Tag Archives: series 8

Credulity, morality and Kill the Moon (2014)

kill the moon

Let’s pretend I’ve sent you on a blind date with the human equivalent of Kill the Moon. (We can choose any gender that takes your fancy, but for this example, let’s say the walking, talking embodiment of this story is a he). He walks in the room, and he’s all you could ever want: handsome, fit, well dressed and with, as Steven Moffat would say, the smile of a bastard. Hoo boy, you might think. This is going to be fun.

We’ll check in later to see how it goes.

*****

One site I refer to frequently is Chrissie’s Transcript Site. It’s packed with painstaking transcripts of every Doctor Who episode and some other show called Star Trek, which I’ve never heard of.

It’s of ongoing use to me to jog my memory of the episodes I cover in this blog, and every so often, there’s a sly little comment hidden within, just to spice things up a bit. Here’s how Chrissie ends her recounting of Kill the Moon, quietly pointing out a final piece de resistance of implausibility, in this already deeply unlikely story.

Clara goes home with her shopping and pours herself a glass of red wine, then looks out of the window at the impossibly big full moon with exactly the same crater markings as the old one.

I love that sentence’s quiet disdain. It captures a widespread frustration with Kill the Moon, that its fantastical idea of the Moon being an egg housing a giant but hitherto undetected creature, is just too unbelievable to maintain credulity. But if we’re going to get anything out of this taut, nervy adventure, we have to put aside the shakiness of its premise.

Because scientific inaccuracy is a pretty weak stick with which to flog a Doctor Who story. I mean, if this is where you want to start criticising Doctor Who, where do you end? Steven Moffat, on an episode of Whovians in 2016, bemoaned people who complained that the show got “some of the science wrong.” (“Some of the science wrong!” he groaned, no doubt thinking of a certain time machine disguised as a police box, bigger on the inside.) And it’s absolutely fair enough to want a Doctor Who story to build a coherent world with some level of internal logic, but to insist too strictly on plausibility would be to rob the series of the imaginative elements that are such a part of its appeal.

And so it is with Kill the Moon, which dares to imagine a moon baby with giant spiders crawling all over it and a world which, when faced with annihilation, sends a second hand space shuttle with a third rate crew to deal with it.

It may be far-fetched, but it’s a work whose inventiveness matches its ambition. And it’s directed with energy and tension to ensure that it’s a heart thumping ride. It does so much right, that it’s hard to condemn it just because it doesn’t know the difference between mass and weight. So let’s put that aside and concentrate on three things it’s trying to do and one it’s not trying to do, but somehow utterly does.

Firstly, it’s trying to be a gloomy sci-fi thriller. This it does well, largely thanks to director Paul Wilmshurst wringing all the scares he can out of dark rooms and leaping spiders but also to writer Peter Harness, who finds new ways of heaping trouble upon trouble. It reaches an apex of unfortunate incidents when the shuttle falls down a ravine with the TARDIS and junior companion Courtney (Ellis George) on board. There’s something unnerving too about the high contrast, monochromatic lunar exterior which means you really do feel that our heroes are in a hostile environment…. Or that they’ve walked on to a more convincing version of The Moonbase.

At about the two thirds mark, the focus suddenly shifts, and the story starts on its second objective: to present a compelling moral dilemma. One of Doctor Who’s recurring images since The Day of the Doctor has been of women threatening to blow things up, and as usual, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is around to pontificate a bit. But here, he abruptly sods off, claiming that whether or not to blow up the moonchild is a decision the humans have to make for themselves. With the Doctor gone, the pace drops off, and we’re asked to buy into the debate between Clara (Jenna Coleman) and Ludvik (Hermione Norris). Debates about killing big animals being another Moffat-era motif.

The kill or let live debate helps justify the absurdity of the “big baby thing in the moon” plot. But much as the episode’s first section heaped action upon action, the next act seems to want to build on the unlikeliness of the premise. Because now, Clara wants to put this moral dilemma to an Earth bound vote, convincing people to signal their choice by turning on their lights. Not only does it seem unlikely that everyone on Earth would go for this on short notice – to listen to this random stranger who has mysteriously turned up on the moon – but it’s a vote which only counts people for whom it’s night on Earth. Truth be told, this bugs me more than the moon being an egg.  As our friend Chrissie, in another of her quiet moments of candour, says, “The only visible artificial lights are of course Europe and the Americas. Africa, Asia and Australia don’t get a vote in this.”

So the night owls of planet Earth are put to a test of their compassion, which they fail. Only Clara’s intervention saves little Moonpie from being blown up. The Doctor deigns to return and describe how it’s all going to work out fine because the creature’s benign. It lays another moon and in doing so re-ignites humanity’s appetite for space travel. But with this morality play over, we come to the third of the story’s big ideas: the bust up between Clara and the Doctor.

It’s this closing move which is the most plausible in the whole story. That Clara would finally get sick of the Doctor’s bullshit and call him out seems right on. Because frankly, the Doctor’s been an utter dick this episode. When Clara accuses him of being patronising and disrespectful, it’s hard not to agree with her on each count. Actually, if we’re scratching around for likeable characters in Kill the Moon, we’re in trouble. Between piggish ol’ Doctor, hard nail Ludvik and obnoxious teen Courtney, there’s a real charisma vacuum on this ersatz satellite.

Then on top of all the tall tales, switches of focus and friendships being ruined… there’s an anti-abortion message bubbling under the surface. Harness has said it’s unintentional, but you might think that between him, showrunner Steven Moffat, the script editor, the producer and the director, someone must have twigged and decided to let it go through. Once noticed, it’s hard not to see it; the Doctor, Clara and Courtney all refer to the creature as a baby (thanks again, Chrissie), it hatches from an egg and the correct moral action, as presented, is to let the creature be born. As unintentional allegories go, it’s as blatant as they come and a rare example of Doctor Who coming down strongly on one side of a contentious moral debate.

So what do we end up with? A story that doesn’t know what mass is, forgets that only half the world is dark at any one time, fails to give us a likeable hero to root for and subconsciously comes out as pro-choice. And then ends with a brand new replacement moon that looks just like the old one.

*****

So how’s that date going?

Well, it turns out after talking to that dreamboat of a date for about 45 minutes, you’ve discovered he’s a bit stupid, he’s full of tall tales and just to top things off, he’s a bit of a moraliser. But damn, he looks great. That’s your Kill the Moon, right there.

LINK TO The Hand of Fear: emotional companion farewells.

NEXT TIME… did I mention it also travels in time? We start the adventure of a lifetime with Rose.

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Pink, possessiveness and The Caretaker (2014)

dannyp

Look, we’d better talk about Danny Pink.

Danny, as played by Samuel Anderson, is a committed teacher, an emotionally damaged war veteran and lover of Clara (Jenna Coleman). We meet him over the course of Into the Dalek and Listen, as he and Clara engage in an awkward but ultimately successful courtship. But in The Caretaker he meets the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and everything changes. As it tends to.

The Doctor doesn’t like Danny; no surprises there. He’s never liked his companions’ boyfriends. But with Mickey and Rory, those tensions quickly subsided into grudging respect before developing into comfortable friendships. There’s little hope of that here. The Doctor is sneeringly dismissive of Danny, refusing to acknowledge that he’s a maths teacher, just because he was once a soldier (the irritating myth that the Doctor hates soldiers, again. Does he not remember his old friend Lethbridge-Stewart was a soldier turned maths teacher?). Danny can’t stand the Doctor’s automatic assumption of superiority, labelling him as an officer. The subtext is clear. They’re fighting over Clara’s affections.

So the two men in Clara’s life finally meet and they can’t stand each other. A level of rapprochement is achieved though when Danny helps defeat the robotic Skovox Blitzer. Still, Danny doesn’t appreciate Clara’s deception and he’s highly suspicious of what happens when she periodically absconds in the TARDIS for adventures. And it’s from this point that Danny’s behaviour shifts… in a way, which hit a bum note some of the show’s audience.

Mrs Spandrell summed it up. “He’s become quite controlling of her, hasn’t he?” she noted during a sideways glance at this episode. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before. Danny’s controlling, manipulative, creepy. He wants to dictate what Clara can and can’t do. Is this reading justified?

If it is, he shows us this side of himself in record time. It starts here in The Caretaker and is ended when he gets hit by that car in the opening scene of Dark Water. That leaves only three episodes in which to cement this reputation as a possessive control freak, and in two of those, he makes only fleeting appearances.

So how does he manage to make such a bad impression with such minimal screen time? Let’s look at what he actually does to gain this reputation.

Moment 1: In The Caretaker, Danny discovers the truth about Clara and the Doctor and is upset that she hasn’t told him about it. He and the Doctor have a row, but then their combined efforts deactivate the Blitzer. When it’s all done, he gives Clara an ultimatum:

DANNY: If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me, because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if that happens, yeah?

CLARA: Yeah, it’s a deal.

DANNY: No. It’s a promise.

CLARA: Okay. I promise.

DANNY: And if you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished.

Look, if Mrs Spandrell had been secretly moonlighting, even in a platonic sense, with some dashing adventurer, I think I’d have something to say about it too. But I think the problem here is the ultimatum; it seems like Danny’s way or the highway. And it sets up a threat – that Danny will leave her if he disobeys her – which clearly scares Clara.

What she doesn’t say here is, “Look, I’ll see whoever I like, thanks and if you can’t deal with that, too bad.” Whether that would be fair for her to say, I don’t know. But the absence of such a statement is part of the problem.

Moment 2: In Kill the Moon, the predicted boundary pushing happens and Clara returns to Earth distraught. It’s actually her who says it first:

CLARA: I’m done. It’s over. I’m finished with him, and I told him that. What is that face for? Why don’t you believe me?

DANNY: Because you’re still angry. You can never finish with anyone while they can still make you angry. Tell him when you’re calm, and then tell me.

So it’s Clara’s choice to leave. Or is it? Danny seems even handed here, but has he manipulated her, by predicting the Doctor’s behaviour and putting the seed of doubt in her mind?

Moments 3 & 4: In Mummy on the Orient Express, Danny is actually tempering Clara’s intentions.

CLARA: So, what are you saying? Just because he brought me somewhere cool, I shouldn’t dump him?

DANNY: Well, one, you can’t dump him because he’s not your boyfriend. And two, dumping him sounds a little scorched earth. You still basically get on. I think you should just enjoy your space train.

But then later in the episode, he rings her up, expecting her to have dumped him (“so is it done?” he asks). And at that point, Clara decides to lie to both Danny (by saying yes to that question) and the Doctor by saying:

CLARA: Danny. He’s fine with the idea of me and you knocking about. It was his idea that we stop but, he’s decided he doesn’t mind and neither do I.

She claims it was Danny’s idea but all indications are that it was her idea, although he did little to dissuade her. But the worrying thing is that she’s kept quiet about her decision to stay on board the TARDIS. She’s clearly at least concerned, and at worst, worried, about telling Danny. What would he do if she told him the truth?

Moment 5: In In the Forest of the Night, he notices a pile of unmarked homework in the TARDIS and realises she’s been on board.

DANNY: I just want to know the truth. I don’t care what it is. I just want to know it. Like Maebh said. Like the forest. Fear a little bit less, trust a bit more.

CLARA: Okay. Well…

DANNY: No, not now. Go home and do your marking. Think about it, then tell me. I saved you from a tiger today. I deserve at least that.

See, it’s interesting this. On one hand, Danny seems to have a valid gripe. He’s concerned about Clara’s safety while in the company of the Doctor and she keeps lying to him about it.

But if any of the blame for this situation is his, it’s never acknowledged. His lines often position him as a victim – I know what that’s like, I just want to know the truth – but then end with an instruction, tell him when you’re calm, think about it, then tell me. He’s reasonable and reassuring in one breath, but issuing orders in the next. And Clara always seems to be in the wrong.

It’s hard to pinpoint, but I think on balance, Danny Pink the controlling boyfriend is definitely there. It’s hinted at in the writing and gently reinforced by Anderson’s performance. Perhaps unintentionally in both instances. And although it might all be an unhappy accident, maybe instances of male characters trying to influence female characters who they can/can’t see and what they can/can’t do, should just be avoided.

LINK TO The Christmas Invasion. Both set in modern day London.

NEXT TIME: We’ve come (to) Full Circle.

Stop, look and Listen (2014)

listenSometimes, amongst all the noise and spectacle of a Doctor Who story, it’s the nuances that are most impressive. Watching Listen again, I was struck by one tiny but exquisite detail.

It’s on Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) second attempt at the date. She absent mindedly drops Danny’s (Samuel Anderson) real name, Rupert – a detail she’s not supposed to know and the catalyst for a new argument. At that point of the soundtrack, there’s the sound of a glass breaking. A nice, gently symbolic touch.

Listen‘s got lots of interesting little details like that in it, some adding extra meaning to the story, and some raising more questions than they answer. Let’s unearth a few more.

  • The story’s title is offered to us three times, in three different ways. In the very first scene, where the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is meditating on top of the TARDIS (mind that lamp), his eyes snap open and he exclaims, “Listen!”. For no readily apparent reason. Then we’re in the TARDIS and the Doctor’s musing out loud, pre-credits and we see the word LISTEN scrawled mysteriously on a blackboard. Then the title card itself. We get it. The episode’s called Listen.
  • The restaurant where Clara meets Danny has a roundel patterned ceiling, making it feel a bit TARDISy.
  • Danny Pink is wearing a pink shirt. Now, this little detail feels wrong to me. I just don’t think he’s the sort of guy who would intentionally wear pink, because it would be like he’s trying to emphasise his surname. If anything, pink’s the one colour he wouldn’t wear.
  • When Clara arrives, Danny’s excuse for not having the date sooner is, “family stuff.” As we find out, this episode’s going to be all about Danny’s family life; his childhood and Orson Pink, who is strongly hinted at being Danny’s descendant. About which, more later.
  • During the date, Clara and Danny compare notes about a particularly frustrating female student. This is a clear reference to the show’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, during which schoolteachers Ian and Barbara are similarly flummoxed by their pupil Susan. Stay tuned, there are more links to the show’s very first story, and its first season, to come.
  • When she returns home from her date, Clara predicts she’ll get a phone call from Danny. And she does, while she’s plugged into the TARDIS telepathic circuits, causing the ship to veer off course, etc etc.
  • When the Doctor is explaining his theory about the dream that everybody has, Clara asks the Doctor if he has had the dream. He doesn’t say anything but we find out the answer is yes later in the episode, and Clara was the cause.
  • When the Doctor’s explaining how the telepathic circuits work, Clara says she doesn’t want to know when she’s going to die. This is the second time this season Clara has said that, the last time in Deep Breath. This could be just misdirection, making us think that Clara’s doomed when she’s not. But it feels like it was meant to lead somewhere, a hint at a story arc which never eventuated.
  • And speaking of which, there’s a major plot point about Clara being part of Orson’s family, the clear implication being that Orson’s a descendant of Clara and Danny’s. This isn’t how it turns out at all, and while it’s possible that Orson could be some the fruit of some other twisted branch of the Oswald and Pink family trees, that doesn’t feel like the intention. We know that Moffat was expecting Jenna Coleman to leave at the end of the series, and my bet is that Death in Heaven was going to end with her pregnant. But hey, we’ll probably never know.
  • While we’re on paths untaken, one of the things which Danny gets riled about is when people refer to him as a killer. In Into the Dalek, he gets called a ‘ladykiller’ and here, Clara jokes that when he says he could kill someone, that really means something. Perhaps this story arc was not meant to end with Clara procreating with Danny, but with him killing her?
  • There’s a running joke in this episode that Clara’s eyes are too large for her face. “Get them under control,” the Doctor says at one point. The makeup department has taken notes and assigned Clara nude lipstick. As Mrs. Spandrell, a trained makeup artist, pointed out to me, this draws the viewer’s attention away from her lips and accentuates her eyes. Clever, huh?
  • Orson’s spacesuit is from Sanctuary Base Six and thus a big continuity booboo. There’s no attempt to hide it either; there are a series of big close ups where its logo is front and centre. So a detail overlooked there, and here’s another. I can just about accept that the Doctor sends Orson into the restaurant to summon Clara. I can just about accept that he doesn’t say anything, just beckon mysteriously. But why on earth does his wear the helmet in the restaurant? Only, of course, to preserve the eventual reveal of his face being the same as Danny’s, one scene later.
  • So, Clara meets Danny when he’s a young boy and unintentionally rewrites his destiny. Later, she meets the Doctor as a young boy, and more intentionally, sets him on his life’s path. So Clara seems to have a thing about messing with men’s lives. She’s already a force for change in the Doctor’s life, running up and down his timeline. Though to be fair, she grows out of this habit. But next year, the Doctor picks it up and has a life changing impact on young Davros.
  • Back to 100,000 BC. Clara picks up a line of dialogue from that story, which is “fear makes companions of us all.” In fact, you could argue the whole story’s been built around this moment. Amongst the many shout outs to the first story, and remembering that Into the Dalek deliberately references the second, Listen picks up on the third. Inside the Spaceship. It’s the other story in the Who canon where the Doctor suspects the presence of an unseen menace, only for it to be revealed that it was all his own paranoia.

Listen is a story whose title asks us to observe and pay attention, as a schoolteacher scrawling on a chalkboard might instruct her students. For me, there’s just as much to observe in the small touches (some random, some carefully planned) than in the broad brushstrokes of this chamber piece of an episode. That could be the very definition of being a fan.

LINK TO Paradise Towers: lonely little boys playing soldiers.

NEXT TIME… oh, the end of the universe has come. Grab every companion you’ve ever had, it’s The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.

 

 

Six, Twelve and Into the Dalek (2014)

When John Nathan-Turner became producer of Doctor Who, he soon got to cast his first Doctor. He chose the youngest ever actor for the role, to create a likeable, appealing new Time Lord. Roughly 30 years later, showrunner Steven Moffat did the same.

JN-T later found himself re-casting the Doctor three years into the job, and he created a new version who was loud, brash and wore garish, multi-coloured clothing. The snider commentators suggested that JN-T had started fashioning the Doctor in his own image. What then to say about Steven Moffat, who when designing his second Doctor, produced a grumpy, dour Scotsman with a biting wit and a penchant for dark jackets?

Into the Dalek has got me thinking about the similarities between Doctors Six and Twelve, and not just that they may bear a passing resemblance to their creators. They are similar in many ways and both are extreme reactions to their charming, boyish predecessors. Both are deliberate attempts to make the Doctor less accessible, more challenging and to bring conflict to their relationships with their companions. If you ever wished the sixth Doctor’s era had better writing, better direction and a subtler costume for the leading man, you can more or less see the results in Peter Capaldi’s first season.

Into the Dalek features the twelfth Doctor at his least likeable; his charismatic nadir, from which he has been slowly but steadily climbing ever since. He lacks compassion, right from the story’s opening when he can’t bring himself to give a word’s comfort to Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) who has just watched her brother die. He is openly dismissive of those he deems unworthy of his attention; he can’t bring himself to remember Morgan’s (Michael Smiley) name, just calling him “a sort of boss one” and “Uncle Stupid”. And he leads crew member Ross (Ben Crompton), under terminal assault by Dalek antibodies, to believe he has a chance to live, before using his death as an escape plan. In The Day of the Doctor, only three stories ago, we were reminded that the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly. He’s certainly no coward, but we can no longer be sure about his absence of cruelty.

Old Sixie was a bit like this. He couldn’t bring himself to be compassionate when his companion Peri was forced to kill that Mutant in Revelation of the Daleks. In The Twin Dilemma, he was rude and dismissive towards intergalactic policeman Hugo Lang. But he also had, particularly in Season 22, a violent streak which P-Cap lacks, dishing out unpleasant deaths to adversaries in Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors. Six was more likely to be a participant in people’s deaths and Twelve is more likely to coldly use them to his advantage.

Unexpectedly, the sixth Doctor is the more outwardly sympathetic of the two. Despite his apparent lack of warmth, he’s more likely than the twelfth to pause to mourn a comrade’s death, or to express remorse. Capaldi’s Doctor is more likely to simply move on. Quite horribly so, in the case of Ross, who is liquidated by Dalek antibodies and deposited in the chamber the Doctor and friends escape to. “Top layer,” he baldly tells Journey, “if you want to say a few words.” It’s a step too far; too crass and unfeeling for any version of the Doctor. It’s the twelfth’s version of the infamous moment in Varos when two men fall into an acid bath and the sixth says, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you.”

In the pre-publicity for his first season, Capaldi called his Doctor “less user friendly” than before. But it’s more than that. In conception, the twelfth and sixth Doctors are deliberate attempts to highlight the difference between his alien point of view and our human one. It’s a dangerous game, one which risks alienating audiences. And there’s a line you can’t cross. The Doctor can be irascible and remote, but he can’t be nasty. Then we start to wonder if he’s worth hanging around with.

This is where the companions come in, and here, Twelve has a few advantages over Six. The sixth Doctor’s relationship with Peri was so volatile it bordered on destructive. She was the focus of much of his unpleasant character traits; supporting characters he was generally nice to. Peri bore the brunt of his bad side. He shouted at her, belittled her and of course, on one occasion, attacked her. There’s a moment in The Two Doctors where he bemoans her for not deducing that he’s been to Seville at least once, and when he turns her back, she mouths silently, “hate you!” There’s a terrible abusive slant on their relationship, demonstrated in those moments when the Doctor suddenly switches from disdain to affectionate concern for Peri, often taking her protectively under his arm. Unpleasant mixed signals. Just awful.

The twelfth Doctor though, has Clara (Jenna Coleman) to whom he made an impassioned plea at the end of the previous episode to stick with him. Despite her misgivings, she agreed, and hugged him, in a powerful symbol that she at heart, loves this version of the Doctor. Her job, as Rose Tyler’s was (and as Peri’s should have been) is to teach him how to be more human, as to help him mend his ways.

Clara’s faith in the Doctor is critical here. It’s the reassurance the audience needs that this Doctor is worth persevering with. It’s the faith that Peri never had in her Doctor, and why her determination to stick with the sixth Doctor seemed so perplexing. We can see why Clara sticks with the twelfth Doctor, because they make a great team. It must be this potential that Journey can see, and why she asks to join the TARDIS at story’s end; Lord knows it can’t be because she’s charmed and intrigued by the Doctor who’s been an utter jerk to her throughout.

Having an unlikeable Doctor does enable us to more clearly see his flaws. In this story, they even become the means to resolving the problem at hand. Rusty (voiced by Nicholas Briggs) flip flops between “Dalek with a conscience” and your everyday murderous sort. But when he mind merges with the Doctor, it’s his hatred of the Daleks, so palpable and raw, which encourages Rusty to turn against his comrades and save the day. Difficult to see that working with Davison or Smith. You need an darker Doctor to be able to unleash that darkness on his enemies.

****

JN-T eventually reconsidered. When Colin Baker came back for The Trial of a Time Lord, he was still loud and brash, but the nastiness was gone and he was nice to Peri. At least until Part Six when… but that’s another story. Point is, he mellowed, and he needed to.

A similar regeneration has happened to Capaldi. By The Return of Doctor Mysterio, he’s a figure of fun. Companion Nardole calls him “very silly” and he’s pulling cheeseburgers out of his coat and swinging comically outside windows. In Season 10, companion Bill clearly adores him – whole lecture theatres full of students adore him. He’s more dotty and less acerbic than before. He’s come a long way from the version of him we meet in Into the Dalek, and he needed to.

LINK TO Mummy on the Orient Express: same Doctor, same season, easy done.

NEXT TIME: What phantasmagoria is this? Why, it’s The Unquiet Dead.

 

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

mummy

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

 *****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Doctor, a douchebag and Deep Breath (2014)

deepbreath

So here we are. Awaiting Peter Capaldi’s last season. Knowing it will soon be time to bid him farewell. Doesn’t seem that long ago that Deep Breath introduced him to us. The Twelfth or is it Thirteenth or is it Fourteenth Doctor.

Doctors. Aren’t there a lot of them these days? It wasn’t so long ago that if you were publishing a Doctor Who reference book of some kind you only had to find room on the cover for eight floating heads. I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover of The Time Lord Letters but it really had to work hard to squeeze twelve Doctors onto that cover. Could have been worse if they included John Hurt. Peter Cushing was presumably never in the running.

And how many are we going to get to? 20? 30? At which point does it become unfeasible to keep ranking Doctors by favourite? It’s still just about possible to have a favourite Doctor, a second favourite Doctor and all the way down to twelfth (or thirteenth, or fourteenth). How are we going to do that when there are 37 or something? Sylvester McCoy used to wryly comment on fans telling him he was their fifth favourite Doctor. How much more unedifying to be someone’s 23rd favourite Doctor.

Surely it will become the case that we start to group Doctors into eras, simply to cope with the weight of numbers. People might say they like the Seventies Doctors, or the Noughties Doctors (or the naughty Doctors. That could be a thing) Or perhaps it will be that we start grouping them by type.

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the type that plays hard to like. We might link him with Doctors like William Hartnell and Colin Baker, through whose gruff exteriors companions and audiences alike have to excavate to find the charming, enchanting Time Lords underneath. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that fans might like this type of Doctor over the young, dashing type (your Davisons, Tennants and McGanns) or your outwardly wacky but inwardly devious type (your Troughtons, McCoys and Smiths). Lord only knows what type Tom Baker is. All three at once, maybe.

The coming of Capaldi in Deep Breath signalled not just a change of Doctor, but a change of type of Doctor. For a formidable eight years the Doctor had been young and accessible. A pin-up, and not just for the readers of Doctor Who Magazine. Capaldi was designed to be a complete change.

The oldest actor to take the part since Hartnell. The one with the most established televisual identity, thanks to his bravura performance as the foul mouthed blow torch of a political adviser Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. An artist, a musician, a director. A goddamn Oscar winner. And a Doctor Who fan to boot. The fact that he was to be a radical change of main character mattered little, because everyone – everyone – was convinced that this man was utterly right for the part. For many who had never been comfortable with the Doctor being the young photogenic type, the return to an older Doctor and the gravitas that brought to the part was long overdue.

There was no doubt, as Deep Breath aired. We had absolutely the right man for the job.

But since then, I think it would be fair to say the shine has gone off the show in some ways. Not, I hasten to add, because Capaldi has proven to be a substandard Doctor. You only need to read my post on Heaven Sent to know that I’m a P-Cap fan. Still though, ratings are down and I notice that among my not-we friends who are casual viewers of the show, their enthusiasm has waned since Smith sailed. For a while there it seemed like everyone was a Doctor Who fan. Now it seems to becoming less mainstream, more niche, more the cult series of old.

Sure, it’s hard for a series to maintain maximum appeal over more than a decade. Still, might it not have something to do with casting a Doctor who’s more brusque, more aloof and altogether harder work than audiences have been accustomed to? Could it be that we have a Doctor that fans love but the general public are not as keen on?

And so maybe we have a new type of Doctor again. The “discerning choice” type of Doctor. The connoisseur’s Doctor.

****

Deep Breath is all about someone getting used to a new type of Doctor. Clara (Jenna Coleman) has really been thrown by this regeneration, despite being the one companion to have met all the previous Doctors in a creepy, stalker-ish, I’ve-ended-up-an-extra-in-Dragonfire kind of way. She held a flame for the last Doctor (well, he was the pin-up type) and now, as she says, he’s got old and grey. Madame Vastra (Neve MacIntosh) has to have a stern talk with her about how the Doctor’s not young, has never been young and is actually a mountain face (or something like that). It does feel a bit like the audience is also being reminded that the Doctor can be something other than young and spunky.

Over the course of the episode, Clara perseveres with the Doctor while he behaves intolerably to her. He runs away from her, no less than three times. He abandons her to the mercies of the Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinando) to endure a terrifying interrogation with no explanation. And while he returns to save her, there’s never an apology or a comforting word.  It’s not just that this Doctor is less user friendly than before. It’s also that he’s a bit of a douchebag.

At the end of the episode, the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) makes an unexpected reappearance to ask Clara to forget all the crummy things this new Doctor has done to her and give him another chance. It’s a risky gambit – there would be at least some of the audience wishing he’d not left. But he’s convincing enough for Clara to hang around and hear the new Doctor ask her to, “just see me”. We’re not a million miles away from McCoy’s declaration at the end of Time and the Rani when he promises companion Mel and through her the audience that he’ll grow on them.  It’s a plea to the audience to stick around.

Those who did, I’m sure, have only been rewarded by P-Cap with a performance which has developed and matured over time. Those who haven’t, and the ratings show there have been a few, have really missed out. They probably lacked the confidence of the fans who know that the Doctor can be, at times, a douche but he won’t always be. We know he makes up for it in other ways and that at heart, he cares deeply about doing what’s right. But we can hardly blame a casual audience if they don’t, as Clara does, wait around to find that out.

LINK TO The Celestial Toymaker: both feature characters called Clara.

NEXT TIME… How can you be excited about a rubbish hotel on a rubbish bit of Earth? Let’s find out by developing The God Complex.

An unearthly child, two bad wolves and In the Forest of the Night (2014)

Forest

Here’s my basic thesis on this odd little episode: it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that shouldn’t stop us enjoying it.

Want to find logical flaws in In the Forest of the Night? We don’t have to look very hard. How does a forest spring up in a 24 hour city like London with no one noticing? If it happened overnight, did it happen in broad daylight on the other side of the world? And why are there so few people in London during the events of this episode? Isn’t the whole idea of trees instantly setting up an oxygen buffer to quell a solar flare just too unfeasible? How about how they all instantly vanish after the flare hits? How can trees repel flames? And what about all the damage caused to roads and buildings and so on caused by trees growing up around them? How was that all immediately fixed?

I have to admit that when I first saw this episode this ever growing pile of problems bugged me a lot. It was that there were so many of them, and they were so blatant. It was when I thought, this must be deliberate. Showrunner Steven Moffat and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce are smart guys. They must know how preposterous all this is, so what’s their point?

Their point, I think, is that this is not an episode to be taken too literally. I think its closest cousin in Doctor Who would be The Mind Robber, where the events within are so fantastical that it makes more sense to concentrate on themes and subtext of the story, than worry too much about its internal logic. Once I took this approach, I found there was much to enjoy in this densely layered, lyrically written and at times, very funny story.

*****

This story centres on a lost little girl, Maebh Arden (Abigail Eames). ‘Maebh’ means ‘she who intoxicates’ and Arden is Shakespeare’s mystical forest in As You Like it. She wears a red hooded jacket, and she’s menaced by not just one but two big bad wolves, so she’s a strong signal of fairy tales and their influence on this story.  Later, Clara (Jenna Coleman) will compare hers and the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) situation to the lost children, Hansel and Gretel. The forest grows overnight with the speed of Jack’s famous beanstalk. Fairy tales are potent stuff and the journey into a dark forest, to suffer through bizarre ordeals but to also learn something about life, is a familiar trope of the fantasy genre. Stephen Sondheim even wrote a musical about it.

In this particular forest, there are strange, unpredictable creatures. They’re called children. Not just the traumatised Maebh, but the rest of the Coal Hill gifted and talented mob. Early in the episode, hard nut Bradley (Ashley Foster) is taunted by smart alec Samson (Jayden Harris-Wallace) by the flickering of torchlight in his eyes. Later, their teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) uses the same technique to scare off a tiger (is that a genuine Bear Grylls style jungle survival technique? Let’s not try it out). When wayward teenager Annabel (Eloise Barnes) arrives home, she’s peering out of the hydrangea bush as the wolves did earlier in the ep. Kids, wolves and tigers, they’re all the same thing, apparently. Wild, untameable beasts.

These earthly children are at the centre of a giant shout out to Doctor Who’s very first episode. In An Unearthly Child each of our Coal Hill schoolteachers have a flashback to trying to teach Susan something. Here, both Danny (Samuel Anderson) and Clara have a similar moment. Capaldi’s grumpy Doctor is close enough to Hartnell already, but Danny makes the connection clearer when he accuses him (albeit jokingly) of abducting Maebh, as he did Ian and Barbara all those years ago in a junkyard.

Hartnell used to compare the Doctor to a wizard, and that’s clearly what Capaldi is here. Even though Clara says his sonic screwdriver is not a magic wand, he has a mysterious magic cabinet. He can make shiny floating lights appear in the sky. And he inhabits this world full of magic – not just Clarke’s law kind of magic, advanced technology beyond our ken. But genuine-there’s-no-explanation-for-this magic. This is a world where trees don’t burn, where missing daughters reappear in a sparkle of fairy dust, where children can predict incoming solar flares, steal their teacher’s thoughts and command the world to be nice to trees. It is a world where science disappears in a puff of smoke. So of course it has a resident magician, a label often applied to our black clad Doctor.

There’s also a nagging sense the whole thing might be just a dream. Young Ruby (Harley Bird – the voice of Peppa Pig!) wonders how long they’ve slept for. Like Rip Van Winkle, or perhaps the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even Sleeping Beauty… perhaps they are all the victims of these soporific woods. With reality and fantasy being harder to discern, our little wild animals become inured to the amazing sights around them. They don’t even react when they enter the cavernous TARDIS console room. “There wasn’t a forest. Then there was a forest. Nothing surprises us any more,” explains Ruby.

And then there’s the tiger, and the title, which throws William Blake into the mix. By now, we’re lost in a forest of allusions. What next? You could throw in a joke about Les Miserables and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Nothing surprises us any more.

*****

What do all these crazy references indicate? What on earth is Cottrell-Boyce trying to say? I think the common link is the mythic power of stories.

It doesn’t matter if your preferred bedtime story is Red Riding Hood, or The Tyger or An Unearthly Child. The point is the powerful impact they have on the imagination. They disrupt the real world, like a forest bursting through the pavement. And anyone who’s ever tried to put a tantrumming toddler to bed (as wild as a tiger), will know how the right story will transport them to a different world, and send them gently into a world of dreams. They’ll dream of saving the world and talking to trees.

To me, that’s what In the Forest of the Night is about – the power of stories, including Doctor Who, to fire the imagination. If we try to make it all make sense, we’re missing the point. Do you try to make The Tyger makes sense? Or the story of Hansel and Gretel? You might as well try to make sense of a man who changes his face and travels through time in a phone box.

LINK TO The Evil of the Daleks: I’m pointing out a thematic link here, but both are referencing the very earliest Doctor Who stories. As is our next random selection…

NEXT TIME: We get our grubby little protuberances on Remembrance of the Daleks.