TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Listen” (08.04, 2014)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Douglas MacKinnon

“Question: Why do we talk out loud when we know we’re alone? Conjecture: Because we know we’re not.”

While the Doctor’s speech about evolution in the teaser is rather inaccurate (Evolution doesn’t “perfect” things. It’s a messy process that is only concerned with getting “good enough” results. There are, unsurprisingly, no “perfect hunters.” There is no reason to expect “perfect hiding” as a result. One would expect good camouflage, which of course does exist.), the science-based horror opening is probably the best teaser in the series’ history.

Moffat always says that this is a series “meant to frighten children.” What frightens more children than something under the bed? And this episode suggests that there really is something under the bed. The Doctor is suddenly, inexplicably obsessed with the idea that there is something that avoids being seen at all costs, the “perfect hider,” and that it’s the sense that such a thing is present that leads to fear of the dark (even though the Vashta Nerada were already presented as an explanation for that in “Silence in the Library”), fear of what’s under the bed, and talking when there isn’t anyone there.

“You know what’s under there? . . . Me!”

In the end, when it’s revealed that Clara gave the Doctor the nightmare and sent him on this chase, we don’t know whether to think that they’re real. While it’s explained that the incident in Rupert’s room could have been just another kid under a bedspread, it seems rather unlikely that it is. We get a fuzzy glimpse of it after it takes off the bedspread and it really does not look human–it looks like some sort of goblinoid creature. It also seems awfully heavy for a human child. And it seems to arrive in the room awfully quietly considering that Clara and Rupert are under the bed and should have heard essentially any arrival possible. The opening of the door to Colonel Pink’s ship is also rather inexplicable without some sort of creature like what the Doctor is postulating in the opening.

It’s the same type of ending that makes The Usual Suspects (Brian Singer, USA 1996) such a complex experience even on repeated viewings–the ending that renders what came before entirely questionable and completely unexplained. It’s difficult to know what we’ve learned from this episode, because we don’t really know what’s happened. It’s a level of intricacy that’s beyond what Doctor Who typically employs.

Part of the reason that complexity works is how well this episode is tied together. The Doctor gives Rupert a dream that apparently influences him to become Dan the Soldier Man in the same way that Clara gives the Doctor the dream that sends him on this chase. Clara tells Rupert that she’s under the bed and then it turns out that, in the Doctor’s case, she is in fact under the bed.

“Clara, you must have seen it–you’ve got eyes out to here!”

The relationship between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara has been a very interesting development. One of my favorite Doctor-Companion relationships ever was between the Fourth Doctor and the first Romana, a fellow TIme Lord who ridiculed the Doctor for being old, being old fashioned, not knowing how to use the TARDIS properly, and constantly flying by the seat of his pants instead of using the tools he has at his disposal. Her sarcastic edge took some pomposity out of the Doctor and made him more enjoyable for it. Donna Noble had a similar relationship with the Tenth Doctor.

However, Clara and the Twelfth Doctor are now playing out an inversion of the same idea. The Doctor is an egotist obsessed with his own cleverness and intelligence, so Romana made fun of him by saying that he isn’t actually as smart as he thinks. Clara is an egotist obsessed with her own attractiveness, so the Doctor says things like, “it’s fine” describing her backside and, “she has such a wide face, she needs three mirrors!” His attacks on her vanity make her easier to accept, and they provide us with some excellent humor.

Peter Capaldi’s performance is a big part of making this work as well. The great Neil Gaiman tweeted recently that he “feels younger and younger, where [the Eleventh Doctor] felt so old,” and that description is (unsurprisingly–I mean, it did come from Neil Gaiman, after all) very apt. His egocentrism and picking on Clara have a childlike quality in that they seem to come more from not understanding what could possibly be bad about them than any malice. And his palpable joy at discovering anything unusual, no matter how frightening it may be, also betrays his inner alien-ness.

Unfortunately, Jenna Coleman really isn’t up to playing across from Capaldi. She’s not awful, but there are certainly times when she seems artificial, like when he was slaving the TARDIS to her subconscious and she seemed to be changing her reaction by the sentence based on what the Doctor wanted her reaction to be rather than on what Clara’s reaction would in fact be. I’ve tried to avoid being too negative about her performance, because I think she’s had a difficult task with a character who has not been well-defined, but I think Moffat and company have given her some definition to work with this season and her performance still seems confused.

“What kind of explanation would you like?”
“A reassuring one.”

What really makes this episode work, however, is its use of tension. Breaking Bad, of course, set the all-time standard for tense television, because it understood that tension means telling us that something is going to happen and then just waiting. Most shows and films don’t understand that waiting is what actually creates the tension. But this episode of Doctor Who definitely understands, giving us powerful minutes of inaction like waiting for the child Doctor to step out of the bed or Clara and Rupert’s rather inane conversation under the bed.

Overall, this was a fantastic episode. Jenna Coleman’s performance wasn’t great and the ending went on a bit long, with the last few minutes really being more than we needed, but everything else was so good that it was forgivable. It’s been a while since Steven Moffat has written a truly amazing episode–long enough that I didn’t really think he had it in him–but this one can stand alongside the best in the series.


  • “Waiting? For what? For who?” Ricky Watters laughs.
  • It’s weird that Clara always seems very young to me. Jenna Coleman was born exactly one year after I was.
  • “Do you have your own mood lighting now? Because really the accent was enough.” I really don’t know what that means. It’s rather funny anyway, and Capaldi’s reaction is hilarious, but I think that joke requires some understanding of how the English view the Scots that I just don’t have.

Movie Review: “Fading Gigolo” (John Turturro, USA 2013)

I can’t ignore a Woody Allen project, or even someone else’s project on which he is working, even if it’s only as an actor. And John Turturro is a good actor, even if I have to admit that I had not seen any of his previous films as a director (Who did?). Even the film’s premise seemed to have some promise, as long as it wasn’t in the hands of some hackneyed, sophomoric gross-out artist: When their business fails, a pair of unattractive old men end up falling into the prostitution business, one as a gigolo and the other as his pimp.

Unfortunately, it turns out that while Turturro may not be a sophomoric gross-out artist, he’s something far short of a filmmaker.

If you read any guide for aspiring screenwriters, it will likely begin with discussion of the idea that most who first attempt the job string together scene ideas with little cohesiveness in story, theme, or point. The beginner tends to think about moments that she would like to see based on the basic character concepts or situational premise, and write to those moments, not thinking about how to tie them together or what point she wishes to make. While moments can be a good guide to a writer–Ingmar Bergman always said that he wrote his plays and films to get to a single image in his mind and William Goldman writes extensively in the essay on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, USA 1969) that appears in the collection William Goldman: Four Screenplays with Essays about how much of that script he wrote planning on the “I can’t swim!” climax–a collection of good moments does not a film, or indeed any story, make.

Somehow, John Turturro, in a Hollywood career that dates back over three decades, has apparently never learned this simple lesson. Fading Gigolo has no point. It has no strong themes. It has two-dimensional, uninteresting characters. It does not even really have a story. It has a premise, two name stars who are capable of great humor, and a few comic moments, and Turturro seemingly thinks that’s enough.

Just listen to how confused and nonsensical the plot sounds: Murray owns a bookshop that is closing its doors after many years in his family. As his friend Fioravante helps him pack up the shop, he casually mentions that his attractive dermatologist asked him whether he “knew anyone” to join her with her girlfriend for a threesome. Murray says that he immediately thought of Fioravante, for reasons that he really does not explain and never make any sort of sense to Fioravante, and volunteered his friend for this service. The dermatologist proves willing, and hires Fioravante, and it turns out that he makes an excellent gigolo and word gets around quickly, leading to a profitable business. Murray is finally able to provide some income to the African-American family with whom he lives (His relationship to them is unclear) and Fioravante is able to make ends meet. Murray then decides to use Fioravante’s services to help a widow who removes lice from the children with whom he lives, a lonely orthodox Jew  named Avigal whose husband had died a year before. When she meets with Fioravante, they end up kindling a romance, complicated by her faith. The orthodox Jews’ own neighborhood watch of sorts puts Murray and Avigal on trial for her corruption, and then she finally enters into a relationship with the head of said watch who had been after her for the last year.

That’s probably the longest plot synopsis I’ve ever written, and for a reason: nearly every scene in the film is adding another element to the plot not furthering the elements that are already in place. It’s a confused and messy narrative that’s so confounding as to be almost painful viewing, and that’s because it’s hardly even a story–it’s just a bunch of half-connected scenes. And then, there is no unifying point that connects the threads of this narrative. If it’s making a point about the dangers of repressive religion, it ends on a shockingly positive note. If it’s making the point that people need physical connections to one another, the entire Fioravante-Avigal romance is superfluous. Nothing ties together the film, because it simply has nothing to say.

Unsurprisingly for a film with nothing to say, Turturro and cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo don’t say anything visually. Every scene is shot in the same palette, with the same type of lighting, with essentially unmoving cameras sitting at about the same distance from the actors. It’s so old-fashioned in the dullness of its visual approach that it almost seems as if Turturro was attempting to make a point about the nonstop movements and lightning-quick editing of modern films, but making that point in a film with this premise doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s instead just pretentious nonsense.

And for all of its problems, even the acting isn’t a saving grace. The only people who stand out as seemingly natural in their roles are Sofia Vergara, Bob Balaban, and–weirdly enough–Woody Allen. Allen is easy enough to explain: he’s not acting so much as performing his usual persona, just as he has done in so many of his own films. He regularly says that he’s not really an actor, saying, “I just do what I do,” but he’s been doing it so long that he’s actually quite natural at it, and it shows in a film where so many are so wooden and so clearly false. Vergara is playing an oversexualized, sexy woman with little depth, so that’s a simple role as well, but she comes across as more believable than the caricature she could have been. Balaban just does what he usually does, but that’s a good fit for his cameo as Murray’s lawyer, and indeed one of the few moments when this film comes to life is the courtroom scene when he and Allen work together and prove to have a fantastic chemistry and energy. Everyone else ranges from too flat to be accepted as reality (Turturro) to annoyingly and painfully over-the-top farcical (Sharon Stone). For a film with such poor characterization, it’s amazing how poor the acting could be. And even with how bad the rest of it was, Liev Schreiber stood out–he wasn’t just bad, he was aggressively awful, seemingly trying to win awards with his ridiculous clenched jaw and blank stare but only succeeding in proving that Dovi is not a real person.

In Fading Gigolo, John Turturro has produced an absolutely horrendous film, one with so few redeeming qualities that it could easily rank among the worst I have ever seen. There is nothing about this film that deserves commendation–it is a failure of the highest order.

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Robot of Sherwood” (08.03, 2014)

Written by Mark Gattis

Directed by Paul Murphy

Here is a list of all of the writers from season one of Doctor Who who are still writing on the show: Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis. Gattis first appeared writing a memorable episode called “The Unquiet Dead,” in which the Doctor encountered a great skeptic in the person of author Charles Dickens. He then wrote a terribly messy episode about a sinister character living inside televisions and sucking people in (I can’t write a short description without making it sound even dumber than it was.) in the second season’s “The Idiot’s Lantern,” which is centered on the event of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. As if either he or the show was stung by the negative reaction to “The Idiot’s Lantern,” Mark Gattis did not write for the series again until season five, when he wrote the episode Moffat described as “Churchill versus the Daleks,” “Victory of the Daleks.” He has written a couple more episodes since, but those episodes showed a particular predilection toward connecting the Doctor to famous historical events and people. Even later on, he made Vastra Sherlock Holmes, thus making all of her appearances fit his pattern.

Gattis and Moffat also work together on Sherlock, and the latter has regularly discussed his hope for an eventual crossover between the two series (a terrible idea for both series, but that’s a deeper discussion than we need here). Moffat has regularly discussed the potential of having “two great egotists” in Holmes and the Doctor meeting one another. So, it’s rather unsurprising to see Gattis putting the Doctor and Robin Hood together, depicting the famed outlaw as an impressive egotist who can’t quite match wits or skills with the Doctor but puts up quite a respectable showing for a human.

And that conflict of two egos reveals itself in competition over Clara. Clara was already smitten with the story of Robin Hood, but she also already knew the Doctor as her hero. So, the two battle over her adulation, and Clara is just clever and egomaniacal enough to recognize the situation and let it play out, perfectly happy to receive the attention.

It’s a funny situation that leads to a series of wonderful little bits of banter between the Doctor and Hood, after the Doctor has already professed his hatred of “banter” and laughter when meeting Hood and his apparently simple-minded rabble of constantly laughing friends.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is also thrown into full-on skeptic mode by discovering what appears to be a real-life version of what he knows to have been a mythical story, and the all-too-common “The skeptic versus the believer” storyline happens between him and Clara, with Clara playing the annoying True Believer and the Doctor being his usual scientific, skeptical self. His attempts to disprove the “reality” that Clara so wants to believe are as funny as the conflicts between the Doctor and Hood, and do much to undercut the annoyingness of Clara’s easy credulity.

That said, much of the episode is a bit obvious and/or clearly derivative of other episodes. The basic set-up is nearly indistinguishable from Moffat’s clockwork robots in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Deep Breath.” The use of the golden arrow to get the ship out of orbit and Hood’s use of the Doctor’s tricks from earlier in the episode to melt the Sheriff of Nottingham are both so telegraphed as to be laughable (and the arrow is laughable for a number of other reasons as well–too many to bother bringing up).

Overall, it’s a fun but very slight episode. The Doctor and Robin Hood have some great banter, and the Doctor putting on his James Randi impersonation is always welcome as far as I’m concerned, but the story is obvious and silly and the ending is nearly as pathetic as “prayer?!” That’s enough for a filler-type episode, I suppose.


  • “If we both keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be heroes in our name.” Okay, if the Doctor is not actually a hero, no one ever has been.
  • The silly meta-theatrical “I’m just as real as you are” led me to roll my eyes.
  • Wait, so Alan-a-dale isn’t a rooster???!!!!
  • It looks like there is a very dark episode coming next week, which makes sense after a lighter episode.
  • One dark note: While we never actually saw the killing blow, the Sheriff did essentially kill a peasant on-screen. That’s the type of violence we don’t see much of on Doctor Who.
  • A passing thought about Clara: I was a little annoyed at how she enjoyed the Doctor and Hood fighting over her, and then I thought, “Well, would Amy have been any different?” I’m not sure. I may still just be holding not being Amy against Clara far too much.
  • I love lutes. Seriously. I went to a Renaissance Faire once, and the best part was that there were lutes all over. I love their tone and we never get to hear them.
  • “I’m the Doctor and this . . . is my spoon!” I can’t really decide whether that works or not. The first time, I rolled my eyes. The second time, I laughed. Maybe that’s exactly the right reaction to a Doctor Who gag.
  • I’m happy with Peter Capaldi’s performance. He doesn’t have any of the weak moments that Matt Smith sometimes had (see the aforementioned “Victory of the Daleks”). He might not be capable of bringing as much effervescence as Smith or David Tennant did, but he has the possibility of every bit as much depth as Christopher Eccleston had, and that’s a very good thing.