Doctor Who 9.5 – The Girl Who Died

I amuse myself by noting when the Doctor expresses familiarity with our culture. He mentions ZZ Top in this one. I can accept that. This Doctor plays guitar, and Billy Gibbons is one hell of an excellent blues guitarist. It makes sense the Doctor would know his work. But Clara also mentions adding the Benny Hill theme, “Yakety Sax,” to some recorded footage of some alien invaders getting routed by a big puppet, and the Doctor seems to know what she’s talking about. Oh, if we must. It’s a good gag. Our son has no idea who Benny Hill was, and he laughed like a hyena.

Anyway, “The Girl Who Died” was co-written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat and it’s really, really entertaining. It introduces Maisie Williams as Ashildr, who of course we’re going to run across several more times. The Doctor saves a Viking village after their warriors have been murdered by some alien thugs called the Mire, and gets the remaining farmers and fishermen to defend the small town after Ashildr sparks further fighting. It’s a great introduction to the character, and there are a couple of surprising flashback clips to the episodes “Deep Breath” and “The Fires of Pompeii”. The kid was really pleased as well. He always seems to like it a lot when the Doctor’s last-minute plan is revealed. This one involves ring toss and electric eels.

Doctor Who 9.2 – The Witch’s Familiar

I’m writing this the week that the season 24 Blu-ray set was released in the UK. I decided against getting the British limited editions, thinking they’re too expensive, too fragile, and too large, and complain about the domestic editions, which come late, and don’t even have a little insert card explaining what’s on what disk, instead. So this week, fans in the UK are revisiting the much derided-“Time and the Rani”, with which this story shares a very curious similarity in my book. Both of them suffer from a really poor part one and things get better from there. I think it’s notable because this happens so rarely in Doctor Who, a program which usually has great – or at least interesting – ideas and trouble making them stick.

Of course, “Rani” only goes up from utterly embarrassing to mediocre, but “The Witch’s Familiar” is so darn good that it defies belief. The first half, “The Magician’s Apprentice”, was overwritten and unnecessarily complicated. The second half is excellent and simple and everything that happens in it services the plot.

We learn a lot of bad fandom habits when we’re young. One of mine became unshakeable: I got to know Anthony Ainley’s Master, didn’t think the character was worth a darn, had my mind blown by the excellence of Roger Delgado later, and concluded that everybody since was wasting valuable screen time and real estate. And here, at last, Michelle Gomez has a script that lets her nail it. She isn’t given any of the self-consciously “wacky” stuff that was so annoying in the previous episode (see also: pretending to be a robot in series eight), and she carries herself with smugness, experience, and power and is a constant, tangible, very dangerous threat. In keeping with the character, she even knows Elton John lyrics. (And hey, belated kudos to the Doctor for a rare insight into modern culture: he played a bit of “Oh, Pretty Woman” on his guitar last time.)

Our kid was in heaven. It’s full of all sorts of Daleks and provides lots of fascinating backstory about how they use their negative emotions to get stronger. Plus, it’s packed with visual and textual nods to many previous adventures, it’s gross in places, Missy is incredibly evil, and, in a glory so crowning that it prompted about a full minute of laughing, Missy and Davros finally meet. It’s easily the best Dalek installment in at least six years, and so many of the next episodes are going to be even better.

Doctor Who 9.1 – The Magician’s Apprentice

Priorities. When “The Magician’s Apprentice” first aired in the fall of 2015, I was blindsided by the completely brilliant pre-credits sequence, revealing that the Doctor is helping a boy who turns out to be a Young Davros. It was one of a couple of times in Capaldi’s run that I swore out loud in complete surprise. Our kid, on the other hand, just said “Oooh, a Dalek story.” It turns out he’s even more in tune with them than I expected. Toward the end, he interrupted again to shout “Hey, I saw a Special Weapons Dalek!” I’m amazed he remembered them. They were only in one adventure and I didn’t think he rewatched that one. Guess it left an impression.

Otherwise, there’s a whole lot to dislike about this season opener. I think – and this is probably really nebulous – it starts with an elegant and simple plot and then it just gets bogged down in layer after layer of rewritten spectacle. The nonsense pictured above, in which the Doctor brings a big tank and some sunglasses and a guitar to the Middle Ages, is one that attracted a lot of derision, and I think with good reason. It reminds me of Moffat going overboard like he was doing in season six. It’s all over the place, even reintroducing Karn, last seen in the mini-episode “Night of the Doctor”, for all of sixty seconds. Moffat doesn’t let the simplicity of the plot breathe through the performances and the natural set pieces, shooting instead for distractions and buzz. Even Jemma Redgrave is here for more UNIT stuff and a big event with timestopped airplanes, snipers, and a jaunt to a plaza in Tenerife when Missy could have just shown up at Clara’s apartment.

It’s a story where Peter Capaldi and Michelle Gomez are by miles the best things about it. I love the way he says “Gravity” to her and she sneers/whines “I know” back at him. Something’s almost right about Gomez here. She’s almost perfectly the Master, but it’s just tiny little bits of the writing that get in her way. She still reminds me too much of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Moffat’s Sherlock, especially when she declines to explain how she survived her last appearance. In retrospect, producing both of these programs together didn’t benefit either of them.

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 8.6 – 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 8.2 – Into the Dalek

On the surface, “Into the Dalek” looks like just another Dalek adventure, just a small and low-key one, without many sets or speaking parts. The kid was incredibly pleased; it’s everything a ten year-old audience wants from Who, along with tips of the plot hat to an earlier adventure, “The Invisible Enemy” and its antecedent, Fantastic Voyage. It’s co-written by Steven Moffat with Phil Ford, who had contributed so many entertaining Sarah Jane Adventures, and it gives us a second glimpse of Michelle Gomez’s mysterious new character of Missy, who we met very briefly in the previous story. It also introduces Samuel Anderson as Danny Pink, a new recurring character who works as a teacher alongside Clara at Coal Hill School.

Unfortunately, it also introduces two new elements to Capaldi’s Doctor which I really can’t stand: he doesn’t know whether he is a good man, and he hates soldiers. Mercifully, these get resolved soon enough, but it’s the introduction that bothers me. There isn’t one. At some point in that summer of 2014, Moffat actually had to clarify that these are both holdovers from the hundreds of years that the last Doctor spent defending Trenzalore, because they aren’t detailed onscreen at all. I like that the twelfth Doctor is very brusque and rude, but I wish that he had quietly said something like “I’m sorry, I can see that you’d like to be a good person, but the last several hundred years were difficult, and I don’t want to be around soldiers right now.” The character may not have needed to know about that, but the audience did.

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.