Monday, 27 October 2014

In The S***e Garden

Doctor Who
In The Forest Of The Night
Series Eight, Episode Ten


What's this?  Three new writers in a row?  Praise the Doctor Who gods!

And yet, just getting new people in doesn't automatically mean better episodes.  This week, for example: new writer, lots of plaudits, still turns in the year's biggest duffer.  (With one possible exception.)

The premise is interesting.  Sort of.  What if the world was suddenly covered in trees?  Where did they come from, and how (besides an army of lumberjacks) do you get rid of them?  Okay, forests aren't actually terrifying so much as the things hiding in them, as any fairytale will tell you.  And did I say fairytale?  Good, because we open with a little red-coated girl running through the trees, later to be menaced by wolves, at one point leaving breadcrumbs for others to follow.  LIKE IN A FAIRYTALE.  There's plenty of mileage in there for something evocative and scary; it's just that none of it's realised.  It's the cute kind of fairytale, not The Brothers Grimm.

How Not To Terrify Your Audience:
Introduce an adorable kid and have her point out how lovely
and not scary the situation is.  Preferably before the opening credits.
A world covered in trees could be a post-apocalyptic nightmare, and yet despite the title, it's all set in broad, really quite pretty daylight.  The only things roaming the forest are a couple of wolves and a tiger, appearing in one scene before harmlessly buggering off.  No one seems terribly upset about the whole trees thing, as there are virtually no extraneous people in the story at all – apart from disembodied newsreaders watched by no one, snarking about the whole thing like it's the "And Finally" bit.  If there is an interesting reaction to all this, it's happening somewhere else.  That is surely not the way to do it.

Of course, what really kills it dead is the troupe of kids we're stuck with.  Children don't automatically make a story less creepy – horror movies never tire of proving the exact opposite is true, and anyway, School Reunion worked pretty well.  But these ones fall more into the Nightmare In Silver camp, adding gentle, fluffy edges to everything.  You know no one's going to die or get hurt this week as it'd upset the kids.  The emotional heart of the episode concerns a particular kiddiewink, Maebh, who gained insight into the inner workings of trees after her sister went missing.  (Slightly Dodgy Message Alert: the Doctor tells her that when she hears voices, it's wrong to use medication to shut them up.  Great news, mentally troubled viewers!  You're psychic!)  The connection between Maebh, the trees and the solar flare that's about to roast the Earth is, er, not as clear as it could have been.

Ah yes, that's why there are trees everywhere: to add an "oxygen airbag" that'll absorb the solar flare.  Or something.  Science isn't this series's strongpoint, the moon being an egg and everything, but I definitely frowned my way through this one.  Trees helping to prevent a fire is just hilariously, insanely stupid.  Solar flare + oxygen + trees is literally a perfect fire triangle, it is the opposite of helpful.  Schoolchildren know this.  But what about the places that don't have trees?  When we see it from space, how is the entire planet covered in green, including the oceans?  And what about the timeline?  Clara says she's been to the future, and happened to notice that there was one.  The Doctor shrugs and says it's about to change.  Can someone tell me the rules?  (Apparently mankind will "forget this ever happened", which is a bloody convenient excuse not to mention it again.  We forgot last time, apparently, and just stuck some extra forests into our fairytales.  Yeah, Doc, but last time we didn't have 24 hour news or the internet.)

Huge concepts are thrown away just as fast as they're grown.  How did the trees get so big, and all at the same time?  Because they can communicate with each other, and can grow like that if they want to, apparently.  (As for why they don't do it during other times when it would be really helpful, shut up, that's why!)  Where do the trees go afterwards?  To the land of pixie dust, leaving everything exactly as it was, of course.  Why didn't anyone notice the impending solar flare, including the Doctor?  Because reasons.  I just don't get it.  Was there a sale on bollocks at the Plot Supermarket?  Fairytales are all well and good, although Doctor Who actually isn't one, no matter how often Steven Moffat insists otherwise.  However, even fairytales need a semblance of logic to them.

So these are... tree spirits?  Glow-worms?  Thoughts?  Fairies?
Also, trees are sentient.  Enjoy never hearing about that again.
And that's just the science.  Characters deal with all this enormous stuff in much the same way.  Obviously no one really reacts to the trees when they come, apart from the occasional "Wow", because the reasonable reaction would be screaming panic.  (Or it would be if it wasn't all so... pretty.)  But when it looks like the world is going to get roasted by a solar flare, Clara calmly accepts that and sends the Doctor on his way.  What the actual fuck?  Would you accept the death of your species that easily?  Bearing in mind the worlds, realities and whatevers Clara has personally helped save.  She won't even pack any of the kids into the TARDIS because they'd miss their mums too much.  Right, so that's more important than being alive?  Have you not considered using the TARDIS to grab all the mums and dads on Earth?  Or continuing to study the problem until a solution is reached, like you do every week?  Crazy idea.  It usually works.

Maybe Clara's judgement is compromised because of The Danny Factor, which is just as fascinating as ever.  He realises she's been seeing the Doctor on the quiet, and wearily suggests (once again) that she make up her mind.  He doesn't need to travel the universe to see amazing things, apparently.  She wants to be with Danny, so she'll have to lump it and go with him instead.  Right?  Well, obviously not, since she's clearly keen to see the universe and there's bugger all wrong with that, especially since she has the rare distinction of being able to stay home as well.  There's no competition on the romantic front, so what's the big deal?

I'm just not seeing Danny's problem, aside from Clara's constant lying.  It's not wrong to be amazed by the universe and its infinite wonders, because duh, they're amazing.  It's not wrong to like what's in front of you either.  It's not wrong to want both, if you can have both, which she can.  Unfortunately for Mr Pink, if it comes down to a straight choice then Clara made it before she even met him.  She likes travelling.  He has a problem with that.  Okay.  Cheque, please.

As for the Doctor, his edges are inevitably sanded off when you shove him into a group of kids, and giving the TARDIS a SatNav was a bloody stupid idea as well, but he still manages a few intriguing moments.  Admitting that Clara was right in Kill The Moon, i.e. it's his Earth as well, is an important step.  (Okay, he's still an alien, but the Earth is important to him.)  Admitting, after everything that happens, that it would be "awkward" for the Earth to get roasted bounces us hilariously back the other way.  But unfortunately, the plot requires the Doctor to sit back and let nature take its course.  It's not like Kill The Moon, where he deliberately cuts himself out of the equation; the plot just didn't require him to show up at all.  There's something amiss with your Doctor Who episode when the Doctor doesn't need to be in it.  Worse, it turns out no one was ever in any danger.  Thrilling, huh?  Watch it twice.  I dare you.

Next stop: the finale!  Finally an answer to all of our questions!
(Q1: "Who is she?"  Q2: "Actually, who cares?")
At first I thought In The Forest Of The Night was just dull.  Now it comes to it, I'm struggling to find anything nice to say about it.  I thought one of the kids, Ruby, was actually pretty funny.  ("I don't have an imagination!  You can ask Miss Oswald!")  Peter Capaldi seems to enjoy playing off the urchins, which is no surprise at all given the amount of time he spends signing autographs.  The forest looks cool, especially with London landmarks dotted everywhere.  And the pro-environmental message is laudable, even if it's muddled by heaps of idiotic science and pixie dust, and is about as subtle as an airhorn concerto.

In The Forest Of The Night is sweet and pretty, and doesn't have a brain in its head.  It never justifies its barmy notions or makes them work, and when the emotional moments come along, such as the reunion between Maebh and her sister that you knew was coming, it's surrounded by so much candyfloss that it doesn't register.  Still, never mind.  Second time around, I'd nodded off by then anyway.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Time And (Very) Relative Dimensions

Doctor Who
Flatline
Series Eight, Episode Nine


BOOM!  Best episode in ages.  Thank you, Jamie Mathieson.

As you may have noticed, I haven't been loving Series Eight.  There's the occasional good episode, apart-from-all-the-dodgy-bits, and the Doctor's great when they're not trying too hard to make him unpalatable, but for me, it always feels like a fight to like it.  They're obviously doing a thing this year, and it may go somewhere brilliant, but I haven't been having the best of times waiting for them to get there.

Then along comes Flatline to remind me that, yes, I do love this programme, and that's why I keep watching it.  Case in point: I missed it on first transmission, so I had to watch it on my phone.  On a bus.  On a Sunday morning.  And it was still brilliant.

Okay, so the TARDIS is shrinking because the 2D guys are "leeching
its dimensions".  How much of this is the Doctor's fault for landing?
For sale: can of worms, unopened.
What's so great about Flatline?  Top of the list, ideas.  As in this week, there are some.  The TARDIS mistakenly arrives in Bristol (dramatic chord!), where it begins to shrink.  Just the outside, obviously – the Doctor explains that it's always the same size on the inside, and that the exterior is a heck of a lot lighter than it should be.  Yay!  Science, and figuring out how stuff works!  But seriously, the shrinking TARDIS is a dead simple idea, and one of the most striking images you'll see in Doctor Who.  The sight of Peter Capaldi gingerly struggling in and out of a tiny wooden prop is going to be a GIF in my head for a while.  No doubt it's all over Tumblr.

Anyway, the reason it's shrinking, and this week's problem that needs solving, is a race of two-dimensional beings trying to make their mark on our three-dimensional world.  That's... actually quite novel.  I mean, Fear Her did something similar, but this time, there's a budget and a decent script!  It's a challenge for the special effects department, but they excel themselves at killing off the (very) minor characters, either by turning them into murals or melting them into carpets.  The whole thing has that eerie ring of Playground Horror, which the best Moffat-era monsters – mainly the Weeping Angels – tap into.  It's The Floor Is Lava, and Your Posters Are Coming To Get You.  Sweet dreams.

Are they evil?  Here comes another plus point: the Doctor doesn't know, and even though they're killing people, he won't make any assumptions.  He's met some pretty weird aliens with funny ways of saying "hello", so he's keeping an open mind.  A wider perspective is a great way to remind us that he's an alien, and that he's been around the block.  In a nutshell, it's good Doctoring.  Peter Capaldi spends much of the episode stuck in the TARDIS, which shrinks to the size of the one on my bookcase, but it's no Doctor-lite.  There's loads for him to do, starting with some of that Learning And Growing that's rather overdue this year.

The simplest way to examine a character is to hold a mirror in front of them.  Trapped in the TARDIS, the Doctor must leave all the meeting and greeting to Clara, who wastes no time in pricking a bit of his pomposity.  (This could have been very irritating.  Thankfully, it's hilarious.)  She also shows him that she's been paying attention.  In order to be the Doctor, or be like the Doctor, you need to inspire confidence in those around you; give them hope; know your enemy, and use their powers against them.  There is a bit more to it – and I don't mean the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper, although these days they are a big part of it – but Clara covers the bases well enough.  And people quite like her for it.

The Doctor looks on, puzzled that she hasn't "scared them off", as he probably would have.  When she talks rather callously about human lives, he says "Is that what I sound like?"  And when he meets one of the survivors at the end, a hateful old misanthrope who's about as welcome as a blocked loo, there's a definite feeling of: don't be like that.  Character-wise, Flatline is a rescue mission.  His optimism, in the face of apparently murderous aliens, feels like another part of that.

Magic haircut!
Arr, TV shooting schedules be a harsh mistress.
And it's not all about him.  Clara's Doctoring is almost good enough to fudge the Doctor out of the picture completely.  She can't do the bottom line, actual-solve-the-problem stuff, like sending the creatures back to their dimension, or re-3D-ifying flat objects; that's up to him, creating magic solutions without any explanation whatsoever.  (That's a bit annoying, to be honest.)  But she does figure out how to fix the TARDIS, and when it's about to get hit by a train, it's Clara who has the bright idea about how to save it.  Later, she's determined to make the Doctor admit that she makes a good Doctor as well, and he does.

Now, they're not really overstepping the mark here – this is all within the realm of stuff Clara has learned, and Jenna Coleman is at her most watchable and fun doing it.  It's great fun to put her in this situation.  But it does tiptoe close enough to "problematic" to make me... nervous.  She's not the Doctor.  If she can be, and if anyone can be with the right accoutrements and tone of voice, then we don't actually need him any more, and that's a big fat Red Alert! for Doctor Who.  I know the people making it think Clara is awesome sauce, just like they did with River Song, and they may be right, but I hope they keep that in perspective.

I'm heading for the wobbliest bit of the episode, so I might as well get it over with: right at the end, the Doctor tells Clara that "being good" had nothing to do with being the Doctor.  Maybe it's just me, but this felt like he hasn't learned much after all.  "Being good" is one of the Doctor's primary motivators.  Didn't he just say he was "the man who stops the monsters", and that he's there to protect everyone?  (Copyright: The Christmas Invasion.)  What is that, exactly, if not a big slab of Being A Good Person?  Okay, so Clara is currently better at being "good" than he is, such as refusing to let a person sacrifice his life when there could be another way to achieve his goal, or taking an interest in people.  It's part of the "thing" they're doing this year – is the Doctor "good", or isn't he?  But since that's a yes, in great big neon capital letters of obvious, I wish they'd just let it go.  Especially in an episode where he seems to be learning in the exact opposite direction.  See also, his knee-jerk response to Danny's phone-call.  "Is that PE?  Go and talk to soldier boy."  Oh FFS, are we still on this?  Moments after he speaks to a horrible old man who doesn't have enough respect for others?  It's characterisation whiplash.  Annoying, annoying, annoying.

Also annoying?  A recurring trend in Series Eight where the Doctor realises something a while into the episode that's already completely obvious.  "We've found the missing people!  They're on the walls!"  Wow, what a totally amazing deduction 20 minutes in.  However, eagle-eyed (or simply awake) viewers will have figured this out before the opening credits.  See also, the enormous blow-up of some human skin, that isn't a picture of the desert at all.  Well, yeah, since it looks like human skin, and not like a desert.  Huh?

Scroll up... yes, I definitely said I loved this episode.  Looking at the rest of it, then, and not the ending, or the questionable deductions, or the Doctor's magic solutions: yep!  Loved it.  The monsters are terrifying, but even better, interesting.  (At least in practise.  Okay, fine, in the end they're boringly out to kill all humans and their powers evolve at the speed of contrivance.  But I liked the overall idea.)  The Doctor is on really great form.  Clara, well, I may question the level of Doctorliness she's packing at the moment, in terms of what ominous direction it could take us in, but she's certainly fun to watch.  If it wasn't for her, we might not have the Doctor's Addams Family-esque escape route, which is simply one of the most delightful moments in Doctor Who, ever.  (As is his little victory dance afterwards.)

In the end, they can't resist raining on the parade (and oh look, another arc hint – nope, still don't care), and apparently, neither can I.  But Flatline is still enormously entertaining and at its best, satisfying.  There's enough good to outweigh the bad, which okay, fine, is also still there.  Damn it!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Last Train

Doctor Who
Mummy On The Orient Express
Series Eight, Episode Eight


Well, you knew this day would come.  After twenty episodes, including the one where she was a random Victorian, Clara is finally leaving the TARDIS.  Chin up.  Remember to wave.

Just kidding, obviously.  Did anyone really think this was a possibility?  Episode eight of twelve isn't the time to pull that dramatic cracker and you know it, but they give it a go anyway, sending Clara on her "last hoorah" with the Doctor.  Few but the very young (or the very dizzy) will be on the edge of their seats wondering if she'll stay or go.  This story, really, is about what will happen to convince her to carry on.

"Clara, don't go.  Who'll wear all those outfits?"
Several years after a throwaway joke in Series Five, the Doctor is finally aboard the Orient Express... in space.  After flipping her lid in last week's episode, Clara comes along too, one last time.  There's a funereal atmosphere between them.  Clara is happy/sad.  The Doctor isn't sure whether to engage with her.  He wants her to be happy, and she's not sure if she wants to go.  It's an emotionally fraught (and therefore, quite interesting) one for both of them.

Peter Capaldi continues to walk a fine line between emoting and maintaining an alien distance.  Is he more concerned with gathering information than saving the lives of his information-gatherers?  Broadly speaking, yes – he's looking at the bigger picture, stopping the killings overall.  He's not worried about the little stuff, like getting upset about it, because He's Not Like Us.  Fair enough.  He also says that "people with guns to their heads don't have time to mourn", but it doesn't seem to me like he'll be doing that at any point.

Right now, fantastic as he is – and he's so good I can gladly watch him talk to himself – it's hard to imagine putting Capaldi on my Favourite Doctors list.  He tacitly admits to being heartless at the end, which fits the "alien" thing he's going for, but there are times when his attitude to problem-solving veers closer to Steven Moffat's amoral Sherlock Holmes than the Doctor.  But we're not quite there yet, thanks to moments like going to wake up Clara, struggling with the idea because it's not what she wants, then deciding not to.  He's not going to stop her leaving if that's what she really wants, and he's genuinely pleased when she wants to stay.  He's also motivated to do the right thing – he might not be upset about a death occurring now, because he can't stop it, but he's driven to prevent the next one.  So there is a heart underneath after all.  (Two, in fact.)

Plus, after casually ordering Clara to bring a soon-to-die passenger somewhere she'll be of more use, he surprises everyone and takes her place.  Chivalry isn't all there is to it – he's convinced he'll do a better job in her place, and he's impatient to get the problem solved.  But heroism is heroism, and that, thankfully, is What The Doctor Would Do.  I get the whole disassociated-alien thing they're ramming home week after week, but I do like to glimpse the old heroic bit as well.  You know, the uh... Doctor bit.

As for Clara, her journey is mostly based on what happened in Kill The Moon, and a week has done little to dull that muddle.  She's ending it because the Doctor left an important decision up to her and the rest of humanity.  Sorry to repeat myself, but to me that seems an odd reason to hate him, and piling emotional fallout on top of it is rather like building on sand.  She spends the episode mulling it over, and calling Danny for moral support (as their relationship is making great strides, most of them sadly off-screen), but she just seems a bit fuzzy-headed here, which is frustrating as it leaves Jenna Coleman without much to sink her teeth into.  (Frankly, this isn't one of her stronger performances.  That super-excited-high-five ending, with the TARDIS charging off into the unknown, could be copy-and-pasted from any other companion.)

Last week's dramatic flounce makes less sense as the episode progresses.  Several people, including Danny, point out that she clearly doesn't hate the Doctor, so what's the big deal, eh?  After this, and seeing the good in the Doctor's actions, she plumps for carrying on.  It's probably just me, but it still feels a little like a coin toss on her part.  Oh well, glad it's over.

"Doctor, we're trapped!"
"Clara, bring your friend here, now!"
"Okay, sure!"
*isn't trapped any more*
But wait, there's more: falsely saying that Danny's okay with it and that it was his idea for her to leave in the first place, she inadvertently dooms her relationship with him in the process.  That's an ominous note to end on, craftily mixed with the same "Show me the planets!" enthusiasm you get when a new companion joins.  Talk about bittersweet.  I'm interested in where it will go, although it might resonate further if I'd seen more of Clara and Danny together, and better understood their attraction.  Fair enough if she's happy to throw away his terms and conditions (it was bossy and weird laying down rules in the first place), but if so, was she really that keen on him to start with?

Yeah yeah, character development's all well and good, but what about the monster?  Well, the mummy is an unnerving addition to the Doctor Who pantheon.  It looks scary (if a bit standard, all bandages and rotting teeth), and the gimmick – see it and you've got 66 seconds to live – is very neatly worked out.  (The director gets loads out of it.)  As for the plot, er, not so much.

The train is crammed with experts, gathered expressly to investigate the mummy.  When the Doctor figures this out (25 minutes in), the Orient Express transforms into a lab, losing its holographic passengers in the process.  You've got to wonder, once they're aboard, what's the point pretending they're on a pleasure jaunt?  How many of them will die before they get any work done?  No wonder several trains full of people have already died without results; whoever's organising this must be completely insane.  (I'm hoping that's an arc plot, like the yet-another-soldier-reference, since the Doctor doesn't rush off at the end to find the people responsible.)

Once they're on the case, the "experts" aren't much use.  The Doctor mostly chats with the chief engineer, played with enjoyable archness by Frank Skinner, but all the actual geniuses seem strangely mute.  The solution comes only when the Doctor faces the mummy, and talks until he stumbles on the answer.  Holmesian it isn't; possibly because the episode spends 25 minutes on the wrong track, there isn't time to piece it together at the end, so it feels like a lucky guess.  Jamie Mathieson is another new writer for Doctor Who (yay!), and he provides plenty of great dialogue, especially for the Doctor, but the structure is definitely a bit askew.  There's a feeling of the writer figuring it out as he goes (Oh, it's a lab!  Oh, the mummy's a soldier!  Oh, surrendering makes it go away!) rather than having it laid out from the start.  The final leg of the adventure, i.e. getting off the train and rescuing everybody, is dumped on us via epilogue.  Another casualty of the false start, perhaps?  The scene in question, with the Doctor laying out his not-entirely-amoral plan, is scintillating, so I don't mind.  Capaldi is, in general, a bit of a rockstar here.

I liked Mummy On The Orient Express more than recent episodes.  It has a monster defined by strict rules, which for once don't get compromised.  It's exciting in short bursts, though overall it does wobble a bit.  The solution is a bit flat, especially when the Doctor's supposed to have a massive thing about hating soldiers, which strangely doesn't warrant a mention here.  The guest cast are a delight to watch, as ever, although a surprisingly high percentage of them die.  (Mind you, with the "Heaven" arc, maybe none of them do?)

Most importantly, the Doctor and Clara put most of their awkwardness behind them, which is a relief, although they immediately set a course for more.  It feels like a middle-of-the-series, taking-stock kind of episode in that sense; one to revisit later, when the dust has settled.  Until then, I had a good time watching it.

Monday, 6 October 2014

It's Only An Eggy Moon

Doctor Who
Kill The Moon
Series Eight, Episode Seven


There's a simple test to see if you'll like the latest Doctor Who episode, Kill The Moon.  Are you ready?  Listen to these four words.

The moon's an egg.

If you just winced, or made pantomime vomit motions with your fingers, Kill The Moon is going to annoy you.  Of course there's more to it, some of it just as contentious as the egg thing, but there will be a portion of viewers who just won't get past the whimsypoo.

Oh my god, New Writer!
I forgot those were a thing!
Now, Doctor Who has had some pretty wacky ideas about planets in the past.  We've had the Earth forming around a spider's spaceship; Earth having a long-lost twin planet; the arrival of the moon sending a race of lizard people (who were here before us) into panicked hibernation.  Suspension Of Disbelief is in the rules, and always has been.  But the moon as an egg?  I dunno: for me, that's a bit of a stretch, sci-fi bordering on fantasy.  While we're on the subject, this ain't one for the scientists in the audience, although it does sometimes try to be.  Kill The Moon hops light-footedly between asking exactly the sort of common-sense questions I want answered, and trading in the laws of the universe for gumdrops and rainbows.  It's one of those episodes where you find out your own personal tolerance for flim-flam.

It begins at full pelt, which is what I like to see.  Clara and co. are already on the moon, sending an appeal to Earth.  Should they kill a massive potentially-dangerous life-form, or let it live and brave the consequences?  We have 45 minutes to decide.  For a moment I thought we were in for a countdown episode, like the similarly futuristic (and, y'know, rubbish) 42.  Turns out we are not – it's just one of those begin-at-the-end-then-cut-back-to-the-start openings they do in movies when the opening isn't strong enough.  But one thing's for sure: this is an Impossible Choice episode.  And those make me distinctly nervous, because Doctor Who isn't very good at them.  (It's usually a case of, Dramatic Option A, or Dramatic Option B?  I know: Hitherto Unmentioned Option C!)

The moon is cracking apart.  When the thing inside hatches, it will send chunks of moon smashing into the Earth, not to mention the chaos that might be unleashed by the newborn creature.  Plus, no moon = disaster in general.  On the other hand, the creature might be benevolent.  Chunks of moon might not smash into the Earth.  And maybe we'll be all right without a moon?

Hmm.  The case Against is noticeably flimsier than the case For, which is probably why humanity votes to Do What The Title Says.  (Although how blowing up a mega-fetus with 100 nuclear bombs is going to avoid a shower of moon chunks, especially with only seconds to spare from it hatching, is a bit of a grey area.)  The voting thing sounds great, but doesn't quite work in practice.  People on Earth don't have all the facts, only the people who hear Clara's message will vote, and then only the people facing the moon.  It could be 50/50 and she wouldn't know.  In any case, they seem to vote No, and Clara decides to ignore them.  Fortunately, all is well.  The thing hatches, the moon chunks disintegrate.  We even get to have our cake and eat it, because the thing lays another egg, of – one presumes – roughly the same mass as the original one.  Everything's tidied up, with humanity spurred on to explore the stars into the bargain.  How lovely.

Except for all the bollocks.  The moon chunks disintegrate because, says Clara, "The moon isn't made of rock and stone, is it?  It's made of egg-shell!"  Er, no, it's made of egg-shell that's made of rock and stone.  It's an egg, but not a chicken's egg.  The moon is definitely rock!  People have stood on it!  So it's a stupendously lucky break that we didn't get flattened after all.  Plus we've got a new moon – which is an even bigger bag of bollocks, because something can't possibly contain something that's bigger than itself.  (With the honourable exception of TARDISes, which have consistency with the laws of Doctor Who, and even the occasional explanation.)  If Moon 2.0 isn't roughly the same size, or isn't on quite the same orbit, humanity's surely looking at a whole new host of problems.  As for Clara's natty observation earlier on – that nobody in the future ever mentions how the moon turned out to be a bloody great egg, hatched, and got replaced by another one – that still stands.  Are all moons secretly eggs?  Who's laying them, if this life-form is (as the Doctor suspects) the only one in the universe?

Is it a Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice thing?
For me, it stops being analogous when there are chunks of moon
threatening to crush all life on Earth.  I'm thinking: Unintended Subtext.
Like I said, it's down to your own personal tolerance for flim-flam.  You're meant to find it heartening and sweet that Clara voted Yes, and that humanity is inspired to explore space, after all that post-vote awkwardness.  It helps to bear in mind that this is a future where we've given up on space exploration and alien life for some reason; assuming you can get your head around how and why, given the constant arrival of aliens in Doctor Who's version of Earth, it is sort of nice to set humanity back on the right path.  Also intended to make you smile: the moon isn't what you thought it was.  I'm in Camp Thinks It's Bollocks But Can Understand Why Some People Think It's Sweet.  It is a grumpy place.

There's more to the episode than the Impossible Choice That Kind Of Takes Care Of Itself, i.e. the setup.  It takes a while for the characters to figure out what's going on, although the opening teaser, the episode title and an early scene where the Doctor describes a sizeable creature as "bacteria" do sort of give it away.  The setup is all fairly standard Scary Space Station: astronauts are sent to investigate the troubled moon, only to find gravity, cobwebs and corpses.  The gravity is one of the sciencey bits I'm glad somebody brought up – and it's a major plot-point.  The cobwebs are the work of the "bacteria", aka giant spiders that eat intruders.  (I'm not sure that's what bacteria would look like on a larger scale, but Suspension Of Disbelief...)  It's all suitably creepy, though it gets totally defanged once the Impossible You-Know-What shows up.  The spiders just cease to be important, and obviously the tone warps away from Planet Scary before the end.  It's fun while it lasts.

It's also fun to watch Peter Capaldi investigate things, with his now traditional lack of giving two hoots about anybody else.  He does at least try to rescue Courtney (the disruptive schoolgirl from last week's episode), though it's still up to her to save her own skin.  There's a hilarious bit where he suggests the astronauts shoot Courtney and Clara before himself, which is more about making them think again rather than employing a couple of human shields.  He's crotchety, funny, and has a glinty-eyed glee at the discovery of new life.  All very right, as far as I'm concerned.

Now, I've had some trouble enjoying Capaldi's take on the character this year; he's often rude in a way that suggests he's a horrible person, rather than a non-human one, and we've got a dozen-or-so previous Doctors for context.  But he is, mostly, quite Doctorly in this one.  I don't, for example, have any problem with him leaving Clara and co. to decide the fate of the moon.  It's not the first time he's left Earth's history up to the humans, whether it's deciding if they can co-exist with lizard people, or letting history take its course because of Fixed Points.  His choice of phrase, "time to take the training wheels off your bike", is horribly patronising, but it's still a human decision, and it should be up to the humans to make it.  So Clara's dramatic meltdown at the Doctor over this is, I think, rather uncalled for.  Leaving them in danger (with the moon collapsing, spiders approaching, suicide a possibility) is a bit of a bastardly thing to do.  But leaving the decision up to humanity, and up to Clara, isn't.  And that's mostly the bit she's mad at.  Kill The Moon's brutal, emotional climax – those two falling out – is sadly a bit of a muddle.

"But... you can't leave.  It's not the finale yet."
Where the Doctor isn't to my liking this week is simple: Courtney.  The reason she's on-board the TARDIS is to make up for the Doctor telling her she's not special, and sorry, but that's go-to-the-back-of-the-class bollocks where the Doctor is concerned.  The Doctor thinks people are special.  He's interested in, and cares about, humans.  He doesn't think we're insignificant, and he doesn't think our lives are meaningless if we haven't been to the moon.  That's not seeing the Doctor from a new angle, that's wrong.  There are recent examples of him saying the exact opposite – saying he's never met anyone who wasn't important in A Christmas Carol, explaining how each life is precious in The Rings Of Akhaten – and yes, Matt Smith counts as him, since it's all the same ruddy Time Lord.  It's one thing to make him grumpy, or even a bit of a misanthrope, but actual contempt for the qualities of individual people is not the Doctor.  Take it away.

So, the Doctor is a mix of the very good and the very wrong.  Clara's... fine, although Jenna Coleman's cry acting isn't her greatest strength, and it's odd that she's chosen now to throw a tantrum and pack her bags.  Here's a bit you probably didn't see coming: I quite like Courtney.  She's not actually necessary to the story (apart from carrying some handy anti-bacterial spray), and it's bizarre to gain a new companion on such a whim, but at least she's not obnoxious like the last couple of TARDIS kids.  Her delivery of several lines, especially "Night night", made me laugh.  The astronauts are overly whimsical and pretty much just fodder, with Hermione Norris doing the requisite arguing-with-the-Doctor bit; it's not a great role because most of the decision making falls on the Earth and then on Clara.  Adelaide Brooke she ain't, but at least when she challenges the Doctor's authority, she prompts Capaldi's hilarious retort: "You say run, then!"

Kill The Moon is an Impossible Choice episode, and the Impossible Choice is always the most important bit.  And it's not that well handled.  Not enough seems to be at stake, especially when you add all the bollocksy stuff about egg-shells and new moons.  As usual, the problem resolves itself, and the emotional fall-out doesn't make total sense.  But there are times when it feels like it's got its head screwed on (Clara continually asking questions), and times when it does something drastic that's actually in keeping with Doctor Who (him leaving us to it).  It feels like the most consistent episode of Doctor Who for a while, even if it has an annoyingly consistent supply of damp squibs.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Doesn't Care-taker

Doctor Who
The Caretaker
Series Eight, Episode Six


Oh dear.  This is a review I don't really want to write.

I was quietly expecting to like this one.  I've a soft spot for episodes by Gareth Roberts, as they tend to get overlooked by fandom – The Unicorn & The Wasp and Closing Time spring to mind.  He can do "funny" exquisitely well, which isn't something to sniff at, but he's also really great at juxtaposing the Doctor against normal people, not to mention smaller, less apocalyptic threats.  Here's another episode of The Doctor Undercover, and this one is set in a school – which has already been done in School Reunion, one of my all time favourites.  That doesn't automatically mean it won't work a second time; it's just a bit less special by default.  That's an annoying place to start.

The Caretaker is also concerned with Clara's "normal" life vs. her life in the TARDIS, which they highlight really well in a very funny opening montage.  But we've seen this theme before in The Power Of Three – another episode I'm fond of, so there's a feeling of "Oh, this again" here as well.  However, the main talking point is the Doctor, and his attitude towards Danny, which had been building up before they even met, and is clearly a theme for the series.  That's what the episode is – the Doctor meets the boyfriend.  We'll learn more about both of them in the process.  Is it a success?  Um.

Of course the Doctor thinks she's dating a Matt-Smith-alike,  and of course
he's okay with that.  What do you mean, "unspeakably creepy"?
(Okay, he probably views it as natural for her to fancy Matt Smith,
and has no feelings vice versa.  But I can't help thinking about it.)
You may have noticed that the Doctor, this year, is a bit of a git.  Well, a lot of a git.  He's mostly git.  He's rude, dismissive, difficult to like.  This is, broadly speaking, a good thing – you've got to keep the character interesting after fifty years and a dozen-or-so previous actors, and learning to love him all over again is an important part of that.  It's also important to remind us that he's an alien, and being a bit less likeable is a simple way to achieve that.  I totally get all of that, and I'm under no illusion that the way they're writing Peter Capaldi's Doctor is an accident.

Even so, I'm not enjoying it.  Your mileage may vary.  I don't enjoy the Doctor being rude to people out of reflex.  I don't enjoy him loudly telling people to shut up.  I don't enjoy him refusing to accept that an ex-soldier could have a modicum of intelligence, or that a PE teacher could either.  I think the Doctor is basically a good person and he's interested in other people, although he is different from them.  I think there's alien, and there's arsehole, and we are confusing the two, possibly due to an unfortunate cross-pollination with Malcolm Tucker.

The Caretaker does come up with reasons for the Doctor's rudeness towards Danny in particular – and states them all rather boringly out loud, which isn't a very subtle way to do things, but is how this series rolls.  The main one is fatherly disapproval, which could work, except he was being rude to Danny before he knew this guy was a boyfriend to be disapproving of.  (And to an extent, before they even met.)  The other reason is, you guessed it, the soldier thing.  The Doctor's dislike of soldiers is a massive issue at the moment, and I might as well throw my hands up here: I don't get it.  Yes, the Pertwee Doctor hated the military, partly because they blew up some life-forms behind his back, mostly because he was stuck with them for several years.  Yes, the Hurt Doctor did some soldiery things the subsequent Doctors are ashamed of – but Day Of The Doctor really ought to count as closure there.  Why's it such a bitter, personal problem now?   (Remember, he's aged 1,000 years since the John Hurt reunion.  That's ancient history.)

It's a thorny issue, because of course, the Doctor is a massive hypocrite.  (Which they also point out, because the audience might have cotton wool for brains.)  He's made use of the military any number of times since (and during) the Pertwee Years, and he's befriended a few of them.  He's quite capable of blowing things up by himself, with or without the handy caveat of "There should have been another way" or, as per The Next Doctor, "You made me do it."  The Caretaker examines that as well, positing that he's simply a higher ranking officer than the likes of Danny, and dislikes the lower ones out of snobbery or shame.  That's a new one, and it's not necessarily out of the question.  But it's yet another reason not to like this guy.

Hooray for character development and everything, but I wish this episode went some way to resolving these issues, rather than just highlighting them.  For the first time this series, I felt at arm's length from the Doctor.  He's still funny, because it's written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat, and Peter Capaldi can do put-downs like nobody else.  He's still compelling, because he's Peter Capaldi and he's intensely interesting to watch.  But the whole rude, dismissive thing is getting in the way, for me.  Christopher Eccleston was like that in his first episode – saving humanity out of irritated obligation, not massively fussed about the individuals.  And fair enough, but he learned.  That's what Rose was for.  Is Clara helping this guy, or not?  (They point out that she's his external conscience, because of course they do.)  Why is he calling us "little people", like David Tennant's Doctor during his nervous breakdown?  What happened to the Doctor actually quite liking humans?  It just feels like rude is the new bow tie: it's cool, apparently.

"THAT'S NUMBERWANG."
None of this goes unnoticed by Clara or Danny, and again, it's obviously no accident.  He's not meant to be likeable, we're not supposed to be enthralled by this behaviour.  There's even a cheeky line: "I hate you!"  "That's fine.  That's a perfectly normal reaction."  The fact that it's making me want to punch iPlayer, or switch it off, or run crying back to Matt Smith, is merely an unfortunate side effect.  It's a gamble.  We've yet to see the pay-off, but at this stage, I can understand a less patient fan giving up, at least until they're done with the monotonous I Hate Soldiers thing, or the equally monotonous I Hate Boyfriends thing.  (Oh good, this again.)

First time through, The Caretaker set my teeth on edge.  Second time, its charms became more apparent.  The Doctor is terrible at undercover work, and that can be hilarious.  It's not quite the same as Matt Smith's brand of undercover terribleness – Capaldi is more grumpy old man than charming eccentric, and he manages to embody an alien superciliousness, as well as exactly the cantankerousness you'd expect from a school caretaker nobody wants to talk to.  The way he refers to himself as "a man of mystery" is, hilariously, to die for.

Some of the really funny stuff is Clara, just generally, or failing to cover up her trips in the TARDIS.  ("Nice frock.  Bit wet..."  "Freak shower."  "Is that seaweed?"  "I said freak!")  There's a brilliant moment where the Doctor name-drops Jane Austen, which is a ridiculously annoying habit Clara rightly calls him on, except this time he's just read the bio at the back of Pride And Prejudice.

Of course, The Caretaker isn't just a Funny Episode.  It's a character-developer for Clara and Danny, and it's a low-key, patient episode in order to accommodate that.  I don't mind – Clara's character only improves if you heap some layers on it, and she grew more interesting just by meeting Danny in Episode #2.  They are inevitably rushing things a bit, thanks to the time-jumps between each episode.  A moment where she says she loves Danny feels awkwardly unearned.  Danny spends most of the episode either losing patience with, or being bluntly pissed off with her, which leaves her trying to make excuses for the Doctor and herself, which isn't the best window into their relationship.  Sam Anderson is very good as the very patient Danny, but we don't really see what it is he likes about Clara.  Doctor-issues get in the way of any genuine chemistry.  I appreciate slowing down to examine characters like this; I'm just not sure it worked this time.

As for the monster plot, including the Doctor's puzzling decision to lure it to the school because "This is the only suitably empty place in the area" (WTF?), the Skovox Blitzer must be one of the most irrelevant "threats" in Doctor Who history.  A marauding robot thingummie that shoots people and needs to be got rid of and that's it, it's so underdeveloped it's almost off-screen.  Of course it's really just a starter pistol for the character stuff, but plots should always try to be interesting, and this one struggled to keep my attention even while I was looking at it.  (Although it did make me laugh, as it's inadvertently quite similar to Mitchell & Webb's Numberwang robot, Collosson.)  Still, unless my ears deceive me, that's Sam Anderson doing the voice, which bounces us back to the theme of officers and soldiers, what with the Doctor pretending to be the Skovox's boss in order to shut it down.  That's pretty nifty, although I still hate the soldier theme and want it to die, which does get in the way a teeny bit.

I admire the things this episode tries to do.  Some of them will make more sense in the fullness of time, and they probably make perfect sense now, to people other than me.  Good for them – you, even.  I really, really wanted to like this, and I take no enjoyment in not enjoying The Caretaker, but that's where I'm at: arms folded, frown in place, wondering when it's all going to come together.  Hurry up.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Crimey Wimey

Doctor Who
Time Heist
Series Eight, Episode Five


Ah, phooey.  Stephen Thompson again.  I tried not to roll my eyes when I found out who wrote this one, because in an ideal world you'd treat every episode as its own special little flower and forget any of the writer's baggage.  But I can't help it, grumpy old sod that I am: I didn't like his previous episodes, so I automatically want to duck and cover when a new one comes along.

Fortunately, Time Heist is pretty good.  It holds together well and there are good bits.  It's co-written by Steven Moffat, however, so I don't know who to thank.  Similarly, any problems will be indiscriminately shared out between the two of them, because I'm fair like that.

"What do you want, more than anything else?  Whatever it is, it's in this bank."
Quite a big assumption there, Doc.  You could easily be here under duress.
Time Heist scores an early point by avoiding one of the show's boring bits, aka the how-do-we-get-involved-in-the-plot bit.  This usually means plonking the TARDIS directly in the path of some trouble, or a famous person, or both.  It's just narrative housework that needs clearing away before the opening titles.  Sod that: we jump right from the Doctor picking up the TARDIS phone to a dark room later on, where he, Clara and two others have just had their memories wiped.  They have agreed to rob a bank, and they've got no choice but to go through with it, right now.  And we're away!  The story begins with a shot of adrenalin.  Big tick there.

I've seen bits of Hustle and The Real Hustle, and far too many awful Ocean's movies, so I know the drill: a bank with flashy security, a few talented individuals needed to break in, vaguely philanthropic reasons for doing so.  It's one of those pre-existing frameworks you can just drop Doctor Who into, it being a super-malleable concept and everything.  The way it's handled is suitably flashy, and it works.

The Doctor's thing is that he's clever.  Psi's thing is that he can interface with technology.  Saibra's thing is that she can look like other people.  Clara's thing is... I'm guessing, moral support?  Their actions are all more or less pre-ordained by a mysterious Architect (who is, let's face it, probably the Doctor), because there's a time travel aspect (duh), which I'm guessing was Steven Moffat's idea.  The way the story eventually folds in on itself and bounces back and forth in time is very him.  But who knows, maybe it was Other Stephen.  Either way, kudos: it's not a bad puzzle box.

As for the bank, well it's one thing to describe it as the most secure building in the universe (or whatever), and another to actually convince us of it.  Who designed this place?  Yes, there's a terrifying creature that detects and feeds on guilt, but it can only detect one guilty person at a time, and it seems to get that wrong at least once.  There's no CCTV to (for instance) monitor conversations, including (for instance) ones about robbing the bank, which our heroes never stop having.  There are easily-accessible air vents all over the place – and I mean huge ones, even by movie cliché standards.  And the main method of checking your identity seems to be a breath-scanner.  It's suggested this is a way of checking your DNA, which is puzzling in itself, but seriously, breath?  A thing that isn't the same from day to day anyway, and can be easily stolen and bottled?  Thankfully there is at least one secure lock in the building – only a perfectly-timed solar flare will throw it off.  But it should be noted, the vault on the other side of it contains thousands of boxes that aren't locked.  Capped off with a security staff numbering maybe half a dozen, the whole operation is hilariously shoddy.

Still, it makes for an exciting trip as our foursome tries to avoid the guilt-gobbling Teller, which is an alien that actually looks like it comes from another planet, and does something irreversibly horrible to its victims.  Mary Whitehouse would spin in her grave if she could see the caved-in skulls of its victims.  While it does turn out that the Teller is hoping to rescue its mate, this doesn't make a difference to the things it's done, and it doesn't suddenly change the tone like in Hide, which had a similar, much gooier revelation at the end.  The thing is only doing what it's ordered to do – it's non-evil, which gets another tick from me.  (Mind you, no prizes for guessing, as the chains are a pretty sizeable hint that it's not loving its job.)

One minute she's going to feed them to the Teller, the next... she's not?
Bloody convenient for them, but why the change of plan?
To counteract the mind-wipe, we have Shredders: devices that atomise you on the spot.  The Doctor's okayness with using these, when your only alternative is having no brain, is another little addition to the Dark Doctor Files.  Can you imagine Matt Smith doing that?  Clara's dead set against it, because she's the companion and that's her job.  In any case, it later turns out that they're actually teleporters.  For once, this came as a pleasant surprise rather than a cop-out.  It's a totally legitimate loophole; maybe I'm naive, but I didn't see it coming.  Well, do you know what a teleporter looks like?  (By which I mean the wee gizmo, not the special effect.)  Meanwhile, if Psi had actually followed Clara's advice and not used it, he'd be worse than dead.  Interestingly, this goes unaddressed.

After much corridor running (with one set humourously redressed using different lights), the penny eventually drops: the bank is run by one woman and a series of her clones, and she's holding the Teller's mate in her vault.  One day, dying old and alone, she regrets leaving both of them to die in the storm, and will call the Doctor to arrange what is really a rescue mission.  Again, not a bad timey wimey puzzle: it falls into place with a satisfying thunk.

As for the woman and the clones, Keeley Hawes plays the sort of business-minded bitch already creakily familiar in Doctor Who.  I was reminded of Miss Foster, and I wish I wasn't – it's not a gift of a role, however many times Keeley has to play it.  Psi and Saibra are likeable enough, though really little more than superpowers and sob stories on legs.  (I can't help wondering how a man who deleted his family from his memories can know he had a family to forget.)  Clara is wrong about the Shredders, and otherwise isn't much to write home about.  Capaldi is vicious, funny, endearingly sweet when he wants Clara to hang out with him, and believably cool about tragedies he's powerless to prevent.  They are teetering on the edge of overdoing it with the "doesn't find Clara attractive" gags and the eyebrow references, but as ever, he's knocking it out of the park.  I'm still waiting for his first great episode.

Time Heist is neat and tidy, and certainly the cream of the Stephen Thompson crop.  I've got no major complaints.  It's an unspectacular does-what-it-says-on-the-tin deal, but hey, I'd rather watch it again than Ocean's Twelve.

Friday, 19 September 2014

To Be Continued...

To my small number of occasional/accidental readers, including any random Googlers hoping to find pictures of Daleks and Arthur Darvill (apparently)...

Due to being busy over the weekend and an impending trip to Devon, I won't be reviewing the next Doctor Who episode, Time Heist, until the following week.  When I'll be desperately cramming in a review for The Caretaker as well.

Rest assured, I shall spend the week watching and rewatching Time Heist on an iPhone and scrunching my thoughts up into a ball to throw at you a.s.a.p.  And possibly looking at Devon a bit.

Either way, Neil is not best pleased...

If Matt Smith can rescue a bad episode, can four Matt Smiths rescue no episode?
NEIL IS WILLING TO TRY.

Monday, 15 September 2014

The First Sign Of Madness

Doctor Who
Listen
Series Eight, Episode Four


Well, here's one nobody's going to agree on.  I've read reviews that love this episode, reviews that hate it, and reviews that critique other reviewers for not feeling the same way.  All of which is true every week, to some extent, but Listen really feels like a fork in the road.  I've seen it twice; I'm sat here arguing with myself about it.  Or am I?

Sorry, that's a reference to the plot.  The Doctor is alone in the TARDIS, thinking aloud, and he comes up with a theory.  What if we don't really talk to ourselves?  What if, on some level, we know there's someone else there?  Imagine a creature that hides perfectly.  What if it's always there, turning off the TV, moving our coffee cups, hiding under the bed?  Haven't we all had a nightmare about something under the bed?  What's that about?

I hate to be that guy, but I haven't actually had this dream.
Stuff under my bed, sure, but you'd never catch me
putting my feet on the ground.
Already there's a mixture of the new and the, um, not-so-new.  Monsters that tap into elemental childhood fears are Steven Moffat's forté.  Heck, we've already had a monster that can hide perfectly, by making you forget about it.  (Insert "I guess he forgot about it" joke here.)  What's new, apart from his interest in people's dreams, is that the Doctor figures all this out by brainstorming when he's bored.  No landing the TARDIS where there just happens to be some trouble, no distress call on the psychic paper, just an idea that takes root in his head.  It's different.  Different's good.

Also good is the way it says something about the Doctor.  He is absolutely driven by curiosity.  That's him to a tee, although it drives Peter Capaldi's Doctor in a more clinical, nothing-else-matters kind of way than his predecessors.  Capaldi just wants to know, at all costs.  Listen takes him further down the not-necessarily-your-friend path of "alienness".  One moment he's telling a young boy that being afraid just makes him a better person, the next he's sniping at Clara for sugar-coating it.  He wades into Clara's history, ostensibly to help, really for his own purposes, and without considering the consequences.  He rescues a man from the end of time, and from something that's frightening him, but still makes him wait until he can get a good look at it.  He needs rescuing, too, when he gets in over his head.

No doubt about it, this Doctor is fallible.  And guess what: he's probably wrong about the Monster Of Perfect Hiding, too.  They leave it open, just about: something is in that little boy's room, but it might be another little boy.  Something opens a door at the end of the universe, but it might be a faulty mechanism.  (Or that invisible monster from Midnight, popping by to say "Coo-ee!")  The Doctor doesn't know everything, and the "monster" plot isn't tied up in a bow.  Who saw that coming?  I mean, usually there's plot holes, but this is deliberate!

I think it's refreshing to look at the way the Doctor thinks, why he does what he does, and whether he ever lets his imagination run away with him.  Some will find it disappointing – there's no monster, or worse, we don't know either way.  Boo!  But I'm one of those fuddy-duddies who thinks you can do Doctor Who without monsters (burn him!), so I'd be nuts to complain when they do things differently, and actually make a show about ideas and people instead.  In any case, they have their cake and eat it too: the scene with the whatever-it-is under the bed-covers is instantly one of the most terrifying moments in Doctor Who.  Behind the sofa?  Screw that.  Get out of the house.

But despite how it looks, this isn't an episode about scaring you.  It's about fear, and more specifically, the Doctor's fears.  His paranoia is, despite all his usual horribleness – and he's plenty gittish this week – a clever way to make him relatable.  We all talk to ourselves, and imagine things that aren't there.  That's another bit people might not like – bringing the Doctor down to our level.  I'm fine with that, up to a point.  (More on that later.)  He's not like us.  There should always be distance.  But we do need to see something familiar in there, otherwise we wouldn't want to stick with him.  Especially these days.

Horribleness aside, he can be very cute.  "I need you!  For a thing!"
How can you not love his little face?
Which brings us to another thing this episode is saying, albeit indirectly: get this man some full-time companionship!  Clara's need to get away from it all ("it all" being "the TARDIS") made more sense once Capaldi showed up, but he needs a friend more than usual now, not less.  She's got plenty of reasons to find him infuriating, such as his callous disregard for timelines, or the safety of others, and the continued "jokes" about her physical appearance.  (These are becoming less about the lack of underlying romance and, sadly, more about finding new ways to be rude.  Still, I loved "You said you had a date.  I thought I'd better hide in the bedroom in case you brought him home."  Quintessential Doctor strangeness.)  I wish they'd resolve it, and have Clara step aboard permanently.  The Doctor needs someone to make sure he hasn't gone completely nuts and, at this rate, to remind him to put on trousers in the morning.  Alas, the idea of a Doctor Who companion who can up sticks and just go with him is becoming increasingly sepia-toned.  Clara gives him a hug at the end, so maybe that's a good sign.  Fingers crossed.

Ah, Clara.  You know how I mentioned liking it when they make the Doctor relatable, up to a point?  Well, we've reached that point.  And hopped over it.  And set up camp on the other side.  No doubt about it, this is the bit that really divides people: Clara goes back in time to find the Doctor as a young boy, inadvertently starting his fascination with a monster under the bed (it's really Clara), and reassuring him afterwards.  By "reassuring", I mean setting up several tenets of his personality, including the need to be kind, and to not be cruel or cowardly, and – for good measure – the need for companions.  I'm genuinely surprised she didn't add "You know what would make a good name?  The Doctor, that's what!"

Is there anything inherently wrong with invading the Doctor's personal history?  Your mileage may vary.  In my oh-so-humble opinion, there was never any point investigating (for example) his real name, because he doesn't need one and nothing they come up with would ever be good enough.  Similarly, there's no need to tell us why he is the way he is – if you really want to know that, just watch Doctor Who.  It takes away some of the mystery – well, no, it takes away all of the mystery to have someone roll up and explain to him how to be the Doctor.  A lingering look at the man behind the curtain is not going to make him more interesting.  It does the opposite.

Mary Sue to the rescue!
And it's not just anybody doing it.  No, it has to be Clara.  Quick recap: it was Clara who told the Doctor which TARDIS to choose for his adventures.  Clara rescued the Doctor throughout his timeline.  Clara convinced the three Doctors not to blow up Gallifrey after all.  And Clara talked the Time Lords into giving the Doctor a new set of regenerations.  Anything else?  Well, thanks to the TARDIS telepathic circuits, she's got her time-space pilot's license as well.  She even tells the grown-up Doctor to "do as you're told", and that works.  I know Steven Moffat likes Clara, and really, I do too – her character's coming along nicely this year and makes a heap more sense with Peter Capaldi to act opposite.  But there's a limit to how OMG you can make her before the Doctor starts to seem strangely unnecessary.

I know how the ending is supposed to work, and for many, it did.  You're supposed to be pleased to see another Steven Moffat timey-wimey slot into place.  You're supposed to go "Oh, I see!" when you realise why the Doctor had that dream after all (but not why everyone else did, because um).  You're supposed to tingle and smile when Clara waxes lyrical about who and what the Doctor is.  But none of that worked for me.  I wanted to get behind the sofa.  I'm all for exploring the Doctor's character, exposing his fallibilities, even visiting his past, but it's how you do it.  Do it like that, and the Doctor edges a little closer to not being special any more.

It sounds like I'm one of those guys who hated Listen.  I'm not.  I really don't have a problem with the Doctor going on a wild goose chase, and I like the open-ended-possible-non-monster.  I like Clara, up to a point (we're not going through that again!), and hey, I like Danny.  Clara finally goes for that drink, and Samuel Anderson is as charming and vulnerable as he was in Into The Dalek.  Exactly as much, actually, with the same argument arising (Don't mention the war!) and the same back-and-forth editing wheeze about it afterwards.  (Let's think of it as a call-back.)  I don't really like the soldier parallels between him and the Doctor – drawn so broadly that you couldn't miss them in a snowstorm – but that's obviously an arc, so best just to grit my teeth and see where it goes.  As for Clara, her emotional journey didn't make a heap of sense to me, but I'm glad she seems to be getting on famously with Danny at the end.  The Doctor seems happier too, which is good news for Mr Grumpy.

It's frustrating.  I can't entirely land on "I liked it" because of that ending, and it's one of those stories where the ending is everything.  But I can't dismiss it either, because it does a lot of things really well – like some of the characterisation, the stock-in-trade scariness, and Peter Capaldi rocking the house, terrifyingly unreliable one minute, childishly loveable the next.  Ultimately, the Doctor doesn't know if there really was a monster, and has to leave it at that.  I know how he feels.  I don't know if there was a really good episode.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Meh In Tights

Doctor Who
Robot Of Sherwood
Series Eight, Episode Three


Oh, what joy, an episode about Robin Hood.  Do we have to?

This is purely a personal preference, but I'd stick Robin Hood next to Peter Pan and A Christmas Carol in the file marked Do Not Need To See It Again.  It's not that I don't like these characters or stories – it's that pop culture has faithfully assimilated them, reproduced them, re-interpreted them and taken the piss out of them more times than I can be bothered to calculate.  Robin Hood, plus swashbuckling, sword competition, evil Sheriff, for the umpteenth time?  Thanks, but I'd rather go and put the kettle on, and watch it boil.

Quick: moan like you're ill, wait for the guard, then beat him up!
Rated four frowny-faces in The Big Book Of Movie Clichés.
On the bright side, Robot Of Sherwood tries to do something different.  The Doctor refuses to believe Robin Hood exists, let alone as an amalgam of every trite Robin Hood stereotype imaginable.  Something sinister must be going on.  That's not a bad premise, but it does rely on having an interesting answer at the end of it.  Surprise!  There is no answer!  Robin Hood exists, and modern pop culture got every single detail right, including the spoofs!  Errol Flynn was, apparently, making a documentary.  This is either a post-modern twist, or an excuse for not coming up with a single remotely new thing to say about Robin Hood.  Having been bored rigid by equally derivative Mark Gatiss episodes in the past, I know what my money's on.

Take a look at the rest of the episode.  As per the title, the medieval setting comes with incongruous sci-fi elements such as a spaceship and (spoiler alert) robots.  This is truly trailblazing stuff, unless you happen to be a fan of, to pick one random sci-fi example, Doctor Who.  Historical settings (and alien worlds that look like them) scarcely come without a bunch of aliens, robots and spaceships (oh my).  It's a full-blown trope!  (And it's a bit boring, having the Sheriff of Nottingham engage in exactly the same sort of modern, spacey villainy as every Doctor Who villain ever.  Can't he be, y'know, from the past and stuff?)

Since the Robin Hood stuff is deliberately corny, I'm guessing the robot stuff has a little of that too, but being too aware of a trope just risks underlining that you're doing it all again.  So does having Clara dictate Robin Hood's history back to him, as well as the Sheriff's robotty schemes, without first being told.  Yes, we do know the Robin stuff backwards, and yes, the Sheriff's history with the robots is perfectly bleedin' obvious.  You could Autofill the entire plot on a mobile.  Speaking of which, there's a spaceship disguised as a building, futuristic robots nicking stuff from the surrounding humans, and a half-robot leader.  Is Series Eight missing a script editor, or are they deliberately re-using the plot from Deep Breath – something we saw two weeks ago that already wasn't any great shakes in the originality department?  Thanks to the ongoing arc, they even reference it directly.  "The Promised Land again?  Like the half-face man?"  You said it.

In my review for The Unicorn & The Wasp, this was roughly the point where I said I didn't mind how corny and derivative it was, because it was funny and well-performed enough to rise above it.  Robot Of Sherwood is dead set on being a Funny Episode, and there are some decent lines and successfully funny bits in it, but for me, it doesn't come close to compensating for how tired it is.  Frankly, it's not that funny.  At one point they try to invert the famous gag about Little John, and have him actually be really small.  Only problem is, Maid Marian And Her Merry Men got there first.  Twenty years ago.

Most of the comedy comes from Peter Capaldi reacting abrasively to his surroundings.  The Doctor's refusal to believe is the backbone of the episode, and it's intrinsically like this new Doctor, as well as being just a shade like William Hartnell.  (Again, still not wildly original re Robin Hood.  See Blackadder: Back & Forth for much the same material.)  That's all to the good, but the way it's handled is a bit too broad, boiling down to the Doctor and Robin yelling at each other until Clara tells them to shut up.  It's more monotonous than funny, and it doesn't give Peter Capaldi much to work with, or at least much that's good.  I'm against pigeon-holing the Doctor's personality; he thrives on strangeness, not predictability.  It's certainly too soon to stuff the Twelfth Doctor into a little box marked Rude And Grumpy, but that's what this one does.  Capaldi is better than this, not to mention all the dry exposition he's made to spout.  That bit on the spaceship is sheer one-sided yak, yak, yak.

Hey, cool shot!  Reminds me of Die Hard, aka Alan Rickman,
aka the Sheriff Of... god damn it!
Meanwhile, Jenna Coleman has fun, especially when she's wheedling information out of Ben Miller's rather pitiable Sheriff.  It's unfortunate that last week's moral tussle between her and the Doctor has gone temporarily out the window – but they're (very obviously) trying to reassure us he's not so bad after all.  Clara spends much of the episode drawing parallels between the Doctor and Robin for the same purpose, and this is exactly as embarrassing as it sounds, especially when you've made him the most cartoony Robin Hood imaginable.  It's illogical – Robin insists he's not a hero, but there's little practical difference between that and what he's doing – and sometimes poorly written.  "When did you stop believing in anything?"  "When did you start believing in impossible heroes?"  "Don't you know?"  That's actual dialogue.  Urgh.

The script has a slippery grip on this new Doctor, especially if you compare it to the last two (much better) episodes.  The grumpiness makes sense, even if it's a bit forced, like sticking a fez on Matt Smith.  What about his sword-fight, using a dessert spoon?  "I am the Doctor, and this is my spoon!" is something you might expect to hear from David Tennant or Matt Smith, and not at their best.  Coming from Capaldi, it's downright embarrassing.  I thought the new Doctor had outgrown whimsical show-boating.  Ditto him entering the archery competition, and cheating via a magic arrow; for a ghastly moment, I thought I saw Tennant's Doctor in his place, all over-the-top gestures and broad heroism.  If we really must yo-yo between Morally Grey Doctor and Bouncy Cartoon Doctor, I hope they find a more subtle way to do it.

I get a bit grouchy reviewing episodes like these, because there's nothing much to say apart from what I didn't like.  I just end up listing things.  Did I mention the robots?  They're apparently following the Sheriff's orders because, uh, they have nothing better to do?  Wait, aren't they heading for the Promised Land?  Why are they helping some random Sheriff stage a coup?  No matter: they continue to attack people with lasers even when they've seen other robots tricked into blowing themselves up that way, so obviously they're idiots.  They barely seem to register with the Doctor, who made a big thing of killing the Deep Breath robots to save some humans, and barely bats an eyelid killing these guys.  Meh.

As for the plot, negligible as ever, it involves melting down gold and turning it into engine parts (and circuits – mind if I borrow that, Fires Of Pompeii?).  I know, right – a gold-filled spaceship, nice and heavy, just what you need for breaking orbit.  When the ship needs more gold or it won't get far enough away to safely explode, one gold arrow will suffice.  Shooting it directly into the side of the ship will do the trick.  Ah, if it isn't our esteemed colleague, Mr Bollocks.  Pull up a chair!  (On second thoughts, euw.)

As for what I did like?  Some of the jokes hit the bullseye, which is literally the least you'd expect.  "Like I said, very sunny."  "So?"  "Have you been to Nottingham?"  Heh.  Best of all is this T-shirt-ready zinger from Clara: "Can you explain your plan without using the word 'sonic screwdriver'?"  That's a good question for all Doctor Who writers.  Long may they continue asking it.  I can think of a few others.  (On the other hand, as the fine writers of Androzani.com point out, it has the nasty side-effect of underlining how trite the sonic screwdriver is.  Too true, and it's not even the first time they've made that joke.)

Apart from a few irreverent laughs, this is filler.  Yes, it's a "funny" episode, a "romp" even, and we've had worse, but that's not a free pass to rely on plots we've heard a million times, limp along for 45 minutes and juggle tropes and clichés like they'll spit out bonus points.  Robot Of Sherwood mashes together a load of old stuff, none of which is a substitute for imagination or flair.  We can do better.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Dark Night Of The Soul (Of The Daleks)

Doctor Who
Into The Dalek
Series Eight, Episode Two


"Where are we going?"  "Into darkness."  Yeah, he's not kidding.  Into The Dalek is some seriously gloomy Doctor Who.

This is a good thing, of course.  We've collectively followed the show for fifty years, and it's important that it finds ways to surprise us.  Steven Moffat said we'd begin to wonder how well we know the Doctor, and to my surprise, he's delivering on it.  (As is Phil Ford, who once again shares a writing credit.)  Peter Capaldi is fascinating to watch, gripping, funny, everything you'd want from the Doctor, but he's not necessarily your friend.  When he asks Clara if he's a good man, he requests that her answer be "Honest, cold and considered, without kindness or restraint."  Never mind Scottish: that's how he is now.  I'm not sure if I like it, which is the point.

INT. TARDIS: "Clara, tell me.  Am I a good man?"
"Yes.  I've met your previous selves, and they were good men.
They're you, so you're empirically good as well."
"Oh, right you are, silly me." END TITLES.
He's rude, and without any social niceties.  When he rescues a woman from an exploding spaceship, her already-dead brother is left behind.  He looks at her with utter detachment.  "He's dead.  You're not.  By all means, keep crying."  But that's just a lack of tact, and that's not new, it's just out of fashion.  Tom Baker, Colin Baker and Christopher Eccleston were all tactless sometimes; the Doctor is an alien, after all.

The big talking point is the death of one of the rebels, Ross.  Once he triggers a Dalek's antibodies, there's nothing that can be done to stop it.  The Doctor shows no remorse – he told him not to do it, he did it anyway, so he's "dead already".  But he seemingly offers hope, which turns out to be a way of tracking his remains to a safe location, thus saving the rest of them.  No magic solutions, no agonising about it afterwards, he just does what he can to save who he can.  Fair enough, but false hope is pretty grim, even for a darker Doctor.

And yet, as unpleasant as he can be, he's still the Doctor.  Remember William Hartnell?  There was a Doctor with a character arc: a dangerous misanthrope, he kidnapped his companions to stop them telling anyone about the TARDIS.  In Episode #3, he tried to kill a caveman to save the bother of carrying him.  But he learned from his companions and became the Doctor we know, as much about saving individual lives as the worlds they live on.  Capaldi is the start of a new set of regenerations.  Perhaps that's why he's a bit of a bastard again.

It's a process and we'll have to see where it goes, but some of it already doesn't add up.  His dislike of soldiers is seeded through the episode, just as it was in The Sontaran Stratagem.  It didn't convince me back then, either: the Doctor's been around long enough to know you don't need a gun to kill people, and that guns don't make you a soldier.  His total disregard for the death of Ross takes the moral high-ground away, but he's still stomping on it when he refuses to take on a new companion, Journey Blue, citing her job description.  I can't help feeling they're making an issue out of this just so it can be overcome later.

Which brings us to Danny Pink, the new teacher at Clara's school, who is an ex-soldier.  Clara and Danny's scenes provide much needed light in an episode that's all shade.  Some fans will automatically cry "Soap opera!", but they're nuts.  Danny is immediately likeable, and funny without making a big thing about it.  The bit where Clara asks him out is brilliantly-edited and (relax, let it happen) hilarious.  Best of all, Clara feels more grounded just for taking an interest in him, which is something her character needed.  It's disappointing that the TARDIS is merely "one of her hobbies", but at least that disconnect makes more sense this series.  Clara was just an accessory to Matt's Doctor, a pretty girl who wasn't Amy Pond; with Peter, she is a necessary moral counterpoint, and isn't just along for the trip of a lifetime.  Obviously she'll need the occasional breather.  Danny, who offends the Doctor's sensibilities without having met him, adds an interesting ingredient to the mix.

A wibbly effect, eerie noises, moving slowly and pretending it's slo-mo...
Sniff!  It's just like the good old days!  (The sad thing is, I mean it.)
Not so good, though, Danny's Post Traumatic Stress stuff.  Time is an issue, so they dive right in: asked if he ever killed a civilian, he cries silent tears.  It's clearly an important part of who he is, they need to communicate it visually, and Samuel Anderson does it well, but it's no less wince-inducing.  Tears, straight away?  Really?

The plot is equally direct, though there are niggles, some bordering on... the word for big niggles, whatever that is.  (Biggles?)  The Doctor rescues Journey and returns her to the rebel base – this is a future where the Daleks are on the rampage, there isn't time to go into specifics, and that's fine by me.  It feels like Classic Who, just having a Dalek war going on somewhere.  The rebels are about to kill the Doctor to ensure their base stays a secret, when it's suggested he help their patient instead.  A Dalek, damaged and no longer wishing to kill everything in the universe.  It just wants to kill Daleks.  The Doctor agrees to help it (hold that thought), and rushes to collect Clara.

Plot niggle #1: why do they let him go?  They were going to kill him just to keep the base under wraps, and they still don't trust him afterwards, as they keep him under armed guard.  Why did they trust him not to summon the Daleks?  Scene missing.  Hmm.  With Clara in tow, the Doctor and three guards are miniaturised and put in the Dalek, because they have miniaturising equipment on board, so why not.  Plot niggle #2: actually, why not?  Is this really their first resort?  Have they tried X-Rays and monkey wrenches?  They never really say what's wrong with it, so it's a bit "Huh?" that they immediately opt for the crazy sci-fi solution instead of a mechanic.

Straight onto plot niggle #3 then, which is a biggle: what are they trying to achieve?  "A Dalek so damaged it's turned good.  Morality as malfunction.  How do I resist?"  Er, I would think not wanting to do anything that might turn it the other way would be a pretty good deterrent.  Sure enough, they discover the reason for the malfunction (a radiation leak), and the Doctor fixes it without pausing to consider the consequences.  The Dalek reboots, of course.  What were they expecting it to do?

Best just to go with it.  The stuff inside the Dalek is creepy, if familiar; movies like Fantastic Voyage and InnerSpace are dutifully referenced, the journey through the eyepiece is weirdly reminiscent of cheap old Who effects (which I love), the rubbish chute is unavoidably a bit Star Wars, and the robot antibodies are on loan from Let's Kill Hitler – but this is an unimaginably better episode than Let's Kill Hitler, so I'm not complaining.  What this stuff is really here for is to juxtapose the new Doctor against a Dalek.  It's a time-honoured way to set his moral compass, and he's never needed it more.  So, how do they get on?

As it happens, I recently saw Victory Of The Daleks (urgh), and one of things it tried to do was pit the Doctor against "good" Daleks and see how he'd cope.  Of course, that episode couldn't examine an idea if it was printed in luminous paint on a billboard.  This one gives the Doctor genuine hope, which is thrown heart-rendingly out the window when the Dalek reboots.  (Capaldi is brilliant here.)  It then pushes him to admit he thinks a "good Dalek" is impossible.  Clara is horrified, forcing him to give it further thought.  He concludes that there is still, and always is, hope.  That's a great mix of Doctor/Dalek prejudice and the power of the trusty, ever-optimistic companion.  It's Doctor Who to a tee.

"Welcome to the most dangerous place in the universe."  What, inside a Dalek?
Is that really worse than, say, stood in front of a Dalek?
For all his darker moments, this Doctor makes perfect sense when he goes one-to-one with (urgh) Rusty.  Their conversation is a great reminder of the positive way he sees the universe (which is all part of the plan, of course), but the highlight is this note-perfect summary of their relationship, and his character: "I went to Skaro, and then I met you lot, and I understood who I was.  The Doctor was not the Daleks."  Yes!  Hole in one.

Of course, it doesn't end well.  The Doctor is convincing at first, but the Dalek just zeroes in on his hatred for all things pepperpot-shaped.  And this is a fair point.  He's never made it a secret that he hates their guts, and for all this Dalek's new Jeff Goldblumy ideas about life being indomitable, it's obviously going to gravitate towards the angry bit of the Doctor's psyche.  Quite right.  I was concerned we'd get a thoroughly friendly Dalek at the end of it, which is where 2005's Dalek went, and that's an episode they've obviously watched again for research.  Don't panic: Ford and Moffat manage to change a Dalek without betraying what a Dalek is.

And yeah, on the subject of Daleks, when they finally arrive: ho-lee-crap, they are terrifying.  These are the Daleks of old, doing nothing whimsical, no zooming around, no Murray Gold choirs.  They just show up and kill everything.  There's a sheer hopelessness to the attack scenes, a crushing, saddening doom.  And then Rusty The Not Exactly Friendly Dalek trundles in to blast them to kingdom come – which he somehow manages to do without bringing the scariness of Daleks down around him.  Their deaths are equally horrifying, and tragic because it's not what the Doctor wanted, and might be the Doctor's fault.  Daleks who want to kill us and Daleks who don't; they're equally scary, as they should be.

With the "bad" Daleks dealt with and the Doctor's faith almost in tatters, Rusty can't resist a parting shot.  "I am not a good Dalek.  You are a good Dalek."  The aforementioned Dalek episode from 2005 made the same assessment, and sorry to say, it was balderdash then as well.  Does the Doctor destroy heaps of things, sometimes without pity?  Yes.  Does he also do a bunch of other stuff and act in loads of ways that have nothing to do with Daleks?  Again, yes.  It's just too simple to label him like that – and it's eye-crossingly bizarre to do it when they so perfectly summed him up as the opposite earlier.  The Doctor thinks, he feels, he loves, he regrets, he also happens to kill things.  He's still not a ruddy Dalek.

A couple of moments don't ring true, and a couple of plot points don't add up.  Is all of that annoying?  Yes.  Is that enough to make Into The Dalek a bad episode?  No, silly!  This is a relentless look into the Doctor's soul, and that of the Daleks, and you won't like everything you see, but the Doctor, the Daleks and Clara are more interesting for having looked.  It's quite something.