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*