TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Death in Heaven” (08.12, 2014)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Rachel Talalay

I’m not a fan of the Cybermen. I’m not a fan of UNIT or the Doctor’s relationship to it. Still, the Master is my favorite villain, so I thought this had a chance. I was wrong. It’s the kind of overly militaristic, far-too-fight-heavy, extremely overblown episode that both UNIT and the Cybermen tend to bring with them. Indeed, the Master’s presence was so tangential to what was going on that she could easily have been replaced with almost any other character without it mattering.

Even when the Master reveals her final plan to prove that the Doctor is her, it feels tacked-on to an otherwise completed story, and it falls flat, coming across as a reworking of the skyscraper interrogation from The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2008) that hardly even bothers to change the dialogue. And in its zeal to copycat that film’s climax, it misses a fundamental piece of the relationship between the Doctor and the Master: love. The Master and the Doctor love one another, but if this were your introduction to their relationship, you wouldn’t know it. That’s a failure.

The episode also has problems in its obviousness: as soon as the Doctor mentioned the portrait of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, it was clear that he was going to be there in cyber-form, so then when Kate fell out of the plane, I knew he was going to save her. Danny, as always, is so relentlessly selfless that the irredeemably selfish Clara cannot understand his willingness to give up his own life in order to send back a child he killed during his time as a soldier–and that was clearly the only reason to introduce that child an episode earlier. The Doctor of course finds that Gallifrey is not where the Master claims that it is but doesn’t want Clara to feel guilty over their separation, so he lies to her while we are being shown the “shocking” revelation that the Master, who might never have said something truthful in any of his/her various incarnations over the last half-decade, was lying.

Otherwise, the biggest problem with this episode is that it has too much plot and seriousness, lacking the fun, humor, and goofiness that have always characterized the best of Doctor Who. Because of that overdone, over-serious plot, it’s actually boring. It’s too busy moving from one plot point to the next for any of the clever dialogue that has always been Moffat’s strength. It’s too busy trying to tug at our heartstrings to allow any of the fun back-and-forth between the Doctor and Clara that has often been the saving grace of this season. Add that all up, and we get a very un-Doctor Who episode, and not really in a good way.

This season started off with some real promise. The first few episodes were mostly good (especially the fantastic “Listen”) and Peter Capaldi proved himself capable of great depth and strength in the lead role, with his Doctor also showing a great amount of separation from earlier Doctors. And then it just fell apart. The writers didn’t deserve the Doctor they were given, and he deserved better scripts. Sure, they were saddled with Clara Oswald, but attempting to make her interesting by adding a terrible soap opera romance was still a bad idea on their part.

It seems Clara is probably on her way out, though the BBC has already said that she will be involved in the Christmas special. Perhaps a new companion is what Moffat and company need to get the show back on track after a couple of very rocky, disappointing seasons, but I’m starting to fear that it’s Moffat who needs to go for the show to return to its best.

Notes

  • Sometimes, I get the impression that Moffat is actually engaged in a childish battle against the ghost of Russell T. Davies. Did he write a season finale starring the Master to try to one-up the triptych that ended season three? If he did, he failed. And it’s not the fault of Michelle Gomez, who was every bit as good in the role as John Simm ever was. The idea of making the Master female was sort of interesting, but then Moffat didn’t do anything with it. Instead, he just used it as a way to throw people off the scent of who this was.
  • For all that his acting has been a problem this season, Samuel Anderson actually played his poorly-written departure sequence as well as he has played anything.
  • Did anyone else just want to throw up on seeing Santa Claus? Yuck.

Movie Review: “Interstellar” (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2014)

*Update: Phil Plait has an article up about the science involved in Interstellar. He’s obviously of a very different opinion about the film’s artistic quality than I am, but he really is an astronomer, so trust him about the science. I certainly knew the system orbiting the black hole was wrong and the time dilation didn’t seem right, but he actually knows what he’s saying. He also wrote a book that has a description of what it would actually be like to fall into a black hole if you’re interested. I will add a link if the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe does a review, which I’m hoping for.

I never actually wrote a review of Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK 2013), because I couldn’t really make sense of it–it was so full of religious images that it clearly had some point to make about belief, religion itself, or something related, but I could not figure out what it was. However, something I would definitely have said about it is that it bored the hell out of me because it was just a whole bunch of long chase scenes in space and its extreme over-reliance on CGI made it look like a Pixar film as far as I was concerned. It was also rather a scientific mess. Interstellar plays almost like a response to that film, one that brings back the wonders and other-ness of space as well as using photographic effects and real sets. People kept insisting that Gravity was a visual wonder, but I heartily disagree–this is a visual wonder.

Where Gravity was almost entirely made of digital effects, Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema not only focus on photographic effects–they revel in the fact that they are shooting on film and using real lights and sets. Even when they need to use fake backgrounds (a requirement of the story), they are actually projected onto the set behind the actors, so that they become photographic (a trick Kubrick previously used). The film is full of lens flares and overexposures. Is it a bit showy and perhaps even pretentious? Maybe. But it looks amazing. When the starlight glints through the window in the back while the crew discusses which planet to visit next and briefly obscures the view of the scene, then moves slowly out of view and the light slowly fades away, it’s the type of detailed, beautiful photographic effect that Stanley Kubrick would have brought to 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK 1968). Science fiction films often have seems similar to 2001, which was a film about how humanity is defined by making mistakes that allow for evolutionary development, and yet they so often seem to want to cover up imperfections and turn everything over to technology (often something they are arguing against in their plots). Kubrick did one of the greatest jobs in history of marrying his point to his visual techniques, and Nolan mirrors him here.

The plot of the film is fairly standard science fiction fare, albeit one that pays attention to its own science: the earth has turned into a giant dust bowl and growing plants is thus becoming increasingly difficult, with crops becoming impossible to grow one by one until all humanity has left is corn and even that will only last so long. So, the government secretly brings NASA back to find a new world for humanity, since this world has turned against us. Cooper was NASA’s strongest pilot but responded to the need for food and shutdown of NASA by becoming a farmer, exactly what the world needed, but then a mysterious gravitational anomaly sends him to what turns out to be the secret base of the NASA he never knew had been brought back. Of course, these things collide and NASA sends him on a years-long mission to scout possible new homes for humanity, away from his children for what could be a lifetime. Meanwhile, his daughter angrily follows in his footsteps at NASA, trying to crack the physics problem that will save humanity and unsurprisingly growing up to be exactly like the father she hates.

The point of the film is pretty simple, bordering on facile, saying that it’s the connection to one another that makes humanity strong. Brand comments that love is “the only force that we know of that transcends all dimensions” (Yeah, it’s a rather gag-inducing line.). Mann says that it’s “survival instinct” and the ability to improvise that makes humanity special. Cooper says that humanity was able to save itself through its love of other humans, connecting Mann’s and Brand’s ideas into the cohesive point of the film.

The acting, with one exception, is excellent, though no one has much to do. Matthew McConaughey, the world’s leading actor du jour, is excellent in his lead performance, having to show a mix of intelligence, selflessness, and caring without letting any one of those things overwhelm the others. He is pretty simply a good man, but in this situation it would be easy to play him as a caricature, and McConaughey, who once did play essentially a caricature in a science fiction film that shares many ideas with this one, avoids that pitfall. Jessica Chastain has a rather thankless task, playing a character who is either ecstatic or angry at every moment and thus could easily be over the top, but she (unsurprisingly) makes it work. Mackenzie Foy, while clearly far older than her ten-year-old part, probably has the most difficult part in the film, and she pulls it off with aplomb, coming across as a very smart kid with some trust issues and an incredible stubborn streak. She also actually looks enough like Jessica Chastain that it’s believable that they are the same person (well, to the extent that it’s believable that anyone can grow up to look like Jessica Chastain).

The one problem is, unsurprisingly, Michael Caine. Christopher Nolan has shown a proclivity for falling in love with actors and just recasting them in every film. When it was Christian Bale, it made sense, because he’s just a fantastic actor. When it was Cillian Murphy, it made sense, because he has such a great face for film. Michael Caine doesn’t have anything that makes him worth casting repeatedly. I know he has two Oscars, but he is one of the worst actors who has ever won even one award, let alone two. Here, in what should have been a very easy part, he’s wooden and annoying, delivering his lines with weird pauses and showing no ability to express anything on his face.

Hans Zimmer’s score is surprisingly strong. While he was once an excellent composer, he long ago became so standard and repetitive that he started to sound as dated as Alan Silvestri. But here he throws out the conventional playbook, and what he gives us works. Nolan helps by utilizing the same lack of room sound and moments of complete silence that Kubrick used so well in 2001, but Zimmer’s score adds something to the film, and that’s all you can ask of a score.

Interstellar is an excellent film–clearly the best I have seen in 2014. It’s not perfect, but I was much happier sitting through three hours of this film than I have been sitting through two hours of most other films.

Thoughts on the Previews: November 6, 2014

Spoiler for tomorrow’s review: Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA/UK 2014) is great–the best film I’ve seen all year.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/USA 2014)

  • I spent half an hour trying to find out what it was after, because I swear I know the music from this trailer, and I feel like it’s something I should know somehow. Maybe it’s just because Howard Shore is rather repetitive, but I sure felt like it was something I knew.
  • The first review I ever wrote on this blog was of the first film in this trilogy, and it was so bad that I had no interest in seeing the second. I’m not watching this one, either. And The Hobbit is one of my top five favorite books ever.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, UK/USA/Spain 2014)

  • “From Ridley Scott, the director of Gladiator . . . ” another piece of facile pro-Christian propaganda? Yep, looks like it. It’s funny that this wave of big budget pro-Christian films has been coming out without him.
  • Is Christian Bale descending into movie stardom instead of acting? Doing a Ridley Scott film suggests it, and it’s not refuted by following it with a Malick film (Malick, for all his pretentiousness, has always cast big stars in his films and never actually given them much to do.) and a children’s cartoon. I hope not–he’s a rare talent.

The Gambler (Rupert Wyatt, USA 2014)

  • No idea what was going on in this trailer–it had “Gimme Shelter” playing, so I didn’t pay attention to anything else. And then I was mad that it cut off the song.

The Interview (Evan Goldberg/Seth Rogen, USA 2014)

  • A running diary of my thoughts during this trailer: Who the hell is that curly-haired guy and why does he appear to be in every crappy movie? . . . And that guy with the weird accent looks familiar . . . Oh, it’s James Franco. It seems like he makes his role choices while high. Well, yeah, he probably does. . . . The CIA agent is pretty. Wow the trailer is dull if that’s all I’ve noticed. . . . This concept has no possible comedic value. . . . Can we just get rid of Seth Rogen (It said his name, so now I know it!) somehow? Put him on a tv show where he won’t have trailers or something?
  • Somehow, I think I will be skipping this one.

Furious 7 (James Wan, USA/Japan 2015)

  • I can’t tell the difference between these movies, The Expendables series, and all of Liam Neeson’s movies. I’m amazed that fans can tell the difference.
  • One thing I find interesting about the way all of those films make trailers: they just show you who’s in the film. They tell you nothing about the film or even the characters they are playing. I’m not saying anything about that choice other than that it’s an interesting choice.

Selma (Ava DuVernay, UK 2014)

  • Big problem: I had no idea what the title of the movie was. It showed the title in difficult to read print very quickly.
  • The fact that a film this Oscar Bait-y is coming out in January is a bad sign of its quality.
  • TIM ROTH SIGHTING! Doesn’t get nearly enough work.
  • Doesn’t it seem like a biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. would be a really obvious way to get someone an Oscar? If Chadwick Boseman loses out (Likely to Michael Keaton. How weird does that sound??!!) this year, maybe some studio puts one together for him.