Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"The Snowmen"

Stick your finger in there. You know you want to.
Snowflakes with gnashing teeth. Oh dear. I'm honestly not sure if I can get through the rest of Series 7; sometimes I feel like I'm about to crack, and only the thought of watching certain episodes again that I didn't absolutely despise upon first viewing (and one which I definitely did) is keeping me going. It's Christmas, and with the slow but unalterable inevitability of the changing of the seasons we're back in Victorian Britain. Let me repeat that: Victorian Britain AGAIN. It's time for a count. Doctor Who (1963-89, godspeed) visited Victorian Britain on the following occasions: "The Evil of the Daleks", "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", "The Mark of the Rani" and "Ghost Light". Four times in twenty-six seasons. How many times has New Who visited Victorian Britain? "The Unquiet Dead", "Tooth and Claw", "The Next Doctor" and now "The Snowmen". I'll ignore early twentieth century "Human Nature" and "The Family of Blood" in exchange for similarly ignoring "Horror of Fang Rock". In terms of sheer story count, that's just under 2.6% of Classic Series stories taking place in Victorian Britain but just under 5% of New Who stories set in this period. If we go by time, however, Doctor Who had a story set in Victorian Britain every 6.5 years, while New Who recycles the setting every 2 years. Now New Who has more stories per year, but that should just encourage them to be more imaginative, not less. If we adjust our calculations to account for the fact that of all the Classic Series stories, two are considered good ("Evil" and "Talons") one is generally disliked ("Rani") and one is hated ("Light"), however unjustly, compared to New Who, where all four stories are basically arse, with the possible exception to a minute degree of "The Unquiet Dead", where does that leave us? It leaves us watching a repetitive Steven Moffat New Who Christmas special. Why does this show have Christmas specials again? At what point was Doctor Who ever an early Nineties sitcom? But audiences lap this crap up, and Moff, like his forebear RTD, know that the sheep need to get their cud.
"Well some of us can't afford to just do a voice role..."
So there's some little kid making a snowman while all the other little kids have fun. "He never talks to anyone," his mother complains. "He's so alone. It's not right." Christ on a bike! It's one of the first lines in the damn episode and Moff's already telling rather than showing! Turns out the snowman can talk, voiced by Ian McKellen no less, whose distinctive tones and massive thespian and Hollywood cred have been employed so he can say things like "Silly," in a childish voice. What was Moffat thinking? So the little kid grows up into Richard E. Grant of "Scream of the Shalka" fame, the man who would be the voice of the Ninth Doctor if RTD hadn't brought the show back. Ian McKellen's voice is now inside a glass bauble, getting to talk about its diabolical plans for world domination and so on. Forget mystery, let's see the baddie now! REG (Richard E. Grant) hushes up the workmen who've been building... something for him by getting some evil snowmen to eat them... somehow. Snowmen can eat people, apparently; I imagine Moff figures out his scripts by doing a Google image search for 'Christmas' and seeing what comes up.
"And a ham and cheese sandwich, please luv."
Look everyone, it's Jenna-Louise Coleman of "Asylum of the Daleks" fame! But now she's a sassy barmaid who notices Snowmen and grumpy Time Lords. The Doctor's in his worst costume ever, looking like Scrooge's humbuggeryer stepbrother and going into full on 'Tennant in the 2008 Christmas Special' mode by insinuating he no longer does the whole 'Doctor Who' thing with companions and the like. So that's pretty stale. It's very stale, in fact. Tavern Wench Clara (whose name I assume we've been told by this point) just ditches her tavern wench duties and follows the Doctor, who has a phone in his Victorian carriage somehow to talk to the Doctor, popping her head through the carriage's sunroof (?) to ask "Doctor who?" Spare me. The whole problem with New Who is its desperate desire to nosedive into absurdity - not the absurdity of 'reverse the polarity of the neutron flow' but the absurdity of 'stupid things happen for no reason'. Cue intro!
Imagine outrageous synth.
Look, it's the Smith's face in the stars. You can take this two ways: on one hand, it's a completely ordinary revival of the tradition dating back to the Troughton era of having the Doctor's face in the intro. On the other hand it specifically references the Doctor's face manifesting in the stars in all of the Eighties intro sequences. If you take it in the spirit of the former there's really no problem. If you take it in the spirit of the latter and you hate Eighties Who (I don't; I just find a fair bit of it rather disappointing) then it'll seem a cheesy throwback. I often feel like saying things won't reference Eighties Who because it's considered the black sheep of the Who decades but Moff's favourite era is Davison as far as I'm aware (it doesn't show) and he's Eighties, although not as Eighties as Colin or McCoy, so I wouldn't put it past him.
"I said good day, sir!"
Cue stately home. Richard E. Grant, or rather his character Dr. Simeon, wants something "growing" in the ice of a frozen pond. Is all this observation of the enemy's machinations really necessary? He gets accosted on the way home: look everyone, it's cross-species lesbian master-servant crime fighting duo Vastra the New-Silurian and Jenny! Dr. Simeon suggested that Sherlock Holmes is based on Vastra even though in 'real life' the "great detective is a woman". Oh my god, sexual politics! Sometimes I think that at Christmas instead of making a special Moff should just come over to my house and brain me with a mallet. Dr. Simeon makes some insinuations which Vastra denies because she and Jenny are "married". Somehow I doubt that two women, one of them not human, would be able to be officially married in the eyes of the law in Victorian Britain. One of the themes of this story, however, is rubbishing oppressive Victorian values so I suppose it fits. Apparently London is being covered by Richard E. Grant's telepathic snow. "Winter is coming," he tells the ladies. Really? Don't get me wrong, A Game of Thrones and everything associated with it can rot in hell for all I care, but did Moff seriously think that was a good dialogue choice? With all the villainous subtlety of Snidely Whiplash REG informs them that his plan can't be stopped, Moff trotting out the most banal, cliché-ridden dialogue he can come up with.
"If ya fight me, guv'na, I'll sue ya for discrimination!"
Anyway, the Doctor's snooping around Richard E. Grant's house. Look, it's Strax the Sontaran! How did he come back to life? Well there were three, yes, three 'minisode' prequels to this story which don't really explain anything, one of which features some horrifically hammy Mark Gatiss narration and two of which mostly exist so that Moff can pointlessly insinuate what we've known since series six: that Vastra and Jenny are a same sex couple. Wow. Go you Moff, promoting gay rights. What a champion. I didn't watch any of them on first viewing, but forced myself to sit through them to fully understand this rewatch (as if it should be necessary). Short review: they sucked arse. Moving on, Moff's fallback position in this episode is to make Strax suggest the unnecessary application of violence, although it goes beyond ridiculous in this episode, one of his weapons being, apparently, "laser monkeys". Really. Laser monkeys. It gets tired very, very quickly. On the other hand Strax informs the Doctor that he is opposed to his current apathy, which is fair enough because in this episode the Doctor spends a lot of time having a mope about how it's "not our problem" and "the universe doesn't care" like he's some teenager who just got rejected as a prom date by the alpha bitch at his American adolescent drama high school. He also calls Strax a "psychotic potato dwarf." What is he, a bloody racist? It's meant to emphasise, hopefully, what a bad place the Doctor is in emotionally, but it makes him look like an absolute twat, which isn't fun or interesting, although Smith playing a much more subdued character is actually something of a relief.
"No Strax, you have to sit at the back of the bus.
And don't even think about trying to use our bathrooms!"
Strax and the Doctor try to erase Clara's memory which involves a lot of arseing about with a 'memory worm' that will wipe an hour of her recollections. This sequence goes on, and on, and on with Strax losing his memory several times. Compare it, even, to the first episode of 2012's Series X of Red Dwarf where Rimmer orders Kryten to wipe his own memory. Cue Kryten shaking a bit, looking around with surprise and walking off. Boom, end of joke, done. Also, Red Dwarf is a sitcom. Doctor Who is not. It's my conviction that the show would be much more palatable if all the characters weren't cracking jokes every five seconds. The evil snowmen reappear and can only be dissolved if Clara imagines them melting, which is kind of like a reverse Stay Puft effect which is pretty much never used again. They only appear if thought about, and seem to stand around doing nothing, possibly New Who's worst ever baddies. Clara convinces the Doctor not to wipe her memory and he follows her back to the TARDIS after an overly-long scene of her jumping up and down and basically doing everything we saw the Doctor do thirty seconds previously involving grabbing an invisible ladder. There's an absolutely atrocious special effect where the ladder just disappears into the blackness about ten feet in the air where it's obviously just been edited in from being held behind a black sheet or something. The ladder leads to a spiral staircase for some reason (not sure why it couldn't have just been a ladder) and we get a reasonably effective shot of Clara climbing over London, but it's needlessly slow. Up the top the TARDIS is sitting on a cloud. Why is it on a cloud, besides pure spectacle? Couldn't the Doctor park it in Vastra's cellar or something? Clara knocks on the door and then 'hilariously' walks around the TARDIS without the Doctor noticing, before running off again. The Doctor gives her dropped shawl a good old sniff because he's a bit pervy that way. What was the point of that? What a waste of time.
"Remember, one word."

We get some god awful mock poetry from the bad guys about the "drowned woman and the dreaming child" before Moff fulfils his 'woman taking her clothes off' quota as Clara gets changed in a cab, although to be fair it's mostly just implied. It turns out that she mostly spends her time as a governess at the stately home REG visited earlier. Why was she moonlighting as a barmaid? It's never explained. She has a brief interview with Captain Latimer the horny old widower before meeting the generic laughing children, Latimer staring out the window at them like a massive creepasaurus. One of the children is called "Digby". Captain Latimer's a dick. So the daughter, Francesca, has been having nightmares about the previous governess, who fell in the pond REG was interested in and it froze over her. How long was she in there for? How did no one notice? How did she drown in this tiny pond? Clara suspects shenanigans are afoot so off she goes to visit Vastra, who has another atrocious 'telling over showing' moment about drinking blood, and demands one word answers to her questions, coming off as a pointlessly difficult bitch. This Vastra-Jenny thing would be a lot more ballsy if Vastra looked like a Classic Silurian as was originally intended back during Series 5's design phase. Jenny could give that a right tonguing.
It's insulting even to elementary students, my dear Moffat.
Clara has a long winded gasbag with Vastra which is totally pointless because we know the Doctor's gone into isolation after losing Amy: it's obvious. Yet it's spelt out for us again. "He prefers isolation to the possibility of pain's return." Clara's one-word response to this is "Man." Good old self-hating Moff. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he gives his todger Chinese burns when he's all alone. The word to get the Doctor into action is "Pond." Good grief, is this going to go all 'Rose references in New Who Series 3' on us? Well fortunately, no it doesn't, but it's still unnecessary. Meanwhile at REG's laboratory Ian McKellen's given some more top-notch dialogue: "Danger. Danger. There is danger here." It sounds like a joke; to reference Red Dwarf again, it reminds me of Holly's "There's an emergency going on." The danger is the Doctor bursting in dressed like a generic Sherlock Holmes while Murray Gold titillates the fangirls' ovaries with a little trill which is almost the theme to Moff and Gatiss' Sherlock. In other hands I might find this amusing, but the fact that Moff is already the writer of a massively successful (overrated) Holmes adaptation just makes him look like a tosser. It turns out that Ian McKellen is 'the Intelligence', the Great Intelligence no less, villain of two Troughton-era serials: "The Abominable Snowmen" and "The Web of Fear". Both of these are lost, conveniently enough for Moff, making it harder for anyone to go back and see if this Great Intelligence is anything like his Classic Series origin. I suspect not. As an aside, I can't help but think REG would make a good Holmes. In fact I can't believe he's never done it.
The Doctor's abseiling advice.
So the Doctor deduces that the Intelligence is a "crystalline organism" which looks like snow but isn't, and is seeking to upgrade the Snowmen by finding "a perfect duplicate of human DNA in ice form." What? 'DNA in ice form'? What is this, Marvel Comics? 'Ice form'. That's really what Moff's gonna go with. The source for this will be the old governess who conveniently drowned in the lake. I don't mind the way the Doctor figures out where to go by seeking the most opened page in REG's notes, but this whole sequence is a little grating. Matt Smith got turned down for the role of Watson in Sherlock because he was, apparently, more of a Holmes. Not here, he isn't, although I realise that's the point. In "Weng-Chiang" it was enough for Old Tom to slap on a deerstalker in reference to the Great Detective. Now we literally have to have the bell boy announcing him as "Sherlock Holmes" and REG spelling out that Holmes is a fictional character from the Strand magazine. It's just unsubtle time wasting nonsense. So off the Doctor goes to the frozen pond where Strax trolls him about dressing up as Holmes, although I don't quite get the joke. The Doctor calls Strax the "potato one" because he's a racist bastard and claims it wasn't due to Clara that he got involved because he doesn't do that just because "some bird smiles at me." Smashing dialogue for the Doctor, there. The best bit in this sequence is when the Smith attempts to wave away Clara, observing from the window, and accidentally signals that he'll be up in five minutes, giving him a bit of actually physical comedy to do rather than constantly waving his arms around. We also get some more of Strax's jokes about killing people in elaborate ways, but enough is really enough.
"Let me finish..."
Upstairs Clara tells the kiddiewinks a bedtime story about the Doctor, which is basically Moff's New Who in a nutshell. Somehow the drowned governess has been turned into or replaced with or used as the basis for an ice woman who bursts in ranting at the kids, who all piss themselves and piss bolt into the other room where the Doctor kills it with his magic wand with the green light on the end. I think the bit where he kisses the Punch puppet is kind of amusing, to be honest, although I feel guilty about it. Richard E. Grant has set up some kind of bullshit snow projector device just outside the walls of the estate for some reason, the Doctor admires his bowtie like it's a superhero cape representing his return to form, and an unnecessary cavalcade of backup characters arrive: Vastra, Jenny and Strax. "I'm a lizard woman from the dawn of time and this is my wife," announces Vastra to the maid. What was the point of that line? The maid freaks out at all the weirdness because we must have as much comedy as possible and now the Doctor's got all his plums here to stand around doing nothing so that the Beeb can sell more action figures. The Doctor reveals that the ice governess is the "ultimate fusion of snow and humanity." That clears that up, then. Clara kisses the Doctor for absolutely no reason because the leading lady has to kiss the main man now. It's funny to think that concepts like the Doctor kissing his companion and characters being killed and then resurrected in really contrived ways have their origins in the TV Movie, which is something that your average, cliché Who fan conformist is expected to hate, along with Adric, the Sixth Doctor's coat, Mel and the like. The hypocrisy of the New Series is odd sometimes.
Batteries not included.
So the Doctor and Clara pop onto the roof, the ice lady dissolving through the window behind them so that no one has to animate her climbing the windowsill, and they head up to the TARDIS, which has a new console, kind of evocative of the old days but far too dark and gloomy for my tastes, kind of like the lighting of the McGann console room with none of the warmth and charm. "It's smaller on the outisde!" remarks Clara, spunky as can be. Doh hoh hoh, another glass of sherry, Moff? "The Curse of Fatal Death" should definitely be canon, I agree. Anyway, Clara's shattered all of the Doctor's defences with her charming personality and button nose and he's already giving her a TARDIS key; he moves fast these days. If I'm going to be perfectly honest the whole process of Clara getting the Doctor out of his shell is handled reasonably well, but I don't see what makes her any different - especially once she gets hauled out of the TARDIS to her death by the ice lady. The plot of this episode has been completely flushed to oblivion by this stage. What happened to Simeon and the Great Intelligence's dastardly plan? We've seen some Snowmen around the house, but that's about it; all the rest of the episode has just been pointless stuffing around.
They did the mash!
Clara gets temporarily resurrected so that the Doctor can get his character motivation to thwart Richard E. Grant, who wants the bits of the ice lady, which the Doctor recovered from Clara's irreconcilable corpse. How was making more ice people going to help take over the world? I guess they were going to be soldiers. Can't you shoot them? No one ever seems to really try. This recap's getting more and more rushed but actually these parts of the episode are torturously drawn out and I'm glossing over the numerous long, overwritten 'please experience an emotion now' sequences of dialogue. The Doctor and Vastra take the TARDIS to REG's lab, the Doctor waves the ice bits around in a London Underground lunchbox which apparently sets up "The Web of Fear", although I believe other parts of the Great Intelligence's backstory in this are completely contradicted in "The Abominable Snowmen", and he strips away the Intelligence's voice to reveal it's just little kid Richard E. Grant because it reflects all of his negativity. It's a parasite, "Carnivorous snow meets Victorian values," sneers the Doctor, judging from his massive high horse. What a tool. So the Great Intelligence grew from the personality of kid Richard E. Grant, who opens the lunch box to get the ice bits. Fooled ya, it was the memory worm! His mind is erased, the Doctor hoping the loss of input will kill the Intelligence, but it's independent now and takes control, turning Richard E. Grant into Winter Zombie Richard E. Grant™ now with magical cold freezing Matt Smith's face powers somehow. 'Somehow' is basically the explanation for most of this episode.
Hurr durr.
Back at the house Clara starts to croak again, and Captain Latimer and his kids have a big cry. The Great Intelligence turns to tears and it starts raining salty eyeball liquid. The large concentration of alien snow at the Latimer household has fed back to the Intelligence; apparently the only thing that could kill the snow is "a whole family crying at Christmas Eve." For god's sake, Moff. This must be a new low for him in cheap, cop-out resolutions. Why is it fine for Ian McKellen to be a bunch of snowflakes in a jar but not tears in a jar? Well apparently it's no good because he's out of action while the Doctor pops off back to Latimer HQ where Clara finally kicks the bucket for good. It's a death scene for a new recurring companion, because we all known Jenna-Louise Coleman is playing Clara in Series 7 Part 2, and it reeks of Amy and Rory's innumerable fake-out deaths. We know the character is coming back, more or less, so it has about as much impact as the tone and style of the Classic Series ever had on New Who. Apparently Victorian Clara was originally meant to be the companion, and it was only when it actually came to writing "Abysmal of the Daleks" that Moff seized upon the idea of multiple Claras. Personally I think if that was the case he should have killed off a different alternate Clara, because snuffing this one just makes it look like he lacked the balls to have a companion who wasn't from the magical kingdom of Earth in the Present Day.
'Here lies David Tennant's career.'
Bells ring. "It's Christmas... Christmas Day." Thanks, Jenny. I hadn't figured that out yet. They bury Clara, who is Clara Oswin Oswald like the character we've seen before, the Doctor vows to go find another of her to discern the truth and we're done. We get to see both past Clara and future Clara say "Run you clever boy, and remember." We just saw Victorian Clara say that. I think if you enjoy this it basically means you enjoy Moffat treating you like an idiot. So what was that all about? We get some almost barely decent character stuff for the Doctor, loads of unnecessary supporting cast, two completely wasted performances for the villains and a plot which disappears up its own arse and refuses to come down again about halfway through. It feels like sixty minutes of, basically, nothing. I can't even justify it as good Christmas viewing, because it's not. Maybe it's moving if you're easily manipulated, but apart from getting the Doctor out of his rut I honestly don't see the point of it. Maybe if it actually had a story, it'd be good, but it doesn't, and the only reason the absolutely pathetic resolution cop-out isn't completely infuriating is because the narrative dissolves about halfway through anyway into nothingness. It's like the plastic frog toy inside the cheap discount crackers while the rich kids down the street have fancy department store crackers with copies of "The Time Meddler" and "Tomb of the Cybermen" inside. This is not good storytelling. It's not good television. If Christmas is an already ambiguous tradition which has been totally bastardised by corporate interest, nothing embodies it better than a New Who Christmas Special. You can take someone's bare arse and dress it up in a Father Christmas hat and beard, but at the end of the day it's still going to fart in your face.

Monday, May 27, 2013

"The Angels Take Manhattan"

Your love is lifting me higher than
I've ever been lifted before.
Yet another unnecessary voiceover drags us kicking and screaming into the much-delayed and unnecessarily dramatic sendoff for Amy and Rory and hopefully also for the desperately overused Weeping Angels, which I greatly desire to never see in the show again. Moff trots out the paradox bonanza he's been making seem less and less special since "Blink" to give us a typical fatalistic melodrama that uses arbitrary and selective determinism as a kind of all purpose emotional bollocks missile which will inevitably hit its target. The cold open is an utterly pointless detective story to show a man investigating the Angels finding himself in a bed in a creepy old building. "I'm you!" the old man tells him after he's found the identical wallet and papers on the dresser. Really? We get lots of Brits doing poor attempts at American accents and the fear established of "living statues that moved in the dark." Angels, then? We know what they are, and they've completely lost all menace. We know how they act and what they do. With them returned to their "Blink" style MO of sending people back in time we can predict that the gumshoe will find his older self in the bed after seeing the bizarre image of people staring out the windows presumably to halt the Angels, including a little girl needing to put her hands over her eyes to not look, apparently. Yep, you need to look at Angels to stop them moving! We know this, and this whole set up sequence, finishing on the ridiculously hyperbolic image of the Statue of Liberty Angel only serves to give the game away for the rest of the plot we haven't seen. It's totally unnecessary time wasting that doesn't even really serve to set the mood in any meaningful way.
"'The Hand of Fear'? Never heard of it."
Amy has glasses now to reinforce to us that she's old apparently and the Doctor tears a page out of a book complaining that he hates endings so that we can receive foreshadowing with a spade to the face. The feeling that they've spent a long time on and off with the Doctor is just as artificial as it was in "The Power of Three", if not moreso because despite Amy allegedly having crow's feet Karen Gillan more or less looks as young and fanciable as ever. They love telling. Showing is for twats. Rory goes to get coffee and is sent back in time by the Angels. I think it's kind of confronting that the Angels could strike at any time without you knowing but I think it's an appallingly predictable cop-out that Rory is separated from Amy and the Doctor so early in the piece. He's menaced by some giggling baby Angels who aren't very scary, we get a laboured "yowza" gag from the Doctor and we discover who the author of the god-awful prose in this novel which is predicting everything happening is: none other than the now incredibly unappreciated River Song, who's another gumshoe in the past. The Doctor tries to go back in time to save Roryyy but the TARDIS shits itself due to "time distortions" in New York in 1938. What? Since when? Apparently it's okay for River to time travel there though because she has a vortex manipulator. It's okay for a vortex manipulator, a piece of hokey bollocks from the fifty-first century, but not for a hyper-advanced Time Lord device. Why is the vortex manipulator always presented as being better than the TARDIS? Even when Tennant criticised it back in "Utopia" he looked like a right knob when it ended up being far more snappy and reliable.
"If lost please return to..."
The Doctor refuses to let Amy keep reading the book because apparently anything you read becomes the show's magic-thinking catch-all 'fixed point in time'. Seriously? So in case reading about Rory's death becomes inevitable due to being proposed in what could be partially fiction they go back in time to ancient China to put a message on a vase so that the TARDIS can 'lock on' to 1938 or some similar bollocks. It's ripped straight from "City of Death" and exists purely for a cheap gag where 'Yowza' appears on some antique pottery. God almighty this is awful. Rory gets chucked in a dungeon where he's menaced by some baby Angels in a boring and not scary sequence of him having to burn matches over and over in a drawn out way before Amy and the Doctor arrive. The Doctor preens himself to meet River, which establishes part of the episode's character exploration, particularly River and the Doctor's marriage from last year. I simply don't buy it. The whole 'marriage' thing is once again telling rather than showing; the Doctor got married to River last series for absolutely no necessary narrative reason just so that Moff can be the guy who caused the Doctor to get married onscreen, and absolutely nothing of their relationship is shown afterwards so we have absolutely no genuine idea of their relationship, which is always in flux and only inconsistently observed. The fact that we're expected to care is one of the Moff era's most unjustified leaps of faith and the fact that the Squee brigade as observed on Facebook, Youtube and the like actually does care causes me nauseating astonishment.
Your face and my ass.
While Amy looks for her reduced-to-a-plot-device husband the Doctor and River have a chin wag where River reveals she was released from prison because no record of the Doctor exists, putting an even bigger question mark over how or why she was imprisoned at the end of Series 6 in the first place, something Moff never bothered to explain. It only exacerbates how badly the arc was handled last series, which I never understood given how neatly most things were wrapped up in Series 5. Then he reads ahead and sees that the final chapter of the book is the inelegantly titled "Amelia's Last Farewell". As such he has a rant because apparently what he reads in a book can't be changed. Rory's still missing because he's been moved in space but not time - the Angels can do that apparently - and he goes into the 'Winter Quay' building from the cold open for no reason without bothering to try to find Amy or the Doctor. River breaks her wrist to escape from the Angel that was grabbing her - apparently cutting off its hand or waving the sonic screwdriver around was no good - and she has a big angst-laden chat with the Doctor. We get some absolutely god-awful screen punchingly atrocious dialogue about how hard it is "when one's in love with an ageless god" and how much the nature of their relationship, never detailed on screen, hurts. How can we care when we never see it? Or are we supposed to go back and rewatch all the River episodes after the Series 6 finale to make notes? It's just weak storytelling. One again we're told rather than shown, and in an appalling 'get out of jail free card' moment the Doctor uses some of his 'regeneration energy' to heal River's wrist. Unless this is payed off for in the Eleventh Doctor's regeneration, which I seriously doubt, this is unimaginably weak writing, but River gets into a huff anyway for reasons unexplained, trying to hide everything from the Doctor like he's some kind of monster. There's dreadful forced angst outside as she tells Amy to avoid letting him see her cry or age because he doesn't like endings - then why are they married? Why did they get married? None of it makes any sense. It's all just shoved in our face like we're expected to understand and cry with no motivation.
"Help me, I'm covered in latex and I can't move my mouth."
So through some energy scan rubbish they figure out where Rory is - at 'Winter Quay' from the cold open - and they piss off to go find him. Rory's just got to the top of the lift - that took a long time - while Amy, River and the Doctor burst in to find him inside one of the rooms with virtually no delay. What was the point of separating them? In the room is a bed-ridden figure: Arthur Darvill in some atrociously fake-looking old man makeup. Apparently everyone is trapped in the rooms and repeatedly sent back in time by the Angels to provide them with 'time energy' until they age to death. Amy incredulously questions how this whole operation works, but it's dismissed. The Angels have a hotel farm thing with little nametags for all the rooms and are capable of keeping all the inhabitants alive indefinitely 'just because'. The Doctor claims that New York is the perfect place because it's "the city that never sleeps". Wouldn't that make it harder for the Angels to feed, if there were so many awake, aware people around about? He goes into a depressingly fatalistic and deterministic mode, arguing that Rory must die in the room because "it's already happened." As usual, Rory is victimised not only out of sheer lethargy and cowardice regarding writing and developing him properly as a character but as an extension of Moff's own self-hatred and defeatism. Rory refuses, hastening to the rooftop where the Liberty Angel reappears like Ghostbusters 2  gone wrong. And not 'more wrong', mind you. I'd rather rewatch Ghostbusters 2 than sit through this garbage again. Apparently a paradox will kill the Angels... somehow, because it "poisons the well" of time energy from which they feed. I'm not even going to bother. We're expected to nod our heads and accept that a paradox will kill all the Angels and destroy Winter Quay and that will be that. Rory decides the only way to definitely create a paradox is to off himself, so he climbs the ledge, and Amy at first isn't having any of it. Rory argues that he'll just come back to life after the paradox, claiming "When don't I?" Moff's taking the outright piss, lampshading the totally unfulfilled and utterly ridiculous motif of Rory regularly dying in Series 5 and 6 to try to make a narrative point which only emphasises his own lack of earlier self-awareness. "Fair enough," realises Amy and decides to off herself too so they'll be together, which I actually appreciated because fortunately this episode does a good job of conclusively presenting the outcome of Amy's "Choice" of Series 5 fame.
I like bouncing, boing, boing, boing.
The bit where they fall off the building is absolutely horrendous, however, with RTD-esque 'ooh ooh ooh' wailing female vocals warbling pointlessly in the background. Everything disappears with a lot of crackling electricity and bam, we're back. How the hell did that work? No explanation. Rory, however, goes back to look at a gravestone with his name on it like an absolute plum duff and gets thrown back into the past again by the last angel. That's it. No more Rory. Thanks for your contribution to the show, Arthur Darvill. The show's first full time male companion and that's all he gets. No goodbye with the Doctor to allow them to show any real emotional connection between these two characters, no sense of closure, just some cheap effects and that's it. Amy, to Moff's writing credit, immediately elects to get sent back with him. What really ground my gears with this scene is the Doctor's appalling immaturity, complaining to Amy that if she goes back she'll never be able to see him again, totally ignorant of Rory and what just happened. River, appropriately, encourages her to go, while the Doctor gets to rant and fume and look like an absolute selfish tit, and while it's in tune with the story's theme of the Doctor not liking endings and having to justify them, it doesn't half make the Doctor look like a right bastard in a way that totally diminishes any sense of heroism or moral justice on the part of the character. He comes across in most of this story, in fact, as a whining baby who throws tantrums when he doesn't get what he wants, and it's tedious, cynical and depressing. I know the story's not meant to have a 'happy ending', but the Doctor's character doesn't have to be a casualty of that.
"Did you hear? They're replacing you two with a young,
attractive woman! Imagine that!"
Suddenly the grave bears Amy's name too, and now the past can't be changed - because it's written on a gravestone that could have been mistaken or faked? And how is the presence of a name in any way more meaningful than its absence? The Doctor, the ultimate scientist, is reduced to a blubbing occultist who's confounded because he's gone beyond the point from which magic thinking can rescue the characters. Amy and Rory are trapped forever, apparently, because if he goes back again it will destroy New York, the city in 1938 having too many of these 'temporal distortions' we're suddenly hearing so much about. How inconvenient! Apparently the gravestone precludes them from, say, waiting a year or going over to New Jersey. It's one of the most utterly, ridiculously contrived reasons for writing out a companion I've ever seen. I think it'd be perfect if in his frustration the Doctor had nutted the Angel and given himself a concussion. River says she's leaving because there should only be "one psychopath per TARDIS", as if either of the characters are really like that, and the Doctor runs off in completely unnecessary slow motion (short running time?) to collect the last page of the book to find out what happened. It's a message from Amy saying they lived well, blah blah blah, go see my young self. Wouldn't this create a paradox too? It's not clear if it actually happened or not, and once the concluding pointless voiceover is done (to death) we end on a cheesy as hell 'fade to sepia' (intended to homage Sarah Jane's departure, allegedly) of Caitlin Blackwood as young Amelia sitting in the garden from the good old days when New Who temporarily didn't suck.
Stan Laurel returns.
I remember a time when seeing Moffat's name in the writing credit for a New Who episode would be a source of good cheer; those times are long gone when now it is a herald of dread. "The Angels Take Manhattan" may not be Moffat's absolute worst script since taking over as showrunner - "Let's Kill Hitler", "The Wedding of River Song" or "The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe" jostle for that position without a doubt - but it's still an incoherent mess which beats the dead horse of the 'time loop' (I refuse to describe it as 'timey wimey', because it's at some level meant to be a sci fi for goodness' sake) and 'fixed point in time' (a stupid concept but not phrased as stupidly) narrative conceits Moff's now totally overexposed and disguises all of their shortcomings, holes and blatantly unresolved hand-waves with the Weeping Angels, overused to the point of total disinterest, much less fear, combined with self-indulgent tear-jerker 'are you crying yet?' sentimentality as badly as RTD ever was but cynical of rather than fatuous about its own shortcomings and failures, knowing they'll be ignored by the general audience too busy abusing their hankies to even bother paying attention to the plot. He knows his viewers all too well: people who will cry at anything given the right provocation and as long as their musical cue is played, their tears almost being an interactive component of the televisual experience, and then give the episode full marks because it made them cry. It's lazy, cynical and manipulative writing that subverts the show's own fundamental themes of rebellion, resistance and liberation.
After hearing of a Hollywood role going across the street.
As a departure for Amy and Rory it's sub-mediocre, a depressing runaround which denies Rory so much as a goodbye and Amy ultimately nothing more than a sound bite. Indeed in the end the narrative serves no other purpose besides writing out Amy and Rory; all other concessions to plot are convenient but incidental side-effects. It's disturbing to think that the most realistic departure from the TARDIS ever seen in the revived series is probably Martha's. For the Doctor it fulfils the bizarre metamorphosis of his character across Amy and Rory's time, from substitute father figure to Amelia, to potential lover for Amy and love-rival to Rory, to the point where he is subsumed via marriage into becoming for all intents and purposes their son, a petulant child who can't abandon his parent-friends until they're ripped from him; to what end? Didn't we already see these moody abandonment issues manifest with the Tenth Doctor? Isn't all this angst old news? It's still my utter, unshaking conviction that Amy and Rory's final episode should have been "The God Complex" without a doubt, a more believable character development for the Doctor which was eventually completely ignored. I would be sorrier to see them go, but banal writing has rendered their characters emotionally neutral to me after Series 6. I can unfortunately state that the by now completely unnecessary and totally meaninglessly presented River Song has at least one more appearance, but please, no more than that. I hope I never see the Weeping Angels again. "The Angels Take Manhattan" leaves me cold; it's an illusion, a body with no soul which presents itself as profound by rote by exploiting the tired language of New Who emotional drama in the same exhausted ways. It relies on an audience willing to ignore or blissfully unaware that the entire thing is a sham, and functions only by having propagated this same expectation in earlier episodes. It is a causal loop, a failure which creates itself, one paradox too many.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"The Power of Three"

"It's like, how much more black could this be?
And the answer is, none."
Putting two episodes of New Who written by Chris Chibnall, damned for all eternity for being mean to Pip 'n' Jane Baker in the Eighties, in a single half-series is like one guy punching you while his big mate holds your arms behind your back, but it turns out that "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship" wasn't a complete gob of spittle in the eye and neither is this. Not a complete one, I stress to add. "The Power of Three" is still a badly-paced, mediocre episode of New Who the poignancy of which relies on both character and narrative development for Amy and Rory that Moffat unfortunately completely failed to develop in his mishandling of Series 6 and the previous episodes this series, and at the end of the day in a philosophical thought experiment where you could derail a train and kill a hundred innocents or watch "The Power of Three" you'd still be scratching your chin in the driver's compartment. I'd still rather watch "The Twin Dilemma" followed by "Time and the Rani". I'm exaggerating. It's just one of those episodes that leaves you thinking 'they spent the budget on this?' It just compounds that sinking feeling you get when you watch New Who that leaves you sure that the people making the show only give a toss in a very disingenuous way where they care as long as they don't have to, y'know, make a good story. The fact that so far the two most palatable episodes this series - not best, it's just easier to eat cold white bread than it is to eat gravel - are by Chinballs leaves me blinking in bemusement like Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor in 'eccentric punchline' mode.
The Doctor Who garden at the Beeb: every show's got one.
So in whatever the equivalent of a hat trick is but over four occasions rather than three we start off with yet another damned voiceover, this time an extremely cornball one from Amy in an "are you ready for an exciting adventure boys and girls" tone about how when she and 'Roryyy' were with the Doctor everything was so mad and barmy and amazing and barmy and mad and how when they were at home cleaning the sink or whatever it sucked arse. What a surprise. Didn't this message get rammed home to us like a toilet plunger to the gob during the reign of Mr. Russell T "Rusty Trouser Discharge" Davies? About how, y'know, Rose needed to escape from her gormless mother and boyfriend and council estate because real life is boring? Well, that's pretty much what "The Power of Three" is - an RTD story with Moffat characters. We'll get to that. Rory tells Amy after this whole voiceover, already unnecessary, that, as he redundantly puts it "We have two lives", one at home and one with the Doctor. Gosh, really Rory? I hadn't figured that out from your wife's playschool monologue. Amy wraps up said soliloquy with how one time the Doctor was stuck with them during the "year of the slow invasion". Good grief. Just when you thought it was safe to go back around the couch you get shot in the unparticulars with some eye-bursting pseudo-poetry.
Brian knows what's inside. But Brian's not telling.
I really think that the Doctor should have 'hilariously' appeared in Amy and Rory's bedroom while they slept in an amusing 'no personal space' scenario but no, he's outside on the play equipment as Mr Weasley, returned from "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship", reveals that there are black cubes everywhere. Then the episode turns into an RTD story on crack: we see TV footage of real British newsreporters and Professor Brian Cox talking bollocks to give us a sense of verisimilitude which serves magnificently to date the episode and make it seem more artificial watching real world people interact with a totally imaginary universe to drastically weaken our ability to suspend disbelief. I really thought we'd lost this with the death of the Tenth Doctor. Also, why is it more useful for the Doctor to set up a lab to test the cubes in Amy and Rory's kitchen rather than inside the TARDIS? There's a nice bit of sparring between Rory and the Doctor about jobs and responsibilities, a rare example of the massively, massively underutilised potential of developing Rory's friendship with the Doctor - does he actually just tolerate him because of his wife and time machine? Then oh hooray, boring old black-suited modern-style UNIT shows up in a ridiculously tired action movie "hup hup hup" kick-the-door-down style entrance, catching Rory in his undies for a cheap gag. Incidentally, before the stormtroopers burst in Amy remarks to the Doctor that they've been travelling with him 'on and off' for ten years. Ten years? Bloody hell, that was not conveyed effectively at any point in this series or the last. I know the Doctor hooned around on his own for two hundred years at the end of last series but still, ten years? It is not conveyed meaningfully. Even if we assume that's ten years personally for Amy and Rory, and only a few years in 'real time' (as it were) there is no way that what we've seen has ever suggested or accounted for the two of them having years upon years worth of travel with the Doctor except in the most limited way.
"Do you mind if we use your loo?"
Anyway Kate Stewart of Downtime fame, weirdly enough, but played by Jemma Redgrave not of Downtime fame shows up leading UNIT talking about 'artron energy' because we'd gone far too long without some technobabble bollocks. I can't believe they revived a character invented for a licensed non-BBC Doctor Who spinoff to use in this episode. They can do that, but they won't bring back Paul McGann. What is wrong with the world. I kind of like that she recognises the Doctor by his eccentric wardrobe but it's all modulated by the lame 'look at us we're relevant' conversation where Kate describes the cube arrival bizarrely as if iPads had dropped out of the sky - iPads? And then goes on to name drop a bunch of social media sites in case the thickies in the audience are too stultified by their turkey twizzlers to realise the point the episode is trying to make: that social media apparently causes people to not take stuff very seriously, or something. Human curiosity. Socialisation. The internet. Other 2000s buzzwords, Chibnall chortling away as he strives to better "The Ultimate Foe".
"So in this scene do we just have a conversation, or...?"
In a hilariously unintentional evocation of the episode as a whole the cubes prove to do absolutely nothing and the Doctor shakes off his 'old man in a young man's body' persona to rant and rave about how bored he is and have a manic episode with a 'comedy montage' before deciding that the cubes can be buggered and he's going to piss off in the TARDIS and come back later when events have transpired. I must admit I like the idea of the the Doctor being able to just have other adventures in the meantime (he could also have jumped forward in time until something happens, although that's more Moffat's style) but after he gets told off by Rory for his flippant attitude towards their home lives it just seems to reinforce how poorly paced this episode is. So off he goes, we get a couple of scenes to show that Rory and Amy keep missing stuff at home - including a sly reference to a same-sex wedding (ooh err gay agenda etc) and we see them have a couple of nice chats. It kind of feels like they took all the character development they haven't really done yet this series, nor which anyone really bothered to do last series either, and tried to cram it all into one episode like an overstuffed stocking during the episode's cliché Slade-blaring Christmas scene that reveals there's a suss little girl (how unusual) with glowing eyes at the hospital. It just becomes depressing, the episode basically telling us 'yep, there are cubes everywhere while stuff happened'. It kind of feels a bit Torchwood actually, unsurprisingly considering the writer and depressingly considering that, well, Torchwood is what they play to torment the damned in Hell.
It's peanut butter jelly time.
So the Doctor blows in on whatever anniversary Amy and Rory are up to in their confused allegedly decade-long timeline and takes them to the olde tymes where in moments of offscreen hilarity they apparently fight the Zygons and encounter Henry VIII. I'm just sitting here wiping tears of mirth from my eyes as I imagine it! Good grief! Then just to rub in the fact that all the interesting stories happen when we're not allowed to watch they go back to the party seven weeks later, the Doctor is mildly remonstrated by Brian and then he asks to stay with Amy and Rory. I must admit that the bit where the Doctor tells Amy that he misses her is kind of funny, and I enjoy Brian's use of the phrase 'cream crackered'. We get some more inept verisimilitude with someone trying to sell the cubes on... the Apprentice or something? I don't know, I'm not a pleb. Amy and Rory share fish fingers and custard with the Doctor. Why is this story moving so slowly? The Doctor playing Wii tennis is kind of amusing - Matt Smith gets to be decent for most of this episode - and the cubes wake up and start pissing about. The Doctor makes an arbitrary reference to K-9 and suddenly things are getting serious. The cube gets a pulse from Amy, trolls Rory and tries to shoot the Doctor. What a surprise, they were evil and dangerous! One cube also scans the internet, and it's apparently necessary that random text and stock pictures of general 'stuff' flash on the screen while it's doing so. Rory and Brian go to the hospital to help people hurt by the cubes so we're back to standard Doctor and Amy, once again reinforcing how much more the Doctor and Rory's friendship needed to be developed.
"Oh look! A corpse!"
UNIT has a secret base in the Tower of London, because apparently any mysterious organisation can't just have offices somewhere inconspicuous like the Brig did back in the Pertwee days, it has to be hidden inside a landmark like it's Danger Mouse or something, and Kate reveals that the cubes are going nuts all over the world, including "every African nation", maintaining that weird insistence in so much Western media of never naming African countries individually. What's with that? The cubes are all doing different things, which is somewhat intriguing, but seems kind of half-arsed, like the team is thinking that the morons will swallow anything as long as it's pushed down their throat by Karen Gillan pulling sexy pouty smiles while Matt Smith waves his arms around and gabbles like a spruiker outside the discount sci-fi warehouse. Alien threat? Black cubes will do, budget's a bit tight. It's revealed with all the surprise of the dawn that Kate is the Brig's daughter, and she gets some terrible dialogue about how he taught her and so on. Nothing much is happening again so the Doctor and Amy swan off to have a nice chat by the river. It's an interesting conversation with the Doctor justifying his lifestyle and so on but I can't stress enough that this whole dilemma needed far more buildup than it received, especially since everything this series has contradicted and trashed the surprising and effectively understated message at the conclusion of "The God Complex", to my immense and lasting disappointment.
"Don't open it. There might be a good script inside."
This leads the Doctor to realise that the cubes have scanned everything on Earth to prepare for some kind of alien invasion, as if that wasn't obvious, and his realisation, which he seems to have partially realised the whole time, makes him and UNIT look bloody stupid for letting the cubes get everywhere and the scheme seems to completely rely on everyone being uncharacteristically lazy and incompetent. So Brian gets abducted by the cube-mouth space nurses at the hospital, disappearing into a lift in front of a pursuing Rory in traditional RTD-style 'infiltrating a credible organisation' bollocks, but he follows them and somehow immediately realises that he can stick his hand through the wall, following them through a portal to some huge 'holy shit' CGI spaceship orbiting the Earth like the most expensive Christmas LEGO of them all. Brian's being added to a bunch of catatonics on slabs. This is never explained at any point in the episode. What do they need these people for? Down below, the cubes all count down to zero, using normal 'hindu-Arabic' numerals for some reason, and then they cause everyone to have a heart attack somehow. Well, a lot of people, including the Doctor. Through the magic of looking at glowing lights on a computer screen and talking about 'energy readings' or the nearest technobabble equivalent the Doctor figures out that the cubes are arriving through wormholes fixed on seven stations around the globe. How convenient that one of them just happens to not only be in London but inside the very hospital where Rory works! Rory tries to save Brian in the evil ship bridge which looks like something out of Stargate (I imagine, having not actually seen more than a handful of episodes) and the Doctor and chums arrive at the hospital, telling Kate to 'tell the world' about the cubes, presumably in case anyone hasn't noticed the way they make you fall over and die. The creepy little kid who's been standing around completely unnoticed in the hospital gets discovered as a robot, what a surprise, but the Doctor's running on one heart and feeling a bit peaky. Lucky there are chest paddles right there so Amy can restart his heart and he gets to go into a disco pose announcing "Welcome back leftie!", possibly one of the most embarrassingly cringe-worthy pieces of dialogue Matt Smith has ever been forced to utter in the show. Compare it to the comedy of the 'Who da man?' bit in "The Eleventh Hour" and you can see how they fell back on basic prat comedy rather than the subversion of it as this show lost all ambition following its brief 2010 shot in the arm. The whole 'Doctor having a heart attack' bit is a complete waste of time and serves no purpose to the narrative other than being reminscent of those occasional RTD episodes where Tennant would get poisoned or irradiated or something and run around hither and thither like he had diarrhoea and couldn't find the door to the gents.
"I'm afraid this battle station will be fully operational
by the time your friends arrive!"
The Doctor and Amy figure out very easily that the portal's in the lift and go to the LEGO ship where they get attacked by a Star Trek: Voyager style alien, a wrinkly-headed bald man in a black robe who looks like Emperor Palpatine's grandfather. He reveals himself to be one of the 'Shakri', creatures of Gallifreyan legend, and talks a lot of random crap about the need to "halt the human plague" before humanity can colonise space - for reasons or motivations which go unexplained, because the Shakri apparently must serve the Tally before 'Closure' - what? Anyway apparently the cubes were the best way because they were so appealing to humans hoping to find something good inside. I know I definitely can't resist the thought of just finding mislaid valuables inside plain black boxes like a kinder egg. The Shakri guy disappears because he was just a hologram and the Doctor waves the sonic screwdriver at the screen to leave all the Shakri ships and second wave of killer cubes in "dark space", whatever that is, and gets the cubes to restart everyone's hearts. This is probably the most egregious moment in the plot: there's no way those people could have been dead for anything less than about half an hour, long enough for serious brain damage to set in if not other irreversible mortifications, yet they all spring up fine and dandy. The Shakri makes absolutely no attempt to stop them, and the cube-face nurses have just disappeared without any explanation, so he's perfectly at liberty to counteract their plan with the magic of the sonic screwdriver completely unimpeded with no resistance or complaint. The LEGO ship blows up due to a huge backwash of energy which occurs for no particular reason beyond the demand to have a big explosion, the other catatonic patients being abandoned to their fate with no rescue and no explanation, our trio return to Earth through the portal just in time and everyone dusts themselves off from their massive coronaries, a snippet of news dialogue about taxed emergency hospitals being the episode's sole grudging concession, otherwise completely unrevealed, of the certainty of more serious harm to the population. It helps me understand why RTD loved this sort of thing so much: it's the perfect 'tell don't show' mechanism. If newsreaders do it it's like real life, innit? The Doctor gives the Brig's daughter the old 'psyche' move for some reason and it's off home for dinner with Brian, whom I'm not sure really needed to be in this episode. As they decide that TARDIS travel is the kind of life not every average punter has the opportunity to pursue and they decide to stick with the Doctor, Amy announces the value of the "power of three". We're meant to see the Doctor, Amy and Rory as some kind of super duper team as opposed to something which was never developed properly. Badda-bing, badda-boom, end of episode.
"The next one's by Steven..."
So that's "The Power of Three": a series and a half worth of character development crammed with the heel of the hand into an episode already so stuffed with drawn-out plot that it starts leaking from every embarrassing orifice imaginable, a lot of unresolved plot elements which exist purely for the sake of atmosphere, a mystery which is revealed to be nothing more than an utterly, utterly routine "kill 'em all" alien conspiracy with no motivation and a crisis which is literally resolved by waving the sonic screwdriver at a screen for five seconds. On one hand I would say that the episode needed much less or even no plot to better accommodate the episode's character studies, but that would mean conceding that it was this episode's place to do a job Moffat completely failed to do in Series 6 and now by never giving Amy and Rory believable character arcs or development after the events of "The Big Bang". Moffat went on before Series 7 began about how each one was going to be a 'blockbuster' story, but at the end of the day they're working with a format that's episodic, not sequelised, and forgetting that a typical Hollywood 'blockbuster' occurs in the space of 90 to 120 minutes, not 42. There just isn't enough time, and it shows. The stuff about Amy and Rory needing to choose is interesting, but it's overwrought and spelled-out in its explanation before being bulldozed by a frantic, chaotic plot and the endless, relentless bombast of Murray Gold's Brass Band of Doom. There's a reason it's taken me so long to review these episodes: because they're bloody awful. Not offensive, just massively, massively missed opportunities which leave me feeling frustrated and depressed, not enthused, like the televisual equivalent of going to a fancy restaurant reopened after being out of business for fourteen years and now instead of French cuisine they're just nipping out the back of the kitchen and buying everything from the McDonald's across the street. These episodes make "Time-Flight" look like "Genesis of the Daleks". They make "Paradise Towers" look like "The Curse of Peladon". It's mind-numbing. In other hands this could have substituted as a delayed fulfilment of the conclusion of Amy and Rory's story in "The God Complex" but no, there's one sucker-punch left.

Monday, May 20, 2013

"A Town Called Mercy"

"That's traffic control!"
It's time. I've delayed reviewing this episode and the rest of New Who Series 7 for ages because, let's face it, it was pretty mediocre all in all - not as offensive as Series 6 or RTD Who but overall just kind of forgettable - but there's serious criticism to be made so it's time for us to return to the world of rubbishy overrated modern geek TV. I'm told that Gatiss and Moffat advised Whithouse to not watch Hartnell serial "The Gunfighters" before this one, because it apparently sucks and isn't really worth remembering, but I still find the admission of this fact to be a fleck of spittle in the face of the Classic Series. Regardless, this is as far as I'm aware the second ever Western in Doctor Who after said First Doctor adventure so it's refreshing to see them using something other than the modern show's direly overused staples like the Second World War or Victorian Britain.
Aftermath of the first read-through.
Anyway they show begins, much like "Asylum of the Daleks", with a clumsy voiceover by some complete non-entity referring to past events. Things get a little more interesting when we're immediately introduced to a murderous cyborg who can't help but look like Kryten from Red Dwarf in a crossover of his Sheriff and Jake Bullet alter-egos. He's hunting down "the Doctor". Wuh-oh! So roll titles and the Doctor, Amy and Rory show up at a relatively decent looking Wild West town right out of the cover of some motel room paperback. It's nice that for this episode we don't need any forced introduction to Mr and Mrs Pond-Williams with the Doctor picking them up or visiting them for the billionth time, they're just there, thank God. As a change of pace from Murray Gold's usual hyperactive brass band we also get some stereotypical Old West 'boing-boing-boing' banjo to help things along. At least the anachronism of the lights is actually part of the plot rather than a production error.
"Toby, this is shit."
After some mediocre dialogue from the Doctor and chums we get our textbook Western saloon scene. I get that they probably wanted to homage classic Western tropes but it's pretty run-of-the-mill stuff, just like the undertaker bit – I really hope there weren't people who couldn't see that one coming. They all seem very accepting of the fact that the Doctor is an extraterrestrial – even if he's not the one they were looking for, using modern jargon like "alien", and the Doctor gets thrown out of town so we can watch while Kryten teleports very, very slowly forwards in unnecessarily truncated steps. So if they knew the Gunslinger wanted them to hand over an alien doctor who was already in town, why are they chucking out the Doctor, who just arrived? Anyway, Ben Browder who was apparently in Stargate or something shows up to save the day. He looks extremely old and dilapidated and has tiny eyes. Not sure which parts of that are his character and which are just his general sense of exhaustion. The whole scene is pretty pointless, and it begs the question: why doesn't the Gunslinger just teleport into town and have a look around? Also I know it's after the Civil War, but a black preacher in the old West? Uh huh.
"I can stick it up there if you want."
So it turns out Isaac aka Ben Browder is protecting Kahler-Jex, a classic lazily-designed alien who looks like a human with an unsightly facial tattoo. He's brought technological advances to the town, what a hero. He may have an ugly past, but apparently "America's the land of second chances", although the Civil War only ended "five years' back." This was a missed opportunity, I think, to show how utterly inconsistent the 'second chances' bit can be in notionally free societies, and I think the after-effects of the Civil War could have received a little more attention. Jex reveals that the Gunslinger can't or won't harm innocents, which makes why he hasn't just popped in and grabbed Jex even more perplexing – they can't harm or obstruct him and he poses no danger to them.
"Do you have one in purple? I need it to match
my v-neck shirts."
Rory and Isaac go to create a distraction for the Gunslinger while the Doctor retrieves the TARDIS, nabbing the Preacher's horse, which is apparently a transgender horse that wants its life choices respected. I know this is a joke but bloody hell this stuff gets tiresome after a while. I don't want the show to not be accepting and pro-LGBTXYZ [Update in 2017: Good grief, did I really make this joke? I was an arse. This is the kind of "gag" that would bother me if I read it today in the writing of someone I liked. At least I've changed.] issues or whatever but they're always used for comedy in a way that comes across as patronising and vaguely discriminatory in its own way. The Doctor gets distracted, however, by Jex's ship, which is a giant suppository lying in the dust. The Gunslinger is apparently so primitive that it gets confused about who it's chasing simply because Isaac is wearing Jex's clothes – why would he identify Jex with them – and in the meantime Jex and Amy have a dreadful conversation about why he wants to stay. He can identify Amy as a mother by the "kindness", "sadness" and "ferocity" in her eyes. Yep, that's definitely how you identify someone's maternal qualities! The writing for this show is so cringe-inducingly pretentious sometimes.
"Hell, if that's got to make sense I don't
want to be sober!"
So the Doctor discovers from Jex's giant flying egg that he was a bad guy who did what Igon Spengler would described as "unnecessary surgery" to win a war on his home planet. The Gunslinger was one of his experiments, and wants revenge, but he hasn't got it yet because "people would get in the way". He can teleport! What was Whithouse thinking when he wrote this plot? In this spirit he immediately discards this apparent reluctance towards colateral damage and insists that he'll kill the next person to leave town. Why is he dressed like a cowboy, incidentally? He obviously doesn't care about disguising his huge futuristic laser cannon arm or classic bionic eye. Maybe he and Jex come from a Wild West themed planet and Jex just happened to hide in the Old West as well.
"This is an interesting setting.
Better blow it up!"
So back in town the Doctor flips his lid at Jex, who's started heavy-handedly lampshading what a terrible moral conundrum it is that he could be both a former war criminal and a reformed altruist and how he and the Doctor are so alike. It's unbelievably unsubtle and completely spoils the message of the episode. There's some other iffy dialogue as well, like Jex saying that the war he ended "decimated half of our planet." So it killed one twentieth of the people? I know, I'm being pedantic. It's awful that this classic atom bomb dilemma – a superweapon that ends war at the cost of innocent lives – is explored with a broadsword rather than a scalpel and is all the more disappointing for how rare it is as a theme for one of these stories.
"Ooh yeah, you'd like some moral
discourse wouldn't you?"
Jex for some idiotic reason thinks that trolling the Doctor about being a hypocrite is a good idea for staying alive and spells out the situation by associating him with the same "rage", "guilt" and "solitude". It's like amateur hour at the poetry club. This all goes tits-up when the Doctor drags him to the edge of town and pulls a gun on him, claiming "I genuinely don't know" about whether he'd shoot. We're meant to think "Uh oh, serious shit is going down!" but it's so unbelievably tactless that it's completely farcical. Why has this particular guy managed to rustle the Doctor's jimmies so hard?
The ice cream van! It's getting away!
What follows is a confrontation between Amy and the Doctor which is the only meaningul role for her in the episode – Rory has none, being underwritten as usual – and she accuses the Doctor fairly of "taking stupid lessons", wondering when killing people became an option. It feels like the voice of the exasperated viewer because the story has become so totally derailed. The Doctor has some big rant about honouring the victims first, we get an inexplicable name drop for the Master whom Amy's never met and so whose name could not possibly bear any significance, and Amy complains that they have to be better than Jex. Aren't they both kind of missing the point? Jex's crimes are in the past, and didn't effect the Doctor personally, so why is he in any way responsible for judging them? Similarly, being 'better' than Jex isn't really the issue; it's more about how to resolve the present crisis. I'm not sure, to be honest, but it feels like the matter of debate is wobbling all over the place and relying on clichés to pad itself out.
"Just gotta shake this heartburn! Go on without me!"
In an effort to save Jex from Kahler-Tek, the Gunslinger, Isaac gets himself shot and killed: so much for Ben Browder's guest spot, then, and as he dies we get New Who's horrible warbling female solo voice. This could have been the end of the episode, and the cyborg out of guilt self-destructs for taking an innocent life or something, but no, we're only a little over halfway through. Ouch. The Gunslinger makes yet another threat, rather than just taking another shot. The characterisation for this character is totally inconsistent, unless he's just meant to be very indecisive and wracked with guilt, deliberately making empty threats to stave off his own emotional quandary, but it's not too clear.
"Sorry, what was that?"
I'm struck once again by how pointless and underused Rory is in this. The townsfolk come along at night to confront the Doctor but after a bit of a chat they all just piss off. The Doctor's done a complete turn around, arguing that violence only extends violence, exploring issues with a chainsaw, and now we need a convenient solution to the episode, so it's time for some faffing around until the Doctor can think up a good idea. What's with the bit where the undertaker gives the Doctor coffee? I was expecting it to be poisoned or something; it's a complete waste of time, and doesn't serve to make the townsfolk the Doctor is trying to protect any less anonymous or underdeveloped.
"We've forgotten the crackers!!!"
"It'd be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn't it?" Jex asks the Doctor, Whithouse writing with all the subtlety of a mallet to the face. The Doctor retorts that he doesn't get to decide when and how his debt is payed: who does? The Doctor avoids veering into Tennant-esque "I am ze Ubermensch!" territory here but the problem is that the episode poses this question as a dilemma and in its reluctance to answer it instead of exploring the issue just has the characters loudly complain about it while the plot grinds to a halt. The cultural practices of the Kahler regarding the afterlife are actually somewhat interesting, and I can't help but feel like an episode set on the planet in the aftermath of the Kahler war would have been more interesting, perhaps with the Doctor discovering the atrocities of the winning side. Sadly we have no such luck, and so let's just trick this week's monster with the sonic screwdriver.
Too many of Ben Browder's heartburn tablets.
So everyone runs around with Jex's tattoos on their faces because as we've established this super-advanced cyborg has no better means of identifying its targets than basic visual recognition, and Tek gets to sway around in confusion for a while. "Disengage!" he exclaims. "It's a trick!" Gosh, is it? The dialogue in this episode is absolutely atrocious on occasion. He busts into the church for no reason before doing absolutely nothing, unwilling to harm a child just so that we can be reminded for the millionth time that he's all bark and no bite. Jex is back in his ship. This was the Doctor's solution, for the problem to just be pushed elsewhere? It's bizarre; the whole "no negotiation" thing comes across as incredibly defeatist and lazy in this episode.
Moffat's house after the 50th Anniversary Special.
To add to the convenience Jex offs himself in contradiction of the Doctor's plan, a rather dark ending, but more effective than him just running away although it makes the Doctor look rather useless. Tek remarks that Jex "behaved with honour", apparently now satisfied with not getting his revenge, and the Doctor makes Tek into the new Marshal. Apparently the townsfolk are content to accept some deranged cyborg who was threatening them a second ago; the Doctor even states that they need to get the problem away from the civilians, but now it's fine to keep this nutter around. The Doctor and co sling their hooks as Amy remarks that their friends will notice their ageing faster – finally someone acknowledges this problem with time travel – and after another clumsy voiceover to bookend the episode we're done.
"Believe us, it was nothing, really."
At the time I remember thinking this was a decent episode but in hindsight I think it actually kind of sucks arse: the plot is extremely contrived and relies on some incredibly moronic behaviour from the characters, the Doctor acts like a complete prat for little reason, Amy has only one moment of any significance and Rory has none, and the philosophical question is spelled out and illuminated with no subtlety and no depth. It's dull and underwritten and the time taken up gasbagging with Jex makes everyone else, even the Doctor's own companions, seem like cardboard cut outs, plot devices instead of people, which as I've stated time and time again is a massive waste of Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. Matt Smith is forced to do 'serious' in a boring way which doesn't play to his strengths and one of the main guest stars is written out foolishly early, and Adrian Scarborough's performance as Jex relies on him making an utterly simplistic emotional journey with little motivation. Both of Whithouse's previous scripts, despite their faults, are more engaging and thought-provoking, and I wonder if things were hamstrung by the limitations of the setting. Tek looks kind of cool, I suppose, but I really can't find much to recommend in this episode now. I could suggest Red Dwarf's "Gunmen of the Apocalypse" as an alternative but you'd probably be better off just watching Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Blazing Saddle on two screens.