Saturday, April 9, 2016

Flatline

Dear Gary—
Flatline is a decent enough adventure; a semi-entertaining way to spend some 45 minutes. But decent enough and semi-entertaining doesn’t cut it anymore. Doctor Who used to be able to carry the weight of mediocre and even bad episodes. Not anymore. There are just too many of them piling up. The strength of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman combined with amusing bits and witty dialogue can’t continue to cover for the preponderance of defects.
And it does not help that the Doctor stubbornly refuses to leave Earth. The landscape is beginning to get monotonous, and the dull surroundings of our current story do nothing to alleviate this. The guest cast also doesn’t do much in the way of adding any spark to the proceedings. Altogether these elements are as two dimensional as our villains of the hour. A little thing like placing the action on an alien planet would go a long way; but alas we continue in this rut of Doctor Who’s making.

As we also continue in Doctor Who’s rut of sacrificing adventure for arcs and agendas. This story is obviously set up to showcase Clara as a Doctor substitute. It has a promising enough start. The TARDIS is shrinking. There are all kinds of tensions and dangers and catastrophes that could be mined with such a development. Except it is treated simply as a joke.
The TARDIS has shrunk and the Doctor is curious. Not concerned, just curious. He finds it “impressive.” Clara merely finds it “annoying.” She’s home, after all. Not exactly where she would like to be, which would be in her London apartment. Instead she finds herself in Bristol. “Yes, I get it,” she tells the Doctor upon discovering the tiny TARDIS, “you’re excited.” But Clara isn’t even the least bit interested. “When can I go home,” she demands. She can take a train or a taxi or rent a car or call a friend for a ride. She isn’t anywhere close to being marooned yet she stamps her foot and insists on the TARDIS taking her exactly where she wants when she wants regardless of the serious flaw that this magical blue box has developed and with no regard to the Doctor’s predicament.
The Doctor sends Clara out to look for answers while he squeezes himself back into the TARDIS, apparently indifferent to any risks this might entail. Clara immediately gets distracted by an unknown memorial and a gang of guys doing community service cleaning up some peculiar graffiti. There is no urgency to any of this, and when Clara wanders back to find the TARDIS shrunk even more, rendering it impossible for the Doctor to escape, she laughs. “Oh my god, that is so adorable,” she proclaims. Any sense of tension the audience might feel upon discovering this startling state of affairs is deflated. The TARDIS is in no danger; the Doctor is in no danger. This is a whimsical turn for Clara’s and our amusement.
Clara picks the adorable toy TARDIS up and deposits it in her purse and rubs her hands in delight now that she is on her own to play the Doctor. Well, not alone since the Doctor is in her ear telling her what to do, but she can put up a good front. And she has the Doctor’s magic sonic which he can fit through the tiny door as well as his magical sledgehammer.
There is a fleeting moment of panic when the tiny TARDIS lands on a rail line with a train headed straight for it, but that too is played for laughs with the hilarious Adam’s Family escape plan.
Contrast the comedy with the gritty aspect of the setting and the horrific nature of the monsters. Learning that the murals in the victim’s apartments are actually residual elements of the victims—their skin and nervous systems to be exact—flattened for experimental purposes and left behind in some grim display is horrifying. And realizing that the memorial graffiti of lost loved ones on the tunnel wall are actually those same loved ones, again flattened and saved, is ghastly; and watching as they come to life is terrifying.
But all of this is terror for terror’s sake. The monsters are merely that. Monsters. No context; no explanation; no motivation. The Doctor comes right out and says this: “I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us,” he says. And then he adds, “I don’t suppose it really matters now.” The script is acknowledging that it has no idea what these monsters are or what they want or even if they are good, bad, or indifferent; and it doesn’t really care. Why bother with the details, the script says; we have a cool monster with cool special effects, what else do you want?
Monsters, plot, adventure—none of it matters except insofar as they advance the season’s agenda.
And so we have the Doctor throwing up his hands and stating: “You are monsters. That is the role you seemed determined to play. So it seems I must play mine.” Sweep aside any attempt at understanding. The only purpose of these monsters is to define the Doctor: “The man that stops the monsters.” And to provide a sufficient menace so long as it is needed and then a quick exit when no longer required with no thought as to who these monsters were, what they wanted, where they came from, or if they will ever return.  (The Doctor’s veiled warning of “this plane is protected” doesn’t seem like it is much of a deterrence and brings to mind the Tenth Doctor’s, “it is defended” speech from The Christmas Invasion and the Eleventh’s “is this world protected” from The Eleventh Hour.)
They are a made up and throw away monster with not even any consistency within the span of this one story. Some victims are flattened in a lineup, some have only remnants flattened in their homes. Sometimes the monsters undulate through the floor to their victims, sometimes they unglue themselves from the wall and follow in cartoonish form, and sometimes they swoop down from the ceiling with lightening speed and giant hand to scoop up an unwary person.
It’s rather amusing, when I think of it, that they concentrate their efforts on this one band of community service workers. But then, there are no other people who seem to inhabit this city. Doctor Who apparently skimped on the extra budget for this episode. Even the train turns out to be empty save for the driver.
Then we have Clara. Still blatantly lying to both the Doctor and Danny. “Goodness had nothing to do with it,” the Doctor tells her when she pesters him for a compliment regarding her Doctor impersonation. Goodness hasn’t much to do with Clara at all, and I’m wondering even more why the Doctor wants her around. Full of self-importance, she barrels her way through the episode disregarding the people around her. She has some good instincts and great ideas that get them through (or those that survive at any rate), but the Doctor is correct, “goodness had nothing to do with it.”
There is one telling scene in particular that catches my notice. Rigsy, who has been following Clara around like a puppy-dog wagging his tail, points out a work of art in the tunnel. “It’s one of mine,” he proudly tells her. “Do you like it?” Without even glancing at it Clara dismisses him with, “Yeah, not bad,” before continuing on her one track course of action. To be fair, they are being chased by monsters; but poor Rigsy.
“A lot of people died and maybe the wrong people survived,” the Doctor says after his exchange with Fenton. (Brings to mind Mr. Copper’s comment regarding Rickston Slade in Voyage of the Damned.) Fenton’s comparison to a forest fire—“The objective is to save the great trees, not the brushwood”—is remarkably similar to Clara’s “on balance” perspective.
I can’t tell if the show is deliberately undermining her character or not. The Doctor’s “goodness had nothing to do with it” is calculated, but to what purpose?
I’m finding much of the machinations of this season to be muddled. Clara played Doctor for a day and she was “exceptional.” Did she learn anything, however? Her main goal afterwards is to be praised for her performance. She wants the Doctor to give her an ‘A.’ The grade is the thing, not the lesson learned. If there is any lesson to be learned. The teacher doesn’t appear to be a very good student. So what are we as the audience to take away from this? All I take away is a growing dislike of Clara that the charm of Jenna Coleman can’t always overcome.
Finally we have Missy peering into her crystal ball and proclaiming, “Clara; my Clara. I have chosen well.” So perhaps the show is deliberately undermining the character. But I’m finding, Gary, that I don’t much care.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mummy on the Orient Express

Dear Gary—
I have officially lost all respect for Clara. She is like a woman who dumps her boyfriend but then decides to go on one last all-expenses paid, around the world trip with him, because, hey, it’s an all-expenses paid, around the world trip.
Mummy on the Orient Express would be a perfectly fine adventure except for this fact. It has all the elements—great setting, solid guest cast, creepy monster, wonderful wardrobe, and witty dialogue. It has just about everything to make me sit back and enjoy myself for an hour. And for the most part I do. However my enjoyment is something like Clara’s sad smile. “It’s like two emotions at once,” the Doctor tells her. “It’s like you’re malfunctioning.”  That sticks in my head as I watch, and I can’t help seeing the two layers throughout; peeling back the veneer to get at the dark underbelly. There is a literal level to this that is highly appropriate as the script plays with things not always being what they appear.
“Your train awaits, my lady,” the Doctor announces as he and Clara step out of the TARDIS and into the baggage car. (“But thanks for lying.”) Moving on into the train proper the Doctor explains that this is a perfect recreation of the Orient Express with the twist that it is a train in space. The Doctor has chosen this locale for his and Clara’s “last hurrah” together, and on the surface it seems an interesting and exciting choice. The passengers are donned in their best period costumes and acting exactly as though they have been transported back in time to a Victorian world. But what is the point of it all? Just an excuse to play dress up? Other than the clothes, these people are simply riding a train to some unknown or undisclosed destination, or perhaps are merely riding in circles through space. There is no other connection to the time period or the historical train. Not even a murder mystery party going on (other than the real one that pops up much to everyone’s horror). The Doctor and Clara step out of the TARDIS to sip a few drinks while looking out at the stars, something they could do just as well in the TARDIS, and then wander off to bed. What a thrill.
At this point I’m beginning to wonder why the Doctor even wants to continue travelling with Clara. They each seem more or less bored. The Doctor alone in his berth drives home that he is not having the time of his life and he soon gets up in search of fun on his own, pointedly passing up an opportunity to rouse his traveling companion. Clara in the meantime is distractedly talking to Poor Danny Pink, her supposed boyfriend, before deciding to search out the Doctor, her adrenaline dealer. Discovering that he has lit out on his own, Clara instead follows behind the obviously distraught Maisie whose grandmother has just died. The bulk of the remaining episode has the two separated, and given the awkward tension that exists between them in the opening minutes that’s a blessing in disguise.
The Doctor picks up a new companion for the run of the episode in Perkins, the mysterious Chief Engineer who seems to know far more than he should. He’s a pleasant enough person to play a pseudo companion, but I’m glad that he doesn’t take the Doctor’s implied offer up to make his position permanent. He’s too much of a blank slate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in fact it could be quite interesting finding out what is behind those gaping eyes of his. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he is in league with Gus or Missy or that he is an escaped convict or any manner of bad things. Except I don’t sense any depth behind his one-off persona created for this one-off episode. He is a bit like some cardboard scenery that looks good provided you don’t get too close (apropos of my theme for the day).
Now let’s dig into this monster. A mummy of legend who appears only to its victims and allows them 66 seconds before killing them. It’s chilling and intriguing in concept and realized expertly. The mummy looks grotesquely authentic and the victims sufficiently terrified. The fact that this creature is out of phase, thus accounting for the 66 seconds (to phase-shift the victims) and its unseen nature, is plausible. But then we learn that this mummy is not a mummy (“Are you my mummy?”) but is actually a soldier. So why the mummy disguise? The soldier, “wounded in a forgotten war thousands of years ago,” has been kept alive, or at least mobile, using some sort of unexplained technology and has been bandaged head to foot. Was it a full body wound? Or is the swaddling to keep the tech inside? What exactly is under those bandages? Is there a body, brain, organs? Or is it all tech?
And OK, it’s a soldier from a forgotten war. But does this automatically make it a random killing machine? Excuse me, it turns out not to be random. But what kind of soldier goes around picking and choosing its victims based on whether they have physical or emotional scars? Was this a war against disease that has been long forgotten? Is this soldier an antibody? And how exactly does it drain the energy from a body? The tech that is piled inside of it I guess. Is that how it fought on that long ago battlefield? Two armies reaching out to grasp the heads of their enemies to drain energy? That was some war.
So this ancient soldier fights on with no real purpose. It simply goes wherever its magic banner appears and starts picking off strangers one by one based on their state of health, both mental and physical. There is the 66 second specificity to the length of time it takes to kill, but there seems to be no particular pattern in the time between attacks. It probably needs to figure out by whatever improbable tech that is crammed inside of it which person is the sickest before it acts. This guy should get together with the pirate siren from The Curse of the Black Spot.
And all it takes to stop the thing is the magic phrase, “We surrender.” Poof, it disappears in a pile of ash. No taking of prisoners; no going home to loved ones; no victory parades; just die. Soldiers are not wanted once the battle is over apparently.  
They’re not wanted by Gus anymore either. The mysterious Gus has arranged this whole improbable trip in order to harness the power of the mummy, but once the mummy goes poof Gus gives up and blows up the train. Wouldn’t he at least want to get his hands on that alien tech that was all wrapped up in the mummy’s bandages and that was the power behind the legend? No, he washes his hands of his elaborate and very likely expensive scheme with barely a whimper of complaint. Gus or whoever is behind Gus. We never get any answers about this (or these) shadowy villain(s). That speaks to the nature of this story. Like the holographic passengers, so much of it is window dressing. Blow at the wrong time, ask the wrong question, look in the wrong direction and it all goes poof.
In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the assorted experts are really nothing but holograms. This group of professionals and scientists and intellectuals stand around doing a whole lot of nothing. They never once speak, they never consult with each other or cooperate or discuss how exactly they are going to go about analyzing this creature they have been tasked with overpowering. They poke around at equipment and look at charts and never once ask what they are supposed to do with this equipment, who is supposed to do what, how the information they are looking at relates to anyone else’s. This has become a noticeable thing in New Who. From the aimless mobs in The Stolen Earth to the red track-suited Rattigan Academy minions of The Poison Sky/The Sontaran Strategem, New Who background extras have no direction.
These experts are extraneous anyway. The Doctor is the only one needed to unravel this mystery. I don’t know why he needs to actually see the mummy to come to his conclusions, though.  It is the scroll, the “tattered piece of cloth attached to a length of wood,” that provides the vital clue. Shame on the Doctor for not working that out long ago and telling one of the many victims to surrender.
But then we wouldn’t have much of a story. The Doctor taking on Maisie’s pain in order to trick the mummy soldier into attacking him makes for some tension filled yet hilarious moments. And like so much of New Who, everything is so action packed and fast paced that one barely has time to notice the defects.
This brings me back to Clara. “You lied to me again,” Clara accuses the Doctor, and continues, “and you’ve made me lie.” Except Clara needs no help in that area. “He’s fine with it.” Poor Danny Pink. “Danny. He’s fine with the idea of me and you knocking about. It was his idea that we stop, but he’s decided he doesn’t mind and neither do I.” The Doctor has to know that this is a lie—he was there for her major melt-down when she slammed the door on their “knocking about” relationship. Poor Danny Pink had nothing to do with that. But now she invokes his name to cover her shame. And she flat out lies to the two people she cares about most (excluding herself).
I am beginning to despise the individual Clara even while the character (thanks in large part to the actress) remains highly watchable and entertaining. Come to think of it, Gary, that about sums up my growing feeling towards New Who.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Kill the Moon

Dear Gary—

They’re kidding with this one, right? Kill the Moon is a joke; they just want to see if the audience is paying attention. Right? They cannot be serious with this one. Please tell me, Gary, that they are not serious with this one.
I mean, the science is crap; but that’s only the start. If it were only that. Who knew after all these years that we had the makings of one giant omelet in our night’s sky? It might not be cheese, but that’s a lot of egg that could be feeding the world if we only thought to crack it open. I could accept this more easily, crap science aside, if we were not talking about our moon. This is yet again an instance where Doctor Who would have been much better served if it did not insist on being Earth-centric. In this case familiarity is breeding much contempt. It’s not just the many telescopes trained on the moon or the many moon rocks and samples that have been studied or the myriad of scientists who have made the moon their life’s work; it is that the Doctor himself has been to the moon many times, and many of those times have been after the year 2049, and he never noticed? He never realized that the moon of 2070 in the serial The Moonbase (and let’s not forget that Polly was on the moon long before Courtney) was different than our traditional moon? He never detected that the Sea of Tranquility, for instance, was missing? Or are we to believe that the egg this mythical creature lays is identical to the old one down to the last crevice and crater? And if the Doctor did know about the events that take place in our current story all along, he never mentioned the fact? Crap science aside, the Earth’s moon actually being an egg that hatches in 2049 is one giant secret that the Doctor Who universe has been keeping.
More likely this is one time when the Doctor’s “grey areas” claim is a flat out lie. Whichever it is, a secret or a lie, the Doctor comes out badly. Either he is exceedingly dim or exceedingly cruel.
Clara doesn’t fare much better.  She has charge of a troubled, self described “destructive influence” teen in Courtney, and rather than getting her the help she needs Clara exposes her to the Doctor. “I have a duty of care, okay? You know what that is?” Clara asks this far too late and never considers its portent in relation to her own actions. To be fair, the Doctor whisks the two off without Clara’s consent or foreknowledge; but really, Clara should have known better than to harangue the Doctor about his treatment of Courtney while they stand in the TARDIS. Who let Courtney into the TARDIS to begin with? Much less left her there unattended.
 Instead of worrying that the Doctor bruised Courtney’s fragile ego by telling her she’s not special, Clara should be concerned with Courtney’s pattern of self deprecation, unruliness, and irreverence. Rather than forcing a statement of ‘specialness’ out of the Doctor Clara should be looking for the root causes of Courtney’s self-destructive bent and getting her the counseling she sorely needs.
I’m sorry, Gary. I should be able to look past all of these glaring defects. I have many times. However, when the show deliberately steers the story to suit its purposes, both long term and short, without consideration of consistency or decency or credibility, I have to complain.
Perhaps I could overlook, too, if the adventure itself was more compelling. I’m irritated from the start that a bratty teen yet again inveigles her way onto the TARDIS (flashbacks of Nightmare in Silver). Courtney is more palatable than Angie, though, so that’s a plus, even if she does get bored while on the moon in the year 2049 when there is a mystery afoot—maybe she isn’t so special after all but just a typical self-absorbed kid—but I won’t continue down that road Gary.  (Oh how I miss Susan and her sprained ankles right about now. At least she was interested in what was going on around her.)
The dark, drab moonscape doesn’t help, either. Oh, it’s refreshing that they are not on Earth for a change (even if only as far as Earth’s moon). And the second-hand astronauts they run across, the deadly spiders, and the mystifying increase in the moon’s gravity (kudos to the yo-yo test and great call-back to Doctor Four) do provide a decent framework for a potentially engrossing story. But it all falls apart with the jaw-dropping inanity of the conceit.
I’m not even sure what to call this. It could be a beautiful and poetic creation myth of ancient lore; except it is disguising itself as a hard-hitting drama and morality play of contemporary sci-fi. To loosely interpret my dad’s saying, it just doesn’t rhyme.
“In the mid twenty-first century humankind starts creeping off into the stars, spreads its way through the galaxy to the very edges of the universe. And it endures till the end of time.” This was much better told in The Waters of Mars with the inspirational story of Adelaide Brooke. That prior story takes place a mere 10 years after our present—not a lot of time for the shambles of a space program (if you are to believe our present story) to get its act together to construct a viable base on Mars. So there’s that. Not to mention that Adelaide Brooke is light years ahead in her inspiration, and since she represents one of those Doctor Who magical fixed points that even the Daleks respect, it really doesn’t matter what occurs in the narrative at hand.
Yet the Doctor continues in his Nostradamustry: “And it does all that because one day in the year 2049, when it had stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that made it look up, not down.”
The “something occurred” is something that would occur regardless of the Doctor or of Clara or of Courtney. Because if the trio hadn’t arrived at that momentous moment Captain Lundvik would have most certainly died along with her hapless crew and the creature would have hatched and laid its egg and that is the end of that. The Doctor choosing that particular time to materialize only muddies the outcome. He creates a false drama simply to appease Clara (which by the way backfires but more on that later).
“It looked out there into the blackness and it saw something beautiful, something wonderful, that for once it didn’t want to destroy.” Per my previous point, humanity never would have wanted to destroy the “something beautiful, something wonderful” if the Doctor had not interfered. For the most part, humanity looks up into the stars with wonder and hope and awe. It does not gaze up into the Milky Way and dream up schemes of mass destruction. Only the Doctor imagines that. And it is only due to the Doctor’s interference that humanity was ever given the choice.
Ah—the choice. Because, you see, the “it didn’t want to destroy” statement is false. The entire planet (well, actually only the half that faced the moon at the time—and how hilarious that the verdict comes in sports stadium wave-like fashion, as though they coordinated amongst themselves who would shut their lights off first and next and so on; and obviously every individual on the planet—at least on the side facing the moon at the time—has heard Clara’s broadcast; and let’s not think about all of the unoccupied buildings and advertising and such that wouldn’t be as easy as a flick of the switch to turn off—and let’s hope that Las Vegas wasn’t pointing towards the moon at the time) voted for the creature’s destruction. And rightly so. Any sane person would come to the same conclusion given the limited amount of information provided. Presented as it is, in a black or white scenario, there is no choice. The Earth’s future hangs in the balance and the only viable option provided is to destroy the creature (never mind that killing the embryo is no guarantee and will most likely result in status quo—which isn’t any great shakes what with tidal waves and such occurring as it is) since Earth is never given full disclosure. That’s on the Doctor.
Given the scenario in full disclosure, what the Earth should have done is to wait for the egg to hatch and for the new being to lay its egg, and then send every nuclear missile in Earth's arsenal to kill the living creature. Because a being as large as a moon is a menace to the entire universe.  Even if a vegetarian, the vegetation of the entire Earth would be but a day’s repast. How long would it take for this thing to lay waste to the galaxy? And that is only in its infancy. Who knows how big it will become as it reaches maturity? And then imagine if by some miracle that this entity doesn’t need any sustenance, what effect it would have on the gravitational fields of any planet or solar system it happens upon? This is not some miracle of life; this is a devastation of life.
“And in that one moment the whole course of history was changed.” See points above re: The Waters of Mars, not to mention that if this thing has really flown off to wreak untold harm there will be no more history to either change or stagnate (again see points above).
“Not bad for a girl from Coal Hill School and her teacher.” Really, Doctor? You did all of this just to make a point with Clara?
Lunkvik is the only one to get it right: “Look, when you’ve grown up a bit you’ll realize that everything doesn’t have to be nice. Some things are just bad.” Doctor Who, however, refuses to grow up. Doctor Who wants to make everything conveniently nice, despite the crap science. And so we get the serenity on the beach in the aftermath. No tidal waves. No monsoons. No storms. Not even a breeze. Nothing to indicate that anything has occurred in the sky as massive as what has gone down. (Tell me, has Disney taken stock in the BBC?)
Clara gets it right to tell the Doctor to “clear off.”  But you know, Gary, that Clara can’t commit to anything. Her moment of anger is for effect only.
It seems this whole exercise in giant butterfly science is simply to bring us to, “get back in your lonely, your lonely bloody TARDIS and you don’t come back.” For whatever reason that the season arc wants to bring us here.
Kill the Moon—Gary, in this one—and I have to say it—Doctor Who has laid an egg.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Caretaker

Dear Gary—
This is it; this is the beginning of the end. That’s a lot to put on one episode, especially an episode that isn’t all that bad; in fact an episode that I really rather enjoy. Yet The Caretaker epitomizes what is wrong with New Who. Doctor Who is no longer Doctor Who; it is Doctor Who’s Companions and How the TARDIS Affects Everyday Life. This has been a primary focus since Rose with most every companion excepting Donna. Variations on the same theme, as if the show is trying to get it right, and with each new companion it declares a do-over. As such it has become a little show; insular and small; circling back over and over, forever in on itself until its inevitable point of collapse.
The Caretaker is about Clara; it is about Clara’s TARDIS life interfering with her earthly life; it is about her torn loyalties between the Doctor and Danny. Clara has always been an ill-conceived character with little definition or consistency. The Caretaker attempts to legitimize and clarify Clara. In the process, however, it takes one huge magnifying glass to Clara’s flaws. It is the weakness of Clara combined with the tedium of New Who’s repetitious focal point that has finally driven Doctor Who to this epicenter of doom.
 Clara is trying to establish herself on Earth. She has an actual job in an actual school, the Coal Hill School no less, although she is no Barbara Wright. And she is taking a stab at an actual romance. However she is no good at either. She is an indifferent teacher and a duplicitous girlfriend. The fix she finds herself in is of her own making in this ‘I Love Clara’ episode. (I can almost hear the Doctor exclaiming, ‘Clara, you have some splainin to do!’)
Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi play their sitcom roles beautifully, and if this were a standalone, one-off episode it would be fine. But it’s not. It is crafted wholly and solely in service to the season arc. And unfortunately the secrets and lies that are played to comic effect here are firmly entrenched in Clara’s persona and will only lead to death and destruction as this Poor Danny Pink season unfolds.
Poor Danny Pink is where everything goes wrong in this story. He is treated unfairly from start to finish by both the Doctor and Clara, and it is all in service to his sacrificial lamb raison d’etre. As a result both the Doctor and Clara come off badly and I have a hard time liking either despite the deft comedy.
Since his twelfth incarnation the Doctor has exhibited a blind and unreasoning hatred of soldiers. New Who has taken an inconsistent and hypocritical stance towards guns and the military from the beginning, but this entrenched prejudice is still somewhat out of the blue (not to mention his inexplicable bias against PE teachers). Concentrated on Poor Danny Pink, it turns downright ugly. Oh it’s funny enough, the Doctor’s thick-headed insistence that the former soldier can’t be a maths teacher, even if it is done to death. And the Doctor’s mistaken and egotistical assumption that the Eleventh Doctor look-alike Adrian is Clara’s beau is mildly entertaining while at the same time off-putting. And then it totally derails with, “You’ve made a boyfriend error,” followed by, “You haven’t explained him to me.” What business is it of the Doctor who Clara’s boyfriend is? What right has he to interfere in her personal life? And since when has he become so controlling? These are some classic warning signs and Clara should head for the hills.
However it is Danny who should really be packing his bags. He knows it too. “It’s funny,” he tells her, “you only really know what someone thinks of you when you know what lies they’ve told you.”  And then his question, “So what do you think of me, Clara?” He knows the answer: very little. She lies and lies again; even when caught in her lies she continues to deceive. “It’s a play” indeed. Quite hilarious for the audience; quite insulting to Poor Danny Pink. Yet he sticks around. He says he wants to know her—to know what she is like with the Doctor. So what does she do? She gives him the Doctor’s invisibility ring so they can go and fool the Doctor for a change. She just is not capable of playing it straight with anyone.
As the two of them stand facing the window while they try to hold a meaningful conversation I get bored and distracted. It is a powerful scene, well acted and well directed. It delves into significant issues about relationships and explores the innermost workings of Clara and Danny. But I don’t care about these two as a couple. I know they are wrong for each other and that there is no true understanding or respect between them. This serious tone is jarring against the rom-com first half of the tale and my thoughts drift to the foreseeable Poor Danny Pink arc and away from the story at hand.
The story at hand, by the way, includes a striking but expendable new alien, the Skovox Blitzer. Its purpose and presence only tenuously explained, it provides the necessary action and drama for our three principals to work through their various relationship problems. In the end it is left to float ineffectually through space with no mention of its home planet or the rest of its deadly kin. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with seasonal arcs. Everything is sacrificed for the overreaching storyline. Aliens and planets and characters and personality traits are created by the author for the sole purpose of advancing the arc with little or no effort put into explaining or exploring them.
Thus, The Caretaker starts with several vignettes of adventures that the Doctor and Clara experience. They are all rather wonderful and enjoyable and would make great episodes if fleshed out. But they aren’t important to the program. Their only reason for being is to highlight the hectic and harried life that Clara is leading.
Clara is the embodiment of this approach. She was created to carry one arc and has stuck around and now a new arc is being constructed around her. There is no true core to Clara’s makeup—she is being made up as the series progresses to fit the arc and has no clarity or consistency. The show and the Doctor are both dangerously flirting with this predicament as well.
Tacked on to the story is the introduction of ‘disruptive influence’ Courtney. In stark contrast to the preposterous lengths Clara goes to in order to keep the truth from Poor Danny Pink is the laissez faire attitude the Doctor takes towards allowing Courtney into the TARDIS. It is annoying and simply an excuse to set up the following episode.
Also tacked on is the Missy/Paradise arc with the throw-away character of CSO Matthew dying and finding himself in white corridor limbo with newly concocted Seb. I’m not even going to go into that one.
I’m going to do some tacking on myself, Gary, and ponder on Clara’s mention of Boggons and can only wonder if these are somehow related to Blorgons.
Overall I enjoy this episode if viewed simply in and of itself. But it can’t be viewed simply in and of itself and that is its main problem. I hope, Gary, that somewhere out there you are having your own adventures with Boggons and Buddy Holly and have no time for these increasingly inane and forced plot arcs.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Time Heist

Dear Gary—
Time Heist is another winner. The Twelfth Doctor has yet to have a clinker. Helping immensely is the fact that none of the episodes so far have been anchored by any onerous arcs. Oh, there have been hints and glimpses, but nothing too ponderous. Free of seasonal weights, each story has been unique and different, treating us to a kaleidoscope of genres. This particular entry explores the crime caper. It is fast paced, clever, and witty; everything it needs to be during its 45 minute running time.
Doctor Who often used to lead with a humorous and companionable TARDIS scene. These days we start with a humorous and companionable Clara’s home scene since Clara still can’t commit. She’s off on another date to begin our episode and we get the-Doctor-is-rather-thick-when-it-comes-to-Clara’s-make-up-and-private-life shtick, which has become a ‘thing’ with them. It still entertains and they do it well so I won’t complain.
The ringing phone bit has also been done before, but again I’ll let it slide because it too is amusing. These two tropes do serve to tie in the season arcs of Poor Danny and the “woman in a shop” but I’ll overlook that as well due to the overall good will I feel towards this adventure (and I have a feeling this is not going to last long).
“I’m an amnesiac robbing a bank. Why would I be Okay?” He is OK, though, the Doctor is. In fact he is the mastermind, the ‘Architect’ (the Great Architect?—no, that’s another era, another story) who has plotted out this heist, even if he doesn’t know it. It is cleverly done, with the shape shifting Saibra posing the question, “Could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?”  And with Karabraxos not getting on with her own clone.  All leading to the Doctor’s conclusion that he is the self same and hated Architect. These clues are woven tightly into the plot and not extraneous and glaring tag-ons.  
It’s a neat little adventure the Doctor has written for himself, and in Saibra and Psi he has provided himself with some worthy allies. Enough is revealed about the angst of these two characters in the limited time allotted to provide a rewarding “picture the thing you want most in the universe” payoff. The seeming deaths of both Saibra and Psi provide some moving and dramatic moments; however given that the Doctor is the author, it is no wonder that the “exit strategy” is not a suicide pill but an escape, and I welcome the return of these two to the story. Enough deaths are depicted in Doctor Who; it is a pleasant change to have a couple survivals. (Even if there are countless lives lost on this doomed bank planet, but I won’t get into that.)
It is also a nice twist that the monster turns out to be the victim. I don’t know why, but for some reason I am reminded of the Garm when I think of the Teller and his mate set free to walk the wilds of a quiet and pristine planet, and I wonder what he might be up to and if he has any fellow Garms out there in the wide universe who might enrich his remaining days. Maybe I’m just in a nostalgic mood as I approach the end of New Who episodes that are currently in existence. Perhaps that is why I am finding it more and more difficult to write these entries. I just cannot seem to get motivated, despite the recent upswing in quality of the show. Perhaps it is because I know what lies ahead and I am a little sad.
Whatever the reason, all I can say is that I liked this story. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman remain strong. The writing is good and the production values are solid. The guest cast is stellar and the direction is first rate.
I have come to the reluctant conclusion though, Gary, that if all that existed in this world was New Who I never would have become a fan. It is a show, a good show, but just a show. Nothing unique or different or outstanding to differentiate it from any other action/adventure/sci fi show out there. Even the blue box has become obsolete—any alien can time travel these days. What’s the big deal?
This is a time heist, just to differentiate it from any old crime caper. But what of it? I can’t even figure what time lines any of these people are on. The actual adventure is presumably in the future (relative to our timeframe and I suppose that of Clara) and it was instigated by Karabraxos at an even more future date; yet she telephones the Doctor in the present (our present and Clara’s); and who knows what dates the Doctor plucks Psi and Saibra from or where he leaves the Teller and his mate for that matter. Time is relative, as the Doctor was wont to say. But time in this story and in New Who in general is rendered irrelevant. It is all mixed and jumbled and what does it matter? Just throw out general terms and concepts and don’t even think about the particulars.
“Shut up. Just shut up. Shut up, shut up, shutetty up up up.”
Sorry, Gary. I’ll shut up now. That is, until I “de-shut up.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Listen

Dear Gary—
“So, is it possible we’ve just saved that kid from another kid in a bedspread?”
Yes—and that’s what makes Listen especially creepy—we never know for sure. There is no monster under the bed or at the end of the universe or in a lonely barn. It is all in the mind; it is all conjecture; and that is the scariest prospect of all. Listen is a ghost story told around a campfire, and just at its deepest, darkest moment, when all ears are strained, when each imagination is stirred, the teller leaps out at you with a great shout—‘You’ve got it!’ And every listener jumps out of their skin with their own very personal reaction.
Internalized fears are the most fearsome; Listen is about the Doctor’s internalized fears. Oh, he faces monsters on a daily basis; he confronts aliens as a matter of course. However when all alone, when the silence overtakes him, his mind reels with the possibilities and imaginary evils take hold. That is when the Doctor feels the breath on the back of his neck; that is when his hair stands on end.
When all alone and scared in the TARDIS, talking to himself and his mind gone mad with the silence, the Doctor reaches out for companionship.
“Fear makes companions of us all.”
The Doctor reaches out for Clara.
“I need you . . . for a thing.”
At this point I would like to point out, Gary, that if the Doctor would get himself a permanent companion he wouldn’t have this problem. And if Clara would commit to the TARDIS she wouldn’t have the relationship problems she has and poor Danny Pink wouldn’t suffer the consequences. It’s maddening that New Who keeps circling back to the same old themes. However Listen makes up for the retread with its overall excellence.
As a whole, the story falls apart. However it is held together by the Doctor’s imagination despite Clara’s hijacking of the narrative.
The Doctor is out to exorcise his own demon, but he hasn’t one coherent idea of what that is. Is it the monster under his bed or the unseen listener or the hidden prankster who steals his coffee cup when he’s not looking? He has no clue what he is chasing. So how does he know that the beings he encounters with Clara at the navigational wheel are those he seeks, much less are of the same type? For all he knows he is confronting a child under a bedspread and banging pipes. For all he knows he is confronting an ET type creature and the unknown entity from Midnight. The only thing linking them is the Doctor’s own fears that he is projecting onto them.
Meanwhile Clara is projecting her own insecurities into the mix and the two wind up hop scotching their way through poor Danny Pink’s ancestral line. The result is a series of poignant vignettes that lay bare some of the innermost workings of the Doctor and Clara.
I’ll take each of these in turn and I’ll start with the overarching one, and that is Clara’s “I am trying to have a date” storyline. To begin, she’s not very good at it. “I mouth off when I’m nervous and I’ve got a mouth on me,” she tells Danny by way of excuse for the disaster of a date they are having. Both are nervous and awkward and highly sensitive. By all rights these two should not get together; they have a sitcom level attraction for one another and that’s it. They have no depth of feeling or understanding between them, and the super high level of alert each is on throws up seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
This is where Clara’s flighty TARDIS life both helps and hinders. She shouldn’t be getting into any serious relationship at all since she has evident commitment issues. The fact that she is trying only points to a life ahead of secrets and lies and superficial romance. Already the interruptions by her alternate reality are disrupting her date and causing a series of social blunders and miscues that she clumsily tries to cover.  However, access to a time machine means she can go back and try to make amends (even though she really should leave well enough alone; or if she really wanted, she should do it honestly and up front and not by backdoor stealth and magic).
Poor Danny Pink. I can’t think of him in any other way.
But it is amusingly done, this romcom pairing that is setting up the Poor Danny Pink season arc. For this one story I can accept it for the casual entertainment it offers and for the effective tie in with the Doctor’s ghost story of a chase.
This leads us to the kid under the covers, “I think I got distracted” tale of Poor Danny Pink’s childhood (back when he was known as Rupert Pink). Clara has a much more natural rapport with young Rupert; perhaps it is her teacher instincts. Her use of the plastic army men to allay Rupert’s fears is clever and ties in nicely with Poor Danny Pink’s soldiering. I’m not sure why Clara can’t bring herself to tell the Doctor who Rupert is, except that it shows she is lying to both of the men in her life as well as not committing to either.
The Doctor, meantime, is so caught up in his own train of thought that he doesn’t pick up on Clara’s unease, nor does he come any closer to uncovering whatever it is he is hell bent on uncovering. He has vague notions about shared dreams and monsters under the bed and perfectly camouflaged creatures who listen in on private conversations. None of these are clearly defined or linked, and none of them have much to do with young Rupert’s lonely existence.
Rupert has had a dream about a hand from under the bed grabbing his foot, or at least that is what Clara presumes and feeds to his impressionable mind, thus perhaps bending and shaping what he had actually experienced in that darkened room. Her crawling under the bed to calm his nerves is an inspired move. The bed suddenly sagging as though a weight has been added is spine tingling. But I have to point out that if this were the Doctor’s camouflage creature who wants to remain hidden, this is not the way to go about it. Neither is sitting up underneath the covers for all to see that something is physically present. The Doctor speaks to it as though it really is someone who wants to go unnoticed, but that is ludicrous given its obvious presence.
This is not exactly a scientific investigation that the Doctor is conducting to prove his hypothesis that he has scribbled out on the TARDIS blackboards. But it makes for some spooky moments for one and all to enjoy.
Next we have the encounter with Poor Danny Pink’s supposed descendent Orson Pink at the end of the universe. The dream and monster under the bed angle has been abandoned here. We have only the imagined evils lurking in the dark and banging on the door. For all they know this is a Toclafane trying to get in. Or banging pipes. It’s the random assault of one’s psyche as he or she sits alone and scared in the silence of the night. Another effective and eerie sequence, but not proving anything and only connected to previous events through the Pink line.
Finally we come to the tiny Doctor, alone and frightened in a barn loft with Clara under his bed. Clara—the source of it all. Clara—whispering in the Doctor’s ear. Clara—a source of comfort for both of her dalliances in their youths. A series of poignant vignettes only loosely linked yet tightly bound. And only Clara knows the truth.
The Doctor hasn’t come to any conclusions, but I doubt he really was after any given the haphazard way he went about things. Instead we have Clara lying to, inspiring, and making a mockery of both the men in her life.
Poor Danny Pink should run when he has the chance. Clara has given him the gift of courage in the form of Dan the plastic soldier man, but now she ridicules his past even while keeping major secrets from him.
As for the Doctor, he has asked for her help only for her to sidetrack him into areas unrelated to his quest without informing him of the detour and then teasing him with: “What if there never was anything? Nothing under the bed; nothing at the door. What if the big bad Time Lord doesn’t want to admit he’s just afraid of the dark?” Along the way she inspires the nightmare that triggers this episode as well as the comfort of fear.
“This is just a dream,” she tells him. “But very clever people can hear dreams. So please, just listen. I know you’re afraid, but being afraid is all right. Because didn’t anybody ever tell you? Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger.”
Loosely linked yet tightly bound. It all comes full circle, not just within the episode, not just within New Who, but within the series as a whole.
Clara triggers the dream that triggers the episode; she provides the words the Doctor will use to reassure young Rupert; she instills the fortitude the Warrior Doctor will need in his fateful hour at that long ago barn. And she leaves these parting words: “Fear makes companions of us all.” Words echoing all the way back to the First Doctor and the first adventure. “Fear makes companions of all of us,” Doctor One tells Barbara.
Loosely linked yet tightly bound. It’s a wonderful little episode, Gary.
 I’ll leave you with this: “Fear can bring you home . . . .”

Friday, December 4, 2015

Robot of Sherwood

Dear Gary—
Robot of Sherwood is nothing but pure fun. That’s one of the great things about the Doctor Who format; it accommodates a wide variety of styles. (At least the Doctor Who format as unencumbered by season arcs; but since Robot of Sherwood for the most part flies free of the arc I’m not going to mention it.) It begins with the Doctor asking Clara where she wants to go; “wherever, whenever, anywhere in time and space.”  No matter how outlandish or made up or old-fashioned; the Doctor is willing to comply. Gleefully she responds with, “Robin Hood.”  It is just such joyful adventures that keep companions on board.
And it is also what keeps me on board. Robot of Sherwood is pure delight. No Danny Pink; no Missy. Simply the Doctor and his companion on an adventure. Wonderful sets; great costumes (and really, the Doctor must keep a professional hair stylist on retainer for the use of his companions); excellent guest actors; witty script. Doctor Who at its best.
Landing in 1190 AD (ish) Sherwood Forest, I half expect to see the gang from The King’s Demons make an appearance. And then lo and behold, the Sheriff of Nottingham shows up looking for all the world like Anthony Ainley’s Master from that long ago serial. I can almost believe that the Doctor has crossed back into the Master’s time line and has run across him in disguise once again. It lends a deeper layer of appreciation in my viewing, not that Robot of Sherwood needs any aid.
Clara: “When did you stop believing in everything?”
Doctor: “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?”
The Doctor’s skepticism plays well against Clara’s unbridled enthusiasm. It is also a nice echo back to Into the Dalek in which the Doctor dared to hope he had found a good Dalek only to be perversely pleased when his world view was confirmed and the incontrovertibility of Daleks’ evilness affirmed. Now, confronted with the laughing countenance of an impossible hero, the Doctor sonics an apple as he searches for any scrap of evidence that the legend before him is not real.
I love how the story plays with the concepts of legend and reality as both of our Impossible Heroes (wish that word impossible wasn’t so used and abused by New Who) bicker their way through the larger than life historical.  It is a wonderful bit of hilarity as the Doctor examines this too perfect world while Robin and his Merry Men banter. (“That was bantering. I am totally against bantering.”) From one preposterous sandal sniffing test to another, the Doctor is determined to find the lie behind these men even while Clara elicits the grim truth of Sherwood’s “dark days.”
Feeding us images of the fable that is Robin Hood (complete with a fabulous shot of Patrick Troughton in the classic role) and paying homage to the swashbuckling tale with scenes such as the archery contest and Robin sliding down the banner with his knife, the episode lovingly encapsulates the myth while at the same time carving out a sincere characterization of the man. In doing so it highlights the Doctor’s similar dichotomy. Perhaps it is because Robin’s story hits so close to home that the Doctor is so driven to disprove the facts before him.
And the more the Doctor disbelieves, the more ornery and cantankerous he becomes, the more I love him. Last entry I compared him to Doctor Four; now I can only say that he holds up well to Doctor Number One. Characteristics of my top two Doctors rolled into one. Peter Capaldi is rapidly rising in my esteem.
Clara, too, is observing and assessing the Doctor. Building on her more realistic approach to their relationship that she has been forging since Deep Breath, Clara sees her Impossible Hero with all his flaws. No more star struck worship. Robot of Sherwood not only allows the Doctor to be fallible, it revels in his mistakes.
Doctor:  “Well, there is a bright side.”
Robin: “Which is?”
Doctor: “Clara didn’t see that.”
What she does see is enough. These two legendary, larger than life, heroic figures bickering and competing and in all ways acting petty and childish in a wonderfully comedic scene while their lives hang in the balance. Clara clearly is the grown-up in this scenario and the fact that the guard pegs her as the leader is amusing and fitting. After all, this is a story of Clara’s making. Sherwood was her choice. The Doctor and Robin Hood are her heroes; her impossible heroes. That they do not live up to their heroic legends does not lead to deep, dark angst and tragedy to which New Who has so often fallen victim. No; rather it leads to an amusing lark in which Clara becomes a hero in the Doctor’s and the Prince of Thieves’ name.
Doctor: “I’m not a hero.”
Robin: “Well, neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be . . . Ha, ha! . . . Perhaps others will be heroes in our name.”
The golden arrow of an end is a bit of a stretch, but it is apt that it comes about as a result of cooperation between our three heroes and not one Superhero Moment. And I am especially glad it doesn’t come about as a result of the magic sonic. (One of the many highlights for me is this observation from Clara: “Can you explain your plan without using the word sonic screwdriver? Because you might have forgotten, the Sheriff of Nottingham has taken your sonic screwdriver; just saying. It’s always the screwdriver.”)
I just want to say one quick word about Marian. It is obvious from the start that this woman is Maid Marian, but it plays out subtly and without a lot of fanfare. She is quietly heroic in her own right, with a little inspiration from the Doctor. Her revelation at the end as the TARDIS dematerializes is a lovely way to conclude.
My final thought, however, comes courtesy of Robin Hood: “Fly among the stars,” he tells the Doctor, “fighting the good fight.” My initial reaction is personal and one you would appreciate, Gary. When I hear that line I immediately think of driving Up North, and as we pass through Bonduel I always remark that they should adopt the slogan ‘Fight the good fight’ for their fair village. Beyond that, however, as Robin takes his farewell of the Doctor I am reminded of the first Doctor going forward in his beliefs and seeking his own truth amongst the stars.
I hope this finds you some day, Gary, fighting the good fight as you seek truth amongst the stars . . .