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Doctor Who: Terrific Adventure Raises Discussion of Inelegant Season

After last week’s fiasco of an episode (divisive though it was, I have yet to meet someone in real life who actually liked Kill the Moon), I was seriously putting off watching this week’s outing, Mummy on the Orient Express. For one, they’d once again added the suffix “In SPACE” to give an otherwise fine story a science-fiction twist (this week, the famous train was thundering through the cosmos despite the fact that everyone on the train was still dressed and acted like they were fro the 1920s). And for another, a big deal had been made of the villain, and that sends warning signals sparkling up and down my cynicism spine, as all the really good monsters have come with no fanfare whatsoever. Eventually, with much wincing and eye-rolling, I sat down to this week’s outing.

And I was pretty pleased with the results. For one thing, that Mummy-

mummy-on-the-orient-express

-Was genuinely scary. A great to-do was made (by me, on Twitter) about Doctor Who shifting to a half eight slot because this monster was just SO SCARY, and I’ve got to admit that it really was. A great, shambling, rotting creature that only appeared to those who it was about to kill, allowing them sixty-six seconds after it first materialised till their inevitable death. The idea was cool, as with many Who monsters- but for once it was carried off with style, even managing to stick the landing of actually finding out what the creature was and how to stop it, which has been a continual faltering point for writers this series. I’d put this up there amongst the better monsters of the show so far, and not just because they managed to work in an Empty Child joke (“Are you MY mummy?”) for all the fangirls like me who never got over 2005. If you’re going to do scary, do fucking scary; it seems my angry letters have finally reached the Doctor Who writer’s room.

So, the story was solid and surprisingly focused, proving my point about Clara and THIS Doctor working better when seperated once again. I like both this Doctor and Clara, but on screen together they come across as a stroppy teenager and a patronising parent in any combination almost permanently. Frank Skinner guest-starred, four words that can strike fear into the hearts of any British TV fan, and actually proved himself a surprisingly excellent addition. His mischievous cleverness gelled perfectly with the Doctor’s dour investigation, and Skinner acquitted himself admirably, earning a place amongst the best guest stars of the last few seasons. A grand deal was made of an appearance by singer Foxes, which amounted to a twenty-second background musical noodle. Lovely voice, though.

So ye: this was a great episode. But? The jury is still out on this season. And that’s a problem. We’ve had some blindingly good outings- Listen-some above-average exploits- The Janitor, Time Heist, this- and we’ve had some shockingly atrocious bits of television- Kill the Moon, mostly, but I think Deep Breath still has a lot to answer for regarding the all-over-the-place nature of this series. Part of that has come from the fact that Capaldi and Coleman have a very different chemistry than she did with Matt Smith’s Doctor, in a way that apparently wasn’t really anticipated by the writers or directors. They seem keen to wrap up her relationship with the old Doctor, when the new one needs time to establish himself free of the shackles of his predecessor. Broadly, this season has been a disappointment, as they ignored the opportunity to reboot what was a slightly ailing series at this point (would you rewatch any of Matt Smith’s final series out of choice?) and stuck to their increasingly scattershot guns. Watching this series has increasingly confirmed my suspicion that we need a new showrunner, and we need them soon. There’s no doubt Moffat is a genius of television, but he needs something new to breathe life into. Doctor Who fans have seen all of his occasionally impressive shenanigans, and it feels like time for someone else to have a shot at the wheel. A new day, a new Doctor, and preferably a new behind-the-scenes maven to apply electrodes to the show’s genitals. They’ll have you yet, Moffat.

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: Terrific Acting, Radical Developments, Intrinsically Sensational

It’s taken me this long to get this review up because my mind is still boggled. Some of thay bogglation comes from a return to uni (I got asked twice how I as enjoying my first week in university, and gave directions to a first year who was at least five years older than me. It’s all wrong, so very wrong) and a majestic thrity-hour streak of sleeplessness, but the majority of it comes from this week’s episode of Doctor Who, Listen.

I’ve long considered Doctor Who to have two main stories running parallel to each other at all times. One story, which is usually the dominant one, is just the plot of the episode- the first, second, and third act of a usually self-contained script. The second is a larger plot by scale, but not by screentime- it’s the overarching mythology of Doctor Who, the thread that ties together decades of TV into a cohesive, singular character. It’s the Doctor’s story.

Listen, an episode that re-established Steven Moffat as the television genius that I’ve been missing in the last few years (yes, I didn’t like the last season of Sherlock. Handle it), was an exploration of the latter. Frankly, the story itself- the Doctor obsessively trying to catch a creature he has theorised that can hide from everyone- is no great shakes, though it provides some properly creepy moments. The b-plot, concerning Clara going on a date with Danny Pink, was irritating in so much as it forced conflict with some obviously provocative lines about his ex-soldiership, but tied in nicely with the main story that implies that Pink and Clara will do the familial nasty and pop out some sprogs later down the line (I also watched Samuel Anderson, who plays Pink, behind the scenes of the show, and can confirm that his engaging enthusiasm isn’t just in that character. Seriously, he might be one of the most likeable actors on TV, both on and off screen). It’s hard to explain the central plot as it was scattered across a number of places and times, basically following the Doctor’s obsessive search for something that may or may not exist. It’s a cool theory, and one that lets Capaldi take a microscope to the iconic role to great effect. In my mind, at least, he IS the Doctor now. Clara had a good run too, as Coleman is totally engaging and brings so much to the table as an assistant and as a character in her own right.

The story is really there to let us examine the Doctor a little more closely. He doesn’t even start the episode off with Clara, the pre-credits cold open featuring a monologue from a lonely Doctor who later refuses to reveal how long he’s been travelling alone for. Here, he’s mad in a way that he hasn’t been in a long time- not the David Tennant overworking brain, or Matt Smith mania, but obsessive and, possibly, wrong. But by far the most interesting part of his plot- and the most interesting part of the series so far- features the Tardis crash-landing in a barn. Clara steps out and hears a child crying, and goes to comfort him. It’s then revealed that the child is, in fact, the Doctor, as Clara delivers a speech to him that echoes exactly a speech given by the Doctor to a terrified child earlier in the episode. I imagine that, like me, a thousand Whovians exploded simultaneously-I properly, with no hint of irony, gasped- but it was more than just shallow fanservice or Steven Moffat deliberately picking the path of most resistance, which is how I’ve often felt about big reveals like this. This was organic, genuinely shocking, and rendered the whole episode more meaningful. They had successfully managed to move the much larger plot along without completely losing the story in the mix, pulling in events from Day of the Doctor an the rebirth of Gallifrey in a way that gave us a deeper look into the current Doctor, while setting up longer strands for Clara and Danny Pink in the future.

Reading all that back, it is a miracle that this episode didn’t get overwhelmed in it’s own substance. I can honestly say, though, that Listen ranks among the best episodes of the new series, taking my worry about a running of steam and pissing them to the four winds with glee. You know what, Moffat? I won’t have you, yet. Congratulations.

Doctor Who: Tosh and Rambunctious Dithering In South

My dad grew up with Doctor Who in much the same way I have. He kept up with a few episodes of the new series, and we were discussing the newest season in Skype last week. I had my pouty face on because I hadn’t enjoyed the last couple of episodes-too serious, too clunky, not quite Doctor Who enough. Me and my father came to the conclusion that the problem with those episodes (and some episodes of the previous series) was that the creators had forgotten their roots- Doctor Who was created, after all, as a children’s television show that taught unsuspecting kids about history. It was always a little bit naff and a little bit silly- which is not to say it couldn’t be scary, funny, and emotionally resonant at the same time, but, ultimately, this is Saturday night family TV and the show is best when it remembers that. 

I felt like this point had been vindicated with last night’s episode Robot of Sherwood (it’s always fun to see a historical episode that isn’t set in Victorian London, though it was clear that the cast and crew had just sidled over to the few remaining sets from the BBC’s ill-advised Robin Hood redo a few years ago while no-one was looking). It was terrible on surface level, but actually pretty carefully constructed on closer inspection. It followed the story of the Doctor and Clara foiling a plan by the evil Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of Robin Hood- despite the fact the Doctor is convinced that the entire legend of Robin Hood is just a legend.

It seems like someone had just bothered watching The Thick of It for the first time, after having the DVDs gathering dust in the writer’s room for six months, and realised that this Peter Capaldi guy is pretty funny when you put him in conflict with someone else, whether he’s swordfighting with a spoon or engaging in a three-way archery contest. The Doctor really developed for me in this episode, becoming, like a pokemon in cool shoes, the next stage of his evolution- the funny Doctor. The script split him and Clara up for much of the running time, leaving him bickering with Robin Hood and leading peasants in rebellion against evil robot knights. I mean, just read that sentence back- that’s what I come to Doctor Who for, that zenith of nonsense and fun. 

Splitting Clara off from the Doc proved a good plan too, as her level and type of energy was matched by the numerous periphery characters in almost every scene instead of clashing with that sour energy that Capaldi puts out. Ben Elton, as the sleazy Sheriff, was brilliant and a little bit sexy (I’ve still got a hangover crush from Primeval), and the merry men were appropriately merry and manly. The episode broadly tied in to the plot established in the first episode about robots trying to rebuild themselves and return to the promised land (a plot I assume will culminate with the cybermen, who we know will appear in the finale with Missy), but was basically just an audaciously plotted, utterly ridiculous slice of family TV. I was willing to forgive some of the silly plot wobbles (like the golden arrow being shot into the spaceship) because Robot of Sherwood never set itself up as a fiendish masterpiece. It came in with a party hat on squint and a bottle of cheap wine in it’s hand looking to have fun.

I’ve long been a supporter of the art of TV that’s simply fun, and here was an episode that provided me with a score of reasons why. I’m not claiming this was any great shakes at theme, or emotional depth, or fascinating ideas- I’m saying this was an episode of TV that succeeded in entertaining me for fifty minutes, the very reason I fell in love with the show in the first place. Welcome back, Doctor Who. 

That theme song is still the root cause for all evil in the world, though. I’ll have you yet, Moffat.

Torchwood: Television’s B-Movie

Right, before I start, I have brief plugging to do- firstly, I’ve noticed the Doctor Who articles on the Guignol have been getting tons of clicks. If you want to read more of my Doctor-Who related nonsense (which I assume is what you’re here for), I’ll be writing a beginner’s guide to Doctor Who over the next few weeks over at the excellent site Popjunk, which I’ll posting here sporadically too. And another thing- for those new to the site, hello! I run other blogs both here (that’s an interview-based site about working in the arts), and here (that’s a music blog I run with another freelance pop culture writer). Check them out because I’m a sick-ass dope writing motherfucker. We good? We’re good. 

So, Torchwood. Torchwood (an anagram of Doctor Who, and a code name for the rebooted show when it was still in the early stages of production) is a spin-off from the second series of the new Who, following the exploits of periphary character Captain Jack Harkness- 

 

Swwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwoon.

Swwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwoon.

 -and his band of merry upgraded extras. Basically, each epsidoe revolves around them prancing about Cardiff solving mysteries. It’s Scooby-Doo, if the gang dry-humped in the back of the Mystery Machine at the end of every episode.

Torchwood was sold as a “grown-up” Doctor Who, packed with fluid sexuality, moderately offensive swear words, and pointed blood splatter. This is usually where I would start ripping the ever-living pish out of a show of this nature-a spin-off, a “gritty redo”, Russel T Davies….

But Torchwood is great. Well, it’s not, but that’s what makes it so eminently watchable. The acting is pretty average, with John Barrowman earning particularly criticism for his portrayal of Jack (although, honestly, he’s playing a swaggering, omnisexual intergalactic space cowboy- the part needs to be inhabited, not actually acted), but it works. The cast have strong chemistry, and Eve Myles in particular (who was scooped straight out of a season one Doctor Who episode, character name and all) toes the line of audience surrogate and plain exposition machine carefully and to great effect. I’m also a huge fan of Owen, because he looks wildly strange in a way that I find momentously attractive.

owen

Is this crush alright? It’s not, is it? I wish I were Aunt Peggy, and he were the gin.

He’s also the focus of some of the most interesting episodes of the series, and carries them with aplomb. One character I don’t understand is Ianto- there was such a vitriolic tidal wave when he left the show, I was expecting an engaging, witty, empathetic character and instead he’s the…pale-ish tea boy? You can keep it, thanks.

So the acting is no great shakes, and the stories are often two-word epiphanies that hit the writers at three in the morning on the way back from the pub. “SEX……GAS”. “LIVING…..FILM. “PTERODACTYL….PET”. You get my drift. The villains inevitably turn out to be either preening ninnies or badly CGI’d monsters or twist endings that make me want to harm things, but you’re there to see the gang bicker and leap into action at least twice an episode, not for Moffat-ian scripts. Everything is oozing with innuendos, second base, and snappy, office-banter one-liners. The whole thing plays out like a b-movie, in that it’s well aware that it’s not going to win any awards, but it’s enthusiastic and ridiculous and a little bit knowing anyway. Although once some screenwriting genius working for Torchwood managed to blurt out “MARSTERS….BARROWMAN” and it was good. REALLY good. 

To be that tacky late nineties wallpaper.

To be that tacky late nineties wallpaper.

Keeping up with series eight of Doctor Who, one of the things I’ve been missing most profoundly is that sense of bright, kitschy, self-aware fun. That’s not to say every episode should feature Daleks in pom-poms and a swanny whistle, but there is- or should be, in my eyes- a light element of camp to the Whoniverse, and watching Torchwood reminded me that. I’m entirely game for serious science-fiction that makes a strong moral point (see: Miracle Day and Children of Earth, the brilliant if oft maligned miniseries detours Torchwood took after it’s first two monster-bashing seasons were over) or science-fiction that’s bright, breezy fun. And I also think that the Whoniverse is better placed than many to pull off both in tandem. But, in the midst of an all-too-serious season of Doctor Who, it’s nice to remind myself just how blase and brilliant this world can be. 

 

Hang on, I just like this show because I think everyone’s fit, don’t I? It’s The Great British Bake-Off all over again. 

Doctor Who: Telling Adventure Really Doesn’t Inspire Satisfaction

 

I was on a bus today, idly inspecting the drizzly Turner painting that greeted me out the window. We trundled by a farm (one of the terribly posh farms, with a shop that sells local produce, which is always jam or pickle or wood carved into the shape of a swan that’s also an ornamental bread holder), and, through the rain, I could make out something. Pinned to each of the fences were a collection of large banners, each of them asking anyone who cared to notice “Fancy a Cornetto?”. A fair enough ploy for the summer, you might, think, but these banners were being battered by a stiff wind, still damp from yesterday’s day of sheet rain, in a farm as empty as the call centres in Heaven. They summed up a very British predilection to blind hope in the face of overwhelming, almost hilarious odds- someone, somewhere, had realised it was summer and gone “wouldn’t some ice-cream just be lovely this time of year?”, and put out these futile signs. 

This week, my terribly British hope was eroded at again. I love Doctor Who, and I still think that it’s one of the finest TV shows ever to grace the small screen. Even after last week’s blunder of an opening (it was all summed up for in the look the consort’s brother gave me when the dire new opening credits played out: a flash of “JUST WHEN I THOUGHT IT COULDN’T GET ANY WORSE”), I was hoping that the Daleks might ground things in comfortable territory. They’re a hazing ritual for new Doctors, and a classic villain that people (not me, obviously. I hate them. They’re shit. I own a plunger, a whisk, and a fearful lack of regard for human life, and you don’t see Moffat casting me in anything) seem to love. But I didn’t like this episode. 

It swung between some fun, cool parts that I did like, and some almost embarrassing exploits that made me want to take the writers over my knee. The bits I did like, first- Zawe Ashton (who is an utterly brilliant comic actress whose turn in Fresh Meat-both ludicrously funny and starkly dramatic- is one of the finest performances on TV at the moment) was brilliant as stoic but gold-hearted soldier person. We also got the first glimpse of Danny Pink, a future major player in the series and currently an ex-soldier and new teacher at Clara’s school. I’ll say that he did really well, but the writing was crass and they were lucky that at least he brought the charm- in basically his first shot, he assigns homework and asks “Any questions?”, to which some little rapscallion intones “HAVE YOU EVER KILLED A MAN.”. It was both a line and a line reading so dire that I broke down into ab-crunching laughter, and, with uni starting in two weeks, I plan to direct this question to all my lecturers as a hazing process. But: Danny Pink was good. There were also some passably funny lines, as the Matt Smith humour is dropped in favour of Capaldi’s deadpan humour (“Oh, don’t worry, you’re built like a man”). I will also recant one thing: I criticised Ben Wheatley’s direction last week, but he did a grand job on Inside the Dalek, actually managing to make them look pretty cool and briefly threatening. 

Onto the bad. The story, which followed the Doctor and some compadres miniaturizing to go inside a broken Dalek that had started liking humans (let’s just not go near the premise this week, for my own sanity), was made up of two acts. It jarred terribly as it jumped from first act to third with nothing in the middle, as the Doctor staggered through awkward moral plot points and a script that was both too slow and too fast at various points. I was relatively game for a fun, silly episode that let us explore the iconic Who machine (just like Journey to the Centre of the Tardis so spectacularly failed to do last season), but the episode seemed terribly keen to stick it’s fingers down it’s throat and throw up some season-long themes.

This wasn’t an issue of it being a “dark” episode or a “fun” episode, as Who can do both almost simultaneously if it wants (See: The Empty Child/Doctor Dances, The God Complex, Blink), it was an issue of the script filling in what should have been bold, assured black and white with faded shades of grey. I’ve also noticed that Clara is starting to annoy me, and I don’t think it’s anything to do with Jenna Coleman- I think it’s just that her rambunctious energy worked best when paired with Matt Smith’s equal mania. Up against Peter Capaldi’s dour, more serious Doctor, she just comes across as a little grating and shrieky. The floating Dalek eyes I predicted last week turned out to be Dalek antibodies that killed people inside the Dalek, and I seriously don’t know if it’s better or worse. 

And you know what the worst part about all of this is? I’m still looking forward to next week’s potentially excellent Robot of Sherwood. Damn you and your hopeful witchery: I’ll have you yet, Moffat. 

Doctor Who: Who the Fuck is Missy?

 
At the end of the disappointing season opener Deep Breath last Saturday, we met Missy. A quiveringly mad Mary Poppins-type character, she appeared (played by Michelle Gomez) welcoming the clockwork half-man to a place she referred to as “heaven” and “paradise”, seemed to have a strong knowledge of the Doctor’s actions, and-worryingly, considering my very nearly permanent dislike for River Song- described herself as the Doctor’s girlfriend. We know she’s in the final episode which will have something to do with the Cybermen, and is titled “Death In Heaven”  (and directed by the excellent Rachel Malalay). There have been some insane fan theories floating about the internet, and I’m here to put them together and throw my own fevered imagination into the pot.

1. The Master

Literally every time any new character is introduced to Doctor Who, people start clamouring on about how they’re finally bringing The Master back. Look: it’s not going to happen. Moffat has said that he’s leaving The Master be for the time being, and, while it might be a cunning sleight of hand, I really doubt his arch-nemesis will be returning any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, I WANT The Master to return more than I want my house to stay upright, but I refuse to get my hopes up. Why would he refer to the Doctor as his boyfriend? Why is he guarding the gates of heaven? Is Philip Glenister there too? Tellingly, the main “clue” fans are basing this theory on is the name “Missy”- Mistress is a female version of Master, and the shortened version for that is MISSY. GET IT? DO YOU FUCKING GET IT?! THEY’RE BRINGING THE MASTER BACK, YOU GUYS!

(on second thoughts, I will look like the biggest arse ever if this turns out to be right).

Likelihood: 4/10. Never rule anything out in Moffat-land, but just rewatch the John Simm episodes if you’re that desperate.

2. The Rani

Another character who fans have a permanent, hopeful hard-on over, I actually think this would be the coolest option on the list. She’s a character from the original series, a foe of the sixth and seventh doctors, and, most interestingly, a renegade, female timelord and scientific mastermind. With the return of Gallifrey (and presumable restoration of the timelords) at the end of Day of the Doctor, it would be the perfect time to re-introduce the villainess, originally played by Kate Mara. Evil as they day is long, several fans have pointed out that the garden she appeared in vaguely resembled a Tardis.

It sort of resembles a Tardis with Rani in it, if you imagine the fountain is a centre console while screaming "I NEVER GOT OVER 1985!"

It sort of resembles a Tardis with Rani in it, if you imagine the fountain is a centre console while standing on your head and screaming “I NEVER GOT OVER 1985!”

If I were Steven Moffat- and long have I dreamt of the day- I would be tripping over myself to bring The Rani back, especially as a foe for a new Doctor. So that probably means it’s not going to happen, because Moffat NEVER LISTENS TO ME.

Likelihood: 5/10. More a pipe dream, but an awesome bit of potential.

3. Evil Doctor

The idea of the Doctor having several different sides that can form their own individual personalities and sometimes actually break free of him was explored a couple of times in the Matt Smith era (see: Nightmare in Silver and Amy’s Choice), and this lady seems to know rather a lot about the Doc. She’s also Scottish, like his new reiteration, and comments that she’ll keep the accent as she likes it so much. I wish this theory were less plausible as it’s so ridiculous and already brilliant, but this is a strong contender.

Likelihood: 6/10. Because why the fuck not.

4. Clara

We already know that Clara was sent spiralling into the Doctor’s timestream at the end of The Name of the Doctor, and found echoes of herself across the universe. Is it possible that this is one who broke free and went mad? With the seemingly pretty sudden departure of Jenna Coleman at the end of the season (strongly rumoured to be true), this could provide a way for everyone to tie up the Clara plot without requiring sexy Bambi on-set, as well as allowing the Doctor to seal the deal with their relationship without coming across like a creepy uncle. Fans have pointed out that she’s also wearing clothes similar to Clara’s from a few episodes back, though they may have forgotten the budget cuts. There was a lot of talk in the first episode of the burgeoning relationship between Matt Smith’s Doctor and Clara, with specific reference to the fact that he wasn’t her boyfriend. Did an obsessive and insane Clara turn into Missy? I bloody hope so.

Likelihood:8/10. Moffat loves to screw around with timelines and has previous for setting characters at different places along the same story, so this mad- Clara idea would be a fun way to wrap up her plot as well as provide EMOTION and DEPTH and AN EXCUSE TO BUGGER AROUND WITH TIMELINES AGAIN.

5. The Tardis

Sigh. Ever since The Tardis turned into a lady in that one episode, which seemed like a clever, quirky one-off to me, everyone seems to point at the screen shouting “Tardis! TAAAARRDDDDIIIIIISISISISISISISSSS!” whenever a mysterious woman appears on the show (every other episode). I wouldn’t loathe this outcome, but I would be pretty bored by it. It would explain the madness and the reference to the Doctor as her boyfriend, but Moffat either likes to a) fiendishly forshadow his big reveals or b) pull them straight out the blue. This is somewhere in between, and therefore doesn’t fit the bill.

Likelihood: 3/10. Snore.

6. River Song

You come back here, you little shit-

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.