Friday, October 02, 2015

8.8 Mummy on the Orient Express

And now you're back
From outer space
And I find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
Oh made you leave your key
If I've known for a second you'd be back to bother me
         Gloria Gaynor

Little is left to tell.

The broken muddle that is Doctor Who staggered on for a few more weeks, mimicking what it half remembered Doctor Who being. Then someone put it out of its misery. 

I said last week that some of the plot devices in Kill the Moon were so transparent that you might as well have had the voice of God telling the Doctor and Clara what the Writer wanted them to do. This week, that’s almost literally what happens. Mummy on the Orient Express sounds like the title of a Doctor Who strip in TV Comic. 

It isn’t actually a Mummy but a plot device that looks a bit like a Mummy. And it isn’t the Orient Express, but a plot device done up to look like the Orient Express. A mad all powerful computer has created a simulation of a space ship in the shape of the Orient Express as pretext for assembling a group of characters and challenging them to defeat the Space Mummy. You could have called the story Goblin on S.S. Great Britain or Werewolf on Concord and it would have come out much the same. You could have shown us Borusa picking chess pieces out of time and space with his little time scoop and it would have been only marginally more contrived.

Although its only a computer simulation of a space ship in the shape of Orient Express, everyone talks and acts as if they are Agatha Christie characters. I don’t know if we are supposed to think that they are playing a sort of role-playing game murder-mystery party and not breaking character. I don’t know if we are supposed to think at all.

The story bit felt like an episode of the Sarah Jane Adventures — one of the bad ones, like the Mona Lisa coming to life, not one of the good ones, like everyone forgetting that Clyde exists. There is, as the title suggests, a Mummy on the Orient Express. The Mummy is actually a kind of revenant: it can only be seen by people who are about to die; or, to be accurate, by people who it is about to kill. From the point of view of the crew of the Space-Train, passengers are just dropping dead randomly. The Doctor has to convince them that they are actually being killed by an Invisible Space Mummy. There’s some fairly grim stuff with people wondering who the next victim will be, and a tiny slither of characterization around how people face Certain Death. To everyone’s total surprise and astonishment, the shell-shocked ex-serviceman faces his death bravely, with his gun in his hand. Frank Skinner does an amusing turn playing Frank Skinner

In the end the Doctor magics the Space Mummy away with his doohickey. I think there may have been an explanation, but it was so perfunctory and spoken so quickly over such loud background music that I have literally no idea what happened; but not having any idea what happened doesn’t make much difference.

The characterization bit follows straight on from the one with the Space Chicken. Clara was so angry about the Doctor lying to her that she had ended their relationship. The trip on the Orient Express is meant to be a going away present or a “last hurrah” because they don’t want everything to end with a slammed door. I don't think that's how people behave when they've been badly hurt. Naturally, the Doctor is lying to her again — he knows perfectly well that there is going to be a Space Mummy on the Space Train. In fact, he behaves horribly throughout the episode: he doesn't give Clara the slightest reason to reconsider her decision to leave.

Since Mr Spock — heck, since Professor Challenger, very possibly since Socrates — there has been an idea that thoughts and feelings don’t really go together — that the cleverer someone is the more likely they are to be callous, or shy, or emotionally illiterate. Then we all read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and decided that the best way of signifying that someone was clever was to code them very broadly as having aspergers syndrome. It worked quite well in the first season of Sherlock, and I believe the Yanks got a whole sit-com out of it. I have an awful terrible feeling that when the Doctor says things like “You are probably next to die, which is good to know” we are supposed to find it amusing and endearing. In fact, it just makes him come across as a prick. Doctor Sylvester got away with his dark callous moments because you could absolutely tell that he really genuinely loved Ace. Doctor Peter seems to have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. This certainly isn’t a Doctor I could love; and the question I have about Clara is not “will she, won’t she?” but “why is she wasting her time with this idiot?” And if you don’t love the Doctor, there's no point in watching not-that-brilliantly made TV shows about Space Mummies and Giant Chickens. We quite happily watched drivel about gun tooting Mona Lisas with mancunian accents because we loved Elisabeth Sladen, and to a lessor extent, Luke and Clyde and whoever the other one was that week.

Tom Baker said that he never did any acting. The Doctor was simply Tom being alien and benevolent. There is much in that

Clara is cross with the Doctor for lying to her and being generally horrible. He explains that he was in a situation where he had to be horrible: he did sacrifice some lives, but he saved some others. "Yes, but you didn't have to be so gleeful about" screams what remains of the TV audience. Then, for no reason I could spot, Clara changes her mind and decides she wants to stay with the Doctor for ever and ever after all. Nothing which has just happened has in any way overwritten or excused the shitty way the Doctor treated her last week. It was never in doubt that, in Doctor-world, lying about the Giant Chicken was the right thing to do, for the greater good; and we can all see that allowing the Space Mummy to kill some people might have enabled the Doctor to discover its weakness and magic it away with a doohickey. If Clara couldn’t deal with the Doctor’s lies last week, why is she suddenly so cool about them this week? 

So. Last week, the Doctor and Clara split up, for no particular reason. This week, they get back together again, for no particular reason. Next week and the week after we’ll go through the same process again, until Jenna Coleman decides to get a proper job like maybe dressing up as a robot in a superhero movie.


Thursday, October 01, 2015

8.7 Kill the Moon

This being the state of human affairs, what is Eliza fairly sure to do when she is placed between Freddy and Higgins? Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins's slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy.
                                George Bernard Shaw.

Kill the Moon is not merely a bad episode of Doctor Who. It is the final and clinching proof that Doctor Who is broken beyond repair.

This is my second attempt to write a review of this story.

You can imagine how the first one panned out: ludicrous Giant Space Chicken; ludicrous physics; manipulative pro-life sub text; sympathetic magic; unconvincing school girl; did I mention the Giant Space Chicken? You have probably read several similar ones. You have very possibly written one.

But after giving the episode some more thought – more thought than it probably deserved – I realized that the problem lay somewhere else entirely.

The idea that the Moon is a gigantic egg is rather a good one. The idea that the egg is going to hatch and destroy all life on earth is no sillier than many that have cropped up on Doctor Who over the years. If it had been approached in a spirit of half-logical surrealism it could have been a great deal of silly fun. It would have all depended on how cool and ludicrous and scary and wise and funny the Giant Space Chicken managed to be.

But the story was not about the Giant Space Chicken. We see it for a only a few seconds, from a distance, at the very end of the story. It is a perfunctory Giant Space Chicken. A plot, that is to say, device.

Kill the Moon is an arc story -- a continuation of the soap opera about Clara, Danny and the Doctor. This week, we have the One Where Clara Leaves the Doctor. Last week, we had the One Where the Doctor Finds Out About Danny. Next week we will have the One Where Clara and the Doctor Get Back Together. But this week, this week is the One Where Clara Leaves the Doctor.

The Doctor has been patronizing, insulting, manipulating, and shouting at Clara for the last five weeks. We have spent the last five weeks wishing that she would stand up to him. This week she does stand up to him, and the standing up to him bit is done very well indeed.

“Do you know what?” says Clara “It was cheap, it was pathetic. It was patronising. That was you patting us on the back, saying, you're big enough to go to the shops by yourself now. Go on, toddle along….Oh, don't you ever tell me to mind my language. Don't you ever tell me to take the stabilisers off my bike.”

Bravo, Clara. The last companion who spoke to the Doctor like that was…er…also a teacher at Coal Hill School, come to think of it.

Given that Clara has put up with so much from the Doctor; given that Doctor Matt was “her Doctor” and Doctor Matt has specifically told her to be nice to Doctor Peter, we need some really compelling reason for her to turn on him right now. It isn’t enough that Jenna Coleman can act. She certainly can; but it’s the kind of acting that makes me wonder whether she’s the kind of actress who thinks about her puppy dying when she was six or the kind of actress who sniffs an onion before doing the scene. Or maybe the BBC can do CGI tears nowadays? Tears aren't enough, is my point. There has to be a reason reason for them. 

What reason do you think Moffat comes up with? Is it

A: An organic development in the Doctor and Clara’s relationship of which a break-up is the natural consequence?

B: An far-fetched plot device which has been contrived purely in order to precipitate the break-up and for not other reason?

Before the break-up, our heroes are faced with a Massive Moral Dilemma. The Doctor reaction to the Massive Moral Dilemma is to, er, bugger off and let Clara solve it by herself. This is why she is so cross with him.

So, why did the Doctor bugger off? Was there something about this particular Dilemma which means that, in this particular case, the Doctor being the Doctor, “buggering off” was the only thing he could possibly do?

Er…no. This is the sort of Moral Dilemma he’s been solving on a weekly basis since 1963. But he gives several Special Reasons for buggering off during this one in particular. He says that he respects Clara and trusts her to make the right decision by herself. He says that the decision is so important for the future of the human race that a human, not a Time Lord, has to make it. And he says that this particular dilemma is a Special Case because it’s one of a number of special little moments in time that he doesn’t know anything about. (“They’re not clear. They’re fuzzy. They’re grey”).

Capaldi acts terribly hard through all three explanations. If he had been David Tennant, he would have put on his Serious face and talked very quickly. We all know what this means. It means that he knows that the words he’s being asked to read out make no possible sense. Fuzzy grey moments in time have never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again. They’ve been invented as a one off plot excuse. You might as well have a giant cartoon hand pointing to a sign saying “Clara must solve this moral dilemma by herself, signed God”. That would have fitted in quite well with the story of the Perfunctory Egg.

So, what is the huge moral dilemma that the Doctor leaves Clara to solve? Again, it seems to change each time it is articulated. At first, the issue is simply that if the Giant Space Chicken hatches and flies away, there would be tsunamis and earthquakes and bad stuff would happen to the climate and everyone on Earth would be wiped out. It’s like one of those philosophy exercises where a train full of old ladies is about to career of a cliff, but the signalman has the option to divert it onto a different stretch of track which an innocent child has wandered onto. Do you squash the kid to save the old ladies? Do you destroy one Giant Space Chicken in order to save the lives of every man, woman and child on earth?

Kill one thing in order to save billions of things doesn’t seem like a very difficult dilemma to me. I have a sense that Moffat think that it is significant that we are being asked to kill one really big thing in order to save millions of small things, but that ought not to make a difference.

At one point, Courtney (the annoying school girl who asked the Doctor to take her to the moon) says “It’s a little baby…it’s not even been born”, as if this makes the question harder. That is why some people think that the story has an anti-abortion sub-text. But if it does, it’s not really a very interesting one. There is a legitimate argument to be had between people who think that an un-born Giant Space Chicken is not yet a Chicken, but only a potential Chicken – so killing it is either a neutral act, or not so wicked an act as killing an actual Chicken would be; and people who think that an un-born Giant Chicken is still a Chicken and killing it is still pullucide. But no-one argues that killing an unhatched Chicken is worse than killing a hatched one. Some people say that because an un-hatched Chicken looks very much like a hatched one; and because all our biological and social programming tells us to protect small things, the act of killing an unhatched Chicken violates all our feelings of empathy and, in the long run, makes us into bad people. That was the question that the Doctor asked on Skaro, all those years ago. Not “if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to become a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives could you then kill that child.” Not “would it be morally right to kill that child” or “would killing that child arguably secure the greatest good to the greatest number, but “could you, yourself, if the child were there in front of you, physically bring yourself to do it.” And if you say “yes” would you make a good Dalek? 

We digress.

The dilemma is also framed in a third way. The moon exploding, and a Giant Chicken emerging from the rubble and flying away would probably destroy all life on earth; but we can't say it definitely will. so the choice is really between the certainty of one creature dying and the possibility (or even probability) of millions of creatures dying.

The Astronaut says that when a gigantic creature forces it’s way out of the moon “there are going to be huge chunks of the moon heading right for us, like whatever killed the dinosaurs, only ten thousand times bigger.”

“But the moon isn't make of rock and stone, is it? It's made of eggshell” says Clara. This is possibly the least helpful remark anyone has ever made about anything.

The best one can say here is that we are talking about faith position. The choice is actually between killing the Giant Space Chicken and saving the world; and not killing the Giant Space Chicken had hoping that the world will be saved by a miracle of some kind. If the Doctor had said “Please don’t kill the Chicken. It’s a Magic Space Chicken. When the Moon explodes, the Chicken will magic all the debris away before it can hurt the earth; and then magic a new moon so hardly anyone will notice the difference” that would have set up quite an interesting dilemma: common sense vs blind faith in the Doctor. But he didn’t.

This is Doctor Who. Characters sacrifice themselves and are sacrificed every week. No-one would regard killing the Giant Space Chicken as a difficult moral dilemma if there wasn’t a big Monty Python hand of God saying “This is a difficult moral dilemma.”

There are a couple of wrinkles, but they only make matters worse. Clara asks the population of the Earth whether they’d be prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to save the Giant Space Chicken; the population of the Earth say “no thank you”; but Clara decides to sacrifice them anyway. Then it turns out that no-one was ever in any danger — the human race would have survived whether Clara killed the Chicken or not, because we were, after all, talking about a Chicken which could Magic away the moon rubble and then Magic a new moon into existence. The important thing was that everyone on Earth said “Oh look! A Giant Chicken. We’d better restart the space program colonize the universe”. So because Clara made the correct (anti-utilitarian) decision the human race will survive until the end of time. If she had killed the Chicken, that would never have happened. 

Everyone takes it for granted that space colonialism is an unqualified good.

But this takes us straight back to the original point. Either the Doctor knew that the Chicken wasn’t going to destroy the world; or he didn’t. Either he knew that “saving the Chicken” would prove that the human race was worthy to colonize the universe, or he didn’t. Either way, he didn’t tell Clara what he knew, and that pisses her off (”language!”) and makes her leave him. But there is no coherent reason for him not to have told her what he knew. The story is a machine for making Clara cross with the Doctor. But the story is ultimately pointless, so Clara’s anger is ultimately pointless. She’s not cross about anything: merely an action figure striking an “angry” pose which doubtless she will have got over in a three weeks time.

Doctor Who is broken. Not because it is written by people who think that eggs get heavier before they hatch; or because they believe that adding a billion tonnes to the weight of the Moon would seriously effect the tides on earth. That stuff doesn’t, in the end, matter. What matters is that Doctor Who wants to be a show about characters, a show in which Clara and Danny have real emotions. But at the same time, it wants to be a show about monsters and aliens and giant space chickens. And the writers believe that the only purpose of giant space chickens is to force Clara and the Doctor’s relationship into to place which it has no reason to go. It’s not so much that the slushy stuff is a distraction from the monsters. The existence of the monsters is spoiling the slushy stuff.


Thursday, September 24, 2015

8.6 The Caretaker

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might. 

Back in 2010, I compared The Lodger with a certain brand of yeasty salty spreadable toast accompaniment. It will, I said, divide Who fans, even as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats. On the left will be the people who are in tune with with what the Matt Smith era is about; on the right will be the ones who are simply not.

The Caretaker is a similar pitch to The Lodger. I suspect it will divide fans for similar reasons.

The Lodger took the Doctor out of his TARDIS comfort zone and dumped him in an ordinary environment – as James Cordon’s flat mate. There was an alien, but we could all see that it was a Perfunctory Alien. The actual alien was Matt Smith. If you liked watching Matt Smith being alien — if you think everything that Doctor Matt did lit up the room, even when it wasn't a particularly interesting room — then the Lodger was the Bestest Ever Story about the Bestest Ever Doctor. If you found Matty Smith irritating, or if you were basically still sore that Jon Pertwee quit, then this was the episode that turned you off Doctor Who for good. Everyone knows which side I’m on. 

So: this week the Doctor announces that he is going into deep cover and pretending to be a normal human for a while. (Two weeks ago he was trying to imagine what a critter that could hide perfectly would be like, and spooking himself out over it.) He gets a job as a Caretaker in Wonderful Clara’s school. He pretends to be human, which he is very bad at, and therefore oddly fits in as the Grumpy Caretaker. The Grumpy Caretaker is one of the stock clich├ęs of school stories, along with the sexy English teacher (played here by Wonderful Clara) and the sadistic P.E teacher. Back in Remembrance of the Daleks, Doctor Sylvester pretended to go for a caretaking job at this very school and was told he was overqualified for it. There is a Harold Pinter play called the Caretaker. Harold Pinter almost certainly never played a Yeti. There is a Perfunctory Robot, but like the Lodger, this is mainly a character piece. 

But it isn’t a character piece about us getting to know the Doctor. It isn’t a character piece about what would happen if the Doctor came to your school. (Imagine Doctor Matt as Caretaker! Rewiring the slide projector so that it showed 3D pictures; making champagne spew out of the soft drinks machine without quite intending to...) It’s a character piece about Wonderful Clara and Pink Danny. Clara has been keeping Danny a secret from the Doctor for no very good reason. This is a kind of obligatory episode which tells us how the Doctor finds out about Danny and how Danny finds out about the Doctor. Maybe you see it as a bit of a filler that we need to move the sub-plot forward. Or you may think this kind of rom-com scenario is what the series is really interested in, and it’s stuff like “the Doctor and Clara meet Robin Hood” and “the Doctor and Clara rob a bank for good and adequate reasons” that are the fillers. 

For better or worse, I think that the latter is probably the case. Deep Breath, Listen and Caretaker feel as if they are part of one TV series, telling one story, filmed and acted in a mostly similar style. Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist feel completely different – both to this, and to each other. Yes, I know that Horror of Fang Rock isn’t exactly the same as Talons of Weng Chiang and Talons of Weng Chiang isn’t exactly the same as the Invisible Enemy but my point stands.

There are some good gags and some less good gags. 

I thought it was quite funny that Doctor Peter takes it for granted that Clara is dating the Other English Teacher who looks exactly like Doctor Matt, and is perfectly okay with it. (I shouldn’t think that there is a single English teacher in England who talks or dresses like that and studying the Tempest is about knowing the key points which are likely to come up in an exam, not what Mr Chips feels about the “fascinating enigma of it’s fundamental non-finishedness.”) I quite like the long-suffering headteacher, the disastrous parents evening and the problem child’s awful parents. I actually even quite liked the problem child, although I don’t buy the Doctor giving her a ride in the TARDIS and sincerely hope that’s the last we see of her.

And in fact the mutual revelations about Danny, the Doctor and Clara are pretty well handled. I felt embarrassed for Clara and sad for Danny when it came out that she’d been deceiving him and pleased for both of them that he took it fairly well, and cross with the Doctor for being pointlessly jealous. Particularly him arbitrarily deciding that Danny must be a PE Teacher. Does anybody want to make the case that that was Ever-So-Slightly Racist? Does anyone else want to explain that PE teachers haven’t been like that for years? But the programme has gone off in a pretty weird direction when “I was cross with the Doctor” is a point in its favour. 

I could have done without Danny doing a Matrix-style slow-motion leap over the Perfunctory Robot to save Clara. Not because I don’t think he should have saved Clara. As yet undiscovered tribes in New Guinea could see from the set-up that it was going to finish with Danny saving the day. But we probably don’t need to equate “soldier” quite so clearly with “action figure.” 

So. Which side are you on?

There are going to be people who are going to say that Doctor Who has no right to be doing stories about the relationship between the Companion and the Doctor and the Companion’s Boyfriend because Doctor Who is about monsters and saving the world and relationship-stories are not allowed. On this view, the whole idea of Companions is deeply suspect. When Old Who was still New people openly complained that Rose had no right to exist because the title of the show was Doctor Who as opposed to The Amazing Adventures of Chav Woman. (They really, really did.) A friend of mine recently said that he had attempted to re-frame season 5 - 8 as The Adventures of Amy and Her Time Travelling Friend to see if that made him like it any better. 

This seems to be the same kind of thinking (though not, obviously, to anything like the same degree) as that of J.C Wright and his canine buddies, who see the intrusion of a lady or a black person — any lady or any black person — into any story as evidence that no one is allowed to be white or male any more. It is obviously true that Rose and Clara have more agency than companions did in the olden days. I myself have complained that there is a tendency for New Who to over-sell companions, starting with Rose’s transformation into Dark Phoenix and ending with Clara accidentally creating the entire franchise. But it’s not a zero-sum game. Presenting the companions as people doesn’t mean that the Doctor is now less of a person. 

If you are on this side of the divide, then presumably you hate the whole idea of the Caretaker and are not reading this. 

On the other hand, there are always going to be people who say that Doctor Who always was about the relationship between the Doctor and his lady friends, that fans had sexual hangups that prevented them from seeing this, that memory plays tricks and that the Caretaker is not really that different from tons of stuff in the Old Series. If you are on that side of the divide, then presumably you think that the Caretaker is what Doctor Who was always like and are not quite sure why I am making all this fuss about it. 

I guess my position is this.

It doesn’t matter what Doctor Who “ought” to be. It is unfair to continually compare a new programme with an old programme; and definitely unfair to compare a real programme with an imaginary programme you’ve made up in your head. The true definition of Doctor Who is whatever happened in Doctor Who last week, and always has been.

On the other hand; you have to play to your strengths. A cop show probably should mostly be about a cop solving crimes. The cop is allowed to be cleverer and more observant than any one real policeman could ever be, and “forensics” are probably allowed to produce plot devices that no real forensics team could possibly produce; but if a fairy pops up and tells Frost whodunnit; or if Morse discovers the murder was committed by a ghost, well, that’s cheating. It’s also cheating to sell us a fairy story and then have a cop turn up and fob us off with a perfectly rational explanation on the last page. Unless the whole point is a big twist about what genre we are in mumble mumble Sixth Sense mumble mumble. But you have to do that sort of thing awfully well for the audience not to feel cheated. 

So it is probably not a good idea to sell us a series about explosions and robots — to show us trailers involving explosions and robots — and then reveal that really, it’s not an exploding robot story, it's a kissing story. 

On the other hand, and this being science fiction I am quite entitled to have three hands, by now, everyone knows that Doctor Who is, or partly is, or sometimes is, a romantic comedy about the Doctor, Clara and Danny (or the Doctor, Amy and Rory; or the Doctor, Rose and Mickey, and no, until I started typing this sentence I hadn’t realised that human boyfriends all have names ending in a Y.) 

I don’t really buy the premise. I never have done. I don’t accept that someone would be exploring the universe with the Doctor and at the same time worrying about whether or not she made a date with a colleague who she only met a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think that the kinds of people who worry about keeping appointments become explorers and adventurers. 

There are people who, offered the chance to spend two years living among the aforementioned previously undiscovered tribes in New Guinea would reply “No, I don’t want to do that, I would miss my kids’ birthday party.” And there are ones who would say “Yes: I will sacrifice everything, even family and friendship, for the sake of Adventure. I would walk naked into a live volcano if it meant I could learn something that no other man knew.”  Me, I don’t specially care if I die without seeing the Taj Mahal. I’d like to go to New York some day. But as Sam Gamgee spotted; the people who stay at home don’t get stories written about them. 

But I am happy to accept the premise. The big question is: is Steven Moffat? Is this definitely the story he wants to tell? Are Clara and Danny real grown up people who are in love? Is their relationship going to proceed to a plausible ending, happy or tragic, and are we going to properly deal with the consequences of that ending? If this answer is "yes" then this was an installment of a very good unfolding story. The problem kicks in if next week, they stop being grown up characters and become action figures again.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

This is a song. It is one of the nicest songs by one my favorite bands. It is not about politics: it is about football. But it sort of sums up my feelings at the end of a week in which I have joined a political party for the first time in my life; and for the first time in my life do not feel entirely cynical about politics.

Perhaps Jeremy could adopt it as his campaign anthem.