Saturday, October 3, 2015

Under the Lake / Before the Flood - "I'm very sorry for your loss. I'll do all I can to solve the death of your friend slash family member slash pet."

Under the Lake - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 9, Episode 3 (Overall Series Story #259a) | Previous - Next | Index

The thing about ghosts, if you're going to have proper ghosts in your ghost story, is they're going to gnaw at me because I don't have a much patience for the eternal soul malarkey ghosts are typically predicated on outside the context of supernatural fiction. But, this isn't a proper ghost story, it's Doctor Who borrowing some ghost story business, and there's ways to let "souls" stand in as shorthand for some process which separates consciousness from the body based on alien tech jiggery-pokery that doesn't necessarily imply humans have ghostly souls. It's October, Halloween month, if you can't chill and enjoy a spooky ghost story, what kind of fun are you going to have anyways?

And enjoy it I did. Sure, it's got all the trappings of routine corridor run-around, but for well-trodden ground, it's a got distinctive touches. It's not clear if we should be reading anything into the Doctor telling Clara there's only room for one him in the TARDIS as he reacts tetchily to her thirst for adventure, if that's going to be a wedge that drives them apart and takes on significance when Clara eventually leaves; but, putting aside what, if any, longer game is being played, all on its own this one's got hooks.

Reflections of the text on the eye, reflections of ghosts on glass, and attempts to understand an unheard speaker through glass (shades) and more glass (the thick glass of the Faraday cage door) -- this has Jane written all over it. Anticipating that'll all be well covered without me bumbling around analyzing it, I'll just let the picture tell the story on that front.

Another touch that leapt out at me was the elaborate dragon mural in the galley. I mean, it's possible the set designers were just feeling their oats or they just had a mural lying around used what was handy, but that certainly looked like something that was supposed to catch our eye and leave an image in mind.

The ability of text to change our minds, both the objects of our consciousness and on a material level, the connections of our synapses, is a powerful theme to invoke. There's body horror, and then there's mind horror; while this isn't going to make anyone feel they've just been mindfucked like they just watched Wheatley's Kill List or anything, we're talking about that kind of horror. I, for one, appreciate the distance.

How great is it, by the way, to have a deaf character played by talented deaf actress where her deafness doesn't make her a target or an object of pity. She's the leader of the crew (with Moran dying first), and she's bright and competent enough that the Doctor gets over his stated intent to ignore the person in charge.

Fans and critics are comparing this one to "The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit" for its atmosphere and set-up, as well as "42," and we might as well include "The Silence in the Library / The Forest of the Dead," "The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People," and pull from the grab bag of atmospheric bases-under-siege. Well-trodden ground, for sure. "Under the Lake" works as well as any of them. It calls back to other kinds of stories as well ... we've seen the Doctor lose patience with folks concerned about Scotland's oil industry before as well, more than a tip of the Balmoral to "Terror of the Zygons" here, if you ask me.

Where stories like this tend to stumble is in giving the crew of the base enough personality to make them distinguishable. Bennett and Lunn here are problematic, or at least Bennett is, because Lunn's clearly important as Cass's interpreter and the one she's protecting from the writing on the wall -- which has already been shown to be signficant, and figures to be again in part two -- but it's hard to see Bennett as having any utility as a character except to be the next one to die.

Speaking of characters destined to get the shaft, it's always painful when the one black guy in the cast is the first to get killed off. Seriously, writers and casting directors, of all the ground to trod to mud, this dogged determination to always kill the black guy first has gone beyond being cliche to something like a pathology.

Watched it twice now and it's holding up. Taut and well-paced, which is really saying something for one that's got so much corridor running and screen-watching in it.

Oh, and that cliffhanger, it's quite a good one. Comes at a time that feels natural in the story, and gives us a proper jolt.

Stray Thoughts:

O'Donnell pronounces herself a huge fan of the Doctor. A wink to fandom by Whithouse? But does it mean she's going to die like Osgood?

The cards:

Sandifer points out in his post that it must be the Doctor in the suspended animation pod. That ought to tie up the loose ends nicely.

The Doctor's fascination at running into ghosts is fun to watch. "A bit murdery, but even so!" Again, every scene, no matter how many times we've seen it in Who before, he brings something to it. I keep droning on and on about it, but he's made for this part.

Why, as many have noted, didn't the crew set the base to permanent day-mode the instant they realized the ghosts only come out at simulated night?

And do the sonic shades not have zoom?

As far as coordinates go, again I'm not the first to point this out, but really, there are towns submerged by dams all over the place. Even if somebody could figure out navigation by constellation references (which, they could?!), how the heck is "forsaken" enough of a direction to orient aliens to a submerged town in Scotland?

The earworm the Doctor mentions, "Mysterious Girl" by Peter Andre, I had to look it up. May yet wish I hadn't.

Update regarding the mural:

Before the Flood - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Series 9, Episode 4 (Overall Series Story #259b) | Previous - NextIndex


Well, well, well ... that sure took a left turn, didn't it?

For all the belly-aching about the fourth wall breaking -- which is exactly as nuts as everyone says it is, to be fair -- it's distressing nobody's remarking how this picks up the thread that "Robot of Sherwood" picked up from "The Mind Robber," that the series has a long history of the author patting his own back, and with just cause. Moffatian excess? Perhaps. It's certainly more than a casual dalliance with hubris. But, if you're blaming someone for the fact you didn't like it, not sure what the calculus of blame assignment here is that lets Toby Whithouse use Moffat as a human shield.

This, like Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps," is pure Author worship. "Where does the idea come from? Who wrote Beethoven's 5th?" "The author did, that's who," writes the author. And the bootstrap paradox, for all its fancy window dressing and timey-wimey philosophizing, is all about the author showing us how clever the author is. (Oh, so that's why everyone ascribes the excess to Moffat, the track record would indicate he's the guiding hand behind Whithouse even getting to write this story this way.) But more than that -- it'd have to be, otherwise it's just wanking -- it's saying that it's a virtue to tell a clever story about storytelling well. And, that's true. It is.

Still, whether it's Moffat or Whithouse, the author here is delighting in Heinleinian excess -- absolutely, undeniably daring us confront the fact we are reading/watching a piece of fiction, characters in a narrative written by an author, for our ... enjoyment? edification? And that's why this story will always be despised by some, loved by others, and danced around by those unwilling to grapple with that aspect of it. You can see it and play along, see it and reject it as manipulation, or see it as out-of-bounds, an unfair tactic on the author's part that has to be skirted around to get back to focusing on the story itself. Authors celebrating their art in their art, and kind of rubbing our noses in it, is not exactly a reassuring act of humility.

My suspicion though is that many of us will be in the "see it and play along" camp, and we'll love it to the degree we think it measures up to the "The Mind Robber," as a daring way to tell a television story. Which leaves room for folks in the same camp, allowing it's in a mode of storytelling we can accept, to disagree about how well the author executed. I credit Heinlein for "By His Bootstraps" being clever, and "All You Zombies" as well, but I'd rather watch this story again than re-read "By His Bootstraps," which being a Heinlein, has no idea what to do with women.

The "forsaken" part of the coordinate code irked me last week. Now I think I know where it came from.
This episode completely alters my perception of last week's episode, because straight out of the gate, we're told this was never a Base Under Siege story at all. Pushing past Heinlein's solipsism and playing with paradox, not having one of the two women in the story be a willing slave to a male character, this is planting a stake in the ground that says we can take that idea, and tell the story better, while acknowledging where the story came from, despite its flaws. We've got to recognize this is Doctor Who trying to salvage what was salvageable from Heinlein, or we're not getting it. What Heinlein did to his reader was brazen, but it kept the question in the character's mouths, even though it's plainly Heinlein saying the words. Here, Whithouse and Moffat are telling us to google "bootstrap paradox," through the Doctor, but in the context of a scene that doesn't fit in the narrative. It's forcing to step outside the narrative, refer elsewhere, then -- and this the sort of revolutionary part -- come back, rejoin the narrative as if we never left (even if the googling gets done after, so yeah, a little timey-wimey), and resume the act of being the audience to a story. I'm not sure it did it well, but I acknowledge the effort.

"Robot of Sherwood," I argued when I wrote about it last year, flirted with this elevation of the author, too. But this is clearly an escalation. Perhaps a dangerous one, because whatever fans you didn't piss off then, or now, you almost certainly will lose when you try to put this particular envelope any further and have Capaldi standing on a soundstage holding a script, Moffat wearing a mask and a robe like a Greek chorus holding up QR codes you can scan with your phone to get bonus content for the episode your're watching.

But I won't call for Moffat's, nor Whithouse's, head for this. Doctor Who can do what it did this week. Just like it can take its fictional characters to the Land of Fiction and bring them back to "reality." It can break the fourth wall every so often to wish us Merry Christmas, or tell us even the sonic screwdriver can't get the Doctor out that particular jam, or remind us that we've had authors tell us the act of telling stories is more complex, and powerful, than we generally acknowledge. In fact, it's when it does the last of those that it makes the best case for the practice being allowable.

We've endured as audacious for lesser cause. We can certainly endure, even enjoy, this for what it is.

Stray Thoughts:

Check out the framing of this shot:

That mural again ... Lunn is walking toward Clara as the camera moves off Cass and she goes out of focus, but he stops before blocking our view of the sea serpent and the statue thing in front of it, which also looks like a sea serpent. The mural is front and center, the characters pushed to the margins of the frame. That serpent looks more than a little like the Fisher King, around the mandibles at least, and suggests either he, or what he stands for, is more central to what's going on than anything I've discussed thusfar. Those viking the sea serpent is menacing in the mural, can't help but wonder if we're going to learn more about them next week ...

Cass getting a Daredevil moment wasn't as well executed as how the Netflix series showed Matt Murdock's similar ability (obviously Cass's deafness is a different case than Murdock's blindness), but I actually liked Cass and the actress who played her, where (for all I did manage to like about Daredevil) Matt Murdock and the actor who played him didn't impress much.

Two pieces of music are referenced in this story, Beethoven's 5th and Andre's "Mysterious Girl." Not much in common except they both get in your head and stay there. Miles apart qualitatively, but united by the idea of the hook. Whithouse maybe be getting after something like the bootstrap paradox being a hook, something you read in a story, even a story as flawed as Heinlein's, but once you read it (like the text on the wall of the spaceship) you don't forget it. It stays with you.

My knowledge of the Fisher King mythology is so slight, it's barely worth mentioning. I mean, I recognize the name chiefly as the title of the Gilliam movie. If you'd asked me before I googled it this week, I wouldn't even have been able to remember it had to do with the Grail stories. So I'm flummoxed as to why the name was chosen for the baddie in this story. He's injured, but not dead, though being transported in a space hearse. So maybe he's got some kind of life-extending tech or something Grail-ish he draws power from? Looking forward to reading folks who actually know the roots of the Fisher King story possibly finding meaningful allusions.

Whithouse also wrote "The God Complex," where we met our first Tivolian, Gibbis. Prentis is every bit as grating. I remarked above how "By His Bootstraps" was marred by a girl who wanted to be enslaved, Whithouse may have lifted more than the desire to play with paradox and the word "forsaken," from Heinlein after all.

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