Friday, November 28, 2014

The Deep Dark Woods of The Doctor


It was probably inevitable that after two brilliant Doctor Who episodes, there'd be a bit of a downturn.  However, even I, having encountered all sorts of negative reviews for In the Forest of the Night and even a tepid review from The Nerdist (which is their version of a negative review), was not prepared for the absolute disaster that awaited me.  Not since Love & Monsters have I been so naked appalled at what I saw, at a Doctor Who episode so hideously awful that it makes something like The Twin Dilemma look like Tomb of the Cybermen.  From beginning to end, the episode was hideous, and In the Forest of the Night will earn a place in history as perhaps the Worst Doctor Who Episode of All Time, something that this generally bad season simply cannot afford.  Even though showrunner Steven Moffat didn't write it, his fingerprints are all over it, as if credited screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce was given a template and told to string them together.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) opens the TARDIS to find two strange sights: an overgrowth of forest, and Maebh (Abigail Eames), a little girl who tells him either "Miss Oswald" or "voices" told her to find the Doctor.  The Doctor cannot believe he has landed in the middle of London, but both the TARDIS and Maebh tell him he has, and seeing the new forest overrun Trafalgar Square is proof.  Meanwhile, both Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) and Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) are getting the kids in their care from their field trip, which was a sleepover at the London Zoological Museum.

I digress to wonder how times have changed.  When I was in school, our field trips were a.) during the day, b.) a few hours long, and c.) never involved sleepovers, and certainly not at museums. 

Well, as Danny keeps getting his 'team' together to get them home or Coal Hill School, they too are astonished to find a forest, the adults more than the kids, who like all television kids, are not impressed by anything.  Eventually, they come to Maebh and the Doctor because Maebh is part of the field trip, a student they failed to notice was missing for a while. 

They face the mystery of how this forest came about, with Maebh insisting they communicated with each other to grow spontaneously.  Maebh's mother, despite some warning about staying indoors she obviously didn't hear, begins looking for her other daughter (since one daughter, Annabelle, disappeared a few months back).  Well, Maebh's been on meds to stop hearing 'the voices' but the Doctor insists Maebh doesn't have mental health issues.  Instead, she can hear the trees, or tree fairies, or whatever those things were. 

We're with Stupid

Well, they chase off a tiger with a flashlight, and the Doctor shows that a giant solar flare is coming Earth's way, which will destroy the planet.  Clara wants to save the children, but then has a change of heart, not wanting to be the last of her kind.  She urges the Doctor to leave them on Earth, to die. 

Teacher of the Year material there, letting the Gifted and Talented group be vaporized.

Well, as it stands, we find that the spontaneous forest is not the enemy.  The Trees Are Our Friends, having sprouted to absorb the solar flare, and once the storm passes it disappears, leaving everything as they found it.  We even see that Maebh gets a gift...her sister Annabelle, who has suddenly emerged from bushes.

It's a curious thing about Doctor Who.  No matter how often showrunner Steven Moffat flat-out lies to us (mistaking deliberate deception for 'misdirection'), his fans who hold him as some sort of genius believe him.  He stated that this season would not be a 'fairy tale' one, and yet with In the Forest of the Night he's given us a fairy tale...complete with fairies!  Granted, those little twinkling lights flowing about Maebh weren't BILLED as fairies, but they might just as well be given how ITFOTN used them. 

The fairies as it were, are the least of the episode's problems.  From the moment we begin, where Maebh is wandering the streets of London alone (which gives us THREE problems already: Clara and Danny's cluelessness about a child in their care missing, how Maebh was able to leave a building without setting off the alarm AND how she got out considering the doors were blocked by large pieces of wood that took the combined strength of Danny and the students to push open), ITFOTN was dead-set on making things as horrible and stupid for everyone concerned. 

Let's start with the kids, who are supposed to be the Gifted and Talented group.  Given how they didn't seem to understand anything other than selfies, if THEY were the G&T group Britain is about to be destroyed from within due to the population's basic stupidity.  It's a trope of television to have back-talking, sarcastic, annoying know-it-all kids, but my experience with children reflects a different manner regarding children. 

Most children I know are quite respectful of authority figures, are genuinely frightened of scary things, and generally work well together.  Children in real life would be scared to not know where their parents were (and while a line at virtually the very end suggested they actually MIGHT miss their parents, how these kids had time for selfies but no time to bother calling home again makes me wonder how they could be the G&T kids).  Oh, I forget: Clara told the Doctor that the whole "Gifted and Talented" thing was just a thing they told them.  In other words, they really WEREN'T G&T, just a bunch of idiots who were gullible enough to believe that.

For a child-centered story like ITFOTN, it's interesting that the children were unnecessary to the story itself.  Moreover, the situations they faced were quite horrifying.  Danny frightening the tiger with a flashlight (or torch)?  I would have thought the tiger would have grown enraged by the light, not run off by it.  With Maebh being chased by wolves, I was astonished the Doctor and Clara never suggested she climb up any of those trees to get away from them.

As a side note, the whole 'Hansel and Gretel' thing was again more stupidity. 

It isn't as if I don't know what ITFOTN was going for: a children's fairy tale in Doctor Who.  However, why oh why do they have to be so OVERT about it? 

On a more serious note, the whole 'don't medicate a child who hears voices' thing bothered me greatly.  Is Doctor Who encouraging people to not take medication for mental health issues?  This isn't the first time Doctor Who has played fast-and-loose with character's mental problems.  I don't know how much criticism the show has received about this, but to dismiss hearing voices as actually a positive, particularly on an episode aimed squarely at children, is to me shocking and irresponsible.

As a side note, we're told that Maebh flapping her arms is a tic that results from the voices.  I guess that means the Eleventh Doctor was hearing voices all the time then.

Nothing in this episode made sense.  The Doctor declared the spontaneous forest 'a natural event'.  Just as natural as the Moon being an Egg, I imagine.  Clara tells the Doctor the sonic screwdriver is not a magic wand.  Really?  That's what its been for eight seasons, why stop now?  The children coming up with a phone call that will contact EVERYONE on Earth.  Guess those without a mobile/cell phone are just out of well as those who don't speak English (OK, maybe the TARDIS will translate the message in other languages).  However, again the kids don't have to bother calling THEIR parents, parents who obey the government instruction to stay home...unless they don't happen to hear it like Maebh's mom, too busy arguing with someone on the phone to have either the television or radio on and whose friend obviously didn't either hear the message or look out the window to see a giant forest outside his/her own door.

Boy was this stupid.

I'll give credit in that yes, one shot was particularly beautiful (although obviously shot in a way that drew attention with itself).  I give credit to Capaldi, who did his best under the simply bonkers situation he was forced into.  "You need an appointment to see The Doctor," he tells Maebh when she first comes knocking at his door.  Later on, when disagreeing with Maebh about how the trees can talk to each other, he asks how they did it.  "Group message on Tree Facebook?" he comments.  At least if nothing else, Capaldi can't be blamed for the horror In the Forest of the Night was.

Just an observation.  Given how hot and heavy Danny and Clara are for each other, you think they did a little bump and grind next to the saber-tooth tigers at the museum?  At least she can get pregnant THAT way, given, well, that's in the future...

In the Forest of the Night was reminiscent of another child-centered episode where the girl (who gave a bad performance) was able to communicate with otherworldly figures, right down to drawing what she knew.  It's never a good thing when a Doctor Who episode reminds you of Fear Her.  However, I found Fear Her more tolerable than this barbarity.   I never thought I'd see something more loathsome than that, something I absolutely detested, something to rival Love & Monsters

Never Say Never Again...


Next Episode: Dark Water/Death in Heaven

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Mural Project of The Doctor


Flatline has done better than the previous Doctor Who story, which is an incredible feat given Mummy on the Orient Express (despite the loony title) was already the highlight of a dismal season.  Jamie Mathieson, who wrote both Mummy and Flatline, has apparently been given free rein to create genuine Doctor Who stories pretty much removed from Steven Moffat's fixations and arcs.  There was that, and they were obviously forced to where if they were removed Flatline would have been even better.  Given those limitation, to have TWO great stories from ONE author shows that Doctor Who, when it is good, can really give us a tense, exciting story where even the most bizarre situation can be made plausible.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is planning to take his Companion Clara (Jenna Coleman) back home, but ends up in Bristol.  That, however, isn't the problem.  It's the fact that something is draining the TARDIS' power, which is causing the TARDIS to shrink.  Clara ends up outside the TARDIS while the Doctor is basically trapped inside, unable to leave because while the interior remains the same size, the TARDIS has shrunk to where it fits inside Clara's purse.

Clara is basically put in the position to be 'the Doctor', and this goes to her head.  She introduces herself as "Doctor Clara" to the crew cleaning up graffiti in the estates (in America, the projects).  Among them is Rigsy (Joivan Wade) serving community service.  He becomes the de facto Companion as they investigate the curious disappearances of people, who are 'memorialized' in a mural in a tunnel.  Curiously, the murals of the missing people are all facing away from the viewer.  Soon the disappearance of Police Constable Forrest (Jessica Hayles) alerts them to the great danger they face.

Clara and Rigsy soon make the connection, with the Doctor's guidance, that the danger is in the form of two dimensions, with the Doctor theorizing that they want to be three dimensional.  That means that these beings are now going after them.  Clara, Rigsy, and the work crew now flee for their lives, with sarcastic crew head Fenton (Christopher Fairbank) asking if they really are hiding from killer graffiti.  Soon more of the crew begin being attacked by The Boneless (the name the Doctor has given them), though whether they are truly a menace or not is still debated. 

The crew finds that the Boneless can control three-dimensions to make them two-dimensions.  The TARDIS and the Doctor are still too small to help apart from advising, and in the confusion and chaos Fenton tries to steal the TARDIS only to cause it to fall onto a train track.  The TARDIS is in danger of being crushed.  The Doctor manages to barely put it out of danger but then the danger returns, forcing him to put the TARDIS in siege mode.

Clara, facing the life-and-death decisions the Doctor usually finds himself dealing with, has a brilliant idea on how to both help the Doctor and impede the Boneless.  She uses one of the Doctor's best tactics: use your enemy's power against them, and thanks to that the TARDIS is restored to where he can step in and wipe the Boneless to another dimension.

As I thought on Flatline, I had a rare moment of tension and suspense in Doctor Who.  This came when the Doctor, trapped in his shrunken TARDIS, is forced to use his hands to crawl the TARDIS out of the oncoming train.  In other hands I imagine the sight of an Addams Family Thing-type creature would almost be laughable.    However, credit has to be given where it is due: both Mathieson's script and Douglas Mackinnon take the situation seriously.  As a result, the moment, far from being silly, is filled with almost nerve-wracking tension as to whether the Doctor will manage to pull himself to safety.  Doubling down on the tension, once we think he's made it to safety we get thrown into more danger, causing the Doctor to put the TARDIS into siege mode.

I cannot recall when I have felt more tension while watching Doctor Who in the Revived Era, especially in a single episode versus a two-parter.   In a two-part story, we can have a cliffhanger that sometimes has been hit-and-miss.  This particular moment in Flatline brought to mind a cliffhanger in The Curse of Fenric (which I think was the last classic story from the Classic Era).  Watching that story, I got so caught up in the story that I found myself at one point shouting at the screen, "Doctor!  BEHIND YOU!"  I didn't shout at the screen watching Flatline, but the story moved so well and built the tension so well that there was genuinely fear and suspense as to everyone's fate.

Flatline allowed the characters to be real, from Clara's haughtiness on being "Doctor Clara" to Felton's selfishness and lack of compassion.  When contact was made to The Boneless, we found they call numbers. The number called was from the uniforms the crew was wearing, and it signaled that one of them was in mortal danger.  "Looks like your number's up, George," Felton says.  Fairbank's delivery made it both a bad joke and a genuine statement of fact. 

I figure Rigsy is evocative of the graffiti artist Banksy, and while I didn't think Wade was given much he certainly had the potential to be a good Companion.

What I really enjoyed was Capaldi's performance.  The Doctor is basically sidelined, but Capaldi never shrinks from being the main character.  Whether it is in being irritated by how Clara is behaving while he is unable to move or in showing an actual light side when he does a little dance when he thinks he's escaped being crushed, Capaldi is spot-on as The Doctor.  Once he's restored to full size, he compliments Clara when she insists she was a good Doctor.  However, while he tells her she was an exceptional Doctor, "goodness had nothing to do with it". 

The resolution was logical and even Coleman, who has nowhere near been my favorite Companion, is commanding and effective.  It shows how a great script and positive direction can do wonders.

About the only thing that didn't work was the intrusion of Samuel Anderson's Danny Pink via a phone call coming at the most inopportune time (cliché) and the closing moment with Michelle Gomez's Missy, declaring that with Clara, she had chosen well.  However, I figure Mathieson was required to insert them in by Moffat, which is a shame because if they had been cut altogether we could have had a Doctor Who story that pushes the series into what it COULD be: dark, dangerous, exciting, and removed from the burden of having to carry long story arcs that more often than not fail to pay off. 

Flatline is as close to a Classic Who episode that we are likely to have.  It was tense, exciting, logical, fast-paced but without being rushed or convoluted.  It is a sign that Doctor Who, when unburdened and unleashed, can be a brilliant science-fiction program.  It's enough to make a despairing Whovian break out in dance... 



Next Story: In the Forest of the Night

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Nerdist as Whore: An Introduction

With Doctor Who quietly slumbering, I thought I'd make the rounds to my favorite whorehouse.  I'm talking of course, about The Nerdist, my bete noire on almost all things Doctor Who.

I've written much on how I believe The Nerdist, in particular its Faux Fan Number One Chris Hardwick and his Number 2, Kyle Anderson, are basically shills for the BBC and Steven Moffat.  They are not objective reviewers.  They are virtually paid spokesmen, the Pravda of Nerddom.  If they had been around during John Nathan-Turner's reign, they would have given high marks to such stories like The Twin Dilemma and Timelash

Why?  Well, because they are paid not to give honest assessments of what they see, but to push the product no matter how abysmal.  I don't have anything against them for being lackeys.  I just wish they were upfront about it. 

When I think of The Nerdist, in particular in regards to Hardwick & Anderson, the term 'useful idiot' comes to mind.  However, they are not 'idiots'.  They are shrewd and calculating, fully aware that their job is to serve as promotion for not just Doctor Who but all things geek/nerd-related.  They make millions by passing themselves off as mere 'super-fans' or worse, experts, and the production companies are more than happy to pay for their services in exchange for free promotion by these guys.

In return, they get to be seen as these 'experts', which gains them a touch of prestige, notoriety, and more than enough cash for themselves.  Many genuine fans of what they cover will in turn look to them for guidance, unaware of how The Nerdist is really playing them for fools. 

Of COURSE I'm Objective.
Whatever made you think any different?

There is something insidious in what I dubbed The Moffat-Nerdist Complex, where the person who is suppose to be objective is simply too close to the subject he/she is reviewing.  I am reminded of the late, great Roger Ebert and his Little Rule Book.  It was pretty much an open secret that he was targeting Ben Lyons, mocking Cubby (as I lovingly called him) after Lyons Junior took over as a cohost on At the Movies.  However, I think we can look at Ebert's advise and apply them to Hardwick, Anderson, et. al. (especially Numbers 15 & 17, which The Nerdist demolishes with glee).

In the interest of full disclosure, I would pose with actors/writers/directors if given the opportunity, but those would be for my private collection, not to show how close I was to someone I had just met.

There is one that Ebert might not have anticipated, but that I think would make a good addition to his guide for film criticism: Do Not Review Something if Your Subject is Paying Your Bills.

In the After Who Special hosted by Hardwick following the premiere of Deep Breath, one of his guests was Doctor Who/Sherlock writer and Sherlock co-creator Mark Gatiss.  What Hardwick did not disclose on air was that the executive producer of the After Who Special was...Mark Gatiss.  This tidbit came in a 'blink-and-you-miss-it' credit as Hardwick cheerily waves goodbye to his audience. 

Somehow, to my mind, there is something pernicious and deceitful about taking money from the person you are suppose to be covering.  This might explain why The Nerdist, in particular regarding Doctor Who, has never given a negative review to any episode.  Anderson may say an off thing once in a blue egg, but by the end of his reviews he finds that the worst Doctor Who episodes were merely "OK".   He can and will never say that something was 'awful' because he knows that any dissention will mean a severe reproach from either Hardwick or the BBC/Moffat.  The Nerdist cannot run the risk of displeasing its masters, so we will get endless praise or at best, weak recommendations.

With that, Gallifrey Exile offers a new series: The Nerdist as Whore.  When the mood strikes me (or time permits), I will 'translate' the usually ebullient Doctor Who reviews that Anderson gives.  It is my service to you, the real fans, who deserve better than the frauds that Chris Hardwick, Kyle Anderson, and The Nerdist in general are.

Is he happy to have found his intellectual equal, or someone who is actually shorter?