Doctor Who Review: Forest of the Dead

June 7, 2008

Overview: The Doctor is trapped on a library planet with a team of archaeologists that is rapidly decreasing in number, while Donna seems to have been “checked in” to the library system. A little girl seems to be having nightmares about the events in the library, and Professor Song knows much more about the Doctor than she is saying.

Story: I am really, REALLY going to try to write this without spoiling anything. I don’t know if I’ll succeed, but I feel that I owe it to a story that so heavily featured the concept of “spoilers” to do my best not to spoil it.

The new revision of Doctor Who has had a hit and miss track record with multi-part stories. They generally start strong and then fizzle toward the resolution. The 3-part finale to last season is a great example of that – the genius that was Utopia ended up being the not entirely satisfying finale in Last of the Time Lords. So does Forest of the Dead live up to the promise of Silence in the Library?

I’m going to say yes. In fact, I’m having a hard time coming up with any huge criticisms of the story. I suppose one could say that the Vashta Nerada (I am probably spelling that incorrectly) end up being less of a threat throughout the episode, but the fact is that the real focus moves away from what seems to be a contrived horror story plot device and toward the nature of the library itself. The fact is that The Library is really the source of everything that has happened there.

Much of the episode takes place within the reality inhabited by the little girl from the beginning of the story, and it’s really quite satisfying. It’s an effective demonstration of what the situation could end up looking like from the inside, and the use of the data ghost as a somewhat creepy (if not slightly ridiculous looking) guide to the nature of existence in The Library is pretty effective. Personally I would not have had the data ghost remove their veil at all – it was much more effective when it was on.

The final resolution of the crisis in The Library is wholly satisfying, and I wish I could lay more spoilers out here, but I shan’t. The fact is that we learn very little of substance about the future relationship between the Doctor and Professor Song, except for one critically important thing that she says to the Doctor. A single thing that once spoken – and of course the viewer cannot hear – causes him to trust her completely. We do find out the nature of the thing she says, but not the word itself…and this throws the nature of the relationship between the Doctor and Professor Moon into a new level of conjecture. My guess is that the fanboys are going to be frothing over the real identity of Professor Song for a long time.

To be honest, this episode just didn’t feel that long – it went by so quickly, was so tightly paced and well done that it just didn’t seem to take nearly as long as it should have. Perhaps I should be a little more cautious about my own reality, then…

Characterization: There really isn’t a bad thing to say about the entire cast of characters in this episode.

The Doctor manages to express so much through the entirety of the story, and he experiences an extraordinary range of emotions. In a previous episode he saw the birth and supposed death of his “daughter,” but the final resolution of The Library’s problems and the relationship it holds with Professor Song is so much more powerful. These two somehow – in the future – share some kind of relationship that seems to go beyond the normal Doctor/Companion scheme of things, and there seems to be real pain behind that.

Donna as well experiences real pain as she undergoes some serious shifts in her perception of what is real and what is not. Catherine Tate has really managed to bring Donna along and make her a much more sympathetic character – the scene in the bedroom (you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it) is very moving, and rather than being shrill and forced seems heartfelt and genuine. You really believe that Donna has lost two people that she loves.

Professor Song shows an amazing amount of trust in and compassion for the Doctor, but the real nature of the relationship between them is – maddeningly, perhaps – not made plain by the end of the episode. We know that they have travelled together – possibly repeatedly – and that she seems intimately familiar with him as a person and as a Time Lord. Her description of their previous trip together was very powerful, and it’s easy to imagine the Doctor doing something as sentimental as that now that we have seem him grow as much as we have on an emotional level.

Thinking back, each of the Doctors from the classic series is generally described in a couple of words – the tetchy old man, the clown, the dandy, the bohemian, the cricketer, the…weirdo, the magician…and for the most part those Doctors were largely played against their definition in a writer’s bible. They don’t change appreciably through the course of their tenures, simply because they were mostly written against a standard definition of the character. The new series, and the Tenth Doctor in particular, seems to have changed that slightly. I don’t know if it’s part of a plan or it’s something that the writers are being empowered to do, but the Doctor is showing some real growth and change throughout the life of the incarnation. It’s not in the forefront – on the surface, the Tenth Doctor is largely played the same way in each episode, but the real hallmark episodes manage to add something deep and profound to the complexity beneath the surface that occasionally comes back – not always in explicit terms, but in shadows of past experience. The desperation that the Doctor expressed when he lost Rose is echoed in his reaction to the resolution of The Library, but in spades…if anything, Professor Song seems to mean more to the Doctor than Rose did.

The supporting characters – everyone – did a great job in adding depth to the story. The little girl? Scared and sympathetic. Doctor Moon? Helpful yet enigmatic. Mr. Lux? Much more interesting in this story, he’s more than a patent protector. Archaeologists? More than just chicken legs.

Overall: I want to watch the episode again before giving a really solid final rating, but I’d have to give this a very solid A. This was one of the most meaningful episodes of the series so far, in my opinion. The story was solid, the characterization was all done very effectively, and even the effects were well done. Some of the exterior shots during the chase scene were very nice.

Next Week: I couldn’t even begin to describe what actually seems to be happening in the next episode. I think the Doctor said something about being in a truck traveling across the surface of a diamond planet. What?!

Review: Silence in the Library

May 31, 2008

Overview: The Doctor and Donna arrive at a library, or more specifically an entire planet that is a library in the 51st century. They encounter a team of archaeologists and – apparently – a little girl from present day Earth, all while trying to avoid the hunger that lurks in the shadows.

Story: In a word, brilliant. In more words…Silence in the Library is another fantastic piece of work from Steven Moffat. Truth be told, very little actually “happens” in the story, which is pretty much told in real time. The Doctor and Donna arrive and are joined a very few minutes later by an arriving team of archaeologists. One of the team members managed to send the Doctor something of a distress call, along with a little “X” (for kisses) via his telepathic paper. Her name is Professor River Song, and she knows the Doctor…from the future. Apparently she knows him from his current regeneration, although that’s not entirely certain. She talks about his eyes being so young, but there’s a piece of me that thinks she could actually be referring to a future incarnation of the Doctor. She carries a diary of her experiences, with a dust jacket that looks amazingly like the exterior walls of the TARDIS – recessed blue panels. When she realizes that the Doctor doesn’t know who she is, she refuses to let him see her diary – “spoilers,” she explains. The recurring theme of spoilers comes up a couple of times in the episode, with Donna even exclaiming that traveling with the Doctor is like one big spoiler.

4022 people were on the planet 100 years previously, and they were all “saved” – but there are no bodies. Aside from the Doctor, Donna and the team of archaeologists there are no other humanoid life forms, but a million million other life forms…a swarm, the Doctor explains, of creatures that lurk in the shadows on practically every world in creation. For some reason they have swarmed on the library planet, and it’s no longer a quest to determine what happened on this planet a century previous, it’s a fight to survive.

It’s impossible not to compare this episode with last season’s Blink, but frankly this episode seems stronger in some ways. Professor Song is this episode’s answer to Sally Sparrow, and she has the added benefit of having a ton of mystery surrounding her. She’s carrying a sonic screwdriver – not just any sonic screwdriver, THE sonic screwdriver. When the Doctor says he wouldn’t give his screwdriver to anyone, she explains, “I’m not just anyone.” MADDENING.

The remainder of the team largely plays across the standard types you see in sci-fi horror movies. Steve Pemberton of the League of Gentlemen plays Strackman Lux, heir to the family that owns the planet and apparently the keeper of some kind of secret. His assistant, Miss Evangalista, seems to be little more than a pretty face that doesn’t know the difference between the loo and the escape pod but she becomes a key element of the story soon enough.

The construction of the feeling of dread through the story is solid and frankly creepy. The conceit of making the robot librarians bear the faces of dead library patrons is a little chilling, especially once the full import of what they are becomes understood at the end of the episode. The final words of the head librarian are given to the Doctor and Donna in a dispassionate voice, not unlike someone reading the transcript of a black box from a plane crash…but this crash is still happening. And like every really terrifying horror story, the bad guys are never really seen – just their handiwork.

There’s another element to the story that takes it from being a standard “keep out of the dark” horror tale and makes it truly unique, and that’s the element of the little girl living in what looks like the present day. She can see the library and the events within it when she closes her eyes and can even interact with the people there, but she has no understanding of what her role is. She appears to be undergoing therapy for her dreams or visions, but before the therapist leaves he gives her a frightening revelation – her dreams are real, and her reality may be a dream. This layer of subtext is quite fascinating, and my theory is that she is one of the saved, somehow…but we’ll see what that means and whether or not I’m right next week.

Characterization: It’s an interesting turn to see the Doctor a little off balance around Professor Song. She obviously knows him and speaks of events he hasn’t experienced yet, and it’s a fun trick to see her keep him from learning his own spoilers even though he does the same thing to Donna at the beginning of the story. The Doctor is in full-on histrionic mode, but his admonitions that things are bad don’t really add to the suspense…they just make the eventual realization of his warnings that much more satisfying when they do occur.

Donna continues to play things pretty subdued through most of the episode and manages to be the last witness to a very touching few final moments. The event in question (you’ll know it when you see it – remember Miss Evangalista?) is a pretty grim few minutes, and is a very inventive take on the technology of neural circuitry. The fact that Professor Song knows of Donna and has what can only be described as a look of shock and/or sorrow when Donna asks about her future leads the viewer to believe that Donna may not have a happy ending back home with Mum and Grandpa.

Professor Song as played by Alex Kingston deserves some mention as well. She is obviously devoted to and has some strong affection for the Doctor, but the nature of their relationship in the future is only broadly hinted at. Some wild guesses: a future companion? A future regeneration of the Doctor’s daughter? God help us, Bernice Summerfield’s younger sister? Hopefully we will get some more information in the next episode, but to be honest the “next time” clips really don’t tell us much at all.

Other notes: There is a lot of pleasing dialogue in the episode, from the ongoing discussion of spoilers to the Doctor’s claim that he never lands anywhere on a Sunday and the reference to the Doctor as being a “pretty boy” – there’s plenty of fun to be had, so pay attention. There are also some fun visual items, like the aforementioned cover to the Professor’s diary to a well-positioned Robby the Robot model in the little girl’s living room. Finally, the haunting image of a skeleton in a space suit is one of those science fiction cliches that never gets old, but it used to extreme effectiveness here.

One more note: I’m tying this review on the same keyboards they use in the 51st century library, the Apple Wireless Keyboard. It’s good to know that the hardware can withstand all those millenia and still maintain a bluetooth connection!

Overall: Each week just gets better and better, and Silence in the Library might just be the best episode of this season if not the entire new series so far. With so many dramatic layers revolving throughout the story there’s just a lot to enjoy, and here’s hoping that the conclusion next week will be as satisfying as the setup. With Mr. Moffat at the helm I’m hopeful that this will indeed be the case.

Late Edit: In rewatching the episode my wife and I noticed that during a pivotal scene with the Doctor and the little girl the symbol on the shutter of the security camera is the same as the shape and graphic design of the rug that the little girl collapses on back on Earth. There are TONS of little visual and audio clues throughout this episode that strongly warrant a re-watch.

Awesome News for Who Fans

May 20, 2008

Outpost Gallifrey is reporting today that Steven Moffat will be taking over as Head Writer and Executive Producer for Doctor Who with the fifth season in 2010. The BBC Press Office has issued an official release about the story. Moffat of course was written some of the best episodes of the new Who series, including The Emptry Child and The Doctor Dances from the first season, The Girl in the Fireplace from the second season, the fantastic Blink from the third series and the love letter to the fifth Doctor that was Time Crash. He is responsible for the upcoming fourth series two-parter Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead. See Wikipedia’s entry on Steven Moffat for more about this multiple award-winning author.

RTD has quite literally been responsible for resurrecting the franchise but I am excited to hope that Mr. Moffat can not only keep Doctor Who going but constantly improving as well.

Review: The Unicorn and the Wasp

May 17, 2008

Overview: The Doctor and Donna attend a cocktail party in 1926 attended by – among others – Agatha Christie. Mayhem ensues, infused with an extraterrestrial flavor until the mystery of Agatha Christie’s real life 10-day disappearance is finally solved.

Story: The Unicorn and the Wasp is primarily an homage to the classic Christie style detective stories of old that includes a significant number of winks at the genre, from the caricatures of the party invitees to the environs in which they coexist. The cast of characters includes a wealthy alcoholic British matriarch and her influenza-hobbled veteran of a husband, a youngish and affable vicar, a book-writing professor with the curious surname of Peach, a wealthy young socialite, the homosexual son and his love interest in the wait staff and, of course, the butler. There may or may not be an infamous jewel thief somewhere in the area, but Agatha Christie is the star attendee of the party – those familiar with her life know that this time period was not long after she discovered her husband was involved in an affair.

With the characters in place the setting is of course an old English country home, complete with beautiful gardens and climbing tea roses, a library conveniently placed for the occasional murder, a dining room with an easily blown-in window for dramatic moments at dinner during a thunderstorm, mysterious locked rooms and of course plenty of studies and parlors where the assembled can either explain their whereabouts or attend the final denouement where the real killer is at last revealed.

The initial mystery – the murder of Professor Peach, in the library, with a lead pipe – appears to be of a rather mundane sort until the Doctor discovers alien shape-changing goo…and then the story takes a decidedly extraterrestrial turn. Each of the attendees of the party is of course hiding something, but murders are being committed in a decidedly Christie-esque oeuvre. In fact, it would seem that the entire series of events seems to be some kind of sick homage or parody of the early works of Mrs. Christie.

There are twists and turns throughout the story – the entire thing is played extremely lightly but not quite to the point of camp. The Doctor and Donna are largely kept on their toes throughout, but the real focus of the episode is Mrs. Christie. The entire thing is essentially a love letter to her, told in her own style. I have always found Christie mysteries to be enjoyable – not as much as my wife, who is a truly devoted fan – but the thing about them that occasionally drives me a bit mad is how story elements and especially aspects of character histories just appear at the end of the plot with very little in the way of prior discussion. The Unicorn and the Wasp plays then very much like an exaggerated Christie novel, in that the entire resolution of who the alien is, why they are there and what Agatha Christie has to do with the whole thing is almost comically complicated to the point of near absurdity. But as I said, it doesn’t quite go over the line to camp – it’s very much a farce, but an extremely well-done one. Perhaps more Murder by Death than Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.

The real letdown of the story is probably the inclusion of the Unicorn, a jewel thief who has a throwaway mention at the beginning of the episode and has only a minor role throughout. The resolution of their identity is straight out of The Bat – “so and so never actually arrived, they have been impersonated the whole time” – and to be honest I really couldn’t tell why the Unicorn was there or why they were even called by that name. Perhaps they were included to make the episode title more catchy?

Characters: I should just copy the following two sentences and use them in each of these reviews. David Tennant gets better and better in each episode. Catherine Tate finds opportunities to be both enjoyable and annoying within a single 45-minute span.

To elaborate, first upon Mr. Tennant. The Doctor is an obvious fan of Mrs. Christie, and the hero worship shows. The Doctor is played as an earnest and entirely too enthusiastic participant in the murder mystery, and it’s nice to see Agatha (how strange it is to hear someone called by that first name) reel him in by remarking on essentially having fun during a tragedy. The Doctor soon settles down into his standard, “two steps ahead of the human companion(s) but not quite in step with the alien menace until the end of the episode” routine, but the ride is quite enjoyable.

Donna manages to be a little more annoying in this episode than in the past several – her command to the butler to open a locked room for her was quite a bit over the top, and her comedic mugging during the beginning of the cocktail party was a bit annoying…but then she does something like use her magnifying glass against the alien wasp menace and you think, “huh, she’s actually a pretty decent sort.”

Fenella Woolgar as Agatha Christie is quite good – her face and overall manner hearken back to the 20’s, but it was somewhat strange for me to think of Mrs. Christie as a young woman instead of the older visage you see of her pictured on the backs of books now in print. Her ability to largely keep up with the Doctor and level of self-doubt about her own capabilities played off each other in a pleasing way, making one root for her throughout the episode…yet I kept wondering, what is the connection with her? Why are these Christie-styled murders taking place around her? Of course the questions are answered, but I won’t really say if the answer is satisfying. It’s otherworldly and a bit complicated, but through it all Mrs. Christie is played as a caring soul who really wants to write great literature but sees herself as a dime-store detective novel author.

The supporting cast do a pretty good job of portraying caricatures of the archetypes they represent. It took the entire episode for me to realize that Felicity Kendall was in fact the Lady Eddison, whom utters the phrase, “we’re British” far too many times to be realistic but is great fun nonetheless.

Overall: I would give this episode a very solid review, but being a fan of the genre and author involved (and being married to a true Christie devotee) I should perhaps recuse myself from a final judgment. In the end I enjoyed this episode way too much and found myself laughing at all the little mystery staples, to the point where we practically rolled as the dinner scene unfolded during a truly “dark and stormy night.”

Next time the Doctor and Donna visit a big alien library where spooky things happen in the shadows. It looks pretty neat, but won’t be for two weeks…that crazy Eurovision is next weekend, so those of us celebrating and traveling during Memorial Day here in the states won’t miss out.

Review: The Doctor’s Daughter

May 13, 2008

Sorry for the delay with this review. I wrote it Saturday night to discover that was down, and haven’t been on the PC much since then. But here it is…

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Overview: The TARDIS takes off of its own accord, whisking the Doctor, Donna and a hijacked Martha to the subterranean caverns of an alien world in the midst of a war between humans and what I’ll call an icthyan (fish-like) race called the Hath. The Doctor is immediately forced to undergo progeneration and an offspring is created in order to serve in the human army – the Doctor’s Daughter.

Story: Placing the Doctor and company in the middle of a war between factions who really don’t understand what they’re fighting about isn’t really anything new. It’s been staple Doctor Who fodder literally since story two – The Daleks. In that classic story the ancient Dals and Thals entered into a war for reasons of purity that no longer make any sense, and the war continues to the present day simply because war is the only thing the two races know. In The Doctor’s Daughter, the soldiers have fought for untold numbers of generations with only the programming of the progeneration machines to give them their memories at creation. With entire generations being created and then killed in the war on a daily basis it becomes clear that the true cause of the conflict and the nature of the objective has been lost to time.

Or at least that’s the impression that the viewer is given, but if you haven’t seen the episode yet I’ll encourage you to keep close attention to the specific wording used when the Humans talk about their history. There are clues literally scattered throughout the story, and Donna spends the better part of the entire episode just trying to figure out what it all means. The final discovery doesn’t really have a level of significance to the overall plot – rather, it just serves to make the entire war a little more ironic.

The conflict aside, the matter of the Doctor now having a Daughter is a little more “near and dear” to the hearts of the fans. A cursory exam of “Jenny” (as she is named by Donna) shows that she at least shares the Doctor’s two heart anatomy, but there is a lingering question left throughout the story about whether or not the technology involved is really good enough to clone a Time Lord. The entire end of the episode actually somewhat hinges on the fact that Jenny doesn’t appear to share all of the Doctor’s physical abilities. I’ll not go into much more detail than that, but it’s probably pretty obvious what I’m hinting at: the core question becomes, can Jenny regenerate?

The existence of a Daughter brings out some more conflicted emotions from the Doctor, and Donna makes the same comment that Martha made back in the third series’ Gridlock – that the Doctor never really talks. The Doctor tells Donna that he has been a father before, which would seem to indicate that the producers are taking quite literally the first Doctor’s role as Grandfather to young Susan. There is a whole realm of the Doctor Who fiction canon that speculates about whether or not Time Lords can reproduce at all, or if they in fact use mysterious looms to create new members of Time Lord families. That question doesn’t get answered at all – all we know is that the Doctor says that he’s been a father before and that he knows his family is dead. Taken at face value that is really all he says, but there is still a lot of emotion there when the Doctor is explaining these things to Donna. At the end of the story, when the Doctor believes that he has lost his daughter, his initial reaction isn’t nearly as strong as when he lost Rose back at the end of the second series…which I guess is understandable, considering he’d only met Jenny around five minutes into the episode. But one wonders – if these progeneration machines are capable of making reasonable facsimiles of Time Lords, shouldn’t the Doctor be taking them a little more seriously?

Characterization: The Doctor is back to being the quintessential heroic pacifist, trying to bring sense to a war that seems to have no reason for being. The complication of having a new Daughter doesn’t really directly change his mission in the episode, but as he grows more attached to her – or the idea of her, at any rate – he seems to think more about what he has lost. As always this is a really strong outing from David Tennant, who has not failed to impress this entire season.

Donna proves once again to be remarkably capable and really only has one or two cringe-worthy moments in the episode. She takes special notice of the clues scattered around the environment and actually solves the riddle by the end of the episode, while also trying to understand the Doctor’s apparent disinterest in the fact that he now has a daughter.

Martha is pretty much relegated to Adric duty in the episode – getting separated from the party and making her way back in time for the big finale. The significance of her journey seems to center around her budding friendship with a Hath that she helps to get over a dislocated shoulder and her sense of loss when he inevitably dies. The scene where the Hath gives his life for Martha is frankly pretty much devoid of any impact, and Martha’s pained reaction just doesn’t really have any gravity…perhaps because I found myself wondering if the guy with actual gills couldn’t just swim his way to safety. Maybe I just thought about the problem too much.

Jenny is an interesting character. The process of creating her gives her artificial memories and skills, but Cobb (the human leader) seems to infer that since she is from “pacifist stock” that she is in some way unreliable. That does seem to bear out through the episode, but one wonders whether or not she did inherit some of the Doctor’s nature or whether his sheer force of presence affected her as well. She is given the choice between killing and using non-lethal means to achieve her ends a couple of different times in the episode, reminiscent of many past Doctor Who adventures. Her zest for adventure (and running…the running line that Donna pulls out is a gem) seems to definitely be an inherited trait, and one can’t help but wonder what if any affect this episode will have on future stories. Of course, it would be irresponsible to not mentioned that the Doctor’s daughter is in fact the Doctor’s daughter – Georgia Moffett is the real-life daughter of the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison.

Supporting performances in this story were largely pretty forgettable. The human leader, Cobb, was pretty much just another military man that couldn’t let the war end…soldier type #3 in the Doctor Who lexicon. Nigel Terry pretty much gives a workmanlike performance as Cobb, and I had to do an IMDB search before I realized that this was the same man that played King Arthur in Excalibur.

Overall: A solid episode but definitely not the best of the season. A lot of by the numbers plot work that uses the conceit of the Doctor having a daughter to make things at least more interesting, if not good.

Next week, the Doctor and Donna meet Agatha Christie. My wife is on pins and needles for this one, she’s a huge Christie fan so I’ll be curious to see what she thinks.

The Poison Sky – Review Addendum

May 4, 2008

Once again, I’ve rewatched an episode with my wife and have a few additional observations to make. The first time I watch an episode, I actually take notes while it’s happening, but I just seem to manage to miss some things…or after a day of thinking I have some time to come up with more cogent material. Either way, some addenda:

Luke Rattigan was more annoying than I’d first thought. Perhaps I was caught up in the pace of the story, but the scene where Luke returns from the Sontaran ship after learning that he was a pawn in their game was pretty painful.

In re-watching the episode, I found myself actually cringing a little at the scene where Luke explains his evil master plan to his fellow geniuses. Unlike Luke, they are apparently “normal” enough to care about their families and friends and are able to see that Luke’s plans are frankly stupid and sick. Presumably, Luke doesn’t care about family and friends because he hasn’t got any, but that’s not entirely made clear – instead, Luke is made into a caricature of a nerd genius.

Essentially, we really didn’t know much about Luke except that he was a boy genius that didn’t get told “no” very much. The problem with this conceit is that the world is a little different now – boy geniuses become billionaires, and the world of “Web 2.0” makes people like Luke more and more mainstream. In fact, if you follow internet culture at all people like Luke aren’t misunderstood – they’re worshipped! So for Luke to throw in with an alien race in a hairbrained scheme to engage in planned mating on a far-off planet because he was “troubled” just doesn’t cut it. Unfortunately for the character, the actor who plays him – Ryan Sampson – just didn’t make me feel very badly for him during the scene where he throws a fit in the bottom of a teleport chamber. Thank goodness the Sontarans didn’t decide to come after him, otherwise they could have shot him mid-sob.

For that matter – WHY didn’t the Sontarans just follow him and eliminate the one guy that seemed to know anything about their plot? Why not sabotage his teleport chamber and destroy his lab? Why leave a gaping plot hole unresolved? Hmm. This is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Doctor’s decision to return to the Sontaran ship in person and offer them a choice was noble but not entirely well thought-out. This kind of thing has happened many times in the character’s past, probably most obviously in Genesis of the Daleks where the Doctor finds himself unable to eliminate the Dalek menace before it even began. One imagines how the Seventh Doctor would have dealt with the Sontaran ship – it would have been something interesting, I expect. Nobility is fine and well, but again this seems to have been a contrivance meant to give young Mr. Rattigan a final stab at nobility rather than make us believe that the Doctor really cares about Sontarans. He’s certainly eliminated his share of them in the past. But it did provide a nice moment with Martha and Donna (as mentioned in my previous post).

And a final annoyance – Luke referred to the new home for humanity as “Earth point two.” WHOOPS. This sounds like an example of an editor or writer trying to be “hip” and “with it” – but like Dr. Evil they failed pretty spectacularly. The proper term would be “Earth two point oh” (i.e., Earth 2.0), so minus a few points for style.

This all sounds rather curmudgeonly, but it’s not really meant to be. I did enjoy the episode, but not as much as the setup in The Sontaran Stratagem. The Sontaran plan was fairly interesting and not entirely expected – my wife asked at several points during the episode, “what are they doing?” So the mystery of the plan was preserved and pretty effective. It was some of the flaws in execution that did perhaps detract somewhat from the episode. And now we have to wait for a week to find out who the heck the Doctor’s daughter is…

Review: The Poison Sky

May 4, 2008

WARNING: Spoilers ahead. I shouldn’t need to say that, but if you don’t want to know any story spoilers, go elsewhere.

Quick Synopsis: The Sontarans are using the cars of planet Earth against it, and they have infiltrated UNIT command with a clone of Martha Jones. The Doctor has to find a way to keep UNIT from going to a nuclear option while solving the problem of the ATMOS gas, while Donna has to find a way to keep her cool in an alien environment.

Story: The interesting thing about the beginning of The Poison Sky is that it doesn’t really “resolve” the cliffhanger. The immediate problem of Donna’s granddad is addressed, but the rest of the world is left to wallow in gas…that we later discover is not yet at lethal concentrations. From there the Doctor has to essentially work the inside of two different systems, using both of his companions to achieve his ends. It’s a little more manipulative then we’ve seen Doctor #10 in a while, but it works – he manages to be forthright with Donna while using the Martha clone to surreptitiously stop a nuclear war.

The Sontaran plot is a little bit more interesting than I originally expected – the true purpose of the ATMOS gas was somewhat original, but one wonders why the Sontarans chose a planet like Earth in the early 21st century to be their target. Surely it would attract less attention to go elsewhere, and would have likely required a lot less up-front trickery. The reasons for the Sontaran choice of our planet to do their dirty deed were never made entirely clear, but if not here then I guess the chances that the Doctor would have stumbled across the plot would have been greatly diminished.

The UNIT response to the Sontaran invasion was actually pretty cool – Colonel Mace gave a more inspiring speech than the President did in Independence Day and the re-appearance of the Valiant from the last couple of episodes of the previous season was pretty cool. UNIT managed to actually kick some alien butt – again – and it was a nice homage to give the UNIT callsigns the same names as the Pertwee era, such as “Trap One” and “Greyhound 40.” It was an even cooler homage to mention the Brigadier by name. One wonders if perhaps Martha has met Sir Allistair during her time in the service?

The final solution to the Sontaran problem(s) were both examples of “god machines” in plain sight. The Doctor openly mentioned the existence of atmospheric equipment when visiting the Rattigan academy in the last episode, and then the use of “something clever” to save the Doctor AND neutralize the Sontarans was fairly obviously broadcasted, but not entirely ineffective.

Characterization: Last week I wondered if there was more to Luke Rattigan than just being another human collaborator, and sadly there isn’t a whole lot there. Luke has big dreams but was easily duped by uncharacteristically duplicitous Sontarans. The idea of starting over the race with his little pool of uber-achievers is a little too unbelievable – this guy is supposed to be a genius, but he’s going to recreate the race with 20 or so people? And he never considered that they might not be keen on the idea? Luke is essentially removed from the chess board of the episode fairly early on, and only comes back in the literal last moments of the episode in an attempt to make him a tragic figure. I suppose it works on some level, but since Luke is such an unbelievable character by this point it’s difficult to dredge up much sympathy for him. In fact, I found myself just trying to guess which deus ex machina was going to save the Doctor this time – Donna with her newfound TARDIS flight training, or Luke after a glib last message from the Doctor?

Martha had a little bit more exposure this time around, both in clone and “original” form. The exchange between the real and clone Marthas was kind of interesting – sort of a self-affirming visit to the mirror, a la Stuart Smalley.

There is a scene toward the end of the episode where both Martha and Donna are reunited with the Doctor. Martha clings to the Doctor in a warm embrace, while Donna smacks him on the arm in frustrated relief. This was actually a pretty nice way to sum up both of their personalities and relationships with the Doctor. Once again, Donna doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time in this episode, but what she does have is used effectively. Her family discussions about whether to continue with the Doctor and her later phone call with Wilfred were both well played, and lacked the histrionics and over the top nature that made Donna grate so many fans in the Runaway Bride. Donna still has spunk – displayed briefly when she manages to overcome a single Sontaran guard – but it’s kept in check as she gets involved in things much larger than she is. As she continues to travel with the Doctor she is rising to the challenge and growing more in each story.

Fanbait: There were a few fan-friendly things about this episode that I thought I’d share. Mind the spoiler warning.

  • The Brigadier was referenced by the Doctor and Colonel Mace, but only in a brief exchange. Nicely done.
  • The Doctor ends up wearing a gas mask at one point, at which time he looks at Colonel Mace and asks, “are you my mummy?” An AWESOME callback to The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances.
  • The Rutans and the Sontaran war are given more time in this episode. We’ve only seen the Rutans directly once on screen, in the Tom Baker episode The Horror of Fang Rock.
  • And finally…when the Doctor makes his sonic screwdriver-assisted call to the Sontaran ship the TARDIS picks up the transmission, which Donna runs around the console to watch. When the screen becomes visible you can clearly see Rose Tyler on the screen, apparently trying to communicate with the Doctor via the TARDIS – but only for a split second before the Doctor’s message to the Sontarans (and Donna) begins.

Overall: A solid conclusion. Many times it seems like two part stories fall apart toward the end, but The Poison Sky was really pretty strong. I guess I wasn’t too distraught by the weakness of the Rattigan character because I wasn’t really expecting much. I was HOPING for more, but not expecting it. And it’s not like he was just awful…just not a character whose potential was fully realized.

Next Week, HOLY CRAP. The Doctor’s daughter? What?!

Rose on the TARDIS console monitor

Review Addendum: The Sontaran Stratagem

April 28, 2008

I rewatched The Sontaran Stratagem last night with my wife, and saw a few additional things of interest that I thought I’d capture. Nothing earth-shaking or mind-changing, just some additional thoughts.

David Tennant did an even better job than I initially indicated, and a real demonstration of his growing mastery of the role of the Tenth Doctor is made when visiting young genius boy Rattagan. His enthusiasm for the experiments and then immediate shift into ominous yet caring questioner of all “things” out of place was really well done. I had mentioned previously to my wife when we saw the clone that it must have been a Sontaran clone machine, as the umbilical was feeding into the back of the neck – so hearing the Doctor actually mention the “probic vent” and take advantage of the weakness was pretty cool. The Doctor’s abilities with sports equipment like tennis and cricket balls really hearkens back to the Davison era, which makes sense if you saw Time Crash.

There really must be more to Rattagan than meets the eye, or at least I hope that there is. Obviously this is a brilliant but spoiled child, but what causes someone like that to betray their entire home planet? Is he really that devoid of morality, or is there more going on? Is he using the Sontarans as pawns (as others have done in the classic series), or is this just another example of an under-written accomplice? I hope it’s the former, but I fear for the latter.

I really do like Bernard Cribbins as Donna’s grandfather. While I find her mother somewhat irritiating (and I think that’s the point), her Grandfather is quite interesting. He is a nice mix of lovely old codger and conspiracy enthusiast – something I can relate to, as he reminds me (to an extent) of my own late Grandpa. I went back and checked Voyage of the Damned, and while I remembered him appearing I didn’t realize that the credits actually name him with the same character name as Donna’s grandfather, which was a nice touch. Kind of like the throwaway line in Smith and Jones where Martha mentions her “cousin” killed at Canary Wharf.

So my final analysis is that this episode was even better when watched again. I hope that The Poison Sky ends up being a worthy conclusion – so many of the 2-part episodes end up having weak endings.

Review: The Sontaran Stratagem

April 27, 2008

Quick Summary: While giving Donna a TARDIS-driving lesson, the Doctor receives a mobile phone call from Dr. Martha Jones, still working with UNIT. A series of unexplained simultaneous deaths has led UNIT to storm the main factory for the ATMOS devices that are now installed on half the cars on Earth in order to eliminate carbon emissions. While the Doctor investigates the boy genius creator of the ATMOS system, Donna takes Martha’s advice to visit her family.

Story: This season of Doctor Who is turning into a real historical love fest. Each of the past few episodes have had some nods to the past, and the Sontaran Stratagem is just about the most obvious of the lot. Let’s count the ways:

Sontarans – Last seen in the original series story The Two Doctors, the Sontarans hold the interesting distinction of having more than the usual level of awareness of the Time Lords, having actually invaded Gallifrey in The Invasion of Time. They retain their weak point with the “probic vent” on the back of their necks.

UNIT – The Unified (Unit Nations) Intelligence Taskforce was featured in the new series most visibly in The Christmas Invasion, but was a staple of the original series from the Troughton era onwards, last seen in the McCoy story Battlefield. The Doctor did indeed join up with unit during the entirety of the Pertwee era – as the Doctor mentions, in the seventies.

Martha Jones – We saw Martha this season in Torchwood as a member of UNIT, and she appears to have taken a shine to her role with the organization. It’s a little curious, actually – UNIT is a worldwide organization with what appears to be a similar mission to that of Torchwood, which we know is a UK organization founded by Queen Victoria.

More Geekdom – The Medusa Cascade – whatever that may be – is referenced again, and the Sontaran General mentions the Time War and the Doctor’s involvement in its final battle.

So back to the story, which is actually pretty interesting. Like a good portion of the other new series stories, the Stratagem appears to include an evil, mysterious corporation using the world’s technology against it. The Master did it with the Archangel network, and now the Sontarans are doing the same with ATMOS. The difference this time around is that the end game for the Stratagem isn’t entirely obvious – why are the Sontarans doing what they’re doing? If they are trying to destroy the Earth, surely they could just use the ships of their glorious 10th battle fleet to do that.

The involvement of boy genius Rattagan is also interesting – while the character seems to have many of the same conceits of other human collaborators throughout the series, one can’t help but wonder if maybe (hopefully) there’s more going on than just being too smart for his own good. He seems to be something of a Sontaran-wannabe at the end of the episode, even participating in their school cheer – kind of like when the geeks from the chess club try to get involved at a pep rally.

Overall, the Sontaran Stratagem holds up very well. There are a few surprises – the clone body in the tank full of green goo was kind of neat – and the Sontarans themselves have received a nice updated look with the new series. The interplay between the characters was quite good as well.

Characterization: The Doctor was very solidly portrayed in this episode, and there are quite a few great lines that David Tennant gets to work with. The Tenth Doctor seems to have a real love of the pun, expressed through his appreciation of a UNIT solidier’s complaint about the ATMOS system and then his fabulous “intruder window” joke at the expense of the Sontarans. There is also a very good exchange when he thinks that Donna is leaving him for good, when in fact she’s just going to visit her family – the Doctor seems genuinely disappointed until he realizes that he’s being wound up.

Donna largely plays the episode fairly straight, although her insistence on receiving a salute from the UNIT commanding officer was a bit over the top. I do enjoy the relationship that Donna shares with her grandad, and the scene toward the end of the episode where everyone realizes that they’ve already met the Doctor was pretty well-done. It also makes a lot of sense that Donna uses the skills that she already has – having been a professional temp – to point out a significant question about the workers at the ATMOS factory. Although one wonders why an organization like that would bother to keep personnel records at all…labor regulations, I suppose…

Martha’s return to the series is a bit of a mixed bag. Martha seems to have moved past her cringe-inducing infatuation with the Doctor, which is good, but her new engagement seems to be just tossed out to the viewer without much other than simple exposition. With so much going on in the episode the return of Martha just isn’t given very much weight. I seem to recall that in the classic series the Doctor gave Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart some kind of temporal ticker-tape machine to call him if ever they needed to, and it seems to me like Martha’s primary point of involvement in the episode – aside from being an MD – is that she has the Doctor’s home phone number. She did manage to convey some emotion during her discussion with Donna about the importance of letting her family know where she’s gone, so there was that at least.

Supporting characters were done very well. The UNIT CO, Colonel Mace, seems to be a typically confident yet open-minded military type, and is capably played with a somewhat dry sense of humor by Rupert Holliday-Evans. General Staal is played with much vigor by Christopher Ryan, who should be known to many as Mike from the Young Ones. Staal sounds almost like a Military Channel fanboy, expressing his thoughts about the capabilities of enemy soldiers and just general enthusiasm for war and Sontar. Ryan has appeared in the classic series, as Lord Kiv in the Trial of a Time Lord – so he seems to be used to appearing in make-up!

Effects: There were a few effective effects additions to the episode, but no big set pieces as in the past couple of stories. The Sontaran ships and cruiser were pretty well done, including the nice touch of being able to see the pilot inside each of the smaller spherical ships. They kept the Sontaran ship design largely intact from the classic series, which was a nice touch. The makeup and prosthetic works in the episode is also very good, especially the aforementioned clone in goo and the work done on the Sontarans in general. It’s fairly obvious (as with the Judoon in Smith and Jones) that in order to keep prosthetic costs down they are only showing a couple of actual faces, while the rest of the warriors keep their helmets on. In the case of the Sontarans, they at least bother to mention that the removal of the helmets has some kind of significant place in the Sontaran honor system.

Overall: A very solid episode. More fanboy pleasing story elements, but enough action and intrigue to keep things interesting. I’d say this was definitely the strongest story of the new season, inching out Fires of Pompeii as generally being more tightly written.

Next Week: We learn the endgame for the Sontaran Stratagem in The Poison Sky. Battles, bombs and bravado – good stuff!

Review: Planet of the Ood

April 19, 2008

This week, Doctor Who looked back at its history, both in terms of some plot elements and the overall tone and style of the story – and I don’t really think that’s a bad thing.

Quick Summary: The Doctor sets the TARDIS to “random,” which just happens to take them to the Oodsphere, ancestral homeworld of the Ood, the servitor race in the 42nd century to the Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire. But all is not right on the Oodsphere, and the Doctor finds himself at odds with Lord Percy – err, Tim McKinnery, balding corporate Ood-verlord.

Story: This episode has three different obvious “looks back” at previous episodes, both from the current and “classic” series. Here they are:

1. The Oodsphere is in the same area of space as the Sensespehere from the classic Hartnell episode The Sensorites. That’s TWO Hartnell story references in back to back episodes! It makes real sense, too, as the Sensorites were another telepathic race – in the classic episode, they were able to communicate with Susan telepathically, so it only makes “sense” (ha!) that the Doctor can tune in to the Ood frequency as well.

2. Obviously the Ood themselves were introduced in the “new” 2nd season story The Impossible Planet, where they provided a satisfactorily creepy Lovecraftian presence in a truly moody episode. They were tragic figures then, and they’re truly pitiful in the context of their own homeworld – now essentially nothing but a freezing production facility.

3. Most importantly but least obvious, this entire episode owes itself to many, many classic Doctor Who episodes where the Doctor arrives in the middle of a situation and finds himself fighting “the man” that is keeping his homeys down. This goes back to episodes like Galaxy Four, and practically every other episode of the Pertwee years, where the Doctor was as much an anti-establishment figure as he was an adventurer.

So these three elements come together in the modern-day story of the Ood and their corporate owners/breeders. While the conceit of bringing the Doctor “randomly” into the thick of an uprising is nothing new (fans like me tend to conjecture that the TARDIS does not ever operate “randomly”), once the Doctor arrives it is actually fairly straightforward fare. Find the downtrodden, make contact with the enemy, discover the deep dark secret and save the day. Doctor Who Story-Writing 121, which doesn’t mean it’s “bad,” just predictable.

Characterization: I really like David Tennant. His righteous indignation doesn’t have the level of Tom Baker’s bravado, but he almost foamed at the mouth when acting defiant to the corporate security types in the Ood-house. His interactions with Donna are becoming easier and easier, and there is a sense of shared wonder that is expressed at the beginning of the story that goes a small way toward explaining why the Doctor is allowing Donna to accompany him at all.

Donna gets a taste of the future in this episode, and it seems to be pretty bitter. Her portrayal continues to tone down the shrill factor a little in every episode, while still keeping her fairly well-grounded in the original character of a somewhat “fabulous” modern woman. It is to her credit that the cringe-inducing humorous element for this story did not come from Donna, but from alternative translation spheres for the Ood that can provide different types of speech. To be honest, the female sounding Ood was probably the scariest thing about the entire episode.

Effects: I mentioned them last time, but they’re less critical this week. The landscape shots showing the snowy mountains – especially including the TARDIS – were very nice, but there is a rocket flyover toward the beginning that just didn’t look right to me. Most of the episode actually takes place in and between warehouses, so I’m wondering if they just sprinkled powdered laundry soap on a Torchwood set.

Overall: I enjoyed Planet of the Ood – not as much as Fires of Pompeii, but probably as much as Partners in Crime. While the story was pretty predictable, there was enough there to make the episode not really feel like it was sagging too much at any point. There’s also another moment of Dark Foreshadowing, so you can check that box off on your weekly scoring tally.

Next week – Martha, UNIT and the Sontarans. Our magical mystery history tour of the Doctor Who mythos continues!