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daniel_saunders
27 July 2018 @ 01:22 am
Just a quick note to say that I'm going to be blogging on a new blog, Who's Reviews on WordPress.  I've been dissatisfied with Livejournal for a while and wanted something that looked more professional, especially as I want to get back into more regular Doctor Who blogging.  I'm not sure what I'll do with this blog.  Probably some of it will be taken down from public view as I don't always agree with some of my views in old reviews, which is not a problem per se, but I want to see if I can get some professional writing work and having a load of very negative reviews of new era Doctor Who episodes (I was not best pleased with a lot of David Tennant episodes at the time...) might not be the best way to do that.  Some of my favourite pieces from this blog may end up there, probably more the longer analytical pieces than the short reviews.  I hope to see you all at my new home!
 
 
Current Location: Here and there
Current Mood: Change, my dear
 
 
daniel_saunders
25 July 2018 @ 11:38 pm
When The Caretaker was transmitted, the Doctor Who Magazine review remarked on the unfortunate scene of the Doctor telling a black man that he was too stupid to teach maths.  This is indeed problematic, but I was more concerned by the fact that the Doctor seems to have forgotten that his best friend was a soldier who retired to teach maths at a school.  Such continuity quibbles might be though trivial, but this is an episode set in the school seen in the very first episode back in 1963 and revisited every twenty-five years.  This is not a minor point; the whole reason the Skovox Blitzer is around, according to the Doctor, is that it homed in on artron energy, presumably from the visits by TARDIS and Daleks.  Nor is it only long-term continuity that is a problem.  Kortney's parents refer to what Danny said to them "last year" even though it was established back in Into the Dalek that Danny had only just started teaching at Coal Hill School.

But there is a bigger issue here. 
As I noted in my review of Into the Dalek, the Doctor has never liked the ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ attitude and the Doctor shouting at trigger-happy soldiers is a stock image of the programme.  But so is the Doctor cooperating with soldiers or, more usually, getting them to work for him.  Never has he phrased a hatred of soldiers as strongly as this season and not only is it difficult to find a narrative reason why, it is difficult to find a non-narrative reason why either, unless it was to create some conflict with Danny and perhaps to build up to the truly bizarre scene in Death in Heaven where the Doctor salutes a Cyberman-zombie-Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.  Mind you, Danny is nearly as bad.  He never seems to ask  himself whether he would actually have believed anything Clara might have told him about time travelling adventures.  It’s as if, unable to find a genuine conflict to focus the drama upon, one had to be manufactured.

Which may well have been the case, as there is pitifully little else here to get our teeth into.  The plot is essentially a rehash of The Lodger and Closing Time with Peter Capaldi’s sarcastic cynicism replacing Matt Smith’s innocent abroad act.  But the joke is wearing thin by this time, especially as it relies on the Doctor not really understanding anything about human beings and their societies, which seems unlikely given how much time he has spent with them over the millennia.  This did not bother me so much in the earlier stories, which were basically good-natured buddy movies, but this is a farce focused on the Doctor’s irrational hatred of Clara’s boyfriend, something out of character (as I mentioned) and also crossing the boundaries of appropriate behaviour.  The Doctor really gets no say in who Clara spends her non-TARDIS time with and it's hard to have any sympathy for him here.

I’ve told myself that I need to find one good thing about every story I review here (fortunately, I came up with that rule after Into the Dalek).  It’s hard.  But I did like the gag where the Doctor tells Clara that she got the date Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice wrong and she rants at him asking if he’s going to say he met Austen that year, only for him to respond that he just read the biography at the back of the book.
 
 
daniel_saunders
25 July 2018 @ 12:49 am
Listen is many things: chamber piece, ghost story, sit com, origin story for the Doctor.  It’s also an attempt at Blink II, but it tries to hard.  Blink tried hard too, but it tried to be new and to appear effortless.  Listen tries too hard to be Blink for it to really be Listen.  It probably tells us too much about the Doctor’s past (a recurring problem for Moffat – see also The Doctor’s Wife and The Name of the Doctor), but that’s not the main problem.  What we learn of the Doctor’s past is shrouded in enough mystery to preserve the enigma of the main character, or what elements of an enigma still remain after years of Time Lords, old school friends, The Dark Times and so on.  The problem is more that nothing quite gels, and that it tries to eat its cake and have it too.

Nothing gels because the sit com scenes are too painful to bear.  Moffat found fame as a writer writing relationship sitcoms and has a go at another one here, as we see the hilarious results of dates interrupted by the spacesuited descendents of the daters (almost certainly not direct descendents, given the events of Dark Water/Death in Heaven, but we didn’t know that at the time.  And why did the Doctor send Orson anyway, and why did he have to wear a spacesuit?), as well as dates (OK, the same date) interrupted more mundanely by tasteless jokes and confused remarks resulting from time travel.  Moffat clearly wants to cross the science fictional, the romantic and the comic, but nothing fits together.  I don’t think that comedy needs to be corralled into special “comedy episodes” but the gear changes here are just too great.  Ghost stories rely on tension, but humour dissipates tension.  It is possible to use comedy to increase tension, but it needs to be done more skilfully than here.  A good example is in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, when Greel, performing on stage, appears to be about to shoot the Doctor.  “Chang shoot fifteen peasants learning this trick” he states.  It’s his showman’s patter, but in the circumstances, we take it as a threat and the tension ratchets up.  Nothing here works that way, though.  The comedy and the ghost story exist side by side and ultimately detract from each other.

Then there’s the problem I summarised as trying to eat its cake and have it too.  It teases us with an unseen monster present all the time.  At the same time it teases us with the first story without an antagonist (villain or a monster) since... well, I’m not entirely sure.  Inside the Spaceship, probably (although arguably the Doctor was the antagonist there!).  It is possible to be ambiguous and ask questions without answering them, but here things are pushed just a little bit too far.  The moved chalk is OK, but the “LISTEN” graffiti is harder to explain away as something the Doctor forgot he had done (and we hadn’t seen despite the absence of obvious cuts).  The “boy” on the bed is one thing, but pause the story just before he departs and that doesn’t look like a human head, although it’s hard to be sure.  Maybe it’s a boy wearing a Halloween mask.  Maybe.  And then there’s Orson’s heritage and connection to Clara and his time travelling ancestor, which seemed to suggest he was Clara and Danny’s descendent, but by the end of the season we knew he couldn’t be.  Too much of what is here seems contrived.

This is a pity, because although I have spent nearly 600 words criticising it, in parts at least Listen is very good.  When it stops trying to show off and when Moffat isn’t juggling too many balls, this is a strong ghost story, something new Who has not dabbled in much, preferring to show off its monsters rather than keep them out of sight.  (Classic Who often didn’t have the choice.  It was keep the monsters in the dark or expose them to ridicule.  Warriors of the Deep shows what happens when the production team chose wrongly.)  The scenes in the children’s home are good and the scenes at the end of the universe are very good.  So good, in fact, that Moffat would retutn to them the next season in Hell Bent.  Actually, at times Listen seems like a dry run for Heaven Sent (for my money the greatest new Who episode to date), with Capaldi being given long speeches and generally being allowed to flex his acting muscles for the camera.  It’s remarkably ‘out there’ in places, something unlike anything else on television and deliberately subversive of Doctor Who’s clichés, and I will always award marks for episodes that try to do that, even if they don’t always succeed.

On to a quick word about Time Heist, a story that in many ways is the inverse of Listen.  If Listen was the story that seemed great from the pre-publicity, but which disappointed on viewing, Time Heist seemed like a crazy idea in advance (the Doctor robs a bank?!), but everything just slots neatly into place, like a well-picked lock.  Peter Capaldi’s Doctor finally comes into his own here as someone who has earned the right to be rude by his brilliance and quiet compassion.  The criminal team is small enough for everyone to get something to do in the short time available (actually, Clara doesn’t do much except allow for exposition) and likeable enough to be worth spending time with.  I’m not really one for sequels, but a return visit to Psi and Saibra might have been worthwhile.  (Or possibly not, given that their characters were significantly altered by the end.)

The reason for the bank job is ingenious.  I’m sure the idea of a Doctor Who heist movie episode came first, but working from that premise, the easy way of bringing the Doctor into the story would be that the TARDIS was lost in the vault, or the villain threatened to kill Clara or destroy Earth if the Doctor refused to rob a bank for him.  The solution here, that the Doctor was acting to save the “monster” and its mate, is clever and like all good mystery fiction solutions it is hidden in plain sight, yet impossible to guess.  The only really off moment is the memory worms at the beginning.  While it made sense to use something relatively recently established in the canon (see The Snowmen), they had originally been used as a comedy moment and then a dramatic denouement only seen for a few seconds.  Here, while still not seen for long, they seem tonally out of place in an opening sequence that is trying to appear serious and cyberpunky, particularly as the props look a bit, well, silly.  It might just be my favourite episode of the season, though (although I’m chronically indecisive about favourites, so don’t hold me to that).
 
 
daniel_saunders
24 July 2018 @ 05:52 pm
You know you've been watching too much Doctor Who when a potential employer asks your salary requirements and you want to say, "a pot of coffee, twelve jammy dodgers and a fez!"
 
 
daniel_saunders
23 July 2018 @ 10:57 pm
I've always enjoyed Robot of Sherwood, although I can see why Mark Gatiss says he always knew it was destined to be unloved by fandom.  Fans still tend to prefer epic and 'serious' episodes to light-hearted ones.  It's a fun romp, but I wonder if it missed a trick.  With Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, both played well and a little larger than life, this could easily have been a 'pure' historical, with the Doctor thinking Robin was an android and getting involved in the adventure, only to find out at the end that he was real after having had a swashbuckling adventure fighting against the all-to-human Sheriff.  With the scene that really established the Sheriff as a cyborg cut for reasons of taste, it wouldn't be all that different from the story we got and given that the technobabble is clearly the weakest part of the story, this might have improved it.  However, with Listen in the next episode apparently giving us a monster story with no monster (bar one ambiguous shot), this might have been deemed too experimental.  I would at least have liked more attention to detail in the dialogue, though.  I can understand why no one speaks anything like Middle English, but when the Doctor starts talking to a Medieval woman about a "ship" flying, it would be nice if she stopped to ask how a ship could possibly fly rather than assuming everyone knows twenty-first century idiom.  I suppose we have to blame the vagaries of the TARDIS' translation system.
 
 
 
daniel_saunders
23 July 2018 @ 12:07 am
Into the Dalek is one of those stories that seems to be fighting against itself (perhaps appropriately, given the plot).  On the one hand, it’s one of those supposedly ‘adult’ stories that comes across as rather childish in its view of what constitutes ‘adult’: all soldiers and testosterone and pointless death.  On the other hand... well, it’s Fantastic Voyage in a Dalek.  That’s not the most adult pitch ever.  Nor is it original, even in Doctor Who terms.  This is like The Invisible Enemy, but with a twist.  Shockingly, it’s rather less inventive than the 1970s story.  The Invisible Enemy was not a great story either, but it had moments of inspiration and it did at least attempt to make the inside of the Doctor’s mind look different from (a) regular Doctor Who and (b) this story’s other locations.  The inside of the Dalek looks much like the outside of the Dalek, only more banal.  It even looks like it has corridors expressly put there for little people to run up and down!  Then the Doctor fixes the fault that has made the Dalek good and it becomes evil again and everyone reacts as if this was a surprising turn of events.

The other problem is that the episode brings up one of this season’s key themes, the Doctor’s hatred of soldiers.  The problem with this is that he doesn’t really hate soldiers.  He dislikes the military mind and the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude, but his best friend was a brigadier.  The same one the Moffat-era keeps on referencing (including a really crass and tasteless reference at the end of this arc).  Just as Russell T Davies did, Steven Moffat decided to use his fourth season to examine the Doctor’s role as a soldier, missing the point that he isn’t really one, a theme that becomes more pronounced in The Caretaker and Dark Water/Death in Heaven.

Which brings us to Danny Pink, the source of much typical Moffat ‘battle of the sexes’ sitcomery.  It doesn’t really sit well in Doctor Who, which isn’t a relationship sitcom, mostly because Clara and Danny have to act as complete idiots for much of this season to make the arc work and then right at the end we discover that Danny negligently killed a child, which makes the whole thing retrospectively uncomfortable and probably not really right for this timeslot.  To be fair to Into the Dalek, at this stage the Clara/Danny side of things is fairly low key and serves mainly to throw Clara and the Doctor’s attitudes to soldiers into relief, but you do have to wonder why Danny was talking to himself so much unless he actually knew Clara was there and wanted her to overhear him.

As with most new Who, Into the Dalek is reasonably technically accomplished in the way that, say, The Chase or The Invisible Enemy is not, in the sense that there are no massive blunders or misfired effects.  But the characters are cardboard, the plot is third-hand, the moral dilemmas are forced and the Doctor is continuing to be rude and unpleasant post-regeneration, something else that will blight all the episodes in this season and cripple Peter Capaldi’s Doctorate in much the same way as Colin Baker’s was crippled by the scripts of his first season.  The really sad thing is that it's not necessarily the worst story of its season.
 
 
daniel_saunders
19 July 2018 @ 09:59 am
I have a slightly odd relationship with the word ‘geek.’  Initially this was because it was used as an insult against me at school; it took me a while to adapt to the fact that it had become a more positive statement.  But I feel I don’t exactly fit the criteria of ‘geek’ as it is usually used.  I’m interested in some geeky things, particularly Doctor Who, but a lot of my geeky interests are circumscribed and I have non-geeky interests.  I’m interested in the humanities more than the sciences and I went through a phase of calling myself a humanities geek to indicate that my interests were less science and technology and more history, economics, politics, literature (not just geeky books, but the Western canon in general as well as some nineteenth century Yiddish literature) and Jewish philosophy.  I’ve never got into computer gaming or RPGing at all.

I don’t read much fantasy, although I’ve read what I suppose you could call the core British fantasy texts (Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. H. White, Mervyn Peake).  I read quite a lot of science fiction, but I tend to concentrate on particular writers (Philip K. Dick, H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula le Guin) who I read at great length rather than exploring  the genre.  I have a long list of SF authors to try that I’ve never got around to and I don’t read much contemporary SF except occasionally for people like Christopher Priest and Connie Willis, not least because I don’t know who is worth reading.  I tend generally to be a timid cultural consumer and have to force myself to try new things, geeky or otherwise, although at least I do try to make a constant effort to try new things, as well as to force myself to read more books by women and non-Westerners.

What I do like is a very narrow subset of things that link up in a way that seems coherent to me, but perhaps not to other people.  I like vintage British television science fiction and fantasy, mostly from before1990s and the influence of the US SF TV and film explosion of that time, what used to be referred to as ‘telefantasy.’  Things like Doctor Who, Quatermass, The Prisoner, Emma Peel and Tara King era Avengers, A for Andromeda, Sapphire and Steel and Blake’s 7.  For me the appeal is less pure SF (arguably most of these are not pure SF or even not SF at all, but science fantasy, horror or genre hybrids) and more about atmosphere.

For a bunch of reasons, some budgetary, some probably more cultural, British telefantasy developed its own unique style, focused more on atmosphere and the collision of the everyday and the fantastical or horrific.  Visually, it often appears as a collage of tropes from different genres, of which the Doctor’s police box time-space machine is perhaps the boldest symbol (albeit a steal from Lewis’ wardrobe, itself really a version of the magic door), putting the science fictional literally inside the everyday prop of the police procedural.

Surrealism often appears here.  In the 60s and 70s, many of these stories had their own distinctive sound as well as a distinctive look, with bizarre sound effects, experimental electronic incidental music and pervasive electronic ‘atmospheres’ that broke down the barriers between music and sound effects.  While plots varied, the style was often wittier, sometimes in a somewhat self-aware way, than the American science fiction of the same time.  The original Star Trek, for example, rarely deployed humour outside of closing tag scenes or purpose-built ‘comedy’ episodes like The Trouble with Tribbles.  On the other hand, British telefantasy could often be much more bleakly dystopian than the optimistic Star Trek and Star WarsThe Andromeda Breakthrough (the sequel to A for Andromeda), Quatermass, some Doctor Who and especially Blake’s 7 take the view that human nature is basically selfish and unthinking and without some kind of external shock or brake will result either in tyranny or self-destruction, a strong contrast to Star Trek’s utopian vision.

It's the atmosphere and the aural and visual misc en scene, the moments when the normal gives way to the surreal, that appeal to me most, I think, the feeling of being somewhere unlike the everyday and yet recognisable in a way that makes it more, rather than less, sinister.  As someone who has struggled since adolescence, if not earlier, with mental health issues and who is on the borders of Asperger’s Syndrome/high functioning autism, I often feel totally lost in an threatening, alien, unintelligible environment and it is helpful to me to find fictional worlds that mirror that sense of alienation and surrealism, perhaps because the nature of the fiction allows me to take control and tame it or understand it, particularly as the heroes attempt to impose logical order on the chaos they find.

My feeling is that these styles of stories are also found in other fictions I like, some of which may have been influences on these stories, but not always in other geeky stories or series.  I like Star Trek, but I think Doctor Who has more in common with children’s TV programmes like The Clangers, Mr Benn and Bagpuss than it does with Star Trek.  Similarly, my favourite prose fiction authors are Philip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka.  Only Dick is considered a ‘real’ SF author (although the others have had significant influence on the genre), but they all share, in different ways, the sense of alienation and surrealism, the struggle to make sense of the incoherent and to grasp the infinite[i].



[i] I think I read somewhere recently, although I can’t remember where, that Dalek creator Terry Nation seems to have been the first person (of many) to adapt a Philip K. Dick story for the screen.  This would be Impostor, adapted by Nation for Out of this World in 1962.  The episode, like all bar one of the others in that series, no longer survives, so we can’t see how well Dick and Nation’s very different takes on the science fiction genre meshed.
 
 
daniel_saunders
16 July 2018 @ 03:02 pm
"Nor was this the only time in the episode when the Doctor's favourite tool was used as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card.  If the audience knows that the Doctor can always pull out the screwdriver when he's stumped for any other way to advance the story then it really does lessen the suspense.  I personally hope we'll be seeing less of the damn thing in future." After-Image: The End of the World by Rebecca Levene, Doctor Who Magazine #356

I'm re-reading Rebecca Levene's reviews of the 2005 season.  I remember them as being overwhelmingly positive, but re-read now, certain long-standing criticisms of the new series are already present.  In the first two reviews alone, there's criticism of intrusive incidental music telling us what to feel, overuse of the sonic screwdriver and a lack of clues that would enable the audience to guess the solution to a mystery.
 
 
daniel_saunders
15 July 2018 @ 04:41 pm

I've spent the last twenty months or so watching all of surviving Doctor Who in order as research for a book.  I'm coming to the end of Matt Smith's time and am hoping to finish Peter Capaldi in time for Jodie Whittaker's debut.

One thing that really strikes me on this viewing is how little exploration and deduction the modern Doctors do when compared to the stories of the sixties and seventies.  When you get an episode like The Long Game (originally pitched in the late eighties) or Fear Her, wiht a lot of investigation and deduction, it stands out.  And far from exploring new planets, the Doctor always seems to be trying to take his companions to places he's visited before, although he doesn't always succeed.

I guess partly from lack of time and partly to make the Doctor seem even more amazing (new Who spends a lot of time telling us how amazing and all-powerful the Doctor is) he usually knows everything straight off.  Even when he does make a deduction, it's often based on something already known to him, but not to us, like the significance of the sevens and the Shakri in The Power of Three.  Even when the Doctor doesn't know what's going on, he has to know something in advance.  In A Town Called Mercy the Doctor is taken by surprise by street lights that are ahead of their time and makes some deductions... but as soon as Kahler-Jex appears, he's babbling on about how great the Kahler are because he already knows of them.  I find this irritating.  I don't want to sound like Tat Wood (the latest About Time books are made hard to read by their hatred of new Who and especially Steven Moffat), but I feel something has been lost.  The Doctor has become an explorer who never explores who seems to know almost everything in advance in a series that used to be at least vaguely about empiricism.  This isn't quite unique to new Who as the sixth and seventh Doctors had similar troubles at times, but with the latter at least it was part of a radical reimagining of the programme.  This just seems like laziness.

I don't want to sound relentlessly negative, because I have enjoyed watching most of new Who again, but I do feel like something has been lost.

 
 
daniel_saunders
11 July 2018 @ 10:11 pm
It's depressing on multiple levels to realise it took ten seasons (or twelve years) to get a 'proper' (i.e. not a one story guest character) female new Who companion who never kissed the Doctor during her tenure.  (OK, strictly speaking it was nineteenth century Clara that kissed the Doctor, not 'our' Clara.)  Some of those kisses seem to have been scripted purely as visual bait for the trailers.  I'm thinking in particular of Donna kissing the poisoned tenth Doctor, although to be fair that sequence was funny in context, which is more than I can say for the Rose/Doctor kiss in New Earth or the Clara/Doctor kiss in The Snowmen.  Thankfully Nefertiti doesn't count as a proper companion, so I can skip over the start of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, but I do worry what it portends for Chris Chibnall's era.