Friday, January 23, 2015

The End of Time, Part Two

Dear Gary—
Let’s see, where did we leave off? Oh yes, the Time Lords were returning. These are not the galactic ticket inspectors of old, though. These are fully hardened war lords driven mad with battle lust. I do find it amusing that these lords of time who have all of time and space at their disposal, who can look into the Time Vortex and Untempered Schism, who control the laws of time, these almighty Time Lords hang on the every gesture of a soothsayer. The character is quite effective, however, and I am reminded of the Seeker from The Ribos Operation.
Time Lords gone mad. Six billion Masters have nothing on them.
Oh yeah, what of the Master and his six billion grinning, clapping, and waving clones? They are still grinning and clapping and waving, mostly rooted to the same spots in which we left them last except for a few who are scurrying about at the Master’s command. That’s the problem with six billion Masters. They are redundant. The one practical use these extraneous extras serve is one that is becoming a habit for Mankind in the new Who universe—and that is to serve as a transmitter. In Last of the Time Lords they all thought the one word (Doctor) to work their magic Peter Pan spell; in The Stolen Earth it is their phones that are used to transmit the Doctor’s telephone number. Here in The End of Time Part Two hapless humanity, in the shape of the Master, tune in to the drum beat in unison in order to track down its source.
 It is all to good effect, though, and that is what New Who is all about. The End of Time (Parts One and Two) are Doctor Who at its most self indulgent.
I have long since learned that there is no use trying to follow any logical thread in these two part season ending stories. Most plot elements exist merely as a thin veil to string together a series of dramatic highpoints, spectacular special effects, and poignant character moments. 
Let’s take Wilf’s gun as one example. The Woman in White cajoles and chastises Wilf with vaguely dire prophecies into digging it out from storage. This gun obviously has been set up as a linchpin and is the center of some interesting discussion between Wilf and the Doctor. It becomes a focal point emphasizing the Doctor’s pacifism as he resists Wilf’s urgent and moving pleas; but in a flash the Doctor tosses aside his principles when he learns of the returning Time Lords and he grabs the previously rejected gun without hesitation. This is the Doctor taking arms. Shakily he stands between the Master with his Skeletor powers and Rassilon with his lightning bolt throwing gloves and he cows them both; with Wilf’s rusty revolver that has been collecting dust under his bed for who knows how long. I think the sheer audacity of it has awed the Master and Rassilon into inaction. The Doctor can’t make up his mind, though, which mighty Time Lord to use it on until he gets the brilliant idea to shoot out the controls that will send the Time Lords and Gallifrey back where they belong. That’s always the go-to Doctor Who solution—disable the controls. Why didn’t he just do that and be done with it? And for that matter, why the need for the gun at all? What’s wrong with his magic sonic which he has used countless times to damage controls and at least once in this episode alone? But then we wouldn’t have any of the drama and the pathos and that is what this entire show is about.
And spectacle. Let’s not forget the spectacle. What would Doctor Who be without explosions and chases? The Doctor and Wilf and the Cacti in a spaceship being chased by dozens of missiles. They’re dead, of course. Ten times over they are dead. Except this isn’t reality; this is virtual reality complete with game boy chairs and joysticks.
Speaking of dead of course—the Doctor hurtling at high speed from the space ship, smashing through a glass skylight, and crashing onto the hard floor putting the drop that did in the Fourth Doctor to shame. Dead of course. Except this is only virtual reality; he pops up with a few scratches and a torn coat. (And after surviving that he expects to face down Skeletor and the Lord President with a bullet.)
It is a breathtaking ride of a comic book narrative. When it is all over the disposable characters need to be disposed of. That’s easy. With just a line or two the Cacti skedaddle and the Naismiths are arrested for “crimes undisclosed.” The six billion Masters are handily erased with one magic wave of Rassilon’s glove.
Even the Time Lords are disposable really. They look and sound impressive; they put on a good show; but ultimately all of their ‘end of time’ threats come to naught. The Doctor warns that “hell is descending,” but all we see are a few Time Lords standing around and a giant planet appearing in the sky with no apparent adverse effects upon the Earth. There is just too much crammed into these two hours and none of it is given the time to fully develop (although the origin for the sound of drums in the Master’s head is one rich nugget gleaned from this flash in the pan).
Everything that has been crammed into the story has all been to serve one end, and that is the departure of David Tennant. It is a grand and epic spectacle put on in his honor. Through it all we are left to guess and wonder when and how it will happen; through it all we are misdirected and misled; through it all Wilf remains by his side as friend and counselor and ally.
“He will knock four times.” How fitting that the Doctor has emerged unscathed from the mayhem only to hear Wilf’s meek little raps on the glass and realize his time is up. (I’ll refrain from commenting on the idiotic nature of these chambers that can only be pulled out of the desperate air of a writer’s mind.)
It is indicative of this tenth generation that he throws a hissy fit when confronted with the inevitable. Even though he had been warned and prepared, he rants and raves to the bitter end.  “It’s not fair!” How many lives have ended in just this serial alone, not to mention since the Tenth Doctor first woke up on Christmas Day; and yet the Doctor cannot reconcile the fact that he is about to regenerate; not die but regenerate, something he has done nine times before; to walk away and live for perhaps another 906 years.
“Oh, I’ve lived too long,” he finally decides as he releases Wilf from the most ridiculous of predicaments and absorbs five hundred thousand rads of radiation.
He’s not done yet, though. He’s not quite ready to give up this pleasing form of his with the great hair adored by young girls. He is off for one last jaunt to claim his reward.
I said this was Doctor Who at its most self indulgent, and these last few moments of The End of Time Part Two are decadent with indulgence. It is a reward not only for the Doctor and for Doctor Who but for the fans as well, this end of an era extravagance. This is a chance to revisit old friends one last time. It’s all made up and contrived, of course, but that is appropriate for this Doctor. I also notice that he blatantly breaks those laws of time that he preaches as he crosses time lines and peaks in on people at the most coincidentally opportune times. I don’t mind; I’ll take this reward along with the Doctor. I don’t even mind seeing Rose again. Jack, Sarah, Mickey, Martha, Jackie; how great to meet up with them once more. With the added bonus of Alonso and the granddaughter of Joan Redfern. And of course the final parting from Donna, Wilf, and Sylvia. Lovely vignettes to shut out the Tenth Doctor’s run.
“We will sing to you, Doctor.” Ood Sigma stands by as the Doctor finally starts to lose his grasp on this generation.
“The universe will sing you to your sleep.” Quite a production for this tenth in a continuing line.
“This song is ending.” It’s taking its time, but it is ending.
“But the story never ends.” We’ve been here before. We know what is coming next.
“I don’t want to go.” No, I think we have gathered from your feet dragging that you don’t want to go.
Self indulgent. But appropriate.
At long last—Matt Smith.
Geronimo Gary . . .

Friday, January 16, 2015

The End of Time, Part One

Dear Gary—
This is what happens when you feel the need to come up with a bigger, more spectacular finale each and every time. Eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns. Eventually you run out of ideas and just throw everything you can think of at it and hope something sticks. The End of Time, Part One (along with its companion piece Part Two but more on that one later) is just such a whirlwind of a story.
It is all meant to feel grand and epic and prophetic. Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Some of it is explained and some of it isn’t. There is so much crammed in, though, that one loses track.
Just look at the first few minutes. We have a Narrator predicting the end of the Earth (doesn’t happen by the way). Then we have visions of a laughing Master while being reminded of the events from Last of the Time Lords and told that people are dreaming about those forgotten days. Next we see Wilf (the Narrator implies that Wilf is the one person who has not forgotten that lost year, but he can’t remember any better than the rest). Wilf is joined by a mysterious woman in a church which inexplicably contains an image of the TARDIS in one of its stained glass windows. Finally we get the Doctor in sunglasses and lei being uncharacteristically insufferable, flippant, and callous, obviously not taking his lesson from The Waters of Mars to heart. He is joined by an Ood and is struck by the improbability of the advancements made by the Ood civilization. We are treated to visions in the Ood circle, again of the Master and of Wilf and of a new mystery couple (“the King is in his counting house”). And we get vague explanations of “time is bleeding” and “a shadow is falling over creation.” It is all fuzzy and unexplained. None of this clarifies why people are dreaming or how the Ood development is being accelerated. It is a shroud of mystery meant to divert and mislead, and through it all is the refrain: “Returning, returning, returning.”
This all culminates in the Master’s resurrection. Now keep in mind everyone has forgotten that lost year of John Saxon’s rule. Not Saxon himself, just his rule. People are dreaming of this man but don’t recognize him as the man they elected as Prime Minister and who went insane and was murdered by his wife in spectacular fashion. He has been dead for some time, but before his death, before even his forgotten year, he had written the mysterious (again that word) “Secret Books of Saxon” and apparently recruited a cult of female prison guards to gather up his ring and the all important “Potions of Life” (I have visions of my own of Martha Jones laughing derisively at the notion of a gun with deadly Time Lord chemicals). The prison guard cultists drag an innocent looking Lucy Saxon (sorry, but she’s still a despicable collaborator in my mind) into an appropriately looking ancient ritual room where Lucy’s magic lipstick is used as the final ingredient to rebuild the Master. But oh, wait. At the last second Lucy reveals her own potion and everything goes wrong in explosive fashion. I guess her potion didn’t quite work as planned, though, as the Master is witnessed fleeing the burning building by that mystery couple from the Ood vision.
All of this could have filled an hour or two of its own episode, but instead is thrown at us in the first 15 minutes of this two part story. Doctor Who of old always managed to bring the Master back against impossible odds with a line or two of ‘oh, by the way’ explanation. New Who has gone to the opposite extreme in bringing back this indestructible foe of the Doctor’s.
The next 45 minutes of Part One has more in store for us. Much, much more.
Let’s see. I’ll start with the mystery woman in white. She continues to appear to Wilf and to Wilf alone. For some strange reason (never explained) she warns Wilf not to tell the Doctor about her. She also inexplicably chastises Wilf for never having killed a man and tells him to “take arms.” (The thing about all these prophecies sprinkled throughout—quite a few of them are false. They exist for atmosphere and effect but in the end never come to fruition.) The woman herself, however, is wonderfully portrayed by Claire Bloom and lends a dignity and elegance to the proceedings.
Then we have the mystery ‘King in His Counting House’ couple. These are disposable distraction characters. These two evil master minds only serve to bring our cast together and provide the giant gate gizmo. Somehow they have heard about the Master and know of his resurrection by the female prison guard cult and have discerned that he is an alien (for a forgotten man, an awful lot of people seem to know an awful lot about Harold Saxon). They also intuitively know that the alien machine they have salvaged has the capability of providing immortality; they just don’t know how it works or how to fix it. (And I’m sorry Gary, but the only two people who can get away with cancelling Christmas are Alan Rickman and Michael G Scott.)
Next in our line of disposable distractions: the Vinvocci. More aliens right under the noses of the Counting House Couple and helping them to fix their Immortality Gate. The two undercover extraterrestrials are on Earth to salvage this machine, but I’m not sure why they don’t just grab it and leave; it’s beyond me why they feel the need to fix it first. I suppose they exist merely as comic relief and the whole “shimmer” bit is funny. The Doctor likens them to the Zocci Bannakaffalatta from Voyage of the Damned, but I’m more reminded of Meglos; Wilf even describes Miss Addams as a cactus.
Speaking of comic relief: the Silver Cloak. This busload of golden oldies helping Wilf to find the Doctor is a hoot. A total disposable distraction but hilarious.
Fortunately what is not lost in this chaos is the heart of the episode embodied by the trio of the Doctor, the Master, and Wilf.
I’ll start with the Master since he seems to be the eye of the storm of plot threads whizzing about. After he has been resurrected, not regenerated mind you but resurrected, the Master gains comic book villain powers; the Doctor even refers to him as Skeletor at one point. He has also gone completely insane. Without a clear-cut plan and ravenously hungry, the Master starts eating his way through the population of Earth. This is where the King in His Counting House, AKA Joshua Naismith, conveniently comes in to hand over a weapon to the Master and give him a purpose. And this is where our green alien cacti come in to provide exposition concerning the Immortality Gate.
The Immortality Gate; the improbable machine that mends whole planets. In a matter of minutes the Master fixes this miracle worker not to heal his life force burning body but to turn every human being into himself. It is unclear if these duplicates have the same Skeletor powers or the same insanity or the same maddening drum beats. It is also unclear if these billions of new Masters running about the Earth will all seek to dominate one day. It would be interesting to see if they would become power hungry and fight amongst themselves for supremacy. For the moment, though, they just seem to be content to stand around grinning, clapping, and waving.
It is a good concept and a startling good effect, aside from the distraction of trying to pick out duplicate Master templates in the crowd. It suits this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink whirlwind of a story.
Before being snatched up by Naismith, however, the Master has some nice moments reminiscing with the Doctor about his vast estates on Gallifrey. He has his chance to kill the Doctor but stops short. It is an interesting psychological dance these two antagonists have choreographed through the centuries; a love/hate relationship spanning time and space. The drum beats in the Master’s head has added a dimension to this dynamic, and the moment when the Doctor actually hears the ominous pounding is tantalizing.
Topping the Master and the Doctor in the episode, however, is the quiet little scene of the Doctor and Wilf in the cafĂ© discussing life and death. The Doctor has known for some time that his “song is ending” and he has been hanging on as long as possible. This is the most self-absorbed generation he has ever had (I blame it on Rose).  It’s an elegant little speech though: “Even then, even if I change, it feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away, and I’m dead.”
And then we have the added bonus of Donna. Donna’s presence is heartbreaking, not for her but for the Doctor and Wilf. Donna still can’t remember, but Wilf can and her loss is devastating to him. The Doctor has his own memories to mourn, and it is evident that he both misses and needs her in his life. Donna herself seems perfectly happy with her new man and the guarded peace she has with her mother. Christmas in the Noble house seems a pleasant affair and at least Donna shows signs of having overcome her dread of the holiday. It’s nice to see Sylvia again as well; she shows genuine concern for her daughter and offers more comic relief to the mix.
In the end, though, it comes down to the Doctor and Wilf teaming up (Wilf in the TARDIS is long overdue); and it comes down to the Master (“there is only the Master race”). Except no. All of these prophecies and clues and dreams and various bits and pieces of story lines converge on the duplicitous Master only to be diverted.
“This day was the day upon which the whole of creation would change forever. This was the day the Time Lords returned.”
The Narrator (Timothy Dalton no less) is revealed in all of his glory. Lord President of the Time Lords.
“For Gallifrey!”
A truly stunning reveal.
“For victory!”
A satisfying twist in this confusion of plot.
“For the end of time itself!”
A cliffhanger, Gary, to top all cliffhangers . . .

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Waters of Mars

Dear Gary—
The Waters of Mars is the classic Who base under siege plotline and it is arguably the best it has ever been done. The supporting cast is solid with the standout being Lindsay Duncan as Adelaide Brooke. The effects are spectacular, the monsters stellar, and the story suspenseful. This is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders.
The one who comes off badly in this is the Doctor, and that is one of the story’s many strong points.
“This is wrong, Doctor. I don’t care who you are. The Time Lord Victorious is wrong.”
For so long the Doctor had nothing but praise and adulation heaped upon him by his young companions and it was starting to go to his head. Then along came Donna to rein him in somewhat, but Donna is now gone and the Doctor is rudderless. Hurray for Adelaide Brooke for giving him that verbal slap in the face sorely missing now that Donna is no longer with him; and hurray for The Waters of Mars for daring to expose the Doctor in this way.
The Doctor arrives on Mars alone and space-suited up, presumably to explore. This brings up two minor points, one being why so few of the planets the Doctor visits requires the use of a space suit. The other being, what exactly is he hoping to find on this barren and deserted planet? Surely there are more interesting places for him to go, and from his reaction he wasn’t expecting to find a space station. However these are two extremely minor points. Overall these two things make for some stunning visuals; and in a way it is appropriate that the Doctor is making his lonely way through the universe on some seemingly mundane journeys to kick a few Mars rocks around. Certainly the Doctor has never looked more isolated than in the opening shots of him stepping out onto the surface of the red planet.
He is not alone for long, however. He soon conveniently stumbles across the first Martian pioneers of Bowie Base One. Even more coincidentally, it happens to be the exact fateful date of Bowie Base One’s destruction.
The Doctor hears the date, November 21, 2059, and is immediately thrown into a quandary. Apparently this is one of those rare fixed moments in time that the Doctor is always rattling on about. “What happens here must always happen.” The Doctor knows he cannot interfere, and yet his curiosity gets the better of him. He can’t help himself.
Now everything hinges on this vital moment and it is a compelling scenario; however this fixed point linchpin is the weakest link in the tale. The history books relate the mysterious destruction of Bowie Base One and the death of its crew, in particular Adelaide Brooke. The Doctor even goes so far as to say that a Dalek, upon encountering the young Adelaide, let her live because he too recognized the momentous personage before him and the fixed point nature of her future (regardless that the Dalek at the time did not foresee a future for anyone or anything). It seems that Adelaide’s tragic end on this date of November 21, 2059 is the inspiration for her granddaughter to explore the stars.
 “Susie Fontana Brooke is the pilot of the first lightspeed ship to Proxima Centaur,” the Doctor relates. “And then everywhere, with her children and her children’s children forging the way.” I’m sorry, but how does this qualify for fixed point status? A momentous moment in the Brooke family, yes. A momentous moment in human history though? I don’t think so. Clearly the technology and resources and will exists at that future date making it possible for Susie Fontana Booke to pilot the way, so if she doesn’t take the wheel someone else will. Humankind will still leapfrog its way across the universe, just with someone else at the helm. And too, the Doctor even says it himself: “Captain Adelaide can inspire her face to face. Different details, but the story’s the same.”
I think the Doctor’s fixed point barometer is a bit off; or he is making the whole thing up.
The story is compelling enough, however, and consequently I will suspend my disbelief; at least in so far as to accept the notion that the Doctor truly believes this is a fixed moment. The Waters of Mars is really the story of Adelaide Brooke, “the woman with starlight in her soul;” and this is most definitely a deciding moment in her life. The Doctor has obviously built the woman up in his mind; she is something of a hero to him; he even breaks his code to give her a salute. I can therefore certainly believe that he has blown this moment up out of all proportion to history. This is in keeping with the Doctor-centric, Time Lord Victorious nature of the tale.
With this notion firmly implanted in the Doctor’s mind he is on a collision course with his Time Lord code and is dangerously close to joining the ranks of such fallen Time Lords as the Meddling Monk, Omega, Borusa, Morbius, and the Master. Except Adelaide Brooke steps in to stop the Doctor in his tracks; and perhaps that is the true nature of her fixed point status. It is not to inspire her granddaughter as the Doctor supposes; it is to save the Doctor from himself.
The scene of the Doctor walking away from the base with the dramatic sounds of death and destruction in his ears is one of the most moving and memorable of the new era. The Doctor is walking away because he must, or he believes he must. But then something snaps and it seems that the whole show has been building towards this moment ever since Rose. With a resounding, “I’m the last of the Time Lords,” the Doctor returns in all his glory to save the day.
In and of itself this is a noble act. The Doctor saving the day is what he does; it is what he is about. However it is not the act that is in question but rather the Doctor’s motivation: “It’s taken me all these years to realize the Laws of Time are mine, and they will obey me!” This is not an act of mercy; this is an act of megalomania.
Adelaide Brooke sees this with immense clarity. She doesn’t want to die. She argued against the Doctor when he first told her of her fate and did everything in her power to prevent it. But now as the Doctor offers his helping hand she sees the truth. “The Time Lord Victorious is wrong.” And she stops him in the way that only she can. None of the “little people” could influence the Doctor, the Time Lord Victorious. Only Adelaide Brooke, the fixed point, momentous Adelaide Brooke. Not to inspire her granddaughter; frankly a grandmother who commits suicide is not inspiring. No. To stop the Doctor. “No one should have that power.” The power of life and death; the power to change history. “The Time Lord Victorious is wrong.” In his moment of triumph Adelaide deflates the Doctor's power.
There is so much in this story that I have not touched on. The humor, the relationship between the Doctor and Adelaide, the nod to the Ice Warriors, the terrifying transformation into water monsters, the overall production value, the chases, the tense race to abandon ship, “one drop; just one drop.” It’s a great story that is well executed. But the Time Lord Victorious eclipses it all. The Tenth Doctor is coming to an end. “I’ve gone too far,” he says as he realizes what he has done.
Since the new series began it has been building the Doctor up into this incarnation, this Time Lord Victorious. Now is the time for his deconstruction.
 At least in this moment, Gary; this one fixed moment . . .

Monday, December 15, 2014

Planet of the Dead

Dear Gary—
Planet of the Dead is pretty dry (much like the desert the bus ends up in), but it is a standalone episode which is a plus in my book and it is pleasant enough.
The Doctor is again on his own in this adventure, and although he clearly is not ready to take on a permanent companion (thankfully turning down Lady Christina de Souza), he does not shun the company of others. In fact he goes out of his way to interact; when he first gets on the bus there are plenty of empty seats to choose from but he deliberately sits next to Lady Christina and starts a conversation.  This is very reminiscent of Midnight, a sort of Midnight Lite if you will. The Doctor even refers back to that earlier episode (“Oh, humans on buses, always blaming me.”)
The passengers on the Mighty 200 are not as well drawn, however. Not even the mysterious Carmen with undefined psychic abilities. Her only function is to echo the Ood with her parting, “Your song is ending sir.” None of them provide any practical value to the adventure at hand with the exception of Christina. And she is my least favorite of the lot.
The Lady Christina de Souza is a bored rich girl who rips off museums for kicks. There’s not much redeeming about her. She is ready with a shovel and a winch when you need one, granted; but she has no warmth or depth or feeling. She is all sleek and sophisticated surface personality.
Malcolm on the other side of the wormhole provides some much needed humanity as well as comic relief. He is a bit too gushing at times, but overall a welcome presence. I especially love the “Not now, I’m busy” phone bit. Captain Erisa Magambo is a nice counter balance to Malcolm, although I’m not sure what to make of their standoff. It doesn’t quite work for me.
And as long as I’ve mentioned Captain Magambo, what’s up with the Doctor’s objection to salutes? Someday I’ll have to go back and review each instance of saluting in the new era. He seems inconsistent in his ‘no salute’ policy, if not hypocritical. A salute between friends seems nothing to him (I’m not even going to get into the bowing-down-before-him attitude his companions often take); I think it has more to do with his prejudice against authority figures. (Same with guns by the way.)
The story itself is standard fare. The bus the Doctor has boarded is whisked through a wormhole onto another planet and he has to figure out how to get them all back safe and sound without letting anything else through. Along the way he meets some disposable fly aliens who supply some much needed information before their demise.
There isn’t much more to it. The metal stingrays are mildly interesting like everything else in the episode, but very little time or effort is put into them. On the whole it is an insubstantial story. But a diverting enough way to spend an hour. It has some good moments, like the Doctor calming his fellow travelers by grounding them in their day to day lives. And it’s a nice touch when he recommends Nathan and Barclay to Magambo even though he really doesn’t know very much about either; but I can’t help wishing that Detective Inspector McMillan would catch up with Lady de Souza.
Overall, Gary, Planet of the Dead is very much the Doctor just biding his time; a field trip while he waits for his song to end.
“He will knock four times . . .”

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Next Doctor

Dear Gary—
Doctor Who has a long way to go to get back into my good graces after Journey’s End. The Next Doctor is a good start.
This is an episode that can stand on its own. It doesn’t have to be seen in any particular order or in conjunction with any other story or within the context of a season long arc. It is lighthearted in tone with just the right amount of pathos. And it doesn’t try to replace Donna. If anything, the Doctor himself becomes a companion of sorts.
Plus it takes place at Christmas and it happens to be the Christmas season as I view this, so I am full of that spirit that is so willing to forgive.
David Morrissey also helps. He plays the part of the Next Doctor with the perfect flamboyant flourish and yet there is a hint of sorrow that manages to peak through. When the Jackson Lake damn breaks, the flood of pain that washes over him is heartbreakingly real. Rosita is a great caricature of a companion, too.  “Always telling me off,” the Next Doctor says of her, to which the Doctor replies, “Well, they do, don’t they?” Strong of will and quick with a punch, Rosita tends to look after the Next Doctor more than the other way around.
The Doctor, the Next Doctor/Jackson Lake, and Rosita make a wonderful trio and the touches of slapstick are welcome. I love the glaring clues that the Next Doctor is not in fact The Doctor, from his sonic screwdriver (“It makes a noise; that’s sonic, isn’t it?”) to his TARDIS (“It stands for Tethered Aerial Release Developed in Style. Do you see?”). Even the Cybershades, which under normal circumstances are laughable, seem to reflect the charming nature of this playacting at the Doctor motif.
The sets, the costumes, the wide-eyed and grimy orphans in peril—everything lends a Dickensian air to this Christmastime tale.
The jarring note comes courtesy of the Cybermen.
Despite the fact that the Cybermen are scarier on a practical level in their New Who reboot, they always tend to come up short for me and I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps someday I will take the time to analyze it more. For now I’ll remark on the comic book element that somehow creeps in each time I see them in the modern era. In this story we have the Cybershades and the Cyberleader with his plastic brain showing. Then there is the unwieldy Cyberking. I keep hoping that the Next Doctor will go all The Empire Strikes Back on it and trip it up with his lasso.
On a more philosophical level, I wonder if their origin story from their first appearance in New Who, Rise of the Cybermen, blunts their menace for me. These new, human Cybermen from a parallel universe are the creation of one man in his mad attempt to live life eternal; not a race that willingly underwent the conversion for their own survival. New Who Cybermen are motivated by the programmed instructions of John Lumic to convert all of Mankind; Classic Cybermen are motivated by the survival of the Mondasian race. Every meeting of the Doctor with the Cybermen in this new era has been with these new fangled Cybermen. I wonder what would happen if these New Who human Cybermen from a parallel universe ever met up with a group of Classic Cybermen hailing from Mondas.
Putting that aside, however . . .
Cybermen crashing through the cobbled streets of 1851 London just doesn’t rhyme (as my father would say). For the most part they are kept under wraps, but there is only so much sewer and cellar skulking they can do. Sooner or later they have to come up to do their dirty work and I’m not sure how these giant metal men stealth their way through the city without notice. And of course when the Cyberking rises there is no hiding it. I guess this is one chapter of history that was never recorded.
The collaboration of Miss Hartigan does help a little bit in accepting the secretive operations of these clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk. (Oh what a wonderful Wiz he is.) In fact Miss Hartigan, clad in her red dress complete with parasol, is an excellent intermediary between the fictions of Dickens and Cyber Who. Taking the arm of one of her knights in shining armor, she is picture perfect.
Like the Next Doctor, Miss Hartigan has hints of tragedy lurking beneath the surface. However in her case we never learn her background and we can only speculate when she states, “Yet another man come to assert himself against me in the night.”  She is a remarkable woman, or so we are told. The Doctor tells her, “You might have the most remarkable mind this world has ever seen.” I don’t know, though. This is narrative convenience that weakens her as well as the Cybermen.
The justification for the Doctor’s statement is the fact that she can resist the Cyber conversion and dominate the Cyber brain. Now if she is this most unique of individuals, how is it that she never did anything with her life up to this point? It rather makes her pathetic more than anything. And what does this make of the Cyber threat? Now that I think of it, Miss Hartigan is not the only instance of a personality surviving the Cyber conversion process. First to mind is Yvonne Hartman from Doomsday. I think the Cybermen seriously need to refine their procedures.
Having said all of that, the Doctor’s use of the Next Doctor’s TARDIS to confront Miss Cyberking Hartigan is fantastic, and I can forgive the all too handy zapper by virtue of this from Jackson Lake: “Well, I’d say he used that Dimension Vault to transfer the wreckage of the Cyberking into the Time Vortex, there to be harmlessly disintegrated. Oh, I’ve picked up a lot.”
The best, though, is saved for last. “But this is nonsense.” Jackson’s reaction to the TARDIS is one of absolute wonder and amazement, that childlike glee of a Christmas morning. “Complete and utter, wonderful nonsense. How very, very silly.” It is that pure innocence of emotion that inevitably gets corrupted with the passage of time, and I’m glad that Jackson races from the TARDIS before the dark world of the Doctor has a chance to infect him.
Overall I give a Peace on Earth pass to this wonderful little Christmas package of an episode. I think it is exactly what the Doctor needed as well. All of the companions lined up in Journey’s End have gone their own way. The Doctor is alone. Being able to jump into an adventure as a sidekick and to observe the Doctor/companion relationship through this somewhat warped mirror has given him a new perspective.
“They leave,” he tells Jackson of “all those bright and shining companions.”
“Because they should,” he continues. “Or they find someone else. And some of them, some of them forget me. I suppose in the end, they break my heart.”
He hasn’t fully come to terms yet, but it is the start of a lonely journey he must make.
However there is room for hope in this journey as the Doctor heads off to spend Christmas dinner with Jackson and Rosita.
And so I send this out, Gary. “Merry Christmas indeed.”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Journey's End

Dear Gary—
The anger is gone. I can think about Journey’s End without seeing red. I can even watch it and enjoy it (to a point). I will go so far as to say that I have forgiven the show. But I will still never like it or agree with it.
It is not just the deliberate cruelty, although that was my initial outrage; it is also that it is badly done.
I am talking, of course, about Donna. Donna is the Doctor’s best friend. She has given him more than any other companion in this new era; she has given him unencumbered hope and joy. Donna does not allow the Doctor to wallow in his misery and she is always ready to remind him that he is not alone, especially when it comes to making the hard decisions. Donna is certainly not the brightest of companions; however she is the most compassionate. Donna makes the Doctor a better person.  She deserves better.
Someone else who deserves better: Davros. This is probably the best depiction of Davros since Genesis of the Daleks, from his golden hand to his scavenged torso; his voice alone conveys menace. This is a Davros to be reckoned with even if he is nothing more than a Dalek pet kept confined in a dungeon. But the Reality Bomb? Really? This is a classic example of New Who sound and fury. Make something as big and impressive as possible and hope that no one will stop to think about the absurdity of it all. And I don’t even want to get into the absurdity of it on any level—the practical, the theoretical, the scientific—none of it. What I do want to mention, however, is the character of Davros in relation to the Reality Bomb.
The concept of destruction on a universal scale is not foreign to the Daleks or to Davros. For the Daleks it is a no-brainer. For Davros, however, it goes back to Genesis, and that is the rub. In that long ago serial the Doctor poses the philosophical question to him, and Davros ponders it and finds it beautiful. It is a subtle and brilliant performance; and the realization of what Davros is capable of is terrifying. A Reality Bomb in that Davros’ hands is a truly chilling prospect. Fast forward to Journey. Davros has such a weapon; he has such power. But there is no philosophy or poetry behind his ambition. There is no subtly or brilliance. He is simply a raving lunatic. Another madman with a bomb.
Two madmen, actually if you count Dalek Caan. Caan is acknowledged as insane, and yet Davros hangs on his every word. It is as if Davros has engineered this whole setup simply to bring Caan’s predictions to fruition. He takes such delight in each minor fulfillment of the prophecy. I think Davros has been locked up in his dungeon too long and he and Caan are playing at Ruler of the World to pass the time. It is all a game to him and there seems no solid motivation other than hatred for the Doctor. Give me Genesis Davros contemplating such power as to set him up above the gods any day.
Curiously, it is not Davros but his Daleks who seem to revel in deity with their refrain of “Daleks reign supreme. All hail the Daleks!” Even Davros cautioned them against their pride in the previous episode.
Some could argue that the myriad of returning companions also deserve better. The serial is so chock full that none of them gets any real chance at a storyline. The Children of Time are gathered here to fulfill Dalek Caan’s mad prophecy and at the nostalgic fancy of the writer. However it is nice to see them all one last time. I liken it to that moment in the TARDIS when the Doctor tells Jackie to just stand back out of the way while everyone else is doing something (even though that something is really just for show). She takes it graciously, accepting her role. That in a nutshell is the role of all of these companions in this particular story, and they play it graciously.
Jackie and Mickey in particular have little to do, however the last minute teleport scene to save Jackie from the Reality Bomb test is moving and it is nice to see the forever yo-yoing Mickey finally seemingly settled back in his own world, having at long last put Rose behind him and in nice company (Jack and Martha). Jack is always pleasant to have in the background (as Donna appreciates) and he has several derring-do moments. Sarah Jane is the epitome of grace and shines with the little she is handed.
This brings me to Martha. Martha is given a meatier plotline to follow on her own, but she definitely deserves better. “Osterhagen what?” I share the Doctor’s incredulity. I have to admit that Daleks speaking German is pretty great; and Martha’s standoff with the local woman could be tense, as well as any moral implications Martha would wrestle with over the immense responsibility that was so blithely placed into her hands. But all of this belongs in a different serial and is for naught. This shorthand subplot of a doomsday device is distracting and irritating. (Since I am distracted, I’ll be irritating. An entire year passes with rule by the Master and terror by the Toclafane with never a hint of this key of death but a couple minutes of Dalek invasion and Earth throws in the Osterhagen embroidered towel?)
However Martha performs nobly and in the end does the Doctor proud. Holding the threat of Earth’s destruction over Davros’ head is a gutsy move, topped only by the Sarah/Jack warp star threat to the Dalek Crucible. But the only point the show can think to make of these acts of bravery is voiced by Davros: “But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time transformed into murderers.” It is entirely untrue, of course, but Dalek Caan predicted that the Doctor’s soul would be revealed and the show had to come up with something that sounds impressive.
This house of cards caves in on itself, though.
“This is my final victory,” Davros gloats. “I have shown you yourself.”
Doctor Who has presented all of these companions, all of this pageantry, all of these dangers, all of these foes, all for one purpose—to hold a mirror up to the Doctor. Caan in his insane glee; Davros in his mad hatred. Manipulated by the writer to gather everyone into one room to glare the Shining Truth upon the Doctor. But the Shining Truth is a lie.
The Doctor says it himself: “They’re trying to help.” But he says it in a resigned, ‘Yeah, I know you’re right but still . . .’ kind of way; and then he suffers through an array of fatal memories to (as Davros would have it) his shame. All of which belittles the courage and the dignity and the selflessness of each of these individuals.
Martha’s plan and Jack’s/Sarah’s plan would work—absent the magical teleportation at Davros’ fingertips to render them useless. They might have even worked to a peaceful end. They are something the Doctor himself would have probably come up with given the opportunity. But no, the Doctor condemns each plan as unimaginable and hangs his head at the supposed searing revelation of his soul.
Now we come to Doctor the Second; Doctor Blue. How’s that for a mirror? How’s that for a revelation of the soul? How’s that for convenience? How’s that for a cop out?
A threat to all worlds, all realities; Davros; Daleks; Dalek Caan; the Supreme Dalek; Earth (and 26 other miscellaneous and unimportant planets) transported across universes. Could there be anything bigger? Could there be anything direr? Could there be anything more without hope? All of the Children of Time had given up hope, until they decided to do the one thing they could think off—call in the Doctor. But the Doctor is almost immediately rendered ineffectual. All he can do is stand and watch and despair and search his soul.
Doctor Blue to the rescue. He can take on all of the risk and the blame and the heroics and the shame.
Except for . . . oh no, oops. That was a dud.
Now all of this I can forgive. If the Doctor truly learned something from it. If he truly meant all of his hand wringing and self flagellation. But what is his reaction when the Ultimate Weapon that is going to destroy everything Dalek is itself destroyed? “Never mind that . . . now we’ve got no way of stopping the Reality Bomb.” Each and every one of those plans he had condemned and agonized over, and yet when each and every one of those plans has been defeated he laments, “Now we’ve got no way of stopping the Reality Bomb.”
Doctor Donna to the rescue. “That was a two-way biological metacrisis.” With a simple flip of the switch disaster is averted. The Doctor Donna. Three Doctors. (“I can’t tell you what I’m thinking right now.”) One is incapacitated; one has grandiose schemes shot down; one flips a switch. Crisis over.
Except there is more hand-wringing and soul-searching to come. “Because we saved the universe, but at a cost.” The cost, according to the Doctor, is Doctor Blue, but it is Donna who pays the price.
I still cannot get over the unfairness of it all. Doctor Blue is created out of the blue for the sole purpose of giving Rose a fairy tale finish (despite the fact that Rose has absolutely zero chemistry with either Doctor throughout this two part saga).
Doctor Blue has committed the unforgiveable sin of genocide. Now I could point out that the Doctor has considered this same sin against the Daleks on at least three separate occasions and that Rose actually did commit it (as far as they knew at the time). I can also point out that the Time Lords once upon a time had the Doctor on trial for this very same crime against the Vervoids. I could also ask the Doctor what Doctor Blue was supposed to do, let the Daleks go forth and exterminate across the universe? It’s not like the Doctor had a plan of his own. He was big on denouncing each plan as it was proposed but never came up with a viable alternative. Regardless, what I do want to point out is that the best punishment the Doctor can think of for this grave crime is to commit Doctor Blue to a lifetime of happily ever after.
And so Rose gets her Doctor. It’s not really the Doctor, of course, but all Rose cares about is that he has that really great hair. He has only one heart and will grow old with her, so I guess he won’t have that hair forever so he better get himself a good pre-nup.
It’s all good, right? Everyone is happy.
The look on Donna’s face when she realizes the truth is one of the most heartbreaking moments in all of Doctor Who. Because it is raw emotion and it is real. It is not some teenage fantasy. And it is cruelly unnecessary. Rose had the entire time vortex burning her brain out yet all the Doctor had to do was kiss her and she was fine. The impossible in the Doctor Who universe has come to mean not only possible but very likely probable. Doctor Blue is a human/Time Lord blend and is living out his life in comfort. So why is it that the Doctor Donna will kill Donna? And why is it that it can’t be undone without wiping her memory of all things Doctor? Because the writer says so, that’s why.
Donna deserves better.
You know who else deserves better, Gary? Tegan. The Doctor determines that it is not coincidence that Donna found the Doctor for a second time or that she happened to park her car close to the TARDIS or that her grandfather met the Doctor. It was fate and it was all leading to the Doctor Donna. So then what was it when he met Tegan for a second time? Tegan and her cousin. In Amsterdam of all places. Think about it Gary. The Doctor spends 90% of his time on Earth in the UK. The one time in his 900 plus years that he visits Amsterdam he runs across Tegan and her cousin. Yet there is no Doctor Tegan.
Somewhere out there in a parallel universe, Gary, I picture a Doctor Donna and a Doctor Tegan . . .

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Stolen Earth

Dear Gary—
There is a scene early on in The Stolen Earth where people are panicking in the streets. It took me multiple viewings before I started to wonder—what are these people running from? There is no perceptible threat and they are all running in different directions. They are not acting as a mob; only a few are looting; only a handful are reveling. The majority are simply running and screaming on their own with no seeming purpose. It is as if the director told them, “When I call action start running around like a bunch of chickens with your heads cut off.” And it brings to mind a saying of my dad’s: When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout. That is what happens in The Stolen Earth. Lots of running in circles; lots of screaming; lots of shouting. It is a panic of an episode. It disguises itself so well though with that New Who double whammy of spectacle and emotional pull.
Contributing to the sentimentally wrapped chaos are a plethora of returning companions, crossovers, and recurring characters. Sarah Jane accompanied by Luke and Mr. Smith; Martha along with UNIT and her mother Francine; Captain Jack with his Torchwood troop of Gwen and Ianto; Sylvia and Wilf; Harriet Jones; and Rose. Adding to the pageantry are the sight of 27 planets all in the same sky and the Shadow Proclamation, along with an array of favorite aliens and enemies. The budget must have been getting a bit tight, however, and this is where they scrimped a little. The much vaunted Shadow Proclamation consists of some rather bland corridors and rooms manned by a few Judoon and a couple of albinos who all stand around talking but don’t do very much, rendering the Architect’s declaration of war and her order for the Doctor to stop “by the Holy Writ of the Shadow Proclamation” laughably futile. However this is made up for with not only a host of Daleks but also with the Supreme Dalek, an insane Dalek Caan, and last but not least Davros.
“The Children of Time are moving against us; but everything is falling into place.”
This is the main strength of The Stolen Earth. The Shadow Proclamation fizzles and the stolen planets are all but forgotten as action centers on Earth (what else is new?). The Daleks et al are impressive, but it is the rousing scenes of The Children of Time that are the heart of the episode.
The soul, however, is the indefatigable Harriet Jones (former Prime Minister). Harriet Jones and her Subwave Network (created by the Mister Copper Foundation) bringing the companions together and motivating them when they have (uncharacteristically) given up hope. I love the character of Harriet Jones and had decried the Doctor’s unwarranted condemnation of her back in The Christmas Invasion.  Yet here she is, true to her dogged nature, rallying the troops to one cause. Upon the first hint of “Exterminate” Jack tells his team, “There’s nothing I can do,” and Sarah Jane hugs Luke to her and all but gives up on life. But Harriet will not let them cower alone in their corners. Defeatism is not an option.
This is usually a role reserved for the Doctor. However the Doctor is having his own fit of despair in the TARDIS; how fitting that it is Harriet who comes to the rescue. Quietly and persistently Harriet works in her lonely cottage for the salvation of humanity when humanity and the Doctor have lost all hope. She comes to a tragic but noble end with the Daleks’ “Yes, we know who you are” a fitting epitaph for this most elegant of ladies.
(Side note here, Gary—I continued to watch Downton Abbey well past its relevancy mainly on the strength of Penelope Wilton and her equally stellar co-star Maggie Smith. To really get sidetracked—I also stuck it out with Upstairs Downstairs on Netflix all the way to the end due to the fabulous Jean Marsh who is another memorable Doctor Who alumna, even though my original motivation for watching—Pauline Collins with yet another Doctor Who connection—had long since left the show.)
There is little time to mourn, however. The universe is in peril and The Children of Time send out a distress signal. (It is a bit disheartening that the best these Earthlings can do is call in the alien Doctor, who by the way has given up on them, when they have proven their separate worths over and over, but ‘oh, well’ as we say in Nelma . . . .)
It is great to see these disparate companions, some who have met and some who have not, come together (and oh, please, Rose, get over yourself).
(Lots of asides here, Gary—but with all of this cell phone use I can’t help wondering how they can get them to work when the telecommunications satellites have been left behind.)
I think, Gary, that I have been getting distracted with asides mainly because there is very little of substance to hang onto in this episode. It is all aside if you will. It is all sentiment and spectacle and filler. It is all in service to the season finale. It is getting the multitude of characters into place. It has great fun along the way—and bless Wilf for some of the most delightful moments—but ultimately it is pure set-up.
And ultimately all roads lead to the false but effective cliffhangers.
Martha draws the short straw even though she has the two most intriguing nonentities of the lot. Project Indigo has loads of potential that comes up shockingly deficient in realization; it is a glorified teleportation mechanism that miraculously works on the merest of whims. And then there is the Osterhagen Key that holds immense promise (and I’ll reserve judgment until part two when it comes to its fruitless conclusion).  Martha is left in indefinite limbo, the least of our concerns when it comes to the tense denouement.
Sarah is the most pathetic of our glorious gang. She bravely sets off in her car to find the Doctor and drives smack into a Dalek patrol. Not much intrigue or finesse there, but Sarah in peril is always a reason to tune in again.
Eve and Ianto get some share of the glory, and I am especially impressed with Eve’s game face determination in the face of certain doom.
But by far the most successful edge-of-the–seat plot thread that will make the majority tune in next week belongs to the Doctor, accompanied by Donna, Rose, and Jack.
Let me back up a bit to the long anticipated (by some) Rose/Doctor reunion. Rose has encroached herself into this entire season, and at long last she has found her way into a realm where she is sure to meet up with the Doctor. Donna has been the most gracious element to this storyline; no jealousy; no rivalry; simply empathy. Her only concern is for the Doctor and what he wants and what is best for him. (“Rose is coming back; isn’t that good?”)Then at the pivotal moment when Donna sees Rose approaching her eyes eloquently portray the subtle emotions of the scene; so much more than the schlocky slow-mo running towards each other clichĂ© performed by the Doctor and Rose. I don’t know what the two expect when they finally reach each other, but the only thing I can think is that that huge gun Rose is toting is going to get in the way; and I can’t help but remember that the Doctor has recently condemned Martha for simply standing next to a man with a gun and yet here he is running head on towards Rose who is lugging around the biggest portable weapon imaginable, and a weapon that she clearly takes great pride in. Oh the hypocrisy.
Thankfully we are spared any teenage romance encounter by the appearance of a Dalek.
Jack’s sudden appearance is equally fortuitous and our quartet—the Doctor, Donna, Rose, and Jack—enter the TARDIS for the real cliffhanger. Will he or won’t he? To regenerate or not to regenerate.
Despite the obvious manipulation, Gary, I am at the edge of my seat.