O2

Spoilers, obviously.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen”

So, almost as if the scriptwriters had been reading my mind (only nine months in advance), the sonic screwdriver is kaputed early in the episode by a rogue zombie in a space suit. This is going to be a pain because there are lots of electronic locks that need to be bypassed — through the equivalent of fiddling around with wires under the dashboard. Also, sensibly, the TARDIS is put out of reach as soon as possible, although you’d think he’d have a remote control by now or a dog whistle.

Zombies in Space wears its structure on its sleeve, with an in-space pre-credits sequence of astronauts outside a ship overlaid with the Doctor quoting Star Trek and explaining how dangerous space is and how you would die if exposed to a vacuum.

Is someone going to be exposed to a vacuum? Does a wooden horse shit in the woods?

Of course, those of us with long memories (or poor repression mechanisms) will recall Five — as I believe the kids call vetinary these days — floating in space with a BMX helmet, using a cricket ball to navigate zero-g in “Four to Doomsday”. But back when Five was Doctoring he was a mere slip of 800 or so, rather than 2000. Maybe he had better lungs.

So the Doctor is using Bill as an outlet for scratching his itchy feet (that’s a metaphor, obviously), much to Margot’s disgust — Margot claims that the Doctor has ordered him to force the Doctor to stay, threatening the opening of the Vault and OMG STORY ARC even though presumably the Vault needs to be opened to deliver a piano and Mexican takeaway. Margot has removed the fluid links to disable the TARDIS, a reference mainly back to the first Dalek serial in late 1963 (Harry who? Medical officer to what?) — but this is clearly not as important a plot device, er, component as he was led to believe.

The Doctor takes Bill and Margot into deep space, the penultimate frontier, to a mining ship putting out a distress call — because “You only see the true face of the Universe, when it’s asking for help” (wasn’t there a similar line in ”Thin Ice”?). You’ll note that later in the episode we see the Doctor not really asking for help — almost as if he doesn’t want us to see his true face. The crew are in the middle of the crisis — their spacesuits are killing them and are occupied by zombie crew members.

The crew are pleasingly interracial and mixed-sex — echoes of Ridley Scott’s Alien — but there’s a foot put wrong when Bill double-takes at Dahh-Ren, species unknown, blue-skinned, and she is schooled in racism. Yeah, after the whitewash comment last week (which is fair comment), a lesbian of colour has to be schooled in racism. There is more to ethnicity than skin colour, of course, but we don’t get much more than him being blue (although he is reasonably knowledgable about his surroundings and useful for info dumping).

But perhaps we should forgive “Oxygen” for this, given its political commentary: oxygen is a commodity to be bought and sold, about the only thing the Conservatives never privatised. As workers, the miners are part of the machinery of capitalism, always already cyborgs, liable to wear out and be replaced. The Company has decided the operation is uneconomic and, without a care for its workers, close down the operation — or rather refit it with new crew. The suits are attacking the crew, in a literal metaphor like the skeleton crew of ”Smile”, but I’m not sure whether the Company wish the crew to be killed (but I don’t suppose they’d lose any sleep). It might be a misinterpretation of the programme (yanno, like the Emojibots in “Smile”).

Interesting, then to compare these two episodes in which machinery evolves a state of consciousness beyond that which is programmed and operates as a kind of slave class taking revenge upon their creators. The machinery’s new consciousness is not allowed to stand by the liberal Doctor, but reprogrammed.

Meanwhile Bill, rather conveniently, is stunned, not dead (beautiful plumage…), as if we’d seriously think she’d been killed off. Although, that rumour about her as single season character makes it more of a possibility. The Doctor helps save her — at the expense of his eyes, although he is evidently able to program a computer system he has never seen before and can’t see now.

No sonic, so just rewrite the DNA, so to speak.

The Doctor stays visually impaired, even if Bill doesn’t stay dead, so it’s time for a group cuddle. It looks as if they are going to keep him like that — perhaps so that Bill can step up to plate (like other Nu Who companions did). A regeneration would resolve it, presumably, but then we are being misled about whether that is sooner rather than later. There is much insistence that this will play into the hands of the prisoner in the STORY ARC. I can’t see it myself.

(sorry. sometimes i can’t help myself)

You slip out of your depth and out of your mind

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

So you think that Sarah Dollard — oh.

(Hold on. A female writer on Doctor Who, whatever next? She also did “Face the Raven”.)

So you think that Sarah Dollard has made a smart choice in “Thin Ice”, to have the sonic screwdriver stolen by a street urchin so that it isn’t a convenient plot device to get them out of a scrape. In fact, there are three or four moments in the episode — falling through ice, being stolen again, being blown up — when it could be destroyed, but she can’t help but use it.

Can you say, “Merchandising”?
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Doctor Who: “Smile”

Nu Who has built a few episodes around people being prevented from doing or being forced to do certain things — I’m thinking especially of “Blink”, but if I had a better memory of the last ten years I could think of more examples. Here it is again then: smile, though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.

Smile, it’ll never happen. Imagine having to smile or you’ll die.

Actually, I have a feeling Ray Bradbury already did, a story where someone was arrested for not smiling — I used to know titles, and I know it wasn’t “The Smile”.

So the Doctor seems to have taken Bill under his wing — he was grooming her, educationally speaking at least — and she’s still asking the questions that were the clever and probably unconscious subtext of the original creators of the series. Why a police box? How much did it cost? Why did you take it? How do you fly it? The Doctor as helpline, answering all calls. Bill is owed a trip, so she asks to see the future to see if humanity is happy (dramatic irony). After the gadding about shenanigans of “The Pilot” we get a single destination.

Of course, Margot is contractually obliged to knock knock and tell us about the Vault and the Doctor’s duty to guard it. The Doctor, never knowingly underhubrised, reckons he can pop out to ten thousand years from now and be back before Margot’s finished smoking the kippers.

Yeah, right.

But in what the Doctor here calls “negotiation” with the TARDIS as opposed to steering, we know that navigation is as accurate or off-kilter as the plot demands.

So we are transported to the future human colony and we see characters running through wheat fields.

Naughty.

Colonist May does not have long for the colony world, as her reaction to hearing that Everyone is Dead is to cry and leads her to be flayed by the killer locust robots called Vardies.

I am half convinced this is Polari.

But only half.

So the Doctor and Bill walk into this death trap, with Bill entranced by robots who speak emoji. The Doctor has a lovely cake and eat it line about a future “utopia of vacuous teens”, and they have their first Vardy experience. Actually, I do like the look of this utopia future — CGI and a leisure centre I assume — and the central gimmick is neatly done, even if you half expect someone to be quoting the Three Laws of Robotics. The emojibots enforce happiness. An outbreak of grief would doom the colony. After the Doctor and Bill discover a rather literal skeleton crew, the Doctor realises the answer is to blow the colony buiding up.

The second act becomes about the attempt to do so and the exploration of the colony ship Erehwon — a nice joke let down by the misspelling of Samuel-no-relation-Butler’s novel. Complications ensue, which is the arrival of a killer emojibot and the awakening of the colonists. The Doctor can’t blow up the ship because it will kill the colonists, but if he doesn’t blow it up the ship will kill the colonists.

The Doctor has been making allusions throughout to the Magic Haddock, which is a variation on W.W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw” story about three wishes, with the third wish wiping out the previous two. He also mentions a reset button — a rather knowing thing in what we know is the last season of the programme in its current form. Moffat has hit reset buttons before. A few years ago, the narrative used to be resolved by simply rewriting DNA on the fly, here the waving of the sonic screwdriver is the universal panacea.

And it was going so well.

I think Frank Cottrell-Boyce gets away with it, because the banter between Bill and the Doctor is fun, and we should keep an eye on her movie knowledge. I could have done without them both saying the episode’s punchline.

But, like a Spielberg movie, it doesn’t stop there, at the right point — like the early Hartnell episodes we are tipped into the next episode, with an elephant on the Thames. So take note — the Doctor was wrong about blowing something up and he was wrong about being home again home again jiggidy-jig. But then, I guess, it’s never too late for him to get home on time.

But at some point hubris is going to be clobbered.

Start Here:

I intended to write up the episodes of the new series of Doctor Who — and I have finally started doing so, have seen “The Lie of the Land”. There will be plot spoilers, but in this entry I’m trying to avoid bringing stuff I know from later episodes in. This may change. And I may give up.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

“The Pilot” is the name given to the first episode of a TV series, a testing ground to see if it works, and sometimes it is remade before the series is actually transmitted — this happened with Doctor Who in 1963. Steptoe and Son had its origins in a series of Comedy Playhouse with one called “The Proposal”, a neat establishment of the two central characters who were to be trapped together.
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Cutting It Fine

The Final Cut (Mike Vardy, 1995)

Following House of Cards and To Play the King, we get the third adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart trilogy.

Only Dobbs got his knickers in a twist because it dared to conceive of a dead Margaret Thatcher.

If only she were dead and buried.

By now Prime Minister Urquhart is in full Macbeth mode — with continued flashbacks to <spoiler> from part one and less often to <spoiler> from part two — suggesting he has a conscience after all. In addition to this we get Back Story of his time in Cyprus as a soldier and flashbacks to two violent deaths. This hasn’t seemed to have troubled him before, but presumably the attempt to find a settlement between Greek and Turkish Cyprus is the cause here. But clearly an era is ending and he’s looking top be provided for — a nice little earner of an insider deal.

The minnows are circling and the successors are lining up — can he fend them off as well as the relatives of the Cyprus dead? I guess if we follow the tragic structure we know what will happen, but I’m not sure I buy the mechanism of betrayal (although there’s been hints of an affair between a major and less major character). Again, Richardson carries the series as Urquhart; everyone else just reminds you of someone you’ve seen since on tv.

(Follows House of Cards and To Play the King)

A Jack for a King

To Play the King (Paul Seed, 1993)

The second in the House of Cards trilogy, with Seed’s direction marginally better and cutaways in the first or two episodes to beggars and the homeless. As before, Ian Richardson’s acting is superb and this sells the series.

Having begun the first series with dispensing of Thatcher, this begins with the crowning of a new king who I suspect is never actually named. If this were more willing to be sf — to embrace its parallel world — then they would name him and tell Michael Kitchen to stop doing a Prince Charles impression. There is Princess Charlotte, an ex-wife, although it’s not clear who it is, because it’s not the King’s ex-wife, who is blonde and has a son. Princess Charlotte, meanwhile, has a line about being warned about a car accident if she steps out of line.

So Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is prime minister and bored and sees a new challenge in facing down the political views of the new King. The new King, meanwhile, feels he should Have His Say, at the risk of bringing the constitution to a crisis point. (As opposed to writing secret spidery letters, say.) There’s a game of cat and mouse about who stays in their seat, but we know there’s part three.

Meanwhile, Urquhart gains a new advisor, Sarah Jarding (Kitty Aldridge), a kick-ass pollster who can poll any opinion you need. And the King has an advisor or two, a gay white man David Mycroft (Nicholas Farrell) and a Black Briton Chloe Carmicahel (Rowena King). And because no one can keep it in their trousers in these dramas, affairs start even though there are elections in the offing. Are you people stupid?

Another subplot had Urquhart’s former colleague as a whip become Chairman of the party and then denied a cabinet place after the election — a similar thing having happened to Urquhart in series one. I guess this is dramatic irony, but you’d think FU would be aware of the insensitivity.

In summary, watchable but faintly ludicrous, as the bodies build up.

(Follows House of Cards and followed by The Final Cut