Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Vision of the Future

So, I should be running my review of In the Forests of the Night on Thursday (probably late Thursday), and I'll do the two-part finale sometime this weekend. I'll hold off on a season review until after The Last Christmas, since that looks like it's going to pick up a lot of loose threads.

So, starting next week, I'm going to work on the William Hartnell era. I've already covered An Unearthly Child through The Dalek Invasion of Earth, so between now and February (with a quick detour when the Christmas special comes out), I'll be covering the series from The Rescue through The Tenth Planet.

But I'm also going to cover some of the non-televised adventures. I'll cover both the Peter Cushing movies, as well as David Whitaker's novelization of The Daleks. From the Virgin Missing Adventures, I'll do Venusian Lullaby, The Plotters, and The Man in the Velvet Mask. From BBC Books, I'm currently planning to do Byzantium, The Eleventh Tiger, and Bunker Soldiers. And from Big Finish, I'll cover Home Truths, The Drowned World, and Guardian of the Galaxy.

I haven't quite decided yet whether to do those in the order they fit in (i.e., The Plotters between The Space Museum and The Chase), or to gather them at the end of each season, to better show how they comment on the season. For example, Venusian Lullaby takes place between The Dalek Invasion of Earth and The Rescue, but in many ways it's commenting on The Rescue and The Web Planet, so it might make sense to talk about it after covering both of those.

I'm also open to covering other novels or audio adventures from that time period; the only one listed above that I've actually read is Venusian Lullaby, so my choices were someone idiosyncratic. If there's a reason I should look at something else or a particular favorite, I'd welcome any suggestions.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mummy On the Orient Express / Flatline

Although these don’t represent a two-part episode, Mummy On the Orient Express and Flatline combined are the debut of writer Jamie Mathieson, who I’d be willing to bet will become a regular writer for the show. After all, Flatline, which he wrote first, shows everything you expect out of a new writer - refreshingly blasting through wild ideas, full of all the headlong energy and excitement you’d expect. And it’s executed so well he was immediately tapped to write Mummy, based on a pitch by Moffat that was literally the title with IN SPACE! tacked onto the end, and while it’s not quite as good, it’s a damn entertaining yarn. Combined, it’s probably the most exciting debut for a writer since Neil Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife.

Both overflow with a love for the series, not only full of elements reminiscent of RTD’s era (particularly the prominent and hilarious usages of the psychic paper), but especially of the classic series. Mummy feels remarkably like a Hinchcliffe/Holmes era episode; it’s pretty easy to see how a four-part Four and Sarah Jane version would go. The half Victorian-Edwardian/half-Sci-Fi setting is about the most Doctor Who setting there is, and adds an easy atmosphere to the whole thing. Even its references to older episodes are classy and clever, like the brilliant bit with the jelly babies in the cigarette case.

Yet it’s unmistakably a Moffat-era story. The pace is lightning quick, which, on the upside, makes for a hugely energetic and exciting yarn, and Mathieson skillfully develops a thoroughly enjoyable cast of characters with remarkable efficiency. On the downside, it means, inevitably, that it feels underdeveloped in places. The setting, in particular, for all its imagination and atmosphere, feels completely wasted; this could have all happened in a hotel room without a significant change to the story. And while it goes through a solid number of permutations of the concept, it still feels like more could have been done, and the hanging thread of the identity of Gus makes it feel incomplete. (Since I mentioned it, I imagine the climax as it is would be the cliffhanger of Episode 3 and resolution of Episode 4 in that theoretical four-part classic version, with the Doctor and Sarah going after Gus for the finale. Maybe swordfighting him on top of the train [in Space]?)

On the other hand, it has the two great advantages of Moffat’s era, both his expanding and deepening the emotional depth that RTD brought to the show. First, the story resolves in short but thoughtful and quietly moving fashion that also works nicely as a variation on the season’s soldier theme (while, admittedly, not quite making sense logically). Second, it shows how superbly Moffat has handled the character arcs, especially this season. Even if Clara’s explosion at the Doctor in Kill The Moon didn’t entirely come off, this plays with the consequences beautifully. The arc of her increasing hints at an underlying darkness and her emotionally-charged relationship with the Doctor continues to be compelling, and never moves so fast as to strain credibility. Mathieson does it so well that he actually carries the flawed set-up from Kill the Moon and redeems one of its flaws. (Also, Clara rocks that Flapper costume.)

He also gives Capaldi some magnificent material, which Capaldi actually elevates. His Doctor remains outwardly cold, but inwardly compassionate, and has all manner of great Doctorish moments, both funny and dramatic.

It’s not perfect - in addition to the flaws mentioned above, the resolution of the 66 seconds detail is anticlimactically a bit of meaningless technobabble. But it’s a solidly entertaining episode, full of humor, characterization, atmosphere, and heart.

But Flatline is even better.

Where Mummy feels reminiscent of Hinchcliffe-era Who, Flatline feels like the Cartmel / McCoy era in its humanistic, whimsical approach. It’s particularly concerned with teens, and especially troubled lower-class youth, and manages to paint a compelling portrait of the nature of their lives through Rigsy, graffiti artist, well played by Jovian Wade. Wade not only makes him appealing in his own right, but pulls off being Doctor Clara's companion for the episode, and it's almost a disappointment he doesn't join on at the end.

Its central concept - two-dimensional creatures trying to break into our dimension - is fascinating in itself, and the long-simmering ambiguity over whether they’re evil or just don’t realize what they’re doing actually adds to the horror. By the time they are confirmed to be evil, they begin to appear in the form of truly brilliant special effects showing their chaotic, 2D attempts to be 3D. It’s a rare case where a CGI monster is genuinely frightening visually.

The episode’s two gimmicks for the Doctor and Clara are terrific as well, and probably could have carried their own episodes on their own at a stretch, but combined with the monsters, creates an exhilarating yarn. The Doctor stuck in the ever-shrinking TARDIS makes for all manner of lovely visual gags, climaxing in the hilarious sequence of the Doctor’s hand desperately trying to crawl away from a train, with Murray Gold rightly playing it as the most dramatic action scene ever.

Even better is Clara’s plot of being the Doctor for an episode. She takes on the role brilliantly, managing to be Doctorish without losing her Claraishness along the way. On the other hand, she turns out to be a little too good at the coldly moving on part, reminding the Doctor too much of his own self-loathing, which makes for a compellingly frustrated final scene. Jenna Coleman, as always, takes what she’s given and runs with it, making already great material sing. 

Director Douglas MacKinnon, in his third contribution this year (after Listen and Time Heist) again excels, playing the atmosphere and every scene dead-on. If it weren't for the two episodes following this, he'd be the clear choice for best Who director of the season.

The only part of the episode that really doesn’t work is the Doctor’s big speech about being the Doctor who kills the monsters and protects this planet and so on and so forth. To be fair, I’m rarely a fan of these speeches. For instance, that part in Voyage of the Damned where the Doctor basically announces his name, age, and place of birth, and everyone listening (and even the music) orgasms on the spot never did it for me. It just feels like the character showboating, and doesn’t really earn the dramatic point that everyone suddenly decides to follow him. But even that at least had Tennant playing it for all it was worth; this is probably the only time post-Sherwood that Capaldi doesn’t quite pull off a scene. And the underlying problem is the same; the part of the speech that isn’t “I am the Doctor” bit works nicely, but once he’s just bragging about his name, it falls completely flat.

But, really, that’s the only significant bit that isn’t great here. Flatline is fantastic; in Series 7, it would have been the clear highlight of the season, and a contender in almost any other. Series 8 is actually so good that it will have to settle for third or fourth, but that’s no fault of its own. On its own, it would be a promising start for a new writer, but combined, it’s a stunning debut, and a damned fine pair of Who stories.


Mummy On the Orient Express: * * *
Flatline: * * * ½

Friday, November 28, 2014

Steven Moffat, Sexism, and Femme Fatales

There’s a strain of anti-Moffat sentiment that claims he’s not only a terrible writer, but that’s he’s sexist and couldn’t write a woman well to save his life. Tumblr has perhaps the loudest community of Moffat-haters (with posts tagged #moffat hate); here’s an example:

But Noir? I know Noir. And I knew Femme Fatales, and I think that by properly defining a Fatale and showing how few of his women actually fall into that trope, I can at least show that his women are extremely varied and well-developed characters, and, on that level, his approach to women is overall worthy of praise.

People often define Femme Fatales as “evil women”. This is understandable; they do tend toward the evil side of the spectrum, and the name literally means “dangerous woman”. But a “dangerous woman” could be virtually any female adventurer, soldier, cop, or mother whose child is in danger. A Fatale isn’t dangerous because she can or will kill you; she’s dangerous because she’s a woman.

While the Fatales have been around for a long time (Lady Macbeth, for instance), the trope solidified with the Noirs of the 1940s. For the sake of definition, Film Noir is atmospheric crime fiction about the darkness of the human soul. There’s a wide variety (including a number of popular sci-fi examples like Blade Runner, Dark City, and Looper), but the classic example and genre codifier is The Maltese Falcon. Other classics include Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Kiss Me Deadly; the modern standard would be LA Confidential. They’re typically thought of as revolving around a private detective, and often do, but are just as often about cops, civilians, or the criminals themselves.

And while not all women in Noir are fatales, that’s certainly where they thrive.

In the early 1930s, Hollywood often portrayed sexually liberated women in a positive light, in response to the flappers and similar movements among young women to extend First Wave Feminism’s expanded women’s rights to include sexual freedom. (Which actually rather appalled the First Wave Feminists, who did not suffer and fight for rights like voting so kids could have fun.) But the combination of the Hays Code and the Great Depression swinging against the decadence of the ‘20s and back into high morality forced Hollywood to adapt. For a while, Screwball Comedies kept that alive, but those, too, largely died out by the early 1940s. The last bastion of sexual liberation and any sort of power over men were the Fatales.

Femme Fatales use their sexuality to draw men into a world of danger. They can appear innocent, and, on rare occasion, even are, more or less. (Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep) More often, however, they’re the ones to watch out for - they’re sirens, more sophisticated and with vivid personalities, but still beautiful women who lead men to their doom. They can lie and manipulate with ease, and present themselves however they need to. Men are in love or in lust or both, and they can’t help but be. And the Fatales use that as their great power over men, and lead them into a violent world that, more often then not, gets them killed. Half the time, the femmes plug the heroes themselves.

There are a lot of aspects of this accusation, but the one that’s really caught my eye is the suggestion that all his women are exactly the same, and, very often, that they’re all femme fatales. Now, although I’ll proudly proclaim to be a feminist, my feminism certainly isn’t the most developed or studied. As I’m also a man, so there’s a limit to how much I can defend the charge of sexism against Moffat. I don’t think it holds water across the whole of his career, with most examples named being individual lines of dialogue ripped out of context, but it’s not really my best topic.
Kathie: I didn't know what I was doing. I, I didn't know anything except how much I hated him. But I didn't take anything. I didn't, Jeff. Don't you believe me?
Jeff: Baby, I don't care.
                                                          - Out of the Past
Their sexuality gives them their power, and the danger is that they’ll draw men into a dangerous world… and men fall for it because they can’t resist the fatales.

So how many of Moffat’s characters in Doctor Who and Sherlock are Femme Fatales? (This anit-Moffat crowd rarely mentions Coupling, and never brings up Press Gang, Joking Apart, or Chalk. Which is lucky for me, because I haven’t seen Coupling in years, only seen a few episodes of Press Gang, and have never seen the others.)

[Update 11/30: It was noted on Tumblr that I forgot to mention Jekyll, which I also haven't seen. That said, I just noticed that it's on Netflix Instant, so I'll rectify that shortly, and maybe even talk about it here.]

Let’s start with the most obvious and undeniable Fatale, Sherlock’s take on Irene Adler. Notably, Moffat goes all the way and just makes her a straight-up dominatrix, a woman whose very profession is sexually dominating and controlling men. She dominates and controls the entire narrative, making Sherlock, Mycroft, and, to some extent, even Moriarty dance around her, using her sexuality blatantly and aggressively. (although, interestingly, she doesn’t explicitly sleep with anyone) Most obviously, she completely throws both John and Sherlock off their games by meeting them stark naked. It works on John in the obvious way, while having the additional level of giving Sherlock nothing to see from her appearance.
Irene Adler: Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.
Sherlock: You think I’m a Vicar with a bleeding face?Irene Adler: I think you’re damaged, delusional, and believe in a higher power. In your case, it’s yourself.
Much more subtle is her long-term seduction of Sherlock; she flirts with him for six months and plays elaborate mind-games with him, which keeps him seemingly focused entirely on her for that entire time. Once her hooks are in, she fakes her death, then reveals that she’s alive, then finally shows up in his apartment, appearing as vulnerable as possible -- sleeping in his bed in casual clothing devoid of her style, looking exhausted rather than seductive. Only then does she pull her masterstroke, showing Sherlock the puzzle, and asking, “What can you do, Mr. Holmes? Come on, impress a girl.” For the final touch, she leans in very slowly to kiss him, and in all that, he solves the code in moments, never considering whether he should be telling her or not.

There’s a lot more to her character that’s worth mentioning - her intelligence is on Holmes’ level, and, like Holmes, her emotions are largely buried, and she’s ultimately surprised at her genuine feelings. She’s self-centered, bohemian, and intensely charming. She’s completely in control of her life. And while she is the antagonist, she’s not a villain, for all the damage she does. Sherlock sees her as an equal, not an adversary, and ultimately averts what looks like a brutal, tragic ending.

Compare her to Mary Watson, who is most decidedly not a fatale. Certainly, Mary is dangerous, but it has nothing to do with seduction or even with her manipulations. She’s dangerous because she’s a former assassin who uses bullets with literally surgical precision. She doesn’t draw others into danger, at least not with any harmful intention. Mary’s sexuality seems extremely reserved, almost conservative; certainly, it’s entirely between her and John, behind closed doors. Any manipulations are either small, petty acts of revenge (using Sherlock’s skills to figure out who to give the lesser seats at the wedding) or ways of getting to a target (her friendship with Janine). And even with Janine, her friendship seems genuine aside from how she’s using her.

And Mary and Irene have wildly different personalities. Where Irene has a vivid and direct wit, often tinted with sex (“I would have you on this desk until you begged for mercy twice.”), Mary has a subtle and teasing sense of humor (John: “I don’t shave for Sherlock Holmes.” Mary: “You should put that on a T-shirt.”). Irene has a similar sociopathy to Sherlock’s, but Mary, despite her former profession, seems generally emotionally healthy. She’s friendly and works for a happy life.

The other major recurring women, similarly, are distinct in personalities, goals, and natures. Mrs. Hudson’s sweet persona belies a surprising toughness under fire (hiding Irene’s phone while the CIA is torturing her for it) and an apparently rather saucy past in her youth. She’s outgoing and kind. Molly Hooper is a quiet introvert, brilliant in her field, and tries to act more innocent than she is, whether to put off a good impression or even to hide things from others. These are all women with distinct personalities and lives. And, notably, women with lives that extend well outside of the two men who drive the show, even on a show centered on those two. Even Molly, as much as her unrequited love for Sherlock drives her to some deeply unfortunate actions, seems to have a vivid enough social life to draw several boyfriends, and has an engagingly off-center coroner’s view of things at times. (I would actually like an episode that focused a bit on her own life, though that’s neither here nor there.)

Which brings us around to Doctor Who. Since this began as a focus on Femme Fatales, let’s start with those who either flirt around this definition or are at least accused of being Fatales.

Since this article was inspired by Time Heist, let’s start with Madame Karabraxos. She’s certainly a villain - a greedy banker who kills her own clones when she’s done with them and liquefies the brains of anyone who even thinks about committing a robbery, then incinerates their next-of-kin. She does this by cruelly keeping The Teller, one of the last of its species, locked away, and threatening to kill its mate if it doesn’t comply. Evil? Definitely. Even her one humanizing quality is a suppressed self-loathing she takes out on her clones. But none of this has anything to do with her sexuality; it’s entirely about her greed. I suppose her fashion sense gives off a hint of sexy librarian, but that’s irrelevant to the danger she represents. She’s a callous, cruel, greedy, theatrical villain… which, it should be noted, is the first one I’ve mentioned.

It’s worth mentioning that Moffat and co-writer Stephen Thompson give Keeley Hawes a second character to play - Ms. Delphox, her clone, who shares looks but only shows hints of the same personality; she lives under a cloud of fear, knowing that she could be killed by Karabraxos at any whim. It’s not a terribly deep or complex character, but it allows Hawes to be more than just an over-the-top villain and also play a more poignant henchwoman.

On to the other Madame, Kovarian, head of the Silence. Kovorian, as the head of an alien religious sect hell-bent on killing the Doctor in order to (she believes) save the universe certainly represents tremendous danger. But again, it has nothing to do with her sexuality (although I suppose you could read something into her sexuality given Tasha Lem’s approach to religion and sex [mix, stir, and shake vigorously]), nor with swaying the Doctor romantically. She’s the devious, terrifying side of religious fervor that brings and, ultimately, desires destruction over love. Like Karabraxos, she’s a highly theatrical villain, but unlike Karabraxos, she shows no sense of self-loathing or torment, nor does she mind getting her hands dirty and being in the midst of the horrors she creates. Her motivations, as mentioned, are deeper and more complex, and drive her to do very different sorts of horrors.

Which brings us to the most theatrical of theatrical villains, Missy, née The Master. Obviously, I’ll be talking more about her in a few entries, but suffice to say, she’s only gotten more evil over her regenerations. Again, though, Missy doesn’t seduce the Doctor, nor, really, even try to bring him to his downfall, not exactly. Moffat does go from RTD’s “barely even subtext anymore” approach to the Doctor/Master romantic undertones to “straight-out snogging”, but that has nothing to do with Missy’s plan; she’s just simultaneously overjoyed to see her best friend, figuring out a nice way to mess with his head, and seventeen different kinds of crazy (at least). She brings brand new variations on her old tricks and a few new ones, but she’s still committing horrific atrocities in the name of ruling the universe. It’s just that, in this case, she wants The Doctor to rule it. It’s a unique motivation that drives her to do horrors in a wild, random way, utterly unlike the precise machinations of Kovarian and the focused violence of Kalabraxos.

Compare these, then, to the picture posted above. The similarities between Irene Adler, Madame Kovarian, Madame Kalabraxos, and Missy? Well… they do all wear dark clothing. Like villains. And heroes looking cool. And regular people trying to look slick. Or business-like. Or slimming. Or because the just like black. And they all wear their hair up, which is, admittedly, kind of an interesting choice, that’s about the end of it. Adler, Kovarian, and Missy are complex, vastly different characters, and while Kalabraxos certainly doesn’t get a lot of depth in her limited screen time, she’s a different take on a villain.

There’s one other Who character who certainly flirts with the Fatale tradition - River Song. River is… complicated. She’s certainly very sexually assertive, though how far you take that depends on what you want to read into the subtext. But, again, her seduction of the Doctor (and, apparently, Cleopatra and JFK) has nothing to do with drawing him into danger, though she certainly wants to go on adventures with him. She calls herself a psychopath, but she certainly isn’t one. Emotionally damaged and created to be one, but not actually one. She’s far more in touch with and driven by her emotions than any of the characters discussed so far except maybe Missy, and she obviously acts very differently on her feelings toward the Doctor, and completely differently when not traveling with him.

While we’re at it, it’s worth looking at, briefly, Amy and Clara, and seeing their similarities and differences. They’re both flirtatious, but Amy’s flirting is direct and unsubtle; when she flirts with someone, it pretty much means, “I want to have sex with you right now.” (Or something more romantic, depending on the circumstances, but it’s right there on the surface.) Whereas Clara’s flirting is light and innocent; her sexuality, while implied to be a complicated depending on how similar she is to Oswin Oswald, is generally reserved and her own business, while Amy is pretty straightforward about hers. Both are brave, but where Amy’s bravery tends to come from a bravado that gradually weakens, Clara’s comes from weaponizing her own fear. Their adventurousness also differs; Amy wants to do it all her life and dives straight into it, while Clara does it largely as a hobby (part of her control-freak nature).

They also go through wildly different character arcs. Amy, essentially, has to grow up. She starts with both childhood fantasies and adolescent sexuality holding her back, and while the latter is largely resolved once she’s married and honeymooned, the former doesn’t start to waver until the Doctor forces the issue. In the process, she goes through what amounts to rape by the Silence, a traumatic birth, and a frustrated but ultimately happy motherhood. Afterwards, she deals with a divorce and reconciliation with Rory, then tries to live a regular life, interrupted by the Doctor. Finally, she travels with him as a mature adult, who has truly chosen how to live the rest of her life… which, ironically, is what prepares her to live a happy life without the Doctor or all of Time and Space. She knows, finally, that she’s happy simply with Rory, and forges a wonderful life on her own.

Clara goes through a bit of maturing as well, but she has different issues; she’s a control-freak to a sometimes awful degree, she lies to those she loves to build up her own sense of who she is, and she needs so badly to feel “special” that she can’t take being ordinary, or facing the horrors and tragedy of ordinary life. The (sort-of) final shot of Death In Heaven, as she walks into a crowd, becoming ordinary and resolved to it, brings something of a close to this story, though we’ll see where this goes in the Christmas special (and, possibly, beyond).

But you can see in both their stories a profound difference from, really, any previous companion: a genuine interest and passion in telling stories of real women’s lives. Rose may have been developed as an ordinary woman, but she essentially abandoned that for wacky adventures and, ultimately, melodramatic tragedy; Martha and Donna went through similar arcs. In the classic series, the only companions to approach this level of complexity and characterization are Barbara, Ian, and Ace, and only Ace has anything resembling the story of a real woman (buried somewhere under all the whimsy and bomb-making). There have been a lot of great companions, and this lack hasn’t held back any of the ones I named (I’d put Donna, Barbara, Ian, and Ace on my list of 10 favorite companions, and Rose and Martha wouldn’t miss it by much). Having their stories more rooted in the fantastic and less in reality doesn't hold them back from being wonderful characters, nor has it (nor should it) keep women from drawing strength and inspiration from their stories.

But Moffat, through his characters, has shown an impassioned desire to tell tales of what real women face and overcome, and tell a wide variety of them.

And this is true of Press Gang and Coupling as well. And, really, this is the crux of it: he doesn’t just write women well, he writes a wide variety of women, from the most extreme theatrical villains to the editor of a junior paper, with depth and admiration. They’re praised and beloved for their power, equal and even superior to men even in shows about men, and flawed only by being deeply, painfully human.

In the end, I think this is what separates feminist from sexist: seeing women as human and as equals to men. For 25 years, Steven Moffat has done exactly that with his writing. Not always well, not always without problems, but always striving to make complex, compelling, and wildly different women, showing all different aspects of their lives, and seeing them as equal to men. There has never been a more consistently feminist era of Doctor Who, and rarely has there been a more consistently feminist show on television, even today. That’s not to say he’s beyond criticism, but that criticism should start from acknowledging how much he gets right, and how to go forward and do better from there.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Kill the Moon

We have a terrible decision to make: an innocent life vs. the future of all mankind. We have 45 minutes to decide.
Clara has a problem. The Doctor, presumably in one of his occasional Malcolm Tucker flashbacks, told Courtney she wasn’t special. In return, she stole the Doctor’s psychic paper and has been using it as a fake ID. (The Doctor, completely undisturbed by this, asks, “To get into museums?”) But she’s really upset by the Doctor’s words, and Clara convinces him he needs to do something, because this could affect her whole life. So when Courtney sneaks onto the TARDIS and asks to be travel with him, the Doctor transports them aboard a Space Shuttle rocketing toward the moon in 2049. After it smoothly crash-lands, the Doctor confronts the crew about why the moon’s gravity is suddenly the level of Earth’s, when there shouldn’t be any --

-- wait, wait, wait. Back up. Courtney’s upset because the Doctor told her she wasn’t special?
Do you really think I’m not special? You can’t just take me away like that! It’s like you kicked a big hole in the side of my life! You really think it? I’m nothing? I’m not special?

Ellis George is appealing at Courtney, but she can’t sell that guano.

Now, it’s been a while since I was a young disruptive influence myself, and I’ve never been a young black woman as far as I’m aware, but I don’t buy this. At all. You’re a kid, and some weirdo old guy tells you that you’re not special, and even if he has a cool spaceship, you’re pretty much like, “Suck it, geezer”. Maybe pout for a minute if he was particularly nasty (and if you’re, like 10, rather than Courtney’s 15), and then find someone more interesting to disruptively influence and forget the old guy ever existed. You don’t go into a deep funk over that. Especially in Courtney’s situation; she’s clearly loved by both her parents, and certainly has them and Clara (who she does appear to like and respect) to tell her she’s special. And she’s 15.

In fact, not to go all Calvin’s dad here, but being told you’re not special, quite frankly, builds a little character. I wish that had been banged into my head once or twice, so I would have actually put some effort in every now and again instead of trying to coast on my own specialness. In a season that otherwise excels at creating real, human conflict, this reeks of TV Kid conflict.

Oh, yeah, and the shuttle and gravity stuff is dumb too, I guess. But this Courtney subplot sucks.

Anyway, we have the Space Shuttle crashing on the moon, where… no, no, can’t skip that. It’s not Courtney needing to be told she’s a special little snowflake so she doesn’t grow up with all her dreams forever crushed, but that’s a little hard to take. The Space Shuttle was not capable of traveling to the Moon. That multi-billion-dollar failure couldn’t even make it to high Earth orbit. But even if you did put it on a launcher that could get it out there,* it wasn’t built to land on a surface without an atmosphere - it has no way of slowing down. And if the moon suddenly has the Earth’s full gravity, the chances of the craft not being completely disintegrated in an ultra-high-speed collision is about as likely as… no, actually, there is no comparison here. If you were coming up with the least likely thing to happen, that’s the one you would come up with.

* (Which, under the circumstances, fair enough. Notably, in an early design, its booster was supposed to be a Saturn V, and I suppose if you replaced the third stage with a NERVA engine or a modern equivalent, you might possibly have something approaching the power to make it, particularly if the moon’s gravity has increased.)

Honestly, it’s hard to make too serious a complaint about that as-is, since it’s just supposed to be a big, exciting opening. And it might have been, if it hadn’t gone from the Doctor noticing they were about to crash-land, followed by a three-second crash sequence, followed by no one being phased by the whole thing. Still, it’s just a bit of silliness.

Which leads us to the gravity thing. The Doctor is surprised at the moon’s Earth-like gravity because his yo-yo actually goes down, and they should be “bouncing around like fluffy clouds.”

Look, this seems pretty elementary, and by elementary, I think kids are taught this in school at about half Courtney’s age. But since it has to be pointed out, let’s be as clear as possible.


Hence, why astronauts were able to walk on it. And land on it in the first place.

It’s ⅙ Earth gravity, yes, but it’s stick frickin’ gravity. The yo-yo will still drop, just more slowly. Look, the space shuttle thing is me nitpicking because I’m a space nerd. I’m not actually docking the episode any points for that (though it doesn’t gain any points for the sloppy little action beat, either), and it does fit in thematically with the episode’s nostalgia for the dying space program. But why this? They just need to get across that the moon’s gravity has increased sixfold. (how about “bouncing around like we’re on a giant trampoline” instead of “like fluffy little couds”?) Did nobody in a read-through or on set notice this? And if someone did notice, did they then decide consciously to not change it? I mean, what’s the point, trolling science nerds? It’s just the sort of sloppy detail work that throws people who care out of the story without benefiting anyone who doesn’t care.

On the other hand, we’re watching a show where the greatest threat to the universe is a race of salt-shakers with a plunger for one arm and an egg whisk for the other, so maybe I should stop carping and just enjoy the ride.

The Doctor becomes extremely confrontational with the astronauts, which seems a tad unnecessary, but results in a magnificently Doctorish moment:

Doctor: Shoot the little girl first.
Courtney: What?
Doctor: She doesn’t want to stand there and watch us getting shot. She’ll be terrified. Girl first, then her teacher, and then me. You’ll have to spend a lot of time shooting me because I will keep on regenerating.

Unfortunately, once that’s resolved, Courtney goes off to pout, and I’m surprised to find myself wishing she hadn’t come along after really enjoying her in The Caretaker.

At any rate, the plot is explained now: apparently, the moon suddenly increased its mass and gravity to match that of Earth’s for some unknown reason. The resulting tides drowned entire cities. (It would also probably fling the Earth out of its orbit.) Humanity had long abandoned space travel to focus on survival, but the last message from a Lunar Mining Colony set up by Mexico (!) gave some suggestion that the reason might be buried on the moon. So a desperate suicide space mission was launched by recycling a museum-piece space shuttle; they were to try to figure out what happened, then blow up the moon with 100 nuclear bombs. And pray the resulting debris didn’t wipe out all remaining Earth life, I guess, but when you’re between a rock and a hard place…

(I think that’s the correct chronology, anyway. I’m not quite clear as to whether all of humanity except Mexico had abandoned space travel before the moon thing, or if they abandoned it post-disaster except for this one mission that took 10 years to plan, or if they abandoned it and then changed their minds this once. The world-building really isn’t very clear here.)

The astronauts and TARDIS crew journey to the apparently abandoned Mexican mining station. The moon effects are solid enough, if lacking in any particular sense of atmosphere or wonder. When they arrive, the captain (who the episode never gets around to actually naming, but who Wikipedia tells me is named Lundvik) sends back one of the other two astronauts in yet another piece of dialogue that makes me question whether the world has gone mad.
Lundvik: Henry, go back and prime the bombs.
Henry: Um… is there any instructions?
Lundvik: There’s a switch on each of them. The light goes red.

The Doctor asks if that’s the best they could get. Lundvik responds that they’re “third-hand astronauts.”

I get that humanity has basically abandoned spaceflight and had to stretch a bit to figure out the crew, but they honestly chose a senile old man instead of, I don’t know, an air force pilot? And they didn’t train all the astronauts on how to arm the nuclear bombs intended to save mankind? The early space program may have flirted with a variety of ideas for astronauts, but they settled on test pilots and other such men for a reason. And then they spent years training for the actual missions. Am I to assume the entire human race just lives on a diet of vodka and stupid pills in the future? Did the Internet really rot out our brains that much in two decades?

… okay, I just took a look at Tumblr, and that last explanation sounds entirely plausible. Carry on.

They find cobwebs, which lead, naturally, to giant space spiders, who aren’t particularly scary if you don’t have high arachnophobia, but at least their mouths look freaky the one time we see them. They soon consume the other red shirt astronaut (who I think has had two lines at this point) in one of the most incoherent action/horror scenes I’ve seen recently. I’ve seen the episode three times and I still don’t understand why Courtney starts hovering in the middle of the room. The Doctor mumbles something about the extra gravity being an “unstable mass”, but that actually makes less sense than anything else here.

After the ruckus dies down, Lundvik gives a sudden emotional eulogy about how he was the guy who trained her, and apparently his name was Duke, and she’s really upset about all this, and I’m just mildly surprised the astronauts actually knew each others’ names for all they’ve actually acknowledged each other at this point. Maybe if the script had cared to develop any of the astronauts at all, this might have some impact, but it doesn’t even get around to telling us Lundvik’s name, let alone give her any sort of apparent personality. Of course it doesn’t bother with the red shirts.

The sloppiness doesn’t let up. Later, Courtney gets bored and posts pics on Tumblr. Lundvik laughs, “My granny used to put things on Tumblr”. This is set in 2049. Based on the evidence in the episode and the age of actress Hermione Norris, Lundvik has to be mid to late 40s, meaning Lundvik was born in the early Aughts at the latest. Even in the unlikely event that Tumblr dies in 2015, she was old enough to have used it herself, and a lot more likely to have used it than her grandmother. So either the joke is that her grandmother was so on top of technology that she used tumblr, which is kind of a non-sequitur in context, or writer Peter Harness decided it wasn’t worth the ten seconds it would take to add up the years. All this may sound like nitpicking, and it probably is, but I couldn’t laugh at the joke because my brain told me the numbers didn’t add it. It’s like the joke about the astronaut being so senile he doesn’t know how to set off the incredibly simple nuke. Some people probably find it funny, but the joke doesn’t make any sense, and makes the characters dumber for having made them.

That probably tells you more about me than the episode, but it’s still yet another example of Harness just slapping stuff together. It wouldn’t be a problem if the same sloppiness didn’t extend to the characters, action, and dialogue in general.

To backtrack a bit, Courtney brought cleaning supplies with her on board the TARDIS to help convince the Doctor to bring her along. But why does she take them with her in her spacesuit? Even the Doctor’s advanced spacesuits look large and cumbersome, and seem unlikely to have pockets large enough for that. But even if they do, does Ms Disruptive Influence really seem like the kind of girl to go through the hassle of carrying around a full-size bottle of Windex in her spacesuit? On the moon?

Finally, the Doctor figures out what’s been going on: 
Doctor: The moon isn’t breaking apart - the moon is hatching.
Clara: Huh?
Doctor: The moon’s an egg.
That’s… beautiful.

Seriously, that’s absolutely brilliant. In a show highlighted by the sheer madness of its ideas, that’s one of the most magnificently mad ideas ever, and the only thing that makes it better is the indescribable way Capaldi delivers that line. I also love how quickly Clara accepts, and then moves on --

Clara: Has it always been an egg?
Doctor: Yes. For 100 million years or so. Just growing, getting ready to be born.
Clara: Okay, so the moon has never been the moon.
Doctor: No, no, no, it’s never been dead, it’s just taken a long time to come alive.

-- and then it all falls apart again. The current scientific consensus on the age of the moon is about 4.5 billion years, give or take 100 million years. The problem here isn’t that the Doctor claims it happened 100 million years ago; I assume he knows a lot more about what’s happening than he lets on. But if Courtney has paid any attention at all in school, she’d know that sounded wrong; Clara would probably know that was the wrong number; and Lundvik, The Last Astronaut, would definitely know that sounded wrong, and could probably recite the age of 4.527 ± 0.010 billion years off the top of her head. And all three of them would call the Doctor on it.

That’s the thing - my problem isn’t the science itself; it’s that the sloppiness makes the characters fall flat. It’s not like the Doctor couldn’t have talked his way out of it once they called him on it. He’d just brush it off, Clara and Courtney would dismiss him as being his usual weird self, and Lundvik would continue to think he was a lunatic.

Anyway, the Doctor looks at the image of the giant creature and says it’s utterly beautiful. Lundvik asks how they kill it. Clara and Courtney both object, as does the Doctor: “You’d have an enormous corpse floating through the sky. Have some very difficult conversations to have with your kids.” I suppose the bright side is that with the moon destroyed, the giant corpse would have the gravity to resume the tides. We’ll have to assume that for the crux of the story to work. The final act is the debate on whether to kill the space dragonfly before it hatches to protect the Earth, or take the chance that everything will turn out okay.

And the Doctor stays out of it. He says that this is a moment in history where time is in flux; the decision made here will determine the future course of human history, and he refuses to interfere. He leaves it to Clara, Courtney, and Lundvik, flying away to let them decide alone. The Doctor leaving them is a brilliant touch, superbly highlighting how the Doctor’s morality seems askew to ours, and I especially love that it’s three women who are left to decide. And not just any three women: a trouble-making teenager, a late-20s schoolteacher, and a middle-aged astronaut. Three generations with three different outlooks and personalities. (At least, I assume the latter in Lundvik’s case, since I’m pretty much just extrapolating her character from the intensity Hermione Norris gives her.) As the Doctor says, “Womankind, it’s your choice.”

The debate has flaws of its own. When Lundvik proclaims, “It is killing people. It is destroying the Earth,” Clara responds with “You cannot blame a baby for kicking.” All the coastal cities were flooded. I’ll get back to this a little later, but when you take everything into account, there were probably 100 million deaths from this whole thing. Lundvik rightly calls it “the greatest natural disaster in history.” The baby kicking metaphor kinda breaks down once you’ve broken the 100 million mark on your death slate.

Or there’s Lundvik pointing out that the debris would wipe out all life on Earth, which begs the question of what she thought blowing up the moon was going to do. Clara’s counter-argument that it’s an eggshell similarly has her extending the metaphor past the breaking point.

It doesn't help that writing rebellious 15-year-old Courtney as an endlessly obnoxious TV 10-year-old has reduced her in a single episode from a promising young possible companion to Adric reborn. Ellis George is completely defeated by the awful material she's given, and we come to dread her every appearance.

And in the midst of all this, there are also a couple more lazily set-up and directed action scenes -- a breech in the hull that resolves itself by pure luck moments later, a quick shot of the spiders advancing, a scene where the women suddenly have to run down an exploding hall for… some reason. The level of danger here is never clearly established. How far away are the advancing spiders? Why are the hallways suddenly deciding to explode? Honestly, it’s not even necessary: we have a doubly ticking clock with both the moon about to hatch and the nuke going off

But honestly, for all its problems, this is actually, almost, kind of a compelling sequence. The strength of the concept and performances finally overcome the flaws of the writing and directing, and deliver some decent sci-fi drama. And the script even gives them a couple good lines in there. Lundvik points out that Clara probably has children and grandchildren below on Earth. “You want today to be the day life stopped on Earth because you couldn’t make an unfair decision? Listen, I don’t want to do this. All my life, I’ve dreamed about coming here. But this is how it has to end.”

Finally, Lundvik sets the timer for an hour and shows them the abort button.

In desperation, Clara calls Mission Control (which appears to be one guy in a garage) and tells him to broadcast her message to all of Earth. Everyone who wants to save the creature, turn on their lights; everyone who votes to kill it, turn them off. This way, the entire Earth can make the decision.

… Well, half of Earth. Well, Europe and the bits of Africa who have electric lighting. And whatever’s left of the US East coast. Because clearly Asia, Australia, Western America, and anyone who doesn’t have electricity shouldn’t get to count their vote. Forget those guys.

Again, what’s really galling here is how easily fixable this is. The time limit here is entirely arbitrary; the only reason to make it 45 minutes is so the cold open can pretend it’s being clever. Making the time limit 24 hours wouldn’t affect the story negatively in any way.

Still, if you can roll with this (and if you rolled with anything in the first twenty-five minutes, you can probably take it), there’s a real poetry in the scene. The people of the world, given the choice between guaranteeing their own survival and killing an innocent(ish) life, choose to kill the unborn. I don’t entirely buy this, but I figure the governments would shut everything down themselves, just to be safe.

Lundvik, who had long ago resigned herself to this whole mess, abides by it. But Clara and Courtney both ignore logic and the votes of the entire world and turn off the nuke anyway. The Doctor re-appears, and brings them back to Earth to witness the hatching. The space dragon hatches, and flies off, leaving a whole new moon behind. For all its flaws, this is certainly a unique climax, science fiction in its most imaginative sense that only Doctor Who can provide, with the personal theatrical touch only Doctor Who delivers that imagination with. I mean, it's a pretty lame version of that, but it's reaching.

Doctor: You made your decision? Humanity made its choice?
Lundvik: No, we ignored humanity.
Doctor: Well, there you go.
Lundvik: So, what happens now?
Doctor: In the mid-21st century, humankind starts creeping off into the stars. Spreads its way through the galaxy, to the very edges of the universe. And it endures till the end of time.And it does all that because one day in the year 2049 when it’d stopped thinking about going to the stars, something occurred that made it looked up, not down. It looked out there, into the blackness, and it saw something beautiful, something wonderful, that for once it didn’t want to destroy. And in that one moment, the whole course of history was changed.

Wow. Removed from context, the world seeing the beauty of the universe sending humanity into a new golden age of space exploration is a tremendously powerful epic tale. In the context of this story, that’s about as compelling as Courtney needing to be sugar-fed that she’s a special little snowflake. (And 12’s action theme on the soundtrack is overdoing it, and frankly, starting to get old; it’s kind of a cool theme, but a lot less interesting than Gold’s past Doctor themes.)

As Lundvik pointed out, this would be the greatest natural disaster in history. The morality of the Doctor and Clara would not fly in the face of the entire world. The coastal cities of the world were leveled, untold millions were displaced from their homes, and the world probably faced a massive resulting food and medicinal crisis; that sort of disaster is a gold mine for diseases. As I guessed above, minimally, this would probably add up to 100 million deaths. (For comparison, the worst natural disaster in history numerically is the flu epidemic of 1918, which killed 75 million), and the resulting economic damage would plunge much of the world into a new level of poverty. The entire human race would suffer a collective trauma that would take generations to fully overcome.

There’s a reason the world voted to kill. Those are not birthing pains. Oh, poor space dragonfly, it only killed a hundred million people and devastated the entire planet. It was an accident, right?

Yeah, no. Have you ever met humans? Space Dragonfly can suck it. Earth is entering a golden age of space exploration so that Captain Ahab can hunt that damn space dragonfly with our whole species backing him. I’m betting the Space Ahab will be a Texan, since they’d be positively miffed at not getting to vote.

But, as I said, this is going for poetry. Just because it’s a clumsy poem and the director didn’t seem to get the memo doesn’t mean it can’t sort of work on its own terms.

We’re wrapping up, anyway. Courtney feels special now (blech) and everybody’s going home happy. But it’s not over, because Clara decides throws a tantrum. Apparently, she’s mad that the Doctor gave her (the control freak) a difficult choice. The Doctor says he had faith that she would make the best and right choice, but she doesn’t feel respected. Even though the Doctor paid her, her sex, and her entire species an extraordinary respect.

I mean, I get what this is going for: the Doctor’s callousness enraged her, and she felt abandoned when she needed him most. But, for me at least, it rings false. Like Courtney’s subplot, it feels like fakey Hollywood drama, and this isn’t a season that can get away with that. Clara being upset is perfectly fair, and Jenna Coleman plays it beautifully, but I don’t believe for a second that this is what would send Clara off the edge deciding she didn’t want to travel with the Doctor anymore.

Frustratingly, the closing moments, first between Clara and Danny, and then with Clara alone in her apartment, are superbly written. In a context that makes a hint of sense, these scenes would be incredible. (Clara drinking a glass of wine to think about things is a particularly nice character touch.) It’s reminiscent of the whiplash between the sickening over-sentimentality of the majority of The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe and the sudden punch of honest emotion in the epilogue.

So what am I supposed to make of this mess? I genuinely love the concept. The Moon hatching into a space dragon, and the moral choice left up to three women, is pure genius. It’s one of the best ideas the series has ever come up with, and that’s a high bar to cross. Sheer poetry. And the Twelfth Doctor is rarely more Doctorish; both the script and Capaldi are spot-on throughout. (He even gets through an entire episode without saying “Sorry!” What was the last time that happened, Survival?)

There’s more to it than simply a cool idea for the Doctor to run around in. As I alluded to earlier, scenes like the entire world turning out its lights in a vote show this is a poem, an ode to space exploration that truly longs for the glories of a golden age beyond the cradle of Earth. And I can’t think of another TV show that would do that as a one-off between a romantic farce and a horror yarn. This is reaching for the stars the way 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Right Stuff, and Interstellar reach in their own unique ways. (Armageddon as well, actually) This aims to be a grand epic of science fiction and fantasy.

And it’s a stunningly feminist one, too. Compared to those above, for instance, 2001 barely acknowledges that women exist. Liv Tyler is only in Armageddon so Ben Affleck has someone to kiss and Bruce Willis has someone to cry manly, manly tears over leaving behind. The Right Stuff does develop its women and give them stories, but they’re firmly “the wives” while the men do their stuff.

Interstellar has a more complex view, and ultimately valorizes women and the more traditionally feminine virtues of love and emotion over logic and power, but its focus is on both a celebration and deconstruction of masculinity. The world is saved by two women and one man (and an awesome robot), but the protagonist is still the manliest manly man ever to save the earth by gently yet firmly thrusting his spaceship in and out of docking procedures with his joystick. Yes, the other guy, named “Dr. Mann” with all the subtlety of a Dalek invasion, represents unchecked masculinity and ruins everything, and McConaughey doesn’t succeed until he stops driving forward by logic and starts working through love and emotion. Interstellar is feminist in its own ultra-masculine way, but it’s no comparison with Kill The Moon, which puts the decision of humanity’s future in the hands of three women, while the one non-red shirt male leaves because he can’t imagine anyone better to leave it to. It’s a magnificent climax to a magnificent tale.

But actually watching it, the execution is nails on a chalkboard all the way across. Nearly every scene, in its concept, is a perfect Who scene, but the direction is bland, the dialogue mildly cringe-worthy, the character drama unconvincing, and the detail work incredibly sloppy. The direction is particularly a problem. Even if the script had been dead on, this badly needed the fantastic approach Sheree Folkson brings to In the Forest of the Night, (which has the extra advantage of smoothing over any rough spots in this sort of story) rather than Paul Wilmshurst’s flat, uninspired approach here.

I was surprised to discover how many people outright loved it. I mean, there’s often differences of opinion, but the consensus seemed to be that this is an instant classic, and that didn’t add up at all. Oddly, though, right after watching it, my first reaction was all the science criticism (plus a lot more). And I found that the vast majority of the criticism seemed to attack that angle. It’s remarkable how often the biggest complaint was that the Space Dragonfly dropping off a new moon violated the law of the conversation of mass.

But so what?

Honestly, I don’t object to Space Dragonfly dropping off a new moon of the correct mass. That goes with “The Moon is an egg.” And if you don’t like the moon hatching into a dragonfly, you’re probably watching the wrong show. This is the show where the ambassador from Alpha Centauri is a giant green penis with a high-pitched woman’s voice. Where the vampires have to be stabbed in the heart with an entire spaceship. Where clocks and shadows are terrifying monsters.

So why did I find the science so off-putting? I mean, yes, when you can say with a straight face that Michael Bay’s Armageddon had a superior grasp on astronomy, physics, and how the space program actually works, you could probably at least check the first paragraph of the corresponding Wikipedia pages before filming. But Moffat’s fairy tale approach hasn’t really bothered me before.

Maybe there is a legitimate complaint for this one, then. I mean, the sheer quantity of terrible science is not only overwhelming, but, for the most part, completely gratuitous. The episode practically delights in kicking science nerds in the brain, which is strange for a show that has so many amongst its fans. There’s no reason for the Doctor to act like the moon should have no gravity instead of ⅙ Earth gravity, for instance. But that’s still a pretty insubstantial criticism. Not quite invalid, but not a reason to write off the entire thing.

Maybe, then, it goes to the basic problem with criticism, which is that most people know whether or not they liked a movie or TV show, but aren’t very good at figuring out why. It takes a lot of study and a lot of practice to get beneath the surface emotion and figure out what did or didn’t work. Our natural tendency is to take something obvious on the surface and assume that was the problem. And even with a lot of practice, it’s still an easy trap to fall into. So maybe it’s just that since the characterization, action, and atmosphere didn’t work for me, snarking about the science was all I had.

Or maybe I should just avoid Doctor Who episodes about gravity on the moon.


* * ½


  • With all I had to say (I think this is my longest review ever even before getting to these), I didn’t even address the ways the climax works as a metaphor for abortion. This is an immensely complicated topic, and I could easily spend another 5000 words on it. A lot of people on both sides of the debate have felt either vindicated or attacked by the episode, but I like how it turns out in that sense. As a metaphor, it’s never going to line up perfectly, it has a remarkably nuanced, complex approach to a problem that, frankly, needs a more complicated approach than the simplistic dichotomy it’s reduced to.

    Kill the Moon actually ends up being simultaneously pro-choice and pro-life; the Doctor gives the fate of the world over to women, and not even as a group, but as individuals. On the other hand, the episode clearly cheers them for choosing life. This conclusion - that a woman’s freedom of choice and ownership of her body must be respected, yet life is still the right choice (Let it feel the sun on its back) understands not only how both arguments work, but how they could work together.
  • Since I mentioned it above, I loved Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which shares most of the same themes and ideas as this. Admittedly, Interstellar showcases amazing special effects (especially in 70mm) and heart-pounding set-pieces courtesy a $165 million budget. On the other hand, Kill the Moon has the Doctor, so advantage Who.

    But where Kill the Moon tries to build a dying world that has abandoned space travel (and, with it, the future) in favor of survival on Earth with a couple of lines of dialogue, Interstellar puts us there. The dust storms, McConaughey’s conversation with his daughter’s teachers, and Hans Zimmer’s expressionistic music get across vividly how far the world has fallen; and we see NASA reduced to a single bunker, financed off the books. We feel the apocalyptic world and the death of space travel. In Kill the Moon, we get a couple of lines, and not particularly dramatic ones. Interstellar develops its themes similarly throughout, so that the final triumph of mankind reaching toward the stars feels earned and meaningful, rather than a speech tacked on to try to screw some unearned weight onto the climax.

    The sense of awe and wonder in Interstellar don’t just take place in its wilder regions, though; even the washed-out iceworld has a sense of a wondrous, terrifying frontier. That sort of atmosphere is badly missing from Kill the Moon. It’s not a lack of technical ability; Kill the Moon’s effects get across the setting effectively enough. There’s just no mood or emotion to it.

    Interstellar also takes great care to get as much of the science right as possible, with the exceptions being either complex enough not to be noticed by anyone who doesn’t know this stuff like the back of their hand (the time dilation on a planet in a stable orbit around the black hole would be nowhere near as severe as we see on the waterworld) or fundamental to the premise and explained. (both the wormhole and the black hole are artificially created, so they don’t have to follow the rules perfectly) The result feels scientifically authentic, even as it goes in some wild directions during the climax.

    That same care for detail extends to its take on the space program itself, lending real weight to its nostalgia.

    I think Interstellar understands the complex and frustrating nature of why the space program has been so badly hobbled for the last forty-five years, while Kill the Moon seems to think that the cancellation of the Space Shuttle was where it all went wrong.

    This makes me wonder if Kill the Moon would be better off at twice the length, or at least at 75 minutes. I said before that, with one exception, this season knew how to fit its ideas into 45 minutes. This is the exception. I think Kill the Moon, expanded correctly, would have excelled as a two-parter. We could spend some time on Earth, getting a sense for not only how the moon’s gravity has wrecked the earth. More than that, though, we could see what dire straights the space program is in, desperately trying to put together even a single mission. The astronauts could get actual character development. Even the crash landing, ridiculous as it is, could at least work on a suspense and action level with several minutes of build-up instead of two seconds.
    • In retrospect, why space spiders? Since they’re actually giant space bacteria, they could look like all kinds of uniquely freaky creatures.

    Monday, November 17, 2014

    Another Update

    Okay, I'm obviously a couple of days behind on Kill the Moon. Unfortunately, the first draft of that turned out to be a 6000 word behemoth, which seems like a bit much.

    Anyway, Kill the Moon will run Tuesday (for real this time!) and the Fatales article on Thursday. I'm trying to decide whether it's better to do my weekend articles on Saturday or Sunday, since the former deadline has a curious way of slipping, but Mummy on the Orient Express will be sometime this weekend.

    Friday, November 14, 2014

    The Caretaker

    Since Steven Moffat took over, Doctor Who has scheduled a relaxed comedy episode each season that’s just about the characters, with a little plot added on. That’s not to say it never happened previously. Black Orchid tried it in the 80s, and didn’t really pull it off, though it still had a somewhat refreshing feel just to see the companions hanging out and having fun. You know, seeing Tegan not freaking out and complaining about going home, or Nyssa actually getting some lines, or Adric not ruining everything. And it’s really too bad they didn’t try it again in the classic era, maybe with a better writer than Terrence Dudley. After all, done right, School Reunion was one of the highlights of the entire RTD era.

    Moffat has wisely made it a regular feature. While none of the Moffat-era hangout episodes have been quite as good as School Reunion, they’ve consistently been refreshing breaks from the usual Character Melodrama At the End of the World yarns. Gareth Roberts, who originally became known back in the 90s for his very funny Who novels, has come to specialize in these, writing three of the four entries (The Lodger, Closing Time, and The Caretaker; Chris Chibnall penned The Power of Three). And he’s a great choice; his episodes are consistently funny and charming, and this is no exception.

    Danny: Bit wet, aren't you?
    Clara: Freak shower.
    Danny: Is that seaweed?
    Clara: I said freak.

    Unfortunately, this makes it a little hard to write much, since with a high-humor, low-story episode there’s not a lot left to say after “It’s really funny.” But it’s worth exploring that character interaction, since that’s what really elevates the episode.

    These are set up right in the hilarious opening, contrasting the Doctor and Clara going on wild adventures and the havoc this plays on Clara’s dates. She forces herself to keep leading this double life. “I can’t keep doing this. I can’t do it. Yes I can. I dan do it. Of course I can do it. I’ve got it all under control.” But then the Doctor decides to go under cover in her school to take care of an alien menace, and her carefully controlled life falls to pieces.

    And man, Clara is a terrible liar, which is especially galling after Danny told her that he knows when people are lying. And he certainly does know she’s lying, but he’s patient, and relaxed, and gives her every chance to tell the truth, even gently guiding her towards it at times.

    It tells you a lot about both of them. Clara is a brilliant adventurer and a wonderful person in a great many ways, but her control freak nature and ease with lying cause her to choose to be horrible to a person she truly likes. It’s deeply, painfully human, and might be almost unbearable if it wasn’t presented in the context of such a delightful comedy, thanks to Roberts. (And Moffat. It’s hard to say how much of this script is his, but based on the other co-written scripts and how closely this resembles Roberts’ other episodes, I’d say it was largely character specific. I suspect the response to season 7 forced Moffat to work a lot harder on making Clara’s complexities clear.

    Really, though, the reason she seemed so undefined in that season, in retrospect, had a lot to do with the writers there. She’s well-written in Bells and Akhaten. Neil Cross also writes her well in Hide, but she’s otherwise got two Gatiss episodes (and Gatiss basically just writes generic companion, and barely includes her in Crimson Horror), the deeply flaws Journey, Gaiman’s Nightmare In Silver (which was already largely written when Moffat decided to revamp Clara at the last minute), and Name, which was largely about her mystery. Which gets to the other problem - besides stories just not being about her, her story was so heavily linked to this big mystery. Which, it turns out, was that she was just a normal person who did something awesome, and oh my giddy aunt this is a paragraph and a half of parenthetical. This is becoming a straight-up addiction)

    It’s a real credit to Jenna Coleman that she’s able to make Clara’s flaws so charming (and to Roberts and Moffat for figuring out how to play them as funny without losing the dramatic underpinnings). At the beginning, she accuses the Doctor of being mysterious because he is, after all, “... a very clever man making a mistake common to very clever people in assuming that everybody else is stupid.” But it’s not long after that one of her attempts to keep Danny and the Doctor in separate lives ends in Danny saying, “It’s like you’re trying to be mysterious. I’m not stupid, you know.”

    After the first fight with the Blitzer, she’s lying for a moment even when there’s no lie left worth telling. She’s terrified of losing what she loves, and needs to control it, so she builds a web of lies, which of course nearly makes her lose what she loves.

    She’s more than just her flaws, of course. There are her obvious traits - her adventurousness leads her to be brave and clever and so forth. But watch the scene where she confronts the Doctor about going under cover in the school: her concern there truly isn’t the Doctor and Danny crossing paths, but that whatever alien the Doctor is investigating will put the school and the children in danger. She shows a rare moment of real fear, and it isn’t fear for herself, but for the children.

    Secondarily, of course, she’s worried about the havoc this will wreak on her life, and The Caretaker plays the farce right, getting the laughs it can out of the expected contrivances (the Doctor thinks Adrian is Clara’s boyfriend because he kinda looks like Eleven, Clara tries to pretend a flashy fight with an alien killbot was part of a play) without extending them anywhere past credibility. And even those are still used for important dramatic purposes; the Doctor’s assumptions about Adrian lead to several moments showing how much Clara feels the need for the Doctor to approve of Danny. We see how relieved she is at his false approval, making the turn when they largely reject each other much more gutting than it would have been otherwise.

    Danny ends up turning on Clara a bit, noting, “It’s funny, you only really know what someone thinks of you when you know what lies they’ve told you.” Ultimately, he sticks with her, because he does love her, but the complexity of their relationship hangs over the rest of the season, lending not only an extra layer of drama, but a human reality even in the wackiest situations.

    Danny: I know men like him. I’ve served under them. They push you and make you stronger till you’re doing things you never thought you could. I saw you tonight, you did exactly what he told you. You weren’t even scared. And you should have been.
    Clara: I trust him. He’s never let me down.
    Danny: Fine. If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me, because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if it happens… and if you break that promise, we’re finished… I can’t stand not being able to protect you. Are we clear?
    Clara: Yes, we’re clear.

    Samuel Anderson again excels as Danny; both the relaxed teacher and the soldier are vividly realized in his gestures and body language, and he balances the humor and drama superbly.

    The Doctor’s meeting with Danny doesn’t go well, since the Doctor refuses to acknowledge him as anything other than a soldier (calling him PE, denying that he could be a math teacher). This speaks to several things about the Doctor, but there’s a truth to it: Danny’s not only proud of being a soldier, but deep down, he still is one, however far in his past he likes to think it is. Even right after the Doctor refuses to call him anything other than PE, Danny turns and walks away in a very military fashion. The kids’ even nickname him “The Squaddie”.

    But, as Danny points out, the Doctor is a kind of soldier himself - specifically, an officer. He gives orders, and people go running directly into danger. “I’m the one who carries you out of the fire, he’s the one who lights it.”

    Danny: Time Lord! Might have known.
    Doctor: Might have known what?
    Danny: Well, the accent’s good, but you can always spot the aristocracy. It’s in the attitude. Now, Time Lords, do you salute those?
    Doctor: Definitely not.
    Danny: [Saluting] Sir!
    Doctor: You do not call me sir.
    Danny: Absolutely, sir, as you wish, sir!
    In the end, the Doctor sees enough of Danny’s good side to accept him, though he’ll always insist on calling him PE, because, hey, the Doctor. Speaking of which, Capaldi really gets to shine comedically here. I especially love the way he tells Clara that yes, there is an alien in the school. "Yes, me. Now go." would be a brilliant Doctor line from any of the Doctors, but Capaldi makes it sing in his own magnificent way.

    Clara is right that he can’t possibly blend in as a normal human, but he knows exactly how to blend in with them: by being the janitor, the lowest on the totem pole. Most people don’t notice what the people below them are doing if they don’t have to. As the Doctor said in Deep Breath, he prefers to be down with the people rather than flying above them, because they’re too small when you get higher up. (This notion finds a horrifically tragic turn in Death In Heaven, when the Doctor, put above the entire planet, is rendered completely ineffectual.) The janitor is below the teachers, so they don’t notice him, no matter how strange he acts or how conspicuous his gadgets are. People just phase those sorts of things out, and don’t bother to do anything if they actually do notice. I mean, if the janitor put some beeping device on the fire alarm, you’d just assume it was there for a reason and move on, right?

    Except Danny and Courtney. Danny notices because he’s a good soldier (and a better officer than he would like to admit), and knows to watch for what’s happening below him.

    Courtney, on the other hand, notices because she’s a “disruptive influence”, and they just have a knack for noticing what doesn’t belong, because most days they’re the ones who did the things the don’t belong. Courtney is a brilliant character here; the school treats her as a disruptive influence, as though that defines her. The Doctor sees it a little differently.
    Courtney: You’re weird.
    Doctor: Yes. I am. What about you?
    Courtney: I’m a disruptive influence.
    Doctor: Good to meet you!
    Courtney: And you.
    Doctor: Now get lost.

    Right then, you know she’s going to get to see the inside of the box, one way or another. I love that Roberts and Moffat decided to focus on a rebel and partial outcast as the one kid in school who gets more than a line or two. She’s a solid sort of proto-companion, though she’s got a ways to go.

    I like how her parents are played, too; they only get a handful a lines, but you get the idea that they both truly love Courtney and are very close to her.

    Danny: Yes, I would say Courtney is a disruptive influence.
    Dad: Yeah, but last year, you said Courtney was a very disruptive influence.
    Mom: So I suppose that counts as an improvement!

    Also, they later say, “Our Courtney was right about those two,” telling you that they actually listen when their child is talking. The Doctor never meets them, but I imagine he’d approve of any parents who so lovingly raised a disruptive influence.

    There’s one other great aspect to her and the school: the focus on minorities. Not only is Courtney black, but so are the two kids who are approached by the cop sending them back inside. It’s a saavy choice that gives a subtle sense of menace and real-world reality here; the cop almost comes off like he’s harassing them, and you’re convinced he’d be less concerned if they were a few shades lighter. Like the Doctor, the show is interested in the people below; the authorities are the ones to watch out for.

    The sinister overtones mean I feel no sympathy for the cop’s death right afterward. Which is great, because it’s one of the most delightfully gruesome deaths the show has ever done. It’s not up to Kane doing a low-budget Raiders of the Lost Ark face-melting in Dragonfire, but it’s suitably nasty. (If you’re worried about the children, let me point out that kids love the Raiders face melting stuff. They like it a little gruesome, as long as it’s a bad guy getting gruesomed to death.)

    Which brings up the one thing I haven’t really talked about: the plot. There’s little to say, because there’s so little of it, but it’s perfect. The Skovox Blitzer looks cool, does a lot of shooting lasers and blowing stuff up, and doesn’t need more than a line of exposition. Just threatening enough to be a real problem, but it doesn’t feel underdeveloped. It’s a very effective rack to hang the comedy and drama on.

    And when the comedy and drama is this rich, that’s all it needs to be.


    * * * ½


    • Calvin: But what about our homework?
      Clara: [shrugs] Who asks for homework?
      Clara Oswald: Best teacher ever.
    • Clara: You can’t do this. You cannot pass yourself off as a real human among actual people!
      Doctor: I lived among otters for a month. Well, I sulked. River and I, we had this big fight --
      Clara: Human beings are not otters!
      Doctor: Exactly, it’ll be even easier.
    • Doctor: I used to have a teacher exactly like you.
      Clara: You still do. Pay attention.
    • We get to meet Chris Addison's Seb here at the end. Addison gives Seb a set of ticks and a delivery so over-the-top it should be excruciating, but it's absolutely hilarious. He doesn't really get to shine until Dark Water, but even his brief scene here is pretty awesome.
    • It is a little disappointing that we don't get a cameo from Ian Chesterton, but Gareth Roberts was probably right in thinking that if you're going to put him in, you need to do it right and give him an actual story.