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 . . .

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Before the Flood

Dear Gary—
This story is over before it starts. But don't tell the Doctor that; he wants to have fun so he throws a spanner into the works to keep it going.

“So there’s this man. He has a time machine. Up and down history he goes, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, getting into scrapes.” The Doctor is telling a story—to us, the audience. I don’t like it. To me this is the show showing off. This is Doctor Who saying ‘Looky what I can do!’ The point of this opening segment is to set before us the Bootstrap Paradox (“Google it”) as the centerpiece of the episode. This is exactly the thing that I have against season arcs—it sacrifices the adventure on the altar of the almighty arc. In the case of Before the Flood, the narrative is shortchanged in deference to the “who really composed Beethoven’s Fifth” causal loop framework it just set forth in plain view. And by having the Doctor break the fourth wall in order to deliver the message it is by way of saying, ‘Ta da!’
It is a shame because the first half of the story set us up nicely; the second half lets us down. The tale is simply a flimsy excuse to get us to perform and admire the Doctor Who mental gymnastics game. It is as hollow as the sham Soviet town the TARDIS materializes in. I can’t even believe that this military base designed as a fake village for training purposes is real—it is simply a TV set ready for our actors to play in. The tip-off is that there are absolutely no people here—not even a stray guard or two. It is completely abandoned for no apparent reason. So devoid of life that a huge alien spacecraft can land there and no one is around to notice; the UFO must not have even registered as a blip on any radar screen in this supposedly militarized zone.
Of course there is always the possibility that our baddie of the hour, the Fisher King, has killed everyone within miles of the place. But that isn’t even hinted at. In fact, nothing of import is related in connection with the Fisher King. Oh, he’s big and impressive and scary looking all right. But that is his only raison d’etre. Beyond that he could be one of the cardboard Russians littering the streets of the town. We have no clue what his motivation is. I guess he wants to “drain the oceans and put the humans in chains” just for the fun of it. For all we know that threat could be nothing more than hot air. We have no demonstration of his powers other than somehow killing O’Donnell (off camera), presumably by brute strength, and making some magic writing appear on his capsule wall that will turn dead humans into transmitters. If the military is in any way active around that town the Doctor could easily enlist their aid in defeating the big guy.
I’m not even sure how the Fisher King knows where he is. He is presumed dead and wrapped up like a mummy awaiting burial when we first meet him, and then quite suddenly he appears alive and well and fully informed. He awakens on a strange planet but knows exactly where it is; enough so that he can write the coordinates on the wall; even if those coordinates seem awfully vague; and I wonder if anyone hearing them will actually understand them and know where to go or even why they should go. In addition, the Fisher King seems to know everything about the Doctor and Time Lords; yet he is fooled by a simple lie; and in the end he is destroyed by a deluge. (Makes you wonder, Gary, how the Arcateenians killed him, or thought they killed him.)
The Fisher King is an Etch A Sketch version of a monster.
Equally sketchy is Prentis. He should be a fascinating character, but we never get to know him. The script treats him as contemptuously as the Doctor treats him. He is a Tivolian funeral director come to bury the fallen Fisher King “on a barren, savage outpost.” Why did he choose Earth (hardly barren)? Why is he wandering about the town with no particular direction? Why does he have no helpers to dig the grave, act as pall bearers, etc? His only purpose (other than to be ghostly) is for exposition. He doesn’t even need much prodding. Copious explanations roll off his tongue of their own accord. Mention his home planet and he delivers a concise encyclopedia entry found under T for Tivoli. Ask him one question (“What are you doing here?”) and he rattles off a Reader’s Digest history of conquest and subjugation. Once his information has been imparted his character is dispensed with; thrown aside much like the Doctor tosses away his card. (“May the remorse be with you.”)
It is the Doctor who comes off the worst in this chicken or egg riddle, though. There is the obvious callousness that the script points out for us in the casual way he treats O’Donnell’s death, using it to test his theory. This insensitivity is reinforced by Clara when Cass questions the Doctor’s influence over Clara in her decision to send Lunn out on a dangerous mission; Clara explains to Cass of the Doctor, “He taught me to do what has to be done.” But this is what Doctor Who wants you to take away; the Doctor’s culpability goes deeper than that.
The Doctor’s brilliant plan is to send a hologram ghost Doctor ahead in time to the underwater base to deliver a cryptic message to Clara to relay back to the real Doctor to essentially light a fire under him to get going already and save the day. Huh? Since when does the Doctor need a kick in the pants to solve a basically straight forward alien threat? Additionally, he programs the Holo Doctor to pass on a bit of information (that the stasis chamber is going to open that night) to his real self in order to give him the bright idea of getting inside that chamber so that he can pop up at the right time in the underwater base. Can't his real self think up this plan all by himself without the paradox? Surely he can set the timer going on the thing to open, and that is probably exactly what he does do, so why didn’t he think of the plan himself? Oh yeah, he did think of it himself, but only after he prodded himself from the past. Or was it the future? Or was it Beethoven? And if he can set the timer, why not set it for earlier? Why the need for Holo Doctor at all? Just have the chamber open an hour or two earlier, jump out and that's that.
However, here is my real question. Why the need for coded messages? Why not simply have Holo Doctor say in plain English, or Gallifreyan, or whatever language he wants, exactly what is happening and what he should do? The Doctor’s need to keep things fun and interesting only endangers everyone around him.
This need for excitement is probably what compels him to program his Holo Doctor to let the ghosts on the base out of their trap. (And how can a hologram do that exactly?) He figures Clara, Cass, and Lunn are getting bored just sitting around waiting for something to happen. Or maybe he wants to get Clara’s mind off of his seemingly inevitable death so she’ll stop nagging him about it.
If the Doctor is going to mess about with the laws of time and create this paradox in order to save Clara, why not go whole hog and rewrite history altogether to save everybody? He talks a good game about certain laws that can’t be tampered with, but he breaks any and all when it suits him. In this particular case he goes the paradox route rather than the history re-writing, and again I wonder why. Rather than using the missing power cell to blow up the dam to flood the town and kill the Fisher King, couldn’t he use it to blow up the Fisher King and the ship with the writing on it to avert all the deaths? Or erase the writing? But no, no, no; he is “still slavishly protecting Time.” And he can’t resist the thrill of “reverse engineering the narrative.”
That is the real crime against the Doctor. He has engineered the events. Clara isn’t in any danger while the ghosts are trapped; she doesn’t need saving. But the Doctor can’t stand for that so he lets the ghosts out so that he can come in and save the day. How does he save the day? By trapping the ghosts. He knew when he went back to the beginning that the ghosts were safely locked away in the Faraday cage. All he had to do was find out how the ghosts were created and stop any more from generating. Once he found the Fisher King all the Doctor had to do was immobilize him and then inform UNIT to collect the ghosts at that 2119 base.
Despite the flaws, there are several exciting moments as well as some interesting concepts and humorous bits. Cass is great as she argues with Clara over Lunn’s dangerous mission, and the scene of Cass sensing the vibrations of the axe as it is dragged along by the stalking ghost is tense and worthy of any good horror story. Quite a bit of it falls flat, however. The Doctor’s “morning breath” comment for instance, or the repeated emphasis on how dense the Doctor is when it comes to understanding Bennett’s mourning of O’Donnell. The wrap up of the Cass/Lunn romance is sweet but forced. Did anyone not know how these two felt about each other, least of all Cass and Lunn?
And I really want to know why the TARDIS is so obstinate throughout the story. It brings the Doctor and Clara to that base to begin with and then decides it doesn’t like it there and won’t return once the Doctor leaves. Or perhaps the Doctor simply makes up that excuse to keep his storyline intact.
When all is said and done the Doctor tells Clara, “The Fisher King had been dead for a hundred and fifty years before we even got here.” The Fisher King, that Etch A Sketch monster, was never the threat. It was the ghostly transmitters that were the problem and they were safely locked away. “But once I went back,” the Doctor continues in his explanation to Clara, “I became part of events.” He then goes on to lay the “who composed Beethoven’s Fifth” punch line on her and obscures the fact that his becoming part of events is exactly what put them all in danger; and deliberately so. He wrote this ghost story; or was it Holo Doctor? Who wrote Before the Flood? And isn’t he a clever man, Gary?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Under the Lake

Dear Gary—
“So, we are fighting an unknown homicidal force that has taken the form of your commanding officer and a cowardly alien, underwater, in a nuclear reactor.” That is a perfect and succinct summation of Under the Lake. The result is a tense, base-under-siege tale as well as an eerie ghost story and an intriguing mystery, succeeding admirably at each even while riddled with defects.
All three elements come into play immediately as the scene opens in the 2119 underwater mining facility with the crew examining a baffling craft discovered on the lakebed. A ghostly figure in Victorian dress appears and the engines of the unknown ship ignite spewing flames which kill the captain, who next shows up as vaporous companion to our Victorian garbed friend. It is a compelling start despite some of the weaker elements already established; those being the characterizations. The crew is generally stock stuff, although ably portrayed.
The most stereotypical of the assemblage is Pritchard.  No effort is made to depict him as a human being. He is Corporate Mouthpiece, nothing more. Every word out of his mouth and every action he takes is in service to this function. When the Doctor rudely dismisses him therefore (“Why is this man still talking to me?”) it’s OK because Pritchard has no thoughts or feelings; he’s simply a cardboard cutout. The only remarkable thing about this man is that he does not survive long enough to undermine the actions of the others as is usually the fate of such characters. Rather, he is quickly dispatched to become a much more interesting ghost.
Unfortunately the most charismatic of the group, Captain Moran, is the first to be turned into a spectral being. The acting commander Cass and her interpreter Lunn are the standouts of those who remain, although their secret desire for one another is telegraphed throughout and is mildly annoying because it is so obvious and yet very deliberately unacknowledged. Rounding out the cast is Bennett the nerdy scientist and O’Donnell the spunky female technician. Their secret desires are revealed more subtly, yet the focus on the one gesture (the punch on the arm) is just as intentional and therefore intrusive.
They serve their purpose, however, these clichéd characters, and the presence of the ghosts and the strange vessel with its unearthly markings keeps things exciting.
Enter the Doctor and Clara. The Doctor and Clara always liven things up, however there are certain aspects of their relationship in this story that are forced and fall flat. Clara is much too gung-ho for adventure and the Doctor uncharacteristically cautious. His “duty of care” speech is contrived and serves to remind me of how bad both the Doctor and Clara are at this particular responsibility. The note cards shtick is another example of the script trying too hard to make a point. The Doctor has rotten people skills and Clara is there to guide him. This routine only reinforces the fact that Clara is a lousy teacher and belittles the Doctor’s intelligence.
On the other hand, the Doctor’s varying reactions to the phantoms are more apropos. His initial skepticism is to be expected and his speculations draw us further in to the mystery. His delight when he determines that they are actually ghosts is infectious. Once he has accepted them for what they are he plans accordingly as he tries to understand them, their capabilities, and their motivations, all of which propels the plot.
The ghosts themselves are another plus, but again despite their weakness. They are fantastically realized and provide abundant eeriness and scare factor. However I can’t understand why the crew doesn’t fight back. After it has been determined that the ghosts cannot harm them unless armed, why not grab the weapons away from them instead of simply cowering and running? I can understand to some extent being too frightened in the moment to think straight; however they have ample time to stand around and discuss strategy when the ghosts aren’t around.
Speaking of strategy—what was the Doctor thinking? It seems the haunted house mentality has taken hold of him. Sending three people out to draw the ghosts into a trap doesn’t make sense. Only one person is needed for the job. Using three only serves to provide the opportunity for something to go wrong, exactly as it does. The ghosts split up. “I’m beginning to think we should have let the ghosts in on the plan.” No, Clara, you should have devised a better plan. It’s an adrenaline rushing chase, though, and that’s a good enough excuse. I’ll even excuse the idiocy of both Clara and Lunn as each stands squarely in the middle of the doorway in full view before the door slams shut. Only then do they duck to the side out of sight. In Lunn’s case he’s too late, but luckily Cass had the foresight all along to keep Lunn out of the alien spacecraft so he doesn’t have the code words embedded in his brain and the ghosts let him go; and how convenient too, that this is the means by which the Doctor figures out that it is the markings in the ship that are the key.
The markings in the ship; the code words—this is both ingenious and head scratching. It is expertly done as one by one characters gaze at the etchings and we see those strange symbols reflected in their eyes. The ghosts silently chanting the translation is haunting and the tying in of Cass’s ability to lip read is clever. The words themselves—the dark, the sword, the forsaken, the temple—are intriguing and the Doctor’s conclusion that these are coordinates leading to the church within the flooded and abandoned town is original. However I can’t get over the vagueness of it all. OK, I can accept the space, Earth (as the fourth component of Orion’s Belt), and church suppositions, but how does “forsaken” lead one to that specific flooded and abandoned town? Surely there are thousands of abandoned towns with churches on the planet.
There are a few more minor issues I have with this episode. How is it that the ghosts are able to manipulate the system during the day cycle when supposedly they can only come out at night? Why did the TARDIS materialize on this base to begin with when it doesn’t like being there? Finally I have to question the efficiency of this ghost transmitter idea. With technology like that, wouldn’t you think the alien intelligence that created these ghosts would have had the means to transmit the coordinates in a more direct fashion? But oh well, as we say in Nelma.
As in any good Doctor Who, the action takes over, sweeping any questions aside. The group races against the clock to reach the TARDIS before they get trapped; only half of them make it. The Doctor, O’Donnell and Bennett board the TARDIS to go back in time to before the flood while Clara, Cass, and Lunn remain behind. “Sit tight,” the Doctor tells them. “I’ll come back for you.” Clara trusts the Doctor one hundred percent. “This is how we roll,” Clara states confidently. “He’s going to go away, come back, and we’ll have to listen to how he did it.” However while she says this a new ghost appears and with growing dread the trapped trio realizes—it is the Doctor.
Replete with flaws, Under the Lake nevertheless transcends them all to deliver one doozy of a tale, topped with one whiz-bang cliffhanger. In short, Gary, Under the Lake is some darn good Doctor Who.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Witch's Familiar

Dear Gary—
The Witches Familiar is one of the most richly entertaining episodes of the New Who era. It doesn’t rely on the spectacle or production or epic storytelling for its wow factor; rather its strength lies in its acting, with a nod towards directing.
I’ll start with the Missy and Clara show.
“Can I have a stick too?”
The super confident Clara is continually kept off balance by the indomitable Missy. The episode starts with Clara literally swept off her feet, hanging helplessly upside down while Missy spins her fascinating tale of the Doctor. Missy is in complete control and there is nothing Clara can do about it. This sets up a dynamic that makes Clara more approachable as a character. Her spunk and spirit shines as she continually picks herself up off the mat to battle on. When unchecked as she so often is with the Doctor, or when indulged by UNIT, Clara has a tendency to take on an air of untouchable conceit that isn’t always warranted. Clara needs the counterbalance of Missy to keep her grounded, even when left dangling in the air.
“Make your own stick.”
Meanwhile Missy revels in both challenging and torturing Clara. Missy always has the upper hand, yet Clara isn’t about to roll over for her. Clara keeps Missy sharp. Together they make a classic team.
What they are not is necessary—at least not for rescuing the Doctor, even though they deem themselves as such. They provide a delightful distraction and give context to the Doctor’s ultimate solution, but the “we do” proclamation as to what happens when the Doctor assumes he is going to die is nothing more than hot air. This calls the whole confession dial and last party and the bulk of the previous episode into question, but since it all results in some engaging television I’ll let it pass.
Clara’s and Missy’s foray into the Dalek sewers is amusing and informative. We learn that Daleks never die (that’s a big reveal and a bit of a head scratcher and has multiple implications for the Doctor Who historical record, but it comes in mighty handy for this particular story) but rather exist in some sort of gelatinous state lurking around underground just itching for the chance to swell up in an angry mob of seething blob to engulf a vulnerable Dalek in its casing. We also learn that Daleks channel emotion through their weapons system, using their constant “Exterminate!” rant as a means to reload. This new data is divulged during some extremely enjoyable comedy routines by our dynamic duo.
We also get an education in Dalek translation. ‘I love you’ equates to ‘exterminate’ in Dalek speak, as does ‘you are different from me.’ One’s name comes out as ‘Dalek’ and apparently Daleks cannot articulate contractions. Missy has loads of fun as she induces Clara Dalek to demonstrate this for us.
Everything that Clara and Missy uncover in the sewers serves as vital components to the dramatic conclusion, all packaged neatly for us in their comical escapade. Interspersed with this fun sideshow is the compelling dialogue between the Doctor and Davros that forms the heart of the narrative. Both actors are superb as these two ancient enemies face off, and the heartfelt exchange holds a little bit of everything for us.
It starts with a bang—the Doctor in Davros’ chair. “Admit it. You’ve all had this exact nightmare.” What’s not to love about that? It doesn’t last long, just long enough for the fun factor to kick in; although I am a bit disappointed with the Doctor’s illogical conclusion that Clara’s extermination was a hoax. That the Doctor would hold out hope that Clara is alive is believable, but that the Daleks of all creatures would have played such a trick and spared Clara’s life is not. This smacks of desperation that is not characteristic of the Doctor (but unfortunately much too characteristic of New Who). Also disappointing is the Colony Sarff angle. By employing Colony Sarff Davros, creator of the Daleks, is admitting that he is helpless without the aid of an alien being; his Daleks are useless against the Doctor, yet Colony Sarff can effortlessly slither in and save the day.
No matter. What follows is classic as the war of words begins.
Their concepts of mercy and compassion shape the conversation. Not surprisingly, Davros considers mercy a defect and compassion a cancer whereas the Doctor “wouldn’t die of anything else.”  Davros plays upon this perceived weakness of the Doctor masterfully, and I am sucked in just as easily as the Doctor seems to be. Julian Bleach does the impossible of infusing this evil character with sympathy, vulnerability, and pathos. When Davros sighs plaintively, “I wish, just once, we had been on the same side,” I genuinely believe him, and his last wish to look upon the sunrise with his own eyes appears sincere.
Like two old friends chatting long into the night, their discourse at times takes on moments of levity.
Davros: “Then we have established one thing only.”
Doctor: “What?”
Davros: “You are not a good doctor.”
And it contains moments of revelation.
Doctor: “There’s no such thing as the Doctor. I’m just a bloke in a box telling stories.”
The Doctor sounds weary as he makes this confession; a far cry from previous incarnations that proudly and emphatically proclaim, ‘I’m the Doctor.’ The title is not a badge of honor for him; it is something to which he aspires: “Sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I’m not some old Time Lord who ran away. I’m the Doctor.”
And like two old friends with past grudges and historical enmity, there are the moments of truth or consequences:
Davros: “Genocide in a moment. Such slaughter, not in self-defense; not as a simple act of war. Genocide as a choice. Are you ready, Doctor?”
And then the ultimate dare: “Are you ready to be a god?”
The one sour note for me is the hint of the hybrid. I hate when New Who tries to tamper with the mythos. But I’m not going to let myself get bogged down, Gary.
Then everything comes together, much too conveniently but so very entertainingly, and I therefore forgive it.
The Doctor has been playing along with Davros and outwits him in the end. He was never in doubt—the Doctor, as Missy pointed out at the start, has always assumed he would win. Again, this calls into question all of the preceding last day to live nonsense, but who cares?
Time Lord Regeneration Energy (really, the Doctor in New Who treats this great power very carelessly, but oh well . . .) has renewed Davros and his Daleks and, by the way, the angry Dalek globules lurking in the sewers. With super Dalek power the blob mob explodes throughout the planet engulfing the hapless whole Daleks. Luckily they bypass Clara Dalek and never think to go after Missy or the Doctor.
Michelle Gomez as Missy is in contrast to Julian Bleach as Davros. Whereas Julian Bleach portrays Davros with subtlety and with depth, Michelle Gomez runs with the over-the-top nature of Missy. Both succeed admirably; and while we can sympathize with Davros and almost believe there is a spark of goodness deep within his soul, we never doubt Missy’s depravity yet we love her for it, even as she spurs the Doctor on to kill the Clara Dalek.
This is where the mercy angle comes full circle and takes us back to that long ago hand mine field with the boy Davros; and this is where the show cops out and lets the Doctor off the hook. That opening dilemma from The Magician’s Apprentice that held such promise is compromised. That haunting question, “Doctor, what have you done” is answered with the lamest of all rejoinders.
“I’m going to save my friend the only way I can.”
The Doctor doesn’t save the young lad out of compassion or mercy; he doesn’t turn his back on the small boy in cold blood; neither does he spare Clara Dalek nor murder her; he never has to make those life or death decisions. He simply goes back in time to alter events so that Davros will instill mercy into his Daleks that will ultimately lead the Doctor to recognize Clara inside of the Dalek.
“I’m not sure that any of that matters: friends, enemies. So long as there’s mercy,” the Doctor says as he leads the boy Davros home; but he is merely hardwiring the codeword into the lad.
No Classic here. But what we have in The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witches Familiar, Gary, is some of the most entertaining Doctor Who of the new era.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Magician's Apprentice

Dear Gary—
The Magician’s Apprentice has the start of a potential classic; however it quickly muddles the opportunity. To be fair, that opening sequence is almost impossible to live up to. Anything that follows will inevitably suffer in comparison.
In a matter of seconds the gripping scenes of a grim war on a stark landscape sets the tone and draws us in to the intimate view of two soldiers trying to survive using mismatched technology. Our concern follows along with Kanzo as he runs after a frightened child fleeing headlong into danger. The suspense builds as the battle-weary boy stands stark still in the middle of strangely rippling ground. The exchange between Kanzo and the boy is compelling, leading to the startling reveal of the literal hand mine. Kanzo’s sudden extraction underground leaves the petrified child alone in a misty field of seeing-eye hands. Enter the Doctor. This alone would make for a thrilling start to a promising episode. It is that one word, however, that propels it to potential classic.
“Tell me the name of the boy who isn’t going to die today,” the Doctor says. And then the unexpected reply: “Davros.”
That vile name out of the mouth of a scared and lonely child in desperate need of the Doctor’s aid. And then that plaintive voice: “You said I could survive. You said you’d help me. Help me!”
The Magician’s Apprentice sets itself up to rival Genesis ofthe Daleks; sets itself up to not only be a classic in the Doctor Who canon, but a classic of television as a whole.
What follows does not achieve that level.
What does follow immediately upon the heels of this haunting opening is still quite good.  With a name to rival one of Robert Holmes’ creations, Colony Sarff skates his way through the Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation, and Karn in search of the Doctor.
 “We are Colony Sarff. We bring harm.”
The air turns sinister with this introduction of a fantastic new character.
Colony Sarff’s ominous warning—“Davros knows. Davros remembers.”—and Ohila’s accusation—“Doctor? What have you done?”—continues with the classic in the making possibilities.
As fantastic a character as Colony Sarff is, however, I have to wonder why Davros would condescend to employ him; not just to employ him but to rely and confide in him. Davros, the creator of the most ethnocentric creatures in all of creation. The development of that relationship warrants an episode unto itself.
I also have to wonder why Davros didn’t set Colony Sarff on to the Doctor’s companion to start with rather than sending him out on a wild goose chase. I can only imagine it is because the wild goose chase through the Maldovarium, through the Shadow Proclamation, and through Karn is the goal; it is Doctor Who giving in to the Doctor Who spectacle; it is Doctor Who showing off; it is Doctor Who simply being Doctor Who. And that’s OK, Gary. It veers the episode away from the classic, but it veers it towards something that is highly entertaining.
The Maldovarium, the Shadow Proclamation, and Karn all do their duty and are left behind. Next up: UNIT. This is when all pretense of classic-dom is dropped. Now we are just full-on into Doctor Who.
Clara is back, of course; as ineffectual a teacher as ever; but for some reason an integral part of UNIT. Kate Stewart is done an enormous disservice here. Her only purpose is to call in Clara to find the Doctor and to provide the technology for Clara to do just that. Missy stopping the planes is another unnecessary show-off move, and this entire spectacle is merely to get the improbable duo of Clara and Missy working together. Once that is accomplished UNIT and the planes are forgotten.
Again, that’s OK. Despite the despicable nature of Missy (on full display in this early going), Michelle Gomez is as wonderful as ever, and the pairing of her and Jenna Coleman is inspired.
Not so inspired—the Doctor’s medieval party. This is Doctor Who’s self-indulgence at its height. There is no logical reason for this exhibition. It is amusing, yes; but as Clara points out, it is not in keeping with the Doctor’s nature. I just can’t see the Doctor doing any of this, especially when he believes this to be his final day. But then, I can’t see why the Doctor does believe this is his final day. The confession dial is an intriguing concept, but the way this plays out doesn’t give any solid foundation for its emergence at this time. Everything here is a smokescreen to keep us in awe and not ask any questions as to plot development. Given the title of the piece, I suppose this sleight of hand is appropriate.
In the sleight of hand, don’t ask pesky questions vein—Missy is alive! What a great nod to the Master of old: “Death is for other people.” The Master (now Missy) doesn’t need any elaborate explanations for how he/she escapes the grave. What matters is that Missy is alive and well in the person of Michelle Gomez and that is a win for any Doctor Who fan.
The preceding extravaganza succeeds in collecting our main trio—the Doctor, Clara, and Missy—in the main arena of action and subsequently transporting them into the danger zone. What I can’t understand is why the Doctor and Missy are so aghast when they learn that the danger zone turns out to be Skaro. They both know they are being transported to Davros and by default the Daleks, and neither seems particularly phased by that. The only surprise for the Doctor should be in discovering that his supposed destruction of the place back in Remembrance of the Daleks misfired, but that has long been debunked as a failed attempt, presumably by the same death-defying magic of the Master/Missy. So why the sudden fear to learn the location as though the planet itself is anathema?
In any event, the scene shifts to Skaro and at last we get a glimpse of the Davros/Doctor confrontation that has been anticipated throughout the episode, complete with echoes from confrontations past. It is a taste of what is to come in the second part of this two-part story, and it whets the appetite.
It is a two-part story, and perhaps that is why it fails in its bid to become a classic. A quiet and in-depth study of the Doctor/Davros relationship would have fit the bill. However the show settles for the over-blown production, and to repeat myself, Gary, that is OK. Doctor Who is an old hand at the over-blown production and not many do it better.     
Being the first part only, The Magician’s Apprentice needs to wrap things up and end with a bang.
Missy and Clara escape their cell only to be captured and brought to a room full of Daleks while the Doctor and Davros watch. Missy and Clara discover that the Daleks have also captured the TARDIS; and Missy attempts to use the TARDIS and her position as a Time Lady to advantage. However the Daleks see through her bluff. The TARDIS has long since lost its mysterious luster; in the New Who-verse any and all aliens have discerned the Time Lord secrets of time travel. The magic blue box is now only a blue box; near and dear to the Doctor’s heart as well as his companions and his fans, but still only a blue box. Its tricks have been exposed and any amateur alien can replicate them. The Daleks laugh in the face of Missy, and true to their nature they exterminate Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS in turn while the helpless Doctor looks on.
Of course we know that Missy, Clara, and the TARDIS are all safe. There is no danger there and the show admits this by not making this the ultimate cliffhanger. Instead it goes back to that promising beginning. It returns to Skaro of old when Davros was young and the Doctor was faced with his dilemma that was hinted at way back in Genesis of the Daleks (“If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?”). The Doctor stands before the forlorn child who he knows to be Davros, the child surrounded by murderous hand mines. “Are you going to save me,” the young boy enquires.
It is the question on everyone’s mind at this momentous pinnacle.
Close up on the Doctor as he points a Dalek gun at the helpless lad:
“Exterminate!“
To be continued . . . .

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Last Christmas

Dear Gary—
“Nobody likes the tangerines.” Yet there those ubiquitous tangerines are, rolling about Clara’s rooftop, bandied about in conversation, left on the windowsill.
Dad was just telling me about Christmas in his childhood. ‘Christmas isn’t Christmas without an orange,’ he said. Growing up with nine brothers and sisters during the depression, he never got presents as a kid. But his family always had a tree and Santa always left an orange for them. Maybe nobody admits to liking the tangerines or oranges, but secretly everybody knows that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them, and every last one will be enjoyed.
This is my long-winded way of saying, Gary, that I really worked hard to like Last Christmas. It took quite some time and several viewings, but I have finally come around. Last Christmas has turned out to be the tangerine left on my windowsill. It’s not the fault of the story; it’s really very good. Rather, I had to overcome some serious prejudice based on the bad taste left by the last half of the previous season.
I wasn’t much in the mood for Santa and his bickering elves and I definitely had had enough of Clara and her wallowing self-pity. We have spent several seasons now with Clara never committing to a character or to the Doctor; leading to a season of not being able to commit to Poor Danny Pink; the result of which was Poor Danny Pink being cyberized and Clara yet again turning her back on TARDIS life. We know enough about Clara by this time, however, to know that her determination will not last. About the only thing we can count on with Clara is that she will change her mind.
It’s no surprise, therefore, to see Clara in her nightie on her roof on Christmas Eve confronting Santa and his bickering elves; nor is it unexpected for the Doctor to show up at this time to extend his hand and offer her shelter in the TARDIS once again. Ho hum, here we go again.
For the longest time Last Christmas was my rejected tangerine.
There was something about it, though, that kept me coming back. It is Christmas after all. Who doesn’t love Christmas? And Santa and his bickering elves are amusing. However it is Shona who really represents the juicy sweet pulp for me. Shona steals the show and because of her I hung in there; and now I can honestly say that Last Christmas is one “signature gift” that I have grown to fully appreciate.
Thanks to Shona, I have come to realize that the base-under-siege scenario that starts the episode proper is expertly done. It builds immediate suspense and intrigue; within minutes we know and care about each of the characters, even though we barely know what is happening; we sense the danger and are eager to find out more about the sleepers in the infirmary and what exactly Shona is up to. Along with the crew, we are with Shona, “every step of the way.” And when those steps turn into dance steps to the strains of Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody we are paid off in spades.
This is exactly the kind of off-beat humor, Gary, that I love; and exactly the kind of touch that has always kept me invested in Doctor Who.
The fact that we never learn what exactly Shona is up to in that infirmary is incidental and in keeping with the eventual reveal of a dream state. The Doctor and Clara (or as Shona so eloquently puts it, “a skeleton man and a girl in a nightie”) arrive to put a screeching halt to Shona’s proceedings and the action takes off as the mystery deepens at this enigmatic, “it’s a long story” base.
Doctor: “You know what the big problem is in telling fantasy and reality apart?”
Ashley: “What?”
Doctor: “They’re both ridiculous.”
Now, I’ve always had a problem with the position that you can never be sure if you are dreaming or not. I remember to this day a high school psychology class that posed this theory that gave me fits, and I regard it as a high school exercise that any sane person sees as just that. Reality is reality and you know it as such, even though it can very well be ridiculous. However, I recognize the dream that traps you into a false sense of reality (although in such a dream one rarely views it as ridiculous). 
For me, Shona is that voice of ridiculous reason that makes Last Christmas right.
Shona: “The North Pole isn’t an actual pole.”
Shona, in her dream state, is trying to inject logic into the outlandish.
Ian: “Course it is, look.”
Ian is countering with dream rationale.
Shona: “If it was an actual pole, it would not be stripy.”
Shona is diving head first into this dream debate, instilling it with the dose of skewed reality it needs; because if you can’t see the ridiculous in reality you cannot easily recognize the dream.
Shona is in fact the first to recognize this for what it is: “Now, this is ridiculous. Am I . . . am I dreaming?”
I know none of this makes any real sense, Gary; but then, neither do dreams.
The Dream Crabs are not sufficiently fleshed out as an alien threat, but they suffice for the purposes of our story. I won’t worry too much about where they came from, what they want, or how they travel. I won’t care if they are organized, or if they communicate with one another, or if there are any more out there waiting to pounce on innocent Earthlings.
I won’t even question the Dream Crabs’ motivation for allowing their victims to share a dream and thus coordinate their efforts in rebellion. After all, without this we wouldn’t have a story.
The Doctor piecing together the dreams within dreams is compelling and his Helman-Ziegler test is fantastic. Meanwhile Shona’s on-going debate with “Beardy-Wierdy” and his elves continues to delight. I do wonder how and why Clara is allowed her own private dreamscape, except that’s kind of the reason we’re having this tale to begin with, so I won’t complain.
This dream Clara has of an idyllic Christmas with Poor Danny Pink can’t be anything but a dream. In real life Clara would never settle down to such a life. She would be sitting on that sofa with her husband while continually looking over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of a materializing blue box; she would be half-heartedly listening to carols while straining her ears for the distinctive sound of the TARDIS; she would be picking at her Christmas dinner while longing for a taste of adventure with the Doctor. When Clara tells the Doctor to leave her to her dream it isn’t because this is what she wants out of life, it is because she is accepting this as punishment for Poor Danny Pink’s death.
As the centerpiece of the episode, this sequence is cleverly executed. From the moment Clara wakes up in that bed we know exactly what is going on, even if she doesn’t. This is the most dreamlike of all of the dreams in our story, this fairy tale existence that Clara has created. It is tranquil and creepy at the same time and at all times unsettling. The Doctor’s attempts to break through to Clara via the chalkboard and Clara’s determined denial add to the tense calm.
I’m not going to wonder too hard whether Danny is really Danny somehow breaking through to Clara in her dreams or if he is merely a figment of Clara’s imagination. The show wants to give Clara closure and if she can finally move on (and therefore Doctor Who can finally move on) so be it. The confrontation between Danny and the Doctor is apt and the leave-taking between Danny and Clara is touching. Danny’s declaration— “I didn’t die saving the world, Doctor. I died saving Clara. The rest of you just got lucky”—is a bit over-the-top but again I’ll allow it, especially as it fits in with Clara’s egocentric nature.
Old Clara waking in bed is another segment that is well done. This one is harder to peg as a dream and keeps the audience guessing. However old Clara is a little too complacent; I would think real Clara would give the Doctor a much harder time for having abandoned her. It is a sweet scene, and the subsequent real awakening is enhanced because of it. The gag of the Doctor not being able to distinguish Clara’s age is amusing, especially in the face of Clara’s vanity.
The more I think about Last Christmas, Gary, the more I like it. The guest cast is solid and manages to imbue each character with a well-rounded personality despite limited screen time. Santa and the elves are amusing, the sleepers are sinister, and the action is suspenseful. There is just the right mix of the eerie and of humor. It is a story that manages to tie up loose ends from the previous season, reunite the Doctor and Clara for the season ahead, and yet succeeds as a stand-alone.
I can’t help but wish, along with Clara and Shona, that our time in Santa’s sleigh could be extended. And oh, if only Shona could have remembered her phone number soon enough for the Doctor to have written it down. Shona is exactly the type to make an excellent companion.
For now, though, it is the Doctor and Clara, together again—“second chances” as the Doctor says. It’s more like third or fourth chances, but who’s counting Gary?