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 cliché 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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Turn Left

Dear Gary—
Turn Left is a good story wrapped up in a bad one; or vice versa. Like so much of New Who, it hits all of the right emotional high notes which disguise the glaring flaws. So often New Who relies on sentiment and spectacle to carry the show, and when it gets it right I for one tend to forgive the flaws. Turn Left is a prime example.
It starts out wonderfully well with the Doctor and Donna in a fantastic alien bazaar. I do believe we have seen more alien planets this season than we have in the first three combined, even if we mostly get fleeting glimpses at best. The two are immersed in their surroundings, and that is the biggest gift Donna has given the Doctor—his rediscovery of the joy in travel. He paid it lip service with Rose and Martha, but it was a detached, vicarious thrill more than anything. With Donna he is genuinely having fun. He never would have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the tour bus adventure of Midnight during his tenure with those earlier companions.
Donna is also having fun. “I’m happy right now, thanks,” she informs the fortune teller. These first few minutes of the episode reveal a true and deep friendship that is more intimate than all of the puppy dog eyes and longing looks of the previous three years.
This is a great set up for the Sliding Doors plot to follow (or to go with the Christmas theme—It’s a Wonderful Life).  
“Turn right. Turn right. Turn right!”
Donna turns right, never meets the Doctor and an alternate reality is created around her; a reality in which the Doctor dies.
This is my first problem with the story. Not for a minute do I believe that the Doctor would have died that day if it were not for Donna, much less that he wouldn’t regenerate if he did happen to die. A far more interesting and complex tale would be told if the Doctor did survive only to follow a dark and lonely path that would reshape events in multiple ways. However this is Donna’s story and not the Doctor’s, and so I will suspend my disbelief and go along.
Following Donna we find her on Christmas Eve happy, among friends, and gainfully employed; her aversion to Christmas seems to have evaporated and she is content with her life, except for that annoying thing on her back that she can’t see but other people keep pointing to. Then the world starts going wrong.
Now I could point out that the Doctor might not have encountered the Racnos to start with since he never met Donna, but I’ll allow that he could have stumbled upon the plot in another way. His confrontation probably would have gone differently, and possibly his final solution, but again I’ll allow the latitude. The importance of this incident for the purposes of our current narrative is the effect it has upon Donna who is merely a bystander to events rather than the catalyst she was meant to be.
Donna’s immediate response is to run towards the action. She is a more interested and involved Donna than we would expect from a Doctorless Donna. Perhaps it is the influence of the bug on her back, or perhaps she has had it in her all along. Her curiosity brings her to a dead Doctor but a very alive Rose. Given my dislike of the character, I have to admit that I don’t mind her introduction into this parallel world in the making. I could go into all sorts of doubts about her sudden appearance, but I will resist those distractions. Instead I welcome the fact that Donna has someone to guide her through this tricky new reality.
 The next impact for Donna is she loses her job. Now Chowdry would have lost business and sacked someone regardless since the Thames is drained in both worlds.  However in this world Donna experiences it first hand and her reaction is priceless. I also love her disinterest in the stolen hospital and its aftermath, and the scene shift to the family circle is great. Bernard Cribbins, Jacqueline King, and Catherine Tate (Wilf, Sylvia, and Donna) are superb as they navigate through the increasingly bleak existence. It is on the strength of their performances that I turn a blind eye to the defects of plot.
Well, not totally blind. I still can’t help but wonder how and why Sarah Jane inserted herself into the Judoon adventure except that it makes for conveniently heart-tugging story telling. And since we are now inundated with all sorts of world changes due to the loss of the Doctor—wouldn’t the entire history of Earth have been affected by the Carrionites and the Pyroviles? By all rights, without the Doctor the planet should be left in ruins long before our fateful Christmas Eve. Donna, Martha, Sarah—they might never have been born. It seems that cause and effect is extremely selective in this new reality.
Donna’s next meeting with Rose is also a bit sketchy. How does Rose know Donna has a raffle ticket and that it happens to be the winning one? How does Rose know to warn Donna off from London next Christmas? How does Rose even know anything about Donna? But I will excuse it all because Christmas at the posh hotel with the Noble clan is highly entertaining.
Things only get better as they get worse.
Wilf: “Ah, well. We’ll settle in, won’t we? Make do? Bit of wartime spirit, eh?”
Donna: “Yeah, but there isn’t a war. There’s no fight. It’s just this.”
Just this—a world without the Doctor to save it and therefore vulnerable to every alien threat imaginable (except for the Master who no longer has a reason to continually hassle the Earth). The Earth does have its defenders, but with each attack they get fewer; Sarah Jane and Torchwood are just two casualties along the way. What this leaves is humanity—humanity nobly represented by the Noble family as they settle in and make do.
Sylvia’s slide into depression is eloquently and effectively portrayed and Donna’s impulse to shout at the world is amusing. However it is Wilf’s “wartime spirit” that so often prevails, even momentarily coaxing Sylvia out of her funk and appeasing Donna as they all join in on the sing-along. Ordinary humans finding pockets of joy in the weariest of worlds. At its best Doctor Who celebrates the ordinary, and in Turn Left this culminates in “nothing special” Donna.  My one quibble with this is that the program feels like it needs to hit the audience over the head with it rather than trusting us to get it for ourselves. (I suppose in a way that is appropriate; Doctor Who is taking a cue from Donna and shouting its point across.)
“You liar! You told me I was special,” Donna yells. “But it’s not me; it’s this thing. I’m just a host!” That’s what this all boils down to. Donna thinking she is nothing special and the plastic bug backpack she is wearing (they should seriously market that) tapping into her subconscious and causing her nightmare. And that’s what this is I have suddenly realized as I write; it might label itself a parallel universe but it is only a nightmare taking place wholly within Donna’s mind. The Doctor could come along at any time and pluck the bug off her back to snap her out of it. I mean, if it were a parallel universe and Donna had never met the Doctor, she never would have ended up in that bazaar, the bug never would have climbed on her back, and she would never have turned right; which means she would have turned left, met the Doctor, and ended up in that bazaar . . . all these paradoxes . . . shouldn’t the universe explode or something? No, it is Donna’s dream world as created by the bug, reminiscent of Tegan’s Mara induced dream (hence the circle of mirrors).
Somehow Rose has crashed through from her universe into Donna’s dream and is helping to shape it. How else can she know all that she does about Donna’s past, present, and future? But really, does she have to tell Donna that she is going to die? It seems needlessly cruel. Donna handles it well, though, and she bravely faces her destiny. It is a slam bang finish with Donna sacrificing herself to save the Doctor and restore order to the world. (Still, Rose’s “you’re the most important woman in the whole of creation” is a bit over the top.)
Then we have Rose whispering her Bad Wolf secret to the dying Donna. Now, if Rose could appear at will she could very well have made Donna turn left by herself, but I suppose this was all a big exercise in bolstering Donna’s self esteem for the spectacular season finale to come. And oh, Gary, I breathe a great big sigh of resignation.
So much good wrapped up in so much bad. But the good leaves its lasting impression on me. The ordinary moments making it extraordinary. Sylvia remembering forgotten souls in the candlelit confines of their galley kitchen bedroom; Donna and Wilf’s moment on the hill; Rocco Colasanto putting on a brave face as he leaves for the labor camp and Wilf’s heartfelt farewell to the ill-fated family; Donna’s open-mouthed reaction upon entering the TARDIS; Donna; overall—Donna.
“It’s the end of the universe.” Good in the bad; bad in the good. It is exciting, what with the music, the rushing, the ‘Bad Wolf’ signs everywhere, the tolling cloister bell. But not ‘end of the universe’ worthy. Not at this point. All the Doctor knows is Rose and Bad Wolf. He makes one giant leap to “end of the universe.”
Again, Gary, big sigh . . .

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Midnight

Dear Gary—
What a great little story Midnight is. Strangely, one of the most satisfying elements to me is the fact that Donna gets a day off. I love Donna as the Doctor’s companion, but I also love the fact that she gets to kick back and relax on this jewel of a planet with nothing to do but be pampered. The Doctor is always promising his companions a holiday but adventures always get in the way. I’m glad to see that Donna does not get gypped out of her day at the spa.
Leaving Donna to her well earned rest, the Doctor boards a shuttle bound for a sapphire waterfall on the spectacular planet of Midnight. What is fascinating about this scenario is that the Doctor, who so often plays intergalactic tour guide in his TARDIS, is now the enthusiastic tourist. (And I have to laugh remembering Mel’s experience in Delta and the Bannermen and can’t help but wonder if the Doctor is regretting his decision to bypass the bus in that serial.)
The Doctor throws himself wholeheartedly into this new role, becoming uncharacteristically social with his fellow passengers. For all of his euphoric talk about humanity in the past this is the first time that he goes out of his way to become chummy with individuals without any underlying goal or motivating threat. They are an affable lot, for the confines of a four hour journey. Even Sky Silvestry, who would prefer to be left to her reading, shares a companionable meal with the Doctor.
It is wonderful and it is awful; the Doctor has opened himself up and the payoff is both rewarding and horrific. We get to know Sky and Professor Hobbes and Dee Dee and Val, Biff, and Jethro Crane and the hostess as individuals along with the Doctor through presentations and discussions and laughter and tears. One by one; slowly coalescing as a group.
There is something liberating in giving one’s self up to the whole. I relate it to that exhilarating feeling of a stadium full of like-minded fans at the moment when their team wins the big game. The dark side, however, is always lurking and manifests in mob rule. There are a number of compelling depictions of this; what always comes to my own mind is The Oxbow Incident. Midnight is an excellent example on a more intimate scale.
And it all starts with a single Voice.
It is a terrifying sequence. The bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere and the cockpit is lost. Run of the mill stuff. Then the pounding starts. I read an AV Club review that referenced 1963’s The Haunting and I couldn’t agree more. I saw that movie ages ago and don’t remember it in detail, but that one scene has haunted me since. It is horror on a personal level. The unknown is closing in; but it is not unknown—it is very true and real to the individual psyche. In Midnight the horror zeroes in on Sky. The rest of the group can stay somewhat detached from the terror; they are scared but don’t know of what. However Sky internalizes the fear and gives it a home. She knows what is knocking on the door and it is coming for her.
The ensuing events are eerie. Most everyone has suffered through the annoyance of the playground echo; Midnight takes this to its most chilling extreme. No special effects are required. Lesley Sharp’s eyes are unsettling enough. The monotone repetition; the robotic movement; the impassive expression. Everything contributes to this most disconcerting atmosphere.
Slowly this one voice infects, creeping into the minds of the passengers, becoming One in its intent.
Only the Doctor remains above. But his curiosity gets the better of him. There is only one way to combat the Playground Echo and that is to ignore it. The Doctor tries, but he can’t resist the retort.
“It repeats; then it synchronizes; then it goes on to the next stage.” It is exactly as the Doctor predicted, and yet he can’t resist falling into its trap.
The Voice does not choose the Doctor because he is the cleverest in the room (and I’ll resist going on a diatribe about how off-putting this assertion is) but rather it chooses him because he is a voice apart; the strongest voice opposing the pull of conformity.
Ultimately this is not the Doctor’s story. This is the story of the hostess. This is the story of Dee Dee. This is the story of the voice of reason. This is the story of the triumph of the individual. This is the story of humanity.
Because his is not the only voice apart.
The Doctor has met seven separate voices (not counting the pilot and mechanic) and while the rule of the mob is forceful, there is always that extra spark of reason that cannot be silenced for long. What I love about this particular fable of the vocal majority is the unpredictability factor. Val and Biff Crane play to type as the de facto leader and loyal follower. Professor Hobbes falls in line as the dithering blowhard who knows the difference between right and wrong but who is unable or unwilling to act accordingly when the tide is against him. Mainstays of the mob. Sky is possessed and a non factor. This leaves three.
I’ll start with Jethro. Jethro is set up early on as the rebellious teen embarrassed by his parents and eager to establish himself as a nonconformist, a voice apart. Enter mob rule. The easy way out would be to make Jethro the one to stand alone against the crowd. I am glad to see that Midnight opts for the more realistic version. Jethro is nothing more than a young Professor Hobbes. People trying so hard to rebel, so hard to be different, are at heart really only following the latest trend and wind up with no solid convictions to call their own. Fodder for the mob.
Next we have Dee Dee. Dee Dee is the put upon assistant to Hobbes. A woman clearly more intelligent and resourceful than her boss or her confidence allows. Again she is a character that would be easy to set up as the underdog hero. Instead the script takes her in unexpected directions. She does not as a matter of course go along with the mob, yet she also does not buck the tidal wave of hysteria. She emerges as a voice to be reckoned with; but her reasoning at first leads her to the side of the multitude, although not as meek follower. “I want her out,” she states with conviction as she provides the necessary information for expelling the possessed Sky from their midst. Dee Dee is not going along with the whim of the pack, she has rationalized her own conclusions and: “I’m sorry, but you said it yourself Doctor. She is growing in strength.” Her reason next leads her to the truth of the situation; she alone understands what has truly happened between the Doctor and Sky. But she is powerless. She can express her observations but nothing more. You cannot debate with a mindless horde.
Finally we have the hostess.  “The hostess—what was her name?” Nameless. Impatient and intolerant. Stickler for the rules. Trying to maintain order. Vocal in her blood lust. The least likely to be a hero. But the most likely to act. Val is the instigator; Biff is the henchman; Hobbes is the ditherer; Jethro is the conformer; Dee Dee is the impotent. The hostess is all of these at one time or another, but in the end she sees with razor like clarity what needs to be done and she does it.
The Doctor’s voice was stolen and he remains silent; vulnerable; helpless. The hostess alone acts.
It is a terrifying tale shifting from the horrors of the mind to the baseness of humanity and it leaves the Doctor shaken to his core. It started out as a fun-filled adventure and took a detour into the darkest aspect of the human condition. How fitting that it ends with the Doctor and Donna, so few words between them yet the scene is full of all of the compassion and understanding that was missing from those confining walls of the broken down shuttle.
Midnight is a sparkling gem of a story and I sit speechless with the Doctor, Gary, as I take it in.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Forest of the Dead

Dear Gary—
Silence in the Library did a brilliant job of setting up this multi-layered mystery; that was the easy part. Forest of the Dead has the hard task of justifying the first half of the story with a satisfying conclusion, and for the most part it succeeds.
To begin with, I love how the dreamlike quality of the first part is expanded on in Forest of the Dead, most dramatically with Donna’s storyline.
“You said river, and suddenly we’re feeding ducks.” Donna sees through the illusion, but then, as Dr. Moon would say, she forgets. Throughout these sequences Donna struggles with the shifting realities, desperately trying to keep her grasp on the slippery nature of time and place. She manages to create a pleasant life for herself in this surreal environment complete with husband, home, and two children. However the truth continually breaks in on her fantasy and ultimately breaks her heart. Her grief at the loss of her children, regardless that they are illusions, is breathtakingly sad.
It is intriguing. Even though the world she has created is a dream come true and the truth is excruciating, Donna chooses to face reality. Of course the Doctor and Miss Evangelista push her, but it is ultimately her decision. Donna senses the world is wrong, and having received Evangelista’s note confirming it she resolves to confront the facts. Her eyes are opened and she sees the duplication of children and understands the rational explanations of Miss Evangelista despite rebelling emotionally.
Between Evangelista and the Doctor we get the reasonable answers to many of the questions raised in this multifaceted mystery. The (measly) 4,022 library patrons and employees, as well as Donna and Miss Evangelista, have been saved to the library’s hard drive; they exist in cyberspace; they are experiencing virtual lives. The one missing piece, however, the one piece that completes this mystifying puzzle, comes courtesy of Lux. “CAL. Charlotte Abigail Lux.” A dying granddaughter given new life inside a library “with a moon to watch over her and all of human history to pass the time.” The little girl, the computer, the library, the dreamscape—all wrapped up into a neat package.
With this fundamentally sound core the outer trappings contribute in making this an entertaining and absorbing story; and it starts with the little girl. Having the little girl observing the proceedings on TV, switching between the Library and Donna’s world, is a great tactic. It establishes her as an innocent and yet she is not on the sideline with the audience. She is central to the action, unwitting though she may be. Her story is the most tragic, and when she turns the remote on her father the horror of her surreal existence crashes in on her. She is trapped in a mad world of her own making and she is helpless to control it.
The Doctor and River provide another enriching element to the tale. The mystery that is River deepens and remains unsolved but provides a hint of tantalizing things to come. While this is still mildly annoying to me, I am again impressed with Alex Kingston’s interpretation and can overlook the more irksome aspects. Most disturbing to me is the imagery of the Doctor as a future warrior who can make “whole armies turn and run away.” This is not the Doctor I know. It is a Doctor, apparently, who River knows, but not one I care to encounter. Added to this is the god-like pronouncement: “And he’d just swagger off back to his TARDIS and open the doors with a snap of his fingers.” These are shadows of things to come, Gary, which I am not looking forward to. But I digress. Instead I will dwell on the more adventurous depiction of the Doctor: “The Doctor in the TARDIS; next stop everywhere.” And the evident spark between these two strong personalities. A comparative stranger, River manages to convey a solid relationship with the Doctor notwithstanding their lack of history (at least as far as the Doctor and the audience are concerned). Her obvious frustration with the man he is vs. the man she knows is perfectly balanced against the Doctor’s bafflement over this woman who carries his screwdriver and knows his name.
Quick diversion—can we please dispense with this whole Name of the Doctor self aggrandizement already? But I suppose that’s a little like River Song and her spoilers, so I’ll leave that be. I’ll take my cue from the Doctor and his reaction to the death of Anita: “I’m going to let that pass, just as long as you let them pass.” He is talking to the Vashta Nerada, the forgotten element of the tale. Not forgotten exactly, just kind of lost amongst the more compelling aspects of the little girl, the dream world, and River Song. The Vashta Nerada are a perfect fit to the shadowy nature of this mind bending narrative. Just enough information is provided to lend a menacing aura and just enough is going on around them to keep the doubts from lingering.
I won’t go into those doubts, Gary. If Forest of the Dead had been built around the Vashta Nerada I would, but even though The Library is their Forest of the title, the Vashta Nerada are merely a plot convenience to propel the action and I’ll leave them to their dead pages.
Piling up, however, are the hints of Doctor Who future that leave me queasy. “I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.” Taken by itself in this one episode and isolated from the canon it’s a great line. But spoilers aside, it is one in a long line of a growing trend that makes my blood boil. Forget the fact that the Doctor historically likes to keep a low profile and goes out of his way to erase all mention of himself from the public record . . . oh, I don’t even want to begin. Gods and Monsters. I don’t want my Doctor to be either.
I have started on this tangent, and following it through: I want to be able to watch this single episode, or actually two since it is a two part story, and not have to see it in the context of the entirety of the series. I can do that with any of the Classic Who with no problem. However New Who forces me to think in terms of story arcs, and perhaps that is the source of my annoyance with River Song; she is indicative of a larger construct of the current show that I find distasteful. First time viewing doesn’t uncover the trend; multiple screenings, however, amplifies it.
Sorry, Gary. I admire this story; I like this season of Doctor Who; I love Donna as a companion; I enjoy David Tennant as the Doctor. But I have been finding it harder and harder to write as I progress through the series, and little by little I am gaining an understanding of why that is and therefore feel the need to express these ideas as I think of them.
I’m not sure how to right this ship, particularly since I still want to cite my least favorite line perhaps in all of Doctor Who: “I have the two qualities you require to see absolute truth. I am brilliant and unloved.” How absolutely, fundamentally wrong is that? Not to mention demeaning and idiotic. Now I never thought Evangelista was a raving beauty to begin with, and her supposed imbecility was unbelievably ham-fisted, but to suggest that merely by becoming ugly she has become brilliant is beyond the pale. And again, Gary, I sigh and don’t even want to waste any more time on it.
Donna to the rescue with, “Is all right special Time Lord code for really not all right at all?” Moving, poignant, everything that is right about this serial. And so much of this serial is right. If I can only keep those shadows from crossing my path.
But the show keeps intruding. “Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day.” There is nothing wrong with ending on the melancholy. For that matter, there is nothing wrong with ending on the uplifting. But you have to pick. Too often these days Doctor Who tries to have it both ways and tacks fairy tale endings onto otherwise dramatically powerful conclusions. (Rose anyone? Sorry—spoilers.) The Doctor is so joyous and proud of himself for having ‘saved’ River. But what he has saved her to is a glorified Purgatory. I can’t imagine that she is going to be happy reliving the same day over and over with the same people, reading the same story again and again to the same fake kids, and never again experiencing the constant rush of adventure she knows and loves with the Doctor. First glance, the Doctor’s triumph is exhilarating. However it doesn’t hold up. I wish it did. I wish I could watch this story and enjoy it as I did upon first view. I still enjoy it, but oh those spoilers . . .
I send this out, Gary, hoping that it finds you all right, because I’m all right too.