Sunday, 2 July 2017

The Doctor Falls



Last week's episode, World Enough and Time, was one of Moffat's best scripts in years. This episode was the closing half of the story. Moffat has previously bungled a number of second episodes. I didn't feel he would this time though, perhaps because there was so much good work done in WEaT that he would have had to make a concerted effort to do so. Also because his four central characters (the Doctor, Bill, the Master, and Missy) were being played by such a talented bunch that it didn't seem feasible. Pleasantly, I was right.

This is not to say this was a faultless piece of TV. It was slow in places. Much of what was wrong with the episode can be attributed to Steven Moffat's propensity to become overly dramatic. I mean, the episode climaxed with the Doctor running through woodland gunning down an army of robots1. That's a level of mindless, empty-headed action heroics not even Colin Baker sunk to. His fetishisation of the Doctor was as prevalent as ever. His fascination with writing companions who are borderline obsessed with the Doctor threatened to be a problem but just avoided becoming one thanks to the trope playing out differently to usual and a final excellent performance from Pearl Mackie.

But really, everything else was great. I've already mentioned Pearl Mackie and she seems like the obvious place to start with praise because this is the last time we're going to get to see her (at least until she gets a Sarah Jane-esque return in 2047). Despite having slightly leaden dialogue in places(due to her spending the majority of the episode as a Cyberman) she gave what is amongst her best performances on the show, getting past the by this point tedious obsessing over the Doctor to focus on the more interesting material given to her. The anger at him having taken ten years to save her, the brave acceptance her inevitable death, and her understanding of the simple farmer stereotypes being fearful of her and allowing herself to be further ostracized to make them more comfortable.

Bill's ultimate fate could be seen as a cop out. I mean, a character from twelve episodes ago appearing out of nowhere, with no hint that this would happen, to inexplicably bring Bill back to life runs the risk of undercutting everything she'd gone through across the previous couple of hours of television. I think it did undercut things to an extent but not enough to be ruinous. Bill dying would have been sad and moving but it would probably have been too much given the fate of Missy and the Doctor's death coming in the next episode. Better to give her a happy ending in which she finally got together with the-one-that-got-away(-to-become-a-time-travelling-space-puddle) from The Pilot and triggered the Doctor's regeneration with a tear, which, y'know, she cried because she was sad her friend had died. It's trite and schmaltzy but it worked as a believable reason for Bill to abandon the Doctor. And this isn't a show that should shy away from leaving its characters happy the majority of the time2

Michelle Gomez also gave a good final performance. Hers was all about keeping us guessing as to Missy's true intentions. Which she handled well, playing a suitable level of detachment from the Doctor and coyness with the Master. It could be seen as disappointing that she didn't get to give us one final rendition of the utterly crackers character she initially played but, really, we've had that enough to satisfy. It was far more interesting to see her as a Master finally ready to repent and work with the Doctor.

Her death scene was one of the best things she's gotten to do on the show. She made the sacrifice of leaving with her previous self even though she knew (because she'd lived it before) that it would mean her death. That the Doctor was kept in the dark about this gives it that extra bit of tragedy: he'll always think Missy escaping with the Master was an act of selfishness instead of the sacrifice it was. It was also a good use of established character traits and continuity (something that Moffat's era has been light on), pivoting on what was seemingly the core motivation of John Simm's Master: his need to win a victory over the Doctor,. This may have been something introduced by RTD but it was paid off here. This was the way Simm's Master always should have gone down, not stepping in to save Tennant's Doctor at the last moment but trying to one-up his archenemy and get the last laugh.

Speaking of Simm, his was probably my favourite performance in this episode. I mean, there was the humour of him knowingly stroking his goatee as he talked about nostalgia and casually reapplying his guyliner as a siege was about to kick off. That was great. But he was also wonderfully, unrelentingly callous from start to finish, killing his own future self just to deny the Doctor the satisfaction of having saved her. Taking his three performances together I think his is probably the most fleshed out take on the character since Delgado. That final shot of him, slumped on the floor of a lift knowing he's about to die but cackling his head off anyway because he's convinced he's denied the Doctor something, is a perfect send off for that Master.

The supporting cast were... fine, I suppose. There were no standout roles for anyone except the regulars. Even Nardole was clearly an afterthought, understandable with so much continuity kicking about and far more significant characters to write for (and out). I shan't miss Matt Lucas. I still don't really understand, having seen the entire series, why his character was brought back. He seemed superfluous most of the time. The handful of contributions he made to the series' arc could have been handled in a couple of guest appearances. Still, at least he wasn't Matthew Waterhouse.

The Cybermen were... also fine, I suppose. After the effort that was put into reinventing them as exploited, eternally tortured humans in World Enough and Time it was a bit of a shame that they reverted to far more generic Stompy Killer Robots this week. It's understandable though. There simply wasn't space in this episode for them to be more. Their starring role was last week and I'm perfectly happy with that. I do find it a bit odd that a species so keenly obsessed with constant upgrading would assemble an invasion force that prominently included old models though.

Which leaves me only Capaldi's Doctor to discuss. This episode very much like a payoff for his time on the show. He got to be clever and brave, choosing to stand and save innocents knowing he couldn't possibly survive himself, which is obviously the endpoint this incarnation of the character was always headed for after his 'Am I a good man?' beginnings. His 'Stand with me!' speech to the Master and Missy, while well-delivered, ultimately felt it was trying a little too hard. I've not doubt it will go down as one of the Twelth Doctor's most remembered moments though, because it was so clearly designed for modern "fandom." If this were his final episode he'd be going out on a high.

But it's not, is it? He's got a Christmas collaboration with the First Doctor to get through first. Which is something that could either work quite well as a study on how the character has felt about regeneration all this time or fall apart spectacularly in a blaze of continuity porn and audience apathy. Which somehow feels like the perfect setup for Moffat's final episode.

***

1 Look, I know Cybermen technically aren't robots. "Robots" was just a better word for that sentence than "androids."

2 I could have done without her getting the exact same fate as Clara though. Especially after she'd just been saved from the exact same fate as Danny Pink. And the Brigadier.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

World Enough and Time



In some ways World Enough and Time was a collection of Steven Moffat's greatest hits. The toying with time travel1, the two drastically different settings that turn out to be linked2, the friendship of the Doctor and the Master-slash-Missy3, a series regular transformed into something less (or more, depending on your point of view) than human4, and the twist in the closing moments that turns everything we've just seen on its head5. It was all familiar to anyone who's been watching the show for a while and could have been boring or uninteresting. It wasn't. In fact it was the sort of script I was hoping would be the standard under a Moffat showrunnership when it was first announced he was replacing RTD way back in 2008. 

Moffat's strength as a Doctor Who writer has always been thinking of an interesting central idea and working out how to showcase it to its fullest within the show's time and budgetary constraints. Writing one story a year under RTD allowed Moffat to stand out and ensured he didn't get burnt out by producing too much. He was obviously never going to be able to keep the same degree of inventiveness going across outside of a single story a year but the hope I had (that I suspect a lot f others shared) was that he'd find a way to make his approach work on a series level, using individual stories to contribute to a larger whole that would become clear in the season finale. He groped towards it with series five and the opening sequence of the finale that saw callbacks to a number of events that had happened in earlier episodes. But he dropped it after that and shifted his focus to the infinitely more tedious idea that was the River Song plot and such plays for attention as "starting with the finale."

His time in charge has always felt like it's fallen short of what it could be, like Moffat doesn't quite have the tools or ability needed to make his approach to writing the show work outside of a single story a year. That changed with this episode, as though he'd finally understood how to make all his favourite subjects work on the season scale instead of the episode scale6, just as he's leaving. It's a pity.

While I'm talking about Moffat as showrunner I'll make an additional (infuriatingly) vague comment. Before he took over he was asked in Doctor Who Magazine if there were any stories he planned to write that Davies had never allowed him to. His answer was that he had an ambitious idea for the Cybermen that would alter the way we'd see them forever. I know, typical Moffat hyperbole. Except that WEAT certainly seems like an ambitious Cybermen story that has the potential to alter the way we see them forever. I'll tentatively say this was worth waiting for and hope it's as good next week as it was this week.

That's enough talking about the lead writer for now. Him finally realising his potential as  showrunner after a years-long wait isn't why I liked this episode. It was the ideas. A spaceship reversing out of a black hole, creating different time zones moving at vastly different paces is the sort of thing that could support an entire series. The way it was realised on-screen was very good, making it clear what was going on but keeping things light with gags and character moments (the latter mostly for Bill). Doing a Cybermen origin story is a little cheeky but it made more sense than any other retroactive origin story in Doctor Who that I can think of7. Casting them as damaged humans just looking for a way out of a savage, broken society they were accidentally trapped in is a suitably tragic starting point for them.

The idea of the Simm version of the Master winding up on a stranded spaceship is an interesting one too. There's a strong chance we'll find out how he escaped his duel with Rassilon in The End of Time but I really wouldn't mind if we never did. It's not like it would be out of character for the Master to escape absolute certain death and return to antagonise his bestie, is it? The dystopia of the ship's bottom is a perfect fit for that incarnation of the character.

Which brings me smoothly to Simm's performance. It was very good, although that he spent most of the episode playing a different character and doing a funny accent meant we didn't get as much of his Master as had been implied. The minute or two he spent as the Master at the close of the episode were mostly entertaining because of the writing and the sense of confusion that had been built up over the previous forty-five minutes but Simm put the work in too. His glee at outwitting the Doctor was obvious, a nice reference back to one of his centra motivations opposite the Tenth. 

The other Master got most of her good material towards the beginning of the episode. The bulk of it was humorous and centred on Moffat playing around with Missy knowingly tinkering with the tropes of Doctor Who. There was weightier stuff but not much. I suspect most of her more serious material is being saved for next week as Missy and the Master seemed primed to have a discussion both about their nature, whether or not they can help being "evil", and their friendship with the Doctor, if it's ultimately worth it and if he's been a good friend to them. As things stand now Simm's Master seems to be fully prepared to embrace stark-staring madness and villainy for its own sake while Gomez's Missy, having been mentored and tutored in the ways of hashtag heroics by the Doctor, is our view into the character's more relatable, human side. Gomez deserves some more substantial material as Missy before she leaves, and Simm's Master works best when he's encouraged to chew the scenery. In hindsight Moffat's been setting up the Master's nature as one of his pet projects for a while, at least in part since Missy's introduction. That, along with Simm and Gomez, should hopefully make the Master element of the story's closing half compelling. 

Both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie were excellent. I mean, that shouldn't be a surprise at this point. Despite having some duff scripts on this show over the last few years Capaldi has never been less than totally watchable. Meanwhile Pearl Mackie has turned Bill into one of the show's all-time great companions and done such good work that she should be in high demand whenever she leaves the show. 

Yes there were things I could have done without in this episode. This is the second time this season the Doctor's been shown regenerating. It's not the ludicrous excess of season six, where just shy of half of the episodes featured some element of the regeneration effect, but it's still too much. It's possible, perhaps even likely, this is all going to tie into Capaldi's exit. The Mondasian Cybermen being introduced in the First Doctor's final story and Capaldi being so close to leaving, along with this episode starting with him seemingly regenerating, invites comparisons and the drawing of parallels8. If this is all tied into Capaldi's exit the regeneration becomes easier to overlook. 

Essentially what I'm saying is that this episode was very good. The best we've had in series ten. Possibly the best we've had since Moffat took over, though that's a bigger claim and one I'd need to rewatch for things before stating absolutely. But it's clearly up there amongst the best work Moffat's done for Doctor Who. If he's driven you away with his nonsense since 2010 come back for this.

***

1 He's been doing this since The Girl in the Fireplace in 2006 and it was particularly prominent during the Matt Smith series.

2 The Girl in the Fireplace again. See also  the Library two-parter where a little girl who appeared to be living in suburban England had an alien planet, and the Doctor, inside her head.

3 This has been a recent development. It's a rarity amongst Moffat tropes in that it's not designed to show how clever he is and is more about exploring the backstory and nature of a supporting character.

4 The most obvious example is Rory becoming a plastic centurion. It's worth mentioning Danny Pink though, because he got turned into a Cyberman too. Redoing exactly the same thing with Bill (albeit in a far more effective manner) has to qualify as a new low even for Moffat, right? He's not even tried to hide the fact that it's the same thing done again.

5 Basically any of his two part stories. It's not a criticism of his work. It's actually a good trick to be able to pull off with modern Who cliffhangers. But that doesn't change the fact that it's something associated with Moffles more than any other writer on the show.

6 The key, unsurprisingly, was making better use of characters. A big part of what made this episode work was the reveal of the Master in a story alongside Missy. It works well because it's a returning character interacting with a recurring character from the last few years. Another element of this episode's success was the fate of Bill, who spent years waiting for the Doctor at his request, only to die just before he arrived. That's not something that would work without Bill having been such an engaging character over the last couple of months.

7 Yes, that includes Genesis of the Daleks. It's good but not as good as its reputation makes out. I'm also including Listen, Moffat's "secret origin" of the Doctor. But that was awful so it's not really much of an accomplishment.

8 Never even mind those David Bradley rumours.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Eaters of Light


So here we are. Another mystery of the world solved by Doctor Who. Turns out the Roman Empire's Ninth Legion didn't simply disappear from records. No, they teamed up with a Pict warrior and walked into a blue portal buried in a hill to fight light-scoffing inter-dimensional tentacled dinosaurs. Obviously.

This is an annoying habit of the Doctor Who has had going back years. Taking some real world unexplained event and attaching some fantastical explanation to it. It's not exactly a problem but it does always leave me feeling a bit unsatisfied. It's a misunderstanding of the Doctor Who formula that works well: normal everyday things given a fantastiscal twist. It doesn't work as well because things like the Roman army, Agatha Christie's brief disappearance, and the great fire of London are not everyday things. They are historical events, and so they hold a different place in viewers' minds. I understand the reasoning behind doing episodes like this: it makes a good subject for a forty-five minute story and the BBC will find it easier to market with a clear hook. Still, it's still an approach I don't much care for.

Which isn't to say that there were no mysteries in this story. The stuff created for the show, such as the inter-dimensional portals, the specifics of the Picts' history defending the hill, and how ravens could talk, were left unexplained. The absence of explanations for every little detail was very nice. It partially, but not completely, made up for the appropriation of a historical mystery for a forty-five minute sci-fi drama1.

I liked most other things about the episode though. I can mostly sum up what I liked by mentioning Rona Munro. I appreciated her not feeling the need to go into tedious and unnecessary details about the fantasy elements she introduced and she gave the Twelfth Doctor more good lines than he's had outside of a Steven Mofffat script. The general approach to writing him seemed to be more season eight than the lighter approach we've had since. Which, as I said a week or two ago, is an approach that I think plays to the actor's strengths and allows his Doctor to stand apart from his two immediate predecessors. Capaldi responded with a typically excellent performance, one that I think will probably be remembered as amongst his best. It certainly strikes me as one of the best "non-big event"2 episodes he's had.

Bill was given material of equal quality. Whether she was awkwardly letting down a (bisexual) Roman, bravely swallowing her fears and rallying a group or soldiers, or displaying a passionate interest in European history she (again) felt more like a real character than Clara or Amy ever did3. Pearl Mackie was as good as she has been all series. I feel like I need to reiterate that it's almost a shame she was cast as a companion character, even one as likeable and important to casting progression in Doctor Who as Bill, because she would have made a tremendous replacement for Peter Capaldi.

The other elements of the show were a mixed bag. The location filming took in some inspired views, which has to be considered a good thing. The set designers had it a little tougher as they were stuck building wooden huts and stone cairns. What they built looked convincing but dark rooms made of wood are never going to impress anyone on this show. The design of the light-eating locusts was good. Murray Gold got a bit carried away at points, particularly when the Doctor was staring into the rift. I half expected the camera to swing round to reveal he was staring at an orchestra the music was so intrusive. It works well, but he needs to calm it down at points. But overall his work was good too. It's never actively bad, just a little overbearing.

Basically, Rona Munro gave us a good episode from what I feel is a flawed premise and everyone else on the team did their bit. I'll refrain from talking about how a McCoy era writer has been invited back to the show while Terrance Dicks, the script editor for the much celebrated Pertwee era and the man who helped cast Tom baker, hasn't written a script for the show in decades. 

All we need now is for Ben Aaronovich to make his triumphant return to the show.

***

1 I'll just note here that I fully expect for this Real Life Mystery approach to be used in the future in an episode I end up really enjoying. I'll forget my distaste for the approach then because I'm contrary like that.

2 The big event approach is one of the main reasons I think I've not enjoyed Moffat's time as showrunner as much as I might have. But that's a thought for another time.

3 Want to leap to the defence of these two companion characters? Name any of their interests outside of their friendships with the Doctor and relationships with Rory and Danny. Go ahead. I'll wait. Answers on a postcard...

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Empress of Mars


The obvious thing to focus on with Empress of Mars is that it sounds great in synopsis. Victorian soldiers on the red planet? Yes, excellent! Exactly the sort of thing Doctor Who excels at, taking something familiar and plonking it into a setting we've never seen it in and don't associate it with. Space-faring, red tunic-ed, pith helmet-ed Victorian soliders are wonderful as an image.

The trouble is that this is prime time television and it needs to be more than just a wonderful image to be worth watching. And, sadly, that's where things fall apart for Empress. Because it's written by Mark Gatiss. I don't dislike Gatiss's Who work but he's not a writer that makes you think he'll do anything worthwhile with an interesting concept like Victorians claiming Mars for the Empire. He's more a "safe pair of hands who can deliver a workable script on time and to budget" type. Doctor Who needs writers like that, because it's difficult and expensive to make. It's just a shame that they sometimes get paired up with ideas that warrant a little more flourish.

Gatiss brought an additional problem to this: his adoration of the subject matter. To a large certain extent a love of the subject you're writing about is a good thing. It comes across in the writing and generally improves things because the writer is that extra bit invested. But a Doctor Who script that sees Victorians invading somewhere should really at least touch on the evils of imperialism, even if that somewhere is Mars. It didn't need to be a focus. We didn't need the Doctor laying into Victorian values. But some sort of acknowledgment of the matter would have been nice, and we didn't get it because Gatiss is far too invested in this era to knock it in that way.

The other object of his affection was the Ice Warriors. The motivations for the two main Ice Warrior characters, Friday1 and Iraxxa2, were all over the place. Friday started out the episode having used the Brits to get back to Mars to uncover his people (which would have left them stranded). He ended the episode disobeying the supreme leader of his people, who was of royal blood which is totes super important to the proud and noble Ice Warriors, to defend the Brits. This after they'd turned him into their butler. Meanwhile Iraxxa went from wanting to revive her race (or at least a hive's worth of it) to starting an interplanetary war within about two minutes. They were there to serve the plot rather than be believable characters in their own right. Kind of an odd thing for the Ice Warriors' biggest fan to write.

I shan't even get into the entirely unnecessary and utterly self-indulgent cameo from giant talking penis Alpha Centauri except to say that it was Gatiss at his absolute worst.

All of which makes it sound like this episode was bad. That's not the case. Capaldi and Mackie did what they could with average material. The supporting cast were good. The body-scrunching effect from the Ice Warrior guns was great. The bookending of the "God save the queen" message was a nice touch (if a little Moffat Lite). Nardole wasn't in it much. It was for the most part a perfectly serviceable episode of Doctor Who. It's just a shame it couldn't achieve more when it had such a strong central image to work with. Which is something I thought I'd stopped writing about series ten. Apparently I haven't.

***

1 Strange that despite his clear and stated love of the Ice Warriors Gatiss never bothered to establish this character's actual name, sticking with the one given to him by British soldiers throughout. See what I mean about him being that bit too invested in the Victorian era?

2 You know she's alien because she has a double X in her name. Nice one, Mark! Never change.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Lie of the Land


The best thing about this week's episode of Doctor Who, The Lie of the Land, was regular cast's performance. The standout among them was Pearl Mackie. Bill was again placed at the centre of the story and she gave another excellent performance. At this point surely she has to be considered the best companion of the Moffat era1? She feels like a real person where Amy, Rory and Clara did not. Part of this is down to Moffat creating a character that doesn't seem designed to function primarily in a sitcom, but the casing of Pearl Mackie is just as key in it. She makes more of her opportunities to act (as opposed to just delivering funny lines) than Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Jenna Coleman did.

Peter Capaldi had a probably the best material he's had all series, certainly the best since The Pilot. His affection for Bill was highlighted and played perfectly. His friendship with Missy was explored surprisingly efficiently considering she only appeared in two scenes. The closing scene in which the Doctor was shown casually reading with her3 was an insight into their comfort with each other. Meanwhile his description of her as being almost as clever as him was a nice way to bring out a little pomposity in the Doctor while also underlining that Missy is not only intelligent but a potential threat. 

Of course the most interesting thing for the Twelfth Doctor in The Lie of the Land was pretending he'd sided with the enemy. The fairly lengthy scene in which the Doctor and Bill were reunited allowed Capaldi to get back to what his Doctor was known for in his debut season: being unpredictable. As a characteristic it was dropped after that season, probably because it would be hard to sustain that approach indefinitely. Capaldi's Doctor has mellowed across his second and third seasons. But that first season and the scene on the prison ship here demonstrate that Number Twelve works best when his alien nature is emphasised and you can't be sure of how he's going to react to any given situation. It also has the pleasant side effect of contrasting him with the ultimately very reliable Tenth and Eleventh Doctors2, who were always very reliable and predictable in terms of the route they'd take to save the day. The detached and aloof aspect to Capaldi's Doctor side is something I wish had been reduced rather than removed completely. 

Maybe the biggest surprise of TLotL was Nardole not being the irritant he has been up to this point. I would still have preferred him not to be involved but Toby Whithouse found a way to make him work, seeming less concerned with giving him things to do so that he was freed up to function as the sidekick he is so clearly intended to be. He also leaned into Nardole's geekish nature more than any other writer has done, keeping him talking for a little longer than is comfortable about tedious matters. In short, Whithouse seemed more at ease with casting Nardole as an full-on nerd than anyone else and it worked well.

The sets, monsters, score, supporting cast, and so on? All fine (although the lighting seemed a little dim in the Missy scenes), I particularly liked the Doctor's white prison room. But then that's to be expected at this point. The team that makes this show has been doing so long enough that a certain base quality in terms of presentation is all but assured.

Finally, this episode can't really be talked about without mentioning oppressive police states and fake news. Obviously the world presented in the show was an exaggerated take on right wing leanings going too far but it should still be taken as the cautionary tale it was intended to be. It's important that real world concerns get reflected in our escapist media because it's all too easy to forget them, or for younger viewers to simply accept them as "the way things have always been" (a particularly on-the-nose warning this episode gave us numerous times). Doctor Who is a very useful vehicle for exploring things like this and it's nice to see it doing so.

Being the closing part of a loose trilogy meant The Lie of the Land was always going to struggle in some respects. It had to wrap things up started across the previous two weeks by other writers and tell a self-contained story of its own in a satisfying manner, with the additional wrinkle of reintroducing Missy. It also had to tell its own self-contained story in a satisfying manner. It managed these things and balanced them well to boot. It didn't excel at anything in particular but it also didn't fall to pieces fifteen minutes in as it could have. Chalk it up as a win, on average.

***

1 Not that that's saying a great deal.

2 Not that this approach is a problem. It worked very well with Tennant for a couple of reasons: it hadn't been done with a Doctor before and he had his Lonely God and Time Lord Victorious approaches (elements of both being present from his first full episode) approaches that could be implemented for variety. It worked less well for Smith because the approach had become familiar during Tennant's years in the role and Tennant was better at it to boot.  

3 "You read? You read on the show?"

Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Pyramid at the End of the World


With The Pyramid at the End of the World the tenth series of Doctor Who finally hit its stride. No qualifiers, no caveats. The series' seventh episode got it right. There was a clear threat. There were interesting ideas and impressive visuals. The Doctor got to be the hero and save the day by being clever while people with guns were shown to be wrong (a bit on the nose but it's what the show's been doing for a while now, and there are far worse messages to send). There were significant roles for supporting characters1. Really, the only complaint to be made is that this is a story that should have been used for the Silence, who always seemed a bit directionless despite clearly being Steven Moffat's idea of a recurring Ultimate Threat.

The obvious thing to point to as to why this episode worked is the importance placed on Bill. The enslaving of humanity to the monks was entirely her fault. But it was something she chose, a decision she made for a clear, understandable reason: she didn't want to see her friend die. Despite knowing the consequences she opted to give up Earth and its inhabitants to save the Doctor, having absolute faith in him being able to win them back. We're often told about what a strong friendship  Doctor X and Companion Y have but it's rare to actually see evidence of it on screen outside of hollow, throwaway comments that mean nothing in the grand scheme of the show. It's great to see an episode that makes the friendship between the Doctor and his companion such a significant and crucial aspect.

Peal Mackie is the main reason this worked as well as it did. Not to diminish Peter Capaldi's contribution because he was very good with what he got to do, but what he got to do was the sort of thing his Doctor has been doing since 2013. It was a tweaked take on established material given to him because the writers knew what they'd get from him. The idea was not for him to be the star of this episode, and that's fine. I'll also take a Doctor who solves problems by thinking and acting (albeit in a technobabble way) over one who resorts to the Matt Smith tough guy "look me up" routine.

Bill, for the second week in a row, was given a wide variety of things to do and Pearl Mackie excelled at all of them. She was endearing and a little awkward on her date, a combination of perplexed and naive when confronting the Doctor on his utter refusal to accept the monks' offer, and vulnerable in her final scene, saving her best friend (plus a load of other stuff I'm forgetting - the point is she was really good). She even managed to work in the gags she was given in a natural manner. Her performance over the last two episodes makes me think she'd have been a better choice for Capaldi's replacement than Capaldi's last companion2.

I wasn't impressed by Peter Harness's previous Who work (The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion episodes in 2015) but he won me over here. Perhaps Moffat had a greater hand in this script. Or maybe not having two episodes to play with encouraged more focus. Or maybe it's that Pearl Mackie is a more capable actor than Jenna Coleman, who was given a fair bit to do in Invasion and Inversion. Whatever the reason, he's someone who warrants being on Chris Chibnall's "invite back" list3.

I hope series ten can sustain this quality across its final five episodes, and that the Doctor can be given some weightier scenes along the way. Peter Capaldi deserves to have a good run of dramatic episodes to bring his time on the show to a close. 

***

Perhaps best illustrated by humanity nearly being wiped out by Tony Shales off Fresh Meat 

2 Yeah, I know David Bradley's been rumoured as the co-star in Capaldi's swansong but he'd be playing the First Doctor. Thinking of another Doctor as a companion seems utterly facetious. Though not as facetious as casting someone as another Doctor and promoting them as the companion.

3 I wonder if such a list actually exists, and if it does whether Pip Baker is on it.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Extremis



I was fully prepared to really enjoy Extremis. Preview interviews had Moffat gushing about how it was mixing conspiracy theories, video games, and "puzzle box" plotting. These being things I'm interested in I thought the episode would easily be my most enjoyed of the series so far. And it was. But that was mostly because the previous five episodes never really rose above average, and it wasn't anywhere near as interesting as I thought it would be.

Part of this is my problem for setting expectations based on things that have been said in interviews (and it should be noted that Moffat has a particularly poor (or good, depending on how you look at it) record of overplaying his hand when previewing episodes). Hearing the sources of inspiration for the episode's writer got me to imagine a particular direction for the episode. There's nothing specific to mention here. I just felt that the conspiracy would be cleverer, the video game inspiration more overt. The puzzle box plotting was about as good as I expected it to be, to be fair. Inevitably I was disappointed when what aired didn't meet my expectations.

While this is my problem it doesn't change the fact that the episode wasn't terribly ambitious. Mentioning that conspiracy theories and video games are sources of inspiration for a TV show invokes certain aesthetics and themes. It would be a problem for any show. It's particularly troubling for Doctor Who (essentially an anthology series) because these are fresh sources of material that offer opportunities for doing new and exciting ideas within the show. It feels wasteful not to fully delve into these subjects, exploring and subverting their tropes and standard approaches. A modern Doctor Who episode with a genuine conspiracy theory at the centre could be amazing. What we got was anything but. Truth be told I can't even articulate what I think the conspiracy theory was meant to be beyond "some self-consciously mysterious humanoids have created a super-advanced computer programme because they're invading the Earth." Does that even qualify as a conspiracy?

The video game stuff was slightly better. What we got was people committing suicide because they found out they were NPCs. Which is a really interesting idea to explore in a fifty minute action-adventure drama. Only it wasn't explored. It was an incidental detail there to up the stakes for an aliens-invade-Earth story. Which on the one hand is a fair enough explanation, but on the other hand is hardly Doctor Who breaking new and exciting ground. The basic ideas were there for this to be a bold, experimental and memorable episode. Instead it felt like a reworked script from the Silence storyline, with the red robed monks in place of the Roswellian Slendermen, Moffat doing his usual puzzle box approach (which is his greatest strength as a Doctor Who writer so, y'know, fine) with new ingredients. Ultimately that's really, really disheartening.

Even though the plot wasn't up to much it did serve it's leads well. Pearl Mackie was given a greater range of things to do in this episode than she has been in any other and she was excellent in every scene. Peter Capaldi was given comparatively less to do but was still eminently watchable. He even managed to make me postpone rolling my eyes at the Doctor getting his sight back1. Matt Lucas as a "badass" though? Yeah, I get the joke but it still made me cringe. Meanwhile the scenes with Missy were a waste of perfectly good Michelle Gomez.

Extremis has been advertised as the opening part of a loose trilogy of episodes. All are to feature the red robed monk characters introduced here. While they are, as already noted, very similar in function to the Silents they do at least boast a strong design and there's still time for them to turn into worthwhile enemies. I'd say that the hints at dystopian futures and alternate histories across the next two episodes sound good but that's the kind of thinking that led to my disappointment in this underdeveloped waste. Let's just hope that the so-called monk trilogy as a whole does a better job of meeting its potential than it's opening act did alone.

***


1 In hindsight (not an intentional gag) the Doctor losing his sight one week and being confronted by a book which makes people kill themselves the next is a particularly Moffat thing to do. I'm surprised the irony wasn't hammered home far more.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Oxygen



"I'm still blind!" 

The most melodramatic ending to a Doctor Who episode ever? Possibly. It's certainly a contender. Whether it wins that particular contest or not it renders the episode that led up to the revelation as little more than a footnote: Oxygen will always be, first and foremost, the episode in which the Twelfth Doctor went blind1

This is a bit of a disservice to Oxygen. The thing is, Oxygen deserves it. It was a plodding, moralistic base under siege story. Nothing memorable happened beyond that final, melodramatic line. The plodding nature could have been fixed with another draft or two. Same goes for the sledgehammer subtlety of the anti-capitalist message that cropped up in seemingly every other scene. I mean, literally being charged for air, could it be anymore on the nose? The base under siege approach just wasn't made interesting enough. It can work in Nu Who (see 42, Mummy on the Orient Express(mosty) and, of course, Dalek, for examples of this). It just didn't work here.

While Oxygen was primarily just a string of disappointments it did achieve at least one thing of interest. It provided a good example of the different approaches Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat take as showrunners2

A refresher: the pre-credits sequence featured a man and woman3 clambering about on the outside of a space station with the woman telling the man that she wanted to have a baby with him when "all this is over" before a problem with her suit's broadcasting equipment was revealed, meaning he hadn't heard her. She was then murdered by two corpses in space suits while the guy mended a generic prop in silence, turned round to notice, and escaped.

It's a sequence designed to achieve a few things. Firstly, it's there to introduce one of the key plot points of the episode: air being a valuable commodity that is rationed by the company funding things. Second, it's meant to show us that, hey, these are real people leading real lives out in the harshness of space. Finally, it's there to introduce the monsters of the week, the aforementioned corpses in spacesuits.

It accomplishes all of this. But it does so in a hollow, perfunctory manner that is striking. We're told, at several points throughout the episode that the air is valuable on this space station because it has to be paid for. We see the payment interface, we see signs reminding people not to waste oxygen, the pre-credits sequence has the man tell the woman. But none of the characters ever actually act like speaking should be avoided in the name of saving oxygen. All those details are great and good bits of world building, something I'm usually all over, but when the supporting cast witter on like the supporting cast of any other episode it makes immersion difficult. If rationing speech is going to be part of a Doctor Who episode it should to be a central theme4, something that dictates how the episode is structured. Television relies on heavily on characters talking to one another. If that ability is going to be taken away from them the reason for it needs to be explored and the opportunity needs to be taken to offer a unique experience in which they rely on other forms of communication.

But what really leapt out as something that warranted comparison to the RTD era was the interaction between the two characters in the pre-credits sequence. Having a child together is one of the most significant things two people can do, and it's use here was clearly intended as a shorthand for Real Living Couple With Functioning Emotions And Plans For The Future. It was then undercut with a joke from the woman about repeating her heartfelt speech later, which is a very Moffat thing to do and also wonderfully highlights what I was saying in the last paragraph about not being able to take oxygen rationing as a serious thing within the episode. 

There's no way to know for sure how Davies would have handled this scene but it feels like a safe bet he'd have approached it differently. There probably would have been general chitchat about the banalities of life in place of "Hey, we're on the side of a space station, let's have a baby soon!"The whole faulty radio aspect would probably have been dropped or reworked so that there was at least some meaningful interaction between the pair.  The man one likely would have looked more emotionally distraught when he turned around to see the corpse of his loved one staggering towards him. The scene towards the end of the episode where the woman's corpse handed her oxygen supply over to her still-living lover would either not have existed or would have been rejigged so that the man shows some emotion at having his life saved in such a poetic way. Or, possibly, it would have featured a tear rolling down the dead woman's cheek5. I admit I would have preferred the former of these two.

The Davies approach was to make supporting characters feel like real people and focus on how things like killer spacesuits affected them. Moffat understands the importance of supporting characters but doesn't go to anywhere near the lengths to get us invested in them, which means we get a watered down approach where small scale human worries and ambitions are fumbled at but don't always feel fully formed. Yeah, Jamie Mathieson (who's been pretty good with previous Who work) wrote this episode but that's neither here nor there: under RTD the sequences in question would have received the rewrites needed to get the tone the episode needed them to have. Oxygen highlighted the difference between the two showrunners in how they go about writing the show. 

I think the fact that the relationship in question and the episode as a whole were so flat shows that Moffat's just not especially good when he's not overseeing "clever puzzle" episodes. He's well-suited to big event episodes, probably better suited than Davies, but they only come along every so often. Moffat's approach doesn't work well with more standard episodes, and that's what he's overseeing the majority of the time.

A less pressing issue: why do space set episodes have to be all grimy metal and shadows these days? The Girl in the Fireplace (to take a random RTD era episode) takes place on a spaceship but never falls into these traps of uninspired set design. Throughout Fireplace things are always tinted blue or red or green, avoiding the bleak visuals of Oxygen. Could it be that the sets were deliberately subdued so as to tie in with the fact that the Doctor goes blind, tacitly linking our visionary experience to the one he has by the end of the episode? It's certainly possible, but nothing in the episode backs that up. It also wouldn't explain why space set capers have gradually shifted to this approach under Moffat6.

I'm sure the question we're all meant to be asking coming out of this episode (besides the clearly vital "Who's in The Vault?") is: "How will the Doctor's blindness impact the show?" But I wasn't given a reason to care, so I'm not.

***

1 Assuming it's something that sticks for a significant amount of time. Judging by the way the revelation was framed I think it will stay at least through the next episode or two.

2 Yes, this again.

3 They have names but truth be told every character outside of the regulars was so tedious that I can't be bothered to look them up. Deal with it.

4 Buffy managed an extended sequence of absolute silence about fifteen years ago. Surely Doctor Who, a programme that has far more tricks to employ to get to a scenario like that, is up to the task now. Maybe it just needs a better lead writer2...

5 I've never said Davies was perfect and a weeping corpse is right up his alley.

6 This is something that can be tangibly traced back over the last few years and seems to coincide with Matt Smith leaving. Kill the Moon, Sleep No More and now this story have gotten incrementally more basic in their depiction of space. I understand that it helps to emphasise the stark, unforgiving nature of a space setting but it doesn't half make things boring to look at.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Knock Knock


Four episodes into a series of Doctor Who feels like a reasonable time to get a pretty standard approach. Despite being able to go anywhere and play in various television genres Doctor Who has a bag of tricks it goes to fairly often. You need a format, even a hazily defined one, in order to make the big finales and episodes that play against expectations have an impact. You can't play against expectations if there are no expectations for a routine episode, after all.

This isn't an inherently bad thing. Just because something is adhering to a familiar format doesn't mean it can't do anything new, and generally TV shows develop and stick to formats because they work. Which is to say that Knock Knock wasn't a bad episode because it was a standard outing for New Who. It wasn't, actually, a bad episode at all. It's just that it wasn't a particularly good one either.

This is frustrating. There were a number of little things in this that could have been brought together in an interesting way. The Doctor taking a vaguely McCoy era approach to letting the companion wonder off into trouble. A child desperate to keep a parent alive, even if it means a bit of human sacrifice. A house that eats people. Giant woodlice that can convert matter1 who have infested a woman and kept her alive for sixty years. These were all good concepts, they just suffered from being strung together in a rather understated, by-the-number fashion.

Nothing was underdeveloped. It all hung together well enough as a plot and cohesive design and direction. But things could have gone further (or at least the things unique to this episode could have done, it's not fair to say the Twelfth Doctor could have gone further in his treatment of Bill because we don't know what's coming with them in future episodes). For example, if there's a walking, talking human (as opposed to a still prop) made of wood in your script that's probably going to be the most visually impressive thing in your episode. I understand she was confined to a lone set for an explanatory scene because of the nature of her character and to reduce the hassles of filming her but the episode could have been more interesting had she been the one stalking the students through the house instead of CG woodlice. Increasing her part and changing the nature of her role would have meant increasing the hassle of getting the actress in and out of what was probably an infuriating costume and makeup, I get that. But this could have been gotten around, in part, by shooting her in shadow, perhaps creating a prop to use in places. Or, y'know, by not showing her at all and implying her presence with creaks and knocks. It was meant to be a creepy episode about a haunted house. A wooden ghost that can't be reasoned with fits into that genre far better than giant insects.

That's not a major complaint. It's more an observation of how existing elements of the episode could have been reworked in a more interesting way. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie were both very good. I haven't gone back and made comparisons but it certainly felt like each gave their best performance of the series so far. Poirot was good as the Most Significant Guest Character, even if it is weird that writer Mike Bartlett went out of his way not to give the character a name despite that character's own mother also being in the episode. You'd think she'd use her own son's name, right? I suspect Bartlett just liked having a character with a title, the Landlord, instead of a name because this is a show that has a strong tradition of such characters2.

Knock Knock could have been more than the sum of its parts had it set out to be. But it didn't so it wasn't. This was standard Doctor Who, which is what it set out to be. I suspect that's what the next episode is going for too. In which case, fine. Three generic approaches in a row isn't the worst thing in the world if all three succeed (and while Knock Knock and Thin Ice are both take standard approaches they're different standard approaches, with next week's Oxygen looking like it will be another3). But at some point this series is going to need to aspire to more, because it would be a shame for a promising Doctor-companion combo to get stuck in mediocrity.

***

1 By implication they can also restore consciousness and memory, which is even more incredible when you think about it.

2 Time for a bit of baseless Moffat-hating speculation: maybe Moffles suggested not naming the character in the hopes of people picking over previews and suggesting he was a rogue Time Lord or a(nother) new incarnation of the Master or Chibnall's future Doctor or something. It's exactly the sort of thing he'd do. He's not been referring to the monks we'll be seeing in a few episodes time as "meddlers" for nothing, you know.

3 Specifically base under siege.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Thin Ice


Thin Ice was written by Sarah Dollard, whose only previous contribution to the show was the excellent Face the Raven. This wasn't as good as her first contribution to the show but that's hardly a big surprise: Face the Raven was one of the better episodes of season nine and succeeded largely on the strength of its central ideas. Thin Ice suffered mainly from having less good central ideas. And really, the idea of secret (and delightfully albeit inexplicably Dickensian) streets hidden in London that house homeless aliens was so good, such a perfect fit for Doctor Who, that it's going to be a while before an idea of equal quality turns up again. 

Dollard was again tasked with finding an interesting spin on London. The idea of making use of the great frost fairs, held on a frozen Thames, was a good one. Having the plot centre on a giant fish chained up at the bottom of the river and being force-fed people for not entirely clear reasons was... a less good idea. It could have worked well but, ultimately, it didn't. Another draft was needed to make it as clear as possible what this giant fish was doing under the Thames, how it had gotten there, and (the big one) what the ramifications of its release were expected to be. These things were touched on but left a little hazy and undefined. Hazy and undefined can work in Doctor Who, but more in terms of, for example, something or someone's origins and less in terms of the nature of the threat the Doctor and his companion face. We need to know what's at stake and Thin Ice never quite got there.

Thankfully it succeeded in other areas. Like its tackling of race issues. A number of non-white faces cropped up as supporting cast and extras, and the lead human villain (the guy who's family had imprisoned a giant fish) was an open racist. Linking a TV baddie to something like racism, which is something that still hasn't been purged from modern society, is a good thing and sends the right message. It's not something Doctor Who as a show can do every week but it is something it can touch on more often than it does1. Really, it's the approach I wanted when talking about the overloading of Smile last week.

There was other positive stuff too. Good material for Capaldi's Doctor, which there hadn't exactly been an abundance of in the previous two episodes of the series. A return to well made, convincing sets after the aberration that was Smile. An attempt at tackling the butterfly effect in a fun, playful, Doctor Who-compatible way. Although that last one is a little frustrating as the way in which it was brought up and dropped as a concept within the first fifteen minutes of the episode makes me suspect it was more prominent in previous drafts and got edited down for time or to let other themes come through. It seems like the sort of thing Dollard's style would mesh particularly well with. Maybe Chibnall will have her back to do a forty-five minute episode of the potential perils of stamping on insects. 

The other interesting thing to talk about now that Thin Ice has aired is how the opening three episodes of season ten parallel the opening three episodes of season one. This isn't some arbitrary comparison, each trio follows the same basic pattern: a contemporary Earth story in which the Doctor meets a new companion, a future story in which the new companion is confronted with the mortality of the planet they take for granted, and a historical story where the companion learns that the future isn't guaranteed to take the shape you expect just because you've seen it. This is a formula RTD used on every one of the seasons he produced (with minor tweaks and changes here and there) while Moffat used it at the start of his first year in charge and has stayed clear since2. It's interesting that he finally came back to it for his final, maybe a tacit admission that it's a stronger approach than, say, starting with a two-parter and calling it the finale or something stupid like that. 

I don't think it worked as well here as it did in season one, and that's mostly down to Smile being a weaker episode than The End of the World. Comparing Rose and The Pilot feels unfair in many ways as Rose was tasked with relaunching the entire show, introducing basic concepts which are taken for granted now, along with two leads and a supporting character. The Pilot only had to introduce a new companion, both the Doctor and the lone supporting character of long term consequence (Matt Lucas as Nardole) were know to us. Shunting these burdens to the side both episodes have their strengths but it's Rose that's the more enjoyable of the two, not least because it has a more interesting visual threat in villainous shop dummies, something The Pilot's screeching puddle couldn't touch. 

Thin Ice and The Unquiet Dead fee the most similar. Both take place during winter in the 1800s. Both tackle social issues (racism for The Pilot, asylum seeking for The Unquiet Dead). Both go for a fairly standard Doctor Who plot, mostly to ease in new viewers and give them an idea of what a "standard" episode of the show will look like. Really, the biggest difference (aside from advances in production techniques) is that Unquiet is a celebrity historical, a trope the show has largely moved away from under Moffat3.

What do these comparisons mean? Not much, in the grand scheme of things. I mostly just thought the parallels were worth noting. Thin Ice was a good enough episode, a welcome improvement on last week, and an episode that accomplished everything it set out to. Perhaps most importantly it was further evidence that Sarah Dollard is a writer we should want to see back once Chibnall's in the producer's chair. 

***

1 In fact the last time I remember this being broached by the series was 2007's The Shakespeare Code when the Doctor told Martha to "walk around like you own the place, works for me." Which, let's be honest, was a bit of a cop out.

2 I could veer off into a whole spiel about how this nicely encapsulates the differences between Moffat and Davies but I won't because it would be boring and out of place.

3 It's interesting to note that Moffat did do a celebrity historical during his first season, having the Eleventh Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gogh. Again I'll refrain from comparing the two but it's clear ol' Moffles was using the Davies formula during his first season in charge and I'll be interested to see if that continues across his last.