Doctor Who Archive

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Fighting Words – Episode 9 – Doctor Who Cares Anymore?

So it’s come to this. People are falling over themselves to praise the current season of Doctor Who, and I’m left to wonder if I’m an idiot for not seeing what they see, or if I’m just dead inside. Though, I suppose those two things are not mutually exclusive.

It’s entirely possible that I’m dead inside and an idiot. Though, what little shred of self-esteem I’ve managed to hold on to over the years tells me that I’m probably not an idiot.

Nevertheless, here we are roughly half-way through a season that I would describe as the omnishambles, and I think it’s time to ask some serious questions about how we’re supposed to approach Mr. Moffat’s story telling from a critical point of view.

I mean it’s either that or we can piss and moan about how the show used to be better back when (insert appropriate Doctor Who epoch here).

Remember, you can subscribe to Fighting Words on iTunes and get a new episode downloaded to your iDevice each and every week.

Here’s the audio.

Music Credits

“Pump Sting” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


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Doctor Who: Byronic Reconstruction and Dickish characters

I’ve read three words, over and over again, with respect to the current season of Doctor Who, “Deconstruction of heroism.” Granted, I skipped the Robin Hood episode – on the grounds that I didn’t like the Star Trek TNG Robin Hood episode, so why would I like this one? Never the less, I respectfully disagree with the notion that there’s any such deconstruction happening in the current season. All I’m seeing are some dubious people running around while tired ideas emerge from the Steven Moffat half-bakery.

Now if that’s what the audience wants out of Doctor Who, then fine, all the power to them. However, I fail to see why critics are offering up a sideways literary interpretation of the series instead of having the good sense to call out the show on its drivel.

Deconstructing the hero? Fah. The Doctor is the very definition of the Byronic hero. All of the Doctor’s 21st century incarnations are charming, enigmatic, sophisticated, cynical, jaded, passionate, intelligent, and ultimately convinced that their own personal philosophy should trump all other considerations. Capaldi’s Doctor is no exception to this. He’s not being written as a deconstruction of this archetype so much as he’s a celebration of it.

But that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. Instead, let’s talk about Clara, the biggest dick Doctor Who has ever seen. Why do I think Clara is a dick who needs to get hit by a bus at the earliest opportunity? Because of the way she treats Danny Pink.

Twice in the series – and both in episodes written by Moffat himself – I’ve witnessed Clara giving Danny the gears about being a soldier. Being the sort of person who thinks that most modern military ventures are oppressive follies, I wouldn’t mind if the series wanted to engage in a meaningful dialogue about Western imperialism. Since we’re working with a show about time travel, there’s a real opportunity to tell a story or two along those lines. For example, the Doctor could take Clara to Carthage right before Scipio and the Romans show up to burn the city to the ground. Of course, that’s not how Doctor Who rolls. This is a series that is only concerned with showing the audience the winning side of history. Okay, fine, most people don’t have a sense of history beyond the end of their nose, why should I expect more from Doctor Who than I do of anybody else? Be that as it may, it’s pretty clear that Steven Moffat is taking issue with soldiers in this season and he’s using Clara as the voice of his outrage.

Would that the execution matched the concept driving this inquisition. We’re introduced to Danny Pink as a person who suffers from his past. While he might not have full-on PTSD, he’s certainly haunted by his time as a soldier. Whatever his actions were, be they valiant or cowardly, they haunt him in a real way. Kudos to the Moffat and company for getting me to connect with a Doctor Who character without having to destroy the universe. At the same time, I guess we’re not supposed to care about him too much since Clara – who has less depth in two seasons than Danny has in two minutes – comes along and takes a massive steamer on Danny, reducing his personal trauma to one single, shitty line: “So you kill people then cry about it?”

You might not be able to hear it, but I’m giving Steven Moffat a sarcastic slow clap for one of the worst bits of dialogue I have ever heard.

I am the least patriotic person I know, but even I have enough basic humanity in me to know that you don’t presume to talk to a former soldier about killing. You certainly don’t imply that said soldier is a murderer for their actions. If this faux-pas proved a one-off I’d be inclined to let it go. Instead, Clara does it again in Listen, again accusing Danny of being some sort of baby-killing monster.

Granted, the dialogue is meant to convey that Clara doesn’t get it. However, Clara is just an avatar of whoever is writing her, in both cases Steven Moffat, and that tells me that perhaps he doesn’t get it. If he does, then he’s groping for a message like the Neolithic humans in 2001 fumbled for a bone to use as a club. The subsequent skull smash is Clara’s callous interactions with Danny reducing his emotional pain, and the pain of thousands of real people, to a snide one-liner. Yet, somehow, we’re still supposed to see Clara as the Doctor’s moral compass? No, I think not. The Doctor is better off measuring himself against a Dalek.

Thus do we return to the title of this piece. Whatever deconstruction may be happening – and I think there is very little – is taking a back seat to framing Clara as an utterly intolerable person while also reinforcing the Doctor’s role as the classic Byronic hero.  So remind me again, why am I to care about a show featuring horrible people amid plots  that are best summarized as ‘people running about as bait-and-switch things happen’?

I await your trolling.


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Podcast Episode 31: Hits and Misses of 2013 with Sam Maggs

Remember when I said that Friday’s post would be the last of 2013? I lied.

I thought to myself, why wait until 2014 to end a rather lengthy and unexpected podcast hiatus? And fortunately for me, the sublime Sam Maggs agreed to join me for an hour long chat about the best and worst of 2013.

This podcast is also the first ever sponsored episode of the Page of Reviews Podcast. Since production of the Wing Commander Riff Cast is running a little long, not too long mind you (but I was a fool to think I could get work done on a creative project in December) I decided to use today’s podcast as an opportunity to start making good on the rewards to my backers. On that note:

The Page of Reviews is proud to announce that Matt Moore, author of the new short story collection Touch the Sky, Embrace the Dark, is the official sponsor of this episode of the podcast. Touch the Sky, Embrace the Dark is available as an e-book through the following venues.

- Amazon: US Canada UK

Kobo

- Barnes & Noble (Nook)

- Sony eReader

- Apple iBookstore

- Google Play Books

- Smashwords

Onward and upward. Here are the topics under discussion for today’s podcast.

- High water marks in gaming for 2013

- The importance of narrative in gaming, up to and including GTA V

- Sam and Adam agree on movies of the year, but nearly get into a fight over the Stargate franchise

Gravity, Pacific Rim, and The Hunger Games trilogy, because why not?

- Mutual disdain for Man of Steel and Star Trek into Derpness

Orphan Black, Doctor Who, Under the Dome, and Hello Ladies.

- Praise for Sam’s web show “The C_ntrollers”

Check out all of Sam’s work on her website. And once you’re done listening to the podcast, why not take in an episode of her show.


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TV Review: The Day of the Doctor

Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary has come and gone. In its wake, Steven Moffat has left the series with the biggest game changer it has seen since its return to air in 2005. Though I am loathed to open up a discussion on if it’s the best episode ever, I will say that it’s easy to make a case for Day of the Doctor as Moffat’s best episode. While there are a number of things this story does well to get there, there is one thing that enables everything else: Moffat comes to terms with Russell T. Davies’ contribution to the series.

Moffat’s stewardship over Doctor Who, especially during his first year as show runner, reflects a pattern of putting RTD’s influences in a box and, like an Argosian king, tossing that box into the sea. At one point, Matt Smith’s Doctor wrote off the entirety of Time War as a bad day. It seemed like only Neil Gaiman’s The Doctors Wife celebrated Doctor Who as science fiction and not a “dark fairy tale,” where paradoxes, unexplained plot holes, and hand waving are the word of the day. Sufficed to say, The Day of the Doctor opening on the final day of the Time War and the wholesale destruction wrought upon Gallifrey during the Dalek siege constituted a significant change in tone. It wasn’t only a narrative shift, but an aural return to the dread inducing quality of Murray Gold’s RTD era Who soundtrack, particularly The Dark and Endless Dalek Night. In a single act the episode embraces the long arc of the Doctor that Moffat largely ignored since David Tennant’s departure from the series. Does it work? Hell yes. Was it missing Christopher Eccleston? Without a doubt.

The episode frames the triad of Doctors as War Doctor (John Hurt), the Doctor who regrets (David Tennant), and the Doctor who forgets (Matt Smith). Make no mistake, the approach works well. Yet, Eccleston’s refusal to come back to the series for Day of the Doctor precludes doing anything substantial with what I’m calling, the Doctor who hurts. Granted, Moffat and company can hardly be blamed for this reality. Still it is hard not imagine how the mixture of wry exasperation and exhaustion seen in John Hurt’s Doctor could have mixed with the open wounds of Eccleston’s Doctor. Just imagine War Doctor viewing his future self as the last Timelord meeting the last Dalek in all creation. Counting the children on Gallifrey certainly defined the stakes of using the Moment, but even a flashback to the scene of Eccleston and the last Dalek would have made the decision all the more personal for  Hurt – possibly giving him a bit more agency in the decision not to use the Moment rather than having Smith suddenly decide to change the past.

Except Smith didn’t change the past, and that’s probably why this episode works as well as it does. While I’ll gladly write off most of what Moffat does with Doctor Who’s mythos as uninspired and boring, the man knows how to have fun with asynchronous story telling. Make no mistake, a genuine sense of fun, rather than the forced fun of something like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, is what separates this episode from some of Moffat’s other works.In fact, The Day of the Doctor’s best time travel moment is a sonic screwdriver gag that almost feels like it would have been at home in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

This brings us to Smith, Tennant, and Hurt coming full circle on the Doctor’s decision, or lack thereof, to use the Moment. The revision is clever in so much that it isn’t a revision. Rather, the peaceful solution to the Time War is a variation of what Moffat did with The Name of the Doctor. Therein, the audience assumed a literal meaning to the episode’s title, and Moffat had fun with alternate meanings to words. The results were divisive to say the least. This time, he came at the audience’s presumptions about established canon and offered a little timey-wimey sleight of hand. Despite the fact that I hate narrative gimmicks, I’m not going to complain about this one. Simply because Gallifrey hidden away rather than destroyed is exactly what the series needs.

The last three seasons of Doctor Who were, at least in my view, a failed experiment in long-form story telling. We knew there was something big and bad out there, but didn’t get a great sense of who it was, what it wanted, or how the Doctor was involved in any consistent way. How can the hero have a journey if the audience is unclear on the quest? I don’t think he can. Which is why Doctor Who staggered from one episode to the next with all the consistency and focus of Robin Williams’ stand up routine before he got on the wagon.

Ending The Day of the Doctor with Smith’s monologue about going home gives the Doctor a Silver Surfer like quality. Rather than being a god-like figure who needs clever earth girls to direct him on a quest to nowhere – and serve as a moral compass – the Doctor now posesses an internal purpose, four lifetimes in the making, independent of whoever is in the TARDIS. More importantly, it grounds Moffat into a certain trajectory with his long-form story telling. I expect Moffat will approach the Doctor finding Gallifrey with his usual bag tricks, but there’s no escaping the gauntlet he’s thrown at his own feet in terms of an objective.

For all these positive points, it’s equally hard to overlook the fact that The Day of the Doctor did a shoddy job in wrapping up the obvious subplot about a Zygon invasion of Earth. The episode cuts away from double blind negotiations between U.N.I.T. and the Zygon commander, leaving the audience to assume that everything gets worked out for the best. Or perhaps the negotiations break down into a Torchwood-esque blood bath, and as per Gwen Cooper’s Children of Earth sentiments the Doctor couldn’t stand to look at humanity. Either way, I’m calling that one a party foul.

Yes, I just invoked Torchwood, and I don’t apologize for it.

That aside, there’s really not a lot to complain about within this episode, even for an implacable nerd like myself. It brought together the best of RTD’s dark and grown-up Doctor Who with Moffat’s ability to have fun and do clever things with time travel. The temporal paradoxes were kept to a minimum, save for the fact that I don’t see how all of the previous incarnations of the Doctor – and Peter Capaldi – could have arrived at the Time War. I suppose the Moment had something to do with that. Tom Baker showing up in the penultimate scene nicely bridged classic and nu-Who to the extent that I suspect that Elisabeth Sladen – were she alive – and not Billie Piper, would have been tapped as the Moment’s interface. It would have offered a nice symmetry as Four and Sarah Jane were on scene for the start of the Time War – I think – in Genesis of the Daleks and now we see him once more at its true end.

All in all, The Day of the Doctor is an episode befitting the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.

Stray thoughts

- Conceivably the Doctor used the Moment to time lock the events of the war without burning the universe. Does that mean all the worlds in the Time War, like Skaro, are hidden as well?

- Considering the above, could the Master and Rasillon are still alive on Gallifrey?


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TV Review: Night of the Doctor

Yes, I’m reviewing a 7 minute direct-to-web episode of Doctor Who. Why? Because it’s PS4 launch day. There’s a statistically significant chance that that my target demographic is spending the day calling in sick to work before unboxing their new console. Rather than burn a review on something that required an investment of time on my part, I’m going to weigh-in on the return of Paul McGann.

First, a few matters of common sense/housekeeping. Telling somebody that Paul McGann reprises his role as the eighth doctor in Night of the Doctor is not a spoiler. Anybody who says otherwise is most likely an idiot, incapable of understanding the difference between spoiling the plot – Bruce Willis plays a ghost in The Sixth Sense – and reporting on the facts of a story – Bruce Wills has the lead role in The Sixth Sense. Similarly, saying that Paul McGann regenerates into John Hurt as Doctor 8.5, aka War Doctor, isn’t a spoiler. I suspect even casual fans would have figured out that if we are going to have John Hurt as The Doctor, then he is most likely going to appear in the chronology between McGann and Eccleston.

All that said, the takeaway from Night of the Doctor’s seven minutes is that Mr. McGann got a raw deal for his tenure in the TARDIS. This window into the eighth Doctor’s regeneration is much more of a  testament to McGann’s outstanding acting abilities than anything else. He slips on the role of the Doctor as easily as you or I might put on a jacket before going out into the cold. In recent memory, his performance is comparable to Christopher Eccelston as the Doctor. McGann conveys so much of the Doctor’s emotional baggage without having to dive into the manic mood swings of Matt Smith’s Doctor or the emo exposition of David Tennant’s. However, one would do well to consider that the return of Eight is no mere act of fan service. Rather it s a very clever way of managing expectations for the series’ future.

Consider that McGann brought thirty years of acting experience to his reprisal of the Doctor. Matt Smith didn’t even have thirty years of life experience before getting tossed the keys to the TARDIS. Why is this relevant? Because it only took about three minutes for McGann to sell me on his performance as The Doctor. It took David Tennant a full season and Matt Smith two-and-a-half seasons before I fully bought into them as the Doctor. Go figure that an experienced actor can bring more gravitas to a role than a neophyte.

Next Saturday the world will witness a seventy-three year old John Hurt playing the Doctor. I suspect that Hurt, like McGann, will effortlessly make the character his own. Yet that’s not even the most interesting part of this story. In the span of a few weeks Steven Moffat will have taken the audience through two older actors playing the Doctor. By the time Smith gives way to Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor, the audience will be acclimatized to older gentlemen playing the Doctor. Critical as I can be of Moffat’s tendency to exclaim “Aren’t I clever?” in Doctor Who’s writing, this is genuinely smart.

Night of the Doctor mobilizes classic-Who fan service as a tool to undermine the inevitable wave of complaints that come with a new Doctor e.g. Peter Capaldi is too old. Judging from the current amount of “squee” for Paul McGann, the Doctor getting aged up to a point where an actor with some actual experience can give the character depth beyond perpetual angst is a good thing. Nor should we forget John Hurt is now the oldest actor to portray the Doctor (William Hartnell was fifty-five when he started as the Doctor). Going from Hurt to Capaldi maintains the meta-illusion of casting progressively younger men to play the Doctor, while actually setting the series up for a level of sophistication, through Capaldi’s acting, absent during Smith’s tenure as the Doctor.

Oh yeah, I went there.

Drops mic. Walks off stage.



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Spoiler Alert: The Actual Problem with Spoilers

Be warned: I reveal some surprise plot points on Dune, Moon, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones in this post. I would argue none of these things constitute a spoiler, per se. However, if surprise is important to you, then you might not want to read on. This is your only warning.

Between sessions of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, I asked my gaming group for their thoughts on a suitable statute of limitations for spoilers. Wearisome groaning followed as this not the first time I’ve posed such a question. The resulting discussion did precipitate some fun tangents on the precise nature of a spoiler, rules governing trans-media spoilers, and a critic’s obligation to avoid, or at least indemnify themselves against, potential spoilers. One of the more controversial suggestions was that a medium-specific piece of popular culture – Game of Thrones the HBO series versus A Song of Ice and Fire – must be two-years-old before a person can assume it has entered public consciousness such that it can’t be spoiled.

For example, it’s not a spoiler to say that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. It would be a spoiler to say that Walder Frey kills Robb Stark at Edmure Tully’s wedding. Though I think that’s the exception rather than the rule because who on twitter and/or facebook, regardless of if they are a Game of Thrones fan, didn’t hear about the details of the Red Wedding?

Out of this discussion I began to think that we, as media consumers, are doing ourselves a real disservice through an obsession with spoilers. I posit that the conventional spoiler isn’t about “ruining” an experience, but is rather black flag which masks a shallowness in storytelling. The extent to which the spoiler allegedly “ruins” the story is directly proportional to the weakness of the writing.

Let’s consider Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, Dune. Suppose I tell you that Duke Leto Atreides dies at the end of the novel’s first act. Is this news a spoiler? I should say not. We learn of Leto’s impending death within the book’s first fifty pages. Leto himself knows he is walking into a trap on Arrakis. He and his inner circle suspect that the Emperor is likely in collusion with House Harkonnen. In revealing that he dies, I’ve done nothing but give away a single plot point. Considering that the genius of Herbert’s writing is found in deep subtext and layered themes, there’s not a sensible person who could accuse me of ruining the novel over this one detail.

I could make a similar point with a recent movie. Moon’s Sam Bell is a clone. Have I ruined the movie? Hardly. Moon is a story about purpose, existential dread, isolation, and individual agency in the face of large corporate entities. None of those things are so closely married to any lone plot point that discussing what physically happens will break the experience.

The moment a narrative ceases to be about big ideas, or even medium sized ideas, is the moment spoilers become relevant. Consider the third season of Battlestar Galactica. Who are the final four Cylons? Who cares? The names ultimately proved as meaningful as Ron Moore blindly throwing darts over his shoulder. Even when Galactica went off the rails, it still offered enough substance that my telling you that Tigh, the Chief, Anders, and girl-Billy are the final four doesn’t do anything to marginalize the overall story (even if the back nine of BSG are significantly weaker than the front).

So when the internet gets its knickers in a twist over somebody spoiling the big reveal at the end of an episode of Doctor Who – PS: the Name of the Doctor is a giant fake out - or some other series, film, or book, I think we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves some more important questions. Are we really angry at the spoiler for revealing the most fundamental building block of a story? Or are we actually disappointed in the people crafting said narrative because they can’t be bothered to elevate storytelling beyond plot? I think it’s the latter. And I think all of our handwringing about what fans owe each other as members of a community can be traced back to the fact that sometimes the stories we love, or want to love, aren’t really as deep as we would want them to be.

I’ll close on this point. I’ve known who Tyler Durden is for the last fourteen years. This knowledge doesn’t preclude my enjoying re-watches or re-reads of Fight Club. The same goes for knowing Keyser Söze’s true identity in The Usual Suspects. Now ask me how many times re-watched I’ve watched The Sixth Sense since its release. Stories of that variety are all plot and no thought. Once the surprise happens, what is there to reinforce a long-term value to the story?

Spoilers: they’re what you complain about when the thing you’re complaining about isn’t that good to begin with.


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TV Review: Doctor Who – The Name of the Doctor

Oh, Moffat. You just can’t resist the temptation to mess with the universe itself in a season finale, can you? Granted, RTD loved to put a gun to the head of creation with his finales as well. Nevertheless, it has become something of a fixture in Moffat-era Doctor Who to watch the stars winking out of existence as a means of telegraphing the stakes of the conflict at hand. And to be perfectly blunt, it has become a lazy and tired routine. I like it not.

An ongoing story reaches a point of diminishing returns when it keeps going to the well of nullifying the cosmos. Perhaps it is time to roll things back to the scope we saw during the Battle of Canary Wharf. The consequences there were big, but the danger was real enough that it threatened individuals rather than abstractions of life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite my misgivings, The Name of the Doctor does offer all the elements of a Moffat finale, if you are into that sort of thing:  a magic place, Trenzalore, a magic doodad, The Doctor’s grave, and a magic bad guy, The Great Intelligence. Said Intelligence wants to break into the Doctor’s grave so that he might “find peace” by dispersing himself into the entirety of the Doctor’s time stream. Apparently Time Lords have THE WORST and most problematic decomposition. It’s typical to what I’ve come to expect from recent Doctor Who; the ideas are very fascinating and high concept, but they never quite manage to be as meaningful in their execution. Temporal instability as a unique consequence of the Doctor’s death would have been fine as a plot device. As presented, it’s means to a retcon as well as a waste of third act on a villain who has presumably been behind everything for the last three years.

Would that the Great Intelligence had some motivations akin to what we saw in The Bells of St. John or even The Snowmen. Also, does anybody else remember when the TARDIS got hijacked without explanation? Instead of using this foe to unify the last three seasons of long-arc storytelling, he is reduced to a banal desire to kill the Doctor. Then it’s all Matt Smith writhing about amid the usual “Oh god the whole of the universe is going to die because the Doctor is just that important” exposition. When the actual conflict does lurch into motion, it does so seemingly as a convenience to exploring who Clara is as the impossible girl.

The answer to this season’s (un)question further left me annoyed. Over the course of this year modern Earth Clara has had zero character development. She is as bland as a baked potato absent fixings, always doing what the Doctor says. She is oddly sensible in the face of terror. She is quite flawless in that she never seems to precipitate any conflict whatsoever. For example, Clara would never create a big ass paradox a la Rose in Father’s Day. After half a season I would kill for her to channel some of Adric’s twerpishness or Leela’s stab-now talk-later attitude. All Clara does is bring out the compulsive side to the Doctor, thus facilitating some really questionable ethical decisions on the part of Eleven. Keeping all this in mind, I am not going to be receptive to Clara being retroactively installed as the most important part of the Doctor’s life, arguably more important than the TARDIS itself. It might work for some, but for me she’s just another Mary-Sue.

In terms of a cool factor though, watching Jenna Louise Coleman interacting with William Hartnell buries the needle. In fact, it’s almost a little too cool. Because when we witness Time Lord Clara recommending the TARDIS to One it further accentuates how bland prime-Clara is as a character. Dalek Clara, Barmaid/Governess Clara, and Time Lord Clara all have more story to them than babysitter Clara. Should I really be caring more about the Claras scattered throughout space-time than I do the one in the box?

On that very practical note, The Name of the Doctor should invite a conversation on the limits of a showrunner’s power. By what right does Moffat insert himself into the series pre-existing history? Certainly I could make a case for this gambit as clever big-arc story-telling, but I could just as easily make a case for Moffat being a narcissist who overplayed his contribution to the series. The series one rule of time travel, never crossing over your own timeline, should be more than an answer to temporal paradoxes. Keeping the Doctor far from his own history ensures that current showrunners aren’t elevating their tenure beyond its place within Doctor Who’s canon.

Amid all this disappointment, some elements of the episode proved quite smart. In so much as the last two years have built toward the looming dread of the Doctor’s name said aloud, the Name of the Doctor reminds the audience of the dangers in taking things literally. It’s not the name that has power, it is the actions committed in the name of the Doctor which prove to be of significant consequence. Enter John Hurt as the Doctor.

John Hurt as the Doctor, not the Valeyard, the Beast, or the Oncoming Storm. The Doctor, who did what he did in the name of peace and sanity, but not the name of the Doctor. Remember when Tennant talked about the Face of Boe as being textbook enigmatic? I think Hurt and Smith, along with some help from Moffat’s pen, just set a new high watermark.

Set aside the liquid awesome that will be Tennant and Smith vs Hurt (likely as a stand-in for what should have been Christopher Eccleston), this pending battle could actually be a meaningful conflict for the Doctor and Doctor Who. The Doctor’s MO is to run. He doesn’t do endings (thank you River Song for once again showing up to remind us of that), and he can’t handle mortality in himself or others. If Hurt is indeed Nine, or some lost 8.5 regeneration of the Doctor, the one who fought the Time War before regenerating into Eccleston, then it puts the series in a place where the Doctor will have to stop running and confront himself. This doesn’t preclude a big conflict, but it demands resolution on a personal level. The Doctor will have to grow from whatever happens during the story with John Hurt as the Doctor. How often have we seen that in recent years? More often than not the meta-story has been to reboot the universe as a means of maintaining the status quo.

In the end, The Name of the Doctor counts less a bookend to a season and more as a tease of things to come. A weakly written, if well performed, main conflict writes River Song out of the series, seemingly for good this time, but quickly fills the Mary Sue gap in taking Clara from zero to infinity. The episode only shines as a vehicle for introducing the next big thing. John Hurt’s reveal, and the potential for teasing out more of the Time War – assuming the history text in the TARDIS was a Chekhov’s book – has me genuinely excited to see what comes next. For the record, Doctor Who hasn’t got me excited for its future since RTD was running things. In the meantime we can start the debate on why Strax, Jenny, and Vastra need a spinoff that is somewhere between the Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood.

Yeah, I said Torchwood. You want to make something of it?


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TV Review: Doctor Who – Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

On a very fundamental level, I am not predisposed to enjoy an episode like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Try as I might, I don’t see the narrative value in story telling that pushes a reset button at the start of the fifth act only to spend its remaining few minutes doing jazz hands in anticipation of laurels. Even if the reset is planned from the first act, as it likely was in this episode, the need to invoke a modified “it was all a dream” trope shows me that the conflict at the core of the story was simply too impossible to manage. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to identify the actual conflict in this episode.

Part of the reason why I think this episode felt so haphazard has to do with the multiple conflicts in play, none of which managed to stand out as the thing which binds the rest together. The episode just moves from one thing to the next, seemingly absent a meaningful endgame.

Journey could have very easily been a “Humans are their own worst enemies” episode. The Venture Van Halen Van Baalen Brothers posses the greed, avarice, and short-sightedness which Doctor Who so often uses to juxtapose the inherent weakness of humanity against the seeming infallibility of the Doctor. The fact that the VB Bros. end up in the TARDIS opens the door to another potential conflict: The Doctor is destructively obsessive.

Consider for a moment that the toxic fumes and insta-death fuel leak within the TARDIS get cleaned up in a matter of seconds. The Doctor didn’t really need the Van Baalen brothers to find Clara. Yet, Eleven threatens to blow them up if they don’t help him. Why does he do this? Does he want to protect Clara, or is he just interested in solving the puzzle of her true nature? Interesting as this question is, it becomes a moot point with the reset button business. The dickish Doctor who all but killed killed two of the Van Baalen brothers becomes a hiccup of timey-wimey story telling.

What about the TARDIS then? We’re meant to believe that the TARDIS doesn’t “like” Clara, albeit through some very clumsy exposition.

 

When the TARDIS failed to let Clara in during the Rings of Akhaten, I didn’t see malevolence; I saw the Doctor not giving Clara a TARDIS key. But suppose we work with the malevolent TARDIS theory for now, except then we’d have to ignore the fact that the artificial labyrinth the TARDIS created within the episode was meant to protect Clara. Even the Doctor says that the out of sync console room is the safest place on the ship, and that’s exactly where the TARDIS led a woman she purportedly dislikes. So much for that conflict. Meanwhile, the TARDIS is snarling at the Van Baalen brothers, crying out to the fake-android-cyborg brother, and Matt Smith is walking around with his, “Oh shit” face on the whole time. So perhaps the conflict is going to be about the TARDIS turned Mr. House on the invading salvage team? Well only for about five minutes because then the XCOM Alien Abduction sound effect (if you’re going to borrow sound effects, don’t borrow from 2012′s Game of the Year) is going to play in place of the standard cloister bell to signal that the TARDIS is going to die.

Great! The now there is a conflict we can all get behind. The last vestige of Gallifrey, a machine that was old when the Doctor stole it 900 years ago, is coming apart at the seams. For an instant I dared to hope that the death of the TARDIS might extend to the 50th anniversary story. If we take Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife as canon, then the TARDIS is more than just a time machine; it is the infinite union of time and space. Something going wrong there could certainly hand wave Tennant and Smith together. Moreover, the audience has a huge emotional attachment to the TARDIS and its death could raise the stakes without putting a gun to the head of the universe. But instead of killing the TARDIS, Stephen Thompson – who is also credited with writing the atrocious Curse of the Black Spot – kills the TARDIS to let Smith and Coleman walk through the time frozen shrapnel of its exploded core.

Is it a cool visual effect? Absolutely? But is it great story telling? Not if the only way out is to call a mulligan on everything that happened in the story and cancel out any potential growth in the main characters or meta-story.

While I’ll offer no quarter to this story as a narrative nightmare, it does shine as an interesting archeological dig into Doctor Who’s internal mythos. The episode very much delivers on its promise to be a journey to the centre of the TARDIS. Along the way we see the much talked about swimming pool and a library which oozes, literally, Time Lord history. There are vanishing walls and West Wing style camera shots of people walking around infinite hallways.

The problem with archeology is that it can often be difficult to craft a narrative around a collection of artefacts. Doing so requires external sources, background research, and inferences which allow for some benefit of doubt. It is on that last point, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS falls to pieces. I’m not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to an episode which invokes a reset button to solve the story’s problems. Either by accident or design, such a resolution is lazy. Fun as the tidbits of Doctor who history are, up to and including the ghost voice of Chris Eccleston, they don’t end up contributing to the story as anything other than fan service. As a critic I don’t see why I should forge what remains into something cohesive; such is the task of the writer, not the audience.

Bottom line: It’s a pretty episode, it’s a fun episode, it’s even a nice nod to the series’ long running history, but at best it’s a narrative hot mess and at worst it’s self-congratulatory navel gazing.


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TV Review: Doctor Who – The Bells of St. John

For want of a new episode of Spartacus this week, I thought it only fitting to put together a few words on the return of Doctor Who. As is ever the case with Doctor Who’s revival, I expect The Bells of St. John rung true for as many viewers as they sounded discordant. For me, the episode was a beacon of hope amid a seventh season mired in the heavy handed pathos associated with the departure of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) as the Doctor’s companions.

In broad strokes, I saw The Bells of St. John as a much improved version of the 2006 episode, The Idiot’s Lantern. In the aforementioned Mark Gatiss episode, a one-off alien calling herself “The Wire” – she looks nothing like Omar – uses television to suck the souls of people in 1950s London. “The Wire’s” endgame is to employ cheap televisions and the pending broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation as a way of eating all of England’s essence. So, television makes zombies out of people, how timely.

The Bells of St. John, written by Steven Moffat, works along similar lines as The Idiot’s Lantern while adding a few more culturally resonant layers to the story. It begins with an almost Torchwood-esque warning from a stranger about something living in the world’s wireless networks. In the pre-credit scene we witness people connecting to wireless networks with seemingly alien identifiers. When a person signs on to one of these mystery networks they become a target for surveillance and a potential consciousness download into a human data cloud. The Doctor stumbles upon this mystery when Clara (Jenna Lousie Coleman) calls the TARDIS’ public call phone, thinking she has reached tech support – hence the Bells of St. John.

Wocka wocka.

Prediction: River Song gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number. Apply handwavium as necessary for effective suspension of disbelief.

Despite the convenience of the Doctor’s reunion with the third iteration of Clara “Oswald for the win” Oswald, this is a reasonably clever episode.

Buried beneath the idea of brain hacking people through wireless networks is a poignant discussion on privacy in the digital age. Though one mis-click puts us in no immediate danger of getting our brains downloaded like so many cheap Cylons, the idea of free wireless networks acting as malicious entry points into a person’s computer is quite conceivable. This potential breach in a seemingly safe digital space becomes a conceptual seed from which the episode’s broad fiction grows. Such an approach gives the mid-season premiere a measure of speculative fiction legitimacy. Yes, there’s a bit of jargon and obligatory sonic screwdriviering, but standing just to the left and right therein is a decent bit of storytelling. Maybe it’s not the best spec-fic in the world, but it’s certainly a demarcation from the science = magic = hand waving = ‘shut up and accept it’ methodology I’ve come to expect from recent Who entries.

Further, I continue to be impressed with Clara as the Doctor’s sidekick. One of my wish-list characteristics for post-Pond companions is a broadening of the “Ubiquitous Earth Girl” template. Classic Doctor Who offers no shortage of extraterrestrials joining the Doctor in his adventures; whereas the revived series has always played it safe in terms of using the companions as contemporary gateways into an alien universe. Even though Clara mk. 3 is of modern London, her past iterations have been a Victorian nanny and an assimilated Dalek. She’s still somewhat an UEG, but I’m willing to let it slide in this case if only because she is more than a dough eyed girl who falls in love with/runs away with the Doctor.

It’s also worth mentioning that Clara is the first companion in recent history that has done anything better than the Doctor on the first try. Even though her hacking skills are the product of a partial upload into the human consciousness cloud, she still manages to outdo the Doctor. It will be interesting to see if this singular talent branches further into the writing.

My concern emerging out of this episode is the reveal of the “client” behind the human aggregation firm as the Great Intelligence. Though I enjoy the call backs to classic Who, I’m somewhat worried about how this portents the broader trajectory of the season. Moffat’s long-game writing has burned us in the past with telegraphed endings and ultimately pointless gimmicks half-resolved through the magic of Deus ex Machina. I’m a little too suspicious to write off witnessing the Great Intelligence in both the Christmas Special and the mid-season premiere as random chance.

Theory: The Great Intelligence has been manipulating Eleven since his regeneration. The cracks in the universe, the Silence, the alternate Doctor of Amy’s Choice, and everything else has been calculated to make the Doctor ask the ultimate question on the Fields of Trenzalore as a means of turning all life in the universe into pure thought, upon which the Great Intelligence will assimilate us into some massive gestalt…or something.

This may not be a bad way to go. Life, the very thing the Doctor holds most precious, could become his ultimate undoing.

My verdict: In a season which has been hit-and-miss, at best, The Bells of St. John is equally satisfying as a piece of short and long-term story telling. The allegory resonates within a culture that is both obsessed with its own digital privacy and concerned, at least on the fringes of tech culture, with the physical implications of wi-fi on the health of humanity. Freed of the Ponds and their perpetual drama/bungling as plot devices, I have hope that Steven Moffat is going to do something extra special with the remainder of this season.


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First Impressions of a Web Series that is Legally Distinct from Anything Owned by Sony or NBC

Travis Richey is known on the internet as the creator of the Sesame Street spoof Smiley Town, the roommate comedy Robot, Ninja and Gay Guy, and the internet parody 2 Hot Guys in the Shower. However, fans of the NBC series Community will probably recognize him by another name, Inspector Spacetime. Back in February Richey launched a kickstarter campaign to fund a web series charting the adventures of the Community created Doctor Who send up. One business day after he came on my podcast to promote the project, then known as Inspector Spacetime: The Web Series, Sony and NBC lawyered up. Rather than bowing to corporate tyranny, Richey gave the Inspector a different coat and officially changed the name of his project to Untitled Web Series About a Space Traveller Who Can Also Travel Through Time.

After months of fan supported work, the Inspector’s first web adventure, Boyish the Extraordinary, has gone live. And if the entire series is as sharply written as the premiere episode then we are all in for a treat.

 

As a series taking some level of inspiration from the ephemera of Community’s screw-ball comedy, it would be easy to expect the same from UWSAASTWCATTT. Yet the tone of this series draws much more from Douglas Adams than it does Dan Harmon. The story is set on “Second New Old Earth 7”, which is described as a planet that came to be recognized as the pinnacle of human culture and civilization by the time we got up to the 42nd copy of Old Earth. Viewers familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will no doubt revel in the absurdist exposition, while anybody who hasn’t read the book will probably be as temporarily confused as the Inspector’s associate Piper (Carrie Keranen).

Despite having fun with Douglas Adams’ style, Richey and co-writer Eric Loya have not neglected the Inspector’s origins as a Doctor Who parody. Piper’s name is an obvious nod to actress Billie Piper who played Rose Tyler, companion to the ninth and tenth Doctor. There’s a sign in the background of the episode’s first scene that in true Steven Moffat fashion demands, “No Spoilers.” Though Community saw the Inspector square off against the Dalek inspired Blorgons, this episode changes the antagonist to the creatively distinct, yet Cyberman derivative, “Circuit Chaps”. As clever as these ideas are, it is the BOOTH, the Inspector’s means of conveyance, which almost steals the episode. Though only a set piece, the special effects which usher the BOOTH into the frame are some of the best that I have ever seen in a web production. Truly Mr. Richey has mobilized some fantastic post-production talent for this project.

Now we must ask who is Boyish the Extraordinary? (Travis may have left a few hints during the podcast, but the sign said no spoilers, so I won’t say) And will he be so easily hand waved out of the story as the Circuit Chaps? (Probably not since his name is in the title).

UWSAASTWCATTT releases new episodes on Mondays. Kudos to Travis Richey and team for a fantastic start.

The Untitled Web Series About a Space Traveller Who Can also Travel Through Time is written by Travis Richey and Eric Loya. It stars Travis Richey and Carrie Keranen. The first season is directed by Vincent Talenti.