Doctor Who 8.13 – Last Christmas

Well, I take back one thing that I said about the previous episode, which I really, really didn’t like. It, and the next episode, establishes that the Master continues to be very aware of Earth’s popular culture and knows Toni Basil’s hit from the early 1980s, “Mickey.” This episode establishes that the Doctor had no idea that there was a film called Alien. “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive. No wonder everyone keeps invading you.” This is so perfectly in character for both of them. It’s also such an incredibly funny line that I’d call this one a winner even if it wasn’t.

I think this was a very well-timed episode, because our son was talking about dreams from which you could not wake just a couple of weeks ago, and that’s the plot of this one. He enjoyed it a lot, and his favorite scene might be Santa Claus’s big explosive entrance, with a group of slinkies, followed by a small army of wind-up robots, clearing the way. I’ve always enjoyed it and think it’s only improved with time.

There’s also a neat little hat tip to a real-world production decision in the eighties. “Last Christmas” is Samuel Anderson’s final appearance as Danny Pink, as a dream after the character died, and he was not credited in advance publicity to keep the surprise. Back in episode two of “Time-Flight” in 1982, Matthew Waterhouse made a final appearance as Adric, as a dream after the character died, but he was actually credited in advance publicity to keep the surprise of his death in the previous story.

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll resume the show in early July. Posts here will be a little thin for a few weeks, as I’m only going to write about every other Worzel Gummidge and it’ll just be that show and Stargate through June. We’ll start the three-series rotation again after we finish Worzel. Stay tuned!

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 8.9 – Flatline

So last time I was saying how much I enjoyed Jamie Mathieson’s “Mummy on the Orient Express”, and knock me over with a feather, but “Flatline” is even better. It’s completely full of wild and weird ideas, and it pitches these idea so perfectly at the younger members of the audience. The kid was absolutely howling at the Doctor’s strange predicament – beings from a two-dimensional universe, exploring ours, have sucked away the exterior dimensions of the TARDIS – and the scene is done so well that it’s almost like the director and editor knew the precise second for the Doctor to yell about this not being funny to shush the viewers.

Later, of course, the Doctor does his impression of Thing from The Addams Family and the kid was in stitches again.

It’s such a splendid story, and executed incredibly well, with the 2-D monsters being completely horrific and alien. Much of it is set in the tunnels of a railway beneath Bristol, making a nice callback to another Doctor’s similar trip to London’s Underground. This episode introduces Joivan Wade as Rigsy. He returns in season nine, and he’s only in two episodes, but they’re both huge favorites. I could watch this episode night after night. The show hasn’t been this consistently terrific since series five.

And hey! The next episode is written by Frank Cottrell Boyce! He wrote 24 Hour Party People! I love that movie! I bet his Doctor Who story is going to be fabulous!

Doctor Who 8.8 – Mummy on the Orient Express

So here’s the first of four Peter Capaldi episodes written or co-written by Jamie Mathieson, and every one is darn near flawless in my book. Why he’s not writing most of the program right now I couldn’t tell you. “Mummy on the Orient Express” is completely wonderful, sinister and creepy and weird and frightening and with a fantastic mystery about a monster that only its victims can see, for the final sixty-six seconds of their lives. I love this one to pieces and have enjoyed revisiting it several times.

But I’m also disappointed that the real villain of the piece has never resurfaced. One of modern Who‘s flaws is that if there is a recurring villain, it’s probably the Master again in a new disguise or body. But the Doctor’s involvement in this story was orchestrated by a computer – possibly? – called Gus, who has been trying to get the Doctor on board its space train – a visual we’ve seen before in other media – for quite some time. The Doctor reminds the audience that he’d been invited to this train once before, back in season five’s “The Big Bang”, and that Gus has the TARDIS’s phone number. So you’re telling me that Gus only wanted the Doctor here to solve this one mystery for him and now he’s done? I don’t believe it for a minute. Gus has got to be out there somewhere ready to use our hero again for something. I sure hope so.

Doctor Who 8.7 – Kill the Moon

You have to wonder what the people at the BBC who come up with the criteria for what makes a companion – something that a lot of people have seemed to enjoy making obsessive lists about- are thinking. Apparently, Astrid Peth, the character played by Kylie Minogue in “Voyage of the Damned” is an official companion despite never even seeing the Doctor’s ship, while Courtney Woods, who took two TARDIS trips in subsequent stories, isn’t. And it can’t be because the Doctor made the invitation to Astrid and she accepted before she died, because he also made the same invitation to Lynda-with-a-Y at the end of series one and she also said yes before she got killed.

Anyway, you can’t help but like Courtney. She goes to the moon 35 years in her future and the first chance she gets, she posts pictures on Tumblr.

It’s easier to squint and ignore the breathtakingly dumb science of “Kill the Moon” from a distance. I think when it first aired, the revelation about what’s happening and how it is resolved just felt so amazingly stupid that it overwhelmed everything else, but everything else about this story is actually incredibly good. It’s the first Who adventure written by Peter Harness – he’d do the fine seven-part adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the BBC the next year – and I think it moves a bit too fast in the beginning. I’d like to have spent a little more time with Capaldi and Coleman speaking a little less frantically about how the Doctor’s thoughtlessness has affected Courtney. Once we’re in 2049, it’s excellent.

And once we’re back in 2014, it’s excellent again. Clara really did become the companion who should have left many, many times. Maybe this should have been her goodbye. Coleman is amazing; she’s so furious and I mostly agree with her. The Doctor is being incredibly manipulative in this story. Sure, it means we’d have been robbed of what should have been her farewell scene in “Death in Heaven,” and what should have been her farewell scene in “Last Christmas,” and what should have been her farewell scene in “Face the Raven”… but you see what I mean?

Doctor Who 8.6 – The Caretaker

“The Caretaker” has a few clever little similarities with season five’s “The Lodger” – Gareth Roberts had written that and he co-wrote this with Steven Moffat – but this one’s mainly about Danny meeting the Doctor and learning about Clara’s time away from Earth. Actually, what it’s mainly about is the Doctor being an almost unbearable jerk. I think sometimes we like this a lot because the Doctor often gets to be far more bad-tempered and angry we’re allowed to. Sometimes, like Pertwee’s Doctor in his first two seasons especially, our hero gets to bellow at everybody who gets in his way.

But this time out, it’s really entertaining to see the Doctor be so incredibly narrow-minded and prejudiced and then get hauled up on it. Danny shoves back harder than the Doctor does. He goes straight for our hero’s “aristocratic” accent, and the instant he susses that the Doctor has a hate-on for soldiers, he starts saluting and calling him “sir.” So yeah, there’s a fun story about an odd-looking and unlikely robot threat, but I like this one because I like seeing the Doctor figure he can get away with being a superior jerk and learn the rough way that this time he was wrong.

Doctor Who 8.5 – Time Heist

“Time Heist,” which Steven Moffat co-wrote with Steve Thompson, has a downright glorious resolution that should have gone down as one of the great and fun all-smiles timey-wimey stories as everything falls into place. Unfortunately, while I think that I seem to enjoy this story more than most people, it does not feel very engaging. Like “Robot of Sherwood”, this thing moves incredibly fast, and I think that the speed works against it. Plus, we don’t know what the stakes are: the Doctor and Clara and their allies have elected to wipe their memories for some reason, so we don’t know who the other characters are, and they don’t dig deeply enough into the mystery.

Here’s a possible part of the problem: the monster is called the Teller and it’s just a triumphantly excellent creation. You spend that much money and time on a great-looking monster, you want to give it a lot of screen time, I guess. Maybe they didn’t quite get the balance right, because the Teller dominates the story more than most Doctor Who beasts and the emotional stakes seem too muted or confused.

Silly fan theories department: Comic book anti-hero Abslom Daak makes his first blink-and-miss-it in-canon appearance when a character speed-reads files on criminals in this part of the galaxy. One of the other baddies is an Ice Warrior. I choose to believe that Ice Warrior is Harma, Daak’s colleague from the “Star Tigers” strip.

Doctor Who 8.4 – Listen

Capaldi’s first three episodes were pretty good, but I don’t think anybody was blown away by them. “Listen” kicks off a run of seven really entertaining stories. This one is simply an absolute masterpiece. The Doctor hypothesizes that something unknown might exist, and so he decides to pick a fight with it. It’s a perfectly bonkers idea, and it’s done brilliantly.

I love how it doesn’t obey anything at all like conventional television narrative structure. It doesn’t have rising action or resolution or anything like what they teach you in screenwriting class. It’s like Steven Moffat just punched out some fic to amuse himself and told Douglas McKinnon to shoot it. Our son said it was weird, and then backtracked and clarified “I know that you asked me to stop just saying everything is weird, but seriously, that one really was weird.” And it is, weird and wonderful and scary and funny and perfect.

Doctor Who 8.3 – Robot of Sherwood

Sadly, for me, Mark Gatiss’s “Robot of Sherwood” is overshadowed by the BBC’s last-minute decision to hack a minute out of the climax. Shortly before it aired, terrorists operating out of Iraq murdered two American journalists by beheading them. Somebody at the BBC decided that having the Sheriff of Nottingham lose his head and reveal that he’s a robot and it didn’t bother him too much was too close to the ugly reality. So they edited the broadcast master to lose the decapitation, and, owing to some internal policy about not issuing alternate versions and forcing British taxpayers to pay to see the full, intended edition, it has not been seen on Blu-ray or DVD. Fortunately, a black and white work print had been floating around file-sharing sites. Finding the “Robot of Sherwood” deleted scene only takes seconds.

I think it’s vandalism, pure and simple, and I hate that it overshadows such a fun and silly romp. I like this episode’s speed: it rockets from set piece to set piece with barely an establishing shot. Our son doesn’t have a huge amount of experience with Robin Hood, apart from the Disney cartoon, so I made sure to show him the publicity photo of Patrick Troughton from the 1953 series, which is surely among the very best of all Doctor Who Easter eggs. He enjoyed it very much, especially the dungeon scene.