Saturday, June 16, 2018

Smile


Dear Gary— 

Smile is The Happiness Patrol all over again, except without any soul. Helen A gives The Happiness Patrol a human face that is sorely missing in this modern retelling of the tale. Smile is a stripped down, nuts and bolts, bare bones story for the Snapchat age.

Bill chooses a trip to the future because (“why do you think?”) she wants to see if it is a happy future. (OK.) Now the word happy could have a multitude of interpretations, and it is never good when some one person (or in the present case a machine brain) determines what constitutes happy (just ask Helen A’s subjects). Yet the Doctor blithely states of the future he has chosen to show Bill, “They say the settlers have cracked the secret of human happiness.” The Doctor should know better, if nothing else based upon his Happiness Patrol experience.

Based upon my Happiness Patrol experience, and now my Smile experience, I wish I was back in that earlier (dare I say happier?) time.

Smile starts out promising enough with Bill in the TARDIS delivering rapid fire questions that make even the Doctor scratch his head. Then Nardole enters to put a brief damper on things before the Doctor and Bill sneak off for a quick adventure into the future on what has become a rarity in New Who—another planet. It is, of course, an Earth colony, but still it is off world.

I do love the Doctor’s explanation of travel in the TARDIS: “You don’t steer the TARDIS, you negotiate with it. The still point between where you want to go and where you need to be, that’s where she takes you.”

The still point that the TARDIS brings the Doctor and Bill to is in the middle of a gorgeous wheat field and the two proceed to the sterile white city they see in the distance. The city is more or less one giant structure of blank walls and endless corridors with hardly a living quarter, much less a room, visible. It renders laughable Bill’s observation when she first enters the spaceship: “Whoever did the interior decoration in here needs to take lessons from whoever did it out there.” The only furniture seen in this ‘out there’ city is one small set of cafeteria type table and chairs with some unappetizing blue cubes on two plates set out for them to eat. At this point Bill remarks, “Two portions. One portion. Is there going to be food sexism even in the future?” Here I have to point out the obvious that Bill should have figured out (Bill who is usually the one asking all of the hidden in plain sight questions).  Bill is the one who chose to sit down by the plate with only one portion. If anyone is being food sexist (I guess that is a thing?) it is she.

Besides lacking d├ęcor, this barren city is also bereft of people. The Doctor is puzzled by this fact; however the audience is let in on the secret early on.  It is a delightful little scene; not stupid at all. A terrified citizen within the city (Goodthing) calls a contented citizen (Kezzia) joyfully walking in the idyllic wheat fields. Goodthing warns Kezzia to stay out of the city without explaining why. Kezzia ignores this advice and returns to the city where Goodthing informs her that everyone she knows is dead, but for goodness’ sake smile. No explanation, just ‘people are dead so smile.’ Naturally enough, Kezzia does not smile; she weeps, or at least her emoji mood badge weeps for her and that is enough to make the robots kill her. (And yes, Doctor, they are robots. Interface or not, they are robots. Those other tiny flying things might also be robots—I’ll have to take the Doctor’s word on that—but so are the killer Emojibots robots.) The Doctor works out this deadly reality and confirms his suspicions when he opens a hopper to discover a stash of human skulls that for some convenient reason have been rejected by the machine that is turning all the corpses into fertilizer.

It is entertaining enough to watch these events unfold. The Doctor and Bill are turning into a companionable team, somewhat on a par with the Seventh Doctor and Ace. Their first encounter with the Vardy is amusing, and watching the Doctor work out what is going on is interesting.

I have to say, though, that these Vardy Emojibots are rubbish. It’s not that they go about killing people; it is that as an interface their primary function is to communicate, yet they can only communicate in an extremely limited emoji vocabulary. Really? Who thought up that light bulb? Ah, yes . . . the show runners and/or author of the piece. Someone said, let’s make a story about the ubiquitous emoji. We’ll use some cute little robots (yes robots) and see how wrong things can go from there. At this point begins my own germ of an idea—the creators of Doctor Who aren’t trying to make Doctor Who at all anymore. They are going for Black Mirror. To which I say, if you want to make an episode of Black Mirror, go work for Black Mirror.

Talking about rubbish—let’s think about these tiny flying robots making up the construct of the city. Whose bright idea was that? At any time the structure around you, your house, your home, the floor you are standing on, the roof over your head, the walls that surround you can suddenly decide to fly away. You can only hope it is not raining; you’re not on the 30th floor; you aren’t taking a shower; the mosquitoes aren’t swarming outside. And you can only hope that these tiny flying robots that were moments ago providing you shelter aren’t now bent on destroying you. Oh, and now I suddenly realize why there is no artwork hanging on the walls.

And don’t get me started on these mood badges and magic ears that everyone is fitted with. Apparently there is no privacy or peace and quiet in the future. Anyone can listen in on any conversation; and how distracting would all of that extraneous noise be? And anyone can see exactly what you are thinking—except for you. You wouldn’t want to influence your own mood after all.

These humans of whatever far out century we are in are basically idiots. It must be the effect of their narrow emoji minds. The Vardy are also mentally challenged with their mechanical emoji brains. They can’t even figure out that killing people makes the survivors sad. The Vardy are tasked with making people happy, and they logically assume, therefore, that grieving people are the enemy and kill them. That makes perfect sense. Grief is the enemy so kill the person. Don’t try to cheer up the mourners. Don’t tickle them or tell them a joke or bring them a flower or give them a hug. Kill them. Makes perfect, logical, mechanical sense.

Maybe there is something in the air of this planet limiting the thought process, because the Doctor also seems infected. When trying to explain to the awakening colonists what is going on, all he succeeds at is inciting panic, and then all he can do is run around throwing up his hands and telling them to wait a minute while he clarifies. He is about as effective as Goodthing had been with Kezzia.

The Doctor finally brings everything to a crashing halt when he—TA DA!—reboots the system with a wave of his magic sonic. Now everybody is happy (smile!). The Vardy can’t remember anything, even that they are supposed to make people happy. The colonists are no longer being killed, but now they have to bargain for their home. (By the way, of what use is money to robots?) The Doctor and Bill leave these two races (the Vardy are no longer merely robots but now “identify as a species” whatever that means) to try and negotiate some sort of living arrangement. Apparently the Vardy can understand human speech, they just can’t mimic it, so the humans will have to try and guess what the Vardy mean based on some smiley face/thumbs up/skull and cross bones symbolism. Perhaps the Doctor and Bill should return someday to find out what kinds of wacky hijinks have ensued.

I’m sorry, Gary, but I’ll take Helen A, the Kandy Man, and The Happiness Patrol over the Vardy, Emojibots and Smile any day. And with that I will leave you, Gary, hopefully in your own still point of happiness  . . .

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Pilot


Dear Gary—

The Pilot is . . . it just is. It’s bland. It’s vanilla. It’s . . . a show. That’s about all really.
Oh, it does introduce the Doctor’s new companion—Bill. I rather like Bill. She’s very to the point and asks the questions that makes us all say, ‘Oh yeah, why didn’t I ever think of that?’ For example: “If you’re from another planet, why would you name your box in English? Those initials wouldn’t work in any other language.” Except Bill obviously hasn’t watched from the beginning because in the first story Susan claims to have named the TARDIS and presumably she did so while going to Cole Hill School and therefore very well could have used the English language. Or perhaps the TARDIS is translating its name. Perhaps when the Doctor says ‘TARDIS’ he really isn’t saying ‘TARDIS’ at all. (Perhaps he is saying ‘SIDRAT.’)
But I don’t see why the Doctor singles Bill out from all the hundreds of students he sees day in and day out. Other than he’s bored and wants company and she’ll do as well as anyone. I don’t feel much chemistry between the two. Although I find it very sweet for the Doctor to pop back in time to take photos of Bill’s dead mother as a Christmas present for Bill, even if this seems out of character for the Doctor. If Bill continues to elicit this tender side of the Doctor this could develop into a nice companionship—similar to the first Doctor with Susan or Vicki.
The Doctor is bored, by the way, because he has exiled himself to Earth. Now, he has absolutely no reason to artificially constrain himself to our planet because he has tethered himself here since the start of New Who. But the show apparently saw a need to come up with some excuse for keeping him here and so it invented this ‘vault’ that the Doctor is guarding.
Of course, Gary, the vault is housing Missy. I know that for a certainty even without the benefit of hindsight. There is no one or nothing else that could possibly be in that big, bad, scary vault that the Doctor and Nardole (whom the Doctor employs as a nag) are keeping vigil over. For some reason the show decides to keep the contents a mystery as if the audience will really wonder and ponder and scratch their collective heads and debate and anticipate.
And again of course, the Doctor has chosen Earth as this prison’s location because he is irresponsible in the extreme. He doesn’t go to some abandoned planet where Missy could do no harm if she were to escape. No. He takes her to Earth, the one planet that Missy has attempted to destroy/conquer/rule/dominate countless times since Missy was Roger Delgado. And he plunks her down in the middle of a university where he has somehow wrangled a job as a professor who lectures on random topics and who has free run of the campus with no hint of any pesky deans or fellow professors or janitors or anyone with any kind of authority or purpose.
But that’s the theme, really, of The Pilot. It’s devoid of authority or purpose. It’s random.
Like the ‘villain’ of the piece. It’s a blotch of space oil left over from an unidentified spacecraft that apparently landed in the middle of the school grounds with no one noticing. Magical space oil with magical properties that seemingly has hung around for years waiting for just the right restless student, out of a pool of thousands of restless students, to come along with a star in her eye to find the puddle intriguing, and then it (the magical puddle) waits around some more before magically devouring her (the starry-eyed, restless student) and changing her into a magical being who can go anywhere and who can go to any time (she doesn’t need a blue box) and who can form into any shape. And oh yeah, who has a crush on Bill (even though they have said barely two words to each other) and who decides to stalk her.
That is the problem with New Who. It is magic. It is anything it wants to be. It does anything it wants to do. Just because it can. No rules. No form. No structure. No logic. Just because. Just because it can. It is a show. Just a show. It just . . . is.
Anything that is Doctor Who has been slowly bleeding from the show for years. What is left is a magical space blotch with no rules or form or structure or logic.
And oh, Gary, magic bores me.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Return of Doctor Mysterio


Dear Gary—
 
The Return of Doctor Mysterio is some comic-book-lite fun. It is pleasurable and forgettable. It is kick back and relax and enjoy for the moment and then move on amusement. It is turn your brain off entertainment that does not keep on giving. (I won't bring up the fact that the TARDIS has landed in New York and wasn't there something about the TARDIS never being able to land in New York again or it would tear open the space/time continuum or some such nonsense and therefore he can never go back for Amy and Rory?)
With broad strokes it paints a Clark Kent/Superman/Lois Lane knock off for no particular reason other than it can. It can do so courtesy of the Doctor and his conveniently magical and rare gemstone that he for some inexplicable reason hands to a child. A child who is sick and who somehow manages to swallow this valuable jewel thinking it to be medicine and who is therefore imbued with all sorts of miraculous powers as the precious stone feeds off of the child’s love of super heroes. 

The child grows into Grant, our mild mannered Clark Kent working as a nanny for his Lois Lane (AKA Lucy Lombard—or Fletcher as the case may be). Grant’s Superman alter ego is The Ghost. Grant has known Lucy since childhood and even set her up with his best friend, now Lucy’s ex-husband and father to her infant daughter Jennifer to whom he (Grant) is now nanny. Grant continues to call Lucy Mrs. Lombard despite their lifelong acquaintance and her resumption of her maiden name of Fletcher. Grant’s disguise, similar to Clark Kent’s, is a pair of glasses. Lucy never catches on to Grant’s alter ego.
“There are some situations which are just too stupid to be allowed to continue.”
Except that this improbable and hackneyed scenario allows for some good old fashioned Doctor Who fun. As with most Doctor Who, the actors are agreeable and have some nice chemistry. And there are some unexpected moments that surprise, such as Mister Huffle, Lucy’s squeaky toy interrogation technique. (“This is Mister Huffle. Mister Huffle feels pain.”) The villain of the piece is not worth much—a generic corporation (Harmony Shoal—in other words, kinda sorta, Melody Pond?) of aliens with zipper heads intent on taking over the world somehow; easily defeated and easily forgotten.
The focus of the episode is the love story, and that too is mostly paint-by-numbers. Lucy’s infatuation with The Ghost slowly evaporates as it dawns on her that Super Nanny is really the man of her dreams. A nice bit of fluff to pass the time.
This is where, Gary, I tell Dad’s Superman joke.
If Lois Lane had a cat, and that cat one day walked in wearing a pair of glasses, would Lois Lane ask, “What cat is this?”
The episode successfully riffs on this comic book trope as the Doctor obtusely observes to young Grant (“Take a good long look. It takes a moment to see it.”), “Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same person.”
With moments like this, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor succeeds in lifting this trite tripe into something a little more than watchable.  The Doctor has an easy and pleasant bond with the kid, Grant. As a side note, Gary, the Doctor tends to interact well with youngsters—little Amelia and young Kazran are two good examples. It is a shame that the show has never taken advantage of this dynamic in the way of companionship beyond the Classic versions of Susan and Vicki (although neither was hardly a tot).
This rapport translates well to the adult Grant and extends to Lucy. These are affectionate acquaintances; a nice respite from the passionate ties of recent companions. Add to the mix the welcome return of Nardole.  The Doctor has rescued Nardole from out of the previous story’s Hydroflax and the reconstituted Nardole takes on the role of sidekick to the Doctor. Again, a nice respite from the intensity.
However those ardent feelings simmer throughout the episode;  the Doctor is not far removed from some harsh losses and the wounds are still raw. Lucy and Grant both pick up on the Doctor’s pain but he sidesteps their questions, as he does Nardole’s more pointed remarks. Yet the sadness seeps through and is evident throughout. Finally Mister Huffle brings out this from the Doctor: “Things end. That’s all. Everything ends, and it’s always sad. But everything begins again too, and that’s always happy.”
The Return of Doctor Mysterio is the perfect adventure for the Doctor to work through his unhappiness.  He needs to be Doctor Mysterio caught up in a fantastical comic book scenario in order to escape from reality for the moment.
And as he moves past this escapade the Doctor has Nardole to look after him. As Nardole concludes, “He’s the Doctor. He’s very brave and he’s very silly and I think, for a time, he’s going to be very sad. But I promise, in the end, he’ll be all right. I’ll make sure of it.”
Things end and things begin again, Gary. The era of Clara is over (thank goodness) and the intermittent appearances of River Song seem to be laid to rest. The Doctor now has Nardole to accompany him and a fresh face ready in the wings to provide companionship. If I didn’t have hindsight, Gary, I might be hopeful at this time.  As it is, I simply plod along, and with Reinette I say, “The path has never seemed more slow.”