Friday, September 19, 2014

The Sontaran Stratagem

Dear Gary—
“Doctor? It’s Martha, and I’m bringing you back to Earth.” This one sentence manages to capture the good and the bad, the old and the new, the interesting and the boring, all rolled up into the one that is New Who; and it is all encapsulated  in this one (read two) episode(s), The Sontaran Stratagem (read The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky).
The good, the old, the interesting: Martha, UNIT, the Sontarans. The bad, the new, the boring: Martha, UNIT, the Sontarans.
 It is great to see Martha again, and it is great to revisit the old companion with the new—something Doctor Who doesn’t do enough of. And it is refreshing that with Donna we do not get any jealous cat fight, not even a hint (except in the Doctor’s imagination). Donna and Martha can meet as friends; comrades in arms; comparing notes. Martha has outgrown her crush; Doctor Who has matured. There is a bit too much of the Leela/Andred contrivance to Martha’s engagement with Dr. Tom Milligan though. I wish they could have shown that she had moved on without the obvious rebound, but I guess there is only time enough for this shortcut. 
Martha also has moved on in her professional life, no longer a medical student but a full-fledged doctor. However I have to wonder about her licensing considering UNIT rushed it through for her. She says this was done based on her work in the field; I’m not sure what that is referring to exactly. Her adventures with the Doctor? These qualify her as an MD? I don’t doubt Martha’s competence, only UNIT’s motives. What do they need a medical doctor for in such a hurry? And why do they need one coordinating their covert operations? Clearly she is simply being used as a hotline to the Doctor.
Martha does get to put her medical skills to good use; she even gets to wear her white doctor coat. This is cleverly dovetailed with Donna’s “super temp” skills in uncovering the lack of sick days in the ATMOS factory. But it is too clever by far and extraneous to the plot. The entranced workers are a diversion that goes nowhere. In fact they disappear once the gas starts dispersing and the factory comes under siege. No one gives them a second thought (just as no one in these poor disposable workers daily lives cared enough to come looking for their overworked loved ones when they failed to return home each night).
Finally, evil Martha clone—how great is that?
A UNIT without the Brigadier is just a plot device; an excuse to break out the soldiers; a reason to involve the Doctor in Earth affairs (as though he needs an excuse these days). Still, it does move the story along and provides a structure for the narrative so I’ll accept this excuse of a device, and the Brigadier does get a mention. What I find troubling, however, is the Doctor’s treatment of his former employer. It is heavy handed in the extreme and it is no wonder Mace doesn’t listen to the Doctor’s advice; I don’t blame him. For all of the smug arrogance the Third Doctor sometimes displays towards UNIT and authority figures, he usually grants the Brigadier the respect he is due. The Tenth Doctor, however, dismisses Mace and all he stands for; he treats him with scorn and contempt; he ignores and insults him. The Doctor claims that he does not do orders, yet when the time comes he starts barking out commands to Mace and is dumbfounded when Mace refuses to follow them. The Doctor even deems Martha guilty by association, forgetting his own lengthy stint with this very organization. Martha defends herself admirably, but she shouldn’t have to explain herself.
As suddenly as he takes a dislike to Mace, the Doctor takes an instant shine to Ross—his new best friend. I like Ross too, but I have to wonder at the Doctor’s snap judgments. He continues this trend when he and Ross meet with Luke Rattigan. In response to a perceived insult of Ross by Rattigan, the Doctor comes to his defense: “He called you a grunt. Don’t call Ross a grunt. He’s nice. We like Ross.” And in his lightening speed, the Doctor then goes on to ridicule and mock Rattigan. Now Rattigan is a conceited twit and I can’t help but feel he deserves what he gets. Except I also can’t help but feel that this is precisely the treatment Rattigan has received all of his life and what has led him on his current path. The Doctor really could use a lesson in tact.
Despite the Doctor’s hypocritical disdain, UNIT is a nice callback and a solid addition to New Who. “A modern UNIT for the modern world.” But it is mundane and lacks the character of the UNIT of old. While the organization itself merits a return, none of the individuals within it (excepting Martha) impress.
The Sontarans are one of my favorite monsters from the old series and they return in excellent form. These are the compact little warriors I know and love; except that, as the Doctor notes, “This isn’t typical Sontaran behavior, is it? Hiding? Using teenagers; stopping bullets? A Sontaran should face bullets with dignity.” Two previous serials misused the Sontarans: The Invasion of Time and The Two Doctors. Both of these stories from the classic period had the Sontarans acting out of character and miscast. The Sontaran Stratagem does not miscast. It does however involve the Sontarans in a very un-Sontaran scheme; but even though the Sontarans are acting out of character I don’t mind. And I’ll tell you why. (You know of course, Gary, that I will tell you why.)
The strength of the Sontarans over the Daleks and the Cybermen (as far as storytelling goes) is that they have distinct personalities (despite their baked potato similarities). Sontarans are proudly militaristic, yes, but depicting legions of these squat, armor clad, single minded soldiers marching across the face of the planet and gunning down every living being in their path would be boring. The beauty of The Time Warrior and The Sontaran Experiment is that we got to know an individual Sontaran away from the battlefield.  The ultimate Sontaran goal is always victory over the Rutans; The Sontaran Stratagem, combined with its companion piece The Poisoned Sky, gives us a plausible reason for the Sontarans to be so far off mission and in the process gives us two memorable villains in General Staal and Commander Skorr.
(I do have to wonder, though, how and when the Sontarans became so misogynistic. The Sontarans are a clone race and therefore, I would presume, sexless. What exactly is their reference point for the blatant sexism they now display?)
While I don’t mind this Sontaran field trip to Earth, it does feel as though the Sontarans could be swapped out for any villain up to this point in the story. The main focus for the episode is ATMOS and the Rattigan Academy headed by Luke Rattigan. Luke is established as the patsy for the Sontarans; the obligatory human collaborator of the aliens. In the brief span afforded, however, he is granted a level of complexity that keeps things interesting. Too bad his orange track-suited minions aren’t similarly treated. I have no idea why any of these background extras stick around other than that the script tells them to be there.
Everything comes to a head with Wilf trapped in his haywire car, the ATMOS devices emitting toxic fumes worldwide (here we go again with technology dependent Earth putting all its eggs in one gizmo basket only to have it backfire and threaten all of Mankind), and the Sontarans, joined by Luke, chanting their glorious new war cry. “Sontar-ha!”
So Martha calls the Doctor back to Earth to work for UNIT against the Sontarans. That’s The Sontaran Stratagem in a nutshell. It’s a set-up episode for what is to follow. Along the way there are some nice moments, particularly with Donna and Martha and again with Donna and Wilf.
“We are now at Battle Status One. Rejoice!”
I send you off with this inspiring refrain, Gary. Sontar-ha!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Planet of the Ood

Dear Gary—
The first two episodes of the season could afford to be slightly script deficient because their main focus was on establishing the Doctor/Donna relationship. Going forward, however, the focus needs to shift; now the Doctor and Donna need strong stories in which to grow. Planet of the Ood delivers just that.
First things first: the Doctor has finally made it to a brand new, never before seen, actual alien planet. Hooray! The TARDIS, courtesy of the random “mystery tour” setting, has taken the Doctor and Donna to the Ood Sphere (in the same solar system as the Sense Sphere). It is a beautifully rendered landscape of ice and snow.
Granted, this alien planet is part of the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire, and the year 4126 doesn’t feel too far off from our own era, but it’s a start, even if it has taken four seasons to get here.
Another nice departure is that the Doctor is not actively in search of an alien threat, answering a distress signal, or compelled to save the Earth/Universe.  He is simply showing the marvels of the cosmos to Donna, still getting a thrill out of “the fear; the joy; the wonder.” Along the way he gets caught up in events. He isn’t even particularly interested in the plight of the Ood to begin with, similar to his first encounter with them back in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. And ultimately he is not instrumental in freeing them from their captivity. He is more or less a passive bystander, and that’s OK. The Doctor can’t (and shouldn’t) always be the rock star hero of every episode. He can’t always make history happen; sometimes he needs to just let history take its course.
He doesn’t stand as silent witness, however. He has ample opportunity to pass judgment and express moral outrage, and even in the end grabs a bit of the glory for himself. I can take a little of this; the script tends to exaggerate his importance, though; however it is tempered by the compassion supplied by Donna. This is the alien Doctor/human companion dynamic at work, but I’m not sure if the show gets this or not. I am tending toward granting New Who the benefit of the doubt.
It starts with the discovery of the dying Ood. The Doctor shows detached curiosity about his condition while Donna, after her initial shock at his strange visage, kneels by his side to comfort him. Upon his death Donna asks if they should bury him only for the Doctor to brush her concern aside with, “The snow’ll take care of that.” He is focused on the big picture while she considers the individual; they complement each other.  She needs him to expand her views while he needs her to rein him in.
“Last time I met the Ood, I never thought; I never asked,” the Doctor says. Bigger things got in his way and he let the Ood die with nary a thought. This time the Ood are front and center. Rose had raised concerns about their servitude back in those earlier serials, and Donna does the same now. This time the Doctor cannot ignore them.
“Servants? They’re slaves,” Donna says as she and the Doctor watch the Ood being whipped into subservience. And then they discover the crates full of Ood waiting to be shipped off across the universe. Donna is appalled by the sight; and now I have to fault the script for some well-intentioned but misguided moralizing. It wants to draw attention to parallels with our own world, but it is completely mishandled in the exchange between the Doctor and Donna.
It starts with Donna’s disgust at an empire built on slavery, but then the Doctor deflects her criticism away from the current situation and back on her with, “It’s not so different from your time.” Donna feels the need to defend herself, and the Doctor drives home his point with, “Who do you think made your clothes?” Donna is left to comment on his “cheap shots” and the Doctor rather sheepishly apologizes.  This is all well and good, except that the “your time” he is referring to and into which Donna was born is also his time, his chosen time, the time to which he returns over and over, the time in which he interferes and intervenes again and again (but never, to the best of my knowledge, on behalf of the workers in the clothing industry). And it is a distraction away from the Ood, a race that the Doctor has disserved in the past. It reflects poorly on both, but mostly the Doctor. At worst the Doctor’s comments serve as a partial justification for the Ood’s enslavement; at best they are hypocritical.
Overall, however, the Doctor and Donna are magnificent in this. Donna in particular, in sympathy with the Ood, is heartbreaking. The Doctor, meanwhile, is interested in the Red Eye and in the mysterious last words of the dying Ood, “The circle must be broken.” Together this alien/human partnership is a triumph of harmony, best illustrated by the Ood song. The Doctor can hear the telepathically relayed tune at all times; Donna cannot except with the aid of the Doctor, and then she can only bear it for a few seconds. The Doctor is focused on the big picture; Donna is focused on the individual. The Doctor can live with that song constant in his head; Donna breaks under the grief embodied in those musical strains. Working to each other’s strengths, the Doctor and Donna discover the true nature of the Ood.
The history of the Ood is a fascinating one. They had been presented as a convenience in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and just as conveniently discarded. Planet of the Ood does them justice. Between the Doctor’s sleuthing and Donna’s empathy we learn a great deal in a short amount of time, and the resulting revelation of the unprocessed Ood is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The general concept of a race carrying around a secondary brain in their hands and tied together as a communal whole by a giant shared brain is a bit of a head scratcher, but only due to the limited scope of the serial. This is an entire alien race and planet and evolutionary path that remains untold, and the imagination reels with the possibilities (and is better left to the imagination).
There is a trio of baddies in our tale, each interesting in his or her own way. First there is Kess, the stereotypical henchman who takes too much pleasure in his job; Kess seems to display a human version of Red Eye as he becomes increasingly manic and sadistic. Then there is Solana Mercurio, the PR woman who you think is going to convert only to remain true to her mercantile heart. The best, however, is Halpen. On the face of it he is your typical heartless businessman, but there are hints of desperation and conflict beneath the surface. His consideration for Ood Sigma is unexpected and intriguing. And he moves effortlessly from callously tossing Dr. Ryder to his death to philosophizing about having to shoot the Doctor and Donna.
The ultimate fate of Halpen is poetic justice and an ending that the Doctor often strives for but rarely achieves. “All that intelligence and mercy, focused on Ood Sigma.” An intelligent and merciful solution, born out of patience. “I can’t tell what’s right and what’s wrong anymore,” Donna says of this bizarre judgment handed down by the Ood. It is a judgment that the Doctor had no part in; yet he can’t help but ask, “And now, Sigma, would you allow me the honor?” After Sigma’s patience and Dr. Ryder’s sabotage, it is the Doctor who flips the switch to break the circle and unleash the Ood song. (I can’t help but hear strains of “Fahoo fores, Dahoo dores, Welcome Christmas, Come this way” as the Ood stand in a circle with their faces uplifted in song.)
It is an uplifting ending to a satisfying story. We don’t get to see the Ood running wild like wildebeest, but Sigma and a group of processed and unprocessed Ood see the Doctor and Donna off singing their praises: “Our children will sing of the Doctor Donna, and our children’s children, and the wind and the ice and the snow will carry your names forever.”
There is the ominous warning, “I think your song must end soon,” but as Sigma says, “every song must end.” And as we know, Gary, with each ending there is a new beginning. However we still have a ways to go and the Doctor Donna is still an emerging story.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Fires of Pompeii

Dear Gary—
“We’re in Pompeii . . . and it’s volcano day.”
The First Doctor and his companions could take this statement and turn it into a meaningful and heartfelt historical adventure with sci fi overtones. But this is the Tenth Doctor; and “it’s not just history.” This is all about the Doctor and his made up history. (“It’s me. I make it happen.”)
At this point I have accepted New Who and its pretensions. I therefore accept The Fires of Pompeii for what it is—a make believe world set forth for my enjoyment. It’s not as ambitious; but it tries.
And it is admirable in its attempt.
There are shades of the past present in this historical remix. These hints come courtesy of Donna. (Some day, Gary, when New Who has run its course and I am free of this slow path, I will revisit this present Pompeii with a backward eye on the past that is The Aztecs.)
The Doctor takes Donna into the past; her past; the Earth’s past. She is set down in the middle of a street bustling with life; people living and working and trading and laughing and running and scraping by in the day to day world of their ordinary lives. Except that she knows their future; she knows that they have no future. It is volcano day. She sees the human tragedy ebbing and flowing around her.
The Doctor, however, is fixated.
“Pompeii is a fixed point in time. What happens happens. There is no stopping it.”
Former Doctors have continually made the point that tampering with history is forbidden. However, as far as I know this is the first time that the Doctor makes this definitive statement: “Some things are fixed; some things are in flux.” Actually, that isn’t so much definitive as wibbly wobbly; the Doctor just says it in such an authoritative way. And then he continues: “Because that’s how I see the universe. Every waking second I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That’s the burden of a Time Lord.” He’s letting his omniscience show; except that week after week he happens upon an event of which he has no prior knowledge. I suppose those are the flux moments. Or he is simply making things up as he goes along. (Kind of like his age.)
The skewed reality into which the Doctor and Donna land is a Pompeii in which the volcano is never going to erupt, because of course there are giant rock/fire aliens living underground and planning on draining all of the volcano’s energy in order to convert it into power enough for them to take over the world. In the meantime they are converting the citizens of Pompeii little by little into stone people who can see the future and read minds. Not your standard textbook history, but so much more conducive to weaving the Doctor’s wibbly wobbly narrative.
(I sometimes wonder, Gary, if the Doctor, when crossing back and forth between parallel worlds a few seasons ago, accidentally ended up in some obscure universe that he doesn’t realize is not his own.)
It is an amusing enough tale; and the sets, costumes, and effects are well done as usual. The guest cast is adequate to their stock roles. The most interesting are the Syballine, however they are just an excuse to let prophecies fly and to add a small amount of menace and the obligatory threat of a human sacrifice that can be easily undone by a bit of banter and a water pistol. (What the Sisterhood of Karn is doing with a sister sect on ancient Earth I don’t know, unless this goes to prove my parallel universe theory; but really it only goes to show how Classic Who had much the better idea in setting at least some of these alien story lines on actual alien planets.) It seems redundant to have both the Sisterhood and Lucius Petrus Dextrus; they act as though they are at odds with one another and yet they are independently working for the same side. Given the shorter scripts I think Doctor Who would be better served with some economy of character. However the one-upmanship between Lucius and Evelina is as good a way as any to slip in those ominous New Who hints and teasers for the coming season.
The family group is pleasant enough and serves its purpose of providing a human face to the story. I can live with the 6 months later epilogue but it is unnecessary. I suppose it’s nice to see the family prospering, Evelina enjoying her youth, and Quintus getting respect. It has a bit of a sitcom feel to it, though, with its eye-rolling ‘Oh Dad’ attitude. And then comes the household gods punch line and I want to do more than roll my eyes.
However, the Doctor/Donna seed at the core of The Fires of Pompeii makes it all worthwhile; they are the beating heart of the episode. Without them it is a bit of a silly mess.
I like the opening sequence establishing the running Celtic gag, and it is nice to see that the TARDIS still can get it wrong, in this instance landing in Pompeii instead of the anticipated Rome. These first moments with the Doctor and Donna remind me of the rapport that existed between the Second Doctor and Jamie. There is a comfortable feel to the relationship; best friends who won’t hesitate to challenge each other; and Donna finds lots to challenge the Doctor on in this tale.
Forget the outlandish alien angle; the tug of war between the Doctor and Donna over the fate of Pompeii is the real story. “You’re the Doctor; you save people,” Donna reasons. I can hardly blame her; the Doctor projects himself as hero. But not in this case; with volcano day looming he plays his Time Lord card. It’s a tricky business being a Time Lord. Most weeks the Doctor invokes his heritage as a Caveat Preemptor; other times he hides behind it as an excuse to absolve himself of all responsibility. Sometimes it is fixed; sometimes it is in flux; this is a flux time. And it is really in flux here because he says he can’t get involved when Donna asks him to, yet when his curiosity is peaked he insinuates himself right into the middle of the action.
I give Donna credit for continuing to question the Doctor every step of the way. I would too. Why is it again, Doctor, that we can’t warn people about the volcano or at least advise them to head for the hills, but you can head off into the very heart of the mountain in order to find out what the aliens are up to?
Ultimately the Doctor traps himself in his own argument. There is no escape; he is problem and solution in this Escher drawing of a dilemma. He is both fixed and flux. He is shaping history by preventing the Pyroviles from altering history and thus preserving history. I think.
Good thing he has Donna steadfast by his side. He has a simple choice before him: “It’s Pompeii or the world.” That is what the convoluted, wibbly wobbly plot comes down to; and when he can finally state this in no uncertain terms, Donna sees the magnitude of the decision weighing on him and she comes to his aid. He is not alone; they are in this together.
I don’t understand, however, why the Doctor continues in his stubborn policy of non-interference once the deed is done. Pompeii is still Pompeii; the volcano has erupted; history is intact. How does directing people to safety change any of this? “History’s back in place and everyone dies,” the Doctor says in his own defense as Donna pleads the case for the family unit. Turns out he is just having a Time Lord snit. He can’t go back and save Gallifrey so why should he trouble himself over four little people? Donna prevails and the Doctor realizes: “You were right. Sometimes I need someone.”
The Doctor needs Donna. Doctor Who needs Donna.
“Welcome aboard.”
Overall a diverting 50 minutes, Gary. A bit of Pompeian history echoed back into the Doctor Who alternative.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Partners in Crime

Dear Gary—
New Who has gone for pure spectacle several times; now it is going for pure fun, and it succeeds delightfully. Partners in Crime isn’t in the same echelon as those comic Classics The Romans and City of Death; holding it back somewhat is the lightweight plot—a tradeoff, I suspect, for the shorter format. Even still, as a comedy Partners In Crime can hold its head high.
“The fat just walks away.”
Doctor Who is shedding the heavy weight of doomed romance and unrequited love in favor of a more buoyant relationship in the person of Donna Noble; and the humorous nature of the serial is just the right tone for the reintroduction of this TARDIS companion.
The early scenes of the Doctor and Donna near-missing each other are rollicking good fun, and the pantomime upon finding each other is hilarious. New Who tends to telegraph its intentions when it comes to spectacle, and it does nothing less when it comes to farce. The character of journalist Penny Carter makes the proclamation for Partners in Crime; anytime someone runs down a street having to hold up the chair she is tied to and asserting, “You’re just mad. Do you hear me? Mad! And I’m going to report you for . . . madness,” you know there is nothing serious going on. And if there is any room for doubt, Matron Cofelia’s Wile E. Coyote moment quashes it.
To top it off, what better way to bring a smile to one’s face than to watch the tiny globules of baby fat waddling about in all their adorable cuteness?
“I’m waving at fat.”
Goodbye Rose and Martha; hello Donna.
Like any good comedy, Partners in Crime has some underlying heart, the bulk of which is provided by Donna and Wilf. Their scene together on the hill is beautifully done, and Donna’s tribute to her grandfather at the end is moving. With all of time and space before her, Donna chooses “two and a half miles that way.” She has found the man she has been searching for, the man with the blue box, and she wants Wilf to share in her moment.
However, it is Donna’s relationship with the Doctor that is critical. Comedy aside; the Doctor is in serious need of some uncomplicated companionship. Donna is just what the doctor ordered.
As the Doctor discusses Martha with Donna he cavalierly says, “She fancied me,” to which Donna replies, “Mad Martha, that one. Blind Martha. Charity Martha.” No more unconditional devotion; Donna is ready to call out the Doctor when he is being a jerk.
But she is also steadfast at his side when he needs a friend. “Doctor, tell me,” she says when he starts panicking at high speed; a million people about to die and he is at a complete loss. “What do you need?” She steadies him; she calms him; she provides that slap in the face of hysteria. The fact that she happens to have the exact capsule he requires in order to “boost the override” is incidental (or coincidental if you will).
Donna is a counter balance between the Classic Who view of the Doctor as a sci fi adventurer/traveler and the New Who view of the Doctor as some sort of cosmically fated super hero/savior of the universe.
Donna comes prepared for the adventurous travels; she has packed for the occasion. (“You’ve got a . . . a hatbox.”) She isn’t after any deep ‘new way of living your life’ or all-consuming romance. (“You’re not mating with me, Sunshine.”) She simply wants to see the wonders of the universe.
Back in The Runaway Bride Donna had rejected the Doctor’s offer; she had been witness to the uglier side of his life and wanted no part of it. However he had expanded her world view and she tried in the intervening months to capitalize on this only to discover, “it’s all bus trips and guide books and ‘don’t drink the water,’ and two weeks later you’re back home.” Not one to give up, Donna has gone in active search of the Doctor and lucky for her, him, and us she has succeeded.
However the entertaining and somewhat trivial plot as dictated by the return of Donna is weighted down by ominous foreshadowing. Coming from Donna and the Matron the hints and clues can be thrown away as fun facts—the bees disappearing; whole planets gone. But one cannot ignore the heavy anchor of Rose; the joy and enthusiasm of Donna counteracted by the doom and gloom of Rose.
I am looking forward to the season at hand, despite knowing the dire turn this road will take. Like Donna, I am ready for some adventurous travels with that man in his flying blue box. “He goes anywhere,” or at least he did once upon a time; once upon a time when he was not tethered to the Earth. Like Donna, I look forward to exploring new life amongst the stars. I know I am bound to be disappointed by this constrained New Who universe, but I am still prepared, Gary, and geared up for all kinds of climates.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Voyage of the Damned

Dear Gary—
Voyage of the Damned is a much needed respite. It is one of the few episodes in this young modern era that isn’t laden with heavy themes and season-filling arcs and deeper meaning. This is simply a story to enjoy. That is not to say that it doesn’t have its problems, but for the most part this is pure adventure. As such, it is fitting that it recalls some of the Classic Who serials. The first one I think of upon viewing the Titanic cruising through the heavens is Enlightenment and its own sailing ships racing through the stars. Next I am reminded of Delta and the Bannermen and the alien tour group en route to Earth. Finally the excellent Robots of Death comes to mind. Pleasant memories indeed to carry me along for the ride on this newly forged Poseidon Adventure in the skies.
The story begins with a replica of the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS, and now I recollect two more Classics dealing with similar space collisions: Nightmare of Eden and Terminus. However this collision is quickly righted; with one flip of a switch the TARDIS is repaired and now the Doctor is simply exploring this strange flying Titanic as a matter of curiosity.
As per usual for New Who the sets and costumes are first rate; and the Stovians have perfectly replicated the lush era of early 1900’s Earth for their traveling pleasure, with a few anomalies like the angel robot Host. Slowly the Doctor meets his fellow shipmates, yet another stellar cast of Doctor Who guest stars depicting a great array of personalities.
My favorites are contest winners Morvin and Foon Van Hoff, but I also have a soft spot for tour guide Mr. Copper and his mangled Earth history. Bannakaffalatta is also good as the token alien amongst this horde of very human looking extraterrestrials.  My first impression of Astrid is: oh great, yet another love struck blonde. However, since I now know she does not make it as a permanent TARDIS companion, I can accept her for the stock character she portrays. Midshipman Frame is at a disadvantage in that he is isolated from the rest, and yet his presence is felt throughout and he seems just as much a part of their group as if he were actually present with them. Finally there is ruthless businessman Rickston Slade, and again I get carried back in time to the profiteer Lord Palmerdale from Horror of Fang Rock; another shipwreck victim as I think of it, although of a more conventional nature.
Without a main companion, this is a great group for the Doctor to play off of in our disaster pic.
It is a rather conventional story, and that is its main strength. The pre-disaster meet and greet is fun; the mid-disaster action is suspenseful, thrilling, and touching in turn; and the post-disaster finale is bittersweet. The straightforward plot allows the large ensemble room to tell their tales.
Even the small roles are pivotal. Chief among these is Captain Hardaker. With relatively little screen time this part is still important enough for the distinguished Geoffrey Palmer to imbue it with dignity and stature. He provides a human face behind the tragedy, much more so than the true mastermind Max Capricorn.
Max Capricorn is probably my least favorite aspect of Voyage of the Damned. He is too much of a comic book villain. And can someone tell me why Doctor Who has such a penchant for ranting baddies confined to rolling life-support systems? I think I would have liked it better if Max and Slade had been combined into one making for a more complex character. Or if they really wanted to go with the mobile blusterer, and to continue with my nostalgia theme, perhaps a reboot of the Collector from The Sun Makers would have made for a fascinating diversion.  As he stands (or sits) Max Capricorn is loathsome without being very interesting or entertaining.
My second least favorite actually comprises some of the dramatic high points of the episode.
“I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m nine hundred and three years old and I’m the man who’s going to save your life and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?”
This is a stirring speech and a much needed verbal slap in the face for Slade; but I’m really getting sick of the Tenth Doctor’s braggadocio. I wouldn’t mind as much if the show didn’t back him up in this god-making tendency. The Host angels pledging their fealty to him and carrying him off to heaven, even if it is only to the bridge, is overkill I can do without.
Somehow making this worse, though, is that the show then goes on to subvert the Doctor. Not content to make him a god, it proceeds to make a mockery of his supposed divinity. High on his hubris, the Doctor makes several decisive promises to save everyone. They believe him; we believe him. The Doctor is going to lead these people to salvation. One after another those people die. Then Mr. Copper offers this piece of wisdom: “Of all the people to survive, he’s not the one you would have chosen, is he? But if you could choose, Doctor, if you decide who lives and who dies, that would make you a monster.”
Given the direction this tenth generation takes, I suppose one could argue that this is the point of the episode; that the Doctor is setting himself up as a god but in reality he is turning into a monster. I’m sorry, but I don’t want my Doctor to be a monster; and I don’t think the show seriously does either. If the show really wanted to make that point it would not treat the stirring speech or the Host elevation scene with such reverence and with all of the special effects and musical cues thrown at them to pronounce them good. I think the show is hedging its bets. I think the show wants us to cheer the Doctor as a god and a super hero but wants to reserve the right to pull the rug out from under him. I think the show is cheating.
I do want to point out that the Ninth Doctor makes similar pronouncements at times, but the difference is that he usually inspires confidence whereas the Tenth tends to foster dependence. I hadn’t meant to get diverted onto this sidebar, Gary, especially since it flies in the face of my opening paragraph ‘no heavy themes or story arcs’ statement. However I have started down this path and will see it through.
Perhaps someday I’ll do a deeper analysis between this episode and The Parting of the Ways in which I praised the Ninth Doctor’s ability to inspire and went through the various death scenes. For now I will simply look at those deaths that occur in Voyage of the Damned.
First up: Morvin. He steps wrong and down he plummets to his death. Not much there, except that he is expressing doubt that he and Foon can make it across the bridge when he falls. Foon is devastated by his death, and all she can do is accuse the Doctor over and over with, “You promised me,” and exhort him to use his magical powers to bring her husband back to her. She gives up all will to live at this point and refuses to take another step. “He don’t want nothing; he’s dead,” Foon states when the Doctor tries to lift her spirits with thoughts of her husband. She is defeated. The Doctor can only make another hollow promise that he will be back for her, but in essence he gives her up. She does die nobly, the second of our deaths; sacrificing herself to save the others; but arguably this is more an act of suicide than anything else. Next we have Bannakaffalatta. His death, too, is one of self-sacrifice. However, it is not the Doctor who inspires him but rather Astrid.
Astrid’s is our final death scene. She lays down her life for the Doctor, and this is the only sacrifice that can be credited to the Doctor’s inspiration. However this is debatable. One could argue that her nature is one of selflessness from the start, glimpses of which can be seen in her tender interactions with Bannakaffalatta. One could also argue that she is being guided not only by altruism but by her burning crush. And one could argue that her death is regrettable and avoidable and can be squarely placed on the Doctor’s shoulders.
 Overall, however, Voyage of the Damned is solid entertainment. Setting aside deeper analysis (a promise I failed to deliver on—sorry Gary), each death is touching and made more poignant by the many breathing points of character development allowed as the story progresses. The Doctor’s frantic attempts to save Astrid do become macabre, yet it is moving and fitting that he ultimately sends her shimmering shards off amongst the stars. “You’re not falling, Astrid; you’re flying.”
All is not death, however. There is promise at the end. Yes, Slade does live while others more deserving have died, but at least Midshipman Alonso Frame ("Allons-y, Alonso!") and Mr. Copper survive the ordeal; and the Doctor’s last act is to provide a new life and hope for Mr. Copper. As Copper skips off with his new found wealth I can’t help but wish that the Doctor would visit him upon occasion.
Despite the grim mortality rate there was some well-placed humor to keep things lively. I especially liked the Doctor’s dig at Max: “You can’t even sink the Titanic.” And there were a few Doctor Who tidbits gleaned, like the fact that the TARDIS is “programmed to lock onto the nearest center of gravity” once it has been set adrift. Or like the Doctor rattling off that he is 903 years old. I do not take this as literal fact, though. The Doctor is notorious for throwing out numbers when it comes to his age, but I doubt that even he knows what it really is. By the way, fellow Time Lord Romana also fudged her age at least once, so this might be a Time Lord tradition.
One final mention before I leave, Gary. I want to back up to the brief Red 67 sojourn to Earth. I love this tiny little moment in the episode and I feel like I’ve dissed on the Doctor and want to end on a good note. This is a priceless gift that the Doctor gives to Astrid. He doesn’t think it is all that, but Astrid’s unbridled joy over standing on alien concrete amongst alien shops with alien smells is infectious. Plus we have a peek at Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s grandfather Wilfred Mott (although not yet revealed as such).
A great moment to leave on, Gary. Here’s hoping this finds you, not falling but flying . . .

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Last of the Time Lords

Dear Gary—
I have to again recall Army of Ghosts/Doomsday in viewing Last of the Time Lords; each declares itself as a sham, not to be taken seriously as narrative. However those previous stories are almost subtle in their approach compared to the in-your-face attitude of Last of the Time Lords. Last of the Time Lords loudly and proudly thumbs its nose at the audience; this is pure spectacle; pure emotional manipulation; don’t even bother worrying about the plot because it will all be undone in the end. To this I say: OK, Doctor Who. At least you’re up front about it.
“The year that never was.” Superman style, all is reversed; it never happened. All the sorrow; all the pain; all the suffering; all the grief; all the destruction; all the despair; none of it. Except that the Doctor, the Joneses, Jack, and a handful of soldiers remember it. “The eye of the storm.”
And we the audience remember it; even though the slate was wiped clean and we can say it never happened, we still had to sit through it. This is the magic act of our three ring circus. Ta Da! The disappearing year. Now you see it, now you don’t.
But first we see it, and it is rather grim. It is relentlessly dark and depressing and without hope; standard apocalyptic cinematic fare. Poor Martha has to trudge through this world on her own, and she is the one saving grace of this drudgery. “Great; I’m traveling with a doctor,” she says, but it is not the Doctor. The Doctor is a shrunken, shriveled version of himself living in a bird cage. Yet Martha can smile when she witnesses his transformation into a troll. “The Doctor’s still alive,” she says, and she takes inspiration from the thought. Martha is a fitting guide in this dreary world of the Master’s making.
“Martha Jones, they say she’s going to save the world.” Martha has become a legend in the year that she has been walking the Earth. (Isn’t it conveniently contrived, Gary, that it has been exactly 365 days?) We only get a few lines to cover that year, the year that never was. The beginning of Last of the Time Lords presents that year between it and The Sound of Drums as a fait accompli. We are spared the majority of the death and destruction and desolation as Martha made her journey and the Master built his rockets. Martha has now returned to English soil and our story picks up.
It’s a vaguely interesting adventure as Martha and her newly met companion Dr. Tom Milligan hook up with Professor Docherty and take down a sphere. The reveal of the actual nature of the Toclafane is gruesomely effective. Martha’s explanation about the Time Lord gun is perfunctory and her capture at the safe house is mundane, but necessary. After repeated viewings I find the subtleties of Professor Docherty to be the most intriguing aspects of these segments.  My first few times through I could never understand Martha’s need to give her those flowers at the end. I got that her son was being held captive and that is why she was cooperating with the Master, but it is not as simple as that and those first few times I didn’t see the intricacies of her performance. Now I see that Docherty demonstrates the real devastation of the Master’s world; that loss of all hope that Martha is fighting against. Docherty so wants to believe, but desperation has taken hold too deeply. As Martha leaves Docherty asks her, “Martha, could you do it? Could you actually kill him?” She so wants to believe. But she does not see murder in Martha’s eyes. She does not believe that Martha can save the world, and so Docherty betrays her. It is true despair; the loss of faith.
Last of the Time Lords is all about faith and hope; and it is rather ironic, given Doctor Who’s proclivities, that this episode has such blatantly religious overtones. It is a bit disturbing as well, this trend towards depicting the Doctor as a god. Except that it is done in such a childish way. Docherty portrays the subtleties, but overall the show is played for pure theatrics. It is akin to Bible stories for children like I had as a kid, with lots of pictures and big print and simple words. It goes for the gut with little attempt to appeal to the intellect.
The Master plays the devil to the Doctor’s god; the baby faced Master taking impish glee in his sadism. The Master is so basely repugnant hiding under his glib, fun-loving fa├žade. That would be the devil; not the cartoonish horned beast from The Satan Pit, but a silver tongued viper in pleasing form. Except the Master is so over the top frenetic and madcap that the Archangel network can be the only explanation for his hypnotic control of the populace, coupled with the terror of the Toclafane.
The Doctor as a god (and I’ll get to that dramatically juvenile transformation in a moment) descends upon the cowering Master in his all-powerful mode. What I like about this kiddie lit version of Satan’s Fall From Grace, however, is that the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Doctor is abandoned for: “I forgive you.” The mighty battle between good and evil boils down to a war between faith and despair. Forgiveness is an act of faith; free for the taking. Despair is a rejection of that forgiveness. The Doctor cradles the dying Master in his arms imploring him to accept life; to accept love; to accept forgiveness. The Master, in an exercise of free will, refuses. In this one respect, Doctor Who gets it right.
But an episode of Doctor Who is not the Bible, the Doctor is not God, and the Master is not Satan. This is a show drawing upon religious themes merely for the spectacle it creates.
And it is quite a spectacle; clap if you believe.
There’s the rub; you have to believe if you are to clap. If not, if you choose to exercise your free will and reject, you have fallen from the good graces of Doctor Who. I still want to believe; I therefore suspend my disbelief; accept that Last of the Time Lords is nothing but an entertaining exhibition riddled with inconsistencies, fallacies, and plot holes; sit back to enjoy despite the occasional bouts of boredom; and clap my hands off in the end, adding my voice to the mighty shouts of “Doctor!” cascading through the air and elevating the Doctor to lofty heights.
All the while retaining a healthy dose of skepticism.
Ah, Gary. What this show has driven me to.
Let me get my feet back under me, Gary. I’ll start by returning to that year that never was so conveniently marked out at exactly 365 days. Seems the Master accomplished quite a lot in that short span of time. The destruction is easy and only a matter of moments, but the construction of hundreds of thousands of rockets each equipped with a black hole converter is a miracle of sorts given the material and time constraints. The Doctor, the Joneses, and Jack, on the other hand, accomplished very little and waited until that last day to mount any kind of resistance. Their plan seems fairly simple and shouldn’t have required the space of a year to formulate. But then, it is merely a device to show the audience that their spirit is still alive and to slip in the isomorphic controls angle and I suppose to give the actors something to do even if it is ineffectual.
My biggest question concerning this year however: how in the world did the Doctor know exactly when Martha should return; how did he know about the ‘Count Down’ and when precisely it would take place; and why did he let this year happen at all when all along all he had to do was take out the Paradox Machine? I know, Gary, that’s three questions; but its three questions in one (or a triune question if you will).
But I’ll allow the year. What I do find fascinating, though, is that the Master had a tiny little Doctor suit on hand. Oh, and the Peter Pan spell not only brings the Doctor back at full strength and power and young of age, but it also grows shoes on his feet.
I would feel sorry for the Toclafane stuck at the end of the Universe; except the Toclafane are a pathetic bunch of insane, infantile cannibals who deserve their fate if that is the best they can muster in the face of adversity. If I thought I was the last of the Human Race only to discover that I was not alone, that there was one other, but then discovered that that other was none other than a Toclafane (or let’s say Hitler to put a human face on him), I would not then do all in my power to save him. If a Toclafane (or Hitler) is the best my race has to offer I would therefore think that Mankind doesn’t deserve to survive. However, I refuse to believe that the Toclafane represent the whole of Mankind from our far distant future. I have a little more faith in my race than apparently Doctor Who has. (If that is a contradiction in faith, well then Gary I’ll invoke the Doctor Who Paradox Machine.)
I want to say a word about Lucy, as long as I am talking about faith and forgiveness. Lucy was fine with the Master’s world of death and destruction until it became personal. After that year that wasn’t the Master was revealed as a wife beater and adulterer; it was only then that she turned against him. I have little faith or forgiveness for Lucy; although I admire her as a character.
For all the convoluted spectacle, however, whether it works or it doesn’t, Last of the Time Lords does succeed in sending off both Jack and Martha Jones as companions of the series. Jack is given the short end of the stick for the bulk of the episode, but The Face of Boe reveal makes up for everything.
This leaves me with Martha. I have liked Martha all along, but there is that nagging unrequited love element that mars her stint as companion. For starters, it is beneath her character. It is an obvious device that falls flat. More importantly, however, it keeps her and the Doctor at arm’s length. There is never a camaraderie or ease in their relationship; it is always distant and awkward. When Martha takes her first leave of the Doctor they are reserved and formal in their good-byes. Martha returns, however, and she calls the Doctor out. In a roundabout way, but she does nonetheless. “So this is me, getting out.” For all of his emoting, this Tenth Doctor can be cold, and when his companion wears her heart on her sleeve this can be cruel. It is time for Martha to leave and she does it on her own terms. The show might have asked us to clap mightily for the Doctor in order to raise him from his bird cage, but I reserve my heartiest applause for Martha. “This is me, getting out.”
I find I have created my own bit of convoluted mess here, Gary, and so this is me getting out . . . at least for now. Like Martha and the Master, there is hope for a return. I’m still a believer and will continue on this ever long slow path.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Sound of Drums

Dear Gary—
I have to go back to Army of Ghosts/Doomsday and the style over substance mentality of New Who; except that rather than a fireworks display The Sound of Drums and its companion piece Last of the Time Lords is more of a boring Cirque du Soleil. There are long stretches of be-sequined filler punctuated by the occasional hold-your-breath, ‘oh that was good’ moment.
“The moral is, if you’re going to get stuck at the end of the universe, get stuck with an ex Time Agent and his vortex manipulator.” That nicely disposes of the cliffhanger from our previous story Utopia. It has a bit of a swept-under-the-carpet feel to it, but our questions about those unfortunates of our far distant future will come into play eventually; you could say that Utopia is the first ring of our three ring circus.
I suppose that makes The Sound of Drums our middle ring; as such it has lots of bridges to maintain; and lots of explanations are in order. Break out the sequins to add some flash to this filler.
The majority of exposition concerns the Master and it is delivered in a series of mini rings within the larger; cuts between the Doctor/Jack/Martha and Lucy Saxon’s interview and the Master himself; truth be told, I’m kept so busy that I don’t have time to realize I’m bored. I actually am more entertained, marred by moments of annoyance.
The annoying parts are those glittery bits that go wrong; cheap laughs; cheap thrills. Most of these are courtesy of the Master.
“Oh, go on, crack a smile. It’s funny, isn’t it?” The Master is forcing the humor and I can only sympathize with the dour faced Dumfries. It’s not funny, and when the Master slaughters the entire Cabinet I have to wonder how he manages to cover this up as “the Cabinet has gone into seclusion.” This is followed by the brutal murder of Vivien Rock. I was quite enjoying the interview between Vivien and Lucy Saxon. Vivien’s switch from the fluff piece reporter to the hard hitting journalist is convincing and Lucy’s wide-eyed innocence juxtaposed with her deal-with-the-devil realism is fascinating. But then we have the Master opening and closing the door on the cartoon screams emanating from the scene of the crime and all is demeaned.
The Master isn’t the only clown in this circus, though. His buffoonery is augmented by President Elect Winters. And I have to wonder what authority the President Elect has, unless the sitting President so authorized him; or perhaps he is operating under his UN credentials. In any case, I can’t imagine why he is given carte blanche in this matter, and I question the lack of world presence and of security.
For the most part, though, The Sound of Drums holds hypnotic sway, much like the Master’s Archangel Network. “I don’t know; he always sounded good.” (Tap, tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap, tap.) “Like you could trust him. Just nice. He spoke about . . . I can’t really remember. But it was good.” (Tap, tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap, tap.)
I can’t say that I am exactly mesmerized by the proceedings, but the glitzy display manages to cover most of its defects.
Helping the script along are some solid performances. I especially like Martha showing her independence. Some of her anger at the Doctor is misdirected, but at least she isn’t all starry eyed for a change. Jack, too, is memorable even though he doesn’t really have much of importance to say or do. He is mainly there to look good and facilitate exposition, but he just looks so darn good and facilitates with such ease; he is the perfect magician's assistant. The Doctor takes a strong lead as ring master of this show, and although I question whether his TARDIS key cloaking device would really fool the Master or even guards who are supposedly on high alert, it is an effective scene as he manufactures and explains its use and is rather clever if not examined in detail.
I have to say a word about Lucy Saxon as well. Like Jack she isn’t given much in the script, but she plays it for all she’s worth. I have already mentioned her brief interview with Vivien Rock, but there are two non-speaking background moments that really stand out for me. Both are on the Valiant. The first is when the Master offers her a jelly baby (!) and she rather gleefully bites the head off as she glares at President Elect Winters. The second is the subtle dance she does as strains of Voodoo Child fill the air and the Toclafane descend.
The Master, too, when not playing the clown, has some nice moments. His phone conversation with the Doctor for one. Their re-telling of the Time War is perfunctory but compelling. And who doesn’t love the Teletubbies bit and the nod to Roger Delgado’s Master from The Sea Devils?
The high wire act, however, is reserved for the flashback to Gallifrey and the Master as a child.
“They used to call it the Shining World of the Seven Systems,” the Doctor says of his lost home planet. “And on the Continent of Wild Endeavor, in the Mountains of Solace and Solitude, there stood the Citadel of the Time Lords, the oldest and most mighty race in the universe, looking down on the galaxies below.” His description sounds idyllic, like Susan’s long ago burnt orange sky and silver leaves.
“Well, perfect to look at, maybe.” I have learned along my slow path that in practice this Gallifrey is not a place I would ever want to visit, and from what the Doctor says in The Sound of Drums I am even more convinced. Children are torn away from their parents at the age of eight in the world of the Time Lords and sent to the Academy. (No wonder the Doctor has a hard time maintaining attachments.) At the age of eight these youngsters are exposed to the Untempered Schism, “staring at the raw power of time and space.” The Doctor continues, “Some would be inspired, some would run away, and some would go mad.” The Master went mad and the Doctor ran away. (I wonder where all the inspired Time Lords are; aside from possibly Romana, most Time Lords in Doctor Who are more or less bored.)
In the final act of The Sound of Drums we have a deluge of denouement. A few Toclafane spheres appear, Winters is killed, the Doctor is exposed (I knew his device wouldn’t work against the Master), Martha’s imprisoned family is presented , Jack is killed (temporarily), The Lazarus Experiment and the Doctor’s cut off hand from The Christmas Invasion are referenced and tied in to the current plot, and the Doctor is aged.
Now we have two spotlights on our center ring. The first is reserved for the horde of Toclafane as they descend from the opening rift in the sky; an inspired special effect to be sure. The second is for Martha. With chaos around her, Martha quietly cradles the feeble Doctor, a tear in her eye. Then with a look to her family she teleports out using Jack’s vortex manipulator.  “I’m coming back,” she vows amidst the destruction on the planet’s surface. All seems lost, but Martha provides a ray of hope.
When it is all over I think it was good. It was about . . . I don’t really remember, but it was good. And I look forward, Gary, to viewing the third and final ring.