Friday, June 23, 2017

The Hysterical Blindness of The Doctor


As this is the second part of The Monks Trilogy, the three will be judged with one grade.  However, I think The Pyramid at the End of the World is a surprisingly strong episode, packing in its hour running time a lot of thrills, chills, heart and leaving with an interesting cliffhanger.

Whether said cliffhanger will have a positive resolution is yet to be seen.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) despite all logic, is still able to disguise his blindness from everyone.  Only Nardole (Matt Lucas) is privy to his secret.  It again comes at the worst time since the United Nations is calling upon The President of Earth for help.  In far-off Turmezistan, an ancient pyramid has just popped out of nowhere, and is between three large armies (the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians). This is an emergency, so much so that it requires Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) to have her real date with Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo) interrupted again!

Bill is whisked off with the Doctor and Nardole to Turmezistan, where he finds the Monks, those slow, whispering, skeletal beings from Extremis popping up again.  Unlike other would-be conquerors of Earth, they won't take over the world unless they are asked.  It won't be easy saying no, as The Monks are able to see the future, and they give everyone a glimpse of what is to come.  It's a frightening future, one with death and destruction all around.

Talk about far-fetched, but I digress.

Clocks worldwide are now in sync with the Doomsday Clock, pushing the world closer and closer to midnight.  The Doctor stubbornly tells them not to surrender, but soon they do.  The Monks can see their motives are impure, as they are not surrendering out of love but out of fear or strategy.  As a result, they get vaporized.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, two scientists: Erica (Rachel Denning) and Douglas (Tony Gardner) are going about their lives and work when something goes horribly wrong.  Douglas, slightly hung over or ill (I wasn't sure exactly which) causes an accident that releases a bacteria that kills all human life.  Douglas is disintegrated as he has no protective suit, while Erica does her best to get everyone out and contain the crisis.

The Monks continue asking for surrender, but nothing doing.  The Doctor soon hits upon the idea that they are watching something specific that will bring about Doomsday, and finds the lab about to release Enzyme EC31.  He takes Nardole with him there and attempts with Erica to stop it from being released.  He does this by setting up an explosion that will neutralize the bacteria, but there are a couple of hiccups.

First, Nardole is overcome by the bacteria which doesn't kill him but leaves him incapacitated.  Second, the lock the Doctor's in is a combination lock immune from the sonic screwdriver.  Unable to see the lock to release himself, the Doctor finally admits he's blind to Bill, who is still with the Monks.  Terrified of the whole situation, she surrenders on behalf of Earth on the condition they restore the Doctor's sight.

The accept the surrender as this consent comes from love (her love of The Doctor), but she calls out to him to 'get her planet back'.  Now the Monks have conquered Earth.

One aspect of The Pyramid at the End of the World was quite positive, and that was Denning.  She was pretty cool and collected as Erica, a whip-smart scientist who also cared about her coworker.  She would make a good Companion or at least returning guest star, her confidence and scientific professionalism mixed with rational fear but not panic at the growing crisis.

In fact, there was a lot of good acting all around in Pyramid.  Again, to my mind it stretches believability that no one noticed that the Doctor was blind but Capaldi overall gave a strong performance, particularly early on when he's in a meditative mood while playing his electric guitar.  Mackie continues to grow as one of the better if not best NuWho Companions, with Bill really being nothing more than an ordinary person caught up in these shocking situations.  She is caring and bright, and aware of all the risks surrounding her.

The great part of Pyramid is the tension about how to surrender.  They've thrown everything they can at the Monks, but nothing doing.  The episode keeps ratcheting up problems, and then comes up with plausible solutions, only to have a last-minute complication muck it all up. 

Another positive element was in how Murray Gold's score was subtle, working with the episode to be menacing without drawing attention to itself or being its usual bombastic music.

There were things I wasn't too keen on.  As much as Pyramid wanted to be menacing I wasn't feeling it, probably because the Monks are monsters we've seen in other versions (still can't shake the idea they are kin to The Silence).  The whole 'interrupted date' thing was a bit much, and I get the sense that this isn't the first time we've seen a Companion sacrifice something to save The Doctor.

Still, relatively minor points, as The Pyramid at the End of the World created a strong story that is built on logic, is well-acted, and creates a strong problem to overcome.

"Fear is temporary, love is slavery," the Doctor says when others consider surrendering.  I'm not sure I entirely agree, but I can see where one would think that.  The Pyramid at the End of the World shows that when Doctor Who works, it works remarkably well. 


Next Episode: The Lie of the Land

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Secret Archives of The Doctor


With Extremis, Doctor Who is embarking on a rare three-episode story, generally dubbed The Monks Trilogy.  Extremis has many positives, and if it had aired a few seasons ago would have ranked higher.  It's unfortunate, however, that much of it is reminiscent of what has come before, which dilutes its positives.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is still blind from the effects of Oxygen, though only Nardole (Matt Lucas) knows this.  It's at perhaps the worst time possible for the Vatican of all places to ask for The Doctor's help.

Inside their Hereticum, the secret archives of the Vatican's Secret Archives where they hold the most blasphemous books, is one called Veritas.  The Veritas was written in an unknown language, just recently interpreted, but every person who has read it commits suicide within twenty-four hours of reading it.  Now, the Doctor, along with Nardole and Bill (Pearl Mackie) will go into the Hereticum to translate the Veritas and uncover what is its deadly secret.

This comes at a bad time for Bill, who is on a date with Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo), but it's not a real date since Bill, despite her "I'm a proud and open lesbian" manner, still hasn't told her foster mother Moira (Jennifer Hennessey) that she's a lesbian.

As a side note, does anyone else think it's a bit strange that a woman I believe in her twenties is still living with her foster mother?

In any case, it's a bad lesbian date when the Pope barges in from one's bedroom shouting in Italian (and again as a side note, the last three Popes have been Polish, German, and Spanish, none of whom spoke Italian as a first language, so why is the Pope speaking Italian when we haven't had an Italian Pope in almost forty years?).  Bill isn't happy about the intrusion, but she goes to the Vatican to help in the mystery.

It isn't long before the Doctor, rigging up a device that will give him temporary sight and who manages to keep everyone clueless about his blindness despite the sunglasses and having to have Nardole explain everything to him, finds the Veritas.  To their surprise, there is a light that guides all except the sightless Doctor away.  Nardole and Bill are surprised to find themselves first in the Pentagon, and then at CERN, a lab which has received the translated Veritas via e-mail.

It is now that Bill and Nardole make a shocking discovery.  What they thought was a portal created by aliens is really a simulation.  Nardole disintegrates, leaving Bill to try and find The Doctor.  The Doctor, for his part, encounters The Monks: skeletal beings who whisper their menace and take hold of the Veritas, as part of their plan for world conquest.  Bill goes through another portal and finds herself in the Oval Office, where the President has committed suicide and the Doctor is waiting.

Here, Bill learns the truth of the Veritas: this Test of Shadows details the plans for a demon to simulate realities, and those within those simulations, discovering that they are not real, decide to kill themselves.  That explains why at CERN, every time Bill and Nardole were asked for a 'random' number, they would say the same number: their world, indeed every world, was not real.

Bill herself disintegrates, asking for the Doctor's help.  The Doctor confronts a Monk, and tells him that he knows this is all a simulation, but he's e-mailed himself all the information, and is ready to fight them.  To fight them, of course, means he needs the help of The Mistress (formerly known as The Master), and he goes to Missy (Michelle Gomez), whom he has locked up in The Vault for a thousand years, as throughout Extremis we saw what should have been his/her execution, but the Doctor instead has managed to spare her/his life.

Extremis is a mix of The Matrix (this world is not real but computer-generated), The Ring or Ringu (a person will die after seeing something), and The Silence from Series 5 (shadowy figures who speak softly, walk menacingly, and are our newest threats for world conquest).  Perhaps this mishmash of things we've seen before both on and outside Doctor Who is what makes me less enthusiastic.

To a point, it comes down to timing.  Had The Monks been the Series 5 villains, we still would have or should have had comparisons to The Matrix/The Ring, but we wouldn't have yet another 'religious order' bent on world domination.  It's all gotten a bit boring and repetitive, down to making the fictitious Pope Benedict IX very clearly a woman. 

I'm not exactly sure why writer Steven Moffat opted to choose Benedict IX, who if Wikipedia is to be believed was one of the most scandalous figures to ever be Bishop of Rome, even for his time, or why he decided not to hit upon the more legendary but better-known 'Pope Joan'.  It is easy to speculate, but it does seem a strange choice when he could have created a wholly fictional pontiff on which to bestow the title Popess. 

In any case, the entire storyline of the Vatican and the Veritas in retrospect seems almost funny: female Popes that the Vatican knew about and even had portraits of, buried within the grounds of Vatican City, with an Italian-speaking Pope.  What is more amusing is that no one was none the wiser of the blindness of The Doctor, or that anyone even asked or questioned it.  That does seem a bit too farfetched.

Be that as it may, Extremis wasn't a horrible episode if I go along with the idea that all this was a simulation.  I wasn't sold on the idea of The Doctor saving The Mistress or Nardole popping up to try and stop the execution.  I certainly wasn't buying Gomez's performance of a 'repentant' Master, and wondered whether it might have been better to have built a whole episode around that instead of intercutting it with the Vatican storyline.

I actually wanted The Master/Mistress dead, so I wasn't cheering her on to be spared.  It also does make one wonder why so much mystery about what was in The Vault when there was speculation it was The Mistress all along.

There was a lot of good in Extremis.  Mackie continues to make Bill a strong Companion: loyal, determined to live life, intelligent, and even amusing (her comparing the Hereticum, also known as The Library of Blasphemy, with Harry Potter was a nice touch, albeit one that will date the series).   Capaldi was equally strong as The Doctor: his attempts to keep going despite his blindness made the Doctor both vulnerable and a bit stubborn.  Murray Gold kept the score subtle and noninvasive, and we got some good twists and turns (albeit again, ones that weren't that big of a shock).

I didn't dislike Extremis.  I actually liked it a bit.  If it weren't for the fact we've seen a lot of this before (and dragging The Mistress into it) it might have ranked higher.  Still, Extremis was not bad, and given that Series 10 has been stronger than in the past, that is saying quite a bit.


Next Episode: The Pyramids at the End of the World

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Communist Manifesto of The Doctor


I'm really split on Oxygen.  On the one hand, I found it well-crafted, effectively filmed, with a logical conclusion.

On the other, I found it bordering on if not actual propaganda, something that might have been approved by Stalin, Mao, or the Kim Monarchy in North Korea. 

This split is causing me to look at Oxygen with two sets of eyes, those of a critic and those of someone who hates seeing overt messaging in film/television (even if I agree with them).  I am highly bothered by the messaging in Oxygen, both the way it is done and the message itself.  I detest it when programs are used for propaganda whatever the intent.  Maybe in the ensuing moments, I can find myself looking at Oxygen again with yet another set of eyes.

And none of that is meant to be a pun or commentary on the ending of the episode. 

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his Companions Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) respond to a distress signal in space over Nardole's objections.  He is adamant that they remain on Earth to guard The Vault, but the Doctor's wanderlust and Bill's desire to see more of the universe overrule him.  Once on the station, they find that the oxygen is not there for their use.  It is a commodity, one that they have to pay for.  As they are using unauthorized oxygen, it must be expelled.

The Doctor manages to stop them getting sucked out into space but now are beyond the reach of the TARDIS.  The only way to safety is to find the four survivors, but that means putting on spacesuits that are not in the best of conditions, and that have low oxygen.  Making things worse are the zombies in spacesuits who are following the suits directives to eliminate the organisms within them.

At first, the Doctor thinks there was a wild malfunction in the spacesuits, but as time goes on, after interacting with the survivors and trying to keep them all alive, he realizes that there was no malfunction.  The rescue ships that are coming are not actual rescue ships.  They are the crew's replacements.

Far from being a glitch, the spacesuits worked exactly as they were programmed to do.  In a universe where oxygen is sold at 'competitive prices', the unnamed Corporation decided the most cost-effective thing to do is literally kill its employees and bring in new ones.  The Doctor decides to rig the machine to make it cost-ineffective to kill the few survivors, no easy task given that in order to save Bill, he lost his sight.  Even harder when you think Bill has been killed by the zombies.

In the end, they all return.  Bill is thrilled, Nardole is angry and berates the Doctor over his actions and orders him to "LOOK AT ME!"  Sad that he can't...for he is still blind.

There is a great deal to admire with Oxygen.  Jamie Mathieson wrote two of the best Capaldi-Era Doctor Who episodes (Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline), and here again he delivers a pretty quality-level script.  The resolution to the crisis is remarkably logical, built on thought and reason versus other Doctor Who tropes (love saves the universe).  Chris Palmer's direction was equally effective: the flight from the zombies from an oxygen-deprived Bill is tense and almost nerve-wracking (aided by the fact that there is no music to make it dramatic, both trusting the moment is dramatic enough).

Oxygen is helped immensely by Mackie's performance.  She is really coming into her own as Bill, both the enthusiasm and the fear her character has.  The moment when the Doctor asks her if she trusts him and he seemingly leaves her to die is almost terrifying, and seeing her 'die' is almost shocking.

Mackie also is allowed moments of humor, when she meets Dah-Ren (Peter Caulfield), a Blue Man group reject.  Her surprise at seeing a blue-skinned figure is undercut with his remark that they had to 'rescue a racist', surprising our biracial lesbian.  Her insistence that she not only isn't a racist but usually on the receiving end clearly puzzles Dahh-Ren, who wonders how that is possible.

However, a lot of Oxygen is undercut by Mathieson's anti-capitalist screed.  When the trio first arrive, they are hailed as being from "the Union", which one of the survivors insists is a myth.  In this part of the universe, the Union will save them from the murderous Capitalists, before they have a revolution and set up a collective.  The messaging behind Oxygen is blatant, in-your-face, and even if I held to the idea that capitalism is downright murderous (which, unchecked by morality, it can be), there is something in me that highly dislikes overt political messaging.

I find that the best type of science-fiction as allegory works when it can be read both ways: both as the surface story and as a commentary on the times.  The worst types are the ones that are overt and obvious, like Oxygen.

I think there would have been nothing wrong with the original supposition that the spacesuits malfunctioned.  You could even have it to where there was sabotage to benefit one of the survivors.  However, the fact it was this distant, remote Corporation does not make it a real threat, even if Mathieson holds capitalism to be the ultimate evil.  

I look on stories like the Third Doctor stories The Silurians and Inferno.  Both were political and had a firm left-wing viewpoint.  However, they could also be seen as mere adventure stories, one where the politics did not overshadow or overwhelm the basic story.  Oxygen is not on that level.  It could have been, but it chose to put its own political viewpoints ahead of the story.  That knocks it down, and even if I agreed with the point of view of Oxygen, I would still be bothered with it. 

Oxygen brings to mind two other episodes that covered similar grounds: the Fourth Doctor story The Sun Makers and the more recent Sleep No More.   The former was also about a group of oppressed workers and the evil Corporation that was taking advantage of them (though it was more through high taxation than through oxygen depravation).  In the latter, it was a group of zombie-like creatures on a spaceship.

Still, on the whole Oxygen was a remarkably strong episode, one that I would thought higher of if not for its overt propaganda.  I can imagine this coming out of Soviet Russia, and I figure the Chinese would hold Oxygen up as a reason to keep the Communist Party in charge.  Its blatant propaganda is something to give pause on.

In the end, I've decided to metaphorically split the baby.  The pluses of Oxygen (tight script, strong performances) balance out the minuses of Oxygen (a ham-fisted anti-capitalism message, a sense of deja vu with The Sun Makers).


Next Story: Extremis

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Wooden Figures of The Doctor


Knock Knock, at its core, is about accepting death and change.  If it weren't for some odd bits of logic lapses, it would be among the best 12th Doctor stories.  As it is, it is still quite good, helped by a strong turn by David Suchet.

Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) finds that she wants to live a more independent life.  As such, she joins five other college-age people in search of suitable digs.  Nothing comes their way until a mysterious figure (Suchet) comes along, offering a large mansion, complete with tower, for a ridiculously low rent.

These kids, being kids, immediately sign and move in.  The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) comes along and immediately suspects something is amiss.  Bill insists there is nothing supernatural or otherworldly about finding a very large house to let with a very creepy Landlord for a very low price.  Not even the fact the house doesn't get Wi-Fi seem to be a bother.  As far as Bill's concerned, things couldn't be better.

Caveat Emptor, says I, for soon things begin to go bump in the night.  It looks like all the flatmates are disappearing into the house itself, and the house is devouring them one by one.  The Landlord essentially confirms this, as does the presence of alien bugs that live in the wood and eat them one by one.

The Doctor discovers that every twenty years starting from 1957, a group of six tenants comes along and disappear, and now it is 2017's turn to be sacrificed.  The Landlord insists this has to be done to keep his daughter alive.  The Doctor convinces the Landlord to let him look in on the patient.

The patient, Eliza (Mariah Gale), we find is actually not the Landlord's daughter.  It's actually his mother, whom he has kept alive since 1947, when as a child he brought the bugs, unaware of their power.  He soon found that they preserved his mother in wood, and thus he has been luring people to their doom.  The Doctor triggers Eliza's memories, and she and The Landlord soon are consumed by the bugs, for it is both wrong and their time to go.

This releases all of the 2017 flatmates and they escape.  We end with Nardole (Matt Lucas) leaving his shift at The Vault with the Doctor coming into it, offering 'whatever is inside' dinner while listening to the prisoner play a piano.

Alas, my enjoyment of Knock Knock gets knocked down if you take the time to think on the odd turns of logic within it. 

These disappearances, taking place every twenty years, were never investigated?  In 1957, or 1977, or 1997, no one ever checked on the six people devoured by the Landlord's mansion?

I figure they had families and friends, but apparently no one ever bothered with them, seeing that the police never connected the fact that all six were last seen having one thing in common: the Landlord's house.

Is it a little convenient that Eliza would forget that she was the Mother and not the Daughter?  Did she ever question why she was made of wood, or did she not notice? 

She had been dying since 1947, so what exactly did she do for 70 years?  Seems a rather dull life just being locked away all that time (not even a television set to entertain old Mother Wood).

What exactly did the Landlord expect to do when he died (which as far as I know, the bugs weren't about to preserve him, at least not in human form)?  As a side note, he pretty much seems to have wasted his life preserving dear old Mummy, though to be fair, Knock Knock brought to mind a friend of mine.

He'll be 56 this June and he still grieves his mother who died last year.  He lived with her his whole life, has never married or had children, and recently said that it might take him the rest of his life to overcome her death.  My view is that this is unhealthy for him, and that such postmortem devotion veers close to obsession.  My friend, like The Landlord, might have taken this bizarre step from ever seeing his mother die, but it seems almost cruel to keep her in this form. 

Yet I digress.

Between 1947 and 1957, when the first sacrifices were made, who raised him?  If he had a father or even another relative (aunts/uncles, siblings, cousins), that might have kept the grief down.  It's not as if he could be literally left an orphan without anyone noticing.

An excuse used to not notice the absence of one of the flatmates, Pavel (Bart Suavek) is that whenever he moves somewhere new, he locks himself in his room for days on end.  Aside from this being really weird (doesn't go for food or the restroom), the flatmates don't seem bothered or notice that his record player is stuck in a groove for hours.  That excuse is a pretty weak one to explain away his disappearance.

Yes, Knock Knock does leave a lot of questions that on examination, either need a great deal of explanation or don't hold up.  There is another aspect of Knock Knock that disturbed me greatly, more than any plot holes of leaps of logic.

I get that Knock Knock is meant to be creepy, even downright scary.  However, I wonder if it is too scary for children, too graphic in what we're presented.  Seeing Pavel caught up in the wooden wall is downright grotesque, an image that I found highly disturbing.  I imagine children might have been downright terrified at the image.  The sight of the bugs devouring the others was also perhaps a bit much. 

Those two images, I think, might have been pulled back or altered, as I found them more graphic than necessary, especially for children. 

Again, if one gets past the various points of logic or the somewhat gruesome aspects of Knock Knock, the episode can be seen as a positive.  At the very top of the list of positives is David Suchet's performance.  Suchet is one of the best actors of his generation, and to many (including myself), he's the definitive Hercule Poirot (sorry, Albert, Peter, and soon enough, Kenneth).   He makes the Landlord creepy but also sad whenever the plot requires him to be.

Mackie and Capaldi have proven to be a great fit as Companion and Doctor respectively.  More than smart-alecky Clara, who was at times insufferable, Mackie's Bill is fun, smart without being a know-it-all, and comfortable in her own skin.  Her gentle way of telling one of the guys who fancied her that she couldn't fancy him was handled well without making a big spectacle of her "I'm GAY!" reality.  Their interplay when she attempts to pass The Doctor off as her 'Grandfather' (to the irritation of the Doctor, who wouldn't have objected to "Father") is funny without being ridiculous.

Apart from certain points of logic, a more graphic set of visuals, and the tired 'everyone lives' trope, Knock Knock displays far more positives than negatives.  A great performance by David Suchet, great work by Mackie and Capaldi, a strong sense of the creepy old house: all worked together well.  It might have been better if Knock Knock had been a two part story to allow for a less rushed feel, but on the whole it is a step above what we've seen before.

I thought long and hard about my ultimate feeling for Knock Knock.  I was disturbed by the graphic nature of some of it, and question a lot of the logic behind it.  However, with some work this season of Doctor Who has proven so far to be a much better, much stronger one.

Knock on wood.


Next Story: Oxygen

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Aragon vs. Anderson: Robot of Sherwood

Now that I have a few minutes free, I thought I'd go back to one of my great passions...bashing The Whorist (or as it's generally known, The Nerdist), in particular their Doctor Who reviews by one Kyle Anderson.

Mr. Anderson (now doesn't that sound sinister) in my view, has rarely if ever met a Doctor Who post-Rose story that he hasn't loved. I don't mean liked. I mean L-O-V-E-D, to where that particular episode is the Best Doctor Who Episode of All Time...until the next episode when THAT becomes the Best Doctor Who Episode of All Time. It's gotten to be almost a point of parody to see how Anderson rarely finds fault with a Doctor Who episode. I don't mean just to nitpick on a few things. I mean give a bona-fide negative review. Even I, someone who has been vociferous in my condemnation for many NuWho episodes, do admit when I see a good one (like Flatline or Mummy on the Orient Express). Anderson, however, will almost always find something to wax rhapsodic about, even on something as atrocious as In the Forest of the Night.

I was intrigued by this, so a little research was required. I went as far back as I could regarding Anderson's Doctor Who reviews, and the earliest one I could find was the Series/Season Six opener, The Impossible Astronaut. What I've done is taken Kyle Anderson's review verbatim, and offered my own 'translation' to the text to see what Anderson is, in my view, really saying. I also throw in my own thoughts as to what is being said.

I hope this will be a fun and informative journey into the strange mind of the Functioning Nerd.

I present Part 33 of The Nerdist as Whore: Robot of Sherwood. My 'translations' are in red.

Comic adventures are not the most common kinds of stories in Doctor Who, and the ones that have existed in the new series have tended to go for zany rather than funny. It’s a difficult tone to strike, and really the show hasn’t done it super well since the 1960s.

"Deep Breath" had a lot to do, and that fact that it did that, plus added wackiness, cracking dialogue, and tense if not downright terrifying moments just solidified once again why this is my favorite show.

Is it me, or is there something just a bit, well, odd, about saying how Doctor Who hasn't done 'comedy' "super well since the 1960s" and also say that Deep Yawn, a mere two episodes ago, managed to do 'wackiness' so well?  Perhaps 'wacky' is his 'zany', and thus, not in the 'comedy' genre, so I think we can cut him some slack.

Still, most modern Who is funny despite the terror, but this week’s episode, “Robot of Sherwood”, is just funny all on it’s own.

Grammar Police Alert: "It's" is a contraction of 'it is', not the possessive form of 'it', which is written 'its' (without an apostrophe).  Unless of course he meant to say that "'Robot of Sherwood', is just funny all on it is own".

I don’t remember the last time I smiled that much throughout an episode.

My guess would be when you saw Into the Dalek, since you liked that one too (just like you like almost all of Moffat-Era Who: 28 out of 33 positive reviews so far for our 'analytical critic' who is 'quite critical' when necessary).

It was just so delightful with its dialogue and not-quite-over-the-top silliness,

Geez, if Anderson thought Robot of Sherwood was 'not-quite-over-the-top silliness', one can only wonder when he thinks something IS well over-the-top!

but it also tells a good message about not giving up on legends because any hero can be real so long as they inspire heroism in others.

There is a marked difference between believing in mythological heroes enough where they inspire heroism...and believe that they are actual, historical figures that existed in real life.  My heroes as a child were Underdog and Indiana Jones, but even as a child I knew they didn't actually exist.  Robot of Sherwood is making the claim that "Robin Hood" was a real as Richard I or Winston Churchill.  If the Millennials cannot make that distinction, then it is proof positive that Common Core is a disaster.

My gosh, what an ep!

My gosh, what rubbish!

Written by perennial writer Mark Gatiss and directed by newcomer to the series Paul Murphy, “Robot of Sherwood” does what few episodes have done before, which is to blend comedy and adventure in a way that isn’t dumb,

and to let the series for once be about a “fictional” character from the past.

The quotation marks around "fictional" are enough to inspire derision for anyone who claims to be 'analytical' on this topic.

Being the huge classic series fan that he is, surely Gatiss was channeling a bit from the First Doctor story “The Myth Makers”, in which the Doctor and companions go back to Ancient Greece in the middle of the Trojan War and inadvertently cause the events surrounding the Trojan Horse, which the Doctor claims would never work because it’s just an Epic Poem. Of course, this episode forsakes “The Myth Makers”‘ horribly tragic ending

...because we all know The Trojan War was a knee-slapping bit of comedic hijinks...

and just stays with the swashbuckling adventure theme.
Clara wants to go meet Robin Hood, one of her favorite historical figures, but the Doctor tells her he’s just a myth and she’d be disappointed, then trying to get her to want to see the Ice Warrior encampments on Mars (bo-ring).

Now, let me see if I have this straight.  Clara is a teacher, which suggests she has a basic knowledge of various subjects and is educated.  This "teacher" also believes Robin Hood is a real, historic figure, someone who actually existed in real life.  Is it me, or do these two ideas fail to be logical?  Oh, I forget...Doctor Who is never and has never been about 'logic', not even internal.  It's about how it makes you 'feel'. 

Clara insists and the Doctor sets the TARDIS controls to Sherwood Forest, 1190AD-ish. He exits expecting to be 100% correct and is immediately met by Robin Hood (Tom Riley). That can’t happen, right?

Isn't it extraordinary that The Doctor managed to set the coordinates to where they would so easily stumble across a fictitious character just wandering about.  What Ever Are the Odds?  Is "1190 AD-ish" now the standard for accurate time-travel?

He’s just as brash and prone to fits of derisive laughter as his myth and Hollywood movies would lead you to believe.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Robin Hood with Russell Crowe didn't have a laughing, preening lead, Kyle.  Come to think of it, Errol Flynn's version in The Adventures of Robin Hood didn't have HIM laughing all the time either.  There were times in that film where Robin was quite serious and somber (let alone romantic with Maid Marion).  Maybe the Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. version can have this 'brash and prone to fits of derisive laughter' style, but this interpretation, EVEN if I grant you was a 'real' person, is more based on a stereotype of Robin Hood than myth or even Hollywood movies.

The Doctor asks if laughing ever got him punched in the face (hilarious) and the Prince of Thieves says he’s going to still the bony man’s blue box,

He's going to 'still' the bony man's blue box?  Why?  Is it moving?  Why would The Prince of Thieves want to 'still' anything?  Now THAT makes ME laugh!

despite Clara and her period-appropriate attire and her undeniable glee that they’d found Robin Hood so quickly.

A detail we need not bother questioning.

Robin draws his sword and the Twelfth Doctor 14th Form...

shows what he’s made of by drawing his own weapon… a spoon.

The Twelfth Doctor in 14th Form is going to fight off a fictional character...with a spoon.  Remind me again, Kyle, this Doctor is supposed to be a 'darker' Doctor, right?
After the duel ends, Robin takes both of our heroes to meet the rest of the Merry Men (what an apt name for them) and the Doctor still thinks something is wrong and that these people aren’t real. They can’t be!


He thinks they might all be in a Miniscope (reference to Third Doctor story “Carnival of Monsters”).

A story most NuWhovians have never seen, probably never heard of, and have no interest in.

Clara asks when he stopped believing in legends, and he asks when she started believing in mythical heroes.

I usually put that around 8 to 12.  Next thing you'll know, Doctor Who will say Santa Claus is real...

“Don’t you know?” is her very heavy reply.

She then talks to Robin and he tells her everything she already knows about his own mythos and that it was Maid Marian who convinced him to stand up to Prince John’s tyranny.

If memory serves right, in the movie The Adventures of Robin Hood (which Robot of Sherwood is shamelessly drawing from), Maid Marion was firmly on the Norman side and against Robin of Locksley, until she saw both how cruel some Normans were against the Saxons and that the divisions between Saxon and Norman was wrong.  They were all English now.  However, we'll go with Clara's version.

She also knows she’s sad because, the Doctor’s right, he laughs too much.

This sentence is a little confusing.  "She also knows she's sad," makes it unclear whether 'she' refers to Clara or Maid Marion.  For the longest time, I read it as "She also knows he's sad," since Anderson refers to Robin Hood as the "he" in "he laughs too much".  I figure it's a typo, which is not a terrible thing.  We all make mistakes when expressing ourselves.  I know I have (and will in the future).  However, this is the second or third curious error so far in this brimming press release that passes itself off as an objective review. 
If this is Robin Hood, there must also be a Sheriff of Nottingham, in this case played by guest star Ben Miller. He’s pretty darn evil all right. He has set up the famous archery match as a trap to catch Robin Hood. Naturally, Robin does amazingly well and is about to be awarded the golden arrow when another arrow splits his own. It was fired by the Doctor who doesn’t want the arrow, he wants something else. What follows is an increasingly ridiculous show of skill between the Doctor and Robin until finally, Robin reveals he is indeed who he says and the Sheriff’s knights attack. One gets its arm cut off and then the Doctor knows he’s right. He allows himself, Clara, and Robin to be captured because capturing is the best way to find out what someone’s evil plan is.
What follows is one of the funniest and best scenes in the episode, which is already pretty amazing with Capaldi-awesomeness.

It’s all about the Doctor and Robin Hood trying to out-hero each other with regard to coming up with the better escape plan. Neither of them have anything, and Clara knows it. The sheer amount of bickering is enough to driver mad;

"The sheer amount of bickering is enough to driver mad".  Is this the fourth error in an increasingly badly-written review?  Was it written with some type of Auto-Correct system that made erroneous choices?  I figure he meant to write "driver her mad", but the growing number of odd sentences is making this more and more hilarious than Robot of Sherwood itself. 

luckily, she is taken to see the Sheriff pretty quickly, and the Doctor and Robin are left to come up with something.
Clara is a genius!

Ah, yes.  I'm old enough to remember when The Doctor was the genius, the Companion less so, but Times Have Changed.

She manages to trick the Sheriff into telling her what happened with lights in the sky and the robots and everything. He wants to use them to overthrow Prince John and become king not only of England, but of the whole world, after Lincoln of course.

Villain wants to TAKE OVER THE WORLD.  Now that's new.

The Doctor and Robin do manage to escape and, after removing their shackles (the Doctor makes a joke and regrets it when Robin laughs), they find the control room. Seems the castle itself is a spaceship and its engines need repairing, in the form of gold.

One thing is certain: no Cybermen were involved in the making of Robot of Sherwood.

They were looking for the Promised Land too. Weird, eh?

A fellow reviewer made an interesting point about this season-long thread: since when do robots have a concept of "The Promised Land" or "Heaven"?  Details, details...

The robots databanks have a history of Robin Hood (including a picture of Patrick Troughton as Robin Hood in Robin of Sherwood from which this episode gets its name) and he thinks this is definitive proof that Robin isn’t real, but when the Sheriff bursts in and the robots begin firing on Robin, the knave takes Clara and jumps out the window into the moat below. The Doctor is then captured.

So let's see if I have this straight (again).  Doctor Who is going to make a story out of the fact that the 14th Form of The Doctor looks like a Roman from a previous Doctor Who episode, but the fact that the Second Doctor looks like Robin Hood (who ostensibly is a fictional figure) is going to be totally ignored?

The Doctor determines the robots plan to blast off soon, but they still don’t have enough gold and the ship will likely explode, destroying half of the country, if they do.

After a bit more hullabaloo, Robin is in a duel with the Sheriff and it’s learned that the Sheriff has been turned into a robot as well, so the only thing left for him to do is the Doctor’s sword fighting trick and knock the blaggard into the molten gold. But the robots still want to take off, so the Doctor, Clara, and Robin work together to fire the golden arrow into the ship to allow it to enter orbit, but then it explodes anyway. The Doctor and Clara leave Robin, and Mr. Hood

Shouldn't it be "Sir Robin of Locksley?"

tells the Doctor they’re both legends and that he doesn’t mind not being remembered as a real man so long as people take up the good fight in his name. Maybe people will do the same for the Doctor.

As I said before, this episode is just a delight. I loved everything about it.
SHOCKED that Kyle Anderson liked a
Doctor Who episode!

Even some of the sillier moments like the archery tournament worked for me because the overall tone of the episode made it work. The constant rivalry between the Doctor and Robin, not to mention the Doctor’s constant irritation at the very idea of the Merry Men, made for a lot of laughs.

He’s grumpy and older-looking but decidedly childlike and petulant about things.

Just like Donald Trump, or "Donald Tramp" as my mother keeps calling him in her delightful malapropism.

Both Tom Riley and Ben Miller were brilliant and gave very funny but not mawkish performances as their respective characters. Robin Hood’s incessant laughter was constantly hilarious to me.

Robin Hood's incessant laugh was constantly irritating to me. Anderson is a fool unto himself. 

This has to rank as one of my favorite Mark Gatiss-penned adventures, up there with “The Unquiet Dead” and “The Crimson Horror.” I can’t wait to see what he does for Series 9.

Next week, it’s a very intriguing-looking episode: “Listen” written by Stephen Thompson and Steven Moffat and directed by the exceptional Douglas Mackinnon and will see the return of Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink. The Doctor doing a bottle episode? Can’t wait!
These Doctor Who episodes are enough to have anyone start hitting the bottle. Second time he cannot wait for a Doctor Who episode.  If I see this one more time...

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Ice Capades Of The Doctor


We go to the same pattern with Doctor Who on Season Ten that we've seen with the show.

Episode One: Meet the New Companion.
Episode Two: Travel Far Into the Future.
Episode Three: Travel Into the Past, British History Only (far be it for a show about travel through time and space to visit Byzantium when Suleiman was laying siege to the fabled city).

If it sounds like I'm complaining, let me dispel you of that.  Thin Ice, the Episode Three of this pattern, is something that I haven't seen on Doctor Who of late: a smart, well-written, well-acted story.  It had monsters, menace, and a touch of humor.  Overall, Thin Ice is a sign that the hiatus might have done the show a world of good.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his newest Companion, Bill (Pearl Mackie) aimed to go back to present-day, but ended up in 1814, February 4th to be exact.  It is the last great Frost Fair on the Thames, and Bill is highly concerned about how her race will impact her presence there (slavery is still legal at the time).  The Doctor dismisses her concerns, especially when we see so many black people running around, even being in the military.  He tells her that there's a lot of whitewashing of history and that there were more blacks in history than has been told.

Even Jesus was black, he assures her, a point of debate but I digress.

Bill is also concerned about how her presence could alter the whole of history, how if she steps on a bug there could be chaos in the future.  The Doctor pokes a little fun at her expense about that, but then tells her things will be all right.

Things aren't all right though, after a pickpocket steals The Doctor's sonic screwdriver.  The leader of the urchins, Kitty (Asiatu Koroma) sees her accomplice swallowed up by a monster who encircles its prey with little lights.  The Doctor and Bill also see this and are horrified, though the Doctor is not as broken up about it as Bill is.

He has seen death, and caused it, too many times to be that involved. 

The Doctor and Bill now work to solve this mystery and end the horror (not to mention, save others from a similar fate).   They literally dive in to find beneath the Thames is a giant fish monster, and that it has been feeding off humans.  Kitty also tells them that the urchins are paid to lure people to the Frost Fair, and thus, to the monster (though the children know nothing of the monster itself).

The villain is Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns) whose family has enriched itself for centuries thanks to the monster, which they keep chained and whose waste they sell to provide power great than that of coal.  Lord Sutcliffe is enraged that Bill would receive him sitting down, and the Doctor is outraged that Sutcliffe would use humans to profit, seeing him as the real monster.

Sutcliffe decides to kill two birds with one stone by having the Doctor and Bill killed with a bomb, and that bomb will bring more food to the chained-up monster.  The Doctor, however, has a few tricks up his own sleeve.  They escape and warn people off the ice with help from the urchins, and when an enraged Sutcliffe sees they haven't been killed he accidentally falls into the water.  The bomb had freed the fish monster and taken Sutcliffe, and the Doctor alters Lord Sutcliffe's will to make one of the urchins his long-lost heir.

Back to the present, Nardole (Matt Lucas) scolds the Doctor for taking this little side trip, reminding him of the Vault that has to be protected at all costs.  Nardole goes down there to hear it knocking, telling whatever is inside that it won't get out.

Thin Ice has a couple of curiosities, particularly due to race.  Bill, as a mixed-race person, worries about how her presence in Regency-Era Britain will make her stand out, but we see many black people at the Frost Fair (Kitty among them).  There is an attempt to cover that by saying that there is more blackness in history (down to Jesus Himself being black) but given that Doctor Who is fantasy, I wonder if the audience would have given it a second thought.

For example, when Lord Sutcliffe became angry at seeing Bill seated in his presence, I put his fury up to class, not race. Put that up to my naïveté, but I didn't think race was that important.  It is also the fact that we see many black actors in Thin Ice in both supporting and non-speaking roles that I wonder if in the end, Bill's race was that important.

I also disliked a scene where we end with Bill about to say, "No sh..." and cut out the rest with a horse's neigh.  It is a family show, and yes, they cut off before Bill could finish saying something, but I'm wary of moments like those.

However, those are minor points, as Thin Ice harkens back to more traditional Doctor Who: an otherworldly mystery, some humor, and a sensible plot (the last being the biggest surprise given how convoluted the show has become).  It has a mild negative in that it harkens back also to another NuWho episode (The Beast Below): a chained-up monster, children in danger, the monster being used/abused by humans, the Doctor releasing it, and all ending well.

Still, what we have in Thin Ice is a good, tight script where the elements came together (a fisherman who appears briefly is tied into the story later on).  We also have some fun with a trope of time-travel shows: the idea that being there will alter the whole of human history.  Mackie's performance underscores the humor in those moments of Bill's worry: her excessive worry being fodder for the Doctor's jabs at her fears.

Mackie does a great job not just in Bill's fears, but in her joy at being in the past and her anger and hurt at the Doctor's curious reaction to a child's death (though again, for a family show, is suggesting a child's death a bit much).  There's a strong sense of tension and fear in Thin Ice, and that comes not just from the script but from the performances.

The Doctor too is in fine form.  Capaldi's mix of regret and remoteness, his anger at the abuse Lord Sutcliffe inflicts, and his teasing of Bill all shape a great performance.  It solidifies my view that Capaldi could have been a great Doctor if not for the scripts.

Burns' Lord Sutcliffe was a bit weak as the villain (he was missing the mustache to twirl) and the character wasn't overwhelming, but that is probably due to the rushed nature of the episode,

Still, despite some weaknesses, Thin Ice is a pretty solid Doctor Who episode, and one of the better ones to come down the pike in a long time.

"Passion fights, but reason wins," The Doctor tells his Companion when explaining why he didn't just take a swing at Sutcliffe to start with.  Many a true word (though if memory serves correct, he does take a swing at him later).  

Humor and horror...on the whole, Thin Ice is pretty strong.


Next Episode: Knock Knock

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Happy Face of The Doctor


When I learned that Doctor Who was going to build an episode around emojis, those small pictures that many Millennials use to communicate emotions, I was aghast.  It's the lowest point on a show that has had too many low points.  A show about emojis?  Is the show now catering to the fanboys who use these via texts?  I was filled with dread.

Smile, the episode built around emojis, defies low expectations.  It doesn't mean that it is good, or that we don't get a quick resolution and some weak moments.  It just means that there is some logic to using emojis.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) offers his newest Companion, Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), a chance to travel on the TARDIS.  It has to be done a bit under the table, as the Doctor's other Companion, Nardole (Matt Lucas), scolds the Doctor for so much as moving the TARDIS even if it's to avoid taking the stairs.  Nardole tells the Doctor he has to stay on Earth, having made a pledge to do so, especially with regards to safeguarding a vault (which appears to be the recurring theme this season...what's behind Door Number One?).

The Doctor pretty much dismisses Nardole's warnings and offers a chance to show Bill some sight either from the past or the future, and she chooses the future.  With a bit of travel, they arrive on the Earth's first colony, patiently awaiting arrivals.  There is already a native population of sorts there, the Vardy, nanorobots who have literally built up the city.  There are also robots who communicate through emojis.  All this thrills Bill, whose tag has a happy face.  The Doctor's tag shows more questioning, but at least it's not a sad face.

There is some sort of glitch in the system among the robots.  They detect sadness as being bad, so bad that they have to kill you if you aren't smiling.  We know this because was saw some of the crew die as a result of showing grief, but to The Doctor and Bill, all they see is a world ready to be occupied by the colonist.

They soon however put two and two together when they discover what happened to the-now literal skeleton crew.  Fearing that there will be a massacre when the colonists arrive, the Doctor and Bill attempt to blow everything up before they arrive.  Bill, however, makes a few discoveries.

One, she finds the corpse of an old woman and a visual journal detailing the chaos they left behind.  Two, she finds a little boy looking for his Mummy. 

That means that the ship bringing colonists isn't coming.  It's already here. 

The Doctor finds that the emojibots, programmed to have happy colonists, didn't understand sadness and took it for disease that had to be exterminated.  As such, when they saw some showing grief, they were promptly killed.  Worse, the crew has started waking up and when they find the bots are murdering them left right and center, they will attempt to wipe them out, unaware that the nanobots are the real danger, not the emojibots.

The Doctor races to stop them from going to war, and he does so by essentially rebooting the emojibots: setting them back to a default status before they knew what grief and sadness were.  With that, trouble avoided and the two travelers can go back in time for tea. 

Unfortunately, they end up in a frozen Thames, with an elephant walking towards them.

I think my issue with Smile is a bit two-fold.  The first part comes from the fact that Smile hits similar themes as a Classic Doctor Who story: the Seventh Doctor story The Happiness Patrol.  Frank Cottrell-Boyce, I don't think, intentionally meant to hit on similar plot points with Smile that were hit on by The Happiness Patrol (people who were killed for not being happy), but in many ways Smile can be called at the least a variation of The Happiness Patrol.

If you want to call Smile a remake, reboot, reimagining, or flat-out rip-off of The Happiness Patrol, that is your business, not mine.

I figure most NuWho fans have never heard, let alone seen, The Happiness Patrol, so they wouldn't think anything was amiss.  Classic Who fans, or at least those with vague or hazy memories of it, might, and that might lead them to look a little askance at Smile.

The second part comes from the quick resolution, one that pretty much would have or perhaps should have come to the Doctor earlier.  It's almost a 'push the magic button' type resolution: all you had to do was reboot the robots and there you go.  It's almost a wonder why the Doctor didn't think of it sooner.

I suppose if he had, there wouldn't have been as much 'tension' as Smile wanted to have.  I didn't feel a great deal of tension for the most part, but when he basically tells us that all that was needed was to restart the system, one almost gasps at both how quick the resolution is and how easy it all was.

This entire 'the colonists are going to war' thing wasn't building up to a great deal.  Perhaps some reworking of Smile might have amped up the tension (such as having the colonists find the skeletons and, becoming enraged, then going off to war, with the Doctor and Bill desperate to stop the chaos).

If it weren't for those two primary elements (and the gruesome nature of the human fertilizer), I think I'd be more inclined to like Smile.  There are good elements, such as both Capaldi and Mackie's performances.  They are working so well together that Lucas can be forgotten (and frankly I wish he were).

Oh, and one last thing.  The name of the colonists' ship, the Erehwon, may be a nod to a novel, but it still spells 'Nowhere' backwards.

Smile did not cater to pop culture trends with the emojibots.  I don't think that in fifty years time we will be able to rewatch Smile without seeing it as slightly dated because of the emojis.  They are ready-made for toys, aren't they?  It wasn't a horror but it could have been more.


Next Episode: Thin Ice