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 9.2 – The Witch’s Familiar

I’m writing this the week that the season 24 Blu-ray set was released in the UK. I decided against getting the British limited editions, thinking they’re too expensive, too fragile, and too large, and complain about the domestic editions, which come late, and don’t even have a little insert card explaining what’s on what disk, instead. So this week, fans in the UK are revisiting the much derided-“Time and the Rani”, with which this story shares a very curious similarity in my book. Both of them suffer from a really poor part one and things get better from there. I think it’s notable because this happens so rarely in Doctor Who, a program which usually has great – or at least interesting – ideas and trouble making them stick.

Of course, “Rani” only goes up from utterly embarrassing to mediocre, but “The Witch’s Familiar” is so darn good that it defies belief. The first half, “The Magician’s Apprentice”, was overwritten and unnecessarily complicated. The second half is excellent and simple and everything that happens in it services the plot.

We learn a lot of bad fandom habits when we’re young. One of mine became unshakeable: I got to know Anthony Ainley’s Master, didn’t think the character was worth a darn, had my mind blown by the excellence of Roger Delgado later, and concluded that everybody since was wasting valuable screen time and real estate. And here, at last, Michelle Gomez has a script that lets her nail it. She isn’t given any of the self-consciously “wacky” stuff that was so annoying in the previous episode (see also: pretending to be a robot in series eight), and she carries herself with smugness, experience, and power and is a constant, tangible, very dangerous threat. In keeping with the character, she even knows Elton John lyrics. (And hey, belated kudos to the Doctor for a rare insight into modern culture: he played a bit of “Oh, Pretty Woman” on his guitar last time.)

Our kid was in heaven. It’s full of all sorts of Daleks and provides lots of fascinating backstory about how they use their negative emotions to get stronger. Plus, it’s packed with visual and textual nods to many previous adventures, it’s gross in places, Missy is incredibly evil, and, in a glory so crowning that it prompted about a full minute of laughing, Missy and Davros finally meet. It’s easily the best Dalek installment in at least six years, and so many of the next episodes are going to be even better.

Doctor Who 9.1 – The Magician’s Apprentice

Priorities. When “The Magician’s Apprentice” first aired in the fall of 2015, I was blindsided by the completely brilliant pre-credits sequence, revealing that the Doctor is helping a boy who turns out to be a Young Davros. It was one of a couple of times in Capaldi’s run that I swore out loud in complete surprise. Our kid, on the other hand, just said “Oooh, a Dalek story.” It turns out he’s even more in tune with them than I expected. Toward the end, he interrupted again to shout “Hey, I saw a Special Weapons Dalek!” I’m amazed he remembered them. They were only in one adventure and I didn’t think he rewatched that one. Guess it left an impression.

Otherwise, there’s a whole lot to dislike about this season opener. I think – and this is probably really nebulous – it starts with an elegant and simple plot and then it just gets bogged down in layer after layer of rewritten spectacle. The nonsense pictured above, in which the Doctor brings a big tank and some sunglasses and a guitar to the Middle Ages, is one that attracted a lot of derision, and I think with good reason. It reminds me of Moffat going overboard like he was doing in season six. It’s all over the place, even reintroducing Karn, last seen in the mini-episode “Night of the Doctor”, for all of sixty seconds. Moffat doesn’t let the simplicity of the plot breathe through the performances and the natural set pieces, shooting instead for distractions and buzz. Even Jemma Redgrave is here for more UNIT stuff and a big event with timestopped airplanes, snipers, and a jaunt to a plaza in Tenerife when Missy could have just shown up at Clara’s apartment.

It’s a story where Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez are by miles the best things about it. I love the way he says “Gravity” to her and she sneers/whines “I know” back at him. Something’s almost right about Gomez here. She’s almost perfectly the Master, but it’s just tiny little bits of the writing that get in her way. She still reminds me too much of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Moffat’s Sherlock, especially when she declines to explain how she survived her last appearance. In retrospect, producing both of these programs together didn’t benefit either of them.

Doctor Who: The Evil of the Daleks (part two)

Earlier today, the BBC announced the forthcoming release of their next animated reconstruction of a lost serial. “The Evil of the Daleks” was first shown in 1967, and, unusually for British television in those days, it was actually shown again a year later as a summer repeat, but the corporation soon did what they often did and junked the films and wiped the tapes for reuse. A film print of episode two was returned in 1987.

To celebrate the news, I suggested to our son that we give the surviving episode a spin and he couldn’t have agreed faster. He did briefly muse that it was a shame that it wasn’t the first installment of the serial that was available, but I reminded him that the first episodes of Dalek serials typically don’t actually have Daleks in them until the cliffhanger, and he said “Oh, yeah…”

Anyway, he enjoyed it a lot, and concluded that he was glad it was part two that was available because of a short scene where a Dalek, menacing the companion-to-be Victoria, played by Deborah Watling, warns her: “Do not feed the flying pests!” He mused “One of the reasons I like the Daleks is the mix of pushiness and slight ignorance. They don’t know what birds are… and they don’t care!” Bigots are like that.

“The Evil of the Daleks” will be released in the UK in September.

Doctor Who 8.2 – Into the Dalek

On the surface, “Into the Dalek” looks like just another Dalek adventure, just a small and low-key one, without many sets or speaking parts. The kid was incredibly pleased; it’s everything a ten year-old audience wants from Who, along with tips of the plot hat to an earlier adventure, “The Invisible Enemy” and its antecedent, Fantastic Voyage. It’s co-written by Steven Moffat with Phil Ford, who had contributed so many entertaining Sarah Jane Adventures, and it gives us a second glimpse of Michelle Gomez’s mysterious new character of Missy, who we met very briefly in the previous story. It also introduces Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink, a new recurring character who works as a teacher alongside Clara at Coal Hill School.

Unfortunately, it also introduces two new elements to Capaldi’s Doctor which I really can’t stand: he doesn’t know whether he is a good man, and he hates soldiers. Mercifully, these get resolved soon enough, but it’s the introduction that bothers me. There isn’t one. At some point in that summer of 2014, Moffat actually had to clarify that these are both holdovers from the hundreds of years that the last Doctor spent defending Trenzalore, because they aren’t detailed onscreen at all. I like that the twelfth Doctor is very brusque and rude, but I wish that he had quietly said something like “I’m sorry, I can see that you’d like to be a good person, but the last several hundred years were difficult, and I don’t want to be around soldiers right now.” The character may not have needed to know about that, but the audience did.

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 7.15 – 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 7.1 – Asylum of the Daleks

And now back to the fall of 2012, and Steven Moffat’s dueling commitments between Doctor Who and Sherlock meant that the seventh series was broken into two chunks with a Christmas special between them. The first five are… not at all my favorite adventures. “Asylum of the Daleks” has a couple of very satisfying Moffatty twists, but nothing else about it really rings true or plausible or all that exciting to me. But there are lots of Daleks, including several very old props from fan collections given cobwebs and grime and pressed into service as the ugly and abandoned shells of insane or too-damaged-to-continue survivors on a planet-deep junkyard, and more than enough to keep our son completely thrilled.

It’s safe to say that he enjoyed this evening’s show far, far more than he’s enjoyed anything else we’ve watched in the past week, and we looked at the “next week” preview so that he can see that the next one features “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” He said “Nothing in the universe will stop me from loving the next one!” Fingers crossed.

Introduced this week, it’s Jenna Coleman, who had already been announced as the new Who companion several weeks before this was first shown, and if there are two very satisfying Moffatty twists in the narrative itself, there’s a third in the behind-the-scenes stuff, because they completely kept her involvement in this episode a complete secret, and she isn’t playing the new Who companion yet. She’s playing someone called Oswin in this, and of course that will become a big thing a little later. I think that we’ll have fun prompting our son to speculate how that will play out when we meet Coleman playing a different character in about two weeks.

I like a lot about Clara more than I like Clara herself. I think Moffat made some terrible, terrible decisions about this character and I’ll try not to dwell on them in this blog or grumble too much, but starting her out as a mystery for the Doctor to solve is really a good idea and there are some neat little twists to come. I’m looking forward to experiencing them fresh through our son’s experience.

Doctor Who 5.13 – The Big Bang

The most important thing is that our son recovered very well from last night’s meltdown, and he had as fine a day as a kid can have in lockdown when he’s meant to be on fall break and playing and his parents have to work. And he completely loved tonight’s puzzle box of a story, which arguably features Steven Moffat’s absolute finest use of what he calls timey-wimey storytelling, even resolving – as some people guessed (though not me) when it was shown ten years ago – the strange reappearance of the Doctor’s jacket from episode five.

Overall, our son laughed and wowed all through it, particularly adoring the Doctor’s fez and his idiot dancing, and told us in the end that it had blown his mind all the way to Norway. Norway’s been on his mind lately, since Slartibartfast started telling us about its fjords in Hitchhiker’s Guide. Me, I adore it, and just wish we could have spent some more time in Amelia’s starless world. I wanted to read the museum exhibits! I also need to get myself one of those Stone Dalek toys. For myself, not for the kid to pilfer and join his mob of toys.

We’ll start watching series six of Doctor Who in early November, but we’ve got a few related things to check out first. Stay tuned!

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 5.3 – Victory of the Daleks

Yesterday afternoon, I finished watching the Blu-ray set for Who season fourteen – you can announce the next one now, please, BBC Studios – and our son joined me for the hilarious little TV commercial for the line of Doctor Who dolls from 1977. The funniest thing about these dopey toys is that the Dalek is massively out of proportion with the other characters, coming up to Leela’s chest, which sparked some discussion about how tall the Dalek should be. Then the very next episode we watch introduces some new, taller Daleks, as if to confuse the issue.

Ian McNeice’s character of Winston Churchill, seen in a little cameo in the previous episode, makes his second of four appearances in this story. It was written by Mark Gatiss and it’s my least favorite of his otherwise splendid scripts by about a million miles.

The worst moment? Out of lots of possibilities, it’s the way it feels like Gatiss and Moffat were keenly aware of fans and critics grumbling about “power of love” resolutions to various Russell T. Davies-era stories and so, just to remind everybody who’s in charge, they literally defuse a sentient bomb with false memories by reminding it how unrequited love feels. Then everybody hugs and pats themselves on the back to remind viewers how brilliant and amazing they are, and despite Churchill’s desire for war-winning tech being a running gag, they leave the sentient bomb in wartime London instead of dropping it and the rest of the alien gadgets off on a Robot Free Planet in the Andromeda Galaxy in the 276th Century.

The kid loved it, of course. I try to tell myself that’s all that matters, but one day he’s going to grow up and move out and, at least for a time and maybe even for good, will lose interest in Doctor Who and I’ll be sadly reflecting that it only took Gatiss and Moffat three weeks to show an episode as bad as Davies’s worst. Oddly enough, that episode, “Fear Her,” had one of those “power of love” endings as well.

I think the second half of the Silurian story is even worse. We’ll see in a couple of weeks.