Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Silence in the Library

Dear Gary—
“I never land on Sundays. Sundays are boring.” (Obviously the Doctor is not a Packers or TWD fan.) I would think, though, that the library would be the perfect place to land if you were going to land on a Sunday; a quiet, contemplative place for a quiet, contemplative day. Except the place isn’t as quiet and contemplative as the episode title, Silence in the Library, implies. What it is, is eerie.
It starts with the little girl with a library in her head. The intercutting between her seemingly normal home and the library and between her interactions with Dr. Moon and the Doctor are creepy, but what makes them truly spine-chilling is the fact that she has no clue what is happening. She is not an evil mastermind manipulating events, and even though it is evident that she has some measure of control over the library, it is equally evident that she has no explanation for what is happening there. She is genuinely alarmed by the presence of strangers and the pain she feels is palpable when the Doctor sonics the security camera. The creation inside her head is alive; and perhaps it is she that is a creation inside it.
 It is unsettling to observe the dueling worlds merge and mingle, as in a dream. However the Doctor serves as our reality checkpoint; the library is our scene of action and the child is a mystery to be solved; a poignant and chilling mystery.
Adding to the atmosphere is the introduction of the Vashta Narada. “Count the shadows” is a particularly hair-raising warning in an empty and silent library that is quickly losing its light. I do have a minor quibble (all of my quibbles are minor in this one) with the Doctor mentioning the dust in sunbeams as evidence of the infestation on our own planet. If that were the case, I would be dead long ago; and the moral of the story would be to keep a can of Pledge at the ready.
Further shrouding our adventure is the presence of River Song. Her initial appearance, along with her band of investigative astronauts, is sufficiently dramatic, underscored with the refrain of “others are coming.” Striding towards the Doctor and Donna in space suits and darkened helmets, we don’t know what to expect. Then River clears her visor and greets the Doctor with a disarming, “Hello, Sweetie,” only to be rebuffed by the Doctor’s, “Get out.”
It is perfectly played out amidst all of the uncertainty and disquiet. River and the Doctor are both confident and direct; and yet each inevitably confounds the other.  
I have to admit, Gary, that the first time watching this I considered River Song as a minor quibble. I found the whole conceit to be mildly irritating. Upon multiple views and armed with hindsight, I can now appreciate Alex Kingston’s performance; and since I presently know where this character is headed I am no longer annoyed by her familiarity with the Doctor in this first encounter. As for how this relationship eventually plays out—I reserve my opinion for the future. After all, you know, “spoilers.”
Accompanying River are some solid performers who make an impression despite their limited action. Helping with this are small script details like “Proper Dave” and “Other Dave” that go a long way in defining character without a lot of exposition. My one quibble here is with the heavy handed point that Miss Evangelista is stupid. If she is really as dumb as they make out she has no business being on the expedition. That aspect could have been handled with a bit more finesse. Miss Evangelista’s death and subsequent ghosting along with Donna’s sympathetic interactions with both the live and phantom versions are moving, but they would have had richer meaning if Evangelista’s character had been treated with more dignity than caricature.
One other quibble I have is with the number of people who were in The Library when it was closed: 4,022. You put 4,022 people in a stadium and it looks almost empty. You put 4,022 people on an entire planet and I would call that deserted. So why the fuss about no one being about when the Doctor and Donna first arrive? It’s also a sad commentary on literacy (and I assume that the majority of those 4,022 souls were employees).
My final quibble is with the Doctor. “I’m a time traveler. I point and laugh at archaeologists.” That is an unacceptable statement coming from the Doctor; it is something I would expect from Lux, not the Doctor. This is offset somewhat with the following exchange:
Doctor: “Well, funny thing, Mister Lux; I don’t want to see everyone in this room dead because some idiot thinks his pride is more important.”
River (to the Doctor): “Then why don’t you sign his contract?”
All of these are minor points, however, in the bigger picture that is Silence in the Library. The mysteries pile up and the tension mounts. Who is the little girl? How does River Song know the Doctor? What happened to those 4,022 people? Why are the Vashta Narada killing book lovers? And then there is Dr. Moon. His is an ambiguous presence. He has a mixed aura of sinister solicitude, and it is an eerie moment when he tells the little girl, “The real world is a lie, and your nightmares are real. The library is real.”
The ending of this first of a two part story is thrilling with Dead Dave in a space suit repeating, “Hey, who turned out the lights,” as he and the shadows advance upon the group, and it culminates with the visage of Donna on a Courtesy Node droning its own refrain of “Donna Noble has left the building. Donna Noble has been saved.”
A gripping tale that keeps me on the edge of my seat and looking forward to the conclusion.
Count the shadows Gary . . .

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Unicorn and the Wasp

Dear Gary—
“Think about it. There’s a murder, a mystery, and Agatha Christie.”
Pure, unencumbered Doctor Who having fun. I love it.
The Unicorn and the Wasp is the obligatory historical in which the Doctor and his companion meet a famous person. Doctor Who seasons are becoming somewhat paint by number. However The Unicorn and the Wasp manages to rise above the formula and is a delight.
 “Agatha Christie didn’t walk around surrounded by murders. Not really. I mean, that’s like meeting Charles Dickens and he’s surrounded by ghosts at Christmas.” The script recognizes the Doctor Who blueprint and cleverly pokes fun, and that is its strength. With a serious tone this episode would have been a disaster.
The real Agatha Christie not only didn’t walk around surrounded by murders, she also didn’t walk around surrounded by aliens. Neither did Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, or Shakespeare, for that matter. The show can get away with past luminaries meeting up with extraterrestrials only so many times before it becomes farcical. What better way, therefore, to handle this particular Doctor Who cliché than to turn the episode itself into a farce?
The plot is as preposterous as the characters are caricatured. A giant wasp creature hidden dormant for 40 years in the person of a country vicar only to be unleashed in a moment of sibilant rage and to play a murderous parlor game during a 1920’s dinner party being thrown by his secret mother.
The Doctor and Donna dive head first into the fun. Dressed for the occasion (“Flapper or slapper?”), the two crash Lady Eddison’s garden party which is replete with game board characters, locales, and situations. “I mean, Professor Peach, in the library, with the lead piping?” All the Doctor and Donna have to do is follow the clues.
Helping them is none other than Agatha Christie, played brilliantly by Fenella Woolgar. The key to Ms. Woolgar’s success is that even though the material is absurd she takes it seriously; similar to her character. “I’ll work with you, gladly,” Agatha tells the Doctor, “but for the sake of justice, not for your own amusement.” Shades of Queen Victoria from Tooth and Claw.
The Doctor and Donna are delighting in the romp, but their lighthearted approach is suited to the production, and if their humor is at the expense of anyone it is at themselves. (“Miss Noble is the plucky young girl who helps me out.” “I’ll pluck you in a minute.” “Go on; you’re ever so plucky.”)They realize the outlandish nature of the adventure and are going with the flow, much like Donna trying to talk posh with the rich and famous. Yet the sincerity remains, allowing for the moving scene of Donna consoling Agatha who is tortured by shame and self-doubt.
It is pure pleasure to watch it play out; I feel just like Donna munching on snacks while following the Doctor’s and Agatha’s interrogation of the guests; and the murder mystery framework is ideally suited to the episode—from the alibi flashbacks to the hunting for clues (complete with magnifying glass) to the gathering of the suspects. Everything is done with a feel for the fun. I love it. There are certainly flaws with the story, but so what? I’m not about to spoil things with criticism.
This is a Doctor Who that I can just sit and enjoy and not have to think too much, other than trying to pick out all of the Agatha Christie titles that are scattered throughout. Doctor Who needs episodes like this from time to time.
Next time I’m feeling depressed, Gary, I think I’ll invite the Doctor and Donna over for a game of charades. Or I suppose I’ll have to settle for watching The Unicorn and the Wasp over again.
“How is Harvey Wallbanger one word?”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Doctor's Daughter

Dear Gary—
The Doctor’s Daughter—kind of stupid, kind of fun. Two parts each. I’ll put this in the camp column, the same camp as, say, Terminus. It is immensely entertaining, despite some glaring faults. And the entertainment is not from trying too hard and not from throwing money at special effects. It is just unabashedly daft.
“I don’t know where we’re going, but my old hand’s very excited about it.” That just about says it all.
Along for the ride is Martha, hijacked by the TARDIS before she could make her escape from The Poison Sky. It is a bit of a waste since she is immediately separated from the Doctor and Donna, but she does get a nice storyline of her own with the Hath. The Hath are an unexplained new alien race on an unexplored new planet for Doctor Who; another waste. But as a waste, Martha and the Hath and the surface of this alien planet (hooray for that!) combine for a diverting side show.
“You can stay down here and live your whole life in the shadows, or come with me and stand in the open air.” Martha is not going to stay down in those confining tunnels where the bulk of the plot is unfolding. She is venturing out to feel the wind on her face. It seems a brutal punishment that her new found friend Peck is killed as a result. It is a short-lived kinship, but Martha manages to imbue heart and soul into this secondary narrative. And she gets to show off some doctoring skills along the way; I don’t know of too many MDs who could fix a fish man’s dislocated shoulder.
However the real story remains behind in those shadowy tunnels with the Doctor and Donna and, by the way, the Doctor’s daughter. Technically speaking she is not really his daughter but rather a product of progenation, grown from a tissue sample; a “generated anomaly” born fully clothed and mascaraed and pony tailed and ready to fight. For a soldier, though, she is awfully bouncy and joyous, must be the newborn thing.
The Doctor’s clone/daughter, or Jenny as Donna dubs her, is the reason for the story; and in a paradoxical way the reason the Doctor’s old hand is excited and the reason they have landed on Messaline. Jenny; the Doctor’s daughter; an excuse, a cop out, a disappointment. She is a plot device; a sexy come-on. The Last of the Time Lords has a daughter. He is not alone . . . oh no, wait, that was done already. The opening cloning sequence dispenses with all of the excited anticipation and what remains is forty plus minutes to fill.
The problem is there are only forty plus minutes to fill. They are amusing enough minutes but with just the bare bones of a plot; it is only enough to keep the action flowing and to provide a framework around which the daddy issues can be explored, but there isn’t much room for more. I’ll tackle the daddy issues first because that is really the only reason we are here.
“I’ve been a father before,” the Doctor tells Donna. The First Doctor traveled with his granddaughter Susan. New Who, however, is not conducive to this paternalistic nature; New Who is too busy depicting a Doctor who is young and hip and sexy with a dark side; there is no room for fatherly warmth in New Who. I am therefore glad that Jenny is more or less a false progeny and that the topic is covered superficially in this forty plus minutes of episode.
Donna gets things started with her “dad-shock” comments. “What’s she going to do, cramp your style?” she asks in a spot on assessment of what a true child would do for this New Doctor for a New Who. But since Jenny is not a true child the show takes this opportunity to explore that dark side of the Time Lord; that side that has suffered loss; that side that feels guilt; that side that knows danger and bloodshed and horror. Jenny represents a past that the Doctor doesn’t want to face, and so he denies her. “You’re an echo, that’s all.”
Again it is Donna right there by his side, providing the steady and guiding hand he needs. She won’t let him brush Jenny aside, and slowly the Doctor begins to open up to reveal the pain he has buried inside. “When I look at her now,” he tells Donna of Jenny, “I can see them (the Time Lords). The hole they left; all the pain that filled it. I just don’t know if I can face that every day.” Friend and counselor Donna assures him: “She’ll help you. We both will.” And when the Doctor persists in his doom and gloom mood Donna tells him, “I think you’re wrong.”
Jenny begins life as a rebellious teen, asserting her rights as an individual with a mind of her own and arguing with Dad. Then she reverts to little girl wanting to please Daddy. Donna takes on a big sister role towards Jenny in this make-shift family unit that is beginning to form, and the Doctor reluctantly starts to thaw. He even displays pride and joy as Jenny soaks up his pacifist teachings. It is not a relationship that will make it for the long haul, but it was never designed for that. (Given the turn things tend to take when young girls board the TARDIS in New Who, it’s for the best.) Jenny’s character is strictly an excuse to explore the Doctor’s hidden psyche.
Her death, therefore, is expected. I can’t say that the Doctor’s reaction to it is unexpected for New Who, just disappointing. The Doctor’s utter contempt for any hint of violence and weaponry has been on prominent display throughout the episode; the better to contrast with this sudden image of the Doctor as executioner—the Doctor, seething with rage, pointing his gun at the head of an unarmed and kneeling General Cobb. And “a man who never would” has to be the lamest tagline ever.
Now let me get to this threadbare plot with no room to expand. The Doctor, Donna, and Martha land in the middle of a war with a never ending supply of soldiers created by machine. Two sides, Hath and Human, are fighting it out over the Holy Grail, better known as The Source, even though they have no clue what it is. Countless generations have fought a war for which nobody knows the origins. And, oh yes, the battle has waged for all of seven days.
Much is made of the seven days reveal, yet it is meaningless. What difference does it make in the larger scheme of things? Seven days or seven years or seven million years. So what? And I have to wonder at the logic for this assumption. Donna has figured out the date stamping business on the construction of this underground complex; but the only thing that this proves is that the building process lasted seven days. Who is to say that is the same timeline as the war? They have the dates of the construction, but does anyone know what the date is at the present moment for a reference point? I don’t recall the Doctor checking the year before leaving the TARDIS. The Doctor does say that the machinery looks recent, but still, it could be several years that things have been going along. Why all the emphasis and fuss on the seven days? I suppose the show is trying to make some connection to the seven day creation story, but if so it has failed in its mission.
But OK, let’s say that it has been only seven days since war broke out and twenty generations of warriors have stepped out of the machines each of those seven days to fight and die. Are they such pathetic fighters that not one single soul from the original colonists survived for seven days? Or a couple from the first few days worth of generations? And if there are so many generations generated each day, why are there only a handful of people on hand? Where are these legions of armies? Do they make only one or two individuals at a time, wait for someone to die, and then make another? I also wonder about the Hath. Are they products of the machine too, or are the handful of Hath that are roaming about from the original colony, and if so, do they scratch their heads whenever they hear a human talking about the endless war of countless generations?
This is a story that could use multiple parts to do up the camp right.
Instead it is rushed and forced into a single forty-five minute format, but it still manages to have fun. That’s the only way to take this episode. Suspend disbelief, accept the “not impossible, just a bit unlikely” happenings, and go along for the ride. Don’t look at it too seriously. In that context the resurrection of Jenny can be tolerated.
It does make me long, however, for those good old days when Doctor Who was mature enough to handle a paternalistic Doctor. Maybe I’ll go now and put in The Sensorites.
Until next time, Gary . . .

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Poison Sky

Dear Gary—
I’m beginning to resent the glossy finish New Who is putting on to cover some glaring flaws. It does it with such wit and charm that I enjoy the show despite myself, and it is only with repeated viewings and afterthought that I begin to realize that the vague unease I felt upon first watch has real basis. (Thus it has only been since this recent round of viewing that I came to actively dislike Rose.)
Classic Who has its glaring flaws, to be sure. Take a serial like The Stones of Blood for instance. It was only after repeated viewings and afterthought that I realized this story makes little sense; but I don’t mind. It has no pretense, and the wit and charm that covers the glaring flaws is organic to the show. It is thoroughly enjoyable even upon analytical afterthought. And then there are some truly awful stories, stories like The Twin Dilemma; but again there is no pretense and the awfulness bears up as entertaining camp.
Fast forward to The Poison Sky. The Poison Sky demonstrates what is wrong about New Who; the Poison Sky tries so hard to be good and right and true. That is the difference: it tries so hard. It does have good intentions, which is a point in its favor, but so often those intensions lead it astray. (Case in point: the “who do you think made your clothes” exchange in Planet of the Ood.) So often good intentions lead to shortcuts and justifications; the ‘it’s OK to bully a bully’ mentality. (Something, by way of being fair, that I fault Classic Who for in Timelash.)

All of this is a long winded way of saying that I am beginning to dislike this Tenth Doctor. He has such good intentions and he tries so, so hard, and he has such wit and charm.
I touched on this with the first part of this two part story; and I think the fact that UNIT is involved has brought it to the forefront.  I don’t care for the bull-in-a-china-shop arrogance the Third Doctor displays; the Tenth Doctor has more of a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing arrogance about him. The Third’s seems more honest.
Donna asks the Doctor where he is going and he replies, “To stop a war.” All well and good and noble. But let’s take a look at that ‘war.’
UNIT calls the Doctor in to consult on a possible alien incursion. The Doctor promptly disses UNIT and proceeds to conduct his own investigation while keeping UNIT, in particular Colonel Mace, out of the loop (all done in part one, The Sontaran Stratagem). The Sontarans unleash their toxic gas into the air via the ATMOS system (tautology aside) and UNIT prepares a defensive strike against the spacecraft they detect overhead. The Doctor rushes in and condemns UNIT even though he has never offered any viable alternatives for them.
Now we enter into the Doctor’s diplomatic phase. Brushing Mace aside, the Doctor proclaims that he has the proper authority to speak on behalf of the entire planet—“I earned that a long time ago,” he states. Really? Even if his prior deeds have garnered the respect and rights that he is claiming his present actions towards Mace and UNIT do not warrant it. And what does he do with his self-declared power? He insults and goads General Staal of the Tenth Sontaran Battle Fleet. The thing is he does it with such a casual, laid back, feet on the desk flippancy. Compared to the tight-lipped, rigid Colonel Mace he comes across as the heroic antihero, but in reality he’s just being a jerk. He does not open a dialogue between the two sides, he offers no reassurances to UNIT, and he gives no options to the Sontarans. He conducts his own secret mission without letting anyone else know what he is intending, including Donna who is supposed to figure out on her own what his cryptic comments mean, and then he rushes back out leaving Mace and Staal to carry on the war as they see fit with no true guidance or insight from the Doctor.
Not to worry, though. Evil Clone Martha has her finger on the trigger keeping the nuclear launch at bay. With UNIT stymied the Sontarans invade the ATMOS factory in order to protect their operative, Evil Clone Martha along with the original Martha who is keeping Evil Clone Martha alive. The Sontarans had some phenomenal luck there—it was a piece of cake for Martha to hijack the launch program and UNIT personnel have no means of tracing where or how this major security breach occurred. At any rate, we finally have some battle scenes between this powerful military organization and mighty warrior race. Except not really.
The Sontarans march through the deserted halls with no sense of urgency or purpose; it almost seems as though they are simply on a guided tour of the factory. When they do confront UNIT it becomes a massacre. “This isn’t war; this is sport,” Skorr exults as the Sontarans gun down the helpless and fleeing soldiers. So much for the honor and glory of war in this one-sided bloodbath.
However the tables are quickly turned when Mace begins to act like the leader he supposedly is. With no direction from the alien expert he had called in for the job, Mace decides to make use of the Valiant to dispel the noxious fumes and to attack the factory that is now full of Sontarans and empty of humans. Then with the aid of non-copper bullets the UNIT soldiers begin to plow down the Sontarans who are suddenly the helpless ones. So much for the probic vent being their only weakness. The glorious return of the Sontarans to Doctor Who has taken an inauspicious turn. The lowlight is when Skorr stops and faces Mace with lowered weapon and offers no resistance. He simply gives up and allows Mace to shoot him in the head. (I guess Mace is a take no prisoners type of guy.)
Meanwhile the Doctor uses his secret weapon (Donna) to fix the teleport so that he can get the TARDIS back and so that he can zip over to the Rattigan Academy where all the equipment is on hand for him to slap together a gizmo that burns the poisoned atmosphere. It’s an impressive effect that miraculously doesn’t burn anything except the gas. Next, after a quick goodbye to his companions, he whizzes off to the Sontaran ship. He is no UNIT commander, though. He doesn’t do salutes and he doesn’t do orders and he doesn’t carry a gun. He does carry a device that he rigged so that it will explode the Sontarans out of the sky; however he is delivering it in person because, as he says, “I’ve got to give them a choice.”
I’ll skip over the fact that when he had Staal on spaceship to mobile UNIT hookup he never offered the Sontarans any choice; never made any threats or warnings or ultimatums; never hinted at any resolution to the conflict. I’ll also skip over the fact that he could contact them again by the same method to let them know about his gizmo and give them that choice he is so keen on delivering now. And I’ll skip over the fact that he has his TARDIS back and could probably somehow use that to board the Sontaran ship, quickly throw his device out the door, retreat back in and communicate his ultimatum before exploding his device and escaping via TARDIS. I’ll even skip over the obvious fact that the Doctor knows full well that the Sontarans will never give up regardless of the choices offered.
What I can’t skip over, however, is Evil Clone Martha. Evil Clone Martha with her finger on the trigger. He doesn’t need his fancy gizmo. He has Martha’s phone. Just hit Yes. Launch the missiles.
It is a complete waste of Evil Clone Martha. She is merely a distraction and an excuse and never really figures into the meat of the plot. The Sontarans are dead set on protecting their operative, or so they say, but never show signs of doing so. They simply walk through the factory shooting everybody in sight. They went to great lengths, too, to clone Martha. They must have somehow known that UNIT was going to show up at the factory and that they were going to launch a nuclear strike from that site and that Martha would be allowed to waltz off with the launch sequence in her phone.  But then all she does is hit No occasionally; good thing she never accidentally pocket Yeses the launch. I keep expecting the invading Sontarans to locate her and perhaps get the phone into their own hands—guard the phone rather than guard the operative. Also, the Doctor knows all along that she is Evil Clone Martha; so much more could have been made of their exchanges. He should have gotten information out of her much sooner; he could have also used his knowledge against the Sontarans, perhaps held her hostage. Likewise, she could have worked more actively to thwart the Doctor.
Evil Clone Martha is simply a plot device; she could have been Evil Clone Captain Marion Price just as easily.
The only good that comes from Evil Clone Martha is when original Martha meets her twin. This is the only time there is any life or meaning given to Evil Clone Martha. It is a touching moment, but it isn’t justified enough; there is no real build-up to provide any interest or significance to Evil Clone Martha and to give the scene the added depth it cries out for.
Let’s not forget Luke Rattigan. Luke Rattigan, the petulant young man who stomps his foot when he doesn’t get his own way. It’s a great moment of comeuppance when his tracksuit friends turn on him, except that like the Evil Clone Martha scene above, there is no background depth to round it out. This group of extras has no sense of purpose. They are just standing around hitting the No button on their Luke Rattigan phones. Luke is the only one making the scene work, and he puts that Doctor Who glossy finish on it that manages to cover the blemishes upon first view.
In fact, Luke Rattigan is a standout in the serial. All of the depth of character lacking elsewhere is focused on him. His utter dejection at betrayal turned to vengeful triumph over the Sontarans is wonderful. “Luke, do something clever with your life,” the Doctor tells him. Clever, that is, while spending the rest of his life in jail I would hope, being a mass murderer and all. But Luke has other ideas. The something clever he does conveniently gets the Doctor off the hook and out of harm’s way while blowing up the Sontarans and Luke. “Sontaran—Hah!”
I am saving the best for last, though; and that would be Donna. Donna is the one true and honest element in the episode. “What do you need me to do?” Donna is always at the Doctor’s right hand with that question. She isn’t the brightest or the strongest, but she is close to being the bravest of the Doctor’s companions. Alone on an alien ship and terrified, Donna asks what the Doctor needs done. She has no reason to expect that she will succeed and has every reason to expect she will die. With ice cold terror running through her veins, she picks up a mallet and exits the TARDIS determined to face unimaginable danger. Even through the petrified calmness Donna’s personality shines in little moments of victory.
I could say much more about Donna, but I’ll simply echo Wilf and tell her, “You go with him, that wonderful Doctor. You go and see the stars.” Donna is deserving of those stars.
With that I will leave you, Gary. You go and see the stars . . .

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Sontaran Stratagem

Dear Gary—
“Doctor? It’s Martha, and I’m bringing you back to Earth.” This one sentence manages to capture the good and the bad, the old and the new, the interesting and the boring, all rolled up into the one that is New Who; and it is all encapsulated  in this one (read two) episode(s), The Sontaran Stratagem (read The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky).
The good, the old, the interesting: Martha, UNIT, the Sontarans. The bad, the new, the boring: Martha, UNIT, the Sontarans.
 It is great to see Martha again, and it is great to revisit the old companion with the new—something Doctor Who doesn’t do enough of. And it is refreshing that with Donna we do not get any jealous cat fight, not even a hint (except in the Doctor’s imagination). Donna and Martha can meet as friends; comrades in arms; comparing notes. Martha has outgrown her crush; Doctor Who has matured. There is a bit too much of the Leela/Andred contrivance to Martha’s engagement with Dr. Tom Milligan though. I wish they could have shown that she had moved on without the obvious rebound, but I guess there is only time enough for this shortcut. 
Martha also has moved on in her professional life, no longer a medical student but a full-fledged doctor. However I have to wonder about her licensing considering UNIT rushed it through for her. She says this was done based on her work in the field; I’m not sure what that is referring to exactly. Her adventures with the Doctor? These qualify her as an MD? I don’t doubt Martha’s competence, only UNIT’s motives. What do they need a medical doctor for in such a hurry? And why do they need one coordinating their covert operations? Clearly she is simply being used as a hotline to the Doctor.
Martha does get to put her medical skills to good use; she even gets to wear her white doctor coat. This is cleverly dovetailed with Donna’s “super temp” skills in uncovering the lack of sick days in the ATMOS factory. But it is too clever by far and extraneous to the plot. The entranced workers are a diversion that goes nowhere. In fact they disappear once the gas starts dispersing and the factory comes under siege. No one gives them a second thought (just as no one in these poor disposable workers daily lives cared enough to come looking for their overworked loved ones when they failed to return home each night).
Finally, evil Martha clone—how great is that?
A UNIT without the Brigadier is just a plot device; an excuse to break out the soldiers; a reason to involve the Doctor in Earth affairs (as though he needs an excuse these days). Still, it does move the story along and provides a structure for the narrative so I’ll accept this excuse of a device, and the Brigadier does get a mention. What I find troubling, however, is the Doctor’s treatment of his former employer. It is heavy handed in the extreme and it is no wonder Mace doesn’t listen to the Doctor’s advice; I don’t blame him. For all of the smug arrogance the Third Doctor sometimes displays towards UNIT and authority figures, he usually grants the Brigadier the respect he is due. The Tenth Doctor, however, dismisses Mace and all he stands for; he treats him with scorn and contempt; he ignores and insults him. The Doctor claims that he does not do orders, yet when the time comes he starts barking out commands to Mace and is dumbfounded when Mace refuses to follow them. The Doctor even deems Martha guilty by association, forgetting his own lengthy stint with this very organization. Martha defends herself admirably, but she shouldn’t have to explain herself.
As suddenly as he takes a dislike to Mace, the Doctor takes an instant shine to Ross—his new best friend. I like Ross too, but I have to wonder at the Doctor’s snap judgments. He continues this trend when he and Ross meet with Luke Rattigan. In response to a perceived insult of Ross by Rattigan, the Doctor comes to his defense: “He called you a grunt. Don’t call Ross a grunt. He’s nice. We like Ross.” And in his lightening speed, the Doctor then goes on to ridicule and mock Rattigan. Now Rattigan is a conceited twit and I can’t help but feel he deserves what he gets. Except I also can’t help but feel that this is precisely the treatment Rattigan has received all of his life and what has led him on his current path. The Doctor really could use a lesson in tact.
Despite the Doctor’s hypocritical disdain, UNIT is a nice callback and a solid addition to New Who. “A modern UNIT for the modern world.” But it is mundane and lacks the character of the UNIT of old. While the organization itself merits a return, none of the individuals within it (excepting Martha) impress.
The Sontarans are one of my favorite monsters from the old series and they return in excellent form. These are the compact little warriors I know and love; except that, as the Doctor notes, “This isn’t typical Sontaran behavior, is it? Hiding? Using teenagers; stopping bullets? A Sontaran should face bullets with dignity.” Two previous serials misused the Sontarans: The Invasion of Time and The Two Doctors. Both of these stories from the classic period had the Sontarans acting out of character and miscast. The Sontaran Stratagem does not miscast. It does however involve the Sontarans in a very un-Sontaran scheme; but even though the Sontarans are acting out of character I don’t mind. And I’ll tell you why. (You know of course, Gary, that I will tell you why.)
The strength of the Sontarans over the Daleks and the Cybermen (as far as storytelling goes) is that they have distinct personalities (despite their baked potato similarities). Sontarans are proudly militaristic, yes, but depicting legions of these squat, armor clad, single minded soldiers marching across the face of the planet and gunning down every living being in their path would be boring. The beauty of The Time Warrior and The Sontaran Experiment is that we got to know an individual Sontaran away from the battlefield.  The ultimate Sontaran goal is always victory over the Rutans; The Sontaran Stratagem, combined with its companion piece The Poisoned Sky, gives us a plausible reason for the Sontarans to be so far off mission and in the process gives us two memorable villains in General Staal and Commander Skorr.
(I do have to wonder, though, how and when the Sontarans became so misogynistic. The Sontarans are a clone race and therefore, I would presume, sexless. What exactly is their reference point for the blatant sexism they now display?)
While I don’t mind this Sontaran field trip to Earth, it does feel as though the Sontarans could be swapped out for any villain up to this point in the story. The main focus for the episode is ATMOS and the Rattigan Academy headed by Luke Rattigan. Luke is established as the patsy for the Sontarans; the obligatory human collaborator of the aliens. In the brief span afforded, however, he is granted a level of complexity that keeps things interesting. Too bad his red track-suited minions aren’t similarly treated. I have no idea why any of these background extras stick around other than that the script tells them to be there.
Everything comes to a head with Wilf trapped in his haywire car, the ATMOS devices emitting toxic fumes worldwide (here we go again with technology dependent Earth putting all its eggs in one gizmo basket only to have it backfire and threaten all of Mankind), and the Sontarans, joined by Luke, chanting their glorious new war cry. “Sontar-ha!”
So Martha calls the Doctor back to Earth to work for UNIT against the Sontarans. That’s The Sontaran Stratagem in a nutshell. It’s a set-up episode for what is to follow. Along the way there are some nice moments, particularly with Donna and Martha and again with Donna and Wilf.
“We are now at Battle Status One. Rejoice!”
I send you off with this inspiring refrain, Gary. Sontar-ha!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Planet of the Ood

Dear Gary—
The first two episodes of the season could afford to be slightly script deficient because their main focus was on establishing the Doctor/Donna relationship. Going forward, however, the focus needs to shift; now the Doctor and Donna need strong stories in which to grow. Planet of the Ood delivers just that.
First things first: the Doctor has finally made it to a brand new, never before seen, actual alien planet. Hooray! The TARDIS, courtesy of the random “mystery tour” setting, has taken the Doctor and Donna to the Ood Sphere (in the same solar system as the Sense Sphere). It is a beautifully rendered landscape of ice and snow.
Granted, this alien planet is part of the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire, and the year 4126 doesn’t feel too far off from our own era, but it’s a start, even if it has taken four seasons to get here.
Another nice departure is that the Doctor is not actively in search of an alien threat, answering a distress signal, or compelled to save the Earth/Universe.  He is simply showing the marvels of the cosmos to Donna, still getting a thrill out of “the fear; the joy; the wonder.” Along the way he gets caught up in events. He isn’t even particularly interested in the plight of the Ood to begin with, similar to his first encounter with them back in The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. And ultimately he is not instrumental in freeing them from their captivity. He is more or less a passive bystander, and that’s OK. The Doctor can’t (and shouldn’t) always be the rock star hero of every episode. He can’t always make history happen; sometimes he needs to just let history take its course.
He doesn’t stand as silent witness, however. He has ample opportunity to pass judgment and express moral outrage, and even in the end grabs a bit of the glory for himself. I can take a little of this; the script tends to exaggerate his importance, though; however it is tempered by the compassion supplied by Donna. This is the alien Doctor/human companion dynamic at work, but I’m not sure if the show gets this or not. I am tending toward granting New Who the benefit of the doubt.
It starts with the discovery of the dying Ood. The Doctor shows detached curiosity about his condition while Donna, after her initial shock at his strange visage, kneels by his side to comfort him. Upon his death Donna asks if they should bury him only for the Doctor to brush her concern aside with, “The snow’ll take care of that.” He is focused on the big picture while she considers the individual; they complement each other.  She needs him to expand her views while he needs her to rein him in.
“Last time I met the Ood, I never thought; I never asked,” the Doctor says. Bigger things got in his way and he let the Ood die with nary a thought. This time the Ood are front and center. Rose had raised concerns about their servitude back in those earlier serials, and Donna does the same now. This time the Doctor cannot ignore them.
“Servants? They’re slaves,” Donna says as she and the Doctor watch the Ood being whipped into subservience. And then they discover the crates full of Ood waiting to be shipped off across the universe. Donna is appalled by the sight; and now I have to fault the script for some well-intentioned but misguided moralizing. It wants to draw attention to parallels with our own world, but it is completely mishandled in the exchange between the Doctor and Donna.
It starts with Donna’s disgust at an empire built on slavery, but then the Doctor deflects her criticism away from the current situation and back on her with, “It’s not so different from your time.” Donna feels the need to defend herself, and the Doctor drives home his point with, “Who do you think made your clothes?” Donna is left to comment on his “cheap shots” and the Doctor rather sheepishly apologizes.  This is all well and good, except that the “your time” he is referring to and into which Donna was born is also his time, his chosen time, the time to which he returns over and over, the time in which he interferes and intervenes again and again (but never, to the best of my knowledge, on behalf of the workers in the clothing industry). And it is a distraction away from the Ood, a race that the Doctor has disserved in the past. It reflects poorly on both, but mostly the Doctor. At worst the Doctor’s comments serve as a partial justification for the Ood’s enslavement; at best they are hypocritical.
Overall, however, the Doctor and Donna are magnificent in this. Donna in particular, in sympathy with the Ood, is heartbreaking. The Doctor, meanwhile, is interested in the Red Eye and in the mysterious last words of the dying Ood, “The circle must be broken.” Together this alien/human partnership is a triumph of harmony, best illustrated by the Ood song. The Doctor can hear the telepathically relayed tune at all times; Donna cannot except with the aid of the Doctor, and then she can only bear it for a few seconds. The Doctor is focused on the big picture; Donna is focused on the individual. The Doctor can live with that song constant in his head; Donna breaks under the grief embodied in those musical strains. Working to each other’s strengths, the Doctor and Donna discover the true nature of the Ood.
The history of the Ood is a fascinating one. They had been presented as a convenience in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit and just as conveniently discarded. Planet of the Ood does them justice. Between the Doctor’s sleuthing and Donna’s empathy we learn a great deal in a short amount of time, and the resulting revelation of the unprocessed Ood is intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The general concept of a race carrying around a secondary brain in their hands and tied together as a communal whole by a giant shared brain is a bit of a head scratcher, but only due to the limited scope of the serial. This is an entire alien race and planet and evolutionary path that remains untold, and the imagination reels with the possibilities (and is better left to the imagination).
There is a trio of baddies in our tale, each interesting in his or her own way. First there is Kess, the stereotypical henchman who takes too much pleasure in his job; Kess seems to display a human version of Red Eye as he becomes increasingly manic and sadistic. Then there is Solana Mercurio, the PR woman who you think is going to convert only to remain true to her mercantile heart. The best, however, is Halpen. On the face of it he is your typical heartless businessman, but there are hints of desperation and conflict beneath the surface. His consideration for Ood Sigma is unexpected and intriguing. And he moves effortlessly from callously tossing Dr. Ryder to his death to philosophizing about having to shoot the Doctor and Donna.
The ultimate fate of Halpen is poetic justice and an ending that the Doctor often strives for but rarely achieves. “All that intelligence and mercy, focused on Ood Sigma.” An intelligent and merciful solution, born out of patience. “I can’t tell what’s right and what’s wrong anymore,” Donna says of this bizarre judgment handed down by the Ood. It is a judgment that the Doctor had no part in; yet he can’t help but ask, “And now, Sigma, would you allow me the honor?” After Sigma’s patience and Dr. Ryder’s sabotage, it is the Doctor who flips the switch to break the circle and unleash the Ood song. (I can’t help but hear strains of “Fahoo fores, Dahoo dores, Welcome Christmas, Come this way” as the Ood stand in a circle with their faces uplifted in song.)
It is an uplifting ending to a satisfying story. We don’t get to see the Ood running wild like wildebeest, but Sigma and a group of processed and unprocessed Ood see the Doctor and Donna off singing their praises: “Our children will sing of the Doctor Donna, and our children’s children, and the wind and the ice and the snow will carry your names forever.”
There is the ominous warning, “I think your song must end soon,” but as Sigma says, “every song must end.” And as we know, Gary, with each ending there is a new beginning. However we still have a ways to go and the Doctor Donna is still an emerging story.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Fires of Pompeii

Dear Gary—
“We’re in Pompeii . . . and it’s volcano day.”
The First Doctor and his companions could take this statement and turn it into a meaningful and heartfelt historical adventure with sci fi overtones. But this is the Tenth Doctor; and “it’s not just history.” This is all about the Doctor and his made up history. (“It’s me. I make it happen.”)
At this point I have accepted New Who and its pretensions. I therefore accept The Fires of Pompeii for what it is—a make believe world set forth for my enjoyment. It’s not as ambitious; but it tries.
And it is admirable in its attempt.
There are shades of the past present in this historical remix. These hints come courtesy of Donna. (Some day, Gary, when New Who has run its course and I am free of this slow path, I will revisit this present Pompeii with a backward eye on the past that is The Aztecs.)
The Doctor takes Donna into the past; her past; the Earth’s past. She is set down in the middle of a street bustling with life; people living and working and trading and laughing and running and scraping by in the day to day world of their ordinary lives. Except that she knows their future; she knows that they have no future. It is volcano day. She sees the human tragedy ebbing and flowing around her.
The Doctor, however, is fixated.
“Pompeii is a fixed point in time. What happens happens. There is no stopping it.”
Former Doctors have continually made the point that tampering with history is forbidden. However, as far as I know this is the first time that the Doctor makes this definitive statement: “Some things are fixed; some things are in flux.” Actually, that isn’t so much definitive as wibbly wobbly; the Doctor just says it in such an authoritative way. And then he continues: “Because that’s how I see the universe. Every waking second I can see what is, what was, what could be, what must not. That’s the burden of a Time Lord.” He’s letting his omniscience show; except that week after week he happens upon an event of which he has no prior knowledge. I suppose those are the flux moments. Or he is simply making things up as he goes along. (Kind of like his age.)
The skewed reality into which the Doctor and Donna land is a Pompeii in which the volcano is never going to erupt, because of course there are giant rock/fire aliens living underground and planning on draining all of the volcano’s energy in order to convert it into power enough for them to take over the world. In the meantime they are converting the citizens of Pompeii little by little into stone people who can see the future and read minds. Not your standard textbook history, but so much more conducive to weaving the Doctor’s wibbly wobbly narrative.
(I sometimes wonder, Gary, if the Doctor, when crossing back and forth between parallel worlds a few seasons ago, accidentally ended up in some obscure universe that he doesn’t realize is not his own.)
It is an amusing enough tale; and the sets, costumes, and effects are well done as usual. The guest cast is adequate to their stock roles. The most interesting are the Syballine, however they are just an excuse to let prophecies fly and to add a small amount of menace and the obligatory threat of a human sacrifice that can be easily undone by a bit of banter and a water pistol. (What the Sisterhood of Karn is doing with a sister sect on ancient Earth I don’t know, unless this goes to prove my parallel universe theory; but really it only goes to show how Classic Who had much the better idea in setting at least some of these alien story lines on actual alien planets.) It seems redundant to have both the Sisterhood and Lucius Petrus Dextrus; they act as though they are at odds with one another and yet they are independently working for the same side. Given the shorter scripts I think Doctor Who would be better served with some economy of character. However the one-upmanship between Lucius and Evelina is as good a way as any to slip in those ominous New Who hints and teasers for the coming season.
The family group is pleasant enough and serves its purpose of providing a human face to the story. I can live with the 6 months later epilogue but it is unnecessary. I suppose it’s nice to see the family prospering, Evelina enjoying her youth, and Quintus getting respect. It has a bit of a sitcom feel to it, though, with its eye-rolling ‘Oh Dad’ attitude. And then comes the household gods punch line and I want to do more than roll my eyes.
However, the Doctor/Donna seed at the core of The Fires of Pompeii makes it all worthwhile; they are the beating heart of the episode. Without them it is a bit of a silly mess.
I like the opening sequence establishing the running Celtic gag, and it is nice to see that the TARDIS still can get it wrong, in this instance landing in Pompeii instead of the anticipated Rome. These first moments with the Doctor and Donna remind me of the rapport that existed between the Second Doctor and Jamie. There is a comfortable feel to the relationship; best friends who won’t hesitate to challenge each other; and Donna finds lots to challenge the Doctor on in this tale.
Forget the outlandish alien angle; the tug of war between the Doctor and Donna over the fate of Pompeii is the real story. “You’re the Doctor; you save people,” Donna reasons. I can hardly blame her; the Doctor projects himself as hero. But not in this case; with volcano day looming he plays his Time Lord card. It’s a tricky business being a Time Lord. Most weeks the Doctor invokes his heritage as a Caveat Preemptor; other times he hides behind it as an excuse to absolve himself of all responsibility. Sometimes it is fixed; sometimes it is in flux; this is a flux time. And it is really in flux here because he says he can’t get involved when Donna asks him to, yet when his curiosity is peaked he insinuates himself right into the middle of the action.
I give Donna credit for continuing to question the Doctor every step of the way. I would too. Why is it again, Doctor, that we can’t warn people about the volcano or at least advise them to head for the hills, but you can head off into the very heart of the mountain in order to find out what the aliens are up to?
Ultimately the Doctor traps himself in his own argument. There is no escape; he is problem and solution in this Escher drawing of a dilemma. He is both fixed and flux. He is shaping history by preventing the Pyroviles from altering history and thus preserving history. I think.
Good thing he has Donna steadfast by his side. He has a simple choice before him: “It’s Pompeii or the world.” That is what the convoluted, wibbly wobbly plot comes down to; and when he can finally state this in no uncertain terms, Donna sees the magnitude of the decision weighing on him and she comes to his aid. He is not alone; they are in this together.
I don’t understand, however, why the Doctor continues in his stubborn policy of non-interference once the deed is done. Pompeii is still Pompeii; the volcano has erupted; history is intact. How does directing people to safety change any of this? “History’s back in place and everyone dies,” the Doctor says in his own defense as Donna pleads the case for the family unit. Turns out he is just having a Time Lord snit. He can’t go back and save Gallifrey so why should he trouble himself over four little people? Donna prevails and the Doctor realizes: “You were right. Sometimes I need someone.”
The Doctor needs Donna. Doctor Who needs Donna.
“Welcome aboard.”
Overall a diverting 50 minutes, Gary. A bit of Pompeian history echoed back into the Doctor Who alternative.