Saturday, May 11, 2013

Nightmare in Silver - "And don't blow up the planet!" "Is that something they're likely to do?"

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Series 7, Story 12 (Overall Series Story #238) | Previous - Next | Index

via a tumblr (google image search doesn't make it easy to give credit where due)

There's a tricky bit of genre navigation I think we find ourselves faced with looking at a Neil Gaiman Doctor Who. We tend, I think, to call Doctor Who "science fiction," and I label my posts about it with the 'sci-fi' tag, but I suspect, and you won't have to look too far to find more accomplished blogger/critics than myself making that case in some detail, that Doctor Who is more properly categorized as science fantasy. With that in mind, Neil Gaiman looks like an excellent candidate to write a story that plays to the show's straddling of sci-fi and fantasy genres -- or at least the creative tension between the two.

I'll be frank, I haven't really been interested in anything Gaiman has done since Sandman, well, until "The Doctor's Wife". Not that I hate his work, it's just, for me, Sandman was enough of a good thing and nothing else seemed necessary. Now, I haven't read American Gods, but it just don't look appealing to me, so it may be that I haven't given him enough of a chance to win me over. But, I can't stand Tim Burton films (or, any since Beetlejuice, which -- again -- was enough of a good thing) and, fairly or not, I lump those two together in the same category. (I've probably just alienated anyone who might've read this far and should stop slagging wildly popular authors and directors now.)

Gaiman's last outing was a fine episode that I thought channeled some of the "The Brain of Morbius" vibe and successfully avoided a ruining the TARDIS as an element of the show's mythos. (There was some risk in going beyond mere anthropomorphizing and making it a walking, talking autonomous character, I think, that doing so would pull the series too far into the realm of fable and fantasy, unmooring it from the realm of sci-fi all together.) So, I didn't have too much concern about this episode leading up to it. He's shown he can do the show well.

That's not to say there weren't red flags. The kids, for one. The theme park setting, for another.

And then there's the whole Seven of Nine / Cyber of Eleven thing ...

Wait, that's not a problem. Nothing that calls to mind Seven is a problem.
Maybe I'm getting old, but why the Doctor didn't get those kids off the planet as soon as he sensed danger, which was almost straightaway, is beyond me. (Clara will mention Duty of Care to the Doctor with regard to Courtney in "Kill the Moon"; he'll say he understands it then act as if he thinks she's 35.) He should've, and could've, popped them off back home and done their trip another day. But he didn't, and he got them home safely in the end, so all's well that ends well. I guess.

One of things I find myself looking for in these stories is whether or not the Doctor actually does anything clever to resolve the crisis he finds himself in. This time he certainly does. Well, he does something; actually, he pulls a Kirk. Which was dodgy storytelling when Kirk pulled a Kirk to defeat a supercomputer that time, or those times. But at least he's doing something: fighting off the Cyber Planner in an internal conflict that plays not only within his mind, but over a chess board, giving him a chance to exercise some Shatnerian acting chops. (And, to be fair, it's not exactly the Logic Bomb trope -- he tricks the Cyber-Planner into borrowing the processing resources of the Cybermen to slow them down.)

The kids weren't horrible, and the theme park setting was actually well-executed and not overly surreal. This episode didn't fail in the ways we might have reasonably assumed it might. But did it succeed?

Gaiman's mission, we were told, was to make the Cybermen scary again, and I think he pulled the right strings there. My young son watched with me tonight, and he did get scared, so I've got evidence to back up my suspicion they'd do the trick for younger viewers. I liked the way Gaiman established the only way to beat them was to utterly destroy any planet they were encountered on. "Cold War" a few weeks ago I think set us up nicely for this level of conflict. Mutual assured destruction, or a variation of it at least, played out in the stalemate between the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner, as well as on the galactic scale, where it left a starless hole in the sky.

So, if successful in that regard, in any other ways? It looked great. It had some funny lines. It gave some actors a chance to shine. For example: Clara got to a bit more this episode, getting put in charge of the platoon of punished buffoons gave her a chance to play an authority figure and Jenna Louise Coleman rose to the occasion. I think we get why the Emperor proposed to her. Warwick Davis, as Porridge/the Emperor, was also quite good.

It didn't occur to me until after a second viewing that Gaiman has done something rather crafty here by taking the Base Under Siege trope and playing two ways, where the Base is both Natty Longshoe's Comical Castle (it's got a moat and a drawbridge, but comical) and the Doctor's mind, and breaking the siege in the latter does the same for the former. Well played.

But, some of it was just too sloppy. Angie moronically seems to believe she's actually on the Moon in the opening scene, despite the fact we know she can see where the ride she's on ends once the camera shows us what's in the direction she's facing as she saying it. Also, the gravity and atmosphere should  have been clues as well. Yes, this same bizarrely oblivious child is also the only one who figured out Porridge was slumming. She recognized him from the coin and the waxwork dummy when nobody else did. So is she super observant or a dunce? (Or, as a commenter has noted, an extremely bratty teen being obtuse for the sake of it?) And, what exactly was holding those three million Cybermen back? I loved the homage to "Tomb of the Cybermen," but the mites had humans to work with and that should have been enough. And Artie: the kid is in Chess Club and falls for the Fool's Mate?! Give me a break. Like the rocket not incinerating everyone in launch tower last week in "The Crimson Horror," some of this stuff is so stupid it's impossible to maintain suspension of disbelief. If the Doctor was written out of history and can't be found in any database, how were Angie and Artie able to find him (alongside Clara) in, y'know, history they found on the internet -- that is to say, in databases?

Oh, and let's ask Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In, how she feels about the Doctor calling Clara "bossy."

The Cybermechanical Turk
Mystery of Clara observation: they are hammering the whole The-Doctor-must-act-uncomfortable-after-showing-affection-for-Clara thing so hard it's either the incest taboo or the most overworked red herring of the season.

All those mentions of the Cyberiad in this show, it had me looking through my bookshelves for an old copy of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad I know I owned years ago. (The paperback edition with the giant blocky robot on the cover.)  I don't know if it was just coincidence, or if Gaiman was paying tribute, or if there's some deeper reference there. It's depressing that one can get old enough to have read something, and later have it be just a fleeting memory. Like I said, getting old.

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