Ten years of new Doctor Who

On the 26th of March 2005 “Rose,” the very first episode of the revival of Doctor Who, was broadcast on BBC One.  Viewers were introduced to the Ninth Doctor played by Christopher Eccleston and Rose Tyler played by Billie Piper in a script written by new series showrunner Russell T Davies.  That was exactly ten years ago today.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Ten years.

Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler

Yes, I almost cannot believe that it has been exactly ten years since Doctor Who made its return to television screens after more than a decade and a half absence. TEN YEARS! If you had told me back in 2004 that just a year later Doctor Who would be returning, that the new series would run more than a decade, and that it would become a gigantic mega-hit not just in Britain but in America and numerous other countries, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here we are a decade later and that is exactly what has happened. As Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was fond of saying, “Fantastic!”

I will readily admit that the first year of the revival was wildly uneven.  But even so, it contained a few genuine classics, namely “Dalek,” “Father’s Day” and “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.”  Certainly the portrayal of the Doctor by Eccleston was brilliant.

Since then we have had David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all portraying the Doctor, each bringing something unique and wonderful to the role.  We’ve also seen the final fate of Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor, the revelation of the existence of the War Doctor portrayed by veteran thespian John Hurt, and even cameos by past Doctors Peter Davison and Tom Baker.  Oh, yes, and the return of Sarah Jane Smith, played by the much loved (and now much missed) Elisabeth Sladen.

Oh, yeah, and there’s been a whole bunch of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff,” enough to keep fans endlessly guessing… and arguing.

doctors-9-10-11-12

Obviously not every episode has been a brilliant success.  There have inevitably been a few stinkers over the past decade.  However, on the whole I believe that both Davies and his successor Steven Moffat have done good work keeping the series going, bringing it into the 21st Century.

Maybe it is just the nature of Doctor Who fans to complain, to argue “It isn’t as good as it used to be!”  But, honestly, I really do think that some of the all time greatest installments of the series have been produced within the past decade.  And I am eager to see what comes next.

So here’s to the next ten years of Doctor Who!  Geronimo, allons-y, and all that!

Doctor Who reviews: The Time of the Doctor

Matt Smith’s four year tenure as the Eleventh Doctor has come to an end with “The Time of the Doctor.”  Not only that, but Steven Moffat has pretty satisfactorily wrapped up the plotlines and answered the major questions set out during that period.  I think this year’s Christmas Special was, all in all, quite good.  Not nearly as impressive as the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special last month, but that was a hell of an act to follow up.

The Doctor, accompanied by Clara (Jenna Coleman) arrives on the spaceship headquarters of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, one of innumerable craft now orbiting a planet from which a mysterious signal is transmitting.  The Doctor and Clara travel down to the planet to investigate it on behalf of the Church.  It is a world of almost eternal night with just one small human settlement, a village named Christmas.  The Doctor discovers the source of the signal in the basement of a house: a mysterious crack in reality, exactly like the ones that he encountered many years before.  Using a scavenged Cyberman head he’s nicknamed “Handles,” the Doctor translates the message: “Doctor Who?”  Suddenly the Doctor realizes exactly where he is.  The planet is Trenzalore, where he is fated to die.

Time of the Doctor

And here all the answers come out.  It transpires that the source of the cracks in time is the Time Lord home world of Gallifrey, which as we saw in “The Day of the Doctor” was saved at the end of the Time War, frozen in a single moment of time and sent off to another reality.  The reason why the question is being broadcast is because if the Doctor answers, the Time Lords will know that they have once again located their home dimension and return.  The Church of the Papal Mainframe and the various other alien races assembled over Trenzalore desperately want to prevent that.  No doubt this is due to the fact that, as seen in “The End of Time,” at the conclusion of the war, faced with defeat at the hands of the Daleks, Rassilon and the High Council of the Time Lords were planning to enact the Final Sanction, wiping out all reality and ascending to a higher plane of existence.

In earlier stories, I’d been really confused about the fact that the religious order known as the Silence had created River Song in order to assassinate the Doctor, but later on she was imprisoned by the Church for apparently succeeding in that task (as we saw in “The Wedding of River Song,” the Doctor faked his death).  In “The Time of the Doctor,” it’s revealed that the Silence were a breakaway faction of the Church of the Papal Mainframe.  The Silence was so fearful of the Doctor ever going to Trenzalore that they were the ones who blew up his TARDIS in “The Big Bang” in an attempt to kill him.  However, not only did that temporarily cause reality to be destroyed, but it also retroactively created the cracks in time in the first place.  And by creating River Song, the Silence inadvertently gave him a friend & ally who helped him stay alive through numerous crises.  As the Doctor explains, the Silence was caught up in a whopping big predestination paradox, causing the very problems they were attempting to prevent.  Yowsa, what a bunch of bunglers!

So now that the Doctor has arrived at Trenzalore, the main chapter of the Church decides that the only way to fix the mess their rogue members created and prevent the Time Lords’ return is to destroy the Christmas settlement and the crack in reality.  Allied with the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Sontarans, and numerous other alien powers, the Church launches an all-out offensive.  The Doctor decides that it is his responsibility to protect the people of Christmas, and so spends the next several centuries repelling the invading forces.  In the process, after all his long wanderings through time & space, the Doctor finally settles down and adopts a new home. We see him growing older and older, eventually becoming an elderly figure.

The Daleks, not unexpectedly, eventually turn on the Church, transforming nearly all the members aboard their ship into brainwashed Dalek / human hybrids like those seen in “Asylum of the Daleks” (as the First Doctor keenly observed in the novelization of “The Daleks’ Master Plan” written by John Peel, “The Daleks don’t take allies – only victims”).  The Doctor manages to get through to Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), the Mother Superious of the Church, and she is able to overcome her Dalek conditioning.  (Tasha is an interesting, enigmatic character, well played by Bradley, and I would certainly enjoy seeing her return in the future.)  This leads to the Doctor fighting side-by-side with the Church and the Silence against the Dalek onslaught.

Time of the Doctor Tasha Lem

We also find out that the Doctor really has reached the end of his life; he has used up his allotted twelve regenerations.  He may call himself the Eleventh Doctor, but between the existence of the War Doctor, and the Tenth Doctor’s non-regeneration at the beginning of “Journey’s End,” he is actually in his thirteenth and final incarnation.  He fully expects to die on Trenzalore, that the planet will be his final resting place, as seen in the future in “The Name of the Doctor.”  He is only trying to stay alive to keep the town of Christmas safe for as long as he possibly can, before what he believes to be the inevitable happens.  He tells Clara, “Every life that I save is a victory.”

If there is one obvious weakness to “The Time of the Doctor,” it is that the Doctor’s centuries-long stay on Trenzalore requires Clara to bounce back and forth between there and Earth.  Otherwise she would have grown old & died long before the end of the episode.  So first the Doctor tricks her into going back to Earth, but by leaping onto the vanishing TARDIS she is returned to Trenzalore three hundred years later.  Then the Doctor pulls the same trick a second time, but on this occasion she is brought back a few centuries later by Tasha, who does not want the Doctor to die alone.  Clara, with all this coming and going (to quote a line from “The Claws of Axos”) comes across like “a galactic yo-yo.”

Nevertheless, Clara is vital to the final outcome.  Just as she was the one who encouraged the Doctor to find a non-destructive resolution to the Time War, so too does she appeal to the Time Lords’ better nature here, speaking to them through the crack in time, asking them to help him because of all the good he has done.  In response, the crack vanishes from the house and reappears in the sky just long enough to send out the energy needed to grant the Doctor a brand new cycle of regenerations.  The Doctor focuses this energy and uses it to obliterate the Daleks, and then returns to the TARDIS, waiting for the change to complete.

Yeah, perhaps it is a bit sappy, Clara’s appeal for the Time Lords’ sympathy.  But is has been shown over and over that one of the things that makes the Doctor a better person, that helps to prevent him from becoming some kind of lonely, angry god, is humanity.  So it makes sense that where the Doctor failed in his efforts to convince his own people to be a better species, it is a decent, kind human such as Clara who succeeds in guiding them towards the correct decision.

Clara is, I think, one of those characters who, if not played by the right actress, might come across as unbearably witty and sweet and clever.  Indeed, that was my first impression of her a year ago.  Fortunately Coleman quickly slipped into the role, making her an appealing, likable, fun character.  She certainly does good work in this episode.

I really appreciated that the Eleventh Doctor accepted his impending regeneration much better than his previous incarnation.  The Tenth Doctor’s final words were “I don’t want to go,” which I never liked.  In contrast, we have a lovely final scene for the Eleventh Doctor written by Moffat that Smith plays extremely well.  The Eleventh Doctor, while he is sad that he will soon be a very different person, acknowledges:

“We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives. And that’s ok, that’s good, you gotta keep moving. So long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

And then… exit Matt Smith, enter Peter Capaldi!  The Twelfth Doctor is, of course, quite confused and, after complaining that he doesn’t like the color of his new kidneys, looks at Clara and asks “One question: do you happen to know how to fly this thing?”  My girlfriend laughed, declaring that was a very Doctor-ish question.

Time of the Doctor Twelfth Doctor

So, yes, the pacing of “The Time of the Doctor” was rather uneven, what with the episode taking place over a period of several hundred years.  In spots it did feel drawn out.  And, as I said, the whole back and forth between Earth and Trenzalore with Clara might have been handled in a somewhat smoother manner.

Also, the ending was perhaps something of a deus ex machina, with the Doctor receiving twelve new regenerations and conveniently using the energy from the process to wipe out the Daleks.  However, it has been stated more than once in the past that the Time Lords have the ability to artificially create a new regeneration cycle.  They dangled that promise in front of the Master in “The Five Doctors,” and subsequently did exactly that when they resurrected him to fight in the Time War.  And the victory over the Daleks seen here did seem more believable & natural than the one back in “The Parting of Ways,” with Rose using the heart of the TARDIS to destroy them.

(Truthfully, though, if you look at the history of Doctor Who, going all the way back to the 1960s, in many of their appearances the Daleks have been written as invincible enemies right up until the final episode of each story, at which point some convenient plot device is used to defeat them.)

Anyway, while not a perfect episode, “The Time of the Doctor” was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable farewell for Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor.  And it left me anticipating Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor.  I’m looking forward to seeing how he plays the role, and how the Doctor’s relationship with Clara will evolve.

Doctor Who reviews: The Day of the Doctor

Whew!!!  After six long months of waiting, “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who, aired today, November 23rd.  It was so very cool that it was broadcast here in the States on BBC America at the exact time it was showing on the telly on the other side of the pond.

Ever since “The Name of the Doctor” back in May, there has been a ton of speculation about who, exactly, the mysterious previously-unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, really was, and why he was the Doctor’s “secret.”  Indeed, “The Day of the Doctor” dealt with exactly that.

I’m really relieved that I managed to view the mini episode that the BBC debuted online a week ago.  Every time they had one of those in the past, I’ve somehow missed them, and didn’t catch them until months later.  Which was a shame, because those short segments had some nice character material, such as the development of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song’s relationship.  But as soon as I started seeing that a bunch of people were posting links to “The Night of the Doctor” on Facebook, I decided to check it out.  And, wow, was I genuinely surprised.

Night of the Doctor McGann

“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.”  Oh my god, it’s Paul McGann!  Seventeen years after his sole television outing, the Eighth Doctor returned.  I’m glad the BBC managed to keep the lid on this, because it was such a shock.  I thought McGann was brilliant in the 1996 television movie, and he’s done great work continuing as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio plays.  I’m thrilled he was given the opportunity to bring closure to the Eighth Doctor, to show how that incarnation ended.

“The Night of the Doctor” is such a brilliant inversion by Steven Moffat on the typical Doctor Who formula.  You have a set-up where the Doctor arrives to rescue Cass from her crashing spaceship.  At first it seems very similar to many other times when the Doctor gained a new companion.  But the instant she finds out that the Doctor is a Time Lord, she pulls back in horror & anger.  She literally would rather die than be saved by one of them, because of the horrific carnage that has been wrecked all across the universe in the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks.  After the ship crashes on the planet Karn (first seen in “The Brain of Morbius”) the mysterious Sisterhood is able to revive the Doctor for four minutes, and offer him a chance to select the shape & personality of his next regeneration.  And the dying Doctor, who previously refused to fight in the Time War, now believes that his inaction has prolonged the conflict and led to Cass’ death, as well as countless others.  He chooses the path of a warrior, and regenerates into John Hurt’s “War Doctor.”

As we see via his reflection at the end of “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor actually started out with a young body.  By the time “The Day of the Doctor” opens, on the final day of the Time War, he is now a haggard, weary old man.  The implication is that he has been fighting for decades, perhaps centuries.  Having witnessed carnage & destruction on an inconceivable scale, the War Doctor finally vows “No more.”  He seizes the sentient Time Lord doomsday device known as the Moment.  He intends to use it to totally destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, finally ending the Time War before all of reality is consumed by it.

Day of the Doctor promo

Arriving in a barren desert with the Moment, the War Doctor reluctantly prepares to commit genocide.  However, the Moment peers into the Doctor’s future time stream and projects an Interface in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to communicate with him.  The Interface asks the War Doctor if he is truly certain he wants to take such an apocalyptic action and wipe out billions of lives in an instant.

Elsewhere / when, in present day London, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now a school teacher at Coal Hill School, a call back to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and the characters of Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright (when “The Day of the Doctor” opened with the original 1963 series credits, I think I made a “squee” noise or something).  Receiving a message from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), she zooms off on her motorcycle to meet him.  Before the two can start off on their latest trip, UNIT snatches the TARDIS by helicopter grappling hook and whisks it away to the National Gallery.  Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) needs the Doctor to investigate a mystery involving strange artwork hidden in the museum’s basement, paintings dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), specifically events in 1562, when the Queen was romantically involved with none other than the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant).  There’s a complicated plot afoot involving the shape-shifting Zygons, who plan to use stolen Time Lord technology to conquer the Earth.

(Tennant once commented that his favorite Doctor Who monsters from when he watched the series as a child were the Zygons, and he would have liked for his Doctor to meet them.  I’m glad he finally had that opportunity.  Besides, they were just too cool not to eventually bring back to television.)

The Moment Interface generates time fissures, bringing together the War Doctor with his two later incarnations.  The Interface wishes to show the War Doctor what sort of man he will become if he chooses to destroy the Time Lords, a man who hundreds of years later is at first constantly haunted by the death toll, and who even later is furiously struggling to forget all that, to blot out who he once was, and the terrible action he took.

I absolutely loved the interaction between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt.  Steven Moffat scripted some superb material for them, with each version of the Doctor alternating between trying to outdo his other selves and congratulating them on their (and therefore his) brilliance.  It led to a lot of genuinely funny moments, as well as some very heartfelt ones.  Smith was his usual great self, and Tennant slipped effortlessly back into the role.  As for Hurt, he was absolutely brilliant.  As the War Doctor, he had the quality of an eccentric, rather mischievous grandfather figure, shades of the Doctor of old.  At the same time he so effectively projected this sorrowful, almost physical burden weighing him down from the long years of fighting.

Day of the Doctor Smith Tennant Hurt

Even after seeing the man (men?) he will become, the War Doctor is still ready to activate the Moment, and with a heavy heart prepares to press down on the Big Red Button… yep, it literally is a Big Red Button.  Previously, when futilely attempting to figure out how the Moment worked, he had wished for one of those, and finally the Interface provided him with just that.  The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, having come to accept the necessity of what he / they did, are ready to activate the Moment with him, and shoulder the burden & guilt.

Clara, however, begs them to find another way.  She reminds the Eleventh Doctor of what he told her in “The Name of the Doctor,” that when he chose his name he made a promise to himself.  Now she urges him to find some way to keep that promise.  The trio of Doctors realizes that, on their own, none of them would be able to figure out how to alter time and save Gallifrey while still defeating the Daleks and ending the Time War.  But pooling all of their knowledge together, and the power of their TARDISes, they can use the aforementioned technology pilfered by the Zygons to freeze the entire planet in an instant of time and transport that into another reality (or something) leaving the billions of Dalek spaceships to obliterate themselves in their own crossfire.

Next thing you know, you have a dozen TARDISes circling the besieged Gallifrey, as every one of the past incarnations of the Doctor end up working together to enact this plan.  Did I say a dozen?  Actually it’s thirteen, as Peter Capaldi appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it surprise cameo as the future Twelfth Doctor.

Later on, back in 2013 at the National Gallery, the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor both say their farewells.  They each know that when they return to their own point in the time stream, they’ll forget what happened, that they chose to try to save Gallifrey rather than destroy it, at least until they reach this moment in time as the Eleventh Doctor.  Finally on his own, the Eleventh Doctor sits, looking at a painting of the final day of the Time War, a painting alternatively known by two names, “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls.”  He wonders if he really did succeed in saving his people.  And then the museum’s eccentric curator approaches him and, referring to the painting, states that it actually has one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.”  The Eleventh Doctor realizes that the plan worked, that somewhere his home world once more exists.  Oh, yes, and the fellow playing that odd curator is a certain Tom Baker.

All in all, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was an excellent anniversary story, especially given time & budgetary constraints, the availability of actors (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee have all passed on, Eccleston was very likely not interested in participating, and everyone else  who has played the Doctor looks much older than they did back in the day), and the simple fact that if Moffat had tossed in too many elements of the past, the story might have been incoherent and collapsed under its own weight.  If you want a really great 50th anniversary story with appearances by all eleven Doctors, numerous companions, and a whole bunch of monsters, pick up the twelve issue comic book series Prisoners of Time, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times.  And if you want an anniversary story starring all of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the classic series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) there is the audio adventure “The Light at the End” out now from Big Finish.  But as far as the television format goes, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was probably almost as good as it gets.

Day of the Doctor Zygon

Really, my only major criticism is that the plotline of the Zygon invasion is sort of left unresolved.  The Doctors force Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Zygons to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement, but we never find out the outcome of that.  I really hope that at some point in a future episode that gets addressed.  It would be interesting to see the Zygons again as, despite their typically belligerent actions, they probably aren’t truly evil (or at least not as evil as, say, the Daleks or the Master) and the only reason why they want to invade Earth is because their own planet was destroyed.

So, was it worth the wait?  Yeah, it was.  “The Day of the Doctor” was great because it demonstrated just why the Doctor is such a great hero.  Despite his many flaws, he tries to use intelligence instead of violence to solve problems, and he genuinely wants to preserve life instead of destroying it.  He’s seen the worst that the universe has to offer, and he still does his best to remain true to his principals.  And, yes, unfortunately sometimes the Doctor fails.  Sometimes he ends up in a no-win situation where he either cannot save the day or he has to compromise his morals in order to save the most lives.  But afterwards he always resolves to try harder next time, to be a better person in the future.

Here’s to the next fifty years of Doctor Who.

Old vs new: fan wars and Doctor Who

Okay, I’m taking a break in my retrospective of David Quinn’s Doctor Strange stories to talk about some issues concerning another well-known fictional doctor.  I am, of course, referring to Doctor Who.  Come on, you all know me!  Who did you think I was going to blog about, Doctor Doolittle?

When I heard that Peter Capaldi had been cast as the twelfth incarnation of the Doctor, my first reaction was to head over to good old Wikipedia to look him up.  I quickly realized that Capaldi had previously appeared in both the Doctor Who episode “The Fires of Pompeii” and the Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries.  I thought he delivered strong performances in each of those roles.  I wasn’t familiar with his other work, but from reading his bio it was obvious that he has been quite busy for the past three decades.  To me, he seemed like a very capable actor, and I was looking forward to seeing what he brought to the role of the Doctor.  I really did not intend to make any other comments until I actually had the opportunity to view him playing the Doctor some time in 2014.

Then I started to see articles and postings around the Internet, comments from a number of younger fans that Capaldi, at 55 years of age (incidentally the same age as William Hartnell when he became the first actor to portray the Doctor back in 1963) was “too old” or “unattractive” to play the role.  And my blood pressure went through the roof.  I was preparing to write up the mother of all blog posts going off on an extended bloody rant tearing these teenagers a new one.

And then I read an insightful & intelligent response to this controversy on one of my favorite WordPress blogs, An American View of British Science Fiction.  Entitled “The Twelfth Doctor & Why I’m Sick of Nerd In-Fighting” this thoughtful piece of commentary caused me to step back, take a deep breath, and try to consider the other side.  I decided that if I was going to post my thoughts, I would do so in a reasonable manner that attempts to articulate and explain my position.

The man on the left is the Doctor. The man on the right, incidentally, is also the Doctor.
The man on the left is the Doctor. The man on the right, incidentally, is also the Doctor.

The reason why I am so annoyed at younger fans complaining Peter Capaldi is “too old” is that it just seems to indicate both a level of superficiality & fickleness among newer fans, as well as a complete lack of interest in anything involved with Doctor Who from before 2005.

Speaking from my own personal experience, when I first got into Doctor Who in the early 1980s, and Peter Davison was playing the Doctor, I was absolutely dying to find out about the show’s rich past from the 1960s and 70s.  I so badly wanted to be able to watch William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, and Tom Baker’s stories. And it just seemed that, excepting Tom’s stuff, you couldn’t find them anywhere! Maybe the fact that so much of the material from the series’ first 11 years had either A) never been broadcast in the States or B) was lost forever, having been foolishly junked by the BBC in the mid-1970s, made it even more tantalizing.  You know, when you cannot have something, you end up wanting it even more.

I guess nowadays, with pretty much every single existing episode of the series available on DVD, people can go on Amazon and have a copy of any Doctor Who story delivered to their door in 24 hours, or even downloaded instantly onto their computer. That convenient access makes it a hell of a lot easier to take the show’s history for granted.

I never thought of it as “nerd elitism” but, okay, yeah, for many years I felt like I was one of those lone voices carrying the torch of Doctor Who fandom.  This was especially true in the 1990s, the period many older fans refer to as “the wilderness years.”  Back then, aside from the 1996 television movie starring Paul McGann, the only way to experience brand new Doctor Who was to read the original novels published first by Virgin and then by the BBC themselves.  The thing was, the quality of those books was highly variable.  Some were brilliantly revolutionary & cutting edge, while others were horribly pretentious, were trying much too hard to come across as “gritty” and “adult” or, worst of all, were just a couple of steps up from fan fiction by writers who wanted to “fix” perceived mistakes in the series’ continuity (I am not going to name any names).

The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch, probably one of the better Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s.
The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch, probably one of the better
Doctor Who novels published in the 1990s.

Okay, you could also buy Doctor Who Magazine for its excellent original comic strip, but that was only eight pages out of the entire periodical.  And in 1999, Big Finish began producing brand new audio adventures starring Peter Davison, Colin Baker, and Sylvester McCoy.  True, each two-CD story would cost around $25, and you could only listen to these new stories, rather than watching them.  But it was, at that point, literally the next best thing to having new Doctor Who on your television.

My point is, for much of the decade the pickings were rather slim.  Nevertheless, despite all that, I remained a fan.  I approached the novels, the comic strips and the audio plays with both enthusiasm and an open mind.  That’s how much I loved Doctor Who.  I recognized it had to change and, yes, go through some uncomfortable growing pains to survive.

The thing is, though, in those days, whenever I told anybody that I was a fan of the show, they either had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, or worse, their reaction was that I was some loser without a life, fruitlessly pining away for the return of a series that had been axed years before, never to return.

So, yeah, when I hear younger fans say that they have no interest in going back and seeing anything from the original 26 year run, it’s very annoying. Because if it wasn’t for those two and a half decades, as well as that decade plus where we had nothing but novels, comic strips, and audio plays, here and now there would not be this great series featuring David Tennant and Matt Smith which those new fans love so much.  And when those same fans say Peter Capaldi is “too old,” again it just seems like a deliberate thumbing of the nose at the show’s past.  The magic of the character of the Doctor is that he can be so many different things, and not only some handsome, dashing young fellow who makes the ladies swoon.

Look, I get it.  Many of those old serials seem really padded out compared to the current fast-paced incarnation of the series.  Even an “old school” fan such as me will be the first to admit that many of those stories could be cut down by an episode or two and not lose any material of real significance.  So, yeah, to younger viewers those stories might seem a chore to sit through.  But I wish they’d at least give some of those older episodes a chance, and see just how diverse a character the Doctor has been over the years.

“The Twelfth Doctor & Why I’m Sick of Nerd In-Fighting” does relevantly address the issue of Matt Smith’s age.  Yes, I acknowledge that back in 2009 when I heard some 26 year old actor had been cast as the Eleventh Doctor, I was one of the many long-time fans who thought this was a huge mistake, that he was much too young to be playing the role.  But you know what?  I still stuck around.  I watched Smith’s debut in “The Eleventh Hour,” and by the end of the episode he had pretty much won me over.  By the time the two-part “The Hungry Earth” / “Cold Blood” story was broadcast, I was a firm fan.  I could see he was much like Peter Davison, portraying the Doctor as an old soul in a young man’s body.  And now that Smith’s run is coming to an end, I am very sorry to see him go.

So, yes, I admit it: I was wrong!  But the point is, even though I was initially against Matt Smith because of his age, I stuck it out, I gave him a chance.  And, as you can see, I was very pleasantly surprised.

How about we all give Peter Capaldi a chance, please?
How about we all give Peter Capaldi a chance, please?

And that is another part of why I am so frustrated.  As I have related above, Doctor Who was tossed about in extremely stormy weather for the last decade of the 20th Century, but people such as me stuck it out because we truly loved the series and the characters, and we were willing to take the time to root out the quality stories from the dross.  That is why it really is disheartening to read about how some of these younger fans are apparently ready to jump ship in an instant, at the first sign of displeasure, rather than giving Peter Capaldi an opportunity to prove himself.

I hope that the fans of the series that came aboard after 2005 will take my advice, and at least wait & see before judging.  You never know what is around the corner.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Regeneration

I think that last week’s announcement that Matt Smith will be departing from Doctor Who at the end of the year must have caught a fair number of people by surprise, me included.  Up until that point, it seemed a pretty sure bet that Smith would be playing the Eleventh Doctor for at least another full season.  The news that he would only be around for two more stories – the 50th Anniversary special and the 2013 Christmas story – before regenerating, was actually quite disappointing for me.

Okay, admittedly, four years ago, when David Tennant announced that he was leaving Doctor Who, I also felt let down.  I honestly thought that no one could possibly fill the shoes of the actor who had given the best portrayal of the Doctor since Tom Baker.  And, y’know, Matt Smith’s first year on the series almost confirmed my fears.  It was a wildly uneven set of episodes.  But by the time 2011 rolled around, it was clear that both Smith and showrunner Steven Moffat had found their feet.  Since that time, I’ve really been thrilled by the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures, so much so that, once again, I find myself asking that very same question: why can’t he stay around for just a little bit longer?

For my next role, I will be starring in a remake of The Red Balloon. Geronimo!
For my next role, I will be starring in a remake of The Red Balloon. Geronimo!

Thinking about Smith’s departure has got me reminiscing about the whole regeneration thing in Doctor Who.  It is a truly brilliant concept, one conceived way back in 1966 by script editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd as a means to replace the ailing William Hartnell.  The Doctor’s ability to renew himself in such a drastic manner has enabled the series to last an amazing half century, with a number of truly talented actors playing the main role.

Of course, it has been a long time since anyone in the viewing public has been surprised by a change-over in actors, as the BBC publicity machine inevitably announces each forthcoming recasting with much fanfare.  I expect that, in Britain at least, the first and last time anyone might have actually been surprised by the Doctor changing was when “The Tenth Planet” was broadcast in October 1966, and Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode.

It was a different story here in the States, at least for a while.  In the early 1980s, before the Internet, news about Doctor Who was much more difficult to come by.  Heck, when I first began watching the series on my local PBS station in 1983, as far as I knew Tom Baker was the one and only actor to have ever played the role of the Doctor.  After catching a handful of his episodes here and there, I finally figured out what channel & time the series was airing, and began following it each weekday night at 6:00 PM on WLIW Channel 21, beginning with “The Horns of Nimon” episode four.  Yeah, not an auspicious start, I know, but when you’re seven years old you can be a lot less critical of these things.

I quickly became a fan of the series, watching the entirety of what I now know was Season Eighteen.  And, after several weeks, there came a very odd four part story titled “Logopolis” which ended with the Doctor plunging hundreds of feet off a space telescope where, sprawled on the ground, surrounded by his friends, he somehow transformed into a young blonde-haired man.  And at that point I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on!

That next night, sitting through episode one of “Castrovalva,” I was very unsettled.  As the altered Doctor seemed to be losing his mind, I kept wondering why they had gotten rid of the guy with the curly hair.  And, once this blond-haired fellow began unraveling the Doctor’s trademark scarf, yep, I was utterly horrified!  Nevertheless, I stuck it out, and three nights later, by the end of episode four, I was thinking to myself, “Maybe this new guy will work out after all.”

Who needs a scarf? Not me!
Who needs a scarf? Not me!

It must have been a few weeks later that I finally started to understand that this was something that had happened on the show before.  I was at the local Waldenbooks, where I discovered that there was an entire line of Doctor Who novels adapted from episodes of the television series.  And on a lot of the covers were individuals other than Tom Baker.  I realized there must have been other versions of the Doctor before him.  This was soon after confirmed for me when “Earthshock” aired on WLIW.  In episode two the Cybermen viewed archival footage of their past encounters with the Doctor, and we saw not just Baker, but also Hartnell and Troughton.

Inevitably I did become a big fan of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison.  Looking back on it, as David Tennant would say a number of years later, he was my Doctor.  So, eventually, “The Caves of Androzani” episode four aired on PBS, and the Fifth Doctor, seemingly dying, announced “I might regenerate. I don’t know. Feels different this time.”  And, once again, my jaw dropped.  Oh, no, I thought, now Peter Davison was leaving the show!  Darn it!  Next thing you know, the Doctor has become this very brash fellow who, with a smirk, in response to a confused Peri’s question about what has just happened, informs her “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”

And, as an aside, yes, once I was able to view Colin Baker’s episodes, I ended up becoming a fan of his Doctor, as well.  As I have said before, he gave such an underrated performance on the show.  Nowadays, it’s a real joy listening to the Big Finish audio plays where he reprises the Sixth Doctor.

But, getting back to my original point, this was the very last time I was surprised by the Doctor regenerating.  I think that, unless you live in a cave without an Internet connection, it’s just impossible not to know ahead of time that so-and-so is leaving the series.  This means that, even though Matt Smith’s departure will not be airing for another six months, we know he is on his way out.

Of course, we still do not know who has been cast as the Twelfth Doctor… at least not yet.  I’m sure the news will be announced any day now.  Just as I’m also sure that I’ll do my usual shtick of bemoaning that the new guy isn’t as good as Matt Smith was, at least until I see him in a few episodes, at which point I’ll probably become a huge fan.  And so it goes!

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: The Crimson Horror

Things have been really busy, and I didn’t have an opportunity to watch last week’s Doctor Who episode, “The Crimson Horror,” until this afternoon.  Thank you, DVR!  So here, at last are my thoughts on it.

The year is 1893.  Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are in Yorkshire, investigating a rash of mysterious deaths that have left people colored blood red, the eponymous Crimson Horror.  The last victims of this strange ailment were investigating Sweetville, a model community that has been organized by Mrs. Gillyflower and her blind daughter Ada as a supposed refuge against the coming apocalypse.

Jenny, posing as a convert to Gillyflower’s movement, infiltrates Sweetville.  There, hidden in a locked room, she finds none other than the Doctor, himself a victim of the Crimson Horror.  He is still alive due to his alien physiology, but mostly paralyzed and in terrible pain.  Jenny manages to get him into a revival unit in the factory and, restored to his usual eccentric self, the two go in search of Clara.  She, along with most of the other recruits to Sweetville, has been frozen in suspended animation.  Gillyflower intends to unleash a prehistoric plague to wipe out humanity, and then revive the assembled population of Sweetville to form a “perfect” community on the now-desolate Earth.

The highlight of “The Crimson Horror” was the casting of Diana Rigg and her daughter Rachael Stirling as Mrs. Gillyflower and Ada.  Writer Mark Gatiss had been working in a play with Stirling and, learning that she had never acted opposite her mother, drafted this episode exactly with that in mind.  I quite liked Stirling’s previous Doctor Who performance in the Big Finish audio play “Trail of the White Worm.”  So it was nice to see her make the leap to an actual television episode.  And, of course, Diana Rigg was amazing.  Even at age 74, she’s still a real firecracker, and can probably out-act most people in the profession who are a third her age.  Gatiss really came up with an interesting, complex, troubled mother-daughter dynamic for Rigg and Sterling to act out in this story, and both play their roles extremely well.

It was an interesting choice to have the Doctor and Clara absent from the first fifteen minutes or so of the episode, having the story told from the point of view of Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.  I did enjoy seeing Jenny, portrayed by Catrin Stewart, getting to work solo for some of the episode, and then do a bit of ass-kicking, coincidentally or not coming across much like a later day Emma Peel.  She’s certainly a credit to Dame Diana’s proud legacy of tough, independent women.

No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you'll look just like Patrick MacNee.
“No, really, all you need is an umbrella to go with that bowler hat, and you’ll look just like Patrick Macnee.”

I enjoyed the whimsical, retro flashback sequence as Jenny is brought up to speed by the Doctor on how he and Clara got involved in the Sweetville investigation.  There is this faux-grainy film stock intermingled with still photos.  Very effective, and it suits the mood of the story perfectly.

As I mentioned in my review of “The Snowmen,” the character of Strax the Sontaran was rather annoying, and his constant use as comic relief fell flat.  I found him much more acceptable in “The Crimson Horror,” probably because he actually got to do stuff, rather than just stand around acting silly.  And when Strax was humorously oblivious or belligerent, it just seemed to work better.

The thing is, once the Doctor gets revived, bam, Matt Smith pretty much steals the show.  It felt like the Paternoster Gang was pushed off to the side in the second half of the episode.  So, I spent the early part of “The Crimson Horror” wondering where the Doctor and Clara were, and the later part hoping that Jenny, Vastra, and Strax would pop up again.  It was maddening.  We certainly didn’t see nearly enough of Madame Vastra, as played by the wonderful Neve McIntosh.

That was the episode’s major weakness: there were just too many characters fighting for screen time.  I really wish that this one could have been longer.  “The Crimson Horror” had a hell of a lot of potential, with solid writing and acting.  There were definitely a lot of great scenes.  But at the end it just felt like too much had been left out due to time constraints.

This is why I would so much like to see the Paternoster Gang receive a special or miniseries.  It would be great to see them step out from the Doctor’s shadow.  I definitely think that there is a hell of a lot of potential to Vastra, Jenny and Strax.

Anyway, yeah, while “The Crimson Horror” did have certain problems, on the whole it was quite good.  Not a perfect episode, by any means, but certainly not a bad one, either.  I guess I’d say it was above average.  That said, I wouldn’t mind watching it again, which is always a good sign.

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.