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?!

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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.


Review: The Chronicles of Narnia – Prince Caspian

May 18, 2008

I haven’t been to a movie theater in over six months. I can’t remember what the last movie was that I saw there…it may well have been The Transformers last summer. So for 2008, the first summer movie that my wife and I decided to take in was Prince Caspian, second in the line of pictures from Disney in the fabled C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia adaptations. So I’ll cut to the chase: what did I think?

In a word: meh.

I greatly enjoyed the Narnia stories when I was younger. I have fond memories of my 4th and 5th grade teachers reading each of the books aloud, a chapter at a time. Like many children the religious allegory of the stories was largely lost on me, even through the animated The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was shown at our church. It’s hard to miss the symbolism in that one, but Prince Caspian was – on paper – a bit more subtle.

In its printed form, Prince Caspian is a story about finding faith. The Narnians find faith in a new King, a son of Adam but of the same people that has essentially relegated them to history. The new King finds faith in the Narnians, those that he had only heard stories of from his youth, both from his nurse and his teacher, Doctor Cornelius – himself a half-dwarf. The Pevensie children find their faith in Aslan, who has apparently forsaken the old Narnians to the cruel machinations of the Telmarine usurpers of the Narnian throne.

In the filmed version, Prince Caspian takes a somewhat different tack. The issues of faith that are so interwoven throughout the story are largely gone, replaced with different issues…issues of pride, self-importance, distrust and misguided desperation. This diffusion of the original story leaves the movie missing much of its soul, but more on that in a moment.

The movie is ostensibly about the efforts of Prince Caspian to wrest his rightful place as King of Narnia from his uncle, Miraz. When Miraz has a son (at the beginning of the movie), Caspian is sent into hiding by “Professor” Cornelius, who recognizes that now Miraz has an heir there is nothing to really stop him from killing Caspian (as he did his father) and claiming the throne for his own bloodline. Caspian manages to call on the High Kings and Queens of old, not expecting them to be young children, and then allows Peter to concoct a plan to besiege his Uncle’s castle with predictably disastrous results.

So where does this movie go from the “woo-hoo” of the cherished story of my past to the “meh” of this afternoon? Here is where I felt the movie fell flat, but there are some good moments as well.

Pro: The siege scene. This entire section of the movie is completely new and it is actually pretty well done, even though its done at night so much of the action is obscured in darkness. The desperation of the Narnian forces is really brought home, and the eventual outcome of the battle really managed to convey the seriousness of the situation

Pro: Reepicheep. Very well done – they make no more a mockery of the noble mouse than Lewis did himself in the books, and he provides both a comic foil (largely on the basis of physical comedy) and a genuine heart of courage.

Con(s): Pretty much all of the human nobility, both the Pevensies and Caspian. The acting wasn’t bad per se, it just wasn’t very good. This is difficult to explain, but I felt the same way about the first movie. The ability to look cute or annoyed or flirtatious is not really the breadth and soul of acting, and the unfortunate choices made in reconstructing the themes of the story really reduce Lucy’s greater role in the rediscovery of their faith. Caspian’s accent is almost painful to listen to sometimes – he sounds like someone trying to do a poor Antonio Banderas impression – and he really gives no real indication as to why he deserves to be King, aside from his place in the line of succession. Why did the Narnians all gather behind him and fight to the death? Apparently because he asked.

Con(s): The Ents, er, trees. In the book, the trees themselves aren’t really reawakened, their spirits are. The same is true of the other natural spirits, such as the spirits of the rivers. This is vaguely alluded to in the movie but in the end they end up looking pretty much like the Ents rather than the wood spirits that they’re supposed to be. I’m not certain if this is just a failure of imagination or just a stylistic choice on the part of the designers, but the final result is a not so vague feeling that you’ve seen this before.

Pro: The expanded scene in Aslan’s How where the Hag and Werewolf resurrect the White Witch is truly some pretty scary stuff. In the book the resurrection option is offered and spoken of but nothing really comes of it, but the movie goes forward with actually bringing the image of the Witch to Caspian – and Peter – making the entire thing much more dramatic. The ice effects were nicely done, and it was a truly superb (if underplayed) touch to have Edmund be the one that brought resolution to the entire affair.

Con: Aslan’s involvement. This is the part of the movie that really chafes me. The movie treats Aslan as if he were just waiting around in the forest for someone to come and fetch him, and when they finally do all they have to do is remind him that they need him so he can save the day. This is lazy – Aslan becomes little more than a Deus ex Machina (ha!). The original story is much more complex – Aslan is present in much of the book, but not necessarily visible to everyone. It is only as the characters gain (or regain) their faith that they can perceive him, which goes back to the issues of faith that I spoke of earlier. This is the allegory of Prince Caspian (in my eyes), and this is why the movie seems to have little heart. In the end the efforts of the children do nothing to solve the conflict – it’s the intervention of Aslan after little more than a nicely worded invitation on Lucy’s part that resolves everything. In fact, the physical battle(s) of the story should be sidelines to the questions of faith that each one of them should be facing, but instead the movie chooses spectacle over substance and (largely) flash over heart. Not always, but in the end analysis that’s where I came down.

Pro: Trumpkin the dwarf is played with sincerity by Peter Dinklage, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Warwick Davis played against type and did well as Nikabrik. These two actors provide strong performances that give rise to the very complex natures of the Dwarves in the Narnia stories – anyone who has read The Last Battle probably knows to what I refer.

So I guess if I were forced to give a letter grade to the movie, I’d probably give it a B- or perhaps a C+. It depends on how much I ponder the misuse of Aslan in the story – or more specifically, the misuse of the children and their relationship with Aslan. If I think too much about that the score starts to drop, but given the movie on its own merits as a fantasy adventure I’d probably stick with the B- rating. So there you have it, my thoughts on Prince Caspian. I’ll be curious to see if it is successful enough to warrant The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – as a fan of Reepicheep, I certainly hope to see the little warrior again.


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 wordpress.com 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.


Review: Mario Kart Wii

May 10, 2008

Summary: Mario Kart Wii is the latest in the long line of kart stalwarts from nintendo. Mario Kart has appeared on the SNES, N64, GBA, GameCube, DS and now the Wii – and the Wii version may be the most fun of them all. Why? Online multiplayer, that’s why.

Gameplay – A: If you haven’t played a Mario Kart game before the idea is deceptively simple. Race a go-kart around a variety of cartoony tracks against a variety of other Nintendo characters. Depth is provided by the choice of driver and kart as well as a thorough understanding of the gameplay mechanics, which are very solid. Drifting is one of the most essential techniques in any of the Kart games, and in the Wii edition it’s made a little simpler. Gone is the need to constantly push in and out of the direction of your drift – now you just need to hold your drift for a period of time to get a boost. You can hold your drift longer for a second boost while driving a kart, but bikes only get one boost per drift.

Did I mention bikes? Indeed – now in addition to the 3-4 karts available per character (which are mostly just re-skins of the same basic themes: standard, speed, control and unlockable), you have the opportunity to choose from various types of bikes. In general the bikes are more maneuverable and accelerate more quickly, but are more prone to on-track problems when they go up against a cart, especially one driven by a larger character (like DK). In single player mode the bikes are available in the 100 and 150 cc races, while karts are available in the 50 and 150 cc races.

It wouldn’t be a Mario Kart game without power ups, and a few new items make the list this go-round. Of note are the new super mushroom (from New Super Mario Bros.), which makes your character and kart “extra big” to smash other karts and obstacles, like those pesky goombas, brain-dead cows and discourteous AI-controlled drivers. Also available are POW blocks that cause all the other racers to spin out and drop their items and a thundercloud – you have to “tag” another racer within a few seconds of getting the cloud or you’ll be struck by lightning and turned into a teeny-weeny racer.

Another addition to the Wii version of Kart is the availability of multiple control schemes. Some might call it a plethora of control schemes. The options available include the new Wii Wheel (into which you place your Wiimote), Wiimote + Nunchuck, Wiimote only, Gamecube controller or classic controller. Each of these options (with one notable exception) has its drawbacks. The Wii Wheel is fun but because it relies on motion detection to steer it seems a little smooshy – in single player mode the wheel works OK in 50cc and some 100cc play, but at 150cc it just isn’t accurate enough in those races where every split-second counts. The Wiimote on its own just doesn’t work well at all – it’s too erratic. You essentially hold it horizontally as if the controller were in a Wii Wheel, but you lose some stability that comes with the wheel when just using the Wiimote. The GC and classic controllers suffer from the control flaw that tricks (which you can perform in mid-air on jumps to gain a speed boost on landing) require the use of the D-pad, which means you need to let go of the stick. This can be a killer in some of the tracks where mid-air course corrections are necessary – I’m looking at you, Mushroom Gorge.

The one control scheme that I don’t have any fault to assign is the Wiimote+Nunchuk combo. You get all the precision necessary to snake through some of the more challenging hidden corridors, you get the force feedback and remote speaker of the Wiimote and you still get a pretty immersive experience. Sure, it’s not quite as pure fun as the Wii Wheel – so I do recommend giving the wheel a try. It was universally panned as gimmicky prior to launch, but lots of the online reviewers have been rethinking their pre-release positions and retracting their skepticism.

Kart Wii includes 32 total tracks – 16 new tracks in four cups as well as 16 “classic” cups in four cups. The new tracks range from the “variations on a theme” concept of building on previous classics to the insane new ideas that can be either delightfully fun or maddeningly challenging – sometimes both. Here are some of my favorites of the new tracks.

Moo Moo Meadows (Mushroom Cup): This is an “evolution” of the Moo Moo Farm classic track and is pretty fun. There are cows that start to make their way onto the track in the 2nd lap, monty moles that now move around underground and can slow you down with their dirt piles as well as spin you out if you collide with them, and some jumps to use for mini-boosts. I enjoyed this track quite a bit in single player mode, but it comes up SO OFTEN in multiplayer that I’m actually getting a little tired of it.

Mushroom Gorge (Mushroom Cup): Make your way through the Mushroom kingdom, including jumping across giant bouncy mushrooms to bridge chasms and gorges. This can require some careful mid-air course corrections, and a badly timed blue shell or mid-air collision with a heavier player can send you into lakitu recovery mode very quickly.

Coconut Mall (Flower Cup): Drive your way through a giant two-level shopping mall, zooming up and down escalators and out into the parking lot where cars driven by the Miis on your system do their part to make your race even more unpredictable. This track shows up a lot online too, and there’s a reason – it’s lots of fun. Make certain you check the direction of the escalators as you approach – trying to go up the down escalator is a mistake you won’t want to make twice in the same race.

Wario’s Gold Mine (Flower Cup): This is a combination of a classic Wario dirt track and a suspended track that features the occasional swarm of bats and mining carts dragging question mark boxes along behind. This trick gave me some trouble at first, but now I’m finding it to be a lot of fun.

Koopa Cape (Star Cup): This is the Mario Kart equivalent of a water slide level, and it is way too much fun. The dry land sections of the course involve climbing up to the top of a hill where you then jump into a fast-moving stream that takes you into a warp pipe and through a see-through underground pipe laced with electrically charged fans. Sounds wild, right? It is, but in a really great way – this is probably my favorite new track and is worth spending some time on.

Moonview Highway (Special Cup): This course is one of those that includes other moving vehicles, forcing you to change lanes and weave in and out of traffic. This is made much more interesting when you have other players doing everything they can to (a) avoid the traffic and (b) cause you to collide with it.

Rainbow Road (Special Cup): The latest in a long line of amazingly fun tracks that requires some real skill to get through without falling to your doom. This iteration is stylized on the Super Mario Galaxy space theme and is really beautiful – until you plunge off of the side of the track and fall to the Earth below and start BURSTING INTO FLAMES when you gain re-entry. I am not kidding…your cart bursts into flames. NICE.

The difficulty level of the game increases pretty significantly as you progress through the different cups and CC levels, and this becomes especially apparent in the frequency that the AI uses weapons and power ups to make your day very annoying. Trying to spend your entire race at the head of the pack with a healthy lead will likely just cause almost every other racer to come up with those blue flying shells, all of which are heading right for you and there’s not a darned thing you can do to avoid them. This is really not a whole lot different from the other games (especially the DS version, in my opinion), but the AI does seem especially hard on players that are good enough to get into first place for a significant amount of time. The annoying thing is that being in first place means that everything you get is pretty much going to be just bananas and green shells. It is possible to deflect incoming red shells with those items, but the aforementioned blue shells spell doom for a significant lead. This can lead to some frustration, and that’s probably a slight understatement…but sometimes you can use the same type of trick to pull out a come from behind win, and those taste pretty darned sweet.

Graphics – A-: I’ve read a few comments around the interwebs that complain about the Wii version just not looking as pretty as expected, and I guess I may be missing something…but take a look at levels like some of those mentioned above (especially the Rainbow Road and Koopa Cape) and tell me that this isn’t a beautiful game. The thing about Mario Kart is that it is supposed to look cartoony, but this version of the game is very clearly drawn and animated. When other karts go driving by I have no trouble seeing who the character is, what kart model they are driving and even what items they are dragging behind them. Occasionally you see some graphic artifacts (like jaggy lines) that detract only slightly, but otherwise this is really a very solid game graphically – it’s certainly on par with the other Wii games out there. It isn’t as deeply saturated as Mario Galaxy, but I don’t really think that it needs to be – this is a racetrack after all, and not every course should look like the Rainbow Road. Sometimes you need to just make dirt look like…well, dirt.

Multiplayer: A-. This is one of the best reasons to play a Kart game, and this iteration of the franchise expands on the online capabilities introduced with Mario Kart DS. I’m personally a grand prix racer, so I spent several hours looking for random races – both wordwide and regional – to test my skills on. The games starts you out with 5000 points, and placing well in an online race will net you a point increase relative to your current point level while placing poorly will penalize you in a similar fashion. So if you’ve managed to get yourself up to 7500 points and win a race against a bunch of 5500 point racers you won’t necessarily score as many points as a 5500 point racer who had done the same – the game seems to be weighting point additions and subtractions based both upon your point level and the point level of those you’re racing.

The game supports the use of friend codes to play against people you know, which is just as annoying as ever. I have only tried to do this once against a friend from work and just didn’t have very good luck. I just don’t have that many friends with Wiis. 😦 So if you’d like to race online, let me know and I’ll send you my friend code. I’m thinking about getting in on the Infendo Thursday night Kart challenge.

Local multiplayer is always available for up to 4 racers, and you can also have a second racer join you in online multiplayer, which is quite cool. In all the hours I’ve spent now in online multiplayer I haven’t really noticed any lag while racing. The delays seem to happen between races, when you are waiting for the race to be set up or for the other racers to choose whether they want to vote for a specific track or for a random one. It’s obvious that certain tracks are much more popular than others online – I saw lots of Koopa Cape, Daisy Circuit, Moo Moo Meadows and Coconut Mall than any of the other new tracks. Every so often someone would vote for a classic track, of which the Gamecube DK mountain seemed to be the most often nominated.

Replay Value: A. Truth be told, aside from Twilight Princess this is the game I’ve spent the most time on since buying my Wii, with the possible exception of Mario Galaxy. Going through all the different cups on each of the CC levels is just the first step – there are tons of unlockables, including characters, karts and bikes. You can get special little icons that appear next to your Mii when playing online by doing things like scoring very well during the grand prix mode or playing with the Wii Wheel extensively…which is a good thing, I guess. There are also some pretty cool shortcuts on many of the courses that are fun to find, and online multiplayer with fellow racers from around the world makes each race unique and generally fairly challenging. I find the multiplayer races to be more fun than the solo grand prix mode, mainly because of the AI ruthlessness that I mentioned above.

So overall, this game scores a very solid A from me. That said, your mileage may vary. Ha! Get it? Mileage? Karts? Racing? I didn’t pay for that one, feel free to use it.


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…