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 10.10 – The Eaters of Light

I think that “The Eaters of Light” is often overlooked, but I really enjoy it. It’s an episode that has so much room to breathe that the guest characters get more definition, and the leads have time to talk. And there is music and ghosts and ghost music.

It was written by Rona Munro, who had previously contributed “Survival” a ridiculously long twenty-eight years previously, and is one of many, many stories that so many people have written to solve the mystery of what happened to Rome’s Ninth Legion. Well, you and I know that they ran into a wall of extremely pissed off Picts, but it’s more fun to lose them in time or space or have a space monster eat them. It’s really nice that the Doctor and Nardole get more screen time together than they had up to now in this one, and Bill gets to show off some of the lessons she’s learned in getting people to work as a team. It’s a very, very good episode.

Doctor Who 10.9 – Empress of Mars

Normally, I keep future events in Doctor Who a secret from the kid, but every so often, I can’t resist. The kid likes the Ice Warriors, so we watched the “next time” trailer a couple of days ago, and then I pulled up episode four of “The Monster of Peladon” to remind him of the Ice Warriors’ weapons.

It was the sort of thing that, once upon a time, the novelizations and the comic strips explained with more color and detail. The Martians use these sonic cannons that cause huge crushes that contort their victims. Back in 1974, they realized this with a simple, but memorable, effect. The image of the actors was reflected in a thin mirrored panel which technicians folded together. These days, special effects tech has moved on, and now… now it just looks ridiculous. It’s grisly and morbid seeing a human being crushed into a sphere about the size of a basketball, but I think unless you’re familiar with old novelizations and comic strips, the actual image is so thunderously silly that it takes you out of the experience.

And it’s just like me being a picky old fanboy to get hung up on that and let it be the most memorable thing about this episode, because there’s just too darn much here to like. It’s the final script – for now – for the series from Mark Gatiss, who debuted back in the first series of the revival with “The Unquiet Dead” and has been a reliable hand throughout the show’s run… and he has a second acting appearance coming up as well before he bows out. I think it’s terrific, and our son enjoyed the daylights out of it. It’s got British soldiers on the moon in 1881, an old music hall song, a criminal with the perfect name of Jackdaw, Nardole making a deal with the devil, and the most delightfully surprising cameo almost at the end.

Speaking of being a picky old fanboy, the list-making teenager that I was in the eighties would like to note that while the Ice Warriors occasionally picked fights with Cybermen and Draconians in the old comics, this is the first story I’ve ever seen that has both the Warriors and the Master in it. On the other hand, Missy doesn’t actually share any screen time here with them. Ah, well!

Maybe Gatiss has told all the Who tales that he really wants to tell, and maybe after being a regular and reliable scriptwriter and – I suspect – sounding board for thirteen years (!), he might well be done. But I enjoyed most of his stories very much, and I probably liked “Sleep No More” more than anybody else did, so I’d be thrilled to see him return. I am writing this, after all, just the day after the BBC announced that Russell T. Davies is coming back to take the show over again in 2023. Stranger things have definitely happened.

Doctor Who 10.8 – The Lie of the Land

“Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant, and sentimental.”

I am so glad that this confrontation between the Doctor and Missy is in this episode, because it is electric, and amazing, and absolutely brilliant in every way. It’s also the only thing about the hour I find in any way watchable.

I don’t feel like kicking it. The storyline began amazingly and it ended poorly, as Who often does. All of Toby Whithouse’s prior Who episodes were all really good and I won’t hold this one against him. I wish the ending wasn’t such a strange, nebulous, and bizarre cop-out. It’s like “Last of the Time Lords” in series three but somehow a little worse because Earth was successfully conquered and occupied by aliens for six months without a time reset and it’s never, ever mentioned again. I just feel that something this massive needs to have long-term effects instead of being shrugged off by a student with “appalling hair” and forgotten by the show as soon as the credits have rolled.

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 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!