Tag Archives: Capaldi

Cryptic, caustic and Under the Lake/Before the Flood (2015)

flood

Let’s say you’re a wounded alien warlord stranded in an ersatz Soviet training camp in Scotland in 1980. (I know. That old story, right?) You need to send a message to your homeys to come and pick you up and heal you. So you can set up a rescue beacon. Or call a space Uber or something right?

Sure, you could do that… if you’re from Planet Mundane! But the Fisher King (Neil Fingleton, and the voice of Peter Serafinowicz) is not. Nowhere near. No, he prefers a more ingenious method. He scratches some alien symbols on the wall of a spaceship. These symbols have the power to embed themselves in your subconscious without you knowing or wanting them to. Y’know, like dialogue by Eric Saward.

The symbols are actually the directions needed to find the Fisher King, but this is no simple set of galactic coordinates. Nothing so helpful. These directions are in the form of a particularly oblique brain teaser. The instructions in question are “the darkness, the sword, the foresaken, the temple,” which is a bit like giving the ambulance a cryptic crossword puzzle to solve in order to find your house so they can stop you from dying.

So anyway, the directions you so desperately need to get to your would-be rescuers are lying dormant in the minds of unsuspecting graffiti readers. To transmit those directions, the folks with the quizzical message embedded in their brains, have to die. Then they (somehow) turn into spectral beings with murderous intent, all the better to bolster their numbers and boost the signal and get His Majesty of the Fishers home and hosed.

Who said writer Toby Whithouse likes to over complicate his underlying concepts? Oh that’s right, it was me. Here. And here.

Now let’s say you’re a caustic old Time Lord whose accent makes him sound right at home in 1980s Scotland (Peter Capaldi). You need to find out how this whole “ghosts in the Drum” thing started, so you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.

(The Drum being the name of the underwater base which is housing all the action. Its main feature is lots of lovely corridors to run down. The lake it’s submerged in never gets a name, but I like to think of it as Lake Siege. Then it could literally be a base under siege. Well, I’d laugh.)

Anyway, you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.  There you discover the Fisher King and work out his nefarious, if overcomplicated, scheme. Easy enough to stop that – just blow up the dam wall and drown the sucker.

Thing is, you need to send a message to yourself from the future to spur you into action. So probably the easiest thing to do is write yourself a note. Maybe on the side of the spaceship, seeing as that’s where everyone goes for some light reading.

Doctor. The thing causing all the ghosts is a big alien nasty called the Fisher King and Clara’s next on his hit list. Go back in time and blow up the dam. Record the roar of the Fisher King as you do, so you can trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage. Also, never wear that jumper with the holes in it again, you look a right berk. Love, the Doctor.

Simple, right? But we don’t do “simple” around here, oh no. So what you do is write a piece of sentient software (in the TARDIS, I suppose) which creates a hologram (somehow. Not sure how it gets projected) that can walk and talk around everyone else. It will look like one of the ghosts and activate at a pre-determined time once you’ve left the base. You know, just to freak everyone out.

Then your Doctor Ghost will start to mouth a sequence of names, in order of who’s going to die (again, it might be simpler for him to just say what’s going on, but a silent list of names is much more complex). Including Clara in this list will be the catalyst for you to act, but if you throw in one of the crew members’ names before hers, that crew member will needlessly die, so watch out for that.

(To make matter worse, that crew member is the glorious Alice O’Donnell (Morven Christie), one half of my new favourite twin set of would-be companions, O’Donnell and Bennett (Arsher Ali). She’s full of fangirl enthusiasm, he’s all caution mixed with scientific curiosity. Plus both have practical skills from working in a military base and they have unresolved sexual tension between them. Perfect! When they board the TARDIS for our quick trip back to 1980, they look absolutely right beside Capaldi’s spiky Doctor. They could have been the Barbara and Ian of our times. Ah well.)

So your holographic ghost will be mouthing names spookily but also wandering about the place. In this way, your ghost can also pointlessly menace the remaining crew members by, say, helpfully letting all the ghosts out of the Faraday cage and letting them continue their killing spree. This isn’t strictly necessary but it extends the terrifying ordeal a bit longer for everyone and keep them on their toes.

I shouldn’t moan. I genuinely like this story with its creepy setting and its likable characters. I’d say it’s Whithouse’s best work for the show, though there’s a lot to be said for the old adage, “keep it simple.”

But why characters who want to communicate with their future selves insist on leaving cryptic messages all over the place instead of just writing a note always baffles me. I call it the Bad Wolf paradox and it’s far more prevalent than the “bootstrap paradox.” I wish the Doctor would spend a pre-credits sequence explaining that one.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when Prentis suggests the Doctor could “oppress him” the subtitles suggest “appraise him” like he’s on Antiques Roadshow.

LINK TO The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: each feature avatars of Doctor Who fans – O’Donnell and the Whizz Kid.

NEXT TIME… You stupid butcher! It’s time to embark on The Crusade.

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Depression, determination and The Eaters of Light (2017)

eaters of light

Can you imagine being asked back to a job you last did 28 years ago? In my case, I had a very brief career as a waiter at a smart restaurant back then. It involved two nights of serving vegetables using silver service, navigating around the warring, slightly sozzled husband and wife team who ran the joint, and being locked inside a walk-in refrigerator in a hazing ritual. Surprisingly, I wasn’t invited back for second weekend, and it would be even more surprising if I were to be asked back now.

Rona Munro’s career as a writer is staggeringly more accomplished than mine as a waiter, but it was still a surprise to hear that she was to become the first writer from 20th century Doctor Who to write for its 21st century regeneration. Actors, directors, costumiers and special effects staffers have all made the transition. But given how different the show is in focus, pace and structure, it’s always seemed like it would be a difficult leap for a writer to make. And 28 years is quite a gap; even in the classic series that gambit would never have been contemplated. It would be like Andrew Cartmel asking David Whitaker to write for season 27. (“David, we only have 14 episodes a season now. We can’t spend 15 minutes talking about the food machine!”)

Back when Munro was writing for the show, the Doctor was played by a brooding Scotsman, his assistant was a contemporary, streetwise girl who he was educating in the ways of the universe, the Master was undergoing a complete physical change and ratings were on the slide. Plus ça change. So it makes sense that her first story, Survival and her second, The Eaters of Light, share similar concerns.

Both are about creatures breaking through portals from other worlds to make murderous attacks on human prey. And both concern groups of teenagers struggling to understand and to deal with these alien incursions. 28 years ago, Munro demonstrated her ability to write lyrically and symbolically – about the need for a home, about sexual awakening and using intelligence to prove the old “survival of the fittest” maxim wrong. Here, I think she’s presenting a story of teens dealing with despair.

It centres on two characters, both baby-faced leaders of their tribes: Kar (Rebecca Benson), chief of the Picts and Lucius (Brian Vernel), leader of the remaining scraps of the Ninth Legion. Both have been floored by the slaughter of their comrades: Kar’s people were decimated by the Romans, Lucius’s legion by the lone Eater that Kar unleashed upon them. In the absence of older, wiser heads, they have been pushed into leadership roles, and both are plainly terrified.

In these characters, the allegorical side of the Eaters becomes clear; as creatures which feed on light but then suck that light away from others, they are stand-ins for depression. In a pair of consecutive scenes, our two young heroes are forced to confront the source of their troubles. Bill (Pearl Mackie) points out to Lucius that hiding out in a cave is not going to help anything, and that he needs to regroup and go on the offensive. Next, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) tells Kar that it’s time to face up to her situation and fight back. “I’m afraid,” she admits. “But you’ve still got to face your beast anyway,” says the Doctor, never one for letting people off the hook.

Sufferers of mental illness will know the futility of being told, “just pull yourself together and feel better.” I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. What Bill and the Doctor are doing is helping Lucius and Kar recognise that although their problems are dauntingly huge, something needs to be done. Their problems can’t be sidestepped or hidden from, and that a personal decision to “face the beast” needs to be made. In this way, we see the turning points in both these young people’s stories. We see the moment where they get back up off the mat and decide to fight the force which is stealing their light. Good for them.

I’m not so sure about the ending though. Kar and Lucius are now able to speak to and understand each other, thanks to the Doctor’s powers of language translation. This enables them to sympathise with each other’s plight, in a kind of live example of the “sit down and talk” approach extolled at the end of The Zygon Inversion. They then decide to join forces and dive into a rejected title sequence to fight off the Eaters one by one. This will apparently go on until the end of time, because time moves faster inside the portal than out. But at a going rate of 70 years per defeat of each beast, and only a handful of brave fighters entering the fray, I can’t make the maths work.

Still, that’s not the most pressing problem. Surely once they’re cut off from Doctor they’ll lose their multilingual abilities. Difficult enough to coordinate a joint attack against a swirling pack of dimension jumping nasties at the best of times, let alone when you can’t understand what your newfound comrades are saying. But then again maybe “argh!” “ow!” and “gerroff, I’m having all the light sucked out of me” are universal.

The Picts also remember to take a couple of pipers down the cosmic plughole with them, which seems like an unnecessary luxury for such a dangerous mission. “Hey, band! Play that one I like, will ya? It’ll really help pass the time while I’m fighting for my life!” But that allows one of the episode’s more mystical elements – music emanating through the hillside – to make a kind-of sense. Except that again, isn’t that music still being played in a slower time stream than in the real world? Wouldn’t it be like listening to a record at super slow speed?

I shouldn’t be spoiling things. As the Doctor explains to Missy (Michelle Gomez, in an all-too-brief appearance), only the joyless can’t hear the music around them. It’s another metaphor for depression; Missy has to learn again to tune into that music which springs from the ordinary beauty of life. When she does, she’s moved to tears, but the sense is that she’s better off by going through the experience and coming out the other side. Again, those going through a mental illness journey of their own may sympathise.

Survival was about this too. Characters stuck in a dead-end suburb, battling with the slow, inescapable trudge of daily life. Characters who went through terrible ordeals, but came away from them invigorated and reconnected with the world around them. Characters who fought off ravenous beasts and were changed by the process. Munro has lost none of her ability to tell stories across multiple levels and to use fantasy to reflect on our own reality. Let’s hope it’s not 28 years before we hear from her again.

LINK TO Victory of the Daleks: aliens interfering in historical battles.

NEXT TIME… it’s back to the dark places of the inside for Kinda.

 

 

 

Brian, Steven and Smile (2017)

smile

BRIAN MINCHIN: OK, love the plans for Episode One. Great start to our season planning conference, Steven. See, not as hard as all that, is it? Steven? Steven, get away from the window.

STEVEN MOFFAT: Is this locked? Why is it locked? I just need a breath of fresh air. Just a short walk to the shops!

MINCHIN: Now Steven we’ve been through all this. All the exits are locked until we get the season mapped out.

MOFFAT: This is ridiculous! We’ve got plenty of time. I don’t know what everyone’s worried about.

MINCHIN: We start shooting tomorrow.

MOFFAT: Exactly! That leaves all of today and tonight and a bit of the morning! Plus I can keep writing while they’re shooting!

MINCHIN: Look, you know the deal. Give us one more season – just one – and we’ll release you from your contract. That door’s also locked, put the crowbar away.

MOFFAT: Just one more season? Then I’m free?

MINCHIN: And won’t it be nice to have all the scripts ready ahead of time?

MOFFAT: Nice for you, maybe. Look, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch!

MINCHIN: I’m not falling for that, Steven. Now sit down, relax and tell me about Episode Two.

MOFFAT: All right. OK then. So it’s set on this planet, a future human colony, where you have to smile or you get killed.

MINCHIN: Riiiight…

MOFFAT: What’s wrong with that?

MINCHIN: Nothing. It’s great. Keep going.

MOFFAT: No, what’s wrong with it? That’s genuine 100% Moffat genius, that is!

MINCHIN: It’s just… that’s The Happiness Patrol, isn’t it?

MOFFAT: No it’s not! It’s completely different.

MINCHIN: How is it different?

MOFFAT: Well there’s no Happiness Patrol, for a start. No Helen A or Fifi. And certainly no Kandyman!

MINCHIN: I’m certainly glad to hear that! Can you imagine? A novelty robot with some cutesy, gimmicky design quirk. What is the monster, by the way?

MOFFAT: I think I see a trap door over there…

MINCHIN: Steven…

MOFFAT: *mumbles*

MINCHIN: Louder, Steven.

MOFFAT: Emojibots.

MINCHIN: Robots which communicate via emojis?

MOFFAT: But they’re not like the Kandyman, OK? For a start, there are heaps of them and they’re white, silent and featureless.

MINCHIN: So they’re more like the Handbots then?

MOFFAT: No Brian, they’re a completely new idea!

MINCHIN: OK, fine.

MOFFAT: And anyway, they’re not even the monster. The emojibots are just the interface for thousand of microscopic robots which make up the buildings of this colony.

MINCHIN: So they’re like the nanogenes in The Empty Child?

MOFFAT: No, Brian. These ones strip the flesh from people’s bones leaving only their skeletons behind!

MINCHIN: Like the Vashta Nerada.

MOFFAT: Look, do you want 12 episodes this year or will we have to make another series of Class?

MINCHIN: No, no! All fine, let’s keep going. What else happens in it?

MOFFAT: Right, so you have to keep smiling, right? Or the bots kill you. So imagine smiling all the time, even when those around you are dying. The physical strain of having to smile through all that… the tension will be palpable! And look, Capaldi will have to actually smile, that alone will be worth the cost of admission.

MINCHIN: It’s just that…

MOFFAT: Oh, here we go!

MINCHIN: Well, that’s Blink, isn’t it? Not being able to do an involuntary physical action on pain of death. And you did it again in Deep Breath. And kind of in Last Christmastoo, where people couldn’t think about the dream crab things.

MOFFAT: Yeah, but it’s still good!

MINCHIN: Hey, that’s a thought: there are no dream states or people trapped in virtual worlds or anything again?

MOFFAT: No, of course not. Not until Episode Six.

MINCHIN: I hope I remembered to bring the Panadol before I locked that door. Ok, what happens next?

MOFFAT: So the Doctor and Bill meet this young kid…

MINCHIN: Of course they do.

MOFFAT: who leads them to a buried spaceship…

MINCHIN: a LINK to Closing Time

MOFFAT: where cryogenically frozen humans, who have fled from a global catastrophe are all waking up…

MINCHIN: Hello, The Ark in Space

MOFFAT: and fighting breaks out between the humans and their former, and now self-aware servants…

MINCHIN: via The Rebel Flesh…

MOFFAT: before the Doctor works out that it’s all due to…

MINCHIN: Malfunctioning technology?

MOFFAT: Great! Yes! And then the Doctor…

MINCHIN: Reboots the system?

MOFFAT: How did you know?

MINCHIN: Lucky guess. I can see you trying to get that ventilation shaft open, Steven.

MOFFAT: (acidly) Just checking for new, un-cliched ideas.

MINCHIN: Seriously? In a ventilation shaft?

MOFFAT: Anyway, that’s Episode Two.

MINCHIN: What will we call it? The Happiness Robots? The Nanobot Patrol?

MOFFAT: I was thinking just Smile.

MINCHIN: Sure, again like Blink and Deep Breath and Listen and so on. Well, we can make it look a bit exotic, emphasise the differences…

MOFFAT: Look, give me a break Minchin! I’ve been on this show since 2005. I’ve written more Doctor Who than anyone ever. Every year there’s another dozen episodes to fill. So yes, I’m going to, occasionally, repeat myself. It’s gonna happen.

MINCHIN: Fair enough. Let’s get someone else in to write it then. Who do you want?

MOFFAT: I was thinking FCB.

MINCHIN: FC Barcelona?

MOFFAT: No, but ooh… we should shoot it in Spain! But I meant Frank Cottrell Boyce.

MINCHIN: You’re right, I’m sure everyone’s forgiven him by now. OK, so Episode Three?

MOFFAT: Right, so, set at the last great frost fair.

MINCHIN: Oh, good, so like you mentioned in A Good Man Goes to War.

MOFFAT: And beneath the Thames, there’s a giant marine creature being tortured…

MINCHIN: So, like The Beast Below?

MOFFAT: I swear, I will erase you from Doctor Who, Brian!

*awkward pause*

MINCHIN: The Happiness Patrol, eh?

MOFFAT: Count yourself lucky it wasn’t Silver Nemesis.

*door opens*

FLUNKIE: Steven, can you sign off on this? Someone wants to complete Shada again, this time using woollen puppets and dioramas.

MOFFAT: Yes, of course. *bolts through the door*

MINCHIN: *sighs* Get Chibnall on the phone. See if he can start early.

NEXT TIME… and I was having such a nice day. We take a trip down to Boom Town.

Exits, Isms and Empress of Mars (2017)

empress

So, it’s 2017 and Mark Gatiss wants to write an episode with Ice Warriors and which refers back to the Pertwee era at every available opportunity. The real question is, why aren’t we on Peladon?

Surely with Brexit looming, here’s a chance to return to Doctor Who’s long tradition of commenting on current political issues. Not to mention a chance to return to leather-clad soldiers, badger wigged extras and furry subterranean beasts. There could be a Nigel Farage style villain as the inevitable high priest. It’s The Exit of Peladon (well, they surely would never call it a Pexit).C’mon, add an unconvincing fight scene for the Doctor and we’re there!

But of course, it wasn’t to be, and with good reason. For one thing, it’s just too obvious. For another, the BBC wouldn’t dare court controversy on such a hot topic with its own existence and remit so politicized at the moment. And for a third, Doctor Who can just be more subtle than that. Even though it’s not The Exit of Peladon, this story has been influenced by Brexit, and has much to say about nationalism.

In fact, there are a few different isms to navigate through here, all of them embodied in the group of Victorian-era soldiers camped out in the Martian underground for this story. Their nationalism – putting Britain’s interests (however they are interpreted) first – is inherent. It’s these characters’ starting point.

From there, they, particularly the fervent Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), also exhibit imperialism – the belief that the British empire should extend its reach through acquiring new territories. And through their treatment of Friday (Richard Ashton), they also show their colonialism, a belief in the inherent cultural superiority of a colonial race of people over an indigenous people.

(The reference to Robinson Crusoe, a book often criticised for its colonialist attitude, is clear, but it’s a shame Friday never gets to reclaim his original Martian name, a step which could have slapped down the soldiers for their enforced domestication of him. What is it about Gatiss and monsters serving tea?)

Brexit may not, at heart, be about imperialism or colonialism, but I think it’s fair to say it’s about nationalism. It’s reflecting a political swing towards right-wing nationalism around the world, whose other expressions include Trump, Le Pen and here in Australia, the resurgence of One Nation. Don’t worry, randomers, this isn’t about to get super political. But I’m saying that this is the environment that Empress of Mars was made in. And if its basic message, unsubtle as it is, is colonialism is bad, it’s underlying theme is, and so is the nationalism it springs from.

This critique of nationalism shows up in the soldiers themselves. They’re a rum lot, and that’s for sure. Godsacre (Anthony Calf) is a coward and a deserter. Catchlove, a warmongering zealot. Jackdaw (Ian Beattie), a pillager. (His thieving of a small blue crystal from the Ice Queen’s tomb is not just a call back to Metebelis, but a potent indicator of invading forces wanting to take a land’s natural resources for themselves). Fine and upstanding examples of her Majesty’s army, they are not. They fit the stereotype about Britain’s colonial forces, in that they were not always made up of the best soldiers available. As symbols of Britain’s colonial past, their personal shortcomings reflect poorly on nationalism as an idea. Greed, treachery and conflict spring from this, this story says.

It’s not all that different from Gatiss’ last Ice Warrior story, Cold War, where a bunch of Russian submariners, some good, some bad, came up against the physical and technological might of the Ice Warriors. All out war loomed, but there the Doctor convinced the Martian General to leave in peace. The two opposing forces walked away from that flashpoint.

Here, something quite different happens. As fighting breaks out, Friday undermines his own side to argue the Earth soldiers’ case. And Godsacre kills chief hawk Catchlove, and pledges allegiance to a new queen, Iraxxa (Adele Lynch). It’s another twist on the theme of “it doesn’t have to end in war” and it shows the complexity in the characters of Friday and Godsacre. But whereas the Cold War Russians are allowed to float away, pride more or less intact, here the British soliders capitulate.

It’s a funny ending. What life can those soldiers expect on Mars? A short and uncomfortable one, probably. But over and above that, it’s a repudiation of imperialism; they came as conquerers and stayed as servants.

It’s also a rejection of another ism: isolationalism. Rather than struggle against the inevitable, these men choose to interact with their interplanetary neighbours. Perhaps a partnership between the Martian and um, Earthian forces, rather than a submission to sovereignty might have been a more satisfying ending, but still the point is made. Plus, it adds a wry double meaning to the former war cry of “God save the queen,” now repurposed as a castaway’s rescue call. Reach out, this story says, rather than fight back.

Still, things might change again. In a shout out to remainers and Doctor Who fans alike, the story ends with Mars making contact with the Galactic Federation, the Pertwee era’s version of the EU. Who knows what will happen when Alpha Centauri (Ysanne Churchman) and its pals arrive? Mars is up for membership and maybe Godsacre and his men will be the freed from their allegiance to the Queen to become Earth’s first representatives at this union.

Their horizons are about to expand far wider than they ever imagined. It’s may not be The Exit of Peladon, but we know where Empress of Mars’ sympathies lie.

LINK to The Bells of St John. It features a monster from Classic Who Season 5 (which, as it happens, will work for our next story too), but why stop there? Why not include the links to The Curse of Peladon, The Monster of Peladon(mining equipment as a weapon, anyone?), Day of the Daleks (RHIP), The Green Death (Jackdaw stealing a blue crystal), The Tomb of the Cybermen, Tooth and Claw, Sleep No Moreand a line which sounds suspiciously like one from The Robots of Death. (“They could slaughter whole civilisations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower. “ cribs “It can punch a fist sized hole in six inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one”). Then there’s The Thing, Zulu, The Terminator, The Vikings, Star Wars and freakin’ Frozen. A parliament of references!

NEXT TIME: Stubborn old goat! We’re caught in The Web of Fear.

Blindness, business and Oxygen (2017)

oxygen

Long term readers will recall my pathetic attempts to predict what’s going to happen in Doctor Who. Previously, I’ve expected David Tennant to become a power mad despot and Missy to be Romana. So far, so wildly inaccurate. But there was some mild excitement earlier in the year, when something I suggested in a post about, of all things, The Doctor’s Daughter, came to pass during series 10. On that occasion I said:

What else might have a chance of disrupting the Doctor’s world? Could, for instance, he incur a disability of some kind? What would, for instance, a blind Doctor be like for a couple of stories, or even a series?

Now, thanks be to Moff, we know. In mid season thriller Oxygen, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is blinded and stays that way through the next two episodes. He does it saving companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) from suffocation in deep space and there’s no quick and easy reset switch for this problem.

Although there is a workaround. In Extremis, the Doctor learns to rely on his sonic sunglasses, which give him an onscreen readout piped straight into his brain. It’s only a partial fix; he still needs confidante Nardole (Matt Lucas) to give voice to self-knowing lines like, “oh look, it’s a mysterious light, shining round a corner, approximately ten feet away.” So really, I should have guessed what would happen to the show with a blind Doctor; the dialogue suddenly sounds like Big Finish.

It also means certain scenarios have to be meticulously constructed. Consider the tricksy climax to The Pyramid at the End of the World. The Doctor has concocted a way of destroying a deadly virus by blowing up the room it’s encased in. Problem is, he’s trapped on the wrong side of a locked door. He knows the combination to the lock, but he can’t see it. Time is running out and he’s helpless.

To make this situation work, though, there has to be a very particular number pad attached to this lock. It has to have no raised numbers or braille which the Doctor could feel. It can’t be electronic, which could register on the sonic sunglasses. It has to run horizontally across; if it was a standard 4×3 pad the Doctor could deduce the placement of the numbers. And it has to be out of view of the Doctor’s new friend Erica, so he can’t be guided to the answer.

So I don’t know about the Doctor’s blindness bring to the series that element of disruption. But it certainly meant a lot of contrivance.

But hey, don’t let me be churlish about this. I think it’s still a welcome and innovative development for the series. And as I’ve said before, finding new things for the show to do is hard. But it would have been nice is the Doctor’s blindness was presented as something more than a constant obstacle to be overcome. What did the Doctor learn from the experience? Was there any upside at all? Wouldn’t it have been great if the Doctor could have defeated the mummified Monks using some skill or insight he gained from being blind?

*****

Anyway, none of this is being very fair to Oxygen, a taut and nervy episode about the fragility of human life in space. It owes a considerable debt to Gravity, the 2014 blockbuster in which Sandra Bullock persevered through an increasingly unlikely but nonetheless nerve wracking series of misadventures in space. In its original conception, Oxygen was to be about the Doctor and co jumping from spaceship to spaceship, which is exactly what happens in Gravity, where Bullock’s character strives to survive an orbital calamity and get back to Earth.

Both take their starting points from how inimical space is to human survival, to jolt us out of our usual unthinking acceptance of other sci-fi conveniences like artificial gravity, omnipresent oxygen, consistent atmospheric pressure, lack of radiation and doors that go shuck shuck. It’s nice to be reminded of all these cosmic realities, but give us a few episodes and we’ve forgotten the lot; compare this careful approach to realism with the giant magical layer cake which is the spaceship in World Enough and Time.

Even though it’s temporary, Oxygen’s concern that everything outside our biosphere’s ready to kill us is a good starting point for a story that races from one predicament to the next with barely time to draw precious breath. Along the way, it will, ahem, breathlessly tell a story about an unseen, unfeeling corporate entity, killing a space station’s crew as an efficiency measure. Cue one of Doctor Who’s long standing tropes, big business as the baddy. Oxygen’s ruthless but nameless “Company” could be the same one as featured in The Sun Makers or Terminus. There are no distinguishing features; its placement of profit over people is enough for us to recognise the stereotype.

In the Company’s modus operandi, you can see the reflection of a couple of contemporary concerns: that we’ll all lose our jobs as robots take over (look, for instance, at that scene of the occupant-free suit moving boxes around, without care nor paycheque) and AI will outwit us all in the end (sinister satnav gets another run). But the added sting in this tale is that the company’s ruthless commercialism is constantly apparent. Not just that it sells oxygen, the very stuff of life, in an environment where you can’t do without it. But also because it knows the marginal cost of maintaining the life of one crew member is more than that of murdering them. The most heinous of sums. That’s far more frightening than a troupe of dead men walking in animated suits.

Still, it makes the Doctor’s solution to the problem very neat. He just has to change one of the factors in that sum and make it more expensive to kill the humans than keep them alive. It’s elegant and rather heartbreaking when, in response, the corpse-carrying suits hand over their remaining oxygen to the survivors. It’s an ending which works so well thematically, it’s hard to forgive the terrible cheat of pretending to kill Bill. Just keep her alive and leave her with the Doctor and co, racing against time, zombies breathing down their necks… that’s enough to make us hold our breaths.

****

Now weirdly enough, I’m on a roll with this prediction lark. Along with the Doctor’s blindness I also managed to predict a Capaldi/Bradley mash up. Unbelievable! I see no reason to stop now, but I’ll stick to safer ground.  So here are some not-so-bold predictions. In Doctor Who, capitalism will always be bad. Monsters will always stomp. Crew members will always be forgettable cannon fodder. And bringing scares to the small screen will remain Doctor Who’s lifeblood, as essential as oxygen.

LINK TO The Tomb of the Cybermen. Mechanical bad guys.

NEXT TIME: I’m not spending all afternoon exploring a Cro-Magnon cave with some octogenarian from Miami Beach. Instead I’m spending it on a Planet of Fire.

Underdogs, overlords and The Girl Who Died (2015)

girlwhodied

Of all the Doctors to star in a Doctor Who version of The Mighty Ducks, Peter Capaldi’s acerbic version seems one of the most unlikely. (Not the most unlikely, which would surely be Hartnell. “What, dear boy? I prefer walking to skating any day.”) Still, that’s what happens in The Girl Who Died, as he becomes responsible for training a group of hopeless Vikings for a fight against a group of relentless alien brutes, the Mire. It’s your classic underdog story, played pretty much for laughs, with Vikings too clumsy, too uncoordinated or too afraid of blood to be of any use.

The laughs can’t last for long though. The stakes are much higher than for a hockey match, football game or Jamaican bobsled team. If the Mire win, everyone in this village dies. The weight of that rests heavily on the Doctor’s shoulders.

This is a great episode for Capaldi, who gets to show that responsibility on every square inch of that deeply lined face. But he also gets to be funny and soulful. My favourite aspect is his ability to hear and translate the cries of a baby. P-Cap sells it. You really believe that he can speak baby and that his outlook on the fate of this ragtag bunch is changed irrevocably because of it.

On top of that, he gets to play out the Doctor’s grief and anger when his new friend Ashildr (Maisie Williams) is killed in battle, his furious determination to bring her back to life and the slow, hangover of a realisation that he may have sentenced this young girl to immortality. For a jokey script, it ends on a note of foreboding. In fact, it’s not miles away from the feel of Donald Cotton’s Hartnell stories, with historical settings full of gags which turn serious in the final reel.

But there’s something great about how the Doctor manages to beat the Mire. As Clara (Jenna Coleman) points out to him, teaching people to fight is not his style and she knows he’s not going to win until he comes up with a more Doctorly plan. This he eventually does, and as he says, it’s a doozy, complete with subterfuge, a dance, an elaborate pulley system, space YouTube and a tub of electric eels. Even by the Doctor’s standards, it’s mental. But he proves once again that the bullies and the warmongers can be overcome by using your brain. As essentially Doctor Who as that message is, it can never be said enough.

Then there’s Clara, who’s continuing on her journey to would-be Doctordom. She gets herself transported to the Mire’s spacecraft and straight into a conversation with Odin (David Schofield, who’s fine but oh, it woulda coulda shoulda been BRIAN BLESSED!) in which she very nearly manages to end the story 30 minutes early by scaring him off, with threats of advanced technology and half a pair of sonic sunglasses. And Coleman carries it brilliantly with exactly the sort poise that infuriates fans who hate her getting more screen time than the Doctor.

The other side of Clara shown here is her indispensability in getting the Doctor to win through. She is not so much his teacher, as shown in Into the Dalek, but a sort of motivational coach. When he’s ready to abandon the Vikings because they haven’t had the common sense to take his suggestion about fleeing, she gently questions him until he decides to save them – a decision she knows he’ll make, with some prodding from her. Later, when he’s despairing about the general rubbishness of his fighting force, she presses him to change tactics. She’s a prompt for his actions. Almost his manipulator.

It’s a co-dependent relationship. The Doctor needs Clara in order to function like a hero. Clara needs the Doctor to show her how to become a hero. It’s not exactly a cozy relationship, but between them, they are a functioning team, each making up for the other’s shortcomings. So it makes dramatic sense to throw in a third character to shake them up.

And so to Ashildr, the village’s storyteller and feisty teenage girl. Despite her young age, she’s a catalyst for the story’s big events. It’s her recklessness which leads to the Mire deciding to stay and fight and gives us the Mighty Ducks. It’s her puppetry hobby that inspires the Doctor’s wacky plan with the fake dragon. And it’s her imagination which feeds the illusion of the mighty beast into the Mire’s helmets. In many ways, it’s her story, not just because it’s named after her.

Both the Doctor and Clara are strangely drawn to her. The Doctor, as he explains, is haunted by a kind of future memory of her. Clara seems to have a crush on her (“Fight you for her,” she offers the Doctor at one stage). Both treat her as a potential protégé. In other circumstances, she might have been asked to board the TARDIS as a new companion.

Instead, she becomes the focus of the Doctor’s tempestuous grief, when she dies through a miscalculation in his plan. He breaks his own rules, lets her absorb some Mire technology, resurrects her and makes her immortal. But this tells us nothing new about the Doctor. That he’s a man of great power, that he’ll break his own rules when pushed, that he can take an ordinary person and turn them into a being of universal significance… all this we knew before The Girl Who Died.

But we didn’t know this vengeful god of a Doctor would turn up in the middle of what has been, up to that point, a jaunty historical comedy. After all, this is a story with Odin appearing in the sky straight from Monty Python and comic antics accompanied by the Benny Hill theme. It’s not where you expect to find a portentous immortal being created by an act of Doctorly rage.

That’s OK. This show’s frequently been about contrasting light and dark. And if it’s an uncomfortable mix in this episode, then The Time Meddler, Delta and the Bannermen and The Fires of Pompeii all have something to say about that. The only surprise is that a story-bending character like Ashildr, who will go on to be an ongoing force in the Doctor’s life, and who will eventually split our cozy couple apart, should emerge from such jolly hijinks as this.

Anyway, I best get on with my pitch to Big Finish. It’s called The Mighty Duxatrons. It stars David Bradley as the first Doctor. Emilio Estevez is going to co star. Underdogs as far as the eye can see.

LINK TO The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End: in flashback, we see the tenth Doctor and Donna again.

NEXT TIME: What a stupid fool you are! Let’s play The War Games.

 

 

Break ups, break downs and Mummy on the Orient Express (2014)

mummy

We can be a bit shallow, us fans. We love a good monster. We’ll forgive a lot when a story features a proper, Hinchcliffe level, scary beast. And Mummy on the Orient Express has a cracker of a monster in the shape of the Foretold (Jamie Hill).

Too scary to put on the promos, it’s a grimy, cadaverous thing which makes the lot from Pyramids of Mars look welcomingly cuddly. It’s not just the empty decaying face of it, but also its slow relentless walk, always dragging that one foot behind it. The skinny, grasping arm stretching out at its victim’s face. Plus the onscreen countdown, adding a real time tension to proceedings. No wonder DWM readers voted this story best of breed in 2014.

However, being so in love with this story’s ghoulish brute, I think we have collectively papered over a few holes in the plot. The Foretold, we’re told, is an old soldier, who should be long dead, but is being kept alive by technology and will keep on killing until it gets orders to stop. Which is all well and good, but why is he a mummy? Was this alien war based in ancient Egypt? Is there a planet of the Mummies out there somewhere? What’s going on?

Then there’s Gus (John Sessions) the omnipresent, homicidal onboard computer, a direct descendant of 2001‘s Hal. It’s Gus, it turns out, which has orchestrated the whole affair, and brought the Foretold to the train, along with a group of scientists to divine the monster’s origins and purpose. To what end, though, we never find out. Let alone who built and programmed Gus, or what he was planning to do with a killer Mummy wth a gammy leg.

*****

Incidentally… MOTOE features a corker of an example of a Doctor Who quirk I like to keep my eye on: characters who should have lines, but don’t.

The simplest example I can think of happens in City of Death. Two heavies, played by extras (making them extra heavies, ha ha), have been employed by Scarlioni to spy on the Doctor. They appear at the top of the scene, but instead of giving their report, we just hear Scarlioni commend them on their work. They leave without saying a word. By all rights, they should have lines. But that would mean paying them more. So they remain silent, in the face of all credulity.

This happens not infrequently in old Who, less often in new Who. In MOTOE though, it’s back with a vengeance. It transpires that the passengers are not just any old trainspotters, but eminent scientists Gus has brought together to study the Foretold. Experts in their fields! A whole carriage of them! Working together on a wicked problem! And none of them ever say a thing. Very weird.

 *****

One more strange plot development. As the end of episode approaches, everything has to be wrapped up quickly, so the train suddenly explodes. Next thing we know, the Doctor (P-Cap) is waiting for Clara (J-Cole) to wake up on a beach. Turns out he managed to teleport everyone on board the train into the TARDIS before the explosion. Then he returned them all to a nearby planet.

Which is all fine… but why did he then drag Clara out of the TARDIS and on to the beach? He couldn’t have explained the plot to her in the TARDIS?

I know, I know. Shut up and look at the scary monster!

****

The other thing going on here is the break up of the Doctor and Clara.

She spends the episode questioning her relationship with him. There are a few crucial moments which punctuate this uncertainty: when she complies with his request to lie to Maisie (Daisy Beaumont) and bring her to him, when she realises the Doctor brought her to the Orient Express expecting trouble and didn’t tell her, when the Doctor takes Maisie’s place as the Foretold’s target and when the Doctor then saves everyone. Clara’s emotions rollercoaster accordingly.

Then she makes an interesting choice; she lies to Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) and recommits to travelling with the Doctor. It’s a confusing choice because the Doctor’s the same spiky, manipulative grump he was at the beginning of the episode. So why would the events of Mummy on the Orient Express change her mind?

The answer is, of course, they don’t. It wouldn’t matter what happened in this episode, Clara was always going back to the Doctor. Because she is, as she hints in the final scenes, addicted to this lifestyle. This is another aspect to the darker side of Clara’s personality as explored in Series 8. She’s an addict, a liar and a cheater. She’s the Doctor’s proxy, which sometimes means being as sly and underhanded as he can be.

I gather from my discussions with various casual viewers I know that Clara’s not the most popular of companions. But I think she’s one of the most well rounded, if confounding, characters the new series has given us. Other companions have had depth, but have essentially been angels. Amy, for instance, could be fiery and flighty, but we were never in any doubt that she was 100% a good person.

With Clara, that distinction is much less clear. So as much as the Doctor asks during this series, “am I a good man?” we are just as often shown that Clara is just as morally ambiguous. And if we needed any further proof, when we get to the end of this season, they will part ways, each on the back of mutual lies to the other.

This caginess fits particularly well with this episode, where everybody is hiding something about themselves. Mrs Pitt (Janet Henfrey) is a grandmother masquerading as a mother. Maisie is hiding her hatred of her. Quell (David Bamber) is concealing a dysfunctional past. Gus pretends to be courteous mein host. And Chief Engineer Perkins (Frank Skinner) has nothing to hide, but acts shifty and secretive anyway. Because on a murder mystery, that’s what happens. Here, it’s not so much that everyone’s a suspect, just that everyone’s suspect.

And the Doctor? Well, he’s the one exception. Sure, he might have brought Clara here under false pretenses, but otherwise he doesn’t try at all to hide who he is. He’s a brilliant, brittle, uncompromising alien. Clara can’t help but love him, because despite all his crazy contradictions, he can, when he wants to, show us the most captivating monster contained within.

A bit like us fans and Mummy on the Orient Express.

LINK TO The Savages: victims being drained of their life force.

NEXT TIME: What have we learned today? More Capaldi, Coleman and scary monsters as we go Into the Dalek.