It Takes You Away

It Takes You Away was a strange story in many ways.  The first half or so was an excellent example of Doctor Who as horror, something this series has largely shied away from.  It’s coolly excellent as if trying to prove that it has avoided horror deliberately rather than through not being able to do it by calmly acing the genre.

And then, suddenly, the story changes and contracts, becoming a very personal story of grief and loss.  It’s not bad at all, it’s not even jarring exactly, because each plot twist flows naturally from what came before.  It’s just surprising that so many episodes this year have seen this type of contraction back from a typical big Doctor Who story to something quieter, more small scale and more emotional and contemplative.  Doctor Who stories usually grow, both across the length of the story and from year to year, but this series has produced a series of miniatures.  As I’ve mentioned before, it feels more like Star Trek, particularly Trek’s less successful episodes and series, the contraction from the epic down to the personal, whereas Doctor Who’s skill, particularly in the twenty-first century, has usually been making the epic feel personal.

This has happened so many times (in almost every episode this year, to be honest) that it is clearly a deliberate narrative strategy on Chris Chibnall’s part and I wouldn’t call it unsuccessful, although it does feel surprising for long-term viewers (as with many aspects of this season, Chibnall seems to be resetting our expectations of the programme almost back to November 1963).  What is unclear to me is why he wants to do this, and that may not be obvious for some time, perhaps not until another Chibnall-overseen series has aired.

I don’t want to sound negative, as I really enjoyed this episode.  It was second only to Rosa this year in the enjoyment stakes, which is saying something.  It probably needs a second viewing to be fully appreciated, and it’s probably not the only episode this year where that applies.  But it leaves me wondering where Chris Chibnall is taking us, what does he have planned for the season finale and new year’s special?  I can’t wait to find out…

The Caretaker, Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express

When The Caretaker was transmitted, the Doctor Who Magazine review remarked on the unfortunate scene of the Doctor telling a black man that he was too stupid to teach maths.  This is indeed problematic, but I was more concerned by the fact that the Doctor seems to have forgotten that his best friend was a soldier who retired to teach maths at a school.  Such continuity quibbles might be though trivial, but this is an episode set in the school seen in the very first episode back in 1963 and revisited every twenty-five years.  This is not a minor point; the whole reason the Skovox Blitzer is around, according to the Doctor, is that it homed in on artron energy, presumably from the visits by TARDIS and Daleks.  Nor is it only long-term continuity that is a problem.  Kortney’s parents refer to what Danny said to them “last year” even though it was established back in Into the Dalek that Danny had only just started teaching at Coal Hill School.

But there is a bigger issue here.  As I noted in my review of Into the Dalek, the Doctor has never liked the ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ attitude and the Doctor shouting at trigger-happy soldiers is a stock image of the programme.  But so is the Doctor cooperating with soldiers or, more usually, getting them to work for him.  Never has he phrased a hatred of soldiers as strongly as this season and not only is it difficult to find a narrative reason why, it is difficult to find a non-narrative reason why either, unless it was to create some conflict with Danny and perhaps to build up to the truly bizarre scene in Death in Heaven where the Doctor salutes a Cyberman-zombie-Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.  Mind you, Danny is nearly as bad.  He never seems to ask  himself whether he would actually have believed anything Clara might have told him about time travelling adventures had she tried being honest with him.  It’s as if, unable to find a genuine conflict to focus the drama upon, one had to be manufactured.

Which may well have been the case, as there is pitifully little else here to get our teeth into.  The plot is essentially a rehash of The Lodger and Closing Time with Peter Capaldi’s sarcastic cynicism replacing Matt Smith’s innocent abroad act.  But the joke is wearing thin by this time, especially as it relies on the Doctor not really understanding anything about human beings and their societies, which seems unlikely given how much time he has spent with them over the millennia.  This did not bother me so much in the earlier stories, which were basically good-natured buddy movies, but this is a farce focused on the Doctor’s irrational hatred of Clara’s boyfriend, something out of character (as I mentioned) and also crossing the boundaries of appropriate behaviour.  The Doctor really gets no say in who Clara spends her non-TARDIS time with and it’s hard to have any sympathy for him here.

I’ve told myself that I need to find one good thing about every story I review here (fortunately, I came up with that rule after Into the Dalek).  It’s hard.  But I did like the gag where the Doctor tells Clara that she got the date Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice wrong and she rants at him asking if he’s going to say he met Austen that year and had crazy adventures together, only for him to respond that he just read the biography at the back of the book.

Then on to Kill the Moon, which dissipates any goodwill left after The Caretaker.  The premise is utterly ludicrous, not just scientifically impossible (although science geeks have had a field day ridiculing giant spider-bacteria and breaches of the law of conservation of mass, not to mention the speed the Earth must be turning at for Clara to watch the whole world ‘vote’ in a few minutes), but truly bizarre.  This might not matter if the story was told with some conviction, but the moral dilemma remains too abstract.  We don’t get a proper look at the creature, nor do we really see the effect the moon’s disintegration is having on the earth.  Everything is told, not shown, and it’s hard to engage with it.  The story seems to be some kind of thought experiment about abortion, but the silliness of the story is so at odds with the gravity of the subject matter, that it is impossible to take it seriously.   It doesn’t help that, as happens whenever new Who starts talking about fixed points and the limits of the Doctor’s knowledge and ability to intervene, everything just seems utterly arbitrary and done for the writer’s convenience.

To cap it all, the story closes with an ’emotional’ scene that does not seem to make sense.  While it is understandable that Clara would be angry with the Doctor for running out her, her argument is phrased in terms of her lack of knowledge and ability, something at odds with her general sense of independence and assertiveness (she is, we are repeatedly told, a control freak).

I’ve said I will find a good point for every story I review and with Kill the Moon it has to be the cinematography, particularly the location sequences.  It really does look like the moon.  I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories that say the moon landings were faked, but if they were, they were faked like this.  Even so, there is still a moment of directorial silliness when the shot goes into slow motion while Our Heroes are running down a corridor.  It’s supposed to be heroic, but it looks clichéd and silly, too cursory to really justify its existence.

Finally, after a couple of duff episodes, we are rewarded with Mummy on the Orient Express, an enjoyable mystery-cum-horror story with perhaps the most memorable monster of the season in The Foretold, an ancient mummy rather more decrepit and terrifying than the ones seen in Pyramids of Mars.  The Foretold is so realistic you don’t know whether it will throttle you or collapse in a pile of bone and dust and its shambling gait is a masterclass in Doctor Who monster acting.

If there is a problem, and there may not be, it is that this is Doctor Who by numbers, an attempt to do a Gothic horror story of the kind Doctor Who did so many times in the mid-seventies.  It’s an attempt to take on the past of the programme on its own territory, like bringing back UNIT led by the Brigadier’s daughter.  On that level, it succeeds, and Mummy can hold its head up high in company with the likes of Pyramids of MarsThe Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.  The problem is that there isn’t very much more to it than that.  It has some good scares and some good jokes and some very good acting and design work, but nothing more.  Still, after a number of more experimental stories, not all of which worked, there arguably needed to be a more traditional story as a palette cleanser.

Actually, there is one more tangible problem: like those classic Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories, this really needs to be told at greater length.  There is a lack of foreshadowing here (perhaps ironically, given that the monster is called The Foretold).  Plot elements are introduced and resolved too quickly.  The Scroll is introduced too late; it should have been an element of mystery for both the Doctor and the viewers from earlier on.  Similarly, Captain Quell comes around to the Doctor’s point of view too easily; in a Tom Baker story we’d get fifty minutes or more of the Doctor wielding his best sarcastic put downs to bait authority before being officially allowed to investigate unhindered.  There’s a feeling here of having watched a great story on fast forward.  With a longer running time, this could have been the best Doctor Who Christmas Special ever (compare with Voyage of the Damned, with which it has some superficial similarities, and weep).