Friday, June 23, 2017

The Hysterical Blindness of The Doctor


As this is the second part of The Monks Trilogy, the three will be judged with one grade.  However, I think The Pyramid at the End of the World is a surprisingly strong episode, packing in its hour running time a lot of thrills, chills, heart and leaving with an interesting cliffhanger.

Whether said cliffhanger will have a positive resolution is yet to be seen.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) despite all logic, is still able to disguise his blindness from everyone.  Only Nardole (Matt Lucas) is privy to his secret.  It again comes at the worst time since the United Nations is calling upon The President of Earth for help.  In far-off Turmezistan, an ancient pyramid has just popped out of nowhere, and is between three large armies (the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians). This is an emergency, so much so that it requires Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) to have her real date with Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo) interrupted again!

Bill is whisked off with the Doctor and Nardole to Turmezistan, where he finds the Monks, those slow, whispering, skeletal beings from Extremis popping up again.  Unlike other would-be conquerors of Earth, they won't take over the world unless they are asked.  It won't be easy saying no, as The Monks are able to see the future, and they give everyone a glimpse of what is to come.  It's a frightening future, one with death and destruction all around.

Talk about far-fetched, but I digress.

Clocks worldwide are now in sync with the Doomsday Clock, pushing the world closer and closer to midnight.  The Doctor stubbornly tells them not to surrender, but soon they do.  The Monks can see their motives are impure, as they are not surrendering out of love but out of fear or strategy.  As a result, they get vaporized.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, two scientists: Erica (Rachel Denning) and Douglas (Tony Gardner) are going about their lives and work when something goes horribly wrong.  Douglas, slightly hung over or ill (I wasn't sure exactly which) causes an accident that releases a bacteria that kills all human life.  Douglas is disintegrated as he has no protective suit, while Erica does her best to get everyone out and contain the crisis.

The Monks continue asking for surrender, but nothing doing.  The Doctor soon hits upon the idea that they are watching something specific that will bring about Doomsday, and finds the lab about to release Enzyme EC31.  He takes Nardole with him there and attempts with Erica to stop it from being released.  He does this by setting up an explosion that will neutralize the bacteria, but there are a couple of hiccups.

First, Nardole is overcome by the bacteria which doesn't kill him but leaves him incapacitated.  Second, the lock the Doctor's in is a combination lock immune from the sonic screwdriver.  Unable to see the lock to release himself, the Doctor finally admits he's blind to Bill, who is still with the Monks.  Terrified of the whole situation, she surrenders on behalf of Earth on the condition they restore the Doctor's sight.

The accept the surrender as this consent comes from love (her love of The Doctor), but she calls out to him to 'get her planet back'.  Now the Monks have conquered Earth.

One aspect of The Pyramid at the End of the World was quite positive, and that was Denning.  She was pretty cool and collected as Erica, a whip-smart scientist who also cared about her coworker.  She would make a good Companion or at least returning guest star, her confidence and scientific professionalism mixed with rational fear but not panic at the growing crisis.

In fact, there was a lot of good acting all around in Pyramid.  Again, to my mind it stretches believability that no one noticed that the Doctor was blind but Capaldi overall gave a strong performance, particularly early on when he's in a meditative mood while playing his electric guitar.  Mackie continues to grow as one of the better if not best NuWho Companions, with Bill really being nothing more than an ordinary person caught up in these shocking situations.  She is caring and bright, and aware of all the risks surrounding her.

The great part of Pyramid is the tension about how to surrender.  They've thrown everything they can at the Monks, but nothing doing.  The episode keeps ratcheting up problems, and then comes up with plausible solutions, only to have a last-minute complication muck it all up. 

Another positive element was in how Murray Gold's score was subtle, working with the episode to be menacing without drawing attention to itself or being its usual bombastic music.

There were things I wasn't too keen on.  As much as Pyramid wanted to be menacing I wasn't feeling it, probably because the Monks are monsters we've seen in other versions (still can't shake the idea they are kin to The Silence).  The whole 'interrupted date' thing was a bit much, and I get the sense that this isn't the first time we've seen a Companion sacrifice something to save The Doctor.

Still, relatively minor points, as The Pyramid at the End of the World created a strong story that is built on logic, is well-acted, and creates a strong problem to overcome.

"Fear is temporary, love is slavery," the Doctor says when others consider surrendering.  I'm not sure I entirely agree, but I can see where one would think that.  The Pyramid at the End of the World shows that when Doctor Who works, it works remarkably well. 


Next Episode: The Lie of the Land

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Secret Archives of The Doctor


With Extremis, Doctor Who is embarking on a rare three-episode story, generally dubbed The Monks Trilogy.  Extremis has many positives, and if it had aired a few seasons ago would have ranked higher.  It's unfortunate, however, that much of it is reminiscent of what has come before, which dilutes its positives.

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is still blind from the effects of Oxygen, though only Nardole (Matt Lucas) knows this.  It's at perhaps the worst time possible for the Vatican of all places to ask for The Doctor's help.

Inside their Hereticum, the secret archives of the Vatican's Secret Archives where they hold the most blasphemous books, is one called Veritas.  The Veritas was written in an unknown language, just recently interpreted, but every person who has read it commits suicide within twenty-four hours of reading it.  Now, the Doctor, along with Nardole and Bill (Pearl Mackie) will go into the Hereticum to translate the Veritas and uncover what is its deadly secret.

This comes at a bad time for Bill, who is on a date with Penny (Ronke Adekoluejo), but it's not a real date since Bill, despite her "I'm a proud and open lesbian" manner, still hasn't told her foster mother Moira (Jennifer Hennessey) that she's a lesbian.

As a side note, does anyone else think it's a bit strange that a woman I believe in her twenties is still living with her foster mother?

In any case, it's a bad lesbian date when the Pope barges in from one's bedroom shouting in Italian (and again as a side note, the last three Popes have been Polish, German, and Spanish, none of whom spoke Italian as a first language, so why is the Pope speaking Italian when we haven't had an Italian Pope in almost forty years?).  Bill isn't happy about the intrusion, but she goes to the Vatican to help in the mystery.

It isn't long before the Doctor, rigging up a device that will give him temporary sight and who manages to keep everyone clueless about his blindness despite the sunglasses and having to have Nardole explain everything to him, finds the Veritas.  To their surprise, there is a light that guides all except the sightless Doctor away.  Nardole and Bill are surprised to find themselves first in the Pentagon, and then at CERN, a lab which has received the translated Veritas via e-mail.

It is now that Bill and Nardole make a shocking discovery.  What they thought was a portal created by aliens is really a simulation.  Nardole disintegrates, leaving Bill to try and find The Doctor.  The Doctor, for his part, encounters The Monks: skeletal beings who whisper their menace and take hold of the Veritas, as part of their plan for world conquest.  Bill goes through another portal and finds herself in the Oval Office, where the President has committed suicide and the Doctor is waiting.

Here, Bill learns the truth of the Veritas: this Test of Shadows details the plans for a demon to simulate realities, and those within those simulations, discovering that they are not real, decide to kill themselves.  That explains why at CERN, every time Bill and Nardole were asked for a 'random' number, they would say the same number: their world, indeed every world, was not real.

Bill herself disintegrates, asking for the Doctor's help.  The Doctor confronts a Monk, and tells him that he knows this is all a simulation, but he's e-mailed himself all the information, and is ready to fight them.  To fight them, of course, means he needs the help of The Mistress (formerly known as The Master), and he goes to Missy (Michelle Gomez), whom he has locked up in The Vault for a thousand years, as throughout Extremis we saw what should have been his/her execution, but the Doctor instead has managed to spare her/his life.

Extremis is a mix of The Matrix (this world is not real but computer-generated), The Ring or Ringu (a person will die after seeing something), and The Silence from Series 5 (shadowy figures who speak softly, walk menacingly, and are our newest threats for world conquest).  Perhaps this mishmash of things we've seen before both on and outside Doctor Who is what makes me less enthusiastic.

To a point, it comes down to timing.  Had The Monks been the Series 5 villains, we still would have or should have had comparisons to The Matrix/The Ring, but we wouldn't have yet another 'religious order' bent on world domination.  It's all gotten a bit boring and repetitive, down to making the fictitious Pope Benedict IX very clearly a woman. 

I'm not exactly sure why writer Steven Moffat opted to choose Benedict IX, who if Wikipedia is to be believed was one of the most scandalous figures to ever be Bishop of Rome, even for his time, or why he decided not to hit upon the more legendary but better-known 'Pope Joan'.  It is easy to speculate, but it does seem a strange choice when he could have created a wholly fictional pontiff on which to bestow the title Popess. 

In any case, the entire storyline of the Vatican and the Veritas in retrospect seems almost funny: female Popes that the Vatican knew about and even had portraits of, buried within the grounds of Vatican City, with an Italian-speaking Pope.  What is more amusing is that no one was none the wiser of the blindness of The Doctor, or that anyone even asked or questioned it.  That does seem a bit too farfetched.

Be that as it may, Extremis wasn't a horrible episode if I go along with the idea that all this was a simulation.  I wasn't sold on the idea of The Doctor saving The Mistress or Nardole popping up to try and stop the execution.  I certainly wasn't buying Gomez's performance of a 'repentant' Master, and wondered whether it might have been better to have built a whole episode around that instead of intercutting it with the Vatican storyline.

I actually wanted The Master/Mistress dead, so I wasn't cheering her on to be spared.  It also does make one wonder why so much mystery about what was in The Vault when there was speculation it was The Mistress all along.

There was a lot of good in Extremis.  Mackie continues to make Bill a strong Companion: loyal, determined to live life, intelligent, and even amusing (her comparing the Hereticum, also known as The Library of Blasphemy, with Harry Potter was a nice touch, albeit one that will date the series).   Capaldi was equally strong as The Doctor: his attempts to keep going despite his blindness made the Doctor both vulnerable and a bit stubborn.  Murray Gold kept the score subtle and noninvasive, and we got some good twists and turns (albeit again, ones that weren't that big of a shock).

I didn't dislike Extremis.  I actually liked it a bit.  If it weren't for the fact we've seen a lot of this before (and dragging The Mistress into it) it might have ranked higher.  Still, Extremis was not bad, and given that Series 10 has been stronger than in the past, that is saying quite a bit.


Next Episode: The Pyramids at the End of the World

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Communist Manifesto of The Doctor


I'm really split on Oxygen.  On the one hand, I found it well-crafted, effectively filmed, with a logical conclusion.

On the other, I found it bordering on if not actual propaganda, something that might have been approved by Stalin, Mao, or the Kim Monarchy in North Korea. 

This split is causing me to look at Oxygen with two sets of eyes, those of a critic and those of someone who hates seeing overt messaging in film/television (even if I agree with them).  I am highly bothered by the messaging in Oxygen, both the way it is done and the message itself.  I detest it when programs are used for propaganda whatever the intent.  Maybe in the ensuing moments, I can find myself looking at Oxygen again with yet another set of eyes.

And none of that is meant to be a pun or commentary on the ending of the episode. 

The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and his Companions Bill (Pearl Mackie) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) respond to a distress signal in space over Nardole's objections.  He is adamant that they remain on Earth to guard The Vault, but the Doctor's wanderlust and Bill's desire to see more of the universe overrule him.  Once on the station, they find that the oxygen is not there for their use.  It is a commodity, one that they have to pay for.  As they are using unauthorized oxygen, it must be expelled.

The Doctor manages to stop them getting sucked out into space but now are beyond the reach of the TARDIS.  The only way to safety is to find the four survivors, but that means putting on spacesuits that are not in the best of conditions, and that have low oxygen.  Making things worse are the zombies in spacesuits who are following the suits directives to eliminate the organisms within them.

At first, the Doctor thinks there was a wild malfunction in the spacesuits, but as time goes on, after interacting with the survivors and trying to keep them all alive, he realizes that there was no malfunction.  The rescue ships that are coming are not actual rescue ships.  They are the crew's replacements.

Far from being a glitch, the spacesuits worked exactly as they were programmed to do.  In a universe where oxygen is sold at 'competitive prices', the unnamed Corporation decided the most cost-effective thing to do is literally kill its employees and bring in new ones.  The Doctor decides to rig the machine to make it cost-ineffective to kill the few survivors, no easy task given that in order to save Bill, he lost his sight.  Even harder when you think Bill has been killed by the zombies.

In the end, they all return.  Bill is thrilled, Nardole is angry and berates the Doctor over his actions and orders him to "LOOK AT ME!"  Sad that he can't...for he is still blind.

There is a great deal to admire with Oxygen.  Jamie Mathieson wrote two of the best Capaldi-Era Doctor Who episodes (Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline), and here again he delivers a pretty quality-level script.  The resolution to the crisis is remarkably logical, built on thought and reason versus other Doctor Who tropes (love saves the universe).  Chris Palmer's direction was equally effective: the flight from the zombies from an oxygen-deprived Bill is tense and almost nerve-wracking (aided by the fact that there is no music to make it dramatic, both trusting the moment is dramatic enough).

Oxygen is helped immensely by Mackie's performance.  She is really coming into her own as Bill, both the enthusiasm and the fear her character has.  The moment when the Doctor asks her if she trusts him and he seemingly leaves her to die is almost terrifying, and seeing her 'die' is almost shocking.

Mackie also is allowed moments of humor, when she meets Dah-Ren (Peter Caulfield), a Blue Man group reject.  Her surprise at seeing a blue-skinned figure is undercut with his remark that they had to 'rescue a racist', surprising our biracial lesbian.  Her insistence that she not only isn't a racist but usually on the receiving end clearly puzzles Dahh-Ren, who wonders how that is possible.

However, a lot of Oxygen is undercut by Mathieson's anti-capitalist screed.  When the trio first arrive, they are hailed as being from "the Union", which one of the survivors insists is a myth.  In this part of the universe, the Union will save them from the murderous Capitalists, before they have a revolution and set up a collective.  The messaging behind Oxygen is blatant, in-your-face, and even if I held to the idea that capitalism is downright murderous (which, unchecked by morality, it can be), there is something in me that highly dislikes overt political messaging.

I find that the best type of science-fiction as allegory works when it can be read both ways: both as the surface story and as a commentary on the times.  The worst types are the ones that are overt and obvious, like Oxygen.

I think there would have been nothing wrong with the original supposition that the spacesuits malfunctioned.  You could even have it to where there was sabotage to benefit one of the survivors.  However, the fact it was this distant, remote Corporation does not make it a real threat, even if Mathieson holds capitalism to be the ultimate evil.  

I look on stories like the Third Doctor stories The Silurians and Inferno.  Both were political and had a firm left-wing viewpoint.  However, they could also be seen as mere adventure stories, one where the politics did not overshadow or overwhelm the basic story.  Oxygen is not on that level.  It could have been, but it chose to put its own political viewpoints ahead of the story.  That knocks it down, and even if I agreed with the point of view of Oxygen, I would still be bothered with it. 

Oxygen brings to mind two other episodes that covered similar grounds: the Fourth Doctor story The Sun Makers and the more recent Sleep No More.   The former was also about a group of oppressed workers and the evil Corporation that was taking advantage of them (though it was more through high taxation than through oxygen depravation).  In the latter, it was a group of zombie-like creatures on a spaceship.

Still, on the whole Oxygen was a remarkably strong episode, one that I would thought higher of if not for its overt propaganda.  I can imagine this coming out of Soviet Russia, and I figure the Chinese would hold Oxygen up as a reason to keep the Communist Party in charge.  Its blatant propaganda is something to give pause on.

In the end, I've decided to metaphorically split the baby.  The pluses of Oxygen (tight script, strong performances) balance out the minuses of Oxygen (a ham-fisted anti-capitalism message, a sense of deja vu with The Sun Makers).


Next Story: Extremis

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Wooden Figures of The Doctor


Knock Knock, at its core, is about accepting death and change.  If it weren't for some odd bits of logic lapses, it would be among the best 12th Doctor stories.  As it is, it is still quite good, helped by a strong turn by David Suchet.

Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) finds that she wants to live a more independent life.  As such, she joins five other college-age people in search of suitable digs.  Nothing comes their way until a mysterious figure (Suchet) comes along, offering a large mansion, complete with tower, for a ridiculously low rent.

These kids, being kids, immediately sign and move in.  The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) comes along and immediately suspects something is amiss.  Bill insists there is nothing supernatural or otherworldly about finding a very large house to let with a very creepy Landlord for a very low price.  Not even the fact the house doesn't get Wi-Fi seem to be a bother.  As far as Bill's concerned, things couldn't be better.

Caveat Emptor, says I, for soon things begin to go bump in the night.  It looks like all the flatmates are disappearing into the house itself, and the house is devouring them one by one.  The Landlord essentially confirms this, as does the presence of alien bugs that live in the wood and eat them one by one.

The Doctor discovers that every twenty years starting from 1957, a group of six tenants comes along and disappear, and now it is 2017's turn to be sacrificed.  The Landlord insists this has to be done to keep his daughter alive.  The Doctor convinces the Landlord to let him look in on the patient.

The patient, Eliza (Mariah Gale), we find is actually not the Landlord's daughter.  It's actually his mother, whom he has kept alive since 1947, when as a child he brought the bugs, unaware of their power.  He soon found that they preserved his mother in wood, and thus he has been luring people to their doom.  The Doctor triggers Eliza's memories, and she and The Landlord soon are consumed by the bugs, for it is both wrong and their time to go.

This releases all of the 2017 flatmates and they escape.  We end with Nardole (Matt Lucas) leaving his shift at The Vault with the Doctor coming into it, offering 'whatever is inside' dinner while listening to the prisoner play a piano.

Alas, my enjoyment of Knock Knock gets knocked down if you take the time to think on the odd turns of logic within it. 

These disappearances, taking place every twenty years, were never investigated?  In 1957, or 1977, or 1997, no one ever checked on the six people devoured by the Landlord's mansion?

I figure they had families and friends, but apparently no one ever bothered with them, seeing that the police never connected the fact that all six were last seen having one thing in common: the Landlord's house.

Is it a little convenient that Eliza would forget that she was the Mother and not the Daughter?  Did she ever question why she was made of wood, or did she not notice? 

She had been dying since 1947, so what exactly did she do for 70 years?  Seems a rather dull life just being locked away all that time (not even a television set to entertain old Mother Wood).

What exactly did the Landlord expect to do when he died (which as far as I know, the bugs weren't about to preserve him, at least not in human form)?  As a side note, he pretty much seems to have wasted his life preserving dear old Mummy, though to be fair, Knock Knock brought to mind a friend of mine.

He'll be 56 this June and he still grieves his mother who died last year.  He lived with her his whole life, has never married or had children, and recently said that it might take him the rest of his life to overcome her death.  My view is that this is unhealthy for him, and that such postmortem devotion veers close to obsession.  My friend, like The Landlord, might have taken this bizarre step from ever seeing his mother die, but it seems almost cruel to keep her in this form. 

Yet I digress.

Between 1947 and 1957, when the first sacrifices were made, who raised him?  If he had a father or even another relative (aunts/uncles, siblings, cousins), that might have kept the grief down.  It's not as if he could be literally left an orphan without anyone noticing.

An excuse used to not notice the absence of one of the flatmates, Pavel (Bart Suavek) is that whenever he moves somewhere new, he locks himself in his room for days on end.  Aside from this being really weird (doesn't go for food or the restroom), the flatmates don't seem bothered or notice that his record player is stuck in a groove for hours.  That excuse is a pretty weak one to explain away his disappearance.

Yes, Knock Knock does leave a lot of questions that on examination, either need a great deal of explanation or don't hold up.  There is another aspect of Knock Knock that disturbed me greatly, more than any plot holes of leaps of logic.

I get that Knock Knock is meant to be creepy, even downright scary.  However, I wonder if it is too scary for children, too graphic in what we're presented.  Seeing Pavel caught up in the wooden wall is downright grotesque, an image that I found highly disturbing.  I imagine children might have been downright terrified at the image.  The sight of the bugs devouring the others was also perhaps a bit much. 

Those two images, I think, might have been pulled back or altered, as I found them more graphic than necessary, especially for children. 

Again, if one gets past the various points of logic or the somewhat gruesome aspects of Knock Knock, the episode can be seen as a positive.  At the very top of the list of positives is David Suchet's performance.  Suchet is one of the best actors of his generation, and to many (including myself), he's the definitive Hercule Poirot (sorry, Albert, Peter, and soon enough, Kenneth).   He makes the Landlord creepy but also sad whenever the plot requires him to be.

Mackie and Capaldi have proven to be a great fit as Companion and Doctor respectively.  More than smart-alecky Clara, who was at times insufferable, Mackie's Bill is fun, smart without being a know-it-all, and comfortable in her own skin.  Her gentle way of telling one of the guys who fancied her that she couldn't fancy him was handled well without making a big spectacle of her "I'm GAY!" reality.  Their interplay when she attempts to pass The Doctor off as her 'Grandfather' (to the irritation of the Doctor, who wouldn't have objected to "Father") is funny without being ridiculous.

Apart from certain points of logic, a more graphic set of visuals, and the tired 'everyone lives' trope, Knock Knock displays far more positives than negatives.  A great performance by David Suchet, great work by Mackie and Capaldi, a strong sense of the creepy old house: all worked together well.  It might have been better if Knock Knock had been a two part story to allow for a less rushed feel, but on the whole it is a step above what we've seen before.

I thought long and hard about my ultimate feeling for Knock Knock.  I was disturbed by the graphic nature of some of it, and question a lot of the logic behind it.  However, with some work this season of Doctor Who has proven so far to be a much better, much stronger one.

Knock on wood.


Next Story: Oxygen