TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “The Magician’s Apprentice” (09.01, 2015)

“Your chances of survival are about one in a thousand. So here’s what you do: forget about the thousand, and concentrate on the one.”

Steven Moffat has always been capable of a great turn of dialogue. He’s had an excellent sense of when to let them play out as melodrama (The “remember every black day I ever stopped you” speech in “The Pandorica Opens”) and when to turn them into a joke (“Who da man?” in “The Eleventh Hour”), but that sense of timing has been less consistent in recent years. Sometimes the show feels like it decides episode-to-episode whether to be completely comedic or not at all comedic. This episode feels like a rarity in that its found the balance that the show once had. That line made me smile because it’s the right level of ridiculous and heroic–a level we’ve seen Moffat hit more rarely in the last couple of seasons. Continue reading

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Dark Water” (08.11, 2014)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Rachel Talalay

Everything in this episode seemed to be strong and interesting with one major flaw–it seemed that every scene was one step forward but the step was onto a rather narrow ledge.

This episode opens with a cataclysmic event. Danny Pink is run down by a car, and Clara is so angry at his death that she attempts to force the Doctor to save him by means of extortion, tricking him into taking her into a volcano and then holding his TARDIS keys hostage unless he agrees to save Danny. It’s a pretty strong sequence whose surprise ending–it turning out that the Doctor saw this coming and set up Clara–is pretty obvious. Unfortunately, the entire thing seems a little weird for one simple reason: Clara never tells the Doctor about Danny or asks him to save Danny–she just assumes that she needs to kidnap and extort him. It’s a really strange response, even by Clara Oswald’s standards.

Then, the Doctor takes Clara in the TARDIS to find Danny, who has suddenly awakened in some sort of post-death world. Here things are a little by-the-numbers, and the big problem with it is the Doctor’s claim that nearly all cultures believe in an afterlife and so there may be one and he “always meant to have a look.” The atheistic underpinnings of the series and of the Doctor’s character are completely undermined by spouting such a bit of pro-religious piffle. Meanwhile, the whole “Hell-as-office” play with Danny as they attempt not to reveal to him that he’s dead is something that’s really long-since played out. For it to work at this point, you have to do something interesting and/or funny, like when Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman had Death say, “Don’t think of it as dying. Just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.” Unfortunately, Moffat just doesn’t have any particular cleverness going for him in these scenes–he plays it so standard and down the middle that even the jokes are predictable.

Still, that’s all just a MacGuffin to get us to the 3W company mausoleum, where we know Missy will be arriving. It’s an appropriately mysterious and creepy location, and Missy arrives to claim that she is “Mobile Intelligence Systems Interface,” a welcome droid, and suddenly becomes mechanical in a way she has never been in her small previous appearances. Then she gives a bizarre greeting to the Doctor, kissing him as what she claims to be the “Official 3W Welcome Package” and then placing his hand on her own chest to check her heart. It’s a pretty effective scene, but it also seemed extremely obvious to me that this was a the Master. The droid line was a clear lie, and the only reason I could come up with for the greeting was to show the Doctor that she had two hearts. Since the only Time Lord alive other than the Doctor is the Master and only the Master is devious and crazy enough to build some elaborate trap for the Doctor like this, it could only be the Master. And then the episode seems to expect us not to know that for a while.

Danny is forced to face a child he apparently killed in his soldier days and to attempt to prove his identity to Clara, and he unsurprisingly fails at both, reacting with a constant confused reaction that seems to be all Danny can conjure. Meanwhile, a 3W scientist explains the company’s existence and horrifyingly uses EVP ideas. The Doctor does appropriately call the scientist who began claiming that white noise “voices” are the recently departed “an idiot,” but it still plays into the entire EVP phenomenon that ghost hunters so love, which is another example of the show playing entirely against itself.

However, when at the end it is revealed that they are on earth and the Master is somehow working with Cybermen to harvest humans, nothing fails. The ending, and its terrifying non-resolution, is what makes this episode work in spite of a series of earlier problems. I said that the finale had a lot to make up for, but it seems there is at least the potential for it to happen.

Notes

  • “We have Steve Jobs!” That seemed a little bit of a questionable joke to me.
  • “I am thinking about it. Why?” That, however, was hilarious.
  • It seems to be a running theme this season that the Doctor is constantly saying, “I’m missing something obvious,” because he indeed is missing something obvious.
  • Michelle Gomez has an easy part because the Master’s over-the-top insanity is so outsized, but she does it really well. Given that the part was previously well-played by Derek Jacobi and John Simm, she’s got a big history to live up to.
  • I have to admit, I have no idea what I would possibly say to someone who said, “Tell me something only Damien would know.” “Alice Cooper’s real name is Vincent Fournier?”
  • I am glad to see the Master return. I always thought the Master, as essentially the Doctor if he turned evil, was a fantastic villain, perhaps the best the series has ever conjured.
  • Why is the Doctor nervous on meeting Missy? There doesn’t seem to be a real reason for that. This Doctor doesn’t get put on edge easily, so that seemed strange.
  • So, is it going to turn out that Clara was actually the Master, or a puppet thereof, this entire time?
  • “Another ranting Scotsman in the street!” is hilarious.
  • I do have to admit, I momentarily doubted my identification of Missy as the Master when she said, “Short for Mistress.” All I could think of was K-9 saying to Romana, “Yes, Mistress.”

TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “In the Forest of the Night” (08.10, 2014)

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Directed by Sheree Folkson

Since “Listen,” this season has really spiraled badly. It has lost track of the show’s usual mix of logic and science with magic and wonder, favoring the latter to such an extent that it has become absurd. It has lost track of any sense of Clara’s character, turning her into just whatever they want for that scene. It has lost its usual balance of adult ideas with children’s ideas, favoring the latter to the point that it’s starting to feel like The Sarah Jane Adventures (which was intentionally aimed at younger viewers). Yes, I’ve been relatively unhappy since Amy’s departure, but I got very excited when Moffat proved to be able to write something as good as “Listen” this season, and the series has since squandered the excitement that it gave me. The finale has a lot of consecutive weak episodes to make up for.

Danny Pink has never made much sense as a character and has always had bizarrely unnatural dialogue. Samuel Anderson’s performance has not helped. All of those problems remained on display when he had a large part in this episode. He keeps saying, “The kids are the priority!” with a smirk and then doing bizarre things like leading them to within a few feet of a tiger while he scares it away with a light. He keeps acting like Clara concerns him but not actually trying to stop her or thinking through that she is doing the right thing in turning to the Doctor to resolve this bizarre situation. Every moment that he’s on screen is a false one, and he really needs to go away.

Meanwhile, the episode’s thin plot is just painfully obvious. When the Doctor calls himself “Doctor Idiot,” he’s exactly right, because any fool should have been able to see what the trees were doing, especially when it turned out that they were not flammable.

The Doctor’s speech about the human power to forget was also a cringe-worthy moment for me. The Doctor has often evinced a negative view of humanity on this series, but never has he appeared quite so purely pessimistic. The man who earlier in that episode explained that earth was “my planet, too” was now saying, “You people just forget everything by sheer force of will” as though it’s some terrible vice in the human spirit. This Doctor has been less instantly likeable than others by design, but that was a level beyond what even he has done previously.

I still really like the possibilities that Capaldi gives the series and feel like he’s doing a wonderful job, but the show around him doesn’t deserve him right now.

Notes

  • This was an episode that sent me scurrying to the internet to look up its Britishisms far more often than usual. Oyster card? I imagined that meant it was something for getting food at Thai restaurants or something. (I’ve never seen a Thai restaurant in real life and know nothing about Thai cuisine, so I would not be surprised to discover that they never use oysters.)
  • School sleepover at a museum? That’s just so weird on so many levels. Perhaps it is another Britishism.
  • I wish I grew up near an actual museum. The “museum” in my home town is just a tiny fake old west town and a building full of stuffed birds.
  • Annoying plot hole: Why on earth would burning the trees be the first thing someone would try? It would be cheaper, easier, and safer to chop them down.
  • Psychology major nerd note: “The Forest is mankind’s nightmare.” No, the reason forest imagery occurs in fairy/folk tales and nightmares is that it is traditionally connected to “primal” emotions and thoughts–we are at our most emotionally naked without a society around us.