Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Doctor Who Series 9 First Impressions: Episode 6 (The Woman Who Lived)

(As always, these writeups contain spoilers for the episode in question and you've been warned. I'm coming to this late since I was on another trip for the weekend so y'all have probably seen it by now. Hell, the video review I'm part of is up now, and that usually happens after. I should link to those on here sometime. Maybe during the wrapup. Anyway! Maisie Williams praise, go!)

"That's the worst Halloween costume I've ever seen, Doctor."
"Keep walking, Hamburglar."
It was good. Not quite as good as the last one for me, because it didn't have all that cool thematic stuff about storytelling and defeating bad guys with ideas instead of brawn. Still, what we got here had an intense emotional core and a lot of cool thematic stuff about living longer than humans usually live and what the meaning of life is when it's limited and et cetera. This might be a short writeup but I'll try to waffle out some stuff.

The highlight of the episode, the emotional core, and the obvious bit to praise is Maisie Williams again. Ashildr wasn't all that much, really. Maisie Williams did good with her, but she was a creative Viking girl who died saving the day and then came back. Her creativity is what I loved about the last episode, yes, but she wasn't quite the highlight of the emotional core. Now Ashildr is long gone, and Maisie Williams is playing the Lady Me, an 800 year old who sees human life as a fleeting puff of smoke and seeks out danger and adventure for something to do. Sound familiar? Yes, it's time once again for me to play third-rate Jane Campbell and gargle out some words about mirrors! Lady Me is another dark mirror of the Doctor. If Clara is a dark mirror because she's taken on the Doctorish qualities of puzzling out problems and talking down alien threats, then what Lady Me mirrors is the Timelordish qualities of him; specifically the fact that he's much older than any human. It's a unique prospect, having the Doctor able to relate with someone on the subject of living for a hell of a long time. Sure, there was Captain Jack, but the Doctor looked at him as more of an aberration 'cause of the whole Bad Wolf thing that made him. As for other Time Lords... well, there's Missy, but the relation between those two is its whole other gonzo thing that's got nothing to do with "gee doesn't living longer than humans suck" because Missy guns down humans with impunity. Lady Me even mirrors the name of the Doctor, in a way. She chose to call herself "Me" just because all the people who knew her old name died centuries ago and there's no meaning to it any more. There is only herself across the years, so... Me. Make no mistake, though, she is a dark mirror. Her experiences are at first very Doctorish, trying to help people and do good. Aiding with scarlet fever, trying out being a queen. Then her children die to the Black Plague, and... things change. The grief on her face in the flashback is one hell of a thing, and by the time we meet her Lady Me appears... quite detached from humanity. They're mayflies to her now, a quick burst of life that's snuffed out while she endures. Hence her want for something new, the next adventure; she wants to fly out among the stars, but 1651 is lacking in TARDISes to steal. She'll need another way off Earth, and the way she's chosen is less than good. We'll get to that.

The Doctor is quite good as well. His role in this one is equal parts comedic and dramatic, and it's interesting to see him operate without Clara. Her absence is missed, but it would have cluttered things up considerably so I understand making it a companion-lite. Better her be absent than around and doing jack shit like half the other episodes this series, eh? Hell, there's merit in the argument that the Doctor in this episode is actually the companion, and if so, consider that he spends it caring about human life in the absence of Lady Me giving a shit. He's not just a companion, he's mirroring Clara as companion. Christ almighty, he's pulled some sort of reverse mirror bullshit. One day they'll set an episode in a haunted carnival and the climax will happen in the house of mirrors. Jane Campbell and I will explode. When he's not caring, he's skulking about in his sonic sunglasses (at this point imagine me cackling hideously) or refusing to make banter. Hell, part of the climax is him crossing his own line about banter in order to buy time to save a robber's life. He cares that much about this rogueish shitheel's existence because he's human and human life is a precious thing. That and his attempts to try and save Lady Me from her own uncaring nature. He knows what it's like, and he knows that he caused this. It was his own caring for another human life that made her what she was, and this feels like him trying to make up for that by making her the best she can be; a true mirror of him, rather than a darkened one. It's lovely and uplifting and sweet, as is her declaration to look out for the people the Doctor left behind after he moves on. (New headcanon: Lady Me helping Sarah Jane get home from Aberdeen at the end of The Hand Of Fear.) It's really beautiful and I love it.

And then there are things I don't love. The villain being one of them. He is an utterly ineffectual lion man whose name I don't even recall and don't care enough to look up because he's that inconsequential. He exists in the story to give Lady Me a temptation to do bad things and to create the exciting climax. It could just as easily have been a human villain but then this is Doctor Who and we don't do shit without evil space aliens, so throw some actor in lion makeup and have him breathe fire because this is a space show god damn it. I mean, look, the Mire were joke villains as well, yes... but the Mire were actually funny jokes. A bunch of lampreys who sit around tricking strong people into getting evaporated into liquid testosterone and are scared of dodgy CGI snakes. Lion man is just... ineffective. He tries to betray Lady Me and take over the world or something. She stops him from doing so and the lion people disintegrate him. The end. He doesn't even properly kill anyone in the end! Sure, he does motivate Lady Me and make her realize that she does care about human life and whatnot, and thus spurs her on... but I just wish he was more imposing. Even the Fisher King, for all his faults, was imposing as fuck. This guy does nothing beyond move the plot beats forward.

One more thing before we're done. I've been praising Series 9 so far because it doesn't have a big arc thing that keeps popping up at the end of episodes as a big neon SOMETHING IS GOING TO HAPPEN sign. It has been very subtle about things. I'm afraid I have to take some of that back now, because The Woman Who Lived has gone too far with a certain thing. It's not even the fault of the episode specifically, it's just the breaking point. There are little things that hint at Clara suffering a nasty fate. The cliffhanger of her getting zapped in Magician's Apprentice, the Doctor motivating himself to action in his own paradox with the threat of Clara dying... and now the one-two punch of Lady Me's "How many Claras have you lost" bit followed by Clara at the end telling the Doctor that she's not going anywhere. Okay. We get it. You're going to kill Clara at the end of the series and we're going to feel really bad about it. It's going to be tragic because she had more than a few chances at graceful exits in Series 8, but she stayed on the TARDIS and it's her addiction to adventure that gets her killed. We get that. You've officially seeded it too much, show. Now you're starting to sound like a mafia visitor trying to threaten us. "Gee, that sure is a nice companion the Doctor's got there! It would be an awful shame if anything were to happen to her!" You pulled the same shit with Amy and Rory. They had their chance to leave, they decided to keep going, and they ended up becoming Angel food cake. We get it. The redemptive reading here is that they're building up a sense of dread over Clara's fate, but it doesn't quite work. If they do kill Clara (and it's looking likely), we know when it's going to happen. It'll happen about 10 minutes before the end of the finale. Unless those "Clara is already dead" rumors are true, but I think that's way too gonzo for even Moffat. Then again, this is the man who made a continuity goof into an arc clue, so... Who knows?

The Woman Who Lived was very, very good. It has one or two rough spots that I've bitched about with passion, but Maisie Williams kills it. Bring her back, she's quite good. Though not on the same level as The Girl Who Died... this is still solid. Really solid. It'll be interesting to see how I rank this at the end of the series, when Clara's fate is sorted out. Maybe they'll be awfully clever about it. Maybe they won't. Who knows? Time will tell.

Next time: The big bombastic Zygon episode we never knew we wanted.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Doctor Who Series 9 First Impressions: Episode 5 (The Girl Who Died)

(This is your spoiler warning: I'm Frezno. I spoil things that have already aired. If you have not watched this yet please go watch it before you read it. On with the show.)

Now that's more fucking like it.

"Doctor, I thought there weren't any more Mire."
"They mostly live in Minnesota, Clara."
It might be the casual alcoholic beverage that I made for myself before the rewatch just now talking, but I just wanna gush for a bit. Probably laden with a bit more profanity, but that's just my unique way of emphasis. This episode is goddamned amazing. I have not been this blown away by the quality of my Doctor Who since... god, either Dark Water/Death In Heaven or Flatline. Which, it's more interesting to say Flatline since that was also penned by Jamie Mathieson. Every misstep and misgiving I had last week with Before The Flood has been soundly reversed in a burst of glory and beauty. This episode sings with a confidence and a resonance that harmonizes with everything I adore from Doctor Who, tangibly and ideologically. It even manages to take shit that, in any other context, would annoy the hell out of me and make it work. Brilliantly. Jamie Mathieson is three for three now and it feels so good. This is the best Series 9 episode so far. The only one closest to working this much for me has been The Magician's Apprentice. Okay, Under The Lake was a good setup, but that's just it; it was a setup to not just dropping the ball, but slam dunking the fucker into an active volcano.

Where do we begin? Well, the beginning. Goodbye, sonic sunglasses I guess. All of this was filmed months ago so there's no way this is a hasty reaction to how poorly the world reacted to Capaldi opening locks with his sunglasses instead of his magic wand. Still, you guys win. The stupid goddamn sunglasses are snapped now, he can go back to waving his magic wand around like a big buzzing vibrator, all is well in the Doctor Who Universe. I mean, I don't care either way but I woulda liked to see them last a little more. This was how they were always going to go out, though; snapped in half by some imposing person. Better a Viking than, I dunno, an Ogron. Of course this will all be moot if the Doctor just, you know, decides to make a new pair. Or sonic his electric guitar, which would be a bit much. Whatever, this is mentioned for the sake of mentioning it and it ain't why this episode is so good.

How about those villains? Mire-Odin showing up in the sky is a bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sure, but then after he liquefies a bunch of Vikings, something amazing happens; something that's not happened for ages in Doctor Who. Clara stands up to Mire-Odin, calling him out on his shit and whatnot. Clara... takes initiative? Clara... acts Doctorish, like the mirror she is? Clara... is competent? I raved when it happened. This is about all I ask for in my Doctor Who; the whip-smart companion facing down danger and actually being whip-smart. Not getting abused by sadistic Mary Poppins, not fucking hiding away from ghosts in a room and getting sassed for being callous. This is Clara in her element, Clara coolly facing Mire-Odin and basically calling him a fucker to his face. If it wasn't for Ashildr here, Clara very well might have defused the entire plot with talk and gotten the Mire to fuck off and drink some Sontaran coolers. Since we have to have a Doctor Who plot, though, Ashildr tells the Mire to fuck off because they're Vikings, goddamnit, and they don't take any shit from anyone, even if they've got body armor and spaceships and literally drink distilled testosterone. So it is that we have our plot; the Doctor has to keep these reckless honor-bound Vikings from getting slaughtered, and he's got no time machine, sunglasses, or magic wand to do it with. They won't run because they're Vikings, goddamnit, and Vikings never run and always fight with honor. Well, that leads to a baby's cry and one of the two big instances of why this episode sings so much; continuity as an emotional core.

Look, Doctor Who has 52 years of a backlog to work with here. We've been playing with this already in Series 9; going back to an argument the Fourth Doctor made against killing the Daleks and contrasting it with the current Doctor's decision to abandon Kid Davros to the hand mines. This is the best use of the stuff; as a template to frame new stories in light of the new series. You know, rather than the 80's approach of LOOK, CYBERMEN, YOU AUTOMATICALLY CARE BECAUSE THAT'S A THING YOU REMEMBER. Sadly, that sentiment isn't going away anytime soon; not just in Doctor Who but in anything. (Get me started about the Angry Video Game Nerd video game again, I dare you.) Here, and admittedly I'm pulling on a thin string of continuity here, we have the old "The Doctor speaks baby" joke that we used back in the Matt Smith era a few times. Except instead of silly jokes about Stormageddon, we have a frightened and scared child crying about how frightened and scared she is while the adults are all shouting about how WE'RE VIKINGS, FUCK YOU! It is at once a continuity reference to something from a past episode, and a pillar of the emotional core of the episode. There's a much bigger one of these at the end which we will get to, but let's talk more about emotional cores.

Clara, admittedly, doesn't get much more "cool" Doctor-ish stuff to do after telling Mire-Odin off. She does, however, get lots of great scenes opposite Capaldi. Being the Doctor doesn't always mean puffing up your chest and giving big speeches to aliens who are trying to bully Earth. It means caring and trying to do what's right. The Doctor is unsure he can really do anything here; the villagers are too headstrong to run, and not skilled enough in battle to win head-on against the Mire. Everything suggests that these people are going to get slaughtered... and the stakes are both low and high. Low because the planet or the human race aren't in danger, but at the end of the day these are still people and they deserve help. They deserve a clever plan to save them from the Mire, and it's Clara who helps to spur the Doctor on and make him realize that he can make a difference. Capaldi, to his credit, gets some great scenes as well, mostly musing on mortality and the stubbornness of humanity to put themselves in mortal danger for what's right. Then, thanks to baby talk, he gets a clever idea.

Holy shit, this bit. Okay, so after some clever plotting involving electric eels, the Mire drop in to kill everyone because they literally drink testosterone and want to shoot things in the face. To which they find a happy party where everyone's unarmed and dancing. Then all hell breaks loose, and half the Mire robots get zapped by electric currents, there's electromagnets made out of anvils, and the Doctor snags a Mire helmet and slips it on Ashildr, who likes to make up stories and play with puppets. That's just what happens here, as she uses the helmet to make Mire-Odin and the rest of his robot pals think that one of Ashildr's puppets is actually a dodgy CGI snake. So, as has been remarked already in other corners, the day is saved by invoking the shitty special effect that brought the Mara to life in Kinda. After all of that, the Doctor comes in and starts talking about how they won by telling a story, and how they're going to undermine the story of the Mire as scary testosterone drinkers by uploading a goddamn video of them freaking out over a Viking puppet set to Yakety bleedin' Sax. Stories and fiction are what save the day here, and not raw power. It's beautiful and it's brilliant. Everyone's happy and the day is saved, but the cost is that Ashildr has died from becoming super-powered storyteller. How very tragic. The Doctor runs off to be morose about it, as he does whenever he loses someone. The battle is won but a price is paid, we know this score. Capaldi gets some great lines about how he hates losing people, and how eventually when he loses Clara he'll try to run from it, just like he's done with all the other companions he's lost over the years. Standard stuff, really. A sobering cap to a triumphant episode.

And then they go and explain why the Twelfth Doctor looks like that Roman guy who David Tennant saved in Pompeii. I'm going to be honest here. In Deep Breath they had inklings of this; inklings they called back to here involving why the Doctor chose that face. In any other context, I'd say "who cares?". Nobody explained why the Sixth Doctor looks like Maxil the Gallifreyan guard. Romana chose the face of Princess Astra for her regeneration 'cause it looked kind of nice or something. The reason these incarnations look like other people is because the people in our world wanted to cast those actors again. Sure, we had a one-off line for why Martha Jones looked an awful lot like some poor Torchwood clerk who got killed, but nothing about why Amy Pond was a Roman soothsayer. I mean, in any other context, what does it matter in-universe? The Doctor looks like a guy from ancient Rome now because they wanted Peter Capaldi to play him. That should have been all the explanation we needed. If you had spoiled for me, an hour before this episode aired, that they would bother to go and explain this shit... I would have been dreading it. It seems like the most unbearable answer to a question nobody asked, the sort of loud shouting those people I make fun of for complaining about plot holes in their Doctor Who would engage in. Imagine my surprise when they manage to take this, and not only does it resonate with the episode's plot, but it anchors the emotional core of the Doctor. He chose to look like that Roman guy because he saved that Roman guy, and he needed to remind himself that he saves people sometimes. Hell, we even have a mirror shot of him looking at his reflection in water to realize it! This situation is, in itself, a mirror of Pompeii. In Pompeii he couldn't save everyone, but he saved some people just because that's what he does. In the Viking village, he was clever enough to save everyone but Ashildr, and he now realizes that he can save her.

Admittedly, he bungles it. I don't even need to see next week to know that he's bungled it. In his haste, he makes Ashildr immortal. As he says at the end of the episode, immortality is a hell of a curse because you get to watch everyone around you die. At least he had the foresight to leave a second immortality chip in case she found someone she liked, but still; the next time he meets her, she's probably going to be awfully sore about the whole immortality thing. At once you can consider the implications of her living forever; having to change identities, move to new places, watch friends grow old and die while she never ages. How much does the repair chip actually repair? If she loses a limb would it grow back? What if, God forbid, she got buried alive? Terrible things to consider, but then think of the spinoffs. If she truly lives forever, she could meet the Paternoster gang and have adventures with them. She could subtly fuck around with the Third Doctor behind the scenes in the 70's. She could have adventures with Captain Jack and Torchwood, or work with 2010s UNIT. There are a million Ashildr stories you could tell, only limited by the fact that Maisie Williams is just a little busy with that Throne show. The final shot of her with the 360 degree pan is a thing of beauty, and the way her face changes emotion speaks volumes. Holy shit. And she's the Hybrid! This is the way to seed a series arc! I can only imagine Moffat doing it the usual way; Maisie Williams behind a mask or something, showing up at the end of The Witch's Familiar, brooding and telling herself (and us) that soon you will pay for what you did to me, DOC-TOR. Cue all the threads and Twitter feeds yelling about how she's Susan Foreman/The Rani/Romana, only for it to be Susan all along because of course it would be the easiest guess. Admittedly, if Moffat had gone with this and then done the same reveal he did here, it would have worked. The guessing game shit only works if you, again, make it obvious. Nobody would have been able to guess "Viking girl who hold a grudge because the Doctor made her immortal in an attempt to save her life". Still, I like it better this way. Maybe it will mean shit for the Doctor and whatnot later down the line. Maybe it won't! We'll have to find out.

Wow. What an episode. Clara was competent, the Doctor got great bits, it had a solid emotional core, it played with continuity in a way I never would have expected to work, and it has implications for the future. It's a solid episode, and one I adore simply because it's so goddamned good in what it does. Mathieson, you're brilliant. I love it. I love this. I hope the show can keep it up.

Next time: Silly masks and pistols. And immortal girls. Oh my.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Doctor Who Series 9 First Impressions: Episode 4 (Before The Flood)

(This here is your spoiler warning: There are spoilers! Oh boy, are there ever gonna be spoilers!)

To quote the late, great Patrick Troughton, speaking as the Second Doctor in 1985's The Two Doctors: "Well, that didn't work, now did it?".

For my next song, I'd like to play a little ditty called
"Susan Foreman Appears At The End Of This Episode".
I suppose the best place to start is with the opening, as most linear things do. There are two things that are striking about both the previous episode, and the one before it. Under The Lake was all about the mystery of what the ghosts were and what rules they operated under, and pondering why. The Witch's Familiar was notable in that it had what could be the seeds of a season mystery arc, but done in a minimalist way. I ranted on this already, but Moffat's previous approaches of waving the mystery under our noses for eleven weeks... upset me. I'm going to cite from the Series 8 playbook here, because that's what I wrote up a month or so ago. As soon as Michelle Gomez started vamping it up at the end of Deep Breath, most of the Doctor Who fans pegged her as being a female incarnation of The Master. Eleven weeks later, surprise! Except not really a surprise because you called it! So it's not the fact that there is a mystery at all that bothers me; it's that Doctor Who fandom is too good at calling the mystery outright. (Or Steven Moffat is too bad at coming up with a surprise that we can't call immediately, if you want to go that route.) So what we get is eleven weeks of being teased to something we already know the answer to. Now, the ghosts in Under The Lake were a lesser version of that, but done better because it's not some obvious callback to Doctor Who lore. There are ghosts. They work under such and such a set of rules. I wonder what could be causing it? Well, the Doctor's going to go back and suss it out and oh no now the Doctor has a scary no-eyes ghost I wonder what is going to happen. We need to take stock here, before we dive into the resolution. I didn't mention it in the write-up, but I made my own educated guess about things based on elements of the episode. At one point in Under The Lake, they poke and prod at the casket that supposedly contains "the pilot" and it's deadlock sealed so it can't be opened. Earlier in the episode, the cloister bell of the TARDIS rings and the ship is visibly upset for some reason. On first viewing, the assumption is that the ghosts are actual ghosts and she's pissed because the laws of life and death have been broken. Once you realize the ghosts are just echos transmitting a signal, that loses some of its lustre. No, the real safe bet was that it was the Doctor in the casket, and that the TARDIS is getting pissy because the Doctor has now crossed his own timestream. That's a reasonable guess, yes? Okay, but you still have to hold onto that for a week while your cliffhanger is "The Doctor is now a ghost".

Playing from the "clever viewer of Doctor Who" playbook, we know goddamn well the Doctor is making out of this one just fine. Before The Flood is not going to end with Peter Capaldi regenerating, or God help us, dying outright and ending the series. That is absolutely not what a "The Doctor is in danger" cliffhanger is about. The excitement doesn't come from seeing if the Doctor will get out of this deadly situation, but how. Clever viewer has her educated guess about the Doctor being in the casket, yes, but that still doesn't explain what happens in the past that results in a Doctor ghost appearing in the future... so the excitement comes from the anticipation of what the Doctor is going to do to solve things. (Also, my own anticipation of Clara vs the Ghost Doctor, a no-holds-barred Mirror Of The Doctor mega-battle, but that's something we'll unpack in a bit.) So, with all that in mind, what do we open Before The Flood with? Beethoven and bootstrap paradoxes (or, as I'll be calling them since that's the name I know them better by, predestination paradoxes.). Now, take all of this from the perspective of your clever Doctor Who viewer, who by now is used to playing the puzzlebox game. She has her theory about the Doctor being in the casket because on her rewatch she picked up on the fact that the TARDIS getting pissed at ghosts makes no sense otherwise. Already her brain has picked up on that... and then the opening comes, and the Doctor ranting about predestination paradoxes. This all but confirms the casket theory for the clever viewer... but it also deflates the excitement immediately. The thrill of solving the cliffhanger of the Doctor in danger is in the if and the how. The if is invalidated instantly because this is not a regeneration episode and the clever viewer knows that Peter Capaldi is going to make it out of this one alive. The how that she was looking forward to for a week is instantly deflated when the episode devotes its entire cold open to doing everything but putting THE EPISODE WILL BE RESOLVED WITH A PREDESTINATION PARADOX in big flashing neon pink letters on screen.

And it's here, three paragraphs into a spiel on the opening of the episode, that I fire off a gonzo theory: Before The Flood has a secret ghost in it. Toby Whithouse is, whether he intended to or not, channelling the ghost of classic Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes. There are two things to note real quick about Robert Holmes. One is that he was absolutely brilliant and worked on some of the all-time best episodes of the classic series. The other is that he could hide intense and scathing cynicism in his scripts when given briefs he didn't like, and he corrupted the wishes of the people commissioning him. I'm going to defer to Phil Sandifer here if you care to read more about two such serials with Robert Holmes bitterness embedded deep within them, so do please read about The Space Pirates and The Two Doctors. Right. So Before The Flood is Toby Whithouse infusing a two-parter with bitter cynicism at the critique against Moffat-era puzzleboxes and mysteries. I've taken a few jabs at these sorts of people in the Series 8 writeups; the types of people who get incensed at the fact that Moffat doesn't explain every part of his interconnected, dare I say, "timey-wimey" twisting plotlines and resolutions, and leaves chunks of them up to audience interpretation. Though the plot holes can be easily filled in by a clever bit of rationalization and the real important bits (for me anyway!) are the emotional beats, there are many who get mad at the Moffat era for not being explained well enough. Well, here's Toby Whithouse to Monkey's Paw your wish! Now you get everything spelled out to you! Twice, even! The episode is bookended by this predestination paradox talk, when really it only needed the end bit. The puzzlebox is opened up, dissected, and put out in the open immediately, and thus the tension of wondering what is going to happen is diffused and you just sort of sit there, waiting for things to work out exactly as have been implied they will work out. The sad thing is this shit worked. Going back to Phil for his own Before The Flood review, he ended it with a "funny quote from the #moffat hate Tag on Tumblr, which I will repost here."

“Before the Flood was pretty bloody great. A completed narrative!!! With explanations!!!!”

Christ almighty. One last thing about the predestination paradox, courtesy of Something Awful poster "Open Source Idiom" that gives it a redemptive reading of sorts:

"So the Bootstrap Paradox stuff. It's the Doctor talking straight to the audience so that we know beforehand what's going on. It's clever, actually, a little mini-paradox in itself. We're told that the episode is going to involve this kind of mechanic before it happens, so we know what the Doctor's going to do before he does it -- but only because he's already told us. Cute. "

So that's a neat little meta-moment when you think about it, sure, and I kind of like it. It still doesn't change the fact that the episode is basically just marking time until we get to the part where the Doctor did solve everything, as opposed to the Doctor solving everything on the cuff. Which, to be fair, his past self still has to suss out all the clues his future self has been leaving in order to perpetuate the predestination paradox, like why his ghost is saying more than just the co-ordinates, or what the hell the Fisher King's deal is. Yeah, let's talk about the Fisher King, why don't we? Pro: What a marvelous monster design! He's creepy and spooky and whoever did his voice is fuckin' fantastic and I adore it. I'd say he's the best new monster design since... hmm, the Boneless back in Flatline? Con: His plan, and thus the entire resolution to the mystery of the ghosts and their rules and whatnot? "I'm gonna call all my friends here and then fuck up the Earth! Because I'M EVIL!". This on its own would be inane. As the capstone reveal to what was, in Under The Lake, actually a really neat concept with the cool conceptual horror of the alchemical words? Gross.

Oh, but I ain't done. Nobody besides the Doctor really does much of anything. O'Donnell gets a few giddy moments and good lines and then she dies. Last episode, the black man died first. This episode, the only human casualty is one of the women. Ugh. Then Bennett gets to get mad at the Doctor in the same old "YOUR ADVENTURES GET PEOPLE KILLED AND YOU ONLY CARE ABOUT YOURSELF" argument we've heard time and time again in Doctor Who. Then Bennett gets to bring up the possibility of changing the past, just so the Doctor can waffle about time being fixed once you see how it turns out or whatever. Then he goes to hide in the TARDIS and does nothing for the rest of the episode. Lund exists to sign for Cass, get a phone, and get smooched at the end. Him getting the phone doesn't actually enable anything, like Clara calling the Doctor and getting the final clue needed to save the three of them from the ghosts. He just gets tricked by the ghosts so Clara and Cass will come look for him. Cass... well, she did get that scene where she senses the vibrations of the axe and dodges Moran's attack. I love goofy shit in Doctor Who. I love it. Going into Daredevil hyper-sense mode took me right out of things and made me audibly go "WHAT?". The point of Cass was she was a competent leader who also happened to be deaf, I thought. Everything else around that scene, especially how it went into silence when cutting back to Cass's perspective, worked well, and I like the idea of Cass sensing the vibrations. Just, could have done without the implication that she has tremorsense superpowers because she's deaf. If it didn't have that one effects shot of echolocation mode, it would have been fine. Oh, and then she smooches Lund? That... came out of nowhere? Weird.

As for Clara? Well, the disappoint here is on me. 'Ol "Mini-Mirror Symbolist" Frezno here assumed that we'd be getting the Mirror Match of the Century. In the red corner, Clara Oswald, competent mirror of the Doctor, attempting to keep herself and two innocent people alive while also being clever and figuring out the plot in her own way while the Doctor did shit in the past. In the blue corner, the Scary No-Eyes Doctor Ghost, not an actual dead Doctor but still his dark mirror, haunting the episode and attempting to impose the entropy of undeath and ghost transmission on Clara and Cass. I hyped myself up by assuming that, even if the Doctor wasn't dead, his ghost would still be hostile. Instead it just walked around and did shit on its own, mouthing some cryptic clues. Then the reveal is that the ghost was a hologram (which, okay, they established the Doctor can make holograms in Under The Lake, fair shake there of leaving a clue we didn't pick up on.) made by the Doctor in order to leave the clues to solving the mystery to his past self so he could make the hologram and leave those same clues in it so his past self could make the hologram and we are all together goo goo g'joob. So, like I said, everything was solved already in a sense and it only took the Doctor picking up on the clues he left behind to solve everything. A bit less thrilling, but what it also meant was we were denied that confrontation, or Clara doing too too much. She gives the Doctor some of his clues, arguably enough of them that he figures out that he's been played by his future self in a predestination paradox. That should thrill me because it's the kind of shit Sylvester McCoy would pull on himself, and I'm a huge McCoy fan. At least in the McCoy era, Ace got to beat things up with a bat. Clara doesn't even throw a punch here.

Nevertheless, in the automatic Mario level that is Before The Flood, there are glimmers of Clara characterization. The moment where she snaps at the Doctor and tells him to wait for his next companion before dying, for instance. That's the real Clara coming in, raw emotion firing at him. She lost the love of her life, and now in the face of her best friend facing his imminent death and throwing up his hands because of the rules? Fuck that noise. You're the Doctor, and you break the rules every day in your big dumb box, so you break them this time because I'm not losing another person I love. She gets to be a Doctor mirror, if nothing else, by sending Lund out to get the phone because he hasn't seen the words. Then the episode mirrors Bennett yelling at the Doctor by having Cass yell at Clara. Well, metaphorically, I mean. I did like the very human moment of Clara calling out to Cass before realizing how silly of an idea that was. The setting of 1980 was neat, even if it didn't do much Cold War stuff. I remarked to a friend that a secret military training ground for a Soviet invasion honestly seemed more like something the USA would have, rather than the UK. Still, I guess in 1980 Reagan and Thatcher were Capitalist Pals who were allied together against them Russkies so I can accept it. My issues with the cold open aside, the Doctor rocking out on the guitar followed by a rock version of the Doctor Who theme is the kind of awesome I expect and love from this show.

So that's Before The Flood. It failed to stick the landing for me, and I went really in-depth on it. Where most people would just yell about how Toby Whithouse is a fuckin' hack and this is the worst shit they've seen since Time And The Rani. I think I gave it a thorough rundown on why it didn't work for me, and the few moments where it did work for me. Notably, I don't hate it. There are very few episodes of Doctor Who that are worth hating for me, really. Hate requires effort. I was just let down by this one, is all. Let down because of my own lofty expectations and the bigger picture of what I want out of Doctor Who in regards to mysteries and plots. Under The Lake had a great premise, but the reveal got bungled. What a shame.

Next time: The techno-Viking doesn't dance to the music. The music dances to the techno-Viking.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Doctor Who Series 9 First Impressions: Episode 3 (Under The Lake)

(Spoiler warning: there's spoilers ahead. I always like to cover myself like that. On with the show, and it may be brief because I am fighting off a cold to yammer about new Doctor Who. So that's fun. Let's get into it.)

Hey, how's it going? Ah, y'all are just hangin' out?
That's cool.
This was a pretty good episode, this "Under The Lake". It had spooky imagery, which is good because Doctor Who runs at its best when it's trying to scare you. Yeah, this one has ghosts. Scary ghosts with no eyes who try to kill people and can somehow grab blunt objects with which to presumably bash your head in... at which point you also become a creepy no-eyes ghost and try to bash the heads of all your friends in. For reasons that we'll get into. In a mad way, this episode is a ghost of its very own. Temporal grace means that we're writing this in that in-between space, so we don't know what the ghosts are yet... but consider where we are. An undersea base, under siege by scary monster ghosts. On paper, it almost sounds like a callback to something like Warriors Of The Deep, a story which was itself a callback to the base under siege era of the Second Doctor's tenure. Except... it's not. All of two people have died and are now scary no-eyes ghosts, and the rest of the people are working together to solve the mystery of why the no-eyes ghosts want them dead. So, no, it's not a base under siege. The episode is a ghost of its own, a hazy and dim reflection of a bygone era of Doctor Who. Or a hazy and dim reflection of the moment when the show doomed itself, resigning itself to being a ghost of good television for about 16 years or so. Either way, this one isn't about the monsters so much as it is trying to figure out the rules of the monsters. I know this isn't a Moffat script, but we are in the Moffat era and that's how monsters work nowadays.

The Doctor and Clara are on form, as ever. Clara didn't do too much this time, other than running down a corridor, but she did get to be part of the plan so that's more than I can say for her role in the last episode. Next week should be better, because she'll probably be taking a Doctor-ish role in keeping the people she's stuck with alive... and oh, do I got a point about that to make later. The Doctor is rad as well, and I do like the joke about the cards (And the sly Sarah Jane reference on them). As for the rest of the base members... eh. They don't have too much character, so to speak, aside from Cass. A nice, proactive, leader type lady. Who also happens to be deaf. 10 points for representation, but some get taken back due to the black guy dying first. As has been mentioned. So it goes. So the base members don't add much, other than the black guy and the dude who's in it for profit dying and becoming scary no-eyes ghosts. And the runaround. And helping the Doctor figure out the rules of the ghosts. Actually, since we're talking about the Doctor and no-eyes... let's talk about those sonic sunglasses again. Moffat put out a little video explaining why he changed it, and the why is pretty much "well why shouldn't we change it?" The Doctor should not particularly be "wedded" to a sonic screwdriver, so changing it up is a bit fresh. This has upset a great many people, to the point where there's a petition 650 people strong demanding it be changed back. This annoys me. The only valid critique I've seen of them is from Phil Sandifer, who objected on the grounds that if Capaldi had the things on constantly, it would hide his eyes and take away from Capaldi's ability to visually perform. Fair enough, and as a good point Capaldi only used the things for about 20 seconds in this one. It's not like he's constantly walking around in shades, scanning everything. No, I'm afraid I can't see this as anything more than entitlement and outrage at Moffat daring to tinker too much with the lore again. Yeah, the sonic screwdriver's iconic. To us. There's no narrative difference between the Doctor waving a screwdriver around, having it make a bzzt noise and then things happening... and the same, except instead of a screwdriver he's wearing sunglasses. It might look a little sillier, but I don't particularly care. I might be a little more inclined to disagree if Moffat meddled with the TARDIS chameleon circuit, because that blue box is just a bit more iconic, but we'll cross that bridge if we ever come to it. (Though, given Moffat's penchant for toying with series lore, I suspect we will come to it at some point.)

So. Back to scary no-eyes ghosts. Turns out they only try to kill you if you read the runes in that abandoned spaceship... thing the base members found. Said words are imbued with power, and they stick in your head. Thus, if you read the words and then get killed, you become a scary no-eyes ghost who further transmits the power of the words (which are co-ordinates to a thing) and attempts to kill as many people as possible who have seen the words in order to make even more word transmitters, We're not dealing with ghosts any more. These are some kind of alchemical word zombies. The words, the co-ordinates, have power, and these things kill and make more of themselves to further that power. A deadly memetic. Wow, that's actually kinda brilliant. So now the Doctor has to go back in time to figure out what the deal with the ship and the words are. Oh, and Clara and two other base members are stuck in the base. And there's a scary no-eyes Doctor ghost zombie. This is some Meglos-level imagery, having the Doctor as this scary thing... but thinking on it, I'm really excited for the next part now. Presumably the A plot of the episode will be the Doctor, in the past, uncovering the mystery. The B-plot, then, will be Clara and the others attempting to not get killed by the scary no-eyes monsters. One of which is the Doctor. So we have Clara, mirror of the Doctor, who will likely be using her mirror powers to keep everyone alive and be terribly clever while doing so... while an actual dark mirror ghost of the Doctor is menacing them and trying to kill them. Holy shit, I'm stoked.

One last fun little observation before we go. I have made it a point to avoid most of the episode titles, but I know enough to know that we have a lot of two-part episodes this time around. We had one last time, and we're in the middle of one now, and there's probably two more on the horizon. We have a Doctor who's callous enough to need cue cards to tell him to say "Oh, shit, sorry your friend died" to a group of people while he's ranting excitedly about ghosts. He also doesn't have a sonic screwdriver any more. In this, a story about ghosts, I submit that Moffat has summoned back the ghost of the Colin Baker era, an era of the show in which the Doctor was not a nice and kind fellow who didn't carry around a sonic screwdriver... and was comprised entirely of two-parters, each part 45 minutes long. Considering that one (one being Phil Sandifer) could argue that Season 22 was a magical exorcism of everything that was killing the show up to that point, and Season 22 was when the actual killing blow of the cancellation struck... doesn't make all that talk about low ratings and Doctor Who in 2016 seem very good. I'm a little worried, but we're gonna forget all that.

Next time: Before The Flood.