Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Hungry Earth

Dear Gary—
The Silurians are the best Classic Who monster reboot yet. Mind you, the first few minutes into The Hungry Earth as Mo gets pulled under the ground I’m thinking: Tractators! Even the title of the episode has echoes of Frontios. The ominous statement, “The earth is hungry,” from that long ago serial has its counterpart here in, “The graves eat people.”  It is an eerie set-up that doesn’t quite live up to its promise; the main problem being that the entire episode itself is clearly a set-up and as such it drags a bit.
There is some decent tension, and the shadowy forms of Silurians in the darkened cemetery are especially effective. However when it comes to the twelve minutes our heroes have to prepare for the ascending unknown, any sense of suspense is diffused when you consider that what they do in those twelve minutes is laughably impossible. Two and a half minutes are used up by the Doctor, Nasreen and Tony Mack (love that name by the way—it rolls off the tongue and I just can’t refer to the man as simply Tony or Mr. Mack; it must be Tony Mack; just as Don Ameche is never Don or Mr. Ameche) gathering up vital equipment, making their way out of the building, climbing a hill, and meeting up with Rory. In reality that would take at least ten minutes, but in Doctor Who time it is only two and one half. The remaining nine and one half minutes are even more ridiculous, with the gang setting up surveillance equipment (a job that would represent at least half a day’s work for a team of experienced professionals), with Elliot creating a complete crayon map of the area, with Ambrose rounding up a mini arsenal of weapons, and with the Doctor in each of these places interacting and explaining and finding time to chat. At no time does anyone seem particularly rushed or possessed with a sense of urgency. The only way they can do everything they do in those twelve minutes is if the Doctor cheats and takes them back in time in the TARDIS.
As a set-up, though, The Hungry Earth does a nice job of introducing our guest cast, complete with incidental details that provide character depth, like Elliot’s dyslexia. Elliot also serves to illicit some quiet pockets of feeling from the Doctor. Elliot asks if the Doctor ever misses his home, and with a simple, “So much,” Matt Smith manages to convey a deep sense of loss and longing that is heartbreaking. Alaya also draws out the Doctor: “No, you’re really not,” the Doctor tells her when she claims to be the last of her species, “because I’m the last of my species and I know how it sits in a heart.” Tony Mack and Nasreen are memorable as well, and the establishment of their relationship is simple, direct, and effective.
The role of Ambrose is more complex and simplistic at the same time; and I’m not sure, Gary, if I can do this justice, especially without jumping ahead to the second part of this two part story. If The Hungry Earth is the set-up for Cold Blood, Ambrose is the set-up for the plot mechanics.
Let me start with an extremely minor point.
Ambrose to Rory in graveyard: “It’s a family plot, see. My Aunt Gladys died six years ago. Her husband, Alun, died a few weeks back. He lived in the house two doors down. There’s not many of us left up here now.”
Elliot: “Mum, he doesn’t care about that.”
Every time I see this episode this tiny bit of dialogue jumps out at me and I’m never sure why. What strikes me first is Elliot’s “he doesn’t care about that” response.  I think now that it telegraphs Ambrose’s role as set-up woman. This snippet of a scene that ultimately goes nowhere and is forgotten exists largely to give Rory something to do and to separate him from the Doctor and Amy. The part about the graves eating people is eerie but we have the direct evidence of first Mo and then Amy being dragged underground so it is unnecessary. The one tiny bit of new information is provided by Ambrose as she prattles on about things nobody is interested in, and that is that the area surrounding our arena of action is practically deserted.
Which leads me off into a side shoot—this major drill site is not only abandoned of dwellings but also only requires a three-man crew (or two-man, one-woman crew) to operate. It also appears to be a private endeavor and I’m not sure where Nasreen and/or Tony Mack came up with the pile of cash for this massive feat. But I digress.
Back to Ambrose.
Ambrose is set up as a loving mother and concerned daughter (not so much caring wife—she occasionally throws an afterthought towards Mo but for the most part it is Elliot and Tony Mack who take front and center in her mind).  However there is little sympathy given this motivation. Through the eyes of the show this is merely an excuse for her actions. Her real raison d’être is to propel the plot.
It is not a coincidence, therefore, that she is the impetus for the Doctor to give his pacifist manifesto: “No, no weapons. It’s not the way I do things.” It is perfectly reasonable for Ambrose to collect weapons in their defense. But not in the eyes of the Doctor; not in the eyes of the show; and not, by extension, in the eyes of the viewer.
This brings me to another aside and back to the Silurians. The Silurians always bring out the pacifist in the Doctor. Regardless of the countless enemies the Doctor has defeated and destroyed and decimated; regardless of the Doctor’s claim to Elliot about monsters, “No they’re scared of me;” the Doctor always rings out the cry for peace and diplomacy whenever the Silurians enter the scene. As if on cue.
And so this two part story as set up by The Hungry Earth is about the Doctor once again trying to broker a peace between the Earth’s current residents and its ancient inhabitants and with Ambrose poised to be the spoiler. We have hostages on either side—Amy, Mo, and Elliot underground and Alaya up top. We have a giant drill aimed at the heart of the Silurian civilization and an army of sleeping Silurians waiting to march again. It is simple and classic; tried and true.
It has its good moments and its bad, often intermixed. Like a terrified Amy waking up in a glass coffin. For the most part she pulls off a reasonably believable scared defiance; until that is the final “Shush.” At that point she turns into a tantrum throwing teen incensed that her parents are shushing her. Like the impossible twelve minutes, it diffuses the tension. Not that we ever really believe anything bad will happen to Amy. Even the Doctor’s and Rory’s concern for her welfare is muted.
Muted. That sums up The Hungry Earth. It has all the elements of a good thriller but it never quite succeeds at it.
Finally, to sum up and set up, we have these stirring words from the Doctor:
“While I’m gone, you four people, in this church, in this corner of planet Earth, you have to be the best of humanity.”
Not exactly the best of Doctor Who, but Matt Smith delivers them beautifully.
And so I leave you, Gary, with Ambrose set up to not be the best of humanity and the Doctor set up to expect the best of humanity and the audience set up for the second of this two part story, not expecting it to be the best of Doctor Who but hoping at the very least that like its predecessor it will be good enough.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Amy's Choice

Dear Gary—
Amy’s Choice is OK I guess, but I don’t like it mainly because I have no patience for this type of thing. I mean, personally, if a Dream Lord came to me and said he had set up two scenarios, both of which end in death and only one of which is real, and that I had to chose which one to die in to either wake up or actually die; well, if a Dream Lord came to me with those choices I’d just sleep it out. I’d roll over and sleep it out. I would probably curl up in the cold TARDIS under as many blankets as I could and sleep. Who does this Dream Lord think he is, anyway, invading my dreams? If it’s my dream I’d just ignore him; send him packing; laugh in his face.
This isn’t my dream, though. It is the Doctor’s and Rory’s and Amy’s dream. A three in one dream. Well, three in two dreams actually. Not one of them thinks to question the veracity of this Dream Lord or challenge him in any way. They simply accept his terms and try to stay alive in both worlds long enough to determine which one to die in. Why not stay alive in both? If one is a dream they’re bound to wake up eventually. And if only one is a dream and one is reality, how do they think the Dream Lord has manipulated the real world to put them into danger?
Here’s something I’ve come to realize about this Eleventh Doctor. He doesn’t do much thinking outside of the confines of the text. Just as he accepts the Dream Lord’s terms, he accepts the author’s lines and never questions his stage directions. If the pages in front of him are telling him he only has two equally impossible options he takes that at face value. It’s up to Amy to see the bigger construct of the plot and make the right decision. Hence the title, Amy’s Choice.
Unless of course the Doctor knows from the start that this is simply a cruel exercise to make Amy choose between him and Rory. He is after all the Dream Lord. Does he know this all the time and does he play along to see which man Amy prefers? Or maybe I’ll give him a break since he is in a dream state and not thinking clearly.
Amy’s choice. That is the reason for this story. Amy’s choice; Rory or the Doctor; Rory is dead; Rory is alive again. It’s a broken record (just to look ahead for a moment, Gary). This is rapidly shaping up to a season with its script showing. Everything is intentional and directional and obviously so.
In and of itself Amy’s Choice is interesting in concept and it does have some compelling moments, elements of humor, and intriguing insights into the Doctor’s psyche. Overall, however, I find it rather dull when it’s not annoying me.
I know immediately that the Upper Leadworth segments are a dream. It’s not just that the town is too storybook, it is also that the show would not gloss over five years of TARDIS companion years like that. Last we left Rory, Amy, and the Doctor they were in the TARDIS; to see the couple settled and pregnant in ordinary life does not fit in with the Doctor Who world. We know something is afoot therefore, and when the Dream Lord comes along it suddenly makes sense. Now it is just a matter of waiting for our trio to figure it out while being chased by geriatric patients wielding garden implements.
At least there is some action in Upper Leadworth, slow motion though it may be. The TARDIS segments are static with the three standing around and shivering. Despite this fact, most of the personal interaction takes place in the former, and it is here where Amy makes her choice. “If this is real life,” she declares, “I don’t want it.” Rory is dead (sniff, sniff) and Amy realizes she loves him. She was only going to marry the guy, but it takes his fake death to convince her.  “I love Rory,” she says, “and I never told him.” Again, she was only going to marry the guy.
I mock, but it is actually quite touching. Rory makes it so. Prior to his death Rory is funny, loveable, sweet, heroic. Amy doesn’t know how lucky she is, at least until his death by Poggit finally makes her see it. (Well, I say finally but this is not final; it seems we will go through this same thing ad nauseam, but for this one episode it is over and done.)
The first time viewing this I was surprised by the reveal that the TARDIS scenario is also a dream, but not as much time or effort is committed to those segments so it has more of a 'oh by the way' feel to it. The reveal that the Doctor is in fact the Dream Lord is interesting and says  a lot about who he is in the dark recesses of his mind if I cared enough at this point to explore the matter further, which I find that I don't.
In the end this whole exercise was a result of some dust in the console. The Edge of Destruction, a similar TARDIS induced psychodrama, handles the concept much more effectively. We learn so much more about the TARDIS inhabitants in that long ago serial than the simple 'Amy loves Rory' message we get here.
“Amy’s men. Amy’s choice.” It is a refrain that echoes through the early going of the Eleventh Doctor’s time corridor, Gary. Over and over and over and over . . .

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Vampires of Venice

Dear Gary—
The Vampires of Venice is a bit of harmless, lightweight fun; slightly sophomoric with unexpected flashes of feeling. This story fits in nicely with the spirit of Rory’s bachelor party as well as with some Classic Who camp, like Warriors of the Deep for instance. You can’t take it too seriously, but you can sit back and enjoy the show.
Let’s look at just one example—the fresh young vampire fish slinking around in their long flowing white nighties, even in broad daylight (which sometimes they can handle and sometimes they can’t). These model types were chosen for their complementary long flowing hair rather than their acting skills; it is amateur theatrics at best and conjures up images of Manos: The Handsof Fate. Oh what Joely and the bots could do with this.
Not much thought is put into the construction of the plot. It opens with Guido desperately begging Rosanna to take his daughter into her posh prep school and immediately looking concerned when Isabella is accepted. Next thing we know he is trying to break her out. There is little evidence that Rosanna is doing anything for these girls or for the city, and yet the whole of Venice falls all over itself to please her. This commercial city whose lifeblood is trade even goes so far as to put itself under strict quarantine at her command. Something is definitely fishy in Venice.
The Saturnynians didn’t think through their plan either. Ten thousand brothers are waiting for a handful of fish wives. That’s some serious sibling rivalry in the making. While the husbands swim patiently in the canals (apparently Venetians know enough to stay out of the water) the prep school girls maintain a low profile by parading through the streets in not-suspicious-at-all-looking attire to endure the whispers of wary citizens and are only occasionally accosted by concerned family members. Somehow this desperate race on the verge of extinction has built a massive weather manipulating machine in 1580 Italy. Rather than simply swimming away into the vast oceans available to them, they want to sink the city once the marriage ceremony is complete. I guess it is the ideal honeymoon spot for these Venetian-converted fish girls.
A word about this weather machine. “Right. To begin, let’s fill the sky with fire,” Rosanna declares as she puts her grand scheme into action. Except there is no fire. There are dark clouds, thunder, lightening, and rain. Cue the Doctor Who extras running around and screaming. “We are Venetians!” Venetians afraid of a thunderstorm; who would have thought. And then the whole thing is turned off by the flick of a switch. Sun comes out. Cue Disney songbirds; cue Doctor Who extras applauding. Blue skies take a bow.
“Funny how you can say something in your head and it sounds fine.”
The Doctor’s use of this trope sums up The Vampires of Venice. The script is riddled with similar high school caliber clichés. (“Yours is bigger than mine.”) However, interspersed amongst such things as, “Did you just say something about Mummy?” are some genuine moments like, “You know what’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks, it’s that you make them want to impress you.”
Helping the script along are some fine actors. It has long been said of Doctor Who that no matter how outrageous or silly the material it is critical that the cast treats it in all seriousness. That is a key to its success and Helen McCrory as Signora Rosanna Calvierri takes it to heart. Her face offs with the Doctor are fascinating to witness. (I do question, though, how Rosanna knows all about the Doctor. From the simple information that the Doctor is from Gallifrey she infers quite a lot to be able to taunt him with dead races. And to continue this aside—how is it that so many alien races in New Who know of the Time War and the Time Lord’s fate? They must all be on the same linear path as the Doctor, regardless of time period. If the First Doctor had landed in 1580 Venice you can be sure that the Saturnynians would never have heard of the Time War, but since it is the Eleventh who meets up with them, they must have traveled back in time to 1580 themselves and are therefore on the same Doctorian calendar.) But back to our actors . . . Arthur Daville as Rory is also excellent and a welcome addition to the TARDIS crew.
Good acting can’t always help however.
Isabella: “Something touched my leg! They’re all around me. They bite!”
I’m not sure who Isabella is directing this play by play to as she treads water in the canal. I think the audience gets it between the gurgling water, the references to lost children, and Rosanna’s touching concern for her ten thousand hungry sons beneath the surface. When Isabella is pulled below, though—now that’s a dead giveaway.
Now about those ten thousand hungry bachelors. Are we to believe that now that Mummy and the brides are dead they will harmlessly live out their lives in the canals of Venice (as long as no one goes swimming) and die out? After a while wouldn’t you think one or two of the thousands would get the bright idea to go in search of some brides for themselves? And none of this waiting around for the good peoples of Venice to willingly offer up their daughters. These vampire fish people would work like the good old fashioned vampires of yore—in the dark of night and in back alleys stalking their prey.
I’m not too sure about Rosanna sacrificing herself, either. So her converts are dead and her weather machine switched off—can’t she find new brides for her sons? Start again? And then go swimming out to the oceans rather than sinking Venice? Maybe look up those lost fish people of Atlantis from The Underwater Menace. I also have to wonder how it is that she stays in human form when she has taken off her perception filter. That’s one powerful device that continues to function (faulty though it is) after being discarded.
Finally we have more ominous crack warnings and the dreaded Silence. Rosanna speaks of many cracks existing—I wonder if they are all the same shape as that which continues to follow the Doctor and Amy about. We do know that there is some variety in the cracks: “Some were tiny. Some were as big as the sky. Through some we saw worlds and people, and through others we saw Silence and the end of all things.” Apparently you can pick and choose which crack to jump through too, like Prisoner Zero. I wonder if they all end up on Earth. Or perhaps wherever the TARDIS happens to land, which 99% of the time will be Earth.
Sometimes, Gary, I want to jump through one of those cracks back to a simpler time, a simpler Doctor Who; maybe look up those lost fish people from Atlantis . . .

Friday, February 20, 2015

Flesh and Stone

Dear Gary—
Soooo . . . this crack is a good thing? Just think of the possibilities. The Doctor and Amy could travel around through time and space followed by this giant vacuum cleaner ridding the universe of all manner of pests. They could go back to Skaro and exterminate the Daleks. They could find out where the Cybermen are lurking and delete. That’s one handy shop-vac they have there.
But no, it’s not good. It is just convenient, and that’s a big problem as the promising story started in the first half falls apart in the second. The Time of Angels set up the Angels as a powerful enemy for the Doctor, but Flesh and Stone renders them meaningless. I’m not sure if the script made the Angels too unstoppable and therefore had to come up with this even more formidable foe to take care of them as the only way out, or if it knew all along that this big, bad crack was going to eliminate the Angels and so it felt it could make them as unbeatable as it wanted because they were going to be swept under the carpet as a matter of course. Either way is unpardonable. The Doctor doesn’t have to even consider ways to defeat the Angels because with one magic swoop they are gone. Nonexistent. What was the fuss about anyway? I forget.
That’s not to say that there are not some suspenseful moments along the way.
Doctor: “Now, counting. What’s that about? Bob, why are they making her count?”
Angel Bob: “To make her afraid, sir.”
Doctor: “Okay, but why? What for?”
Angel Bob: “For fun, sir.”
It is effectively disturbing and creepy. It also emphasizes the fact that these Angels have no sane explanation for their actions.
But now I know why they have no motivation; why they are killing simply for killing’s sake. The trouble of creating a plot is unnecessary because the Angels themselves are pointless. This has been a two part story all in service of The Crack. It could be anything menacing our fearless heroes in the jungle as long as it keeps the tension up.
The Crack is the only semblance of reason in the story. The Angels are after the power source; the chasing and killing of Clerics is only by way of amusement for them in the interim. But then they suddenly realize that The Crack is dangerous and they want to throw the Doctor in to appease the angry god.
The glaring light of The Crack, however, serves to shine a spotlight on the gaping holes in the narrative.
The initial Angel comes to Alfava Metraxis to free the army of Angels trapped in the caverns, presumably to go on a murderous rampage across the universe just for kicks. The Crack showing up is pure coincidence courtesy of the script. The Doctor showing up is another piece of luck for the Angels.
Now, why does the Doctor show up? Because after his miraculous rescue of River he follows the Byzantium on which the initial Angel is traveling. Why does he follow the Byzantium? Because River tells him to. Why does River tell him to? Because River (and the Clerics) is (are) after the initial Angel. Why is River (and the Clerics) after the initial Angel? I’m not sure. They have this book that raises vague warnings about the Angels and they therefore go off in hot pursuit after one Angel to neutralize it even though they know it has been dormant for centuries while it has passed from one private collection to another.  For this Octavian expects River to provide an army (or the Doctor who is the equivalent) and in turn will provide River with a pardon. Why he thinks he needs an army to go after one dormant Angel, let alone why River is the only one he can turn to for such an army, is unexplained.
Regardless, our cast of characters is assembled so that The Crack can do its dirty.
In the meantime the Angels begin their slow but relentless pursuit of the Doctor and company in their cruel game of tag.
Then there is this hilarious bit of blind man’s bluff. It is actually very well done. On the surface it is a masterpiece of suspense. The one defense against Angels is to see them; Amy, who is semi-possessed of an Angel, must keep her eyes closed to keep it from taking full possession. Amy must make her unseeing way through a forest of Angels guided only by the Doctor’s voice and the sound of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver on her communicator. Quite a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. You have to look at an Angel to stop it, but if you look in an Angel’s eyes you’re a goner; if you do look in an Angel’s eyes you have to keep your own eyes closed to keep it at bay, but then you can’t see the Angels around you and you’re dead anyway. The one loophole in this is that the Angels have bricks for brains and can’t tell if a person’s eyes are open or closed. They know if you blink and will be on you in a second, but if you keep your eyes firmly shut and simply act as though you can see they are fooled. You don’t even have to act very hard; Amy stumbling around and waving her arms about is hardly convincing; not to mention the fact that the Doctor announced the plan for all to hear and I’m sure the Angels were listening. The Angels soon tire of this diversion, but just when they decide to go in for the kill River gets the teleport working. Phew.
This Angel amusement park is crashed by The Crack in the nick of time.
“Never mind the Angels. There’s worse here than the Angels.”
First the crack amuses itself with the Clerics, though. This is so that we can learn the vital fact that The Crack erases its victims from time. The Crack is Time Energy. One by one the Clerics walk towards the light and are no more. Again it is well done; it is suspenseful; it is eerie. But I really have to wonder. Amy asks the Doctor how it is that she can remember these men who have never been born and the Doctor replies, “You’re a time traveler now, Amy. It changes the way you see the universe . . . forever.” Going back to The Eleventh Hour, how is it that little Amelia Pond (pre time traveling Amy) has memories of her long lost mother, or even how little Amelia Pond could have been born if her mother never was. But I guess that is jumping ahead to serials yet to come and I can’t remember if those questions are addressed.
For the immediate serial, however, I wonder what River’s fate will be now that the Angels have been swallowed by The Crack. If the initial Angel they were chasing never existed, how will the powers that be remember why they let River out of prison, much less that they promised her a pardon. Unless it was Father Octavian alone who took it upon himself to spring her, and now that he is dead will that murder be placed on her since the real culprits never existed? And since they never existed, does that mean Octavian was never murdered and therefore alive? And that they never came to Alfava Metraxis in the first place because their reason for doing so has been erased from time? Ah, the wibbly wobbly nature of Doctor Who time.
“Time can be rewritten.”
All in all Flesh and Stone is entertaining enough and in that it does its job. The principals of the Doctor, Amy, and River are again excellent and the Doctor’s “No, seriously, get a grip” solution is cleverly done. The final moments of the episode are rather jarring after the dark tension of the preceding hour, but I suppose it sets the tone for the story to come; although Amy’s blatant attempt at seduction the night before her wedding is off-putting and doesn’t bode well.
For now, Gary, I will ignore “when the Pandorica opens” and instead will leave you with this interesting observation by the Doctor:
“If I always told you the truth, I wouldn’t need you to trust me.”
And so I will yet again place my trust in the Doctor and continue on . . .

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Time of Angels

Dear Gary—
After the last two episodes Doctor Who has a long way to go in order to rehabilitate itself in my eyes. The Time of Angels is a good start.
The Weeping Angels were a great one story villain. They make a reappearance here, but in keeping with New Who tradition of revamping old foes this brand spanking new alien is already in line for a makeover. For this one episode it works; it works almost as well as the previous incarnation of Angels in Blink. What makes them work is the same thing that worked in Blink, and that is their reasonably explained lethargy. Absent that, this story would be over in the blink of an eye.
As it stands this first half of a two part story is sufficiently suspenseful and creepy. The Angels provide a real and horrifying threat even if there is no motivation provided. The Angels of Blink had a reason for their actions—they were feeding off the potential energy of their victims’ stolen lives. These relatively ‘nice’ killers of Blink, however, have turned into psychotic murderers snapping necks for the sheer pleasure of it. They have also gained some super villain powers along the way, prompting the Doctor to describe them as “the deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life form evolution has ever produced” (move over Daleks and Cybermen—but I suppose they are not technically a product of evolution). I suppose the energy draining goes hand in hand with their previous manifestation, but now they can telekinetically slam doors shut and deadlock them even when there is no deadlock, and they can use the cerebral cortex of a corpse to communicate as well as reanimate the consciousness of a dead human. Seems there’s nothing these Angels can’t do as long as the script calls for it.
The script calls for the Angels to be just eerie and menacing enough to chill the spine but not enough to kill the action. That’s a bit of a cheat and a problem, but it works for half a story and makes for an entertaining thriller.
The Time of Angels gets us back on track of the New Who trend of hitting all the highlights of pop culture genres in order to keep the audience’s attention without getting overly annoying.
Like that Mission Impossible opening in which River Song takes a serious leap of faith. It is very fortuitous that the Doctor read the script and arrives in the nick of time (and that the TARDIS is on its most precise and best behavior).
The return of River Song is a good call too, even if a tad irritating. It is refreshing to see a strong, confident female character on an equal footing with the Doctor. The give and take between the two is amusing and there is a comfortable chemistry that speaks to their long history together even if the Doctor (and the audience) is not yet privy to it. The running joke that River knows more about the TARDIS and various equipment gets a bit old though, and despite the gag of the TARDIS sound being extremely funny I can only assume River is putting the Doctor on. After all, I just re-watched Underworld where that same sound is clearly identified as the relative dimensional stabilizer of a TARDIS in materialization phase. The various hints about River’s true identity are tantalizing as they arise organically within the confines of the story, both through Amy’s natural curiosity (“She’s Mrs. Doctor from the future, isn’t she?”) and through the evident arrangement and shared knowledge between River and Father Octavian. This too would get old, however, if continued much longer without any kind of payoff; but ‘spoilers,’ Gary; I won’t delve deeper into the topic.
The tension slowly builds throughout this episode. The Doctor and River discussing the book on Angels interspersed with Amy trapped with an Angel are well done as the snippets of knowledge the Doctor and River glean come to life before Amy’s eyes. The notion of the Angel coming out of the projection (another Angel super power) is terrific and terrifying, and Amy’s ultimate solution brilliant. When the scene shifts into the cavern the suspense steadily increases.
I have to stop for a moment here, Gary, to say a word about Matt Smith as the Doctor. The last two stories had my blood boiling, but the one saving grace (even though I was too mad to mention it) was Matt Smith’s performance. He continues this stellar portrayal in The Time of Angels. He has that laser sharp focus allowing him to switch from flippant to serious on a dime and amidst chaos and danger to take a seemingly innocuous moment to express concern and foster reassurance (similar to the Fourth Doctor).
In particular I would like to point out the Doctor’s interaction with Bob. Almost out of the corner of his eye the Doctor discerns the dysfunctional exchange between Octavian and his Cleric and with a simple question (“What’s your name?”) he diffuses the tension and with a few more well placed words gains the confidence of all. With a final “Anyone in this room who isn’t scared is a moron,” he turns his attention back to the danger at hand with, “Carry on.” It is fast; it is momentary; it is unnecessary; but it speaks volumes about who this Eleventh Doctor is.
Back to the action. The revelations about the all-powerful Angels keep coming. “That which holds the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel.” Not only that, but when an Angel creeps into a person’s eye they also control their mind. It is eerie watching Amy learn this for herself. The sand filtering through her hand as she rubs her eye is an ominous warning of things to come. When she becomes literally petrified with fear it takes the Doctor’s lateral thinking (shades of Three and Four here) to get her moving again.
Now we find out the true psychosis of these Angels as they taunt the Doctor using Bob’s voice. They are as malicious as they are powerful. I have to wonder how the universe has survived them.
Finally we have the reveal that the multitude of statues surrounding our heroes in these caverns of the dead are not the monuments to the two-headed inhabitants of the planet as they thought but are in fact reviving Angels. Surrounded by Angels, malevolent and mighty Angels, they are trapped.
Except: “If you’re smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap.”
The Doctor is being bombastic again, but I’ll forgive him because these Angels are unforgivably sadistic.
The flaring light, the gunshot, the jumping . . . I don’t know what any of that is about, but along with Amy and River and Octavian and the Clerics I will trust the Doctor and I will take that leap of faith . . .
Until next time Gary.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Victory of the Daleks

Dear Gary—
Doctor Who isn’t Doctor Who anymore. It’s some generic action adventure series with a guy called the Doctor and some Daleks thrown in to make it seem authentic. That’s not precisely how I feel, but the thought does flit through my mind from time to time during Victory of the Daleks; most notably during the Star Wars fighter pilot segment.
This episode has the feel of a group of guys sitting around coming up with ideas. One says he knows an actor who does a great Churchill impression and the rest latch onto that notion and run with it. And oh wouldn’t it be cool, one says, if we had Daleks in it? Daleks in WWII, how cool is that? We could have Daleks in victory posters and camouflage and . . .
And oh, Gary I fear that Victory of the Daleks was born.
I can’t think why New Who has this all-consuming need to upgrade its classic villains; and this falling back through time routine is getting a bit old. Furthermore, the Earth apparently is the default setting whenever any alien race decides to hit their reset button.
Most annoying, though, is the shows increasing flippancy with the historical record. The Original got it right, with The Aztecs being the epitome of this history-as-sacrosanct philosophy. Understandably this hard and fast rule needed to be relaxed as the Doctor continued his travels through known history, and New Who’s fixed point theory, while highly improbable and preposterous, works on the superficial level that the show tends towards. However the show has started to go off the deep end in making a mockery out of the past.
Mind you, Classic Who would occasionally dip its toe in these waters but it was usually discordant. I think of the Fourth Doctor’s claim regarding his Shakespearean ghostwriting in City of Death; but this is nothing compared to the influence the Tenth Doctor and his companion have over the immortal words of the Bard.
Victory of the Daleks takes the London Blitz and turns it into the Doctor and Dalek show.
If I were a British subject I would be livid.
Yes, Victory Daleks are cool. Yes, the sight of Daleks serving tea is cool. Yes, hearing Daleks say, “I am your soldier,” is cool. And yes, even the Star Wars fighter pilots are cool. But Doctor Who has to be more than a sum total of a collection of its cool parts. Victory of the Daleks could use some grounding; Victory of the Daleks could use a Nancy to depict the true devastation of the London Blitz on ordinary life. The closest bone we are thrown is the peripheral character of Miss Breen. Hitler, the Nazis, and the Blitz are all trivial to the plot. Victory of the Daleks could be set in any time, in any place. But then we wouldn’t have a cigar chomping Churchill or the Victory Daleks. WWII is convenient and cool set dressing nothing more.
And that’s about the best this serial has to offer. The Doctor/Dalek confrontation and threat to Earth plot is rushed and blasé.
Why is it that everyone in the known Who universe just sits around waiting for the Doctor to show up? If it’s not Liz Ten amongst her water glasses it’s the Daleks in Blitzkrieg London. I guess they are just biding time anticipating the Doctor Who ‘Action’ call from Mr. Doctor Who Director; they know it’s inevitable that the Doctor will enter the picture once that happens. The Doctor never arrives anywhere by chance anymore; he is summoned or manipulated or fated to land at a particular time and place.
That’s a problem with New Who. It is so deliberately crafted; all its seams are showing.
So the Daleks are serving tea while they wait around for Churchill to phone a friend, his old chum the Doctor; because Churchill is incapable of running a war or making major decisions on his own. He needs an alien’s stamp of approval on the new war machines created by his scientific adviser Professor Edwin Bracewell. But never mind, a month has gone by since Winston made that urgent phone call and these machines make such good waiters, what’s the harm? Now that the Doctor has arrived and sounds off all kinds of alarms the Prime Minister ignores the very man he called in to consult.
The best the Doctor can think of in this situation is to pick up a giant spanner and start hitting a Dalek’s metal casing. He doesn’t go for the eye stalk or weapons systems. He isn’t trying to neutralize it; he is just trying to antagonize this “worst thing in all creation.” He is trying to prove the danger they are in by putting the entire room in danger, not to mention the Earth. By doing this he falls right into the Daleks’ (and author’s) master plan.
This is their master plan: to wait around serving tea until the Doctor inevitably shows up (nothing left to chance here) to identify them to the Progenitor, which will only take the word of the sworn enemy of the Daleks as proper evidence that this battered wait staff contains the right stuff to carry on the name of Dalek. Genius.
Now we get the Doctor holding off the Daleks with a Jammie Dodger (how cool is that?) and our cool Spitfires in space action sequences. Oh, and cool new Technicolor Daleks. After all these drab millennia the Daleks have become fashion conscious. Too cool for words. Cool; cool, cool, cool (borrowing a page from Abed Nadir).
Lighting up London during the Blitz is the initial threat posed by the Daleks. Not exactly a worldwide catastrophe; the action-packed attack on the Dalek spaceship isn’t quite as heroic when you consider it merely saves London from a massive electric bill; but I guess the Daleks are just warming up. Nothing is mentioned about any defense mounted by the British against the advancing German planes; nobody thinks to smash some light bulbs, draw their curtains, or cover their lamps with towels. So I guess it is all up to these miraculous fighter pilots in space to win this particular campaign in the Dalek version of WWII. But this is only a cool diversion before the real Dalek threat.
Turns out Professor Bracewell isn’t human. He is a bomb in robotic form. The Daleks do bombs on a grand scale. Maybe Bracewell isn’t exactly a Reality Bomb, but Oblivion Continuum sounds pretty impressive. A snap to defuse, though. All you have to do is convince Bracewell that he is human and not a robot bomb. This is where Amy and her wonder powers of observation and insight come in.
Victory of the Dalek is entertaining and funny and thrilling and even poignant at times. But I’m sorry, Gary; coming so close on the heels of The Beast Below I have no patience for it. Especially when they remind me with the Doctor’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’ moment; again with the alien vs. humanity dilemma. And of course that darn crack making its mandatory appearance in a random place.
“What does hate look like?”
Right now the show does not want to ask me that question Gary.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Beast Below

Dear Gary—
How do I even begin to tell you how much I hate The Beast Below? This episode is so far beneath the bottom of my list; I wish it didn’t exist. It is preposterous, calculated, and insulting. It is a manufactured drama that is patently absurd and a slap in the face to the audience.  It doesn’t fill me with anger like it used to because frankly I find I just don’t care enough anymore, but I can still get worked up just thinking about it. Hang onto your hat, Gary.
I’ll start with the Smilers. These are fantastically creepy creations that fill one with dread, but there is no logical explanation for them. They are designed to smile or frown, depending on if you have been naughty or nice; or, as in the case of Timmy and Mandy, if you have been stupid or smart. After rendering their verdict I presume they program into the lifts (Vators) whether to take you to your destination or send you below. It must be some sophisticated programming to know when certain individuals who have been designated naughty and/or stupid step into one of those Vators. I wonder, if Timmy had gone in with the other kids, would they all be sent below? Or would Timmy have been spared? And what if he had taken the stairs as Mandy advised? Would he have been spared, at least until the next zero he gets on a test? And would he be doomed to taking the stairs for the rest of his life? We’ll never know because he stupidly (guess that zero was accurate) gets into the next Vator to come along and he is sent below. Apparently Timmy has no parents; or his parents don’t care about him. Apparently none of the parents in this world take any notice of their kids and if they have gone missing.
And what of all of these kids wandering about below because the Star Whale has rejected them? Who takes care of them? Feeds them? Clothes them? Why aren’t they sent back up to their parents? Oh yeah, because their parents don’t give a darn. And do they then live out their entire lives down there, or are they in a holding pattern until they reach a certain age when they become digestible?
There is no reason for these Smilers to be. Other than programming lifts they don’t seem to have any practical threat. Just stay clear of Smilers and lifts and you can get away with murder. Only the idiots like Timmy walk right into the trap.
Now what about this international glass of water test? Except it seems that it’s not universally known; you have to belong to a secret glass of water test club I guess. It’s lucky that it is a glass of water the Doctor takes. Otherwise I imagine Hawthorne saying, ‘Sorry, Ma’am, false alarm. It was a cup of tea he used not a glass of water.’ And why would the Doctor use his newly minted, million and one uses sonic screwdriver to check for engine vibrations when he has a handy glass of water to swipe?  Maybe it isn’t luck. With the prescience of the Queen, perhaps the London Market is under orders to serve nothing but water, and in real glasses; none of this plastic or Styrofoam cup nonsense.
The Queen. Ah yes, the Queen. Gun toting Liz Ten sitting all day in her room full of water glasses for ten year stretches before she decides to do anything. Children yanked from their families; malcontents sent to the cleaners—no wait—sent below, frowned upon, whatever; tentacles crashing up through the streets. “Basically, I rule” indeed. Basically she sits and stares at a couple dozen glasses of water. They are different sizes and depths, so maybe she periodically gives water glass concerts while she waits out her eternity for the Doctor to perform her club’s secret handshake; I mean water glass test.
The Smilers and the water glass test; these are mere symptoms. Let’s get down to the real disease of this plot. This forget-me-not Star Whale plot.
Let’s start with the giant whale in the room. Earth is burning, people are dying, children are screaming. The UK traps a Star Whale and has the time and money and resources and expertise to build a spaceship around it to house the country’s entire population and comes complete with Smilers and feeding tubes and torture chambers and voting booths and mind wipers and marketplaces—BUT THEY CAN’T BUILD AN ENGINE?
It is unforgivably contrived.
OK, so the entire population is as dumb as a post. Or at least as dumb as their queen who not only concocted this whale of an idea but also the voting scheme. Or I should say scam. Because it is a lie. There is no vote. There is no democracy at work. It’s either agree and forget or be eaten. So she built these voting chambers to give the people the illusion of democracy but it is really a means for her to get rid of rebels. But then why did she install a giant ‘Record’ button? What possible purpose does that serve? Oh, I know. The one and only purpose of this giant ‘Record’ button is so that Amy can tape her warning. (Which, by the way, she doesn’t heed as she spends the rest of the episode running around after the Doctor in her nightie and never once tries to make him leave.)
Are we supposed to believe that this Queen is benevolent and compassionate? Not only did she trap the whale for torture but she’s feeding her people to it. But it’s OK because she forgot she did that. And it is all in order to save her people. Her dumb as a post people who don’t even know how to build an engine. And she must be having pangs of guilt because every ten years or so she investigates what’s up with—not her disappearing people or the Smilers or the tentacles that are ripping holes in her roads—but with glasses of water that don’t show evidence of engine vibrations. And like clockwork, every ten years she once again chooses to forget; only to start the cycle all over again. Here’s an idea, Queenie: why don’t you write yourself a note, or make a recording like Amy, telling you to R-E-L-A-X?  (My apologies to Aaron Rodgers.) Let yourself know that it’s you behind the water thing and to just chill out and enjoy your water glass concerts in peace.
What of the whale? The Last of the Star Whales? How does the Queen even know that the Star Whale will eat people? What gave her the bright idea to feed the whale her subjects? What did the whale live on before? Flying through the universe, did it visit planets to devour populations? Can’t it feed itself as it flies around with a country on its back?
This rubbish heap of a narrative has all been carefully crafted to drive home its message. A message of the Doctor and of Amy.
The first clue is obvious. “We are observers only. That’s the one rule I’ve always stuck to in all my travels. I never get involved in the affairs of other peoples or planets.” That is a bald-faced lie. That is a statement only William Hartnell’s Doctor could make and mean. Perhaps early in this new regeneration the Doctor has reverted to his original personality. Except this statement is immediately followed by the Doctor rushing out to interfere. And now we get the point hammered in by Amy: “You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there’s children crying?”
From there everything leads to the Sophie’s Choice dilemma: “Humanity or the alien.” It is why Amy chose to forget. She can’t remember why she forgot, but the Doctor tells her: “You took it upon yourself to save me from that.” The Doctor chastises her for this decision, which she can’t even remember and for all he knows isn’t accurate, and washes his hands of her. It’s his choice to make, by golly, and no one is going to stop him from doing the worst thing he will ever do. Because he only has three choices and each is equally reprehensible: “One, I let the Star Whale continue in unendurable agony for hundreds more years. Two, I kill everyone on this ship. Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can.”
Oh, how many things can I find wrong with this? Let me just list a few more options. One, he stops the torture but leaves the whale hooked up to fly Starship UK where it chooses. Two, he tries to communicate with the whale to find out what it is thinking and what its plans are and what further options are available. Three, he builds an engine for Starship UK. Four, he transports the entire population via the TARDIS to an acceptable location and frees the Star Whale. I don’t think it’s necessary to list any more, Gary. Pick an option, any option. Mix and match if you like.
But the Doctor doesn’t even stop to think that there could be alternate solutions to the problem. More humane solutions. Instead he is going to render the whale brain dead. Will the whale still require sustenance? Will the Doctor allow the continued feeding of the undesirables to the whale? Will the whale be able to navigate once it has no cognitive thought left? (Which begs the question—were the peoples of the Starship UK even directing the whale or were they just prodding it to continual motion, never mind where it was headed? What was their plan in that case? Just eternal movement through the heavens with no destination in mind? If that’s the case, why bother with torture? They’re strapped on; just go along for the ride. Why would they need to go any faster?) The Doctor does not think through any of these questions. He just doesn’t think.
The script never allows the Doctor to think. It never allows the Doctor to come up with a Doctor-like solution. The script very decidedly steers the Doctor to this impossible choice with no other options considered. It does this so that it can steer Amy to her action. “Notice everything.” “The last of its kind.” “It won’t eat the children.” Blah, blah, blah. Voila. Amy sees the message that the episode has been spelling out for all to see. The big shiny message. Here is her long-winded and reiterative explanation: “The Star Whale didn’t come like a miracle all those years ago. It volunteered. You didn’t have to trap it or torture it. That was all just you. It came because it couldn’t stand to watch your children cry. What if you were really old, and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead. No future. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.” She says this as she looks pointedly at the Doctor.
OK. We get the message.
But here is where the show adds the insult to the injury. Because the show thinks we are stupid. And so the show has Amy yet again spell out the message in big block letters for the dumb as a post audience: “I’ve seen it before. Very old and very kind and the very, very last. Sound a bit familiar?”
Yes, it sounds familiar because it has been explicitly stated again and again. We get the message already.
And then, the last straw: the show breaks out the big scary crack. What this big scary crack is doing on a starship on the back of a giant space whale is beyond me. It has no reason for being other than to act as a signpost for the viewer. An ominous signpost of big scary crack stories to come.
At this point I will paraphrase the Doctor and say, ‘Nobody connected to New Who has anything to say to me today!’
I’m done, Gary. I’m through.