Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End

Journey’s End is everything that is wrong with modern Doctor Who all rolled into one. I was torn over whether this is worse than Voyage of the Damned, but I think it has to pip it. It… is… terrible! It’s a melting pot of ideas thrown together and stirred until it’s nothing but fanboy pulp; it’s Russell T Davies writing from the point of view of a ten-year-old playing with his Doctor Who action figures and going “and then Jack turns up and then the Daleks fight them and then Torchwood and Sarah Jane help them and then Mickey comes back and then Martha and she teleports and then they explode and then there’s two Doctors and then-…”. There is no restraint shown, it’s just trash. It’s hard to believe this is the same writer coming from Turn Left and Midnight.

It's telling that Davies wanted the Shadow Proclamation scene to be much bigger and include hordes of aliens from the past four years but they ran out of money so it had to be some Judoon and a woman with red contact lenses instead.

It’s telling that Davies wanted the Shadow Proclamation scene to be much bigger and include hordes of aliens from the past four years but they ran out of money so it had to be some Judoon and a woman with red contact lenses instead.

It’s simultaneously overblown and boring. It’s full of rambling exposition and ridiculous technobabble. It even makes fun of its own technobabble, but continues to use it to solve the plot anyway; meanwhile, interesting setups (like the Osterhagen key) go literally nowhere. A bluff amongst other bluffs with no consequence. Devices work and break and work again, people teleport in and out. Despite the two parts and extended length, the cast of characters is still too huge to get enough screen time. Even previously satisfying conclusions, such as Rose’s farewell in season 2, are undone, like prodding at a corpse to make it twitch. Rose now comes back then returns to the parallel world for really poor reasons, with a half-human double of the Doctor to spend her life with, just to thoroughly undermine one of the few good things about Doomsday.

She's back, and she's got a great big gun.

She’s back, and she’s got a great big gun.

As for the Daleks, I think they’ve given up any pretence that they’re an endangered species now. Time War? Void ships? Pah! Despite Rose eliminating “all Daleks” from existence with her godly powers, there’s somehow another army of them, grown from the cells of Davros himself, with enough power to move entire planets and destroy the Universe. No, not just the Universe, that’s not big enough anymore. We have to go bigger. All Universes! All parallel worlds, alternative timelines, past, present and future. All of reality and unreality and everything in between. The Daleks will destroy all of it. Don’t worry, though, the duplicate Doctor presses some buttons and all the Daleks are destroyed.

The 27 missing planets, pulled out of time and space, are used as a power source for the Daleks' Reality Bomb, within the Medusa Cascade. Also something about bees.

The 27 missing planets, pulled out of time and space, are used as a power source for the Daleks’ Reality Bomb, within the Medusa Cascade. Also something about bees.

I hated pretty much everything about this. Every little cliché that all the “big event” episodes have. All those TV news reports from around the world, celebrity cameos, disastrous events having no apparent consequences on everyday life, big fleets of CGI things swarming over the Earth while overbearingly bombastic music plays, the Doctor running about shouting plot things at people, and so on. There’s even a ratings-grabbing tease of a cliffhanger as it seems like the Doctor is going to regenerate (ooh, they kept that a secret!) but actually he comes back as David Tennant again because… yeah. The planet Earth being carried through space by the Tardis is the giant cherry on top of a very cheesy cake, and not in a good way.

The Doctor, the other Doctor, Captain Jack, Sarah Jane Smith, Martha, Rose and Rose's mum, take the controls of the Tardis.

The Doctor, the other Doctor, Captain Jack, Sarah Jane Smith, Martha, Rose and Rose’s mum, take the controls of the Tardis.

It’s not all bad, but it almost is. Admittedly, amongst all the running around, there’s some nice moments between the reunited characters. Wilf is good, as he always is. Doing a crossover with The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood is an interesting idea, and I’ve been keeping up with both shows in parallel, so the events line up properly, but I can’t imagine the average viewer doing the same, given the target demographic for them. The return of Davros is a big moment and he is as bonkers as ever and looks disgusting, as he should. Oh, and German Daleks. It’s almost worth it for German Daleks. “Exterminieren!” Aaaaand… that’s it. That’s basically the extent of anything good in this finale.

Davros' new hand is shocking! Sorry.

Davros’ new hand is shocking! Sorry.

Even Donna has to leave, and to make sure she can never come back, there has to be some memory-enabled killswitch in her head, because in modern Doctor Who, you can’t just part ways like ordinary people. Donna has, frankly, been fantastic, and she deserves a better end than this. She has been the moral compass for the Doctor on more than one occasion, and the best decision they made was in removing any possibility of romance right from the start so that she could have balanced motives and behave in a more human fashion. She will be missed.

Unable to retain the Time Lord knowledge, Donna's memory is wiped. Because the Doctor can do that, apparently.

Unable to retain the Time Lord knowledge, Donna’s memory is wiped. Because the Doctor can do that, apparently.

Season 4 has been really good, so it’s a shame that it had to end on such a duff note. This is the ultimate lesson in why “less is more”.

Turn Left

Turn Left is this season’s “Doctor-Lite” episode (filmed alongside the previous “Companion-Lite” episode for convenience, presumably), in which Donna relives an alternative life, a life that would have played out if she’d taken a different path and never met the Doctor, depicted in this case by a literal cross-roads situation. Turn left or turn right? How big a difference can one tiny decision really make?

Left or right? The right leads to a fascist dystopia. Subtle.

Left or right? The right leads to a fascist dystopia. Subtle.

The Doctor's death happens too quickly for him to regenerate.

The Doctor’s death happens too quickly for him to regenerate.

As it happens, quite a big difference. Without Donna to save the Doctor’s life during the encounter with the Racnoss, he is no longer alive to protect Earth from all the other invading aliens. The episode is like a big recap of events, just with a different perspective on things. Without the Doctor, we learn that Martha, Sarah Jane Smith and her group of kids are killed protecting the hospital from the Judoon attack, the Torchwood Cardiff team is killed stopping the Sontarans from choking the Earth, and all of London is obliterated when the Titanic crashes into it.

Donna and her family witness the destruction of London from afar.

Donna and her family witness the destruction of London from afar.

We see all of this from Donna’s perspective, as her and her family are swept up in events and end up as refugees as Britain descends into fascism. There are some touching moments as they spend time with their temporary housemates, and sadness as said housemates are carted off to a “labour camp” with other immigrants, their resilient spirits finally crushed. It shows how messed up the world has become that we could descend to such a level, but it’s scarily believable, and it drives home just how important the Doctor is to the world, and by extension, how important Donna is to saving the entire universe.

Mr. Colasanto and his family are whisked off in a truck.

Mr. Colasanto and his family are whisked off in a truck.

The reappearance of Rose is disappointing because it takes the focus away from Donna’s character, and this is supposed to be Donna’s story, not Rose’s. Moreover, Rose has had her chance, she’s reached the end of her character’s arc, and that should be it. The wall between dimensions should be locked shut, rather than have Rose repeatedly cross over like it’s no bother at all. I don’t entirely understand how she’s able to exist in Donna’s altered timeline, or how she knows what’s going to happen to her in the future. I know more will be explained in the final two parts, and there needed to be some external influence to guide Donna’s actions, which is fair enough, but I feel it dilutes this episode with unnecessary mystery. And why “bad wolf” again? It was a meaningless phrase then and it’s a meaningless phrase now.

Rose and Donna stare at the night sky.

Rose and Donna stare at the night sky.

There have been hints about Donna’s ultimate fate sprinkled throughout this season, and in the Pompeii episode, the psychic was able to sense the alien beetle on her back (even though it wasn’t there in that timeline). I thought the presence of the beetle was fantastic; there’s something very creepy about not being able to see something attached to your back, particularly combined with the clickety-clack of insect noises. It reminded me of the giant spiders from Jon Pertwee’s final serial, Planet of the Spiders, and the Star Trek TNG episode, Phantasms, which featured small invisible insects feeding off the crew, invisible except under certain light. But, generally, big insects on your back are just creepy, man.

UNIT's special equipment reveals the Time Beetle on Donna's back. What happens when she takes off her coat?

UNIT’s special equipment reveals the Time Beetle on Donna’s back. What happens when she takes off her coat?

With the stars going out, Rose returning and universes colliding, Turn Left is a prelude to the finale of Russell T Davies’ last season as showrunner, but it stands on its own as a thematically and emotionally strong episode that would have been even stronger without such baggage. It’s a little bit self-indulgent in revisiting episodes through stock footage, but it’s a clever idea, well-written and the episode is better than I remember it being the first time around. In fact, season 4 on the whole has been better than I remember; I can only assume the finale tainted it!

Midnight

Leaving Donna behind to sunbathe at a leisure complex, the Doctor takes a flying tour bus with some strangers to see the beautiful sights of planet Midnight’s sapphire waterfalls. This episode is, I suspect, a result of distributing the show’s budget elsewhere, but I usually find that this produces some of the most focused and interesting drama, and Midnight is no exception. With the entire story set within the enclosed walls of the airbus, we never see the sights outside (save a brief glance through the cockpit window) and we never see the ‘monster’, either. What we get instead is character drama, and Russell T Davies knows how to write characters.

Among the passengers are Merlin the Wizard and the King of Peladon.

Among the passengers are Merlin the Wizard and the King of Peladon.

In this respect, Midnight is like classic Doctor Who serials, just highly condensed, a lot more intense and much better directed. The small cast of characters aren’t exactly three-dimensional, but they behave in a believable fashion. Midnight explores humanity at its worst. Presented with an unknown intruder, paranoia sets in and threats begin to fly. Whereas a lot of episodes put faith in the inherent goodness of mankind, Midnight basically says that when our home comforts are taken away and we’re presented with danger and uncertainty, we cling to our base desires to distrust outsiders and even to kill. This unsettles the Doctor more than the monster itself and presents an interesting challenge for him, without a companion to back him up. It’s a pretty thrilling 45 minutes.

On the surface of Midnight, even the sunlight is deadly. Nothing can live out there... or can it?

On the surface of Midnight, even the sunlight is deadly. Nothing can live out there… or can it?

The mystery is never solved, either. There’s no happy ending, there’s no misunderstanding where the Doctor gives the creature a talking to and they have a nice cup of tea together. No, whatever the lifeform is, it’s left unknown, and all the better for it. It seemingly has some physical form and is able to damage the bus, get inside and inhabit the body of one of the passengers. It’s able to repeat what people say and it knows how to manipulate the other passengers into thinking its mind has moved into the Doctor. It’s really creepy, particularly the moment when Sky starts mirroring the others’ speech simultaneously. A simple idea, but an effective psychological trick.

The Doctor and Sky, locked into their mirrored dialogue.

The Doctor and Sky, locked into their mirrored dialogue.

Midnight manages to be more intense, scary and exciting than so many big budget episodes. David Tennant shows that he can act incredibly well when he’s not having to frantically run back and forth at the whim of the plot, or show off for his companion, like he often does. It’s his best performance since Family of Blood, if you ask me, and I’d happily take this toned-down flavour of Doctor Who more regularly.

Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead

Steven Moffat certainly has a knack for creating frightening creatures out of everyday things. I suspect it’s his mission to give nightmares to as many children as possible. In Silence in the Library, we learn that there is a race called the Vashta Nerada, who are microscopic flesh-eating organisms that look like shadows. Oh, and a few of them also live on Earth. Thought statues were scary? “Count the shadows” is the new “don’t blink”.

Spacesuited baddies also worked well in The Ambassadors of Death, and will again in The Impossible Astronaut.

Spacesuited baddies also worked well in The Ambassadors of Death, and will again in The Impossible Astronaut.

There’s plenty more scary situations and freaky imagery in this two-parter. The contorted face of Miss Evangelista inside the computer simulation even gave me a fright, and I’m a grown adult (usually). But there is more to this story than scares, and this is where it is perhaps a tad overloaded with ideas. They are excellent ideas, but you can’t easily sustain that many at once.

"Who turned out the lights" is about as frightening as "are you my mummy". Which is to say, not very.

“Who turned out the lights” is about as frightening as “are you my mummy”. Which is to say, not very.

For instance, the little girl in the parallel world is actually a computer who used to be a girl and the world isn’t real. The doctor (not the Doctor) is a program on the moon. There are creatures that look like shadows and live in forests and eat people. Dead people can be stored in computer chips and still talk for a while, or be brought back as faces on robots. Oh, and the Doctor’s future wife has met the Doctor for the first time in his life and the last time in her life, because they’re travelling in opposite temporal directions, or something. Bloody hell, Moffat! This is what happens when they only give you one story per season to write!

The vast library. simply called The Library, takes up the entire planet. That's a lot of books.

The vast library. simply called The Library, takes up the entire planet. That’s a lot of books.

I suppose this was the start of his big plans for Doctor Who. In a Time Traveller’s Wife style, Alex Kingston plays River Song, who knows more about the Doctor than anyone else, including his real name, which will become an annoyingly common tease in later seasons. She’s looking a little younger than she does in her future appearances, because unfortunately that’s how time works in the real world, but this is actually the character’s last appearance from her perspective. There is far more to this enigmatic character than can possibly be written here, and to be fair, we’re not meant to know any of it yet. I very much doubt her backstory (or should that be frontstory?) was planned out at this stage.

River Song comments on the Doctor's young looking eyes.

River Song comments on the Doctor’s young looking eyes.

The story is complex and, annoyingly, uses lots of very rapid exposition to explain things as they’re happening, because otherwise they wouldn’t make sense. It’s not as bad as it gets towards the end of the seventh season, say, but it’s enough to grate. However, even through the complex plot there weaves an emotional core, little moments that can’t help but touch the heart, such as Miss Evangelista’s dying words crackling away from her storage device, or Donna’s anguish over discovering her children are just a simulation and have disappeared before her eyes.

I could do without these over-the-top sequences, to be honest. The Doctor should not be an action hero.

I could do without these over-the-top sequences, to be honest. The Doctor should not be an action hero.

There’s also a few of those little Moffat signature touches, the things he likes to throw in, like when the Doctor points out there are six people in the room rather than five or suddenly notices the extra shadow, very much in the style of noticing the ticking clockwork clown or the typewriter operating itself. The girl trapped in the computer, looking back at the Doctor from the other side, will be re-used for Clara Oswald’s first appearance, and it does bear some similarity to the Girl In The Fireplace, also looking through a barrier between worlds. It’s this imagination that makes Steven Moffat’s episodes some of the best in modern Doctor Who. This Library two-parter is not my favourite of his, but it’s very good and a step above everything else in what has been a generally high quality season so far. I will grow tired of River Song and her “hello sweetie”s but that time is not yet.

The Unicorn and the Wasp

This is another story written by Gareth Roberts, who wrote the third season episode The Shakespeare Code. It’s very similar in how it visits a famous writer from history, litters the script with lots of references to their works and creates a fantastical story out of a real life mystery. It’s also quite funny and rather more memorable than the somewhat forgettable Shakespeare Code.

The Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie for the first time.

The Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie for the first time.

Agatha Christie is the subject of this story, which positions itself as a mystery comedy mash-up set in 1926, just prior to her famous disappearance. It’s full of clichéd scenarios, reverends, lead pipes, libraries, lightning flashes in a blackout at dinner, and so on, but it can get away with it because that’s the point. The story doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither does the Doctor, which is a bit off for him because, despite this being an exciting time, people are dying around him!

It's a good thing two people have died at this point - there wouldn't be enough seats at the dinner table otherwise.

It’s a good thing two people have died at this point – there wouldn’t be enough seats at the dinner table otherwise.

It’s an ensemble piece, like any good mystery, with just enough time to learn about the characters. It’s all stiff-upper-lipped Britishness on the outside with scandalous secrets inside, and to the episode’s credit, it manages to fit all this in and make the characters enjoyable to watch. Donna, much like the audience, has fun mocking their vocabulary – pip-pip and tally-ho, indeed! Her and the Doctor’s “we’re not a couple” thing continues with comedic regularity. Meanwhile, Agatha is the most normal of the lot, portrayed as a down-to-Earth woman who lacks faith in her own abilities as a writer while struggling to deal with her failed marriage.

It's called a Vespiform, a shape-changing alien. That's about it.

It’s called a Vespiform, a shape-changing alien. That’s about it.

Unfortunately, there’s barely any time left to deal with the whole “giant wasp” issue, so its motivations have to be relegated to an incredibly brief backstory by the Lady Eddison and a contrived psychic jewel. There’s also the fact that, well, it’s a giant wasp. It’s in keeping with the animals-as-aliens theme that the production designers are so fond of, but it’s not very imaginative (nor is it likely something that size would be able to fly). Nevertheless, humour can make up for silliness, and this is a funny episode with witty writing and good performances. I must say, I rather enjoyed it, what-what!

PS. The butler didn’t do it.

The Doctor’s Daughter

It’s funny, I seem to recall The Doctor’s Daughter being really bad, but I rather liked it this time. I was probably remembering the story’s weaker elements, which are, admittedly, still a problem. For instance, instead of bringing the Doctor’s fictional daughter back (played by a previous star’s actual daughter, ho-ho!), the episode literally invents one, then kills her off, then decides not to kill her off after all so she can come back for more episodes, and then subsequently does nothing with her for the next six years (and counting). We know very little about the Doctor’s past (as Donna says, he talks a lot but doesn’t say much), but it seems to be outside of the show’s scope to actually fill in any details about his life, such as his family (and, lately, his name). Preserving the mystery is more important.

Now that she's married to David Tennant, I wonder if she still calls him Daddy. Actually, I don't want to know.

Now that she’s married to David Tennant, I wonder if she still calls him Daddy. Actually, I don’t want to know.

Anyway, this episode isn’t primarily about the Doctor’s new daughter, it’s about two warring factions on a pre-terraformed colony planet. It’s one of those stories that questions what it means to be a soldier, whether there can be peace without victory, and whether the Doctor is really the pacifist he thinks he is. Yeah, it’s lightweight and the characters are thin, but it’s pretty smart. It also throws a curveball when Donna works out what’s really been going on. Wars that have been raging for longer than collective memory are a common sci-fi trope, but this has a terrific twist that I had completely forgotten about, and for once it’s the companion that works it out. Another point for Donna.

Martha is welcomed by the Hath.

Martha is welcomed by the Hath.

Martha’s story is more incidental, having been accidentally dragged through time in the Tardis at the end of the previous episode. As such, she provides the needed exposition for the Hath’s side of this conflict (and knowledge of Time Lords for Donna’s benefit), but her adventure with her fishy friend just sort of stops when he accidentally dies saving her and nobody else is there to be influenced by it. The ending is also a bit silly, as this advanced terraforming equipment is activated by smashing it on the floor. Yeah, it’s symbolic but it makes little sense. And what exactly happened to Jenny’s gunshot wound at the end? It’s just gone. It smacks of a last minute reshoot.

The terraforming machine, the source of the colonists' creation myth.

The terraforming machine, the source of the colonists’ creation myth.

Aside from that, I liked the episode. It does feel rushed, like a big story crammed into too short a space, but that’s somewhat fitting given what’s actually happening. The Doctor’s a tad preachy in this, but that’s what he does, drop in on people and tell them what they’re doing wrong. The Hath look cheap and so do the sets, but this was probably a low-budget episode and, frankly, it makes a change from the overblown global disaster stuff from the previous episodes. This tells a more personal story and is more effective as a result. On reflection, then, surprisingly good.

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

The Sontaran Stratagem harkens back to the old 1970s Doctor Who serials, not just because it re-uses the titular villains but because the whole set-up is like something Jon Pertwee would have been involved in, having to begrudgingly get along with the military (UNIT) while temporarily trapped on Earth. It even features human workmen who become possessed and/or cloned, which was a regular staple of the old serials, probably because it was cheap. Thankfully, the Sontarans themselves look a lot better than the old rubbery masks, but they’re still very much the same villains.

Colonel Mace leads UNIT at this time. He's no Brigadier, that's for sure.

Colonel Mace leads UNIT at this time. He’s no Brigadier, that’s for sure.

In later series, the Sontarans will become the comic relief, particularly the Doctor’s friend Strax, with his casually violent remarks and failure to understand human ways, but these Sontarans are still the threatening military force that they once were, treating humans as pests to be eradicated. They only know of war and glory, it’s all they live for. This should make them boring, but it doesn’t; however, it needs a tragic angle to give it depth, and that’s where Luke Rattigan comes in. Tricked by the Sontarans, this naive young genius is the equivalent of what would have been some jaded old company director in a Jon Pertwee episode, working with the enemy for his own goals. It does highlight some of the differences between then and now.

Luke destroys the Sontaran ship by overheating their Xbox 360.

Luke destroys the Sontaran ship by overheating their Xbox 360.

For instance, back then, the (third) Doctor wasn’t a famous figure revered throughout the galaxy. The aliens or other forces he faced didn’t know him, and he often didn’t know them either. And although the world was put in danger, whether by volcanic eruption, invasion by dinosaurs, or assault by Autons, the world at large didn’t see any of it happen. Conversely, the modern series is absolutely obsessed with the whole wide world being put through horrible things without stopping to think about the impact it ought to have. Every time they do one of those news report montages telling us it’s the end of the world, I just cringe. How many times can it really be the end of the world? It’s utterly incongruous with other characters’ continued insistence that there’s no such thing as aliens, but more importantly, it’s just boring. There is no impact anymore; there is no greater threat. The Doctor can stand there on a planet that’s about to be killed with toxic gas, but I just won’t believe it’s going to happen. He’ll wave his sonic screwdriver around and everything will be fine again.

Commander Skorr presumably takes his helmet off so that the other Sontarans know who he is.

Commander Skorr presumably takes his helmet off so that the other Sontarans know who he is.

So, this two-parter is a mix of some good old-school set-ups with some bad new-school wrap-ups. It’s not as good as it could be, but it’s not too bad either. The Sontarans are just about right (war chanting aside), the script is often sharp and funny, Donna continues to impress as a companion, it’s nice to see Martha again, although she’s so bland that you can’t actually tell when it’s the clone version on screen (or maybe that’s the point), and the throwbacks to the Doctor’s past with UNIT are a nice touch (particularly that he can’t remember if he worked for them in the 70s or 80s!). But there is just too much screwdriving this and deadlocking that, winning with technobabble yet again, and everyone is fine and happy and going about their normal lives after the ordeal is over. It’s grandiose and overblown because it has the technology to do it now, but that doesn’t mean it should.

That's a great plan, Doctor... unless you're an aeroplane.

That’s a great plan, Doctor… unless you’re an aeroplane.