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 . . .
 

 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Dear Gary—
I hate cheat stories. Doctor Who has flirted with these before. Last of the Time Lords comes readily to mind, but at least that previous story has some entertainment value. I can’t say the same for Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. I do not want to spend any more time with the Van Baalen brothers than I have to, and as it turns out, I didn’t have to spend any time with them. However I am forced to sit through these meaningless 45 minutes. The Doctor and Clara can undo their time spent with this deplorable salvage team, but not the audience. Journey continues to exist as an episode even though the events never happened. No matter how much they try to cute it up with the “Big Friendly Button” it remains an unpalatable cheat.
To begin, the Doctor lets the TARDIS’ defenses down and the Van Baalen brothers drag it on board their own ship. The indestructible TARDIS is suddenly vulnerable and dying. The Doctor has somehow been thrown clear of the wreckage while Clara remains inside and trapped. Now the Doctor does something uncharacteristic: he forces the brothers to accompany him into the TARDIS. He really doesn’t need them to find Clara; he is just letting trouble in; and that is exactly what he gets. Once inside, the Doctor doesn’t even keep a very good eye on this team of scavengers.
Gregor is the worst of the trio, his brother Bram isn’t much better. Tricky is merely pathetic. No one comments much when the Doctor’s coercion gets Bram killed, and I certainly don’t mourn his loss, temporary as it is. The reveal of the cruel joke Gregor and Bram have been playing on Tricky serves to solidify the reprehensible nature of these siblings, and not for one minute do I buy the half-hearted repentance of Gregor. Gregor knows he is despicable and the Doctor telling him he is despicable isn’t going to change anything. The actor isn’t convinced either, his too little too late “maybe I’ve just got a little tiny scrap if decency” is delivered with all of the conviction of a guy reading a line of dialogue off the page. And that “little tiny scrap of decency” only goes so far as to stop Bram from sending Tricky off for some food; it doesn’t progress to telling Tricky he is really a human being, their brother no less, and not an android as they have somehow managed to convince him he is.
This unnecessary and unpleasant plot is filler in an episode that is designed simply as an excuse to explore the TARDIS and to delve more into the mystery of Clara. It doesn’t even try to disguise the fact, what with its “Big Friendly Button” cheat. And what do we get for this? Lots of running down dark corridors, a glimpse of the swimming pool, an admittedly impressive library, a look at the Architectural Reconfiguration System of the TARDIS, a trip through the Eye of Harmony, and a cliff hanging confrontation. We might as well just had a guided tour of the TARDIS and been done with it.
Oh, well I guess then we wouldn’t have the confrontation on the cliff. But all we learn there is exactly what Emma Grayling told the Doctor in Hide—that Clara is a perfectly ordinary girl. If there is mystery surrounding her she has no part in or knowledge of it. (At this point I am beginning to wonder why Clara is aboard at all. I like Clara; she is cute and brave and clever and resourceful like all good companions should be. However I get no good sense of purpose or motivation from her. She has no real identity apart from the Doctor and the TARDIS. She feels like a character that is being forced to fit the mystery arc and isn’t being allowed to live and breathe on her own.)
I suppose we also wouldn’t have Clara finding the History of the Time War and stumbling upon the Doctor’s name. But I for one can do without that. Please spare me this Rumpelstiltskin story line. At any rate, she promptly forgets all she learned once the Doctor hits his handy reset button.
“Secrets protect us,” the Doctor tells Clara at one point of this pointless episode. “Secrets make us safe.” That’s probably very revealing, but all I can think when I hear it is: “Secret secrets are no fun. Secret secrets hurt someone.” Oh how I would much rather watch an episode of The Office for the tenth time before having to sit through Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS again.
“Don’t get into a spaceship with a madman. Didn’t anyone ever teach you that?” This is one time when I wish I didn’t have to get into that spaceship with this particular madman, Gary.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Hide

Dear Gary—
“This isn’t a ghost story; it’s a love story.”
As a ghost story Hide is pretty good. As a love story it is OK. In between it is decent sci fi; all in all a solid entry. Where Hide really excels, though, is in bringing these varying genres together to reveal the Doctor. It does this subtly and it doesn’t sacrifice the narrative to do so.
“Boo! Hello, I’m looking for a ghost.” It’s an amusing way for the Doctor to introduce himself into the spooky mansion owned by Professor Alec Palmer (I’m going to ignore Clara’s rather lame “Ghostbusters” reference); and like many things in Hide, it’s a lie. The Doctor’s real motive for arriving in this 1970’s haunted house is to seek out the Professor’s assistant Emma Grayling. The Doctor is hoping that the empath Emma can discern the secret of Clara. However it is not Clara who Emma exposes (“she’s a perfectly ordinary girl”) but rather the Doctor: “There’s a sliver of ice in his heart.”
Emma’s cooperation with the Doctor is guarded as they work to uncover the mystery of “the Wraith of the Lady; the Maiden in the Dark; the Witch of the Well.” Emma genuinely wants to help this Caliburn Ghast. The Professor is more intent on exorcising his own ghosts, the Doctor is excited by the phenomenon, and Clara is going along for the ride. It is Emma who takes a personal interest. “I can feel her calling out to me,” she explains. She therefore goes along with the Doctor’s schemes despite her wariness of him.
Emma senses the danger and deceit in the Doctor, keeping the audience in touch with his edginess despite the very childlike persona the Doctor puts on in this episode. Matt Smith is delightful to watch as he dives head on into the fun, finding joy in the simplest things. (“You know, I do love a toggle switch. Actually, I like the word toggle.”)But the darkness is ever lurking, as evidenced by the very different reactions of Clara and the Doctor to viewing the entire life cycle of the Earth, birth to death.
Clara, too, follows the Doctor against her better judgment. “Dare me,” she tells him when he is coaxing her to go ghost hunting with him. Making a game of it, she denies her fears to play along. There is that devilish charm that the Doctor has been accused of, leading his companions into jeopardy while they try to impress. (This is hinted at again during the Doctor’s discussion with Professor Palmer regarding survivor guilt.)
 Together Clara and the Doctor make a great team as they explore the spooky house, candlelight, flickering shadows, unexpected cold spots and all. What they do not find is a ghost.
What they do find is a time traveler named Hila Tukurian stuck in a pocket universe and crying out for help. With the aid of Emma and a blue crystal from Metebelis Three (never mind the pronunciation) the Doctor pops over into the collapsing echo of a universe and frees Hila. There are of course the usual complications and Clara has to do some heroics of her own in the TARDIS (which still seems to have an aversion towards her) to save the Doctor. It’s a thrilling bit of adventure as the Doctor runs from the creature in the misty forest, Clara argues with the TARDIS, and the trio in the mansion call forth the spirits.
Underlying it all is the love story the Doctor speaks of. The tacked on star crossed creatures feature is rather tepid (and if the he and she creatures are trapped in different universes with different time lapses, wouldn’t the she creature have died out long ago?) but the Professor/Emma relationship is beautifully told, mainly through stolen looks and gestures. The Doctor’s revelation that Hila is actually a distant ancestor of the pair is highly contrived, but on a par with most New Who coincidences.
Again, though, it is the subtext of the Doctor that really shines. Simple things, like the Doctor pulling his arm from around Clara’s shoulders as though she has girl cooties. I both love and hate this. Love it for the statement that the Doctor is not falling into the familiar Rose trap of late; hate it that it is necessary to make this statement. Wish there was no statement to make. Worry that the show is flirting with the statement and hinting at possibilities. Oh if it could have only been a cute moment without any reminiscent undertones.
You well know, Gary, that one of my main complaints against New Who is that it sacrifices adventure for the arc. If only Hide was more of the norm. Hide skillfully leads us through a thrilling ghost of a sci fi romance with subtle hints at the Clara of a mystery arc. “To you, I’m a ghost,” she tells the Doctor at one point, meaning one thing but with some powerful subtext. Or how about the Doctor telling Clara, “You are the only mystery worth solving.”Hide can be viewed as a standalone; it can also be viewed in the context of the season.  I could use more of this.
I suppose, Gary, that to you I am a ghost; I guess we are ghosts to each other; there is no mystery to solve, though. We travel on as ever in our own pocket universes . . .

Monday, July 27, 2015

Cold War

Dear Gary—
Cold War is basic Doctor Who story telling; a taut, tense, action packed base under siege tale with a returning classic alien; a refreshing change.
The Doctor and Clara miss their intended target of Las Vegas by just a touch, landing instead on a sinking Soviet submarine at the North Pole in 1983. As if that isn’t enough, this sub happens to have an Ice Warrior on board that for some inexplicable reason a clueless crewmember releases from its block of ice. Let the fun begin.
I love the subtle redesign of this latest Who monster that has been dusted off for the new series. However I’m not sure how I feel about letting the creature out of its armor. I’m disappointed in the spindly arms and hands; they’re too cliché little green Martian for my taste. But I am impressed with the head; I’m just uncertain if the head rhymes with Ice Warrior.
It does make sense for the narrative to have a more fleet and agile adversary within the confines of a submarine. A bulky, armor clad foe would be too big of a target or would make quick work of the frightened sailors. Either way there wouldn’t be much room for suspense and the story would be over in short order.
The Captain and the professor are solid characters and Lieutenant Stepashin makes a convenient fall guy. The Doctor and Clara are as good as ever; Clara in particular. She seems to be out to prove herself to the Doctor in this episode and she succeeds, displaying the courage and resourcefulness necessary for a Doctor Who companion.
I don’t have much more to say about this one. It is a sound entry but not particularly memorable. I think perhaps it suffers in its confines. There isn’t enough time to fully explore any of these characters and the political situation of the time is simply used as backdrop. In viewing it my mind tends to wander off to a couple of Classic serials that aren’t nearly as good but are arguably more colorful.
For starters, Warriors of the Deep. This underwater base-under-siege during a period of undefined cold war is similar in plot if not in execution. It is long and lumbering, but it is (unintentionally for the most part) a laugh riot.
Next to mind is Battlefield, not for the plot so much but for the Doctor’s final plea to Morgaine as she holds her finger on the button ready to launch a massive nuclear strike. We can believe that Morgaine is swayed by the Doctor’s ‘there is no honor in nuclear war’ argument because we have had four parts to get to know her. The character of the Brigadier plays a large part in our understanding of Morgaine, and that is mainly where Cold War misses out. Imagine how much richer the script would be if the two veteran soldiers, Captain Zhukov and Grand Marshal Skaldak, had some meaningful interactions. It would have added great depth to these characters and much more power to Skaldak’s mercy. Time constraints, however, only allow for snatched references to Skaldak’s daughter and fleeting interchanges between the Grand Marshal and the Doctor and Clara. We have to take Skaldak’s nobility mostly on faith.
Action, reestablishing the Ice Warriors, and the Doctor/Clara dynamic; these are the focal points and the story succeeds in them while managing to squeeze in some nice moments of humor along the way.  (“I’m always serious . . . with days off.”)
“Saved the world then,” Clara summarizes. “That’s what we do.” It is a long, long way from Doctor number one, but that indeed is what the Doctor does these days. He saves the world, mostly the Earth, week in and week out.
Week in and week out, Gary; I carry on .. .

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Rings of Akhaten

Dear Gary—
“Can you feel the light on your eyelids? That is the light of an alien sun.”
I can’t say anything bad about The Rings of Akhaten. I have been complaining so long that Doctor Who never explores alien planets and here it has done so in spectacular fashion. This alone is worth the 45 minute investment.
We start with some background of Clara’s parents before venturing out into space. It is a sweet, ordinary romance begun with a leaf. The Doctor spies on this charming family unit as they progress through their commonplace lives up until the poignant death of the mother. It is a succinct telling of the tale and provides us with all the information we need to understand Clara and her sentimental attachment to a leaf.
With the emotional landscape well established, the Doctor takes Clara to the Festival of Offerings where the locals barter in “objects psychically imprinted with their history; the more treasured they are, the more value they hold.” It is a wonderful bustling bazaar full of bizarre creatures from the seven worlds orbiting around that same sun the Doctor so proudly showed off to Clara. The sensibility of the place evokes a nostalgic reaction from the Doctor as he reminisces about his granddaughter. It is a fleeting reference to Susan, but it expresses volumes.
Furthering the sentimental ambiance of the story is the little girl, Merry, the Queen of Years. Perfectly cast and costumed, this sacrificial lamb works her way into Clara’s heart. And the comfortable rapport Clara quickly establishes with the frightened child endears her (Clara) to us, even if the TARDIS seems to have taken a dislike to her. The Doctor adds to the maudlin nature of the narrative with his “cabbages and kings” speech to Merry.
I don’t have much to say about the plot; partly because I promised not to say anything bad, but mostly because there isn’t much of a one to discuss. Clara talks the little girl into singing and there is a lovely moment as the Doctor and Clara join in on the ceremonial proceedings. Apparently, however, the little girl hits a sour note and is transported away in a most beautiful fireball of an effect. The Doctor delivers his “we don’t walk away” philosophy to Clara (how far the Doctor has traveled from his original incarnation) and the two confront the sleeping decoy of a god/grandfather/mummy/monster/alien.
I’m not really clear on the religious intricacies playing out. For instance, I’m not sure what the role of the chanting monk is and why they need both him and the Queen of Years. I’m not even really sure what the Queen of Years is supposed to do other than sing her song once every thousand years or so at the festival. Is she supposed to live out her life after her performance in the golden pyramid singing lullabies to Grandfather? It would be interesting to know what the actual beliefs and ceremonies and rituals and day to day workings of this religious order are, but I suppose none of that is necessary for the unfolding drama. Some information might have been useful for the Doctor, however.
“Actually, I think I may have made a bit of a tactical boo-boo.”
The Doctor’s misinterpretation, or Merry’s sour note, or the awakened decoy alarm clock, or something has roused the real god/grandfather/monster. And according to the Doctor’s best guess he is going to consume all of the seven worlds.
This is another stunning effect of a fireball/sun/giant jack-o-lantern in the sky. The Doctor stands before the great pumpkin and delivers his stirring monologue while the congregation’s song swells behind him. It is Clara, however, who saves the day. Clara and her indigestible leaf; her leaf of infinity; her leaf of “what should have been.”
It is the perfect blend of special effects and emotional wallop; the magic that New Who relies so heavily upon. And like magic the sun implodes, the void it leaves behind having no impact on the seven worlds or the devotees living there.
Dave sat down during the Doctor’s highlight. To give some context, Dave is not a fan of New or Classic Who, however he has seen most of the Eccleston and early Tennant episodes and snatches here and there of Classic and Smith stories; and he saw bits and pieces of the documentary on my Genesis of the Daleks DVD that I just recently watched. After a few moments viewing he offered this (paraphrased) comment: ‘I think Classic Who is much better than the new show. It’s almost as if the show runners today are appealing to who they think are fans of the Classic show as they perceive those fans were when they were children.’ I’ll put it another way—it is as if they are appealing to the stunted child in adults rather than to the grown-up intelligence of children.
There is nothing wrong with that approach, and the new show excels at it.
I think, Gary, that now I will go and re-watch The Aztecs; a serial for which I have a growing admiration.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Bells of Saint John

Dear Gary—
The Bells of Saint John is The Idiot’s Lantern redux, complete with motorcycle. I don’t like that previous serial and I like this present one only slightly more, although The Idiot’s Lantern has more personality. Technology as villain is rather lifeless to begin with; at least the Wire leaves behind creepy faceless victims. In Bells all we have are limp bodies littering the landscape; bodies that nobody seems to notice. Mahler does voice a concern that they are bound to draw attention if they upload too many souls at once, but he needn’t worry; the people of Doctor Who Earth are perpetually clueless. At least in Lantern there are some bumbling Men in Black types attempting to give some semblance of control and there are frightened townsfolk wondering what is happening to their loved ones.
Also, in Lantern the Doctor and Rose engage in the world whereas Bell is a much more insular story in which the Doctor and Clara reject the 'domestic approach' and treat those around them, including the victims, merely as backdrop while they furiously tap away at their keyboards. I suppose this is fitting to the all consuming nature of modern personal electronics, and it is a much scarier prospect than the peril as set forth in our story. Mainly because that peril is a vague 'what if' notion posed by the author as an excuse of a threat for the Doctor to conquer with no real explanation provided. What if, it is postulated, there is “something” in the Wi-Fi? What if this “something” can upload souls into it? Souls that now reside as flickering images of their dead bodies in their same clothes that they last had on and surrounded by the last place they were before dying. (I am reminded of old movie clichés depicting natives afraid of Polaroid cameras.) Mind you, nobody would ever notice that people are suddenly dropping like flies around them and popping up as video on their computer monitors. That might be because all those who haven’t yet been uploaded can be remote controlled by some unknown power of this “something.” All for some undisclosed purpose. It’s a hazy, white noise sort of plot that would greatly benefit from some structural definition.
The villain of the piece is yet again the Great Intelligence from the last episode; however we don’t find it out until the last minute. For the bulk of the story the GI’s human puppet is that of a corporate boss from hell flicking switches and determining people’s fates from her office; slightly more entertaining than the monotonously screeching face of the Wire, but only marginally so, and about on par with the Wire’s human compatriot Mr. Magpie.
What The Bells of Saint John has over The Idiot’s Lantern is Clara. Clara is a much more positive influence on the Doctor than Rose ever was and the camaraderie between them less corrosive. As a result the proceedings are more pleasurable to watch, even if the story itself leaves something to be desired.
The ringing TARDIS has been done before, but the opening sequence of Bells is cleverly done. It segues seamlessly from the bizarre nature of the call (“It’s 1207.” “I’ve got half past three; am I phoning a different time zone?”) to a mundane help line conversation. As the amusing scene plays out the Doctor comes to realize he is talking to the twice dead Clara, the mystery girl he went rushing off to find at the end of The Snowmen. (How he thinks cloistering himself in a thirteenth century monastery will accomplish this is another story—and one actually told quite well in the mini prequel.)
Clara is billed as the “Impossible Girl;” however in New Who speak, this translates into “Probable Girl.” Every coincidence and contrivance in the book will always figure prominently in her story. Thus we have the “woman in the shop” handing out the TARDIS phone number to Clara at the most opportune moment. Now the entire audience is aware that this is no mere woman; she obviously is going to come into play at some distant point in the future. For now she simply lingers as part of the murky ambiance revolving around Clara.
Regardless, the Doctor and Clara find each other across the centuries. It’s nice to have Jenna Coleman solidly on board at last. There is a pleasing chemistry between the two; although I have to say that I am getting tired of this endless string of attractive young girls following their libidos into the TARDIS. At least the Doctor displays naïve innocence in response to some of Clara’s suggestiveness, and his solicitation of her while she lies unconscious is charming.
There are some nice moments in the story. The “I don’t know where I am” refrain is haunting and the Spoonheads creepy, even if derivative of previous serials. The Doctor’s transformation from monk to “sensible clothes” is delightful. “Summer Falls by Amelia Williams” is a sweet touch. “It’s a time machine; you never have to wait for breakfast,” is fun. And my personal favorite: “I can’t tell the future; I just work there.”
Other than that, The Bells of Saint John is yet another set up episode. It is setting up Clara’s character and her relationship with the Doctor. It is introducing mysteries surrounding the Probable Girl. And it is establishing the Great Intelligence as the overarching villain for the remainder of the season. As usual, it has just enough entertainment value to keep things interesting.
I don’t know the future, Gary. I don’t even work there. But I can predict more of the same as the Eleventh Doctor winds down his run, and I foresee a mixture of annoyance and amusement yet to come.