Saturday, October 18, 2014

Flatline - "What are you a doctor of?" "Of lies."

Flatline (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 9 (Overall Series Story #254) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Capaldi or else


Well, for those of us open to it, we (sort of) got our female Doctor tonight. Clara made an excellent Doctor; did goodness really have nothing to do with it? Is this more Moffat slight of hand? We were told we were getting a darker Doctor, but is it a darker Clara we're really seeing? At the end there, Missy seemed to be putting her stamp of approval on that idea.

It's saying something that the episode that had the stink of "Fear Her" (people trapped in drawings, the drab council estate setting) on it yields the following as my biggest complaint: Missy is monitoring Clara on an effing iPad?! That's the tech they're using in the Nethersphere, is it? Look, it's one thing for Clara to have an android phone, she's a contemporary human. Missy is a powerful enough entity to bring the dead back to life (apparently) and insert Clara into the Doctor's (apparently) while running a ... whatever a Nethersphere is. And the tech she uses is an iPad? That took me straight out of an episode I'd enjoyed tremendously to that point and made me think Apple greased the right palms to get that in there.

(I'm not even saying there's no place for product placement. A character drinking a Diet Coke, or taking a Tylenol for a headache doesn't have to be a distraction -- done right it's less of a distraction than some poorly designed fake brand-a-like, or the obvious attempt to hide a brand -- but having an iPad be part of some presumably futuristic, presumably alien villain's tech is pretty low.)

Apart from that, this one successfully shook off the taint of "Fear Her" by scrubbing itself through some "Web of Fear" tunnels and 2D to 3D conceptualization I'd probably be able to make a clever Flatland allusion to, if I were doing better on my reading -- it's on my kindle, I just haven't gotten round to it and with the latest Sandifer book out and already getting overdue notices for the copy of Master and Commander I've got out from the library it's still a few weeks off at least -- but instead have to make do with a reference to the aesthetic of A-Ha's "Take on Me" video.

So, this is the first Doctor Who set in Bristol and guess who's from Bristol: Banksy. I may be thick and have the cultural awareness of someone who comes up with an A-Ha video when they need cultural touchstone for discussing 2D creatures, but even I can spot when DW is celebrating a graffiti artist by putting a graffiti artist character with a similar name in a story set in that famous artist's home town and giving the character based on the artist a crucial part in saving the day. This is much more satisfying to watch then the sledgehammer Look At This Effing Genius And Give Him His Due approach that's been employed a bit too often by DW in the past. (Looking at you, "Vincent and the Doctor," for one ... )

Speaking of sledghammers, the Doctor passing Clara one from inside his tiny TARDIS inside her purse is one of my favorite comedic moments of the season so far.

This continues the streak of there not being a single episode yet this season that I didn't enjoy. There've been a few rough moments, sure, and I'm not putting this one up there with the all-time gems, but it's a solid entry with an intriguing monster and the Rigsy-as-Banksy tribute thing worked for me, so I'm still on the Series 8 Is Shaping Up To Be The Best Series Of Who Ever So Don't Tank It With A Shite Arc Resolution Moffat Train.

Speaking of trains, this new writer, who's penned the last two stories, should we suspect he's got a thing for trains?

Stray Observation:

Hmm. This may not be the first time Banksy has inspired Doctor Who?

Revenge of the Cybermen - "Who's the homicidal maniac?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Revenge of the Cybermen - Details

Season 12, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #79) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Mira-Sophia
Oft-maligned, not without cause, but an enjoyable watch nonetheless. Yes, we have to acknowledge this is not a well-thought story. Why the Vogans, knowing that gold is kryptonite to Cybermen, don't use the gold that is literally underfoot when it comes time to fight Cybermen instead of sticking with their useless firearms, which are only effective for killing one another, is beyond me. And, oh yeah, when you're being invaded by Cybermen, maybe you deal with them before getting back to shooting at one another? Priorities.

We also never really get the sense Vorus or Kellman were properly called out and held accountable for the murder of all those people on Nerva Beacon. Sure, they both end up dead, but Kellman gets a redemptive death saving Harry during the rockfall and Vorus is only shot when he tries to fire his rocket before the agreed upon time. Vorus, had he exercised a little patience, was still expected to be a political force in the upcoming Vogan elections, despite being a mass murderer.

Harry, I'm afraid, doesn't come across very well in this one either. His blundering nearly kills the Doctor a couple times over, and he's ditzy enough that he can't remember what the Cybermen are called?  No wonder Sarah is so impatient with him throughout. He's written out at the end of the next story, "Terror of the Zygons," so perhaps this was laying the groundwork for making sure he wouldn't be missed. It's a shame, Ian Marter had great screen presence and didn't need to be written out like a third wheel.

Anyways, with all plot holes and unsatisfying character arcs, there's ample reason to be down on this story, yet I'm not and I'm trying to give credible reasons why I still enjoy it, but it comes down to surface-level pleasures that ignore the problems. The Vogans are interesting looking and I actually like the fact that one of them has a cold for no plot-significant reason; the location filming in Wookey Hole gives this story great atmosphere (as well as some genuinely chilling -- Lis Sladen's near drowning -- and goofy anecdotes); and the Cybermen are back for the first time since "The Invasion" seven years earlier. They won't be seen again until "Earthshock" seven years later. (There's a Seven Year Cyber Itch joke in there somewhere ...) The Cybermen are a bit of a joke and the Doctor skewers them for it. I love that one of the series' iconic monsters are basically perennial losers and have to hear it when they come 'round making trouble. "You've no home planet, no influence, nothing. You're just a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship," the Doctor tells the Cyber Leader. And he's right. And that's OK.

When the episodes are in tatters, at least the cliffhangers are well done. When they get those right, it erases some of the bad taste of the silly bits in between. Crucially, Tom Baker's in fine form with that infectious smile and plenty of opportunities to needle the baddies. Sometimes, even when things go wrong, you get lucky and it works out anyways. For instance, it's not meant to be funny, but the cyber neck massage the Doctor gets from that Cyber Leader when he returns to try to rescue Sara from the beacon is one of those moments you've got to rewind and watch again to revel in.

Following "Genesis of the Daleks," and sharing superficial similarities -- two opposing factions each trying to destroy the other from their fortified positions, one side having a bit of a civil war, the return of an iconic foe, a rushed attempt to get a giant rocket ready to solve things once and for all -- this one was bound to suffer by comparison. Not helping this story's reputation, I suspect, are some lingering hard feelings about it being the first to come out on VHS, so we all watched the shit out of it and really had to face up to it not being coherent while wishing a better a story had been chosen as the first home video release. If Tom Baker doesn't look like he's having fun, then this probably slips below the line and become unwatchable, even for me. And maybe that's all there is to it, I like this story because it's Tom Baker, my first Doctor, and he's on form so the failures can be largely glossed over.

Left overs:

What is it, anyways, with Cyberman stories and planets/asteroids drifting around the solar system?

That Vogan crest sure looks familiar ...

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Claws of Axos - "I suppose you can take the normal precautions against nuclear blast, like, er, sticky tape on the windows and that sort of thing."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Claws of Axos - Details

Season 8, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #57) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via Greyhound One
The Axons are as shiny as Marc Bolan in concert. It may be dead of winter but Jo Grant looks like she's ready to be a dancer on Top of the Pops. The early 1970s are glam and Doctor Who is right there with it. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

As a rule, that's probably for the best. However, when "Into the Dalek" got trippy as the fantastic voyagers entered the Dalek's eye stalk, I realized how much I missed these blasts of weird. If the Axons are just guys from a regular spaceship, with nothing more than generic space alien suits and wigs, this story would be OK, but it wouldn't be very memorable. It wouldn't have been terrible, about the same as any other story where the Master's in league with some alien menace out to suck the Earth dry. By going full glam though, this one becomes a spectacle on par with "The Web Planet." That's not a bad thing once and again. All trippy or glam week in and week out, then the spectacle becomes tedious.

Dr. Sandifer takes some heat for his criticism of the Letts era; but, even if you love this era, as I do, he'd be required reading in the syllabus I'd make for Doctor Who Studies 301. His analysis of Pertwee's portrayal of the Doctor in the context of his era's action hero / glam spectacle dichotomy is just one the many lenses he brings to bear that help his readers see Who with new perspective.

But enough about that, I'm setting my sights a little lower and merely want to address whether this holds up and is worth re-watching, or watching the first time if you're exploring the classic series. Had it not got all glammed up, I'd probably recommend making it a lower priority, but I give it the edge over "The Daemons" & "Colony in Space" for entertainment value among its Season 8 peers. I'm having trouble getting hold of a copy of "The Mind of Evil" to watch, so can't position it relative to that story, yet, but I think this one and "Terror of the Autons" are the S8 stories I'd spotlight.

Ratings aren't something I normally pay much attention to, unless they should ever take a nosedive in a way that fuels speculation the series might be on the verge of cancellation or hiatus but every so often they catch one's eye and the timing of my re-watch of this story right after watching "The Hungry Earth" is such an instance. "Axos" peaked with 8 million viewers when it aired it's second episode in March, 1971. The Eleventh Doctor's take on a Pertwee-era story took down about 6 million viewers (but 4.5M in the overnights) in May, 2010. Now, granted, those are BBC1-only numbers ... still, it speaks to how much things have changed. If Doctor Who is an event now, and I reckon it's safe to say it's one of the most recognized TV shows in world, how crazy is it that the 8M of roughly 56M population were watching the Master and the Axons try to suck the life out of the Earth, but as few as 4.5M of 63M were watching when Silurians made their re-appearance? As big as Who is now, imagine if it had the same place in the culture it had back in the day!  Of course, there was a lot less competition for the national (televisual) attention, but is it any wonder the show's cult took such firm root?

(Watching the extras on "The Revenge of the Cybermen" DVD, I'm reminded how difficult it was back when I first becoming a fan to see Who at all -- although for a while there it was possible to watch six out of the seven days of the week between CT and MA Public TV airings of Pertwee and Tom Baker era stories. Still, no Hartnell or Troughton to be had even when VCRs did finally start making their way into our homes. What was on was it. Miss it and you had to wait for them to cycle through all the extant episodes and start again. Kids today don't know how easy they have it. Sigh. So it appears I'm now one of those old fellers shaking his head at the coddled youth. Straight talk: I *feel* as much a fan -- that same anticipation for new, unseen story -- as I did when my favorite xmas present was the Tom Baker scarf my ol' granny knitted for me around the time the first Peter Davison episodes debuted here in the U.S.! Tempus fugit.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood - "Do you have to call them vermin? They're actually very nice!"

The Hungry Earth - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 5, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #213a) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via rebloggy
My re-watch of this story took place on a kindle tablet while I flying back home from vacation more than a week ago, as I write this. Exhausted, uncomfortable, and wishing for a little more time away, these were less than ideal conditions under which to revisit a less than favorite story. Not that there aren't parts of it I enjoyed, and I think make it worth watching and talking about, but Mr. Graham, among others, has correctly assigned this story to the category of neo-liberal apologies/excuses for exploitation and oppression and it's awful hard to separate the misguided worldview Doctor Who trades in here with its better nature. He writes:
The funny thing is that, wheras the intentional Palestine allegory worked up in these episodes doesn't fit the real facts, patronises the oppressed, excuses the oppressors, etc, the accidental allegory works.  Indeed, it chimes surprisingly well witth the Silurians generally.  Every time the Silurians come back they are still squeezed out, displaced, outnumbered... and every time they are condemned when they dare to get angry about it, and exhorted by the liberal hero to stay indefinitely patient, warned that if they don't then they'll have lost the moral high ground, effectively informed that its up to them to be forebearing to the people who've stolen their world. And they never get anywhere near getting redress or restitution.
On top of the hash of a political allegory, this is one where an overprotective mother causes all sorts of trouble for her family, and the world, despite the best efforts of her partner, the Moffat-y father -- not hard to imagine a less timey-wimey Rory becoming this sort of dad in alternate future. Oh well, at least there's a C.S. Lewis-y x-mas story ahead which will apologize to motherhood for this slight ...

For all that, this is still the new series telling a Pertwee-era story with all the trappings (a drilling operation staffed with scientists and engineers, in the Welsh countryside, with Silurians, no less) in a way that gives the sun-drenched, sore-footed fan crammed into a Southwest Airlines seat at the back of the plane (where a Diet Coke and pittance of peanuts are a long ways off) something to bounce off the fond recollections of those earlier iterations of the Silurians. And, Three's attempt to broker a peace between the would-be co-habitants at the top of Earth's hierarchy.

Rory mistaken for a police detective, hustled off to investigate a corpse missing from an undisturbed grave, shrugging, and going along with it is so Rory it makes his cruel end (another end, another end to be undone) all the more cruel. He's doesn't get a heck of a lot else to do between dropping off Amy's engagement ring and getting erased by the crack in spacetime at the end of part two, but he's there being Rory, even if most backgrounded in a way that's sort of comforting.

If a trifle slow, the two part structure at work, the cliffhanger, with Amy about to be vivisected is solid enough ...

Cold Blood (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 5, Story 9 (Overall Series Story #213b) | Previous - Next | Index

Image via what culture
Amy (and Mo, though after he's had his turn) escapes the Mengelian scalpel and we're off on a suspenseless ride to find out how the Silurians are going to get screwed out of their fair share of the planet ... again, without anyone feeling too bad about the whole thing. Really, although we get to find out more about Silurian politics, see some negotiations get started -- and I do rather like that Moffat seems to be a fan of negotiated settlements, and the process of ironing out differences through conversation, think the glee of the Doctors in "The Day of the Doctor" when the Zygons and humans enter into negotiations -- all the fireworks are at the end and belong to the Series 5 arc, not to this story, as such.

Rory's erasure by the crack, and the moment in which Amy forgets him, is well-staged. As the Doctor holds Rory in Amy's mind, Rory's face dissolves into focus on his half of the screen, only to disappear in a blink when an explosion rattles the TARDIS and Amy's concentration is broken. Just like that, he's gone like he was never there. So, yeah, even though we just watched Rory die in "Amy's Choice," his death here more poignant than you might expect.

The bigger reveal is what the Doctor fished out of the crack. He unwraps a charred fragment of the TARDIS door, matches it to its current-day pristine state and we've got our first intimation of how big "The Big Bang" to come is going to be.

Connect-the-dots UNIT-era tribute, the chance to see pre-Madam Vastra Neve McIntosh in Silurian costuming, some big happenings to lead up to the Series 5 finale event (sigh), that's what we've got to hang our hats on here.

That its fatally undercut by neo-liberal assumptions about world order drags down what we might otherwise have called an solid outing. One that cleverly borrowed from the Classic Series structure and mythology in a way that could've both performed fan service, and caught up a Nu Series-only watcher to the gist of the Pertwee era without erasing the same from the headspace of the Classic Series watcher. Although, I guess it's a fair cop that squeezing out the Silurians wasn't a Nu Series invention, but actually a toned-down version of how UNIT solved the Silurian problem in their time. Forty years of perspective should have resulted in DW making better progress than this. Only what felt like a tacked-on voice over from the future did anything to address that. Too little.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express - "People with guns to their heads cannot mourn."

Mummy on the Orient Express - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #253) | Previous - Next | Index

Mummy via Hartburn
A few too many elisions for my taste -- something "The Caretaker"'s opening montage handled better -- but apart from that, this story accomplished what it needed to: it effectively wove more detail into the soldier/officer thematic arc (I say "effectively" not knowing how it's all going to play out in the end, but in terms of this story standing on its own while fitting into what we've seen of Series 8 so far, it works); it gave Capaldi and Coleman moments to shine, together and apart, likewise their characters; the mystery was intriguing and did the thing you knew it had to do -- when we hear "... on the Orient Express," we know somehow every passenger is involved, but it can't be that they all did it (unless we're persuaded they weren't in collusion first); the aesthetic supported the story, and was well-executed -- this milieu is something we expect done well, a go-to era to recreate that's in the BBC's wheelhouse; and it delivered on it's Hammer-level horror aspirations.

The first review I read of this story called it the first dud of the season, I'm not finding that review again now so I can't pick at its reasons, but that's an assessment I find unconvincing. (I loved "Kill the Moon," but I can at least understand the cases people have made it against it. They didn't tank the story for me, but for someone more science-minded, it's transgressions against everything we know about how physics explains how things work are understandably more off-putting.)

The elisions that felt like cheats were: first, Clara popping out of the TARDIS in flapper garb without so much as a flashback to the moment the Doctor came back and she decided to step into the TARDIS again was too important not to see, or at least see how the two felt about that moment. Yes, there's a distance there now -- and we'll come back to what Clara's telling herself, the Doctor, and Danny to keep seeing wonders -- so we are seeing some of the emotional fallout, but curiosity about the how of them making up enough to travel together again feels like a loose thread; and second, the how of how they got off the train before it blew up. For the latter, I suspect that was for the dramatic purpose of putting weight on the Doctor's flip remark that he may have just lied to Clara about saving everyone, to make us wonder if really he didn't, but again that felt to me like a dramatic cheat. As a viewer, knowing whether he did or didn't already and then watching him test Clara's reaction by implying he may not have would have been just as a satisfying and a less gimmicky bit of storytelling.

Clara's "addiction" to travelling. I'm not sure I'm going to like how this plays out, bad decision-making and lying yourself and others to cover for addiction sure looks like the seed of her eventual doom. Or, her recovery with Danny down the line being her character's 'out' from travelling both feel like unnecessary and ill-advised forays into a theme of addiction. Hope to be proved wrong here. The one thing that gives me hope at this point that we're not going to descend into after-school special addiction is bad moralizing is that Clara didn't register as having a mental impairment that the mummy would sense as a weakness. Of course, that could be because she didn't succumb until after getting off the phone with Danny ... ?

For Classic and Nu Series fans, the Easter Eggs here were numerous (more than I list here)  and, I thought, just the right touch of fan service without killing the momentum. Jelly Babies in his cigarette case made me smile. Wearing One's outfit. The high tech sarcophagus and the mummy teased the possibility of the mummy being the ravaged, shambling remnant of Sutekh from "Pyramids of Mars". The call back to the phone call at the end of the "The Big Bang" on the other hand not only went straight over my head. When I read reactions from folks who picked up on Eleven talking to Gus there by the reference to an ancient Egyptian goddess loose on the Orient Express, in space," I just rolled my eyes. Happy to admit that may be more a problem with me than with the whole resolution of that arc, I just had no patience for it and find it frustratingly incoherent, if lovingly constructed. Why would Gus being talking about a goddess when that clearly wasn't the case? Lying to make the Doctor more interested? Fine, but we shouldn't have to patch over the inconsistencies to forgive too-clever-by-half allusions.

I don't grok the complaints we read about the Doctor being too cold, too alien, too pragmatic, too much of an asshole. In every instance of his being cold in the face of death, I believed he felt it, but was doing what he saw as his duty of care in the moment. People with guns to their hands can't mourn, after all. We know the Doctor doesn't see humans as puny and insignificant, that he values life and is trying to save the lives of everyone he can, but it pains him that he can't save them all. He's not just blustering or posturing when he says he wants to step in and see the mummy so he can take it on, he means it, and when he's ready, he does it, putting his own life on the line for the passengers.

What I'm not sure how to read is his lessening aversion to contact. In the first half the season, every touch seemed to pain him, now he's shaking hands, linking arms, etc. with folks left and right. I was never sure if the aversion to touch was post-regeneration driven, or meant to signify a process of withdrawing into himself. Now that it's stopped I think either reading is possible and suggests he's fully over the regeneration pangs now, or that he's stopped (or completed) withdrawing, and is fully comfortable in his own skin again.

Stray Thoughts:

When I watch Disney shows with my kids, I often find myself distracted by how many folks are standing around in scenes as window-dressing, never uttering a line even when one of the leads interacts with them. (Watch an episode of Mighty Med, if you can stomach it, and count how many people say nothing even when engaging with one of the leads. Once you start it becomes utterly distracting.) I've concluded that's Disney cost-cutting, not having to pay extras as actors by ensuring they don't do any line reading.  This episode made we wonder if the CGI train and city at the end made it necessary to cut costs by having a bunch of scientists stand around and contribute nothing to the investigation.

There's an interesting observation in the AV Club review of this story that rang true for me but hadn't bubbled up from my subconscious yet: " ... this season in general and this episode in particular feel like what the 80s production team were trying to pull off with Colin Baker’s 6th Doctor but did not have the skill or the vision to pull off". I don't go on and on every week about how brilliantly I think Capaldi is playing the Doctor, how he's weaving elements of past incarnations into his own, in part because I think it goes without saying, and partly because I'm conscious of the fact that if I say "OMG you guys Capaldi is fantastic in this one" every week, it loses its punch. The deviousness of Seven, the aristocratic arrogance of One, the monologuing and absurdist humor of Four, are all there, but as part of a coherent whole, a whole new Doctor we are still getting to know. To the extent he's Six though wasn't apparent to me, but puts his performance in the context of a production team doing what might have seemed both inadvisable and impossible, executing on the vision of an tremendously intelligent, brash Doctor that can rub viewers the wrong way yet still be recognized as a good man.

Frank Skinner & Foxes. I see myself as a litmus test here of whether these are stunt-casting distractions or instances of celebrity being successfully integrated into the Doctor Who story in which they're playing a role. I've heard of Foxes, but (I'm old) couldn't pick her out of a crowd before this episode. If I'd heard of Skinner, I've forgotten about it and where I may have seen him before. The singer in the train fit the atmosphere and I was impressed with how she sounded, not knowing she was celeb cameo, so if it bothered you, I take that to mean you couldn't shut off your "Look, it's Foxes, that's distracting!" knee-jerk reaction. (Is that rude of me to say? I'm prepared to accept criticism of my responses and reactions, I think the rest of you should be as well.) Ditto with Skinner, his Chief Engineer stood out from the rest of the cast, but if any failing there, it's that there were too many non-speaking characters churning through the scenes, and only Maisie and the Captain apart from Skinner's Perkins even got a chance to approach three-dimensionality.

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