Sunday, 26 October 2014

In the Forest of the Night



Phil Sandifer's review of In the Forest of the Night, which delves into the Blakean aspects of the imagery, really made me want to like this. Unfortunately, the depth of Sandifer's review does not quite match the quality of the episode.

I do like the fantastical magical feel of this story. I really do like fantasy in Doctor Who. Unfortunately, this is a story with a solar flair in and so we can't just throw away the science. Doing a fantasy type Doctor Who set on Earth is tricky. Greatest Show in the Galaxy could afford to deal with magical themes because it was set on another planet; a different world with different rules. Even Survival, another magical story was partly set on another planet.

It's a little hard to fathom trees growing so quickly that nobody notices them until they have turned into a forest. Even more incredibly, London seems almost deserted. I know we get the government warning to stay inside, but what happened to the legions of homeless people? What about the people who were not at home when the trees started growing. Of course, what I would really have loved to have seen in this episode is the gigantic trees growing out of the oceans. Such a shame we didn't get to see those.

Once again we get a Problem with Sutekh moment. Clara points out that the world cannot end because she has seen the future. Dr. Who replies that the future has been erased by this event. That makes no sense. No time traveller has intervened to alter history. If history can alter at random like that, then the Doctor could never have any knowledge of past or future history. In fact, history would be meaningless. Would it even matter that humanity would die; their future history erased? Maybe another even would alter this course of history and humanity would survive.

I'm a little bothered by Clara's objection to Dr. Who saving the children. Yes, they would be upset by the deaths of their parents, but would Clara really be happier to see those kids scorched to death with the rest of the planet?

Some aspects of this story were confusing, particularly those related to Maebh. It was difficult to make sense of just how she fitted into the plot. I'm utterly baffled about how the return of Anabel fitted in. The theme of childhood mental illness is a very sensitive topic and I'm a little surprised it came up. I can't say I feel at all qualified to comment on how well this topic was handled.

On the whole it was probably not the best idea to write a story requiring a lot of child actors. And those CGI animals looked terrible.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Flatline



Most people seem to like this story, but I found myself getting really bored watching it. Flatline seemed to be full of lots of running around and pointless action.

The idea of non-3D aliens was an interesting one and had the potential to be genuinely creepy. Unfortunately this failed to terrify due to the comic tone taken by the script. Sometimes I just wish the writers could tone down the humour and try to give us a more serious story. We really don't need a laugh every minute. The story was also ruined by the awful music, the sort of score you get in those family movies they show on Christmas day.

In Flatline, Clara gets to take on the role of the Doctor. She turns out to be rather good at it. It was fun at times seeing her act Doctorish and her resourcefulness was appealing. However, I can't help thinking thst it would have been more interesting to see her do a bad job of being the Doctor. What is the point of watching Doctor Who if anyone can be the Doctor?

Once again, the Doctor suggests that a black man is unintelligent. This really reminds me of that Father Ted episode in which Father Ted accidentally acquires a reputation for being a racist.

I didn't feel at all engaged by this episode. Like so much of Moffat-era Doctor Who, this is just boring.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express



This story is set on a recreation of the Orient Express in space. It seems a remarkably vivid recreation, because both the crew and passengers are dressed in period costume. Furthermore, they are all human and seemingly British. I think it would have been more interesting visually to do a less perfect re-creation of the period, by having some characters be aliens and some of the passengers wearing non-period costumes. Would that have confused the costume department too much? If they really wanted to do a period drama on the Orient Express, why not have it set on the real train on Earth, with the monster being an Egyptian mummy? This seems a bit like RTD's demand for werewolves, Kung-Fu monks and Queen Victoria in the same story.

I'm not sure why the carriages of the train are swaying, as if on a winding railtrack. If this is a spaceship travelling through space, it ought to be moving straightforward, having no physical obstacles to affect its movement.

I don't think this is how to do a monster story. We get a full reveal of the monster right at the beginning. We see so much of it that it does not stay scary for very long. What is more, the very title gives away the fact that it is a mummy. Could the nature of the monstrous entity not have been concealed for a while? An unknown terror is much more frightening.

The mummy turns out to be a form of alien technology, like several other entities we have encountered in this season. Are we not going to get any proper aliens in these stories? It seems a mundane and dull explanation for the monster. I would much have preferred it to have turned out to be the mummified remains of some ancient alien emperor. This story shares with Pyramids of Mars a misunderstanding about just why mummies are scary. Mummies are not scary because they are wrapped in bandages. They are scary because they are dead things. They are part of the 'uncanny.' A robotic mummy is a bit banal.

I think this story was reasonably well polished and did interesting things with the characters, but it had a lack of imagination and flair.



Friday, 10 October 2014

Gallifrey Exile: The Hypocrisy of The Doctor


'One of the places I go to for Doctor Who reviews that I genuinely trust and admire is Tea With Morbius, run by Matthew Celestis.  For his review of The Caretaker, he made some very pointed comments about the issue of how soldiers are presented on Doctor Who, as well as on the issues of race and class involving both the newest character, Danny Pink (played by Samuel Anderson) and other characters of color whom Celestis I think is saying are shown in a bad light.
I think this merits some examination.
I think the best thing to do is to look at Doctor Who pre-Moffat, and in particular pre-12th Doctor, to see that I agree with Celestis in how Doctor Who appears to have a bizarre pathological contempt for soldiers, and worse, which is completely contradictory to what Canon has established.
If we go back to the beginning, we see that the Doctor didn't have this lifetime hatred for soldiers.  In fact, while he was a pacifist he had a great deal of respect for the military.  We only need to go to the most obvious example: UNIT.'

I'm glad somebody likes my reviews.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Kill the Moon




You know what, yesterday I was outside an abortion clinic, taking part in a prayer vigil. You might expect me to like this episode on the basis of my strongly pro-life stance, but I didn't.

I actually don't think this story is deliberately meant to be about abortion. The abortion implications were on the same level as the unintentional but still quite shocking racism of the previous episode. The compassion for the space dragon was the same sentimentality bestowed upon that dinosaur in Deep Breath. This is about not being mean to cute animals. I very much doubt that Guardian-reading Clara cares in the slightest about abortion. She's probably one of those people who will be outraged at cruelty to animals, while approving of the legalised murder of unborn children. I did not feel admiration for the writers for accidentally touching on an issue I care about, but rather contempt for the moral clumsiness of it.

This really does feel like a clumsy story. As with A Town called Mercy, building a plot around a moral dilemma always feels a bit cold and artificial. The decision of Dr. Who to step outside the dilemma was interesting, but felt odd given he had never done such a thing before. This just feels like a way to set up the big argument between Clara and Dr. Who at the end. What is more, that the egg turns out to open harmlessly feels like an unconvincing and unsatisfying resolution.

All that talk about whether to say Courtney is 'special' seems a bit odd. I rather thought describing people as 'special' was meaningless and banal. I would imagine most teenagers would feel patronized by being called 'special.' I do find it interesting how the current show handles a teenage character. In the classic series, teenage companions were just treated as immature adults. Courtney is treated as a child who has to be protected. I'd quite like to see a teenager as a regular companion, but Courtney is a bit too whingey and cliched to be entertaining.

The most irritating aspect of the episode was the scientific howlers. How did the moon gain mass? The mass had to come from somewhere. How did a newborn creature lay an egg that was the same size as that it had just hatched from? Doctor Who often has wonky science, but howlers like that cannot be excused.

I think the idea of monster spiders on the moon is a pretty cool one. However, it seems just a little odd that over-sized singular celled lifeforms would look like spiders and even more surprising that they should spin cobwebs.

This was a really odd episode and not one that I enjoyed very much.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Caretaker



Given the way the previous episodes have been set up, it was inevitable that Danny Pink's first meeting with Dr. Who was going to take a definite shape. We were basically waiting for an episode in which Danny finds out about Clara's double-life and is completely mind-boggled. We knew he was going to say something along the lines of "I just don't know who you are any more." We knew the Doctor was going to disapprove of him because he was a Soldier (shock horror!), but he would prove himself to be a decent sort of chap by saving the day. The Caretaker does all this and it's really rather predictable. It felt like a painful exercise to get through.

So Dr. Who has a big problem with soldiers, no not just soldiers, to be precise ex-soldiers. It seems a bit odd given he was happy to travel with Harry Sullivan, a serving naval officer, and Sarah Kingdom, a serving military intelligence agent. He also seemed to get on fine with Wilf. Not to mention spending a lot of time hanging around with all those military personel from UNIT. We are never actually told that Ian Chesterton, also a school teacher was an ex-soldier, but there is quite a bit of evidence that he had done some military service, as well as the likelihood that he had done national service. If the Doctor does not like ex-soldiers, he is going to have an horrible time if he ever visits Finland, Brazil, Singapore or anywhere else where they have compulsory military service. You can just imagine the Doctor going to Singapore and saying "No! No! There are ex-soldiers everywhere! Ah!"

I'm getting tired of the capitalization of the word Soldier that we are seeing in Doctor Who. As I said regarding Into the Dalek, they are not some special category of human beings. They are just ordinary people rightly or wrongly doing an extraordinary job that people have done since the dawn of history. I think this comes down to the remoteness of the military from the lives of middle-class television writers, especially given how the armed forces have come to recruit predominatly from the working-class communities. It is not helped by campaigns like Help the Heroes which seem to sentimentalize and infantilize members of the armed forces. Notice how often the army are referred to as 'our boys.'

In short, Dr. Who's attitude to Danny Pink seems unreasonable. The unreasonableness of it makes his objections and antagonism toward him seem rather false and unconvincing. Worse than that is the awkward racial sub-text of the Doctor, a white man, making prejudiced assumptions about the intelligence of a black man. No doubt the writers were intending this to be on account of Danny being a Soldier, but the racial sub-text cannot be ignored. What is more, in the same episode we get a black girl who is a 'disruptive influence' who the Doctor casually suggests might go shoplifting. Along with a white police officer harassing a couple of black kids. Call me a Sandiferian or a Jack Grahmite if you like, but I found this painful. This is of course, from the same producer who gave us Mels, the black delinquent incarnation of River Song and an episode in which the rare inclusion of a group of black characters turn out to be a dim-witted bunch of petty crooks.


We get to spend a bit more time with Danny Pink in The Caretaker and it's not a fun experience. What we have seen so far seems like a rather surly and miserable character who can't cry convincingly. Now it seems that in a relationship he is rather controlling and manipulative. It's getting really hard to warm to this bloke.

This episode was fun in places, and the acting and direction was really quite good, but I found it rather depressing on the whole.



Saturday, 27 September 2014

Inferno



A lot of Doctor Who stories are padded out to fill extra episodes, but Inferno takes padding to a completely different level. The orginal story about a drilling station and green slime turning people into werewolves would have needed padding to fill out four episodes, but this serial had to stretch to an impossible seven episodes. The ever resourceful Terrance Dicks came up with the idea of filling this out by taking the Doctor to a 'mirror universe' version of the same setting, with Fascist versions of the main characters. Conveniently, this removed the need for new sets and hiring new actors. All it required was a slightly higher costume budget and Nicholas Courtney to spend a bit longer in the make-up chair.

A lot of fans think the idea of the 'mirror universe' is a fantastically clever one. I don't. As Phil Sandifer points out (there is very little in his Inferno essay that I disagree with), the idea of a mirror universe is one that television writers continually turn to. It's a very standard trope. It's not used in a particularly creative way in Inferno. The Doctor's witnessing of the destruction of the mirror Earth does not give him any new insight that enables him to save the regular Earth. It simply feels like a way to draw the story out and we are denied the pleasure of seeing the Fascist characters meeting their other selves.

That is not to say that the Inferno-verse is not fun to watch at times. The actors are clearly enjoying the chance to be evil for a while. Nicholas Courtney is particulary memorable as the sneering Brigade Leader. This is possibly a problem for Caroline John's Liz Shaw. Liz never really had much personality or character development. It is actually only when she becomes a Fascist that she appears to be an interesting character who we want to watch. Furthermore, the Fascist world is never really explored. It never really offers more than a fleeting glimpse of what this world is like. It seems perhaps a little surprising that the royal family were executed in this world. In our world, the British Union of Fascists supported the monarchy and our royal family were hardly left of centre in their views. Perhaps the mirror universe regime is closer to Communism than Fascism. Or more accurately, given the Terrance Dicks input, they are a British version of those nasty foreign bureacratic types that we British patriots all hate and UKIP imagine are running the European Union.



Of course, Inferno has some great direction, thanks to Douglas Camfield, with Barry Letts filling in when the director became ill. This story has some enjoyable moments, but for me it is just too long and bores me. This is not a classic by any stretch.

It has been said that the first four episodes of a new Doctor's run follow a pattern. The first story is a frenzied runaround (Spearhead from Space- not much plot going on), the second story is one more suited to the previous Doctor (Dr Who and the Silurians- the old base under siege) and the third story an experimental new kind of story that is not really repeated (Ambassadors of Death- realistic elements at the forefront and science fiction elements kept in the background). It is the fourth story that defines the new era. With its theme of industrial research, energy sources, green slime, Venusian Akido and pointless car chases, Inferno sets up the Third Doctor era perfectly. All that is missing is Jo Grant and the riotous colours that came in with Claws of Axos.



It does seem remarkable given all the massive historical differences between our universe and the Inferno-verse, that all the main characters are all together in an almost identical scientificc installation. The novel Timewyrm: Revelation offers a handy explanation that this universe has been artificially constructed. I did come up with my own theory as to the nature of the Inferno-verse. In The Chase, the Doctor conjectures that the TARDIS had entered a realm formed from human fears. It seems surprising that the Doctor would suppose that such a psychological world existed and that the TARDIS could take one there, but perhaps the Inferno-verse is this 'land of fears?' Could the Inferno-verse be a sort of projection of the Doctor's own fears about the drilling project? It occurred to me that the Republic Security Force represent the Doctor's anxieties about working with a military organisation. It's worth noting that the Brigade Leader is not that far removed from the Brigadier in personality. Notice the scene in Inferno where the real Brigadier rants at Benton and orders him to act like a bully and to coerce Stahlman. Of course, this theory contradicts the novels in which the Inferno-verse is a real place.


So what is going on with all that green slime? Some of the New Adventure novels hint at the idea, championed by Lawrence Miles, that the Earth is an artificial planet. After the Time Lords first experimented with Time Travel, they unleashed the vampiric Yssgaroth from a hellish other-universe. After Rassilon defeated the Yssgaroth, he fixed up the holes in the universe with artificial planets, Earth being one of these. Thus, the weird green slime that seems to defy the laws of physics is matter from another universe. This is supported by Planet of Evil, in which material from another universe has a similar effect in turning people into werewolves.

I think the Yssgaroth/ Hollow Earth theory fits Inferno perfectly. The very title of this serial captures the idea of hell being underground. The drilling station is not simply causing an ecological disaster, but is awakening demonic forces. Notice that the Primords and Stahlman in particular act like they are under the control of some unseen force. They are being controlled the Yssgaroth, who want to escape and unleash havoc on the universe (no pun intended).

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Time Heist



Wow, I actually liked this one!

The very enjoyable Rings of Akhaten showed that once they get the Doctor and the TARDIS away from Earth, the production team can sometimes come up with a decent Doctor Who story.

Taking the standard tropes of a heist/ crime thriller, this episode delivers an exiciting piece of science fiction action. This story does not do anything amazing or radical, but it is a solid and entertaining story all the same.

Time Heist is well served by an interesting set of guest characters. What is more, we get an interesting and very enjoyable villain in Madame Karaborax and her clone. The alien monster, the Teller is very effective and scary looking, even if it has become something of a cliche in the new series for monsters to turn out to be nice creatures in the end.

I'm not a big fan of plots which revolve around the mechanics of time travel and backward story telling, but the time travel elements are not too confusing here. I'm a bit concerned though, that Dr. Who might have altered history by freeing the Teller. I don't think he should be able to do that. I was very pleased and relieved that Karabarox did not die a gruesome death, as I expected, but got the chance to feel remorse for her actions.

There are a few problems with the plot, such as how the Doctor got into the bank to place the architect's gadgets. However, these are the sort of problems with most Doctor Who stories.

Along with Rings of Akhaten, this is among the better stories of the Moffat era.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Klein by the Sea



I asked the excellent French artist Claire Lyxa to once again draw Elizabeth Klein from the Big Finish audios. This time, I asked her to draw our favorite Teutonic scientist walking by the sea.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Listen



Listen draws heavily on all the Moffat tropes that we have become very used to; frightened children, characters meeting other characters as children, sitcom dating and monsters that exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Nevertheless, despite the familiarity of these tropes, the finished product is something that comes across as quite surprising. Arguably it's not bad television, but I do not very much like it at all myself.

The episode begins with the Doctor speculating about whether unseen beings might be listening to him. He engages in some very illogical, if intuitive, thinking. His thoughts that there might be things listening to him when he speaks alone come across to me as rather childish. I'd like to think that Dr. Who had something more intelligent to say.

Everybody has the same nightmare? I can't remember ever having a nightmare about something scary being under my bed. My nightmares have involved things happening to me within the dream, rather than things located in my bedroom. Perhaps when I was younger I might have been afraid of unknown terrors being in my room or in the house, but being aware that I was in bed, these were not nightmares as such. Maybe this is just semantics and the Doctor is not talking about nightmares, but about nightime fears in general. It seems a bit clumsy though.

Once again, Moffat follows the odd reasoning that because Doctor Who is a program for children, it should feature children and deal directly with chidhood fears. I think this probably puts off a lot of young viewers. Children are not generally interested in watching other children, unless it is a child they want to indentify with. Children will enjoy watching a child going off and having adventures, doing the things they would like to do themselves. They are less likely to enjoy watching a child who is afraid of the dark, which will either remind them of their own fears or else be considered a bit wet. I rather think the show has lost something with the current policy of only having adult companions in their twenties. Why can't we have a teenage companion like we had in the Sixties?

We get a glimpse of the Doctor's childhood. It's an odd sequence. It doesen't really fit with anything we have previously been told about the Doctor's childhood. The couple talking about him don't seem much like Lance Parkin's Ulysses and Penelope. But I'm not going to wrestle with the continuity questions, as I don't consider the New Series to be canon.

It is nice to get a reference to the Hartnell era in this story with the line 'fear makes companions of us all,' but I can't help feeling that line is reduced here to mawkish sentimentality. The point of that line was that in that story, the Doctor and Ian and Barbara were effectively enemies. Dr. Who was a dangerous figure who kidnapped people, yet circumstances meant he had to form an alliance with the people he had kidnapped.

This kind of story rests on the assumption that Doctor Who is all about terrors entering the domestic space. Moffat takes the whole idea of 'Yeti in the loo' to the next level. A lot of people see Doctor Who that way, but I don't. It's an idea about Doctor Who that is a far cry from the show in the Sixties, in which the Doctor and his companions went to places and had adventures. Stories of this kind, which focus on domestic terrors usually at least offer some kind of monster. This does not offer one at all. It is not even certain that the thing in Rupert's bedroom really is an entity at all and not just some psychological manifestation. This is simply a story about fear itself. That might be an interesting idea, but as a Doctor Who story feels rather unrewarding and falls a little flat. This feels far too introspective a story.