Monthly Archives: July 2014

Amy’s Choice

Five years have passed since Amy and Rory travelled with the Doctor, and now they’ve settled down in the sleepy village of Leadworth. Amy is heavily pregnant, Rory has a ridiculous mullet, and life is good for them. But when the Doctor drops in on them again, they keep having dreams that they’re back there with him in the Tardis.

Anyone else think Amy looks good pregnant?

Anyone else think Amy looks good pregnant?

Amy and Rory have recently joined the Doctor and are travelling with him in the Tardis. But when the power fails and the temperature starts dropping, they all start having dreams that they’re five years in the future, settling down to start a family in the sleepy village of Leadworth.

THIS one is reality, definitely. Or maybe the other one was.

THIS one is reality, definitely. Or maybe the other one was.

Naturally, they can’t both be true, and from the audience’s perspective, it seems obvious that the former is a dream. Perhaps if this was a later season (say, the seventh) and the supporting cast were being phased out, the village setting would be equally believable. We’d be as genuinely confused as the characters as to which is reality, but even the first time I watched it, it was obvious that five years weren’t going to pass between episodes in the middle of the first season with a brand new companion. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining to watch the mystery unravel.

The Tardis falls into an impossible "cold star". Or does it?

The Tardis falls into an impossible “cold star”. Or does it?

Amy’s choice is between her fiancé Rory and the Doctor, but she doesn’t really end up making such a choice. Since Rory is killed in the village, she is forced to pick the only reality where he’s still alive, which is so easy a choice that it might as well not exist. The fact that the story then pulls a “it was ALL a dream” ending out of the bag could be seen as a massive waste of time anyway, but actually, I rather like it when an episode breaks out of the standard mould. It also reminded me a little of the very first “in the Tardis” type story, The Edge of Destruction. Weirdness all round.

Toby Jones as the Dream Lord. Or is he?

Toby Jones as the Dream Lord. Or is he?

That the Dream Lord is not some malicious fiend makes a refreshing change. It would have been too easy to bring back one of the many entities encountered over the course of the Doctor’s adventures. It’s more sinister to realise that he’s part of the Doctor’s mind, the darker part of his subconscious. The Dream Lord’s apparent power to put them to sleep is frightening enough that you could do away with the alien-possessed elderly villagers plot, but I like how it almost turns into Hot Fuzz in the second half. Clearly, this was a budget-saving episode but, as I repeatedly like to point out, these are often the best.

Invasion of the pension snatchers.

Invasion of the pension snatchers.

It’s low-key, it’s creepy, it’s different. It puts the characters into an interesting dilemma and it accurately captures the convincing illusion of dreams. The actual choice may not have been the defining moment I would have liked, but the episode’s unique qualities make it a highlight of this season. And I never expected to see Rory whack an old lady with a piece of wood, so that’s something.

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The Vampires of Venice

The Vampires of the Venice is one of those forgettable mid-season episodes that I often get confused with earlier episodes that are distinctly similar. Historical setting, aliens disguised as humans (fishy vampires, in this case) and, goodness, it even ends with the Doctor climbing up a tower in a storm to disable some sort of equipment at the last possible moment, which he’s done at least twice since the revival.

I don't know whether to be aroused or terrified.

I don’t know whether to be aroused or terrified.

It has a certain old-school feel, like the classic serials, in places. The Venice setting looks a bit small and stage-like (though that’s probably unintentional), and the Tardis Team works together as an ensemble, cooking up a plan together, with Amy getting herself captured on purpose and Rory getting into a swordfight (with a broomstick). But it’s fairly breezy and handles dark themes with humour. Rory is an excellent addition to the cast, as Amy already takes this dangerous life for granted. Plus, his delivery is just perfect. I’m glad he’s sticking around for a bit longer.

Amy and Rory try to enjoy their romantic getaway to 1580 Venice, before the inevitable danger arises. Seriously, what are the odds?

Amy and Rory try to enjoy their romantic getaway to 1580 Venice, before the inevitable danger arises. Seriously, what are the odds?

As Doctor Who likes to do, the mythical creatures are explained as being aliens, and all their quirks (lack of reflection, drinking blood) are explained away with “science”. There are no surprises or twists and I was honestly getting bored by the final act, as tidal waves threaten to sink Venice and the special effects struggle to keep up. There is a cryptic reference made to the the Silence at the end, but it’s meaningless at this point.

With their perception filter switched off, the Saturnynians revert to their true form.

With their perception filter switched off, the Saturnynians revert to their true form.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the episode is the brief injection of dramatic conflict as Rory confronts the Doctor about putting people in danger, or rather, making people want to impress him by putting themselves in danger. I like it when the Doctor’s motives and actions are examined by others, as it helps us to learn what drives him. There’s actually a much better exchange in Meanwhile in the Tardis Part 2 (set immediately prior to the events of this episode) where the Doctor explains why he needs fresh eyes with him to see the Universe with wonder again. There’s nothing quite that good in Vampires of Venice; it’s rather… ordinary. Not bad, certainly funny in parts, but run-of-the-mill.

The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone

It was only a matter of time before Steven Moffat started filling his new series with his own characters and villains. This two-part story brings back both River Song and the Weeping Angels, each for their second appearance, and starts introducing facets of his ongoing story arc – headless monks, military clerics, the dimensional ‘crack’, a prophecy of an explosion that will cause it (coinciding with the original air date of the finale) and hints about River possibly killing the Doctor in the future. All very intriguing and, I dare say, rather baffling right now. Thankfully, the episodes have the good sense not to dwell on this, instead focusing on the threat of the Angels.

The crack features prominently in part 2, explaining some of Amy's missing memories, but we still don't learn why it's specifically following her.

The crack features prominently in part 2, explaining some of Amy’s missing memories, but we still don’t learn why it’s specifically following her.

This is only their second appearance, but already these perfect adversaries have been practically ruined. The bit I’m referring to is in Flesh and Stone, where we actually see the Angels moving. Yes, seeing them turn their heads like that is creepy, but the whole point of the Weeping Angels is that you can NEVER see them move. If you theoretically could, they wouldn’t look like statues, because they only exist as statues when they are observed. Moreover, the idea that they would have to be consciously aware of somebody watching them is rather less satisfying a concept than observation itself determining their quantum state. It’s as if “don’t blink” wasn’t scary enough, so now “don’t look” had to be awkwardly added in. The scene is ultimately unnecessary to the plot, and if we absolutely had to see them move, they could have done so in between flashes of light like before rather than in full view.

"Agh, not the coat, not the coat!"

“Agh, not the coat, not the coat!”

The other modification to the Angels is that their captured image holds their essence, which can come to life. This is a somewhat implausible concept, because what constitutes an “image”? Would a pencil sketch of an angel come to life? What about a painting? Or a polaroid? Would it contain the soul of the Angel that was copied? And, if so, what if you drew or painted a generic one rather than a specific one? However, the scene where Amy is watching the looped Angel video gradually change every time she looks away is, hands down, one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. It’s magnificent. There’s something about these Weeping Angels that instills such a genuine fear and horror, even when they are humanised somewhat. In this two-parter, their powers are broader. They can absorb energy, get inside your head, regrow their bodies… they are unpredictable, thereby raising the tension.

The fuzzy video makes it even better. Creep factor 10.

The fuzzy video makes it even better. Creep factor 10.

Both episodes are have a cracking pace to them. It’s more action-packed than Blink, but it’s interspersed with quiet, tension-building moments. The direction is wonderful, making use of light and dark in innovative ways. The ‘Aliens’ inspiration is obvious. The sets and visuals are impressive, although the clerics’ military garb is decidedly modern-day for what is supposed to be the far future. The plot has enough shocking twists to stay interesting and frightening all the way through. Grievances aside, it’s a terrific double-bill.

The sudden realisation that they're surrounded entirely by regenerating Angel statues, each and every one turning to face them, is masterfully done.

The sudden realisation that they’re surrounded entirely by regenerating Angel statues, each and every one turning to face them, is masterfully done.

River has changed, though. Perhaps that’s to be expected, as she is younger and more impulsive, but this is where her irritating phase begins. From the opening scene, it’s clear she’s been turned into a sort of sexy secret agent type, with quips and one-liners and an abundance of confidence. “Hello, sweetie” was a nod back to her first appearance, but it’s starting to grate already. River and the Doctor act like an old married couple, which Amy finds very amusing. Both of them like to talk, and talk very fast. More annoying, however, is the Doctor’s “you shouldn’t mess with me” posturing, while Murray Gold blasts out his bombastic Eleventh Doctor theme, which I find very tiresome. No offence to Matt Smith, who I think is fantastic, but I am looking forward to a more subdued Doctor taking over. Someone without verbal diarrhoea, preferably.

Revelation: the Tardis only makes that fwooorrping noise because the Doctor has been leaving the brake on for the past 900 years.

Revelation: the Tardis only makes that fwooorrping noise because the Doctor hs been leaving the brake on for the past 900 years.

#BAH BAH BAH, BAH BAH BA-BUH!!# Thinly veiled threat. Pause for drama. Bang.

#BAH BAH BAH, BAH BAH BA-BUH!!# Thinly veiled threat. Pause for drama. Bang.

There’s a curious scene in part 2 where the Doctor leaves Amy (with her eyes closed) and then appears to return to tell her something important. I can’t remember at the time whether I twigged the relevance of this scene, but you can see he’s wearing the jacket that he supposedly dropped earlier, and it turns out to be rather important and clever. Amidst all the other cleverness with the magic crack and vanishing clerics, it’s easy to miss. Most likely, it just washed over me as another jarring tone shift that Doctor Who likes to throw in from time to time. Like, for instance, Amy kissing the Doctor on the night before her wedding. Yeah… awkward!

The eleventh Doctor's response of "eurgh, but you're human" shows how different he is from the romantic tenth. Amy, however, ought to know better.

The eleventh Doctor’s response of “eurgh, but you’re human” shows how different he is from the romantic tenth. Amy, however, ought to know better.

Victory of the Daleks

The Daleks have always been a not-so-subtle allegory for Nazi Germany, the “master race” wanting to purify the species and take control of everything, so it was inevitable that they’d feature in an actual WWII episode eventually. Winston Churchill’s war room has supposedly built these new weapons, which Professor Bracewell calls “Ironsides”, but obviously the Daleks have their own plans and their loyal servant routine is just a facade. While the Doctor spends much of the episode trying to persuade Churchill that the Daleks are remorseless creatures with an ulterior motive, I was reminded of the rather excellent Power of the Daleks, in which much the same thing happens. Unfortunately, this episode doesn’t handle it so effectively and the story is pretty much nonsense.

The Doctor, Amy and a not entirely convincing Churchill.

The Doctor, Amy and a not entirely convincing Churchill.

So, the last of the last of the last (really, this time!) of the Daleks, having slipped back through time, have found a special Dalek-growing device that will reboot the entire race, but they’re not pure enough to activate it, so they need to construct an implausible scenario where the Doctor will inadvertently confirm the Daleks’ identity to the Progenator Device, by building an android scientist (Bracewell) and infiltrating the London war room during the blitz. Ooooo—kay. After their plan actually works, they attack London indirectly by turning its lights on during a blackout, but we then learn they could have blown the Earth up with the bomb inside Robo-Bracewell anyway, so what was the point of that? And I don’t care how advanced he is, there’s no way he could have built spaceworthy Spitfires and trained pilots to fly them in ten minutes. That’s just ridiculous.

The bomb is deactivated using the power of love. Sigh.

The bomb is deactivated using the power of love. Sigh.

The episode does have its strengths, however. When the Daleks are playing their role as slaves, they’re arguably more menacing than when they’re being up-front and honest. They certainly get the Doctor nervous. Servant Daleks asking people if they want tea in loud Dalek voices, and, later, the Doctor bluffing his way onto their ship using a jammy dodger, are examples of the British humour that permeates the show in its more whimsical moments. It’s also interesting that the Daleks actually sort of win this time. Finally, there’s the added mystery about the crack, which now appears to have removed memories of the previous Dalek invasions from Amy’s mind, or possibly erased the events themselves. Intriguing.

"WE ARE THE NEW DALEKS. PLEASE TAKE US TO THE CHECKOUT. LIMIT ONE PER CUSTOMER."

“WE ARE THE NEW DALEKS. PLEASE TAKE US TO THE CHECKOUT. LIMIT ONE PER CUSTOMER.”

Ultimately, though, the plot is flimsy, purely a setup for the new Daleks (who were wasted on a mediocre adventure game released around the same time) and, presumably, an excuse to sell a colourful range of toys. Shameless!

The Beast Below

The Doctor takes Amy into space, the 29th century, where solar flares have forced humanity to vacate the Earth and travel the stars in massive ark ships the size of cities. It’s a quaint little setup in which the whole of the UK (minus Scotland, guffaw!) gets its own ship, its many decks separated into counties and the tenth Queen Elizabeth ruling over it all. But, naturally, bad stuff is happening and the Doctor has to fix it.

Starship UK. Caution: may contain Surrey.

Starship UK. Caution: may contain Surrey.

I had, perhaps naively, expected all of Steven Moffat’s scripts to be as good as his efforts in past seasons, but that was never going to happen. The Beast Below is no classic, but it’s got Moffat’s signature traits, including bags of imagination, creepy mechanical men and characters receiving forgotten messages from themselves. Despite the story taking place in an out-of-this-world setting, it feels close to home, familiar and relatable (children going to school and London Underground signs around the deck lifts). In terms of writing, it’s pretty sharp, and the two new leads slot effortlessly into their roles, but some of the friction when they disagree comes across a little forced at this early a stage. Then there’s the odd cringeworthy moment, like when Liz 10 says that she “rules”. Groan.

"I'm the bloody queen, mate!"

“I’m the bloody queen, mate!”

On a broader note, why is it so unbelievable that a ship could float by itself through space without an engine? I’m no physicist, but without anything to cause drag, couldn’t any mass continue through space on just inertia? The trick with the glasses of water is clever in itself, but it often feels like the Doctor leaps to conclusions (and knows everything about everything) and happens upon the answers straight away just to show off how clever he is. Everyone also makes huge assumptions about what would happen if the Star Whale were set free, even the Doctor, to the point of killing it! Nobody considers that it might not actually doom the UK population, except for Amy because, again, it needs to show how clever she is. I get that it’s supposed to show the Doctor can make mistakes and needs somebody with him, but it’s contrived.

Trapped inside the Star Whale's mouth, the Doctor instigates a gag reflex.

Trapped inside the Star Whale’s mouth, the Doctor instigates a gag reflex.

The Beast Below has all the right ingredients but doesn’t quite know what to do with them. Once revealed that the oppressed nation is a self-imposed necessary evil, the creepy mannequins don’t make much sense anymore (and half-human robot mannequins make even less sense; why throw that in?). The central theme of exploitation and the “greater good” is perfectly fine but leaves too many questions. The strengths of the episode are in its individual ideas and the drama that emerges as a result. It’s a solid effort nevertheless.

Was anybody else bothered by the way the clearly two-faced 'Smilers' actually had about four faces?

Was anybody else bothered by the way the clearly two-faced ‘Smilers’ actually had about four faces?

Meanwhile, that mysterious crack is following Amy, and the Doctor gets a call from Winston Churchill…

The Eleventh Hour

A new showrunner, a new Doctor, a new companion, a new Tardis, new logo, new titles and a whole new story arc, The Eleventh Hour wipes the slate clean and says “time for something new”. It’s one of the freshest and most confident season openers since Spearhead from Space saw Jon Pertwee tumbling out of the Tardis in colour.

"I was in the swimming pool." "You said you were in the library." "So was the swimming pool."

“I was in the swimming pool.” “You said you were in the library.” “So was the swimming pool.”

I’ve moaned about introductory episodes being set on Earth during some sort of invasion, and while The Eleventh Hour is no exception, this is an example of when it can work really well. As the title suggests, the Doctor is up against the clock and has to stop the Atraxi ships from incinerating the Earth while stuck in a small English village (with a closed post office), without his Tardis or sonic screwdriver, and he only has twenty minutes. Not the sort of thing you want to have to do on your first day.

The Doctor tells the Atraxi to bugger off.

The Doctor tells the Atraxi to bugger off.

There’s so much new stuff to cram into this episode, it’s a testament to Steven Moffat’s efficient plotting that it all fits and makes sense. New girl Amy Pond has to be introduced twice, once as a little girl and again twelve years later (her character somewhat mirroring the other ‘girl who waited’ from The Girl in the Fireplace), introduce Rory, the boyfriend competing with Amy’s obsession over her ‘imaginary’ friend, the Doctor has to find his feet, eat fishfingers and custard, investigate the mysterious crack in the Universe that has manifested itself as a crack Amelia’s bedroom wall, explain dimensional barriers, perception filters, Prisoner Zero escaping and then convince a scientific consortium to help him reprogram every clock in the world using a mobile phone. It’s just insane.

This crack will follow the Doctor through time and space for a while.

This crack will follow the Doctor through time and space for a while.

The script is full of wonderful one-liners and witty banter, the plot has some great misdirection (who Amy is, what ‘the human residence’ means) and clever ideas like the man barking like his dog because he didn’t know which voice was which. There’s a good mix of creepy and whimsical; I loved all the creepy stuff with the extra room in the house and the door in the corner of your eye, but it’s just one of many ideas that whoosh by too fast.

Amy comes face-to-face with Prisoner Zero's true form.

Amy comes face-to-face with Prisoner Zero’s true form.

Matt Smith makes a terrific first impression. Inevitably, the manic style of the Tenth Doctor has taken grip now, so there’s no change there, but the mannerisms are more alien and weird. The eleventh Doctor doesn’t quite understand human customs or good manners. He’s more of a fairy tale character here. His weirdness is amplified due to being newly regenerated, but to be honest, he doesn’t change much going forward.

"You're Scottish, fry something." The Doctor finally discovers his craving for fishfingers and custard.

“You’re Scottish, fry something.” The Doctor finally discovers his craving for fishfingers and custard.

While I think this is an incredibly strong opening, there are some less favourable elements creeping in. Murray Gold’s music is bombastic and overbearing, and “that theme” that he keeps reusing starts here. This is also the start of the Doctor’s “don’t mess with me, look what I did to all my other enemies” phase, when he becomes increasingly arrogant. No, perhaps it started earlier with David Tennant, but it’s blossomed into its own thing now and will continue to get worse. Finally, while I enjoy mysteries and story arcs, I seem to recall the Crack™ doesn’t get a satisfactory resolution. In fact, its appearance in this story (as a gateway to a prison dimension?) doesn’t correlate with what we later learn about it. Much of the story arc is incredibly convoluted as far as I can recall, but I’ll re-appraise that properly at a later date.