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

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Gay Companion of The Doctor


It's no secret that Doctor Who has been having a bit of a crisis.  Despite the constant propping up of professional sycophants like The Nerdist's Kyle Anderson, who keep telling its readers that the show is still both brilliant and highly popular, the formerly can't-miss sci-fi show has lost a lot of its luster.  Apart from the Christmas Special that met with mixed reviews and interest, Doctor Who has been on hiatus for a year (and for some, not been missed).   The show also has lost its lead, as star Peter Capaldi will have his final season this year.

With all that, we turn to The Pilot (formerly known as A Star in Her Eye), as pun-worthy a title as any we've seen.  For the uninitiated, The Pilot is what you usually call a premiere episode of a new series.  It's as if showrunner and writer Steven Moffat, held in equal terms as a genius and a monster, wants us to think of this season as a fresh start, as if in effect The Pilot were a whole new beginning for the decade-long plus show.  The Pilot also refers to the thrust of the story: aliens who find someone to 'pilot' them out of Earth.  The Pilot also introduces us to a new Companion: Bill Potts, who is touted as the first openly-gay Companion on Doctor Who (Captain Jack and River Song notwithstanding). 

Now, the question to ask is, "Does The Pilot work to restart the show, or is it a case of false branding?"

Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) serves chips, and is a biracial lesbian (aside: is it me, or does it look like Doctor Who has some sort of list of minorities it feels it has to check off to meet some kind of quota).  She serves chips at the university, where The Doctor (Capaldi) and his other Companion, Nardole (Matt Lucas) have been hiding out (shades of the unfinished Fourth Doctor Shada).  The Doctor is intrigued by Bill (who despite being in her mid to late twenties apparently still lives with her foster mother).  She's not a student but attends his lectures, and her reactions are always different from all the other students.

Taking her under his wings as a mentor, even getting her enrolled at the University, Bill proves a sharp and inquisitive mind.  She also finds herself attracted to Heather (Stephanie Hyman), whom she met at a club and who also goes to the University.  Bill quickly gets involved in the Doctor's mysteries when she follows him and Nardole to where they have a secret vault containing something wicked, and when it comes to Heather, she notices what looks like a star in Heather's eye (which Heather describes as a defect).

Heather appears rather obsessed with a puddle and asks Bill to look at it, asking two questions: how can there be a puddle when there's been no rain, and if there is something wrong with her reflection.  Bill doesn't give that much thought, but does sense that something is off.  Shortly after, Heather is at the puddle again, and she promises Bill that she won't leave.

She does disappear however, and Bill is a bit upset about that.  However, something wicked this way comes in the form of a water-dripping Heather, who now pursues Bill with an almost murderous abandon.  The Doctor, Nardole and Bill first go the vault, fearing that Water-Heather is after whatever is in the vault. 

Nope, it's after Bill, and thus the trio fly on a mad race: first to Australia, then to the very edge of the universe, only to find Water-Heather following them.  Finally, the Doctor takes them (and the pursuing Water-Heather) to a place with fire: the war between the Daleks and the Movellans (a nod to the Fourth Doctor story Destiny of the Daleks).  Heather-Water even takes the form of a Dalek, and this hunt has been to try and get Bill to be the passenger.  Over the Doctor's objections, Bill takes Water-Heather's hands and sees the universe, but tells her she has to let go.  Water-Heather does so, and thus ends the crisis.

Back on Earth, The Doctor wants to erase Bill's memory but she pleads to remember for a week, or at least this night (reminding me of Desdemona's plea to Othello, "kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight).  The Doctor doesn't have it in him to wipe out her memory and tells her to run.  Quickly, however, he offers her a chance to go on the TARDIS.

The Pilot is an improvement over some of the horrors of the past few seasons.  Granted, that's a low bar, but at this point, one should be grateful for getting any positives.  A good part of the credit should go to Mackie, working on her first big project as an actress.

I personally don't care whether Bill's a lesbian, biracial, a biracial lesbian, or a biracial lesbian who lost her virginity to a non-binary transgender and celebrated this by doing cartwheels while singing I've Written a Letter to Daddy.  

Her sexuality isn't a major part of the story, at least to me because I didn't believe that she'd be that heartbroken about losing Heather.  I'm going to put her sadness to seeing a person die, not because she lost someone whom she didn't have an actual romantic relationship with.  I didn't buy that Heather was this big love of Bill's life (at certain points, I don't think Heather even knew who Bill was despite meeting at a club).  Yet I digress.

Mackie's Bill is smart, eager for a change, and genuinely pleasant. Her longing for her birth mom, her lack of honesty with her foster mom (who thinks she's straight), and her ability to put things together quickly are all positives in the characterization.

I can do without the comic stylings of both Nardole and Matt Lucas, who didn't have that much to do here (and whose appearance as a full-on Companion is strange to me).  Why he has become so important to the series is something I can't get behind, and some of his comments are cringe-worthy (such as telling Bill to "give it a minute" before going to use the TARDIS toilet).  I think he could have been written out of The Pilot without it affecting the story.  Capaldi does strong work as the not-as-grumpy but still a bit eccentric Doctor, and he brought a sense of tragedy to his role (even if it involved that awful River Song via photos of her and Susan Foreman, whom I know some NuWho fans have no idea who she is).

There were other elements that I didn't care for.  Moffat still cannot resist throwing in a "Doctor Who?" line, or in this case, "Doctor What?".  That pretty much has grown stale to being cliché in any Moffat-penned script.  While I did enjoy hearing Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart (one of the great songs in my opinion), it's another case of something being too on-the-nose to what is going on.

I suppose there was a logic to having Water-Heather being able to fly about through time and space in pursuit of Bill (though seeing Heather all wet wasn't scary as it was slightly amusing). 

I just wasn't overwhelmed with The Pilot, though if it had been an actual pilot it might have scored higher.  I don't think you can ask Who fans to ignore a lot of what has happened, and I don't know that they would even if they were overtly asked like they were with The Pilot.

Neither a horror nor a masterwork, The Pilot is slightly above average.  Given some of the absolute drivel we've been handed, that in itself is almost a miracle.



Next Episode: Smile

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Extended Universe of The Doctor


The Return of Doctor Mysterio is the only new Doctor Who story that 2016 will have, the show being on 'hiatus' since the last Christmas special and not scheduled to return until April 2017.  I imagine that this homage/send-up of superhero stories will be enough to stop the downward slide Doctor Who has entered.  I didn't hate The Return of Doctor Mysterio.  I didn't love it either.  It was a non-event, a retread of things we've seen before spoken in other voices, other rooms.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is in New York City and meets a little boy named Grant, who has a cold.  The Doctor is working on some machine that does something and Grant has spotted him.  The Doctor gives him a glass of water that he pulls out of his coat, a red capsule-looking object and says 'take this', then seems genuinely surprised when Grant tells him he swallowed it.  This object grants the being anything he/she/it wants the most.  We find that Grant wants to be a superhero like the ones he reads about in comics.

Many years later, the Doctor, along with his temporary Companion Nardole (Matt Lucas), whom we met in The Husbands of River Song, are back in NYC, investigating the Harmony Shoals Company.  Here, he meets plucky journalist Lucy Fletcher (Charity Wakefield), who also suspects there's something sinister at Harmony Shoals. As the villain threatens them with a gun, enter The Ghost (Justin Chatwin), a Superman-type who speaks like Christian Bale's version of Batman.  Everyone is shocked at his appearance, and after temporarily disabling the villain, The Ghost takes Lucy in his arms and flies her away.

The Ghost is really Grant as an adult, who attempts to balance his superhero duties with his main job: a nanny.  Not just any nanny, but nanny to Lucy's child.  Grant can fool everyone, with his soft manner and glasses, but not The Doctor, who knows immediately who The Ghost is.  Who else in NYC has superhero powers thanks to him?  The Doctor is displeased that Grant is using his powers despite Grant's promise not to, and even a flashback where in middle school The Doctor again counsels him not to doesn't help.  It does help us find that Grant has always been in love with Lucy but too shy to approach her.  Whether SHE remembers Grant at all is unclear.

The villains are a nefarious alien group made up of literal brains, who are stealing bodies as part of an invasion of Earth (anyone yawning at this point?).  The Doctor and Nardole begin disrupting Harmony Shoals' worldwide plan (in Tokyo, he unleashes Pokémon in the lobby) and Nardole proves surprisingly adept at piloting the TARDIS (with a brief, accidental stop in Byzantium, where he somehow ruled as Emperor, complete with robes).

Grant/Ghost has a hard time balancing his two worlds, running back to Lucy's flat every time the baby starts crying, and Lucy is completely unaware that Grant is The Ghost.  At a rooftop interview the romantic vibes are going when the villains show up.  They want The Ghost's body, the perfect place to place the master brain I guess.  The Doctor and Nardole, for their part, are on a spaceship trying to stop an invasion...that has already happened.  The spaceship is a Reichstag Fire-type incident, which will destroy New York and have world leaders scurring to Harmony Shoals for protection, where they'll have their brains replaced and thus, conquest.

The Ghost manages to stop the crashing spaceship, even if it means revealing his true identity.  Lucy doesn't care...she's in love.  The Doctor and Nardole for their part, are off again, the Doctor still deep in mourning for his favorite slut, River Song.

Perhaps it should be worth nothing that "Doctor Mysterio" is what Doctor Who is called in Spanish-speaking countries, so The Return of Doctor Mysterio could be metaphorically translated as The Return of Doctor Who.  Isn't writer/showrunner Steven Moffat such a clever, witty man?   

I understand Mark Gatiss, who has written for Doctor Who and works with Moffat as co-creator/writer/actor on Sherlock (a show I find similarly overrated and exaggeratedly praised), cried when he read The Return of Doctor Mysterio.  I wonder if he cried out of laughter or at the shock of finally seeing what he and Moffat had done to Doctor Who

Doctor Who was once science fiction.  Now it's just farce. 

Doctor Mysterio wasn't awful in a Husbands of River Song or Sleep No More way.  It just wasn't anything really.  Too many critics are giving Doctor Mysterio a pass because as a Christmas special, they argue that it should be lighter, almost irrelevant to any other story.  I argue that while a Doctor Who Christmas special can be lighter, it still is part of Canon and should be treated as any other Doctor Who story regardless of season. 

There is a fine line between homage and rip-off or even send-up, and Doctor Mysterio is flat-out a rip-off of Superman: The Movie.  I will grant that I figure Moffat (and those watching) were fully aware of this.  However, the entire rooftop interview, complete with Lois Lane, eh...Lucy Fletcher (or her nom de plume, Lucy Lombard) was virtually stolen from Superman.  It shows a total lack of originality because Moffat didn't play with the conventions, he didn't try for anything new.  Instead, he figured it would be easier to just recreate the scene virtually verbatim (I was waiting for Lucy to start singing Can You Read My Mind?).

Superman took its time to establish the overall mythos of The Man of Steel.  Doctor Mysterio didn't have that luxury, OK, so it was easier to lift so much from Superman with the expectation that the audience would know the references.  This is curious since perhaps there was someone like The Doctor, who was unaware that Superman & Clark Kent (openly mentioned in Doctor Mysterio) were one and the same, and had apparently never heard of Spider-Man.

How curious that the 10th Doctor was well-versed in pop culture (the ending of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows made him cry), but the 12th (in 14th Form per Kyle Anderson at The Nerdist) has never heard of Superman, or Spider-Man, or the film Alien from Last Christmas

Was The Return of Doctor Mysterio meant to be a spoof of Superman?  At times it played like that (when The Ghost is being interviewed at a fire, he ends by practically leaping out of the television screen, points his fingers, and shouts, "So, GET A SMOKE DETECTOR!" in a camp way that is a little cringe-inducing).  Over and over again, Doctor Mysterio was too enamored of being Doctor Who: The Superman Edition to be Doctor-centered.  As is the case with much of current Doctor Who, the Doctor himself was not the central character. 

It is Grant/The Ghost and his love story with Lucy, which again isn't all that interesting given we've seen it before and seen it done much better.

It is also a bit of a puzzle how The Ghost doesn't immediately recognize the Doctor when he's seen him twice, or how Lucy doesn't put the Ghost and Grant together, not because Grant wears glasses, but because their voices are eerily similar.  If we go into Superman: The Movie's Clark Kent/Superman, Christopher Reeve made that distinction believable because his whole manner of being when he was Clark Kent (bumbling, insecure, timid) was wildly different than when he was Superman (strong, confident, powerful).  Clark even moved differently: head close to his chest, as if trying to hide, while Superman stood tall and erect.  There wasn't all that much difference between how Grant and The Ghost were, so it wasn't that hard to put two and two together.

The voice again is what bothered me.  Justin Chatwin's voice was not that different from when was Grant and he was The Ghost, so I wondered why Lucy couldn't get it.  Then again, Lucy, from what the story presented, thought The Ghost wasn't real, so when he smashes into Harmony Shoals was the first time they had actually met.  Still, there wasn't that much deviation in Chatwin's voice (a very strong baritone, a touch gravelly), so why didn't she at least wonder.  Lois Lane to her credit in Superman and Superman II at least wondered if Clark and Superman were the same. 

The performances were acceptable, nothing that was incredible.  Chatwin made for a competent Superman/Batman knock-off with 'typical' powers, though as Grant he was flat and uninteresting.  Wakefield was also acceptable as the reporter who was nothing more than the love interest.  Lucas is not someone I care for, but Doctor Who at least made a wise decision in toning his uber-idiot Nardole down from his last appearance in The (Many) Husbands (and Wives) of River Song.  Surprisingly, Nardole managed to pilot the TARDIS quite well (given he's still a bit of an idiot/comic relief) and was actually much smarter as a Companion than some of The Doctor's previous ones (looking at you, Rory "Pond").

As a side note, how did Nardole manage to pilot the TARDIS so well?

We still had to have him dressed up as a Byzantine Emperor for no other reason than to have a 'funny costume' and had to throw in pop culture references that will date the show immediately (a little Pokémon Go a few years when that fad wears out and people forget it, viewers of The Return of Doctor Mysterio will have to go online to find out what they're talking about).

The alien menace never felt as if it were a genuine threat for two reasons.  One, we've seen it all before (alien invasion of Earth...seriously, can they come up with nothing else).  Two, the Grant/Ghost-Lucy story was the one they really cared about, so the aliens seemed a bit of an afterthought, as if they needed to be there because Doctor Who should have some extra-terrestrials in it.

We got the Doctor creating a machine in the beginning for some reason, but what happened after Grant took the device that granted him powers we know not; in fairness to young Grant, any child would have mistaken the device as medicine given the Doctor gave him a glass of water and instructed him to 'take this' as opposed to 'hold this'...and that glass of water business being pretty dumb to begin with.

Guest star Capaldi did what he could, making the Doctor a bit of a frantic yet slightly dimwitted figure (he snacks on sushi while casing Harmony Shoals, just because he wants a little snack, and is apparently unaware that New York City isn't a capital.  It takes Nardole to point that out to him).

The Return of Doctor Mysterio is nothing special, nothing original. Repetitive of past Doctor Who stories (alien invasions, smarter Companions, the Doctor as secondary player in eponymous show, even with a "Doctor Who?" line that Moffat clearly cannot resist), of Superman: The Movie (scenes and bits of dialogue lifted from the film), it is forgettable, disposable, and with hints of future returns that may not pan out (a shout-out to the lousy character of Osgood and one of the aliens taking over a UNIT member's body, though when and how...irrelevant).

Ultimately, The Return of Doctor Mysterio is...nothingness itself.  A better title for this special would have been Doctor Who in Superman Meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.


Next Episode: The Pilot (formerly A Star in Her Eye)