Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Android Invasion

The Android Invasion has problems.  Serious, gigantic problems.  Plot problems.  Character problems.  Structural problems.  It wastes good recurring characters and gives beloved performers lousy exits.  Above all, in a season of astounding ambition, it's the one story that isn't even trying to be interesting.  It's a by-the-numbers Terry Nation yarn that only looks all the worse for coming in between Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius.  By any objective standard, it kinda sucks.

I like this one. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Planet of Evil

The Doctor: Here on Zeta Minor is the boundary between existence as you know it and the other universe which you just don't understand. From the beginning of time it has existed side by side with the known universe. Each is the antithesis of the other. You call it "nothing", a word to cover ignorance. And centuries ago scientists invented another word for it. "Antimatter", they called it. And you, by coming here, have crossed the boundary into that other universe to plunder it. Dangerous.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Terror of the Zygons

Terror of the Zygons is one of those serials that has a reputation. There are a few of these, the stories that are generally considered classics (or the opposite). Usually, even if the story is flawed, it's clear what makes it great.

But Zygons' popularity seems somewhat inexplicable to me. It's a fun yarn, but the idea that it's one of the all-time-greats of Who - particularly in a season including Pyramids, Morbius, and Seeds of Doom is strange.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Wedding of River Song

All of time and space - everything that ever was and ever will be.  At the same time.

The Wedding of River Song finishes Doctor Who's 32nd season by answering many (if not all) of the lingering questions left by this and the previous season, while opening entirely new plotlines.  It's yet another of Moffat's staggeringly complex serial, and one substantially more difficult than Impossible Astronaut because it answers questions rather than asking them, and has to do so satisfyingly.  And, for the most part, it does this.  But that's not what makes it special.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Closing Time

As you'd expect from a sequel to The Lodger, which basically just dropped the Doctor into a sitcom for modestly enjoyable results, there's not much to Closing Time.  The plot is minimal, the villains barely there, the danger brief.  It rests itself entirely on the comedic timing and chemistry of Matt Smith and James Cordon.

Fortunately, those two elements work like a charm.  Smith and Cordon are a fantastic comic duo.  Gareth Robert's script gives them plenty of good material (particularly the Doctor's conversations with "Stormageddon") and they play it to the hilt.  And unlike The Lodger, it's focused enough on what little plot it has that it doesn't run out of steam halfway through.  It may be simple fluff, but it's a delightful little sidetrack, and enough fun and contrast to the rest of the stories that it just manages to stay out of the "filler" status of Black Spot and Night Terrors.

Because there's so little to say, about the only thing left to discuss are the villains.  Knowing this was the episode before Moffat revisted the Doctor's death from the beginning of the series, Roberts decided there should be a recurring villain for the Doctor's final battle, and chose the Cybermen.  Unfortunately, because this is a light-hearted comedy, they can't be too threatening or scary.  Well, they could be scary without ruining the fun, but Roberts doesn't go down that road.

But he gives them so little effectiveness, and allows them to be defeated in such a goofy fashion that if you're watching it for the Cybers, you'll find to your horror it falls in the dreaded third tier Cyber stories.  There are three types of Cyber-stories: the classics, which elevate the Cybermen to fascinating, mythic villains, eerie, grotesque mirrors of the dark side of humanity.  The Tenth Planet and Rise of the Cybermen are really the only stories that pull this off.  The second tier Cyber stories are the stories that keep them effectively threatening, but don't necessarily do anything interesting with them.  These can range from brilliant (Doomsday) to mediocre (Wheel In Space), but they all use the Cybermen simply as the villain by default.

The third tier stories are those rare episodes - Revenge of the Cybermen, Silver Nemesis, and this - that can't even manage to make them effective villains.  Closing Time uses them to garnish a barely-there story, then makes utter rubbish of them in the climax.

But the story isn't about the Cybermen for even a moment.  Even in the final moments, as they try to convert Cordon, it isn't about them.  It's about a father's love for his child how amazingly funny Matt Smith is, and what a blessing he is for Doctor Who.


* * *

The God Complex

Amy and Rory are among the best Doctor Who companions ever.  The best of the New Series, without question, and worthy of the likes of Sarah Jane, Ace, and Romana.  And I'm not just saying that because I'm hypnotized by Karen Gillan's beauty.

I mean, I am, but that's beside the point.

Amy is curious and clever, fantastic at noticing things and putting stuff together - like figuring out how the Sonic Screwdriver works (more or less).  Gillan has that rare but crucial gift to be both brave and scared, both tough and vulnerable.  And she projects a charming, engaging personality in everything she does.

Rory, meanwhile, is more grounded than his often-fanciful wife.  In both her life and, to some extent, the Doctor's, he's a quiet force of solidity, a faithful and trustworthy companion, able to stand his ground against anything or anyone - including either one of them when absolutely necessary.  Arthur Darvill projects Rory's somewhat dorky surface credibly, but makes his moments of bravery incredibly forceful.

Together, the Doctor, Amy, and Rory make a superb team, complementing each other beautifully.  They're also an absolute delight to watch; Moffat and the other writers fashioned three incredibly funny personalities, and Smith, Gillan, and Darvill play off each other masterfully.

What Toby Whithouse has recognized, both here and in the previous season's Vampires of Venice, is the weakest point of this otherwise incredibly solid relationship: the tenuous nature of the bond between Amy and the Doctor.  Still, she looks toward him with the wonder of the little girl who waited for him, and never fully got past that.  Which strokes the hell out of the Doctor's ego, who loves more than anything impressing people he respects.  The inherent weaknesses here - that Amy would follow the Doctor down paths she shouldn't tread, and wouldn't recognize that the Doctor himself perhaps shouldn't be treading - was something Rory picked up on almost immediately in Vampires.  Both Amy and the Doctor tend to smile in the face of danger and dive right in; Rory can take all kinds of horror and damage, but he's pragmatic and reacts more cautiously.  He sees exactly what's wrong with the Doctor/Amy relationship, but when he's around, things tend to stay stable, and it makes Amy happy, so he lets it be.

But there's another problem: her attachment tends to make her follow the Doctor's Peter Pan complex.  The Doctor, despite his millennial life, refuses to grow up.  And Amy will do exactly the same as long as she's attached to him.  Which makes it ever more likely that one day she'd end up on the wrong end of a Dalek death ray.

So, in The God Complex, Toby Whithouse forces the Doctor to face down this problem.  One day, he could very well lead Amy straight into her death.  And he's in exactly that situation: her bright-eyed wonder at her Raggedy Man is leading directly to a vicious, horrific tragedy.  All he can do is break her faith in him.

Whithouse's vision and understanding of these characters and their relationships are astounding.  As in School Reunion and Vampires In Venice, he understands how these people work, and how to push the relationships to the edge.

I just wish he had done all that in a better episode.

The climactic moment where the Doctor shatters Amy's faith utterly fails to deliver.  To begin with, true faith is very difficult to break down; the Doctor just says, "Forget your faith in me.  I took you with me because I was vain.  Because I wanted to be adored.  Look at you.  Glorious Pond, the girl who waited for me.  I'm not a hero.  I really am just a madman in a box.  Now it's time we saw each other as we were."  And that's it.

The thing is, Amy's faith in the Doctor is clearly, heavy-handedly made into a deeply held religious belief.  And you can't break that sort of faith so easily.  That wouldn't shatter anyone's faith.
(Also, the starving monster is standing right next to them the entire time he's giving that speech, patiently waiting for them to talk rather than feast on his meal.)

This stands out especially egregiously because Doctor Who has done this before to a vastly more powerful impact.  The Curse of Fenric also required the Doctor to break Ace's faith in him.  But Fenric understands that true faith, the kind so carefully emphasized in The God Complex, isn't something that can be destroyed easily... and if it is destroyed, it destroys the person.  True faith defines you, drives you.  Your faith truly is who you are.  Destroy that, and you destroy the person.

The Doctor destroyed Ace's faith in him by preying on all her insecurities, tearing away at her every weak point.  It was a vicious, difficult scene, but it was absolutely credible.  Having the Doctor say, "Don't put your faith in me," would never work.  But turning on and attacking her greatest vulnerabilities?  Absolutely.  In that moment, he shows (or pretends to show) that he is nothing more than a manipulative puppet master, using Ace for his own purposes.  Of course, that isn't true, but it's only by convincing her that he isn't a force for good can he hope to break her belief.

Once the villain is defeated, the Doctor finds Ace brought to her lowest point.  Which is exactly where she is - the longest, darkest tea-time night her soul has ever endured.  And so he builds her back up by telling her of his faith in her.  But he does more than that - he uses that to make her stronger and more complete than she was before.  He had no choice but to tear her down to save her, but in his rebuilding of her strength and psyche, he shores up many of her weaknesses and insecurities.  Of course, her faith in him turned out to be entirely worthwhile.

Whithouse definitely swings for that same concept here.  But the Doctor does little more than say "Don't believe in me anymore," and she accepts it pretty quickly.  And then, the problem is solved.  Suddenly, she's grown up and adult. (by the way, the script doesn't pull this off, but Gillan does it superbly.  Her performance of a truly grown up Amy in the finale scene is sublime.) It's abrupt and unsatisfying.  And it seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of faith.

Which is true throughout the story.  Whithouse doesn't seem to have a coherent point about faith, and it's frustrating to watch it flail about trying to find some purpose in its lofty, complex theme.  Religion is a sensitive topic to bring up, particularly when your story is about people losing their faith and transfering it to someone else, and Whithouse doesn't handle it well.

That might be slightly more forgivable if the story itself worked, but it's an absolute mess.  So, there's this creature that feeds on the "specific energy" created by true faith.  This creature was locked in a prison where it seems to have been the only prisoner.  He was then giving a holographic reality.  And, to feed him, the prison would teleport random people with strong faith into the hologram.  And, in fact, the prison's system is so strong it actually captures the TARDIS herself.  It's a concept built on ideas that even in the Whoniverse don't begin to make sense.

But Doctor Who has survived a set-up that doesn't really work.  But the ride getting to this solution isn't successful, either.  Director Nick Hurran fails to make an inherently eerie setting of an abandoned hotel creepy.  He botches the various fears the characters have - even an appearance by the Weeping Angels is thrown away.  Worst of all, the monster itself isn't frightening despite elaborate makeup.  Hurran does have a way with cool shots - lots of canted angles, roving cameras, and effective closeups.  But the overall effect of his work is uninspired - no sense of fear or even threat.

It doesn't help that Whithouse hands him a script filled with one-note characters.  Whithouse has tremendous insight into the main trio, even if he doesn't use that insight effectively, but his supporting characters here fall totally flat.  There's the Muslim girl, who only exhibits positive traits - brave, nice, good-hearted.  The costume designer missed a perfect opportunity by not decking her in a red shirt.  Overall, she's not obnoxious or terrible, but the complete lack of shading keeps her from really working. (although, points for making the one character intended to be sympathetic Islamic without coming across as condescending either to her beliefs or any others.)  There's the alien from a planet of cowards, an amusing Douglas Adams-ish idea that doesn't fit in a dark, serious story like this and gets old really fast.  Nor does he contribute anything substantial to the story in the end. The blogger is simply awful, an unwatchably obnoxious caricature.

Whithouse does give the regulars good material, and it's this that keeps the episode watchable.  The Doctor must confront his own greatest fear (wisely unseen by the audience) and forces himself to face the consequences of his own ego before they can't be undone.  Matt Smith is absolutely fantastic, as always.  Every character moment for Rory is solid gold.  Karen Gillan gives her second exceptional performance in a row, adding real depth and aching emotion to her Amy's appealingly whimsical persona.  In the final scene, Gillan does something quite remarkable: she makes Amy grow up.  It's a subtle but deeply moving transformation which she manages with only a few facial expressions.

But the Doctor and companions are all that hold the story together.  Which makes the closing moments even more frustrating.  The finale is an abrupt, out-of-nowhere farewell that all-too-obviously isn't supposed to stick.  Whithouse tries to make it an organic part of the story, but the story is so poor it comes to nothing.  It doesn't feel sincere or real, despite lovely performances and good dialogue.  It's a good thing it isn't supposed to be Amy and Rory's actual farewell.

I'm struggling to reconcile my genuine dislike for this episode with the muted but undeniable praise the story has generally received.  Its strong points - the three central characterizations and performances, the concept of a hotel with shifting rooms holding people's fears, and Nick Hurran's camerawork - certainly can't be discounted.  Neither can its essential flaws - its muddled religious themes, incoherent plotting, flat supporting characters, and a climax that misses its target considerably.  The entire thing put me off and left a bad aftertaste that wasn't cleansed until The Wedding of River Song.

But there's definitely good stuff there, and despite its failure, I'm still looking forward to Whithouse's next Who script.  After all, School Reunion is still one of my favorite New Who episodes, and Vampires In Venice flirted with greatness until the climax.  And Small Worlds was the only episode of Torchwood's first season that actually understood the almost-always unrealized potential of that show.  He's a good writer.  Hopefully his next one will show that.



  •  During the climax, the Doctor says of Amy's impending doom, "I knew this would happen, this always happens."  Which is to say, out of the literally 40 or so companions (depending on whom you count), 5.  At most, if you're taking the most liberal interpretation of what he says.  And while it's true that one of those was his previous regular companion, Donna, it's actually pretty rare that the companions don't end up safely on earth.  Yes, those who did die usually died horribly (sucked into the vacuum of space, aged to death in a matter of minutes, face-planting the Yucatan, having yourself removed from your own body as it's taken over by someone else [maybe, if the Master is lying in The Ultimate Foe {which he totally is |gratuitous parenthetical|}]), but that doesn't excuse that line.
  • Despite my problems with Nick Hurran's work, I just want to re-emphasize that his storyboarding is phenomenal.  His close-ups, handheld shots, wide angles, and imagery are terrific.  I don't like how he handles the monster overall, but there's a shot where its horn scrapes against the ceilling and another where it peers through a broken window that are searingly iconic.  Dude seriously knows how to use a camera.  And he certainly gets great work out of the cast; between this and Girl Who Waited, he's gotten Gillan's two finest performances as Amy.  Even with my reservations, I'm really looking forward to any future work he does on the show.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Girl Who Waited

The Girl Who Waited is one of Doctor Who's shining gems, a masterful blend of science fiction, fantasy, romance, and drama.  In a season that didn't have Impossible Astronaut and The Doctor's Wife, this would easily be the highlight.

Night Terrors

Night Terrors is a breath of fresh air.  Not because it's a classic or anything.  It's a good, solid, well-made episode that wouldn't particularly stand out in any era of Who.

But it's a relief to have an episode this season for which I actually feel certain of my feelings.  I've had to watch the last four episodes three times each before even deciding whether or not I liked them, and then rewrote my Good Man review after seeing Let's Kill Hitler.  Even The Doctor's Wife had me torn a little between its shining brilliance and its unsatisfyingly jammed running length.  So a story I can watch once and know exactly how I feel about it is just wonderful.

Much of the praise goes to director Richard Clark, of Gridlock and The Doctor's Wife.  Clark's framing and pacing are superb; he creates a creepy yet whimsical atmosphere out of some pretty simple settings.  His visual sense adds a lot to the story; the TARDIS appearing reflected in puddle is a particularly nice touch.  The long shadows and sharp lighting reminiscent of German Expressionism give Night Terrors a uniquely eerie atmosphere that elevates the story.

Clark's mastery overcomes the shortcomings of Mark Gatiss' script, which is fine but entirely unspectacular.  It seems to come from the concept that Doctor Who's one and only subject is Monsters and the funny British guy who fights them.  Which is an important part of Doctor Who, but a very narrow view of the show. (I'm not saying Gatiss views it that way, but he sure doesn't give any hint here or in his other three Who scripts that there's much more to the show.  I haven't read any of his Who novels, to be fair) It's pretty straightforward: the Doctor lands somewhere, finds monsters, talks his way out of it, everything's happy again.

But the execution, on the whole, is really good.  Much of the story focuses on the Doctor trying to help out a worried father, nicely played by Daniel Mays.  He also gets some time with the kid, and Smith always amazes working with kids.  Amy and Rory mostly run through creepy hallways and such, but they do it very well.  Arthur Darvill has a particularly marvelous scene where he almost sighs when he comes to believe that the two of them are dead.  Again.

The monsters, when they do show up, are creepy enough; the transformations are very unsettling, utilizing terrific effects.  The choppiness of the transformations in particular sells the effect to the point that it's hard to be certain how much is CGI and how much is practical.  Nicely done.

This is, unfortnately, yet another case of Murray Gold blaring music over scenes that clearly need no music at all.  And again, it's not bad music, but it takes from the scenes' effectiveness.  And very often, his music really is effective; he (or the director, or producers, or someone) won't turn it off when it isn't needed.

The story, ultimately, ends up going exactly where you expect it, without ever quite managing to raise the stakes or the intensity high enough to really score.  But it's watchable, entertaining, and solid, thanks largely to a director who knows how to squeeze all the atmosphere and drama out of a simple yarn and small setting.


* * *

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Let's Kill Hitler

HITLER: He was going to kill me...
RORY: Shut up, Hitler!
DOCTOR: Rory, take Hitler and put him in that cupboard over there.


Like, seriously, spoilersLet's Kill Hitler directly continues a story seeded in 2008 and threaded through three seasons.  Every River Song episode leads to this one.  And it's impossible to talk about this episode without referring to its many, many revelations.

But it's a good one.  Not perfect, and yet another episode that should have been doubled in length, but fast, funny, clever, compelling, and, for the most part, satisfying.


The Green Death

Jo Grant is one of the great empowered women in Doctor Who.

From The Time Monster

Seriously.  It's totally true.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Planet of the Daleks

Seven thousand one, seven thousand two, seven thousand three...

Generally, when Whovians complain about Planet of the Daleks, it revolves around Terry Nation's liberal plundering of his first Dalek story, The Dead Planet.  It's certainly structured similarly, with one episode mostly of the heroes wandering alone through a strange planet, after which our heroes are trapped deep underground by the Daleks until about halfway through the story, when they escape and prepare their daring final assault, which takes place in the final episode.  Additionally, the Thals turn up again and explicitely reference the events of Dead Planet.  The Daleks plan to release a virus, just as they planned to release radiation in the original.  Our heroes hide inside a Dalek casing to infiltrate the base.  And so forth.

And while we're at it, the invisible creatures in the dangerous jungle are a direct lift from The Daleks' Master Plan.

There are a couple of notes to this problem.  The first is that, when this was first broadcast, there hadn't been a traditional Dalek story since 1967; their brief appearances tacked onto Day of the Daleks certainly weren't a satisfying return for them.  So for viewers of the time, it was the first real Dalek story in six years, and returning to the familiar elements would be refreshing.  It's only now, when you can chose to watch them side-by-side that it's really an issue.

The second is that even with his self-plundering, Nation still creates a highly entertaining, action-packed yarn.  It's not perfect, and doesn't hold up to his '60s Dalek scripts, but that doesn't mean it isn't a lot of fun.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Carnival of Monsters

Robert Holmes is generally considered Doctor Who's greatest writer for good reason: he was able to write stories that stayed entertaining through their entire length through great characterization, dialogue, and world-building.  But look close enough at many of his stories, and you also find something highly subversive.  In fact, if he's not the writer in charge of things, he's very often biting the very hand feeding him (and a hand for which he has obvious affection).  Under the many layers of Caves of Androzani resides a subtle critique of the entire Fifth Doctor era and a sense that Holmes is saying, "This is how you should have been doing things the last three years."  The Krotons seems a deliberate attempt to re-align the Second Doctor's stories with his characterization, something that rarely happened outside of David Whitaker's scripts.  The Two Doctors barely even hides its contempt, instead reveling in its mockery of the era's over reliance on continuity references and ugly violence.

Carnival of Monsters has self-satirical ideas of its own, albeit of a different sort from those above.  But like Caves, on the surface of its subversion is a terrific adventure yarn, and is a blast to watch without seeing a hint of what's going on underneath.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Three Doctors

Let's reflect for a moment on just how insane this story is: three different incarnations of the same character working together for a single story.  Think of how crazy it would be to watch a Bond movie, except with Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Timothy Dalton all playing different Bonds working together.  Or a Sherlock Holmes movie with Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Robert Downey Jr.  Or Batman with Adam West, Michael Keaton, and Christian Bale.  It's a crazy notion of metafiction, forcing together three things that are the same, and yet totally incompatible.  It's fun to mess around with that sort of thing, but the fact is that it just doesn't work on a literal level.  It's just not possible within those stories for multiple ones to exist together.  Plus, the clash of styles would be in many ways incompatible.

So it's worth noting just how crazy this show is that putting three Doctors together in the same story not only works, but seems absolutely natural and normal.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Season 28 Review

I tend to remember Season 28 (or New Series 2) very well, partly because Tennant is awesome from the moment he begins and has terrific chemistry with Billie Piper, and partly because it contains four of my favorite stories (Christmas Invasion, School Reunion, Girl In the Fireplace, and Doomsday), but really looking it over, man, the second half of the season is a slog until that knockout finish.

Still, all in all, and with thanks in particular to Doomsday, it does a brilliant job of continuing RTD's threads from Season 27/Series 1.  The Doctor has rediscovered, even increased his joy and zest for life, the Universe, and everything, and even losing Rose was something he could at least weather.  Rose by the end stands eye-to-eye with the Daleks with the same bravado as her Doctor.  The series gave her a lot to do, and while she had her failings, she was, on the whole, a hugely successful companion.  Doomsday was the perfect exit for her; there really wasn't anywhere else to go with her arc, but a lot had been done.  It couldn't have been better timed.  Mickey, who started pretty poorly in Rose, had managed to make "fairly sympathetic" by the end of the previous series; but here, he gets ever stronger, ultimately becoming quite the action hero.

Best of all, it's now comfortable enough in its usual zones - modern-day invasion, semi-historic fantasy, and fururistic satire - that it's willing to go out of the box.

Which, after all, is the entire point of Doctor Who.  So we got Girl In the Fireplace, which brilliantly went in directions no Doctor Who had gone before to a stunning emotional effect, The Impossible Planet, an old-fashioned base-under-siege carried out on a spectacularly imagined and executed other world, and Love and Monsters, a romantic comic-tragedy from the point of view of an ordinary guy whose path happens to cross the Doctor's a couple of times.  And while the latter two definitely had problems, it was refreshingly not samey.

Unfortunately, we also got The Idiot's Lantern, which was painfully ordinary and uninteresting.  And then Fear Her, which had all the boring cliches, flat characters, and unimaginative ideas as Idiot's Lantern, and then added several layers of pure awful.  And the thing is, even bad Doctor Who stories, even the worst of the worst, even the Celestial Toymakers and Nightmares of Eden and Terminuses and all manner of Timelashes are at least, on some level, interesting.  For all their flaws, I'm glad Impossible Planet and Love and Monsters exist, because they did some intriguing things and added to the ongoing story of Doctor WhoIdiot's Lantern and Fear Her are rare Doctor Who stories I wish never existed.

And that, combined with the flaws of those other late stories, makes the time between the Cybermen and the finale feel so, so long, and so dead.

But the first half and closing episodes are brilliant.

And, to be honest, Doctor Who is pretty uneven by its nature.  You can do absolutely anything with the show, but that means that you're probably going to fall short quite a lot.  But this is now a show that's confident and in full swing.  And it has a leading actor who's funny, energetic, incredibly  charismatic, and call sell the living Hell out of any emotion.  So, despite a couple of black marks, Season 28 is, overall, a rousing success, and leads very hopefully into the third...


1. Girl In the Fireplace
2. Army of Ghost / Doomsday
3. School Reunion


2. The Idiot's Lantern
1. Fear Her

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Army of Ghosts / Doomsday

Army of Ghosts and Doomsday are essentially three different stories spliced together.  The first, Army of Ghosts, is a well-structured yarn of escalating suspense and intriguing mysteries.  It's not just the ghosts themselves, although that's certainly a fascinating idea, but also a sphere that, according to all technical instruments, doesn't actually exist.

Finally, we learn what became of the Torchwood institute Queen Victoria created in response to the Doctor and Rose being smug jerks amongst death and tragedy.  These scenes are carried by the brilliant character of Yvonne Hartman, head of Torchwood; she hits that perfect sweet spot of complex, intriguing, and larger-than-life, thanks to both multi-layered writing by Davies and a charismatic, impassioned, cheeky, and often very funny performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman.  She's the rarest of Doctor Who villains: a human antagonist worthy of the Doctor.

Also, the Doctor passing off Jackie as Rose is a wonderful spark of whimsy.

Then, inevitably, the Cybermen show up, increasing the steadily-built intensity.  Now the situation is really grim: not only is Torchwood helping a mysterious entity punch holes in the continuum between Universes, but the Cybermen are coming through and invading earth (again).

And this is where opinions usually split on Army of Ghosts and Doomsday.  While a lot of people are perfectly happy with what follows, what happens next essentially negates everything so carefully built about the Cyber-invasion and Torchwood-evilishness.

Because all of a sudden, the Daleks show up and hijack the story.  The semi-evil Cybermen and Torchwood are reduced to distant silver and copper to the Daleks' shimmering gold.  For some, this is a disappointment.

Those "some" are wrong.  It may be opinion, it may be how they honestly feel, but they're wrong.  The Daleks showing up and upstaging the main plot only increases the fun of the story.  After all, for all its flashes of darkness, Doomsday is fundamentally a fun romp, full of humor and action.  Just because it's dramatic doesn't mean it can't be fun.

The Daleks face off with the Cybermen, which results first in a series of insults, for which Davies deserves tremendous credit -- the insults are not just hilarious, but perfectly toned for both races.

DALEK:  This is not war - this is pest control!
CYBERMAN: We have five million Cybermen.  How many are you?
DALEK: Four.
CYBERMAN: You would defeat the Cybermen with four Daleks?
DALEK: We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek!  You are superior in only one respect.
CYBERMAN: What is that?
DALEK: You are better at dying!

And then the shooting starts and it plays out exactly as it should: the Daleks, despite being insanely outnumbered, mop the surface of the Earth with the Cybermen's faces.  The tone of the Dalek/Cybermen fight isn't one of horror or suspense: it's pure pop spectacle and breezy fun.

As this goes on, though, yet another thread slowly intrudes: Davies' conclusion to the various threads of the last two seasons.  As time goes on, it becomes clear that even the Daleks' superiority to every other villain ever invented by humans, or even the stunning sequences of millions of Daleks invading London, aren't the true centerpiece of Doomsday.  It's the emotional journey - for many, the last - of a gallery of wonderful characters.

Yvonne is taken by the Cybermen and gets a fantastic final scene as she's brought away to be cyberized.  Even brought to a fate she fully understands and fears, and even as she faces the consequences of her own actions, she's dignified and defiant.  Her cyberizing scene is genuinely moving.  And then, later, she gets an even better scene as a Cyber.  A great villain meets not one but two brilliant ends.

Pete, the alternate universe version of Rose's father, returns for a last hurrah.  I had very mixed feelings about his return in Rise of the Cybermen, but they ultimately went in an interesting direction with him, so his return is welcome.  Shaun Dingwall is as perfect as ever, and Pete's character arc is ultimately satisfying.  Camille Coduri also makes her final regular appearance as Jackie, and Davies gives her some of the funniest material she has had.  The scene where Pete and Jackie meet is just wonderful, equally hilarious and moving.

Mickey returns, but transformed by his time in Pete's World into Awesome Action Hero Mickey, and it's terrific.  It's really remarkable how far he's come - he was basically a failure of a character in Rose, but was carefully developed over time, becoming more and more likable, before being thrust into heroism in the early second season.  Here, when he shows up and starts going Bruce Willis all over the place, it somehow feels natural, as those it's actually the ideal ending to his character.  And really, it is; it's just totally unexpected, and a delight to watch.  Noel Clarke has been good as Mickey with a great variety of material, but he's just a blast to watch here.

Much more importantly, however, it's Rose's last (regular) appearance, and she's given a tremendous send-off.  Piper has all the appeal and humor she's always shown, she also shows a remarkable presence.  Doomsday opens with her stealing the Daleks' spotlight by facing them down with the sort of fearless power ordinarily only the Doctor shows.  Of course, Rose can't quite keep it up - she's not the Doctor, after all -- but it's a terrific character moment that, further, feels absolutely natural.  The Rose of End of the World could never have stood up like this, but the Rose of Doomsday has grown so believably that it isn't just cool; it's the culmination of the Doctor's influence on her.  She started as a normal, average person; now, she's become a mythical heroine, and deserved it.  Davies and the other writers may have occasionally stumbled with her in parts of the second season, but on the whole, her arc has been brilliant.

At the climax of the story, she saves the world, probably the entire universe with a genuinely selfless, sacrificial act.  As she falls into the Void, she is saved by the other universe's version of her long-dead Father, and rescued to safety in the other universe.  There, she can live her life with everything she ever wanted - her father alive, her parents together and in love, Mickey - except the one thing she wanted most.

Her Doctor is gone from her forever.

Davies can't help but give her a final farewell, but he takes tremendous care in the writing; it's melodramatic, but still underplayed just enough.  Tennant and Piper play their final scene perfectly.  But it's Murray Gold's music, particularly the entirely unexpected "Doomsday", that raises it to such a high level.  It's a devastating and extraordinary ending.

It's a complex, beautiful closing for a very strong companion.

But, really, Doomsday isn't even about saying goodbye to Rose.  It's about the Doctor - about the close to this part of his journey, and his moving on to a new one.

He's faced the Daleks just a season before.  Then, however, he was a different man.  Then, even having recovered much of his mojo thanks to Rose, he's still a traumatized war veteran, always on the edge of fury and destruction.  He faced them grimly and half-crazed.  But now, in Doomsday, he's not the Ninth Doctor, born of the tragedy of war and genocide, but the Tenth, who came from the Doctor's sacrifice of his own life to keep Rose from being utterly destroyed by the Time Vortex.  From the very first, he was cheerful and goofy.  Villainies could draw out his darkest side, yes, but it hasn't been constantly lingering under the surface, ready to explode.  This is the Doctor who, for the first time in more than a lifetime, is truly happy.

And so, when he faces his greatest adversaries, while he certainly respects their abilities, he's much more ready to fight them.  None of the full-on horror and desperation the Ninth Doctor felt, or the near-crazed edge to his threats and mocking.  No, he has his swagger back, the swagger than first put such fear into his enemies when he was a young man in an old man's body, telling off the psychotic creatures who have utterly conquered the entire Earth.  He can beat these guys, and he knows it, and he gleefully makes sure they know it.

And he does - literally sending the Daleks to Hell.  But it comes at a staggering cost.  Rose is alive, but locked away from him forever.  Just as before, he's alone.

But there's something more.  There's a magnificent moment where Rose and the Doctor lean their faces against the corresponding walls of their own universes, imagining and even, in some way, feeling each other's presence.  Rose sheds tears, of course, but the Doctor has no tears.  Every depth of the tragedy is buried in his eyes.  The look of utter devastation in Tennant's eyes is stunning.  Every day of his millenial life is etched across his face.  It's a man defeated and alone, more alone than any can imagine.  Again.  More so than anything else in the scene, even Gold's fantastic music, it's Tennant's face that hits the hardest.

And yet, there's something else in that face.  There's strength, and calm, and resolution.  Even after sending all the Daleks to Hell, the Doctor has lost Rose, and in a way, this was the ultimate loss for him.  But he hasn't just survived.  He's still the Doctor.  And in his farewell to Rose on Bad Wolf Bay, he's sad, but also warm and funny.  Now, he has the strength to go on to other adventures and feel the joy and fun and wonder, as he did before the War.  Even his own personal Doomsday can't take that from him.  Not any more.


* * * *


  • Okay, so, is there a reason we got Fear Her, but didn't get this episode?  I know RTD has said that he's more interested in stories about humans that about aliens on planet Zog.  But if that's what planet Zog looks like, why would anyone want a story about boring old humans?
  • Come to think of it, the only other purely human adversary worthy of the Doctor I can think of is Salamander from Enemy of the World.
  • Graeme Harper's direction is truly brilliant.  Harper's directing is always great, but this is among his finest work for Who.  He can't have had more than a few million bucks, but makes a spectacular, action-packed epic that weaves adventure, action, and a wondrous sense of breezy fun with quiet drama and melodramatic tragedy.  It's a stunning achievement to make all those work so smoothly and so powerfully.  There's a reason he's considered the greatest director Who ever had.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fear Her

So, my review of The Idiot's Lantern was a bit brief.  It's a problematic episode to review.  It's not a bad one - perfectly competent and not really boring.  It's not a good one, though, either - there's no real tension, or excitement, or particularly memorable humor, or strong characterizations.  Nothing really imaginative.  The one creepy idea it has - people's faces being erased - isn't done in a particularly creepy fashion.  It's very, very mediocre.  But it's also one of the rarest birds in Doctor Who: it's an episode that isn't interesting.

And that's frustrating.  Doctor Who is almost always interesting.  Even when it's bad, even when it's really, really bad, it's interesting.  The worst of the worst -- Time and the Rani, Timelash, Terminus, Nightmare of Eden, The Celestial Toymaker -- are all in some ways interesting.  They have settings and ideas that are, on some level or another, intriguing.  But The Idiot Lantern doesn't.  There's not one interesting, original, or unusual thing about it.  It's really hard to do that with Doctor Who, and maybe it deserves some sort of reward for actually pulling that off.

Fear Her is like The Idiot Lantern, except bad.  Really, really bad.  And unlike those other terrible episodes, it isn't even interesting.  It's difficult to believe that a director as good as Euros Lyn and a writer as talented as Matthew Graham could make something as fundamentally awful as The Celestial Toymaker, but by making something so terribly uninteresting, they've actually, in some ways, created something much, much worse.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Good Man Goes To War

What a mess - an incoherent stream of set-pieces, some brilliant, some not.  A lot like Journey's End.

I should probably mention that I liked Journey's End.  I didn't like this one quite as much, but like that one, I have to admit that the highlights were fantastic.  So let me rephrase that opener: what a wonderful, glorious, magnificent mess.  A failure, yes, but a fantastic failure.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People

One of the best things about Doctor Who is its ability to go absolutely anywhere.  With all of time and space and a character like the Doctor, you never need to see the same story twice, and can continually come up with something brand new like The Doctor's Wife.  It never has to fall into formula.

Of course, sometimes it does, anyway.  Inevitably, every era has its cliches.  William Hartnell had sci-fi revolutions, Patrick Troughton had bases under siege, Jon Pertwee had UNIT / Master stories, Tom Baker had way too many teeth, and so forth.  And that's not always a bad thing.  Troughton's era may just be one base under siege after another, but some of those include The Power of the Daleks, The Web of Fear, and Fury From the Deep.  And none of his base under siege stories are really bad.  That's the advantage of a good formula: you may get repetitive, but you won't get very many duds, either.

The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People repeat themes that New Who has gone over many, many times, most obviously with last season's Silurian episodes.  In fact, other than the monsters being semi-clones, this pretty much is the Silurian story... but with better atmosphere, dialogue, characterizations, makeup, and underlying ideas.  It certainly has its flaws, but it's a good episode in an exceptionally strong season.

The best thing about the story is Matt Smith.  Yet again, he weaves his curious magic through the dialogue, making the Doctor by turns intelligent, authoritative, compassionate, goofy, alien, and, of course, a very old man in a very young man's body.  The second half of the story throws a brilliant wrench into the tale with the Flesh Doctor.  And yes, the experience of two Matt Smiths being Doctorish is every bit as awesome as it sounds.  Smith carries the story through some very rough patches with sublime brilliance.

As for the Doctor himself... well, he's clearly in the midst of some vast plan, but we have no idea what he knows or what he's thinking.  Which is always one of my favorite modes for the Doctor to be in; we see him manipulating not only the new characters, but the companions themselves.  And, of course, we have no idea what he's up to.  The difference here is that even at the end, we only see a glimpse of what he knows and is working toward.  His final act seems oddly callous and cruel, but we're left not really knowing why he's doing what he's doing.  And, after all, he's pulled this sort of thing before.  This is the Eleventh Doctor at his edgiest and most mysterious, and it's a blast to watch.

Rory gets a very strong outing.  Being with the Doctor has pulled Rory's inner strength to the fore, and he shows tremendous bravery and compassion throughout.  He's truly heroic, even when he's being cruelly manipulated.

As for Amy, well... we'll get to that later.

The sets and lighting are incredibly atmospheric, adding a seriously creepy overlay to an already visceral and eerie story.  The Flesh-things look creepy in all the right ways, going from looking totally human to blobs to everything in between.

The Flesh is a fantastic concept.  The story has a strong moral center, but it remembers to treat it with great complexity.  It helps a lot that the characters are nicely defined and superbly played all around.  We get a real sense of who all these people are without spending a lot of time with them.

For about 75 minutes, the story rocks along, full of suspense, shocks, and humor.  Unfortunately, near the end, it gets lost.  There's a cool-looking monster at the close, but it doesn't do anything.  The climax basically consists of running down a single hallway, closing a door, and then arguing about who's going to stay being, even though it's not convincing that anyone needs to stay behind.

What's more annoying about the end is that after treating the Flesh and the idea of sort-of sort-of-not clones with a lot of thought, it goes an easy, unsatisfying route to resolution, not leaving the various moral questions unanswered so much as forgetting it asked them in the first plays.  It doesn't follow through on any of its themes or most of its characterizations.  The story ends on a whimper, rather than a bang.

... the story proper, that is.  After fizzling on its main plot, it goes into the TARDIS where the Doctor and companions discuss the previous adventure, but the Doctor suddenly gets very, very dark, and we get a pair of horrifying twists regarding Amy.  She hasn't had too much to do for most of the story, but the ending is entirely on her.

And it's a doozy of a finale.  The Almost People ends with a stunning cliffhanger... and an incredibly high note, redeeming a very flawed climax.

The great thing about Doctor Who may be that it can go absolutely anywhere, but if it does fall into business-as-usual, it's pretty forgivable if it's done well, with lots of clever ideas and creepiness and character and Doctorishness.  And this one totally pulled that off.


* * *


  • This was written by Matthew Graham, who previously wrote the abysmal "Fear Her".  Now I'm convinced that truly was a tragic fluke.  Graham, consider yourself redeemed. 

Love and Monsters

As much fun as it is to go through action-driven Doctor Who stories, every now and again, it's nice to sit back and see something offbeat and experimental like Love and Monsters, which uses the Doctor as a background character in a romantic tragi-comedy.  And thanks to wonderful characterizations by Marc Warren as Elton Pope and Shirley Henderson as his love Ursula, it works beautifully... for a while.  Watching these two lonely people meet due to their mutual fascination with this mysterious traveler and then fall in love is absolutely charming.  Jackie's presence adds immensely to it; the scene where Elton tries to get information from her is a comic gem.

And then... and then, the monster shows up, and it all falls to pieces.  Partly because he looks like Fat Bastard painted green, and partly because Peter Kay does a Fat Bastard impersonation.  The monster is way too goofy, even for a comic Who story.  It tramples the tragic elements completely, and is too weird for the comic elements to work.

The reason for the Doctor and Rose showing up at the climax is a brilliant laugh, but otherwise, the second half of the story limps to a whimper.  And then it closes on an awful fellatio joke, and adds distasteful to a weak conclusion.

But the experiment of throwing an offbeat character romantic comedy-tragedy into the story?  Total success.  It's when the actual plot comes up that the whole thing derails.  But it's great seeing Doctor Who try something this bizarre and risky.  If only the plot had taken the same risks...


* * ½

The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit

Something I've talked about several times is the unfortunate default format of the Davies-era show (and, to this point, the Moffat era, though he seems to be moving away from it).  See, for most of Doctor Who's run, the normal story length was four 25-minute episodes, making for stories lasting just over an hour and a half.  And there's a reason that's the right length.  Because Doctor Who is about a madman with a magic box that can take him to any time and any place, and because it's very character-driven, it has a greater burden than most shows: every single story has to succeed at world-building, convincingly transporting us to a brand new time and place.  Every story has to develop a new cast of characters.  And it has to take the time to tell a compelling story.   It's really difficult to cram all that into 45 minutes.  Not impossible, but you are restricted to only one or two compelling characters and a simple plot.  And Doctor Who can be and should be so much more than that.

Which brings up another point, something I've probably hammered too much: this show shouldn't be restricted to Earth.  Not that we should never spend time on Earth, but we have all of time and space.  Earth gets kinda boring after a while.

This isn't to say I dislike the Davies era.  On the whole, I'm very fond of Davies' version of the show.  I think he made it fresh, energetic, exciting, modern, and very dramatic, and gave us several of the finest stories in the show's history.  And what's more, he really didn't give us more than a small handful of duds along the way.  Even the lesser stories in his era were usually more mediocre that truly bad.

That said, Impossible Planet, as a well-structured 90-minute story set on a fantastic landscape, is exactly what I'd been waiting for from the new series when I got to it.  It opens exactly where it's been needed for a season and a half: somewhere not-Earth.  Eighteen stories into the new series, and this is the first time that the Doctor, actually sets foot on somewhere that isn't Earth, or Earth-orbit, or New Earth.  It's truly somewhere new.  And what a spectacular setting!  A station on a planet orbiting inside the event horizon of a black hole...

And now, with modern effects and a little money, it looks absolutely stunning.  The world-building is superb.  It's not only imaginative and well-produced; it has a strong sense of geography, crucial for what turns out to be a base-under-siege story.

And then it one-ups that with the introduction of the Ood.  Not only is it a fantastic makeup job, but they're a genuinely fascinating race.  Here, in their first appearance, they're voluntary slaves, a terrific concept that brings up all sorts of moral dilemmas that the show will later only sort of deal with.  They also bounce very effectively from convincingly friendly to absolutely terrifying.

Next, the Doctor is cut off from the TARDIS - of course - but this time, it seems permanent.  It's not nearly as convincingly just gone like in Frontios where it outright disintegrates in front of the Doctor's eyes, leaving only a hatstand never seen before or since.  I mean, it just fell down a cliff.  No big deal.  But there's a more important difference here: there, after the stunning cliffhanger, Frontios just sorta forgets about the TARDIS disappearing until it shows up at the end.  No discussion, no wondering what's next for our stranded explorers.  Even the Doctor doesn't seem that upset.  Here, though, it actually thinks through what it would mean to the Doctor to really, truly lose the TARDIS.  His discussion with Rose about their future is perfectly written, nailing their relationship.  Rose, of course, talks about settling down, maybe together or something, you know, but the Doctor totally ignores her.  He loves her in his own way, but that's not how things are.  It's a complex relationship, beautifully captured in just a few short lines of dialogue.

Besides, we all know he just lost his true love. (actually, he says as much, pretty much right to Rose: "I need my ship! It's all I've got! Literally the only thing!")

Of course, it's not long before things start getting really, really bad.  One of the crew members, Toby, is possessed by an evil entity and starts killing everybody without getting noticed, the Ood go crazy, and the impossible planet seems like it might not be far from doing exactly what it should be doing and going straight into the black hole.  The base under siege elements are excellent.  There's a genuinely sense of escalating terror and reduced spaces.  There's also an excellent sense of geography; you feel like you could draw a map of the base after the story ends.

There's one particularly riveting sequence in The Satan Pit where the surviving characters are forced to crawl through the vents.  It's an old cliche, but it's done brilliantly, particularly in the absolutely chilling shot where Toby suddenly goes from screaming for his victims to help him to silently giving his orders to the Ood.  Great stuff.

Rose is nicely characterized.  She's brave and loyal and pours herself into things, but it's also characteristically narcissistic: all her work to bring together the crew and stuff is solely to save her Doctor.

The crew is all nicely written and superbly acted.  They seem like complete, individual personalities.

And then there's Toby, the possessed.  Will Thorpe's performance is absolutely sensational.  I could site virtually every scene he's in as an example; he's just amazingly creepy.

The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit stand out in nearly every way, with a brilliant setting, strong characterizations, superb acting, and some terrific horror scenes...

... but if Doctor Who was going to take on Satan himself, it would have been nice if its depiction of the Devil had been a little more sophisticated than the version in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.

I guess you could argue he isn't necessarily the Devil, but building him up like that forces the result to aim pretty high.  For The Devil, this guy's a pretty weak, uninteresting character. I swear, there is a more powerful monster somewhere in every single season of the show -- he isn't anywhere near as compelling or as threatening as villains like Edrad, or the vampires in State of Decay, or even, say, the steampunk Cyber-King thing.  It's a really weak villain.

I mean, he has the power to, what, possess one person? If and only if that one person reads his symbols one too many times? He also influences the Ood, but honestly, that doesn't seem like that big of an accomplishment. The Doctor mentions the Devil who appears in legends throughout the Universe, but on Earth, at least, in many religions and myths, the Devil is the great liar, the master manipulator. In most versions, he's a trickster -- Satan, Loki, Mara -- not just an ordinary monster. The Doctor taking on that challenge, of an evil far trickier and more manipulative than he is, should be fascinating. Instead, it's boring because this villain, for all his build-up, isn't all that powerful by the Doctor's standards, and isn't actually interesting for any other reasons.

Its defeat is the final insult: his plan succeeds, succeeds: he has escaped the unescapable prison, has a ride to an inhabited planet, and tricked the Doctor into a wild goose chase, leaving the Doctor to give his awesome Doctorish monologue to himself.*  The only thing he has to do, literally the only thing, is not tell everyone he's possessing Toby's body.  But no, in one of the most hilarious uses of the Talking Killer Syndrome ever, he turns monstrous and starts ranting and raving.  So, of course, Rose kills him cleverly, and then quips... no, no, you can guess it.  It's not a good quip.  Nothing clever or interesting.  Just the most obvious possible one.

* Clever idea on the writer's part, by the way.  It'd be brilliant if the actual conclusion was satisfying.

And that kills it for me.  I find the villain totally laughable.  More laughable than the Creature From the Pit, or the Menoptra, or, hell, the Optera.   The story will throw out a brilliant scene like the Doctor ruminating on the existence of God, and then has some laughing giant with horns appear, and don't even have the courtesy to give him a good rock-off.
"I'm the Devil, I can do what I want
Whatever I got, I'm gonna flaunt
There's never been a rock-off I've ever lost..."

You know, if the climax wasn't so lame, I'd be a lot more forgiving.  But yeah, he doesn't die because the Doctor is clever, or he falls to his flaws, or anything like that.  He dies because he starts monologuing when that is the single thing that could possibly kill him.

And that's it.  Everything I wanted in a Doctor Who story except one thing, but that one thing is so bad it ruins the whole thing.

But hey, it's not on Earth!


* * ½