Doctor Who 10.13 – Twice Upon a Time

The kid did, however, like this a lot. As well he should. “Twice Upon a Time” is magnificent and charming and occasionally very funny. It’s a great epilogue. Regeneration speech may be a bit long. That’s it. David Bradley, who had played William Hartnell in 2013’s Adventure in Time and Space, now gets to play Hartnell’s Doctor, and why they’re not putting him in a studio to remake “Marco Polo” and “The Myth Makers” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan” can only be chalked up to typical BBC incompetence. Mark Gatiss gets to take a final bow, this time as an actor again, in the role of one of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s ancestors, and since the montage of old friends was contained to the previous episode, the only hugs and smiles this time are contained to the Twelfth Doctor’s actual companions.

Bill and Nardole are represented by glass avatar memory-people, since Bill was extracted from Cyber-conversion and given a new start as a liquid-dimensional lifeform, and Nardole got to live out his days a few floors away from the Cybermen. The memory-people right the wrong of “Hell Bent” and restore the Doctor’s memories of Clara, which is lovely. And there’s one old and bizarrely unexpected old face: Rusty, the self-loathing killing machine from “Into the Dalek”. Anybody who had money on Rusty in the “which character from the previous 39 episodes will turn up” sweepstakes must have cleaned up.

And it’s goodbye here to Steven Moffat, who really does deserve all the applause in the world for writing some of the best stories of the program’s first four revived years, and running a great ship for the next six series. As I’ve said, things wobbled a bit in series six and seven, but it remained watchable and unpredictable and even at its loopiest, there was always a lot to talk about. Bowing out as well, director Rachel Talalay, who is unquestionably among the best directors in the seat in the modern era. She finished really strongly here.

I used to say that my favorite Doctor is the current Doctor, and I always meant it. Since this series grabbed my imagination, I’ve always enjoyed revisiting old stories, some of them repeatedly, but it’s the character’s next adventure that’s the one I most want to see. That changed here. I like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor a lot – well, I must, I’ve written fic with her twice (haven’t published the second one yet) and I hadn’t completed any fic with any Doctor since about 1993 – and I’m looking forward to series thirteen. I’m also looking forward to giving her run another spin for this silly old blog, starting in November and running to the blog’s conclusion in January. And of course I can’t wait to hear who Russell T. Davies has cast as the Doctor to follow her.

But Capaldi, despite starring in two of the episodes I loathe the most and two others that just broke my heart they were so disappointing, he’s my Doctor for good, I think. The other 36 are all complete gems and I love them to pieces. He was brilliant, just brilliant as the Doctor. When everything clicked, his run was silly, heartbreaking, thrilling, intelligent, and ridiculous. Emphasis on heartbreaking, often. Donna Noble is probably my favorite companion of them all, but Nardole and Bill are right behind her.

The saddest moment in all of Doctor Who comes when he regenerates, and the new hand is smaller, and the wedding ring celebrating the marriage to River Song slips off her finger, and it falls to the floor, and it is never mentioned again.

Davies, get on that.

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 10.6 and 10.7 – Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World

Two days ago, I read aloud someone’s joke on Twitter, prompting our son to ask what the word stigmata meant. This turned into a long and silly discussion about holy relics and the sort of things that the Vatican is said, in fiction, to keep in dark and secret archives. And so last night, we watched Steven Moffat’s unbelievably good “Extremis,” which launches what seems like, for a good while, is going to be one of the all-time greatest Who adventures. Will Moffat fail to stick the landing? Of course. It’s Moffat, and it’s Who. The show’s endings, as I’ve said often enough, are rarely as good as its openings. When Moffat nails it, it’s punch-the-air excellent, but he’s uneven, and the higher the stakes, the greater the chance of a belly flop.

“Extremis” takes us to the Vatican’s secret vault of heretical writings, which is brilliantly designed and also extremely large. Dudes have banned a whole lot of books in two thousand years. It introduces us to the Monks, who are also brilliantly designed and also extremely patient and clever. These guys don’t pull off many invasions, but the ones they do, they do intricately and carefully.

The hour is an amazing example of one misdirection after another, which feeds into part two. Perhaps my favorite is the slow and fascinating explanation of why the Doctor has been guarding this vault underneath St. Luke’s for the first fifty (or seventy?) years of a promised thousand: Missy is in it. The direction makes it look like that Michelle Gomez has been brought back to serve as the Doctor’s executioner, but no, he has been assigned to kill her. He has a better idea.

Also, I really, really love the way that Missy takes a break from all the taunting, realizes that the Doctor has ended his retirement because River has died, and quietly offers her condolences. Amazing.

So for part two, Peter Harness comes on board as co-writer as the action moves to Turmezistan, which Harness introduced in his Zygon adventure in the previous season. I’ve less to say about the second part, except that it’s done so brilliantly well. Watching it again just cements how much I absolutely love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

Our son has enjoyed the daylights out of the story so far. In both parts, the Doctor’s triumphs have had him grinning ear to ear, fists clenched. He gets so animated when the hero turns things on the villains, especially when the Monks’ own attempt at misdirection backfires and the Doctor figures out where they don’t want him to be. But there’s a flaw in his plan, and – not for the first time – one of the Doctor’s companions makes a deal with the devil to save his life. The cliffhanger is downbeat and I truly enjoy how we couldn’t guess what would happen next.

Doctor Who 10.4 – Knock Knock

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the clearance bins at our local used media-and-junk superstore, and found a slimline case of the TV version of “Death on the Nile,” one of the seventy-odd episodes of Poirot that starred David Suchet and was made by a succession of ITV companies over a quarter-century run. I think it got separated from a box set, and it was only a dollar. Perhaps surprisingly, I had never looked into the series, because I don’t actually like the character or the books.

In much the same way that I once spent an insane amount of time that could have been better spent trying to like Star Trek, I once forced myself to enjoy Agatha Christie and couldn’t do it. All the ingredients should have been there. I tend to like between-the-wars British detective fiction, especially Sayers and Allingham, and I enjoyed the BBC’s adaptations of the Miss Marple stories with Joan Hickson. But the original Marples were mostly tedious, and Tommy and Tuppence more so, and Hercule Poirot worst of all. I read eight or nine Poirots, and even the mighty ABC Murders, which everybody said I was certain to love, left me cold. I did, however, notice and love the weird continuity between two of the novels and a creepy old lady asking questions about dead children behind a fireplace.

But I picked up that cheap “Death on the Nile” for two reasons. First, I’ve got mad respect for David Suchet for taking the reins and fighting like a tiger to make good on his dream to adapt every one of the Poirot adventures, because there are a lot of the darn things. And second, I truly enjoyed Suchet as the strange old landlord in “Knock Knock.” I think it’s a great story, set in a “freaky Scooby-Doo house,” with some terrific characters. Bill’s friend Shireen finds them four new housemates and they find a great big place where the rent’s cheap and everything goes wrong. Every twenty years, six young people go missing. The Doctor finds all their belongings. One of the tenants in 1977 had Bowie’s “Heroes” 45 with the picture sleeve. That tenant had far better taste in music than Bill.

Our son enjoyed it very much, particularly the scary sequences before we meet the little alien “lice” responsible for everything, and is going nuts with curiosity about who or what the Doctor is keeping in the vault underneath St. Luke’s. I told him that, in a break with tradition, he won’t have to wait until the end of episode eleven to find out.

Oh, and that “Death on the Nile” I picked up? I really enjoyed it, despite the incredibly unlikely plot, because David Suchet was so entertainingly fussy and mannered in it. It seems, for me, that Poirot is a character who demands to be seen onscreen rather than on the page. I might buy another one day.

Doctor Who 10.3 – Thin Ice

I like Sarah Dollard’s “Thin Ice” very much, and one of the nicest things about it is that it has room to breathe. The opening scenes at the Frost Fair in 1814 London feel like a real place because the episode spends several minutes just letting us see and hear what’s going on, while Bill expresses her concerns about time travel. She’s worried both about being a young Black woman in the 1800s and also about stepping on a butterfly and wiping herself from history. I like that Bill enjoys science fiction; she’s clearly up on her Ray Bradbury. I really like how honestly the episode addresses bigotry, and how the Doctor is the one who loses his temper before Bill gets the chance to.

So the kid enjoyed this one a lot, of course. It’s got a great big mile-long sea serpent living at the bottom of the Thames, so how could he not? Bill can’t believe that she’d never heard stories of a sea serpent rising up from the river in 1814, and Googles it – well, that’s not accurate, she “search-engines” it, because Google is a trademark – and still comes up empty. The Doctor explains that there was a lot of “day drinking” going on at the Frost Fair. She probably would have got the same results if she had “search-engined” a sea serpent rising up from the river in 1975. After all, there was a lot of “day drinking” going on in London in 1975.

Doctor Who 10.2 – Smile

Two seasons previously, Frank Cottrell-Boyce wrote what’s one of my least favorite Who adventures ever, and he totally redeemed himself with this story about a colony in space where everything’s gone terribly wrong. I don’t feel like writing much tonight, but take it as read that we all enjoyed it, and I liked the little winks at the events of “The Ark in Space” and “The Beast Below”, and that the Doctor’s initial thought about why robots are running a city without any people in it is remarkably like what happened in the very first Robo-Hunter story, “Verdus.” The Emojibots are great little designs, and Character Options should make some toys of them for their line.

Honestly, the story’s only flaw at all is that the human colonists name their ship Erewhon. Seriously. In fiction, that name has never, ever ended up with anything good happening to anybody. What were they thinking?

Doctor Who 10.1 – The Pilot

It really is weird that my two favorite seasons of Who in the modern era are four and ten, the last ones that their respective producers oversaw. Maybe this means that Chris Chibnall’s next nine episodes are going to pop for me? Fingers crossed, we will learn soon, and while we wait, we’ve got this almost perfectly brilliant run to enjoy again. I don’t like most of episode eight, and episode nine has a stunningly dumb thing in it, but almost perfect.

Sensibly, “The Pilot” is another entry-level episode, where our new audience-identification figure, a cafeteria worker named Bill Potts, learns that there might be something to those stories that the weird lecturer called the Doctor, who doesn’t often tutor students, has been at St. Luke’s in Bristol for between fifty and seventy years. And we see the weirdness of the world through her eyes, from a hugely effective horror scene where there may be something taking a shower in her apartment to a battle between the Daleks and the Movellans, making a tiny little cameo after a 38-year absence. The strange planet they visit has the sort of strangeness that we just wish all strange planets in Who had, and as though he remembered how great and effective the liquid-dripping dead people in “The Waters of Mars” toward the end of Russell T. Davies’s run looked, the antagonist in this story by Steven Moffat is similarly wet, creepy, and unforgettable.

Joining the TARDIS team this time, it’s Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, who’s among mine and Marie’s favorite Who companions. I really like her a lot more than Amy or Clara. Matt Lucas’s Nardole is still here, faithfully spending his time showing students to the boss’s office while his aging robot parts need a bit of TLC. So they’ve been in Bristol since 1967, and possibly as early as 1947. They haven’t gone anywhere, since Nardole won’t let the Doctor forget his obligation to look after something in a vault. I love all the unanswered questions about this. I love how the Doctor’s office is the closest thing to his personal space that we’ve ever seen before, and that he keeps photos of his wife and granddaughter on his desk. It’s such a great premise that I’d grumble that they didn’t explore it more if the stories this year weren’t so good.

Doctor Who 10.0 – The Return of Doctor Mysterio

It’s always the giant corporations in Doctor Who that are fronts for alien awfulness. Have you noticed that? So you’ve got either UNIT or investigative journalists digging into something with branches in capital cities across the planet, or gizmos like a fancy GPS that are sold in every country, or that Facebook/Google thing that everyone uses in series twelve. It’s never a small startup or a mid-sized company that nobody cares about. No wonder all these alien invasions get foiled. They get too big for their britches. This bunch of villains is called Harmony Shoal, and they’re still around in the year 5343, as shown in the previous episode. They seem to leave a lot of loose ends on Earth in this one, including a guy who somehow takes over the body of an American UNIT soldier. Shame they haven’t returned to this.

So here’s the delightful and silly 2016 Christmas special, in which Steven Moffat introduces a superhero into the Doctor Who universe, and clarifies that our often clueless-about-popular-culture Doctor, who once suggested that Batman might drive a space rocket, is equally unfamiliar with Superman and Spider-Man. It’s a love letter to American superheroes, or more accurately American superhero movie culture. It does seem kind of weird, however, that Harmony Shoal would build a whacking great replica of the Daily Planet’s offices in Manhattan when the people of the Who universe read the same John Byrne-drawn Superman funnybooks that we do.

So naturally, our son really liked this one. It’s a great Christmas special, all smiles and silliness and jokes that hit the bullseye perfectly. His favorite moment, however, was the Lois Lane analogue using an incredibly annoying squeaky toy called Mr. Huffle to interview – slash – interrogate the Doctor, making it squeal obnoxiously whenever he lies.

I like all the backstory stuff in this one even more than the onscreen material, which is perfectly ridiculous and wonderful. I like that the story begins with a very long prologue in which the Doctor seems to undo all that nonsensical paradox business from “The Angels Take Manhattan” that somehow was preventing him from ever going to New York. I like that the Doctor confirms that he spent twenty-four years with River Song, and at some point agreed to rescue Nardole’s head from the bowels of the big robot where he’d been stored and build him a new body. Wonder what happened to the other fellow? Maybe he enjoyed having a big robot body. This seems to be set not too long after sunrise on Darillium, because the Doctor’s still smarting from saying his last goodbye to River.

Another oddball thing that I like is that there’s all sorts of fanon or Big Finish or novel evidence that certain companions stayed with the Doctor for a whole lot longer than the TV series would lead us to believe. I mean, there’s really no reason to believe that the fourth Doctor and the second Romana traveled together for a year and a half when they might as well have been together for one or two hundred years. But the next episode will establish that at some point after this adventure, the Doctor and Nardole will settle in Bristol sometime in the 1960s and remain there together the whole time. I call that televised canon that no other companion can match Nardole’s fifty-plus years of service by the Doctor’s side. No wonder Nardole gets so cranky about Bill Potts. Poor fellow’s jealous.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to keep things fresh, but we’ll return to meet Bill in three weeks.  Stay tuned!

Doctor Who 9.13 – The Husbands of River Song

What a curious coincidence. There was a “bigger boat” joke in last night’s episode of Atlantis as well as this.

Anyway, knowing that sometimes details elude our kid, a couple of days ago, I made sure to remind him about some of the details of River Song’s first/final appearance in Doctor Who, back in series four: the screwdriver, the new suit, the Singing Towers of Darillium. He assured me tonight that it was not necessary. With the cocksure swagger of a preteen, he eyerolled that he remembered all of River Song’s prior appearances “pretty well.”

He really enjoyed the beginning of this story, which really is extremely funny, but it wore a little less well with him as it went on, despite it all being remarkably satisfying. I think it’s absolutely wonderful from start to finish. I said once before that the bookends of River’s story are by far the best parts, and I stand by that. It wraps everything up beautifully. I know that some people – not the least of whom is Alex Kingston herself – have said they’d like River to meet Jodie’s Doctor. If this wasn’t such a perfect ending, I might agree. Is this one of my favorite Who installments ever? It’s possibly in the top ten.

Also of big note here: the Doctor meets Nardole! I made sure to point out that I think Matt Lucas is a comic genius. His reactions during the opening scene here as the Doctor keeps crossing his arms – violating some royal protocol or other – are completely brilliant. Nardole is so great. He’s one of my favorite of all the show’s companions.

Doctor Who 9.12 – Hell Bent

So one day the Time Lords, who can monitor all of time and space, wanted to talk to the Doctor. We’ve seen them teleport to his exact location at least twice, and we’ve seen them take control of his TARDIS several times, but now they figure their best option is a trap. As bait, a boy from London who the Doctor has met exactly once. Contracted to spring the trap, a woman the Doctor has met exactly twice, and who has not interacted with him in more than 350 years, and who lives in an invisible street. Despite the apparent urgency in talking to the Doctor, the Time Lords are content to wait 4.5 billion years for him.

Okay, so about that last point, I’d like to think that 4.5 billion years just pass in the fixed, closed universe of the confession dial, and however long the Doctor spends in it, he’d be spat out into the same moment in the “real” world. Otherwise, in a series where the impermanence of memory has been discussed twice, you’d think that after 4.5 billion years, Rassilon would have forgotten what the heck it was they wanted to discuss. But this urgency didn’t lead them to leave the dial in the High Council’s office or a prison cell. No, the dial’s in the desert for no other reason than the opportunity to take advantage of some nice location filming, just like the only reason they’ve involved Mayor Me is to take advantage of the popular actress Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones instead of, say, Osgood and Kate Stewart, or the Paternoster Gang, or River Song, or Clara’s grandmother. Maybe the Time Lords have lost the ability to teleport or control the TARDIS. But they’ve also lost their brains if they’re using Rigsy and Me instead of people who actually have Clara’s telephone number.

What I’m getting at, of course, is that series nine ends on yet another massive disappointment. Nine’s a weird series that way: it’s bookended by two huge turkeys but I really love the ten episodes between them enormously. Like “The Magician’s Apprentice”, this whole storyline takes something that should have been stripped down to its core – because it really is a simple thing – and complicates it with set piece after set piece. There’s all this nonsense with the soup and the barn and the line in the sand that doesn’t have anything at all to do with the problem of the Doctor and Clara’s friendship being unsafely intense.

Worse, it’s just tedious. There are several very good lines of dialogue, and our son liked the visual of the time-traveling diner if nothing else, but it’s sixty minutes long and you feel every one of them. Even accepting that goodbyes in the modern show take a very long time, this is bloated and weighed down by its length. Clara and the Doctor don’t converse; they debate. At least it begins promisingly, with the Doctor meeting who we are meant to think is another of Clara’s lost-in-time splinters from series seven and playing her “Clara’s Theme” on his guitar, but it falls apart immediately after that. It’s such a shame this season didn’t end with something imaginative and fun. We’d have to wait another three weeks for the Christmas special for fun.