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 7.16 – 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.x – The Night of the Doctor

As much as I try to avoid spoilers, the BBC does their wretched best to promote certain surprises. The seven-minute mini-episode “The Night of the Doctor” was one of the few times they completely blindsided me. Wherever I got the notification from, it didn’t say a word about Paul McGann being in it. I took a little break at work, found a quiet place, hit play, saw McGann make his incredibly overdue appearance, stopped, went back to my desk, stopped looking at anything online, and saved the rest until I got home.

“The Night of the Doctor” just solidifies everything I’ve believed about McGann for twenty-five years. The man was robbed. It does not make any sense at all to me that the BBC haven’t been giving us annual Eighth Doctor movies – at the very least just one blasted movie to break up these eons between series – helmed by a different production team, who might can handle the demand of a hundred lousy minutes, since 2013. Since 2005. Since 1996. He’s just great, and deserves better.

Joining McGann and carrying about half the lines, it’s Clare Higgins as the new leader of the Sisterhood of Karn, the red-robed mountain witches of the 1970s, about whom I had cause to remind our son about a month ago. I did my usual fun job of hiding the surprise from him, and got an appreciative nod and wide eyes when the Eighth Doctor appears. At the end, McGann’s Doctor regenerates into an old photograph of John Hurt. I did let him know that we’ll learn more about Hurt’s character later this week, but I said no more. Probably need to find a reason to mention the Zygons again between now and then, though…

Bizarrely, this was the second time today that we enjoyed a surprise reappearance of an old character in a show. Earlier, I successfully hid the fact that in this afternoon’s episode of Return of Ultraman, the previous show’s hero, Ultraseven, makes a cameo appearance. It scarcely qualifies as a crossover – despite the title of the installment being “Ultraseven Arrives!” – because he’s onscreen for about thirty seconds, just long enough to give Ultraman Jack a new weapon. This being a gift from Ultraseven, of course it decapitates the enemy space monster. Wouldn’t be Ultraseven without that finishing move.

An Adventure in Space and Time (2013)

Y’all know me, or at least regular readers do. I love surprising our son with what we’re going to watch. And if I say so myself, I was positively devilishly clever in surprising him this week. As always, he demands to know what’s coming up – and often I do tell him, because I’m mischievous and not mean – and this time, I was pretty whimsical. I told him that we were watching something with three actors he’s seen fairly recently in Doctor Who. It stars Jessica Raine, who he saw earlier this month in the episode “Hide”, as a television producer, along with Sacha Dhawan, the Master in the most recent series, as a television director, and David Bradley, who was the villain in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, as an actor who gets the role of a lifetime. Plus it was written by Mark Gatiss, who had written all sorts of Who adventures.

Of course, the downside to being deliberately oblique and obscure is that it dampens the enthusiasm somewhat. There was no boy standing at the foot of the stairs at the crack of dawn demanding an immediate start to the promised spectacle. This was a boy who took his sweet time finding breakfast and flopped on the sofa with the weight of obligation. Then I told him it was a true story and had no explosions, chase scenes, or fight scenes. But his eyes widened and he started to smile when he recognized the weird and distinctive “howlaround” visuals used in the original Who title sequence.

Hey, waitaminnit, my copy of that book has William Hartnell’s face on it!

Anyway, as part of Who‘s 50th anniversary celebrations, Mark Gatiss successfully pitched the idea of a docudrama about William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor, and how the show was made, from an idea by a Canadian avalanche of an executive named Sydney Newman, played here by the awesome Brian Cox, and built into life by Verity Lambert and a team that included director Waris Hussein, associate producer Mervyn Pinfield, and designer Peter Brachacki. The show takes a few small liberties with history – but don’t they all? – but it’s also full of love and in-jokes and affection.

Put another way, I enjoy most of Gatiss’s Who stories very much, and I still wonder where in the world a TV adaptation of his novel Nightshade is hiding, but An Adventure in Space and Time may be his masterpiece. This was the fourth time I’ve watched this movie and I’ve been a teary mess every single time. Lots of stories are full of triumph and feature long, sad endings, but there’s so much affection and care for this story that it just punches me in the gut, hard.

One small part of this is a weirdly personal one. Without his Hartnell wig, David Bradley looks quite a lot like my grandfather, Joseph Trummie Goggans. During the climactic “I don’t want to go” moment, he looks precisely like my grandfather. The first time I saw this, in between moments of cold fury at BBC America for all the breathtakingly poorly placed commercial breaks, I probably stopped breathing from sorrow. Then when Hartnell looks across the TARDIS console and sees that everything will be okay… I had to dry my left eye again just now typing this.

Unfortunately, for a nine year-old, that long, sad ending was probably a little too long and a little too sad. Our son enjoyed this to a point, but really it was just the triumphs that kept him rivetted. Happily, the triumphs are really spectacular. The introduction of the Daleks, the “pied piper” bit on Hartnell’s day off in the park, and Newman telling Lambert that the space monsters had brought them 10 million viewers all scored. He stays mostly quiet during movies, but he enjoyed getting in a dig when the ratings justified the budget overspending that Newman was discussing with some BBC executive played by Mark Eden. Eden is one of several performers from the original run of Who to make little cameos. William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Jean Marsh, and Anneke Wills also got to enjoy the fun.

An Adventure in Space and Time is a beautiful look back to London, 1963, full of great clothes and hair and cars and the BBC’s big round television centre and the smoke from a million cigarettes. If the movie has a flaw at all, it’s that they cut too much out of the very short segment where electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire and her associate Brian Hodgson demonstrate their work, but at least more of it’s available as a deleted scene on the Blu-ray. But it’s a film full of magic and wonder and sadness and it’s far better than most movies that were released on the big screen. Do I like it more than the actual 50th anniversary episode? We’ll see later this week.

Doctor Who 7.14 – The Name of the Doctor

Let’s be honest. This episode does not make a lick of sense. It’s extremely well made, but it’s the living definition of just going along for the ride and accepting whatever the story throws at you, which include River Song and the Paternoster Gang and the Great Intelligence and several repurposed clips from old stories. So ever so briefly, for example, there was a tear in space and time and the Great Intelligence, wearing Richard E. Grant’s body, did something to prevent the Doctor from saving Gallifrey from that old invasion by the Vardans, and then there was another tear in space and time, and Clara stopped the Richard E. Grant body from doing that.

Eventually everybody goes home, except for the Great Intelligence, which is fractured into forgotten splinters in our hero’s memory, and his weird and ugly Whispermen, who fade into nothing, and River Song, who’s been dead a long time, and we never actually see the Doctor take his pals back to Victorian London. That’s because the episode instead concludes with the thunderous revelation that there’s another Doctor, played by John Hurt.

I told the kid this episode was going to blow his mind and it succeeded. “My brain is flat now,” he sighed, shaking his head. He enjoyed it because it’s all spectacle and danger and he’s very curious to know what comes next. I told him he’ll have to wait just about eight days. And he won’t even have to wait that long to find out who John Hurt is…

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 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 7.11 – Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

Here’s a silly thing I love about “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.” When I was in high school, one day I was thinking about making a Doctor Who fan film on a VHS camcorder, as people did back then, using what limited resources and locations were available to them. This didn’t get any farther than brainstorming a couple of notions with two pals, but one idea was that the Doctor initially thinks he’s in the corridors of a normal American high school, only it’s actually the Rani’s TARDIS and it’s playing architectural jumble with him to keep him from getting anywhere. So he’d walk down a corridor past the camera, turn right at the intersection, and after a beat, emerge from the left and walk back toward the camera.

This is not, in fairness, anything like an original idea, and it’s been used many times before in many places, but stone me if the Doctor’s own TARDIS plays architectural jumble with him to keep him from getting anywhere in this story and the exact same things happen as I considered in 1988. I just can’t help but enjoy that. Even my notion that the Rani had filled the fake classrooms of her TARDIS with students working on some crazy temporal equation found a similar use in 2006’s “School Reunion”. I hope everybody who thought about making fan movies and drew comics and wrote fic have had the experience of the proper show getting around to their ideas.

As for the actual content of this one, I mainly like the visuals. Our son was satisfied but not blown away, and didn’t have much to say about it. We poked for some commentary, but he woke an hour early this morning, was very tired and getting a bad case of the sillies by the time we sat down, and really just wanted to call it a night so that Mom could read Percy Jackson to him.

Doctor Who 7.10 – Hide

“Hide” is darn near a masterpiece, easily one of my favorite Matt Smith episodes. A little less of the manic and the goofy and it’d be perfect. I like everything else about it tremendously, especially Clara letting her sassy shields slip and revealing that she is scared out of her mind. Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are the guests, and they are marvelous. You get so used to contemporary Who focusing on the leads and the villains and forgetting to dig into the lives of the people they touch that every time the pace slows down to give you their stories, it feels special, these two more than most. Madly, this has been Neil Cross’s last Who adventure; it was written before “The Rings of Akhaten” but I wouldn’t hold that story’s fumble against Cross at all. I’d ask him back annually and let him have at it.

It’s not one of our son’s favorites, though. This was indeed a behind the sofa tale for him. He spent most of the first half back there. Everybody involved just did an amazing job telling a ghost story, so that even when it revealed itself to be something else, the frights had been so strong that the damage was done.

Doctor Who 7.9 – Cold War

During supper tonight, I gave the kid – and Marie, who knows little of early eighties synth music – a potted history of Ultravox, from their cold and clinical early days with John Foxx as the singer through their huge success with such hits as “Vienna” and “Reap the Wild Wind.” I even sang that bit from “Vienna,” which nobody appreciated. I explained that Ultravox, like all acts who have a solid period with lots of hits, reached the end of their period of massive sales quicker than anybody would like, and split up about 1987. Nothing lasts forever.

“So we’re watching Doctor Who tonight?” our son asked.

“What makes you think Doctor Who has anything to do with Ultravox?” I replied.

“Because it’s more likely that a show about time travel would have something to do with Ultravox than a show set in Zoo Neeland or ancient Greece.” Clever kid.

This focus on fondly-remembered musical acts kept him perfectly distracted, satisfying him as guest star David Warner warbled “Vienna” almost as badly as I did, so the surprise appearance of an Ice Warrior, back in the show after a thirty-nine (!) year absence blindsided him wonderfully. The more excited he gets, the more babbling he can’t stop, and he could not stop babbling for an hour. He was thrilled.

I enjoy most of Mark Gatiss’s scripts for Who. I think this one sags a bit in the middle, the result of too much action at the top and the tail, but it’s still very entertaining and fabulously claustrophobic. It’s one of those Whos that plays out in nearly real time, meaning that Martian spaceship at the end must have a heck of a good radio receiver and quite an engine. The kid was thrilled and said that he knew he was going to like it when he realized it was an Ice Warrior, but he liked it even more than he thought he would. I like the Ice Warriors a lot. I even like them more than I like Ultravox.