Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Sontaran Experiment - "Never throw anything away, Harry. Where's my five hundred year diary? I remember jotting some notes on the Sontarans. It's a mistake to clutter one's pockets, Harry."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Sontaran Experiment - Details

Season 12, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #77) | Previous - Next | Index

Let's trot over to those other rocks, shall we?
Well, it's mercifully short, so it's got that going for it. Just a two-parter, there's not much room for padding. But the whole thing feels like a bit of a throwaway between the excellent "The Ark in Space" and "Genesis of the Daleks". I'm a bit mystified that the critical reaction to it is generally positive. From the linked site, "The Sontaran Experiment is a pleasing interlude between the two more substantial stories either side of it, and is memorable in its own right as an exciting and well-crafted adventure." Really? Neither pleased nor excited by it, I can only shrug and mutter chacun à son goût.

The premise of the story makes just about no sense. The Sontarans come across as being a laughably incompetent race of warriors if what we saw here was an example of their brand of strategy. Linx was a much better representative back in "The Time Warrior" when we were introduced to the Sontarans than Styre is here.

I'm struggling to think of a way to use this story as a launchpad to talk about anything. Failure, often more than success, should be seen as an opportunity to learn a lesson. But this one doesn't fail by being morally bankrupt, or cynical, or offensive, or even awful. It just kind of there. A quick by the numbers story shot entirely outdoors. The atmosphere is a bit relentless -- a lot of trotting around the same paths to the same gully, up and down, back and forth, without ever feeling like you've gone very far.

The lessons here: be interesting, make sense, don't be boring, are all Storytelling 101. The lesson for viewers is probably to watch "The Time Warrior" instead if you want to see a lone Sontaran on Earth. Or, more generally, sometimes you don't need to feel bad about skipping a story to move on to something better.

So let me get this straight ... #unreconstructed #WTF

Controversial Silent Sam Monument Turns 100 | WUNC

Silent Sam at UNC-Chapel Hill via Jeff on flickr

So a university built by slaves and free (well, free-ish, I suppose) blacks let a white supremacist [a fact genteely overlooked on his wikipedia page] dedicate a memorial to traitors in 1913 and hasn't had the decency to either tear it down? Or at least put a plaque on it saying something to the effect of, "A white supremacist dedicated this memorial to pro-slavery traitors here in 1913. Please feel free to desecrate it as you see fit"?

Here's a sample of the dedication speech [source]:
“100 yards from where we stand, less than 90 days perhaps after my return from Appomattox, I horse-whipped a negro wench, until her skirts hung in shreds, because upon the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a Southern lady.”
Julian Carr, 1913

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Ark in Space - "Yes, your mind is beginning to work. It's entirely due my influence, of course. You mustn't take any credit."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Ark in Space - Details

Season 12, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #76) | Previous - Next | Index

Following the wonderful, but scientifically ludicrous "Robot," the second adventure of the new regenerated Doctor jumps right into what I'd call proper sci-fi territory. The first episode of this story drops the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry Sullivan (this is really a top notch crew, they got on so well together) on space station in the far future and we follow them as the figure out where and when they are, find themselves in a few spots of trouble, and get the first intimations that they, and the satellites precious cargo, are in terrible danger ...

But, enough about the details, what I want to drive home here is this is actual science fiction, not just a romp with technobabble or a gothic horror with alien standing in for the ghost, this is positively Heinlein-esque in its premise and it's such a relief after the careless silliness of the science-y side of the premise of "Robot."

Time and circumstance prevent me from spending as much time discussing this one as I'd like. The long weekend is drawing to a close as I write this and 'real-life' is demanding I get ready for what's going to be a crushing work week. I'll come back to this post and flesh it out somewhere down the road, but I can't resist relaying a moment from the commentary track on this DVD.

In it, Tom Baker is discussing the episode with Lis Sladen, and Philip Hinchcliffe. (It's one of my favorite commentary tracks, by the way, well worth turning on for a watch of the episode after you've seen it once without.) During an early scene where Four and Harry are forced to crouch under a desk to avoid being zapped by the station's security system, the two resort to trying to move the desk over near a control panel by crawling on hands and knees carrying the desk on their backs. This results in their backsides pointing at the camera for a stretch during which Tom Baker raves, "Look at those four jaunty buttocks! There's nothing we couldn't do back in those days!" Indeed. Baker, as I mentioned in previous write-up, absolutely owned the role from day one and his charisma takes the series to a whole new level. It's very much to his, Lis's, and Ian's credit that he doesn't blow them off the set. When he turns on that big toothy grin and delivers his sharply written dialogue, it's always very much as part of an ensemble. He's a reactive as he is dynamic and it certainly looks to the viewer he's very much enjoying himself with cast mates. Not in a distracting way, it's wholly natural in the watching, but in retrospect, and in the mode you watch a story with the commentary on, you're very much aware that you're watching craftsmen work, and work extraordinarily well together.

One last item I'd be remiss to not mention. I'm always watching for how the show conveys secular humanist values and this one has a very subtle moment (well, maybe not that subtle?) where the first of the space station's cryogenically frozen humans, Vira, is starting to revive the command staff and mentions that they called their commander "Noah," which Harry immediately recognizes as a reference to Noah's Ark. Vira admits it was an amusement, in a time where there wasn't much to joke about (the Earth about to be ravaged by solar flares) to give him a name from mythology.

Oh, yes, it warms my humanist heart to hear the story of Noah described as mythology. Exactly so.

Quite coincidentally, I read a new Third Doctor adventure late last night that completely face-planted by working some mythology into its story and treating it as history. "The Ark in Space" is an example of the creative team being true to the spirit of the show. "The Spear of Destiny" gets it all wrong.

Robot - "She introduced it to concepts it was not equipped to deal with." "What? Concern, compassion, and useless things like that?"

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Robot - Details

Season 12, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #75) | Previous - Next | Index

Move over, move over, let Tom Baker take over. Our man steps into the role and absolutely owns it. Tom Baker is the Doctor and the Doctor is Tom Baker. "Robot" on the whole is far from perfect, but Baker proves out of the blocks that he was an absolutely inspired choice to take over the role.

Image via whatinthewho on LJ
Behind-the-scenes stuff isn't something I can speak directly to, my focus in reviewing these episodes is what's on the screen, so I couldn't do much beyond regurgitate what was covered in the bonus materials on this disc if I were to try. I will say it's rather alarming to think Baker wasn't the first choice for the role. The producers had actually tried to get three or four other actors first. Any one of them might have been fine, you can go look up who they were if you're interested, but I can't imagine what the those years would have been like if Tom Baker hadn't been pegged. One can easily imagine a vastly different show and different fate for the series itself if it didn't have Baker's manic charm for all those years. (Your guess is as good as mine, but I'd wager the shows demise would've been accelerated by many years and the new series would've probably never happened. Go ahead and try to find Blake's 7 these days, that's the sort of obscurity Doctor Who might've found itself in without Tom Baker. Of course, some other lightning in a bottle might've been caught instead. I doubt it though.)

This story is essential as Baker's first, but it has legs beyond the landmark status despite its shortcomings. We can fault the decision to keep coming back to the CSO effects that never worked before and probably should not have been tried again. The poor bloke inside the suit was clearly doing all he could stay upright when trying to move around the costume and its arms end in floppy grabber appendages that were distracting in their inefficiency. We can also do little more than raise our eyebrows at the Robot being diagnosed with an Oedipus complex -- it's emotional development is puzzling and not ever adequately explained, so it comes off more than a little silly. These are standard issue gripes though -- the sort goofiness we put up with when we agree to go along for the ride.

Where this story does well beyond being strictly a character piece is giving a pair villains behind the Robot that fit thematically with series as a whole. Miss Winters is a straightforward psychopath with a certain steely charm. The scenes where she knocks Sarah Jane off her game -- first by nailing her for chauvinism when Sarah Jane assumes Winters' male assistant is the Director of Think Tank, and later by scaring the wits of Sarah Jane by ordering the robot to destroy her to demonstrate it follows Asimov's Rules of Robotics -- give her some grudging credibility as someone whose mean but not a dope.

Professor Kettlewell on the other hand is rooted in the tradition of the dopey scientist who's brilliant, but in over his head with villains with which he's allied himself. (Dr. Kerensky in "City of Death" is cut from the cloth. Prof. Parry in "Tomb of the Cybermen," though not a villain himself, is another similarly clueless genius who gets played). Kettlewell, while part of the conspiracy all along, remains a sympathetic character who doesn't want to go to the extremes his comrades do, but in the end gets what's coming to him.

Kettlewell modelling "Mad Scientist Hair"
As in "Tomb," where the Brotherhood of Logicians was bent on world domination, there's a group of amoral scientists, the Scientific Reform Society, out to establish a totalitarian state ruled by scientists. It's not hard too imagine where this fear of scientists comes from giving the Cold War tensions that waxed and waned for half the 20th century. Had those pesky scientists not developed nuclear weapons after all. Of course, it's hopelessly naive to hang that on the scientists. Even though the fears Doctor Who and other shows of the era often framed the question as "how do we ensure scientific advances contribute to the progress of humankind, not its enslavement?" which naturally leads to skepticism of science (or even progress itself!) the answer is always to make sure that our institutions operate with accountability to governments that represent all their constituents, not just the elites.

The Doctor's role here is to be representative of advanced knowledge and scientific curiosity guided by genuine concern for the general welfare. In other words, he's science's conscience.

The Silent Death of the American Left

The Silent Death of the American Left | CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

The political left. (via cutest paw)
This is the politics of exhaustion. We have become a generation of leftovers. We have reached a moment of historical failure that would make even Nietzsche shudder.
Sounds about right.

Leiter Reports

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Earthshock - "A Time Lord. But they're forbidden to interfere." "This one calls himself the Doctor - and does nothing else but interfere."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Earthshock - Details

Season 19, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #122) | Previous - Next | Index

For an episode oft-times cited as a classic, this one doesn't hold up quite as well as one would hope. The first episode manages to generate some tension, but ends up feeling largely like padding. And the initial squabbling between the Doctor and Adric makes them both unlikable while it's happening. Both are behaving immaturely and seem to know it. Even the return of the Cybermen after a long absence from the series isn't quite enough to elevate this one above a run-of-the-mill story hampered by faults all-too-typical of the series during the 80s.

The final episode has most of the action and famously culminates in Adric's death as the freighter he was trying to gain control of crashes into Earth. His death is abrupt and ultimately moving. It's a signature moment for the series. Companions have been killed before and since, but I for one had never seen it before Adric. Katarina and Sara Kingdom were well before my time and part of a story ("The Dalek's Master Plan") I'd never seen. (Nine of its twelve episodes are missing.) Even knowing Adric's death is coming, as I did back when it first aired in the U.S. because we were so far behind the original BBC transmission, it's disturbing and stays with you. If nothing else, even for those that disliked the character, we can appreciate that something more than just formula is playing out.

Cybermen tactfully not commenting on their old look.
Probably keenly aware they're wearing goofy 80s moon boots.
When the Doctor and Adric sort out their differences in the second episode, we can't forget that those differences were out-of-character and felt forced, specifically to allow them a scene of reconciliation. It speaks well for the actors that the resolution of their spat is both believable and a relief, so I think it's the writers we can assign the blame for the failure of the earlier scene. Also hold the writers accountable for all of the second episode, apart from the Doctor and Adric getting over their tiff, feeling like even more padding. There's not *as much* milling about in the hold of the ship as there was milling about in the caves in the first episode, but taken together, these two episodes end up feeling mostly like milling about.

There's some decent acting from the supporting players, but even that's undone by that tedious lady they stuck in the TARDIS with Nyssa to blather and pout during the numerous check-in scenes. (Not hard to imagine the writer thinking: 'It's been a while since we showed what Nyssa's up to, let's stick another scene in here to show her telling that irritating paleontologist to just chill to show we didn't forget about her.')

"Is there nothing positive we can do?" *pouts*
Pretty sure that's Sarah Sutton suggesting acting lessons as positive action.
I'm afraid I'm going to have to point out how stone ridiculous some of the science and plot points are here as well. I don't normally like to go over ground so well-covered in the goofs sections of so many reference sites for these classic episodes, but the cumulative effect of nonsense distracts from some stories more than others. The Doctor isn't carrying this episode, more on that in a moment, so it's more important for the supporting characters and the plot to hold our interest. Given that, things like: why is the freighter travelling backwards in time to begin with? And once past that, if it's locked on spatial coordinates and we are to understand coordinates as a fixed point relative to something, how exactly do they know the ship hurtling backwards through time is going to hit Earth? If it was aimed at wherever the Earth was going to be on a given day in the 26th century, it's not like the planet just sits in the same spot! And what was the scientific benefit again that the Cyber Leader thought made it smart to leave all those folks alive on the freighter, so they'd have a chance to thwart the plan, as Adric nearly did? Dumb, dumb, dumb. Too much dumb.

"More power!"
Despite the boneheadedness of the Cyber Leader's plan, it was pretty cool to have them come back and be kind of bad ass. They commandeer the TARDIS, end up shooting up the console, and they did manage to crash a giant freighter/anti-matter bomb into the planet after all. Just turns out they killed off the dinosaurs instead of the humans. For emotionless beings, the Cyber Leader doesn't actually strike one as the cooly logical type, but despite that he's actually quite fun to watch.

Moar Moon Boots!
Even if we write off the plot holes and silliness as the cost of doing business, which we often do, there's another troubling aspect of this story. It's very difficult to figure out what the Doctor does here to actually be part of the resolution. He does dismantle the bomb in the cave, forcing the Cybermen to their contingency plan, but that he did by dumb luck. His first attempt to neutralize the device failed and he was reduced to randomly hitting it with his laser spanner or whatever that was. It's made clear he's rolling the dice and the thing is either going to shut off or blow up right then and there. Hard to give him credit for saving the day under those conditions.

And things get worse. After getting lucky, his actions for the rest of the story boil down to: drawing attention to himself so he can be captured, failing to keep the Cybermen off the freighter's bridge, useless arguing with the Cybermen about emotions, leaving Adric behind, letting the Cybermen take control of the TARDIS, and failing to save Adric. Sure he kills the Cyber Leader, with Tegan's help, but that's a reminder she took out as many Cybermen as the Doctor did in the story, so it's not like he was much of an Oncoming Storm here.

I'm being hard on this one, I know. It's actually not as terrible as I'm making it sound. Adric's death was moving and allowed him a dignified exit. It was illustrative that even the Doctor suffers defeats, and it underscores the risk the companions take in travelling with him.

It's a shame they couldn't get the somber, silent ending quite right. I don't care how big a star this Beryl Reid may have been, she shouldn't have gotten her name above Waterhouse's in the final credit scroll. (Oh, there were probably some union rules or contract stipulations that made it necessary, but still ... tacky.)

Dissed in his own silent tribute.

In the end, the thrill of seeing the Cybermen, the poignancy of Adric's death, and some of the cave and cargo hold scenes being reasonably tense make this a marginally successful story, despite its shortcomings.

The Doctors Revisited – Fifth Doctor

The Doctors Revisited – Fifth Doctor | Videos | Doctor Who | BBC America

"Earthshock" follows tonight's Doctors Revisited on BBCA.

Well, what do you know? "Earthshock" is one I have written up yet for the c-i-e Episode Index. Good thing tomorrow's a holiday, looks like I'll be up late tonight ...

The Girl in the Fireplace - "Oh, look at what the cat dragged in. The Oncoming Storm."

The Girl in the Fireplace - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 2, Story 4 (Overall Series Story #171)

Coming as it did after "School Reunion," another story of loss I think may have been dulled a little bit by the "here we go again" effect. And, silly me, I watched "School Reunion," just before watching this one, so same deal. I think I needed to switch the order of viewing to get a different perspective and denied myself the opportunity. Even with the last story fresh in mind, both the Doctor and Rose both had scenes where they were absolutely gutted and, to the credit of both Tennant and Piper, they conveyed the emotion exquisitely.

The sinking feeling the Doctor just left to rescue
another woman thinking he had no way to get back.

But the key thing for this episode to work was an extraordinary performance would be needed to make us believe the Doctor could be so enchanted by Madame de Pompadour. Sophia Myles turns in one of the series' truly remarkable guest turns here. Which is saying something considering she followed performances by Anthony Head and Elisabeth Sladen just the week before. Moffat may have overwritten her just a tad with all that lonely angel stuff, but Myles absolutely sells it. When wasn't getting too purple, he's giving Ms. Myles some great lines, like: "So impertinent a question so early in the conversation. How promising!"

This episode, like one Doctor Who story seems to each year, won the short form Hugo Award, and Myles may be the biggest reason why. Moffat's writing was strong as it almost always is, if verging into the florid. But any story he writes in a given season is bound to be contender for some award or other. The Clockwork Droids, both masked and un-masked are, well, the Doctor said, "Oh, you are beautiful!" (His typical reaction to an intriguing new threat. One of these days I'll see if I can compile all those moments into an essay about aesthetics in the series.)

In addition to remarking on the beauty of a some new species or bit of alien hardware that's about to try to dissect him, there's another element that's popped up several time before and since: some hint that the Doctor's name is significant. Moffat, long before "The Name of the Doctor" was seeding references to the Doctor's name be some great mystery. Here it happens when the Doctor does a bit of the ol' Vulcan mind meld on Reinette to figure out why the Clockwork droids are out to decapitate. She gets a peek inside his mind and mentions that his name is more than just a secret. Hmmm ....

Oh, and speaking of recurrent elements, you'll remember what dancing stood for in the Moffat-penned "The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances" story. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Y'know what I mean? Watching this story so soon after that one, I almost needed my fainting couch when Madame de Pompadour rather forthrightly asked the Doctor to dance with her. With those ... dance floor ... eyes. Moffat, or whoever gets credit for transition form the Doctor being led by the hand to dance to Rose and Mickey about to get chopped up for parts, created some pretty complex tension there.

So while the Doctor's living it up with one history's most famous courtesans, Rose is strapped to table listening to the whirring of a spinning saw Perils of Pauline-style. This story is full of that. Reinette loves both the Doctor and Louis XV, giving them some undercurrent-laden scenes. Rose, Mickey, and the Doctor are another triangle of relationships with conflicting emotions. Every push in one direction is a pull in at least one other, the strengthening of any one bond strains another. Moffat weaves a rich tapestry.

School Reunion - *Lunch lady screams, explodes in a puff of smoke* "It's fine. She does that."

School Reunion (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 2, Story 3 (Overall Series Story #170)

Sarah Jane!?
It really is Sarah Jane!!
If you've read any of my classic series write-ups of the 3rd and 4th Doctor stories that featured Sarah Jane Smith as a companion, you've got a pretty good idea what to expect here. The way 13-year-old girls squee over Matt Smith and David Tennant, I am virtually incapable of any reaction other than unalloyed admiration of Elisabeth Sladen's Sarah Jane Smith. So, to prevent this from descending into hagiography, I'm going to try my hardest to be critical of this episode in any way I can muster, including looking for any flaws in the use or portrayal of Sarah Jane in this story. Full on Devil's Advocate mode will be engaged.

Further complicating this effort to be dispassionate and prosecutorial is the guest-starring turn of Anthony Head. Not only did they bring back Ms. Sladen, they just happened have one of the stars of Buffy the Vampire Slayer able to step in as a villain in the same episode. Maybe we can start by criticizing this one for being overloaded with talent ...

Whether you consider "Shooty dog thing," a dialogue triumph or disaster,
there's no disputing  Mr. Head  was fantastically villainous.

It's a safe bet that you can criticize any episode of Doctor Who on the basis of sort of continuity error, either the typical nitpicking of the positioning of props ("The coffee mug is on the left side of the desk in the first two-shot, but after the close-up the coffee cup has moved to right side of the desk!") or the broader continuity of Doctor Who. The Discontinuity Guide does a great job documenting these. I'll add what I consider to be the main "goof," the conceit that jacking a bunch human school kids into a computer will give you super-duper processing engine and the imaginative genius that will enable you to solve this version of the God-Maker equation (here called the Skasis Paradigm) and allow you to control reality. Forget for a moment that wiring a bunch of pre-teen school kids together is likely to get you nothing but an engine that produces absolutely clueless pornography and schemes to acquire candy and video games; that aside, if this was a practical plan, then this problem could very easily have been solved already by some other nefarious group of villains. It's not like the Paradigm was unknown and human children were hard to come buy for any number of alien threats.

Bat-shaped Krillitane on the right just did a little jump back when it heard "Time Lord."

Mickey called Rose and Sarah Jane the "missus and the ex," and it was a little too close to home. Perhaps for the Doctor, but maybe even for us, the viewers? It's made pretty explicit that Rose is romantically interested in the Doctor, but it feels a bit odd for Sarah Jane to express those same feelings in the context of regret. She's from an era of the show where that was never really discussed, so it feels like a bit of retcon to bring it up now. It would have stood out less had it been Lalla Wards's Romana II coming back. The Doctor positively lit up when he was flirting with her, but that sort of flirtatious vibe wasn't there with Sarah Jane, was it?

Sarah Jane had to come to grips emotionally with two losses in this story. Finding the Doctor again opened the you-left-me-behind-and-never-came-back wound, and later she lost her K-9, whom the Doctor had just restored for her. Her heart was on her sleeve in both cases and I can't imagine anyone not wanting to put an arm around her say something encouraging like, "Brave heart, Sarah Jane."

The best thing about the villainous scheme in this story was that it could truly tempt the Doctor. The Krillitane were offering him the chance to undo the Time War, to bring back his people, to save civilizations he couldn't save before. Sarah Jane is the one who reminds him that pain and loss help to define us, and that temptation, to absolute power, must be forsworn. The scene is played with relative subtlety given the magnitude of the situation, no wild camera swoops, no symphonic bombast from the soundtrack, and it works. It's on the actors to make it work and they do.

The strength of the performances of all the leads is what grounds this story and makes every decision point compelling. Even at the end when Sarah Jane encourages Mickey to join the TARDIS crew, Rose's disgust, and Mickey's obliviousness to it, speak volumes.

"Tony, let's have that scenery chewing face again and  ... action!"

Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Good Man Goes to War - "We are soldiers of God. We are not fools."

A Good Man Goes to War - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 6, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #218)

Here we have a grandiose title, and there's a Kipling-esque bit of poetry to go with it:

Demons run when a good man goes to war
Night will fall and drown the sun
When a good man goes to war

Friendship dies and true love lies
Night will fall and the dark will rise
When a good man goes to war

Demons run, but count the cost
The battle's won, but the child is lost
It's asking a lot for a 45 minute show to deliver the bombast and the drama we expect from an historic battle. But we're only going to be disappointed if we expect an all out war the legions rushing into bloody combat. Demon's Run is a different sort of a battle, one fought with the element of surprise, one where the lights go out, where factions are played against each other, and most of the troops are ordered to run away. There are a few casualties, but it's more about information and discovery, and it's what our heroes do with that information that will propel the action forward.

Translation in progress ...
Series 6 is not a favorite of mine. In terms of the overall arc of the season story, I just never bought in. When you know the overall mystery of the series has to be resolved in a certain way, no matter how many attempts to feint and dodge the writers throw at you, they all feel like cynical bits of manipulation, because we know all along that the Doctor did not come to his final end at Lake Silencio. We know that the series is going to continue with the Doctor, the true Doctor, not a clone or copy that we're asked to accept as being as good as the original -- which, I think, was the whole point of the Flesh, to try to dupe us into thinking it's a possibility things will go that way -- and so we are left with just watching to try to guess how the illusion was constructed.

We enjoy illusions when we are shown a trick and then defied to figure out how it was done. But if we ever are shown how it was done, the whole thing becomes a hollow exercise. It's only enjoyable as long as we are challenged. What Moffat was trying to do here was tell us: "I'm going to show you an illusion, that you know is an illusion, then ask you to watch how we show how it was done. We're going to tease you with clues and red herrings, then pull back the curtain and show you. After you see how we did it, you'll say, 'Oh, that was clever!'" That's neither good showmanship, nor good drama.

We can still enjoy moments, elements of the spectacle, and care about the characters within it, but it's not the same thing as enjoying the storyteller's art. Because we care about Amy and Rory, it is deeply satisfying to see her tell her newborn daughter that a man is coming to rescue her, and for it to sound like she's describing the Doctor, but then have it be Rory.

Rory has message and a question.

But the problem of Series 6 as a whole only nibbles at the edges of this episode. Within this episode the symptom we see is deliberate murkiness the kind you get when characters don't disclose and speak truthfully for the purpose of keeping writer's secrets, when they are vague and cryptic because it suits the needs of the story, not because it serves the characters actually speaking. Those quibbles though largely wash away though because we're invested in the characters and we just learned enough be excited to what they're going to do next to address the latest revelations.

One of the larger themes of the series we're asked to explicitly consider in this episode is the weaponization of the Doctor, and the Doctor's weaponization of his companions and friends. The thing is, while interesting, it's resolvable. The companions are part of the structure of this particular mythology. There will always be companions as long as there's a Doctor. The fact that exploration is inherently dangerous will not change, there'd be no story to tell if it did. So we can ponder on it all we want, but any conclusions we reach, any lesson we might learn hits a natural wall at the understanding that we have have to risk pain and loss in order to grow. Which is a plenty fine lesson to learn. It's just one that's suits that narrative better as background, implied, if you will. When we open that up and start unpacking it, we can't change anything about it, so drawing attention to it in the course of the story is forcing us against a wall.

I rather wish the focus had been shifted, and there had been more focus on (here we go again, you could reasonably be thinking, on the humanist/atheist/secularist kick again) why are the headless monks such a powerful force, why are the marines clerics, what does the religion-soaked milieu of the 52nd century tell us about why a war is being fought against the Doctor? It's just background here, largely unexplored except for the brief explanation of why the monks are headless (head is home of doubt, the heart the home of faith) which is good stuff ... but it's crumbs.

"We are soldiers of God. We are not fools."- Col. Manton AKA "Colonel Runaway," a fool.

Worth nothing that this episode is, if not the inception of the Paternoster Gang, at least the first meeting of Strax with Vastra & Jenny.

Vastra & Jenny via Black Distraction's Lair

Tooth and Claw - "Isn't that right, ye tim'rous beastie?"

Tooth and Claw (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 2, Story 2 (Overall Series Story #169)

The Doctor and Rose arrive at Torchwood Estate

There's no getting away from talking about Torchwood in light of this episode, so let's just have done with it. The idea of a Doctor Who spin-off for adults is a great one, and this episode planted a seed that could have borne some delightful fruit, but Torchwood itself offered rapidly diminishing returns. I know it has its fans, I was one. There's certainly an X-Files-sized hole that that was ready to receive it. Problem is the X-Files had devolved into such a tangled mess by the time it was done, it was virtually unbearable. And Torchwood emerged from an already convoluted, over-stuffed continuity to begin with that, in practice, made it sort of an impossible organization to exist in the Doctor Who universe the way that it did. The niche that was ready for Torchwood, and the source it sprung from, it was, I'd argue, bound to be the flash that left a bunch of smoke and ash that it turned out to be. Torchwood could only have worked one way, as a branch of government that did steampunk-y battle with some alien menaces for a few years, but was folded into UNIT.

Now, that's oversimplifying things, but I wanted to address Torchwood, not do a full autopsy.

The thing with Tooth and Claw was it had me at kung-fu monks in Scotland. That opening fight scene was a bit too choppily edited to really be called a full on success, but it was a dash of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in a setting where you wouldn't normally find that sort of thing and it worked for me.

Another thing that might rub some the wrong way, but I found sneakily funny was Rose's attempt to get Queen Victoria to say, "We are not amused." It worked like a B-plot for me, more than just a running gag, it was a game within the story that broke the tension and shifted our mental gears, so the atmosphere could be built back up.

The Doctor's pop culture literacy was also right up my alley. Though I'm far from a devotee of Ian Dury and the Blockheads, at least having listed to some during the college years it was a bit of a pat on the hipster head to get the reference. Besides, if not that group, if you had a TARDIS, wouldn't you pop into a few early Clash, Specials, Beat, Madness, Elvis Costello, Sex Pistols, and Jam gigs? (If not, why not?)

Plus, werewolf! Who doesn't like a good werewolf story now and again? Zombies and vampires all the time gets boring.

There's another nerd button this one pushed that tailored it neatly to my particular tastes: the Doctor was able to solve the mystery because this particular Base Under Siege had a library so he was able to do a bit of research and piece everything together. The solution to a mystery is never satisfying unless we get to see the relevant evidence being collected and have the same opportunity as the detective to figure it out. The wolf legend, Victoria's husband working with Sir Robert's father, the rubbish telescope with too many prisms, the history book with the falling star in it, the mistletoe oil worked in to the wood after seeing the monks weaving the garlands for their protection ... it was all there for the connections to be made.

Arm yourselves. With a book.
Image via
Taking it all together, with all the right (for me, at least) buttons pushed, a suitably atmospheric story with only manageable plot holes, and the neat little continuities (The Doctor telling Rose to not try the Scottish accent, the Doctor unable to contain his appreciation of something strange and new to him and calling some monster "Beautiful!") this ranks as one of my favorites of Series 2.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Smith and Jones - "I think perhaps a visit from psychiatric."

Smith and Jones (Doctor Who) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 3, Story 1 (Overall Series Story # 179)

Undercover as a patient. Apparently suffering
from some kind of acute hair crisis.
New companion time!  We meet Martha Jones in familiar fashion. Much like how we met Rose, we're dropped into a quick cut day-in-the-life of Martha, rapidly introduced to her family through a series of phone calls she takes on her way to work at the hospital. We get the the story of the soap opera drama around her brother's 21st birthday party, where fireworks are assured based on her dopey father's intention to bring his young girlfriend, much to her mother's displeasure. The Doctor, whom she hasn't met yet, rushes by her and takes off his tie, which will make sense only later in the episode. Crossing your timeline is very bad, unless it's for a cheap trick.

At the hospital, we get basically all the information we need, again in rapid succession. Our villain is introduced and explained, though it appears to be just part of the process of showing Martha doing her rounds with the other interns. She again meets the Doctor in a great little scene where she is flummoxed by his two hearts while checking him out in his hospital bed. Tennant plays undercover-as-a-patient like he's the second coming of Tom Baker and it's brilliant.

Salt-deficient patient? Nope, Plasmavore!
This story moves fast. The hospital is whipped up to the moon, we're shown how brave, bright, and adaptable Martha is, and shown how the Doctor recognizes those qualities in her all while the science-fiction-y pseudo-explaining of the how the hospital came to be on the Moon with a platoon of Judoon. There's no mucking about here, the pace never lets up. Before you know it we've got the salt vampire tricked, Martha saving the Doctor, the hospital sent back to Earth, and Martha to her brother's party -- where the inevitable dramarama breaks out.

star trek salt vampire
Salt vampire sound familiar? Star Trek had one, too.
The dynamic of crushing (on Martha's part) and indifference to that crushing (on the Doctor's part) is firmly established for the season here. And it's a shame that Martha's character was basically set up from the beginning to leave as an unrequited lover. Not that we needed another romance after the Rose affair, but by making her character love a man who didn't love her back, she was basically written to be disliked by the audience -- despite having basically the same qualities as Rose, even just a little bit more so. She's on her way to becoming a doctor, where Rose was a shop girl on her way to ... being a shop girl married to Mickey (before Mickey came into his own). She's gorgeous, like Rose, but more so. She's perceptive and able to think on her feet, like Rose, and she saves the Doctor in their first adventure, again, like Rose. She's got a colorful family, like Rose. The Doctor just doesn't want another Rose in his life.

In short, this was very slick introduction to a new companion -- not to mention a race of space rhinos! -- with all the quirky charm of the Tennant era. The Doctor actively saves the day (with an assist) by being clever and luring the baddie into a trap. The menace of the MRI machine magnet bomb that would kill half the Earth felt tacked on and was resolved, essentially, by simply disconnecting a cable. (Shades of Mickey pulling the plug on the Krillitane's kiddie-computer matrix in "School Reunion.") The only real problem I have with this episode is that Martha was offered up like a sacrificial lamb to be disliked in a way that never seemed necessary. That character deserved better.

The Christmas Invasion - "No second chances. I'm that sort of a man."

The Christmas Invasion - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 2, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #167)

Withholding the Doctor for most of the first half of this episode, just giving the viewer a few moments, then putting him back to sleep, should make the moment when he emerges from the Sycorax ship more dramatic than it was. That moment when the TARDIS starts translating Sycoraxic to English, alerting us that the Doctor was back, should have made that moment where he opens the doors and steps out a better payoff than it was. That it felt only overdue might be partly the fault of having him say just a tad too much when he woke up to save Rose & co. from the spinning xmas tree. If the plan was to just tease the viewer and then put him back to sleep, then he was probably awake a bit too long.

The Doctor answers the most interesting question posed by this story, Sycorax style.
Anyways, a few bright spots -- of course there are a few, no Tennant-era show lacks them utterly -- don't quite make up for the long stretches where the supporting cast are handling the crisis. Harriet Jones is a welcome return but her character turns out to be a disappointment to the Doctor at the end, so he brings down her government by uttering six words to her right-hand man. That moment would have worked in an episode that was more straightforward political thriller; that's just not what this episode is, so it only feels like the Doctor meddling in a way he probably shouldn't. She was, after all, a legitimately elected leader. Doing a fine job of it, we are shown.

Now, hold on just a moment, you might say, we just saw her shoot down a retreating vanquished opponent and the Doctor was simply punishing for that act of murder.

Well ... here we come to one of the two interesting questions posed by this episode (we'll take up the other next): did Harriet Jones do the right thing by giving the order to shoot down the retreating ship? The Doctor would have us believe she didn't. Based on the available information though, it's not a clear cut case and I think she actually had a strong argument for the moral authority to act.

Harriet Jones and staff.
Consider what she knew of the Sycorax: they proved themselves belligerent and dishonorable -- the former by coming to take invade the planet, the latter by killing two people they brought up to their ship to parley; the use of the blood control technique also showed them to be devious, as the Doctor showed it was a bluff and that they couldn't have made all the A-positives throw themselves off rooftops after all -- that did make them seem less menacing but also enforced they idea they simply couldn't be trusted in any negotiations; and, finally, after being defeated by the Doctor and swearing on the blood of his people that he surrendered and would leave the Earth alone, the leader of the Sycorax attempted a cowardly attack on the Doctor while his back was turned, so clearly he couldn't be trusted to keep his word, and we should probably infer he is a product and exemplar of a culture of dishonesty based. Given all this, there was no reason Harriet Jones should have trusted the Sycorax would just leave and not come back. Frankly, I think with the means to stop them, and only a moment to make the decision before the ship would be out of reach, most of us would have made the same call.

The case you can make for the Doctor's ruling on the matter is that by taking down the retreating ship, Harriet Jones had become just as dishonorable as the Sycorax. And, well, it's almost a fair cop. The agreement made with even a vanquished foe should be kept as a general rule. Here though, Harriet Jones did not make the agreement, nor did she authorize the Doctor to make the agreement. (You could argue that she was passive while the Doctor stood as champion for the Earth, thereby giving implicit authority represent the Earth, but what, realistically could she have done besides see how the Doctor's gambit played out?)

The Doctor himself said, "No second chances," when he killed the leader of the Sycorax -- who did it have it coming. Yet, what he was punished Harriet Jones for not doing was giving a second chance. That doesn't pass the hypocrisy smell test and it absolutely undercuts the episode.

The second interesting question posed by the episode was: what kind of man is this new Doctor? "Am I funny? Am I sarcastic? Sexy? [clacks his teeth in that very distinctively Tennant way] Right old misery? Life and soul? Right handed? Left handed? A gambler? A fighter? A coward? A traitor? A liar? A nervous wreck?" That's what we all want to know, right? What've we got here after the first regeneration of the new series? And we see right from the start we've got an live wire of a Doctor, with out-sized charm, abundant wit, joie de vivre, and a bright future. He's right when he says at the end that it's going to be fantastic.

Is he Arthur Dent, whom he namechecks?
Nah, more Zaphod Beeblebrox, if you ask me.

It's just not quite fantastic yet.

Preview of the #DoctorWho shirt coming 2013-05-26 ...

Cdog Zilla - Google - a preview of the shirt that will be for sale this coming…

X-posting from Google+ because this is too important:

So, mark your calendars or whatever you need to do. Sunday. RIPT Apparel.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tom Baker discusses trembling and tingling. #DoctorWho #atheism

"It's a long time since I trembled. But I was a trembler in front of the tabernacle when I was young in Liverpool. At one time I was a fan of God! I mean, I was devoted to Him, you know? It was incredible. Of course, I've forgiven him now that I've discovered he doesn't exist." 
Stick around for a minute or two after the remark above (which stars at about the 3:45 mark) for an explanation of the title of this post. Good stuff.

Sylvester McCoy is probably the most famously atheist actor to play the Doctor, he's rather funny about it as well:
“I had a great time, although I did get housemaid’s knee from praying. But then I fell in love with an 18-year-old French nun who used to collect the laundry and decided that, rather than wear a skirt, I’d chase it instead.” 
Christopher Eccleston is also open about his atheism:
"I'm an atheist." he professed. "My mother is very religious, a churchgoer. She would often encourage me to go to church as well, but never forced it upon me, which I thought was quite decent of her." 
Elsewhere in the interview, Eccleston, who ironically played a Messiah-type figure in the British TV Movie The Second Coming, said that he derives his own sense of spirituality from his work, and often prefers to focus on doing good toward others in the here and now.
Matt Smith has also mentioned his atheism in an interview:
"I've always been into history, and then recently, probably by being the Doctor – he is, isn't he, a kind of one-man historical and scientific education? – much more into physics. I recently read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, which ignited my interest in a scientific, mathematical version of the world. No, I'm not religious. At all. I'm an atheist."
Related: Atheism | Tardis Data Core 

New Earth - "At last I can be revenged on that ... " " ... Bit rich, comin' from you."

New Earth - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 2, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #168) | Previous - Next | Index

Not *as* problematic as "The Christmas Invasion," which it followed, but problematic nonetheless. That isn't to say it's not entertaining though. It's a bit of a mess story-wise, logical plots that made sense weren't exactly in RTD's wheelhouse. The chief joy here is in watching Tennant and Piper get to mess around playing Cassandra, the bitchy trampoline from "The End of the World". It's clear here, if it weren't already, that we were going to lose our collective shit over David Tennant.

As an ardent supporter of Eccleston's working-class, Northern-style Doctor, I was disappointed he didn't stick around. (Am still disappointed he, apparently, won't be back for the 50th.) Yet, Tennant won me over pretty much immediately. His first two stories, on the other hand, while I was delighted we were even getting a Series Two, weren't exactly encouraging. The good stuff, I mean the *real* good stuff was still just around the corner and the show was about to hit some it's greatest heights of it's new run, ones that rivaled even the best of the classic series. But before we get to those ... "New Earth."

There were some good ideas here that just didn't mesh together. With a different sort of mystery or peril, Cassandra's romp across bodies could have been fun. She needed to be the villain though, plotting to get a body back. If was the crime to be stopped was her ultimately about her plotting and scheming, this could have worked. Instead, the feline nurses were running a far more gruesome plot, one that only the Doctor seemed to take seriously. And when I say only the Doctor, I mean if the creators of this episode.

Tennant's "Life will out!" moment was well-played; it just belonged in a story where it could have dramatic weight. (And maybe one without the hokey hug-and-touch to spread the cure.) It belonged in an episode that wasn't tone deaf to suffering. It belonged in one where the victims of such a cynical, profiteering crime had some role in their own salvation, where they were more than just pawns to be pushed around the story, moaning and such as needed, then being suitably grateful when saved.

Cassandra checks out her new rear bumper
Cassandra trying out her new 'bouncy castle,' is enamored of the rear bumper.

Without getting bogged down in too many details, the hospital was basically run on blood of an enslaved "sub-species" of human plague-carriers. All infected with thousands of diseases and harvested for the treatment juice (not to get too technical) needed to treat the elite patients. This basically zombified mass of humanity needed a liberator and got one in the Doctor. Hooray. But, their suffering was basically used to put a zombie outbreak scene in the show. And, worse, Davies didn't just use them as a convenient way for the Doctor to swoop in and be the savior, he also used them as fodder for more Cassandra humor.

Ratcheting up the slow burn
He's being so very, very calm ... 
When the Doctor demands Cassandra leave Rose's body and initiates her series of body hops, one of Cassandra's stops is in a plague victim chasing them. (As an aside, they really had no motive to be chasing anyone but the hospital staff to begin with. Having them play the part of zombies made no sense given it had already been established they knew what had been done to them, and by whom.) Upon entering the infected body, Cassandra proceeds to crab about how disgusting she is, which is ... well, she's tasteless and a bit of a psychopath so OK; but ... then, after the show has used the victim to make a joke, then RTD turns around and let's Cassandra have her humanity restored and reflect on the suffering of the woman she had briefly inhabited. It was a jarringly have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too moment that just didn't sit right. I'm all for low-brow humor and cracking wise. Heck, I loved the Farrelly Bros. Three Stooges movie. And part of the reason I could love it was it knew what was fair game. This story had some genuinely funny comedic beats, it just didn't know when to stop.

Pope Francis takes Pascal's Wager off the table. But it was bollocks anyways ...

Pope Francis Says Atheists Who Do Good Are Redeemed, Not Just Catholics

Pope Francis rocked some religious and atheist minds today when he declared that everyone was redeemed through Jesus, including atheists.
I was tempted to just ignore this. I don't give two shakes what Francis has to say about anything; but, if for no other reason than to break up the heavy run of Doctor Who posts, I'll do my atheist blogger duty and tell the Pope he can keep his redemption. But, thanks for reminding everyone Pascal's Wager is a worthless consideration, or, more to the point, putting it in a way even the thickest religionists can understand.

The important thing is to do good. Period.

The issue I take with Francis's statement is he's still making it about heavenly reward, which remains fairy tale bullshit. But, at least he's saying faith doesn't matter, it's the doing good that does. So, good on him for that.

I suspect the ramifications of this statement are going to force him to walk it back, as theologians point out that it's not exactly motivating to their sheep to tell them they don't need the church to help them get to heaven. I mean, the Vatican has a monetary interest in motivating their marks to continue ponying up.

Update: Looks like the Vatican had already issued a clarifying statement when I'd posted this. Of course atheists can get into heaven as long as they remain blissfully unaware of the church, or upon becoming aware of it, instantly accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Ho-hum. Same old, B.S. Nothing new here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances - "You lot! Lots to do. Save the world. Beat the Germans. And don't forget the welfare state!"

The Empty Child - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Season 1, Story 9 (Overall Series Story #164a)

Dr. Sandifer has posted about this two-parter recently, so this is bound to end up being sort of reaction to not only the episode but to his take on it as well. Which may mean I'll just be sort of sitting here nodding my head in agreement, wondering what I might possibly add. Not to steal his thunder, but basically what I'm going to be trying to work through and around is how this episode, Moffat's first writing for the series, deals with the theme of sexual freedom. So, I suppose as a good a place as any to start to is with the question, "Is that really a good idea for a show that's ostensibly for children?"

Is this the guy you want teaching your kids about sexual freedom?
Yes, actually.

If the story of this episode and it's conclusion is really about sexual freedom, being open and honest about your emotions and desires might be another way to phrase that, then part one is basically the flirting. Here the atmosphere is set, the champagne poured, so to speak, but we don't have all the information yet, maybe a hunch about the stuff that matters, and Capt. Jack Harkness does at least disclose that he's, in fact, a con man before the real peril ratchets up.

But back to the question I started with. Yes, it is a good idea, because while the subtext of sexual desire and freedom is there -- and not very subtext-y when Rose is aboard Capt. Jack's ship -- it's not steamy or anything, it's the kind of awkward boy/girl stuff that the kids like the ones sitting around the table at Nancy's air-raid dinner party will already have started coping with. For kids at the upper end of the tween years (call it 12-14 or so), in other words kids who we can reasonably expect will want to watch this, it's wholly reasonable for them to be exposed to entertainment that isn't sexually graphic, but openly acknowledges that there are those feelings and there are different ways to handle them. Some healthy, some unhealthy, but the first step in deciding which is which is to acknowledge and accept them. Then, it's a matter of being smart about them.

Not to turn this into Don't Be a Teen Mom Theater, because it's really not. This story isn't an after-school special movie of the week. What's happening here is far more subtle. The plot here deals with a group of homeless kids trying to survive the Blitz, while an alien tech-infected young boy serves as a sort of zombie stand-in to provide the source of the creepy that powers all the darkened homes, alleyways, and hospital wards. In other words, it's another Base-Under-Siege story, where London is under siege by the Nazis, and this group of homeless kids is under siege by a spooky gas mask-faced zombie kid, who could actually be the larger threat. Let's just have it in the back of our minds that Nancy's relation to the Empty Child may not be what it's billed, and the introduction of Capt. Jack tell us the human side of this story suggest there's another level to think about beyond the mechanics of breaking the siege.

There's also the meta level of this whole having-dance-be-a-metaphor-for-sex thing, because this is the series telling us that the Doctor we're seeing is the PG-rated Doctor, but what we're being told about a Doctor who "dances," well, that's not exactly our classic series Doctor, that's the Doctor in the R-rated movie who gets the girl. Torchwood will eventually be the adult version of Doctor Who, so they're not going that far here, but RTD & co. are flirting with mature themes in a way that the classic series never touched as far as I recall.

Before turning to part two, and apropos of nothing, let's observe Eccleston for a moment.

Marxism in action or a West End musical? *ponders*
So, one of the things I do while I'm watching these is try to pause and capture a still at a moment that strikes me as significant in some way. In doing this, I noticed that it's often quite difficult to capture an image of Eccleston, even in a scene where he's smiling, where he doesn't look a bit dark and sinister. Like in the one above I've captured just before he makes kind of a funny face to hit the comedic beat. But the funny face he pulls, when I try to get it, it doesn't look so funny. Absent of context, I'm not sure what emotion we'd label this face with but 'I just made and airy wisecrack to lighten the mood' is probably not the first that comes to mind.

Eccleston just cracked a joke, makes a 'funny' face.
Next episode, when he gets to celebrate the "Everybody lives!" moment (so, yeah, spoilers) that face looks like a villain's "Everybody dies!" face. In a way, it's kind of cool, that effect. The Doctor is alien and Eccleston, in thin slices, I think gives loads of subconscious not-the-emotion-you-were-expecting data for our minds to process. My hunch, it's the reason fandom didn't connect with him the same way they would with Tennant down the line. Just an observation after clicking rewind and pause a bunch of times in player.

The Doctor Dances - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Season 1, Story 10 (Overall Series Story #164b)

"Are you my mummy?"

Nancy needs to tell the Empty Child, that yes, she is is his mummy. Otherwise those nanogenes the Empty Child is commanding are going to re-write humanity in his distorted image.

She does. She tells him and her honesty, her willingness to be be a young, single mother in 1940s London, is what saves the world.

A surprising number of the individual images in this one are  dead sinister.
Image via

I'd forgotten how explicit Moffat had been in making it clear that "dancing" means "sex". You really can't call it subtext at all. Humanity is going to go out into the universe and dance with lots of other species, the Doctor tells Rose. Capt. Jack is, after all, a 51st century guy. Why should our hangups be his?

The Doctor and Rose do ending up dancing in this one, even though there first go at it is interrupted by Capt. Jack. I mean they dance dance, of course, not dance-is-code-for-"dance"-dancing, just regular dancing to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. But it seem clear what RTD, Moffat & Co. have done here is prepare us for the fact this is 21st century Doctor Who we're watching and this Doctor can dance if he wants to.

The structure of the two-parter, sort of by necessity, means the first episode is rising action with no resolution, and the second half gets to tie up the loose ends but is falling action, which leaves it feeling a little less visceral than the first. The other tricky navigation here is the Doctor-Rose-Jack dynamic, where it's a little unsettling to see the Doctor seeming to take a backseat to the more square-jawed, generically handsome Jack Harkness, and get called out for being a bit jealous. Jealousy is an emotion that's attractive on exactly nobody; the Doctor may have tweakable ears and a big nose but he's the star of the show and -- while we want to like Jack -- as fans of Doctor Who, we expect the Doctor to be the leading man in the TARDIS.

We've see the Doctor hailed a few times in the new series, think the cheering throngs in "The Next Doctor", and that's something I think we feel can be cathartic. There's only so much of that we can abide though before it's schmaltzy. The Doctor's joy at having a day where everybody lives though, in the privacy of his TARDIS with Rose, that feels right.

Castrovalva - "Welcome aboard. I'm the Doctor. Or will be if this regeneration works out."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - Castrovalva - Details

Series 19, Story 1 (Overall Series Story #117) | Previous - Next | Index

dimensioning forces tend to make one giddy
Captured from the wonderfully named

It was the image above that triggered the desire to revisit "Castrovalva" after watching "The Name of the Doctor," and I'm glad I did. It's a great first episode for a new Doctor. Peter Davison is given nearly a full two episodes in the TARDIS to divest himself of the Tom Baker trappings, a process in which he unwinds the famous long scarf, tears up his waistcoat for scraps, and takes off his shoes (all this to leave a trail from the Console Room to the Zero Room deep within the TARDIS) before finally finding a full-length mirror and his cricket gear. Davison also gets to channel some of the past Doctors by jumbling up his companions' names with those from past incarnations and reverting to Hartnell, and Troughton-isms to show how the regeneration process is addling him.

image via
The rosy colored, and scented, Zero Room. Subsequently destroyed.
This would all sound like a bunch of dawdling except it's all done while the TARDIS is hurtling out-of-control back to Event One, the Big Bang. The Master has set a multi-layered trap, the first part of which is to attempt to destroy the TARDIS in the greatest explosion ever1, and because no Master plot would be complete without complexity, he's also got a contingency whereby if the companions manage to rescue the TARDIS, they'll be lured to Castrovalva, a civilization created by the Master to trap the Doctor in an M.C. Escher-esque recursion. He weaves quite a web, that Master does. No expense spared.

Another motif picked up by Moffat for Series 7 was the use of the TARDIS's cloister bells to signal imminent danger. Although, when used in 7, the threat is a little less imminent. Similar to the foghorn that added a sense of impending doom to "Horror of Fang Rock," the cloister bells here help create a sense of tension while Five and the companions wind there way through the TARDIS's corridors between the Console Room and the ill-fated Zero Room, which would be part of the 25% of the TARDIS's internal architecture jettisoned to provide the fuel to escape the hydrogen in-rush. (Here again, the production team seems to be in the process of stripping down in order to re-tool.)

The contingency trap2 is the one that provides the setting for the latter half of the story, and it's reasonably well-executed, both in terms of nearly being effective in it's deployment, but from the viewer's perspective as we watch a low-budget show try to do some complicated things with clever camerawork and some quick-and-dirty digital manipulation. The sense that peaceful Castrovalva is all wrong somehow is skillfully accomplished. Even the Master's disguise, to the credit of Anthony Ainley as much or more than the age make-up, works. Even though a viewer with the slightest bit of savvy knows that the guy in age make-up in an episode where we've already seen the Master is going to end up being the Master, Ainley alters his mannerisms and speech so convincingly that, even half-expecting the Master to be in disguise somewhere, it's not immediately clear he's the Portreeve.

"Castrovalva" is also one the young philosopher can chew on. It presents a constructed world where the individuals within it are autonomous agents, but they so weaved in to the world they've been created a part of, that they can't perceive its paradoxical nature. They call to mind Plato's men in the cave, mistaking shadows for the full reality. The Doctor helps them see the problems inherent with their world, but still they struggle with the perception versus what they learn must be true. We are pulling for Shardovan and can understand how difficult it must be for him when he responds to the Doctor's query about whether he can yet see the anomalous nature of his world by saying, "With my eyes, no, but in my philosophy..." Our eyes can deceive us, but if we pursue truth with skepticism, inquisitiveness, an adherence to logic, and a willingness to change our minds when confronted with evidence, then we can gain a better understanding of the world. This, ultimately, is one of the greatest lessons Doctor Who can teach us and one of the reasons I'm so glad my kids are starting to enjoy it as much as I did when I was young -- and still do, of course. Inasmuch as the Doctor is an aspirational target, as a parent I hope they learn to see the value of the qualities we can identify that best define the Doctor, and define the Doctor at his best; namely, the explorer's inquisitiveness, love of knowledge, commitment to logic, open-mindedness, loyalty to friends, compassion towards antagonists, and a genuine desire to make the world (whatever world it might be) more just.

Drunken TARDIS
Tegan didn't exactly stick the landing.
Image via

1. The Fifth Doctor seems to be drawn to big explosions, particularly the Big Bang. He'll nearly ride the ship that it turns out cause the Big Bang to is terminus. And, of course, he loses Adric in the explosion that ended the age of the dinosaurs in "Earthshock."

2. The Master must have figured the Doctor would survive his fall at the end of "Logopolis" by regenerating, so really, his hydrogen in-rush trap is the first contingency, or the second leg of a longer trap, to which Castrovalva might more properly be called "Phase 3."  One wonders if there was another trap laying in wait that the Master just didn't get to spring due to being caught up in Castrovalva himself?

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