Thursday, 4 June 2015

This Time It's War

Doctor Who
The Time Of Angels and Flesh And Stone
Series Five, Episodes Four and Five


How much do you like the Weeping Angels?  Most Doctor Who fans like them a whole heck of a lot – even the rumoured "normal" folk seem to have heard of them – and Steven Moffat knows this, so he does the logical thing.  Give them what they want.  Which is Weeping Angels by the busload.  Probably.

There are 6 billion colonists on this planet.
Why are the Weeping Angels starving in a cave?
The result is the Who equivalent of Aliens, minus the gore.  Seriously: take a small, terrifying story (Alien, or Blink), then make it a great big action movie.  There's atmosphere (and Angels) by the busload, and it doesn't try to be the same as Blink.  This is a whomping great two-parter with guns and armies, not a creepy timey-wimey tale set in a house.  It's very exciting.  However, with all due respect to not repeating yourself, some of what worked about Blink is rather missed.

We open in showy-offy, Steven Moffaty style, ping-ponging back and forth across 12,000 years.  River Song (pre her Library death) is investigating a spaceship's cargo.  She summons the Doctor to rescue her from certain death, and follows the Byzantium until it crashes on an alien world.

How incredibly flashy is that for a pre-titles teaser?  River is, admittedly, rather annoying: showing up the Doctor's TARDIS-flying skills is about as Mary Sue as it gets, but Matt Smith sells the awkwardness and curiosity of the situation, and does a wonderful impression of the TARDIS noise into the bargain.  With the arrival of Father Octavian and his army of clerics (less lame than they sound), River is kept from going into full Smug Mode by the constant threat of having her sordid past revealed.  It's one of her better episodes as it keeps her reluctantly in check; slightly fearful characters are more interesting than Me So Perfect ones.

So, the ship was carrying a Weeping Angel.  It caused the crash, now it's escaped and they must recapture it.  There's a real atmosphere here, as we build up the threat of the Angels by reputation.  A bit like Aliens (you don't say!), or the TNG episode The Best Of Both Worlds, it's a while before you actually see them, so we spend that time imagining the worst.  Soon we're in some caves, so that's dark places and stuff moving in the corner of your eye.  All very snazzy and well-directed.  Little do they realise there's an entire army of Angels here – they were, um, too busy recharging to attack... seems legit – and before you know it, the hunt for an Angel becomes a race to the flight deck of the Byzantium.  It's curiously not as big on plot as you might expect from Moffat, but it's an exciting ride.

Besides, there's some cool plotty stuff.  I've already mentioned the opening – any excuse to show off the cleverness of time travel is worth a punt – and even better, this year's arc plays an unexpectedly significant part.  Remember the crack in Amy's wall, which also appeared on the Starship UK and in Churchill's bunker?  Now it's on the Byzantium, attracting the Angels and causing all sorts of havoc.  It's a seriously canny move to take something you're expecting to see in the finale and plonk it in Episode Five, and it keeps the story from just being an exciting dash from A to B.  The crack adds a whole other layer of threat: people getting "unwritten" – although that detracts massively from the Angels, who are as frightened of it as everyone else.  Anyway, it serves as a handy way to get rid of the Angels (turn off the gravity, the crack gobbles them up) as well as a snazzy recall of the opening scene, with River getting sucked into space.  That's very nice work.

There are some brilliant blobs of Matt Smith here – definitely lots for him to work with.  He's irritable, awkward and occasionally angry around River; heroic, then heartbroken around the clerics; cocky and furious against the Angels; and genuinely affectionate towards Amy.  There's a wonderful bit where he refuses to leave her behind (despite her puzzlingly selfless insistence to the contrary – seriously, Amy?), and bites her hand to snap her out of a trance.  Even better, there's a clearly arc-hinty scene where he returns to give her some mysterious words of comfort.  (Spot the reappearing jacket!)  All in all you'd need a spotters's guide to know it was Matt Smith's first episode; he's instantly brilliant.  It's also a good one for Amy, once she gets past generic wide-eyed excitement and Girl Power camaraderie with River.  (Nope, not buying it.)  She has a lovely chemistry with Matt.

Oh no, he's got him by the throat!  He's... touching his throat.
And his hand.  Why not send him back in time?  Is he on a diet?
Of course, what you're really here for (apart from The Doctor And River: Round #2) is the army of Weeping Angels.  And that's arguably where these episodes fall down, or at the very least, ominously wobble.

Like any good horror movie monster, there are rules.  They can't move when you're looking at them; when they do, it's incredibly fast.  When they touch you, you go back in time and they feed on the time energy.  It's all a bit abstract, and the "send you back in time" bit has a soft edge (because their victims tend to get married and live happily ever after – aww!), but it's still incredibly effective, because it's simple.  Don't blink!  They.  Will.  Get.  You.

Perhaps in an effort to keep things fresh and interesting – because things were getting stale and boring, I guess? – The Time Of Angels fiddles about with all that.  Now, instead of sending you back in time, they snap your neck.  Instead of feeding on time energy, they feed on radiation at a crash site.  They still want to kill you, but it's less about survival – which is terrifying because it's only natural and you can't reason with it – and more about good old fashioned, rather boring, evil.  They even "reconstruct the cerebral cortex" of a victim so they can call the Doctor and mock, upset and generally rile him.  That's a bit desperate and attention-seeky, isn't it?  Kind of like a Dalek trolling the Doctor's Facebook page?  (It's also suspiciously reminiscent of the "data ghosts" from Silence In The Library.)  Why on earth would they bother?  They were much more mysterious and scary when they didn't say anything.

They're adding all sorts of stuff to their repertoire here, which dilutes those precious rules even further.  "That which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel," apparently.  So take a photo or a video clip and it's going to climb out of the frame and get you.  That's a nifty idea for kids, who are going to get even further away from their televisions as a result, but it strikes cynical old me as trying to fix something that ain't broke.  Weren't the Angels scary enough without adding photo Angels?  And didn't Sally Sparrow take a few pictures of them with no apparent consequences?  (I checked.  She did.)  They also have a new thing about looking into your eyes, which allows them to get inside your head.  Okay, but don't they generally want to avoid eye contact?  Why do they need all this climb-inside-your-head gubbins if all they want to do is feed on your time energy?  Why don't they seem bothered about that any more?

If all the Angels are unwritten, what happens to all the Applans they killed?
Do they come back?  What happens to the 6 billion humans who moved in afterwards?
They seem to do a lot of things here just because.  After "infecting" Amy, the Angels make her count down slowly from 10.  When she reaches zero, an Angel will come out, presumably killing her.  Okay, this is effectively sinister and body horror-y, but when the Doctor presses them on it (during one of Angel Bob's regular "Nyer nyer!" phone calls), it turns out they're only doing the countdown for kicks.  So... it's pointless.  Just how petty and bored are these guys?  The Doctor's solution is to "save up" the remaining countdown by closing Amy's eyes.  If the countdown's a joke, though, why would that do anything do stop them?  Later, he has the even more frown-inducing idea of making Amy walk past them with her eyes closed.  She's in no immediate danger because "they'll assume you can see them."  Bloody hell, so they're stupid now?  Didn't we just establish they have a whole thing about eye contact?  Presumably they know when you're not looking at them, or they'd never be able to move!  And the Doctor explains that Amy is faking nice and loud over the radio.  Christ.  So they can't hear you now?

There's some absolutely needless buggering about with the rules here, and when they're being transparently evil, petty or stupid, "scary" just gets further and further away.  Still, logic doesn't always get in the way of simple effectiveness.  When the Angels finally cotton on to Amy's bluff, they begin to move.  I know this is stupid – River helpfully reminds us that every Angel is "a statue when you see it", which means they're something completely different when you can't see them, I can't stress this enough, they are not moving statues.  I know, I know, but this bit still reduces me to quivering hysterics.  It's seriously well-directed.  Maybe that's it: direct something well enough and it won't matter how stupid it is.

When the dust has settled and River has dropped a few more portentous hints about her future with the Doctor, he takes Amy home so she can reveal her big, weddingy secret.  This is a nice moment, at least until Amy reveals her intention of a one-nighter with the Doctor.  This scene is, um, a bit of a mix?  Matt Smith is wonderful, giving about as Doctorly a response as you could hope for: baffled, grossed out, finally worried.  What it does to Amy, and poor old Karen Gillan, is less good.  We are supposed to like Amy, yes?  She's the companion, our stand-in.  Throwing in a largely unprovoked attempt to bonk the Doctor A) on the night of her wedding and B) with no intention of a relationship afterwards is just... ick.  She already seemed scatty and impulsive before, but this pushes her into downright horrible.  Yes, they've obviously Doing A Thing here that will pay off in the subsequent episode, but we're meant to follow this character's emotional state – the point of a companion is largely that their emotions are easier to read than the Doctor's – and going from a near-death experience to wanting to shag your imaginary friend during your extended pre-wedding night is just an ugly mess.  Take it away.

All done shuddering?  Right.  Action movie, thrill ride, roller coaster – choose your analogy or cliché.  These episodes are (apart from that dodgy last scene and the generous plot holes) very flashy and a bit clever, though ultimately they're far more exciting than thought-provoking.  And... that's okay once in a while.  Really, this is a solid and entertaining two-parter.  But the attempts to reinvent the wheel are wholly unnecessary.  The Angels worked fine.  If you're bored of them, Steve, just don't use them.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Filmflam: Frozen

Frozen
Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
2013


Y'know what?  It's a boring title.  Thanks a lot, Tangled.
If you're alive and live in the world, you've probably seen Frozen.  Then again, I suspect even those few who haven't seen it, thanks to the prohibitive DVD availability within cave systems and under rocks, are aware of it.  Who can escape?  Frozen is everywhere, and it's on everything.  You know that song?  Yeah, you do.  And isn't it delightful that Let It Go manages to be both enormously popular and, as a titular piece of advice, totally ignored by all.

I hate Frozen.  Oh god, someone make it die.

It's tempting to hate such monumentally popular movies simply because they are annoyingly ubiquitous – even if I just sort of liked it, I'd still be utterly sick of hearing about it now – but no, it's actually more than that.  I find Frozen unenjoyable for a host of (I think, entirely legitimate) reasons.  In a nutshell, though, it's just not a well told story.  Disney have done better.

It's no secret that the story has been heavily rewritten since its origins as The Snow Queen, and not just in changing Elsa from a baddie to a goodie – more on that later, re Hans.  The trouble is, the rewriting shows.  It’s full of random, unsupported ideas.  Elsa has ice powers.  Why?  No reason.  And nobody else has any powers.  Just… ice powers out of nowhere.  Then, when she accidentally zaps her sister, her parents take her to some magic trolls.  Huh?  Magic whatnow?  These guys literally only exist so characters can visit them to cure magic ailments, caused by equally random magic powers from nowhere.  None of it means anything.

(Quick sidenote: remember Tangled?  That movie hinges on a character having magic powers, and although the explanation is entirely driven by fairytale logic – a drop of sunlight lands on a flower, flower cures mother, mother has baby – they at least explain how Rapunzel ended up with it.  From the start, Tangled puts more thought into its plot than Frozen.  Also, we don't get to know their parents at all, other than their dad gives THE WORST ADVICE IMAGINABLE to his guilt-ridden daughter.  If you want a story of orphans where the parents' absence is actually felt, you'd be better off with Lilo & Stitch.  And hey, you want female empowerment, you got Mulan.)

Now, they do try to make a point about troll magic, and what it can and can’t do – specifically, you can’t change “the heart” as easily as “the head”.  This makes poetic sense: somebody’s heart, aka the way they feel about others, is who and what they are.  You can’t change that with ease, whereas minds (facts, opinions) are more malleable.  Clearly this is a “frozen heart” in the metaphorical sense: a cold, evil heart that needs thawing.  So Elsa's heart, right?  Since she's the one with the ice powers?  Apparently not: we’re talking literally about a frozen heart (Anna's) which has nothing to do with the person's feelings.  Anna isn’t cold emotionally.  She still loves Elsa even when she’s dying, and the act of freezing her heart was an accident anyway.  So there is nothing intrinsically impossible about fixing her heart – it’s just impossible for the trolls to do so because the plot requires this.

No problem, though, because an act of “true love” will save her.  Yes, it’s the love-between-two-sisters bit which everyone adores.  No, I don’t have a problem with the story revolving around that, rather than a romantic love story of which we’ve seen umpteen.  But the act of true love that saves Anna is… from Anna, to Elsa.  Er, Anna consistently loved Elsa throughout the movie.  Even when she had brain damage, she loved Elsa.  Even when Elsa zapped her in the heart, she loved Elsa.  This is not character development.  OBVIOUSLY ANNA LOVES ELSA, so what kind of huge, emotional change is that?  It’s right there from the start!

The person who should really be going on an emotional journey is, of course, Elsa.  But most of her journey is already dealt with in Let It Go, where she’s finally able to be proud and happy and insert-pleasing-subtext-here.  (Before promptly settling back down in her Fortress Of Solitude to sulk some more.  Um, yay?)  Even she doesn’t have to learn to love her sister in the course of the movie, though – it’s because she loves her so much, and doesn’t want her to get hurt, that she was so repressed and dangerous in the fricking first place.  OBVIOUSLY ELSA LOVES ANNA TOO.  So the journey of the movie is simply that she needs to fine-tune her random X-Men powers.  Do excuse me, I must have something in my eye.  Sniff.

"Olaf, you're melting!"
"Some people are worth melting for."
They're desperately trying to find an act of true love.  Why doesn't this count?
Instead of putting Arendelle into an eternal winter because of jealousy or wickedness, or y’know, for any actual reason, she’s now doing it out of simple incompetence – like Anna’s frozen heart, a major plot point from The Snow Queen no longer means anything.  The script even manages to muddy the whole issue of “eternal winter”, since the passage of time is such a rush.  Anna starts talking about how Elsa has banished summer, but it’s been a matter of days.  And anyway, the movie is set in a location full of ice, cold and blue from the start – the first song is about ice sellers, the second about snowmen! – so the weight of Elsa’s “eternal winter” being against the norm is never really felt.  And so what?  Elsa does a whole song where she learns to control her magic mojo.  Why not just keep trying?  It's not like she has anything else to do.  And yet, despite "letting it go" and being all with the smirking self-actualisation, when it comes to actually doing something to solve the situation, Elsa is pointlessly reticent.  It's like the song didn't happen.

And none of this is my least favourite bit.  Making the Snow Queen a misunderstood goodie is what Disney are all about nowadays – just look at Maleficent.  But as with that movie, this just means somebody else has to be the bad guy, and they’re going to be an outright jerk whether it makes sense or not.  Just try to follow poor old Hans as he goes from “traditional Disney love interest” to “hugely concerned about the welfare of Arendelle” to “saves Elsa’s life” to “wants to usurp Elsa’s throne”, and finally to “wants Elsa and her sister dead”.  This guy plainly was not the bad guy when they started making the movie.

Let’s skip past all the “genuinely seems quite nice” stuff, because we’re retroactively meant to think it’s all an act.  (Yeah, right.)  He wants to marry into the throne (because he’s thirteenth in line in the Southern Isles), and he was “getting nowhere” with Elsa, so he focuses on Anna.  Okay.  (Except the day he met Anna is the first time he was ever likely to meet Anna or Elsa, so he’s surely only been at this for a couple of hours.  Jeez, Hans, it’s only your first day.)  He ingratiates himself with Anna and is left in charge of Arendelle.  Good work: all he needs to do now is marry Anna and do away with Elsa.  Great!  Except – d’oh! – he saves Elsa’s life, which is the opposite of helpful.  Okay, no matter, he can kill her later, just get on with marrying Anna, right?  Except – d’oh! – now she’s dying, so he tells her he doesn’t love her and plans to murder Elsa, then leaves Anna to die and tells everyone else she’s dead.  Uh… dude, you forgot the “marrying into power” bit?  You’re literally just some guy Anna liked who held the fort when she went for a walk.

We lose the traditional female villain, and viva la difference, but only at the cost of hastily rewriting a minor character into the same position.  It doesn’t gel at all, unless you want to believe he’s an utter moron.

Okay, there's more.  I'm not a fan of the animation – it's all so uniformly blue-and-white, the faces are so bland, I just get tired of looking at it.  I much preferred the songs, and the general musical style of Tangled.  I want to punch Olaf in his monotonously chirpy guts.  Kristoff adds virtually nothing to the story.  (Apart from a randomly coincidental link with Anna, Elsa and the trolls that is never acknowledged.)  I hate the way Frozen sneers at Disney tropes like love-at-first-sight, then has Anna and Kristoff get together after a normal-amount-of-time-for-a-Disney-movie.  I hate the way everybody raves about Elsa's super-strong un-Disney-like female empowerment while being totally okay with Anna the stereotypical clutz.  (And forgetting they already made kickass movies like Mulan.)  The tortured-magic-power plot worked better in Tangled.  The tale of two orphan sisters worked better in Lilo & Stitch.  I hate Frozen.

But hey, it’s been two years.  Time to let it... well, you know.  At least there's a chance Frozen 2 might be an original screenplay, rather than an established fairytale with severe identity and script problems.  But something tells me there will be Frozen 2 stationary and toilet roll holders regardless.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Unnecessary Redesign Of The Daleks

Doctor Who
Victory Of The Daleks
Series Five, Episode Three


The new Doctor vs. the Daleks.  What could go wrong?  As it turns out, quite a lot.

For starters, they forget to dress all the sets.
Okay, think positive.  I like that it's about a small group of Daleks, and not another Finale Army.  I like that it's set during the Second World War, because Daleks are stand-ins for Nazis and the two things just go together.  (Seriously, how right do they look zooming around the Blitz?)  I like the khaki-Daleks.  I like that when the Doctor arrives, answering a distress call from Winston Churchill, the Daleks pretend to be helpful.  There's a definite Power Of The Daleks vibe there, and even a direct reference with the "I am your soldier" line.  Nice.  (In case you're wondering, Power Of The Daleks is one of the best Dalek stories, but it's missing from the archives.  I guess if you're going to pinch an idea, it might as well be one you can't go back and watch.)

I also like some of the things it tries to do.  Pitting the Doctor against Daleks who've changed their ways is interesting.  How will he react?  Can he cope with Daleks that don't want to take over the universe?  Is he happier when they're shooting at him?  And later, when they show their true colours (all too literally), I like the attempt to make the Daleks bigger and badder.  In theory.  As Steven Moffat loves to reiterate, the Daleks are the most reliably defeatable baddies in the cosmos.  How can we change that?  I think that's a fair question, and a fair basis for a story.

Of course, that's all it is: a basis for a story.  You do need to add a few things, like a plot and some compelling characters.  All of that's missing.  Victory Of The Daleks is like someone scribbled a brief for an episode – WW2, Winston Churchill, Daleks, redesign them at the end – and put it straight into production.

Take the setting.  I read an interview with Mark Gatiss before this aired, and he seemed really interested in this time period.  He recounted grisly tales of death in the Blitz, and of people suffering all sorts of hardships.  Obviously Doctor Who won't go too into detail about it, but we've had a compelling World War Two episode before, so we know it can be done.  Victory Of The Daleks, on the other hand, is the laziest, join-the-dotsiest recreation of Blitz-era Britain you could imagine.  Here is a version of Winston Churchill who is never without a cigar, and rarely opens his mouth except to a) chew cigar or b) spout a catchphrase.  "Action this day!"  "We'll give 'em what for!"  "Keep buggering on!"  Does he come with a pull-string?  The supporting cast are just as bad; there's an ARP warden on the roof who yells "Put that light out!" and (urgh) "Do yer worst, Adolf!"  Later they put up a Union Jack and all nod patriotically at it.  This is a cartoon.  For historical flavour, you'd be genuinely better off watching Dad's Army.

Come to think of it, Dad's Army had better plots.  Take this "pretend to be helpful" business.  It's creepy and reference-y and a bit funny as well.  ("WOULD YOU LIKE SOME TEEEEA?" is not something you'd ever expect a Dalek to say.)  But after a grand total of 12 minutes, they chuck it in the bin.  Now, I doubt anyone watching this honestly believed that a) the Daleks have turned over a new leaf, or b) they really are just some unrelated robots that happen to look like Daleks.  But the tension isn't about whether their story is true – it's about What Are They Really Up To.  All the stuff with the bloke who thinks he invented them is intriguing enough.  Why are we in such a hurry to find out the truth?  In the paltry time allotted, all that "pretending" stuff amounts to is the Doctor saying "Oh yes you are" until they agree with him.  Well, that was easy.  And pointless, once we find out what their "plan" was.

Good thing he hasn't got post-regenerative amnesia.
Okay, so they've got a Progenitor, aka a thing that makes Daleks.  It won't work because their DNA isn't Daleky enough any more.  Don't panic!  It will work if they get the Doctor to confirm that they are, in fact, Daleks.  They decide the best way to achieve this is to build a robot scientist and make him believe he invented them, and go around saying they are not Daleks, but Ironsides.  They then cross their tentacles and hope the Doctor will turn up, at which point he will probably say the magic words.  Simple!  Oh, wrong word.  I meant "bollocks".

A machine that won't recognise Daleks, but will accept the testimony (and recognise the voice of) the Doctor is bollocks – they haven't even met this version of the Doctor yet.  Making a robot scientist who thinks he invented them is bollocks – what's it for, and why not just act like Daleks and wait for the inevitable wheezing, groaning sound?  Filling the robo-scientist with memories is bollocks, not to mention dangerous – why not just remote control him, since he's a bleedin' robot?  Pretending to be helpful, and pretending they're not really Daleks at all is bollocks – if they're at all convincing, no one will summon the Doctor in the first place.  Really, if you're the sort of idiot who builds a machine that will accept the word of a stranger over a set of Dalek bumps and a sink plunger, perhaps extinction isn't such a bad idea.  Worst Dalek Plan Ever?

With the magic words uttered, the episode loses its selling point, and it's a prompt toboggan-ride downhill from there.  The Daleks rush off to hit CTRL+P on their Progenitor, the Doctor follows and holds them to ransom with a pretend TARDIS self-destruct.  Then... they tell him all their plans.  And he tells them he's not going to let them get away with it.  And it's dead boring.  Much of this episode rests on Matt Smith, who's obviously very watchable, but he's working with hopelessly dry stuff like "They are my oldest and deadliest enemies", "I've defeated you time and time again!" and "I won't let you get away this time!"  His inimitable stamp is missing, crushed by a script that reads like a bad Target novelisation.  It's Exposition Of The Daleks.

And then we get to the real reason for this episode: new Daleks!  New toys!  A new lease of life!  What a pity they look bloody ridiculous.  Now you mention it, the Daleks looked fine.  It was, and is a perfect design – ain't broke, doesn't need fixing.  Tweak them if you must (bronze works, khaki look great), but making them bigger, and colour-coding them like Power Rangers?  Not so necessary.  Why not put more effort into their stories, since that's where they were lacking?  No change there, sadly, but now they look like comically oversized toys.  And then they run away.  That's seriously all we've been building up to here: the Daleks want a new batch, they get one, the end.  Oi, Mark!  You forgot to write a plot!

Our various heroes attempt to stop them, of course, which leads to some fighty-shooty-special-effectsy stuff that isn't a substitute for a plot.  The Daleks have turned on all the lights in London, which makes it a target for the Luftwaffe.  Oh no!  Luckily the robotic Bracewell has lots of useful ideas and isn't under Dalek control because um, so he outfits some Spitfires to go into space (good thing the Daleks made him able to do that!), they shoot at the Dalek ship, the Doctor... helps a bit?  And the Daleks decide that's enough, and reveal that Bracewell is also a bomb!  (Okay, so he is under their control now?)  If the Doctor doesn't tell the Spitfires to go away, they'll explode the Earth!  And the Doctor agrees, even though they're obviously going to do it anyway because they're Daleks, which lets all the air out of that Impossible Choice.  (Seriously, Doctor Who is terrible at those.)  It's a succession of silly stuff pulled out of thin air.  And it ain't over yet.

"This will pick up Dalek transmissions!"
Er, why are they transmitting anything?  Who to?  There's only one ship!
How do you disarm a bomb that's also a robot that thinks it's a man?  (No, you can't pop him in the TARDIS and throw him into a black hole, you nasty person!)  Why, by talking to it, of course!  The Doctor appeals to Bracewell's (fake) memories in an effort to convince him he's human.  Amy, using her super-companion powers and the fact that they're both Scottish (or rather, one of them is), reminds him of a girl he loved, which works a bit better.  Presto, the bomb deactivates.

I say "presto", because I don't know why the bomb deactivates.  He's a bomb.  He can cry all he likes, and think he's remembering stuff (though he isn't) – what's that got to do with going tick, tick, boom?  I wonder where the Daleks got all those memories from, why Bracewell was built with a Power Of Love failsafe, and why bombs always need a countdown and never just blow up.  Anyway, magically disarmed, he sits up and casually announces the Daleks have buggered off.  The Doctor gives an impotent little shout and then gets over it.  The whole thing is almost too limp and wiffly for words.

Then there's an extra Happy Ending where the Doctor and Amy let Bracewell roam free to meet up with his girlfriend.  All very cutesy-pooh, or it would be if a) he wasn't still carrying a massive world-destroying bomb in his chest and b) those were actually his memories, you pair of complete morons.  How did that get past a first draft?  And why are we doing cutesy-pooh stuff in a Dalek episode?  Doesn't it sort of shmoo-ify the tone, and make the Daleks look even naffer by proxy?  Isn't that exactly the sort of thing re-inventing the Daleks is supposed to put a stop to, for smeg's sake?!

And that's Victory Of The Daleks.  They came, they progenated, they still can't shoot straight, they left again.  One popular piece of criticism is that they should have made it two episodes instead of one, which always makes me laugh, as there isn't really enough plot for one episode.  At times it feels like an unimpressive first act, setting up the bit where we find out what they were really after, which then makes sense of this first, noticeably crap bit.  Spoiler alert: no, this really is it.  For future reference, if you've come up with a new design and you want to show it off, hold a press conference.  Save the episodes for when there are stories to put in them.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Cautionary Whale

Doctor Who
The Beast Below
Series Five, Episode Two


Urgh.

You know how great The Eleventh Hour was?  How it managed to introduce characters and ideas, explain them, show them off, and all in a way that was thoroughly entertaining?  Well, you may want to wait before watching the next episode.  It's a teensy bit of a comedown.

The Beast Below does certain things that need doing for the series to work.  Fair enough.  We need to see Amy accept the "job" of companion, and understand that it's not just about hopping into the TARDIS.  We need to see why the Doctor needs a companion in the first place.  None of this is news to Doctor Who fans.

The Beast Below is preceded by a great 3-minute short.
Why not watch that 13 or so times instead?
And stuff like that can be done in an entertaining and subtle manner.  Just look at The Eleventh Hour.  This week, we're jumping through the same sort of hoops, but with nowhere near that level of subtlety.

The Beast Below is (god 'elp us) a satire, and you know what that means: Clang! Goes The Frying Pan Of Obvious.  Amy's journey from passenger to full-blown companion is obvious.  The Doctor's need for a companion is obvious.  The satire itself is obvious, but then, it's satire.  The whole point is that you're already familiar with it.

So the TARDIS arrives on the Starship UK, a floating haven for This Sceptred Isle, driven away by the super nova that roasted the Earth.  And something is rotten here.  Secrets are in the air and a child is crying, so naturally, the Doctor cannot resist helping.  Amy says so: "Is this how it is, Doctor?  You never interfere in the affairs of people or planets, unless there's children crying?"  "Yes."  Strictly speaking, that is a new spin on the Doctor's desire to help people.  Does he normally reserve his helpfulness only for adorable kiddywinks?  I thought he helped everyone.  B.A. Baracus did a lot of pro bono work for children, much to the chagrin of The A-Team.  Perhaps Steven Moffat is thinking of him.

Anyway, this child is crying because her friend is missing.  He got a bad grade at school, got frowned at by one of the robotic Smilers that oversee everything, and was dumped down a trap door, presumably to his doom.  People seem to know this sort of thing goes on, but they won't do anything about it.  The Doctor arrives and spots something odd about a glass of water: it's not vibrating, despite the gigantic ship's engines beneath.  It's up to Amy – decides the Doctor – to find out what's going on.  (Well, it's up to both of them, but he sends her on a mission of her own.  Which is odd, as one of the first things he said to Amelia last week was "Don't wander off".)

After finding herself imperilled almost immediately (cheers Doc), Amy finds herself in a voting booth.  People are told the truth about Starship UK and are given the option to Protest or Forget.  (Apparently if more than 1% hit Protest they will stop what they're doing no matter the consequences.  They say this, but Protesters are immediately flushed to their deaths, so I'm guessing that's just a fib.)  The Protest/Forget thing is about as blunt as satirical concepts get.  Insert any moral injustice here, and presto!  What Terrible People We Are.

The truth being suitably horrible, Amy hits the Forget button.  The Doctor is disappointed, and so (later on) is Amy.  Which is a bit strange.  She doesn't want to forget about it at the end of the episode, but she's exactly the same person she was at the start.  What gives?  Hey ho: the Doctor hits the Protest button, Which Tells Us What Kind Of Person He Is, and down they go to find the truth.

Dramatic chord!  The Starship UK is strapped to the back of a star whale, the last of its kind, and they are torturing it to keep it under control.  If they stop torturing it, the starship will (probably) disintegrate.  Everyone, including the Queen, knows about this and chooses to forget, because there is no alternative.  (Hold that thought.)  The Doctor decides the only humane thing to do is kill off the whale's higher brain functions so it won't feel pain but will continue to function.  (Keep holding.)  It's this, or he lets the torture carry on, or he kills the whale and dooms everybody.  It's an Impossible Choice.  We know this because he says so.  CLANG!

Aww!  The cutesy wutesy whale won't eat kids!  How nice.
So: how old is "old enough to eat"?  Does it eat teenagers?
It's aware that children are adults-in-training, right?
The trouble is, it's not as simple as that if you bother to think about it.  They need the star whale because the ship "can't fly".  Okay.  Why is that?  I found no answers in the episode.  What happened to all the other starships?  Did their engines work?  Why did all the other starships get a head start?  Can't they be contacted for parts or assistance?  Isn't anyone on Starship UK able to think of an alternative means of transport, or even research it?  Seriously, even the Doctor can't think of anything?

What about the journey, which the whale must complete at all costs?  Where are they going?  Are they going to the same place as all the other starships, or is everybody settling on their own planet?  (Given that they scythed off into separate country-ships, which is a depressingly jingoistic little side-note, that seems likely.)  And for the bonus point: why can't the Doctor bundle everyone into the TARDIS and ferry them to where they need to go?  Yeah, yeah, that's the snarky answer to everything, but it's embarrassingly applicable here.

In order for all of this to work, a great many things need to happen because they just do, okay?  Also a great many people need to have severely unenquiring minds, including the Doctor, and you.  Which is probably another casualty of the dreaded satire, but regardless, none of these things are hallmarks of a brilliant story.  When Amy finally comes to the rescue, realising (via the subtle power of flashback – always a good sign!) that the whale volunteered in the first place, it's a serious leap that no one else (including the Doctor) thought of that already.  It's just another obvious option discounted by everyone else, so that Amy and her amazing companion-ness can save the day.  Okay, you've set up your super-duper companion in the process, but it comes at the expense of everyone else's IQ.  Including Mr Alien Genius over there.  Whoops.

And we're not done being stupid.  Amy doesn't just realise that the star whale's going to keep on truckin' if they leave it alone.  She realises it because the star whale is like the Doctor.  We know this because she has a flashback about the whale and the Doctor, and then looks at the Doctor when she's talking about the whale.  "It came because it couldn't stand to watch your children cry!"  Dear god, that's clumsy, and it doesn't even work since "He only helps when children cry" is something they made up this week.  But then there's a whole other scene where Amy goes through it again for those of us with hearing difficulties.  "Very kind and very old and the very, very last.  Sound a bit familiar?"  YES AMY, FOR GOD'S SAKE YOU CAN LET IT GO NOW.

So the Amy Is A Companion stuff, which the episode is mostly about, is painful.  And so is the Doctor Needs A Companion stuff, because it means robbing him of the power to spot the bleedin' obvious (despite being capably Holmesian about those glasses of water), and the power to think about a problem for more than two minutes before picking a solution.  As for the Doctor's character, we learn that he's old and lonely and helpful, but there must have been subtler ways to tease this out of him than flashbacks and comparisons with a star whale.  All that stunning character-building finesse we saw in the "Doctor and Amelia" scenes last week has utterly disappeared.  It's a clang!-fest.

"Dave... do you think what we're doing is wrong?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Well, it's just that you've designed them with an optional Evil Face."
"That's not evil.  That's... decisive."
"And another thing: there's three of them.  How does that–"
*hits FORGET*
Matt and Karen are fine, although they're working within pretty stiff constraints.  The Doctor does a lot of high-and-mighty Impossible Choice stuff, which every Doctor must do at some point, hey ho, but there are some natty Matt Smith-y acting moments as well.  I particularly like his enthusiasm in the face of danger, and that insane "Wheee!" when he and Amy fall down the chute.

As for Amy, there's more of her wedding jitters, which pretty much define her at this point, and there's a bit where she's revealed to be, um, a talented lock-pick?  Amy spends most of it looking wide-eyed and learning Important Companion Lessons; it's more about Being A Companion than being herself.  The moment where the Doctor is 100% ready to boot her back home because she "failed" is an eyebrow-raising affront to the bond they established last week.  We just have to forget how much they mean to each other, because um.

If you take away the satire, the Important Character Points and (giggle) the Impossible Choice, there's not a lot else.  Liz 10 is fun, albeit embarrassingly one-note; "I'm the bloody Queen, mate" is a funny line.  Terence Hardiman does a good "suffering for his sins" expression, which is pretty much all his role requires.  And we have the Smilers, which are faintly creepy, albeit totally unexplained and shoehorned in there for toy sales.  (Since all the Protesters get flushed, what are they for?  Why do they need "half-human" Smilers as well?)  I would ask why getting a bad grade in school warrants flushing-to-your-doom just the same as Protesting, but that's probably part of the satire – use the whale as an excuse to weed out whomever you like.  Which suggests there's a lot more wrong here than just the whale torture, but clearly everyone's too obstinate to sort it out themselves.  Oh well, we don't go into it.  Good luck with that, guys.  *wheezing, groaning sound*

After an episode burning with new ideas, or at least a few new spins, The Beast Below comes as a ghastly shock.  You've seen it all before.  Fortunately, it shouldn't be too hard to hit the Forget button.

Friday, 16 January 2015

I Dream Of Ripley

Doctor Who
Last Christmas
2014 Christmas Special


I must admit I'm getting bored with Doctor Who.  (On TV at least, whereas Big Finish have kept me perfectly entertained.)  Series Eight wasn't for me, and I haven't revisited it.  Then again, perhaps I'm just bored with the (seemingly endless) Moffat era and its associated tropes, most of which show up in this Christmas Special.  It's not a bad episode, but with it being a particularly busy Christmas I was going to let the episode go and come back for Series Nine.  Ah well: iPlayer keeps these things for 30 days, so why not?

As was sign-posted at the end of Death In Heaven, it's not the end for the Doctor and Clara.  Meeting on a rooftop, enticed there by Santa Claus (played sassily by Nick Frost), they head to a Remote Arctic Base (TM) to confront the dream crabs: sinister blue face-huggers that keep you dreaming while they eat your brain.

Merry Christmas!
Similarities to Alien and The Thing are positively encouraged.  I'm not sure we've ever had such direct references in Doctor Who: the "Purge" screen from Alien is a comparatively subtle nod, but the Thing-ish Arctic base, the full-on conversation about face-huggers and the oh-why-the-hell-not list of movies at the end all tend to reach through the fourth wall and slap you.  I suppose it's one way to tackle suspiciously familiar source material, and it does work given that they are (spoiler alert) dreaming most of this.  (Except the dream crabs are real, and the similarities to Alien are due to Steven Moffat, not the characters' movie-themed brains.)  All of which makes me genuinely surprised no one says "It's a bit like Inception, isn't it?"

Yep, it's a dream story, and you know what that means: what is real?  This can be done exceptionally well, like in Amy's Choice.  That episode had two scenarios, each ridiculous-yet-convincing in their own way, with a countdown to decide which is the real one.  They even had a sinister fantasy figure calling the shots.  (It's quite a bit like Amy's Choice, isn't it?)  Where this one is more like Inception is in the layers: dreams within dreams within dreams.  You pretty much know going in that they're going to "wake up" more than once, which takes something away from the dramatic reveals.  Still, even this just about works, because despite Santa Claus being a big hint that all is not for realsies, the Doctor doesn't know that for certain, and so can't rely on it.  (And neither can you.  Shh!)

To compound our stay in TropesVille, Steven Moffat also tackled dream worlds in Forest Of The Dead (six years ago!), and with considerably more flair.  We also have another of his "conceptual" monsters: rather than moving when you're not looking, or being forgotten when you're not looking at them, or whatever the thing was in Listen, the dream crabs home in on your own thoughts about them.  So don't think about them and you're fine.  (Don't think, eh?  Where does he come up with this stuff?)  We've also got characters telling each other to shut up (which makes me want to punch them – yes, Clara, you too), and Santa, accompanied by two elves, trying to rationalise the ridiculous by mocking the sensible.  (That's not just Steven Moffaty: trying to make practical sense of Father Christmas is the modus operandi of virtually every Christmas film that gets made nowadays.  Even Elf does it.)  To say it's all a bit familiar would be an understatement.

Bonus trivia: pretty sure that's the volcano set from Dark Water.
If I seem to be obsessing over references, tropes and details, well, I am a Doctor Who fan.  (Among the mountains of Doctor Who non-fiction written by people more anal retentive than me are at least two books comprised entirely of lists.)  But the episode encourages nitpicking just as it acknowledges its inspirations.  It's a dream world, so the Doctor (and Santa) urges Clara (and us) to concentrate on everything.  There's even a sneering rebuke from Santa that the characters haven't paid enough attention – for my money, the exact tone Steven Moffat adopts in most of his interviews.  Is it any wonder people look for things that aren't there, and notice plot holes as if they're painted luminous yellow, when episodes adopt such a challenging tone?

Anyway: the dream crabs are creepy, the don't-think concept works rather well (except when the characters forget about it, think about them, and predictable havoc ensues), and if you haven't seen Inception or aren't a curmudgeonly smart-arse, the still-dreaming stuff probably lands with a satisfying thud.  Its ingredients might be unoriginal, but sticking Father Christmas in The Thing is pretty damn novel.  However, there is more going on here than Santa Claus, dream crabs and an Inception paradox.  Rumours were rife that Jenna Coleman might leave, and Clara's certainly suggested as much.  Will she stay or will she go?

One should never put too much trust in rumours, but there's a ring of truth to this one: Jenna was going, and changed her mind at the last minute, thus prompting a reshoot.  Last Christmas not only namedrops its ominous title as often as possible, but also spends its final minutes setting up a possible death for the Impossible Girl, even going so far as a lovely callback to last year's Christmas Special.  (Where the youthful Clara once helped an aged Doctor pull a Christmas cracker, now their roles are reversed.)  This is all good stuff, and the Doctor failing to spot any difference between Claras old and new is done with aplomb by Peter Capaldi, who is barnstorming in general this week.  Jenna Coleman gives us a convincing older Clara, and while I am bored to the back teeth of Clara – who has already left the TARDIS twice, once angry, once resigned – this has the makings of a dignified exit, the echo of Matt adding a certain shape to her time in the show.

"I've always believed in Santa Claus... but he looks a little different to me."
Not the only Doctor-Santa comparison here, and yes,
they're all this subtle.
But, no: the Doctor wakes up again and it's back to the TARDIS for fun, adventure, and good times!  Which is a moment we already had almost word-for-word in Mummy On The Orient Express, and (in spirit) even earlier in Deep Breath.  Clara now faces the same problem as Amy: the more times you fake out that she's leaving, the less convincing her exit will be.  Amy eventually left via a histrionic rendez-vous with the Weeping Angels, and still there was the grim spectre of "No, really, why can't he just go and get her?"  How's Clara going to cop it?  When we get there, what's to stop us simply expecting her back next week?

It's a real shame, because inasmuch as Last Christmas is really about anything, it's surely this.  (Of course there's a chance this was always the plan, and Moffat meant to set us up for an emotional ending only to not deliver one.  In which case... mission accomplished?)  For good measure, we also get closure between her and Danny – or at least, her and dream-Danny, which... sort of counts?  But coming right after a progressively less interesting Danny arc, culminating in a whole episode about closure on his death, this lands with all the weight of a dry sponge, particularly as the person giving her closure isn't really Danny.  Once again, it's not Samuel Anderson's fault; there's just no emotional itch that still needed scratching.  (These scenes can't even rely on their it's-all-just-a-dream creepiness, thanks to Forest Of The Dead already raiding that cupboard.)

Emotionally, it left me cold, and that's pretty much my central problem with Doctor Who these days.  But there's some solidly entertaining dialogue, particularly from Santa.  ("Reindeer can't fly!"  "No.  It's a scientific impossibility.  That is why I feed mine magic carrots.")  Peter Capaldi is a dab hand at proclaiming doom and struggling to get on with humans, both represented well here; at times you can see the Doctor making an effort not to be crass, which is good work.  It's all a bit too long, possibly to accommodate the unnecessary Danny stuff and the redundant parting-of-the-ways ending.  I got the sense that it might have been a great 45-minute episode.  At 60 minutes, it's often entertaining, far creepier than you'd expect at Christmas, and some of the dream mechanics do, for once, actually repay you for having thought about them.

If it were shorter, and if Clara had finally shuffled off this mortal coil (or gone anywhere, really – I'm not fussed), it'd be a solid, strong piece of Who, overcoming its limited originality with sheer wit.  As it stands, Last Christmas is among the more coherent seasonal episodes, but it sacrifices an emotional sting to keep everything nice.  As it happens, Steven Moffat has done that before, too.  That this may be down to the companion's enjoyment of working on Doctor Who does not, sadly, make much difference to the end result.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Practically Perfect In Every Way

Doctor Who
The Eleventh Hour
Series Five, Episode One


Woo!  All change!

The Eleventh Hour is an explosion of newness.  New Doctor, new companion, new TARDIS, new showrunner, new look, new sound.  Frankly, in 2010, Doctor Who needed the shot in the arm.  No doubt it works really well as a jumping-on point for brand new fans.  But we can get to all that in a minute.  Let's deal with the most important thing in the episode, the most important thing in Doctor Who.  The New Guy.

Matt.  Smith.  Is.  Perfect.

"I know he's an alien, but the mask is a bit much."
*awkward silence*
We each have our own take on what the Doctor should be like, and some actors will hover closer to it than others.  This time, I lucked out: Matt Smith just feels like the Doctor to me.  Stuff like otherworldly genius, impossible old age and "alien-ness" is tough to convey, especially for an actor as fresh-faced as Smith, but he manages all of the above in a way that, for me, David Tennant rarely did.  His was a charming, funny, sometimes imposing Doctor, but often he just seemed like the loudest guy in the room.  People generally ignored him.

Smith gives the impression that his mind is working on several things at once; he buzzes with ideas in a way that singles him out from everyone else.  And it's not just how he delivers the dialogue.  It's a tremendously physical performance, bouncing and tumbling around like a force of nature, but always with a certain precision in the way he moves, and the way he speaks, that suggests he's got it under control – just.  Smith's accent oscillates between a prim British cleverness and his usual (affected) Londoner's cadence, which I find quite thrilling: he sounds like he's just burst into existence and is going in several directions at once, but always lands on just the right spot.

Despite all that, and gallons of whimsy and eccentricity in the script, he still seems like a genuine person – he even makes "Wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey" sound like something you might say.  There's an unselfconsciousness to his actions, especially when he seems to be in his own little world, or when he's spitting.  (There's a whole scene of this and it's brilliant, but I'm also thinking of the bit in The End Of Time when he spits on the TARDIS for no reason.)  There are moments when the very consciously witty script backs him into a more mannered corner – like the opening when he's hanging off the TARDIS, or yelling "And stay out!" to a plate of bread and butter – but mostly he gives the already excellent material that extra push into sheer, fizzing genius.  I'd never seen Matt Smith in anything before this, so on some level I was even more ready to believe that David Tennant had regenerated into a brand new person, and that he was quite probably the Doctor.  A star is born.

I could praise his performance all day, but there is an actual episode attached to it, and it's only fair to go into that as well.  So: hooray!  The episode is brilliant as well!

New Doctor stories have novelty value by default – surprisingly often, this is the only thing going for them.  But The Eleventh Hour doesn't take that for granted.  The episode is designed to show off this version of the Doctor, marooning him without an established costume, a TARDIS or (for most of it) a sonic screwdriver.  He's given a fairly simple problem: the Atraxi will boil the Earth if they don't get their hands on the shape-shifter, Prisoner Zero.  He solves it with whatever's to hand, plus heaps of Doctorly cleverness, leaving the audience in no doubt that this guy is on the case.  Now, I'm well aware that I'm being frogmarched into thinking the Eleventh Doctor is brilliant, but I don't care, he genuinely is – see Why I Love Matt Smith, above – and with the plot so focussed on its goals, there isn't room for any of the usual bollocks.  Hooray!

Start to finish, this is one of the smartest and funniest scripts in Doctor Who.  Of course it's the episode's mission to win you over, so it's loaded with jokes.  (My favourite: "Do I just have a face that nobody listens to, again?", which is the Tenth Doctor gag I've been waiting years for.)  But there's more to it than wit and charm.  Steven Moffat is laying the groundwork for his version of the show, so he revisits one of his favourite themes: time travel working at different speeds.

I wish kids didn't age so fast, just so we could have kept Amelia.
And also because life's too short childhood is precious blah blah.
Crashing in her garden, the new Doctor meets a little girl called Amelia Pond.  He soon pops back into the TARDIS, then emerges to find her grown up.  An encounter that lasts minutes for him has repercussions on Amelia's (now Amy's) entire life.  I don't even know where to start with this stuff.  The episode runs fifteen minutes longer to accommodate it, but it's time well spent developing the Doctor, who explains the very complicated situation of a new body via what foods he likes.  (Hence all the spitting.)  It's time well spent showing how time travel works, and how it can get complicated, as succinctly as possible.  It's time well spent developing Amelia, who immediately strikes a rapport and trust with the Doctor – of course the same will happen, by extension, with the audience, especially the young'uns.  These scenes are chock full of groundwork and narrative all essential to the series, but it's such bliss to watch Matt Smith and Caitlin Blackwood work that you'd hardly notice.  It's very skilfully done.

Of course, Amelia cannot be our companion.  (Alas.)  Zip forward 12 years and we meet Amy, a girl with a lifetime of annoyance that the Doctor didn't come back.  Karen Gillan instantly strikes her own rapport with Smith, building on what Caitlin did.  The episode is about her to a large extent, and it's cleverly set in a small town where everybody knows what she's like.  It's an immediately interesting dynamic: she's obsessed with the Doctor, as anyone would be after what happened, but it's a cause of psychological bother and embarrassment.  Parallels are drawn with meeting your imaginary friend, and all the awkwardness that entails, which is a great way to communicate the show's appeal to younger viewers, and a valid way to reimagine it for the rest of us.  It's an instantly relateable and unique Doctor/companion relationship, which helps define them both.

There are some perhaps less impressive details on the periphery.  Grown-up Amy works as a Kissogram, which on the one hand is a creepy, lecherous, possibly euphemistic fate for a (typically sexy) Doctor Who companion, but on the other hand it fits with her obvious predilection for a fantasy life.  So, cautiously: shrug.

Gillan is as hilariously watchable as Smith.  The same goes for Arthur Darvill as Amy's long-suffering boyfriend Rory, now faced with (and horrified by) Amy's imaginary fancy-man.  The three of them became firm friends in real life, and their on-screen chemistry is immediate and infectious.  It just works.

Doctor?  Tick.  Companion?  Tick.  That's pretty much mission accomplished before we even get to the villain, who (let's face it) is not the important bit.  Still, Prisoner Zero works really well.  He's a mix of CGI (it looks awesome) and various "multi-form" disguises, including a man and his dog, with the clever tip-off that he gets the voice wrong.  (It's usually the dog that barks.)  It's pleasantly sneaky for a post-regeneration story to have a bad-guy that changes what he looks like, and it allows for some sly external character development when he takes the form of Amelia, who tells the Doctor what a disappointment he's been.  (I usually hate this sort of thing, but for once it actually works, because Zero-Amelia isn't pulling this stuff out of a hat.)  One of the disguises is Olivia Colman, easily one of the show's quickest and best cameo roles, oozing menace for a few short minutes.  This is another natty way to show off the new Doctor: he's good at villain showdowns.

Obligatory title/theme comment: it's not the best.
Space and time are made of grey candyfloss?  Meh.
Plus the "sting" sounds like someone swizzling their milkshake straw.
Okay, so the whole Prisoner Zero thing borrows from Smith And Jones: alien hides from other aliens, takes human disguise, lurks in a hospital, Doctor tricks it into revealing itself.  But it's given such a dazzling coat of Steven Moffaty paint that it's not very noticeable.  Meanwhile the Atraxi borrow from the Sycorax and the Juddoon, but also the Vashta Nerada when they "look the Doctor up" and run away.  But hey, that idea works really well in establishing a new Doctor, so why not give it another go?  The Eleventh Hour is so good, I honestly don't care that I've seen bits of it before.  (And some of it's entirely appropriate: the Doctor nicking his outfit from a hospital is straight out of Jon Pertwee's first story.)  Besides, there's a constant starburst of new stuff surrounding it.

Production-wise, this is a seriously impressive piece of telly.  It looks stylish, the direction is slick, and the music is some of Murray's most sumptuous.  The guest cast is an utter winner, peppered with comedy names like Colman, Annette Crosbie and Nina Wadia.  It's an all-out charm offensive, which isn't to say it's only interested in being funny.  (See Colman.)  It's just very, very good at it.

Of course it's Matt and Karen's episode first and foremost, and on that score it's a roaring success.  But to my surprise every time I see it (and I've seen it many times), the rest of it holds up.  It's 60 minutes long, and without a dull or misplaced second.  Confident, funny, clever, comprehensible, utterly loveable on every level, and frosted (as a bonus) with New Doctor Novelty, The Eleventh Hour is so good, all other New Doctor episodes might as well take the day off.  This is how it's done.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Cloudy With A Chance Of Cybermen

Doctor Who
Dark Water and Death In Heaven
Series Eight, Episodes Eleven and Twelve


Somewhere out there, perhaps in a parallel universe where we've all got evil beards and eye-patches, it is okay to make a TV series without arc plots or finales.  "What's wrong with arc plots and finales?" you ask.  Well, nothing on the face of it, but you try doing them nine years in a row.  After Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, Time Lords, the Silence, the Great Intelligence and assorted collections of all of the above, we're through the bottom of the barrel and bothering the earthworms.  Do we have to keep doing it like this?

Bearing that in mind – and my tendency on seeing an arc hint to hum The Magic Roundabout and contemplate what's for dinner – Series Eight does have an interesting hook.  Not Missy, the mysterious figure whose identity most of us guessed within minutes; nor the ongoing story of Clara and Danny, too much of which takes place off-screen for me to really invest; also not the Doctor's ongoing quest to find out what kind of man he is.  We'll get to all that in a minute, but it's generally a mix of the obvious and the who-cares-anyway.  No: the interesting bit is that people keep dying, and we're going to find out where they go when that happens.


Just kidding.  The real arc is Is It Me, Or Does His Hair Keep Changing?
This one's guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers.  Steven Moffat loves a bit of shock value, and doing stuff that hasn't been done before, but it was really only a matter of time before the Doctor wondered what the Afterlife was all about.  When Danny Pink dies, his refusal to change history makes perfect sense; his decision to rescue him from wherever he's gone, though fantastical, feels like a very creative compromise.

Sorry, I should probably emphasise that bit: Danny's dead.  And he doesn't go out saving the Earth or doing anything exciting.  He gets hit by a car while on the phone to Clara.  Steven Moffat has a tendency to avoid death in Doctor Who, preferring to couch the subject in fairy dust and timey-wimeys, so this is real progress: not just death, but ordinary, real, tragically dull death at that.  Clara's reaction, dead-eyed fugue followed by psychotic determination to force the Doctor to help, feels very real as well.

Yes, Clara, you have got my attention.  The bit where she threatens to destroy the TARDIS keys if the Doctor doesn't help is a masterclass for both of them.  She's been called a control freak before, and it's nice to actually see it in action, even if my first instinct would have been to boot her out of the TARDIS pronto.  The Doctor is more sympathetic: though coldly analytical about why he can't change Danny's timeline, and ferociously determined to wrench back control of the situation, he ultimately wants to help.  Even she's surprised at that.  (You would think that puts an end to the "Am I a good man?" debate, but no, there's more of that to come.)  Then it's back to the telepathic TARDIS controls, and off we go to find Danny.  Barely ten minutes in, Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi are doing some of their best work this year.  Capaldi in particular is striking just the right balance between alien coldness and Doctorly charm.

We arrive at a funeral parlour run by Missy.  (More on her in a minute, but suffice to say, Michelle Gomez is very funny and plays vivaciously off Capaldi.)  There's something odd about the place, not least that the dead are sitting in water tanks, surrounded by "dark water" that only shows organic material.  (If it sounds oddly pointless, that's because it's only there for a big reveal later on.  They will never mention it again after that.)  It turns out the dead have been sending us messages, most notably: "Don't cremate me."  Cue angry letters to the BBC.  Yes, they went there: the dead remain conscious.  Sweet dreams.

This unsettled me enormously the first time I saw it, just as it was meant to.  I've had loved ones cremated, chances are so have you.  Still, it's a fictional show with the aim of scaring people, and this fits the bill.  Despite what the writing suggests, it's hardly an idea "that has never occurred to anyone throughout human history".  (Very few of Steven Moffat's ideas are.)  And it's not even true within the episode.  Dying people's minds are being downloaded by Missy.  If there's a real Afterlife, they haven't got there yet.  Creepy and upsetting as it is, there are enough disclaimers for them to get away with it.

How can we lose lovely, gender-irrelevant Osgood, but not the naff Paternosters?
Is it too late to kill them instead?
As for Missy's "Afterlife", Danny finds himself in an office block with Chris Addison, doing his insurance advert schtick with added creep factor, trying to convince him to delete his emotions.  Danny's own little arc plot comes to fruition here, as he meets the civilian he killed, and promptly wants to check out of The Emotions Hotel.  I've never been hugely enamoured with Danny, whose relationship with Clara mostly involved bossiness at his end and lying at hers, but Samuel Anderson is really great here.  I tend to roll my eyes when he and Clara exchange "I love you"s – what do you love about each other? – but when he has to say "I love you" because it's dull and obvious and will convince her to stop trying to find him, he plays it beautifully.

It's around here that the penny drops – specifically, the moment the dark water starts to drain.  (Very slowly, I might add.)  Dun-dun-DUN: the dead bodies are actually Cybermen!

The BBC didn't do a very good job of keeping this secret, but even so, how disappointing.  The Cybermen just aren't all that interesting.  They tend to behave like more boring, standy-uppy Daleks that are easier to kill, and they've got a nasty habit of making up the rules as they go.  They've acquired random superpowers, like super-speed and detachable body-parts, and subsequently ditched them; they've gone from scooping out your brain to stapling themselves together over your body, to infecting you like the Borg; now they can fly like Iron Man, and touching one particle of a Cyberman is enough to make you fully convert.  Having to scream "CHANGE PLACES!" every time they show up is not exactly a good sign.  And it hardly seems worth it, as they're still bloody tedious, even with that jaunty, hilarious little walk of theirs.

This week, as well as rocket feet and "Cyber-pollen", there's an emotional element: they are the dead, stumbling out of their graves and struggling to make sense of things.  Or they're really sleepy.  (Well, do you know why they're not doing anything?)  Danny is a Cyberman now, with his emotions in check – nobody forced him to lose them, and it's not clear how many other Cybermen did the same, which is a bit of a flaw in the plan to be honest.  Bewildered, listless and pretty much harmless, these new Cybermen are a good deal more sympathetic, which is one way to handle them, I suppose.  If they were ever frightening, they're not any more.  The sense of threat in the episode is a bit nebulous because of this.

And once again, they're only the foot soldiers.  (Which is frankly another bullet point on the Why They're Rubbish list.)  Missy is the brains of the operation, and dun-dun-DUN, she's really the Master!  Missy, Mistress, Master... yeah, that'll be another Steven Moffat Mystery That Isn't All That Mysterious, then.  But anyway.  The Master is back.

I'm in two minds about this.  Michelle Gomez is very entertaining, and she's more frightening than John Simm, though with all due respect to adorable little Simmypoos, who resembles a child's drawing of a teddybear, that's not hard.  She completely sells the idea that the Master has swapped genders, and there's actually a bit of Simm in the performance, that same over-the-top villainous glee which I, er, loved so much last time.

"I'll give him an army of Cybermen, and then we'll be friends again!"
"Is that before, or after you throw him out of a plane?"
"SHUT UP CRAZY IS TALKING."
She's better at balancing the scary and the silly, but do we really have to do the silly bit as well?  I've seen plenty of villains who are over-the-top doolally – most of them, in fact.  I've seen plenty of villains who can be tied up and still take control of the situation – almost all of them, in fact.  And as for the bit where she tells the Doctor "we're not so different", you gotta be kidding me.  See every hero/villain relationship ever for other examples of this.

The Master, much like the Cybermen, just isn't my cup of tea (especially when they're determined to keep writing him as the Joker), and doing a Buy One Get One Free in the same episode doesn't do either of them any favours.  Still, their plot is just window-dressing for what the episode is really about: the real arc plot is the character stuff, the Doctor, Clara and Danny.  Is he a good man?  Can she make her relationship work?  Is there more to a soldier than killing people?

This stuff has left me cold throughout Series Eight, and its importance is largely why this run of episodes hasn't been my favourite.  Danny's not a bad character, but he's a bit obvious.  We learn nothing about his war guilt here, via flashback and interview with the victim, that wasn't painfully clear when he blubbed over it in Episode Two.  Even worse, I was never sold on his relationship with Clara.  It just won't work: she likes travelling, but he doesn't think it's necessary.  She keeps lying to him and he (understandably) doesn't like that.  As for their great attraction, the bit that presumably overcomes that other stuff, it just isn't on the screen.  They like each other – sorry, love each other because the writers say so.  Shrug.

And unfortunately, their great love is what saves the day.  After Danny deletes his emotions (but still mysteriously gets to keep them), it's love that makes him encourage all the other Cybermen to disperse the clouds of Cyber-pollen by exploding in the sky (because they had nothing better to do?).  Just when Steven Moffat starts killing people off for realsies, including Osgood who I really liked, god damn it, it's disappointing to end on something as fairytale as the power of love.  Again.  (If I had my way, only Back To The Future would be allowed.)  It also undoes the tragic ordinariness of Danny's original death.  What with all the goalpost-shifting on the subject of the Afterlife, and Danny and Clara's descendent we met in Episode 4, it doesn't even seem likely he's going to stay dead.  Once again, shrug.

As for Clara, she's made great strides this series: she's finally got reasons to like or dislike the Doctor, reasons to want to stay at home as well as travel the universe (instead of just doing both because um), but I'd still be perfectly happy if she didn't come back for Series Nine.  They keep ramping up her importance and her apparent Doctorliness, reaching a head in the puzzingly unconvincing "I'm the Doctor" teaser, but a lot of the time I just don't believe she's a real person.  Crucially, I'm more than ready for a series of Doctor Who that isn't all about her.

Funny gag and everything, but was it worth it?
Her "brilliant ruse" didn't even fool the Cybermen, let alone us.
And that last point goes double for the Doctor.  I'm all for reappraising the character when he regenerates, but it's tedious to make the entire Doctor Who universe revolve around him personally, and questioning basic tenets of his personality that we know will not change.  There's nothing to gain from asking us whether we know him at all.  Steven?  We do.  Kind of got fifty years of evidence there.  Nonetheless, Series Eight has redundantly asked: is the Doctor a good man?

Blimey, that's a tough one.  I'm going to stick my neck out and guess yes, since his desire to combat evil and encourage good is the premise of the fucking series.  He may not be very nice since Peter Capaldi showed up, but you'd need to have a brain the size of a walnut to think he wasn't a force for good any more.  What he's doing every single week?  Zipping around and helping people?  Well then.  And wouldn't you know it, that's the conclusion he reaches here.  Duh.  Why even ask?

It's like threatening to kill him off at the end of the season, or teasing us with his real name.  We're not idiots; we know you won't do it.  All this time spent examining the Doctor has taught us precisely sod all that we didn't already know.  Death In Heaven builds and builds to this, complete with soul-searching flashbacks, but it's a damp squib when we get there.

(I should probably mention the plot, and how both UNIT and the Master randomly want to give the Doctor ultimate control over life and death, and how that leads into the episode's theme of whether absolute power would corrupt him absolutely.  And now I have.  They don't really go into it in either case – he doesn't need to make any presidential decisions and he immediately hands the Cyber army over to Danny – but yeah, I could have told you whether he'd go nuts before you even asked.  So could any Doctor Who fan.  Fingers crossed, we can move on now and stop the redundant Doctorly navel-gazing.)

His morality is decided, at least temporarily; the Master still needs disposing of.  To save Clara's soul, the Doctor volunteers.  It's a bit of a "whatever" moment, however, as someone else immediately steps in and does it for him.  Again.  (The chances of it being an actual death, rather than some sort of cheaty teleport, are hilariously slim.  This is the Master, after all.)  As for her killer, much has already been said about the Cyber-Brigadier, and how that's not the fate many of us wanted for one of Doctor Who's enduringly beloved characters, especially as Steven Moffat only tossed it in there to mop up one lingering plot strand and presumably, as is his wont, make another grubby, permanent mark on Doctor Who fandom.  I don't have much to add, because I'm still too angry to articulate, but wouldn't it be nice if showrunners had really stringent script editors?  Just in case any of their ideas were, you know, complete and utter shit.

Death In Heaven is pretty much all downhill from the moral quandaries of Dark Water – really, we begin tobogganing as soon as the Stompymen arrive.  It's silly, a bit fuzzy-headed and disappointing.  But it does end well.  In a piece of really nice writing, the Doctor and Clara ostensibly part ways, both by lying to each other.  She says she's happy with Danny, who has successfully returned from the dead (although that wasn't what she meant to say); he says he's found Gallifrey and is going home (although the Master lied and it isn't where she said it was).  It's not the end for these two – the comedy coda makes that clear – but it's brilliantly played by both of them.  Capaldi's reaction to "Gallifrey", via flashback, is terrifying.

"How's the episode coming, Steven?  All dark and deathy?"
"Yes!  It'll upset a few people.  But it's time we went darker."
"Okay  Send?"
"Hitting send and OKAY NOW IT ENDS WITH SANTA CLAUS."
In fact, while we're on the subject, Peter Capaldi is pretty bloody fantastic in this.  He always is – it's just the curious emphasis on ramming home his unpleasantness that gets in the way of me appreciating his Doctor.  Well, touch wood, I think I get him now.  I appreciate the darker edges, because they allow for a certain macabre edge to the storytelling.  You probably couldn't do that Afterlife stuff as well with Matt Smith, love and miss him as I do.  (And he appears in a flashback!  Ahhh!  But it's from the rubbish series.)  Capaldi radiates the Doctor's warmth when he needs to, and that's enough for me.  Maybe I'll appreciate him even more when he's not cluttered in histrionics, companion issues, boyfriends and other such nonsense.

So.  Series Eight.  Not good enough, really.  Peter Capaldi (and to a lesser extent Jenna Coleman) is carrying it, which is precisely what I was expecting.  The bad, or heavily flawed episodes outnumber the good ones.  Actually, there wasn't a single one I'd recommend at the top of my lungs, although Flatline and Mummy On The Orient Express had much to admire.  It's all been too introspective, too much time wasted asking the wrong questions, and good god, that's enough with the arc plots.  With any luck, Series Nine will put the stories first, and there'll be more than just a fantastic lead actor to write home about.  Frankly, Matt Smith put up with enough of that already.