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."


* * *

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Tricky: Woah. Awesome.
Doctor: Well put. Woah and awesome.

Here we go! Diving gleefully inside the TARDIS herself, exploring her caverns, library, and the endless, endless corridors!

And this is the new series under Moffat - not a couple rooms like Edge of Destruction, not whatever locations were cheapest like Invasion of Time, not a production trying desperately to live up to the wild visions of a great writer and great director like Castrovalva. And in the wake of The Doctor's Wife, exploring what makes Sexy tick couldn't be more thrilling. This has got to be spectacular.

Unfortunately, rather than give the assignment to a writer-director team like Gaiman and Clark (who did The Doctor's Wife) or another brilliant pair, Moffat assigned Stephen Thompson (who has done good work on Sherlock, but whose only contribution to Who so far has been the forgettable Curse of the Black Spot) to write and Mat King, who has TV experience but has never done something like this. Which is not to say either of them are bad at their jobs or that their work is awful here, but this seems like such a huge episode should have gone to the most reliable people possible, and the mixed results seem to confirm it.

There are plenty of good things about the episode, but Thompson sets them all up on a pretty weak thread. While powering down to the simplest mode so Clara can pilot the TARDIS easily, the Doctor accidentally lowers the shields that keep it safe from salvage ships. One of the said salvage ships immediately picks it up, screwing up its internal systems in the process and leaving Clara lost somewhere in the depth of the TARDIS interior. All of which is reasonable enough.

But the Doctor then brings onboard the salvagers to help him look, despite lacking any apparently reason to trust them. I mean, the idea that the Doctor can't find Clara with the help of Sexy herself in time, but will be helped by three not-so-bright and obviously untrustworthy salvagers is just strange. It's almost saved by the Doctor locking them inside to help him, but they're so stupid they almost immediately forget about the whole "self-destruct" thing and start stealing stuff. I mean, how do they not realize that's not going to be helpful? And the Doctor actually agrees to splitting up so they can either A) get lost in the maze or B) strip everything down? Does he really not think they're going to start stealing everything?

It might work if the salvagers themselves were credible characters, but they're flat, simplistic characterizations that don't add up. In particular, the idea that they convinced one of the three he was an android as a joke is patently ridiculous and makes no sense. None of these three are compelling or even interesting. Worse, their presence weakens the Doctor as a character in the scene in the tree - rather than Doctorishly getting them to back down, he just begs Gregor to put back the light-egg. When Gregor refuses, the Doctor sheepishly gives up.  What happened to the Doctor who scared off entire alien invasions with a few sentences?

Since most of the plot is built around these three, the story never really works until it jettisons them toward the climax. What little plot and character do exist fall apart in the final moments, where the Doctor just hits a reset button (though the "Big Friendly Button" bit was a nice touch). It's really hard to make a reset button that erases all consequences actually work. It's not awful here - the Doctor remembers, and The Name of the Doctor does an okay job of picking up the threads left here - but it does make the story unsatisfying and inconsequential.

It's especially frustrating because the climactic scenes bring a spectacular tension to the relationship between the Doctor and Clara. She's infuriated at the Doctor keeping secrets about what's happening and, worse about who she is, and rightly so. The Doctor responds that secrets keep people safe, but he's wrong here, and she puts him on the spot for it. Their immanent death brings out fantastic character development (and spectacular acting from Smith and Coleman)... which is then erased minutes later. It's possible to make a massive reset button work - the Angel episode "I Will Remember You" comes to mind, where Angel remembers what happened and makes a genuine sacrifice that haunts him for the rest of the show. But nothing is lost or learned here. The Doctor seems to retain his memories, but it has no significant impact. And it's too bad; their confrontations outside the Eye of Harmony and in the Engine of the TARDIS carry tremendous dramatic power.

Which would be easier to forgive if it was consistently exciting, but until the last 10 minutes, director Mat King has everything simmer very quietly. The music and canted camera angles suggest he's going for an atmosphere of strangeness, but it has never approaches the sense of weirdness of, well, any of the Hartnell sci-fi stories. It all feels too low-key and low-stakes. A higher-energy approach might have at least distracted us from all the script's failings.

I guess writer Steven Thompson was trying to go for something a little different than just "monster chases the Doctor and Clara around the TARDIS", but what he does here hinges on characters and motivations that just never click. Besides, it does end up boiling down to "being chased by creepy monsters", which are the only really involving scenes before the Eye of Harmony.

What does work is the TARDIS interior itself. Thompson and King might flop on character and plot, but they do the world-building brilliantly. There's no end of spectacular imagery, rich in symbolism - the books contained in vials of liquid (knowledge drunk and spilled), the upside-down tree of mechanical wires and eggs (a machine's Tree of Life, its fruit stolen by the intruder), the way time itself starts screwing up resulting in all manner of chaos.

The climactic scenes are particularly stunning - the Eye of Harmony is "An exploding star in the act of becoming a black hole", suspended above a catwalk (because of course it is). The Engine, too, is a knockout. The episode might not get stuff like "plot" or "character" working correctly, but underneath those weak constructs is something wonderful.

In tearing open the TARDIS, the ship that creates the show, the show tears open Moffat's vision itself. The core, the machinery, the engine, are pure genius. Surrounding and driving that genius are a dozen chaotic pieces of fragmented storytelling, compelling when it puts the pieces together right, infuriating when it doesn't. And for all its pieces of genius, too often, it doesn't find how to put those together. 

With a dazzling actor in Matt Smith, who can fly smoothly from funny to furious to deeply emotional to brilliantly manipulative and back again in a flash, they create a Doctor who begs a regular human to please not take the light egg like he's a five-year-old asking his big brother to not steal his Legos. With Coleman, who can't be anything less than delightfully charming but can turn to a riveting rage or horrifying fear on a turn, they create a companion who's entertaining but so wrapped up in her own mysteriousness she lacks any distinguishing characteristics. And with ideas and stories rich in metaphor, symbolism, and emotion, and the production values to live up to the ideas, they create episodes with messy plotting and rushed pacing that doesn't allow those ideas and productions to flourish.

But deep down, it's wonderful. And sometimes, all the pieces fall in place perfectly. And when it does, it's a work of beauty like Television has never seen before and will never see again. Which only makes it all the more frustrating all the times it doesn't get the pieces together.


* * ½


  • Clara: "Red flashing light. Means something bad. 'Get out here fast?' Possibly, 'Whatever you do, don't open this door.' [opens door] Bad decision."
  • Coleman's delightful throughout, but the highlight is her delivery of the line, "That will not be a problem." Smith, naturally, is just as much fun, bouncing from his goofiest to his most manipulative to his most scared. The script might not give him much to work with, but he takes what he gets and just goes wild with it.
  • The Doctor claims the TARDIS is infinite, at which point Gregor (I think) responds, "It'll take hours." The Doctor: "Days." I hope that was all intended as a joke - the TARDIS is established as having a definite, if constantly changing and gigantic, size. The Doctor suggesting it'll only take a few days to search infinity is a funny idea, but I don't think it's set up right, and the whole thing isn't set up like it's supposed to be funny.