Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Yes, Spouses Can Be A Little Ood


Although the Doctor (Matt Smith) has had children and grandchildren (or at least a daughter and granddaugther), he's never had a wife...until now.   However, trust the good folks at Doctor Who to make even the simplest of things extremely complicated.  The Doctor's Wife comes from comic book/science-fiction icon Neil Gaiman, so it is bound to be good, and it is.  However, there are some things that this series simply can't get away from. 

The Doctor (Matt Smith) receives a distress signal...from a Time Lord.  He is not surprisingly thrilled...perhaps there WERE some survivors of the Time War and he is not the Last of the Time Lords.  With that, he flies the TARDIS outside the universe, to what appears to be a junkyard.  There, he encounters four beings: Auntie (Elizabeth Barrington), Uncle (Adrian Schiller), an Ood called Nephew (Paul Kasey), and a disheveled woman named Idris (Suranne Jones).  The Doctor misleads his Companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) into going back to the TARDIS while he seeks out The Consair, his old Gallifreyan friend.

Bad move on two points.  The Consair is truly dead, as are other Time Lords who survive only in messages within boxes.  Second, the asteroid they are on is really a living thing, called House (voiced by Michael Sheen), who lives off the energy of TARDISes (or would it be TARDI?).  With The Doctor yet again the last of the Time Lords, guess who is after the TARDIS?  As it stands, Idris is not like Auntie, Uncle, or Nephew (all who are made up of various parts, including pieces of Time Lords--lo, how the mighty have fallen), isn't like all the others.  She in truth is the TARDIS  in human form.

House has taken the TARDIS, threatening Rory and Amy.  To extend the story...I mean, to keep themselves alive, Rory and Amy challenge House to toy with them before killing them, leading to an old Doctor Who standard: running down corridors.  During the chase, Amy and Rory are continuously separated, and at one point Amy comes across what appears to be Rory's bones (this will be important later).  The Doctor and Idris, meanwhile, build a TARDIS console made up of pieces from other TARDI/TARDISes to rescue his Companions.  The Doctor and House 'meet' in the old console, and it takes Idris' sacrifice to save them.  In the coda, Rory tells the Doctor Idris' last words: "the only water in the forest is the River"...foreshadowing.  Da-da-DUM!

The Doctor's Wife has a great inventiveness to it with great nods to the whole Doctor Who mythos.  By setting the entire thing in a junkyard, it is highly reminiscent of the very first Doctor Who story An Unearthly Child.  Whether Gaiman also threw in a nod to the Doctor Who cliche of having people running down the same corridors I do not know, but seeing Rory and Amy doing just that evokes memories of that. 

The story is also highly creative in giving a Doctor Who icon a voice for a very first time.  In all the years of Doctor Who, we've never considered the TARDIS (with a few exceptions) as anything more than a mode of transportation.  With The Doctor's Wife, we now see the breath of the TARDIS' power.  Gaiman's script also has a great deal of humor that never comes at the expense of the tragedy or horror of the story.  The Doctor tells Idris, for example, to send a telepathic message to "the pretty one".  Not surprisingly, she would pick Rory as "the pretty one" (Idris being a woman, she WOULD pick Rory to be the 'pretty one').   There is even a quick joke about Smith's chin.

Part of the success of The Doctor's Wife comes from the performances, in particular Jones' as the manic, almost looney Idris (side note: Gaiman's script has great wit in the names.  Idris, TARDIS--how close they are, right?).  In her quirky, somewhat nutty interpretation of Idris, she appears to be mimicking Smith's Doctor in his oddity, rapid movements, and generally quirky behavior.  I keep flipping on Matt Smith: sometimes I love his interpretation of the Doctor, sometimes he annoys me in his twittering mannerism.  It depends I suppose on the story.  In The Doctor's Wife, Smith balances his usual wild take on the Doctor with a genuine heartbreak at how the Time Lords yet again have disappeared from his world. 

Another strong performance comes from Sheen (whom I generally love as an actor except in the Twilight films, where I found he made his 'vamp' camp).  To his immense credit, he has only his voice to work with as House, and he could evoke menace with the proper inflection without making House a raging lunatic.

There are many great things in The Doctor's Wife, but some things I objected to greatly.  Chief among them is a throwaway line.  When the Doctor was telling them about the tattoo the Consair always had at every regeneration, he said the Consair had it whenever himself, 'or herself, a couple of times', regenerated.  That would appear to establish that Time Lords can change genders, and this kind of dialogue is dangerous business.  Recall The Deadly Assassin: a simple line established that Time Lords regenerate only twelve times, and now we have that as established mythology.  With this, we now have a situation that might appeal to fans (oh, the Doctor can be a woman, Romana can be a man), but we have something I don't think people think out: Time Lords, apparently, are now hermaphrodites. 

I have long argued that Time Lords are single sex beings: a male Time Lord will always be a male Time Lord, a female Time Lord will always be a female Time Lord.  By having Time Lords be either, we have this situation where the control of their regeneration is completely in their hands.  That being the case, if the Doctor regenerates as a man, it's because he wants to.  Therefore, why hasn't he simply regenerated with ginger hair, seeing he wants it so much?  Furthermore, we can't have things thrown at us and quickly forgotten.  The TARDIS still makes the 'whoosing' sound, even though the Legendary Legend of Legendness, DOCTOR RIVER SONG (who mercifully isn't in this episode), already established that the sound is only made because the Doctor parks the TARDIS without taking out the brake.  It wasn't funny then, it isn't funny now (and I would have thought Idris would have told him how much that hurts her...if it were a real thing and not just a cheap joke).

Granted, this may all be a bit nitpicky, but why shouldn't I take writers and producers to task for such things?

I also thought House wasn't all that powerful of an adversary.  He devoured TARDI for his own power beyond the universe (side note: it did make me think of E-Space, but I digress) but he didn't really have as strong an impact as other monsters (though having the asteroid as the living thing was a stroke of genius).  The presence of the Ood wasn't all that important: Nephew could have been any creature if one thinks on it.

Finally, I'm instituting the Official Rory Williams Death Count.  This simple service will keep track of the number of times Mr. Amelia Pond has died on screen, both in the individual episode and the series as a whole.  Here is where we have a question: did Rory Die Again?  This could go either way: we didn't see him die (unlike all the other times) but Amy did come across a corpse that we took to be Rory.  It was all done so quickly I'm almost tempted to not count it as an official Rory Williams Death because this was the first time he didn't actually die on screen.  However, given how we're suppose to believe that the bones Amy comes across are suppose to be Rory, I'll have to count it as yet another example of how poor Rory never seems to complete a series/season without kicking the bucket. 

Side note: I'd love to see a scene where Rory literally kicks a bucket.  Might as well have more jokes on his perpensity to drop dead every few episodes. 

The Doctor's Wife is one of the best episodes of Series/Season Six, one with a good mix of horror and humor.  However, I can't overlook a few things, especially how it gave me hope there were still some Time Lords only to rip that from me almost as quickly.  "You gave me hope and then you took it away.  That's enought to make anyone dangerous," the Doctor tells Auntie and Uncle on discovering that his fellow Time Lords were being used for spare parts.  I couldn't have found a better way of describing the revived series myself.

Rory Williams Death Count

In episode (ONE)
Overall (FOUR)


NEXT STORY: The Gangers Parts 1 & 2 (The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Doctor Who Story 033: The Moonbase



The Moonbase is the earliest Second Doctor story that can be reconstructed.  His first two adventures, The Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders, have no surviving episodes and only some clips.  The third Second Doctor story, The Underwater Menace, has only one complete episode.  The Moonbase, a four-part story, has two complete episodes, and with the audio of Episodes One and Three you can build the entire story around the surviving material.  Just like The Crusade, we therefore can reconstruct The Moonbase and review it as a complete story rather than as bits and pieces.  While I hope that we will one day get an official reconstruction of The Moonbase, and while this story has the bonus of being the return of the Cybermen, The Moonbase itself falls a little short of expectations. 

The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), his Companions Ben (Michael Craze) and Polly (Annek Wills) and the Highlander Jamie McCrimmon (Fraser Hines), have landed on the Moon.  The Companions want to explore the Moon, and the Doctor reluctantly agrees.  Jamie is injured, but fortunately there is a base on the moon.  Here, a group of scientists are controlling the Gravitron, which controls the weather on Earth.  The moonbase is run by Hobson (Patrick Barr), who is highly suspicious of the new arrivals, but accepts them thinking that the Doctor is the doctor Earth is sending to try and find why so many of his crew are starting to fall ill.

Jamie is placed in sick bay and while there, continues to mutter about The Piper, threatening to take him to that big Highland in the sky.  However, it's no Phantom Piper that menaces the moonbase; it's the Cybermen.  Believed destroyed in The Tenth Planet, they have somehow survived and now are attempting to take over the moonbase.  One by one they are taking the crew: they have released a virus that makes them ill, then the Cybermen take a sick crewman one by one to "remake" him.  Soon, the Doctor discovers what is making them ill and how the Cybermen have been entering the moonbase surreptitiously.  Now, the Cybermen attack, determined to take the moonbase and kill all life on Earth (since the Gravitron on the moonbase controls the weather, it can create chaos on the surface).  The Doctor defeats the Cybermen by manipulating the Gravitron, and the metal villains (along with their ships) literally float away.  With that, the Doctor and his Companions quietly leave, and The Moonbase ends with our heroes seeing a gigantic claw on the monitor.

It is a shame that The Moonbase doesn't exist complete.  However, Kip Pedler's script starts out great and then slowly goes downhill, particularly in Episode Three.  Some things are beyond his fault.  During The Highlanders, it was decided that the character of Jamie would be part of the TARDIS crew, so he had to be written into the story.  The way to include Mr. McCrimmon was to put him in sickbay for two episodes, which perhaps was the only way to work him in, but his constantly protests about the Phantom Piper started wearing a bit thin and were becoming almost funny. 

There were also some rather bizarre choices director Morris Barry made.  For example, on the moonbase itself, the crew wore t-shirts with their respective country's flags on them.  Perhaps this was a way to denote they were from various countries (although from the footage we only saw British, French, Norwegian, and Australian crew--not exactly a worldwide effort), but the effect is a little curious.  One couldn't help think this was a cost-cutting effort.  If that aspect of the costumes wasn't already strange, it was the caps the crew had to wear inside the central control of the Gravitron that was just silly: it looked like they were wearing shower caps made of foam. 

There was also some pretty awful acting in The Moonbase.  Episode Four has what is suppose to be a terrifying assault by the Cybermen where the oxygen supply is cut off.  The way everyone is 'gasping for air' is so totally fake and highly exaggerated.  In Episode Two, when another crewman is taken ill, the acting is pretty lousy (if not laughable), but when the virus is seen to spread through his veins, that is a particularly effective, even frightening scene.  This I think more than anything else shows the good and bad of The Moonbase: a good story ruined by some bad choices.  One bad choice was in the voices of the Cybermen, not the actual voicework by Peter Hawkins, but in its use.  At times, it was hard to fully understand what they were saying.  This is more a growing pain for the Cybermen I imagine: their robotic voices would improve over time to where by their final appearance in the classic series (Silver Nemesis), they were intelligible. 

Side note: is it me, or are the Cybermen a lot like the Daleks?  They are at least similar in this way: both have no emotions.  Just a thought.

In a more historic sense, The Moonbase shows the casual sexism of the 1960s.  While Jamie and Ben are going around stopping the infected crew (controlled by the Cybermen) and the Cybermen themselves from taking the base, Polly is relegated to making the coffee and serving it to the crew.  She also gets attacked by a Cyberman in Episode Two, but the next time we see her in the same episode she is perfectly fine.  Watching The Moonbase now, it is hard to imagine someone like Sarah Jane Smith, let alone Rose Tyler or Amy Pond, doing nothing more than bringing coffee.  Admittedly, times have changed, so it is unfair to judge The Moonbase by today's standards.  However, it doesn't take away from seeing how a character is relegated to near-irrelevance.

Finally, the actual resolution to the Cybermen assault appears so quickly and almost comic.  A change in gravity has the Cybermen (along with their ships, which sadly you can see the strings on), just float away.  Literally, just float off into space.  To my mind, it appears a remarkably cheap and easy way to eliminate a threat that has been building for three episodes. 

There are good things within The Moonbase.  The story itself is quite clever, and the actual Cybermen attack in Episode Four creates a strong sense of menace and danger.  Troughton creates a great balance between serious drama and light comedy; he is trying to find the source of the virus but has had no luck.  Hobson is continuously threatening to kick them out of the moonbase, and the Doctor bluffs his way to get Hobson to leave the sickbay where he's conducting his experiments.  Here, Troughton shows his talent: he manages to sound serious to Hobson while quickly switching to slightly bumbling as soon as he leaves.

There is still a strong rapport between Wills and Craze, an affection mixed with a mild dislike, somewhat like a brother and sister.  Ben still refers to Polly as "Duchess" (mocking her more posh background to his Cockney roots) whenever he gets irritated with her questions, but it never appears to be said to spite her.  Hines starts out very slow (because he has to wait for that Phantom Piper), but by the end he takes the action role of Jamie and makes it his own.  It is unfortunate that with Hines' addition to the crew, the Companions often appeared to be secondary to the action rather than part of the story itself.  This isn't any of their faults: Wills, Craze, and Hines work well together, but having so many people in such a small space makes it hard to give them individual moments. 

It has a inventive story that with a bigger budget and some changes could have made it stronger (like getting rid of the national t-shirts).  Perhaps if the actual assault on the moonbase had been carried on longer, and we had more use of the unwitting Cybermen Fifth Column via the sick crewmen, The Moonbase could have been a real exercise in terror.   Despite its incomplete status,  The Moonbase is not one of the better Cyberman stories because of too many exterior aspects.  It does have the benefit of bringing back one of the best Doctor Who villains, one that have become iconic and rival the Daleks in terms of popularity.  However, the resolution doesn't work, the Companions are relegated to almost background players, and The Moonbase suffers from that.  In the end, The Moonbase ends up a trifle cheesy.


Next Story: The Macra Terror*

Monday, October 31, 2011

Have A Nice Ninth


With the exception of The Eight Doctor (in terms of televised episodes, which are the ones I go by), The Ninth Doctor has the shortest tenure of any Doctor on Doctor Who.  Allow me to state how I got to this conclusion.

If you go by number of stories, The Ninth Doctor has a total of ten.  The Sixth Doctor has a total of eleven stories IF you (like me) count The Trial of A Time Lord as four separate stories (The Mysterious Planet, Mindwarp, Terror of the Vervoid, and The Ultimate Foe).   IF you count The Trial of a Time Lord as ONE story, then you bring the Sixth's count to eight.  HOWEVER, if you go by number of episodes the Ninth Doctor has a total of thirteen (thanks to three two-episode stories).  Even by that standard, the Sixth Doctor still beats him because The Trial of a Time Lord has fourteen episodes ALONE (and that's if you count Trial of A Time Lord as ONE story.  If you went by the FOUR story cataloging...)  Tricky thing this accounting business. 

In any case, I count ten stories from Christopher Eccleston era:

The End of the World
The Unquiet Dead
Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2 (Aliens of London/World War Three)
The Long Game
Father's Day
The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances)
Boom Town
Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2 (Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways)

Now that we have come to a parting of the ways with our friend from the North, it's time to pause and look over his tenure. 

On the whole, I think Eccleston was 'fantastic' as the Doctor.  He could be funny, he could be deadly serious, he could be difficult, he even, at least once, could show genuine fear.  There were a variety of reasons why Eccleston decided to leave, and I wonder if Bad Wolf Part 2 would have been different if he did not have to regenerate.  Eccleston is in retrospect, the moodiest, dare I say, the angriest of Doctors, and it's not without blame: he saw all Gallifrey destroyed (something I have always felt was a mistake from the get-go).  Still, given he was there for just one season, I think he will rank on the higher end of the Doctor scale (even though I think all the Doctors have been good).

Now, it's on to our selections for the Best of Doctor Who: Series/Season One (Revived Edition).


Zoe Wanamaker (The End of the World)
Yasmin Bannerman (The End of the World)
Christine Adams (The Long Game)
Florence Hoath (The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2)
Jo Joyner (Bad Wolf Part 2)

Tough call since all were wonderful, but as I look at things, I give the edge to Wanamaker only because unlike the others, she had to use only her voice to create her character.  The fact that she could only be heard and still create a magnificent character (a bitchy trampoline, if memory serves correct), only adds to the strength of her performance. 


Simon Callow (The Unquiet Dead)
Corey Johnson (Dalek)
John Barrowman (The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2)
Simon Pegg (The Long Game)
Shaun Dingwall (Father's Day)

Now, is it fair to put a Companion here while not in the female category?  Well, I think it's because Captain Jack, as beloved as he is in certain circles (though not in this one), I felt worked best as just a guest star on The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2.  Note how he was redundant in Boom Town to where we almost forgot he was there.  He was the requisite action hero in Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2, and would it have killed Davies to have left him for dead?

I understand writers have an affinity for their characters, but for some reason Steven Moffat has done his best to build up the characters he's created (Captain Jack Sparrow...I mean, Harkness, and later on DOCTOR River Song) to being these Doctor Who Icons without whom the show simply could not go on.  In both their cases, I've never been particularly overwhelmed with either Harkness or Song (however, I digress...Spoilers, Sweetie).  This is why I consider him a Guest Star (although I begrudgingly have to recognize he IS a Companion).  However, I can't get into the Captain Jack mythos both Doctor Who and Torchwood build up.   

As for why Dingwall over Callow (a close vote)?  Well, I think Dingwall brought a great tenderness and tragedy to Pete, someone we end up liking but know must die.  Though both Callow and Dingwall were beautiful performances, I was more moved by the latter emotionally.


The Lady Cassandra (The End of the World)
Dalek (Dalek)
Henry Van Statten (Dalek)
Adam Mitchell (The Long Game)
The Dalek Emperor (Bad Wolf Part 2)

There's something sleazy in how Van Statten disposes of everyone, and worse, how he even does what was once inconceivable: make us feel sympathy for a Dalek.  If only that Dalek hadn't yearned for the 'human touch', if you will, we might have had another winner altogether.

Again, another curiosity: a Companion as a villain?  Well, first, he had no problem leaving Rose behind in Dalek, and then his greed for knowledge (which would grant him wealth and power in his own time) caused so many problems for everyone on Satellite Five.  In so many ways, Adam Mitchell was a major problem, so he is in a strong sense, a villain.


The Doctor realizes just who is calling for help (Dalek)
The Doctor and Rose face off over the Dalek's fate (Dalek)
Rose saying goodbye to her father Pete (Father's Day)
The Doctor pledging to rescue Rose (Bad Wolf Part 1)

I had to think between three emotional moments in Doctor Who: Season/Series One, and it's so interesting that for a science-fiction show, we have many tender moments.  This moment, when Rose gets to say goodbye to the father she's never known (at least until now), knowing that her face will be the last thing Pete will see, is extremely heartbreaking.  With all the power of time travel, Rose still cannot alter the future to where she and her father will be together.  They had this brief moment, and if one extends things, all children eventually have to let their parents go.  It was a beautiful moment. 


Jackie Tyler besieged by the Slitheen (Aliens of London Part 1)
The Doctor confronts his ultimate nemesis (Dalek)
The Dalek Rising (Dalek)
The Doctor, Jack, and Rose besieged by empty patients (The Empty Child Part 1)
Lynda getting blow away...literally (Bad Wolf Part 2)

A good Doctor Who frightening moment should make you curl up in your sofa, wondering what will happen next, fearing for your heroes.  The cliffhanger in The Empty Child Part 1 did exactly that.  When Lynda gets killed off, it is an especially effective moment of terror, made especially more so due to the silence (not to be confused with The Silence, another Moffat-ramming-pseudo-icons-down-our-throats business).  I think, however, having all these people, particular the titular child him, menacing an action hero (Captain Jack), the intellectual hero (The Doctor), and our fighting beauty (Rose Tyler), with seemingly no way out, made that moment far more frightening.

The End of the World
The Unquiet Dead
The Long Game
The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2

The cold of the Editor's room, the chaos of the floor the TARDIS landed in, all contributed to making The Long Game a set that could not benefit from being a period piece (which both The Unquiet Dead and The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 were).  Instead, we had to imagine a place that could exist, and one that was both familiar and alien. 


The End of the World
The Unquiet Dead
Father's Day
The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2

Here, there can be no contest.  As much as I like the 80s (though my memories of them are vague), it is almost for certain that period pieces win out, and from the shrouds of the undead to Rose's gowns and Dickens' frocks, The Unquiet Dead gains an edge. 


Keith Boak (Rose)
Euros Lyn (The Unquiet Dead)
Joe Ahearne (Dalek)
Joe Ahearne (Father's Day)
Joe Ahearne (The Empty Child Part 1)

I can't help that Ahearne earned three nominations: he is the director of three of the best Doctor Who: Season/Series One stories.  When considering directing, it isn't just the story, but the performances.  All the performances in Father's Day, from Camille Couduri's Jackie Tyler and Shaun Dingwall's Pete Tyler right on down to Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston, were all so beautiful: going from comedy to tragedy so effortlessly. 


Russell T Davies (Rose)
Mark Gatiss (The Unquiet Dead)
Robert Shearman (Dalek)
Paul Cornell (Father's Day)
Steven Moffat (The Empty Child Part 1)

It takes a great deal of talent and ability to introduce a historic figure without making it a gimmick.  Gatiss' screenplay for The Unquiet Dead kept a balance between being a fright-fest and being a great man, a true genius, contemplating his past.  I could talk about either The Doctor or Charles Dickens, and maybe I am talking about both.  Here, Dickens is an integral part, and the clever moments ("What the Shakespeare?") mixed in with the fantastical (the specters haunting Dickens' reading), and even the sad moments (Gwyneth's end) made The Unquiet Dead a brilliant story. 


The End of the World
The Unquiet Dead
Father's Day

It was really a matter of going over which earned a Perfect Ten.  Only two stories did.  One blew me away, one moved me almost to tears.  So close, so close.  However, after some thought, I still can't help being impressed by The Unquiet Dead's wit mixed with sadness. 

Yes, as with all things Doctor Who, we've had some simply ghastly moments.  I would be remiss to skip over them.  Therefore, with that in mind...


Rose telling the Doctor he's so "gay" (Aliens of London Part 1)
The Slitheen make a BIG NOISE (Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2)
The revelation of the Editor (The Long Game)
"Don't forget the welfare state" (The Empty Child Part 2)
Captain Jack reveals all (Bad Wolf Part 1)

I had narrowed down to two, and both involve Russell T Davies.  First, for an openly gay man like Davies allowing one of his characters to use the word 'gay' as a slur is to my mind simply inexcusable and highly distasteful.  However, at least a defense can be made that this would be true to the character: Rose is a working-class girl with no great education, so one could argue she doesn't see it as offensive.

What I DON'T like, and have never liked, is to have the person's political views enter into the show so nakedly.  When trying to inject politics into science-fiction, it should be subtle and clever (District 9, the original The Day the Earth Stood Still).  Davies doesn't have that subtlety: Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2 were nothing but his thinly-veiled hatred for George W. Bush and Tony Blair involving us in the Iraq Intervention.  Even that I could overlook, but having the Doctor take a direct  position (the joys of perpetual Labour governments providing womb to tomb services) is something I don't understand, believe, or accept. 


The Slitheen (Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2)
The Mighty Jagrofess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxarodenfroe (The Long Game)
Adam Mitchell (The Long Game)
The Reapers (Father's Day)
Margaret Blaine (Boom Town)
Beyond useless, The Mighty...has the silliest name of any monster, and he has such a long name just to show off how long his name can be.  One can't take such a monster seriously, and frankly, since he doesn't look like he is the brains behind this operation, I can't believe the menace is real.  Yes, in the long term, The Mighty...was just a front for another villain, but then it makes me think The Long Game really just wasted my time. 


Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2
The Long Game
The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2
Boom Town
Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2

The unfortunate thing about having only ten stories to deal with is that if you nominate five for your best, by default the remaining five will be the lumped with the worst.  Granted, I wasn't a fan of any of these, but out of all our nominees The Long Game is the most inconsequential.  Minus the fact that it got rid of one our worst Companions (though that is for another time), The Long Game had points of logic that werent' answered (how does Suki go from dim girl to super-rebel at a turn of a dime?) and a monster who was neither terrifying or interesting. 

Now, eventually, once the goal of seeing every Doctor Who story made is complete, we will be in a better position to judge where the Ninth Doctor stories fit into the Great Ranking.  I'm still debating whether to have a separate Ranking for the Revived Series.  Certainly there are great things in Eccleston's tenure, and some things I didn't care for. 

Well, there it is for now.  We close out our Christopher Eccleston aka The Ninth Doctor Retrospective.  We now move on to the Tenth Doctor, David Tennant, knowing that some of his stories will be brilliant, some I have no desire to revisit, and some that are a complete mystery. 

That, however, is another story. 


Next Story: The Christmas Invasion

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Wolf In Daleks' Clothing


In the new Doctor Who, the phrase "Bad Wolf" has been the dominant theme, the mystery of why this phrase appears through all of the Doctor's adventures with Rose teasing us throughout the series/season.  Now, in the appropriately-named Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2 (Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways), we at last get the source of our mystery.  Truth be told, it all been a build-up to something a little disappointing.

We find that The Long Game is the present-day version of what Mission to the Unknown was to The Daleks' Master Plan: a prequel to the larger story (in this case that of Bad Wolf 1 & 2).   After a recap of The Long Game, we're thrown into a cavalcade of confusion: the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), Rose (Billie Piper), and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) have all been separated and land on various television shows, respectively Big Brother, The Weakest Link, and What Not To Wear.  Each react to their situation in their typical manner: the Doctor is irritated and annoyed, Rose thinks the whole thing is funny, and Jack is just delighted to show off his "amazing" body.  Of course, not everything is as it seems.  Each show has a twist: eviction means extermination, being voted 'the weakest link' means extermination, and altering your looks means literally altering the way you look.

The Doctor realizes that the Game Station he's in is really the former Satellite Five from The Long Game.  He escapes the Big Brother house, along with housemate Lynda (Jo Jayner), and while Jack manages to escape himself, they arrive too late for Rose, who in her attempt to escape the Anne-Droid, gets vaporized.  But lo!--this is not the end of Rose (side note: could it ever truly be?).  Rather than get exterminated, she finds herself surrounded, and soon the Doctor, Jack, Lynda, and the Programmers aboard (Jo Stone-Fewings and Nisha Nayer) discover who is holding them and the population of Earth hostage...THE DALEKS!

This group, ruled by the Dalek Emperor, managed to fall through space at the end of the Great Time War, and His Majesty has been harvesting humans to create his new Dalek Army, ready to invade and destroy Earth.  The Doctor, however, will have none of that: he tells them he's going to rescue Rose and destroy the Daleks, all without a plan, or weapons of any kind.

The Doctor and Jack land on the Dalek mother ship and rescue Rose, and the Doctor has come up with a way to destroy the Daleks once and for all via a Delta wave, destroying every mind in its path (though that could include the humans too).  However, the Doctor is far too loving to truly threaten the Daleks, until Rose inspires an idea for him...or so we think.  Keeping his pledge to protect Rose, he sends her off to safety, much to her agony, and she returns to London to be greeted by her erstwhile boyfriend Mickey (Noel Clarke) and her mom Jackie (Camille Coduri).  As the Doctor and Jack continue to fight off the Dalek Army, Rose is frustrated about remaining at home, until she hits on the idea of looking into the TARDIS.  Once she manages to do that, she absorbs the energy from the TARDIS, allowing her to go back to the Dalek mother ship.  It should be too late: both Lynda and Jack have been killed by the Daleks, and the Doctor is just out of time.

Once there, she has god-like powers: with a wave of her hands she evaporates the Army and brings Jack back to life, but the intensity of the TARDIS energy is destroying her mind.  With a kiss, the Doctor absorbs the energy for himself, and once back on the TARDIS, the Doctor tells Rose he is changing.  To her horror, the Doctor regenerates into a whole new man (David Tennant).

Right from the get-go Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2 has a major problem.  Part 1 is dependent on the audience knowing certain things, primarily the three shows being spoofed: Big Brother, The Weakest Link, and What Not to Wear.  If you (like me) haven't seen one or any of those shows, you really have no idea what is going on.  Until Bad Wolf, I hadn't even HEARD of What Not to Wear, so while I understood the gist of the show (and could even guess that the two hosts voiced their robotic doppelgangers), anyone else who wasn't a viewer would feel a bit lost. 

Another issue I had was a bad habit of current Doctor Who that should be called the Rory Syndrome: killing off a character just to find that he/she really isn't dead.  Here, we witness what we think are the deaths of both Rose and Jack, only to find that they aren't really dead or conversely, have been granted immortality.  You can't really build sadness for a character's end if said character doesn't really end.  If I remember correctly, for a moment we thought Rose was dead in Dalek, and while it worked that time I think it didn't go over that well in Bad Wolf Part 1.  What I wondered was if Rose, in her god-like state, can bring life, did she bring back only Jack or everyone else on board?  It would have been possible to have restored all the humans slaughtered by the Daleks (except Lynda, whose death was both tragic and extremely well-done cinematically). 

Finally on the minus side, I kept wondering about how it was possible for the Daleks to survive the Time War but there being absolutely no chance whatsoever of the Time Lords themselves being exterminated.  If Russell T Davies allowed the Daleks to survive, what precludes a small group of Time Lord exiles to have escaped?  Even Aeneas survived the fall of Troy. 

Now, placing our eyes on the positive, some of the acting in Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2 is among the best of the first series.  Once you get over a lot of the comedy from the warped versions of the various shows, I found Jayner's Lynda to be a sweet, almost naive girl.  If Rose hadn't lived (which would have given the story more depth), Lynda would have made a wonderful Companion.  As stated earlier, her death at the plungers of the Daleks was extremely chilling and brought a real moment of terror and sadness, given she was a very nice person.  Eccleston was, to quote him, fantastic, both when playing grumpy at the Big Brother House and when as a hologram he appears to Rose as part of Emergency Programme One and when at the end of Part 1 he declares his intentions to the Daleks. 

Piper has earned her place as one of the best Doctor Who Companions with Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2.  In this two-part story watch her transform from the girl who isn't taking The Weakest Link seriously to the terrified girl held captive by the Daleks to the determined woman moving TARDIS and Earth to rescue the Doctor.  Piper has an evolution to her character, and I believe put to rest once and for all the idea that she is just a 'pop star' who was given the gig to get ratings.  Rather, she projects an entire catalogue of emotions: fear, love, courage, all within a very young character.

It truly is hard to determine if Barrowman was playing a character or just being himself as the egotistic Jack.  I know a whole mythos has been built around our Captain Jack, but for my part I've never warmed up to our intergalactic nymphomaniac, so I would make him the weakest link (pun definitely intended).

Joe Ahearne creates some beautiful moments along with getting good performances out of his actors.  When Rose is believed dead, he surrounds the Doctor in black, enhancing the poignancy of the moment.  Visually, when Rose is obliterating all enemies is also a beautiful moment.  The best moment in Bad Wolf is in Part 2 when Lynda is killed (I keep going back to that, but in the silence of the moment, seeing the Daleks outside the Satellite with their lights blinking out what we already know they are saying makes it more chilling). 

I do question whether it was important for Rose to reveal the truth about her and her father to Jackie, figuring that maybe this could have remained between her and Pete, but there it is.  I also never figured out why that particular phrase, "bad wolf", was so important.  If Rose just got it from when she destroyed the Dalek Emperor and spread it across time and space, then it didn't originate from her mind, did it.  Right?  Am I missing something?

Well, now we've reached the end of the 9th Doctor's tenure, and we will have a retrospective on him: the best and the worst (yes, there were bad things in Series/Season 1).  However, that's for another time.

Bad Wolf Parts 1 & 2 has some wonderful performances and in a perverse way give me hope that the Time Lords are actually still around: what's good for the Daleks... I had some problems with Part 1, less so with Part 2, which is a switch: normally the first episode is brilliant while the second one falls apart.  It gets point knocked off for suffering from the Rory Syndrome, but on the whole, we can say they cried us a good wolf.


A 9th Doctor Retrospective

Next Story: The Christmas Invasion

Monday, August 29, 2011

We Miss You Part 1


The loss of any First Doctor story is still felt by both fans and those interested in early science-fiction television.  The First Doctor actually has managed to come out remarkably intact: out of all his stories, only seven of the twelve missing/incomplete stories have no surviving episodes.  The negative to that is that he is the ONLY Doctor to have stories where there is no surviving footage whatsoever.

Almost all other missing Doctor Who stories have either complete episodes or at least clips, but in the First Doctor's tenure the stories Marco Polo, Mission to the Unknown, and The Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve have no footage at all.  That would be bad enough, but what makes it even more frustrating is that Marco Polo was SEVEN episodes long and The Massacre was SIX episodes long.  The loss of so many episodes is such a puzzle.

To compound the issue, some of the missing episodes are highly important historically.  Mission to the Unknown is historic in that it's the only story in either classic or revived Doctor Who to not feature any of the regular cast; it is also the only one-episode story in pre-revived Doctor Who (whether you include The Five Doctors as one episode hinges on whether you count a story by how long the episode is, but I digress).  The missing episode of The Tenth Planet (Episode Four) contains the first regeneration in the series' history, making its loss even more sad.

Now, we have been able to review a few stories as if they were complete in a roundabout way.  Marco Polo, for example, had a 30-minute condensed reconstruction as a special feature on Disc 2 of The Beginning box set (which had Stories Two & Three: The Daleks and Inside the Spaceship aka The Edge of Destruction).  The Crusade had the audio tracks to Episodes Two (The Knight of Jaffa) and Four (The Warlords) along with the surviving Episodes One and Three (The Lion and The Wheel of Fortune).  Therefore, we were able in Marco Polo to get an idea of what the seven-part story would have been like (I like to think of it as a Best-Of episode), and in The Crusade we were able to reconstruct the missing episodes in our mind, as if it were a radio play. 

Granted, a condensed half-hour version of a three and a half-hour long story isn't the best solution, but it is the best we can do at the moment.  Also, having the audio track at least allows us to follow the overall story.  This is why I elected to review them as full stories as opposed to something like The Daleks' Master Plan or The Celestial Toymaker, where I gave my thoughts only on the surviving episode.

Still, having parts of stories doesn't make up for not having them at all.  To me, it doesn't matter how they came about to be lost; it is more important that we keep looking for them but accept that perhaps we will never 'see' them again.  However, fortunately for us, none of the stories are truly lost.

Our dear Whovians in the early days went about recording all the Doctor Who stories on audio tapes.  We are more fortunate than other stories (such as the football soap United!, which has nothing surviving), so we at least have the audio track.  It was this that allowed us to have the reconstruction of Marco Polo and The Crusade, and which gives us hope that the other lost/incomplete stories will perhaps be seen again. 

As I look at what is missing, I have cause for hope.  It is possible to have stories which have complete episodes fully restored with animation.  Such was the case with the Second Doctor story The Invasion.  Out of the eight episodes, only Episodes One and Four were missing.  In order to release it as a complete story, the missing episodes were animated, and the results were quite positive.  The same method of reconstruction will be used in the First Doctor story The Reign of Terror.  That six-part story has only Episodes Four and Five (The Tyrant of France and A Bargain of Necessity) missing, so with some work with animation The Reign of Terror will be complete once again. 

This got me thinking, what of the other lost First Doctor stories?  What stories would be the best candidates for a full restoration?  I'm aware that everyone would want all of them restored (and I'm one of them), but I think we should be a bit realistic.  Let's take a short inventory of what we have and don't have.


  • Marco Polo (all seven episodes missing) *
  • The Reign of Terror (Episodes Four and Five) *
  • The Crusade (Episodes Two and Four) **
  • Galaxy Four (all four episodes)
  • Mission to the Unknown (entire episode missing)
  • The Myth Makers (all four episodes)
  • The Daleks' Master Plan (Episodes One, Three, Four, Six-Nine, Eleven and Twelve) **
  • The Massacre (all four episodes)
  • The Celestial Toymaker (Episodes One-Three) **
  • The Savages (all four episodes)
  • The Smugglers (all four episodes)
  • The Tenth Planet (Episode Four)

Well, my suggestions are that Mission to the Unknown and The Tenth Planet be the next candidates to receive the restoration treatment.  In the case of Mission to the Unknown, as the shortest story in Doctor Who it would be the fastest one to completely animate.  I can see how releasing a Doctor Who story that is only twenty-five minutes long might not be cost-effective.  Here's where The Tenth Planet comes in.

Think of it: only one episode is missing, and this story is important in that it is the debut of the Cybermen, one of the most iconic of Doctor Who villains.  Again, I think it would be within the realm of possibility to bring The Tenth Planet out to the public, and take the opportunity to bring Mission to the Unknown out as well. 

The other stories would be harder to restore.  They suffer from not having any episodes known to exist, so they would have to animate all of them.  That would be a great deal of work for them, and I don't know if they would want to go through all that trouble for what could be a low return.  They would have to start totally from scratch, and I don't know if they have the time for such a lengthy endeavour. 

Anything truly is possible, and it would be nice to have the missing episodes brought back from the beyond, so to speak.  However, my view is that only Mission to the Unknown and The Tenth Planet have a realistic chance of having an official restoration.  That of course means that until the release of The Sensorites, the restored The Reign of Terror, and Planet of Giants, my First Doctor retrospective has to come to an end.  I will have a full First Doctor Retrospective once all the stories have been released.

However, I don't feel I can complete it until I know for sure that either The Tenth Planet and/or Mission to the Unknown may yet be restored.  I'm debating whether to have a First Doctor Retrospective of what has been released now, and that was the plan until I learned that The Reign of Terror would be released.  That being the case, I opted to hold back.  However, I won't be waiting for them, so I've decided to plunge forward and move on to The Second Doctor while still bouncing between Doctors Ten and Eleven.

Side note: with my Ninth Doctor retrospective almost complete (and without the burden of missing stories) he will be the first Doctor to get a full retrospective. 

With that, I come to say farewell to William Hartnell, and hoping that we may still see more First Doctor adventures in the future.

* This story has either been restored or given a reconstruction.

** The surviving episodes have already been released.  Nothing prevents there being a full restoration but the chances are small.  For example, we could have an animated reconstruction of The Crusade, but given that we have had the story released, it's doubtful they would go back to it.  The Daleks' Master Plan and The Celestial Toymaker have a majority of episodes missing, so again that would be a great deal of work for an official restoration. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Doctor Who Story 027: The War Machines


Doctor, WHO Is Required? 

The War Machines is a curious Doctor Who story in that it's the first to try to reflect the times in which it was filmed.  Until now, the series hasn't had a Companion that truly appeared to be from our time.  The young Who girls (Barbara and Sara Kingdom being adults) are removed from the late 60s: the Doctor's granddaughter Susan was a schoolgirl, Vicki was a teen from another time, Katarina a Trojan handmaiden, and Dodo was a simple (and simple-minded) Cockney.  However, at last, we get a girl from Swingin' London.   The story itself reminds me of An Unearthly Child: both start well, then in the ensuing episodes the story starts going down. 

The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his Companion Dodo (Jackie Lane) have come to 1966 London just as the General Post Office Tower has opened.  At the top of the tower is the super-computer WOTAN (Will Operating Thought ANalogue).  There, they meet WOTAN's creator, Professor Brett (John Harvey) and his secretary, Polly (Anneke Wills).  WOTAN itself and its creator's desire to link it up with all computers around the world troubles the Doctor.  Unbeknown to them, WOTAN has strange powers of its own, and soon appears to hypnotize Dodo. 

Polly takes Dodo to a swingin' club, The Inferno, while the Doctor investigates his suspicions of WOTAN.  At the club, they meet sailor Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), who is down because he won't be sailing out as he'd hoped.  WOTAN suddenly has got it into its head that humans have reached the limits of their potential, so naturally it has to take over.  Soon, he has conquered the minds of Brett, Security head Major Green (Alan Curtis), and Professor Krimpton (John Cater).  Dodo's mind has also been overtaken by WOTAN, and the computer sends a message to her: bring the Doctor to WOTAN.  As WOTAN puts it, "Doctor Who is required" (more on this later).

Dodo fails to deliver the Doctor to WOTAN, but no matter: WOTAN has decided to build the war machines, robotic weapons that will aid it in its conquest of Earth.  The Doctor becomes highly suspicious of Dodo's odd behavior and on learning of the death of a tramp whom they had encountered earlier at the Inferno.  The Doctor releases Dodo from her spell and she is sent to the country to recover, staying with relatives of Sir Charles Summer (William Mervyn), the head of the Royal Scientific Club and civil servant charged with linking WOTAN to all other computers. Polly is sent to find Professor Brett, but she too falls under WOTAN's spell.  Ben discovers the making of the war machines, is captured but spared to be slave labor.  Everyone making the war machines is so zombified that they don't bother guarding the doors, allowing Ben an escape.  He rushes to the Doctor and Sir Charles, telling them the danger. 

The Doctor then goes with an unbelieving Sir Charles to find the war machines have indeed been created, and are now about to commence their takeover of London, then the world.  Fortunately, not all war machines have been unleashed, with only two actually attacking.  The Doctor manages to disable one and uses it to attack WOTAN itself.  In the end, Polly gives the Doctor a message that Dodo has opted to stay in London, which surprises and slightly displeases the Doctor.  Both Polly and Ben see him enter the police box, wondering what is going on.  Ben has a TARDIS key, and they go in, just as the TARDIS dematerializes...

Ian Stuart Black's script for The War Machines is a story that has a great deal of potential, but as the story proceeds it slowly starts to sink.  First, there is the design of the actual War Machines.  They look a bit like the Daleks' poorer relations.  I thought the War Machines were actually pretty silly and inept in terms of conquering Earth but given that it was a rushed job I cut them some slack.  Second was the actual defeat of the War Machines.  The Army couldn't defeat these tanks with brains (which is what they basically ended up becoming) but the fact that the first War Machine stopped because it was put into operation before it was ready makes me wonder exactly how WOTAN could be considered the Ultimate in Thinking Machines.  It couldn't even think that the machines would require more time or that they actually weren't necessary to rule the Earth. 

Come to think of it, WOTAN is remarkably inept for all its power.  It can control people through some form of telepathic ability (I figure it must produce high-frequency radio waves that can control people's minds), but of all the people it choose to help it capture the Doctor, WOTAN chooses Dodo?  Dodo, bless her heart, is one of the the dumbest Companions the Doctor has ever had.  Granted, there is a logic in choosing the actual Companion to try to lure the Doctor into its sinister web of world conquest, but it really isn't much of a surprise when Dodo is given this charge. 

Somehow, I think it would have been better in my view if she had been an unwitting partner in crime, or at least if the agent's identity had been held back as a cliffhanger.  We could have wondered, if director Michael Ferguson had held back some information (thus we could have wondered if perhaps either of the professors or maybe Polly were the danger) and allowed time for The War Machines to build up.  We plunge into WOTAN's coup in Episode One, and I think it would have worked better for the story if the super-computer had been introduced, then gone mad either at the end of Episode One or throughout Episode Two, then had them seize all the world's computers and attacked man that way (Y2K, anyone?).

This is because, as I found while watching The War Machines, the actual war machines were pretty inept (though the idea of jamming all weapons against it was a good idea).  Oddly, it bears repeating at how poor the results for the actual war machines were once we see them.  Going back to being a poor relation to the Daleks, I think it has something to do with the single eye in their design.  Furthermore, when Ben is menaced at the end of Episode Two, it brought back memories of Barbara being menaced by the title character at the end of Episode One of The Daleks.  I did think if WOTAN had such power over the human mind, why didn't it simply hypnotize all humanity into submission rather than waste time building these silly machines? 

Finally, I thought the worship that WOTAN inspired in its brainwashed work crew bordered on the cult-like, which would be very odd given it's a machine.  This is perhaps a minor point, but it does support my earlier point that if WOTAN had wanted to control humanity, all it had to do was hypnotize them into submission.  If they had gone this route instead of going through the trouble of building the war machines, it would have made the menace more real and dangerous. 

As a side note, there is a strange discrepency in The War Machines.  When the tramp stumbles across the warehouse where the war machines are being built, the system warns of an intruder almost immediately.  However, when Ben brakes into the warehouse, the system doesn't warn them of an intruder until a much longer time.  Even WOTAN needs a tea break I imagine. 

However, I think The War Machines works best when NOT dealing with the science-fiction elements but instead with the human elements.  Polly is an exciting character: a fun-loving girl who loves being young is a breath of fresh air from the dim character Dodo is.  Wills' performance as this cheerful girl who loves a good dance and has great confidence in herself makes her a wonderful introduction.  Same for Craze's Ben: his Cockney sailor is a perfect counterpoint to the more posh Polly.  He has the requisite action-hero credentials (sailors are not wimps), but we also see he has a heart (as when he shows his sadness at what is suppose to be the hippest club in London) and fear (when he confronts the machines). However, Ben is a little dense when not realizing that Polly was under WOTAN's power.

 Of special note is Mervyn's Sir Charles: he plays the civil servant as the typically clueless individual in power, but one who takes things with the usual British non-chalance.  Big machines are threatening to take over the capital, being controlled by a super-computer that can think for itself?  Well, we'll just go over and stop it--job's got to be done so as to not interrupt tea-time. 

Surprisingly, Lane's Dodo is actually rather menacing when controlled by WOTAN.  She plays these scenes not with a sense of urgency but of unnatural calm, making it even more unnerving that someone as dumb as Dodo would be the source of the danger.  In short, Dodo in her final broadcast story, managed to make the character one that provided a form of suspense, even danger.

However, even if Dodo is one of the least popular and effective Companions in Doctor Who history, her disappearance in the middle of Episode Two was a shameful way to have her leave.  She should have been allowed a greater departure than just being shunted off into the countryside. 

I'd like to take this time to address a controversial part of The War Machines.  In Episodes One and Two, WOTAN calls the Doctor "Doctor Who" (as in "Doctor Who is required").  To make things worse, both professor keep calling the Doctor "Doctor Who", which makes no sense since Who is not his name.  This is the first (and as far as I know, only) time the Doctor has been called "Doctor Who" on-screen (not counting in-jokes or titles like Episode Five of The Chase: The Death of Doctor Who, or the Third Doctor story Doctor Who & The Silurians).   This gives us a strange controversy: how can he be "Doctor Who".  The answer to this dilemma is actually pretty easy as far as I can see it.  WOTAN has no idea what The Doctor's true name is.  Being a machine (and thus, not having any imagination), it wouldn't think of calling him "The Doctor" because it isn't specific enough; it would resort to the closest word it could find: an unknown person would be a Who.  Since WOTAN doesn't know his name, it would make sense to a machine (emphasis mine) to call him "Doctor Who".  His minions, meekly following WOTAN's example, would copy WOTAN's phrasing and call him "Doctor Who" as well.  There, problem solved. 

The War Machines, sadly, is the final complete First Doctor story.  In an ironic twist, the only known surviving clips from the next story, the now-lost The Smugglers, are ones that were deemed too unsuitable to broadcast.  The story after that, The Tenth Planet, is incomplete with one episode missing.  Unfortunately, the missing episode is the final episode.  As if that weren't bad enough, that episode is the first one to ever show a regeneration: from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton.  An important piece of television history was lost (perhaps forever) due to the BBC's shocking lack of foresight.  It is possible that The Tenth Planet will be released with the missing fourth episode animated or somehow reconstructed, so we may still be able to review that story.  However, The War Machines is the last First Doctor story that survives intact (though it took a great deal of work and search to get what we have now). 

Compounding things, the Second Doctor has fared worse in surviving stories.  His first SEVEN stories are incomplete, with his first two stories (the six-part The Power of the Daleks and four-part The Highlanders) having no surving episodes whatsoever and only a few clips.  The first full surving episode of the Second Doctor is Episode Three of the four-part The Underwater Menace.  Two of the four episodes of The Moonbase do survive, and thanks to that and the release of the audio of the missing stories in the Lost In Time DVD, it affords us an opportunity to review The Moonbase as if it were complete (which is what we did for the First Doctor story The Crusade, which has a similar situation).  That being the case, I will have a short retrospective of The Underwater Menace and then a full review of The Moonbase

The War Machines has at its heart, a good idea, but the execution was terribly rushed.  It has the plus of introducing two new and exciting Companions in Ben Jackson and Polly, but on the whole I found The War Machines didn't function very well.

Next Story: The Tenth Planet


Monday, August 15, 2011

Yo Ho Hum


For better or worse, it is impossible to think about The Curse of the Black Spot without thinking of a certain film...which also involved pirates...and which has as its subtitle The Curse of the Black Pearl (emphasis mine).  It is basically insulting to the audience watching The Curse of the Black Spot to think that their minds wouldn't go to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  The first film (Pirates of the Caribbean: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK Pearl--again emphasis mine) was one of the most successful films in a series, one that created an iconic character in Captain Jack Sparrow, and which launched (no pun intended) a new franchise.  Granted, it's a lousy franchise, but that's neither here nor there. 

With The Curse of the Black Spot, we have certain questions.  Were they trying to make a spoof of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies?  Were they trying to cash in on the popularity of the franchise?  Were they trying to make a Doctor Who story that would be a great source of parody?  I don't know whether the answer is yes to all of them, but The Curse of the Black Spot appears to be going for all three. 

Aboard a pirate ship, the crew has been menaced by a strange creature: a siren/mermaid who is killing off the members one by one.  The mere hint of blood is enough to draw her attention, and before they are exterminated, they have a black spot on the palm of their hands.  Into this situation comes the Doctor (Matt Smith) and his Companions, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her husband, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill).  Just before the Doctor is forced to walk the plank, Amy (in full pirate garb) comes to the rescue.  In the battle, one of the crew receives a cut, as does Rory.  Now both have the black spot, and the Siren (Lily Cole) takes the crewman while Rory is saved by the Doctor and Amy (none too pleased that her husband referred to the Siren as 'the most beautiful thing (he'd) ever seen'.

Down below, Captain Avery (Hugh Bonneville) makes a shocking discovery: his son Toby (Oscar Lloyd) has stowed away on his Dad's ship.  The Doctor at first believes the Siren can enter any place if it has water, but then realizes it is really by any reflection...including that of Captain Avery's treasure.  Amy makes her own discovery: the mysterious Eye-Patch Lady that popped out in Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2 pops out here too.  The Doctor urges Captain Avery to dump his treasure into the sea.  They encounter a storm, and when Toby (who's been coughing up a storm of his own) goes on deck to bring his father's coat, a crown falls out of it.  With the reflection of the crown, the Siren pops out and kills Toby.  While the Doctor is angry at Avery's greed, there is little time to reprimand him: Rory has fallen overboard and will drown.  In desperation, he gets Amy and the Captain to prick their fingers and have the Siren take them.

They discover they are not dead, but instead on a spaceship that is occupying the same space as the pirate ship.  Here, the crew is being kept alive by the Siren, who is really a healer.  Among them are Toby and Rory (odd that the names rhyme).  The Siren thinks Amy is a threat, but is convinced that as his wife, she can care for him.  Of course, disconnecting him from his life support will cause Rory to drown, but he has faith Amy will bring him back.  The crew of the pirate ship is left to pilot the spaceship (with the original crew dead) and aboard the TARDIS, Amy at first thinks Rory's dead, but in the end, she does bring him back.

How strange that The Curse of the Black Spot is such a weak and uninteresting story.  The main problem with it is that even for an episode an hour long everything moves so fast that we can never stop to get to know any of the characters.  For example, Captain Avery's son is named Toby, but to be honest I don't remember how we learned this information.  I don't even recall hearing Captain Avery's name.  The relationship between father and son is suppose to be where we get the emotional core of The Curse of the Black Spot, but since we don't know anything about Toby or Captain Avery we don't have any real investment in seeing them be brought together.  Truth be told, if we eliminated the Toby plot point (or tinkered with it by making him older and already a member of his crew) would it have altered the story any?  I think not.   The efforts by Steve Thompson at heart-tugging with the father/son business didn't work.

Of course, that wasn't the only thing that didn't work in Curse of the Black Spot.  There appears to be attempts at comedy that just ended up being annoying.  Amy dressed as a pirate may have pleased certain elements of the fanbase, but was it really necessary for her to have that get-up?  I would have thought simply menacing the Captain with a sword would have been enough.  Expanding a bit further with the swordplay, twice when they were brandished it almost looked like they were going for a 3-D look to where you expected them to pop out at you. 

I also wasn't buying the twist in The Curse of the Black Spot where we end up on a spaceship.  I don't think it was necessarily a cheat but it does seem a rather easy way to explain what the Siren really is.  (I realize it sounds strange to say a spaceship is "an easy way to explain" anything, but this being Doctor Who it actually doesn't sound too odd).   When we discover the true identity of the Siren, all I could think of was how similar it was to The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2.  I don't think Thompson was attempting to duplicate the same situation in his first Doctor Who story, but it is a puzzle why producer Marcus Wilson didn't think anyone would think the situations were nearly identical. 

I digress to state that when Rory tells Amy that as a nurse, he can guide her in helping him survive, I actually started laughing.  Not because that in and of itself is funny, but because it brought to mind the Citizen Kane of Star Trek: The Original Series episodes: Spock's Brain.  In that classic, Spock's brain has been stolen by a bevvy of beautiful aliens.  Somehow, Spock is able to direct McCoy on how to install Spock's brain back into his head.  To me, having Rory give Amy instructions on how to bring him back to life borders on Spock's Brain territory. 

To go further into this bit of trivia, I make a bold prediction: whenever The Eleventh Doctor is spoofed, one point of parody will be in killing off Rory.  The Curse of the Black Spot marks the THIRD time Rory dies (after Amy's Choice and Cold Blood Part 2: Cold Blood).   You can't build up emotional interest if you keep killing off a Companion and then bringing him back.  Honestly, STOP KILLING OFF RORY EVERY TIME YOU WANT TO BUILD UP DANGER FOR A COMPANION.  It's now becoming a running joke--to where we should be thankful they didn't name him Kenny.  As a joke, I might right a Doctor Who story of my own.  The title: 


Come to think of it, they've already killed The Doctor, they've already killed Rory (repeatedly), why not kill someone that actually deserves to die (I'm talking to you, Dr. Song).  Why not kill the Legendary Legend of Legendness (as I lovingly call our dear River)?  The fact that poor Mr. Williams gets bumped off for the third time (or at the very least, appears to kick the bucket thrice) is just one issue of contention.

For the first time in the Eleventh Doctor's tenure, I think Smith was just annoying as the Doctor.  I've been a champion of his for a while, but here, his goofy demeanor, his quirkiness in his movements and delivery, his Doctor's near-total inability to be serious (or at least take things with some degree of seriousness--except to lecture someone about how greed killed his child) are now appearing to make the Doctor a borderline moron (or at least quite childish in how he sees the universe).  Everything for Smith appears to go at supersonic speed, and after two seasons/series, it would be nice if he would slow down just once.

The menace of the Siren had possibilities, but once we see what she actually is, one not only flashes back to The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 but also thinks, oh--not really a menace after all.   I also go into the music, which also appeared to pay 'homage' to Pirates of the Caribbean because it sounded to my ears very much like music from the films.  Finally, the Eye-Patch Lady.  First, I've always hated story arcs in the revived Doctor Who, especially ones that appear to be rammed into every story of a series whether they fit or not.  From Bad Wolf to that damn crack in time, I have never understood what it is about the new Doctor Who that makes the producers obsess about having arcs. 

If I'm wrong, please correct me, but I can think of only two instances in classic Doctor Who where we were treated to series/seasons that tied one story to another: The Key to Time and The Trial of A Time Lord series.  If memory serves correct, the adventures in Doctor Who once did not need to be connected: I don't think Inside the Spaceship was connected to The Aztecs or connected to The Space Museum or to The Time Meddler or to The Tenth Planet (I use the First Doctor as an example).   Each story was pretty much independent of the other (there were the Peladon Tales--however, all those were the exception).  Now we have these arcs, with the Eye-Patch Lady serving as this series/season's.  I thought as soon as she popped in and out that basically, she is controlling Amy's moments (and by extension, the Doctor's).  I digress to say I hope she turns out to be The Rani...just because.  I do wish they would go back to making adventures independent of each other, but there it is.

This isn't to say that The Curse of the Black Spot doesn't have some good things in it.  Jeremy Webb's directing captured some beautiful moments when the ship was still: the fog and stillness was quite effective in setting a mood (and the cinematography was especially beautiful).  Bonneville was not recognizable as Captain Avery, and he gave a good performance, being able to be both menacing and tender. 

However, those positives were drowned (no pun intended) with a story that wasn't interesting (because we never got to know the characters all that well) with a villain that didn't pan out, and with one of the Companions being made to look redundant.  It brings to mind something I remember from the parody of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy of all things.  For those who don't remember the reality show, the premise was that five gay men could remake a straight man into a better man.  The Fab Five (their name, not mine) were experts on food, grooming, decorating, fashion, and culture.  The nickname of the "Culture Vulture" was "Useless".  I'm beginning to think Rory Williams (and The Curse of the Black Spot) may be filling that slot. 


Next Story: The Doctor's Wife

Oh my God!  They Killed Rory!

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Doctor's Egg-Celent Adventure


Boom Town makes it clear from the get-go that it is going to be a sequel to a previous story.  The episode begins with the word "Previously" on the screen while scenes from Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2 (Aliens of London/World War III) play before we start our new adventure.  Side note: off the top of my head I can't think of a story from Doctor Who that is a sequel to another Doctor Who story save for The Peladon Tales, where The Monster of Peladon follows the events from The Curse of Peladon.  How one feels about Boom Town, I imagine, depends on how you feel about the Slitheen.  If you liked them, then Boom Town is a great treat.  If you didn't, it's an exercise is stupidity.  I confess to not being crazy about the oddly cuddly aliens, but I don't hate them.  Russell T Davies, who wrote both Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2 and Boom Town, I suspect has a soft spot for the Slitheen and expected them to join the ranks of super-villains The Daleks, the Cybermen, or the Master (my Unholy Trinity of Doctor Who villains).  Boom Town,  in the end, showed that they probably will never reach this lofty peak.

It is six months post Aliens of London Parts 1 & 2.  Already knowing who the villain is, we start straight from when the female Slitheen kills the nuclear expert who has warned her about the dangers of a new nuclear power plant.  Now going by the name of Margaret Blaine (Annette Badland), she now is the Lord Mayor of Cardiff.  Mayor Blaine has an ambitious agenda: to build a nuclear reactor right in the middle of the Welsh capital (even if it means tearing down Cardiff Castle--which I figure will be quite easy).  This will be called the Blaidd Drwg plant (one guess as to what Blaidd Drwg means in Welsh). 

Unbeknownst to her, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston), along with his Companion Rose (Billie Piper) and CAPTAIN Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) have also landed in Cardiff.  The rift in time that was sealed in The Unquiet Dead now provides power for the TARDIS.  It also gives a chance for Rose to catch up with her long-suffering boyfriend Mickey Smith (Noel Clarke), who has rushed to Cardiff to give Rose her passport and I figure to see her.

All is going well with both groups (Blaine is putting those opposed to Blaidd Drwg out of the way and the travellers are enjoying their holiday), but they come across a couple of hiccups.  For Slitheen, she can't bring herself to kill investigative reporter Cathy Salt (Mali Harries), especially after learning she is three-months pregnant.  For the Doctor, finding the new Lord Mayor of Cardiff's photo in the paper.  He goes to see her, and of course, she makes a run for it.  However, with his three assistants (even the ever-blundering Mickey) Blaine is captured.  The Doctor will take her back to Raxi.... even if it means taking her to her own execution.  She does, however, make a final request: to have dinner w/the Doctor.

This works out great for Rose & Mickey, who take the refueling to go on their first date in Who-know-how-long.  On their various dates, things go awry: Margaret (whose real name is Blon Something-Or-Other) just can't kill the Doctor (no matter how often she tries), while Mickey (who asked Rose to have dinner and then go to a hotel...rather daring stuff for a kid's show), realizes he will never win against all that the Doctor can offer her, and his anger erupts.  That, however, is small compared to the eruption right above the TARDIS, with the rift opening.

Margaret takes this as her chance to escape via a tribophysical waveform macro-kinetic extrapolator (a pan-dimensional surfboard)* which will have the unfortunate effect of destroying the Earth.  While the world (or in this case, Cardiff) was cracking all around them, Rose rushes to the TARDIS, leaving a frustrated and angry Mickey behind.  Bad choice: Margaret takes Rose hostage, but just as she's about to hang ten the TARDIS console opens, and she sees the light (literally).  Overwhelmed by it, she is overcome, and turns to thank the Doctor.  Her body suit falls, the console is closed, and she has reverted to an egg.  The Doctor decides to return Blon to Raxi... where she will have a chance to start again.  Rose goes in search of Mickey, and she does spy him, but opts to let him go.

I think where Boom Town goes wrong is first off by telling us from the start who is the villain, especially since director Joe Aherne begins the story proper by moving the camera to an open door while letting us see only one character and having us hear the voice of the other.  You can't build suspense of who the other person is speaking to if you already know who they are speaking to.  Second, Davies' script is openly exaggerated: how does he expect us to truly believe anyone would get away with tearing down Cardiff Castle with nary a word of protest?  I don't know much of Welsh history (OK, I know NOTHING of Welsh history) but I know the Welsh people are passionate about their history and culture and language.  Therefore, the idea that one of the leading symbols of their culture could be torn down so quickly is beyond laughable.  For a story to be believable it has to be grounded in some sort of reality.  Cardiff Castle will always stand so long as there is a Wales.

It was more believable when Blaine complained how London never notices or cares what goes on in Wales.   Realizing how she now sounds like a Welshman (or Welshwoman), she says rather stunned, "I've gone native".  THAT was funny because it was true, or at least based on reality.  It surprises me to think Davies wouldn't realize that having more realistic moments make for a better episode.

Come to think about it, that bit was actually one of the better moments in Boom Town.  The other comedy bits fell flat (really Russ, "Doctor...who?"); worse was whenever Mickey was required to be the 'comic relief'.  There's something almost sad that this kid has to be the butt of the joke.  Here, he's a total moron (I winced when he had a trash can on his foot as he chased Blaine).  How much better it would have or could have been if he'd been allowed to capture Blaine. 

It also surprises me that neither Aherne or Davies realized how slow and rather uninteresting the story is.  A long time is spent at the restaurant with Blaine and the Doctor (and seeing how long they were there and they never got around to eating anything, all I could think of was how bad the service must have been).  Another bad part of Boom Town is the fact that you have seven major characters within 45 minutes of screen time.  This has the effect of leaving Captain Jack pretty much left to his own devices (is it wrong to think of the Pet Shop Boys song while thinking of Captain Jack).  In the montage of the various 'dates' we just get a quick glimpse of Captain Jack working on the TARDIS.  Granted, it had to be done, but I would have thought Captain Jack would have taken a bit of a break to hit the clubs.  Just a thought.

I also am surprised that it is THIS particular episode that the "Bad Wolf" running theme is finally address.  We've seen or heard "Bad Wolf" in almost every episode (I don't think it came up in Rose, but in some way shape or form in almost every other episode post-Rose).    Moreover, while it has popped up throughout this series/season I can't recall when it was so prominent or memorable enough to draw the Doctor's attention.  All that might have worked save for the fact that the Doctor is the one that makes us see "Bad Wolf", then cheerfully dismisses it as nothing.  It just doesn't ring true and for my part I'm not a big fan of obvious foreshadowing.

With few exceptions, there is always something good in any Doctor Who story.  Here, the performances of Badland and Eccleston together are wonderful: full of regret and anger and recriminations, they play off each other so brilliantly.  The same goes for Piper and Clarke, who play the difficulties of a relationship coming apart.  Clarke in particular has great moments in the dramatic scenes when he reproaches Rose for basically kissing and leaving him to run off with another man.  He plays the hurt of someone who runs whenever the woman he loves calls but who ultimately will never be a match for our intergalactic hero. 

I digress to point out that when Badland was the Slitheen, her voice communicated a warmth when dealing with Salt.  The Slitheen are a curious creature: they are evil but with their big eyes they almost look cuddly.  You can't really fear them because they have an odd cuteness to them. 

Once we get the threat of the opening rift, it's almost done to remind us that there is some sort of danger in this episode.  Most of Boom Town is spent on dealing with relationships that the fact the world could get torn apart is almost incidental.  There's nothing wrong with dealing with characters, but there is when you have them face a threat near the end only to be resolved so quickly that the TARDIS does it for them.  Finally, an intergalactic surfboard...really?

I digress to wonder why we had to stop to explain the history of the TARDIS as a police box.  I know fans of the revived series might wonder about the police box (given they aren't around anymore) but it does seem to have been written as exposition rather than straight-up dialogue.  I think they could have had this conversation over breakfast with Mickey again being the curious one--I'd rather hear that then of Captain Jack's frolics in the nude (that Intergalactic Nymphomaniac). 

Ultimately, as much as Davies appears to push the Slitheen into being these great Doctor Who monsters, it just didn't take.  Boom Town is the last story (as of today) to feature the Slitheen (not counting cameos in The End of Time Part 2 and The Big Bang Part 1: The Pandorica Opens).   Granted, they are actually a family called Slitheen (technically, they are Raxicoricofallapatorians, but it's just too damn hard to say that repeatedly), so calling the Slitheen themselves monsters may be technically wrong.   Yes, you have them make a return in The Sarah Jane Adventures, but I'm speaking in reference to Doctor Who itself.  The story isn't terrible, but it doesn't have a great sense of menace or threat.  Really, the villain could have been anyone.  In the end, Boom Town is really a bust.


Next Story: BAD WOLF PARTS 1 & 2 (Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways)

* This entire phrase courtesy of the Doctor Who Wiki Page.