Friday, 23 January 2015

Cautionary Whale

Doctor Who
The Beast Below
Series Five, Episode Two


You know how great The Eleventh Hour was?  How it managed to introduce characters and ideas, explain them, show them off, and all in a way that was thoroughly entertaining?  Well, you may want to wait before watching the next episode.  It's a teensy bit of a comedown.

The Beast Below does certain things that need doing for the series to work.  Fair enough.  We need to see Amy accept the "job" of companion, and understand that it's not just about hopping into the TARDIS.  We need to see why the Doctor needs a companion in the first place.  None of this is news to Doctor Who fans.

The Beast Below is preceded by a great 3-minute short.
Why not watch that 13 or so times instead?
And stuff like that can be done in an entertaining and subtle manner.  Just look at The Eleventh Hour.  This week, we're jumping through the same sort of hoops, but with nowhere near that level of subtlety.

The Beast Below is (god 'elp us) a satire, and you know what that means: Clang! Goes The Frying Pan Of Obvious.  Amy's journey from passenger to full-blown companion is obvious.  The Doctor's need for a companion is obvious.  The satire itself is obvious, but then, it's satire.  The whole point is that you're already familiar with it.

So the TARDIS arrives on the Starship UK, a floating haven for This Sceptred Isle, driven away by the super nova that roasted the Earth.  And something is rotten here.  Secrets are in the air and a child is crying, so naturally, the Doctor cannot resist helping.  Amy says so: "Is this how it is, Doctor?  You never interfere in the affairs of people or planets, unless there's children crying?"  "Yes."  Strictly speaking, that is a new spin on the Doctor's desire to help people.  Does he normally reserve his helpfulness only for adorable kiddywinks?  I thought he helped everyone.  B.A. Baracus did a lot of pro bono work for children, much to the chagrin of The A-Team.  Perhaps Steven Moffat is thinking of him.

Anyway, this child is crying because her friend is missing.  He got a bad grade at school, got frowned at by one of the robotic Smilers that oversee everything, and was dumped down a trap door, presumably to his doom.  People seem to know this sort of thing goes on, but they won't do anything about it.  The Doctor arrives and spots something odd about a glass of water: it's not vibrating, despite the gigantic ship's engines beneath.  It's up to Amy – decides the Doctor – to find out what's going on.  (Well, it's up to both of them, but he sends her on a mission of her own.  Which is odd, as one of the first things he said to Amelia last week was "Don't wander off".)

After finding herself imperilled almost immediately (cheers Doc), Amy finds herself in a voting booth.  People are told the truth about Starship UK and are given the option to Protest or Forget.  (Apparently if more than 1% hit Protest they will stop what they're doing no matter the consequences.  They say this, but Protesters are immediately flushed to their deaths, so I'm guessing that's just a fib.)  The Protest/Forget thing is about as blunt as satirical concepts get.  Insert any moral injustice here, and presto!  What Terrible People We Are.

The truth being suitably horrible, Amy hits the Forget button.  The Doctor is disappointed, and so (later on) is Amy.  Which is a bit strange.  She doesn't want to forget about it at the end of the episode, but she's exactly the same person she was at the start.  What gives?  Hey ho: the Doctor hits the Protest button, Which Tells Us What Kind Of Person He Is, and down they go to find the truth.

Dramatic chord!  The Starship UK is strapped to the back of a star whale, the last of its kind, and they are torturing it to keep it under control.  If they stop torturing it, the starship will (probably) disintegrate.  Everyone, including the Queen, knows about this and chooses to forget, because there is no alternative.  (Hold that thought.)  The Doctor decides the only humane thing to do is kill off the whale's higher brain functions so it won't feel pain but will continue to function.  (Keep holding.)  It's this, or he lets the torture carry on, or he kills the whale and dooms everybody.  It's an Impossible Choice.  We know this because he says so.  CLANG!

Aww!  The cutesy wutesy whale won't eat kids!  How nice.
So: how old is "old enough to eat"?  Does it eat teenagers?
It's aware that children are adults-in-training, right?
The trouble is, it's not as simple as that if you bother to think about it.  They need the star whale because the ship "can't fly".  Okay.  Why is that?  I found no answers in the episode.  What happened to all the other starships?  Did their engines work?  Why did all the other starships get a head start?  Can't they be contacted for parts or assistance?  Isn't anyone on Starship UK able to think of an alternative means of transport, or even research it?  Seriously, even the Doctor can't think of anything?

What about the journey, which the whale must complete at all costs?  Where are they going?  Are they going to the same place as all the other starships, or is everybody settling on their own planet?  (Given that they scythed off into separate country-ships, which is a depressingly jingoistic little side-note, that seems likely.)  And for the bonus point: why can't the Doctor bundle everyone into the TARDIS and ferry them to where they need to go?  Yeah, yeah, that's the snarky answer to everything, but it's embarrassingly applicable here.

In order for all of this to work, a great many things need to happen because they just do, okay?  Also a great many people need to have severely unenquiring minds, including the Doctor, and you.  Which is probably another casualty of the dreaded satire, but regardless, none of these things are hallmarks of a brilliant story.  When Amy finally comes to the rescue, realising (via the subtle power of flashback – always a good sign!) that the whale volunteered in the first place, it's a serious leap that no one else (including the Doctor) thought of that already.  It's just another obvious option discounted by everyone else, so that Amy and her amazing companion-ness can save the day.  Okay, you've set up your super-duper companion in the process, but it comes at the expense of everyone else's IQ.  Including Mr Alien Genius over there.  Whoops.

And we're not done being stupid.  Amy doesn't just realise that the star whale's going to keep on truckin' if they leave it alone.  She realises it because the star whale is like the Doctor.  We know this because she has a flashback about the whale and the Doctor, and then looks at the Doctor when she's talking about the whale.  "It came because it couldn't stand to watch your children cry!"  Dear god, that's clumsy, and it doesn't even work since "He only helps when children cry" is something they made up this week.  But then there's a whole other scene where Amy goes through it again for those of us with hearing difficulties.  "Very kind and very old and the very, very last.  Sound a bit familiar?"  YES AMY, FOR GOD'S SAKE YOU CAN LET IT GO NOW.

So the Amy Is A Companion stuff, which the episode is mostly about, is painful.  And so is the Doctor Needs A Companion stuff, because it means robbing him of the power to spot the bleedin' obvious (despite being capably Holmesian about those glasses of water), and the power to think about a problem for more than two minutes before picking a solution.  As for the Doctor's character, we learn that he's old and lonely and helpful, but there must have been subtler ways to tease this out of him than flashbacks and comparisons with a star whale.  All that stunning character-building finesse we saw in the "Doctor and Amelia" scenes last week has utterly disappeared.  It's a clang!-fest.

"Dave... do you think what we're doing is wrong?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, it's just that you've designed them with an optional Evil Face."
"That's not evil.  That's... decisive."
"And another thing: there's three of them.  How does that–"
*hits FORGET*
Matt and Karen are fine, although they're working within pretty stiff constraints.  The Doctor does a lot of high-and-mighty Impossible Choice stuff, which every Doctor must do at some point, hey ho, but there are some natty Matt Smith-y acting moments as well.  I particularly like his enthusiasm in the face of danger, and that insane "Wheee!" when he and Amy fall down the chute.

As for Amy, there's more of her wedding jitters, which pretty much define her at this point, and there's a bit where she's revealed to be, um, a talented lock-pick?  Amy spends most of it looking wide-eyed and learning Important Companion Lessons; it's more about Being A Companion than being herself.  The moment where the Doctor is 100% ready to boot her back home because she "failed" is an eyebrow-raising affront to the bond they established last week.  We just have to forget how much they mean to each other, because um.

If you take away the satire, the Important Character Points and (giggle) the Impossible Choice, there's not a lot else.  Liz 10 is fun, albeit embarrassingly one-note; "I'm the bloody Queen, mate" is a funny line.  Terence Hardiman does a good "suffering for his sins" expression, which is pretty much all his role requires.  And we have the Smilers, which are faintly creepy, albeit totally unexplained and shoehorned in there for toy sales.  (Since all the Protesters get flushed, what are they for?  Why do they need "half-human" Smilers as well?)  I would ask why getting a bad grade in school warrants flushing-to-your-doom just the same as Protesting, but that's probably part of the satire – use the whale as an excuse to weed out whomever you like.  Which suggests there's a lot more wrong here than just the whale torture, but clearly everyone's too obstinate to sort it out themselves.  Oh well, we don't go into it.  Good luck with that, guys.  *wheezing, groaning sound*

After an episode burning with new ideas, or at least a few new spins, The Beast Below comes as a ghastly shock.  You've seen it all before.  Fortunately, it shouldn't be too hard to hit the Forget button.

Friday, 16 January 2015

I Dream Of Ripley

Doctor Who
Last Christmas
2014 Christmas Special

I must admit I'm getting bored with Doctor Who.  (On TV at least, whereas Big Finish have kept me perfectly entertained.)  Series Eight wasn't for me, and I haven't revisited it.  Then again, perhaps I'm just bored with the (seemingly endless) Moffat era and its associated tropes, most of which show up in this Christmas Special.  It's not a bad episode, but with it being a particularly busy Christmas I was going to let the episode go and come back for Series Nine.  Ah well: iPlayer keeps these things for 30 days, so why not?

As was sign-posted at the end of Death In Heaven, it's not the end for the Doctor and Clara.  Meeting on a rooftop, enticed there by Santa Claus (played sassily by Nick Frost), they head to a Remote Arctic Base (TM) to confront the dream crabs: sinister blue face-huggers that keep you dreaming while they eat your brain.

Merry Christmas!
Similarities to Alien and The Thing are positively encouraged.  I'm not sure we've ever had such direct references in Doctor Who: the "Purge" screen from Alien is a comparatively subtle nod, but the Thing-ish Arctic base, the full-on conversation about face-huggers and the oh-why-the-hell-not list of movies at the end all tend to reach through the fourth wall and slap you.  I suppose it's one way to tackle suspiciously familiar source material, and it does work given that they are (spoiler alert) dreaming most of this.  (Except the dream crabs are real, and the similarities to Alien are due to Steven Moffat, not the characters' movie-themed brains.)  All of which makes me genuinely surprised no one says "It's a bit like Inception, isn't it?"

Yep, it's a dream story, and you know what that means: what is real?  This can be done exceptionally well, like in Amy's Choice.  That episode had two scenarios, each ridiculous-yet-convincing in their own way, with a countdown to decide which is the real one.  They even had a sinister fantasy figure calling the shots.  (It's quite a bit like Amy's Choice, isn't it?)  Where this one is more like Inception is in the layers: dreams within dreams within dreams.  You pretty much know going in that they're going to "wake up" more than once, which takes something away from the dramatic reveals.  Still, even this just about works, because despite Santa Claus being a big hint that all is not for realsies, the Doctor doesn't know that for certain, and so can't rely on it.  (And neither can you.  Shh!)

To compound our stay in TropesVille, Steven Moffat also tackled dream worlds in Forest Of The Dead (six years ago!), and with considerably more flair.  We also have another of his "conceptual" monsters: rather than moving when you're not looking, or being forgotten when you're not looking at them, or whatever the thing was in Listen, the dream crabs home in on your own thoughts about them.  So don't think about them and you're fine.  (Don't think, eh?  Where does he come up with this stuff?)  We've also got characters telling each other to shut up (which makes me want to punch them – yes, Clara, you too), and Santa, accompanied by two elves, trying to rationalise the ridiculous by mocking the sensible.  (That's not just Steven Moffaty: trying to make practical sense of Father Christmas is the modus operandi of virtually every Christmas film that gets made nowadays.  Even Elf does it.)  To say it's all a bit familiar would be an understatement.

Bonus trivia: pretty sure that's the volcano set from Dark Water.
If I seem to be obsessing over references, tropes and details, well, I am a Doctor Who fan.  (Among the mountains of Doctor Who non-fiction written by people more anal retentive than me are at least two books comprised entirely of lists.)  But the episode encourages nitpicking just as it acknowledges its inspirations.  It's a dream world, so the Doctor (and Santa) urges Clara (and us) to concentrate on everything.  There's even a sneering rebuke from Santa that the characters haven't paid enough attention – for my money, the exact tone Steven Moffat adopts in most of his interviews.  Is it any wonder people look for things that aren't there, and notice plot holes as if they're painted luminous yellow, when episodes adopt such a challenging tone?

Anyway: the dream crabs are creepy, the don't-think concept works rather well (except when the characters forget about it, think about them, and predictable havoc ensues), and if you haven't seen Inception or aren't a curmudgeonly smart-arse, the still-dreaming stuff probably lands with a satisfying thud.  Its ingredients might be unoriginal, but sticking Father Christmas in The Thing is pretty damn novel.  However, there is more going on here than Santa Claus, dream crabs and an Inception paradox.  Rumours were rife that Jenna Coleman might leave, and Clara's certainly suggested as much.  Will she stay or will she go?

One should never put too much trust in rumours, but there's a ring of truth to this one: Jenna was going, and changed her mind at the last minute, thus prompting a reshoot.  Last Christmas not only namedrops its ominous title as often as possible, but also spends its final minutes setting up a possible death for the Impossible Girl, even going so far as a lovely callback to last year's Christmas Special.  (Where the youthful Clara once helped an aged Doctor pull a Christmas cracker, now their roles are reversed.)  This is all good stuff, and the Doctor failing to spot any difference between Claras old and new is done with aplomb by Peter Capaldi, who is barnstorming in general this week.  Jenna Coleman gives us a convincing older Clara, and while I am bored to the back teeth of Clara – who has already left the TARDIS twice, once angry, once resigned – this has the makings of a dignified exit, the echo of Matt adding a certain shape to her time in the show.

"I've always believed in Santa Claus... but he looks a little different to me."
Not the only Doctor-Santa comparison here, and yes,
they're all this subtle.
But, no: the Doctor wakes up again and it's back to the TARDIS for fun, adventure, and good times!  Which is a moment we already had almost word-for-word in Mummy On The Orient Express, and (in spirit) even earlier in Deep Breath.  Clara now faces the same problem as Amy: the more times you fake out that she's leaving, the less convincing her exit will be.  Amy eventually left via a histrionic rendez-vous with the Weeping Angels, and still there was the grim spectre of "No, really, why can't he just go and get her?"  How's Clara going to cop it?  When we get there, what's to stop us simply expecting her back next week?

It's a real shame, because inasmuch as Last Christmas is really about anything, it's surely this.  (Of course there's a chance this was always the plan, and Moffat meant to set us up for an emotional ending only to not deliver one.  In which case... mission accomplished?)  For good measure, we also get closure between her and Danny – or at least, her and dream-Danny, which... sort of counts?  But coming right after a progressively less interesting Danny arc, culminating in a whole episode about closure on his death, this lands with all the weight of a dry sponge, particularly as the person giving her closure isn't really Danny.  Once again, it's not Samuel Anderson's fault; there's just no emotional itch that still needed scratching.  (These scenes can't even rely on their it's-all-just-a-dream creepiness, thanks to Forest Of The Dead already raiding that cupboard.)

Emotionally, it left me cold, and that's pretty much my central problem with Doctor Who these days.  But there's some solidly entertaining dialogue, particularly from Santa.  ("Reindeer can't fly!"  "No.  It's a scientific impossibility.  That is why I feed mine magic carrots.")  Peter Capaldi is a dab hand at proclaiming doom and struggling to get on with humans, both represented well here; at times you can see the Doctor making an effort not to be crass, which is good work.  It's all a bit too long, possibly to accommodate the unnecessary Danny stuff and the redundant parting-of-the-ways ending.  I got the sense that it might have been a great 45-minute episode.  At 60 minutes, it's often entertaining, far creepier than you'd expect at Christmas, and some of the dream mechanics do, for once, actually repay you for having thought about them.

If it were shorter, and if Clara had finally shuffled off this mortal coil (or gone anywhere, really – I'm not fussed), it'd be a solid, strong piece of Who, overcoming its limited originality with sheer wit.  As it stands, Last Christmas is among the more coherent seasonal episodes, but it sacrifices an emotional sting to keep everything nice.  As it happens, Steven Moffat has done that before, too.  That this may be down to the companion's enjoyment of working on Doctor Who does not, sadly, make much difference to the end result.