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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.

 

 

 

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Metamorphosis, antithesis and World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (2017)

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There was a moment, not long before World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls went to air, when a preview clip was released, in which Peter Capaldi delivered an innocent line which was the cause of much derision and consternation. It was:

DOCTOR: Don’t forget to subscribe to the official Doctor Who YouTube channel.

No, it wasn’t. It was:

DOCTOR: It’s a Cyberman. A Mondasian Cyberman!

The problem was that made-up adjective “Mondasian.” On Twitter, there was widespread mockery. Fans jeered the Doctor’s use of a term which only a fan would understand; it was an unnecessary, anorak-y embellishment. Fans are often sensitive to indications that the show is catering too closely to them at the expense of the general public. That way, so accepted fan wisdom goes, lies the appalling self referential indulgence of the mid 80s and the slow demise of old school Who. By daring to first invent and then actually use an adjectival form of the name of a fictional planet, the show attracted open derision from its most ardent supporters. Well, so far, so fandom.

The irony is that Peter Capaldi, who dared utter that newly created word, is also a fan. Specifically, he’s a fan of Mondasian Cybermen. As an 8 year old boy, he watched them stagger across his 405 line monochrome TV set in The Tenth Planet. He requested their return to the show, and Steven Moffat concocted a way to bring them back. If the show suddenly looked and sounded like fans were running the asylum, well, the point is, they were. In that environment, it’s kind of impossible to not get words like Mondasian.

I can see why they said it though, and it’s not to prove Capaldi’s or Moffat’s fan credentials. It’s actually for casual viewers, who might not recognise these old style Cybermen as the same as the sort they’ve been used to since they returned to the modern series. That line is reassuring those viewers that yes, these odd, stocking faced things with lamps on their heads are Cybermen, just a different type. If it comes off as a piece of fannish indulgence, fine, but the intention behind that line’s more practical than that. Still, it says something about fandom’s great need for being taken seriously, amplified by social media, that this became a Mondasian storm in a Cyber teacup.

More worrying is now presumably we have to get grumpy at all the other made up adjectives we’ve adopted over the decades. Goodbye Gallifreyan. Sayonara Skarovian. Ta ta Taran, Tythonian, Tellurian and all the rest.

***

Capaldi’s also a fan of Kafka. He recently produced an illustration for a new edition of the Czech writer’s classic novella Metamorphosis, and that book is an element of the plot of Capaldi’s short film, Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Metamorphosis is the story of a young man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a grotesque insect creature, and the subsequent torment it causes him and his family.

It’s almost too obvious to say that Doctor Who is inherently about change, but World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is infused with it. In fact, it’s about a particular sort of change, one where characters are changed into a new form inimical to their original selves. The story’s most chilling image is of those Cybermen as works in progress, waiting in a cold hospital ward, crying out in pain, but with their volume knobs turned down. That’s Metamorphosis right there. But then it’s taken a step further, and the characters who are transformed into nightmarish reflections of themselves are confronted by that change, in a way where both versions exist simultaneously.

Take, for instance, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm). Both are the same person, with the familiar badinage we recognise from multiple multi-Doctor stories (only saucier). The difference here is that Missy is changing into something the Master is not; someone with compassion, who wants to do the right thing – even to stand in battle alongside the Doctor. This existential angst is too much for either one to bear, and they end up killing each other, rather than let the alternative version of each other exist.

And of course, there’s Bill (Pearl Mackie), with a hole the size of Mondas shot in her chest, transformed gradually into a Cyberman. It’s a particularly cruel fate for a companion who has been so singularly individual, marked out by her style, humour and warmth, to become a soulless tin man. Like Gregor, the insect-man in Metamorphosis, she’s locked away, isolated from other human beings. Her personality remains intact, inside that Cyber suit and we viewers see her as she still sees herself, so we get to see the two versions of her, not side by side, but shot by shot. “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore,” she tells the Doctor, expressing this clear hatred for what she’s become.

The Doctor too is changing. With all these people around him, changing into their abhorred opposites, he can’t help but resist the inevitable. His regeneration starts here, after an electrified Cyber hug, but he does everything he can to delay it. It mustn’t help that he’s surrounded by Cybermen, walking, stomping symbols of enforced physical change. Cybermen became all Cyber when they started replacing their organs with new versions, as a way of prolonging their lives. They’re as twisted a reflection of regeneration as the show’s ever produced.

To me, this explains the Doctor’s sudden need to name check his past Cyber adventures, while picking them off like targets at a fairground stall. “Telos! Voga!” etc (though I notice he leaves out some of the less auspicious examples. Can you imagine? “Space station W3! Windsor! That department store I worked in for 15 minutes!”) because he’s defining himself as the anti-Cyberman. He’s their nemesis; as he said to Missy and the Master, he’s always been the only way to destroy a shedload of the buggers. He’ll be damned if he’s going to follow their lead, and transform himself into his own antithesis.

***

Where, I wonder, is the 8 year old girl, watching these episodes on her iPad, who will one day pull off her own transformation, do a Capaldi and become the Doctor? Who will one day be filming Cybermen stories of her very own, when she says, “remember the Mondasian Cybermen?” I suspect she won’t be embarrassed by the adjective. I suspect it will distinguish this episode as an epic; the one with the Cyberised companion, the two Masters and the dying Doctor.

Ages ago I asked if The Tenth Planet was brilliant or rubbish. When it’s still inspiring Doctor Who this vivid, dark and daring fifty years on, its brilliance is proven. So yeah, let’s call them Mondasian Cybermen. Because by being distinct from all the others (“Glass chins! Visible brains! Those skinny ones from the comic strip!”) and by lingering so long in so many memories, they’ve earned their own adjective.

LINK TO Boom Townboth feature villains facing moral qualms.

NEXT TIME… I know! Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

 

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.

Violence, sex and Dark Water/Death in Heaven (2014)

darkwater2

She has two hearts, right? The Doctor abandoned her, right? (Er, sort of) And Missy is short for Mistress, just like K9 used to call her. So I was well prepared. I had it all worked out. When Michelle Gomez purred in our hero’s ear “Well, I couldn’t really go on calling myself…” I was utterly convinced the next word would be… Romana.

Of course I was wrong. I always am when it comes to predicting Doctor Who twists. Other films and TV shows I’m quite good at. He’s a ghost. The murderer’s that guy no one suspects. She’s been there the whole time, and so on. But Doctor Who, the series I know better than anything else, stumps me every time.

I love it, of course. It’s part of the fun. But lots of other, more sensible people weren’t fooled. They’d guessed that Missy was a newly feminised Master long before the reveal. Many at the moment she introduced herself as “Missy”. I, on the other hand, had ruled out the possibility. Because, I thought, why would you recast the Master, when John Simm was so good in the role?

Any number of reasons, I suppose. Perhaps he wasn’t available to reprise his role. Perhaps he didn’t want to. Or perhaps it was simply time for a new person in the role. But if you miss Simm as I do, it helps that Gomez is so perfect in the role. She gives us a truly different version of the Master, (a character whose previous incarnations have tended to not vary so far from each other as the Doctor’s have) and not just because she’s a woman. We’ve never had a Master quite so batty. Or as she puts it, “Look at me. I’m bananas.”

(And despite myself, I feel I have to comment on the Master’s gender swap so here it is: big deal. if humans can change gender, I’ve always assumed that Time Lords could manage it with much less fuss and bother.)

There’s one Masterly aspect where Gomez’s Missy gets dead right and it’s the character’s habit of sudden, lethal violence. She never lets us forget that behind that Mary Poppins exterior (more filmic references), lies a psychopath to whom killing is an everyday habit. The cruellest moment is when she torments fangirl Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) before icing her – “I’m going to kill you in a minute” is one of Steven Moffat’s most chilling lines – but the most shocking is when she flings Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) out of an aeroplane. With typical nonchalance, she moves quickly on to more killing. “Boys, blow up this plane and, I don’t know, Belgium, yeah?”

It’s that casual violence that makes the Master a compelling villain. For me, it’s a vital part of his/her character. Now this bit is where I commit Who heresy (Whoresy?), but this is why original Master Roger Delgado’s my least favourite. He rarely has those moments of utter ruthlessness that mark him as a truly bad guy. A rare example is when he throws a poor unfortunate scientist off the radio tower in Terror of the Autons, but Delgado is generally a safer, more avuncular Master than the rest. He might chop at a few necks and set a few elaborate traps, but he rarely resorts to immediate murder.

Anthony Ainley’s Master may have been a more theatrical Master than Delgado, but at least he had a few moments which showed off his shocking viciousness. Think of the moment in Survival when he sticks his young sidekick with a sharpened tusk. And there’s a great moment in the much underrated Planet of Fire when he’s threatening to incinerate some locals to force the Doctor to reveal the location of a vital TARDIS component. The Doctor pleads and says he doesn’t have the part. “I believe you,” says the Master, before he continues the burning anyway.

Eric Roberts’ gangster style Master in the TV movie got a similarly gruesome moment when he snapped Chang Lee’s neck without hesitation, not to mention when he strangled his host body’s wife in bed (thankfully off screen). Derek Jacobi was only seconds into his brief tenure when he electrocuted Chantho with one sparking cable. John Simm’s Master gassed a room full of politicians and ate two homeless men. Sudden, unexpected violence is the Master’s true calling card, far more than turning people into action figures.

What Simm brought to the role, and what Gomez has picked up on, is a kind of dangerous wackiness. Their Masters are clearly loopy, and in Simm’s case, driven insane by that infernal drumming. It’s as if modern day Who needs to rationalise the Master’s villainy as a byproduct of mental instability. It’s not enough for him/her to be evil. He/she’s unhinged, and that explains why he’s/she’s evil.

The other thing Gomez continues with is the Master’s close association with sex. One of the first things she does when meeting Peter Capaldi’s fierce and feisty Doctor is to snog him.

In Old Who, the Master has always been sexualised in a way the Doctor was not. And in New Who there’s a real difference apparent in presenting them both as sexual creatures. It can be summarised like this: the Doctor gets romanced, the Master gets laid. John Simm’s Master was clearly a sexual being. He married an Earth woman, and they canoodled like teenagers. In The Last of the Time Lords he emerges presumably from bed, hair disheveled and in a satin night gown, like he’s been interrupted. He even suggests a threesome at one stage, and Lucy Saxon’s battered and dazed appearance casts the dark shadow of violence over their relationship.

But even in Old Who, the Master was about sex and violence, both activities which set him apart from his own race, the passive and passionless Time Lords. Delgado, as we saw in The Time Monster seduced a married woman. Eric Roberts’ Master was born in a marital bed. Even the staid Ainley version chose to assume the body of a man in love with his new bride. It seems that between the Doctor and the Master, it’s the latter who ‘owns’ sex, and as a result, the series positions sex with corruption and crime.

But let’s get to the big question: now that she’s a woman, will the Doctor and the Master get it on? Well, let’s not be heteronormative about this, it was always a possibility (although let’s stick with a Tennant/Simm pairing rather than think about any of the other possible Doctor/Master hook ups. Ooops, too late, you have haven’t you?) But now, they could actually have kids!

My bet’s on a girl first time round. They’ll call her Romana.  (Or maybe Maisie?) That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it! Because having got my Who twists wrong so many times, my luck’s got to change eventually.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Gallifrey is spelt Galyfrey at one stage, which is quite fetching actually. Perhaps if they have a boy.

LINK TO: The Gunfighters. Get this: they both feature Tombstones. That made me smile.

NEXT TIME: We’re off to infiltrate The Moonbase. Clever, clever, clever.