Saturday, August 30, 2014

Shrinker Failure, Soldiers Die

Look as good when I'm 2000 years old, I will not. But I'd sincerely hope - unless senility sets in - I won't be demonstrating the sort of immature, blinkered view of soldiers that Doctor Who writers seem keen to impose on their central character. Maybe it's particularly difficult for those of us who retain a fondness for the UNIT family days of the show, but I was never a fan of this attitude when it was trotted out in the Sontaran two-parter of a few years back and guess what, I'm not a fan of it now.

You can't really have an episode in which the Doctor stands back and lets a soldier sacrifice herself, then refuses another soldier admission to the TARDIS because she's a soldier. Well, you can, because that's what happens in Into The Dalek. But don't expect me to like it.

We're all familiar with the Doctor's attitude towards the military over the decades, but back in the days of Lethbridge Stewart and the gang his disapprovals were delivered with some affection - because these people (yes, Messers Moffat, Davies and Ford, people) were the Doctor's friends. Despite - horror of horrors - wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. He used to be able to see beyond that and I'm not sure the narrow-minded view we're presented with today is much of a step forward in 21st century Doctor Who.

In some ways it fits with the Capaldi Doctor's brusque nature, but I guess it's just unfortunate that it reminds me of that example of supreme blind arrogance from Tennant's Doc, with his childish refusal to stand next to a man he'd just met simply because he was in the military.

It fits much less with a man who has waged war on the Daleks and who has seen so many people fighting and dying in their shadow. Who the hell does he think does most of that fighting? Of course, the crying civilians will meet with his approval but most of those would be dead without the soldiers and while that might gain them admission as companions in the TARDIS it might also change Doctor Who into The Walking Dead. It's utterly dumb. Maybe a rewatch of It Aint Half Hot Mum would provide a more progressive take on military personnel.

But no. What we get is, soldiers are evil. This in an age when Doctor Who feels the need to break away from a fascinating prospect - the Doctor heading into a Dalek, a la Fantastic Voyage - for a spot of soap opera romance at Clara's day job. Because, you know, that adds depth to the sci-fi adventure.

I hope that the introduction of Clara's soldier boyfriend is leading somewhere - perhaps to a re-education of the Doctor in the fact that soldiers are humans too. Not a lesson I need, so it rather dismays me that an intellect as sophisticated and complex as the Doctor's would need teaching in that regard, but hey, this is where we're at now, so there's always the chance that this new Doctor that some are still declaring is too old might also grow up.

Anyway, that shame aside, I still love the Capaldi Doctor and the actor makes the absolute most of every scrap of material he's given. Clara continues to shine, while the jury is out on her potential romantic interest. Despite the tear on cue, he struck me as a bit wooden and some distance short of companion material, but who knows.

Fortunately for the writers, we can side-step the issue of the soldier's self-sacrifice by virtue of her showing up in 'heaven' and drinking tea with Missy. I have my theories on the Missy mystery, but I'm willing to let that unfold and trusting it's leading somewhere interesting.

There were elements of the (better) Rob Shearman story Dalek here and elements (of course!) of the Tom Baker adventure The Invisible Enemy. And although the fx were far and away superior to that late 70s story (well done production team) the writing is no more sophisticated at all. In a show of this vintage, you expect a few characters over the years to be a little one-dimensional - but you don't generally expect that to include the Doctor.

In an episode where the Doctor strives to believe that there might be one good Dalek, you'd really hope that he'd wise up to the idea that there could be one good soldier. Or maybe more. And maybe give her a chance to travel with him.

Although ultimately it has to be said I'm not sure that one soldier was played by a great actress and if there's anybody being groomed for new companion material she'll have to be at least as good as Jenna Louise. And I didn't see anyone in this episode who could make a worthy replacement.

I did see a lot of pyrotechnics and those Daleks exterminated with extreme prejudice. But luckily the only people who died on-screen were soldiers so nobody of any importance. Phew.

All in all, not disastrous, but disappointing. I'd entertained hopes that collaborations would benefit the writing for the show but that doesn't appear to have worked out so far.

The Next Time trailer made me cringe, so the episode can only be better. Right?

SAF 2014

Thursday, August 28, 2014

One Deep Breath, Several Gasps And A Sigh

So it’s become clear to me that I’m not having much success maintaining a regular blog this year. Too busy. But I still drop by from time to time and I couldn’t let the advent of a new Doctor Who go unrecognised.

And let’s face it, he is unrecognisable.

Or is he?

To be honest, I expected Peter Capaldi to be good in the role. And he went further than live up to expectations – he managed to surprise me with how good. It’s no easy thing when you’re handed what amounts to entertaining waffle for many of your first scenes, rattling along so fast it’s in danger of derailment in the traditional serving of post-regenerative stress disorder from which all new Doctors suffer.

I don’t know that we as an audience needed the official handover from Matt on the phone (not least because it brought back memories of his deeply sorry swan song). Indeed, I’m not sure we needed quite that much pandering to the fan/viewer concerns about Capaldi’s age. We’ve gone beyond art imitating life to art responding to social media. But the whole issue off Clara’s acceptance of this (grey-haired, let’s not forget) stranger was handled beautifully throughout. And this idea of a companion coming to terms with a transformation is not an issue we’ve seen very often in this modern era of the series. Apart from Rose seeing in the Eccleston-Tennant change (and by comparison she took it pretty easily, as I recall), it’s generally been a case of new Doctor, new companion(s). Lots of newness, all in one go.

Here, as well as a new Doctor, we get a redecorated TARDIS interior, new title sequence and reworked theme music. Rather liked the cogs, by the way, hated the music. It’s way too busy and overcooked.

An accusation you could level at the adventure in which this new Doctor found himself. Forget Dinosaurs On A Spaceship – and believe me, I try – let’s step up a gear and have Dinosaurs In Ripper Street With Organ-Harvesting Clockwork Androids From Girl In The Fireplace.

The  dinosaur coughing up the TARDIS makes for a great attention-grabbing opener but would be more at home in a different story. It keeps us from the meat of this story for what seems like the first half hour, and when we get to the mystery involving clockwork organ-harvesting androids from the 51st century who crash-landed here in prehistory.

It’s all a bit, well, manic. And yet, despite there being an awful lot going on it feels so wafer thin even Mr Creosote might be able to keep it down without difficulty. It’s not a great mystery, certainly nothing to fill a full feature-length special. Barely enough meat to offend a herbivore. What it lacks in material, it pads out with the Pater Nosters – welcome, entertaining characters (Strax is getting a bit tiresome and one-note, albeit an amusing note, but I do love Jenny and Vastra). They’re more bright ingredients to the whole recipe but ultimately all they’ve done is turned a Victoria sponge into a marble cake. More colour, but an innovation unlikely to win anyone the Great British Bake Off. And served up after the succession of flimsy endings to last season’s episodes, I can’t say I’m too satisfied by a resolution in which the Doctor talks the bad guy to death.

What we have is an utterly affecting, strong human core at the heart of a highly mechanical Doctor Who tale. The organic elements are intricate and exquisite. The clockwork, despite the implied complexity of all those title-sequence cogs, much less so. And we’ve seen it all before.

This is the eighth year of 21st century Doctor Who and surely the longest the series has ever gone without a radical shift in format, style or tone. The handover from Davies to Moffat delivered what amounted to minor tweaks. The philosophy so far has been to throw every kind of cosmetic change at us, but very little that makes a dramatic difference. TARDIS set, theme music, titles. In essence, to redecorate.

Glancing ahead, I’m not encouraged by some of the episode titles in the coming season – Robot Of Sherwood, Mummy On The Orient Express. It smacks of a group of writers saying: Hey, if we bolt this onto this, how much fun would that be? Well, as far as it goes, sure, some great ideas can be born that way, but I’m guessing the answer is ‘about as much fun as the last time you did exactly that’. Because too often that is as far as the ideas go. Yes, they can be entertaining, but it’s like wallpaper – decorative, sometimes interesting but eventually you will tire of looking at the same recurring patterns.

So at this early stage, I’m tempted to chip in with a question of my own: hey, if we embedded our strong human story in a decently crafted, vaguely intelligent adventure plot, how much better would that be? It’d make a nice change.

Obviously, too radical a transformation might prove divisive for audiences. But opinions will be divided on the new Doctor, new music, new title sequence, even the Doctor’s outfit. And personally I’d rather see debates about story than superficial trappings. To say nothing of the fact that too much sameness will drive as many viewers away just as effectively as a creative change.

Still, there’s at least one thing the whole universe can agree on and that’s how awesome and lovely Clara is and I take much comfort in the fact that she’s staying with the Doctor. Her scene in which she dares the bad guy to ‘do it’ is superb.

I fully expect Jenna Louise Coleman and Peter Capaldi to turn out to be a perfect pairing and I’ve already no doubts that they will sparkle throughout this coming season.

I hope the quality of stories rises to meet this fantastic new Doctor. Then I can genuinely call this new Doctor Who.

SAF 2014