Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Matrix Repeated

Doctor Who
Series Ten, Episode Six

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

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

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

Or a longer one:

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

Or the deluxe, director’s cut spoiler version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Breathing Space

Doctor Who
Series Ten, Episode Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Creaky Crawly

Doctor Who
Knock Knock
Series Ten, Episode Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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