Doctor Who 10.12 – The Doctor Falls

The kid didn’t like it. He liked the ending, which is nice. I love the ending too.

When I hear about fans of other programs getting mad at the networks that ran them, I always shake my head. The example of recent vintage is Browncoats being angry with Fox for the four whole months that Firefly was on the air. They’re still in the nursery compared to us. Doctor Who fans have been mad at the BBC for decades. I went into the previous episode incensed that they’d already given away the return of the original Cybermen and the return of John Simm, and they just about redeemed themselves with the blinding cliffhanger at the end of this story.

So to prep the kid ever so slightly, I cued up part two of “The Tenth Planet” before we watched this. I had two objectives: first to let him know that he was mistaken, and that the original design for the Cybermen was incredibly effective for that appearance, because those Cybermen were not the stompy army of robots that they’d become, but victims of a terrible, terrible decision. True, they needed to be “upgraded” to become the threat that they’d become, but those first Cybermen had a chilling impact on their own. He agreed.

I also drew comparisons to how lots of science fiction TV in 1966 was obsessing about capsules and mission controls and getting astronauts back down from outer space. “The Tenth Planet” was made in the same era as the original Thunderbirds. The episode “Sun Probe” immediately came to mind. Gerry Anderson was big on this kind of action, in part because it was comparatively simpler to shoot largely stationary puppets looking at dials and readouts and counting things down, but also because this was totally fueling the imagination of kids at the time. It still works, too: Mondas first shows up onscreen and it’s clearly the planet Earth, upside down. Our son turned his head over, instantly figuring it out with a huge smile. Sure, it’s stupid, but it’s the sort of visual clue you want the kids in the audience to get.

But as for this episode, the kid didn’t like it. That’s okay. I think it’s amazing. It might be my favorite Doctor Who story of all.

Time’s late and the blog’s meant to be more about the kid than me, and I don’t feel like writing a further 500 words gushing about just how right Steven Moffat and Rachel Talalay got it this time. It’s a desperate, amazing story full of hope, and full of the two Masters providing welcome relief. It’s a story where the Doctor fails his companion more horribly than any since Adric, and everybody gets a wonderful and occasionally heartbreaking farewell. But the Masters might get the best of them.

Obviously, I’m not as enamored with Chris Chibnall’s time as the program’s showrunners as I am his predecessors, despite many very good decisions and a Doctor who I do enjoy. I also like Sacha Dhawan’s Master. But I absolutely hate the idea that his Master follows Missy, which at least has never been formally established onscreen. She gets a perfect finale here. She gives Simm’s Master a fatal blow, and leaves him to go and stand with the Doctor, and dies, unable to regenerate, on the cusp of redemption. I can’t reconcile that with what “Spyfall” and “The Timeless Children” presented, and I don’t want to, although I understand a story in one of the yearbooks does formalize it. I’d much, much rather that Missy be wrong about what happened to Simm’s Master next, and he regenerated into Dhawan, or even somebody else before Dhawan.

But Missy should be the last, and I’ll be heartbroken, infuriated, and grouchily resigned and resentful that it’s another damn thing this stupid show did wrong if they ever canonize it. I hope Dhawan sticks around to bedevil the 14th, the 15th, the 16th, and as many more Doctors as he desires, and I hope that he regenerates into Michelle Gomez when he decides to go. Deep down you know I’m right.

Doctor Who 10.11 – World Enough and Time

“Didn’t like that cliffhanger, did you?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said, with emphasis.

I knew our son would hate it. The last four minutes of “World Enough and Time” are a masterclass in taking a bad situation and making it exponentially worse with each new reveal. I rewatched it again recently and tried to see it through his eyes, remembering how badly and tearfully he absolutely hated the end of “The Pandorica Opens” when we watched it one year ago. Our kid’s tougher now, a tiny bit more mature, and also not as sleep-deprived as he was on that fine evening, but I knew the hopeless tone of this cliffhanger, plus the presence of the Cybermen and the Master, wouldn’t thrill him.

“But be honest,” I said, “you were kind of enjoying it until it fell off a cliff, weren’t you?”

“I was… in the middle, leaning more toward like, but it didn’t just fall off a cliff, it fell off a cliff onto a tall tree and then it got shredded in a tree shredder.” Harsh kid.

Well, never mind him. “World Enough and Time” is an amazing and dark story with a brilliant premise and an ugly, ugly vibe of body horror. It begins with the Doctor really believing he has mostly reformed Missy after talking at her for fifty or seventy years, and Missy may not be particularly enthusiastic about answering distress calls – neither are Bill and Nardole – but events overtake her in the end. It’s set on a colony ship five hundred miles long which is parked too close to a black hole. The top of the ship and its farthest point are experiencing gravity compressing time at radically different speeds. We saw this before in the Stargate SG-1 episode “A Matter of Time”. And a tip of the hat to our regular reader Ben Herman for recommending Frederik Pohl’s extremely entertaining 1977 novel Gateway, which plays with the same premise.

500 miles away from the control room, many generations have passed. Each of the 1056 floors are gigantic, and at the bottom, a whole city has risen and has begun to crumble. Spaceships weren’t meant to last this many centuries, and, choked by industrial pollution, the citizens have turned to conversion to keep themselves alive, and strong enough to move to the other floors. These become the original Cybermen, with John Simm’s Master – last seen in “The End of Time” about seven years before this – nicely and nastily involving himself in their development, and, perhaps even worse, reminding Missy of how rotten she’s meant to be.

Anyway, “World Enough and Time” was written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay, and we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Part one of the two-part cliffhanger is mostly amazing and then they mess up the landing, right? Will they nail it at last? Tune in tomorrow…

Doctor Who 4.18 – The End of Time (part two)

There’s so much that I like about this story, and so much that’s just so self-indulgent that it aggravates me more than it should. But that’s Doctor Who all over, isn’t it?

Surprisingly, our son’s favorite moment was the special effects padding scene, where Wilf gets to use one of those gun turrets that spaceships often have and shoot down a bunch of missiles. He was completely loving it, and it reminded me of his favorite moment in another Doctor’s final story, “Planet of the Spiders,” which reminded me that the show is for families after all. It needs some comedy and some padding and some unnecessary special effects for the younger viewers to hoot and holler.

The rest of the story is fun to watch, from the silly heights of “Worst! Rescue! Ever!” to the amazing and heartbreaking reveal of the “knocking four times” prophecy. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Russell T. Davies’s The Writer’s Tale, the way this scene was created will blow your mind. As for Tennant’s final act and its endless epilogue, well, you’d have to be a huge stick in the mud to complain about one last celebratory roundup, but there’s a larger-than-sensible part of me that wishes that the episode did not end with the regeneration. I’ve always thought that there should have been another way.

The TARDIS-destroying special effects regeneration blowing everything up could go for starters. It was idiotic then and it was idiotic when the TARDIS dumped Jodie Whittaker out the doors as well. I also detest the music. Imagine it if the Ood song abruptly ends when the doors close. Just give the man a little silence, and let the music pick up as the yellow sparklies start, but not so loudly that it drowns out the dialogue. I think everybody’s with me so far, right?

Now let’s say that the Tenth Doctor did not say goodbye to Wilf and Sylvia at Donna’s wedding. Let’s say instead that we skipped that scene, we let the Doctor regenerate without the explosions, just enough to rip up his clothes and make him a raggedy man, and we fade to black. And then we pick up at the wedding, and it’s the Eleventh Doctor, during the two-year gap at the end of “The Eleventh Hour”, who says his goodbyes, to let Wilf know that he made it okay and he has a whole universe to see with his new eyes. That ties in to their conversation in the cafe in part one and wraps it up very nicely, providing what I believe would have been perfect closure. And then let Wilf ask “Are you still by yourself? Still alone?” and let the Doctor hint about what’s to come. And end on Donna waving at the photographers on her big day.

I like Doctor Who so much that I can’t resist thinking about the what ifs and doing things a different way. Why should a regeneration episode just end with the regeneration? Just because they always do it that way unless circumstances are against them doesn’t mean they can’t change things up.

We’ll take a little breather from Doctor Who for a couple of weeks, but we’ll resume with Matt Smith and Steven Moffat in mid-September. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 4.17 – The End of Time (part one)

So now we come to a big end, and let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. The Master stuff is appalling. That was my first takeaway then and I feel that way today. John Simm, as I’ve said before, is a brilliant actor but I don’t like his Master at all, yet. And Russell T. Davies goes for the bigger-than-last-time finale again, resulting in worse, sillier, stupider Master stuff than the last time. Now he’s a skeleton man who can jump a hundred feet and shoot lightning bolts.

Bizarrely, the writer even botches the cliffhanger. The Master Race business goes on forever, and then it ends with what’s supposed to be a wild revelation. Timothy Dalton, who’s been narrating, is revealed. It’s Time Lords! Read that like John Lydon rolling his eyes when Bill Grundy asks him about Beethoven. The real cliffhanger is neglected under the fireworks. Donna’s mind-barrier has broken down, she’s remembered series four, and she’s about to die. Nobody cares about the Master, and we certainly don’t care about the Time Lords. We are worried about Donna, nothing else.

However, when the show isn’t detouring into bombast, it’s genuinely wonderful. There’s a perfect little moment with two vagrants talking about President Obama making a worldwide stimulus to end the recession. We also see David Harewood, an actor so talented that he would later take DC Comics’ most boring character, J’onn J’onzz, and make him watchable for the first time in sixty years in Supergirl, mysteriously up to no good as a billionaire working on alien tech stolen from Torchwood. But most importantly, we return to the Nobles after an eighteen-month break. Bernard Cribbins is back, along with Jacqueline King – “You’re not leaving me with her!” – and Catherine Tate. One of Wilf’s friends is revealed to be the delightful June Whitfield, who quietly steals her scenes without anybody minding. She made a career out of doing that.

Russell T. Davies is so good with the small stuff. He’s one of television’s best. The scene in the cafe, with the Doctor and Wilf talking about their fears and what’s going to happen next, both men almost in tears, is completely amazing. It’s one of those scenes I’ve sat down to rewatch almost a dozen times, just to marvel at the pacing and the way that Tennant and Cribbins play it.

Davies has a power with words and names in Doctor Who that is almost unrivaled. Maybe Robert Holmes was about as good. Davies makes it seem so easy, so casual. His Doctor talks of the Phosphorus Carousel of the Great Magellan Gestalt and the Red Carnivorous Morg and the Shadow Proclamation and the Lost Moon of Poosh and Clom and the words are magical. Davies won’t be quite finished with the world of Who after this – there are still nine Sarah Jane Adventures to come – but even with so many great and wonderful adventures in the eight series that have followed this one, there is a Russell T. Davies-shaped hole in Doctor Who. It’s impossible to watch this story and not feel a little sad. It’s the end of a great era.

Doctor Who 3.13 – Last of the Time Lords

The kid has really not enjoyed the last five episodes of this series, but he liked this. He thought it was thrilling and exciting and absolutely loved the Master’s plan falling apart. He did everything short of standing up and cheering. So I’m glad that he liked it!

I think of it this way: three of Russell T. Davies’s Doctor Who series come to absolutely splendid and satisfying conclusions, and three out of four is a pretty amazing feat. I think “Last of the Time Lords” is far too depressing, its resolution is completely ridiculous, and the reset button is completely obnoxious.

And I really can’t stand how the episode completely ignores the biggest what-the-hell moment in just about any work of ongoing fiction I can thing of: the British Prime Minister had something to do with an alien first contact that left the American president dead before dying himself, and there’s apparently no fallout from this whatsoever. Put this into the context of June 2007: imagine if the incoming PM, Gordon Brown, arranged for the assassination of George W. Bush. I would want to know what happens next. I think it’s a massive missed opportunity. I like Kylie Minogue as much as the next fellow, but I could wait to see what happens with her on the Titanic. I want an episode that explores what the hell happens when the leaders of the US and the UK both get killed in some scheme with little silver aliens that nobody ever sees again, and how in the world the Doctor managed to get the PM’s body out to some rocky beach for a Viking funeral out from under the biggest CIA / MI6 / NSA / UNIT operation in the history of either nation.

But we don’t get that. We get Kylie. And Peter. But those are stories for another day. But it’s goodbye for now to John Barrowman and to Freeman Agyeman as the Doctor leaves Earth alone again. We’ll see them both again very soon.

We’ll put Doctor Who back on the shelf to keep things fresh and pop back again for the two specials in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 3.12 – The Sound of Drums

Disagreeably, we watched this episode the same day that Twitter enjoyed a big tweetalong to the first episode of Life on Mars, the oddball period cop show which starred John Simm, and instead I watched him in something I don’t like. I think the world of Simm; he’s a marvelous actor, but I don’t like his Master at all, and I really don’t like this story.

It isn’t fair to judge every Master against Roger Delgado – I’ve never heard anybody grumble “Bill Hartnell wouldn’t have worn 3-D glasses and say ‘timey-wimey'” – and every Master should be every bit as different as every Doctor, but here Simm starts an affectation of INSANE and WACKY like he’s channeling Jim Carrey from any one of a dozen identical performances in the nineties that influences both of his successors, and I just find it tedious, dull, and predictable and wish like anything for somebody to play the villain as malevolently, effortlessly cool as Delgado did. A couple of the villains in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock went down the same boring path; none of it wears well with me. About the best I can say for Simm is that he’s such a tremendously good actor that at no point does he look or feel even remotely self-conscious with his antics.

For what it’s worth, I do love that the Master retains his love of British children’s television by watching Teletubbies. Sunday night, I showed our son that moment in “The Sea Devils” where Delgado’s Master whistles along to Clangers to remind him of this great little character quirk. I like the Doctor’s phone call with the Master. That’s about it. The cliffhanger landed with a thud because as soon as President-Elect Winters is killed, I started looking for the reset button. When a story’s gone so far that it’s going to need to be reset, I start looking for devices in the narrative with names like “paradox machine.”

The kid hated almost every second of this one. He allowed that he liked the Teletubbies bit, and he liked the visuals when the Toclafane spheres fall out of the big red rip in the sky. He also went to bed furious about another cliffhanger. Funny how those didn’t bother him when we watched series twelve as it was broadcast, but the two-parters in the older episodes annoy him.

Doctor Who 3.11 – Utopia

I knew this one wasn’t going to go over too well with our kid. He doesn’t like surprise cliffhangers, and he doesn’t like the Master. Tonight, he clarified that the only villain he dislikes more than the Master are the Cybermen. Making things worse, he was really enjoying this story. It’s written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Graeme Harper, and it’s one of those unfortunate stories where nobody remembers the details because they’re all overshadowed by the last six minutes. Kind of like “The War Games” if you think about it.

But for a putting-things-in-place tale, it’s not bad. I was kind of ambivalent about watching this because, with the exception of a couple of moments, I really don’t care for the next two episodes. But “Utopia” is pretty good. I like Derek Jacobi, and I love his adorable assistant Chantho. John Barrowman’s back as Captain Jack Harkness, and I love the idea that he had to live through the 20th Century waiting for the correct Doctor to come along.

I don’t like John Simm’s Master. I don’t like him at all, until he gets some really good material in “The Doctor Falls” several years later. Well, there is one moment in the next episode that I enjoy. We’ll see what that might be Wednesday evening.