Saturday, October 3, 2015

Matt Smith

Dear Gary—
I don’t believe you ever saw Matt Smith as the Doctor, or perhaps you caught only his first outing or two. You missed a lot, some of it good but a great deal of it bad.
The good—the best—centers on Matt Smith. He is funny, poignant, dark, witty, childlike, intelligent, and mysterious in turn; sometimes all at once. He is always interesting, but more importantly he remains likeable even while the character is rapidly becoming unpleasant.
No longer can the Doctor call himself a pacifist. Too often during this Eleventh Doctor’s run he has casually destroyed thousands (blowing an entire Cyber fleet out of the sky simply to get an answer to a question in A Good Man Goes to War) and just as casually he has murdered  individuals (Solomon in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship).  He doesn't have an aversion to gun-toting companions any more and he has no qualms about embracing mass murderers if he happens to take a shine to them (the Bloody Queen Elizabeth the Tenth as the most egregious example). The Doctor cannot claim the moral high ground these days; yet time after time he does just that, and he takes it to the heights of hypocrisy. Through it all, however, Matt Smith shines; he almost makes one forget the offhand cruelty.
Just as violence comes casually to him, so too, apparently, does sex. The Doctor’s Time Lord version of a one night stand with Rose and his intense connection with Madame de Pompadour seem innocent compared with the string of conquests this Eleventh incarnation has left in his wake. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Doctor Who universe is populated by an entire generation of half Time Lords. (I think I would watch a spin-off of Tasha Lem as a single mother raising her Doctor baby while leading the Papal Mainframe and trying to suppress her Dalek puppet self.) This is an area where Matt Smith doesn’t shine so much; he’s awkward and uncomfortable in the role of Lothario; it doesn’t suit him.
A similar pattern follows the companions of this Eleventh Doctor. Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, and Jenna-Louise Coleman (and Alex Kingston) do wonders with their roles. Amy and Rory in particular settle in as proper, well-rounded companions. However, they start this trend of what I have come to call yo-yo companions. That is, companions who bounce back and forth between their every day Earth lives and their out-of –this-world TARDIS lives. This aspect is acknowledged and developed with the Ponds, but never to my complete satisfaction. I just can’t accept that this duo would roll with all of the heart-rending punches they are handed and not rebel against their surreal existence if they are truly committed to life and all it offers. The half-hearted attempts they make at normalcy are never believable; and when they are robbed of their infant daughter and any chance at a happy family life with barely a whimper I have to throw up my hands in defeat and recognize that these are not people but actors playing a part as outlined in a script. As actors they are wonderful and enjoyable to watch; however any pretense that the fictional personalities of Amy and Rory are flesh and blood people trying to make a life for themselves, let alone parents, is maddening. Their lives center on the Doctor and what the written page offers, nothing else. I cannot suspend my disbelief far enough to accept them as anything more.
At least Karen and Arthur are given some complexity to keep the audience from second-guessing too much. Jenna-Louise is not so lucky. She has no substantial or consistent structure around which she can base her character. Is she Oswin or is she Clara or is she Soufflé Girl? Is she a governess, a barmaid, a nanny, or a schoolteacher? Is she brave or is she timid? Is she brilliant or is she artificially intelligent? She blew into this world on a leaf—and it shows. She is buffeted by every Doctor Who wind and never truly alights. Yet Jenna-Louise Coleman is captivating.
That is the story of this Eleventh Doctor. Matt, Karen, Arthur, Jenna (and Alex Kingston). Not the Doctor, Amy, Rory, Clara/Oswin/ Soufflé Girl (and River). It is the good fortune of casting. It is the misfortune of a show that too often leaves its script showing. It is the curse of a production team that doesn’t trust its own format and doesn’t have confidence in its actors to simply inhabit their roles. Rather it force feeds artificial arcs that burden the players and that overshadow the adventures. It started in a small way with Doctors Nine and Ten, but it has come on with a vengeance with Doctor Eleven.
I spent a good deal of my time on my slow path through this stretch being angry thanks in large part to the onerous arcs. First there is the Crack of a season; that one is bad enough. The following one, however, is far worse. I’ll never forget those first few minutes of The Impossible Astronaut that almost lost me as a Doctor Who viewer forever. The Probable Girl arc is more irritating than maddening, but it is the most damaging to character development, Clara in particular. And then there is the inane Doctor Who? arc that spans across several seasons. This question mark arc does manage to salvage itself with the wonderful punch line of The Name of the Doctor; and all of the arcs come together beautifully in Matt Smith’s curtain call The Time of the Doctor. Overall, though, the arcs saddle the series with improbable scenarios and impossibly intricate threads that distract from the adventures.
However, my biggest wrath is reserved for what I consider the worst Doctor Who episode ever: The Beast Below. I said it all in my entry on that particular story and I don’t care to revisit it.
There are some wonderful highlights as well. Matt Smith’s introduction in The Eleventh Hour with young Amelia Pond is delightful. Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger are two enjoyable diversions. The Doctor’s Wife is one of the best of New Who. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe is a Christmas treat. Hide is a solid entry. Rounding it all out are two of my favorites: the fiftieth anniversary The Day of the Doctor and my guilty pleasure The Time of the Doctor.
Matt Smith’s era sees the dramatic and viable return of some Classic Who monsters; namely the Silurians and the Zygons. Too bad the Great Intelligence isn’t handled more intelligently, though. It also has more than its fair share of the obligatory Daleks and Cybermen; develops further on the New Who creation The Weeping Angels (much to my disappointment); and introduces a new alien in the dreadful (in my opinion) Silents.
The trio of recurring characters—Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax—could have a spinoff of their own. They are fully realized personalities with little background provided. They are launched in A Good Man Goes to War as though they have always been part of the show; and they feel as though they have always been a part of the show. Ever entertaining, this Victorian era detective gang is a most welcome addition, even if at times they feel superfluous and merely added to provide comic relief.
In sum, the Matt Smith years are much like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. I am very much afraid, Gary, that the horrid too often overshadows. Lacking in consistency and relying too heavily on calculation, coincidence, and contrivance, the show is rapidly losing me.
Standing above it all, however, is Matt Smith. He is very, very good and never horrid. Given better material he would float towards the top of my rankings. As it is he is laden down; if I were to seriously reconsider my rankings he would be in danger of dropping a notch or two through no fault of his own.
But Matt Smith leaves on a high note, Gary, and I’ll grab on and follow it to the next chapter of my slow path.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Time of the Doctor

Dear Gary—
I have to confess, I consider The Time of the Doctor as a guilty pleasure. The first time I saw this episode I didn’t like it, to put it mildly. I scoffed and rolled my eyes and was more than a little confused. (Truth be told—and this must be the Christmas truth field in play—I first saw this out of order; I had probably only seen one, maybe two, Clara stories before it.) Each time I have seen it since I have appreciated it more. Now I almost think it is one of my favorites of Matt Smith’s tenure.
I’ll begin with Clara. The first time through I had no background of the Clara/Doctor relationship; she was a generic companion to me. As I have pointed out through this slow journey of mine, I still don’t have a deep understanding of Clara’s character, but I have warmed up to her and can see the friendship between her and the Doctor. This family of hers, however, is out of the blue. We have never seen them before; it is a paper thin relationship that has been created out of air for the convenience of our story. Clara’s treatment of them bears this out. They are unimportant to her and to us. But it makes for a hilarious skit. The “I need a boyfriend” bit is straight out of sitcom land; Clara is looking more like That Girl every day.
The Time of the Doctor is a string of such skits; it is a clip show; a highlights reel; a reunion episode; a greatest hits album. It is a Saturday Night Live version of Doctor Who. And it is one of the most enjoyable events to watch in this new era.
All of the old favorites are collected here: the Crack, the oldest question, the Silence, Trenzalore, Gallifrey Lost, the Time War, the exploding TARDIS. All of the unresolved questions; all of the tedious arcs. All coming cleverly together into a satisfying whole. I won’t say that it makes the long, drawn out, and dreary season-long storylines worthwhile, but I will say that for once they have actual relevance for me. Added to the mix are an assortment of Doctor Who foes led by the obligatory Daleks and Cybermen with an occasional Weeping Angel thrown in.
I’ll even go so far as to say that I don’t mind the dreadful Silents in this. They’re still ridiculous, but I have to laugh at them rather than rage against them. “Confessional Priests,” the Doctor explains them away to Clara, and he goes on to say that they are, “genetically engineered so you forget everything you told them.”  Useless in other words. You confess and immediately forget; so you haven’t unburdened yourself at all; you are as guilt-ridden as ever. What you have done is spilled all of your deepest darkest secrets to these creepy monsters and don’t even know you have done so. So you turn around and confess again. Only to forget yet again. And the cycle continues ad nauseam. In the meantime the Silents could sell the information they glean to the highest bidder. Blackmail anyone? I wonder if the Bloody Queen Liz 10 had these guys created; she’s big on the forgetting-you-did-something-dreadfully-important front.
The story is a muddle calling for all sorts of suspension of disbelief and leaps of faith. But even though I can’t commit to it, I can enjoy it for the lighthearted romp of an SNL ride that it is.
Daleks, Cybermen, Slitheen, Silurians, Judoon, Sontarans, etc are all convened in one spot; one time and space. All of this fire power and they are being held at bay by the shield put in place by the Papal Mainframe. So where was this shield during the Time War? But whatever; the Doctor slips through with the aid of Tasha Lem, the Mother Superious, and single handedly fends off all attacks for hundreds of years from an assortment of Daleks, Cybermen, Weeping Angels etc. As the centuries drag by he gets relief from the Clerics, and together they turn Trenzalore into a war zone in defense of Christmas.
Now all of these various and sundry Doctor Who foes have shown up at this far flung spot at this ambiguous time in response to a mysterious message that has been broadcasting through all of time and space since the beginning of the universe. None of them can explain what the message is or why they have responded other than an all-pervading sense of terror. Frightened Daleks and Cybermen et al. Scared of the unknown. Monsters under the bed. Shadows in the night. And they have all arrived at this one spot because that is the source of the message. But why this time? What time is it, by the way? Must be in the distant future; must at least be after the 52nd Century when all of the Demon’s Run events went down, although it is Christmas 2013 or there about Earth time when the Doctor first gets the message. Who knows when the Daleks etc first heard the cry. If it has been echoing out through all of time and space, I can only wonder why the Doctor never heeded its call before. Why wasn’t this ubiquitous question heard loud and clear reverberating throughout that Crack of a season?
And here’s something—apparently The Silence is responsible for Everything. They exploded the TARDIS that led to the Crack; that led to the Pandorica; that led to Demon’s Run; that led to Lake Silencio; that led to the collapsing universe; that led to the inane Question; that led to just about every bad thing that has happened in the Doctor Who universe for the past few seasons, up to and including our present predicament. So here’s an idea: Unscheduled Faith Change—from this point on why not dedicate the church to the destruction of the Kovarian Chapter in the most convoluted way possible? Perhaps this new chapter could create its own fixed point at the Sea of Tranquility. And just to distinguish their team from Eye Patch Lady’s they can send in their psycho killer dressed in a Soviet space suit.
But alas, none of this is to be. Instead the church dedicates itself to aiding the Doctor in defending Trenzalore (even though the members have been turned into Dalek puppets, but oh well, let’s forget about that).
So now I begin to wonder why it wouldn’t be a good thing to let the Time Lords through to aid in the cause. The Daleks are concentrated in one spot; let the Time Lords through; sneak attack; dead Daleks.
This is where the vagaries of the Time War enter in. The Time Lords are let through and the Time War continues throughout time and space? Is that the fear? Except—without the Time Lords the Daleks are free to roam about all of time and space leaving devastation in their wake. Presumably this is what prompted the Time Lords to action to begin with.  But then the Time Lords became as corrupt and evil as the Daleks? Or maybe just the High Council? Are there Time Lords that are good but caught up in the battle? What of all those children that were of such concern in The Day of the Doctor? The General and Androgar in the War Room on Gallifrey seem to be decent guys; just soldiers doing their darnedest to defeat the Ultimate Evil. And the Doctor seems exuberant at the thought that the Time Lords are saved, even if in some frozen moment of a pocket universe. So what exactly is the fear if the Time Lords are freed?  And again we are left with the vagaries of the Time War.
And then there is this truth field to deal with. The Doctor and Clara discover the realities of this phenomena when they are compelled to answer awkward questions they would rather not. But the Ultimate Question, the Question that has been seeping through The Crack since the dawn of time, the Question that everyone is so dedicated to keeping from being answered, the Question that haunts and that frightens and that has shaped intergalactic history—That Question can be ignored by the Doctor for hundreds of years as he sits and whittles and zaps a Weeping Angel or two despite the best efforts of the truth field.
As for the Question: Doctor Who? The Time Lords are waiting patiently in their frozen bubble; waiting for the Doctor to provide his name so that they know it is safe to come out and play. They have these Cracks that they can traverse at will, we are to believe, but they won’t until they get the Word from the Doctor. So the Doctor figures this out and sits with his ear to the Crack for hundreds of years and says nothing to it. He knows his long lost and beloved race is there hanging on his every word; yet he says nothing to them. He formulates no plan; he brokers no peace. He sits; he waits; he dispatches a wooden Cyberman; he makes friendly with the locals; he does battle with the Daleks. But he remains Silent.
Along comes Clara to have a chat with the Crack. “It’s time someone told you you’ve been getting it wrong.” Thank you, Clara. “His name . . . his name is the Doctor.” Well, duh. What more do you need? What more do the Time Lords need? After all of these hundreds of years they don’t know that it is the Doctor on the other end of their Crack line of communication? And they never tried to converse and ask some relevant questions? Ditto the Doctor?
Speaking of communication—why doesn’t the Doctor understand the initial message if it is in Gallifreyan? And if it is in some weird Gallifreyan code that the Doctor can’t recognize, why did the Time Lords use this ancient and weird and untranslatable language for their most important communiqué? Why even ask the question if they know no one, including the intended recipient, would be able to comprehend it? And if a Cyber head can translate it, why can’t the Cybermen?
And then after all of these hundreds of years the Time Lords decide that this is indeed the Doctor, because Clara says so, and rather than bursting free of their bubble they send through a new regeneration cycle for the Doctor and then close up the Crack, seemingly for good. Now wait a minute—can the Time Lords control these Cracks? It appears as though they open one up in the sky and close it again. Have they been in charge of them all along? All through that Crack of a season? Or is it just for the convenience of this story? Or did the Crack fortuitously open of its own accord right when the Doctor and the Time Lords needed it most?
And please tell me how the Doctor getting a whole new regeneration cycle solves the standoff at Trenzalore? The Daleks et al decide after hundreds of years that they don’t want to go on with this endless battle through another thirteen generations of the Doctor so they give up and go home? Or is it because the Time Lords have decided after hundreds of years to stop transmitting their message? In which case, why didn’t the Doctor simply tell them on Day 1: ‘Sorry guys, it’s not safe out there and you’re drawing attention to yourselves. Why not be quiet for a while until things settle down and I’ll sneak back in the TARDIS in a millennia or two and whisper the all clear?’

OK, I know his regen energy blows the Daleks out of the Christmas sky (sheesh, talk about genocide), but really, we all know there are plenty of Daleks to go around. Where one burns twenty come to take its place.
Seems to me that the bad guys won here. The Daleks and company are free to go about their merry way sowing death and destruction across the universe. At least there must have been hundreds of years of universal peace while all of these deadly foes concentrated their forces at Trenzalore.
But you know, Gary, even though the story falls apart on the whole, the individual bits shine and I find I don’t really mind the inanity so much. Take the Papal Mainframe for instance. As an entity it is ridiculous. It is sprung at us with no historical context and we are left scratching our heads as to where this almighty church has been hiding all of these years. Why, I wonder, didn’t it intervene during the Pandorica buildup of forces (as just one example)? I’ve already expressed my contempt of the Silents as Confessional Priests. As for Tasha Lem, I’m getting rather annoyed with this casual Lothario side of the Doctor. Having said all that, however, the Mainframe is impressive in its grand scale and fits into the story, the Silents provide some comic relief, and Orla Brady as Tasha is fascinating.
The town of Christmas is quaint; the wooden Cyberman is cool; the aging Doctor is touching; Handles is comical; Barnable is adorable; Gran is both funny and poignant (and great to re-visit Etta from Vengeance on Varos); cooking turkey in the TARDIS is terrific; naked Doctor is madcap; the not-so-invisible Sontaran comedy duo is hilarious (until they’re blown up); the return of Amelia and Amy is moving (although Amy is creepy and Amelia is fake—I guess they took a page from Ed Wood’s ‘Bela/Not Bela’ book).
This is one Doctor Who in which the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
Culminating in the regeneration. Peter Capaldi.
I look forward, Gary; traveling as the Doctor would, ever in hope . . .

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Day of the Doctor

Dear Gary—
“Am I having a midlife crisis?”
Happy 50th Doctor Who. The Day of the Doctor is the perfect way to celebrate.
I know The Day of the Doctor is good when Billie Piper shows up and she’s not playing Rose. This deserves three well earned rounds of applause. The first round is for the show runners who brought Billie Piper back for this fiftieth anniversary gala. Regardless of how I feel about Rose, Billie Piper played a major part in the early success of the new series and she deserves to be represented in this milestone episode. The second round is for Steven Moffat for opting to cast Billie not as Rose but as the Bad Wolf persona of the Moment’s sentient interface. My final and biggest round is reserved for the actress herself who does a marvelous job. She easily could have reverted to the comfortable façade of Rose but instead she carves out a compelling new character who works remarkably well with the veteran John Hurt.
John Hurt, David Tennant, and Matt Smith—three more deserving rounds of applause. These three are reminiscent of that first anniversary pairing of a Doctor threesome, the venerable William Hartnell as the First Doctor and his two successors, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee as Doctors Two and Three in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors. The advantage of The Day of the Doctor is that John Hurt, the “granddad” and youngest of our trio, is not confined as the ailing William Hartnell had been. Our present three Doctors get to fully interact throughout and the results are amazing.
Before getting together, however, each Doctor has his solo screen time; and again I have a loud round of applause for Steven Moffat for developing interesting narratives for each Doctor that come together seamlessly into a single entertaining plotline while sprinkling in liberal doses of nostalgia.
Oh, there are a few bumps along the way and a couple nagging questions that any Doctor Who inevitably has, but so what? The sign of a good Doctor Who is that you can overlook any and all such warts.
The good will starts with the original title sequence and opening theme segueing from the monochrome past into the living color present Coal Hill School at which Clara teaches and for which Ian Chesterton serves as Chairman of the Governors, and just around the corner from the I.M. Foreman Totter’s Lane scrap yard. A brilliant mix of old and new in such a few seconds; and this amalgamation continues expertly throughout. It is not merely the Classic and New Who; add in past New Who and present New Who; it all gets thrown into the blender and comes out a winner.
UNIT, Zygons, and the Time War drive our three strands of story, and it is all kicked off  with the bang of a high flying TARDIS. Time Lord art, Queen Elizabeth I and a fez (“Someday, you could just walk past a fez.”) further entwine the threads, and they all lead to our three Doctors meeting in the middle.
“Well, who are you boys? Oh, of course. Are you his companions?”  John Hurt as the Warrior Doctor is spectacular as he confronts the older yet younger versions of himself.  Equal to the task are David Tennant and Matt Smith as Doctors Ten and Eleven. I’ll probably run out of superlatives before I’m through.
My biggest praise, though, I’ll reserve for Steven Moffat for a script that gets it right. Any good Doctor Who demands that the actors treat the material seriously, but the material itself—the script, the effects, the production—should not overwhelm the narrative. So often New Who weighs itself down by taking itself too seriously; it becomes heavy with self reverence; it’s a ‘look at me’ mentality that turns the show into spectacle. The Day of the Doctor, however, reverses this trend by poking holes in the bloated self-image of the series.
The character of the Warrior Doctor is great at calling Doctor Who out. One of my favorites is the jab at the magic sonic: “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols.”  Doctor Ten gets in the act as well with the following exchange.
Eleven: “It’s a timey-wimey thing.”
Warrior: “Timey what? Timey-wimey?”
Ten: “I’ve no idea where he picks that stuff up.”
A brilliant send-up, but it is given greater meaning when the Warrior Doctor delivers this line later in the episode: “Do you have to talk like children? What is it that makes you so ashamed of being grown up?”
It takes me back, Gary, to a point I made recently about New Who trying to appeal to the kids in adults rather than to the grown-up intelligence of children. And it ties in with the blessing and curse of a Time War with which New Who saddled itself. Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor is closer to the Warrior Doctor in both timeline and mentality, and I can almost imagine him delivering those same lines. But he was transitional and he had Rose to indulge his immaturity as a means to obliterate his dark past. Ten and Eleven have had plenty of opportunity to further distance themselves from depressing reality; to become “the man who regrets and the man who forgets.”
The Time War has shaped the show and the Doctor from the first airing of Rose. The Day of the Doctor finally confronts the Doctor and the show with that truth. Rather than turning it into a black hole of angst it uses this moment to reflect and grow. Along the way it delivers an entertaining story and exciting adventure. This is the heights to which New Who could and should strive but so often doesn’t.
The Zygons, displaced by the Time War, end up in 1562 where they encounter Doctor Ten and Queen Elizabeth I. Utilizing Time Lord art technology they invade present day London where Doctor Eleven is consulting with Kate Stewart of UNIT. Meanwhile, the Warrior Doctor, in his darkest hour, is contemplating the destruction of not only the Dalek fleet but his own planet and race in order to bring about universal peace. The Bad Wolf Rose interface persona of The Moment (the ultimate weapon the Warrior Doctor is considering using) opens a window into his future in order for the Warrior Doctor to make a better informed decision. Doctor Eleven joins Doctor Ten in 1562, as does the Warrior Doctor. Together they bring about a peaceable solution to the Zygon invasion as well as brainstorming an alternative to the non-fixed-point-apparently ending to the Time War. All of this fleshed out with not only the three Doctors, but by Clara, Kate Stewart, Queen Elizabeth I, Bad Wolf, and Osgood; embellished with humor; adorned with self-parody; and accented with nostalgia.
There are too many highlights to single out: “We’re confusing the polarity.” “Nice scarf.” “Fez incoming!” The photo board of companions.  “I’m the Doctor. I’m 904 years old. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I am the Oncoming Storm, the Bringer of Darkness . . . and you are basically just a rabbit, aren’t you?” Malcolm—Malcolm! Sandshoes. “This is what I’m like when I’m alone.” “It wasn’t locked.” “I love the round things.” “Oh, you’ve redecorated; I don’t like it.” " I don't want to go." Too, too many.
The Zygon resolution is a little rushed but ultimately unimportant. It is the impact this scenario has on the Doctor in his Moment that matters.
“All things considered , it’s time I grew up,” Warrior Doctor says as he makes up his mind. John Hurt, the Warrior Doctor. “You were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.” But he does get it right. John Hurt, the Warrior Doctor. This is the Doctor I can picture turning into the Ninth, Christopher Eccleston. This is the Doctor I can sense haunting the Ninth throughout his tenure. This is the Doctor I can see lurking behind the stories as the Tenth sits down to tell them to Martha in the undercity of New Earth. This is the Doctor I imagine the Eleventh denies.
But he has had four hundred years to think and to grow, and Warrior Doctor is no longer alone. Ten and Eleven, at the prodding of Clara, arrive to stand by Warrior Doctor’s side. The story very well could have ended with the three pushing the “big red button” together (reminiscent of Donna and Doctor Ten in The Fires of Pompeii). That would have been a satisfying conclusion. However the show opts for a more optimistic ending, and I can’t fault it for that. On this grand and glorious 50th Anniversary it is fitting that Doctor Eleven, again at the prompting of Clara, decides that there is another way. And how grand and glorious and fitting that “all twelve of them!”—“no sir, all thirteen!”—combine in the effort.
“And for my next trick . . .” Gallifrey is gone; preserved; frozen in a moment of time. The technology of Time Lord “cup-of-soup” art once again coming into play. “Gallifrey Falls No More.”
This timey-wimey historical re-write gets it right. It preserves the integrity of all the episodes that have come before with a simple, “I won’t remember this, will I?” and a typical Doctor Who explanation of, “the time streams are out of sync.” Only Eleven and his successors will know the truth; leaving open possibilities for the future.
To top everything off, though, is a surprise that propels The Day of the Doctor easily into contention for best episode honors. Tom Baker—I don’t even have to say anything more.
And so on a joyous note I send this out, Gary; hoping it finds you where you’ve always been going, on your way . . .
“home . . . the long way round.”

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Night of the Doctor

Dear Gary—
“I’m not injured; I’m crashing. I don’t need a doctor.”
I usually don’t write about the mini-episodes, but The Night of the Doctor is not only brilliant it is almost essential viewing prior to The Day of the Doctor.
Cass, a fighter pilot in the middle of the infamous Time War utters those lines as cited above; but it could be the Doctor Who universe speaking. The brief minutes of The Night of the Doctor manage to bridge deep chasms and answer numerous questions within that universe, and it does so in most elegant fashion.
The enigmatic Ninth Doctor emerges from the TARDIS in Rose with deep angst, and only slowly do we get pieces of his dark history and the tragedy of the Time Lords. At the end of The Name of the Doctor we are introduced to the mysterious non-Doctor persona of the Doctor. In Night we get the transitional tale explaining the creation of this inscrutable character as well as finally getting closure on the Eight Doctor.
The linchpin making all of this work is Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor. Paul McGann is the best thing, possibly the only good thing, about Doctor Who the TV Movie. It is wonderful to see more of him as the Doctor. Even in these fleeting moments of screen time Paul McGann is the Doctor.
The story starts out in typical Doctor Who fashion with the Doctor materializing in the midst of danger to save the day. Cass is crashing and there is no hope. The Doctor arrives and leads her to safety; leads her to the TARDIS. Except to Cass the TARDIS is not a symbol of hope and the Doctor is not her savior.
“You’re a Time Lord,” she accuses as she turns from him in contempt.
This is what the Time War has wrought.
Rather than leave without her, the Doctor crashes along with Cass on the planet of Karn where the Sisterhood awaits. I always wondered if the Sisterhood of Karn with their Elixir of Life would make a reappearance. They once saved the Fourth Doctor (The Brain of Morbius), and now they again stand ready with their potion to bring him back from the dead and to trigger his regeneration.
The little we get of McGann shows glimmers of that Fourth Doctor. “Four minutes?” he considers when he learns that is all of life he has left. “That’s ages. What if I get bored, or need a television, couple of books? Anyone for chess? Bring me knitting.” And then when he realizes where he is and with whom: “You’re the Sisterhood of Karn, Keepers of the Flame of utter boredom.” Yes, he comfortably inhabits the Doctor.
 “It’s not my war; I will have no part of it,” he tells Ohila as she urges him to put an end to the Time War. “I help where I can. I will not fight,” he adds. Paul McGann’s delivery of these simple lines expresses the overwhelming weariness that weighs upon him. But standing before the dead body of the woman who refused his help and with the words of Ohila ringing in his ears, the Doctor can no longer ignore the screaming universe: “I’m not injured; I’m crashing. I don’t need a doctor.”
“Make me a warrior now,” he says as he resigns himself to the inevitable. Calling upon his companions of the past, he drinks the potion.
“Doctor no more.”
A very young looking John Hurt stares back in reflection and we're ready for the battle ahead.
So much is told in these few minutes, Gary. Paul McGann very well could have rivaled Tom Baker in my heart given enough time and given the right production team.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Name of the Doctor

Dear Gary—
Probable Girl meet Rumpelstiltskin; at long last; and almost as insubstantial as I expected. However I can enjoy it on the inconsequentially entertaining level that it is.
“I don’t know where I am.” It’s a nice echo from Clara’s first story. When the Doctor first met Clara she had been uploaded into the Great Intelligence’s World Wide Web; now both she and the Great Intelligence upload themselves into the Doctor’s time stream.
It’s very amusing. I know it is done with great gravitas and dramatic effect, but it is not substantiated in any way. We are told that the Great Intelligence has jumped into the Doctor’s time stream and that this has killed him (the GI), but not before he has had the time and the ability to consciously alter the Doctor’s time line and effectively kill the Doctor over and over again in each iteration of his being. We don’t see any of this and are not offered any explanations as to how this is accomplished; we are simply to take this on faith. Likewise, we are to believe that Clara jumping in after the GI doesn’t kill her but allows her to deliberately follow after each shard of the GI that exists within that time stream and successfully thwart his every move. That is several seasons’ worth of storytelling right there, but we don’t even get a cliff notes version.
What we do get is a whirlwind of Doctor images flashing past a very That Girl looking Clara. (In fact, I wouldn’t doubt that Clara took the opportunity to be Marlo Thomas as one of her many personas inside the Doctor’s time stream.) It’s great to see the mixture of original footage and body doubles of the Doctor that whiz by in our magical mystery tour. Not for a minute do I consider that any of this compromises the long and rich history of the Doctor. Not for a minute do I wonder why I never saw a glimpse of the Probable Girl during my slow path of Doctor Who viewing. Not for a minute do I think that Clara’s interference diminishes the many accomplishments of the Doctor. Because not for a minute do I believe any of this. This is just some more Matrix tampering. I almost expect to see the action stopped mid stream to witness the Time Lords swirling around in their theater chairs to listen to a rant by the Valeyard before they turn their attention back to the screen.
If I were to stop for one minute and accept this tale as Doctor Who fact, then I would have to scratch my head at the paradox of it all. How, I would wonder, did the Doctor meet splinters of this Probable Girl before she even considered turning herself into Clara confetti? It’s timey wimey. OK. But the events of The Dalek Asylum and The Snowmen would have originally gone down very differently without the Clara flakes floating about. Yet the Doctor only knows those versions even before they were created by the Clara/GI Soufflé. It is because he knows those versions and therefore knows Clara that he travels with her to begin with and ends up at his graveside with the irritated GI on his tail.
Oh, but timey wimey. It has all been changed. Changed and re-changed. The Doctor has been rebooted. There is the original, the GI tainted, and the Clara restart. Timey Wimey.
No, I just don’t buy it.
But I can skim along the surface of the story and enjoy it.
Any episode featuring the Victorian detectives is bound to be fun, no matter how gratuitous they are. Strax alone provides tons of comic relief. Add in a return of River Song and the entertainment value rises even higher. The comatose conference call is cool, although the changing desktop bit is wearing a bit thin. I’m not really sure what the purpose of the call is either. Like so much of New Who these days, we don’t get much background information. We don’t know who this Clarence guy is or what his connection is to Vastra or why she would listen to him or how she would be able to save him from execution. He mumbles a few cryptic lines concerning the Doctor, and rather than contacting the Doctor directly Vastra and Jenny call on Strax, Clara, and River to ponder on the mysterious message: “The Doctor has a secret, you know. He has one he will take to the grave. And it is discovered.”
They accomplish nothing during this telepathic teleconference other than to assemble the guest cast together and set up the plot elements. But it is one of the highlights of the episode and greatly amusing. And while it seems most irresponsible of Jenny to have left their door unlocked, her realization that they are being invaded and that she has been murdered is very effective and moving.
I’m not so sure about the Whisper Men, however. These Silent wannabes are sprung on us out of thin air; and while creepy, they have no context. We don’t know where they come from, what their motive is, or what powers they possess. For some reason they are working for the Great Intelligence, who for some reason has an all-consuming hatred of the Doctor. For some even more inexplicable reason, the Whisper Men whisper their secret secrets to Clarence who whispers them to Vastra who telewhispers them to Strax, River, and Clara. I’m not really sure why this telephone chain game was started. It’s all to get them and the Doctor to Trenzalore, but there surely has to be a less convoluted and more certain way of doing this. But then it wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining for the audience.
The audience isn’t supposed to question any of this, of course. I’m sorry, Gary. I can’t help asking questions. Like why are Jenny, Strax, and Vastra powerless against the Whisper Men? This goes back to my previous questions about the Whisper Men. This trio has fought many an adversary. What is special about the Whisper Men? And why are our heroes unarmed? This would be a perfect time for Strax to whip out one of his grenades that he loves to mention. The Whisper Men also appear to be unarmed. Some of Jenny’s hand to hand combat experience would come in handy. But the Whisper Men prove to have miraculous powers to mend themselves cartoon like. It’s all very convenient and unlikely.
Next I wonder about the GI. Why is he doing this? He wants revenge against the Doctor. Stand in line. But OK, he wants revenge. He has an unreasoning, blind hatred that drives him to suicide just to accomplish his goal of re-writing the Doctor’s life. Now this guy obviously has the power to travel through time and space in the blink of an eye as well as to transport others against their will. Couldn’t he just as easily hop scotch his way through the Doctor’s life undoing his deeds without the aid of the Doctor’s dying time line and without destroying himself in the process? Of course he could. But then we wouldn’t have a story. And we wouldn’t have Probable Girl jumping in after the GI and we wouldn’t have this seasonal arc—and oh, Gary, I wish we could watch that season that wasn’t.
The more I think about it the less impressed I am. It’s a fun watch but that’s about it. And ultimately it’s another cheat. Another re-write of history. Oh—I guess it’s appropriate in that case that River makes an appearance. She’s all for re-writing history. The tender parting between her and the Doctor is well done. It is a shame, though, that the story is short-handed. The GI, the Whisper Men, the time altering lifetimes crammed into montage. It all seems just an excuse to wrap up some loose ends and get some cool ideas on camera. We’re given a huge framework with very few details to fill it in.
And the whole leaf thing is . . . oh, I don’t even want to dignify.
But then we get to the real reason we were all brought here—and it almost makes everything worthwhile.
“John Hurt as the Doctor.”
Doctor: “He is my secret.”
This was worth waiting for.
Doctor (not): “What I did, I did without choice.”
Doctor: “I know.”
Doctor (not): “In the name of peace and sanity.”
And here it is; here is what rips the Rumpelstiltskin out of the dreary long ‘Doctor Who?’ inanity of an arc and turns it on its head . . .
Doctor: “But not in the name of the Doctor.”
That is a punch line I can appreciate, Gary.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Nightmare in Silver

Dear Gary—
It’s just so wrong. Nightmare in Silver is wrong. And it could be so right. The elements are in place but they are not utilized. Everything is shortcut and convenient and obvious. It is lazy and shoddy. I am speaking about New Who in general, with Nightmare in Silver being my focus for this troubling pattern.
Let’s start with location. At long last we are on an alien planet. As Doctor number nine would say: “Fantastic.” Not just an alien planet, but an alien planet with “the biggest and best amusement park there will ever be.” Only to quickly learn that the park is out of business and abandoned. That’s OK, though. Abandoned amusement parks are rife with all kinds of possibilities. Then Webley shows up and leads us to “Webley’s World of Wonders. Miracles, marvels, and more await you.” This, too, makes the imagination reel. However, not one spark of creativity emerges from this wonderland of opportunity.
My mind wanders back, Gary, to two subpar Doctor Who stories from the Classic years. The first is The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.  This fails on many levels, but at least it exploits the circus element to full extent. Next I think of one of my least favorite episodes of all time, the deadly dull and boring The Web Planet with its bouncy castle web of intrigue. At least that serial had some originality, even if it did fall flat for the most part. But I think I would rather bounce around with Vicki in that stagnant story than spend the oh so brief moments of Spacy Zoomer microgravity with Angie and Artie.
Angie and Artie. It is easy to blame the failure of Nightmare in Silver on Angie and Artie. More so Angie. Artie is OK in a generic kid kind of way. Angie, on the other hand, is obnoxious and irritating, in a generic kid kind of way. Capital Generic, capital Kid. Two more convenient and shortcut characters are not to be found than Angie and Artie. They are the cardboard cutout charges of Clara, for whom she clearly has no affection and in whom she clearly has no interest, and vice versa. Angie rivals Peri in the high maintenance category. At least Peri took an occasional interest in the marvels of the universe the Doctor showed her.
No matter how generic or irritating, Angie and Artie are Clara’s responsibility, and she (and the Doctor) show the highest irresponsibility in nonchalantly whisking these two minors off into the most dangerous of situations for no good or clearly defined reason. The previous story ended with the two brats blackmailing Clara with pictures of her in impossibly historic settings. So what? (I won’t get started in on the whole ‘the Doctor is erased from history but pictures of him exist on the internet for any child to find when it is most convenient’ rant.) What has she to lose? Her standing as a nanny? What even does she have to explain? That she has look-alikes, possibly ancestors, who once lived and had photographs taken of themselves? Neither she nor the Doctor has anything to fear from these children or from the random photos found on the worldwide web. So why exactly do they cave and take the ungrateful little monsters anywhere, much less into danger?
Which leads me to a Rory reminiscence. I don’t remember the story and don’t care enough to research it, but at one point Rory condemns the Doctor with a ‘why don’t you read your history books’ accusation when the Doctor leads Amy and Rory into a dangerous situation of the future. So why didn’t the Doctor learn his lesson and look before he leaped onto this planet that he promised would be nothing but fun but turns out to be nothing but danger? Especially with two kids in tow (even if they are obnoxious brats). As soon as he sensed something amiss he should have taken the two out of harm’s way. He has a time and space machine; he has the TARDIS; he could have dropped them safely home and returned in time to save the day. At the very least he could have deposited them in the TARDIS to ride it out. But no, he places them in a stranger’s hands (Webley’s) and tells them, “don’t wander off.” As if that’s an option.
Webley and the kids are sacrificial lambs on the altar of New Who. They serve no purpose other than to give the Doctor something to fight for. Webley in particular is disposable; nobody cares about poor half-cyborg-converted Webley once his job of luring the kids is done. Poor wibley wobley Webely. He could have been so much more.
But the true creativity killer in Nightmare in Silver is the titular monster of the piece. These Cybermen are supposedly a mash-up of the Classic and the New Who races, Mondasian and Lumician. What they are really is a totally new and impossibly powerful creature that only resembles Cybermen in outward appearance. These Cybermen can do anything; overcome any difficulty; counteract any weapon. They simply “upgrade” themselves by the magic power of the author’s pen.
This is the same problem that I find with the Weeping Angels in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone. An omnipotent, omniscient foe that can do anything on the writer’s whim isn’t scary. It’s boring. The only options open to our protagonists are to die, run away, and/or wait for the miracle lurking in the script to save them.
In Nightmare in Silver the answer is laughably inexcusable. Throughout the story the Doctor and Clara run around telling everyone, ‘don’t blow up the planet, don’t blow up the planet, whatever you do don’t blow up the planet,’ until the last minute when they change their minds and: ‘uh oh, better blow up the planet.’ But darn the luck, the only person who can voice activate the bomb is dead and the remote control device is destroyed. Wait a minute—Porridge was the Emperor all along! He can save the day. All he has to do is click his heels three times. And just when you think the Doctor and Clara and the Emperor and the odd lot troops will be blown up along with the army of Cybermen, a magic transport system teleports them all off planet and safely into the Emperor’s throne room, even allowing enough time for the Doctor to make a special request for the deliverance of his TARDIS. Voila. One stroke of the mighty pen and it’s all over.
So why didn’t they do that to start with and save all of the trouble and the deaths? It was so simple and effective. But then we wouldn’t have an excuse for the Doctor and Clara to do what they do best, which is to be Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman.
As far as I can see, this entire story is an excuse to let Matt Smith uncork a rollicking performance as the Cyber-Planner/Doctor split personality. This is indeed an entertaining shtick that almost makes the uselessness of the narrative worthwhile, and I might not complain at all if half of the dueling ego wasn’t supposedly a Cyberman. The one element that truly makes the Cybermen scary is that they have eliminated all emotion. Yet the Cyber-Planner half of the Doctor is brimming with charismatic individuality. The best way to tell when C-P has control vs. the Doctor is when he is the most vibrant. “I could call myself Mister Clever,” he gloats, and then adds most uncharacteristically for a Cyberman, “Oh this is just dreamy.” His attempted seduction of Clara is another give-away that this is no Cyberman, and again only an excuse to let the Doctor deliver this line to Clara: “You’re too short and bossy, and your nose is all funny.” It’s an amusing skit inserted into the framework of a makeshift plot.
Jenna-Louise Coleman, too, is enjoyable to watch as she plays at being Clara. Her brave and resourceful and take-charge personality is delivered expertly and I almost forget what a negligent nanny she is. That’s it, though. She has this job on paper, it says so in the script, but it isn’t developed any further than that. There is no feeling behind it. She could just as easily be a waitress or a doctor or an executive. The kids are merely a McGuffin. This lack of depth is enhanced when the Emperor proposes to her at the end of the day. He throws a few shy glances her way during the course of the tale, but they have no meaningful interactions that would lead one to believe that he has fallen in love with her. Her rejection and his acceptance of her rejection are devoid of any real sentiment.  
It is ironic that in a story about Cybermen it is the Cybermen who exhibit the most emotion. It is also indicative of this trend of the show to make things up as it goes along; to make things up and then to forget them when convenient; to make things up and then to ignore them; to make things up and then reinvent them. There is no consistency. And so the Doctor can erase himself from history but two school kids can find pictures of him on the internet.
It is lazy and it is shoddy. And ultimately it is boring when you know that the show can do anything it wants with no restraint.
Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman keep me on this slow path, Gary. It is certainly not this Probable Girl “mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight,” of an arc.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Crimson Horror

Dear Gary—
Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are becoming semi-regulars lately; that’s fine with me because they are always entertaining and The Crimson Horror is a fun 45 minutes. It is curious that the Doctor and Clara would travel to 1893 and not visit the trio; and it is extremely coincidental that the brother of one of Mrs. Gillyflower’s victims would first think to take a photograph of his dead brother’s eye, next have it capture the image of the Doctor, and finally take this optogram to Vastra. But then we wouldn’t have a story without the happenstance.
The first third of the tale is taken up by our out-of-this-world detectives, with Vastra taking firm command, Strax providing comic relief, and Jenny assuming the bulk of the action as she infiltrates Mrs. Gillyflower’s utopian community of Sweetville. It is a quaint little Victorian mystery in the making. When Jenny finds a red-encrusted Doctor chained up behind a locked door in the match factory things take an interesting turn.
The flashback sequence detailing how the Doctor and Clara came to be at Sweetville is inventive and amusing.  (“Brave heart”—gotta love it!) The process of returning the Doctor to flesh and blood is glossed over but forgivable, and it is always welcome to have Matt Smith back and unencumbered. Keeping the back half from devolving into trite sci fi fare are Diana Rigg and more especially her daughter Rachael Stirling as fictional mother and daughter Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada. These two lend depth and humanity to the narrative.
Mrs. Gillyflower would be a typical shrieking, cackling villainess if it were not for Ada. The cold-hearted calculation of a mother willing to sacrifice her only child for her own glory and ambition is chilling, and the wrath of Ada when she discovers her mother’s duplicity is gripping. Even the Doctor is taken aback at Ada’s ferocity.
As usual, it is the acting that sells the story and the humor that saves it. Stripped bare of these it is a humdrum mash up of genres and clichés. Bodies found floating in the canal; fire and brimstone preachers; mysterious walled compounds where people enter and never leave; alien creatures masterminding humanity’s downfall; rockets ready to rain down destruction upon all.
And as usual, Gary, it is the acting and humor I have to hold on to; skimming the surface rather than diving too deep. Because when I start thinking . . .
 “Oh great. Great. Attack of the super models.” Your standard issue generic minions of your comic book super villain. Your shorthand short cut that I suppose given time constraints is understandable, but I start to wonder why these non-people are serving Mrs. Gillyflower and whatever becomes of them in the end. They’re not important; they’re backdrop. But oh what at least one good Packer quality sidekick could do for this story.
These nonentities only start me thinking about the more important background characters who are overlooked—the victims. The red bodies in the canal and Effie and Edmund to start us out are one thing, but what of all of those preserved under glass? I see that the Doctor goes to great lengths to restore Clara, but what about the guy she was sharing a jar with? He’s unimportant, nameless, and above all unknown to the Doctor. Why bother saving him? Much less the countless others pickled and preserved by Mrs. Gillyflower. Lately the Doctor doesn’t have much interest in rescuing anyone unless they are near and dear to him.
This now leads me to Clara. Clara under glass. Pickled and preserved Clara. Picture perfect Clara. She is a bit of a super model herself. A generic companion. Jenna-Louise Coleman has done wonders in breathing life into the character, but when you start mining below the acting and the humor there isn’t much there. I still have no real handle on Clara. Why is she traveling with the Doctor?
The Tegan reference from earlier really starts me thinking. Tegan wandered on board the TARDIS and this “gobby Australian” spent much of her time haranguing the Doctor to get her back to Heathrow. It was only after long journeys that she finally decided she wouldn’t mind tagging along with the Doctor after all; and in the end it became too much for her to stomach and she left. Many other companions were either hijacked or stranded and had no choice but to travel with the Doctor. Some, like Jo, spent much of their time with him on Earth and only went along on space adventures with some reluctance. Then there is Peri who demanded a guided tour of the universe and complained of boredom the entire time.
Next we get into the modern era and a string of giddy females with overactive libidos, Donna being the exception. Clara has a hint of the puppy dog eyes but not overly so; not enough to warrant her trailing after the Doctor. She is brave and spunky and craves adventure, yet she doesn’t particularly strike me as a daredevil; at least not of the gritty, hard core nature required to participate in some of the Doctor’s exploits; and not on the casual, ‘see you next Wednesday’ level.
Clara is a character under glass. She is let out each episode to deliver her lines, some of which are quite good, and to come up with ideas, some of which are quite good, and to interact with the Doctor, but then she is bottled up again in wait for the next adventure. She has no true independent identity. The production team really lucked out in the actress they chose to portray this probable girl.
My final thoughts are saved for Ada and the Doctor. Ada is played for sympathy. Poor blind Ada, experimented on and lied to by her mother. Lonely Ada who befriends her ‘Monster,’ the Doctor. Righteously indignant Ada who shows no mercy to her mother and takes vengeance on Mr. Sweet. The Doctor takes a fond farewell of the newly freed Ada as she declares, “It’s time I stepped out of the darkness and into the light.”
The thing is, she was in the darkness. She was complicit in her mother’s schemes. She aided and abetted in the kidnappings and poisonings. She dumped the dead and rejected bodies into the canal. She only took pity on the ‘monster’ Doctor and chained him in a room and kept him as her pet. It was only after her mother told her there was no room for her in Paradise and after she learned it was her mother and not her father who disfigured her that she turned her back on the Gillyflower plan.
But the Doctor has taken a shine to her, and true to this disturbing new trend of the Doctor’s, anyone he likes is absolved of all manner of atrocities (Liz Ten anyone?).
Finally we have the tacked on ending in which Clara's two charges have discovered historical photos of her and the Doctor. Now I have to wonder how it is that the Daleks and Cybermen and the like continue to remark that the Doctor is erased from history when two Earthling school kids can find photos of him on the internet. I don't want to get too much more into this . . . please don't get me started.
I really do like this episode, Gary, as long as I stick to the superficial. After all, that does seem to be the way of New Who . . .
I wonder, Gary, if you would have remained a fan; and I wonder if you would even take any note of these latest entries of mine . . .
But I trudge on, ever in hope as that long ago Doctor we both fell in love with would . . .