Doctor Who has not been so soapy in a while. The revelation that River is Amy’s daughter who is also “part time lord” and also his potential lover is an Emmerdale-class contortion, with time travel as the soap advert that makes it all possible. It’s cleverly done, but the hallmarks are there, in A Good Man Goes to War especially. It’s a “greatest hits” finale where old characters that you probably won’t even remember die so the Doctor can realize something about himself. One of them points out that the Doctor makes a mockery of the word “doctor” as “healer / wise man” (set up well enough by Moffat who has him uncharacteristically and somewhat unbelievably murder a ton of cybermen); by accident, I think, this hypocrisy is a condemnation of the entire new series.
The heroic thing for the Doctor to do here is to reclaim the role of healer / wise man, but that change is not something the series will ever do because it is one of the characteristics that set the new series apart from the old. The Doctor’s role as avenging angel has been a part of the series mythology since 2005 (and Moffat has already proven himself a counterrevolutionary on this topic). Bold as it is that the showrunner has directly confronted such an integral part of the Doctor’s character, it sets him up to fail really, because the Legend of the Big Bad Doctor is one of the show’s defining characteristics. The Doctor will never be the pacifist he was in the original series as long as his show is this modern blend of soap and action adventure.
Many of my other complaints were crossed off on the page as the episode went on. Moffat does a much better job than any of the other writers at sabotaging problems that start to crop up. I have written: “since when does the Doctor annihilate a fleet of sentient life forms just to intimidate?” “Why is Rory dressed up as a Roman?” “Are we really going to get another voiceover monologue paying lip service to the Doctor?” All have strikes through them because of how well Moffat nails the respective problem. (There are a few that were left unstruck, like “how can random cleric girl get in to see Amy if the Doctor has to raise a whole army to get there?” “does the Doctor’s routing of a dumbass army really qualify as ‘rising higher than ever’?” and “isn’t it ridiculous that Rory thinks it’s alright to wander around in an enemy ship full of armed soldiers with his newborn baby unprotected in his arms?”) But this episode still resists a more than usual amount of interrogation. The explanation for “Demons Run” was very sharp, and the twist around Melody (not Amy!) seeing the hatch in the wall and then turning to liquid Flesh was an excellent feint. (Also: River Song / Melody Pond does fit, to Moffat’s credit.)
But the Flesh backstory is starting to become a problem. We’ve spent all this time learning about how the Flesh have real personalities only to see them treated recently as mere facsimilies – basically T1000′s to the old auton models. If we needed any more proof of the worthlessness of the last two-parter, it’s that the only valuable thing from that episode was the two seconds that it took to explain what gangers were. God, can you imagine how jealous most other soaps must be of Doctor Who’s body doubles, possession, and tragic timeline paradoxes? All while under the paradoxical name of Drama.
Back on topic: I was wondering, as the rather burdensome “all-star” plot unfolded, what was so special about these enemies? They are being treated as a worthy subject of the Doctor’s wrath this year (and we will have to wait for the answer), but nothing about them really stands out. Lacking any defining principles, actually, all of the Doctor’s enemies really just blend together. The cybermen’s inclusion was blatantly token, but it just highlights, just as the “alliance” during Moffat’s Pandorica episode last year highlighted, how generic the Doctor’s enemies are. Meanwhile, elements of the show which in the original series simply *didn’t matter*, like the Doctor’s childhood, become demystified here to satisfy the soapy side of the series. We see the cot that the Doctor was a baby in, implying in yet another way that time lords are really not that different from us. This is the same problem I had with Gaiman’s anthropomorphization of the TARDIS as a sexy woman. In the original series, stories that addressed these things simply would have simply not been an option because the show was preoccupied with other things – exploring the wonders of history or making metaphors of the future. Ideas.
Character drama can be an excellent vessel for ideas, but it can not be a replacement.
I can’t really compare The Almost People to Cold Blood from last season, like I was inclined to do if you read last week’s review, but that’s mostly because I couldn’t sit through Cold Blood. I could sit through The Almost People, but it was a sit-through kind of episode: the story finished with an effective hook for Moffat’s upcoming season finale but otherwise it was an unsteady conclusion to a mushy two-parter about identity-or-something. On the plus side, it’s a good example of how to do serialization. A two-parter leading heavily into the standalone finale of the season? What am I watching? Farscape?
(RTD deserves a quantum of credit for doing something similar with Utopia / The Sound of Drums.)
The ending was perhaps a dissatisfactory explanation for the “lady in the wall” device we’ve been seeing for weeks, but at least the phenomenon’s been addressed early, and directly. Serialized stories should confront their ongoing dilemmas regularly to create drama on a small scale even while sowing seeds for future plots. Anyway, I use the word “dissatisfactory” about the Amy/baby/eyepatch lady because even though what we see has actually been set up pretty well (pregnant / not pregnant can kind of be rationalized now, although it doesn’t actually make much sense when you consider that the TARDIS was physically scanning her), “kidnapped for her unborn child” sounds like kind of a mundane explanation to what could have been a more existential situation for Amy. I sound like such a twat saying that, but this is a show that never capitalizes on its imaginative promises because it’s really so unimaginative and cliched.
I sound like a twat saying that too, so let me clarify: imagination isn’t just about coming up with striking set pieces, like eyeballs growing out of walls, pirates driving a space ship, or aliens that you forget. Some of these things are quite arresting concepts, but it’s how these concepts achieve meaning that gives them the honor of being “imaginative”. Aliens that you forget is creepy, but it’s creepier if it’s because they symbolize the real terror of losing memories (see: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Even children can appreciate metaphors – maybe not always only on an intellectual level, but metaphors are what reveal the truth about otherwise inexplainable subjects, like how impermanent memories mean an impermanent and powerless self (The Neverending Story 2).
I’m getting into twat territory again, but think about another Who example, this time from the original series. In Greatest Show in the Galaxy, which has the same running length as this two-parter, the 7th Doctor faces off against the Gods of Ragnarok. The Gods have struck a sort of Sisyphean deal with a bunch of poor circus performers whose fate it is to entertain them or die. The circus lures ‘talent acts’ from all over the universe to participate in their once famous and carefree show, ultimately executing them in the most grotesque or ironic ways just to amuse their masters. The metaphor is kind of heavy-handed, if you just consider that Doctor Who was under fire for not getting great ratings at the time, but it also takes a serious look at the sadness of the hippie movement in the late 80′s, how entertainment is a gladiator sport, and how suffering is the most stimulating entertainment of all. Even children, torturing ants in the playground with a magnifying glass, can appreciate and reflect on the sentiment.
Quite a deviation! All this is a roundabout way of reasserting what has always been my thesis about the new Doctor Who: its amusing eccentricities, various clevernesses, and stupendous plots cannot replace real meaning – what some writers in their infancy call truth. Matthew Graham does some things deftly, but no amount of skill can replace an episode’s soul. It’s fitting that soullessness is the week’s moral, isn’t it?
Interlacing comedy and horror has been a hallmark of the series for a long time, intermittently during the original series and pretty consistently during the nu. I’ve occasionally remarked that this can create an air of flippancy where something that should be taken seriously is mocked or disregarded. A better way of describing how this affects me as a viewer is anticlimax. I mean anticlimax in the grammatical sense, i.e. “do you know what I did today? Nothing.” Anticlimaxes take the wind out of almost every single scene, whether it’s interrupting the IMMINENT DESTRUCTION OF THE BASE so that Murray Gold can have a solo while Jimmy talks to his kid, runs away, saves his doppleganger, then comes back and talks to his kid again (seriously, who didn’t feel exploited by that scene? I’m including the kid in this question), or whether it’s the tepid way all the human characters react to the manifestation of the Doctor’s doppleganger at the beginning of the episode. So many of the natural reactions and necessary plotting in nu Who are stripped away by flippancy and anticlimax; all we’re left with is a fetid skelton.
This is why the flesh are horrible characters. It’s the same problem as part one: they’re in turns really evil and then really sentimental, the one characteristic never growing organically from the other. The episode wants to convince us that the humans and the gangers are the same by the end, but the Flesh are never given the benefit of the doubt… not even the Doctor’s doppleganger: before the end of the first act, he throws Amy against a wall, something the Doctor would never do. (Later it’s sort of implied this might be the real Doctor in a half-hearted attempt at convoluting the matter, but it’s disingenuine… it’s something this Doctor would never do, especially if he was trying to let Amy make up her own mind about the Flesh.) The problem is never more apparent than the scene where the ridiculous supervillain ganger Jen remarks how much stronger she is than Buzzer, or the one in the communications room where the Doctor contradicts himself by chiding “I thought I explained this: I’m him / he’s me;” then a moment later he remarks on how his doppleganger felt some sort of psychic echo stronger than he did. So which is it, guys? You give us some lip service about how Foreman Cleaves knows her counterpart’s passcode or how Jimmy loves his kid, but how can we believe that they are the same people if for most of the episode the Flesh actually behave like monsters of the week? Even their sentimental scenes are delivered out of makeup, which seems like a tacit admission that the “monstrous” part of them is actually just faceless evil.
While the twist about the Doctor supposedly switching shoes early in the episode is clever, and it gives an amusing spin on the story, it’s pretty manipulative in retrospect. The Doctor that we think is made of Flesh the whole time seems tormented by his connection to it, constantly distracted; he leaves most of his friends in a room that could turn into a chemical bloodbath at any moment… this alone seems quite risky if he’s just ‘acting the part,’ but if the whole point was to see Amy’s reaction to the flesh, wouldn’t he have been better not influencing her point of view?
Anyway, we can assume Flesh Doctor is coming back; it’ll be interesting to see how, just as it’ll be interesting to see Moffat resolve his baby plot. Watching Doctor Who is like rooting for a sports team that can never pick itself up quite enough to go above and beyond.
If anything, The Rebel Flesh feels like a more competent reprise of last year’s opus of hackery, The Hungry Earth. Still, Matthew Graham gives his story, which is really almost exactly the same as Chibnall’s if you think about it, a great deal more flair. The story’s similarity means it never really has the chance to be good as such, but Graham has the knack of subverting Chibnall’s conventions with excellent banter and level-headed characters that almost convince you his characters aren’t the same dumb cliché ensickened stereotypes from last season … until everyone starts trying to kill each other for no reason. Would the real Chris Chibnall please stand up?
There could have been a reason that the humans turn against their flesh counterparts, too, and it becomes obvious that Graham even thought of it when Jimmy bugs out and goes, “we’re fighting ourselves!” The doppleganger has always been a popular, even archetypical character type, and stories like this that invoke it are usually interested in crises of identity or interpretations of authenticity. Graham does lip service to some of these ideas, putting Jimmy and Jennifer through some of Nu Who’s maudlin, “am I … human?” hand wringing, but he can’t seem to commit to making the flesh dopplegangers either 1) fully aware of their otherness or 2) identical and equal, down to the childhood memory. Instead, he has Jennifer turn into a weird monster snake then in the next scene she remembers walking in her red wellies as a child. If there was a sense of these constructs developing individuality over time these variations might pay off better, but when the flesh and humans declare war it feels like an arbitrary step to action. There is literally no reason for them to want to kill each other. If Graham had built self-loathing into his characters from the start, then perhaps “we’re fighting ourselves!” would have at least seemed emotionally consistent.
Without anything to motivate the dopplegangers in this episode, the writing falls into the same trap that the Silurian two-parter did last season. By tempting us with sentimental moments that suggest these monsters might actually deserve our respect but then turning around and reasserting that they just want to kill us, Graham seems to say that ‘things are exactly as they appear.’ These horrible looking creatures actually fulfill all our expectations from the very first time we see them when Murray Gold farts out one of his THIS INDICATES EVIL subroutines.
This is a real shame because not only is “things are exactly as they seem” actually quite a horrible message to build into a show aimed largely at children, especially when repeated as consistently as it is in Doctor Who, but because Graham undercut a lot of the early cliches so well. The death before the opening credits is played audience inferior, and in an oddly comic way that immediately caught my interest. The Doctor’s line about having “to get to that cockerel before all hell breaks loose … I never thought I’d get to say that again” is doubly cute as a reference to The Vampires of Venice, and Jennifer announcing that she’s “plumbing in” is such a creative corruption of the more typical scifi phrases for such things: jacking in, linking in, patching in. The avatar idea is not new but actually plays quite gracefully because it’s never sent up. The characters, before the “base under siege” formula kicks in, are acerbic and sensible; they take their work seriously and by their very grounded nature they downplay the ridiculousness of the premise. This is how Doctor Who should be. Even the psychic paper, which I resent almost as much as the magic-wand sonic screwdriver, is just used to facilitate the Doctor’s serious role-play of a meteorologist as he investigates the situation, not as the free trust-me pass that it often becomes.
In the end, The Rebel Flesh is a fresh start to what then becomes a predictable runaround. It has a cliffhanger that was obvious miles away, but perhaps the Doctor as flesh-being will shake up the formula long enough so that next week’s continuation, The Almost People, escapes the massacre of decency that Chibnall perpetrated last year with his own reprise, Cold Blood.
I was ambivalent about starting The Doctor’s Wife. Ambivalent, because Neil Gaiman has garnered so much controversy over the years. I’ve not read any of his famous work, but I do remember his episode of Babylon 5, a reflective ghost story called Day of the Dead that stood out as pretty special against some of the weaker episodes of the same. Ambivalent, because the modern Doctor Who seems to swallow up writers that I hold in high or highest esteem and bend them to its narrow conventions. For a show that can explore any idea, it explores surprisingly few. Gaiman is obviously a genre professional, but the premise he chooses to explore is puzzling – what would would happen if the TARDIS was personified? He left me wondering why this was the one story he wanted to tell in this format, (and really, why he wanted to tell it at all).
Can we start with the good? The good is that the dialogue has a refreshing confidence that is different from Moffat’s but often just as unpredictable and interesting. The structure is fluid in a way that belies Gaiman’s experience as primarily a prose writer; and while that can often be a disadvantage, his confident disregard for the standard [godawful] monster hunts humans plot is refreshing. Finally, the story has a real attractive grotesquerie: the useless-to-the-plot but disgusting servants, the rusted ship hulls, the mind games in the TARDIS… they’re all varying degrees of stupid and / or filler but the scenes are gothic enough to feel part of a unique style. The style reminds me somewhat randomly of Planescape: Torment, a PC role-playing game where you play an immortal corpse searching for death, travel through several planes of existence, and attract a variety of grotesque companions including a succubus and a wisecracking skull. At one point, you have to help an alley, as in a narrow street, give birth.
It’s a style that could be more effective in the series if it was consistent. Nu Who’s preoccupation with the “we can go anywhere” maxim in means that the show reaches for a different style in every episode–trying to capitalize on its options I guess. But the most influential eras of the original series were defined by a strong style: the Victorian gothic that made Hinchcliffe famous when he was showrunner, the science-not-magic of the Bidmead era, or the Cartmel masterplan that characterized the very end of its run. I thought the style last season was going to be a sort of fairy-tale structure, and there was some of that, but Moffat’s is more likely to be remembered as the timey-wimey era of Doctor Who. And that’s fine. It’s an aspect of these last two seasons that I really enjoy. But it could also be more consistent. Consistency, the opposite of variety, is not a fundamentally good thing, but it does allow a show to build a house style that can then evolve, or as has often been the case with Doctor Who – so often that it defines the show – reinvent itself when necessary.
But, and this is an ongoing thesis about the new series, Nu Who sabotages its own consistency so consistently that it seems like a self-referential joke. I’ve remarked in the past about how glibly the writers trod on history, but it’s part of a broader glibness where the writers exploit what they have – history, yes, but also the mythology they’ve created – frequently discarding an idea or a historical character or a potentially complex situation just to make a joke or a plot device for this episode and this episode alone.
Glib treatment of the TARDIS leads to this sort of syndrome. The TARDIS is central to the mythology of Doctor Who. In the original series, it was the most mysterious and sacred thing on the show. It could not be penetrated except by those rare forces that were beyond the Time Lords; perhaps it was sentient, but not in the sense that you or I are sentient; its vastness was unknowable and its design not like anything on earth. A threat to the TARDIS was a big deal: not in a Murray Gold and his marching band kind of way, but in a way that required very careful writing. You can’t be glib about breaking the few rules that are concrete in your show, but the new series often is. We are constantly teased with the possibility of other Time Lords via overuse of the yellow gas of timelordishness, and it seems like anyone can get into the TARDIS these days. Rules are meant to be broken, sure, but they should be broken for a reason, and with a view towards the seriousness of the violation. When the Doctor finds the cache of Time Lord distress signals, we’re meant to understand that it’s a dead end, but as he’s staring at them on the shelf, would any of you have really been surprised if by the end of the episode, he had somehow used their ‘psychic energy’ or some other bullshit to revive his entire race? You see, when nothing is implausible, nothing is sacred either. Glibness disallows sacred things.
Glibness reduces complex ideas. That’s part of it’s power. But if you want to keep something sacred, it’s important to treat it with respect and to acknowledge its transcendence of yourself. Something sacred can be reduced by showing it (why else is the image of God taboo?), by telling it, by explaining it. In this episode, the TARDIS is seriously reduced. By giving her human boundaries, by having her speak as a single, specific character with sass and tits, the TARDIS is reduced. Gaiman pays lip service to the fact that a “human body can not contain her,” but ostensibly giving the TARDIS a human soul (Russell Davies first broached the idea with his Heart of the TARDIS), makes what was once the most alien artifact of all into a pretty girl in a corset. But it’s okay because another glib explanation will come along some day that dismisses that idea if it’s convenient. It’s a nasty cycle wherein Doctor Who fails to build its own reality; instead, it preys unsustainably on ours.
And isn’t “The Doctor’s Wife” the most exploitative title ever? Okay, it’s a reference and it’s a competently constructed metaphor that the Doctor loves the TARDIS and they sometimes work together to solve problems, but it’s pretty clearly what they call fanbait because marriage was never really part of the episode or even thematically important. It’s a glib title that, in retrospect, feels a lot like being pantsed.
Design must have had a lot of fun putting this episode together, and by and large it feels expansive and various. The cobbled-together TARDIS, while also very glib, was at least a nice little set. (Although, the roundels reminded me just how much more iconic the original TARDIS set design was / compared to the boiler-plate interior of the modern console room and the lamentable corridors that look like they were rendered directly from Doom.)
I can’t fault the story, not because it was good, but because it obviously wasn’t the point. The story itself is just an excuse for the situations; I can’t imagine Neil Gaiman thinking that his unexplainably sadistic alien out to devour the universe was at all interesting, but that’s fine. Some of his lines, like “[I've] never been outside the universe” and “the TARDIS is being drained / it’s impossible!” are kind of a pity because they are errors. After all, the TARDIS ended up outside the universe in the original series episode Logopolis and was drained in Death to the Daleks, but never mind. Pedantry like that is unproductive with so much canon to observe (and because there are so many other neat little references); it’s worth noting, though, because those events in the original series are an essential part of their respective stories. Escaping the universe in Logopolis was necessary because the universe was basically crumbling, and Death to the Daleks is entirely about an empty city that sucks all the power from things. (No, new series fans, it didn’t really just want to be loved.) The Doctor’s Wife didn’t need to take place outside of the universe, and while the “draining” of the TARDIS matrix or whatever was part of getting the TARDIS on two legs, it was otherwise just another unused plot device. I mean, what happened to the “single Time Lord cell?” I guess it was a lie to bait the Doctor.
Gaiman’s story feels like quite a competent item in Moffat’s stable. You could argue that he adopts some Moffatisms, or you could argue that he copies them: After all, the timey-wimey dialogue from the possessed TARDIS was structurally very clever, and the TARDIS’s love affair with the Doctor very reminiscent of the Doctor’s relationship with River. Still, I found myself repeatedly wondering why this was made. Which of the ideas here was Gaiman really interested in? Was there something here he wanted to explore? To say? It’s a question that artists are supposed to ask themselves. Why aren’t writers held to the same standard?
So Curse of the Black Spot, which is as promising a title as Curse of the Zebra Stripes, ends in not only exactly the same situation as the previous episode but with exactly the same shot: Amy’s paradoxical pregnancy scan on the TARDIS display. This is an episode that goes no where.
What is clearly supposed to feel like constant jeopardy for the life of our heroes feels like time wasted while we get to what the writer was really interested in about the episode, which is… what exactly? The suicidal quantity of logical gaps don’t service a point or even a crucial scene that could redeem the tedium of this by-now traditional third episode “historical.” (Internal consistency is really important in any story, especially SF, but even when it falls apart, many of the issues can be forgiven if they lead to a meaningful conclusion.) “Historical” is definitely in quotes because history in Doctor Who has by now become so generic that the question, “when was this episode set?” can be completely summarized with the answer “pirates,” and leaving it at that. The cliches are suffocating, and the lampshading of certain examples, like the captain bellowing orders at Amy and Rory on deck, felt more like an apology than an homage. And even that apology feels like the insincere excuse of a writer who would rather continue writing lazy, crude expository dialogue than invent creative situations to replace it.
Writer Stephen Thompson truly disappointed. He makes the Doctor seem crushingly thick as the character comes up dumb explanation after explanation for the siren at the story’s heart – explanations that are obviously illogical long before they’re proven wrong by the story. The Doctor posits early on that the siren hunts the weak and the sick as if that explains why being barely nicked by a knife might make you its target. Later, he thinks they might be safe in the ship’s powder room because it’s dry of “even a single drop of water,” yet they’ve just been wading through the bilge. Reflections are supposedly dangerous so the Doctor throws out all the pirates’ treasure on the ship without even acknowledging, as he had just moments before, that there is a lake of still water in the hold (not to mention his moronic breaking of lots of dangerous glass!). The only reason a viewer could have for giving such dumbass explanations a chance is that the show, and certainly this episode, trades so frequently in the dumb that “anything is possible.” Only Nu Who could turn “anything is possible” from something desirable in a fantasy story into a grave flaw.
The characters are empty, yet they’re treated as if they matter. The problems of the captain’s family are inappropriately scattered throughout the story as if their token tragedy elevates them to anything other than reprehensible conglomerations of predictable stereotypes. The smallness of the crew sticks way out, emphasized by the apparent boredom of the performances, which seem static even in the fight scenes. The deaths of their comrades seem entirely to unaffect the pirate crew. I envisioned even Murray Gold sleeping at the wheel, waking up only occasionally when something moving or shiny (reflective?) appeared on the screen… and only then just long enough to blurt out something rollicking like an excitable poodle before being overwhelmed once more by narcolepsy. The siren’s song isn’t even diegetic – it’s mixed as part of the soundtrack, not as if it’s actually coming from her lips.
And why the hell is the virtual nurse for these weird-skulled aliens a glowing human girl in a slip? Could it be because Steve Thompson only came up with the sci-fi idea *after* ticking the boxes for all the stupid half-piratey shit he thought would be cool to see on screen?
No one can impugn Moffat’s writer-honor, but his credentials as a showrunner are very young and after tonight seem shaky.
So, were there any traces of the profound in the second part of the opening episode, Day of the Moon? Perhaps not in any thematic sense, but there was one moment that truly arrested me, which was the odd interlude outside the Little Girl’s door at Graystark Hall orphanage. A woman with a silver eyepatch opens a hatch in the door and peers out, says “no, I think she’s just dreaming” in a bored voice, then shuts it again. I’m not sure why this moment caught me so off guard, any more than Moffat’s massive stack of other unexplained phenomena that exist to confuse and then be explained magnificently later. Part of it has to do with the scene’s eerie resemblance to a similar sequence in Kinda, a 5th Doctor episode written by Christopher Bailey where then-companion Tegan is trapped in her dreams with a pair of bored grotesques, her demons perhaps; they ignore her and she them – each convinced the other isn’t real.
Moffat can be crass sometimes in the childhood fears that he exploits for his episodes, sometimes all in a rush: on the Silents he pins the “creaking under your house,” the things you see in “the corner of your eye,” the “breathing under your bed,” the “voices through your wall,” the bad things that can happen if you look away. (And many of these fears are reheats from the stone angel episodes, or the episode where young Amelia Pond is listening for the words “Prisoner Zero has escaped” in her bedroom, or the almost identical dilemma in The Beast Below where the “citizens” of Spaceship UK are offered a “Forget” and a “Remember” button and are asked to choose between the two.) But the childhood fear of being ignored that Christopher Bailey elicits in Tegan strikes quite a chord, doubly because it’s through that fear that the Mara, an alien Thanatos that is birthed from the subconscious, succeeds in taking control of her. Even though it was almost certainly not intended to be the same in Day of the Moon, the way the strange woman through the hatch ignores Amy gives me a similar chill.
Most people assume that the hardest part about watching TV critically is the danger that you might not enjoy something that is flawed because the plot is loose, the pacing off, or any number of the other mistakes that can be made in even a good script. I think it’s worse, however, when you fail to enjoy something that meets most of your analytical expectations. I could see why Moffat made so many of the choices that he did in this episode – I want to take a look at some of the more challenging ones in a second – but many of them failed to strike an acceptable compromise between gaining coolness and cleverness and losing a little or a lot of thoughtfulness.
Perhaps the best example of this is River’s “cool” massacre of the Silents at the end of the episode, where she shoots every last one dead, holsters her gun, then gloats about it. Also, in retrospect, the Doctor planting a message, no matter how cleverly, encouraging the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE to commit genocide is also kind of suspect. The satisfaction we’re supposed to get from both these scenes is that of a foe being vanquished but, alarmingly, it’s never actually shown why the Silents deserve to be completely exterminated… Think about it (while you think about the glee we’re supposed to feel at the killing of Osama Bin Laden): the Silents have been using humanity to create things for them throughout history, and occasionally (and inexplicably) popping them like balloons. Are those, and some stuff about imprisoning that still-mysterious little girl, such odious crimes that their utter annihilation at the hands of our self-righteous, pacifist heroes can be in any way justified? In one sense, River’s rampage feels much like Seventh-Doctor companion Ace blowing up daleks with the Excalibur of baseball bats in Remembrance of the Daleks, but at least Ace had nowhere to run.
The other stretches we’re asked to make are less severe, but often just as dumb. When Amy tries to talk down Canton when she’s cornered in the desert, is that just a bluff for the benefit of Canton’s men? But if Canton’s men are so smart, surely they would notice that their targets were still alive in the body bags they were put in? But if they’re so stupid, why is it that it takes the TARDIS crew 3 months to outwit them, and why was it necessary to build a prison out of dwarf star alloy when they had the TARDIS and the POTUS (also an acronym, you know) already on their side. Maybe I’m not so smart either, because it sure is beyond me. Never mind the stupidity of the aliens waiting millennia for humans to build a space suit (forget the fact that the aliens must have assembled the “alien exoskeleton” themselves, contrary to their supposed nature), yet the humans are already capable of making prisons out of goddamn starstuff. Remember that these aliens are omnipresent on Earth; there is no way they could not know about the Area 51 operation, all the tech at Torchwood, UNIT, etc. etc. A lot of this running around is cool (superficially, I quite liked the prison break), but a lot of it is just really stupid when you think about it.
And if I hear “America salutes you,” “welcome to America,” “this is America!” or Nixon’s question: “what do you wish for?” and NASA dude’s response, “a healthy American,” or “I don’t think America is quite ready for that… [GAY!]” If I hear anything like that again, I will probably secede, individually, from life, with a rope noose.
Okay, so there was some smart stuff too. As frustrated as I am with the Doctor’s gradual transformation from an inscrutable, alien parent in the original series into a libidinous love interest, River’s realization that the Doctor had never kissed her before, and therefore wouldn’t ever again in her timeline, was played exactly right. Canton remarks that he’s “never had a complaint before” [about his body bags] was funny, and the analogy comparing the Silents to the Roman Empire, while not exact, is very cleverly brought together with the line “Rome fell.” It’s elegant because of last season’s arc quote, “Silents will fall.”
Also fabulous were the variety of scenes that revolved around the mechanics of how the TARDIS crew were supposed to keep track of the aliens: marks on the body, recorders in the hand. Moffat has used technology like this to play with story structure since the beginning of his career: I remember a fabulous scene in one of the first episodes of his first series Press Gang that was built around recordings made on a tape recorder, and the farcical hijinks in his series Joking Apart that revolve around messages left on the wrong answerphone, and a later one that involves a video camera normally used to make porn being left on to capture a bumbling attempt to steal said porn. They’re incredibly smart devices; almost unbelievably smart.
There is so much more to say about the pacing of the episode (Moffat starting with a three month gap in the narrative after a cliffhanger, then diving into numerous other unexplained situations? Very gutsy… and problematic), and about concrete limits on the abilities of the Doctor’s enemies, and on him and his companions, and much more beyond, but these are systemic issues that I’m sure I’ll get the chance to address in the future.
Until then, it looks like Moffat is giving his Sherlock writing partner Steve Thompson a shot at the next episode. He doesn’t have many credits to his name, but the story he wrote for that was excellent. Moffat must have a lot of confidence in him.
Right! Doctor Who‘s back, and for a nice change the show’s started off with a two-parter from Moffat titled “The Impossible Astronaut” / “Day of the Moon”. I presume that in part (har) this change is afforded by the show’s transition to a biseasonal format that is quite an interesting experiment, and reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica‘s later seasons. I think it will do the series nothing but good, as the show reclaims the autumnal, fading-day territory that it used to rule so completely in its original incarnation.
I watch Moffat episodes very carefully because he’s a conscientious showrunner. All the proof of it aside, it’s obvious in every episode that he loves the series (but then again there was no question that Russell Davies did either!). I adore his wit, and there’s really no one better for banter in dialogue (with River in particular – her maternal “bless!” at the Doctor’s misassumption about the TARDIS was a highlight, and her fury at being labeled “Mrs Robinson” by the Doctor another). He’s also an expert at setup and payoff, using his sitcom pedigree to create intricate plot structures that are always one step ahead, and usually sideways as well. Amy’s desperation to tell something “very important” to the Doctor at the cliffhanger is a masterful misdirection that can only be accomplished by being very sensitive during the script process to what a hypothetical audience expects from a situation. In this case, that Amy was about to spill the secret of the Doctor’s death.
The problems I have with the new Doctor Who are mostly genetic by now. Unlike last year, I can’t delude myself into thinking Moffat’s going to breed them away this time around. Along with Moffat’s extreme cleverness comes an irreverence that, in principle, fits well with the historical representation of the Doctor. The Doctor’s always been a rebel, but there’s a problem here that I’ve been trying to put my finger on for a couple of seasons. That the Doctor might be “ridiculous” with time in order to get Rory and Amy’s attention brought it home for me, though: the Doctor really doesn’t give a shit about history (or, I’m about to argue, anything at all really). For all his pretensions as its guardian, the Doctor, and the series as a whole, treats both the past and the future with such disregard for its significance and its difference that I’m tempted to call the time our heroes spend in the unnamed “American desert,” in Washington D.C, Florida, France, the tunnels under the “commandante’s chamber,” along with remarks that the American founding fathers “fancied” the Doctor etc. etc. etc. a kind of historical vandalism.
I’m calling the new Doctor Who revisionist not because I seriously think that they’re reinterpreting history with any kind of bad faith, but because the monotonous hyperactivity that the writers purvey betrays an unwillingness to acknowledge the thinking that makes history, well, different… and worth learning about. I wrote about this in my review of “Vincent and the Doctor”, but the superficiality of nu Who’s style makes it seem like anything that isn’t the show’s manic brand of stylish and sexy is something to be laughed at (read: dismissed). Discounting even the “pure” historicals of Doctor Who‘s early years that featured no aliens, episodes like “The Visitation” and “The Horror of Fang Rock” (to borrow medial episodes from two very different eras of the show) treated the past with a great deal of respect for being different than us and our Doctor’s philosophy. More troubling, perhaps, is the connotation in the new series that the past was not that different from the present. While I can see the positivity in that message and acknowledge its popularity today, it is also seeks to ignore or even eliminate diversity, and diversity of thought.
So we open with the usual attention-seeking opener, and plunge very quickly into an ostentatious number of cliches – the yellow school bus, the mesas on the horizon, the stetson, the car, the gun in River’s holster, the diner, even the Roswell-inspired aliens. Hypocritically, we’re asked to take this reunion of the Doctor’s most trusted companions seriously, and we get a chain-link of set pieces like the picnic on the lake, the Doctor’s body burning, an argument between good cop and bad cop bodyguards, and many more in between. A couple of the scenarios are so familiar that I resent the amount of time I know Moffat is going to spend clearing them up. Amy sees something against the sun but can’t remember what it is; the Doctor dies; an astronaut shows up and raises his visor but we don’t see his face. To Moffat’s credit, I don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I know he’s going to spend many minutes cleverly working his way out of the Doctor’s death – of course he is. But by making that the mystery, it commits story time (potentially across the series) that could otherwise be dedicated to more interesting material to the plot instead.
“The Impossible Astronaut” is a title that works because of its juxtaposition of childlike fascinations [so much, so Moffat]. But it, and references to “impossible” things during the episode, portend to maybe, just maybe a theme. Impossibility is an interesting subject, and one that Doctor Who is uniquely suited to explore, but I’ve been down this route before, looking for insight in all the wrong places. It’s a pity, because an insightful theme doesn’t preclude adventure, or even any of the insipid conventions that the new series has trapped itself in. I thought it was the one thing missing in the otherwise very clever “A Christmas Carol”, the Christmas special that Moffat also wrote. Around the same time, I watched the Christmas episode of Community, and in less than half an hour, the sitcom did what mystical, magical, wonderful Doctor Who couldn’t in twice the time and used a powerful theme to make insightful observations about its characters and, by extension, us all. Moffat was clever, though.
“Moffat was clever, though” just about sums up my thoughts about “The Impossible Astronaut”. Next week we’ll be privy to some Houdini-like escapism from him, I’m sure, as he escapes from his own magnificently constructed plot, but I’ll be watching for some trace of the profound instead. (And maybe any further parallels to “The Lodger” from last season – I noticed two.)
Moffat hits many pitch perfect beats in Episode 13, The Big Bang. But I wonder: are they beats on the way to the right place? Could Moffat at once nail almost every line, wrangle suspense and pace with equal acumen, play masterfully with plot order, not disappoint after a cliffhanger based on the destruction of history itself, and yet despite all this not produce a brilliant finale?
I’ve wrestled with the answer, but it’s yes. How? Because as sound and fury, it signifies so little. Where is the insight? What makes it special? And why is Murray Gold still employed? As a fairy tale, it doesn’t reach for meaning, yet it uses fairy tale conventions that all came from some meaningful context. It’s like when you get those crossovers where Mothra fights Godzilla (or Daleks fight the Cybermen…), or a sentence of completely random words that makes sense grammatically, but have no actual communicable purpose.
There is a school that believes in entertainment for its own sake, but I’ve always believed that these things – which all comes down to discovering hidden truths about oneself through the experiences of fictional characters – were the source of all the joy and the affect that stories can cause in us. Doctor Who leaves me cold because it lacks nothing but this. It needed only to reach beyond “love conquers all,” which is the only recognisable theme, and touch something contextually relevant like “imagination is the source of all adventure,” or to challenge “we are the sum of our memories” with “but also our dreams.” It breezed past these things, which can be tangentially extrapolated from the story, but never acknowledged them. Instead, the story is about undying love, a tolerable but uninspiring statement.
“It’s only a children’s show,” I’ve been told. But that expands the boundaries, not contracts them. Children are disciples of the imagination. To make a meaningful statement about imagination as an act would be relevant to the majority of a child’s existence. And there’s nothing to say that a story can’t be wonderful, adventurous, mysterious, and thrilling at the same time. Can Doctor Who be that show? Look at episodes like the original series’s The Caves of Androzani, Kinda, and Castrovalva. (All three of these stories are from the same era of the show.) Even technically weak episodes of the original often have an ambitious soul that seeks, even if they sometimes fail, to examine a concept that has philosophical importance.
Moffat has done some very very good things with this series of Doctor Who. It raises questions and explains almost all of them (if you’re willing to buy into the heaps upon heaps of contrivance that, in this episode, he manages to just about distract you from). The premise is still ultra-terrible, but it’s handled with such fierce genius that it kind of fades away in comparison. He also still writes devastatingly good dialogue. The line, “why do you have to be so … human” got my eyes rolling, but before they could go full circle, “because right now I’m not” undercut the cliche and had me briefly thinking (even if – as per the above – there is no real meaning there). The Doctor’s message to River, “GERONIMO,” sliced through the irritating set piece of the Doctor literally piloting an engineless box into the sun, and texting River while doing so, with a moment so well-judged that it almost ceased to matter. If we could get all of that good with less of the rubbishy parts, the stories would feel less like the sort of two-steps-forward-two-steps-back sceneography that even the best of this season has had.
Examples of this include the wonderful repetition of the time jumps with the “vortex manipulator,” but then the Amelia Pond story, which so many of those moments enriched, was cut short when she literally disappeared in order to benefit the main plot. I think I’ve said it before, but Amelia Pond would have made a better and more interesting companion than the grown-up Amy. At least it would have been a change. Much of the problem here is that even if the episode feels like an RTD kitchen sink finale done much better, it’s still retreading tired ground. Will Moffat feel radical or confident or ambitious enough to start breaking ground with his next series? I certainly hope so. He certainly was ambitious to draw out several of this series’s main questions into next year.
Episode 12, The Pandorica Opens suffers from a non-coincidental number of the same problems as did The Time of Angels, Moffat’s other two-part incipit. It’s a fairy tale mishmash thrown together with real skill, but there is no underlying parable to draw from. It’s full of irritating superlative, sometimes blatant comparisons of the Doctor to God, and turns that, played unselfconsciously come across as empty as the Doctor’s blustered pontification to a sky full of alien space ships. Using his own legend as a weapon worked once in The Eleventh Hour, as a way to review that legend at the start of a new era, but it’s not a card you can play too many times, as in even twice, before it becomes a way to easily discourage enemies that should really be implacable. Not to mention, it makes the Doctor look like a dick.
Just like The Time of Angels, Moffat accidentally makes iconic monsters generic by giving them random powers to fit the needs of the scene. For example, apparently a cyberman’s abilities include not only armor (useless against iron swords) and weapons, but apparently tranquilizer darts, stunning energy, tentacle-like cables, and the ability (not to mention the proclivity) to open and shut their heads like a pair of jaws. Also, when the cyberhead said “you will be assimilated” I nearly crippled myself with a nearby fork. What could have been a gentle tribute only highlighted how generic the cyberman have become as basically just Borg, ignoring their unique premise as a grim vision of a future humanity that must rely on technology to survive. I couldn’t help but wonder that if the charred mechanical shell of a cyberman and its separated limbs can walk, talk, and think of a cunning trap without the aid of a biological host, what exactly is then the point of “assimilating” one? These cyberman are basically just robots, and how boring is that.
All of the other races suffered a similar fate in an almost overwhelmingly efficient castration of the Sontarans, the Daleks, and all these other races – jumbling them all into a single unilateral list. The idea that the Doctor’s enemies are trying to stop him in order to save their universe is a strong one, but to put these particular enemies in that position only serves to highlight how completely similar they are. What, funtionally, is the difference between a Sontaran, a Dalek, a Cyberman, and a Judoon? They’re all armored enemies with guns. In the original series, the Daleks were defined by their xenophobia, the Cybermen by their willingness to do anything for self-preservation, and the Sontarans by their genetic need for war. These are ideological differences that precludes them really ever working together, or even meeting, from the point of view of a writer interested in exploring a concept. The idea that they might collaborate to invent an overly-complicated trap that doesn’t even hold fast against even the most tenuous fart of reason is an oversight that is twice as infuriating for being obviously deliberate. It’s absurd that the combined guile of all these alien races could not have anticipated that someone else might be able to fly the TARDIS, for example, and how they created a Rory auton (we could stop the sentence there) complete with memories of his own death is obviated as flamboyantly as possible by our auteur scriptwriter.
The performances and the dialogue is as sharp as ever, but it has a breezy, ‘effortless’ quality that gives it the sense that nothing in this world is ever earned. This is especially the case with Amy, who has never seemed to struggle with much in the way of new concepts or even really been exposed to any. With so few of the payoffs actually earned, Nu Who feels more than ever this season like flippant history-tourism. When all that’s at stake is the well-being of the main characters (not their ideology, their lifestyle, or their beliefs), there is precious little to actually develop tension on top of, and the plot must thrash about, desperately seeking to “entertain” with spectacle where it cannot with insight.
Gareth Roberts has a venerable history with Doctor Who, having been editor at Big Finish during their golden years of producing Doctor Who adventures before the new series started. He’s written some great adventures and shepherded many more. I wonder if he may end up show running after Moffat departs. (But it’s too soon to think about that.)
He does, regardless, show a real flair for the Doctor’s dialogue. Almost every line of Episode 11, The Lodger, keeps you on your toes and makes the texture of his story seem richer than it really is. He uses a wide variety of recognisable “flatmate” tropes that make the story unique and blend the mundane and the fantastic in an as-yet undiscovered way. Being something that Doctor Who has done since the beginning, it’s a marvel that Roberts has come up with another way to do it that is this original. Indeed, picking on “everyday horrors” like the stains on the ceiling of the flat is a great idea (a favourite of Moffat’s), but it does manage to come across as cynical when there’s no exploration of what it is that makes these everyday horrors so uncanny. Stains, leaks, and corruption have so many associated metaphors that I sometimes wonder if the creators of Nu Who are actively avoiding meaningful connections in their stories in order to be as superficial as possible. It seems so profoundly obvious to me that calling something, simply, a “monster” takes the magic away.
Likewise, so does the persistent theme of “emotion trumps reason” like we see in the deus ex at the end. This is exactly the opposite of what an ending like this is supposed to do. What I think Roberts means to suggest is that no barrier is too great, even the laws of the universe, if one believes enough in something. On its surface, that seems encouraging, but at the same time it really irritates me because it contradicts what the series is supposed to be about. Science supports the imagination. It is a tool to accomplish one’s goals, not an obstacle to them. Surely that is the more positive message?
This has been a persistent fallacy of the new series. Another of these that this episode falls into is the pre-credits ‘monster moment’ and the disappearing TARDIS trying to provide payoff before adequately setting up the stakes. It’s considered a given in scriptwriting today that one should have an attention-grabbing hook, but that doesn’t necessarily mean jumping rabidly into the biggest shock one can afford. One has to earn the suspense that comes along with scenes like these. That said, crashing into the credits with the Doctor on Craig’s doorstep was a clever subversion, and so was Roberts’ creative use of a head-butt in place of the Doctors’ previous “Vulcan mind meld” trick for communicating a lot of information at once… even if it was a fairly audacious cheat.
I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world to see Roberts as showrunner one day, even if he did make Attack of the Graske.
Vincent and the Doctor has some really sweet moments. What else would one expect from the pen of Richard Curtis? His museum curator, played (of course!) by Bill Nighy, fills the part with stiff, genuine love that nails the character with every line, even when it’s a lecture on his historical subject, Vincent Van Gogh. The story overflows with this sort of gushing adoration, from him, the Doctor, and Vincent himself. It’s stupendously consistent, but in this way does a certain amount of disservice to the character of Van Gogh himself, just as every historical celebrity in Nu Who has been rendered less than they should by their comic book characterisation.
What we know of Van Gogh’s life and what we divine from his paintings suggests a deep, inscrutable, dangerous mind: an unknowable psychology of fear and a gaze turned inward and at the inward parts of things. In Vincent and the Doctor… he is a extroverted, hale bloke who waxes about a “universe full of wonder;” he is an idealist and is sexy and energetic. Curtis quarantines Van Gogh’s darkness (but at the same time his brilliance) into a single scene that might have been titled, in the script, “Exhibit A: Bipolar Disorder.” Portraying the artist this way subscribes Curtis to a cult of charisma that demonises dysfunction, pain, and thoughtful suffering. It trivialises the effort of art, stealing from those who suffer for it the legitimacy of their mission.
This is where the monster comes in. It’s just another generic, physically powerful alien with an achilles heel and a misunderstood reason for its multiple homicides. It’s already been pointed out elsewhere how ludicrous is the Doctor’s sudden sympathy for the creature, so I want to focus on how it affects the character of Van Gogh. Basically, it’s implied that defeating the monster might solve Van Gogh’s torment, allowing him to live a full life, but when it turned out that wasn’t the case (which was a nice revelation for Amy), I can’t help but wonder what the point of the entire adventure was. The Doctor comes across as rather callous whenever he says they must protect Van Gogh in order to preserve his posterity, and it’s cast as the real tragedy when there are “no new paintings” at the end, as if they were the measure of Van Gogh the man. So the Doctor and Amy’s entire involvement in Van Gogh’s life made no difference except a dedication on the painting of a vase.
I think I’m being too hard on the logic here. The realisation that showing Van Gogh his own future and filling him with confidence could not save his life was a nice one (in part because it subverts the horrific “emotion over reason” deus ex machinaes of the new series); the performances were fun and relaxed; and the museum scenes got to me. I just wish that the set piece nature of the new series didn’t so aggressively simplify interesting and complex ideas like art, suffering, the personalities of unknowable historical figures, and the cultures in which they lived (the France of Vincent and the Doctor was as colourless as could be).
Okay, so the Silurian two-parter (Episode 8 and 9) is Inferno, not Frontios, I guess. It’s also shite. Truly, undebatably, drippingly shite.
Chris Chibnall’s episode was never going to be good. It was never going to be clever. It was never going to be deep. Nor was it ever going to bring anything new to Doctor Who. But this episode lacks so much that watching it produces the inverse of cognition. Its stultifying absence of quality challenges the boundaries of even posthumous thought. Chris Chibnall’s brain should be examined immediately and urgently for signs of actual existence. Even as a pathetic copy, this “story” fails to motivate even a single synapse; it makes no sense, a fact constantly reiterated by the guest characters, from whom every line already syphons deeply from the cerebellum. Every story development burns with ignorance, tedium, and vacuous, perfidious cynicism. Take the opening scene, for example: the most jaded and formulaic depiction of the “vulnerable family” I have ever seen during the course of my now-meager existence.
The plot exists in what we must only by convention describe as form: a series of machine-gun exposition that splatters idea-sized chunks of brain onto a wall already stained with the smears of masochistic enterprise. With this quantity of telling [not showing], I feel I can safely say this isn’t a television episode; it’s a litany.
The one interesting idea, which is the Silurians’ challenge to humankind’s nobility, could maybe have raised questions about whether we can ever “be our best,” but it is so soaked in cliche, and formula, and sentimentality, and that rubbish, endlessly repetitive electricity sound effect, that it ceases to matter. And what the hell is with the Silurians’ long, windy, venomous tongue? As if that made them unique and not like every other banal monster ejaculated into existence during the RTD tenure.
Hello, brave new series of Doctor Who. Hello, syringe full of battery acid.
Episode 7: Amy’s Choice was such a wasted opportunity. I was not expecting wonders from Simon Nye, but the opportunity to play with the concept of dreams and allegory was so crushingly wasted that I am hard pressed to articulate my disappointment. There were so many elements that were interesting in and of themselves, such as the idea of a Dreamlord, a cold sun, or the actually-interesting observation that “the old man prefers the company of the young.” This episode squandered them all.
Besides the fact that the premise is based entirely on a coincidence where stardust of some kind gets into the Tardis mechanism, the situation that we’re asked to buy into at the beginning of the episode is so unbelievably dumb that it’s impossible to care about it all the way through to the end. Amy is asked by an omnipotent being to make an artificial “choice” between two scenarios, one of which will result in their deaths… except Nye makes it pretty damn clear to the audience which one he prefers (“this village is so DULL”), and then goes on to mock the choice Amy makes by making it irrelevant (they were BOTH dreams, oh my god!). What’s worse is that what efficacy Amy might have in making the choice is stolen when Rory dies and the choice is basically made for her. The metaphor is as clunky as Nye’s dialogue, which tries too hard to be clever (bow ties, eh) and only occasionally succeeds with lines like “something here doesn’t make sense… let’s go and poke it with a stick.” Actually, once in a while bad lines and bad metaphors converge with verbal abominations like “we have to grow up eventually.”
The greatest problem with the dialogue is that rapid delivery is mistaken for wit, and since so much of it is just delivering information (with maybe a quip on the end), it just reads like someone speed-reading a fairy tale, which is not, I expect, what Moffat intended.
The entire village plot is only made endurable by the tenuous pleasure of watching zombified octogenarians attack the main characters. The old people turn out to be a “proud and ancient race” of aliens (surprise) with the most uninspired motivation and ability the writing team could dream up (heh). In fact, the suggestion that these petrifying-gas-spitting eye creatures came from the imaginations of Amy, Rory, and the Doctor does a great disservice to my respect for these characters. And the writer.
It’s one big, twisted ripoff of Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s finale, All Good Things… where an omnipotent being forces Captain Jean-Luc Picard to shift from scenario to scenario in order to prove himself. Sound anything like this? And since we’re on the subject:
Next week… Frontios!
Episode 6: The Vampires of Venice pleasantly surprised me. Even better, it surprised me that it surprised me. Toby Whitehouse, the cur, was responsible for School Reunion, which is the episode that reintroduced Sarah Jane Smith to the series and sacrificed her original relationship with Tom Baker’s Doctor (which was as a curious journalist and later a friend) in order to heighten the melodrama of then-companion Rose’s jealousy. It was a gigantic pity, and the episode featured a pretty stupid monster to boot. There’s really very little of School Reunion in The Vampires of Venice, though. Okay, the monster’s pretty stupid, in the sense that they can be obliterated by a sun bunny reflected by Amy’s pocket mirror, but on the other hand, they are guided by a real philosophy – that it might be acceptable to sacrifice the city of Venice in order to preserve their own entire race. Never mind the line, “then we will take your world” in the pre-credits sequence, every single aspect in which is almost immediately contradicted after the episode starts properly. For example, the apparent importance of the steward in the court, or that Guido begins the episode begging the Venetian nobility to take his daughter, but after the credits is begging them to give her back again. Der.
However, Guido is moderately more interesting than the usual guest-star-in-distress. The theme of Venetian pride runs through the whole episode, starting with the Doctor describing the magnificent the city to Amy and Rory. It’s artful that this sense of pride motivates Guido, giving him a motive for his sacrifice that, although still slight, is a whole lot better than nothing.
This is one of the reasons that The Vampires of Venice gets a passing grade. Another of these is the story’s embracement of the fairy tale theme that has been running through this season. We get a sort of betrothal without love situation as Guido gives up his daughter to the Venetian court (who are, naturally, vampires/giant fish), but most interesting is that the Doctor and his team fail to rescue her and she gets devoured in an horrific way. (Not to mention the scene when we realise she can’t escape – she’s too far gone.) Toby Whitehouse is bold in this and several other ways, for example when he cuts from Rosanna Calvierri just after she sinks her teeth into Amy’s neck.
All this vampirism and gothisism benefits from the shadowy setting of Venice (and only more so as the aliens’ terraforming device goes to work). There are some great, torchlit corridors, slimy sewers, domed candlelit rooms, and scenes creeping across the moonlit courtyards of Venice. Light is important in this episode, as it should be in a vampire story, and this shows in the production. (However, I would complain that it was not important enough. It was never explained exactly why these fish people are so averse to light, and the explanation that the Doctor gives about why they can’t be seen in mirrors is fairly petty. After all, why would the Doctor’s brain edit out monsters when he of all people would be the least surprised to find a grotesque alien lurking over his shoulder? Combined with the perception filter device that the aliens carry, it’s one too many levels of illusion and only really services the already tenuous vampire analogy.)
The Venetian setting is in various ways reminiscent of The Androids of Tara, The Masque of Mandragora, and State of Decay from the original series. This isn’t a bad thing, because the other “historical” episodes that Nu Who has attempted have not been particularly reminiscent of anything, not even history. This is certainly because unlike those episodes, the setting in The Vampires of Venice is important to the story. The aliens are amphibious, which is a perfect match in Venice, where streets run into rivers, and the history of Venice itself (which the Doctor remarks was once one of the greatest cities in the world) reflects the doomed nature of their race. In fact, Guido’s sacrifice as he shouts something nationalistic would have been cringeworthy if it didn’t reflect the aliens’ desperate urge to preserve their own nation.
There are some other great moments. I don’t know the extent to which Moffat edited the scripts of his collaborators, but the Doctor’s lines are sterling and crisp, constantly delivering wit and remark with acuity. No amount of mythologizing about the Doctor does as much good to convince us of his mental powers as simply showing us how clever he is. Whitehouse gets to show us his “clever” too, playing against instead of into our expectations about the vampire enemy. In Victory of the Daleks we knew beforehand that a) there were going to be Daleks, based on the title, and b) that they were going to, of course, be evil in some fairly stereotypical ways. Gatiss did not disappoint. As a modern audience, we are pretty genre-educated, so we also know what to expect from vampires. It’s pretty cheeky, then, when we get scenes like Rosanna “hydrating” from a chalice that we think must be blood, and it turns out to be water. (And only later do we realise how appropriate this is – retroactive realisation is the best kind.) Another one is when the Doctor climbs the tower at the climax of the film, and discovers a whirling, complex machine. After a moment of frightened observation, he turns it off with a single switch. Subverting cliches like this marshals our attention far more effectively than any quantity of melodrama (and there are examples of this too, like the Doctor’s condemnation of the aliens because they “didn’t remember her [Isabella's] name,” as opposed to the many other more rational reasons why he might refuse to help them).
My favourite moment in the episode is when Rosanna’s perception filter malfunctions on the stairs after Amy has conveniently kicked it, and briefly she transforms into her natural, crustaceanlike form. The court steward spooks in the most convincing way I think I’ve ever seen, jumping with real horror when she shifts and stabilises. For a character like the steward that never speaks but is always there (perhaps more so because of it), this lends diegetic credence to the terror that we are supposed to feel alongside him. It’s also an example of another subverted cliche, as the steward never turns on his masters, or indeed does anything at all. This one scene reminded me a little of the brand of horror that the original series often touted, when for example Count Scarlioni reveals himself as an abomination in City of Death, or in Revelation of the Daleks when one of the characters finds the grotesque, pustulating abomination of his father after he has been genetically altered to fit inside a dalek machine. There are many other great examples.
All in all The Vampires of Venice was a great step for the new series. Moffat once said that he should never be put in charge of Doctor Who because he would make it like the Williams era of the show (the goofy, self-referential period during some of which Douglas Adams was script editor and Tom Baker was allegedly ‘off the leash’). This is the first time the comparison can be called apt, and Moffat’s statement finally proven to be ironic.
In Episode 5: Flesh and Stone, Moffat is very clever. (What’s new?) This week it’s Amy Pond without her memories juxtaposed with the duck ‘pond’ without the ducks, and one giant excuse for RTD’s many indulgent invasions of Earth. For a show that prides itself on ‘not needing explanations’ for its many irrational aspects, I find it archly hilarious that this season’s runner (the ‘crack in time’) is a rationalization. The “time energy” phenomenon itself is reminiscent of another fairy tale, The Neverending Story, where a mysterious, hungry ‘nothing’ is tearing across the world of fantasy, causing what crosses it to cease to exist. What remains to be seen is whether this crack in time is really a metaphor, just as the nothing in Neverending is a metaphor for lost hopes and dreams.
Whatever the case, I am highly grateful to see this series’s arch highlighted so early in the season. That is pretty much the definition of ‘development,’ and if there’s one thing that Nu Who could use more of, it’s that.
I thought this episode was perhaps the first of any genuine interest this year, which a pity because now all we get to look forward to Toby Whitehouse and Chris Chibnall for a while. There were some fabulous set-pieces this time around, such as the angels moving in steps to gunfire (which could have been shot better, but whatever), the stone angels beginning to twist and move (even if it really makes no sense – I thought they were only stone when they were visible?), the Doctor facing a ton of angels on his own, leaping sideways into a spaceship, and for that matter the resolution to a cliffhanger that I was sure was going to be lame but wasn’t: the ability of an explosion to cause an ‘updraft’ and just for our heroes is convenient, but artificial gravity seems plausible, and less irritating than River suddenly getting her teleporter working (cop out), or the Doctor escaping the angels in the control center because they basically lost interest.
Moffat’s dialogue is so damn good, and Matt Smith in particular plays his one-liners with unusual sensitivity. “I am good with time,” he says in an odd, autistic way that brings attention to both the pun and his alien qualities. We see his disregard for Amy’s feelings when she’s close to death in the forest (although this jarrs a little with his tender concern on other occasions that she not accompany him into danger). We see that same disregard when she tries to push herself on him at the end of the episode. It’s a nice assertion that the Doctor’s mind is a deep one, preoccupied with great, not human-size things, even if the writers can’t always prove it.
“How’s life?” “…sorry, bad subject” is a classic Moffat pun. Other lines, like “I made him say ‘comfy chairs’!” wouldn’t have been out of place in an RTD, but Smith saves it by leaving out the Tennant-style smug. “Doctor, I’m five [fine]” is a lovely slip, but my favorite is the exchange: “Trust me…” “But you don’t always tell me the truth.” “If I always told you the truth I wouldn’t need you to trust me.” It’s sweet and clever, and part of one of the first ‘character moments,’ what Frensham calls a “focus point,” that the 2005 show has ever done well. It’s been a long time coming.
What lets the episode down are the angels, still. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that, later in the season, we learn that they are made of pure contrivance. They were once a great idea, but like I said in the previous review, they have inherited too many characteristics in The Time of Angels to be measurable as enemies. This time, we learn that they also have a sense of humour, minds capable of “calculating” how complex of a time-event will be necessary to solve the story’s bigger-bad, do things just for the fun and cruelty of it — such as forcing Amy to count down — and now they can emerge from a mental image as well as a representative one. They move super slowly when zeroing in for the kill, and surprisingly fast when vacating the scene. It’s just a mess of powers.
Originally, the weeping angels were animalistic creatures that were basically hunters. Their flaw — freezing when they were in someone’s sight — was also their strength; it mirrored similar behaviour in predatory animals, made sense as a defence mechanism, and neatly reversed a lot of mythological associations like the medusa and basilisk. Now, they are this omnipotent threat that one can’t really imagine needing protection from anything. I hate how one’s not supposed to look in their eyes, because it deflates the simple terror of needing to keep one’s eyes open at all times and not blink.
Cutest of all the lines in this episode is Moffat’s mission statement: “That’s a fairy tale!” “Aren’t we all?” I really like that ambition, but I don’t know if it’s really genuine. Fairy tales still have a deeper, simpler, stronger heart than this Doctor Who. They have meanings and messages. Subtleties and sad endings. Until it gains what I want to call a “soul,” it’s still just going to be another glossy BBC1 production. Ironically, the original series of Doctor Who never had much gloss, but it made up for it many times over by the other thing.
Episode 4: “The Time of Angels” is an episode with elegant structure, created by a writer in control of his craft. You can see what Moffat is trying to do in this one: manipulate our fears with horror tropes, and to reprise the most popular elements of both Blink and Silence in the Library. He himself compared Blink and The Time of Angels with Alien and Aliens, and Silence shares Bernice Summerfield clone River Song, a “largest library [museum] in the universe,” and its plot with this week’s enterprise. I respect the master’s parallels and his artistry, but I suspect his motives. The Time of Angels is a cynical creation, like a “Best of” CD released by the band itself.
A return of the popular weeping angels was inevitable, but are these really the same monsters that made their original episode so memorable? Moffat takes them out of context (the overgrown garden and cemetery of Blink) and gives them an arsenal of new abilities: being able to climb out of images, lock doors telekinetically, get into your head through the eyes, make lights flicker, and most confusingly, “reanimate a version of someone’s consciousness” in order to speak with their voice and personality. Giving such a plethora of powers to a monster makes them hard to second-guess. This is a bad thing because it makes it impossible to estimate the menace of the angels. The analogue here is the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, a magic wand that has unspecified abilities. When Amy is locked in the container by the angel, the two come into conflict: the screwdriver can’t cut the power to the video inside because of the angel’s ability to produce “deadlock force.” Magic versus magic like this becomes a suspenseless battle solved only by the whimsy of the plot. It’s suspenseless because we can’t guess what the outcome might be or be surprised by it.
Like the mechanical faces in The Beast Below, a lot of the horror in this episode comes from the inert, scowling faces of the monster. It’s very effective “nightmare fuel,” and the many angels the party must face should have multiplied their threat, like Aliens did for Alien, but Moffat necessarily has to water them down because he’s given them too much power. This army of angels is, conveniently, slower and essentially zombielike. They’re also far less horrific for it.
What gets me is that I can really see what Moffat is trying to do here. The angels’ ability to come out of an image is a very clever scare tactic that targets everyone watching the episode that very moment. The voice of Dead Bob over the radio is the definition of a ghost, but was it ever considered that it might ruin the angels’ creepy, inscrutable silence? (Perhaps Bob would have been more effective if he had remained alive; the accusation “you made me trust you and you let me down” would have had more weight coming from a real person.) The flickering of the soldiers’ lights is a classic horror device, but it feels pilfered from Silence in the Library and was perhaps not necessary at all to heighten their menace. In comparison, the cave hunt in the original series episode Earthshock lacks many of these devices, but is more horrific; in it, soldiers with a scanner above ground watch helplessly as the heat signatures of their comrades wink out rapidly onscreen.
Moffat’s dialogue is as strong as ever, when the characters aren’t just babbling. “Blimey, your teeth – have you got Space Teeth?” is part of a precious scene when the Doctor bites Amy’s hand to convince her it’s not made of stone. Unfortunately, she’s still relatively useless. Her one active moment in this episode, when it strikes her how to banish the angel from the container where she’s trapped, is another example of the Sudden Realization Effect that plagues the show and her in particular. River Song assures her, “you’re good,” but besides these convenient moments of genius, we see very little evidence of this. Amy mostly just tags along, soaks up exposition, and quips. The Doctor is well-performed, but there’s nothing new in his role here. He just glides through, supremely confident that he’s too much of a badass to get hurt. He claims at the end, “there’s one thing you should never put in a trap… me.” It’s so hyperbolic that you almost root for a monster to humble him a little.
It’s such a relief not to have to dedicate a huge part of the review to logic holes, but a few nag at me. Perhaps someone can put me straight about the following quibbles: why oh why were the angels at the end “trying to make him [the Doctor] angry??” Is there any conceivable reason why this might be a good thing to do? Do they mock all of their victims, or just omnipotent Time Lords? Well, okay, whatever.
Secondarily, as experts, somewhat, on the subject of the weeping angels (in the sense that they have a book about them inconveniently written in riddles by a madman), what was the soldiers’ plan to eliminate the single angel they expected to find? We find out that shooting at stone doesn’t seem to do much of anything half way through the episode, so their plan seems to consist more or less of “bring the Doctor along on our headlong rush into terrible danger – maybe he’ll think of something.” Why do the weeping angels need this “defence mechanism” that turns them into stone when they’re the “deadliest, most powerful, most malevolent life form evolution has ever produced?” [Have we ever heard that before in Doctor Who, hmm?] It seems more like their only weakness to me.
I’m getting carried away. I should have started with this episode’s truly odd opening, but I still can’t figure out what it’s there for. The first scene is a dizzying shot of someone drugged in a sunny field. The first three lines, “it’s a beautiful day,” “hallucinogenic lipstick,” and “she’s here” give us the impression that this episode is going to be about River Song (far more than it is), and though colourful, the spinning shot of the drugged guard only confuses us when it turns out we’re actually in a spaceship following a woman with a weird revolver/welder hybrid. Yes, we get a great crash into the credits, but the episode opened too early and too messy for it to matter much.
The pace of the episode accommodates clear peaks and valleys, but it still feels rushed. A two-parter of the new series inhabits roughly the same amount of time as a four-parter of the old, yet how it manages to seem more cramped and breathless is curious to me. Ironically, the hyperactive nature of the new series seems to truncate time and gives The Time of Angels, at least for me, a sense of being shorter and smaller scale. A four-part episode of the original series would frequently have two or three times as many important characters, increasing the complexity of the story and giving it a depth of perspective that Nu Who has rarely reached for (Human Nature has more major characters than usual and look at the difference in pace; and ironically, so does Blink).
True conclusions about the story must wait until next week, but on the whole, I’m hoping for Flesh and Stone to take up one of the tattered themes of part 1: when Amy slyly picks on the Doctor for “running away from the future” near the beginning of the episode, my ears pricked. Could Nu Who actually be pursuing a metaphor, let alone one that applies to the Doctor, to Amy, and to Doctor Who as a whole? For an episode deliberately steeped in mythology, notions of history, and religion (can it possibly be just a gimmick that we have Clerics hunting Angels?), all the next episode needs to become memorable is a little substance, from this idea or another.
Episode 3: “Victory of the Daleks” is almost 100% awful.
My first exposure to Mark Gatiss was his 1992 Doctor Who novel “Nightshade,” which was part of the 7th Doctor New Adventures, an experimental and provocative extension of the so-called Doctor Who “canon.” Other stories from the New Adventures, such as Russel Davies’s own “Damaged Goods,” were looted for material for the 2005 series, including Paul Cornell’s “Human Nature,” lifted pretty much wholesale from the 1995 paperback. Gatiss was also one of the first writers for the New Series of Doctor Who, with “The Unquiet Dead” maintaining what many considered to be his “traditional” style of storytelling, which focused on atmosphere, especially in period. His later TV story, “The Idiot’s Lantern,” was true to form. This episode is no exception, except that now, under Moffat, it has no excuse to suck.
The episode is so burdened by melodrama, caricature, and cliche, that it cannot possibly communicate even an inclination of thoughtfulness, and as a plot it withstands only the slightest pressure of rational thought. The characters, which in a story built on the “celebrity historical figure” Winston Churchill should be the richest offerings, are so textureless and flat that they exist only in the imagination as lifeless images: the shouty bomb sergeant, female officers whose presence as an anachronism defeats itself because they exist only to cry about their dead boyfriends, the jaunty airplane pilot who swoops and flips his plane for no reason on the way back to Earth, the patriotic guardsman, the eccentric bespectacled scientist… even Churchill puffs on his cigar constantly, even as his soldiers are exterminated. Apparently we might not recognise him if he didn’t.
In an old Doctor Who episode called “The Mind Robber” with the 2nd Doctor, Patrick Troughton, he gains the ability through the use of a machine to make any fiction he speaks of come to life. He has to be careful, as he duels his enemy in a similar machine, not to speak of himself as a part of that fiction, because it would turn him from a real person into an imagined one, a caricature. The Doctor of the 21st century has become this caricature, speaking of himself in the third person (“I am the Doctor!” he crows to his enemies) and otherwise legendizing. He describes the daleks as his “oldest enemy,” which is fair enough, until it becomes clear he means “arch enemy,” which Amy actually clarifies at the end of the episode. This phenomena enscribes the Doctor and his companion in such simplistic roles that it defeats them as real, living characters, and flattens them, like what literally happens in The Mind Robber, into 2D between the pages of a book.
Making sense of the story is cripplingly difficult. Questions kept me pausing the episode the whole way through: Why are the daleks (called “ironsides”) allowed to roam outside of Churchill’s office? Would tanks be allowed inside? Perhaps they should have been fitted with something more useful for making tea than a devastating weapon and a clumsy suction cup if making tea was, as we are meant to believe, their secondary purpose. And if Churchill respects the Doctor so much that he has to call him for some reason (through time and space…), why won’t he then listen to the Doctor’s warnings about the benign daleks? In fact, why is Churchill even so desperate to win the war with these machines when the Doctor feels no qualms informing him, towards the end of the episode, that “you’ll be all right”? When Churchill has the daleks shooting down dozens of planes over London, why is he relieved to hear the all-clear sirens? He could destroy any German enemy with retarded ease. Why did the Doctor punch Bracewell in the face for no reason when it was revealed that he was a bomb? Why did the daleks shoot their own android’s hand off before teleporting back to their ship (for some reason)? Why are the daleks transmitting their conversation with the doctor on their ship for Bracewell to pick up? Why not threaten the destruction of earth using the bomb inside Bracewell as a bargaining chip BEFORE the infinitely more pathetic threat of TURNING ALL THE LIGHTS ON IN LONDON, which according to the daleks is somehow synonymous with the human race destroying itself. For that matter, if they had the power to create a bomb the size of a person that could blow up an entire planet couldn’t they simply apply that power in a less convoluted way?
It seems to be that the daleks’ entire plan was to irritate the Doctor into providing “testimony,” which he already had done several times before the daleks got excited. This is no less pathetic than the Daleks “absorbing time-traveller DNA” in the 2005 story “Dalek” where they first appear, and makes about as much sense.
Gatiss’s “traditional” trappings reverse a lot of the progress that Moffat had seemed to make with the format. In particular, I was annoyed to see the Doctor revert back to trying to protect Amy and leave her behind on Earth. The moment is effectively lampshaded by Amy’s sardonic realisation that the Doctor is leaving her behind in the blitz to keep her safe, but it is a wasted few seconds in an episode that suffers for time. This sort of historical story needs time for its characters. The revelation that Bracewell was an android could have been an effective one if we had time to explore it; instead we are treated to a truly stultifying moment where having feelings disables the bomb in his chest. Even worse than this, we are told by direct comparison that feelings of suffering for the death of one’s parents in childhood is not as human as “fancying someone you shouldn’t.”
The story is crippled instantly by a lack of any sort of suspense. It’s not a story about whether WWII will be won, or about whether history might be changed, or about Churchill’s willingness to do anything he can to protect Britain. It could have been a story about the Doctor putting himself in the place of the daleks. His encouragement of Churchill to “exterminate” the daleks was surely not accidental, nor his outburst at them as his “enemies” where he hits one uselessly with a huge, random, and apparently useless wrench. This was aggressive, obsessed behaviour that actually might have been compelling if he was wrong about the daleks being there as invaders. Or equally, it could have been about xenophobia, like the daleks always were. I’m glad to see that this seems to be once again their reason for existence (and not, as before, some weird cultish worship) but as a story set against the backdrop of nazi invasion, it could have entered into that dimension.
Unfortunately, a story of this length, and with so scatterbrained a series of ambitions, suffocates easily in its 45 minute time slot. The plot must rely far too heavily on the Doctor’s and Amy’s sudden realisations and subsequent dumps of exposition, the characters wither and die, causality frays, the themes are dissolute, and even Gatiss’s famous atmosphere stales into nutritionless gloss. The design is a pattern of perfect stereotypes, and while even I like the new shape of the daleks, their presentation in a row of iPod-style colors warrants the death penalty. Stupidity reaches a truly critical mass when the daleks claim, archly, that “the Earth will die screaming.” If you have a bomb powerful enough to destroy an entire planet, and with a name as hyperbolic as an “oblivion continuum” (and non-singular, as if there might be in the bargain bin at Sainsbury’s), I doubt much screaming is likely to occur.
Perhaps most galling is the continuing “crack in time” runner. The implication is that it is going to be one giant retcon explaining humanity’s inability to remember the several thousand times in the show’s history that it has been invaded by aliens or otherwise on the brink of destruction. This series is still doing damage control, like reinstating the daleks as a galactic threat, but in too small doses. Perhaps when Moffat returns next week he will be able to exercise a little damage control of his own after Gatiss’s forgettable third-chance television. In my book, he’s out.
Episode 2: “The Beast Below” by Steven Moffat
So in that traditionally English way, our new Who is less Revolution and more Glorious. What Moffat does well in The Beast Below is what he’s been doing well in the Nu Series for years: tapping directly into childhood horrors (masks, being eaten by a monster “under the bed,” mechanical villains), witticisms, irreverence, astute humour, twisty plotting. I guess now he’s just able to do it on his own terms. I’d like to give Moffat more credit for The Beast Below, particularly for (at last) writing a Doctor that does not feel instantly guilty and responsible for his companion’s safety. Early in the episode he tells Amy to follow Mandy deep into a city which he is sure is both a police state and in some way treacherous. Giving her this task speeds up the plot by cutting out erstwhile obligatory emotions (although we still get the “oh my GOD I’m in space” moments), and it also bolsters our confidence in Amy’s role as a lead character. Nice.
I’ve heard it remarked that this episode is, at last, Moffat In Charge, but he continues to water dead plants. The “last of his kind” angst that plagued Doctor #9 is still wretchedly attached to the ankle of the Doctor’s character by its decaying teeth, and as a concept has not been altered or addressed in any worthwhile way since ever. I thought after The End of Time the Doctor might actually be GLAD he was the last, after being kicked in the head with the simple reality that his race are a bunch of arrogant, plot-pushing twunts and Timothy Dalton. To have it rear its head again is a disappointment, because I was at least hoping he’d have had enough Time Lord for the Time Being. To address the point, though, The Beast Below shares a second-episode philosophy with Russel Davies’s The End of the World, which I think is both no mistake and suggests that we are not yet out of the big guy’s shadow.
I felt I had to endure more than I should to appreciate the intelligence that Moffat brings to the enterprise (has Russel ever written a smarter line than “and once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned… democracy in action!” or “I’m the queen – basically I rule!”). Murray’s music provides a stereotypically lobotomic experience, the colors are a comic-book, and other minor quibbles. There were parts of the design that I loved in this episode, but first I’m going to complain about the hyperbole. Slay me now. I think that for the most part Moffat handles exposition and information delivery 1000% more gracefully than his predecessor ever could, but why must we continue to suffer phrases like “and then it came – like a miracle – the last of the star whales” and “we never should have come here” that are always accompanied by the sound of our heart strings being hacked at relentlessly by Murray’s unrosined bow. The Doctor’s self-legendizing is nauseating (“I’d love to forget it all – every last bit of it – but I don’t, not ever. ‘Cause this is what I do – every time, every day, every second… this.”) I understood this kind of stuff was a statement of character in The Eleventh Hour, where he terrifies some aliens with his reputation, but hubris is such a petty emotion that it rankles me and always has. Played unselfconsciously it is also a quality unique to the 21st century Doctors.
There is really no excuse for anyone to ever use the line “it couldn’t stand to watch children cry” in regards to the motivation of a gigantic alien space whale. I get that it’s a nice space whale and likes children to pet its hooked stabbing tentacles, but it’s a space whale. The fact that it eats people at all suggests that it perhaps has a hidden psychopathy. Maybe the Doctor will legendize it to death in a sequel when it finally carries out its Xanatos gambit.
The resolution was a disappointment because the Doctor’s intractable dilemma turned out not to be a dilemma at all, and the climax was Amy remembering something. No consequences, no win. Just earlier, the Doctor flips out at Amy by judging her unfairly in a manner we hadn’t yet seen from him, but so suddenly that it felt like it was stuck in there like a Scrabble Triple Word modifier except for stakes. It’s an anticlimax and even Mandy, the bright little kid from the beginning, looks bored to death as she slumps against a wall just before the climax point, having said all of her lines for the episode. She was our gateway into this future and world but transforms, just as hideously as any doppleganging monster, into an exposition dispenser no less mechanical than one of those creepy, swiveling faces.
And they were creepy. The design of the faces was one of the unreservedly marvellous things about the episode (I loved their clever resemblance to Steven Moffat himself). Even though they were unjustifiable as characters, the mechanical men were a triumph of design, just as were many other aspects of the set dressing: Amy’s wind-up light when she’s huddled under the tarp, the odd empty classroom, the cabinets where the faces sit… all excellent and unusual. Or rather, excellent because they are unusual. One of my favorite places, where the design and the plot and the theme integrate perfectly, is the Forget/Protest buttons. They work well enough to generate suspense early in the episode with Amy and again with the irritating action-Queen (neat idea though), but they also underline the true horror of the episode, which is “forgetting.” The Queen’s life is one tragic loop, and Amy’s horror at her own decision does more for her character in a single choice than any lingering backstory about not getting married and running away. Volunteering to forget something, literally blocking it from your memory, is something one only does after the highest trauma – it implies (and Doctor Who has always done more with the imagination than with a million computer generated FX) true horror.
I was planning to end on a high note like that one, but feel obliged to remark that the “crack in space” runner is a tedious one. It is such an obvious tease, and bleakly reminiscent of Bad Wolf. Talk about trauma.