Thursday, 30 May 2013

A Doze By Any Other Name

Doctor Who
The Name Of The Doctor
Series Seven, Episode Thirteen

Oh.  Is it finale-time already?

One of the downsides of the "Movie Of The Week" approach is that this series, stretched painfully over two years (which also hasn't helped), hasn't really built up to anything.  Now, I'm not at all nostalgic for the torturous arc-plotting of Series Six, but the sense of momentum was nice; a gathering head of steam that meant you needed to see the finale.  (That it turned out to be a steaming pile of cow product is another matter entirely.)

This year, most of us are curious about Clara and what her deal is, but is it important?  Does anything, besides the Doctor's own nagging curiosity, hinge on finding out the answers?  Not really; she's barely aware of anything unusual going on, so why should we care?  I'm still trying to get a handle on who Clara is generally, never mind how and why she died in two previous episodes.  (And anyway, big deal: Rory used to die every other week.)  But, if that is the over-arcing mystery for this year, then let's get on with it.  Oh, and we're chucking in the fabled Trenzalore and the Doctor's name as well.  This sounds ambitious...

Ohmygod ohmygod
We meet the "ambitious" quota before the opening credits, in a montage you'll love to death.  Past Doctors!  William Hartnell in colour!  The First Doctor and Susan leaving Gallifrey!  What TARDISes actually look like!  It's two minutes of sheer gold dust, and granted, it gives away a pretty major plot development for later oh, so that's what Clara's up to but who cares?  William Hartnell and chums, in modern Doctor Who!  I nearly had a little happy cry.  (It is advisable to overlook the sometimes dodgy picture quality, as it wasn't always shot in Hi-Def, and the bizarre editing choices, because shut up, at least you got to see Patrick Troughton.  The occasional body-double-instead-of-actual-footage is a little galling, though; I know there's not that much footage of Colin Baker or Paul McGann, but that's taking the piss.)

Like The Wedding Of River Song and The Big Bang, after an initial exciting flutter, it forgoes massiveness for the small and the quirky.  Stand back from the episode and not much actually seems to happen.  That's not necessarily a bad thing Russell T Davies's finales were characterised by an increasing sense of "epicness" that became meaningless.  Trouble is, that's still sort of true.  Moffat's finales deal with the same kind of large-scale nonsense, but they keep it specifically tied to the Doctor.  He's been erased!  He's been shot!  Now he's had all his victories reversed!  So much drama has been spun around the Doctor's death(s), but it's all fruitless.  He's the show's only permanently invincible character.  You can change his face, but that's about it.  Everything else is reversed in the end.

So what's at stake?  The Doctor's friends (Vastra, Jenny, Strax and Clara) are being captured by the Whispermen (cronies of the Great Intelligence) and brought to Trenzalore – as it turns out, this is the Doctor's grave.  The aim is to lure the Doctor as well.  The mechanics of this don't add up to much.  Vastra gets a bunch of space-time co-ordinates from a prisoner on Death Row, and how he came by them we'll never know.  We never see him again.  (It's rather like The Angels Take Manhattan: minor characters are invented and dismissed just to get things going, only to give way to a plot that barely moves.)  She holds a "conference call", i.e. an unconscious psychic chat with the Paternosters, Clara and River Song.  It's a fun idea, but I wouldn't bet on seeing it again.  (It's probably just an excuse to get River, who is at this point actually dead, in on the action.  No, we can't leave her out, no matter how much you want to.)

Why you'd bother capturing them when they're already in the process of passing on the co-ordinates, I don't know, but then I'm no Great Intelligence.  Jenny is murdered during the call – a moment of genuine shock and pathos – but that, too, is sort of pointless.  What good's a dead hostage?  In any case, Strax revives her immediately.  So much for pathos.  And so much for the Doctor being the only invincible one.  Can anyone die in modern Who?  (This, incidentally, makes Jenny's reaction to Dr. Simeon, who died the last time she saw him, rather unusual.  You were dead too, Jenny dear, five minutes ago!)

Hmm... nope.  I'm still thinking about the montage.
The good stuff here, apart from Strax being his usual chucklesome self, and the Whispermen being transparently creepy, is Matt Smith.  After a clutch of episodes that haven't given him a lot to work with, we get a gift of a scene where the Doctor struggles against tears, knowing where he has to go, facing his own mortality.  It's great to see him take stuff seriously; his reaction to his own tomb ("what else would they bury me in?"), and especially his remains ("What were you expecting?  A body?") is top notch Matt Smith Doctoring.  It's his best performance this year, even if it is a variation on both previous finales in which he also went willingly to his death.

He's also excellent in the goodbye scene with River Song, and in case you missed any of those key words, here they are one more time: River.  Song.  Goodbye.  I've got nothing new to say about her character, except that even in this very limited capacity she's still horrendously, overridingly smug.  She calls the Doctor "useless".  And apparently she made him disclose his name.  Urgh.  Fortunately Matt Smith's beautifully understated acting, mixed with the very real possibility that she's going, she's really going, this might really be it... all rather drowns her out.  Thank goodness.  Don't let the door hit you, sweetie.

Sorry, I drifted off to a happy place: now back to the Doctor's grave.  Burying him in the TARDIS seems suitable enough, and the on-screen realisation of the Doctor's remains a mess of lights and tendrils that represents his journey through time is genuinely creative.  What the Great Intelligence intends to do with it, however, is less so.

The plan: whiz through the Doctor's timeline changing every victory to a defeat.  It makes a surface kind of sense, although we've have had this sort of thing before – the Doctor's influence was erased in Turn Left and The Big Bang, both of which also involved the stars going out.  But it seems like a legitimate Evil Scheme, even if it's been done before.  As usual, though, place it under the slightest bit of scrutiny and it all falls apart.  Are you sitting comfortably?

Skipping wincefully over the fact that the Intelligence can clearly already time travel (being in Victorian London and at Trenzalore), uh, hello, cause and effect?  Why doesn't the ironically-named Great Intelligence simply muck up the earliest battle in the Doctor's life and skip the rest?  If you change any event in the sequence, isn't that going to affect all the subsequent ones and whether the Doctor is still alive to take part in them?  Won't this affect whether the Doctor gets buried on Trenzalore, which made all of this possible in the first place?  How is the Doctor (miraculously still in his Eleventh incarnation and not, y'know, a corpse) still here to put a stop to it?

I'm no expert, but shouldn't at least some of this occur to a writer obsessed with time travel and paradoxes?  For goodness sake, he wrote an episode this series about why paradoxes are bad.  If two people in a row can bugger about with the Doctor's entire life, I'm pretty sure a certain someone can pop back and rescue Amy and Rory.  What's the point of rules if you're going to continually and absent-mindedly change them?

Behold: phase one of the masterplan!
Okay, enough about the, ahem, Intelligence.  What about Clara?  She heroically scatters herself through the Doctor's timeline, presumably (we can only presume) replacing the Great Intelligence, somehow.  Cue the Past Doctors montage again.  (Yay!)  But... apart from the two recent examples, why haven't we seen her before?  Why doesn't the Doctor remember her?  What, besides occasionally yelling "Doctor", is she actually doing that the Doctor couldn't do himself?  (Come to think of it, what was the Great Intelligence doing, besides glaring in corridors?)  If he tends not to notice her her exact words are "He hardly ever hears me" then how is she helping?  How is Clara still alive at the end of this?  And how come the Claras we met in Asylum Of The Daleks and The Snowmen had no idea they'd been sent to help the Doctor, when the ones we see in the montage seem fully aware?  Clara, once again in her own words: "He always looks different, but I always know it's him."  Oops.

Brace yourself: it looks as if our old friend, Mr Made It Up As He Went Along, is in attendance.  One might think it was foolish to expect anything else, but Series Seven took a whole extra year to make.  What was the extra time in aid of?  I guess we can rule out "making sure the scripts make sense and tally with one another".

Does Doctor Who make more sense now that we know who, or at least what Clara is?  Ehh, yes and no.  It's a sweet idea, but it doesn't really explain what's come before, and anyway, finding out Clara was "born to save the Doctor" doesn't tell me anything important about her at all.  If anything, it whittles down what remains of her personality to nothing more than a walking plot device.  (As for "I blew into the world on a leaf, and I'm still blowing", er... pardon?)  She can't even keep her triumphant sacrifice, because she's an Impossible Girl and the Doctor's an unstoppable guy, so he's able to save her from certain death, just because.  Which is all very nice, but that leaves the grand total of her sacrifice as... millions of other Claras spending miserable lives waiting to bump into the Doctor?  What has she lost, and what has she learned?  Much like that bit in The Rings Of Akhaten (blurgh!), where the Doctor sacrifices his memories to stop a monster, it doesn't quite work if he gets to keep them afterwards.

Characterisation is evidently not Steven Moffat's strongpoint.  Since he's not too hot on the rules of time travel, or any sense of dramatic consequence, I may need reminding what his strongpoint actually is.

Ho hum.  Despite the way-cool montage (montage, montage, montage!) and some delightfully Anniversary-ey references (hands up if you know who the Valeyard is, my hand's up 'cos I know!), this episode – and Series Seven as a whole falls a bit flat.  Stories about the Doctor's impending death usually do.  The rest of it's the same old Moffaty windowdressing.  Monsters that are sort of frightening, but don't really do anything (apart from speaking in rhyme, which is terrifying and absolutely not hilarious, shut up!).  The Paternoster Gang, who are fun and funny in their usual one-dimensional way, meaning Strax is funny, meaning Dan Starkey is.  Characters performing great sacrifices that don't cost anything.  And hey, big surprise, they didn't disclose the Doctor's name after all.  So far, so obvious.  But then there's the ending, where we meet the Doctor that got away.  It's the bit people will talk about.  Shame it's got so little to do with the actual episode.

I've got mixed thoughts on this, and not just because of the dumbfoundingly stupid "Introducing John Hurt As The Doctor" caption.  Who is this guy?  We won't know until the 23rd of November, but all I can say is: I really hope it's not what it looks like.  (The obvious answer here is that he's the one who killed the Time Lords, but the Doctor, our one, the proper one, has owned up to this many times.  He is, in a very real sense, defined by his sense of guilt and responsibility over it.  Passing the buck to a "bad" regeneration would be the coward's way out, instantly nullifying most of the character development he's had since 2005.)  So please, no.  No, no, no.  But we'll just have to wait and see.  And, quite possibly, duck and cover.

Neil Gaiman's Difficult Second Episode

Doctor Who
Nightmare In Silver
Series Seven, Episode Twelve

Good grief.  How did this happen?

In an otherwise middling series, Nightmare In Silver sounded like a highlight in the making.  It's written by Neil Gaiman, who wrote The Doctor's Wife, an enormously popular episode that gave us a fresh perspective on the TARDIS.  Clearly, he knows his onions.  This one's about the Cybermen, and while they've had a spotty track record (and a run of stories that render them either ridiculous or second fiddle to somebody else), that's all the more incentive to finally get them right.  This one's apparently intended to "make the Cybermen scary again".  It's set in an abandoned theme park in space; done really well, that's most of the "scary" stuff already taken care of.

It could be scary, I... guess...?
All done imagining how good it could have been?  Okay.  For starters, Nightmare In Silver isn't scary.  Not even close.  And it's not a good episode for the Cybermen, who find new ways to be ridiculous, and play second fiddle to somebody else, again.  The characters, the writing and the production design are all horrible.  Kudos on the title, at least; "Nightmare" is exactly the word for it.

Let's begin with the first really obvious misstep.  It probably wasn't Neil Gaiman's idea to include Angie and Artie, the kids Clara looks after, but here they are anyway, so we'll have to make the best of them.  Artie mostly keeps to himself, making fascinating observations like "I think outer space is quite interesting"; his sister is more vocal.  Here are some of Angie's greatest hits, and remember, she and Artie blackmailed Clara just so they could be here:  "Your stupid box can't even get us to the right place!"  "How long do we have to stay here?"  "I hate the future!  It's stupid!  There's not even phone service!"  "I'm bored!"  "Put me down!  I hate you!"  "You always have to turn up and spoil everything!"  "Why can't you just leave me alone?"

I doubt anyone will argue that children this horribly ungrateful exist, but why would we want to watch one travelling through time and space?  Why write Angie, or any character, to be this irritating?  There's an inescapable truth here: irritating characters are irritating.  Why make room for them in your episode?

And even better, all this has a knock-on effect.  Because the Doctor's mind is primarily on the welfare of two little kiddiewinks, and not so much on the fate of the universe, the story's never going to stray into particularly chilling territory.  There won't be any terrifying darker side to the Cybermen – they're just bogeymen threatening the kids.  Consequently, the tone of the episode never escapes toothless, tedious whimsy.  If the intention really was to "make the Cybermen scary again", it seems to have been abandoned at a very early stage.

On-screen description of the above:
"Nothing.  It's just black.  No stars, no nothing."
This is apparently a new, mostly-blue definition of "nothing".
Take humanity's great battle with the Cybermen.  Since the Cybermen can "upgrade" themselves instantly, a final solution was reached: blow up everything that's got a Cyberman on it.  This is obviously meant to be a gobsmacking victory-but-at-what-cost? sort of thing, but the reality is, surrounded by snarky kids, "Spacey Zoomer" rides and "Natty Longshoe's Comical Castle", it's all a teensy bit Looney Tunes.  "We tried other ways.  They only worked sometimes."  Yeah, but if blowing up planets only works sometimes, as must be the case because there are still Cybermen, then what's the point sticking with it?  Even Wile E. Coyote could have figured that out by now, but somehow humanity still seems excessively keen to commit explosion-themed suicide.  What's the betting there will still be a few Cybermen left down the side of the sofa afterwards?

Ah yes, the Cybermen.  I've not been a fan since they came back in 2006, stomping, mumbling and threatening to "Delete" everything in sight.  The fact that they used to be people rarely entered into it, and their potential to be scary and tragic was never tapped.  Cheer up, then: they've been re-designed!  Instead of stomping, they have an irate walk (sort of like a mum marching after her misbehaving kids).  Instead of mumbling, they have a generic Dalek voice which, unsurprisingly, sounds like Nicholas Briggs.  (Doesn't anybody else do voices?)  Instead of saying "Delete!", they say "You will be upgraded", which is quite possibly even less threatening.  (Oh no!  They're going to improve my broadband connection!)

They've developed a few new abilities, mostly of questionable value.  They can zoom around at super-speed, which makes you wonder (apart from who the hell came up with that?) why they don't just do it all the time.  And they can detach body parts, wandering around quite happily without a hand... or a head.  So, is there still a person inside?  You know, the whole point of the Cybermen being that they used to be people?

"Just where d'you think you're going?
You haven't tidied your room!"
Nightmare In Silver doesn't seem interested in what makes the Cybermen tick.  They're mostly represented by the Cyber-Planner, a hive mind that controls them all.  Sound familiar, Star Trek fans?  Neil Gaiman has said he doesn't know anything about the Borg, so it's all a big coinkydink, honest, but there's enough here to suggest otherwise.  As well as all that Borgy "upgrading" stuff, Cyber-conversion now involves tiny robots, rather like Borg nanoprobes.  It's become a gradual process where you sprout little techno-growths and add your intelligence to the whole.  Wha?  Cybermen have no interest in a person's intelligence or wisdom.  They make you the same as they are!  Hey, the Borg quite possibly copied Doctor Who first, but if this is an attempt to steal and steal alike, it's not adding anything of value to what Star Trek came up with.

So what about the Cyber-Planner, a.k.a., Matt Smith?  Half the story consists of the Doctor's mental battle with this evil intelligence, so we get a double performance from Smith.  Is it good?  Well, it's Matt Smith, so it isn't boring.  But the Cyber-Planner isn't written all that differently from the Doctor, so the only thing left for Smith to do is go over the top with it.  This is misjudged from the start: a daft, dopey bad guy who calls himself "Mr Clever", says things like "This is dreamy!" and, as well as being yet another (unintentional?) steal from the Borg, has no link to anything we know about the Cybermen.  Billions of emotionless cyborgs and they all add up to one smug, moustache-twirling plonker?  How does that work? 

The Doctor's mental tussle – represented by a chess match, because that's so original – is acknowledged as pointless; the Cyber-Planner won't honour his word if he loses.  So, er, what's the point devoting most of the episode to it?  Why bother unleashing a lone Cyberman if it turns out, suddenly, there's an army of them underground?  And in the end, when it turns out humanity's Emporer was among them all along and had the option of teleporting them to safety at any time, altogether now: WHY DIDN'T HE DO THAT, THEN?

The dramatic stakes just seem to reduce as the episode progresses.  When people die under the command of Clara (whom the Doctor has put in charge of the army, because um), it doesn't register.  But then, that would require Clara to be a three-dimensional person.  I don't know if it's Gaiman's writing, Moffat's outline or Jenna-Louise Coleman's acting, but Clara accepts responsibility, impossible odds and numerous deaths like it's all normal.  "Impossible girl" is about right: no genuine person is this unflappable.  (Still, she ain't perfect.  When the army captain tries to blow up the planet, the only thing stopping her is getting killed by a Cyberman.  Clara looks on, uselessly.  And despite being fully aware that the Doctor is not himself, Clara happily divulges a bunch of stuff the Cyber-Planner wants to know, and gets within arm's reach.  What is the point of a companion who doesn't pay attention?)

"Missy said she saw something, and then she went quiet."
"It's on its way, then."
Someone just died!  SHOW SOME EMOTION!
As well as being a disappointing episode for Clara, who remains exactly the same in every situation, it's not the Doctor's shining hour.  Smith's so busy being wacky as the Doctor and the Planner that there's no drama lurking underneath any of it.  After going on and on about not blowing up the planet, he quite happily suggests they blow it up anyway, making the whole episode oddly pointless.  And then later, he grins leerily at the thought of Clara's short skirt.  Just... yeah.  I wonder who thought that was a good idea.

Reviewing Nightmare In Silver is like shooting fish in a barrel, and it's exhausting.  Gee, what else doesn't work?  Well, none of the soldiers have any personality, so we don't miss them when they die.  Despite the potential creepiness of an abandoned theme park, the sets aren't particularly sinister – oh no, a castle!  especially since they're mostly bathed in garish purple light.  Numerous ideas appear to have got lost in translation, like the frequent references to how the planet will implode, followed at the end by an explosion.  I know Doctor Who is rarely a proponent of hard science, but that's ridiculous. 

There are a few very small dollops of positivity, which tends to be the best you can say about Doctor Who nowadays.  There's Matt Smith, who despite the dodgy villain role and even dodgier characterisation is still, somehow, fun to watch.  There's Jason Watkins as a Cyberman underling, not a particularly dazzling role but well performed.  There's the odd funny line, such as "Don't wander off!  Otherwise the next thing you know, somebody's gonna have to start rescuing somebody..."  And I quite like how the Cybermen look, if nothing else.  But apart from a few frills, this whole episode is a silly, misjudged, wrong-headed mess.

I still can't believe it.  I hoped Neil Gaiman would turn in the year's best episode.  Let's face it, there wasn't much competition.  Against all the odds, somehow, he has delivered the worst.

Monday, 27 May 2013

The Bookcase Of Fear #1: Stephen King's It

By Stephen King

I have too many books, and way too many in particular that I haven't read.  This is a lifelong thing: I've always enjoyed just having books, particularly nice crisp new ones, nearly as much as reading them.  And it needs to stop.  Some day soon, my bookcase will no longer be a terrifying monolith of Why Haven't You Got Around To It Yet.  I'll be able to point to everything on it and say, probably, "Don't bother with that one, it's rubbish."  It's my During The Year Resolution.

It's fitting that I start with Stephen King, as I currently own thirteen of his books, have got rid of two that I couldn't finish (Christine and Cujo), and have read from-cover-to-cover a grand total of... three.  The Shining, which I adored.  One of those books that grabs you with the first sentence; after it ended I felt like it was a disservice to label it "Horror", it being so all-round satisfying.  Then Carrie, which didn't grab me much at any point.  (It spends a lot of time signposting its conclusion, which is fine as a pretend-it's-based-on-real-events gimmick, but ultimately builds hype that isn't met.  You spend 90% of the book marking time.)  And now, because I was up for a challenge, It.  1116 pages of monstery horror.  I've seen the infamous Tim Curry TV adaptation a few times, so I knew my way around.  Still, though.  A thousand pages?

Part of the reason for this  and the way King keeps it from simply feeling long is that it's really two books.  We have the story of the Losers, a group of kids battling a supernatural horror in their hometown of Derry, in the summer of 1958.  Then the sequel, twenty-seven years later, finds the kids grown up, returning to finish what they started.  King runs the stories next to each other, as the adults slowly recover their fractured, traumatised memories, using the past to help them in the present.  It's an ingenious method of keeping the tension up over such a massive pagecount.  There are also diversions, as the one member of the group to stay in Derry over the years fills us in on the history of the town.  These "Interludes" are yarns in themselves; tales of horror and misfortune that happen, in the end, to include the book's supernatural monster.  Cut out Pennywise the Clown, or the giant bird, or any of Its other chameleonic horrors and this could be a very loose short story collection.  I wonder if It was intended as a sort of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink blow out for King; a cross-section of every idea in his head.

This is literally true of the titular creature, which can look like anything, meaning King must dredge up virtually every monster he can imagine.  It engenders a constant blur of creativity, which keeps things exciting and varied but does, ultimately, lead to some repetition, and a bit of fatigue.  There are seven main characters (Bill, Eddie, Ben, Beverly, Richie, Stan, Mike) each with their own nightmares and individual interpretations of It, and there simply came a point where I thought: must we hear about all of them?  Repetition is surely inevitable in a tome like this, and it crops up elsewhere: the Losers' particular brand of banter goes round in circles, from good-natured laughter to reassuring Bill, the leader, over and over again that they'll really go through with this.  Yeah, I get it, now get down into those damn sewers!

My mind occasionally wandered towards the TV miniseries, and some of the changes it made.  Many were for the better, I feel.  The eventual battle with It or rather, battles, in '58 and '85 is largely metaphorical, involving a great spiritual Turtle that supposedly created the universe.  Can't say I missed any of that on-screen; somehow, despite the book's great length, there doesn't seem to be time to explain what the hell that's all about.  (The miniseries' more traditional battle involving slingshots and silver, much more affordable on a 1990 budget, also made a bit more sense.)  Also gone and not missed, an impossibly bizarre moment when, having defeated It for the first time, Beverly suddenly decides to have sex with each of the other Losers in order to re-affirm their... friendship?  Or something?  It's one of the two creepiest moments in the book, and unlike the other a chapter on Patrick Hockstetter, a terrifying teenage psychopath who's perhaps even more nightmarish than It it's probably not intended that way.  Capping off the story of poor, abused-by-her-father Bev, "wrong" doesn't begin to cover it.  Particularly, unavoidably, as it's a man writing the story.

Apart from that one bewildering misstep, It does a good job of measuring out its seven heroes, each with their younger and older selves.  The reader invests so much time in each one that, numerous as they are, they feel alive and well-defined.  Besides the satisfying monster plot, there's a genuinely moving story about childhood and maturity, learning from your past, letting go of traumas and conquering them.  Stephen King's soft side peeks through occasionally.  By the book's end, It has been thoroughly defrocked and defanged, so that not only the characters, but also the reader feels thoroughly free of the monster's hold.  Reading the book, soaking up the terrors of the past and facing them, ultimately shedding them, feels like growing up.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Colour Of Candyfloss

Doctor Who
The Crimson Horror
Series Seven, Episode Eleven

Well, if it isn't Mark Gatiss.  Again.  Is there a particular reason some of the least impressive Doctor Who writers are getting to Write One Get One Free this year?

Let's face it, Cold War wasn't very inspiring.  Yet another base-under-siege story, it followed the familiar Mark Gatiss pattern of "You liked it the last time you saw it, therefore you'll like it again".  Well, maybe, but couldn’t we just watch any of the umpteen other stories it’s ripping off instead?

With The Crimson Horror, the Mark Gatiss Lever (TM) is thrown the other way: it’s Victorian, morbid, often very funny.  Oh, good, so quite a bit like The Unquiet Dead, then?  Not exactly.  It's not as scary, it's completely silly, and it's about as substantial as candyfloss.  Writing an entire review about it has been as easy and enjoyable as pulling my teeth out.  Okay, it's a fun episode, but what more do you say about it?

More like The Hilarious Dead!
Well, for one thing it's got an unusual structure (which, coming from Mr Nostalgia, is a huge plus).  The Doctor's not in it for more than ten minutes in his place, the Paternoster Gang.  They are Madam Vastra, carnivorous crime-fighting Silurian; Jenny, maid and hand-to-hand combat expert, also Vastra’s wife; and Strax, Sontaran butler comically obsessed with military strategy.  In all honesty, they’re about as interesting as action figures, with the exception of Strax, whose mighty one joke renders him as interesting as an action figure with a pull-string.  (And makes Vastra seem rigidly humourless by comparison.)  Still, despite going through the same routine in every single situation, Dan Starkey is hilarious in every scene.  I can take or leave the other two (which makes cries of "Backdoor pilot!" quite mystifying to me), but as long as Strax is on board they're a watchable enough bunch.  They get the episode off to a sprightly start.

Once the Doctor returns, the Paternoster Gang more or less fade into the background.  (Did you notice?)  Hey ho: the Doctor's sepia-tinted recap is a fun way to reduce a much larger episode into the necessary 45 minutes, without going to the trouble of a two-parter.  But it does raise an annoying point.  How much actual episode is there?  Almost half of it is spent rescuing the Doctor, then Clara, then recapping what's happened up to now.  In terms of yer actual progressive action, the episode amounts to the Doctor dropping by to see the bad guy and then immediately foiling her plan.  It's like a regular episode put on Fast Forward.

Oh well: the mystery, i.e. the bit filling up the first ten minutes, is a good one.  Bright red corpses are piling up, and one of them has an image of the Doctor seared onto his eyeball.  This is surely the work of Mrs Gillyflower, a sinister moral crusader in charge of Sweetville, a safe haven for the Victorian repressed, from which nobody returns.  And if she's already conquered the Doctor, who knows what else she's capable of?

It's clear fairly soon that this is going for silly rather than scary.  The latest victim's brother is grief-stricken in one scene, fainting cross-eyed at the sight of Vastra in the next.  The red corpses are also, deliberately or otherwise, sort of hilarious.  As for the eventual reveal of Gillyflower's partner, Mr Sweet a bizarrely hideous-yet-cute red leech it leaves one wondering what reaction they were hoping for.

It's virtually impossible to take any of it seriously.  When the Doctor is revealed to be in a state of waking red death, it's a brilliant shock  but he's all better a few minutes later (thanks to an inexplicable magic shower cubicle), and then he's bouncing around as silly as ever.  The music is whimsical, and the jokes range from daftly hilarious (Strax threatening a horse for being insubordinate) to embarrassingly spoofy (a child prophetically called Thomas Thomas giving SatNav-style directions).  Even the dialogue sounds deliberately corny and Ye Olde, and certain characters are walking Victorian clichés.  (I'm looking at you, Creepy Mortician.)  It's reminiscent of Victory Of The Daleks, which offered such biting historical realism as Winston Churchill chewing a cigar in every shot.

The plot doesn't bear much scrutiny, either.  Gillyflower is petrifying people and putting them in bell jars.  Okay, it's creepy and it looks cool... but why?  Because she's nuts.  They're all going to wake up at some point, to a "new Eden"... meaning what, exactly?  Search me.  She has an army of loyal henchmen.  Where did they come from?  No idea.  Using petrifying prehistoric leech venom (just go with it), she aims to launch a rocket (she has a rocket?) and explode it over Yorkshire.  Then what?  One rocket per city?

Hang on - if the Silence have been around forever,
and were trying to influence the space race, wouldn't they be
concerned about there being rocket scientists in the 1800s?
Guys?  Remember the Silence?  Guys?
And now the good news: Diana Rigg is so brilliant as Mrs Gillyflower that you can gloss over a lot of this.  A truly nasty, irredeemibly bonkers bad guy is quite a hammy prospect, but Rigg makes it a rewarding one.  She's got some great dialogue ("Do you know what these are?  The wrong hands!"), and she oozes madness and chilling indifference towards her daughter, not to mention the Doctor.  Rigg's real-life daughter Rachael Stirling is the blind, subserviant Ada, and she makes mountains out of the (arguably clichéd) material.  Ada's revenge, viciously setting about her mother with a cane, is startlingly violent, but ultimately quite satisfying.  Her refusal to forgive and forget, bearing in mind Gatiss's past habit for sentimental resolutions, is even more so.

What else is good?  Well, Matt Smith.  It might sound like damning with faint praise, but he does a brilliant agonised zombie-walk.  And he gets some very witty lines, such as the instantly T-shirt-ready "I'm the Doctor, you're nuts and I'm going to stop you."  On the other hand, sitting idly by while Ada pummels her mother and shrugging when she mashes Mr Sweet to death is rather callous, particularly in such an otherwise whimsical episode.  (I wasn't particularly fond of the pointy-uppy sonic screwdriver erection joke, either.)  There's not much else worthy of comment, other than some teasing about the Great Clara Mystery, but nothing resembling progress the Doctor just repeats that "it's complicated" several times, which actually sums it up rather well.

That's about all I can muster.  The Crimson Horror isn't great, isn't especially bad... it isn't much of anything, really.  When it was over I wondered why, besides Pavlovian loyalty to Doctor Who, I still bother watching stuff like this.  Perhaps it's just the accumulated averageness of Series Seven (the content of which seems to be Any Old Thing We Can Throw Together), but it's starting to feel like this show needs either a swift boot in the arse, or a long rest.  The Crimson Horror is somehow still among the better episodes this year, which says more about them, to be honest.

NB: It wouldn't be proper not to mention the tacked-on piece of setup at the end.  Clara is ambushed by her young charges, who've spotted pictures of her throughout history and determine, without any help, that she's a time traveller and the Doctor's an alien.  Uh-huh.  They demand a trip in the TARDIS, or they'll tell their dad.  (Yeah, good luck with that.)  It's an absolutely horrible piece of writing, and adds a final bad taste to what was ultimately quite a nice lump of sugary froth.  Let us assume, charitably, that Mark Gatiss wasn't responsible for it.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Smaller On The Inside

Doctor Who
Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS
Series Seven, Episode Ten

Well, fanboys, here it is: an episode set in the depths of the TARDIS.

And why not?  It's been a part of Doctor Who since the very beginning, and happens to be one of the most mind-bogglingly good ideas in all of science fiction.  A spaceship you can fit on a forklift, which can contain as much or as little as the writer demands?  Genius!

So why, over the years, has the emphasis been on the little?  Oh, we've seen control rooms and the occasional corridor, but otherwise the TARDIS is little more than a thing that gets the Doctor where he needs to go.  Such a waste; it's like getting your hands on a wardrobe to Narnia, and using it primarily to store coats.

Okay, the TARDIS is amazing at storing coats.
So it's obvious why they made Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS.  Damn it, we want to see those rooms!  But just strolling around the Doctor's spaceship won't cut it.  If we're going to be stuck indoors, even if it is the TARDIS, we need a strong plot and interesting characters.  It can be done: Amy's Choice never leaves the TARDIS (spoiler alert!), and that's awesome.  But sadly, Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS isn't up to the challenge.  It strains to inject jeopardy and incident into what is, essentially, a sightseeing trip through some corridors.

Okay, so after finding out that Clara and the TARDIS don't get along, the Doctor takes action, and lets her take the wheel.  The TARDIS is immediately damaged and ensnared by a garbage ship (because apparently, it sucks), leaving Clara trapped inside, and the Doctor stuck with three salvage-obsessed scavengers.  (How he wound up outside the TARDIS is an intriguing mystery/gaping plot hole.)  He enlists their help to rescue Clara (for some reason, although no one knows the TARDIS better than he does), offering them the ship in exchange for their help (a promise on which he'll obviously and immediately welsh).  He's so keen to gain their co-operation that he sets up a bogus self-destruct, because nothing spells "Excitement!" like a completely redundant ticking clock that the cast will forget about in the next scene.  If he's only going to spend the rest of the episode mewling at them not to touch anything – which they will, because he specifically offered them the salvage, before immediately betraying and threatening them – then why bring them along?

There's nothing wrong with having very few characters, but it does put a lot more pressure on them to be interesting.  (In an episode offering us an exclusive look inside the TARDIS, even more so.)  This week's guest stars, the Van Baalen brothers, are neither likeable people nor dazzling actors, and awesome dialogue like "There's good salvage here, I can smell it" and "You're always on the side of the machines!" doesn't help.  (Fun fact: this was written by Steve Thompson, who also wrote The Curse Of The Black Spot, aka The Boring Pirate Episode With All The Plot Holes.  Uh, welcome back, I guess?)

The Doctor doesn't like them.  The TARDIS doesn't like them.  We don't like them, since they're only in it to steal the TARDIS.  They don't even particularly like each other: one reacts to the other's apparent death with "It's too late, he's gone!  Let's just worry about the salvage!"  What, exactly, is the point of these idiots?  I'm guessing not character development, as it later turns out the third bloke isn't an android after all but their younger brother, who was told he was a robot as a joke.  What, and he believed them?  Urgh.  Feed these morons to the zombies and have done with it.  (It later turns out it wasn't really a joke, but an attempt to steal the captain's seat from under him.  Okay: and he believed them?)

"Mate, I'm not bein' funny, but robots don't go to the toilet."
"You said they was downloads!"
Ah yes, the zombies.  There are ashen man-shaped monsters running around the TARDIS (and smearing the camera lense with Vaseline), out to get everybody.  This fills the (apparently non-negotiable) monster quotient, and makes it seem like the Doctor's got something very nasty to hide.  Brilliant!  Well, why shouldn't there be someting sinister lurking in the TARDIS?  The Doctor's stowed monsters away in there before; couldn't there be a Ghostbusters-style containment unit in there?  Ooh, imagine if it broke down!

No such luck.  The zombies are really future echoes of Clara, the Doctor and the Van Baalens, horribly burned by the TARDIS's power source.  Why they're suddenly driven to homicide is unclear, as is how they're capable of touching anybody in a different timestream.  Oh well: the episode required monsters, and evidently this is the best they could do.

There's just something so perfunctory about all this  especially when the ending rolls along and the whole thing is magicked away, literally, with a reset button.  Is this some kind of response to the popular fan complaint, or just a crap ending?  Who knows, but having the Doctor obliterate the last forty-five minutes means it was all a waste of time, and allows the episode to lazily have its cake and eat it.  Suddenly, despite having never met the Doctor, the Van Baalen brothers are being nicer to each other.  (But they're still doing the android bit.  Awesome.)  Clara has forgotten finding out the Doctor's name (and his being highly suspicious of who and what she is a crucial scene, you would think, so why can't we keep it?), but the Doctor remembers it, for some reason.  Hang on: if you can pick and choose which bits stick, then which bits actually matter?

Again, it's obvious they made this one just to show us more of the TARDIS.  We do, at least, see some stuff.  But it's mostly quite nondescript (corridors, a library, a swimming pool, an observatory), and not very alien.  Considering the TARDIS can contain anything, it's a shame more imagination wasn't used.  Tom Baker once joked that you might find a cleaner pottering around in there, or a field of sheep the Doctor's forgotten about, or an entire town used to store Wellington boots.  And we know from The Doctor's Wife a much stronger, much more special look into the TARDIS that there are old control rooms dotted about.  I like my Ghostbusters-themed idea.  So where's all that anything?  Where's the weirdness, and the pervading personality that the Doctor insists is there all along?  Even the episode's movie-of-the-week poster hinted at a bunch of Escher-style architecture that didn't turn up.  To borrow a phrase from countless Doctor Who companions: all these corridors look the same!

Warning: staircases may appear less cool in actual episode.
There are good bits, like the engine room (which is frozen mid-exposion against a white background) and the power source (which probably contradicts a lot of stuff from over the years, but makes enough sense on its own).  There's also Matt Smith and Jenna Louise-Coleman, both ebullient as ever.  For once, the Clara Who stuff is the best stuff in the episode: the moment where the Doctor stops beating around the bush and discusses it with her is hugely satisfying.  But then it all never happened, so what's the point?  Besides that, there's some lovely CGI, but that's not quite enough to recommend an episode.

Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS should be something special, and it just plain isn't.  This is all the more depressing because, to the guys who make Doctor Who, it's probably now considered a "done" thing – we don't need to see those rooms any more.  I hope someone else takes a whack at it some day.  Some of the show's best episodes have revolved around the TARDIS, and there's got to be a lot left to explore, monsters to release, sheep to stumble upon – only next time, go easy on the corridors.