Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Caretaker

Dear Gary—
This is it; this is the beginning of the end. That’s a lot to put on one episode, especially an episode that isn’t all that bad; in fact an episode that I really rather enjoy. Yet The Caretaker epitomizes what is wrong with New Who. Doctor Who is no longer Doctor Who; it is Doctor Who’s Companions and How the TARDIS Affects Everyday Life. This has been a primary focus since Rose with most every companion excepting Donna. Variations on the same theme, as if the show is trying to get it right, and with each new companion it declares a do-over. As such it has become a little show; insular and small; circling back over and over, forever in on itself until its inevitable point of collapse.
The Caretaker is about Clara; it is about Clara’s TARDIS life interfering with her earthly life; it is about her torn loyalties between the Doctor and Danny. Clara has always been an ill-conceived character with little definition or consistency. The Caretaker attempts to legitimize and clarify Clara. In the process, however, it takes one huge magnifying glass to Clara’s flaws. It is the weakness of Clara combined with the tedium of New Who’s repetitious focal point that has finally driven Doctor Who to this epicenter of doom.
 Clara is trying to establish herself on Earth. She has an actual job in an actual school, the Coal Hill School no less, although she is no Barbara Wright. And she is taking a stab at an actual romance. However she is no good at either. She is an indifferent teacher and a duplicitous girlfriend. The fix she finds herself in is of her own making in this ‘I Love Clara’ episode. (I can almost hear the Doctor exclaiming, ‘Clara, you have some splainin to do!’)
Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi play their sitcom roles beautifully, and if this were a standalone, one-off episode it would be fine. But it’s not. It is crafted wholly and solely in service to the season arc. And unfortunately the secrets and lies that are played to comic effect here are firmly entrenched in Clara’s persona and will only lead to death and destruction as this Poor Danny Pink season unfolds.
Poor Danny Pink is where everything goes wrong in this story. He is treated unfairly from start to finish by both the Doctor and Clara, and it is all in service to his sacrificial lamb raison d’etre. As a result both the Doctor and Clara come off badly and I have a hard time liking either despite the deft comedy.
Since his twelfth incarnation the Doctor has exhibited a blind and unreasoning hatred of soldiers. New Who has taken an inconsistent and hypocritical stance towards guns and the military from the beginning, but this entrenched prejudice is still somewhat out of the blue (not to mention his inexplicable bias against PE teachers). Concentrated on Poor Danny Pink, it turns downright ugly. Oh it’s funny enough, the Doctor’s thick-headed insistence that the former soldier can’t be a maths teacher, even if it is done to death. And the Doctor’s mistaken and egotistical assumption that the Eleventh Doctor look-alike Adrian is Clara’s beau is mildly entertaining while at the same time off-putting. And then it totally derails with, “You’ve made a boyfriend error,” followed by, “You haven’t explained him to me.” What business is it of the Doctor who Clara’s boyfriend is? What right has he to interfere in her personal life? And since when has he become so controlling? These are some classic warning signs and Clara should head for the hills.
However it is Danny who should really be packing his bags. He knows it too. “It’s funny,” he tells her, “you only really know what someone thinks of you when you know what lies they’ve told you.”  And then his question, “So what do you think of me, Clara?” He knows the answer: very little. She lies and lies again; even when caught in her lies she continues to deceive. “It’s a play” indeed. Quite hilarious for the audience; quite insulting to Poor Danny Pink. Yet he sticks around. He says he wants to know her—to know what she is like with the Doctor. So what does she do? She gives him the Doctor’s invisibility ring so they can go and fool the Doctor for a change. She just is not capable of playing it straight with anyone.
As the two of them stand facing the window while they try to hold a meaningful conversation I get bored and distracted. It is a powerful scene, well acted and well directed. It delves into significant issues about relationships and explores the innermost workings of Clara and Danny. But I don’t care about these two as a couple. I know they are wrong for each other and that there is no true understanding or respect between them. This serious tone is jarring against the rom-com first half of the tale and my thoughts drift to the foreseeable Poor Danny Pink arc and away from the story at hand.
The story at hand, by the way, includes a striking but expendable new alien, the Skovox Blitzer. Its purpose and presence only tenuously explained, it provides the necessary action and drama for our three principals to work through their various relationship problems. In the end it is left to float ineffectually through space with no mention of its home planet or the rest of its deadly kin. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with seasonal arcs. Everything is sacrificed for the overreaching storyline. Aliens and planets and characters and personality traits are created by the author for the sole purpose of advancing the arc with little or no effort put into explaining or exploring them.
Thus, The Caretaker starts with several vignettes of adventures that the Doctor and Clara experience. They are all rather wonderful and enjoyable and would make great episodes if fleshed out. But they aren’t important to the program. Their only reason for being is to highlight the hectic and harried life that Clara is leading.
Clara is the embodiment of this approach. She was created to carry one arc and has stuck around and now a new arc is being constructed around her. There is no true core to Clara’s makeup—she is being made up as the series progresses to fit the arc and has no clarity or consistency. The show and the Doctor are both dangerously flirting with this predicament as well.
Tacked on to the story is the introduction of ‘disruptive influence’ Courtney. In stark contrast to the preposterous lengths Clara goes to in order to keep the truth from Poor Danny Pink is the laissez faire attitude the Doctor takes towards allowing Courtney into the TARDIS. It is annoying and simply an excuse to set up the following episode.
Also tacked on is the Missy/Paradise arc with the throw-away character of CSO Matthew dying and finding himself in white corridor limbo with newly concocted Seb. I’m not even going to go into that one.
I’m going to do some tacking on myself, Gary, and ponder on Clara’s mention of Boggons and can only wonder if these are somehow related to Blorgons.
Overall I enjoy this episode if viewed simply in and of itself. But it can’t be viewed simply in and of itself and that is its main problem. I hope, Gary, that somewhere out there you are having your own adventures with Boggons and Buddy Holly and have no time for these increasingly inane and forced plot arcs.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Time Heist

Dear Gary—
Time Heist is another winner. The Twelfth Doctor has yet to have a clinker. Helping immensely is the fact that none of the episodes so far have been anchored by any onerous arcs. Oh, there have been hints and glimpses, but nothing too ponderous. Free of seasonal weights, each story has been unique and different, treating us to a kaleidoscope of genres. This particular entry explores the crime caper. It is fast paced, clever, and witty; everything it needs to be during its 45 minute running time.
Doctor Who often used to lead with a humorous and companionable TARDIS scene. These days we start with a humorous and companionable Clara’s home scene since Clara still can’t commit. She’s off on another date to begin our episode and we get the-Doctor-is-rather-thick-when-it-comes-to-Clara’s-make-up-and-private-life shtick, which has become a ‘thing’ with them. It still entertains and they do it well so I won’t complain.
The ringing phone bit has also been done before, but again I’ll let it slide because it too is amusing. These two tropes do serve to tie in the season arcs of Poor Danny and the “woman in a shop” but I’ll overlook that as well due to the overall good will I feel towards this adventure (and I have a feeling this is not going to last long).
“I’m an amnesiac robbing a bank. Why would I be Okay?” He is OK, though, the Doctor is. In fact he is the mastermind, the ‘Architect’ (the Great Architect?—no, that’s another era, another story) who has plotted out this heist, even if he doesn’t know it. It is cleverly done, with the shape shifting Saibra posing the question, “Could you trust someone who looked back at you out of your own eyes?”  And with Karabraxos not getting on with her own clone.  All leading to the Doctor’s conclusion that he is the self same and hated Architect. These clues are woven tightly into the plot and not extraneous and glaring tag-ons.  
It’s a neat little adventure the Doctor has written for himself, and in Saibra and Psi he has provided himself with some worthy allies. Enough is revealed about the angst of these two characters in the limited time allotted to provide a rewarding “picture the thing you want most in the universe” payoff. The seeming deaths of both Saibra and Psi provide some moving and dramatic moments; however given that the Doctor is the author, it is no wonder that the “exit strategy” is not a suicide pill but an escape, and I welcome the return of these two to the story. Enough deaths are depicted in Doctor Who; it is a pleasant change to have a couple survivals. (Even if there are countless lives lost on this doomed bank planet, but I won’t get into that.)
It is also a nice twist that the monster turns out to be the victim. I don’t know why, but for some reason I am reminded of the Garm when I think of the Teller and his mate set free to walk the wilds of a quiet and pristine planet, and I wonder what he might be up to and if he has any fellow Garms out there in the wide universe who might enrich his remaining days. Maybe I’m just in a nostalgic mood as I approach the end of New Who episodes that are currently in existence. Perhaps that is why I am finding it more and more difficult to write these entries. I just cannot seem to get motivated, despite the recent upswing in quality of the show. Perhaps it is because I know what lies ahead and I am a little sad.
Whatever the reason, all I can say is that I liked this story. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman remain strong. The writing is good and the production values are solid. The guest cast is stellar and the direction is first rate.
I have come to the reluctant conclusion though, Gary, that if all that existed in this world was New Who I never would have become a fan. It is a show, a good show, but just a show. Nothing unique or different or outstanding to differentiate it from any other action/adventure/sci fi show out there. Even the blue box has become obsolete—any alien can time travel these days. What’s the big deal?
This is a time heist, just to differentiate it from any old crime caper. But what of it? I can’t even figure what time lines any of these people are on. The actual adventure is presumably in the future (relative to our timeframe and I suppose that of Clara) and it was instigated by Karabraxos at an even more future date; yet she telephones the Doctor in the present (our present and Clara’s); and who knows what dates the Doctor plucks Psi and Saibra from or where he leaves the Teller and his mate for that matter. Time is relative, as the Doctor was wont to say. But time in this story and in New Who in general is rendered irrelevant. It is all mixed and jumbled and what does it matter? Just throw out general terms and concepts and don’t even think about the particulars.
“Shut up. Just shut up. Shut up, shut up, shutetty up up up.”
Sorry, Gary. I’ll shut up now. That is, until I “de-shut up.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Listen

Dear Gary—
“So, is it possible we’ve just saved that kid from another kid in a bedspread?”
Yes—and that’s what makes Listen especially creepy—we never know for sure. There is no monster under the bed or at the end of the universe or in a lonely barn. It is all in the mind; it is all conjecture; and that is the scariest prospect of all. Listen is a ghost story told around a campfire, and just at its deepest, darkest moment, when all ears are strained, when each imagination is stirred, the teller leaps out at you with a great shout—‘You’ve got it!’ And every listener jumps out of their skin with their own very personal reaction.
Internalized fears are the most fearsome; Listen is about the Doctor’s internalized fears. Oh, he faces monsters on a daily basis; he confronts aliens as a matter of course. However when all alone, when the silence overtakes him, his mind reels with the possibilities and imaginary evils take hold. That is when the Doctor feels the breath on the back of his neck; that is when his hair stands on end.
When all alone and scared in the TARDIS, talking to himself and his mind gone mad with the silence, the Doctor reaches out for companionship.
“Fear makes companions of us all.”
The Doctor reaches out for Clara.
“I need you . . . for a thing.”
At this point I would like to point out, Gary, that if the Doctor would get himself a permanent companion he wouldn’t have this problem. And if Clara would commit to the TARDIS she wouldn’t have the relationship problems she has and poor Danny Pink wouldn’t suffer the consequences. It’s maddening that New Who keeps circling back to the same old themes. However Listen makes up for the retread with its overall excellence.
As a whole, the story falls apart. However it is held together by the Doctor’s imagination despite Clara’s hijacking of the narrative.
The Doctor is out to exorcise his own demon, but he hasn’t one coherent idea of what that is. Is it the monster under his bed or the unseen listener or the hidden prankster who steals his coffee cup when he’s not looking? He has no clue what he is chasing. So how does he know that the beings he encounters with Clara at the navigational wheel are those he seeks, much less are of the same type? For all he knows he is confronting a child under a bedspread and banging pipes. For all he knows he is confronting an ET type creature and the unknown entity from Midnight. The only thing linking them is the Doctor’s own fears that he is projecting onto them.
Meanwhile Clara is projecting her own insecurities into the mix and the two wind up hop scotching their way through poor Danny Pink’s ancestral line. The result is a series of poignant vignettes that lay bare some of the innermost workings of the Doctor and Clara.
I’ll take each of these in turn and I’ll start with the overarching one, and that is Clara’s “I am trying to have a date” storyline. To begin, she’s not very good at it. “I mouth off when I’m nervous and I’ve got a mouth on me,” she tells Danny by way of excuse for the disaster of a date they are having. Both are nervous and awkward and highly sensitive. By all rights these two should not get together; they have a sitcom level attraction for one another and that’s it. They have no depth of feeling or understanding between them, and the super high level of alert each is on throws up seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
This is where Clara’s flighty TARDIS life both helps and hinders. She shouldn’t be getting into any serious relationship at all since she has evident commitment issues. The fact that she is trying only points to a life ahead of secrets and lies and superficial romance. Already the interruptions by her alternate reality are disrupting her date and causing a series of social blunders and miscues that she clumsily tries to cover.  However, access to a time machine means she can go back and try to make amends (even though she really should leave well enough alone; or if she really wanted, she should do it honestly and up front and not by backdoor stealth and magic).
Poor Danny Pink. I can’t think of him in any other way.
But it is amusingly done, this romcom pairing that is setting up the Poor Danny Pink season arc. For this one story I can accept it for the casual entertainment it offers and for the effective tie in with the Doctor’s ghost story of a chase.
This leads us to the kid under the covers, “I think I got distracted” tale of Poor Danny Pink’s childhood (back when he was known as Rupert Pink). Clara has a much more natural rapport with young Rupert; perhaps it is her teacher instincts. Her use of the plastic army men to allay Rupert’s fears is clever and ties in nicely with Poor Danny Pink’s soldiering. I’m not sure why Clara can’t bring herself to tell the Doctor who Rupert is, except that it shows she is lying to both of the men in her life as well as not committing to either.
The Doctor, meantime, is so caught up in his own train of thought that he doesn’t pick up on Clara’s unease, nor does he come any closer to uncovering whatever it is he is hell bent on uncovering. He has vague notions about shared dreams and monsters under the bed and perfectly camouflaged creatures who listen in on private conversations. None of these are clearly defined or linked, and none of them have much to do with young Rupert’s lonely existence.
Rupert has had a dream about a hand from under the bed grabbing his foot, or at least that is what Clara presumes and feeds to his impressionable mind, thus perhaps bending and shaping what he had actually experienced in that darkened room. Her crawling under the bed to calm his nerves is an inspired move. The bed suddenly sagging as though a weight has been added is spine tingling. But I have to point out that if this were the Doctor’s camouflage creature who wants to remain hidden, this is not the way to go about it. Neither is sitting up underneath the covers for all to see that something is physically present. The Doctor speaks to it as though it really is someone who wants to go unnoticed, but that is ludicrous given its obvious presence.
This is not exactly a scientific investigation that the Doctor is conducting to prove his hypothesis that he has scribbled out on the TARDIS blackboards. But it makes for some spooky moments for one and all to enjoy.
Next we have the encounter with Poor Danny Pink’s supposed descendent Orson Pink at the end of the universe. The dream and monster under the bed angle has been abandoned here. We have only the imagined evils lurking in the dark and banging on the door. For all they know this is a Toclafane trying to get in. Or banging pipes. It’s the random assault of one’s psyche as he or she sits alone and scared in the silence of the night. Another effective and eerie sequence, but not proving anything and only connected to previous events through the Pink line.
Finally we come to the tiny Doctor, alone and frightened in a barn loft with Clara under his bed. Clara—the source of it all. Clara—whispering in the Doctor’s ear. Clara—a source of comfort for both of her dalliances in their youths. A series of poignant vignettes only loosely linked yet tightly bound. And only Clara knows the truth.
The Doctor hasn’t come to any conclusions, but I doubt he really was after any given the haphazard way he went about things. Instead we have Clara lying to, inspiring, and making a mockery of both the men in her life.
Poor Danny Pink should run when he has the chance. Clara has given him the gift of courage in the form of Dan the plastic soldier man, but now she ridicules his past even while keeping major secrets from him.
As for the Doctor, he has asked for her help only for her to sidetrack him into areas unrelated to his quest without informing him of the detour and then teasing him with: “What if there never was anything? Nothing under the bed; nothing at the door. What if the big bad Time Lord doesn’t want to admit he’s just afraid of the dark?” Along the way she inspires the nightmare that triggers this episode as well as the comfort of fear.
“This is just a dream,” she tells him. “But very clever people can hear dreams. So please, just listen. I know you’re afraid, but being afraid is all right. Because didn’t anybody ever tell you? Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster and cleverer and stronger.”
Loosely linked yet tightly bound. It all comes full circle, not just within the episode, not just within New Who, but within the series as a whole.
Clara triggers the dream that triggers the episode; she provides the words the Doctor will use to reassure young Rupert; she instills the fortitude the Warrior Doctor will need in his fateful hour at that long ago barn. And she leaves these parting words: “Fear makes companions of us all.” Words echoing all the way back to the First Doctor and the first adventure. “Fear makes companions of all of us,” Doctor One tells Barbara.
Loosely linked yet tightly bound. It’s a wonderful little episode, Gary.
 I’ll leave you with this: “Fear can bring you home . . . .”

Friday, December 4, 2015

Robot of Sherwood

Dear Gary—
Robot of Sherwood is nothing but pure fun. That’s one of the great things about the Doctor Who format; it accommodates a wide variety of styles. (At least the Doctor Who format as unencumbered by season arcs; but since Robot of Sherwood for the most part flies free of the arc I’m not going to mention it.) It begins with the Doctor asking Clara where she wants to go; “wherever, whenever, anywhere in time and space.”  No matter how outlandish or made up or old-fashioned; the Doctor is willing to comply. Gleefully she responds with, “Robin Hood.”  It is just such joyful adventures that keep companions on board.
And it is also what keeps me on board. Robot of Sherwood is pure delight. No Danny Pink; no Missy. Simply the Doctor and his companion on an adventure. Wonderful sets; great costumes (and really, the Doctor must keep a professional hair stylist on retainer for the use of his companions); excellent guest actors; witty script. Doctor Who at its best.
Landing in 1190 AD (ish) Sherwood Forest, I half expect to see the gang from The King’s Demons make an appearance. And then lo and behold, the Sheriff of Nottingham shows up looking for all the world like Anthony Ainley’s Master from that long ago serial. I can almost believe that the Doctor has crossed back into the Master’s time line and has run across him in disguise once again. It lends a deeper layer of appreciation in my viewing, not that Robot of Sherwood needs any aid.
Clara: “When did you stop believing in everything?”
Doctor: “When did you start believing in impossible heroes?”
The Doctor’s skepticism plays well against Clara’s unbridled enthusiasm. It is also a nice echo back to Into the Dalek in which the Doctor dared to hope he had found a good Dalek only to be perversely pleased when his world view was confirmed and the incontrovertibility of Daleks’ evilness affirmed. Now, confronted with the laughing countenance of an impossible hero, the Doctor sonics an apple as he searches for any scrap of evidence that the legend before him is not real.
I love how the story plays with the concepts of legend and reality as both of our Impossible Heroes (wish that word impossible wasn’t so used and abused by New Who) bicker their way through the larger than life historical.  It is a wonderful bit of hilarity as the Doctor examines this too perfect world while Robin and his Merry Men banter. (“That was bantering. I am totally against bantering.”) From one preposterous sandal sniffing test to another, the Doctor is determined to find the lie behind these men even while Clara elicits the grim truth of Sherwood’s “dark days.”
Feeding us images of the fable that is Robin Hood (complete with a fabulous shot of Patrick Troughton in the classic role) and paying homage to the swashbuckling tale with scenes such as the archery contest and Robin sliding down the banner with his knife, the episode lovingly encapsulates the myth while at the same time carving out a sincere characterization of the man. In doing so it highlights the Doctor’s similar dichotomy. Perhaps it is because Robin’s story hits so close to home that the Doctor is so driven to disprove the facts before him.
And the more the Doctor disbelieves, the more ornery and cantankerous he becomes, the more I love him. Last entry I compared him to Doctor Four; now I can only say that he holds up well to Doctor Number One. Characteristics of my top two Doctors rolled into one. Peter Capaldi is rapidly rising in my esteem.
Clara, too, is observing and assessing the Doctor. Building on her more realistic approach to their relationship that she has been forging since Deep Breath, Clara sees her Impossible Hero with all his flaws. No more star struck worship. Robot of Sherwood not only allows the Doctor to be fallible, it revels in his mistakes.
Doctor:  “Well, there is a bright side.”
Robin: “Which is?”
Doctor: “Clara didn’t see that.”
What she does see is enough. These two legendary, larger than life, heroic figures bickering and competing and in all ways acting petty and childish in a wonderfully comedic scene while their lives hang in the balance. Clara clearly is the grown-up in this scenario and the fact that the guard pegs her as the leader is amusing and fitting. After all, this is a story of Clara’s making. Sherwood was her choice. The Doctor and Robin Hood are her heroes; her impossible heroes. That they do not live up to their heroic legends does not lead to deep, dark angst and tragedy to which New Who has so often fallen victim. No; rather it leads to an amusing lark in which Clara becomes a hero in the Doctor’s and the Prince of Thieves’ name.
Doctor: “I’m not a hero.”
Robin: “Well, neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be . . . Ha, ha! . . . Perhaps others will be heroes in our name.”
The golden arrow of an end is a bit of a stretch, but it is apt that it comes about as a result of cooperation between our three heroes and not one Superhero Moment. And I am especially glad it doesn’t come about as a result of the magic sonic. (One of the many highlights for me is this observation from Clara: “Can you explain your plan without using the word sonic screwdriver? Because you might have forgotten, the Sheriff of Nottingham has taken your sonic screwdriver; just saying. It’s always the screwdriver.”)
I just want to say one quick word about Marian. It is obvious from the start that this woman is Maid Marian, but it plays out subtly and without a lot of fanfare. She is quietly heroic in her own right, with a little inspiration from the Doctor. Her revelation at the end as the TARDIS dematerializes is a lovely way to conclude.
My final thought, however, comes courtesy of Robin Hood: “Fly among the stars,” he tells the Doctor, “fighting the good fight.” My initial reaction is personal and one you would appreciate, Gary. When I hear that line I immediately think of driving Up North, and as we pass through Bonduel I always remark that they should adopt the slogan ‘Fight the good fight’ for their fair village. Beyond that, however, as Robin takes his farewell of the Doctor I am reminded of the first Doctor going forward in his beliefs and seeking his own truth amongst the stars.
I hope this finds you some day, Gary, fighting the good fight as you seek truth amongst the stars . . .

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Into the Dalek

Dear Gary—
“Am I a good man?”
Into the Dalek just as easily could have been called Into the Doctor as it explores the question along with this twelfth generation. The very fact that he is asking the question is admirable and worthy of a positive response.
Mind you, I am getting fed up with New Who’s fascination with the Doctor’s psyche and the constant barrage of angst-ridden stories. With Doctors Ten and Eleven these journeys down deep dark alleys veered towards wallowing self-indulgence. However Peter Capaldi’s straightforward question to his companion lends honesty to this tired New Who theme. Quite simply, Peter Capaldi breaths fresh life into the show.
Journey: “I thought you were saving him.”
Doctor: “He was dead already. I was saving us.”
And again—
Journey: “A man has just died. You will not talk like that.”
Doctor: “A lot of people have died. Everything in here is dead.”
The Doctor very logically goes on to explain why that is a good thing for their own survival.
It is exchanges like this that Clara watches and processes to go into her calculation of whether or not the Doctor is a good man. Likewise it is these same exchanges that the audience is taking note of. It is an alien morality. The Doctor’s question, “Am I a good man,” has to be viewed in this light. So often Doctors Ten and Eleven adopted the self-righteous, politically correct morality of Twenty-First Century Earth; but no matter how much time the Doctor has spent here, he is after all an alien being who is unconstrained by time or space; and his moral code must reflect this.
In this story Peter Capaldi holds up well against the gold standard of Tom Baker’s Doctor, in particular Tom Baker’s Doctor of Pyramids of Mars. At least for now the Twelfth Doctor is getting back to his alien roots.
And he is getting back to a far more interesting dynamic with his companion.
Clara: “I’m his carer.”
Doctor: “Yeah, my carer. She cares so I don’t have to.”
An alien and a human distinct from one another; not a couple of highs school sweethearts holding hands as they journey through the stars.
“He’ll get us out of here,” Clara tells Journey and she continues, “The difficult part is not killing him before he can.”  Or when Gretchen asks, “Is he mad, or is he right?” Clara replies, “Hand on my heart; most days he’s both.” This is the complete faith a Doctor Who companion must have even while acknowledging his sometimes difficult nature; accepting the Doctor flaws and all and not worshipping him as a superhero.
The setting for our story is of all places the interior workings of a Dalek, and again it is a refreshing take on an age-old foe of the show. The Doctor, Clara, Journey Blue, Gretchen, and Ross have been shrunk and injected into what they believe is a ‘good’ Dalek. (“Fantastic idea for a movie; terrible idea for a proctologist.”) It is a rather dubious claim; the only basis for the injured Dalek’s goodness is the fact that he wishes the destruction of his fellow Daleks, but it is enough to intrigue the Doctor and makes for a compelling episode.
The Doctor’s examination of the Dalek, both physical and psychological, is fascinating. The Dalek antibodies provide sufficient tension as the Doctor quizzes ‘Rusty’ on his transformation. The notion that a Dalek can witness a star being born and see beauty is enough to give the Doctor hope; hope for Daleks and hope for himself. However, when he repairs the damage to Rusty (I’m not very clear on why they were sent in to heal the Dalek, even if good, or how healing the ‘good’ Dalek’s body would help them in understanding the psychology of this ‘good’ Dalek and using it in their fight against the legions of ‘bad’ Daleks; but I’m not going to question too deeply) and Rusty reverts to his extermination roots, the Doctor reverts to his own world view of good and evil and his and the Daleks’ place in it.
This is where ‘carer’ Clara comes in, and her slap of the Doctor ranks up there in the top three of Doctor Who slaps, along with Donna’s in The Runaway Bride and Leela’s in Horror of Fang Rock. It is also where Clara’s newfound profession of teaching comes in handy.
“Is that really what we’ve learned today?” The best teacher is one who questions; who provokes thought; who leads a pupil to his or her own conclusions. Clara steers the Doctor back onto the path of hope. In turn, the Doctor sends Clara off on a leap of faith journey with a “do a clever thing” mission to reawaken Rusty’s suppressed memories of beauty.
The fact that the Doctor was right, that Rusty is not really good but has instead merely redirected his hatred from others to his own race, is not surprising but it is disheartening. Especially for the Doctor. And especially for the Doctor as Rusty turns the tables on him and states: “I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek.” But the Doctor can take heart in this—in the fact that he tried; in the fact that he admitted the possibility of a ‘good’ Dalek. And in the fact that he asked the question of Clara (“Am I a good man?”). As long as he continues to travel in that hope he established so long ago there is hope for the Doctor.
It is a great second outing for Doctor Twelve that lets us get better acquainted with this new incarnation, takes time to develop the Doctor/companion relationship, and still allows for a thrilling adventure. If only the Doctor would accept Journey Blue into TARDIS life, despite the awkward name. Journey would make for an excellent companion, and the Doctor’s dismissal of her simply because she is a soldier harkens back to Ten’s and Eleven’s hypocrisy regarding guns and the military. It is not worthy of this new and questioning Doctor. (I go back to my gold standard Number Four in Pyramids: “I never carry firearms.” A simple and direct statement with no judgment cast upon others for doing so.)
But this is where the dreary season arc comes into play. Journey Blue is a soldier, as was Danny Pink. Journey Blue/Danny Pink. Clara takes note of the similarity (just in case the audience doesn’t catch it). And she further aids the viewer with a decided “Not me” regarding having rules against soldiers.
Now Clara’s flirtations with Danny are cute and fun. However . . .
Firstly: We have finally put the companion crush trope behind us with the advent of Peter Capaldi. Must we really dive headlong into a romance for Clara so soon? If it weren’t for the endless cycles of raging hormones we have endured I wouldn’t be as suspicious, but now I’m beginning to think that the writers on the show have the same difficulty that so many male authors have when creating female characters—and that is they simply don’t have a clue how to create a female character. The only crutch they can fall back on is to define their women vis-à-vis their relationships with male characters.
Next: “Ah, you shoot people then cry about it afterwards?” This is Clara’s idea of being funny? Of flirting? By being sanctimonious and insulting? She’s been hanging around the Doctor too long.
Next: I’m sick of these yo-yoing companions. Journey Blue would have been a committed companion. Clara, on the other hand, remains a “see you next Wednesday” companion and hardly in a position to make a commitment to anybody. She won’t commit to traveling with the Doctor but she won’t commit to end her travels with him either; so where does that leave room for a personal life on Earth? If she starts a relationship with Danny she will inevitably end up lying to him and shortchanging him.
Last but far from least: Danny Pink is clearly being set up as the sacrificial lamb to the season’s arc. That is his one and only purpose, so don’t get too attached. The tear rolling down his cheek when asked, “Have you ever killed anyone who wasn’t a soldier,” is screaming set-up. This is extremely annoying, especially since I like Danny and think he deserves better.
It is obvious and clumsy and there Doctor Who goes showing its script again.
One last word about glaringly obvious and clumsy—dead Gretchen ending up in Missy’s ‘paradise.’
Putting those aside, however, I am enjoying this new generation of Doctor, Gary. I’ll commit to my TARDIS travels even if Clara won’t.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Deep Breath

Dear Gary—
“Look at the eyebrows. These are attack eyebrows.”
Welcome Doctor Twelve.
 “They’re cross. They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross. They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows.”
Peter Capaldi is the Doctor.
Matt Smith won me over immediately with his charm. With his independently cross attack eyebrows Peter Capaldi manages to trump Matt Smith. At times the Eleventh Doctor’s charm got in the way. He always had to be likeable even when doing some despicable things. Doctor Twelve has no such pretenses. His is a practical, no nonsense approach that sets him apart. (“There’s no point in us both being cold.”) There is no doubt that Peter Capaldi is the Doctor, and more than that, he is his own Doctor.
Clara takes a bit more convincing, however.
“How do we fix him?”
It is a perfectly natural first reaction. Vastra’s response is condescending and unwarranted.
The tone of this inaugural episode Deep Breath is captured perfectly in those first few moments with the giant dinosaur vomiting up a blue box in Victorian London; with Strax’s “Hello; exit the box,” greeting; with the Doctor’s struggle to put names to faces; with a disheveled “the-not-me-one; the asking questions one.”  Vastra, Jenny, and Strax fit right in.
However, this detecting trio is beginning to wear a bit thin. In particular I am starting to dislike Madame Vastra and her superior air. Her dismissal of the puny ‘apes’ around her and of Inspector Gregson are one thing, but her treatment of Strax and Jenny is insufferable. Jenny’s declaration of love for Vastra is a moving speech, but it would be more powerful if their relationship wasn’t played strictly for laughs. I would think Jenny would have more self respect and that she would react to Vastra’s chauvinism with more than a sitcom shrug of the shoulders and roll of the eyes. It is a disappointing dynamic that is neither subtle nor enlightened.  Even my favorite, Strax, is becoming too much of a good thing.
I can overlook this disturbing aspect, though, and skim along the amusing surface of the tale. Vastra, Jenny, and Strax provide a familiar structure allowing for Clara to work through her feelings for this new and alien face of a man she thought she knew.
You well know, Gary, that I never quite understood the relationship between Clara and the Eleventh Doctor or why Clara stuck around. Doctor Who didn’t really know what to make of it, either, and in the end had to fall back on the trite libido crutch. With the advent of Doctor Twelve that illusion is smashed and Clara has to figure out her new role. Starting from scratch, the show has a chance to rebuild this bond into something believable. For this one episode, at least, it gets it right.
It begins by separating the two, and this is where the so-called Paternoster Gang comes in handy. Vastra’s treatment of Clara is heavy-handed, but it is a quick and easy, not to mention entertaining, way to show Clara processing the Doctor’s regeneration. I’m not sure that having Marcus Aurelius as your only pin-up at 15 and bragging you can flirt with a mountain range are worthy of a standing ovation, but I love that she tells off Vastra; and in the end the content of her speech isn’t really that important; it is the context and delivery that matters as a shortcut way to reveal Clara’s mettle.
The Doctor on his own is equally enlightening and entertaining. His compassion for the dinosaur, his aversion to furious mirrors, his relish in being Scottish, and his brusque interactions with the tramp encapsulate this Doctor perfectly.
After their separate journeys of self-discovery, the Doctor and Clara are ready to meet once again, and it is appropriate that they do not exactly hit it off. Their “egomaniac, needy, game-player sort of person” exchange is hilarious and to the point. I can only hope that this slightly prickly banter keeps up; I much prefer it to the gushing and fawning that so often characterizes the Doctor’s companions of late. The mutual respect and trust that is essential for the dynamic has to be earned, and that is exactly what the Doctor and Clara proceed to do as they navigate the hell’s kitchen scenario they have walked into.
It starts with their vaguely contentious and highly amusing cooperation as they implement their sonic screwdriver escape. It becomes full blown, however, when the Doctor seemingly abandons Clara to her fate. In actuality he is placing complete faith in Clara and she lives up to that confidence. Using the Doctor’s hints about holding her breath she makes her way through the murderous cyborgs until she comes face to half face with the robot leader, at which point she cleverly draws upon her teaching skills to outwit the control ‘bot. The payoff is as she stands terrified but defiant before the stalemated Half-Face and takes that final leap of faith:
“I know where he will be; where he will always be. If the Doctor is still the Doctor, he will have my back.”
Right on cue the Doctor arrives, and again it is brilliantly played—the trust, the respect, and the prickly banter.
Doctor: “See, Clara? That’s how you disguise yourself as a droid.”
Clara: “Yeah, well, I didn’t have a lot of time. I’d been suddenly abandoned.”
Doctor: “Yeah, sorry. Well no, actually, I’m not. You’re brilliant on adrenaline. And you were out of your depth, sir. Never try and control a control freak.”
Clara: “I am not a control freak.”
Doctor: “Yes, ma’am.”
This is the Doctor/companion dynamic that has always worked best.
Now the story falls apart a little, but that’s OK because the importance of the episode is to establish these characters.  The Doctor could of course end everything with one flick of his magic sonic, but instead we have the reappearance of the dynamic trio for a bit of action and suspense and we have the stand-off between the Doctor and Half-Face, the whole purpose of which is to set up the obligatory season arc that I really could do without. It mars an otherwise decent adventure and does not ring true.
“Do you have it in you to murder me?” It is a false dilemma. Because Half-Face isn’t anywhere close to being human. He is a robot, a droid, a machine. An artificial intelligence. He isn’t any more human than the woman suit Buffalo Bill fashions in Silence of the Lambs. He isn’t any more human than the Madame de Pompadour is in The Girl in the Fireplace. Just because he has an outer covering of human flesh, some freshly harvested human eyes, and some mismatched human hands, doesn’t mean he has grown a human soul. I can believe this less than I can believe that in 1935’s Mad Love the murderous Rollo’s hands that have been grafted onto Stephan Orlac’s arms have taken on an independently destructive will of their own and turned Orlac into an expert knife thrower.  (Sorry, Gary. This is the time of year when Frankie and I settle back to enjoy all of those good old black and whites and I couldn’t resist referencing this classic of B filmdom.) So no, if the Doctor pushes Half-Face out of the balloon, or if he pours a glass of wine on his head as Doctor Ten would do, it would not be murder. Frankenstein’s monster is still a monster. Half-Face is still a droid.
This makes the whole Missy paradise nonsense even more nonsensical and clumsy. It is maddening enough that we have to be introduced to this villain of the season. It could have been effected in a much more shrewd and crafty way.
Setting the Missy unpleasantness aside, Deep Breath is a breath of fresh air, mainly on the strength of Peter Capaldi and on the much more interesting bond forming between the Doctor and Clara. The “I’m not your boyfriend” line is a good start and I hope Doctor Who takes this statement to heart. The phone call from Doctor Eleven is a good touch as well, bringing closure to that era and culminating in Clara’s full acceptance of the Doctor’s new persona as she flings her arms about his neck.
Doctor: “I . . . I don’t think that I’m a hugging person now.”
Clara: “I’m not sure you get a vote.”
Gone are the false, romantic, high school notions. This is a clean start to a promising pairing.
“I think there should be more round things on the walls . . .”
Not everything is perfect, Gary, but things change and move forward. I’m moving forward with more hope than I expected.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Matt Smith

Dear Gary—
I don’t believe you ever saw Matt Smith as the Doctor, or perhaps you caught only his first outing or two. You missed a lot, some of it good but a great deal of it bad.
The good—the best—centers on Matt Smith. He is funny, poignant, dark, witty, childlike, intelligent, and mysterious in turn; sometimes all at once. He is always interesting, but more importantly he remains likeable even while the character is rapidly becoming unpleasant.
No longer can the Doctor call himself a pacifist. Too often during this Eleventh Doctor’s run he has casually destroyed thousands (blowing an entire Cyber fleet out of the sky simply to get an answer to a question in A Good Man Goes to War) and just as casually he has murdered  individuals (Solomon in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship).  He doesn't have an aversion to gun-toting companions any more and he has no qualms about embracing mass murderers if he happens to take a shine to them (the Bloody Queen Elizabeth the Tenth as the most egregious example). The Doctor cannot claim the moral high ground these days; yet time after time he does just that, and he takes it to the heights of hypocrisy. Through it all, however, Matt Smith shines; he almost makes one forget the offhand cruelty.
Just as violence comes casually to him, so too, apparently, does sex. The Doctor’s Time Lord version of a one night stand with Rose and his intense connection with Madame de Pompadour seem innocent compared with the string of conquests this Eleventh incarnation has left in his wake. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Doctor Who universe is populated by an entire generation of half Time Lords. (I think I would watch a spin-off of Tasha Lem as a single mother raising her Doctor baby while leading the Papal Mainframe and trying to suppress her Dalek puppet self.) This is an area where Matt Smith doesn’t shine so much; he’s awkward and uncomfortable in the role of Lothario; it doesn’t suit him.
A similar pattern follows the companions of this Eleventh Doctor. Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, and Jenna-Louise Coleman (and Alex Kingston) do wonders with their roles. Amy and Rory in particular settle in as proper, well-rounded companions. However, they start this trend of what I have come to call yo-yo companions. That is, companions who bounce back and forth between their every day Earth lives and their out-of –this-world TARDIS lives. This aspect is acknowledged and developed with the Ponds, but never to my complete satisfaction. I just can’t accept that this duo would roll with all of the heart-rending punches they are handed and not rebel against their surreal existence if they are truly committed to life and all it offers. The half-hearted attempts they make at normalcy are never believable; and when they are robbed of their infant daughter and any chance at a happy family life with barely a whimper I have to throw up my hands in defeat and recognize that these are not people but actors playing a part as outlined in a script. As actors they are wonderful and enjoyable to watch; however any pretense that the fictional personalities of Amy and Rory are flesh and blood people trying to make a life for themselves, let alone parents, is maddening. Their lives center on the Doctor and what the written page offers, nothing else. I cannot suspend my disbelief far enough to accept them as anything more.
At least Karen and Arthur are given some complexity to keep the audience from second-guessing too much. Jenna-Louise is not so lucky. She has no substantial or consistent structure around which she can base her character. Is she Oswin or is she Clara or is she Soufflé Girl? Is she a governess, a barmaid, a nanny, or a schoolteacher? Is she brave or is she timid? Is she brilliant or is she artificially intelligent? She blew into this world on a leaf—and it shows. She is buffeted by every Doctor Who wind and never truly alights. Yet Jenna-Louise Coleman is captivating.
That is the story of this Eleventh Doctor. Matt, Karen, Arthur, Jenna (and Alex Kingston). Not the Doctor, Amy, Rory, Clara/Oswin/ Soufflé Girl (and River). It is the good fortune of casting. It is the misfortune of a show that too often leaves its script showing. It is the curse of a production team that doesn’t trust its own format and doesn’t have confidence in its actors to simply inhabit their roles. Rather it force feeds artificial arcs that burden the players and that overshadow the adventures. It started in a small way with Doctors Nine and Ten, but it has come on with a vengeance with Doctor Eleven.
I spent a good deal of my time on my slow path through this stretch being angry thanks in large part to the onerous arcs. First there is the Crack of a season; that one is bad enough. The following one, however, is far worse. I’ll never forget those first few minutes of The Impossible Astronaut that almost lost me as a Doctor Who viewer forever. The Probable Girl arc is more irritating than maddening, but it is the most damaging to character development, Clara in particular. And then there is the inane Doctor Who? arc that spans across several seasons. This question mark arc does manage to salvage itself with the wonderful punch line of The Name of the Doctor; and all of the arcs come together beautifully in Matt Smith’s curtain call The Time of the Doctor. Overall, though, the arcs saddle the series with improbable scenarios and impossibly intricate threads that distract from the adventures.
However, my biggest wrath is reserved for what I consider the worst Doctor Who episode ever: The Beast Below. I said it all in my entry on that particular story and I don’t care to revisit it.
There are some wonderful highlights as well. Matt Smith’s introduction in The Eleventh Hour with young Amelia Pond is delightful. Vincent and the Doctor and The Lodger are two enjoyable diversions. The Doctor’s Wife is one of the best of New Who. The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe is a Christmas treat. Hide is a solid entry. Rounding it all out are two of my favorites: the fiftieth anniversary The Day of the Doctor and my guilty pleasure The Time of the Doctor.
Matt Smith’s era sees the dramatic and viable return of some Classic Who monsters; namely the Silurians and the Zygons. Too bad the Great Intelligence isn’t handled more intelligently, though. It also has more than its fair share of the obligatory Daleks and Cybermen; develops further on the New Who creation The Weeping Angels (much to my disappointment); and introduces a new alien in the dreadful (in my opinion) Silents.
The trio of recurring characters—Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint, and Strax—could have a spinoff of their own. They are fully realized personalities with little background provided. They are launched in A Good Man Goes to War as though they have always been part of the show; and they feel as though they have always been a part of the show. Ever entertaining, this Victorian era detective gang is a most welcome addition, even if at times they feel superfluous and merely added to provide comic relief.
In sum, the Matt Smith years are much like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead. When it is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. I am very much afraid, Gary, that the horrid too often overshadows. Lacking in consistency and relying too heavily on calculation, coincidence, and contrivance, the show is rapidly losing me.
Standing above it all, however, is Matt Smith. He is very, very good and never horrid. Given better material he would float towards the top of my rankings. As it is he is laden down; if I were to seriously reconsider my rankings he would be in danger of dropping a notch or two through no fault of his own.
But Matt Smith leaves on a high note, Gary, and I’ll grab on and follow it to the next chapter of my slow path.