Doctor Who reviews: The Name of the Doctor

The long-awaited finale of Doctor Who Series Seven has aired.  There was a hell of a lot of anticipation concerning “The Name of the Doctor.”  Would writer & showrunner Steven Moffat finally reveal the secret of Clara Oswald, the “impossible girl” who kept reappearing throughout time & space?

First off, a great deal happens in “The Name of the Doctor.”  Twelve hours later, I am still absorbing everything that happened in it, wondering about the consequences and implications.  But I will say this: Moffat certainly did a heck of a job with this one.

The Great Intelligence, now wearing the form of its deceased pawn Dr. Simeon (Richard E. Grant), and utilizing its sinister, faceless servants the Whisper Men, kidnaps the Paternoster Gang.  The Intelligence leaves free Clara, who had been in a psychic “conference call” with the Gang and River Song, to lead the Doctor to the planet Trenzalore.  Although he wants to rescue his friends, the Doctor is extremely apprehensive.  He reveals to Clara that, at some point in his own personal future, he will die and be buried on that planet.

The Doctor crash-lands the TARDIS on Trenzalore.  It is a desolate planet, the surface covered with the gravestones of countless warriors who fell in a battle.  And on a hill is a massive monolith, the remains of his older self’s TARDIS, its time energies spilling out, distorting its dimensions, serving as the future Doctor’s tomb.  River Song (Alex Kingston), now the disembodied consciousness seen at the end of “Forest of the Dead,” is still in psychic contact with Clara.  Following instructions given by River, Clara leads the Doctor into a network of tunnels, hoping to avoid the Whisper Men.  Traveling underground, the psychic energies of the fallen TARDIS restores Clara’s memories of events from “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,” and she remembers the Doctor telling her how he had previously met two other versions of herself on the Dalek Asylum and in Victorian London.

The Doctor and Clara finally arrive at the TARDIS grave, where the Intelligence and Whisper Men are holding Vastra, Jenny and Strax captive.  The Intelligence wants the Doctor to open the doors to the tomb; the key is the Doctor’s real name.  If he will not speak it, the Whisper Men will kill the Doctor’s friends.  River, still invisible, and unheard by anyone, voices the Doctor’s name.  Inside the TARDIS, it is revealed that the Doctor’s corpse is a glowing “scar” of energy, a hole in the fabric of reality linked to the entirety of the Doctor’s past existence.  The Intelligence enters the scar, traveling back in time, infecting the Doctor’s past, altering his history, undoing all his victories.  The stars above Trenzalore begin to go out, and then both Jenny and Strax are erased from existence.  Vastra, still present, explains that all of the evils the Doctor thwarted, all the lives that he saved, all of it is being reversed, leaving the universe a much, much darker place.

Clara sudden realizes that she herself must plunge into the scar in time.  She is splintered into a million aspects all along the Doctor’s timeline, living an infinity of lives across time & space.  But this puts her in a position to displace the Intelligence in his history and undo the damage, unseen even of the Doctor’s numerous incarnations.  History and the proper state of the universe are restored.  The Doctor himself now jumps into his own time stream, and he is able to reintegrate Clara.  Before they can return to Trenzalore, though, Clara spots a shadowy figure, one she has not witnessed before.  The Doctor admits that this is a previously unrevealed incarnation of his, one who has forsaken even the name “Doctor.”  The figure turns to face them, and the credits roll.

The Name of the Doctor

Whew!  That was a hell of a ride.  First off, in terms of unraveling the mystery of Clara, Moffat did a top-notch job.  The revelation of how she became the “impossible girl” made perfect sense.  Jenna-Louise Coleman was absolutely fantastic in this.  Really, my admiration for her as an actress has grown by leaps & bounds over the last several weeks.  Truthfully, I initially found Clara to be an annoying character, just too smart and witty and competent.  But as Series 7B progressed, various writers developed her very effectively, and Coleman took the material and ran with it, turning Clara into a character I really liked.  When she sacrificed herself to save both the Doctor and the universe, I was genuinely upset, because I had no idea if this was going to be the last we would ever see of her.  And when the Doctor was able to restore her, I felt a real sense of relief.

Also, great work by Matt Smith.  As I mentioned it my review of last week’s episode “Nightmare in Silver,” his over-the-top lunacy was the weakest aspect of an otherwise good episode.  So I was relieved to see a very restrained, subtle, nuanced, emotional performance from him this time around.  Confronted by his inevitable demise, haunted by his past, and faced with the possibility of losing Clara, the Doctor had a great deal to cope with in this episode.  Smith certainly rose to the occasion.

This was one of the first times I could actually believe in the relationship between the Doctor and River Song.  Their exchange at the end of the episode felt emotionally genuine and real.  And when the Doctor kissed River, it felt real, like there truly was this incredible connection between the two.  Smith and Kingston played the scene very well.

I also felt that Richard E. Grant had a lot more to do this time around.  He seemed sort of wasted in the role of Simeon in “The Snowmen.”  But here, portraying the Great Intelligence itself, he was a suitably menacing villain.

The Whisper Men were downright scary.  When I first saw them, I thought they might be part of the Silence.  But they were quickly reveled to be the creations of the Great Intelligence.  They definitely make much more effective servants than its past tools, namely those robot Yeti who looked liked big, cuddly teddy bears, or the animated Victorian snowmen.  At the end of “The Name of the Doctor,” the Intelligence has seemingly been destroyed.  But if it does resurface again, I hope it will have the Whisper Men in tow.

Oh, yes, speaking of the Silence… was this what they were so worried about?  In “Let’s Kill Hitler,” it was stated that the reason why the Silence want to kill the Doctor is that he is destined to be asked the oldest question in the universe, at which point “Silence will fall.”  Later on, in “The Wedding of River Song,” it is revealed that this question is the Doctor’s identity, in other words “Doctor who?”  We were also told that the question would be asked on “the fields of Trenzalore.”  Well, that seems to be just what happens here in “The Name of the Doctor.”  The Great Intelligence asks the Doctor what his name is, and the question does get answered, albeit by River Song.  And as a result, the Intelligence infects the Doctor’s timeline, history is massively rewritten for the worse, and all the stars in the sky begin to go out.  That could very well be interpreted as silence falling across the universe.

In addition to tying in to recent continuity, there was a lot of other material in “The Name of the Doctor” for a long-time fan like myself to geek out to.  We saw both the Intelligence and Clara popping into various points in the Doctor’s timeline via the use of stock footage and some clever editing.  There is even a very brief scene set in the distant past on the Time Lord world of Gallifrey, as the First Doctor steals the TARDIS, in the process running into one of Clara’s aspects.

Also in the episode, the Intelligence tells Vastra about the darkness in the Doctor’s being, of how he has a great deal of blood on his hands.  “He will have other names before the end: the Storm, the Beast, the Valeyard.”  Yep, the Intelligence mentioned the infamous V-word.  For those who don’t know, the sinister Valeyard made his debut in back in the season-long serial “The Trial of a Time Lord,” and was revealed to be a possible future incarnation of the Doctor, “an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation.”  Moffat has quite a few times explored the darker side of the Doctor, having both Amy Pond and River Song warning him of the importance of not traveling alone.  Given that, in the back of my mind I occasionally wondered if Moffat would ever return to the issue of the Valeyard.  Certainly this shows that he’s very aware of it.

John Hurt as The Doctor

And then we get to the end, with the revelation of an unknown incarnation of the Doctor.  Is he a future regeneration of the Doctor?  Or perhaps he is from the past?  He says that his actions were committed “in the name of peace and sanity.”  Could this have been the Doctor who fought in the last great Time War?  If so, is he actually the true Ninth Doctor?  And would that mean that the current version is actually not the Eleventh, but the Twelfth?  Which could mean that the Valeyard might be lurking around the corner?  Oh, man, so many unanswered questions to occupy my thoughts for the next six months, before Doctor Who returns for its 50th Anniversary special!

“Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor.”  I try to avoid spoilers like the plague.  So I totally did not know this was coming.  What a shock.  I mean, since its revival Doctor Who has gotten some really prominent guest stars:  Simon Callow, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Dalton, David Warner, Diana Rigg.  And now John Hurt is going to be on Doctor Who.  Hell, John Hurt is the Doctor… somehow!  I have no clue how any of this is going to play out, but I’m really looking forward to finding out.

So that’s it for Series 7B.  It was a bit of an uneven set of episodes.  But, on the whole, I enjoyed most of them.  And it certainly ended on a high point with “The Name of the Doctor.”

Doctor Who reviews: Nightmare in Silver

I think expectations were pretty high for “Nightmare in Silver.”  After all, it was penned by acclaimed fantasy novelist & comic book writer Neil Gaiman, whose first Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Wife,” was very well received.  And this time around, Gaiman would be scripting the Doctor’s old enemies the Cybermen.  So, how does this one measure up?

Angie and Artie, the two mischievous children for whom Clara is a nanny, have more or less blackmailed their way onto the TARDIS.  The Doctor and Clara decide to take the terrible two to Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, the greatest amusement park in the universe.  But once again the Doctor has arrived at the wrong time, and they arrive to find the park closed down and fallen into disrepair.  The only occupants are Webley, a carnival barker-type with a collection of oddities in his crashed spaceship, his companion Porridge, a chess playing dwarf, and an oddball platoon of troopers who have been exiled to the planet as punishment for having fouled up their last assignments.

Talking with Porridge (Warwick Davis), Clara learns that a thousand years before the human Empire had fought a devastating war with the Cybermen, one that finally ended with the destruction of an entire galaxy, and the seeming extinction of the cyborgs.  However, after a millennium of dormancy, the Cybermen are now ready to resurface.  It transpires that they had been secretly abducting visitors to Hedgewick and converting them into a hidden army.  The Doctor discovers their presence, but he is infected by their Cybermites, which attempt to upload the consciousness of their Cyber-Planner into his brain.  The Doctor and the Planner begin playing chess for control of the Time Lord’s body.  Meanwhile, the troopers, also learning of the Cybermen, prepare to detonate a bomb to destroy the planet.  Clara and Porridge have to try and stop this, and also hold of the approaching Cyber army, long enough for the Doctor to somehow outwit the Planner.

Nightmare in Silver

One of the main aspects of “Nightmare in Silver” that Gaiman apparently wanted to focus on was the Doctor turning evil, courtesy of the Cyber-Planner invading his consciousness.  Unfortunately, I really feel that this was the weakest aspect of the episode.  I do not know if it was Gaiman’s writing or Matt Smith’s acting, but the possessed Doctor was terribly over-the-top.  The Cybermen are supposed to be emotionless and logical.  So why would the Cyber-Planner, in the Doctor’s body, leap on top of a table and exuberantly declare that from now on he wants to be known as Mister Clever?  Matt Smith really ought to have been this cold, sinister figure, not a campy lunatic.

I did feel that Clara was much better served by the events of “Nightmare in Silver.”  With the Doctor off fighting for control of his body, it was up to everyone’s favorite Impossible Girl to organize the punishment squad into an effective line of defense against the Cybermen.  I think my girlfriend became an instant fan of Jenna-Louise Coleman’s character.  “She’s cocky,” Michele declared to me, before adding, with admiration, “but she’s also confident.”  Coleman definitely had a good outing in this story.  And she had an especially nice rapport with Warwick Davis.

Ah, yes, Porridge.  What a fantastic character!  I am a big fan of the movie Willow, so it was great to see Warwick Davis show up on Doctor Who.  Gaiman did a superb job scripting Porridge, making him at turns humorous and introspective, and Davis played the part perfectly.  I’d love to see Porridge again at some point in the future.

The Cybermen themselves were pretty well represented.  I do like the slight redesign, streamlining the look they’ve had since they first returned to the show in 2006.  The voices are also an improvement.  And, yeah, they are pretty damn frightening, converting people on-screen, moving super-fast, detaching a variety of body parts which can act independently to attack people, and continually upgrading to become impervious to weaponry that is used against them.  I’ve read a few people complaining in reviews that Gaiman made them too much like the Borg.  Well, the Cybermen have been around since 1966, predating the Borg’s introduction on Star Trek: The Next Generation by a good 23 years.  You could make a very convincing case that the Borg are pretty much the Cybermen on a bigger budget.  So of course there are bound to be certain parallels between the two.

On the whole, I felt “Nightmare in Silver” was a pretty good episode, with lots of great concepts.  The only thing that really let it down was the plotline involving the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner vying for control.  This definitely should have been played much more seriously, instead of in the tongue-in-cheek manner that it actually was.  But despite that misstep, Gaiman did a pretty good job working with the Cybermen.  This was probably their strongest outing since they made their nu-Who debut in the “Rise of the Cybermen” two-parter back in 2006.

Doctor Who reviews: Hide

The Doctor: “Telepathy and precognition are normal in anyone whose childhood was spent near a time fissure, like the one in the wood.”
Jack: “He’s as bad as she is! Here, what’s a time fissure?”
The Doctor: “It’s a weakness in the fabric of space and time. Every haunted place has one, doesn’t it? That’s why they’re haunted, it’s a time distortion.” – Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl

When I first heard beforehand that the upcoming Doctor Who episode “Hide” was written by Neil Cross, who also penned “The Rings of Akhaten,” I must have inwardly groaned.  But, having watched the episode, I was much relieved.  Whereas “Rings” just never came together and left me underwhelmed, “Hide” was a very tightly plotted, engaging tale with interesting characters.

The year is 1974.  Professor Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) and empathic psychic Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) are at Caliburn Mansion, attempting to obtain proof of the existence of the Witch in the Well, a ghost who has reputedly haunted the area for many centuries.  Alec and Emma’s inquiries are abruptly interrupted by the Doctor and Clara, who arrive claiming to be from the Health and Safety division of the Ministry of Defense.  And, in typical fashion, the Doctor quickly takes charge of the investigation.

“Hide” very much reminded me of the “gothic horror” stories of Tom Baker’s era on the show.  Indeed, scientists probing the existence of bizarre phenomena at an old English house out in the countryside is highly reminiscent of the set-up found in the above quoted 1977 serial “The Image of the Fendahl.”  Certainly the director of “Hide,” Jamie Payne, does an absolutely marvelous job at creating an eerie, spooky atmosphere.  There were some really suspenseful moments.

Of course, as with so many of those Tom Baker stories, the apparently supernatural entity in “Hide” is eventually explained as a scientific occurrence by the Doctor.  The solution to the mystery is unexpected, yet highly effective.  And right until the end, Cross’ script provides a number of well thought out twists.  I really enjoyed the conceit of the Doctor and Clara using the TARDIS to travel forward in time from the beginning of Earth’s history until the planet’s final days, periodically stopping in the exactly same spot, the once and future location of Caliburn Mansion, in order to collect evidence.

Come on out, all you ghosts, I'm from Health and Safety!
Come on out, all you ghosts, I’m from Health and Safety!

There is some excellent character development in this episode.  Watching the Doctor crossing through the entirety of Earth’s history as casually as if he was taking the bus across town, Clara finally begins to understand just how alien he is.  She realizes the Doctor operates on a scale vastly beyond human comprehension, and is actually intimidated.  As with last week’s “Cold War,” we see great work by Jenna-Lousie Coleman here, once again really fleshing out Clara beyond the initial character remit of plucky girl genius tossing off clever one-liners.

As for the Doctor, Matt Smith once more shows us, underneath the wacky nonchalance, the hints of his darker, more manipulative side.  It seems he is becoming more and more obsessed with finding out who or what Clara really is, why she keeps reappearing throughout history.  At times he appears to regard her not as a person, but as a mystery to be solved, or a laboratory specimen to be examined.

Cross does very nice work scripting the characters Alec Palmer and Emma Grayling.  Alec is haunted not just by the Witch in the Well but by his own past.  He ran black ops during World War II and saw a great deal of death.  Dougray Scott really buried himself in this role, and I didn’t even realize it was him until I went to Wikipedia to check the episode credits.

(As a side note, I did think Alec Palmer looked about a decade too young to have seen action in the war.  He’d have probably been in at least his early to mid-50s by 1974.  In real life, Scott is 47 years old.  Maybe the make-up department should have given him a few extra grey hairs. Ah, well, Scott played the role so well, I’m willing to shrug it off.)

Also well cast is Jessica Raine as Emma Grayling.  Cross’ script makes it clear that Emma’s paranormal senses often leave her feeling vulnerable and exposed.  Raine brings this quality across without making the character look weak.  I also thought Emma’s unreciprocated feelings towards Alec were well handled, and the relationship between the two seemed to evolve naturally throughout the course of the episode.

It’s interesting that such a dark, eerie, atmospheric episode becomes one about hope and the future.  But, again, the transition works effectively.  Unlike “The Rings of Akhaten” or “The Snowmen,” here the message of the importance of love and relationships is underplayed.  Cross allows it to come out of the events of the story, rather than hitting us over the head with a blunt object.

I probably could write more concerning “Hide,” but I would rather not give away too much about it.  If you haven’t watched it yet, it is well worth seeing.  I’d say that it is probably tied with “Cold War” for my favorite episode so far of Series 7B.

Doctor Who reviews: Cold War

I was really looking forward to Saturday night’s new Doctor Who episode “Cold War,” which featured the long-awaited return of the Ice Warriors.  Yeah, I’m not really spoiling anything by giving that away, because if you are a Doctor Who fan with an internet connection, odds are you’ve known for weeks now that the Ice Warriors were returning.  That’s the thing about the spread of info on the World Wide Web.  You go onto Facebook to look at photos of cute cats, and next thing you know you’ve unwittingly found out such tidbits as Neil Gaiman is writing an upcoming Cybermen episode, David Tennant, Billie Piper, Jemma Redgrave & the Zygons are all appearing in the show’s 50th Anniversary special, and Gumby & Pokey are going to become the Doctor’s new companions in the TARDIS.  Okay, I made that last one up, but you get what I’m talking about.

First introduced back in 1967, the militaristic Ice Warriors are Doctor Who’s version of Martians.  They made a quartet of appearances during the Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee years, last showing up in the 1974 serial “The Monster of Peladon.”  Since then, even though they were absent from television screens (narrowly missing out on returning a couple of times in the mid-1980s) they’ve appeared in various novels, comic books, and audio plays.  The Doctor also gave them a shout-out in “The Waters of Mars.”

A major factor in the Ice Warriors’ appeal is that sometimes they were enemies of the Doctor, sometimes allies, and sometimes something in between those two extremes.  Unlike such out-and-out baddies as the Daleks or Cybermen, you never know quite what you’re going to get when the denizens of Mars pop up.

Writer Mark Gatiss does a superb job reintroducing the Ice Warriors in “Cold War.”  The set-up is an excellent one.  The year is 1983, and a Soviet submarine is patrolling the waters of the North Pole.  In command is the pragmatic Captain Zhukov who is constantly clashing with his second in command, the saber-rattling Lieutenant Stepashin, who believes war between Russia and America is inevitable.  Also aboard the sub is Professor Grisenko, an eccentric scientist with a fondness for Western pop music (his favorite song is Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf”).  Grisenko has located some sort of creature frozen in the Arctic ice, and the sub is transporting it to Moscow for examination.  Unfortunately, a bored, impatient crewmember decides to melt the ice.  And out emerges a very grumpy Ice Warrior.

As the defrosted Martian goes on a rampage, and the sub begins to sink, the TARDIS materializes aboard.  The Doctor and Clara were on their way to Las Vegas, but they are obviously waaaay off course.  The Doctor, communicating with the Ice Warrior, learns this is the famed Martian hero Grand Marshall Skaldak.  Discovering that he has been in suspended animation for five thousand years, Skaldak realizes that everyone he ever knew is long dead.  Unable to make contact with any other Martian forces, and having been attacked by Zhukov’s crew, the mournful Skaldak decides to launch the sub’s nuclear arsenal and trigger World War III, wiping out humanity.  The Doctor desperately hopes he can find some sort of peaceful resolution to the conflict, recognizing that Skaldak isn’t truly evil, merely belligerent & misguided.

Cold War

“Cold War” is a tense, atmospheric tale, with almost all of the action confined to the narrow, dark corridors of the submarine.  It really brought to mind the “base under siege” formula seen in the old Troughton serials of the late Sixties.  This is quite appropriate, as that was the era which saw the debut of the Ice Warriors.  I thought Douglas Mackinnon did a fine job directing this story.

I liked how the Ice Warriors were presented.  They were slightly redesigned, giving them a more streamlined look, but they’re still obviously the same beings.  They also move a lot faster now (in their old appearances they lumbered along at something like five MPH) and their voices are much easier to understand.

The contrast between “Cold War” and last week’s episode, “The Rings of Akhaten,” is interesting.  That episode did an amazing job at creating this vast alien world populated by all manner of otherworldly beings, yet I felt the actual story never really came together in a satisfying manner, resulting in a merely average entry.  In comparison, “Cold War” is a rather more modest production, yet it is one of the strongest episodes of Series Seven.  This goes back to one of the strengths of Doctor Who from its original incarnation, when the shoestring budgets meant that the effects were primitive and the sets quite limited.  Given those restrictions, the production teams had to rely on their inventiveness, and on the strengths of the writers and actors, to create compelling episodes.  I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for episodes such as “The Rings of Akhaten.”  Rather, the lesson is that amazing special effects should complement good storytelling, not replace it.

Another reason why I was looking forward to “Cold War” was the guest appearance by the great David Warner.  He has previously acted in a number of the Big Finish audios, including “The Children of Seth.”  He even portrayed an alternate reality version of the Doctor in a pair of stories.  And he lent his voice talents to the animated special “Dreamland.”  So it was a pleasure to finally see Warner appear in a live action Doctor Who episode.  Professor Grisenko was a great role for him to play.  It is a performance that is both humorous and poignant.

Regarding the regulars, Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman both do good work.  Smith’s Doctor is an oddball with a steely determination beneath the babbling and flippancy.  I really enjoy that he tries to think his way out of a crisis, using either logic to outwit his foes or emotion to appeal to them, only using violence as a last resort.  “Cold War” showed off this quality very well, as the Doctor earnestly strives to get Skaldak and the Russians to see each other’s point of view, and to convince the Ice Warrior that his race is not dead, that the future has possibilities.

As for Coleman, now portraying the third incarnation of Clara (a mystery for another time), she has definitely growing on me.  We see a more vulnerable side to her character her in “Cold War.”  Before now, traveling with the Doctor has been a grand adventure, and she’s come across as the super-confident, almost infallible figure.  But seeing the submarine crew violently killed by Skaldak drives home to Clara that it isn’t all fun & games.  And that leads into a lovely moment between Coleman and Warner, as Grisenko take on a protective, almost grandfatherly role towards Clara.

“Cold War” was a very satisfying view.  It is definitely some of Gatiss’ best work on the show.  His script gives both the regulars and the guest cast solid material to work with.  I think the reason why it works well is because it so successfully blends the strengths of classic Doctor Who and the new series.  Intelligent writing, behind-the-sofa moments, great acting, and real character development are all present.

Doctor Who reviews: The Snowmen

It’s about time I did a write-up of the 2012 Doctor Who Christmas Special “The Snowmen.”  Well, it snowed here in NYC last night, so that’s as good a reason as any.

Written by Steven Moffat, “The Snowmen” follows on from the events of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” which witnessed Amy & Rory being lost in time, with the Doctor fated to never see them again.  At the end of that story, River Song urged the Doctor not to travel alone, to find new friends to share his adventures with.  Well, in “The Snowmen” we find that the Doctor has ignored his wife’s advice, much to his detriment.  Alone, bitter over the loss of Amy, the Doctor has retired to London in the year 1892.  Consumed by melancholy, angry at the universe for continually taking away everything that matters from him, the Doctor refuses to become involved in events once again.

Clara, a barmaid who moonlights as a governess, discovers that something mysterious is going on, that the snow in London is beginning to behave in strange ways.  Encountering the Doctor, she is immediately intrigued by him.  She attempts to convince him to investigate the snow, but he will have nothing to do with it.  As Clara later tries to contact the Doctor again, she attracts the attention of the Silurian samurai detective Madame Vastra and her human companion Jenny Flint.  The pair has also been futilely working to shake the Doctor out of his brooding, and they come to realize that the intelligent, fiery Clara is just the person to finally drive some sense into the Time Lord.

It turns out the snow is being animated by a mysterious disembodied alien mentality.  This force first made contact with a lonely, emotionally isolated child half a century before.  The now adult Dr. Simeon is in collusion with the alien entity to wipe out humanity and replace it with a species of beings that are a hybrid of ice creatures and human DNA.  Finally roused from his lethargy by Clara, the Doctor sets out to thwart Simeon and his unearthly ally.

“The Snowmen” was, on the whole, a good episode.  It was certainly an improvement over the previous two Christmas stories, both of which were too saccharine.  The ending of “The Snowmen” did veer into this territory, with a rather sappy resolution hinging on the power of human emotion.  Admittedly Moffat did set this up early on when the Doctor explained to Clara that human mental energies are able to affect the properties of the snow.  But it did still feel rather like a deus ex machina.

I felt that the strongest aspect of “The Snowmen” was the return of Vastra and Jenny, previously seen in “A Good Man Goes To War.”  The pair must have become instant fan favorites with that episode.  I was certainly happy to see them back.  The previously implied romantic relationship between the two is now elaborated upon as their having married.  I appreciate that Moffat did a fair job showing them as a loving couple, rather than tossing in perhaps the more obvious gay jokes (such as those which seem to follow around Captain Jack Harkness when he pops up).  After all, when you have the union of a human being and a prehistoric reptile woman, the fact that both are of the same gender is probably the least unusual aspect of their relationship.

The happy couple: Madame Vastra and Jenny
The happy couple: Madame Vastra and Jenny

Returning with Vastra and Jenny is the exiled Sontaran warrior Strax, now working as the couple’s manservant.  When we last saw Strax, he was dead.  But sci-fi is no barrier to overcoming the afterlife, and in a throw-away line of dialogue the Doctor explains Strax has been resurrected.  Unfortunately for our Sontaran, he lost a number of brain cells in the process, and is now quite dim.  Moffat uses the character for comic relief here.  I think he was a joke that rather soon wore out his welcome, at least for me.

That said, it bears repeating that Vastra and Jenny are awesome, and I really look forward to seeing Neve McIntosh and Catrin Stewart reprise their roles again.  Others have already suggested giving them their own spin-off.  I do not know if they are ready to get an ongoing series, but definitely give them a miniseries or one-off special, at the very least.

(We are told by Simeon that many in Victorian London suspect Vastra and Jenny have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  I would like to see an encounter between the author and the Sapphic detectives.  If anything, it would officially bring Conan Doyle into the Doctor Who television universe, as the novel Evolution by John Peel showed him meeting the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith.)

I was also impressed with Matt Smith’s performance in “The Snowmen.”  We have become so familiar with the character of the Doctor over the decades that it can be easy to forget that he is an alien being with certain negative qualities, and has the capacity to be quite unlikable.  The aloof, disinterested figure we see in “The Snowmen” really brings to mind William Hartnell’s initial characterization of the Doctor when we first met him back in the first season of Doctor Who.  Smith ably channels this darker aspect of the Doctor’s side.  It really ties in well with some of the other things done with the Eleventh Doctor, such as in “A Town Called Mercy,” where Amy pointed out how detrimental it is for him to travel alone for too long.

Jenna-Louise Coleman makes her debut as the Doctor’s new traveling companion Clara… sort of.  Viewers, but not the Doctor, saw that Clara is seemingly the same person as Oswin Oswald, the woman whose voice he heard throughout “Asylum of the Daleks,” and who sacrificed herself in the far future to defeat the Doctor’s arch-enemies.  Spoiler alert: Clara dies again, this time in 1892.  The Doctor, seeing her full name on her tombstone, realizes the two were one and the same.  It seems Clara somehow exists in multiple points throughout time & space, and the Doctor resolves to find her again.  Once again, as with “Asylum,” there is obviously so much more to Clara than she appears to be, and it looks like this is going to be a thread running through the remainder of the season in 2013.

Along with the rather convenient resolution that I mentioned above, I felt the weakest aspect of “The Snowmen” was Dr. Simeon.  The casting Richard E. Grant, a really fantastic actor, was a missed opportunity.  He does little more than stand around looking morose and ominous as Simeon.  There were the occasional hints that there was more to the character than just that, but Grant was unfortunately never given the opportunity to develop any of them.

Oh, yes, one last thing.  Throughout “The Snowmen” we see that Simeon is in charge of some sort of institute with the initials G.I.  It’s never explained what that stands for until the very end, when the Doctor looks at one of Simeon’s business cards.  G.I. = Great Intelligence.  I think I must have blurted out a “Holy shit” when that came on the screen.  The Great Intelligence was the villain from a pair of Patrick Troughton Doctor Who serials aired in the late 1960s, “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear.”  Suddenly it all made sense: the alien consciousness controlling events, the obsession with snowman-related servants, the wildly impractical plan to invade Earth.  Yes, all the earmarks of the Second Doctor’s old foe from those two stories.  I really should have seen it coming!

Anyway, while it was not an unqualified success by any means (I think Moffat was attempting to juggle too many balls at once) “The Snowman” was still quite good.  It effectively sets up some intriguing subplots for the next several episodes, gives us a look at a different side of the Doctor, and reintroduces Madame Vastra & Jenny.  On that last note, the pair is apparently going to be back in at least one more episode in 2013, if not more.  Looking forward to it.

Doctor Who reviews: Asylum of the Daleks

Dalek Prime Minister: What do you know of the Dalek Asylum?
The Doctor: According to legend you have a dumping ground. A planet where you lock up all the Daleks that go wrong. The battle-scarred, the insane, the ones even you can’t control. Which never made any sense to me.
Dalek Prime Minister: Why not?
The Doctor: Because you’d just kill them.
Dalek Prime Minister: It is offensive to us to extinguish such divine hatred.
The Doctor: Offensive?
Dalek Prime Minister: Does it surprise you to know that Daleks have a concept of beauty?
The Doctor: I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick. But hello again. You think hatred is beautiful?
Dalek Prime Minister: Perhaps that is why we have never been able to kill you.

“Asylum of the Daleks” is the premier episode of Doctor Who Series Seven, featuring Matt Smith as the Doctor, Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill as Rory Williams.  I have to say, it’s great that here in the States we are now getting to see brand  new episodes of Doctor Who so soon after their first airing in the UK.  For a long time, there would be a wait of two or three years for the shows to make it across the Atlantic.  But now they are aired on BBC America within a matter of a couple of days.

In any case, “Asylum of the Daleks” was a pretty good opening episode for the new season.  The Parliament of the Daleks has discovered that the human spaceship Alaska has crash-landed on their Asylum world, breaching a supposedly-impenetrable force field.  And if something can get in, then it follows that something could likewise get out.  Fearful that the insane inmates of the Asylum will break loose and attack their captors, the Parliament forcibly recruits the Doctor and his companions to travel to the planet and shut down the force shields, which will thereby enable the Dalek fleet to then obliterate the planet.

The Daleks have always been experts at manipulating other beings into doing their dirty work, often using deception, fear, or mind control as incentives.  All of these tools are on display in “Asylum of the Daleks,” taken up several notches.  They manipulate the Doctor, their arch-nemesis, into aiding them, something they already did once before in “Victory of the Daleks.”  More insidiously, we see the Daleks using nanogenes to convert innocent people into Dalek/human hybrids, twisted creatures that can be used as sleeper agents or weapons.  Even dead, these mutant beings are still useful, becoming zombies armed with Dalek technology.  There is some unsettling material in “Asylum of the Daleks,” as the Daleks casually twist and pervert humanity into tools they can use.  Writer Steven Moffat very much restores the Daleks’ stature as beings of almost pure evil in this story, and Nick Hurran’s excellent direction imbues them with a real sense of menace.

I did think it was rather clever that at least some of the inmates of the Asylum were Daleks who had survived encounters with the Doctor during their past campaigns.  The Doctor has the unique ability to wear down the patience of even his closest friends.  So for a species such as the Daleks, who are obsessed with overcoming him, being defeated by him would no doubt be enough to drive them insane.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum

One of the reasons why the Doctor agrees to go along with the Dalek Parliament’s plans is because at least one member of the Alaska’s crew survived the crash, a computer genius named Oswin, portrayed by Jenna-Louise Coleman.  Oswin has been stranded on Asylum for a year now, wrecking havoc with the planet’s infrastructure and baking soufflés while zinging witty bon mots.  At first, with her unnatural grace under fire and her quick-witted repartee, I had almost written off Oswin as yet another of Moffat’s uber-competent heroines along the lines of Amy and River Song.  But right from the start, there are hints that all is not what it seems with Oswin, and the Doctor picks up on these right away.  When he finally discovers the truth about her, it is a truly horrifying, tragic revelation.  I don’t know if other viewers saw it coming, but I certainly did not.

There is also a subplot concerning the impending dissolution of Amy and Rory’s marriage.  Amy has become a high fashion model and is seemingly ready to chuck her relationship with Rory in the rubbish, casually signing divorce papers right before the two of them are kidnapped by the Daleks to join up with the Doctor.  Towards the end of the episode, we finally learn why Amy is so ready to throw in the towel.  It does seem incredulous that this is a topic that she never even attempted to discuss with Rory before, putting up a false appearance of indifference.  That said, the actual scene where Rory forces Amy to admit what is going on is in and of itself well written, and both Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan play in marvelously.

I mentioned before Oswin’s flair for witticisms.  If there is one overriding criticism that I’ve had with Doctor Who since its revival, first under Russell T Davies and now with Steven Moffat, it is that both of them have often made too much of an effort at penning this sort of rapid-fire, clever, ultra-self aware dialogue.  I much prefer it when the scripting goes more low-key.  Some of the best scenes in “Asylum of the Daleks” are the more restrained ones.  Matt Smith is especially good at taking these very big, emotional moments of anger, excitement, or sadness, and underplaying them.  It is much more effective than playing it loud and broadly.

The music by Murray Gold was, for the most part, effective.  However, it did seem a bit too whimsical at times for what was such a dark story.  On more than one occasion, I wondered to myself how much different the mood of show would have been if it had been composed by Peter Howell or Roger Limb, both of whom were composers on Doctor Who in the 1980s.  I think it would be interesting to have either one of them contribute to the revived series, especially on one of the more atmospheric episodes such as this one.

So, though not perfect, “Asylum of the Daleks” is a decent episode.  It’s good to have Doctor Who back on our television screens, and this opening episode leaves me anticipating the rest of the forthcoming season.