Monks Scream

Spoilers, innit.

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I have an awful feeling that as a child we were set the task of writing a story that ends with the words “and I woke up and it was all a dream”. At some point we were probably told not to. Lewis Carroll gets away with it, twice, but I felt very cheated by The Box of Delights. Occasionally long-running dramas will risk it — think of Bobby Ewing coming out of the shower. One problem with telefantasy is the diminishing returns of the bigger and bigger Big Bads the heroes have to defeat, before a big reset button has to be hit.

This episode effortfully winds together the series STORY ARC and what turns out to be the first of a three part story. Moffat is also back at the word processor.

On the one hand, we have Missy, facing execution by the Doctor for unknown crimes, with the latter promising to guard her in the Vault for a thousand years. (Is this the first time we know who is in there?) Margot arrives, cowled like a monk, with River’s diary and permission to kick his arse. The Doctor, whilst he has killed people, can’t be an executioner, and so it turns out Missie is not dead, but resting (beautiful plumage). And this presumably explains why the Doctor is a millennium older than he used to say.

A thousand years is a long time in Bristol. You’d think an Oxbridge college would be better. He presumably sat out the various Dalek, zygon, cyberman invasions.

The main plot involves the present day Doctor being asked by the Pope to come and read a mysterious heretical manuscript, Veritas, which has caused all but one of its previous readers to commit suicide. Ooooh, shades of the Ringu movies. There’s a bad taste joke to be made here about the Doctor’s visual impairment and a visit from the Holy See, but I’m not going to make it.

We have another illustration of the distinction between Classic and Nu Who: One thru Seven (as the kids call them these days) either kept it in their trousers or were discreet about their sex lives. They lived like monks, meddling or otherwise. More recently, perhaps through the experience of the Time War, and realising YOLTT, we’ve learned of all kinds of shenanigans — this time with Pope Benedict IX, who it turns out looks like Angelina Jolie and was a woman. The real Benedict, who oddly enough just turned up in a documentary I was watching the other day, was 20 when he achieved popedom and was pope three times (to be pope once, might be considered a fortune, but thrice…) He also seems to be the first pope who repeatedly (or reportedly) engaged in same sex relationships. Hmm.

Bill, for reasons that are no clearer than she’s on the opening credits, is picked up, interrupting a date (and I wonder if this is going to be a thing — we are repeatedly informed she is a lesbian, but she won’t be allowed past first base), and they head to the Vatican with all these Italian-speaking priests. That’s odd, because there’s the convention that the TARDIS telepathic circuitry translates stuff into English. It’s also going to be interesting because the Doctor is still visually impaired and it’ll be hard to read a manuscript — perhaps Bill can read it to him.

But whilst the Doctor is preparing a little light read, Bill and Margot disappear through a crack in the wall and find a white room with more rooms, through which they find the Pentagon and then CERN. In case we aren’t clear it’s CERN, CERN conveniently has a publicity stand for CERN in CERN’s lobby. The scientists have been emailed a translation of Veritas and have learned that they are actually in a computer simulation — their reaction is to decide to blow themselves up because, well, particle physicists are especially gullible to emails from the Vatican. OK, that’s not fair, they realise that they can’t pick random numbers. Mass suicide seems an overreaction.

Margot and Bill escape to the white room and Margot steps the other side of the projector and is pixelated, whilst Bill follows the drips of blood to another zone, the Oval Room with a dead president. The Doctor’s been bleeding from his meeting with the mysterious and messy monks in the reading room, the chief one sounding oddly like David Archer after a long day shouting at Josh and Kenton. The monks are mentioned in the book — the simulation is a practice invasion of Earth, repeatedly run and rerun.

Yes, this is a mind-bending idea, in a Philip K. Dick-lite way, and for a moment you might glimpse that all of series ten has been a simulation — perhaps explaining how most of the episodes have been better than series eight and nine.

Hit that freaky deaky reset button.

Somehow the monks know about the Doctor and the TARDIS, but not the translation circuits (hence the Italian, I’m told bad Italian) and the sexuality of Benedict IX. Was it wise to include the Veritas in the simulation?

And somehow the Doctor can hack the programme to send the PDF of that book to the real world version of him — but then we already know he can program whilst visually impaired.

So, at the risk of invoking or interrupting STORY ARC!!!, we’re prepared for an invasion of meddling monks, who might get away with it if it weren’t for those pesky time travellers.

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 veterinary 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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Too Long a Season

I’d somehow missed out on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d seen the crossover movie Star Trek: Generations (David Carson, 1994) and even taught Star Trek: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996) and I’d seen odd episodes, but not the in-depth, episode to episode viewing of a TV-run. Was it on SKY? I didn’t and still don’t have that, but more to the point, aside from a brief period in 1991, I didn’t have regular access to TV between 1988 and 1992. I suppose I knew enough people with boxsets or off-air recordings, but I didn’t care enough.

I came to it partly with a curiosity about the 44 minute story arc. Most American drama has this pattern and for crime it seems to work ok – soapish preamble, crime committed, work the streets, red herring, nab the suspect, interrogation and wry afterword. Firefly also seemed to pull it off, as did Buffy and Angel before it. Doctor Who, on the other hand, doesn’t, although perhaps I’m brainwashed by the sitcom-in-clusters-of-four format of the original run. The alien society is barely established – although the inclination is to be Earth-bound and it cranks the jeopardy up to eleven very fast. Then the Doctor rewrites someone’s DNA or reverses the polarity of the neutron flow and everything is hunky dory timey wimey.

Someone, I forget who, suggested that Firefly (and by extension ST: TNG) works because of a bigger cast. We end up with three parallel narratives that dovetail together. Doctor Who probably bifurcates into the Doctor’s narrative and his companion’s, the companion getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. We get insufficient parallax on the nova. I did recently wonder whether the Doctor, as virtual superhero is so resourceful and fixed that he doesn’t offer the scope for a character arc, the writers instead focusing on the companion’s experiences, taking audience identification too far. We end up with The Amy Pond Adventures or Clara Who? But then the character arcs of virtually all continuing dramas are keyed much more to restoration than the transformation of the feature film.

To be honest, I don’t recall if the original Star Trek was closer in satisfaction to Firefly than nu-Who. It’s decades since I saw more than the odd episode and my tastes are perhaps more sniping. I’d seen and actually quite enjoyed bits of Enterprise, where the missions were a bit rougher around the edges. But the OS crew were my crew and so here we have their replacements. Picard is the new Kirk, clearly an authority figure, less likely to go on dangerous missions, and keeping it more in his trousers than Kirk ever did. The romantic lead duties are passed onto his Number One (stop sniggering) Riker, waved of hair and hairy of chest, and Picard’s BFF rather too quickly. Spock had been the deputy, and science officer, so here we have an android, Data, who is learning to be human (“Call me Pinocchio”) and thus doesn’t have appropriate emotions in his logic. My favourite character of the old series was Bones, but here we have Dr Beverly Crusher, seeming to be an old flame of Picard’s and widow of an officer killed on his watch. Crusher has her son with her, Wesley, presumably an identification figure for the child audience. Deanna Troi is a counsellor, who gets to state the bleeding obvious. Then there’s Geordie, whose accent is as convincing as Scottie’s and who wears a hair band over his eyes. Then there’s Worf, a grumpy Klingon, and Tasha Yar, who seems to be some kind of bouncer for the Enterprise.

So, having made it to the end of the first series, what do I think? The original series was famed for its diversity – it had a woman of colour on the crew as a receptionist. Baby steps. Twenty years later and in the regular cast we have three women – a doctor, a counsellor and Tasha Yar. Being a doctor is arguably above being a nurse (the other female rôle in TOS, aside from love interest), but it is a caring, nurturing profession in theory and she is also a mother. Troi as empath is meant to be all touchy feely and is able to say that she thinks the strangers they meet are hiding things because she doesn’t realise she’s in a drama that depends on such things. Yar, meanwhile, also gets to be suspicious of strangers because that’s her job as bouncer. Although sometimes she gets to operate the transporters. She’s clearly under used and one can only imagine how frustrated the actor was.

We have two actors of colour on the bridge – most obviously Geordie (and there’s an episode when we see a grown up Wesley and he’s pretty impressed by what he sees – could he also tick the diversity box that broadens ST’s notorious heteronormativity?). Then there’s Worf – and whilst there’s no reason that actors of colour shouldn’t play aliens, there’s an allegorical minefield in which seeing aliens as people of colour feeds into seeing people of colour as aliens (see also under: racism and monkeys). As a Klingon he’s presumably stereotyped as a military man (although you should try his delicious angel cakes) but surely Yar is the military officer? Or are there two military officers on this much-vaunted we-come-in-peace (for certain cohorts of mankind) mission?

Not all the regular cast are in each episode, and I get the feeling that the writers didn’t quite know what to do with half of the crew. Of course, you could argue that at any one time a third of the crew ought to be tucked up in bed and so this is to be expected, but we don’t see that kind of daily life. I think the dramatis personae were assembled with issues in mind, but the writers haven’t quite got there. Ah, young Wesley has discovered something but he’s a kid so let’s not believe him. Again.

Let’s take “Angel One” (25 January 1988) as the archetypal episode. The Enterprise arrives at an alien matriarchy in search of survivors from a crashed ship, Odin, and interacts with the local women, although it turns out that all they really needed was a real man such as Riker – because, presumably, a matriarchy is not true equality.

Except it turns out that this was an allegory for the situation in South Africa in the Apartheid era. Excuse me. So are the women Whites and the men Blacks and Coloureds? Or vice versa? How does that work then? Meanwhile, note that with the away team constituted the way it is in this episode, an African American gets to sit in the captain’s chair. Progress, only he comes down with the manflu that is the b-plot of the episode. I’m not at all clear what the episode has to say about Apartheid. “Why can’t we all just get along?”? Star Fleet has this non-intervention policy (which is obviously as consistent as that of Gallifrey in Pertwee-era Who) that is ironic in Reagan’s America and enables the crew to debate Moral Rightness with a not always unbearable smugness.

The final two episodes threaten to rip Star Fleet apart and introduce new aliens, the Romulans. Clearly this is the point when they think they’ve got their mojo. Having carefully established that when space missions last years, crew want their families with them, in “Conspiracy” (9 May 1988) the Enterprise pops back to Earth to investigate a conspiracy. The scheme seems to include worm eating. The Enterprise and Picard turn out to be top dogs in Star Fleet. The following week, in “The Neutral Zone” (16 May 1988), they pick up an abandoned spaceship and defrost from inside it three people from old Earth of a couple of centuries ago. The job of the episode is to demonstrate how far human civilisation has come: a woman is concerned with her children and her children’s descendants, one of whom has her husband’s name (because these things never alter); a man who wants to check his stock market portfolio but not his privilege (and Picard talks about how civilisation is beyond things like money now like he’s some kind of commie) and a man who wants to hit the bars and pick up some ladies (although Riker would be a better wingman than Data, frankly). These are the values the 24th century have left behind. Supposedly. They’ve also left behind incurable diseases and Wesley’s manflu from the plot device holodeck shows how little immunity the crew have to such things.

The Enterprise heads off into the unknown, or Season Two.