Tag Archives: Capaldi

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.

 

 

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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 an 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 has 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.

Secrets, separation and The Husbands of River Song (2015)

riversong

There’s a disquieting undertone to this episode, despite it being a big, bold Chrismassy romcom. Yes, it’s the episode that wraps up the relationship between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, relishing the comic moments) and River Song (Alex Kingston, relishing every bit of it), and it does so in a festive melange of romance and continuity references. Yes, it’s a genuinely funny knockabout caper which celebrates the bond between two fascinating characters. But there’s a nagging concern I’ve been unable to shake. Here it is:

This is the story where River’s true self is revealed to the Doctor. And then he dumps her.

Much was made in this story’s pre-publicity of the comedy value of the Doctor seeing what River does when he’s not around. Due to an unlikely combination of contrivances (River’s convinced the Doctor has a limit of 12 faces, he’s been introduced as ‘the surgeon’), she doesn’t twig who he is, and so she lets the veil drop a little.

We meet a far naughtier character that we’ve seen her be before. We see that she has multiple husbands and multiple wives. That she’s prepare to marry a villain in order to steal from him and kill him. That she borrows the TARDIS when the Doctor’s not looking and stores hooch in a handy roundel. That she’s welcomed onto a spaceship full of mass murderers.

The Doctor looks suitably bemused at all these revelations. But it’s a short exchange with River over dinner that really seems to rock him. She talks about how she got King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) to fall in love with her.

RIVER: It’s the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

And she holds up her TARDIS diary to emphasize the point. Later…

DOCTOR: …you look sad.

RIVER: It’s nearly full.

DOCTOR: So?

RIVER: The man who gave me this was the sort of man who’d know exactly how long a diary you were going to need.

DOCTOR: He sounds awful.

RIVER: I suppose he is. I’ve never really thought about it.

DOCTOR: Not somebody special then?

RIVER: No. But terribly useful every now and then.

Of course, she’s shielding her true feelings, but still, it’s clear that these words sting the Doctor. Later on, in a more honest and revealing moment, River explains that while she loves the Doctor, he doesn’t love her in return.

RIVER: When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!

Penny in the air. She turns to look at the Doctor. Penny drops.

DOCTOR: Hello, sweetie.

It’s a moment of reaffirmation. But the damage appears to be done. This relationship is toast. And River won’t get a say in how it ends.

Consider what happens next. The spaceship, under assault from a meteor storm, dive bombs into a planet. River recognizes the planet immediately as Darillium. We fans know what happens on Darillium. It’s the site of her final meeting with the Doctor before she dies. To escape the crash, the Doctor and River take shelter in the TARDIS. It survives the crash and is planted on Darillium. River is unconscious. The Doctor is awake. And now he has choices.

He could take off again. He and River could go off adventuring anew. No need to stop the fun. Another great escape.

But he doesn’t do that. He makes a conscious decision to engineer the building of a restaurant of Darillium so that he can take River for dinner there, and spend their last night together. He knows this will precipitate the end of their relationship. He does it anyway. It his opinion, it’s time.

Two things bug me about this:

He does it without consulting River. There are two people in this relationship but the Doctor is the one who decides to end it. Why doesn’t he discuss it with her? Presumably because he knows she won’t want to go, but everything has its time and every Christmas is last Christmas or something. Imagine if your partner took an action he/she knew was going to end your relationship, but didn’t discuss it with you. Or did it while you were unconscious! It’s pretty appalling.

He does this after she revealed her true self to him. There have been no end of opportunities for the Doctor to take River to Darillium. He chose this time. What’s different about this time? It’s all as exciting and wisecracking as usual, except this time, River has displayed some habits he doesn’t like. There is air of punishment about this, which is, well, icky. If you don’t like her stealing your TARDIS and murdering despots for jewels, then say something. Don’t just unilaterally decide to end the relationship.

When River works out what’s going on, she naturally protests. She begs for a loophole, for another chance. But the Doctor’s mind is made up. The silver lining? One night on Darillium lasts twenty-four years.

Well that sounds alright in theory, but have these two met each other? Neither of them can stand still for a minute and they’re proposing to spend nearly a quarter of a century in a restaurant? Personally I don’t think it will last twenty-four hours, let alone years.

Perhaps that’s River’s revenge. Perhaps while he’s off to the loo, she steals his TARDIS and pilots it twenty-three-and-three-quarters years into the future. That’ll serve the manipulative old git right!

LINK TO The Three Doctors: “remember that time when there was two of you?” says River. She wasn’t talking about The Three Doctors, but still.

NEXT TIME… As my random who generator’s will, so mote it be! It’s time to summon up The Dæmons.

 

Warnings, threats and Sleep No More (2015)

sleepno1

Apologies in advance, but this is all going to end in smut.

*****

It’s a bold story which thinks it can do without both the Doctor Who title sequence and its opening signature tune. But then, this is undeniably a bold story. And its central conceit – that we’re watching a visual history of events cobbled together from various sources- would be hard to sustain once the opening credits crashed in. So fair enough. This is not business as usual.

Instead it starts with a threat: “You must not watch this. I’m warning you. You cannot unsee it.” Dangerous words to start any TV program with, methinks. Don’t tempt your audience.

This is Doctor Who‘s ‘found footage’ episode. There’s a danger, I think, in that label, or in any label that favours the form an episode takes over its content. The risk is that the episode’s distinctive style overshadows its story. Will it be remembered as the tale of the Sandmen terrorising a desperate rescue team? Or will if forever be remembered as the show’s attempt to do The Blair Witch Project?

*****

Back in 1999, I snuck off to the cinema to catch The Blair Witch Project, the film which pioneered the use of ‘found footage’. It was an unsettling experience, and due to the shakiness of the handheld footage, a nauseating one. The ‘found footage’ style is inherently deceptive. It strives to tell a fictional story, through an ultra realist medium. It mimics real life experiences to make us forget we’re watching something made up.

Blair Witch worked because it tapped into a few primal fears; being lost, being hunted. But the use of its relatively young cast to shoot the footage themselves also plays on the narcissism of youth in constantly documenting their activities (considering how prevalent this is now in the age of social media, the film seems prescient in this regard). Then there’s also the unnerving sense of home movies going terribly wrong, and capturing events you didn’t mean to capture.

So Blair Witch has a number of thematic elements which it combines to make a harrowing whole. Sleep No More is an interesting piece of work, but its use of found footage as storytelling feels more gimmicky than compelling, and less thematically clear.

Perhaps its biggest issue is that this is a sci-fi story and found footage is a medium which rejoices in realism. Kids lost in a forest could be happening right here and now. Space troopers (oh yeah, I’ll put ‘space’ in front of another word) landing on a research station orbiting Neptune, is fantasy. Perhaps there’s a fundamental mismatch between the story and the way in which it’s told. Even the inclusion of our mates the Doctor (P-Cap, intense face) and Clara (Jenna Coleman, pretty face) jerks us out of the reality of the situation and reminds us that even without the title sequence, we’re watching our old familiar show. That ability of familiar starry faces to wrench us out of the fictional world is why the Blair Witch producers cast unknowns.

Then there’s the type of footage which is found. Blair Witch used handycams to say something about fundamental human fears. Sleep No More uses security camera footage and GoPro style helmet cams, and could have said something about our fear of being under surveillance. But it doesn’t really.

In fact it actively undermines this idea about halfway through, when the Doctor reveals that in fact, there are no cameras on the station. The footage itself was collected by accumulated sleep dust in the air, or something. It’s an unnecessary complication. It leaves the viewer thinking not “ooh, that’s clever”, but instead “um, how does that work?”

But Sleep No More is not designed to offer easy answers. Quite the opposite; it’s narrative structure sets out to obfuscate, not clarify. It’s certainly not the traditional Doctor Who template. Planets aren’t saved. Evils aren’t defeated. In a way, it’s reminiscent of The Caves of Androzani, in that the Doctor and his companion are flat out just escaping from a world gone to hell.

Still, it’s hard not to agree with the Doctor when he cries in frustration at story’s end, “none of this makes any sense!” Between that own goal, and “don’t watch this”, Doctor Who really should stop telling its viewers what to do. They might start listening.

*****

The story ends with Magnussen (Reece Shearsmith) turning out to be part of sleep dust monster itself, but this doesn’t feel like the end of the story. Questions remain unanswered – for instance, did head soldier Nagata (Elaine Tan) escape in the TARDIS with our friends or not? Did the Doctor ever make any sense of what was going on? To leave a story half explained is brave storytelling indeed.

But we know that Mark Gatiss was asked to write a sequel for Series 10 (Sleep No More Some More?) Perhaps it’s not so much a sequel, but the second part of this story. Maybe then some of these questions will get answered. A two-parter told in different seasons! This bold story might yet get bolder still.

SURPRISINGLY DIRTY PHRASES FROM DWM’s REVIEW OF Sleep No Mode:  finger-strokes, lusty prospects, an audible shift in buttocks, the high priest’s lipstick smear, the allure of the upcoming one-hander.

LINK TO: The Abominable Snowmen. Reece Shearsmith played Patrick Troughton in An Adventure in Space and Time.

NEXT TIME: To be complete, the syllogism only requires its grim conclusion… In my book, that’s Terror of the Vervoids.

Sherlock, anti-heroes and Time Heist (2014)

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until: 16/09/2014 - Programme Name: Doctor Who - TX: 20/09/2014 - Episode: n/a (No. 5) - Picture Shows: L - R The Doctor (PETER CAPALDI), Clara (JENNA COLEMAN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Adrian Rogers

He’s been played by many actors, but I like this new version a lot. He looks smart in that tailored black coat. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly and has difficulty understanding human emotions. He has a razor sharp intellect, puts his companions through hell and can stare down any adversary. Yes, it’s always a treat to sit down to a new episode of Sherlock. (See what I did there? Of course you did. It’s the most obvious opening imaginable but still I couldn’t resist it.)

I bloody love Sherlock, which I think of as Doctor Who’s sexy younger cousin. Recently I’ve been catching up with series 3 of it (yes, I know, give me a break. I usually only have time for ABC Kids and a weekly Random Who), and it always impresses. And watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance brought to mind the latest version of our Time Lord friend played with blistering style by Peter Capaldi. Given that both have sprung from the imagination of showrunner Steven Moffat, it’s surely not to big a leap to suggest one’s an influence on the other.

But it’s not just the lead characters which look alike.Time Heist, a kind of Doctor Who does Ocean’s Eleven, has a Sherlocky feel which suggests that the shows themselves are starting to adopt a common aesthetic. It’s co-written by Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat, collaborators on Sherlock.  And like Sherlock it’s a puzzle box, full of mysteries, clues, narrative trickery and misdirection. And while in Time Heist it’s the Doctor and his gang who are committing the crime, he’s also simultaneously solving a mystery in idiosyncratic style. It’s not too hard to imagine a Sherlock episode with Time Heist‘s plot. Minus the big silent alien badass desperately trying to reunite with his mate, natch. (That’s different to the big silent alien badass desperately trying to reunite with his mate from Hide, right?)

The other thing going on in this episode in duplication; everyone seems to have a mirror image. Delphox (Keeley Hawes) turns out to be the clone of Karabraxos (also Keeley Hawes). There’s not just one Teller (Ross Mullan), but two. Saibra’s (Pippa Bennett-Walker) special power is to duplicate. And most significantly, the Doctor is also the Architect of the whole scheme. This echoes this season’s central theme of whether or not the new Doctor is a good man.

Ultimately, it’s never really in question though. The Doctor’s end is always to perform good, it’s only his means which are questionable. And sometimes shockingly harsh; in both Into the Dalek and Mummy on the Orient Express he leads people frightened for their lives to wrongly believe he can save them, in order to press an advantage. We can see this brutal pragmatism in Sherlock‘s version of Holmes, a man prepared to fool a woman into a relationship with him to access an office or to drug his family to steal a laptop.

What does having an anti-hero as your leading man mean? It is, I think a balancing act, and one which Sherlock gets a little bit more right than Doctor Who. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is insufferable, but somehow irresistible. He’s allowed, certainly in Season Three, to be funny, charming and occasionally fallible. Capaldi’s Doctor, on the other hand, is too much anti not enough hero. There’s a twinkle in Cumberbatch’s eye which lets the audience warm to him. Capaldi’s cold hard exterior is still a little too impenetrable. I’ll be surprised if over the course of his next few seasons he’s not softened a little.

Funny thing is, anti-heroes are common to caper films. The leading men (always men) have to be charming, because they’re basically criminals. Think of Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, where Leonardo Di Caprio’s character pulls off a massive fraud but you can’t help but root for him. Michael Caine in The Italian Job or George Clooney in Ocean’s Various Numbers, loveable rogues all.

But back to Time Heist itself. It’s also shares Sherlock‘s tendency to not play entirely fair with its audience. I don’t try to solve Sherlock‘s mysteries anymore because I’m not smart enough. But also because it pulls a few sly tricks. A character’s killed, for instance. Definitely dead. Definitely them. Oh wait a minute, no, they’re alive! Scant explanation and move on. But I forgive it because it’s all so stylish. And I’m trying to keep up because, you know, not smart enough.

But the numerous twists in Time Heist feel like they change the episode’s premise too much and unfairly late in the game. It’s a bank heist, it’s a bank heist, it’s a bank heist, no, it’s a prison break. The monster’s just misunderstood. Karabraxos is the one who started it all. They all feel like conclusions no audience member could be expected to anticipate. They don’t come across as intriguing surprises. More like artificial devices to misfoot the audience. Perhaps it sounds sulky, but Time Heist breaks a deal with its audience to play by the rules it sets up. It’s a promise Sherlock just about manages to stay on the right side of.

Just a quick word about Clara, played as ever with poise by Jenna Coleman. She’s dragged along on this jaunt unwillingly when the Doctor says he needs her help. Frankly, he needn’t have bothered. While the other members of the miscellaneous gang all have their parts to play in the heist, Clara adds precisely nothing. Nothing, except getting attacked by the alien and stalked down some corridors. A depressing return to the bad old days for companions, and a rare misstep for new Who. And a counterpoint to a point of view I’ve heard expressed that this season has concentrated too much on Clara. Certainly not this episode, it hasn’t.

Still, her presence allows for a closing conversation with the Doctor which offers us an opportunity for some audience participation:

CLARA: See you. Don’t rob any banks.

AUDIENCE: You didn’t this time. Remember? That was the big twist. Well, one of them.

DOCTOR: Don’t rob any banks what?

AUDIENCE: You didn’t rob the bank!

CLARA: Without me.

AUDIENCE: Well, to be honest, you didn’t actually help much this time.

DOCTOR: Robbing a bank.

AUDIENCE: No you didn’t.

DOCTOR: Robbing a whole bank.

AUDIENCE: No you sodding didn’t! You were the one who pointed that out!

DOCTOR: Beat that for a date.

AUDIENCE: Oh, bugger this. When’s Sherlock  back?

LINK to The Daleks… Both partially set in subterranean complexes.

NEXT TIME…  Let’s pay a visit to Think Tank. We can ask them to demonstrate Kettlewell’s Robot.

Regeneration, resolution and The Time of the Doctor (2013)

time of the doctor

It starts with a mysterious signal emanating from an insignificant planet. The signal attracts an armada of alien spaceships piloted by a Who‘s what of monsters. But this isn’t The Pandorica Opens.

It’s the 2013 Christmas special (my random Who generator loves these; its chosen 3 out of 9 of the buggers) and Matt Smith’s farewell story. In the DWM preview for this story, showrunner Steven Moffat said of it: “It’s the greatest single performance ever given by anyone who has ever played the Doctor”. And as it happens, I spent my last post ruminating on when each Doctor gave their best performance. So was Moffat spouting promotional puffery or was he on the money?

Crafting a performance takes time. And that’s the one luxury Doctor Who has never afforded its actors. As many of the show’s actors have relayed in interviews, on old Who the low budget meant time was precious. So although there were days allocated for rehearsal, once on location it was get the scenes in the can and move on. Studio recording was even more brutal; get it done, effects and all by 10pm or the lights go out.

And on new Who, although there’s a bigger budget, the sheer amount of material to shoot means time is still of the essence. Both Smith and David Tennant have spoken about the daunting workload on the show; how during production it’s basically shoot all day, go home to learn lines and repeat for nine months of the year. It’s a crushing schedule; on The Name of the Doctor there were 15 days between the first draft script and the start of the shoot. What I’m saying is, be it old Who or new, it’s amazing we got/get anything half watchable, let alone the many fine performances it does offer.

With that in mind, let’s look at the acting challenges facing Smith in his final episode. He’s in nearly every scene. He’s being the Doctor at three different ages, under two heavy make ups (but this isn’t The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords). He has to create a relationship with an inanimate cyberhead (hmm, should it have been K9’s head?). He has to be seductive with Tasha Lem, fatherly with Barnable and man up with the monsters. And with Clara he’s performing in a screwball comedy duo, making us care about their relationship enough that it breaks our heart to see them parted at story’s end. And much of the scenery’s not actually there, because nearly everything’s on green screen. And on top of it all, this job which has consumed his life for the last four years is coming to an end, so emotions are high.

Smith does a terrific job at all this and more. But somehow this story doesn’t quite feel like the tour de force that Tennant had in Human Nature. Last entry, I talked about how a good story that pushes the Doctor in new directions helps makes a standout performance. And The Time of the Doctor is that, but it’s also the culmination of 4 years of hint dropping and mystery making by Moffat. So often the story seems to stop to pick up some loose end or other, be it ‘who blew up the TARDIS’ or ‘what was behind that door in The God Complex‘ or ‘has the Doctor run out of regenerations’? (Personally I’m still waiting to find out why the duck pond in The Eleventh Hour  had no ducks. We need to know.) Smith doesn’t get as clear a run at it as Tennant did with the uncluttered Human Nature.

For me, Smith’s best performance is to be found elsewhere. And I haven’t quite decided where it is. But I think it’s somewhere around the beginning of his second season. It’s here where there seems to be a definitive confidence in his characterization; an solidifying of that peculiar mix of gentle otherworldliness and childlike delight. Perhaps it’s when he’s playing at Christmas gift bringer in A Christmas Carol. Or perhaps its when he’s trying to piece together what’s happening to his life and his friends inThe Impossible Astronaut. Or perhaps – and this is where I’m leaning at the moment – it’s to be found in the highs and lows of meeting his own TARDIS in The Doctor’s Wife.

Still, there’s much of interest going on in The Time of the Doctor. Clara gets tricked into returning to Earth as a way of ensuring her safety (but this isn’t The Parting of the Ways). Then she piggy backs on the outer hull of the TARDIS through the vortex to rejoin the story (but this isn’t Utopia). The stop/start nature of her story might seem a little offputting, but it’s an elegant device for showing the passage of long periods of time. In a way, it’s a pity we (the audience) don’t stick with her throughout, distancing us from the Doctor’s story and making his increasing age and infirmity a more immediate shock.

But we need to see what’s happening on Trenzalore in the gaps, because the Doctor’s defence of the town of Christmas is the heart of the story; to prevent another Time War the restless wanderer will settle down and commit to a cause. And because this takes hundreds of years (in which time the town barely changes, but shush now), we see the youngest ever Doctor become the oldest. Surely this is Moffat both playing to Smith’s strengths (he has often claimed that Smith is best at portraying the Doctor’s great age) but also indulging in some delicious irony;  how else should the youngest Doctor die but through old age?

This leads to the episode’s neatest trick – the regeneration. It’s not so much that it delivers the Doctor a new lifecycle, though that does feel like a cumbersome burden gratefully abandoned. It’s that the regeneration is the resolution of the story, the first time that’s happened. It’s the way of solving the problem. As it carves through those Dalek ships, it brings the siege of Trenzalore to an end. Every other time the Doctor’s regenerated, that’s been the consequence of the Doctor’s role in the story – the price he’s paid for winning through. Here regeneration is the sweet dessert at the end of the meal, not the unwanted bill.

It ends with the young, handsome and funny Doctor restored pre-change, but this isn’t The End of Time. There’s no drawn out valedictory tour of past companions, just a short scene where the differences between Doctor and actor become hard to discern. “I will not forget one line of this”, says the Doctor, but that word ‘line’ seems to deliberately reference the lines which Matt Smith has spoken in the role. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me”; again it could be Matt speaking, not the Doctor. And thinking back, whether he was being mobbed by adoring children, or walking past walls plastered with fan’s artwork or even revealing his newly shaven head, this story has deliberately blurred the lines between actor and Doctor. And thus it acknowledges fictionally what the viewers already know in fact; it’s goodbye to both.

But then a whiplash crick of the neck, and the new man arrives. After an hour rich in sentiment, the show rolls on, with its trademark lack of sentimentality.

LINK to Human Nature/The Family of Blood: Both involve making the lead actor up to be aged greatly. (And these make up jobs are always brilliant, but, despite the best of efforts, are never 100% convincing are they? It’s something about the eyes which seem unageable; islands of youth in an ocean of wrinkly skin.)

NEXT TIME: Point the dog against the rock! We get big, green and rude with The Creature from the Pit.