Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The God Complex

The recurring theme of this season (apart from aren’t your mum  and dad great) has been that of the Doctor’s fallibility.  It remains open to question what the Doctor’s fall at Demon’s Run really is/was/will be, but here we have the third in a trilogy of falls as once again the Doctor, through no fault of his own, is put in a position where he gets things badly wrong.  The first part of the trilogy was the loss of Melody, the second was the loss of Older Amy and here we have the Doctor severing his friendship with the Ponds after once again having made a mistake and after being confronted with his own personal failings in a pretty brutal way. For Rory and The Doctor this is practically “The Girl Who Waited part 2”. 

This is also an episode in which the differences between the Doctors is indirectly highlighted. 11 never really had control of the situation.  Rita clearly didn’t believe that he could save her, nor for that matter did Gibbis.  Rory was actively expecting people to start dying!  I think 10 would’ve had an easier time of this episode.  Of course people would still have died and people would’ve turned on him in the end (see Voyage of the Damned and Midnight) but crucially they would have believed in 10 in the first place.  11 was just too weird and too unable to function  on a human level to ever inspire that level of confidence.

The Doctor’s ultimate confession of his vanity to Amy is handled in a genuinely sensitive way, far less brutally than the similar confession to Ace in Fenric.  The abrupt goodbye is similarly well handled; reminiscent of Tegan’s departure, but more mutual and with a much fonder overtone.  In many ways this episode is arguably the redemption of the Doctor as he finally takes responsibility for the unintentional havoc he has wrought over Amy’s life (and to a lesser extent Rory).  The Doctor has realised that he did not have a good enough answer to Rory’s concerns over Amy’s safety and that the best answer was to get Amy out of harm’s way.  He does so in a way that gives Amy and Rory a real chance to live and enjoy a real life and marriage without Amy pining for him or a life in the TARDIS.

It is a shame that the culmination of the Doctor/Rory/Amy arc overshadows the other merits of the episode.  This is by far the strongest contribution Whithouse has made to the series to date.  The guest cast is excellent.  The Conspiracy Geek is perhaps a little one note, but Rita is the latest in an honourable line of “characters who could have been companions”.  Gibbis is a real joy, the kind of character who would sit comfortably in Douglas Adams’ Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.  The Doctor is suitably repelled by his sly and aggressive cowardice and the character is never played entirely for laughs.  There is a low key menace to him  throughout.  

The energetic direction was impressive.  Initially I found it a little gimmicky, but as the episode progressed the gimmicky flashes became simply a flourish of the overall style.  This is another small way in which we see the show striving to tell stories in a new and invigorating way.  It would be over-egging the pudding to have used this style in say The Impossible Astronaut, but it elevates this more straightforward tale.  Night Terrors could certainly have done with this sort of verve.

Finally, we have the minotaur creature itself.  Although it is not always wholly convincing it is far more convincingly realised than its closest comparator, the Nimon.  In the end it is the intelligence and feeling underneath the costume that is the really interesting feature here and Whitehouse script and Smith’s performance as the Doctor subtly provide a great deal of character depth and sympathy for the creature. 

All in all this is another notable and highly effective episode in season full of such strong stories.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Girl Who Waited

Now this is much more like it.  A massive improvement on McRae’s (and RTD’s) reintroduction of the Cybermen in season 2.  If the last episode was a Missing Adventure, this one is a New Adventure, with a fallible and morally ambiguous Doctor once again acting in a highly questionable and manipulative way in relation to his companions.  Some won’t like that and some won’t like another timey-wimey plot, but this was a proper and necessary examination of our three regulars.

Amy and Rory once again suffer because the Doctor gets things wrong.  He doesn’t intend to do so, but that is scarce consolation to Older Amy or Rory.  Rory has to choose between the Women he loves and the woman he loves and Amy and Amy have to decide which of them is to die.  All the time the Doctor is lying to them all.  This is pretty dark and heady stuff for a mainstream Saturday evening audience and it speaks volumes that the show is able and willing to take the risk of going into this territory.  The New Adventures swam these waters regularly, but its arguable that the TV series has not presented us with such a difficult position for the regulars since the ‘60s.

Older Amy is beautifully judged by Tom McRae and Karen Gillan.  She is “the same but different” in just the same way that we are all the same but different to our younger selves.  Her refusal to assist her younger self and sacrifice herself is completely in keeping with the selfish streak that runs through Young Amy, but with an extra helping of bitterness and scepticism.  This is an Amy that must have some understanding of Rory’s endless waiting and it is no coincidence that she naturally falls back into her relationship with Rory in spite of her own best efforts not to do so.  Tellingly, she does not fall back into the relationship with the Doctor.  It is open to interpretation as to whether she actually believed that the Doctor could find a way of the two Amy’s to co-exist or if she ultimately decided to sacrifice herself for the sake of Rory.

Rory’s understated decency in this episode is a wonderful.  You could see him settling down with Older Amy in an alternative ending.  He cares about whether she is okay and he cares about the prospect of loosing a life with Amy, but it is obvious that he is not about to dump Amy because she has piled on the years.  His condemnation of the Doctor is pitched perfectly too.  The Doctor spends his life having to make awful decisions; it is an inevitable part of his lifestyle and consequence of his own life history.  Rory sees this because his is in the TARDIS for Amy, not for the adventure.  He has every right to call the Doctor to account on this, particularly as he had already raised the risk Amy is subjected to in Vampire of Venice.  The Doctor is found profoundly wanting for a good reply to Rory’s indignation.

All of which brings us to the Doctor himself.  The Eleventh Doctor shown here harkens back not to Troughton but to Hartnell and McCoy at their most callously alien.  It is evident from the get go that the Doctor is aware that a choice will have to be made between Older Amy and Younger Amy.  It seems equally clear that the Doctor decides very quickly that the survivor must be Younger Amy.  The Doctor’s actions throughout the rest of the episode are calculated to manipulate the Amys and Rory to achieving this end.   On the one hand this is a logical and “necessary” decision to make.  Both cannot survive, one must live to the exclusion of the other.  Older Amy’s life appears to have been pretty awful and traumatic.  Younger Amy can have a happier, safer life with Rory.  The survival of the Younger Amy would correct the Doctor’s mistake also.  

Against all of the moral issue that Older Amy is the original time line.  Younger Amy’s life requires a re-writing of the time line with the effect that Older Amy will effectively die.  Older Amy clearly sees enough worth in her life to want to carry on living.  In no way can it therefore be said the Doctor has made the “right” decision.  There is some sense of the Doctor realising this himself in attempting to “give” Rory the choice, but for the feeling that in doing so he is attempting to relieve himself of responsibility for the choice.  

Looking at the more superficially aspects of the episode for a “cheap” “Doctor-lite” show, this has some fantastic design work.  The Handbots are as effective in their own way and environments are the arty robots in The Robots of Death.  Some of the CG was really beautiful, albeit reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland film.

The only thing I can really hold against the episode is the same problem as The Girl in the Fireplace. It is not really clear how the multiple linked time streams should really work and they fail in precisely the way needed to ensure the story takes place.  But some dodgy technobabble is easily forgiven when it allows for the innovation of a such an excellent tragedy.

Night Terrors (short)

The Parent Agenda returns once more in this episode, although strangely not for Amy and Rory who are remarkably chipper.  There is frustratingly little else to say about this episode.  It’s not seriously flawed like the Curse of the Black Spot.  It is a good and very competent slice of Who.  The problem is that it shows no ambition at all and is utterly predictable. Not once do you get the feeling of Gatiss going outside of his comfort zone or trying to innovate.  A certain amount was made of the fact that this was his first story set in the present.  But it may as well have been set at the dawn of time for all the difference it would really have made to the plot.  The frustrating thing is that Gatiss has shown he is an innovative writer elsewhere (not least of which is Sherlock, his other collaboration with the Moff).

This is basically the first example of New Who applying the ethos of the Missing Adventures/PDAs.  Gatiss re-writes (and to be fair improves) Fear Her and recycles a bunch of classic New Who moments.  So what we are left with is something that is a derivative and moody attempt to “scare the kids” with better production values that Fear Her (but a less cool monster).  There’s nothing wrong with that and I really enjoyed the Peg Doll stuff, which was an instant classic moment for the ages, but there’s nothing else here that stands out in the memory. 

This whole approach of this episode also reminds me of the ultra-“Trad” who books put out to counterbalance the “Rad” books put out during Stephen Cole’s editorship.  It’s practically screaming “look this is a nice simple standalone for you all”. 

For all its supposed flaws, I still think the Idiots Lantern is the high watermark of Gatiss’ New Who writing.

Let’s Kill Hitler

And now for something completely different.  The Space Opera stylings of A Good Man Goes to War are immediately replaced by a story that feels part 30s knock about romantic comedy and part Graham Williams with a little bit of The Beezer thrown in for good measure.

This seems to be treated as being the conclusion of a two part story but it’s anything but that.  A Good Man Goes to War was clearly a season finale and Let’s Kill Hitler is clearly a season premier, but there is a disconnect.  The resolution to the events of Let’s Kill Hitler are so roundabout that it feels as though  Let’s Kill Hitler is largely concerned with ignoring A Good Man Goes to War’s long term implication in favour of resolving the River Song story arc and the cliffhanger to Day of the Moon. 

The Wedding of River Song would prove to be the real conclusion (or at least continuation) of A Good Man Goes to War.  This is effectively a timey-wimey prequel to A Good Man Goes to War.As much as I loved the Epic Space Opera of A Good Man Goes to War, I was just as happy with the frankly bizarre comedy on show here.  Pretty much everything is pitched towards comedy, but as with the best comedies there is some real heart and drama underneath the jokes and great lines (“The Third Reich is a bit rubbish” bit was priceless).

The backstory of Amy, Rory and Mels is terrific fun.  Amy’s assumption that Rory was gay was pretty funny.  Rory really is LONG suffering.  Mel’s attitude to life frankly makes River Song and the Doctor look well adjusted.  I got a real kick out of the fact that Mel’s intervention effectively guarantees her own conception.  I also loved the fact that she actively sought out her mother and father.  You do get the sense that she wanted to be brought up by her own parents after a fashion.  

Against the fun of that is the real problem of Amy and Rory’s attitude to all of this.   I can buy into River feeling like she had a childhood and that she had her parents, but I don’t buy Amy and Rory feeling like they had a daughter.  I know the Moff took and tried to present the view that they were effectively River’s parents.  But they did not know that at the time.  There is a whole hell of a difference between keeping your friends on the straight and narrow and bringing up a daughter.  

As funny as the ret-conned backstory is, the whole situation doesn’t bear any close examination anyway.  Amy might not have thought to ask about Mel’s parents (or even her home) because of the crack in her bedroom wall, but Rory?  Fundamentally, what we have here is a very clever, funny and entertaining idea with no sense of any real emotional truth to it.  Just as the Amy and Rory relationship fell flat last season, so the pregnancy storyline falls flat in this one.  There is never any real feeling that Amy and Rory are truly parents.  My feeling is that the Moff was a little too ambitious and clever for his own good here and we should at least have had the chance to see Amy and Rory realise and come to terms with their impending parenthood and the loss of that parenthood.  The result is an inversion of the flaws of the RTD era, with emotion being sacrificed for Plot.  In general I prefer the RTD approach, but I will let the Moff off here as this season has delivered in spades in terms of presenting and paying off several complex story arcs.  This ambition is to be applauded and I have yet to see an arc heavy show that hasn’t had to make a compromise or dropped the ball somewhere along the line.  

I found the final reveal of River Song’s identity and origins to be particularly satisfying.  There are levels here to be explored with the Doctor’s role in all of this being questionable.  We have seen the Doctor manipulate his companions before, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally.  What we now have is a Doctor that has essentially played God with a whole family history. 

This seems to be mostly accidental and mostly to the benefit of Amy and Rory (Amy gets her parent’s back, Amy and Rory marry each other, Amy and Rory have a child), but it’s clear that River is a very messed up person who only exist because of the Doctor.  It seems that her only purpose in life is to be obsessed with the Doctor, firstly as an assassin, then as a companion for the Doctor.  Then there’s the fact that she essentially commits suicide to save the Doctor on two separate occasions.  Again, there is nothing to suggest that the Doctor wants any of this.  But he benefits from it.  What is uncertain is just how much of the Doctor’s behaviour and actions in relation to River are his taking advantage of the situation and how much are his taking responsibility for the situation.  We see in this episode the guilt he feels about Rose, Martha and Donna; how much does he now feel about Amy, Rory and River in particular? 

The final element of this episode worthy of consideration (since Hitler was in this context rightfully relegated to a cupboard) is the Tesalecta and its crew.  The Moff was clearly channelling RTD for this one as we see the Numbskulls recycled into a space-time traveling, vigilante, war crimes tribunal.  The sets looked a little cheap, but the idea was great fun and generally well executed.  

One final niggle. “I always dress for the occasion”  was cute in the TVM.  The Doctor doing the same here was irritating in view of the minutes to live stuff (and yes I know it was all part of his plan, but even so).

Overall, this episode was terrific fun which delivered emphatically on the story arc front.