Tag Archives: series 7

Tourism, divorce and Asylum of the Daleks (2012)

In Australia, we have “big things”. These are oversized monuments which serve as cut price tourist traps for towns all around the country. They’re usually giant sculptures or buildings retrofitted into the shape of something indicative of the local area. Often, but not always, produce related. The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour. The Big Merino Ram at Goulburn. The Big Boxing Crocodile in Darwin. They are kitsch colossuses and squirm-worthy expressions of Australian culture. (Bemused non-Australians can consult the full list of Big Things for further clarification. You have been warned.)

So imagine my delight when Asylum of the Daleks opens and shows that Skaro, has its very own big thing, the Big Dalek. Like many Big Things, there are hardly any visitors inside. Just the Doctor (a cagey Matt Smith) and the suspiciously named Darla (Anamaria Marinca) and like most Big Thing attendees, they look tremendously underwhelmed. If only they were eating terrible fast food and browsing half heartedly through overpriced souvenirs, the grim picture would be complete.

The Doctor’s visit to the Big Dalek, highlights one of showrunner Steven Moffat’s recurring motifs about the Daleks – an obsession with what’s inside them. This opening scene’s just a precursor to the episode’s major revelation that crash survivor Oswin (Jenna Louise Coleman) is in fact the cognitive remnants of a converted human, living inside a Dalek. The recently randomed Into the Dalek takes a more literal trip to the interior, but there’s also The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar which, for the third time, put Jenna inside a Dalek. Consider also Moffat’s interior adventures inside robots (Let’s Kill Hitler), the TARDIS (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) and space whales (The Beast Below) and we can see that he’s really into internalising.

Why, I don’t know. But in the case of the Daleks, it does highlight for the viewer they are vehicles, not robots. There are Kaled mutants, and sometimes converted people, inside them. There’s also a classic Moffat inversion on display in this Asylum too. Because as well as people inside Daleks, there are Daleks hiding inside people. Duplicate humans and reanimated corpses sprout eyestalks from their forehead and gunsticks from their palms. Moffat’s Daleks are monsters which both encase you and fester inside you.

Worse than that, they infect you. The Dalek nanocloud is an all pervading smog of tiny robots. They get inside you (that again) and turn you into a Dalek from the inside out. The physical changes come after the mental ones. The mental battle for control is enough to force Oswin to create an elaborate fantasy about being under siege from the Daleks, in order to protect her own identity. We see the start of this process effecting Amy (Karen Gillan) and in a beautifully shot sequence, we see her slipping into madness, and hallucinating that she’s in a ballroom full of dancers, when in fact, she’s in a pit packed with deranged Daleks. Around her, ballerinas pirouette. Add a dancing dwarf and we’re almost at Twin Peaks.

The ballerina, also glimpsed in Oswin’s hideout, is an important symbol here. Dalek creator Terry Nation claimed inspiration for his creatures from the Russian ballet dancers in enormous skirts, gliding across stage. We’re prompted to recall the Daleks’ origins, because this is a story steeped in their history. There are other hints scattered about – Oswin carries an egg whisk about, the better to prepare her soufflés with. Like a young Doctor Who fan creating his own Dalek army out of a miscellany of toys from throughout the show’s history, so Moffat populates Asylum with Daleks of all different colours and designs. Loads of old Dalek stories get shoutouts. This is about mashing up the show’s past and present, as well as discovering whether Daleks are bigger on the inside.

But I digress. I reckon the idea of a Big Dalek has legs, although it wouldn’t actually have legs. It could tower over Cardiff Bay (“Look at the state of it,” could become this century’s “Bye Bye Duggan!”) Exit would be, of course, via the gift shop and if it needs fresh merchandise to sell to hapless visitors, Asylum again shows us the way. Plastic rotating ballerinas. Egg whisks. Eye stalk headbands. And in the cafe, soufflé for all.

*****

But now I must bring up the difficult topic of divorce. Specifically, the Ponds’.

I suppose that one of the problems about having a married couple on any TV program is that marital bliss can’t last forever. Whether it’s likely or not, it’s not very dramatically satisfying. Trouble must eventually set in. Or in the case of the Ponds, suddenly set in.

Asylum implies that it has been some time since Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have seen the Doctor, and since then, their relationship has broken down to the point where divorce is the only option. Only a quick montage in the online extra Pond Life would have indicated to dedicated viewers that anything was wrong with our otherwise loved up comPondians.

Problem is, this relationship breakdown feels inherently artificial, engineered to add a sub plot to this otherwise Daleky tale. The antidote to the nanocloud turning you into a human with Dalek appendages, is love, apparently. So when Amy is threatened with Dalekisation, getting her to reignite her love for Rory is crucial to saving her life.

Problem is, I never really believed they fell out of love. The reason proffered for the break up is that Amy staged a pre-emptive eviction of Rory because he wanted kids she couldn’t biologically produce. This just doesn’t seem like something which would break them up. Surely, the Amy and Rory we know would talk it through. Rory, you’d think, would support Amy, not reject her. Besides, it’s not like the only way to have kids is the old fashioned way. My impression is that couples fray when one partner doesn’t want kids, not when one can’t have kids.

Maybe the problem is we didn’t see Amy and Rory gradually slide into marital discord. We only saw them being perfectly happy together, then divorced, then perfectly happy again. And while it’s interesting to see Doctor Who try its hand at interpersonal drama, the Ponds’ separation seems inherently false. It’s like the Ponds’ grief over losing their baby daughter; it’s just too big a problem to fit into the show’s format, where the adventures must roll inevitably along, pausing not to dwell on emotional distress.

“It’s not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow tie. Don’t give me those big wet eyes, Raggedy Man,” says Amy.  “It’s life. Just life.” Except it’s not, is it? Because if it was, it would be long and protracted and painful, and it wouldn’t necessarily end cleanly and happily in time for the next episode. And the ultimate irony? The Doctor does actually fix it, with a twiddle of his bow tie. Pah.

But… having not so long ago catalogued Doctor Who‘s post-coital scenes, I was delighted to spot a pre-coital one. When the repaired Ponds get dropped off at home at story’s end, Amy shoots Rory a loaded look and heads into a house. Rory’s clearly got the message and has the very pleased look of a man whose drought has broken. Ah, marriage.

RANDOM QUESTION: Why does the Doctor tell Amy that they need to make the Daleks remember her? I must be missing something. Answers in the comments, please.

LINK TO Knock Knock: humans turning into monsters.

NEXT TIME: let’s end on a cliffhanger. It’s one of the stories I’ve referred to above.

Inflexibility, impossibility and The Day of the Doctor (2013)

Fans sometimes talk about Doctor Who‘s infinitely flexible format. This is the show which can go anywhere and do anything. When an anniversary year comes around though, we discover this isn’t as true as we might like to think.

It’s all the fault of The Three Doctors really. It laid down a template for anniversary stories which ever since has been too good to resist. Multi Doctors, uniting against one enormous threat. Then The Five Doctors took it even further. Returning Doctors plus returning companions and lots of returning monsters.

The reunion episode is a TV staple, and on any other show, you could do it as often as you like. On ordinary shows, characters can age, and you can pick up with them years after their last TV appearance. You find out what ever happened to them, you try to guess which ones have had plastic surgery, it’s all good fun.

But Doctor Who can’t do that because each of the Doctors is meant to be ageless. We saw each of them turn into another of them, before they got old and creaky. Reunion shows doomed forever. Flexible format, my foot! The Day of the Doctor is bogged down in a format it inherited from Old Who and which was, by 2013, almost impossible to use.

Because here’s the problem. What other possible shape could the show’s 50th anniversary episode take? It’s very difficult to imagine it not being a multi Doctor story, because that’s what Doctor Who anniversaries are. And it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t at least acknowledge each actor to play the title role.

Steven Moffat knew this. More than that, he wanted this – and more. He wanted every single Doctor joining forces to save Gallifrey from the Daleks. It’s testament to his ingenuity and determination that he made this happen. Despite three Doctors being dead, four looking significantly different to their Doctorly prime and one flatly refusing to participate.

But that Moff is clever. He takes an impossible format and makes it work. How did he do it?

First, he makes this a story about the Doctor and the biggest day of his life. Think of how different an approach this is to The Three and Five Doctors, where the multiple Doctors simply come out to play, just to have an adventure. Setting this story on the last day of the Time War, gives it an event worth watching, not just a chance to rival Doctors squabble. It’s an event big enough for this biggest of episodes.

Secondly, John Hurt. Every anniversary story’s been short its full quota of Doctors, and each has come up with inventive ways around the problem. But Moffat’s is the most audacious. Without Christopher Eccleston, he needs a Doctor upon whom to shoulder the story’s moral core – the redemption of the Doctor post his Time War atrocity. At a pinch, it could have been Paul McGann. But in search of a marquee name to hang out the front his 50th anniversary, the Moff creates an entirely new and hitherto unheard of Doctor and has him played by a movie star.

Think the Doctor is a tough role to play? Pah, step aside children. Hurt is instantly right in the part, creating, as McGann did 17 years earlier, a fully formed Doctor in about an hour. There’s a lovely bit somewhere in all the associated behind the scenes material about this story, where Doctors Smith and Tennant giggle like naughty schoolboys about their own acting deficiencies compared to Hurt. Smith says he’s busy pulling faces like mad, when all John Hurt has to do is look, and the shot’s in the can.

It would have been great to have Eccleston back. But if he hadn’t said no, we wouldn’t have got Hurt. And it gives The Day of the Doctor the chance to say something new about its lead character; that there was a time when he strayed from the path and became everything a Doctor shouldn’t be.  It’s another way in which Moffat breathes life back into the anniversary show format, by asking that question he loves to ask: Doctor Who? Who is this man and what has shaped him? It’s more introspective than any other multi-Doctor stories to date.

Finally, he plays fast and loose with the structure of a Doctor Who story. You’d be well within your rights to expect a villain of some sort to turn up in the biggest Doctor Who story ever. You might be wondering where the final showdown is, with the Doctors squaring off with some big arse Time Lord baddy, as per Three and Five. Instead Moffat gives us two alien invasions – the Zygons on Earth and the Daleks in the skies above Gallifrey- but boldly keeps these on the sidelines. The main question posed is not, “will the Doctors win?”, but “can the Doctor heal himself?”

The answer turns out to be, “yes, but only if we completely retcon the new series”. Moffat is unafraid of such bold, sweeping moves. In The Big Bang, he completely reverses the whole of Series 5. In The Wedding of River Song, he negates an alternative timeline. He’s used to travelling back to a crucial point in history, and just changing it. Time, remember, can be rewritten.

So in one fell swoop, he changes the outcome of the Time War, saves Gallifrey from destruction and absolves the Doctor of his crimes. It’s a resetting of the show along the lines of the classic series. The Doctor’s no longer a war criminal, Gallifrey’s in the heavens and all’s right with the world. Plus he manages to rope in all thirteen of the Doctor’s to help, in a smorgasbord of archive footage, vocal impersonations and impressive eyebrows.

Oddly enough though, here he’s on much more traditional anniversary story ground. The Three Doctors ended with the end of the Doctor’s earthly exile. Reset! The Five Doctors ended with the Doctor on the run from his own people again. Reset! And here, a new start, unburdened by the weight of the Time War, which the series has dragged around since 2005.

All delivered in 3D, in cinemas and a guest appearance by Tom Baker. So hats off to the Moff. Upon being told there were no toys left in the toybox, he held a kickass party anyway. And rewrote Doctor Who along the way. Yeah, that’s how he did it.

LINK TO Resurrection of the Daleks: the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey threatened in Resurrection finally happens.

NEXT TIME: The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God. We do the Devil’s work with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

Tombs, moonbases and Nightmare in Silver (2013)

nightmaresilver

Moffat’s earliest Who memory is of watching Patrick Troughton and wondering where the real Doctor, William Hartnell, had gone.  …The Doctor Who of the 1960s cemented Moffat’s idea of perfect televisual fear. “It was terrifying,” he says. “It wasn’t the camp or sweet or nice thing it became for a while afterwards. It wasn’t improving or good for you, it just wanted to scare the crap out of you. It was the bad boy of children’s television.”

There is something in this snippet of an interview with The Guardian’s Andrew Harrison, which tells us something about showrunner Steven Moffat’s ambitions for Nightmare in Silver, and perhaps for Doctor Who more generally. There is in him, I think, an ongoing urge to recapture that perfect televisual fear referenced above.

One of the stories the young Moff watched and loved was The Tomb of the Cybermen. He has spoken and written about his admiration for it time and again. It clearly made an impression on him, because the Cybermen are a recurring feature of Doctor Who under his watch. He’s included the Cybermen in every season of Doctor Who that he’s produced except Series 9 (and even then one makes a cameo appearance in Face the Raven).

Reading between the lines, I don’t think he felt, as Series 7 loomed, that he had yet done them justice, and recaptured that terrified sensation he remembered as kid. When he was briefing Neil Gaiman about writing his sophomore episode of Doctor Who, he instructed, maybe even pleaded with him, to “make the Cybermen scary again”. He might have just as well said, ‘give me the feels like when I was 7 years old’.

****

Gaiman knew exactly what he meant. Not for nothing does this episode start on a replica of Earth’s moon, as this interview on Collider.com indicates.

“When I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan … I remember The Moonbase, the second outing of the Cybermen.  … I was terrified of them.  I was much more scared of them, in a way, than the Daleks because they were quiet and they slipped in and out of rooms.  It was very off-putting.

Gaiman tries a number of tricks to bring the scares back. The first is the incongruous setting of Hedgewick’s World, a children’s fun park gone to seed. This is a planet on which the fun and games of childhood have become corrupted and threatening. It’s a world filled with the stuff of bad dreams: waxwork museums, broken amusement rides and dormant Cybermen waiting to spring to life. So far, this isn’t so different from a Troughton-esque world of shadows and perils, like a long forgotten tomb or an underground railway tunnel.

Gaiman’s next gambit though takes us away from the Cybermen of the 60s. He innovates the Cybermen, giving them new and deadly features. This includes the ability to move at super speed making them inherently different from those models which lumbered into the Moonbase. Gaiman’s versions also are able to detach hands and heads from their bodies with deadly effect. Their 60s cousins could never do this, but it does call to mind that in their original conception, the Cybermen were a worried reaction to the replacement of body parts with technology.

The Cybermats of Tomb and The Wheel in Space had been made over in the previous season’s Closing Time, as piranha like toys. Here, Gaiman reimagines them as Cybermites, miniature insects which infest buildings and crawl through people’s clothes. It’s a successful reinvention, one that plays on a common phobia more potently than the old C-mats did. The Cybermen themselves had also had a sleek new refit, but they were always changing their look in the old series so that has less of a feeling of innovation, and more of tradition reasserting itself.

Then there’s the inclusion of children Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson) and Angie (Eve de Leon Allen) into this world of danger and mayhem. As we’ve noted before, children are a hallmark of Moffat’s Who and we’re often invited to see the Doctor and the wickedness he combats through their eyes. Rarely though, are they subjected to physical attack or seriously endangered. Here though, both children are partly cybernised, technology grafted onto their heads. Those kids watching Moonbase and Tomb are sucked through the television and into Doctor Who in Nightmare in Silver.

Finally there’s the infiltration of the Doctor (Troughtony Matt Smith) by the Cyberiad. Humans taken over by Cybermen are familiar from all four Troughton Cybertales, and many others throughout Whostory, but we’ve never seen them infect the Doctor. The result is a twisted version of the Doctor, sitting within this twisted vision of an amusement park. The Doctor’s internal mental battle with Mr Clever might be the detail, but the broad brush strokes to keep the kids behind the sofa, is an evil version of daffy old Matt Smith, roaring in anger and delighting in carnage.

So that’s how Gaiman answered Moffat’s challenge, by throwing everything he had at it. Question is, was the Moff satisfied?

****

Well, I don’t think so. In a recent DWM, Moffat admitted to himself and us that he’d been trying to remake Tomb every year of his showrunnership. If the attempts were The Pandorica Opens, Closing Time and then Nightmare in Silver, surely if he felt one had been successful in recapturing that perfect televisual fear, there would be no need for him to finally write his own fully fledged Cyberantic Dark Water/Death in Heaven?

That last one had Cybermen emerging from Tomb like cubicles, people infected by Cyber poisoned liquid ala The Moonbase and marching down St Paul’s Catherdral’s steps like The Invasion. It had Cybermen flying about the place, converting the dead and digging themselves out of graves. If this didn’t make the Cybermen scary, what on Telos is going to satisfy Moffat’s desire to match that Tomby magic?

We may yet find out. That bad boy of the bad boy of children’s television has one more season to go.

LINK TO Father’s Day: children in danger.

NEXT TIME: It’s always the innocent bystander who suffers eventually. We travel to a Colony in Space.

Gillyflower, Conan Doyle and The Crimson Horror (2013)

Crimson-Horror-2

CONAN DOYLE: So Mrs Gillyflower. Thanks for agreeing to this interview.

GILLYFLOWER: You’re very welcome, Mr Conan Doyle.

CONAN DOYLE: Tell me about your wicked plan. It will be most excellent research material.

GILLYFLOWER: With pleasure. You see, I am a prize winning chemist and mechanical engineer.

CONAN DOYLE: Unusual dual careers for a woman in 19th Century Yorkshire.

GILLYFLOWER: Perhaps, although it’s very impolite of you to point that out. And a little sexist, to boot. But I’ll overlook it. Anyway, I was down at the river one day…

CONAN DOYLE: Um, doing what exactly?

GILLYFLOWER: Never you mind. But while I was down there, I came across this fascinating red leech.

CONAN DOYLE: How repulsive!

GILLYFLOWER: Well, maybe to you. But I immediately recognised it as something unique so I captured it and took it home.

CONAN DOYLE: Well of course you did. Who would do anything else?

GILLYFLOWER: Upon examination, I deduced it to be an ancient lifeform, a survivor from the dawn of time!

CONAN DOYLE: Wait, did you say you’re a zoologist?

GILLYFLOWER: No, I am a prize winning chemist and mechanical engineer.

CONAN DOYLE: I see. So what did you do with this leech?

GILLYFLOWER: Well, I discovered that it secreted a deadly organic poison.

CONAN DOYLE: How did you do that without being infected?

GILLYFLOWER: Because I’m a prize winning chemist. Anyway, when I discovered that the poison was deadly enough to kill everyone in the entire world, I saw the potential for it to facilitate a grand scheme I had. Namely to kill everyone in the entire world. Save for a select group of beautiful young people.

CONAN DOYLE: Why did you want to kill everyone in the entire world?

GILLYFLOWER: Y’know, I’m not at all clear on that. Something about moral turpitude and Bradford being like Bablyon.

CONAN DOYLE: Ok, so about this select group of beautiful young people.

GILLYFLOWER: Yes, of course. So I discovered that a dilute form of the poison could in fact temporarily paralyse and preserve human beings.

CONAN DOYLE: Because you’re a prize winning chemist.

GILLYFLOWER: That’s right. Incidentally, it also altered the human body’s chemical composition so much that a person’s last view of the world before death is imprinted on their eye!

CONAN DOYLE: It does a lot of things, this miraculous substance.

GILLYFLOWER: Oh yes. And I had by this stage also developed an anti-toxin to immunise myself.

CONAN DOYLE: Because you’re a prize winn…

GILLYFLOWER: Oh, nothing so vague, young man! No, because I had experimented on my daughter with the venom.

CONAN DOYLE: Oh. Presumably you could have chosen anyone to experiment upon. Why your daughter?

GILLYFLOWER: It was necessary! Don’t you see?

CONAN DOYLE: Not really. And what sort of toxicology experiments result in terrible facial scarring?

GILLYFLOWER: So back to the plan. Having discovered that I could temporarily paralyse and preserve human beings, I set up a sort of gated community complete with its own match factory. To here I lured all sorts of susceptible people looking for work and homes, but I weeded out all the old, fat and ugly ones. I sold it to them on the promise of being saved from the coming apocalypse, when all the time I was delivering that apocalypse! (Cackles madly)

CONAN DOYLE: Where did you get the money to set up this community?

GILLYFLOWER: From my fabulous career as a prize winning…

CONAN DOYLE: OK. So you preserve your collection of people by…

GILLYFLOWER: Dipping them in vats of the diluted poison.

CONAN DOYLE: All that from one leech?

GILLYFLOWER: DILUTED poison, are you deaf?

CONAN DOYLE: Of course. And it worked every time.

GILLYFLOWER: No. Into the canal with the rejects!

CONAN DOYLE: Didn’t people notice when bright red corpses started popping up in the river?

GILLYFLOWER: Yes! But I didn’t worry about being detected. For some reason.

CONAN DOYLE: And the preserved people… didn’t their friends and family come inquiring about them?

GILLYFLOWER: Once. But we pushed him into a vat of poison.

CONAN DOYLE: Right. So the plan is to let the beautiful people sleep while you kill everyone else with the poison. How does that part work?

GILLYFLOWER: I’ve built a rocket!

CONAN DOYLE: In 19th century Yorkshire?

GILLYFLOWER: How many times do I have to tell you? I’m a prize winning chemist and MECHANICAL ENGINEER! The rocket will explode in the atmosphere, and poison the whole world.

CONAN DOYLE: Wait a minute – the world’s a big place. How does exploding one rocket spread this substance over the whole planet?

GILLYFLOWER: It just will, all right?

CONAN DOYLE: And what’s the point anyway? Your little colony of beautiful young things will be living in a world contaminated by your remarkably versatile poison. And the community’s not so big that you can hope to repopulate the Earth. The kids of those hotties will be beautiful and that, but it won’t be long until inbreeding sets in. And who’s going to grow the food, build the houses, farm the livestock…

GILLYFLOWER: We’ve got this all planned out, we’re just not telling you!

CONAN DOYLE: Right. One final thing.

GILLYFLOWER: I should think so too!

CONAN DOYLE: This utopian community – Sweetville? Where’d the name come from?

GILLYFLOWER: From my silent partner, Mr Sweet. That’s the name I gave the red leech.

CONAN DOYLE: You don’t seem like the sort of person who gives exotic poisonous parasites pet names.

GILLYFLOWER: I bet I don’t seem like the sort of person who allows said parasite to attach itself permanently to her breast either.

CONAN DOYLE: You’re nuts.

GILLYFLOWER: It’s been noted.

CONAN DOYLE: Interesting plot though. A very dark and queer business. It reminds me of.. have you ever seen The Avengers?

GILLYFLOWER: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

*****

LINK TO Spearhead from Space: There is much respect paid to that other Holmes, Spearhead writer Holmes throughout The Crimson Horror. The eye image mentioned in The Ark in Space, the selection of bright young things from The Krotons, the mortuary setting of The Talons of Weng-Chiang

NEXT TIME: You embarrass me! But still, please be my plus 1 at The Wedding of River Song.

Quips, questions and The Name of the Doctor (2013)

namedoctor1

River Song (Alex Kingston) has a succinct assessment of the Doctor (Matt Smith), which she delivers in The Name of the Doctor: “He doesn’t like endings.” We might adapt it for showrunner Steven Moffat by saying “he doesn’t like explanations.” His style is to not explain everything to the audience and to not let exposition slow down a story. I think explanations bore him, and if they are only going to be meaningless bafflegab anyway, why bother?

This tendency to under explain is all over The Name of the Doctor and it starts at the very beginning. In 1893, a prisoner, Clarence de Marco (Michael Jenn), is manically reciting a rhyme. As Vastra (Neve McIntosh) discovers, this man has knowledge about the Doctor and co-ordinates to his final resting place on Trenzalore.

But how does he know these things? We’re never told. At least not in this episode.

To find out how he acquired this knowledge, we need to turn to a special feature on the DVD release, Clarence and the Whispermen. In it, it’s revealed that de Marco was visited by the spectral Whispermen, who implanted the knowledge within him. To me, that’s not inessential background information. That’s important to the plot. And so we have an episode where you need to watch the DVD extras to get the full story.

Next, the conference call. Moffat wants to bring five key protagonists together to brief them on the plot, but they’re separated by time and space. Solution: they all enter a drug induced sleep. Because, we’re told, “time travel has always been possible in dreams”. Explanation enough, it seems.

And so Vastra, Jenny (Catrin Stewart), Strax (Dan Starkey), Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and River are able to meet up and discuss the plot. This is particularly impressive in River’s case, because by this stage she exists only as a digital copy of herself. Quite how Vastra delivers a message to her, or how she imbibes the soporific drug or indeed sleeps is left unexplained. As unexplained as how River can conjure up a bottle of champagne in this dream world. Laugh it off with a quip, and move on.

While our heroes are all tripped out, the Great Intelligence (Richard E Grant) strikes. He transports Vastra, Strax and Jenny’s corpse (she was recently killed by the Whispermen while she slept. But to paraphrase the Eighth Doctor, death never meant much to Moffat. She and Strax will be killed and resurrected once more by the time this episode’s out) to the Doctor’s final resting place on Trenzalore. Um, how exactly? He’s a ghostly formless entity floating around the cosmos and can probably travel there at the speed of thought, but what about those three corporeal beings? Did he carry them? Again, don’t ask, let’s move on.

The Doctor and Clara crash land on Trenzalore and Clara realises she can still see and hear River. “The conference call,” River offers, “I kept the line open.” But wasn’t the point of the conference call that you had to be unconscious to dial in? Clara’s definitely awake and acting her boots off. But then River can’t just be in Clara’s mind, because although no-one else can see or hear her, when she speaks the Doctor’s name, the tomb opens. No doubt the TARDIS can hear her. Even though she’s a shadow of herself. And herself is a back up. On a computer no doubt light years away. And centuries too.

(Ah yes, the TARDIS. Once Clara and the Doctor get in, suddenly it is time for explanations, but not from this episode, but from three episodes previously. In Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, Clara heard about her various “impossible girl” personas and the Doctor’s fixation with them. But the events of that story were reversed by a massive plot contrivance. So now it’s time for all those memories to come flooding back. How odd, to go from a conspicuous absence of explanation to ODing on them in order to get to the climax the episode needs.)

That climax is similarly vague on selected points. It transpires that the Doctor can also hear River, but touch and kiss her too. “How are you even doing that?,” asks an incredulous River, but her question goes unanswered. She should know better, really.

By this stage, the Great Intelligence has entered the Doctor’s time stream to poison all his days, and Clara has followed him in as the antidote. All predictions were that this would prove fatal, but in the way of these things, she survives by some zillion to one chance.

She lands, um… where exactly? The Doctor’s timestream seems to have some physical space where various Doctors run about mid-adventure. What is this place? How come it can be physically penetrated? Even the Doctor can enter it, and use a magical leaf he’s summoned up from somewhere to meet up with Clara. Is this a practical or theoretical space? What is happening?

Then, in the dying seconds of the episode, we meet a grim, foreboding figure that exists in this strange, in between world. The Doctor is plainly terrified of him. The mystery man turns to face us… And we don’t recognise him. Onscreen captions have to finish the job for us. “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor”.

And I think, with all the love in the world for Doctor Who,  this has to count as an epic storytelling flub. If you need captions to make sense of what’s happening on screen, surely you’ve failed to tell the story well enough. Sure, circumstances were not as the Moff may have liked. Had it been Christopher Eccleston who turned around to face the camera, there would have been no need for a caption to say who this actor is and who he’s playing. So the irony is that this episode, which has so far avoided all those pesky explanations, finally has to put one in big white letters on the screen.

But let’s not stop there. How do the Doctor and Clara escape from within the time stream? How do the Paternoster gang get home? And the big one, given the future changing events of The Time of the Doctor did any of this story actually happen?

This endless stream of questions. It sounds like I’m having a go at the Moff for not bothering enough to fully explain the events on screen. And I suppose I am in a way, but mostly I’m just pointing out that this is a characteristic of Moffat’s Who. He’s not that interested in explanations. It’s not that he doesn’t have them, or that he’s incapable of included them in his episodes; far from it. It’s that he makes a conscious decision to leave them out. Sure, you might be mystified. That’s fine with him.

Recently, there was an even more brazen example of this approach at work. It’s in The Witch’s Familiar. The Doctor is sitting in Davros’s chair, force field in place to survive the inevitable blasts from a miscellany of Daleks. He sips calmly from a cup of tea and says serenely, “of course the real question is ‘where did I get the cup of tea? Answer: I’m the Doctor. Accept it.”

Try writing that in a script at film school and it’ll quickly be struck out as indefensible. But here, it is the work of a supremely confident writer, setting out a modus operandi, if not a manifesto. He’s saying: any explanation I give you is going to be bollocks. So let’s not tarnish the spectacle of the Doctor in Davros’ chair sipping tea. Let’s not let explanations spoil the fun.

LINK to The Five Doctors. The Name of the Doctor actually has bits of The Five Doctors in it!

NEXT TIME… Right! Cut it open! We finally break the Season Seven drought with The Ambassadors of Death.

 

Reasons, relationships and Hide (2013)

hide1

Why is it so dark and stormy outside Caliburn House? Why does this house have a cold spot? Why does freaky writing appear on the wall? Why do we hear mysterious laughter? And for Ood’s sake, why doesn’t someone simply turn on the lights?

Because this is a ghost story. That’s all. There’s no reason given for any of these things in Hide. They just are. This has to be a dark and stormy night, because that’s when ghosts are scariest. This has to be an old house, the lights have to be out and the camerawork has to be wobbly, because that’s what happens in ghost stories.

Most Doctor Who stories make at least an apologetic attempt to explain away such generic tropes. If we think back to Image of the Fendahl, we were told ghosts appear where there are time fissures. Or State of Decay, which rationalized the mythic vampire killing method of a stake through the heart by pointing out the fiends’ abnormally strong cardiovascular system. And while its related more to production vagaries than genre, even The Claws of Axos felt the need to explain away some unexpected snow on location with a line about ‘freak weather conditions’.

Hide offers no such help, and it all would have been so easy. Why do ghost hunter Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and empathetic psychic Emma Grayling (Verity Lam… sorry Jessica Raine) undertake their summonings at night? (Well, presumably that’s traditionally when the Witch from the Well has appeared) Why does the light have to be so dim? (Well, the old electrics in the house emit a slight electronic interference which messes with the detection equipment). Maybe these sort of post hoc rationalisations are unnecessary. Maybe they’re tokenistic. But for me at least, they stop the mind from straying to the practical limitations of the script.

Here’s another question: why is this story set in 1974? Why not, you may reasonably reply. This is a series about time travel after all which all too often sticks to the early 21st century for its settings.

But what’s the story reason for it being set in 1974? Think about The Idiot’s Lantern, the early 1950s setting of which fits nicely with its monster, which echoes fear about technology invading our homes. Or consider The Masque of Mandragora, in which the titular villain wants to set mankind’s technological advancement backwards, so where better to set the story than the eve of the age of reason? Or Ghost Light, which is both about evolution and set it the time of its emergence as a theory.

But Hide, it appears, has no strong reason to be set in 1974. It could just as easily be 1874 or 2074. Without this thematic coherence, I was at least hoping for a bit of self-referential campery. Sure we get a return visit from a Metebelis 3 crystal (I think that’s what I heard), but I was quietly hoping for a fleeting shot of a vintage yellow car driving past the house, a white haired toff and a miniskirted girl within. Or perhaps an old television in the house could have been tuned into a omnibus repeat of Planet of the Spiders.

(Another odd thing about Hide is the mid-story jaunt in the TARDIS. Like the aforementioned Image of the Fendahl – another 70s ghost story set in an old country house – the action pauses in the middle for the Doctor and his companion to fly off for some research. It’s never a good tactic, I think. It leads the audience to think, if the Doctor’s not prepared to hang around for the full story, why should we?

The pay off for this excursion from the plot is not even that impressive. The Doctor discovers that the ghost has been present on the site of Caliburn House throughout Earth’s history, and Clara realizes that from the Doctor’s perspective, everyone’s a ghost. It’s nothing which couldn’t have been written into a short scene over one of the Doctor’s a custom built gizmo. It’s there, I suspect, to help stretch the plot out to 45 minutes. In fact, there’s an unusually high of extraneous material in this episode; perhaps it would make a cracking 30 minute ep.)

If there is a thematic link throughout the story, it’s about the ties that bind individuals, particularly the romantic type. Palmer and Grayling eventually come to discover their feelings for each other (perhaps it might have been more interesting to play against type and make the woman the technical boffin and the man the empath), and the Crooked Man (Aidan Cook) is eventually reunited with his love. With the birds doing it and the bees doing it, this leads us to consider the spark between Doctor (a chirpy Matt Smith) and Clara (a buzzy Jenna-Louise Coleman). It’s too early in their relationship for them to admit they fancy each other, but it’s clearly headed that way.

In this small cast adventure (a signature of Series 7b. Budgetary pressures?) that leaves the well-bound witch herself, Hilo Tecorian (Kemi-bo Jacobs). She has no sweet baboo, but she does find out at the episode’s end that she’s the descendant of Alec and Emma (procreating, it seems, being the inevitable outcome of a romantic union in Doctor Who. A topic for another time.)

If that seems like an enormous coincidence, the Doctor’s on hand to help out. “That’s why the psychic link was so powerful. Blood calling to blood, out of time,” he riffs. Now hold your horses, Hide. It’s too late to start with the post hoc rationalisations now.

LINK to Flatline. Both feature Clara Oswald (although played by different actresses if the credits are anything to go by). And that’s interesting in itself. I’ve talked before about how Clara changes from story to story in Series 7, and she’s much more settled and sure of herself by the time we get to Flatline.

NEXT TIME… Hidden danger! A race against death! A desperate venture! Strap yourself in for the high octane, non-stop action of The Sensorites.

Clara, inconstancy and The Rings of Akhaten (2013)

akhaten1

Things change. Particularly title sequences. Particularly in recent years. I think the Moff must grow tired of them quickly. “I’m bored, let’s change font. No, let’s have a different colour each episode! No, let’s change it completely and add a face! New Doctor, new titles! Hooray! I’m bored, let’s add some snow.”

That’s OK, Doctor Who is about change, perhaps more than any other TV show. But the ever changing titles add to a feeling in the show in recent years which if I’m feeling kind I’d call variety, and if I’m less kind, I’d call inconstancy. I’m not sure if I’m feeling kind or not. But whether it’s variety or inconstancy, it’s reflected in the Doctor’s latest travelling companion.

The Rings of Akhaten is the fourth story to feature Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) but we’re only just getting to know her. That’s because she’s had three introductory stories in three different guises. As we’ll eventually find out, this is because she’s the “impossible girl”, making multiple appearances across the Doctor’s time line.

But even without this narrative trickery, Clara is a slippery character to grasp. In The Bells of Saint John she’s cool and sassy. Here she’s much more vulnerable and cautious. Just which Clara is the real one? The sensible charmer of Cold War? The bold strategist of Nightmare in Silver? The thrill seeker of Hide? She’s a million different people, as The Verve might say, from one day to the next. Is this sloppy characterisation, or a deliberately planned approach, one that seeks to make the impossible girl unknowable too?

*****

If there’s a template for Clara, it’s classic companion Sarah Jane Smith. Like Sarah, Clara doesn’t travel with the Doctor full time. She has a life which is peppered by trips in the TARDIS. Some say this is a better set up for a female companion; by having her own life she’s not forever trailing around the Doctor, wherever he chooses to take her.

But Sarah was more or less the same after each sojourn into real life. By contrast, big changes happen in Clara’s life away from the TARDIS. In Series 7b, she’s a nanny to the Maitland family, a cause she feel so strongly about that she decides she cannot travel full time with the Doctor. But between The Name of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor, she’s become a teacher, so at some stage she’s cut the cord with the Maitlands. By The Time of the Doctor she’s moved house and we meet her contemporary family (and her Dad’s played by a different actor, a subconscious emphasising of her ever changing life).

In Series 8, things change again. Series 7 Clara seemed always to be presenting a facade to the world; she was a mystery to solve and our perspective on her was always the Doctor’s. When he regenerates, Clara becomes our identification figure; we sympathise with her situation, trying to make sense of a best friend who has radically changed. It’s a complete u-turn and one which does the character no end of good. It’s telling that in her interview in DWM482, Jenna Coleman describes this change as the mystery of the impossible girl being “out of the way”. And it does feel like that, like an obstruction removed.

In Series 8, Clara’s personality seems to stabilise and for the first time we truly get to know her. No longer is she a different person from one episode to the next. She’s consistently a kind, funny, slightly controlling young professional who takes her job very seriously and is not above lying to her nearest and dearest. She’s fun to be around, and you couldn’t always say that about her Series 7 version. But her new boyfriend Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) has noticed that she’s always mysteriously changing her story or unexpectedly changing her clothes. There’s still an air of mutability about her.

Then just as we start to know her, she leaves. In the same way as she arrived, which is over and over again. Kill the Moon and Death in Heaven both feature leaving scenes for her, and Last Christmas hints strongly that her time with the Doctor is ending, only to do a last minute reversal. This is a character who is always going to keep us guessing. The actor playing her has even changed her name. Ah, inconstancy, thy name is Clara.

*****

But back to The Rings of Akhaten. It’s an odd mix of elements, with a song thrown in for good measure. It has an ever changing roll call of monsters, keeping us guessing as to who is the real threat. Is it the creepy, whispering Vigil? No, they exist only to take young Merry Galel (Emilia Jones) to Grandfather, a mummy in a glass box. Is it Grandfather then? No, he’s there only to wake up the Old God. And the Old God? Well he’s a big smiley-faced planet, sucking out people’s stories. Of the three threats, he’s the most oblique. But it gives the Doctor (gangly Matt Smith) the opportunity for a showy monologue about life, to be rolled out as a party piece at many a convention.

He and Clara come to this latest destination because she asked to be taken ‘somewhere awesome’. But shortly after arriving on this latest version of the Star Wars Cantina scene, the Doctor buggers off for a while. Obviously the Rings of Akhaten aren’t awesome enough to hold his attention for long. Clara marks time by helping to hide Merry from her pursuers, but still the Doctor’s gone for a good five minutes of screen time. Where did he go? Was he off on a miniadventure, destined for a never seen minisode? Did he wander off for a quick brewski? Or did a cute alien catch his eye and did he sneak away for some ‘dancing’?

Make up your own story, I say. The Rings of Akhaten isn’t going to tell you. In reality what happened was that scheduling difficulties meant writer Neil Cross had to supply the production with some Matt Smith-free minutes. Back in the sixties, the Doctor would have just hit his head and had an episode off. But as we know, things change.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: “It’s awake?” Clara says about Grandfather. “What’s it doing?” The Doctor’s subtitles say “Having a nice rest”. But he’s having a nice stretch. Because he’s woken up. That’s the whole point. But it must be said that the song which permeates this episode is more comprehensible (and thus much easier to take) with the subtitles on.

LINK TO A Town Called Mercy. Both are about attempts to protect someone (Jex, Merry) from being harmed by monsters. And of course both are from the same production block. Bit tenuous, I suppose.  Pity we couldn’t have had another Western, eh?

NEXT TIME: The Gunfighters. Of course it is. Let’s hope the piano knows it.