Sunday, 31 August 2014

Time Capsule: The Matt Smith Era, Part 3

Forever of 2 minds as to whether this coat was an improvement on
the Geography-teacher jacket.  River needed a glitzier dress for sure, though.

Wow, is that the time?  Haha pun.  But it's been a while since the last Time Capsule post and...yeah, I may have been putting it off deliberately.  Matt Smith's first season is a joyride for me, but his second is much harder to sit through.  It's at this point that Steven Moffat gets fixated on his own long-term story arcs at the expense of individual episodes, and - well, we'll see how that turns out as I go over each one, piece by piece.

Put the kettle on and buckle up.

The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (Series 31, Story 217)

"You know how sometimes I have really brilliant ideas?"

The 'cracks in the universe' arc wraps up here in what's still the best season finale since the reboot, at least when judged by the standards of a season finale.  An opening sequence that carries us back over the past year with return trips to Provence, WWII London and Starship UK (as well as our first visit to Stormcage and introduction to Doriam Maldovar, who'll turn up again later) somewhat tricks the viewer into believing the story has a wider canvas than it really does - it's otherwise 90% set in a cave and a museum - and more honestly ups the stakes, announcing rather succinctly that every 'series 5' story has been leading up to this.
The story itself feels like it's jogging in place for most of the first ep, with the Doctor waving gizmos at a box while making thoughtful faces, but the little side details - the Romans, Amy's memory returning, Rory's apparent resurrection - begin to unravel towards a breathtaking climax with a killer cliffhanger.  Along the way we also get a meaningless but smartly-devised battle with a broken Cyberman (that's easily the most impressive and terrifying the metal blokes have been presented since their 2006 re-debut) and Smith delivering his most melodramatic speech yet - a moment that's played at full volume and succeeds as punch-the-air audience gratification...though the way the end of the episode undermines it is almost deliciously cruel.  And the reveal of what's in the Pandorica, and why it was invented, is stunningly obvious yet still feels like a surprise.
After presumably blowing half a season's worth of budget on the first ep's Romans and spaceships and monster menagerie, it's not much of a surprise that episode 2 feels smaller, but luckily it's also tricksier, with the Doctor merrily screwing with his own timeline to break himself out of imprisonment, uniting two very different Amys, not to mention seeing himself die...then walking right into what killed/kills him.  A single, petrified Dalek is the only real physical threat in this episode, and he's a bit shit, but the underlit, empty museum is a spooky backdrop, and the presence of only our 5 leads and no-one else makes everything feel suitably gloomy - it really does feel like the heat-death of the universe for a while.
The performances across the board are fantastic, with only River (who's still stuck being an unknowable plot contrivance in nice boots) letting the side down slightly, and even she's not nearly as smug as usual.  Amy and Rory are both put through incredible stresses - mental and physical - and both Gillan and Darvill rise to the occasion, breaking down believably while still carrying the same charm that's made them so endearing up to this point, and the way the show delays their true reunion makes the moment shine.  It's great to see Caitlin Blackwood as Kid Amy again, too, with the alternate take on her first meeting with the Doctor making the little girl a lot more proactive in saving the day.  And of course, Matt Smith is still a delight, although his madcap excesses (this is the story where his fez infatuation begins) play second fiddle to his understated sadness in the face of his apparent mortality.  Of course, he doesn't actually die here, and perhaps the ways in which both the universal threat and the Doctor's 'death' are dealt with don't hold up to scrutiny all that well...but, in the moment, the solutions feel right and a few logic niggles aren't quite enough to drag this one down.  9 out of 10.

A Christmas Carol (Series 32 (probably?), Story 218)

"There's a Marilyn on the phone - it actually sounds like THE Marilyn..."
"Tell her I'll call her back - and that was never a real chapel."

Christmas specials are guaranteed to be two things: light-hearted and, broadly speaking, rubbish.  Which is fine in their intended environment; it's been said plenty before but, in the midst of present-opening and roast turkey, nobody watching is really in the right frame of mind for anything complicated on TV.  They just want jokes, a happy ending and a general sense of adventure, and in fairness A Christmas Carol delivers that.  It's just that coming at the story in a non-holiday mindset, and after sitting through the rather clever series before it, one kind of expects more than just imaginative japes aimed at the 'wow isn't this so random and quirky' crowd.
A large part of the issue for me is that there's very little tension.  Not just because the ending is rather set in stone by the title - yes, this is A Christmas Carol in more than name, so inevitably the Scrooge-analogue Kazran Sardick (Michael Gambon) will embrace the seasonal spirit in time for the finale - but because the looming threat, a crashing spaceship containing Amy and Rory plus a few thousand holidaymakers, isn't given enough import for it to be constantly nagging at the viewer's mind.  So instead everything's just sort of calm as the Doctor takes the varyingly-aged Kazran and pretty opera lady guest-star Katherine Jenkins on fun little holidays through time; it's charmingly twee - it's hard not to delight a little in a mini-stagecoach pulled through the sky by a flying shark - but there's very little sense of possible consequence.  The eventual denouement is quite mature in its thinking, though perhaps the desire to frame it with jokes and fun somewhat brush the point aside.
For what it's worth, the technical side of the story is great.  Sardicktown is a lovely combination of classic Victoriana and steampunk fantasy, and although the show's greenscreening isn't getting any better at least the backgrounds are interesting.  The starship bridge appears to have been designed as a tribute/parody of rebooted Star Trek, complete with gratuitous lens flare, and it's effective both in that regard and as a contrast to the rustic environments that take up the rest of the story.  The music is...servicable, though only really noteworthy for Jenkins' inevitable contributions.  I'm obviously unqualified to give any sort of critical thought regarding classical music vocals, so all I'll say is the lady has a lovely voice.
Steven Moffat decided to minimize Amy and Rory in this special, so there's not a lot to gauge their performances on and no real sense of character development, although the appearances of their respective 'special' outfits raises a smile.  After the twists and stresses of The Pandorica Opens, Smith here gets to basically unwind and be a big gangly-limbed child for an hour, something he's uniquely qualified for, and - like the story itself - it's perfectly servicable and enjoyable but you know more could be done.  Being the centrepoint of the entire story, it's left to Gambon and Jenkins to carry a lot of the emotional heft; thankfully Gambon is pretty fantastic as the most bitter old man imaginable, and Jenkins (in her first shot at acting) is so cloyingly sweet her dialogue threatens to rot your teeth.  In a good way.
Overall, it's hard to hate A Christmas Carol, but it's just not substantial enough to really care about in the proper sense.  7 out of 10.

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon (Series 32, Story 219)

"Yes, you've been interfering with human history for thousands of years, yes, people have suffered and died - but what's the point in having two hearts if you can't be a little bit forgiving every now and then?"

Y'know what I was saying about Moffat going nuts on long-running plots?  It all starts here...or rather, it starts in the second half here, because the first episode, The Impossible Astronaut, is incredibly drawn-out and doesn't really accomplish much besides introducing important supporting character Canton Everett Delaware III (seriously?) (played by Mark Sheppard...but no, seriously?) and setting the tone with a big opening gambit that's then put on the back-burner for some deathly slow investigation, a theoretically big development in Amy's character that drops with all the impact of a stray feather, and some ill-advised slow motion that turns the cliffhanger into cheese.  Thankfully, Day of the Moon course-corrects masterfully, and while there's more than a few threads left dangling that won't be resolved for a good long while it at least makes its villains - the previously heralded Silence - into something suitably grandiose before kicking them down a peg with a genuinely clever bit of plot-fu.  Not to mention it has, to date, the most surprising and disorienting (in a good way) episode-to-episode transition that new-Who's managed from any of its 2-parters.
After being non-factors in the Christmas special, it's nice to find Amy and Rory comfortably settled down (or as close to it as one can manage in this show) and, in particular, Rory is a lot more centred and confident than in the past.  Of course, they still can't resist driving a wedge between him and the Doctor through romantic tension, though here it thankfully turns out to be a false alarm.  Amy herself finds the beginnings of her season-long arc and Gillan sells the hurt and confusion well without giving the game away.  And Smith essentially plays two Doctors, and convincingly makes the elder of the two feel that way with the screentime he's got; while his childish humour is what gets him attention, it's the disquieting sense of weariness behind the eyes that makes the Eleventh Doctor magnetic.  Sheppard gets short thrift in the character department, with the root of his interesting dilemma reduced to a punchline, but he's always had an interesting, understated charisma to him and he's one of the more convincing pretend Americans in the story.
Speaking of America, this episode benefited hugely from actual location shooting (as opposed to something like Daleks in Manhattan, which is set mostly indoors and uses some generic public park for Central Park), with the aerial shots of Monument Valley looking...well, like aerial shots of Monument Valley, which is to say pretty drokking gorgeous.  There's also a welcome attempt at co-opting the imagery of quintessential American pulp sci-fi, with a brief sojourn to Area 51, the shifty government types keeping everything quiet, and the Silence themselves being a crossbreeding of the traditional 'greys' with the suits of the men in black.  Tying the story to the original moon landing seems a bit meaningless at first, though it forms a moment of genius in the resolution, and given how prone the show is to mining British history it's nice to go with something more recent and from a different country.
There's a lot to love here, but it's simply not balanced out well enough.  If I could judge Day of the Moon by itself it'd nearly reach 10, but with The Impossible Astronaut dragging things down it's an 7 out of 10.

The Curse of the Black Spot (Series 32, Story 220)

"Isn't this brilliant, Amy?!  Look at these brilliant pirates!  Look at their brilliant beards!"

This one isn't actually brilliant, alas.  The Curse of the Black Spot, more than anything,  is a victim of how the show has evolved in recent years; if this had been made during the Ninth Doctor's one series, its lack of ambition wouldn't be nearly as noticable, and the period timeframe and interesting setting would've made it stand apart from the crowd.  Here, though...well, it's still nice that it's set on a rickety pirate boat.  That's something.  Beyond that it's Who-by-numbers; there's a handful of thinly-sketched supporting cast to get killed off one by one, a mysterious monster that looks magical but is actually made of alien science, much running from room to room to pad things out, and in tribute to more recent trends, an adorable little moppet and an 'everybody lives' resolution.  It's not that these individual components are bad as such, it's just that getting all of them in one story without much effort on the part of the script to shake things up feels less like imagination at work and more an exercise in executive box-ticking.  Like throwing out any old crap as filler while focusing on something more 'important' for later.
Not even sure what to say here...well, like I said, the boat's nice, although the way it's sat in perfectly still water and surrounded by foggy nothingness makes the exterior shots look a little cheap (even if the story kinda explains it).  The effects used to turn Lily Cole into the Siren are well done, although her appearance gives away her ultimately altruistic nature too early.  And from a historical perspective, it's fun to think that real-life pirate Henry Avery's (Hugh Bonneville) mysterious disappearance was due to him finding a spaceship and pissing off to be an astronaut in a funny hat.
As befits the filler theme, there's not a lot to talk about with the leads either.  Amy gets to dress like a pirate, and has another glimpse of 'Eye Patch Lady', but nothing meaningful happens to her.  Rory doesn't even get cosplay fun, and proceeds to die again, kind of.  And the Doctor just does Doctor stuff.  He saves the day, gets excited about pirates, waves his hands around a lot.  The usual.  Bonneville is competent in the main supporting role but feels like something's holding him back from really running with the part, and the moppet isn't so bad, at least.
Black Spot isn't even close to being the nadir of series 32, but it's a very difficult story to feel any excitement over, and unlike a certain other bad one I'll be dealing with in future it doesn't even have anything to contribute to the arc plot.  4 out of 10.

The Doctor's Wife (series 32, story 221)

"Biting's excellent!  It's like kissing, only there's a winner."

And just like that, everything is magical again.  Unlike many other long-time fans of the show, I wasn't holding my breath for Neil Gaiman's first contribution to the series, with or without the deliberately enticing title; his particular brand of gothic whimsy has always rankled me, like an off-brand Tim Burton who's just done some ecstasy and is convinced you really need to hear his thoughts on the afterlife.  And make no mistake, there is more than a touch of Gaiman's style to this episode (just look at Suranne Jones in the pic - no, I know how it looks, but it's not actually Helena Bonham-Carter) - but he's also adapted to the particular style and quirks of the Matt Smith oeuvre with aplomb, and in this case his deeper meaning cuts to the very core of the show, and its most important and often ignored relationship, like no other story before or since.
There's just so much stuff here, especially contrasted with the skinny, decompressed Black Spot.  A sentient asteroid floating outside of regular space and collecting scrap for millennia, patchwork people, the 'consciousness cubes' from way back in Patrick Troughton's day, actual Tardis corridors beyond the control room (!) and none of it feels like shameless pandering or gimmicks.  There's overwhelming affection present in all the little nods, but they've been weaved into a cohesive whole built around one very simple, powerful idea: if the Tardis could talk, what would it say to the Doctor?
To that end, Jones is tasked with bringing a time machine to waking life, and she basically nails it.  'Idris' has a sensitive heart but it's masked by her non-linear brain, which can't tell the difference between past, present and future, leading her to respond to conversations that won't happen for another hour or so.  Plus of course she's never had a flesh-and-bone body before and is terribly excited to try it out.  It's one of the rare times where Smith's Doctor isn't the weirdest person in the room, and the scenes between the two flit wildly between hilariously uncomfortably, sad, and incredibly sweet.  This isn't a highly-populated story beyond that - it's really all built around Idris and the Doc - though Elizabeth Berrington and Adrian Schiller are memorably revolting as the deformed Auntie and Uncle, and Michael Sheen lends a solid vocal performance to House that recalls past foes like Sutekh in The Pyramids of Mars.
And what of Amy and Rory?  Well, if you were being pedantic, this episode doesn't do anything to forward the angle of Amy's apparent pregnancy, and the couple don't emerge from the story in a different place from where they started.  What they do get is one of the most chilling, disturbing sequences in the history of the show, as the two are separated while running through the Tardis halls, only to find time literally pulling them apart.  The results are shocking and twisted, and neither the show nor the actors hold back from letting you feel the full weight of horror and despair.  Honestly, if I was a child watching at this time, I can't imagine how I'd deal with something like this.  And I mean that in a good way.
It would be churlish of me to spoil much more.  The Doctor's Wife is a high watermark for Who in all incarnations, and while an appreciation of how the show is built might help you better empathize with its themes, even the unfamiliar owe it to themselves to see it.  10 out of 10.

Next time: People made of goo and the first 'mid-season finale', and the River Song reveal.  Should you be excited?  No really, I'm asking you.  I have no idea if you should or not.

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