Thursday, June 22, 2017

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light

Often in my recaps, I rely on the history of the writer while forming my thoughts and opinions of an episode. Doctor Who is very much a writers’ show, even though the head writers like Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat get the most credit (as well as the most blame). Rona Munro, the writer of “The Eaters of Light,” holds a special distinction: She is now the first and only writer to have penned scripts for both the classic and the modern incarnations of Doctor Who. Her previous contribution was, in fact, the final classic series story, 1989’s “Survival.” One thing I never really expected to write much about in this recap was “Survival,” because surely that 28-year-old script would have nothing in common with this new tale … and yet in some ways it does, not the least of which is its elliptical yet mythically epic style.

The unlikeliest TARDIS trio ever travel to Aberdeen, Scotland, circa second-century A.D. because Bill and the Doctor are bickering over who knows more about the lost Ninth Roman Legion, which famously disappeared from history without a trace. (Between this outing and “Thin Ice,” mad props to season ten for the entertaining history lessons.) Beside the pair, Nardole is decked out in his Arthur Dent best — pajamas and a preposterously out of place robe. One imagines him being awakened from sleep and dragged through time, and indeed, one also wonders why he came along at all given that his primary concern once again is the vault. Thankfully, between the end of this episode and the preview for next week’s, the vault nonsense seems over and done with. The argument for guarding it doesn’t even work particularly well here, given the way events have played out in recent weeks (when the Monks were invading, it barely seemed like an issue).

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Monday, June 12, 2017

Doctor Who: Empress of Mars

Back in season seven, Mark Gatiss reintroduced classic Doctor Who villains the Ice Warriors in “Cold War,” an episode I was gaga over. A big part of my love revolved around its infusion of ’80s nuclear paranoia, which at the time seemed something of a distant memory. My, how just a few years can see us tumbling backward. “Empress of Mars,” which is in no way a sequel to “Cold War” (indeed, it takes place a hundred years before its predecessor), is another score for Gatiss, and enough so that we must forgive him for last season’s dire “Sleep No More.” “Empress” is a sleek tale of honor, loyalty, and redemption told through the filter of science-fiction mavericks such as Burroughs, Verne, and Wells.

The action kicks off in the present day at NASA, which the Doctor, Bill, and Nardole have infiltrated seemingly for no other reason than because they can. A probe called the Valkyrie is sending back images from a previously unseen area of the planet, and the first one shocks everyone in the room: It’s a landscape across which is written “God Save the Queen.” The Doctor wastes no time taking his posse to the planet, albeit in 1881, which is when the TARDIS says the message was created. (Must be a handy new feature that we’ll likely never see again.) They materialize underground in an elaborate cave system, replete with oxygen, which the Doctor credits the “indigenous Martians” with engineering.

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Sunday, June 04, 2017

Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land

The opening montage of “The Lie of the Land,” presented as an alternate history lesson narrated by the Doctor, is disturbingly effective. The Monks have insinuated themselves into our memories to the point that humanity believes they’ve been guiding and helping us since we first wiggled out of the oceans and sprouted legs. The video is intercut with imagery of an average family broken apart by fascist troops who haul off the mother for spreading subversive propaganda. A horrified Bill observes the proceedings, seemingly one of the few who’s awake. Monuments to the Monks decorate the landscape of the planet. The grinning Doctor looking directly at the camera, which closes out the sequence, makes for a queasy stomach.

The Doctor: “So relax. Do as you’re told. Your future is taken care of.”

It’s been six months since the Monks took over, and Bill is living a life of seeming solitude. (Where’s her foster mother?) There’s a clear struggle between knowing the truth and accepting the lie, and seemingly the easiest way for her to keep her head straight is to have imaginary conversations with her deceased mother, as her “father” is currently displaying dubious morality. Despite all of the videos the Doctor recorded that appear to prove otherwise, she hangs on to the belief that he’s got a plan and will save the planet.

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Graphic courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World

As he did last season with a tension-packed Zygon two-parter, writer Peter Harness (with Steven Moffat taking a co-writing credit) again sets out to nearly destroy planet Earth, and again he skillfully takes us on a paranoid, politically-charged ride. Last time it was UNIT at the forefront of the battle; this time its three major world powers. Picking up in the real world from where we left off in the horrific simulation last week, the Monks invade Earth for real, but first they need our permission … and they set out to get it by offering to save us from ourselves.

In the fictitious country of Turmezistan (originally conceived for the aforementioned Zygon storyline), three massive armies — American, Russian, and Chinese — are in a standoff. In the midst of the tension, a 5,000-year-old pyramid appears out of nowhere, throwing all parties involved into a tailspin. The Doctor is needed in his capacity as president of the Earth, and apparently the simplest way to find him is through Bill, who’s on her date with Penny when troops, followed by the Secretary General of the UN (Togo Igawa, Eyes Wide Shut), burst into her apartment. Bill is on the radar of governments now. Meanwhile in the TARDIS, the Doctor plucks notes on his guitar and grimly ponders the future.

The Doctor: “The end of your life has already begun. There is a last place you will ever go, a last door you will ever walk through, a last sight you will ever see, and every step you ever take is moving you closer. The end of the world is a billion billion tiny moments, and somewhere, unnoticed, in silence or in darkness, it has already begun.”

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Graphic courtesy of Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Doctor Who: Extremis

As most Doctor Who fans know, we’re rapidly approaching the end of Steven Moffat’s era. There’s no question his showrunning tenure has been a divisive one, but at least here in the States, it was on his watch that the show attained such immense popularity. He has scripted more stories and filled more minutes than any other writer in the show’s history. (Due to the classic series’ serialized format, though, he hasn’t written the most episodes.) You’d think he’d have run out of ideas by now, but as “Extremis” proves, that’s hardly the case. If the previous five episodes nestled you into a comfort zone of sorts, “Extremis” aims to knock you flat on your back. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Moffat’s greatest strength is his unpredictability.

First, let’s talk vault, which is perhaps the only predictable aspect of “Extremis.” Presumably, Missy (Michelle Gomez) is inside. I say presumably only because we never see the Doctor open it and view Missy on the inside, despite the chronicling of the events that led up to her imprisonment and a blind Doctor in the present whispering to Missy from outside the vault. However, this wraparound tale tells of events “a long time ago” (in the show’s timeline, seemingly some time after the events of “The Husbands of River Song”), in which Missy has been condemned to execution by an unnamed race who developed the technology to destroy a Time Lord for good. But why Missy? Why now? What has she done? These questions go unanswered, so while we’re given the answer to who’s in the vault, that answer gives way to a whole new batch of questions.

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Graphic courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Doctor Who: Oxygen

The Doctor: “Space … the final frontier. Final because it wants to kill us. Sometimes we forget that, start taking it all for granted — the suits, the ships, the little bubbles of safety — as they protect us from the void. But the void is always waiting.”

Beginning with that darkly tongue-in-cheek voice over, the pre-credits sequence of “Oxygen” is quintessential Doctor Who. Two bodies eerily tumble through space. A massive space station is revealed. Both surrounded by the void and working outside, Ellie (Katie Brayben) confesses to Ivan (Kieran Bew): If they manage to escape their current predicament, she wants to have a baby with him. Unfortunately, there’s a com error and Ivan will never hear Ellie’s dream. Moments later, she’s attacked and killed by the two previously seen bodies, now upright and hulking forward. Is Ivan next? Cue credits. That mixture of the intimate alongside the vast and shocking is Doctor Who at its best.

Jamie Mathieson writes great, thought-provoking Doctor Who and “Oxygen” is no exception. Here he has crafted a story about greed and selfishness, explored in two ways: The first is corporate and the second is personal, and there are consequences for both. Further, the production team steps up to the plate and delivers gorgeous imagery to complement the intense script.

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Graphic courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Doctor Who: Knock Knock

In this week’s episode of Doctor Who, Bill and her college peeps — Harry (Colin Ryan), Paul (Ben Presley, Galavant), Felicity (Alice Hewkin), Shireen (Mandeep Dhillon), and Pavel (Bart Suavek) — hunt for a place to live. The digs they check out are too pricey or too noisy or too cramped. Out of nowhere appears a strange old man (the always reliable David Suchet) offering them a place beyond their wildest dreams. If nothing else, “Knock Knock” might teach youngsters that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. After the sextet sign a contract, Pavel moves in first and it doesn’t take long for him to disappear into his room (damn near literally) after spinning a tune on his turntable.

In perhaps the episode’s only smart gag, Bill enlists the Doctor’s help with moving. He materializes the TARDIS around her stack of boxes and rematerializes outside the creaky old house. Even the Doctor is impressed by its size, but he senses something in those creaks. Bill introduces the Doctor to her friends as her grandfather. (He begs, “Father, at least. Please!”) As the scenario progresses, Bill becomes more and more embarrassed by the Doctor’s presence, ultimately ushering him off the premises, and it was here where “Knock Knock” started losing me.

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Graphic courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Doctor Who: Thin Ice

Writer Sarah Dollard’s first contribution to Doctor Who was last season’s “Face the Raven,” an episode I was lukewarm on, though that had little to do with her script. Dollard was tasked with killing off Clara, yet not really. It was a tough sell because it happened so fast and without fanfare at an odd time of the season, so it was difficult to buy into at a point when believability was necessary. That story and the season would have been better served by dropping the near universally panned “Sleep No More” altogether and giving Dollard an extra episode to flesh out her inventive trap-street universe with a two-part cliffhanger of Clara realizing her impending death. That could have worked much better.

Given free rein to play in the Whoniverse largely edict-free, Dollard delivers a brilliantly cracking yarn in “Thin Ice” with a proper beginning, middle and end. It’s got no narrative gimmicks to weigh down her ideas, all effortlessly accomplished in 45 minutes. Despite being set in 1814, the script has a social conscience about numerous issues that ricochet off the past into the future, reflecting the here and now. This is something that I often crow about new Doctor Who not doing nearly enough of, and Dollard’s hand is so sure and steady that never once does the material come across as preachy.

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Graphic courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Doctor Who: Smile

Going into “Smile,” I was leery about two things: Emojibots and Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s writing credit. The former because, well, I’m a writer, and like many other writers I cringe at them instinctively. The latter because Cottrell-Boyce’s only other contribution to Doctor Who was season eight’s ambitious failure “In the Forest of the Night,” arguably the weakest offering of that year. Turns out the ‘bots weren’t as annoying as actual emoji and Cottrell-Boyce’s script is an improvement on his previous offering — and yet “Smile” still feels like a mild letdown after all the promise of last week’s season opener.

Bill Potts: “You can’t reach the controls from the seats. What’s the point in that? Or do you have stretchy arms like Mr. Fantastic?”

The opening TARDIS sequence is loaded with the sort of priceless banter that “The Pilot” laid the groundwork for. Bill’s grilling of the Doctor over the seats is especially amusing to anyone who’s been watching this show for the past decade: Why are the seats so far away from the console? (Why are there seats there at all? Nobody ever seems to use them.)

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Graphic courtesy Design by Stuart Manning

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Doctor Who: The Pilot

Two Christmas specials aside, it’s been a seemingly interminably long wait for new Doctor Who. A guy I know recently asked, “Is that show even still on?,” which cut me deeply. A strong, multi-episodic arc of Time Lord and TARDIS will make things right again, and “The Pilot” is rife with promise of greatness to come. As Steven Moffat-penned scripts go, it is refreshingly lacking in twists and turns, has less plot than a typical offering, and is more a collection of set-ups, ideas, and emotions. There’s a comforting intimacy on display here not often seen in this series, and certainly not in a season premiere.

The first thing that happens in “The Pilot” is the revelation that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is robotic in nature; the noises he makes and the bolt that drops from his body indicate as much. Back in December, his quickie resurrection was one of my few complaints. While it’s difficult to swallow the Doctor reattaching Nardole’s severed head to his body, it is less problematic to imagine that the head could be merged with a new and less cumbersome set of technology than it was previously attached to. Perhaps a few tricks picked up from the Doctor’s many encounters with the Cybermen?

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Graphic courtesy Design by Stuart Manning