TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “The Caretaker” (08.06, 2014

Written by Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat

Directed by Paul Murphy

Sometimes, Doctor Who just seems to be wasting time. This episode is a good example. Clara’s relationship with Pink is “getting serious” (I hate that nonsensical phrase. It suggests an incredible amount of disprespect in relationships to say that they “get serious.”), so now we have to see whether the Doctor will approve of him. This has been a repeated plot device with this series–the Ninth Doctor was dismissive of Mickey, and then the Tenth Doctor slowly came to give him a modicum (though that is all) of respect. The Eleventh Doctor was pretty quick to be respectful of Rory, but still started out dismissive and then came to accept Mr. Pond as a member of the team, even if he was clearly second banana to Amy. The Twelfth Doctor has not been as enamored of his companion as the past Doctors have been of theirs, which could have led to a different reaction. Instead of saying, “This guy isn’t good enough for you,” he could have said, “Hey, I like this guy. I might like him better than you.” But no, Moffat has to return to the same pattern.

This episode really plays as filler–the monster is ill-defined and dull, the characterizations are flat and lifeless, the interaction is so by-the-numbers as to be dull, even the humor just falls flat (with a few exceptions–“No, I read the book. There’s a biography in the back” was awesome). Nothing that this series usually does well is done well here, and that makes its flaws difficult to swallow. It’s hardly even worth watching. An episode that gives us so many minor characters who are not likely to show up often should leave us wanting to see more of those characters, but I was already tired of Clara’s colleagues before this one ended, which is a very bad sign.

The acting is a mixed bag. With less to do in this episode, Jenna Coleman is fine. Samuel Anderson, meanwhile, continues to be really difficult to take. Danny Pink is an ill-defined character, but he’s especially difficult to understand because of his bizarre smiling and oddly changing affect. I don’t know who Danny Pink is. The writers haven’t helped, but that’s largely because of Anderson’s performance. However, Peter Capaldi continues to be brilliant. The scene of him and Danny on the TARDIS is one that I could not imagine either Matt Smith or David Tennant playing believably, but Capaldi does. While this season has been uneven Capaldi is definitely a great find.

A series like Doctor Who, one that gets to take its time with every season and hire essentially any writer it wants, should not have filler episodes. I understand it with an American 22-episode network series–sometimes you just don’t have it and you don’t have time to wait for it–but it’s really a problem for a series like this. And yet, here we are, with a completely empty episode that none of us is going to remember in a month, let alone a year.

Notes

  • Yes, it’s repetitive, but I actually like the structure Moffat has found with setting up his overall stories over the course of a season. I spent this entire episode thinking, “Well, we will probably at least get a Missy scene to think about at the end,” which made it easier to sit through an exceedingly dull episode.
  • I only knew what the word “squaddie” meant from Amy using it back in season five.
  • While the robot monster thing still looked a bit silly, it was a good example of how much better the effects are now than they were a few years ago.
  • “What good is a policeman without a death ray?” in a country where the police don’t generally carry guns. (At least as I understand it.)
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Movie Review: “The Drop” (Michaël R. Roskam, USA 2014)

Dennis Lehane once wrote a good book that became a great movie in Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, USA 2010). Some authors have a tendency to translate well (James M. Cain) or poorly (John le Carré) to film because of particular qualities about how they write. Cain’s repetitious, circular plots and relatively simple characters did not lose as much in translation as most novels. Le Carré’s deep, intricately complex plots are confusing when cut to the ribbons required for film length. Most authors do not have any such tendency, though. The directors and other moviemaking talent involved are far more important than the author of the source material, and that’s obvious from the fact that most authors’ works do not tend to work or fail in film form.

However, Lehane’s noir tendencies and willingness to examine psychological depths made me think that his work would produce at least films that I would enjoy even if they weren’t all that high quality. Film noir is, after all, my single favorite film genre and I was a psychology major.

The Drop has a complex plot. Bob is a poor bartender who finds a dog in a trash can on his way home and cleans him up with the help of the woman who lives where he found the dog. Unsurprisingly, she turns out to be a gorgeous woman named Nadia (Noomi Rapace) and generally great person and they of course start a slow romance over the dog. Meanwhile, Bob’s boss, Marv, the former owner of the bar who now apparently acts as a manager and face thereof, has a complicated plot in place to rob the Chechen mobsters who use the bar as one of many in a ring of “drop bars,” locations where they hide their dirty money for random days so that the money cannot be found. Then a local hoodlum named Eric Deeds shows up claiming that it’s his dog and threatening Bob and Nadia, mentioning how he murdered a local loser named Richie Whelan years ago. Eventually, Deeds gets pulled into Marv’s plan and has to rob Bob, and we get a telegraphed “surprise” ending that reveals that Bob is a stone-cold psychopath but also continues Bob and Nadia’s relationship.

However, oddly, I spent the entire film thinking that I wanted to avoid the entire crime plot and just watch the love story between Bob and Nadia. The film didn’t have a lot of surprises anyway, but that plot was so obvious that it was almost laughable. Nonetheless, Lehane and Roskam show a nice understanding of narrative structure and characterization and they subtly build the characters and their relationship well over time. They allow the relationship to grow organically and even without any real surprises it works well. Meanwhile, the entire crime story is not just obvious but has none of the depth and thoughtfulness that the love story has. The crime plot is too impressed with Marv stealing an idea from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, USA 1969) to bother with any depth.

And most unforgivably, this film has absolutely no controlling point. It’s a messy plot that seems to have been written by creating some characters and then just putting them in a big city dive bar. That’s a decent way to write a story, but it’s not at all a way to make a film.

Visually, Roskam and cinematographer Nikolas Karakatsanis provide little. The film has no hint of any visual imagination and frankly is a bit of a mess, with some oddly fuzzy, grainy picture with some regularity that makes it look almost amateurish. Since those scenes are always scenes involving Marv’s plot, I suspect that it was somehow because of issues resulting from James Gandolfini’s death, but they were still noticeable and not good.

The acting is quite uneven throughout the film. Noomi Rapace is emblematic of the problems, performing some scenes wonderfully and others not so well. Sometimes, she seems to be playing something completely unrelated to what the script is saying. Since she has been so amazing before, I’m tempted to blame the production, but the unevenness is still there. Tom Hardy, in nearly every scene of the film, is so wooden as to be comical, but in the end it makes some sense, since Bob is a psychopath. James Gandolfini does what he always does–he seems in charge of every scene but doesn’t really act. He’s not bad so much as he just doesn’t do much. Matthias Schoenaerts is meanwhile just awful, playing a complete lunatic but apparently playing his lunacy by never actually doing anything that makes any sense.

This film is really not good. It’s an overcomplicated, messy plot that has some interesting characters but doesn’t know what to do with them. It’s a shame, because there are some good points, and I really think there could have been a good film here by just telling a love story between a couple of emotionally unavailable people, but the film we end up with is nearly a disaster.

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Time Heist” (08.05, 2014)

Written by Steve Thompson and Steven Moffat

Directed by Douglas MacKinnon

This episode has an interesting teaser. The Doctor gets a call on the TARDIS’s external phone and after he remarks that hardly anyone has the number, he and Clara suddenly awaken in a dark room with two others, the Doctor holding a memory worm and throwing it away so unobtrusively that it could easily be missed. They hear a message that begins with their own voices saying that they have agreed to a memory wipe. That’s followed by a heavily altered voice telling them about a nigh-impregnable bank, the largest and richest in the universe, that this team will now rob.

It’s a tense, interesting premise that really has some promise for the episode. It’s a shame that the episode doesn’t fully deliver on that promise.

Once you’ve set up a bank heist, you either have to be much smarter than the audience or use the history of heist films/shows for comic effect. This episode does neither. The basic reversal of the heist itself is that eventually we discover that the Doctor was chosen for this mission because it is a time-travel heist, which he comments that he was stupid not to figure out earlier. He’s right. And then we get a second reversal with the reveal that the heist isn’t actually a heist but a rescue, but that rescue was telegraphed by the repeated discussions of family and people who care about you and presenting the Teller as this important figure while also keeping him at least somewhat sympathetic with the Doctor commenting about how “loud” it must be inside his head.

There is still some fun to be had in the episode, with the Doctor nonplused by Clara’s date preparations, the strong opening, and a nice guest performance from Keeley Hawes, who manages to come across as two very different characters in her two roles. However, it’s just a dull, unmemorable episode in general, clearly the weakest of this season so far.

One thing that’s interesting is that the closing seems to suggest that the Doctor is attempting to get in the way of Clara’s dating. Since we’ve all heard about Capaldi’s “no romance” dictum, that suggests that he’s just trying to prevent Clara from leaving, which is not unheard-of from the Doctor. However, Clara being the control freak that she is makes it difficult to imagine his plan sitting well with her. The preview for next week made it clear that we have a “Doctor gets in the way of real life” episode coming up, and I can’t help but wonder if we are actually getting the groundwork laid for Clara’s departure soon. This series does not tend to hide its secrets very well, and there have been rumors that the next Christmas special will be Clara’s swan song (The BBC, for its part, only said that she will be in that special, saying nothing about her future beyond then.), so it wouldn’t exactly be a shock. That would give Clara one and a half seasons and three specials, roughly a season less than Amy Pond.

Douglas MacKinnon has only been directing Doctor Who episodes for the last couple of seasons, having previously worked with Moffat on Jekyll. However, even though he had not worked on that series, his Doctor Who episodes have been notable visually for how much they look like Moffat’s Sherlock series. The kinetic cutting, the lack of camera movement, the cold lighting, the muted colors, and even the unusual uses of text on screen are all things Sherlock has used repeatedly that suddenly started appearing on Doctor Who recently, particularly with McKinnon’s episodes.

Notes

  • Does anyone else find the halfway-on tie that Clara was wearing weird? And I couldn’t tell how the Doctor was supposed to be able to tell she was getting ready for a date, really–I was nearly as bewildered as he was.
  • It’s funny how new Clara still feels new. By midway through her first season, Amy Pond felt like (a) the star of the show and (b) she had been there for a long time. Clara still just feels like she’s popped in from somewhere else and we don’t know her yet. I don’t know what exactly has caused it, but I suspect that Coleman’s performance is a big part of it.
  • I really don’t want to watch any more of Clara and Pink. Those scenes are repeatedly boring and uninteresting.
  • Only Doctor Who can make the name “John Smith” exciting.