Doctor Who reviews: Deep Breath and Into the Dalek

After months of waiting, the eighth series of Doctor Who is here, featuring the full debut of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, with Jenna Coleman returning as Clara Oswald.  I canceled cable television several months ago, and I was concerned I’d end up missing the new episodes.  Fortunately I was able to purchase the entire season on iTunes to watch on my laptop.  Here is a quick look at the first two episodes, “Deep Breath” and “Into the Dalek.”

Doctor Who Deep Breath poster

When a tyrannosaurus shows up in Victorian London, it transpires that the newly-regenerated Doctor had landed the TARDIS in prehistoric times, where it got swallowed by a dinosaur, which then got transported to the late 19th Century along with its would-be meal.  Fortunately the t-rex coughs up the TARDIS on the banks of the Thames, where the Paternoster Gang is investigating the presence of the dinosaur.  And so Madame Vastra, Jenny Flint and Strax are reunited with Clara, and introduced to the Twelfth Doctor.

Following on from his transformation at the end of “The Time of the Doctor,” our resident Time Lord is understandably discombobulated.  He is quickly put to bed in Vastra & Jenny’s house, while Clara attempts to process what, exactly has occurred.

To be honest, of all the people in the universe, you would expect that Clara would have the easiest time accepting the Doctor regenerating.  Perhaps she doesn’t really remember her experiences as “the Impossible Girl” whose consciousness was fragmented and scattered about myriad points in the Doctor’s timeline.  However, she quite recently met both the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor during the events of “The Day of the Doctor.”  So she knows he can regenerate, and that even though he looked young he was really a couple of thousand years old.  This makes it very surprising that Clara is seemingly in shock that the Doctor is suddenly completely different and older-looking.  Perhaps it is a case of the difference between knowing something is possible and actually seeing it occur before your eyes?

Still, Clara’s uncertainty and difficulty accepting the new incarnation of the Doctor does lead to an interesting scene between her and Vastra (Neve McIntosh).  Often the Paternoster Gang is written with a rather tongue-in-cheek manner, and they are typically depicted as moving about very comfortably within Victorian England, accepted by the authorities as experts on strange phenomenon.  Given that, it is easy to forget that Vastra is an outsider, a Silurian who was born millions of years ago, now living in a completely alien world.  Writer Steven Moffat addresses this in “Deep Breath,” showing how she copes with her new existence among humans who are often unable to accept anyone or anything that is strange or different.  It makes sense that Vastra would feel a certain kinship to the Doctor, who is also an outsider.

Truthfully, I did not fine the plot of body-snatching clockwork robots especially compelling.  I was actually wondering at what appeared to be an apparent plot hole.  These mechanical beings supposedly crashed on Earth centuries before and have been harvesting humans to rebuild themselves all this time, but their activities have only been noticed for the last few months, with the London newspapers reporting various instances of supposed spontaneous combustion (they were burning their victims to disguise the stolen body parts).  Maybe this is something that Moffat is going to address later on in the eighth series, that some outside force woke them up.  Perhaps it ties in with that enigmatic woman in black named Missy (Michelle Gomez) who popped up in both of these episodes.

Probably the best part of “Deep Breath” was Capaldi.  Early on, his post-regeneration instability gives him an opportunity to engage in some humorously odd observations.  Looking in the mirror at his new face for the first time, he wonders why he now looks this way, if for some subconscious reason he chose this appearance.  He also has a bit of criticism concerning one particular feature:

“Look at the eyebrows! These are attack eyebrows. You could take bottle caps off with these.  They’re cross. They’re crosser than the rest of my face. They’re independently cross! They probably want to cede from the rest of my face and set up their own independent state of eyebrows.”

Even in this confused state, the Doctor still wants to help return the tyrannosaur to its own time period, recognizing that it is an innocent being that was plucked into a strange place through no fault of its own.  And he is distraught when the dinosaur is killed by the clockwork robots.  We also see the Doctor is genuinely hurt and disappointed at Clara’s difficulty in accepting that he has changed.

Towards the end of “Deep Breath,” Capaldi really comes into his own.  Confronting the leader of the robots aboard its makeshift dirigible floating over London, the Doctor boldly declares:

“Those people down there, they’re never small to me. Don’t make assumptions about how far I will go to protect them, because I’ve already come a very long way. And unlike you, I do not expect to reach the Promised Land.”

In the next scene, following on from the Doctor’s warning, we discover that the robot has been destroyed, having fallen out of the blimp and become impaled upon a metal steeple.  You are left wondering if the clockwork man committed suicide once it became convinced it would never reach the mythical paradise it believed in, or if the Doctor was forced to kill it.

“Deep Breath” was a somewhat uneven episode.  There were a number of good scenes, character moments and performances that perhaps were not connected together as well as they could.  I was a bit underwhelmed, although Capaldi definitely impressed as the Twelfth Doctor.

Doctor Who Into The Dalek poster

I was definitely much more impressed with this week’s episode, “Into the Dalek” co-written by Phil Ford & Steven Moffat.  Sometime in the far future when humanity is engaged in a massive space war with the Daleks, the Doctor rescues Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) when her fighter ship is destroyed.  Returning her to her home spaceship, the Aristotle, the Doctor discovers that the humans have taken a Dalek prisoner.

Strangely, this captured Dalek seems to have “turned good” and is expressing a desire to fight against its own kind.  Although suspicious and extremely skeptical that Daleks are capable of any sort of change from the conformity that is genetically programmed into them, the Doctor nevertheless reluctantly agrees to help the humans repair it, in the hopes it will aid them in their fight, and show a way in which to grant empathy and creative thinking to the rest of its species.

The Doctor pops back to 2014 to collect Clara from Coal Hill School, where she is still teaching, and returns with her to the future.  Together with Journey Blue and two other human soldiers, the Doctor and Clara are shrunk down and inserted into the Dalek, which the Doctor has nicknamed “Rusty,” to locate & repair its internal damage, as well as determine the source of its personality change.  Yes, it’s Fantastic Voyage with a Dalek, something that the Doctor sardonically lampshades when he comments “Fantastic idea for a movie. Terrible idea for a proctologist.”

This episode really showed us the unsettling, darker side of the Doctor.  He wonders aloud if he is a good man or not, a question he asks Clara.  Once miniaturized inside Rusty’s form, when attacked by Dalek antibodies, the Doctor more or less sacrifices one of the human soldiers, harshly justifying his action by stating “He was dead already! I was saving us!”

The Doctor locates a radiation leak inside Rusty and seals it.  This saves the Dalek, but it also causes its internal computer to begin functioning normally, and it’s conditioning to be restored.  Rusty breaks loose on the Aristotle and begins attacking the humans, as well as summoning the Dalek mothership.  Soon the Daleks are assaulting the Aristotle in force.

Still shrunk inside Rusty, the Doctor is ready to give up, convinced that Daleks really can never change.  But Clara forces him to reconsider, and the two of them, with Journey Blue’s assistance, manage to reboot Rusty’s computers, once again giving the Dalek access to its full memories.  The Doctor mentally taps into Rusty, hoping that what the Dalek sees in his own memories & experiences will convince it to once again reject its programmed ideology…

Rusty: I see into your soul, Doctor. I see beauty. I see divinity. I… see… hatred!
The Doctor: Hatred?
Rusty: I see your hatred of the Daleks and it is good!
The Doctor: No no no no. You must see more than that. There must be more than that!

Unfortunately Rusty is unable or unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s pleas.  Rusty ambushes the Dalek boarding party, wiping them out.  Afterwards, the Doctor, Clara and Blue have returned to normal size.  Even though they have won, the Doctor is disappointed, and Rusty is unable to understand why.

Rusty: Victory is yours, but it does not please you?
The Doctor: You looked inside me and you saw hatred. That’s no victory. Victory would’ve been a good Dalek.

The Doctor really had hoped to change the Daleks, to get them to grow, to put aside hatred, enable them to appreciate the beauty of the universe, to understand that other beings had a right to existence.  Instead, all he was able to do was to cause Rusty to embrace a different form of hate, to turn its destructive abilities upon a different target, namely its own species.  And, worse yet, this experience has once more reminded the Doctor of his own hatred, his own capacity for violence and destruction.

Throughout the episode, it is shown that the Doctor has a great dislike for soldiers and war.  At the end, when Journey Blue asks to join him and Clara on the TARDIS, the Doctor refuses.  “I think you’re probably nice. Underneath it all, I think you’re kind and definitely brave. I just wish you hadn’t been a soldier.”

The Doctor is undoubtedly reminded of his own experiences during the Time War, when he was the War Doctor, fighting against the Daleks.  The dislike for the military he shows here is at least partially due to his own self-loathing for the person he once was.  As much as he likes Blue, the Doctor will not take her with him.  Humans such as Clara have helped to awaken the best qualities in him, often serving as his conscience.  And so he is undoubtedly afraid that someone like Blue will bring out his worst aspects.

Ford & Moffat did an excellent job writing “Into the Dalek.”  The script really is top-notch, the ideas it touches upon complicated and thought-provoking.  The direction by Ben Wheatley is fantastic.  The sets, costumes, and special effects look great.  Capaldi does a superb job working with this material, giving a very compelling performance.  Regular Dalek voice artist Nicholas Briggs turned in a nuanced performance as Rusty, really bringing to life the creature’s emotional turmoil.

Doctor Who Peter Capaldi close up

While not perfect, series eight of Doctor Who is off to a good start.  Peter Capaldi has definitely hit the ground running as the Twelfth Doctor.  I am very much looking forward to seeing more from him in the coming weeks.

Oh, yes, one other thing… I love the new opening title sequence.  As I understand it, it was inspired by a sequence created by series fan Billy Hanshaw that was posted online.  It looks very cool, with a rather steampunk style to it.  Definitely suits the new Doctor.

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: 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.