Doctor Who

Doctor Who – Listen

They’ve done it, they’ve found a way for Whovians to understand why normal people dislike Doctor Who. Just watch Steven Moffat’s latest vile creation, the sloppy, disastrous, and completely irrelevant (what a surprise) episode, entitled “Listen.” Jesus Christ, what happened here? This looked like such a good premise – what if you’re never really alone? What if everyone dreams the same dream? Creepy stuff, right? Finally, they’re pulling out the real material, not just relying on recycled robot plots, right? Wrong.

“Listen” is exemplary of everything Steven Moffat is bad at: not just plotting, characters, and sexism, but most importantly, the complete and utter lack of weight. I’m trying to think of a Moffat episode that doesn’t pull out the stakes at the end and let the whole plot go up in smoke, and I’m hard pressed to do so. It’s been a very long time since he’s done something worthwhile.

Look at his villains:
The Weeping Angels 

WeepingAngel2

The Silence 

Silent

The Vashta Nerada

VashtaNerada1

Other villains nobody remembers Moffat is responsible for

 

The Angels don’t actually kill you really, they just displace you in time, so other than being sad because you lose all your loved ones (so it’s like a funeral but backwards), you get to live out your life.
The Silence doesn’t threaten you in any way, they just pose the question of whether or not people have free will. A clever-ish metaphor, if he had actually gone through with the metaphor, but instead he just kind of turns them into monster-of-the-week fare that looks creepy and sounds awesome.
The Vashta Nerada are actual villains who exist in one place in the world and that’s about it. So, good job, but a stand-off episode.

The “unnamed ghosts under the bed” – referring to the monster of this episode – have absolutely no impact whatsoever on the story. To be spoiler-free, I’m going to have to be vague, but Moffat once again relies on his ever so infamous Giant Reset Button in order to do a whole bunch of crazy stuff, but not have any lasting effect on anything so he can go back to playing with his toys all by himself without sharing them with the rest of the kids. This is beyond indulgent at this point, as Moffat is now in his fourth year as showrunner.

Clara’s storyline is just clumsy and awkward, as she stumbles through a cliched date with Dan Pink, who becomes another extension of Moffat’s recycled sidekick cache, neither of them saying anything authentic, rather spouting off bad date quips that could have been taken from the cutting room of a film student’s first short film. The Doctor beckons, and Clara responds, then The Doctor drops her back off to make amends, only to have her almost immediately pick up the awkwardness where she left it, only for her to join The Doctor again, only for her to go back to Pink again and resume the awkwardness again. And then they kiss and it’s supposed to be romantic but really we just like seeing Jenna Coleman be adorable. I have no idea who Clara is, and I have no idea who Pink is supposed to be, but at least they’ve got good chemistry together and I suppose I could see it going somewhere in the future.

The plotting, or should I say lack of it, however, doesn’t go anywhere. Moffat feels the need to make yet another call-back to his 50th anniversary special, in yet another convoluted “hint” (look, you can’t randomly say “gorilla” in a sentence, expecting the audience to suddenly be gorilla interested and then call yourself a genius) to wherever he thinks he’s going. By the time we get there, if there’s anyone still watching, I can almost guarantee that he’ll hit his reset button and none of this will have mattered.

Okay, I managed to avoid the spoilers here and said my piece. So what does work about this episode? Well…

Peter Capaldi is a mad genius and I love him so much.
Clara’s final speech is touching and moving and all that stuff. If only the rest of the episode had actually anything to do with it, maybe it would have been significant.
Pink and Clara together are really cute and if the writers get them sorted, they’ll make for good co-companions.

That’s about it. This is by far the biggest disappointment I’ve seen in my entire history of watching Doctor Who, considering my excitement to see a creepy episode and the amazing premise, and then weighing that against how good the actual episode was(n’t). Moffat needs to get his head back in the game and stop taking the easy way out. Also, there’s a reason story structure exists, and this episode is that reason. Don’t do what Doctor Who did, unless you’re an actor or something, and then yes, definitely do this. Otherwise, stay far, far away from “Listen.”*

There’s definitely something to be explored in the character of The Doctor where this episode is supposed to be going, but this is not the way to do it. We’re left with a completely useless time-loop of nothing that although it tells us something about ourselves, as the best Doctor Who episodes always do, doesn’t give us much of an emotional reason to believe it. It’s hard to learn life lessons from a monotonous drone, which is why we have storytelling, but this isn’t going to do it. Sorry boys, you need to break out the Story 101 textbooks before you can take on an idea of this size. I used to be a big fan of Moffat, and I still applaud his imagination – again, just look at the concept for this episode – but his weaknesses are showing more and more: the plot holes, the bad character development, the time-looping-as-responsibility-avoidance, and his inability to construct a meaning out of his drama, or in fact his inability to construct meaningful drama out of his premises.

As always however, I’m still a fan, and will be back to watch next week. I can take a bad episode here and there. If it seems like my review is exceedingly harsh, it’s because it is, and I don’t mean to stomp on anyone’s enthusiasm if they enjoyed this episode, but this is such a poor excuse for a story. Too bad. Maybe next time the staff will take their own advice and listen to the complaints of the fans. Who knows, they might learn something.

 

*Unless, that is, you want a lesson in what not to do, and then, I guess you could watch this.

 

Doctor Who – “Robot of Sherwood”

“I’m not a hero. ”

“Well neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be perhaps others will be heroes in our name.”

Mark Gatiss is always welcome in the writing chair in my book and it’s a pleasure to see him contributing again to Doctor Who’s Eighth season. After a dark introduction to Capaldi’s new somber Doctor, “Robot of Sherwood” brings back the childish fun that defined the series, but doesn’t neglect the grown-up seriousness that’s always been central to its success. Doctor Who, at its best, is always about more than fun and games.

But it is all fun and games for the first act, as Clara requests to meet her childhood hero, none other than one Robin Hood. No, the Doctor insists, he is nothing more than a story, a legend, no more real than any other myth. And yet to his surprise, and continued disbelief, but much to Clara’s excitement, who should they meet upon stepping out of the TARDIS in the 1100’s? Capaldi really brings the fun here, delicately balancing his dark aspect, especially carrying over the personality that made him famous for The Thick Of It, with the silly but goodhearted nature that shone through the Matt Smith era. It’s a nice transition, perhaps more apt for a viewer unfamiliar with any earlier incarnations than Smith, but nonetheless it remains good fun.

Of course the biggest plot reveal is given away in the title, but I guess this is after all Doctor Who and most stories turn out involve robots in one way or another. I’d like to see an episode where the Doctor confronts a villain he can’t explain away. The show has always focused on science, and good on it, inspiring others to pursue knowledge rather than revel in ignorance, but sometimes I do think robots feature a little too prominently. It doesn’t have to be ghosts or anything like that, I’m just saying, maybe it would be better to see a new invention of technology, something that isn’t a bit of a worn out trope.

The banter between the Doctor and Robin Hood is undoubtably the focal point of this episode, which unfortunately leaves Clara once again on the sidelines, with very little to do other than fawn over Robin’s good looks and clever wit, and correct the Doctor. Face it, he needs it, but does she always have to be his babysitter? They even revealed that she took years of Tai Kwan Do, only to never let her use said skills. Sorry boys, but that doesn’t count. If it weren’t for Jenna Coleman’s impeccable delivery, Clara might not be any more believable than Robin is to the Doctor.

The plot is as predictable as any tale of Robin Hood, overly familiar, but perhaps that’s not the point. We tell ourselves our favorite stories over and over again because they speak to us on a deeper level.

History is a burden. Stories can make us fly.

Isn’t that it? Stories become legends and legends stay with us, living on long after the truth is gone. This can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and often is, but whenever that happens, heroes spring up simultaneously to give us hope. Yet as the Doctor remarks, perhaps legends are indeed the opiate of the masses. The sense of false hope keeps us placated. How long have we endured suffering simply because we settled for hope rather than truly seeking change? I cannot help but see another parallel between an old story and today’s world of injustice. We’re all stories in the end, our real selves fading into time, only the legend remaining. There are two sides to every story, and while we may be heroes in one, we could just as easily be villains in another. Or vice versa.

So is the story of the Doctor and Robin Hood meant to fade into time, or will it inspire others to take up their fight and be heroes in their name? Each of us will be thrust into difficulties, and live to see times we would wish we had not. All we can do is decide what to do with the time we’ve been given, to paraphrase a great wizard. I think Doctor Who is about this decision, at its heart. I think that’s a good thing.

Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

I’ve become quite skeptical about Doctor Who over the last year as Season 7 stumbled to make sense of its premise and Steven Moffat showed his weaknesses more than ever. Saying goodbye to Matt Smith was hard enough, but I felt that while he got a good sendoff, the special episode really didn’t give us much to hope for in the future. Clara remained, despite Jenna Coleman’s best efforts, a vaguely undefined character, suffering from Moffat’s worse tendencies towards his sexist treatment of women, lost in a plot that didn’t make much sense and failed to sufficiently wrap up any of the hanging threads from his previous years as showrunner. I was excited to see Peter Capaldi take over the role as the Doctor but wasn’t sure if Moffat could keep this up.

Last week confirmed many of my suspicions, with a horribly incoherent plot, a waste of character development time instead devoted to nonsensical exposition, and a very poor treatment of Vastra and Jenny’s relationship. Clara was again left on the sidelines, little more than a pretty face for the Doctor to sound off against. At least they introduced the new dark side of the Doctor that Capaldi is brilliantly exploring, and opened up the relationship between the Doctor and Clara to scrutiny, addressing some of the conflicting dynamics of whether or not they have a romantic relationship, a platonic friendship, or something else.

This week’s episode, “Into the Dalek,” squelched those doubts. Ben Wheatley, back in the directing chair, creates a new tone for this episode that I thought almost rebooted the series entirely. The sense of danger feels larger, the series a little less stable, definitely not the same light-hearted fun that ruled Smith’s time, and far from the chameleon tonal shifts of the Davies era. Wheatley does an admirable job focusing on the Doctor’s internal darkness, tinting the universe to reflect this incarnation’s new nature.

On top of that, Moffat has a co-writer, which probably speaks a lot for the episode. Phil Ford, who also wrote “The Waters of Mars,” one of the darkest episodes exploring the Doctor’s character, from way back when Tenant held the role, that could foreshadow much about this new version, if you looked at time like that, which clearly fans of the show do (insert wibley-wobbly joke here). Finally, for the first time since far too long, we get to see Clara in her real life. So often we forget that the companions aren’t just the Doctor’s pets, and to no fault of us viewers – Moffat never gave Amy and Rory nearly enough development as their own characters. In fact we rarely see them apart from the Doctor. This episode then, came as a relief as we are reminded that Clara only really visits the Doctor (despite her convoluted plot as “the impossible girl,” a title I will not capitalize as it does nothing for her as a character and she doesn’t deserve to be demoted to merely an adjective) in her free time, even if that’s still somewhat at the Doctor’s beck and call. Nonetheless I was very happy to see her back at her schoolteaching job. I’m a little wary of the romance plot that seems to be developing between her and another teacher, especially considering how these plots tend to develop in the past, but I’m glad to see someone else come into the story.

So when the Doctor encounters a wounded Dalek who, in all appearances, has turned good, I was intrigued. Everyone knows that the Daleks are evil, the Doctor’s disdain for them unmatched among all other villains. Immediately I could see through the twist that was coming, and I question the writer’s taking such an obvious route, but the final act took what was expected and turned it into more commentary on the Doctor’s new character, allowing for further exploration into his dark side. Peter Capaldi is a revelation here, in his first role as the fully defined Doctor – last week he was still figuring out who he was – and while he still isn’t sure of himself, I like that. He questions whether he is a good man, and we see him struggle with this in his confrontation with the Dalek in a visceral way that gets to the heart of his hatred of the Daleks, something previously left unexplored, even if it was hinted at many times.

Side characters here are quite expendable and that’s a bit of a letdown but not enough to derail everything else. I do wish the central threat had been more tangible. The Doctor and Clara, along with a small group of soldiers, shrink themselves and literally travel inside a Dalek. This is a wonderful concept, but I would have preferred it to be more dangerous. The Doctor keeps pointing out that this is “the most dangerous place in the universe” but I never quite felt it, a disconnect between the direction and the writing. That aside, pitting the Doctor against his reflection in the Dalek’s eyes was wonderful to see, as he must confront the side of himself he’s never had to face before via the perspective of his most hated enemy.

Clara shows her inner-strength in confronting the Doctor as well, and I’m glad for that. Finally she serves a purpose that exists outside of being the Doctor’s sidekick. She’s there for her own reasons, and she holds the Doctor in line because she believes in him, not because if she doesn’t she won’t have anything else to do. Jenna Coleman is fantastic and she deserves a great character to play. The writers still struggle to figure Clara out, but from this episode I can see that it’s possible. I will be disappointed if nothing becomes of her development this season because there’s already a lot of ways to move her forward.

Overall, this is a much better episode than last week, one that almost redefines the series entirely. I’m looking forward to this year again. For a children’s show, Doctor Who has always dealt with very real, very adult themes, providing applicable life lessons to its viewers, asking us to think, inspiring us, helping us confront ourselves and ask, “are we good people?” This is a very essential question and finally one that the show is asking of its lead character in a way that goes beyond the surface appearances. I will be very interested to see where we go from here.

On a final note, what is up with the recurring heaven scenes? I don’t buy it at all. I know Moffat is going for yet another one of his dreary mysteries, but this one just seems way out there beyond believability. We know there’s going to be lots of “surprising” reveals here, and I’m already, after two episodes, tired of it. Don’t milk it, Moffat. Take some advice from your past failures and don’t create a plot so ridiculous that you can’t get out of it. Please. It’s better to be a bit predictable and make your point that to try and sustain a hollow mystery.

 

Doctor Who: “Deep Breath” Review

The Doctor is back! Peter Capaldi, taking over for Matt Smith in the Doctor’s 12th reincarnation in all his glorious style. Capaldi might be one of the best castings for the Doctor, and he could ever have come at a better time than after Smith’s departure. Capaldi’s angry eyebrows and brash voice, even removed from his famous turn in The Thick Of It as one of televisions most crude, offensive characters, lend a darkness and sobriety to the character of the Doctor that can take this beloved show to new highs and lows. Smith was a genius and his playfulness launched the series to new audiences everywhere, but as the show began to explore the darker sides of the Doctor, it became clear that a new actor was needed, and now, we have him. Although I’m still waiting for a female Doctor, I am more than happy and impressed with Capaldi’s first full appearance. I can’t wait to see what he does, and especially what his catchphrase will be.

On the other hand, although Jenna Coleman is incredible, her character, Clara, remains as undefined and vague as ever. After the disappointing reveal of Clara as “the Impossible Girl” – a condescending, sexist work of unimaginative cliche – she’s been left on the sidelines as a sort of combination of the Doctor’s previous companions, displaying a mix of all their traits, leaving her a blank slate as the writers don’t even bother trying to figure out her character. Finally this seems to be changing, although it will take several episodes to implement. The Doctor describes her as egomaniacal and a control-freak and… sure, I’m okay with that, as long as she really is an egomaniacal control freak. I have some issues with that being the same basic character traits as Amy and even Donna to a certain extent (although Donna had one of the best character arcs I’ve seen in a TV series that fully took advantage of her unlikeable traits and turned them into something truly special), I would allow this. However, I have some requirements:

Clara cannot be a control-freak woman. That is, she can’t fall into the stereotype that all women want is to control their men, giving dudes an excuse to brush off a woman’s legitimate concerns as somehow “bitchy” (what does that even mean?). I will not forgive the show if they do this.
Clara can however be legitimately egomaniacal, as long as she fully is so. If this is going to be her character, then go 100% and actually make it her character. Let it be her flaw too. Let it get her into trouble. So far, Clara only lands in situations she has to escape from when it’s someone else’s doing (read: the Doctor’s) and then, even worse, she only ever escapes from those situations by relying on the Doctor. Ugh. Talk about sexism.

Look, Clara’s smart. She goes toe to toe in a battle of the wits with a freaking robot in this episode. And yet she still only escapes because the Doctor shows up, and it turns out he was hiding. What??? Why did he wait so long? It seems that Steven Moffat, who wrote this episode as well as next week’s, has absolutely no use for Clara. I challenge Moffat to develop her character and stop relying on the Doctor’s magical appearances to get her out of trouble. In fact, let them both get themselves into trouble completely independently of each other, and then get themselves out of trouble, completely independently of each other.

Then you can start having them each get each other into trouble… and so on.

That would be much more interesting.

On to the plot. “Deep Breath” starts off incredibly disappointing, wasting almost a full half hour on a plot that gets completely abandoned when the real story begins. Useless. It’s not even an interesting “fake” plot. We also spend far too much time reiterating how difficult it is for the Doctor to regenerate, resulting in boring exposition and weird challenges issued from characters who have nothing else to do but talk smack about each other until they reveal they were just testing each other’s commitment, something like that. Again, boring, useless, and a waste of valuable time.

Watching the Doctor figure out his new self however, is quite fun, and once Capaldi’s accent kicks in the genuine fun begins and the show returns to form. Too bad this only happens after a long meaningless amount of time in the Doctor’s absence. Still, his first meeting with Clara is a blast of clever wordplay, twisted expectations, and a sudden tonal shift that brings to mind Moffat’s best talent of manipulating his audience’s visceral experience. For all his faults, he does a good job here of subtly introducing blood-cooling information that changes everything. I wish he just had a clue how to handle his characters.

Still, once the real plot gets going, it manages well enough. The ending is a little shaky, casting doubt on the canon of the Doctor’s character in a way that should never be messed with, and then framing the finale as a deus ex machina (even though it technically isn’t, it’s presented as such) which feels a little cheap compared to how well the episode could have worked with one change in the edits. I’m probably being picky, but it just goes to show how easy it is to be more effective. Small laziness equals large loss.

Can we talk about Vastra and Jenny? Jenny seems like a pretty legit character, although a very minor one. I would complain that she needs some more development but compared to her screen time I don’t think at this point it’s necessary (it will be later though, so I’m issuing a warning). Vastra on the other hand, while I appreciate that she exists as a character, adds a disturbing dynamic to her relationship with Jenny. I’m happy that this episode finally featured an extreme close-up of the kiss between the two of them. It’s not even a “romantic” kiss – although it definitely is, you know, take my oxygen, all that sort of stuff – which is good to see. However, the context of their relationship throughout the episode is creepy. Vastra treats Jenny like a slave. Jenny even admits that the put on a facade in public, which I guess considering this episode takes place in the past kind of makes sense, although it raises questions about how the public accepts a lizard woman walking around (seriously, a veil hides small details, not large ones like green skin) and a Sontaran, but then questions why she continues to act like a slave in private… and then shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. She chastises Vastra for flirting with Clara, and yet she’s sexually objectified in the next scene. I’m glad for the kiss, but their relationship is borderline disturbing. Shame.

I really liked the villain(s) themselves, although I did feel that I never understood anything about them. The Doctor runs around saying “this seems familiar” or things to that effect over and over again, which doesn’t really help, but he never figures it out so we’re left with unmotivated villains – the worst kind. Where did he see them before? Where did they come from? What is it with the main baddy’s obsession with the promised land, and what’s the point of it all? The clutch of the villainy is clever – Deep Breath, reflecting the title – and made me genuinely concerned for the characters… at least the first time. I don’t know, it all ends in a very disappointing and detached manner. This episode doesn’t work on its own nearly as much as it feels like setup for something else. I guess I can live, but I wanted more.

All in all, this is a nice return for the Doctor if it’s a bit off-balance for the rest of the characters. I wish Capaldi had more screen time to establish his “new-ness” and Moffat would man up and deal with the giant sexist dinosaur in the room (pun?) instead of falling back on his outdated patterns. I also wish he’d learn how to avoid the deus ex machina. And for the love of all things holy, stop it with the giant mysteries. We get it, you have a plan for the whole season, we can tell that going in. Season 5 had the crack in the wall, Season 6 had the Doctor’s death (and the most disappointing ending ever), and even Season 7 had “Doctor Who?” which although featured some clever wordplay, didn’t actually address the question it posed. Now with Season 8 we have yet another super mystery element that will hang over our heads and probably ultimately let us down in the end.

Just focus on what actually matters, Moffat. Get your female characters sorted out, stop being creepy, let Clara actually do something, and write some more of the good wordplay that made your first episodes so much fun.