Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Utopia

Dear Gary—
“The skies are made of diamonds.”
What a beautiful thought for the last of humankind to carry with them as they venture out into those blank heavens at the end of the universe. Utopia. The word and the story both encompass two emotions: despair and hope.
It is a desperate world in which the Doctor and Martha land; dark and bleak and barren; all rock and gravel. The Futurekind residing on the planet represents the worst that humanity faces; a degeneration into cannibalism. Utopia, on the other hand, holds the possibility of salvation. It is interesting that the impetus propelling them to this world is Captain Jack.
Jack had flung himself onto the outer door of the TARDIS as it dematerialized. (“Well, that’s very him.”) In attempting to shake off the clinging Jack the TARDIS transports them to the end of the universe. Jack, the impossible man (there’s that word again) who was never meant to be lives an endless life that is both a blessing and a curse; even he doesn’t know which it is.
Adventure soon finds our three travelers in this stark and far-flung edge of the universe.
“Oh, I’ve missed this.”
Caught up in the human hunt, they race to the safety of the silo. Here is another world of desperation; the end of the line for the human race with families huddled refugee style in cramped halls and Professor Yana and Chantho working in futility with the knowledge that their life-line of a rocket will never take off yet feeding the expectations of their fellows. “Well, it’s better to let them live in hope,” Yana says.
The Doctor sums it up in a word: “Indomitable!”
The Doctor, of course, is the real life-line for this indomitable race; one flick of his magic wand of a sonic screwdriver and the system comes alive. Now all of the rushing about has a purpose and all of these lost souls can continue dreaming of Utopia (to borrow a phrase from Professor Yana).
It is a decent enough adventure and does its job adequately. It assembles all of our essential cast together and keeps us entertained. It provides explanations and back stories as needed. And it ties in multiple aspects of past episodes. Most importantly, however, it wraps all of these things up into a neat package to set up the real story that is to come. As a set up episode, I do not feel shortchanged. (I shudder with vague recollections of Frontier in Space.)
One of the main accomplishments of Utopia is to reintroduce Captain Jack Harkness, and he fits in seamlessly despite never having met either Martha or the Tenth Doctor. The rapport is excellent, and once again I have to say that it is a shame his character was never more of a permanent companion, if nothing else than to distract from the regrettable Doctor/adoring young girl dynamic.
I love how the Doctor cautions Jack upon his every greeting, whether of male or female persuasion. And the conversation between the two regarding Jack’s immortality is one of the highlights; although I find the Doctor’s explanation for abandoning Jack rather callous.
Despite being more or less sidelined within the trio, Martha makes her presence felt as a wry observer. “Oh ho, boys and their toys,” as the Doctor and Jack compare transport. “Oh, she was blonde? Oh what a surprise,” as the Doctor and Jack reminisce. And my favorite: “You’ve got a hand? A hand in a jar. A hand in a jar in your bag.”
The Doctor/Martha unrequited puppy love theme is still evident, however, and echoed by the Professor Yana/Chantho relationship. I like Chantho; she has an economy of character that manages to depict richness of detail and history. Simple things like her odd speech pattern leads to playful banter with Martha and adds humor and warmth to the story. The last of her kind aspect also intersects with the Doctor, and her ancestral past is tied in with a single word shared by the Doctor: “Conglomeration.” It is sad to see her demise, but much like Utopia, she has served her purpose and it is time to move forward.
This brings us to Yana. As played by Derek Jacobi, Professor Yana is a wonderfully befuddled but brilliant mind with dark undertones subtly portrayed and more overtly signaled with the sound of drums beating in his head. The end of the universe, Futurekind, rocket ships to Utopia, even Jack Harkness take a back seat as the drum beats get louder. Slowly Yana becomes the focal point.
The countdown commences, preparations for launch proceed, the Doctor and Jack rush about flipping switches; and all the while the drum beats get louder and Yana becomes quietly consumed with bygone voices. Martha cuts through the commotion about her and zeroes in on Yana; the eye of the storm. “An orphan in the storm,” Yana says as he recalls his past while Martha prompts him about his watch—a watch all too familiar to her.
Y-A-N-A: You-Are-Not-Alone. I actually have a big problem with this stretching of credulity, but I’ll let it go.
Martha runs to the Doctor with her news. “But that’s brilliant, isn’t it,” she asks. Except this promise of hope, this realization that there might be a Time Lord other than the Doctor alive in the universe has this one huge caveat: “Depends which one.”
“I am the Master.”
The transformation from mild Professor Yana to diabolical Master is chilling.
The big reveal. It is to this end that the episode has been leading. The despair of being the last; the hope of not being alone. The answer: The Master.
The adventure itself is utilitarian, lifted greatly by the characterizations. The payoff, however, reaps huge benefits. Not only is the Doctor not alone; not only is the Doctor not the last of the Time Lords; but the second Time Lord joining the Doctor is none other than the Master.
And then the distinguished Derek Jacobi as Yana/Master regenerates into the childishly maniacal John Simm.
The rocket has launched; Futurekind has been let in; Jack and Martha fight to keep the doors shut against slaughter; the newly regenerated Master takes off in the TARDIS; and the Doctor stands composed amidst it all. “I’m sorry,” he says, sonic raised.
It is a cliffhanger worthy of the name.
I’ll leave on that cliff, Gary. I’m sorry . . .

Friday, July 25, 2014

Blink

Dear Gary—
I don’t think I have much to say about Blink other than it is good. It’s clever, charming, eerie, intriguing, and well done. This is a Doctor Lite episode (blink and you’ll miss him); therefore much depends upon the lead of Sally Sparrow, and the actress portraying her, Carey Mulligan, delivers. She is instantly likeable and draws you in to the story from the start. The same can be said of Billy Shipton, Larry, Kathy, and even Ben ‘You’re in Hull’ Wainright. We care about these characters we’ve never seen before and most likely will never see again.
The opening sequence is a great set-up for the story. It’s stylishly atmospheric, with the dark, the rain, the iron gates, the ivy, the stonework, and that fantastic abandoned house. It is the perfect balance; not horrifying but creepy with an element of mystery as Sally strips away the wallpaper to reveal the message from the past written to her specifically for the present moment. The one aspect to mar the mood is the rock through the window, but that’s a quibble and I won’t get too worked up about it.
The Weeping Angels, those lonely assassins, are a perfect fit for this story. “The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely.” Spine-chilling, sinister, and poignant.
“Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead.”
Most everything fits together in this puzzle piece of a tale, much like the one sided, pre-recorded conversation the Doctor has in 1969 with present day Sally Sparrow. “A big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” And it is all beautifully filmed.
Even the tiniest of details is lovely. The dying Billy Shipton some 40 years (38) older than the Billy Shipton Sally left not more than an hour ago saying, “It was raining when we met,” to which Sally replies, “It’s the same rain.”
This works on so many levels; as sci fi, as horror, as mystery, as romance. There is so much to praise yet little to say; it speaks so eloquently for itself.
Kathy (before being zapped back to 1920): “What’s good about sad?”
Sally: “It’s happy for deep people.”
It is only 45 minutes in length, and yet there is so much richness and depth to it. Entire histories are revealed in mere seconds of dialogue or pictures or looks or gestures. Kathy in 1920; Billy in 1969; the Doctor and Martha on their way to the migration (“four things and a lizard”); Sparrow and Nightingale one year later. Not to mention strength of character. I feel like I know Sally Sparrow just as surely as she knows the Doctor from a DVD Easter egg.
Then there is the Doctor Who trademark humor, mostly courtesy of Larry Nightingale. (“You’ve only got 17 DVDs?” “The angels have the phone box. That’s my favorite; I’ve got it on a T-shirt.”) And of course a dose of righteous indignation, courtesy of the Doctor’s surrogate, Sally: “I’m clever and I’m listening; and don’t patronize me because people have died and I’m not happy. Tell me.”
The final moments in Wester Drumlins (love that name by the way) as the angels close in are worthy of any first class horror film, and the Doctor’s solution is apropos for these statues who can’t be killed and won’t be seen. (Tiny quibble, but so what that they are made of stone—can’t you just take a hammer to them?)
But now we come to the coda, and I really wish they had left well enough alone. As I said before, the Weeping Angels are a perfect fit for this story, for this one blink of an eye episode. Beyond that . . .
If you can’t even blink and they’ll get you, Sally should have been zapped back to some distant past long ago, not to mention Larry and countless numbers. I can accept the angel’s uncharacteristic lethargy for the confines of this story and this story alone. Beyond that I cannot go.
I hate to jump ahead, but the coda started it. In future I find the Weeping Angels to be one of my least favorite of the New Who monsters. Second only to that horrible creation called The Silence.
Don’t blink, Gary.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Family of Blood

Dear Gary—
“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.”
“God, you’re rubbish as a human.”
Two images of the same man; the Doctor and John Smith; the alien and the human. The two story types of Human Nature have merged; The Family of Blood now uses that unity to explore these two disparate personalities and wages war over them. It is a war that is taking place both inside the man himself and external to him.
The overt war is of course the alien attack on the school in search of the Doctor. The Family of Blood—Father of Mine, Mother of Mine, Son of Mine, and Daughter of Mine—are covetous of the Time Lord body so that Son of Mine can live forever, or at least longer than the three month lifespan he is saddled with. (Father, Mother, Son, Daughter—wouldn’t they all be at different stages during their three month existence and therefore after two months of hunting the Doctor wouldn’t at least one of them be dead or near death by now; or do they all come into a familial existence in the same moment?)
The army of scarecrows is clearly only a diversionary tactic on the part of the Family since the bullets rip them to shreds. The scarecrows are unarmed and it is unclear what they would do if they did catch up to anyone; their function seems mainly to scare and to get the Family’s blood lust up. Nonetheless it is a very effective scene as the young boys shower the advancing straw men with bullets while wiping tears from their eyes.
A battle over the Doctor is also occurring on a much smaller scale between Martha and the Matron.
“I’ve got to find that watch,” Martha exclaims as she begins her mad hunt. She sees John Smith as a useless man whereas the Doctor is “everything” to her. Find the watch and she can get her Doctor back. Matron follows because she sees something quite different. She looks at John Smith and sees a good man whereas the Doctor is a fantasy. But this is where the script takes her character and this fight in an interesting direction. This could have easily turned into a tug of war between the two women and quickly devolved into a cat fight. But it does not. Credit goes to the two characters defying stereotypical expectations. (Permit me this one indulgence, Gary, to express extreme relief that Rose is not the companion in this story.)
Martha calmly explains to Nurse Redfern what is happening, treating her as the intelligent woman she is. And like the intelligent woman she is, Nurse Redfern listens with a skeptical but open mind. They touch briefly on their rivaling affections, but thankfully Martha keeps things real and on track. She is just a friend, Martha assures Matron, and then I love how she takes her identity back, proudly defining herself as a doctor and not a maid servant. It is a wonderful moment; one of my top Doctor Who moments.
Nurse Redfern processes all of the information through the societal world view she grew up with, but she ultimately comes to her own conclusions based on the evidence before her. It is a heartbreaking process, for ultimately she must give up the man she loves; she must give up John Smith.
“John Smith wouldn’t want them to fight, never mind the Doctor,” she tells the man she knows as John Smith.” The John Smith I was getting to know, he knows it’s wrong, doesn’t he?”  The John Smith she was getting to know is not the shallow identity created by the TARDIS to fit the societal world view of the time; not the man who led schoolboys in military drills and allowed the beating of one by another. The John Smith she was getting to know, she is beginning to realize, is the hidden man buried deep within that outer casing of a man who acts as though he has forgotten he left the kettle on, who can only describe his boyhood home as an encyclopedia entry. The John Smith she was getting to know and love, the John Smith she was slowly uncovering, is the John Smith she must let go.
“I’m not. I’m John Smith.” Now the battle wages within the man. “That’s all I want to be. John Smith, with his life and his job and his love. Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”
“But we need the Doctor.”
The Family of Blood is rampaging and John Smith cannot stand up to them.
“So your job was to execute me,” John Smith accuses Martha. For Martha and the Doctor it is a simple matter of opening the watch; but it is not a simple matter, and it is impressive that for once the show does not let the Doctor off the hook. This two part story is a brutal indictment of the Doctor.
“Falling in love? That didn’t even occur to him?”
The Doctor is experiencing firsthand the painful consequences of his actions.
Joan Redfern takes John Smith by the hand and gently leads him through the minefield of his own creation. On the one hand is the idyllic view of life and love, an experience the Doctor can never have; on the other hand is the ancient and forever, scary and wonderful man of legends.
“Let me see,” Joan says as she takes the watch. “Blasted thing. Blasted, blasted thing. Can’t even hear it. It says nothing to me.” It says nothing to her, and yet she sees most clearly the message it brings. She knows the full meaning of opening that watch; the good and the bad; for her, for the Doctor, for John Smith, for the village, for the world, for the universe. She also knows it is up to the man before her to decide his own fate.  “What are you going to do?”
It has been a lovely and poignant story up to this point, the story of John Smith. Now it becomes the Doctor’s story and it takes an ugly turn. “He was braver than you in the end,” Joan tells the Doctor of that ordinary man she knew and loved. It is a story of contrasts between John Smith and the Doctor, and in this story at least, the Doctor comes up short.
The Doctor impersonates John Smith as he goes to confront the aliens, and his interpretation is one of a sniveling coward; this is not John Smith but a poor imitation as he stumbles about the spaceship hitting every switch and button in sight while the Family stands idly by showing no concern whatsoever. And then he reveals himself as the Doctor with this unforgivable line: “Oh, I think the explanation might be you’ve been fooled by a simple olfactory misdirection.” If it was that simple than shame on the Doctor for not utilizing it to begin with and sparing everyone all of the death and destruction and pain and sorrow. There was no need for the watch; there was no need for John Smith. This was a careless lark for the Doctor that ended in untold suffering, in particular for the two most important women in his life at the moment, Martha and Joan.
The guilt that the Doctor must feel over this he now takes out in vengeful wrath against the Family. And again, if it was so easy for him to dispose of them . . . . The voiceover by Baines/Son of Mine says the Doctor was just being kind when he decided on this particularly nasty game of hide and seek, but I don’t see that this conclusion follows from the unwarranted cruelty the Doctor unleashes against the Family once he is found out.
Joan, in her quiet way, sees the real tragedy and the culpability: “Answer me this. Just one question, that’s all. If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?”
The Doctor has no answer for this impeachment and Joan hands down her sentence:
“You can go.”
This dismissal reminds me of Donna’s refusal to accompany the Doctor at the end of The Runaway Bride. Both are a comeuppance for the Doctor, although this being the much more damning of the two. Both of these women see the Doctor plainly, and ultimately that is exactly what he needs. No more of these fawning young girls who hang upon his every word. But that will come in time.
All that is left is the tacked on Latimer ending. I haven’t said much about Latimer although I quite like him in this. He is convincing as the self-possessed young man yet scared little boy, and I could say more about this mini identity crises, one of many identity crises within this two parter. However I can’t help but feel that the feel-good ending is there as a redemption of sorts for the Doctor and I don’t think he deserves one. Not in this particular case. I wish the episode had ended, Gary, with:
 
“You can go.”

Friday, July 11, 2014

Human Nature

Dear Gary—
Doctor: “Martha, you trust me, don’t you?”
Martha: “Of course I do.”
Doctor: “Because it all depends on you.”
Neither a Doctor Who episode nor the Doctor has ever depended so heavily upon a companion. The Doctor has never been so vulnerable and he literally places himself in Martha’s hands as he gives her the pocket watch that will shortly contain his very being. From that moment on Martha is the only one who fully understands what is happening. The Doctor has entrusted this story to Martha and I can’t think of any other companion in recent memory who could pull off the subtle performance that Freema Agyemen does to bridge the gap between the two worlds that are depicted in Human Nature; the ordinary and the extraordinary; the human and the alien; the historical and the science fiction.
The first world consists of everyday life taking place in a 1913 school for boys. “It’s Monday, November 10th, 1913,” Martha tells the Doctor, “and you’re completely human, sir. As human as they come.” The Doctor has used the Chameleon Arch (a device never before mentioned but one that would have come in handy a time or two before now) to rewrite his biology in order hide from some aliens who are hot on his trail. The TARDIS has given him a brief bio and integrated him into his surroundings, leaving Martha to improvise her way in as a servant girl.
All aspects of this story are perfect; the sets, the costumes, the script, and the actors all lend an authentic flavor to the production. If it were not for the presence of Martha, and by the way a few aliens, I would almost think I’m watching a charming period piece and not Doctor Who. One of the more critical components of this is the performance of David Tennant, and he is superb. He makes you believe that he is John Smith and not just the Doctor playing at John Smith. There are periodic flashes of the Doctor, but for the most part John Smith is a separate character; a befuddled school teacher making his way the best he can in pre-war England, with Martha to guide him along.
I remember the first few times I watched this episode I was shocked at the sight of the Doctor teaching marksmanship to teenage boys and granting permission for one young lad to beat another. War and violence are foreign to the Doctor; but now I can appreciate the fact that John Smith is not the Doctor; John Smith is a product of his time. Similarly, John Smith can fall in love, and it is enchanting to see the gentle romance unfolding between him and Nurse Redfern.
Not so for Martha, however. “You had to go and fall in love with a human,” Martha bemoans, “and it wasn’t me.” This childish fancy that Martha clings to is a bit annoying, but overall the scene as she makes her lonely homecoming to the TARDIS is heartbreaking. Martha is completely isolated in this time and place; her only confidant is the TARDIS. (“I’m talking to a machine.”) She has to endure the indignities heaped upon her by individuals, the discrimination of society, and the indifference of the Doctor. She holds up remarkably well and is much better at adapting to historical norms than she had been in The Shakespeare Code, but I can’t help but feel that the TARDIS could have picked a more hospitable era for Martha to navigate.
Nevertheless, Martha has successfully watched out for John Smith for two months and as our story begins we get a glimpse into the daily humiliations she has endured and the gracious way she has handled them. Thus, when Hutchinson makes a derisive crack she waits until he is out of earshot before releasing her frustration; but even then she can stop to think about the year and what is in store for the likes of Hutchinson and feel compassion.  Or when Nurse Redfern admonishes her for entering without knocking she returns to the door dripping with impatient sarcasm to rap before enquiring about the Doctor’s condition after his fall; but then when the discussion turns to concussions Martha bites her tongue and defers to the Matron in her treatment, holding back her own considerable knowledge on the subject.
 “One more month and I’m as free as the wind,” she tells her one friend Jenny. Martha is biding her time. With only one month to go, however, things slowly start to unravel, starting with John Smith’s infatuation with the Matron. “I sometimes think how magical life would be if stories like this were true,” he tells Nurse Redfern as he hands over his Journal of Impossible Things (and what an exceptional prop creation this is). Martha alone knows that the magical stories are indeed true, and as guardian of the Doctor’s secret she runs after the Matron to assure her of the fictional nature of the book.
Nurse Redfern is no fool and Martha knows this. She is not one to be taken in by fanciful stories, however she is perceptive enough to describe John Smith like this: “It’s like he’s left the kettle on. Like he knows he has something to get back to, but he can’t remember what.” Given another month she very well might have uncovered the secret identity lurking beneath the surface.
“You talked of a shadow; a shadow falling across the entire world,” she tells John Smith of the stories he has written down in his journal. Already doubts and glimmers of truth are beginning to creep into her mind. And then John Smith, expounder of military discipline for the youths in his care, says a very Doctor-like thing: “Mankind doesn’t need warfare and bloodshed to prove itself. Everyday life can provide honor and valor, and let’s hope that from now on this . . . this country can find its heroes in smaller places. In the most ordinary of deeds.” And he performs a very Doctor like deed, saving the woman and her baby from the falling piano with a well thrown cricket ball. “You extraordinary man.” Yes, Nurse Redfern, given another month, very well might have dug out the hidden persona.
All of this is that one world; that ordinary, human, historical world; told in a delicate tale haunted by the visions of John Smith and with the specter of war hanging over it.
There is that other world however, that other story, and again it is Martha who ties everything together. A meteor flashes across the sky and Martha immediately knows its significance. Martha’s friend and fellow servant Jenny sniffs the air and shows a creepy interest in Mr. Smith’s future plans and Martha immediately knows this is an alien who has taken over Jenny’s form. Martha can see both worlds. Martha has been entrusted with this story and she lives up to every confidence shown in her.
That other story, that extraordinary, alien, science fiction story, doesn’t have quite the quality as that first, but it only suffers by comparison.
Baines is the standout in the alien Family possessed, although that red balloon is an eerie touch for the little girl, the spaceship effect is quite good, and the scarecrows are especially atmospheric. My one quibble would be with the cheap looking guns and the way the Family uncomfortably flails them about.
“I wish you’d come back.” Martha is alone in this alien world and the pocket watch is missing. Hindsight—I suppose Martha would have been smart to keep the watch on her person, but of course then we wouldn’t have this wonderful story. Instead we have Latimer, the schoolboy with extra-sensory perception, who pockets the watch when it speaks to him and Martha has to try to snap the Doctor out of John Smith without it.
Martha is on a mission. She is determined. Martha has no time to deal with the foolish customs of history.  “Yeah, well think again mate,” she says as she brushes aside the condemning beggar and brazenly marches through the front door of the village hall. Martha has come armed with the sonic screwdriver. “Name it,” she challenges John Smith. But it is John Smith and not the Doctor she faces. The Chameleon Arch has done its job too well.
“We need a Time Lord.”
The Family has entered; the Family has taken over the dance.
“Mr. Smith? Everything I told you, just forget it. Don’t say anything.” Martha knows it is John Smith and not a Time Lord she faces. Martha knows she is alone.
The Family knows John Smith is the Doctor in hiding.

“I don’t know what you mean!”
John Smith is useless; he is desperate; he is helpless. John Smith, an ordinary human, is faced with an alien threat and Martha and Joan are held at gunpoint.
The human and the alien have collided, and it is a cliffhanger worthy of this extraordinary tale.
Until next time, Gary . . .

Friday, July 4, 2014

42

Dear Gary—
42 is a diverting change of pace, even if it has a familiar feel to it. Every time the Doctor leaves the confines of Earth lately it is either to arrive on New Earth or on a space station/ship. 42 is set on a spaceship.
 It is a spaceship gone mad and the frantic pace doesn’t allow for much time to think too deeply, otherwise I might start asking some questions; in particular about the outrageous security system on board; and then I might go off on a tangent about modern day corporate security and how they either make it impossible to do your job or force people to write down all of their many and assorted and convoluted passwords despite repeated warnings and threats. Thankfully the action overtakes this line of thought.
The crew doesn’t have much time to think, either. They accept the Doctor’s authority with very little question. They only have 42 minutes before plummeting into the sun and have to contend with a sabotaged power supply, a possessed crew member killing them off one by one, and a multiple choice security password system from hell.
There is just enough plot to keep us interested, just enough character development to keep us engaged, and just enough mystery to keep us guessing. That about sums it up; 42 is just enough.
The things I remember most about this episode: Martha calling her mother to find out who had the most hits, Elvis or the Beatles; Martha getting further and further away in the escape pod as she watches the Doctor mouthing, “I’ll save you,” through the window (brief moment to wonder, if it is an escape pod, can’t they, you know, escape in it?); the Doctor’s possessed eyes glowing as he tells Martha to “burn with me;” and inexplicably Korwin. From time to time, out of the blue, the name Korwin will flit into my mind; and whenever I hear a word that is similar I can hear McDonnell saying the name Korwin. I don’t know why.
Other than that, I remember lots of sweat and steam and lots of running around. With the distance of time, when I try to think of this episode I tend to get bits of it mixed with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. In fact when I was watching those two episodes recently I kept waiting for the part where they were trying to open the dead locked doors with the convoluted password system. But no, that’s the one where they are crawling around in airless ducts with open air grate entrances.
My sense always is that this is a strong Martha story, and watching it again justifies this impression. She is proactive throughout, jumping in to aid in the maze of password quizzola ,what’s-behind-the-door, security network; reading up on how to work the stasis chamber in order to save the Doctor from his burning demon possession; and racing to the front of the ship in order to command the dumping of fuel thus saving the day. (“Do it. Now!”)
Martha has established herself as a worthy companion for the Doctor, even if she is not fully accepted by him. As it begins, the Doctor is fixing up her phone with “universal roaming” as “frequent flier’s privilege.” Even though this still tends to regard her as passenger more than friend, at least he is finally recognizing that she is in it for the long haul.
Martha proceeds to use her upgraded mobile several times to call her mother, once to get her pop quiz answer (Elvis) and then when she is in the escape pod facing death, and finally when it is all over and she is safely back in the TARDIS. These are some nice little character moments for her and also set up the Saxon references in a way that I don’t mind. In fact they are integrated nicely in the narrative and are effective in foreshadowing the menace facing the Doctor and Martha without seeming gratuitous or distracting.
I am always a little puzzled, however, by the kiss she and Riley share at the end. They were locked up in the confines of the escape pod facing immanent destruction together, but I never saw any budding relationship between the two. I suppose it is a bit more convincing than Leela and Andred but barely.
I don’t have much more to say about 42, although I do want to mention that the final acceptance of culpability by McDonnell and her ultimate self-sacrifice is touching.
It is just enough, Gary, and I suppose that is good enough  . . .

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Lazarus Experiment

Dear Gary—
The Lazarus Experiment is probably my least favorite David Tennant episode. I find it unappealing, unattractive, and unappetizing. I don’t actively dislike it but I do not enjoy it.
I’ll start with the opening sequence. The Doctor is at his most callous here. He can see Martha’s excitement as she walks out the TARDIS doors in anticipation of some new and interesting destination only to be disappointed to learn he has taken her home. Then he takes a rather disinterested leave of her but then rematerializes because something of interest happens to catch his attention on the telly, and he proceeds to use Martha to gain entry into the gala event. Martha simply lets him walk all over her. This is a dynamic developing that I am beginning to find disturbing.
Next we are introduced to the creepy, dirty old man Lazarus and his equally unpleasant lady love Lady Thaw, followed by the reintroduction of Martha’s excessively suspicious and extremely acerbic mother. Leo seems a nice guy, but we barely get to see him; and Tish eventually conducts herself well as the episode goes along, but at first she seems self-absorbed and overambitious. I especially find it distasteful that Tish, who had been repulsed by the old man Lazarus, is willing to be seduced by him in his rejuvenated form.
Then we have the grand experiment. My first thought is that this guy is crazy to volunteer as guinea pig. I would have thought that he would send a multitude of minions through the procedure first to ensure that it is safe before submitting himself to it. And where are the scientists who worked on this machine? I can’t imagine Lazarus did this by himself. And are there no doctors on hand to run a battery of tests to determine if he is OK after this life altering event? I also don’t get the impression that there is any press presence or members of the scientific community on hand to witness the spectacle. The audience in attendance seems just that—an audience set for a show and ready to applaud but not the least bit curious about the whole thing; it is as though this is merely a magic trick performed for their amusement alone.
Plus this does not strike me as something worthy of the Doctor’s attention. There are no aliens involved; there is no threat to the Earth; there is no history tampering or time line warping going on. Lazarus’ experiment is a failure and will never be reproduced commercially; a monster is created, yes, but nothing that the police and/or military couldn’t handle on their own. (Speaking of which—where are they in the Doctor Who universe when you need them?) Even if the experiment had been successful, so what? What is that to the Doctor? There are certainly moral and philosophical points of debate, but that is for the human race to decide.
Turns out—this is simply a show; a show for the Doctor; a show for us, the audience; a conjuring trick; a manipulation. Whispers and secrets; shadowy figures and dire warnings. Mr. Saxon. Oh please save us from season long story arcs.
The monster is the big distraction in this Doctor Who sleight of hand. I can’t help wondering, though, how it is that the giant scorpion creature incarnation of Lazarus is ten times larger than his human body. How does that work? Not to mention the whole scorpion nature of the thing and how exactly does that fit in to our evolutionary path? But we’re not supposed to think of those things; we’re only supposed to be impressed with the wonderful special effect.
There are a few nice Doctor and Martha moments (the Doctor’s James Bond suit; Martha’s collecting of Lazarus DNA sample) but for the most part we have chases down corridors by giant special effects monster and people panicking as they try to get out of the sealed glass doors. Speaking of those frantic guests—with alarms sounding and lights dimming, who in their right mind is going to scoff when someone runs in with a warning of danger?
The Doctor and Martha end up in Lazarus’ machine spinning out of control while the Doctor works some magic of his own (“reverse the polarity “—gotta love it). Oh, and I guess there is a line thrown in to address the size differential, but “cellular triplication” indeed. Big bang, all is over. However there is still plenty of time left so we have a raising from the dead and yet another high adrenalin chase/confrontation.
There is a nice moment in the cathedral between the Doctor and Lazarus as they discuss what it is to be human and the quest for unending life. Except there is the one line that bothers me each time I see this, and I know it is nitpicking Gary but it annoys me to no end. Lazarus is talking of his childhood memories and the Doctor recognizes them as the Blitz. “You’ve read about it,” Lazarus says. Why? Why would Lazarus be surprised at the Doctor’s knowledge?  It is not like anyone, no matter what age, has never heard of the Blitz without having lived through it; I would venture to say that 95% of the population living in London and over the age of say, seven, knows about the Blitz. At this dramatic moment Lazarus chooses to dwell on and comment on the manner in which the Doctor has come by his information. The only reason for the line is to establish that the Doctor is older than he looks and to form the basis for their subsequent conversation. If I liked the episode more I could probably overlook it, but as it is it tends to mar the otherwise compelling scene.
And it is a compelling debate the two have. “Facing death is part of being human,” the Doctor says, and Lazarus counters with, “Avoiding death, that’s being human.” Lazarus views his failure as a success, thinking he is now more than an ordinary human. The Doctor, however, believes that “there’s no such thing as an ordinary human.” The Doctor ends on this melancholy note: “I’m old enough to know that a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end, you just get tired. Tired of the struggle, tired of losing everyone that matters to you, tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you’ll end up alone.”
The moment passes quickly, though, as Lazarus transforms once again and we are off and running. This is where the Doctor could use a little Brigadier with his “five rounds rapid.” Instead he sends Martha and Tish racing up to the bell tower as bait. (OK, the Doctor doesn’t send them, Martha decides on her own and Tish follows, but what else did the Doctor expect?) His brilliant plan is to send shock waves of sound to dislodge the CGI monster from his perch so that he will come crashing down to his death. The Doctor takes his time doing this and takes some chances not only that it will work but that it won’t bring Martha and Tish tumbling out of the sky as well (which it almost does but miraculously doesn’t).
Martha’s reward for her act of bravery is to finally be acknowledged as a full-fledged companion. But again he does it in a casual and somewhat callous way, letting her first think he is ready to take off without her. Martha’s effusive “Oh, thank you, thank you” highlights that this is a favor the Doctor is granting upon her and she should be grateful. “Well,” he tells her, “you were never really just a passenger.” But the way the Doctor has treated her, yes, she was just a passenger and it appears still is.
I feel sorry for Martha, but I also go back to the fact that she lets him get away with it. I wish she would be a little bit more like she was at the end of Gridlock when she forced him to be honest with her.
Martha’s trip is extended, and I too carry on, Gary, on this slow path of mine . . .

Friday, June 27, 2014

Evolution of the Daleks

Dear Gary—
“I feel humanity,” Sec the human Dalek says. “I feel everything we wanted from mankind, which is ambition, hatred, aggression, and war. Such a genius for war.”
This is the problem with Evolution of the Daleks. Daleks are pure hatred, aggression, and war. (The only one of the four that perhaps is lacking is ambition; ambition hints of emotion which is alien to a Dalek; and ambition implies there is something greater to strive for, yet Daleks already view themselves as supreme.) With such a statement Sec is granting supremacy to the human race. With such a statement Sec is devaluing Daleks. With such a statement Sec is clearly defining himself as insane (relative to a Dalek).
I can accept that Sec is insane; the problem is that neither the show nor the Doctor treats him as such. In fact the Doctor turns mad scientist to aid and abet Sec in his scheme of turning the human bodies he has in storage into a hybrid race. This is not like the Ninth Doctor’s allowing of the Gelth to inhabit corpses. This Tenth Doctor is playing Igor to Sec’s Frankenstein to turn stolen human beings into monsters. The Doctor is taking Sec at his word that the bodies before him are irretrievably lost as humans. He is taking Sec at his word that he wants elements of the human heart injected into the gene feed (the same Sec who had extolled the virtues of mankind’s genius for war). He is taking the Cult of Skaro at its word that they will allow this transformation.
Don’t get me wrong. An insane Sec evolving before our eyes is fascinating. His response to Solomon’s stirring speech; his ability to admire the subtler aspects of humanity; his mix of emotions upon witnessing Solomon’s extermination; his emerging philosophies on what it means to be Dalek; all of these are intriguing to watch. But it doesn’t change the fact that Sec is unstable; that Sec is still essentially a Dalek who has been altered with the human template of the ruthless Diagoras; his mindset is evolving, but that is no guarantee that he is seeing the light as the Doctor would wish.
The Doctor looks at this new Sec and hope stirs in him. In a flash the Doctor places his trust in this madman, based on the flimsy evidence that a Dalek has changed his mind. (“Daleks never change their minds.”)The Doctor has some serious blinders on.
 “That is incorrect.” The remaining Cult has no such blinders. They know that Sec is insane. That is the saving grace of Evolution of the Daleks. And that’s rather scary—that the Daleks know better than the Doctor. “You are no longer a Dalek,” they tell Sec. Sec being chained by the rest of the Cult is inevitable, and shame on the Doctor for not being more perceptive. “You told us to imagine,” the Daleks tell Sec, “and we imagined your irrelevance.” That is a perfect summation. In the grand Dalek scheme of things Sec is irrelevant.
Sec is not a Dalek and the human Daleks are not Daleks. They are not even scary. Sec rhapsodizes about the human knack for survival, which I guess is true in the Doctor Who universe, but in the Doctor Who universe they are also the perpetual dupes. The insane Sec might not see this, but the rest of the Cult surely does; I can’t imagine why they accommodate Sec for as long as they do. The most bizarre element to the whole thing is the desire to return to the flesh. The Dalek metal casing is one of their strongest assets. Why would they abandon their armament so readily? I can’t even think why Sec would view this as beneficial, except that Sec is insane. The resulting army of automatons marching through the sewers is both comical and pitiful; they do not strike terror in the heart.
Just as a side note here—where did the Daleks get all of the high tech equipment and weapons in 1930 Manhattan?
Most of the genre mash ups from the previous episode have been abandoned for this action packed conclusion. It is heart pounding and tension laden as per usual, but doesn’t quite mask the questionable actions of the Doctor or the ‘because we say it is so’ science. However it is sufficiently entertaining and the cast, both regular and guest, are engaging.
Martha especially shines. I love that the Doctor trusts her to work out what to do on her own; and I love that she does exactly that. Martha plays detective, first determining where the action is taking place, how to get in, and what the Daleks are up to. And then, with their backs to the wall and death by pig slave seemingly inevitable, Martha comes up with her ingenious scheme to electrocute their attackers (never mind that it is all too convenient and the timing in particular highly questionable).
Ultimately, though, it is all rather mundane. Because Daleks are Daleks and not Secs; and automatons are automatons and not Daleks. It all boils down to the Doctor racing against the clock to avert disaster; not quite succeeding but succeeding enough to buy some time for a final confrontation; a dramatic speech by the Doctor; a shoot out; and finally an emergency temporal shift to ensure that there will be Dalek episodes in the Doctor Who future. (“Oh yes, one day.”) There is just enough to enjoy but not quite enough to satisfy.
Lastly we have “the pig and the showgirl” ending. Laszlo and Tallulah are two of the brightest spots in both episodes of this two part story. With a fully equipped genetics laboratory courtesy of the Daleks, the Doctor is able to save Laszlo from his brother pig slaves’ fate. His fate is tragic nonetheless; doomed to be forever an outcast and a freak. Frank has finagled a home for him in Hooverville, but what will happen to him once this short lived camp is gone? I envision a life of circus sideshows for our poor hero and I can’t help thinking that somewhere out there in the Doctor’s universe the TARDIS could take him (and Tallulah if she so desires) someplace where he would be welcome; or someplace where he could be restored to his human condition; or at the very least someplace where some serious plastic surgery could be performed. Last but not least, Laszlo (and Tallulah if she so desires) could join the Doctor and Martha as TARDIS companion(s). None of these options are even considered. The Doctor and Martha leave making their “pig and the showgirl” jokes as though this is the best that life has to offer the star-crossed lovers.
Personally I would love to have them join the TARDIS crew. I like Martha, but really the whole unrequited crush theme is getting stale. The show could use a dose of “the odd pig slave Dalek mutant hybrid” and a dash of “three Ls and an H” Tallulah to liven things up.
Ah well, another opportunity lost. Best not to dwell on the would’ve, could’ve, should’ve Gary . . .