Doctor Who 7.12 – The Crimson Horror

It’s not like I was chomping at the bit for a Paternoster Gang spinoff series in 2013 – I’m nowhere near as enamored of these characters as their many fans – but it felt absolutely true then that the BBC missed a trick in not making one, and it feels triply true today. First because the Disney+ streaming service is proving pretty conclusively that there is definitely a market in keeping spinoffs rolling along and engaging fans, and second because our son likes the characters even more than I’d have guessed. Why is the corporation lazily trundling forward making fewer hours of Doctor Who every year? I guess they don’t have enough money. They certainly don’t have enough ambition.

Anyway, Mark Gatiss’s “The Crimson Horror” isn’t a favorite, but there’s still a lot to like. Diana Rigg is the villain, which is pretty appropriate, since the story feels a lot like it’s an Avengers plot in places. I particularly enjoyed Jenny learning that the factory is a fake, with old gramophones playing the sounds of machinery in an otherwise empty room. That’s exactly the sort of visual Mrs. Peel would have stumbled onto forty-seven years previously.

While overall he liked this one a lot, our son was confused by Diana Rigg’s character leading a temperance sermon about the moral decay of the age in order to drive recruiting for her mysterious planned community. We paused to explain how this sort of thing was very common, and how he’d actually seen something a little similar in an episode of Legend that we watched a little over a year ago. With typical nine year-old behavior, he could tell you everything about Ezra and Ahsoka and all the tech in any given episode of Star Wars Rebels, but old Westerns that he politely tolerated have mostly evaporated. “I must not have liked that story very much,” he shrugged.

Doctor Who 7.11 – Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Here’s a silly thing I love about “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” When I was in high school, one day I was thinking about making a Doctor Who fan film on a VHS camcorder, as people did back then, using what limited resources and locations were available to them. This didn’t get any farther than brainstorming a couple of notions with two pals, but one idea was that the Doctor initially thinks he’s in the corridors of a normal American high school, only it’s actually the Rani’s TARDIS and it’s playing architectural jumble with him to keep him from getting anywhere. So he’d walk down a corridor past the camera, turn right at the intersection, and after a beat, emerge from the left and walk back toward the camera.

This is not, in fairness, anything like an original idea, and it’s been used many times before in many places, but stone me if the Doctor’s own TARDIS plays architectural jumble with him to keep him from getting anywhere in this story and the exact same things happen as I considered in 1988. I just can’t help but enjoy that. Even my notion that the Rani had filled the fake classrooms of her TARDIS with students working on some crazy temporal equation found a similar use in 2006’s “School Reunion”. I hope everybody who thought about making fan movies and drew comics and wrote fic have had the experience of the proper show getting around to their ideas.

As for the actual content of this one, I mainly like the visuals. Our son was satisfied but not blown away, and didn’t have much to say about it. We poked for some commentary, but he woke an hour early this morning, was very tired and getting a bad case of the sillies by the time we sat down, and really just wanted to call it a night so that Mom could read Percy Jackson to him.

Doctor Who 7.10 – Hide

“Hide” is darn near a masterpiece, easily one of my favorite Matt Smith episodes. A little less of the manic and the goofy and it’d be perfect. I like everything else about it tremendously, especially Clara letting her sassy shields slip and revealing that she is scared out of her mind. Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are the guests, and they are marvelous. You get so used to contemporary Who focusing on the leads and the villains and forgetting to dig into the lives of the people they touch that every time the pace slows down to give you their stories, it feels special, these two more than most. Madly, this has been Neil Cross’s last Who adventure; it was written before “The Rings of Akhaten” but I wouldn’t hold that story’s fumble against Cross at all. I’d ask him back annually and let him have at it.

It’s not one of our son’s favorites, though. This was indeed a behind the sofa tale for him. He spent most of the first half back there. Everybody involved just did an amazing job telling a ghost story, so that even when it revealed itself to be something else, the frights had been so strong that the damage was done.

Doctor Who 7.9 – Cold War

During supper tonight, I gave the kid – and Marie, who knows little of early eighties synth music – a potted history of Ultravox, from their cold and clinical early days with John Foxx as the singer through their huge success with such hits as “Vienna” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” I even sang that bit from “Vienna,” which nobody appreciated. I explained that Ultravox, like all acts who have a solid period with lots of hits, reached the end of their period of massive sales quicker than anybody would like, and split up about 1987. Nothing lasts forever.

“So we’re watching Doctor Who tonight?” our son asked.

“What makes you think Doctor Who has anything to do with Ultravox?” I replied.

“Because it’s more likely that a show about time travel would have something to do with Ultravox than a show set in Zoo Neeland or ancient Greece.” Clever kid.

This focus on fondly-remembered musical acts kept him perfectly distracted, satisfying him as guest star David Warner warbled “Vienna” almost as badly as I did, so the surprise appearance of an Ice Warrior, back in the show after a thirty-nine (!) year absence blindsided him wonderfully. The more excited he gets, the more babbling he can’t stop, and he could not stop babbling for an hour. He was thrilled.

I enjoy most of Mark Gatiss’s scripts for Who. I think this one sags a bit in the middle, the result of too much action at the top and the tail, but it’s still very entertaining and fabulously claustrophobic. It’s one of those Whos that plays out in nearly real time, meaning that Martian spaceship at the end must have a heck of a good radio receiver and quite an engine. The kid was thrilled and said that he knew he was going to like it when he realized it was an Ice Warrior, but he liked it even more than he thought he would. I like the Ice Warriors a lot. I even like them more than I like Ultravox.

Doctor Who 7.8 – The Rings of Akhaten

Nobody likes this one. The kid didn’t either, shrugging with disappointment. The most interesting bit is that we learn Clara’s mother passed away on March 5, 2005, which was the date of the Auton invasion eight years previously, in the episode “Rose”. The program doesn’t specifically state that she was killed by an Auton, but assuming that she did gives the episode more to chew on than anything it presents onscreen.

Doctor Who 7.7 – The Bells of Saint John

“The Bells of Saint John” is a simple and fun crowd-pleaser that feels like Steven Moffat going back to the show’s 2005 basics and finding something new and ordinary to turn into a Doctor Who menace, this time wi-fi. It’s packed with silly time travel shenanigans and our son absolutely loved every minute of it, from the little scares to the big reveals to the comic moments, and his big takeaway is that he really wants to see the Doctor’s antigrav motorcycle again. Biggest chuckle of the evening: the Doctor agreeing that “mobile phone” is a “surprisingly accurate” description of the TARDIS. Richard E. Grant pops up at the very end to let us know that the Great Intelligence is still on Earth. I wonder where it’s been hiding since “The Web of Fear”

Doctor Who 7.6 – The Snowmen

Before we got started with tonight’s feature, we looked at the three mini-episodes that were made here and there in 2012 and 2013 that take place before it: “The Battle of Demon’s Run, Two Days Later,” “The Great Detective,” and “Vastra Investigates.” These set up the world of the Paternoster Gang. I wish I enjoyed these three more than I do, but Vastra’s wiser-than-you shtick aggravates me, and the one-word answer scene in “The Snowmen” would have only been entertaining if Clara had got up and said “I’ll just go back to jumping and yelling in the park, thank you very much.”

On the other hand, I predicted a little over two years ago that the kid would absolutely love Strax, and he certainly did. Dan Starkey is by far the most amusing part of this story. The episode is really constructed extremely well, but the best parts are Strax suggesting they blow up their enemies.

“The Snowmen” retcons a couple of points from Virgin’s Doctor Who novels of the early 1990s. One of them I approve of wholeheartedly. Those books set up the Great Intelligence, as well as some of the Doctor’s other nebulous weirdo foes like The Animus from “The Web Planet,” as an Old God from Before Time, because it was the early 1990s and Lovecraft and all his Cthulu nonsense was really in vogue then. (So was cyberpunk and virtual reality everything. Some of those books have aged terribly.) So giving the Great Intelligence a new spin as nothing so grandiose is fine by me. It is a crystalline, snow-like organism that mirrors thoughts and didn’t start growing until the mid-1800s, not before the dawn of time or any of that.

On the other hand, one of those silly Old Gods was Nyaarlahotep, who showed up in Andy Lane’s otherwise completely wonderful novel All-Consuming Fire, which introduced Sherlock Holmes and Watson as real people in the Who world. So don’t try passing Madame Vastra as the real Great Detective. The real Great Detective attended Bernice Summerfield’s wedding, and he didn’t have lizard skin. The idea.

So the kid enjoyed this tremendously, and I’ll tell you this for free: “The Snowmen” is a good story hampered with a soppy and dopey ending about children crying on Christmas, but none of the story’s very good moments – Clara’s introduction to the TARDIS, Richard E. Grant sneering at everything, the Punch and Judy bit, the astonishingly good new TARDIS set, Strax – compared at all to our son finally connecting all the dots when they were at Clara’s gravesite and the Doctor wonders whether he’s heard the words “Great Intelligence” before. I mean, considering it took the kid until Clara mentions making a soufflĂ© to realize that she was played by the same actress he saw, what, two weeks ago, I was impressed that he realized something was up at all. But he got it in the end. “Wait, wha– the Yeti?!” he shouted as the penny dropped. It was a beautiful thing.

When they showed this in 2012 and Clara said that the TARDIS was smaller on the outside, I punched the air. I’d been wanting to hear somebody say that for years.

Doctor Who 7.5 – The Angels Take Manhattan

I get why people like “The Angels Take Manhattan” a whole lot. If you favor the big, sweeping, emotional heartbreakers, then this should do it for you, and it looks like a trillion bucks. Like “A Town Called Mercy”, it’s so beautifully photographed that I don’t mind watching most of it. And I’m sure that Karen Gillan enjoyed having a big, bombastic, memorable finale, and everybody acted the hell out of it. And I do love it when River Song sneers “Just wait until my husband gets home.” Otherwise, my questions about the time distortions around 1938 sort of overwhelm my ability to just sit back and enjoy the story, which is my problem, not the story’s.

Last night, we watched a Jason King adventure where the actors were at Elstree Studios while the library footage tried to make it look like they were at Heathrow Airport. I enjoyed pointing out something similar in tonight’s story, where we can tell that Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill all got to go to New York City to film, but Alex Kingston didn’t. There’s a great little moment as they arrive at the Winter Quay apartment building trap where it’s really obvious, and I enjoyed going back to point it out to our son.

Doctor Who 7.4 – The Power of Three

The most important thing is, as always, that our son completely enjoyed this story and laughed throughout most of it. Chris Chibnall’s “The Power of Three” really is an oddball and unusual story, and I think that it’s the best of this season’s first five by miles. It’s really only the ending that brings it down. It’s not as though this is the first Doctor Who adventure to start terrific and end on a nebulous threat, a miracle finale, and a lot of sonic screwdriver magic, but it just rings particularly hollow this time out.

What makes this one really weird is that they booked a pretty famous actor called Steven Berkoff to play the villain, and by all accounts – quiet and discreet accounts, but all of them – the experience was an unhappy one, so they brought Matt, Karen, and Arthur back in to reshoot the ending without him, and with his character turned from an in-the-flesh baddie into a hologram. They did some script rewrites around the footage they had, suggesting that the budget must have been amazingly tight since they didn’t get a new actor in, anybody, even at scale, to just remount the scene entirely. But none of it worked even before Berkoff arrived for his costume fitting; the story suggests that perhaps a third of Earth’s population suffered heart attacks and everybody was successfully revived several very long minutes later, which, even for Doctor Who miracle magic, is silly.

It’s kind of funny that for me, Berkoff remains best known in my memory as playing a character in Octopussy who, for years, I thought was played by Frank Gorshin, when his Who experience ends up like a strange new version of a different Batvillain, Otto Preminger. When the producers of Batman decided to do a new Mr. Freeze story, they didn’t ask Preminger back to play the character since everybody had such a miserable time working with him earlier.

Also, this episode introduces Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, the current leader of UNIT. She appears in five TV adventures across series seven through nine and in a whole heck of a lot of audio adventures from Big Finish. Honestly, I think it’s really odd that Chris Chibnall wrote her television debut episode and then swept her and UNIT offscreen completely in “Resolution” seven years later. I’d have thought once that situation finished, the Doctor would have flown straight to Kate – and Osgood, I suppose – to find out what the heck happened. Or maybe Big Finish has a script waiting for Jodie Whittaker to approve.

Doctor Who 7.3 – A Town Called Mercy

At the end of last year, we watched all of The Mandalorian, enjoying it thoroughly. I gave our son a crash course in what spaghetti westerns were, so he could understand that it worked for us grownups on a slightly different level than him, and I was glad to see that he retained it. Tonight, the grownups briefly commiserated about what a disappointing story this is, but to its credit, it looks completely amazing. I told the kid that it was shot in Spain, where various studios keep standing “small desert town” backlots for filming. “So it’s a spaghetti western!” he said, and I was pleased that he remembered that. On the other hand, he didn’t recognize guest star Ben Browder despite watching thirty-odd episodes of Farscape. Of course, he disliked most of them. He loved this to pieces at least. Shame they haven’t made a Gunslinger action figure to help out his Doctors deal with their enemies on his bedroom floor.

Doctor Who 7.2 – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Our son vowed that nothing in the universe was going to stop him from loving this episode, and indeed he thought it was terrific. It’s only just occurred to me that these first five stories in series seven do a good job in grounding the program back in one-and-done big concept ideas, after the timey-wimey and intricate storylines of series six that had him very frustrated. This one’s got a simple enough plot, some crowd-pleasing dinosaur action, goofy robots, and the only Who thing the audience needed to know going in was that there were once aliens called Silurians who were reptile people and hung out with dinosaurs.

I could give or take most of this adventure, but there is an interesting little twist that puts the whole audience, briefly, on the same page as an occasionally frustrated nine year-old trying to comprehend things. This story is set several months after the previous one, and since the Doctor returned Amy and Rory home, he either traveled or spent time on Earth with a big game hunter named John Riddell in the early 1900s. Then he left Ridell, had an adventure in Egypt with Queen Nefertiti, and then they picked up Ridell and then Amy and Rory and Rory’s dad Brian, and then after this story, he travels with Brian for a while. There’s not enough room in the story for Nefertiti or Ridell to be drawn in anything but very broad strokes – they have an actual antagonist, a nasty villain played by David Bradley, and he gets more character definition than these two – but Brian is pretty interesting. He’s almost like a trial run for the character of Graham, who the writer, Chris Chibnall, would introduce six years later, especially the way he comes prepared for trips in time and space with some sandwiches and a thermos of tea.