The Cutprice Guignol

The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

Tag: doctor who series eight

Doctor Who: Teen Asists Radically Dull Interstellar Shenanigans

Well, we had a good run. From Listen to School space robot nonsense, we got three episodes that were, at worst, pretty good, and at best magnificent. And I must admit I was sceptical of Kill the Moon all week-it looked far too much like a cut-and-paste version of handfuls of previous episodes. Doctor and company arrive on a spaceship where they soon realise events are not going as historically planned; against-the-clock shenanigans ensue; everyone goes home. And, to be fair, that’s what I got.

But this episode bored the crap out of me. I’m almost glad I didn’t hold off on watching it till I was with my regular viewing party, as I had a lot more fun pausing the episode to play with my cat for brief periods and sighing loudly than I did actually watching those forty-seven minutes. I’m going to start from the top with a run-down of everything I think was wrong with this episode, because, aside from a vaguely cool design on the moon, I couldn’t find much to enjoy.

1. Clara

It’s a shame for Jenna Coleman, as she really has proved herself an entirely competent actress a number of times over the series. Here, however, the script threw raging inconsistencies her way that put everything off kilter. For example, it’s revealed that Courtney- the fifteen-year-old schoolgirl the Doctor whisked off into space at the close of last week’s episode- has been acting out because the Doctor says she wasn’t “special”. Courtney breaks into the Tardis, demands he take it back, and the Doctor instead offers to make her the first woman on the moon (?). Now, let’s consider that Clara and the Doctor’s adventures are, at least, quite often life-threateningly dangerous, and the last time Clara took kids in her care anywhere, they wound up with cyberman brain slugs attached to their minds. And they just went to a theme park. Why in the name of fucking hell would Clara decide it was alright to bring Courtney along on their adventure? Courtney winds up in mortal danger during her trip and Clara snaps “I HAVE A DUTY OF CARE” to the Doctor when he refuses to remove her from trouble. Not bringing your students to space with a time-travelling alien might be a plan next time, pal. It might seem like nitpicking here, but it’s these kinds of inconsistencies-purely there to drive the plot forward- that undermine the validity of her character. Why would she do that? She wouldn’t. But they needed her to so there could be a story. And that’s cheating.

2. Courtney

I must say that the wee lassie playing Courtney actually did a reasonable job, by which I mean she was a child actor who I didn’t want to cheerily throw to a pack of lions. But the script for her was jaw-droppingly bad- at once she was cowering from the evil spider monsters (who were crap and not scary at all), the next she was uploading pictures of her and the Doctor on the moon to tumblr because YOOF. She was clearly aware of and actively participated in the situation when she was in the room, but when she was placed back on the Tardis she simply whined about being bored, despite having been fully cognizant of the seriousness of the situation only minutes before. I’d also like to point out that Clara has tried for a long time to keep her life as the Doctor’s companion quiet- why would she invite ONE OF HER STUDENTS, established at the start of the episode to be feeling somewhat neglected and unimportant and with evidence of alien tech (she had the Doctor’s psychic paper), into space where she then took pictures? It won’t be fucking secret for very long if you go about like that. There was an implication, too, that Courtney just carries about a bottle of disinfectant with her at all times, which I know to be a lie. I was young once too, you know.

3. Sundry Characters

I’m not going to waste my precious time looking up their names, but the episode also featured three other characters who were sent to the moon to try and destroy it. Aside from showing no visible surprise when the Tardis and it’s occupants appeared on their spaceship (nor any explanation as to why it was crashing, either), two of them bought in via spider bacteria death, and the remaining one was barely sketched in. Usually, as in the Into the Dalek episode, we get a decent idea of the character’s backstory and motivations, but here I came away with the image of a shop window dummy in a spacesuit. She was a complete nothing. And speaking of complete nothings, the spider creatures that inhabited the moon were never properly explained and bore no relevance to the plot. And were also a bit rubbish.

4. The Story

I’ve spoken before about how interesting I find the idea of a fallible Doctor, maybe even a “bad” Doctor. This episode tried to advance this theme somewhat, with the Doctor leaving Clara with her two pals to make a vital decision- did they destroy the huge hatchling living inside the moon, or allow in to survive and possibly endanger the whole of humanity? (The correct answer here, by the way, is to destroy it- an answer so blindingly clear that it removed any of the moral gravitas the situation wanted to demand. The life of one creature versus the life of six billion people). It turned out all along that he’d known they were going to save the creature, and was basically letting Clara ride without stabilisers for the first time. When Clara confronted the Doctor about this, it was a potentially powerful moment that simply came across as pouty and stroppy on Clara’s part because of the hellish writing and the obvious lack of conflict in the big choice (I cannot stress enough how none of this is down to Coleman’s performance- even as she basically telling the Doctor to fuck off forever, Coleman kept it just about grounded). And just while we’re on the plot, too- did anyone else pick up on the weird pro-choice overtones in this episode’s central conflict? I’m on side with them, but there’s a time and a place and this was not it. The pacing was pretty dire, too- the first act was waaaay too short, with a saggy middle and an end so silly Capaldi looked embarrassed reading it.

Overall, then, I really couldn’t recommend this episode on any level. This series has had some bad episodes, sure, but they were a different kind of bad. Deep Breath had some fun introductory moments for Capaldi, while Into the Dalek had a vaguely interesting basic premise that just wasn’t that well executed (for me, at least). This was actually boring. I could have run you through almost all the basic plot after the first five minutes, because I’ve seen this before. It’s easy to fall into traps of similair plotting when your series has been running as long as it has, but, when that happens, you’ve got to distract us with something- a cool villain, interesting side characters, a sense of fun. I’m throwing it out there now by saying that Kill the Moon was one of the worst Doctor Who episodes I’ve ever seen-a flabby, scrappy, predictable story, inhabited by actors who were trying to make the best of characters who were for the time being at least, going nowhere.

And as for next week’s promo, can someone sit all the Doctor Who writers down and explain that putting a historical vehicle in space does not equal brilliant science-fiction? I’ll have you yet, Moffat.

Doctor Who: Teacher Aides Rude Doctor In School-Save

I think I’ve finally worked out what I like so much about Samuel Anderson. Tonight gave me the chance to get a really good look at him as Danny Pink, and the one thing that struck me about him was his eyes. They’re almost black to look at straight on, and they have a sadness to them that brings a doe-eyed vulnerability to what could be (and indeed has been) a cheesy, cut-out role.

But it wasn’t just his eyes I noticed in this week’s entertaining romp, The Caretaker (and I’m not talking about the head-tilt and slow nod when the camera lingered on his very agreeable buttocks at the end of a scene). It was a fun episode in terms of superficial story, and an insane amount seemed to happen in those three-quarters of an hour- indeed, the first twenty minutes had enough plot and banter to fill out a whole episode satisfactorily. The plot, which involved the Doctor masquerading as a school janitor while he stalked some sort of deadly war machine thing (which looked like a repurposed Ref Bot from Robot Wars, but I digress), was a puff of air, and the real conflict came from the characters.

Danny Pink was put at the front of this episode, and it paid off. I’m swiftly falling in love with this character and the performance, and I really can’t stress enough just how lucky the creator’s got with Samuel Anderson- he’s likeable without being a pushover, and treats Clara, now his girlfriend, well without unquestioningly allowing her to put herself in danger. He’s placed at odds with the Doctor throughout the episode, and Clara finds herself trapped between the two men she loves in very different ways. The Doctor hates Danny because Danny is a soldier, and Danny hates the Doctor because the Doctor is an officer. This idea- of the Doctor being a very different kind of war-mongerer-is one that is given the proper dramatic weight that it deserves, and the nasty, scratchy atmosphere between the two adds a vital layer to what could have been a throwaway episode. I could have done without Danny front-flipping over the alien war machine at the climax of the plot, but we all knew he was going to save the day somehow, and this at least looked fucking excellent. A quip-tacular Doctor sealed the deal, with Peter Capaldi never funnier that when he’s harried.

A few seeds were sown for later episodes as well, which I enjoyed in so much as I enjoy someone repeatedly pinching me so they can inform me that I’m about to get hit by a train. Sure, I appreciate it and am broadly glad that it’s there, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t roll my eyes a tiny bit an wish for just one, straight episode. We were formally introduced to Courtney Woods, the schoolgirl at Clara’s classes who very clearly has something to do with a bigger arc because MOFFAT (I think she’s the younger version of the next assistant, because that’s the kind of shit he just loves to pull). And, more thrillingly, we saw a virtual Thick of It reunion as Chris Addison rolled up at the end of the episode to introduce a hapless policeman, who bought it at the hands of evil war machine thing earlier in the episode and was promptly forgotten about, into the afterlife. I couldn’t here much over my boyfriend’s excited mewing (like a six foot kitten, he was), but I imagine the message boards are already exploding with theories regarding his cameo. I certainly am.

Overall, the episode was a good ‘un. It was slightly forgettable, in the sense that I will not remember the story at all, but had enough great moments that will stick in my brain- the flicker of sadness over the Doctor’s face as Clara announces that she’s in love with Danny, for example. It was an episode of stellar performances, and credit must go to Samuel Anderson, who is exquisitely excellent and one of the most instantly likeable and original introductions to the series in years, for his continually stellar work. How long till you kill him off, then? I’ll have you yet, Moffar.

Doctor Who: Totally Awesome Robbery, Director Imitates Soderbergh

There was a bank heist. In space. You see, the characters of the show were in space. And they were there to carry out a bank heist. Hence: Space bank heist. I’m not sure if you’re following me here, but the events of this weeks episode revolved around a bank heist- following me?- but it was in space.

I was pretty taken with the concept behind this week’s episode alone, and, after the belter that was Listen last week, I was hoping for something that held onto the dark tone while still carrying through a tight, well-constructed plot. Time Heist did a pretty good job fulfilling both roles.

I was expecting far more of a caper than we actually got, and it did deliver on some capery aspects- the demure British bitch stock character played magnificently by Keeley Hawes made sure of that. But it was actually a pretty interesting episode aside from the premise alone- the alien that featured was legitimatley excellent, a creature that detected guilt and proceeded to literally turn your mind to soup TILL YOUR SKULL CAVED IN AND YOUR BRAIN LEAKED OUT OF YOUR EYES. It was a nifty idea, and one that was shown in gratifyingly edifying detail for a Saturday night teatime show. See, this for me is where Doctor Who provides a genuine public service- introducing children to the brilliance and subtlety that makes up really good horror.  Being frightened of a TV show or a movie or an audiobook (damn you, Anthony Horowitz’s Granny) but still thoroughly enjoying them when you’re a kid leads you to binge on Joe Hill, Stephen King, Lovejoy, Ramsay, et al in your teenage years, then drops you into the deep end of great horror movies as you blossom into gory adulthood. More horror fans mean more horror movies and books made by people who understand the genre and want to create something new, which I will consume and go on about while drunk for the following eight months. Ergo, Doctor Who has played into my hands once again. The prosthetics on the creature gave in a menacing presence, and the concept was cool enough that even the slightly cheesy ending didn’t undermine how cool it was. I give it a season till we reach it’s tenth episode.

The story itself was pretty paper-thin, but interesting, mainly thanks to a fascinating supporting cast. This takeaway-carton companions thing is one that can either work spectacularly (Sally Sparrow in Blink, Madame de Pompadour in Girl in the Fireplace) or terribly (Tim McInnery in that Ood episode that I hate, Kylie Minogue aboard the Titanic), but here they allowed just enough characterisation that their fates actually came to mean something, making the heist more about just some ingenious Doctor scheme taken out of curiosity. It was a pretty non-descript episode for Clara, who got to run around scary corridors for a bit, which was pretty disappointing. Next week’s fiasco looks like it involves Danny Pink in some way, which delights me, as I’ve developed a life-threatening crush on Samuel Anderson that can only be treated by regular doses of his lovely facial features, and presumably some extra Clara as they are clearly doing the horizontal shoe shuffle.

Overall, this episode was a good one. Following from a stunning episode like Listen is always a tricky one, but Time Heist had enough Ocean’s Eleven-y fun with the premise while indulging in a lot of curious sci-fi ideas and scary moments. On a scale of the whole eight seasons, Time Heist probably wouldn’t rate particularly highly. In terms of this season, however, it’s far and away the next best episode of the season after Listen, and has thrown into sharp relief just how mediocre-at-best the start of series eight was. After a wibbly beginning, things are on the up- they better keep in that way. I’ll have you yet, Moffat.

Doctor Who: Tertiary Aliens Rapidly Devolve Interesting Story

Do you know how long I’ve waited? After a bland Christmas special (which was somewhat of a misnomer) and the promise of a new, darker, older, more Scottish Doctor, eight months sailed by in an agonising trill of teasers and Coleman. By the time last night came around, I was practically sick with excitement- here, we had the introduction of a potentially game-changing Doctor, handled by one of the most experienced and competent showrunners in the industry. This, as I declared several minutes before starting the episode, could not go wrong.

As I’m sure you can guess, it swiftly did. The episode wasn’t a complete write-off, to be fair- I chuckled at a few of the less ham-fisted jokes, and appreciated a magnificent Matt Smith cameo that only made me pine for him more- but overall, I was left, not just dissapointed, but fuming by the Doctor Who season eight opener, Deep Breath. Indulge me for a moment, would you?

Infuriation Point 1: The Plot was Sloppy

Let’s cast our eye back over some wonderful DW episodes of yesteryear- Blink, The Empty Child two-parter, The God Complex. These are all episodes that are utterly airtight. You can watch these and watch these and watch these and not find one slip-up in the writing, one loophole that the characters presumably missed. Within half an hour of Deep Breath ending, me and the Consort had successfully picked obvious holes all over the plot (for example, the title was taken from the idea that the villains were unable to sense living creatures of they were holding their breath. So the central characters just stood very, very still at a climatic moment, holding their breath and waiting for the Doctor to come through, instead of running as far away from the monsters as they could while they were under their radar, which has been established as possible earlier in the episode). The episode would have made a very passable forty-minute mid-series romp, but it flagged hugely in it’s almost eighty-minute runtime. I don’t want to pick holes in Doctor Who, but if the writing is as slapdash as this was, I have to. Moffat has written some of the hands-down best episodes of the series ever, but that doesn’t give him a free pass to oversee episodes that both a) pointlessly reuse pretty good villains from six years ago that everyone sort of forgot about or b) contain a plot with the structural integrity of a skyscraper made of trifle.

Infuriation Point 2: Strax, Vastra, Jenny

I discussed in a review for The Crimson Horror last season that Strax, Madame Vastra, and Jenny were great characters who would, in the great Doctor Who tradition, be overused until we were sick of the sight of them (see: The Ood, The Daleks, Martha, etc). And I’ve been proved right against my will here, as they twirled into a room in tight leather brandishing swords and suspended by ribbons without a hint of a tongue anywhere near a cheek. Vastra came off as kind of patronising, and the heeeeee-larious Sontarans-don’t-get-people-LOL jokes are getting pretty boring. More to the point, I would have much preferred Capaldi’s opening episode to be about him and Clara, as opposed to wasting scenes with Clara nipping at tertiary characters.

Infuriation Point 3: Capaldi

Right, let’s be clear here: I thought Peter Capaldi was EXCELLENT in this episode. He was funny, charming, and extremely likeable. And my gripe with this new Doctor might be just mine, but it’s this: he didn’t seem like the Doctor. He didn’t have that mania or that sense of two thousand years of history or that ability to make it look as if his brain was about to burst with thought even when he was saying nothing at all. Whether or not this was a stylistic choice to depict his confusion after regeneration I don’t know, but I’ll be keen to see if this changes as the series goes on. I wonder, too, if the fact that every other Doctor I’ve seen I’ve been coming to with next to no prior knowledge of, while Capaldi inhabited one of the most iconic comedy roles of the decade has something to do with my inability to see him as a timelord. I did catch myself willing him on to declare something the “FUCKING OMNISHAMBLES” more than once. 

Miscellaneous 

Ben Wheately, an indie film director who helmed this episode, managed to make it look actively sloppy a few times. I didn’t like the utterly pointless re-use of old villains, especially not when you have a brand-new Doctor to play with. The ending suggested a rehash of the dreaded River Song plot, which I am minus okay with. There was no mention of Gallifrey, despite the fact they brought it back in the 50th Anniversary Special to great fanfare. The Scottish jokes (“You all sound ENGLISH!”) were pointless and, frankly, can we keep the independence campaign out of a kid’s teatime show? 

With all that said, there was a lot to recommend to this seventy-six minutes of television. A nod to the Doctor’s moral ambiguity with a jumped/pushed question mark, a few meta nods to the fact that Peter Capaldi was in the series before, and some musing on the nature of the Doctor’s relationship with Clara (which apparently a lot of people hated but I utterly adored) that was pulled off with tenderness and subtlety. There’s enough here to go on to tempt me back, dammit, and it looks like, as Capaldi, Clara and the new improved Tardis, I’ll be back next week.

But hang on: did I spot some Daleks “done in a new way” (floating Dalek eyes???!?!??!??!?!) yet again in next week’s teaser? I’ll have you yet, Moffat.