Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Husbands of River Song


When I watched this story on original broadcast, I adored it. It went straight into the top spot as my favorite Doctor Who story ever. I knew this was probably temporary because it was precisely the story I needed after what had been quite a dark preceding season of Doctor Who, but I loved it.
Now, on re-watch I still love it. It manages to balance fun, silliness, emotion, and excitement rather well. It’s paced beautifully. Douglas Mackinnon’s direction is top-notch.

It is, I think, the perfect end to the story of the Doctor and River Song. Bringing her back now would, like the repeated returns of Rose, be a disappointment. Whether by accident or design Steven Moffat has managed to tell a pretty perfect time-traveling love story. We should be generous and assume it was by design.

I have always liked River Song and I think Alex Kingston has played her to perfection. It will be a shame not to see her again, but don’t spoil this perfect end by bringing her back dear future showrunners. Everything ends. Although – one tiny quibble – I think she’s uncharacteristically obtuse in not realizing that this is the Doctor before she does. However, I forgive that because it gives us the best ‘Hello Sweetie’ in the whole series (and I love River’s attempts to win back some credibility in its aftermath.)

Capaldi is excellent in this too. He gets two of my favorite Capaldi moments in this story: his entrance into the TARDIS – ‘finally’ and his speech at the end to River when he’s ostensibly talking about the Singing Towers but is talking about something entirely different. This is the first Capaldi story I’ve watched for a while and it reminded me once again why I’ve put him at the top of my list of favorite Doctors, which is – in its way – as arbitrary as my list of favorite Doctor Who stories. He can do it all. I think the key to playing the Doctor is the ability to shift from serious to silly in a moment and Capaldi can do that.

The supporting cast, of whom there are not a lot, do a fine job in small parts. Greg Davies gets to be loud and obnoxious; Matt Lucas gets to be funny, silly and a little strange as Nardole and Philip Rhys gets to be handsome as Ramone. None of them are particularly stretched but all of them do what they are asked to do with aplomb.

I should also add some praise for Rowan Polonski as Fleming, the maĆ®tre d’ of the starship Harmony and Redemption who channels the obsequiousness delightfully and then manages to turn into a total git. River Song gets to give him a lovely verbal execution towards the end of the story.

The idea of the starship Harmony and Redemption, which I overlooked on the first watch, is a horrible and interesting one. It’s basically a place where genocidal maniacs go to relax. Even the crew, according to River, are murderers. I’m not sure it would be the sort of place one would like to hang out for lunch, but the decision of River and the Doctor not to save the ship and, I assume, let most of the passengers die seems to fit this. Perhaps Steven Moffat needed this to make sure that the final moments of that episode allowed the Doctor and River their moment. Having them aboard a ship full of people worth rescuing might have made that a bit messy.

And there we have it. Still vastly enjoyable. I still cried a little. I still think they should have kissed at the end. But let us leave The Doctor and River to spend their long, long night on Darillium in peace.

Goodbye Sweetie.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Hell Bent


Was Hell Bent always going to be a slight disappointment after Heaven Sent? Possibly. It’s still good though. Even though I get the impression that it isn’t held in that high regard by other fans. There seems to be a feeling that having waited so long to see Gallifrey again we only get a flying visit before its all back to the Clara story.

But honestly, what was Gallifrey in Classic Who except for a series of dull rooms and an occasional visit to the Matrix or The Death Zone? We get to see some bits of Gallifrey we’ve not seen before. We get hints at the Doctor’s past and then, instead of staying, the Doctor runs away again. Gallifrey is a very boring place. I mean, whatever the theories for the Doctor’s departure, I’m still going with the original: he was bored, and he wanted to see the universe not just look at it from some intergalactic ivory tower.

I like the way this story is told. Chopping between the story itself and the Doctor’s telling of it in the diner. I like the way it ties up several threads without overloading everything. Clara’s original request to the Doctor all the way back to Asylum of the Daleks to ‘run, you clever boy and remember…’ has more poignancy after this story. It tries to tie up the Hybrid theme but then decides not to bother, but not before Me/Ashildr gently hints that the Doctor might be half-human – presumably on his mother’s side – again. Although this gets the brush off. Sort of.

The question of whether the ‘rescue’ of Clara undoes the emotional impact of her death is an interesting one. I felt – at the time – that it did. But then on re-watch, I felt Clara’s loss in Face the Raven as much as I had on the original watch even though I knew what was coming. And her ‘escape’ isn’t quite perfect, and the Doctor is punished for his hubris as he loses his memories of Clara, which might also feel a bit like retrospective karma for what he did to Donna all those stories long ago. So, in effect, although he rescues her, he’s lost her again. And this time he can’t even grieve for her because he doesn’t know there’s a loss to grieve. It’s as heart-breaking as Zoe and Jamie’s fates at the end of The War Games.

The Doctor’s been heading this way though since The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived after he convinced himself he knew why he’d picked his face and that he was tired of losing people. The example of Me/Ashildr didn’t seem to put him off though. He’s still determined to save Clara. Even though she’s dead. It’s un-Doctorish to an unusual degree. It’s like grief has driven him slightly mad.  

I do love the scene that ends with the Doctor saying to Clara after she had found out how long he spent in the Confession Dial, 'I had a duty of care.' Never has a phrase created out of legalese had more of an emotional wrench. It's 'I love you' isn't it? 

Again, I love Rachel Talalay’s direction, which brings a real film feel to this episode. Heaven Sent was incredibly creepy and claustrophobic. Hell Bent is more expansive. Plus, we get an old-school original TARDIS interior to gawp at. This is the second TARDIS the Doctor has stolen and the second TARDIS that won’t get returned to Gallifrey as it is now in the hands of Me/Ashildr and Clara.

The interesting thing in this story is how out of control the Doctor is. He even kills someone. Even if that is a Time Lord and they can regenerate. He’s let off a bit lightly there, I think. The General’s regeneration is another little seed sown in the path towards a female Doctor. Ooh and black Time Lords and Gallifreyans* too. This must be driving the non-PC crowd batshit crazy. Good.

In the end, the Doctor is alone again. In his TARDIS with a new sonic screwdriver. Clara and Me/Ashildr have gone off to have adventures of their own, which I’m sure Big Finish will get around to one day. Clara and Me/Ashildr are effectively immortal so how that’s going to work out, in the long run, I don’t know. I suppose both can be killed. I have this image of the two of them landing for the first time and the Time Lords just waiting for them. I mean it is one thing the Doctor stealing a TARDIS but two random aliens running off with one. That’s not going to end well.

Heaven Sent certainly isn’t as strong as Hell Bent but that is true of most Doctor Who stories. It is still a good story told in an interesting way. And just because Gallifrey is back it doesn’t mean we need to pop by every other week. Let it be there. Waiting for the right moment.

*My theory is that Gallifreyans are the ordinary population. Time Lords are drawn from that population. That becoming a Time Lord – with regeneration, etc – is a process / an education. So not all Gallifreyans can regenerate for example.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Heaven Sent


I’m going to nail my colors to the mast from the beginning here. I think Heaven Sent is not only one of the best episodes of New Doctor Who, I think it is one of the best episodes of Doctor Who. In fact, *I think it is one of the best fifty-four minutes of television ever made. It’s certainly Peter Capaldi’s finest not quite an hour.

It is a full-on exploration of grief and loss that you’d never expect from Doctor Who, which as I’ve often said many times before, is often quite glib when it comes to death. People die all the time in Doctor Who and hardly anyone ever really cares. But then if they did this wouldn’t be Doctor Who would it? It would be one of the bleakest television shows ever made. And we get a hint of this here, although this story is also a tribute to the Doctor’s own strength. He nearly breaks here. Nearly. But not quite. In the end, he’s arrived somewhere, and he’s emerged from his trial victorious.
Indeed, Heaven Sent truly is the Trial of a Time Lord. The Doctor is truly tested. Is he found wanting? Well, we shall see.

This story, written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay features only two actors (and one small child right at the end.) And only one of those, Peter Capaldi, speaks. The other is the slow, silent Veil (Jami Reid-Quarrell). The Veil lurks and reaches to great effect, but this is the Peter Capaldi solo performance and it is brilliant. I am still genuinely raging that his performance in this story went unrecognized at any acting awards. If there was an actor anyway in anything doing a better job than Capaldi in this story, then I’d like to see it. It’s almost as if it was ‘just Doctor Who’, which means it is undeserving of praise. Indeed, this just re-kindles my rage about how the whole Capaldi era was handled by the BBC. How half-arsed the publicity was. How no one seemed to care about it anymore. It genuinely felt – at points – like the fag end of Classic Who when the people running the BBC couldn’t give a toss anymore. Then up pops Jodie Whittaker** and everyone wakes up again.

The Doctor is trapped inside a castle. It is a castle whose walls move. There’s something of an Escher drawing about it. The castle is ‘haunted’ by the Veil. The purpose of all this is to get the Doctor to reveal what he knows about something important, The Hybrid. To do this the Doctor’s jailers are prepared, basically, to torture him and watch as their results play out. Then the Doctor finds a way out that is both a real wall of crystal and a metaphor for persistence overcoming resistance (to use a horrible phrase I learned a long time ago in sales training.)

Talalay’s direction is superb, especially during the montage sequence as the Doctor repeats his days over and over again creeping closer to escape. This story establishes her as one of the great directors of Doctor Who.

You get the impression that the Doctor might give up at some points. He wants to lose. He wants to be left alone to die. He doesn’t want to be the Doctor anymore, but the ghost of Clara past (if ghost is the correct term) is there to remind him of who he is. It’s the sequence inside the Doctor’s TARDIS ‘mind palace’ that brings us some of the story's strongest moments. The moment that always gets me is when The Doctor says, ‘But you still won’t be there…’ It’s remarkable acting in a remarkable story.

Then when the Doctor escapes you get one of the great moments of modern Doctor Who and a stonkingly good cliffhanger to boot. There’s a lot happening here.

To conclude – he says clunkingly – this is one of the great Doctor Who episodes of all time. It’s got the best performance you’ll see from any actor who has played the Doctor in it and it has things to say about grief that Doctor Who has ignored completely up until now. Why does no one mourn anyone in Doctor Who (or hardly ever)? Well, because – as I said earlier – it wouldn’t be Doctor Who anymore but here we stop to do so and as a result it makes everything feel more real.

Watch it.

 *Not fact. Opinion. Obviously.
**That’s not a criticism of Jodie btw. Who I think is great.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Face The Raven


First, a little preamble. When it comes to the final three episodes of Series 9, I had to decide whether these were three separate stories or one three-part story. Or something else. So, I made an entirely arbitrary decision to write three separate blogs even though I consider Face the Raven/Heaven Sent and Hell Bent to be one single story, which deserves an over-arching title, but I can’t think of one.
These three stories are a little like The Invasion of Time (which is a comparison I think might never have been made before) which is a six-part story split into two. The first two episodes are a quick and easy chance for the Doctor to stitch up a potential invasion by the least impressive Doctor Who villains ever before facing a whole different threat in the final four episodes, but it is still one story.

Now, as I said this is an arbitrary decision. Perhaps the logical one would have been to do two blogs. One for Face the Raven and another for Heaven Sent/Hell Bent. However – and this is where the true arbitrariness comes in – I think Heaven Sent deserves a whole blog of its own because not doing so is unfair – SPOILERS - on one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever made. Of which more later.
What of Face the Raven?

Well, it is rather good. The price of Clara’s behavior since the death of Danny is paid. She’s ‘gone native’. She thinks she is the Doctor and can run like the Doctor. The risk has become an addiction. Her fate in Face the Raven is the result.

We begin with a call from Rigsy (Joivian Wade) from Flatline. He has a new tattoo on his neck. It isn’t a normal tattoo though. It’s a countdown. But, a countdown to what? Well, it turns out it is a countdown to death.

The Doctor and Clara trace his movements from the previous day and find a ‘trap street’. Now, in the real world, a ‘trap street’ is just the name for a false street added to a map by a cartographer to catch out copyright thieves. In Doctor Who this ‘trap street’ is a real street. It’s where a small cluster of aliens have hidden – mostly after getting caught up with the Doctor in some way or another – and the street has a Mayor. That Mayor is Me/Ashildr (Maisie Williams). The ‘trap street’ it turns out is an actual trap.

Rigsy was the bait to bring the Doctor here. He has been accused of a terrible crime, for which death by Quantum Shade - in the form of a raven - is the sentence. Unfortunately, Clara does something terrible. She takes Rigsy’s tattoo and therefore his sentence. She thinks that the Doctor will come up with a solution, but he can’t. Me/Ashildr can’t undo it either. Clara is going to die. And whoever trapped the Doctor is going to take him away, along with his confession dial.

The last ten minutes or so of this story is fantastically well-acted. By Capaldi, by Coleman, and by Maisie Williams. The Doctor’s anger at Me/Ashildr when he realizes what is happening is something to behold, but Clara’s response is equally powerful. She doesn’t want him like this. She doesn’t want her death to be the cause of him no longer being the Doctor. It’s so well-written and well-played by both that it is almost unbearable. I won’t pretend I didn’t cry. I did. 

Maisie Williams is equally strong as she realizes what has happened. There’s a moment when The Doctor is raging, and he lifts his hand and Me/Ashildr flinches as if she’s expecting to be slapped. It’s a real revelation of what Me/Ashildr fears the Doctor to be capable of in that mood.

Then Clara faces the raven. For all it’s darkness it is a strong end to Clara’s story. The hint that perhaps this is what she wanted is a gentle one, but it is there and it is played so well. I really can’t understand why people find Clara so annoying when Coleman is this good.

And so, the Doctor is trapped.

But before he goes, he gets a nice, short speech that ends, ‘You’ll find the universe is a very small place when I’m angry with you.’ It’s a terrifying threat delivered so quietly that it feels even more frightening. Despite what Clara says about the Doctor’s reign of terror ending at the first crying child Capaldi’s performance makes you wonder about that. I’ve said before that sometimes the line between the Doctor and the Master is a fine one indeed.

So, Face the Raven, is good. It’s like Justin Molotnikov direction and Sarah Dollard’s debut Doctor Who script sparkles. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Sleep No More

--> I am not sure I have a great deal to say about Sleep No More.

It is funny how my opinions about a Doctor Who story can change on re-watch. I thought – on the first watch – that this was the weakest story of Season Nine. I think it still might be. But that isn’t because it is not an interesting episode. It just feels unfinished. We’re left without a solution. The Sandmen won. It seems. Even though The Doctor has escaped the infection is out there and both Clara and Nagata (Elaine Tan) are infected.

Written by Mark Gatiss Sleep No More is a base under siege story that teeters on being properly horrific. A sort of shadow copy of The Ark in Space, except there’s no Noah clinging onto his humanity despite his metamorphosis. No, Sleep No More is bleaker than that. This is no indomitable human race. There is a skulking, greedy scientist who has given up on his species altogether, Rasmussen (Reece Shearsmith). He could not – or would not - even save himself, let alone the rest of the human race.

The story is set in the 38th century. We some throwaway world-building, which suggests that an Indo-Japanese superstate is the world’s major superpower and except for Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Reece Shearsmith and Bethany Black the rest of the caste are of Asian descent (and I use Asian here to cover the whole continent, not just Indian/Pakistan.) Even if they all have British accents of various kinds, like Nakata’s Geordie. There’s probably a reason for that. I just do not know what it is.

I should mention Bethany Black, who plays the ‘grunt’ 474. ‘Grunts’ are grown to be soldiers. Their intelligence is low and their strength high. Bethany Black is the first openly transgender actor to appear in Doctor Who. It is a fine performance in a limited part. I wish though – having seen her in other things – that she had been given a part with a bit more to it. She does get a heroic death though so what more can one ask for?

The guest cast – apart from Reece Shearsmith – all have limited parts and they seem destined to die in the usual manner among the minor roles in a base under siege story.  I do want to stop though and applaud Paul Courtney-Hyu’s (who is playing Deep Ando) acting when he’s trying to get into a safe room whilst the computer – which was apparently reprogrammed at the Christmas Party to require everyone to sing ‘Mr Sandman’ for access. It manages to be both funny and tense at the same time, whilst you can feel Paul Courtney-Hyu makes you really feel Deep Ando’s barely suppressed panic and desperation.

Reece Shearsmith does a good job of making Rasmussen's cowardice and corruption add up to more than just a bog-standard Doctor Who villain. He feels like the sort of person who right-wing governments would put in charge of an unpleasant project and who would carry out his orders without question. The living embodiment of the banality of evil. 

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are up to their usual standards. I genuinely think Capaldi is the best actor to have played Doctor Who.* I know there are many rivals to that title, particularly Troughton. Yet I am going to stick to my guns on this one. Capaldi’s Doctor is my favorite Doctor. Tom Baker will always be MY Doctor because he was my first Doctor and I grew up watching him. If I’m feeling down, it is always a Tom Baker Doctor Who story that I’ll reach for. If I’m feeling really down, it will be The Horns of Nimon.**

I digress.

So, although this is not an amazing story I am a little baffled about why I disliked it so much on the first watch. The director, Justin Molotnikov, does good work bring Gatiss’s ideas to life. This does have the feel of a Classic Doctor Who story made to be cheap filler while other more ambitious stories surround it.

Perhaps it is simply the Gatiss desire for a clever pay-off meant it seems not to have an ending. I am not sure a second episode would have been justified. It does need something. Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps I should be content to leave loose threads dangling. Not everything has to be wrapped up in a neat bundle after all. 

*Yes, I went there. Sue me.
** So, sue me. Part Two.