Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Frosty's Revenge




STORY 234: THE SNOWMEN

The Snowmen is perhaps the best pilot for a spin-off I've seen, given that the secondary characters of lizard-like alien Madame Vastra (Neve Macintosh) and her Victorian-era human lesbian lover Jenny (Catrin Stewart) are infinitely more important than the former lead character of The Doctor (Matt Smith).  The Snowmen has the return of the Great Intelligence, which is a villain not from the mind of writer/producer Steven Moffat (which must come as a shock to his sycophants) but from the Yeti stories of the Second Doctor era: The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear.  What it doesn't have is the need for the Doctor.  In many ways, the Doctor seems to merely be in the way of the Vastra/Jenny/Sontaran Strax (Dan Starkey) fun-and-games.  In short, for all it's worth he might as well have remained up in his cloud.

It's 1842 and a little boy is making a snowman.  He's a solitary little chap who thinks the other children are 'silly'.  As it happens, the snowman thinks so too...and tells him so.  Soon we go fifty years, and little Walter has grown to the sinister Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant).  He is the servant of the Intelligence or Great Intelligence (voiced by Ian McKellen), who is none-too-subtle about who he is (given the bad doctor's calling card literally reads G.I.). 

We then get a look at ye olde Victorian wench Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), who is puzzled by the sudden appearance of a snowman.  The passing wanderer cares not about this phenomena, but our persistent serving-wench jumps on his carriage and asks those immortal words, "Doctor Who?"

The Doctor tries to get Clara to forget they met via a Memory Worm (I suppose those devices from Men in Black weren't available), but that comic Silurian Strax keeps making a right mess of it.  The Doctor doesn't care about anything, least of all Clara Who...which leads her to reply "Doctor Who".  She however, manages to follow the Doctor up to his Castle on a Cloud...or TARDIS on a Cloud...but runs off before he finds her.

Our Clara all but magically changes from ye olde Victorian bar-wench to the veddy proper Victorian governess Miss Montague.  She watches over two children, Digby (Joseph Darcy-Alden) and his sister Francesca (Ellie Darcy-Alden...wonder if they're related).  Francesca has been having nightmares about her previous governess, who drowned in the pond (emphasis mine) coming back to punish her on Christmas, which is that very night.  Digby suggests she needs a Doctor...

With that, Clara returns to where the TARDIS on a Cloud was, shouting for him.  Coming upon this odd scene is Jenny.  Clara tells her she needs to speak to the Doctor, to which Jenny replies, "Doctor Who?"  Jenny then takes her to meet the star of The Snowmen...


...and they have a most interesting conversation where Vastra puts her to The One-Word Test.  What is that one word that will bring the reclusive Doctor out of retirement to save the world?  Vastra tells him that One Word, which reawakens him from his enforced metaphorical slumber...

POND!

I suppose technically the fact that the estate's pond remains solidly frozen while everything else has thawed is what Clara was referring to...or IS IT?  The Doctor goes to where Clara works and quickly things happen: the Ice Governess comes alive to terrorize the children, the Doctor finds things exciting again, the Companion dies (sort-of), the Great Intelligence tries to win but can't, something outside the Doctor saves the world, Doctor bids farewell to Clara and at her funeral realizes that the same Clara Oswin Oswald was the SAME Oswin from Asylum of the Daleks!  She's The Girl Whose Died Twice (wonder if she's related to Rory Pond...Williams...Whatever).  We end in present-day where a girl not unlike Clara/Oswin is wandering that same graveyard.  She's not afraid of ghosts.  Now the Doctor has a mission: to find this girl.


He's With Stupid
   
The plot of The Snowmen was described thus by my DVR: 'Though saddened by the loss of his companions (sic), the Doctor helps a young governess battle a frosty menace".  I don't know if they were intentionally or not trying for a pun but I took it as unintended comedy.   For myself, while I did find some good things within The Snowmen, it's just another in the sad and sorry disappointments of the Moffat-Smith Era I have endured.

Let's start with the dominance of the secondary characters.  For the first half of The Snowmen the Doctor isn't a player in any of it.  I know it's because he is now a recluse, but because of this the slack has to be picked up by Vastra, Jenny, and Stax: three characters the NuWho fans have inexplicably gone mad for (why secondary characters who were in River's Secret Part I: A Good Man Goes to War for less than fifteen minutes are suddenly iconic I know not) but who basically take over the story.  That perhaps might be forgiven if there was anything good about them, but there simply isn't.  Again and again I am puzzled why so many NuWhovians appear to be celebrating same-sex bestiality.  Madame Vastra is a know-it-all (hints of River Song), Jenny is basically a tart, and Strax...well, poor Strax.  Poor, poor Strax.

The Silurians were once a feared enemy of the Doctor.  Making their debut in The Time Warrior (which also was the debut story of Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith), they became fierce foes to the Doctor, even having managed to invade Gallifrey itself in The Invasion of Time.  However, now this once proud warrior species has been reduced to comic relief, a figure of ridicule more than menace.  Strax, more than any other Sontaran, has shifted the image from that of a committed foe to that of a dimwit who doesn't quite get the social manners of humans or any other species. 

Perhaps that's what NuWho fans want, but somehow it doesn't ring true.  It turns things into a joke when perhaps the Doctor might have called for a Sontaran's fighting ability, especially one that is willing to help him.  The entire scene between Strax, the Doctor and Clara goes on for far too long and is nowhere as funny as Moffat or Smith think it is.  Comedy is OK so long as it adds something to the story or grows out of it (example: The Romans).  Given that it was neither, the whole sequence should have been cut tremendously.

Going on to Madame Vastra and Jenny, I still fail to comprehend why their relationship (one of the most twisted in Doctor Who history) is so beloved.  We can't quite leave aside the fact that it's a lizard involved in a sexual relationship with a human.  However, we'll try as apparently Jenny is so in love with Vastra that she doesn't seem to mind that her 'wife' drinks human blood.  When Clara and Vastra meets, she doesn't straight-up say she's drinking blood but intimates as much.  We can also leave aside the idea that it is impossible for these two to be married in any legal sense of the word: WHO would marry them, HOW?

The thing about Vastra and Jenny is that they simply aren't interesting.  Other than the fact that it's a Silurian in Victorian London hooking up with this slinky Cockney, they don't appear to be clever (the mystery of the snow having been solved off-screen) or particularly important to the story.  Instead, they do serve the purpose of drawing attention and time away from the Doctor.  It was his show once, and once HE would have been leading the case.  Now, he's reduced to being Punch (and a bad one at that).

There are moments of astonishing stupidity in The Snowmen that boggle the mind as to how they would have released it the way it was broadcast.  We already have this "Doctor Who?" business that by now should be retired.  There were four, FOUR uses of something a child might find amusing but that is by now simply tiresome, even silly.  However, for sheer unintended (we hope) laughter, we have to go to when the Doctor and The Great Intelligence meet.

We begin this with the G.I. saying, "Danger.  Danger.  There is danger here".   Hearing, "danger, danger", I did expect for the Great Intelligence to call out for Will Robinson.  Perhaps Lost in Space wasn't as popular in the U.K. as it was in the U.S., but it still sounds odd at the least to hear "danger, danger" ringing out throughout the cavernous institute Simeon is at.

To add an even more bizarre (or perhaps self-serving) element, we have the Eleventh Doctor doing what he does best...look foolish and not taking anything seriously.  Simeon's manservant rushes into the laboratory saying that he has a caller...Sherlock Holmes.  In comes in Matt Smith, complete with pipe, dazzling us with that Moffat-Smith humor we've come to detest.


Making things even worse is Moffat/Smith's penchant for deliberately trying for laughs when the situation doesn't call for them.  When the Great Intelligence confronts the Doctor about not being from this world, the Doctor's reply is "takes one to SNOW one". 

I don't hear a rim shot.

There isn't anything wrong with having a Doctor unafraid: the Fourth would offer jelly babies to his adversaries.  However, there is laughing at the face of danger and being downright stupid.  Smith's Doctor constantly crosses that line by A.) ceding the spotlight to others (be they River or Vastra) and B.) by appearing to not realize that he is facing a serious threat...well, perhaps when you're being menaced by snow and ice, maybe not so much. 



The fact that Steven Moffat is also the producer/writer of the updated Sherlock I suppose has very little to do with this get-up.  There is a lot of mentioning in The Snowmen of Holmes and his creator.  Dr. Simeon states that Dr. Doyle has more than likely based his stories on Vastra and Jenny (changing a few things of course).  This doesn't seem likely given that the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887 (a full five years prior to the events in The Snowmen) and despite all claims to the contrary Madame Vastra and Jenny are never actually seen investigating anything, let alone using reason or logic to deduce the mysteries they investigate.  Furthermore, what we think of as the Sherlock Holmes look didn't originate from the stories themselves, so the deerstalker cap and cape seems a bit anachronistic. 

Of course, I could speculate that Sherlock has some homoerotic undertones in the Holmes/Watson relationship in the same way Vastra/Jenny celebrate their own unholy union, but then again, that is speculating without having all the data.

Regarding the guest stars, it seems that an opportunity was lost when they gave Grant and McKellen little to do.  What a great twist it would have been to find that Dr. Simeon wasn't the brains of the operation, but it was an old foe.  Grant looked menacing, I'll give him that, but like the Doctor never played a major role in the entire scheme. 

Now, let's move on to some good things in The Snowmen (and there are).  The interplay between Vastra and Clara is good: the former's directness matching the latter's, their one-word series of interviews well-played thanks to director Saul Metzstein (not often I say that...Pond Life, anyone).  As for Coleman, she was strong as the Victorian working-class/posh girl, though I personally wish that she had been strictly one or the other.  The reasons as to why this Cockney was masquerading (successfully so) as a governess we know not, and we could have dispensed with that angle. 

I also note that Clara has the same Doctor problem almost all NuWho Companions have: she's got the hots for him.  They've only met and in the middle of all this chaos she goes and gives him a passionate kiss.  Why?  Well, no time to answer that: we've got an Ice Governess to fight, one who keeps shouting, "That's the way to do it," and who frankly isn't terrifying (although Clara's death was sad...illogical that her body would have remained beautiful after falling thousands of feet, but sad nonetheless). 

One thing that perhaps IS frustrating is that now we have this puzzling mystery as to who Clara is.  She dies in The Snowmen (rather gruesomely and needlessly I thought) and Oswin (who is suppose to be the same person) dies in Asylum of the Daleks.   We already get there is a connection when Clara comments on how much she likes making souffl├ęs, and the Doctor establishes that Oswin and Clara are one and the same.  That on the surface appears impossible: how does a Victorian end up serving on a spaceship?  How it will be resolved will make or break this season.

However, here again we have a Companion-centered story rather than a Doctor-centered story.  This is something I don't understand and which has plagued the NuWho since Rose: whether it's about Rose Tyler or Donna Noble or River Song or Amy Pond or now Clara Oswin Oswald, when are we going to return to stories about the Doctor?

There was a lot of comedy in The Snowmen (screaming maids, Strax's continued befuddlement, the Sherlock quasi-crossover), there were nice sets.  What for me The Snowmen didn't have were: a successful resolution (really, crying saved the day?  Nothing the Doctor did?), a shift away from the Doctor to Vastra/Jenny/Strax, a comical villain (when the Ice Governess came out, I thought they were being attacked by Mrs. Butterworth), and nothing that would interest me from revisiting The Snowmen.

Truth be told, I'm finding Doctor Who to be losing its magic.  Perhaps they can borrow that old silk hat from Frosty...       

Dr. Simeon Instructs His Minions...


2/10

Next Story: The Bells of Saint John

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Longest War

STORY 050: THE WAR GAMES

If it weren't for the fact that the twelve-part The Daleks' Master Plan has several episodes missing, The War Games would be the SECOND-longest Doctor Who story in existence, coming in at a whopping TEN episodes.  Since The War Games is complete, it means that this story is about four hours and fifteen minutes long if one were to watch it in its entirety from beginning to end.  Some epic films like Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur aren't that long.  The War Games isn't just famous for being the longest surviving story in Doctor Who history.  It also is the first story to mention the Doctor's own people (The Time Lords), the last black-and-white Doctor Who story ever made and the farewell performance of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor himself.

The War Games is a massive tale, but it really isn't until Episode Eight that exhaustion finally sets in, which is to its credit.  Oftentimes some past (and future) Doctor Who stories would wear out their welcome long before the story ends, and The War Games doesn't escape the "maybe it's TOO long" problem that plagued the series until a four-part story became the norm for Classic Who.  Fortunately, writers Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke managed to not make The War Games feel as padded out as it ultimately became, and did manage to overcome some problems not of their making.  The end result is a remarkably fast-paced, well-acted story that added new ingredients to the Doctor Who mythos that would be important in the stories to come.

The Doctor, along with his Companions Zoe (Wendy Padbury) and Jamie (Frazer Hines) find themselves in the trenches ofWorld War I.  Soon, they are taken prisoner by the British.  General Smythe (Noel Coleman) believes Jamie is a Scottish deserter and Zoe and the Doctor spies.  Lady Jane (Jane Sherwin) and Lieutenant Carstairs (David Savile) do not believe it. 

However, strange things are going on.  Smythe is able to hypnotize everyone under him, and he is reporting via advanced technology to a mysterious group.  Furthermore, Lady Jane and Carstairs always get the sense that something is blocking their memory, and there is the case of a literal fog that has some power over everyone.

The Doctor and his Companions manage to escape, but then to their utter amazement find they have run straight into a Roman battalion, then to an American Civil War battle.  They soon discover that they are not in World War I.  In fact, we're not even on Earth.

We find out beings from another world have been kidnapping humans out of their own time to form a super-army.  The War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) has given them the power of time travel.  Reason being he is of the Doctor's own race, whom we discover are the Time Lords.  Some of the kidnapped warriors have discovered they are being used, and form a resistance that so far has been only a minor nuisance, but with the Doctor's help they soon all link up, bringing the aliens, especially their leader the War Lord (Phillip Madoc) to the brink of being defeated.

After ten episodes the War Chief is defeated (killed by the very aliens he had been aiding) but victory for the Doctor comes at a high price.  All this time the Doctor had been basically avoiding detection from the Time Lords, but because he could not take all the abducted back to their own time he needed to call upon the Time Lords for help.   Now that he's been found at last, the Time Lords do manage to return everyone to their right place, but because he has interfered with matters on other worlds (the equivalent to Star Trek's Prime Directive), he is to be punished.  His two Companions are returned to their own time, remembering nothing of their adventures with the Doctor save their first (even Time Lords can't erase all history) and the Doctor himself will be both exiled to 20th Century Earth and be forced to change his appearance.

The War Games is an epic in terms of its length, but the great success of The War Games as a story that holds together goes primarily to its two writers: Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke.  Originally a six-part story, the story following it for some reason was not made.  The orders came from above: make it now ten episodes long.  That Dicks and Hulke managed (for the most part) to make the added War Games episodes seem to be part of the story is a credit to their collaboration and talent.

I say 'for the most part' because it is only when we get to Episode Eight that not only do we get a sense of exhaustion (both in viewing and story-wise) but the introduction of a new character, one Arturo Villar (Michael Napier-Brown), a stereotypical Mexican bandido.  Throwing him into the mix just seems to be a way to add a new dimension to a story that is slowly running out.  I can largely overlook the cliched way Napier-Brown played Villar (not a lot of British people can play Mexicans convincingly, even when they lay on a 'Mexican' accent).  However, I am reminded of that old Cousin Oliver Syndrome: the adding of a cute kid to give a series new life.  While this isn't the same thing, it is in a similar vein: adding a new character to give a story new life.  That was a flaw.

Another flaw is in the entire idea that the War Lord, not the War Chief, was the real brains of the operation.   As good as Dicks and Hulke were in crafting the story, I can't get the notion that again, we had a lost opportunity with the antagonist.  The main conflict was always between the War Chief and the Security Chief (James Bree), with the War Lord playing only a minimal role in the hijinks.    

However, some parts of The War Games are quite effective, even chilling.  In particular the end of the story; the Doctor has lost his two Companions, who sadly will barely remember him or all their adventures.  He then is forced to 'change his appearance' (the term 'regeneration' having yet to be invented), and the final few moments, with a at turns defiant and frightened Doctor desperately trying to stop the changes as he slips further into the void, is downright chilling. 

I also think that The War Games has a subliminal message about the foolishness of war, in particular how these 'masters of war' manipulate the troops.  I don't think it was a coincidence that the ones who communicated with the aliens were the Generals while their subordinates were almost completely unaware of how they were being used as cannon fodder to then be used to conquer the galaxy.  The heroes are 'the Resistance', those soldiers who are refusing to play these 'war games'.   

Leaving aside the political aspects of The War Games (which can be read into the story but which if existent are mercifully subtle and don't interfere with a good science-fiction concept), let's focus on some extraordinary bits within this massive story.  Chris Hayden's editing was seamless, especially in Episodes 2, 9, and 10 when we get thrilling and genuinely shocking twists: the World War I group rushes straight for a Roman legion! the Time Lords slow down time itself! the Doctor is sent into the void!  Complimenting Hayden is Dudley Simpson's score, which enhances the tension and twists in all these moments.  

The performances from the guest stars are equally well-crafted.  In NuWho, Castairs would have been considered a Companion (one with a spin-off attached as all NuWho guest characters are inexplicably tagged with spin-off fever).  However, Savile gives Carstairs a full range, from the decent-chap style of British drama to that of a man fighting for his life and sanity.  Jane Sherwin's Lady Jane Buckingham is equally strong as the woman who does her best to outwit these aliens.  Truth be told, I don't know if we saw enough of her (especially after Arturo Villar popped into the picture) but given both the length of The War Games and the fact that women tend to be demoted it isn't a surprise she was left to 'nursing'.   While Bree's Security Chief was excellent in his clipped and haughty manner, I'd argue that Breyshaw's War Chief was a bit over-the-top (neither the Fu Manchu mustache or the Nehru jacket helped, by the way).  Despite this, David Maloney directed both his guest stars and the regular characters in a near-spotless way to where on screen they almost never lagged or looked as if they didn't belong.

Maloney put both the acting and technical elements together so well that one rarely notices that The War Games is extremely long.

Finally, I think that we did have a bit of a lost opportunity to expand on the Doctor Who world when we gave the Time Lords themselves only one episode.  Granted, it's later that we get all that Gallifreyan machination and conspiracies that we all love, but they did come across as these remarkably boring quasi-deities.  Anyone would have run away from them.

I can't say that The War Games is too long because through its four-hour running time it held my interest and managed to hold up under its massive weight.  Very few stories can last six episodes or more and stay interesting (almost all Dalek stories and perhaps The Invasion or The Seeds of Death, maybe The Ice Warriors being exceptions up to this point in Doctor Who's history).  While I can't say The War Games is too long I will say that it is a bit stretched out.  That's not a particularly bad thing: The War Games does hold your interest for most of the story but one wonders whether we had some lost opportunities by not delving into the Doctor's home world or putting more focus on the conflict between the War Chief and the Doctor.  Minor things, perhaps, but still things to consider.

Still, on the whole The War Games is an intelligent and clever story with great twists and shows that a long story can work, even if at times it veers close to breaking. 



Trust me, compared to other Doctors,
this look is pretty sane...

9/10

Next Story: Spearhead From Space

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pirate Copies


STORY 049: THE SPACE PIRATES

There is something almost perverse in that the only surviving episode of The Space Pirates exists in two places. One is a 35mm film print, which was preserved only because it was the first BBC program ever placed on film (which explains why said episode, Episode 2, is the only one surviving).  Then there is a rare instance of a video recorder being used on The Space Pirates.  Would you believe it...it is the EXACT same episode!  That means out of the six episode story, only Episode 2 remains for us to enjoy.  Enjoy, however, may be too grand a term for it, because even in that one episode, The Space Pirates looks like a slow and dull adventure made slower and duller by its length.

The Space Pirates lives up to its billing: it's about pirates in space.  That in itself is a bright idea, and Robert Holmes, in his second Doctor Who screenplay, at least presents the notion as instructed.  However, The Space Pirates is more a 'Western in Space' than a pirate story, complete with crazed prospector.  These touches, along with others, sinks The Space Pirates to mediocrity.

The TARDIS materialises in Earth's future on a space beacon just before it is attacked by pirates. The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his Companions, Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) find themselves trapped in a sealed section of the beacon. It is blown apart and flown to where the pirates will plunder it of the precious mineral argonite. They witness a conflict between the pirates and the Interstellar Space Corps, led by General Hermack (Jay Mack) and Major Warne (Donald Gee).

The ISC are convinced that the pirates' mastermind is an innocent yet eccentric space mining pioneer named Milo Clancey (Gordon Gostelow), while their true leader is a man named Caven (Dudley Foster). Caven has a secret base on the planet Ta. He is assisted by Madeleine Issigri (Lisa Daniely), daughter of Clancey's ex-partner Dom, who - unknown to her - is now his captive.

When Madeleine discovers Caven's full treachery she helps to bring him to justice. The time travellers are given a lift back to the TARDIS by Clancey in his rickety old ship, the LIZ 79. *

Even in the surviving Episode 2 we see what makes The Space Pirates a weak Doctor Who story.  Namely, the Doctor and his Companions are basically irrelevant to the story.  Minus the Doctor's efforts to bring the broken-off section of the spaceship closer to the piece where the TARDIS is (which given the length of the story, he obviously was going to get wrong) they played no part in the episode itself.  In fact, if you cut their scenes, you would have had a whole new story that might have worked as a separate series. 

The NuWho fans are fond of demanding spin-offs for every Tom, Dick, and River that appears as a guest star/character  (getting their wish with the Captain Jack Harkness spin-off Torchwood).  The Space Pirates gives us a roundabout vision of what a potential Doctor Who spin-off might have looked like.  For all the length of The Space Pirates, one could easily have written the travellers out of the story without being part of anything. 

Granted, it's pretty difficult to make that argument without being able to see the other episodes, but the synopsis is pretty Doctor-lite.   I'd argue that if you removed the main characters you don't affect the overall flow of the story.  That being the case, it makes it hard to imagine that a story where the Doctor is almost irrelevant would be a good to great Doctor Who story.

Even that perhaps could be forgiven (although intensely difficult to do so).  The Space Pirates unfortunately suffers from other factors.  The decision by director Michael Hart to ask his characters to appear as if they were in a Western (particularly with Gostelow's "hillbilly in space" Milo, which makes him look a pickax and dance short of Walter Huston in Treasure of the Sierra Madre) turns this almost into farce.  Another space crew member, Technician Penn (George Layton), was allowed to have shaggy hair and a mustache that made him look like a lost Beatle.

One poor decision was in the costumes, which in terms are grand and almost comical (the space helmets themselves being a source of unintended laughter).  Dudley Simpson's score was on the plus ambitious, but curiously the vocalization that opens each episode of The Space Pirates makes it sound far too grand for the story its telling.  One thing that is in retrospect amusing is that The Space Pirates with that vocalization predated Murray Gold's NuWho score which similarly echoes a female vocal in space.

One final note: Robert Holmes' script makes mention of a 'mind probe', and I have no way of knowing whether Terrance Dicks subconsciously drew from The Space Pirates or Holmes himself when he turned 'the mind probe' in The Five Doctors into one of the most famous (or infamous) lines in Who history...but we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

One complaint I continuously make is that with the possible exception of Dalek stories, long Doctor Who stories (those that are longer than four episodes) simply can't maintain the stamina or interest of an audience.  The Space Pirates at six episodes appears to be another case of the story being far too long for the tale that it's telling.  Even if it were to be rediscovered I doubt The Space Pirates would be all that popular.  Still, it would be nice to have more lost episodes found, even if it were something as weak as The Space Pirates

* My thanks to TARDIS Wikia for the plot synopsis. 

3/10

Next story: The War Games

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Ice Warriors Capade


STORY 048: THE SEEDS OF DEATH

The Ice Warriors are not familiar to many Doctor Who fans. I imagine perhaps even those who followed the Classic series may not have seen the stories that featured our literal 'beings from Mars'.  They only appeared in four Who stories (The Ice Warriors, The Seeds of Death, and the two Peladon stories: The Curse of Peladon and its sequel, The Monster of Peladon...the latter being a rare sequel in Classic Who).  Since then, the Ice Warriors have been absent from Doctor Who and have yet to appear in the NuWho.  That is a real shame, because the Ice Warriors were quite effective in the fright department, and their second story, The Seeds of Death, is a simply brilliant story: cinematic in scope, with great performances, climatic cliffhangers, and an intelligent script.

The Earth has come to rely on T-Mat, a method of sending people and materials virtually instantaneously from one point to another by using the Moon as a relay point.  You could send food or yourself from New York to Canberra within seconds.  However, there is something evil afoot: the Moonbase (not to be confused with an earlier Second Doctor story called The Moonbase) is now been taken over by a mysterious force, and it isn't until near the end of Episode One that we discover it is the Ice Warriors.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, T-Mat's inexplicable failure is frustrating its engineers, in particular the T-Mat Controller and second-in-command Gia Kelly (Louise Pajo), who is both extremely efficient and extremely irritated that anything could have gone wrong.  However, no one could foresee that the Moonbase was now in enemy hands.  The Ice Warrior's leader Slaar (Alan Bennion) has either killed or forced the crew to do his work.  One, Phipps (Christopher Coll) has managed to escape the Ice Warriors, while Fewshan (Terry Scully) has become their terrified accomplice in betraying the planet.

Due to T-Mat's popularity with governments, there is no alternative method of reaching the Moonbase as the crisis grows, that is except for one.  Old Professor Eldred (Phillip Ray), who now runs a private Space Museum, is the only one who has both the knowledge and the machinery to launch a rocket (which by this time is seen as obsolete).  The professor, who is bitter over having his rockets replaced by T-Mat, at first refuses to help, but is persuaded to do so, thanks to three people who happened to have entered his museum.

The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his Companions Zoe (Wendy Padbury) and Jamie (Frazer Hines) soon undertake the dangerous mission to the Moon to both find what's going on.  While they're in space, Fewsham has repaired T-Mat, but it's just a way to lure Controller Kelly to the Moon.  Now the nefarious plot thickens.

The Ice Warriors have decided to launch an invasion of Earth using T-Mat to transport their seeds to the planet.  These seeds will have two effects: it will reduce the oxygen levels (killing off the humans) and make the planet hospitable for their own species (they cannot stand heat being from the cold planet).  The Doctor, after recovering from an exploding seed of death, manages to return to Earth.  Unfortunately, so has an Ice Warrior, who is now on the rampage, with the seeds killing everything that comes their way.  The Doctor discovers a way to defeat the seeds, and the invasion is misdirected to approach the Sun (killing the invasion fleet).  With Slaar the only survivor of the Ice Warriors' invasion force, the heat on the Moonbase kills him, and the travellers escape unnoticed. 

As I watched The Seeds of Death, I could not help marvelling at what a well-paced, well-acted, and beautifully-photographed story it was.  I have found that very few four-episode plus stories work.  They tend, with the exception of Dalek stories, to feel stretched out.  Even the previous story, while brilliant, felt one episode too long.  Not so The Seeds of Death.  At six episodes the story never felt either rushed or padded.  This is due to two factors: the script and the directing.

In regards to the latter, extraordinary credit should be given to Michael Ferguson.  The visual style of Seeds of Death is extraordinary.  He created a look that was almost cinematic and that stand up against almost anything NuWho has come up with.  There is a great visual flair in the story, starting from Episode One when we get the point-of-view (or POV) of the monsters.  The decision to withhold the reveal of the villains until the end of the episode was a brilliant one.  Again and again Seeds of Death has a great visual style that reflects an ambition that pushes the story to new heights, in particular in the Second Doctor's era.  Each episode has an arresting moment of beauty, from overhead shots of the Ice Warrior looking through a storage room for Phipps to when Slaar confronts Fewsham before a lighted screen to when Zoe and Jamie are avoiding another Ice Warrior at the Weather Control Center.  Rarely has a Doctor Who story been so cinematically shot to where it would be beautiful just to look at.      

However, The Seeds of Death also has brilliant performances.  Pajo is brilliant as the ever-efficient, ever-professional Kelly, someone who wants to be appreciated for her accomplishments, not dismissed for being a woman.  It's a credit to her acting talent that before the end of Episode One she is not thought of as a beautiful and bright woman but as a bright, even strong person.  I'm glad the story suggests the sexism she must endure (in Episode One her superior compliments her on her talent and beauty, which she chooses to simply ignore).  Scully's Fewsham is equally brilliant as this frightened and cowardly man who might not want to work for the Ice Warriors but who is too scared of dying to fight them.  That doesn't mean that when he does finally have a moment of courage and sacrifice himself for the planet, it doesn't move one emotionally.  Despite all the evil he did, I empathized with him and felt genuine sadness at his end.

In a smaller role, Coll's Phipps played his part beautifully: a bright but frightened man, doing what he can to survive but knowing he is great peril.  Same goes for Ray's Professor Eldred, who is both bitter and pleased that his rockets are now being embraced rather than dismissed.  None of the guest stars faltered in their characters, whether courageous or cowardly, whether fearful or forceful. 

Going on to the leads, I don't think the leads have had a finer hour acting-wise.  Troughton shows his Doctor to be both serious and comical (who wouldn't at least smile as he flusters his way out of the attacking foam) and Hines' Jamie also shows that he is fiercely loyal and protective for him and Zoe.  However, it is Padbury that clearly runs away with it.  She never makes Zoe's superior intelligence something to dislike in her because she always mixes her smarts with a sweetness that shows she's not being bossy, just brainy.  However, the cliffhanger at Episode Five is where Padbury excels. 


She has been caught by the Ice Warrior in front of the screen after she manages to start raising the temperature and is facing certain death, with only Fewsham in any position to help her.  She screams in total terror for him to help her, this man she doesn't really know and whom we know has never helped anyone else save their lives.  The abject horror and terror she displays (even as her face is partially obscured by the lights, with only her voice to project the emotions) is a chilling and terrifying moment.  

In regards to the second thing that makes The Seeds of Death simply brilliant, while the credit is given to Brian Hayles,  script editor Terrance Dicks also wrote part of the story (uncredited).  Whoever ultimately put Seeds of Death together, each episode ended brilliantly.  Besides the aforementioned Episode Five cliffhanger (truly one of the best in the series, perhaps in all of Doctor Who--Classic and NuWho), each cliffhanger does make one wonder, 'what's going to happen next?'  Even the opening to each episode, with the beautiful shots of the Earth and the Moon accompanied by Dudley Simpson's incidental music, had us in suspense (and again were beautifully photographed and edited).

I also think that the special effects still hold up remarkably well given the story is pushing fifty years.  Granted they might look not as sharp as things today, but whenever the Ice Warriors kill someone the visuals and music are shocking and so excellently put together.

I will be a bit nit picky by pointing out one or two things that didn't quite hold.  I wondered exactly how it was possible that the Ice Warriors didn't notice the rocket landing at the Moonbase.  We also have a bit of running down corridors, something that would soon become, excuse the pun, a running gag on Doctor Who.  In fact, I wondered whether that whole concept started in The Seeds of Death

Finally, let me address one of the most notorious moments in Seeds of Death.  When the Doctor manages to escape into the Weather Center he slips from all the foam.   Poor Wendy Padbury plainly starts laughing and while she continues the scene to its conclusion one can clearly see the smile on her face and the desperate efforts to control her laughter.  In this case, I'm cutting Padbury some slack since I doubt anyone would have been able to control themselves, and actually Padbury did better because she didn't draw attention to her reaction. 

Overall I found The Seeds of Death far more thrilling than I thought I would.  The pacing is brilliant, the acting is superb, the story holds your interest, the monsters effective, the visuals are stunning.  Given that there are only two stories left in the Second Doctor's tenure, it is hard to believe that they could come close to topping The Seeds of Death.


 
I'd be excited if they were to return to Doctor Who, but then I remember they'd be coming back to this...

Now, WHICH one's the lead and WHICH one's the guest star again?


10/10

Next Story: The Space Pirates

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Something to Kroton About

STORY 047: THE KROTONS

The Krotons is not held in high regard by Doctor Who fans, primarily because of the title characters themselves, who are seen as terrible monsters/robots.  However, after watching The Krotons for the first time, I think that this is a case of failing to see the forest for the trees.  The Krotons is the first Doctor Who story written by Robert Holmes, who was to become a true Who Icon, creating some of the most legendary Doctor Who stories of all time.  I'll grant that the actual Krotons themselves were pretty weak, but the story itself is overflowing with innovative ideas that should merit reexamination and reevaluation. 

The Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his Companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) have landed on an unknown planet.  No sooner have they landed than they find themselves involved in the affairs of the planet itself.  The Gonds, the humanoids on the planet, have for a thousand years given their brightest young people to "join the Krotons", their benevolent dictators.  No one has ever seen the Krotons themselves, and the young people given to join them are never seen or heard from again.  To join the Krotons is seen as a great honor, but one of the Gonds, Thara (Gilbert Wynne), angrily questions why they have to go.  His motives are more personal: his beloved Vana (Madeliene Mills) has been selected.  He urges revolution, but the Gonds won't rebel.

Of course, we already know what happens to 'the chosen ones': the emerge onto the wasteland and are promptly evaporated.  The space travellers, having landed on the wasteland, find that a man has already been vaporized and that fate awaits Vana.  She is rescued in time but her mind is terribly affected. 

Now with Thara outraged, there are rumblings of revolution, then outright attacks on the Learning Hall.  Here, the machines the Krotons provided long ago have not only given them what little knowledge they have, but have allowed the Krotons to find the Gonds' best and brightest.  This mini-Gond Spring raises the ire of the Krotons, who demand they stop.  The Doctor and Zoe, geniuses both, soon become the Krotons' ultimate targets.  Zoe, due to naivete, takes to the machines and is selected.  The Doctor then must take the tests and be selected himself.

They are submitted to the tests but manage to escape.  A concerned Jamie goes after them, but the Krotons quickly realize he is not a "high-mind".  Soon, the Gonds are split: some like Eelek (Philip Madoc) are for full revolution, while their leader and Thara's father Selris (James Copeland) urge that they must acquire knowledge if they are to defeat the Krotons. 

We discover that the Krotons nefarious plans: they need the Gonds' intelligence to keep them functioning.  Once they take their intelligence, the selected Gonds are eliminated.  With the Doctor and Zoe, they now have the ultimate ability to leave the planet.  Eelek (Philip Madoc) who has lead a virtual coup, cuts a deal with them: in exchange for leaving the planet, he will hand over the two "high-brains".   The Doctor is able to deduce that the Krotons can be destroyed with sulphuric acid.  The Krotons are defeated and the Travellers slip silently away, off to a new adventure.

   
There is no getting around it: the actual Krotons are junk.  Terrance Dicks (a Doctor Who legend himself who served as the script editor) always commented that while the Krotons looked menacing they couldn't do anything: not walk, not attack, not really useful.  Frazer Hines himself said that the Krotons were probably the worst or weakest monsters in his tenure.  There's no doubt that the Krotons themselves appear to be the poor cousins of the Daleks, closer to the Quarks from The Dominators than anything else.  HOWEVER, this is not Holmes' fault, or even that of director David Maloney. 

As hard as it may be, I would ask people to ignore the actual Krotons of The Krotons and instead focus on the story itself, which is both inventive and a throwback to other legendary tales.  While watching the first few minutes (which focus on the selecting of the two youngsters to join the Krotons), I couldn't help but think on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine with the Eloi willingly going to serve the Morlocks.  I also had a quick flashback to The Hunger Games, where we again face a situation where a society must send two people (apparently but not specifically a male and female) to be sacrificed as payment for a failed war. 

The more things change...

I was expecting a disaster while watching The Krotons given its relatively poor reputation, but what I found on the whole was an exciting and well-thought story that mostly overcomes the titular monster's weakness.  Maloney's pacing is incredible: moving quickly from one point to another while at times being almost experimental.  The scene where Zoe and the Doctor are being tortured with brain drain, visually speaking, is almost psychedelic.  The themes of free will vs. predestination expressed by Selris' desire to keep things as they are conflicting with Thara's questioning of the status quo can be seen as symbolic of how often things stay stagnant because 'that's the way they've always been'.  Youth, however, is both being sacrificed to maintain the old order (any hints of Vietnam?) and also the ones that finally rebel against the system.

Yes, I may be reading too much into things, but I think that Holmes' story is deeper, richer, and smarter than it has been credited.  Selris comments when learning of Eelek's plan to attack the Krotons head-on,
"It is not patriotism to lead people into a war they cannot win."


I find that line to be remarkably insightful into modern conflicts, from Hitler's mad idea that he could fight a war on two fronts to Syria's Bashar Assad's determination to remain in power even if it means wiping his own people out of existence.

Holmes, along with Maloney and the leads, deserve credit for also putting in moments of comedy in The Krotons and throwing in some surprises.  A surprise in The Krotons is when the Doctor asks ZOE rather than Jamie to accompany him to the Learning Hall.  The subtle message is clear: it's going to be brains, not brawn, that will defeat the Krotons.  This decision also allows Padbury and Troughton to work as a double-act, something that previous Who stories have not allowed given the wonderful chemistry between Hines and Troughton.   We have comic moments in especially tense situations, as when Zoe and the Doctor appear to argue as to who stands where just before their brains are to be absorbed by the Krotons or when the Doctor finds the Learning Machine more difficult than Zoe did.

The interaction between Padbury and Troughton is brilliant, and high praise goes to the former.  In other hands Zoe's high intelligence could have come off as bratty or arrogant, but she manages to make Zoe more innocent about how her high intelligence might be off-putting.  As far as she knows, she just is intelligent, but her nature isn't one that lords it over everyone, even someone like the simple Highlander Jamie.

Of course, that isn't to say Hines and Troughton still can't get in some funny bits between themselves.  For example, when Jamie is caught beneath the door and the Doctor and Zoe are pulling him out before they can be vaporized, the Doctor can be heard shouting, "Jamie, you're getting fat!" Take a look at this exchange between Jamie and the Doctor when Jamie emerges from the Krotons' cell:

The Doctor: How do you feel?
Jamie: Well...
The Doctor: Good.
      
The Krotons has suffered because the actual Krotons are terrible. However, this is a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  Apart from the actual Krotons themselves, The Krotons is a much more complex and richer story than its been given credit for.  I for one am starting a reevaluation of the story, focusing on the acting and story as opposed to weak monsters.  If one turns away from the Krotons, one finds much to appreciate in The Krotons.

8/10

Next Story: The Seeds of Death

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Who Knew Cybermen Were So Animated



STORY 046: THE INVASION

In The Invasion, we have a bit of a conundrum.  Episodes One and Four of the eight-part story are currently missing.  However, it has been released on DVD intact.  How is this possible?  Animation my friends, and what animation we have.  Somehow, the animated episodes not only work well within the story, they actually enhance it, making it more brilliant.  However, more on that later.  The Invasion brings back the Cybermen in perhaps one of their biggest stories of the Classic Era.   While the length of The Invasion may be a bit too much for the story to hold, on the whole The Invasion pushes Doctor Who to a higher level in almost all departments.

After having the TARDIS restored at the end of The Mind Robber, the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his Companions Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) narrowly escape a rocket launched at them from the Dark Side of the Moon.  They find they have materialized on present (read 1960s) Earth.  Quickly the three are wrapped in a mystery: there's shady and nefarious goings-on involving International Electromatics, a giant conglomerate headed up by the mysterious Tobias Vaughn (Kevin Stoney). 

Soon, we learn Vaughn's scheme: to help the Cybermen invade and conquer Earth!

However, Vaughn has a few tricks up his sleeve.  Ostensibly helping the Cybermen, he really will use them to become sole ruler of Earth.  He has forced scientist Professor Watkins (Edward Burham) to modify a device the good Professor had created.  Originally to help enhance education, Vaughn has it altered to enduce emotion, which would render the Cybermen powerless to him. 

While the Doctor eventually uncovers both Vaughn's scheme and the Cybermen connection, he gets help from an old friend.  Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) from The Web of Fear, now upgraded to Brigadier, has also been investigating International Electromatics, heading up a new organization called UNIT: United Nations International Taskforce.

Eventually, the Cybermen do invade, and with the combined efforts of UNIT and the Doctor & Friends (including Professor Watkins' niece Isabel, played by Sally Faulker), they and their ally Vaughn (who when learning the Cybermen will not make him Earth's ruler turns against them, giving his life in the struggle), they Cybermen are defeated.

Again, I should point out that The Invasion at eight episodes is a very long story, and I think an episode too long.  At Episode Eight we are introduced to some sort of Doomsday Bomb that will destroy Earth should the actual invasion be a bust.  Perhaps I was distracted but I don't remember that ever coming up in the discussions, and to my mind it seemed like Derrick Sherwin had to throw in one last thing to justify there being at least one more hurdle to overcome.

To my mind it seems once the Cybermen are actually defeated, throwing in this last-minute danger from almost out of nowhere is almost superfluous.

However, this last-minute action is only a slight flaw in a brilliant story.  The Invasion is an important Doctor Who story in many ways.  First, it introduces a long-standing group that will be vital as the series continues: UNIT.  As the show would expand, UNIT's role would also grow.  The Invasion therefore is the first to feature not just UNIT, but the character of The Brigadier, who would go on to become a true Doctor Who Icon (as opposed to that horrid rammed-in character of River Song).

Speaking of River, The Invasion is a textbook example of how to integrate characters from other stories right.  In the school of 'everything old is new again', we see that Classic Who, at least during the first six seasons, did what NuWho is doing now: it has characters making return appearances.  Take Professor Travers, who appeared in The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear (the two Yeti stories).  He was scheduled to return again in The Invasion, but Jack Watling proved unavailable, hence the new character of Professor Watkins (although it's clear that Professor Travers was suppose to appear, given the Doctor & Companions went looking for him).   The Invasion also brings back Lethbridge-Stewart from The Web of Fear.

Note that in each case, there was a logical reason to bring back the characters.  Travers/Watkins were scientists who had expertise in the plot, and Lethbridge-Stewart provided the military muscle to take on the threats.  NuWho unfortunately gets wrapped up in its own newly-created mythology by bringing back characters (like Winston Churchill and especially River) and throwing them into the story whether their appearance makes sense or not or are even necessary.  It also wraps the episodes together, rather than have the individual stories tie in with a character or two.  The Invasion has characters we've already seen, but it stands on its own.  In other words, one doesn't have to have seen The Web of Fear to follow The Invasion

This can't be said of NuWho, where if you watch The Angels Take Manhattan first you might be puzzled as to who the central character is or River's relationship with anything involving the plot.  If you next watch River's Secret Parts 1 & 2 (A Good Man Goes to War/Let's Kill Hitler), it becomes more confusing, let alone if you catch any other River-centric episodes (of which I'd argue there are far too many).  Classic Who had references and characters from previous stories, but they were integrated into the new stories and didn't have to have watched the first story because it was independent from the second.  NuWho at times becomes one long story with several episodes rather than various independent stories that it becomes convoluted.

Yet I digress.  The Invasion is brilliantly acted, in particular by Stoney's Vaughn, who keeps a mostly calm and chilling portrayal of a brilliant and evil genius. Stoney had a delightfully wicked manner to him, in particular whenever he said, "Packer" (Peter Halliday) when calling his dim-witted muscle or taking him to task whenever Packer bumbles his tasks (which is quite often, so much so one wonders why Vaughn didn't just shoot him).  When Stoney does rage, it becomes more terrifying because he keeps so calm, almost delightful, in his manner that when he does break it becomes full-on fury.

Even when he changes sides to help the Doctor, it wasn't any appeal to his humanity (given he was part-Cyberman himself, a brilliant and shocking turn), but because of his own megalomaniac motives.  It was a bright idea to not make Vaughn a sympathetic character but to keep him basically evil but who joins the Doctor's fight in the last minute for logical reasons.

Faulkner's Isobel is a great guest star, and it's nice to see Zoe get a girlfriend with whom to interact.  Isobel is not a damsel in distress (most of the time), and in fact she too earns points for being the first woman to tell the Brigadier he is a male chauvinist pig (which he was).  However, she also brought some well-needed lightness to her fun-loving Swingin' Sixties Girl, in particular with her flirtations with Captain Turner (Robert Sideway), whom she called Jimmy.

The Invasion is probably one of Troughton and Hines' finest hours as the perfect Double-Act of Doctor and Companion.  Individually they were great (Troughton's comic moments seemed perfect for his Doctor, while Hines' more man of action fit in with the story), but together they had a great rhythm to where they created moments of adventure and comedy throughout the story.  Padbury's Zoe was one who knew she was brighter than everyone around but she wasn't arrogant, but rather endearing, even childishly determined (as when she would not be defeated by a computer). 

One thing that needs commenting on is Don Harper's score.  At times, the music is quite cinematic, almost sounding like a gangster-film score enhancing the tension.  The cinematography is likewise brilliant.  Douglas Camfield put all these elements together in a masterful way to where The Invasion plays like a feature film. 

In particular are the actual scenes of invasion.  The quick cutting of the population coming across the Cyber Army and the scenes of the Cybermen marching in front of St. Paul's Cathedral is terrifying and brilliant.

Finally, let's move on to the animated Episodes One and Four.  Truth be told, The Invasion is so good that one doesn't even notice when it goes to an animated form.  The animated episodes themselves are so well rendered that the revelation of the Cybermen in Episode Four is actually more terrifying in the reconstruction than in the recap in Episode Five.  The animation is beautifully rendered and makes one wonder whether the other lost stories like The Evil of the Daleks or The Myth Makers couldn't be brought back with animation.

If it weren't for the Doomsday Bomb at the last minute The Invasion would probably be perfect.  Still, the fast pacing, the brilliant acting, the moments of comedy (such as when the Doctor stops to pose for Isobel's picture while everyone else goes after the Cyber Army) and the smooth integration of UNIT and the Brigadier into the Doctor Who mythos: it all works; this is one of the best Second Doctor stories available, even with the missing episodes that with the animation isn't incomplete anymore.     

9/10

Next Story: The Krotons

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Touched By An Angel




STORY 233: THE ANGELS
TAKE MANHATTAN

Even before I saw The Angels Take Manhattan, I worried that this story simply had too much for its running time.  You had the farewell of the WILLIAMSES, the return of the Weeping Angels, AND the reemergence of River Song, and all to be done within an hour.  Would all that really build up to not just an emotionally impacting story but also a GOOD one?  After having watched The Angels Take Manhattan, I can say it's strong on atmosphere, short on everything else.

We start with a voice-over (the third straight v.o. in Series/Season Seven after A Town Called Mercy and The Power of Three) where gumshoe Sam Garner (Rob David) is both typing out a Raymond Chandler-type story and investigating a case of 'statues that come to life'.  We find that his investigation leads him to the Winter Quay (which appears to be a run-down hotel), where Garner makes a shocking discovery: he comes face to face with his older self, and the danger of The Weeping Angels.

We now switch to 2012 New York where the Doctor (Matt Smith), and his Companions Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory XYZ (Arthur Darvill) are enjoying a respite in Central Park.  The Doctor in particular is thrilling to a pulpy crime novel with an extraordinary character: a woman described as having "ice in her heart, and a kiss on her lips and a vulnerable side she keeps well hidden"  This character is the Ultimate Femme Fatale, and she's named Melody Malone.

It's at this point I must stop to ask, Is Steven Moffat DELIBERATELY trying to be obvious or does he really think we're all THAT stupid?

In any case, an innocent journey for Rory to get coffee end with a "shocking twist": he is transported to April 3, 1938, where our story-within-a-story, Melody Malone, takes place.  We then get a spoiler...I mean, a surprise:



RIVER SONG IS BACK!!

And there was rejoicing throughout the land...hurray!!!

She greets "Dad" and we're whisked into the home of gangster Mr. Grayle (Mike McShane) who had hired Garner and now had hired River.  She manages to break through the Time Barriers (or something) because A.) she's River Song, who can do anything, or B.) her Vortex Manipulator (a mini-version of the TARDIS) or C.) it is necessary for the plot?  Take a guess.

Eventually the Doctor and Amy break on through to the other side but by now we know that Grayle has an injured Weeping Angel and River actually manages to be scared for once in her life when it grabs her wrist.  We also know that Rory was dumped in the cellar where cherubim are taunting him.

Well, with Melody Malone as their guide, they just can't simply skip ahead but the Chapter Titles will give them clues.  The chapter The Roman in the Cellar tells them where Rory is, but the next two chapters, Death at Winter Quay and Amelia's Last Farewell send the Doctor into a tormented fury.  River does manage to break free of the Angel...and manages to break her wrist to do so.

This inability of River to change the future upsets the Doctor (must be seeing the hero of the show not being as good as the Doctor thought she was), but he cures her by giving up some of his regeneration energy.  River promptly slaps him for being so sentimental.

No time for more 'banter' entre Mr. and Mrs. Song because we've tracked down Rory...at the Winter Quay.  A rescue goes wrong when Rory and Amy encounter old Rory, who promptly dies.

AGAIN.

The Winter Quay is a farm where the Angels harvest their victims and live off them for decades, but if Rory manages to escape he can create a paradox that will destroy the hotel.  How to do that?  By jumping to his death of course.  If he's dead when he's younger, maybe he won't die at the hotel of old age.  Amy, making her choice, jumps with him.  With that, Rory dies again.

AGAIN.

Well, we think that all's well and good, but in the cemetery they land in Rory notices a grave that has his name: Rory Arthur Williams (note that it doesn't say Rory Pond, thus invalidating the idea of "the Ponds").  Wouldn't you know it: one Angel survived, and it takes Rory out. 

So Rory dies again, again.

AGAIN.

Amy will not let him go, but the Doctor can't do anything for Rory because the book has made things a fixed point in time, which cannot be changed.  With that, Amy literally touches the Angel and she pops to her death.

The Doctor and River go off on the TARDIS: he devastated, she remarkably well considering she's just seen her parents die.  Knowing that River wrote the book (oh God does that sound silly), and gives it to Amy to put in the Doctor's pocket in the future, the Doctor remembers he's taken out the last page (since he doesn't like endings).  Here, in the afterword, along with River's instruction, he goes back to young Amelia Pond, to tell her all about their adventures together.

I think ATM proves one thing: Steven Moffat is by no means the genius he's been promoted to.

In fact, it shows that Moffat is determined to reshape River Song (formerly known as Doctor Who) into something that ignores all that has come before (even things from the Moffat reign). 

ATM's biggest problem is River.  Longtime readers know I detest River Song.  They know I think she sucks...everything out of Doctor Who whenever she pops in with her inane "Spoilers" and "Hello, Sweetie".  Her narcissism, her exaggerated sense of brilliance, her coldness, her attempts at wit, her ego with nothing to back it up...

I know now why she is the mirror image of Steven Moffat, but I digress.

...in short her entire existence in all her stories defies understanding.  I have long argued that whenever River appears, she becomes the focus of the story, so much so that everything starts revolving around her (and by consequence, reducing the Doctor to a supporting character on his own show).  In The Angels Take Manhattan, we see this River Complex come again.

WHY is River in this story at all?  Moffat is cheating by starting out with a male voice-over typing out Chapter One: The Dying Detective.  If he had been honest, it would have been River's voice reading us the story.  Moreover, the idea of her writing this story smacks of self-serving aggrandisement.

If she is writing Melody Malone (or if "Melody Malone" is her pseudonym, and a shockingly obvious one at that), then as the author she should know how the story ends.  After all, SHE wrote it.  That being the case, one wonders why her fixation not to give "spoilers" doesn't make the Doctor question how he could "love/be in love", let alone "marry" someone who apparently has no problem seeing her parent die.

Going on further into how River destroyed ATM, when we first see her, she greets Rory with "Hello, Dad," but is never troubled by the fact that her father is being put in great danger.  That's because she is too busy behaving like this alluring femme fatale she believes herself to be to notice anything else.  One might have thought that Moffat or director Nick Hurran might have at one point stopped to say, "this is her father, someone she's met and known, so couldn't you drop the whole 'woman of mystery' act at least for a few moments to appear at least slightly human".  

This wasn't the route they went for.  Instead, Moffat wrote and Hurran directed Kingston to amp the vamp to almost comic proportions, making the proceedings almost a spoof of hard-boiled film noir stories. 

River as a character is never realistic.  She's far too clever.  We've already covered how in previous River-centric stories she could operate the TARDIS better than the Doctor, how she knows more than The Doctor, how the Doctor is wildly in love with her, but now she comes across as far too fearless, keeping up what she imagines to be witty sexually-tinged banter with Grayle and the Doctor, never showing any fear towards Weeping Angels.

It isn't until it takes her wrist that River finally shows genuine fear, which leads one to wonder if her whole appearance prior to that moment was all an act or if she genuinely behaves in this nutty way, strutting around trying to be oh-so-witty.  If Moffat had ever decided to tone down River's perceived perfection, we might have had a character.  As it stands, River is a caricature, and a bad one at that.

It never fails to amaze me how egotistic she is.  At one point she tells Rory that the Doctor couldn't get through the time barrier. “You didn’t come here in the TARDIS. Too many time distortions. It would be like landing a plane in a blizzard. Even I couldn’t do it.”

That one line captures all that's wrong with River Song.  She has just declared (yet again) that she is smarter and better than the title character.  How can one love or care about a character so self-absorbed, so arrogant in her self-proclaimed genius?  But enough about Steven Moffat...

River Song spent so much time being "alluring", being "brilliant", being "the object of desire to all men", that she never learned to be "human".  One looks at all previous Companions, and we see that the best ones (Jo, Sarah Jane, Ace, Rose) were far from perfect.  They weren't subservient to the Doctor, but they still knew they had much to learn.  One can say that Romana started out as highly confident in her intellectual superiority to the Doctor, but over time we saw that she was just merely book-smart, not street-smart, and still needed much to learn.

River Song on the other hand, from the word "go" was presented as this brilliant being who knew more and was sexier than anyone else in past/present/future: Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe put together.  However, her rampaging ego always marks her down as what she really is: a poser, a self-absorbed psychopath who has no soul.  How else to explain her apparent lack of interest that her parents were killed in a book she wrote?

I figure we have other things to cover, but one more point about River Song in ATM.  Why was she here?  Answered questions have never been Moffat's strong suit.   How did she come to investigate the goings-on in 1930s New York?  Why throw in the detective if we're just going to move on to River being the storyteller? 

Now, as time goes by (no pun intended) ATM suffers from more really strange loops.  Let's go with the ending and say that the Doctor really did come back to Amelia after she had waited all night for him to return.  If so, then doesn't that really invalidate all of Series/Season Five from The Eleventh Hour onwards?  After all, it was Amy's anger at being kept waiting and of the Doctor showing up twelve years later that propelled that story along with all of the Amy/Doctor stories. 

She was billed as The Girl Who Waited, but if as we now see at the end of ATM Amelia really didn't wait because the Doctor told her everything that happened to her in the future.  With that being the case, then when he does appear to her in TEH she really has no reason to be upset because she's been told everything (or at least was sent to bed that morning) and thus the entire "girl who waited" business has been just a two-year waste of our time.

Still, let's move on to some positives.  Hurran and Moffat did get one thing right: ATM certainly has a lot of style.  The sets and cinematography all evoke the film noir style they were aiming for (even if it didn't quite gel within the story itself).  Moffat got the gumshoe detective right with the vocal inflections and clothes, so that's a plus. 

However, I'm going to slip back into the bad because The Angels Take Manhattan is eerily similar to a much-praised British miniseries called The Singing Detective.  Dennis Potter's story is also about a person who is "writing a Raymond Chandler-esque mystery" while also going into the story itself.  Isn't that what we have with The Angels Take Manhattan?

In both The Angels Take Manhattan and The Singing Detective, you have someone writing a noir detective story but also finding themselves as characters within the story they are writing.  This came to me when I saw the title of the first chapter typed out.  Granted, it was The Dying Detective rather than The Singing Detective, but when I remembered that the author of the fake novel "The Singing Detective" was dying in the story, the words 'singing' and 'dying' collided within my memory to flash back to Potter's work.

A big problem with ATM is Moffat's heavy-handed way with characters and foreshadowing.  When the Doctor tells Amy, "I don't like endings," we could see the 'symbolism' behind that line from outer space.  Nothing is more irritating than a writer being overt.  One line that stuck out was when Amy asks the Doctor what's going on.  His answer, "I don't know.  We're in New York."

What does that MEAN?  It doesn't make any sense.  Does it mean that things in NYC are unexplainable?  It's a strange line. 

And really, another, "Doctor Who?" line?!  That lost its cleverness eons ago, but there it is again: someone has to ask, "Doctor Who?".  I hate that, I really do.

"When one's in love with an ageless god, who insists on the face of a 12 year old, one does one's best to hide the damage."  That sound lovely, but the Doctor isn't ageless and unless either River had a heart-to-heart with either Amy or the Doctor she wouldn't be privy to such things...unless she looked into their files.  Furthermore, is it me or does it make the Doctor sound a bit like a pedophile? Why CAN'T he see the damage?  He's seen several Companions damaged (Ace wasn't exactly without mommie issues, you know...oh that's right, you don't), so seeing River with a broken arm is really going to shatter him that much (no pun intended)?                            

Finally, with the end of the "Ponds", we will alas bid farewell to the Official Rory Williams Death Count.  Despite the number of times Rory has died on Doctor Who, ATM took the cake. I wonder if Moffat decided that since Rory dying had now become a hopeless joke (the emotional equivalent of 'the sonic screwdriver can fix everything'), he decided to go whole-hog and kill Rory off THREE TIMES.

Note: we have a character die THREE TIMES IN ONE HOUR!

Does anyone else think this isn't just gone past a joke to being downright insane?

THREE TIMES.  Count them.

Death Number One: at the Winter Quay, of old age.

Death Number Two: at the rooftop of the Winter Quay, by jumping off said roof.

Death Number Three: at the cemetery, literally by being touched by a Weeping Angel.

Again, there was a lot thrown into The Angels Take Manhattan.  I have to give credit where it's due: Darvill and Gillan gave strong performances of people who will die together.  The sets, costumes, and cinematography were evocative of the era. 

However, River kills this story: her appearance is irrelevant/superfluous/unnecessary.  A great many plot holes are left unanswered (why can the Angels look at each other now?  how can the Doctor control his regenerative energy? why waste it on River when one figures a simple brace will do? why is the Doctor so passionate about a woman who appears to do nothing but show him up and who really is all wrong for him?).  Also, Rory's Triple-Death...so wrong.  It was as I feared: simply too much for the weight it tried to carry.

For a farewell episode, The Angels Take Manhattan is a terrible let-down. 

Rory Williams Death Count

In Episode: THREE
Overall: 7.2

3/10

Next Story: The Snowmen

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cube Cubed


STORY 232: THE POWER OF THREE

I don't know whether it is coincidence that The Power of Three involves cubes, which in mathematical terms is Anything to the Third Power (or put another way: the power of three) and/or that it can also refer to the THREE Main Characters (The Doctor, Amy Pond, and Rory XYZ) working in tandem (the power of three).   From what I saw, this was addressed at the very end of The Power of Three, a story that has oddly enough, two strikes against it: One, a voice-over narration (something I dislike in general but which we just had in A Town Called Mercy) and Two, nothing of real interest.  So what else can get this episode going?

Amy (Karen Gillan) recounts of the time when the Doctor (Matt Smith) came to stay with them.  We are in July 2012 (which I will prove later), but she and her husband Rory We-Don't-Know-His-Last-Name (Arthur Darvill) are finding living in the real world (as opposed to living The Doctor Life) has some burdens.  They can't make time for family, friends, jobs, what have you.  However, we now have a point in time when the Doctor is forced to go domestic, during The Slow Invasion.

The Whatever-They're-Called don't know the world has awoken to billions and billions of black cubes (a little Carl Sagan deal bit) until informed by Brian Williams...



No, not THAT Brian Williams, American news broadcasters (though I'm sure he probably would have, and it does make me wonder whether a great opportunity was lost by the Doctor Who team by NOT having the NBC Brian Williams pop up, given the cameos by people familiar to the British population), but THIS Brian Williams...



Rory's dad (Mark Williams).  Where there are mysterious black boxes, we are sure to find a man from a mysterious blue box.  That's right, The Doctor's back!

Curiously, it's Brian that comes up with some good ideas about what these boxes could possibly be.  The Doctor is intrigued but not particularly interested until U.N.I.T. (the UNified Intelligence Taskforce, formerly the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) storms into Amy & Rory's home.  U.N.I.T. is headed by Kate Stewart (Jemma Redgrave), who has tracked the Doctor to it.

Curious that Torchwood wasn't involved...

These cubes are all around the world, and then they do...nothing.  The Doctor opts to wait and observe, but our hyperactive Time Lord finds all this waiting around dull.  As much as he tries, he can't do it.  This is in sharp contrast to Brian, who is perfectly content to observe the cube, sending e-mails to U.N.I.T. (he pronounces it letter-by-letter as opposed to the usual version which says 'UNIT'), but months go on with nothing happening.

In October there's an engagement party where Amy's asked to be a bridesmaid at a same-sex wedding and she accepts; the fact that Rory is dancing to David Guetta's Titanium (released in December 2011) means it has to be October 2012 at the earliest (though I grant that it can be later).   Rory meanwhile, has decided to accept a full-time nursing position.

Both, it appears, are moving on with their lives.

However, around Christmas time (or Winter Solstice time, take your pick), the cubes finally start doing things, though no one notices people disappearing at the hospital Rory works at and a creepy little girl hanging about.

Now in June circa 2013 the Amy/Rory celebrate their anniversary with a cook-out and a surprise visit by the Doctor.  He takes them to June 26, 1890 and a surprise visit to the newly-opened Savoy Hotel (talk about Stompin' at the Savoy) but we have an unseen adventure.  Back at their anniversary party,  Brian Williams asks the Doctor what of his previous companions.

Some left him, some got left behind, and a few, not many, died.

Bet you NuWhovians couldn't mention those Companions killed off...

Finally, in July (a full year later), the cubes start becoming active: doing everything from checking pulses to playing The Chicken Dance (a hallmark at all weddings, even same-sex weddings I imagine).  Just as soon as they start, they stop.  Why?  Not even Kate Stewart, whom we discover to be the daughter of the Brigadier himself, knows.

Soon, we find that the boxes cause mass heart failures to anyone exposed when they count down to zero, including to one of the Doctor's two hearts.  The signal is traced to Rory's hospital, and best hurry: the creepy orderlies have taken Brian, who just happened to be there.  We find that the Shakri are there to kill a third of the humans before humanity can travel through space.  The Doctor defeats them, and we know what the Shakri don't: the real power of cubes--The Power of Three.
          
For better or worse perhaps I should resign myself to the idea that Doctor Who is no longer going to be about an alien travelling through time and space with (mostly) humans.  Instead, Doctor Who is about humans who bump into an alien travelling through time and space, go with him for a while, upset their personal and family lives, then get big send-offs.  NuWho is now Companion-centered, not Doctor-centered, and The Power of Three reflects this idea that the Companion is the center of the story. 

There are some things to like in The Power of Three.  Williams is still delightful as Rory's dad (anyone else thinks he might make a good Companion, although he will not be listed as such by me), even if he really isn't integrated into the story.  It might have to do with the fact that writer Chris Chibnall has in The Power of Three merely given us an extended edition of Pond Life, that series of mini-webisodes that touched on the domestic lives of the Williamses when not with the Doctor.       

We see this in how the months appear on the screen.  'June' appears on the grill for example.  I don't know if Chibnall was aiming to repeat himself in The Power of Three, or if director Douglas Mackinnon just accommodated him, but we pretty much have a story less about alien invasion than about the domestic bliss the Companions find away from the Doctor.

In fact, it almost is a case AGAINST travelling with the Doctor and a case as to why the Doctor should just settle on Earth or some other planet and live out his remaining regenerations in quiet retirement.

Can The Power of Three therefore be a case for cancelling Doctor Who?  If travelling with the Doctor is such a disruption in everyone's lives, why then do so?

There really is very little in The Power of Three that holds much interest.  There are some wonderful things (Brian Williams, seeing Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart and seeing HER integrated into the episode well), but like The Doctor, one does wait for SOMETHING to happen. 

Furthermore, because we spend so much time focusing on how the Williamses/Ponds have found a good life away from the Doctor, that when we get to the raison d'etre of the cubes (a planned extermination of humanity) it almost seems an afterthought.  This is why the last few minutes seem so wildly rushed and the resolution (Oh, I'll just reverse everything since the Shakri really weren't here) equally rushed. 

Add to that a weak villain.  The Shakri appear to have wandered away from a Star Wars convention (I thought it was the Emperor Palpatine coming after humans.  Wouldn't it have been great to have had Solomon from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship return for revenge?).  The creepy orderlies appeared to be channeling the monsters from The Empty Child Parts 1 & 2 (The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) while the little girl reminded me of Fear Her (don't know why since I haven't seen that episode, but for some reason it came to mind). 

In short, it almost seemed that the alien invasion was almost irrelevant, as if it HAD to be there because there has to be some sort of alien threat in Doctor Who

As a side note, I think same-sex marriage (like the one Amy refers to when she tells her female friend it was time she made an honest woman out of her) has lost its shock value.  What would be shocking today would be if there were a heterosexual marriage on television that lasted fifty years and was happy.  That's something you don't see anymore on telly, ain't it?

I will say that Redgrave gave a great performance as the Brig's daughter and that perhaps she will return (even though I'm divided on this idea of introducing characters in one episode just to bring them back later...Captain Jack, River Song, Wilfred Mott, now perhaps Kate Stewart.  It's wearing thin).  Again, Williams was great in his mix of comedy and seriousness (the look on his face when he's wheeled away from the Shakri is priceless).

I've now all but grown to be an anti-Smith partisan.  I don't find his Doctor endearing or goofy.  I find him a prick.

The Power of Three isn't interesting when it comes to the alien menace, and I don't think it was meant to be.  Instead, it is suppose to be about how the Doctor continues to affect his Companions lives after they leave him.    A good story is available somewhere about that.  Of course, once upon a time Doctor Who was about the Doctor, not about his Companions: out one Companion went, in came another, but always travelling with the Doctor.  Nowadays, it's all about Rose and Donna and Amy.

Well, given how much The Power of Three is obsessed with that number (cubed, a third of the population affected by the little black boxes), I aim to accommodate the story. 


Rory Williams Death Count 
In Episode: 0.1 (he appeared dead while on the Shakri ship)
Overall: 4.2

3/10

Next Story: The Angels Take Manhattan