Saturday, 22 November 2014

Meglos




I am a huge fan of Season 18 and consider it to be the strongest season of the show (the only other contender being Season 25, which is let down by Silver Nemesis). Meglos is unfortunately the weakest story of an otherwise brilliant season. However, Meglos is not nearly as atrocious as it is sometimes considered by fans and shows the consistent improvement in quality between Seasons 17 and 18.

Central to John Nathan-Turner's agenda for his first season as producer was in improvement on production values after the sloppiness of the Graham Williams era. This is very much evident in Meglos, with the spacecraft design, the costumes and the the appearance of Zolpha-Thura. Tigella is perhaps less effective as a planet, with the jungle looking a little unimpressive. More importantly, the brilliant musical score helps to give the worlds of this serial an haunting sense of atmosphere. As even critics of Meglos agree, the spiny make-up effect on Tom Baker is extremely impressive and disturbing. Meglos is certainly an interesting character, a disembodied intelligence manifesting in a cactus. It reminds me a bit of Vulthoom from the Klark-Ash-Ton story in the Cthulhu Mythos.

We also get Jacqueline Hill returning to the show in the role of Lexa. Admittedly her part as a closed-minded fundamentalist is a rather cliched one, with little for her to develop, yet she still gives a lovely performance.

The Chronic Hysteresis is rather less impressive, as well as being scientific nonsense. The scene goes on rather to long, even if Lalla Ward does a good job of appearing distressed by the absurd situation.

I always love carnivorous plants, so I quite like the Bell Plants, even if they are not terribly impressive. It would not be long before the BBC put Doctor Who completely to shame with the brilliance of its Triffid monsters in their own series.




Part of the charm of Meglos is that it is an old-fashioned space adventure that goes to strange and exotic worlds. The presence of Jacqueline Hill is rather appropriate, as it very much evokes the spirit and style of the Hartnell era. This willingness to create exotic worlds is something sadly lacking in the new series.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Death in Heaven




Phil Sandifer recently complained about reviewers criticising this last season of Doctor Who as derivative. In his opinion, those who make such a charge have nothing meaningful to say about Doctor Who. What I say is that I know when Doctor Who is not derivative. Warriors' Gate does not feel derivative, nor does Snakedance. Yes, those stories have influences both inside Doctor who and outside it. Yet this is very different from being essentially a rehash of other stories, in the way that Attack of the Cybermen is. Death in Heaven feels rather more enjoyable than Attack of the Cybermen, but it still feels very much a recycling of similar stories and themes. There is a lingering sense of deja vu about this episode. One feels that one has seen something pretty similar before, but can't quite remember exactly which episode.

Death in Heaven very much feels like a Russel T Davies story with Moffat elements thrown in. Arguably, it is a stronger version of Closing Time with UNIT and the Master thrown in. Perhaps it is inevitable that a story that brings back the Master, the Cybermen and UNIT will feel unoriginal, which perhaps raises the question of whether doing all three together was such a great idea.

Death in Heaven has some exciting moments and it is Michelle Gomez's Missy that makes it really enjoyable, but on the whole it is a slightly disappointing piece of work. The pacing is definitely uneven and the ending is a little confusing and clumsy.

The death of Osgood has definitely bothered a lot of fans and it is easy to see why. Killing off a likeable character is a risky move. I would argue that the last season has been a little too heavy on big emotional moments; they should be used sparingly. Yet in this instance, we arguably ought to have had a more emotion put into the death of Osgood.

Killing off Osgood was a questionable move and so was killing off Missy. I used to be very much in favour of the death penalty. I'm not sure I disagree with it, but I'm not convinced any more. Perhaps this is due to my conversion to Catholicism. Catholicism is ambivalent about the death penalty; acknowledging that it may be necessary, but not identifying it as an ideal. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the death penalty, I was very uncomfortable at seeing an unarmed and helpless woman killed in cold blood. The viewer is clearly encouraged to sympathize with Clara who demands Missy's death. I am sure Moffat did not intend this to be advocating the death penalty, but that is how it came across, much like the way Kill the Moon seemed to unintentionally oppose abortion. Would it really have been such a bad idea to have Missy handcuffed and frogmarched off to jail at the end? Why does the Master need to be killed at the end of every appearance, only to have the writers find some contrived way to bring her back? Lawrence Miles rightly complained about the laziness of writers who kill off too many characters.

As a theologian, I am very glad that the Doctor denied that love is an emotion. Yes, love is not an emotion, but a disposition of the will. Christian orthodoxy holds that God is love, yet he is also impassible, that is without emotions.





Sunday, 2 November 2014

Dark Water




The first fifteen minutes of this story are pretty amazing. We see Danny killed, Clara venting her rage at Dr. Who and appearing to have him at her mercy until he turns the tables on her and then his announcement that he will help her get Danny back from 'hell.' This is incredibly powerful drama and gives Capaldi exactly the kind of material he can deliver like diamonds.

Things get a bit more wobbly once we enter the bizarre pseudo-underworld. It did seem remarkable that the Doctor believed he could take the TARDIS into the afterlife. I was a bit confused by the scepticism he later showed once he got there. Did he believe in the afterlife or not, and if not, why did he expect to find Danny somewhere?

The afterlife is somewhere that Doctor Who should not explore. I'm rather glad that this afterlife turned out to be fake, but the episode probably went a little too far. I know that if I had watched this as a child, I would have been troubled by the apparent conflict with my Christian beliefs. I agree with the Radio Times review that said the idea of cremated people being in conscious torment was insensitive and distasteful. This episode could have been very upsetting for people who had seen a bereavement. The level of darkness here was probably a bit much for younger viewers.

So Missy turns out to be a female incarnation of the Master. Most fans had guessed this as possible, but I had expected her to be some disappointing throw-away character like Kovarian. A female Master is an exciting idea and nobody can fail to love her twister Mary Poppins guise. Her pretense at being a droid is a nice reference to either Scream of the Shalka or Planet of Fire and the sort of camp trick the Master would play. On the other hand, her kissing Dr. Who is a bit of a throwback to flirty River Song, reminding us of the difficulties Moffat has had writing female characters. I also feel a sense of dread at the thought of the Master coming back. A female Master is still the Master; a character with ludicrous schemes that always scuppered and who comes back again and again. No doubt Missy will be killed in the big season finale only for the next producer to find a contrived way to bring back a new Master.

I don't have high hopes for the next episode. The Cybermen harvesting the dead and invading London is hardly a very original idea. This story is starting to feel a lot like a story that RTD did a few times.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

In the Forest of the Night



Phil Sandifer's review of In the Forest of the Night, which delves into the Blakean aspects of the imagery, really made me want to like this. Unfortunately, the depth of Sandifer's review does not quite match the quality of the episode.

I do like the fantastical magical feel of this story. I really do like fantasy in Doctor Who. Unfortunately, this is a story with a solar flair in and so we can't just throw away the science. Doing a fantasy type Doctor Who set on Earth is tricky. Greatest Show in the Galaxy could afford to deal with magical themes because it was set on another planet; a different world with different rules. Even Survival, another magical story was partly set on another planet.

It's a little hard to fathom trees growing so quickly that nobody notices them until they have turned into a forest. Even more incredibly, London seems almost deserted. I know we get the government warning to stay inside, but what happened to the legions of homeless people? What about the people who were not at home when the trees started growing. Of course, what I would really have loved to have seen in this episode is the gigantic trees growing out of the oceans. Such a shame we didn't get to see those.

Once again we get a Problem with Sutekh moment. Clara points out that the world cannot end because she has seen the future. Dr. Who replies that the future has been erased by this event. That makes no sense. No time traveller has intervened to alter history. If history can alter at random like that, then the Doctor could never have any knowledge of past or future history. In fact, history would be meaningless. Would it even matter that humanity would die; their future history erased? Maybe another even would alter this course of history and humanity would survive.

I'm a little bothered by Clara's objection to Dr. Who saving the children. Yes, they would be upset by the deaths of their parents, but would Clara really be happier to see those kids scorched to death with the rest of the planet?

Some aspects of this story were confusing, particularly those related to Maebh. It was difficult to make sense of just how she fitted into the plot. I'm utterly baffled about how the return of Anabel fitted in. The theme of childhood mental illness is a very sensitive topic and I'm a little surprised it came up. I can't say I feel at all qualified to comment on how well this topic was handled.

On the whole it was probably not the best idea to write a story requiring a lot of child actors. And those CGI animals looked terrible.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Flatline



Most people seem to like this story, but I found myself getting really bored watching it. Flatline seemed to be full of lots of running around and pointless action.

The idea of non-3D aliens was an interesting one and had the potential to be genuinely creepy. Unfortunately this failed to terrify due to the comic tone taken by the script. Sometimes I just wish the writers could tone down the humour and try to give us a more serious story. We really don't need a laugh every minute. The story was also ruined by the awful music, the sort of score you get in those family movies they show on Christmas day.

In Flatline, Clara gets to take on the role of the Doctor. She turns out to be rather good at it. It was fun at times seeing her act Doctorish and her resourcefulness was appealing. However, I can't help thinking thst it would have been more interesting to see her do a bad job of being the Doctor. What is the point of watching Doctor Who if anyone can be the Doctor?

Once again, the Doctor suggests that a black man is unintelligent. This really reminds me of that Father Ted episode in which Father Ted accidentally acquires a reputation for being a racist.

I didn't feel at all engaged by this episode. Like so much of Moffat-era Doctor Who, this is just boring.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express



This story is set on a recreation of the Orient Express in space. It seems a remarkably vivid recreation, because both the crew and passengers are dressed in period costume. Furthermore, they are all human and seemingly British. I think it would have been more interesting visually to do a less perfect re-creation of the period, by having some characters be aliens and some of the passengers wearing non-period costumes. Would that have confused the costume department too much? If they really wanted to do a period drama on the Orient Express, why not have it set on the real train on Earth, with the monster being an Egyptian mummy? This seems a bit like RTD's demand for werewolves, Kung-Fu monks and Queen Victoria in the same story.

I'm not sure why the carriages of the train are swaying, as if on a winding railtrack. If this is a spaceship travelling through space, it ought to be moving straightforward, having no physical obstacles to affect its movement.

I don't think this is how to do a monster story. We get a full reveal of the monster right at the beginning. We see so much of it that it does not stay scary for very long. What is more, the very title gives away the fact that it is a mummy. Could the nature of the monstrous entity not have been concealed for a while? An unknown terror is much more frightening.

The mummy turns out to be a form of alien technology, like several other entities we have encountered in this season. Are we not going to get any proper aliens in these stories? It seems a mundane and dull explanation for the monster. I would much have preferred it to have turned out to be the mummified remains of some ancient alien emperor. This story shares with Pyramids of Mars a misunderstanding about just why mummies are scary. Mummies are not scary because they are wrapped in bandages. They are scary because they are dead things. They are part of the 'uncanny.' A robotic mummy is a bit banal.

I think this story was reasonably well polished and did interesting things with the characters, but it had a lack of imagination and flair.



Friday, 10 October 2014

Gallifrey Exile: The Hypocrisy of The Doctor


'One of the places I go to for Doctor Who reviews that I genuinely trust and admire is Tea With Morbius, run by Matthew Celestis.  For his review of The Caretaker, he made some very pointed comments about the issue of how soldiers are presented on Doctor Who, as well as on the issues of race and class involving both the newest character, Danny Pink (played by Samuel Anderson) and other characters of color whom Celestis I think is saying are shown in a bad light.
I think this merits some examination.
I think the best thing to do is to look at Doctor Who pre-Moffat, and in particular pre-12th Doctor, to see that I agree with Celestis in how Doctor Who appears to have a bizarre pathological contempt for soldiers, and worse, which is completely contradictory to what Canon has established.
If we go back to the beginning, we see that the Doctor didn't have this lifetime hatred for soldiers.  In fact, while he was a pacifist he had a great deal of respect for the military.  We only need to go to the most obvious example: UNIT.'

I'm glad somebody likes my reviews.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Kill the Moon




You know what, yesterday I was outside an abortion clinic, taking part in a prayer vigil. You might expect me to like this episode on the basis of my strongly pro-life stance, but I didn't.

I actually don't think this story is deliberately meant to be about abortion. The abortion implications were on the same level as the unintentional but still quite shocking racism of the previous episode. The compassion for the space dragon was the same sentimentality bestowed upon that dinosaur in Deep Breath. This is about not being mean to cute animals. I very much doubt that Guardian-reading Clara cares in the slightest about abortion. She's probably one of those people who will be outraged at cruelty to animals, while approving of the legalised murder of unborn children. I did not feel admiration for the writers for accidentally touching on an issue I care about, but rather contempt for the moral clumsiness of it.

This really does feel like a clumsy story. As with A Town called Mercy, building a plot around a moral dilemma always feels a bit cold and artificial. The decision of Dr. Who to step outside the dilemma was interesting, but felt odd given he had never done such a thing before. This just feels like a way to set up the big argument between Clara and Dr. Who at the end. What is more, that the egg turns out to open harmlessly feels like an unconvincing and unsatisfying resolution.

All that talk about whether to say Courtney is 'special' seems a bit odd. I rather thought describing people as 'special' was meaningless and banal. I would imagine most teenagers would feel patronized by being called 'special.' I do find it interesting how the current show handles a teenage character. In the classic series, teenage companions were just treated as immature adults. Courtney is treated as a child who has to be protected. I'd quite like to see a teenager as a regular companion, but Courtney is a bit too whingey and cliched to be entertaining.

The most irritating aspect of the episode was the scientific howlers. How did the moon gain mass? The mass had to come from somewhere. How did a newborn creature lay an egg that was the same size as that it had just hatched from? Doctor Who often has wonky science, but howlers like that cannot be excused.

I think the idea of monster spiders on the moon is a pretty cool one. However, it seems just a little odd that over-sized singular celled lifeforms would look like spiders and even more surprising that they should spin cobwebs.

This was a really odd episode and not one that I enjoyed very much.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Caretaker



Given the way the previous episodes have been set up, it was inevitable that Danny Pink's first meeting with Dr. Who was going to take a definite shape. We were basically waiting for an episode in which Danny finds out about Clara's double-life and is completely mind-boggled. We knew he was going to say something along the lines of "I just don't know who you are any more." We knew the Doctor was going to disapprove of him because he was a Soldier (shock horror!), but he would prove himself to be a decent sort of chap by saving the day. The Caretaker does all this and it's really rather predictable. It felt like a painful exercise to get through.

So Dr. Who has a big problem with soldiers, no not just soldiers, to be precise ex-soldiers. It seems a bit odd given he was happy to travel with Harry Sullivan, a serving naval officer, and Sarah Kingdom, a serving military intelligence agent. He also seemed to get on fine with Wilf. Not to mention spending a lot of time hanging around with all those military personel from UNIT. We are never actually told that Ian Chesterton, also a school teacher was an ex-soldier, but there is quite a bit of evidence that he had done some military service, as well as the likelihood that he had done national service. If the Doctor does not like ex-soldiers, he is going to have an horrible time if he ever visits Finland, Brazil, Singapore or anywhere else where they have compulsory military service. You can just imagine the Doctor going to Singapore and saying "No! No! There are ex-soldiers everywhere! Ah!"

I'm getting tired of the capitalization of the word Soldier that we are seeing in Doctor Who. As I said regarding Into the Dalek, they are not some special category of human beings. They are just ordinary people rightly or wrongly doing an extraordinary job that people have done since the dawn of history. I think this comes down to the remoteness of the military from the lives of middle-class television writers, especially given how the armed forces have come to recruit predominatly from the working-class communities. It is not helped by campaigns like Help the Heroes which seem to sentimentalize and infantilize members of the armed forces. Notice how often the army are referred to as 'our boys.'

In short, Dr. Who's attitude to Danny Pink seems unreasonable. The unreasonableness of it makes his objections and antagonism toward him seem rather false and unconvincing. Worse than that is the awkward racial sub-text of the Doctor, a white man, making prejudiced assumptions about the intelligence of a black man. No doubt the writers were intending this to be on account of Danny being a Soldier, but the racial sub-text cannot be ignored. What is more, in the same episode we get a black girl who is a 'disruptive influence' who the Doctor casually suggests might go shoplifting. Along with a white police officer harassing a couple of black kids. Call me a Sandiferian or a Jack Grahmite if you like, but I found this painful. This is of course, from the same producer who gave us Mels, the black delinquent incarnation of River Song and an episode in which the rare inclusion of a group of black characters turn out to be a dim-witted bunch of petty crooks.


We get to spend a bit more time with Danny Pink in The Caretaker and it's not a fun experience. What we have seen so far seems like a rather surly and miserable character who can't cry convincingly. Now it seems that in a relationship he is rather controlling and manipulative. It's getting really hard to warm to this bloke.

This episode was fun in places, and the acting and direction was really quite good, but I found it rather depressing on the whole.



Saturday, 27 September 2014

Inferno



A lot of Doctor Who stories are padded out to fill extra episodes, but Inferno takes padding to a completely different level. The orginal story about a drilling station and green slime turning people into werewolves would have needed padding to fill out four episodes, but this serial had to stretch to an impossible seven episodes. The ever resourceful Terrance Dicks came up with the idea of filling this out by taking the Doctor to a 'mirror universe' version of the same setting, with Fascist versions of the main characters. Conveniently, this removed the need for new sets and hiring new actors. All it required was a slightly higher costume budget and Nicholas Courtney to spend a bit longer in the make-up chair.

A lot of fans think the idea of the 'mirror universe' is a fantastically clever one. I don't. As Phil Sandifer points out (there is very little in his Inferno essay that I disagree with), the idea of a mirror universe is one that television writers continually turn to. It's a very standard trope. It's not used in a particularly creative way in Inferno. The Doctor's witnessing of the destruction of the mirror Earth does not give him any new insight that enables him to save the regular Earth. It simply feels like a way to draw the story out and we are denied the pleasure of seeing the Fascist characters meeting their other selves.

That is not to say that the Inferno-verse is not fun to watch at times. The actors are clearly enjoying the chance to be evil for a while. Nicholas Courtney is particulary memorable as the sneering Brigade Leader. This is possibly a problem for Caroline John's Liz Shaw. Liz never really had much personality or character development. It is actually only when she becomes a Fascist that she appears to be an interesting character who we want to watch. Furthermore, the Fascist world is never really explored. It never really offers more than a fleeting glimpse of what this world is like. It seems perhaps a little surprising that the royal family were executed in this world. In our world, the British Union of Fascists supported the monarchy and our royal family were hardly left of centre in their views. Perhaps the mirror universe regime is closer to Communism than Fascism. Or more accurately, given the Terrance Dicks input, they are a British version of those nasty foreign bureacratic types that we British patriots all hate and UKIP imagine are running the European Union.



Of course, Inferno has some great direction, thanks to Douglas Camfield, with Barry Letts filling in when the director became ill. This story has some enjoyable moments, but for me it is just too long and bores me. This is not a classic by any stretch.

It has been said that the first four episodes of a new Doctor's run follow a pattern. The first story is a frenzied runaround (Spearhead from Space- not much plot going on), the second story is one more suited to the previous Doctor (Dr Who and the Silurians- the old base under siege) and the third story an experimental new kind of story that is not really repeated (Ambassadors of Death- realistic elements at the forefront and science fiction elements kept in the background). It is the fourth story that defines the new era. With its theme of industrial research, energy sources, green slime, Venusian Akido and pointless car chases, Inferno sets up the Third Doctor era perfectly. All that is missing is Jo Grant and the riotous colours that came in with Claws of Axos.



It does seem remarkable given all the massive historical differences between our universe and the Inferno-verse, that all the main characters are all together in an almost identical scientificc installation. The novel Timewyrm: Revelation offers a handy explanation that this universe has been artificially constructed. I did come up with my own theory as to the nature of the Inferno-verse. In The Chase, the Doctor conjectures that the TARDIS had entered a realm formed from human fears. It seems surprising that the Doctor would suppose that such a psychological world existed and that the TARDIS could take one there, but perhaps the Inferno-verse is this 'land of fears?' Could the Inferno-verse be a sort of projection of the Doctor's own fears about the drilling project? It occurred to me that the Republic Security Force represent the Doctor's anxieties about working with a military organisation. It's worth noting that the Brigade Leader is not that far removed from the Brigadier in personality. Notice the scene in Inferno where the real Brigadier rants at Benton and orders him to act like a bully and to coerce Stahlman. Of course, this theory contradicts the novels in which the Inferno-verse is a real place.


So what is going on with all that green slime? Some of the New Adventure novels hint at the idea, championed by Lawrence Miles, that the Earth is an artificial planet. After the Time Lords first experimented with Time Travel, they unleashed the vampiric Yssgaroth from a hellish other-universe. After Rassilon defeated the Yssgaroth, he fixed up the holes in the universe with artificial planets, Earth being one of these. Thus, the weird green slime that seems to defy the laws of physics is matter from another universe. This is supported by Planet of Evil, in which material from another universe has a similar effect in turning people into werewolves.

I think the Yssgaroth/ Hollow Earth theory fits Inferno perfectly. The very title of this serial captures the idea of hell being underground. The drilling station is not simply causing an ecological disaster, but is awakening demonic forces. Notice that the Primords and Stahlman in particular act like they are under the control of some unseen force. They are being controlled the Yssgaroth, who want to escape and unleash havoc on the universe (no pun intended).