purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-06-13 07:35 pm

The Lie of the Land

Hmmm... The Lie of the Land was better than The Pyramid at the End of the World. In fact given endings are so much harder than beginnings, I'd say it did a pretty good job of tying up the "Monk Trilogy". Ultimately though, I think it had the same problem that The Pyramid at the End of the World had, namely that the Monks are not really a Science Fictiony baddy at all but more a Fairytale baddy and the meshing of the Fairytale baddy with the pretty straight-up SF presentation doesn't really work.

I call the Monks a "fairytale" baddy mostly because, as I observed of The Pyramid at the End of the World, before they can take over the planet they require an explicit though ill-defined bargain to be struck, but also because here they are ultimately defeated by the magic of love. Both of these are more about symbolism than physical reality. I will note that the resolution in The Lie of the Land has a better explanation than the initial bargain - the idea that they are defeated by a concept that is both about love but also as fictional as their own narrative - and that the whole thing works considerably better than the Tenth Doctor's much-maligned Tinkerbell-Jesus moment at the end of Last of the Time Lords of which it was very reminiscent. However this still feels a lot more like fairytale logic than SF logic. I don't think it helps that the Monk's nature, motivation and powers are all exceptionally hazy. In The Pyramid at the End of the World they can pluck fighter planes from the sky and nuclear submarines from the sea and yet here, once the false memories are removed, they are fairly easily defeated (or at least scared off) by a few soldiers. If the Monk Trilogy had been trying to evoke an atmosphere similar, say, to Sapphire and Steel then this might have worked but its trappings are all modern-day (SF) mystery/thriller (Extremis, The Pyramid at the End of the World) and near future dystopia (The Lie of the Land) and I don't think the story quite earned breaking the mould of those genres with its underlying explanations.

I really like this Tardis crew, and their interactions. Once again, I liked what we saw here of Bill and Nardole working together. I wasn't so keen on the Doctor testing Bill, but the fact that she more or less accepted his explanation of his behaviour as justified sort of brought me round. However, I couldn't quite escape the feeling that the story had just wasted 10-15 minutes on trolling the viewers about when the regeneration was going to happen. I thought the scene with Missy in the vault, and the different ways the Doctor and Bill reacted to her solution were great. I thought Bill hand-cuffing the Doctor up at the end and getting on with what needed to be done was also great, but a lot of this is about the characters and the actors and not really about the story construction.

On a story level, The Lie of the Land works better than Pyramid (though I did wonder why everyone was wearing dark colours all of a sudden), but I think it would ultimately have been stronger if we hadn't had a fake regeneration half-way through, a fake reset at the end (I know it's a Doctor Who handwave that humanity tends to forget invasions but it was treated particularly dismissively here and one of the things I wholeheartedly preferred about RTD's version of Doctor Who was he was absolutely prepared to run with the population of Earth remembering alien invasions) and if someone had put a bit more thought into what the Monks actually are (and why they are called Monks once taken out of the context of the Vatican in Extremis) and how they work.

I want to like series 10 more than I am, because I think they have finally got the characterisation of the Twelfth Doctor right and I think the combination of Bill and Nardole as companions works really well, but so far I've found it hard to get completely behind any of the stories. This trilogy in the middle feels particularly weak. I suspect some of this is simply because it is attempting to be a trilogy. Ultimately, I think having three linked episodes in the middle of a season is an interesting idea, but it hasn't really worked. I'm not sure if that is because of its placement in the season, or just because coordinating three different writers across three different stories introduces a new level of complexity into maintaining a consistent plot logic and presentation of your monster/villain.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-06-10 09:42 am

The Pyramid at the End of the World

I have to agree with [personal profile] londonkds' assessment of this episode. It was clearly required to get events from point A to point B and it did so competently enough, but the scaffolding is a little too visible (particularly the somewhat bizarre set-up and protocols of the bio-hazard lab).

I'm in two minds about whether the overall structure, in which the audience is aware almost from the get-go that events in Turmezistan are a red herring. It is very rare that the viewer is significantly ahead of the Doctor in understanding a situation. On the one hand, it ups the tension as we wait for the Doctor to figure it out but on the other it drains the tension out of the suggestion that world war three might be looming.

I very rarely opt for head-canon when explaining a story, but I'm headcanoning here that whatever the Monks mean by "pure consent" is untranslatable into English. While Bill's motivation for giving consent is clearly different to that of the U.N. Secretary General or the three generals, it is not given out of any kind of pure love for the Monks and is clearly given in the expectation that if the Doctor remains alive he can somehow fix the situation. I actually think the nature of the Monks both here and in The Lie of the Land owes more to the fairytale tropes that Moffat was trying to evoke in his early years as show-runner than more recent monsters. The Monks require you to make a symbolic bargain with them the terms of which are unclear. I may write more on this when I get around to reviewing The Lie of the Land.

I also wasn't entirely convinced by the speed and readiness with which everyone took the Monks' assertion that the end of the world was nigh at face value.

There are some great visuals in this story and some great ideas, but I was left feeling that not quite enough thought had gone into actually linking everything together into a coherent whole. It's construction was workmanlike rather than actually good. I'd say it was the weakest story so far this season.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-06-04 09:16 am

Extremis

I really liked Extremis even though I think, as a story, it is a lot less well constructed than either Knock! Knock! or Oxygen.

Is it too late to worry about spoilers? I don't know. )

After two episodes I felt were well-constructed but ultimately a little unambitious, I liked an episode which might have been rather messier but had a lot of interesting ideas baked into it and which executed what is, let's face it, a fairly standard SF trope without falling into some of the pitfalls of that trope.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-05-26 10:01 pm

Oxygen

Oxygen struck me as, structurally, being very similar to Knock! Knock! and, like Knock! Knock!, I feel I like it less than it deserves to be liked.

Both Oxygen and Knock! Knock! tell neatly self-contained stories. These are well-produced and acted with scripts that are thoughtful while fitting recognisably within the mould of a Doctor Who story. Fond as I am of the Sylvester McCoy era, it would have struggled to produce two stories of this high quality in close succession. In fact if these had appeared during a Sylvester McCoy season, I suspect I would have rated them as highly as stories like Ghost Light and Curse of Fenric.

This isn't a Sylvester McCoy season though, my expectations are different, and somehow neither managed to really grab me.

I don't really want to nit-pick at Oxygen, but among other things I'm dubious about the economics on display. I've mentioned a couple of times when discussing this season, about how you identify that point in a fantastical show, where it's breaking its own unstated rules of consistency. The problem Oxygen had for me specifically as someone who has hung around space scientists a bit, is that its very emphasis on the realities of surviving in a vacuum made me expect more realism from the rest of the Space Science. The reality of space is it is really, really expensive to put people up there (in weight terms, even if you're not factoring in the expense of training someone and are, apparently, discounting any value in human life) so you probably don't want them randomly suffocating even if they are not being as productive as you might like. This then, of course, made me think of the practices of Victorian factory owners and making your workers indebted to you for their use of oxygen (and thereby imposing a form of slavery) and that somehow seemed more plausible though not, obviously as likely to produce space zombies. Like the "how does agriculture work on Christmas?" problem I had with Matt Smith's final story, this distracted me far more than it should have done.

I'm not really qualified to comment on the depiction of disability. [personal profile] hollymath has written eloquently about how hurtful she found it though I've seen other commentary that was cautiously optimistic or at least "jury still out" on the subject.

I was disappointed that the blue alien had no function in the story beyond making a simplistic point about racism and then dying.

Did I like anything about the story? Yes, actually. I really liked the interactions between Bill, Nardole and the Doctor. This is the first time we've seen them operating as a team and I liked the way the dynamic of two companions (who aren't romantically linked in any way) worked, particularly the way that the two of them can jointly put different perspectives to the Doctor. In fact I really like this softer version of the twelfth Doctor and both his new companions.

I did think the story was well-paced, well-acted and I liked that it was allowed to be about something and that its resolution tied back to its themes and the set up of the problem. I'm far from convinced it is really Oxygen's fault that I got distracted by picking holes.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-05-24 07:42 pm

The Randomiser: The Daleks

I have vague memories of starting to watch The Daleks once and then giving up because I felt it was too dull and slow-paced. This rather surprises me now. I'm not sure if that is age, or watching it much more episodically, or simply that I'm now more used to the pacing of 1960s Doctor Who. At any rate, I thought it went along at a pretty decent pace all told and while the plot wasn't exactly full of twists, it did keep progressing from Dalek city, to the forest, to the lake and the caves and then back to the city again.

Much has been written about the design of the Daleks and its contribution to their success. It's difficult not to be impressed. Even today most Doctor Who monsters definitely adhere to the "man in a suit" model, so seeing something from so early in the show that really doesn't look remotely like a man in a suit. The fact that the fundamental design of the Daleks has altered so little since then is probably a testament to its longevity. Even the sink plunger which ought to tip them over into the ridiculous seems to work, and to continue to work. While the design of the Daleks has been much praised, the design of their City is also pretty impressive, both in terms of the exterior shots of the whole city and the internal corridors. There isn't anything in this story that looks risible and a great deal of it looks very good indeed.

Some of the dialogue is also surprisingly nuanced for Doctor Who and a reminder that, at this point in time, its writers viewed it as an ensemble show. I'm particularly thinking of the discussion in the forest over the morality of pressurising the Thals to help them, though I'm not quite sure (even in 1963) why the dynamic of this is the Doctor and Barbara attempting to persuade Ian to persuade the Thals, as if the Doctor and Barbara can't have a go at a bit of persuading themselves. In fact, I'm not at all sure what this story's attitude is to the concept of Ian as the leader. It seems to be implicit in quite a lot that happens, but then the script also undermines him - particularly in the sequence when it becomes clear that only Susan can venture back to the Tardis to fetch the anti-radiation drugs where Ian is basically a bit of a tit about the whole situation.

On the down side, the Thals are rather bland, more so than I remembered from the novelisation - though they do avoid the 1970s mistake of looking like a bunch of actors who have never done a day's physical labour in their lives. They are almost uniformly kind, thoughtful and a little bewildered looking - the only excepion really being Antodus who's cowardly and bewildered looking. My memory from the novelisation is that they were better differentiated than this, but the novelisation is a slightly different beast. I was aware that there was supposed to be a potential romance between Ganatus and Barbara and so spotted the various hints of this, but Tame Layman was a bit taken aback at the end when it was made more explicit in their farewell. Susan is also fairly ill-served by the story although I'm beginning to feel that Susan is often ill-served. While the Randomiser re-watches have improved my opinion of many of the 60s era "screamer" companions, I think my opinion of Susan has dropped. Sadly, the most interesting thing about her is her background. Otherwise, an awful lot of the time, her role in any story just to scream hysterically and panic. Here she is given a moment to shine, when she fetches the anti-radiation drugs, but the script undermines her even then by focusing mostly on her fear and not on her bravery.

I don't know why I formed such a low opinion of this story the first time I came across it. It is mostly intelligently written, well-designed and pretty pacey to watch. As the story that first introduced the Daleks its significance in the history of Doctor Who is clear and it is a story which I think a moderately tolerant modern viewer could easily enjoy.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-05-16 08:57 pm

Knock Knock

I feel curiously underwhelmed by Knock, Knock since its an extremely well-crafted story, that holds together nicely, keeps it's pacing and even manages to be about something in a quiet sort of way ((grand)parents and children, growing up and independence). I'm not sure if this is because it is so clearly stand alone and designed to be such, or because a lot of the story is basically running up and down corridors or, I don't know, something else.

Doctor Who classically, is at its best when presenting horror-lite in this fashion but this didn't feel to me quite like a Doctor Who story. Mysterious tower, notwithstanding, it isn't quite as full-blown gothic in its horror as a lot of the Hinchcliffe era since it clearly has more DNA in the teen slasher movies of the 1980s than it does in Hammer Horror. Similarly Doctor Who has only really had the option of telling stories in which the Doctor impinges upon his companion's lives in this way since the advent of the "part time" companion with the Ponds and has, perhaps wisely, used this device relatively sparingly. Both The Power of Three and The Caretaker were successful in their own ways, but they are definitely also clearly something left of field in a way this isn't.

All that said, I watched this with my mother (not a regular watcher of NuWho) and she clearly felt she had been shown something pleasantly familiar - all the better for the inclusion of David Suchet as the Landlord.

It is also hard to feel particularly churlish about the re-use of the "wooden person" effect since it looked so good. The curled wooden hair, in particular, looked stunning. However one does have a feeling that a lot of effects are being reused this season and while, as a cost saving exercise, I would prefer they re-used good effects that work than attempt to create new effects on the cheap that don't, they do seem to be re-using a lot of effects.

There's nothing wrong with this episode and a lot to like, particularly the central performances from Capaldi, Mackie and Suchet but somehow there wasn't anything here that actually made me excited.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-05-09 08:56 pm

Thin Ice

I'd say Thin Ice was easily the best story so far this season. It possibly benefits from the fact that, even though it is "introduce Bill to history" episode a lot of the basics of her introduction to the Doctor and his life have been covered. The episode does not need to spend its first third focussed primarily on interactions between the leads and can launch into the plot much more directly.

It possibly benefits from this, that said it is the "introduce Bill to history" episode and it is the episode that gets to grapple directly with the issue of people dying and the Doctor's culpability for people's death, so there is still a lot of emphasis on Bill and the Doctor. Somehow this episode seemed to be able to make their interactions feel much more a part of the general story as opposed to having an opening "Bill and the Doctor" act followed by the rest. I thought Bill grappling with the Doctor's responsibility for people's deaths was particularly well done. It was acknowledged and moved past without being ignored - and a lot of that is probably due to Pearl Mackie's performance because there wasn't a lot of dialogue on the subject.

I have, at various times in Moffat's Who, felt he was making a deliberate commentary upon Russell T. Davies' tenure. Rory often came across as an analogue of Mickey; there has been a lot of fairly explicit criticism of Donna's mind-wipe; and a lot of this felt like engagement with fan criticism of the treatment of Martha's colour as a non-issue in The Shakespeare Code. I'm not sure if that was deliberate or just a natural consequence of a different writer tackling the question of how a modern black woman might react to finding herself in Regency England and the things she might, in particular, notice about it. Obviously this wasn't a Moffat-penned episode so it is hard to know how much of this came from Sarah Dollard and how much was Moffat. I hope it wasn't Moffat, in a way, because six years in is way past time to be making Doctor Who in reaction to what went before.

I'm liking Bill a lot. I was initially pretty dubious about her. While, yes, it's great to have a black lesbian companion, I did worry that the writers would spend far too much using her as a vehicle to make worthy points rather than letting her be a character in her own right. In the introductory short she also seemed very broadly comic which didn't really endear her to me, but she undeniably works well with this less abrasive version of the twelfth Doctor. While there have been lots of comparisons with Rose, in some ways she actually reminds me more of Donna - someone who is very direct, not too over-awed by the Doctor and who often approaches things from a very individual angle.

Now the explicitly introductory episodes are over, I'll be interested to see how this season shapes up and gets into its stride.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-05-08 08:57 pm

Smile

I was really enjoying Smile right up until the final 10 minutes or so. I actually enjoyed the Doctor and Bill exploring the empty colony and figuring out the threat more than I had the previous weeks' depicition of them initially getting to know each other.

Like In the Forest of the Night this had bags of atmosphere, but it was less overt than Forest with its explicit evocation of fairy tales and I thought, gorgeous as Forest was, that Smile benefitted from a more realist tone and less intense evocation of place.

Where In the Forest of the Night fell apart for me, and for most viewers, I think, was in its explanation for the trees. In my review of The Pilot I touched on the difficulty of pinpointing where a pseudo-scientific explanation in a show like Doctor Who fails to convince. After all, in a show about someone who travels through time and space in a police box, what is so inherently ridiculous about the concept of magic space trees? any yet for a large segment of the audience they clearly pushed suspension of disbelief too far.

I don't think the resolution of Smile works any better than In the Forest of the Night but I think it is easier to figure out what went wrong with it. At the level of the in show explanation, we have been told that the problem here is that the Emojibots have learned that they can eliminate unhappiness by eliminating the people who are unhappy - the solution we are presented with emphasises the concept of equal rights for robots which does not really seem to follow from the problem. To compound the issue, only the previous week the show has emphasised the potential amorality of mind-wipes. So here we have the Doctor first mind-wipe the robots as a solution to the immediate problem but then assert that they are sentient creatures deserving of respect. On a thematic level, in a story which has been about the impossibility of permanent happiness and the effect of grief a solution which not only side-lines but downplays the colonists grief at the end seems jarringly out of place. Smile doesn't feel as insulting to basic intelligence as In the Forest of the Night did, but its ending still feels incredibly clumsy to me, particularly in contrast to the story that had preceded it.

I think Frank Cotterell-Boyce is excellent at invoking a sense of place, creating atmosphere and introducing interesting themes. However I think he's really bad at then bringing all these elements together into resolutions that make sense. In Smile the problem is that the resolution is almost actively working against both his themes and the problem he has presented. I'm still not quite sure why the resolution to In the Forest of the Night doesn't work beyond that the appearance of Maeve's lost sister comes from nowhere and follows from nothing previously established about the magic space trees, but I suspect part of the problem is that Cotterell-Boyce doesn't really seem to have grasped the essence of the scientific concepts he is attempting to use, so that they appear as set dressing on a story that is magic realist without the guts to actually admit as such. I think part of the problem with Smile is that he's equating any solution related to Artificial Intelligence with any problem related to Artificial Intelligence without realising that AI is far from some monolithic thing within which any solution solves any problem.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-05-02 08:16 pm

The Randomiser: The Ambassadors of Death

"What is she wearing?" Tame Layman asked incredulously when Liz first appeared.

"I don't know," says I, "whatever Cambridge dons tended to wear in the 1970s".

"Oh, yes! I've seen the photos."

Not quite how I was expecting that exchange to end, though it's nice to know "she's a Cambridge don" absolves one of all bizarre fashion choices. Liz changes into something much more boring later on, but initially she is resplendent in a pink mini-dress, white boots and a sort of sleeveless brown jacket type thing. The Internet is failing miserably to serve me up an image of this in its full glory, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

More under the cut )

All that said we were repeatedly reduced to giggles by the title sequence which presented the story title in two parts. "Ambassadors" it would say before suddenly adding "of Death".
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-04-25 09:08 pm

The Pilot

Season openers and companion introductions are always a little insubstantial. They generally have a lot of ground to cover, in introducing (or re-introducing) characters while at the same time wanting to keep things fairly fast-paced and not too serious. In general I would say that Doctor Who has erred on the side of "light and fast-paced" with a focus on the companion's reaction to adventure. The Pilot clearly chose to go a little slower than usual in its introduction of Bill. It spends a lot of time establishing her relationship to the Doctor in the absence of any peril or adventure and only then brings the sci-fi plot of the episode forward.

On the whole I thought it did a good job of introducing Bill. I'm not as super-excited about her as a lot of people are, I got a sense of the script trying a little too hard to be funny in places. An "Educating Rita" relationship between Doctor and companion is an excellent idea but there is a fine line between portraying someone as bright, but uneducated, and being a little condescending towards your character and I'm not sure the script always got this right. That said I thought it was interesting that, while the show made much of how like the Doctor Clara was, in manner Bill is much more like the Doctor - in particular her tendency to gabble when either she is trying to deflect a line of questioning or she is simply nervous. She also has some of Capaldi's awkwardness of manner. I thought the monologue about serving her crush chips was great and very Doctorish in a lot of ways*.

A big deal was made in the pre-publicity for The Pilot that Bill would be a lesbian and, paradoxically, that big deal would not be made of this in the show. I was a little bemused in advance about how this could be achieved. Let's face it, Doctor Who is not the kind of show in which people discuss their sexuality a great deal (albeit this has been more common in NuWho than in Classic Who). How, I wondered, does one casually throw a mention of sexuality into a Doctor Who story? The answer, in retrospect, was obvious. I liked that the plot was driven by Bill's romantic interest.

That said the plot itself felt like it had some glaring holes in it. It is always difficult with a science fantastical show like Doctor Who to discuss what is, and isn't, realistic within the world of the show. However Heather, as the Pilot's, ability to cross time and space in sequence with the order of events as experienced by Bill and not in strict temporal order seemed... unlikely. The plot was also, as "Deb from Philadelphia" in the Verity podcast pointed out, something of a "greatest hits" of a number of things we have seen several times before in NuWho - all the more so when you throw "Educating Rita" into the mix. There were some lovely moments but on a story level, I wasn't particularly excited by this.

The set up shown, of the Doctor semi-fixed in a contemporary university is, hopefully, a chance for the show to be a little different this season. This is certainly a very different Doctor in lots of ways from the one we saw in seasons 8 and 9. One of my favourite moments in the story was the realisation that he had gone back in time to provide Bill with missing photos of her mother. This is a very different person from the one who had to read out cue cards, supplied by Clara, in order to interact appropriately with distressed humans. Nardole may have commented on his obliviousness to Bill's distress at the end, but this still seemed like a Doctor who had come a long way in his understanding of, or at least his willingness to deal with (I was never entirely convinced that the Doctor was oblivious to the feelings of those around him) the emotions of everyone else.

I've no strong feelings about Nardole. I like his dynamic with the Doctor which is so different to the typical Doctor Companion dynamic, but he was very much in the background here.

Overall I liked this. I thought it was a little slow at the start, but the new Tardis team and the university setting (albeit, as Tame Layman pointed out, university's don't work like that - though universities remain quixotic enough that it's not beyond the realms of possibility) have promise. As a long time fan, I'm rarely particularly excited by season openers, especially when they are designed (as this one clearly was) as a jumping on point, I'm too keen to get on with the story, but this one did its job.

*and yes there was a fat joke, but surely Bill as a character is allowed to be awkward about her attitude to weight - it's not like most people don't have an awkward relationship to weight.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-04-20 09:02 pm

The Randomiser: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Tame Layman had sufficiently fond memories of The Talons of Weng Chiang that the Teenager was summoned to watch it with us. She indulged us, but I don't think she was really sold on it. She quite liked Leela and could take or leave the rest.

She prefers The Avengers, I think, which is possibly fair enough.

More under the cut )

Tame Layman and I had a lot of fun watching Talons and felt we were reminded what a great companion Leela was, but the Teenager's relative indifference makes me think that this is not a classic with real staying power. It is a bit too long for the material to sustain, it relies a little too much on tropes from stories that are no longer in vogue, and Leela (out of context) is not as refreshing and different as she appears to older eyes.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-03-31 08:14 pm

The Randomiser: Death to the Daleks

I thought that I had seen Death to the Daleks but it didn't feel particularly familiar when we sat down to watch it. Well apart from the obvious familiarity of a Dalek story filmed in a sandpit in Kent, with an additional section in which someone tries to sacrifice Sarah.

In some ways it's an oddly disjoint story. The Daleks don't appear until the end of the first episode and are sidelined for much of the last. To be honest I think Terry Nation was more interested in the concept of the (somewhat ill-defined) anti-electricity planet, the empty city and the people who worship it, and the extent to which a bunch of humans thrown into this environment would cope. He has some fun with the idea of Daleks also adapting to this environment. Deliberately de-powering the Daleks and then showing them overcome this obstacle and still be extremely dangerous is a clever way to side-step the tendency for each Dalek story to need to up the stakes. It has been observed that Nation had a predilection towards survival stories in which man (mostly manly man) must overcome the environment and this definitely fits into that trend. However survival stories are actually a pretty good starting point for a Doctor Who story and beyond a certain humourlessness Nation's stories tend to be pretty watchable.

Since this is a Terry Nation story, there is a character called Tarrant. I was a little take aback when Tarrant turned out to be a woman, however.

The City of the Exxilons is a nice idea in concept, and is a good driver for the plot that takes place outside its walls, but it's internal puzzle-solving aspect is very poorly realised. Obviously portraying the idea that the city is a sequence of fiendish traps which no one in hundreds of years has successfully navigated, while at the same time making each trap or puzzle something that can be made readily understandable to the audience in under a minute is a big ask. But the ultimate effect is a feeling that the city's puzzles are frankly a bit rubbish. The money had probably run out by this point as well - the set design inside the city is noticeably inferior to that elsewhere. Even the Exxilon costumes (which teeter on the brink of failure) ultimately look good enough.

I want to like this story more than I do. It has some nice ideas, an at least moderately interesting cast of supporting characters, keeps events moving and is trying to do something novel with the Daleks. Somehow it all feels a bit by-the-numbers though. Possibly it is because of the familiarity of the sand pit, Sarah getting sacrificed, the running down tunnels and so on - all its interesting parts are very much slotted into the standard template of a Doctor Who story. Its a perfectly solid piece of second rank Doctor Who, but it had the potential to be something more yet never quite managed to gel and become more than the sum of its parts.
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2017-03-30 09:50 pm

The Randomiser: Snakedance

Snakedance, the sequel to Kinda, is one of my favourite Davidson stories. It doesn't have Kinda's single-minded focus on its themes and is prepared to be much more traditional in form, but that has the advantage of making it a great deal more accessible to the average viewer.

One of Snakedance's successes is in trying to depict a complex society in which a space-faring federation is interacting with a still superstitious but far from primitive local populace. Budgetary (one assumes) considerations mean this is only really reflected in the bustling market place of Manussa, but the production team are clearly working hard to evoke a sense of place through both costume and music. Doctor Who doesn't often attempt to give its alien societies much by way of history and tradition, let alone attempt to portray them as particularly complex, so it is nice to see that here.

One could argue that actually explaining the Mara's origins somewhat diminishes it, but I actually really like the way Snakedance works with Kinda. In the former both the Kinda and the survey team are working from a place of ignorance with no real mechanism available to learn how the Mara came about. As such, it remains a mystical force of a nature - a thing that simply is and must be accepted - most of the story is about the break down of understanding and then acceptance. On Manussa, where the Mara originated, far more information is available and the mechanisms for uncovering it are far more familiar to the Doctor although even here he ultimately has to interpret Dojjen's cryptic pronouncements (delivered via telepathy in a set which, one feels, has suffered from the money spent on the market place and cave). Taken as a pair Kinda can be see as setting up a mystery and Snakedance as resolving it.

All that said, shortly after watching Snakedance we watching Nightmare of Eden (not as part of The Randomiser, Tame Layman just randomly picked it). Halfway through Tame Layman pronounced Nightmare of Eden much better than Snakedance* so I suppose you can't win them all.

*No, I've no idea why.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-02-28 07:18 pm

The Randomiser: Timelash

"This is a story from the 1980s with `Time' in the title. That's always a bad sign," I told Tame Layman as we put this one on.

It is, frankly, pretty poor. Time and the Rani forms the most obvious point of comparison since we watched that not so long ago on the Randomiser. I would be tempted to say that Time and the Rani at least has some good bits - there is at least one nice special effect, some thought has gone into creating the alien race, Kate O'Mara impersonating Bonnie Langford is fun - but it also has some pretty egregiously bad bits - the brain, anything purporting to be science. Timelash is basically just rather tired and sub-standard throughout. I don't think anything in it rises to the standard of good and though it teeters on the brink of embarrassingly bad occasionally (the climb down into the Timelash) I don't think it quite hits the depths of Time and the Rani. If I had to choose one to be consigned to fires of destruction never to be seen again by anyone I'd probably sacrifice Timelash if only because Time and the Rani features a regeneration and a returning villain and a few fun bits. On the other hand, if I was forced to pick one to have to watch again I'd probably also pick Timelash on the grounds that at least one can mostly just let it wash over you while Time and the Rani demands a sort of horrified attention.

I'm not quite sure what else to say about this. The acting is uniformly lacklustre, including from Paul Darrow who seems to be sleep-walking his way through some Avon-inspired type-casting. Lots about it doesn't really make sense, not at the level of gigantic plot holes but more just at the level of a script that is just going through the motions without wanting to think particularly about why anyone would behave in a particular way, or how a "Timelash" might fictionally work, or what H. G. Wells might actually be like. It doesn't help that a number of behind the scenes issues led to part 2 under-running and the hasty insertion of extra padding in the form of an extended Tardis scene.

I've been doing a bit of googling and seeing a lot of people claiming that Timelash isn't as bad as its reputation and despite the fact it is mostly not cringingly embarrassing (for a value of cringingly embarrassing calibrated to someone who likes 1970s British SF TV) I'm inclined to think it is actually that bad. Because, at the end of the day, it is boringly dull with nothing to recommend it.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-02-22 08:51 pm

Doctor Who: Mindwarp

Following the comparative success of Vengeance on Varos, Mindwarp by the same writer was one of the more eagerly anticipated stories of Doctor Who's troubled 23rd season though Robert Holmes' final episode (part 1 of the ill-fated Ultimate Foe) was probably more eagerly anticipated. Watching Mindwarp one feels that it had the potential to be as good as Vengeance on Varos but is fatally undermined by both the constricting ongoing story of Trial of a Time Lord and by a general sense of mild incompetence, mostly on the part of the director though, as with much 1980s Who, there is a fair amount of rather lacklustre acting on display as well.

When I first saw Mindwarp I recall thinking that Brian Blessed was sadly wasted in his role as Yrcanos. I'd recently seen him in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V so knew him capable of being, if required, not quite so full on Brian Blessed. Rewatching now, Brian Blessed was definitely one of the best things in Mindwarp. He's clearly having fun and at least we were smiling whenever he was on the screen.

Frustratingly the ongoing story arc of the Doctor's trial condemns this particular segment to a section where doubts are supposed to be growing about the veracity of the material on display. We are essentially told that all the events unfolding on Thoros Beta are being conveyed to us via an unreliable narrator. The Doctor states that events proceeded broadly as depicted but that the emphasis was different. In the hands of a better director this could probably have been made to work, but as it stands the story is frustratingly confusing: relationships may or may not be as the appear on screen, events may or may not have happened for reasons which may or may not be those stated. I've nothing against unreliable narrators per se, but I think Mindwarp demonstrates that you need to work hard to pull them off in a way that doesn't make the result look like something of a confusing mess.

The (as far as one can tell largely one-sided) relationship between Yrcanos and Peri is bizarre as well. It must be said that poor Peri was often saddled with the role of random object of affection/lust for some passing character or villain (we were to watch Timelash next), more so than many companions and I'm sure whole essays could be written on why this particular companion at this particular point in the show's history keeps encountering this trope. In this case though I think we are supposed to believe the feeling is mutual, even though Nicola Bryant conveys nothing more than a kind of indulgent friendly feeling towards Yrcanos. I deduce this because her death at the end of Mindwarp is retconned (I would say unnecessarily) into marriage to Yrcanos six episodes later (in the novelisation it is even more bizarrely retconned into marriage to Yrcanos who is then transported to Earth by the Time Lords where he embarks upon a successful career as a pro-wrestler with Peri as his manager) and one assumes one is supposed to view this as a happy ending - as opposed to a companion being abandoned and forced by circumstances into marriage. Of course one can handwave the lack of apparent affection by invoking the unreliable narrator, but it is ultimately odd and frustrating.

Beyond that there is a lot of running around and capture-escape in this story, rendered more confusing and apparently pointless by the interruptions of the trial in which the Doctor insists the material is being manipulated. An attempt to portray a planet in which not everyone is white is undermined by the fact that all the non-white characters are slaves or servants and very much secondary to the main cast. Patrick Ryecart as Crozier is working hard to inject some depth into his role but is undermined in part by being a less sympathetic character than the Governor in Vengeance on Varos and, to be honest, by a decision to depict this world, not with the grimness of Varos, but as a dayglo confection of pink and orange. Sil is reduced more or less to being a comedy henchman. Kiv, Sil's superior is potentially more interesting (and marks the start of Christopher Ryan's career as Doctor Who villains in latex masks) but it seems unnecessary to suddenly sideline a successful character by introducing his superior.

To be honest, despite my complaints, Mindwarp isn't that bad but one feels it was very nearly good and somehow misses it mostly by just not having a good enough grip on tone and a clear enough idea how to convey the ambiguity over the gap between what we see and what actually happened.
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2017-02-21 08:28 pm

The Randomiser: The Invasion

The Randomizer suggested we watch The Faceless Ones but, when I put it on, Tame Layman claimed to have seen it. I'm fairly sure he's actually only seen the two episodes that exist, and those many years ago, but he was adamant. We've been gradually collecting exceptions to the Randomiser. The project is now to watch all of Doctor Who in random order except NuWho, anything seen in the previous five years and The Faceless Ones. I may try to sneak The Faceless Ones back in at the end.

Anyway, the Randomiser next offered up The Invasion. I had bought the version of The Invasion with animations replacing the two missing episodes some time ago (more than five years, I was fairly sure) and we had watched it so I took the precaution of mentioning this in advance to Tame Layman who then didn't veto it.

The Invasion is remarkably watchable given it is one of the longest Doctor Who stories out there and, as a result, features even more random and somewhat pointless capture escape than normal.

It is definitely helped by featuring one of the better Tardis teams. Although Wendy Padbury has complained that Zoe Herriot, having started out well, was rapidly reduced to just another screaming girly I think the character is generally pretty well-served and definitely fares better than either Deborah Watling's Victoria or Anneke Wills' Polly. While still sometimes constrained by a tendency to be placed in a damsel in distress role, Zoe is generally proactive, competent and often gets to show off her mathematical skills (as she does here - confusing computer receptionists and calculating missile trajectories).

The Brigadier and UNIT, in its first appearance, also work very well. The Brigadier has yet to be reduced to the kind of buffoon who refuses to believe he is on an alien planet and is, in fact, remarkably helpful and supportive of the Doctor throughout. This gives the whole story the feel of military versus aliens which is both nostaligically reminiscent of much 1960s sci-fi fare and refreshing for Doctor Who in which the military are often one of the obstacles to be overcome.

Kevin Stoney's Tobias Vaughn is a triumph as a villain. In particular, it is refreshing to see a villain who is under no illusions about his likely fate once the Cybermen take over and part of the reason I think the story fares so well over its extended length is that it effectively portrays the interaction of three factions at work, rather than two.

We spent quite a while discussing the animation. I felt it was broadly similiar in both style and quality to that in the recent Power of the Daleks release while Tame Layman preferred it. I think it certainly helped that there were live episodes in between the animated ones which helped ground the characters out better in existing performances.

Frankly this is a pretty good chunk of 1960s Doctor Who and certainly much better than it has any right to be lasting, as it does, for eight episodes.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-01-30 08:05 pm

The Randomiser: Kinda

I'm sure I must have seen Kinda since it was first broadcast but I don't recall when and my memories of it were distinctly hazy. At the time of broadcast it came bottom of the season poll in DWM but shortly thereafter it was placed front and centre in Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text which attempted* to apply academic media criticism to Doctor Who. It would be tempting to say that Kinda is an interesting failure but I'm not sure it is a failure. It's more something completely to one side of main stream Doctor Who and isn't really even attempting to play by Doctor Who's normal rules.

More under the Cut )

I actually really enjoyed this and was surprised that I did. It is like nothing else Doctor Who has ever attempted before or since. In Doctor Who terms it is mostly a mixture of over-earnest, naff and silly, but on its own terms it is grippingly frightening in places, surreal and rather beautiful.

*I've not read it so, for all I know, the attempt was a success even if it was regarded with bemusement by most Who fans of the time.
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2017-01-24 07:08 pm

The Return of Dr Mysterio

I liked The Return of Dr. Mysterio. I had been a bit worried, on seeing the trailers, that we were going to get something similar to Robots of Sherwood with the Doctor and the Superman analog squaring off against each other in a battle of "who is the real hero". Instead we got a completely different relationship in which the Doctor is in the role of mentor to a superhero who shares many of his strengths and his weaknesses.

The story gets points simply for not being set on Victorian Christmas Planet. But in general I've preferred Capaldi's Christmas specials to a lot of the stories that appear in the main seasons. I think the lighter tone works well, and while Capaldi can be excellent at the serious and doom-laden, he has enough range to do comedy as well and it is good to see that utilised. I thought his interactions with Grant, in particular in the scenes set in Lucy's house, were great.

I liked Nardole too. I went into it with pretty much no opinion about the casting of Matt Lucas having, to be honest, barely registered him in The Husbands of River Song beyond a vague concern that the presence of such a well-known actor in Pearl Mackie's stories might make it harder for her to establish herself than it might otherwise. I thought he was good here and I liked seeing a very different Doctor and Companion relationship which is not dominated by hero-worship on the part of the companion.

I did think that the character of Lucy, after a strong start, got rather sidelined into the traditional superhero damsel-in-distress role and I can see it was probably not a good story for anyone who is an afficionado of superhero comics - after all it is poking gentle fun at the most well-known superhero tropes from the 70s and 80s and isn't, as I understand it, greatly informed by what is happening in superhero comics now.

However, as a Christmas story, I thought it was good-hearted, entertaining fun.
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2017-01-19 08:43 pm

The Randomiser: Vengeance on Varos

Vengeance on Varos was my favourite Colin Baker story back in the day which, to be honest, is damning with faint praise. It embodies many of the excesses of the era and redeems itself mostly through a consistency of tone and presentation, Martin Jarvis and an interesting and well-executed framing device.

Let's face it, a story set inside a "punishment dome" complete with acid baths, cannibals and a sadistic alien that leers and exults over any prospect of death and cruelty is a very Colin Baker kind of premise. I strongly suspect the story was influenced by Running Man though I don't know for sure. It's at the edge of the sort of setting any era of Doctor Who might have chosen, but it gives the appearance of relishing its more horrific moments for the spectacle rather than for the purpose they serve in telling the tale. Moreover, it lacks the lightness of touch in delivering moments of relief that other eras might have achieved. I have a feeling that Saward's vision for the show was as a black comedy. Vengeance on Varos succeeds in being dark and nasty but never really achieves (or perhaps even attempts) to be comic. It's possibly the nastiest story in this season, though at least it appears to know what it wants to do tonally which isn't always the case.

It's easy to point at what is going wrong here. Unlike a lot of the era the director isn't trying to flood the set with vast amounts of light, but even so it somehow manages to look gaudy rather than atmospheric a lot of the time. The characters with whom we are supposed to sympathise, the rebels Jondar and Areta (who are sufficiently forgettable I've just had to look up their names) are, frankly bland, dull and woodenly acted. A lot of it doesn't make sense at the "world-building" level (for instance the perils and traps of the punishment dome mostly turn out to be a) a bit rubbish and b) well-known to the audience and thus, theoretically, the prisoners). This is mostly possible to overlook, but less so the moment at the end where the price of Zeiton Seven ore rises because an alternative source has been found (my grasp of economics is shakey but I'm fairly sure the price normally drops if supply increases - assuming demand remains the same*).

On the other hand Martin Jarvis delivers an excellent performance as the Governor, invoking our sympathy while nevertheless suggesting that this is a man who has only really found the ability to show compassion and a desire to change the system now he is in a position where the system is more or less actively trying to kill him. Where Vengeance on Varos really succeeds is in the framing device. It takes the concept that the punishment dome is a form of entertainment and gives us the couple, Arak and Etta, who watch events unfolding, bicker about them, yet never take part in the action except for the obligatory votes on Governor policy. In the light of recent political upheavals some of it seems remarkably prescient. Arak desires to vote against the Governor no matter what. "What will the next one do differently?" Etta asks. "Anything, Everything," Arak more or less shrugs in return. He's voting for change without any particular interest in what the change is to. Of course it's prescient too, given that this was produced before the Internet and Reality TV, about our new ability to provide instantaneous feedback on anything and everything.

There are one or two other moments where Vengeance on Varos uses the conceit that all is for entertainment well. Most notably the episode 1 cliff-hanger that ends, not with the Doctor apparently dying, but the camera feed focused on his corpse and the Governor, in the role of director, saying "and cut it, now" as the feed goes blank. The final moments are also a triumph, if a somewhat nihilistic one. As Arak and Etta observe the blank screen that is supposed to symbolise their new freedom they ponder vacantly over what they are to do now.

When I was a teenager I think I was probably as fond of dystopias as the modern teenager, though with a rather sparser supply since YA fiction, as a marketing niche, was yet to be invented. I thought very highly of Vengeance on Varos at the time and I can see now that its tone and tropes match up nicely with with those particular preferences. These days I like my Doctor Who to have more of a focus on humour and entertainment and less of a desire to imagine the unpleasant and grim. As such Vengeance on Varos looks pretty flawed (though, as I say, these are the flaws of the era). Even so it is hard to ignore that there are some things it does extremely well (where so much Colin Baker Doctor Who manages to fumble its good ideas) and somewhat reluctantly I think it remains my favourite Colin Baker story.

*Obviously the price has been kept artificially low but even so it's hard to see how discovery of an alternative source strengthens the Varosian bargainning hand.
purplecat: Texture by simpleandclean (LiveJournal) (Doctor Who)
2017-01-17 07:47 pm

The Randomiser: Carnival of Monsters

Way way back in 1981 the BBC ran a "Five Faces of Doctor Who" season in which they showed one story from each of the first four Doctors (ending with a repeat of Logopolis and Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison), except for the third Doctor who got two stories. It's difficult to say how incredibly exciting this was to a young Doctor Who fan at the time. The two stories picked for the third Doctor were The Three Doctors and Carnival of Monsters. I assume they wanted to show both the anniversary multi-doctor story as part of the "five faces" theme but also a more typical story. I never really understood the inclusion of Carnival of Monsters which did not (insofar as one could judge from Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks' The Making of Doctor Who) seem to be a particularly significant Pertwee story, even if one assumes they were restricting themselves to four parters.

I was a little surprised by Tame Layman's enthusiasm for this however. He also had memories of seeing it at some point (possibly also as part of the Five Faces season) and recalled it as being a particularly good Pertwee story. The Teenager was summoned so that she could experience it as well.

I don't know. The story is generally pretty pacey, so it doesn't suffer from the longueurs of some early Doctor Who but I'd say that almost everything happening outside the miniscope on Inter Minor is done in a rather broad and heavy-handed fashion. The CSO, while not the worst Doctor Who has ever committed, is among the dodgier the show has inflicted upon the audience and it seems more obvious than usual that the budget wasn't really stretching to many sets.

The parts of the story set on the SS Bernice are among the best ,in part I would say because both the actors and the producers of sets and costumes were far more comfortable with portraying the 1920s than fantastical machines or aliens. The reveal that actually the first parts of the story are taking place inside some kind of peep show is clever and handled well. Still I'd argue that one good idea doesn't make a solid story.

It's fun but I don't really get the enthusiasm. Still, Tame Layman and Teenager enjoyed it so who am I to judge?