.

Despite being the antithesis of Sam’s kind of woman (he likes them smart but feminine, or whatever the hell Teri Hatcher was supposed to be) he still randomly falls for her, because Sam always has to fall for the woman by the end of the episode to make it a heartbreak that he’s forced to leave.  And then there’s a neat little twist that you probably aren’t expecting.  Sam doesn’t win the girl.

Trouble is a) Ziggy predicts that Tess is supposed to end up with the man who’s been writing her love letters.  Since when can Ziggy predict random stuff like that?  Ziggy just knows the established timeline and makes logical predictions based on that.  He’s not psychic.  We’re never even told what the established timeline was in the first place.  Did Tess always marry the other guy?  Did she grow old and die alone?  Shouldn’t we and Sam need to know this stuff in order to fix it?  b) Tess marries a guy who is brutish and declares he wants to rope her.  Hoorah, more misogyny.

Dear God, won't someone please think of the children!
And c) Al declares that Sam has a lot working against him and indicates the mirror.  Sam looks and sees a guy wearing glasses.  Gasp – not glasses?!  What exactly the point being made here is, we don’t know.  Men with glasses are not allowed to get married, but thugs who treat women like cattle are all the rage?  Or is it because this poor vet clearly has a pair of glasses GROWING OUT OF HIS FACE, otherwise Sam would be wearing them?  Either way, as a pair of speccies, we don’t think Al – who dresses like a Ken doll who’s bad at paintball – should point fingers.

Speaking of Al, this week Tina has left him, so he’s distracted and leaves Sam in danger to go sort out his personal life.  This is a bit of a running gag throughout the series, but it never feels plausible.  It’s never really clear how important this project is to Al, who tends to wander in and out of it in various states of hangover and sex-exhaustion.  Isn’t Sam’s life constantly at stake?  However, Sam’s sulking makes it well worth it.

So it’s an odd one.  It’s fun, certainly; there are several amusing subplots and the ending’s great.  But it’s also a bit uncomfortable and on the whole, pretty tough to care about.  Yee haa.

The Albert Calavicci Sleazy Files:
  • Lucille.  (In the Energising Chamber during the Christmas party.)

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Very Rocky Sister Act

Quantum Leap
The Right Hand Of God
Season One, Episode Three

In most TV shows there are some episodes you love, some episodes you hate, and a whole wodge of stuff in between that summons up little more than a ‘meh’.

The Right Hand Of God is Quantum Leap’s first meh.  Like an episode of The A-Team featuring a plucky family business, an evil gang of hillbillies, a sinister businessman and a montage, this one is strictly by the numbers.

Sam leaps into a boxer, Kid Cody, who’s hoping to raise enough money to build a chapel for some nuns.  Unfortunately, like 75% of all fictional boxers, Cody takes dives.  Sam tries to reverse his fortunes, coaxing a stubborn ex-trainer out of retirement and montage-ing his way to victory.

‘Seen it all before’ is an understatement; this plot’s so old it’s eligible for a bus pass.  There’s very little threat involved, as the shady businessman who orders Cody’s dives hardly seems bothered when Sam crosses him.  It’s quite fun that even after a couple of training montages Sam still has to cheat to win the day, and then has to play by the rules anyway after his opponent gets back up.  (Strictly speaking, he still cheats, with Al offering hologram-themed help.  But we like this, as it means Al gets to offer more than just moral support.)

Cheating.  Or something.
There are some nice touches.  We laughed when God, or whoever is leaping Sam around, deliberately leapt him into the path of a knockout punch for what he did in Star-Crossed.  (Comeuppance at last!)  We like Cody’s girlfriend Dixie’s dream of retiring the stripper business to open a doughnut shop.  And Al’s subplot involving a noisy neighbour is a good source of laughs, although it goes absolutely nowhere. 

Sadly we rolled our eyes when Al boasted of his youthful boxing career; call us picky, but if someone’s going to suddenly come up with a hitherto unmentioned talent just when it’s needed, we’d rather it was the guy with amnesia.  And giving a nun back her faith?  Seriously?  Could you get any sappier?  In an episode about boxers taking dives and disillusioned trainers hoping to find a champ, it’s like a cliché explosion.

But, if there’s one thing this episode teaches us, it’s that even if something is clichéd and dumb, just add Scott Bakula and wham: watchable telly.  That’ll do, for now.

The Albert Calavicci Sleazy Files
  • Cheating on Tina with Denise.  (Al's 'biographer', whom he met at a party.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Sleazy Professor

Quantum Leap
Season One, Episode Two

Star-Crossed is the first regular episode of Quantum Leap, and so we are treated to the first proper use of the delightful themetune (after a rather lift-musicky arrangement in the end credits of Genesis).  We love this themetune.  Unfortunately this week the clips are so few that quite a lot of the title sequence is filled with ghastly eighties-oh-we-mean-futuristic strobe lines, but even this cannot diminish our love for a themetune that means Quantum Leap is on and everything is going to be okay.  Doo, doo-dee-doo-doo, doo, doo, dee-doo!

So it’s a pity this episode isn’t actually that great.  Sam leaps into a sleazy English Lit professor (and Sam hates English Lit).  According to Al and Ziggy he’s here to stop the sleazy professor and his young female student from a shotgun wedding that ruins both their lives.  But Sam’s more interested in another student, Donna, the woman who jilted Sam twelve years in her future.  (Yes, one episode after establishing Sam’s amnesia he remembers tons of stuff about his life with Donna, apart from who jilted who.  That’s Swiss cheese for you, apparently.)

And here’s the problem.  Sam gets headstrong; all he’s interested in is Donna and fixing her problems so she won’t jilt him in the future, which seems awfully out of step with the compassionate guy we met in the previous episode.  He also completely forgets that he is not Sam but a sleazy old guy.  All those scenes of Donna building a relationship with Sam work less well when you remember the creepy old pervert she’s actually looking at.

Sam is completely selfish here.  He’s not that bothered by Donna’s feelings: his plan is to reunite her with her father, thus instantly curing her relationship-ruining fear of abandonment (as Al reminds him, Sam is not a psychiatrist, but then whaddya know, he’s right anyway), but only because it suits him.  And here the episode feels like it’s missing something.  Sam uses time travel for personal gain, we spend the whole thing waiting for some comeuppance, and there isn’t any.  Why set this up as Rule Number One if it doesn’t actually matter?

He isn’t even that bothered by what he’s actually here to do.  He is repeatedly surprised and grossed out that young women are attracted to his host, but not really concerned about it.  (And he does nothing to change it.)  In the end, the sleazy old guy gets no comeuppance either.  He comes off as a benevolent uncle figure in order to take advantage of his impressionable students.  As soon as Sam leaves, he’ll go straight back to his kinky ways.  Great.

The fun bits are Sam’s efforts to get the innocent student and her brute boyfriend back together, and these scenes really are a hoot, but there aren't enough of them and it all gets resolved practically instantly.  (Just saying ‘breathless’ instead of ‘horny’ does the trick.  And just reuniting girls with their long-last dads means bingo, no more runaway brides.  Good thing Sam's got six doctorates, this stuff is hard.)

Al’s half of the episode is very interesting.  The ‘committee’ are angry with Sam for breaking time travel rule one: Don’t change history for your personal gain, and they want to fire Al and close down the project (although what that actually means, what with Sam being lost in time and all, is unclear).  Al’s attempts to thwart them are enjoyable and there’s a brilliant scene in which the entire committee are in the imaging chamber with him, but Sam can’t see or hear them and they can’t see or hear Sam, so we get a game of charades and then Al being hoisted out by invisible beings.  This bit’s in the title sequence, and it looks great.

Despite Sam being a bit annoying this week, Scott Bakula is still amazing.  (Just wait for his puppy look.)  Teri Hatcher on the other hand, who we generally love, has very little to do other than get teary.  She does it well of course, but Donna is hardly the most riveting character to watch, and there’s no evidence of her and Sam’s apparent love, and nowhere in the episode for it to go.  It’s an interesting time travel idea, meeting your intended in the wrong order, but there isn’t any way for the episode to exploit it.  (And after three years of River Song, we don't really want to.)

Overall, we’re not sure that episode two is the place to explore your protagonist’s weaknesses.  How about some actual helping-people-out stories before you start on the personal gain corruption?  Or at least, if you have to do it so early, maybe deal with this problem instead of just throwing it in there for a laugh.  Speaking of which, Star-Crossed also includes the Watergate scandal as a comic footnote.

All things considered, it doesn't really tackle any of its ideas properly, but a bad episode of Quantum Leap is generally still a rollicking 45 minutes.

The Sam Beckett Genius Tally
  • Has a doctorate in Ancient Languages, and can read hieroglyphics.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Pilot Episode

Quantum Leap

Season One, Episode One

They don’t make ’em like this any more.

Quantum Leap is one of those shows where almost anything can happen every week.  We’ll let the main character, Sam Beckett, explain the premise:

‘Getting a second chance to put things right, to make the world a better place.’

Because shear away the time-travel, and that’s it.  He is a time-traveller, but unlike Doctor Who he’s not contractually obligated to meet monsters everywhere he goes (and really, what are the odds of that?).  Sam bounces around in time solving problems, some huge, some not.  He’s limited by his lifetime, so anywhere between the 50s and the 80s is fine, although rules including this one would wobble in the show’s later years.  And he can never be himself: he trades places with someone new each week, and it’s only us that sees him as he really is.  Besides these restrictions (and the general A-Team/Knight Rider structure of rolling into town and solving somebody’s problems), the writers have at it.  Quantum Leap managed to be at the same time reassuringly easy to follow and refreshingly brand new every week.  We love it.

Sam (Scott Bakula) wakes up in Texas in 1956.  He has amnesia.  The guy in the mirror has a different face, and everyone keeps calling him Tom.  To make matters worse, Tom’s a daring test pilot scheduled to make a record-breaking flight in a few days.  Oh, and there’s a weird guy in a suit and tie that seemingly only Sam/Tom can see.

We love the What The Hell Is Going On-ness of all of this, so it’s a shame there’s a pre-credits scene that gives it away to some extent.  Some time in the future, Al (Dean Stockwell), a snappy-dresser/ladies’ man, finds out that Sam has prematurely entered the Quantum Leap Accelerator.  That chucks quite a bit of the suspense out of the window right away.  How much more exciting and intriguing would this be if the episode opened when Sam woke up?  We wouldn’t know for sure if it was a dream, or if Sam had gone crazy, or what.  (Kind of reminds us of another show about a guy called Sam.)

Also, probably one of the least successful aspects of Quantum Leap is the show’s vision of the future.  Apparently, everything comes with flashing neon lights, people dress like idiots, and did we mention neon?

Predicting the future is virtually impossible, especially on a TV budget, we understand that.  (And we don’t even mind.  Back To The Future Part II had hovercars predicted for 2015.  Four years to go – we can still make it, guys!)  But it is a recurring nuisance that this show, which began in 1989, predicted by the 90s mankind would have time travel sorted and fashion would look like the 80s had hulked out.

Luckily we don’t have to spend any time there.  We are with Sam and it’s Howdy Doody Time on TV.  As all good time travel stories tell us, that means we’re in the 50s.

Sam narrates, or rather, we hear his thoughts, and for once this technique isn’t just there to paper over script holes.  Sam’s as lost as we are, and having him try to figure it out in his head is both succinct (‘We did it!    Did what?’)  and funny.  (‘Whoever she is, she’s certainly pregnant.  Very pregnant.’)  His inner monologue also happens to sound like a cute five-year-old, due to a mixture of his amnesiac confusion and fear of what the hell is going on; it all helps cement Dr Sam Beckett as the world’s nicest man, but he's also enormously mysterious.  In just a couple of minutes, we’re ready to watch a series about this guy.

Scott Bakula is super likeable, extremely sweet and very sympathetic.  He’s also convincing as a genius with amnesia.  This is one fairly rounded (if improbable) character right off the bat, with tons of room to grow.  He has emotional depths that’ll bring a tear to the eye, thanks largely to Bakula’s forlorn face; he’s quick-witted, funny and possesses the best withering glare of the decade.  (See beginning of review.)

Al fares less well.  Where Sam has emotional depth, Al has wacky costumes.  Where Sam is instantly endearing, Al is sleazy.  Kids might enjoy him on the level of a funny sidekick, but when they get older and actually understand what the stuff he’s saying means… euw.  Al is clearly written as the opposite of Sam.  While Sam is the wholesome hero, there has to be the grimy naughty one so the audience don’t get bored.  But we don’t find Dr Sam Beckett boring and for us Al is just a little bit too far down the gross path.  Al is here to fill in Sam’s missing memory, but can we really imagine that back in the future, these two could ever have been friends?  And while we can believe Sam is a mega genius farm boy, because we like Scott Bakula and he can’t remember it, Al’s admission that ‘I’m also an ex-astronaut’ just sounds like nonsense.  Two characters pulling talents out of nowhere is possibly pushing it.

Still, the contrast is funny, and it gives Sam something to rage about when Al is either late or otherwise useless.  And, spoiler: Sam rages often.

This is a great pilot.  The premise is colourfully explained, and he leaps twice (thrice if you include the soon-to-be-regular cliffhanger lead-in to next week) in the space of one (feature-length) episode, opening up the possibilities to pretty much anything.  (And when those possibilities include baseball, something neither of us knows or cares anything about, and we like it, we know we’re watching a great show.)

The guest cast walk a fine line between suspecting Tom of winding them up, and thinking he’s genuinely lost it, which gives them all a different way to react that tests the format’s waters, especially when Sam comes up with life-saving medical knowledge from the future.  There’s also the beginning of a few running jokes where Sam A) talks to Al a little too loudly and attracts attention, and B) lets slip about something from the future.  Not to mention the iconic different-face-in-the-mirror shot.

The special effects (though meagre) do the job splendidly.  The episode is also very well directed: the title sequence, which so far consists of the camera racing through the clouds, pivots and pirouettes and ultimately zooms straight into Tom’s bedroom, making it part of the actual story.  How neat is that?  (We wonder if the opening shot of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who took inspiration from it.)

The only thing bugging us is the opening scene, but hey, all you have to do is skip forwards slightly on your DVD.  Problem solved!

The best stories are the ones with something for everyone.  We both love Back To The Future because it uses science fiction as a way into a funny, exciting, romantic story – so, something for everyone.  Quantum Leap is a similar concept, expanded to an entire series.  Sam flies a jet and plays baseball this week, but he also has to stop a pregnant woman going into labour nine weeks prematurely and the climax of the episode is Sam having a touching phone call with his dead father.  And all that in one episode.  Oh boy.  Imagine what he’ll accomplish before he’s done?

(Just for fun, we'll try to keep track of Sam's and Al's various accolades.  So far...)

The Sam Beckett Genius Tally
  • Has six doctorates, one in medicine, one in quantum physics.
  • Invented the super computer, Ziggy.
  • Discovered time travel.
  • Dubbed "the next Einstein."

The Albert Calavicci Sleazy Files

  • Unwary lady by the side of the road.
  • A little Lithuanian girl named Danesa.  (Back at MIT.)
  • Tina.
  • Martha.  (Met at a playoff after-party.)
  • Brenda.  (The cute little redhead in coding.)

Monday, 3 October 2011


Doctor Who
The Wedding Of River Song
Series Six, Episode Thirteen

This year, for the first time ever, we weren’t terribly fussed about the Doctor Who finale.  This is possibly because Series Six hasn’t so much gripped us as pinched us in passing.  Where’s it all going?  Is it going anywhere, or will Steven Moffat just keep raising questions ad infinitum?

After twelve episodes of infuriatingly vague allusions and questions, we were wondering how he’d fit it all into one episode.  Silly us.  In a display of blatant anti-climax, Moffat ducks the Great! Big! Finale! and does something smaller instead.  Which might be fine if he hadn’t done exactly the same thing last year (right down to the weird muddled-up Earth history), and if this series wasn’t the worst one yet for unanswered questions.  Moffat lives to surprise us, but in this instance all that involves is serving up a disappointingly flippant finale instead of a satisfying one.  Wow.  You had us going there, Moff.

Contrary to what we were all expecting, The Wedding Of River Song is about what happens when the Doctor doesn’t die.  This creates a whole alternate universe where time stands still, but all happens at the same time, but doesn’t move, but also does.  (Don’t even bother trying to make sense of it, because he certainly hasn’t.)  The Doctor must die to put it right.

This is all (arguably) quite interesting (although we guessed immediately from the trailer that the Dalek and pterodactyls would be pointless cameos), but what’s it got to do with the finale?  We want to know if the Doctor dies; we want to know how he’ll escape his fate; we want to know the answers to all the questions Moffat’s left hanging over the past few months.

And, surprise!  Approximately five minutes of this episode is devoted to answering those questions.  As much fun as the previous forty minutes is, it’s all just an elaborate distraction from what little effort has gone into the finale.  Twelve episodes, an entire infuriating year, for five minutes.

Series Six has been so ambivalent on what’s an actual mystery and what’s just unclear (the ‘in the flesh’ line in Night Terrors, for instance, is just an editing mistake, and the Doctor’s bizarre costume change in Let’s Kill Hitler apparently happened for no reason whatsoever) that we don’t even know if it’s worth paying attention any more.  That trail through time the Doctor was doing at the start of the year, pointless.  Everything in The Impossible Astronaut was irrelevant, including Canton, the fourth most important person in the Doctor’s life because he has a can of petrol.  The way several parentally-themed episodes were stacked next to each other, coincidence.  The only thing that came back was that stupid robot, which is one of those ideas we immediately noticed and threw out because that would be a terrible solution.

And sure enough, it drains the entire dramatic core of the episode.  It’s supposed to be about the Doctor choosing to die, and River accepting that she must kill him.  Potent stuff.  Except, surprise!  Neither of them has to bother!  This is sledgehammeringly obvious just looking at the Previously clip, not to mention how the Tesselecta marches into the episode for no better reason than delivering the Doctor’s mail, and anyway, even before we’d ever heard of the Tesselecta, we all assumed the Doctor was faking his death.  To wait a year and get to the last couple of minutes and get, Guess What?  He FAKED his death…  Isn’t the episode supposed to be ahead of us?  Why didn’t the Doctor mention this to Amy and Rory at any point?  He’s got a perfect opportunity on top of the pyramid*, and all three of them find out later anyway. 

Better still, why didn’t he tell River the first time round on the beach, instead of being pointlessly evil and making her think she was murdering him?  But then, maybe he just doesn’t want her to know her life sentence is really a total waste of time.  As we knew it would be.

(And what’s all this faking-his-death stuff actually in aid of?  Steven Moffat supposedly wants the Doctor to be less well-known, and we get a throwaway line at the end about the Doctor getting ‘too big’, but how’s that possibly going to work?  Isn’t a member of the Silence going to notice that he’s still zipping about righting wrongs?  Because, call us psychic, we think he might keep doing that, it being the premise of Doctor Who.  Talk about shortsighted.)

The sad thing is, for all his efforts to surprise us, Moffat’s just not that good at it.  Who’s in the spacesuit?  Exactly who you thought it would be.  Who’s the Good Man that dies?  Exactly who you thought it would be.  Who is River?  Exactly who she tells you she is every week.  What is the Oldest Question In The Universe?  Exactly what you were absolutely terrified it might be but prayed it wasn’t.  (Dear God.)  If these revelations aren’t revealing anything new to anyone, as few of Moffat’s revelations ever are, why drag them out?  It just increases the disappointment.

Speaking of disappointments, poor Amy and Rory!  The heart of the show, reduced to bystanders by this point.  What a lovely way for them to spend the finale: blank parallel universe copies with sort-of amnesia.  Did he really only invent them in the first place so that River could be born?  Well, this is River Who, after all.

Not that we learn anything new about River.  The Doctor marries her because… why?  No idea.  There’s still no reason for her to be in love with him (she’s a psychopath, oh right, well that explains that), and their relationship continues to be entirely tell rather than show, so it’s impossible to get invested.  (Yet another scene of them flirting while a bystander rolls their eyes does not help in the slightest.)  At least it’s over now, sort of, we think.  We have no idea if this is the last we’ll see of River, or for that matter, Amy and Rory.  Their journeys aren’t over, but they didn’t go anywhere.

Does River’s journey to Lake Silencio make more sense now?  Er, not exactly.  It’s irrelevant that she was trained to kill him, since the suit shoots automatically.  And once again, she is the worst person to pick to assassinate him, because while she might be fresh out of life-giving regenerations, she can now apparently control the suit enough to not kill him if she feels like it, which she obviously will, since she apparently loves him more than anyone**.  Aargh!  The whole thing is pointless.  (And all based on the frankly loony premise that you can just invent a fixed point in time.  Eh?  Since when?  And why didn’t any of this happen in The Waters Of Mars?)

Which reminds us: what, exactly, was the point of Madam Kovarian?  Did the Silence even need a human rep?  What do the Silence actually hope to achieve, and why does their mission statement keep fluctuating?  Why do they even need River/baby Melody if the Doctor can be killed by poison and/or a gun?

Amy’s cold-blooded murder of Madam K is probably meant to be closure of some sort; what a pity that this is the first genuine feeling Amy’s had on the matter since it kicked off.  (And you call this closure?  Most people we’ve spoken to were hoping for something positive, like River rewriting time so that the Doctor didn’t have to die and Amy got to keep the baby, or something at least.  Alas, we get a nasty out of character didn’t-really-happen murder which sends horrendous signals to the kids in the audience.  Don’t like someone?  Kill ’em!  It just goes to show us, never speculate.  Your best theories will never happen, and your worst fears are the cream of Steven Moffat’s wish list.)

It’s the finale’s job to make sense of the series before it, and The Wedding Of River Song just doesn’t try.  Take that blanket explanation for everything, ‘the Doctor lies’, which is swiftly becoming the verbal equivalent of the sonic screwdriver.  Now River’s caught the lying bug, too.  How come she had no idea what was going on in The Impossible Astronaut?  Oh, right, she was pretending.  How tediously disappointing.  (And unconvincing.  Call us pessimists, but we don’t think Alex Kingston brought ‘lying’ across in her acting.  Just look at all those times she had no chemistry with Amy or Rory.)

We’d get all angry about how this was clearly made up on the spot, if it weren’t for the Doctor contradicting this by telling River she won’t remember a thing.  Er, which is it then?  And how are we ever supposed to follow any of this if the characters retroactively turn out to be ‘lying’ whenever it suits the writer?  It’s cheating, and it’s a slap in the face if you’ve bothered to keep up with the series.

If you’re not invested in this at all, maybe it’s not that bad.  Matt Smith’s very good, especially during the phone-call to an old companion (at least one of us had a lump in our throat), and the rest.  Arthur Darvill’s very good, although he’s not playing Rory per se, which is a shame.  The episode has enough budget crammed into it to look good; what a pity all the pretty stuff is totally wasted.  (Air balloon cars?)

But we are invested in it.  Weird and vague as Series Six might have been, we still tried to follow it, and yet it turns out most of it was a mixture of red herrings and muddy writing.  THAT was IT?  We’re guessing it’s a little late to ask what the hell the Series Five finale was about, then, or any of it really, because at this point God only knows.  And now we’ve been given even more portentous nonsense that may or may not actually bother going somewhere.  Next time, we just won’t care.

We don’t want portents.  We don’t want arcs so heavy they ruin stand-alone episodes, and when we pay attention, we want it to count.  We want to enjoy the show.  If only we could tear off our Eye-Drives and go back to the relatively blissful days of Series Five.  Is it just us, or has everything since then felt like a bad dream?

*What are they doing on that pyramid anyway?  Everyone in the universe has come to help you!  Oh well, moving on and ignoring that before it goes anywhere interesting…

**And welcome to Rose Tyler levels of selfishness.  The entire population of the universe suffering and dying is worth it if she gets to hang out with the Doctor.  Don’t marry her, slap her.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Retail Therapy

Doctor Who
Closing Time
Series Six, Episode Twelve

We weren’t exactly jumping for joy when we saw the Closing Time trailer.  Both of us liked The Lodger, but we had no desire for a sequel.  The idea of an episode sans Amy and Rory wasn’t entirely welcome, as the Doctor’s been getting increasingly gloomy and mean lately.  And, Cybermen?  Stompy, humourless, ridiculous Cybermen?  Surely not.

We might as well end the suspense.  We liked it.  Turns out it was much needed alone time with the Doctor, and thank God, we still love him.  In general we haven’t had this much fun with Doctor Who since Melody Pond was just a couple of silly unrelated words.

Russell T Davies and Toby Whithouse have copped plenty of flak for this, but Gareth Roberts’ episodes in particular are often outright dismissed as ‘fun’.  We think that’s unfair.  Fun is underrated, and not as easy as it looks.  With Series Six getting increasingly complicated and melodramatic, we’ll take all the fun we can get.

Some of the jokes are a bit obvious, not to mention overdone – the old ‘We’re not a couple’ gag is neatly inverted, but then dragged to a slow death, along with the interminably cute ‘I speak baby’ routine and the Doctor’s funny-at-first ‘Shh’ powers – but we really don’t mind.  This year has been so heavy and (dare we say it) disappointing that a so-called ‘fun’ episode makes all the difference, especially just before the inevitably headscratching finale.  Frankly, we needed it.

It’s refreshing to have the Doctor do some actual investigating for once.  (Although his initial determination not to do anything is all gold.  ‘What is it?’  ‘Nnnnnothing.  Didn’t even notice that, for example.’)  Going undercover in a shop is a great idea – and a gentle borrow from School Reunion – but Roberts thankfully doesn’t over-do it.  It’s an excuse to put the Doctor among kids, where he’s in his element, and it’s great to see him effortlessly win the trust of his colleagues while poor Craig flounders.  (Also, we have to mention the bit where he strokes that plastic dog.  No particular reason, it’s just great.)

Despite the zany premise, Closing Time isn’t all nonstop comedy.  This is the Doctor’s last adventure before the (supposed) end, and it’s full of superb Doctorly contemplation and conflict.  That stuff’s riveting, despite the fact that the Doctor obviously isn’t going to snuff it next week.  (Sorry, Steven.)  And this being Matt Smith, even the funny bits are tinged with complex, seemingly subconscious emotions that frankly we could watch all day.

He hasn’t got much to work with – wacky James Corden, a sleeping baby, Amy and Rory at a distance – but he still turns in a beautiful performance bubbling with all the best his Doctor has to offer.  The fact that he’s done this more than once this year makes us absolutely certain this is our favourite Doctor.  We could not love this guy more.

As for Craig, we weren’t desperate to see him again but he makes a good double act with Matt Smith.  The Doctor’s more comfortable with him than he is with Amy or Rory because there’s less baggage, and that’s fun to watch.  (And thank you, Craig, for pointing out that generally it’s the extras who get killed off, not the companions.)

Also fun to watch, in a sharp break with tradition, the Cybermen.  Neither of us likes the metal morons much, as let’s face it, they’re less interesting Daleks on legs.  But Closing Time puts them in the shadows, broken and a bit desperate, and we like them a lot better that way.  At least, we did once we dislodged the mental image of what that Cyberman was doing in the dressing room.

Plus we finally get to see Cybermats.  This is great news for the nerds/loyal fans, and for everyone else there’s Craig’s line, ‘Don’t have a go at me just because I don’t know the names’.  What do we think of the angry little paperweights?  They’re a bit creepy, a bit funny.  We like them.  (The Doctor calls his one Bitey.)

Alas, as much fun as we’re having, there must be an actual plot, and this one’s not going to trouble the Hugo committee.  Still, we love the smallness of a bunch of ratty Cybermen trying to rebuild from nothing, and we don’t really comprehend the fanboy rage about the Cybermen being reduced to appearing in a small-scale comic episode.  (To this we say, in our best Danny John-Jules voice, ‘Reduced?’)  You can have an episode with one Dalek, and you can have an episode with a small bunch of Cybermen.  We’ve seen more than enough Invasion Of Earth stories for the time being.

There are logical holes, because it’s the Cybermen and virtually nothing they do ever makes sense.  They do at least partially explain why Craig would make a good Cyber-Controller (hey, they’re desperate), and they’ve completely changed how they convert people into Cybermen before now, so it’s no particular shock that they’ve suddenly taken to gluing them together over people’s bodies.  We do object to the ‘emotional influx’ being enough to blow them up on the spot, but it’s happened before.  Blame Tom McRae for setting that dipstick precedent.

As for Craig’s heroic Daddy moment at the end… well, it’s a direct repeat of Night Terrors.  It’s cheesy, and it’s downright stupid to blatantly rehash a plot from three episodes ago, and it makes no sense, but what can we say?  It’s a lot better than Night Terrors, and for all we know it’s part of some over-arcing parent theme that’ll tie up nicely next week.  (No pressure, Steven.)  We’re tempted to forgive all just because of Matt Smith’s hilarious epilogue, blurting info-dump at clueless Kelly for demonstrably no reason.  It’s cheeky, but we laughed.

Then the Doctor leaves, and all the fun we’re having not wading through the arc comes to an abrupt end, as the arc crashes in and shouts, ‘DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME!  ME ME ME!’  Thanks, because we really needed that.

Actually, hard as we try, we can’t forget about the stupid arc.  (It’s like the Doctor says: everything we find out makes less sense.)  We don’t object to it poking its nose in – it worked fantastically well in The Almost People – but it has to intrigue us, not bash us over our heads.  This scene is rushed, extremely silly, and about as subtle as Monty Python’s foot.  What were they thinking with those ‘witness statements’?  Why is River surprised by any of this?  What have the Silence been doing all this time, besides laughing evilly?

With only two minutes of screen-time, Alex Kingston and Frances Barber have to ramp up their performances; they come across as a total simpleton and a panto villain respectively.  Add the ridiculously on-the-nose sing-song from (urgh) Night Terrors and we’re already dizzy from rolling our eyes.

But you know what?  None of that’s Closing Time’s fault.  Steven Moffat almost certainly wrote this bit, so blame him.

We like Closing Time.  It’s intended as fun, and fun was had.  It has a handful of really effective moments, like the Doctor nearly bumping into Amy and Rory, and the self-contained story makes us nostalgic for Series Five.  We had a great time.  Alas, our time has run out, we can’t put it off any longer: we must watch the finale.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Faulty Towers

Doctor Who
The God Complex
Series Six, Episode Eleven

Between us, we’re a big Toby Whithouse fan.  Not because of Being Human; no, we’re basing this entirely on his two previous Doctor Who episodes, because we’re rational adults like that.  So with The God Complex, we were all geared up to make it a hat-trick.

Damn and blast.

What is it we like about Toby Whithouse’s episodes?  Is it the plots?  Ahem, no.  Sorry, Toby, but we’re still baffled by the vats of Krillitane-killer the Krillitanes lug around, which somehow double as IQ-enhancers for kids, not to mention the 10,000 fish people still swimming in Venice.

No, it’s dialogue and character where he shines.  The God Complex is no exception.  We laughed a lot, particularly during the bit where the TARDIS team meet their co-habitants.  ‘Amy, with regret, you’re fired.’  ‘Our anthem is called Glory To, insert name here.’  ‘In two days it never occurred to us to try the front door, thank God you’re here.’  ‘Big day for a fan of walls.’

It’s not all Matt Smith, either.  One of us loved Gibbis, the other fell for Rita.  David Walliams is reliably funny but also deliciously dark as the frequently-invaded alien, and Amara Karan gets away with all sorts of clever, witty dialogue whilst still feeling like a real person.

Arthur Darvill is his usual effortlessly brilliant self, despite the unsettling joke about Amy clobbering him, and did somebody mention Matt Smith?  Funnily enough, another of Toby Whithouse’s strengths is writing for the Doctor, and The God Complex is a Doctorfest.  From his whimsy at finding ‘the most exciting thing [he’s] ever seen’* to his no-nonsense ‘I think you should come with me’, through his sympathy with the Minotaur and his total willingness to torpedo Amy’s beliefs to save the day, this episode pretty much runs the gamut.  It may not be his most successful outing, as he winds up misleading two people to their deaths, but frankly we can’t blame him for not knowing what the hell’s going on.  (Although that is a bit of a Whithouse-ism.  Don’t worry, the Doctor will save the day… or you’ll all die.  Whoops.)

Ah yes, the plot.  ‘Make a hotel scary’ was Steven Moffat’s brief, and Toby Whithouse hasn’t quite done that.  It’s full of scary things, but not in an over-arcing, The Shining kind of way.  Each room contains something scary, meant for each individual person trapped there.  This is a neat idea, but unfortunately it translates as everyone besides them being visibly unafraid of it.  We can (almost) understand poor Lucy being terrified of that guy in the (awful) gorilla suit, but what’s in it for the audience?  The premise keeps subverting itself, with the Doctor smirking at a room full of catty women, and Rita talking to that clown.  On top of that, the characters stop being afraid the moment they leave the room; then they’re possessed, and off we go with the kooky possessed acting.  The episode doesn’t seem to be trying.

Especially with Murray Gold’s supposedly creepy muzak, which sounds like most of the comedy music he’s done in earnest over the years.

I really liked the muzak, especially the way it kept, creepily, turning itself back on.  One of my favourite parts of the episode.

But anyway, back to the plot.  People are brought here to be frightened, and when they’re frightened they retreat to the thing they believe in, and the Minotaur feeds on their faith.  Except their specific faith (religion, superstition, whatever) is immediately transmuted into believing in the Minotaur.  All of a sudden they know they’re going to get munched, and they really like the idea.  They also sort of get over their fears, in some cases.

Complicated much?  Not to mention abstract; what is faith?  If something as sketchy as believing in conspiracies could really make you feel better about your fears, how can Rory possibly have no faith in anything?  We doubt anyone has no belief in anything, but this is a guy who spent 2000 years protecting his girlfriend, his love for whom is supposedly strong enough to rip through time.  There’s something he’s going to believe in quite strongly, don’t you think?  Sort of, faith-like?  (And anyway, doesn’t a person with no faith present a possible way to defeat the Minotaur?  Why bring it up if it’s totally irrelevant?)  How the hell does disrupting the faith of one person shut down the program and kill the Minotaur?  How come the Minotaur wants to die and is fine with someone killing it – which is terribly convenient – but also can’t control its 'instinct' to kill when the episode requires it?  Virtually everything to do with the Minotaur is 24-carat nonsense.

And that’s not all.  Matt Smith has to do a lot of info-dumping, like his chat with the Minotaur**, but there’s not enough actual info.  How did the TARDIS get here?  ‘I dunno, something must have yanked us off course.’  Why is the Minotaur in a floating prison with an endless food supply that indiscriminately abducts anyone in the universe?  Because its followers ‘got all secular’.  As explanations go, it’s like reading a first draft.  And not a very clever first draft.

And then there’s the really stupid stuff.  The Doctor knows the rooms are out of bounds, and even says so, so why does he think it’s a good idea to hide in them?  How does tricking the Minotaur even work, considering the whole place was created for its benefit?  Whose bright idea was it to leave Howie with the surrender monkey?

So… why did we like it again?

Well, besides being really funny and stuffed with wonderful character moments, it’s got That Ending.  This is the moment where the Doctor decides to send Amy and Rory home.  Do we like it?  Yes.  It’s seeded through the episode, with Rory talking in the past tense, the Doctor ‘interviewing’ a new companion, that companion dying and the Doctor realising Amy’s faith in him is dangerous.  (Not to mention the running theme this season of the Doctor distancing himself from them, particularly last week, with Rory having more reason than ever to want out.)  It came as a bit of a surprise, but it still felt perfectly natural***, again thanks to the dialogue and the beautiful performances.  We don’t think it’ll stick, as these things never do, but for the chance to see a few companions leave the TARDIS and live actual normal lives (rather than joining UNIT or Torchwood, or starting some other adorable mini-Doctor organisation), it’s a risk we’re willing to take.

And before that is something even better: the Doctor telling little Amelia that she’s there to feed his vanity, and they ‘need to see each other as [they] really are’.  Does he really mean it?  We think so.  It might be on loan from The Curse Of Fenric, but Matt Smith sells it beautifully, and so does the reliably wonderful Caitlin Blackwood, sat there not saying a word.  How amazing is she?  The script is well up to the actors’ standards, boiling this whole sequence down to two words: Amy Williams.  Good Whithouse.  Have biscuit.

So where does that leave us?  A scary episode that isn’t scary – again – with a plot that requires buckets of explanation to work properly, but doesn’t have enough actual buckets handy.  Still, in-between the rubbish there’s some great acting, lovely writing, and a sound emotional ending.  And that’s what we’d forgotten about Toby Whithouse.  He’s good with character and great with dialogue, which is just about enough to distract us from his generally horrid plots.  And that’s sort of okay.  We’re mostly in it for the character development anyway.

* Even though he sees reproductions of Earth pretty much everywhere they go.

** We suppose we should mention the Minotaur, and the way it obviously parallels what’s going to happen to the Doctor.  So there, now we have.

*** Although don’t bother saying goodbye to Rory, will you, sure he won’t mind.