Friday, October 11, 2013

The Newly Discovered Episodes (Enemy of the World and Web of Fear)

As usual, my ambitious plans to keep up with my blog have fallen through. But the news of the recovered episodes finally got me back on here.

Most of the joy from fans, I'm sure, is over The Web Of Fear, one of the most beloved Second Doctor stories, and rightly. While there the plot doesn't quite hang together if you're paying attention, the script builds the character and suspense that the endless base-under-siege stories in the Troughton era usually forget. And more importantly, director Douglas Camfield gives it tremendous atmosphere and intensity; even with only a single episode and reconstructions, it was obvious that this was terrific stuff. I can't wait to watch those.

Despite that, the one I'm really excited for is Enemy of the World. It's largely forgotten as the only story of Season 5 to lack monsters - the villain is simply human, albeit played by Patrick Troughton himself. Which is too bad, because it's one of the best Troughton stories, and with Barry Letts at the helm, I'm sure it, too, lives up to its potential. It's a brilliant script that starts as a riff on Bond flicks before taking a fantastic turn in the fourth episode and building to a knockout finish. Even on a reconstruction, it's a great yarn. But being able to actually watch it and see Troughton's Salamandar and the world Letts and Whitaker create will be something else. I'm buying and watching that this weekend, and I'll put up a review Sunday.

But this iTunes thing... yeah, that's not so hot. I've never liked iTunes - I use Winamp at home, but I've always prefered any of a dozen other music programs. The User Interface lacks flexibility. The program runs slowly, no matter how fast the computer. And the Copy Protection on its songs that made it difficult to use it with another computer program on the same computer both sucks and blows. I ultimately decided to just uninstall it. I only used it for whatever music I'd bought on iTunes over the years, and there wasn't much of that, since I prefer buying CDs. So the idea of reinstalling it wasn't exactly exciting.

Apparently iTunes feels similarly sentimental towards me. Attempting to re-download and reinstall this resulted in numerous random errors that made what should have been a straightforward task an hour-long ordeal. When I finally did get everything working, my antivirus told me that, just coincidentally, I suddenly had a virus.

iTunes is evil, I tells ya. Pure evil.

But I'm sure the episodes themselves are gonna be great, if I survive the journey of actually getting to watch them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Torchwood: Combat

Noel Clarke's contribution to Torchwood isn't one of the low points of the season. He shows skill as a writer. Unfortunately, he either chose a poor topic or - more likely - was stuck with a lousy assignment. Still, this feels more like a bum episode of a good show than an average one of a lurching mess.

It definitely starts well - a solid mystery set-up, engagingly plotted. The question of who's kidnapping Weevils and why really is gripping - is it a darker rival agency to Torchwood? Or a competent Torchwood? Or something even more sinister? Clarke puts a lot of focus on Jack and Tosh. This is only the second episode to realize that when you give Tosh lines, she's a good character, and Naoko Mori is great. There's a nice bit of tension between the two characters - not romantic tension, but simply the tension between Jack's "end justifies the means" approach against Tosh's more moralistic approach.

Tosh, then, becomes largely the heart of the story, which is nominally Gwen's job. Gwen, however, is busy being awful to Rhys. These scenes are well done and - as always - extremely well-acted. And points to the show for being ballsy enough to let the supposedly likable, heroic lead descend so far. Gwen's moments alone in the Hub are quietly moving, and the moment when she struggles reaching for her comm.

She finally breaks off her affair with Owen (which has been sloppily forgotten the last few episodes). There's a powerful scene where Gwen admits her affair to Rhys right after retconning him so he'll forget. And she begs him to forgive her, but of course he's not ready in the heat of the moment for that. She's trying desperately to relieve her guilt without facing the consequences. It's a cruel act to someone she loves, but a completely human moment. And it builds ever more tension over the moment when she does have to face the consequences.

But both this involving central mystery and compelling subplot are essentially dropped when the mystery is revealed, and it turns out that the Weevils are just being kidnapped for a poorly-developed, boring fight club. Which would probably still be serviceable if it weren't for Owen.

Seriously, how does this season have three Owen episodes, but only one episode a piece for Tosh and Jack? Through no fault of Burn Gorman, who is brilliant no matter how awful his material, Owen is a repulsive, despicable human who, in this episode, takes a turn for the pathetic. He's moping to near the point of suicide over Diane, a woman he knew less than a week. He shows all the maturity of a 12-year-old. Maybe that's the point, but combined with such a boring wrap-up to the plot, it crushes any chance the episode has of actually working.

And that's too bad. For about twenty minutes, it's good stuff. Too bad Clarke didn't come back to the show in Season 2, when the pieces of the show were working better and he might have had a chance to turn out good work.


* *

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Torchwood: Out of Time

WARNING: Strong language ahead. Also, it is entirely possible I found myself unable to finish rewatching this episode and writing the subsequent review without the aid of not insubstantial amount of Tequila. As with many things done with Tequila, there may be consequences to be faced in the morning.

In its first season, Torchwood really does try a lot of different things. The problem is, it doesn't do many of them well. Out of Time pushes in an interesting direction, though: a pure sci-fi drama, no action, no adventure. Unfortunately, it's a drama that depends on strong character development, good dialogue, subtlety, and careful attention to both period and character details. Out of Time has none of those things.

The set-up isn't bad - in 1953, a plane flies through the Time Rift in Cardiff, appearing in 2007 to the waiting Torchwood team. The team attempts to help them deal with their new lives. It's not original, exactly, but it's a good concept that only awaits whatever special stamp Torchwood can place on it.

There are three characters, who each get more or less paired off with a TW member. Jack works with John (Mark Lewis Jones). John is old-fashioned, which here should be read as an insulting, one-dimensional view of 1950s morality. At one point, he yells at Emma for dancing with her newfound friends because that somehow isn't proper. Dude, young people danced in the 1950s. Also the 1940s, 30s, 20s, 1810s, and any decade since the invention of a drumbeat (or beatbox?) inspired primitive foot-tapping. That's what people do. Jack's not much help, given that he shows all the empathy of an ill-mannered crab.

Meanwhile, Emma (Olivia Hallinan) frets that she'll have to find a husband right away, because women in the 1950s had no sense of self-worth or any meaning in life beyond marrying and birthing babies. Emma lives down to this stereotype by having no discernible personality beyond that defining cliche. Her moment when it hits her that she will never again see her father or friends or dog should be painful, but it's in the midst of such a horribly written scene that it has no impact. Gwen tries to help Emma by first teaching her Torchwood's vision of sexual politics: fuck everything, constantly.

Actually, she berates Emma for making out with a guy in a club. Emma is shocked at the notion that this guy was interested in more than kissing. Despite being an adult And then Gwen lectures Emma about sex. People had sex in the 1950s. Yes, they were a more conservative time, but unless you were raised in an ultra-religious household - and Emma doesn't seem to have been - you'd have been aware of the seedier side of things. Ultimately, Gwen tries inexplicably to override Emma's decision to find a job and work in London. I don't know that I've ever seen an attempt at dealing with modern feminism so muddled.

At least the bad writing is enlivened by bits of humor and a welcome appearance by Rhys, who's been missing for a few episodes. John's story is a brilliant idea, but executed horribly. John goes to visit his son, who is so old that he can’t even remember his father, and that should be moving, but it’s played so melodramatically, with John crying and composer Ben Foster wringing enough sap to do whatever you do with a lot of sap. (Trap a mosquito and clone a dinosaur?) His last scene has the sort of darkness and underplayed tragedy this show does well on the occasions it goes for it, but it’s too little, too late.

But worst of all is Diane. And it's a shame, because old-timey Aviatrix is one of my favorite stock characters, and Louise Delamore is charming. Unfortunately, as with the rest of her story, the details fail to add up. She's furious because aviation technology has advanced and is all about "pushing buttons"... despite that the plane she was admiring being from the 1950s. People still fly single engines. A lot.

All these little details would be forgivable if the drama was solid, but as with the other two stories, it's awful, and Diane gets the worst of it. She immediately falls in bed with Owen, and I really have to stop there for a moment. Why, in a TV show where the central character is Jack Harkness, is douchebag extraordinaire Owen the guy who sleeps with every female who appears? I mean, isn’t the whole point of Jack that he sleeps with every creature under the sun, and all women (and an unusually high percentage of men, as well as a wide variety of non-Earth species) are instantly attracted to him? So why does everybody go for Owen? Constantly? It isn’t explained or fleshed out, and none of his romances are believably written; it just happens because it happens. I swear, Jack Harkness gets less action on this show than any of his coworkers, and he works with a creeper and a nerd.

Anyway, the "romance" between Owen and Diane makes me long for nails on a chalkboard. It's not just that I hate Owen (and hate that I hate him because Burn Gorman gives brilliant performances every single episode), though that's a major problem.

The romance between Diane and Owen never feels real, and Owen’s show of kindness feels out of character. And then Owen actually falls for her, and its supposed to be so moving, and it just isn’t. Partly because he’s never been likable in the first place, partly because it’s so overwrought:

“I don’t know if I can do this anymore. This isn’t how it works for me. I’ve slept with enough women, done the fuck-buddies thing, this is not it. I can’t concentrate. All I see is you. All I can think about it what you’re wearing, what you’re thinking, what your face looks like when you come. It’s been, what, a week, and it’s like, when I’m not with you, I’m out of focus.”

Even Gorman can't save that. I do like Owen finally getting some sort of comeuppance when she then abandons him the day after he says all this to her, but again, there’s nothing moving about it. It's briefly interesting to see him reacting to someone aggressively pursuing him, but they go from that to sex so fast Connery's Bond would advise them to slow down a little. The idea that this breaks through his douchiness and exterior so powerfully because he knew this person for, like three days and have the romance of the century is ludicrous and insulting. It's like he's 14. Every moment of this love story is excruciating. I like Diane, though, (or at least her archetype and Delamore's performance) and would like very much to have seen her show up again.  

Unfortunately, she flies off into the timewarp again, presumably hoping to land in an era where people like Owen are too awful to live. And thus goes the best character this show has had.

And finally, how many times do they need to hammer in the theme that Torchwood work overwhelms their lives? This isn't a bad theme, but it’s yet to be done convincingly. Every time they bring it up, there is much wringing of hands and near-tearful monologues, all of them very repetitive and quickly dull. Find a new theme, just once, please. Or at least do this one in a less slap-us-in-the-face manner.

As sci-fi, this is boring - the same old cliches done without originality or wit. And it's terrible drama, despite a couple good moments. And at this point in the show, Torchwood is, at best, a C-rate X-Files ripoff. Yes, there are brief moments of genius, but it's so spread out that it feels like a waste.

Although I'd only rank it third-worst of the season as it lacks the aggressive awfulness of Cyberwoman and Countryside, Out of Time is the Torchwood Season 1 episode I really hate. Those other two are at least good for a laugh and have their moments (even if Cyberwoman's moments are of the Plan 9 variety). Those few praiseworthy moments in Out of Time are crushed by the magnitude of failure surrounding them.

On the upside, it's a long time before Torchwood gets this bad again. But that doesn't mean it gets especially good for a while, either.


  • I hate to rip on Ben Foster too much, because I like his music for Children of Earth and quite a bit of his Torchwood music, actually. And his orchestrations of Murray Gold’s music are spectacular, but this episode is seriously harmed by his music. Numerous scenes would have played infinitely more powerfully without any music at all. Some of this is the director’s fault, sure. The director can always, you know, cut the music. But no, we have to have the same tragic, sad music over every scene so we know just how poignant it is. Granted, the hollow writing makes it much, much worse, but the music doesn’t help.
  •  Geez, Jack, all the sympathy of a crab there smoothing people into the whole "you've missed 60 years" thing.
  • It's glossed over pretty quickly, so it's not the biggest deal, but why do they take everyone right to the Hub? Really, they don't have someplace off-base to take care of these people? Even the outer non-classified areas? I swear, Torchwood is the worst secret agency I've ever seen. The CIA is better than this.
  • Ianto actually comes off well - he pretty much just gets a few sarcastic lines, Gareth David Lloyd knocks them out of the ballpark. Nice to finally see the character sort of work, 10 episodes in.
  • I like the detail about Diane being more awed by bananas than sliding doors since there was a ration when she left, but it's the future so of course there are sliding doors. Are they really that impressive? Still, the part that actually annoys me is when she fondles a TV screen. Not a high-def, just an ordinary TV screen. Those existed in 1953. In fact, 1953 is when everyone in England got one. Anyway, after they saw Torchwood's top-secret base, they really shouldn't be that impressed.  (also, artificial insemination was invented in the 1940s. And I know Owen's a creeper, but when asked how women's rights have improved in the last 65 years, how could that possibly be the only thing he thinks up?)
  • "You can't take away my name!" That's a nice moment, but why did Jack think it was so necessary to change their names to begin with?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Torchwood: Random Shoes

Random Shoes, to some extent, falls into the same weird category as Countrycide: it's an experimental episode before the show has really found its footing. On the one hand, it doesn't have the same impact that it should - we're not breaking out of the show so much as lost on yet another rabbit trail. But on the other hand, it's good to see Torchwood's ambition. It's trying to take hard paths, and even though it's struggling to take easy paths, points for trying.

And, anyway, given what a mess the normal show is, it's nice to have a break from it and just have Gwen doing her thing. Also, none of those obnoxious "Aren't we the coolest?!" shots that plague this season.

Random Shoes plays the dark side of Love and Monsters. Both are about in-universe fans whose lives turn to tragedy when they actually meet their idols. In Love and Monsters, Elton Pope becomes obsessed with the Doctor. This leads him to join the LINDA group, and the social misfit finds friends and love. And while his love, Ursula, is a victim of the alien they run afoul of, she lives, and they do have a happy ending of sorts. In Random Shoes, Eugene Jones is obsessed with Torchwood, and finds death. He doesn't make friends because of it; all three of his friends are from work, and two of them betrayed him. Torchwood basically ignored him as a looney; Gwen seemed interested, but had more important things to attend. (presumably one of Owen's muck-ups.)

Torchwood's first season revolves around death. Like They Keep Killing Suzie, Random Shoes has moments of real power in showing a person react to his death. In this case, Eugene was a gifted, intelligent man who let his obsession keep him from living up to his potential. Because he put his obsession with the alien eye ahead of everything else, he died alone and with little to show. Eugene was so lost in his dreams he failed to live.

On the other hand, he was a good-natured, upbeat sort, and his ghost isn't too depressed about it. He's sad at times, but focused on solving the mysteries around his death and finding meaning. He comes to a similar conclusion as Suzie - the meaning is in all the little things you do, in the life you do live. But where Suzie's death led her only to the darkness of the Void, in the end, it's left for us to wonder if Eugene, in fact, did find a better place. Granted, Torchwood seems to have a pretty downbeat, Athiestic viewpoint. Souls exist, but all we explicitly know of an afterlife is the Void. But if the Void is Hell, is there a Heaven? The upbeat ending leaves just enough room to see a happier way after, without undermining its message of the importance of living here on Earth.

Eugene's ghost follows Gwen, who seems somehow subconsciously aware of Eugene - whether it's her connection to the Resurrection Glove or her Power of Heart, she's subtly guided by him. He gets to see the Hub, and is awed by it. ("And... wow! A... hand... in a jar.") There's a quiet, low-key fun to Eugene, and you imagine he could have been quite happy if he'd only lived long enough to let go of the eye. And I like how their relationship is played - Gwen hears him without realizing he's hearing it. It shows just how much more effective this show is when it employs a measure of subtlety.

Also unlike Suzie, when given a second chance, he saves someone else from meeting the same fate he did - saving Gwen from a hit-and-run of her own. And, unfortunately, that's where the episode trips up. Up until the finale, it's fine: low-energy and imperfect, but likable and thoughtful. But the last several minutes are so treacly, so overplayed, and so overlong that it falls flat. His actual conversation with Gwen is fine, but the funeral and family issues aren't. It doesn't help that Eugene's family came across as too one-dimensional and was never really convincing. Nor did his backstory seem real; it felt like a writer's invention, and this really needed to feel like a real man's life to work. 

So while the rest of the episode has a lot to like, it's not strong enough to overcome such a belly-flop of an ending. Yes, it's occasionally funny and touching and built on a great idea, but it never really rises above fairly good even at its best. It's just not original or imaginative or clever enough to actually rise above a weak ending.

Still, like Love And Monsters, it's an experiment with moments that are simply lovely, and it's difficult to hate. Paul Chequer acquits himself nicely in the main role. Gwen is the heart of the show, and here she gets to quietly shine. Eve Myles is as wonderful as ever. And Random Shoes is one of the most thoughtful episodes of Torchwood's first season, and worth praising for that, even if it doesn't quite work.


* * ½

Season 7 [and Star Trek Into Darkness]

Let's start with the worst of it: Season 7 has been the least satisfying season of New Who. Heck, it's less satisfying than the last two seasons of Old Who. Still, if we're being honest, that's a high bar to cross. Seasons 1 - 6 (and 25 & 26 of Old) were dazzling, and carried through any rough patches by some staggering masterpieces.

More than anything, that's what missing from the season: classics. Asylum, Hide, and Name all flirt with it, and certainly attain "lesser classic" status, but none are on the level of Parting of the Ways or Blink or The Doctor's Wife. And all of the last several seasons have had at least one if not two or three of those.

The highlight of S7, Asylum of the Daleks, for all its genius, was rushed and in several ways unsatisfying. Yes, Moffat found the height of insanity for a Dalek, but otherwise, there really wasn't enough of Dalek craziness. The idea behind the split between Amy and Rory was compelling, but it's execution so brief and confused that it fell flat.

And that was the product of a decision Moffat made at the beginning of the season. He's experimenting with compressed storytelling: most obviously, episodes were to be "written like movies" but jammed in 45 mintues. But there are also a lot of gaps and off-screen stories.

There are advantages to this. It means we've essentially had 14 distinct stories (15 if you count the 2011 Christmas Special, 17 if you could the final two specials this year) in a single season. The old series usually only got 6 or 7 stories to a season, so it was the equivalent in stories of two complete seasons, maybe 2 1/2. Add to that the gap between Wedding of River Song and Asylum of the Daleks, and The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe and Pond Life probably represent a whole "lost season" in themselves. Power of Three pretty much jams an entire season into a single episode, and there's at least one if not several more lost seasons between Power of Three and Angels Take Manhattan. And the stories of the Doctor moping around after that and then searching fruitlessly for Clara after Snowmen. So that's five seasons - or, roughly, the lifespan of a healthy TV show - blasted through in a single season.

This does two things. First, it actively engages viewers to fill in the gaps themselves, and, in doing so, not only respects their intelligence but depends on their intelligence and imagination. That's a wonderful thing to see in a show. And the second is that blasting madly from adventure to adventure with no time to catch your breath gives some sense of what it's like to actually be a companion. It's particularly apt this season, given the finale.

It also has its downside. I already mentioned Asylum, but Power of Three and Angels in Manhattan could have been masterpieces at double the length. It's possible that Power of Three's deeply flawed climax could have been at least repaired by a rewrite, but it still would have felt severely undercooked. (Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was also overstuffed, although that was more sloppy plotting and characterizations than rushed storytelling.) The Snowmen, too, felt at 1 hour like it needed at least a little more time; its plot basically didn't get started until the last fifteen minutes, and rushed through an unsatisfying conclusion.

The back half of the season didn't struggle as much. Neil Cross's two episodes (Akhaten and Hide) and Gatiss' Crimson Horror all had 45 minutes down. Cold War certainly didn't need to be longer. Even so, while they weren't explicitely hurt, I still think Crimson Horror for certain and possibly even Rings of Akhaten would have been improved with the extra running length.

The rushed episodes had a negative effect on the characters, as there isn't enough room for them to really do their thing. Until the last few episodes, the Doctor seemed to spend more time moping than actually doing Doctorish stuff. Yes, Hide, Crimson Horror, Nightmare in Silver, and Name of the Doctor all gave Smith magnificent material, but until then, it was looking like what turned out to be his final season was leaving him out in the cold.

Amy and Rory were still awesome in their final episodes, but it felt like they didn't do enough. Rory, in particular, was background dressing in A Town Called Mercy and not much more in the Chibnall scripts. Power of Three especially failed here - it was all about them, and still failed to let either of them have the slightest effect on the plot.

For all the effort expended to make Madame Vastra and her crew a sort of supporting cast, Vastra herself got to do little besides lecture people. If she doesn't even get to use her Katana against evil Snowmen, what's the point of giving her one? I love the character, but after four episodes, I feel like she has about half an episode's worth of stuff worthy of her.

Clara, meanwhile, remains a cipher. An enchanting cipher, but nonetheless... After nearly a full season, I have no idea if she's intelligent or not. She's fairly clever, but her intelligence seems to fly from average to exceptional depending on the whims of the writer. Same for her interests, her view of the Doctor, heck, her view of life. Perhaps it's simply that the bar for companion has been raised so high by the new series - even the underused Martha felt fully fleshed out. Maybe that was Moffat's intention - since she was the generic companion, she could stand in for all companions. But while that paid off in Name of the Doctor, I'm not convinced it was worth leaving the delightful Jenna Coleman with such a blank.

Strangely, though, even with all these pieces not quite working, the central theme - What is a Companion - worked. It was seeded all the way back towards the end of season 6, as the Doctor left Amy and Rory to live a normal life and adventured alone. And we saw how it affected him - depressed and lonely, and, as people are wont to do in those emotions, wallowing in a self-fulfilling circle of depression and loneliness. And, in his early episodes, he was much faster to go to his dark side. Which is one thing the Companion does - ground the Doctor. The Time Lord loses sight of the little things that matter, but when those little things surround him by being in the lives of his traveling partners, he can't forget.

The companions, too, are affected. Amy and Rory, dealing with the trauma of going from a life blasting from adventure to adventure to the mundane, dealt with it by tearing each other apart. The Doctor restored them, but they still longed for those lost days of glory. It never really left them. Only when they had no choice could they stay in one time and place. Their beautiful love kept them together and happy for the rest of their lives, but there would always have been the lost days of youth. It's a powerful view of what it means to be a Companion, and a thoughtful look on life itself - the wildness of youth is lost as ordinary life catches up. But with those we love - Companions of our own - the quieter years are as happy as those before.

Damn, I wish that story alone had gotten its own season. Or at least a few more episodes.

Where the story of Amy and Rory was bittersweet, the story of Clara was rousing. She's becoming a companion, and, by the end, the Companion. The one who saves the Doctor at every turn. Yes, the Companion grounds him, but she also keeps him alive and going. After losing Amy and Rory, the Doctor did nothing for a time. He lost his meaning, and lost his name. Only when he found Clara did he become the Doctor again.

So, for all its faults, at the heart of the season is a wonderful story, one of the greats woven underneath over a dozen stories across two years. It's a dazzling work of storytelling.

And let's be honest, even if the episodes weren't all great, they were mostly good. They're witty, exciting, scary, and moving. The only really bad and unnecessary episode was Cold War, and even that was basically competent.

But let's really put this in perspective by looking at Doctor Who's American equivalent, Star Trek.

Trek, after all, was a strange '60s sci-fi show that caught both a rabid fanbase and a surprising level of mainstream attention. The fans were so impassioned they kept it alive whenever it threatened to die, and it has always been brought roaring back to just as much mainstream success.

Star Trek Into Darkness certainly has style. Magnificently shot by Dan Mindel (partly in 70mm), paced like a cheetah with limitless endurance, and stuffed to the brim with action and humor, it can't help but be entertaining. The actors are terrific, and the ensemble is a joy to watch. (particularly Zachary Quinto, who nails Spock, the hilarious Simon Pegg, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who rocks every moment he's in) And with a gargantuan $190 million budget, it has all the sets and special effects money can buy.

And JJ Abrams isn't just a hack with a lot of money - there's real artistry and movie magic in his film making. There's one standout sequence in particular, a long montage (with Noel Clarke!) that beautifully tells a powerful story with only a single line of dialogue; it's strictly visuals and music.

But underneath the vast sheen on the surface so shining it flares like the lenses are broken, there's virtually nothing. Across a two-hour movie, there's about enough plot for a 45-minute TNG episode. The characters have consistent personalities, but there's nothing else there. Even Kirk and Spock, the only characters given actual development, just go through some very basic motions that we saw them go through much more effectively in the last movie. Kirk learns yet again to grow up and show a little maturity in his leadership while Spock learns about emotions yet again. Neither of which are especially interesting journeys for the characters, but twice in a row and with little depth the second go-round makes them ever more hollow. It doesn't help that most of the dialogue, while serviceable, is mundane and cliched. For example, here's Kirk's big speech to Khan:
Let me explain what's happening here: you are a criminal! I watched you murder innocent men and women! I was authorized to END you! And the only reason why you are still alive is because I am allowing it. So SHUT YOUR MOUTH!
Yes, the psychological cat-and-mouse games between Kirk and Khan are reduced to two teenagers petulantly telling each other to shut up or they'll punch each other.

And I remember when Star Trek didn't actively insult my intelligence. The movie wavers between acceptably dumb for an average blockbuster and too stupid for a Transformers sequel. Trek doesn't have to be particularly deep on a sci-fi level - one of its great episodes is Balance of Terror, which is just a sub movie in space. Even Wrath of Khan largely keeps its sci-fi elements down primarily to a plot device and the visuals. But it has always been thoughtful and intriguing. Wrath of Khan is as literate, dramatic, and emotionally and thematically layered as cinema gets. And even a lesser Trek film like Generations has intellectually engaging elements. Even when it's not smart, though, it isn't actively dumb.

This is actively stupid.

Take the opening scene. Kirk and McCoy run out of a building of primitive aliens having stolen a scroll which they then drop in the jungle. It's not entirely clear, but it seems they were trying to get chased out so the primitives would be saved from a volcanic eruption... except the volcanic eruption will kill all life on the planet. Unless, of course, Spock defeats the volcano by planting a cold fusion bomb in the volcano.

(For the record, a cold fusion bomb is a nuclear explosive that just happens to be colder than an average nuke. There is no possibility of it helping the situation. But whatever - maybe it's some kind of futuristic freeze bomb. But freezing the lava wouldn't save the alien villagers. All the pressure causing the eruption is still there, just more bottled up so the volcano will explode even harder. But, you know, technobabble. It's a futuristic anti-volcano bomb, so whatever.)

Spock has to plant the bomb personally because of problems with the magnetic field. This, naturally, doesn't stop him from being beamed out of there moments later. But meantime, the Enterprise has been hiding underwater. It now re-emerges and sets out to rescue Spock. Spock objects because then they would violate the Prime Directive because the villagers would see the spaceship. He then holds his arms out in a Jesus pose because...

Not one moment of that scene makes sense. Not the Enterprise underwater (even setting aside the numerous sciencey problems), nor Spock getting transported out but the bomb not getting transported in or set off by radio or any of a dozen other solutions. Why not keep the Enterprise in space? Not only was it not designed to be in an atmosphere or planet, let alone survive the pressures of staying underwater, but they would have direct line-of-sight... And so forth. Every scene transpires like this. The characters constantly make incoherent decisions and science isn't played with, it's spat upon.

Worse, it's empty. There isn't a single original idea in the film. It's just a bunch of scenes from the other movies strung together with a bigger budget but none of the heart or brains. Even the spaceship battle had no interesting strategy or meaning, just a bunch of explosions.

After Iron Man 3 did a surprisingly solid job of creating compelling female characters and giving them important plot stuff to do, Star Trek, of all things, actually takes a step backwards for feminism. Uhura, once one of the only iconic strong female characters not defined by her relationships with men at all, is defined entirely by her relationship with Spock. The singular moment where she gets to do something that isn't directly about her man turns out to be completely pointless, and pretty much could have been cut out of the movie without anyone noticing something was missing. Carol wasn't much better; her only memorable moments were the completely gratuitous scene where Kirk sees her in her underwear (not that it's an unpleasant image, but if it was cut out, no one would know something was missing) and the stuff about her father.

Even with all that, it's at least mindlessly enjoyable until the last 15 minutes, which are just awful. It's not just the physics of how two spaceships in orbit around the moon inexplicably fall to Earth (although that was dumb). It's not that Khan and Cumberbatch's fantastic performance are wasted because for all his superior intelligence, all he actually does is punch people (although that was also dumb). It's not even that they ripped off one of the most iconic scenes in all of Star Trek, but without any of the emotion or heart and even lacking basic sincerity since Kirk's resurrection is so blatantly signposted (although that was especially dumb and made me want to burn every print of this travesty). At least I can give it points for being ballsy in its stupidity.

What really bothered me (besides, you know, that scene) was how little it cared about the deaths of extras. I mean, I expect Red Shirts to get killed (Chekov's reaction to being told to put on a red shirt was one of the highlights of the film). But that spaceship crash must have killed literally millions, and nobody notices. But who cares about that, we've gotta save Kirk so that we don't actually do anything ballsy. Nobody ever acts like anyone except Kirk died or was in danger of dying; the whole world revolves around him.

The entire film has that tone; extras are constantly dying, but nobody notices. Kirk is furious at Khan killing the Starfleet officers, but doesn't seem to care or even notice how many hundreds must have died in the London attack. Dozens of people are killed in that warp drive battle, but just a couple minutes later, Kirk tries to convince Robocop not to kill any of his crew. As though nobody had actually died yet. It's almost psychopathic.

And this flaw burns off what little exist of its underdeveloped themes. There's an attempt to create a story about terrorism in space and the morality of killing those who perpetrate such acts. But the movie doesn't care about the dead or the collateral damage of terrorism; it just wants to fly to the next explosion. And it doesn't want to set up that explosion through careful tactics and character interaction. It just wants to pile them on until we're overwhelmed.

The result is literally a Michael Bay movie with lens flares instead of sunsets. I mean, rated as a Michael Bay movie, it's good stuff. And I don't inherently have a problem with that - I'm gladly a fan of The Rock, and enjoy several of Bay's other films, or Bay knock-offs like Con-Air. But I never thought I'd see a year come when the actual Michael Bay movie was more intelligent, thought-provoking, and compelling than the Star Trek movie.

I'm not that picky about my Trek movies. I liked Generations and Nemesis. I kinda liked Insurrection. Final Frontier certainly wasn't good, but it didn't actively infuriate me. And for all its flaws, I thought the reboot was a lot of fun.

But this one just left me furious.

And that's the perspective of Doctor Who's 7th season. Star Trek has action, but has lost its mind, its heart, and its soul. But 50 years, 33 seasons, 798 episodes, and 11 Doctors in, Doctor Who is still built around a heart and a soul, still respects the audience's intelligence, and still wraps that inside a wildly entertaining adventure yarn. And even its flaws come out of experimenting and pushing the bounds of its storytelling. It's a wonderful show that remains as good as it's ever been.

Bring on the next 50 years!

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Name of the Doctor

"I don't know where I am. It's like I'm breaking into a million pieces and there's only one thing I remember: I have to save the Doctor. He always looks different; I always know it's him. Sometimes, I think I'm everywhere at once, running every second just to find him. Just to save him. But he never hears me... almost never. I came into this world on a leaf. I'm still blowing. I don't think I'll ever land. I'm Clara Oswald. I'm the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor."

The Name of the Doctor. That title itself fires a broadside at the show - the Doctor's name has always been a mystery, one of the defining aspects of the show and character. Even threatening to reveal his Gallifreyan name packs a wallop - remember the punch to the gut of River knowing his name in Silence in the Library. And Name of the Doctor opens with a montage worthy of that title.

In particular, it opens with the Doctor stealing the TARDIS, the unseen beginning of the show. But something's strange. Clara shows up and tells him he's about to make a mistake. And, like the title, this opening threatens to rip the show apart at its very core. The following montage of Clara running through the show, trying to save every Doctor, is as gripping as openings get, but it's also just a blast to see all the different Doctors and Clara's decades-specific costumes.

The story proper begins with a psychic "Conference Call" between Clara, River, Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax. Making the latter three a presence throughout the season pays off nicely; as with any supporting cast, it's just wonderful having them around. Of course, Moffat's dialogue here is delightful.

JENNY: How did you do that?
RIVER: Disgracefully.

It's a terrific bit that sneaks in a little exposition, but is mostly just about having these characters sit back and hang out for a few minutes. There's all sorts of great details - my favorite bits are Strax taking his vacations in Glasgow because he fits right in and the Doctor having not even mentioned to Clara that River was a woman, let alone his wife. Kingston's reaction to the latter is priceless, as is Strax's response. But Moffat turns the tables very quickly, going from funny to scary in an instant. The Whisper Men ooze creepiness.

It's only after all this that Smith finally shows up, and the result is a beautifully written and acted scene. The Doctor crying is the sort of thing that can easily feel forced or false, but it's neither here; credit both Moffat and Smith for making the Doctor's brief breakdown at realizing he's meeting his fate work so well.

DOCTOR: My grave is potentially the most dangerous place in the universe.
And thus we finally go to the planet of Trenzalore promised almost two years ago. It lives up to it - a massive graveyard, site of the Doctor's final battle in some unforclosed future. The Doctor's grave itself is, naturally, the dying TARDIS. It's a gorgeous, poignant image, drawing us further in. The rest of the middle act brilliantly balances humor, horror, suspense, and drama, moving between them with incredible skill.
STRAX [immediately on waking up]: This base is surrounded. Lay down your weapons and your deaths will be merciful! Surrender your women and intellectuals!
But it's the last act that's important here - the rest is simply a masterful build-up to the final third. While Moffat has two more stories to wrap up the Eleventh Doctor's threads, this ties up a lot of what he's done, and moves the rest inexorably toward its conclusion. River, The Great Intelligence, Clara, and the Doctor all come to a conclusion of one sort or another.

Throughout the story, the Doctor speaks about River in the past tense - as though he knows he won't see her again as such. I'm not entirely clear on why, and I hope this gets followed up on in the last two 11th episodes. Regardless, the sadness here is quite moving, however convoluted the reasons for that sadness are. Smith plays the Doctor's refusal to deal with his emotions as well as ever. And Alex Kingston has been an incredible gift to this show, and if this does turn out to be her last appearance, it's a lovely farewell. (And, in a nice touch, Murray Gold uses his music from Wedding of River Song to underscore it.)

RIVER: How are you doing that? I'm not really here.
DOCTOR: You're always here to me. And I always listen. And I can always see you.
RIVER: Then why didn't you speak to me?
DOCTOR: Because I thought it would hurt too much.
RIVER: I believe I could have coped.
DOCTOR: No. I believed it would have hurt me. And I was right.

And, of course, Moffat is such a genius that he can follow that up with a hilarious joke without undermining the emotion, and then can turn right back to the waterworks.
DOCTOR: There is a time to live, and a time to sleep. You are an echo, River, like Clara, like all of us in the end. My fault, I know. But you should have faded by now.
RIVER: It's hard to leave when you haven't said goodbye.
DOCTOR: Then tell me, because I don't know... how do I say it?
RIVER: There's only one way I'd accept: if you ever loved me, say it like you're going to come back.

Of course, River strongly implies she is coming back, at least from the Doctor's point of view, if perhaps not her own. And in my book, she's always welcome. But that takes away none of the beauty of this moment.

Then there's The Great Intelligence. The Second Doctor's era left a hole - The Web of Fear promised a final showdown between the Doctor and the GI. However, this never happened after its creators, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln were angry about how script editor Derrick Sherwin handled their script for The Dominators. (Long story short, it was one of the worst scripts in the history of the show, so Sherwin cut it short by an episode and worked with Terrence Dicks to solve the compression instead of hiring the people who had just written said hideous script.) While it's not necessary of course, it's a nice nod by Moffat to fill in a hole from the Second Doctor's era (which turns out to be an echo of what he does with Clara...). As a wrap-up to the GI's trilogy, it's certainly far more clever than anything Haisman and Lincoln would have come up with. His plan to entire the Doctor's time stream and kill him at every point in his lifetime simultaneously has a level of crazed ambition that would impress the Daleks.

Richard E Grant really was wasted, though. He snarls and whatnot well, but any English actor with a whiff of presence could have played it as well. You hire Grant for something with some humor, some energy, maybe even a little camp. The GI, unfortunately, is written by Moffat as a one-dimensional monologuing villain, utterly lacking in wit or depth. And even on that level, Grant doesn't get enough room to do anything interesting. It's a tragic waste of a fantastic actor. Still, at least the concept for the Great Intelligence was worthy of his name.

But that's merely a sidenote to the centerpiece - Clara traveling into the Doctor's time stream and saving him at every moment. On the surface, it works as a clever solution, and it's absolutely thrilling to see her running around the history of the show, saving every one of the Doctors. I wish the scene had been longer and more detailed instead of implied in a quick montage, but that probably wasn't practical, and what's here will do nicely. Moffat's repeated refrain of calling Clara "the impossible girl" gets a little annoying, but what he's doing overall is almost too clever for words.

There are also two brilliant meta levels on which this works. Whether or not Clara as Generic Companion works across a host of stories, it works ingeniously here. Here, she represents every companion. Saying the job of the companion is to save the Doctor so he can save the universe isn't exactly a revelation - it's pretty much worked that way since the show figured out that it should be about the Doctor saving the universe. But having an episode just come right out and say it works beautifully.

The second, far more deviously clever meta level is that Moffat quietly sneaks into the back door of the show and fixes every plot hole his cracks didn't already fix. Every rubbish cliffhanger, every contrived attempt on the Doctor's life was the Great Intelligence in his final assault, and every ridiculous moment of survival was Clara saving him from the shadows.

And, then, naturally, the Doctor has to save Clara, and he finally tells her and us his name.

DOCTOR: My name, my real name, that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it's like a promise you make.

Because of course his real name is the Doctor. Whatever his Gallifreyan name was doesn't matter; it simply isn't who he is. It could be argued that it's a copout, of course. But no other name could have satisfied, and Moffat realizes the truth about his name. The Doctor has always been his name. What he was before he stepped into the TARDIS doesn't matter. Like his powerful but vacant race, he was nothing, a mere observer from a distance. But he chose the name of one who helps people, who saves them. (And an extremely educated one, because his ego is about the size of the TARDIS interior. His Doctorate is, after all, purely honorary.) And after a few false starts, that's who he became.

... which, of course, leaves that question of who in the void John Hurt is, but obviously we're saving that for later.

Am I the only one amused by the fact that he's both Winston Smith and Big Brother?

So, yes, Moffat's flaws mar the episode and the season. He's too in love with his own cleverness at times, and has left a terrific actress in Jenna Louise Coleman with something of a blank for a character for the sake of a neat bit of meta silliness. He doesn't give Richard E. Grant anything to do; the Whisper Men are far more effective. Moffat's talent in villainy has always been the silent ones. And sometimes he's in such a rush to get to his next great idea that he doesn't take the time he should to fully develop the one he's on.

But he's still a genius who can create a story as layered and complex as anything Christopher Bidmead wrote, but filled with the raw intensity of Saward, the eye for character and humor of Robert Holmes, and the geniune emotion of Russell T. Davies. At his finest, his writing is everything beautiful and wonderful about this most beautiful and wonderful of shows. Like the Doctor, he took a title - lead writer of Doctor Who, and took the promise it required. Even if he trips here and there, he stands back up and lives up to that name.


* * * ½


  • This is now four season finales in a row about the Doctor's death, five if you count the tease in Journey's End. I know the finales have to be big somehow, and Moffat has come up with three very different and clever ways of doing it, but it's starting to lose its impact.
  • There's a payoff to Journey to the Center of the TARDIS here, but I don't think it fixes any of the problems in that episode. A better-written and more thoughtfully plotted version of Journey would have paid off just as nicely.
  • Saul Metzstein has proven himself a reliable (if stylistically anonymous) director who can handle just about anything. A particularly nice touch here is in the conference room scene, where he gradually moves the camera close and makes the lenses longer as things get more tense. But on the other hand, he really doesn't use enough master shots. It's not so much a bad thing in the episode as much as it is really hard to get good screencaps for these reviews. (It's really a plague of modern film making, to be honest; movies and shows feel like they're all close-ups all the time, and while close-ups are important and useful, they don't communicate things master shots can. The art of the Master, so to speak, seems to have been lost.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Twelfth Doctor [SPOILERS]

Peter Capaldi.

Cool. This is going to be the first time a Doctor has been played by someone I'm familiar with before watching him in Who. (I'd seen Troughton, Tom Baker, McGann, Eccleston, and Tennant in various things, but didn't recognize them)  Capaldi's a brilliant actor, and I'm sure he'll be terrific.

But given that -

1. His life was saved by the Doctor in Fires of Pompeii

2. He played an unforgettable villain in Torchwood: Children of Earth, culminating in him pulling a truly horrific act

3. His last role was as a WHO Doctor in World War Z

... this is going to be even weirder than that part in Arc of Infinity where Colin Baker shoots Peter Davison.

Incidentally, Capaldi's an Oscar Winner - he won Best Live Action Short for writing and directing "Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life"... which starred Richard E Grant. You know, the Great Intelligence. And also the campy Doctor from Curse of the Fatal Death.

It's like they're trying to make our nerd-brains explode.

(HBO has Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life up on Youtube. And yes, it's every bit as insane as that title.)

This happens in the first three minutes.

I'm currently working on my long-belated review of The Name of the Doctor and my review of Season 7 overall, after which I'm going to return to posting regularly: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. After finishing Torchwood Season 1, I'll be attempting to get entirely through the New Series, interspersed with Torchwood, before the 50th Anniversary Special. If my math is right, I should just make it.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Nightmare In Silver

There's two ways to look at Nightmare in Silver. The first is its success at its assignment - Stephen Moffat told Neil Gaiman to "make the Cybermen scary again."

On that level, Nightmare In Silver is a failure.

Gaiman never even tries to explore any of the psychological or technological horror they originally represented, nor does he make them particularly compelling foes even as "general monster besieging the base." His idea of scary is to have them basically be invincible by chanting "Upgrade!" Which actually manages to be even more inane than "Delete!" It also makes them so overpowered they simply aren't convincing as threats. In effect, he turns what was originally one of the most original and terrifying Doctor Who villains into laughably cartoonish ripoffs of the Borg. Even the one creepy idea Gaiman has - children cyber-converted - doesn't really land the sense of horror it should.

This is literally the least scary the Cybermen have ever been, including the dull Revenge of the Cybermen, where Tom Baker rightly declaims them as "a bunch of pathetic tin soldiers", and the goofy Silver Nemesis, where they can't even manage to effectively kill the Neo Nazis who only exist in the story as Cyber-Cannon fodder.

The other way to look at Nightmare in Silver, though, is to look at basically everything that isn't the Cybermen, and what's left is a funny, vivacious adventure with two wondrous characterizations and some rich moments of emotion and imagery.

The highlight of the episode is the Doctor. Matt Smith consistently gives the role his all, but he's rarely given a script that gives him so much to do. Not only does he get the Doctor's full range of emotion, he gets a Cyberman mind colliding with his, in addition to the Cybermind pretending to be the Doctor. Smith hasn't had a showcase like this in a long time, and the result is tremendously entertaining.

The other wonderful characterization comes from Warwick Davis, who lights up the screen every moment he's there. It's a whimsical character, something Davis does with aplomb, but he also makes the moments of drama genuinely moving. His offer to Clara is sweet on the page, but a wonderful moment in Davis' hands.

As for Clara, Gaiman gives her plenty to do, but he doesn't quite figure out who she is. After all this time, she's still a bit undefined. But Jenna-Louise Coleman is a lot of fun to watch, and Gaiman certainly understands and takes advantage of that.

He also sets it in a fantastic world worthy of more exploration than a single episode allows. How those kids could possibly be unimpressed is beyond me. (Speaking of which, while they're perfectly tolerable, they don't really add anything to the story. The one good idea - the kids being cyberized - is a frightening concept, but, again, Gaiman doesn't take advantage of it, and it doesn't really impact the episode.) And that world is filled out with characters sketched out briefly but effectively; the casualties have an impact rather than being simply a body count.

Of course, all that would work better against effective villains or plotting that made sense. The Doctor goes on and on about how they can't possibly blow up the whole planet until the climax, when suddenly we need to blow up the planet now. I suspect Gaiman intended some reasoning here, but either the episode length or Steven Woolfenden's directing flatten it. Woolfenden plays the episode as a broad kid's show, emphasizing the cartoonish and silly aspects rather than telling the story and letting the silliness flavor the tale. On the other hand, Woolfenden is one of the coolest surnames ever.

The Cybermen have a way of being functional blanks - with a couple of exceptions, they aren't interesting in and of themselves, but on a basic Attacking Monster level, they work perfectly. (honestly, only Revenge and Silver Nemesis screw that part of them up, and even there, this point remains) The Cybermen originally functioned as what Philip Sandifer coined "The Dark Mirrors of Humanity", but by being perfectly functional but completely uninteresting plot devices, they function as mirrors to just how the show works under the current production team.

Revenge of the Cybermen, even though it isn't actually good, still has terrific atmosphere, good horror concepts, intriguing teams, and a brilliant central cast, all of which shine throughout the Hinchcliffe era.  Earthshock showcases a production team that can build violent intensity with exceptional skill for a low-budget '80s show and has a terrific actor in the lead, but sometimes loses the heart of the program in all the action. Rise of the Cybermen shows a production team that fully realizes savvy themes and compelling character arcs both within episodes and throughout seasons and that can technically pull of anything, but sometimes dilutes its impact by playing things too broadly, and often doesn't realize its science-fiction or fantasy elements as well as its personal elements.

And under Moffat, stories are rushed and underdeveloped, but showcase rich performances, especially by Matt Smith, a consistently spectacular production, are packed with great ideas, and have a joyous, infectious sense of fun.


* * *

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Crimson Horror

STRAX: And how will [Jenny] locate the Doctor?
MADAME VASTRA: To find him, she needs only ignore all "keep out" signs, go through every locked door, and run towards any form of danger that presents itself.

There's a flip side to my criticisms of Mark Gatiss back in Cold War: he's actually a good writer. His plots might not be interesting in themselves, but they set everything up carefully and build to a climax that follows the story's internal logic. That might sound like basic stuff, but it's the kind of basic stuff Moffat's era struggles with in the midst of all its glorious but underdeveloped ideas. Basically, you can count on Gatiss to get everything put together right technically, and when his story is worth telling, it's good entertainment. Here, Gatiss takes a fresh approach to apparently straightforward material. By focusing on Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, and keeping the Doctor out of the story for the first third, his talents in blending humor, drama, and horror in a competant and entertaining brew rise to the surface.

And to give him some credit, Gatiss has been held back from unleashing the full force of horror he imagines at times - The Unquiet Dead, in particular, was supposed to have included a world of zombies and had a bleaker tone. Gatiss delights in the macabre and leavens it with black humor. Moffat seems to have given him free reign on nightmare fuel, so he builds a story around drowning the Doctor in boiling, blood-colored oatmeal. Later, the now red-skinned Doctor becomes the monster pet to a blind, scarred young woman, whose look suggests monstrosity, and who was raised by a metaphorical monster of an evil woman.

The script overflows with that sort of cleverness. There's a particularly clever suspense sequence as Jenny has to bring the red-skinned, mechanically-walking Doctor down a hall, when the blind daughter of the villainess comes out, hearing them. The scene builds the suspense and complexity in a way that would make Hitchcock proud.

Gatiss also revels in the Victorian era, and the episode drips with atmosphere. Some of that, of course, is thanks to director Saul Metzstein, but Gatiss' story lends itself to a much more vivid exploration than Metzstein's (and Moffat's) The Snowmen. And Gatiss is a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, and builds the story on a winding, complex mystery yarn. (Murray Gold throws in a fun musical reference to Hans Zimmer's Sherlock Holmes scores, although it really isn't quite as cool on a piano that actually works.)

Centering a story around Vastra, Jenny, and Strax works nicely, too. I'm not sure they need a whole series of their own, but they're a pretty engaging trio to come back to every now and again. Jenny is especially showcased, rescuing the Doctor and beating down a half-dozen bad guys in a hallway while barely raising her heartbeat. Strax is a one-joke character, but it's a very funny joke, so as long as he's kept more or less in the background, he's a gas. Vastra, though, feels utilized; she's still a great character, but, as in The Snowmen, it feels like she doesn't really have anything to do.

After reveling in the tension of "When will the Doctor show up?" for a third of the story, and then ratching the tension further with the reveal that the Doctor has been monsterized, Gatiss flies into a flashback about how the Doctor got there. It's a nice way of jamming an extra half hour of story into about 2 minutes onscreen that don't feel overly rushed. And in a nice touch, Metzstein uses sepia tone and similar tricks to make it look like a silent movie.

At which point we finally arrive at the plot itself, with the great Diana Rigg commiting all manner of evil. The character's pretty one-dimensional, but Rigg is magnificent and finds exactly the right mix of humor and sinister insanity to make Mrs. Gilliflower fun. And her aged voice has taken on airs of the older Katherine Hepburn, which only adds to the effect.

DOCTOR: Mrs. Gilliflower, you have no idea what you are dealing with. In the wrong hands, that venom could wipe out all life on this planet.
MRS. GILLIFLOWER: Do you know what these are? [giggles] The wrong hands!

The other major guest character, Ada, is just a brilliantly played by Rigg's real-life daughter, Rachael Stirling. Stirling nails the tragedy, the creepiness, and the hidden strength of Ada; she's a complex character who refuses to actually fall in either the villain or hero camp, even though she always seems to be in one or the other.

As everything rockets toward the finale, Gatiss wisely climaxes primarily with a dialogue scene of five great actors talking very dramatically at each other in a small room. That's the essence of what makes Who great: fantastic, imaginative stories centered on great actors being dramatic. It's a blast of a sequence.

The last little bit of the climax, in the steampunk rocket chamber, isn't quite as strong. Besides the question of how they survived being inside a chamber with a rocket lifting off, it's not as satisfying as the earlier scene, leaving the Doctor as basically a bystander while the guest stars finish off the plot. But then, in this story, that at least makes sense.

Clara is left as a stray appendage, though. There's supposedly an arc about the Doctor discovering who she is, and Clara discovering that there's a lot more to her than there should be, but said "arc" has basically amounted to a half-season of the Doctor asking, "Who is she?" and whoever he asks going, "Dunno." It's less an arc than a dangling thread that refuses to be tied up until the finale. Journey even had her learn about it, then immediately forget. It's as though rather than actually deal with it throughout the season, Moffat's just saving up for the finale, which would be a lot easier to roll with if she had any identity beyond this mystery. It's particularly frustrating here, where she's less of an actual presence than something the Doctor talks in circles about with Vastra and Jenny. Her mysteriousness is all she is.

But how much of that can actually be laid at Gatiss' feet is questionable. The same goes for the final scene, where Clara's two charges insist on being brough along for an adventure because otherwise they'll tell their parents Clara's a time traveler. That's gotta be the least threatening thing they could have hung over her. I mean, really? Are they expecting their parents to actually buy that?

If there's a flaw I'd actually blame on Gatiss (besides underusing Vastra), though, it's the swipes at religion. Gatiss' anti-religious bits are subtle but have a real nastiness to them. I mean, Stephen King does all kinds of evil religious people, but it doesn't actually seem hateful. Gatiss seems to really been sneering at religion itself. It's an odd, off-putting undertone to an otherwise fun yarn.

But that's the thing: this is a really, really fun story. It's freaky, funny, exciting, and acts convincingly like all the silliness is all manner of dramatic without losing its sense of goofy adventure. For the first time since Unquiet Dead, I feel really happy one of Gatiss' episodes exists.

"The bright day is done, child, and you are for the dark."


* * *