Tag Archives: series 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOCTOR: …you look sad.

RIVER: It’s nearly full.

DOCTOR: So?

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

DOCTOR: He sounds awful.

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

DOCTOR: Not somebody special then?

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

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

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

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

DOCTOR: Hello, sweetie.

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

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

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

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

Two things bug me about this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Capaldi, Moffat and Heaven Sent (2015)

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Tom Baker, at the height of his Doctordom, used to advocate for a Doctor Who which he starred in solo, with no need for a companion. He saw, I think it’s fair to say, the potential for him to hold an audience’s attention solo. Probably through the force of his own personality, but it’s not an unreasonable proposition – as The Deadly Assassin proved – that the Doctor as a dominant central character can hold a story’s narrative together on his own.

And since then, we’ve seen Doctors Tennant and Smith in companion-lite stories, and the model has worked just fine. But always these have remained ensemble pieces, with our solitary Doctor interacting with a guest cast . It’s not until Heaven Sent we get a story which is not just companion-lite, but everything-but-the-Doctor-lite. It’s the sort of episode Tom Baker must have dreamt of, back in day.

Heaven Sent is many things, not least of which an extraordinary vote of confidence in Peter Capaldi. Never before has one actor been entrusted with keeping a Doctor Who audience captivated all by himself. But it’s also a case of showrunner Steven Moffat continuing to experiment with the show’s form. He’s also, I suspect, keeping himself interested, even challenging himself with episodes like this one and Listen which in essence ask the same question that The Deadly Assassin did… Which is, can we pull this radical idea off?

So Heaven Sent is about those two men, as much as it’s about the Doctor deducing his way out of his own bespoke torture chamber. Let’s start with…

Capaldi

Of all the actors to play the Doctor, Capaldi comes to it with the most distinguished resume. Only Eccleston I think could challenge him for pre-Who actorly kudos. Capaldi’s experience is written all over that well lined face of his and he brings all of that to bear on his performance of the Doctor.

He can be the subtlest of Doctors; I remember watching Deep Breath  for the first time and being impressed with what he could do with the slightest gesture or the smallest flick of an eye. If his performance has been painted with ever broader brushstrokes since then, we might put this down to the need to develop a bigger performance to match Doctor Who’s pace; eyes become wider, laughs more extravagant, snarls more ferocious.

Capaldi is also an actor who moves with precision. In Heaven Sent, look at the considered way he picks up a spade or lets sand run though his fingers. Compare this to the brio of David Tennant, sailing into a scene, coat billowing. Or the teeter totter movement Matt Smith made his signature move. Capaldi’s careful choice of gesture and gait is an important character note; his is a Doctor who considers, who internalises and who wastes no energy on wild flailing about.

His voice is also distinctive, and crucial to the foreboding atmosphere of Heaven Sent, much of which is told in voice over. The decision to keep his Scots accent (don’t send him to that Chameleon spaceship!) is an interesting one, and one which, along with his initially close cropped hair, tied him closely to his other famous TV role, Malcolm Tucker. Luckily though, it’s a terrific voice, loaded with gravitas and it adds to the doom laden feeling of this episode.

These days, the ghost of Malcolm Tucker has faded almost entirely. Capaldi’s new, more Doctorly, costume has helped that. At the beginning of his second season, he was wearing check trousers like Troughton, and how he has a burgundy frock coat ala Tom Baker. All this, plus his hair has now grown into a Pertwee-esque bouffant. He now not only looks like a classic Doctor, he’s deliberately imitating them, right down to his (thankfully unseen) question mark underwear.

All this gushing is just to point out that Capaldi’s Doctor has developed into someone really interesting. Still spikily bad tempered, but with a growing sense of wry humour. A Doctor who looks and sounds the part. Played by an actor with care and precision. It’s why there was no doubt he could hold our attention solo for 45 minutes, because he’s utterly compelling.

Moffat

To make a Doctor solo episode work, Moffat pulls a range of narrative tricks. The problem he faces is that the Doctor has to have some dialogue to explain what’s going on, but he has no one to speak to. As noted, there’s the voice over, turning the Doctor into a commentator on his own story and giving the impression that the viewer’s allowed access to his innermost thoughts.

Moffat also gives the Doctor two people to talk to while he’s alone. The first is his unseen imprisoner, at whom he rails and shouts threats. But soon his attention switches to the monstrous Veil (Jamie Reid Quarrel), a creature plucked from his own childhood fears. Either way, the Doctor now has someone to speculate about the plot in front of. This exposition doesn’t lack an audience; in effect the viewer takes the place of the absent companion.

Then there’s the ‘storm room’, a mental stronghold which sounds suspiciously like Sherlock’s mind palace, and which enables the Doctor to talk to an hallucination of Clara. The storm room is where he retreats to at moments of mortal peril, which is very handy. It gets Moffat out of the need for a companion to ask, ‘how did you get out of that one?’ So between these three tricks – talking to himself (through voiceover), talking to the monster and talking in a dream sequence, Moffat deftly manouevers around the lack of supporting characters.

Heaven Sent is more than just Moffat pulling off some impressive narrative tricks, though. It’s also about finding new things to do with this show, in his sixth year of running it. He wants to keep the show fresh, of course, but I think it’s also about his own need to remain challenged and engaged by the show. There’s a sense, in the later years of his reign, of Moffat needing to stretch the show’s format further and further in order to keep himself amused. Luckily, I think the show’s the stronger for it.

There’s still some familiar Moffat tropes: hard drives that save people, an entire ‘bespoke’ situation designed around the Doctor, a twist in the final reel (and what a twist. When that remarkable closing sequence showing multiple subsequent repetitions of the Doctor’s quest from beginning to end, and the penny dropped as to what the long term effect was, I must confess to giving the Moff a quiet round of applause for the sheer cleverness of it).

Still, this feels startlingly new, while still managing to recall that Deadly Assassin by placing a solo Doctor in a trippy, dream world trap of Time Lord making. Plus there’s the added layer of meaning now that we know that Moffat was attempting to leave Doctor Who at the end of this season, that the Doctor himself stands as an avatar for the writer, trapped in a puzzle box of a TV series desperately trying to escape.

That’s what Heaven Sent says to me. One man liberated from the series’ standard format, seizing the opportunity to show how extraordinary he and his Doctor can be. And another man fighting against that format, to keep himself motivated and his writing vital, all the time with one eye on the exit, even if he has to bash his way through a wall of stone to get to it, one punch at a time.

LINK TO The Faceless Ones: duplication processes.

NEXT TIME: Which one was your favourite? The Giant Robot? Or was it Planet of the Dead?

Terror, Zygons and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (2015)

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As series 9 loomed, this story as described by its pre-publicity, didn’t seem to be one which would offer too many shocks. After all, it’s a UNIT story, usually a signal to expect a standard aliens vs army runaround. What’s more, it’s got a return appearance from old favourites the Zygons, who may have been sinister, bloated foetuses on 70s debut Terror of the Zygons but who had become slightly comical sidebar villains in The Day of the Doctor. By rights we should know what to expect from this story, and it should be action packed, light hearted fun.

But like a vicious alien monster disguised as a beautiful woman, the outward appearances hid something far more frightening. The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion takes the trappings of 70s Who by numbers and anniversary hijinks and makes them the conduits for a Doctor Who take on terrorism and its underlying causes. It’s an uncompromising face slap of a story.

Right from the beginning it’s creating unusually visceral imagery, such as when we see Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) taken hostage, flanked by her captors and their monochrome flags, forced to read a propaganda ridden statement. As if it’s not shocking enough for Who to mimic terrorism onscreen, the tormentee is a scarf-wearing superfan. She’s us, kidnapped by ISIS.

Coming a close second for disturbing imagery is Clara-impersonating Zygon Bonnie (Jenna Coleman) shooting down a plane. At time of broadcast, it was barely a year since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down over Ukraine by a surface to air missile, killing all on board. To end an episode with a similar incident feels shockingly contemporary, but it’s also very close to tastelessness.

And for a third? How about the moment when Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) on assignment in the New Mexican town of Truth or Consequences is shown a dumpster bin full of buzzing hairballs, the remains of humans fried by Zygon weaponry. Her revolted expression tells us the story, but then we pan over to see a line of other bins, and without seeing any violence, we get an acrid taste of the scale of the atrocities committed in this town. (And it makes us think back to when Kate rode into that town and a couple of random tumbleweeds tumbled through shot. These could so easily be mistaken for cliched indulgences from the art department, but now we wonder if they were in fact human remains).

Grim stuff, but this is meant to shock. It’s meant to provoke. And it does so not just through these big moments, but through a smart script that draws its analogies sharply without them seeming crass. Think how badly talk of radicalising Zygons and splinter groups could have gone. Think of the sledgehammer political commentary of Aliens of London/World War Three, for instance. Successfully avoided by writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat, whose treatment of the subject matter never makes us think equating Zygons with terrorists is dumb; rather that it seems an obvious match. Terror of the Zygons, indeed.

In that original story, the Zygons were just generically evil baddies, blessed with some outstanding design work and some better than average direction. On that occasion, the Doctor saw no shades of grey in these orange suckers; he simply blew them up as soon as was practicable. There was no attempt to uncover a sympathetic edge to this race, as might have been sought during the Pertwee era. The Day of the Doctor added little more to them. But here, we learn more, that there are peaceful and warlike Zygons, but that most want to live out their lives safely undercover. It’s a big change and adds far more depth to this once most generically drawn of species.

This makes the threat that the splinter group Zygons represent far more potent, because we can compare them to the worst of humanity. We know how appalling human terrorists are so we have a sense of how awful Zygon terrorists must be. It’s far more dramatic this way, knowing that you’re dealing with the very worst a race can drag up. And these bad guys are far scarier when they look just like us, not like calamari. The sequence of the UNIT soldier being unable to shoot a Zygon in the shape of his mother is tangibly frightening. And when Bonnie forces a Zygon to unmask in the middle of a shopping mall, she’s enacting the terrorist’s modus operandi of instilling fear of going about your daily business. As the Doctor says, panic and paranoia are their trade.

These episodes give us some of the edgiest material the program has ever served up, so it’s almost a shame when the plot has to reassert itself and move us towards some sort of climax. And that climax, is effectively a repeat of the sequence in The Day of the Doctor where Kate and her Zygon counterpart were forced into negotiation. It’s a small scale end for such an action-packed story, just the two chief protagonists, fingers poised over buttons and the Doctor on hand to referee.

So if you’re going to end a blockbuster with an extended monologue, best get it delivered by Peter Capaldi, who eats it alive with all the hunger of an aging anti-war activist who’s been railing at warmongering plutocrats since he played Amazing Grace on his guitar at Woodstock with Hendrix. It’s a moment which solidifies this Doctor; it’s difficult to imagine Matt Smith delivering this speech to the same effect.

His appeal to the terrified aggressors, both human and Zygon, is to stop and think. That’s the conclusion this episode seems to draw is that terrorism is ultimately an act of stupidity and if its perpetrators just thought logically about their actions, they’d never follow through with them. Who knows whether this is true, but it’s a beautiful hopeful thought. And as the Doctor once said, one solid hope’s worth a cartload of certainties.

In the pre-publicity for this story, co-writer Peter Harness talked about the influence of 50s sci-fi classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers on this story. And true enough, in the eery “can’t tell who’s who” scenes there is a passing resemblance. But actually, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion is cleverer than that film, a one-note screed against communism. This is a nuanced commentary on current affairs and a taut thriller into the bargain. What really makes it exhilarating though, is the realisation that every now and then Doctor Who, that venerable old show, still has the power to shake itself and its viewers out of the comfort zone.

LINK TO: The Chase. Duplicates. But more convincing.

NEXT TIME… It’s a game, within a game. A chance to remeet old friends and The Five Doctors.

Warnings, threats and Sleep No More (2015)

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

*****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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