Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Bubble Wrapped Christmas

Since Steven Moffat dropped into the Doctor Who producer's chair in 2010 the Christmas specials have featured a common theme. Last year's The Time of the Doctor aside they've all been heavily inspired by existing works (and it could be argued that Time of the Doctor was inspired by a certain kind of fanfic). 2010 was inspired by A Christmas Carol (and even nabbed the title). 2011 was The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, an homage to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so logical it's amazing it took 48 years to do. 2012 went for Victoriana in general, even though The Wizard of Oz would have sat nicely with Moff’s established theme with the TARDIS taking the place of the death-dealing falling house.

The approach hasn't had the best results. His first stab at the tricky to nail Crimbo standalone, which is intended to be watched by an audience that's half cut and likely to doze off, was about an old man who kept his girlfriend locked in a freezer and only let her out once a year, with her last hours implied to be spent underneath a groaning Michael Gambon. It’s not what you’d call a heart-warming tale. It also featured Moffat's irritating obsession with writing time travel into his plots, as opposed to using it as the impetus for a story (there's quite a difference).

His second attempt quickly dropped its promising source material and told us a story about a tree king and living baubles. That Bill Bailey's minor cameo was one of the best things about it says all that needs saying. Meanwhile the 2012 melange was more worried about setting Clara up as the impossible girl than striving for the realms of good or even memorable, a poor decision for what should have been a Romp™.

Judging by this year's trailer I think Moffat's changed his sources of inspiration. What's been released shows a bunch of people wandering around a sci-fi base or ship, some aliens hatching, and Father Christmas. There's also a shot of (presumably) people with cloths draped over them sitting up on gurneys. That clip and the alien hatching make me think it's going to be a survival story in which people are picked off and converted one by one. Specifically it looks like it's been influenced pretty strongly by Alien, its sequels, and its rip-offs. Just what you want on Christmas Day.

In fairness if this is what Moffat's written it's not the worst idea in the world. An homage to action films, a genre which doesn't generally require much attention from the audience, is a good approach for a Doctor Who Christmas episode. It allows for a story where there's a threat (something Moffat scripts all too frequently lack) but in a format where people can follow along by knowing the basics of the genre.

The main reason I've written all of this is that I have a prediction on the alien race in the episode. Assuming it is a story about a small group of humans getting picked off or converted by an alien in space there's a natural race to bring back and use in the alien role: the Wirrn.

It could be interesting to see them used again, especially when you take into account the advances prosthetics have made since 1975. But it would also be a risk for Moffat. The Ark in Space is a highly regarded story by a highly regarded writer that kicked off what is probably the most highly regarded era of the show. This newer episode would be open to a host of comparisons and would need to be very well made in order to not come off looking like a nicely made but poor imitation and an ill-advised, unnecessary remake. It's possible the modern production team could better The Ark in Space but doing so would hinge on a top notch Moffat script. And he's not had one of those in a while.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Death in Heaven


I enjoyed last week’s opening half of this story (Dark Water). It did a good job of drawing various dangling plot strands together, reintroducing the Master, now Missy, in a fashion befitting the character, and making the Cybermen look better than they have in years. But it had the simple job. Setting things up is easy and can be done indefinitely. It’s paying things off in a satisfying manner that counts and takes the skill. Before it aired that was what it felt like Death in Heaven was going to struggle with. It did.

I mentioned Steven Moffat’s history with two-parters last week and I’m going to do the same here. Because it’s worth highlighting that his payoff episodes are never as rewarding as his setup episodes. The only episodes of his that’s not true of are The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances because The Moffster wrote them as a ninety minute script and then lopped it in two with a flimsy cliffhanger. They’re a pair of episodes unlike any other two part story the series has done since. They were a learning experience for Moffat, as Aliens of London and World War Three had been earlier in 2005 for Russell T Davies. Note how Davies completely altered things for the resolving half of his Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways duo, the second two part story he scripted for the series.

Moffat learnt to switch things up in resolving halves, as noted last week. That’s shown in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, where the first script ends in such a way as to set up an entirely fresh premise in the second. And while it was clear from those two episodes that Moffat had mastered that vital trick required to make modern day Doctor Who multi-part stories work it also showed that he’s not actually very good at resolving things.

Look back at that story and make note of how things stand at the halfway point. The Doctor is in a library that’s inside a girl’s TV, Donna’s dead, there are living shadows eating people, and there’s a mysterious woman knocking about who knows an awful lot about the Doctor and keeps making enigmatic references to his future. It’s good stuff, because there are so many questions we can ask and as an audience we enjoy a bit of mystery. There’s a joy to not knowing and trying to figure out how everything will tie together.

Coming up with puzzling scenarios and concepts is a strength of Moffat’s writing. Sadly, he isn’t as skilled when it comes to paying off these creations. There’s no way to watch the concluding part of the Library two-parter without feeling slightly deflated: the girl turns out to be malfunctioning computer software (and it was neither the first nor last time that particular trope turned up in a Moffat script), Donna ends up alive and well, the shadows are largely forgotten about, and the mysterious woman turns out to be River Song, a woman who would go on to become a walking continuity reference and a way for Moffat to substitute lazy writing for creativity.

Steven Moffat does not write satisfying conclusions. He writes enjoyable setups which he has no idea how to pay off. He also doesn’t think his ideas through sufficiently, resulting in holes and flaws in the show’s internal logic. This was something that certainly afflicted Death in Heaven. To wit…

Most graves on Earth would not contain a physical body (one grave was from 1748, for example, and wouldn’t have contained anything resembling a human since 1749 at best), so how were they used to produce Cybermen? How did rain turn into Cybermen suits? Was the dark water introduced in the episode of the same name intended as an explanation of how they were formed from bones? If so why was the focus on the water turning non-organic material invisible instead of hinting at its metal-creating abilities? Why were there bolts in Danny's face when the Cyberman suit had cascaded onto him? Wouldn’t bolts have been needed if Danny had been placed into the suit? Are we to take it that the Doctor has become fairly well known again, considering every country on the planet is okay with him being put in charge in times of great emergency? Why did Cyber-Danny take Clara to a graveyard? Why do Cybermen have to activate their own emotional inhibitors when lack of emotion has traditionally been one of their defining attributes? If Cyber-Danny had to turn off his emotions to become a Cyberman, which he wasn't able to do himself, then how did every other dead person become a fully converted Cyberman after standing around looking confused for a bit? Why would an upgrade which puts a form of the internet in humanity’s heads not include some sort of orientation programme to cut down on the levels of confusion the newly booted up Cybermen experience? Are we now to understand that human emotion is stronger than Cyber-programming? Could the Doctor really not work out that the Cybermen's plan was to use their magical clouds to turn all of humanity into Cybermen without Danny's help? Was Seb dying as he squee’d a reveal of Moffat's true feelings towards modern fandom? Could Danny’s mind or personality or whatever not have been uploaded back to the Nethersphere to gift him with the depressing afterlife that River Song was subjected to in The Library? 

Orson Pink?

None of these things were enough to make the story unwatchable. They were niggles and annoyances that could and should have been sorted out but they weren’t enough to ruin the story and make it bad. It was bad in its own right, with or without them.

Let’s start with the Clara and Danny stuff, because it’s clear with eleven previous episodes to look back on that that was intended as one of the episode’s key themes. I’ve said of most episodes that feature a focus on their relationship that it isn’t believable, and because of that it was hard for their climactic moments here to have the intended emotional impact. Jenna Coleman has improved with these scenes throughout the series and carried her side of things well here but the same can’t be said for Samuel Anderson. Had he been tasked with simply playing an emotionless Cyberman things probably would have been fine. He’s good at lacking emotion and he can stand still in a robotic suit pretty well. But treading the fine line of playing human emotions fighting to the fore of an emotionless droid was not something he was ever going to pull off.

That he still saw the Doctor as a detached officer unwilling to get his hands dirty was a nice moment for the character but was something else let down by Anderson’s performance. In fairness this wasn’t all his fault (although he didn’t do an especially good job). It would have made far more sense for Danny to rail against the Doctor before dying and waking up a Cyberman. That would have allowed him to put some anger into his words, as opposed to delivering them with the abject blandness the script necessitated. But even then Anderson probably would have let the side down so it really doesn’t matter too much. 

The only thing I felt worked with regards to Danny in the entire episode was his final sacrifice, giving the innocent boy he’d killed a second chance at life. It showed him as the hero Moffat’s haphazardly attempted to portray him as all season and allowed him to go out showing that he really is the good man we were all meant to see him as. That said it was a rather blind gesture on his part: the kid has presumably not aged while trapped in the Nethersphere and his parents will have presumably come to terms with his death (assuming they were left alive to do so). Dumping him on a grieving Clara and expecting her to reunite an Afghanistani family was not the nicest thing he could have done to her.

Better than Samuel Anderson was Michelle Gomez. But not by as great a margin as I’d expected or wanted. She played the part fine, but was fine really appropriate? She didn’t throw herself into the moments of maliciousness or madness or gloating with the passion they deserved. Missy was more subdued than any incarnation of the Master we’ve seen before and worked as proof, not that it were needed, that a subdued take on the character does not really work. It’s best as an over the top psychopathic panto villain.

Moffat’s writing of Missy was actually something of a highlight for the episode. She was built up efficiently as a threat throughout the episode, most notably with her murder of Osgood (a sacrifice Moffat may have had planned for a while considering she didn’t make her first appearance until Day of the Doctor, by which point Moff had begun seeding his Missy arc). That a character who seemed as though she were going to become a recurring role was offed made Missy seem that much more a threat, demonstrating that she can waltz into an episode and instantly kill anyone the audience presumes is safe. That’s a great strength for a Doctor Who villain to have, particularly one as historically inefficient as the Master.

Her plan was suitably daft and convoluted. She’d been travelling up and down the history of the planet trapping spirits of the dead in a Christmas bauble so that she could raise an army of Cybermen that she could gift the Doctor an army to conquer the universe and show everyone he’s always right. It’s worthy of the Saward-penned Ainley Master. If nothing else it fits with the character’s history, makes sense in its own right, and works well with RTD’s “the Master is stark-staring mad” approach. As did the unsubtle depiction of Missy as an evil Mary Poppins. The episode didn’t really do anything much for the Cybermen, reducing them to particularly well-kitted out foot soldiers but in a story where the Master and the Cybermen team up it has to be the Master that took centre stage. The only bad point of the team-up was that the Cybermen didn’t become the latest villainous race to double-cross her.

There were things to like in the episode. My token comment for series eight, that Peter Capaldi was very good, was as true as it’s ever been. He was never less than watchable and consistently raised the quality of every scene he was in. Particularly good was his selling of frustration at being duped about Gallifrey’s location, uncontrollably smashing away at the TARDIS console. Were he to pull an Eccleston and leave now (or after the Christmas episode) he’d leave people wanting more. The season’s scripts have been a bit mixed, but the performance from Twelfth Doctor has been unwaveringly excellent.

The idea of the Doctor visiting the afterlife was a good one, something it’s surprising the series hasn’t done before. It’s something that I could imagine sitting quite well in the Pertwee, Hinchcliffe or Cartmel eras of the show, although Moffat trumped them on having a reason to do it. Admittedly it was more a focus of Dark Water than Death in Heaven but I refrained from commenting on it last week because I wanted to see how it was resolved (unsurprisingly the answer was: not well). My other token note that the set designs were good can be applied, although to be fair there weren’t actually that many.

Jenna Coleman gave one of her best performances in the part. If she does end up leaving, as seems likely, it will be nice that her final or penultimate performance (she may be in the Christmas special) was one of her best. For the record she was billed over Peter Capaldi and it was her eyes in the credits, although I’m not entirely sure why. It was possibly to play into her pre-credits cliffhanger claim that she was the Doctor. If so it as ill-judged because nothing about the direction or her delivery of the line made that seem plausible. If it was a gesture of respect for the actress Jenna Coleman then fair enough, although it was somewhat pointless.

And if nothing else Moffat has at least left us with the possibility that the Brigadier goes on living as a Cyberman for thousands of years and ends up as Handles. For that alone it’s impossible to completely hate Death in Heaven.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Dark Water

Dark Water is the opening half of the first two part story Doctor Who has done since the less than stellar combination of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People in May 2011. While the second part hasn’t aired yet it feels safe to say that it this story will surpass that story in every conceivable way. Judging by what we’ve seen so far it also looks like it’s going to better the last Steven Moffat penned two-parter, series six’s opening story of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. In fact it looks like it could be the best two-part story since David Tennant’s End of Time swansong.

This is not the accomplishment it might appear. Despite turning out one of the highlights of series one in his two part story The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, Steven Moffat has a spotty past with the multiple episode offerings. The second two part story he gave us was series four’s Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, which was enjoyable enough but riddled with minor faults and a came as a significant drop in quality from his contributions to the first three series.

The problem became really apparent when his time as producer kicked in. Before The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone aired Moffat had opined that two part stories only truly worked when the first instalment ended on a cliffhanger that completely changed the way the audience viewed the situation (changed the game, if you will) so as to set up an entirely different story to be told in part two. It’s logical and easy to agree with but he didn’t get it entirely right with the Weeping Angels two part return. The cliffhanger felt laboured and the second half was different in the wrong sort of way, substituting one group of studio sets, recording locations and themes for another but keeping the story the same without providing much of a change in perspective for the audience. It was a visual change and nothing more.

The series one finale went too far in the opposite direction, so much so that The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang can practically be seen as individual stories rather than two halves of a whole. Not that there’s anything wrong with standalone episodes, but it’s not what Moffat and his team were aiming for on that occasion.

Series six saw Moffat move the two part “finale” (a term he insisted on using even though he was referring to the precise opposite of a finale) to the opening two episodes, seemingly just to be contrary. Structurally it was pretty sound, the second episode opened up several months after the closing moments of the first, thereby allowing the story to continue from a different perspective. Ultimately the need for it to start the series was questionable but as a Doctor Who two part story it worked well enough and was the best ninety minute offering Moffles had made since series one.

All of which is to say that two part stories, particularly with Moffat’s extreme approach to changing things for the second halves, are tough things to assess as individual episodes. Dark Water is not intended to be something we look at in and of itself. It’s meant to be appraised as a whole in conjunction with Death in Heaven. But at the same time it told its own story and featured enough interesting bits and pieces and Moffat-favoured tropes to comment on it, so I will.

I’ll start with the big shock. No, that’s not Missy’s identity. That seemed pretty obvious all along, although, to be fair to Moffat, it wasn’t as obvious as Mr Saxon’s identity throughout series three (I guessed that in The Runaway Bride). It also wasn’t Danny dying. The harping on about his past as a soldier and the afterlife thread that had run throughout the series seemed destined to join and oh look, they did. The framing of the last shot in which we saw Danny alive made it fairly clear that something was about to happen to him, so his death didn’t come as a surprise.

The big shock of the episode was the return of Sheila Reid as Clara’s Gran. Under Moffat the show has been pretty poor at creating supporting casts to make the home lives of companions seem believable (with the obvious exception of Danny, who was designed to do far more than provide a simple fleshing out of the home life). It was only a minor part, just as it was in Time of the Doctor, but it’s neat, simple little touches of continuity that can mean the most.

Another surprise was that the Cybermen were foreshadowed so strongly before their reveal. Within the episode itself this made perfect sense, but I can’t imagine there were more than a few people watching unaware that they were in the episode. Obviously there were all those photos taken at St Pauls of the location shoot but they were also in the trailer shown at the end of In the Forest of the Night. Their musical sting appeared several minutes before any Cybermen did. Their presence in the episode hadn’t been hushed up so it was peculiar that the episode built up to their reveal in the manner that it did.

That said it did build to their reveal very well. The teardrop circular eye motif being used on the sliding doors, the musical sting, and the set design nods to Tomb of the Cybermen were all excellent touches, as was the fact that we’d seen the Cybermen throughout the episode and not realised it (although, of course, we had realised it because of the trailer and the location shots, but you know what I mean). There were a couple of missteps; Missy reaching out to touch the glass of a tank with a skeletal hand reaching out to mirror her movement (because when have the allegedly emotionless Cybermen ever gone in for bouts of sentimentality?); the sudden love of a nice sit down on stone thrones; the lack of an explanation for why they were sitting in vats of water, dark or otherwise; and the fact that Cybersuits now apparently have an intact human skeleton inside of them, but on the whole their reintroduction was handled well. By the end of the episode the Cybermen seemed like a genuine threat, something that’s quite rare in the history of their stories. For that matter it’s something Moffat’s not always achieved with his scripts in general.

The real wrong-footing came with Missy. Her first interaction with the Doctor saw her rattle off an old Bruce Forsyth catchphrase, passionately kiss the Doctor, and hold his hand to her chest before claiming to be a droid. That last one jarred with the level of personality displayed in the first three and with the character in general. The android claim was clearly there to desperately keep people off the scent until the final reveal seconds before the end of the episode, as was the kiss and the hand on the chest being played for laughs and the Doctor not revealing that he’d detected a dual heartbeat. Which is fair enough. The introduction of a new Master is one of those occasions that Doctor Who should revel in. It’s a chance to swerve the audience a bit and provide a satisfactory (though also slightly lazy) cliffhanger, because of the history of the character and the show. It couldn’t be done every week but as the last time we saw it was 2007 it was a perfectly acceptable addition here.

This feels as good a point as any to talk about Michelle Gomez. I like her as an actress and feel she’s a very good casting choice for the role of the Master-and-or-Missy. She has sufficient range and looks the part. Beyond that I don’t really feel there’s much to say at this point because I imagine the bulk of Gomez’s Master moments will come next week. What we got this week was very good, but it’s hard to say at this point whether or not it was a subdued performance designed to obscure the fact that Missy was the Master.

What we can say is that Moffat will almost certainly be going into continuity overdrive next week. The nature of the modern show (and Moffat’s nature as a writer pretty keen on being popular with the bulk of fandom) means that reintroducing the Master has to come with an explanation. It’s not like The Mark of the Rani where the Master was casually shown standing in a field dressed as a scarecrow after he’d last been seen shrinking inside a flame in Planet of Fire, presumably dying the process. People will want to know how he escaped the destruction of Gallifrey and turned from John Simm into Michelle Gomez. Which is a reasonable expectation in 2014, to be honest, but Moffat also set up a bundle of other stuff he needs to pay off. Such as why Missy is in league with the Cybermen (as in what will she actually get out of it?), how she procured and set up the Time Lord tech (which could very well lead to the Doctor setting out on that quest to find Gallifrey that was first mentioned in Day of the Doctor), Clara and Danny’s relationship, and, of course, the Doctor figuring out a way to stop the Cybermen. It’s not impossible, it’s a big ask to do it all in a satisfying manner inside forty-five minutes.

From that list the Danny and Clara relationship is the clearly intended as the most important part. Moffat has spent the entire series attempting to turn Danny into a meaningful part of Clara’s everyday life. He’s mostly failed, in no small part because of Samuel Anderson’s often wooden performance, but they’ve hit the mark enough to at least let us know what the intention is. The ending to Dark Water, Danny essentially being handed the means to commit suicide while a boy he shot dead watches on, was effective, and was made even more so by the scenes in which Clara and Danny had argued. That argument saw Clara tell Danny she wanted to be with him wherever he was and Danny, believing that would involve her dying, saying he loved her even though she’d said she’d end the call if he said that again without offering up a substantial argument that he really was Danny. Right now this looks as though it’s meant to be seen as Danny making the ultimate sacrifice. We’ll have to see if that holds true next, but it would certainly fit with what’s been done with the character so far.

Clara got another big emotional scene in addition to the one with Danny. You know, the one where she tried forcing the Doctor into helping her. It was a move that fit well enough with the control freak description often attached to her as it was completely believable that someone with those tendencies would behave that way when suffering from grief over the death of a loved one. The only trouble is that there’s been precious little evidence that Clara really does have control freak tendencies. Yes, the Doctor’s joked about it and she’s been quick to take control of some (but not all) chaotic situations that have sailed her way but mostly we know she’s supposed to be a control freak because Steven Moffat, lead writer, has told us that’s what she is. The scene made sense and was well acted by both Coleman and Capaldi but it didn’t feel as natural as it should have done. And as one of the key scenes of a two part finale it definitely should have felt natural, a culmination of a season’s worth of tension and foreshadowing.

On the whole any complaints I have are minor. I enjoyed Dark Water for what it was. The trouble is that I generally enjoy Moffat episodes while he’s setting things up and stop enjoying them when he has to start paying things off. Which is a problem here because, being the first part of a two part story, this was almost exclusively set up. In other words next week’s Death in Heaven has been given the strongest build-up possible, but there’s no guarantee it will provide the satisfying conclusion Dark Water deserves and needs.