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?

Monday, May 30, 2016

Death in Heaven

Dear Gary—
I don’t even know where to start with this absurd mess called Death in Heaven.
I guess I’ll begin with Kate Stewart and UNIT coming along to legitimize 3W. Turns out, 3W is a thing; it’s not just a front for the Doctor. There really are a bunch of millionaire idiots who are spending billions for Missy to take their dead bodies and seat them on thrones in tanks of water to be put on display in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. Except it is super hush-hush secret; only the elite and UNIT know about it; and Saint Paul’s isn’t really Saint Paul’s but a TARDIS in disguise.
Now let me see. Cybermen. We have Cybermen to contend with. Except these aren’t Cybermen. Other than in appearance, these metal men don’t resemble any Cybermen I know. These are nothing more than conjured cyber bodies that Missy has whipped up out of thin air to do her bidding. They can fly through the air with the greatest of ease and are quite the handy little army for Missy to command. She can grow them out of the ground, seeding graveyards with rainclouds of dead minds. I think that’s right, but it doesn’t really matter. It all looks and sounds impressive. Gives the people a good scare.
Except the masses aren’t scared by these shiny toy soldiers invading their cathedrals and squares. The milling citizenry stands around taking selfies with them. They don’t seem to have learned a lesson from Army of Ghosts. Not that these Cyber Bodies do much to inspire fear. Oh, they emerge from the ground, popping out of every grave and tomb and crypt and mausoleum and mortuary, which is rather creepy. But then they just stand about doing not much of anything. Even the ones that are out in society never open fire. These Cyber Bodies prefer to debate rather than inflict harm. It’s a war of words, not of weapons for them. And a severed Cyber Head sends shivers down their spines. I can only assume that Missy is calling the shots (there is no hint of a Cyber-Leader) and has her tin army on stand down for the moment.
Otherwise Clara would be dead. The scene of Clara trying to convince the Cyber Bodies that she is the Doctor is amusing, nothing more. There is no tension because we never once believe that these CB’s will shoot her down. Jenna Coleman is rapid fire good as usual, though. And in the end, the purpose of this sequence is to have Cyber PDP hang his Cyber head in sorrow and confirm that Clara Oswald is undeniably a liar.
Indeed, the entire reason for the season boils down to Cyber PDP and Clara. Everything has been carefully crafted to lead to the showdown in the graveyard. Continuity, logic, common sense, creativity—it has all been trampled under the Cyber Foot of the season arc. Adventure and artistic freedom has been under Steven Moffat’s Cyber Thumb for the duration.
All the rest of it—the Cyber Bodies, Missy, UNIT, the Nethersphere, 3W, Seb—it’s all just a show; a distraction; a house of cards created to provide an entertaining backdrop for the  Cyber PDP and Clara drama unfolding. And if I cared anything about the Cyber PDP and Clara melodrama I would be entertained. As it is I am slightly amused but mostly angered, annoyed, and bored in turns. Not helping is the unrelenting cloud of doom and gloom stagnating over the entire story. This is one episode that I won’t be sitting down to watch again and again. The few good bits are overshadowed.
Thus: “Bow ties are cool” is funny; Osgood’s death is maddening. “The President of Earth” is a nice set-up for the “vote for an idiot” gag; the Doctor as President of the Earth is irritating. (The practicality and logistics of it don’t stack up against the world’s political climate and isn’t consistent within the Doctor Who universe—is he erased from history or ubiquitous internet meme? The show just can’t make up its mind about the man of anonymity vs. the Super Hero of pop culture persona. It all depends on the whim of the moment and is exasperating beyond belief.) The Valiant/Cloudbase/Thunderbirds/Captain Scarlet exchange is diverting; the Doctor’s disdain of all things military is grating and has been done to death.  
Likewise, Michelle Gomez is hilarious; Missy is irredeemably despicable.
At the core of this rotten apple lurk Cyber PDP and Clara. This superficial and manufactured romance comes to a predictably thrilling conclusion as Cyber PDP utilizes the convenient hive mind of these Cyber Bodies to track down Clara, and he inexplicably takes her to a graveyard full of sluggish Cyber Bodies. Here he begs her to turn on his emotional inhibitor that for some unknown but expedient reason isn’t functional. Clara doesn’t know how the blasted thing works and so even though Cyber PDP could tell her exactly what to do, she instead calls the Doctor for direction leading to our final confrontation.
It’s all moving and touching, I’m sure, as Clara struggles with ‘killing’ her Cyber boyfriend. And of course we have Cyber PDP mocking the Doctor as “the blood-soaked old general” and this whole anti-soldier/soldier season-long build up culminating in Missy handing the Doctor his very own army. All neatly tied up, this seasonal package. Almost as though the Doctor’s life (not to mention Clara’s and PDP’s) has been scripted.
In the end it turns out that Missy Moffat engineered the entire scenario simply to get her “friend” the Doctor to admit that the two are “not so different.” She hands over control of the Cyber army to the Doctor expecting that he has no choice but to conquer the universe in some classic New Who faulty logic. Missy must have learned her math skills from PDP. It does not follow that saving the Earth leads to conquering the universe or that conquering the universe will save the Earth. Not one single dot connects to another to lead to this conclusion. But because she says it the audience is expected to hold its collective breath in despair waiting for the Doctor to pull his magic rabbit out of his magic sonic or some such thing.
Now we get the Doctor’s big revelation: “I am not a good man. I am not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I’m definitely not a president. And no, I’m not an officer. Do you know what I am? I am an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through; just helping out; learning. I don’t need an army. I never have; because I’ve got them; always them. Because love—it’s not an emotion. Love is a promise.”
And so the Doctor turns control over to one of “them;" to Cyber PDP, who no longer has any emotions in him, but because the Doctor has pronounced love a non-emotion he still has the promise of love enabling him to embrace Clara before flying off into the wild blue yonder to commit suicide (if a dead mind in a Cyber Body can technically commit suicide) and burn off the hovering clouds of dead minds along with his fellow Cyber Buddies. Neat and tidy. No more threat to Earth; no more Cyber Army.
No more Cybermen, either. Because these just are not Cybermen. Since their introduction in New Who the show has been flirting with this idea of individual Cybermen bucking the hive mind mentality and revealing emotions they shouldn’t have. Only when it is convenient to the plot; and only when it is a particular character we have gotten to know and who has been converted. The climax of Death in Heaven takes this to new heights. Cyber PDP is one thing. But Cyber Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart? Somehow the mind of the Brigadier has found a Cyber Body (and since he has been dead for a good many years I can’t imagine his dust and bones and rotting flesh was converted, but then again being New Who I guess we can accept that conjuring trick) and now Cyber Brig has made his way to the exact spot where the final showdown is happening at just the right time, and somehow Cyber Brig has resisted not only the Missy controlled hive mind but now the PDP hive mind instructions and hasn’t blown himself up with the rest of the Cyber Bodies, at least not until he has saved the Doctor and received his long overdue salute at which point he flies off to oblivion. How come no Cyber Jamie McCrimmon or Cyber Queen Elizabeth I or Cyber Shakespeare or Cyber Van Gogh or any number of dead humans who have a connection and affection for the Doctor? No, only Cyber Brig because he fits in so nicely with the UNIT story.
Just think, though. The Doctor could have all manner of Cyber companions clinking and clattering in the TARDIS with him. Before sending them all off to their Cyber deaths, PDP could have called out those who owe allegiance to the Doctor and we’d have a full TARDIS.
Seriously, though, Gary. Think about that corner Doctor Who has painted itself into. No heaven and no hell; not in Doctor Who-verse. No soul. No afterlife. Yet every (or most every) human mind that has ever existed has been residing in the Nethersphere or in Cyber Bodies or in raindrops or in clouds—all just waiting to be brought back to life, Cyber life though it be. So now all of these minds are burned up in the Cyber suicide pact? But wait, no. PDP mind speaks to Clara two weeks after the big bang in the sky. So where exactly is the PDP mind now? Surely not heaven or hell; not in the Nethersphere; not in a Cyber Body or a cloud or a raindrop. Is there perhaps a version of limbo in the New Who-verse? And all those other minds—are they there with PDP? The little kid he killed is at least.
Oh, how poignant when PDP sends the little kid through the magic portal. Only enough energy for one trip. How is it that this kid, who has been dead for quite some time, has a whole and healthy flesh and blood body? His old body? Where did that come from? And now what? How does he know if his parents are even still alive? And if they are, how are they or others going to react to this resurrection? Everyone he knew will have aged several years yet he is the same age as when he died. And is he now expected to be returned to whatever war-torn country he came from just to more than likely live a short and sad life? Yes, that was a story well told.
But this is when the real tale should begin. Clara now knows that PDP’s mind is alive and well somewhere; he is merely trapped. Now is when she should plug herself into the TARDIS and find him. If Missy, using Time Lord technology, can snatch PDP’s mind and insert it into a Cyber Body, why can’t the Doctor snatch it up and insert it into, oh, I don’t know, a teddy bear? Or how about a toy soldier? Maybe that exact one that played so prominently in Listen. (Speaking of which—how was it that they met up with a supposed ancestor of the PDP/Clara Oswald bloodline in Listen when PDP is now dead with no possibility of the two of them ever procreating?)
But Clara gives up. She resigns herself to a life without PDP in which she maybe thinks about him occasionally, maybe turns on the TV and tries to distinguish his voice coming out of the white noise. She doesn’t even tell the Doctor that PDP is out there somewhere trapped and waiting for them to rescue him. Instead she lies to him (“the one man I would never, ever lie to” indeed) and tells him that PDP is alive and well. Meanwhile the Doctor lies to her and says that he has found Gallifrey and the two go on their not so merry and separate ways.
Enter Santa Claus.
Now, Gary, I’m just about fed up at this point. Thankfully I have recently bought the DVD for the next season, and while there are some rocky moments to start, I find that there is hope yet. So let’s say goodbye to PDP and the season that was and look forward . . .

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Dark Water

Dear Gary—
“It was boring,” Clara says of Poor Danny Pink’s death. “It was ordinary,” she continues. “He was alive, and then he was dead and it was nothing.”
Except it was not nothing and hence my problem with season arcs. Poor Danny Pink was set up. He was set up from the beginning of the season for this oh so ordinary death. It was his whole reason for being. And we knew from the start that he was being set up for something. He was not introduced as another companion or as a person in his own right. He was a tool; a pawn; a sacrificial lamb. And so his death is boring and ordinary and I can’t get too worked up about it and I can’t buy into Clara’s grief because I can’t buy into Clara’s love. Their romance was never anything more than a matter of convenience to the narrative.
Dark Water is the first part of Poor Danny Pink’s swan song and starts with Clara choosing to declare her love for him in a most impersonal way, in keeping with the nature of their manufactured liaison. She begins her phone declaration by repeatedly telling him to “shut up.” I think this is meant to be cute and endearing; it’s not. What it is, however, is typical of the way in which she has always treated Poor Danny Pink, and I cannot imagine why he has continually put up with her deceit and condescension. Poor Danny Pink is Clara’s door mat and it is this loss that she mourns.
It is not so much grief as anger that she feels; anger at her lack of and loss of control. Danny’s death was boring; it was ordinary; it was out of keeping with her grand illusions. At least she is honest enough to realize she doesn’t deserve any better. “But I am owed better,” she declares. And so she embarks on her selfish quest.
Clara’s confrontation with the Doctor is a compelling scene; Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are both outstanding as usual. Clara’s threat is completely convincing as she holds the last remaining TARDIS key over the lava (although she has undoubtedly forgotten about the Doctor’s magic finger snap entry). How wonderful that the Doctor calls her bluff. Clara believes that she is holding all of the TARDIS key cards, but she has backed herself into a corner.
“Either you do as you’re told or stop threatening me,” the Doctor tells her.
“Do you know what, Doctor,” Clara replies defiantly, “when it comes to taking control you really are out of your depth.”
When the Doctor refuses her request to bring Poor Danny Pink back to her she has no choice but to destroy her lifeline in the lava. She immediately collapses in tears. She had no choice. She backed herself into a corner and had no choice. Clara the control freak lost control yet again.
The Doctor emerges victorious. I love it. Even when seemingly ceding control back to her by caving in to her wishes, he does so on his own terms and thus retains command of the situation. He doesn’t take her where she wants to go because she demands it; he takes her there because he wants to; after he has broken her.
However this is where the show loses me.
“Almost every culture in the universe has some concept of an afterlife,” the Doctor says. “I always meant to have a look around; see if I could find one.”
Now, I know that the Doctor doesn’t believe in the Devil and I’m certain he scoffs at the notion of God. So how does an afterlife fit in? Or the concept of a soul? Certainly, some atheists can maintain the existence of an afterlife and soul, but the Doctor? Hardly. He derides anything with a whiff of the supernatural. The show is careful to steer clear of the term ‘soul’ and instead throws about talk of the mind. Seb uses soul, but only in a “whatever you want to call it” way; and the Doctor talks of the “poor souls” in the tanks, but he makes it clear that “they’re just dead and they’re not coming back.”
Poor Danny Pink is dead. The Doctor knows he is dead and he is not coming back. Yet he plugs Clara into the TARDIS to find Poor Danny Pink. According to the Doctor’s logic the TARDIS should take them to the morgue. It doesn’t; and now things turn really ludicrous.
“Good point; tombs with windows. Who wants to watch their loved ones rot? Why would anyone go to so much trouble just to keep watch on the dead?” Good point. Welcome to 3W.
3W reminds me of Tranquil Repose from the Classic Who serial Revelation of the Daleks. Except Tranquil Repose has a logical reason for being. It houses the bodies of those in suspended animation awaiting a future cure. In the meantime, unbeknownst to anyone, Davros is harvesting these bodies to turn into Daleks. Fast forward to the 3W of Dark Water, which is cobbled together out of several half-baked ideas.
3W appears to be a mausoleum housing skeletons seated in some mysterious liquid, the dark water of our title. To what purpose? Who is the customer base for this apparent business venture? The rich and powerful presumably. But why? How is having your remains sitting in a tank of water any better than lying down in a soft coffin? What gullible suckers are falling for this? But hold on, this isn’t really a mausoleum; this is merely a front put on for the Doctor’s benefit.
So who the heck is Dr. Chang?
Dr. Chang sincerely believes in the product he is selling. I can only assume he is a stooge that Missy has somehow duped into believing this malarkey. It is through Dr. Chang that we learn the meaning of 3W. 3W stands for “the three words.” OK, that explains everything. (“Oh, I’ve got a lot of internalized anger.”) It is an excruciating exchange to pad the episode and provide cheap shock effect; dredging up the “white noise” theory (“so what”); and playing on the “most fundamental fear in the universe” of dying (“just answer our question”); and laying out a fabricated history of scientific discovery by one Doctor Skarosa (“so, an idiot then”); to finally come to those three words (none of which, much to my surprise, start with ‘W’): “Don’t cremate me!”
“The dead remain conscious. The dead are fully aware of everything that is happening to them,” Dr. Chang proclaims. If that is the case, I would think the swift end of cremation is preferable to slowly rotting in the ground while worms and insects eat away my flesh. Maybe when I think of it, being pickled and preserved in water is a reasonable alternative, except those are skeletons we see sitting there so the flesh is still eaten away. Doesn’t matter, though; because as the Doctor rightly sees: “Fakery. All of it. It’s a con; it’s a racket.” They aren’t really skeletons at all. They’re Cybermen!
So please tell me what the whole 3W nonsense is about? Why the front? Why the need for Dr. Chang? This elaborate pretense took time and effort and money and loads of luck to pull off and keep secret. If it was done solely for the Doctor, how did Missy know the Doctor would end up there? How did she know Poor Danny Pink was going to die? Was she the one driving the car? Even so, how did she know the Doctor would indulge Clara’s selfish demands? Missy had some serious precognition
Let’s turn our attention to the Nethersphere.  Here we have a retread of the Great Intelligence’s plan. Upload minds to a hard drive. We also have some shoddy confirmation of the ridiculous claims being made at 3W. Poor Danny Pink is cold. Why is he cold? He’s dead. He exists as a mind only. Oh, I get it . . . the three words; “don’t cremate me;” a shivering Poor Danny Pink . . . “You’re still connected to your old body in the old world. You’re still going to feel what it feels.” How does that work exactly? Because Doctor Who says so. Rubbish.
This is where the show has painted itself into a corner. Doctor Who doesn’t believe in God. Doctor Who doesn’t believe in Heaven. Doctor Who doesn’t believe in the soul (in any religious sense of the word). But Doctor Who apparently believes that the mind can live on after death independent of the body, although telepathically connected to it somehow. Missy has taken advantage of this fact and has uploaded all of these minds to her Nethersphere. This is where I want to ask Doctor Who, if Missy had not happened along, where would all of these minds end up? (I guess in the telly making white noise.)
This is a fundamental difference between Classic and New Who. Classic Who has its share of unanswered questions, but it adamantly sticks to scientific principles underlying all of its remarkable and outlandish theories. I look to The Daemons as an example. The Doctor confronts superstition and magic and the devil head on. And while the explanation boils down to aliens and alien technology, it exists on a reasonable and logical plane within the context of a sci fi world.
New Who, on the other hand and as represented in our present story, shrouds its extraordinary and bizarre claims in a nebulous tissue of emotional bombshells.
The thing is, Gary, they have the means by which they could frame their arguments on a solid foundation: “That’s a matrix data-slice. A Gallifreyan hard drive. Time Lord Technology.” But it is thrown out as fragments of info and the only purpose is to elicit the fact that Missy is the Master. No attempt is made to ground the Nethersphere or 3W in the intriguing complexity of that idea. Instead the sham crypt and weird waiting room in limbo are only tenuously tethered to the notion while they are allowed to float freely about from one irrational assertion to another.
I might also mention the ghosting that is touched on in Silence in the Library, but since this isn’t even hinted at here I’ll pass over it and return to ghost PDP in the Nethersphere with Seb. PDP is dead and cold and Seb is ushering him through the red tape of the afterlife. There is no rational reason for Seb in Missy’s data-slice matrix other than to give exposition to the audience. And there is no sense to the Wi-Fi or iPads other than the humor they afford. (“IPads? We have Steve Jobs.”) Inside Time Lord technology and they need Steve Jobs to provide them with Wi-Fi; spotty Wi-Fi at that. Nor is there any possible reason for any of the trapped minds to interact, much less for Seb to facilitate a meeting between PDP and the young boy he killed years ago during his soldiering days. That is, no reason other than the emotional impact on the audience. (At this point we are supposed to applaud Steven Moffat’s cleverness for tying in that tear on PDP’s cheek way back at the beginning of the season when his class inexplicably questioned him on it.)
The real payoff for the PDP arc, however, is in the PDP/Clara relationship.  And so, through the magic of Steve Job’s spotty Wi-Fi, ghost PDP is able to communicate with Clara. Except Control Freak Clara won’t trust that PDP is who he says he is. CFC insists that PDP prove who he is. CFC will accept nothing he says as true unless he says something she can accept as true. The two talk in circles for a bit until CFC backs herself into a corner yet again.  “Stop saying that,” she commands when all PDP can think to say is, “I love you.” “Don’t say that,” she reiterates. “If you say that again, I swear I will switch this thing off.” She has laid down another ultimatum and for once PDP stops being CFC’s doormat.
PDP: “Clara?”
CFC: “Yes?”
PDP: “I love you.”
CFC has no other choice than to switch PDP off. PDP wins.
Now Seb gives Danny the choice to turn off his emotions; and again this is purely for the effect it elicits. Neither Missy nor the Cybermen have any motivation for allowing their victims to make that choice.
Missy and the Cybermen—we’re finally at our cliffhanger of an ending for this first of the two part season finale. The Cybermen emerge from their tanks. The Doctor runs outside only to discover that 3W has been secretly hidden inside of Saint Paul’s Cathedral of all places. The Doctor warns the milling citizenry to run but they remain remarkably calm even though Cybermen are marching through their midst. Missy gives some insight into her grand scheme. “All the graves of planet Earth are about to give birth,” she says. “You know the key strategic weakness of the human race? The dead outnumber the living.”
I should hold off until Part II right about now, but I have to at least mention this. What? The dead outnumber the living? So what? The majority of these dead are nothing but bones and dust. Now, if she were planning on reanimating those corpses that were still relatively intact I’d understand. But her allies are Cybermen. They make their own cyber bodies. They don’t need the dead bodies; only the minds, which Missy already has loaded in her matrix, and maybe some brains. And now I wonder where all the cyber bodies are going to come from. Is there some magic going on under the ground in all of those graves that is turning the bones and dust and rotting flesh into metal? I’ll reserve any further ranting for the nonce. I still have Part II to contend with after all.
Finally we get the big reveal. “Oh, you know who I am.” The Time Lady the Doctor abandoned. Missy. “I couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now could I?” An effective cliffhanger. Yet this could have been so much more climatic if it had not been marred by the forced and manufactured arc. Scenes of Missy that were scattered about through the season are even more absurd in hindsight; scenes such as Missy welcoming an android into ‘Paradise’ (Deep Breath).  What need is there for Missy to personally welcome each and every victim? And OK, let’s say she only welcomes those that know the Doctor. Why? The droid never shows his half-face during the entirety of the finale. How did she even know Half-Face was going to die? Not to mention the fact that Half-Face is an android and not a human so what use is he to her matrix of minds? Or are we to believe that all intelligence, both human and artificial, is welcome in an open door policy of non-discrimination? And all of the hints that Missy has been engineering the relationship between Clara and the Doctor, that Missy hand-picked Clara as the Doctor’s companion and kept throwing them together—what crystal ball was telling her that this would all lead the two to 3W at just the right time?
The answer, Gary, is that Missy is not so much the Master (shock) but none other than Steven Moffat.

Friday, May 6, 2016

In the Forest of the Night

Dear Gary—
Tyger Tyger, burning bright . . . .
Unfortunately neither immortal hand nor eye is framing this fearful symmetry; there is only Steven Moffat guiding the season to conform to whatever master scheme he has in mind for the Doctor and the show. In the Forest of the Night suffers accordingly.
I am getting sick of complaining about this, but the adventure is yet again constrained to Earth when the story would have been so much better served if set on another planet.
“The forest is mankind’s nightmare,” the Doctor says of the overgrowth that has sprung up planet-wide overnight. He concludes the episode with, “You remembered the fear and you put it into fairy stories.”  And so I have come to realize that New Who is no longer science fiction or anything resembling it. New Who is nothing but a fairy tale for stunted adults.
Mind you, In the Forest of the Night is beautifully realized as a fairy tale. The sets, the direction, the focus—it all encompasses that childlike fear and awe and acceptance of the scary and weird and magical. The problem with it, or my problem with it, is that it doesn’t want to be perceived as a fairy tale. It wants us to look upon this as sophisticated storytelling exposing the grain of reality that spawns the fairy tales.
But there isn’t a grain of truth in the episode. It is all fairy tale and therefore I cannot accept that any of it really happened to the Doctor or Clara or Poor Danny Pink. It is a dream or a story concocted in their minds and nothing else.
This is Kill the Moon all over again, only not to such enraging effect.
To start, in what world, other than Who’s fantasy, would a math teacher and an English teacher take a group of unremarkable and underachieving school kids on an overnight to a history museum; much less a math teacher and an English teacher who are rumored to be an item? But that is only the start; a manipulative and unimaginative start. They needed to strand Clara, Poor Danny Pink, and a bunch of kids somewhere and a museum seemed a cool location, never mind that none of the action is going to take place there. It is random and calculated at the same time with no thought other than to make an impression on the audience. Given the presence of some wolves and a tiger, a zoo would have been a better fit; but then no attempt is made to give any logic or coherence to the proceedings. This is a fairy tale after all.
Our group finds themselves in the middle of London yet there are no Londoners about. No panicked citizens wondering what has happened to their fair city; no tourists armed with cameras to capture this strange new world; no emergency personnel attempting to keep order (other than the isolated band of flame throwers who pop up at an opportune moment); no scientists eager to study the overnight growth; no fanatics out to celebrate the miracle; no stranded travelers wending their way home; no curiosity seekers out to explore; no drunks stumbling about in awed stupor; not one single person who isn’t relevant to the plot (another Who skimping on the extras budget no doubt). No cars to speak of either. I guess the forest grew up at some magic witching hour when not a soul or vehicle was present to witness. In the heart of London.
This alone tells me that the action as presented cannot possibly be happening for real to the Doctor et al and can only be a dream or a vision. (I reiterate that simply setting the story on another planet would alleviate this, but then the author would be hard pressed to justify the presence of Poor Danny Pink and the kiddies, and so the story suffers as a result.)
Also suffering—the kids. Clara and Poor Danny Pink prove to be terrible teachers and indifferent chaperons. Through flashback we learn Clara is too absorbed to pay attention to the bullying going on under her nose and Poor Danny Pink is unable to relate simple mathematical concepts to his students. Neither of them notice that one of their charges (Maebh) is missing, and when the fact is pointed out to them neither seems to care much beyond their initial shock nor do they make any immediate or concerted effort to retrieve her. Ruby is labeled unimaginative and unteachable by her teachers, yet she consistently demonstrates her creativity and intelligence throughout the episode. Clara lumps all of these young, impressionable minds together as “furious, fearful, tongue-tied,” stating, “They’re all superpowers if you use them properly.” So how does she handle this group of potential superpowers? She tells them they are “gifted and talented” even though she doesn’t really believe this. “I just tell them that to make them feel good,” she explains. She makes no attempt to get to know or understand these kids and certainly does them no favors with the “feel good” line she medicates them with.
But it is all well-meaning and pleasant and laid back so I can’t get too worked up about it; on the other hand, I can’t get too worked up about it. It is a mildly enjoyable fairy story, nothing more. The Doctor is spinning this yarn for Clara as they sit in the TARDIS. Perhaps they are inventing it together as they sip some tea. (Thus the competing ‘have I got something to show you’ exchange they have on the phone.) They naturally set the action on Earth and Clara naturally wants to insert Poor Danny Pink. She probably picks the museum setting as something vaguely romantic. The fabrication grows from there with each contributing to the fable.
How else can you explain Poor Danny Pink fending off a ferocious tiger with a flashlight?
Clara expects gingerbread cottages and cannibal witches to emerge at any second from this conjured nightmare. Instead we get Maebh running willy nilly through the forest while waving imaginary figments away from her head and leaving bread crumbs in the form of school supplies for the Doctor and Clara to follow. No real attempt is made to explain why Maebh is the key to the plot other than references to medication and loss and listening and hoping. You’d think the woods would be full of such key figures, what with the flimsy criteria. She’s not much of a key actually; more of a distraction. Why is she running? Why are the lightening bugs chasing her? Then we have the mysterious Missy spying in. Is she whispering to Maebh? Was she the one to tell Maebh to find the Doctor? Is she masterminding any of this? Or is she merely a silent witness? All of these are questions that the Doctor and Clara leave unanswered as they weave their fabric of fiction.
Somehow Maebh is able to predict the solar flare when the Doctor, the TARDIS, all of Earth’s scientists, and every piece of technical equipment on the planet has failed to do so. And it is only by happenstance that the Doctor sees her prophetic drawings (due to Clara’s negligence in leaving her pupil’s homework on the TARDIS without realizing). The pesky fireflies Maebh constantly bats away never tell her to scream her warnings from the rooftops. The random “thoughts” that come to her she draws or mentions off-handedly with no sense of urgency.
The solar flare and the forest have nothing to do with Maebh. She is merely an adorable means by which the Doctor can piece together what is happening, even though none of it makes sense.
This is where the make-believe really ramps up. The lightening bugs conjured the forest to counter the solar flare. The children send a message to Earth to leave the trees alone, which naturally everyone heeds, and the trees magically absorb the solar flare and then disappear; their work being done. And of course the entire human race will wake up the next day with no memory of what has occurred. Mind you, I’m not sure how they are going to explain away all of the newscasts that had covered the story, or the millions of pictures that were surely taken of the forest, or the toppled statues littering numerous parks across the planet, or the multitude of cracked and mangled pavement, or the many shaken foundations that surely have been left behind in the forest’s wake, or the wolves and tigers that are suddenly loose and terrorizing cities. But oh well; all’s well that ends well.
What better way to end happily ever after than to have Maebh’s long lost sister suddenly appear? I’m not sure if she has been hiding in that bush all along or if it grew up around her overnight to trap her in its branches or if she was transformed into a bush or if the bush transported her home or some other equally outlandish explanation. Who cares as long as we have our happy ending to our pleasant little fairy tale?
Set on an alien world I could have more readily accepted it. As it is, it is simply a story made up to work in the Poor Danny Pink/Clara/Doctor dynamic with shades of Missy, all leading to the inevitable finale. And so we get Poor Danny Pink catching Clara in more lies concerning her life with the Doctor (and being OK with it because after all Clara has her hand in making this up); and we get Clara choosing to die with Poor Danny Pink rather than choosing to be the last of her kind; and we get the Doctor claiming, “This is my world too. I walk your earth; I breathe your air.” It is these doses of ‘reality’ that drag the story down and ironically don’t really ring true.
Case in point: the children. Clara lures the Doctor back to the TARDIS by reasoning that he can save the children at least (as well as Clara and Poor Danny Pink) from the devastation to come. Once they arrive, however, she abruptly decides that the kids would rather die with their families than live. I don’t recall her ever asking them their opinion, and I never see any evidence that this would be true. Not a one of them ever calls their families during this extraordinary day, nor do their families call them. Not even Maebh’s mother thinks to call her daughter to ask where she is or if she is all right. She’d rather bumble along on her bike with no clue where to even begin looking for her daughter. (No wonder she can’t find Annabel in that bush right on her own doorstep.) Only belatedly, when the script spells it out for them, do the kids start pining for Mom. This segment is some clumsy attempt to reveal  some message about life or love or family or something—some message that the show wants to get across before the end of the season—but it isn’t done with much thought or heart.
The Doctor asks, “What use is clever against trees?” It turns out it is the clever workings of the Doctor and Clara that both creates and disposes of the trees in this fancy of theirs. It is amusing and entertaining and fun. In no way, however, is it an adventure that the Doctor and Clara ever actually experienced and the messages the show tries to tie in are annoying and unclear.
But oh Gary, I think I’d rather spend more time in this frothy fairyland than venture forth into the nightmare that is looming . . .

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Flatline

Dear Gary—
Flatline is a decent enough adventure; a semi-entertaining way to spend some 45 minutes. But decent enough and semi-entertaining doesn’t cut it anymore. Doctor Who used to be able to carry the weight of mediocre and even bad episodes. Not anymore. There are just too many of them piling up. The strength of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman combined with amusing bits and witty dialogue can’t continue to cover for the preponderance of defects.
And it does not help that the Doctor stubbornly refuses to leave Earth. The landscape is beginning to get monotonous, and the dull surroundings of our current story do nothing to alleviate this. The guest cast also doesn’t do much in the way of adding any spark to the proceedings. Altogether these elements are as two dimensional as our villains of the hour. A little thing like placing the action on an alien planet would go a long way; but alas we continue in this rut of Doctor Who’s making.

As we also continue in Doctor Who’s rut of sacrificing adventure for arcs and agendas. This story is obviously set up to showcase Clara as a Doctor substitute. It has a promising enough start. The TARDIS is shrinking. There are all kinds of tensions and dangers and catastrophes that could be mined with such a development. Except it is treated simply as a joke.
The TARDIS has shrunk and the Doctor is curious. Not concerned, just curious. He finds it “impressive.” Clara merely finds it “annoying.” She’s home, after all. Not exactly where she would like to be, which would be in her London apartment. Instead she finds herself in Bristol. “Yes, I get it,” she tells the Doctor upon discovering the tiny TARDIS, “you’re excited.” But Clara isn’t even the least bit interested. “When can I go home,” she demands. She can take a train or a taxi or rent a car or call a friend for a ride. She isn’t anywhere close to being marooned yet she stamps her foot and insists on the TARDIS taking her exactly where she wants when she wants regardless of the serious flaw that this magical blue box has developed and with no regard to the Doctor’s predicament.
The Doctor sends Clara out to look for answers while he squeezes himself back into the TARDIS, apparently indifferent to any risks this might entail. Clara immediately gets distracted by an unknown memorial and a gang of guys doing community service cleaning up some peculiar graffiti. There is no urgency to any of this, and when Clara wanders back to find the TARDIS shrunk even more, rendering it impossible for the Doctor to escape, she laughs. “Oh my god, that is so adorable,” she proclaims. Any sense of tension the audience might feel upon discovering this startling state of affairs is deflated. The TARDIS is in no danger; the Doctor is in no danger. This is a whimsical turn for Clara’s and our amusement.
Clara picks the adorable toy TARDIS up and deposits it in her purse and rubs her hands in delight now that she is on her own to play the Doctor. Well, not alone since the Doctor is in her ear telling her what to do, but she can put up a good front. And she has the Doctor’s magic sonic which he can fit through the tiny door as well as his magical sledgehammer.
There is a fleeting moment of panic when the tiny TARDIS lands on a rail line with a train headed straight for it, but that too is played for laughs with the hilarious Adam’s Family escape plan.
Contrast the comedy with the gritty aspect of the setting and the horrific nature of the monsters. Learning that the murals in the victim’s apartments are actually residual elements of the victims—their skin and nervous systems to be exact—flattened for experimental purposes and left behind in some grim display is horrifying. And realizing that the memorial graffiti of lost loved ones on the tunnel wall are actually those same loved ones, again flattened and saved, is ghastly; and watching as they come to life is terrifying.
But all of this is terror for terror’s sake. The monsters are merely that. Monsters. No context; no explanation; no motivation. The Doctor comes right out and says this: “I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us,” he says. And then he adds, “I don’t suppose it really matters now.” The script is acknowledging that it has no idea what these monsters are or what they want or even if they are good, bad, or indifferent; and it doesn’t really care. Why bother with the details, the script says; we have a cool monster with cool special effects, what else do you want?
Monsters, plot, adventure—none of it matters except insofar as they advance the season’s agenda.
And so we have the Doctor throwing up his hands and stating: “You are monsters. That is the role you seemed determined to play. So it seems I must play mine.” Sweep aside any attempt at understanding. The only purpose of these monsters is to define the Doctor: “The man that stops the monsters.” And to provide a sufficient menace so long as it is needed and then a quick exit when no longer required with no thought as to who these monsters were, what they wanted, where they came from, or if they will ever return.  (The Doctor’s veiled warning of “this plane is protected” doesn’t seem like it is much of a deterrence and brings to mind the Tenth Doctor’s, “it is defended” speech from The Christmas Invasion and the Eleventh’s “is this world protected” from The Eleventh Hour.)
They are a made up and throw away monster with not even any consistency within the span of this one story. Some victims are flattened in a lineup, some have only remnants flattened in their homes. Sometimes the monsters undulate through the floor to their victims, sometimes they unglue themselves from the wall and follow in cartoonish form, and sometimes they swoop down from the ceiling with lightening speed and giant hand to scoop up an unwary person.
It’s rather amusing, when I think of it, that they concentrate their efforts on this one band of community service workers. But then, there are no other people who seem to inhabit this city. Doctor Who apparently skimped on the extra budget for this episode. Even the train turns out to be empty save for the driver.
Then we have Clara. Still blatantly lying to both the Doctor and Danny. “Goodness had nothing to do with it,” the Doctor tells her when she pesters him for a compliment regarding her Doctor impersonation. Goodness hasn’t much to do with Clara at all, and I’m wondering even more why the Doctor wants her around. Full of self-importance, she barrels her way through the episode disregarding the people around her. She has some good instincts and great ideas that get them through (or those that survive at any rate), but the Doctor is correct, “goodness had nothing to do with it.”
There is one telling scene in particular that catches my notice. Rigsy, who has been following Clara around like a puppy-dog wagging his tail, points out a work of art in the tunnel. “It’s one of mine,” he proudly tells her. “Do you like it?” Without even glancing at it Clara dismisses him with, “Yeah, not bad,” before continuing on her one track course of action. To be fair, they are being chased by monsters; but poor Rigsy.
“A lot of people died and maybe the wrong people survived,” the Doctor says after his exchange with Fenton. (Brings to mind Mr. Copper’s comment regarding Rickston Slade in Voyage of the Damned.) Fenton’s comparison to a forest fire—“The objective is to save the great trees, not the brushwood”—is remarkably similar to Clara’s “on balance” perspective.
I can’t tell if the show is deliberately undermining her character or not. The Doctor’s “goodness had nothing to do with it” is calculated, but to what purpose?
I’m finding much of the machinations of this season to be muddled. Clara played Doctor for a day and she was “exceptional.” Did she learn anything, however? Her main goal afterwards is to be praised for her performance. She wants the Doctor to give her an ‘A.’ The grade is the thing, not the lesson learned. If there is any lesson to be learned. The teacher doesn’t appear to be a very good student. So what are we as the audience to take away from this? All I take away is a growing dislike of Clara that the charm of Jenna Coleman can’t always overcome.
Finally we have Missy peering into her crystal ball and proclaiming, “Clara; my Clara. I have chosen well.” So perhaps the show is deliberately undermining the character. But I’m finding, Gary, that I don’t much care.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mummy on the Orient Express

Dear Gary—
I have officially lost all respect for Clara. She is like a woman who dumps her boyfriend but then decides to go on one last all-expenses paid, around the world trip with him, because, hey, it’s an all-expenses paid, around the world trip.
Mummy on the Orient Express would be a perfectly fine adventure except for this fact. It has all the elements—great setting, solid guest cast, creepy monster, wonderful wardrobe, and witty dialogue. It has just about everything to make me sit back and enjoy myself for an hour. And for the most part I do. However my enjoyment is something like Clara’s sad smile. “It’s like two emotions at once,” the Doctor tells her. “It’s like you’re malfunctioning.”  That sticks in my head as I watch, and I can’t help seeing the two layers throughout; peeling back the veneer to get at the dark underbelly. There is a literal level to this that is highly appropriate as the script plays with things not always being what they appear.
“Your train awaits, my lady,” the Doctor announces as he and Clara step out of the TARDIS and into the baggage car. (“But thanks for lying.”) Moving on into the train proper the Doctor explains that this is a perfect recreation of the Orient Express with the twist that it is a train in space. The Doctor has chosen this locale for his and Clara’s “last hurrah” together, and on the surface it seems an interesting and exciting choice. The passengers are donned in their best period costumes and acting exactly as though they have been transported back in time to a Victorian world. But what is the point of it all? Just an excuse to play dress up? Other than the clothes, these people are simply riding a train to some unknown or undisclosed destination, or perhaps are merely riding in circles through space. There is no other connection to the time period or the historical train. Not even a murder mystery party going on (other than the real one that pops up much to everyone’s horror). The Doctor and Clara step out of the TARDIS to sip a few drinks while looking out at the stars, something they could do just as well in the TARDIS, and then wander off to bed. What a thrill.
At this point I’m beginning to wonder why the Doctor even wants to continue travelling with Clara. They each seem more or less bored. The Doctor alone in his berth drives home that he is not having the time of his life and he soon gets up in search of fun on his own, pointedly passing up an opportunity to rouse his traveling companion. Clara in the meantime is distractedly talking to Poor Danny Pink, her supposed boyfriend, before deciding to search out the Doctor, her adrenaline dealer. Discovering that he has lit out on his own, Clara instead follows behind the obviously distraught Maisie whose grandmother has just died. The bulk of the remaining episode has the two separated, and given the awkward tension that exists between them in the opening minutes that’s a blessing in disguise.
The Doctor picks up a new companion for the run of the episode in Perkins, the mysterious Chief Engineer who seems to know far more than he should. He’s a pleasant enough person to play a pseudo companion, but I’m glad that he doesn’t take the Doctor’s implied offer up to make his position permanent. He’s too much of a blank slate. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and in fact it could be quite interesting finding out what is behind those gaping eyes of his. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he is in league with Gus or Missy or that he is an escaped convict or any manner of bad things. Except I don’t sense any depth behind his one-off persona created for this one-off episode. He is a bit like some cardboard scenery that looks good provided you don’t get too close (apropos of my theme for the day).
Now let’s dig into this monster. A mummy of legend who appears only to its victims and allows them 66 seconds before killing them. It’s chilling and intriguing in concept and realized expertly. The mummy looks grotesquely authentic and the victims sufficiently terrified. The fact that this creature is out of phase, thus accounting for the 66 seconds (to phase-shift the victims) and its unseen nature, is plausible. But then we learn that this mummy is not a mummy (“Are you my mummy?”) but is actually a soldier. So why the mummy disguise? The soldier, “wounded in a forgotten war thousands of years ago,” has been kept alive, or at least mobile, using some sort of unexplained technology and has been bandaged head to foot. Was it a full body wound? Or is the swaddling to keep the tech inside? What exactly is under those bandages? Is there a body, brain, organs? Or is it all tech?
And OK, it’s a soldier from a forgotten war. But does this automatically make it a random killing machine? Excuse me, it turns out not to be random. But what kind of soldier goes around picking and choosing its victims based on whether they have physical or emotional scars? Was this a war against disease that has been long forgotten? Is this soldier an antibody? And how exactly does it drain the energy from a body? The tech that is piled inside of it I guess. Is that how it fought on that long ago battlefield? Two armies reaching out to grasp the heads of their enemies to drain energy? That was some war.
So this ancient soldier fights on with no real purpose. It simply goes wherever its magic banner appears and starts picking off strangers one by one based on their state of health, both mental and physical. There is the 66 second specificity to the length of time it takes to kill, but there seems to be no particular pattern in the time between attacks. It probably needs to figure out by whatever improbable tech that is crammed inside of it which person is the sickest before it acts. This guy should get together with the pirate siren from The Curse of the Black Spot.
And all it takes to stop the thing is the magic phrase, “We surrender.” Poof, it disappears in a pile of ash. No taking of prisoners; no going home to loved ones; no victory parades; just die. Soldiers are not wanted once the battle is over apparently.  
They’re not wanted by Gus anymore either. The mysterious Gus has arranged this whole improbable trip in order to harness the power of the mummy, but once the mummy goes poof Gus gives up and blows up the train. Wouldn’t he at least want to get his hands on that alien tech that was all wrapped up in the mummy’s bandages and that was the power behind the legend? No, he washes his hands of his elaborate and very likely expensive scheme with barely a whimper of complaint. Gus or whoever is behind Gus. We never get any answers about this (or these) shadowy villain(s). That speaks to the nature of this story. Like the holographic passengers, so much of it is window dressing. Blow at the wrong time, ask the wrong question, look in the wrong direction and it all goes poof.
In fact I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the assorted experts are really nothing but holograms. This group of professionals and scientists and intellectuals stand around doing a whole lot of nothing. They never once speak, they never consult with each other or cooperate or discuss how exactly they are going to go about analyzing this creature they have been tasked with overpowering. They poke around at equipment and look at charts and never once ask what they are supposed to do with this equipment, who is supposed to do what, how the information they are looking at relates to anyone else’s. This has become a noticeable thing in New Who. From the aimless mobs in The Stolen Earth to the red track-suited Rattigan Academy minions of The Poison Sky/The Sontaran Strategem, New Who background extras have no direction.
These experts are extraneous anyway. The Doctor is the only one needed to unravel this mystery. I don’t know why he needs to actually see the mummy to come to his conclusions, though.  It is the scroll, the “tattered piece of cloth attached to a length of wood,” that provides the vital clue. Shame on the Doctor for not working that out long ago and telling one of the many victims to surrender.
But then we wouldn’t have much of a story. The Doctor taking on Maisie’s pain in order to trick the mummy soldier into attacking him makes for some tension filled yet hilarious moments. And like so much of New Who, everything is so action packed and fast paced that one barely has time to notice the defects.
This brings me back to Clara. “You lied to me again,” Clara accuses the Doctor, and continues, “and you’ve made me lie.” Except Clara needs no help in that area. “He’s fine with it.” Poor Danny Pink. “Danny. He’s fine with the idea of me and you knocking about. It was his idea that we stop, but he’s decided he doesn’t mind and neither do I.” The Doctor has to know that this is a lie—he was there for her major melt-down when she slammed the door on their “knocking about” relationship. Poor Danny Pink had nothing to do with that. But now she invokes his name to cover her shame. And she flat out lies to the two people she cares about most (excluding herself).
I am beginning to despise the individual Clara even while the character (thanks in large part to the actress) remains highly watchable and entertaining. Come to think of it, Gary, that about sums up my growing feeling towards New Who.