TV Episode Review: “Doctor Who” “The Witch’s Familiar” (09.02, 2015)

Written by Steven Moffat

Directed by Hettie Macdonald

We open this episode with Missy and Clara. Missy tells a story of how the Doctor escaped from robots programmed to kill him by using the energy of their attacks to recharge a teleport. While I enjoy Missy, there’s something very wrong about the way she tells this story: she tells it with an admiration for the Doctor that is unbecoming of the Master. She tells the story the way River Song would tell the story. One can almost hear her clicking her tongue and saying, “That man!” after she explains his escape, which is not the way previous incarnations of the Master felt about the Doctor. 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” “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.”