Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Closing Time"

"You don't have to go home but you can't stay here." How does the sequel to "The Lodger" fare compared to its interesting but rather frivolous predecessor? My brief summation would be: similar, but not as good. Gareth Roberts' contributions to televised Doctor Who have revealed a pretty thorough appreciation for the light-hearted side of things but this gets mixed in with the serious and contemplative through the knowledge that the Doctor is apparently going to snuff it next episode. All this is done fairly well and the humour is mediated with a number of touching and profound moments. My main complaint would be how wishy-washy the story is, and it was this insubstantiality of plotting which had me feeling a bit nonplussed. Sure, the plot of "The Lodger" was hokey bollocks too but it had a pace and atmosphere which "Closing Time" lacks and the mood of this more recent instalment would really have benefited from a stronger narrative.
So Craig Owens has a new place and a baby and he's trying to prove he can cope on his own while Sophie has a weekend away. What better opportunity to prove this than amid alien hijinks featuring everyone's favourite Time Lord? Lo and behold the Doctor shows up on the doorstep, notionally popping in for a last "social call" before his apparent death in "The Impossible Astronaut". How he knows he specifically has to go die now is still a matter of conjecture but we'll figure that out later. Anyway, the scenes with the Doctor, Craig and Alfie the baby are all pretty decent, with Matt Smith and James Corden having a strong rappor which shows through in their discussions. It's unfortunate that these tend to take over the entire show at points which reveals the lack of actual plot but they're all very touching moments, especially when Craig gives the Doctor the Stetson he's wearing in the first episode. The scenes with the Doctor talking to Alfie are good too; Matt Smith can carry an entire scene, including dialogue, entirely on his own without difficulty.
The stuff in the shop is a bit more variable. While the scenes with the Doctor working in the toy department are very natural, the dull shop assistant characters are hardly interesting fare and the jokes where the Doctor and Craig are mistaken for a gay couple become pretty tedious as they're increasingly overplayed. The plot too is pretty much just an excuse for the ruminations the Doctor experiences around Craig. While I suppose it's nice that we didn't have a completely arbitrary monster invented for this episode the Cybermen don't exactly get the best service imaginable. They only turn up for a few minutes and their presence is virtually unexplained. Once again their motive is solely towards "converting the planet". I remember a time when Cybermen had slightly more on their agenda than just making more of themselves. The return of the Cybermat is a nice element but overall I feel like the Cybermen were begging for more use. Similarly, the way in which Craig uses the "power of love" to resist conversion is, obviously, absurd. I dislike the New Series predilection for having the Cybermen with emotions repressed in a volatile manner instead of wiped clean and replaced with pure logic. While I can maybe buy that Craig's paternal instincts overrode the conversion machine interfering with his brain, why does it cause "emotional feedback" or whatever? And again, like in "The Age of Steel", why oh why oh why does this cause the Cybermen's heads to explode? Seriously, is this a cartoon or something? How would experiencing emotions make their heads explode? What's more, how would it make their ship explode? Does their near-lifeless crashed spaceship have repressed emotions too? I always thought that if they were going to do this thing with Cybermen violently experiencing emotions they should go on a rampage or something like a deeply, deeply repressed person might if they suddenly cracked. Regardless, they were underused. The plot could be summarized as "the Cybermen are trying to restore themselves" because all they do is suck some energy and abduct people.
What we do get is more from the Doctor about how he's exhausted from saving people all the time and more of his realisation that his attitude towards the lives of his friends could be construed as selfish and rash. It's a nice idea but maybe slightly overplayed by this point. You can't help feeling sorry for him, however, as he finally vanishes from Craig's house thinking he's essentially had his last adventure. The bit where he talks to the three kids in the street is a bit weird though, especially when you wonder why anyone would have been interviewed about this later for "eyewitness accounts". This leads us into our set-up for the finale, with River being abducted by Kovarian and the Silence. At this point the recitation of the creepy nursery rhyme from "Night Terrors" has just become absurd, and its ridiculousness is compounded only by the fact that we're meant to take it seriously. Kovarian just keeps repeating it for no reason and then we have the little kids recite "Til River Kills the Doctor." Real subtle.
"Closing Time" is worthwhile for all its touching little moments for the Doctor, and there's a sense of slow sadness which, to trivialise slightly, encapsulated to me a feeling evocative of Sunday afternoons and, appropriately, closing stores - that feeling of clinging onto something which passes too quickly that you would prefer to last forever before an ending. When the Doctor confesses in the Cyber-ship that he's going to die this last strange incident with Craig and the Cybermen feels like such a silly, inconsequential little diversion from something harsh and terrible that it's hard not to feel sorry for him and a little blue about how futile it would seem. It's not the weightiest stuff out there but with a title like "Closing Time" I hope it was intentional. It's far from a highlight of this rather scattergun series but as penultimate episodes go I think it does what needs to be done considering there's only a stand alone rather than a two parter to follow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"The God Complex"

It's becoming a bit passé in the New Series to invoke heavy deconstructions of Doctor Who's fundamental principles but this Toby Whithouse-penned episode does it with a great deal more aplomb than what we've had recently. I could go into cack-handed examples from the previous era but these could be summed up basically with the phrase "nobody's perfect". This was pretty much all it had to say about the Doctor regardless of how much people go on about his 'dark side'. We also got "regeneration isn't just a change of appearance." Under Moffat we've had the idea that the Doctor is some kind of monster. He was the most dangerous being in the universe, interestingly enough, in "The Pandorica Opens", but by the time of "A Good Man Goes To War" we have River clunkily informing the Doctor that he's become his own worst enemy or something to that effect because a group of people went to desperate measures to get at him. Of course we also had things like "what if the ever-personified TARDIS was literally personified?" and all sorts of dashedly clever notions like that flying around with various degrees of ineptitude. It's perhaps then understandable why I might be a bit dubious about any more instances of this situation where we're shown or told that "what you take for granted in Doctor Who might be worth reconsidering!" It's like being constantly served cups of lukewarm tea; it's good in the most basic sense possible but it's repetitive and poorly executed. How, then, to buck the trend?
The Doctor, and "assembled Ponds" find themselves in a cheesy, cheap hotel. Are we having the horror of human mediocrity rammed in our face again so soon after the "Night Terrors" council estate? No; the Doctor is quick to inform us that we're not on Earth. Still looks like somewhere on Earth though, doesn't it? Amy and Rory seem rather put out that they're on boring old Earth, or at least somewhere that looks like it, not a spectacular and fascinating alien landscape. Can't remember the last time we saw one of them when it wasn't for one scene or part of a hologram or illusion. It's revealed at the end that we're on a holodeck prison "decked out" (if you'll pardon the pun) to look like a cheesy hotel and stuck on that setting. How convenient!
Anyway the Doctor, Amy and Rory run into two stiffs and a mole person in the lobby. There's a further stiff tied up in the dining room. If this is, as we later learn, a space-faring prison which abducts residents from various planets, why do we have to have so many humans and only one alien who looks basically like a bald, pointy-eared human with a snub nose and rat teeth? He's even wearing human clothes. My god this show is unimaginative sometimes. We have Rita, the oh-so-clever token minority medical student who the Doctor immediately takes a shine to because of how "clever" she is, which in New Who terms means is kind of smug and annoying. Notice how the "clever" ie smug and annoying men, for instance Luke Rattigan in the Sontaran two-parter, are always seen as incredibly duff by the Doctor, but the women are always "brilliant". Yet we're expected to believe that he's not just some intergalactic player who zooms around picking up chicks? Of course our young male is Howie the conspiracy theorist girl-fearing blogger nutjob, which is to say Steven Moffat's mental image of every Doctor Who fan. Resident mole person du jour is Gibbis in a rather generic piece of casting with David Walliams being given his two normal roles of providing mild-to-negligible comic relief and making you feel slightly uncomfortable, often at the same time. Frankly I think he could have been used in a less typecast fashion.
Anyway they find out that something in the hotel is making everyone go snooker-loopy and start praising a Minotaur who is ambling around the corridors. Initial loopy unwilling hotel guest
à la carte is gambler Joe, yet another human tied up in a chair and surrounded by ventriloquist dummies. Now ventriloquist dummies, especially the "old-fashioned scary ones" as Big Train  famously described them, are indeed an unsettling sight, but if everyone had their own room, how come Joe's tied up in a dining room full of ventriloquist dummies, rather than there just being a bedroom with one sitting there? Where'd they come from? This never happens to anyone else. All other fears are contained in the applicable room. After Howie starts praising the Minotaur in the dining room we don't see it fill up with skanky chav girls mocking his stutter. Maybe Joe's room was the dining room? Doesn't seem very likely though, does it? Everyone else has a bedroom. It's just a weird inconsistency where they, as usual, prioritized spectacle over consistency. Ah, New Who. I hope that if I rub your nose in your own poo often enough one day you'll learn to do it outside.
So Howie, Rita and Gibbis get spooked by their respective rooms and Gambler Joe is killed by the Minotaur. His organs have apparently just stopped working and to the Doctor it's as if all these emotions have been sucked out of him. I'm fairly sure "loves" are mentioned, as are "faiths and fears", which become important to the plot. Yet of course our emotions are our life. Suck out someone's "faith", in this case, and they're dead. I'm fairly sure emotion is described as an energy at some point. It's all this sort of awkward "soul" type depiction of sentient existence which seemed a little implicit in last episode's angle as well - somehow your mind or thoughts or consciousness have some kind of life of their own distinct from their body. I guess that all seems very nice in some ways but it sounds rather na
ïve and wishy-washy to me. The term "magical thinking" is once again peeking out from under the dresser.
Wow. Can you believe I actually liked this episode?
Well on a more positive note I can say that the magical thinking which normally comes across as just lazy or frivolous writing is actually related to this episode's concept of faith, really - the idea that your thoughts can somehow impose upon reality, or at least your perception of it. The Minotaur feeds on faith, yet faith is also what keeps Rita and Amy going; it can be both a strength and a weakness. Cowardice is characterised as an ultimately aggressive action, and Gibbis is a survivor where the others are lost. Things are certainly ambiguous. Rory, curiously, has no faith. He just keeps being shown the exit. It's a nice bit of character development which, coupled with the past tense usage the Doctor points out, shows that he has become a good deal more self-reliant and secure.
Of course the Minotaur is an unwilling villain and the Doctor must break the cycle of faith in order to deny it its food source and thus euthanise it. The scene where he convinces Amy of his selfishness and vanity in taking her as a companion is well written and excellently performed by Matt Smith. Of course this also rather neatly reveals why he might be more interested in people like Rita, who are good for his ego. It's very reminiscent, of course, of the Seventh Doctor making Ace lose faith in him in "The Curse of Fenric" but here it's a good deal more difficult to tell whether or not he's lying. This is what makes it more effective than Moffat having River preachily tell us that the Doctor's gone wrong or something. It's ambiguous but the effect is the same; to save his companions the Doctor is forced to admit his faults and realise his mistakes. Rita tells him that he has a "god complex" - he thinks of himself as the only one who can save the day, but in this instance the only reason he can save anyone is by shattering Amy's faith in him, which is to say denying his own position of "godhood" or role as an object of faith. It's very elegantly crafted and portrayed in the end and of course it can only conclude with Amy and Rory's departure from the TARDIS team.
I suppose it may seem corny to some that the Doctor gives Amy and Rory a house and a nice car but since he's come to this realisation it's better than just ditching them the way it normally happens. It's a shame to see them go but simultaneously it's a much better way of having them leave than the fake-out "deaths" and forcible departures we've had in the not-so-distant past. I suppose this is a unique situation, at least for the New Series, in that despite the Doctor's absence Amy and Rory still have each other, which is something bigged up a lot, especially from the previous episode. When was the last time that happened? Ian and Barbara? Maybe Ben and Polly? At least these two are married. It makes more sense for them to leave this way.
It was also nice to see the Nimon referenced in regard to the Minotaur considering the relative similarity of both their appearance and their modus operandi. I don't see why it couldn't have just been a Nimon flat-out but there you go. There was some good humour in this episode and while it was at times a little bland in terms of setting or characterisation for the non-regulars it did its job well. I'm certainly getting the impression that they were saving an awful lot of money for the finale though. The departure of our companions was touching but it would have been more poignant without Murray Gold lathering on the tear-jerking female choral music with a bulldozer. Nonetheless it was a relatively strong point of the series and has again depicted how much better these stand-alones are than the arc. So far with the exception of the first part this half of the series has come across as a good deal stronger than the first. Let's just hope that after all this deconstruction we aren't left with nothing to rebuild.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"The Girl Who Waited"

A different showrunner and actors can go a long way. In this episode Tom MacRae, who previously only had the dreary Series 2 Cybusmen two-parter to his name, writes for us an episode which, while somewhat over-sentimental and wishy-washy plot-wise at times much like last week's offering, nonetheless is an enjoyable and moving piece of drama.
The Doctor and the Ponds arrive on the planet of Apalapucia - nice name, I guess. However it turns out that the entire planet is under quarantine due to an outbreak of Chen-7, a disease which conveniently only afflicts species with two hearts, like the natives and Time Lords. As such the Doctor must retire to the TARDIS. However do not fear that this is the feared "Doctor Lite" episode of RTD era fame because despite being stuck in the TARDIS watching everything on screens the Doctor has a constant presence and important role in the story and is far from being a bookend character. Nonetheless the focus of the plot is the situation with Amy and Rory.
Amy rather arbitrarily pushes the wrong button on this door in the endless white void in which all the rooms of this Kindness Facility seem to exist and ends up in a "faster time stream". Apparently this is so that in the 24 hours an infectee of the Chen-7 virus has to live they can actually live out an entire lifetime. I'm not sure how this works. Amy doesn't get hungry over a week in the Red Waterfall stream, which is a few minutes for the Doctor and Rory in the Green Anchor stream, but over the next period of time she is stuck in the time stream for 36 years and grows old. If she doesn't get hungry, how does she age? Even if she got hungry later, how does "compressed time" let you live out a natural life in 24 hours? Surely from the Doctor and Rory's perspective everything in the Red Waterfall stream as visible through the time glass would simply be moving incredibly slowly. Does it slow down your metabolism, explaining why Amy doesn't get hungry and why the viral progress is slowed, but not slow down the speed at which your brain works? I'm really unclear on how it functions. Unfortunately I believe it suffers from a good deal of the magic thinking which afflicts the New Series and which has practically become my catch-cry for the plots. How does your mind function in normal time if you don't get hungry? How do you age? Ageing, brain function, processing food and contracting a virus are all cellular electrochemical processes in some form or another - how does this time stream divide slow the last two but allow the former to happen at a normal rate? It's something which is obviously implicit in the concept but is never specified in the dialogue. All we hear is "compressed time" which is hardly adequate as an explanation.
What's more is that this is considered a kindness, but how does that work? Is it really kinder to thrust a victim into a world where they are alive but completely alone for, to their perspective, many years, while their family and friends pop in to see them age and wither away on their own? The time streams are all layered over each other - not every infectee is in together but each in their own stream so they don't even have company. I think it's hard to say either way but it's fairly ambiguous. I'm not sure either option is particularly preferable.
Anyway Amy gets stuck in this faster time stream so in the time it takes Rory and the Doctor to bust through into that time stream in the TARDIS Amy ages 36 years and turns into a jaded wreck, as you would if you were stuck on your own for nearly four decades in an unfamiliar environment. Somehow in the meantime she becomes a genius and invents devices, hacks computers, reprograms robots and so on. I guess she read up on how to do it or got the Interface computer to help her? It's not really clear. Unfortunately a problem with this episode is that a lot of the fine details and explanations are extremely secondary to the exploration of Amy and Rory's relationship and are given such low priority that they are glossed over and handwaved at a moment's notice through some brief technobabble from the Doctor or with no explanation whatsoever. Nonetheless we do have a nice sci-fi concept: the application of time dilation to palliative care and time dilation in general and how this would effect people. Amy perhaps understandably feels abandoned and hates the Doctor, and it takes a confrontation with her past self to rectify this situation, relying on reminiscence about what a wonderful chap Rory is and how old Amy should probably let them save her young self. It's interesting that she refuses for so long, but if you thought your life was hell as Amy put it and every moment had been a misery why did she refuse to let them save her in the past and erase this horrid existence? Is it to punish the Doctor for being reckless about where he takes people and inaccurate and irresponsible with his saving? I suppose being erased from existence wouldn't be too different to dying and would be unpleasant after surviving and waiting for so long.
Either way it's an interesting dilemma - does Rory effectively euthanise this old, long-suffering version of his wife who's clearly just as much Amy as the person he arrived with, or does he rewrite time to spare Amy the suffering and maintain a normal sequence of events with his younger (and prettier) version of Amy who is only a week or so out of sequence? Of course it's not a choice he's willing to make and it's interesting to see how much Rory resents the Doctor for forcing him into this situation. We see a lot of the dark side of the Doctor in this episode and it's done quite effectively. The scene where he traps the older Amy outside the TARDIS to save the younger relationship is a rather unpleasant inversion of what happened when the First Doctor trapped Susan outside the TARDIS to force her to have the life she deserved rather than the life she felt obliged to maintain. In this one he reinforces the notion that the older Amy should be erased for the sake of the younger, to again have the life she deserved but at the price of another life for the sake of covering up his own mistake and he then foists the decision upon Rory. Of course the only way to solve this is to get old Amy to change her mind and sacrifice herself and it's a deeply unsettling scenario. I particularly liked the moment when, in an effort to convince Rory to abandon the older Amy, the Doctor dismissively but painfully claims "she's not real", a dubious suggestion at best and one which you've got the feeling is a very convenient salve for the conscience in these kinds of circumstances.
That being said I feel like the ending was too drawn out. First we have an absurd effort to bring young Amy up to Rory's time involving a "thought that will break through the barrier" or something. Again, magic thinking rears its ugly head - if you want something hard enough, it will happen. Unless someone throws the word "psychic power" in there I'm not even starting to buy it. Rory has to do some technobabble mechanics with a very convenient and arbitrary time control device thingie in the corridor. Speaking of this corridor it's nice to see the Milennium Building in Roald Dahl Plass in Cardiff being used again for a sci-fi looking locale. The endless white voids and the CGI Governor's garden are a good deal more effective. Why would there be this big corridor with counters (which are obviously ticket booths) if each stream of the facility was for one patient? A lot of the time also Amy conveniently jumps somewhere and is suddenly in a different area - the garden, a corridor, underneath somewhere in Portal-style gas tunnels - and the sense of location is rather unsteady, although perhaps this was intentional.
Anyway after they rush back to the TARDIS there's a long drawn-out lamentation of Rory talking to old Amy and while this was understandable I felt that it went for too long. While the anticipation of what was going to happen kept me going the first time I saw the episode upon rewatch I found that it dragged heavily at times. The plot can be devastatingly brief - Amy gets trapped in fast timestream, Rory busts in and finds her old, they agree to rescue young Amy, they go back to the TARDIS and old Amy sacrifices herself. A lot of the rest is just padding and while I don't mind a good wordy episode I feel like it could have been integrated with a bit more plot. I know the word "arbitrary" is another of my catchphrases but there's no other way to describe the handbots, who are the most pointless antagonists imaginable even if they do satirise the notion of medical "kindness" a little bit and the idea that they'd try to eradicate essential human bacteria is a nice touch. Nonetheless that whole "statement rejected" thing was stupid. It was as if despite the fact that they were meant to help people they were ignoring them just to be dicks.
Where'd old Amy get the sword from? Who knows.
That being said I think the performances were all good, especially from Arthur Darvill as Rory, although Matt Smith was extremely watchable as well and for a character confined to the TARDIS his presence in the episode was nonetheless exuberant. Old Amy was a good chance for Karen Gillan to flex her chops too. Considering the limited cast everything went swimmingly and it proved my regular complaint of this series regarding how underused Amy and Rory have been considering how strong they are as characters.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"Night Terrors"

Mark Gatiss once again proves how underused he is in this solid if unmemorable episode. The arc is thankfully on hold again so we get a stand-alone adventure to a Council Estate in London when the Doctor receives a psychic paper message from a frightened child. Frankly I think they could have just turned up; it certainly would have made Rory's comment about how they could have got a bus there more effective but then again it would have denied them the "house call" gag. The fact that George, our Moffat-style annoying child of the day, can somehow send a psychic message to the Doctor is nice enough for the sake of some poetic musings about the universe from the Doctor but is hardly essential to the plot, only to suggest there is something psychically powerful present, which turns out to be George himself. This was at least an interesting twist; I've seen people describe this episode as "Fear Her" done well which is not entirely justified in that it's a good deal different in numerous respects but I can see the point and it certainly is better. One thing which is excellent in this episode is Richard Clark's direction, which maintains a strong sense of otherworldliness and alienation despite the fact that we're not getting the "planets and history" which are always the most interesting settings. Indeed it's a rather striking contrast to RTD's fondness for depicting Council Estate territory as the kind of bread and butter, heart and soul, grass roots type British setting to appeal condescendingly to the everyman. The Doctor calls a child's bedroom "the scariest place in the universe", which is a nice enough line, but in terms of scary places I'd say a London Council Estate has got to be up there on the list and I think this episode handles that very nicely. We have a lot of shadows contrasted with pale whites and greens which transform this incredibly mundane setting into something uniquely weird and disturbing and it is this direction which takes a decent but perhaps slightly too hand-wavey story and turns it into something unique.
This is also a properly Doctor-focused episode after last week's River Song-fest and it's nice to see our protagonist back in action. Nonetheless I think the companion situation is still mishandled. Sure, Amy and Rory are together and they work well that way but it seems that writers are struggling to get them to engage with the Doctor, with the end result being that they end up wandering around the giant dollhouse together and George's father Alex ends up as the Doctor's standby question-asker for the episode. It fits and makes sense but it doesn't change the fact that the scenes of Rory and Amy just ambling around don't really do much. This is nicely lampshaded by Rory, however, suggesting that they're "dead again" or that something has gone wrong with the TARDIS.
Another thing I might mention are the creepy dolls. These wander around the dollhouse and transform people into more of them. However it's never really explained why they do this or how it happens. Presumably the original dolls were among the scary things George's parents put in the cupboard but what difference does that make? It perhaps should have been mentioned when Alex was telling the Doctor about George's fears, thinking the lift noise was breathing and that the old lady was a witch, that he thought some dolls were moving around unobserved or something. This conversation has an excellent moment when the Doctor mutters "understandable" in regards to George's fear of clowns. Maybe clowns could have been the creepy monster wandering around the house. Then again I believe there is some kind of sad clown present in a future episode judging by the trailers. The shot of Mrs Rossiter being sucked into the bins manages to be more unpleasant than humorous but I think Purcell sinking into the floor looked a little cheap and easy. It's not really clear how all these things happen; we get the impression that George, as a "Tenza", has immense psychic powers, but why are they coming to the fore in this particular moment?
Similarly while the ending is all very touching it seems to prioritise sentiment over credibility. It's all terribly convenient that Alex's acceptance of his son sets everything right and it makes the whole scenario feel like it was just an excuse to have a bunch of thrills followed by a snappy resolution at the end. The plot seems very insubstantial in this light. I notice that the New Series likes to use psychic power as a sort of catch-all magic omnipotence which can effectively substitute for believability or a strong sense of narrative and it's particularly notable here. It's one of the things which makes this episode come across as lacking and kind of transparent. It has a nice setting and the character action is good but the plot is too simplistic and too easily explained and resolved.
Nonetheless there are strong moments, direction aside. Alex's realisation that his wife can't have children yet his son is sitting right there is a powerful moment, as is the Doctor's immediate realisation that they're in a dollhouse after Amy and Rory have been wandering around for twenty minutes. What I would complain about is that despite being relatively understated musically, Murray Gold feels the need to provide little "Carry On" style musical trills after the jokes and during the light moments which come across as stupid and patronizing, and the humour is always more effective when they're not present. Our main cast are as strong as ever but as usual Amy and Rory aren't given enough to do.
Nonetheless I enjoyed "Night Terrors", and I think as a stand alone episode it was a refreshing offering even if it was a little simplistic in some respects. Gatiss is a good writer; he just needs to be given better opportunities than these one off filler episodes. I think he would excel with a two-parter because his dialogue is quite punchy and you never get bored even if what you're watching isn't too strong. This one also proves that stand alones are obviously the strength of the show because it was such a relief to see just the Doctor doing his thing. It's never going to be one of the highlights of this series but it's certainly worthwhile for the direction and probably does a decent job with a tricky idea.