Monday, September 24, 2012

The Power of Three

One of the greatest elements of Steven Moffat's era as showrunner has been how deeply the show has delved into the nature of the Doctor/companion relationship.  In The Eleventh Hour, Moffat carefully set it up as a charming fairy tale, then has spent the last two and a half seasons undermining it - and exploring it - by colliding the childlike charm with the maturity of the adults involved.  By The Big Bang, it had essentially resolved as a fairy tale, but Season Six brought it back with a vengeance, building to the Doctor breaking Amy's childlike faith in him in The God Complex.

Which has formed a fascinating story in the last several episodes, as Amy and Rory struggle to get used to Real Life but never quite can because a madman keeps falling out of the sky and taking them on adventures.  And that conflict is the heart of The Power of Three, as the two finally realize they have to decide which life they truly want.

And thankfully, this conflict is played out with both tremendous humor and well-played emotion.  I tend to be wary of Chris Chibnall scripts, given how disastrous they sometimes turn out, but he hasn't been hired so often because he's an untalented hack.  He seems to be an eternal wellspring of great ideas who can also do great character work when he's correctly focused.  Here, he balances character and story nicely and does both very well.

Rory's dad felt like a great character tacked-on after the fact in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but here, Chibnall sets him up his calm, meticulous nature in contrast to the Doctor's mercurial and somewhat childish nature.  The Doctor goes utterly mad waiting patiently for the cubes to open in a matter of hours, while Rory's dad is perfectly content to observe them for over a year.  It's a funny subplot that makes good use of him.  He also gets a cutting dramatic moment where he asks the Doctor what happened to his previous companions.

Chibnall also finally solves the problem that the New Who UNIT stories have struggled with - the lack of the Brigadier.  The best thing about the old UNIT stories was Nicholas Courtney's fantastic presence, and New Who has never come up with a satisfying replacement.  None of the commanders since have been memorable enough to even return.  Jemma Redgrave's Kate Stewart is exactly what these stories have needed - an engaging actor playing a nicely-written character.  It's left to be seen what's done with her in a story where she's particularly important, but it's still a good introduction.

While Amy and Rory don't have a lot to do plot-wise, they're given a wealth of both humorous and emotional material to work with, and Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are as wonderful as ever.  It's difficult to think of them ever leaving the show, and their departure is going to be deeply painful.  Amy and Rory have become my favorite New Who companions far and away and among my five favorites all around.  This is a good showcase for just how much fun they are.

Seriously, you two, don't ever leave.

The plot is (rightly) in the background, but it's a clever story that builds suspense superbly.  The actual explanation of who dropped the cubes is interesting enough to warrant a lot more screen time than it gets, but maybe the Shakri will show up again.

Matt Smith's Doctor is magnificent.  Smith is as deft as ever at both whimsy and drama, and his conversations with Amy are genuinely moving.

The actual resolution, while adequate, is disappointing - the Doctor basically walks in, listens to a recording, and then flips his Sonic on for twenty seconds and solves the plot.  It's a bit of a let-down.  But the scene following it, as Rory's dad pushes the companions to join the Doctor, is a terrific and satisfying conclusion, even with the somewhat clumsy final narration.

All in all, Power of Three is an absolute delight, 45 minutes of pure mirth and deep heart in a suspenseful structure.  And it's yet another fascinating exploration of what, exactly, it really means to be one of the Doctor's companions.


* * * 1/2


  • There is actually a pretty significant flaw with the episode I alluded to earlier, but since it's a flaw that just leaves it "really good" instead of "one of the best ever", I'm leaving it down here.

    That problem is the same thing universally present in Chibnall scripts - a certain sloppiness of not actually thinking all the details through.  Chi
    bnall is a terrific ideas guy, but he seems to just write all those ideas down without taking the time to get them working properly.  Power of Three gets away with it, but it does hold it back from greatness.

    Although the episode's heart is the conflict in Amy and Rory and its resolution is their decision that their passion lies with adventuring with the Doctor and not normal life, they don't actually do anything to solve the plot.  In fact, the Doctor basically solves the plot without the help of Amy, Rory, Rory's Dad, or UNIT.  He waits until everything gets bad, then whips out his Sonic and solves every problem with that on his own. 

    Rory's dad gets that wonderful plot about his intense observation of the cubes, but everyone notices them go wonky at the same time.  It's a funny joke, but it takes away one of the only two things he does in the plot.  The other thing he does is get captured, which could have lead somewhere, since Rory followed the aliens.  However, Rory ended up just as captured.

    ... which was the only thing he actually contributed to solving the plot, except that it did nothing.  If he had left some kind of trail or clue that he had gone to the elevator, he would have lead the Doctor and Amy to rescue him, but the Doctor just found it with the Sonic.  And Amy was just the Doctor's charming sidekick, getting the plot explained to her and having plenty of fun scenes, but not doing anything in the story.

    Mostly, it comes down to just how simple the plot has to be to fit as the B-story in a 45-minute episode.  There's not much room for the companions to be clever or do anything if the emotional stuff is going to get enough time to work.  And since Moffat's approach is always emotion over logic or continuity, the emotions have to stick.  So it's good that the emotion is left to the A-story.  But the resolution would be much more powerful if the emotional threads had been tied to the plot threads, and both had actually climaxed together.  From a plot perspective, there was no need for anyone other than the Doctor, and him not until the last five minutes.

    This is actually a gigantic structural flaw.  Again, the emotion of both the companion's story and the suspense of the plot are strong enough that it mostly gets away with it.  But when Amy talks about the "power of three" in the final voiceover, it's not actually clear from the story itself what she's talking about - the story was about the power of the Doctor's pocket Deus ex Machina.

  • I'm not sure whether I prefer David Tennant's version of losing one of his hearts or Matt Smith's,  though I'm leaning toward Tennant.  But I definitely prefer Smith's version of getting his second heart working again.
  • Given Chibnall's love of not-so-subtle symbolism (not that there's anything wrong with that), I'm surprised he used cubes instead of three-sided pyramids.  It's a bit less awkward than the way he tries to shoehorn "cubed" into that last monologue.
  • The Doctor, Amy, and Rory sitting around eating fish fingers and custard is just the greatest thing ever.  That is all.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Town Called Mercy

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer, doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

-- William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

The Doctor's heaviest guilt comes from that question of whether, sometimes, perhaps he should have shown mercy... and, others, he should have enforced a justice that otherwise would never have been upheld.  So many times, he has let the most horrific villains escape death.  Was his mercy in allowing the Master to live all those times worth the price of the billions (or perhaps trillions) who died in Logopolis?  Or his mercy with the Daleks in Genesis worth the untold numbers murdered by their deathrays?  Should he have dispensed his own justice against them instead, or was he in the right?

And what of those times when he did destroy his adversaries?  Was he right to eradicate both the Time Lords and the Daleks at the end of the time war, even if it did seem the only way to save every other life?  Or, more recently, what of his cold killing of Solomon?  Well, okay, Solomon killed that Triceratops for no reason.  He deserved to die.  But even so, the Doctor's attitude was a bit more ruthless than usual even when he has killed.

A Town Called Mercy forces the Doctor to face this by pitting him against Kahler Jax, another Doctor who fell out of the sky and dedicated his life to helping others.  He's also another Doctor who did horrible things in a war in order to end it - in his case, experimenting on others and turning them into horrific cyborgs without their consent.  His defense is that it ended a seven-year war in a week.  But now, after making a peaceful life for himself on another planet (ours, naturally), the last of his experiments has hunted him down across the stars.

Both the Doctor and Jax truly want to make the Universe a better place.  And both, essentially, dropped the Atomic bomb in order to save the millions who would have perished otherwise.  Jax in some ways went further by intentionally torturing innocents, but it isn't far from what the Doctor did - after all, the Doctor committed double-genocide to save the Universe.

The Doctor, on realizing who he's facing, does that rarest of moves and pulls a gun.  Amy tries to talk him down, but as the Doctor says, he honestly doesn't know what he's going to do.  It's a terrifying, powerful scene.  In this centerpiece scene, A Town Called Mercy is brilliant.

It doesn't quite sustain that brilliance, but it definitely flirts with greatness.  The first half, building to that showdown, is terrific - engaging mysteries, good humor, strong characterizations, perfect Western atmosphere, and an exciting story that quite delightfully drops the Terminator (more or less) into the Old West.  The Cyborg makeup is superb, visceral enough to make the story compelling but not so much that it would give nightmares to kids watching.  The acting, unsurprisingly, is top-notch right down the line.  Smith is, yet again, extraordinary, bouncing wildly from the silliest comedy to the darkest drama without it ever feeling forced or jarring.  And the first half of the episode builds to that masterful scene.

The second half, alas, doesn't quite pay off.  The townspeople, understandably, form a lynch mob, but the Doctor talks them down.  Unfortunately, the Doctor's speech is a not-terribly-compelling sermon, and the tension evaporates.  And honestly, the Doctor should have done something more clever than just reiterated a moral concept.  The townpeople had clearly made up their minds, and it would take a better speech than that to pull it off. 

(The scene might still have finessed it on the sheer shoulders of Matt Smith's acting, but Murray Gold's otherwise effective score flattens it.  Gold does a Firefly/Serenity-style mix of Western motifs with more techy instrumentation and percussion, which generally works.  But there, it's just a distraction in a scene that would be much better with either no music or a minimal dramatic underscore.  Still, that's more the fault of the director than Gold.)

The Doctor's plan is a minor let-down.  It's a bit clever, and his use of the Sonic in the duel is nice (although you'd think that would do more damage to the townspeople's ears than the Cyborg's), but it's not really a ruse worthy of him, nor as exciting a scene as it should be.  Jax's final decision and the Cyborg's fate both make for a good enough ending to redeem the limp climax, but it's still a bit disappointing.

The real flaw, though, is that after that showdown halfway through, it never really engages with the ideas at its core.  Amy simply says that they can't be like Jax, and that's the end of the argument.  But it really is a complex question - after all, they can't be certain Jax won't end up doing other horrible things, and that's precisely the sort of consequences they fear.  There's a reason the Doctor does sometimes kill.  And it should be a more difficult conflict.

And Amy has quite a dark streak of her own, which should have been acknowledged, too.  In the end, Toby Whithouse compelling crafts a difficult question, then answers it too simplistically.  That said, it's possible the rest of the season will deal with this.

Regardless of its somewhat weaker second half, A Town Called Mercy is a solid, compelling, and highly entertaining yarn.  Can't complain too much about that.


* * *

  • Rory has some fun moments in this, but it's the second episode in a row where he's mostly sidelined.  Given how short his time on the show apparently is, it's a bit disappointing that he hasn't been getting more to work with.  Regardless, full points to Arthur Darvill's ability to create a complete and awesome performance purely with his face.  His ability to feel like a much bigger part of the script than he really is reminds me here of Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, where McQueen gets less than a dozen lines and has to share the screen with Yul Brynner almost constantly, yet still almost feels like the star of the film.

    Yeah.  Darvill makes Rory so awesome he's comparable to Steve McQueen.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

They Keep Killing Suzie

Season one of Torchwood has been playing with a weighty running theme of death and resurrection.  They Keep Killing Suzie tackles this straight on, and comes to an interesting conclusion (and effectively hints at where the season is going).  There’s a gaping hole revealed in the final moments that unravels everything, leading to a laughable conclusion. Until then, this is good enough that I’m tempted to give it a good rating. Alas, the last three minutes go all to the blazes anyway. But still, almost is in the upper echelon of this season.

For one thing, it’s great to have the characters written and performed with some semblance of personality. (twice in a row, no less!) All of them seem a little bit more like actual people, and even somewhat likable. Ianto even comes across fairly well, so long as you forget everything he did in every previous episode.  It's especially important in Gwen's case, of course, since most of the story concerns her taken hostage and forced to chauffeur a resurrected Suzie. With solid characterizations, the clever, twisty story is gripping without needing much in the way of outright violence.

But did Suzie seriously have a backup plan in case of her death? One that relied so totally on things going exactly her way? I mean, the plan itself is clever, but that goes beyond a stretch. That’s just ridiculous.  Still, this would be at least somewhat forgivable, but she goes on and on about how she just had to get away from “the darkness.” It’s basically her primary motivation for coming back. Except she planned it all out before she died.  Philosophically, the concept is interesting - there is life after death, but it's just emptiness only interrupted by some Lovecraftian horror.  But wrapping it in such a contradictory story sucks a lot of the power out of the concept.

And the last few minutes are an awful conclusion. Early, Jack makes it very clear that Gwen has just gotten herself completely fired. After saving her, a slow-motion montage to a lousy (and obvious) song where he smiles at her, back at the job. It’s not quite as bad as Ianto still existing after Cyberwoman, but still, it suggests that nothing would get Jack to fire anyone... and gets at a larger problem with this season: there aren't any consequences.  The rest of the season will push that idea to the limit, and then break that limit.

Speaking of which, we finally learn why Jack keeps Ianto around. It’s not exactly a shock (actually, pretty obvious), but still, now it’s explicitly stated. And makes no sense whatsoever. Before this episode, Ianto has failed to accomplish a single thing for Torchwood besides 1) nearly getting them all killed; 2) getting two innocent civilians brutally murdered; 3) making coffee; and 4) ceaselessly whining about whatever comes to mind. (Admittedly, both the coffee and the whine were pretty good as those things go.) So the idea that Jack has even the slightest interest is… well, it’s sort of believable, given that it is Jack, after all, but it’s not credible that Ianto stays in Torchwood for it. Plus, the dialogue? Is that seriously supposed to be innuendo-laced banter? Did Chibnol write the epilogue? He did, didn’t he? That would explain so much.

Nonetheless, it’s yet another episode that gets within spitting distance of being pretty good. There’s a good show hiding in here, if the lead writer would just get out of the way...


* * 1/2

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Torchwood: Greeks Bearing Gifts

Ooh, I kind of like this episode. Mind you, it falls to pieces on examination, but like Peter J. Hammond from Small Worlds, Toby Whithouse actually seems to have an idea of what to do with this show. You know, with aliens and humor and character development and stuff. Granted, he’s ultimately defeated by the show itself – most of the characters are pretty unsympathetic, even if he does a much better job writing them than most. This means that it takes a good while to get into the story, but once it does, it’s actually entertaining. Like Hammond, he’s definitely on the right track.

This is finally Tosh’s episode, and at last, we get a bit of character development beyond the “Asian, therefore computer person, therefore nerd” sterotype she’s been stuck in on the rare occasions her existence was acknowledged. Whithouse is a bit constricted by it, but at least he does it well, digging into her loneliness and emotional fragility with real depth and feeling. Even though her character has been a total blank this entire series until now, Naoko Mori has given consistently good performances, however weak her material. With some good writing, she nails it.

For a show about an organization that hunts aliens, it’s strange that up until now, the seventh episode, there’s only really been one actual alien (that sex-crazed gas in Day One). Now, finally, there’s a good alien. Daniela Denby-Ashe is a lovely actress, and the effects crew seem determined to make the alien version of her every bit as beautiful, and they pretty much succeed.

Whithouse does a great job with Jack. He doesn’t give us any real revelations, but he goes over the ground very nicely. Ianto still does little but wallow in despair, but at least it’s kept to a minimum. Whithouse can’t undo the affair between Gwen and Owen, but again, he pulls it off with wit and depth. Owen finally comes across as a competent guy in his own areas, and someone who might actually be useful to Torchwood. Whithouse also tempers his douchebaggery with a sort of rougishness that at least makes it vaguely plausible that Gwen would fall for him.

There is, of course, the expected smut, as Tosh and the alien have their own affair, but even though Whithouse can’t raise the material above smut, he at least makes it entertaining.  That's a lot of the problem with the series under Chibnall: on the one hand, he wants to make an ambitious and compelling story, and on the other hand, he turns to bawdy sexploitation at every turn - and immature, PG-13 sexploitation, at that.  The smuttiness tends to undermine the drama - it takes the tremendously steady hand of a Paul Verhoeven or a Jess Fink to do both simultaneously - and the self-serious, highly emotional tone sucks all the fun out of the tendency for all the characters to have sex with each other or whatever cropped up this episode. (or, at the very least, wear a metal bikini for no reason)

The plot itself isn’t terribly original, but it’s not bad. The whole “reading people’s thoughts can be depressing” theme is pretty ordinary, but it is an improvement on what we’ve been getting so far. The climax is nicely done, too, with a good little bit of Jack darkness.

That said, while some of the dialogue is good, it feels like Chibnall got his hands on the script and upped the soap opera dialogue. There are times when the dialogue is genuinely good, which is why the occasional flashes of the usual sort of dialogue ring even more false than usual. And it is a bit slow to draw you in and get going, though again, Withouse is constrained by what the show itself has been doing so far.

In the end, it isn’t great, but it’s decent and fairly entertaining, if not quite compelling. Like Small Worlds, it shows that there’s a good show hiding in here. And unlike that one, at least this isn’t going to be followed by (shudder) another Chibnoll-written episode.  We're actually getting to very watchable episodes in a row.  Normally, I'd still probably stick this with the dreaded "not actually bad, but not good, either" two-and-a-half stars, but after realizing I'm pretty much the only person who found the weak plotting and characterization of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship to overwhelm the sheer whimsy and joy of the overload of concepts, I'm feeling generous.

Besides, I like Tosh.  We need more Tosh episodes.  Heck, if they somehow managed to make a Torchwood Season 5 starring Tosh, I really could care less about the infinite continuity horror it would create.


* * *

  • Much as I like Tosh and the episode, it's worth noting that it's Tosh's fault that this gets out of control.  That fact that it's actually handled really well for once makes me want to ignore it, but they really do go to the well of the team screwing up and causing the plot a little too often. I suspect this was entirely unintentional, but by the end of the season it gets hilariously out of hand.
    • Number of plots caused by the incompetence of the Torchwood team: 5/7.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Dinosaurs On A Spaceship

I wanted to love this episode.  I really, seriously did.  Dinosaurs on a spaceship is the most perfect concept you could put in this show.  But the execution is just awful, and I'm finding myself very sadly having a much more Hobbesian view of things when I wanted desperately to be as awed by the ideas as Calvin.

Okay, so here's what happens in this episode: in 1334 BC, the Doctor saves Ancient Egypt from destruction, and then impulsively brings Queen Nefertiti along with him.  Meanwhile, a space ark launched by the Silurians millions of years ago is boarded by a pirate in 2367 AD who ruthlessly murders all the Silurians with his cheap robots, then finds he can't pilot the ship and it's returning to Earth. The ISA, presumably the India Space Agency but in practice the 24th century equivalent to UNIT, calls the Doctor in to solve the problem before they're forced to destroy it with missiles.  After getting instructions from the ISA, he then picks up Edwardian hunter Riddell for some reason.  Then he picks up Amy and Rory... along with Rory's dad by accident.

So, to sum up, this episode includes the following:
  • Dinosuars on a spaceship
  • A Silurian space ark
  • A psychotic space pirate who commits genocide against said Silurians
  • A pair of Douglas Adams-ish robots
  • A successor to UNIT
  • Queen Nefertiti
  • A Great White Hunter
  • Amy and Rory getting picked up again since they aren't regularly traveling with the Doctor.
  • Rory's dad.
That's too many concepts for 90 minutes.  In 45, nothing works properly.

Well, except the dinosaurs on a spaceship.  It would have been nice if more had been done with that, but they work well enough.

Let's start with Nefertiti, since that's the one that really irks me.  She's all flirty, first with the Doctor, then with Riddell.  That, actually, is pretty much her entire characterization.  She's flirty and she's a Queen, so she has a power thing going.  She barely has any lines in the story, and has no function whatsoever until the climax, at which point she is captured by the villain for the final crisis.  She then waits around until the Doctor arrives to save her, then finally decides to save herself.  At the end, she goes off to be with Riddell for some reason.

It's a sloppily-detailed, half-formed characterization for a character who, frankly, could have been cut from the story entirely.  That would be bad enough without the moral problem, but this is a family show.  See, she clearly identifies herself as the wife of Amunhotep.  It's part of how she defines herself.  However, she tries to seduce the Doctor, then goes off to be with another guy at the end.  But that's okay, see, because she thinks her husband is boring.  I know they're much cheekier these days, but playing off infidelity as nothing more than a joke is just offensive.

But then there's the fact that she's Nefertiti.  One of the great historical icons.  And Chibnall gets nothing right.  The few details we do get about her are completely wrong.  This is one of the most fascinating figures of ancient history, and Chibnall can't get the three things he does say about her right.

Nefertiti and her husband, Amunhotep IV, led the Aten cult, a group of Egyptians who believed there was only one god, Aten, the disk of the sun.  In 1348 (give or take a year), Amunhotep changed his named to Akhenaten, still the name he's most commonly known by.  He and Nefertiti reformed the entire Egyptian culture, changing the Pantheon, the Capital city, even the style of art.  And they created the first monotheistic state religion, and were members of one of the first two monotheistic religions to ever exist, alongside Judaism.

Nefertiti had an unprecedented level of power for a queen, being nearly a co-regent with her husband.   She also deeply loved Akhenaten.  Then, in the 12th year of his reign, 1340(ish), she simply disappears.  After this, things get fuzzy, but at about the same time, a mysterious figure named Smenkhare appears and becomes Akhenaten's coregent, then Pharaoh after his death a few years later.  There may also have been a Queen named Neferneferuaten somewhere in there.  Those two may have been Nefertiti herself under different names, or maybe just the second one was.  Or maybe neither, and she died in 1340.  But the idea that she was both is the popular theory amongst amateurs like me.

Changing the state religion, unfortunately, drew the ire of the old priests, who had lost much of their power.  They took advantage of Akhenaten's preoccupation with his religion, and ensured that the Egyptian kingdom fell apart.  There was lots of intrigue and power struggling.

Eventually, the priests quietly managed to get back their power, and once Akhenaten's son (probably his, anyway) Tutankhaten, later Tutankamun, popularly King "Tut", came to power as a kid, they got him to return the throne to the old capital and restore the old gods.  Two pharaohs further down the line, orders were given to have the entire period erased from history so nothing like it could ever happen again.  Bits of the period resurface, but details are sketchy.  What we do have, however, is one of the most dramatic periods of ancient Egyptian history, and at the center, Nefertiti.

So if you're going to put her in your story, you should probably put her in a story that actually has enough time to give her some dues.  But even if you're not, you could at least get something right.  The Doctor picks her up in 1334, at which point Akhenaten was either dead or dying.  If she was alive, she was about to become sole ruler of Egypt (or already was).  Also, she had at least two living daughters (who later became Tutankhamun's wife) and possibly four.  So leaving her to abandon her post and her children with no motivation whatsoever is hard to take.

And she's bored with her husband?  The guy who tried to turn his world upside-down?  The guy she clearly loved deeply from every depiction we have of them?  And above all, she calls him Amunhotep.  13 years after he changed his name.  I mean, that one's just weird.  Anyone who's heard of him knows he's Akhenaten.  Even the 15 seconds of research required to come up with the right century and her husband's name would have turned that up.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti play with their daughters.

This is largely nit-picking, but it's an example of how sloppy the whole thing is.  Nefertiti is jammed into the story, but she's done so utterly wrong she fails as a representation of the real person (actually a bit of an insult, really, to one of the great women of ancient history).  That would be totally forgivable if it was a memorable characterization, but it's a pretty lousy one.  And even then, there might be something to be said for her mere presence and name if she actually accomplished something in the story, but her only actual purpose is to get captured by the villain for the sake of the climax.

This sloppiness pervades the entire script.  Like the way the Doctor mentions that they can't use the transports at one point because they shorted out, but they inexplicably work (multiple times) for the climax.

The sexual politics are just obnoxious.  Look, I have nothing against feminism.  I'm about as feminist as a male American conservative gets.  One of the things I love so much about this show is the presence of characters like Barbara Wright and Sarah Jane Smith being strong, independent, powerful women long before it was popular.  But the presentation here is terrible.  Riddell and Solomon are totally sexist, and Nefertiti and Amy are constantly putting their equality in their faces.  Riddell and Solomon become strawmen sexists, and frankly, Nefertiti and Amy come off like the sorts of characters Kate Beaton was satirizing in her Strong Female Characters comic.  Every time it comes up, it's cringe-inducing.

And there's Rory's dad.  Mark Williams is perfect, and the character gets a couple of nice moments, but when you bring in a previously-unseen relative, you should really make their relationship the emotional center of the story, or at least have a decent emotional arc.  He's a credible depiction of what you'd expect Rory's dad to be like, but he has nothing really to do.  Like Nefertiti, he's just sort of grafted on without any real thought to how he impacts the story (or doesn't).  It's a waste of a nice performance.

Riddell works better than the other two on the sheer fact that the Great White Hunter is such a brilliant trope it's almost impossible to screw up, and such a simple one you can just let it play in the background.  Even in otherwise weak adventures, that character adds tremendous fun to a story.  Think Connery's Allan Quartermain in the otherwise lame League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or (my favorite variation of the trope) Ernie Hudson as "your Great White Hunter... who happens to be black" in the extremely uneven Congo.  And Rupert Graves certainly plays it with all the charisma you'd expect.  He's got a particularly great moment where he calmly insists he can take down an ankylosaur with his pocketknife.  But far too much of his screentime is spent belittling the women long after they've proven their competence - not to mention long after the joke wears thin.

With so many things fighting for screen time (and losing), it's not much surprise that the actual story, which isn't bad (if a bit cliche), doesn't have time to actually develop.  To be honest, it feels like we missed all the good parts and just stumbled into some of the less interesting parts of the ending.

The bit with the guns at the end is particularly poor.  Riddell has the villain dead to rights, but he's stopped because he's using a gun.  A stun gun.  It seems like it's just the usual New Who anti-gun thing, but here's the thing: not only is it non-fatal, but it would solve the problem.  Immediately.  There is literally no reason in the Time-Space continuum not to just shoot him with the tranq gun.  There's nothing stopping him.  He's a Great White Hunter, villain in his sights, at point blank range.  Well, okay, there's the robots.  But so far as I can tell, they won't do anything that the villain doesn't tell them to do.  Once he's dead, do they do anything?  It's just a poorly thought-through showdown.

And it's not like the Doctor has a problem killing the guy.  He's pretty cold-blooded about it, actually.  So what's with the big anti-gun thing?

Speaking of which, though, the robots are great.  In the Douglas Adams tradition, they're the lower-quality models, meaning instead of being great kill bots, they're barely adequate kill bots who spend all their time bickering with each other and their victims.  It's a delightful bit that tragically lacks a punchline, but still represents one of the few things in the story that actually works.

As for the Doctor, he's... fine.  Matt Smith is great as ever, but Chibnall seriously overdoes the quirks.  The running joke about the Doctor being parts of music recordings is really tiresome by now.  His interference in creating minor parts of history is charming in small doses, but gets annoying after a while.  Note to Chibnall: quirks are charming.  QUIRKS are incredibly off-putting.

Amy spends too much time bickering with Riddell, but otherwise, she's good.  It's fun to see how well she handles the situations she's handed.  She really is a pro at this stuff.  She also gets a short but effective conversation with the Doctor about the way he picks them up and then disappears for months at a time, and how she can't stand to have to hold down a job in the meantime.  Rory is similarly fine but unspectacular.  All of his lines and scenes are good, but he's not around much.

There are moments where it comes together and works.

Rory: "Where are we?"
The Doctor: [sticks his tongue out] "Well, it's not Earth.  Doesn't taste right.  Too metallic."
 But on the whole, it's a typical Chibnall story: good ideas, not-so-good execution.


* * 


  •  Why didn't Rory's dad meet the Doctor at his son's wedding?  Was he not there?  Shouldn't this have been addressed?
  • The implication with the ICS is that India is the dominant world superpower in the 24th century.  Yet another good concept that's completely trampled by its brevity.  I totally missed that until a commenter mentioned the agency's name.
  • So, given the presence of the Ankylosaurs, Triceratops, T-Rex, and overgrown Velocoraptors, the Silurians must have launched their ship in the late Cretaceous.  This is extremely strange, as every prior appearance suggested they came from other time periods. 
    • In The Silurians, they went in hibernation when they thought the Earth capturing the moon would cause massive geologic upheavals.  We can set aside that the current scientific consensus is that the moon formed from a collision between the earth a Mars-sized object (a theory with massive problems of its own that will probably be replaced by a better one, as such holey theories generally are), which is forgivable since I believe the capture theory was the consensus in 1970.  The point is, if that was the case, they would have existed around 4.5 billion years ago, which is problematic for reasons I probably don't need to mention.

But here's a pretty picture of it by the great Chesley Bonestall.
    •  However, the title of the story suggests they existed around 430 million years ago.  This doesn't work since terrestrial life was limited to coastal plant life.  At any rate, the Doctor later claims the name is a misnomer...
    • ... in The Sea Devils, where he says they should more rightly be called Eocenes.  This comes much closer to making sense given who the Silurians are, placing them between 56 and 34 million years old.  If they truly ruled the world, that would be about the time period that fits best.
    • But dinosaurs had been extinct since 65 million years ago.  It's possible a small number survived the K-T extinction event, but not by that long.  And on the other hand, the Silurians are said to have ruled the Earth, which is unlikely in the Mesozoic because, you know, dinosuars.
    • All of which is to say, I dare someone to come up with a coherent, unified theory of the existence of the Silurians.  Give it your best shot!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Torchwood: Countrycide

I don't like tearing into Chris Chibnall like this.  I mean, I enjoy the part where I sit down and write 1500 words about a spinoff of a cult TV show and then publish it where anyone in the world can read it because I can.  I enjoy analyzing a work of art and why it does or does not work, in my opinion.  And when I'm tearing a movie or TV show a new one, I enjoy coming up with the sarcasm and the fake outrage because I didn't enjoy a TV show.  All that stuff is fun.

But the further I go into this - and it's only going to get worse before it gets better - it feels almost like an attack on an incredibly hard-working writer.  Chibnall has been a fan of Doctor Who since he was a kid, and grew up to get a chance to not only write for that show, but be the lead writer for its spinoff.  And he wasn't lazy about that - he wrote almost a third of the episodes produced while he was there.  Nor are all of them awful.  Two of them are excellent, in fact.  And I can't wait for his Who episode on Saturday.  I mean, it's titled Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.  That's pretty much the best title for any work of fiction since that blind guy improvised a pair of 150,000 word poems about dudes killing each other while their gods screw with them.  So I don't want to come across like I'm attacking Chibnall the guy, or that I hold anything against him personally.  If someone creates a beautiful work of art, it only adds to the beauty of the world.  Chibnall has at least one episode of this very show that qualifies.  And if someone creates art that sucks, it doesn't hurt anything in the world, because one day it's forgotten while the beautiful work shines through.

But bless his heart, he created a lot that sucks.

As always, he starts somewhere interesting.  The idea for Countrycide is to violently yank the Torchwood team out of their comfort zone by having them confront villainy that's neither supernatural nor extraterrestrial.  It's a cool sort of experimental episode to break the mold.  Episode six of the first season is the wrong place for it - the show really hasn't settled down into an actual mold the break.  I mean, despite the opening title being about fighting aliens, so far they've mostly just fumbled around, creating problems by messing with alien tech they should be treating less stupidly.  But still, conceptually, it's a nice idea.

Unfortunately, Chibnall hinges the entire thing on ruining his characters, starting by lobomizing Owen.  Early in the episode, Owen causes the team tremendous grief because he leaves the car keys in the ignition.  Of the high-tech vehicle of a top secret organization.  And Chibnall seems to revel in his stupidity, giving him cartoonish dialogue.
OWEN: What is that smell?
GWEN: That's grass.
OWEN: It's disgusting.
Up until now, Owen was incredibly unsympathetic but seemed mostly competent.  This is now the second time in six episodes the various events of the episode are at least partly his fault.  (and for the record, that's 4/6 where the Torchwood team is partly responsible for the mess they get in)  And he's not the only one.

Ianto is now for some inexplicable reason part of the team out in the field. I mean, it’s not like he was a field guy before, but after Cyberwoman, he shouldn’t even be on this show. But despite the fact that every single thing in Cyberwoman was entirely his fault in every conceivable way, he still tries to guilt-trip the others about it (and succeeds!).
Tosh isn’t much better. Out of nowhere, the episode tries to graft action hero onto her, (which is pretty much the first thing they've tried to graft on her) then throws it right back out the window when, after kicking the villain in the balls, she waits for him to recover rather than, you know, running or capitalizing on it in any way. Then, when she finally does find a moment to run, she trips on a pile of leaves – you read that right – and gets caught again.  Tripping on a pile of leaves is, at this point, far and away her most memorable moment in the series.

But worst of all is Gwen. For most of the episode, she’s sort of okay. It’s not entirely clear why she’s attracted to douchey Owen and his constant sexual harassment that's bordering on assault at this point, but that could be set aside because, hey, sometimes people are just attracted to strange things. But then, there’s the final scene, and in just a single shot, the show kills every likable thing about her. She was one of the only two characters in this whole show I cared for, and now she’s just a whiny little girl who cheats on her perfectly nice, supportive boyfriend just because.

With Owen.

That leaves Jack, and he escapes with his dignity mostly intact. I don’t care for the climax where he rescues the team by kneecapping all the bad guys (with a shotgun, no less) instead of just, you know, killing them. In a gunfight. When they’re shooting at him, too. I mean, this isn’t a guy who has a problem with killing when necessary. It's one thing to put little references to whatever film or show inspired you; it's quite another to just straight rip off one of the most iconic scenes from the most iconic action movie of all time without even making sure it makes sense in context.  And even the Terminator didn't kneecap that room with a frickin' shotgun. (like the occasional shots of the actors having conversations on top of buildings for no reason, it seems to exist to make the characters ultra-cool, and failing because trying to be cool is the one sure-fire way to not be cool)

This is at least partly balanced out by the great revelation about his past when he was well known as someone particularly talented at torture; it adds nicely to his dark, mysterious background.

But all that aside, what is the Torchwood team doing on this mission anyway? The entire purpose of Torchwood’s existence is to fight alien threats. It’s one thing to stretch to the supernatural, but this is just regular serial killer stuff. There’s nothing at the start to indicate this is anything less than human, and it’s then revealed that it is, of course, just humans.

And finally, there's the actual plot.  Basically, the Torchwood team stumbles into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Which, as movies to rip off your plot go, it's an incredibly bad choice.  Not because putting a spin on an old horror movie plot is a bad thing - Brain of Morbius basically approches the plot of Frankenstein with the serio-comic-horror tone of Bride of Frankenstein, and that's one of the greatest Who serials ever.

But Chainsaw is not a great horror movie because of its plot, or its themes, or its characters.  It barely has those.  No, Chainsaw is a great horror movie because after a few subtle but well executed shocks in the first half, the second half is one of the most harrowing, nightmarish cinematic hell rides ever created.  The horrifically discreet violence of the earlier scenes gives way to an endless night of pure terror as the heroine desperately runs, getting steadily more exhausted while a man wearing a human mask chases her through unfamiliar woods and houses with a running chainsaw.  And by filtering the film through a docu-drama aesthetic, Tobe Hooper makes it feel absolutely real.

All of which is to say, Chainsaw is a classic horror movie because of its style, not its substance. (or, more accurately, the style is the substance.  I'm of the opinion that great style can, in itself, be great substance, though, admittedly, that may just be me trying to excuse what a huge De Palma fan I am.)  So ripping it off gives you nothing to work with, leaving the audience with nothing but a reminder of how much better that thing you're referencing was.

It doesn't help, though, when the plotting is so poorly thought through.  Why does Torchwood stop at the side of the road to go camping? Why do the villains just tie up their victims by the hands, leaving them free to easily escape?  And so forth.

What’s really frustrating is that right in the middle is one superb scene where Gwen is blasted with a shotgun and Owen has to field dress her then and there. It would work even better if Owen wasn’t such a prick, but still, it's tense, dramatic, and crisply written.  And given how good the actors are with bad material, it's no surprise they shine with a genuinely good scene. It’s not really clear why Gwen is so energetic and all running around and such after taking a shotgun blast, even to a less-than-vital area, so the effect of the scene doesn’t last. But still, for one brief, shining moment, it’s great.

It's really not like Chris Chibnall is incapable of writing good stuff. His “Pond Life” shorts last week were delightful, and Saturday brings "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", which the trailers assure me does, in fact, includes dinosaurs on a spaceship.  How could that possibly be anything less than the coolest thing ever?



  • Without Owen leaving the keys in the car because he was too busy sexually assaulting seducing Gwen apparently, the list continues.
    • Number of plots largely caused by the incompetence of the Torchwood team: 4/6. 
    • Number of Torchwood Incompetence Plots caused by Owen's douchbaggery: 2/4.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Torchwood: Small Worlds

Small Worlds has a beautiful opening: an old woman walks through a dark forest late at night, speaking into a recorder that she doesn't want to wake "them".   Finally, we see what she's referring to: fairies.  They're a wonderful visual effect, accompanied by Elfman-ish strings, enhancing a truly lovely scene.  And then, the music gets scary, and they morph into laughably bad monsters.  Because we're obviously too stupid to figure out that they're creepy when they start killing people later.  Jumping the gun on the music ruins any chance of creepiness and actually kills the magic, too. The lousy CGI demons are only the final nail in the coffin.

I don't know who, exactly, it was that ruined that opening.  It could have been in Peter Hammond's script, but given what a good script it is on the whole, I sort of doubt it.  My suspicions tend toward Chibnall; in fact, I suspect most of the significant flaws were his additions or changes.  But I don't know that.

And that's sort of how Small Worlds goes.  It's a story both wonderful and terrifying that powerfully delivers on Torchwood's promise for the first time.  But there are massive, fundamental flaws in the execution, many and possibly all of which came not from writer PJ Hammond, but from the production team themselves.  Still, given what leaps and bounds this is above everything before this (and after for a good while), I can't be too hard.  After all, on the whole, I really liked this episode both times I watched it, even if a couple of key scenes are inexcusably blown.  For the first time, this actually feels like we’re somewhere in the Doctor Who universe. (and a good TV show)

First off, Gwen is finally used well.  So far, she's been a good character with little to do except be the new girl.  Here's, she's a full-fledged member of the team, and a good one. She’s whip-smart, totally staying with Jack no matter how ambiguous he’s being about things without being unbelievably clever. Jack has a little too much brooding, but for the most part, he’s also nicely shaded and given good material. The other three members barely appear, but since Owen’s the kind of guy who uses date-rape alien pheremones just for the hell of it, Ianto is apparently a lobotomized 12-year-old girl, and Toshiko has the personality of a particularly dull rock thus far, it’s no loss.

The Fairies are a wonderful idea, and the mythology is fantastic – dark, mysterious, and wondrous. In Fairy mode, they also look quite beautiful. Unfortunately, when they turn into demons, they just look like lazily-designed CGI demons. I'm generally pretty forgiving of low-budget effects when there was no other way to effectively tell the story, but there weren't needed at all.  Every scene they’re in would have been vastly more effective if they weren’t shown at all anyway. The scene near the end where they kill the guy by growing flowers in his throat (a brilliant and uniquely creepy idea) would be terrifying if we simply saw the man struggling,

Not that the script is perfect. It’s never really explained why the fairy-demons kill the old lady, given that their other two victims are a) a pedophile, and b) the little girl’s pointlessly evil stepfather.  Their entire M.O. seems to be to kill those threatening the girl, both of whom are irredeemably cruel. Maybe if they hadn’t gone out of their way to make the stepfather a one-dimensional jerk, it might have worked as they killed anything that threatened the girl in their eyes, innocent or not.  But as it is, the killing of the old lady is just gratuitous.  It's one thing to be ambiguous, it's another entirely to be simply contradictory.

Further, her death is caused when, after not only telling Jack that a bad demon is after her, but being told by Jack to be careful, she walks outside in the dark.

Where the demons are.

As rough as some spots may be, however, it's a compelling story that builds up to a genuinely brilliant final scene.  After all the build-up, it turns out the fairies aren't threatening the girl - they want her to become one of them.  And she wants to.  And while Gwen tries desperately to find a way out, Jack simply holds her back, asks for an assurance that they won't actually hurt the girl, and then lets them have her.

And that's where the show hits its full potential.  In one moment, we have Gwen, arguing to do the right thing, and Jack, arguing to do the only thing they can do.  And then Jack wins, and does something horrific because he sees no better way out.  It's a chilling moment of astounding moral complexity that punches you in the gut.  Hard.  It asks a difficult question and then gives an even more difficult answer.

So why doesn't the rest of the season approach this level of quality?

I think, honestly, it's the flaws in this story that show why.  The Demon CGI should never have been attempted in the first place; clearly they should be off-screen.  It's not like Who, where kids are watching and might be disappointed if a monster didn't pop up every once in a while. (I would dispute that, but it's at least a valid argument) This is adult sci-fi; we can figure it out.  But once it was obvious that it wasn't looking good, they should have cut them out anyway.  Somebody somewhere on the production team - director Alice Troughton, producer Richard Stokes, exec producers RTD and Julie Gardner, or producer/lead writer Chris Chibnall - should have realized that.

As for the characters, once the team is reduced to Gwen and Jack, everything clicks much better.  No douchebaggery or incompetence or sexual harassment from Owen, no whining from Ianto, and the two competent, intriguing characters get to do their thing.  And the one-dimensional stepfather?  Honestly, that's something Chibnall or script editor Brian Menchin should have weeded out.  (Honestly, I half-suspect Chibnall made him so awful in the first place.) 

So the problem, actually, is that this show has the wrong production team.  Chibnall has the Terry Nation problem of great ideas but an extremely uneven ability to accomplish those correctly.  For ever clever line he writes, he writes a dozen plodding ones.  RTD seems to indulge in his flaws.  RTD has a great concept here, but the only time they really get a solid hit is when they outsource it to old pro Peter J Hammond.

Oh well.  Again, Chibnall has the ability to write well.  Maybe he'll get the next one right.


* * *

  • The cinematography is a minor detriment - the colorful opening scenes look nice, but afterwards, it's just a generic grayish that doesn’t really tell anything storywise. This is very much an X-Files sorta story, and could have taken a cue from that show and used deep shadows in the colorful settings.  But no, it takes a too-modern popular tact of looking as bland as possible.  Granted, shooting on video is never going to look as good as the high-quality film used on X-Files, but it could at least try.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Asylum of the Daleks

The Moffat era has one systemic flaw that just won't go away: it won't expand its episodes worthy of 90 minutes into that length, instead making its stories abrupt and cramped to make way for all those filler episodes.  Which, in the case of Asylum, is really too bad, because at 90 minutes, this would be up there with Genesis, Remembrance, Power, Master Plan, Parting of the Ways, and Doomsday as among the all-time great Dalek stories and one of the best Doctor Who stories ever, period.

Of course, even with that, it's still damn good.

It opens with the Doctor walking into a Dalek trap on Skaro, which... why... does Skaro exist?  The Doctor blew it up four regenerations ago.  It's not like this is some obscure point of arcana; this is one of the centerpiece stories of the series.  I guess if you go to the novels, there was some way Skaro came back, but then I think (I could be wrong; I've only read a couple of the novels) it was destroyed again, and I'm pretty sure it was destroyed a third time in the Time War.  I'm pretty sure it's more destroyed than the Earth at the end of Mostly Harmless.
Admittedly, it looks cool.

And it's not even necessary to be there.  It's just... a slap in the face to knock you off-guard for a much, much bigger one: apparently, Amy and Rory are getting divorced.

I've gotta be honest, even with Chris Chibnoll's Pond Life series, that doesn't fly.  There have been undercurrents of tension between them in the past, but for all the complexity in their relationship, they've been happy.  Emotionally, all the last few times we've seen them, they were really happy together.  It's an incredibly jarring way to open the story even without the Up Continuity line. (which I'm convinced Moffat put in for precisely that reason.)

It's a real problem because one of the two emotional cores of the episode is the Amy/Rory relationship.  Their actual scene where they discuss their breakup and get back together is nicely written, and the already brilliant Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill always bring their performances to a whole other level with director Nick Hurran, so it hangs together, but only by its fingernails.  It really needed time at the beginning of the story to properly set up the emotions.  As it is, it isn't unconvincing, but it's nowhere near as moving as it should be.  The six-minute pretitle sequence needed to be about 20 minutes.

The end of that sequence is a knockout, with the Daleks demanding the Doctor "Save us!"  But it would have been an even bigger punch with more build-up.

But enough complaining.  Outside of the Ponds, it's more a minor problem.  Moffat and Hurran could have done more with the concept, but it's an absolutely fantastic concept - the Daleks who are too insane for the regular Daleks.  It would have been nice to see more variations of insane in amidst all the ones who are just low on power, but it's still brilliant.  It's framed in a twisty plot, and there are lots of great set-pieces - Moffat wisely gives Hurran suspense and character pieces rather than action ones, and Hurran knocks those out of the ballpark.

And while Hurran may be a bit clumsy in the few bits of actiony stuff (check out the too-obvious camera and editing tricks for the "rising" platform), he gets sterling performances out of the cast and he might be the greatest visual stylist the series has ever had.  This has some of the most dazzling and iconic imagery in any Doctor Who story - the giant Dalek statue, the cramped Dalek corridors, and Oswin's spacecraft interior. (I'm not certain he's the best - Graeme Harper certainly gives him a run for his money, and if Camfield and Maloney had made anything with modern technology, they might have outshone him.  But that's good company to be in, even in only one category)

The real genius of the episode, though, is the aforementioned Oswin, played by the endlessly charming Jenna-Louise Coleman, who takes Moffat's already witty dialogue and makes it shine like a Blue Star.  The character is a work of art, and the character's climactic moment is a brilliant sequence that packs an  emotional wallop.  The finale is tremendous.

And, of course, there's all the things that are always wonderful about Who these days.  Matt Smith has that extraordinary ability to move from funny to threatening to philosophical, all while being accessible yet delightfully alien.  (Seriously, I think he's from whatever planet Tom Baker beamed down from.  Or at least the same solar system.  That chin is about as human as Baker's ears.)  Moffat's dialogue sparkles with wit and character, his stories are whimsical, scary, deeply dramatic, and dripping with imagination.  The visual effects are as good as TV effects get, and the cinematography is gorgeous.

And Moffat is the best writer the show has ever had at one thing in particular (even better than Robert Holmes): the shows relation between dialogue and action.  See, unlike many sci-fi shows - even really great ones - the dialogue isn't a way of stringing together the action scenes.  The action scenes are a way of stringing together the dialogue.  The great part of Dalek Invasion of Earth isn't where the Doctor destroys the Daleks by creating a volcano in Southern England, it's the part where he tells them they will never be masters of the Earth.  Asylum has all kinds of tense showdowns and a couple of beautiful explosions, but its climactic scene is a quiet, character-driven conversation.  Involving a Dalek.  That shouldn't work.  But it does.  It's one of the best Dalek scenes the show has ever had.

 As I say, at 90 minutes, it's a contender for best Dalek story ever.  And even at 45, it's an absolute blast.

"Rescue me, Chin-Boy, and show me the stars!"


* * * ½

  • Best Dalek line: "Eg-eg-eg-eg-eg... Eggs....  Eggggggsss..."
  • Blue stars (O-Class) have the brightest luminosity of any star.  I was going to make a pun about her having "Sirius luminosity", but I realized that A) Sirius is actually an A-class star, and B) I don't make puns.  At any rate, I am so terribly, awfully sorry.
  • The advertising made a big deal out of this having every Dalek ever, and I was overjoyed that the Special Weapons Dalek was finally, finally returning... and it shows up in the background of a couple shots.  What a waste, man.  On second thought, I'm actually convinced Moffat hasn't even seen Remembrance of the Daleks, because no one would intentionally waste the Special Weapons Dalek.  Right?
Left of center, between the Centurian and the Dalek actually doing something.
  • Seriously, though, what in the Unholy Living Void was Skaro doing still existing?!