Doctor Who 7.15 – The Day of the Doctor

Pew-pew lasers.

It’s 99% wonderful, but they finally give us the thing we should never have seen: the Time War. It should’ve been the epic crashing of centuries that never happened, waves of possibilities undoing the evolution of universes, Daleks decaying into dust because the metal of their casings had never been designed, Gallifreyans blinked from existence as Daleks slaughtered them in their Time Tot cribs before they joined the sky trenches, the home planets of the Zygons and the Nestenes ripped into nothing but half-forgotten memories shared by terrified survivors. Instead we got pew-pew lasers.

And what makes it infuriating to the point of madness is that Nick Hurran otherwise makes just about the strongest argument possible for being Who‘s very best director with this story. Every frame looks amazing, the lighting and the composition are perfect in every single shot. For Who‘s fiftieth birthday, they gave us an incredibly fun story, a mostly perfect script by Steven Moffat under rotten circumstances – for some weeks, they had zero Doctors under contract, with which people who whined that the story should’ve had more than three never sympathized – and a couple of surprising guest stars in Billie Piper and Tom Baker.

But pew-pew lasers. And Osgood. Everybody else likes Osgood more than I do, which is fair, but I can’t believe anybody’s satisfied with Doctor Who taking the route of conventional sci-fi action instead of something with imagination and power.

I think this story underlines the discrepancy between the two quite harshly. It’s such an intelligent script even before the wit and the putdowns and the Doctors sniping at each other. It features some of Moffat’s very best timey-wimey stuff as the action moves from the National Gallery to the Tower of London, and one character gets a phone call from the Doctor about two seconds after the Doctor leaves the room, and a big painting that we saw in one location ends up in the other, which looks so odd that I honestly thought it was a continuity error on that magical afternoon in 2013 until they explained it.

Our son, who was thrilled by the Daleks and the Zygons and all the other Doctors, noted that there really wasn’t a villain “for the main part,” which is why this works so well. It’s not about saving Earth from Zygons or saving Gallifrey from Daleks. It’s about the Doctor dealing with his decisions, and forgiving his past, and changing history without changing his memories or his guilt. It’s a really remarkable script, and as much as it would’ve been nice to have had Paul McGann and/or Christopher Eccleston in this story, John Hurt is amazing and perfect.

Other kid notes: I quickly covered his eyes just before David Tennant’s name appeared onscreen to preserve the surprise, which worked wonderfully and he loved it. I also neglected to find an occasion to casually remind him of the Zygons, who hadn’t shown up in this show in a very, very long time, but he remembered them. “It’s hard to forget big red monsters with suckers who brought the Loch Ness Monster,” he assured me. I’m not going to hold my hand over my heart and swear that he knew that was Tom Baker playing the Curator – I’m afraid of that heart breaking if I ask – but of course he’s going to remember the Loch Ness Monster.

Doctor Who 4.11 – Turn Left

I think “Turn Left” is one of Russell T. Davies’s best scripts for the series and one of the very best hours that Graeme Harper directed. It’s an amazing story with lots of layers and things you pick up on repeated viewings and I love it to pieces. It gives us callbacks to five recent adventures and shows just how badly things would have gone down without the Doctor there to fix them, descending, inevitably, to a totalitarian Britain unable to cope with its own refugee crisis. It’s an ugly and frightening and breathtaking hour, with a brilliant performance by Bernard Cribbins.

I wasn’t sure how the kid would feel about it, and while I’m sure some of it – like the horrifying labor camps moment – went over his head, he otherwise enjoyed it a lot and was incredibly excited. Interestingly, the idea of the Trickster’s Time Beetle climbing on peoples’ backs was inspired by the 1974 serial “Planet of the Spiders”. We only watched that story once but our son must remember it vividly. As soon as the creature starts scuttling across the floor at Donna, the camera showing us its POV, before it even climbs on Donna’s back, he jumped a little and said “It’s one of those giant spiders!”

Also of note: UNIT gets its first repeat character in the revival. Capt. Magambo is not in the next story like she should be, but she does return in “Planet of the Dead” a bit later on. Billie Piper seems to have had a mouth full of cotton in some of her scenes, but it’s nice to see her again anyway, and our son patted himself on the back for spotting her “Easter egg” appearance in the previous episode.

Doctor Who 2.13 – Doomsday

Since I’ve praised Shaun Dingwall so much in his previous appearances, I really needed to give him one last shot at the blog photo, front and center where he deserves. Dingwall does not steal the story this time like he did in “Father’s Day” and the “Age of Steel” story; between the Dalek-Cybermen trash-talk scene and Billie Piper’s amazingly sad goodbye, not even this great actor could walk away with the episode. But the first meeting between “our” Jackie and “the other” Pete is nevertheless a real highlight of the story. I love how Noel Clarke, David Tennant, and Billie Piper are positioned well behind Dingwall and Camille Coduri, looking for all the world like they’re just getting out of their way.

“Doomsday” is magnificent. All three of the two-parters in the second series do an amazing job with fulfilling all the promise of the setup in their conclusions. I absolutely love this adventure. I think that in retrospect it set a bad precedent for what I call “apocalyptic” companion departures, with too many characters yet to come that the Doctor can never, ever, ever meet again, but Rose got a great sendoff that’s rarely been equaled. And that little bitchfest between our two alien menaces is one of my all-time favorite Who moments. We paused the episode for a minute there for everybody to have a chance to quit laughing.

The kid absolutely loved it, of course. The revelation that there are millions more Daleks locked in that bigger-on-the-inside Time Lord prison ship had him on his feet with his jaw on the floor. I’ve been questioning him all day whether he’s absolutely sure the Daleks and the Cybermen wouldn’t get along. I noticed that his eyebrows raised when the Cybermen proposed an alliance. Of course the Daleks shoot that idea down. They don’t make friends and they’re not afraid to ask anybody to step outside.

Doctor Who 2.12 – Army of Ghosts

In 2006, Doctor Who would air in the UK on Saturdays and a friend of mine, a dear fellow who’s since passed away, would download a copy from a file-sharing site a day or two later. We’d then get a gang together to watch the episode at our old house on Thursday nights because that was when it was most convenient. A day or two after “Fear Her” aired, I got a message from a pal in the UK on the 2000 AD forum. Knowing that I hate spoilers, he did me the favor of dropping me a line to tell me to not watch the “Next Time” trailer at the end of “Fear Her.” I did as requested. When we watched “Fear Her” that Thursday, I paused the DVD and passed the remote to somebody else while I went upstairs.

Because the BBC spoils lots of surprises – they sort of have to when they film on location and bring identifiable monster costumes or cast recognizable actors for outdoor shots – everybody knew that the Cybermen would be back. After all, director Graeme Harper had filmed all sorts of material with the Cybermen in broad daylight, as the publicity and paparazzi photos had shown, and the previous adventure with them all took place in one evening. So everybody knew that this would be a Cybermen story, but what nobody knew until that “Next Time” trailer is that the Daleks would be back as well. And the trailer doesn’t reveal it, it just half-assedly gives it away by casually including the unmistakable look and sound of a Dalek death ray in one shot as if by accident.

I am so glad that I skipped it that Thursday in 2006, because apart from one bit where David Tennant, forgetting how he’d reprimanded himself for “correctamundo,” acts like a goofball saying that he ain’t afraid of no ghosts, this episode is completely wonderful and ends with one of the all-time great cliffhangers, which I totally did not see coming. The kid loved it as well and said that it was even better than “the one with Queen Victoria and the werewolf!” He didn’t even pretend that the Cybermen annoyed him this time around. Then when the Daleks showed up in the final seconds, he was on his feet, roaring, and saying pretty much everything you can imagine an eight year-old would say about having the two big baddies finally showing up in the same story. I asked whether he thinks that they’ll get along. “No! Absolutely not! They’re going to HATE each other!”

Well, Cybermen don’t understand how to hate, but I take his point. I’m resisting the temptation to jump ahead and watch that brilliant bit of trash-talking in the second episode. I can wait ’til tonight. I think.

Doctor Who 2.11 – Fear Her

A couple of nights ago, we watched the latest Doctor Who episode, which is called “Orphan 55.” I thought it was pretty terrible – the first Who I haven’t enjoyed in a few years – but the real disappointment was knowing we were just 48 hours from sitting through this turkey again. I’ve never liked “Fear Her” at all. I think it’s the worst episode from the Russell T. Davies years by a mile. Although, watching it again tonight, I am struck by just how much better structured than “Orphan 55” it is.

“55” is full of flaws, and while it never sinks into the treacly “power of love” ditch that this does, its most annoying thing is that it isn’t given any room to breathe. The opening scene in the TARDIS is frantic; the spa seems under attack the instant our heroes arrive. “Fear Her” does a comparatively brilliant job of establishing a mood of fear and dread, and there’s an ugly scene in the road that caught my eye more effectively this time, tinged as it is with racial fears and “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.” Honestly, this one starts out well. The only grumble I can muster for most of the episode’s running time – and this is petty – is that when Abisola Agbaje, the young actress who plays the possessed little girl, is speaking in her “alien” voice, she’s really hard for me to understand. Otherwise, the kid carries off a tough role extremely well.

I’ll give Davies and the episode’s writer, Matthew Graham, credit for trying something new. The alien isn’t malicious; it’s a frightened little child. Its species travels the galaxy surrounded by its gigantic, billions-strong family in tiny little pods. It got lost, it’s dying without the close contact of all of its family, and it’s using a possessed kid to suck people into limbo to keep it company. But the more we learn, the less sense the story makes, including a strange threat of a drawing that might come to life, and it’s driven by coincidence like the alien running out of patience and needing a massive influx of love and company several days after it landed, right when the London 2012 Games are set to begin. Everything falls completely apart after that, leaving us to wonder just what the explanation was for the missing 80,000 spectators, and how in the world the Doctor, honorary Brit he may be, got out of that stadium without more questions from Olympic security than he’s ever answered on any planet, anywhere.

I wonder what the “Mystery man who lit the torch” page in the Who-universe Wikipedia looks like. Meanwhile in London, Elton Pope, perhaps the sole survivor of “that LINDA lot” after that incident six years previously, watched the Olympics and said “Oh, him. He still hasn’t aged.”

Our kid liked it, as I believe kids do, but that stultifying ending kicked this story down into my personal bottom five when I first saw it, and even two Steven Moffat-era turkeys that landed down there with thuds have failed to dislodge it. Still, it’s all smooth sailing from here for quite a while. But I’m afraid we’ll be delayed getting to the big series two finale because we’ve got to return to the present day for a bit first…

Doctor Who 2.10 – Love & Monsters

“Love & Monsters” is an episode that I saw a lot of people spitting bricks about when it was first shown. There were people who absolutely hated this one. Surprisingly, to me, anyway, our son didn’t care for it, either. He did enjoy the Scooby Doo tribute with the corridor scene at the beginning of the show, and he liked the flashbacks to the three previous alien incidents in contemporary England (seen in “Rose,” “Aliens of London,” and “The Christmas Invasion“), but the scene where Jackie Tyler comes on to Elton had him cringing in embarrassment. At the end, he said that he didn’t like it because the Doctor was hardly in it, which I can understand, and because all of Elton’s video diaries have these little white “frames” around the picture, which I said was a bit silly.

We talked beforehand about how today’s episode might be an example of an unreliable narrator. I gave him a few examples of how most television and film is made without a narrator, with the events presented as true. He offered up Kolchak: The Night Stalker as having a narrator, and I said that we can probably trust Carl, because he’s determined to get the truth out at whatever the cost. I’m not certain we can completely trust Elton’s account of these events. The Scooby Doo hallway bit at the beginning is evidence that Elton might be making some of these things up. I read an interesting theory that Victor Kennedy and the Absorbaloff never existed at all, but Elton’s relationship with Ursula didn’t work out and he told this story to make the breakup hurt less, because she got the friends and LINDA continued without him. (Why else, in “Time Crash,” would the Fifth Doctor even know about “that LINDA lot” if they were only around for about three months in 2006?)

There’s one part of me that pretends to think that the fade to black right after the shot pictured above, after Elton’s last memory of his mother, is where the truth actually ends. The continuation, with the Doctor calling to him to fetch a spade and the revelation that Ursula is still alive as a pavement slab, is not true. That revelation had a lot of fans completely furious in 2006, that Doctor Who had a cheap joke that implied oral sex with a chunk of granite.

As for me, I’ve always liked the story despite the dopey and tasteless ending. I wish that it had gone differently: it would have been a million times better if the Absorbaloff melted and freed all four of its victims. I’m not saying that Doctor Who needed to keep revisiting these five funny little humans, but I liked them, and I like to believe that they spent the second half of the 2000s watching the skies. Now that I think about it, I like that fan theory more and more, whether or not Elton was part of the gang. I also like a tremendously neat thing that I read at Wikipedia when going over the production of this story. One of the earlier script drafts had explained that Elton’s mother, who died in the 1970s, was not a victim of some kind of elemental shade that this Doctor had recently tracked, but was instead a victim of the plastic flowers that the Master distributed way back in “Terror of the Autons.” I really wish they’d have done that.

“Love & Monsters” lends itself to so much more analysis and discussion than I typically indulge here at our blog. There’s the whole business about LINDA being a parable for fandom that has to deal with superfans storming in and making everything not fun for everybody, and you can certainly read a lot about that elsewhere, if you’re inclined. I think it’s a fine piece of television with a terrific lead performance by Marc Warren as Elton, with some fine support by Shirley Henderson as Ursula. Maybe it’s not for everybody, and LINDA’s love and happiness and exuberant performances of ELO songs shouldn’t have been interrupted by either Kennedy or death, but I think it’s still charming and huggable. Plus, the way that the villain explains that Raxacoricofallapatorius has a twin planet called Clom is the funniest thing ever.

Doctor Who 2.9 – The Satan Pit

This two-parter borrows a little of its format from the previous two-part story this season. Episode one sets everything up and establishes the new environment the characters are in, and episode two is full-throttle, taking place over the course of a little over sixtyish minutes. And our kid loved it. The slow moments had him rapt with attention and the action had him wide-eyed with excitement.

The unfortunate Ood made for great villains and the imprisoned “Satan” beast, which looks like it first saw life on an eighties metal album, was, and I mean this in the most affectionate way possible, a little more effective than Stephen Thorne dressed as a goat, which is what we saw the last time that Doctor Who suggested the possibility of a devil, back in ’71. I liked and appreciated the hat tip to that adventure when the Doctor tells one of the scientists that many planets have myths of devils, including Daemos.

Doctor Who 2.8 – The Impossible Planet

Among all the reasons I enjoy “The Impossible Planet” is that it has a brilliant sense of scale. This is a story about Earth during the time of its Empire – so it’s perhaps contemporary with season nine’s “The Mutants” – but it talks about a vastness of space and the passing of billions of years. I just like it when Doctor Who imagines something far, far bigger in scope than just “this story takes place exactly one hundred years from the date of transmission.”

And I also love the scene where the Doctor and Rose – who are back to being insufferably smug right after they land – discuss what the world might have in store for them without the TARDIS. The Doctor feigns horror at having to worry about a house and a mortgage, deflecting a genuine worry. David Tennant sensibly doesn’t let him be vulnerable here, but it’s a big situation that the Doctor hasn’t run into in a really long time. I also like it when our hero can’t rely on the ship to get himself out of trouble.

Elsewhere in the audience, our son positively exploded at the cliffhanger ending. “Come on! Come on! Why does this have to be a two-parter?!” he grumbled. We answered that there was too much story for just one episode, and reminded him that one of his pals has asked the same question about the occasional two-part episodes of Thunderbirds are Go. It seems he was just enjoying this one a lot and really wants to know what’s at the bottom of the mysterious hole on the impossible planet Krop Tor right now.

He also suggested that there’s an error in the story. He observed that the possessed archaeologist, shown above, has all these symbols on his skin when the mysterious villain is speaking through him, but once the possession leaves him and takes over the Ood, they don’t get the symbols. I suggested that perhaps each of the base’s Ood gets a single symbol, and since they’re wearing suits, the symbol could be on their backsides for all we know. I don’t think this mystery will be solved in part two…

Doctor Who 2.7 – The Idiot’s Lantern

The most interesting thing about Mark Gatiss’s “The Idiot’s Lantern” – although by no means the most entertaining – is the brutal depiction of a very unhappy family. The Connollys are the emotional core of this story, and the father is an unpleasant, desperate tyrant so obsessed with his reputation in his neighborhood that he doesn’t realize that he’s destroyed his marriage. I think the actor’s portrayal is too broad, bordering on caricature, but there’s another actress who plays a relative who really gets to the heart of family dynamics in the 1950s when she silkily recommends, in a room full of guests, that he gives his son a good beating to knock the “mommy’s boy” out of him. That’s the most spine-chilling moment.

But there’s a lot of honesty in this, as painful as it might be to watch. I’ve mentioned previously how many awful, unhappy marriages that we saw in The Twilight Zone. We’ve seen a few ugly ones in Night Gallery so far as well. We spoke with our son about this and while we’d like to think that control freaks like the father of this family might not be as common today, relationships like this do exist. I think they were a little more common back when divorce was rarely an option. So the father leaves, his reputation – if anybody in his neighborhood bothered to notice – in tatters. Thank heaven for divorce is all I can say.

Outside of this family, the story’s a typically fun frantic adventure. The Doctor and Rose have, for the second time this year, aimed for a historical concert and ended up in the wrong place. They were shooting for Ian Dury and the Blockheads in 1979 in “Tooth and Claw” and Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show this time, which accounts for David Tennant’s wonderful hairdo. Ron Cook, who played Parker in the live-action Thunderbirds a couple of years previously, is one of the villains, and his TV sets, which house an energy being from space, get to play old footage of Muffin the Mule and Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. There probably isn’t too much else from 1953 in the BBC’s archive, is there?

Doctor Who 2.6 – The Age of Steel

“That was awesome, but ONLY because the Cybermen were totally destroyed in a totally awesome way.” That’s our son’s verdict, still loving to hate the Cybermen.

“The Age of Steel” is the all-action finale to the story, taking place in one evening with what must have been weeks of night filming in Cardiff. Graeme Harper was brought on to direct this adventure. He’d previously directed the stories “The Caves of Androzani” and “Revelation of the Daleks” in 1984-85, making him the only director from the original run to work on the revival. Harper had a reputation, then, as being one of the most dynamic and exciting directors working at the BBC. But since British television had moved away from videotape and the frequently static recorded-as-live productions, Harper’s work here, while still very thrilling and fun to watch, isn’t quite as thunderously different from the surrounding stories as it was in Colin Baker’s day. The difference between “Timelash” and “Revelation of the Daleks” is obvious even with the sound down. This story looks every bit as good as “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

The story ends with Mickey choosing to remain on the parallel world and help the authorities shut down any of Lumic’s remaining Cyber-factories. I like how the story wrong-foots the audience, because while it telegraphs Mickey’s unhappiness, there’s also a scene where they split up – “above, between, below” like “The Five Doctors” – and it practically screams “Mickey isn’t coming back.”

The only part of this story that raises a question with me is the quickie reference to Torchwood in part one. Why is there a Torchwood in this universe? Did a Doctor show up in 1879 and piss off this world’s Victoria, too?

Doctor Who 2.5 – Rise of the Cybermen

I enjoyed this more than I remembered. The kid jumping up in mock frustration / annoyance when the word “Cybermen” appeared in the title helped. I still think they should have swapped episode titles with the next one. Obviously the BBC’s ongoing policy of spoiling as much as possible meant that everybody in 2006 knew that the Cybermen were coming back in this one. Might’ve been nice to see how he put all the pieces together before the big reveal at the end.

So this is the big parallel universe two-parter, with all the attendant silliness and coincidence that comes from parallel universe stories, and in this universe, the Cybermen evolved on Earth rather than Mondas. Their creator is portrayed by Roger Lloyd-Pack, whose lengthy career I almost entirely missed. I still think of him as that young fellow from Spyder’s Web in 1972 and his dad Charles was the old guy. Now they’re both gone. Shaun Dingwall is back as the Pete Tyler of the other Earth, and he’s once again magical. And there’s one of my favorite Rose scenes from her two seasons, when she decides to try patching up her parents’ marriage, forgetting that the Pete and Jackie of this world are not her parents, and doesn’t so much get put in her place as shoved there, hard.

But best of all is Noel Clarke who gets to play both Mickey and his gun-toting doppelganger, Ricky, and Mickey has the common sense not to try to explain to the much angrier fellow on this world who he actually is. Clarke is so often used as the comedy foil that it’s wonderful to see him get to do some different things, and do them so incredibly well. Again, you have to swallow the same silly coincidences that happen anytime a sci-fi show does a parallel world story – they couldn’t have landed in Sydney or Buenos Aires or someplace where there aren’t any Tylers or Smiths, of course – but it gives Clarke a real chance to shine.

And of course there are Cybermen. Our son has a wonderful love/hate relationship with the Cybermen and feigns exasperation with them. It’s the Daleks that he really likes, he insists, and loudly brags that it would only take five Daleks to destroy all these Cybermen. Stick around for another three weeks, won’t you, readers?