Doctor Who 8.1 – Deep Breath

I will gladly say to anybody who listens, I will shout from the rooftops that “The Eleventh Hour”, which started the Matt Smith years, is a flawless masterpiece, one of the best stories in Who‘s history. And “Deep Breath”… isn’t. It’s bloated at 75 minutes, topped and tailed by some of the worst that Who has ever been. Now, everything between the bookends, basically the chunk of the story that is set in and outside Mancini’s Family Restaurant, is completely terrific, but everything else is such a massive disappointment.

I kept my fingers crossed hoping things would get better, and they did. And they didn’t. Right in the middle of Smith’s run, there was the big Demon’s Run business with the ads with Alex Kingston talking about how the Doctor would climb higher than he’d ever climbed and fall farther than he ever had, which wasn’t borne out by the events of that episode at all. But it sure fits the Peter Capaldi era to a tee. Before it comes to its far-too-early end, Capaldi would star in several of my all-time favorite Who installments, and at least two of the absolute worst.

Naturally, therefore, because loving Doctor Who means embracing things that aggravate the living daylights out of you and make you cringe along with all the other things that bring you so much joy, these three series are my favorite era. Somehow. Nobody ever said that love was logical.

I’ll tell you what I love: the Doctor and Clara each thinking that the newspaper ad was placed by the other. The egomaniac line. The astonishing makeup job on the Half-Faced Clockwork Man. The Doctor offering the villain a drink. The callback to “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Did the kid spot it? No. Did the kid even remember “The Girl in the Fireplace” until we reminded him of it? No. But he said he otherwise really liked it, especially the stuff with Strax. Take a bow, Dan Starkey, as this is – to date – the character’s last on-screen appearance. He was, however, confused by the coda, which introduces Michelle Gomez as Missy, who will, like her era, make me cringe and bring me joy in equal measure.

What I absolutely cannot stand is the Doctor needing so much help in his regeneration, and that Clara – of all people!! – should have trouble with the Doctor having a new, older face. It’s like Steven Moffat somehow forgot that over the course of the last three episodes of the show, Clara has met, seen, or interacted with every single known incarnation of the Doctor, including two or three who might look as old, or older, than the new one.

Then again, there’s a beautiful little bit of symmetry right at the end. Clara wants to know why the Doctor has an older face and gray hair? Because she gets a call from Matt Smith’s Doctor and she tells him that he’ll be regenerating into a man with an older face and gray hair. Overall, no, I do not like the heavy-handed attempts at wringing emotion out of their relationship, but I do love that the reason this Doctor looks like Peter Capaldi is, in part, her own fault.

Doctor Who 7.12 – The Crimson Horror

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

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

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

Doctor Who 7.6 – The Snowmen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctor Who 6.7 – A Good Man Goes to War

First things first: I genuinely don’t like Madame Vastra and Jenny one bit, but they’re really not at all obnoxious and obvious in their first appearance. I really do like the idea that the Doctor’s had lots of offscreen adventures and lots of old friends and allies we have never met. So how could we have made this business of pulling in several new-to-TV characters to save the day work better? Simple. You know who the Doctor should’ve picked up to save the day? He should have picked up Fey Truscott-Sade, Frobisher, Majenta Pryce, and Kroton the Cyberman.

So yes, this is a great big mess that’s entertaining in places and disappointing in others. There’s a lot less of Dan Starkey being silly and entertaining as Strax than I remembered, but the main problem, and it’s a huge one, is the villains. We never really get a real understanding of what these villains want, how they’ve gone about it, how they figured out that conceiving a kid in the Time Vortex somehow gives the kid bonus DNA, how they figured when and where anybody was conceiving kids in the Time Vortex anyway, why they hate the Doctor so much, and so on. Steven Moffat fills in a couple of these gaps later on, but this hour by itself is just head-scratchingly weird. The villain’s name is Madame Kovarian, and I’m not going to tell our son that he’s going to have to wait several more months to learn what her beef actually is. It’s not actually really resolved until Smith’s final episode, where it succeeds in feeling like a rushed afterthought.

The kid enjoyed the spectacle and the reappearance of old monsters, but the change in tone succeeded in depressing his enthusiasm, and the great big reveal at the end – River Song is Amy and Rory’s child! – had him even more disillusioned and annoyed than he was last time. He grumbled that “Day of the Daleks” made a lot more sense than this, and hoped that the show would get back to “single episode stories” soon. I’m not sure why he landed on “Day” out of the blue, but I told him that the next one would be more of the same, but the next four would be mostly stand-alone. He said “Whew,” with animation.

Doctor Who 4.4 – The Sontaran Stratagem / 4.5 – The Poison Sky

There are several tiny little things about this story, cosmetic ones really, which for some reason aggravate me beyond reason. I can’t stand any of these UNIT officers saluting the Doctor. I don’t like the “flame-nami,” as our son coined it, traveling around the world at what must be thousands of miles a second. I’m irrationally annoyed by the death of Private Ross Jenkins, and that Colonel Mace is only in this one adventure. It’s not that I care about Mace, but UNIT works better as recurring characters, not an ever-changing bunch in either fatigues or British army uniforms. Jenkins should have survived, though. He should have been the Sergeant Benton of this iteration of the series.

Other than that, I enjoy this two-parter a lot, but not half as much as our son did. He was flipped out by this one; it was far too much excitement for one evening. He’s going to be a puddle when we get to the end of the season. The Sontarans have never been better. As far as I’m concerned, one of the show’s big omissions in the years to come is sidelining these newly-redefined and reinvigorated baddies in favor of the single comedy Sontaran played by Dan Starkey. He debuts here as a character called Skorr. Christopher Ryan, who had been a space alien twenty-two years previously as the Lord Kiv in “The Trial of a Time Lord”, is awesome as General Staal.

I also love the strange revelation that the Sontarans were somehow not allowed to participate in the Time War. There is so much about this that simultaneously doesn’t make any sense whatever and yet leaves me desperate to know more. The show has already told us that countless worlds were collateral damage in the war, so how’d they keep the Sontarans out? One side or the other didn’t object to obliterating the Nestene Consciousness’s planet, but they’ve got, what, time barriers in place to keep these guys from making things worse?

I also really like that Freema Agyeman comes back for a three-week run as Martha. It feels like one of those ideas that wouldn’t have made as much sense in the original run, because they did so few stories a year, but when you’re doing ten stories across thirteen episodes, why not check in on an old friend instead of making the only returning faces the enemies? And I love that Martha and Donna immediately click, and that our dingbat hero is surprised by this.

But yes, our son was blown away. This was one of his all-time favorite stories, although two episodes at the end of a very long day – we started with three hours hiking this morning and didn’t even have to social distance because we didn’t see another soul until we got back to the trailhead – was too much for him. He tends to be a hoppity kid even in the quietest times, but he simply could not keep still tonight and proved to be a real headache of a distraction. I was thinking about buying him a couple more Doctor Who action figures a couple of months from now as a back-to-school gift. Maybe I should see whether any Sontarans are available.