Friday, November 10, 2017

Heaven Sent

Dear Gary—

If I were to describe Heaven Sent in one word, Gary, what would that one word be? Tedious.

There, now I don’t even have to write any more.

OK, so I’ll explain.

The Doctor spends the hour trapped in his own confession dial endlessly repeating each day and each action over and over for billions of years, his skulls piling up beneath him, as he meticulously works out where he is and why, and as he slowly chips away at the hardest wall in existence in order to reach Gallifrey.

Peter Capaldi does his level best to make this interesting, and there are some genuine moments of suspense along with an air of mystery, but over all there is a lot of running in place and hitting one’s head against a brick wall (or I should say hand against an abzantium wall). And in the end I can’t help thinking, wouldn’t it have been easier if he just used that shovel rather than his fist? Even his shoe would have shaved off a couple hundred thousand years and saved some wear and tear on him. I briefly wonder why his whole arm isn’t worn down to a bloody stump by the end, but then I remember that everything resets each day—and then I wonder why the wall doesn’t reset as well and I am thrown down an even deeper abyss of futility.

“I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.” Doctor Who revels in corridors and this line is a clever play on that; I do appreciate it; so why, I ask myself, am I not impressed?

The Doctor finds himself trapped, running in circles in a treadmill of corridor as he tries to escape a grizzly specter, and stymied by brick walls. Now he turns and makes a confession: “Oh, this is new. I’m scared. I just realized that I’m actually scared of dying.” Voila, like a secret password those words make the pursuing Veil disappear and the impenetrable walls move to reveal a doorway.

This is what I find wrong with it. The Doctor doesn’t run from ghostly figures. He confronts them and tries to communicate with them. The sight of a wraith reaching out to him wouldn’t instill the fear of death in him. And I just don’t sense any terror in the Doctor.

“It’s a killer puzzle box designed to scare me to death, and I’m trapped inside it. Must be Christmas.”

That’s more like the Doctor. He isn’t scared, he’s delighted.

Except I don’t sense delight in the Doctor, either.

He’s relentless.

And that’s what this episode is. Relentless.

It is a single-minded working out of the riddle.

The Doctor sets out on his endless path of discovery, retracing his steps, echoing his words, over and over, day after day, year after year, century after century. In this the episode succeeds brilliantly. It conveys to perfection the wearisome way the Doctor has chosen. The scenes with the shadowy and silent Clara in the TARDIS are expertly done to show the inner workings of the Doctor’s mind.

But here is the thing, Gary. For me at least, this is not the Doctor. This is Peter Capaldi. This is Peter Capaldi doing some fine acting to be sure. But it is not the Doctor. I just do not see the Doctor in any of this. And this is more than Peter Capaldi. This is Stephen Moffat. This is Stephen Moffat writing some clever scenes to be sure. But it is not Doctor Who. I just do not see Doctor Who in any of this.

And then the Moffat touch becomes too much.

The Hybrid.

I knew from the moment this was first uttered in The Witches Familiar that the Hybrid would rear its ugly head in some unsatisfying way and I dreaded it. Now here it is. Some shaky prophecy about a Hybrid has thrown the mighty Time Lords into a dither. A prophecy that has been kicking around for millennia and never caused a raised eyebrow before. Now, when the Time Lords have already been nearly extinguished and have been banished to the end of nowhere, now they suddenly decide to worry about a mythical Hybrid, as if their worries weren’t enough already.

And now the Doctor claims to be the Hybrid? Claims to be the foretold destroyer of the Time Lords? Didn’t he already play that role? Wasn’t that what the whole Moment thing was about? OK then, over and done with. No more to worry about.

But no. Here we go again.

I’m just bored by the whole thing.

And angered. Here we go again with the tampering of the show's rich and textured history. “I didn’t leave Gallifrey because I was bored! That was a lie! It’s always been a lie!” So the entire series has been a lie up until now just so Stephen Moffat can play his clever games with Hybrids and birds and confession dials and divinations.

All of the ingenuity; all of the atmosphere; all of the emoting cannot overcome this one word summation: Tedious.

And if anyone asks, Gary, how I came to this conclusion, “tell them I came the long way round.” No. Tell them, Gary; tell them I took the slow path.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Face the Raven

Dear Gary—I am philosophically opposed to Face the Raven, yet I find no fault with it. New Who has shackled itself to Earth and thus the Men in Black/aliens among us type scenario is inevitable. Face the Raven embraces the concept and delivers a decent story enriched by the presence of Maisie Williams reprising her role as Ashildr/Me.

Ashildr, in her latest persona of Mayor Me, has set herself up as the ‘Man in Black’ arbiter for the aliens. These aliens, however, are not out and about in everyday life. Rather they have segregated themselves away in a hidden ‘trap’ street in the heart of (where else?) London. It is an intriguing concept and cleverly revealed through the saga of Rigsy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let me back up to Rigsy. Rigsy, if you remember, recurs from the previous season’s story Flatline. Come to think of it, that is an apt callback to an episode in which Clara sets herself up as the Doctor. (But again I am getting ahead of myself.) Rigsy was a decent enough character from that rather unremarkable story, and he makes a pleasant addition to our present tale. The mystery he introduces in the form of a tattoo he inexplicably acquired on the back of his neck that is counting down is also promising. Doctor Who has done the countdown thing before to great effect (thinking Flesh and Stone and The Power of Three) and this time it is just as provocative; and it is the very thing to draw in the Doctor and Clara and set them on the path of discovery.

What they discover, through an entertaining sequence, is the trap street, a murder mystery, and Ashildr as Mayor Me.
The trap street provides the perfect atmosphere with its dark alleyways and its various inhabitants slipping in and out of their human disguises as they go about their gritty day to day activities in these cramped quarters. Rigsy, we learn, was lured to this pocket of London the day before. He doesn’t remember this, however, because he has been ‘retconned;’ in true Men in Black style his memory has been wiped of all events involving his alien encounter, including the murder he supposedly committed.
None of this would make any sense if it weren’t for the fact that Ashildr set everything up. After all, what use is the countdown tattoo if Rigsy can’t see it? Good thing he has short hair and a partner to tell him about it. And what good is the countdown tattoo if he doesn’t even know what it is counting down to? Good thing he has the Doctor and Clara to figure it out for him. And what good is it to give Rigsy the time he needs in order to say his goodbyes and make his final arrangements if he doesn’t know he has a death sentence hanging over his head? And what kind of justice is it that convicts a man without a trial based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence?

The answers lie in the fact that it is all an elaborate sham engineered by Ashildr in order to maneuver the Doctor into sticking his hand into the stasis chamber that is keeping Anah (the alleged murder victim) alive and in a state resembling death, and this is in order to clamp a teleportation device onto the Doctor’s wrist. It is a convoluted plot that depends on lots of luck and happenstance. However, like in any good Doctor Who script, this is a case where the means justify the ends.

I can forgive the show’s contortions because of the enjoyable 50 minutes they serve up. I can forgive Ashildr’s insane plot because of the interesting puzzle it provides.  Just as I can forgive the season arc that seemingly has led us to this shackled Doctor—I can forgive it due to a season of stories involving Maisie Williams; I can forgive it due to a season of quality episodes; I can forgive it due to a season that has renewed my waning love of the show.

And I can forgive it this—I can forgive it Clara. Even this I can forgive.
From the beginning Clara has been set up as the end. She started as the arc; the reason for the season. As such, she had to be filled in. Doctor Who never did a good job of filling her in. Season after season they started at the end with her and had to backfill; had to force her character into the mold that would result in the big bang finale. And now Doctor Who has led us to this; to Clara’s end.
Jenna Coleman has been given some meatier material to work with this season and she has made the most of it. In Face the Raven many of Clara’s character traits, or I could say flaws, finally culminate into a part Jenna Coleman can sink her teeth into. This brings me back to my earlier comment about Flatline.  Clara has been flirting with delusions of Doctor for some time now, along with a sense of invulnerability. Her bravery has turned to recklessness and her intelligence to hubris; and at last these tendencies have caught up with her. At last she must pay the price. At last she must face the raven.
Clara hurls herself into the adventure head first—literally. Hanging upside down from the TARDIS high over London, Rigsy says of her, “She enjoyed that way too much.” The Doctor replies, “Tell me about it. It’s an ongoing problem.” This sets the tone and the theme for what follows.
Clara genuinely cares what happens to her friend; her compassion is one of her good qualities. However Clara’s egotism overrides her empathy. Playing on Rigsy’s sentiment for his infant child, Clara manipulates him into transferring his deadly tattoo to her. “This is clever,” she states as she cavalierly toys with their lives. Clara is so intent on being the hero that she disregards all else. Caution is not just thrown to the wind; it is flung into the abyss—gleefully.
And then she does what she always does—she turns to the Doctor expecting miracles. “We can fix this, can’t we?” She implores when she discovers the tattoo, once passed on, can no longer be removed. “We always fix it.” But she can’t fix it; the Doctor can’t fix it; Ashildr can’t fix it. Clara has made her pact with the devil and she and only she can pay the price. Except, of course, the price she pays will be felt, as it always is, by those left behind.
“If you feel guilty about this,” Clara tells Rigsy, “even for one minute, I . . .” But of course Rigsy will carry this burden to his grave. And then there is the Doctor. “You can’t let this turn you into a monster,” she admonishes the Doctor. She knows how deeply her death will affect the Doctor, and all she can tell him is, “I guess we’re both just going to have to be brave.” This is where her egomania trumps all feeling and she embraces martyrdom. After all, if Danny Pink can do it . . .
“I know it’s going to hurt you, but please be a little proud of me.”
Her final words: “Let me be brave. Let me be brave.” She isn’t being brave so much as she is being vainglorious.
An appropriate end to this control character. And now the end justifies the means as well. This powerful and apt death scene justifies the three seasons of indecisiveness building and coalescing into this monumental ego ultimately being expelled in a poof of black smoke.
Clara never had a form of her own. She has been inserted into seasons in order to provoke desired outcomes. And now the show’s repeated assertions that Clara is the best and brightest is coming to fruition as her sacrificial lamb effort provides the gut punch to the Doctor that will clearly define the remaining two episodes of this ninth series of New Who.
I can’t feel it with the Doctor, mainly because I could never develop any affection for Clara. I can appreciate the actor’s work and can even find moments to like the character, but I could never warm up to her.  Also, I know New Who’s penchant for creating unbelievable ever afters, so even without benefit of hindsight I figure this will not be the last time we see Clara.
However I can sympathize with the Doctor’s somewhat misdirected anger and I can look forward to where the arc will take us as he awaits teleportation to parts unknown. The hints all point to the Time Lords being the powers behind the scene, and the confession dial is again put into play. It is all very intriguing, Gary.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Sleep No More

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Zygon Inversion

Dear Gary—

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

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Zygon Invasion

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

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

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

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Woman Who Lived

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

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Girl Who Died

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