Doctor Who 7.5 – The Angels Take Manhattan

I get why people like “The Angels Take Manhattan” a whole lot. If you favor the big, sweeping, emotional heartbreakers, then this should do it for you, and it looks like a trillion bucks. Like “A Town Called Mercy”, it’s so beautifully photographed that I don’t mind watching most of it. And I’m sure that Karen Gillan enjoyed having a big, bombastic, memorable finale, and everybody acted the hell out of it. And I do love it when River Song sneers “Just wait until my husband gets home.” Otherwise, my questions about the time distortions around 1938 sort of overwhelm my ability to just sit back and enjoy the story, which is my problem, not the story’s.

Last night, we watched a Jason King adventure where the actors were at Elstree Studios while the library footage tried to make it look like they were at Heathrow Airport. I enjoyed pointing out something similar in tonight’s story, where we can tell that Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, and Arthur Darvill all got to go to New York City to film, but Alex Kingston didn’t. There’s a great little moment as they arrive at the Winter Quay apartment building trap where it’s really obvious, and I enjoyed going back to point it out to our son.

Doctor Who 7.4 – The Power of Three

The most important thing is, as always, that our son completely enjoyed this story and laughed throughout most of it. Chris Chibnall’s “The Power of Three” really is an oddball and unusual story, and I think that it’s the best of this season’s first five by miles. It’s really only the ending that brings it down. It’s not as though this is the first Doctor Who adventure to start terrific and end on a nebulous threat, a miracle finale, and a lot of sonic screwdriver magic, but it just rings particularly hollow this time out.

What makes this one really weird is that they booked a pretty famous actor called Steven Berkoff to play the villain, and by all accounts – quiet and discreet accounts, but all of them – the experience was an unhappy one, so they brought Matt, Karen, and Arthur back in to reshoot the ending without him, and with his character turned from an in-the-flesh baddie into a hologram. They did some script rewrites around the footage they had, suggesting that the budget must have been amazingly tight since they didn’t get a new actor in, anybody, even at scale, to just remount the scene entirely. But none of it worked even before Berkoff arrived for his costume fitting; the story suggests that perhaps a third of Earth’s population suffered heart attacks and everybody was successfully revived several very long minutes later, which, even for Doctor Who miracle magic, is silly.

It’s kind of funny that for me, Berkoff remains best known in my memory as playing a character in Octopussy who, for years, I thought was played by Frank Gorshin, when his Who experience ends up like a strange new version of a different Batvillain, Otto Preminger. When the producers of Batman decided to do a new Mr. Freeze story, they didn’t ask Preminger back to play the character since everybody had such a miserable time working with him earlier.

Also, this episode introduces Jemma Redgrave as Kate Stewart, the current leader of UNIT. She appears in five TV adventures across series seven through nine and in a whole heck of a lot of audio adventures from Big Finish. Honestly, I think it’s really odd that Chris Chibnall wrote her television debut episode and then swept her and UNIT offscreen completely in “Resolution” seven years later. I’d have thought once that situation finished, the Doctor would have flown straight to Kate – and Osgood, I suppose – to find out what the heck happened. Or maybe Big Finish has a script waiting for Jodie Whittaker to approve.

Doctor Who 7.3 – A Town Called Mercy

At the end of last year, we watched all of The Mandalorian, enjoying it thoroughly. I gave our son a crash course in what spaghetti westerns were, so he could understand that it worked for us grownups on a slightly different level than him, and I was glad to see that he retained it. Tonight, the grownups briefly commiserated about what a disappointing story this is, but to its credit, it looks completely amazing. I told the kid that it was shot in Spain, where various studios keep standing “small desert town” backlots for filming. “So it’s a spaghetti western!” he said, and I was pleased that he remembered that. On the other hand, he didn’t recognize guest star Ben Browder despite watching thirty-odd episodes of Farscape. Of course, he disliked most of them. He loved this to pieces at least. Shame they haven’t made a Gunslinger action figure to help out his Doctors deal with their enemies on his bedroom floor.

Doctor Who 7.2 – Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Our son vowed that nothing in the universe was going to stop him from loving this episode, and indeed he thought it was terrific. It’s only just occurred to me that these first five stories in series seven do a good job in grounding the program back in one-and-done big concept ideas, after the timey-wimey and intricate storylines of series six that had him very frustrated. This one’s got a simple enough plot, some crowd-pleasing dinosaur action, goofy robots, and the only Who thing the audience needed to know going in was that there were once aliens called Silurians who were reptile people and hung out with dinosaurs.

I could give or take most of this adventure, but there is an interesting little twist that puts the whole audience, briefly, on the same page as an occasionally frustrated nine year-old trying to comprehend things. This story is set several months after the previous one, and since the Doctor returned Amy and Rory home, he either traveled or spent time on Earth with a big game hunter named John Riddell in the early 1900s. Then he left Ridell, had an adventure in Egypt with Queen Nefertiti, and then they picked up Ridell and then Amy and Rory and Rory’s dad Brian, and then after this story, he travels with Brian for a while. There’s not enough room in the story for Nefertiti or Ridell to be drawn in anything but very broad strokes – they have an actual antagonist, a nasty villain played by David Bradley, and he gets more character definition than these two – but Brian is pretty interesting. He’s almost like a trial run for the character of Graham, who the writer, Chris Chibnall, would introduce six years later, especially the way he comes prepared for trips in time and space with some sandwiches and a thermos of tea.

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 6.x – Night and the Doctor

Doctor Who‘s sixth series came with some mini-episodes on the home video release. These are just for giggles, and our son definitely appreciated the low-stakes, timey-wimey simplicity of them. He really found a lot that he did not enjoy in series six, but these were more his speed, and he liked these very much.

Interestingly, the third and fourth stories play with the idea of being River’s first and final dates with the Doctor, which you’d have thought that they would have saved for a television story instead of a DVD bonus. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because a few years later, Steven Moffat thought better of the second idea and, offscreen, the older eleventh Doctor does not take River to the place where they’ll have their final date. He saves that for his next self.

Doctor Who 6.13 – The Wedding of River Song

I think our kid summed up the majority of viewers when he called this one “completely and totally ridiculous.” It’s a mess, sometimes a very entertaining mess, but I really believe this was a draft or two away from being really satisfying. I did warn him that Steven Moffat’s story throws viewers right in at the deep end, which is part of the problem for me. There’s so much lunatic spectacle, with Romans and pterodactyls and Wars of the Roses eating up so much time that could have been spent detailing the story and giving the characters more room and time to breathe.

The biggest disappointment that comes from this business of throwing everything at the wall is that the Doctor and River’s handfasting is far, far too rushed. There’s about a minute of screen time regurgitating that business of “the universe thinks you’re wonderful and won’t let you die” bit from Moffat’s “Curse of Fatal Death” that could have been given to the Doctor and River to just talk quietly about how she felt, instead of desperately shouting because there’s no time.

I don’t know why I wanted this in particular to be better, but I really did. The whole production is achingly close to pleasing me, but there’s just too much going on to distract from the heart and soul of it.

On the other hand, Moffat pulls a really great sequence out of his hat when the Soothsayer starts telling Ian McNeice’s character of Emperor Churchill what all has gone wrong with time. Over the space of about three minutes, the Doctor decapitates a damaged Dalek, looks for dead men in shady taverns, is a contestant in a game of coliseum death chess, and deals with some carnivorous skulls in a catacomb. I’ve often referred back to the wonderful line of comics from Doctor Who Magazine, and this sequence feels effortlessly like kicking back and reading about six of those Steve Moore – Dave Gibbons one-shots from 1981 back to back. Montages like this happen a few times in Moffat’s tenure, but this is my favorite of them.

Oh, and the actor playing death chess against the Doctor is actor/writer Mark Gatiss, under a ton of prosthetics and makeup, to look like Rondo Hatton. He’s credited under the pseudonym “Rondo Haxton.” I thought about asking the kid whether that character didn’t look an awful lot like the big mean henchman in The Rocketeer, but I don’t think he enjoyed the story enough to appreciate it. Maybe he’ll like the DVD bonus mini-episodes better.

Doctor Who 6.11 – The God Complex

Another frustrating example of a perfectly good story that just doesn’t click with me, “The God Complex” was written by Toby Whithouse and I wish that I liked it more. I’ll tell you the only thing that I really don’t like, and it’s not Whithouse’s fault in the slightest: I really, really wish that this had genuinely been the Doctor’s farewell to Amy and Rory, and that the characters were never seen again after this. They get a perfectly fine finale once the Doctor gets them out of this hotel, and absolutely nothing that happens with these two after this is better than Amy and the Doctor’s goodbye here.

Doctor Who 6.10 – The Girl Who Waited

“The ending of that was like half the episode,” our son grumbled. And no, the ending is about two minutes long, but it’s sentimental and emotional enough to drive a young viewer nuts. I think that until the end, he was enjoying this time-travel adventure much, much more than anything since the pirate story, and he’s just letting himself get extra-aggravated by people crying and saying they love each other. Karen Gillan is really, really good in this. It’s possibly her best performance in the series.

Doctor Who 6.9 – Night Terrors

Our son remained silent and attentive through this story until about forty minutes in, when he grumbled “There are some episodes of some programs that I just don’t like, and this is one of them.” He didn’t connect to this story about a terrified kid with psychic powers at all. We talked a little afterward and figure it’s possibly because even though our son has his own nighttime rituals, he’s never really experienced the monster-under-the-bed sort of phobias that this kid has, and couldn’t understand why George was afraid of absolutely everything.

As for me, Matt Smith sells a really excellent moment where the Doctor talks about how far into space George’s psychic message traveled, and structurally it’s a far better script than Mark Gatiss’s previous contribution, “Victory of the Daleks”, but it dissolves into another power of love resolution and never really gelled for me. Our son noticed the similarities between this apartment block and the Powell Estate from series one and two, but that location seemed much more real and full of people. The only people we see in this building have speaking parts. There’s no life or energy in the script or in the place they filmed it.

Doctor Who 6.8 – Let’s Kill Hitler

“Let’s Kill Hitler” is hugely disappointing to me, but the biggest surprise is that the hour doesn’t use the medium of television to its advantage. Here is a production that can definitely show, not tell, through the use of flashbacks and old footage, but it’s really just people talking and talking. They talk about brainwashing, but we never see the little girl in the astronaut suit, they talk about regenerating into a toddler and they don’t show it. They talk about Melody being programmed to kill, but they don’t explain when she became a combat expert and got hold of lipstick with alien poison in it. Did they teach all this to the little girl and entrust her to hold onto this unlikely weapon for decades, or did they train an adult and then regenerate her into the astronaut suit girl? Is the Alex Kingston body Melody/River’s third or her fourth?

They also talk about how the baby Melody became their good friend Mels and they don’t show any emotion at all over it. Amy and Rory have been agonizing over their missing baby for an entire summer and there isn’t a tear to be seen; they just accept that the puzzle’s been solved. Last time, it was the big rousing finale that the Doctor was going to rescue the infant, and there’s no emotional payoff to the revelation that he can’t. It feels so hollow that Amy and Rory don’t feel human anymore.

I wonder whether Steven Moffat had figured out how the Silence business was going to play out. This is the second hour in a row where somebody could have said something simple and direct like Madame Kovarian could have last week: “We can’t stop you after you get to Trenzalore, so we’re going to war with you now.” That creates a mystery and gives motivation to the villains. Instead we get gobbledygook about the oldest question in the universe being asked. That’s also a mystery, although it’s going to feel like an incredibly dumb one when it shows up five episodes down the line, but it’s not a comprehensible motivation.