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 8.12 – 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 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.

Doctor Who (1996)

The most important thing, for the moment, is that our son enjoyed tonight’s movie a whole lot more than I did, or you did, probably. “I liked every micro-second of that,” he announced. His mother and I did not believe him, because this Doctor did what seven previous television Doctors never, ever did, and that’s smooch some icky girl. “Even the kissy bits?” Marie prompted. “I even liked those because I couldn’t see them. I had my blanket,” he said.

The kissy bits drove some people nuts in 1996. The half-human on his mother’s side bits drove other people nuts then, too. The big orchestral music. The car chase. It wasn’t four twenty-five minute episodes taped on video. It was made in Canada. Paul McGann was the wrong actor from Withnail & I. The interior of the TARDIS looked like a Meat Loaf video. It was all blue and orange like lots of other shows filmed in Vancouver. You name it, there was a moan. Fandom loves to hate.

I’ve always been kind of glad this didn’t result in a series, honestly, just because I was watching television at that time, as Fox flailed around looking for a good Friday 8 pm companion to The X Files and fumbled and bumbled and didn’t know what the heck they were doing. Strange Luck was pretty good, but Fox just gave up on it. What other series and movies did they try in those three years? I remember MANTIS, Nick Fury, VR 5, Sliders, Generation X, and White Dwarf, not that I watched more than two installments of any of them. Based on the evidence, I just can’t see how this film would have turned into a series better than anything else Fox was doing.

Like everything else that Fox developed at that time, Doctor Who was a mediocre movie with a good cast, including Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, and Eric Roberts, and a dud of a script by Matthew Jacobs, who I thought would be a great choice because I recognized him from Young Indiana Jones. The story doesn’t make any sense and it’s a completely wretched introduction to the program for anybody who didn’t know it already. You can imagine Russell T. Davies watching this and taking notes, because nine years later, the list of things that “Rose” gets right that this gets wrong is as long as your arm.

The best thing about Doctor Who is that it brought Paul McGann to the franchise, and the second best thing is that his Doctor starred in an often brilliant run of comics for Doctor Who Magazine. They’re collected in four big volumes entitled Endgame, The Glorious Dead, Oblivion and The Flood. This run has more surprises and stunning plot twists than any other run of Who comics, some terrific characters, and one of the all-time greatest Dalek stories ever told. McGann’s Doctor also stars in Lawrence Miles’ masterpiece novel Alien Bodies, which left my jaw on the floor about three times.

A Fox TV series with McGann would have been thirteen hours of blue and orange lighting in Canadian warehouses, probably with flashlights. Alien Bodies and all those comics, though, that’s a run of downright terrific adventures.

Doctor Who: Survival (parts two and three)

For the most part, our son enjoyed Doctor Who‘s final adventure in this format, but the cliffhanger at the end of part two left him both angry and creeped out. The alien planet has a pretty nasty effect on anybody trapped there who get too savage and violent. Ace, having whacked one of the Cheetah People in the head with a rock, loses control and starts to change, and she turns to the camera with bright yellow cats’ eyes, and our son was out of the room like a rocket.

In the “really nitpicky” stakes, I think that the props department made a silly error when they were dressing Midge’s apartment. Ace flips through his records and comments that U2, of all bands, were bound for the old folks’ home when she left Earth. But the LP that sparked the comment is War, the group’s third – and the only one I can stand – which came out in 1983, around the time that her thirteen year-old self was burning the house in “Ghost Light” to the ground. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have her grumbling about a record that came out since she left Earth?

There are probably bigger things in any Who story to nitpick, but I’ve always got a kick out of that one.

Anyway, “Survival” isn’t great, but it’s a good story to end on. It’s made very well, there are lots of great directorial choices and the music’s pretty good. Anthony Ainley got to give one of his most restrained and successful performances as the Master, and McCoy and Aldred are terrific together. I wish they’d have got a few more TV stories, but I’ve got most of the novels from Virgin and really enjoyed the Doctor and Ace’s further adventures. And I enjoyed Benny and Roz and Chris, even if I choose to pretend that the business about Tobias Vaughn’s brain being downloaded into some supercomputer and thriving for centuries never happened.

We’ll look at two of the next things that happened in Doctor Who in August, and two more in September, and run away with Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor in October. Stay tuned!