Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The God Complex

Dear Gary—
“So, what have we got? People snatched from their lives and dropped into an endless, shifting maze that looks like a 1980’s hotel with bad dreams in the bedrooms. Well, apart from anything else, that’s just rude.”
A succinct and simple summary of a succinct and simple story; except it isn’t as simple as that. Like the hotel, the plot is a complex maze of faiths and fears with shifting parameters. I have to say, Gary, that it took me a long time to warm up to this episode. My distaste for the recent direction of the show always colored my perception of it. Truthfully, for at least a season and a half I tend to watch each installment with a sense of resentment. However I deliberately tried to set aside any chips on shoulder for this latest viewing of The God Complex and have come to a deeper appreciation of it, flaws and all.
 The God Complex does what New Who does so well. It covers the defects with skill . . . usually with spectacle and effects and emotional wallops, but in this case more subtly with thought provoking themes and with atmosphere.
The 1980’s Earth (of course) hotel mock-up with nightmares hiding in every room is creepy. It does seem to come too closely on the heels of Amy and Rory trapped in a dollhouse from hell, but that’s minor. The opening “Praise Him” sequence with Lucy sets the mood perfectly for this house of psychological horrors, followed by the sinister sight of all of those ventriloquist dummies surrounding the helpless Joe. I only half-heartedly wonder why Joe is tied up; there is no logical explanation for it unless he had become violent towards the others, which I highly doubt. At this point in the tale they don’t know what is going on so I have no clue as to why they would bind him to a chair and abandon him in a roomful of his greatest fear. (Why his fear has manifested in the restaurant rather than in one of the bedrooms like all of the others is another mystery.)
The trio that the Doctor, Amy, and Rory run across in these ever-changing hallways also helps to deflect any nagging questions; the competent Rita, the nerdy Howie, and the cowering Gibbis. Any one of these would make for an interesting addition to the TARDIS crew, although Rita is clearly the Doctor’s first choice (shades of Martha). Personally I think having the untrustworthy Gibbis on board would make for a fascinating dynamic, but undoubtedly none of them is fated to make it that far.
It is through the fears and faiths of these three that we (that is the Doctor) begin to learn of the intention of the alien Minotaur cousin to the Nimon; however it is also through these that the narrative falls apart.
The fears lurking for Rita and Howie are appropriate, if somewhat stereotypical; Rita finds a disapproving father behind her door while Howie is confronted by a bevy of belittling beauties. Gibbis’ fear is rather random and seems more just an excuse to give the Weeping Angels some screen time. It is interesting that for Rita and Howie the terror is internal whereas Gibbis’ fear is a tangible threat, but nothing is ever explored down this line of thinking so I’ll abandon it as well.
Now as the Doctor reasons, the Minotaur uses these personalized phobias in order to foster and feed upon each individual’s belief system.  That is the theory, at any rate, but it doesn’t quite hold up in practice since the fears and the faiths don’t quite gel for any of them.
Rita’s Muslim heritage is the basis for her faith and it is the strongest of the trio; however Islam is hardly a defense against her daddy issues. Her idea that the hotel is Jahannam is what brings out her faith and lends her strength. “You don’t understand,” she tells the Doctor. “I say that without fear.” Without fear. The idea that she is in hell erases her fears. “Jahannam will play its tricks,” she continues, “and there’ll be times when I want to run and scream, but I’ve tried to live a good life, and that knowledge keeps me sane, despite the monsters and the bonkers rooms.” Poppa behind the door only brings out her faith in a roundabout way, not directly, but I suppose it ultimately does its job.
That doesn’t explain Howie, though. Howie spouts conspiracy theories, but that is not faith. If anything, the certainty of conspiracies displays a fundamental distrust in all things. And at any rate, how can a conspiracy theory save him from the mockery of empty-headed blondes? The supposed fear and faith do not correlate.
The weakest link, however, is Gibbis. Gibbis has no convictions whatsoever. He cowers and surrenders; he epitomizes the absence of faith. Perhaps that is why the Minotaur never goes after him; but then why was Gibbis kidnapped to begin with?
The whole kidnapping aspect of the plot is also suspect. Are people chosen at random or targeted? How are they transported? And why? Yes, I know it is to feed the Minotaur; but this is a prison. The only explanation is that the Minotaur’s captors belong in jail themselves. Are there more prisons like this out there preying on the unsuspecting populace of the Doctor Who universe, and if so why are they allowed to exist? What is this ruthless race of aliens anyway? None of this is explained in any satisfactory way.
In the long run, however, it just doesn’t matter. Or at least I don’t really care. The characters are engaging, the action thrilling, and the setting spooky. And it is all window dressing for the deeper questions it explores regarding the Doctor and his relationships. Truthfully I could do without more rehashing of this subject, but since New Who insists on it, this is as entertaining a way to go about it as any.
Let me get this out of the way: I am ambivalent towards Rory in this episode. Normally he saves the show for me, but in this one I shake my head at his characterization as someone with no beliefs. I go all the way back to The Eleventh Hour and remember a Rory who was full of almost childlike wonder. He was possessed of an open and curious mind. That was his pre-Doctor existence. Here he is suddenly hard and cynical with no guiding principles, and I have to say that a faithless Rory is a tad boring. Arthur Darville still manages to breathe life into the character, however, so all is not lost. And I suppose one could argue that this transformation is the result of his travels with the Doctor, and if so is more damning of the Doctor than any physical danger he and Amy face.
Ultimately, though, it is the Doctor’s effect upon Amy, and companions in general, that is at the heart of the tale. New Who has flirted with this concept almost from the beginning, and there is a danger in this. I have already questioned why Amy and Rory would continue traveling with the Doctor after everything that they have gone through; when the show explicitly raises the question it makes the viewer aware that life in the TARDIS is really not much fun. While that can give an edge to the show that is compelling, it can also ruin the enjoyment for a large section of the audience. It is a tightrope act; and I have to say that it is one in which New Who cheats. It likes to dangle the dangerous side of the Doctor in front of us, but it does so with a wink in its eye. Thus we get the Doctor fretting over the peril he has placed Amy and Rory in and advising Rita: “Offer a child a suitcase full of sweets and they’ll take it; offer someone all of time and space and they’ll take that too; which is why you shouldn’t.” He follows this up with a soberly delivered: “Which is why grown-ups were invented.” Only to brightly offer up all of time and space to Rita. Traveling with the Doctor is hazardous and don’t ever forget that, the show admits; but never mind, don’t take it too seriously. Walking on a tightrope, but with a huge net below.
We mustn’t forget that net as the Doctor breaks Amy’s faith in him. He accomplishes this by lying. “I can’t save you from this,” he tells her. “There’s nothing I can do to stop this.” He is of course in the process of saving her by telling her these things. He throws in a few semi truths to keep it real: “I took you with me because I was vain; because I wanted to be adored.” But none of this is convincing stuff to break Amy’s spirit. The Doctor did a much better job of it with Ace in The Curse of Fenric. If he really wants to do some damage he would bring up Melody and the fact that he promised to find Amy’s baby for her but that he has essentially stopped looking. But the tepid stuff he offers up seems to do the trick. I’m not really sure why or how this kills the monster, but oh well (as we say in Alvin).
Because her faith in him literally almost killed her, the Doctor decides it is time to say goodbye to Amy (and Rory).  “Why now?” Amy asks. “Because you’re still breathing,” the Doctor replies. And then in a dark moment of reflection he says, “And what’s the alternative? Me standing over your grave? Over your broken body? Over Rory’s” (again)? He hasn’t restored her baby to her, but he at least gives the couple a car and a house as door prizes before leaving them on their own. However there is that net always—“You haven’t seen the last of me.”
A number of things would have made this episode so much better. If the fears and faiths had matched up better or if the alien and the logistics of the place had been better explained for instance. But once again the story suffers in service to the arc and to the production. We needed to get to a place where the Doctor could question his influence upon his companions and where he could drop off those companions to once again fly solo. And too, if the production team would commit to the dark side of the Doctor, work without a net, and properly and seriously explore the dire consequences of traveling with the Doctor rather than using it as a device that will be forgotten the next time the Doctor runs across Amy and Rory or some other companion he decides to whisk away. Even still it is a decent enough adventure and I can say that I have enjoyed much of this season despite myself.
And so, Gary . . . “you haven’t seen the last of me.”

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Girl Who Waited

Dear Gary—
Doctor Who is in a rut; it is trapped in one of its own time bubbles reliving the same things over and over and over again, only in different ways as in alternate time lines. There is the ever popular Rory is dead/no he’s not scenario; the Rory/Doctor competition in Amy’s mind; the waiting for—fill in the blank; the daisy petal does she love him or does she not pastime; and the I’m Amy Pond, no I’m Amy Pond game.
The Girl Who Waited hands us a trifecta of these themes, with one of the winners explicitly stated in the title. It is a refreshing rehash, I’ll give it that. It is a clever script given added warmth by the actors. On its own it is a solid entry. But in the greater context—do we really need these points hammered home quite so often?
“I don’t care that you got old. I care that we didn’t grow old together.” Ah, Rory. Rory is the answer and the key. Rory gives an extra dimension to the tired topics.
Then there is the fact that they have materialized on a planet other than Earth for a change. (“Apalapucia.” “Say it again?” “Apalapucia.”)This alone warrants applause.  From the Doctor’s description it sounds beautiful, although hardly worthy of the “number two planet in the top ten greatest destinations for the discerning intergalactic traveler” designation he claims for it. But then we never get to see it properly to judge for ourselves.
Apalapucia is under quarantine when our trio arrives. A deadly plague has befallen the planet, a plague that affects beings with two hearts. Amy and Rory are immune, therefore, but the Doctor is not; thus necessitating his remaining in the TARDIS for the bulk of the episode.
Now I have multiple problems with the logistics of the place and these so-called “kindness” facilities. First of all, a Handbot informs them that there are 40,000 residents in the facilities, so where are they? Not once does another sentient being appear. And why are there no emergency buttons or means of communication with anyone running the place? Is there no administration building? No security? No doctors or nurses? No maintenance crew?
And why are there no instructions? A green anchor and a red waterfall aren’t exactly informative. Given the fact that a plague infestation lurks behind one of these options I would think there would be numerous precautions set up to make sure people don’t accidentally end up in the wrong place. But then we wouldn’t have Amy blithely walking into the Red Waterfall of death and we wouldn’t have a story.
OK, so if Amy has wandered into the quarantined area for plague victims, why do the Handbots continually try to inoculate her? Even if she carries an “unauthorized infection,” everyone in there (well, Amy is the only one in there) is presumably going to die in a day anyway so what does that matter? The time for inoculations is past.
Now, about the whole “kindness” aspect of the facility. A doomed patient lives out his or her life in a compressed time stream watching movies or looking at fish or sitting around in a garden by his or her self. Alone. An entire lifetime. And this person’s nearest and dearest observe their dying  loved ones twiddling their thumbs, talking to Handbots, and generally becoming bored once the novelty of their chosen entertainment zone wears off. It’s little more than a zoo. A zoo in fast forward. Thirty-six years have gone by for Amy yet only a few minutes for the Doctor and Rory; if they had sat and watched her as they were meant to they would have seen only a blur.
Regardless, Amy is trapped in an accelerated time stream while the Doctor and Rory try to come up with a way to save her (never once thinking to try to contact anyone in charge).
“You didn’t save me.” Wow, this older Amy is . . . I’ll say unreasonable to be kind. Unreasonable, cranky, ornery. Yes, she has been waiting around for 36 years. But that’s just it—she has been waiting around to be saved. In all of those 36 years did she ever try to do anything to save herself? She somehow miraculously made herself a sonic ‘probe’ and has been clever enough to survive amongst the Handbots, but what has she done in the way of finding an exit or some means of communication with . . .who the heck is in charge of this place anyway? But OK, she has been waiting around for 36 years to be saved, and when Rory arrives to save her she greets him with, “You didn’t save me.” Only to find out that one of the main reasons he didn’t save her is because she refused to help.
About that. Most people who have led a tragic life and who are then given the chance to go back and change it would jump at the opportunity. Not Amy. Not older, unreasonable, cranky, ornery Amy. She prefers to wallow in her misery. It’s her miserable life, dammit; no one is going to change one dismal detail of it. Not even Rory. She’ll blame him right enough for not saving her, but by golly she’s not going to allow him to save her. Her reasoning is that if she is rescued in the past her present self will cease to exist. But she is Amy; Amy Young and Amy Old; if Amy Young is saved Amy Old will still exist in 36 years time, just under happier circumstances (presumably). Old Amy really needs to get over herself.
This is where Rory comes in. “Do it for him,” Young Amy tells Old Amy after they both admit, “Rory’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.”  It is love for Rory that convinces Amy the elder to rescue her younger self. And it is the thought of Amy’s and Rory’s first kiss (which apparently took place during the Macarena) that does the deed. No doubt about it, Amy loves Rory. Why there would still be doubt this far along in the series is beyond me, but there you go.
This love story angle, though, is what gives the story heart. Karen Gillan does a great job depicting both Amys, each holding fast to the ideal of Rory. However, it is Arthur Darville as that ideal who steals the show. The Amy loves Rory plot is just words without Arthur Darville giving life and soul to the part of Rory. We can believe that Amy considers him the most beautiful man she has ever met because of Arthur Darville’s performance.
The stubbornness of Old Amy threatens our happy ending until she works out a deal with the Doctor; she still isn’t willing to let go her wretched existence. She will help in the rescue of herself only if she is allowed to co-exist with her younger version. Despite the massive paradox this would create and despite breaking those once sacred laws of time, the Doctor agrees.
 Except—Rule One, the Doctor lies.
Again it is Rory who breathes life into these segments.
To Rory, both Amys are valid. Both are real. Both are his Amy. I go back to that quote I cited earlier: “I don’t care that you got old. I care that we didn’t grow old together.” He meets Old Amy and he accepts her as his wife without question. He is presented with the prospect of two Amys and he reasons, “Amy, you always say, cooking Christmas dinner, you wish there was two of you.” (Stark contrast to Flesh Amy’s reaction to Flesh Doctor—but I digress.) For the Doctor, however, Young Amy is very clearly “our Amy,” and Old Amy will simply never have existed. “There can’t be two Amys in the TARDIS.”
For the Doctor the choice is obvious. For Rory it is agonizing: “So I have to choose – which wife do I want?” He can see and talk to both; he can only save one.
“She is me,” Old Amy reasons with her husband. “We’re both me.” She is right, of course, but she doesn’t really see her own point. If “she is me” and “we’re both me” then she shouldn’t have a problem with saving Young Amy.  Old Amy has asserted her independence however, and Rory is caught in the middle.
“You being here is wrong,” Rory asserts. “For a single day, for an hour, let alone a lifetime.” Rory is feeling the pain of every long and arduous day that Old Amy has felt. And then he (justly) turns on the Doctor: “This is your fault. You should look in a history book once in a while, see if there’s an outbreak of plague or not.”
“That is not how I travel,” the Doctor responds, to which Rory shoots back, “Then I do not want to travel with you!” And he goes on to condemn: “This isn’t fair. You’re turning me into you.” (Another ongoing theme in New Who—the sometimes deleterious effect the Doctor has upon his companions. And as long as I’m mentioning it—here we go again with the 'fill-in-the blank’s choice' drama.)
Finally Old Amy sees the light and relents. “Tell Amy, your Amy, I’m giving her the days. The days with you. The days to come.”
It is heartbreaking to see Rory turn the latch on his wife. To him Old Amy will always exist. The Doctor and Young Amy can take it in stride, but Rory will always live with the painful memory of the wife he turned away.
The Girl Who Waited doesn’t give us anything new, but it gives it to us in a unique way and it is performed with feeling.  I’ll accept that, Gary, as I continue on.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Night Terrors

Dear Gary—
“Well, I suppose it can’t be all planets and history and stuff.”
Not much of it is these days. Rory has about a 90% chance that the planet will be Earth when he opens the TARDIS door. As for history, yes they have materialized in different times, but they rarely take the opportunity to soak any of it up. They have a grand time mocking and mangling history, but rarely do they witness it.
They have run across lots of stuff though. Night Terrors falls under the category of stuff. It is a quiet little tale; a standalone episode in an arc heavy season. That is a detriment and a plus. A detriment because it points out how shallow the arc really is. There is no true emotional attachment; we go from Let’s Kill Hitler, let’s find Melody, let’s uncover River, to let’s go off on a random house call with no thought whatsoever to the deep, dark tragedies of our lives.
But the plus outweighs it. As onerous as the arc is, the buoyancy of a clever little standalone tips the scale in its favor.
It over tips it, actually. Night Terrors is that much more effective simply because it distances itself from its surroundings. It is a fine piece of storytelling told by a decent cast, but there is nothing particularly outstanding about it other than its uniqueness from the season in which it resides.
It is quite claustrophobic actually, somewhat like the cupboard in which George’s fears are locked away, and that suits the plot. We are delving into the realm of childhood nightmares, something New Who is familiar with and has dealt with successfully. Monsters under the bed; images out of the corner of one’s eye; dangers lurking in the shadows; add to this list creepy dolls come to life. Although I do have to confess that the dolls are the least scary aspect of the episode for me and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe because I never had a horror of dolls. (Carrie would be the perfect audience for this; she was visiting this past month, Gary, and she banished Baby Secret—who normally resides in the Doctor Who room where Carrie’s children were camping out—to my bedroom. But I could never relate to her primal fear of dolls and clowns.)
To me, the scariest aspect is the sight of a kid all alone in the dark and petrified of the unknown terrors lurking in his closet (where his mother made him stow them away). The twist of the little boy being the alien is intriguing but not properly explored. It becomes simply a convenience to put people in peril and to have a warm and fuzzy outcome. I’m not sure why he thinks the sound of the lift is so frightening, and I’m unclear as to how or why random people in the complex get pulled into the dangers of his creation. Is this the first that people have gone missing around there, and if so, why now? Because the Doctor is there? Does George have a grudge against the landlord or the old lady? Does he even know Amy and Rory? There isn’t any logical explanation for any of them being menaced by George’s funhouse of jeopardy.
As for the lonely orphan seeking acceptance and the childless couple desperate to bestow love, it feels like a rushed solution. However it is satisfying in its happily-ever-afterness. I am reminded of the Isolus from Fear Her and the devil dad in the closet. And even though the mother/daughter dynamic was more fully explored in that earlier episode, I relate better to our present characters. The wide-eyed George and his befuddled father, together with Matt Smith’s Doctor, make for a more appealing way to spend some forty odd minutes.
That is the key to this story; the actors. They make us laugh; they make us care. Therefore, while I never really feel that Amy and Rory are in danger, I laugh when Rory says, “We’re dead . . . again.” And I’m interested as they piece together the odd nature of their trap. And I wonder how Amy Doll will turn back into real Amy (confident that she will).  And when the Doctor and Alex are pulled into the same dollhouse I figure help is on the way. I am a bit disappointed that the Father and Son Reunion conclusion is so hastily dashed off. The ‘all is right with the world’ hug takes me back to the ‘love is all you need/home is where the heart is’ wrap-up to The Lodger. It’s so handy how these things work out.
Just like that (“What, just like that?”) we come to an end and the TARDIS crew are off with the chilling nursery rhyme ringing in our ears. George is forgotten. Melody is forgotten. Amy, Rory, and the Doctor fly off.
“Now, did someone mention something about planets and history and stuff?”
I don’t mind so much if it is just stuff, Gary, if it is enjoyable to watch. Night Terrors is a little lightweight entertainment that will keep me going on this slow path of mine.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Let's Kill Hitler

Dear Gary—
“Let’s kill Hitler.” Then again, let’s not; let’s just shove him in a cupboard. (“Right. Putting Hitler in the cupboard.”)
This is something I have to learn to accept, Gary. New Who has abandoned reason and logic and sound story telling in favor of contrivance and convenience all in service to the most dramatic impact or the biggest special effect or the funniest gag. New Who has lowered the bar. Considerably. I have to accept this; and in so doing I can come to appreciate the entertainment value of the show.
And there is no getting around it; Let’s Kill Hitler is entertaining; it is rollicking good fun. Who cares if Amy and Rory will never know the joys of parenthood; will never experience their baby’s first step or first word; will never grow together as a family? They certainly don’t. And if they aren’t shedding any tears over it, neither will I. So why not kill Hitler, or at least marginalize him away and forget about him? It is oh so amusing, and who can argue with that?  
This is not the first time that one of the most heinous chapters in history has been mined for comedy gold. The Great Dictator and The Producers leap readily to mind. Let’s Kill Hitler is not in the same class as those two classics, but it suffices.
However, the F├╝hrer and Third Reich are nothing more than a punch line in this episode. The story could take place in any place and any time. It is extremely unlikely that the Doctor would have accommodated the murderous Mels by taking her to WWII Germany, but it gives us a cool episode title and gives Rory the opportunity to punch Hitler. Once that is accomplished we can wash our hands of them. Even when Mels (Aka Melody; Aka River) holds up a room full of people, not a Nazi is to be found. Instead we have the heretofore unknown Teselecta arriving on the scene to exact revenge.
Here is a perfect example of the New Who formula. The Teselecta transforms itself in spectacular fashion into a perfect duplicate of General Zimmerman down to his suit, belt, boots, buttons, and insignia. But it doesn’t do glasses. That is so we can have the a few brief but totally cool moments as the Teselecta slowly reaches out to grab the specs off the real General’s face.
“Time travel has responsibilities,” Carter explains of the Teselecta. A robot worked by tiny people and that travels through time seeking out the worst criminals of the universe in order to extract them at the end of their life to “give them hell.” The Time Lords never would have allowed this, and the Doctor is understandably appalled. I’m not even going to get into who thought this was a good idea or why the Doctor has never run across them or why, as long as they are going to all the time and cost, they have allowed the likes of Davros (to name only one) to run wild. It is great in concept and execution, even if there is no context for it.
Likewise the antibodies. These friendly little mechanical killers are wonderfully creepy. Not very practical, but they add some menace to the proceedings to keep things lively. Harriet’s close call with these robotic cleaners illustrates how stupid an idea it is to have them on board. Rory and Amy also are lucky that Jim shows up when he does and that the sensors he clamps on their wrists don’t malfunction. When Amy turns the antibodies on the crew—well, what else do they expect?
It is fortunate as well that Zimmerman is “guilty of Category Three hate crimes” and that this is punishable by death. I’m not sure when his trial was held, but at least the Teselecta crew can rest easy with clear conscience knowing that his execution is righteous. His Party might notice that he has gone missing, though, and there might be some pesky history altering as a result of his premature demise, but what is that to these intergalactic assassins? It is somewhat inconsistent with their mission, however. They make a great point of halting their operation against Hitler when they realize it is too soon in his timeline, and they take great pride in explaining to the Doctor that they don’t kill but rather torture their victims. However this doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule with them as they quickly turn their attention to River even though she is far from the end of her life. But whatever; they act according to the script and to the greatest advantage for the plot.
The plot centers on River (Aka Mels, Aka Melody). We had the big reveal last time around, now comes some filling in of some blanks. Thus we get scenes of Mels shoehorned into the past of Amy and Rory. I’m not sure why these two hang around this juvenile delinquent. Based on the few glimpses we get of Mels, there is nothing that is remotely likeable about her. However we are to believe that she has been close with Amy and Rory since childhood even though we have never seen or heard about her before now (nor has the Doctor). Again, whatever. It serves the narrative so let’s roll with it.
The regeneration scene is well done, and the lighthearted, flirtatious sparring between Melody (Aka Mels, Aka River) and the Doctor is amusing. (I especially love the banana gag.) Alex Kingston plays Melody’s delight in her new body to the hilt, and her jealous curiosity at the repeated name of River is amusing and makes her subsequent discovery of her identity all that more poignant.
As fun as it all is, I still can’t quite believe. The Silence went to all the convoluted trouble to capture Baby Pond. They brainwashed her; indoctrinated her; brought her up with the sole purpose of killing the Doctor. She is a psychopath; a killing machine. Yet when only a child she escaped, sought out her parents, and lived out her youth without The Silence taking any notice. And rather than take any of the ample opportunities she must have had during her tenure in Leadworth, she waits until now to meet and kill the Doctor. Her prime directive and she puts it off. At the very least she could have kissed him deadly at Amy’s and Rory’s wedding. And while Alex Kingston is very convincing, I still view River’s change of heart as much too rushed for one so dedicated for so many years. But again I have to go back to New Who’s prime directive and let all of that slide in preference to the entertaining package they are selling.
The dying Doctor is another highlight. “Regeneration disabled”—of course it is. How? Who knows and who cares. His interaction with the Voice Interface alone is worth it. His rejection of his own image is priceless, followed by the guilt-laden images of Rose, Martha, and Donna before he settles on the incomparable Amelia Pond. The rather irritable insistence on the part of the Voice Interface that it is not in fact Amelia Pond is puzzling for an impersonal computer program, but again who cares? It’s funny. As well as its repeated declaration that he will be dead in thirty two minutes. It is not very helpful, this Voice Interface, but it is highly amusing. And then to top off the bit: “fish fingers and custard.”
River giving up all of her remaining regenerations in order to save the Doctor is the epitome of convenience, contrivance, and dramatic impact. It is fitting and right that it should be so. And the Doctor leaving the blank blue diary by her bedside is the best touch of all.
The worst touch—“The Silence is not a species.” (Did anyone imply that it was?) “It is a religious order, or movement. Their core belief is that silence will fall when the question is asked.” Here it is, that inane Arc of Silence. What is The Question? “The oldest question in the universe, hidden in plain sight.” But what is it? (Oh, good God, who cares?) “Unknown.” Of course it is. They don’t know what the question is, but they know it exists and that it is the oldest question. Gobbledygook. Mumbo Jumbo. Forty-two.
This is of course meant to light up the fan forums and keep the season arc alive. The problem is that it will have to be addressed one day, and that inevitably can only be a disappointment.
Oh well, moving on . . .
The Doctor had promised Amy and Rory that he would find their baby. He doesn’t. Instead he finds the fully grown River, and apparently Amy and Rory are OK with that. Small consolation, but oh well, life in the TARDIS goes on. Now if the Doctor really wanted to find Baby Pond, all he would have to do is ask the grown River where she was held as a child. But River obviously does not want her past to change. She doesn’t care about the heartbreak her parents suffered (well, except they don’t seem to really suffer all that much); she knows how everything turns out for her and she doesn’t want to miss out on any of that adventure. And so she and the Doctor invent this ‘spoilers’ game to cover their tracks. It has nothing to do with laws of time—New Who has proven that there are no ill consequences when time lines are crossed (unless the plot calls for it to be so).
I’ll play along, Gary; it’s more fun that way.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Good Man Goes to War

Dear Gary—
A Good Man Goes to War is a lot of sound and fury. In other words, it is New Who doing what it does best. There is no solid purpose for anything that happens except that it makes for an impressive display.
Take the Doctor’s ‘army’ for example. It sure is cool to see the array of allies he amasses; some old friends and some old enemies and some heretofore unknown entities. He has Danny Boy (Victory of the Daleks) in a spitfire for some random reason, and he has Captain Avery and his son (The Curse of the Black Spot) for even more inexplicable objectives. I’m not sure what help a seventeenth century pirate and a dying lad will be in a space battle; this seems especially gratuitous, not to mention irresponsible. But I imagine the Doctor thinking to himself, ‘the boy is dying anyway (even though I could very well get him proper medical attention but don’t have the time or inclination) so why not let him go down in a blaze of my glory?’ He also has a host of Judoon and Silurians (again I don’t know when they decided to emerge from their perpetual slumber), who just a few short serials ago were allied against him when the Pandorica opened.
Finally he has a trio of characters we have never met before but who apparently are long acquainted with the Doctor: the Silurian Madame Vastra, the Human Jenny Flint, and the Sontaran Strax. Each is a fascinating personality with back stories untold but who fit comfortably in as if they have long belonged to the Doctor Who canon. That is the brash trick of New Who in general and this episode in particular—to present characters with no explanation as to their origin or motivation as though they are totally natural and justified.
Such is the case with the villains of the piece. Madame Kovarian, aka Eye Patch Lady, the Clerics, and the Order of the Headless Monks have no cause to go to the extreme lengths that they do. They are out to kill the Doctor; they have the Doctor in their grasp; so shoot him already. But of course they do not. They prefer to kidnap Amy’s and Rory’s baby to indoctrinate her and groom her to do their dirty work sometime in the future. A sure fire plan if I ever heard one. This is an organization with the sole purpose, not to kill the Doctor as we are led to believe, but to come up with the most elaborate schemes possible to accomplish simple tasks.
Even the title signifies nothing. There is no war per se. There are two armies, true, but very little battle. Perhaps a skirmish or two. It is as if the Doctor pulled this all together just to prove that he could do it—assemble an odd lot to defy his enemies. If any mission cried out for the delicacy of infiltration, however, this would be it. The Doctor even goes so far as to impersonate a monk. He probably would have succeeded in retrieving the Baby Pond if he had kept to this disguise rather than put on his act of bravado. As for the Kovarian faction, they too have their show of strength simply for the fun of it; their real tactic is deception and unlike the Doctor they pull it off beautifully.
As for the ‘good man,’ this is obviously referring to the Doctor but it is an ambiguous designation. Why exactly is there an “endless, bitter war” directed solely against the Doctor? Why are so many races of the universe bent on the Doctor’s destruction? “You make them so afraid,” River tells the Doctor. He has become “the man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name.” This is not the reputation of a kind and noble savior. “To the people of the Gamma Forests,” River continues, “the word Doctor means mighty warrior.” To demonstrate, the episode starts with the Doctor blowing an entire Cyber battle fleet out of the sky with no provocation, simply to get an answer to a question.
Soldiers in the war against the Doctor can’t even make up their minds on the good/bad thing. They hold him in almost worshipful awe. Then there is Lorna Bucket who joins the Clerics on the chance that she can meet up with her hero once more. For a man who has gone to great lengths in the past to wipe any trace of his existence from history, he certainly courts both the fear and adoration of the universe these days. I have to say, Gary, that it is getting rather tiresome, this game of tainted idol.
However, this puffed up drama triumphs in its spectacle. Why does Rory dress like a Roman Centurion? No reason other than the Doctor’s whim. It is a wonderful visual that makes Rory ridiculous and heroic in one go, and that is what Doctor Who is all about these days; no real substance, only glistering rapid strikes packing emotional punches. Like the Doctor’s stirring “Colonel Run Away” speech that at the end of the day is meaningless since the Kovarian gang don’t have any intention of making a stand.
I do wonder why the Monks return at the end. Kovarian already has the child so what is the point? They come back just to be slaughtered, which is unbelievable by the way. Perhaps Kovarian didn’t let the Monks in on her plan and sent them to their deaths, but again, it is highly unlikely that these most feared and awful foes go down with barely a fight. Oh, they do their script duty by providing the tear-jerking deaths of Lorna and Strax, but none of the Doctor Who regulars are even scratched and somehow they manage to kill every last one of these powerful beings.
“So they took her anyway,” Amy says when Flesh Baby Pond is disintegrated. “All this was for nothing.”
Not for nothing, Amy. Because ultimately A Good Man Goes to War is a hymn; A Good Man Goes to War is a song of River. “The only water in the forest is the river,” and all rivers lead to one Pond. Melody Pond; River Song.
Baby Pond is only Flesh, and that is appropriate because we feel no attachment to the fake child. We never experienced Amy’s pregnancy; we never saw Amy and Rory as doting parents-to-be. The vacillating pregnancy test was a device to raise eyebrows and whip up fan frenzy. There was no maternal or paternal empathy established. Therefore, when we are presented with a newborn there is no more feeling for it other than the normal reaction to a cute and cuddly baby. Karen Gillan does her emotive best to depict a grieving mother, but that punch doesn’t hold the same wallop as it would have if we had been invested in nine months worth of morning sickness and name picking and clothes shopping along with the prospective parents. It is offered up as a fait accompli and we have to fill in the emotional blanks.
Baby Pond is unimportant. She is a symbol nothing more.
Alex Kingston as River Song, however, is everything. She alone (the actress and the character) gives A Good Man Goes to War substance. The whole dreary season arc has been flowing steadily towards her and at last it is justified.
From the moment Alex Kingston appears she lights up the screen. I have had some minor problems with River’s character in the past, but in this episode she is perfectly played throughout. She is charming in her old fashioned skating rig, and the joy she feels as she describes her birthday outing with the Doctor is palpable. Her mood suddenly shifts as she talks with Centurion Rory and she realizes that the day has come for the Doctor (not to mention Amy and Rory) to discover her true identity. She is subtle and inscrutable as she processes the information and informs Rory that she cannot join him in battle.
When she finally does arrive at Demon’s Run she is again radiant. This is truly her shining moment. The slow reveal is wonderfully done for the greatest effect, and here I also have to give high praise to Matt Smith. He ranges from anger to incredulity to joy in seamless transition as he takes in what River is showing him. (And as long as I am handing out applause—kudos to the props department for both the cot and the prayer leaf.) But it is River who steals the scene from start to last.
“I’m Melody. I’m your daughter.”
Melody Pond. River Song. It all makes sense. This is the payoff for the first half of the season. I won’t say that it makes the first half of the season worthwhile, but it at least puts a small glimmer of luster on it.
There is still an entire half of a season left, though, and now we are going to have the long and drawn out process of the Doctor trying to find the baby; and let’s not forget the whole death by astronaut story line.  (Then again, please, could we forget it?)
At this point I want to revisit my comment about life not being fun for Amy and Rory anymore. Are they really going to continue tagging along after the Doctor now that they have been robbed of their parenting experience? But like I said, Baby Pond was never anything more than Flesh to begin with; her loss was for immediate impact only and I’m sure won’t leave any long term emotional scars.
And I am reluctantly coming to the opinion, Gary, that New Who is nothing but Flesh. However, even fake Doctor Who is better than no Doctor Who.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Almost People

Dear Gary—
“Being almost the Doctor’s like being no Doctor at all.”
But having two Doctors, even if one is only almost a Doctor, is pretty great. It had been a fantastic cliffhanger from the previous story, and it makes the present one, The Almost People, worthwhile. It makes all of the dark corridors and shoddy CGI villains worthwhile. And speaking of worthwhile, the cliffhanger ending of this episode almost makes the stringing along of the season’s arc worthwhile. Almost.
Let’s get the almost people out of the way first, though. Similar to its first half, The Almost People flirts with some interesting moral questions but sacrifices them for the more expedient thriller devices. Thus we have Rory taking a compassionate interest in Ganger Jennifer only to have Ganger Jennifer turn into a laughable monster to rival that of The Lazarus Experiment. And we have the pitiable pile of discarded Flesh only to be followed up by a baffling wall full of eyes. (“Why are they there?” “To accuse us.” OK—but how did they get there? Through the mighty pen of the author.)
To pull it all together, we have Rory agreeing to help Ganger Jennifer on a mission of mercy to save all of the unfortunate Flesh of the world only to have Ganger Jennifer trick him into betraying his friends and placing them all in typical horror film danger, complete with monsters and chases and barricaded rooms and impending deluges of nasty stuff into sealed off chambers and imminent explosions. Standard fare. As standard fare, however, it is exciting enough to keep one’s attention.
To round it all out, we have a remarkably level headed and somewhat resigned and pacifist Cleaves (stark contrast to her demeanor from Part 1), both Flesh and Human; we have an adorable little boy to inject heart into the proceedings (even if too sappy for words); and we have Gangers and Humans questioning their identities and their actions.
And through it all we have Matt Smith giving a terrific performance as the two Doctors. His (their) gambit of switching identities is entertaining and clever, although I do wonder why the Gangers assume that the Doctor they come across is Flesh; they really would have no way of divining that, and as it happens they are wrong.
In sum, a decent adventure. However, lest we forget, this adventure is in service to the season-long arc. It is therefore wrapped up most hurriedly in neat and tidy fashion. By the end we have exactly one version of each personality (except the unfortunate Jennifer who at one time had three simultaneous copies). It really doesn’t matter which is Flesh and which is Human; they are all one and the same. Or so the story would have us believe. I can’t quite buy it and I feel sorry for that little boy who is gaining an imposter for a dad; or maybe it is the fraudulent Jimmy I really pity. And I can’t help wondering how the Doctor can guarantee that the Flesh substitutes will not deteriorate or degenerate or derail.
This rush to conclude throws out the Cleaves and Doctor Gangers for no good reason other than to tie up the duplicate loose ends. Everyone else is safe aboard the TARDIS; why can’t Ganger Cleaves and Ganger Doctor also hop in and leave CGI Jennifer to be blasted to atoms? They could at least make a try for it and if they don’t make it, well, they’re dead anyway. But the more practical solution is for the real Doctor (and real Cleaves if she really wants to be the last standing) to operate the magic sonic screwdriver defense since they are immune to its effects. The magic sonic would take care of the CGI Jen and the two could then make a dash for the TARDIS before the place is blown sky high. But that leaves stray Gangers that the plot doesn’t want to account for.
The one Ganger that the plot does want to deal with, and the one that this entire story was created to accommodate, is Ganger Amy. This is a shocking revelation that finally puts some teeth and meaning into the eye patch lady and vacillating pregnancy test that we have been subjected to all season long. Finally we are getting to the heart of the arc. Of course, being only mid-season we know that there is still the long and torturous tail trailing along behind, leading, one can only hope, to the pot of gold at the end. But for now at least we are getting some answers.
Real Amy is pregnant, but real Amy has not been on the TARDIS for quite some time. Ganger Amy has been on board since the beginning of the season. She doesn’t know she is Ganger Amy because she hasn’t met with the freak accident of a solar storm combined with the stupidity of Cleaves to give her independence from her original. (Which sort of renders meaningless the moral dilemma concerning the remaining Flesh that is being utilized throughout the world; neither is it sentient.)  Except, wait a minute, she was on that island the same as the rest of the Flesh when the storm hit. Either she is a different version of Flesh that would not be affected or she is not affected because her original is not also on the island or some other explanation that I'm sure the author could come up with if pressed.
The Doctor’s disintegration of Ganger Amy is ruthless but necessary. I’m not entirely sure, though, why he needed to study the Flesh. I suppose to get the right setting for the magic sonic, but I’m still puzzled by his assertion to Amy about his two selves: “We had to know if we were truly the same. It was important, vital we learn about the Flesh, and we could only do that through your eyes.” I really don’t have any clue what he means by that.
At long last, Gary, we are coming to at least a partial resolution to this onerous arc.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Rebel Flesh

Dear Gary—
Here’s the thing—there is absolutely no reason for Rory and Amy to be tagging along after the Doctor anymore. What inspires this thought? The sight of this young, newlywed couple playing a lackluster game of darts while the old man fiddles with gadgets and some blaring music echoes off the TARDIS’ walls. By all rights they should be enjoying a lively round in a neighborhood pub, surrounded by friends while downing a pint of ale after having cheered on their favorite team on the telly.
Initially Amy was running away from life when she hitched a ride with the Doctor. It was the night before her wedding and she was scared of the future. But she is married now. Why is she still running? I can see why Rory is there—he’s tagging along after his wife, although at some point he should start taking his doubts as to her fidelity seriously and put his foot down. It is selfish of the Doctor to keep this young couple from starting their life together, establishing roots, planning a family, setting up house and home.
Why would they give it up, you ask—the exciting life in the TARDIS, visiting alien worlds, embarking on thrilling adventures? Well, from what I can see, excitement in the TARDIS consists of darts and bunk beds. Then they spend the majority of their time on Earth, so you can throw the alien worlds argument out the door. And those thrilling adventures are more psychological torment than anything of late, not to mention the continual life and death rollercoaster Rory is on. I just do not see that they are having any fun.
Oh, well there is that pesky pregnancy test that can’t make up its mind, so I guess the Doctor needs to keep Amy around to resolve that hanging thread. Let’s get on with it already.
The Rebel Flesh is getting on with it already, in its long and drawn out way. Another story in service to the arc.
The TARDIS makes a seemingly random landing at a converted monastery on (where else?) Earth, except it is evident from the start that this was intentional by the Doctor. He has a reason for being there, and it can be one of two things. Either the acid that is being mined there or, more obviously, the Flesh that is used in the mining operation.
It is, of course, the Flesh. The acid is incidental—it is only there to provide an excuse for the Flesh. It is a rather flimsy excuse, but it will do. Realistically, any major corporation with its eye on profit would not waste money on what I can only imagine is an expensive technology when I am sure there are a host of less costly methods for extracting the acid without incident. For one thing, they could train their staff better, or get a better quality, more sure-footed staff. Perhaps knowing that it is a Ganger on the job makes them less safety conscious which leads to more accidents. If they knew it was their life on the line these workers might not be so careless. However, the least expensive and simplest way to cut back on deaths would be to invest in some lids for the vats of acid that the technicians have to stand precariously over. Or how about move the equipment they have to work on to areas that are not so inconvenient to access?
At this point I am wondering why the Doctor didn’t go to a Flesh factory if that is his real interest.
But he didn’t. He came to an acid factory with a vat of Flesh on hand that also happens to be under a solar storm warning. The story that emerges from this arc saddled device is a decent enough if not spectacular base under siege scenario.
The Rebel Flesh, as the first in a two parter, sets up the characters and their Ganger counterparts for us. It is a standard issue cast, some more fully fleshed out than others if you’ll pardon the expression. Jennifer is the standout, both in her human and Ganger form, and the relationship she establishes with Rory in the brief span of time is believable. It’s nice to see Rory chase after someone other than Amy, and for Amy to do a bit of chasing after Rory for a change. The scene of Ganger Jennifer recounting her childhood memories and asserting herself as an individual is most effective. “I am not a factory part,” she declares in defiance, thus stating the most compelling theme of the story. Unfortunately it gets lost along the way.
“Us and them” is the central conflict that the show is setting up, and it doesn’t take the time to explore the moral and psychological aspects in detail. It gives us brief and powerful scenes as related above, but then takes action genre shortcuts to move the plot along. Thus we have Cleaves, for no apparent reason, arming herself with a zapper of some sort and going on a murderous rampage.
“They’re monsters; mistakes; they have to be destroyed.” This is not a sane and rational leader talking. It is all the more puzzling because up to that point I thought the show was presenting Cleaves as a hard-nosed but respected manager of people, not an unstable personality. Ganger Cleaves is more intriguing as she comments on her alter ego: “Oh great. You see, that is just so typically me.” Except that it doesn’t seem typical at all. It would make more sense if Jennifer went berserk to mirror her Ganger.
Speaking of which, the CGI Ganger Jen with her rubber arms and neck abilities is very cheesy and unnecessary.
 The show needs the ‘us vs. them’ mentality to make the drama work, though, and so it resorts to stereotypical thriller behavior. Because the Doctor is right, there really is no reason for anyone to be terrified of the Gangers going on a “walkabout.” Cause for concern perhaps, but no need to fly off the handle just yet. Especially since the Doctor has been able to reason with the Gangers and is bringing them all together to work things out. Thus the need for Cleaves to go off her rocker and force them into war.
The other members rounding out our cast aren’t particularly memorable. Dicken and Buzzer are interchangeable except that Dicken has a cold and Buzzer is inordinately proud of his rudimentary card house making abilities. Jimmy is the one with a son.
It is a decent enough adventure, but it doesn’t end. This was just the beginning, and as the credits roll I’m thinking, do we really need another hour of them running around in dark corridors?
However, the cliffhanger is outstanding as Ganger Doctor emerges:
“It’s frightening, unexpected, frankly a total, utter splattering mess on the carpet, but I am certain, one hundred percent certain, that we can work this out. Trust me. I’m the Doctor.”
It is a bold statement he makes, Gary; one that, frankly, he won’t be able to live up to. But it is a stunning moment to leave the episode on.