TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “Under the Lake” (09.03, 2015)

Written by Toby Whithouse

Directed by Daniel O’Hara

Okay, let’s get the inevitable sonic discussion out of the way . . .

The Sonic Screwdriver has been a part of Doctor Who since at least very near the beginning back in 1963. However, it began life as a piece of alien technology that nonetheless actually did what its name would imply: it functioned as a screwdriver, just doing so with sonic vibrations instead of mechanical force. Its functions have grown since, to the point that the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors have essentially been able to use it to resolve any plot point they wished. Its appearance has changed repeatedly, and we learned from an angry Amy Pond that it is in fact a Sonic Probe rather than a screwdriver, which the Eleventh Doctor essentially said he called a screwdriver just for fun. It has really changed so much and so often that it hasn’t been the same thing. So, the Twelfth Doctor ditching it for sunglasses isn’t some sort of affront to the series’s history. Continue reading

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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.

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.