Monday, July 27, 2015

Cold War

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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Rings of Akhaten

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Bells of Saint John

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Snowmen

Dear Gary—
I’m going to give Doctor Who a ‘Pass’ on this one. The Snowmen is another Story Lite in which the narrative is sacrificed for larger agendas, but it is just so darn entertaining that I’ll forgive it. Madame Vastra and Jenny are an improbable duo representing yet another Doctor Who slap in the face to the rich history of English literature (“You realize Doctor Doyle is almost certainly basing his fantastical tales on your own exploits?”), but this “lizard woman from the dawn of time” detective and her sometimes leather clad Victorian maid/wife are great fun. Their “psychotic potato dwarf” butler Strax, the Sontaran raised from the dead, is ridiculous and an insult to his proud warrior race, but he is the height of hilarity. Together with the Doctor and Clara this team makes for an amusing hour of television. It’s therefore OK that the villainy of the tale is given short shrift.
The purpose of the story is to introduce the impossible Clara, the recurring character who keeps dying but who is destined to become the Doctor’s companion. (Wasn’t that Rory?) Now it has been firmly established in New Who that the impossible is not only possible but most likely probable, so I take little interest in this mystery the show is fostering regarding Soufflé Girl aka Oswin Oswald aka Clara Oswin Oswald. It is going to be some contrived thing that is hinted at throughout the season and revealed with great fanfare in the spectacular finale. I can wait. For now, however, I am enjoying the feisty new barmaid (or is she a governess?) leading a double life for no good reason and her chemistry with the Eleventh Doctor.
The Doctor has just lost the companionship of Amy and Rory (even though I still maintain that he could see them whenever he wants but for whatever reason is stubbornly sticking to this idea that they are dead to him) and he has decided to take his TARDIS and go home, which for him is a cloud above a park in 19th century London. The Doctor has a long tradition of sulking so it is no surprise that he chooses to indulge himself now. Along comes the charismatic Clara and he begins to take an interest in life once more. He has been constantly reminded, in this New Who world of his, that he needs someone by his side at all times; Clara gives proof to this. I am reminded, Gary, of the charming interplay between the Fourth Doctor and Sarah as she chides him out of his childish snit in The Brain of Morbius.
Intelligence and curiosity—two qualities the Doctor can’t resist; Clara has them and then some. Something else the Doctor can’t resist: “Pond.” Clara passes her one word test with this coincidental utterance that captures the Doctor’s attention and ties in with the threadbare plot.
“Shut up, I’m making deductions; it’s very exciting.” The Doctor is clearly excited to be engaged in the world once again as he takes on the guise of Sherlock Holmes to start his investigation. He’s having fun; Clara, Strax, and to a lesser extent Vastra and Jenny, are the perfect personalities to complement his playful ingenuity. He becomes increasingly joyous as the action takes off and his companions commit to this lighthearted farce whole heartedly. (Strax: “Sir, please do not noogie me during combat prep.”)
The fun and games comes to a screeching halt, however, when the ice woman pulls Clara down from the Doctor’s cloud and she lies dying in the Latimer home.
This is where the story gets in the way.
“Well, we can’t be in much danger from a disembodied intelligence that thinks it can invade the world with snowmen.” No, they can’t. The Doctor himself says it: “You can’t conquer the world using snowmen. Snowmen are rubbish in July.” The answer to this by the Great Intelligence is a woman made of ice. I have to point out that ice can melt just as well as snow. She can also shatter, as she does when she plummets to the earth with Clara in tow.
It is the weakest of all links. I’m not even sure if the GI is in control of this alien snow or if it is just coincidental that the alien snow fell at the same time that the GI decided to make contact with a discontented orphan boy. And the Doctor is right about the rubbish snowmen. Just take a heavy stick to them; or better yet a shovel. Or run away. How much damage can these snowmen actually do? Can we really believe they are carnivorous? Their main purpose seems to be in service to the “I said I’d feed you; I didn’t say who to” joke. A joke much better executed (dare I make it three in a row?) by Twilight Zone’s “To Serve Man.” I can’t see that the desperate men asking for their fair wages are in any danger. Especially since this snow has been hanging around for—how many years has it been? Is the snow or the GI in charge? The boy, now man, Dr. Simeon, isn’t in charge. Or is he? Did he start the ball rolling when he expressed his “they’re silly” sentiment? Did this snow that mirrors simply pick up on his misanthropic notions and run with them? But where does the GI fit in? What came first, the snow or the GI? And why has it taken its sweet time in doing whatever it is doing?
The snow needs to evolve; it needs human form; blah, blah, blah. So it waits for a governess to accidentally fall into a pond? The pond is water, not snow. It freezes; OK; but that’s ice. Where does the snow fit in? Why not lie in wait for a person to be buried in an avalanche? How does a woman frozen in ice help the snowmen, much less the GI? And it took how many years for this to occur? Just long enough for the little boy to grow up to be Richard E. Grant I guess. And who is pulling the strings? Why the need for spoonfuls of snow from individual snowmen? And what’s with the giant snow globe?
It is all a tenuous web of intrigue that never holds up upon close examination.
But why examine too closely? It’s all so amusing the way it plays out, and the tie in to Classic Who (“a map of the London Underground, 1967; key strategic weakness in metropolitan living”) is delightful. It’s only an excuse of a story at any rate; an excuse to re-introduce Clara and to get the Doctor moving again after his Pond loss. In this it succeeds, and it does so in highly entertaining fashion. That’s what New Who is all about; style over substance. In this case style wins hands down.
The Doctor is off in his TARDIS to find the impossible mystery girl who has died twice over. I’ll stick with him on his journey, Gary . . .

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Angels Take Manhattan

Dear Gary—
I am so sorry, but I just cannot get worked up about the Weeping Angels beyond their introductory story Blink. They are inconsistent as a monster; their powers changing on the whim of the author to suit the purposes of each individual plot. At least in our present adventure they have returned to their original form and send their victims back in time rather than snapping their necks. This is their most unique and intriguing attribute and I wish it would remain constant, but New Who’s timey wimey nature means you never know from serial to serial which Angels will  appear. While the more traditional Angels populate our present story, they have ample opportunities to zap people back but they seem to prefer posing and stalking menacingly rather than actually doing the deed, unless of course the plot calls for it. Plus they have an added power of moving their victims to new locations rather than through time; and again it is at the convenience of the plot which power they utilize. (I won't even get in to the preposterous nature of their battery farm of a hotel.)
The Angels are appropriate to Amy’s farewell appearance; she is the one companion most associated with them; I only wish they were treated with the respect that they deserve based on their Blink credentials.
The Statue of Liberty Angel is the epitome of my complaint. Give me a break. New York City; are you seriously telling me that the Statue of Liberty can make her way through the city that never sleeps with no one noticing? A thousand (at least) eyes are on her at all times. How can she possibly be a danger to anyone if she can’t move unless unseen? This is giving in to the basest of all common denominators. How can I think of the Angels as anything but laughable after that?
The potboiler detective novel conceit provides some entertaining atmosphere, however like so much of Who lately, it is not fully exploited and gets abandoned along the way. It opens with the Raymond Chandler-esque Detective Garner taking a case from the shady Grayle. Garner meets his aged self on his deathbed and finds himself surrounded by the Angels in the seedy hotel that Grayle sends him to. Coming face to face with Angel Liberty on the roof, we never see Garner again. It’s moody and eerie and sets up the tone of the serial perfectly. But that’s it and I’m left wondering.
I’m left wondering when and why Garner was writing this scene out. As it was happening I was reminded of a Twilight Zone episode (my second reference in as many entries) in which the words an author writes come to life. I thought perhaps Garner would be a character trapped in his own book trying to write his way out. But no, Garner is forgotten and it is Melody’s book instead that becomes focal to the plot.
The segue to the Doctor reading aloud in Central Park to Amy and Rory from this very book is clever and the scene amusing. (“Yowzah.”) When Rory and River show up in the pages I am alarmed just as much as Amy and the Doctor. It is a great start to the episode. As it goes along, however, I begin to feel let down. The book that River has written, under the pseudonym Melody Malone, becomes yet another Doctor Who contrivance that helps and hinders on the whim of the author and has no logical reason for existing.
To start our story this book, which River has obviously slipped into the Doctor’s pocket when he wasn’t looking, clues the Doctor and Amy in to Rory’s disappearance and provides the date when they can find him. Now my first thought is, why doesn’t River simply slip the Doctor a note warning him about the Angels and spelling out exactly what they are up to and where they are located? Why the need for this convoluted way of communicating? Except that the Doctor and River like to play these dangerous and exciting games regardless of who gets hurt.
My next thought, since River is determined to write this book, is why doesn’t she simply rewrite history? If the Doctor is so sure that what he reads is bound to come true, why not write a happy ending? Why did she put in those lines about breaking her wrist? Why didn’t she change it to breaking the Angel’s wrist? River is forever bringing up that history can be rewritten—here’s her golden opportunity. But she doesn’t think of it because the author of our piece has fixed her history.
Then I start thinking about why River is in 1938 New York to begin with and why she is posing as a detective. She hasn’t read her book yet; she hasn’t even written it yet. I can understand to some degree her desire to track down Angels, but why the Melody Malone detective guise? I guess because she is River and it is just one of those River whims; however it feels forced to fit the tenor of the story rather than the driving force setting the tone. And from this point the detective motif is dropped and the tale turns into a monster chase.
It is decent enough as a thriller, full of threats and chases and dark corridors; everything that Doctor Who does best. There are paradoxes (River’s book being the biggest) and Blinovitch Limitations galore as the Doctor, River, Amy, and Rory race through those hallways and up and down stairways trying to avoid the Angels. Within this context there is ample room for the emotional departure of Amy and Rory.
Rory teetering on the edge of the roof while Amy tries to talk him down is an especially effective scene. This is their moment; this is the payoff for the endless rounds of does she love him or not; of who has the biggest pull on her heart, the Doctor or Rory; of who loves who more. This is a quiet little pocket of life; the two of them standing alone determining their own fate; staring down death together. And I love it when Doctor Who pokes fun at itself. Rory when Amy asks him if he thinks he’ll come back to life: “When don’t I?” It is a brilliantly funny line delivered with the tragic desperation of the situation. They are rewarded for their leap of faith. The Angel Hotel From Hell disappears and the indestructible couple wake up in the recurring graveyard.
However this is where the episode loses me again. I’ll start with the departures themselves. First Rory and then Amy are whisked back in time by an Angel even though someone is looking directly at that Angel at the time. In Rory’s case Amy is facing it. I suppose she blinks, but given that she knows how these Angels work that is unpardonable. In Amy’s case both the Doctor and River are looking at the thing. How many opportunities have these Angels had to transport any one of our quartet, not only in this serial but in each and every one they have appeared in together, and yet never once do they actually do it until now, in full daylight and with eyes upon them. But that is the least of it.
“You are creating fixed time. I will never be able to see you again.” Rubbish.
First I have to wonder, how many ways are there to create one of these magical fixed points? Seems any one can do it if they really tried. And what does a fixed time have to do with the Doctor not being able to see her again anyway?
Amy and Rory have been sent back in time to live out their lives to a ripe old age (87 and 82 respectively if you can believe their gravestones). But here’s the thing—the Doctor has a time machine. Now the show tries to get around this with some mumbo jumbo about how he can never take the TARDIS back to New York or it would rip the city apart. OK, so materialize in New Jersey and take a bus, a plane, a train, a taxi; rent a car. Amy and Rory, for that matter, could leave the city. They could travel anywhere they want and wait for the Doctor to pick them up.
How about River getting them out of there with her vortex manipulator? (“Less bulky than a TARDIS; a motorbike through traffic.”) She obviously will be able to see them since it is she who tells Amy to write her afterword for the Doctor.
I don’t buy any of it.
The still frame shot of young Amelia looking skyward is sweet and reminiscent of Sarah Jane’s parting shot in The Hand of Fear. However it only serves to remind me of the much more honest nature to that companion parting. At least the Doctor had the courage to admit he was leaving Sarah behind, and that makes it much more heartbreaking than this phony separation.
But goodbyes are never easy, Gary . . .

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Power of Three

Dear Gary-
The Power of Three is another example of the story being sacrificed to accommodate the season arc. Thus we get “the year of the slow invasion,” which could be a fascinating case study but turns out to be merely a ridiculous conceit in order to get “the time the Doctor came to stay.” All in service to the mini-arc for this half season of Amy and Rory as explicitly stated by Rory: “We have two lives; real life and Doctor life. Except real life doesn’t get much of a look in.”
I don’t mind too much, though. Partly because it doesn’t try to disguise itself as anything other than the blatant excuse to get the Doctor to come out and play in Amy and Rory’s world that it is, and partly because it is great fun.
The slow invasion of cubes that appear scattered throughout the world over night is an intriguing concept; the show just doesn’t care enough to flesh this idea out to give it any meaningful threat or resolution. Short story: the Shakri have decided to do some pest control of Earthlings by sending them a bunch of cubes that sit around doing nothing for a year before they suddenly start doing random and bizarre things like playing the Birdie Song (or as I always knew it, the Chicken Dance) over and over, producing mood swings in people, and taking the pulse of those nearby; after a brief time of this they abruptly shut down; they then begin a countdown starting from seven, and when they reach zero they emit an electrical surge to stop the heart of the closest human. Not the most efficient way to go about an extermination. In fact it’s downright ludicrous.
Also unbelievable is the fact that many of the cubes are still littering the same streets and sidewalks after a year’s time. I guess sanitation crews around the world have gone on an extended strike. This is plain sloppiness on the part of the Doctor Who production team. And after a year of sitting around being boring, the majority of these cubes would have been trashed long ago. There’s not even any variety in size, shape, or color. Nothing to capture humanity’s imagination for longer than a week once their novelty wears off.
The novelty hasn’t worn off for the viewer, however, because while the cubes have remained static our characters have not. The Doctor, Matt Smith’s Doctor in particular, is always hilarious as he tries to cope with mundane life. His frantic attempts to fill even an hour’s time are highly entertaining. The Ponds, meanwhile, resume their everyday lives before being whisked away by the Doctor for an anniversary adventure. Added to this mix are the always enjoyable Brian Williams and the introduction of Kate Stewart, scientific advisor to UNIT and daughter to the late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.
This is purely a character study, Gary. Forget about the narrative. Forget that the cubes are idiotic and that UNIT basically sits and watches them for an entire year like the rest of the world and never seems to do anything proactive. Instead enjoy their “raucous entrance” and Rory’s response: “There are soldiers all over my house, and I’m in my pants.” (New one on me—‘pants’ as slang for underwear.) Forget that the hospital staff where Rory works never takes note of an unaccompanied child in the hallways for months on end or the disappearance of one of their patients. Forget even that there is this robot child who doesn’t have any substantially justified purpose and forget that this patient is spirited away by some strange looking orderlies for purposes unknown. (Visions of Donna Douglas waking in a Twilight Zone hospital flit through my mind). These are for eerie atmosphere only and have no real connection to the plot.
Rory’s dad is the most earnest in his cube watching, and the most entertaining in doing so. He encapsulates the spirit of the story, making a whole lot of nothing into an amusing 45 minutes. He is just as sincere in his offer to help out at the hospital. His subsequent kidnapping by those strange orderlies serves to get Rory, Amy, and the Doctor aboard the Shakri ship and that seems to be the only reason he is abducted along with a handful of others.
Once on the ship the Doctor pushes a few buttons and the dead people (who are still littering the sidewalks and streets where they first dropped just like the cubes) suddenly pop up, their hearts started once again. Neat and clean, as long as you don’t wonder about the inevitable pilots and bus drivers and heavy equipment operators and doctors in the middle of surgery and a host of others who surely would have died taking out many more with them in the process. Unsuccessful in their attempt to wipe humanity from the galaxy, the Shakri apparently slink away never to try again.
It’s unimportant, though, because as Amy tells us: “So that was the year of the slow invasion, when the Earth got cubed, and the Doctor came to stay. It was also when we realized something the Shakri never understood. What cubed actually means. The power of three.” The power of three of course referring to the Doctor, Amy, and Rory. This was an excuse to explore their relationship, Pond life, and Doctor life; and for the Ponds to finally choose. Because the Ponds are not long for this Doctor Who world and so the show needs to build to the most satisfying emotional impact of their departure.
Along the way we get some nice bonding moments between the Doctor and Amy, and this insightful speech from the Doctor: “I’m not running away. But this is one corner of one country in one continent on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy that’s a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying and never remaining the same for a single millisecond. And there is so much, so much to see, Amy. Because it goes so fast. I’m not running away from things. I am running to them before they flare and fade forever.” Of course this would be a thousand times more effective if the Doctor didn’t spend 90% of his time running to this exact corner of this exact country in this exact continent on this exact planet.
I send this out, Gary, from my one corner, hoping that it will run and run and run so far away and will eventually find you in some far flung corner of some far flung galaxy . . .

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Town Called Mercy

Dear Gary—
A Town Called Mercy would be a perfect serial to place on an alien planet. There is no rule that says just because they are going for the Western feel the story has to take place in the American Wild, Wild West. And since most of the townsfolk of Mercy all speak in an odd assortment of accents, none of which belong in the Wild, Wild West much less America, I’m already assuming they are extraterrestrials themselves, and when none of them blinks an eye at the presence of aliens I’m even more convinced. But no, the show has chosen the lazy route.
I’m not the biggest fan of Westerns (despite being my father’s daughter and coming from a clan that mined Zane Grey books for baby names even though they mispronounced many of them; and hang in there, Gary, for a long aside here because now I’m reminiscing; Dad was talking about his Aunt Vannie and her five children—Indiaetta, Nelma [she of Nelma, WI fame], June, Ruth, Ella, and Garland—and he went on to say there were three girls and two boys to which Wayne asked which were the boys; he could see perhaps Garland as a boy’s name, but who was the other; to which Dad replied June and Wayne said, “A boy named June? That’s a girl’s name;” and Dad then said, “not June; Joo’in—J-U-A-N;” after a brief pause Wayne exclaimed, “That’s Juan,” and the car exploded in laughter), and while this is a better stab at the genre than The Gunfighters, I’m not overly impressed. The scenery is lovely; however the atmosphere is wanting, mainly due to the lackluster actors. It’s not just the accents; they can’t even whip up enough enthusiasm for a decent lynch mob. They all stand around waiting for someone (the director perhaps?) to tell them what to do; even the preacher doesn’t do much leading of his flock; and the token saloon girl is merely a sanitized bartender. Other than Isaac, about the only one with any wild west swagger is the Doctor.
These hapless citizens are being held hostage in their town by a cyborg gunslinger and a ring around the town made up of “a load of stones and lumps of wood.” This impenetrable force field of stone and wood not only keeps the townsfolk in but it keeps the Gunslinger out. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory have no problem crossing the line though. OK, it’s more of a psychological barrier; someone steps a foot outside the ring and a warning shot is fired. Even still, not one of those 81 souls inside ever took advantage of the cover of night to slip quietly away? And none ever thought of the diversionary tactic that the Doctor employs to escape? No, these are definitely not the rough and tough pioneers of the American frontier. The Gunslinger has a better excuse—he’s reluctant to kill innocents; although he doesn’t seem to have any problem targeting Isaac and Rory for termination when they play decoy for the Doctor.
The Gunslinger has come to this pitiful excuse of a town in search of vengeance against Kahler-Jex, the man who made the Gunslinger into the cyborg killing machine that he is. Because Kahler-Jex has cured their sick and given the town electric lights and heat the citizens are protecting this alien doctor; not one of these pistol packing residents takes it upon himself to save the town by turning Jex over. Although I will give them the benefit of the doubt here; the Marshall has Jex safely stowed away in the jail so I suppose that has deterred anyone from this course of action.
This is the bare bones of the plot; not much going on, really; a set-up for a morality play. It’s interesting enough, I suppose, but I’m getting tired of this constant exploration of who really is the Doctor, how far will he go, what is his breaking point, and how dark is this bad boy. Not to mention the “this is what happens when you travel alone for too long” merry-go-round with his on-again-off-again companions. Especially since his character seems as inconstant as those yo-yo companions recently.
I suppose this could have been mildly interesting if the focus had been on the war crimes aspect between Jex and the Gunslinger. However the primary focus is on how this affects the Doctor and more peripherally his need for companionship.
We already know from the previous serial that the Doctor is capable of murder so it isn’t too shocking when he pulls a gun. Handing Jex over to his executioner is a legitimate solution, and one not too far off from Doctor Nine in Boom Town. The violence and passion with which he forces Jex over the line is different however, and it is interesting that what causes the Doctor to snap is Jex holding up a mirror to him. “There’s rage there, like me,” Jex tells the Doctor. “Guilt, like me. Solitude. Everything but the nerve to do what needs to be done.” The Doctor doesn’t like it one bit when his own hypocrisies and failings are spotlighted.
Amy: “You see, this is what happens when you travel alone for too long. Well, listen to me, Doctor; we can’t be like him. We have to be better than him.”
The purpose of this episode can be found in that single line. That and the “we all carry our prisons with us” spiel. 
I’m sick of stories that are built around themes and arcs and trying to explore the deep, dark crevices of the Doctor’s psyche. Can we please have a standalone adventure that can truly stand on its own two feet? If themes and arcs and Doctor factoids arise organically, fine. Just stop beating us over the head for mercy’s sake.
However Mercy’s fate is in the hands of the Doctor whether I like it or not.
After the Doctor’s tantrum gets Isaac killed he settles down into his protector of the peace role, complete with symbolic star. (“Oh my god; you’re the Marshall.”) In the end it is left to Jex himself to get the Doctor out of this tricky situation. Jex commits suicide for the good of all and the Doctor can direct the now purposeless Gunslinger towards endless guardianship of this nondescript town. Nice; neat; convenient; ho-hum.
As usual, A Town Called Mercy has some amusing moments and interesting ideas; nothing spectacular, but it’s an OK way to spend 45 minutes . . . it you have the time to spare, Gary . . .