Doctor Who 10.6 and 10.7 – Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World

Two days ago, I read aloud someone’s joke on Twitter, prompting our son to ask what the word stigmata meant. This turned into a long and silly discussion about holy relics and the sort of things that the Vatican is said, in fiction, to keep in dark and secret archives. And so last night, we watched Steven Moffat’s unbelievably good “Extremis,” which launches what seems like, for a good while, is going to be one of the all-time greatest Who adventures. Will Moffat fail to stick the landing? Of course. It’s Moffat, and it’s Who. The show’s endings, as I’ve said often enough, are rarely as good as its openings. When Moffat nails it, it’s punch-the-air excellent, but he’s uneven, and the higher the stakes, the greater the chance of a belly flop.

“Extremis” takes us to the Vatican’s secret vault of heretical writings, which is brilliantly designed and also extremely large. Dudes have banned a whole lot of books in two thousand years. It introduces us to the Monks, who are also brilliantly designed and also extremely patient and clever. These guys don’t pull off many invasions, but the ones they do, they do intricately and carefully.

The hour is an amazing example of one misdirection after another, which feeds into part two. Perhaps my favorite is the slow and fascinating explanation of why the Doctor has been guarding this vault underneath St. Luke’s for the first fifty (or seventy?) years of a promised thousand: Missy is in it. The direction makes it look like that Michelle Gomez has been brought back to serve as the Doctor’s executioner, but no, he has been assigned to kill her. He has a better idea.

Also, I really, really love the way that Missy takes a break from all the taunting, realizes that the Doctor has ended his retirement because River has died, and quietly offers her condolences. Amazing.

So for part two, Peter Harness comes on board as co-writer as the action moves to Turmezistan, which Harness introduced in his Zygon adventure in the previous season. I’ve less to say about the second part, except that it’s done so brilliantly well. Watching it again just cements how much I absolutely love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

Our son has enjoyed the daylights out of the story so far. In both parts, the Doctor’s triumphs have had him grinning ear to ear, fists clenched. He gets so animated when the hero turns things on the villains, especially when the Monks’ own attempt at misdirection backfires and the Doctor figures out where they don’t want him to be. But there’s a flaw in his plan, and – not for the first time – one of the Doctor’s companions makes a deal with the devil to save his life. The cliffhanger is downbeat and I truly enjoy how we couldn’t guess what would happen next.

Doctor Who 10.5 – Oxygen

Typically, I’m probably going to like a Doctor Who that’s both angry and intelligent. “Oxygen” is another truly excellent script by Jamie Mathieson. It’s his fourth for the show, and sadly the last, but every one’s a winner. If they gave the program to him tomorrow*, I’d punch the air, knowing it’s in safe hands. And it’s furious, angrier at the establishment than Who often is. This is like “Happiness Patrol”-level furious with capitalism.

If “Sleep No More” hinted at an ugly future where management needs to exploit labor to inhuman levels, this takes it a step further and gives us a corporation run by an algorithm which has decided labor, at least in its human form, is entirely expendable. It’s not worth the expense of replacing them with robots when the AI-controlled smartsuits which are already on-base can just kill the humans inside them and resume their work. It even gives us a nasty version of company scrip: the miners have to purchase the air that they need to breathe.

Interestingly, we had a nice, long chat with our son last night about lots of things, but circled back to how science fiction can speculate about the ills of the present. It’s part of reminding him that there’s more to the genre than laser guns and space stations and corpse-filled suits and trying to get Nardole out of the way by sending him from Bristol to Birmingham for a packet of potato chips. He really enjoyed the episode, and I hope he comes back to it and considers it in the future. It’s why something has to go terribly wrong for me to consider using a self-checkout at the grocery store. Those should go to paying jobs for people who need them, but I suppose some algorithm says otherwise.

*I say that, but I also kind of hope they give it to somebody who has never worked on the series and is not a fan, to see what a really fresh pair of eyes can see and do.

Doctor Who 10.4 – Knock Knock

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the clearance bins at our local used media-and-junk superstore, and found a slimline case of the TV version of “Death on the Nile,” one of the seventy-odd episodes of Poirot that starred David Suchet and was made by a succession of ITV companies over a quarter-century run. I think it got separated from a box set, and it was only a dollar. Perhaps surprisingly, I had never looked into the series, because I don’t actually like the character or the books.

In much the same way that I once spent an insane amount of time that could have been better spent trying to like Star Trek, I once forced myself to enjoy Agatha Christie and couldn’t do it. All the ingredients should have been there. I tend to like between-the-wars British detective fiction, especially Sayers and Allingham, and I enjoyed the BBC’s adaptations of the Miss Marple stories with Joan Hickson. But the original Marples were mostly tedious, and Tommy and Tuppence more so, and Hercule Poirot worst of all. I read eight or nine Poirots, and even the mighty ABC Murders, which everybody said I was certain to love, left me cold. I did, however, notice and love the weird continuity between two of the novels and a creepy old lady asking questions about dead children behind a fireplace.

But I picked up that cheap “Death on the Nile” for two reasons. First, I’ve got mad respect for David Suchet for taking the reins and fighting like a tiger to make good on his dream to adapt every one of the Poirot adventures, because there are a lot of the darn things. And second, I truly enjoyed Suchet as the strange old landlord in “Knock Knock.” I think it’s a great story, set in a “freaky Scooby-Doo house,” with some terrific characters. Bill’s friend Shireen finds them four new housemates and they find a great big place where the rent’s cheap and everything goes wrong. Every twenty years, six young people go missing. The Doctor finds all their belongings. One of the tenants in 1977 had Bowie’s “Heroes” 45 with the picture sleeve. That tenant had far better taste in music than Bill.

Our son enjoyed it very much, particularly the scary sequences before we meet the little alien “lice” responsible for everything, and is going nuts with curiosity about who or what the Doctor is keeping in the vault underneath St. Luke’s. I told him that, in a break with tradition, he won’t have to wait until the end of episode eleven to find out.

Oh, and that “Death on the Nile” I picked up? I really enjoyed it, despite the incredibly unlikely plot, because David Suchet was so entertainingly fussy and mannered in it. It seems, for me, that Poirot is a character who demands to be seen onscreen rather than on the page. I might buy another one day.

Doctor Who 10.3 – Thin Ice

I like Sarah Dollard’s “Thin Ice” very much, and one of the nicest things about it is that it has room to breathe. The opening scenes at the Frost Fair in 1814 London feel like a real place because the episode spends several minutes just letting us see and hear what’s going on, while Bill expresses her concerns about time travel. She’s worried both about being a young Black woman in the 1800s and also about stepping on a butterfly and wiping herself from history. I like that Bill enjoys science fiction; she’s clearly up on her Ray Bradbury. I really like how honestly the episode addresses bigotry, and how the Doctor is the one who loses his temper before Bill gets the chance to.

So the kid enjoyed this one a lot, of course. It’s got a great big mile-long sea serpent living at the bottom of the Thames, so how could he not? Bill can’t believe that she’d never heard stories of a sea serpent rising up from the river in 1814, and Googles it – well, that’s not accurate, she “search-engines” it, because Google is a trademark – and still comes up empty. The Doctor explains that there was a lot of “day drinking” going on at the Frost Fair. She probably would have got the same results if she had “search-engined” a sea serpent rising up from the river in 1975. After all, there was a lot of “day drinking” going on in London in 1975.

Doctor Who 10.2 – Smile

Two seasons previously, Frank Cottrell-Boyce wrote what’s one of my least favorite Who adventures ever, and he totally redeemed himself with this story about a colony in space where everything’s gone terribly wrong. I don’t feel like writing much tonight, but take it as read that we all enjoyed it, and I liked the little winks at the events of “The Ark in Space” and “The Beast Below”, and that the Doctor’s initial thought about why robots are running a city without any people in it is remarkably like what happened in the very first Robo-Hunter story, “Verdus.” The Emojibots are great little designs, and Character Options should make some toys of them for their line.

Honestly, the story’s only flaw at all is that the human colonists name their ship Erewhon. Seriously. In fiction, that name has never, ever ended up with anything good happening to anybody. What were they thinking?

Doctor Who 10.1 – The Pilot

It really is weird that my two favorite seasons of Who in the modern era are four and ten, the last ones that their respective producers oversaw. Maybe this means that Chris Chibnall’s next nine episodes are going to pop for me? Fingers crossed, we will learn soon, and while we wait, we’ve got this almost perfectly brilliant run to enjoy again. I don’t like most of episode eight, and episode nine has a stunningly dumb thing in it, but almost perfect.

Sensibly, “The Pilot” is another entry-level episode, where our new audience-identification figure, a cafeteria worker named Bill Potts, learns that there might be something to those stories that the weird lecturer called the Doctor, who doesn’t often tutor students, has been at St. Luke’s in Bristol for between fifty and seventy years. And we see the weirdness of the world through her eyes, from a hugely effective horror scene where there may be something taking a shower in her apartment to a battle between the Daleks and the Movellans, making a tiny little cameo after a 38-year absence. The strange planet they visit has the sort of strangeness that we just wish all strange planets in Who had, and as though he remembered how great and effective the liquid-dripping dead people in “The Waters of Mars” toward the end of Russell T. Davies’s run looked, the antagonist in this story by Steven Moffat is similarly wet, creepy, and unforgettable.

Joining the TARDIS team this time, it’s Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, who’s among mine and Marie’s favorite Who companions. I really like her a lot more than Amy or Clara. Matt Lucas’s Nardole is still here, faithfully spending his time showing students to the boss’s office while his aging robot parts need a bit of TLC. So they’ve been in Bristol since 1967, and possibly as early as 1947. They haven’t gone anywhere, since Nardole won’t let the Doctor forget his obligation to look after something in a vault. I love all the unanswered questions about this. I love how the Doctor’s office is the closest thing to his personal space that we’ve ever seen before, and that he keeps photos of his wife and granddaughter on his desk. It’s such a great premise that I’d grumble that they didn’t explore it more if the stories this year weren’t so good.

Doctor Who 10.0 – The Return of Doctor Mysterio

It’s always the giant corporations in Doctor Who that are fronts for alien awfulness. Have you noticed that? So you’ve got either UNIT or investigative journalists digging into something with branches in capital cities across the planet, or gizmos like a fancy GPS that are sold in every country, or that Facebook/Google thing that everyone uses in series twelve. It’s never a small startup or a mid-sized company that nobody cares about. No wonder all these alien invasions get foiled. They get too big for their britches. This bunch of villains is called Harmony Shoal, and they’re still around in the year 5343, as shown in the previous episode. They seem to leave a lot of loose ends on Earth in this one, including a guy who somehow takes over the body of an American UNIT soldier. Shame they haven’t returned to this.

So here’s the delightful and silly 2016 Christmas special, in which Steven Moffat introduces a superhero into the Doctor Who universe, and clarifies that our often clueless-about-popular-culture Doctor, who once suggested that Batman might drive a space rocket, is equally unfamiliar with Superman and Spider-Man. It’s a love letter to American superheroes, or more accurately American superhero movie culture. It does seem kind of weird, however, that Harmony Shoal would build a whacking great replica of the Daily Planet’s offices in Manhattan when the people of the Who universe read the same John Byrne-drawn Superman funnybooks that we do.

So naturally, our son really liked this one. It’s a great Christmas special, all smiles and silliness and jokes that hit the bullseye perfectly. His favorite moment, however, was the Lois Lane analogue using an incredibly annoying squeaky toy called Mr. Huffle to interview – slash – interrogate the Doctor, making it squeal obnoxiously whenever he lies.

I like all the backstory stuff in this one even more than the onscreen material, which is perfectly ridiculous and wonderful. I like that the story begins with a very long prologue in which the Doctor seems to undo all that nonsensical paradox business from “The Angels Take Manhattan” that somehow was preventing him from ever going to New York. I like that the Doctor confirms that he spent twenty-four years with River Song, and at some point agreed to rescue Nardole’s head from the bowels of the big robot where he’d been stored and build him a new body. Wonder what happened to the other fellow? Maybe he enjoyed having a big robot body. This seems to be set not too long after sunrise on Darillium, because the Doctor’s still smarting from saying his last goodbye to River.

Another oddball thing that I like is that there’s all sorts of fanon or Big Finish or novel evidence that certain companions stayed with the Doctor for a whole lot longer than the TV series would lead us to believe. I mean, there’s really no reason to believe that the fourth Doctor and the second Romana traveled together for a year and a half when they might as well have been together for one or two hundred years. But the next episode will establish that at some point after this adventure, the Doctor and Nardole will settle in Bristol sometime in the 1960s and remain there together the whole time. I call that televised canon that no other companion can match Nardole’s fifty-plus years of service by the Doctor’s side. No wonder Nardole gets so cranky about Bill Potts. Poor fellow’s jealous.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to keep things fresh, but we’ll return to meet Bill in three weeks.  Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 9.13 – The Husbands of River Song

What a curious coincidence. There was a “bigger boat” joke in last night’s episode of Atlantis as well as this.

Anyway, knowing that sometimes details elude our kid, a couple of days ago, I made sure to remind him about some of the details of River Song’s first/final appearance in Doctor Who, back in series four: the screwdriver, the new suit, the Singing Towers of Darillium. He assured me tonight that it was not necessary. With the cocksure swagger of a preteen, he eyerolled that he remembered all of River Song’s prior appearances “pretty well.”

He really enjoyed the beginning of this story, which really is extremely funny, but it wore a little less well with him as it went on, despite it all being remarkably satisfying. I think it’s absolutely wonderful from start to finish. I said once before that the bookends of River’s story are by far the best parts, and I stand by that. It wraps everything up beautifully. I know that some people – not the least of whom is Alex Kingston herself – have said they’d like River to meet Jodie’s Doctor. If this wasn’t such a perfect ending, I might agree. Is this one of my favorite Who installments ever? It’s possibly in the top ten.

Also of big note here: the Doctor meets Nardole! I made sure to point out that I think Matt Lucas is a comic genius. His reactions during the opening scene here as the Doctor keeps crossing his arms – violating some royal protocol or other – are completely brilliant. Nardole is so great. He’s one of my favorite of all the show’s companions.

Doctor Who 9.12 – Hell Bent

So one day the Time Lords, who can monitor all of time and space, wanted to talk to the Doctor. We’ve seen them teleport to his exact location at least twice, and we’ve seen them take control of his TARDIS several times, but now they figure their best option is a trap. As bait, a boy from London who the Doctor has met exactly once. Contracted to spring the trap, a woman the Doctor has met exactly twice, and who has not interacted with him in more than 350 years, and who lives in an invisible street. Despite the apparent urgency in talking to the Doctor, the Time Lords are content to wait 4.5 billion years for him.

Okay, so about that last point, I’d like to think that 4.5 billion years just pass in the fixed, closed universe of the confession dial, and however long the Doctor spends in it, he’d be spat out into the same moment in the “real” world. Otherwise, in a series where the impermanence of memory has been discussed twice, you’d think that after 4.5 billion years, Rassilon would have forgotten what the heck it was they wanted to discuss. But this urgency didn’t lead them to leave the dial in the High Council’s office or a prison cell. No, the dial’s in the desert for no other reason than the opportunity to take advantage of some nice location filming, just like the only reason they’ve involved Mayor Me is to take advantage of the popular actress Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones instead of, say, Osgood and Kate Stewart, or the Paternoster Gang, or River Song, or Clara’s grandmother. Maybe the Time Lords have lost the ability to teleport or control the TARDIS. But they’ve also lost their brains if they’re using Rigsy and Me instead of people who actually have Clara’s telephone number.

What I’m getting at, of course, is that series nine ends on yet another massive disappointment. Nine’s a weird series that way: it’s bookended by two huge turkeys but I really love the ten episodes between them enormously. Like “The Magician’s Apprentice”, this whole storyline takes something that should have been stripped down to its core – because it really is a simple thing – and complicates it with set piece after set piece. There’s all this nonsense with the soup and the barn and the line in the sand that doesn’t have anything at all to do with the problem of the Doctor and Clara’s friendship being unsafely intense.

Worse, it’s just tedious. There are several very good lines of dialogue, and our son liked the visual of the time-traveling diner if nothing else, but it’s sixty minutes long and you feel every one of them. Even accepting that goodbyes in the modern show take a very long time, this is bloated and weighed down by its length. Clara and the Doctor don’t converse; they debate. At least it begins promisingly, with the Doctor meeting who we are meant to think is another of Clara’s lost-in-time splinters from series seven and playing her “Clara’s Theme” on his guitar, but it falls apart immediately after that. It’s such a shame this season didn’t end with something imaginative and fun. We’d have to wait another three weeks for the Christmas special for fun.

Doctor Who 9.11 – Heaven Sent

Every once in a while, television writers will stretch and do something really, really unusual, and push against the expectations and form of a program with something of a house style. The “Three Men and Adena” episode of Homicide: Life on the Street has been my go-to example of “did you see that?!” since it originally aired. “Heaven Sent” is certainly another. I enjoyed asking our son afterward “You’ve never seen a Doctor Who like that before, have you?”

Truth be told, he wasn’t really taken with it. It’s a little far outside his own wheelhouse, and I think that from his perspective, this felt like a long and uncomfortable road block between what happened to Clara in the last episode and the confrontation that he was expecting. I may be extrapolating similar criticism that I’ve read before into his impatience, but I think there’s a point to that impatience, if what you’re wanting is a story that gets to a satisfactory resolution without delays. On the other hand, if you’re like me and think that the journey itself is often as important, or more, than the destination, then “Heaven Sent” is a pretty amazing journey.

What else? Rachel Talalay is back to direct, the script probably took Steven Moffat months and months to finish, and Peter Capaldi is on fire. Like “Sleep No More” earlier this season, it’s a story that suffers particularly when given artificial commercial breaks. It’s a puzzle box, a trap, a torture chamber, an anachronism, it reminds me of “The House That Jack Built” from The Avengers and it’s just a phenomenal, intelligent, and brilliantly constructed hour of TV.

Doctor Who 9.10 – Face the Raven

Well, let’s get the nitpicky out of the way first. “Face the Raven” was Sarah Dollard’s first Doctor Who script, and it’s extremely good in many respects, but it makes a critical error in basing the big problem around an extremely complicated deathtrap with more rules than a television hour can realistically address. This naturally leads an audience to start questioning “why didn’t they” and “why couldn’t he” instead of dealing with the fictional reality. In a book, this might have worked a lot better, because a novel doesn’t have the clock until the end of the episode ticking. I can imagine somebody like Susanna Clarke providing the full contract between Me and the Quantum Shade in the book’s appendix. So as much as I like this story, there are questions that are never going to be satisfactorily answered; the episode just has to shout “She just can’t, okay?!” and honestly, television should never need to do that.

Wait until we get to episode twelve, though. That mess is nothing but questions.

That said, everything else is really good. Maisie Williams is back as Me, who we last saw in the 17th Century, and she has sprung a trap for the Doctor using his and Clara’s friend Rigsy, who we met in “Flatline” in season eight. I really love the realization of the “trap street.” The Harry Potter films had a couple of similar “hide in plain sight” places that I don’t think were done as well as this, and the occupants of the street, mostly survivors and refugees from various attempted conquests of Earth, remind me of Kate Orman’s novel Return of the Living Dad. Although full credit to Orman: this episode has some amusing familiar faces, but nothing here is as ridiculously lovely as the novel’s poor Auton, cut off from the Nestene Consciousness and stuck forever in the form of a spatula.

It’s a very intense episode that kept our son practically motionless for its full running time, which rarely happens. Clara’s death scene is really amazing and he was absolutely silent. He said afterward “That… kept me on my toes. It wasn’t exciting the way I like it, but I couldn’t guess what was going to happen.” Despite my problems with the script, everybody involved did an outstanding job with the material. My eyes were dry this time, but I have watched it something like eight or nine times, and a little of its power has admittedly been a bit dulled.