Friday, August 4, 2017

Sleep No More


Dear Gary—
“You must not watch this.” Good advice. Sound advice. I should have heeded it. From those opening words I knew Sleep No More would be a clunker.  “I’m warning you. You can never unsee it.” I should have listened. Because Sleep No More is one huge waste of time.
Those opening lines alone tell me not to trust this guy. This guy turns out to be Rassmussen, a researcher/scientist type on a space station. He stares out at us in found footage fashion from a flickering screen and in a terrified manner warns us not to view the video that he is purposely making—but for what purpose if he doesn’t want anyone to watch it? I quickly lose patience with this conceit.
So I don’t trust this guy to begin with, making the story he supposedly has pieced together in this video suspect. Turns out it probably all is a lie, or at least didn’t happen exactly the way he tells it, so why bother? This is another Doctor Who adventure that never happened. That would be OK if the narrative itself was compelling enough. It’s not. What it turns out to be is nothing more than a tale that kids make up around the campfire to scare each other, and it makes about as much sense as those cobbled together yarns.
It doesn’t help that the group of stranded characters on this base-under-siege are introduced to us by Rassmussen as stereotypes. We have Chopra (“Bit of an attitude.”), Commander Nagata (“Young, for the responsibility.”), Deep-Ando (“Conscript; likes to think of himself as the joker of this little group.”), and 474 (“This one’s obvious from the markings, isn’t it? We all know a Grunt when we see one.”). They never manage to break free from these classifications as assigned to them by our narrator. It also doesn’t help that the grainy, shaky, dark nature of the piece often makes it difficult to distinguish one from another.
In addition, the quality of the picture (or lack of quality) often obscures the action. When the Doctor asks, “Why did they kill Rassmussen like that,” I have to ask myself—Rassmussen is dead? When did that happen? (Of course, Rassmussen isn’t dead, but that’s another matter.)
The Doctor and Clara provide the only worthwhile moment early on in the episode during their “never put the word space in front of something” exchange. After that the Doctor and Clara are about as interesting as sleep dust.
Ah—sleep dust. There’s an inspired monster for you. The Doctor pulls this theory out of the air based on nothing and we are to believe it. Rassmussen backs him up, but then we can’t believe anything Rassmussen tells us. These dust creatures, or Sandmen as Clara dubs them, are rampaging through the space station and somehow killing people. I’m not sure exactly how. References are made to people being consumed. Do the Sandmen have teeth and digestive tracts? Are they sitting down to dine on humans? Or are people being somehow absorbed into the Sandmen (in which case I suppose that would make them distant cousins to the Abzorbaloff)? Why is it that everyone just runs from the monsters? Why does no one think to fight the things? They seem to disintegrate pretty easily. And since they are made of dust, the Doctor could call in a team of space maids armed with space vacuums to clean up the mess. (Who you gonna call? Dust Busters!)
I guess I’m just not sure about anything in this episode. Are these creatures arising spontaneously out of the corner of people’s eyes? Or are they transforming humans based on the altered brain chemistry brought about by an electronic signal? And what about this whole hijacked sight aspect? I assume it is Rassmussen who has been hijacking the Sandmen’s sight, but how and why? And why do they let him? They apparently are in cahoots with Rassmussen, and again, how and why? They communicate telepathically? Speaking of communication—why doesn’t the Doctor ever try to communicate with the Sandmen? He’s always trying to communicate with aliens; why not with these? I’m filled with questions but find I don’t really care about the answers. And neither does the show; just like the show isn’t interested in bringing this ordeal to any sort of conclusion, logical or otherwise. We are left hanging. Was it real? Did the Doctor save the day? Is humanity doomed?  Again, I don’t know and I don’t care.
I’m with the Doctor—“This doesn’t make any sense.”
There is a germ of a good idea embedded in the plot but it is squandered.
“Sleep’s the one thing left to us,” Chopra (the Attitude) says. But now, through the Morpheus machine, They (the ubiquitous They) are “colonizing it.” This could make for all kinds of intriguing scenarios. I can imagine Doctor Who of old expanding this idea out to a full 4 or 6 episode run, exploring a society in which sleep is deprived of its workers, parceled out in 5 minute doses that keeps the peons on their feet and in the factories, all for the greater glory of the Company. (Visions of The Sun Makers dance through my head.)
But we never even get a glimpse of any semblance of a social network. Instead we get dust bunnies hopping around, shaky camera work, and a whole lot of unexplained business that isn’t very interesting. The few mentions we have of society leave me with the impression that Mankind has willingly surrendered to a drone-like existence and is standing in line to sign up for 5 minutes in the Morpheus machine so that they can spend every blessed waking minute working, working, working, working, working. Not me. If I had the choice, I would first choose to keep my precious sleep time, but if forced to take my dose of Morpheus, I would spend my purchased waking moments in something other than work.
We don’t even get any hint of some vast, evil conspiracy. This is all the work of one mad man, Rassmussen. He has somehow hoodwinked the good people of Triton into becoming grunts. Except they grow Grunts. So why the need for human grunts? If they can grow Grunts to do the grunt work, why oh why . . . .
I give up. The real question is, why am I even trying to understand any of this? I think, Gary, I’ll just go to bed, perhaps to dream . . .

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Zygon Inversion

Dear Gary—

The Zygon Inversion accomplishes what many Doctor Who Part 2 stories do not, and that is it lives up to a great Part 1 and delivers an entertaining, action packed, coherent plot without falling victim to overblown spectacle. To quote the Doctor, “I’m a very big fan.”
It also achieves the rare feat of revealing Clara to be a complex, interesting, and likeable character—twice over. It is telling that Clara (the real Clara) is at her best when going head to head with her doppelganger. I have to say, though, that I prefer the character of Zygella (AKA Zygon Clara, AKA Bonnie) to the original.
An aside here, Gary. It is not the lack of depth I object to so much as it is the way the show runners have tried so very hard and so very desperately to make Clara into some superhero who is given UNIT clearance (with access to the Black Archive no less!) and who is the bestest ever companion and who is indispensable to the Doctor and without whom the Doctor cannot live simply by repeating ad nauseam that she is all of that and more rather than by giving her actual, consistent attributes that would make her such. It is a credit to Jenna Coleman that Clara has remained watchable despite this mishandling.
Perhaps it is because of this heretofore dearth of character development that I find the Clara face off scenes in this story so compelling. At last Jenna Coleman is given something to sink her teeth into, and she makes the most of the opportunity. And while this heretofore dearth of character development calls into question the Doctor's delighted comment—“The mind of Clara Oswald; she may never find her way out” (the ‘she’ referring to Zygella)—this single episode manages to give the line some weight.
Osgood, on the other hand, is a character who has always impressed despite limited screen time, and with an expanded role here she continues to shine. As in the previous episode, Osgood holds her own with the Doctor, challenging him in a way that Clara never does. Clara has always been obvious, providing the Doctor with a literal or proverbial slap in the face or outright adoration, depending on the circumstance. Osgood is subtle, providing intellectual stimulation and true companionship on an equal footing, based on mutual respect and admiration, but with a healthy dose of objectivity.
Just take their exchange on the beach. The world is on the brink of a takeover by rogue Zygons; the world needs the Doctor; the Doctor is despondent at the thought that Clara is most likely dead. Osgood doesn’t read the Doctor the riot act or rant speeches at him. Rather she guides him through a series of questions to get him thinking; to get him hoping; to get him planning.
Osgood: “How’s that hope phase now?”
Doctor: “Worse than ever.”
Osgood:  “Then we’ve got a game.”
The game is indeed afoot, and it is Osgood who has successfully read the Doctor and has effectively propelled him onto the path of action. Indeed, it is Osgood who is the key to this whole puzzle. “Two Osgoods; two boxes. Operation double. What did you expect?” What I don’t expect is the Doctor to continually hound Osgood as to which Osgood she is. It simply is not important and the Doctor above everyone should know this. Leave it to Osgood, though, to calmly and steadfastly refuse to answer. If I didn’t know better I would say that Osgood is the Doctor in a future incarnation. (Too bad Ingrid Oliver wasn’t just announced as the next Doctor.)
But I digress. The game is afoot and Osgood is the key. All action converges on the Black Archive where the Osgood box—turns out boxes—reside. Zygella arrives with Pod Clara in tow. Outraged at her discovery, she summons the Doctor from his diversionary trip to the surprisingly empty shopping center  of instant internet notoriety with the also instantly notorious peaceful Zygon revealed against his will (a side show that is entertaining and moving but doesn’t really make a lot of sense in the scheme of things upon close inspection, but who has time to closely inspect?) along with Kate Stewart who it turns out is not Zygon Kate Stewart but human Kate Stewart who divulges her escape from Truth or Consequences in flashback (“five rounds rapid”—gotta love it). And of course the ever present Osgood makes the trip as well. All parties assembled for the final showdown.
And what a showdown it is. This is the Doctor’s shining hour—and quite likely Peter Capaldi’s crowning moment as the Doctor. This is the Twelfth Doctor achieving what the Eleventh failed in Cold Blood. This is the Doctor standing tall and proud in the face of two factions on the brink of war and talking them down. His speech is riveting and impeccably delivered as Kate and Zygella stare at each other across those devastating Osgood boxes of death and destruction.
“This is a scale model of war,” he sums up. “Every war ever fought, right there in front of you. Because it’s always the same. When you fire that first shot, no matter how right you feel, you have no idea who’s going to die! You don’t know whose children are going to scream and burn! How many hearts will be broken! How many lives shatter! How much blood will spill until everybody does what they were always going to have to do from the very beginning—sit down and talk!”
And then his relentless persuasion of Zygella. (Kate is easy—she relents early on. She is privy to his history and understands his anguish as he describes his similar hour of reckoning.) And again Jenna Coleman excels as she portrays the defiant yet wavering Zygella, her hand poised above the deadly buttons. When the Doctor declares Zygella’s conversion and she asks him, “How can you be so sure,” I believe the Doctor’s response, “Because you have a disadvantage, Zygella. I know that face.” Jenna Coleman’s face says it all.
It is all so masterfully done that I forgive the obvious flaws. However, I still feel like everything is undone when the Doctor, in response to Kate’s question as to how they can forget the secret (that the boxes are in fact empty) replies, “You’ve said that the last fifteen times.” Are you kidding me? Fifteen times? The Doctor has allowed this same deadly scenario to play out fifteen times, each time erasing their memories so that it can play out again? This is not peace he has brokered. This is simply a temporary ceasefire. A ceasefire to last—what—given the timeline between the first Zygon outbreak and this, a couple months or weeks? Why can’t he stop simply hitting the reset button and come up with a permanent solution? For this to have happened fifteen times already there must still be quite a few Zygons who are living in discontent and plotting rebellion. This has got to keep the Doctor so busy he can’t have time for any of the other adventures he supposedly has. This was a case of the scriptwriter not being able to resist the urge to insert a clever zinger.
I’ll take that hint, Gary, and assume that this was merely the Doctor throwing out a one-liner and not being literal.
And again we have an ending in which a potentially valuable and noteworthy companion turns down the Doctor’s offer to travel with him in the TARDIS. But Osgood is almost too good for the Doctor at this time, and she (along with her newly acquired Zygella-turned-Osgood twin) is better left to keep the peace that the Doctor apparently can only temporarily proffer.
Before taking my leave, Gary, I have to say a word about this hiatus I have been on recently (in the middle of a two-parter no less). I can offer excuses like: Writers block. Busy life. A general malaise brought about by the recent political climate. The knowledge that you have never seen these stories I am currently on. Or any combination thereof. But I suppose the major reason is my increasing disenchantment with the show, despite the quality of the episodes I am covering at present. Outside of my slow path I have forged ahead in my viewing, and I have to say that this show has found new ways in which to disappoint me. It has rarely if ever reached perfection, and you well know my reservations about the New Who, but this most recent season, this tenth season of the New Who, has completely lost its identity. It is no longer Doctor Who. It is as if it is trying to be a pale imitation of The Twilight Zone. But no, I don’t even want to compare it to a show of that quality. Rather it is striving to become a distant cousin of those modern Zone like shows, such as Black Mirror. I truly hope Doctor Who can find its direction once again and I will continue plodding along. I see that the new Doctor has been announced and I can only hope that she is not treated as a gimmick, but I don’t have much faith at this point.
Sorry to end on a sour note, especially when The Zygon Inversion is anything but . . . but, oh Gary . . .

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Zygon Invasion


Dear Gary—
Osgood lives! The Zygon Invasion is worthwhile for this if nothing else; however The Zygon Invasion has so much more to offer. I would argue that this story is the first truly effective use of UNIT since its introduction into New Who. Previously UNIT was used for its nostalgia power or its wow factor or its utilitarian aspects. The Zygon Invasion has the feel of those Pertwee adventures of old; never my favorite but successful when used sparingly and when done right. The Zygon Invasion is done right.
And it starts with Osgood. Osgood has strength of character that is sorely missing in many a New Who companion, most notably the present one. She is a fan of the Doctor without being a fawning sycophant. She has not fallen sway to the charisma and pleasing face of any one incarnation. She wears symbols of the Doctor’s many past manifestations; she admires and embodies what he stands for; she respects him as a whole entity encompassing all of his multiple personas. She is in awe of the Doctor but she converses with him on an equal footing, remaining true to her convictions and standing firm against his request that she reveal if she is Zygon Osgood or Human Osgood. She has a selfless devotion to the peace that has been established between Zygons and Humans and will not betray it.

“I’m proud to know you, Osgood,” the Doctor says. The Doctor recognizes and respects Osgood’s integrity.

Osgood is the embodiment of the concord achieved at the end of The Day of the Doctor, and this tale effectively picks up from that plot thread. Rogue Zygons are rebelling against the established arrangement that had successfully and secretively merged them into human culture. Osgood (the remaining Osgood who was not killed during Death in Heaven) is kidnapped by this Zygon faction and the Doctor, Clara, and UNIT must work to find Osgood and squelch the uprising.
The story takes us in three directions. Kate Lethbridge-Stewart travels to Truth or Consequences to investigate the disappearance of Osgood. The Doctor travels to Turmesizstan to work with the UNIT forces there to locate Osgood. And Clara remains in London with Kate’s assistant Jac. Each branch of the tale is entertaining and suspenseful and propels the plot.
The eerily empty town of Truth or Consequences set in the arid desert of New Mexico is the perfect atmosphere as Kate wanders the streets looking for answers, helped along the way by the sole remaining inhabitant, Sheriff Norlander. From Norlander Kate learns that one young Zygon broke form, panicking the human townsfolk. Massacre ensued. As I write this I start to wonder why no one has noticed the desertion of Truth or Consequences. Wouldn’t it have been more prudent of the Zygons to take on the forms of the humans they have killed and keep the town going so no one would ask any questions? But apparently aside from Osgood (who has been kidnapped as a result) and Kate, seemingly nobody has noticed these goings on. I’ll let it pass. Presumably this instance was the spark that prodded the rogue faction of Zygons to decide enough is enough. They are tired of leading lives of secrecy and lies. They want to be free of the stifling humanity they are forced to don.
I have to say that I have some sympathy for this sentiment, although not with their actions. And I have to wonder why the Doctor never considered resettling the homeless Zygons on a planet somewhere in the vast universe where they could be free to be themselves. But again I’ll let it pass because he didn’t and if he did we wouldn’t have a story.
Meanwhile, in Turmesizstan, the Doctor learns of the suspected Zygon training base from UNIT Commander Walsh. Desperately trying to keep Walsh from obliterating the village, the Doctor is aided by the Zygon ability to take on the form of the soldiers’ loved ones. Looking into the faces of one’s husband and son would make it hard for any soldier to order the command to drop the bombs; and confronting one’s own mother makes it impossible to pull the trigger. These are compelling scenes; although I feel Walsh’s frustration as she watches her troops waver and fall prey to the Zygon deceit.  These are trained soldiers after all, who have been drilled in the Zygon methods of shape-shifting. They really should be more on guard when they drop their weapons to their sides and follow meekly along to their deaths. What this does, though, is give the Doctor the time he needs to locate the captive Osgood.
With Kate and the Doctor at the far corners, Clara is free to wreak havoc in London. Because, as we come to learn, Clara is not Clara but Zygon Clara. Rogue Zygon Clara, aka Bonnie, at that. I haven’t liked Clara as much as this in a long time. At least she has clarity of vision and firm convictions, even if misguided and malevolent. I do feel sorry for Jac. She loyally, albeit warily, follows along, having the look of a spare part UNIT drone until she cleverly works out the Clara disguise, at which point she becomes expendable to the plot.
The plot comes to a head with Kate seemingly killed by Norlander (who as it turns out is a Zygon) and the Doctor and Osgood about to be blown out of the sky by Bonnie/Clara. A thrilling cliffhanger for this first of a two part story.
The Zygon Invasion works on many levels, not the least of which is a suspenseful and gripping narrative. In addition we have the hotly political issue of immigrant aliens trying to acclimate into society and the prejudice they face. Then there is the aspect of rebellion and terrorism and the debate as to how to respond. I especially love the Doctor’s observation, “You start bombing them, you’ll radicalize the lot. That’s exactly what the splinter group wants.”  This is counterbalanced by Walsh’s legitimate concerns regarding the danger of the rogue faction holed up in Turmesizstan. “Any living thing in this world, including my family and friends,” she states, “could turn into a Zygon and kill me any second now.” Then she delivers the clincher: “It’s not paranoia when it’s real.” Of course there isn’t much room to accommodate an in depth discussion. The action, as always, takes over.
That’s OK, Gary. The action is compelling, and there is much human emotion as well as humor to keep things rolling. And I come back to Osgood. Her calm, steadfast, and resolute presence is at the heart of it all.
Osgood 1: “Any race is capable of the best and the worst.”
Osgood 2: “Every race is peaceful and warlike.”
Osgood 1: “Good and evil.”
Osgood 2: “My race is no exception.”
Osgood 1: “And neither is mine.”
Osgood embodies the peace. She is the amalgam; Zygon and Human. But she says it best: “My sister and I were the living embodiment of the peace we made. I will give all the lives that I have to protect it. You want to know who I am, Doctor? I am the peace. I am Human and Zygon.”
Her sorrow shown in flashback at the loss of her sister is palpable; her dedication to the cause is stalwart; her strength of character is evident. It is only right that the Doctor is proud to know her. She represents the best in any race and any race would be proud to count her among their own.
I leave you with this, Gary, as we stand at the brink of a new year. We are at our own cliffhanger in history, staring into an abyss that holds the best or the worst; peace or war; good or evil. Let us hope that there is more Osgood in us than we dare to hope . . .

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Woman Who Lived

Dear Gary—
The Woman Who Lived is the ‘Greet’ portion of this two part Meet and Greet of Ashildr, building on the ‘Meet’ from The Girl Who Died. Ashildr is the central figure of the two episodes and will obviously figure prominently into the arc of the season. As usual with arc-centric stories, the plot suffers.
Although dressed up in most impressive leonine splendor, the alien of the week is more disposable and afterthought than ever. His only reason for being is to throw in an alien presence that New Who feels obligated to provide each time out regardless of how ridiculous it is becoming.
However, it just doesn’t matter, Gary, because Ashildr is the story; and what a story she is.
Ashildr is a tale of heartbreak, and one told to the Doctor’s shame.
To understand it better we must revisit the end of the previous episode. In The Girl Who Died the Doctor looks in a barrel, sees the face he has ‘chosen,’ remembers having saved (at Donna’s insistence) the person who once bore that face, and decides he is tired of losing people; decides he can break any laws he wants; decides he is going to save Ashildr. Except he doesn’t save Ashildr; Ashildr is already dead; what he does is resurrect her.
The Doctor is not God, despite New Who flirting with the notion that he is a god, and when he does decide to play god it usually turns to a tragic end. Having selfishly denied Ashildr a natural and honorable death, the Doctor curses her with immortality. And then he walks away without even a word of encouragement or advice.
“I tell you that leaving this place would be death itself,” Ashildr tells the Doctor back in The Girl Who Died. As The Woman Who Lived opens Ashildr cannot even remember that place, her village.
“Who’s Ashildr?”
She cannot even remember her own name.
“I call myself Me,” she tells the Doctor. “All the other names I chose died with whoever knew me. Me is who I am now. No one’s mother, daughter, wife. My own companion. Singular. Unattached. Alone.”
Ashildr is dead despite the Doctor, or more accurately, because of the Doctor.
Doctor: “Oh Ashildr, daughter of Einarr, what happened to you?”
Ashildr: “You did, Doctor. You happened.”
Ashildr has suffered 800 years of sorrow and poverty and pain and loneliness; 800 years “of adventure” as she describes it, “enough to fill a library if you write it down.” That library is full of the misery that has been her living death. More poignant, though, are the pages that are missing. “When things get really bad,” Ashildr explains, “I tear the memories out.” Whole swathes of her being are missing; the good along with the bad.
Some of the worst, however, she retains. Like the agonizing death of her children. “I keep that entry,” Ashildr explains, “to remind me not to have any more.” She says this with no feeling, almost bored. Eight hundred years of weary existence has taught her to suppress her emotions. Yet how she must yearn to live; to love; to feel. She is not a Cyberman; she remains human despite her hybrid nature.
And so she begs the Doctor to take her with him; to take her away from this mortal plane she can no longer bear. Maisie Williams lends grace to the show and imbues Ashildr with a depth of character beneath her bland façade. She would make an excellent addition to the TARDIS crew. Oh yeah, the Doctor already has a companion. Clara is barely in this episode and I don’t even miss her. The lack of clarity and definition in Clara would be made up for by Ashildr’s company. Clara is a piecemeal character re-imagined to suit the whims of each season, in contrast to the fully formed person who is Ashildr.
But the Doctor selfishly and indefensibly refuses Ashildr’s pleas and so we will have to content ourselves with this beautiful two story arc and whatever scraps of her presence that are in store for the rest of the season.
Because the Doctor unreasonably refuses Ashildr’s most reasonable request she decides to throw her lot in with the lion king. What follows is the requisite alien plot of magical amulets and dangerous portals and death and destruction. It is neatly packaged, however, in an imaginative and entertaining highwayman story line, and the gallows humor is greatly appreciated.
As chaos erupts around her, as strange spaceships materialize, as a mysterious planet appears in the sky, as fireballs rain down on the innocent rabble, Ashildr re-discovers her humanity. Luckily Ashildr still has the second Mire repair chip that the Doctor left with her back in The Girl Who Died. The amulet that somehow killed the unfortunate Sam is miraculously counteracted by the Mire tech. Sam resurrects, the aliens in the sky kill Leandro, the portal closes, and the powerful amulet is suddenly nothing more than a hunk of metal.
And still the Doctor refuses to take Ashildr with him. At this point I am thinking Ashildr is better off. She is not one to fawn over the Doctor and she is destined for greater things than merely becoming the Doctor’s caretaker.
With her soul restored she faces the Doctor across a tavern table. Ashildr has proven herself to be a bigger person than the Doctor. She has outgrown him.
With insight greater than the Doctor’s, Ashildr proclaims, “Enemies are never a problem; it’s your friends you have to watch out for.”
Ashildr has experienced the devastation that the Doctor often leaves in his wake, and she makes a vow to become “the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers.”  I can think of no better defender of this world, Gary, than Ashildr.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Girl Who Died

Dear Gary—
The Girl Who Died has the feel of filler. I think this about half way through the episode as the Doctor is preparing a rag tag team of Vikings to do battle against a generic alien-of-the-week warrior race. At this point, as well, I think how laughable it has become—this Earthbound Who that throws alien after alien at Humanity week after week and we are to believe that none of this has been set down in the historical record until the advent of Aliens of London. This is New Who’s version of the Classic’s rubber-masked monster Achilles’ heel.
As laughable filler, however, The Girl Who Died is pretty fantastic.
From start to finish, this story strikes just the right balance between comedy and pathos, with equal contributions from the writing and acting.
The episode starts with another New Who cliché—the mini-episode that wasn’t. The thrill-ride opening sequence— complete with a brain-sucking Love Sprite from the spider mines and a daring rescue in mid-space, with passing reference to a hitherto unknown species of Velosians –speeds by too fast to begin questioning why it is that some of these never seen adventures sound more fascinating than the eventual stories to which we are privy.
Clara: “You’re always talking about what you can and can’t do, but you never tell me the rules.”
Exactly, Gary; it’s like that. Doctor Who, New Who in particular, does a lot of fast talking but rarely explains. These mini escapades are a microcosm of . . . what’s that, Gary? Vikings? Hold onto your hat . . . .
Doctor: “No, no, not Vikings. I’m not in the mood for Vikings.”
I have to say that these Vikings (and I don’t mean the Minnesota purple variety, Gary) are much more entertaining than their predecessors from The Time Meddler.
What makes this episode special is its intimate nature. The Doctor says it: “The Earth is safe; humanity is not in danger. It’s just one village.” The Doctor remains because he cares; he has a vested interest in the individuals. Time after time the Doctor takes the view of the big picture, leaving the details to his companions. However, like his stance against bantering and hugging, it often turns out that the Doctor doth protest too much.
The poignant scene when Clara realizes the Doctor has decided to stay is beautifully done. The Doctor’s ability to speak baby, in the past used mainly as throwaway humor, is integral to the plot here. Who knows if his translation is accurate, but it is amazingly poetic and speaks to the deeply personal nature of the moment.
For a change, the Doctor has abandoned the big picture for the village.
The Doctor assigning nicknames to the villagers is hilarious as well as apropos to his commitment to these people. He does this not in the careless manner of a Michael J. Scott; rather his designations of Lofty and ZZ Top and Noggin the Nog are done rather fondly and thoughtfully despite his gruffness. And ultimately he stands shoulder to shoulder with Heidi and Daphne and Limpy. This is not a species that needs saving or a race in peril; these are Chuckles and Ashildr; these are his friends.
I’m going to say something here, Gary, about the Doctor Who historical. The Girl Who Died is not a pure historical; The Girl Who Died relies on the crutch of the alien. However it brings to mind some of those old William Hartnell serials. I already mentioned the Viking tie in with The Time Meddler; but what really brings me to my point is The Reign of Terror. “We can’t stem the tide,” The Doctor states in that long-ago tale, “but at least we can stop being carried away with the flood.” Echoes of that sentiment resound in our current Doctor’s statement:  “We’re time travelers; we tread softly. It’s okay to make ripples, but not tidal waves.” The difference, of course, is that Classic Who referred to History engulfing the Doctor and his friends, whereas here the Doctor worries that he (and by extension Clara) will engulf History.
“You are a tidal wave.”
No longer a wanderer, a traveler, an adventurer; the Doctor is a Force. It is a shift in New Who philosophy vs. the Classic. Yet the Doctor denies it: “Don’t say that.”
An essay on that historical tidal wave of old vs. the new tidal wave of the Doctor is something for another time, Gary. For now, let’s concentrate on the flood at hand.
The current tidal wave of the Doctor is a hint at the seasonal arc; yet I don’t mind it as much in this ninth season of the new era. The arc isn’t engulfing Doctor Who as much as Doctor Who is engulfing the arc. That might be a separate essay of its own, so let us return, Gary, to The Girl Who Died.
Ashildr (as played by Maisie Williams) is the titular girl who dies, and she is the Doctor’s ripple who turns into a tidal wave. Ashildr is an ordinary little girl (there is nothing extraordinary about a little girl who feels insecure and out of place) in an ordinary Viking village, until, that is, the Doctor intervenes.
First the Doctor saves the village, a ripple that the Doctor cleverly keeps from turning into a tidal wave courtesy of Benny Hill. It is all highly diverting with electric eels and puppets. Our generic villain of the week, the Mire (as opposed to the Mire Beast), are made a mockery of by the Doctor’s sleight of hand.
This Mire subplot, for it is a subplot in the larger scheme of things, is amusing. The Doctor is captured by Vikings and pretends to be Odin, only to be out-Odined by the head Mire; the Doctor’s yo-yo trick pales in comparison to the Odin-head -in-the-sky trick, which has impeccable comic timing.
Clara and Ashildr add to the proceedings during their encounter with Mire Odin Head. Clara is resourceful in her dealings with MOH, almost convincing him to leave with no more harm done than the incidental mashed up Viking juice obtained from the fiercest warriors of the village. Ashildr’s defiant taunting of MOH, however, is both laudable and lamentable and serves to propel our plot: “I think this village just declared war on them.”
This leads to the Doctor’s personal investment in saving the village as already described; and I cannot overstate how entertaining it all is. But as Mom used to say, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
Really, the Doctor should have known better than to place the massive Mire helmet on the head of a little girl and expect her to harness the alien tech to project a holographic Wyrm onto the longship prow. She has an active imagination, makes puppets, and concocts fantastic stories, sure. But anyone could have thought ‘dragon’ and transformed that wooden bow. Instead the Doctor places the giant weight on the little girl’s shoulders and she dies in the process. Saves the village but dies in the process. Funny to watch the Mire warriors in their retreat, but a little girl dies as a result. Shame on the Doctor.
It should have been her shining moment, and to the Doctor’s credit he allowed the little girl to step up in this way. Her death was unforeseen and unfortunate, but really, the Doctor should have been more responsible.  (His ‘care of duty’ apparently only applies to Clara, and that is merely lip service.)
The onus is on the Doctor; however I can only laugh when Clara cradles the lifeless body of Ashildr and enquires of the Doctor, “is she dead?” Clara has just declared that she feels no pulse, yet she looks to the Doctor as though he is an omniscient doctor who can divine life or death from thin air.
This, Gary, is a running theme throughout the episode, and throughout the Clara/Doctor relationship. Clara continually looks to the Doctor as though he is omnipotent. “He hasn’t got a plan yet,” she says early on in our story, “but he will have; and it will be spectacular.” Confidence in the Doctor is paramount for a companion, but at times Clara escalates this to unrealistic expectations.
It can be argued that Clara is at fault here. She cajoles the Doctor into remaining. She talks the Doctor into determining what he is overlooking and to “start winning.” She, it can be argued, is responsible for Ashildr’s death. She has created the tidal wave that will be felt as the season progresses.
And it starts with this piece of dialogue.
Doctor: “They’ll die fighting with honor. To a Viking, that’s all the difference in the world.”
Clara: “A good death? Is that the best they can hope for?”
Doctor: “A good death is the best anyone can hope for, unless you happen to be immortal.”
A good death, Gary. The Vikings chose to stand and fight. They chose a good death. Clara convinces the Doctor to hand the Vikings a death defying victory.  That’s all well and good. However, Ashildr pays the price. She dies. She dies a good death. That was her choice and she was heroic in making it.
The best, the most honest, the noblest ending to this bizarre alien encounter with a Viking village is for the Vikings to die with honor. Failing that, the sacrifice of Ashildr is a poetically tragic denouement.
But the Doctor decides that isn’t good enough. He is tired of losing people. He is tired of following the rules. He has won the war but lost Ashildr. Hang the consequences, he is going to defy all of the laws he has vowed to uphold. He is going to defy death. Ashildr will live again with the aid of Mire technology.
“But it’s entirely possible she has lost the ability to die.”
Denied death; denied honor; denied nobility.
It is effectively done. The Doctor’s remembrance of times gone by; his realization of why he has chosen this particular face for his latest incarnation; his proclamation: “I’m the Doctor, and I save people.” It is all justified; and the Doctor is defiant and joyous in his determination. And then the remorse: “Immortality is everybody else dying.” And the self-recrimination: “I was angry. I was emotional. Just possibly, I have made a terrible mistake. Maybe even a tidal wave.”
With more than a little help from Clara, the Doctor’s ripple has turned into a tidal wave that will be felt as the season progresses. And this seeming filler of a story has turned into the core of an arc.
“In a way, she’s a hybrid.”
The parting shot of Ashildr as the scenery and seasons swirl around her is masterfully done, and with the subtlest of changes in expression Maisie Williams conveys all of the power of those mournful and prophetic lines.
A good death is the best anyone can hope for, Gary . . .

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Before the Flood

Dear Gary—
This story is over before it starts. But don't tell the Doctor that; he wants to have fun so he throws a spanner into the works to keep it going.

“So there’s this man. He has a time machine. Up and down history he goes, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, getting into scrapes.” The Doctor is telling a story—to us, the audience. I don’t like it. To me this is the show showing off. This is Doctor Who saying ‘Looky what I can do!’ The point of this opening segment is to set before us the Bootstrap Paradox (“Google it”) as the centerpiece of the episode. This is exactly the thing that I have against season arcs—it sacrifices the adventure on the altar of the almighty arc. In the case of Before the Flood, the narrative is shortchanged in deference to the “who really composed Beethoven’s Fifth” causal loop framework it just set forth in plain view. And by having the Doctor break the fourth wall in order to deliver the message it is by way of saying, ‘Ta da!’
It is a shame because the first half of the story set us up nicely; the second half lets us down. The tale is simply a flimsy excuse to get us to perform and admire the Doctor Who mental gymnastics game. It is as hollow as the sham Soviet town the TARDIS materializes in. I can’t even believe that this military base designed as a fake village for training purposes is real—it is simply a TV set ready for our actors to play in. The tip-off is that there are absolutely no people here—not even a stray guard or two. It is completely abandoned for no apparent reason. So devoid of life that a huge alien spacecraft can land there and no one is around to notice; the UFO must not have even registered as a blip on any radar screen in this supposedly militarized zone.
Of course there is always the possibility that our baddie of the hour, the Fisher King, has killed everyone within miles of the place. But that isn’t even hinted at. In fact, nothing of import is related in connection with the Fisher King. Oh, he’s big and impressive and scary looking all right. But that is his only raison d’etre. Beyond that he could be one of the cardboard Russians littering the streets of the town. We have no clue what his motivation is. I guess he wants to “drain the oceans and put the humans in chains” just for the fun of it. For all we know that threat could be nothing more than hot air. We have no demonstration of his powers other than somehow killing O’Donnell (off camera), presumably by brute strength, and making some magic writing appear on his capsule wall that will turn dead humans into transmitters. If the military is in any way active around that town the Doctor could easily enlist their aid in defeating the big guy.
I’m not even sure how the Fisher King knows where he is. He is presumed dead and wrapped up like a mummy awaiting burial when we first meet him, and then quite suddenly he appears alive and well and fully informed. He awakens on a strange planet but knows exactly where it is; enough so that he can write the coordinates on the wall; even if those coordinates seem awfully vague; and I wonder if anyone hearing them will actually understand them and know where to go or even why they should go. In addition, the Fisher King seems to know everything about the Doctor and Time Lords; yet he is fooled by a simple lie; and in the end he is destroyed by a deluge. (Makes you wonder, Gary, how the Arcateenians killed him, or thought they killed him.)
The Fisher King is an Etch A Sketch version of a monster.
Equally sketchy is Prentis. He should be a fascinating character, but we never get to know him. The script treats him as contemptuously as the Doctor treats him. He is a Tivolian funeral director come to bury the fallen Fisher King “on a barren, savage outpost.” Why did he choose Earth (hardly barren)? Why is he wandering about the town with no particular direction? Why does he have no helpers to dig the grave, act as pall bearers, etc? His only purpose (other than to be ghostly) is for exposition. He doesn’t even need much prodding. Copious explanations roll off his tongue of their own accord. Mention his home planet and he delivers a concise encyclopedia entry found under T for Tivoli. Ask him one question (“What are you doing here?”) and he rattles off a Reader’s Digest history of conquest and subjugation. Once his information has been imparted his character is dispensed with; thrown aside much like the Doctor tosses away his card. (“May the remorse be with you.”)
It is the Doctor who comes off the worst in this chicken or egg riddle, though. There is the obvious callousness that the script points out for us in the casual way he treats O’Donnell’s death, using it to test his theory. This insensitivity is reinforced by Clara when Cass questions the Doctor’s influence over Clara in her decision to send Lunn out on a dangerous mission; Clara explains to Cass of the Doctor, “He taught me to do what has to be done.” But this is what Doctor Who wants you to take away; the Doctor’s culpability goes deeper than that.
The Doctor’s brilliant plan is to send a hologram ghost Doctor ahead in time to the underwater base to deliver a cryptic message to Clara to relay back to the real Doctor to essentially light a fire under him to get going already and save the day. Huh? Since when does the Doctor need a kick in the pants to solve a basically straight forward alien threat? Additionally, he programs the Holo Doctor to pass on a bit of information (that the stasis chamber is going to open that night) to his real self in order to give him the bright idea of getting inside that chamber so that he can pop up at the right time in the underwater base. Can't his real self think up this plan all by himself without the paradox? Surely he can set the timer going on the thing to open, and that is probably exactly what he does do, so why didn’t he think of the plan himself? Oh yeah, he did think of it himself, but only after he prodded himself from the past. Or was it the future? Or was it Beethoven? And if he can set the timer, why not set it for earlier? Why the need for Holo Doctor at all? Just have the chamber open an hour or two earlier, jump out and that's that.
However, here is my real question. Why the need for coded messages? Why not simply have Holo Doctor say in plain English, or Gallifreyan, or whatever language he wants, exactly what is happening and what he should do? The Doctor’s need to keep things fun and interesting only endangers everyone around him.
This need for excitement is probably what compels him to program his Holo Doctor to let the ghosts on the base out of their trap. (And how can a hologram do that exactly?) He figures Clara, Cass, and Lunn are getting bored just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Or maybe he wants to get Clara’s mind off of his seemingly inevitable death so she’ll stop nagging him about it.
If the Doctor is going to mess about with the laws of time and create this paradox in order to save Clara, why not go whole hog and rewrite history altogether to save everybody? He talks a good game about certain laws that can’t be tampered with, but he breaks any and all when it suits him. In this particular case he goes the paradox route rather than the history re-writing, and again I wonder why. Rather than using the missing power cell to blow up the dam to flood the town and kill the Fisher King, couldn’t he use it to blow up the Fisher King and the ship with the writing on it to avert all the deaths? Or erase the writing? But no, no, no; he is “still slavishly protecting Time.” And he can’t resist the thrill of “reverse engineering the narrative.”
That is the real crime against the Doctor. He has engineered the events. Clara isn’t in any danger while the ghosts are trapped; she doesn’t need saving. But the Doctor can’t stand for that so he lets the ghosts out so that he can come in and save the day. How does he save the day? By trapping the ghosts. He knew when he went back to the beginning that the ghosts were safely locked away in the Faraday cage. All he had to do was find out how the ghosts were created and stop any more from generating. Once he found the Fisher King all the Doctor had to do was immobilize him and then inform UNIT to collect the ghosts at that 2119 base.
Despite the flaws, there are several exciting moments as well as some interesting concepts and humorous bits. Cass is great as she argues with Clara over Lunn’s dangerous mission, and the scene of Cass sensing the vibrations of the axe as it is dragged along by the stalking ghost is tense and worthy of any good horror story. Quite a bit of it falls flat, however. The Doctor’s “morning breath” comment for instance, or the repeated emphasis on how dense the Doctor is when it comes to understanding Bennett’s mourning of O’Donnell. The wrap up of the Cass/Lunn romance is sweet but forced. Did anyone not know how these two felt about each other, least of all Cass and Lunn?
And I really want to know why the TARDIS is so obstinate throughout the story. It brings the Doctor and Clara to that base to begin with and then decides it doesn’t like it there and won’t return once the Doctor leaves. Or perhaps the Doctor simply makes up that excuse to keep his storyline intact.
When all is said and done the Doctor tells Clara, “The Fisher King had been dead for a hundred and fifty years before we even got here.” The Fisher King, that Etch A Sketch monster, was never the threat. It was the ghostly transmitters that were the problem and they were safely locked away. “But once I went back,” the Doctor continues in his explanation to Clara, “I became part of events.” He then goes on to lay the “who composed Beethoven’s Fifth” punch line on her and obscures the fact that his becoming part of events is exactly what put them all in danger; and deliberately so. He wrote this ghost story; or was it Holo Doctor? Who wrote Before the Flood? And isn’t he a clever man, Gary?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Under the Lake

Dear Gary—
“So, we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that has taken the form of your commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor.” That is a perfect and succinct summation of Under the Lake. The result is a tense, base-under-siege tale as well as an eerie ghost story and an intriguing mystery, succeeding admirably at each even while riddled with defects.
All three elements come into play immediately as the scene opens in the 2119 underwater mining facility with the crew examining a baffling craft discovered on the lakebed. A ghostly figure in Victorian dress appears and the engines of the unknown ship ignite spewing flames which kill the captain, who next shows up as vaporous companion to our Victorian garbed friend. It is a compelling start despite some of the weaker elements already established; those being the characterizations. The crew is generally stock stuff, although ably portrayed.
The most stereotypical of the assemblage is Pritchard.  No effort is made to depict him as a human being. He is Corporate Mouthpiece, nothing more. Every word out of his mouth and every action he takes is in service to this function. When the Doctor rudely dismisses him therefore (“Why is this man still talking to me?”) it’s OK because Pritchard has no thoughts or feelings; he’s simply a cardboard cutout. The only remarkable thing about this man is that he does not survive long enough to undermine the actions of the others as is usually the fate of such characters. Rather, he is quickly dispatched to become a much more interesting ghost.
Unfortunately the most charismatic of the group, Captain Moran, is the first to be turned into a spectral being. The acting commander Cass and her interpreter Lunn are the standouts of those who remain, although their secret desire for one another is telegraphed throughout and is mildly annoying because it is so obvious and yet very deliberately unacknowledged. Rounding out the cast is Bennett the nerdy scientist and O’Donnell the spunky female technician. Their secret desires are revealed more subtly, yet the focus on the one gesture (the punch on the arm) is just as intentional and therefore intrusive.
They serve their purpose, however, these clichéd characters, and the presence of the ghosts and the strange vessel with its unearthly markings keeps things exciting.
Enter the Doctor and Clara. The Doctor and Clara always liven things up, however there are certain aspects of their relationship in this story that are forced and fall flat. Clara is much too gung-ho for adventure and the Doctor uncharacteristically cautious. His “duty of care” speech is contrived and serves to remind me of how bad both the Doctor and Clara are at this particular responsibility. The note cards shtick is another example of the script trying too hard to make a point. The Doctor has rotten people skills and Clara is there to guide him. This routine only reinforces the fact that Clara is a lousy teacher and belittles the Doctor’s intelligence.
On the other hand, the Doctor’s varying reactions to the phantoms are more apropos. His initial skepticism is to be expected and his speculations draw us further in to the mystery. His delight when he determines that they are actually ghosts is infectious. Once he has accepted them for what they are he plans accordingly as he tries to understand them, their capabilities, and their motivations, all of which propels the plot.
The ghosts themselves are another plus, but again despite their weakness. They are fantastically realized and provide abundant eeriness and scare factor. However I can’t understand why the crew doesn’t fight back. After it has been determined that the ghosts cannot harm them unless armed, why not grab the weapons away from them instead of simply cowering and running? I can understand to some extent being too frightened in the moment to think straight; however they have ample time to stand around and discuss strategy when the ghosts aren’t around.
Speaking of strategy—what was the Doctor thinking? It seems the haunted house mentality has taken hold of him. Sending three people out to draw the ghosts into a trap doesn’t make sense. Only one person is needed for the job. Using three only serves to provide the opportunity for something to go wrong, exactly as it does. The ghosts split up. “I’m beginning to think we should have let the ghosts in on the plan.” No, Clara, you should have devised a better plan. It’s an adrenaline rushing chase, though, and that’s a good enough excuse. I’ll even excuse the idiocy of both Clara and Lunn as each stands squarely in the middle of the doorway in full view before the door slams shut. Only then do they duck to the side out of sight. In Lunn’s case he’s too late, but luckily Cass had the foresight all along to keep Lunn out of the alien spacecraft so he doesn’t have the code words embedded in his brain and the ghosts let him go; and how convenient too, that this is the means by which the Doctor figures out that it is the markings in the ship that are the key.
The markings in the ship; the code words—this is both ingenious and head scratching. It is expertly done as one by one characters gaze at the etchings and we see those strange symbols reflected in their eyes. The ghosts silently chanting the translation is haunting and the tying in of Cass’s ability to lip read is clever. The words themselves—the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple—are intriguing and the Doctor’s conclusion that these are coordinates leading to the church within the flooded and abandoned town is original. However I can’t get over the vagueness of it all. OK, I can accept the space, Earth (as the fourth component of Orion’s Belt), and church suppositions, but how does “forsaken” lead one to that specific flooded and abandoned town? Surely there are thousands of abandoned towns with churches on the planet.
There are a few more minor issues I have with this episode. How is it that the ghosts are able to manipulate the system during the day cycle when supposedly they can only come out at night? Why did the TARDIS materialize on this base to begin with when it doesn’t like being there? Finally I have to question the efficiency of this ghost transmitter idea. With technology like that, wouldn’t you think the alien intelligence that created these ghosts would have had the means to transmit the coordinates in a more direct fashion? But oh well, as we say in Nelma.
As in any good Doctor Who, the action takes over, sweeping any questions aside. The group races against the clock to reach the TARDIS before they get trapped; only half of them make it. The Doctor, O’Donnell and Bennett board the TARDIS to go back in time to before the flood while Clara, Cass, and Lunn remain behind. “Sit tight,” the Doctor tells them. “I’ll come back for you.” Clara trusts the Doctor one hundred percent. “This is how we roll,” Clara states confidently. “He’s going to go away, come back, and we’ll have to listen to how he did it.” However while she says this a new ghost appears and with growing dread the trapped trio realizes—it is the Doctor.
Replete with flaws, Under the Lake nevertheless transcends them all to deliver one doozy of a tale, topped with one whiz-bang cliffhanger. In short, Gary, Under the Lake is some darn good Doctor Who.