Matt Smith Archive

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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: 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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Television Review: Asylum of the Daleks

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the last seven years of Doctor Who, the first two seasons of Torchwood, as well as one big spoiler for anybody who hasn’t seen the second series of Sherlock. It’s also long, really long. About triple the length of one of my average posts. You’ve been warned.

First off, it’s good. It’s not great, it’s far from perfect, but compared to Victory of the Daleks, Asylum is a fine story so long as you don’t pay too much attention to the Ponds’ emotional drama and Amy’s subsequent descent into Dalek induced madness. There are also Dalek zombies, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them.

Now for the details.

The Problem with Dalek stories

One of the key problems in telling a good Dalek story is that the stakes often become a little too high. Any good Whovian knows that even a handful of Daleks could conquer an entire planet. A Dalek warship, stuffed to the gunwales with ten thousand hate filled Daleks, is a threat to an entire galaxy. Ten thousand ships filled with as many Daleks is enough to jeopardize all of creation. And even when the Daleks get cast into (insert hand wavey, timey wimey, spacey wasey McGuffin of choice) one Dalek always manages to survive to start things all over again; it is the Dalek circle of life. So when Mark Gatiss let one Dalek survive in Victory of the Daleks, which then went on to resurrected a team of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Daleks, who then escaped the Doctor, I was sceptical. Not wary so much of Gatiss and Moffat per se, but because of the legacy of the latter’s predecessor.

When Russell T. Davies was showrunner he had a tendency to try and increase the stakes with each season. Steven Moffat did the same thing at the end of series five, though not with half the emotional intensity and panache of RTD; reboot the universe, my ass. If ever there was a “Holy shit I’ve written myself into a corner, and I have no exit strategy” moment, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was it.

Prior to screening Asylum, my fear was that a reborn Dalek race under Moffat, whose track record as a writer is much stronger on Sherlock than it is on Doctor Who, would yield absurdly high stakes story telling requiring complex and ultimately unsatisfying gimmickry as a means of solving narrative problems. To put it another way, the last time we had a non-God Emperor of Dune style (transitional story telling soft on plot heavy on exposition) Dalek episode, the Daleks nearly undid all creation. If Moffat played along similar lines he’d have to reboot the universe, again.

For now, this fear has proven unfounded. However, I reserve the right to bring the issue up again if, as I suspect, the Daleks emerge at the end of the season to threaten all life everywhere with some nefarious plot. So while Asylum has its faults, it does offer a third way when it comes to telling Dalek stories without going whole hog on the “universe hangs in the balance” narratives.

How Moffat fixed the Daleks

Rather than focusing on the cosmic consequences of a fully realized Dalek race, complete with a new Emperor (cool), a functioning parliament (wait, what?) and borg-like assimilation technology (I could call derivative bullshit here, but I guess eye-stalks out the forehead are better than pig slaves), Asylum gives the doctor a task. Much like when the Time Lords sent the fourth Doctor to paradox the Daleks out of existence by messing with their Kaled progenitors, the Daleks teleport Eleven to a colony where they house the insane of their kind. What begins as the Daleks pitting their greatest foe (who is now called The Predator in lieu of The Oncoming Storm) against the worst of their own quickly turns into a damsel in distress story.

 

The key to the narrative, aside from not asking questions about how Daleks reproduce in such great numbers (the answer of course can be found in the most kinky Hentai ever made), build ships, and other such plot holes, is similar to the Wellesian silver bullet found in the series one episode, Dalek. Namely, the quality of being human is what defeats the Daleks. Asylum asks and answers what it means to be, Human, Time Lord, and even Dalek. Though now squid like in natural appearance, the Daleks were once a humanoid species, indistinguishable (largely for budget reasons) from humanity. Thus the Daleks have human emotions and motivations.

Generally, Dalek psychology is driven by two things: belief in the Dalek race as superior to all others and an unabashed hatred for anything that isn’t Dalek. Clearly though, the Daleks are softening on the definition of what it is to be a Dalek. Why else would an automated Dalek sanatorium give Oswin a full Dalek conversion? After all, these are not cybermen seeking to upgrade the cosmos. As evidenced in Dalek, Evolution of the Daleks, and even Victory of the Daleks, to be less than 100% Dalek is to be worthy of extermination. But its best not to dwell too much on that point or else things start to fall apart.

 

Though Dalek in body Oswin manages to hold on to her humanity, as witnessed in her letters to mom and penchant for baking. Thus she is able to turn the Daleks against themselves.

The Doctor-Dalek paradigm

What of the Doctor, though? When the Dalek parliament sends Rory, Amy, and the Doctor to the Dalek asylum, they give the intrepid trio wrist bands to prevent their assimilation into, foreshadowing alert, Dalek drones. Naturally, Amy loses her thing that keeps the Screamers away anti-Dalekification device during an attack from zombie Dalek drones. I hope whoever came up with that idea in the writer’s room took a victory lap or two.

Shortly after their Romero-esque escape, the Doctor rescues Amy from a descent into conversion induced madness. Knowing its only a matter of time before Amy is fully converted, the Doctor tells Amy to hold on to her fear and her love, human qualities that the Dalek nano-probes will try to purge from her mind before converting her body. Rory, suspecting he loves his wife more than she loves him, offers to give Amy his wrist band, assuming he can retain his humanity longer than she can. Only after the Ponds share a moment of maudlin heart break followed by honesty, wherein we learn that Amy is barren and Rory wants more children, do we find out the Doctor snuck his wrist band on to Amy. So why didn’t the Doctor transform?

Because in some ways the Doctor is already a Dalek. As my friend J.M. Frey so often says, the Doctor is not a hero in the traditional sense; he is Chiron, the trainer of heroes. While the classical allusion certainly holds, we must not forget that the Doctor is also The Oncoming Storm. In that, he is Shiva, the destroyer and transformer. We know from The End of Time, that when the Doctor used “the moment” – the ultimate weapon of mass destruction – he affected not only the Daleks and Time Lords, but a myriad of other races as well. Yet these races were not simply killed, but condemned to eternally repeat the nightmarish hellscape of events that constituted the Time War in a “Time Locked” portion of space-time. Since then, Nine, Ten and Eleven have all demonstrated the capacity to be driven by hate, the Dalek hallmark.

In the year 200,100, Nine was so raw with hatred that he was willing to use another weapon of mass destruction and accept the Earth as collateral damage when the Daleks invaded Satellite Five. Turn Left shows us an alternate reality of Ten whose hate would have led to his death during the Racnoss invasion. Eleven is less so motivated by raw hate but similarly Dalek in his own way. Where Nine and Ten had passion, Eleven is colder and more calculating than the other two. He lies, deceives, and manipulates his best friends to suit his own ends. The Cult of Skaro, the Daleks made to think like their enemies, mirror Eleven despite being introduced at the end of series two. But no matter the incarnation the Daleks can always see themselves in the Doctor. The mad Dalek Emperor, Dalek Sec, Davros, they all knew the post Time War Doctor’s capacity for hate and capriciousness because it was reflected in themselves.

Thus do we return to humanity. Because this Dalek side to the Doctor, also known as “the Time Lord victorious”, isn’t what saves the day in Asylum of the Daleks. It is Oswin’s refusal to be Dalek, her ability to be better than the Doctor. Barricaded in the sanctuary of her mind, she records letters to her mother, bakes failed soufflés, and escapes into the refuge of classical music to drown out the Dalek part of her brain that screams, “Let us in”. What is her reward for this fortitude? Oswin becomes another person willing to go to their death in order to save the Doctor. It is in Oswin’s “death” that Asylum shows the Doctor’s true power: not his TARDIS, nor Time Lord physiology, but his ability inspire/manipulate others into self-sacrifice. How many people have died to give the Doctor his nine hundred and some years? Just like the Daleks, others die and he keeps living. One Time Lord survives. Now, as a warped parting gift, Oswin has made it so the Doctor’s worst foes no longer recognize him.

Stop and consider this for a moment. The Daleks are now beholden to nobody. They do not fear The Oncoming Storm. What horrors could a restored Dalek empire perpetrate without having to factor for a blue box? Moreover, the Doctor may have been all laughs and smiles as he made his escape from the Dalek Parliment, but now he is alone in a way that the series has never before presented. He is anonymous. The lonely god who goes to museums to keep score is a stranger to the species that forced him to condemn every other Time Lord and countless others to an eternity of hell within the Time War. Nine once asked the broken Dalek of Dalek “What is the point of you?” Now we can ask what is the point of the Doctor if his foes don’t know to fear him. Is he still a god? Or is humanity more than just a one off for this episode?

 

Motherhood and tantrums

One of last seasons’ recurring themes connected to the strength of motherhood. Nowhere was this idea more overwrought and tired than in 2011’s Christmas special The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe. I’ll gladly accept any allegations of cynicism that people would care to toss my way, but the idea that a mother’s love can guide something through the time vortex, while successfully re-writing her own history, was just too damn much for me. Asylum walks a very narrow tightrope in its themes of motherhood. On the one hand, part of Oswin’s effort to maintain her humanity comes through letters to her mother. In so much as I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to assume the Daleks would bother assimilating a human (EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE) I’m fine with this mother motif in play. Where things get a little too hammy is with the Ponds and their reproductive challenges. Silence induced sterility? Really? Of all the things that could have happened between part four and five of Pond Life that’s where Moffat went? Never mind the fact that the Ponds already have a daughter. Apparently Rory wanted another child so badly he prompted Amy to do the hardest thing in her life and “give Rory up.” When did the Ponds turn into Gwen and Rhys? No, cancel that. Rhys and Gwen had real people problems. Granted the girl who waited and the lonely centurion have always had a tumultuous relationship, but setting a very good Dalek story against the schmaltz of two characters whose days are numbered on the series seemed a waste of effort.

Another matter of motherly outrage connects to spoilers. Last year Steven Moffat put himself on the pop culture radar for a few choice rants directed against people who perpetrate spoilers. He called those who engage in such activities vandals, and in concept I agree with him. Going out of your way to ruin something for somebody is rather classless act. Yet Moffat himself is near unto a spoiler in his Doctor Who writing. Case in point, by the time we got to Let’s Kill Hitler in series six, it was painfully obvious how the long arc would resolve itself. Just like the anti-Dalek bracelets, a writer does not introduce a piece of technology if they don’t plan on using it for something later.

This season’s big to do came in the form of announcing Jenna Louise Coleman as the new mid-season companion, only to bring her into the first episode. To some it might seem anti-climatic. To my eyes, it appears that Mr. Moffat has Reichenbach’d himself in the most low stakes away imaginable. We know Oswin didn’t really sacrifice herself to save the Doctor and the Ponds, just as we know that Sherlock isn’t really dead. Now the only thing the audience has to look forward to figuring out the type of trickery Moffat and company will invoke to bring Oswin into the TARDIS in a plausible way i.e. she was controlling that Dalek shell from another location, or the Daleks made a clone of her per Dalek operating order 5532-13-A. I know, it’s not a spoiler when it comes from within the series itself. But when it comes to Doctor Who, Steven Moffat doesn’t exactly play his cards close to his chest – certainly not in the same way that he does with Sherlock. Nor is Moffat bound by the rules of reality in Doctor Who as he is in Sherlock. While figuring out how Sherlock survived the fall constitutes detective work on the part of the audience and the writer, rationalizing Oswin’s return is nothing more than a study in candy coated bullshit.

Then again, we must not forget rule #1 – The Doctor Lies (and by extension so does Steven Moffat).

It would be a shakeup of RTD proportions if Oswin actually stayed dead and Coleman’s role in the show was just a one off akin to Kylie Minogue’s in Voyage of the Damned. If so, Steven Moffat will have perpetrated the biggest sleight of hand casting maneuver in the history of Doctor Who, if not television itself. The man would go down in entertainment history with the likes of Orson Welles for making dupes of Whovians around the world. Alas, such a maneuver is probably not meant to be, so I shall say no more on this particular long shot bet.

While we’re talking about the new girl

Considering that Jenna Louise Coleman is, almost certainly, going to be joining the Doctor for the second half of this series, I think it fair to devote a few words to initial impressions of her character. The short version is that Oswin seems just a little too awesome.

By virtue of her Dalek conversion, Oswin is capable of doing things that the Doctor can not. Beyond a raw talent for clever computer hacking, she has the constitution to maintain her humanity despite Dalek conversion. Not to mix genres but even Captain Picard could not resist assimilation by the Borg. Who is this Oswin girl that she can stare down the enemy that brings the best of Doctor Who to despair?

 

Oswin also finds the time to have a flirt with Rory and the Doctor. Through a quick narrative info dump she manages to frame herself as a character with the sexual forthrightness and flexibility of Captain Jack Harkness. Nor should we forget that she demonstrates courage and self-sacrifice in the finest tradition of the heroic epic.

Don’t mistake my observations for criticisms; none of the things that make up Oswin’s character are ill traits. But where’s the catch? Also, didn’t we already a have an equally impossibly awesome character in the form of River Song? Hell, Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother is a better rounded character than what we know of River and what we’ve seen of Oswin.

Even within canon other characters demonstrate their obvious flaws. The Doctor is perpetually guilty, angry, and forever trying to find absolution for his past. Amy has her short temper. Rory is the little man called to do great things. The Master is vainglorious. Donna is Icarus; she flew higher than any human ever could, but in becoming the Doctor-Donna lost it all. Martha was a tedious fan girl. Rose was naive. Jack, well I’d need another three thousand words to properly inventory and categorize all of Captain Jack Harkness’ issues. I could start with his adopting a dead lover’s name and persona before another ex-lover buried him alive for a couple of millennia wherein he was constantly dying and resurrecting. How about this: Jack has problems connecting with people.

Yes, Oswin will have half a season to develop as a character. And I’ll also concede it’s not fair to the writers to judge a character based on first impressions alone. However I will be watching very closely to see if Oswin becomes anything other than a younger version of River Song.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, Asylum of the Daleks, is a great episode as long as a viewer is willing to accede to the notion that the Doctor was so preoccupied with the Silence that he let the mortal enemies of all life everywhere develop to the point where they would move from the Dalek Emperor’s absolute monarchy into a what appears to be a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature. Square yourself with that bit of cognitive dissonance and the rest of the story, even with the Pond drama, unfolds as a very strong Dalek adventure. Further kudos to Steven Moffat for writing an episode that actually lets a critical viewer make some connections to the Dalek stories of the previous showrunner, even if indirectly. So much of Moffat’s writing has been working within a Fawlty Towers framework where he is almost pathological in not mentioning the war anything Russell T. Davies worked with.

Now we just need to get rid of the Ponds, who by all rights should have been written out during the Christmas special.


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Television Review: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe

Summary Judgement: Slow to start with a payoff that will likely be satisfying for fans but bewildering for any viewers attempting to use this episode as an entry point into Doctor Who.

Here we are, 2012 and yet again the world did not explode.  Chalk up one more point for reason and sensibility in the face of apocalyptic crypto-prophecy.  Since everybody is still alive and eating cake, let’s talk about the Doctor Who Christmas episode.

The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe doesn’t rate particularly high as a stand alone Doctor Who adventure or as a holiday special.  Steven Moffat set a very high watermark with last year’s A Christmas Carol. Even my mother, who couldn’t tell a Klingon from a Dalek, enjoyed that story.  After about fifteen minutes of this year’s special, my girlfriend turned to me and asked if the BBC had let an intern write the screenplay.

It’s a harsh criticism but one that rings true considering the abysmal pacing at hand.  The plot follows a sort of logarithmic curve that stays flat for most of the episode only to suddenly spike toward the end.  It’s also the sort of episode that requires a rather generous dose of disbelief suspension as the doctor bails out of an exploding starship in Earth orbit wearing nothing more than his usual duds.  Granted he manages to get into a space suit during his atmospheric entry, but only after sucking a couple minutes of hard vacuum.  Let’s call it a Festivus miracle and move on.

Much like the Narnia book from which the episode takes its name, the story uses a wartime retreat to the country as its setting.  At the home of a distant relative, the Arwell family, sans their father, a MIA RAF pilot, meet an eccentric caretaker who is intent on giving the two Arwell children the best Christmas ever. It’s all meant to be safe and fun until, like so many of The Doctor’s plans, things go a bit wibbly.  One of The Doctor’s presents sees the family teleported to a seemingly innocent planet where trees grow organic ornaments.  Too bad said baubles turn into tree monsters.

Devotees will readily understand that the Doctor’s over the top attempts to make the children happy are likely a response to his own emotional turmoil.  We know The Doctor lost his family, likely due to his use of “The Moment” during the Time War.  Yet, Smith’s actions seem more like the motions of a mad hatter than those of a father whose old wounds are slowly opening up before him.  At least give The Doctor a fez if he’s going to bounce off the walls like a twelve year old on a sugar binge.

Very gradually, the episode starts to even itself out.  The Doctor embraces his self appointed title of “Caretaker” as the three Arwells become stranded on the forest planet.  There are even some delightfully funny moments as Madge Arwell’s (Claire Skinner) quest to find her lost children leads to a confrontation with miners from Androzani Major, who are intent on burning the forest to the ground while working through some mommy issues.  The story also maintains last season’s tendency to explore family relationships and the nature of motherhood.  However, I’m not sure if I particularly like the story’s take away message that a mother’s love is somehow grander than that of a father’s.  At any rate, the main story, despite dragging through its first movements, resolves itself aptly enough.

The true salvation of the episode manifests in its last few minutes.  The Doctor’s unexpected arrival at Rory and Amy’s house allowed him the opportunity to genuinely connect with his emotions.  I can count on one hand the number of times that Matt Smith has had the chance to show The Doctor as anything other than a mad man with a blue box.  The Doctor abides; it is his nature to do so.  The Doctor brought to tears is a completely different man.  That is a man who, standing at the door of the Ponds’ house, the house of his mother and father in law, has found a new family. And that is very interesting, indeed.  While the Doctor remains humanity’s protector in the general sense, he now has a tangible connection to the Earth.

It remains to be seen what will come of this relationship, especially in light of Karen Gillan’s and Arthur Darvill’s imminent departure from the show.  Whatever happens, hopefully it means more writing that allows Matt Smith to deliver a depth to The Doctor that has been woefully understated for the last few years.  I’ll conclude with a question.  We know that The Doctor was willing to sacrifice Gallifrey, his family, and countless other worlds to end the Time War.  What situation could now move him to sacrifice his new found family?

Hits

+3.0 for writing that lets Matt Smith add depth to The Doctor

+1.0 for a few laughs

Misses

-1.5 for awful pacing

-1.0 for overplaying “Mom” power

Overall Score: +1.5


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Podcast #16: Doctor Who chat with J.M. Frey

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and JM Frey.

Topics under discussion include, Doctor Who season six – because really, am I going to have her on to talk Star Trek – my thoughts on JM’s novel Triptych, non-linear storytelling in Doctor Who and a look at what happens when characters reach their expiration date before the actors do.

For news on her novels and upcoming appearances, make sure to visit http://jmfrey.net/

Opening Thoughts:  0 – 1:45

On The Doctor as a character: 1:45 – 9:05

Non-linear story telling and how to introduce a newbie to Doctor Who: 9:05 – 15:45

I go grad school on Triptych: 15:45 – 18:45

The Doctor, Rory, and Amy: is it a parting of the ways or a break-up? 18:45 – 34:25

Amy and Rory: are they past expiration? 34:25 – 42:25

Time for some Timelords? 42:25 – 54:25

Wrap up: 54:25 – 57:05

Right click “download” and “save link as” to download the ‘cast


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Podcast #9 Doctor Who ‘Cast Round 2

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and J.M. Frey.

Topics under discussion include: Big themes from the first half of the season, Russell T. Davies vs Steven Moffat as show runner, the mythology of the Doctor, the many faces of Rory, LGBT themes in Doctor Who, historical appropriation in Doctor Who and the return of Torchwood.

We also managed to connect Doctor Who to Jane Austen and Space Battleship Yamato.

NB: It was Dr. Hiromi Mizuno at the University of Minnesota whose name I could not remember during the discussion on themes of gender identity and national ethos in Space Battleship Yamato.

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TV Reviews: Doctor Who – Matt Smith’s First Episode

Produced by: BBC / BBC Wales

Starring: Matt Smith and Karen Gillan

Summary Judgement:  If you’ve managed to avoid watching Doctor Who over the last 40 years, now is a great time to start.  If you’re like me, somebody who only got serious about the show with Christopher Eccelston and David Tennant, you may be a bit disappointed.

Right then, Doctor Who Season 31, that’s right, 31 seasons, where have you been?  Alternatively, this could be Doctor Who Season 5 or 6 depending on how you want to keep score.  Whichever way you cut it, the longest running science fiction show in the history of the known universe is back for another season.  I suppose I’m happy about this.  As a child, I loved watching Doctor Who for hours at a stretch when it was on public television.  Furthermore, the Doctor Who theme turned me on to electronic music.  However, I can only call myself a proper Doctor Who fan since 2005 when the show reemerged from its nine year hiatus.  On that note, I have a few reservations about this season.

Before proceeding farther, a word on Time Lord physiology for the benefit of those ignorant of such details.  Although The Doctor looks human, he is in fact the last member of an ancient and enigmatic race called the Time Lords.  Yes, this is important so keep reading.  As the species’ name suggests, these beings had infinite command over time and space.  The Doctor, no that’s not his real name, it’s the title he picked for himself upon graduating from his Time Lord Ph.D. program, travels about time and space in space ship that looks like a 1950s police box.  From time to time he comes to Earth to pick up new travelling companions or to save the planet from its various and sundry extraterrestrial foes.

Early on in the show it was decided that replacing the actor who plays The Doctor would be handled by a maguffin called “regeneration”.  Whenever a Time Lord is mortally wounded he or she “regenerates” into a new person: same character, different quirks and personality traits.  Most recently The Doctor was portrayed by BAFTA (That’s the British Emmy) winning actor David Tennant.  I will gladly forefit a measure of impartiality to say that David Tennant is my favorite Doctor.  Hopefully Tennant doesn’t turn into a post-Doctor Who paraody of himself, doomed to live out his years signing autographs for inappeasable nerds like yours truly.  However, with acting skills like these, I think Tennant will land on his feet.

-Always brings a tear to my eye.

So out with the old and in with Matt Smith, the youngest person to ever play The Doctor.  Smith’s arrival in the show produces some mixed reactions.  Smith’s first episode, written by recently promoted head writer Steven Moffat, has a fantastic story that is classic Doctor Who.  We’re also introduced to the Doctor’s new travelling companion, Amy Pond (Karen Gillan).  The story features some running, some aliens, a bit of intrigue and a nice resolution that brings The Doctor and Amy together.  Another feather in Moffat’s cap is that he has dropped some hints about story arcs that are going to develop this season.  How to impress Adam 101: Carry the plot from one episode to the next.  For those taking bets on the season’s culminating big bad wolf, I’ll put even money on Daleks or Cybermen, three to one on the Sontarans and ten to one on The Master.

Without a doubt, this season represents the best possible time for a newbie to jump aboard the bandwagon.  At the same time, the Eccleston/Tennant iterations of The Doctor explored the character’s inner demons.  Much of this turmoil, including the Doctor’s guilt/shame for surviving a war which saw multiple species, including his own, destroyed, seems to have evaporated with Tennant’s regeneration into Smith.  Smith seems to be a character absolutely unburdened by any of The Doctor’s past issues.  Hopefully Moffat has the sense to allow for some further exploration of The Doctor’s darker side.  Although BBC press releases describing Smith’s Doctor as “the nutty professor”, do not fill me with hope.

After watching Smith’s first episode as The Doctor, I can’t help but wonder if the BBC has stacked the deck against him. How can anybody expect a relative neophyte actor to live up to David Tennant’s acting legacy?  Smith will definitely need some time to develop The Doctor into his own character.  Right now, it seems like the rookie is doing a piss-poor David Tennant impression more than he is making the character his own.  I mean, changing Tennant’s catch phrase of “Allons-y”, something that developed organically, into “Geronimo” seemed like a bit of a ham handed gimmick.  Naturally, I’ll give Smith and Moffat some time rework the role.  Then again, what if Smith is just a transitional Doctor? Since David Tennant was much beloved as The Doctor, people will naturally grumble about whoever follows.  So why not pick somebody unremarkable for the short term so that when the next actor comes in to play The Doctor he won’t seem that bad by comparison.  I know, I’ll probably end up eating crow on this one, but time will tell.

I’ll wrap up on a fanboy note.  The layout of the TARDIS often changes with each Doctor.  Sometimes they are subtle changes, other times they are distinctive reinventions (often due to budget windfalls at the BBC).  Smith’s TARDIS seems like it was designed by a mental patient armed solely with crap he picked up from Sanford and Son’s junk yard.  Yes, I know it is a petty complaint; again, I’m an implacable nerd.  My sincere and honest hope is that the quirky and absurd nature of The Doctor’s time machine will not be wholly reflected in The Doctor’s personality.  Matt Smith has the potential to bring a unique energy to the character, but let’s not forget that after 900 years, The Doctor has some baggage.

In sum, not a bad first start to the new series.  Matt Smith is going to need to take the training wheels off the TARDIS if he wants to live up to the legacy that has been left to him.

Overall Score: 77%

Oh and I hate the new version of the Doctor Who theme.  Again, I’m a relentless nerd and thus prone to fanboy outrage.