Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Mummy on the Orient Express"

"There's no more bog roll."
Right. Let's do this. We begin with Capaldi's voice, even though he isn't there, while over the course of 66 surprisingly long seconds Mrs Bale from As Time Goes By gets menaced by a mummy that no one else can see. The word 'thing' rears its loathsome head here again when she refers to it as a 'mummy monster thing' because in Moffat land everyone shares identical verbal tics. The mummy places its hands on her head and she carks it, her distressed relative claiming rather clinically that "she just stopped." Outside we get our 'holy shit' special effects budget down the toilet moment when we discover that we're on a train going through space. After the titles, we find the Doctor and Clara arriving on the train taking a final trip together following Clara's explosion in 'Kill the Moon.' In the carriage we have some pop singer I'd never heard of prior to the show's promotional campaign on Facebook singing a swing version of classic overplayed Queen track 'Don't Stop Me Know,' although as an Old Who purist I was of course appalled to hear the phrase 'sex machine' being uttered in Doctor Who, when it should of course only ever be used in a scientific sense, or perhaps when a Victorian gentleman refers to 'the fair sex.' We've got the mummy, we've got the Orient Express, we've got the Doctor: now we need the last bit of the episode that isn't established in the title, which is to say our obligatory boring "emotional" crap, "emotional" in massive scare quotes where "emotional" means melodrama and tired dialogue clichés. The Doctor acts as if he's all confused about Clara having a sad smile, which gets to completely overplay this ludicrous 'the Twelfth Doctor doesn't get emotions' garbage.
Don't get too excited, she doesn't actually leave.
While I thought Capaldi should have started necking the complimentary champagne like a seasoned campaigner, he and Clara instead settle down to some idle sips while the posh train voice provided by an unrecognisable (to me, at least) John Sessions points out a fancy black hole, about which the Doctor reminisces while Clara waffles about how she doesn't hate the Doctor despite not wanting to travel with him anymore. The Doctor tries to steer the conversation away towards interesting things in space - Clara is on an interbellum-themed space train but can't stop gasbagging about her feelings - but he's rudely interrupted by Miss Pitt whose elderly relative kicked the bucket in the opening. As she's ushered away to her padded cell we're introduced to train captain Quell, who asks what he's a Doctor of. An opportunity to respond with "practically everything" is missed and then despite having just arrived the Doctor and Clara decide to take to their respective beds. The Doctor busts out this episode's obligatory ageist comment, stating that old ladies dying is "practically their job description" and asks if Clara wants the death to be a "thing," of course. It's dreadful. Clara claims that she'll see the Doctor again, which he queries. Ugh, we're back on this again?
"Can you stop wiggling your middle finger against my palm?"
In their rooms - how do they have rooms on the train if they just showed up? we find out later they're not on the guest list - Clara and Danny bore each other to death on the phone while Peter Capaldi seemingly impersonates Tom Baker, presumably due to both Doctors' experience with mummies. He pisses off to investigate without his silk-pyjama-clad companion and runs into Perkins the chief engineer, played by comedian Frank Skinner. He's not much of an actor but he gets the job done in this one, and in playing a dry, sarcastic character he has a good rapport with Capaldi himself. Meanwhile Clara follows crazy Maisie, Miss Pitt, who smashes a locked door panel with a high heeled shoe. Back in the carriage everyone's still up, which makes it look even more odd than Clara and the Doctor retired, and the Doctor accosts a 'Professor Moorhouse' about a legendary alien mummy called The Foretold which takes sixty-six seconds to kill its victims. He also gives him a jelly baby as this episode's next piece of feeble lip service to real Doctor Who. Meanwhile said mummy kills a chef in the kitchen, proving that there's no escape and that he doesn't discriminate based on class. In the locked room crazy Maisie reveals that Mrs Bale was her grandmother and that she feels guilty because she used to picture her dying. But was she picturing her dying because she disliked her, or to soften the blow for when it actually happened? It's not clear. Clara makes it about her of course, before noticing a big sarcophagus in the room.
"How dare you impugn my moustache sir."
Elsewhere, it's time for a joke so the much-loathed psychic paper informs Captain Quell that the Doctor is a 'mystery shopper.' In his office he offers the Doctor a snifter of the neat stuff but, despite what happened in 'Deep Breath,' he turns him down. The Doctor gets fed up with him, however, and leaves when he refuses to take action. Fortunately trusty Perkins has been gathering info for a while and provides this to the Doctor. The two of them and Moorhouse discuss 'the Foretold' and its alleged invincibility but before we can go any further we cut back to Clara and crazy Maisie still waffling about Clara leaving the Doctor. Remember kids, men talk business while women sit around chatting about their feelings. Clara regurgitates the sentiment Danny Pink gave her, that "you can't end on a slammed door," which Maisie immediately contradicts. The award for nonsensical shoehorned Moffat-style bullshit line of the week, however, goes to Maisie's "life would be so much simpler if you liked the right people, the people you're supposed to like, but then I guess there'd be no fairy tales" What on earth is that supposed to mean? The premise has absolutely no relation whatsoever to the conclusion. It's contemptible pseudo-intellectual nonsense that sounds like it was precisely engineered to be quoted on tumblr.
"Good lord, we're on a train."
The windows become bright which I assume is meant to convey day on the train, the Doctor turns some communicator thing from the wall into a phone to call Clara, fails to get her out of the locked room, is caught by Quell and arrested. The sarcophagus opens on Clara and crazy Maisie but it's just full of, to quote Clara's intonation, "booble wrap." We get an old school moment when the Captain suggests that the Doctor's behind the killings, but changes his mind when one of the guards snuffs it in front of him. Why does he let the Doctor go as a result of that? It's not like the Doctor was there any of the other times, how does he know he's not a bit of an Eddie Mars - a killer by remote control? It's nice to see that everyone's changed out of evening dress for the 'morning' on the train. The Doctor susses that someone's gathered numerous experts to the train on purpose and Gus the computer reveals that everything's actually a lab, the other passengers and some of the crew being 'hard light holograms,' in another instance of this show owing a worrying large amount not to itself but to Red Dwarf, which despite being a sitcom is an infinitely better science fiction programme than New Who will ever be. Frank Skinner gets to deliver the line "the engines, they've stopped," in a way that shows off that he's not an actor, and Gus announces that "around the room you will find a variety of scientific equipment" although I believe going by the flasks and test tubes he forgot the words 'generic' and 'stereotypical' in there. The scientists are meant to figure out how to capture the Foretold mummy, which has been brought on board via an ancient scroll around which it typically manifests.
Let me play among the stars.
The mummy arrives to kill Moorhouse, who basically describes it as being a mummy to the Doctor before he panics and carks it. This establishes our new 'drama' of the Doctor spending people's lives in order to try to stop the mummy. He calls Clara for some info near the sarcophagus but Gus voids a bunch of the crew into space to try to keep him on task. Couldn't Gus recognise that he's actually getting information? They figure out that the Foretold picks off the weakest first: the old lady, the sick chef, the cyborg guard and the psychologically troubled Moorhouse. The part about psychological issues being an illness or weakness could be construed as a dicey claim, but my bigger issue is that it doesn't make sense. By the law of averages, the mummy is actually making its enemies collectively stronger by going for the weakest first. It should be picking off the strongest. Quell, being a sufferer of PTSD, is next, seeing the Mummy's hand pass through the Doctor's head. It struck me at this point that this episode would have been more effective if we, not being the mummy's victims, could also not see it. After Quell's death the Doctor begs the other scientists for assistance in figuring out how it works, but they're all extras and haven't been paid to speak, which borders on the utterly ridiculous as they stand there silently while being picked off one by one.
Don't get glue on your fingers.
Some scanner Perkins whips out from hammerspace reveals that Quell's body has no "energy" at a cellular level. They could have at least said something scientifically meaningful, like electrical charge. The Doctor and Perkins figure that the mummy moves its victims 'out of phase' which is why only they can see it. So how come everyone else can still see the victim? I guess they're in a half way house between normal phase and the mummy's phase, but it's not my job to explain this shit. The Doctor figures that crazy Maisie is next because of what happened to her grandmother, so he bluntly instructs Clara to lie to her to bring her along. Clara has no choice as the TARDIS is behind a force field, the Doctor revealing that Gus has tried to entice him there before. Clara starts complaining about the Doctor lying to her: now I see where we were going with all the 'egomaniac' stuff in 'Deep Breath.' The mummy appears to crazy Maisie but the Doctor somehow uses the scanner to suck all her negative energy or whatever out of her head and stick it in himself, which causes the mummy to come after him instead. "Are you my mummy," gets its obligatory appearance, but it's still lame. The Doctor notices a similar design to that on the scroll under the mummy's bandages, realises the scroll is a flag and that the mummy must be a soldier, and then stops it in its tracks by saying "We surrender." The mummy comes out of phase. Why is it accepting the Doctor's surrender? He tells it it's relieved, so it salutes him and then crumbles into dust. It looks kind of cool, but why is the mummy suddenly taking orders from and saluting the guy who just surrendered to it? It's also very similar to how they stopped that robot in 'The Caretaker.'
"I saved everyone and dropped them
off in the nearest inhabited Wales."
Gus tries to kill everyone on board because he's a dick, Frank Skinner immediately doing a turn with some horrendous 'choking' acting even though Gus only just started venting the air. The train blows up and Clara wakes up on a stony beach in Wales somewhere, which is to say an alien planet on which the Doctor has dropped off everyone from the train after teleporting them into the TARDIS. He tells Clara that it was his plan to steal all of Maisie's bad juju all along, but he "couldn't risk Gus finding out my plan." What would Gus have cared? What would it have mattered to him how he figured out how to stop the mummy? Maybe we're meant to figure that the Doctor's lying, although he gets to utter the trite remark "sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones, but you still have to choose." Pretty groundbreaking stuff. Perkins pisses off even though he probably could have worked as a companion back in the Eighties or something and Clara asks the Doctor if he "loovs" being "the man making the impossible choice." I think Moffat and Jamie Mathieson have been reading my forum posts. She asks "is it like an addiction?" For a moment I thought she was going to ask if it was like being god. Then Danny Pink calls her up and Clara decides to lie, blame Danny for her previous desire to leave, and in fact keep travelling. The Doctor swallows this hook, line, sinker, rod and copy of Angling Times, sir, and thus the episode ends.
They're coming to get you, Clara.
'Mummy on the Orient Express' should be an average episode of New Who. I should have watched it and thought "that was okay." Actually, although the review may not convey this, I thought it was the best episode of the series, and two episodes later I still do. I've mostly been negative here for a laugh, but I actually felt like this episode did one of the things that Doctor Who does best: a mystery in space. The Doctor's in good form, he solves the problem with the help of competent guest characters, of which Frank Skinner's Perkins, despite some questionable acting, is a particular highlight, it's reasonably atmospheric, the mummy looks pretty decent and it moves along at a decent clip. This is actually an episode of New Who that I would consider to be somewhat comparable to the real stuff. The fact that this was written by newcomer Jamie Mathieson shows how desperate this show is for some fresh blood in the writing department. Where it's let down, however, are with some typical New Who complaints. For a start, the rushed and convenient resolution is disappointing and doesn't make a terrific amount of sense. That's par for the course in New Who, but doesn't justify it. The lack of a real sub plot is as usual also a problem. The story could have easily been fleshed out to a greater degree and functioned as a two-parter. The episode's other biggest weakness, of course, is that it's still bogged down with boring, heavy-handed 'drama' which here is channelled almost exclusively through the companion in a way that borders on outright sexism. I don't care about how Clara feels about the Doctor or whatever. She's not a real person. Unless her conflict with him has something to say which isn't typical, routine mainstream-entertainment 'human interest' crap then I don't care. It's interesting to observe that many people considered this episode to be a real success by New Who's standards, while others have been more apathetic for the exact same reasons. Personally, however, I would not by any means object to more like this, or better and more developed. I think the people who are uninterested in this and prefer the 'drama' and the reverie-episodes which are basically just pure flights of fancy are after a very different Doctor Who than what I am. But bugger them, say I, and let's have more of this.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The 'Age of Ultron' Teaser

Thrills, spills and adventure.
As we all know, in the age of modern cinema, the main job of the Hollywood film is to live up to the trailer with which it was sold to audiences. With that in mind, let's not bother waiting until next year to see 'The Avengers: Age of Ultron' and just review the teaser that Marvel released today after it was leaked. There are three dominant features to this teaser: Ultron doing what bad guys do, delivering monologues; people running around screaming and carrying on, including the majority of the Avengers; and Iron Man in the Hulkbuster Armour fighting Hulk.
Beep boop.
Obviously the most intriguing element is going to be Ultron himself: his truncated line "not to protect the world, but you don't want it to change," cuts rather deeply to the heart of the entire superhero premise. Superheroes are a purely reactive force. They wait for things to go wrong, and then try to put them back to how they were before. If they capitalise upon this it could potentially be interesting. We also hear him quoting Disney's 'Pinocchio,' presumably in reference to him seeing himself as freed from the shackles not literally of his control by the Avengers but from society, convention, tradition, morality, cultural conditioning and so forth. It's an interesting idea and I hope that it goes to interesting places.
Upon discovering the fine print in his supposed six-film contract.
Back to the gym for another ten years.
Now let's talk about people running around screaming and carrying on. There's some kind of intense masochism in Hollywood action cinema these days, that morbid fascination where you don't want to watch but can't look away. Specifically, it's a masochism about 9-11 and terrorism in general, with action films becoming obsessed since the rise of CGI with huge swathes of destruction being cut through densely-constructed cities, buildings falling over, and helpless people fleeing for their lives. This already reached its logical conclusion in 2013's 'Man of Steel' where a city was reduced to a wasteland revealing the existential brittleness of modernity, so I fail to see what more mayhem of that nature will achieve here. This  teaser also includes footage of the Avengers looking dour, of course, because that's how we get our drama. This I feel like we see all the time in trailers now: lots of notionally 'intriguing' shots of the heroes looking all distressed.
Coming soon to a toy store near you.
Finally our last major element is Iron Man in the Hulkbuster Armour fighting Hulk. We see a weirdly large amount of this. Didn't we already see Thor fight Hulk in the last film? I suppose Captain America will fight him in Avengers 3 and then we can call it quits. This is the same stuff as the last item though really, devastation in an urban environment and heroes showing a reckless disregard for collateral damage. We get some other random stuff as well of course, like the token shots of Hawkeye and Black Widow, Andy Serkis for some reason and some dancers. "Nothing lasts forever" is Black Widow's pointless cliché. Nick Fury appears too, unfortunately. I'm sick of him. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver appear too but not in such a way as you'd notice. Pietro needs his pointy hair and bright blue jumpsuit.
"If you don't stop I'll take my shirt off again!"
The thing is, apart from Ultron I can't help but feel like this is just the same old song and dance. Our heroes are shown in a comfortable place, something goes wrong, they have a big punch up with the bad guy and it ends. So the real challenge, then, is for 'Age of Ultron' to not live up to its teaser, to do something different, to surprise me. Maybe the full trailer will be different. Do I trust Joss Whedon? Not even slightly. I'm not a great enthusiast of his work. He's competent, yes, but he's also going to be constrained by the edicts of his employers.
My face when trying to find information on when and
why they were retconned into being Magneto's children.
The biggest issue with these Marvel films, however, is the ridiculous hype and over-excitement that this stuff seems to generate. If you like these Marvel films that's fine. I like some of them, but I'm going to be an outlier when I say that I think 'Captain America: The First Avenger' was the best one and that 'The Winter Soldier' in my opinion just isn't what people say it is. All genres run stale, and I feel like superhero cinema, or at least the superhero cinema that began with 'Batman Begins' and 'Iron Man,' is exhausted. Obviously other people don't agree, but I don't understand why. I think a lot of you need to start thinking a little more critically about what you watch and realise that just because there's loads of 'cool' CGI action, stuff blowing up and actors making sarcastic, postmodern, self-aware and self-referential quips doesn't mean that what you're watching is good. You also need to realise that there's nothing commendable or noble about wanting 'just action' and nothing deeper. That's the attitude of a fatuous dullard who's intimidated by other media because they're too lazy or insecure to try them.
"Would you like a cup of tea, sir?"
I'm not trying to write off 'Age of Ultron' from the start and I think elements of it look vaguely interesting, but I think 'geek culture' or genre culture or whatever it is is really suffering from a condition where every new thing is the 'best thing ever' and it's a race to see who can express how much they love these films or TV shows or games or whatever with the most hyperbole. The thing is, these films are adequate, but they're not masterpieces, or inspired, or works of genius. They're workmanlike pieces of 'product' that follow corporate templates to maximise profit, and they're not deserving of great praise or enthusiasm. The advent of CGI certainly means that there's no craft to them anymore, because unlike the period from the late Seventies, through the Eighties to say the mid Nineties effects are not an accomplishment. They're an expectation. There's nothing we can be shown visually now that we couldn't imagine. You need to look for more in what you consume than the 'cool factor' of Hulkbuster Armour or Cap's shield getting broken, and figure out if there's something more beneath the surface, and if there is, then whether it's the same trite, simplistic message that mainstream cinema spews forth constantly (usually about humdrum themes such as trust and friendship) or if it's something radical and new (insofar as anything can be new). That's the job of 'Age of Ultron,' then: to not live up to the teaser where it seems to be a generic angsty action film, and to use whatever's going on with Ultron himself to show us something we wouldn't see otherwise.

Friday, October 10, 2014


"The pub you say?"
What do you do if you mix James Bond, King Kong, Isaac Asimov, filter it through the formula of a routine Third Doctor serial, take out the Jon Pertwee and put some Tom Baker in instead? In case you're unsure, the answer is 'Robot,' the inaugural Fourth Doctor serial of Doctor Who. The basic plot is this: in the wake of the Third Doctor's regeneration, the plans for a top-secret disintegrator gun have been stolen. This turns out to be the work of an organisation called the Scientific Reform Society, a technocratic-fascist organisation using the gun and a robot built by one of its members, Kettlewell, to steal launch codes held in Britain which control the entire world's nuclear arsenal. UNIT attacks the SRS bunker while they're threatening the world, they take out the people, the robot goes mental after killing its creator and is accidentally turned into a giant through the combination of the Brigadier turning the disintegrator gun on it and some iffy CSO work, and then Tom Baker throws a bucket of soapy water on it and it melts. As usual the Doctor gets knocked out, Sarah Jane gets captured a couple of times and the Brigadier frowns a lot at all the silliness going on around him despite doing a lot of fairly silly things himself.
A sudden prophetic vision of 'Battlefield.'
It's weird to think that in the run-up to New Who Series 8, they were bigging up the idea that the introduction of their Doctor would take cues from Tom Baker's first season as the Doctor, with this new man being a 'difficult' incarnation. Unsurprisingly they're talking out of their rear ends, as the Fourth Doctor's not especially difficult at all. He's more distant - one of his character traits in this serial is not always bothering to listen to people a good deal - and he's very chirpy, but beyond a little bit of tomfoolery with the Brigadier and one or two scenes where he's still recovering his memory and identity he's not especially difficult at all. It's interesting to observe that Tom Baker 'hits the ground running' as the cliché goes in this serial, establishing a pretty firm grasp on his character more or less immediately. His voice and expressions, as well as his costume, go a long way towards this of course. It must have been shocking at the time going from the smoothly-spoken, swashbuckling Third Doctor to this much more mercurial and yet enigmatic figure. In that regard despite how run-of-the-mill it is 'Robot' succeeds as an opportunity to establish the character of this new Doctor, obviously in a comfortable environment. The important thing is that characters aside, it's a comfortable plot and setting, which allows us to see the Fourth Doctor as someone who - and we can even see this from the blocking of scenes, for instance - is someone willing to stand back for a moment, survey the situation, and then proceed to show up everybody around him.
"Now do your best 'there's a big robot over there' look."
It's very odd, of course, seeing Tom Baker driving the Third Doctor's car Bessie, for instance, which was immediately abandoned after this serial. It's also curious to think that this serial, broadcast in late 1974 and early 1975, is using characters first established in the late Sixties, '68 for Lethbridge-Stewart and '69 for Benton. Characters connecting the Tom Baker era to the Patrick Troughton era? Weird. UNIT's obviously run its course by this point though, and the Fourth Doctor doesn't fit with them, so it's appropriate enough that he leaves at the end: "I really think we've had enough bangs and flashes for a bit, don't you?" I think the idea that the Third Doctor is 'establishment' is a bit oversold, but the introduction of the Fourth really displays a rejection of any association with, much less loyalty to, parochial human institutions on the part of the character, the Doctor essentially deciding that his role as UNIT's scientific advisor simply doesn't matter. An interesting analogue is that the human conspiracy is defeated early in the final episode, with the remainder devoted to defeating the rogue robot itself. The serial really establishes itself as somewhat beyond the point where 20th century espionage and intrigue is particularly worthy of attention.
"Does he do interviews?"
In fact the serial in general doesn't devote enormous amounts of time to any one thing in particular beyond perhaps the Robot itself. The new Doctor's character is established in a handful of scenes. Our brand new companion, Harry, in fact barely appears at all in the second and third episodes. Sarah gets a fair shake, but beyond a remark about chauvinism they're totally forgetting the entire notion of Sarah as a particularly outspoken feminist character, spending a lot of time in rather impractical outfits (I immediately thought 'heels' when she got her cliché trip in front of the growing robot) and getting captured, menaced and placed in the bizarre position of the robot's surrogate mother. That being said, 'Robot' is a good example of how well Sarah Jane functions, particularly in these Earth-centric serials, when she has the opportunity to actually operate as a full protagonist in her own right rather than as simply a tag-along to the Doctor, because her investigative skills and willingness to use trickery and guile to get to the truth allow her to operate very competently as the Doctor's associate. Another strong element, of course, is the fact that she has such an immediate rapport with Tom Baker's Doctor. Viewing it through the modern lens, it's interesting to observe that her evident relief that her friend is still alive is clearly of far greater importance than any changes to his appearance or personality.
The Terrance Dicks Monument.
One thing I thought was somewhat interesting viewing this is the rather blasé approach to the threat of nuclear disaster, one which is, to a degree, also evoked in 'The Hand of Fear' a couple of years later. I realise that they were kind of aiming towards an ambiguous near-future setting during the UNIT era, but all the talk of peace between the superpowers and so on is rather surprising. More surprising too is the UK, with its "special relationship" with the United States, being a dyed-in-the-wool NATO founder and everything, being presented as a supposedly "neutral" country in possession of the American, Soviet and Chinese nuclear codes. Somehow I doubt that that would ever have been a possibility. It's interesting to perceive, however, a time period in the relative calm of the mid-Seventies, post-Vietnam, in which evidently nuclear warmongering was able to be presented as the purview of comic-book evil organisations rather than mainstream political activity. Indeed the nuclear threat posed by the fascistic SRS group, I would argue, portrays such policies as, in a sense, "Nazi behaviour," which may or may not say something about the behaviour of the real nuclear-armed groups, which is to say world governments, and whether they were in any degree holding the world to ransom. It's interesting to observe here Jellicoe's remark that the higher-budget group which develops Think Tank projects is "usually the government." There's a little slice of Seventies social politics that makes this story stand out in today's corporatocratic world.
"Have I told you about Scratchman?"
Another mention ought to go, of course, to a few other important characters in the serial: Hilda Winters, the leader of SRS, and Professor Kettlewell, inventor of the Robot. Winters, one might argue, is intended as a foil for both Sarah and the Doctor. She specifically makes the joke about Sarah being a "chauvinist" when she assumes that the head of Think Tank would be a man, and I would argue that the character's empowerment and her villainy aren't given much explanation, and I wouldn't begrudge anyone thinking that the character is rather problematic. We never find out why Winters and the SRS are so fascistic, so it's easy to see it as Terrance Dicks taking his regular jab at feminism. The fact that this is the point where everyone pretty much gives up on the characterisation of Sarah as an outspoken "women's lib" type may or may not add to that. As I always say, this isn't my area of expertise in criticism. I could do a utopian reading of the text, but I couldn't be arsed. Of course Winters' technocratic fascism and scientific irresponsibility also make her an effective opponent for the Doctor. The character is not, perhaps, given her full due, but there are definitely some striking elements there. Kettlewell is another Doctor-analogue, an eccentric radical scientist, but one who lacks conviction or firmness of purpose. There's also, of course, the whole plot device of his "living metal" and "metal virus" which both become elements of pure convenience by the end. Those ideas could almost carry a plot on their own independent of any Earth-centric Robots, while the intended purpose of the Robot, to perform tasks too dangerous for humans, doesn't fully get its due either. There's probably something to be made about intelligent and arguably emotional robots which are nonetheless purely intended to fulfil dangerous and unpleasant tasks, but the argument more ends up being that powerful people are all the more dangerous if they're weak-willed and easily influenced or lack the necessary wisdom to use their power responsibly. Something like that, at least. In this way, of course, the Robot and the SRS reflect each other as well.
"I expect coffee breaks, lunch breaks, and breaks
to salute a picture of the Queen five times a day."
All in all, 'Robot' isn't exactly the most groundbreaking of introductory stories for a new Doctor, but after five years of Jon Pertwee that might have been for the best. My biggest criticisms would probably be that Harry's not given nearly enough of an introduction given that he's the new companion, and that the plot I feel doesn't fully get to flex some of its more interesting ideas what with all the running around, UNIT blowing stuff up, Sarah and Harry getting captured and the Robot going crazy. I'm not fond of criticising Doctor Who's special effects because I think in a lot of cases it took guts to at least try stuff even if it looked crap, and personally I could completely live with the CSO work in this serial, but I have to admit that the Robot costume isn't terrific. If I'm going to be perfectly honest, though, I think the design is probably its biggest drawback because it's so bulky and clumsy. There are some pretty corny moments, too, like the stupid costumes the Doctor tries on and that pointless reference the Doctor and Harry make to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. I realise I haven't actually spent an enormous amount of time discussing Tom Baker's introduction here, but I think that's because it's so understated and enmeshed with the writing as it stands. It's interesting as an end to the UNIT era though, although we'd see them again in 'Terror of the Zygons' and get another half-hearted motions towards them with 'The Android Invasion,' before they appear with no familiar faces in 'The Seeds of Doom,' because it really shows the Doctor leaving them behind. The universe of the Fourth Doctor is just too big for them, which fits given that this is followed by probably the most ambitious and imaginative run of stories, in my opinion, since mid-Hartnell. It's also odd to think that this and 'Spearhead from Space' are the only two original Doctor Who post-regeneration serials to be set on Earth (unless you count the TV Movie, I guess). But that's fair enough, because 'Robot' works as a safe launching point which really permits the subsequent seven years of Fourth Doctor serials to scale impressive heights of adventure.
"Stand back, it's going to be a big one."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"Kill the Moon"

What my reaction will inevitably be when the Missy arc is resolved.
Halfway through Series 8 is when the new writers start being trotted out, and our contributor for 'Kill the Moon' is Peter Harness. We begin with something of which I'm not especially fond, a flashforward to the climax where Clara reveals there's a big decision to make and that the Doctor isn't there. They have forty-five minutes to make a decision: the length of an episode, then? It's this kind of post-modern self-referentiality which I find very difficult to take seriously. One of the paradoxes I just realised at the heart of New Who is that the supposedly deeper or more realistic (ie more melodramatic) characterisation is meant to make it more believable, and yet the show's obsession with breaking the fourth wall and drawing attention to itself completely undermines that idea. Anyway, returning to the beginning of the tale, we find the Doctor, having presumably abandoned his bogus Caretaker position, openly walking the corridors of the school. So much for secrecy. Clara's reprimanding him for telling Courtney she wasn't special. Our fitting response from the Doctor is a simple "pfft," which would possibly be my attitude too. That being said, it's a very contrived situation, with the implication not being that the Doctor said she wasn't special because he's thoughtless but because he was just being unpleasant. In the TARDIS, the aforementioned Courtney is spraying cleaning fluid everywhere for some reason. She's supposedly been on a bender with the psychic paper since last episode so surely she isn't just now cleaning up the sick she produced in 'The Caretaker'? The Doctor enforces JNT's code: "no being sick and no hanky-panky... sorry, that's the rules!" This is the kind of stuff Capaldi sells well, and is nice establishing dialogue for his Doctor as a bit of an irritable fellow just trying to keep things reasonably sensible in certain respects. It's more effective than some story about him telling a kid she wasn't special. When Clara insists that he tell Courtney otherwise, he gets another good line: "Have you gone bananas?" It's not exactly spiffing dialogue but Capaldi handles it with great competence. There is a crap line of him mistaking travel sickness bands for Vortex Manipulators, though, which is again New Who throwing in a reference to itself for absolutely no discernible reason and playing up this less interesting 'The Twelfth Doctor's a bit clueless' comedy routine. By contrast to the decent lines, we get some ridiculously melodramatic lamentation from Courtney: "It's like you kicked a big hole in the side of my life." I guess she's meant to be a teenager, but I feel like a lot of adults in New Who talk like this as well. There ought to be some character arc about people not growing up.
"This is what we call running acting."
The Doctor offers Courtney something special indeed: being the first woman on the moon. Not the first human being somewhere: the first woman on the moon. Hmm. Maybe he could have asked her if she wanted to be the first woman paid on average the same salary as a man or something. Anyway, the TARDIS arrives in a huge room somewhere full of nuclear weapons, Capaldi busting out what is now seemingly a complete wardrobe of those red Tennant-era space suits in male, female and child sizes. Wherever they are has gravity and air, and soon enough the Doctor susses out that it's 2049 and they're descending to the Moon in a space shuttle. A space shuttle? But they're for Earth-to-orbit flights, not interplanetary travel. Never mind, as we shall discover this is not the episode to go to for an in any way realistic presentation of anything space-related, of which the niceties of space travel are only one of many components brushed aside. Over-the-top Murray Gold 'danger' music kicks into gear, the Doctor insisting that everyone hold on, but apparently when a space shuttle which isn't designed for it makes a crash landing on the moon which, as we will discover has achieved Earth-like gravity in this episode, it's enough to cling onto some netting and you'll be fine. Incidentally as they seem to almost be in free-fall there shouldn't really be gravity allowing them to walk around the shuttle but never mind. Three astronauts come in. This doesn't get mentioned for ages but the main one is named Lundvik. This must be a pretty huge shuttle if they can wander around like this and there's room for so many bombs. So where did they store the fuel for the massive journey from Earth to the Moon? Anyway, the Doctor responds to Lundvik's threats by recommending they kill Courtney first, and I wonder if we were meant to guiltily agree with him. He starts stomping around in a rather embarrassing fashion notionally to check why the gravity on the surface is so Earth-like. He also has to deliver another appalling line when he peremptorily describes himself as a "super intelligent alien being that flies in time and space" who can help them, a claim which Lundvik and her crew have no narrative choice but to immediately swallow with the time limits of a New Who episode pressing down.
The next place to search for missing 60s serials.
The Doctor busts out his yoyo 'Ark in Space'-style to assess the gravity, declaring that the Moon has "put on weight" which must be causing trouble on Earth. Lundvik reveals that they've come with the bombs to... do something. It's never actually clear what they originally intended to do with them. Blow up whatever was affecting the Moon's gravity, or try to blow up a bit of the Moon itself? 'Cause one hundred nukes is a lot, sure, you wouldn't want them dropped on your house, but I'm not sure how useful they would be in simply altering the mass of a planetary body. As they head out onto the lunar surface Courtney makes a stupid joke line parodying Neil Armstrong and we discover the ruins of a Mexican mining survey on the Moon, with which Earth lost contact when the Moon's mass started increasing. Mexican? "Mexico's a really implausible country to go to the Moon, so we'll make the dead surveyors Mexican for a laugh." Was that the thinking here? I kind of feel like a stereotype is being peddled here. We get some typical hyperbole about how the rising tide on Earth was the "greatest natural disaster in history." The abandoned base is covered in cobwebs, and we discover that Lundvik's two buddies are "third hand astronauts" because no one knows about space anymore, even though we've seen plenty of New Who around this time where characters who would have been adults in 2049 seem to be perfectly interested in space. There's also a line about satellites being "whacked out of orbit," possibly due to the Moon. Lundvik remarks that the Mexican base has been left without being investigated for ten years because there was "no shuttle," the one they brought having been recovered from a museum. But shuttles aren't used for interplanetary travel!
"Are you Weird or Gilly? Oh, sorry, wrong planet."
There's a dead astronaut strung up in cobwebs on the wall implying something is actively killing people, but the astronauts didn't bring weapons. Didn't they already say that they had considered the possibility of an alien intelligence interfering with the Moon? One of the blokes gets the power on, which somehow instantly causes the oxygen supply to seemingly flood the room as well as they all take their helmets off straight away. There's a remark which doesn't make a great deal of sense, even in light of later plot revelations, about how the Mexicans didn't find any minerals on the Moon, and Capaldi, after giving a long-winded and twee description of said celestial body, declares that it's "falling to bits." The lights start flickering: it's spooky time. Outside one of our astronauts gets attacked by some big creepy crawly emerging from a cave. He was sent to deal with the bombs, why is he going poking and prying when they know something's wrong? Back in the base a bestial screech is heard. Is it meant to be the thing that just killed that guy? 'Cause there's no air outside, so how would they hear the screech in the base? Said creatures turn out to be giant black and red spiders, and our protagonists' escape is frustrated by an inconvenient locked door. The Doctor somehow figures that the spider must detect movement, busting out this series' Troughton reference: "When I say run, run." Our other non-Lundvik astronaut gets fatally molested by a big spider as our heroes dash through the door, but Courtney gets left behind and starts floating up in the air for some reason. Grabbing the Doctor's extended yo-yo somehow brings her back down, and she kills the spider with the detergent spray she was using to clean the TARDIS at the beginning of the episode. Did she stash that in her spacesuit? Because otherwise it would have exploded in the vacuum of the Moon's surface when they were changing locations. "This is nuts," she declares without much conviction, a remark that perhaps would have been more appropriate in the writer's room in Cardiff.
"Anyone else care for a placenta macaroon?"
The Doctor deduces that the spider is in fact a single-celled organism. It's an awfully complex one if that's the case. He tells Courtney "You flew because that 1.2 billion tonnes shifted... it's an unstable mass." I've no idea what that's meant to mean. Lundvik laments the dead bloke and Courtney gets the understated willies, asking Clara "please can I go home now," with all the inflection of someone recording Yellow Pages: The Audiobook. On the way back to the shuttle the Doctor reminds Clara that everything is dangerous: "Crossing the road, it's no way to live your life." It's another decent line for Capaldi there. He tells her "Of course I know what a duty of care is," to foreshadow later events, before sticking Courtney in the TARDIS to sit things out. Clara goes into full-determinism mode despite all the totally paradoxical stuff she's seen and been involved in in the past, arguing that the Moon can't die because it's still there in the future, but Capaldi responds that it could have been a trick or that things might change. The phrase 'fixed point in time' nearly rears its ugly head but fortunately we're spared that. Lundvik needs Clara and the Doctor's help given that she has the "last nuclear bombs" available to do anything about the moon. That's a lot of disarmament. They go back outside again for some reason (I'm unsure why) and find the remaining dead Mexican astronauts also webbed up. So these monsters are giant single-celled organisms that just happen to look like Earth spiders, right? So why do they spin webs? I don't think this was terribly well thought through. Another one accosts the Doctor, the disinfectant spray no longer working for some reason, perhaps because they're in a vacuum. It turns out there are loads of the creatures.
"You've got five seconds to look at it
before the effects budget runs out."
Considering that the Moon may be teeming with life the Doctor plops his yo-yo down a crack into some goo, which he claims is "amniotic fluid, the stuff that life comes from." This makes me think that perhaps the plot could have been about life (somehow) evolving on the surface of the moon or something rather than what we actually are told, but I won't get ahead of myself. The Doctor jumps in while Courtney contacts Clara to complain that she's bored. Shut up, Courtney. There's no need for this annoying character to be here. Somehow she's also putting photos on tumblr. How? Did the Doctor do the time-calling thing on her phone? Is the TARDIS causing it? I have no idea. Of course if she was actually a tumblr user she'd be busy uploading gifs with twee quotes attached to them of Benedict Cumberbatch and arguing venomously with people who had different 'shipping' views to her as if it was a matter of life and death. For whatever reason we have them finding the first dead astronaut who's been reduced to a Moffat skeleton-in-a-spacesuit, they see the shuttle fall into a big chasm which has appeared on the surface and then the Doctor spontaneously jumps out of a nearby crack in the surface. How did he know where they were if he was underground swimming in embryo juice? Back in the Mexican base I guess he mentions that Clara has "never gotten on" with the TARDIS. Are we going to see that plot thread again at some point? I thought it was concluded last year, but honestly who knows when an arc is over or isn't in Moffat-Who. Then the Doctor reveals the explanation for all these goings-on, discerned beneath the surface: something's growing inside the moon, this huge grotesque-looking space dragon thing. "The Moon's an egg."
"Think I'll nip forward to the next showrunner."
Right. I'd kind of predicted it by this point but it's still a pretty damn off-the-wall plot idea even by New Who's standards. I mean, it's the stuff of pure fantasy, or like something from a crazy pulp magazine. It's not really a big deal, but I can't help but think that making something this close to home so bizarre is a little ineffective because we know the Moon, Earth's Moon, is a big rock in the sky. It also seems very repetitious of RTD's plot point about Earth forming around the Racnoss eggs or whatever in 'The Runaway Bride.' That also featured giant spiders and something growing at the heart of a planetary body. It's hard to say, really, that there isn't an episode this series that doesn't replicate something New Who's already done. The Doctor says it's a unique creature, in his opinion, which has been growing for one hundred million years. Why has the mass changed so drastically in the space of thirty-five years, then? Also, how has the mass changed? Mass doesn't just increase ex nihilo. In fact, according to what I've read, eggs actually tend to lose mass because of the chemical reactions taking place in them - some mass is lost to energy. The thing is, having the Moon as a giant egg is one thing, but the story element which is presented as having a genuine scientific rationale is still wrong. Anyway, Lundvik busts out our 'oh shit' moment: "How do we kill it?" The Doctor claims that the one hundred nukes that have fallen into the egg on the shuttle will do the trick but that it'd leave an "enormous corpse floating in the sky" that would be difficult to explain to one's kids. "I don't have any kids," Lundvik retorts, the space dragon creature having been described, if they blow it up, as a "little dead baby." There's a weird pro-life/anti-abortion sentiment emerging here but you'll be able to find better informed discussion of that elsewhere. Needless to say it's questionable.
"I can't do your running acting for you."
So we get our attempted moral discourse in the episode. Lundvik argues that it's been killing people, Clara responding that "you cannot blame a baby for kicking." But that doesn't change the fact that it is causing deaths on Earth, does it? The problem is that the dilemma is so contrived discussing it in these kinds of terms isn't very meaningful. If kicking babies caused thousands of deaths I imagine people would take a dim view of them in some quarters. Lundvik reminds them that "everything doesn't have to be nice; some things are just bad." The Doctor tells Courtney to stick a DVD in the TARDIS to bring it back, because apparently that's how it works, and then we get our big character drama for the episode when Clara asks the Doctor what they do and he responds "I can't help you," telling her that he can't make the decision on behalf of the human race. Clara remarks that she can't either, but he responds "Who's better qualified?" Then we get a really odd response from Clara "I don't know, the President of America!" Sounds like something a child would say. Besides, Clara's British. She could at least have said the UN or something. The Doctor compares this to the fact that when the two of them had dinner in Berlin in 1937 "we didn't nip out after pudding and kill Hitler." If that's the case, isn't he basically admitting that as time travellers neither of them are responsible for what happens in any given period outside their own, so Clara is in the same position as him? She could have offered this point, or countered by saying that their respective species or planet of origin didn't matter, but that both being time travellers they were both having an impact on history whether they wanted to or not - without them, Lundvik would probably have never discovered that the Moon was an egg, for example. She kind of approaches this idea at the end of the show, but in far more parochial terms and very tangentially. But what might have been an opportunity for Clara to turn the tables on the Doctor in a more overtly intellectual sense is passed over for the sake of our old 'melodramatic character drama' chestnut. It's also a weirdly pointless Series 6 reference, but if they poke and prod this idea too much the entire premise of the show is going to unravel. The Doctor's interfered in events all over the place, and he doesn't always know what will happen in the future. Does knowing the future somehow make it different? 'Cause in every Earth historical story he generally does. Nothing's actually different here, which again makes the scenario come across as incredibly contrived and arbitrary mostly because the Doctor doesn't really offer a genuine explanation for this situation being in any way different to others he's come across, even in this very incarnation, so it can't all be down to a change of character. Clearly knowing the future really changes nothing, 'fixed point in time' or no. Clara already argued that the Moon was still there in the future, for instance. Besides, the wise among us know it has to be there so that Patrick Troughton can fight the Cybermen on it in 2070. Oh, and one more thing - sure, they never killed Hitler, but the Doctor and Clara were perfectly okay with hanging out in Nazi Germany in 1937?
Good thing those high tides are out.
In any event the giant spiders are coming and the Doctor informs Clara that it's time to let humanity make its own decisions. It's kind of the reverse of 'The Waters of Mars' (in more ways than one what with the horror hijinks on a near-future planetary base with astronauts element) with the Doctor here not being involved at all. The TARDIS returns and the Doctor pisses off. The door breaks for some reason but in the ensuing vacuum a convenient metal plate flies up and plugs the hole. I don't know what the point of that was. Clara figures that humanity can survive without the moon even if it disrupts the tides and communications, arguing that the huge moon chunks are just "egg shell" and will probably break up (but then wouldn't Earth be surrounded by a massive dust cloud?) while Lundvik contends that the thing inside might well emerged and kill everyone. Clara needs more to go on "if I'm gonna kill a baby." Lundvik says she shouldn't be the person responsible if "life on Earth stopped because you couldn't make an unfair decision." Yeah, and a pretty contrived one. They set a one hour timer and get a transmission from ground control where things are ambiguously "pretty bad." Clara transmits a message to Earth telling them to turn the lights off if they're happy to nuke the thing under the Moon. Somehow she can see Earth's lights in sufficient detail all the way from the Moon without special instruments, as if the Moon's in low orbit and there are no clouds at all down below. Also, we have to consider the fact that Clara's basically saying that only places with mass lighting get a vote. Appropriately enough it turns out the Moon is facing Europe and North America. They'd have been buggered if they could only see the Pacific or something. Then for some reason there's a melodramatic slow motion run down a corridor - I have no idea why - where everything is blowing up, and all the Westerners decide it's time to kill, kill, kill and switch their lights off.
"Maybe they'll mix it up now and cast a
young woman as the next companion."
At the last second, of course, Clara nonetheless aborts the timer and the Doctor returns to take them back to a beach on Earth, which I thought would have been swallowed by those high tides, where they see the Moon crack up and the thing inside escape, although it cuts away so that they don't have to animate too much of it. Also, somehow the noise of the Moon breaking is audible across the vacuum of space. The Moon, according to the Doctor, will harmlessly disintegrate. Lundvik remarks that they ignored humanity's choice, which I guess suggests that Clara may have only attempted to ask Westerners what to do, but at least they made the wrong choice, which somehow makes everything okay. For some reason really dramatic music starts playing that sounds like it should accompany footage of Batman swinging around Gotham as Capaldi starts giving a big speech about how this moment inspires humanity to venture out into space, and the giant alien leaves a new egg as big as itself behind as a replacement Moon. That's convenient. Lundvik thanks Clara for making the right choice, and the Doctor tells her to leg it rather than bothering to give her a lift anywhere. Back at school Courtney gets her marching orders and then Clara starts getting angry at the Doctor for putting her in such a difficult position: "I'll smack you so hard you regenerate," is a particularly dreadful line. The Doctor offers that he knew that hatchlings "don't usually destroy their nests" although how one could assume it would consider Earth to be its nest is a pretty serious assumption, and that he "had faith you would always make the right choice." I guess this is meant to play up to our 'good man' thing where the Doctor is more or less doing what he thinks looks like putting faith in his companion when it was more like leaving her in the lurch. Clara asks him "do you have music playing in your head when you say rubbish like that?" Amusingly, it comes across as a reference to how laboriously New Who's soundtrack tends to accentuate its drama. The Doctor makes a naff gag about Courtney becoming President and then Clara starts having a massive strop, telling the Doctor that what he did was cheap and patronising. He argues that he was trying to respect them by letting them make a choice about their own future, but Clara argues it was just her friend leaving her feeling abandoned and scared, insisting that he can't lump her in with the rest of humanity and that he spends so much time on Earth it's his responsibility too, which is probably the most reasonable point in the whole thing. She tells the Doctor to piss off and leaves, proceeding to explain to Danny what happened who compares it to when he quit the army life, foreshadowing that he once "had a really bad day." Clara goes home and does what we all do in private, starts drinking on her own, and the episode ends with a curious shot of a ginormous moon floating over London.
"Quick Clara, hand me the giant toastie soldiers!"
'Kill the Moon,' then. It's a decent episode, really, although it's completely riddled with plot holes and the drama does seem a touch overplayed, like the Doctor leaves not so much because he wants to leave it up to Clara's good judgement but more because his character is that he's a bit of a dick. What I mean is that it feels like a fairly clumsy attempt in some respects to play up this idea of the Twelfth Doctor as a difficult individual because I feel like even by the character's own standards his reasoning here for his actions is limited and unsound. That being said, I'm not terribly fond of Clara's big attack on the Doctor at the end either, although Jenna Coleman does the anger rather well, because didn't we already see in 'Deep Breath' that Clara and the Doctor were separated under similar circumstances and her trust that he would come back was ultimately justified? There's also the whole 'the Moon is an egg' aspect. I read the suggestion online that probably a more elegant concept would have been if some kind of rogue planetoid had drifted into Earth's orbit and that was an egg, because it would better explain issues like the tides and what not and also doesn't rely on us believing the premise that Earth's actual Moon is an egg. They could easily have still been trying to go to the Moon and accidentally gone there in the future by accident. As it stands it feels like it's relying a little too heavily on the shock value of something with which the average viewer would be accustomed being transformed into something strange just for the sake of it. It could also easily have been a planet-moon system which was not Earth's. Courtney's presence in this is fairly unnecessary, but Hermione Norris' Lundvik is a well-rounded character performed solidly even if she is a bit of a straw cynic at times. I think it's a shame that they decided to make one of the most serious episodes this series also the one with one of the most ludicrous premises because it feels like as usual there's a bit of a missed opportunity here, but that being said Peter Capaldi's performance as the Doctor, and his delivery of some pretty inconsistent dialogue, redeems it a great deal. I don't give Moffat and his team credit for much these days, but casting Capaldi was a gutsy decision which I think is paying off. That being said, is this one interesting enough to earn repeat viewing? Not in my opinion. I think this is neither the triumph nor the disaster that a lot of commentators online are saying about it, which is about all we can ask for these days. After all, it seems like worthwhile episodes only come along once in an unkilled Moon.