Monday, 10 August 2015

Time Capsule: The Matt Smith Era, Part 4

 A deep, dark part of me wishes his hair had stayed this mental
for the rest of his time on the show.

See what happens when I take some time away from work?  All of a sudden I'm overwhelmed with the need to blog.

Time Capsule has been left to linger for a whole year, and while that's quite apt given the name, it does show just how little effort I've been able to put into this site recently.  But there's no time like the present to change that, so let's pick up where we left off with new-Who series 6, a.k.a series 32 in total.  Amy's been pregnant, then not, and has been getting taunted by a lady with an eyepatch who can open catflaps in reality, the Doctor remains unaware of the death he's marching towards, and Rory, well, Rory died again for a hot minute.  It's all getting so exciting!

Click ahead to see how quickly that excitement dies.
The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (series 32, story 222)

"I'm telling you, when something's running towards you,
it's never for a good reason - !"

A spiritual successor to The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People matches it in every rubbish way - uninspired set design, a single episode's worth of plot stretched uncomfortably for 2, ham-fisted moralizing, and lots of running around in lieu of actual development.  Also much like the former, it ends on a highly-important story beat which does serve to make the thing feel like a worthwhile watch, which is just cheating, really.  Can't the shoddy ones just be shoddy enough that we can all forget about them?
The gimmick this time is 'the Flesh', a milky breathing soup that humans can broadcast their minds into, forcing it to shift into a duplicate of themselves.  An accident at the factory using the tech causes the copies - generally called Gangers - to hold onto their borrowed thought patterns even after the humans disconnect, so now there's 2 of everyone wandering about, and we get much beginner's-level debate over the ethics of cloning and the nature of identity.  These are big questions that can be mined in all sorts of interesting ways, but writer Matthew Graham has nothing of interest to say here, setting for endless scenes of "But I'm a real live boy!" histrionics.  Most of this comes from Sarah Smart's Jennifer, who starts off as a meek little moppet but gets progressively more irritating (and less convincing) the more forceful the character grows.  On the flipside, Raquel Cassidy's Cleaves has a more successful arc, with the character's natural cynicism manifesting differently in her human and Ganger forms.
Matt Smith gets to play off himself thanks to a Ganger Doctor, which is a fun bit of schtick but there's little in the way of depth to it, as both Doctors get over the shock very fast and don't question their nature at all.  Who does question it is Amy, and given how comfortably she's adapted to alien business thus far it feels wrong for her to suddenly become so close-minded...but of course it's just set-up for some twists later on.  I wouldn't mind so much if it didn't feel so mechanical.  On the plus side, Amy being an arse does let us appreciate the empathy shown by Rory that much more; he's far more kind to the Gangers and understanding of the need for a mutually beneficial solution than any of the other humans.  He's come a long way in what still feels like very few episodes.
There's no real explanation given as to why this story was filmed in and around an old castle - it's certainly not the most obvious place to hold an...acid factory? - but I'd forgive that if the production took advantage of the setting in any clever way.  They don't.  In fact there's almost no sense of geography to the story at all, with one dark corridor bleeding into the next, and the few outdoor spaces completely interchangeable.  And, seriously, who mines acid?  Why would you do that?  Egh.  The ending is great, and it does kinda justify why we needed this particular story at this particular point, but it's still an absolutely miserable slog.  3 out of 10.

A Good Man Goes To War (series 32, story 223)

"Good men don't need rules.  Today is not the day
to find out why I have so many."

Mid-season finales are another of those weird inventions of American TV that never mattered to Who in the old days, but the strange decision to split series 32 in half (for reasons I honestly don't recall being explained) left Moffatt and co. with an opportunity to adopt the concept.  Was it a good idea?  Errrr...maybe.  After 6 episodes the teasing over 'mail slot woman' and Amy's maybe-pregnancy was already getting tiresome, so devoting a full episode to its big reveal without requiring us to wait for the finale proper was a relief.
As for making a good stand-alone story, though, A Good Man Goes To War suffers from just not having enough meat on its bones, something it attempts to cover with novelty guest characters assembled in a series of 'rally the troops' scenes.  They're all good fun, and we'll be seeing more from Vastra, Jenny and Strax in future episodes, but they don't actually serve a purpose here beyond padding things out, and getting into a fight with the Headless Monks.  Yes, they're monks without heads, and no, they don't really serve a purpose either.  But it was them or more generic army guys, so.  Headless Monks.
What is important is we finally get some closure on both the Pondchild and River's continuing presence on the show...*SPOILER!* ...yes, they're one and the same.  It's signposted a bit too heavily early on for the reveal to have as much of a punch as it should, but it's intriguing nonetheless, and it does what it's supposed to - get you rewatching and reconsidering earlier episodes, trying to play connect-the-dots with Moffatt's plotting.  The logic of stealing baby River to turn her into an assassin is admittedly suspect, but it still strays within the acceptable parameters of this show's excuse for logic.  And the way that victory turns to defeat for the heroes is deliciously twisted, helped in no small part by Gillan rising to the occasion as new mother Amy.
Ranking Good Man as a 'story' honestly feels wrong because there's so little to it, but as a chapter of the series arc it's vital, and packs considerable dramatic wallop.  So I'm inclined to be kind, even if I'm not yet sure that the completed arc will be worth all the effort.  8 out of 10.

Let's Kill Hitler (series 32, story 224)


Let's Kill Hitler - as well as easily holding the distinction for Best Who Title Ever - is another 'not really a whole story' kind of thing, in that it's mostly a payoff for Good Man's ending.  That said, on the whole it feels more substantial than its immediate predecessor; rather then coasting on the River/Melody drama it actually crafts a tale about her and her eventual, apparently unescapable fate.  There's still a lot of frivolous stuff that didn't need to be here - none more so than the titular Fuhrer - but the core is more solid.
I haven't really talked about River yet, have I?  I liked her on her debut in Silence in the Library, but as seems to be the general consensus she grew more annoying over time.  The loosely-defined rules of this show just can't support a character that knows more than the Doctor at seemingly all times, as River does, and so she comes off as an author-insert character, and a bad one at that.  None of this is helped by Alex Kingston, who frequently mistakes charm for smug (something I thought the show would grow out of when John Barrowman swapped his Captain Jack gear for Arrow villain duties).  Let's Kill Hitler lets us see another side of her - literally, as she's played by a different actress (Nina Toussaint-White, and more briefly Maya Glace-Green) - and it definitely helps, as she grows through the course of the episode, starting off at her most smug yet, albeit with a more dangerous edge, clearly doesn't know the score for once, is placed in actual danger that she can't avoid under her own power, and in time learns something about, well, being a nice person.  It's very well done, even if it doesn't make the other who-knows-how-many episodes of "Spoilers, sweetie!" any easier to bear.
All this focus on River does take away from the leads, though.  While it's clear from the opening that Amy and Rory haven't forgotten their daughter, we get precious little time to really grok their feelings over her rapid evolution amid all the running about and larks - though it's interesting that this is the first real time that both halves of the couple are on the same 'level' of competence, with Rory once again stepping up ("You know how to ride a motorbike?" "I expect's that sort of day.").  Perhaps the best character moment of the whole story is the Doctor, poisoned, summoning a holographic assistance from the TARDIS, but rejecting the faces of past companions due to the guilt he feels associated with them.  It's a fairly cheap bit of fanservice or 'feels', but it's a solid reminder of why the Doctor doesn't acknowledge his recent past often - the memories are invariably bitter.
Aside from that, it's a fairly fun caper, and it looks great - some smart location shots and decent greenscreening makes Berlin feel 'right', the Leadworth sequences have the same colourful charm as ever, and I'm a big sucker for the transition where Mels throws the toy TARDIS and it shifts into the real thing.  Plus I am exactly the sort of nerd who fell over laughing at the reference to 'state of temporal grace'.  8 out of 10.

Night Terrors (series 32, story 225)

"Pantophobia.  Not the fear of pants, if that's what you're thinking,
it's the fear of everything...including pants, I suppose."

Oh good.  Another Gatiss script.  They only come in 2 varieties: period pieces and 'scary ones'.  This is the latter, and boy do they annoy me.  Doctor Who has a long history of horror - pretty much every story plays with typical ghost/monster movie suspense-building and tension - but whenever the show goes out of its way, doing horror for the sake of horror, it always seems to sonic itself in the foot.  Such is the case again with Night Terrors.
How to give this one some credit...well, we're on a council estate, but at least it's dirty.  The impossibly pristine condition of Rose's abode during the Ninth/Tenth Doctor years was always laughable, not to mention hard to ignore since we were seeing the place nearly as often as the TARDIS control room.  A little dampness underfoot and a pile of bin-bags goes a long way.  The idea of the cast being shrunk down and trapped in a doll's house is clever, and some of the execution is fun, even if they could've gone a lot further with it.  And Matt Smith is always adorable playing off a kid.
Familiarity kills the hook of the narrative, as 'alien child has wacky powers and issues with parents' puts this on very similar ground as Matthew Graham's Fear Her, which, uh, was also crap.  Maybe just stay away from doing stories about weird kids, new-Who?  The supporting characters are basically ghouls, as is the norm for Gatiss: he writes caricatures rather than characters, and while that's somewhat excusable in a period piece it invariably jars in present-day tales.  The landlord might as well have had fangs to match his dog's.  Murray Gold's music is spectacularly off in this one, all fairytale bedtime-story twinkling that jars with the mundanity of a story contained almost entirely within a flat and dealing with distinctly non-magical issues like infertility and adoption.  And Amy and Rory might as well have stayed in the TARDIS for all the difference they make.
Also, bollocks to the dumb singing that caps the episode.  It's not scary, it's not clever, and merely tipping your hat to the arc plot doesn't count as moving it along.  4 out of 10.

The Girl Who Waited (series 32, story 226)

"Blue box man, flying through time and space on whimsy.
All I've got, all I've had for 36 years is cold, hard reality."

And thank god we end on a good one.  I do so love it when the show finds a way to use time travel as an actual mechanic rather than just a canvas, and I love it when the main cast get put through the wringer.  The Girl Who Waited does both, taking a twee line from The Eleventh Hour and turning it into something incredibly grim, and in the process gives Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill their best material to date.  Also a sword for Amy.
Thanks to some disjointed timelines, Amy is once again left waiting on the 'raggedy man'...but she's not a little girl anymore, and he really, really drags his heels, to the point where she's pushing pension age (but still sporting a wonderful head of hair!) by the time Rory can reach her.  Old Amy, behind a pretty impressive make-up job, has lost herself within a cycle of depression; she's cold to the touch of friendship, and even when a solution presents itself she refuses to help, preferring to wither away in her own little world, trapped until she dies.  It's a realistic depiction of manic depression, but also a nice element of sci-fi thoughtbending - knowing that 'saving the day' means essentially dying, erasing yourself and the past several decades of your life so a younger you can live better, would you really agree?
On top of the performances, which are great, Girl Who Waited is also one of the best-looking episodes of recent series, with a nice variety of locations all shot excellently.  The dingy underbelly of the Two Streams facility, despite abundant shadow, feels positively homely compared to the stark, clinical Apple Store white of its main interiors, and that garden is a beauty.  There's some nice editing tricks too, with the dual Amys talking or Old Amy and Rory on either side of the TARDIS door - and that climactic bit of slo-mo swordplay is one of the rare few times where new-Who tries very hard to be 'cool' and succeeds.
Still, what about that ending, eh?  How much of a git does the Doctor come off as?  You know what's going to happen, but the episode is so good you'll wish it wound up different...hah.  This is one of the best.  10 out of 10.

Next time:  A minotaur stalks!  The Cybermen return!  The Silence falls!  And full of tree people?

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