...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, November 23, 2015

Alex & Richard's Doctor Who 52: 01. The Ark in Space


In the latter half of the Twentieth Century, humankind discovered a machine that could take them anywhere and anywhen. It was called the BBC television series "Doctor Who".

"Doctor Who" began in 1963 with "An Unearthly Child". And in 1970 with "Spearhead from Space". And in 1980 with "The Leisure Hive". And in 2005 with "Rose.

But Russell Davies, who wrote "Rose" and was the mad genius architect of the series' triumphant Twenty-First Century return, said that every episode can be someone's first episode.

So we can start… anywhere.

Sit back (behind your sofa) and let Delia Derbyshire's arrangement of the greatest theme tune in television history send shivers up your spine as we take you… somewhere… out… there…

Ext: Space. Darkness. The Earth, a lone beacon of light. Something is coming…

Ten Reasons To Watch "The Ark in Space" (warning: spoilers)

1. This is where "Doctor Who" really begins. That might seem a really odd statement about a series already four weeks into its twelfth year but… "Doctor Who's" twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth seasons are widely considered to be a golden age of the show, massively influential on everything that follows, establishing or overturning the series "lore" about the Doctor, his home planet Gallifrey, the nature of the Universe and his powers of regeneration. And in a lot of ways that change begins here. Where Tom Baker's first episode, "Robot" is a gentle easing in to the character – or a hangover from the departing regime – here he transitions from comedic to alien completely seamlessly, literally and metaphorically leaving the Earth behind. The Doctor evolves from a kind of eccentric English inventor-cum-action hero into an almost elemental force of the universe, a Time Lord in actions as well as name, who walks in eternity and can sometimes be very alien and sometimes very childish, but whose best friends are human beings. And that is the show that survived fire and cancellation and returned stronger than ever.

2. The light in the darkness. At times, "Doctor Who" is apt to portray a Universe generally under the benign control of the Time Lords where evil occasionally breaks in, or as a Manichean battleground between forces of good (the Time Lords, the White Guardian) and evil (the Daleks, the Black Guardian) that are evenly balanced. However, the early Tom Baker era, when Philip Hinchcliffe is producer and Robert Holmes script editor is a much much darker place, a Universe where evil flourishes everywhere and there are only a few places where there is light and good and safety, constantly under attack. Grimdark has nothing on this!

3. Tom Baker is the Doctor. Every Doctor is someone's favourite. Sylvester McCoy is mine. But Tom Baker is, as his own incarnation would say without trace of modesty, the definite article. It's not just because he served seven years, longer than any other Doctor (Paul McGann doesn't, in this instance, count), more than twice as long as the typical three-year term – this is only his second story but already his charisma has stamped him indelibly on the role. Later, future Doctors will claim that their performance is inspired by the mercurial Troughton. But only because they cannot be Tom.

4. Elisabeth Sladen is Sarah Jane Smith. At one point Sarah Jane is trapped in the piping surrounded by monsters and the Doctor tells her how useless she is. Outraged she struggles through, intent on biffing him on the supercilious nose. Of course, he knew that that would be her response and it was the best way to inspire her. This speaks to the closeness of their relationship, their mutual trust and affection, and also to how human Sarah Jane is, fallible, foolable, and how "indomitable".

5. Ah yes, "Indomitable". Every so often, the Doctor delivers a speech that comes to define him, his attitude, his era and his place in time and space. Here, Tom Baker gets a really cracking one very early on that sets the tone for his first three years when he discovers the survivors of the human race "ready to outsit eternity" and goes into a soliloquy about his favourite species.

6. Robert Holmes does minimalist world-building. This is a classic Bob Holmes tale: his usual trick being – as it is here – to set a story in the aftermath (or many years after) enormous universe-shifting events, which the small cast of survivors can look back and comment upon. Here we are introduced to a "highly compartmentalised" future (actually way later than the thirtieth century space station that they've retro-fitted as their life boat) through the survivors of a cosmic cataclysm that has rendered the Earth first barren and then reborn as a new Eden for these Adams and Eves (if only there wasn't a space-age serpent grub in their nest, stealing rather than tempting them with their apples of knowledge). The sterile whites of their suits and their quarters and the formal language they use tell us all about this culture in very tiny glimpses. There was very little "joke" in the end times. Except for the working-class guy. He's totally out of place.

7. It's basically "Alien" four years early. For all its terrifying reputation, the titular "alien" is a man in a rubber suit with a funny head on; for all that it's made of papier mâché, the Wirrrn (the monster of "The Ark in Space") are terrifying space insects. What they have in common is that they both invade futuristic human settings, hiding themselves in the machinery down below, and adapt themselves by consuming the humans from the inside, starting with the engineer before taking out the rest of the crew including the captain, leaving a woman in charge. And (spoilers) get killed by a rocket at the end. But otherwise, not at all similar.

8. Women's Lib had, ahem, featured in the series before notably – or notoriously depending on your point of view – during Jon Pertwee's run when Terrance Dicks had, shall we say, old fashioned ideas of gallantry. Sarah Jane was explicitly brought in to talk up "Women's Lib" in often rather crushingly patronising ways. And even as early as the immediately preceding story, the powerful woman must be an evil ballbreaker (and quite possibly a lesbian) trope is played as hard as it can be. So it's quite refreshing that Vira (Wendy Williams) is accepted as leader without anyone hanging a lantern on it. (And even Harry's "fair sex on top" remarks about the (female) high minister are more lampshading his own dinosaur tendencies than patronising the successful woman.)

9. In another sign that this is like we are beginning all over again, the Doctor and his friends leave for their next adventure by transmat rather than the TARDIS. Back in the (real) beginning, the stories would run into one another, with cliffhangers between stories as well as at the end of the episodes within them, and with no overall onscreen titles (more on that story later) often there was no way to tell where one story ended and the next began. That's not quite true here, each block of episodes has one story title, but the season's stories do run one into the next in a continuous what might almost be called "story arc". Making it both 1963 and 2005.

10. Harry Sullivan is basically wearing socks in space for the whole adventure.

What Else Should I Tell You About "The Ark in Space"?


In an era when CGI makes almost anything possible for the series on television… millions of Daleks attacking the Capitol on Gallifrey – check; UNIT's London-based Death Star shooting down a rogue spaceship – check; ageing David Tennant a thousand years into a shrivelled neonate – I said possible, not sensible… it can be hard to remember that Doctor Who was famously (infamously) the sci-fi series known for the not so specialness of its special effects.

There are worse examples than "The Ark in Space" (most egregiously being "The Invisible Enemy" which really should have remained invisible.)

But here you have to put up with a visual representation of the Ark as seen from, well, space that is straight out of Herge's Adventures of Tintin; a horde of rubber Wirrrn; and one of the classic "washing up bottle" spaceships.

But no longer. Thanks to the aforementioned CG… hindered only by the cheapness of the BBC Worldwide budget for value added material… you can from the comfort of your DVD you have the option to watch replacement CGI for the exteriors of the Ark.

This was done for a number of the DVD releases, ranging from on the one hand the shonky ("Enlightenment" has some nice images but the story is poorer for editing down the running time) to the totally berserk ("Planet of Fire" has literally almost everything literally on fire. Plus, there's an am-dram teaser scene added that start that… just… no…) to on the other some actually quite decent work in the Extended Edition "The Curse of Fenric" (though again the story suffers from the curse of editing it into a "movie-length" cut which does not suit the pacing of the script at all) and the Special Edition "Day of the Daleks" (mainly a vehicle to get Nick Briggs to redub the Dalek voices "properly", but there's some nice effects dropped in too and for once they keep the four episodes as four episodes).

The very best of the bunch, though, are the Daleks' spectacular sixties-looking saucers rendered into "The Dalek Invasion of Earth", which are so good that they've clearly kept them for the new series.

You can watch this…

On DVD or on Thursday 26th and Friday 27th on the Horror Channel.

If you need one, my score:


A cracking, terrifying way to begin. Sets out a whole new agenda for the series: the coldness of space, and the coldness of science, tempered by only the human warmth of the Doctor and his friends.

If You Like "The Ark in Space", Why Not Try…

"The Caves of Androzani" – Robert Holmes's brilliant future-noir, another minimalist sketch of a universe, but so much more bleak about human nature. Could almost be the anti-"Ark".

"The Beast Below" – a Steven Moffat story set in the aftermath of the Solar Flares, with another woman on top and another "something" lurking in the pipes. And it's nearly a Bob Holmes political satire (like "Caves…" although "Ark…" is not.).

But it's a much more lived-in future and optimism at the end is dangerously close to schmaltz.

Meanwhile on the other side…

Alex is watching "Robot". Of course.

Next Time…

Back, back, back to the very beginning. Of something. The TARDIS can go forwards in time, backwards in time and sideways in time.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

Day 5417: DOCTOR WHO: Invasion of the Blobby Snatchers


Last year, we loved Peter Harness's "Kill the Moon". This was, er, a controversial opinion. (No, that's not an invitation to tell me again why I am wrong.) Perhaps, having everyone read an allegory that wasn't there into his previous work, you might think he'd be more cautious. Not a bit. This year, we're putting the subtext into the text so blatantly that nobody's going to get the wrong message. (I bet they do get the wrong message.)

But it's always a relief to be able to give an honest review to people you know. And this was terrific.

In fact, at the risk of offending Millennium, this was as globetrotting as SpECTRE – from London's London (Cardiff) to American New Mexico to vaguely Middle-Eastern Walesistan (Snowdon) – but with actual plot twists and character development.

With is extra-pressing to get my guesses for "Next Time" in before the sequel airs tonight, I'll be cutting this sort and may repost with more thoughts later…

This has a longer-ago "Previously on Doctor Who" than most, which makes you worry that Mr The Hurt Doctor is going to turn up at the end and have a Zygon burst out of his chest. Anyway, the Prologue: Previously in "Batman the Movie" (Made From the TV Series for Movie Theatres), at the United World Organisation (not the United Nations for legal reasons), the hostile territorial powers all mixed up who they were and so performed unprecedentedly perfect peace negotiations, summed up by Batman with, “Who… knows, Robin? This strange mixing of minds may be the greatest single service ever performed for humanity.” No, sorry, I’ll start that again. Previously in Doctor Who the (not the) TV Movie (Available At Limited Movie Theatres), at the Unified Intelligence Taskforce (not the United Nations for legal reasons), the hostile space powers all mixed up who they were and so performed unprecedentedly perfect peace negotiations, summed up by a man we all recognise despite his assuming a secret identity with, “Who… knows…?” Er…

So, did I say Agincourt was topical for "The Woman Who Lived"? Let's talk terrorism while the UK celebrates Guy Fawkes. And a Happy Homeland Security Day to all of you at home.

And, did I say they were doing "big ideas" this year?

From the earliest "scientific romances" of Mr H G Wells, science fiction has been about things, in fact about the present much more than the future. ("The Time Machine" is about the class struggle; "War of the Worlds" is "How would Britain like it if someone did Imperialism to them?")

And it couldn't be more topical. The Zygons are refugees. Their homeworld (I call it "Zygospore", 'cos that's the way I like to roll) was known to have been blown up as early as 1975's "Terror of the Zygons", but we were told in "The Day of the Doctor" that it was in the early days of the Time War – which of course began, if you think about it, two stories earlier in "Genesis of the Daleks".

So, in a time when some parts of Europe are greeting people fleeing conflict and destruction with "Refugees Welcome" banners while other parts (Britain, shamefully) are grudgingly suggesting they will take the bare minimum people they can, we see an Earth that agreed to take twenty million refugee Zygons.

But, as in the best of sci-fi, the baddies here have something of a point: the Zygons haven't been welcomed to Earth; they're only allowed to live here so long as they integrate. Their own culture has been suppressed and they themselves are forced to adopt human form if they want to live here. They are tolerated so long as they are "passing", as the old phrase would go – when the only "good" homosexuals were the ones you couldn't tell, not like those dreadful camp gays and drag queens(!).

And the response of the "heroes" – all guns and drone strikes – is not coming down on the side of "heroic". I loved the Zygons being their own human shields (even if all the UNIT soldiers falling for the Zygon gambit is excessively dumb, even for UNIT). Even the Doctor is saying "try not to kill too many". Unless that's a clue for next week (see speculation).

Does any of that excuse the "radicalised" faction going all ISIS on UNIT? Well, today we celebrate the Stonewall riots – though in fact today's self-styled "Stonewall" are the most "moderate" (read milksop) face of LGBT rights movement – and we sometimes only think of the more spiritual Martin Luther King's side of the civil rights movement in America.

ISIS are evil. But they aren't just evil. Likewise, the Zygon revolutionaries are not black and white baddies. (No, they're sort of orange… sorry!)

…anyway, time to skip to the speculation on how this might turn out!

Next Time… No next time trailer at all, which suggests spoilers, but it's called the Zygon Inversion so… They're ALL Zygons, aren’t they? All the UNIT people, anyway – hence operating out of a UNIT safe house instead of the Tower of London; hence evil-Clara saying "kill the traitors" rather than "kill the humans" – and maybe even the Doctor after doing a deal with the Zygon High Command – hence travelling by plane rather than TARDIS (isomorphic – one-to-one; or just not wanting a Zygon to be titivating the console). The importance of this would be to make the entire point of the episode: you didn't even notice the "good" Zygons, only the "evil" ones.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Day 5410: DOCTOR WHO: …the Lion Was Flawed


I wanted to call this "outstanding and delivering", but in fairness, it wasn't quite as amazing as part one. The plot was more… generic: Leo the Lion and his "surprise" invasion twist, leaning heavily on 2005's "The Unquiet Dead", which also features a rift opened by death. But that wasn't the point.

This was all about why Maisie Williams was essential to the role of Ashildr/Lady Me. You might have thought that that Viking maid was familiar from "Game of Thrones"; but here we see the range of her talent as she evolves from Arya Stark to Cersei Lannister.

We've met a race of extra-dimensional leonids before in "Doctor Who": the Tharils of E-Space in Season Eighteen, and so it was a shame that "Leandro" didn't turn out to be a Tharil from their early buccaneering, slaving days. And surely "Leandro" (Lion Man) is just Lady Me coming up with a suitable Anglicised (or Latinised) name for him – surely she's not dumb enough to fall for it if it's his own made-up name for himself. Plus it was jolly nice of his fellows to blow him up at the end, especially after missing so many of the locals. (Who, in fact, are Londoners – does no one remember that Tyburn Tree is at Marble Arch? Which in fairness would have been fields at the time, but it does seem no one remembers the "town" nearby is London.)

But cursory as these lion/invasion plot elements were, though, they were key to Lady Me's story: as she's become more and more like the Doctor she just wants to run away. (And one of the best lines of the episode is: "I'm not looking for a husband, you oaf. I'm looking for a horse to get me out of town.")

A life of centuries rather than being full, has become empty. That's not particularly an original observation, and the lesson that the Doctor gives to Me – that immortals need the "mayflies" – is all very "Interview with the Vampire", but that's perfectly appropriate for the gothic romance of a tale like this.

There's a wonderfully playful way that the episode toys with non-binary gender in Maisie Williams' character. In part one, we had already heard her as Ashildr talk about how she was too boyish for the girls and too much a girl for the boys, but still found acceptance in her village. But now we see her switching comfortably between roles as the (male – in presentation, particularly doing the voice) highwayman "The Knightmare"* and the (female – in presentation, particularly the very-off-the-shoulder dress) "Lady Me". Delightfully, the Doctor doesn't appear to see anything at all odd about this. This idea of gender as fluid, optional, as performance even, is very Seventeenth Century, all rakish and Restoration (perhaps a little late, timewise for here, but very in with the romances of the era) but also brings us back to the idea of "gods" and "immortals" choosing to grace us in human form.

(*Yes, apparently K is for Kow in any language; it really is spelled with a "K")

And, just as Lady Me switches from one persona to another, so the episode flips between "highwayman as latter-day Robin Hood or carousing adventurer" larks and "melancholic contemplation of a life not even remembered".

The triumphs and tragedies of her life, from Agincourt (broadcast a day before the 600th anniversary of St Crispin's Day 1415!) to Plague, that we glimpse as the Doctor literally rummages through the pages of her memories are all the more poignant because she herself no longer has them, none more so than the pages ripped out – an extreme version of Bernice Summerfield (from the "New Adventures") and her post-it note bedecked diaries.

(Not quite sure how she lugs them all from place to place every time she fakes her own death, though. And, in "Castrovalva" fashion, the earliest volumes, with uncertain handwriting, are still as beautifully bound as the most recent, which takes quite some doing.)

Not all of the comedy works. The comedy guards come to arrest the Doctor don't half feel like a Shakespearean walk-on gag. The house-breaking goes on perhaps just a bit too long. But it's not just comic relief. It's as vital to the story as the silly lion invasion plot, the idea that life has this vital spark. Sam Swift's desperate gag-cracking, the very (I'm sure deliberately acted) imperfections of the delivery adding to the feel he is cracking jokes as though his life depends on it, convincingly sells the premise of the story.

The contrast is between Lady Me's ennui – epitomised by the way Leandro is just using people; a trap she too falls into until she's turned around – and Rufus Hound's charmingly rough-edged rogue Sam Swift the Quick (not just overcompensating: his name puns on "Quick" as opposed to "Dead", and his swift, brief life). Sam cracks puns on the scaffold literally buying himself more seconds of life with his words because life is so important to him. Lady Me just saw him as a resource not to let go to waste: he was going to die anyway, so why not use him? The fact that the failure of her plans sees her rediscover that she cares, and that she saves Sam to set things right is a little vindication of the Doctor's position.

Of course it's more complicated than that. The Doctor knows that on the most superficial level he did a good thing in saving Ashildr as a girl. He also knows that, given human nature, it had the potential to turn to a really bad thing. But, on an even deeper level, that simply taking her off in the TARDIS and going adventuring with her might lead to an even worse thing, for both of them. And indeed the Universe. While the Doctor makes a number of arguments to Lady Me, Capaldi conveys all this deeper knowledge with a series of looks and postures and an air of "I've been here before and tried all the ways out of this conundrum", until only at the end is Me in a position to understand the lesson properly.

If you've seen Season Two of Game of Thrones you know already that Maisie Williams can hold her own in a scene with Charles Dance. The power relationship between Doctor and Lady Me is more evenly balanced here – indeed, who has the upper hand and who is sidekick is another thread running through the story – but it still takes some mighty acting chops to go head to head with Capaldi in these long often brutal conversation scenes.

And while it's clear that he's been "dropping in" to check up on here – much as the tenth Doctor did his tour of all his past companions – it's clearly not enough to see what it is she's been losing along the way.

The notion that the human brain isn't big enough to contain all the memories of an immortal life struck me as novel and tragic (though actually, it occurs to me, there's a bit, also from the early "New Adventures", where the Doctor filters his memories through the TARDIS and edits them down a bit because even his brain – larger on the inside, presumably – can get too full). I wondered subsequently if Captain Jack – assuming he really is the Face of Boe, and it's not just Rusty's little joke – evolved into an enormous head as a different solution to the same problem. (Hilariously, the actual Face of Boe – or the voice of, anyway, is Struan Rodger who also appears in this episode.)

And speaking of Jack – interesting that it takes the former "Torchwood" writer Catherine Tregenna to bring him up again; it would be nice to see Barrowman come back (commitment to "Twang!" "Arrow" allowing) and maybe explore Captain Jack's missing memories after all these years – but was anyone else disappointed that when the Doctor said he'd travelled with another immortal it wasn't Romana he was thinking of (after all, if he can mention the Terileptils in passing…)

Because, oddly enough, even though many would say the Tom Baker/Lalla Ward pairing is one of the finest in the series' history, it's also been observed that the two Time Lords together do rather swan about the Universe with increasing disdain for the mortals through whose lives they career. To the extent that if Season Seventeen is mainly about them gadding about having a really really good time, then Season Eighteen – Tharils and all – is, you might suggest, about the real world slapping the Doctor very firmly in the face as a result.

So is this a two-parter? I'm a little caught by my own rules here. Because I take the "To Be Continued…" at the end of "Utopia" to indicate that that episode is the start of a three-parter, I should, in fairness, concede that this is part two and "The Girl Who Died" is part one. Even though, really, they feel more like one episode and its sequel. On the other hand, Alex's feeling – which I find myself strongly in agreement with – was that this episode developed characters and ideas while leaving many plot threads hanging… in other words it feels much more like "The Sound of Drums", i.e. a part two of three.

Does it not, after all, feel as though some elements here have been set up for future pay-off: the appearance of Ashildr/Me in Clara's present day, could she end up being the Minister of War alluded to in "Before the Flood", or the question of how (or whether) she relates to that prophesied "hybrid".

And looked at the other way, the Doctor wanders into this situation clearly in the middle of other business and after dropping Clara off. Time, for him, as passed too – we don't know how long, but we know he's had time to at least look in on Ashildr's progress (and leper colony-founding activities) – meaning that it is only the audience who perceive these stories as juxtaposed.

It might therefore have been even better if there had been another (pair of) episodes in between. Maybe something with, I don't know, Zygons in it?

Next time… Oh look! Something with Zygons in it! Fair warning: I've met the author. Will he be as controversial as last year's space dragon? Expect double trouble, in "The Zygon Invasion".

Day 5403: DOCTOR WHO: The Mouse that Roared…


We loved this. "Doctor Who" doing all the things right I thought the previous story got wrong: seizing on a "big" idea – here the meaning and consequences of immortality – and exploring it while telling a tale with humour and excitement.

It's the entire Tenth Doctor era in a single episode: from the hubris when the Doctor and companion think they're invincible; to the aching regret for "losing"; to the flashback of Donna reminding the Doctor to save people; to the Doctor's "Time Lord Victorious" moment of defiant anger against "the rules"; to the buyer's regret that followed.

The idea of "immortality" and "gods" was grounded from the very start with a few meditations on Clarke's Law (that's the one about higher science being indistinguishable from magic): first with the Doctor's bragging getting those wretched sonic sunglasses snapped (tragically, it won't last); then contrasting the Doctor's yoyo Odin with the Monty Python-referencing sky hologram; building up to the Doctor's great punchline: "the thing about gods is they never show up!"

(And he's masqueraded as a deity before now, as early as being "Zeus" for "The Myth Makers". They didn't believe him either.)

The uber-macho baddies this week, in their enormously butch armour (but pleasingly "Star Wars" "lived in"), literally live off of testosterone. Obviously subtle they do not do. Though it does make me think someone has been reading Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood's "About Time 3" with its essay on "what does the mind of evil eat" (clue: they guess it's testosterone, because "evil" is a bit too spiritual for them, though nowadays it would be the artron energy/fairy dust that powers everything from the TARDIS to regenerations).

These villains are the Mire, though on first watching – or before seeing it written down anywhere – I heard it as "Maia", as in Tolkien's name for the choirs of angelic or demi-godly being who populate the Undying Lands of Valinor in his Silmarillion /Lord of the Rings "Legendarium" ur-myth cycle. They, in fact, are not real gods either.

But thematically, this goes right back to (ironically, since he was the author of last time's disappointment) Toby Whithouse's "School Reunion", which explored the Doctor's reason's for running away from his past companions, while even earlier "New Earth" had already dubbed the tenth Doctor as "The Lonely God", which in turn foreshadows his shipper-pleasing anguish over losing Rose in "Doomsday".

(I've often felt that Murray Gold's "Song for Ten" from "The Christmas Invasion" fully prefigures the tenth Doctor's life with its refrain of "today has been the best day" – with his first day being his best day and all the days after that just laying more regrets on him.)

Capaldi's twelfth Doctor gets to revisit that with his talk of "losing", itself now foreshadowing Clara's inevitable departure.

And when the Doctor said he would "do what I always do: get in my box and run away", I wondered if this was linking Clara's leaving to another of the themes that seem to be "arcing" though this season – Davros was hinting about the Doctor's reasons for running away from Gallifrey in the first place and Missy underlined it by reminding the Doctor that he was always the one who ran away. Is Steven Moffat suggesting that the Doctor left Gallifrey after a personal loss? Might that be the fate of Susan's parents, perhaps? Or the Master's daughter? Or is that too deep down the fanwank rabbit hole?

Going even further, I did speculate vaguely that we see the villagers, with their electromagnetic anvils, managed to capture three of the Mire helmets – so presumably there are three "medical kits", meaning that the Doctor could have kept a third for himself, or rather for himself to give to Clara. Giving rise to the possibility that the Clara Oswin Oswald in "Asylum of the Daleks" is not another "splinter" but an ontologically paradoxical future version of this Clara. Is Clara's destiny to be this hybrid we seem to be insisting on teeing up as the Season's Big Bad?

Or is that going to be everybody? Clara, Ashildr/Me, [spoilers] Osgood of the Zygons etc… We are all hybrids in a way: an admixture of our mothers and fathers, our friends and our culture; an alchemical combination of beast and angel, dust and stories.

Except, granting Clara immortality too would very much seem to go against the mood in which the Doctor found himself just moments after curing (or cursing) Ashildr.

Ashildr as the "potent storyteller" and the idea of "story" as "lifeforce" (in that it implicitly takes all of hers to defeat the Mire) are threads deeply woven into the Moffat era, reminiscent of Amy "remembering" the Doctor's story back into being in "The Big Bang". I'll talk more about her and Maisie William's performance when I write about the second episode. It's clear that she's being set up as a reflection of the Doctor – an alternative take on the toll of immortality.

And we see the Doctor literally reflecting quite a lot this episode, reflecting on his new face in the eels' water barrels, linking into the flashbacks to "Deep Breath" and to "The Fires of Pompeii".

Incidentally, it's nice that some of the minor call-backs also work with the immortality theme: the use of the third Doctor's "neutron flow" catchphrase (and a fourth Doctor-esque self-parodying deconstruction of it); or the reappearance of the 2000-year (formerly 500-year and 900-year) diary; maybe, if you want to take it that way, even the "space helmet for a cow" Viking outfits… these aren't just fanboy-pleasing nods but reminders of just how long the Doctor has been at this gig.

Equally, contrasting the Doctor's age and knowledge with the insight he gets from listening to a baby – and that it's listening to the baby that inspires him to decide to stay – also works to the theme of immortals needing mortals. After all it was Donna Noble's humanity in "The Runaway Bride" and again in "The Fire of Pompeii", in the very moment that we return to here, that managed to shake the Doctor out of his cosmic detachment and reconnect him to the world. And taking the gag about the Doctor speaking baby from "A Good Man Goes to War" and "Closing Time" and turning it into lyrical poetry was transcendent.

But here is where we get the answer to the question that "Deep Breath" posed – why this face? Or at least we get an answer. It's quite a good answer – quick and tidy with no intrusive timey-wimey arcs. But is it possible that the Doctor takes the wrong lesson from his reflection? After all, Donna's plea was not to save everyone just because he could, but to save someone when he couldn't save everyone; he goes way beyond that here, and seems to realise it.

What really sets "The Girl Who Died" above is the way that it deftly pivots between these deep, even morbid considerations, and outright slapstick comedy – whether it's the Doctor's "it's meant to do that" yoyo-fail, the jump-cut to the burning village, or the yakety-sax footage of the Mire's ignominious flight from Ashildr's puppet. This would be really hard going if it was as "serious" or "grimdark" as some of the fans might prefer. Instead, by leavening it with memorable funnies, Moffat and Mathieson mean it will, I hope, linger longer in the memories.

Next time… Who is that masked, er, person. Oh, you guessed. It's "The Woman Who Lived"

Friday, October 23, 2015

Day 5409: Fatal Attraction


David Cameron is tearing down the British constitution before our eyes.

The Conservatories, apparently HIGH on the ARROGANCE of victory, have taken their WAFER-THIN majority to be a sign of DIVINE RIGHT and are rapidly moving to use any means, no matter how dubious or illegitimate, to extend their hegemony.

They've got the House of Lords in their sights.

But if they are so keen on the SUPREMACY of the House of Commons then they should remember that it was the House of Commons that voted to keep the Powers of the House of Lords EXACTLY AS THEY ARE.

Prime Monster Cameron clearly does not believe in of the British Constitution, written or unwritten. He tramples the traditions and conventions in much the same way Boris Johnson tramples small Japanese children.

Which makes him an anti-social Prime Monster and a pretty poor Conservatory to boot.

Instead of PRIMARY LEGISLATION (or even taking it to the actual PEOPLE in a referendum) he is sneaking around trying to nobble the noble opposition by the back door.

This week, we have already seen him and his incompetent henchling Chris Grayman manipulating the standing orders of the House of Commons to freeze out non-English members of the BRITISH Parliament (while further overburdening English MPs who do not have the support of devolved assembly members and thus actually WEAKENING the voice of the people of England).

And now they are threatening to flood the House of Lords with Tory Peers in order to create an UNEARNED majority (remember how they protest that the numbers in the Lords should be "proportional" to the election result – so they should actually lose Peers to match the 35% of the vote they scraped in May).

The alleged cause precipitating this crisis is the Tory plan to slash tax credits, taking up to £1200 away from people IN WORK on the LOWEST WAGES.

It totally makes a LIE of the Tory claim to be the "Party of Labour". And completely UNDERMINES the work of the Coalition in raising people OUT OF TAX to make being in work reward more the people who need it most.

The Liberal Democrats have therefore tabled a "fatal motion" in the Lords to kill the cuts.

(While Labour have tabled a WEAKER, delaying motion, which the Lib Dems WILL support if Labour are too cowardly to support the fatal amendment).

And this has given the Prime Monster the excuse he needed to throw his toys out of the pram.

We have seen a string of figures bullying the House of Lords from the Prime Monster down – and shamefully including the Speaker of the Commons, whose powers are so rightly protected within those doors precisely because they end at those doors (and that's why Black Rod has those doors slammed in his face every year), acting way ultra vires in telling the House of Lords what to do.

(It's worse because the Speaker is supposed to be neutral. He must of course act, within his powers, to defend the interests of the House of Commons. But he also has a duty to defend the people in whose Parliament it is his privilege to sit. If he goes over to the side of the Government – and it looks very like he has been persuaded to speak for the Government here – then frankly that's a resigning matter and he should step down.)

The Tory case for overriding the Lords hangs on two slender threads:

The first is the Salisbury Convention that the Lords do not overturn a Government's manifesto pledges.

Mr Cameron refers to the fact that the Tory manifesto contained a pledge to cut £12 billion from the Welfare Budget. Fair enough. But it did not specify from where within the Welfare Budget. However, the Prime Monster himself said that Tax Credits would not be cut. So how else can we interpret this but that that Prime Monstering promise was part of their manifesto pledge?

So to block the Tax Credits Cut, the Lords would actually be enforcing not overturning the Tories' manifesto, and it's hardly their fault that the Prime Monster is caught in the act of breaking his promise to the British People.

The other is the 1911 Parliament Act which says that the Upper Chamber will not block the will of the commons on Money Bills.

A "Money Bill" (it goes on to say) is a Public Bill which the Speaker says is a money bill.

(Or rather, in his opinion contains provisions dealing with a longish list of understandably tax and borrowing related subjects – in fact contains only such provisions, so you cannot just stick a small tax change in the "Invasion of Mars and Slaughter of the First Born" Bill and ram it through the Lords as a "Money Bill").

Importantly, it then adds that to be such a Bill the Speaker needs to endorse it with a certificate saying it is such before they send it up to the Lords.

So there are two rather glaring problems with what the Prime Monster and his government and his tame Speaker are saying here.

The Tax Credits (Income Thresholds and Determination of Rates) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 is NOT a Public Bill. It's what is called a Statutory Instrument (secondary legislation, using powers granted by an earlier bill to adjust the details – or another example of the Prime Monster dodging the full scrutiny of a proper bill, what a shame THAT came back to bite him on his Eton Mess).

And secondly, it would need to have a certificate of "do not touch" tied to the front.

So unless Speaker Bercow has done so, his threat to the Lords is based on a lie.

The Prime Minister, likewise, if he is saying that the Lords cannot block this is telling lies to the House of Commons.

The regulation was originally laid before Parliament in September and the government won by a majority of 325 to 290.

This week, Labour tabled an Opposition Day motion: "That this House calls on the Government to reverse its decision to cut tax credits, which is due to come into effect in April 2016", which was defeated by the government 317 to 295.

It would not have been binding on the Government, but losing it would have been… "embarrassing".

In the course of the debate, though, a number of Conservatories were reported to make "powerful" speeches against the policy… only to then troop meekly through the Government lobby at the end of the day.

I do worry that another sign of the Tories' fast march towards Chinese Democracy is to generate a SYNTHETIC opposition that is then shown to be entirely compliant with their wishes, doing away with the need for a Labour Party altogether.

Meanwhile senior, even normally entirely sensible Tories, continue to protest that the Lords will "provoke" a CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS.

Be under no doubt. The Prime Monster was LOOKING for this CRISIS. He would have FOUND a PRETEXT.

And frankly, either we Liberal Democrats use what powers we have left to try to protect people from the cruelty of full-blooded Tory cuts or we might as well all go home.

So we should NEVER back down from this fight.

And the Prime Monster should remember too that Governments govern only with CONSENT.

Cite the 1911 Parliament Act all you like, if THAT is the precedent the Tories think they should follow, if they think it covers the Prime Monster for breaking his election promise, but REMEMBER your HISTORY – before forcing the People's Budget through the Lords the Liberal Government sought and received the endorsement of the people on the promise they were actually voting on in a GENERAL ELECTION.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Day 5396: DOCTOR WHO: Under the Whelm


So the Doctor begins the episode by giving us a lecture on the Ontological Paradox – or as he calls it the "Bootstrap" Paradox, as in Baron Munchausen lifting himself into the air by pulling up on his own bootstraps because it's the "it happened because it happened" with no visible cause or means of support one.

He does this by means of an extended metaphor about Beethoven and you think "ah, clever – Beethoven was deaf and one of our characters is deaf and the ghosts are mute so this is going to be relevant". Only it's not.

And that's typical of why this episode disappointed me. It's full of clever or intriguing or just plain well-designed things, which it holds up for us to examine and then does nothing with. Certainly it never weaves its plot-points into anything that meaningfully amounts to a story.

It looks great: the empty, abandoned village, with its Soviet Russia dressings, haunted by Cold War ghosts (before we get the electromagnetic ghosts, but again no one tries to draw a connection).

But it's full of signifiers that don't signify anything.

The title, for starters, "Before the Flood" suggests an allegory or myth: in Biblical terms, perhaps, it could refer to the age after Eden when we had become sinners over that business with the apple and the talking snake, corrupt and degenerate before God sent Noah's flood to literally clean up our act. It was a time of "great wickedness" when there were "giants" in the World.

Were the Nineteen-Eighties an "age of great wickedness"? Is the monstrous Fisher King a "giant"?

Or is there no metaphor here, only the literal: we have travelled back in time to before the valley was flooded?

It doesn't drive the plot or fit to any kind of narrative that writer Toby Whithouse is constructing. Is it just so that the Doctor can blow up that damn dam in the certainty that there are "no Thals left on Skaro"?

Similarly, why is the big bad named The Fisher King, after a significant if minor character in the Arthurian myth cycle? Surely it's not just because he's a fish?

The Arthurian Fisher King is wounded (read: emasculated) and his kingdom is blighted because king and kingdom are spiritually linked. The knight Sir Percival spends a night at the Fisher King's keep and is granted a vision of the Holy Grail, which has the power to heal the king and hence the land. When he wakes, the castle is deserted as though long abandoned.

This foreshadows the darkening of Camelot when Lancelot and Guinevere betray Arthur – in some readings the Fisher King is Arthur – and the king and kingdom are likewise spiritually wounded, precipitating the Grail Quest where all the knights go off to look for the cup, ultimately leaving Camelot so weakened that Mordred is able to take over.

There are elements of that here: the village is long abandoned, say. But does that amount to anything?

Is the Fisher King in "Before the Flood" supposed to be an Alien Arthur, sent to Earth as Avalon to be healed and return to the stars as their "Once and Future King"?

Because he looks a lot more like a big stompy monster.

Again, it looks pretty impressive, in an after-Geiger fashion, but what's it supposed to mean?

He's given a handful of lines to make his place in the plot seem bigger than he is – knowledge of the Time War and all. But he really does very little.

Addressing – recognising – the Doctor as "Time Lord" (and along with the Soviet trappings) makes me think of "The Curse of Fenric". But the reason that "Fenric" as story was powerful (and Fenric, in-story too come to think of it) was the way it wove together elements from previous adventures into something that actually gave greater meaning to those events, repainting Ace and the Doctor's exploits together as a bigger chess game for her very soul pitted against an ancient Lovecraftian god. Here it's more like the baddie has read the series' PR bible.

Peter Serafinowicz who provides the voice of the Fisher King previously did the same for Darth Maul in "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace". And, as on that occasion, gets all of three lines before being unceremoniously offed. Here it's by being hit in the face by the titular flood.

Unless, of course, he's not dead and all this – not just the dropped-in hint about a "Minister for War" – is set up for something else. In which case it might be a tad less frustrating with hindsight.

Likewise, if Paul Kaye as Tivolian undertaker Prentis seems wasted in a minor cameo, albeit one shot from two angles for time-travel reasons, it's because the episode does nothing with him.

The resolve isn't particularly clever: it's always the Doctor in the box, whether it's the Pandorica or an old Eighth Doctor Adventure ("The Deadstone Memorial", if I remember rightly). The monster was dead all along – which at least references the fate of Arthur in "Battlefield – and the ghosts are just ghosts in the machine, echoes of a design that never came to be.

And then everyone was in love with everyone else at the end, like some kind of instant Shakespeare. We'd had an underplayed hint that Bennett had feelings for O'Donnell last week, when he clearly stays because she does. But Cass and Lunn? I think at least the HR department would have a word.

Killing off of fan-of-the-Doctor O'Donnell earlier – and after killing off fangirl Osgood in "Death in Heaven" this threatens to become a trope – seemed the most gratuitous "insert death here" moment we've had in ages. Plus, they totally blew how to do it – the Fisher King, having set his "ghosts" in motion would have no interest in wasting time adding to his collection. So he would stomp on past on his merry Fisher King business. Only for undead Prentis to appear through the wall and, now programmed to multiply the signal, murder her from behind.

(And it's a completely massive cheat that O'Donnell's ghost does not appear in the "future" until after we see her die in the "past" – no such restriction applies to Prentis.)

So the plot played out just the way it had to because that was the way it had to play out. Practically the very definition of going through the motions.

Which brings us back to that Bootstrap Paradox.

And as for that paradox… it really only amounted to: "well, I had to pretend to be my own ghost because we needed a cliffhanger last week".

And the hiccoughs with the TARDIS (needing the handbrake last week; refusing to return to the Drum; skipping back in time half an hour) were just signs of her not liking that there was a Paradox about. (And not just an excuse to have the Doctor rugby tackle Mr Bennett to prevent a recurrence of "Father's Day".)

After all the set-up with Beethoven at the start, it was something of a let-down that it was only there for lampshading: "I worked out what to do when I realised what I must have done". He didn't even use the guitar!

Why draw attention to it?

It's not like Doctor Who hasn't done Ontological Paradoxes before oh boy, from "Blink" to "The Big Bang" to Clara's entire timeline being retroactively caused by "The Name of the Doctor" (basically anywhere the Grand Moff has left his fingerprints – although the biggie is "Earthshock"). Is Mr Whithouse just writing "HOW HE DID IT!" for the Mister Moffster?

Alex is reminded of Steven Moffat smugly explaining how "The Fire In the Girlyplace" is "Doctor Who Discovers Girls" because he was too important a writer to notice that Russell had just spent the whole Eccleston season doing that more subtly. And when Whithouse is more smug and less subtle than the Moff…

We should at the very least understand that the paradox is in some sense bad, if for no other reason than it's a perpetual motion machine and if left revolving in time and space will eventually wear an entropic hole in the universe.

Turning to the camera with a shrug really won't do. Another name for the Ontological Paradox is the Predestination Paradox or Destiny Trap. It kills free will. Because once you are in it you have no choice but to do what you have already seen yourself do. And the Doctor really ought to be against anything that restricts his free will.

There was an opportunity here – after refreshing our views on the "Let's Kill Hitler" moral dilemma in the first two-parter – to have a look at another cornerstone of Doctor Who: "you cannot change history, not one line" versus "time can be rewritten".

And we completely failed to.

The risk of invalidating your own past is creating a Grandfather Paradox. That's the one that usually spins people's heads because of the way it flips and flops between preventing itself happening and so not happening so it doesn't prevent itself happening so it does happen and back again.

Funnily enough, the Faction Paradox masterwork "The Book of the War" suggests that Grandfather Paradoxes are a way of creating something very like ghosts – if you kill one of your own ancestors you reduce your own level of "reality", becoming less connected to the Universe. (If you are 50% "real" and you kill your Grandfather that only 50% applies to reality and so you create your own 50% existence – and so it actually adds up.) The possibility that the ghosts in "Under the Lake" are actually a result of the Doctor breaking time back in the past of "Before the Flood" would have made for a very much more interesting threat. Unfortunately we didn't go there.

But why would a Grandfather Paradox be bad and a Bootstrap Paradox a… shrug?

I'd say that, in Doctor Who, the exact opposite ought to be the case.

A Universe riddled with contradictions – rather like the continuity we've got, as it happens – or one of rigid order and doing what you're told? You know which choice the Doctor ought to make.

Which, again, is where throwing in the ghosts as consequences of choosing to break the Destiny Trap would have challenged the Doctor, been an actual story about something.

From a writer's point of view, outside the story universe, the Ontological Paradox makes you look clever, it leaves the audience with a satisfied sense that the piece fits together that the end is the beginning is the end and so on. Whereas the Grandfather Paradox looks like you've forgotten something. Because you have to end on one flip or the other, so it's never "complete".

But the Bootstrap, because it has no starting point, can never be created from within the Universe, only imposed from outside by the writer. Or god. Which is why it flatters the writer. The Grandfather Paradox means the characters take charge of their own narrative, in fact rewrite their own backstory, and set themselves free.

But in "Before the Flood" everyone remained trapped in their own perfect little clockwork plots full of references to nothing very much really.

However, Peter Capaldi can play electric guitar on the main theme every week forever, as far as I'm concerned.

Next time… Maisie Williams! Vikings! Maisie Williams! Cyber-Odin! Maisie Williams! Metal Judoon things! A thousand articles on how Maisie Williams should be next companion! Also Maisie Williams! "The Girl Who Died"

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Day 5389: DOCTOR WHO: Lake Superior


This was Classic Who done in Classic style.

This was so old-school it was Quatermass, down to its mysterious etchings on the inside of its unearthed alien spacecraft.

This was so trad you could carve it into a dining table. And it wasn't ashamed to have characters announce the tropes they're riffing on: from "base under siege" to "Aliens" to "you can stay here and play cabin in the woods". Nothing wrong with that. Each generation deserves a chance to see why the classics became classics, especially if done well. Except it doesn't leave me much to talk about.

Although playing with tropes like "dead bro walking" still means you end up killing off the black guy first. (And what a waste of the magnificent Dr Muhahahaha.)

This was Toby "Being Human" Whithouse denying the reality of ghosts, only to whip the rug out from under us, only to whip the rug neatly back into place with a scientific non-explanation explanation: they're not ghosts, they're transmitters; transmitters that imprint a message on your mind and then kill you to start you signalling – the weirdest form of signal boost since six-billion iterations of the Master opened a route out of the Time War for Rassilon.

There must, incidentally, be something in the water (as it were), as I've just listened to "Prisoners of the Lake", the first of Big Finish's "new" Third Doctor Adventures with Tim Trelaw not quite being Jon Pertwee but not quite being his own interpretation either. (He can hit the lisping "s" very well, but I think hasn't quite the "attack" that Pertwee gives his line readings.) To be fair, Katy Manning's Jo Grant voice doesn't sound the same as she did in 1972 either, but with considerably larger store of goodwill. Nevertheless it goes some way to recapturing the feel of the UNIT "blood and thunder" era, at least for the first three parts; resolving itself rather too quickly in part four – limitations of the budget for cast seems most likely reason – when I was expecting it to break out into a bigger six-parter. (Because a three-and-three would have been a to-date unique variation on how to do a six episode Doctor Who). And the Brigadier, alas, is a sadly-missed silent voice at the other end of the telephone. Anyway…

Nice that we had a deaf character on board, fully integrated into the team. Nice that – as my friend Daniel pointed out – they showed that lip reading is hard. But wouldn't it be nicer if there wasn't a plot-contingent reason for her being there? (And "Hello, 22nd Century!" – fairly sure smart phones will do voice-to-text and text-to-voice really very nicely by then.)

Add to that a really picky quibble: the TARDIS translation circuits enable her passengers – or, if it's "the Christmas Invasion", anyone even randomly in the vicinity which must really help with staying incognito for all those non-interfering observation trips the other Time Lords make – to understand other spoken or written languages. But surely that doesn't include the shape of their lips flapping as they make the sounds. So why are the transmitters transmitting a message in English, when they're under the control of presumably an alien signalling to presumably other aliens?

Also, from what angle exactly do the stars in Orion's sword line up with Earth?

Actually the Doctor is wrong here, because only one of them really is a star – the three shiny things apparently hanging below Orion's belt are: the Orion Nebula (M42), which isn't any stars at all; the Trapezium Cluster, which is at least four, possibly eight, possibly more stars; and the star Hatsya (Iota Orionis) at the tip (and there's actually a couple more stars and the M43 nebula too, but they're all much less visible and the Doctor's only got so many tennis balls). Yes, the Trapezium Cluster used to be designated Theta Orionis (a star), but if he's going to be all showy-offy the least he could do is Google it.

One Google search later...

All of the "bright three" are about 1350 light years distant. So if you can draw a line through them, it sure ain't pointing this way.

In fact the only place in the Universe where they line up with Earth is on Earth.

(Oh, all right, or in a direct sightline from Earth to Orion – but that's just getting silly: you need to know where Earth is to line it up to form the sword that's supposed to give you directions to find… Earth. Even the Battlestar Galactica would have had difficulty figuring the way to Earth with clues like that.)

Alternatively, "Sword of Orion" is the second of Big Finish's adventures with Paul McGann as the eighth Doctor. Which was exciting back in the day. So maybe the directions mean: "Go to that planet where Briggsy got to remake the audiovisuals with a proper Doctor and Cybermen".

Anyway, and once again I may be too "seen it all before" to appreciate that cliffhanger properly. To fresh eyes it may be quite the W.T.F. To me it's very obvious that the Doctor isn't dead, which actually dispels the possibility that the "ghosts" are the spirits of the deceased trapped in electromagnetic form. Plus it threatens to be "timey-wimey".

There's nothing intrinsically paradoxical about going back in time to investigate the origin of events that have occurred. In fact, it's something of a surprise that Doctor Who has never done a "reverse The Ark" (fifty minutes of story; leave; arrive 700 years earlier). Although actually, this is closer to "City of Death", where the Doctor (spoilers) uses the TARDIS to pop back – mid-adventure – to Leonardo's studio to check out what's going on with all those Mona Lisas.

But the cliffhanger gives the impression that going back in time, the Doctor has changed the past (and gotten himself killed) resulting in a change to the present (namely the appearance of his ghost).

(And obviously that doesn't have to be how it works out. If the Doctor is just using the "whatever it is that makes signal devices out the images of people who die hereabouts" to send a message to Clara telling her how to resolve the situation, then he can have "programmed" it to wait quietly out in the lake until after he's got back in the TARDIS and gone back in time. Because giggles. Well, no, because to avoid it being one of those irritating ontologically-paradoxical notes to himself from the future he used to leave for/in his seventh incarnation.)

But you have to admit we're stepping dangerously close to "I'll just jump in the time machine and fix this before it ever happened" territory, the sort of "Curse of the Fatal Death" stuff that the series has always said it cannot do. For the perfectly good (Doylist) reason that if he can do that, then there's no drama he can't go back and fix, and there's no excuse for any of the terrible things that happen in the series happening.

And haven't we played enough with "the Doctor's really, really, really dead this time" recently? From "The Impossible Astronaut" to "The Time of the Doctor" to last week's confession dial in "The One with Missy versus Davros"? (*episodes of "Dammit! Missy" not guaranteed to conform to Doctor Who content.)

If we'd perhaps established that the Doctor wasn't certain if the Time Lords had given him just one new life or many it would still be getting repetitive. But at least the threat of him being dead might make sense. Might even develop into a series theme there (too early to say though). But no, quite the reverse, in last year's "Kill the Moon" (yes, I risk mentioning it again; I know some of you have deleted it in favour of Semaphore) he actually raised the idea that he might go on regenerating forever. And even last week he was casually giving away regeneration energy, to Davros of all people, in no way as though it was going out of fashion.

So could we all get on the same page and put at least that trope behind us for a while.

For me this was really good, tense and gripping for the forty-odd minutes of its duration. And vanished like the ghosts in daylight. There was no sense that this was about something other than being a really good Doctor Who episode.

To be fair, it's a part one. It's full of setting up mysteries, investigating, asking a lot of questions, and, yes, a good bit of running up and down corridors. Running up and down very nice corridors and with a purpose. But corridor running, big tick.

Part two might change all that, which would be clever, to illustrate how discovering the past changes our understanding of the present (or future), and how and why the future is haunted by the past.

Until then, it's just a really good episode one.

Next time: reverse Agatha Christie warning as "After the Funeral" backs into "Taken at the Flood". With added fishy monster. Who's in the box? And will it all resolve itself? Avant nous le deluge. Let's step back "Before the Flood"

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Day 5382: DOCTOR WHO: The (Magician's) Apprentice – You're Fired Exterminated


Did everyone else get the same reaction to the recently announced latest spin-off from "Doctor Who": disappointment, regretfully, that it's not the "Missy and Clara Show"?

(Or "Dammit, Missy!" as the Verity podcasters hilariously dubbed this sadly-not-yet-to-be project – and can I also add that their "replace Clara and Michelle Gomez' Missy with Jo and Delgado's Master" game works so perfectly!)

Has there ever been a sci-fi psychodrama sit-com before? What a wasted opportunity if there hasn't. Because judging by this week's episode, it would be genius.

Because this week is all about the Time Lady and the Puppy.

I love Missy's little reminiscence at the start, getting Clara to work out "how I did it!". (Yes, yes, I scored all the points for guessing how the cliffhangers would resolve. Thankfully, Steven Moffat got the answer to the moral question posed last week right too.)

I love that – and I only spotted it on second viewing, but I'm sure most people got it first time out – they actually show three instances of the disintegration/teleport/escape trick, including the end of "Death in Heaven", to confirm that this is what happened then too (meaning last week's cheeky "Not dead. Back." was just a slap to the Saward years' habit of the Anthony Ainley Master to survive without bothering to explain how. Or why.)

I love that it's actually the Doctor's trick – he's done the working out, and on the fly I might add ("what a swot!"), and the Master (he's such a plodder) is merely copying, which seems very much in keeping with the old Jon Pertwee/Roger Delgado relationship (think "Sea Devils") where the Master would have a plan but would have to harness the Doctor's flair and improvisation.

I like to think that the scene with the invisible android assassins might have been written as a cameo for Sean Pertwee to double for his father; he can do the look and would not have had to do the voice. I mean it probably wasn't, but think of the resonance if it had been: "they're all the Doctor to me, so let's give you the frilly shirt" instead of "the eyebrows".

(Of course, that "they're all the Doctor to me" line is pinched from Iris Wildthyme, the erratic possibly-Time Lady created by Paul Magrs and brought to life by the magical Katy Manning.)

This pair of episodes, particularly the second but including moments like the naked horror of her realisation that Skaro is indeed returned in "The Magician's Apprentice", allow Michelle Gomez to transform her Master from merely bananas, however entertaining, pantomime villain Mary Poppins into a fully rounded anti-Doctor. Look at the way she encourages, coaches, even occasionally protects Clara. She's being the Doctor. Of course she might just think of it as house training the puppy, or breaking her in, but…

"If you ever let this creature live, then all this is on you."

That was Clara's accusation to the Doctor in "Death in Heaven". Complicity with the Master if he didn't stoop to the Master's level and murder his oldest frenemy.

Well, how'd'ya like them onions now, Clara Oswald?

Clara's inability to kill Missy the moment she obligingly turns her back is reassuringly human. We would think she was a monster, or a sociopath, if she could actually do it. Even if it wasn't borderline suicidal when wading knee-deep in Dalek sewer.

(The Doctor, incidentally, does to the Daleks what Missy did to the human race in "Death in Heaven": weaponising their dead against them, when he out-Xanatos-Gambits Davros (again), which pays her back for her nicking his teleport trick I suppose. And of course we're playing Time Lord "Hustle" again too ("Time Heist"). My head-canon is going to say that if Davros had taken only the regeneration energy offered rather than trying to take it all, then the Doctor would have let it go at that: that was the "out" he was being offered.)

But it's also a firm rebuke to Clara's words (spoken, to be fair, in anger) at the end of last year's finale. It is a false equivalence to say that one act of compassion is causative of all the harms that follow. This is pretty basic to all our modern morality from "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind" to Gandalf's gentle admonition of Frodo that "it was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand" (an act of compassion that, ultimately, leads to the destruction of the One Ring and the utter ruin of evil. So you know, hard to top).

(And I do mean modern; I suspect that a Roman or a Spartan or for that matter the knights of King Arthur would all be entirely happy to stab the evil Time Lady in the back.)

Of course compassion (and mercy) are what saves Clara, in the end, from Missy's machinations trapping her inside a Dalek. That's more than merely an inspired bit of twisted sadistic play from the Master; it's virtually the entire point of the episode – what is compassion if not finding the friend inside the enemy.

Mind you, Clara seems to have forgotten the lesson she tried to teach the Clockwork Man back in "Deep Breath": "Never start with your final sanction. You've got nowhere to go but backwards." Just as Clara called the Clockwork Man's bluff, so Missy immediately calls Clara's. And thus psychologically disarms her. Before physically disarming her using what looks like another example of that super-speed she (maybe all Time Lords) sometimes appear to possess (see also Missy's murder of Osgood).

Actually, Missy was never in any danger from a pointy stick: she (though she could have been, indeed probably was, lying) told us that you would need to take out both hearts and brainstem all at once to stop her regenerating. Which more than slightly suggests that Missy deliberately left her pointy stick for Clara to pick up. Another little game. Who hasn't thrown a stick for a puppy, after all?

Moffat has struck on a rich seam of ideas to explore here. There's something Lovecraftian about the episode (even without the "something slimy lurking down below", why hello Freudian scatological horror!). The idea that humans – even ones like Clara – run into primal forces like Missy and mistake them for something… understandable.

Like the "First Ones" in "Babylon 5" – G'Kar (Andrea Katsulas) has a memorable scene where he picks up an ant on the tip of his glove – "if I put it down and another ant asks 'what was that?' how could the ant explain?". Moffat seems to get that the Time Lords, who really are the "first ones" of the Doctor Who universe are… in the old cliché …aliens beyond our comprehension. That's proper sci-fi that is.

This expands on the scene in the first episode, where Missy is genuinely (to whatever value of genuinely you think applies to her) revolted by the idea she might "love" the Doctor.

"Try, nano-brain, to rise above the reproductive frenzy of your noisy little food chain and contemplate friendship. A friendship older than your civilization, and infinitely more complex."

(I pondered last time whether they have really been at this longer than [our or Clara's] Civilization. If Missy meant modern England, which is probably the 400 years from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II then easily; or even the nearly-thousand years from 1066 and all that, given the Doctor's now more advanced age; but the five thousand plus of human Civilisation from Mesopotamia to present day? That might be pushing it. Unless Missy means that Gallifrey is from, as long suspected, billions of years in the past.)

Andrew Cartmel and Russell Davies toyed with the idea of the Doctor as "god" before, but in Steven Moffat's hands Doctor and Master are rather more Cthulthu and Nyalothatep (horrors from the dawn of time) than magic floaty Jesus.

If this is Lovecraft, then the Daleks, all amoeboid protoplasm and rage, are the Shoggoths, the "machine creatures" of the Elder Things that made war to overthrow the gods.

Again, Moffat is just full of ideas here, gleefully binding together new notions with riffs on old bits of continuity:

The idea that Daleks are functionally immortal was made as a promise from Davros in "Revelation of the Daleks". The full horror of that can only be described as plumbing new depths here.

The third Doctor described the Daleks as moving by psychokinetic power ("Death to the Daleks"), which here translates to emotional energy firing the Dalek gunstick, and saying plainly that Cybermen repress emotion, Daleks channel it into anger. "It's why they keep yelling 'Exterminate!' – it's how they reload." It is absolute genius. As is seeing Missy work this out as she's examining Clara. (Again using her as the canary in the mine, or the test guinea pig in the experiment casing… are you getting that all these are references to Clara as a useful, useable animal, or familiar. Of course both titles refer to Clara – and to the different ways the two Time Lords see her.)

And of course Moffat is not above riffing on himself rewiring the idea of the Dalek's "cortex vault", the prison for their wrong-thinking memories from "Into the Dalek", so that it even translates the words they think/say into Dalek newspeak. Again, entirely consistent with the "computer control" that Davros saddled them with (before they exterminated him for the first time) back in (everything comes back to) "Genesis of the Daleks".

Of course it doesn't quite stack up. We've heard Daleks say things like "Mercy" and "Pity" before, even if it's just to deny they understand the concepts. And if Clara had been thinking calmly – which of course the point is she is not – then she should have been able to come up with a linguistic work-around. But then, given the way that she appears to lose the use of contractions, it's possible there's a kind of feedback occurring between her and the casing by means of the language she is allowed to use. Which is, of course, the point of Newspeak.

We are all a product of our environment, a Dalek even more so.

It's also slightly naughty that the first Dalek to be killed by the let's call them slime Daleks needs to be broached by Missy's brooch, whereas by the end they all seem to be vulnerable to the eldritch horrors of their ancestors' cells. (Oh, I'm so sorry.)

And Alex was quite right when he said how silly it was to have the Special Weapons Dalek right there and not have it be the one to blow up the TARDIS. What do you think it is for?

(I appease him slightly by saucily retconning Moffat's redubbing of the H.A.D.S. from "Displacement" to "Dispersal" by suggesting that it's a call-back to "Frontios" rather than a desperate cheat.)

Anyway, apparently the Doctor and Davros have some special time together in this episode too. But everyone else has talked about that*. And there's some guff about a prophecy and a hybrid and the Doctor's confession dial (which almost certainly contains the message "haha fooled you!"). Tediously that will no doubt turn out to be this year's arc plot. (Rather than the far more interesting hints about the Cloister War or the Master's Daughter.)

Last thought. Every Dalek ever… except for "some of our greatest mistakes". I know it's wrong of me, but in a secret place in my imagination, I see Mr Moffat crying out: "You think my Daleks are sh** Daleks? I'll give you sh** Daleks!!!"

Next time… If the Daleks are aliens from the past then these are ghosts from the future, and Christopher Eccleston needs to be put on danger money. We're going "Under the Lake".

*OK, I can't go entirely without praising the excellent work of Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi. But I feel I talked a lot last time about the central moral dilemma – which is the thrust of the Doctor/Davros battle of wits here – whereas this week is a really good exploration of what the Master and the Daleks are about.