Oct 21, 2014

Return to Form: A Review of FLATLINE

Minor spoilers and speculation. You have been warned.

To be honest, I kind of entered this viewing in a particular state of mind: a really rough week personally and professionally meant that I ended up viewing this with a group at a local venue. (To be honest, I really wanted to just view this alone, but there you go). So I half expected, given my feelings about the past few episodes, to really hate Flatline.

To my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed Flatline, which not only has a strong premise, but also follows up on the themes of the past few episodes in a very intriguing way.

Like Neil Cross in Series 7, Jamie Mathieson was commissioned Mummy on the Orient Express on the strength of Flatline....and with this script, you can see why. It's one of the few Who stories that actually has a plausible scientific base (I think someone's been reading Flatland ), and that is reminiscent of an earlier story featuring a classic Doctor.

(And if you're curious, it's Survival .A group of us will watch it at a comic shop in December).

What makes Flatline work so well is that, like most great Who, it grounds the fantastic within the everyday. A railway station that's being painted over for graffiti becomes an invasion point for different invaders. The Doctor tries to engage this new entity....but fails to do so. There's also a nice sense of realism, even down to one character - after all is finished - not changing. (And yes, it happens in Survival too. There's also a Scottish Doctor in that story as well). Plus, there's a great end-of-episode blurb that's reminiscent of The Christmas Invasion....another episode with a Scottish Doctor (but with a fake Cockney accent).

There are also some "why-didn't-they-think-of-that-before?" moments: the gradual shrinking of the TARDIS. The "Addams Family" moment. The idea of invaders from "another universe". The Doctor acting as "coach" for Clara (which reminded me of that Leverage Season 4 episode where Hardison leads the "double prong monkey con"....and all of Nathan Ford's interactions with Parker in Series 5).

But ultimately, what makes this episode work - and redeems it in my eyes - is the acknowledgment that sometimes, in being the Doctor, "goodness doesn't come into it." We've seen Clara serve as a Doctor surrogate....and although she's good at it, she also doesn't see things in their perspective. For her, it's about balance - some people died (or as the Doctor would put it, the "wrong people died"), but for the Doctor, it's about life in general. Having this reassertion of the Doctor's morality - and the idea that the season is as much about Clara's possible corruption as it is about the Doctor's redemption - really makes this a must-watch.

Although I'm still unsure how I feel about Mathieson's Mummy on the Orient Express ...

Oct 14, 2014


(Warning: This post contains some extremely fannish arguments and pedantry. I'm also going to avoid spoilers, only because I don't think my argument is supported by my revealing plot points. Proceed at your own peril)

To be honest, I'm not quite sure how I feel about Mummy On the Orient Express.

On the one hand, it's a good looking episode, from the set design to the special effects. Even the countdown clock in the lower left corner looks good. Some clever touches - a cigarette case full of jelly babies, the best use of the "Are You My Mummy?" line from 2005 - add to the overall feel. If this were a serious romp, it would be even more enjoyable....

But after Kill the Moon....well, it left a bit of a taste in my mouth. It seemed a little too eager to say "let's-not-explore-the-repercussions-too-closely". I also think - and this is where the fannish pedantry comes in - that I can better explain why I feel the way I do.

In their review of Kill the Moon, the Verity podcast (or more accurately, one host who I happen to kind-of sort-of know in real life), put forth the argument that Capaldi's Doctor is the production team's effort reflects an effort to take on the New Adventures Doctor. For those not in the know - after the original series ended in 1989, Virgin Books released a novel series focused on the Seventh Doctor with "adventures too deep and too broad for the small screen." In this series, the Seventh Doctor was viewed less as benevolent alien fighting monsters and much more of a distant, almost godlike figure. One who continually drifted towards an attitude that the ends justify the means. And the New Adventures Doctor had a frayed relationship with his companions, who would consistenly remind him - a non-human - that people have value. (Yes, this is a very simplified explanation, but you might want to consider listening
to the Doctor Who Book Club podcast as they provide insight into some of the New Adventures).

My experience with the New Adventures is limited - I did read some of the books (and have several as ebooks) and the only one I really enjoyed was Paul Cornell's Human Nature. (Trust me, it's just as good as the Human Nature/Family of Blood two-parter in Series Three). I don't need the Doctor to always be on the side of right - or even on the "right" side - but I think the Doctor works best when making moral choices, including those which the audience might not agree with. Thankfully, Mummy on the Orient Express clarifies it somewhat - although there is a sense that this Doctor is being softened (after all, I still maintain the arc of this series is whether the Doctor determines whether he himself is a "good man"), there were too many bits that felt....well, shoehorned an inappropriate. The end result is a Doctor who says, in essence, "Yes, I'm a jerk, but all that stuff that happened before - doesn't matter, because I'm going to be a jerk until I decide otherwise."

The return of the "soldier theme". The "Is that what you would like to believe?" moment. A lie that is told that really doesn't need to be told. The nod-and-wink "Bechdel test" moment.

I don't mind romps that turn dark - I actually kind of like Dinosaurs On a Spaceship - but Mummy on the Orient Express seems a bit of a cheat. It seems like it's trying to both darken the Doctor and excuse his behavior. I'm willing to stay on - after all, the return of a non-split season means that the overall arc needs to play out fully - but this is going to be one of those "maybe in the future, I'll like this episode a lot more than I do".

Because right now, I don't.

Oct 7, 2014

Not Your Father's Moonbase: A Review of KILL THE MOON

Warning: spoilers and heavy philosophizing are present in this post.

To be honest, I'm not quite sure about how I feel about Kill the Moon. This is one of the more divisive episodes....and I'm having a problem taking a definite stand on whether I like it or not.

On the one hand, the first twenty minutes are nice and creepy (Haining - a first time Who writer - was encouraged to "Hinchcliffe the [bleep] out of it"). There's a nice mix of Alien-style atmospherics with the kind of tropes present in the Hinchcliffe era - the Doctor discussing how the earth isn't his home - or even that the future isn't set in stone - are both ideas from the series. Even the notion that the moon is about to fall apart and is having an effect on the earth seems like the kind of premise that would fall under Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes' production style. It leads to an inevitable moral crisis....

....and here's where I'm conflicted. I share the same concerns about the wonky science - I don't expect a series about a man in a magic box to necessarily reflect contemporary scientific thought. But with what we know of the moon - it's more like 4.5 billion years old, not "100 million" (as continually referenced in the series). If the moon disintegrated - and were somehow replaced - there would be devastating effects on the planet. (And to put this into context - my childhood occurred during the latter years of the Apollo program. As a six year old, I wanted to be an astronaut, and had a model Saturn V rocket. So when it comes to lunar knowledge....well, I have a definite bias).

But it's the Doctor's reaction to the central conflict that has me really concerned. In short (again, spoilers!) , the moon turns out to be a giant egg....which is hatching. The conflict is whether to destroy the egg before it hatches, killing an innocent life form, or allow it to hatch and risk that life form destroying earth. (Yes, there's an obvious subtext - I'll let Kyle Anderson's post for Radio Free Skaro explain it better than I could). When the time comes to make a decision, the Doctor decides that.....well, he's not really required, and that it's really humanity's choice, so he clears off....

....and that's where my problem with the episode lies.

Throughout the entirety of Doctor Who, the Doctor has always been a kind of moral agent - a man who might not necessarily make easy moral choices, but who realizes that a moral choice has to be made. It's one of the few characteristics that's been present throughout the show's history - from the First Doctor's classic "You can't change history - not one line!" of The Aztecs to the Tenth's "Time Lord Victorious!" declaration because he did change history in The Waters of Mars. This throughline allows the same character to make different choices based on circumstances - the Fourth Doctor's questioning his right to prevent the Genesis of the Daleks can sit comfortably with the Seventh's later decision to destroy their home planet in Remembrance of the Daleks. Even if the choice is uncomfortable or possibly repellant, the Doctor has either advocated or supported some kind of positive moral choice.

Perhaps it might be the fact that this is the writer's first Who script (or more accurately, it may be the production team's preferred emphasis), but this Doctor comes off as a character who is grumpy and nasty simply because he can - if the BBC were a comics company, this would be the "New 52" Doctor. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt - if this season's theme asks whether this Doctor is "a good man", they may be showing this Doctor at his worst before showing him at his best....but there's a kind of cowardice in having the Doctor act so totally apathetic towards this issue. The Doctor doesn't always have to reflect my morality...but when he does allow others to make a choice, it's out of a sense of empowerment, not because he "can't see the bigger picture" (as this episode suggests) or that he is facing a much larger, more complicated choice that are not the burden of other characters.(Or even, in a Spearhead From Space/Castrovalva-style trope, he's somehow incapacitated and can't act).

Even Clara's rebuke at the end of the episode - where she essentially tells the Doctor who go away - feels somewhat false and more out of convenience than of consequence. She has every right to be angry - after all, not only was she left with a difficult decision, but she nearly "got it wrong". It's only the ending scenes at Coal Hill School - with Danny providing not just a revelation of his own background, but with the idea that some choices should never be made in the heat of powerful emotions - that redeems the episode somewhat.

Ironically, the very notions that Danny Pink puts forth at the end of the episode....are similar to what the Doctor might have suggested in the show's past.
The production team has suggested that "Kill the Moon" is a "game-changer", and it does.....it makes me wonder whether the production crew is focused on making a solid show, or writing high-end fan fiction.