Saturday, December 26, 2015

Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song

The first time I watched Doctor Who's holiday offering, it didn't go swimmingly. It was late and I was tired and cranky, and probably not in the mood for festive antics. The whole thing seemed loud and rather aimless, and at nearly 60 minutes (like all the holiday specials are), stretched too thin for the premise. There's always a very real danger of viewers being in similar frames of mind on Christmas night, because Christmas is an unpredictable holiday.

However, I gave it another spin a night later with a brighter outlook, in the company of my wife, and the entire affair felt a delightfully fun romp with some lovely emotional resonance in the third act. It's Christmas. It's Doctor Who. What more do you need? As one of my oldest and dearest Whovian pals Denise recently declared, after experiencing the devastating three-part season nine finale, "We need a light episode."

Still, it wouldn't hurt to have had some more time in between those emotionally turbulent installments and this caper. Those events are fresh and crisp in our memories, but the Doctor is able to move on from Clara's departure with far greater ease than we can. The key, I think, to appreciating "The Husbands of River Song" is to accept that it's less an episode of Doctor Who, and more a one-time spin-off starring River, which happens to include the Doctor.

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Doctor Who: Hell Bent

One aspect of Steven Moffat’s writing that doesn’t get nearly enough praise is its unpredictability. In any given season, people develop theories about what will happen. Sometimes, in the broadest sense, a few folks correctly call a thing or two ahead of time. But nobody, anywhere on the planet, in any corner of the world that this show is viewed in, predicted that this season would end with Clara and Ashildr/Me flying off into time and space in a diner-shaped TARDIS. Nobody. Like so many of Moffat’s season enders, “Hell Bent” is a highly operatic and deeply emotional affair. This may be putting too fine a point on it, but it seems likely your feelings on “Hell Bent” will largely hinge on whether or not you’ve been a fan of Clara Oswald, and if her character development and story arcs over the past three seasons have resonated with you.

The framing device aside (which we’ll get to in due course), Act I is largely concerned with the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey, and his measured, methodical dismantling of the political hierarchy, seemingly born out of anger not only over Clara’s death, but also for the four and a half billion years spent within the hell of the confession dial. Whatever one might think about the other two-thirds of the piece, surely we can all agree that the first section is glorious in scope while intimate in intent. While the scenario certainly has an Eastwood Man with No Name dynamic, I was more stuck by something else: simply, the Doctor is a country boy who’s had enough of the city boy’s shit.

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Doctor Who: Heaven Sent

When you’ve been plotting and writing Doctor Who for as long as Steven Moffat has, you inevitably must stumble across an idea that’s so mad you have no choice but to see it through to its finish. What will the people who so often chant for Moffat’s dismissal from the series – those who claim he has run out of ideas – make of this intimately epic hour that delves deep into the psyche of the show’s central figure? Perhaps they will say that it is nothing more than a rip-off of Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow or any of the myriad films or TV shows that have exploited the time loop gimmick in this manner. If it were done poorly, we may have cause to tear into it, but when it’s done to such aching perfection as this, we must stand back, catch our breath, and applaud. One of the most experimental episodes of Doctor Who ever, “Heaven Sent” is surely also one of the best, and certainly one of the most revealing.

The Doctor: “As you come into this world, something else is also born. You begin your life, and it begins a journey towards you. It moves slowly, but it never stops. Wherever you go, whatever path you take, it will follow – never faster, never slower, always coming. You will run, it will walk. You will rest, it will not. One day, you will linger in the same place too long - you will sit too still, or sleep too deep. And when, too late, you rise to go, you will notice a second shadow next to yours. Your life will then be over.”

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Monday, November 23, 2015

Doctor Who: Face the Raven

There’s no need to begin with talk of the first two acts here, when the last 10 minutes of “Face the Raven” are what most folks are currently concerned with, so let’s cut to the chase: Clara’s dead, which, unless you pay very close attention to internet scuttlebutt, no doubt came as a huge surprise. After all, in the modern era, companion exits tend to happen at the end of a season, accompanied by much fanfare (the Ponds were an exception, but even they departed at the close of a half-season). As a means of shocking the audience, what was done here was highly effective, but as a fitting finish to the near three-season run of Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald? Not so much. Her passing was little more than a slip-up of an accident, surrounded by strong dialogue and ripe emotion. Given the handling of the scene, the show certainly wants us to believe that this is the end of Clara’s story, but it feels unfinished — as though we’ve come to the end of a long sentence, but there’s no punctuation at the close.

Would Steven Moffat really pass off scripting duties for a companion exit to a freshman Who writer? The episode doesn’t even feature a “and Steven Moffat” writing credit which has become so prevalent over the past two seasons, when major character arcs are addressed within non-Moffat penned episodes. Doctor Who killing off Clara after killing off the love of her life last season is bleak. There must be a happier ending to this story. I’m on record (a few recaps ago) as disbelieving the show would kill her off. Now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I have to believe there’s more to the end of her story than this particular note of finality. Is it possible that we could yet see the return of the Nethersphere? Could Clara Oswald and Danny Pink yet have a happy ending in some sort of computer program afterlife? And if you follow behind-the-scenes talk in-between watching episodes, what of the publicity photos that grace the various covers of Doctor Who Magazine #493? This can’t have been “it” for Clara. There has to be more to this. Or am I just in a serious state of denial?

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Sunday, November 15, 2015

Doctor Who: Sleep No More

Gagan Rassmussen: “You must not watch this! I’m warning you. You can never unsee it.”

Rassmussen could easily have been speaking about “Sleep No More” itself with that very first line of the episode. Well, the streak of perfection (or at least near perfection) had to end sooner or later, didn’t it? Season nine had been charging forward like some kind of long form narrative Roadrunner, and with “Sleep No More” it has smashed into one of Wile E. Coyote’s tunnel paintings. Proudly billed as Doctor Who’s first “found footage” episode, it seems as if the footage that would’ve made sense of the whole affair ended up on the cutting room floor (yes, a horribly outdated turn of phrase in the digital age).

To call it a mess, though, surely misses the point. The concept of a found footage anything is messy by design, isn’t it? Admittedly, my experience with such concepts pretty much begins and ends with The Blair Witch Project, a movie so insufferable that it put me off the gimmick ever since. Now I’m in a position where I have to write about it, so forgive me any trespasses.

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Doctor Who: The Zygon Inversion

After the thrilling real world cliffhanger of “The Zygon Invasion,” picking up events in Clara’s hazy Zygon dream state was unexpected to say the least. But then this second half is much different in its aims than the far more action-packed first half. Whereas “The Zygon Invasion” was concerned with the outer, “Inversion” is appropriately concerned with the inner, and as such, perhaps there was no better place to begin than inside Clara’s mind. The episode backtracks a few beats, prior to the Zygon Zygella/Bonnie (what is the point of giving this character two names?) firing the rocket launcher, as we get the scenario from Clara’s perspective.

Trapped inside her little ZyPod, those events outside in the real world start creeping in. Her subconscious nags at her, dropping hints that her current perception of reality is bogus. After similar events experienced in “Last Christmas,” she quickly figures out what’s up, after hearing a familiar, gruff Scottish accent coming through the TV. Though the ensuing battle of wills doesn’t fix the outside situation (the bazooka still hits it target), it does show Clara that she’s able to exert some control over her Zygon counterpart, which comes in handy later on.

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Doctor Who: The Zygon Invasion

The Doctor: “This is a splinter group. The rest of the Zygons — the vast majority — they want to live in peace. You start bombing them, you’ll radicalize the lot. That’s exactly what the splinter group wants.”

And with that brief, impassioned speech, “The Zygon Invasion” arguably became the most important Doctor Who episode since “Vincent and the Doctor” tackled depression back in 2010. Doctor Who has a history of addressing real-world social and political issues through its fantastical lens, most notably back in the Barry Letts–produced Jon Pertwee era, which was famous for it. Indeed, one of my major gripes with the modern incarnation of the series is that it doesn’t do it often enough. It is the job of science fiction to show us the better part of ourselves, often by showcasing the downright ugly. If it wasn’t previously obvious that this story is a metaphor for the world’s dealings with certain factions operating out of the Middle East, then that speech from the Doctor sealed it.

Last year Peter Harness wrote surely the most divisive episode of the season, “Kill the Moon,” which I raved about, yet others were considerably less enthused by. Many claimed it was an anti-abortion commentary, which admittedly escaped me entirely at the time. (If we’re going to go down that road, I’d argue that it’s more about a woman’s right to choose.) If such an episode pissed off folks last year, what will they make of this story, which gives the bad guys some valid reasons for doing atrocious things? At a Doctor Who function earlier this week, I briefly ended up chatting politics with a fan whose feelings on the Middle East situation were, well, let’s just say much different than my own. He probably won’t much care for “The Zygon Invasion.”

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Doctor Who: The Woman Who Lived

Last week I referred to “The Girl Who Died” as the first half of a two-parter. It was pretty obvious even then that, along with “The Woman Who Lived,” this pair wasn’t a two-parter in the same vein as the previous tales this season. Not only are they entirely different settings, but they’re not even by the same writer. Catherine Tregenna is new to Doctor Who, but not to the Whoniverse. Between 2006 and 2008 she wrote four episodes of Torchwood, the show about the immortal Captain Jack Harkness (who gets a name check here). Was that experience an ideal primer for this series of extended gut wrenching conversations between two immortals, traveling through time on very different paths?

Perhaps, but I’d argue that the best primer was her sex, which brought a refreshing, vital point of view to the ongoing story of Ashilder/Lady Me that surely would have been absent with a man at the keyboard. Mind-bogglingly, Tregenna’s script is the first written by a woman for the series since Helen Raynor’s “Sontaran Stratagem” two-parter back in season four. Season four… when David Tennant was still the Doctor! It is absurd that it’s taken this long to “find” another woman to write for the series, particularly since one can hardly accuse Doctor Who of being a series steeped in machismo. The even better news is we’re getting yet another female perspective later in the season.

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Doctor Who: The Girl Who Died

“The Girl Who Died” was possibly the most anticipated episode of season nine, not as much for the material, but rather for a crucial piece of casting: Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame. (Typed as though you didn’t know who she was, right?) We’ve had a number of casting crossovers between the two shows already, and yet this is surely the most exciting one yet, because, well, who doesn’t love Maisie Williams? Even when the now multiple-Emmy-winning series occasionally becomes too much for some viewers, Maisie’s Arya Stark remains one of its few go-to comfort characters. So, yeah, let’s put her on Doctor Who and see what happens. Turns out quite a bit, and more, I imagine, than anyone ever expected or saw coming.

Yet for the hardcore fan who pays attention to credits, it wasn’t just Maisie that had us excited. “The Girl Who Died” is written by Jamie Mathieson, who last year gave us the brilliant one-two punch of “Mummy on the Orient Express” and “Flatline,” arguably the highlights of season eight. And from a freshman Who writer, no less. (Also, he’s a hell of a nice guy, as anyone who chatted with him at Gallifrey One earlier this year will attest.) As if those weren’t enough reasons to be stoked about this episode, it is helmed by first time Who director Ed Bazalgette, which may mean nothing to you, but to me that’s huge. Back in the early '80s, Bazalgette played lead guitar in the Brit new wave band The Vapors, best known for their hit “Turning Japanese,” though every single song in their whopping two album catalog is a gem. Yes, I’m a bit of a Vapors freak, and delighted that two of my treasured pop cults have merged.

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Artwork courtesy Design by Stuart Manning.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Doctor Who: Before the Flood

“Before the Flood” is the fourth episode of season nine. “Listen” was the fourth episode of season eight. Both episodes begin with the Doctor breaking the fourth wall. Coincidence? Such a gimmick shouldn’t work once, let alone twice, and yet here I found myself jumping around in my chair, punching the air with even more enthusiasm than last year. Much of it had to do with the return of the electric guitar and Beethoven’s Fifth. It was the sort of moment that as a fan you swear you’ve dreamed about at some point. Oh yes, can we please keep that version of the opening theme!?

Beyond the obvious flash, the sequence does something even more on-point, which is loosely outline how the episode is about to play out — perhaps an even more inspired flourish than a Ludwig Van–grinding Capaldi. Because going back in time and finding that you’re influencing events you’re already aware of in the future is such a time-travel staple, that by choreographing it ahead of time, instead of moaning about it when it happens (which we all might well have done), we’re braced and expecting it. The episode knows we might balk at the sci-fi trope, so it tells us it’s around the corner, so we can concentrate on all the great character work the episode has to offer. Some might call foul; I call self-aware, and at this point in the show’s history, there’s nothing at all wrong with providing some context well ahead of time. It made me love this episode all the more.

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Monday, October 05, 2015

Doctor Who: Under the Lake

The base-under-siege trope has been a Doctor Who chestnut since the Patrick Troughton years. It got a particularly heavy series of workouts in his second season, where the majority of the stories fit the paradigm. The problem with whipping out base-under-siege at this point — after exploiting it ad nauseam for decades — is that you really do need to find a way to do something a little different with it. That is unfortunately the failure of “Under the Lake,” which feels so rote in its execution, that on my initial viewing, at one point I nodded off. At this stage in its long history, running up and down and back and forth through corridors, to and fro after ghastly villains, does not a satisfying episode of Doctor Who make. And let’s be honest, that’s what the bulk of this episode was. This is the possible ugly side of any two-parter: Sometimes there isn’t enough story to fill 90 minutes; the flipside of cramming too much narrative into 45 minutes.

“Under the Lake” also dips into another familiar Who well, and that’s the ghost story. Of course, the thing with Doctor Who ghost stories is that they never, ever turn out to be actual ghosts; instead, typically aliens of some kind. To be fair to “Under the Lake” and its writer Toby Whithouse, there’s an effort here to make these projections actual ghosts, despite the knowledge early on that they’re products of alien technology. The Doctor in one scene asserts that they’re “unnatural — an aberration; you live and then you die.” Later on he accuses the unknown aliens of “hijacking souls,” which I’m unsure makes much sense (it certainly doesn’t to an atheist like me).

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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Doctor Who: The Witch's Familiar

Given how rooted in the classic series the first half of this two-parter appeared, the second half feels positively grounded in the new. It’s almost as if Steven Moffat constructed an elaborate bait and switch in order to tell a story of pseudo-redemption. Speaking of bait and switch, it was unsurprising that Davros had a scheme all along; yet fascinating were the emotive lengths to which he was willing to go in order to perpetrate the ruse. It would be easy to write off all of the little moments Davros shared in this episode, but one must take into account how rarely, if ever, he has tapped into that side of himself. I choose to believe that by and large they were genuine, even if in the service of an evil plot to drain the Doctor’s regenerative energy and create a race of super Daleks. Certainly, it will be difficult to view Davros exactly the same after this story.

Of course Clara and Missy didn’t bite it. It never mattered whether or not the viewer believed they were dead, it only mattered narratively that the Doctor believed it (though he should have known Missy had it all worked out, given the sheer number of times the Master has cheated death), as it gave him a sense of helplessness that Davros exploited. From those opening moments of Clara hanging upside down, it was shocking how dumbed-down the character became since the first half. Here she seems written entirely to play foil to Missy, which isn’t necessarily a terrible chess move on Moffat’s part, as it provided loads of comedy fodder throughout. Clara ended up the punchline for so many Missy gags, this episode should surely rate high with all the Clara-haters (who appear to be legion).

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Doctor Who: The Magician's Apprentice

“The Magician’s Apprentice” casts an immediate spell. Anyone versed in the classic Tom Baker serial “Genesis of the Daleks” was surely mesmerized within seconds. The misty battleground/rock quarry; a war fought with a mishmash of weaponry from different eras of time – this was all set up back in 1975 by Terry Nation. But just as quickly, Steven starts Moffating by unveiling the handmines, an eerie, unsettling aspect of this particular warfare (we’ll hopefully learn more about them next week). And then, of course, he wickedly thrusts a child into the middle of it all, followed with an obscured by clouds Doctor (Peter Capaldi), attempting to assist. Then BOOM! Davros. The kid’s name is Davros. You needn’t have seen “Genesis” to appreciate that revelation.

Post credits, the action shifts to the freakishly serpentine alien Colony Sarff, hunting for the missing Doctor in some of his previous haunts - the Maldovarium, then to the Shadow Proclamation, and finally Karn (where a briefly seen Doctor hides from his stalker). Unlike some other season premieres, “Apprentice” has little interest in being accessible to newbies. It assumes viewers now know the show’s minutiae and iconography. Given that this is the ninth season of Who redux, why not? With so many places to easily access the series, what’s the point in constantly trying to find new avenues through which to lure or entice new viewers? If someone wants to start watching Doctor Who, they’ll start with “Rose” or “The Eleventh Hour” or “An Unearthly Child” or wherever their friend or an article on the internet advises them to begin. This storyline is for those of us who’ve lived with the series for years.

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