The Cutprice Guignol

The Sixth Year: American Sigh Story

Tag: peter capaldi

Doctor Who: Timorous Adventure Reflects Directly Improving Series

Well, this is it: the end to one of the most dissapointing series of television I’ve ever been privy too. Yes, season eight of Doctor Who had a tantalising amount of promise, and delivered in a slim ratio of episodes- but more often than not, was churning out one-shotters than landed somewhere between mediocre and actively violating. We’ve swung from the dizzying highs of Listen, to the dismal lows of Deep Breath and- whisper it- Kill the Moon. But with a solid first half of a finale under our belt from last week, we swing into action for the last time until the Christmas special with Death in Heaven, with a major metropolitan centre overrun with cybermen (for, by my count, the third time), and the soaringly glorious return of The Master, as Missy. Ready to crack on?

danny-pink

I said last week that the success of Dark Water really rested on how good this follow up was- if this hour-long special really cocked it up, the impact and power of that first half evaporates into nothing. Until this episode was broadcast, Dark Water hung in an odd kind of halfway house, wherein it had been broadcast and seen and critiqued, but no-one could really give a definitive opinion on it yet. And now we can.

I don’t think Death in Heaven was as good as last week’s outing. I think there were some spectacular high points to the episode, though, and those do not deserve to be buried underneath the niggling problems that arose. Firstly, let’s talk about those performances. It came down to a central four: Clara, Danny, the Doctor, and Missy. Right off the bat, let’s talk about Michelle Gomez: I imagine one of the most offputting things about bringing the Master back was that John Simm was devastatingly good in his take on the character, a psycopathic, charming, charismatic, slightly saucy nemesis that had an unassailable hold on our lead character. But Gomez sold it with style, more than living up to the mantle of the character and practically leaving me swooning over her best moments. She was magnetic, brilliant, and any number of synonyms for greatness that define how good that performance was. She was magnificent.

 

Delicious.

Delicious.

Jenna Coleman, too, did very well it what would essentially prove to be her send-off episode. Like last week, it was her interaction with Danny that served as the emotional core of the adventure, landing just short of schmaltzy and remaining tremendously affecting throughout. She became the first assistant to make an active decision to let the Doctor go, as opposed to being taken from him or having him taken from her, which gave her a pleasing bit of agency. Did anyone else get the feeling that we’ve still got a lot of questions about Clara that need to be answered, though? The most pressing one for me is where the knock-off Dannys (Dannies?) we saw earlier in the series came from, and I’d still really like to know about the whole being-scattered-throughout-the-Doctors-timestream while we’re on the subject. Samuel Anderson was sensational, as ever, despite the fact that I’m furious to see one of the most succintly drawn, consistently performed characters leave the show after only a handful of really meaty episodes. I would have loved to have had more time to really get under his skin and enjoy that performance a little londer. Capaldi had a blinder too, with his climatic scene- discovering that Missy had lied to him about the location of Gallifrey- carried out in silenced audio but with maximum pathos. It was stark, dramatic, and a centrepiece for this incarnation.

And while we’re on the good stuff, let’s mention Rachel Talalay’s direction, which was brilliant, how excellent the cybermen looked, a beautiful nod to the Brigadier, and what was broadly a pretty solid script when it came to the talky scenes. But I’m sure you can see where this is going, and I won’t keep you waiting much longer; I was pretty underwhelmed by the series finale.

So many interesting points were brought up in last week’s episode that seemed to be muted or ignored here. Danny meeting the child he killed, only to choose to send him back to the land of the living to Clara at the end of the episode, made sense, but could have used a bit of fleshing out. And when you consider the hour-long runtime, surely they could have cut silly little scenes, like the one where the Doctor is declared President of Earth (which bore no relevance to the plot that I could fathom), to make room for some building-up there. I was also seriously disappointed by the lack of Missy in the episode; sure, she was there, and she did wonderfully when given the screentime, but the script was far more interested in the dull rehashing of Army of the Dead from series two than it was with their reincarnation of the Master. In my eyes, at least, that’s a mistake. I’m dissapointed to assume that this is the last we’ll be seeing of Michelle Gomez’ incarnation of the Master, as she barely got time to inhabit the character before she was snatched offscreen by the Brig.

Ah, Jenna, you were tremendous, talented, and tiny. My sexy Bambi.

Ah, Jenna, you were tremendous, talented, and tiny. My sexy Bambi.

There was also the problem of the cybermen themselves, as they’ve now been given the ability to fly (because SHUT UP), and appeared to fly about using fart power which was upsettingly hilarious. On that point, why would UNIT assume that, after finding out the cybermen could fly, the safest place for the Doc was in an aeroplane? It all smelled like a spurious excuse to have a slightly shite scene of the metal men tearing the plane apart, and killing off tertiary characters who’d been given enough screentime to lead me to believe we were supposed to care about them. Speaking of which, say farewell to Oswin, who bought it by being a huge idiot in front of Missy in a stupid, stupid sequence that I can’t even be bothered touching on.

Broadly, I’d say Death in Heaven reflected the quality of the series overall. It hit some strong emotional notes, but too often was focused on creating glam action sequences and MAKING A POINT than it was about telling a really good story.  I’ve been on a rollercoaster with series 8, sometimes magnificent, sometimes getting stuck upside-down in a loop-the-loop for half an hour and making me feel a bit sick. But with a new dawn and new plot points to chase for Capaldi’s Doctor, cut loose and on his own, I’m confident that what we saw this year was simply the teething stage for a character who’s going to make us forget Into the Dalek ever existed. Death in Heaven wasn’t a goodbye, despite what it looked like: it was a big, brash hello to Capaldi’s solo Doctor, cut free of any Matt-Smith related trappings (sorry, Clara, Oswin, etc) and given a chance to shine on his own. I want this series to be wonderful again, and, given some time to recharge, re-evaluate, and re-assistant, I think it will be.

SERIES 8: AN OVERVIEW

I feel like this Peter Capaldi gif will be coming in very handy for these recaps.

How did this get here?

Episodes rated, from worst to best: Kill the Moon, Deep Breath, In the Forest of the Night, Into the Dalek, Death in Heaven, Flatline, The Caretaker, Robot of Sherwood, Time Heist, Mummy on the Orient Express, Dark Water, Listen

Best Moment: Danny’s final “I love you” to Clara in Dark Water. Heart-explodingly poignant.

Worst Moment: “I HAVE A DUTY OF CARE”. THEN DON’T TAKE YOUR STUDENTS TO THE MOON.

In A Sentence: Even it’s staggering highs couldn’t obliterate the cringing lows, but cherry-pick Capaldi’s wobbly first series and you’re left with some great television.

Out of Ten: Six.

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: 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: 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.