Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Above-Water Menace

Doctor Who
The Vampires Of Venice
Series Five, Episode Six


What with current events being, well, typical of 2016, I thought it'd be nice to dip back into Doctor Who.  Series Five was a jolly time, with Matt Smith and Karen and Arthur (oh my!), and Vampires Of Venice – though unpopular among much of Who fandom – is one I've got plenty of time for.

Well, 47 minutes, anyway.  It's definitely one of those that's enjoyable, but too frivolous to really hold up.  I'll gladly put it on during a wet afternoon.

After the regrettable incident of the inappropriate kissing, the Doctor recruits Rory to the TARDIS team, figuring (not unwisely) that if he and Amy both see the wonders of the universe then they won't drift apart.  It's a lovely idea and it gives us one of the fun-est opening teasers in Doctor Who.  Matt Smith bursting awkwardly out of a cake may be rather schtick-y, but leading us into the credits from an awkward pause, as opposed to anything remotely scary, is a downright brilliant change.

Moustache Guy likes what he sees.
For good measure we get a "scary" bit beforehand, as a young girl is recruited to a special school in ye olde Venice.  The sinister Rosanna Calvierri and her son Francesco (Helen McRory and Alex Price) set their stalls out immediately: between the predatory body language and (slightly comical) fangs, we've got our monsters of the week.  They've also got bags of otherworldliness and mother-son chemistry.  One of the things I really like about Vampires Of Venice is, well, the vampires.  These two, at least.  There's a creepy ease to their performances.

On arrival in Venice (after some more solid banter, the Doctor pouting at Rory's nonchalant response to the TARDIS), things get a bit more conventional.  It's a bit disappointing to see the TARDIS (which looks even bluer and more like a toy these days) land in a busy street in broad daylight and no one bat an eyelid.  Similarly the three of them are wearing completely anachronistic clothes.  There's a certain psychic-paperish familiarity to these sort of scenes, and goodness knows it'd get boring to have people constantly questioning Amy's skirt.  And okay, one bloke does jump out and demand to see their (psychic) papers, but that's it.

Despite the lovely location filming (not in Venice, mind), there aren't many "real" people about, or hardly any with speaking parts.  Our heroes wander around in a giggling daze, spouting regulation glib dialogue ("I'm from Ofsted!") and quite happily taking photos on a mobile phone, all of which makes it feel like one of those "historical" episodes that might as well take place on the holodeck.  It's a feeling not helped by Venice's plotty isolation from the rest of the world.  Okay, only a fool would watch Doctor Who for a history lesson – sorry, Sydney Newman – but apart from Venice being wet and Venetians being able to swim, this story hasn't got much to do with the place.  They don't even bother to drum up one of those historical curios now-with-spurious-Doctor-Who-explanation, like Love's Labours Won or the Koh-I-Noor.  It's just aliens invading, and predictably failing, circa Venice 1580.

Still, I said I enjoyed it, so back on track: that creepy vampire school is in full swing, and a man has lost his daughter to them, so the Doctor and co. must stick their oar in.  Cue more excellent guest acting: Lucian Msamati enlivens Guido the gondolier, making him a fun and, thank heavens, human presence among the usual three.  As for investigating the vampires, this elicits predictable excitement from the Doctor and Amy, and terror from Rory.  It's good to have a spectrum like that, although (as with viewing Rose and Captain Jack through the eyes of Mickey) all the bouncing up and down does make them seem even less like they're in a real place having a real adventure.  Still, you expect this kind of detachment from the Doctor, and the exact reason Rory is here is so that he and Amy won't see things differently after a while.  Plus Rory makes a big thing of how people desensitise themselves to danger when they're around the Doctor, so while it is all a bit frivolous, it's character development, so hush.  I still miss the (long dead) days of historical adventures just about people leading interesting, dangerous lives throughout history, and the TARDIS turning up, but... hey ho!

I love the direction in this,
but I'm not sure about Doctor Who: Electric Boogaloo.
Needing an "inside man" in the school, Amy volunteers herself.  Cue more sparkling dialogue, with the Doctor hilariously offering to pose as her dad (despite looking "nine years old" – it's wonderful to be reminded that he doesn't see himself that way).  Rory takes his place, fumbling adorably through a monologue so painful, it ends up being a sort of show-stopper.  "Both our parents are dead from getting the plague.  I'm a gondola... driver."  My favourite bit is when you can actually hear him thinking: "We've got the same face... which is because she's my sister!"

And I'll pause here to say one of the main reasons I like Vampires Of Venice, and Toby Whithouse scripts in general, is that it's really funny.  There are great gags like the awkward cake scene, Rory's gondola driver and the Doctor's "Stop talking, brain thinking, hush" routine.  Plus even the villains get funny lines, but in a way that actually works and doesn't just make everybody in the episode a forced comedian.  A lot of novels do that, but Francesco's sarcastic "We'd never interrupt mummy when she's hydrating" fits completely with his character.  Bravo!  It's easy to give everybody funny lines whether or not they're funny people; Joss Whedon sometimes does it, then moans when the actors supposedly cock it up.  Francesco has a certain wicked glibness from the get-go.  See also, "Or they die.  That can happen."

Operation: Rescue Isabella doesn't go as planned (although they do rescue Amy, who gets bitten but-she'll-be-fine-because-sonic-screwdriver-moving-on), so there's nothing else for it: Doctor Vs. Villain Showdown!  Well, it's a Toby Whithouse script, it'd be rude not to.  And just like School Reunion, it's one of the best bits.  Matt Smith gets to show off his Doctorly authoritah, and unlike the more straightforward "Stop it!" of Tennant Vs. Anthony Head, Helen McRory adds extra flirting.  Together with her deliberately fish-like movement, swishing left and right towards him, it's rather like a dance between the two.  I often think of it when I'm remembering really good Doctor scenes: they even sell a couple of not-great lines, such as "I'm a Time Lord and you're a big fish.  Think of the children."  (Hey, I never said the script was perfect.  See also: "Fish from space have never been so... buxom."  Yeesh.  Not your best.)

It's around the Villain Showdown that the minutes start ticking down and a bit more chop-chop is needed, so the plot kicks up a notch.  And it all gets a bit wobbly.  If you've seen School Reunion, you may already suspect that while this is hilarious and the characters develop a bit and there's a couple of really good scenes, the plot won't work.  And, well, surprise!  Vampires Of Venice looks gorgeous and the dialogue's mostly spiffing, but there ain't much going on upstairs.

First off, those darn vampires.  Fish people.  Whatever.  That's another thing actually: the Doctor says "Makes you wonder what could be so bad it doesn't mind us thinking it's a vampire", which is a Doctor Who trope.  You can have a supernatural thingummie so long as you come up with a cod science fiction explanation for it.  But all that does is give you exactly the same thing, minus the horror and plus techno-babble.  It's generally less interesting when you explain a mystery, and these fish people, with their wishy-washy aversion to daylight, and insatiable need for water but-we'll-drink-blood-too-sure-why-not, and random one-scene-only ability to fly, make irritatingly tenuous "vampires".  Also, give over, Doc: aliens aren't "worse" than vampires.  They're just aliens, a.k.a. those things you meet every week.

Blooper or deleted scene?
When the fish-vamps attack at the window, this one comes in the door.
Then everybody looks at the window ones before running away.
Through the door.
Damn it, Fish Girl!  You had one job!
But gods, that daylight thing.  So they can wander around in it fine, but then if you shine a pocket mirror at them, suddenly it's kaboom?  (Although hey, look at the Krillitanes, with their natural oil that also conveniently makes them explode so obviously they carry it everywhere with them.)  Plus they wear "perception filters" so they can look human, and Francesco has no problem recognising his mummy, but then his 10,000 brothers hiding underwater can't, so they eat her?  How thick are they?  If her "clothes" are part of her perception filter, how does Rosanna take them off?  Why doesn't the Doctor do anything about the 10,000 fish people that are still there at the end?  And if Rosanna's whole brood, including babies, would fit inside one measly city, why not go and live in the sea instead?  There's a lot of sea!  They could still be there now and remain undetected!  I mean, Venice is very nice and everything, but this is all just playing silly buggers.

As for the specifics of their plan (come on, you knew this bit would be trouble!), using a giant rain machine to sink Venice (the sea, you fools, it's right there!) isn't terrible in theory, but how they go about foiling it falls squarely under that heading.  Rosanna's throne is conveniently her control hub – we've seen the Doctor sitting on it so he could easily figure that out.  So, commanding that Amy and Rory pull out all the wires (sure, that'll do it I guess), he dashes over to the secondary control hub in the bell tower... which he hasn't seen or thought about at all up to now, so how the hell did he figure that out?  His dash to the top of the tower might look impressive – and while I think most of the CGI in this episode looks exemplary, contrary to popular criticism, this bit of green-screen does look a bit shit – but it's just a load of random jiggery-pokery until the rain stops.  In action terms, it has the considered finesse of a screenwriter mashing the keyboard with his feet.  Make... problem... stop!

Then, after another really beautifully acted bit with Helen McRory (the clothes aren't real, how does that work goddamnit) and the Doctor pleading with a second person not to get killed (don't you start that nonsense, Mr Eleven!), the plot politely obeys and shuts up so our can heroes go home or whatever, pausing to make a clodhopping reference to The Silence which, in hindsight, rather suggests nobody told Toby Whithouse what it was.  (All Rory can hear is silence?  In a crowded marketplace, next to the sea?)

Vampires Of Venice is pretty much par for the Whithouse-y course: nice character moments, shame about the brains.  But the character moments aren't all that fantastic either, with Rory and the Doctor's unintentional competition over Amy at one point crystallised in a mine's-bigger gag, and some of Rory's pratfalls are, well, pratfalls.  He's not Mr Bean.  And yet, it's a really good time.  The production's lovely and the direction is eye-catching.  (Like that bit where Francesco jumps into the water and we cut away just before he hits.  But less so the sudden jump from night to day during the rescue scene.  But shh, this is the good list!)  Even Murray Gold's music seems appropriately extravagant.  Also there's another really great guest cast to add to the pile.

And lest we forget the main trio being on good form, most noticeably Matt Smith, who (if you're a Matt Smith Doctor fan like me) ticks all the Doctor's boxes.  And incidentally, how nice to make it a trio.  It avoids the I Wuv You pitfalls of a twosome, and makes a point of doing it because characterisation is always a good thing, but just generally it's good to shake things up.  Can they get a pet?

It's still style in another winning-over-substance shocker, but Doctor Who has had far less entertaining holidays.  I'd go again.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Filmflam: Batman V Superman – Dawn Of Justice

Batman V Superman – Dawn Of Justice
Directed by Zack Snyder
2016


Admit it.  You wonder how they'd kiss.
Curse you, morbid curiosity.  As if getting 29% on RottenTomatoes wasn’t proof enough, I had to go and check.  Now I’m forced to conclude, like Michael Bluth opening a bag that says DEAD DOVE – DO NOT EAT: I don’t know what I expected...
Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice – and take a moment to marvel at that title, so brazenly artless that it might as well say “Who even cares what it’s called?  You got Batman, you got Superman.  Roll up.”  Anyway: it is as bad as everyone’s saying.  It’s a long, boring, mopey, disjointed, don’t-worry-we’ll-fix-it-in-the-sequels-(yeah-right) cluster bomb.  But before the inevitable autopsy, it does have its bright spots.
An early scene revisits Man Of Steel’s mind-numbing finale from the perspective of Bruce Wayne, heroically rescuing a few employees from a doomed building.  It’s the kind of non-fighty heroism you rarely get in superhero films, which on the whole tend towards Goodie Vs. Baddie battles (because they’re predictably spectacular) rather than anything pro-active.  It’s one of the reasons Heroes was so disappointing (forget all that prophecy nonsense – go and rescue somebody!), and it’s why a random scene of Perry White trying to save a co-worker was my favourite bit in Man Of Steel.  I’m not going to credit Man Of Steel with foresight here, knowing that Superman’s casually destructive attitude wouldn’t sit right with audiences and then fully intending to respond.  There are simply too many insistent references to EMPTY and UNPOPULATED and DEFINITELY NO PEOPLE IN THEM battle-zones not to suspect this movie is a touchy reaction to those audiences and critics.  But I’m glad they addressed it at all.
As for other examples of heroism, we see flashes of Superman doing good things, like saving a girl from a fire or rescuing the crew of a rocket.  It’s crammed into a montage and people talk over it, but hey, at least they remembered he occasionally helps people and stuff – it’s not all Goodies Vs. Baddies.  Then again, this is a movie so determined that this is the point of superhero stories that there is a “V” in the frigging title.  Also, the public perception of Superman as a hero is not one the movie seems at all comfortable with.  Strangers touch him when he’s near, or reach out to him in desperation when he’s above.  It’s all very pointedly (and clunkily) messianic, and not at all the “Hooray, here comes Superman!” world conjured by the mighty John Williams theme.  Which, good god, do I miss.  Those movies were far from perfect, but at least you were glad to see Superman.
"If I wanted it, you'd be dead already!"
But I’m drifting – bright spots!  Ben Affleck’s very good.  Playing a more seasoned and misanthropic Bruce Wayne than we’re used to, he brings a weary history to the part, and manages – unlike several of his predecessors – to be a commanding and interesting presence even, or perhaps especially when he’s out of the Bat-suit.  It’s difficult to comment on him as Batman for reasons I’ll get to (autopsy incoming), but the fight scenes recall some of the more tactile and exciting bits in the Arkham games.  They certainly look good.  Oh, and his Bat-voice is electronically disguised, which is much less silly than just growling all the time.
Let’s see, other good bits… there are some very good actors in it.  They don’t necessarily have much to do, and little of it makes any sense, but they’re… in the film, I guess?  The score has its moments; for better or worse, I’m still humming Wonder Woman’s shrieky electronic theme.  She’s an interesting presence, although all the information we need for her character has been reserved for a different film, leaving her a shiny and conspicuous add-on in a movie that more and more resembles a shopping list – never more so than in an astonishing scene where, on her way to the climactic battle, for no reason at all, Wonder Woman pauses to watch video-clips of other soon-to-be Justice Leaguers.  I mean, wow.  Was that really the best way to introduce those characters?  It’s so badly shoehorned that, despite the movie’s obviously JUSTICE-themed title (and reason for being), it manages to smack of a reshoot.  And you know what, screw it: autopsy time.
This whole film revolves, or should revolve around the conflicting ideologies of two characters.  As anyone sitting down to watch this will know, they need a damn good reason to fight one another.  In The Dark Knight Returns, the seminal and nihilistic book Zack Snyder so clearly admires, they got one: the two heroes did things differently for years, and Superman’s complicity with authority led to him being muscle-for-hire for a corrupt President.  Batman, raging against everything in his old age, needed to remind him where he stood, by almost killing him if necessary.  In this?  Not so much.
Batman just has this certainty that Superman will eventually snap and kill everybody.  To be fair, a lot of people died when Superman didn’t take the fight away from Metropolis.  To be fair-er, Bruce is easily egged on by the machinations of Lex Luthor (so much for the World’s Greatest Detective), as well as… dream sequences?  What kind of half-arsed movie advances its plot with dream sequences?  Anyway, it doesn’t feel like enough.  It’s contrived.  At no point does Bruce consider that Superman is actually out saving people most of the time, which you’d think would be obvious.  “If there’s even a 1% chance, then we have to treat it as an absolute certainty”, says he.  And what happens when the next Zod shows up?  Sure, this is exactly the lesson our winged chum needs to get into his thick skull by the end of the movie, but you’ve got to wonder why he doesn’t consider things from more than one angle to begin with.  Or talk to Superman, for god’s sake.  (For his part, Superman doesn’t like Batman’s methods, but I suspect he’d still be content to slap him on the wrist if he wasn’t lamely manipulated at the last minute by his mum being kidnapped, and Batman’s murder being the only way to save her.  Is this really the best we could do?)
With the script desperately hopping from a Batman movie to a Superman sequel to a Justice League prequel, there’s barely time to remember this all started with Clark Kent, leaving Mr Red And Blue strangely the least interesting selling point.  All Henry Cavill can do is fill a codpiece and glower while he does it.  But is this news?  The biggest failing of Man Of Steel was its treatment of Clark Kent, making him moody and angsty and relegating his day-to-day dual life to lip service.  He shows up at the Daily Planet, newly bespectacled and ready to start his life as a reporter, in the final scene; it’s like someone ran into the cutting room weeks before the premiere and shouted “Guys, we forgot the glasses thing!”  BVS picks up where that floundering mess of a character left off: Lois Lane already knows he’s Superman, they’re already a couple and nobody else seems to know him as “Clark” at all.  He’s got little interest in being a reporter, or in… anything at all, actually.  There is really only Superman, with or without glasses, glowering and moody and dropping by at intervals so the plot can lazily happen around him.  What does he think about all this?  What is his everyday life like?  Is it a big deal that Lex Luthor knows his identity?  What, other than their shared secret, does Clark like about Lois Lane?
Her?
She’s even worse: nothing more than a ditzy thing Superman must drop everything to go and rescue, at the expense of everybody else.  It doesn’t matter if others get shot or killed, oh no, only when Lois is imperilled does he show up.  This is an actual plot point, by the way.  You’d think she’d be under house arrest by now just to give Superman a bit of free time and to make everybody else less doomed, but she’s such a determined Dorothy Dipstick that she can manage it all by herself.  During a climactic three-vs.-one battle she’s not directly involved in, Superman must drop everything because she’s lost her way underwater and is seconds away from drowning.  For fuck’s sake, Lois!
Not for the first time, I’m left pining for Lois & Clark.  Yes it’s campy, no it hasn’t aged perfectly, but what it did do was give Lois Lane a boat-load of personality and chutzpah (imagine a kickass Liz Lemon), and come up with a Clark Kent who made emotional sense.  Raised by humans and driven by their values, “Clark is who I am.  Superman is what I can do.”  Durn tootin’!  He is also able to take off and land without smashing the shit out of the pavement, and defeat people without snapping their necks, not to mention he has a winning sense of humour and respect for the law, and they didn’t even need to kill off his dad for a heroism excuse, but this is a Batman V Superman review, not a Lois & Clark.  Don’t even get me started on John Shea’s immeasurably superior Lex Luthor.  (Oh, all right, in a minute.)
The plot, which is dumb, generally advances because characters don’t talk to each other enough.  (It also doesn’t bother to explain things, like what a “Kryptonian abomination” is other than a convenient third act monster.)  There are speeches – poor Alfred seems to exist just for this purpose – but when it counts, the right words don’t come.  Such as “Bruce, we’re being set up by Lex Luthor, let’s work together.”  Or “Bruce, I’m sorry about all the devastation in Metropolis but I wasn’t the only Kryptonian there, didn’t you see the other guy?”  Or “Clark, why haven’t you learned anything from Metropolis when it comes to controlling your powers?”  Or “Bruce, how can you be mad at me for killing people by accident, when you’re doing it on purpose?”
Oh yes – not content with fudging Superman’s no-killing rule, for the hilariously tortured reason of “He needs to learn not to kill people”, because after all that’s how the rest of us figure it out, Snyder also manages to fuck up Batman’s fairly well-documented philosophy.  Whether he’s branding criminals (branding them!), a move the film acknowledges is a prison death sentence, or blowing up cars with people in them, or tossing back armed grenades, this Batman is The Punisher with better gadgets.  Which completely throws away the bit about not killing people being harder to do, ergo a greater act of heroism, ergo one of the main reasons we like these bloody characters in the first place.  In a recent mealy-mouthed interview, Snyder blamed this on previous Bat-filmmakers tacitly doing the same thing.  Stuff like “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you”, or Tim Burton’s surprisingly deathly Batman Returns.  He’d have a point if he said Batman wasn’t as criminal-friendly as he likes to believe, but what kind of reason is that to go all out baddie-killer in his movie?  Mind you, Snyder also cited The Dark Knight Returns, a relatively famous story in which Batman so pointedly cannot commit murder that the Joker commits suicide to get the last laugh.  So god knows what’s going through Snyder’s mind.  Explosions and pectorals, one presumes.
All better!
Alfred at least acknowledges that Batman is “crueller” now, but there’s little in the way of an explanation.  Similarly, we get a half-arsed (like everything else) reason for Lex Luthor’s hatred of Superman: his dad used to hit him, so there’s no God, so boo Superman?  Jesse Eisenberg is yet another actor lost up a creek, spouting a lot of portentous speeches and resorting to a bundle of twitches and mannerisms to build a “character” that is ultimately just the most annoying person in every room.  Devoid of charisma, he gives off great big “I’m a bad guy!” signals in exactly the way Lex Luthor shouldn’t.  For reference, as promised, John Shea: the best Lex, he was rich, powerful, brilliant and caring (outwardly, at least), and as such, convincingly unsuspected by almost everybody.  He was actually likeable, his major failing being a fascination with Lois which humanised and, even he knew, “doomed” him.  See also NetFlix’s Wilson Fisk: apparently mild-mannered and as such sympathetic, genuinely driven by a desire to help his community (or so he believes), again you can see how this guy commanded an empire.  (It also helps that he’s a very good actor.)  Next to these guys, Eisenberg is a lazily-written shit-stirring irritant.  But this is a plot that turns only when it walks straight into a wall.  Not content with their contrived reason for starting a fight, Batty and Soupy have an even more contrived reason to stop fighting.  Your mom’s called Martha?  So’s mine!  Well, I guess I’ve misjudged you.  Sorry about planning your death for the last year.  Hug?
Yes, that bit’s a necessary reminder that Superman is a person too, which shakes Batman out of his now-that-you-mention-it contrived fury and maybe rids him of some of that cruelty he’s had of late, but delivering this revelation by way of a convenient family hostage, not to mention underlining a cringe-worthy piece of comic book coincidence, just isn’t the same as showing Superman to be a person Batman can relate to.  You know – character development?  Still, dumb logic brought them here.  Why should good logic save them?
In all likelihood, rush-reverse-engineering DC’s version of The Avengers was never going to work.  You’d inevitably end up with a confused and unready Justice League movie.  This one also functions as an unsatisfying Batman film and a barely together Man Of Steel sequel, barely keeping its attention on one thing for ten minutes.  Is there hope for the franchise, with even more plates spinning in the next movie?  Not with Zack Snyder, who seems almost completely oblivious to who these characters are and why they do things, and how stories work.  Bringing Batman and Superman here and smashing them together was his goal and, apparently, that’ll do; if your expectations go no higher than that, you might enjoy it.  (Then again you might not, as the much-ballyhooed-fight is barely longer than what you saw in the trailer.)  But then, who even cares what it’s about?  Roll up.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Nightmeh

Doctor Who
Sleep No More
Series Nine, Episode Nine


Hark at this – it's a Mark Gatiss episode!  What a totally unexpected pleasure, in that parallel universe where the quality of previous episodes has anything to do with the commissioning of new ones.

Steady on, Captain Sassypants: this time it'll be different.  Sleep No More is a Mark Gatiss episode in space, so at least there won't be any clumsy (or bafflingly justified) historical stereotypes.  Okay, there will probably be just as many clichés, if not more, but... it's also a found footage episode!  Something that's never been done in Doctor Who before!  All right, so it has been done in an awful lot of horror films, some of which have been pillars of pop culture for almost twenty years, and it's been the go-to template for horror and action video games for ages, but "It's Already Been Done" shouldn't bar you from having another go.  You just put a new spin on it.  And this one does: as well as being found footage, it's narrated!  Like Love And Monsters!  Except that means you don't actually have to piece together the narrative for yourself, which renders the whole "found footage" thing obsolete.

Oh no, we forgot to say she's a Geordie!
Quick, end every other sentence with "pet"!
Oops.

Okay, the script does get something out of the format eventually, but you'll have to slog through The Overly Familiar Episode In Space to get there.  We have an abandoned space station, irritable space marines, strange noises just out of shot, the Doctor and his +1 showing up... not only is this boringly reminiscent of sci-fi-action movies, it's boringly reminiscent of other Doctor Who episodes that are boringly reminiscent of sci-fi-action movies.  What is there to even say about this stuff?  You'd be massively better off watching Alien or Aliens instead?  Well, yuh.

The narrator tells us not to get too attached to the characters.  Not for the first or last time, he needn't have bothered: they hover between "nonentity", "really annoying" and "are they dead yet".  And heaven help the cast with dialogue like this: "Morpheus, Mopheus, Morpheus!  Sleep's the one thing left to us.  The one thing they couldn't get their filthy mitts on.  Now they're even grabbing that – colonising it!"  "Spoken like a true Rip!"  Not quite Alien-esque banter, is it?  Then there's "May the gods look favourably upon you", which they irritatingly staple onto every other radio call.  And one of them's a clone soldier, meaning Gatiss can write deliberately annoying dialogue and then point out how annoying it is, which just make it even more annoying.  "Maybe they play Hide Seek."  "It's hide and seek.  Why do they miss out words?"  "Chopra!  Don't be anger!"  "DON'T BE ANGRY!"  DEAR GOD!  Time out, both of you!

You can see Gatiss trying to give this world a flavour of its own, and that's admirable in itself.  Unfortunately all he's really done is sprinkle some weird and annoying bits on some bog standard space shite.  Like Mr Sandman: yes, it's appropriate in an episode about sleep, but that doesn't mean we want to hear it half a dozen bloody times, or have the characters roll their eyes when it comes on again.  Being annoying isn't funny.  It's just annoying.

So, this particular (annoying) abandoned space station houses Gagan Rasmussen, aka Reese Shearsmith.  Our narrator is the lone survivor of The Horrible Thing That Happened, and he invented Morpheus, a thing that lets you get a whole night's sleep in five minutes.  This is apparently controversial (see that incredibly complex dialogue above), and the Doctor and Clara are disappointingly quick to judge as well: she calls it "insane" and "horrible", while the Doctor complains that us "filthy" humans have gone and tampered with the natural order of things.  Simplifying the issue isn't new for Doctor Who, but it's wincefully obvious with such clumsy dialogue.  Filthy?  The Doctor called us filthy?  Seems legit.  (The script also has him portentously quoting Shakespeare and awkwardly doing bits from Oliver! songs.  Random Doctorly quirks are a fine art; this is more like "I am the Doctor and this is my spoon" all over again.)

"She's a grunt, Clara.  They're bred in hatcheries."
"That's disgusting."
Ahh, lazy moral indignation.
It's Bog Standard Companion 101!
Yes, Morpheus is being used for monetary reasons – boo, hiss, obviously – but the technology could be used for anything.  Think of what you could do with your time.  Think of all the people who haven't got time to sleep, and could really benefit from an accelerated snooze pod.  You miss out on dreams, but then do you, since time moves differently in dreams?  Maybe you can have just as much dream-filled rest in five minutes as you would in a night?  Would that be okay, Doctor High And Mighty?  I mean, there's more to discuss here, right?  Ahem, no, because this ain't a think piece; the real problem is that some of the pods turn your sleepy eye crud into monsters.  Which is one of those sentences that ought to ring alarm bells, isn't it?  Sleep crud?  Was there an earlier version about murderous toilets?

The whole thing's just frown-inducing.  "The longer you're in Morpheus, the more the dust builds up."  Eh?  Why would that matter if you're only in the pods for five minutes?  When people get out, can't they just poke the crud out of their eyes before it grows arms and legs?  Even the other characters think this is a bit random – there's that "point out your own annoying bits" thing again – and the script covers itself by suggesting the Doctor's just taking a wild guess anyway, but then he goes the whole hog and assumes they eat people as well.  It's a monster story, why not?  I mean, apart from the total lack of evidence.  The Doctor just assumes things all over the place here, and then he's invariably right.  That's a lazy way to progress a plot, but it may have been the only way to progress this plot.

If it all seems suspiciously shoddy, hold that thought: in the closing moments, just after the Doctor heroically points out that "None of this makes any sense!" (ahem), Reese Shearsmith takes a mighty info-dump to tell us this whole ordeal has been a trap for you, the viewer.  All those little bits of video static you took for granted were sending a Morpheus signal to your brain and turning you into a sand monster.  (Although he kind of suggests the monsters were fictitious, so... maybe the rest of it is?)  He then suggests you show this video to your family and friends, which is one way to boost ratings I suppose, and incidentally is that sleep crud I spy in thy eye?

For a lot of kids, this will be their first unreliable narrator.  That's pretty cool, but a few things prevent it from being a good one.  One, it's massively corny.  Like popping a sheet over Reese's head and making him go "WoooOOOOoooo!"  I know it's predominantly a kids' show, but jeez.  Two, the narrator is so unreliable that you've just wasted forty minutes on a story that is deliberately less than airtight.  Is it his fault the characters are so flat, then?  Three, the twist is not well expressed.  Maybe it's the stupor of sitting through Monsters In Space, Volume: Infinity, but I barely followed what he was blethering about, especially his reference to "a proper climax with a really big [monster] at the end".  (Was it hiding behind all the normal-sized ones?  Deleted ending, I guess.)  Four, so much of this episode is dull or clumsy that I just couldn't shake the thought of Mark Gatiss writing a boring, spacey episode and hitting the It Was All A Dream button out of desperation.  Together with the coy "I'm warning you not to watch this" at the start, it's like he's trying to make a Steven Moffat episode.  Good luck: I suspect even Moffat might shy away from a script that purports to be "found footage", and then has a narrator clumsily tell you what you're looking at.

"Good luck mum and dad, getting the kids to bed tonight."
Wouldn't a good night's sleep keep the bloody things from appearing?
Oh right, the found footage thing.  I kept forgetting it was there until the characters looked at the camera.  Another twist incoming: there are no cameras on board, so this "footage" is all being recorded by sleep crud as part of Rasmussen's nefarious plan!  Dun-dun-DUN!  It takes the Doctor ages to spot this, and almost as long to laboriously spell it out to the others.  And he fails to ask why, on finding out that they have crud-cameras in their eyes, they do not simply poke it out like we all do with sleep crud every day.  Gah!  Again we have an idea that could make a clever point about clichés and narrative expectations, but it's mired in a confused, dull-witted episode about walking porridge.  If this is clever, it is wearing a very good disguise.

Unfortunately for Sleep No More, subverting clichés is about more than doing them all over again and saying "I meant to do that" afterwards.  Unfortunately for us, if Marky G wants a sequel, he will probably get one.

Friday, 20 November 2015

"Subtext" Of The "Zygons"

Doctor Who
The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion
Series Nine, Episodes Seven and Eight


Well, no prizes for guessing what this is about.

Doctor Who is often allegorical, because it's sci-fi and that's a handy way to show real world issues from a different angle.  See 1950s B-Movies, Cold War paranoia, Star Trek in general.  But Doctor Who isn't all that subtle.  It can be painfully obvious when it's telling you Drugs Are Bad or War Is Bad or Slavery Is Bad.

Above: no prizes, etc.
Part of the problem is telling you something that's completely obvious in the first place.  Slavery Is Bad?  Well, paint me pink and call me Percy – why didn't anyone say anything sooner?  The rest of the problem is taking said obvious thing and smashing you round the head with it, like in Midnight, when the Doctor's fellow passengers decide he's an outsider, "like an immigrant".  Would you like a crash helmet with that?

Well, these episodes are allegorical.  And they are blatant.  Check out the dialogue – you won't need to be a Where's Wally champion to spot the subtext.

*  "We can't tell who the enemy is any more, we can't count them and we can't track them."
*  "We will die in the fire, instead of living in chains!"  "Most of your own kind don't want that!"
*  "Isn't there a solution that doesn't involve bombing anyone?  This is a splinter group.  The rest of the Zygons, the vast majority, they want to live in peace.  You start bombing them, you'll radicalise the lot.  It's exactly what the splinter group wants."

It's a bit of a stretch to even call that subtext, what with the cast all but making quotation marks every time they say "Zygon", barely restraining a lean-in and a wink.  And yet to my surprise, I don't hate this.  Yes, it's blatantly Doctor Who does ISIS, terrorism in general, the xenophobic fallout from all of the above.  But this particular blatant thing hasn't been done in Doctor Who before.  (You might call that semantics and you might be right.  Shrug.)  It's also not a subject, or rather a viewpoint, that's already been tiresomely drummed into us.  Millions of people are worried about it right now, and many are very vocally small-minded about it on a daily basis.  Both points deserve recognition.  I honestly felt more impressed that they were going there than annoyed that it was obvious.  It's topical.  They-wouldn't-have-got-it-on-the-air-if-it-had-gone-out-one-week-later topical.

Ahem.  Sounds like a different show, doesn't it?  And there are times when these episodes feel more like Spooks, although they feature aliens and time travel so are marginally more plausible.  But ultimately, Peter Harness and Steven Moffat simplify the issues.  Of course they do – it's Doctor bleedin' Who, not Panorama, so the "bad" Zygons (aka terrorists) are equated with troublesome children.  Their victims are killed in the time-honoured (and all-importantly bloodless) sci-fi means of disintegration.  Into straw blobs.  (Okay, how far down the list did they get before straw?  Perhaps the chance to make tumbleweeds look scary, or even noteworthy was too good to ignore.)  In the end, when the episode reaches its potentially embarrassing goal of Arguing Against Terrorism, it does so in a quintessentially Doctor Who way.  I was... quite impressed, actually.

What's this?  More clips?  It's The Clips Agenda!
And I'm getting ahead of myself.  There's plenty of other stuff in here for the less allegorically minded.  Scary bits, funny bits, a doozie of a cliff-hanger... in a series not already stuffed with two-parters, this would be an easy win for the once traditional, middle-of-the-series, actually quite good one.  It's certainly the pick of Series Nine thus far.

Right, time for the plot: following on from The Day Of The Doctor, humanity (or more specifically, UNIT) is housing 20 million Zygons in disguise.  Despite the plots of previous Doctor Who episodes (like, for example, The Day Of The Doctor), they're not all bad.  "Subtext" incoming: "Every race is peaceful and warlike, good and evil.  My race is no exception."  The whole shape-shifting thing is a survival mechanism, not an invasion tactic – that is until some Zygons get angry at having to live in secret and launch an attack.  Cue ominous talk of the ceasefire breaking down, the one remaining Osgood (yay, we get to keep her!) being kidnapped, and the Doctor being summoned.  He's desperate to keep this from escalating.  With ominous kidnap videos sent to UNIT and small towns taken hostage, war seems inevitable.  Not to mention we already lost Osgood once.

First off, it's always a pleasure to drop in on Kate Stewart's increasingly-female-led UNIT, especially when you actually give them something to do.  Jemma Redgrave is crushing it here, as the generally peace-loving Kate inches closer to her father's legacy.  (They even throw in a "Five rounds rapid".)  She's keen to avoid a war but intends to win it if necessary.  The expression she pulls when she thinks Osgood #2 might have been killed... well, I wouldn't mess with her.  For me, it's a rare pleasure to see a recurring female character in the Moffat era who doesn't make me want to bash my head against a wall.  I'd even, dare I say it, support a spin-off.  (And she's got one, so I can!)

She's not the only example of wow-isn't-she-great in this.  Ingrid Oliver has some lovely material as Osgood, who may or may not be a Zygon.  (Don't bother thinking about it – there is no answer, that's the point.)  She's a very good actor, heightening what began as an affectionate sketch of a Doctor Who fan into, well, an adult, who cares passionately about her job and grieves deeply for her "sister".  (A death which, though sneakily cheated because Ingrid's still in it, also still resonates.)  She's great when she's with the Doctor, sometimes gazing at him with quiet awe, or asking him simple-yet-practical questions about his silly outfits and daft gadgets, or firmly putting him in his place when he asks The Zygon Question.  When he (inevitably) offers her a place on the TARDIS, it feels less like ticking The Obvious Box than simply and adroitly putting two brilliant people together.  (Of course she's too busy so she stays behind.  Boo!  She might be a cosplaying fangirl or a Zygon or both, but she's still more of a rounded person than Clara.  And hey, we all know there's a vacancy coming up.)

"Of course we greenlit a spin-off!  She did the look!
You don't say no to the look!"
So UNIT are compelling, although they're not actually doing very much even with ISIS – er, the Zygons wreaking havoc.  Kate investigates the abandoned town of Truth Or Consequences (that's what the terrorist group is called), Osgood waits for the Doctor to rescue her (but that doesn't mean she's a useless waif – she was out there doing important work in the first place), and Walsh, a no-nonsense army figure, just waits for an excuse to bomb the bad guys.  In spite of that she's refreshingly not painted as a villain, in that now traditional boo-sucks-the-military style of Who.  "Any living thing in this world, including my family and friends, could turn into a Zygon and kill me any second now.  It's not paranoia when it's real."  Well, fair enough.  Rebecca Front fills her scenes with weary determination.  (Also it's nice to watch her roll her eyes at Malcolm Tucker, since he was very rude to her in The Thick Of It.)

Okay, the scene where she tragically fails to talk her troops out of going to their deaths (as the Zygons have taken the forms of their loved ones) is almost disturbing enough to overcome how ninny-headed they're all being... but not quite.  Even Walsh sheds IQ points on the spot: "Ask her questions only your mother would know."  Duh!  They read your mind when they copy you!  Somehow, they still fail to answer any questions.  Bit of a giveaway, innit?  And not one of those army dudes thinks this is a little bit fishy?  Or opts to keep the doors open while they go in and investigate?  So long, then, Sergeant Wally-Brain.  Where's Admiral Ackbar when you need him?

Bringing up the rear UNIT-wise is Jac (aka Roz from Bugs, glimpsed in the season-opener).  It's a perfectly adequate performance but, eh, she's just filling in for Osgood.  Specifically, she's investigating a series of disappearances with Clara, who finally shows up after a mysterious delay.  There's almost a really cool reason for this except – huge spoiler incoming!  Seriously, spoilerspoilerspoiler!  This is your last chance!  SPOILER.!... – her Zygon body-snatching doesn't happen until after she gets 127 missed calls from the Doctor.  I mean, dude, pick up your phone already.  I think the twist would work better (and make a smidge more sense) if Clara was just a Zygon from the start.  But then, I'd happily keep Zygon Jenna instead.

Come back Jenna, all is forgiven?  Kind of.  As the fundamentalist Zygon leader – curiously and adorably named Bonnie – she reveals acting reserves she's presumably been using as paperweights since 2013.  Bonnie's interesting, and Jenna does loads with a sinister turn of the head, a furious dip in the voice, and that determined Terminator-ey stalk of hers.  Much of the performance is even more enjoyable the second time around, as you notice big stuff you may have missed ("Clara" deliberately operating the Zygon lift controls), or little stuff like her curious apathy in the face of danger and death.  You might point out that this is how Clara always reacts to danger and death, because she's a vacuous composite of Doctor Who companions with a load of other characters telling us how awesome she is instead of ever actually proving it, but that would be very mean of you, you mean old so-and-so!  (Don't feel bad if you didn't spot the difference at first.  Weirdly, neither does the Doctor.)  In any case, Clara's usual blasé-ness works wonders for Bonnie.

Huh.  I kind of want her to play other roles now.
Wait, I mean it in the nice way!
Coleman's perfectly okay as Clara too – it's not exactly a stretch, but then that's sort of the problem.  Bright, plucky, little bit witty: tick, tick, yawn.  Her highlight comes after the cliff-hanger, when Bonnie (now unmasked, so to speak) blows up the Presidential plane with the Doctor and Osgood in it.

As Part Two (The Zygon Inversion – I am loving the Tweedledum-and-Tweedledee titles this year) begins, we cut straight to Clara in her bedroom.  This one's co-written by Steven Moffat, so it's business as usual to subvert your cliff-hangery expectations: Clara bumbles around and notices something off about her surroundings, and we're treated to some rather slick continuity as she falls back on her Last Christmas Inceptioning.  She looks for dream clues, figures out she's not in Kansas any more and quickly learns to affect Bonnie's movements from within the dream world.  This is a neat little revamp of that unnerving dream stuff Steven Moffat loves so much.  I mean if they have to repeat themselves (see also: Forest Of The Dead), thank goodness there's a few new spins left.  And it keeps Clara neatly in the loop, although I still don't think she's barnstorming enough to deserve all the credit at the end.  Why yes, it's Clara what solved terrorism, although the Doctor technically did all the work.  I mean, if you want to be picky about it.

With Jenna providing the human face of the Zygons, and Zygons looking like humans wherever possible, it's strangely easy to forget there are Zygons in this.  (To be fair, the sledge-hammering allegory does a lot of the work.)  It's ostensibly a good story for them, as it shows them as being not-all-violent-all-the-time – kind of like some people in the real world, now that you mention it – but most of the actual Zygons on display are the "bad" ones.  With the possible exception of Osgood (I told you not to think about it!) and a couple who cark it at the beginning, there's approximately one harmless blobby alien in this, and he does not get a happy ending.  It's a shame there isn't more diversity here, which seems ironic when you consider what the story is about (heads up, it's topical), and that it's a two-parter.

Looking at them more as cool Doctor Who aliens than as people, since it was their scary blobbiness that has made fans go on and on about Zygons since 1975, this one's all about moving the goalposts.  The Zygons have developed fatal hand-lightning (I forget, they may have had that in The Day Of The Doctor – they weren't exactly the memorable bit!) and the ability to pluck body-prints out of your memory, apparently across great distances.  (Don't ask.)  They also don't need to keep you alive unless they want information, which the Doctor cleverly uses to keep Clara alive.  As for the Loch Ness Monster, which is totally a thing they came up with, there's no sign of that whatsoever.  Boo!  ("But we can do it on a proper budget and everything!", says Peter Harness.  "Okay, but it means cutting a whole episode," says Moffat.  Guys, there's a Mark Gatiss one coming up.  Let's do this.)

What could have been.  :'(
Apart from the monsters, what you're really here for is the answer at the end.  This is an especially big deal when the whole thing is a sock puppet for a real world problem we haven't solved yet, and tellingly there's not a huge amount of plot besides.  Kate spends a suspicious amount of time waiting in an abandoned town; the Doctor and Osgood run about; all that business with people disappearing in lifts goes half-unexplained.  (What about all the places without lifts?)  I guess it's a tension builder, and oh well, we're there now: how does the Doctor make it all go away?

He's been in similar situations with Silurians, who were doing the whole not-all-of-us-are-monsters bit long before there were even Zygons.  And it usually comes down to killing them off and uttering a sheepish "There should have been another way", avec shrug.  Well, you can't have aliens sticking around, can you?  Think of all the extra prosthetics.  But these are Zygons, and they can roam all over the place without affecting the budget, so we can have our cake and eat it!  Huzzah!  (Hardly anyone knows the Zygons are there, but that's a point for another time.  At least, it had better be.)

As for how the Doctor achieves all this, simply enough: he talks.  Okay, he speechifies, raging about the horrors of war and having to live with the consequences.  It teeters on the melodramatic, but it's perfectly in character so it flies.  Remember that line from The Girl Who Died: "Do babies die with honour?"  And, uh, the Doctor's entire stance on war over the years.  This is absolutely a logical progression of blowing up bad guys and feeling terrible afterwards.  And yes, it's enormously optimistic and romantic in-the-broader-meaning-of-the-word to suggest that talking to a terrorist will change anything, but that's largely what science fiction is for, isn't it?  Presenting a version of the world in which we can solve that problem we've been having?  (Okay, That Problem usually gets radioactive and smashes all the skyscrapers, but not always.)  It is pleasingly like Doctor Who to suggest that in the end, talk is the instrument of change.

And this isn't even my favourite bit.  Presenting the villain with exactly the sort of Impossible Choice he's had in the past (usually with a disappointing cheat for a solution), he asks Bonnie a simple question: what do you actually want?  And that's something I always want the heroes to ask the villains.  Look at Sauron or Voldemort: yes, they have a short-term goal to accomplish, next stop, Ze Vorld, but then what?  Paint everything grey and cackle loads?  It often seems as if villains want to burn things and pinch people because deep down, they're just really mean.  Feh.  Picking up on that kind of narrative lameness to de-construct the vicious circle of terrorism is dangerously close to inspired.  It's clever without getting smug – apart from the Doctor saying "Gotcha", which is a rather rubbish coda to all that "when I close my eyes I can still hear their screams" stuff.  Niggle aside though, it's a neat piece of writing and it's worth the wait.

Yay optimism and everything, but... really?
Bonnie completely reformed before the end credits?
In the middle of all this is Peter Capaldi, who is so utterly, Doctorishly adept that he can randomly call himself "Doctor Disco" or "Doctor Funkenstein" for no reason and still... well, no, those bits do stick out actually, along with the horrifying (for all the wrong reasons) American accent he does at one point.  A friend of mine wondered if the Doctor was a Zygon all along (hey Alex!), and even I wonder why he's suddenly so keen to "ponce about on a big plane" when last year he unequivocally wasn't.  Isn't this all a bit... Matt?  The grouchy misanthrope from Series Eight certainly feels further and further away.  Is it the hair?  No, wait, the guitar!  There, he got a guitar and instantly became The Cool Doctor.  (No need to tell us Guitars Are Cool, because duh.)  I honestly think he's better this way, so never mind, but Series Eight is looking more and more like an awkward false start next to it.

Anyway.  Zygons standing in for Muslims, Zygons standing in for ISIS, the Doctor standing in for the magical peace fairy that irritatingly does not exist.  It's about as subtle as writing "ISIS" on some knickers and pulling them over the actors' heads, but I still felt like they accomplished something meaningful here, and kept it firmly within the bounds of Doctor Who.  Well, apart from Nessie.  Boo!

Friday, 13 November 2015

Live Long And Fester

Doctor Who
The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived
Series Nine, Episodes Five and Six


Deja vu!  I was only saying in my previous review that some two-parters are more like cousins than siblings, and then along comes a prime example of what I was jabbering on about.

The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived are undoubtedly connected, since there is a To Be Continued between them and, well, look at those titles.  But they are also two wholly separate stories, a one-parter and its sequel.  This might take place days or even months later, but we're skipping straight from one to the other, and why not?  It's a novel way of doing things.  For a show that's been on ten years now (sweet horse god, how long?), "novel" is a very welcome approach, even if it doesn't apply to every single thing on the screen.  (We'll get to that in a minute.)

The Girl Who Died is small-scale, which throws you right off during what's supposed to be a two-parter.  Throwing you off = novel, novel = good.  The world is not in danger this week, just a half-empty village of Vikings – and not particularly capable Vikings at that.

The worst part is this was a story
about historical anachronisms.
(A few words on historical accuracy: pointy helmets?  I'm no expert, but I know a few people well-versed in the subject and they were apoplectic about the Vikings in this.  To them I say, well, The Time Meddler already did all this stuff wrong fifty years ago, plus there's a setting to establish, and it's what people expect to see... but you could just ditch the helmets, have Clara say "Didn't Vikings have pointy helmets?" and the Doctor say "No, duh" and bob's your uncle, misnomer: nomered.  It's tricky.  I can see why they did it and I can see how they could fix it without breaking a sweat.)

Where was I?  Ah yes, village in danger.  That's after a really fun teaser scene with Clara drifting in space, and the Doctor – having just sorted something else out – struggling to locate her.  (He gets her to describe her spacey surroundings.  "Great.  I've seen it too.  I wonder where it was!")  I love starting at a point other than the beginning, and giving us a glimpse into unseen adventures.  (Novel!  Good!)  Then, after the TARDIS rings the Cloister Bell for no reason (hmm), it lands in Vikingsville where the Doctor and Clara have a quick chat about the rules of time travel, which Clara has apparently never heard.

Side-note: uh... really?  Super duper Clara, who knows everything and has been here seemingly forever, hasn't had the Fixed Points lecture yet?  How has that not come up?  Let's just clamber over that hunk of probable BS and get to this week's theme: the Doctor can't change big stuff.  Which is a big old Here We Go Again, but it's Capaldi this time, so... it'll be compelling anyway?  Wait and see.

So the Doctor tries to dazzle the How To Train Your Dragon-ers with some magic technology (sonic sunglasses) and fails completely.  (As he should!)  Then he tries again (with a yoyo and a booming voice), and fails again because someone else pulls the same trick, only more convincingly.  Big, actual Odin turns up in the sky, bellowing commands. This bit's a hoot.  "He's not a god!  He hasn't even got a yoyo!"

"Hooray!", said the audience.
"Excellent," said Moffat.  "You will want the screwdriver back."
RESIST.
On the one hand it's annoying for the Doctor to fail at stuff he's usually good at.  But on the other hand it's fun to invert things, and this is a valid way to show him up.  (Plus it's wrong to trick people, or why else would the baddies be doing it?)  Odin isn't Odin, obviously, but the leader of the Mire, bloodthirsty warriors who mulch up other warriors for... testosterone juice, apparently.  (Hmm.)  They're practical and they leave when they've got what they want.  Unfortunately Clara stuck her oar in and war was declared.  The Doctor must now school a bunch of mediocre Vikings in war, or think of something else to save them in little under 24 hours.  Cheers, Clara.

On hearing the Doctor's command not to get noticed, Clara suddenly races to use the sonic sunglasses, which gets her (and a bright young girl called Ashildr) needlessly captured.  If this sounds contrived, it's because there's another theme at work, this one of the "running" variety: "Clara Oswald, what have I made of you?"  All very ominous, but then the answer is probably just "a Doctor Who companion", is it not?  Headstrong, tick, does a passable Doctor impression, tick, seems to enjoy it all a bit too much, sometimes makes mistakes, tick, tick... see also Rose, River, Amy.  It's not as if Clara's only just started behaving as monotonously confident as the prince in a panto; it's just modern Doctor Who companions, always telling us how awesome they are.  The only genuine worry is that Jenna Coleman isn't coming back next year, but unless the Doctor has somehow been reading our news sites, I'm not sure what's got him so spooked.

It was around here that I figured out why the episode is so "small".  It's really just a flimsy thing to hang themes on.  And that's okay – why, it's that N word again!  No, wait, I meant novel, dear god I meant novel – so long as the flimsy thing is fun.  Which it is!

The opening is snazzy as hell.  The Doctor's "I am Odin, and I am very cross with you!" routine is hilarious.  The quest to train a bunch of naff Vikings involves a lot of sparkling dialogue.  ("Heidi faints at the mention of blood.  Not just the sight any more, he's actually upgraded his phobia.")  It also has its dramatic moments, as the Doctor explains that they're all doomed and would be better off hiding until the battle's over.  I admire his practicality, and I can believe he's sick enough of people getting killed to go straight for Get Everyone In The TARDIS, or thereabouts.  (As for translating a baby, that's over-egging it by miles.  Also, "I am afraid"?  Who needs a translator to tell you a baby is afraid?  And when did babies get so eloquent?)

"She's saying 'Mother, mine botty doth need a change, for I hath made poop.'
This... isn't helping."
What he eventually comes up with is suitably quaint and Doctorish, and wraps up the over-confident Mire by way of the episode's other theme (!), the power of storytelling.  Ashildr's imagination saves the day, which is all very sweet, but somewhat underdeveloped.  Sadly, so is Ashildr.  Maisie Williams is compelling as the doe-eyed innocent with-just-a-hint-of-steel, but her character is like a list other people are reeling off.  She sees visions of doom and blames herself, apparently; she has a vivid imagination and loves making up stories, so she tells us; she's so fond of the Doctor that Clara joshes "I'll fight you for her" – but Capaldi and Williams have barely met at this point.  Her (major) part in the finale feels like setup for another episode, which of course it is, but I just didn't know her well enough to be truly crushed when she SPOILER ALERT OH HANG ON IT'S IN THE TITLE dies.

And, phew, we're back to the main theme.  The Doctor can bring her back, but should he break the laws of time – and human nature – to do so?  There are clips from The Fires Of Pompeii and Deep Breath, in case this wasn't familiar enough already, and boy, we're all about the clips these days, aren't we?  (Strangely no clip of The Waters Of Mars, where he got into the Pompeii situation all over again and had exactly this week's reaction.)  But it's not just barefaced repetition, as we're finally answering the question of why the Twelfth Doctor looks like that bloke in The Fires Of Pompeii.  It's because Peter Capaldi's awesome.  All right, fine, it's because the Doctor always saves someone and he needed reminding of that.

Skipping over the why-does-he-suddenly-need-reminding bit, I don't mind this.  You don't actually have to explain it, any more than you should waste your time pondering the Doctor's name, but as explanations go it's harmless.  It's a bit odd that he's reminding himself to break the rules of time and nature – which he knows is Not A Good Thing, see Waters Of Mars – and it might have more impact if Ashildr was in the episode more, but that's what Part 2 is for.  Peter Capaldi makes it awesome all the same, just like he does with everything else.

He's bloody good, isn't he?  More and more the quintessential Doctor, whether he's chucking in a Tom Baker inflection ("and it is a dooziiiie") or sitting just how William Hartnell would sit (!) or hitting all the right notes of anger, comedy, grief, mystery – he's absolutely your-eyes-are-stuck-to-the-screen brilliant.  And he does wonders for what is, when you stand back and glare at it, not an amazing episode.

Moves Like Jagger?  Pfft.  I prefer Sitting Like Hartnell.
In other news, I don't get out much.
Sure, there's a bouncy script, some juicy character moments and a wee plot that isn't too hard to follow.  But there's also some pretty weird stuff, like why the Mire are bothering to steal testosterone juice when they've got a thing that makes them immortal (WTF?); why they sneak around pretending to be Viking gods when they can just as easily teleport you straight into the juicing machine (or come and raid you like, y'know, warriors?); and just how plugging Ashildr into a Mire helmet sends her imagination into all the other Mire helmets.  "That's the trouble with viewing reality through technology.  It's all too easy to feed in a new reality!"  Oh, silly me, that makes perfect sense.

All in all, it's a lot flimsier than Jamie Mathieson's last one.  Maybe it's just the Capaldi Factor, but I had a grand time anyway.

Intermission!

Funnily enough, that last bit sort of goes for The Woman Who Lived as well.  A completely different story by a different writer, with a different setting and Maisie Williams playing almost a different character, it's similarly big on theme, little on plot, and gosh-isn't-Peter-Capaldi-marvellous?

Catherine Tregenna's episode focuses on the cost of Ashildr's long life, what it could do to even a really nice person, and how the Doctor reacts against that.  Obviously there are parallels between the two, and like a lot of the stuff in The Girl Who Died, it isn't exactly new ground.  The Doctor reflected on a long life in School ReunionThe Lazarus Experiment, Human Nature and Utopia, and he's always espousing the wonderfulness of us short-lived humany-wumanies, especially when he's picking up a new one.  And yet, through the medium of Capaldi and Williams, it's all fascinating again.  When The Woman Who Lived is just the two of them talking, which most of it is, it's gold dust.

Last week, Ashildr was a thing around which the plot revolved.  Add on 800 years and subtract sweetness and she's completely reborn.  She calls herself "me" these days, since her memory isn't immortal and an identity is only worth a damn if there are people in your life – they keep dying, so why bother?  Incredibly, the script doesn't labour the parallel, but if you want an explanation for why the Doctor doesn't require a name, here you go.

Ashildr isn't a hero and she isn't evil.  She's done heroic things and mastered almost every skill you can think of – she's got all the time in the world, after all – but her life is without meaning, so when the Doctor shows up, that seems like the answer.  But he won't take her with him, because immortals need mortals to keep it all in perspective.  (Hence companions.)  It seems perfectly reasonable to me that she'd consider a more destructive way off Earth instead.  Well, she asked nicely and he said no.  Why shouldn't she take up the next best offer?  She's waited long enough.

I can't even take the piss.  She's a strong, complicated, female anti-hero.
Appreciate all her non-Moffat dialogue while it lasts, folks.
Williams plays it beautifully, innocently pleased that the Doctor has come to rescue her one minute, coldly determined to do it without him the next, and ready with a back-up plan in either case.  Without a TARDIS to provide endless distractions, she's had to endure all the sticking around and misery that arguably drives the Doctor on his travels.  Sometimes she's persecuted, she's never loved by anyone for long, and she'll certainly outlive any babies, so of course she's not especially pleasant any more.  The character's really something.  I hope they don't muck it up later.

Aaaand in the other corner we have Peter Capaldi, who is somehow even more mesmerising than last week.  There's some very good material here, like when he reads Ashildr's memoirs of losing her children, and when he tries to dance around saying no to her TARDIS-y request.  It's an intriguing setup: he's basically supportive, because he understands what she's going through; he restrains his anger at her going off the rails, because he made it happen; he's also trying not to snap at a potential enemy in the making.  Sod it: this is a great episode for the Doctor.  It's so on the ball, it even makes me understand why he's always so pleased to see boring old Clara, even if he can't help making misanthopic gags when she finally shows up.  ("I got you a present."  "Why?  Are you never going to travel with me again because I said a thing?")

In The Girl Who Died, I didn't see the point of all that ominous Clara stuff.  In The Woman Who Lived, we're gracefully reminded that the Doctor feels like that a lot of the time, and every day is just another notch closer to Clara getting killed or getting bored.  When she makes her obligatory remark about how she isn't going anywhere (COUGH BYE JENNA COMING SOON), he makes an expression that subtly and silently tells you all you need to know.  Again!  The man is just... you know... words... look, he's vying for second place at this point.  Don't let him leave.  I don't even care if he keeps the stupid glasses.  (All right, no, the glasses are shit.)

Alas, there is more to The Woman Who Lived than some really well articulated stuff (which admittedly you've heard before).  There's a plot... more or less, though with all the effort pumped into the relationship between the Doctor and Ashildr there's barely anything left for a Monster Of The Week.  Here goes: Ashildr is hanging around with a shifty space-cat-person who breathes fire and his eyes light up (moving on); the two of them are looking for an alien gemstone, and with it he promises to take her away when the Doctor won't; however, he's secretly planning to open a portal to another universe full of... evil spaceships, which will zap everything and... maybe land somewhere?  A death is needed to open the portal – oh look, a theme! – so Ashildr offs rival highwayman Sam Swift.  When it becomes obvious that you shouldn't trust angry fire-burping space cats, because spaceships, she instantly regrets what she's done and suddenly feels compassion for all the fleeing peasants, and Smith to boot.  Aaaand that's Ashildr's lack of empathy solved.  You've got to feel for Maisie Williams, trying to convince as a nearly millennium-old character who changes her ways on the spot.  It's her worst scene, and it's not her fault by a long shot.

Sod the plot.  This > plot.
Story and plot aren't always the same thing.  The story here is about immortality, and it's really compelling.  Whereas the plot is a load of balls about glowy space-gems and shooty space-cats.  Plus some generic fluff about highwaymen which recalls – deliberately at one point – Robot Of Sherwood.  (Side-note: Rufus Hound is surprisingly likeable as the gag-spewing Swift, but there's about as much room for him in the episode as there is in this review.)  Wouldn't it be nice if, once in a while, we could just do character-driven stuff without stapling a load of tinsel on top?  Yes, some people would run screaming from Doctor Who if there wasn't a monster or a spaceship in it every week, but this is Doctor Who, so they can just come back next week.  Is this episode better for having lasers in it?  Even The Girl Who Died, which looks increasingly flimsy after this episode tackles its themes with more finesse, managed to do some novel things with its plot.

I'm a picky, list-of-things-I-don't-like type of person (surpriiise!), but even I think The Woman Who Lived is a success.  The best bits all involve Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams being subtle and fascinating, and for me those bits speak louder than the daffy plot, not to mention Murray Gold, who annoyingly almost restrains himself throughout.  (But then Capaldi and Williams have a final, brilliant tête-à-tête and all of a sudden STOP – it's Murray Time.)  Both episodes feel a bit like Horrible Histories with delusions of grandeur, but when they're good, particularly The Woman Who Will Probably Be Back Quite Soon, they're certainly something to write home about.  As far as my list-of-things-I-don't-like-type-self is concerned, it's thumbs (begrudgingly) up for both of them.