Sunday, March 31, 2013

Not Loving Spoonheads


It's difficult to say whether The Bells of Saint John is Jenna-Louise Coleman's debut story as the Doctor's (Matt Smith) newest Companion, given that her character of Clara Oswin Oswald has not only appeared twice before this story (Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen) but DIED in both episodes.  With The Bells of Saint John or I choose to call it, The Spoonheads, though, it is the first Clara story where she is the Companion proper.  Now that she has entered the world of the TARDIS, the question is, 'Will it be a return to greatness or a return to form?'  Sadly, it is the latter; rather than being the 'epic' so often promised by showrunner/head writer/Satan Steven Moffat, The Bells of Saint John goes to his old bag of tricks, turning the Doctor almost literally into an organ grinder's monkey.

There is something menacing, dangerous in the Wi-Fi.  If you connect online via a strange gateway, it downloads your soul, trapping you in cyberspace and killing you in the process.  Meanwhile in Cumbria 1207 a Mad Monk (not Rasputin, which would have been a nice twist), is hiding out, waiting for "the bells of Saint John" to ring.  A Brother monk rushes in, and informs the Abbot, who then informs that Mad with a painting of a Girl Twice Dead and her final words..."Run, You Clever Boy, and Remember."  It's none other than The Doctor, and the bells of Saint John come from the TARDIS phone, which has the Saint John Ambulance sticker on the door. 

The phone, which is clearly not suppose to work, is a call for technical support from a mysterious woman who got it from 'a girl in the shop', who assured her it was the best help line in the world.  Once he hears her sound out the Wi-Fi password where she's at: RYCBAR123 or Run You Clever Boy And Remember, the DOctor immediately realizes the girl is Clara, the Girl Who's Died Twice.  He must solve this mystery, so off to London he races.

He arrives in his monk's robes only to find Clara A.) has no interest, and B.) asking, "Doctor Who?"  Leaving aside the fact that the Doctor is almost stalker-like in his behavior, a strange little girl suddenly appears.  Clara is confused, then alarmed when said girl not only just repeats whatever she says but literally spins her head, revealing a spoon-shaped head that is 'downloading' Clara.  The Doctor saves her by reversing the download (though not the polarity), which alarms the villainous Miss Kizlet (Celia Imrie).  She quickly tells "The Client" that the one warned about is here.

Tool Rider...
Clara is not too bad off (despite nearly having a plane crash into her, rescued by the Doctor's ability to pilot the TARDIS straight onto it and correcting its descent), and in a coffee shop an incredulous Doctor doesn't believe Clara can actually hack into whoever is stealing people's souls.  Hack she does, and manages to trace it to the Shard (the second tallest building in Europe recently opened to the general public), but what one can do, so can the other.  A horrified Clara finds the Doctor has turned into a Spoonhead, and she has been fully downloaded. 

Now the Doctor must rescue Clara, and he rides to her rescue on his motorbike, which is anti-gravity (thus allowing him to ride up on the Shard's exterior and crash into the nefarious office.  There, he makes a demand: release Clara.  In order to do that, Miss Kizlet would have to download all those she's taken.  Well if that's the case then so be it, because that's not the Doctor...that's the Doctor's Spoonhead!  He forces Miss Kizlet into the program, and with some manipulation the Doctor gets them all out...just in time for UNIT to raid the joint.  However, they were unaware that The Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant) is revealed as "The Client"... 

While Clara initially turns down the Doctor's offer to go with him, she does say to come back tomorrow and see what she says.   

The First Question: Where's the
Organ Grinder?
At a certain point things go from fun to farce, and with The Spoonheads I think we've more than hit that point.  For me, the death knell in The Bells was when the Doctor rode up the Shard on his motorbike.  I thought this because my mind flashed to the previous Ten Doctors and I thought, "Would ANY of them do something like this?"  Certainly the First and Second would not do anything so patently idiotic.  The Third, a dashing man of adventure, would have applied logic and perhaps used either a helicopter or being more adventurous, a jet pack.  The Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eight would likewise not have just ridden a motorbike up the side of a building.  I certainly can't imagine Christopher Eccleston's Ninth Doctor enacting such shenanigans, and while I wouldn't put it beyond the realm of possibility for David Tennant's Tenth Doctor to pull off such a stunt, I find it questionable.  However, with Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor, this sort of silliness is par for the course (as is his using his beloved fez to solicit change for a coffee, like said organ grinder's monkey).  Steven Moffat, rather than attempt to bother to find a logical way through this dilemma (as all of Smith's predecessors would have), decided the best thing to do was introduce some sort of parody Bond-vehicle to solve the situation.  If the motorbike had been invisible, it wouldn't have been any more idiotic.

The Spoonheads also has some simply terrible moments that are derivative of other Doctor Who stories.  The TARDIS phone ringing when it shouldn't?  The Empty Child Part I.   A malevolent entity using computers and the minds of users for their own nefarious schemes?  School Reunion.  Creepy little children appearing at the top of the stairs?  The Lodger.  The villain sucking people into a viewing device?  The Idiot's Lantern.  Again and again Doctor Who is showing that it has no original ideas, and worse, attempting to pass off the 'mystery' over the Companion as the BIG story rather than anything with the Doctor.  Last season, it was All About River: her identity, death, and transfiguration.  Now, it is Clara Oswald, who adopted the nom de guerre Oswin from "Oswald for the Win...Os-Win" (when hacking into The Great Intelligence's mainframe).  We've seen it all already, and whatever entertainment value the show once had is not almost completely lost.

That goes for our newest Companion.  Jenna-Louise Coleman is a pretty girl, and I'm sure a very nice one.  However, in her third debut story (no, that is not an oxymoron) Clara Oswald was actually rather boring as a character.  Whether it is her character as written or Coleman's limitations as an actress is far too soon to say.  However, I frankly didn't care one bit about her plight or her altogether.  I liked Rose Tyler, got to know her in her debut.  I got to know Amy Pond in her debut...wasn't thrilled by her but at least she had some semblance of action to her (or at least Scottish belligerence).  Clara Oswald, on the other hand, seemed a bit dull.  There's this vague idea that she wants to travel but why should I care?  Also, when she's not dim she appears a bit smug: a bad cross between screamer and brat.

The same can't be said for Matt Smith's Doctor.  I don't find him boring...I just find him stupid.  Whereas the Doctor once was the smartest being in the room, the one who thought his way out of situations, the one who could be counted on to save the day, Smith's Eleventh Doctor is the one you can count on to be goofy throughout.  If necessary he can be called on to be serious, but for the most part Eleventh just behaves like a clown: no wit, no clever plan, no sense of anything other than a lunatic who can barely function in society.  The Doctor is a joke (only he isn't aware of it).  Whether it's appearing in a monk's habit or commenting on how much HE likes hearing people say, "Doctor Who?" (despite that joke having been more than pounded into the ground, that joke has now reached the third level of Hell) or riding up the second tallest building in the European Union on his anti-gravity motorbike, too much time and attention is being given over to show how goofy and silly The Doctor can be, not on how smart or brave he should be.

As a side note, despite Moffat's decision to give this story the more lofty title of The Bells of Saint John, the more appropriate title should really be The Spoonheads, namely because said 'bells' (those from the TARDIS) are actually immaterial to the story itself.   Once "the bells" have run (which begs the question of whether a monk was stationed next to the TARDIS to ensure said bells were never knows how often the phone rang with no one hearing it), "the bells of Saint John" are never mentioned again.  The only reason I can think of for the title to be thus is because the more accurate title The Spoonheads was too silly...even for Moffat. 

Moffat, however, couldn't resist taking a few jabs at people.  Clara looks at a book of one of the children she's watching, and asks the child what her favorite chapter is.  Ten is her favorite, she replies.  Clara then says that "Chapter 11 is the best; you'll cry your eyes out".  If anything, Moffat can never be subtle...clearly Eleven being our 'favourite' is something he's desperate for fans to believe, and isn't it always Moffat's declarations that almost every story will have us crying? 

Mr. Moffat, I have yet to shed a for when I think when Doctor Who was actually good, inventive, smart, and fun: all things your bastardization is not.

Of course, not everything in The Spoonheads was terrible.  Imrie played the part well (even if she did come across as a mix of Series Six's Madame Kovarian and The Idiot's Lantern's The Wire), and the idea of something collection souls is not a bad one.  I do note a good exchange between The Doctor and Clara.  When she asks something like shouldn't he know the future, he replies, "I can't tell the future.  I just work there."

However, for me, The Spoonheads was boring.  Even the big reveal of The Great Intelligence taking on The Snowmen's Dr. Simeon's image (or is it the other way round) proved less shocking and more, "...and?"  I just don't care what big mystery Clara has.  I don't even care how this 21-century London girl ended up as both a Victorian governess AND a future astronaut/human Dalek.  The Spoonheads is not this epic I was's just another dumb, silly, sad parody of a show I once loved but now I merely endure.  Alas, Doctor Who... 

Ultimately Steven Moffat has gone from "Don't Blink" to "Don't Click".          

For God's sake PLEASE stop
embarrassing yourself.


Next Story: The Rings of Akhaten

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Radiating Success. Doctor Who Story 053: The Ambassadors of Death


The Ambassadors of Death is another long story (seven episodes long) and one that has a twist on the 'invasion from outer space story' which Doctor Who was caught in now with The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) stranded on Earth and no way to leave on the TARDIS.  Again I think that at seven episodes it is a bit too long, which makes the wrap-up of the story even more strange given how quickly it went.  However, The Ambassadors of Death had a great deal of action and carried the plot remarkably well to make it another excellent addition to a very impressive debut season for Pertwee's Doctor.

Recovery 7 has been sent off from the British Space Programme to find out what happened to Mars Probe 7.  The latter ship was carrying two astronauts back from the red planet but nothing's been heard from them for seven months.  Astronaut Van Lyden (Rick Felgate), having reached Mars Probe 7, has locked the ships together, but then an ominous sound emanates from the ship, and Recovery 7 similarly goes off line.

The linking up of Mars Probe and Recovery 7 was being broadcast live, and among the viewers is The Doctor and his Companion Liz Shaw (Caroline John).  The Doctor isn't all that interested in the actual space travel (though the missing astronauts safety does concern him).  Rather, he's still tinkering with the TARDIS, still trying to get it to work even after the Time Lords disabled it after forcing his regeneration at the end of The War Games.   That sound alarms the Doctor.  He's heard it before and he fears for everyone.  He and Liz rush to the BSP, which has been under UNIT's protection.

Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) convinces Professor Ralph Cornish (Robert Allen) to use the Doctor's help.  At first Professor Cornish isn't eager for the Doctor's help but quickly sees his importance.  That sound the Doctor tells them is a message, with someone on Earth is sending replies.  Now the question is who and why.

After a battle at the warehouse where the messages were being sent we find that General Carrington (John Abineri), who had been on the Mars Probe 6 expedition, has been sending the messages.  There are more machinations in this tale: Dr. Taltalian (Robert Cawdron), part of the BSP, is involved in trying to cover up the goings-on regarding the missing astronauts.  The Recovery 7 does return, but in a strange twist there is an attempt to steal it, which is foiled by the Doctor.  However, once the capsule is forced open it is empty.

There were three figures inside, but they were taken by a group of common criminals.  These figures, presumed to be the missing astronauts, are a strange group.  They won't remove their space suits and require radiation levels that would kill people.  The criminals have Lennox (Cyril Shaps), a former colleague of Liz's to help with the radiation, and they soon take Liz herself to help them in this nefarious scheme.

The astronauts also are able to kill just by touching someone.  The Doctor tells everyone that they are wrong in this respect: the figures in the spacesuits are NOT the missing astronauts.  Eventually the Doctor has to do something he had not done on the series: fly a spaceship to get to Mars and find out what has happened to the three astronauts.   He does find them, alive and well, but they believe they have returned to Earth and have been held in quarantine for a very long time. 

The Doctor discovers the three spacemen are ambassadors who are being held prisoner by someone who fears them.  The Doctor promises to return the Ambassadors unharmed in exchange for the astronauts.  However, the Ambassadors are being used to provoke a war.  General Carrington has feared these creatures and will unveil them to the world, hoping that they inspire such panic that the world will have a 'preemptive strike'.  The Doctor and the rescued Liz arrive in time to stop him, and with Carrington arrested, and the promise is kept: the Ambassadors will be returned with the astronauts in exchange.

The Ambassadors of Death is the result of many hands working on it.  While sole writing credit went to David Whitaker, it was written by Trevor Ray, Malcolm Hulke, and script editor Terrance Dicks with Whitaker's story serving as a springboard.  Perhaps that is why it is both so long and a bit sprawling.  For example, the idea that Carrington is involved in all this is pretty clear from Episode One, but this plot thread is not really picked up until Episode Seven and rather rushed through.

However, despite the length and vastness of Ambassadors of Death holds together remarkably well.  The story provides great twists and excellent cliffhangers.  Each one of the endings is thrilling and filled with tension.  In fact, Ambassadors of Death plays less than a science-fiction story and more of a spy thriller, particularly in Episode Three when Liz is chased and captured. 

As a viewer I never sensed that the story lagged or wore out its welcome.  Instead, it kept building on each episode and flowed extremely well.    

What was incredible about Ambassadors of Death is that the special effects are on the whole quite advanced.  In particular are when the truck transporting the ambassadors changes appearance.  It's done so smoothly that one would think it was done today.  Sometimes the effects didn't work (whenever the Ambassadors struck down someone the big splotch that appeared was slightly comical). 

Ambassadors of Death also had a great series of action pieces that makes it more thrilling.  Episode Two in particular had an extended action scene involving helicopters and aerial assaults that seem to be almost from a movie rather than a television series.  In Episode Three, when Liz is attempting to outrun the thugs sent out to capture or kill her (while wearing a very 60s outfit), we get quite a tense and exciting sequence.

Moreover, The Ambassadors of Death has a great intelligence to it.  In fact, it's almost prescient to how fear and paranoia of 'the other' leads people to do irrational acts.  Carrington isn't evil: his actions aren't motivated by hatred towards the aliens but by fear of them, especially since he saw a fellow astronaut killed by them (even if he refuses to accept that it was an accidental killing since the ambassadors didn't realize their touch was deadly to humans).  In short, the ethical questions Ambassadors of Death asks about whether Carrington's plan was evil is one that makes audiences think as well as keeping them entertained.

We should remember that General Carrington and Sir James Quinlan (Dallas Cavell) were not acting out of hatred towards them.  They truly believed the ambassadors were harbingers of doom and their actions were motivated by a sense of 'moral duty' as Carrington often stated.  They thought they were doing what was best for the planet, so they cannot really be called evil.  However, they were basically using the Ambassadors to start some war, so they were not good.

One of the highlights of Ambassadors of Death was Dudley Simpson's score and the cinematography.  Certain shots (such as when the Ambassadors appear to be coming out of the sunlight itself) are remarkably beautiful.  However, an oddity in the score was in Episode One: the music when Recovery 7 is linking up to Mars Prove 7 sounds almost oddly romantic.

One thing that does make Ambassadors of Death slightly comical is the actual title cards.  It was great to play around with the title sequence, but seeing "The Ambassadors" appear, then "OF DEATH" not only be larger font but accompanied by slightly more dramatic music within the Doctor Who theme makes it almost comical.  Ambassadors of Death also has a slight disadvantage of keeping poor Liz Shaw in mini-skirts and an awfully large hat, as well as slightly pushing her off to the side.  Granted she is shown as being capable of understanding a lot of what the Doctor was doing (and doing some of it in French no less) but one wonders why she had to wear something almost skimpy to show she was a brilliant scientist.  Finally, the actual leader of these ambassadors was clearly the work of make-up artists working with a limited budget; while not awful, not the most convincing either.

Still, these really are quibbles to a story that while long flowed well and kept building a sense of excitement throughout its seven episodes.  We got great treats (at one point Pertwee's Doctor used one of the 'funny voices' Pertwee was known for), and a great performance by both Pertwee as the daring and dashing Doctor of action and Courtney as the loyal right-hand man Lethbridge-Stewart.  We even saw briefly John Levene go from Corporal to Sargent Benton.  The Ambassadors of Death had twist upon twist that keeps on riveted, and on the whole is a fantastic story in what appears to be the Dawn of A Golden Age for Doctor Who.

These Ambassadors will always receive a full welcome in any Doctor Who fan's home.


Next Story: Inferno