Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Last of the Time Lords

Dear Gary—
I have to again recall Army of Ghosts/Doomsday in viewing Last of the Time Lords; each declares itself as a sham, not to be taken seriously as narrative. However those previous stories are almost subtle in their approach compared to the in-your-face attitude of Last of the Time Lords. Last of the Time Lords loudly and proudly thumbs its nose at the audience; this is pure spectacle; pure emotional manipulation; don’t even bother worrying about the plot because it will all be undone in the end. To this I say: OK, Doctor Who. At least you’re up front about it.
“The year that never was.” Superman style, all is reversed; it never happened. All the sorrow; all the pain; all the suffering; all the grief; all the destruction; all the despair; none of it. Except that the Doctor, the Joneses, Jack, and a handful of soldiers remember it. “The eye of the storm.”
And we the audience remember it; even though the slate was wiped clean and we can say it never happened, we still had to sit through it. This is the magic act of our three ring circus. Ta Da! The disappearing year. Now you see it, now you don’t.
But first we see it, and it is rather grim. It is relentlessly dark and depressing and without hope; standard apocalyptic cinematic fare. Poor Martha has to trudge through this world on her own, and she is the one saving grace of this drudgery. “Great; I’m traveling with a doctor,” she says, but it is not the Doctor. The Doctor is a shrunken, shriveled version of himself living in a bird cage. Yet Martha can smile when she witnesses his transformation into a troll. “The Doctor’s still alive,” she says, and she takes inspiration from the thought. Martha is a fitting guide in this dreary world of the Master’s making.
“Martha Jones, they say she’s going to save the world.” Martha has become a legend in the year that she has been walking the Earth. (Isn’t it conveniently contrived, Gary, that it has been exactly 365 days?) We only get a few lines to cover that year, the year that never was. The beginning of Last of the Time Lords presents that year between it and The Sound of Drums as a fait accompli. We are spared the majority of the death and destruction and desolation as Martha made her journey and the Master built his rockets. Martha has now returned to English soil and our story picks up.
It’s a vaguely interesting adventure as Martha and her newly met companion Dr. Tom Milligan hook up with Professor Docherty and take down a sphere. The reveal of the actual nature of the Toclafane is gruesomely effective. Martha’s explanation about the Time Lord gun is perfunctory and her capture at the safe house is mundane, but necessary. After repeated viewings I find the subtleties of Professor Docherty to be the most intriguing aspects of these segments.  My first few times through I could never understand Martha’s need to give her those flowers at the end. I got that her son was being held captive and that is why she was cooperating with the Master, but it is not as simple as that and those first few times I didn’t see the intricacies of her performance. Now I see that Docherty demonstrates the real devastation of the Master’s world; that loss of all hope that Martha is fighting against. Docherty so wants to believe, but desperation has taken hold too deeply. As Martha leaves Docherty asks her, “Martha, could you do it? Could you actually kill him?” She so wants to believe. But she does not see murder in Martha’s eyes. She does not believe that Martha can save the world, and so Docherty betrays her. It is true despair; the loss of faith.
Last of the Time Lords is all about faith and hope; and it is rather ironic, given Doctor Who’s proclivities, that this episode has such blatantly religious overtones. It is a bit disturbing as well, this trend towards depicting the Doctor as a god. Except that it is done in such a childish way. Docherty portrays the subtleties, but overall the show is played for pure theatrics. It is akin to Bible stories for children like I had as a kid, with lots of pictures and big print and simple words. It goes for the gut with little attempt to appeal to the intellect.
The Master plays the devil to the Doctor’s god; the baby faced Master taking impish glee in his sadism. The Master is so basely repugnant hiding under his glib, fun-loving fa├žade. That would be the devil; not the cartoonish horned beast from The Satan Pit, but a silver tongued viper in pleasing form. Except the Master is so over the top frenetic and madcap that the Archangel network can be the only explanation for his hypnotic control of the populace, coupled with the terror of the Toclafane.
The Doctor as a god (and I’ll get to that dramatically juvenile transformation in a moment) descends upon the cowering Master in his all-powerful mode. What I like about this kiddie lit version of Satan’s Fall From Grace, however, is that the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Doctor is abandoned for: “I forgive you.” The mighty battle between good and evil boils down to a war between faith and despair. Forgiveness is an act of faith; free for the taking. Despair is a rejection of that forgiveness. The Doctor cradles the dying Master in his arms imploring him to accept life; to accept love; to accept forgiveness. The Master, in an exercise of free will, refuses. In this one respect, Doctor Who gets it right.
But an episode of Doctor Who is not the Bible, the Doctor is not God, and the Master is not Satan. This is a show drawing upon religious themes merely for the spectacle it creates.
And it is quite a spectacle; clap if you believe.
There’s the rub; you have to believe if you are to clap. If not, if you choose to exercise your free will and reject, you have fallen from the good graces of Doctor Who. I still want to believe; I therefore suspend my disbelief; accept that Last of the Time Lords is nothing but an entertaining exhibition riddled with inconsistencies, fallacies, and plot holes; sit back to enjoy despite the occasional bouts of boredom; and clap my hands off in the end, adding my voice to the mighty shouts of “Doctor!” cascading through the air and elevating the Doctor to lofty heights.
All the while retaining a healthy dose of skepticism.
Ah, Gary. What this show has driven me to.
Let me get my feet back under me, Gary. I’ll start by returning to that year that never was so conveniently marked out at exactly 365 days. Seems the Master accomplished quite a lot in that short span of time. The destruction is easy and only a matter of moments, but the construction of hundreds of thousands of rockets each equipped with a black hole converter is a miracle of sorts given the material and time constraints. The Doctor, the Joneses, and Jack, on the other hand, accomplished very little and waited until that last day to mount any kind of resistance. Their plan seems fairly simple and shouldn’t have required the space of a year to formulate. But then, it is merely a device to show the audience that their spirit is still alive and to slip in the isomorphic controls angle and I suppose to give the actors something to do even if it is ineffectual.
My biggest question concerning this year however: how in the world did the Doctor know exactly when Martha should return; how did he know about the ‘Count Down’ and when precisely it would take place; and why did he let this year happen at all when all along all he had to do was take out the Paradox Machine? I know, Gary, that’s three questions; but its three questions in one (or a triune question if you will).
But I’ll allow the year. What I do find fascinating, though, is that the Master had a tiny little Doctor suit on hand. Oh, and the Peter Pan spell not only brings the Doctor back at full strength and power and young of age, but it also grows shoes on his feet.
I would feel sorry for the Toclafane stuck at the end of the Universe; except the Toclafane are a pathetic bunch of insane, infantile cannibals who deserve their fate if that is the best they can muster in the face of adversity. If I thought I was the last of the Human Race only to discover that I was not alone, that there was one other, but then discovered that that other was none other than a Toclafane (or let’s say Hitler to put a human face on him), I would not then do all in my power to save him. If a Toclafane (or Hitler) is the best my race has to offer I would therefore think that Mankind doesn’t deserve to survive. However, I refuse to believe that the Toclafane represent the whole of Mankind from our far distant future. I have a little more faith in my race than apparently Doctor Who has. (If that is a contradiction in faith, well then Gary I’ll invoke the Doctor Who Paradox Machine.)
I want to say a word about Lucy, as long as I am talking about faith and forgiveness. Lucy was fine with the Master’s world of death and destruction until it became personal. After that year that wasn’t the Master was revealed as a wife beater and adulterer; it was only then that she turned against him. I have little faith or forgiveness for Lucy; although I admire her as a character.
For all the convoluted spectacle, however, whether it works or it doesn’t, Last of the Time Lords does succeed in sending off both Jack and Martha Jones as companions of the series. Jack is given the short end of the stick for the bulk of the episode, but The Face of Boe reveal makes up for everything.
This leaves me with Martha. I have liked Martha all along, but there is that nagging unrequited love element that mars her stint as companion. For starters, it is beneath her character. It is an obvious device that falls flat. More importantly, however, it keeps her and the Doctor at arm’s length. There is never a camaraderie or ease in their relationship; it is always distant and awkward. When Martha takes her first leave of the Doctor they are reserved and formal in their good-byes. Martha returns, however, and she calls the Doctor out. In a roundabout way, but she does nonetheless. “So this is me, getting out.” For all of his emoting, this Tenth Doctor can be cold, and when his companion wears her heart on her sleeve this can be cruel. It is time for Martha to leave and she does it on her own terms. The show might have asked us to clap mightily for the Doctor in order to raise him from his bird cage, but I reserve my heartiest applause for Martha. “This is me, getting out.”
I find I have created my own bit of convoluted mess here, Gary, and so this is me getting out . . . at least for now. Like Martha and the Master, there is hope for a return. I’m still a believer and will continue on this ever long slow path.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Sound of Drums

Dear Gary—
I have to go back to Army of Ghosts/Doomsday and the style over substance mentality of New Who; except that rather than a fireworks display The Sound of Drums and its companion piece Last of the Time Lords is more of a boring Cirque du Soleil. There are long stretches of be-sequined filler punctuated by the occasional hold-your-breath, ‘oh that was good’ moment.
“The moral is, if you’re going to get stuck at the end of the universe, get stuck with an ex Time Agent and his vortex manipulator.” That nicely disposes of the cliffhanger from our previous story Utopia. It has a bit of a swept-under-the-carpet feel to it, but our questions about those unfortunates of our far distant future will come into play eventually; you could say that Utopia is the first ring of our three ring circus.
I suppose that makes The Sound of Drums our middle ring; as such it has lots of bridges to maintain; and lots of explanations are in order. Break out the sequins to add some flash to this filler.
The majority of exposition concerns the Master and it is delivered in a series of mini rings within the larger; cuts between the Doctor/Jack/Martha and Lucy Saxon’s interview and the Master himself; truth be told, I’m kept so busy that I don’t have time to realize I’m bored. I actually am more entertained, marred by moments of annoyance.
The annoying parts are those glittery bits that go wrong; cheap laughs; cheap thrills. Most of these are courtesy of the Master.
“Oh, go on, crack a smile. It’s funny, isn’t it?” The Master is forcing the humor and I can only sympathize with the dour faced Dumfries. It’s not funny, and when the Master slaughters the entire Cabinet I have to wonder how he manages to cover this up as “the Cabinet has gone into seclusion.” This is followed by the brutal murder of Vivien Rock. I was quite enjoying the interview between Vivien and Lucy Saxon. Vivien’s switch from the fluff piece reporter to the hard hitting journalist is convincing and Lucy’s wide-eyed innocence juxtaposed with her deal-with-the-devil realism is fascinating. But then we have the Master opening and closing the door on the cartoon screams emanating from the scene of the crime and all is demeaned.
The Master isn’t the only clown in this circus, though. His buffoonery is augmented by President Elect Winters. And I have to wonder what authority the President Elect has, unless the sitting President so authorized him; or perhaps he is operating under his UN credentials. In any case, I can’t imagine why he is given carte blanche in this matter, and I question the lack of world presence and of security.
For the most part, though, The Sound of Drums holds hypnotic sway, much like the Master’s Archangel Network. “I don’t know; he always sounded good.” (Tap, tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap, tap.) “Like you could trust him. Just nice. He spoke about . . . I can’t really remember. But it was good.” (Tap, tap, tap, tap; tap, tap, tap, tap.)
I can’t say that I am exactly mesmerized by the proceedings, but the glitzy display manages to cover most of its defects.
Helping the script along are some solid performances. I especially like Martha showing her independence. Some of her anger at the Doctor is misdirected, but at least she isn’t all starry eyed for a change. Jack, too, is memorable even though he doesn’t really have much of importance to say or do. He is mainly there to look good and facilitate exposition, but he just looks so darn good and facilitates with such ease; he is the perfect magician's assistant. The Doctor takes a strong lead as ring master of this show, and although I question whether his TARDIS key cloaking device would really fool the Master or even guards who are supposedly on high alert, it is an effective scene as he manufactures and explains its use and is rather clever if not examined in detail.
I have to say a word about Lucy Saxon as well. Like Jack she isn’t given much in the script, but she plays it for all she’s worth. I have already mentioned her brief interview with Vivien Rock, but there are two non-speaking background moments that really stand out for me. Both are on the Valiant. The first is when the Master offers her a jelly baby (!) and she rather gleefully bites the head off as she glares at President Elect Winters. The second is the subtle dance she does as strains of Voodoo Child fill the air and the Toclafane descend.
The Master, too, when not playing the clown, has some nice moments. His phone conversation with the Doctor for one. Their re-telling of the Time War is perfunctory but compelling. And who doesn’t love the Teletubbies bit and the nod to Roger Delgado’s Master from The Sea Devils?
The high wire act, however, is reserved for the flashback to Gallifrey and the Master as a child.
“They used to call it the Shining World of the Seven Systems,” the Doctor says of his lost home planet. “And on the Continent of Wild Endeavor, in the Mountains of Solace and Solitude, there stood the Citadel of the Time Lords, the oldest and most mighty race in the universe, looking down on the galaxies below.” His description sounds idyllic, like Susan’s long ago burnt orange sky and silver leaves.
“Well, perfect to look at, maybe.” I have learned along my slow path that in practice this Gallifrey is not a place I would ever want to visit, and from what the Doctor says in The Sound of Drums I am even more convinced. Children are torn away from their parents at the age of eight in the world of the Time Lords and sent to the Academy. (No wonder the Doctor has a hard time maintaining attachments.) At the age of eight these youngsters are exposed to the Untempered Schism, “staring at the raw power of time and space.” The Doctor continues, “Some would be inspired, some would run away, and some would go mad.” The Master went mad and the Doctor ran away. (I wonder where all the inspired Time Lords are; aside from possibly Romana, most Time Lords in Doctor Who are more or less bored.)
In the final act of The Sound of Drums we have a deluge of denouement. A few Toclafane spheres appear, Winters is killed, the Doctor is exposed (I knew his device wouldn’t work against the Master), Martha’s imprisoned family is presented , Jack is killed (temporarily), The Lazarus Experiment and the Doctor’s cut off hand from The Christmas Invasion are referenced and tied in to the current plot, and the Doctor is aged.
Now we have two spotlights on our center ring. The first is reserved for the horde of Toclafane as they descend from the opening rift in the sky; an inspired special effect to be sure. The second is for Martha. With chaos around her, Martha quietly cradles the feeble Doctor, a tear in her eye. Then with a look to her family she teleports out using Jack’s vortex manipulator.  “I’m coming back,” she vows amidst the destruction on the planet’s surface. All seems lost, but Martha provides a ray of hope.
When it is all over I think it was good. It was about . . . I don’t really remember, but it was good. And I look forward, Gary, to viewing the third and final ring.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Utopia

Dear Gary—
“The skies are made of diamonds.”
What a beautiful thought for the last of humankind to carry with them as they venture out into those blank heavens at the end of the universe. Utopia. The word and the story both encompass two emotions: despair and hope.
It is a desperate world in which the Doctor and Martha land; dark and bleak and barren; all rock and gravel. The Futurekind residing on the planet represents the worst that humanity faces; a degeneration into cannibalism. Utopia, on the other hand, holds the possibility of salvation. It is interesting that the impetus propelling them to this world is Captain Jack.
Jack had flung himself onto the outer door of the TARDIS as it dematerialized. (“Well, that’s very him.”) In attempting to shake off the clinging Jack the TARDIS transports them to the end of the universe. Jack, the impossible man (there’s that word again) who was never meant to be lives an endless life that is both a blessing and a curse; even he doesn’t know which it is.
Adventure soon finds our three travelers in this stark and far-flung edge of the universe.
“Oh, I’ve missed this.”
Caught up in the human hunt, they race to the safety of the silo. Here is another world of desperation; the end of the line for the human race with families huddled refugee style in cramped halls and Professor Yana and Chantho working in futility with the knowledge that their life-line of a rocket will never take off yet feeding the expectations of their fellows. “Well, it’s better to let them live in hope,” Yana says.
The Doctor sums it up in a word: “Indomitable!”
The Doctor, of course, is the real life-line for this indomitable race; one flick of his magic wand of a sonic screwdriver and the system comes alive. Now all of the rushing about has a purpose and all of these lost souls can continue dreaming of Utopia (to borrow a phrase from Professor Yana).
It is a decent enough adventure and does its job adequately. It assembles all of our essential cast together and keeps us entertained. It provides explanations and back stories as needed. And it ties in multiple aspects of past episodes. Most importantly, however, it wraps all of these things up into a neat package to set up the real story that is to come. As a set up episode, I do not feel shortchanged. (I shudder with vague recollections of Frontier in Space.)
One of the main accomplishments of Utopia is to reintroduce Captain Jack Harkness, and he fits in seamlessly despite never having met either Martha or the Tenth Doctor. The rapport is excellent, and once again I have to say that it is a shame his character was never more of a permanent companion, if nothing else than to distract from the regrettable Doctor/adoring young girl dynamic.
I love how the Doctor cautions Jack upon his every greeting, whether of male or female persuasion. And the conversation between the two regarding Jack’s immortality is one of the highlights; although I find the Doctor’s explanation for abandoning Jack rather callous.
Despite being more or less sidelined within the trio, Martha makes her presence felt as a wry observer. “Oh ho, boys and their toys,” as the Doctor and Jack compare transport. “Oh, she was blonde? Oh what a surprise,” as the Doctor and Jack reminisce. And my favorite: “You’ve got a hand? A hand in a jar. A hand in a jar in your bag.”
The Doctor/Martha unrequited puppy love theme is still evident, however, and echoed by the Professor Yana/Chantho relationship. I like Chantho; she has an economy of character that manages to depict richness of detail and history. Simple things like her odd speech pattern leads to playful banter with Martha and adds humor and warmth to the story. The last of her kind aspect also intersects with the Doctor, and her ancestral past is tied in with a single word shared by the Doctor: “Conglomeration.” It is sad to see her demise, but much like Utopia, she has served her purpose and it is time to move forward.
This brings us to Yana. As played by Derek Jacobi, Professor Yana is a wonderfully befuddled but brilliant mind with dark undertones subtly portrayed and more overtly signaled with the sound of drums beating in his head. The end of the universe, Futurekind, rocket ships to Utopia, even Jack Harkness take a back seat as the drum beats get louder. Slowly Yana becomes the focal point.
The countdown commences, preparations for launch proceed, the Doctor and Jack rush about flipping switches; and all the while the drum beats get louder and Yana becomes quietly consumed with bygone voices. Martha cuts through the commotion about her and zeroes in on Yana; the eye of the storm. “An orphan in the storm,” Yana says as he recalls his past while Martha prompts him about his watch—a watch all too familiar to her.
Y-A-N-A: You-Are-Not-Alone. I actually have a big problem with this stretching of credulity, but I’ll let it go.
Martha runs to the Doctor with her news. “But that’s brilliant, isn’t it,” she asks. Except this promise of hope, this realization that there might be a Time Lord other than the Doctor alive in the universe has this one huge caveat: “Depends which one.”
“I am the Master.”
The transformation from mild Professor Yana to diabolical Master is chilling.
The big reveal. It is to this end that the episode has been leading. The despair of being the last; the hope of not being alone. The answer: The Master.
The adventure itself is utilitarian, lifted greatly by the characterizations. The payoff, however, reaps huge benefits. Not only is the Doctor not alone; not only is the Doctor not the last of the Time Lords; but the second Time Lord joining the Doctor is none other than the Master.
And then the distinguished Derek Jacobi as Yana/Master regenerates into the childishly maniacal John Simm.
The rocket has launched; Futurekind has been let in; Jack and Martha fight to keep the doors shut against slaughter; the newly regenerated Master takes off in the TARDIS; and the Doctor stands composed amidst it all. “I’m sorry,” he says, sonic raised.
It is a cliffhanger worthy of the name.
I’ll leave on that cliff, Gary. I’m sorry . . .

Friday, July 25, 2014

Blink

Dear Gary—
I don’t think I have much to say about Blink other than it is good. It’s clever, charming, eerie, intriguing, and well done. This is a Doctor Lite episode (blink and you’ll miss him); therefore much depends upon the lead of Sally Sparrow, and the actress portraying her, Carey Mulligan, delivers. She is instantly likeable and draws you in to the story from the start. The same can be said of Billy Shipton, Larry, Kathy, and even Ben ‘You’re in Hull’ Wainright. We care about these characters we’ve never seen before and most likely will never see again.
The opening sequence is a great set-up for the story. It’s stylishly atmospheric, with the dark, the rain, the iron gates, the ivy, the stonework, and that fantastic abandoned house. It is the perfect balance; not horrifying but creepy with an element of mystery as Sally strips away the wallpaper to reveal the message from the past written to her specifically for the present moment. The one aspect to mar the mood is the rock through the window, but that’s a quibble and I won’t get too worked up about it.
The Weeping Angels, those lonely assassins, are a perfect fit for this story. “The only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely.” Spine-chilling, sinister, and poignant.
“Don’t blink. Don’t even blink. Blink and you’re dead.”
Most everything fits together in this puzzle piece of a tale, much like the one sided, pre-recorded conversation the Doctor has in 1969 with present day Sally Sparrow. “A big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” And it is all beautifully filmed.
Even the tiniest of details is lovely. The dying Billy Shipton some 40 years (38) older than the Billy Shipton Sally left not more than an hour ago saying, “It was raining when we met,” to which Sally replies, “It’s the same rain.”
This works on so many levels; as sci fi, as horror, as mystery, as romance. There is so much to praise yet little to say; it speaks so eloquently for itself.
Kathy (before being zapped back to 1920): “What’s good about sad?”
Sally: “It’s happy for deep people.”
It is only 45 minutes in length, and yet there is so much richness and depth to it. Entire histories are revealed in mere seconds of dialogue or pictures or looks or gestures. Kathy in 1920; Billy in 1969; the Doctor and Martha on their way to the migration (“four things and a lizard”); Sparrow and Nightingale one year later. Not to mention strength of character. I feel like I know Sally Sparrow just as surely as she knows the Doctor from a DVD Easter egg.
Then there is the Doctor Who trademark humor, mostly courtesy of Larry Nightingale. (“You’ve only got 17 DVDs?” “The angels have the phone box. That’s my favorite; I’ve got it on a T-shirt.”) And of course a dose of righteous indignation, courtesy of the Doctor’s surrogate, Sally: “I’m clever and I’m listening; and don’t patronize me because people have died and I’m not happy. Tell me.”
The final moments in Wester Drumlins (love that name by the way) as the angels close in are worthy of any first class horror film, and the Doctor’s solution is apropos for these statues who can’t be killed and won’t be seen. (Tiny quibble, but so what that they are made of stone—can’t you just take a hammer to them?)
But now we come to the coda, and I really wish they had left well enough alone. As I said before, the Weeping Angels are a perfect fit for this story, for this one blink of an eye episode. Beyond that . . .
If you can’t even blink and they’ll get you, Sally should have been zapped back to some distant past long ago, not to mention Larry and countless numbers. I can accept the angel’s uncharacteristic lethargy for the confines of this story and this story alone. Beyond that I cannot go.
I hate to jump ahead, but the coda started it. In future I find the Weeping Angels to be one of my least favorite of the New Who monsters. Second only to that horrible creation called The Silence.
Don’t blink, Gary.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Family of Blood

Dear Gary—
“He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He’s ancient and forever. He burns at the center of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.”
“God, you’re rubbish as a human.”
Two images of the same man; the Doctor and John Smith; the alien and the human. The two story types of Human Nature have merged; The Family of Blood now uses that unity to explore these two disparate personalities and wages war over them. It is a war that is taking place both inside the man himself and external to him.
The overt war is of course the alien attack on the school in search of the Doctor. The Family of Blood—Father of Mine, Mother of Mine, Son of Mine, and Daughter of Mine—are covetous of the Time Lord body so that Son of Mine can live forever, or at least longer than the three month lifespan he is saddled with. (Father, Mother, Son, Daughter—wouldn’t they all be at different stages during their three month existence and therefore after two months of hunting the Doctor wouldn’t at least one of them be dead or near death by now; or do they all come into a familial existence in the same moment?)
The army of scarecrows is clearly only a diversionary tactic on the part of the Family since the bullets rip them to shreds. The scarecrows are unarmed and it is unclear what they would do if they did catch up to anyone; their function seems mainly to scare and to get the Family’s blood lust up. Nonetheless it is a very effective scene as the young boys shower the advancing straw men with bullets while wiping tears from their eyes.
A battle over the Doctor is also occurring on a much smaller scale between Martha and the Matron.
“I’ve got to find that watch,” Martha exclaims as she begins her mad hunt. She sees John Smith as a useless man whereas the Doctor is “everything” to her. Find the watch and she can get her Doctor back. Matron follows because she sees something quite different. She looks at John Smith and sees a good man whereas the Doctor is a fantasy. But this is where the script takes her character and this fight in an interesting direction. This could have easily turned into a tug of war between the two women and quickly devolved into a cat fight. But it does not. Credit goes to the two characters defying stereotypical expectations. (Permit me this one indulgence, Gary, to express extreme relief that Rose is not the companion in this story.)
Martha calmly explains to Nurse Redfern what is happening, treating her as the intelligent woman she is. And like the intelligent woman she is, Nurse Redfern listens with a skeptical but open mind. They touch briefly on their rivaling affections, but thankfully Martha keeps things real and on track. She is just a friend, Martha assures Matron, and then I love how she takes her identity back, proudly defining herself as a doctor and not a maid servant. It is a wonderful moment; one of my top Doctor Who moments.
Nurse Redfern processes all of the information through the societal world view she grew up with, but she ultimately comes to her own conclusions based on the evidence before her. It is a heartbreaking process, for ultimately she must give up the man she loves; she must give up John Smith.
“John Smith wouldn’t want them to fight, never mind the Doctor,” she tells the man she knows as John Smith.” The John Smith I was getting to know, he knows it’s wrong, doesn’t he?”  The John Smith she was getting to know is not the shallow identity created by the TARDIS to fit the societal world view of the time; not the man who led schoolboys in military drills and allowed the beating of one by another. The John Smith she was getting to know, she is beginning to realize, is the hidden man buried deep within that outer casing of a man who acts as though he has forgotten he left the kettle on, who can only describe his boyhood home as an encyclopedia entry. The John Smith she was getting to know and love, the John Smith she was slowly uncovering, is the John Smith she must let go.
“I’m not. I’m John Smith.” Now the battle wages within the man. “That’s all I want to be. John Smith, with his life and his job and his love. Why can’t I be John Smith? Isn’t he a good man?”
“But we need the Doctor.”
The Family of Blood is rampaging and John Smith cannot stand up to them.
“So your job was to execute me,” John Smith accuses Martha. For Martha and the Doctor it is a simple matter of opening the watch; but it is not a simple matter, and it is impressive that for once the show does not let the Doctor off the hook. This two part story is a brutal indictment of the Doctor.
“Falling in love? That didn’t even occur to him?”
The Doctor is experiencing firsthand the painful consequences of his actions.
Joan Redfern takes John Smith by the hand and gently leads him through the minefield of his own creation. On the one hand is the idyllic view of life and love, an experience the Doctor can never have; on the other hand is the ancient and forever, scary and wonderful man of legends.
“Let me see,” Joan says as she takes the watch. “Blasted thing. Blasted, blasted thing. Can’t even hear it. It says nothing to me.” It says nothing to her, and yet she sees most clearly the message it brings. She knows the full meaning of opening that watch; the good and the bad; for her, for the Doctor, for John Smith, for the village, for the world, for the universe. She also knows it is up to the man before her to decide his own fate.  “What are you going to do?”
It has been a lovely and poignant story up to this point, the story of John Smith. Now it becomes the Doctor’s story and it takes an ugly turn. “He was braver than you in the end,” Joan tells the Doctor of that ordinary man she knew and loved. It is a story of contrasts between John Smith and the Doctor, and in this story at least, the Doctor comes up short.
The Doctor impersonates John Smith as he goes to confront the aliens, and his interpretation is one of a sniveling coward; this is not John Smith but a poor imitation as he stumbles about the spaceship hitting every switch and button in sight while the Family stands idly by showing no concern whatsoever. And then he reveals himself as the Doctor with this unforgivable line: “Oh, I think the explanation might be you’ve been fooled by a simple olfactory misdirection.” If it was that simple than shame on the Doctor for not utilizing it to begin with and sparing everyone all of the death and destruction and pain and sorrow. There was no need for the watch; there was no need for John Smith. This was a careless lark for the Doctor that ended in untold suffering, in particular for the two most important women in his life at the moment, Martha and Joan.
The guilt that the Doctor must feel over this he now takes out in vengeful wrath against the Family. And again, if it was so easy for him to dispose of them . . . . The voiceover by Baines/Son of Mine says the Doctor was just being kind when he decided on this particularly nasty game of hide and seek, but I don’t see that this conclusion follows from the unwarranted cruelty the Doctor unleashes against the Family once he is found out.
Joan, in her quiet way, sees the real tragedy and the culpability: “Answer me this. Just one question, that’s all. If the Doctor had never visited us, if he’d never chosen this place on a whim, would anybody here have died?”
The Doctor has no answer for this impeachment and Joan hands down her sentence:
“You can go.”
This dismissal reminds me of Donna’s refusal to accompany the Doctor at the end of The Runaway Bride. Both are a comeuppance for the Doctor, although this being the much more damning of the two. Both of these women see the Doctor plainly, and ultimately that is exactly what he needs. No more of these fawning young girls who hang upon his every word. But that will come in time.
All that is left is the tacked on Latimer ending. I haven’t said much about Latimer although I quite like him in this. He is convincing as the self-possessed young man yet scared little boy, and I could say more about this mini identity crises, one of many identity crises within this two parter. However I can’t help but feel that the feel-good ending is there as a redemption of sorts for the Doctor and I don’t think he deserves one. Not in this particular case. I wish the episode had ended, Gary, with:
 
“You can go.”

Friday, July 11, 2014

Human Nature

Dear Gary—
Doctor: “Martha, you trust me, don’t you?”
Martha: “Of course I do.”
Doctor: “Because it all depends on you.”
Neither a Doctor Who episode nor the Doctor has ever depended so heavily upon a companion. The Doctor has never been so vulnerable and he literally places himself in Martha’s hands as he gives her the pocket watch that will shortly contain his very being. From that moment on Martha is the only one who fully understands what is happening. The Doctor has entrusted this story to Martha and I can’t think of any other companion in recent memory who could pull off the subtle performance that Freema Agyemen does to bridge the gap between the two worlds that are depicted in Human Nature; the ordinary and the extraordinary; the human and the alien; the historical and the science fiction.
The first world consists of everyday life taking place in a 1913 school for boys. “It’s Monday, November 10th, 1913,” Martha tells the Doctor, “and you’re completely human, sir. As human as they come.” The Doctor has used the Chameleon Arch (a device never before mentioned but one that would have come in handy a time or two before now) to rewrite his biology in order hide from some aliens who are hot on his trail. The TARDIS has given him a brief bio and integrated him into his surroundings, leaving Martha to improvise her way in as a servant girl.
All aspects of this story are perfect; the sets, the costumes, the script, and the actors all lend an authentic flavor to the production. If it were not for the presence of Martha, and by the way a few aliens, I would almost think I’m watching a charming period piece and not Doctor Who. One of the more critical components of this is the performance of David Tennant, and he is superb. He makes you believe that he is John Smith and not just the Doctor playing at John Smith. There are periodic flashes of the Doctor, but for the most part John Smith is a separate character; a befuddled school teacher making his way the best he can in pre-war England, with Martha to guide him along.
I remember the first few times I watched this episode I was shocked at the sight of the Doctor teaching marksmanship to teenage boys and granting permission for one young lad to beat another. War and violence are foreign to the Doctor; but now I can appreciate the fact that John Smith is not the Doctor; John Smith is a product of his time. Similarly, John Smith can fall in love, and it is enchanting to see the gentle romance unfolding between him and Nurse Redfern.
Not so for Martha, however. “You had to go and fall in love with a human,” Martha bemoans, “and it wasn’t me.” This childish fancy that Martha clings to is a bit annoying, but overall the scene as she makes her lonely homecoming to the TARDIS is heartbreaking. Martha is completely isolated in this time and place; her only confidant is the TARDIS. (“I’m talking to a machine.”) She has to endure the indignities heaped upon her by individuals, the discrimination of society, and the indifference of the Doctor. She holds up remarkably well and is much better at adapting to historical norms than she had been in The Shakespeare Code, but I can’t help but feel that the TARDIS could have picked a more hospitable era for Martha to navigate.
Nevertheless, Martha has successfully watched out for John Smith for two months and as our story begins we get a glimpse into the daily humiliations she has endured and the gracious way she has handled them. Thus, when Hutchinson makes a derisive crack she waits until he is out of earshot before releasing her frustration; but even then she can stop to think about the year and what is in store for the likes of Hutchinson and feel compassion.  Or when Nurse Redfern admonishes her for entering without knocking she returns to the door dripping with impatient sarcasm to rap before enquiring about the Doctor’s condition after his fall; but then when the discussion turns to concussions Martha bites her tongue and defers to the Matron in her treatment, holding back her own considerable knowledge on the subject.
 “One more month and I’m as free as the wind,” she tells her one friend Jenny. Martha is biding her time. With only one month to go, however, things slowly start to unravel, starting with John Smith’s infatuation with the Matron. “I sometimes think how magical life would be if stories like this were true,” he tells Nurse Redfern as he hands over his Journal of Impossible Things (and what an exceptional prop creation this is). Martha alone knows that the magical stories are indeed true, and as guardian of the Doctor’s secret she runs after the Matron to assure her of the fictional nature of the book.
Nurse Redfern is no fool and Martha knows this. She is not one to be taken in by fanciful stories, however she is perceptive enough to describe John Smith like this: “It’s like he’s left the kettle on. Like he knows he has something to get back to, but he can’t remember what.” Given another month she very well might have uncovered the secret identity lurking beneath the surface.
“You talked of a shadow; a shadow falling across the entire world,” she tells John Smith of the stories he has written down in his journal. Already doubts and glimmers of truth are beginning to creep into her mind. And then John Smith, expounder of military discipline for the youths in his care, says a very Doctor-like thing: “Mankind doesn’t need warfare and bloodshed to prove itself. Everyday life can provide honor and valor, and let’s hope that from now on this . . . this country can find its heroes in smaller places. In the most ordinary of deeds.” And he performs a very Doctor like deed, saving the woman and her baby from the falling piano with a well thrown cricket ball. “You extraordinary man.” Yes, Nurse Redfern, given another month, very well might have dug out the hidden persona.
All of this is that one world; that ordinary, human, historical world; told in a delicate tale haunted by the visions of John Smith and with the specter of war hanging over it.
There is that other world however, that other story, and again it is Martha who ties everything together. A meteor flashes across the sky and Martha immediately knows its significance. Martha’s friend and fellow servant Jenny sniffs the air and shows a creepy interest in Mr. Smith’s future plans and Martha immediately knows this is an alien who has taken over Jenny’s form. Martha can see both worlds. Martha has been entrusted with this story and she lives up to every confidence shown in her.
That other story, that extraordinary, alien, science fiction story, doesn’t have quite the quality as that first, but it only suffers by comparison.
Baines is the standout in the alien Family possessed, although that red balloon is an eerie touch for the little girl, the spaceship effect is quite good, and the scarecrows are especially atmospheric. My one quibble would be with the cheap looking guns and the way the Family uncomfortably flails them about.
“I wish you’d come back.” Martha is alone in this alien world and the pocket watch is missing. Hindsight—I suppose Martha would have been smart to keep the watch on her person, but of course then we wouldn’t have this wonderful story. Instead we have Latimer, the schoolboy with extra-sensory perception, who pockets the watch when it speaks to him and Martha has to try to snap the Doctor out of John Smith without it.
Martha is on a mission. She is determined. Martha has no time to deal with the foolish customs of history.  “Yeah, well think again mate,” she says as she brushes aside the condemning beggar and brazenly marches through the front door of the village hall. Martha has come armed with the sonic screwdriver. “Name it,” she challenges John Smith. But it is John Smith and not the Doctor she faces. The Chameleon Arch has done its job too well.
“We need a Time Lord.”
The Family has entered; the Family has taken over the dance.
“Mr. Smith? Everything I told you, just forget it. Don’t say anything.” Martha knows it is John Smith and not a Time Lord she faces. Martha knows she is alone.
The Family knows John Smith is the Doctor in hiding.

“I don’t know what you mean!”
John Smith is useless; he is desperate; he is helpless. John Smith, an ordinary human, is faced with an alien threat and Martha and Joan are held at gunpoint.
The human and the alien have collided, and it is a cliffhanger worthy of this extraordinary tale.
Until next time, Gary . . .

Friday, July 4, 2014

42

Dear Gary—
42 is a diverting change of pace, even if it has a familiar feel to it. Every time the Doctor leaves the confines of Earth lately it is either to arrive on New Earth or on a space station/ship. 42 is set on a spaceship.
 It is a spaceship gone mad and the frantic pace doesn’t allow for much time to think too deeply, otherwise I might start asking some questions; in particular about the outrageous security system on board; and then I might go off on a tangent about modern day corporate security and how they either make it impossible to do your job or force people to write down all of their many and assorted and convoluted passwords despite repeated warnings and threats. Thankfully the action overtakes this line of thought.
The crew doesn’t have much time to think, either. They accept the Doctor’s authority with very little question. They only have 42 minutes before plummeting into the sun and have to contend with a sabotaged power supply, a possessed crew member killing them off one by one, and a multiple choice security password system from hell.
There is just enough plot to keep us interested, just enough character development to keep us engaged, and just enough mystery to keep us guessing. That about sums it up; 42 is just enough.
The things I remember most about this episode: Martha calling her mother to find out who had the most hits, Elvis or the Beatles; Martha getting further and further away in the escape pod as she watches the Doctor mouthing, “I’ll save you,” through the window (brief moment to wonder, if it is an escape pod, can’t they, you know, escape in it?); the Doctor’s possessed eyes glowing as he tells Martha to “burn with me;” and inexplicably Korwin. From time to time, out of the blue, the name Korwin will flit into my mind; and whenever I hear a word that is similar I can hear McDonnell saying the name Korwin. I don’t know why.
Other than that, I remember lots of sweat and steam and lots of running around. With the distance of time, when I try to think of this episode I tend to get bits of it mixed with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. In fact when I was watching those two episodes recently I kept waiting for the part where they were trying to open the dead locked doors with the convoluted password system. But no, that’s the one where they are crawling around in airless ducts with open air grate entrances.
My sense always is that this is a strong Martha story, and watching it again justifies this impression. She is proactive throughout, jumping in to aid in the maze of password quizzola ,what’s-behind-the-door, security network; reading up on how to work the stasis chamber in order to save the Doctor from his burning demon possession; and racing to the front of the ship in order to command the dumping of fuel thus saving the day. (“Do it. Now!”)
Martha has established herself as a worthy companion for the Doctor, even if she is not fully accepted by him. As it begins, the Doctor is fixing up her phone with “universal roaming” as “frequent flier’s privilege.” Even though this still tends to regard her as passenger more than friend, at least he is finally recognizing that she is in it for the long haul.
Martha proceeds to use her upgraded mobile several times to call her mother, once to get her pop quiz answer (Elvis) and then when she is in the escape pod facing death, and finally when it is all over and she is safely back in the TARDIS. These are some nice little character moments for her and also set up the Saxon references in a way that I don’t mind. In fact they are integrated nicely in the narrative and are effective in foreshadowing the menace facing the Doctor and Martha without seeming gratuitous or distracting.
I am always a little puzzled, however, by the kiss she and Riley share at the end. They were locked up in the confines of the escape pod facing immanent destruction together, but I never saw any budding relationship between the two. I suppose it is a bit more convincing than Leela and Andred but barely.
I don’t have much more to say about 42, although I do want to mention that the final acceptance of culpability by McDonnell and her ultimate self-sacrifice is touching.
It is just enough, Gary, and I suppose that is good enough  . . .