Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Woman Who Lived

Back in The Witch's Familiar Davros talked about a Gallifreyan legend of a hybrid. The Doctor did not react well to this. This was in an episode in which Davros had tried to create half-Dalek, half-Time Lord hybrids (y'know, because Davros's defining characteristic in the new series is that he comes up with this kind of mental plans). That didn't work, so we were left to mull over the topic of the hybrid.

Thankfully it's not Steven Moffat's take on the half human nonsense from McGann's TV Movie. That's something that seemed like a worrying possibility for a while. It would have been spectacularly poor. I mean season twenty-two levels of poor. Thankfully The Woman Who Lived seemed to make it clear that the hybrid in question was not, in fact, the Doctor or a new breed of Dalek or something else based on years-old continuity. It was Ashildr from The Girl Who Died.

At the end of The Girl Who Died Ashildr was made immortal using a modified bit of tech from enemies of the week the Mire. That made her a human-Mire hybrid. This episode made it clear that she is to be taken as A Problem™ for the Doctor. Which could have been boring. Thanks to an engaging script from Catherine Tregenna, excellent work from Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams (as well as, perhaps bizarrely, Rufus Hound), and the decision not to try and squeeze Clara into the episode it wasn't. It was a well-judged piece of writing that included just enough of a plot (an invasion orchestrated by a duplicitous, fire-breathing space lion wearing a metal headband) to keep things interesting in between stretches of what the episode was really about, the Doctor confronting his decision to make someone immortal.

Tregenna pitched things perfectly. After starting out with an amusing sequence in which the Doctor stumbled into a heist she gave us around fifteen minutes of the Doctor and "Me", the character having abandoned the named Ashildr centuries earlier, discussing their differing experiences of living lives so long that they are forced to watch loved ones grow old and die. Or, perhaps, their ability to forget and repress these experiences. These scenes were deftly handled, avoiding heavy-handedness but carrying the emotional heft required to make them work. It became clear across the course of the episode that Ashildr or Me or The Knightmare (srsly, pick a name, guys) was less unhappy with the "curse of immortality" (good because that trope is played out) and more the fact that the Doctor has lumbered her with the slow path through history, forcing to live every day in full and in order as he grants himself the freedom of time and space. Implicit in this was the unspoken accusation that the Doctor has made it easier for himself and isn't interested in lessening her burden. 'You trapped me in my life!' exclaims Me at one point. It's a good line but it would be more accurate to state that the Doctor's trapped her in history.

Me clearly isn't framed as a baddie in the style of Missy or Davros. She's given a great deal of sympathy. Meanwhile much is made of the Doctor's poor judgment and while it's not dwelt on there's that callous refusal to take her into the future and let her live the life she wants. His inaction is forcing her to lead a life she doesn't want and can't escape and was trapped in by him. But we are also left in no doubt that this is a woman who could become terrifyingly bad. Her willingness to kill is shown several times, most notably when she's keen to shoot her way out of a burglary job and when she sacrifices Sam Swift to open the rift she needs to escape the planet. It's a disregard for life that's a staple of recurring villains in the show.

This is clearly something Moffat has been moving towards for a while, the Doctor creating his own enemy. Had he handled it himself I don't think it would have been as good as it has been across these last two episodes. But in handing the job over to Catherine Tregenna and Jamie Mathieson he's let writers who will focus on the character, rather than the idea of the character, come to the fore. This is how he should run the show all the time. The closing flourish of Clara turning up to show the Doctor a selfie with Me (or whatever modern pseudonym she's taken) looking on pointedly from the background is clearly an addition he would have added or requested but the bulk of the episode feels unlike something he'd have written himself. This is for the better, because Moffat's authorial voice has been oppressive at points over the last five years.

That closing shot gives us a tantalising glimpse of where this series will end up. With Jenna Coleman's departure confirmed it seems safe to assume that the modern day incarnation of Me will be responsible for her death, talking as she did about how she'd keep an eye on the Doctor and exhibiting jealousy at the fact that Clara was taken with him on his continued journey. That would tie into the theme of the Doctor creating his own enemy in The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived and the debate about compassion in the Doctor and Davros scenes from The Witch's Familiar. Everything points towards Clara dying as a result of Me's actions, forcing the Doctor to admit that his act of compassion in saving her was ultimately wrong. There will be more to it than that, of course, but it's looking like the richest season arc of the Moffat era right now, and if it turns out to be true this episode will be a pivotal part of it.

All this plus a reference to the Terileleptils. What's not to like?

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Girl Who Died

The Girl Who Died was the sort of Doctor Who story I like. We were presented with a series of scenes in which the Doctor and Clara were introduced to a world and got some amusing lines to deliver, things got fleshed out, and there was a closing sequence that made sense both on the episode's own terms and in terms of the mechanics of the show at large. When done right that's always a great approach for Doctor Who (though obviously it can work with any companion and not Clara specifically).

It was the series of twists towards the start that really stood out to me. The Doctor pretended to be Odin. A nice little thing in itself because it's the sort of thing many other incarnations of the character may have tried. Then a giant faced appeared in the clouds and claimed to be the real Odin. An amusing, well-placed conceit within the episode which instantly raised questions for the audience. From there the fittest, strongest people in the village (including Clara and Ashildr, played by biggest name guest actor Maisie Williams, because of course) were beamed onto a space ship by some giant alien robots and slaughtered for boring-but-sensible-within-the-confines-of-the-show reasons. Clara and Ashildr escaped because they were always going to and then the second phase of the episode began: the Doctor helping the remaining villagers to prepare for a battle Clara had stupidly (but handily for a TV show that has to feature #conflict) provoked the alien into a battle.

After that it settled down into a well written episode . We got some scenes that were determined to make us care about the guest cast and for the most part they did. Far more impressive was the material given to Capaldi. He got to play everything from courage to angst and was given excellent dialogue to do so, a refreshing change from the by-the-numbers material he's mostly gotten in the part (I think I remember this being a strength in last year's Flatline, also by Jamie Mathieson). Clara being split off for the brief sojourn to the ship made sense too, and gave her something to do after weeks of her being sidelined.

It was also nice to see the design work back on track after a severe wobble with the Fisher King in Before the Flood. Fake Odin was pretty much written and performed as a generic baddie but he was made to look enough like a futuristic Viking that it didn't matter. He looked like what he was meant to be, an alien (or possibly an alien AI, I didn't follow that bit closely enough) trying to pass themselves (or itself) off as a god using a basic understanding of human mythology. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that someone took inspiration from Lost Vikings 2 for that (and I'd be more surprised still if more than one person reading this understood that reference without the assistance of Google). The robot henchmen were better still. They were big and bulky and intimidating with rivets and bolts that you don't see in Doctor Who designs often. They looked convincingly alien and warrant a return. I could have done without the removal of their headpieces to reveal squealing flesh heads though. They were more appealing when they appeared to be some sort of enchanted clay-metal robot warriors.

In fact the episode's only weakness was something that was likely intended to be one of its highlights. The topic of where the Doctor's face came from was tackled more substantially than it has been since Capaldi's debut episode Deep Breath. This is something aimed at people like me, people who know and rewatch and study the show. But I didn't care. I didn't care because it's been handled poorly within the show. I could have been convinced that it mattered pretty easily. It is, after all, famously a theory that Russell T Davies cooked up as his own private fan theory then passed on to Moffat, who decided it was so good he'd include it in the show. That's my kind of thing! But it was so bland, not to mention wholly unnecessary, that I couldn't bring myself care. The Doctor chose the face of Caecilius, the man he saved from a burning Pompeii, to remind himself that he saves people. So what?

It raises more questions than it answers. How did he do this when he's seemingly had no control over his appearance before? How does John Frobisher, also played by Capaldi, factor into this? Why didn't the Doctor do it when he changed from the Tenth Doctor, who saved Caecilius, into the Eleventh? If the Eleventh chose the face to remind himself that he's a good man who saves people because he'd just run into the War Doctor and been reminded of some apparently horrible things he did and was having a crisis of confidence or something  then why didn't he make a more recent or relevant selection? Does Moffat really expect anyone who's not invested in this show more than the average viewer to understand the sudden appearance of David Tennant and Catherine Tate in scenes from an episode that first aired seven years ago? Maybe there's more to come on this. If so, good. Right now it looks like another example of Moffat building something up in interviews that turns out to be wholly underwhelming once it appears in the show.

After the predictable struggle against the bad guy worked out in favour of the overmatched villagers (funny that) we got the episode's final twist, the Doctor saving Ashildr with technomagic and making her immortal. This was a nice final flourish and kept the revelation of how two episodes (this and next week's The Woman Who Lived) written by two different people and not appearing to be a two part tale fit together.

This was easily the best episode since The Magician's Apprentice and possibly the best of the series so far (I'd need rewatches to decide for sure). It featured enough surprises, dealt out its revelations well, and contained enough strong design work that it was a joy to watch. If this was the average level of quality I think the show would be all the better for it.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Before the Flood

Ahhhhhh so it was all about free will versus determinism. How disappointing.

Not that it had to be disappointing (which is in no way a clever, or an attempt at clever, joke). That's actually a rather interesting subject for a programme prominently featuring a time machine to tackle. The trouble is that paradoxes and time travel as plot device have been massively overdone by the show over the last five years, leaving it an all too familiar topic now, and one that a writer like Toby Whithouse doesn't have the chops to broach in interesting enough ways.

But even if Moffat hadn't run those ideas into the ground this episode wouldn't have been great. It dealt with its chosen paradoxes in a convoluted manner, spending too much time trying to be clever than clearly establishing what the paradox was and where the Doctor's ability to change things (or lack of it) lay. Things may have been better had this been a single part story. That would have forced Whithouse to concentrate on the twists he felt compelled to hang his story around and be tighter with what he gave his swollen cast to do.

That said this was an improvement on the story's opening half, last week's Under the Lake. The biggest weaknesses here were the scenes with Clara and the guest stars running around in the base had no point to them. Well, not in terms of plot at least, they existed only to keep Clara in the episode. Ducking in and out of safe zones to rescue phones and guest cast members placed into peril for no reason? That's not something anybody needed.

There's also a rare criticism of the production team (a wonderfully all-encompassing, broad term) to be had. The Fisher King. Despite having one of the richest, most evocative names (which wasn't capitalised on) in the show's history The Fisher King was given possibly the most Power Rangers design in the history of Doctor Who. At first it seemed like the director realised the shortcomings of the suit and wisely decided to shoot it only in shadows. But then we were treated to shots of the thing chatting to the Doctor and wandering about in broad daylight. I accept that bad monster designs happen from time to time but the show should be at a point now where it knows when to cut its losses and work around something that's not turned out well. This was clearly one of those times but nobody seemed to realise it. Also the King's "mouth" had a bit of a Vervoid look to it and we all know what they look like.

There were glimpses of goodness to be had here though. The abandoned Russian town with a big dam sitting ominously on the horizon was a cracking visual (shame they didn't do anything interesting with it). Prentis the Tivolian undertaker was a far more engaging character than I'd expected. It was interesting to see his desire for subjugation played with such open pervertedness, a contrast to the repressed portrayal David Walliams went with when he was cast as a similar character in 2011's God Complex. Even the idea of Doctor Who tackling ghosts remained interesting for part of this episode, until they went with spelling out the nature of them (electromagnetic echoes created by The Fisher King, whatevs) instead of leaving things open ended. A lack of definitive answer can work nicely, as The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit so nicely demonstrated years ago.

In short Toby Whithouse gave us two workmanlike scripts, the production team turned out a shonky monster but did themselves proud on finding a location and creating some (absolutely pointless) Russian trappings, and the episode was ultimately about an argument that's been done to death already and didn't actually play out fully here. There have been better episodes.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Under the Lake

Under the Lake was a more traditional episode of Doctor Who than either The Magician's Apprentice or The Witch's Familiar. With the eye-catching two part opener of series nine out of the way it was free to be, not having the pressure of incorporating returning villains or hooking people in for a twelve week run. This could have been a good thing, a celebration of the show's more successful tropes and storytelling devices. That would have been apt given that it's been ten years since the show's revival. Unfortunately it was given to Toby Whithouse, the writer with perhaps the most alarming hit and miss rate in all of New Who.

Whithouse's previous work on the show has run the gamut on quality and engagement. He started off with the inoffensive but also uninspiring School Reunion. In fairness that was a bit of a JNT-style shopping list in which Whithouse was tasked with reintroducing Sarah Jane Smith and K9 and utilising the then-underdeveloped Mickey in addition to giving us forty-five minutes of thrills 'n' spills but it's still noticeable that Whithouse never wrote for the show again while RTD was in charge.

A fair counter argument to that would be that he had something of a hit on his hands during the Davies eras. Being Human, the dramedy about a werewolf, a ghost and a vampire living together and sharing some good times and lols while also hiding their true nature from Joe Public. And okay, that was a popular series which took up a lot of time and could easily be the only reason he didn't return to Doctor Who sooner. But it was wrapping up when he wrote his first script under Moffat, and the later series of Being Human demonstrate my point as well as looking solely at his Who work does: Whithouse is a writer of inconsistent quality. Seriously, watch the first half of series one and the last half of series five. The difference is astonishing.

Under Moffat Whithosue has penned The Vampires of Venice (better than School Reunion but still a little band), The God Complex (one of the very best episodes Matt Smith's era produced), and A Town Called Mercy (one of the worst). Giving him a two part series was a gamble. His track record indicated that he'd either write something very dull or really quite engaging and good.

It was the former. Tasked with writing a ghost story Whithouse went to great lengths to play to some of the most well established ghost tropes, writing his spectres to phase through (most) solid objects, only come out at night, hover, and be generally inhuman and creepy. None of this was a bad idea. It made sense to write stereotypical ghosts given that this was Doctor Who Does Ghosts but he could, and should, have done unexpected things with our expectations. There were glimpses of something good, the computer controlled day-night mode, the ghosts wanting to kill to "amplify their signal and get attention", and the hints dropped about the spaceship were all very promising, but the episode never really felt that it accomplished anything beyond successfully reaching its cliffhanger and setting up the concluding half. I've discussed before how two part stories have to be viewed as a whole, making opening parts tricky to look at in isolation, but the way they're essentially written to essentially be two single part stories connected by a theme should ensure that each part is satisfying in its own right. This wasn't.

There's also that cliffhanger. The Doctor going back in time to find out what happened when the ship crashed. That's just yet more time travel as a plot device stuff that the Moffat era is already far too heavy on. It's okay occasionally but if the Doctor simply nips off in his time machine o sort things out in every episode then it eventually leaves people asking why he's not doing it in other episodes. And there's no easy answer to that beyond "Well that would make the episode rather boring or short or both."

The cliffhanger also showed as the ghost of the Doctor. Which is just utterly boring because it takes a lot of drama out of the story's central threat and the episode as a whole. We know now that anyone who becomes a ghost can also stop being a ghost, because we know the Doctor as played by Peter Capaldi not in ghost makeup, is fine later in the series. Perhaps Whithouse will find a way to pay off everything he set up, and in fairness I think there's a lot he included that will seem far more obvious come Before the Flood, but it's not a definite thing. And it won't make Under the Lake any more tolerable as a piece of television.