Sunday, 23 November 2014

Practically Perfect In Every Way

Doctor Who
The Eleventh Hour
Series Five, Episode One

Woo!  All change!

The Eleventh Hour is an explosion of newness.  New Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS, new showrunner, new look, new sound.  Frankly, in 2010, Doctor Who needed the shot in the arm.  No doubt it works really well as a jumping-on point for brand new fans.  But we can get to all that in a minute.  Let's deal with the most important thing in the episode, the most important thing in Doctor Who.  The New Guy.

Matt.  Smith.  Is.  Perfect.

"I know he's an alien, but the mask is a bit much."
*awkward silence*
We each have our own take on what the Doctor should be like, and some actors will hover closer to it than others.  This time, I lucked out: Matt Smith just feels like the Doctor to me.  Stuff like otherworldly genius, impossible old age and "alien-ness" is tough to convey, especially for an actor as fresh-faced as Smith, but he manages all of the above in a way that, for me, David Tennant rarely did.  His was a charming, funny, sometimes imposing Doctor, but often he just seemed like the loudest guy in the room.  People generally ignored him.

Smith gives the impression that his mind is working on several things at once; he buzzes with ideas in a way that singles him out from everyone else.  And it's not just how he delivers the dialogue.  It's a tremendously physical performance, bouncing and tumbling around like a force of nature, but always with a certain precision in the way he moves, and the way he speaks, that suggests he's got it under control – just.  Smith's accent oscillates between a prim British cleverness and his usual (affected) Londoner's cadence, which I find quite thrilling: he sounds like he's just burst into existence and is going in several directions at once, but always lands on just the right spot.

Despite all that, and gallons of whimsy and eccentricity in the script, he still seems like a genuine person – he even makes "Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey" sound like something you might say.  There's an unselfconsciousness to his actions, especially when he seems to be in his own little world, or when he's spitting.  (There's a whole scene of this and it's brilliant, but I'm also thinking of the bit in The End Of Time when he spits on the TARDIS for no reason.)  There are moments when the very consciously witty script backs him into a more mannered corner – like the opening when he's hanging off the TARDIS, or yelling "And stay out!" to a plate of bread and butter – but mostly he gives the already excellent material that extra push into sheer, fizzing genius.  I'd never seen Matt Smith in anything before this, so on some level I was even more ready to believe that David Tennant had regenerated into a brand new person, and that he was quite probably the Doctor.  A star is born.

I could praise his performance all day, but there is an actual episode attached to it, and it's only fair to go into that as well.  So: hooray!  The episode is brilliant as well!

New Doctor stories have novelty value by default – surprisingly often, this is the only thing going for them.  But The Eleventh Hour doesn't take that for granted.  The episode is designed to show off this version of the Doctor, marooning him without an established costume, a TARDIS or (for most of it) a sonic screwdriver.  He's given a fairly simple problem: the Atraxi will boil the Earth if they don't get their hands on the shape-shifter, Prisoner Zero.  He solves it with whatever's to hand, plus heaps of Doctorly cleverness, leaving the audience in no doubt that this guy is on the case.  Now, I'm well aware that I'm being frogmarched into thinking the Eleventh Doctor is brilliant, but I don't care, he genuinely is – see Why I Love Matt Smith, above – and with the plot so focussed on its goals, there isn't room for any of the usual bollocks.  Hooray!

Start to finish, this is one of the smartest and funniest scripts in Doctor Who.  Of course it's the episode's mission to win you over, so it's loaded with jokes.  (My favourite: "Do I just have a face that nobody listens to, again?", which is the Tenth Doctor gag I've been waiting years for.)  But there's more to it than wit and charm.  Steven Moffat is laying the groundwork for his version of the show, so he revisits one of his favourite themes: time travel working at different speeds.

I wish kids didn't age so fast, just so we could have kept Amelia.
And also because life's too short childhood is precious blah blah.
Crashing in her garden, the new Doctor meets a little girl called Amelia Pond.  He soon pops back into the TARDIS, then emerges to find her grown up.  An encounter that lasts minutes for him has repercussions on Amelia's (now Amy's) entire life.  I don't even know where to start with this stuff.  The episode runs fifteen minutes longer to accommodate it, but it's time well spent developing the Doctor, who explains the very complicated situation of a new body via what foods he likes.  (Hence all the spitting.)  It's time well spent showing how time travel works, and how it can get complicated, as succinctly as possible.  It's time well spent developing Amelia, who immediately strikes a rapport and trust with the Doctor – of course the same will happen, by extension, with the audience, especially the young'uns.  These scenes are chock full of groundwork and narrative all essential to the series, but it's such bliss to watch Matt Smith and Caitlin Blackwood work that you'd hardly notice.  It's very skilfully done.

Of course, Amelia cannot be our companion.  (Alas.)  Zip forward 12 years and we meet Amy, a girl with a lifetime of annoyance that the Doctor didn't come back.  Karen Gillan instantly strikes her own rapport with Smith, building on what Caitlin did.  The episode is about her to a large extent, and it's cleverly set in a small town where everybody knows what she's like.  It's an immediately interesting dynamic: she's obsessed with the Doctor, as anyone would be after what happened, but it's a cause of psychological bother and embarrassment.  Parallels are drawn with meeting your imaginary friend, and all the awkwardness that entails, which is a great way to communicate the show's appeal to younger viewers, and a valid way to reimagine it for the rest of us.  It's an instantly relateable and unique Doctor/companion relationship, which helps define them both.

There are some perhaps less impressive details on the periphery.  Grown-up Amy works as a Kissogram, which on the one hand is a creepy, lecherous, possibly euphemistic fate for a (typically sexy) Doctor Who companion, but on the other hand it fits with her obvious predilection for a fantasy life.  So, cautiously: shrug.

Gillan is as hilariously watchable as Smith.  The same goes for Arthur Darvill as Amy's long-suffering boyfriend Rory, now faced with (and horrified by) Amy's imaginary fancy-man.  The three of them became firm friends in real life, and their on-screen chemistry is immediate and infectious.  It just works.

Doctor?  Tick.  Companion?  Tick.  That's pretty much mission accomplished before we even get to the villain, who (let's face it) is not the important bit.  Still, Prisoner Zero works really well.  He's a mix of CGI (it looks awesome) and various "multi-form" disguises, including a man and his dog, with the clever tip-off that he gets the voice wrong.  (It's usually the dog that barks.)  It's pleasantly sneaky for a post-regeneration story to have a bad-guy that changes what he looks like, and it allows for some sly external character development when he takes the form of Amelia, who tells the Doctor what a disappointment he's been.  (I usually hate this sort of thing, but for once it actually works, because Zero-Amelia isn't pulling this stuff out of a hat.)  One of the disguises is Olivia Colman, easily one of the show's quickest and best cameo roles, oozing menace for a few short minutes.  This is another natty way to show off the new Doctor: he's good at villain showdowns.

Obligatory title/theme comment: it's not the best.
Space and time are made of grey candyfloss?  Meh.
Plus the "sting" sounds like someone swizzling their milkshake straw.
Okay, so the whole Prisoner Zero thing borrows from Smith And Jones: alien hides from other aliens, takes human disguise, lurks in a hospital, Doctor tricks it into revealing itself.  But it's given such a dazzling coat of Steven Moffaty paint that it's not very noticeable.  Meanwhile the Atraxi borrow from the Sycorax and the Juddoon, but also the Vashta Nerada when they "look the Doctor up" and run away.  But hey, that idea works really well in establishing a new Doctor, so why not give it another go?  The Eleventh Hour is so good, I honestly don't care that I've seen bits of it before.  (And some of it's entirely appropriate: the Doctor nicking his outfit from a hospital is straight out of Jon Pertwee's first story.)  Besides, there's a constant starburst of new stuff surrounding it.

Production-wise, this is a seriously impressive piece of telly.  It looks stylish, the direction is slick, and the music is some of Murray's most sumptuous.  The guest cast is an utter winner, peppered with comedy names like Colman, Annette Crosbie and Nina Wadia.  It's an all-out charm offensive, which isn't to say it's only interested in being funny.  (See Colman.)  It's just very, very good at it.

Of course it's Matt and Karen's episode first and foremost, and on that score it's a roaring success.  But to my surprise every time I see it (and I've seen it many times), the rest of it holds up.  It's 60 minutes long, and without a dull or misplaced second.  Confident, funny, clever, comprehensible, utterly loveable on every level, and frosted (as a bonus) with New Doctor Novelty, The Eleventh Hour is so good, all other New Doctor episodes might as well take the day off.  This is how it's done.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Cloudy With A Chance Of Cybermen

Doctor Who
Dark Water and Death In Heaven
Series Eight, Episodes Eleven and Twelve

Somewhere out there, perhaps in a parallel universe where we've all got evil beards and eye-patches, it is okay to make a TV series without arc plots or finales.  "What's wrong with arc plots and finales?" you ask.  Well, nothing on the face of it, but you try doing them nine years in a row.  After Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, Time Lords, the Silence, the Great Intelligence and assorted collections of all of the above, we're through the bottom of the barrel and bothering the earthworms.  Do we have to keep doing it like this?

Bearing that in mind – and my tendency on seeing an arc hint to hum The Magic Roundabout and contemplate what's for dinner – Series Eight does have an interesting hook.  Not Missy, the mysterious figure whose identity most of us guessed within minutes; nor the ongoing story of Clara and Danny, too much of which takes place off-screen for me to really invest; also not the Doctor's ongoing quest to find out what kind of man he is.  We'll get to all that in a minute, but it's generally a mix of the obvious and the who-cares-anyway.  No: the interesting bit is that people keep dying, and we're going to find out where they go when that happens.

Just kidding.  The real arc is Is It Me, Or Does His Hair Keep Changing?
This one's guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers.  Steven Moffat loves a bit of shock value, and doing stuff that hasn't been done before, but it was really only a matter of time before the Doctor wondered what the Afterlife was all about.  When Danny Pink dies, his refusal to change history makes perfect sense; his decision to rescue him from wherever he's gone, though fantastical, feels like a very creative compromise.

Sorry, I should probably emphasise that bit: Danny's dead.  And he doesn't go out saving the Earth or doing anything exciting.  He gets hit by a car while on the phone to Clara.  Steven Moffat has a tendency to avoid death in Doctor Who, preferring to couch the subject in fairy dust and timey-wimeys, so this is real progress: not just death, but ordinary, real, tragically dull death at that.  Clara's reaction, dead-eyed fugue followed by psychotic determination to force the Doctor to help, feels very real as well.

Yes, Clara, you have got my attention.  The bit where she threatens to destroy the TARDIS keys if the Doctor doesn't help is a masterclass for both of them.  She's been called a control freak before, and it's nice to actually see it in action, even if my first instinct would have been to boot her out of the TARDIS pronto.  The Doctor is more sympathetic: though coldly analytical about why he can't change Danny's timeline, and ferociously determined to wrench back control of the situation, he ultimately wants to help.  Even she's surprised at that.  (You would think that puts an end to the "Am I a good man?" debate, but no, there's more of that to come.)  Then it's back to the telepathic TARDIS controls, and off we go to find Danny.  Barely ten minutes in, Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are doing some of their best work this year.  Capaldi in particular is striking just the right balance between alien coldness and Doctorly charm.

We arrive at a funeral parlour run by Missy.  (More on her in a minute, but suffice to say, Michelle Gomez is very funny and plays vivaciously off Capaldi.)  There's something odd about the place, not least that the dead are sitting in water tanks, surrounded by "dark water" that only shows organic material.  (If it sounds oddly pointless, that's because it's only there for a big reveal later on.  They will never mention it again after that.)  It turns out the dead have been sending us messages, most notably: "Don't cremate me."  Cue angry letters to the BBC.  Yes, they went there: the dead remain conscious.  Sweet dreams.

This unsettled me enormously the first time I saw it, just as it was meant to.  I've had loved ones cremated, chances are so have you.  Still, it's a fictional show with the aim of scaring people, and this fits the bill.  Despite what the writing suggests, it's hardly an idea "that has never occurred to anyone throughout human history".  (Very few of Steven Moffat's ideas are.)  And it's not even true within the episode.  Dying people's minds are being downloaded by Missy.  If there's a real Afterlife, they haven't got there yet.  Creepy and upsetting as it is, there are enough disclaimers for them to get away with it.

How can we lose lovely, gender-irrelevant Osgood, but not the naff Paternosters?
Is it too late to kill them instead?
As for Missy's "Afterlife", Danny finds himself in an office block with Chris Addison, doing his insurance advert schtick with added creep factor, trying to convince him to delete his emotions.  Danny's own little arc plot comes to fruition here, as he meets the civilian he killed, and promptly wants to check out of The Emotions Hotel.  I've never been hugely enamoured with Danny, whose relationship with Clara mostly involved bossiness at his end and lying at hers, but Samuel Anderson is really great here.  I tend to roll my eyes when he and Clara exchange "I love you"s – what do you love about each other? – but when he has to say "I love you" because it's dull and obvious and will convince her to stop trying to find him, he plays it beautifully.

It's around here that the penny drops – specifically, the moment the dark water starts to drain.  (Very slowly, I might add.)  Dun-dun-DUN: the dead bodies are actually Cybermen!

The BBC didn't do a very good job of keeping this secret, but even so, how disappointing.  The Cybermen just aren't all that interesting.  They tend to behave like more boring, standy-uppy Daleks that are easier to kill, and they've got a nasty habit of making up the rules as they go.  They've acquired random superpowers, like super-speed and detachable body-parts, and subsequently ditched them; they've gone from scooping out your brain to stapling themselves together over your body, to infecting you like the Borg; now they can fly like Iron Man, and touching one particle of a Cyberman is enough to make you fully convert.  Having to scream "CHANGE PLACES!" every time they show up is not exactly a good sign.  And it hardly seems worth it, as they're still bloody tedious, even with that jaunty, hilarious little walk of theirs.

This week, as well as rocket feet and "Cyber-pollen", there's an emotional element: they are the dead, stumbling out of their graves and struggling to make sense of things.  Or they're really sleepy.  (Well, do you know why they're not doing anything?)  Danny is a Cyberman now, with his emotions in check – nobody forced him to lose them, and it's not clear how many other Cybermen did the same, which is a bit of a flaw in the plan to be honest.  Bewildered, listless and pretty much harmless, these new Cybermen are a good deal more sympathetic, which is one way to handle them, I suppose.  If they were ever frightening, they're not any more.  The sense of threat in the episode is a bit nebulous because of this.

And once again, they're only the foot soldiers.  (Which is frankly another bullet point on the Why They're Rubbish list.)  Missy is the brains of the operation, and dun-dun-DUN, she's really the Master!  Missy, Mistress, Master... yeah, that'll be another Steven Moffat Mystery That Isn't All That Mysterious, then.  But anyway.  The Master is back.

I'm in two minds about this.  Michelle Gomez is very entertaining, and she's more frightening than John Simm, though with all due respect to adorable little Simmypoos, who resembles a child's drawing of a teddybear, that's not hard.  She completely sells the idea that the Master has swapped genders, and there's actually a bit of Simm in the performance, that same over-the-top villainous glee which I, er, loved so much last time.

"I'll give him an army of Cybermen, and then we'll be friends again!"
"Is that before, or after you throw him out of a plane?"
She's better at balancing the scary and the silly, but do we really have to do the silly bit as well?  I've seen plenty of villains who are over-the-top doolally – most of them, in fact.  I've seen plenty of villains who can be tied up and still take control of the situation – almost all of them, in fact.  And as for the bit where she tells the Doctor "we're not so different", you gotta be kidding me.  See every hero/villain relationship ever for other examples of this.

The Master, much like the Cybermen, just isn't my cup of tea (especially when they're determined to keep writing him as the Joker), and doing a Buy One Get One Free in the same episode doesn't do either of them any favours.  Still, their plot is just window-dressing for what the episode is really about: the real arc plot is the character stuff, the Doctor, Clara and Danny.  Is he a good man?  Can she make her relationship work?  Is there more to a soldier than killing people?

This stuff has left me cold throughout Series Eight, and its importance is largely why this run of episodes hasn't been my favourite.  Danny's not a bad character, but he's a bit obvious.  We learn nothing about his war guilt here, via flashback and interview with the victim, that wasn't painfully clear when he blubbed over it in Episode Two.  Even worse, I was never sold on his relationship with Clara.  It just won't work: she likes travelling, but he doesn't think it's necessary.  She keeps lying to him and he (understandably) doesn't like that.  As for their great attraction, the bit that presumably overcomes that other stuff, it just isn't on the screen.  They like each other – sorry, love each other because the writers say so.  Shrug.

And unfortunately, their great love is what saves the day.  After Danny deletes his emotions (but still mysteriously gets to keep them), it's love that makes him encourage all the other Cybermen to disperse the clouds of Cyber-pollen by exploding in the sky (because they had nothing better to do?).  Just when Steven Moffat starts killing people off for realsies, including Osgood who I really liked, god damn it, it's disappointing to end on something as fairytale as the power of love.  Again.  (If I had my way, only Back To The Future would be allowed.)  It also undoes the tragic ordinariness of Danny's original death.  What with all the goalpost-shifting on the subject of the Afterlife, and Danny and Clara's descendent we met in Episode 4, it doesn't even seem likely he's going to stay dead.  Once again, shrug.

As for Clara, she's made great strides this series: she's finally got reasons to like or dislike the Doctor, reasons to want to stay at home as well as travel the universe (instead of just doing both because um), but I'd still be perfectly happy if she didn't come back for Series Nine.  They keep ramping up her importance and her apparent Doctorliness, reaching a head in the puzzingly unconvincing "I'm the Doctor" teaser, but a lot of the time I just don't believe she's a real person.  Crucially, I'm more than ready for a series of Doctor Who that isn't all about her.

Funny gag and everything, but was it worth it?
Her "brilliant ruse" didn't even fool the Cybermen, let alone us.
And that last point goes double for the Doctor.  I'm all for reappraising the character when he regenerates, but it's tedious to make the entire Doctor Who universe revolve around him personally, and questioning basic tenets of his personality that we know will not change.  There's nothing to gain from asking us whether we know him at all.  Steven?  We do.  Kind of got fifty years of evidence there.  Nonetheless, Series Eight has redundantly asked: is the Doctor a good man?

Blimey, that's a tough one.  I'm going to stick my neck out and guess yes, since his desire to combat evil and encourage good is the premise of the fucking series.  He may not be very nice since Peter Capaldi showed up, but you'd need to have a brain the size of a walnut to think he wasn't a force for good any more.  What he's doing every single week?  Zipping around and helping people?  Well then.  And wouldn't you know it, that's the conclusion he reaches here.  Duh.  Why even ask?

It's like threatening to kill him off at the end of the season, or teasing us with his real name.  We're not idiots; we know you won't do it.  All this time spent examining the Doctor has taught us precisely sod all that we didn't already know.  Death In Heaven builds and builds to this, complete with soul-searching flashbacks, but it's a damp squib when we get there.

(I should probably mention the plot, and how both UNIT and the Master randomly want to give the Doctor ultimate control over life and death, and how that leads into the episode's theme of whether absolute power would corrupt him absolutely.  And now I have.  They don't really go into it in either case – he doesn't need to make any presidential decisions and he immediately hands the Cyber army over to Danny – but yeah, I could have told you whether he'd go nuts before you even asked.  So could any Doctor Who fan.  Fingers crossed, we can move on now and stop the redundant Doctorly navel-gazing.)

His morality is decided, at least temporarily; the Master still needs disposing of.  To save Clara's soul, the Doctor volunteers.  It's a bit of a "whatever" moment, however, as someone else immediately steps in and does it for him.  Again.  (The chances of it being an actual death, rather than some sort of cheaty teleport, are hilariously slim.  This is the Master, after all.)  As for her killer, much has already been said about the Cyber-Brigadier, and how that's not the fate many of us wanted for one of Doctor Who's enduringly beloved characters, especially as Steven Moffat only tossed it in there to mop up one lingering plot strand and presumably, as is his wont, make another grubby, permanent mark on Doctor Who fandom.  I don't have much to add, because I'm still too angry to articulate, but wouldn't it be nice if showrunners had really stringent script editors?  Just in case any of their ideas were, you know, complete and utter shit.

Death In Heaven is pretty much all downhill from the moral quandaries of Dark Water – really, we begin tobogganing as soon as the Stompymen arrive.  It's silly, a bit fuzzy-headed and disappointing.  But it does end well.  In a piece of really nice writing, the Doctor and Clara ostensibly part ways, both by lying to each other.  She says she's happy with Danny, who has successfully returned from the dead (although that wasn't what she meant to say); he says he's found Gallifrey and is going home (although the Master lied and it isn't where she said it was).  It's not the end for these two – the comedy coda makes that clear – but it's brilliantly played by both of them.  Capaldi's reaction to "Gallifrey", via flashback, is terrifying.

"How's the episode coming, Steven?  All dark and deathy?"
"Yes!  It'll upset a few people.  But it's time we went darker."
"Okay  Send?"
In fact, while we're on the subject, Peter Capaldi is pretty bloody fantastic in this.  He always is – it's just the curious emphasis on ramming home his unpleasantness that gets in the way of me appreciating his Doctor.  Well, touch wood, I think I get him now.  I appreciate the darker edges, because they allow for a certain macabre edge to the storytelling.  You probably couldn't do that Afterlife stuff as well with Matt Smith, love and miss him as I do.  (And he appears in a flashback!  Ahhh!  But it's from the rubbish series.)  Capaldi radiates the Doctor's warmth when he needs to, and that's enough for me.  Maybe I'll appreciate him even more when he's not cluttered in histrionics, companion issues, boyfriends and other such nonsense.

So.  Series Eight.  Not good enough, really.  Peter Capaldi (and to a lesser extent Jenna Coleman) is carrying it, which is precisely what I was expecting.  The bad, or heavily flawed episodes outnumber the good ones.  Actually, there wasn't a single one I'd recommend at the top of my lungs, although Flatline and Mummy On The Orient Express had much to admire.  It's all been too introspective, too much time wasted asking the wrong questions, and good god, that's enough with the arc plots.  With any luck, Series Nine will put the stories first, and there'll be more than just a fantastic lead actor to write home about.  Frankly, Matt Smith put up with enough of that already.

Monday, 27 October 2014

In The S***e Garden

Doctor Who
In The Forest Of The Night
Series Eight, Episode Ten

What's this?  Three new writers in a row?  Praise the Doctor Who gods!

And yet, just getting new people in doesn't automatically mean better episodes.  This week, for example: new writer, lots of plaudits, still turns in the year's biggest duffer.  (With one possible exception.)

The premise is interesting.  Sort of.  What if the world was suddenly covered in trees?  Where did they come from, and how (besides an army of lumberjacks) do you get rid of them?  Okay, forests aren't actually terrifying so much as the things hiding in them, as any fairytale will tell you.  And did I say fairytale?  Good, because we open with a little red-coated girl running through the trees, later to be menaced by wolves, at one point leaving breadcrumbs for others to follow.  LIKE IN A FAIRYTALE.  There's plenty of mileage in there for something evocative and scary; it's just that none of it's realised.  It's the cute kind of fairytale, not The Brothers Grimm.

How Not To Terrify Your Audience:
Introduce an adorable kid and have her point out how lovely
and not scary the situation is.  Preferably before the opening credits.
A world covered in trees could be a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and yet despite the title, it's all set in broad, really quite pretty daylight.  The only things roaming the forest are a couple of wolves and a tiger, appearing in one scene before harmlessly buggering off.  No one seems terribly upset about the whole trees thing, as there are virtually no extraneous people in the story at all – apart from disembodied newsreaders watched by no one, snarking about the whole thing like it's the "And Finally" bit.  If there is an interesting reaction to all this, it's happening somewhere else.  That is surely not the way to do it.

Of course, what really kills it dead is the troupe of kids we're stuck with.  Children don't automatically make a story less creepy – horror movies never tire of proving the exact opposite is true, and anyway, School Reunion worked pretty well.  But these ones fall more into the Nightmare In Silver camp, adding gentle, fluffy edges to everything.  You know no one's going to die or get hurt this week as it'd upset the kids.  The emotional heart of the episode concerns a particular kiddiewink, Maebh, who gained insight into the inner workings of trees after her sister went missing.  (Slightly Dodgy Message Alert: the Doctor tells her that when she hears voices, it's wrong to use medication to shut them up.  Great news, mentally troubled viewers!  You're psychic!)  The connection between Maebh, the trees and the solar flare that's about to roast the Earth is, er, not as clear as it could have been.

Ah yes, that's why there are trees everywhere: to add an "oxygen airbag" that'll absorb the solar flare.  Or something.  Science isn't this series's strongpoint, the moon being an egg and everything, but I definitely frowned my way through this one.  Trees helping to prevent a fire is just hilariously, insanely stupid.  Solar flare + oxygen + trees is literally a perfect fire triangle, it is the opposite of helpful.  Schoolchildren know this.  But what about the places that don't have trees?  When we see it from space, how is the entire planet covered in green, including the oceans?  And what about the timeline?  Clara says she's been to the future, and happened to notice that there was one.  The Doctor shrugs and says it's about to change.  Can someone tell me the rules?  (Apparently mankind will "forget this ever happened", which is a bloody convenient excuse not to mention it again.  We forgot last time, apparently, and just stuck some extra forests into our fairytales.  Yeah, Doc, but last time we didn't have 24 hour news or the internet.)

Huge concepts are thrown away just as fast as they're grown.  How did the trees get so big, and all at the same time?  Because they can communicate with each other, and can grow like that if they want to, apparently.  (As for why they don't do it during other times when it would be really helpful, shut up, that's why!)  Where do the trees go afterwards?  To the land of pixie dust, leaving everything exactly as it was, of course.  Why didn't anyone notice the impending solar flare, including the Doctor?  Because reasons.  I just don't get it.  Was there a sale on bollocks at the Plot Supermarket?  Fairytales are all well and good, although Doctor Who actually isn't one, no matter how often Steven Moffat insists otherwise.  However, even fairytales need a semblance of logic to them.

So these are... tree spirits?  Glow-worms?  Thoughts?  Fairies?
Also, trees are sentient.  Enjoy never hearing about that again.
And that's just the science.  Characters deal with all this enormous stuff in much the same way.  Obviously no one really reacts to the trees when they come, apart from the occasional "Wow", because the reasonable reaction would be screaming panic.  (Or it would be if it wasn't all so... pretty.)  But when it looks like the world is going to get roasted by a solar flare, Clara calmly accepts that and sends the Doctor on his way.  What the actual fuck?  Would you accept the death of your species that easily?  Bearing in mind the worlds, realities and whatevers Clara has personally helped save.  She won't even pack any of the kids into the TARDIS because they'd miss their mums too much.  Right, so that's more important than being alive?  Have you not considered using the TARDIS to grab all the mums and dads on Earth?  Or continuing to study the problem until a solution is reached, like you do every week?  Crazy idea.  It usually works.

Maybe Clara's judgement is compromised because of The Danny Factor, which is just as fascinating as ever.  He realises she's been seeing the Doctor on the quiet, and wearily suggests (once again) that she make up her mind.  He doesn't need to travel the universe to see amazing things, apparently.  She wants to be with Danny, so she'll have to lump it and go with him instead.  Right?  Well, obviously not, since she's clearly keen to see the universe and there's bugger all wrong with that, especially since she has the rare distinction of being able to stay home as well.  There's no competition on the romantic front, so what's the big deal?

I'm just not seeing Danny's problem, aside from Clara's constant lying.  It's not wrong to be amazed by the universe and its infinite wonders, because duh, they're amazing.  It's not wrong to like what's in front of you either.  It's not wrong to want both, if you can have both, which she can.  Unfortunately for Mr Pink, if it comes down to a straight choice then Clara made it before she even met him.  She likes travelling.  He has a problem with that.  Okay.  Cheque, please.

As for the Doctor, his edges are inevitably sanded off when you shove him into a group of kids, and giving the TARDIS a SatNav was a bloody stupid idea as well, but he still manages a few intriguing moments.  Admitting that Clara was right in Kill The Moon, i.e. it's his Earth as well, is an important step.  (Okay, he's still an alien, but the Earth is important to him.)  Admitting, after everything that happens, that it would be "awkward" for the Earth to get roasted bounces us hilariously back the other way.  But unfortunately, the plot requires the Doctor to sit back and let nature take its course.  It's not like Kill The Moon, where he deliberately cuts himself out of the equation; the plot just didn't require him to show up at all.  There's something amiss with your Doctor Who episode when the Doctor doesn't need to be in it.  Worse, it turns out no one was ever in any danger.  Thrilling, huh?  Watch it twice.  I dare you.

Next stop: the finale!  Finally an answer to all of our questions!
(Q1: "Who is she?"  Q2: "Actually, who cares?")
At first I thought In The Forest Of The Night was just dull.  Now it comes to it, I'm struggling to find anything nice to say about it.  I thought one of the kids, Ruby, was actually pretty funny.  ("I don't have an imagination!  You can ask Miss Oswald!")  Peter Capaldi seems to enjoy playing off the urchins, which is no surprise at all given the amount of time he spends signing autographs.  The forest looks cool, especially with London landmarks dotted everywhere.  And the pro-environmental message is laudable, even if it's muddled by heaps of idiotic science and pixie dust, and is about as subtle as an airhorn concerto.

In The Forest Of The Night is sweet and pretty, and doesn't have a brain in its head.  It never justifies its barmy notions or makes them work, and when the emotional moments come along, such as the reunion between Maebh and her sister that you knew was coming, it's surrounded by so much candyfloss that it doesn't register.  Still, never mind.  Second time around, I'd nodded off by then anyway.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Time And (Very) Relative Dimensions

Doctor Who
Series Eight, Episode Nine

BOOM!  Best episode in ages.  Thank you, Jamie Mathieson.

As you may have noticed, I haven't been loving Series Eight.  There's the occasional good episode, apart-from-all-the-dodgy-bits, and the Doctor's great when they're not trying too hard to make him unpalatable, but for me, it always feels like a fight to like it.  They're obviously doing a thing this year, and it may go somewhere brilliant, but I haven't been having the best of times waiting for them to get there.

Then along comes Flatline to remind me that, yes, I do love this programme, and that's why I keep watching it.  Case in point: I missed it on first transmission, so I had to watch it on my phone.  On a bus.  On a Sunday morning.  And it was still brilliant.

Okay, so the TARDIS is shrinking because the 2D guys are "leeching
its dimensions".  How much of this is the Doctor's fault for landing?
For sale: can of worms, unopened.
What's so great about Flatline?  Top of the list, ideas.  As in this week, there are some.  The TARDIS mistakenly arrives in Bristol (dramatic chord!), where it begins to shrink.  Just the outside, obviously – the Doctor explains that it's always the same size on the inside, and that the exterior is a heck of a lot lighter than it should be.  Yay!  Science, and figuring out how stuff works!  But seriously, the shrinking TARDIS is a dead simple idea, and one of the most striking images you'll see in Doctor Who.  The sight of Peter Capaldi gingerly struggling in and out of a tiny wooden prop is going to be a GIF in my head for a while.  No doubt it's all over Tumblr.

Anyway, the reason it's shrinking, and this week's problem that needs solving, is a race of two-dimensional beings trying to make their mark on our three-dimensional world.  That's... actually quite novel.  I mean, Fear Her did something similar, but this time, there's a budget and a decent script!  It's a challenge for the special effects department, but they excel themselves at killing off the (very) minor characters, either by turning them into murals or melting them into carpets.  The whole thing has that eerie ring of Playground Horror, which the best Moffat-era monsters – mainly the Weeping Angels – tap into.  It's The Floor Is Lava, and Your Posters Are Coming To Get You.  Sweet dreams.

Are they evil?  Here comes another plus point: the Doctor doesn't know, and even though they're killing people, he won't make any assumptions.  He's met some pretty weird aliens with funny ways of saying "hello", so he's keeping an open mind.  A wider perspective is a great way to remind us that he's an alien, and that he's been around the block.  In a nutshell, it's good Doctoring.  Peter Capaldi spends much of the episode stuck in the TARDIS, which shrinks to the size of the one on my bookcase, but it's no Doctor-lite.  There's loads for him to do, starting with some of that Learning And Growing that's rather overdue this year.

The simplest way to examine a character is to hold a mirror in front of them.  Trapped in the TARDIS, the Doctor must leave all the meeting and greeting to Clara, who wastes no time in pricking a bit of his pomposity.  (This could have been very irritating.  Thankfully, it's hilarious.)  She also shows him that she's been paying attention.  In order to be the Doctor, or be like the Doctor, you need to inspire confidence in those around you; give them hope; know your enemy, and use their powers against them.  There is a bit more to it – and I don't mean the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper, although these days they are a big part of it – but Clara covers the bases well enough.  And people quite like her for it.

The Doctor looks on, puzzled that she hasn't "scared them off", as he probably would have.  When she talks rather callously about human lives, he says "Is that what I sound like?"  And when he meets one of the survivors at the end, a hateful old misanthrope who's about as welcome as a blocked loo, there's a definite feeling of: don't be like that.  Character-wise, Flatline is a rescue mission.  His optimism, in the face of apparently murderous aliens, feels like another part of that.

Magic haircut!
Arr, TV shooting schedules be a harsh mistress.
And it's not all about him.  Clara's Doctoring is almost good enough to fudge the Doctor out of the picture completely.  She can't do the bottom line, actual-solve-the-problem stuff, like sending the creatures back to their dimension, or re-3D-ifying flat objects; that's up to him, creating magic solutions without any explanation whatsoever.  (That's a bit annoying, to be honest.)  But she does figure out how to fix the TARDIS, and when it's about to get hit by a train, it's Clara who has the bright idea about how to save it.  Later, she's determined to make the Doctor admit that she makes a good Doctor as well, and he does.

Now, they're not really overstepping the mark here – this is all within the realm of stuff Clara has learned, and Jenna Coleman is at her most watchable and fun doing it.  It's great fun to put her in this situation.  But it does tiptoe close enough to "problematic" to make me... nervous.  She's not the Doctor.  If she can be, and if anyone can be with the right accoutrements and tone of voice, then we don't actually need him any more, and that's a big fat Red Alert! for Doctor Who.  I know the people making it think Clara is awesome sauce, just like they did with River Song, and they may be right, but I hope they keep that in perspective.

I'm heading for the wobbliest bit of the episode, so I might as well get it over with: right at the end, the Doctor tells Clara that "being good" had nothing to do with being the Doctor.  Maybe it's just me, but this felt like he hasn't learned much after all.  "Being good" is one of the Doctor's primary motivators.  Didn't he just say he was "the man who stops the monsters", and that he's there to protect everyone?  (Copyright: The Christmas Invasion.)  What is that, exactly, if not a big slab of Being A Good Person?  Okay, so Clara is currently better at being "good" than he is, such as refusing to let a person sacrifice his life when there could be another way to achieve his goal, or taking an interest in people.  It's part of the "thing" they're doing this year – is the Doctor "good", or isn't he?  But since that's a yes, in great big neon capital letters of obvious, I wish they'd just let it go.  Especially in an episode where he seems to be learning in the exact opposite direction.  See also, his knee-jerk response to Danny's phone-call.  "Is that PE?  Go and talk to soldier boy."  Oh FFS, are we still on this?  Moments after he speaks to a horrible old man who doesn't have enough respect for others?  It's characterisation whiplash.  Annoying, annoying, annoying.

Also annoying?  A recurring trend in Series Eight where the Doctor realises something a while into the episode that's already completely obvious.  "We've found the missing people!  They're on the walls!"  Wow, what a totally amazing deduction 20 minutes in.  However, eagle-eyed (or simply awake) viewers will have figured this out before the opening credits.  See also, the enormous blow-up of some human skin, that isn't a picture of the desert at all.  Well, yeah, since it looks like human skin, and not like a desert.  Huh?

Scroll up... yes, I definitely said I loved this episode.  Looking at the rest of it, then, and not the ending, or the questionable deductions, or the Doctor's magic solutions: yep!  Loved it.  The monsters are terrifying, but even better, interesting.  (At least in practise.  Okay, fine, in the end they're boringly out to kill all humans and their powers evolve at the speed of contrivance.  But I liked the overall idea.)  The Doctor is on really great form.  Clara, well, I may question the level of Doctorliness she's packing at the moment, in terms of what ominous direction it could take us in, but she's certainly fun to watch.  If it wasn't for her, we might not have the Doctor's Addams Family-esque escape route, which is simply one of the most delightful moments in Doctor Who, ever.  (As is his little victory dance afterwards.)

In the end, they can't resist raining on the parade (and oh look, another arc hint – nope, still don't care), and apparently, neither can I.  But Flatline is still enormously entertaining and at its best, satisfying.  There's enough good to outweigh the bad, which okay, fine, is also still there.  Damn it!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Last Train

Doctor Who
Mummy On The Orient Express
Series Eight, Episode Eight

Well, you knew this day would come.  After twenty episodes, including the one where she was a random Victorian, Clara is finally leaving the TARDIS.  Chin up.  Remember to wave.

Just kidding, obviously.  Did anyone really think this was a possibility?  Episode eight of twelve isn't the time to pull that dramatic cracker and you know it, but they give it a go anyway, sending Clara on her "last hoorah" with the Doctor.  Few but the very young (or the very dizzy) will be on the edge of their seats wondering if she'll stay or go.  This story, really, is about what will happen to convince her to carry on.

"Clara, don't go.  Who'll wear all those outfits?"
Several years after a throwaway joke in Series Five, the Doctor is finally aboard the Orient Express... in space.  After flipping her lid in last week's episode, Clara comes along too, one last time.  There's a funereal atmosphere between them.  Clara is happy/sad.  The Doctor isn't sure whether to engage with her.  He wants her to be happy, and she's not sure if she wants to go.  It's an emotionally fraught (and therefore, quite interesting) one for both of them.

Peter Capaldi continues to walk a fine line between emoting and maintaining an alien distance.  Is he more concerned with gathering information than saving the lives of his information-gatherers?  Broadly speaking, yes – he's looking at the bigger picture, stopping the killings overall.  He's not worried about the little stuff, like getting upset about it, because He's Not Like Us.  Fair enough.  He also says that "people with guns to their heads don't have time to mourn", but it doesn't seem to me like he'll be doing that at any point.

Right now, fantastic as he is – and he's so good I can gladly watch him talk to himself – it's hard to imagine putting Capaldi on my Favourite Doctors list.  He tacitly admits to being heartless at the end, which fits the "alien" thing he's going for, but there are times when his attitude to problem-solving veers closer to Steven Moffat's amoral Sherlock Holmes than the Doctor.  But we're not quite there yet, thanks to moments like going to wake up Clara, struggling with the idea because it's not what she wants, then deciding not to.  He's not going to stop her leaving if that's what she really wants, and he's genuinely pleased when she wants to stay.  He's also motivated to do the right thing – he might not be upset about a death occurring now, because he can't stop it, but he's driven to prevent the next one.  So there is a heart underneath after all.  (Two, in fact.)

Plus, after casually ordering Clara to bring a soon-to-die passenger somewhere she'll be of more use, he surprises everyone and takes her place.  Chivalry isn't all there is to it – he's convinced he'll do a better job in her place, and he's impatient to get the problem solved.  But heroism is heroism, and that, thankfully, is What The Doctor Would Do.  I get the whole disassociated-alien thing they're ramming home week after week, but I do like to glimpse the old heroic bit as well.  You know, the uh... Doctor bit.

As for Clara, her journey is mostly based on what happened in Kill The Moon, and a week has done little to dull that muddle.  She's ending it because the Doctor left an important decision up to her and the rest of humanity.  Sorry to repeat myself, but to me that seems an odd reason to hate him, and piling emotional fallout on top of it is rather like building on sand.  She spends the episode mulling it over, and calling Danny for moral support (as their relationship is making great strides, most of them sadly off-screen), but she just seems a bit fuzzy-headed here, which is frustrating as it leaves Jenna Coleman without much to sink her teeth into.  (Frankly, this isn't one of her stronger performances.  That super-excited-high-five ending, with the TARDIS charging off into the unknown, could be copy-and-pasted from any other companion.)

Last week's dramatic flounce makes less sense as the episode progresses.  Several people, including Danny, point out that she clearly doesn't hate the Doctor, so what's the big deal, eh?  After this, and seeing the good in the Doctor's actions, she plumps for carrying on.  It's probably just me, but it still feels a little like a coin toss on her part.  Oh well, glad it's over.

"Doctor, we're trapped!"
"Clara, bring your friend here, now!"
"Okay, sure!"
*isn't trapped any more*
But wait, there's more: falsely saying that Danny's okay with it and that it was his idea for her to leave in the first place, she inadvertently dooms her relationship with him in the process.  That's an ominous note to end on, craftily mixed with the same "Show me the planets!" enthusiasm you get when a new companion joins.  Talk about bittersweet.  I'm interested in where it will go, although it might resonate further if I'd seen more of Clara and Danny together, and better understood their attraction.  Fair enough if she's happy to throw away his terms and conditions (it was bossy and weird laying down rules in the first place), but if so, was she really that keen on him to start with?

Yeah yeah, character development's all well and good, but what about the monster?  Well, the mummy is an unnerving addition to the Doctor Who pantheon.  It looks scary (if a bit standard, all bandages and rotting teeth), and the gimmick – see it and you've got 66 seconds to live – is very neatly worked out.  (The director gets loads out of it.)  As for the plot, er, not so much.

The train is crammed with experts, gathered expressly to investigate the mummy.  When the Doctor figures this out (25 minutes in), the Orient Express transforms into a lab, losing its holographic passengers in the process.  You've got to wonder, once they're aboard, what's the point pretending they're on a pleasure jaunt?  How many of them will die before they get any work done?  No wonder several trains full of people have already died without results; whoever's organising this must be completely insane.  (I'm hoping that's an arc plot, like the yet-another-soldier-reference, since the Doctor doesn't rush off at the end to find the people responsible.)

Once they're on the case, the "experts" aren't much use.  The Doctor mostly chats with the chief engineer, played with enjoyable archness by Frank Skinner, but all the actual geniuses seem strangely mute.  The solution comes only when the Doctor faces the mummy, and talks until he stumbles on the answer.  Holmesian it isn't; possibly because the episode spends 25 minutes on the wrong track, there isn't time to piece it together at the end, so it feels like a lucky guess.  Jamie Mathieson is another new writer for Doctor Who (yay!), and he provides plenty of great dialogue, especially for the Doctor, but the structure is definitely a bit askew.  There's a feeling of the writer figuring it out as he goes (Oh, it's a lab!  Oh, the mummy's a soldier!  Oh, surrendering makes it go away!) rather than having it laid out from the start.  The final leg of the adventure, i.e. getting off the train and rescuing everybody, is dumped on us via epilogue.  Another casualty of the false start, perhaps?  The scene in question, with the Doctor laying out his not-entirely-amoral plan, is scintillating, so I don't mind.  Capaldi is, in general, a bit of a rockstar here.

I liked Mummy On The Orient Express more than recent episodes.  It has a monster defined by strict rules, which for once don't get compromised.  It's exciting in short bursts, though overall it does wobble a bit.  The solution is a bit flat, especially when the Doctor's supposed to have a massive thing about hating soldiers, which strangely doesn't warrant a mention here.  The guest cast are a delight to watch, as ever, although a surprisingly high percentage of them die.  (Mind you, with the "Heaven" arc, maybe none of them do?)

Most importantly, the Doctor and Clara put most of their awkwardness behind them, which is a relief, although they immediately set a course for more.  It feels like a middle-of-the-series, taking-stock kind of episode in that sense; one to revisit later, when the dust has settled.  Until then, I had a good time watching it.

Monday, 6 October 2014

It's Only An Eggy Moon

Doctor Who
Kill The Moon
Series Eight, Episode Seven

There's a simple test to see if you'll like the latest Doctor Who episode, Kill The Moon.  Are you ready?  Listen to these four words.

The moon's an egg.

If you just winced, or made pantomime vomit motions with your fingers, Kill The Moon is going to annoy you.  Of course there's more to it, some of it just as contentious as the egg thing, but there will be a portion of viewers who just won't get past the whimsypoo.

Oh my god, New Writer!
I forgot those were a thing!
Now, Doctor Who has had some pretty wacky ideas about planets in the past.  We've had the Earth forming around a spider's spaceship; Earth having a long-lost twin planet; the arrival of the moon sending a race of lizard people (who were here before us) into panicked hibernation.  Suspension Of Disbelief is in the rules, and always has been.  But the moon as an egg?  I dunno: for me, that's a bit of a stretch, sci-fi bordering on fantasy.  While we're on the subject, this ain't one for the scientists in the audience, although it does sometimes try to be.  Kill The Moon hops light-footedly between asking exactly the sort of common-sense questions I want answered, and trading in the laws of the universe for gumdrops and rainbows.  It's one of those episodes where you find out your own personal tolerance for flim-flam.

It begins at full pelt, which is what I like to see.  Clara and co. are already on the moon, sending an appeal to Earth.  Should they kill a massive potentially-dangerous life-form, or let it live and brave the consequences?  We have 45 minutes to decide.  For a moment I thought we were in for a countdown episode, like the similarly futuristic (and, y'know, rubbish) 42.  Turns out we are not – it's just one of those begin-at-the-end-then-cut-back-to-the-start openings they do in movies when the opening isn't strong enough.  But one thing's for sure: this is an Impossible Choice episode.  And those make me distinctly nervous, because Doctor Who isn't very good at them.  (It's usually a case of, Dramatic Option A, or Dramatic Option B?  I know: Hitherto Unmentioned Option C!)

The moon is cracking apart.  When the thing inside hatches, it will send chunks of moon smashing into the Earth, not to mention the chaos that might be unleashed by the newborn creature.  Plus, no moon = disaster in general.  On the other hand, the creature might be benevolent.  Chunks of moon might not smash into the Earth.  And maybe we'll be all right without a moon?

Hmm.  The case Against is noticeably flimsier than the case For, which is probably why humanity votes to Do What The Title Says.  (Although how blowing up a mega-fetus with 100 nuclear bombs is going to avoid a shower of moon chunks, especially with only seconds to spare from it hatching, is a bit of a grey area.)  The voting thing sounds great, but doesn't quite work in practice.  People on Earth don't have all the facts, only the people who hear Clara's message will vote, and then only the people facing the moon.  It could be 50/50 and she wouldn't know.  In any case, they seem to vote No, and Clara decides to ignore them.  Fortunately, all is well.  The thing hatches, the moon chunks disintegrate.  We even get to have our cake and eat it, because the thing lays another egg, of – one presumes – roughly the same mass as the original one.  Everything's tidied up, with humanity spurred on to explore the stars into the bargain.  How lovely.

Except for all the bollocks.  The moon chunks disintegrate because, says Clara, "The moon isn't made of rock and stone, is it?  It's made of egg-shell!"  Er, no, it's made of egg-shell that's made of rock and stone.  It's an egg, but not a chicken's egg.  The moon is definitely rock!  People have stood on it!  So it's a stupendously lucky break that we didn't get flattened after all.  Plus we've got a new moon – which is an even bigger bag of bollocks, because something can't possibly contain something that's bigger than itself.  (With the honourable exception of TARDISes, which have consistency with the laws of Doctor Who, and even the occasional explanation.)  If Moon 2.0 isn't roughly the same size, or isn't on quite the same orbit, humanity's surely looking at a whole new host of problems.  As for Clara's natty observation earlier on – that nobody in the future ever mentions how the moon turned out to be a bloody great egg, hatched, and got replaced by another one – that still stands.  Are all moons secretly eggs?  Who's laying them, if this life-form is (as the Doctor suspects) the only one in the universe?

Is it a Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice thing?
For me, it stops being analogous when there are chunks of moon
threatening to crush all life on Earth.  I'm thinking: Unintended Subtext.
Like I said, it's down to your own personal tolerance for flim-flam.  You're meant to find it heartening and sweet that Clara voted Yes, and that humanity is inspired to explore space, after all that post-vote awkwardness.  It helps to bear in mind that this is a future where we've given up on space exploration and alien life for some reason; assuming you can get your head around how and why, given the constant arrival of aliens in Doctor Who's version of Earth, it is sort of nice to set humanity back on the right path.  Also intended to make you smile: the moon isn't what you thought it was.  I'm in Camp Thinks It's Bollocks But Can Understand Why Some People Think It's Sweet.  It is a grumpy place.

There's more to the episode than the Impossible Choice That Kind Of Takes Care Of Itself, i.e. the setup.  It takes a while for the characters to figure out what's going on, although the opening teaser, the episode title and an early scene where the Doctor describes a sizeable creature as "bacteria" do sort of give it away.  The setup is all fairly standard Scary Space Station: astronauts are sent to investigate the troubled moon, only to find gravity, cobwebs and corpses.  The gravity is one of the sciencey bits I'm glad somebody brought up – and it's a major plot-point.  The cobwebs are the work of the "bacteria", aka giant spiders that eat intruders.  (I'm not sure that's what bacteria would look like on a larger scale, but Suspension Of Disbelief...)  It's all suitably creepy, though it gets totally defanged once the Impossible You-Know-What shows up.  The spiders just cease to be important, and obviously the tone warps away from Planet Scary before the end.  It's fun while it lasts.

It's also fun to watch Peter Capaldi investigate things, with his now traditional lack of giving two hoots about anybody else.  He does at least try to rescue Courtney (the disruptive schoolgirl from last week's episode), though it's still up to her to save her own skin.  There's a hilarious bit where he suggests the astronauts shoot Courtney and Clara before himself, which is more about making them think again rather than employing a couple of human shields.  He's crotchety, funny, and has a glinty-eyed glee at the discovery of new life.  All very right, as far as I'm concerned.

Now, I've had some trouble enjoying Capaldi's take on the character this year; he's often rude in a way that suggests he's a horrible person, rather than a non-human one, and we've got a dozen-or-so previous Doctors for context.  But he is, mostly, quite Doctorly in this one.  I don't, for example, have any problem with him leaving Clara and co. to decide the fate of the moon.  It's not the first time he's left Earth's history up to the humans, whether it's deciding if they can co-exist with lizard people, or letting history take its course because of Fixed Points.  His choice of phrase, "time to take the training wheels off your bike", is horribly patronising, but it's still a human decision, and it should be up to the humans to make it.  So Clara's dramatic meltdown at the Doctor over this is, I think, rather uncalled for.  Leaving them in danger (with the moon collapsing, spiders approaching, suicide a possibility) is a bit of a bastardly thing to do.  But leaving the decision up to humanity, and up to Clara, isn't.  And that's mostly the bit she's mad at.  Kill The Moon's brutal, emotional climax – those two falling out – is sadly a bit of a muddle.

"But... you can't leave.  It's not the finale yet."
Where the Doctor isn't to my liking this week is simple: Courtney.  The reason she's on-board the TARDIS is to make up for the Doctor telling her she's not special, and sorry, but that's go-to-the-back-of-the-class bollocks where the Doctor is concerned.  The Doctor thinks people are special.  He's interested in, and cares about, humans.  He doesn't think we're insignificant, and he doesn't think our lives are meaningless if we haven't been to the moon.  That's not seeing the Doctor from a new angle, that's wrong.  There are recent examples of him saying the exact opposite – saying he's never met anyone who wasn't important in A Christmas Carol, explaining how each life is precious in The Rings Of Akhaten – and yes, Matt Smith counts as him, since it's all the same ruddy Time Lord.  It's one thing to make him grumpy, or even a bit of a misanthrope, but actual contempt for the qualities of individual people is not the Doctor.  Take it away.

So, the Doctor is a mix of the very good and the very wrong.  Clara's... fine, although Jenna Coleman's cry acting isn't her greatest strength, and it's odd that she's chosen now to throw a tantrum and pack her bags.  Here's a bit you probably didn't see coming: I quite like Courtney.  She's not actually necessary to the story (apart from carrying some handy anti-bacterial spray), and it's bizarre to gain a new companion on such a whim, but at least she's not obnoxious like the last couple of TARDIS kids.  Her delivery of several lines, especially "Night night", made me laugh.  The astronauts are overly whimsical and pretty much just fodder, with Hermione Norris doing the requisite arguing-with-the-Doctor bit; it's not a great role because most of the decision making falls on the Earth and then on Clara.  Adelaide Brooke she ain't, but at least when she challenges the Doctor's authority, she prompts Capaldi's hilarious retort: "You say run, then!"

Kill The Moon is an Impossible Choice episode, and the Impossible Choice is always the most important bit.  And it's not that well handled.  Not enough seems to be at stake, especially when you add all the bollocksy stuff about egg-shells and new moons.  As usual, the problem resolves itself, and the emotional fall-out doesn't make total sense.  But there are times when it feels like it's got its head screwed on (Clara continually asking questions), and times when it does something drastic that's actually in keeping with Doctor Who (him leaving us to it).  It feels like the most consistent episode of Doctor Who for a while, even if it has an annoyingly consistent supply of damp squibs.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Doesn't Care-taker

Doctor Who
The Caretaker
Series Eight, Episode Six

Oh dear.  This is a review I don't really want to write.

I was quietly expecting to like this one.  I've a soft spot for episodes by Gareth Roberts, as they tend to get overlooked by fandom – The Unicorn & The Wasp and Closing Time spring to mind.  He can do "funny" exquisitely well, which isn't something to sniff at, but he's also really great at juxtaposing the Doctor against normal people, not to mention smaller, less apocalyptic threats.  Here's another episode of The Doctor Undercover, and this one is set in a school – which has already been done in School Reunion, one of my all time favourites.  That doesn't automatically mean it won't work a second time; it's just a bit less special by default.  That's an annoying place to start.

The Caretaker is also concerned with Clara's "normal" life vs. her life in the TARDIS, which they highlight really well in a very funny opening montage.  But we've seen this theme before in The Power Of Three – another episode I'm fond of, so there's a feeling of "Oh, this again" here as well.  However, the main talking point is the Doctor, and his attitude towards Danny, which had been building up before they even met, and is clearly a theme for the series.  That's what the episode is – the Doctor meets the boyfriend.  We'll learn more about both of them in the process.  Is it a success?  Um.

Of course the Doctor thinks she's dating a Matt-Smith-alike,  and of course
he's okay with that.  What do you mean, "unspeakably creepy"?
(Okay, he probably views it as natural for her to fancy Matt Smith,
and has no feelings vice versa.  But I can't help thinking about it.)
You may have noticed that the Doctor, this year, is a bit of a git.  Well, a lot of a git.  He's mostly git.  He's rude, dismissive, difficult to like.  This is, broadly speaking, a good thing – you've got to keep the character interesting after fifty years and a dozen-or-so previous actors, and learning to love him all over again is an important part of that.  It's also important to remind us that he's an alien, and being a bit less likeable is a simple way to achieve that.  I totally get all of that, and I'm under no illusion that the way they're writing Peter Capaldi's Doctor is an accident.

Even so, I'm not enjoying it.  Your mileage may vary.  I don't enjoy the Doctor being rude to people out of reflex.  I don't enjoy him loudly telling people to shut up.  I don't enjoy him refusing to accept that an ex-soldier could have a modicum of intelligence, or that a PE teacher could either.  I think the Doctor is basically a good person and he's interested in other people, although he is different from them.  I think there's alien, and there's arsehole, and we are confusing the two, possibly due to an unfortunate cross-pollination with Malcolm Tucker.

The Caretaker does come up with reasons for the Doctor's rudeness towards Danny in particular – and states them all rather boringly out loud, which isn't a very subtle way to do things, but is how this series rolls.  The main one is fatherly disapproval, which could work, except he was being rude to Danny before he knew this guy was a boyfriend to be disapproving of.  (And to an extent, before they even met.)  The other reason is, you guessed it, the soldier thing.  The Doctor's dislike of soldiers is a massive issue at the moment, and I might as well throw my hands up here: I don't get it.  Yes, the Pertwee Doctor hated the military, partly because they blew up some life-forms behind his back, mostly because he was stuck with them for several years.  Yes, the Hurt Doctor did some soldiery things the subsequent Doctors are ashamed of – but Day Of The Doctor really ought to count as closure there.  Why's it such a bitter, personal problem now?   (Remember, he's aged 1,000 years since the John Hurt reunion.  That's ancient history.)

It's a thorny issue, because of course, the Doctor is a massive hypocrite.  (Which they also point out, because the audience might have cotton wool for brains.)  He's made use of the military any number of times since (and during) the Pertwee Years, and he's befriended a few of them.  He's quite capable of blowing things up by himself, with or without the handy caveat of "There should have been another way" or, as per The Next Doctor, "You made me do it."  The Caretaker examines that as well, positing that he's simply a higher ranking officer than the likes of Danny, and dislikes the lower ones out of snobbery or shame.  That's a new one, and it's not necessarily out of the question.  But it's yet another reason not to like this guy.

Hooray for character development and everything, but I wish this episode went some way to resolving these issues, rather than just highlighting them.  For the first time this series, I felt at arm's length from the Doctor.  He's still funny, because it's written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat, and Peter Capaldi can do put-downs like nobody else.  He's still compelling, because he's Peter Capaldi and he's intensely interesting to watch.  But the whole rude, dismissive thing is getting in the way, for me.  Christopher Eccleston was like that in his first episode – saving humanity out of irritated obligation, not massively fussed about the individuals.  And fair enough, but he learned.  That's what Rose was for.  Is Clara helping this guy, or not?  (They point out that she's his external conscience, because of course they do.)  Why is he calling us "little people", like David Tennant's Doctor during his nervous breakdown?  What happened to the Doctor actually quite liking humans?  It just feels like rude is the new bow tie: it's cool, apparently.

None of this goes unnoticed by Clara or Danny, and again, it's obviously no accident.  He's not meant to be likeable, we're not supposed to be enthralled by this behaviour.  There's even a cheeky line: "I hate you!"  "That's fine.  That's a perfectly normal reaction."  The fact that it's making me want to punch iPlayer, or switch it off, or run crying back to Matt Smith, is merely an unfortunate side effect.  It's a gamble.  We've yet to see the pay-off, but at this stage, I can understand a less patient fan giving up, at least until they're done with the monotonous I Hate Soldiers thing, or the equally monotonous I Hate Boyfriends thing.  (Oh good, this again.)

First time through, The Caretaker set my teeth on edge.  Second time, its charms became more apparent.  The Doctor is terrible at undercover work, and that can be hilarious.  It's not quite the same as Matt Smith's brand of undercover terribleness – Capaldi is more grumpy old man than charming eccentric, and he manages to embody an alien superciliousness, as well as exactly the cantankerousness you'd expect from a school caretaker nobody wants to talk to.  The way he refers to himself as "a man of mystery" is, hilariously, to die for.

Some of the really funny stuff is Clara, just generally, or failing to cover up her trips in the TARDIS.  ("Nice frock.  Bit wet..."  "Freak shower."  "Is that seaweed?"  "I said freak!")  There's a brilliant moment where the Doctor name-drops Jane Austen, which is a ridiculously annoying habit Clara rightly calls him on, except this time he's just read the bio at the back of Pride And Prejudice.

Of course, The Caretaker isn't just a Funny Episode.  It's a character-developer for Clara and Danny, and it's a low-key, patient episode in order to accommodate that.  I don't mind – Clara's character only improves if you heap some layers on it, and she grew more interesting just by meeting Danny in Episode #2.  They are inevitably rushing things a bit, thanks to the time-jumps between each episode.  A moment where she says she loves Danny feels awkwardly unearned.  Danny spends most of the episode either losing patience with, or being bluntly pissed off with her, which leaves her trying to make excuses for the Doctor and herself, which isn't the best window into their relationship.  Sam Anderson is very good as the very patient Danny, but we don't really see what it is he likes about Clara.  Doctor-issues get in the way of any genuine chemistry.  I appreciate slowing down to examine characters like this; I'm just not sure it worked this time.

As for the monster plot, including the Doctor's puzzling decision to lure it to the school because "This is the only suitably empty place in the area" (WTF?), the Skovox Blitzer must be one of the most irrelevant "threats" in Doctor Who history.  A marauding robot thingummie that shoots people and needs to be got rid of and that's it, it's so underdeveloped it's almost off-screen.  Of course it's really just a starter pistol for the character stuff, but plots should always try to be interesting, and this one struggled to keep my attention even while I was looking at it.  (Although it did make me laugh, as it's inadvertently quite similar to Mitchell & Webb's Numberwang robot, Collosson.)  Still, unless my ears deceive me, that's Sam Anderson doing the voice, which bounces us back to the theme of officers and soldiers, what with the Doctor pretending to be the Skovox's boss in order to shut it down.  That's pretty nifty, although I still hate the soldier theme and want it to die, which does get in the way a teeny bit.

I admire the things this episode tries to do.  Some of them will make more sense in the fullness of time, and they probably make perfect sense now, to people other than me.  Good for them – you, even.  I really, really wanted to like this, and I take no enjoyment in not enjoying The Caretaker, but that's where I'm at: arms folded, frown in place, wondering when it's all going to come together.  Hurry up.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Crimey Wimey

Doctor Who
Time Heist
Series Eight, Episode Five

Ah, phooey.  Stephen Thompson again.  I tried not to roll my eyes when I found out who wrote this one, because in an ideal world you'd treat every episode as its own special little flower and forget any of the writer's baggage.  But I can't help it, grumpy old sod that I am: I didn't like his previous episodes, so I automatically want to duck and cover when a new one comes along.

Fortunately, Time Heist is pretty good.  It holds together well and there are good bits.  It's co-written by Steven Moffat, however, so I don't know who to thank.  Similarly, any problems will be indiscriminately shared out between the two of them, because I'm fair like that.

"What do you want, more than anything else?  Whatever it is, it's in this bank."
Quite a big assumption there, Doc.  You could easily be here under duress.
Time Heist scores an early point by avoiding one of the show's boring bits, aka the how-do-we-get-involved-in-the-plot bit.  This usually means plonking the TARDIS directly in the path of some trouble, or a famous person, or both.  It's just narrative housework that needs clearing away before the opening titles.  Sod that: we jump right from the Doctor picking up the TARDIS phone to a dark room later on, where he, Clara and two others have just had their memories wiped.  They have agreed to rob a bank, and they've got no choice but to go through with it, right now.  And we're away!  The story begins with a shot of adrenalin.  Big tick there.

I've seen bits of Hustle and The Real Hustle, and far too many awful Ocean's movies, so I know the drill: a bank with flashy security, a few talented individuals needed to break in, vaguely philanthropic reasons for doing so.  It's one of those pre-existing frameworks you can just drop Doctor Who into, it being a super-malleable concept and everything.  The way it's handled is suitably flashy, and it works.

The Doctor's thing is that he's clever.  Psi's thing is that he can interface with technology.  Saibra's thing is that she can look like other people.  Clara's thing is... I'm guessing, moral support?  Their actions are all more or less pre-ordained by a mysterious Architect (who is, let's face it, probably the Doctor), because there's a time travel aspect (duh), which I'm guessing was Steven Moffat's idea.  The way the story eventually folds in on itself and bounces back and forth in time is very him.  But who knows, maybe it was Other Stephen.  Either way, kudos: it's not a bad puzzle box.

As for the bank, well it's one thing to describe it as the most secure building in the universe (or whatever), and another to actually convince us of it.  Who designed this place?  Yes, there's a terrifying creature that detects and feeds on guilt, but it can only detect one guilty person at a time, and it seems to get that wrong at least once.  There's no CCTV to (for instance) monitor conversations, including (for instance) ones about robbing the bank, which our heroes never stop having.  There are easily-accessible air vents all over the place – and I mean huge ones, even by movie cliché standards.  And the main method of checking your identity seems to be a breath-scanner.  It's suggested this is a way of checking your DNA, which is puzzling in itself, but seriously, breath?  A thing that isn't the same from day to day anyway, and can be easily stolen and bottled?  Thankfully there is at least one secure lock in the building – only a perfectly-timed solar flare will throw it off.  But it should be noted, the vault on the other side of it contains thousands of boxes that aren't locked.  Capped off with a security staff numbering maybe half a dozen, the whole operation is hilariously shoddy.

Still, it makes for an exciting trip as our foursome tries to avoid the guilt-gobbling Teller, which is an alien that actually looks like it comes from another planet, and does something irreversibly horrible to its victims.  Mary Whitehouse would spin in her grave if she could see the caved-in skulls of its victims.  While it does turn out that the Teller is hoping to rescue its mate, this doesn't make a difference to the things it's done, and it doesn't suddenly change the tone like in Hide, which had a similar, much gooier revelation at the end.  The thing is only doing what it's ordered to do – it's non-evil, which gets another tick from me.  (Mind you, no prizes for guessing, as the chains are a pretty sizeable hint that it's not loving its job.)

One minute she's going to feed them to the Teller, the next... she's not?
Bloody convenient for them, but why the change of plan?
To counteract the mind-wipe, we have Shredders: devices that atomise you on the spot.  The Doctor's okayness with using these, when your only alternative is having no brain, is another little addition to the Dark Doctor Files.  Can you imagine Matt Smith doing that?  Clara's dead set against it, because she's the companion and that's her job.  In any case, it later turns out that they're actually teleporters.  For once, this came as a pleasant surprise rather than a cop-out.  It's a totally legitimate loophole; maybe I'm naive, but I didn't see it coming.  Well, do you know what a teleporter looks like?  (By which I mean the wee gizmo, not the special effect.)  Meanwhile, if Psi had actually followed Clara's advice and not used it, he'd be worse than dead.  Interestingly, this goes unaddressed.

After much corridor running (with one set humourously redressed using different lights), the penny eventually drops: the bank is run by one woman and a series of her clones, and she's holding the Teller's mate in her vault.  One day, dying old and alone, she regrets leaving both of them to die in the storm, and will call the Doctor to arrange what is really a rescue mission.  Again, not a bad timey wimey puzzle: it falls into place with a satisfying thunk.

As for the woman and the clones, Keeley Hawes plays the sort of business-minded bitch already creakily familiar in Doctor Who.  I was reminded of Miss Foster, and I wish I wasn't – it's not a gift of a role, however many times Keeley has to play it.  Psi and Saibra are likeable enough, though really little more than superpowers and sob stories on legs.  (I can't help wondering how a man who deleted his family from his memories can know he had a family to forget.)  Clara is wrong about the Shredders, and otherwise isn't much to write home about.  Capaldi is vicious, funny, endearingly sweet when he wants Clara to hang out with him, and believably cool about tragedies he's powerless to prevent.  They are teetering on the edge of overdoing it with the "doesn't find Clara attractive" gags and the eyebrow references, but as ever, he's knocking it out of the park.  I'm still waiting for his first great episode.

Time Heist is neat and tidy, and certainly the cream of the Stephen Thompson crop.  I've got no major complaints.  It's an unspectacular does-what-it-says-on-the-tin deal, but hey, I'd rather watch it again than Ocean's Twelve.