Flatline and In the Forest of the Night

Jamie Mathieson’s second transmitted story is, in many ways, better than his first.  While Mummy on the Orient Express was content to be a comfort blanket of an episode (in a good way), harking back to the programme’s past glories, Flatline tries to push the boundaries a bit.  Writing a Doctor Who story about geometry is fairly unusual, with only Castrovalva attempting anything remotely similar.  While the Davison story’s reach exceeded its grasp somewhat, with the special effects of the day not quite good enough to depict the world as an M. C. Escher painting, here the episode more or less manages to provide what it set out to depict, albeit with some imagination needed (not necessarily a bad thing).  The concept of a two dimensional race of aliens is thought-provoking and might have led to children approaching maths lessons at school in a more positive state of mind, which can only be a good thing.

The only flaw is common to a lot of new Doctor Who: between the initial mystery and the sentimental conclusion, there isn’t a lot of time for much else.  Clara explores the strange goings on in a Bristol council estate, but once the Doctor realises what is happening, a cynic might say that there is just a lot of running before the Doctor does something inexplicable.  That’s somewhat unfair, as Clara and Rigsy do something clever and unexpected, but intelligible to the audience, to restore the TARDIS (unlike the Doctor’s subsequent Magic Thing to send the Boneless back to their own universe).  Still, as I noted in a previous review, there isn’t enough time here for the kind of gradual plot development that can give a story weight.

It’s unfair to penalise Flatline for a problem common to much of new Who and, if we’re being brutally honest, to much of the original series too (which might have had plenty of time to fill with gradual plot and character development, but often padded it out with running up and down corridors, just like here).  Flatline‘s problem, if you want to call it a problem, is that the initial set up is so unusual and interesting that resorting to adventure fiction/Doctor Who clichés can’t help but disappoint just a little, at least on subsequent viewing.  It just leaves us wondering how the boundaries might have been pushed that little bit further in the second half.  With more time and money, could we have seen a 2D Doctor passing into the Boneless’ universe – perhaps as animation?  Or would that be a step too far?  We’ll never know, but I think that, perversely, this criticism is actually a proof that the story mostly succeeded in providing some thoughtful ideas in an science fantasy adventure story setting.  To be fair, Mathieson wrote a lengthy character development scene to add some weight to the second half, but it was cut for timing reasons (he has put some script extracts up online here).

There seems to be an unwritten law of new Who that the story that comes bottom of the Doctor Who Magazine season poll is always one that I quite liked.  The Long Game, Fear Her, The Beast Below… and now In the Forest of the Night.  It’s no more scientifically plausible than Kill the Moon, but tries to get away with it with a fairy tale atmosphere.  To be honest, the direction is only fitfully up to the task; more of the jerky camerawork and vivid colours of the opening sequence might have helped.

It’s a story where the trees speak, where children know more than adults, where the furious, fearful and tongue-tied turn out to be gifted and talented after all, where the mentally ill are merely tuned to a different channel, where the Doctor is saved by Clara, where there really are happy endings.  A story where the only monsters are animals escaped from the zoo (the second story this season to have no real antagonist, which is a record).  It’s a story where Little Red Riding Hood can get lost in the forest and be saved from the wolf by a tiger and be saved from the tiger by a maths teacher.  It’s a story where everyone lives and everyone comes home for tea, even the missing sister we hadn’t actually seen.

Doctor Who has always put the outcasts centre stage, back to the first episode, when Susan Foreman knew too much history and science and not enough about real life.  From companions like Zoe and Adric, to guest characters like Cordo and Susie Q, it’s the people on the outside who have the answers, or are at least asking the right questions.  Yet somehow this seemed to get lost a bit in the new series, especially under Russell T Davies.  But here the outsiders are given a chance to shine.  (Don’t discontinue your psych meds without ask your doctor, though.)

It’s not going to be a story to everyone’s taste.  As with the Williams era, if your preference is for scares, death and ‘adult’ perspectives, you’re probably find this trivial, silly, childish even.  But it says a lot about Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner that even in his most inconsistent season, he was able to give such diversity.  It’s also the only story where the Clara/Danny storyline doesn’t make me roll my eyes.

“Be less scared, be more trusting.”

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).

Listen and Time Heist

Listen is many things: chamber piece, ghost story, sit com, origin story for the Doctor.  It’s also an attempt at Blink II, but it tries to hard.  Blink tried hard too, but it tried to be new and to appear effortless.  Listen tries too hard to be Blink for it to really be Listen.  It possibly tells us a little too much about the Doctor’s personal history (see also The Doctor’s Wife and The Name of the Doctor), but that’s not the main problem.  What we learn of the Doctor’s past is shrouded in enough mystery to preserve the enigma of the main character, or what elements of an enigma still remain after years of Time Lords, old school friends, The Dark Times and so on.  The problem is more that nothing quite gels, and that it tries to eat its cake and have it too.

Nothing gels because the sit com scenes are too painful to bear.  Moffat found fame as a writer writing relationship sitcoms and has a go at another one here, as we see the hilarious results of dates interrupted by the spacesuited descendents of the daters (almost certainly not direct descendents, given the events of Dark Water/Death in Heaven, but we didn’t know that at the time.  And why did the Doctor send Orson anyway, and why did he have to wear a spacesuit?), as well as dates (OK, the same date) interrupted more mundanely by tasteless jokes and confused remarks resulting from time travel.  Moffat clearly wants to cross the science fictional, the romantic and the comic, but nothing fits together.  I don’t think that comedy needs to be corralled into special “comedy episodes” but the gear changes here are just too great.  Ghost stories rely on tension, but humour dissipates tension.  It is possible to use comedy to increase tension, but it needs to be done more skilfully than here.  A good example is in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, when Chang, performing on stage, appears to be about to shoot the Doctor.  “Chang shoot fifteen peasants learning this trick” he states.  It’s his showman’s patter, but in the circumstances, we take it as a threat and the tension ratchets up.  Nothing here works that way, though.  The comedy and the ghost story exist side by side and ultimately detract from each other.

Then there’s the problem I summarised as trying to eat its cake and have it too.  It teases us with an unseen monster present all the time.  At the same time it teases us with the first story without an antagonist (villain or a monster) since… well, I’m not entirely sure.  Inside the Spaceship, probably (although arguably the Doctor was the antagonist there!).  It is possible to be ambiguous and ask questions without answering them, but here things are pushed just a little bit too far.  The moved chalk is OK, but the “LISTEN” graffiti is harder to explain away as something the Doctor forgot he had done and we hadn’t.  The “boy” on Rupert’s bed is one thing, but pause the story just before he departs and that doesn’t look like a human head, although it’s hard to be sure.  Maybe it’s a boy wearing a Halloween mask.  Maybe.  And then there’s Orson’s heritage and connection to Clara and his time travelling ancestor, which seemed to suggest he was Clara and Danny’s descendent, but by the end of the season we knew he couldn’t be.  Too much of what is here seems contrived, at least in retrospect.

This is a pity, because although I have spent nearly 600 words criticising it, in parts at least Listen is very good.  When it stops trying to show off and when Moffat isn’t juggling too many balls, this is a strong ghost story, something new Who has not dabbled in much, preferring to show off its monsters rather than keep them out of sight.  (Classic Who often didn’t have the choice.  It was keep the monsters in the dark or expose them to ridicule.  Warriors of the Deep shows what happens when the production team chose wrongly.)  The scenes in the children’s home the scenes at the end of the universe are very good, tense and eerie.  So good, in fact, that Moffat would return to the ghost story format the next season in Hell Bent.  Actually, at times Listen seems like a dry run for Heaven Sent (for my money the greatest new Who episode to date), with Capaldi being given long speeches and generally being allowed to flex his acting muscles for the camera.  It’s remarkably ‘out there’ in places, something unlike anything else on television and deliberately subversive of Doctor Who’s clichés, and I will always award marks for episodes that try to do that, even if they don’t completely succeed.

On to a quick word about Time Heist, a story that in many ways is the inverse of Listen.  If Listen was the story that seemed great from the pre-publicity, but which disappointed on viewing, Time Heist seemed like a crazy idea in advance (the Doctor robs a bank?!), but everything just slots neatly into place, like a well-picked lock.  Peter Capaldi’s Doctor finally comes into his own here as someone who has earned the right to be rude by his brilliance and quiet compassion.  The criminal team is small enough for everyone to get something to do in the short time available (actually, Clara doesn’t do much except allow for exposition) and likeable enough to be worth spending time with.  I’m not really one for sequels, but a return visit to Psi and Saibra might have been worthwhile.  (Or possibly not, given that their characters were significantly altered by the end.)

The reason for the bank job is ingenious.  I’m sure the idea of a Doctor Who heist movie episode came first, but working from that premise, the easy way of bringing the Doctor into the story would be that the TARDIS was lost in the vault, or the villain threatened to kill Clara or destroy Earth if the Doctor refused to rob a bank for him.  The solution here, that the Doctor was acting to save the “monster” and its mate, is clever and like all good mystery fiction solutions it is hidden in plain sight, yet impossible to guess.  The only really off moment is the memory worms at the beginning.  While it made sense to use something relatively recently established in the canon (see The Snowmen), they had originally been used as a comedy moment and then a dramatic denouement only seen for a few seconds.  Here, while still not seen for long, they seem tonally out of place in an opening sequence that is trying to appear serious and cyberpunky, particularly as the props look a bit, well, silly.  It might just be my favourite episode of the season, though, even more so than Mummy on the Orient Express (although I’m chronically indecisive about favourites, so don’t hold me to that).

Deep Breath, Into the Dalek and Robot of Sherwood: A Trio of Short Reviews

There are two types of Doctor Who fan: those who divide the programme by Doctor and those who divide it by production team.  These sometimes coincide, but that is not the case with Deep Breath.  Steven Moffat seems to think the programme needs a new, raw style for the new Doctor, but also chooses to follow the old tactic of using old friends or foes in the first story of a new Doctor to provide continuity.  This leads to a darker, more dangerous Doctor and a grey/blue colour palate for the new era, but also to the return of the Paternoster Street Gang and a plot that is openly acknowledged to riff on The Girl in the Fireplace and the occasional line borrowed from classic Who, as well as a surprise guest appearance from Matt Smith.

Like the Half-Face Man, then, this is a Ship of Theseus story that swaps its parts around while trying to convince the audience that it is the same programme, only regenerated and fresh.  The real problem, which will dog this whole season, is that the new Doctor, like the sixth Doctor before him, is too unsympathetic.  He is dangerous, which is novel after Matt Smith, but also rude and unpleasant.  It is not always fun to be with him, especially when he seems to be on the point of mugging a tramp for his coat.  It’s also somewhat overlong and the bonus length isn’t really necessary.  In many ways a faster pace might have been better to sweep the audience along without giving them time for reflection.

Still, as curtain-raisers go, it works, holding the attention reasonably well and setting the stage for future adventures.

Into the Dalek is one of those stories that seems to be fighting against itself (perhaps appropriately, given the plot).  On the one hand, it’s one of those supposedly ‘adult’ stories that comes across as rather childish in its view of what constitutes ‘adult’: all soldiers and testosterone and pointless death.  On the other hand… well, it’s Fantastic Voyage in a Dalek.  That’s not the most adult pitch ever.  Nor is it original, even in Doctor Who terms.  This is like The Invisible Enemy, but with a twist.  Shockingly, it’s rather less inventive than the 1970s story.  The Invisible Enemy was not a great story either, but it had moments of inspiration and it did at least attempt to make the inside of the Doctor’s mind look different from (a) regular Doctor Who and (b) the story’s other locations.  Here the inside of the Dalek looks much like the outside of the Dalek, only more banal.  It even looks like it has corridors expressly put there for little people to run up and down!  Then the Doctor fixes the fault that has made the Dalek good and it becomes evil again.  Everyone reacts as if this was a surprising turn of events.

The other problem is that the episode brings up one of this season’s key themes, the Doctor’s hatred of soldiers.  The problem with this is that he doesn’t really hate soldiers.  He dislikes the military mind and the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude, but his best friend was a brigadier.  The same one the Moffat-era keeps on referencing (including a really crass and tasteless reference at the end of this arc).  Just as Russell T Davies did, Steven Moffat decided to use his fourth season to examine the Doctor’s role as a soldier, missing the point that he isn’t really one, a theme that becomes more pronounced in The Caretaker and Dark Water/Death in Heaven.

Which brings us to Danny Pink, the source of much typical Moffat ‘battle of the sexes’ sitcomery.  It doesn’t really sit well in Doctor Who, which isn’t a relationship sitcom, mostly because Clara and Danny have to act as complete idiots for much of this season to make the arc work and then right at the end we discover that Danny shot a child, which makes the whole thing retrospectively uncomfortable and probably not really right for this timeslot.  To be fair to Into the Dalek, at this stage the Clara/Danny side of things is fairly low key and serves mainly to throw Clara and the Doctor’s attitudes to soldiers into relief, but you do have to wonder why Danny was talking to himself so much unless he actually knew Clara was there and wanted her to overhear him.

As with most twenty-first century WhoInto the Dalek is reasonably technically accomplished in the way that, say, The Chase or The Invisible Enemy are not, in the sense that there are no massive blunders or misfired effects.  But the characters are cardboard, the plot is third-hand, the moral dilemmas are forced and the Doctor is continuing to be rude and unpleasant post-regeneration.  The really sad thing is that it’s not necessarily the worst story of its season.

I’ve always enjoyed Robot of Sherwood, although I can see why Mark Gatiss says he knew it was destined to be unloved by fandom.  Fans still tend to prefer epic and ‘serious’ episodes to light-hearted ones.  It’s a fun romp, but I wonder if it missed a trick.  With Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, both played well and a little larger than life, this could easily have been a ‘pure’ historical, with the Doctor thinking Robin was an android and getting involved in the adventure, only to find out at the end that he was real after having had a swashbuckling adventure fighting against the all-to-human Sheriff.  With the scene that really established the Sheriff as a cyborg cut for reasons of taste, it wouldn’t be all that different from the story we got and given that the technobabble is clearly the weakest part of the story, this might have improved it.  However, with Listen in the next episode apparently giving us a monster story with no monster (bar one ambiguous shot), this might have been deemed too experimental.  I would at least have liked more attention to detail in the dialogue, though.  I can understand why no one speaks anything like Middle English, but when the Doctor starts talking to a Medieval woman about a “ship” flying, it would be nice if she stopped to ask how a ship could possibly fly rather than assuming everyone knows twenty-first century idiom.  I suppose we have to blame the vagaries of the TARDIS’ translation system.