Tag Archives: nardole

Fiends, fish and Thin Ice (2017)

Doctor Who S10

Some Doctor Who villains are Machiavellian geniuses. Others pursue their wickedness out of misguided loyalties or twisted views of how the world works. And then there are some, who, despite their obvious failings, you can’t help but admire for the lengths they went to in order to pursue their nefarious ambitions.

In this corner of Doctor Who’s rogues’ gallery we find Thin Ice’s Lord Sutcliffe (Nicholas Burns), he of the bright blue jacket and the sneering face of a scoundrel. He is, perhaps, Doctor Who’s uber-villain: a racist, a capitalist and a mistreater of animals. So obnoxious is he that the Doctor (Peter Capaldi), normally a shunner of violence, is moved to punch Sutcliffe the face when he disses companion Bill (Pearl Mackie). Never cruel or cowardly, but this Doctor’s perfectly willing to thump you if you say something nasty about his friend.

Sutcliffe doesn’t get a lot of screen time in Thin Ice, what with most of the episode being devoted to solving the mystery of why an enormous fish is chained up beneath the Thames (and fair dues, it is difficult to fathom. Geddit? Fathom? Ah, whatever). But I don’t think we give him enough credit.

I mean, for a start, top hats off to the man for working out a way to chain a fish to the river bed. I’m talking about just an ordinary sized fish to start with. I haven’t tried it myself, of course, but I reckon it would take some doing. How do you keep it still? What do you fix the chains too? Why doesn’t the slippery sucker just wriggle out?

But somehow Sutcliffe, with all the technological wonders of Georgian England at his disposal, manages to do it. And not just any old fish. This thing is a mile long and shits rocket fuel. It’s not (we’re led to believe) of this Earth, it’s a creature from an advanced civilisation. (Or perhaps it’s the remnant of one of Earth’s ancient civilisations. The Doctor’s unsure and can’t bothered finding out). But Sutcliffe manages to get the best of it with nothing but shackles and a can do attitude. Imagine the hours he spent trying to perfect his fish wrestling technique! He’s an inspiration to us all.

Mention of matters scatological reminds me of another indication of Sutcliffe’s ingenuity and determination. We’re told the big fish’s poo can burn hotter and longer than coal, and that it can even burn underwater. How exactly did Sutcliffe find this out? Where did he find this miraculous substance? And what made him think to set it on fire? I genuinely cannot think of a circumstance which would have led to someone thinking, “Hmm. Out of coal. What should I try next? Hang on… what about some giant fish faeces?” And then, high on success: “Gee, this burns well. Maybe I’ll try burning it underwater!”

Though to be fair, Sutcliffe didn’t come up with this genius idea himself. He says the creature has been there since “I don’t know when” and the secret has been handed down through his family over time. Oh, they must have been grand old nights around the fireplace with Grandpa Sutcliffe: “Don’t tell anyone, m’boy, but I know where there’s a big fish capable of crapping out the most wonderous substance! Well, I was down the river one day, just idly setting fire to any fish poo I could find, and wouldn’t you know, I came across this load of old shit which burns like there’s no tomorrow. Why, if a man could only restrain that fish and feed it a steady diet of unsuspecting passers by, he’d be marginally richer than we already are. There’s a notion for you, young Sutcliffe jnr!”

Sutcliffe probably would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that pesky Time Lord, his upstart friend and those meddling kids. He gets his comeuppance when the Doctor repositions explosives made of fish droppings to free the creature from its bonds (lucky that stuff explodes underwater as well as burns). It breaks the ice beneath Sutcliffe’s feet and he falls into the river and drowns.

And here we see that despite the man’s many talents, he isn’t immune to a little ironic misfortune. Because although he managed to find a giant, miraculous fish, chain it to the river bed and dredge up its precious dung, I like to think that as he sank below the waves, the thought that lingered in Sutcliffe’s villainous mind was, “you know, when I chose to embark on this scheme to farm a captive sea creature in the Thames, I really should have learnt how to swim.”

Lesson one for all would be entrepreneurs: don’t neglect the basics.

Thin Ice not-so mini quiz: which story does it better?

  1. Third episode trip to the 19th Century to show companion a slice of history? The Unquiet Dead or Thin Ice.
  2. The conversation between the Doctor and his companion where he convinces her to disregard the butterfly effect? The Shakespeare Code or Thin Ice
  3. The conversation between the Doctor and his companion where he dismisses her fears about being dark skinned in historical England? The Shakespeare Code or Thin Ice
  4. Having a big animal being enslaved to produce some product/service for mankind? The Beast Below or Thin Ice
  5. Having a group of street urchins aid and abet the Doctor? The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances or Thin Ice
  6. Dressing the Doctor up in 19th century duds complete with a new tall hat? The Snowmen or Thin Ice
  7. Having a sea monster turn up in the Thames? Terror of the Zygons or Thin Ice
  8. Conspicuous use of an elephant? The Ark or Thin Ice
  9. Conspicuous use of giant marine creature’s digestive processes to drive the plot? The Power of Kroll or Thin Ice.
  10. Uncharacteristic insistence by the Doctor on needing his companion to issue him an order so he can take action? Trick question: that’s unique to Thin Ice.

LINK TO Underworld: adventures that take place beneath the surface.

NEXT TIME: Where the winds of restlessness blow, where the fires of greed burn, where hatred chills the blood, here we will find the Safety Dance. Sorry, I mean Snakedance.

 

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Up, away and The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)

mysterio

Please adopt your best movie trailer voice for the purposes of this post. (Internal or external voice, up to you.)

In a world where Christmas specials have gone on so long we can no longer think of any more Christmas themed plotlines…

I like to think it happened like this: showrunner Steven Moffat, punchdrunk from making Sherlock, scrabbling around for a suitable Christmasy idea for Doctor Who’s 12th festive special, finally sighed and said “how about Superman? They show Superman movies at Christmas, don’t they? Sometimes, at least? It’s either that or we go with alien elves and sentient egg nog. Don’t make me do it, you know I will!”

Although I’ve argued that modern Who sometimes imbues the Doctor with superpowers, “superhero movie” is generally a genre the show has to avoid. Superheroes have only existed in the Doctor Who universe as fictional characters and integrating them into a Doctor Who story would have meant some oddball narrative deviation, such as a visit The Mind Robber’s Land of Fiction. In fact, that’s exactly what did happen when the second Doctor and Zoe were menaced by the mighty Karkus (as if you could forget).

But genre blending never frightened Moffat, and so he comes up with a way to tell a superhero story, as well as offering a fondly satirical pastiche of superhero stories, while still making it a Doctor Who story. If he neglects to cover this one in tinsel and Christmas baubles, then at least it’s still merry and bright.

In a time where superhero movies and Doctor Who collide…

To create this mishmash of formats, Moffat wisely decides to make the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) the mad professor who unintentionally creates a superhero, rather than making him the stand-in Superman. (The alternative would be for the Doctor to temporarily gain some superhero powers, but I don’t think anyone would have wanted to see the waspish twelfth Doctor donning a spandex body suit. Nor Matt Lucas’s Nardole as SuperDoc’s trusty sidekick. Although the image of that pairing does seem to suggest a duo of classic Little Britain characters we never got to see.)

As it turns out, it’s as simple as the Doctor giving young Grant (Logan Hoffman) a magic sci-fi pill which turns his comic book fuelled fantasies into reality. And hey presto, the Doctor has dragged a superhero out of the realm of fiction. And suddenly, we’re in a world where the Doctor can meet, work and argue with Superman (or at least his copyright free equivalent) while still being hyper aware of the stereotypes of the genre: secret identities which are both obvious but unnoticed, torturous romances between hero and human, and earnest, ethical instruction (“Because fire prevention is the responsibility of every citizen, so get a smoke detector!”).

It’s as neat a narrative conceit as Moffat ever constructed. And given his form in that field, that’s really something.

One man and his comedy sidekick must save New York City…

Every so often, the Doctor grows tired of travelling the universe with a succession of beautiful women and shacks up with a bloke for an episode or two. In this case, it’s aide-de-camp (emphasis on the “camp”) Nardole, unfeasibly bought back to life after being decapitated and embedded in a big red robot.

Nardole will go on to play an important role in Series 10 as the secondary companion and the Doctor’s nagger in chief. Here, though, he has no real plot function, other than to puncture the Doctor’s pomposity every so often. But he’s not entirely out of place in this tale of superheroes and the people around them. After all, Batman had a butler so why not the Doctor? Nardole is useful for running errands, asking questions, being exasperated and cracking the odd gag, but as companions go, surely the Doctor is overlooking someone.

A hero will rise…

Honestly, Doctor, if you’re looking for a companion to keep you company while you mooch around after the loss of River, boy next door Grant (Justin Chatwin) not only has the pleasantly dorky look of the permanent underdog, but he also has freaking super powers! Which could be very useful against the Daleks, the Mandrells and other top tier villains. Funny how the option to dump Nardole like a hot dumpling and take the phenomenally more useful Grant along for a ride never crosses his mind.

Perhaps he thinks it’s too cruel to break up the burgeoning romance between Grant and Lucy (Charity Wakefield). In which case, maybe he should cut along and get another magic red pill for Nardole. And we’re back to Super Nardole! He’d cut quite the figure in skin tight body armour and a big G on his chest.

With the woman he loves…

In an unusual move for Doctor Who, this story’s a romantic comedy. Quite a lot of it’s time is spent trying to get Lucy and Grant together.

In one sense, it’s a distraction from the Doctor’s fight against the agents of Harmony Shoal, because it’s a romance between two side characters. But it’s much more central the episode than that. It plays on all the old gags about Superman and Lois Lane, particularly her inability to recognise him out of his superhero duds. The Doctor almost derails this plotline mid-episode when he threatens to spill the beans to Lucy. “There are some situations which are just too stupid to be allowed to continue,” he sighs and he’s right of course, but that would totally spoil the fun. And as Moffat could write romantic comedy in his sleep, we see here what a superhero popcorn movie written by him might turn out like.

Come to that, where’s the spin off series for Lucy and Grant? You could call it The Ghost and Mrs Lombard (there’s a TV reference for the old timers among you). Wakefield and Chatwin make a charismatic pairing. I’d totally watch them tearing around New York (or its ersatz Bulgarian equivalent) finding a balance between crime fighting and child care. Quick, someone make it before Big Finish jumps on it.

And things will never be the same again.

It all gets wrapped up very neatly at the end, but one thing’s left hanging. The hinge heads of Harmony Shoal aren’t entirely defeated. One of them gets to turn meaningfully to camera, Valeyard style, at the end of the episode. Pure cheese, but still, an indication that a rematch was planned, but never delivered. And then there’s the name of the thing (to borrow a line from The Leisure Hive) – “Harmony Shoal” sounds a little too reminiscent of “Song, River” to be coincidental. Surely this is a tale unfinished.

Anyway. We never got that sequel and now the series has moved significantly on from the genre mangling, wisecracking world of Steven Moffat. But it’s just as well – we know from Superman II, Batman Returns and all the rest that they’re rarely as good as the original.  Best to leave Mysterio alone. As one off, slightly festive, comic book hero, rom coms go, it’s pretty super.

LINK TO Arachnids in the UK: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: The Quest is the Quest! We take a detailed look at Tom Baker’s Underwear. Sorry, I mean, Underworld.

The highs, the lows and The Lie of the Land (2017)

lie of the land

Sometimes, we get the best and worst of Doctor Who in one single episode. So come on down The Lie of the Land, which for me shows both those things in short order. It’s a tale of two scenes.

Let’s get the first and worst out of the way. It’s the most infamous scene in the story, and perhaps, in time, will become the most infamous in the whole of the new series. It’s the one where the Doctor (waspish Peter Capaldi) goads his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) into shooting him, for no good reason.

The story goes that in a world subjugated by alien Monks, the Doctor has gone over to their side, issuing regular video sermons like it’s 1984. Bill is convinced he’s faking it and concocts a plan with fellow companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) to rescue the Doctor from the prison ship on which he’s being held.

(It’s easy to see why Bill jumps to that conclusion. Faking being bad is a standard Doctory ploy. And it’s not just that scenario which feels familiar. The whole episode, focussing as it does on what happens when the invaders have won and established a totalitarian regime, feels like a retread of The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, complete with scenes of people being dragged from their family homes and towering statues of the dictators in question.)

Once Bill and Nardole arrive on the ship, they find their way to the Doctor’s office, but it appears they have made a critical miscalculation. The Doctor hasn’t been faking it. He really has given up and capitulated to the Monks. He berates Bill for causing the situation by asking the Monks for his sight back. He threatens to hand her over to the guards. For Bill, who has spent months fighting against the Monks’ mind control and struggling to hold on to what’s real, this is too much. Distraught, she snatches a gun and shoots the Doctor three times in the chest.

Which is when the Doctor fakes a regeneration, reveals the bullets were blanks and reverses his fake out. He was fooling her all the time. He’s not in league with the Monks. Nardole and everyone else in the room was in on it. He played out this macabre charade, because “I had to just check that you weren’t under the influence and testing me.” The end result is Bill humiliated in a room full of people, after her friend psychologically tortured her to the point where she attempted to murder him. For the sake of a cheap trick.

The Doctor faking that he’s gone bad is everywhere from The Invasion of Time to Mindwarp. And the Doctor breaking down his companions’ faith in him is equally common from The Curse of Fenric to The God Complex. But never before has the Doctor coerced one of his friends into murder. Sure, it’s an exercise in “how far can we take this?”, complete with an ersatz regeneration. But it’s not important to the plot, it’s instantly forgotten and it’s unnecessarily cruel. Bill never gets to redress this emotional abuse and humiliation. It’s the most poorly judged moment since the show’s return; the equivalent of the strangling in The Twin Dilemma. May we never see its like again.

But then – the second of these two remarkable scenes.

The Doctor and Bill realise they need some intel to help them beat the Monks so they decide to open the Vault and consult Missy (Michelle Gomez). There isn’t a Doctor Who story around which wouldn’t be enlivened by a scene with Missy and this one is straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, in which serial killer Hannibal Lecter is consulted by young detective Clarice Starling on how to catch another murderer. Like Lecter, Missy issues her advice from within a cell. She taunts and flirts with our heroes. She is, despite being caged, in complete control of the scene. One minute she’s a school mistress, circling her enclosure, correcting the Doctor’s faulty reasoning. The next she’s a vamp, rolling around on the top of a grand piano.

The Doctor and Bill have come asking for Missy’s help and she knows it. She starts with bragging that she could easily escape if she wanted to and then starts the horse trading. She wants a 3D printer and a pony apparently, but that’s a transparent lie. She already has what she wants. That’s the Doctor’s attention.

Better than that, the Doctor is going to be in debt to her and she can use that to her advantage. She’s correctly anticipated the situation and she knows that to defeat the Monks. Bill has to die. “Awk-ward,” Missy sing songs when she breaks this news to Bill, her steely eyes revealing that she knew this was where they were heading all along.

And it ends beautifully, with Missy pointing out that the Doctor doesn’t have a monopoly on virtue, and that the answers he seeks aren’t always easy.

MISSY: I’m sorry your plus one doesn’t get a happy ending, but, like it or not, I just saved this world because I want to change. Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant and sentimental.

And after watching the scene where the Doctor indulged in mental torture of his best friend, who could argue with the vain and arrogant part?

It’s a delicious, elegant scene. But it seems to me there’s so much untapped dramatic potential here. Imagine a better version of that first scene where Missy taunts Bill into defeating the Monks by shooting the Doctor. Or if the Doctor had indeed teamed up with Monk and Bill and Nardole had to release Missy to defeat him. Where might we ended up under these or any number of other scenarios? Not, I hope with an ending where the all powerful alien conquerors are defeated by a memory of Bill’s mum. Not since Azal was confused to death by Jo has a badass been defeated more bewilderingly.

I realise I’ve been a little more judgemental of this story than I am usually am in these posts. But as you might have guessed from my thoughts on Extremis, I find the Monk trilogy unusually frustrating. Clearly trying to do something new, but so clearly mired in what’s been done before. And in The Lie of the Land’s case, being muddled in tone and plot alike.

But then I remember that showrunner Steven Moffat was distracted at this time of script editing this by the death of his mother. Apparently, he was struggling to complete this episode as she passed away. That’s unspeakably sad and it goes some way to explaining the unevenness of this adventure. If there’s ever been an episode where we need to cut the Moff some slack, it’s surely this one.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that The Lie of the Land is one moment clumsy and morally dubious, the next smart and stylish. I keep coming back to The Twin Dilemma. Like that infamous story, it leaves us with the queasy feeling that the companion is not safe in the Doctor’s presence, because at any moment she might find herself on the wrong end of his changeable morality. And that we as viewers aren’t in safe hands, in an episode which swings between such extremes of quality. With the good and the bad in such quick succession, it makes for an uneasy rollercoaster ride of a story.

LINK TO Carnival of Monsters: both feature Cybermen cameos.

NEXT TIME… Right then, troops. No, not troops. Team? Gang? fam? We end the year with the new Doctor in The Woman Who Fell To Earth.

 

Landmarks, last words and Twice Upon a Time (2017)

img_5023-1I read all the Target books as a young fanboy, but some were more exciting than others. Some were landmark stories where big events happened. Like the Daleks showing up. Or old Doctors returning. Or companions leaving to get married, cure diseases or become managers of professional wrestlers.

The most exciting of all were the stories where the Doctor changed. No wonder the powers-that-be chose Twice Upon a Time as one of the quartet of stories to restart this mighty range. Regeneration stories were always the ones to snatch off the library shelf.

So when I finally got my grubby little digits on Twice Upon a Time in book form, nostalgia gripped me and I did what I used to do with Target novelisations of regeneration stories. I started at the end.

Well, of course I did! What kind of mad person wouldn’t start at the end? I wanted to read about the new Doctor. That’s the most exciting bit! If you were watching it on TV, you’d have to wade through all the actual episodes to get to that eerie golden glow. But in book form, you could cut out the guff about Ambushes and Captures and Escapes to Danger and go straight to the main event.

The back cover blurbs only fuelled this impatience. They would subtly hint at the endings with expressions like, “the last thrilling adventure of the first DOCTOR WHO”. In the case of Planet of the Spiders, it didn’t bother to even mention the actual story and jumped straight to spruiking the regeneration: “Read the last exciting adventure of DR WHO’s 3rd Incarnation!” It was a time before spoilers, I suppose.

Twice Upon a Time features no such sensational headlines. (More’s the pity. “The last thrilling adventure the first DOCTOR WHO… again! And the twelfth DOCTOR WHO, depending on how you count.”)

But, as I eventually found when I went back and read the whole thing, Paul Cornell does a bang on impression of that old Target style. He’s a prolific Doctor Who author – books, comics, audios and, oh that’s right, TV episodes – but he puts aside his own idiosyncrasies and writes in the way he remembers so well from his childhood. He senses the great responsibility of writing a Target book.

Anyway, let’s get straight to the end. I’ll admit, I was disappointed it didn’t end a la The Tenth Planet with, “Allow me to introduce myself then. I am the new Doctor!” Or the more elegiac ending of Logopolis: “Well, that’s the end of that,” said a voice they had not heard before. “But it’s probably the beginning of something completely different.” He could have gone for the wry approach of The War Games, although it would have needed some pronoun changing: “It’s a pity. She would have brightened the place up no end.”

(Of course, what I really wanted was a note on the frontispiece which said, “THE CHANGING SEX OF DOCTOR WHO: The cover illustration of this book portrays the twelfth DOCTOR WHO (We think. It could be the thirteenth or fourteenth) whose genitalia were transformed after he was mortally hugged by a Cyberman.” Can’t have everything, I guess.)

Famous last words. Target books had many of them. Cornell’s great mentor, Terrance Dicks, for instance, would often end his with variations on a theme of, “The Doctor and his companions were on their way to new adventures.” It’s as familiar a Dicksism as a young/old face, a multi-sided console or that wheezing, groaning sound.

Occasionally, though, he’d just leave you hanging for more, with an effortlessly perfect closing sentence. What about An Unearthly Child, with its “Out there on Skaro, the Daleks were waiting for him.” Or The Keeper of Traken, with its “She seemed to hear the distant echo of mocking laughter.” Or Horror of Fang Rock, designed to cheer everyone up with “No one was left alive to hear them.”

Last words are important. They linger in the mind as vivid after images. Malcolm Hulke liked to end his on wistful remarks. My favourite is The Space War, when the defeated Master simply packed up his paperwork. “Oh well,” he said to himself, “there’s always tomorrow.”  Donald Cotton’s The Gunfighters ended with Doc Holliday drinking himself to death, and the story’s narrator observing, “And I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised.” David Fisher underplayed the end of The Leisure Hive with the droll observation that, “it had after all been one of those days.”

David Whitaker’s The Crusaders was the most poetic: “And the Tardis flashed on its way… searching for a new resting-place on a fresh horizon.” As usual, Robert Holmes was the most elegant of all, ending The Two Doctors with the tantalizing. “Meanwhile, the Doctor and Peri…”

Cornell knows the importance of the punchy final sentence. He made a trademark of ending his Doctor Who novels with “Long ago, in an English [insert season here]. He closes Twice Upon a Time with “Towards her future,” as our heroine plummets to the ground. Sure, it’s no, “The trouble with the Cybermen is one can never be entirely sure.” but it’s thoughtful and rings true. I like to those words will resonate with young readers who raced to the back of the book first for many years to come.

And just think – surely this is not the end, but the beginning of a new range of Doctor Who novelisations, ready to entrance a new generation. There are loads of new famous last words to come. For a young fanboy who’s grown up, that’s unspeakably thrilling.

The Doctor and her readers are on their way to new adventures.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Vincent and the DoctorIn Vincent, we see the first Doctor a couple of times (on the library card and in a print out) and of course in Twice Upon a Time, he actually turns up.

NEXT TIME… We poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump in Carnival of Monsters

Heresy, hearsay and Extremis (2017)

extremis

It’s just as well that Extremis takes place not in the real world, but in a computer simulation. That helps explain why no-one in that world behaves in any believable way.

Let’s say you’ve just read a document which reveals that the world in which you live is a fabrication: a test run for wicked aliens to rehearse an invasion. (A kind of Android Invasion but where random numbers rather than newly minted coins and misprinted calendars are the tell.) Sure, you might be shocked. You might even be appalled. But would you really top yourself? Amongst all these brave readers, wouldn’t there be someone who would react with curiosity, or defiance, or even wonder? Surely, at the very least, you’d tell someone.

To be fair, after an awful lot of to do in Extremis, someone finally does tell someone else. It’s Piero (Francesco Martino), the unusually handsome priest (that’s his sitcom name), who has found his way into the Haereticum (it contains forbidden texts, so I assume things like Travels without the Tardis, Gary Downie’s Doctor Who Cookbook and Zamper). And when given the chance, he emails this explosive work to CERN. Interesting choice. I mean, if you wanted to convince someone to blow up the world, you could have chosen Donald Trump of Kim Jong un. Instead, he chose a group of scientists – rational seekers of the truth of things, unburdened with superstition. The one group of people you could safely assume would react with sobriety and rationality.

But then the CERN in this ersatz world is a strange place too. It’s staffed by Nicolas (Laurent Maurel) who speaks and a lot of extras, who don’t. On the whole, this odd crew seems to be taking mass suicide pretty well. OK, so there’s a couple of people with hands in heads and staring moodily out of windows. But most of the others are wandering around politely like it’s Inge from accounts birthday and they’re waiting for a Hadron Collider shaped cake to arrive. Companions Bill (Pearl Mackie, again given very little proactive to do) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) look more bemused than unnerved. I’m with them.

The other odd thing going on is the weirdly interventionist actions of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. The Pope (Joseph Long) drops in on the Doctor to ask him to take on a special mission. “You don’t do this,” notes the Doctor. “The Pope doesn’t zoom round the world in the Popemobile, surprising people,” and he’s right. The Popemobile doesn’t zoom anywhere, it’s designed to amble.

Anyway, it’s very unlikely papal behaviour. But again, this is a computer simulation so in this reality, presumably the Pope does make home visits, is aware of the Doctor and his capabilities and is unafraid to transact with a man who could jump in his time machine and disprove the existence of God at the drop of a tall pointy hat. And presumably the Vatican never thought of getting someone to read the Veritas in padded cell with no way to harm themselves. And they never thought of simply destroying it.  And they never thought of… well, about a dozen different ways you could stop reading people a book. But to be fair, once they realised they couldn’t simply burden the Veritas with a crippling, lifelong guilt, they were probably all out of ideas.

***

Meanwhile, in another part of the story, the Doctor is being led towards his execution. But – fake out! – it’s not his at all. It’s Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) and the Doctor’s on hand to deliver the killing blow. Nardole turns up in a robe to deliver a stern but incomprehensible message from the missus. There are lots of meaningful stares between characters. It’s all a bit gradual, but at least it confirms that it’s Missy stuck in the vault the Doctor ends up guarding. And the scenery’s nice. And the Doctor’s gets his best coat ever.

But it ends on something truly stomach churning. To scare Ranfando the executioner (Ivanno Jeremiah) off, the Doctor once again goes for the gambit of letting his reputation as the supreme defeater of bug eyed monsters do the scaring off for him. I’ve noted before how inherently undramatic this is, but up until this point, this tactic has just been smug and irritating. The version Extremis gives us is particularly nasty and inherently unDoctorly.

This particular wheeling out of the Doctor’s track record is accompanied by the beeping tally of how many people he’s killed. It’s his kill record and it’s enough to terrify a man who has a fetishistic attraction to death. So the Doctor wins this battle, not by cleverness or cunning but by being a notorious murderer. The executioner does a comedy “gets frightened and runs off” bit, but it’s not funny. It’s awful. That the Doctor’s resorted to killing people is no surprise. But he’s always regretted it. Never before has he bragged about it in order to win the day.

All this adds up to a sort of un-Doctor Who story. Sure, the Doctor fights against an alien menace, but he doesn’t actually defeat them. He doesn’t save anyone. The best he does is sends himself an email, and it’s not like it contained any information which actually helped him against the Monks in The Pyramid at the End of the World. And none of it actually happened anyway. So it can’t help but be 45 minutes we’ve spent getting precisely nowhere.

***

There’s one line though that’s got me a bit flummoxed. It’s when Missy is surprised to see the Doctor, even though another Time Lord needs to preside at her execution, and he’s the only one this side of the end of the universe.

MISSY: Thought you’d retired. Domestic bliss on Darillium, that’s the word among the Daleks.

The word among the Daleks?  Whatever could this mean? If the Daleks have started to have gossipy little chats around the water cooler, that’s a real development:

ZEG: Well, I’ve heard he’s shacked up with that Song woman in a restaurant for 24 years.

TARRANT: Ooh, that Rose Tyler is going to blow her little blonde gasket when she finds out!

Turns out it that River has sent Nardole to remind the Doctor that virtue is only virtue in extremis – that it’s easy to the right thing when there’s no pressure, but when the chips are down is when we discover the true importance of doing the right thing. (It’s a surprise he needs to reminded of this after The Day of the Doctor, The End of Time and all the rest but there you go).

Quite why the ultimate expression of this is to save Missy’s life, I’m not sure. I mean, the Doctor was never going to let her die, so it’s hardly an example of virtue in extremis. And more crucially, why would River want him to save Missy’s life? On the face of it, this is a terrible idea, as the Doctor’s efforts to rehabilitate Missy lead directly to the disastrous events of World Enough and Time, which will eventually kill him. Makes you wonder why River has it in for him.

Ah well. More people failing to behave in a believable way.

LINK TO Rose: companions living at home in flats with overbearing mothers/step-mothers.

NEXT TIME: When you smile, I want to see those teeth! We sign up for The Happiness Patrol.

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.

 

 

 

Bill, agency and The Pilot (2017)

pilot 

It’s odd, but we just don’t get that many “current Doctor meets new Companion” episodes in 21st Century Doctor Who. We get episodes where the whole cast is new, like Rose and The Eleventh Hour (and I presume, Jodie Whittaker’s debut ep). And we get staggered entries like Donna’s, Rory’s and Clara’s. But The Pilot is the first time since Smith and Jones that we have a straightforward introduction for a new companion. Twice in ten years, which seems unusual compared to the original series where such opening nights happened on a regular basis.

It’s a Doctor Who subgenre which stretches back to 1965’s The Rescue. It seems strange to say it, but it’s that ancient two-parter which The Pilot reminds me of most. Perhaps it’s just that The Rescue sets the template for new companion stories so comprehensively that there’s no reason to deviate too far from it. Doctor meets girl (well, they’re usually girls), both have gaps in their lives the other can fill, there’s an adventure to be had, “it’s bigger on the inside” and off they go.

The companion in question is Bill, played with verve by Pearl Mackie. Like Vicki in The Rescue, her parents are long dead and she’s desperately lonely, even with her substitute parent nearby. Like Vicki, when the adventure engulfs her, the protagonist is someone close to her; then it was Vicki’s fellow castaway Bennett, here’s it’s Bill’s crush Heather (Stephanie Hyam). And like Vicki, she quickly strikes up an unlikely friendship with a curmudgeonly, old Doctor (Peter Capaldi ) who will take her under his wing and become a tutor in the ways of the universe for her. (Although neither of them see the need to investigate the spaceship which has been landing surreptitiously in St. Luke’s university, only its sentient oil leak. Marks deducted for missing the big picture!)

Who Bill is not, is Clara. This shouldn’t be surprising; lots of companions are conceived in reaction to the one they replace. But here, for some reason, a complete change felt needed. Clara was complicated – from the start of her tour of TARDIS duty where she was splintered across the Doctor’s own history to the end, where she was a failed would-be Doctor, dead but not dead, etc etc. Bill is much simpler: she’s a bright, friendly but quietly melancholy girl, who’s a bit of an oddball. The Doctor sees in her unmet potential and that’s enough to reignite his passion for travelling the universe.

The actors who play them are also intrinsically different. Jenna Coleman came from the world of TV soaps, with an air of magazine glamour about her. Pearl Mackie came to the show from theatre, specifically the presentation of new plays. Doctor Who is her first major TV gig, so she’s slightly less polished and less perfectly formed than Coleman was for TV stardom. But this background is perfect for Bill, who is an edgier and less self-confident character than Clara. And Bill seems like a character more grounded in the real world than Clara, and for whatever reason, this seems to suit Capaldi’s grizzled teacher of a Doctor; Bill needs and wants to be taught, whereas Clara seemed to already know it all.

There are other companion echoes as well. With her badged jacket and her eagerness to be the Doctor’s student, she’s reminiscent of Ace. Like Jo Grant, she’s cheeky and perky and prone to making mistakes. Of course, there’s a deliberate visual reference to Susan. Plus she’s named after Billie Piper, who brought that other working class, diamond in the rough companion Rose to screen. She’s an amalgam of many who have gone before… just not Clara.

(On the other hand, she does end up gaining an immortal girlfriend and running away with her to see the universe, so she does eventually end up like Clara. I like to think the four of them get together at bars and make fun of the old grey hair and eyebrows:

BILL: Get this. Once he took me to a nautically themed cafe in Cardiff and tried to tell me it was Australia!

CLARA: That’s nothing. He once tried to convince me that the moon was an egg. The Moon!)

As has been noted before around these parts, fandom’s feelings about Clara are mixed, but Bill, it seems, was an instant hit. Clearly there’s something about Bill which a significant group of fans prefer to Clara, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Certainly Bill seems to be a humbler, more down-to-earth character than Clara and I have a sneaking suspicion that some thought her constant attempts to be or to teach the Doctor made her a bit too big for her boots.

It’s not a sentiment I share, but I wonder if Bill is in part a reaction to Clara’s Doctorly ambitions? And that leads me to this worrying observation: are we actually more comfortable with a companion who is subordinate to the Doctor? I would argue that as breezy and charming as Bill is, she is a far more passive character than Clara. Whereas Clara would (in general) take the initiative in her stories, often instigating her own plot lines, Bill is much more likely to follow the Doctor’s lead, or to wait for him to act before she will. Sure, this is a symptom of her newness to the Doctor’s world and also indicative of the fact that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is also around to share the action with.

Let me offer a few examples. What positive, independent action does Bill take in Smile, other than to find the database of exposition? What at all in Oxygen? Or in Knock Knock? It’s not until The Pyramid at the End of the World that she impacts a plot in any meaningful way, through her appeal to the Monks to cure the Doctor, but this is made as a last resort. She is more integral in The Lie of the Land, but in World Enough and Time, she’s a victim the whole way through – things happen to her, she doesn’t make things happen. I can’t help but think that if Clara had been the companion in Thin Ice, she, not the Doctor, would have punched that racist. How much more would it have meant if Bill had slugged that sucker?

What I’m suggesting is that in Clara we had someone who challenged the Doctor and in Bill we have someone who complements him. And I think (judging from what I read on social media… admittedly, never a great research technique) we seem to prefer the latter. Generalisation’s a curse, and there’s always the possibility that Bill is simply a more likable character than Clara to factor in. But if we do prefer the old fashioned, patriarchal notion of the Doctor as a learned teacher and the companion as his devoted student, we might as well be watching The Rescue.

LINK TO: The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. People made out of goop.

NEXT TIME… would you care for some tea? Broadsword to Danny Boy, it’s time for the Victory of the Daleks.