Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Vampires of Venice - "I like the bit when someone says it's bigger on the inside. I always look forward to that. "

The Vampires of Venice - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 5, Story 6 (Overall Series Story #211)

Image via More Than Just Magic
The Space Buffoon aspect of the Doctor's character tends to get over-inflated during Smith era, his incompetence at understanding societal norms frequently make him look like ... well, a Space Buffoon. Not to say there's not humor to be mined from having a super-intelligent, 900+ year-old alien time-traveler interact with 21st century humans; but, the idea he would pop up into a cake to gain entry to Rory's stag, after having guessed wrong at least once and popped into the wrong stag, to then announce -- in a way that has to be calculated to humiliate Rory in front of his friends -- that Amy has snogged him and that she's a great snogger is not something I felt entirely comfortable with. (I'll complain about this same brand of stupidity in "Time of the Doctor," it's an unfortunate failing that someone should have known well enough not to repeat.)

It's the fact that he's smart enough to know better, and is not fresh out of his regeneration at this point that irks. It can't just be that he's an absent-minded genius, it really does look like he's out to tear Rory down. There's a moment where he glares at Rory for not saying "It's bigger on the inside," the way the Doctor likes folks to do when the first pop in the TARDIS, that enforces this. He quickly puts on a smile, but that's an acting decision on either Smith or the director's part that communicates to the viewer he's putting on a mask. The dynamic of the Doctor-Amy-Rory triangle is ugly here; I don't like it. Later, this all gets smoothed out, but in this episode, it's kind of revolting. This picks up right were "Flesh and Stone" left off and I can't wait for it to end.

Image via My Perfiction
The vampires, though, and what's going on in this one, it's OK enough. There are moments I quite like, in particular a scene that makes use of a mirror that is quite fun to watch, a bit virtuoso actually the way what we see changes with the camera's perspective, flip-flip, they're there, they're not. But doesn't the rest of it feel too been-there-done-that? Let's have him climb a tower in a storm, exactly like Ten did back in ... what was it? 'The Idiot's Lantern"?  No, I mean, "Evolution of the Daleks," or both. It's another species trying to use Earth to rebuild their species with no regard for the native population. We get a lot of those.

Some fun, a bit by-the-numbers, and saddled with Doctor-Amy-Rory relationship tension that just feels off. OK-ish for a mid-season episode but let's have Amy make it clear Rory's her man already and move on to figuring out this crack business.

Stray Thought
The Doctor shows the psychic paper to a group of young lady "vampires" and it shows One on a library card. "Library card. Of course, it's with. He's. I need a spare," Eleven says. What reference am I missing there? Who's the card with? He's what? Is there a Hartnell story with a library card that plays a part that I haven't gotten to yet? I don't think this goes back to the Ten's time in the Library?

If I'm missing some clever reference that's going to make me smack my forehead, please point it out in the comments!




Enlightenment - "Yes, you're a stowaway and I shall put you in irons."

Enlightenment (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Season 20, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #128)

Image via Love and Liberty
In which Tegan charms an Eternal, Five finds a fresh celery, Turlough can't bear to live another minute, and the White Guardian has buyer's remorse about his co-sponsorship of a yacht race for Enlightenment, the Magical Dingus ...

As settings for stories go, the yacht race on the solar winds is one of the better ones we've seen. There are limits to what they can do on a budget, but it's also as well-executed, or better, than could be expected for this era of the show. Turlough and the Doctor attempting to blend in with the crew of the Edwardian-era yacht to which they've been led by the White Guardian is fun to watch. The characters of the crewmembers are fleshed out to be more than just 'the dumb ones and the smart one', so feel like the TARDIS crew have been drawn into story that had depth before they got there. The crew are not entirely sold on their officers, and the officers on this ship are involved in a struggle a bit more complicated than just a simple race with the other ships. The teams of Eternals and their Ephemerals are a colorful lot, particularly the panto-style pirates under the leadership of Captain Wrack and her First Mate, Mansell.

Capt. Wrack, Mansell, and Five.
Image via The TARDIS Tavern
All these wonderful elements, yet the whole ends up a little less than the sum of the parts. The problem is the internal logic of the story wasn't given enough thought. Why is the White Guardian a party to holding this race if he doesn't think it's a good idea in the first place? We can invent reasons to give him credible motives for doing so, like it's a complicated plot to defeat the Black Guardian because he had it in mind the whole time to bring in the Doctor knowing if he were to win, he'd do the right thing -- but we shouldn't have to do the writers' work for them.

What is the prize anyways? "It was the choice," doesn't make sense once you take a moment to think about it. If the prize was too dangerous, then it was awarded ... and not only to the Doctor, but to Turlough. Since neither apparently gained some great Enlightenment, then it really wasn't the choice, it was the Enlightenment Dingus, after all. And if that was so, we're back to wondering why the White Guardian ever had a part in this thing to begin with. And, what exactly -- well, besides the obvious* -- was so special about Tegan that Marriner was so stalkerishly enamored with her?

Image via Not Tonight Dalek
In the end, it's not those bits of incoherence that are the greatest demerit against this story, it's the side it takes in the class struggle. But wait, you might say, you're a notorious Lefty and the Doctor has helped the Ephemerals (the laborers) who were being exploited as playthings of the Ephemerals (the bourgeois aristocrats). Yes, he took the side of the Ephemerals here (and is one himself) ... but he buys into the universal order where the message was really: "You workers don't want the empty, sad existence of the aristos, it's sooooo boring. You have all the really good ideas, create art, and live meaningful lives. We'll nobly endure the burden of privilege for your own good. Off you go now." It's the underlying assumption that there's a natural division between the privileged and the lower classes, it's better if the two worlds don't mix, and nobody moves between them.

A universe that exists as a plaything of Eternals is a deeply distasteful universe. It's what really holds this story back for me. Happily, we haven't seen them since ...


* On the DVD extras, there's an anecdote Peter Davison and Janet Fielding share about her dress that is similar enough to other anecdotes we've heard about Ms. Fielding's issues with her tube top get up it makes you wonder if she when she finally left the show it wasn't to do with fatigue over trying to keep her girls popping out all over the place.


Terminus - "It'll be good to see the Tardis again." "And Tegan." "Yes, well ... "

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Terminus - Details

Season 20, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #127)


Image via Days like crazy paving
This is Terminus. The end of the line. For Nyssa, at least. But it's only the second part of the Black Guardian trilogy, so more of Turlough being Turlough. Luckily (for him?), he's shunted into the air ducts to crawl around behind Tegan for most of the story, so not much action on the Kill The Doctor front, he just pulls out the Black Guardian walkie-talkie crystal a few times to remind everyone that's still a thing.

What does everyone remember about "Terminus" apart from it being Nyssa's last story? They remember Nyssa's undergarments. (It's not just titillation *koff* she sheds her skirt when she starts feeling feverish after boarding the plague ship. Totally legit.) The other pieces of this one that stick with you are: the Lazars being zombie-ish space lepers; this being yet another case of the Doctor hurtling towards the Big Bang -- but being fortunate this time that there's a shaggy beast around with the strength to pull the emergency break; the aforementioned shaggy beast, the Garm being a lumbering, dog/bear pressed into servitude, but a good bloke who would've helped out if just asked anyways; the uber 80s space pirates and their giant helmets (needed if you're going to have teased out 80s hair), and what a contrast they were against the overall atmosphere of Nordic-inflected medievalism; and Bor, poor old Bor, suffering from radiation sickness and short term memory loss, trying to create a radiation shield around the damaged engines with scrap metal.

"Short term memory's the first to go."
Image via TARDIS Data Core 
"Terminus" was one of the first VHS tapes I owned and, as a result, enjoys one of highest of my personal viewership numbers of a less-than-elite episode. It's not exactly a favorite, but it's one that got me through the Wilderness Years. When I needed a dose of Who, "Terminus" was there for me. Despite being watched several times over the years, it's one that I didn't get on DVD -- at first because I had it on VHS and wasn't looking to own multiple copies, then because I prioritized other DVDs since I remembered this one so well and wanted to see older stories first. As a result, I went the last 15 years or so without watching this story. Long enough that I was apprehensive about whether I was setting myself up for a disappointment ... would it have aged poorly and watching now tarnish my remembered fondness for it?

That there were so many memorable elements (there are other stories I watched back in the day that I remembered nothing more than for being 'dark and murky', or 'having terrible snake prop') that -- apart from the space pirate fashion sense -- were not memories of failure, should have allayed my fears. "Terminus" is just fine. Reading up and watching the DVD extras, I learned there were production problems associated with an electrical workers strike that caused lost studio time and a director who was new to the series -- a combination of factors which could have tanked this one -- but it manages to entertain in spite of all that. If unspectacular, this is still a solid Doctor Who story.

Of the three companions in this crew, it's Nyssa I least wanted to see go; but, her decision to stay and help cure the Lazars is a decent enough departure. It's sweet the way she kisses the Doctor on the cheek in farewell. The Doctor looks hangdog about it you get the sense he's really going to miss her. Davison plays it well. (This plays in stark contrast to another Companion-Kisses-Doctor scene that also got a rewatch recently.) In a crowded TARDIS, at least Nyssa was generally positive and liked ... people, and travelling. Going forward we're left with two companions who don't like each other, tend to complain about everything, and neither of whom ever seem to feel particularly close to the Doctor. Losing Nyssa does nothing to help the chemistry among the leads.

Speaking of companions lacking charisma, there's a bit of dialogue that struck me funny at odds with its intent:

TURLOUGH: Looks like a kid's room.
TEGAN: It was Adric's.
TURLOUGH: Who?
TEGAN: Doesn't matter.

Tegan was using this moment to cut Turlough off from her emotional reaction to having to talk about Adric, but the viewer, not particularly caring for Adric, can also take that as meta-commentary on the failure of that character.





Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone - "You trust this man?" "I absolutely trust him." "He's not some kind of madman, then?" "I absolutely trust him."

The Time of Angels - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Season 5, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #210a)

Image via SummonTheNerds
Some tropes are better than others. When mining the horror genre, as Who often does, it works best when it is selective about which elements it digs out. The one we can't abide outside of the genre is the character whose behavior is so irrational the viewer simply can't accept that they would act as they do. In the genre, it's part of the fun -- I gather, not being fan of it -- to mock that character and anticipate his or her inevitable gutting. The biggest problem I have with "The Time of Angels" is that Amy Pond is that character. All that the character does right up to the moment they break from comprehensible human reactions to events is trumped by that stupid/impossible reaction.

Amy stands fast and reacts with courage and smarts to the threat of the Angel that leaves the video screen. But, when that itch in her eye later turns into sand pouring out her tear duct and she doesn't tell anyone, doesn't freak the f*ck out, and dismisses concern with a casual, "Yeah, I'm fine," the effect is that of a switch being flipped.  When she does that, we're no longer enjoying well-crafted suspense -- we're watching another stupid horror movie. Having another character do that might have worked if they were being set up to be a victim of the Angels; it doesn't work to jam Pond into that role though. We knew coming in she was still early in her arc with a long way to go, so we're not even considering she could be killed. As a result, we can't cheer for it to happen, or agonize that it might. (Not that I imagine anyone would've done the former.)

It's a shame, because they did a pretty fantastic job ratcheting up the suspense to that point. Sure, it's kind of obvious all those statues are going to be Angels, but that doesn't take away from how creepy it is that our heroes are walking among them. Having the Angels take over the bodies of the warrior monks, and hearing the voices of their victims might lean a little too hard on what the Vashta Nerada did in The Library, but this is the return of River Song so the callbacks to that story go hand-in-hand with her return.


Stray Observations





Flesh and Stone - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Season 5, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #210b)

I though Nyssa kissing Five was sweet. This is ... ugh.
(Image via hrhoover)

Second verse, same as the first. Sort of. Again, this episode gets a lot of the suspense-building right, only to spoil the effect with, what I think, are terrible decisions for how to have the characters behave. I'm talking, of course, about Amy throwing herself at the Doctor ,and the Doctor not trying very hard to discourage her. But, I'll save my complaining about that for the discussion of "Vampires of Venice," since long-suffering Rory is back in the mix for that one and it fits just as well there.

Two interesting things are said or revealed in this episode -- one a significant statement the Doctor makes to Amy regarding trust, and the other an explanation as to why Amy doesn't know anything about the Cyber King of Victorian London, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, or about any of the other really obvious alien invasion/interventions that have happened throughout the classic series and up to this season of the new, not forgetting the (ludicrous and annoying) Mystery of Why There Were No Ducks in the Leadworth Duck Pond. (Seriously, of all the things to make a clue, the absence of ducks from a puddle -- an absence explicable by, one supposes, a thousand other perfectly mundane reasons, such as they waddled off to another puddle with better feeding opportunities -- being caused by cracks in time and space disappearing them from existence is the sort of strained whimsy that doesn't sit well.)
DOCTOR: Amy, you need to start trusting me. It's never been more important.
AMY: But you don't always tell me the truth.
DOCTOR: If I always told you the truth, I wouldn't need you to trust me. 
As a matter of principle, we should always tell the truth. (The White Lie Strategy having been effectively exposed as moral cowardice by Sam Harris, at least to my satisfaction, in Lying.) Now, I'm willing to make allowances for the Doctor here and warp the argument a bit so to make the Doctor's lies (generally) cases of short-cutting the need to say: "I can't give you all the information you are asking for because it will take too long to explain why I am taking the actions I am taking, and asking you to take the actions I'm asking you to take, so I'm lying, and I expect to you know I'm lying, to grease the wheels so we can get out of this dangerous situation with at least you alive. I'll explain, or it'll be obvious why I'm lying, later."  It's dodgy and doesn't always work, but I take the Doctor's ask of Amy to be an understanding that he's parsing out information according to a strategy he had determined will likely yield the best outcome, and an assertion that (as Time Lord who walks, as Four might have said, in Eternity) he's got the most information, and is the most capable of making use of it. It's a position that subverts the autonomy (and you'd have to think the self-worth) of the companions, but he's the Time Lord, all.

As for the second, the cracks being used to effectively erase parts of history and lay the groundwork for the Universal Reset to Come, well, being on the record as disliking that sort of scope and finding it dramatically unsatisfying, especially with how the crack is later used to reveal the Doctor's Greatest Fear (as we saw -- sorry, will see -- in "The God Complex") and, later still, to miraculously deliver him a new set a regenerations courtesy of Clara's prayerful appeal in "Time of the Doctor." Not liking the direction we're being steered doesn't diminish the importance of the crack to the structure of Series Five, and onwards though. So, duly noted.

Let's move on to "Vampires of Venice" & "Amy's Choice" though so I can finish griping about the Bizarre Love Triangle aspect of this Series and get on with ... oh boy, it's the disappointing return of the Silurians after that. We're in for a bit of rough patch, I think ...



Friday, July 25, 2014

The Tenth Planet - "It's all over? That's what you said... but it isn't at all. It's far from being all over..."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Tenth Planet - Details

Season 4, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #29)

Mondas, Earth's long lost twin planet, is back from a joyride around the galaxy and running on fumes. These prodigals have returned to suck to the Earth dry (the world is a vampire, indeed) and prolong their cyber-enhanced lives. Cybermen got ninety-nine problems but an emotional attachment to the old neighborhood ... or anything else for that matter ... ain't one.

Image via Nerdy Girl
So here we are. Hartnell's last stand. Although, Hartnell's finale is a bit light on Hartnell; the Doctor collapses and is carted off to a bunk for an episode-long lie down. Episode 4 is lost, so when he does return, for us, it's as a cartoon in the animated reconstruction. One of the great tragedies of the Missing Episodes is that those of us born too late don't actually get to see the original Doctor's last act in full.

This leaves us with unfortunate amount of Ben to carry the load. Problem is, Ben and Polly are about the worst companions of the classic series, at least until Adric comes along. I want to like Ben. The idea of working class kid, Royal Navy, plucked from then-contemporary London looks great on paper. In practice, not so much. It doesn't help he's saddled with Polly. Nothing again Anneke Wills, she does about what I suppose anyone could with that character -- there's just not much there to work with.

Sandifer has a good deal to say about the Cybermen as dark mirror of humanity, but they aren't all that interesting to me as villains here. This stems, in part, from what a load of hooey Mondas is as a concept. Science, even more than usual, out the window in this one, folks.

The genuinely interesting villain here is the General in charge of the improbably located Antarctic space monitoring station. (When Four visits Antarctica in the 1970s -- we think, depending on your interpretation of when the UNIT stories are set, he's at an unrelated station and doesn't mention anything to do with Mondas coming or this story's events.) General Cutler's son is aboard a spacecraft at risk during the Cyber invasion, it seems the General is unreasonably willing to risk irradiating half of the Earth by destroying nearby Mondas with a Zee Bomb to save him. Is Cutler representative of how Britain viewed Cold War American foreign policy -- blustering, incompetent, aggressive, and rash?  If so, would it be far from accurate?

(At one point, this jerk of a General remarks to the Doctor that he doesn't like his face, or his hair. All he needs to do is wait it out and it's going to change. Now that I think of it, there's a parallel here to how the real problem of Mondas is going to be solved, but basically waiting for them to suck too much energy off the Earth and overload their planet on it.)

Here's a remote base with an international staff under threat from an invading force. Hope you like this premise because it's set to become the series' modus operandi for the next few years. Right from the start we see how internationalism is going to be handled: broad stereotypes and over the top accents. Got an Italian around, he's going to be girl crazy atsa the truth, mama mia! Better is the casting of a black actor to play an astronaut. If he was a bit of a ham, he certainly wasn't alone in that regard. As much as we can credit the production team for this diversity of casting, listening to Anneke Wills discuss the shoot, we have to cringe for how much of a prick Hartnell was about working with Earl Cameron. (The DVD extras include an interview with Cameron who remarked that Hartnell's racism was "his problem, not mine.")

But that's not the note we want to go out on for Hartnell's final regular appearance as the Doctor. Despite his personal failings, he was, by all accounts, devoted to the role. He cared passionately about series and the children who looked up to him as the Doctor. He battled through failing health even after being devastated when informed he was to be replaced.

Imperious, with a twinkle in his eye. Brusque, yet playful. (Some of those so-called Billy Fluffs must have been eccentricity, surely.) Whether your first or favorite, is Four, or Ten ... they are an inheritor of a mantle first worn William Hartnell -- the Doctor.








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