Sunday, August 31, 2014

Into the Dalek - "He was dead already, I was saving us."

Into the Dalek - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 8, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #247)

Image via I'll go with you

"Dalek" featured a damaged Dalek, "Asylum of the Daleks" as well. "Victory of the Daleks" featured a Dalek who appeared to be a Good Guy. The Doctor's been shrunk in "Planet of Giants" and in "The Armageddon Factor".  The promotional material said: "Confronted with a decision that could change the Daleks forever, he is forced to examine his conscience. Will he find the answer to the question, ‘am I a good man?’” That hinted at a "Genesis of the Daleks"-type dilemma.  "Into the Dalek," needed to have something more than a Fantastic Voyage homage grafted on top of all that going for it if it was going to be any good*. Spoilers follow.

It's much more than that. Better than I thought it could be based on what little I knew about it going in. Not perfect, but we're on a good trajectory and Capaldi should have won over any doubters by now.

The thing folks are going to harp on, I suspect, is this Dalek calling this Doctor "a good Dalek." Where Nine was only a Doctor who "would make a good Dalek." Let's not make too much of this. The Doctor isn't a Dalek. Of course, a Dalek is going to find the hatred the Doctor has for the Daleks and run with it. It is a Dalek, after all, and you know what they say about how hammers see every problem and why scorpions sting trusting frogs in the middle of rivers.

Clara drives home the point when she tells the Doctor she "doesn't know". He's trying to be a good man and that's the point. She very easily could have turned his own words back on him and told him that's not the question. The question is: are you trying to do good? If the answer to that is yes, well, then you have your answer.

Me, I'm more than twenty years out of college and haven't read Nicomachean Ethics since 1990 so I'm not going to try to sort out how while banging out a late night blog post, but I suspect it's significant that the rebel medical ship is called the Aristotle when this Doctor is concerned with being virtuous (last week he talked about fixing his mistakes) and is out to make a "good Dalek" this week. ("If I can turn one, I can turn them all and save the future," he says.) The end result here, where the Doctor has blown a Dalek's mind only to show it just enough hatred to re-weaponize it -- and we've gotten an earful from Davros before about how the Doctor turns his friends into weapons -- shows he's still no Dalai Lama, but since he turned the Dalek against its own kind, I guess it's meant to be the kind of sad, tainted victory that at least has the virtue of being a victory over evil.

So, what did we learn about Missy? She seems to be making a habit of nabbing the folks (and droids) who died as a result of the Doctor's actions. We didn't see her get the first soldier to die by Dalek antibodies, but she very well may have? At first I thought not, because his body was specifically called out as being the top level of slime in the Dalek's protein pit, where the female soldier who sacrificed herself for the mission looked to go to the Nethersphere in a flash of light. But, Half-Face droid's body was impaled atop Big Ben and he still found himself with Missy, but, if he -- as I suspect -- jumped rather than being pushed, then she may only be taking those who sacrifice themselves? How long as she been doing this, anyways, and how many has she got?  (These questions on top of the questions we already had: who is she, by what means is she doing it, why and to what end, and where is this Nethersphere?) Your guess remains as good or better than mine.

The Dalek and Doctor part of the story turned out to be better than it sounded going in. The Doctor and Clara's relationship continues to be more interesting than, frankly, it ever was when it was Eleven and the Impossible Girl. Clara and Mr. Pink's burgeoning romance started quite well in terms of being watchable rom-com inside a sci-fi action piece (among other things). There's no reason to be surprised Moffat can write competent rom-com, only, I suppose, reason to be surprised he's still doing it all. But, it's fine, Doctor Who is large and contains multitudes.

You know it's great to see DW doing? Weird shit. We don't see enough psychedelic oddity these days like what we got with the nano-Doctor and nano-Clara stepping through the (gelatinous, who knew?) lens of the Dalek's eyestalk. Talk of consciousness expansion leading to personal growth combined with trippy imagery takes us back to shows origins in the Sixties -- in a good way.  Small touches too, like the one shot early on in the TARDIS where the camera is low, under the plane of the console surface, looking up at a lever from Journey's perspective just after her rescue, with the spinning discs above the console ... I don't know if that's Ben Wheatley's direction or the cinematographer's skill (do we even talk about cinematography in the context of TV?), but it's lovely. Mixing elements like those in keeps it visually interesting and it looks fresher than it has for ... a long while?

What didn't quite work? Nano-Doctor speechifying in front of the Dalek's eye was OK, but it looked too much like "Rings of Akhaten" redux. (Mercifully, Capaldi's Doctor is several shades less histrionic and bombastic than Smith's in similar circumstances.) Mr. Pink being a soldier and Clara's line about her not having a rule against soldiers was perhaps a touch heavy-handed after the Doctor refused to let Journey join them. The nanos dried out pretty quick after that slide into the Dalek's internal slime pit.

On re-watch, the thing that actually rankled the most was how Moffat and Ford set out to establish Pink's bona fides as handsome fella all the ladies want and the men admire. The tear that escapes when he answers the student's question about whether he ever killed a "not soldier" works in that moment, but when considered in the context of how he's perceived as a ladykiller it comes across as a manipulative bit of "see what a tortured soul he is". When the lady in the administrative office keeps trying to get some salacious details about his weekend out of him by repeating "I bet you did," or however she phrased it, stopping just short of a Python-esque "wink, wink, nudge, nudge," we cringe for the character if we stop to think what it is the writer is trying to say about her.

Stray Observations:

  • It didn't click during the first watch, but trionic radiation kept ringing a bell ... it's from, or a callback to, "The Talons of Weng Chiang" and the trionic lattice Greel used to locate his time cabinet. 
  • Is it possible for a Dalek to look forlorn? When Rusty heads back to join the Dalek ship, he pauses and looks back over his shoulder ... well, you know spins his stalk slowly ... in a way that feels, if we apply Checkov's Gun Principle, like a sign that we haven't seen the last of him.

* According to Nerdist, Steven Moffat said: If “Deep Breath” was Peter Capaldi’s “Robot” (the first Tom Baker serial; very silly and very not in keeping with the tone of the rest of his first season), then “Into the Dalek” might well be Capaldi’s “The Ark in Space” (Baker’s second story and still in the top five Fourth Doctor serials full stop). But the better analysis might be that "Robot" was Tom Baker brought in to do Jon Pertwee story for Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, while "The Ark in Space" was the first Tom Baker story that we can identify as belonging to Hinchcliffe and Holmes. The shift from Barry Letts to Philip Hinchcliffe made a world of difference between the first two Tom Baker stories. What we've got now is still Moffat's baby so there's no changing of the guard to account for massive tonal changes. Not that there were massive tonal changes to account for. "Into the Dalek" is, like "Ark" was relative to "Robot", better than "Deep Breath", but not by much.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Mutants - "Uniting together to create a new society, a new and richer world. Now, after five hundred years of ... " "Exploitation." "Expert scientific and technical aid, we have steered you to the verge of ... " "Disaster!" "To the verge of independence."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Mutants - Details

Season 9, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #63)

Image via Greyhound One

One of those stories everyone wants to rescue from the dustbin of general opinion. And rightly so. Even io9's rank-them-all post (which gets so much wrong) says it's better than people think, then puts in the below average grouping. Sandifer and Graham both offer high, though mitigated, praise for what it gets right, while acknowledging it gets a few things quite wrong. Sandifer's description of it as a "hot mess" may not sound like high praise, but that (apt) description comes from a place of appreciation.

Me, I like my sci-fi with a big idea, and here it's how the Solonians move through adaptive changes as their planet's 500 year long seasons change, so the mutations are in fact a natural process in the Solons' lifecycle, albeit one disrupted by those meddling Overlords from Earth.

I also like righteous takedowns of apartheid states, such as the Earth empire has instituted here at Solos.

Also a fan of anti-colonial narratives in general.

And, I like when a show isn't afraid to get weird, which this one does. (This is the same writing team that gave us "The Claws of Axos," so we knew going in we were going to get more than a sterile space station set and a fog machine.)

"The Mutants" hits all those buttons. Unfortunately, it also fiddles the Nonsensical Plot Device Widget and the casting is shaky. At six episodes, it also can feel a bit like an endurance challenge. I split up the viewing over a couple nights after realizing I'd started too late and was starting to fade midway through the second episode. Had I been smarter and watched earlier in the evening, I can't for certain whether I'd have had the same issues. (Your mileage may vary.)

Now, WTF kind of mission is this for the Time Lords to be assigning the Doctor? Deliver this package to we're-not-telling-you-who and, by the way, they're not going to know what the heck it is when you give it to them. Gallifrey operates bureaucratic nightmare designed by Robert Holmes. (Terrance Dicks was script editor for Seasons 8 & 9, so some of the blame for how poorly the device of having the Time Lords parse out missions, going back to "Terror of the Autons," is executed must be at least partly his fault.)

What is up with Rick James? (That's not a random aside about funky disco R&B star Rick James, who was playing in the rock band Salt and Pepper in 1972, I mean the actor who played Cotton.) (And, really? The black guy in apartheid/segregation piece is named Cotton?) (And, back to Rick James for a moment, was he Prince before Prince was Prince? An out-sized personality, multi-instrumentalist who could cross genres at will ... ) Early on, he doesn't seem to care about what everyone else is doing. He seem unsure what kind of show he's even in. "Why am I dressed in this get-up? Separate but equal whatchamacllits for the people these what-do-you-call'ems to use? I hope this is some kind of leftist polemic and not a propaganda film for the National Front ... hmm, they're looking at me, I must have a line here ... is it on a cue card somewhere?" I'm not sure if I just got used to his style, or he got better as the story progressed, but by the end his line readings had at least stopped pegging my internal odynometer.

One of my favorite moments is right at the beginning. Jo's hungry so, after a mysterious scaly black giant egg thingy materializes in front of her, she asks if it's lunch. When the Doctor assures her it's not, she asks, as if it still might be something she'd consider eating, whether it's a bomb. How great is Jo? She's just going to roll with it, whatever it is, and don't dare try to keep her out of the adventure of finding out! Unfortunately, she doesn't get another moment the rest of the story where her charm really shines through.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Mind Robber - "Jamie and Zoe realised at last that the Doctor was in fact the most monstrous and cunning villain."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Mind Robber - Details

Season 6, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #45)

Look, you guys, Wendy Padbury's backside in a sparkly catsuit is not the only reason to watch "The Mind Robber." If it's one of your motivations, well, it'll take a better man than I to pass judgment on you. Seriously though, beyond ...

Image via Flight Through Eternity
... there's plenty makes this one well worth checking out, or revisiting if it's been a while since you've watched it. I'm having trouble remembering what those other, excellent qualities of the thing are ... I probably shouldn't have linked that GIF until I was done writing ...


Let's start with the elements of this story that have resonances through the future history of the series. In some cases, it's probably just accidental but, taken all together, in a narrative that is dancing with the distinctions between fiction and reality, we're left with the feeling a lot of future Who creators were influenced by what they saw here.
  • The name of the villain, the Master, is going to get reused quite a bit in the years following this story.
  • The Master is a penny dreadful writer, who claims to have written the adventures of Captain Jack Harkaway ... a name which we don't have to exert ourselves very hard to link to Captain Jack Harkness.  I say claims because, IRL, the Jack Harkaway stories by Bracebridge Hemyng are out there to be had from Project Gutenberg and probably other sources if you're willing to dig around for them. 
  • The Doctor and Zoe encounter a Minotaur, long before we meet one in "The God Complex."
  • The TARDIS flies apart (or does it?), a state of affairs we'll see again in "Frontios."
  • That's there's a master computer brain behind the whole set up is nothing new, see "The War Machines," and we'll see it again in "Face of Evil." The difference here is the Master Brain is in charge of a fictional world, not the 'real world'. (Although, there is a plan to take over the 'real' Earth revealed at the end.)
  • Writers being reality-shaping creative forces, as the Master is here, calls to mind the power of Shakespeare's words in "The Shakespeare Code"
  • Jamie being replaced by another actor (due to chicken pox) but we've seen plenty of that with different actors playing the Doctor, and even different actors playing the same Doctor (Richard Hurndall), not to mention Romana, Borusa, and the Master (the other Master).
  • The battle of wits between the Master and the Doctor here looks a fair bit like the battle between Four and Morbius. 
  • In Series 8, we've got the Doctor visiting Sherwood - maybe? Remains to be seen ...
You may have noticed I was having some difficulty talking about the real world (our world) and the 'real world' of the fictional Doctor Who universe above. When you're talking about fiction within fiction, but the fiction within the fiction being real world fiction, as opposed to just real in the fictional world the characters in fiction consider their real world, you're making your head wrap itself around concepts we'd normally leave to professional literary critics. Still, it's tremendous fun in this context.

The peril for the Doctor and the companions here is that they could be come fictional inside their universe (or, outside it, technically, in the Land of Fiction). Jamie and Zoe do get trapped in a book and become fictional, although embodied fictional, for a while. The Doctor, in battling the Master, could write himself into the story of the Land, but if he did he'd be rendering himself fictional. It defies us to acknowledge the reality that he is, in fact, fiction. That we accept this fictional character's refusal to become fictional, I think, tells us something fascinating about what the characters we love mean to us, out here, in the real world. The real world being the world we experience via our senses, in our minds -- our minds which perceive and care about fictional things and real things, and are shaped by both.

Sandifer is brilliant on the "The Mind Robber," so it makes sense to quote him at length.

And that's the genius of The Mind Robber. It comes at one of the series' darkest moments - when its formula seems tired, its very ethics seem to be flagging, and when the entire cultural and ideological foundation for it appears to be crumbling the world over. And right in that moment, we get explicit confirmation of something that previously we had only hoped for and suspected. That Doctor Who is an idea that cannot be brought to an end. That there is always another story. Not just because of the flexibility of the premise or because the series has gone on long enough that it's a cultural institution that is always going to be revisited as long as we have well enough recorded history to remember that it ever existed. No. Because the Doctor is every single story there ever was and ever could be, escaped out into the universe, and running loose bringing them into being. 
This is, quite frankly, as powerful an idea as has ever been thought of in fiction. An idea that is far larger than fits in any one person's imagination, even if that imagination is bigger on the inside. Something that, quite apart from anyone's efforts to define it and create it, has taken on a life of its own. A symbol that has real power. A thought that has begun thinking for itself. A dream that no longer needs anyone but itself to dream it.

Stray Thoughts:

Is it as unusual as I think it is to hear the Doctor's internal voice, as we do when he's trying to keep his head straight after Zoe and Jamie have left the TARDIS and gone out into the white void?

The Karkus is an unfortunate name for a superhero, especially one wearing the kind of suit he's wearing, which makes him look a bit like an anatomical dummy used for studying the muscle groups.

Zoe flipping the Karkus around in a lopsided fight may not be Yuen Woo-Ping level action, but it's better than we might have expected.

Image via PeterRabid

#DoctorWho Blog Them All Progress Check

Heading into the holiday weekend, it feels like a good time to check what progress I've made to date in my quest to blog about all the televised Doctor Who stories (plus "Shada" and maybe a few other things).

"Into the Dalek" hasn't broadcast yet, as I write this, so up through "Deep Breath," I make it 246 total stories, of which I've blogged 171 for 69.5% coverage. There are at least four of those I only blurbed and am going give proper write-ups when I get to re-watching them, so the number's a bit overstated. Let's call it 68%.

I'm well on my way! The goalpost keeps moving, but I expect I'll keep on top of the new ones as they come out.

What have I got left by Doctor?

For the Hartnell stories, I've done all the ones that survive in full, and several that were wholly or partly reconstructed. Where I've relied on reconstructions up 'til now, with so many Hartnells and Troughtons missing, I'm going to lean on the Target novelisations a bit to help get through those gaps. I'll watch the reconstructions/listen to the audio as well, but the reviews may end up being more properly thought of as reviews of the books than of what survives of the broadcasts.

For the Troughton era I've got 12 left to cover. "The Mind Robber" is just about go live, so that'll leave me with 11. Almost all reconstructions and novelisations to lean on there; very little left to actually watch as it was broadcast. The discover of a several lost episodes since I started this project leaves me hopeful maybe something else will turn up, but the odds look awful long.

I've got 11 Pertwee stories left, and I started re-watching "Inferno" last night, so that one could be ready to publish by end of the long weekend.

15 Tom Baker stories left. I re-watched "Genesis of the Daleks" a few months ago, fully intending to write about it as soon as I was done, but I got busy, put it off, and then I felt like I waited to long. So, it's gone back into the viewing rotation. Not that I mind watching it again, but I can't afford to double the hours or I'll never finish this!  Well, since DW will probably outlast me, I hope, I'll never get to the point where I'm only writing about the new stuff as it comes out if I let that happen too many times.

6 Peter Davison stories left to cover. So close!

6 Colin Baker stories left as well. I'm dreading a few of them, frankly, so expect the return of the Drunken Blogger when it comes time to do those. "Vengeance on Varos" suffered a fate similar to "Genesis," watched it work/life got in the way and I couldn't make the time strike while the iron was hot. Hmm, "Twin Dilemma" is getting near the top of the Netflix queue ... better make sure the liquor cabinet is stocked.

So far I've only done 4 McCoy stories. The 8 left include "The Curse of Fenric," so which I'm eager to see if I'll come around on, after loathing it on previous watches. It's still sitting with an F grade in my master list, but the internet says I'm nuts and it's brilliant; so, maybe after reading all the Sandifer, Graham, and Wood & Miles I've been plowing through, my grey matter will finally be ready for it?

McGann is all set. That includes "The Night of the Doctor". You know, McGann still looks to be in fine form and now that he's been back once for the web, I wonder if it's a stretch to imagine he might one day appear on TV again in a multi-Doctor story?

Hurt's War Doctor doesn't have a story of his own, but the episodes he's in are all covered.

Eccleston is done. This makes me a little sad. Loved Eccleston's Doctor and wanted years more of him.

Tennant has 15 left, plus the bulk of the rewriting for the xmas specials I glossed over in one post. This is largely going to be smooth sailing.

Smith has 14 left. Some of those are going to be a bit of a drag, but with the the new series stories being about 45 minutes long, as opposed to the longer classic series stories, still expect to make relatively short work of those. Since I started this project during his era, and didn't really settle on a post format at first, and made some crazy guesses about what might be going on, there's probably some rewriting in my future for a few more of those posts as well.

Capaldi, I'm 1-for-1 and rarin' for more.

When I'm all caught up on the classic series, I'm going to go back through, review my grading, and play a little flickchart-style story vs. story to make sure I'm comfortable where I landed on those ones where I wavered on the line between grades.

Thanks again to those of you who have taken the time leave comments and helped share the posts around. I'm always open to criticism and appreciate the opportunity correct mistakes, but am not above wagging my tail for the occasional pat on the head either.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth - "What you need is a jolly good smacked bottom!"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Dalek Invasion of Earth - Details

Season 2, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #10)

Image via Doctor Who Reviews

We can roll our eyes at that "What you need is a jolly good smacked bottom!" line, but when we do we should remember Matt Smith's Eleven, naked (though not to us), smacking Clara's bottom in front of her parents and granny at Christmas dinner.

This, of course, is a ridiculous place to start a piece about "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" but, in my defense, the Daleks want to hollow out the Earth and drive it about the galaxy wreaking havoc -- the Earth, apparently, being unique in that is it has a magnetic core, a rather strange supposition on the Daleks' part considering the evidence -- so I feel precious little obligation to start from a place that makes any kind of sense.

So, yes, it's classic Classic Series. It's the Daleks brought to Earth, emerging from the Thames, going Full Nazi in a London that, at the time, was only as far removed from actual Nazis threatening it as I am today from Operation Desert Storm. Hardly seems that long ago at all, so one can easily imagine how those images of Daleks in a conquered London would have resonated. This eerily quiet London comes off more than a little like post-war Vienna in The Third Man. Black-and-white is limiting but, as is often noted, it hides some cheapness in the stark contrasts and its more menacing shadows. (What it doesn't hide is that the window panes in the TARDIS prop have fallen out of place, so the first thing we notice is how shabby it is. The indestructible, transdimensional, time and space travelling machine appears to be about to collapse on itself.)

For all it's iconic status as a Dalek epic, the thing I want to talk about is Susan's departure -- the other thing, apart from those famous scenes of Daleks rolling around London landmarks and emerging from the Thames, everyone knows or remembers about this story. (The alternative is talking about Terry Nation's dialogue, examples of which include: the Doctor remarking, "That's near murder. Isn't it?" after Ian describes the scene of someone dumping a dead body into the Thames; and, "We must pit our wits against them and defeat them," before mocking the Daleks who, it's worth noting, have already conquered the Earth, by scolding them with, "Before you attempt to conquer the Earth, you will have to destroy all living matter." One imagines the Daleks rolling their eye-stalks dismissively at this doddering fool.) And the reason I want to talk about it now is because Capaldi's Doctor mentioned in "Deep Breath" that he has made some mistakes and wants to fix that. Surely, never going back to check on Susan  -- let's put aside, for the moment, "The Five Doctors" -- must be one of them. Susan floated like a ghost around the edges of Series 7 (remember Eleven mentioning her in "The Rings of Akhaten,") I thought for a while Clara might be her daughter, and the Doctor has never (really) done anything about finding his granddaughter and any possible descendants he may have as a result of Susan staying on Earth with David.

Susan's departure is the first major cast change and, unfortunately, marks how little regard the production team has, and will have many more times in future, for their departing characters, if not the actors who played them. However, it does show that a major cast member can leave, and be replaced (Vicky arrives in the next story, "The Rescue,") without causing a crisis in viewership. It'll happen a few more times before single most significant departure of an actor from a series in, we might argue, the history of television occurs in "The Tenth Planet."

Her departure also fixes a key structural problem with the show, what Sandifer has dubbed The Problem of Susan. (The other problem with Susan being rather less deserving of a capitalized theory name, it being that Susan was often little more than an annoying -- to borrow another Sandiferism -- peril monkey, forever twisting her ankle, or having such a terrible headache she'd just as soon let the guillotine cure it, and so on.) But, it creates another.

The Doctor delivers one of his more memorable monologues, the famous "One day, I shall come back ..." speech. The one he, presumably, promptly forgets ever giving because he never shows any intent of ever going back. We can make excuses for why he never goes back to visit many other companions, but his own granddaughter? There are other problems with the series, other threads left dangling that aren't the Doctor's fault and we shouldn't necessarily expect Moffat, or subsequent show-runners, to go back and mend, but this is such a cruel oversight, doesn't it have to be one that a Doctor resolved to fix mistakes must address? He can, after all, show up any time after departing, maybe give Susan and David a few months before he pops back in to their timeline? But doesn't he have to do so before he's too far removed himself, before he's lived so much any kind of familial obligation one might expect him to feel has withered away?

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