Television Review: The Magician’s Apprentice (Doctor Who)

Doctor Who Series 9.01: The Magician’s Apprentice

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Hettie MacDonald

Child from opening
Image Copyright BBC

Motivation

I have been a fan of Doctor Who off and on since I was three. At this point, I don’t think I will ever not watch it.

The Pitch

In this opener to series nine, a decision the Doctor made a long time ago has consequences that threaten to destroy his closest friend . . . and his best enemy. However, the Doctor must first be found.

The Good

Missy is probably my favorite new recurring character. I enjoy every scene she is in. Likewise, Peter Capaldi is able to take the most absurd scene and make me believe.

And that pre-credit scene . . . that’s how you hook an audience.

The Bad

There is too little plot stretched across 45 minutes. And since this is part one of two, I am a bit worried. Many of the scenes in this episode didn’t really advance the plot much, and those scenes didn’t do much for me other than make me wish they would get on with it. But again, if a scene isn’t going to advance the plot, you could do worse than putting Missy in it.

The Ugly

The “would you kill a child if you knew he would be a brutal dictator” argument moves out of the abstract.

Closing

I would characterize this as average Steven Moffat fare: not his best but certainly not his worst. The performances and direction put this at a 3/5 for me. I look forward to seeing how he resolves the story, though I doubt the resolution will make me change my mind about this episode.

Doctor Who – Day of the Doctor as Seen Through the Lens of Vengeance on Varos

Doctor Who Story 139 – Vengeance on Varos

Written by

Philip Martin

What’s It About?

The Doctor needs Zeiton-7 to repair the TARDIS and the only planet where it is mined is Varos, a planet under strict corporate control. The Doctor and Peri suddenly find themselves running for their lives in a torture dome which broadcasts death and dismemberment as entertainment.

When did they last show something worth watching?

vengeanceonvarosLawrence Miles has said that Steven Moffat has the best job in the world, by which he means show runner for Doctor Who. At the same time, I sometimes wonder if Steven Moffat has the most thankless job in Doctor Who, by which I also mean show runner.

The current position of show runner embodies a role that was divided between two people in the classic series: producer and script editor. The former oversaw the production aspect and acted as a liaison to the BBC, the latter commissioned stories and set the path for each season. In modern Who, the show runner does both by varying degrees. Thus, when Doctor Who is a success, one individual gets a good amount of credit; when it is not successful, one individual gets the blame. And since 2009 that individual has been Steven Moffat.

But Steven Moffat is not alone in the history of Doctor Who production. He is the latest in a long line of men (and one woman) who oversaw the show. He knows that there were people before him and there will very likely be people after him. Fans of the show are also quite aware of this, each having his or her own preferred production team: Lambert/Whitaker, Hinchcliffe/Holmes, Russell T. Davies, JNT/Saward, and so on and so on. But increasingly in this show that has a large fan following, a show that gave a strong voice to fans in the 1980s and still depends on the devotion and evangelism of fans, balancing the needs of show production, market viability, and fan service has to be a thankless job. I’ll put my cards on the table (as a preview of sorts to when I finally get to the New Who era): I loved Moffat stories from RTD’s run, I enjoyed series five, but everything since then has been inconsistent for me. I think Steven Moffat has certain personal tropes he relies upon, some which work very well and some which are annoying and don’t. And so in his current position as a show runner, I sometimes wonder if these tropes become his way of staying on schedule while dealing with the myriad other duties his job requires. Sometimes his stories annoy me greatly (every appearance of River Song since season six), but I love it when I can give him full credit for stories that stretch him beyond his tendencies, in this case, Day of the Doctor. The 50th Anniversary special out-and-out worked for me. I loved 98% of the thing and I can’t wait to watch it again. But Day of the Doctor aired after a year of hype and expectation, after a season which has seen the greatest criticism of Steven Moffat and his approach to Doctor Who, storytelling, and gender. And while there is genuine criticism to be had, there is also hatred for the sake of hatred. For some segments of fandom, Steven Moffat can do no good. Make no mistake, there is an opposite segment of fandom for whom Steven Moffat can do no wrong. And, as with all things, many people fall in the middle, acknowledging highs and lows and just hoping for a good story week after week.

Some of the criticism of Day of the Doctor is baffling to me as it seems Steven Moffat played to his strengths, stretched himself as a writer, and turned in a story that, pacing issues near the beginning aside, worked as a celebration of old and new and managed to fit quite well in the trajectory of all Doctor Who, from Lambert to Davies. I was seriously impressed.

Which brings me to Vengeance on Varos, which I can only read (during this viewing) as a metaphor for Doctor Who production. The Governor is the show runner, whether JNT from the era in which this show was produced, or Steven Moffat in our current era. The citizens are the two extremes of fandom, the critic for whom the show runner can do no good and the optimistic fan for whom the show runner can do no bad. (Statements such as “I like the one in the funny costume” elevate this reading as the superficial becomes substance.) I think it is telling that the two citizens spend all their time watching television, watching the Doctor and his companion go from one danger to another, enjoying different aspects and cringing at the ones they don’t. Sil and the Chief Officer represent the business concerns of Doctor Who (production cost, overseas marketing), recognizing the value of what they have but not wanting to give credit to it. Quillam, as the program manager who oversees the tortures, is the script editor from the classic Who model, and his love of the gruesome and violent leads me to see him primarily as an avatar for Eric Saward.

And so, Vengeance on Varos becomes a meta-textual criticism of Doctor Who itself in which the Doctor materializes inside his own show and attempts to redeem it. The Sixth Doctor is not as harsh as he was in the previous two stories; he is actually Doctor-like—unique but still of the traditional mold. In this story more than The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen we see what the Sixth Doctor can be, rather than how he was written at the time. And the final moments of the story are a strong critique of the blind-fan mentality, emphasizing that while Doctor Who as an entity will not cease to exist (as Zeiton-7 is still in production, but more valuable than ever), it must go away for a while and redefine itself. (A prescient observation if ever there was one. What more compelling image in this era of the show than two fans sitting in disbelief as the screen goes blank?)

JNT and Steven Moffat are, in many ways, in the same struggle. Both must balance business and production interests with storytelling and fan criticism. Both were also fans of the show, and each has his own view of what Doctor Who should be. And both enjoy baiting the fans. But Vengeance on Varos as with The Day of the Doctor is Doctor Who at its most self-aware. It recognizes its place not just as a story, but as a production. And where Day of the Doctor celebrates the show, Vengeance on Varos criticizes it. It proposes a different attitude and approach. It asks fans to find a middle ground.

And, bottom line, Vengeance on Varos is a great story with a lot of depth and the story in which Colin Baker finally became the Doctor.

My Rating

4/5

 

Doctor Who – Attack of the Cybermen

Doctor Who Story 137 – Attack of the Cybermen

Written by

Paula Moore

What’s It About?

Cybermen and Telos and Litton and a lot of walking around.

Attack of the Cybermen DVD cover
It’s all there, but in a pile of unrelated bits and pieces

My wife has been reading this blog off and on since I started it. But about a year ago she got behind. A month ago, she committed to get caught up. (And no, I didn’t pressure her in to this; it was her own decision.) Despite not being caught up on the blog, she still gets to hear my occasional comments about whatever episode I am watching or theoretic lenses I want to try out on a story. I’ve been complaining about Eric Saward to her quite a bit. This past week, she said it was interesting and sad that she was currently reading my posts on season 18 and the vision of Christopher H. Bidmead. These posts are hopeful and filled with excitement about what is to come. But when I talk to her, it has been from a late/post-Peter Davison perspective, and that hope and excitement have been dashed against the Sawardian approach to Doctor Who.

Sadly, things have not gotten much better. But I want to turn away from nursing the annoyance at Saward and focus instead on what is now called “fan service.” There has been a lot of criticism leveled at Steven Moffat for inserting things into Doctor Who just for the sake of exciting the old fans of the show. Russell T. Davies got similar complaints. But in a way, what these two men have done is quite different from what was done in “Attack of the Cybermen,” which isn’t merely make reference to the past, but try to comment upon it and continue it. Under Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward, Doctor Who became self-aware in a very different way. It developed an in-universe continuity across the spectrum of Doctors rather than just with the current Doctor. And this continuity wasn’t based only around the Doctor’s character, but around other races and plotlines. This was developing in the Davison era and is revealed most obviously in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” but in the Sixth Doctor era it hits the ground running with “Attack of the Cybermen” in which numerous plot elements from other stories and eras are revisited. Litton from “Resurrection of the Daleks” has returned. The tomb of the Cybermen from Telos is revisited. The incident with the Doctor and Mondas is implied to have a major impact on why the Cybermen are on Telos to begin with. It is quite possible that “Attack of the Cybermen” is the most continuity-heavy episode of Doctor Who thus far, and it refers to stories that hardly anyone watching the show would have seen or remembered since this was an era before DVD.

Although, I must point out that Doctor Who started to be released on VHS in 1983. “Attack of the Cybermen” aired in 1985. And, according to a bit of research, the fan-favorite desired release for the first story on VHS was “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was not in the archives at that point. Is it possible that “Attack of the Cybermen is so continuity heavy and so referent to “Tomb” because of the perception that fans wanted more of that story? It would go a long way toward explaining aspects of this story. But it also illustrates something that must always be held in tension with Doctor Who: the tension between long-term fans and newer fans, and the impact these segments of fandom have on the final product. Or, to put it another way, how much do you appeal to your audience and how much do you try to tell a compelling story. Naturally, the latter is always the first goal, but with any long-running storyline there is a pressure to pay attention/tribute to people who have been following you for a very long time. Add to that the sci-fi stereotype of detail-oriented continuity analysis, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the writer. In general, Doctor Who seems to do best when it ignores the continuity adherence, in large part because most of the show’s history never bothered with it to begin with. But sci-fi television has evolved since then, and in-universe continuity is the name of the game at the moment. How does Doctor Who navigate this?

(And it isn’t just Doctor Who that is dealing with this. Both Marvel and DC have been taking this challenge on in recent years. Star Trek has been rebooted for a new audience. Even James Bond has been reconfigured for a new era.)

The answer given by “Attack of the Cybermen” is to embrace the perceived past. (“The memory cheats,” as JNT is quoted as saying, meaning we never remember things as accurately as we think we do.) The problem, however, is that “Attack of the Cybermen” quickly becomes evidence that embracing the past is the wrong way to go. A story which embraces the continuity is then required to get it right, else it undermines its case. And given the lack of a primary source at the time (“Tomb of the Cybermen”), this was probably a bad idea. On top of that “Attack” is a fairly dull story. It is the first of the 45-minute stories of the Colin Baker era, and the pacing was still being worked out. Part one is uninteresting and more of a runaround with occasional moments of Cybermen pontificating. Part two develops an interesting plot with the Cryons, but by this point it is too late. This type of pacing may have worked with the old 25-minut format, but it fails here. Granted, they were trying something new, but there were plenty of examples of 45-minute sci-fi drama that worked by this point. Rather than using Star Wars as the model, JNT should have been watching Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits. At its core, classic Doctor Who is much closer to an anthology series. Rather than a linking narration, though, it has a linking main cast.

The Doctor showing his library card.

In many ways, the new series by RTD and Moffat improve upon what “Attack of the Cybermen” was trying to do. It jettisons far more plot-continuity in favor of character-continuity. But it is unfair to say that RTD and Moffat and JNT and Saward are working from a level playing field. They aren’t. RTD and Moffat have decades of sci-fi television examples to draw from. RTD is very Buffy inspired. Moffat is a little more Lost/continuity-heavy American sci-fi inspired. (Although, in fairness, Moffat’s influences are a little harder to pin down than RTD. Moffat has a little bit of Lost and a little bit of RTD Who. I’m still trying to get a good reading of his basic approach. Feel free to chime in in the comments.) But I believe both were/are doing the best with the pieces they had. But where “Attack of the Cybermen” attempted to concretely engage with and continue the stories of the past, RTD/Moffat Who tends to reference them with a wink and a nod. Is this wink and nod enough? Or should Doctor Who even bother?

My Rating

1.5/5

Asylum of The Daleks

What’s It About?: The Daleks need The Doctor to investigate a crash on a planet that imprisons millions of insane Daleks.

I’ll admit outright that I thought it was good. I was entertained and even came close to tears at one point. I felt that this portrayal of the Daleks was the best the Moffat era had done with them so far, and that the Daleks were probably the scariest they have been since the 2005 episode Dalek.

There were some good ideas in this episode, ideas that furthered Dalek technology and mythology. Nanotechnology that converts organic creatures to Daleks was a good idea and an interesting spin on Robomen and human replicants. I enjoy the possibility of seen more “human” Daleks in the future, so long as they don’t take the place of the pepperpots. I enjoy the idea that the Daleks who have survived The Doctor in the past have gone catatonic. And I’ll come right out and say that I don’t mind the idea of The Doctor being wiped from the memories of all The Daleks. It wasn’t until the closing moments of the episode that I realized that I was growing tired of the Oncoming Storm, “I am The Doctor and doesn’t that make you tremble” moments that have popped up in every Dalek episode since the series return. It had its place for a time, and now I’m glad it is over. So, Steven Moffat is still attempting to reset Doctor Who.

Okay, now the not-so-fun criticism. I am tired of seeing Doctor Who still exist in the RTD shadow. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy parts of the RTD era. I’m happy he brought the show back. But so much of what Moffat has done is still in response to what RTD did with the show:

  • Series five was modeled on the structure of the RTD era.
  • River Song was introduced (by Moffat, admittedly) in the RTD era, and has been in every Moffat series so far, present series included.
  • The Big Bang was an attempt to reset aspects of the RTD era. Why does no one remember the giant Cyber Ship in Victorian England? Because The Doctor reset the universe. Why does Amy not remember the Cyberman/Dalek battle at Canary Wharf or the events of The Stolen Earth? Because of the cracks in the universe caused by the exploding TARDIS.
  • The Doctor became mythic under RTD. His existence is told in stories across millions of planets across the universe. He can no longer travel incognito. Thus, under Moffat, he faked his death.

And, unfortunately, we continue to see the lingering effects of the RTD era. River Song is supposed to be back later in the series. The Daleks have now forgotten The Doctor. Moffat is still resetting Doctor Who. I understand his desire; I sympathize with him because I feel The Doctor works better when people don’t know who he is. But it bothers me that we are still looking back. It bothers me that we are still playing a retcon game.

The second criticism: Amy and Rory’s divorce. Let me be clear. I have no problem with this per se. In fact, I love the idea of exploring the lives of companions who have not had contact with The Doctor for a few years. I love the idea that for The Doctor, life continues with excitement and adventures, but for Amy and Rory, life in contemporary London is the norm. There are jobs. There are bills. There are arguments and disappointments. The Doctor doesn’t see them go through this. The Doctor leaves them at point A and picks them up again at point V, but he remembers them as they were at point A. This is a great idea and worth exploring.

Unfortunately, we don’t explore it. In fact, we don’t even see it coming. Yes, in the Pond Life webisodes we see Amy throwing Rory out, but we never see their problems develop. We never see them struggle. Like The Doctor, we only come in at point V. We don’t see the human drama and struggle that Amy and Rory have faced in their years away from The Doctor. And for people who have gone through painful, heart-wrenching divorces, a madman in a blue box didn’t show up to take them on an adventure that re-affirms their love for one another (or, in this case, a human with a Dalek-stalk in the forehead).

I understand that there probably wasn’t time to explore this dynamic. Do people watch Doctor Who for relationships or do they watch it for monsters and action? Setting up Amy and Rory’s separation would take away from The Daleks and the Asylum and Moffat’s new flirty-sexy girl. Or maybe we could have seen the evidence of the separation over the course of the next few episodes, slowly revealing the antagonism between the couple, then culminating with The Pond’s reconciliation and departure. Maybe we will get more of this. But as it stands right now, they divorce quite suddenly and out of nowhere, and reconcile quite suddenly (Despite this, I still think the reconciliation was done well). We, as viewers, get the high of the Amy/Rory relationship that we have come to love over the last two years without being subjected to too much unpleasantness of Amy and Rory not being together. We get the romantic high without really suffering the emotional low. If I were feeling more cynical, I would think I was being emotionally manipulated.

Final Verdict: Fan consensus, at the moment, rates this episode very high. People are giving it 9/10. Some are saying it is the best episode since the series returned. Some are calling it the best episode of the Moffat era and the best Dalek episode of the new series. I’m tempted to think we are all just deliriously excited that Doctor Who is back on television after a longer than normal break. It would be hard—but not impossible—for Moffat to drop the ball right out of the gate. Indeed, he has written a great opening episode that is one of the best Dalek stories of new Who. It was fun. It did a lot of good things and had some interesting ideas. I think I’d give it a seven, maybe an eight. I’ll see how it holds up on the re-watch. However, when it comes to the episode’s direction, Nick Hurran gets a 10/10.

If this episode is any indication of the series ahead, I think we can expect good things.

The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe

Source: Amazon.com. Copyright 2011 by BBC.

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Farren Blackburn

Blurb from the Reference Guide: Christmas Eve, 1938, and Madge Arwell helps an injured spaceman-angel. He promises to repay her kindness. Three years later, Madge escapes war-torn London with her children for a house in Dorset. The Arwells are greeted by a caretaker whose Christmas gift leads them into a magical wintry world.

Seeing as I love trees and snow it is safe to assume that I would enjoy this Doctor Who Christmas special from 2011. Add to the mix an enjoyment of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (again, trees and snow) and this story pretty much ticks all the boxes. On the whole, it was light and fun with an interesting—yet mildly silly—mystery. And that’s not really a bad thing, because it is Doctor Who, after all, and silliness does have a place here.

Having said this about silliness, it strikes me as somewhat hypocritical to admit that I found The Doctor’s tour of the mansion too silly. Perhaps a better phrasing would be “over-the-top”. Or, even better, “trying too hard.” I think this is because the tour stands in stark contrast with the scene that immediately follows. Madge is expressing her frustration with The Doctor, which is really emotional unloading. Her husband has recently died at war and she hasn’t told her children. She is afraid to tell them because the joy of Christmas would be overshadowed by the grief of death. The Doctor comforts her by helping her see that her frustration comes from knowing the sorrow that will soon engulf her children. She gets mad at them for being happy when they will soon be so very sad. He tells her that it is most important for her children to be happy now because of the sadness that they will soon feel. It is this moment that shines. It is this moment that makes Matt Smith seem like a wise old man in a very young body. It is this moment that makes his earlier silliness seem forced, almost as if the process of making Doctor Who has interfered a little too much in the story; the production became a bit too self-conscious of its status as a Christmas story that will probably garner first-time viewers. It actually reminded me of the montage leading to the fish custard scene in The Eleventh Hour, which I felt went on too long and was just a bit too forced. Many other people love it, though, so I won’t bang on about it.

Of course, the bottom line is that the story made me cry. Yes, if one of the elements of the story is how it is good to cry when you are happy, then the story should probably make the viewer cry. This one did, so I think it is a success. So, while this episode doesn’t make the top tier of my favorite Doctor Who stories, it is certainly a solid entry.

Doctor Who Series 6.13 – The Wedding of River Song

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Jeremy Webb

Silence must fall.  And as The Doctor draws closer to his inevitable death he wants answers.  Why must he die?

Turns out, this was just an elaborate COSplayer and not a real Roman because, really, what sense would it make for Romans to still be using chariots when 21st century technology exists.

 “But if River is not unreliable, there is something gratifying to this classic series fan in hearing River chew-out The Doctor over his reputation, his legend.  I can’t help but wonder if Moffat is moving toward dealing with this problem.”

Is it cheating to use a quote from myself?  Granted, there are no particular rules to this beyond those I make up as I go along.  Regardless, by all accounts I think Steven Moffat did what I hoped.  Well, as best he could.  How does one deal with the reputation of The Doctor?  How does a writer come on to a show with nearly fifty years of continuity and the realization that The Doctor has achieved mythic, god-like status and then resolve to tell interesting or compelling stories without completely resetting continuity (or at least the last five years of it)?  Based upon all evidence given in this episode, this is what Steven Moffat was attempting.  Series five and six, while seeming to be about River Song, were in actuality an attempt to reset the show to The Doctor, on the run, with a TARDIS.  Here’s the thing, you don’t fake your own death, then go gallivanting about the universe bragging about it.  If The Doctor is going to keep The Silence off his tail, he has to stay in the shadows.  The has to be what he once was, a renegade Time Lord trying to keep a low profile.  He may have to be another Hartnell, but I doubt Moffat will take the show in that direction.  And while I believe that this particular Silence/Question arc will one day return (possibly in conjunction with The Doctor’s next regeneration), I am greatly interested in seeing how The Doctor attempts to keep a low profile.

But there is an interesting premise at the core of the question.  If Dorian’s rantings at the end of the episode are at all accurate, the question in plain sight is “Doctor who”?  And Silence legends say that the end will come when this question is answered.  This is the reason Jonathan Nathan Turner made Marc Platt re-write Ghost Light, moving the focus away from The Doctor’s past and to Ace’s instead.  “Doctor who” was the question that existed in the Hartnell era.  Who is The Doctor?  We have been given many answers as to his race and planet, but the exact circumstances to his rejection of Gallifrey have never been answered in the show (sure, much has been written in The New Adventures, but I doubt Moffat is going with those answers).  So, symbolically, if all questions about The Doctor are answered, the show ends.  In theory, at any rate. I personally believe The Doctor stopped being mysterious somewhere around the Pertwee era and didn’t become mysterious again until the McCoy era.  We knew who The Doctor was in those interim years, not because of his background, but because of his actions.  We judged him by what he did.  So, to a degree, the question may be irrelevant.

Okay, enough of that.  As to the episode itself, I went in hoping I wouldn’t dislike it as much as Let’s Kill Hitler, and I didn’t.  My wife certainly didn’t like it, but I enjoyed it for what it was.  As a resolution to the River Song arc, it was good enough.  It fits, and for a story that was being made up as it went along, it fits quite well.  And the episode had some great moments, from The Doctor playing cowboy while searching for information on The Silence to The Silence completely fooling Amy Pond’s military organization.  Madam Kovarian has become an interestingly portrayed character, but I still want to know more about her because her motivation seems quite lacking.  And I feel there are quite a few major conceptual holes in the portrayal of “time gone wrong”, not least of which is the concept of time as a mystical force rather than a unit of measurement.  But I really don’t feel like going in to that right now.  I’m contenting myself with the fact that the story of River Song holds together.  It may not have been the most interesting way to tell the story, nor was it the most compelling story that could have been told (Because when you really look at it, it is merely a love story told out of order.  The story didn’t demand an out of sequence narrative.  The entire River Song story could have been told in sequence just as effectively, if not more so.)  But it holds together well enough.  It works.  And I’m happy that the show seems ready to move on to something else.

Okay, I'm a bit irritated that I didn't see that part coming.

Doctor Who 6.08 – Let’s Kill Hitler

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Richard Senior

After summoning The Doctor to find out how goes his search for Melody Pond, Amy, Rory, and The Doctor find themselves hijacked by Mels, childhood friend of Amy and Rory.  The destination: Germany 1939. 

"Ah, but I knew you would replace the gun with a banana so I went back in time and had the man who GREW the banana genetically engineer a banana gun..."

 “And the penny drops.”

Oh, where to begin.  Let’s start with the positives.  I really, really wanted to love this.  Is it truly a positive if I’m appealing to my own good intentions?  Probably not.  Regardless, I don’t want to spend my reviews of Moffatt-Who talking about how the show isn’t as good as it once was or how we are now watching spectacle rather than actual drama.  I’m afraid that if I complain about the show too much that I will be forced to decide whether or not to keep reviewing it.  I’d certainly hate for people who read this blog  to say “why do you even watch the show if you don’t like it?”  But after Let’s Kill Hitler, I feel more excited that this block of episodes has more non-Moffat stories.

Sorry, let’s start again.  I loved seeing Amelia Pond again and thought the flashbacks were quite fun.  The scene where Amy accuses Rory of being gay was amusing.  Sure, the scenes screamed retcon and you knew that Mels would be important in some way, but they were fun enough to make me dismiss the obvious.  I liked the robot.  I liked the idea of a group of time travelers feeling some sort of temporal obligation to bring judgement upon war criminals.  It is an interesting idea that, on its own, could have created a compelling story that gave rise to questions about justice or vengeance, and whether or not punishing “dead people” (as the Doctor accused them) is entirely ethical, and where does The Doctor come off criticizing them anyway?  Yes, good idea and good potential.

But instead, we have River Song.  Instead we have a type of conclusion to the long-running River Song arc.  The first reaction to this episode was that it was quite abrupt.  Sure, in real-time, we have been waiting all summer to discover how The Doctor’s search for Melody Pond went.  But imagine the future, when people sit down to watch series six on DVD.  In this future scenario, the amount of time that passes between episodes  is only as long as it takes to switch your DVD.  Thus, you find out that River is Melody, then about three minutes later you get Melody Pond, super weapon, killing The Doctor and running amuck in Nazi Germany.  As much as I’ve been concerned about the story-arc’s affect on the pacing of series six, I think that this episode kills all the dramatic tension of the search and what happened to Melody between her time in the space suit and her time in this episode.  It is possible that Moffatt is planning more “timey-wimey” storytelling, but I’m not sure he is and, quite frankly, I think it is becoming increasingly unnecessary.  More often than not his scripts are less about telling a good story than they are about being clever and having funny dialogue.  They are about keeping the audience on their toes and tricking us, confusing us, pulling the rug out from under us.  Moffatt is obviously having a lot of fun, and that is great, but I’m starting to wonder if he is telling good stories, or just showing us cool set-pieces and giving us clever dialogue.

Melody Pond is supposed to have been raised as a super-weapon.  She is supposed to kill The Doctor.  And yet, all it takes is one meeting between the two of them for The Doctor to break her programming?  She kills him then saves his life just because he is interesting?  I suppose it is possible that we will revisit this idea, that perhaps she really will “kill” The Doctor and that her conditioning hasn’t quiet been broken yet.  But on the topic of death . . . .

My second realization was that regeneration is becoming a magic wand, and that regeneration itself is being completely neutered as a concept.  Sure, The Doctor can’t really die because practically: the show would end, and he can regenerate into a new body and have a new personality.  But that new body and personality mean that regeneration is a type of death and an old friend is gone.  But over the course of Cymru Who’s existence, we have found that wounds incurred during the first few hours of regeneration will heal, Time Lord body parts can absorb regeneration energy and thus negate the need for regeneration, regeneration energy can give someone super-powers which allow them to fly and shoot lightening from his or her hands, and, finally, that another Time Lord (or Time Lord-Human hybrid) can channel regeneration energy to heal the wounds of another Time Lord, possibly burning out remaining regenerations in the process.  This was the explanation for why River Song didn’t regenerate in Forest of The Dead, and I understand that.  But it also means that death in Doctor Who is even more meaningless.  I’m sorry, but where I’m concerned, Melody using her remaining regenerations to save The Doctor is a cheat.  I was half-expecting the revelation that The Doctor was a Ganger and, frankly, I would have found that more interesting.  How many Doctors are running around out there?  Why did The Doctor send a Ganger instead of arriving himself?  But no.  Magic wand.

All this said, I’m glad that we seem to be filling in the gaps of the arcs that have been with us since Moffatt took over the show (well, since series four, technically).  While this episode failed to excite me to Doctor Who’s return, I am happy that Moffatt’s name will not be appearing on very many episodes in the next few weeks.  As The Doctor said near the end of Day of the Moon, I’m ready for adventures.  I’m ready for something not so arc-driven.  I’m ready to see something new and different, anywhere in time and space.  I want to see something imaginative.  I certainly hope I’m not asking too much.

Doctor Who, Steven Moffat and “Season One” Questions

In the most-recent post on LOST, I brought up the idea of arc-storytelling and “season one” questions.

“In pondering this first season of LOST, I have come to the conclusion that any show that deals with arc-based storytelling succeeds or fails based primarily on one qualification.  Any questions raised in the first season MUST be answered by the end of the series.  Therefore, any show that deliberately raises multiple questions and messes with the heads of the audience with cliffhangers and outrageous revelations must answer in a satisfying way the mysteries that drew people to the show.”

I looked at how this rule was addressed, most-likely unconsciously, in Babylon 5, The X-Files and Battlestar Galactica.

After the series six premiere, Trevor Gensch from The Doctor Who Podcast made the statement that Steven Moffat is supposed to be writing Doctor Who, not LOST.  Indeed, this most-recent series has seen deliberately obscure and occasionally misleading questions.  The Silence turned out to be a play on words, being an actual race rather than the result of an event.  Steven Moffat is a careful plotter and has been with Doctor Who since the show returned, so in a way it is difficult to evaluate his “first season” questions.  Here is what I propose: Steven Moffat’s “first season” starts with Silence in The Library/Forest of the Dead, then continues with series five.  Thus, the questions become Who is River Song, what is The Silence, what caused The Cracks, and finally, why did The TARDIS explode.  We have been given partial answers to some of these questions.  We now know that River Song is Amy and Rory’s daughter, but we don’t know any significance apart from this.  Who is the “good man” she killed and is this the bad day she has coming?  What is the exact nature of her relationship with The Doctor?  Likewise, we now know that The Silence is an alien race, but we don’t know why they were on Earth and why they were manipulating humanity.  The cracks in the universe were caused by The TARDIS exploding, but we don’t know why The TARDIS exploded to begin with.  Thus, we are getting partial answers, and these lead to more questions.  At this point, it is hard to tell if Steven Moffat is slowly giving us pieces so the answers will make sense or if he is being deliberately obscure.  So, a question to any Doctor Who fans who are still reading . . . what do you think are the “season one” questions for the Moffat era?

Series 5.02 – The Beast Below

Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Andrew Gunn

The Doctor and Amy find Starship UK, a ship transporting the survivors of Britain to a new planet.

Amy: What are you going to do?
Doctor:  What I always do.  Stay out of trouble.  Badly.

The Beast Below is a different story from Steven Moffat’s usual writing.  Time travel is not a narrative device.  There are clues to what is going on, but the mystery and resolution are nowhere near as complex as the usual tale he weaves.  Honestly, for Moffat, this story is quite pedestrian.  He is obviously riffing on The Ark in Space and, to a lesser extent, The Ark.  The Earth has been made inhospitable due to solar flares, humanity has gone in search of a new home.  Rather straightforward stuff, but the twist involves the dark secret that is at the heart of the police state of Starship UK.

I do this same thing before my first cup of coffee.

The police state is represented by The Smilers, part clockwork men, part humans.  The role of The Smilers is observation and enforcement of rules.  Honestly, we shouldn’t think about The Smilers and the police state too closely.  They are representative of something being wrong, even filling the role of danger and menace, but the more you consider how Starship UK became a police state, a police state that seems to have the sole purpose of hiding the existence of the Space Whale, you start to realize how many unanswered questions and holes exist in this plot.  This can be frustrating.  Doctor Who has always had plot holes, but often the world-building was thorough enough that we would often turn a blind eye (or make knowing jokes).  Modern Doctor Who shows itself to be just as influenced by shows like The X-Files and Buffy, The Vampire Slayer as by the classic series.  Plot-arcs with the occasional alien-of-the-week stories.  The new series format doesn’t easily lend itself to the world-building of the past, and in the two parters (where you genuinely have the time to do so) telling epic and cinematic stories seem to be the higher priority.  So, by its very format, new Who is probably going to have plot holes because we can’t linger too long on any individual detail since doing so would kill the momentum of the 45 minutes.  With this in mind, we have no choice but to ignore questions like the ones above.  How did the police state come into existence?  Are the people cowed by more than just forgetting?  We must move forward and not concern ourselves with details such as these.  We have bigger things happening.  Besides, look at our wonderful production values!  Doctor Who has never had that before, eh?

“And once every five years everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned.  Democracy in action.”

I have seen reviews claim this story is a critique of British politics.  I can’t make any claim to this, being from the US, but I can find an alternate meaning for those of us not living in the UK.  Humanity will naturally exploit that which enables it to survive or achieve a certain amount of luxury.  It doesn’t matter if you take the Space Whale to be a metaphor for climate, ecological stability, foreign labor, or even constant tinkering to improve the natural world.  We constantly exercise dominion over the world, often to the detriment of the world or ourselves.  In the case of The Beast Below, this is Britain subduing and torturing the Space Whale to take them to a new planet, an act that the whale would gladly do without the torture.  In practical terms, this could be deforestation to create places of commerce or provide lumber and resources to societies that demand it.  It could represent sweat shops where our clothing is made.  We turn a blind eye to what becomes the support of our society, ignoring those who suffer for our comfort and security.  We choose to forget.  Keep in mind that the video Amy watches reminds voters that protesting would discontinue the program, “with consequences to you all.”  This is a vague threat.  Yes, it could mean we all die, but it could easily mean that our way of living would be over.  The announcer goes on to say that forgetting would “allow you to continue to enjoy the safety and amenities of Starship UK.”  The appeal is to safety and comfort.

In the end, this episode isn’t as grandiose as many of Moffat’s other stories.  It tries to establish a bit more characterization for The Doctor, much in the same way The End of the World did way back in 2005.  The atmosphere in the first half is rather nice and ominous, and The Smilers look wonderful . . . when they are in their hooded, human form.  The Beast Below tries to make a statement, but is vague enough that you can get multiple meanings out of it, so long as the core of “humans can do some horrible things” is still maintained.  But I get the impression Moffat is still easing us in to his reign.

And it looks like the next episode involves Winston Churchill and The Daleks.  Nothing could possibly go wrong there, eh?