Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Turn Left

Dear Gary—
Turn Left is a good story wrapped up in a bad one; or vice versa. Like so much of New Who, it hits all of the right emotional high notes which disguise the glaring flaws. So often New Who relies on sentiment and spectacle to carry the show, and when it gets it right I for one tend to forgive the flaws. Turn Left is a prime example.
It starts out wonderfully well with the Doctor and Donna in a fantastic alien bazaar. I do believe we have seen more alien planets this season than we have in the first three combined, even if we mostly get fleeting glimpses at best. The two are immersed in their surroundings, and that is the biggest gift Donna has given the Doctor—his rediscovery of the joy in travel. He paid it lip service with Rose and Martha, but it was a detached, vicarious thrill more than anything. With Donna he is genuinely having fun. He never would have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the tour bus adventure of Midnight during his tenure with those earlier companions.
Donna is also having fun. “I’m happy right now, thanks,” she informs the fortune teller. These first few minutes of the episode reveal a true and deep friendship that is more intimate than all of the puppy dog eyes and longing looks of the previous three years.
This is a great set up for the Sliding Doors plot to follow (or to go with the Christmas theme—It’s a Wonderful Life).  
“Turn right. Turn right. Turn right!”
Donna turns right, never meets the Doctor and an alternate reality is created around her; a reality in which the Doctor dies.
This is my first problem with the story. Not for a minute do I believe that the Doctor would have died that day if it were not for Donna, much less that he wouldn’t regenerate if he did happen to die. A far more interesting and complex tale would be told if the Doctor did survive only to follow a dark and lonely path that would reshape events in multiple ways. However this is Donna’s story and not the Doctor’s, and so I will suspend my disbelief and go along.
Following Donna we find her on Christmas Eve happy, among friends, and gainfully employed; her aversion to Christmas seems to have evaporated and she is content with her life, except for that annoying thing on her back that she can’t see but other people keep pointing to. Then the world starts going wrong.
Now I could point out that the Doctor might not have encountered the Racnos to start with since he never met Donna, but I’ll allow that he could have stumbled upon the plot in another way. His confrontation probably would have gone differently, and possibly his final solution, but again I’ll allow the latitude. The importance of this incident for the purposes of our current narrative is the effect it has upon Donna who is merely a bystander to events rather than the catalyst she was meant to be.
Donna’s immediate response is to run towards the action. She is a more interested and involved Donna than we would expect from a Doctorless Donna. Perhaps it is the influence of the bug on her back, or perhaps she has had it in her all along. Her curiosity brings her to a dead Doctor but a very alive Rose. Given my dislike of the character, I have to admit that I don’t mind her introduction into this parallel world in the making. I could go into all sorts of doubts about her sudden appearance, but I will resist those distractions. Instead I welcome the fact that Donna has someone to guide her through this tricky new reality.
 The next impact for Donna is she loses her job. Now Chowdry would have lost business and sacked someone regardless since the Thames is drained in both worlds.  However in this world Donna experiences it first hand and her reaction is priceless. I also love her disinterest in the stolen hospital and its aftermath, and the scene shift to the family circle is great. Bernard Cribbins, Jacqueline King, and Catherine Tate (Wilf, Sylvia, and Donna) are superb as they navigate through the increasingly bleak existence. It is on the strength of their performances that I turn a blind eye to the defects of plot.
Well, not totally blind. I still can’t help but wonder how and why Sarah Jane inserted herself into the Judoon adventure except that it makes for conveniently heart-tugging story telling. And since we are now inundated with all sorts of world changes due to the loss of the Doctor—wouldn’t the entire history of Earth have been affected by the Carrionites and the Pyroviles? By all rights, without the Doctor the planet should be left in ruins long before our fateful Christmas Eve. Donna, Martha, Sarah—they might never have been born. It seems that cause and effect is extremely selective in this new reality.
Donna’s next meeting with Rose is also a bit sketchy. How does Rose know Donna has a raffle ticket and that it happens to be the winning one? How does Rose know to warn Donna off from London next Christmas? How does Rose even know anything about Donna? But I will excuse it all because Christmas at the posh hotel with the Noble clan is highly entertaining.
Things only get better as they get worse.
Wilf: “Ah, well. We’ll settle in, won’t we? Make do? Bit of wartime spirit, eh?”
Donna: “Yeah, but there isn’t a war. There’s no fight. It’s just this.”
Just this—a world without the Doctor to save it and therefore vulnerable to every alien threat imaginable (except for the Master who no longer has a reason to continually hassle the Earth). The Earth does have its defenders, but with each attack they get fewer; Sarah Jane and Torchwood are just two casualties along the way. What this leaves is humanity—humanity nobly represented by the Noble family as they settle in and make do.
Sylvia’s slide into depression is eloquently and effectively portrayed and Donna’s impulse to shout at the world is amusing. However it is Wilf’s “wartime spirit” that so often prevails, even momentarily coaxing Sylvia out of her funk and appeasing Donna as they all join in on the sing-along. Ordinary humans finding pockets of joy in the weariest of worlds. At its best Doctor Who celebrates the ordinary, and in Turn Left this culminates in “nothing special” Donna.  My one quibble with this is that the program feels like it needs to hit the audience over the head with it rather than trusting us to get it for ourselves. (I suppose in a way that is appropriate; Doctor Who is taking a cue from Donna and shouting its point across.)
“You liar! You told me I was special,” Donna yells. “But it’s not me; it’s this thing. I’m just a host!” That’s what this all boils down to. Donna thinking she is nothing special and the plastic bug backpack she is wearing (they should seriously market that) tapping into her subconscious and causing her nightmare. And that’s what this is I have suddenly realized as I write; it might label itself a parallel universe but it is only a nightmare taking place wholly within Donna’s mind. The Doctor could come along at any time and pluck the bug off her back to snap her out of it. I mean, if it were a parallel universe and Donna had never met the Doctor, she never would have ended up in that bazaar, the bug never would have climbed on her back, and she would never have turned right; which means she would have turned left, met the Doctor, and ended up in that bazaar . . . all these paradoxes . . . shouldn’t the universe explode or something? No, it is Donna’s dream world as created by the bug, reminiscent of Tegan’s Mara induced dream (hence the circle of mirrors).
Somehow Rose has crashed through from her universe into Donna’s dream and is helping to shape it. How else can she know all that she does about Donna’s past, present, and future? But really, does she have to tell Donna that she is going to die? It seems needlessly cruel. Donna handles it well, though, and she bravely faces her destiny. It is a slam bang finish with Donna sacrificing herself to save the Doctor and restore order to the world. (Still, Rose’s “you’re the most important woman in the whole of creation” is a bit over the top.)
Then we have Rose whispering her Bad Wolf secret to the dying Donna. Now, if Rose could appear at will she could very well have made Donna turn left by herself, but I suppose this was all a big exercise in bolstering Donna’s self esteem for the spectacular season finale to come. And oh, Gary, I breathe a great big sigh of resignation.
So much good wrapped up in so much bad. But the good leaves its lasting impression on me. The ordinary moments making it extraordinary. Sylvia remembering forgotten souls in the candlelit confines of their galley kitchen bedroom; Donna and Wilf’s moment on the hill; Rocco Colasanto putting on a brave face as he leaves for the labor camp and Wilf’s heartfelt farewell to the ill-fated family; Donna’s open-mouthed reaction upon entering the TARDIS; Donna; overall—Donna.
“It’s the end of the universe.” Good in the bad; bad in the good. It is exciting, what with the music, the rushing, the ‘Bad Wolf’ signs everywhere, the tolling cloister bell. But not ‘end of the universe’ worthy. Not at this point. All the Doctor knows is Rose and Bad Wolf. He makes one giant leap to “end of the universe.”
Again, Gary, big sigh . . .

Thursday, November 6, 2014


Dear Gary—
What a great little story Midnight is. Strangely, one of the most satisfying elements to me is the fact that Donna gets a day off. I love Donna as the Doctor’s companion, but I also love the fact that she gets to kick back and relax on this jewel of a planet with nothing to do but be pampered. The Doctor is always promising his companions a holiday but adventures always get in the way. I’m glad to see that Donna does not get gypped out of her day at the spa.
Leaving Donna to her well earned rest, the Doctor boards a shuttle bound for a sapphire waterfall on the spectacular planet of Midnight. What is fascinating about this scenario is that the Doctor, who so often plays intergalactic tour guide in his TARDIS, is now the enthusiastic tourist. (And I have to laugh remembering Mel’s experience in Delta and the Bannermen and can’t help but wonder if the Doctor is regretting his decision to bypass the bus in that serial.)
The Doctor throws himself wholeheartedly into this new role, becoming uncharacteristically social with his fellow passengers. For all of his euphoric talk about humanity in the past this is the first time that he goes out of his way to become chummy with individuals without any underlying goal or motivating threat. They are an affable lot, for the confines of a four hour journey. Even Sky Silvestry, who would prefer to be left to her reading, shares a companionable meal with the Doctor.
It is wonderful and it is awful; the Doctor has opened himself up and the payoff is both rewarding and horrific. We get to know Sky and Professor Hobbes and Dee Dee and Val, Biff, and Jethro Crane and the hostess as individuals along with the Doctor through presentations and discussions and laughter and tears. One by one; slowly coalescing as a group.
There is something liberating in giving one’s self up to the whole. I relate it to that exhilarating feeling of a stadium full of like-minded fans at the moment when their team wins the big game. The dark side, however, is always lurking and manifests in mob rule. There are a number of compelling depictions of this; what always comes to my own mind is The Oxbow Incident. Midnight is an excellent example on a more intimate scale.
And it all starts with a single Voice.
It is a terrifying sequence. The bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere and the cockpit is lost. Run of the mill stuff. Then the pounding starts. I read an AV Club review that referenced 1963’s The Haunting and I couldn’t agree more. I saw that movie ages ago and don’t remember it in detail, but that one scene has haunted me since. It is horror on a personal level. The unknown is closing in; but it is not unknown—it is very true and real to the individual psyche. In Midnight the horror zeroes in on Sky. The rest of the group can stay somewhat detached from the terror; they are scared but don’t know of what. However Sky internalizes the fear and gives it a home. She knows what is knocking on the door and it is coming for her.
The ensuing events are eerie. Most everyone has suffered through the annoyance of the playground echo; Midnight takes this to its most chilling extreme. No special effects are required. Lesley Sharp’s eyes are unsettling enough. The monotone repetition; the robotic movement; the impassive expression. Everything contributes to this most disconcerting atmosphere.
Slowly this one voice infects, creeping into the minds of the passengers, becoming One in its intent.
Only the Doctor remains above. But his curiosity gets the better of him. There is only one way to combat the Playground Echo and that is to ignore it. The Doctor tries, but he can’t resist the retort.
“It repeats; then it synchronizes; then it goes on to the next stage.” It is exactly as the Doctor predicted, and yet he can’t resist falling into its trap.
The Voice does not choose the Doctor because he is the cleverest in the room (and I’ll resist going on a diatribe about how off-putting this assertion is) but rather it chooses him because he is a voice apart; the strongest voice opposing the pull of conformity.
Ultimately this is not the Doctor’s story. This is the story of the hostess. This is the story of Dee Dee. This is the story of the voice of reason. This is the story of the triumph of the individual. This is the story of humanity.
Because his is not the only voice apart.
The Doctor has met seven separate voices (not counting the pilot and mechanic) and while the rule of the mob is forceful, there is always that extra spark of reason that cannot be silenced for long. What I love about this particular fable of the vocal majority is the unpredictability factor. Val and Biff Crane play to type as the de facto leader and loyal follower. Professor Hobbes falls in line as the dithering blowhard who knows the difference between right and wrong but who is unable or unwilling to act accordingly when the tide is against him. Mainstays of the mob. Sky is possessed and a non factor. This leaves three.
I’ll start with Jethro. Jethro is set up early on as the rebellious teen embarrassed by his parents and eager to establish himself as a nonconformist, a voice apart. Enter mob rule. The easy way out would be to make Jethro the one to stand alone against the crowd. I am glad to see that Midnight opts for the more realistic version. Jethro is nothing more than a young Professor Hobbes. People trying so hard to rebel, so hard to be different, are at heart really only following the latest trend and wind up with no solid convictions to call their own. Fodder for the mob.
Next we have Dee Dee. Dee Dee is the put upon assistant to Hobbes. A woman clearly more intelligent and resourceful than her boss or her confidence allows. Again she is a character that would be easy to set up as the underdog hero. Instead the script takes her in unexpected directions. She does not as a matter of course go along with the mob, yet she also does not buck the tidal wave of hysteria. She emerges as a voice to be reckoned with; but her reasoning at first leads her to the side of the multitude, although not as meek follower. “I want her out,” she states with conviction as she provides the necessary information for expelling the possessed Sky from their midst. Dee Dee is not going along with the whim of the pack, she has rationalized her own conclusions and: “I’m sorry, but you said it yourself Doctor. She is growing in strength.” Her reason next leads her to the truth of the situation; she alone understands what has truly happened between the Doctor and Sky. But she is powerless. She can express her observations but nothing more. You cannot debate with a mindless horde.
Finally we have the hostess.  “The hostess—what was her name?” Nameless. Impatient and intolerant. Stickler for the rules. Trying to maintain order. Vocal in her blood lust. The least likely to be a hero. But the most likely to act. Val is the instigator; Biff is the henchman; Hobbes is the ditherer; Jethro is the conformer; Dee Dee is the impotent. The hostess is all of these at one time or another, but in the end she sees with razor like clarity what needs to be done and she does it.
The Doctor’s voice was stolen and he remains silent; vulnerable; helpless. The hostess alone acts.
It is a terrifying tale shifting from the horrors of the mind to the baseness of humanity and it leaves the Doctor shaken to his core. It started out as a fun-filled adventure and took a detour into the darkest aspect of the human condition. How fitting that it ends with the Doctor and Donna, so few words between them yet the scene is full of all of the compassion and understanding that was missing from those confining walls of the broken down shuttle.
Midnight is a sparkling gem of a story and I sit speechless with the Doctor, Gary, as I take it in.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Forest of the Dead

Dear Gary—
Silence in the Library did a brilliant job of setting up this multi-layered mystery; that was the easy part. Forest of the Dead has the hard task of justifying the first half of the story with a satisfying conclusion, and for the most part it succeeds.
To begin with, I love how the dreamlike quality of the first part is expanded on in Forest of the Dead, most dramatically with Donna’s storyline.
“You said river, and suddenly we’re feeding ducks.” Donna sees through the illusion, but then, as Dr. Moon would say, she forgets. Throughout these sequences Donna struggles with the shifting realities, desperately trying to keep her grasp on the slippery nature of time and place. She manages to create a pleasant life for herself in this surreal environment complete with husband, home, and two children. However the truth continually breaks in on her fantasy and ultimately breaks her heart. Her grief at the loss of her children, regardless that they are illusions, is breathtakingly sad.
It is intriguing. Even though the world she has created is a dream come true and the truth is excruciating, Donna chooses to face reality. Of course the Doctor and Miss Evangelista push her, but it is ultimately her decision. Donna senses the world is wrong, and having received Evangelista’s note confirming it she resolves to confront the facts. Her eyes are opened and she sees the duplication of children and understands the rational explanations of Miss Evangelista despite rebelling emotionally.
Between Evangelista and the Doctor we get the reasonable answers to many of the questions raised in this multifaceted mystery. The (measly) 4,022 library patrons and employees, as well as Donna and Miss Evangelista, have been saved to the library’s hard drive; they exist in cyberspace; they are experiencing virtual lives. The one missing piece, however, the one piece that completes this mystifying puzzle, comes courtesy of Lux. “CAL. Charlotte Abigail Lux.” A dying granddaughter given new life inside a library “with a moon to watch over her and all of human history to pass the time.” The little girl, the computer, the library, the dreamscape—all wrapped up into a neat package.
With this fundamentally sound core the outer trappings contribute in making this an entertaining and absorbing story; and it starts with the little girl. Having the little girl observing the proceedings on TV, switching between the Library and Donna’s world, is a great tactic. It establishes her as an innocent and yet she is not on the sideline with the audience. She is central to the action, unwitting though she may be. Her story is the most tragic, and when she turns the remote on her father the horror of her surreal existence crashes in on her. She is trapped in a mad world of her own making and she is helpless to control it.
The Doctor and River provide another enriching element to the tale. The mystery that is River deepens and remains unsolved but provides a hint of tantalizing things to come. While this is still mildly annoying to me, I am again impressed with Alex Kingston’s interpretation and can overlook the more irksome aspects. Most disturbing to me is the imagery of the Doctor as a future warrior who can make “whole armies turn and run away.” This is not the Doctor I know. It is a Doctor, apparently, who River knows, but not one I care to encounter. Added to this is the god-like pronouncement: “And he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers.” These are shadows of things to come, Gary, which I am not looking forward to. But I digress. Instead I will dwell on the more adventurous depiction of the Doctor: “The Doctor in the TARDIS; next stop everywhere.” And the evident spark between these two strong personalities. A comparative stranger, River manages to convey a solid relationship with the Doctor notwithstanding their lack of history (at least as far as the Doctor and the audience are concerned). Her obvious frustration with the man he is vs. the man she knows is perfectly balanced against the Doctor’s bafflement over this woman who carries his screwdriver and knows his name.
Quick diversion—can we please dispense with this whole Name of the Doctor self aggrandizement already? But I suppose that’s a little like River Song and her spoilers, so I’ll leave that be. I’ll take my cue from the Doctor and his reaction to the death of Anita: “I’m going to let that pass, just as long as you let them pass.” He is talking to the Vashta Nerada, the forgotten element of the tale. Not forgotten exactly, just kind of lost amongst the more compelling aspects of the little girl, the dream world, and River Song. The Vashta Nerada are a perfect fit to the shadowy nature of this mind bending narrative. Just enough information is provided to lend a menacing aura and just enough is going on around them to keep the doubts from lingering.
I won’t go into those doubts, Gary. If Forest of the Dead had been built around the Vashta Nerada I would, but even though The Library is their Forest of the title, the Vashta Nerada are merely a plot convenience to propel the action and I’ll leave them to their dead pages.
Piling up, however, are the hints of Doctor Who future that leave me queasy. “I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.” Taken by itself in this one episode and isolated from the canon it’s a great line. But spoilers aside, it is one in a long line of a growing trend that makes my blood boil. Forget the fact that the Doctor historically likes to keep a low profile and goes out of his way to erase all mention of himself from the public record . . . oh, I don’t even want to begin. Gods and Monsters. I don’t want my Doctor to be either.
I have started on this tangent, and following it through: I want to be able to watch this single episode, or actually two since it is a two part story, and not have to see it in the context of the entirety of the series. I can do that with any of the Classic Who with no problem. However New Who forces me to think in terms of story arcs, and perhaps that is the source of my annoyance with River Song; she is indicative of a larger construct of the current show that I find distasteful. First time viewing doesn’t uncover the trend; multiple screenings, however, amplifies it.
Sorry, Gary. I admire this story; I like this season of Doctor Who; I love Donna as a companion; I enjoy David Tennant as the Doctor. But I have been finding it harder and harder to write as I progress through the series, and little by little I am gaining an understanding of why that is and therefore feel the need to express these ideas as I think of them.
I’m not sure how to right this ship, particularly since I still want to cite my least favorite line perhaps in all of Doctor Who: “I have the two qualities you require to see absolute truth. I am brilliant and unloved.” How absolutely, fundamentally wrong is that? Not to mention demeaning and idiotic. Now I never thought Evangelista was a raving beauty to begin with, and her supposed imbecility was unbelievably ham-fisted, but to suggest that merely by becoming ugly she has become brilliant is beyond the pale. And again, Gary, I sigh and don’t even want to waste any more time on it.
Donna to the rescue with, “Is all right special Time Lord code for really not all right at all?” Moving, poignant, everything that is right about this serial. And so much of this serial is right. If I can only keep those shadows from crossing my path.
But the show keeps intruding. “Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day.” There is nothing wrong with ending on the melancholy. For that matter, there is nothing wrong with ending on the uplifting. But you have to pick. Too often these days Doctor Who tries to have it both ways and tacks fairy tale endings onto otherwise dramatically powerful conclusions. (Rose anyone? Sorry—spoilers.) The Doctor is so joyous and proud of himself for having ‘saved’ River. But what he has saved her to is a glorified Purgatory. I can’t imagine that she is going to be happy reliving the same day over and over with the same people, reading the same story again and again to the same fake kids, and never again experiencing the constant rush of adventure she knows and loves with the Doctor. First glance, the Doctor’s triumph is exhilarating. However it doesn’t hold up. I wish it did. I wish I could watch this story and enjoy it as I did upon first view. I still enjoy it, but oh those spoilers . . .
I send this out, Gary, hoping that it finds you all right, because I’m all right too.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Silence in the Library

Dear Gary—
“I never land on Sundays. Sundays are boring.” (Obviously the Doctor is not a Packers or TWD fan.) I would think, though, that the library would be the perfect place to land if you were going to land on a Sunday; a quiet, contemplative place for a quiet, contemplative day. Except the place isn’t as quiet and contemplative as the episode title, Silence in the Library, implies. What it is, is eerie.
It starts with the little girl with a library in her head. The intercutting between her seemingly normal home and the library and between her interactions with Dr. Moon and the Doctor are creepy, but what makes them truly spine-chilling is the fact that she has no clue what is happening. She is not an evil mastermind manipulating events, and even though it is evident that she has some measure of control over the library, it is equally evident that she has no explanation for what is happening there. She is genuinely alarmed by the presence of strangers and the pain she feels is palpable when the Doctor sonics the security camera. The creation inside her head is alive; and perhaps it is she that is a creation inside it.
 It is unsettling to observe the dueling worlds merge and mingle, as in a dream. However the Doctor serves as our reality checkpoint; the library is our scene of action and the child is a mystery to be solved; a poignant and chilling mystery.
Adding to the atmosphere is the introduction of the Vashta Narada. “Count the shadows” is a particularly hair-raising warning in an empty and silent library that is quickly losing its light. I do have a minor quibble (all of my quibbles are minor in this one) with the Doctor mentioning the dust in sunbeams as evidence of the infestation on our own planet. If that were the case, I would be dead long ago; and the moral of the story would be to keep a can of Pledge at the ready.
Further shrouding our adventure is the presence of River Song. Her initial appearance, along with her band of investigative astronauts, is sufficiently dramatic, underscored with the refrain of “others are coming.” Striding towards the Doctor and Donna in space suits and darkened helmets, we don’t know what to expect. Then River clears her visor and greets the Doctor with a disarming, “Hello, Sweetie,” only to be rebuffed by the Doctor’s, “Get out.”
It is perfectly played out amidst all of the uncertainty and disquiet. River and the Doctor are both confident and direct; and yet each inevitably confounds the other.  
I have to admit, Gary, that the first time watching this I considered River Song as a minor quibble. I found the whole conceit to be mildly irritating. Upon multiple views and armed with hindsight, I can now appreciate Alex Kingston’s performance; and since I presently know where this character is headed I am no longer annoyed by her familiarity with the Doctor in this first encounter. As for how this relationship eventually plays out—I reserve my opinion for the future. After all, you know, “spoilers.”
Accompanying River are some solid performers who make an impression despite their limited action. Helping with this are small script details like “Proper Dave” and “Other Dave” that go a long way in defining character without a lot of exposition. My one quibble here is with the heavy handed point that Miss Evangelista is stupid. If she is really as dumb as they make out she has no business being on the expedition. That aspect could have been handled with a bit more finesse. Miss Evangelista’s death and subsequent ghosting along with Donna’s sympathetic interactions with both the live and phantom versions are moving, but they would have had richer meaning if Evangelista’s character had been treated with more dignity than caricature.
One other quibble I have is with the number of people who were in The Library when it was closed: 4,022. You put 4,022 people in a stadium and it looks almost empty. You put 4,022 people on an entire planet and I would call that deserted. So why the fuss about no one being about when the Doctor and Donna first arrive? It’s also a sad commentary on literacy (and I assume that the majority of those 4,022 souls were employees).
My final quibble is with the Doctor. “I’m a time traveler. I point and laugh at archaeologists.” That is an unacceptable statement coming from the Doctor; it is something I would expect from Lux, not the Doctor. This is offset somewhat with the following exchange:
Doctor: “Well, funny thing, Mister Lux; I don’t want to see everyone in this room dead because some idiot thinks his pride is more important.”
River (to the Doctor): “Then why don’t you sign his contract?”
All of these are minor points, however, in the bigger picture that is Silence in the Library. The mysteries pile up and the tension mounts. Who is the little girl? How does River Song know the Doctor? What happened to those 4,022 people? Why are the Vashta Narada killing book lovers? And then there is Dr. Moon. His is an ambiguous presence. He has a mixed aura of sinister solicitude, and it is an eerie moment when he tells the little girl, “The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real. The library is real.”
The ending of this first of a two part story is thrilling with Dead Dave in a space suit repeating, “Hey, who turned out the lights,” as he and the shadows advance upon the group, and it culminates with the visage of Donna on a Courtesy Node droning its own refrain of “Donna Noble has left the building. Donna Noble has been saved.”
A gripping tale that keeps me on the edge of my seat and looking forward to the conclusion.
Count the shadows Gary . . .

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Unicorn and the Wasp

Dear Gary—
“Think about it. There’s a murder, a mystery, and Agatha Christie.”
Pure, unencumbered Doctor Who having fun. I love it.
The Unicorn and the Wasp is the obligatory historical in which the Doctor and his companion meet a famous person. Doctor Who seasons are becoming somewhat paint by number. However The Unicorn and the Wasp manages to rise above the formula and is a delight.
 “Agatha Christie didn’t walk around surrounded by murders. Not really. I mean, that’s like meeting Charles Dickens and he’s surrounded by ghosts at Christmas.” The script recognizes the Doctor Who blueprint and cleverly pokes fun, and that is its strength. With a serious tone this episode would have been a disaster.
The real Agatha Christie not only didn’t walk around surrounded by murders, she also didn’t walk around surrounded by aliens. Neither did Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, or Shakespeare, for that matter. The show can get away with past luminaries meeting up with extraterrestrials only so many times before it becomes farcical. What better way, therefore, to handle this particular Doctor Who cliché than to turn the episode itself into a farce?
The plot is as preposterous as the characters are caricatured. A giant wasp creature hidden dormant for 40 years in the person of a country vicar only to be unleashed in a moment of sibilant rage and to play a murderous parlor game during a 1920’s dinner party being thrown by his secret mother.
The Doctor and Donna dive head first into the fun. Dressed for the occasion (“Flapper or slapper?”), the two crash Lady Eddison’s garden party which is replete with game board characters, locales, and situations. “I mean, Professor Peach, in the library, with the lead piping?” All the Doctor and Donna have to do is follow the clues.
Helping them is none other than Agatha Christie, played brilliantly by Fenella Woolgar. The key to Ms. Woolgar’s success is that even though the material is absurd she takes it seriously; similar to her character. “I’ll work with you, gladly,” Agatha tells the Doctor, “but for the sake of justice, not for your own amusement.” Shades of Queen Victoria from Tooth and Claw.
The Doctor and Donna are delighting in the romp, but their lighthearted approach is suited to the production, and if their humor is at the expense of anyone it is at themselves. (“Miss Noble is the plucky young girl who helps me out.” “I’ll pluck you in a minute.” “Go on; you’re ever so plucky.”)They realize the outlandish nature of the adventure and are going with the flow, much like Donna trying to talk posh with the rich and famous. Yet the sincerity remains, allowing for the moving scene of Donna consoling Agatha who is tortured by shame and self-doubt.
It is pure pleasure to watch it play out; I feel just like Donna munching on snacks while following the Doctor’s and Agatha’s interrogation of the guests; and the murder mystery framework is ideally suited to the episode—from the alibi flashbacks to the hunting for clues (complete with magnifying glass) to the gathering of the suspects. Everything is done with a feel for the fun. I love it. There are certainly flaws with the story, but so what? I’m not about to spoil things with criticism.
This is a Doctor Who that I can just sit and enjoy and not have to think too much, other than trying to pick out all of the Agatha Christie titles that are scattered throughout. Doctor Who needs episodes like this from time to time.
Next time I’m feeling depressed, Gary, I think I’ll invite the Doctor and Donna over for a game of charades. Or I suppose I’ll have to settle for watching The Unicorn and the Wasp over again.
“How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Doctor's Daughter

Dear Gary—
The Doctor’s Daughter—kind of stupid, kind of fun. Two parts each. I’ll put this in the camp column, the same camp as, say, Terminus. It is immensely entertaining, despite some glaring faults. And the entertainment is not from trying too hard and not from throwing money at special effects. It is just unabashedly daft.
“I don’t know where we’re going, but my old hand’s very excited about it.” That just about says it all.
Along for the ride is Martha, hijacked by the TARDIS before she could make her escape from The Poison Sky. It is a bit of a waste since she is immediately separated from the Doctor and Donna, but she does get a nice storyline of her own with the Hath. The Hath are an unexplained new alien race on an unexplored new planet for Doctor Who; another waste. But as a waste, Martha and the Hath and the surface of this alien planet (hooray for that!) combine for a diverting side show.
“You can stay down here and live your whole life in the shadows, or come with me and stand in the open air.” Martha is not going to stay down in those confining tunnels where the bulk of the plot is unfolding. She is venturing out to feel the wind on her face. It seems a brutal punishment that her new found friend Peck is killed as a result. It is a short-lived kinship, but Martha manages to imbue heart and soul into this secondary narrative. And she gets to show off some doctoring skills along the way; I don’t know of too many MDs who could fix a fish man’s dislocated shoulder.
However the real story remains behind in those shadowy tunnels with the Doctor and Donna and, by the way, the Doctor’s daughter. Technically speaking she is not really his daughter but rather a product of progenation, grown from a tissue sample; a “generated anomaly” born fully clothed and mascaraed and pony tailed and ready to fight. For a soldier, though, she is awfully bouncy and joyous, must be the newborn thing.
The Doctor’s clone/daughter, or Jenny as Donna dubs her, is the reason for the story; and in a paradoxical way the reason the Doctor’s old hand is excited and the reason they have landed on Messaline. Jenny; the Doctor’s daughter; an excuse, a cop out, a disappointment. She is a plot device; a sexy come-on. The Last of the Time Lords has a daughter. He is not alone . . . oh no, wait, that was done already. The opening cloning sequence dispenses with all of the excited anticipation and what remains is forty plus minutes to fill.
The problem is there are only forty plus minutes to fill. They are amusing enough minutes but with just the bare bones of a plot; it is only enough to keep the action flowing and to provide a framework around which the daddy issues can be explored, but there isn’t much room for more. I’ll tackle the daddy issues first because that is really the only reason we are here.
“I’ve been a father before,” the Doctor tells Donna. The First Doctor traveled with his granddaughter Susan. New Who, however, is not conducive to this paternalistic nature; New Who is too busy depicting a Doctor who is young and hip and sexy with a dark side; there is no room for fatherly warmth in New Who. I am therefore glad that Jenny is more or less a false progeny and that the topic is covered superficially in this forty plus minutes of episode.
Donna gets things started with her “dad-shock” comments. “What’s she going to do, cramp your style?” she asks in a spot on assessment of what a true child would do for this New Doctor for a New Who. But since Jenny is not a true child the show takes this opportunity to explore that dark side of the Time Lord; that side that has suffered loss; that side that feels guilt; that side that knows danger and bloodshed and horror. Jenny represents a past that the Doctor doesn’t want to face, and so he denies her. “You’re an echo, that’s all.”
Again it is Donna right there by his side, providing the steady and guiding hand he needs. She won’t let him brush Jenny aside, and slowly the Doctor begins to open up to reveal the pain he has buried inside. “When I look at her now,” he tells Donna of Jenny, “I can see them (the Time Lords). The hole they left; all the pain that filled it. I just don’t know if I can face that every day.” Friend and counselor Donna assures him: “She’ll help you. We both will.” And when the Doctor persists in his doom and gloom mood Donna tells him, “I think you’re wrong.”
Jenny begins life as a rebellious teen, asserting her rights as an individual with a mind of her own and arguing with Dad. Then she reverts to little girl wanting to please Daddy. Donna takes on a big sister role towards Jenny in this make-shift family unit that is beginning to form, and the Doctor reluctantly starts to thaw. He even displays pride and joy as Jenny soaks up his pacifist teachings. It is not a relationship that will make it for the long haul, but it was never designed for that. (Given the turn things tend to take when young girls board the TARDIS in New Who, it’s for the best.) Jenny’s character is strictly an excuse to explore the Doctor’s hidden psyche.
Her death, therefore, is expected. I can’t say that the Doctor’s reaction to it is unexpected for New Who, just disappointing. The Doctor’s utter contempt for any hint of violence and weaponry has been on prominent display throughout the episode; the better to contrast with this sudden image of the Doctor as executioner—the Doctor, seething with rage, pointing his gun at the head of an unarmed and kneeling General Cobb. And “a man who never would” has to be the lamest tagline ever.
Now let me get to this threadbare plot with no room to expand. The Doctor, Donna, and Martha land in the middle of a war with a never ending supply of soldiers created by machine. Two sides, Hath and Human, are fighting it out over the Holy Grail, better known as The Source, even though they have no clue what it is. Countless generations have fought a war for which nobody knows the origins. And, oh yes, the battle has waged for all of seven days.
Much is made of the seven days reveal, yet it is meaningless. What difference does it make in the larger scheme of things? Seven days or seven years or seven million years. So what? And I have to wonder at the logic for this assumption. Donna has figured out the date stamping business on the construction of this underground complex; but the only thing that this proves is that the building process lasted seven days. Who is to say that is the same timeline as the war? They have the dates of the construction, but does anyone know what the date is at the present moment for a reference point? I don’t recall the Doctor checking the year before leaving the TARDIS. The Doctor does say that the machinery looks recent, but still, it could be several years that things have been going along. Why all the emphasis and fuss on the seven days? I suppose the show is trying to make some connection to the seven day creation story, but if so it has failed in its mission.
But OK, let’s say that it has been only seven days since war broke out and twenty generations of warriors have stepped out of the machines each of those seven days to fight and die. Are they such pathetic fighters that not one single soul from the original colonists survived for seven days? Or a couple from the first few days worth of generations? And if there are so many generations generated each day, why are there only a handful of people on hand? Where are these legions of armies? Do they make only one or two individuals at a time, wait for someone to die, and then make another? I also wonder about the Hath. Are they products of the machine too, or are the handful of Hath that are roaming about from the original colony, and if so, do they scratch their heads whenever they hear a human talking about the endless war of countless generations?
This is a story that could use multiple parts to do up the camp right.
Instead it is rushed and forced into a single forty-five minute format, but it still manages to have fun. That’s the only way to take this episode. Suspend disbelief, accept the “not impossible, just a bit unlikely” happenings, and go along for the ride. Don’t look at it too seriously. In that context the resurrection of Jenny can be tolerated.
It does make me long, however, for those good old days when Doctor Who was mature enough to handle a paternalistic Doctor. Maybe I’ll go now and put in The Sensorites.
Until next time, Gary . . .

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Poison Sky

Dear Gary—
I’m beginning to resent the glossy finish New Who is putting on to cover some glaring flaws. It does it with such wit and charm that I enjoy the show despite myself, and it is only with repeated viewings and afterthought that I begin to realize that the vague unease I felt upon first watch has real basis. (Thus it has only been since this recent round of viewing that I came to actively dislike Rose.)
Classic Who has its glaring flaws, to be sure. Take a serial like The Stones of Blood for instance. It was only after repeated viewings and afterthought that I realized this story makes little sense; but I don’t mind. It has no pretense, and the wit and charm that covers the glaring flaws is organic to the show. It is thoroughly enjoyable even upon analytical afterthought. And then there are some truly awful stories, stories like The Twin Dilemma; but again there is no pretense and the awfulness bears up as entertaining camp.
Fast forward to The Poison Sky. The Poison Sky demonstrates what is wrong about New Who; the Poison Sky tries so hard to be good and right and true. That is the difference: it tries so hard. It does have good intentions, which is a point in its favor, but so often those intensions lead it astray. (Case in point: the “who do you think made your clothes” exchange in Planet of the Ood.) So often good intentions lead to shortcuts and justifications; the ‘it’s OK to bully a bully’ mentality. (Something, by way of being fair, that I fault Classic Who for in Timelash.)

All of this is a long winded way of saying that I am beginning to dislike this Tenth Doctor. He has such good intentions and he tries so, so hard, and he has such wit and charm.
I touched on this with the first part of this two part story; and I think the fact that UNIT is involved has brought it to the forefront.  I don’t care for the bull-in-a-china-shop arrogance the Third Doctor displays; the Tenth Doctor has more of a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing arrogance about him. The Third’s seems more honest.
Donna asks the Doctor where he is going and he replies, “To stop a war.” All well and good and noble. But let’s take a look at that ‘war.’
UNIT calls the Doctor in to consult on a possible alien incursion. The Doctor promptly disses UNIT and proceeds to conduct his own investigation while keeping UNIT, in particular Colonel Mace, out of the loop (all done in part one, The Sontaran Stratagem). The Sontarans unleash their toxic gas into the air via the ATMOS system (tautology aside) and UNIT prepares a defensive strike against the spacecraft they detect overhead. The Doctor rushes in and condemns UNIT even though he has never offered any viable alternatives for them.
Now we enter into the Doctor’s diplomatic phase. Brushing Mace aside, the Doctor proclaims that he has the proper authority to speak on behalf of the entire planet—“I earned that a long time ago,” he states. Really? Even if his prior deeds have garnered the respect and rights that he is claiming his present actions towards Mace and UNIT do not warrant it. And what does he do with his self-declared power? He insults and goads General Staal of the Tenth Sontaran Battle Fleet. The thing is he does it with such a casual, laid back, feet on the desk flippancy. Compared to the tight-lipped, rigid Colonel Mace he comes across as the heroic antihero, but in reality he’s just being a jerk. He does not open a dialogue between the two sides, he offers no reassurances to UNIT, and he gives no options to the Sontarans. He conducts his own secret mission without letting anyone else know what he is intending, including Donna who is supposed to figure out on her own what his cryptic comments mean, and then he rushes back out leaving Mace and Staal to carry on the war as they see fit with no true guidance or insight from the Doctor.
Not to worry, though. Evil Clone Martha has her finger on the trigger keeping the nuclear launch at bay. With UNIT stymied the Sontarans invade the ATMOS factory in order to protect their operative, Evil Clone Martha along with the original Martha who is keeping Evil Clone Martha alive. The Sontarans had some phenomenal luck there—it was a piece of cake for Martha to hijack the launch program and UNIT personnel have no means of tracing where or how this major security breach occurred. At any rate, we finally have some battle scenes between this powerful military organization and mighty warrior race. Except not really.
The Sontarans march through the deserted halls with no sense of urgency or purpose; it almost seems as though they are simply on a guided tour of the factory. When they do confront UNIT it becomes a massacre. “This isn’t war; this is sport,” Skorr exults as the Sontarans gun down the helpless and fleeing soldiers. So much for the honor and glory of war in this one-sided bloodbath.
However the tables are quickly turned when Mace begins to act like the leader he supposedly is. With no direction from the alien expert he had called in for the job, Mace decides to make use of the Valiant to dispel the noxious fumes and to attack the factory that is now full of Sontarans and empty of humans. Then with the aid of non-copper bullets the UNIT soldiers begin to plow down the Sontarans who are suddenly the helpless ones. So much for the probic vent being their only weakness. The glorious return of the Sontarans to Doctor Who has taken an inauspicious turn. The lowlight is when Skorr stops and faces Mace with lowered weapon and offers no resistance. He simply gives up and allows Mace to shoot him in the head. (I guess Mace is a take no prisoners type of guy.)
Meanwhile the Doctor uses his secret weapon (Donna) to fix the teleport so that he can get the TARDIS back and so that he can zip over to the Rattigan Academy where all the equipment is on hand for him to slap together a gizmo that burns the poisoned atmosphere. It’s an impressive effect that miraculously doesn’t burn anything except the gas. Next, after a quick goodbye to his companions, he whizzes off to the Sontaran ship. He is no UNIT commander, though. He doesn’t do salutes and he doesn’t do orders and he doesn’t carry a gun. He does carry a device that he rigged so that it will explode the Sontarans out of the sky; however he is delivering it in person because, as he says, “I’ve got to give them a choice.”
I’ll skip over the fact that when he had Staal on spaceship to mobile UNIT hookup he never offered the Sontarans any choice; never made any threats or warnings or ultimatums; never hinted at any resolution to the conflict. I’ll also skip over the fact that he could contact them again by the same method to let them know about his gizmo and give them that choice he is so keen on delivering now. And I’ll skip over the fact that he has his TARDIS back and could probably somehow use that to board the Sontaran ship, quickly throw his device out the door, retreat back in and communicate his ultimatum before exploding his device and escaping via TARDIS. I’ll even skip over the obvious fact that the Doctor knows full well that the Sontarans will never give up regardless of the choices offered.
What I can’t skip over, however, is Evil Clone Martha. Evil Clone Martha with her finger on the trigger. He doesn’t need his fancy gizmo. He has Martha’s phone. Just hit Yes. Launch the missiles.
It is a complete waste of Evil Clone Martha. She is merely a distraction and an excuse and never really figures into the meat of the plot. The Sontarans are dead set on protecting their operative, or so they say, but never show signs of doing so. They simply walk through the factory shooting everybody in sight. They went to great lengths, too, to clone Martha. They must have somehow known that UNIT was going to show up at the factory and that they were going to launch a nuclear strike from that site and that Martha would be allowed to waltz off with the launch sequence in her phone.  But then all she does is hit No occasionally; good thing she never accidentally pocket Yeses the launch. I keep expecting the invading Sontarans to locate her and perhaps get the phone into their own hands—guard the phone rather than guard the operative. Also, the Doctor knows all along that she is Evil Clone Martha; so much more could have been made of their exchanges. He should have gotten information out of her much sooner; he could have also used his knowledge against the Sontarans, perhaps held her hostage. Likewise, she could have worked more actively to thwart the Doctor.
Evil Clone Martha is simply a plot device; she could have been Evil Clone Captain Marion Price just as easily.
The only good that comes from Evil Clone Martha is when original Martha meets her twin. This is the only time there is any life or meaning given to Evil Clone Martha. It is a touching moment, but it isn’t justified enough; there is no real build-up to provide any interest or significance to Evil Clone Martha and to give the scene the added depth it cries out for.
Let’s not forget Luke Rattigan. Luke Rattigan, the petulant young man who stomps his foot when he doesn’t get his own way. It’s a great moment of comeuppance when his tracksuit friends turn on him, except that like the Evil Clone Martha scene above, there is no background depth to round it out. This group of extras has no sense of purpose. They are just standing around hitting the No button on their Luke Rattigan phones. Luke is the only one making the scene work, and he puts that Doctor Who glossy finish on it that manages to cover the blemishes upon first view.
In fact, Luke Rattigan is a standout in the serial. All of the depth of character lacking elsewhere is focused on him. His utter dejection at betrayal turned to vengeful triumph over the Sontarans is wonderful. “Luke, do something clever with your life,” the Doctor tells him. Clever, that is, while spending the rest of his life in jail I would hope, being a mass murderer and all. But Luke has other ideas. The something clever he does conveniently gets the Doctor off the hook and out of harm’s way while blowing up the Sontarans and Luke. “Sontaran—Hah!”
I am saving the best for last, though; and that would be Donna. Donna is the one true and honest element in the episode. “What do you need me to do?” Donna is always at the Doctor’s right hand with that question. She isn’t the brightest or the strongest, but she is close to being the bravest of the Doctor’s companions. Alone on an alien ship and terrified, Donna asks what the Doctor needs done. She has no reason to expect that she will succeed and has every reason to expect she will die. With ice cold terror running through her veins, she picks up a mallet and exits the TARDIS determined to face unimaginable danger. Even through the petrified calmness Donna’s personality shines in little moments of victory.
I could say much more about Donna, but I’ll simply echo Wilf and tell her, “You go with him, that wonderful Doctor. You go and see the stars.” Donna is deserving of those stars.
With that I will leave you, Gary. You go and see the stars . . .