Friday, March 27, 2015

A Christmas Carol

Dear Gary—
I remember a time when it seemed every sitcom on television had its own version of A Christmas Carol, so much so that with the first whiff of Scrooge I’d change the channel. Then I read the actual story and now I can’t let a December go by without re-reading the book or watching the Alistair Sim film version, although I still have a low tolerance for loose adaptations within the confines of a weekly TV series. I am therefore greatly pleased that Doctor Who’s A Christmas Carol is a refreshing take on Dickens' masterpiece and not a simple retelling. (I have to start, however, by again noting that Alan Rickman and Michael G Scott are the only two people who can get away with cancelling Christmas.)
The Eleventh Doctor has begun using time travel as a tactic, and when confronted with a character who screams Ebenezer during the Yuletide season the Doctor can’t help but use the TARDIS to manipulate events in order to play out the classic tale for his own amusement. He could just as easily use the TARDIS to save the crashing Starliner in any number of ways (or at the very least prevent Amy and Rory from boarding the ship in the first place), but his way is more fun. Risky, yes; dangerous, yes; selfish, yes; but highly entertaining. And very deliberate.
“How are you getting us off here,” Amy asks as the ship she and Rory are spending their honeymoon on careens wildly towards the planet with less than an hour to impact. But the Doctor is enjoying this new planet he has discovered with a Dickensian flair in the air and fish floating in the fog. “Doctor, please don’t get distracted,” Amy pleads; but it’s too late. A light bulb has gone off in the Doctor’s head as he takes inspiration from the hosannas in excelsis.
“Merry Christmas, Kazran Sardick.”
The Doctor abandons Amy and Rory to embark with the young Kazran and the frozen Abigail on an adventure of his making that gives proof to his 'number one fan' status with Dickens.
“Can’t use the TARDIS because it can’t lock on,” he uses as an excuse to put off his faithful companions. Then he proceeds to use the TARDIS to time hop through Kazran’s life rather than back to a time when the TARDIS could lock on to the spaceship, or to a time in the Captain’s life to prevent disaster or relay instructions for her future self. And he skips through Kazran’s personal history in order to shape the youngster’s personality, never bothering to sabotage the machinery or examine its construction for use in aiding the out-of-control craft (love the isomorphic controls gag by the way). It is a circuitous route he takes, but a charming one.
Katherine Jenkins is the perfect sleeping beauty, and the young lovers’ story is sweet as it unfolds in the Doctor’s life-altering rewrite. It is a whimsical fairy tale full of flying fish and sleighs and star-studded Hollywood parties. It is romantic and funny and enchanting and poignant. And it is fascinating to watch as old Kazran’s memories change before his eyes.
However the Doctor’s social experiment starts going awry when Abigail whispers her secret. As young Kazran closes the door of frozen Abigail’s cryochamber, the softening heart of old Kazran hardens up again and the portrait of Abigail on the wall behind him changes back to his frowning father. At this point the Doctor loses interest and becomes impatient to see the results of his handiwork. I guess young adult Kazran is boring without Abigail. Rather than worming the truth out of the younger, the Doctor sends hologram Amy to fit in the Ghost of Christmas Present angle for a while with the elder before he does some Blinovitch Limitation Effect defying feats to bring youngster Kazran face to face with Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come Kazran. (Rose would probably have a few choice words for the Doctor if she knew of his current escapades.)
At last we get to the sad truth about Abigail, although I have to wonder what strange malady this is that leaves her hale and healthy and hardy but with an expiration date. The scene of old Kazran releasing his love for her last day is effectively touching, but again I have to wonder why the rich and powerful Kazran didn’t use his wealth to develop a cure for his dying princess in cold storage. This is where the Doctor and his TARDIS probably could have come in handy as well—scouring the universe for a cure. There is no longer anything that the Doctor cannot do since he has decided to ignore those pesky Time Lord restrictions. But the Doctor isn’t interested in giving them a happy ending; he’s only interested in saving Amy and Rory (now that he’s grown tired of the storybook tale he was writing).  Besides, the bittersweet reunion is a much more fitting conclusion to this fanciful romance.
The song that Abigail sings to save the day is a bit bland but beautifully rendered. “Fish like the singing.” Yes, I can believe that a flying shark would be appeased by it; I can even believe it can align crystals and unlock clouds—whatever that means.
It is a lovely little story that the Doctor has created. It might not have the happy ending Abigail and Kazran would hope for, but as the Doctor advises, “Everything has got to end sometime; otherwise nothing would ever get started.”
I guess that means it’s time for me to end, Gary.
Until the next start . . .

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Big Bang

Dear Gary—
Never has it been clearer that there is absolutely nothing that the Doctor cannot survive. That of course has been a given all along; the show is called Doctor Who after all and for the show to survive the Doctor must also. But there was always at least some suspense, some anxiety, and some interest in how he would get out of trouble. No longer. Just jog Amy’s memory.
That is a problem and a continuing trend in New Who. With each miraculous success that the writers pull out of the Doctor’s magic hat the stakes are forced higher and higher. The dangers have to be bigger and the predicaments more impossible in order for there to be any sense of tension; but when we know that there is some cheat or trickery or heretofore undisclosed power lurking in the script to save the day there is no longer any apprehension. I have mentioned before that I find magicians boring, and Doctor Who is increasingly becoming nothing more than one giant illusion.
It is also plainly evident that the Doctor has zero interest in restoring Gallifrey. Any grief or guilt he displays over his lost home is a bluff. His admonitions to companions about not breaking those precious laws of time, of never crossing over into one’s own personal timeline to change history—all a cruel joke. If he could go back and change the Time Lord’s fate he would, but he can’t. Hah! It’s a lie and he knows it. If his own life is in danger just watch how many laws he breaks.
As for River’s “spoilers,” well, that’s just a cutesy little game between her and the Doctor to keep things spicy. It’s their version of ‘don’t tell me; I want to work it out for myself.’ It has nothing to do with laws of time. The no spoilers rule only holds for them as long as their own lives are not in danger. No matter how many worlds are devastated or lives lost, as long as the Doctor and his companions are amused, that’s what counts. But when pushed into a corner, boy, just break out those spoilers; tell all.
I’m sorry Gary. I had to get that out of the way. Truth be told, I enjoy The Big Bang. It is funny and clever and entertaining. I just have to watch it as the spectacle it is and forget what it really means for the show as a whole.
I love how it starts with little Amelia Pond and not with any of the three major cliffhangers from the previous episode. It sets the tone of the story perfectly, and little Amelia is always a joy to watch. I do have to laugh, however, at the grave concern her aunt and psychiatrist have over Amelia’s drawings of stars. She’s a little girl for heaven’s sake. I suppose if she drew pictures of unicorns and pink elephants and leprechauns they would be hauling out the straight jacket for her; who knows but that she’ll go off and join the dreaded Lollipop Guild. (And if little Amelia grew up in a world without stars, how does grown up Amy Pond not flinch when she flies amongst the stars with the Doctor?) I also have to keep going back to the fact that even though Amy’s mother and father have been erased from time she retains some sort of memory of them; and I can’t help but wonder how Aunt Sharon thinks she is related to this little girl if her sibling, Amelia’s parent, has been deleted from history. But it all goes to the inconsistent nature of this Crack. Regardless, Amelia is a delight.
Next we get my favorite, Rory: “I could do with a ridiculous miracle about now.” There’s a summary of The Big Bang if I ever heard one.  The Big Bang is one ridiculous miracle after another, perpetrated by the Doctor in a fez and carrying a mop. The Doctor does so much time jumping it’s hard to keep track, but it’s oh so fun to watch as he crisscrosses through his recent adventures setting up the intricate scenario. “OK, kid; this is where it gets complicated” indeed. Of course the only way this elaborate plot can work is if it is helped along the way by some whopping big contrivances and conveniences courtesy of the author. Like how remarkably easy this solitary confinement cell of a Pandorica is to open—especially if you have a sonic screwdriver (“just point and press”) or if you happen to share DNA with the person trapped inside. And how the Pandorica has magical healing powers to restore the “mostly dead” Amy to life. (The Pandorica is Billy Crystal all of a sudden?) The Alliance didn’t think through the plans for this prison very well; maybe during the course of his history hopping the Doctor donned a disguise and went back in time to aid in its construction.
Amy and little Amelia and plastic Rory and River running around after the Doctor(s) in the National Museum. It’s all quite fun. And why not a Dalek? They need a threat, no matter how toothless. Who knows what that death-by-Dalek Doctor is all about, except the Doctor himself; it’s just a game and he’s setting the rules. (So much for the Blinovitch Limitation Effect.) River’s merciless stand off against the decimated Dalek is an effective scene; one of those scenes designed as a stand up and cheer moment. Of course it reveals her callous nature, but who can she show her true colors to if not a dying Dalek?
Speaking of true colors—even as plastic man Rory shows himself to be the most human of them all. “Two thousand years. The boy who waited.” It is confusing, though. I assume that the Rory who finally does marry Amy is real Rory and not the Rory who did wait around through those millennia, but does he somehow retain the memories of plastic Rory? And what of his death by Silurian? Has that been erased as well, yet does he retain the memory? “Memories are more powerful than you think.” I guess so. Oh what the afterlife enthusiasts would do if they ever knew of his existence.
I’m not sure how this whole reboot thing works, either, vis-à-vis Amy’s now you have them now you don’t parents (or more accurately, now you don’t have them now you do). Since she initially grew up with fuzzy half-memories to no memories of these people and now suddenly they are back in her life, does she have made-up memories of them, no memory whatsoever and she has to pretend she knows them, or did they really exist all along in this new world and therefore would Amy’s history with the Doctor be re-written to include them? Except Amy’s history with the Doctor never existed, until that is she remembers. Oh yes, the magic remember spell. “Memories are more powerful than you think.” It’s all according to what she finds written in the script, I guess.
All of this brings me back to The Crack. This whole season has been about this Crack. Well, as it happens, The Crack is a fizzle. It is as wibbly wobbly as the Doctor’s timey wimey. There is no consistency to this Crack. It is as ethereal as a memory. Oh, that’s right, “memories are more powerful than you think.” Memories can reboot the universe. Memories can bring back people who were never born or erased or something. I guess memories are more powerful than The Crack. Memories have done in The Crack.
But The Crack is not A Crack. It is many cracks ripping apart the universe. Cracks of all shapes and sizes. Cracks that can devour history or that can be used as teleports. I think. It really kind of depends upon which serial in this Crack of a season you are watching, or which you choose to remember.
One singular Crack has been following the Doctor and Amy throughout. It is of the same shape, although its size can differ. But this Crack has no intelligence behind it. It is just a crack in the universe, one of many, caused by the exploding TARDIS. So how does it follow the Doctor about? Why does it appear on the unfortunate Star Whale that ran afoul of the Bloody Liz Ten? How does it insert itself into the lock of the TARDIS? Well as it turns out, it is simply because it is written in the pages of the script in order to offer signposts to the viewer that there is a theme and a thread to follow. There is nothing more ominous than that behind the Crack that follows the Doctor about. It is deadly but inanimate.
Worst of all, it remains unresolved. Because we never learn what the true intelligence is behind the exploding TARDIS. Not yet.
Deep sigh; groan; give me strength.
But for now, who cares? The Doctor is dancing at Amy’s wedding.
Sorry, Gary. I know I’m jumping all over the place here. But that’s the very nature of The Big Bang, and of this cracking season. There is no coherency, even though it is deliberately crafted. It is all about the set up, so that we can say, ‘oh, that’s why his jacket is wrong,’ or ‘oh, that’s how he knew that,’ or ‘oh, that’s what he meant by that.’ And it is all about the emotional wallop; about the Roman Centurion guarding the Pandorica through the centuries; about the Doctor’s life rewinding; about “something old; something new; something borrowed; something blue.” And it is about the entertainingly cool bits; about a mop and a fez. (“It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.”)
For the standard as set by New Who, The Big Bang is a resounding success. Just don’t pay too close attention, Gary.
Nothing up its sleeve . . .

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Pandorica Opens

Dear Gary—
“The question of the hour is, who’s got the Pandorica? Answer, I do. Next question.  Who’s coming to take it from me? Come on! Look at me. No plan, no backup, no weapons worth a damn. Oh, and something else. I don’t have anything to lose! So, if you’re sitting up there in your silly little spaceship, with all your silly little guns, and you’ve got any plans on taking the Pandorica tonight, just remember who’s standing in your way. Remember every black day I ever stopped you, and then, and then, do the smart thing. Let somebody else try first.”
I really have to hand it to New Who. It has the audacity to face down its critics with the most impressive show of hot air it can manage on a limited budget and time crunch. Season finale after season finale it pulls it off; all the spectacle; all the extravaganza.
The Pandorica Opens is the beginning of the most spectacular and most extravagant one yet.
It is in its grand and epic scale that The Pandorica Opens fails, top heavy with trying. However it hides brilliance in its small and quiet moments that lifts the bloated behemoth up by its boot straps and calls it a success.
The opening convoluted, Mission Impossible scenario involving numerous characters and links to past serials in order to deliver a simple message to the Doctor signals the grand and epic nature of the tale. The brief glimpse of Vincent is nice and the exploding TARDIS he creates is beautiful, but it is stretching credulity to think anyone would take it for an urgent communiqué for the Doctor, especially since it has been collecting dust for decades in some hidden attic. But 1941 Winston Churchill sees the interpretation of an encounter with the Doctor from the mind of a mad genius and jumps to the obvious because-it-is-in-the-script conclusion that this is of dire importance and must be placed into the Doctor’s hands immediately, even if the TARDIS redirects his phone call from 1941to the far future of 5145. Why the TARDIS chooses to contact River in prison and several centuries out is another mystery, except that it provides the funny little hallucinogenic lipstick shtick. Then we have Liz Ten, the Blood(drenched)y Queen.  Apparently her body clock is in super slow-mo for this abhorrent monarch to continue her reign in 5145; and now I have to ask how it is that she never noticed this all-important painting in her Royal Collection. And why didn’t River go directly to Winston for the painting; why the need for this rather dicey transfer that calls upon every good luck charm in existence to ensure its survival and its certainty of location? But it is all in service to the grand scheme, and what fun it is. The script isn’t done with the hijinks yet, however. There is a neat little space café bit before we get to the “Hello Sweetie” graffiti. They might as well have scribbled a note in a bottle and flung it out into space. Sooner or later the Doctor would bump into it, as long as the script calls for it, but that wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining or grand or epic. And then we wouldn’t get the “you wouldn’t answer your phone” gag. (Sort of Mission Impossible as skewed through the lens of the Zucker/Abrahams team.)
Roman legions and Stonehenge—two more signposts of the serial’s tone. There’s really no other purpose for them. The tie-in with Amy’s memories is an excuse to make it appear as if Amy is the linchpin of the Alliance’s scheme to trap the Doctor, when in reality the Romans have nothing to do with getting the Doctor there. In keeping with the bold bluff of the episode, the Doctor makes the dubious claim that the Romans are “the greatest military machine in the history of the universe.” Nothing comes of this, however. The statement is never put to the test and the fifty volunteers who show up don’t do much more than mill about. One of them fetches Amy a blanket and a couple drag the Doctor into the Pandorica (because Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Terileptils, Slitheen, Chelonians, Dravins, Sycorax, Haemogoths, Zygons, Atraxi, and Draconians wouldn’t get their hands dirty with such a task—leave it to the Nestenes in disguise) and that’s about it. With Stonehenge as the historic backdrop.
With the Roman Autons doing the Alliance’s dirty work there seems little need for the host of Doctor foes, and indeed they do very little other than provide that grand and epic scale to this nostalgia tour. (And is that a Silurian I see? Exactly when did they come out of their self-induced coma?)Their Alliance is unbelievable and their plan laughable. If they were really intent on stopping the TARDIS from cracking the universe the Doctor would be dead. The Doctor’s swaggering “let somebody else try first” challenge would have been met with a billion or more shots aimed at his two hearts. Which one of these races proposed the lifetime incarceration over capital punishment, and how exactly did it get the others to go along?  (And by the way, where was this Alliance the last time the stars were going out?)
However, the devil, as they say, is in the details. Or in this case, the ‘ary angel’ is in the details. (Dad is staying with us for the winter, Gary, and I had to stick in one of his highest compliments—‘you’re gooder than ary angel.’)  Thus, with a room full of Doctor Who villains to pick from, it is the single, dismembered Cyberman who steals the show.
It is Rory, though, who is by far the ariest angel. Rory is dead. Rory is not dead. Rory is dead again. Rory is not dead again. I’m so glad that Rory is indestructible because Rory is the best thing going in Doctor Who these days (these days of the Eleventh Doctor).  Even if he is Nestene Rory. Auton Rory. A Rory is a Rory is a Rory. “Well, I died and turned into a Roman. It’s very distracting.” Long live Rory. Combine Rory with Matt Smith’s Doctor and you have comedy gold; all of the laughs and tears and humor and pathos of human comedy on the subtlest of scales. Delivered by a plastic being and an extraterrestrial.
Of the three devastating cliffhangers, Rory’s is by far the most moving. The reunion between Rory and Amy is touching and Rory’s struggle with his humanity is heartbreaking as his Nestene Consciousness overcomes. As for Amy, does anyone really believe she is dead? Of course not. Amy is not dead. We all know that the show is holding a Doctor Who ace up its sleeve. But the fact that Rory believes Amy is dead, and that he killed her, is tragic.
River’s is the least successful because we really don’t know what the heck is going on. The TARDIS has her trapped and she’s sorry for something only she knows. Presumably the TARDIS is exploding, causing the miserable Crack, but again we are well aware of the Doctor Who sleight of hand at work. Up until this point River has been another highlight. Her dalliance with the Roman legion is gratuitous but enjoyable, and her demonstration of might to the Commander (“you’re all barbarians now”) makes this side track worthwhile. Her exploration of Amy’s house is another shining moment. Again, it is beside the point that Amy loved Roman history and the story of Pandora’s Box (and wouldn’t River recognize Rory and not have to see a picture of Rory and Amy together to realize who he is since she has an as yet untold history with the Doctor/Amy/Rory trio, but never mind), but Alex Kingston makes us believe that River’s discoveries are monumental.
Finally we have the Doctor being dragged into the Pandorica. The absurdity of the concept (of Daleks, Cybermen, Sontaran and the like imprisoning the Doctor rather than killing him) is countered by the upside down nature of it all. The groundwork has been skillfully laid; and all expectations are turned on their head. We are told, “It’s a fairy tale; a legend.” The Pandorica “was built to contain the most feared thing in all the universe.” With Daleks and Cybermen and Sontarans and a horde of alien monsters filling the room, the Pandorica opens with all of the anticipated grandeur only to reveal an empty chamber. The Daleks and Cybermen and Sontarans and the horde of alien monsters are the heroes of our tale; the Doctor is not the good wizard who tricks the hated being into the Pandorica; the Doctor is the “most feared being in all the cosmos” for whom the Pandorica was built.
The Doctor protests; he is their only hope; the universe is in danger of total collapse; without him silence will indeed fall. It is staged; it is ludicrous; it is untenable. But it is effective. Those quiet shining moments justify the overblown nature of the Pandorica, the Alliance, and all. We are on the edge of our seats because we care. We care about Rory and Amy and River and the Doctor. We know it will magically work itself out, but we want to see it happen.
The Pandorica is open, Gary. The Crack is cracking. One more episode to go and it will all be over. Until it starts up again for this treadmill of a generation.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Lodger

Dear Gary—
The Lodger is filler. Amusing filler, yes, but filler nonetheless. That is the problem with season long story arcs; inevitably you get stories like this. Perfectly fine stories. Stories that in any other season could stand on their own. But wedged into a season of story arc they are just place holders, biding time until the slam bang season finale. The Lodger is such a story.
They didn’t even really try with the villain of the piece. I’m not actually sure you can call it a villain; it’s just a crashed spaceship equipped with an emergency hologram in search of a new pilot to replace its dead crew. There is no explanation as to how or why it crashed, where it came from, or what is providing its power. The simpletons who are lured up are never noticed or missed. And the love-is-all-you-need solution is ludicrous. I’m still wondering at the notion that the Doctor as pilot would trigger an explosion to endanger the entire solar system but with Craig as pilot the ship implodes. It’s quite tidy and convenient. All Doctor Who aliens should be so self-cleaning.
The focus of the tale is on the Doctor as a fish out of water and an advice to the lovelorn purveyor, and as such it is a great showcase for Matt Smith. The Doctor has been stranded on Earth before (the Third Doctor for multiple seasons) and he has contemplated life on the slow path sans TARDIS before. In recent memory he has spent more time on Earth than he probably ever spent on Gallifrey. Yet this is the first we spend significant time with him trying to navigate day to day drudgery on his adopted planet, and Matt Smith shines in the moment.  This Eleventh Doctor is charming and awkward and completely alien as he fits right in to ordinary life in the most extraordinary manner. His description of himself as he greets Craig is perfect: “Less of a young professional; more of an ancient amateur; but frankly I’m an absolute dream.”
 Amy does a lot of pointless bouncing around the TARDIS, more to give the actress some face time than to add anything meaningful to the plot. The companion role is taken over by Craig for this episode and he settles in nicely; as does Sophie to a lesser degree.  It is unbelievably handy how the Craig and Sophie romance dovetails with the there’s-no-place-like-home solution to the monster on the second floor; almost as if it had been written that way. It’s a nice little story that is wrapped up in a most expedient package.
There really isn’t much more to say about it. The Doctor does reveal one or two new abilities that would have come in handy quite a few times before now, and one has to wonder why he held on to them for so long only to break them out in this relatively tame adventure.  For example the head-butt info dump probably would have gotten him out of a multitude of scrapes, and I’m sure that more than a few companions would have appreciated the use of the TARDIS blue tooth hot line.

Keeping it short and sweet, Gary, as I gear up for the big bang finish.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Vincent and the Doctor

Dear Gary—
Vincent and the Doctor is a lovely little story that fits in expertly with the Crack season. Divorced from the abysmal Crack, Vincent and the Doctor is a weird sci fi vignette in the life of Vincent Van Gogh with a rather pedestrian monster in the window. Taken in context, however, it beautifully and subtly depicts the true devastation of this Crack more than any slam bang finish ever could. Together with the last few minutes of Cold Blood, Vincent and the Doctor achieves the true potential of this Crack business without, I suspect, realizing it.
And the Crack doesn’t even make an appearance.
Rory is dead (long live Rory—and he will, but that’s another story). Rory is not only dead, he is erased from memory. The hole that remains is filled with unrequited sorrow.
What better way to honor the forgotten memory of Rory than with an angst-ridden Van Gogh?
As played by Tony Curran, Vincent Van Gogh is tragically sympathetic and his world of emotions and color is beautifully portrayed. It is the perfect world to disguise the pain that Amy doesn’t quite recognize.
Vincent on sunflowers: “I find them complex. Always somewhere between living and dying; half human as they turn to the sun; a little disgusting; but, you know, they are a challenge.”
A fitting memorial for Rory; an apt description of the Crack (if it lived up to its billing).
Bookended by the incomparable Bill Nighy.
If only there wasn’t this pesky Krafayis plot to contend with.
It is your routine, run-of-the-mill, alien trapped on Earth, Doctor tries to help, alien is killed plot. Not much more to say about it, except that the can-only be-seen-by-the-differently-sighted-Vincent angle is a nice touch but not adequately explored.
Vincent: “Well, look around. Art. It seems to me there’s so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamed of.”
The scene of Vincent and Amy and the Doctor lying in a circle holding hands and looking up at the sky as Starry Night comes to life is a beautiful realization of this statement. Too bad that the bulk of the episode cops out with the mundane Doctor Who alien representing the wonders of the universe, but I guess that is what Doctor Who is all about. Only William Hartnell’s Doctor was brave enough to see the wonders in life as we know it.
Overall, however, Vincent and the Doctor is an unexpected vase of sunflowers in this dreary Crack of a season; it is full of living color and hidden sorrow. “I hear the song of your sadness,” Vincent tells Amy. Vincent and the Doctor is a moving love song of sadness.
“My experience is that there is, you know, surprisingly, always hope.” This goes in the Doctor’s pile of good things, Gary, as I travel on, surprisingly always in hope.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Cold Blood

Dear Gary—
“In future, when you talk about this . . .”
(And I will; and I’ll try to be kind.)
“. . . you tell people there was a chance, but you were so much less than the best of humanity.”
All of the set up from The Hungry Earth comes to fruition as expected.
It is a decent episode, like its predecessor just good enough. The atmospheric first half makes way here in Cold Blood for an underground Model UN, spurred on by the Doctor’s inspiring words of “Do good for humanity, and for Earth,” and “Come on, be extraordinary.”  It is ultimately an exercise in futility that for some reason is given gravitas by voiceover narration from Eldane some thousand years in the future. It takes its tone from “I dressed for Rio” Amy. It is a romp; teens playing at war games; at least underground. Above ground Rory and Ambrose take things more seriously, and these are the strongest elements to the story.
Ambrose has been set up to take the fall, and she does it well. She plays the scared woman genuinely concerned for her family, and yet she leaves little room for understanding of her actions. As the plot’s patsy she needs to maintain that baseness of character to underscore the Doctor’s “best of humanity” moral. Defense of home and family is not a legitimate vindication in this Doctor Who world, and despite momentary cracks in her defiant demeanor she remains the black sheep of the group without becoming an outright villain. There is a wealth of gray area in her portrayal that defies the one-dimensional nature of her role. There is no tea and sympathy for Ambrose as she stoically accepts the Doctor’s admonition. She did what she had to do and would probably do it again; and she will live with that knowledge.
Rory, on the other hand, is helplessly heroic. He cannot undo what Ambrose has done, and he can only stand by as Ambrose pushes ahead with her bold rejection of Restac’s demands. But he nobly takes on responsibility for the group and quietly leads them down below with Alaya’s body. He knows what is right and he does it, regardless of the consequences.
Meanwhile the toy soldiers and mock delegates carry on below. Restac is the wild card on this level. Alaya taunts Ambrose until she spills first blood in a mildly convincing gambit to depict the Silurians as a basically peace-loving race who will only act in self defense. Restac, however, doesn’t seem to honor this code in her heart (makes you wonder why she was put in charge of the warrior class, but oh well).  It is only by sheer chance that one or more of the Doctor’s gang is not dead.  Just in the nick of time Eldane appears on the scene to calm his quarrelsome kids. “You woke him to undermine me,” little sis Restac accuses a gloating Malohkeh.  That’s when the great diplomat Eldane makes his big mistake: “Shush now, Restac. Go and play soldiers. I’ll let you know if I need you.” There is nothing a sulky teen resents more than being sent to her room. If that sulky teen happens to have a gun and control of an army, look out.
The Silurians are destined never to find peace on Earth.
All of the component pieces of Cold Blood are well executed.  The peace negotiations are interesting as the two sides come to a surprisingly swift and satisfactory agreement (even though the pact has no realistic chance of ever being accepted by the powers that be). The various standoffs are compelling. The final run-for-your-lives moments are suspenseful. And the grief that Restac expresses as she kneels by her dead sister is especially effective. All of it comes together in an enjoyable 45 minutes, even if it all comes apart upon close examination.
“Are you authorized to negotiate on behalf of the planet?”
The answer is of course a resounding no. Amy and Nasreen both recognize this, yet the Doctor sets them on this task and they dive in with all due earnestness. I can only take the Doctor’s “come on, who has more fun than us” justification as a qualifying wink. He has to know that even if he can swing UNIT backing using his connections, this is going to be a hard sell to the various power blocs. Natural distrust and political posturing aside, at the very least the sudden emergence of millions of lizard people, even in currently uninhabitable areas of the world, would warrant dozens of environmental impact studies taking who knows how many years. The Silurians might as well hit their snooze alarm.
That brings up the question of these dozing reptiles. Eldane says, “Our sole purpose has been to return to our rightful place.” Then why are they still sleeping? Malohkeh and his family before him have been awake “through the millennia” and have been studying the “apes.” Surely they know that the Earth’s surface is safe. Why didn’t they wake their brethren years ago?
What of Malohkeh? “Malohkeh, I rather love you,” the Doctor tells him when the scientist says he never meant to harm Elliot. He never meant to harm him; he just kidnapped him (along with many other children apparently) and slowed down his lifecycle to study him. And he only kidnapped Mo and Amy for dissection. (Mo seems to have survived the process without any ill effects, though. I guess Malohkeh didn’t remove any vital organs, simply opened Mo up to take a look-see.) So it’s OK for the Silurians to take human specimens and keep them in glass cases and experiment on them, as long as they don’t kill them. (And I notice that the Doctor doesn’t bother looking for any of those other children locked up by Malohkeh and family.)
Then there is the drill that Ambrose and Tony Mack have started up to threaten the Silurians. In The Hungry Earth the Silurians had a defense against that. They were able to stop the power. They were able to use bio-programming, to hear the Doctor explain it, to halt the drilling. They also were able to activate an energy barricade around the drill site. Yet none of this is even considered when Ambrose and Tony Mack make their threat in Cold Blood. Instead it is left for the Doctor to come up with a plan to blow up the drill.
And of course we have the petulant Restac on the rampage with her army. I have to wonder, as the Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to deactivate their weapons, why he hasn’t ever done this before. Is the sonic only effective against Silurian weaponry and useless against, say, Sontaran guns? And Eldane’s ultimate solution of Toxic Fumigation is pulled out of a hat, but OK. So he sends the soldiers back to their sleep. Why does this mean they now have to wait another thousand years? “The Earth isn’t ready for us to return yet,” Eldane proclaims. Based on what? On one woman’s act of violence out of love and fear? On the murderous vengeance sought by one of his own? If the Doctor really had faith in his peace plan, why not bring Eldane up to the surface with them and set about gathering the nations for a real peace conference? No, it’s so much easier to send the Silurians back to their slumber and not have to deal with them anymore.
Like so much of New Who, it is best not to think too hard upon viewing. Just sit back, let the story unfold, and enjoy.
Until the end when the Crack appears and the Doctor carelessly gets Rory killed.
The Crack. The Crack, the Crack, the Crack. I hate the Crack. How is it that the Doctor can stick his hand inside with no repercussions but anyone else just has to get too close and is wiped from history?
I do have to say, though, that the impact of Rory’s death and erasure from time is extremely effective. I don’t know why Amy and the Doctor never think to drag the dying Rory into the TARDIS, but the following scene as Amy desperately tries to hang on to Rory’s memory is heartbreaking. (Although I again have to wonder how she can remember her mother but not Rory.) When she does inevitably forget it is even more tragic and the Doctor’s reaction even more touching.
I also have to give some credit to the TARDIS shrapnel; despite my hatred of this Crack, the last few minutes of Cold Blood provide some of the most intriguing and baffling moments of the season. If only that darn Crack could live up to this promise.
Like the Doctor, I travel on in hope, Gary; hope that the next will not be so much less than the best of Doctor Who.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Hungry Earth

Dear Gary—
The Silurians are the best Classic Who monster reboot yet. Mind you, the first few minutes into The Hungry Earth as Mo gets pulled under the ground I’m thinking: Tractators! Even the title of the episode has echoes of Frontios. The ominous statement, “The earth is hungry,” from that long ago serial has its counterpart here in, “The graves eat people.”  It is an eerie set-up that doesn’t quite live up to its promise; the main problem being that the entire episode itself is clearly a set-up and as such it drags a bit.
There is some decent tension, and the shadowy forms of Silurians in the darkened cemetery are especially effective. However when it comes to the twelve minutes our heroes have to prepare for the ascending unknown, any sense of suspense is diffused when you consider that what they do in those twelve minutes is laughably impossible. Two and a half minutes are used up by the Doctor, Nasreen and Tony Mack (love that name by the way—it rolls off the tongue and I just can’t refer to the man as simply Tony or Mr. Mack; it must be Tony Mack; just as Don Ameche is never Don or Mr. Ameche) gathering up vital equipment, making their way out of the building, climbing a hill, and meeting up with Rory. In reality that would take at least ten minutes, but in Doctor Who time it is only two and one half. The remaining nine and one half minutes are even more ridiculous, with the gang setting up surveillance equipment (a job that would represent at least half a day’s work for a team of experienced professionals), with Elliot creating a complete crayon map of the area, with Ambrose rounding up a mini arsenal of weapons, and with the Doctor in each of these places interacting and explaining and finding time to chat. At no time does anyone seem particularly rushed or possessed with a sense of urgency. The only way they can do everything they do in those twelve minutes is if the Doctor cheats and takes them back in time in the TARDIS.
As a set-up, though, The Hungry Earth does a nice job of introducing our guest cast, complete with incidental details that provide character depth, like Elliot’s dyslexia. Elliot also serves to illicit some quiet pockets of feeling from the Doctor. Elliot asks if the Doctor ever misses his home, and with a simple, “So much,” Matt Smith manages to convey a deep sense of loss and longing that is heartbreaking. Alaya also draws out the Doctor: “No, you’re really not,” the Doctor tells her when she claims to be the last of her species, “because I’m the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart.” Tony Mack and Nasreen are memorable as well, and the establishment of their relationship is simple, direct, and effective.
The role of Ambrose is more complex and simplistic at the same time; and I’m not sure, Gary, if I can do this justice, especially without jumping ahead to the second part of this two part story. If The Hungry Earth is the set-up for Cold Blood, Ambrose is the set-up for the plot mechanics.
Let me start with an extremely minor point.
Ambrose to Rory in graveyard: “It’s a family plot, see. My Aunt Gladys died six years ago. Her husband, Alun, died a few weeks back. He lived in the house two doors down. There’s not many of us left up here now.”
Elliot: “Mum, he doesn’t care about that.”
Every time I see this episode this tiny bit of dialogue jumps out at me and I’m never sure why. What strikes me first is Elliot’s “he doesn’t care about that” response.  I think now that it telegraphs Ambrose’s role as set-up woman. This snippet of a scene that ultimately goes nowhere and is forgotten exists largely to give Rory something to do and to separate him from the Doctor and Amy. The part about the graves eating people is eerie but we have the direct evidence of first Mo and then Amy being dragged underground so it is unnecessary. The one tiny bit of new information is provided by Ambrose as she prattles on about things nobody is interested in, and that is that the area surrounding our arena of action is practically deserted.
Which leads me off into a side shoot—this major drill site is not only abandoned of dwellings but also only requires a three-man crew (or two-man, one-woman crew) to operate. It also appears to be a private endeavor and I’m not sure where Nasreen and/or Tony Mack came up with the pile of cash for this massive feat. But I digress.
Back to Ambrose.
Ambrose is set up as a loving mother and concerned daughter (not so much caring wife—she occasionally throws an afterthought towards Mo but for the most part it is Elliot and Tony Mack who take front and center in her mind).  However there is little sympathy given this motivation. Through the eyes of the show this is merely an excuse for her actions. Her real raison d’être is to propel the plot.
It is not a coincidence, therefore, that she is the impetus for the Doctor to give his pacifist manifesto: “No, no weapons. It’s not the way I do things.” It is perfectly reasonable for Ambrose to collect weapons in their defense. But not in the eyes of the Doctor; not in the eyes of the show; and not, by extension, in the eyes of the viewer.
This brings me to another aside and back to the Silurians. The Silurians always bring out the pacifist in the Doctor. Regardless of the countless enemies the Doctor has defeated and destroyed and decimated; regardless of the Doctor’s claim to Elliot about monsters, “No they’re scared of me;” the Doctor always rings out the cry for peace and diplomacy whenever the Silurians enter the scene. As if on cue.
And so this two part story as set up by The Hungry Earth is about the Doctor once again trying to broker a peace between the Earth’s current residents and its ancient inhabitants and with Ambrose poised to be the spoiler. We have hostages on either side—Amy, Mo, and Elliot underground and Alaya up top. We have a giant drill aimed at the heart of the Silurian civilization and an army of sleeping Silurians waiting to march again. It is simple and classic; tried and true.
It has its good moments and its bad, often intermixed. Like a terrified Amy waking up in a glass coffin. For the most part she pulls off a reasonably believable scared defiance; until that is the final “Shush.” At that point she turns into a tantrum throwing teen incensed that her parents are shushing her. Like the impossible twelve minutes, it diffuses the tension. Not that we ever really believe anything bad will happen to Amy. Even the Doctor’s and Rory’s concern for her welfare is muted.
Muted. That sums up The Hungry Earth. It has all the elements of a good thriller but it never quite succeeds at it.
Finally, to sum up and set up, we have these stirring words from the Doctor:
“While I’m gone, you four people, in this church, in this corner of planet Earth, you have to be the best of humanity.”
Not exactly the best of Doctor Who, but Matt Smith delivers them beautifully.
And so I leave you, Gary, with Ambrose set up to not be the best of humanity and the Doctor set up to expect the best of humanity and the audience set up for the second of this two part story, not expecting it to be the best of Doctor Who but hoping at the very least that like its predecessor it will be good enough.