Thursday, 27 August 2015

Revisiting the Twelfth Doctor: Flatline


This is probably the high point of the series, for me. A great, creepy episode; some real character insight and development; clever plot ideas and a really great monster. Doctor Who at its finest. Which is what I remembered from the first time around:
Probably my favourite episode from the series, so it has a lot to live up to. Playing around with the dimensionality of things, with monsters that only live in two dimension, while The Doctor is stuck in the Tardis, because the outer shell has materialised in too small a size. Good, creepy monster. Great settings and a good cast of characters.
Given that the Tardis' outer shell is a different size to the interior, it strikes me as amazing that nobody has considered making the Tardis the wrong size before. If there's one thing I love about the Moffatt era of Doctor Who, it's that he is very clever at expanding on elements of the characters and lore which we take for granted. His series have been full of little insights, such as the Doctor's description of assistants as "carers": "She cares so I don't have to" or Matt Smith's "Make the whole of time and space your back yard and what do you have? A back yard."

Clara's experience of walking a mile in the Doctor's shoes grows to two miles in this story, with the Doctor completely trapped in the Tardis. What's great about this story is that t never feels like the Doctor has been written out for an episode, like in the classic era days when the actor was due a holiday during the filming schedule. He remains ever-present through the interface with Clara.
The only let-down for me in this episode is that the Doctor's view of Clara's eyes are not consistently point-of-view shots. There are some images the Doctor sees on his monitor which are clearly static or tracking camera shots, something humans don't really do with their eyes. Having established the convention, they should really have stuck to their own rules.

Yet it's an episode that does pretty much everything else right. There are a great group of characters, who get a little bit of space to present themselves (for some reason I'm put in mind of the excellent ensemble cast in Journey to the Centre of the Tardis). The monster is excellent - a scary idea realised brilliantly on-screen. So well, in fact, that still images really don't do it justice. It's the flickering, shambling motion that really sets them apart. There's genuine drama for the main cast and it just entertains throughout.

It's only let down slightly at the end. Capaldi gives one of The Doctor's customary rousing speeches and challenges to the invader, which is fair enough. But there's an over-theatricality in the need to give them a catchy title. The Doctor says "I name you: the boneless." It's as if the marketing department, or gatherers of DW lore really couldn't cope with having a canon monster without a name for reference. Ah, well.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Revisiting the Twelfth Doctor: Mummy on the Orient Express

Mummy on the Orient Express

If any episode wanted a sneaky trick to win points from the off, Mummy on the Orient express managed it by having a swing reworking of Queen's Don't Stop Me Now. Good work! And it's an episode full of references - I doubt I spotted them all. Before we get into it, here's what I remembered from my first viewing of this episode:
Tricky one, this. Could be exceptional, but for The Doctor's callous attitude to other people's death. Need to reconsider that on a second viewing. But otherwise this was a great bit of period-charm silliness, a scary monster and a chilling tale. Seem to remember this story leaving unresolved issues.
There's a habit with Doctor Who recently of taking a great idea and then throwing it into space to make it "zany". Let's put this alongside Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Voyage of the Damned. I imagine there's a meeting somewhere along the line and there's this one really excitable person who's like  1980's space guy from The Lego Movie.
RTD: I'd really like to do a Doctor Who story on the Titantic.
80SpaceGuy: Yeah, like in a spaceship!
Moffatt: We should definitely do a story with dinosaurs.
80SpaceGuy: In spaaaace!
Moffatt: How about a bunch of 1920's stock characters are being killed by the curse of the mummy?
80SpaceGuy: Spaceship? SPACESHIP!
But then, we use so much of our technology and effort to recreate bygone times for the sake of nostalgia, that it's not a huge stretch to imagine that spaceships will feature remakes of classic vehicles. Plus the space setting gives this a stranded/danger of suffocation tension, needed by the plot, plus all the future tech required to examine the "mummy". I would have liked to have seen how this episode would have played out in a real 1920's setting, especially since once the Doctor figured out that the creature was using technology, I really can't see how the Tardis' lab isn't capable of tracking it. But then the Tardis is always a win-all toy, so maybe it wouldn't have worked.

 Aside from that, this is a great episode of Doctor Who. Yes the 12th Doctor's callousness is hard to swallow, but in his response to the kitchen staff being spaced and in taking the place of the final victim, it is clear that he cares deeply about the lives he is able to save. Perhaps this Doctor finds it too painful to dwell on the ones he can't save. And, following on from Kill The Moon where the Doctor forces Clara to take responsibility for the decisions of the human race, here we see the Doctor making Clara take on his role: promising someone that they will get out alive, when there is a good chance they won't.

It's an understandable character development. The mark of true loneliness is a desperation for others to empathise with our situations. The Doctor is making Clara walk a mile in his shoes. The episode after this is Flatline, in which Clara takes on a whole adventuring party by herself - but the groundwork for that experience is here and Kill the Moon.

It's a great episode, let down only slightly by what felt like a rushed ending. Hard to believe that the Doctor isn't more angry at the individual who keeps kidnapping all these innocent people for death - he makes no reference to tracking the stranger down. And even when the Doctor comes up with a plan to save everybody - we simply cut away and show the Doctor explaining to Clara what he did. It's like the old days when they couldn't afford to show the action, so the cast describe it in painful detail. Ah well, maybe these unresolved issues will feature in a story again some time...

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Revisiting the Twelfth Doctor: Kill the Moon

Kill the Moon

Some bizarre plot holes mar what could otherwise be gripping sci-fi. Here's what I remembered:
Need to try not to think too hard about this one. Lots of weird inconsistencies and coincidences. For example, there are large creature living on the moon which are essentially germs, so they can be killed with a spray of anti-bac? Either I or the writers don't understand how anti-bac works, because I'm pretty sure that couldn't happen. Anti-bac spray creates an environment in which germs cannot survive. A large creature with complex anatomy isn't going to be felled like that. Also, it is a bit of a coincidence that a) that character happened to be holding a spray and b) they even thought to use it. And, while I like the idea that the moon is an egg for a space-creature, the idea that the creature leaves behind a brand-new egg, with exactly the same mass,  on the day of its birth is a bit of a stretch. That said, it was a genuinely new and brilliant idea, a great moral choice at the heart of the story and - from what I have written here - has stuck in my mind far more than many other episodes. I think if I can ignore the plot holes, this could be a great story.
What's most interesting about this story is where it occurs. The Doctor has just discovered that Clara has been keeping secret her relationship with a soldier. She has chosen a partner (and if there is one thing The Doctor obsesses over, it is choosing partners) whose approach to problem-solving (as the Doctor sees it) is the antithesis of the the Doctor's. Clara has just been warned by Danny that the Doctor may push her too far.

Lots of spoilers, ahead.

Which brings us to plot-hole #1. The Doctor doesn't appear to know what is happening on the moon before they go there. Which is weird, because rather than just going to the moon, he takes them to a specific year in the future where these things happen. He puts Clara (and humanity) in a position where they have to take responsibility for their own actions, rather than relying on him to bail them out. The whole situation is gear towards re-affirming the Doctor's faith in his companion and making humanity responsible for its own decisions. But it doesn't explain why the Doctor appears genuinely baffled by what is happening on the moon. The 7th Doctor would have been aloof, mysterious. It would have been obvious that he was orchestrating something and Ace's frustration would have reinforced the feeling that the Doctor was manipulating events and her.

Plot-hole #2: the spiders are germs. No, they aren't. Really. I don't want to go into it again, but germs don't grow to that size. There are reasons why organisms develop specialised cells and organs and limbs and musculature and it is all about supporting greater body mass and structural complexity. A bit like my comment for Robot of Sherwood if you're going to write great science fiction you need to have a baseline respect for science. See above for my layman's understanding of why disinfectant cannot be used to kill large complex creatures. The whole thing seems like a retread of the "antibodies" from Into the Dalek, but in that story they made sense. A pity, because the "spiders" are a really nasty creepy monster. For a better take on this, check out "Cobwebs" by Big Finish. It's an audio drama featuring a space station overrun by cobwebs and evil spiders. It is likely a bit of an inspiration to this story.

Once we get into the heart of the story - the difficult choice between saving the unborn creature and saving humanity from uncertainty - the episode improves. Although the dilemma doesn't take up as much of the episode as I remembered.

Plot-hole #3: Humanity's choice. Clara asks the Earth to give a signal for whether the creature should be saved. It's a bit unfair to call it a plot-hole perhaps, but given that the entirety of Doctor Who is about humanity's capability of both great compassion/ingenuity and great selfishness/destruction it seems odd to expect a sudden consensus. Plus presumably the people on the other side of the Earth didn't get a vote. Plus, given the way entire nations blacked out at once, it seems likely each country's government ignored the voice of individual people and simply cut the power. However you look at it, it's bizarre. It's also meant to be a great surprise that humanity chose to be selfish, but to be fair, the moon had been causing terrible ecological disasters and loss of life. You can understand that the survivors of the apocalypse would be twitchy about additional changes.

But Clara's ignores the vox populi and disarms the bomb herself. The Doctor shows up on cue, demonstrating again that the whole thing was a plot, despite not seeming to know anything about what was going on and whisks them away. The moon hatches in to a creature, the rock dissolves, not presenting any immediate threat to the earth.

Plot-hole #4: The newborn lays an egg which is a new moon. I don't have a problem with a newborn laying an egg. Plenty of that in nature. I don't even have a problem, in retrospect with the creature leaving an egg the size of the moon. But it would have to be wafer-thin. Our planet's relationship with the moon is one of mass, not size. Gravity works because of the intensity of mass. Honestly I don't fully understand it, but I know that much . The writer of this story also appears to know that on one level, because the moon-creature gestating to full term has increased the mass of the moon and so its effect on the Earth's tides. But then, minutes later, Clara seems to think that the absence of a moon would lead to "no tides" would "wouldn't be a problem." Again, I think this is poor science fiction and an understatement of the delicate balance of our eco system - something sci-fi should be campaigning to protect, not suggesting we can do what we want on a whim and "we'll manage."

I'd love to like this more. I love "base under siege"  stories; the sets look great, the spiders are creepy and amazing and the whole thing oozes atmosphere - it's just a shame that it doesn't make any sense. But if you squint, there are interesting moral debates provoked here and by the end, whether you agree with the Doctor's actions or Clara's response to him at the end this is a watershed moment in their relationship and travels together.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Revisiting the Twelfth Doctor: The Caretaker

The Caretaker

After a - literally - breathtaking start, this episode settles down into a much-needed taking of stock for the characters. Here's what I remembered from my first viewing:
Strong feelings about this one. This episode contains a lot of interpersonal stuff about how the Doctor treats people - And whether he uses them to die for him. Danny confronts the Doctor in amazing style, with all his experience from being a soldier. The robot was a bit cheap-looking and kiddy (it would have looked great in a Sarah-Jane Adventures story) and the main plot was a bit of a non-starter, but the character drama took centre stage.
I pretty much hit the nail on the head with that one, which I think says a lot about how strong a drama sits at the centre of this story. Yes, the monster of the week is a bit of a sideline, but actually it's the point where The Doctor invades Clara's life that she has to address what their relationship means.

We all understand the concept that we are different around different people. It's the whole What happens in Vegas syndrome. In a certain environment, we can drastically change our personality and our behaviour, freed from the expectation that our usual relationships put on us. For Clara, the Tardis is a place she can free the expectations of her earth-bound life and become someone impulsive, reckless, even quite dangerous. In her school, she is in a position of authority, respect and some control is required on her part. This is expanded in the opening, where Clara is variously tired, soaked and strained by jumping from space adventures to dates and back again. She maintains it all because when she closes the door to the Tardis, she closes a door on that part of her personality.

But the Doctor can see it all taking a strain, so he gives her a day off. Then shows up as the new Caretaker at her school. Only someone who discovers on the bus that their fiancée is coming along for the stag do can feel this kind of soul-plummeting moment. Not only does the Doctor risk sharing their private relationship with other people, he risks revealing Clara for who she is and endangering the lives of the children in the school.

Danny, upon discovering Clara's life with the Doctor, recognises it for what it is. Her relationship with the Timelord provokes her to be dangerous, different. There's a nice examination here of trust within relationships. She hasn't been honest with Danny about her travels, or with The Doctor about her dating. Clara decides to prove to Danny that she is the same person by smuggling him into the Tardis to witness a "private" conversation with the Doctor. The Doctor, of course, sees through the deception and discovers for himself how much Clara keeps from him and keeps him out of her life.

I'm not going to go into it any more. The point is, this episode provokes a great debate about people's behaviour and the relationships of the main characters in this series. This kind of character study would be impossible in a piece of distraction like Time Heist. Actually with only 40-odd minutes to run, modern Doctor Who really struggles to combine interesting adventures with great character drama. It's one of the reasons I'd like to see Who go entirely to two-part stories, giving the scripts a wonderful 85 minutes to breathe (and halving the costume/model budget). But that's a thought for another time.

The monster plot suffers, as you would expect from so much time given to character development. Basically there's a space robot that wants to kill everybody and the Doctor has to figure out how to get rid of okay. Sure, if you say so.

It does look a bit cheap, but I think it's fallen for a classic Doctor Who mistake: over-lighting. 70's and 80's Doctor Who had plenty of great sets and models ruined by showing them too closely in too great a light. Heck, even the suit from the original Alien movie looks terrible if you see it under office lighting. This whole story takes place mostly in the day and in a school, so there really isn't any opportunity to light the monster sympathetically. Shame, because looking at it, it isn't a bad model.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Revisiting the Twelfth Doctor: Time Heist

Time Heist

My reaction to a second viewing of this episode perhaps surprised me more than many others. Before we get into that, here's what I remembered from my first viewing, so long ago now:
I recall really enjoying this one. Classic Ocean's Howevermany style robbery caper. Slightly awkward re-use of sets not masked very well and a sense that the team that had been assembled were largely superfluous redshirts, once it was revealed what actually needed to happen, but a good romp, nevertheless. Creepy monster and a palpable threat.
Most of the stories this series I have enjoyed more on a second viewing. Into the Dalek was superb, Deep Breath was a great drama about trust in relationship and even Robot of Sherwood was an enjoyable romp if you look past the paper-thin characters and plotholes.

Time Heist provoked the opposite reaction in me. I found it very hard to enjoy - or even concentrate on - this story on a second viewing. And that response can be summed up with a simple word - one with has troubled and irritated me throughout my life: twists.

And be warned, there are massive spoilers ahead.

The plot, drama and suspense of Time Heist relies entirely upon the mystery surrounding the "bank job". They have no memory of being commissioned, no idea what they are there to steal or who their employer is. They go from situation to situation, discovering as they go what unique skill each team member brings to the heist (apart from Clara who's just, y'know there. A lot of comparisons have been made in this episode between Clara and Sarah-Jane Smith, because of her dynamic presence and trouser suit, but honestly she reminded me more of Harry Sullivan: very affable and worthy of affection, but spends a lot of scenes standing around like a spare part.) All this leads through terror, personal sacrifice of the team members committing "suicide" to help the Doctor reach the final mysterious treasure. The menace of the monster who can turn your brain to soup is always there, stalking through the corridors. It even plays quite effectively on our collective mistrust of evil banks: in the face of corporate commercialism, what hope does an individual have?

So, spoilers: Twists only work once. If someone jumps out on you, that's scary. If they jump out on you a second time, you might flinch. After that it's just someone bouncing in front of your face. Time Heist has this problem. Once you know that the "monster" is actually the trapped creature they have come to save, it provokes pity, not fear. Once you know the Doctor is the one who's hired himself to do the job, there's no concern over the invisible hand that is managing proceedings. Once you know the team members aren't dead, but were instead disintegrated (and reintegrated) via a personal teleport, there's no tangible sense of sacrifice. In short, once you know everything that is going to happen, no twist can provide a continued thrill.

Once we've established that the "twist" element of a story is null and void after the first viewing, what else does Time Heist offer? There's some interesting character stuff with each team member considering what important thing may have convinced them all to take part in this caper. Beyond that? I struggled to find anything.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Revisiting the Twelfth Doctor: Listen


To start, here's what I remembered about this story:
I remember this being really creepy. A very clever idea and some good cheeky continuity with the 50th special. However, the actual detail of the plot hasn't stuck in my mind. The ending was a very original concept, but I remember feeling distinctly deflated. Overriding memory? A lot of tension, but nothing actually happened.
My gut reaction wasn't far off, I don't think, but re-watching this was more enjoyable than that makes it sound. What I'd forgotten was the interesting continuation of Clara trying to enjoy a normal life alongside travelling with the Doctor.

It's something Moffatt attempted with Rory and Amy, but we never really got a glimpse of their actual lives outside the Tardis. Here, Clara's life is part of the drama and we can see the tensions and the opportunities - who else could use a time machine to try to recover a disastrous date?

In short, the character drama is very enjoyable. It's fun seeing Clara freak out when presented with possible evidence that she is to have children with the man she has only just started dating. There's some entertaining exploration of ideas around how formative experiences in our childhood can great impact upon our life choices, with Danny being given the toy soldier as a child and Clara giving a child version of The Doctor the same speech the adult Doctor had given her earlier in the episode.

There's one point of continuity that doesn't really work. If the Doctor grew up on Gallifrey and that planet was destroyed across time - there's the continual suggestion that the Doctor can't visit Gallifrey in the past because it is completely gone throughout history then how can Clara visit the Doctor's childhood? Maybe there's an explanation, but none is given. Add it to the list of bizarre leaps for which this particular series of Doctor Who doesn't feel it needs to bother offering an explanation.

The monster drama is odd. It didn't feel as much like a false ending as it did on first viewing, but there's something amiss. I think it's one of those ideas that would be great in a book, but falls flat as soon as the visual medium is used to tell the story. We're supposed to believe that the mystery creature the Doctor is hunting is entirely a figment of overactive imagination. That's fine, so what is the thing we all saw under the sheet in the children's home? It was there, on screen. All the characters looked at it while it was under a sheet? The problem with visual storytelling is that once you clearly show the audience something, you can't dismiss it as the characters "seeing things" because we are all third-party witnesses. Plus, for me at least, the story makes an initial assumption about all living things having a shared nightmare - one which I have never had.

Now if it had been a nightmare about a wolf trying to eat my feet, let me tell you about my childhood dreams...

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Revisiting the Twelfth Doctor: Robot of Sherwood

Robot of Sherwood

Here we are, already. The point in the series where I felt everything was going horribly wrong. I'll save you a scan through the text and declare, up-front, that I didn't hate this as much as I thought I would. It's isn't good science fiction, drama or history but it's an entertaining enough Robin Hood romp, let down by an ending which is just... I don't even know what it is.

Here's a reminder of what I remember from seeing this story the first time, roughly a year ago:
Oh dear. Honestly? Not even looking forward to revisiting this one. A silly idea, brought to a head with one of the worst dramatic climaxes in television history. I remember lots of arguing for Clara's attention, leading to a resolution which one Who fan referred to as "like pouring petrol on the outside of a car and expecting it to work".
It's episodes like this that cause me to question what kind of show Doctor Who should be. I'm a lifelong fan of science fiction. To me, good science fiction posits a change to something that forms the everyday fabric of our lives and then explores the world that comes out of that change. Often, science fiction takes place in a far future where the whole technological fabric of society is unrecognisable, but the human elements of story and character remain something to which we can relate. In other instances, the sci-fi world is recognizably ours but with a single change, such as the Channel 4 drama Humans, in which the single change is the presence of artificially intelligent android domestic servants.

The basic premise of Robot of Sherwood is sound. An alien ship has crash-landed on Earth during the 12th Century and assimilate themselves into local history in order to repair their ship. It's been done before in Doctor Who - The Time Warrior. The difference in tone between those two stories is vast. The Time Warrior is a genuine insight into the rule of barons in feudal Britain. The human villain is sinister and deadly, but not a caricature. The neighbouring Lord is practical, dour and determined to act in a reasonable way. In Robot of Sherwood, we have a cast of larger-than-life characters, encapsulated by The Doctor's insistence at the beginning that they are fictional characters who never really existed. They're a romantic ideal, not real historical figures. Despite an attempt to inject some pathos into the scenario by hinting at the trauma Robin Hood has faced, it barely comes across as a beat in the midst of bantering, lute-playing and machismo. The fact that the Doctor calls the Merry Men out on these actions doesn't mean this shouldn't be the audience's reaction as well.

Then there's the ending. Spoilers: the space ship taking off doesn't have enough gold to safely clear the planet. Robin fires an arrow, which sticks to the outside of the rocket and somehow powers the engine into space. Firstly, let's ignore the fact that despite being short of gold, the villain gives away a solid gold arrow, which obviously contains enough gold to fix his own problem. Secondly, a gold arrow powering an engine from the outside is one of the worst pieces of science fiction writing I have ever encountered. That a single writer, sitting on their own may construct this bizarre set of events is unfortunate, but it happens. Writers run with bad ideas and make mistakes. Any normal editor would simply make them change it. However, for a production crew, made up of dozens of skilled storytellers, to read this idea, think it was good and go through the weeks-long process of producing it and getting it to our screens is unforgivable. The whole thing could have been saved, if the Special Effects shot had shown the arrow flying through the metal side of the engine or even - and I'd take this explanation, however goofy - somehow flew up into the rocket nozzle and made it into the engine. Those are daft explanations, but they are, at least, explanations. If you're not following why I think this is such a bad piece of science, try an experiment. The next time you're cooking, place a lit candle next to the cooker, on the outside and see if it affects the cooking time.

Ultimately I'm not sure what to take away from this story. There's a central idea that maybe the Doctor doesn't know everything and his assumptions about the truth of history are maybe no more accurate than our own. But while The Time Warrior gives us time to reflect on the responsibilities of those who rule common people and the importance of careful interaction with less developed cultures, Robot of Sherwood leaves us with the impression that its okay to take a revisionist approach to history. So what if the overwhelming factual evidence is against the existence of a historical figure? Maybe that's what they want you to think. Evidence isn't truth. My opinion is that Robin Hood is real, so who are historians to tell us otherwise? While I'm at it, maybe those scientists that tell me medicine is the only answer are wrong. I'll beat my cancer using crystals, or positive thinking. And vaccinating my child is just a conspiracy to give them autism, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccination is safe, essential for society and the health of other peoples children and that my beliefs are those of an ignorant and dangerous asshat.

There is a place in science fiction for doing away with assumptions and even ignoring the evidence for a more important mechanism. Physics suggests that travelling faster than the speed of light, or even time travel, are impossibilities in our universe. We can put these rules aside, because the value to the story of assuming that, maybe, one day we will overcome these limitations is worth exploring. And it's even perfectly fine to re-address historical events. If history is truly bunk, then the best we can get from it is a new perspective on our present. Robot of Sherwood offers none of this. It is bad science fiction and pretty weak fantasy. And that's coming from the guy who thinks Paradise Towers is a good, solid and engrossing story.