Weekend with Friends

We had a busy Labor Day weekend, seeing different friends every day. That sure made it go quickly! Not that it was a bad time, not at all.

Friday night we swung by Sports Basement so Debbi could pick up her registration packet for the 5K she was running the next day. While she was there we decided to buy a bocci ball set to play in our back yard.

Then Saturday morning her friend Rachana met us at our place and we drove down to the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds for their Color Me Rad 5K race, which is more about getting sprayed with color corn starch than about setting a good time in the race. I just watched them go, and hung out while they were doing the run, watching the color-splashed people cross the finish line (and getting out of the way of the occasion cloud of blue or red corn starch that wafted across the area). The two of them got thoroughly covered and had a great time! Most of it came out in the shower at home, and then we all went to Hobees for brunch.

We ran several errands in the afternoon, and then went over to Susan and Subrata’s place for dinner and gaming in the evening. Subrata and I played a round of Magic, doing a Winchester draft of Innistrad/Dark Ascension/Avacyn Restored, after which he thoroughly crushed me, winning 4 out of 5 games. Sigh.

Sunday we woke up to our 8:30 alarm, and just as we were sitting up to start the day… the power went out.

Debbi went to shower, and I checked on my phone to find that the power was projected to be restored within 2 hours. Still, I was sad because Debbi was going to make me sausage biscuits for breakfast, and I’d been looking forward to it.

Then, as I got ready to go shower myself… the smoke detectors went off.

Bleary-eyed, I stumbled around to find the instructions for the alarm. I believe our alarms are all interconnected, and hooked into our electricity, with battery back-ups. This is the first time they’d gone off, but I eventually realized that the alarm was probably triggered by the one in our bedroom, by the steam from the shower. I got the ladder and went up to reset it, and it worked!

But then, 10 minutes after resetting it, it went off again. So I reset it again.

Then the power came back on, an hour earlier than expected. Woo-hoo?

Debbi went to make breakfast, while I waited to see if the alarm would go off again. It didn’t, so I showered and went down for breakfast. Not a good start to the day. But the sausage biscuits were yummy. Later in the day I made some coffee chocolate chip ice cream for us to enjoy later in the week.

In the afternoon we went to visit Chad & Camille, to try to wear out their 3-year-old twins in advance of their trip to Hawaii. Their boy, Dash, was full of energy and trouble-making; I wonder if he was anxious about the trip and was acting out. Who knows. But we had a good time in their swimming pool, and Chad grilled dinner. We brought dessert (from Nothing Bundt Cakes).

On the way home Debbi asked me what I wanted to do that evening, and I said, “I want to watch the new Doctor Who episode.” So we did that. “Asylum of the Daleks” was very good. I had a few nitpicks, but I have a few nitpicks about almost every Doctor Who episode; it’s actually one of Moffat’s stronger Matt Smith stories, and was effectively creepy in its twists and turns. I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the season. (I’ve read some fan reviews on-line which really hate the episode, which has me shaking my head. I guess a lot of the vitriol is about the handling of Amy and Rory’s relationship, but I thought it was pretty well done, although perhaps not explored in as much depth as it deserved. Some fans just overthink things, I think. [Not that I’m ever guilty of that!])

Monday we spent the morning cleaning – and Debbi preparing some food – as in the afternoon we had neighbors over for a barbecue. Unfortunately it was quite hot out so we weren’t able to sit on the porch, and ate in the dining room instead (I ventured out onto the porch to grill bison burgers, and the delicious marinated chicken that one couple brought). We ended up with more food as we usually do at these gatherings, but that’s not exactly a bad thing!

After the barbecue we played with our new bocci ball set, and I called my Mom to see how she was doing, and ask her a couple of questions about some mail I’d received for her. But mostly just to chat. She’s still quite happy in her new place, which is a very good thing.

We finally collapsed and spent the evening watching TV and reading. Hard to believe the weekend just flew by, but that’s what happens when you keep busy for most of it!

Doctor Who, Season Six

Steven Moffat’s second season running Doctor Who shared one major characteristic with Russell T. Davies’ second season: Both were not as good as their first seasons. Moffat is overall a much stronger writer than Davies and his story arcs have been more interesting (far fewer Daleks, for one thing), but this season felt like he bit off more than he could chew, setting up a complicated set of plot threads, but the payoff has so far been rather disappointing.

Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:

  • The Doctor’s Wife (written by Neil Gaiman)
  • The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Steven Moffat)
  • The Girl Who Waited (Tom MacRae)
  • The Wedding of River Song (Moffat)
  • A Good Man Goes to War (Moffat)
  • The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (Matthew Graham)
  • Closing Time (Gareth Roberts)
  • Let’s Kill Hitler (Moffat)
  • The Curse of the Black Spot (Stephen Thompson)
  • The God Complex (Toby Whithouse)
  • Night Terrors (Mark Gatiss)

Spoilers ahoy! Continue reading “Doctor Who, Season Six”

Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon

We discovered that Comcast On Demand features Doctor Who, so we’ve been able to watch the first couple of episodes of season six despite not getting the BBC America station. Nice! (Sadly we haven’t been able to see the Christmas episode, but it doesn’t seem like we missed much.)

The season-opening two parter was a little disappointing, though. Spoilers for these episodes if you haven’t seen them.

Continue reading “Doctor Who: The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon”

Doctor Who, Season Five

While no one can take away from Russell T. Davies his accomplishment of getting Doctor Who back on the air, by the end of his 5-year run I found the style of the show under his reign had worn thin; indeed, I liked each season less than the one before. Some of this was because Christopher Eccleston’s performance in the first season was so much better than David Tennant’s (nothing against Tennant, just that Eccleston was a supernova in the role), but mostly I found the stories were getting less sensical and more saccharine, and I was pretty sick of the Daleks and the over-the-top and ever-more-ludicrous season-ending two-parters.

As the new producer, Steven Moffatt, had written many of the very best episodes under Davies, I had high hopes for his first season. But the end result was… not quite what I’d hoped for. While Moffat wrote six episodes in the season, none of them were as good as the best ones he’d written during the Davies run, and while the season overall was more consistent than the last few Davies seasons, there were still several clunkers.

Here’s my ranking of this season’s episodes from favorite to least:

  • The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (written by Steven Moffat)
  • The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (Moffat)
  • Amy’s Choice (Simon Nye)
  • The Beast Below (Moffat)
  • The Lodger (Gareth Roberts)
  • The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Eleventh Hour (Moffat)
  • Vincent and the Doctor (Richard Curtis)
  • The Vampires of Venice (Toby Whithouse)
  • Victory of the Daleks (Mark Gatiss)

If you haven’t seen the season, be warned that there are spoilers ahead in my review.

The biggest change, of course, is that we have a new Doctor in Matt Smith, and a new companion in Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). The best feature of the new stars is their relationship, as it’s established from the first episode that Amy is fascinated by (and infatuated with) the Doctor, but she also feels betrayed by him because she feels he broke a promise to her when she was a girl to take him with her. (Of course, it was just that darned unreliable TARDIS bringing him back 12 years later, but she doesn’t really change things for her.) Amy’s sorting out of her feelings for the Doctor and for her fiancé, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill), is a big part of the season’s story arc; it’s basically her coming-of-age story.

Matt Smith is fine as the Doctor, but he didn’t blow me away. Indeed, I was disappointed for the first few episodes that he seemed to just be channeling David Tennant, that his Doctor wasn’t a significant departure from his predecessor (this might be a first for the franchise, which previously has usually made an effort to make the break between Doctors clear and even extreme). At times it seemed like he was Tennant’s Doctor in Peter Davison‘s body wearing Patrick Troughton‘s clothing. Fortunately, he grew on me as time went on, but I’m still hard-pressed to say how his Doctor is materially different from Tennant’s. I think Smith brings a little more empathy to the role: His Doctor is a more sympathetic figure, and that makes those moments when he seems to betray his companions (whether inadvertently or as part of some larger plan) seem all the more emotionally wrenching. But I think Smith makes the Doctor earn the benefit of the doubt more than Tennant did (Tennant’s Doctor often seemed callous to me, putting on his “gosh that’s too bad” face in reaction to other peoples’ troubles; consequently I didn’t have much sympathy for his whining in “The End of Time” when his time was up).

Karen Gillan pulls off the nuances of Amy’s character quite well, excited about traveling with the Doctor, challenging him on some of his stranger behavior, and being stuck between him and Rory (by the way, Arthur Darvill doesn’t get a lot of different stuff to do playing Rory, but absolutely nails it when he does get a chance to show some range, such as in “The Big Bang”). She’s a strong character, though I noticed that she’s another in a line of female companions who seem at dead ends in their lives before they head off with the Doctor: Sure, Martha Jones was an exception, and Sarah Jane Smith is the most prominent professional-woman companion, but Rose was a young woman working in retail and seemingly without direction in her life, Donna was unemployed, and now Amy does “kiss-o-grams”; not really distinguished backgrounds. But to be fair, Amy has the mitigating factor that her life has been turned upside-down by the crack in time and space in her bedroom wall. One could argue that a wandering adventurer like the Doctor is more likely to attract companions at loose ends or without direction, looking for someone like him to give their lives meaning. That certainly seems to be the case for Amy.

The unifying story element of the cracks – as with the running threads in past seasons – is handled a bit awkwardly, with the cracks showing up in various episodes to no real effect other than foreshadowing of the season’s finale. (“Bad Wolf” in season one was basically the same.) The exception is in “Flesh and Stone” when the Doctor uses a crack to deal with the weeping angels, but otherwise they’re more ominous than actually relevant. Then again, the season ends with the “why” behind the cause of the cracks left unresolved, with the promise that it will be central to next season’s story, so if things get better from here, then the fact that the cracks were handled so cavalierly will happily be forgotten.

As far as the individual episodes go, the season contained several pedestrian stories: “Victory of the Daleks” is one of the weakest Dalek stories I can recall, with a ridiculous climax involving World War II airplanes in space. I wonder whether this story played better to a British audience who might feel a more visceral excitement in this sort of recreation of the Battle of Britain, but absent that it’s just a bad episode. “Vincent and the Doctor” is a worse-than-average monster story which is not quite redeemed by the coda where Vincent Van Gogh (nicely played by Tony Curran) glimpses his future. One assumes writer Richard Curtis is a huge Van Gogh fan, since the story has no reason to exist otherwise. “The Vampires of Venice” is a similarly weak monster yarn. And “The Eleventh Hour” is only notable for its nifty set-up of the Doctor/Amy relationship, but the threats (Prisoner Zero and the ridiculous-looking Atraxi) are by-the-numbers.

In the middle of the season’s quality range, there’s the two-parter “The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood”, which is a bit better than the average monster story (although not nearly as terrifying as the Fifth Doctor story “Frontios”, which also involved people being pulled into the Earth), and brings back the Silurians in (I think) the form of yet another subspecies of this prehistoric reptilian race. The most notable thing here is the absolutely gorgeous depiction of the Silurian city, which might be the single most impressive special effect and set design in the history of the show – really beautiful. “The Lodger” is a more effective horror story, with the Doctor isolated from the TARDIS, renting a room in a flat in which mysterious things are happening, and getting to the bottom of it. Matt Smith gets to play soccer and there’s an entertaining love story among the supporting cast, but the ending was a little disappointing, since the cause of the mysterious happenings felt a little too quickly examined; I’d have appreciated more depth in the history of the thing. “The Beast Below” is a very traditional trapped-in-an-enclosed-space-with-danger-all-around story, except that Moffat turns the premise on its ear by making things be not what they seem, and using it as a means for Amy to demonstrate her worth to the Doctor. It doesn’t quite hit on all cylinders, but it’s pretty good.

Then there’s the best of the season: “Amy’s Choice” and the pair of two-parters written by Moffat. “Amy’s Choice” is a fine suspense piece, cleverly taking place at two different points in our heroes’ timeline, and presenting a difficult puzzle for them to figure out, plus bringing resolution Amy’s conflicting emotions about the two men in her life. “The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone” brings back River Song (Alex Kingston, who has plenty of screen presence to stand as an equal to the Doctor) and the weeping angels. While I think Moffat plays fast and loose with the nature of the angels (it seems much easier to keep them at bay here than in “Blink”), I liked some of the new characteristics that he added to them (“that which holds the image of an angel becomes an angel”, resulting in the tensest scene of the season), and there were quite a few nifty last-minute escapes. Despite this, the story seems overlong, the military crew who show up to deal with the angels don’t seem very competent or prepared, and overall the story has more style than substance. While still quite a good story, it felt disappointing given its heritage in previous great Moffat-penned episodes.

Moffat saved the best for last, in the season’s finale, “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang”, in which River returns to help the Doctor solve the mystery of the Pandorica (which turns out to be a pretty neat idea), and then to help the Doctor and Amy save the universe. “The Big Bang” has one of the best opening sequences of any Doctor Who episode ever, and despite the solution relying on a time paradox, it’s a highly entertaining romp, with the denouement at Amy and Rory’s wedding being great fun. Yes, the Doctor saves the Earth and the universe again, but Moffat brings more gravitas and humanity to the event than Davies did in his season-enders. And yet… I still wish the series would veer away from having to end every season with a big bang (literally, in this case). Honestly when the stakes are this high, you just can’t keep topping yourself every season – it just doesn’t work. It only works here because Moffat is a flat-out better writer than Davies (and Davies certainly didn’t pull it off season after season in his run), and maybe Moffat can pull it off once more, but that’s probably the limit.

I want to make special mention of the season’s incidental music, composed by (I believe) Murray Gold, which is some of the most memorable of the series. I particularly enjoyed the themes he wrote for the Doctor and Amy, which key the final scene of “The Eleventh Hour” as well as the coda of “The Big Bang”. I hope the music gets released on an album, because I’d certainly buy it.

This has been a far longer review than I’d anticipated, which I guess speaks well of the season overall. Certainly I enjoyed it, even if there were a few clunkers along the way. But it did feel like it was struggling to throw off the weight of the immensely popular Tennant era, and having a hard time finding its own voice. It did set up the overall storyline for next season, which I hope will see further evolution and rise in quality.

Doctor Who: The End of Tennant

We recently caught up with the last episodes of Doctor Who starring David Tennant. Taken a whole, they were okay, better than the fourth season, but they still show lead writer Russell T. Davies’ tendency to be overly sentimental.

The theme of the season is both one of the Doctor’s impending regeneration (which we know about thanks to the mass media, but he obviously doesn’t), and the Doctor’s relationship to his companions generally, i.e., why he has and needs them, since he spends these adventures without any companions.

The first episode is a big tease: “The Next Doctor” (written by Davies) has the Doctor land in London in 1951 where he becomes embroiled in a plot by the cybermen, but more importantly he encounters a man (David Morrissey) who claims to be the Doctor, and even has a companion, Rosita (Velile Tshabalala), who resembles the Doctor’s past companion Martha Jones. It quickly becomes apparent that this Doctor isn’t who he claims, and the fun is in figuring out who he really is. The explanation doesn’t aim too high, which is fine, since it provides some insight into the Doctor himself as well as making the other character interesting in his own right. The cybermen story is much less satisfying, culminating in a truly ridiculous monstrosity menacing the city. So this one was a bit of a mixed bag.

The second episode, “Planet of the Dead” (written by Davies and Gareth Roberts) is the least interesting story of the season. The Doctor gets on a London bus on which a jewel thief, Lady Christina (Michelle Ryan) is also travelling, and they end up getting sucked through a hole in space to a desert planet, from which they need to learn how to escape, since going back through the hole kills anyone who tries it. They meet aliens who have recently crashed on the planet, and learn why the world is a wasteland, but none of that is really interesting: It’s just a lackluster monster story. The emotional core of the story is the Doctor’s relationship with Lady Christina, who find the Doctor and his life of travelling alluring, but the Doctor realizes that the amoral Christina would be a poor companion and rejects her. There’s a foreshadowing here of the Doctor’s impending demise, but that’s really the high point of the episode. This one was a misfire.

By contrast, “The Waters of Mars” (Davies and Phil Ford) is the best of the specials. The Doctor lands on Mars in 2059 during the days of the first manned mission, but he knows that every person on the base is doomed to be killed in a huge explosion, although Captain Adelaide Brooke (Lindsay Duncan) inspired her granddaughter to help lead Earth outside the solar system. Things start to go wrong when several crewmembers are infected with some sort of virus, causing their bodies to be controlled by some sort of water-based alien. The Doctor tries desperately to depart, but he’s delayed just long enough to have a change of heart: As a time lord, he can change history, and he resolves to do so, to save whomever he can from the base.

This episode is in the tradition of many of the classic series’ “locked inside with a killer” stories, as the characters get gradually herded to a place where they have to make a stand or die, with the added tinge of melancholy since the Doctor knows their fates. It tie into the overall theme of the specials is to show how the Doctor can act unchecked if he doesn’t have a companion tying him to humanity. It’s a tense story with compelling acting and drama, although any long-time viewer of the series will be a little perplexed (as I was) that companions are so important to the Doctor, since he’s gone for periods without them in the past and his fundamental character hasn’t changed. I guess you can chalk it up to specifically the Tenth Doctor being a man whose hubris led him to making this frightening decision. In any event, this is probably he single best episode Davies has written.

Finally we have the two-part episode “The End of Time” (Davies), in which the Master returns (played again by John Simm, although this time as a sort of young punk rather than an insane aristocrat – quite an impressive turn, really). The Doctor arrives on Earth to prevent this, where he again meets Donna’s grandfather Wilfred (Bernard Cribbins) who has been having nightmares about the Doctor and the end of the world. The Master is captured by a billionaire who wants him to activate a piece of alien technology, which he does, except that he turns the tables by using it to take over the Earth himself. But all of this may end up being incidental, as we learn that the President of the Time Lords (Timothy Dalton) has been using the Master as a means for Gallifrey to escape the time lock it was plunged into at the end of the Time War. The Doctor has to stop all of them to save humanity and the rest of the universe besides, but at the price of his tenth incarnation.

This story is annoying for two reasons: First, it’s yet another of Davies’ over-the-top season-enders, which honestly gets very boring after a while. You can’t keep ratcheting up the suspense and excitement level all the time, it’s not “Doctor Who Saves the Universe Again and Again”. Second, even after he’s been fatally wounded, there’s a lengthy denouement where he travels around to visit or see the many friends he’s had in his tenth life, a sort of melancholy mirror to the events of “Journey’s End” at the end of the fourth season, but which really feels entirely unnecessary. A little nostalgia here and there is okay, but geez, this was too much. The scene with Captain Jack was amusing for the decor of all the aliens in the bar, and the encounter with Rose was amusing, but I think this sequence should have been scaled back considerably.

Some bits are quite good: Wilfred is an endearing character, and the fate of Donna is still rather tragic. John Simm is excellent as the Master, especially in the first half, Timothy Dalton is always a delight to see, and the final confrontation between all parties is quite good (although it perhaps goes on a bit too long, and the solution the Doctor chooses seems so simple as to undercut the length even further; Davies is not really the strongest plotter). But overall I found “The End of Time” a bit disappointing, especially after “The Waters of Mars” (whose themes were largely dropped in this story, which is also too bad; I’d been intrigued by the possibility of the Doctor heading down a path of hubristic self-destruction, which isn’t how it played out).

I’ve said several times before that I didn’t think David Tennant was as good a Doctor as Christopher Eccleston. This is selling Tennant short to some degree: I think he was let down by the writing as much as anything. Although I do feel he played the character in a way too similar to some past Doctors, whereas Eccleston’s Doctor didn’t really resemble any of his predecessors (which was, uh, fantastic). But Tennant’s earnestness and comic tinges have been entertaining.

For next season, I’m most excited that Steven Moffat will replace Davies as executive producer and head writer, as Moffat has written several of the very best episodes of the series, and I’m looking forward to the quality of the writing going up next season. Here’s hoping that’s how it works out.

(You can read my reviews of other nouveau Doctor Who seasons here.)

Torchwood Season One

It took a while, but we recently finished the first season of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off about a team in Cardiff, England defending the planet against alien incursions, and featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the occasional guest-star of Who. As I’ve done with Who, I’ll list the first season episodes in order of most to least favorite, and as usual my comments below will contain spoilers.

  • Captain Jack Harkness (written by Catherine Tregenna)
  • Ghost Machine (Helen Raynor)
  • Out of Time (Catherine Tregenna)
  • They Keep Killing Suzie (Paul Tomalin & Dan McCulloch)
  • End of Days (Chris Chibnall)
  • Countrycide (Chris Chibnall)
  • Random Shoes (Jacquetta May)
  • Greeks Bearing Gifts (Toby Whithouse)
  • Combat (Noel Clarke)
  • Everything Changes (Russell T. Davies)
  • Small Worlds (Peter J. Hammond)
  • Cyberwoman (Chris Chibnall)
  • Day One (Chris Chibnall)

A friend of mine said on Facebook that you have to look at Torchwood as a guilty pleasure. That would be fine – since much of this season is very poorly written – except that I already tend to see Doctor Who as a guilty pleasure, and Torchwood is a big step down from it, so where does that leave it?

The most frustrating thing about the show is that the Torchwood team are mostly incompetent, which is a big change from most shows of this type where the government organization protecting us from the unknown is instead highly competent. But this isn’t really a theme of the show, it’s just a lever used for the stories: The characters are incompetent, so they do stupid things, and that results in problems.

So, for example, in “Cyberwoman”, Ianto has been hiding his half-cyberized girlfriend in the basement of Torchwood since the Battle of Canary Wharf back in Doctor Who season three. He doesn’t really have a plan to reverse her condition, and he certainly doesn’t trust that his co-workers would help him. Naturally it all goes disastrously wrong once she gets loose. Or the first episode, “Everything Changes”, when the characters are making selfish use of the alien artifacts that Torchwood has access to even though Captain Jack’s told them not to. All this would make more sense if the team were more of a research organization, but that’s not really what they do, and it’s certainly not what they’re set up to do. This pattern continues through the season finale, “End of Days”, when the whole team turns against Jack to do something remarkably stupid which puts the whole world at risk. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maybe next time you’ll listen to Jack!” at the television during the season.

Not that Jack is a whole lot better, since he’s written very erratically. He’s certainly the most competent character in the group (although Tosh is okay; she’s a fair sight better than Gwen, Ianto and Owen), but he also swerves from being empathetic to being very callous and uncompromising. It’s like the writers couldn’t decide if they wanted him to be a tough-as-nails leader, or more of a heroic figure like the Doctor.

The season’s rocky start has one good episode, “Ghost Machine”, and a decent one, “Countrycide”. The former is an atmospheric story about a device that can show echoes of the past, while the latter is a creepy horror story whose punchline is very different from what you’d expect. But neither of these are episodes to build a season on; in a better show, they’d be meat-and-potatoes episodes rather than the standouts. And they’re amidst dumb episodes like “Cyberwoman” or the immeasurably stupid “Day One” with its sex-obsessed alien killer (gah!), or the faerie-inspired but muddily-plotted “Small Worlds”.

The series does get better as it goes on, though. “They Keep Killing Suzie” features the forgotten Torchwood member from the first episode coming back to cause trouble, a well-constructed episode that unfortunately peters out with a pointless chase sequence at the end. “Out of Time” involves some people from 1953 brought forward to the present and having to adjust to a very different era. It’s one of the more thoughtful episodes in dealing with this premise seriously. And the best episode of the season is “Captain Jack Harkness”, in which Jack and Tosh are thrown back to 1941 during the dawn of World War II and have to figure out how to get back even as Tosh is the subject of anti-Japanese sentiment. They also meet, well, Captain Jack Harkness of that era, who’s not at all what they were expecting.

That episode sets up the last episode, “End of Days”, in which the mysterious goings-on turn a promising set-up into the team turning against Jack pointlessly and resolving into another stupid monster story. It’s a bombastic story but it’s frustrating and not very satisfying. And it ends with Jack disappearing to adventure with the Doctor at the end of his third season, which makes the series feel even more like a spin-off which is subordinate to its original series.

Torchwood has all the ingredients to be a solid series, perhaps a little derivative of The X-Files, but with a flaboyant, unusual star character, an inventive visual look to the team’s headerquarters, and an unusual pedigree. But the writing just doesn’t follow through on the series’ premise, and rarely delivers stories that either make much sense on their own terms, or involve characters doing things that seem sensical. Overall, it’s mediocre, and never truly great.

Doctor Who, Season Four

It took us a little while, but this weekend we finished off the fourth season of Doctor Who. As usual, I’ll run down the episodes from best-to-worst (in my opinion, anyway), and then some comments with spoilers:

  • Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (written by Steven Moffat)
  • Turn Left (Russell T. Davies)
  • Planet of the Ood (Keith Temple)
  • Midnight (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Doctor’s Daughter (Stephen Greenhorn)
  • The Fires of Pompeii (James Moran)
  • The Unicorn and the Wasp (Gareth Roberts)
  • The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (Helen Raynor)
  • Partners in Crime (Russell T. Davies)
  • Voyage of the Damned (Russell T. Davies)

Season four got off to a very shaky start indeed, with the Christmas special “Voyage of the Damned”, which was silly, dumb, nonsensical and several other adjectives. A bad episode, as the Christmas specials generally have been. But still, forgivable as it was just a special.

Unfortunately, the season proper got off to a start nearly as poor, with a ridiculous (and rather gross) villain and plot. The redeeming quality of “Partners in Crime” was the whimsical relationship between the Doctor and new companion Donna Noble, with the memorable musical theme for their pairing. But the episode itself bent over way too far to keep the two just missing each other for its first half, and the premise of creating little baby aliens from human fat was disgusting for basically no good reason. Between them, these two episodes made me put off watching the rest of the season for quite a few weeks, because they were both really weak.

Unfortunately this is a consistent problem in Russell T. Davies’ writing: His characterizations are pretty good (occasionally great), but his plotting and premises – even by the loose standards of Doctor Who – tend to be very weak.

The next few episodes are decent “bread-and-butter” episodes: “The Fires of Pompeii” is about as middle-of-the-road an episode as you could get. “Planet of the Ood” is a pretty good thriller. “The Sontaran Strategem/The Poison Sky” is a mediocre invasion-of-Earth yarn. “The Doctor’s Daughter” is a straightforward colonization-gone-wrong yarn, made a little better through the exuberant performance of Georgia Moffett as Jenny, and titular character; however, I guessed the episode’s punchline about 15 minutes in. “The Unicorn and the Wasp” is a far-too-pretentious science fictional mystery featuring Agatha Christie as one of the characters; despite a few good moments, the episode is too ludicrous to hold together.

At this point we’re more than halfway through the season and it’s been a pretty mediocre lot so far. And as a companion Donna has been something of a mixed bag. She’s at her best when she’s acting as a mature, capable woman; as with Martha Jones in season three, at times she’s more mature than the Doctor himself. But her characterization is uneven, as she’s often overwhelmed by events she’s thrown into, which although it’s fairly reasonable that she would be, it’s also ground that feels recently trod-over in the current series. Catherine Tate seems swept away by the eddies of the writing, doing well when given good material, but seeming whiny or annoying with weaker material. Ultimately I blame the writing, as I think it would take an actress of historic talent to forge a consistently great performance out of the character of Donna as portrayed here.

Fortunately, the second half of the season is a marked improvement over the first, unsurprisingly starting with Steven Moffat’s two-part entry, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”. It starts off as an effectively eerie horror episode – a global library which is utterly silent and deserted when the Doctor and Donna arrive – and soon become much more with the introduction of archaeologist RIver Song, who knows the Doctor but he doesn’t know her; this is the first time he’s met her, but she’s known his future self for a while. Alex Kingston is terrific as River, and makes me look forward to seeing her (hopefully) in the future, although the way television series work, I’m not holding my breath. The story has the frantic-yet-terrifying feel of some classic episodes, with the characters beating a hasty retreat from their opponents while slowing figuring out (at some cost in body count) what’s going on. If I have a gripe with the episode, it’s the fate of River Song, which although not utterly tragic, is less optimistic than I’d hoped. I like to think that she eventually is reincarnated and is able to live her life and meet the Doctor again. Nonetheless, this two-parter is – as was the case with Moffat’s last two stories – the clear standout of the season.

The season ends with four Davies-written episodes, which isn’t as bad as it might sound. “Midnight” is an effectively creepy locked-room story, more atmosphere than story, about an alien creature that takes over the body of a woman on a broken-down transport in the middle of an unlivable planet’s wilderness. The story’s main flaw is one of motivation – what’s the alien trying to accomplish, and why does it behave as it does once it’s rendered the Doctor powerless? – but as a suspense yarn it’s pretty good.

Donna barely appears in “Midnight”, so conveniently “Turn Left” is all about Donna: An alien fortune teller inflicts her with a creature which causes her to turn right rather than left back when she interviewed with the company where she ended up meeting the Doctor. As a consequence, the Doctor dies because she’s not there for him in “The Runaway Bride”, and terrible things befall the Earth because of his absence. This sets the theme for the season finale: Donna feeling like she’s just an insignificant person, when her presence has changed the world. It’s quite a good episode, although the sense of destiny imparted to Donna feels grafted-on after the way her character’s been handled so far, and again, the fortune teller’s motivations are left unexplained.

The big finish is “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”, in which the Earth is, well, stolen – by the Daleks, of course. It’s hard to understand why they keep losing when they have the technology to steal planets and keep them out of phase with mainstream time, which is just one of many flaws in the story. But as a Davies story, much of the plot is left unexplained and/or doesn’t make much sense. The theme of the story is that of the Doctor’s large extended family, all of whom (since the series reboot) appear in this episode, usually accompanied by a plot hole or a moment of sheer coincidence. Everyone pulls together to make things turn out okay, and there’s a rather nice sequence of saying farewell to everyone who’s been on the show the last few years, a sort of farewell to Russell Davies’ tenure.

Davies seems to be a sucker for both the Daleks and big, world-changing climaxes, both of which have worn thin their welcome with me over the last few years. He injects Davros, the Daleks’ creator, though other than giving a manic voice to the Daleks’ ambitions he doesn’t contribute much. The episode looks nice – the producers have learned how to apply their special effects budget quite well – and there are many touching moments (and a few clever ones, like when Jackie escapes certain death), but the whole thing feels like it’s trying too hard.

The story ends with a half-human clone of the Doctor, which gives Rose (who’s acquired a lisp since she last appeared) a happy ending with (after a fashion) the man she loves, and with Donna gaining the Doctor’s mind, which overloads her human brain, forcing the Doctor to make her forget all about him and leave her back on Earth. This latter bit seemed not only completely improbable, but largely unnecessary from a story standpoint: Either kill her off cleanly, or find some better way of having her leave the TARDIS. Wiping her memory, too, seems just like cruel writing.

Overall I think the fourth season was a little better than the third season, even though I liked Martha Jones better as a companion than I did Donna. But I’m looking forward to Steven Moffat taking over as head writer. I think he has the right sense of gravitas to give the series some meaning, but hopefully his tighter storytelling will carry over to structure for a whole season, without the kitchier extremes of Russell Davies’ writing.

Oh, and also, we’ll have a new Doctor, as David Tennant is departing along with Davies after this year’s specials. So it’ll be a fresh start. Again.

The Doctor and the King

Pop culture tidbits from teh Intertubes:

First, a two-page spread of all ten Doctors by Kelly Yates, from an upcoming Doctor Who comic book. (via The Beat) Nice idea, but the art isn’t a style I’m into, and something about the figures seems rather off: arms a little long, legs a little short, faces not quite right…

More ridiculously, here’s Warren Ellis, King of the Internet. (via Warren Ellis)

Doctor Who, Season Three

It took a while, but we finished watching the third season of Doctor Who last night, which means it’s time for the review of the whole shebang. (If you missed them, you can go back and read my wrap-ups for Season One and Season Two.)

Please be warned that there are some spoilers in the discussion below, so if you haven’t seen the whole season, you might want to come back after you have to read this.

Here’s how I thought the episodes stacked up, from best to worst:

  • Blink (written by Steven Moffatt)
  • Utopia (Russell T. Davies)
  • Human Nature/The Family of Blood (Paul Cornell)
  • Smith and Jones (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords (Russell T. Davies)
  • The Shakespeare Code (Gareth Roberts)
  • Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (Helen Raynor)
  • Gridlock (Russell T. Davies)
  • 42 (Chris Chibnall)
  • The Lazarus Experiment (Stephen Greenhorn)

(We haven’t seen the two post-Martha Jones episodes listed as part of the season, due to the peculiar way in which we watch the episodes. No, it doesn’t involve BitTorrent downloads, because if it did then we’d certainly have seen them!)

In the large, I thought this season was considerably weaker than the second season, and you’ll recall that I thought the second season was a disappointment compared to the first. As is usual with such things, I think the fault lies in the writing, as even several episodes in the first division were badly flawed, and several episodes during the season were downright cringeworthy. I think many stories strive to be too cute or too clever and end up just being ridiculous. Granted it can take a truly outstanding writer to take a silly idea and make good drama out of it, but I’d hope that any decent writer would at least be shy away from the silly ideas that they can’t make work. On the other hand, obviously I have a different idea of what “works” for Doctor Who than the show’s creators.

On the casting side, I enjoyed Freema Agyeman as Martha Jones quite a bit. I appreciated that she came from a less-nebulous background than Rose Tyler, as Martha was a medical student. It was sometimes frustrating that Martha would have moments of whining about the Doctor not noticing her, mainly because I thought the show didn’t spend enough time on her unrequited feelings until the very end and so it always felt a little out-of-place. (Not to mention that it felt like a reprise of the main running theme throughout Season Two.)

I still haven’t fully warmed to David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and still pine for Christopher Eccleston’s more nuanced character. I think I’ve decided it’s not really Tennant’s fault, it’s just that the character is written as a one-dimensional figure: A hopeless do-gooder who’s sort of a brilliant oaf. This leads to some very unsatisfying plot developments, often involving the Doctor seeming completely baffled until he pulls a rabbit out of his hat at the very end. This exacerbates some of the silly stories that the episodes are based around. The Ninth Doctor’s air of self-superiority tended to give his stories a firmer ground on which to stand; when he seemed baffled it was usually because he genuinely had no idea how to proceed, while you never know where you stand with the Tenth Doctor: It he really baffled, or is it just bad writing?

Okay, to be fair we may be pushing the limits of the various elements which go into the Doctor’s personality: Haughty, noble, self-aggrandizing, super-competent, bumbling, clownish. These are the elements which largely define each of the Doctor’s incarnations. The really good Doctors tend to expand and deepen their core aspects (think Tom Baker and Chris Eccleston as prime examples) while the lesser ones seem to flog the same horse over and over (with the Colin Baker character being the worst such figure). The ones in the middle all have their various flaws, by Tennant’s Doctor still feels a lot like the Peter Davison and Sylvester McCoy characters: The bumbling do-gooders who are largely undercut by inconsistent writing and oft-incompehensible plotting.

As for the episodes themselves, “Blink” was the clear winner here. Yes, the foundation is a bit weak, as thinking about the ecology of the Weeping Angels makes you realize that they don’t really make any sense except as a one-off plot device. But man, what a plot device! Sending characters into the past to kill them through the sheer passage of time, and telling the story through the character of Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan, who arguably out-acts almost everyone else in the season), with nifty little time dependencies and paradoxes, it’s creepy and moving and dramatic and it just hangs together better than anything else in the season.

“Utopia” is the other excellent episode of the season, and is the lead-in to the two-part finale. Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana is terrific, as one expects from Jacobi, and seeing Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) again and bringing closure to his disappearance after the end of Season One is a lot of fun. I still haven’t seen any of Torchwood, so I don’t know how his character has worked out there, but his presence here is entirely explained in the context of this series, and he’s a nice addition to the end of the series. Anyway, “Utopia” takes place near the end of the universe, and it’s built around a relatively modest concept – trying to help the last band of humans escape a hostile planet for a purported promised land – while being used as a vehicle to introduce the season’s climactic villain. And it does this very well, using bits set up in earlier episodes to build the suspense gradually. I think Russell Davies’ writing works better when his story’s venue is constrained like this; given a much larger canvas on which to work, his stories seem to get away from him.

Paul Cornell’s “Human Nature” two-parter is one of the stories which is basically a house of cards (the Doctor’s motivations for becoming human seem spurious in the extreme – he did all this to be merciful? What the–?), but it’s a pretty effective story nonetheless. The Doctor’s turn as a human results in a character with more depth and range than the Doctor himself has, which serves to underscore that the Tenth Doctor is one of the weaker Doctors, but it does give Tennant more to do than usual, and he does a good job with it. (This is one reason why I think the fault in the character lies in the writing and not the acting.) The story is perhaps overlong, but still pretty good. Special mention to Harry Lloyd as Baines, the prefect who’s taken over by the Family, who makes Baines into one of the creepiest human-looking antagonists I can recall in the show.

From here the season declines from “noteworthy” to “merely adequate” or worse. “Smith and Jones” was kind of a mess of an episode, although it gets extra points for the “Judoon on the Moon” line. The Judoon feel too much like unusually-silly Sontarans and the premise of transporting a hospital to the moon is even more ludicrous than the usual Doctor Who plot device. “The Shakespeare Code” was so pedestrian I have basically nothing to say about it.

Of the really bad episodes, “Gridlock” had a completely ridiculous premise which I just couldn’t get past to enjoy the rest of the episode. I haven’t really warmed to all the “New Earth” stuff which pops up in the series from time to time; I’d be happy if they just jettisoned the venue entirely. “42” felt like a poor redux of Season Two’s “The Impossible Planet”, which itself was not a great episode. And “The Lazarus Experiment” started out as a science fiction cliche, and ended up as an unusually implausible Big Monster Story. Really bad stuff. This made the first half of the season hard going indeed.

That leaves the other two two-parters. “Evolution of the Daleks” lands as a slightly-below-average story, largely squandering the promise in setting a Doctor Who story in Depression-era New York, overshadowing it with the rather silly idea of evolving the Daleks into human-Dalek hybrids. This story certainly had the feel of the Daleks being well past their sell-by date; unlike the Jon Pertwee-era Dalek stories, which felt all to mechanical and predictable, the Tennant Dalek stories have turned the Daleks into some sort of bogeyman, seeming slightly pathetic and overused, and only frightening because they happen to be armored machines carrying guns. All of the emotional resonance of the excellent Eccleston episode “Dalek” (arguably the best episode of the new series overall) feels very much a thing of the distant past. “Evolution” has too much of the feel of two over-the-top Colin Baker episodes, “Attack of the Cybermen” and “Revelation of the Daleks”, seemingly thrashing around to figure out in what new direction the monsters should be taken, while simultaneously undercutting their essential menace.

Lastly, there’s the climactic two-parter of the season, in which the Master (William Hughes) returns to the 21st century (apparently a few decades in advance of our own era, as they have flying aircraft carriers here) and arranges to take over the world and use humanity to launch a war to conquer the cosmos. The Master here is portrayed as both calculating and flamboyantly insane, which is certainly quite different from his past personas, who were dark, manipulative villains. It’s a weird effect; it certainly makes him a surprising antagonist as he often acts in ways that I found surprising compared to his past behavior, but then, that’s sort of the point of regeneration, isn’t it? Arguably it was just a coincidence that the Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley Masters had basically the same personalities.

The downfall of the story is that it relies far too much on cheap tricks to work. Aging the Doctor to an old man, and then a ridiculously old man, was certainly creepy, but seemed gratuitous. And the story’s climax was nothing more than a deus-ex-machina, essentially allowing the Doctor to save the day by having all of humanity “think good thoughts” about him at the same time. Any time your heroes win because of a figure bathed in a glowing light, your story has gone badly wrong. (I’d been expecting that Martha had been telling humanity about the Doctor’s good works on their behalf in order to have them passed down the years to their descendants to short-circuit the Master’s plan from the other end.) This sort of magic solution was just as unsatisfying in “The Parting of the Ways” – the Davies script which concluded the first season – and I hope it doesn’t become a habit in what should be nail-biting season-enders.

The episode has a moment seemingly drawn directly from the film Flash Gordon when the Master’s ring is picked up from his funeral pyre by an unknown hand. I guess he’ll be back…

The new Doctor Who series is still fun, but it feels like it’s going steadily downhill. I hope they can turn things around in the fourth season, but I’m losing my optimism. Guys, a little madcap hilarity is okay once in a while (after all, how else could you really spin an episode called “The Christmas Invasion” than to have killer Christmas trees in it?), but I’d like more serious stories with believable premises and sensible resolutions, please.