Sunday, 29 November 2015

Heaven Sent

The most obvious thing to note about Heaven Sent is that it's the first time ever the lead actor has had the entire show to themselves (minus a brief appearance from Jenna Coleman and a child actor at the end). It's the sort of thing that can be done every so often, a tweak to the format to keep things interesting. It doesn't hurt to alter the audience's expectations either1.

It worked largely because of Peter Capaldi. Chris Eccleston could have done this but there was no way the programme could have been so experimental in its first series. David Tennant could have done this too, although his Doctor was written more to bounce off of other people and to enjoy showing off. And even his time on the show may have felt a little early to try it. Matt Smith could not have handled this, which makes me think that Moffat's had this story in his head for a while but waited until he had a lead actor who could do it justice2. I'm finding myself thinking that more the more I watch Capaldi and see the things he's given to do.

The episode ended up as a fifty-five minute example of why Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor. He showed his impressive range. He showed his instinct for making interesting choices for how to play things. He showed his expressive body language and facial movements. Whether he was stepping out of the teleporter at the start (and the end) of the episode and placing his feet to suggest frailty and innocence or giving a knowing glance to the camera as he delivered the line "I'm nothing without an audience" he was pitching things perfectly. He gave a performance that was so nuanced and focused that he pretty much made it so that he has to be considered the best actor to have taken the lead role of New Who. Because nobody else has had the chance to show their ability in this way before.

Steven Moffat deserves credit too. Because he provided Capaldi with a script that let him be intelligent, funny, scared, angry and a bunch of other things. He also gave us his best new monster for a while, the originally-unnamed shuffling presence (later disappointingly named as the Veil) that hounded the Doctor through an otherwise empty castle. A faceless, unstoppable horror that can only be stopped with fresh truths is a very clever, very Doctor Who, very Steven Moffat idea. The same goes for the setting of a castle which can rearrange itself. That's not a new idea, of course, but it's something that's a good fit for this show and feels like it should have been seen more. It was the setting and the constant threat of the Veil that gave the episode a sense of urgency, something for Capaldi to react against in the absence of a proper supporting cast.

Moffat's other triumph was explaining how the Doctor copes with dangerous situations. He stays calm and imagines himself in the safety of the TARDIS, slowing things down and letting himself concentrate and think. It gave us a glimpse inside the Doctor's head but in a way that didn't reveal too much of the character and retained some of his much-needed mystery. It also made good use of the TARDIS set, an enormous expense that hasn't had much screen time this series.

Speaking of which, the production team deserve a mention at this point. They found a great location for the castle, created some good props to make it seem appropriately unknowable3,  and put together an effective costume for the Veil. Interesting things were done with the lighting as the TARDIS "came back online" too. Everyone seemed to be working towards making this a memorable episode and they accomplished that goal.

The episode wasn't without its faults though. At the same time as he was doing his best writing yet for Capaldi's Doctor Moffat was also pumping out another looped timeline plot. These and the not dissimilar time paradoxes are amongst his most overused tropes. He's been using them since Blink and hasn't been sparing about it. Series six was bookended by this approach for example. It's reached the point now where it's to be expected. The moment I saw a gnarled, bloody hand pulling a lever at the beginning of the episode I knew it would turn out to be Capaldi because that's precisely the sort of thing Moffat does.

The other failure4 was that it was the Time Lords behind it all. On one hand, that's okay. The Time Lords have been built up since the reboot as an unknowable, god-like race whom the Doctor both misses and never wants to see return. They're an interesting concept to introduce to New Who5 for these reasons and it feels appropriate for them to return ten years on from the revival. And the reveal that the castle was inside the confession dial was a very nice touch, being unexpected and a nod towards the race's knack for bigger-on-the-inside technology.

On the other hand it was always going to be the Time Lords and Moffat didn't even try to hide it. A token attempt at not making it obvious would have been nice. Their return has been inevitable since they were brought back in The Day of the Doctor and it's an ill-fated decision. The Time Lords have always worked best when presented as a corrupt society of paranoid schemers desperate to cling to life and left mostly off-screen. The majority of JNT's term as producer bears me out on this.  The trailer shows that we're going to see guns and armour. Lots of guns and armour. Using the Time Lords as Imperial storm trooper surrogates does them no favours but it's not a part of this episode, so it's not the problem that another time loop plot is.

This isn't the sort of episode that could be done every series, or even with every Doctor, but as a one off it absolutely works. The right actor got to do it.


1 By "the audience" I mean the portion of people who watch Doctor Who without gorging themselves on previews and spoilers first, because they're the ones who (probably) didn't' know this single-hander was coming, and I imagine it would have worked better without that foreknowledge.

2 Although I may be giving Moffles too much credit. Maybe Smith's era was shaped the way it was because he simply couldn't wait to write all those "clever" time travel plots and explain The Mystery of River Song™.

3 Yeah it was mostly big clockwork cogs, but what big clockwork cogs!

4 Aside from the script raising questions like "Why did the Veil touching the Doctor's face burn one side of the face but not the other, and why did it scorch the Doctor's clothes?"

5 Well, reintroduce, technically. RTD beat Moffat to it by several years, although it feels like Moffat intends to have the Time Lords return on a more permanent basis where Davies was happy to use them as a one-off, the ultimate threat in his Buffy-inspired Ever Bigger and Badder Big Bads approach to series finales.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Face the Raven

This episode feels like it should have come about a lot sooner. Not because of the series arc stuff it included but because of its urban fantasy trappings. It's a genre that's been growing in popularity since before the show was revived in 2005, making it something the show was always going to touch on. More importantly it feels like a natural fit for Doctor Who. It's not a coincidence that former Who writers Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell have found success in this genre or that one of its most prominent figures in Neil Gaiman has been brought in to write for the show. It's trappings and tropes are a good fit for a programme that can lends itself to magical realism.

It's possible I liked the episode disproportionately because of its use of urban fantasy. Not that the writing was bad. It wasn't. In fact I felt that the pre-credits teaser scene was one of the best we've had this season, the regulars were written impeccably, and the opening stretch in which we were introduced to trap streets and the concept of aliens using them as hiding places was excellent. The idea of a raven that flew into people branded with a tattoo that counted down to zero was a good one and the returning Ashildr was written the same sort of moral greyness and magnetism that made her stand out in The Woman Who Lived. Rigsy was better here than in Flatline, for the record, although he's a far less important or interesting character.

It was the world building that I liked. Because that's what I always like, in anything. But that doesn't necessarily make a good episode of Doctor Who and I'm having trouble picking out anything before the climax scenes that stood out to the same degree. I think the episode got an easier ride from me than most because it was doing something different to the rest of the Moffat era and making use of something obvious. And because it had a fantastic set that perfectly fit the tone of the genre and the needs of the episode. It felt like what it was meant to be, a magical Victorian street squirreled away in the middle of London.

But ultimately it's not any of this that this episode will be remembered for, no matter how worthwhile it may have been. This episode will be remembered for the death of Clara. And, in fairness, it is a good death scene. Clara has been written as becoming increasingly Doctor-esque across her time on the show. It's not always worked and it's sometimes outright misfired but there's enough material of Clara emulating the Doctor's behaviour and behaving as he would (or thinks he would) that you can take her actions here, thinking she's found a workaround for the rules of the raven always killing its victims by taking the tattoo target from Rigsy, as completely in character. And it's a fitting end, a companion who's overestimated their own ability and similarity (or lack thereof) to the show's lead character and paid the price for it. If only Earthshock had included as much thought as this Adric may be better remembered.

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi handle what we were are left to assume was their final scene together as those characters well. Capaldi went from snarling rage with Ashildr to sorrow and awkwardness when saying goodbye to Clara. It demonstrated the range the man has, something which could be made use of far more often. Meanwhile Coleman played Clara coming to terms with her impending death and the Doctor's inability to help her with dignified acceptance and bravery, giving the character the ending I imagine most viewers will feel she absolutely deserved. For what it's worth I've never felt that engaged by Clara. Her origin as a Big Mystery™ and relationship with the boring Danny Pink left me cold. But she's worked this series and this was a memorable exit.

Assuming of course that it is an exit from the show. There are two episodes left to air. Next week's has been announced as a solo outing for Peter Capaldi, which should shut up my requests to give him more to do. You can't ask for more than giving him an entire episode to himself. But Coleman has been confirmed for the following week. There's also the fact that Steven Moffat has never been shy about bringing back characters that are absolutely-definitely-positively-dead-totally-forever. It happened several times with Rory, it was Amy's final send-off, and we have River Song coming back at Christmas in a story set after her death and upload to a magical super computer on the planet Library. That we know characters can so easily return after death under Moffat does blunt the loss of Clara slightly, but we can still enjoy her death scene in isolation. I suspect it will be easier to accept when we know how her time on the show plays out in Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. I suspect the Doctor will track down one of the "splinters" Clara created in The Name of the Doctor (my views on that episode here) and have a somewhat one-sided chat with them before a final reveal that those splinters can all remember being Clara (or something equally daft and underwhelming). And on the subject of predictions I'll be amazed if we don't find out that Missy and the Daleks (and possibly Davros) is (are) behind the trap sprung on the Doctor in this episode.

Sarah Dollard is welcome back any time.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Sleep No More

In promotional material for Sleep No More writer Mark Gatiss talked about how he'd had the idea for years and felt it was one of the better things he'd ever written. Steven Moffat opted for his typical approach of understatement and merely opined that it was Gatiss's Best Episode of Anything Ever. This meant that expectations were pretty high. In an unusual twist they were met. Well, mostly.

Gatiss's usual method is to ape the Pertwee era. It's easy to see the stylistic influence in all of his previous Doctor Who scripts. A fair number of them, more than is comfortable really, are all too easy to imagine with Jon Pertwee in the starring role. The only change you'd really need to make for that would be more mentions of polarity and greater frequency of the phrase "my dear."

Sleep No More broke from this tradition, with Gatiss tackling a future setting for the first time (worth mentioning this was relatively uncommon for Pertwee), aiming for the Creepy, Scary Episode, and writing a script that was far from the technical norm for the show. It was a welcome and successful change and shows that Gatiss can write interesting scripts when he's given the chance. And when he has an idea that lends itself to it.

The episode was very, very good for the first half an hour or so. Gatiss presented us with a varied cast and dropped in plenty of hints about the wider world they inhabited (something I always appreciate in Doctor Who). The central conceit of the Morpehus pods, machines which allow you sleep for just a few seconds and exit feeling completely refreshed, were introduced naturally and explained well. What easily have been a boring scene was kept lively and engaging, not something we should necessarily have expected from Gatiss given his track record.

His greatest achievement was writing the entire episode to be filmed from POV and security footage. The real work here would have been done by the crew actually making the episode of course, but it all started with Gatiss getting it right with his writing. It was something that could have gone very wrong. He writes a mean bit of Victoriana and can drop a Silurians reference like nobody's business but this script was more adventurous than anything else he's contributed to the programme before, or anything else I've seen him credited with. Overall it was probably his best script for Doctor Who.

This is not to say Sleep No More is flawless. It isn't. The final fifteen minutes are filled with twists, so much so that it's not entirely clear on a first viewing what lead baddie Rassmussen's motivations are by the end, or how he's set about trying to achieve them. Or, for that matter, what monsters of the week the Sandmen want beyond mindless destruction (and really, if you're going to have your monsters speak and have motivations to begin with more is required than this). The fact that Rassmussen is written as a gloating madman by the end can be overlooked, because it's not like the show has ever shied away from them before and Reece Shearsmith is good (though not mindblowing) with the role, but his devolution into a man who wants to unleash a plague of sentient dust on the world for no reason can't be.

It felt as though Gatiss had worked very hard on that first half an hour and struggled to tie everything together in a satisfying, logical manner. What the episode needed was a final draft to tighten it up and an editor (that would be Steven Moffat) good enough to give Gatiss a bit of help. A proper reason for Rassmussen to behave as he did, a better explanation for the Sandmen (and specifically an explanation for how they were blind when being made out of bits of dust we'd been told could all see), and a cleverer reveal regarding the dust watching and recording everything we were seeing and this could have been in contention for the highly valued title of A Classic Story. But extra drafts and editorial aid are things that just don't happen much in the Moffat era. His bad time management, something the show's erratic schedule and his work on spiritual sister show Sherlock demonstrate to be an issue, is the cause here. Sleep No More is just the latest victim.

All of which means this episode sits somewhere around the middle on the ranking list of this series. It was better than the Flood and Zygon two-parters but not as good as the opening Dalek story or The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived. I suppose it's a good thing we had Capaldi in the lead role. Had Matt Smith gurned his way through this I think I'd feel differently how good it is.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Zygon Inversion

The Zygon Inversion was about as good as it was going to be considering it had such a weak opening half (last week's Zygon Invasion). That is to say it was not very good at all. The desire to create a tense, creeping atmosphere misfired. This was likely attributable either to Peter Harness not being a good enough writer or the show simply not lending itself well to the thriller genre. Or, very possibly, both.

The whole thing felt off. It was slow to get going and chugged towards an obvious and clich├ęd climax in which the Doctor talked Kate Stewart (representing humanity) and Bonnie the Zygon (representing the rebel Zygons) into calming down and seeking peace over war and destruction. This was a fine message and obviously one that the character and the show should be seeking and propagating but the scene fell flat. Capaldi and Coleman (who was pulling double duty as Bonnie) were both very good while Jemma Redgrave (Stewart) was a little bland, but performances weren't the problem.

The problem was the Doctor's speech. It was very clearly written as the centrepiece of the episode and a Big Character Moment, something that was meant to make people take notice and add to lists of Capaldi's greatest moments in the role. I didn't think it was very good. I thought it was trite and forced and had very little substance to it. It was written less as a man trying to kep control of a dangerous situation and more as a speech we should be impressed by. And when you have a scene like that, that's very much the crux of the episode, having it fall flat and feel lightweight obviously reflects badly on the entire thing.

On top of this the episode just didn't feel very good. Too much time was dedicated to resolving (and partially rewriting, never a good thing) the cliffhanger and establishing the rules of the Zygon-human link that were "needed" for the plot's resolution. Effort that should have gone into giving people interesting lines or understandable motives (the rebel Zygons wanted a war just because, is that really the best that could be dreamt up?) instead went into tricking the audience into Moffat-esque alleged cleverness. Things happened rarely and didn't amount to much when they did. What we got in between were dry attempts at humour, character and mystery. We also saw Mysterious Boxes make a return to the show after previously featuring heavily in The Power of Three and The Day of the Doctor, establishing themselves on the Moffat Tropes List. And the Black Archive was a huge wasted opportunity. It could have been packed with background props. The closest we got was the head of one of the robot warriors from The Girl Who Died.

There was nothing to like here. Not even Evil Clara was fun. Last week's brief appearance was exciting. Given more time she quickly degenerated into a generic baddie. And to make things worse she simply turned good at the end of the episode and was accepted as the new secondary Osgood, with nobody batting an eye even though she had been a rebel leader trying to start a war. Ingrid Oliver was good at least, but that's not much consolation.

This was the worst episode of the current series.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Zygon Invasion

The Zygon Invasion was poorly paced, had an uninspiring guest cast, and failed in its attempt to be a gritty thriller. It featured allusions to asylum seekers and terrorism which seem out of place in Doctor Who. It's a show with a broad scope and I think it probably could, at a push, tackle these themes, but it didn't manage it here. At least not well. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers premise was overly familiar and nothing new was done with it. The sets were surprisingly lifeless. No, not even the needless portrait of William Hartnell in the UNIT safe house could help.

I didn't like this episode. I wanted to, because I think this series has been an improvement of Capaldi's first. I want him to have a good tenure with the role. I wanted to see his reunion with Rebecca Front play out in a knowing, entertaining fashion. I wanted to enjoy the Zygons. For the first ten or fifteen minutes I thought I was going to like it. Everything seemed to be moving in the right direction with the Mysterious Kidnap™ of Osgood, the subplot of Cara helping a kid whose parents were clearly Zygons, the Doctor doing some detective work (something Capaldi should get to do more of, perhaps instead of being written as a man having a mid-life crisis with a guitar), and things happening in places that weren't Britain.

But then it all became dull and tedious and any sense of humour that had been present evaporated. The most positive things I can say are that Peter Capaldi was good (and deserves better), the location used for Turmezistan was very nice (particularly the church doors), and Evil Clara is my Favourite Clara. That's really all I have to say on the episode.

But I'm not going to end there. Because this episode was broadcast on October 31st. That's Halloween, just to be clear. That a show that prominently features aliens and monsters and strange goings on on a weekly basis did not make use of an episode falling on Halloween seems strange. Especially when you consider than after fifty-two years of existence we've yet to get a Doctor Who take on the holiday. And we get an annual Christmas-themed episode, something which is far harder to wrap Doctor Who around.

It doesn't matter that this season is all about two parters. The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived showed better than perhaps any other two part story that episodes can be linked yet have entirely different settings. We could have had a Halloween themed episode followed by something more normal next week. Or, y'know, they could have simply kept the spookiness floating about for a week. It would 't have hurt. It's not as if three years of scarier than average stories did Tom Baker any harm.

That's my biggest complaint about this episode really: that it exists instead of something that would have made far more sense.