Doctor Who 8.12 – Death in Heaven

At the risk of leaving our son out of these posts, I’ll start tonight by mentioning that while we were on vacation, the condo we rented had a previous occupant’s Hulu account logged in, so the kid sat down to a few hours of Animaniacs. I interrupted him to play him the notorious “Frozen Peas” tape of Orson Welles having a series of tantrums while recording commercials in the UK for Findus. Then we looked at the Pinky & the Brain installment “Yes, Always.” Famously, the Brain’s voice actor, Maurice LaMarche, perfected his Orson Welles impersonation by playing and replaying the “Frozen Peas” tape, and in “Yes, Always,” the Brain does an overdub session for some previous episode or other. The script is a mildly edited transcript of the “Frozen Peas” tape, ensuring that a generation of kids knows that a gonk is a bang from outside.

Returning home, that led me to dusting off Tim Burton’s masterpiece Ed Wood, in which LaMarche was called to overdub Vincent D’Onofrio in the role of Welles himself, because no matter how much we love D’Onofrio in so many great parts, especially Detective Bobby Goren, no living actor can do Welles as well as LaMarche. So he and I talked about how and why overdubs like this work, and then I let him know that Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez performed the lines from the previous episode revealing the Master’s identity silently, so nobody in the crowd on location would learn the secret, and overdubbed them later. So see, I’m always looking for coincidences and connections. Narf.

Something really, really funny happened on November 8, 2014.

Did you know we have a food blog? There’s a link on the right-hand side, right down at the bottom of the page. It’s mostly dormant, in part from burnout and in part because we just don’t travel with food and old restaurants as our principal destination anymore, but we had lots and lots of fun and learned so many stories from 2010-2018. I used to be in the habit of taking off for two days of just driving around listening to loud music and eating barbecue many, many miles from home.

And so at 11 AM that November 8, I entered the Skylight Inn in Ayden NC for the very first time and had the best plate of barbecue I’ve ever had. I’ve taken Marie – and our son – back twice, in 2017 and in 2019. It was mindblowing and perfect, and, if I do say so myself, it resulted in such a delightfully quirky and silly blog post that it is, in all honesty, my favorite of all the hundreds of food posts I’ve written.

So there it was. At eleven that morning, I found my all-time favorite restaurant. And twelve hours later, back in Atlanta, at eleven that evening, I sat down to the encore presentation of Steven Moffat’s “Death in Heaven” and found my all-time least favorite episode of Doctor Who.

It is an absolutely appalling piece of television. It out-Timelashes “The Twin Dilemma” and it under-Underworlds “Fear Her”. It is a towering icon of terrible taste and absolutely brainless narrative decisions, of which, making the Doctor the president of Earth might just be the pinnacle. No, it’s the Cyber-Brig. No, it’s something else. It resolves the “Am I a good man?” and “the Doctor hates soldiers” storylines by swinging a sledgehammer around them so that they need never be discussed again. I’ll grant you that had this been Jenna Coleman’s final episode, then the farewell scene with the Doctor and Clara lying their goodbyes to each other would have been something new, but it ends up not mattering since she comes back in seven weeks.

But the weirdest thing actually showed up a few years later. Something about this, atop all its other misfires, really didn’t sit well with me that dark and disappointing night in 2014. It’s that now that the Master is a female, she reveals that she did all the evil things that she has done for the benefit of the male hero. She wants her friend back. I said that felt wrong at the time, that the female villain shouldn’t be reduced to needing a male lead’s approval. And then, on January 15, 2017, in the absolutely execrable final episode of Moffat’s Sherlock, which I swear I enjoyed nine out of thirteen times, we meet Sherlock and Mycroft’s younger sister Eurus, who reveals that she did all the evil things that she has done for the benefit of the male hero. She wants her brother back. The female villain shouldn’t be reduced to needing a male lead’s approval, and here it was again.

I’ve been back to the Skylight Inn twice and it was every bit as amazing as I remember it. I watched “Death in Heaven” for the second time tonight and it was every bit as terrible as I remember it. It was a funny day, that November 8.

Doctor Who 8.11 – Dark Water

And then there was that day, that terrible, terrible day in 2014. We’d come to the end of an absolutely remarkable story. It was written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay, who seemed like she wanted to kick down the doors and demand that she be considered in any discussion about who might be the very best of all Doctor Who‘s directors. It started with Danny Pink dying in a freak accident, continued through Clara willing to betray the Doctor to change her timeline, and provided a brilliant one-off chance to smile in this dark story when the Doctor asks, quite rationally, whether the scientist who detected human speech in some of that white noise / EVP rubbish was an idiot. Then the Cybermen showed up, on the steps of St. Paul’s, even!

It was so, so good. And then Missy revealed herself.

It could have been worse. A good friend of mine confessed that she’d spent several minutes in horrified silence afraid that Missy was Romana, gone bad.

I’ve got no problem with Time Lords changing gender. Beginning with season nine, Michelle Gomez would become second only to Delgado as my favorite Master, ever. But she does nothing in these two episodes to impress – and what Moffat makes the Master do in the second part is going to prompt a pretty pained response in tomorrow’s post – and the cliffhanger landed with a thud with me because the Master has been completely and utterly uninteresting since 1976. All the promise, all the mystery about this strange woman and the Nethersphere, all the possibilities… and it’s the Master?

It’ll get better. But it’s going to get worse first.

Doctor Who 7.16 – The Time of the Doctor

I think you can fairly make the case that Steven Moffat had a task none of us would envy. The problem with putting together long, long-running storylines is that when your lead actor decides that it’s time to move on, you kind of have to rush to wrap everything up. With that in mind, I honestly don’t believe for a minute that “The Time of the Doctor” is entirely everything he wished he could do, and it’s incredibly rushed in places, with information thrown at the audience very, very fast, but it’s nevertheless surprisingly coherent considering what a mess series six had been, and occasionally excellent in places. It would have been nice had Matt Smith agreed to another, say, six episodes, so the whole business of the Papal Mainframe, Tasha Lem, and the Silents could have been set up much more naturally in its own story so it could breathe a little easier, but what we got still mostly works.

It’s a greatest hits wrapup, with Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Weeping Angels, Silents, Trenzalore, an explanation of Madame Kovarian and River Song, and one last visit from the Crack in the Universe from series five. The music mix is terrible and possibly the most incoherent the program’s ever been, the regeneration energy destroying all the Daleks is just plain lame, but I can embrace just about everything else, particularly loving “bubbly personality masking bossy control freak,” the Doctor unpacking a trinket that he stole from the Master way back in “The Five Doctors”, and just the wonderful concept of our hero spending hundreds and hundreds of years protecting one town from one monster after another. And Matt Smith gets a great, great final scene. “Raggedy Man… good night.”

The best, and the worst, are yet to come, as we get to the Doctor I love the most and the two episodes that I loathe the most. We’ll start series eight of Doctor Who in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 7.13 – Nightmare in Silver

“Kids like explosions and action-packed stuff,” our son reminded us. This was after he protested that he didn’t actually like this story, because, as he keeps claiming, he doesn’t like the Cybermen. But while we were watching it, he was in seventh heaven. He enjoyed this one tremendously, but he backpedaled at the end, finally allowing that the “action-packed stuff” only temporarily held his attention. Uh-huh.

I’m not a big fan at all myself, but it really starts amazingly well, doesn’t it? Neil Gaiman wrote this one, and while I don’t think it’s a patch at all on “The Doctor’s Wife”, I love the effortless world-building of this planet so incredibly far away from Earth. Up to this point, the Cybermen were a comparatively easily-contained threat local to the Milky Way over the course of a few hundred years, and memorably dismissed by the Daleks as just pests. These Cybermen are way the heck out somewhere very, very far away, where humanity has built an absolutely massive empire. These Cybermen are such a threat to the empire that the entire Tiberian Spiral Galaxy had to be destroyed to stop them in a war a thousand years prior to this story. Perhaps this is the same area of time and space where “Ascension of the Cybermen” in series twelve is set.

So I enjoy the world and I like guest star Warwick Davis very much. I’m less a fan of Matt Smith’s performance as the Cyber-planner; I think he’s more animated and emotional than I’d have wanted. There are lots of little things I don’t care for in the story, but Gaiman did such a good job creating a sense of place that I don’t mind how ordinary the nuts and bolts of it are. And after all, there are explosions and action-packed stuff.

Doctor Who 6.12 – Closing Time

Longtime readers know that I’m an old school Who geek, and I’ve enjoyed a whole heck of a lot of time spent debating and discussing such pressing issues as UNIT dating and how old the Doctor might really be. So Gareth Roberts’ “Closing Time” tickles me in one wonderful regard. The season began with “The Impossible Astronaut” revealing that the Doctor we saw die was two hundred years older than when Amy and Rory last saw him. So there you have it: assuming he wasn’t lying again, two hundred years pass for the Doctor since the previous episode.

I love this, and I love all the fun speculation about what the Doctor did for two centuries, other than go on dates with River and appear in Laurel and Hardy films. He calls this his farewell tour, and I choose to believe that for a chunk of it, he did one better than his little check-ins on old companions (as seen in “The End of Time” and expanded upon in “Death of the Doctor”) and he went to see everybody. He went everywhere and visited everybody he possibly could, from making sure that the Tribe of Gum had enough fire to ensuring that the Tivolian fellow we met in the last story got back home to see his planet invaded properly, and somewhere in between, he paid for the finest accommodations at a nursing home for his old friend Alistair.

But he chose to end the farewell tour visiting Craig and Sophie and their new baby Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All, in Colchester, 2011, where some Cybermen have woken up underneath a department store, and are being much more creepy than stompy. James Corden is back, although sadly Daisy Haggard was mostly unavailable due to another job so she only has a couple of short scenes. Lynda Baron, who had been an Eternal pirate queen back in 1983’s “Enlightenment”, has a small role in this story.

The kid almost completely loved it, and I think this must have been the highlight of the season for him. There’s an epilogue with River Song and the Silence that had him scowling, but he laughed and smiled all the way to that point. I don’t recall the last time he enjoyed an adventure with the Cybermen this much. I think he’s softening on them. He actually asked for more Cybermen action figures for Christmas, figuring he needs to beef up his army of those since he has enough Daleks. Don’t tell him, but he’s getting at least two.

Doctor Who 5.12 – The Pandorica Opens

This didn’t go as planned. I was really looking forward to watching this again and moved it up a day, and it all fell to pieces in the end. Our son, I mean. A cliffhanger ending hasn’t hit him like this in years and years. He was devastated.

For a good while, though, he was enjoying this as much as a kid could. We hear Dalek voices from space and then Cybermen voices and then River lists a gang of alien ships in the atmosphere and he was hopping around, so completely thrilled we told him to knock it off. Everything the show gave us just blew him away. I loved hearing his little incredulous voice when the Roman legionnaires’ hands drop away to reveal guns. “…Autons?!”

If you’ve never seen this, it ends with one of the most over-the-top cliffhangers ever. Everything goes wrong, everything falls apart, to the point that Steven Moffat honestly spent the next five series in charge of this show trying for something else with the emotional and narrative oomph of this revelation. The Doctor is imprisoned in a trap designed to lock him away forever. About the only thing I ever figured out before Moffat revealed it was that the box was built for the Doctor, and oh, how delicious it was to see that unfold. Amy is shot dead by Rory, who’s somehow been reincarnated as an Auton, and River is trapped in the TARDIS, which has materialized in rock and is exploding. Then all the lights in the universe go out, fade to black.

Among the named baddies that we don’t see among the Alliance: Draconians, Drahvins, Chelonians. They stuck some Silurians and Roboforms and a Hoix in the room but I guess they didn’t have room in the budget for some new costumes for a one-off. Nice of them to pay for Christopher Ryan to come back and play another Sontaran general, though.

Ah, but the poor kid. Overstimulated, he let his worry for the characters bubble over, and exhausted, he let his annoyance that the story wasn’t finished bubble over, and wishing for a happy ending, he let his frustration that it looks a lot like the heroes have failed bubble over. He wept and stormed and we had to have a long talk about treating anger as a warning sign and needing to calm down. It’s okay to be disappointed, but anger is a little troubling to us. He felt a lot better after a good talk, and then Marie went upstairs to read his night-time story: David Whitaker’s novelization of “The Daleks,” which probably won’t help the overstimulation issue much.

Doctor Who 4.14 – The Next Doctor

Doctor Who‘s 2008 Christmas episode climaxes with a giant steampunk robot rising out of the Thames and menacing the city. “I. Want. A. Toy. Of. That,” our son said. Who can blame him? Astonishingly, there doesn’t seem to be one. You could get a little Cyberking statuette in one of those partwork magazine collections, but nobody’s made a two-foot tall steampunk Cyberking to stand alongside a fellow’s Shogun Warriors. Character Options evidently don’t have any nine year-old boys in their test audience.

Anyway, the Cyberking overshadowed the rest of the story for our son. It was amusing at the time, letting the audience wonder whether guest star David Morrissey was going to play the eleventh Doctor. I’m not quite sold on Morrissey’s “Doctor” performance, which feels mannered to me, but it hardly matters because the real man – Jackson Lake – is so convincingly human and heartbroken and real. Dervla Kirwan, who we saw in a Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) earlier this year, plays the villain. I certainly enjoyed how the story seems like it’s going straight to the well of the Cybermen’s human ally being dragged kicking and screaming into their inevitable betrayal, only to have a devilish, albeit unlikely, trick up its sleeve.

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 2.6 – 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?